Equilibrium (by PSW)

Summary: McCoy’s transport is destroyed in what appears to be a containment field explosion, leaving no known survivors. The truth, however, is not so simple as that …
Category: Star Trek TOS
Genre: Sci-Fi
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 152,000


Chapter 1

The observation lounge of the Rigelian transport vessel K’dina’Th was deserted, which suited Dr. Leonard McCoy just fine, thank you. After the never-ending crowds and bustle of the Rigelian medical conference, he was more than happy to bury himself in a dark corner and sip his drink in peace. There wasn’t much to see, given that he had opted not to activate the computer-enhanced viewport, but he knew what a starfield at warp looked like. The view wasn’t the reason that he had sought out this poor little excuse for a starboard-side lounge.

McCoy slouched further into the padded chair and took another drink of his Vincarian fenna mai tai, or whatever this was supposed to be. It was fruitier and far sweeter than he preferred his alcohol, but the bartender had been a sweet little Terran redhead with an accent from somewhere in Florida or South Carolina.  He had spent half an hour flirting shamelessly before allowing her to talk him into a more expensive drink than his preferred brandy. McCoy took another sip, tasting experimentally before swallowing. Not bad, actually. It grew on you. He would never have admitted that in company, of course—the shocking pink color alone was enough earn him a well-deserved ribbing—but right now what did it matter? Neither Jim nor Scotty was here to see it.

He stretched his legs and leaned his head into the back of the chair, studying the arched support beams above. For the first time in months he felt relaxed, despite the flurry of scheduled activity and medical bickering that he had so recently departed. It was a good feeling, and he spent a few minutes simply reveling. He’d had a rough go of it lately, and despite the honor of the request from the Vulcan Medical Academy he’d been reluctant to leave the Enterprise with it all so recently behind him. In fact, he’d nearly had an open brawl with the captain in sickbay over the matter, until a very angry Christine and a very disapproving Spock had stepped in, reminding them both that there were patients watching and would they please either come to an agreement or take the discussion elsewhere. They took themselves to McCoy’s office, where Kirk inform him in curt command tones that he would be attending the conference and he had best have his bags packed by 1330 hours the following day. He had stalked about in a temper for the next twenty-four hours, but he had also been ready for the Vulcan transport that arrived to convey him to said conference.

Now, in retrospect, it seemed that Jim had been right. McCoy snorted, downing another sip of the tall pink drink. He would never live it down, but he would be the first to admit that (in this case, at least) he was grateful to have been wrong. Against all intuitive sense, removal from his familiar surroundings and from the constant reminders of the past few months had helped him to regain some sense of equilibrium. He felt in control again, a feeling that had painfully and noticeably eluded him since the word “xenopolycythemia” had leaped off the data pad at him and turned his world into one crazy, confusing spiral of fear and pain and regret.

Regret. He sighed and rubbed at his forehead. Did he regret his choice to leave Natira and return to the Enterprise, once the Oracle had been overcome and the remnants of the Fabrini people had once again been set on a correct path to their destination? Three weeks ago he would have said honestly that he didn’t know. Now, he knew that the answer was no. Natira was a beautiful woman and part of him did love her, but his life and his friends were aboard the Enterprise. He regretted that his decisions, made in the face of uncertainty and the fear of a lonely death, had given her cause to hope that he might be the one to end her own loneliness, but such were the mistakes made by men and women throughout the known universe and probably beyond. It was a strange thing, that the joining of two lonely people so often produced not peace but only intensified loneliness. He was, in fact, already intimately aware of the dangers inherent in such an attempt—he had a failed marriage and an estranged ex-wife to prove it.  One thing he most definitely did not regret was that his marriage to Natira had escaped such an end.

No, all had turned out for the best, even and especially this unexpected side trip to Rigel V to report on the paper he had written regarding the effects of RN-6513, the experimental Rigelian erythropoiesis-stimulating agent that he had used during Ambassador Sarek’s surgery before the Babel conferences. He drank again, allowing his mind to wander. Hadn’t that been a pretty how-do-you-do? One of the premier Federation ambassadors at death’s door in his sickbay, not enough Vulcan blood, and an experimental non-Vulcan drug as his only foreseeable recourse, not to mention any number of quibbling diplomats, an assassin on board, a stabbed captain, and a logically, stubbornly pain-in-the ass Vulcan first officer. They all deserved every second they’d spent in sickbay. He’d thought that he would have nightmares for weeks about running out of green blood and losing both Sarek and Spock, not to mention Jim thrown in for good measure.

He didn’t know why he even bothered worrying, anyway. They were all a bunch of idiots.

The soft hiss of the door at the far end of the lounge interrupted his musings, and he moved automatically to hide the pink beverage from prying eyes. The tall, slim form of a Vulcan entered, and after a moment he recognized Salin, a diplomatic attaché transferring from Rigel V to the newly-formed diplomatic corps on Thankarikos, the most recent Federation addition. He had met the young Vulcan in the spaceport back on Rigel V and exchanged pleasantries, if one could call attempting to small-talk with a Vulcan pleasant. It seemed that the company was gathering at Starbase 6 over the course of the next several weeks, and would eventually then be ferried to Thankarikos by the Potemkin. McCoy wondered how the Enterprise had escaped this one—some days it seemed that they were slowly becoming nothing more than a glorified space yacht for traveling dignitaries—and wished the Potemkin and her crew all the best. Salin seemed a decent enough fellow, but ferrying diplomats never ended in anything but tears, brawls, or an official reprimand. Sometimes all three.

Salin stepped into the room, then stopped when his eyes fell on McCoy. He cast a glance at the other empty chairs and nodded smoothly. “Dr. McCoy. My apologies for disturbing you. I shall of course leave you as you were.”

The boy was polite, but McCoy recognized Vulcan disappointment when he saw it. He set the mai tai on the floor and motioned Salin into the room. “No need. The place doesn’t belong to me.”

The Vulcan hesitated. “I have been in search of a quiet place to meditate. The inner walls of this transport are quite thin. I have not found the resulting noise levels within my sleeping quarters to be conducive to attaining an appropriate meditative state.”

Thin was putting it kindly, if the sounds of last night’s card game two doors down from McCoy’s own quarters were any indication. At least it hadn’t been anything more embarrassing. He nodded toward the patch of empty deck near the viewscreen. “Be my guest, if my presence won’t disturb you. I work with a Vulcan, I know what a couple of days without meditation will do for you.” He chuckled darkly. “And I do know how to keep my mouth shut, even if he would probably tell you otherwise.”

Salin hesitated, then chose to ignore what was no doubt a confusing and entirely illogical aside. “I have no wish to impose upon your own solitude.”

“As I said. The place doesn’t belong to me.”

“Indeed.” The Vulcan stepped into the dim room, and the door hissed shut. McCoy watched through half-closed lids as Salin settle onto the floor, legs crossed, wrists resting lightly on his knees. The dark eyes closed, and within minutes his breathing had slowed to that measured, unhurried pace that always made McCoy itch to grab for his tricorder, no matter that he knew this was a natural, beneficial state for the Vulcan body. Such complete stillness in a living being gave him the chills. It just wasn’t right.

human misapprehension, Doctor,” he heard Spock’s voice intone gravely. “Perhaps an attempt at such meditation would provide even you with a modicum of logical thought.”

“You wish, you green-blooded son of a Vulcan,” he muttered, careful to keep it under his breath and away from Salin’s sensitive Vulcan ears. He picked up his mai tai and was about to take another drink when the ship shuddered, the shriek of the alert sirens filling the little lounge. He shot to his feet, slopping the rest of the pink liquid onto the floor, and careened toward the control panel by the doorway. Salin staggered upright as well, shaking off the effects of his meditation even as the vibrating deck panels indicated an abrupt descent out of warp. McCoy punched a few buttons and the viewport shimmered to life as another blow rocked the transport.

A red haze shimmered against the transport’s aft shields. A small ship darted through the crossing phaser fire, sleek and black, obviously built for speed and stealth. It fired again, the red of its phasers burning a path toward the transport. McCoy crossed the room to press against the viewport, following the progress of the attacking ship as it looped around for another run.

“What the …”

It fired again, and this time the red glow shivered for long seconds before dissipating. The transport’s shields were weakening.

“What kind of ship is that?” McCoy demanded, craning for a view of the black underbelly as the smaller ship darted away from the transport’s less agile return fire.

“I am …”

This time, the transport did not so much shudder as lurch. McCoy slammed hard into Salin, and they both went down.

“That was no shield hit!”

“Indeed.” Salin pulled himself to his feet, offering McCoy an absent hand as he rose. “And it was not from that ship. We have more than one assailant.”

This just kept getting better. McCoy glared at the unidentified attacker. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Salin nodded. “I too am unfamiliar with the configuration. It does not exist within the Federation database.”

Trust a Vulcan to have any portion of the Federation database memorized. The attacking ship pivoted, phaser fire lanced out, and the deck pitched. The transport shuddered and listed sharply, then the warning alarms cut off, leaving McCoy’s ears ringing in the sudden silence. Slowly, they drifted back to a more stable horizontal.

For a moment they were still, straining for another glimpse of the attacking ships. Then a babble of voices broke out in the corridor. McCoy pushed away from the viewport and made for the doorway. Salin’s voice broke the silence.

“Doctor. Transport regulations are quite clear. In the event of an emergency, all passengers are to remain in place until released for movement about the ship by a member of the crew.”

“Stay, then,” McCoy growled. “People could be injured. I have no plans to cool my heels here while someone bleeds out on the other side of that wall.” He approached the doorway, which didn’t open for him.  Either the automatic controls went offline during an emergency, which would be just plain foolishness, or the system had been damaged. He found the manual control and activated it just as Salin’s footsteps approached from behind. McCoy nodded back at the Vulcan and then pushed into the corridor.

The red alert lights were still blinking along the walls, casting an eerie glow. A crowd was gathered around the lift at the end of the corridor. McCoy couldn’t make out how many, but even in the poor light he could see three armored figures with phaser rifles. “Blast!” He stepped back into Salin, trying to guide them both back into the lounge, but before they were out of view two more armed figures herded a group of passengers out of the mess hall down the way. One of the intruders caught sight of them and yelled sharply.

“You there! Stop! Come back this way!”

There was no thought of escape. Returning to the lounge left them no place to run or hide, and the corridor itself ended abruptly two feet beyond the lounge door. McCoy trailed toward the speaker. Salin followed noiselessly, remaining at his shoulder as they joined the group from the mess hall. The tip of the phaser rifle nudged him toward the lift, which opened as they approached.  The armed guards herded a number of passengers into the open chamber. The doors closed, and an uneasy silence fell as they waited for it to deliver its current complement and return for the next load.

McCoy took advantage of the delay to study the situation. He still couldn’t place or even actually see the intruders, given the strobing red light and their flexible armored gear. Even their heads were covered, with hood that resembled fine chain-mail from medieval Earth days. The passengers were understandably agitated—except for the Vulcans in the lot, of course, who radiated an air of careful impassivity. Nervous glances flew among the prisoners, a desperate attempt to telegraph questions or fears or comfort, but no one spoke. It was probably wise, given the phaser rifles and the as-yet unknown motives behind the attack. The lift hissed open again, and McCoy was directed into it along with a tight-packed group of other hostages.

They exited on deck 1 and were herded into a conference room. Two of the intruders stood inside the door, directing the hostages toward either the far or near end of the room. McCoy crossed to his indicated group and turned for another shot at assessing things, now that the lighting was better and that they had, for the moment, reached their destination.

His group was by far the larger. He watched Salin join the far group, and scowled thoughtfully. That grouping was comprised entirely of Vulcans and Rigelians. The transport’s captain hovered off to one side with about half of the crew complement. Hmph. He, on the other hand, stood among a motley catch-all of every other species on the transport.

Disturbing, though he wasn’t sure exactly for whom.

Why the Vulcans and the Rigelians together? Medically speaking the two species certainly had some similarities. There could be any number of reasons, though, and there was no guarantee it would even make any sense to him when—or if—he finally heard it. McCoy glanced back to the center of the conference room, where two of their captors stood deep in discussion. Both had pushed back their armored hoods, and for the first time McCoy had a good look at the species that had taken the transport.

Like their ships, this race was not anything he recognized. Blocky and muscular, the intruders were taller than the average human by a good seven to ten inches. Not good news on the resistance front—they might, he thought, even give the Vulcans a run for their money. Their coloring was gray, one an ashen pale color and the other a rich blue-silver. The hair was thick and shaggy, almost mane-like, of a coloring with the skin and flowing seamlessly from a high forehead and over short, sharply pointed ears. No, not skin. Hair. Fine, short hair covered the face and neck and hands—any exposed area. The eyes were rounded, human eyes except for the gray irises that matched the hair coloring exactly.

“Do you lead here?”

The transport captain stepped forward. One of their captors moved out from a corner and pointed his phaser rifle. “Back away.”

The Rigelian held his ground. “I am Th’d’Nat, captain of this transport. Who leads here?” He looked toward the two unhooded men—at least, McCoy assumed that they were men, though he had little to go on but the timbre of their voices. For all he knew the deep voices belonged to the women of this species … but it had been his experience that voice pitch related to gender was one of the more constant traits throughout the galaxy. “Is it one of you? This is a Federation vessel, in Federation space. Your actions are a violation of—”

The whine of a phaser rifle startled more than just McCoy. Most of the prisoners jumped, and startled exclamations echoed throughout the conference room. Even a few of the Vulcans rustled. Captain Th’d’Nat crumpled to the deck.

McCoy’s blood boiled. There had been no reason for it. Their captors held all the weapons, the captain couldn’t possible pose any threat. The Rigelian transport doctor started forward, but the rifle swung around. Several more intruders joined their comrade, covering the smaller hostage group with their own weapons. The doctor stopped, but held her ground.

“Allow me to go to him.”

“Return to your place.” The shooter motioned her back.

The doctor was not so easily swayed.  “Please! He may be in pain. Allow me to assist him!”

“Get back!”

McCoy took advantage of the distraction to slip away from his own group. He had kneeled beside the injured captain and activated his tricorder before any of the intruders noticed him. A ragged string of what he assumed were invectives—the universal translator either could not or would not render them—rippled through the room, and immediately three of the weapons were trained on him.

Just when he’d thought his day couldn’t possibly get any worse.

“Back away!”

McCoy ignored the order, focusing on the data scrolling across his screen. “This man could be seriously injured!” That, of course, was obvious to the point of stupidity, but there wasn’t much else to say. From the corner of his eye he saw the phaser rifles inch closer.

“Desist and back away! Now!”

He turned his back on the speaker and ran the tricorder back over Th’d’Nat’s chest. The readings were faint, but active. “Look, if you allow us to assist him, the Federation government may—”

The distinctive whine cut through his words, and McCoy braced himself. He had always known that someday his mouth would get him killed. He had been lucky up to this point, but Jim Kirk couldn’t always be there when he went too far.

The noise cut off, and he looked around. The blue-silver intruder had laid his hand on the rifle. The would-be shooter fixed his comrade with an expression McCoy might have called both incredulous and angry, if the face had been that of a human. The silver hand pressed on the rifle until the muzzle pointed toward the deck.  McCoy noted absently that the fingernails were blunt, with coal black beds. “Hold.” The eyes fixed on McCoy. “You are human.”

McCoy bit back a response that would certainly have gotten him shot. “I am.”

“You are, however, familiar with copper-based species?”

Copper-based. It was medical, then. Or at least, biological. But why? What did these people want with Vulcans and Rigelians? “Familiar enough.”

The eyes regarded him, unblinking, and McCoy fought to not look away. The shining silver gaze gave him the creeps.

“Are you Dr. Leonard McCoy?”

Shock jarred him to his feet. The phaser rifles came up with him, and he raised both of his hands in a calming gesture. The speaker never looked away.

“Are you …”

“I am. And who might you be?”

His question was, predictably, ignored. The second unhooded intruder approached, emitting a low whining sigh that McCoy took to indicate impatience. McCoy’s interrogator raised a curt hand and his ashen-colored comrade halted, muttering beneath his breath. He exchanged a dark glance with the armed guards and settled his stance, arms clasped behind him. The whining sigh did not abate. The speaker ignored them, turning his attention to a tricorder-like device in one hand. McCoy hovered uncertainly.  Just who was in charge of who here? He had at first thought the silver one to be the commander, but now he was not so sure. The others followed his orders, but resentfully, as if they felt he had no right to issue them. A moan at his feet drew his attention back to the Rigelian captain. Whatever their captors’ internal arguments, McCoy’s first duty was to the injured.

He started to kneel again, but the soft voice halted his movement. “Are you the Dr. Leonard McCoy who wrote a paper entitled,” the light eyes skimmed the hand-held device, “Use of the Rigelian Experimental Erythropoiesis-Stimulating Agent RN-6513 in a Vulcan-Human Hybrid for Transfer to a Vulcan Male during Open Heart Surgery?”

What was this? How did these people know about him, and what did they want? McCoy exchanged an uneasy glance with the Rigelian doctor, who still hovered halfway between the Vulcan/Rigelian group and the unmoving form of Captain Th’d’Nat. His interrogator issued an impatient whine of his own, and McCoy snapped, “That’s me. And who are you, again?”

Once again, the questions were ignored. McCoy’s interrogator spoke to the nearest guard. “Begin transport. Take this one, as well.” He motioned toward McCoy, then moved back to the center of the conference room.

“Wait just one cotton-pickin’ minute!” McCoy started after him, but was brought up short by the point of a phaser rifle. He turned his ire on the armed guard. “I don’t know who you people think you are or what you think you’re doing, but …”

The muzzle of the rifle nudged him none too gently toward the clustered Rigelians and Vulcans. To his right, the Rigelian doctor was also being herded back in. She cast a despairing glance toward her captain, who had ceased to stir, and anger coursed again through McCoy’s veins. What gave these people the right? A hard shove that would no doubt leave a muzzle-shaped bruised sent him stumbling into a pair of Vulcans and a Rigelian engineer.  To his left sounded the familiar hum of a transporter beam. He barely had time to turn his head before a full third of the group shimmered away.

Across the room a shouted protest broke out, and the sound of phaser fire. McCoy witnessed the beginnings of a struggle, but before he saw more the familiar prickle of the transporter washed across his own skin. The conference room blurred and vanished, replaced by metal walls and ceiling and floor, a small bare cell tight-packed with more than a dozen prisoners. The glowing double lines of a force field ringed the open end of the cell, and the inevitable test by one of the Rigelian engineers confirmed it was operational. Voices drifted from just beyond their field of vision, clipped and focused.

” … shields are fully …”

” … to warp as soon as all parties are …”

“Have you confirmed that …”

” … signal from UyaVeth. Transport the remaining members of the boarding party.”

Apparently, their cell was set off to one side of the bridge. It made sense, given the size of the ships. With so little room every available space would needed. The transporter hummed again, and then a firm voice above the rest.

“Is everyone aboard?”

“Aye, Captain. Kolreth and Karan report all hands aboard as well.”

“Is the detonation sequence underway?”

Detonation sequence? Rigelian voices clamored around the cell. McCoy sent a startled glance toward Salin, who had appeared beside him. The young Vulcan returned his gaze impassively, and McCoy felt a flush of irritation. It was just his luck to get stuck in a holding cell with a bunch of Vulcans. Where were Kirk or Scotty or Sulu when you needed them?

“Aye, Captain.  Lanath reports no difficulty with integration into the containment field.”

Salin’s voice was low, detached. “A detonation within the antimatter containment field would result in the disintegration of the entire transport. There would be no possibility of survivors.” McCoy nodded, and swallowed back a snarl of helpless rage and horror. Even he could figure out the consequences of a bomb in the ship’s warp reactor.

“Excellent. Set course and retreat at maximum warp.”

The ship vibrated for an instant and then leaped into warp, the inertial dampeners failing to cushion the transition as smoothly as those of the Enterprise. McCoy’s stomach rolled, and he swallowed back a wave of nausea. They had been in warp for less than a minute when the news came.

“Captain, Lanath reports success. The transport has been destroyed.”

“Thank you, Calen. Continue speed and heading.”

One of the Rigelians screamed a string of curses and flung himself at the force field. It sizzled and knocked him back into the tight-packed mass of bodies. Several of his crewmates seized him as he struggled up and tried again for the opening. McCoy turned away from the sight. Two hundred passengers, fifty crewmen and women. Of those, roughly half of the crew had been Rigelian, and from what he had seen probably fifty of the passengers were either Vulcan or Rigelian. Accounting for crew not present in the conference room, that could be nearly two hundred deaths.

Nearly two hundred dead, and the rest caged and on their way to who knew where. His mind reeled. Unaccountably, Spock’s voice flitted through his head. “You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million.

Shut up, Spock, shut up. I understand these two hundred well enough.

McCoy forced away the nausea and rage and grief, and turned to examine the Rigelina. Force fields could leave some nasty burns. He knelt and reached for his scanner, only to find it still clutched in his hand from his aborted attempt to save the transport captain. McCoy rested his fist against his forehead for a long minute, taking deep breaths, then turned his attention to the trembling Rigelian.  As data began to scroll across his scanner, he turned his mind across the light years to the Enterprise and her crew—his friends.

Jim, I hope you track us down soon. I really can’t see this getting any better.

*****

Chapter 2

Captain’s Log, Stardate 5529.6

Today the Enterprise concludes its mission to study the crystalline microstructure of the Xenadellan Nebula. Mr. Spock reports that the final scans have been conducted, and that data entry will be completed by no later than 2200 hours. He expects that cataloging will take another three days, and that the entire project should be finalized within the week. The whole science department has shown exceptional dedication for nearly three weeks, and are due a well-deserved shore leave when the Enterprise reaches Starbase 6 to collect Dr. McCoy, who will be arriving via transport from the medical conference on Rigel V.

Jim Kirk flipped the recording switch to “off”, scrubbed at his face, and suppressed a sigh. He had joined Starfleet because he loved space and wanted to see it—all of it—but hanging at the edge of a minor nebula for three weeks while his science team studied details only the computer could see was not among his favorite assignments. Kirk was a man who preferred action.  A giant spatial anomaly, a rescue mission, even a diplomatic crisis was more to his taste than this patient, quiet pursuit. He would never dream of depriving Mr. Spock and the rest of his science team of their fun, of course, but by the end of such missions Kirk himself was usually consumed by boredom, vague feelings of uselessness, and an irritable desire to pick a fight with the first Starfleet representative who happened his way.

He stretched, peering without interest at the viewscreen. The Xenadellan Nebula shimmered before them—a small, dim nebula which was of interest only because of an apparently unusual crystalline lattice in its microstructure. Spock had assured him that the lattice was indeed fascinating, but as far as Kirk was concerned that was no compensation for having nothing else to look at for nearly two-thirds of a month. He considered ordering Sulu to put up something else—they had an entire database full of pictures, there was nothing that said they had to look at what was directly off their port bow—but decided that the demand would appear petulant, since only three point five minutes remained in his duty shift. He settled back, twiddled his thumbs absently, and counted off the last few minutes on the clock set above the Engineering station. He was out of his chair immediately when the clock hit 1500 hours, striding toward the lift doors without a backward glance.

“Mr. Sulu, you have the conn.”

“Aye, sir.” Amusement laced the helmsman’s voice, and Kirk caught a glimpse of Uhura becoming very busy as he passed. He thought for a moment about reminding them that it was extremely unprofessional to laugh at one’s captain behind his back, and then decided that such a reprimand really would be petulant. He had made it no secret to his Alpha shift that he was very bored, prowling the bridge and making a general nuisance of himself for most of the past week. His crew had been extremely patient and deserved the laugh as compensation, if for no other reason.

He ordered the lift toward crew quarters and settled against the wall, reveling in the knowledge that by this time tomorrow the Enterprise would be light years away from the Xenadellan Nebula and this entire area of space. Kirk yawned, making a mental note to avoid sending McCoy away again during lengthy research missions if at all possible. Maybe he was just becoming spoiled, but he had not quite realized until the past few weeks how much he depended upon the doctor’s sure supply of acerbic wit and Saurian brandy to keep him occupied at such times. He entered his quarters, stripped off his duty tunic, and poured himself a glass of scotch—a good year, given to him by Scotty on his last birthday. He considered calling his Chief Engineer for help with the bottle, but discarded the idea.  Scott had taken the opportunity of a few quiet weeks to run a full systems diagnostic, and he would be wanting it wrapped up before the Enterprise got underway. Kirk flopped onto his bed, swirled the scotch in its glass, and returned his thoughts to his absent CMO.

McCoy had definitely deserved the break, given the stress of both his recent terminal diagnosis and the effective but somewhat painful treatment Spock had discovered in the Fabrini database—not to mention the whole Natira thing. The request from the Vulcan Medical Academy had come at an opportune time, for both the Enterprise’s schedule and for the doctor himself. Starfleet would have allowed the leave even had the timing been less favorable—interspecies medical exchange was still in its infancy but considered a top priority, and McCoy’s paper on the effects of the experimental Rigelian drug used during Ambassador Sarek’s surgery had received attention on both Vulcan and Rigel V. Still, the whole incident—the disease, McCoy’s decision to stay aboard the asteroid ship, and his brief marriage to Natira, the high priestess—had been much on the doctor’s mind lately, and Kirk thought it a wise decision for McCoy to spend some time away from the Enterprise.  Get his head back on straight. It was something they all needed at times, no matter how much they might deny it, no matter how devoted to the mission and the crew.

He’d better not ever say that out loud, or McCoy would be throwing it back in his face the next time he tried to skip leave.

Kirk sighed and swallowed the rest of his scotch. Regardless of the wisdom behind the decision, he would be glad to have McCoy back. Spock had been utterly immersed in the nebula for the past few weeks and would probably continue with follow-up study for the next few, no matter what he said about finalizing anything soon. His first officer was nothing if not thorough, an admirable trait but one which Kirk thought the Vulcan at times took a bit far. No matter what Spock said, even Vulcans worked more efficiently after a bit of rest and diversion. Whatever Kirk’s opinions on the subject, however, Spock was unlikely to emerge from his research-induced isolation any time soon. McCoy, at least, understood the importance of a few minutes off, and could generally be counted upon for a drink and a bit of conversation, however brief, in any but the most immediate crisis.

Well. The doctor would be back on board soon enough, hopefully with a clearer head and a shipload of new medical data. Kirk studied his glass, considering whether to pour another drink or to go find something to eat. He had set the glass aside and was pulling a fresh tunic over his head when the comm whistled.  Uhura’s voice followed.

“Bridge to Captain Kirk.”

He moved to the wall and pushed the comm button. “Kirk here.”

“Captain, we’re receiving a Priority One transmission from Starbase 6. Commander Mirandison is requesting to speak with you immediately.”

“Put her through to my quarters. Kirk out.” He flipped the comm off and moved to the viewscreen on his desk, suppressing a twinge of apprehension. The Starbase commander could be contacting him for any number of reasons, even on a Priority One. Maybe McCoy’s transport had been delayed and she was calling to tell him they had more time with the nebula if they had not already departed. Bones, you’re never going to hear the end of it if I have to stay here another two days because you missed your transport. He settled in his chair as the viewscreen flickered and Mirandison’s face appeared. He had known Myra Mirandison for years—not well, but she was a generally upbeat woman with a wry smile and an impatience with bureaucracy which had long ago cemented a positive working relationship between the two. Her smile was absent now. Kirk studied her face, set and ashen, and the apprehension blossomed into something more substantial.

“Commander.” He smiled and leaned back, hoping that he was misreading her. “What can I do for you?”

“Captain.” Mirandison clasped and unclasped her hands, then took a deep breath and looked up. She caught and held his eyes. “Jim.”

Kirk knew that look. He had worn it so many times himself, spoken in that same tone. His gut plummeted, his vision constricting to the viewscreen and the woman in it. “Myra?”

“Jim, there’s been an accident. An explosion, on Dr. McCoy’s transport.” Mirandison’s lips pursed, her face a ghastly gray. “I’m sorry, Jim. There were no survivors.”

For a moment his mind went blank. McCoy had been terminally ill, but he was cured. The Fabrini medicine had worked. It couldn’t be possible, then, that he was dead.

“I know that you were friends, Jim.”

“Yes, I …” Kirk shook his head, focusing. “Myra … how? What happened?”

“Initial reports indicate an antimatter containment field rupture.” The commander shuffled several data tablets on her desk, but didn’t refer to them. “There’s not much to go by. What wasn’t vaporized is incinerated almost beyond recognition, but the preliminary investigation points to a containment breach.”

Beyond recognition. Kirk glanced up from his study of the seam between the viewscreen and the desk. “What about the …” Bodies. For some reason, he couldn’t say the word. Mirandison understood.

“There aren’t many bodies. Most were vaporized along with the transport. Some may have been pulled into space.” Her jaw tightened. “There were a few, mostly crew on the bridge. We’ve identified what bodies we have.” Mirandison shook her head. “Dr. McCoy’s is not one of them.”

Vaporized. Kirk felt numb.  Leonard McCoy’s atoms scattered across space …

It hadn’t, it seemed, been such a paranoid worry after all.

“Jim?”

He nodded curtly. “Thank you, Myra. Starbase 6 is still our next stop. Expect us in three days.”

“Understood.”

“I’ll want to see a full copy of the report when it’s filed.”

“Of course.  The investigation will be finalized in a couple of days, the report should be completed by the time you arrive. I’ll send a copy to the Enterprise, and have another waiting for you here.”

“Good.” Kirk nodded.  “I’ll … we’ll speak again then, Myra.”

He didn’t want to cut her off, but he couldn’t talk any longer.  He couldn’t continue with this or any other conversation until he’d had a moment to collect himself. Regroup.  Mirandison nodded once, straightening. “Captain Kirk, the crew and staff of Starbase 6 extend our deepest condolences to the crew of the Enterprise.”

Kirk nodded again, already lost in thought. “Thank you. I … Kirk out.”

He was grateful that Myra seemed to understand—she severed the link without further comment, leaving him alone at his desk. For a brief instant he didn’t move from his chair, didn’t look away from the screen. Bones.

Then Kirk rose, straightened his tunic, and left his quarters. The senior staff would need to be told, of course, and he would have to make a general announcement. But the medical staff should know first, and Spock, both as McCoy’s senior officer and as … well, yes.  As McCoy’s friend. Kirk strode down the corridor without making eye contact with any of the crew, entered the turbo lift, and directed it to deck eight, near Science Lab 3.

 

Chapter 3

Spock used his command code to override the lock on McCoy’s quarters. In other circumstances it would have been an unconscionable breach of privacy. Given the situation, however, he suspected the doctor would not only forgive the violation, but roundly approve. Dr. McCoy was truly one of the most sentimental human beings Spock had ever met.

The door slid shut and for a moment Spock hovered just inside, eyeing the jumbled mess that would in a few short days be cataloged, boxed, and sent to Joanna McCoy on Earth. It was a never-ending mystery to him how a man so detailed and organized in his profession could be so utterly careless with his personal effects. Datacards, personal correspondence, and small medical equipment heaped upon the desk. The bed was unmade and the closet door hung open. A tunic lay discarded in a corner, a pair of boots in the center of the floor. A conglomeration of wooden sculptures and oil paintings of questionable merit dotted the walls and shelves, gathered from various planets and Starbases throughout the quadrant. A low set of shelves fronted by a glass door held the doctor’s collection of liquor beneath the room’s center partition.

The liquor cabinet was Spock’s destination, but he did not move immediately to it. Instead he took a moment to reinforce his controls, to acknowledge the deep disquiet that would not be easily or quickly suppressed. It had been a most uncomfortable afternoon, and the next days did not promise to be less so. The crew was stunned and grieving over the loss of the doctor, their emotions raw and close to the surface. Despite his strict discipline and years of living among humans, their grief made his own experience of loss more difficult to master. He desired nothing so much as to retreat to his quarters for a period of silence and meditation, but that was not yet possible.

His first duty was not to himself, but the captain and the ship.

He had accompanied Kirk to the medical bay to deliver the news to McCoy’s staff.  Their response had been equally protests and tears. Christine Chapel had broken down completely in the arms of Jabilo M’Benga, who was himself in little better form. Kirk spoke briefly with each, offering soothing words and a comforting hand despite his own obvious sorrow. Chapel had embraced the captain before they left sickbay and offered her own condolences, to which Jim had nodded briefly and muttered something unintelligible before backing quickly into the hall. Kirk had remained silent and distant as they moved on to Conference Room 1, where the scene was repeated with the senior officers. They had departed to the sound of Uhura’s and Scott’s sobs, and Kirk made his way immediately to the bridge. The general announcement made, Jim disappeared into the turbo lift and had not been seen since that time.

Spock had little notion of where the captain might now be, but years of association that taught him that it was not wise for Kirk to grieve alone. Ironically, McCoy had always been the captain’s outlet in such instances, plying Jim with alcohol and talk until his resistance broke. He undertook this duty primarily, Spock understood, because Kirk was McCoy’s friend, and because Kirk had been there for him countless times as well over the years. However, he also did it because the doctor in McCoy never went off duty, and in ensuring the well-being of his captain he also ensured the well-being of the rest of his crew. It was—dare he say—logical, and just as well.  Such was not Spock’s area of expertise or comfort, and he had been more satisfied to allow McCoy to take that lead.

That was no longer an option. Spock crossed to the cabinet and selected an unopened bottle of Saurian brandy. It was the doctor’s preferred drink, and one which he himself could on occasion tolerate.  He tucked it under one arm, closed the glass door, and returned to the corridor, locking McCoy’s door behind him.

The silence in the corridors was profound. Crewmen went about their business with far less than their usual alacrity, most wearing stunned or pained expressions. The doctor had been the most highly visible of the ship’s senior officers—although Kirk did his utmost to maintain a physical presence among his personnel, his daily routine did not often bring him into contact with the majority of the Enterprise’s crew members. McCoy, on the other hand, saw them all routinely, if not frequently. Despite the presence of an entire staff of efficient and highly competent medical professionals, the doctor’s Georgian drawl and caustic bedside manner were well known among the crew, senior and junior officers alike. It was a mystifying but undeniable fact that despite his abrupt mannerisms Dr. McCoy enjoyed the nearly universal affection of the Enterprise‘s people.

“It’s because he cares about them, Spock.  He cares about every single one of them, as a person and not just a face in the corridors,” Kirk had explained it to him once. “They see that through all the rest of it. They see that in all the rest of it.”

The explanation had not offered much clarity, and Spock had put the matter out of his mind as yet another example of human idiosyncrasy. Now, surrounded by grieving humans on all sides, Kirk’s words resurfaced. They offered no further enlightenment regarding the original query, but they did serve to remind Spock of the depth and variability of human emotion. To feel personal grief for a man who was neither family member, friend, nor close coworker was perhaps not logical, but logic dictated very little of human response. The crew was experiencing various levels of what might be colloquially called “heartache”, and as such must be given the space and understanding to work through whatever grief each one might personally experience. While Spock was not prepared to assist in such coping—with the exception of the captain, perhaps—he did have some sense of the actions necessary to the current situation. Gripping the bottle of brandy, he turned aside from his original course and rerouted toward the turbo lift.

Like the corridors, Science Lab 3 was unusually quiet. Spock surveyed his staff from the doorway, noting the lethargic movements and half-hearted attention to detail. Several bore signs of recent tears.  In the corner, Lieutenants Rigsby and Haron had abandoned their work completely and were conferring in hushed tones, breaking off when they saw him. Ensign Reece’s head was buried in one hand, her shoulders shaking gently. It seemed that his chosen course of action would be beneficial not only for the crew, but for their current project as well.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Those who had not noticed his entrance snapped to attention. For a moment, Spock felt an utterly illogical desire to be able to offer them more than a simple word of understanding and a night off. He suppressed that desire immediately. It was sensible to know and accept one’s limitations in all matters, especially such a complex and perplexing issue as human emotions. He set the brandy on a nearby console and clasped his hands behind his back. “I understand that your minds are not fully engaged in our current endeavor at this time, nor can they be. I am therefore ordering that this entire project be placed on hold until 0800 hours tomorrow. I do not wish to see any of you in this lab again before that time.”

Their faces reflected surprise and relief. Lieutenant Kolnikov offered an unenthusiastic protest. “But sir, you told the captain that the data would be input by tonight.”

“Indeed, Lieutenant.” Spock nodded. “However, the captain will not be reviewing any such reports tonight, and it is unlikely that he will do so even within the next several days. It is therefore my belief that everyone involved will be better served by a break in our activities.”

Nods and murmurs of thanks rippled through the lab. A few minutes of work had the consoles placed on standby, and the science team filed out in quick, ragged succession. Ensign Alverez stopped before him, Ensign Bandheri hovering protectively at her back. Spock had observed their developing relationship over the course of the past months, but had found no cause for objection, as it had in no way interfered with their on-duty proficiency.

“Sir.” She twisted her hands and smiled sadly. “I’m so sorry about Dr. McCoy, sir.”

It was a human need, the offering and receiving of this phrase at time of death. Spock had frequently wondered at the purpose of such apologetic sentiment, as it often had no real bearing on the situation at hand. He found the Vulcan “I grieve with thee” both more pertinent and more succinct. However, he knew the words to be a sincere expression of condolence to the family or friends of the deceased, and he appreciated the ensign’s intent.

“Noted, Ensign.”

Spock did not entirely understand her watery smile, but she appeared content. Misunderstanding had been an all too common occurrence in the early years of his Starfleet service, but the tendency had diminished as the years had passed and he and his human crewmates became accustomed to one another.  He did not expect that the possibility of misunderstanding between him and his human crewmates would ever fully disappear—the basic social ideals of Vulcans and humans were far too divergent for the two species to ever live in complete harmony—but Spock found a certain satisfaction in the knowledge that his efforts toward that end had borne fruit. He owed a great debt on that front to Jim Kirk, whose patience and intuitive sense of his own kind had been an invaluable asset to Spock over the years. He also, he somewhat reluctantly concluded, owed such a debt to Leonard McCoy. The doctor’s constant brusque verbal sparring, unpredictable sense of humor, and fierce compassion had undoubtedly sharpened Spock’s understanding of the layered complexities of human anger, affection, and reaction. No matter what was yet to come for him, Spock understood that McCoy’s death represented a truly irreplaceable loss. It was a sentiment that Vulcans comprehended as well as humans, if from an entirely different perspective.

Movement cut into his thoughts, and he became conscious that his mind had wandered. Such a reaction was completely unacceptable. His need for meditation pressed more urgently than ever, but he merely inhaled a calming breath through his nose and gently returned his thoughts to their appropriate place. Whatever the need, meditation must wait for its proper time. Alvarez squeezed Bandheri’s hand on her shoulder and started for the exit. The young man nodded toward Spock, mumbled, “Thank you, sir,” and then followed her out the door. Spock watched them go, checked the lab to ensure that it was deserted, and dimmed the lights before returning to the corridor.

He returned to the crew quarters and halted outside Kirk’s door. There was no certainty that the captain would be present, but he did not wish to page Kirk through the open system and this seemed as likely a place as any to begin his search. His signal received no reply, however, and he stood indecisively in the corridor for a long moment, wondering if Kirk was truly not present or if he simply did not wish to be disturbed. He was rescued from his dilemma by a voice from behind him.

“Mr. Spock.” Ensign Q’ndari from Engineering hovered on the other side of the hallway. “Sir, I believe that the captain is in the gym. At least, he was when I left a few minutes ago.”

The ensign was dressed in workout apparel, sweating and flushed as though his own calisthenics had been quite intensive. “Thank you, Ensign.” Spock nodded his appreciation and started down the corridor. Q’ndari’s voice followed.

“Mr. Spock.” Spock turned back.  The ensign shrugged in a show of seeming discomfort and fiddled briefly with the towel around his neck. “I’m sorry about Dr. McCoy, sir.”

Spock nodded briefly. Q’ndari returned the nod, appearing almost relieved, and continued down the hallway. Spock tucked the bottle of brandy again under one arm, wondered how many more crew members would witness him wandering the ship clutching a bottle of liquor today, and returned to the turbo lift.

The gymnasium was strangely deserted, given the hour. Spock took note of the crewmen present, observing that they were all involved in activities that gave wide berth to the rear training room. A sharp staccato noise issued from that direction, however, indicating that the area was not in fact as abandoned as it might appear. Spock left the doorway and crossed the exercise floor, nodding to the crewmen who halted their activities long enough to allow him to pass. He ducked through the far opening and halted, studying the scene before him.

Kirk was stripped to the waist, clad in old gray workout gear that McCoy had once referred to as “sweatpants,” and was faced off against one of the punching bags that dangled from the ceiling. He must have been engaged in the activity for quite some time, if the amount of sweat and the heavy breathing were any indication, but he still pummeled the object before him as though it alone was responsible for the doctor’s death. The captain had not donned the recommended gloves, and the contact of his reddened knuckles with the bag echoed in the confined area with a dull thump. Kirk glanced up, saw Spock watching, and returned without comment to the attack.

Spock remained silent. It was difficult to push James Kirk into conversation that he did not desire, and this seemed neither the time nor the setting in which to do so. Kirk continued his exercise, the steady thump, thump filling the space between them. Spock had begun to wonder if the captain had any intention at all of acknowledging him when Kirk’s voice snapped out, breathless and sharp.

“It doesn’t quite seem fair,” thump, thump, “does it,” thump, “Spock?”

Fairness. Another incomprehensible human obsession. The pursuit of justice was a right and logical aspiration, however, this “fairness” of which humans so often spoke was related to justice in only the most rudimentary fashion. The belief that a situation should have necessarily resolved itself in the most satisfactory manner for all, rather than in the manner in which it had actually resolved, seemed to serve no rational purpose, and yet humans devoted such a great deal of time and effort to the concept. For himself, Spock found the human tendency to rail against “unfairness” most unproductive. At this particular time, however, he recognized the words for what they were—an opening.

“In what way, Jim?”

Kirk laughed, and there was a wild edge to the sound that Spock did not often hear. He took a few steps closer as the human struck savagely against the bag. “In what way?” Thump, thump, thump. “He had a terminal disease, Spock. Less than two months ago.” Thump, thump. “And he beat it. He cheated death.” Thump. “Less than two months ago. And now he’s gone anyway.” Thump, thump, thump.

It seemed inappropriate to point out that the doctor had not cheated at anything, but had simply been in a most fortunate position to take advantage of the discovery of an alien database and the entire knowledge of a previously unknown race. Regardless of the manner in which one viewed the events surrounding the doctor’s previous illness, however, Spock himself found the circumstances of McCoy’s death to be something of a paradox. “It does seem … ironic.”

“Ironic.” Thump, thump. “Right.”

Kirk returned his attention to the bag. Spock hovered silently, debating what to make of his captain’s words. In truth, he was not entirely certain what sort of response he should desire, given the current circumstances. The mere fact that Kirk had chosen to converse with him rather than lash out, as was the captain’s wont in situations in which he felt his personal space unduly encroached upon, was most undoubtedly a positive development. Still, in all Kirk did not seem in an overly conversant mood, and Spock wondered if his instincts, admittedly undeveloped and in fact almost entirely unacknowledged, had led him in error regarding this situation.

Kirk sent the bag spinning with a particularly violent blow, and turned toward Spock. “What do you have there?” He brushed sweaty hair off his forehead and nodded toward the bottle tucked into Spock’s elbow. Spock held it out for inspection, and the ghost of a grin flickered across Kirk’s features. “Brandy? You, Spock?” He laughed outright, and the sound held a humor that it had previously lacked. “What did you do, raid McCoy’s liquor cabinet?”

“Overly dramatic terminology, but in essence correct.” Spock returned the bottle to its resting place. “It seemed an appropriate addition to any discussion revolving around the good doctor this evening.”

Kirk studied him for a long moment, the same half-smile playing over his lips, then reached out to grip Spock’s shoulder. “Indeed it does.” He circled around Spock, snagged a towel off the rack near the doorway, and ran it briskly over his damp hair. “Let me get cleaned up.” He retrieved his shirt from the floor and strode out of the room. Spock followed, satisfied. He had truly underestimated the amount of thought and nuance required by such a task, and he was forced, as he had been countless times before, to once again readjust his estimation of McCoy. The doctor had indeed been a man of well-hidden subtleties.

Kirk showered quickly and reappeared dressed in his darker wrap-around uniform tunic. He pulled two glasses from the cabinet behind his desk, but instead of settling into the chair as Spock had expected, he motioned toward the door. “Come on.”

Their destination rapidly became clear when Kirk directed the lift toward the medical bay. They nodded to the Beta shift nursing staff as they passed through the outer rooms of the sickbay complex, and took a moment to reassure Kara Wylean, the head duty nurse, that all was well. “We were just heading for Dr. McCoy’s office.”

Wylean smiled sadly, and her chin quivered. “Of course, sir.” She returned to her desk, leaving Kirk and Spock to continue on to the CMO’s office in the rear of the bay. Kirk took the chair behind the desk and Spock sank into the one opposite, studying their surroundings. McCoy’s office had not changed since the last time that he had entered the room, as of course was only reasonable. As with McCoy’s quarters, the task of collecting the doctor’s personal items had not yet begun, and the medical items present would of course be required by the next CMO. Despite the lack of obvious change, however, the room itself seemed different—he might even say felt different, were that not entirely illogical. It was the sort of distinction which would no doubt launch the doctor into a tireless rant regarding either the deficiency of Spock’s human attributes or the certain existence of said attributes, depending upon the mood or circumstance. For an instant, McCoy’s voice echoed in his mind.

“Admit it, Spock! You feel just as much and just as deeply as anyone else! Don’t think you’re fooling anybody with all of that logic and control bullshit!”

Indeed, Doctor. Spock settled into his chair and watched Jim pour out two measures of brandy. You are more correct than you could ever possibly know. And you were neither the first to attempt such an admission from me, nor will you be the last. You were, however, decidedly the most unique.

Kirk slid one of the glasses across the desk to Spock, then took up his own. He hesitated, eyes darting around the office until they came to rest on the framed diploma from the University of Mississippi hanging on the near wall above a set of shelves housing spare datacards, boxes of microslides and protective film, and a jumble of ancient medical equipment including tongue depressors, a sphygmomanometer, and a stethoscope. The captain sighed, leaned back, and raised his glass. “To Bones.”

“Indeed.” Spock raised his own glass and took a prudent sip of the dark liquid. Kirk swallowed the entire contents of his glass in one gulp. Spock fought to keep his expression neutral. Although such consumption seemed reckless, if the captain’s move to refill his glass was any indication of his intentions for the evening, he was unwilling at this time to subject Kirk to any judgment on the matter. Jim’s eyes flickered toward him briefly, considering, and then the second glass, too, was gone. Spock stirred uneasily, wondering how long the human would be able to keep up such a pace before he passed out and at what point he might be required to step in, reluctant though he might be to take such an action. However, Kirk merely sipped at his next glass and then studied its contents, his eyes slowly losing focus until they stared far beyond its amber depths. Spock took another sip, comfortable in the silence, and waited to see if Kirk would speak.

He did, eventually, beginning with a mildly amusing anecdote involving a shore leave incident from early in McCoy’s tenure aboard the Enterpriseand expanding upon his memories of the doctor in a gentle stream of words that went on for nearly three hours. Spock listened and nodded at appropriate intervals, finding that many of the captain’s tales drew forth strong recollections for him as well. Although it was not the Vulcan way, he added a few incidents of his own recall when they seemed appropriate. Kirk appeared to appreciate his participation, casting him a grateful glance when he spoke and even laughing loudly at one particularly pointed observance. When silence finally descended again, deep into the ship’s night, the level of brandy in the bottle was significantly decreased, and Kirk seemed to Spock to be both relaxed and utterly exhausted.

They left the medical bay in silence, nodding a brief acknowledgment to the Gamma shift nurses, who seemed unsurprised by their appearance. They returned to crew’s quarters and halted outside Kirk’s door. The captain hesitated for a long moment, then gripped Spock’s arm briefly. “Thank you.”

“Indeed, Jim, I am most pleased to have been of assistance.”

An unexplained smile flickered across Kirk’s lips, and he turned toward his doorway. Spock moved to continue on, but was halted by Kirk’s voice. “Spock.” He looked back around. “Leave the bottle.”

Spock paused. Despite his best efforts, apparently, the captain still felt the need to drink himself into oblivion. Although his hesitation was so brief as to be unnoticeable by human eyes, somehow Kirk sensed the direction of his thoughts. The wry grin reappeared as Kirk took the bottle.

“Spock, you’ve helped.  You can’t even begin to imagine how much.” He seemed about to say more, then simply shook his head and disappeared into his quarters.

Spock stared after him, then turned abruptly back toward his own quarters. He didn’t understand, but it had finally become too much, this intense exposure to the depths of human grief. His own need for meditation was no longer pressing—it was screaming at him from the vestiges of his crumbling control. He could no longer look to or even consider the good of others until he first managed to regain his own equilibrium. He cut around a couple of ensigns who were speaking in the middle of the corridor, nodding vaguely at the unheard words that followed him to the threshold of his own quarters. The relief that overwhelmed him when the door hissed shut behind was tangible, an unacceptable emotional surge that he nonetheless accepted as further proof of his tattered mental state.

He took a moment to comm the bridge with instructions to contact him rather than the captain in case of emergency, and then methodically stripped his uniform and donned his meditation robe. Although it was not his usual practice to light a meditation flame, he felt the need this night for the additional aid. He lit the fragrant oil and placed the glowing lamp in the center of the room, then sank down before it. Head bowed, he began first of the basic breathing exercises which would calm his body and allow his mind to slip into the shallowest stages of the meditative state.

The exercises strengthened his control, but the very tension which he sought to relieve prevented him from entering the deepest of the meditative levels. As a result, his meditation was both brief and unsatisfactory, ending abruptly with the noise of a loud crash in the corridor outside his doorway. Usually meditation rendered him oblivious to such distractions. Tonight, however, the fragile balance he had managed to attain was irretrievably shattered. There seemed little logic in any attempt to continue. Spock put out the meditation flame and redressed in his Starfleet uniform with slow deliberation. Meticulous care in even such minor tasks brought some measure of relief to a mind battling inner unrest and the press of outside influence which such turbulence allowed. He then abandoned his quarters for the cool hallways of the Enterprise.

The ship’s night was still upon them and traffic in the corridors was light, with no sign of whatever disaster had befallen to cause the earlier commotion. Spock was honest enough with himself to admit that he was grateful for the reprieve. Despite the best intentions of the crew, he did not desire further contact with any of them tonight. He merely required a direct route from one place of relative peace to the next. He entered the turbo lift and directed it to deck eight. Science Lab 3 was as he had left it, dim and quiet and utterly deserted. It was the work of a few moments to activate one of the consoles, and a few quick keystrokes recalled the data that he had been studying earlier in the afternoon when the captain had appeared in the laboratory doorway with news of Leonard McCoy’s death. Spock hunched over the terminal, activated the data recorder, and submersed himself in the microscopic beauty revealed to him by the ship’s sensors and probes, and by the intricate mathematical calculations of the Enterprise‘s central computer.

*****

Chapter 4

He had lost all sense of time, but McCoy guessed that it was close to a week before the Chareni attack cruiser reached its destination. Their captors had seen to their most basic needs during that time, but very little more. The stench of stressed, unwashed bodies had long since permeated the air of the little cell. The meals provided were appropriate to Vulcan and Rigelian physiologies—and adequate for McCoy’s own human requirements, for the time being at least—but were of insufficient size, and the aches of hunger and thirst were their constant companions. The loud, close environment hindered sleep. It also proved a stiff deterrent to any sort meditation attempt on the part of the Vulcans, who had, for the most part, long since lapsed into a morose silence quite unlike the usual Vulcan reserve. The dim, noticeably blue lighting made focusing the eyes difficult and imparted a constant low-grade headache. The ambient temperature, cool for McCoy and even more so for the Rigelians, approached frigid for the Vulcans. Thin, tightly-woven gloves and head-coverings had been provided, but the Vulcans and Rigelians were still miserably chilled, so much so that they had taken to huddling together for warmth despite the natural Vulcan aversion to prolonged physical contact. McCoy worried for his companions and complained repeatedly to their Chareni guards until his trips out of their cell to the lavatory finally convinced him that the cell was indeed heated, no matter how slightly.

Those issues, of course, accounted for only the physical stressors. The psychological ramifications of their situation provided McCoy with nearly as many concerns as the physical hardships—the grief and anger of the Rigelian crew over the loss of their comrades and their ship, and the fear and uncertainty of being taken and held prisoner for reasons utterly unknown. He spent the days providing what comfort he could, healing minor medical complaints with the limited supplies available in the medical bag he had been carrying when the transport was overtaken, and steadfastly ignoring his own trepidation regarding what lay ahead for them. The Chareni had known him, or one of them had, at any rate. They had known his name, they had—presumably—a copy of one of his papers. If he spent any time wondering what that might mean, why he had been chosen to live while every other non-Vulcan or Rigelian on the ship had been summarily murdered, he was afraid that he would go stark raving mad before he found an answer—if he ever found an answer. It was better, then, to concentrate on the others and simply leave those questions unexamined. Time would either tell or it wouldn’t, and obsessing over it would serve no earthly purpose at all.

No logical purpose. Good grief, he was starting to sound like Spock. It must be all the Vulcans.

The chatter from the bridge warned the prisoners when the attack cruisers approached Charen, and the shudder of the deck plates indicated that the ship had dropped out of warp. More quickly than McCoy would have thought possible, two armed Chareni appeared outside of the cell and deactivated the force field.

“Separate,” one of them ordered. “You,” he waved his phaser rifle at the Rigelians, “to this side. And you,” he indicated the Vulcans, “to the opposite. Quickly!”

The prisoners moved to obey, apprehension thick in the close atmosphere. McCoy hovered near the center of the cell, finally unable to suppress his own nerves. That he had not been instructed to join one of the groups only heightened his anxiety. Why was he here? Why were any of them here? Despite the sense of dread, he was relieved that it was finally happening, whatever it was. He had seen it proved time and again on the Enterprise—despite the chaos and death, the battle itself was far preferable to that waiting pause before the battle was joined. It was the same here. No matter what became of them on the planet below, better to be on with it than to sit in this cell and allow the fear of whatever was coming to paralyze them.

The second guard spoke into a hand-held communication device, and the hum of a transporter filled the cell. The close-packed huddle of Rigelians vanished into a swirling green matter stream, and before McCoy even lost sight of its last traces the hum sounded again behind him. He barely had time to turn before the Vulcans disappeared as well, leaving him alone in a cell that suddenly seemed far too large and open. He took a long breath and looked toward the Chareni guards.

They were, it seemed, uninterested in him. One of them reactivated the force field and then they disappeared around the corner onto the bridge. For a long moment McCoy stared after them, fighting panic and the urge to yell after them and demand that someone tell him once and for all what exactly was going on here. That would be stupid, though, and possibly dangerous, and probably wouldn’t get him anywhere anyway. He managed to keep his mouth shut—there, Spock, what do you think of that—and was in the process of studying the now empty cell around him when the overhead lighting died, leaving him with nothing but the soft glow cast by the force field generators and what bridge lighting managed to filter around the corner.

Ah, crap.

He took several more long, deep breaths and willed his racing heart to slow down. It didn’t seem interested in cooperating. As much as he didn’t want to admit it to himself or to anyone else, McCoy was as scared as he could ever remember being, even in the middle of a raging space battle. There, he usually had a hundred other things to think about and Jim Kirk to give them more than even odds on coming out alive. Here he was alone in the dark, with nothing to do and not even an aloof Vulcan or a grieving Rigelian for company. He eyed the shadows around him. His eyes were already becoming accustomed to the dim lighting, but there just was nothing more to see. He made his way to the rear of the cell and sank down onto the deck plating, shivering against the cool of the metallic wall at his back. Already the cell’s temperature was beginning to drop—the loss of its other occupants was probably a factor, but McCoy suspected that with the others gone the Chareni had deactivated the heating unit as well as the lights. He wondered how long it would take them to come for him, and how cold it might get before that happened.

Jim, what I wouldn’t give to see you and the Enterprise show up before that happens. Heck, I’d even take Spock right now. Let him explain how all that more-Vulcan-than-thou logic could have dug him out of this little disaster …

In truth, a little bit of Spock’s logic didn’t sound like such a bad thing here, all things considered. Although it usually pissed him off as much as it helped, and although he would face a Klingon torture squad before admitting it to Spock, he had come to develop a certain appreciation for the Vulcan’s cool head in sticky situations like this. His own penchant for immediate overreaction—”Overreaction, Doctor? Surely not”Shut up, Spock—was more easily controlled when everyone around him wasn’t losing their heads as well. He would take the overreaction over cold-blooded Vulcan reason any day, of course, but that didn’t mean that logic didn’t have its uses. Very small, very limited uses.

He uttered a lifeless chuckle. “If I’m nostalgic for Spock’s logic, I guess things must be pretty bad.” The simple truth of that statement chilled him more than the falling temperature. McCoy tucked his legs up against him for warmth, eyed the empty corridor outside of his cell, and waited.

He couldn’t have said how long he sat in the dark, cold cell before another Chareni appeared. It felt like days, although that was, he supposed, highly unlikely. Certainly it was hours. He was dozing, his chin tucked into his knees for support, when the lighting snapped back to full and a voice demanded, “Get up! Quickly!” McCoy blinked, squinting for the source of the voice. An impatient whine pierced the air, and the hiss of the force field cutting off. “Get up!”

McCoy scrambled to his feet, his cold limbs leaden and awkward. He rubbed his hands briskly and peered at the guard. Guards. There were two of them. One of them motioned abruptly. “Come.”

Well. Finally, this show was on the road. He approached the Chareni, who held out a pair of solid, heavy-duty hand restraints. McCoy swallowed against his stomach’s nervous roll and offered his arms. There seemed to be no point in resisting. The manacle snapped shut around his wrists, and with the click came the hiss and tingle of an activating force field. It appeared that they were taking no chances, although he couldn’t see what possible threat they thought he posed. The first guard motioned again with his phaser rifle. “Step back.”

McCoy obeyed, and the other Chareni spoke into his communicator. Seconds passed, and then the tingling wash of a transporter beam took him. The cell blurred and vanished, and he rematerialized in a large, plain, empty room on a huge pad more suited for bulk cargo than a single person.

“Step down! Quickly!”

So, the room was not as empty as he had at first thought. He stepped off of the pad and turned to look for the source of the voice, squinting against the same dim blue lighting that had illuminated the attack cruiser. A single Chareni guard stood at the base of the pad, training a phaser rifle on him with a casual, almost bored air. Behind him … McCoy halted, surprised even though common sense told him that he shouldn’t be. Behind the guard stood the Chareni who had ordered him joined up to this particular circus of horrors.

“Step down!”

He hadn’t realized that he had halted halfway off the transporter pad. He finished his descent as the familiar Chareni put a hand on the guard’s shoulder.

“That will be all, Tela. Thank you.”

Tela frowned at the hand gripping his armor. “You know that plant employees are never left alone with a prisoner.”

A grimace that McCoy took to be the Chareni equivalent of either a soothing smile or barely concealed irritation crossed the blue-silver features. “He is suitably restrained, and I am suitably armed.” One hand patted a phase pistol strapped to his belt. “We will be fine.”

The guard tightened his grip on the rifle. “Supervisor …”

“Tela!” The silver head shook rapidly. There was no mistaking the irritation now. “Leave us, on my authority. The human is here on my orders, and I take full responsibility for both him and this situation.” The richly-hued face pushed closer to Tela’s dull granite countenance. “Or will I tell your captain that you disobeyed a Supervisor’s direct request?”

A low growl escaped the guard. He pulled the rifle sharply around and glared. Blue-silver eyes met granite, but after a long moment Tela shrugged, a jerking of the shoulders back and down. “What do I care?” He slung the rifle abruptly over one shoulder and turned away, strolling with a studied nonchalance across the empty space and through a doorway on the far end. The remaining Chareni watched until the guard was out of sight, his eyes unreadable to McCoy, who as yet had little to no practice judging the subtleties of Chareni body language and expression. As the door shut behind Tela, the blue-silver eyes returned from across the room to pin McCoy. The doctor met the sharp gaze, and his already tense muscles tightened at what he saw there. Whatever else the unfamiliar expression might convey, here was someone who knew that he was in control—and McCoy was, unfortunately, in no position to argue with him.

“Dr. McCoy.” The head tilted to one side. “I am Rashall UyaVeth, Second Supervisor of this facility. You are here and alive on my authority, because I believe that we have use for you. Do you understand?”

There was little possibility of misunderstanding. Play by UyaVeth’s rules, or face the consequences—probably death, if McCoy read the implied threat correctly. He swallowed back his initial response and nodded silently. It was better to play his cards close to the vest until he had some concept of the person and the situation with which he was dealing, and some concept of what UyaVeth meant when he said that they had “use for him.” UyaVeth continued to regard him.

“I must insist on verbal replies, Doctor. I find that the chances of confusion increase, especially between species, when one relies on gestures. I do not wish for any confusion here.”

In other words, speak when you’re spoken to. Bastard. The fresh anger was a welcome rush for McCoy, crowding out the fear and apprehension. “I understand, Supervisor.” He was proud of the response, low and steady and lacking any noticeable sarcasm. Although, it was highly possible that the Chareni wouldn’t recognize good old human sarcasm if it bit them right on the furry gray nose.

“Excellent!” The grimace broke out again across UyaVeth’s features, and McCoy revised his original assessment. Perhaps it really was intended as a smile of sorts. “Then follow me, Doctor.” He turned his back on McCoy and strode toward the far exit. Telling me I’m not a threat. Which I’m not. McCoy flexed his wrists, noting the hiss and tingle of the force field in his manacles, and trailed after UyaVeth. At least it seemed that he was about to find out just what the heck was going on.

As they left the room and entered a long, low hallway, McCoy reviewed the little that Salin had been able to tell him about the Chareni during their journey. He had been surprised when the young Vulcan approached him early in their captivity, given that Salin had professed no knowledge of the attack cruisers during the initial assault. When questioned, though, Salin had merely lifted an eyebrow in a manner reminiscent of another Vulcan of McCoy’s acquaintance.

“I stated that I was unfamiliar with the ships, Doctor, which was entirely accurate. The design is one which the Chareni have apparently managed to conceal from the Federation. I am, however, somewhat familiar with the Chareni themselves, if only by reputation.”

“Then by all means.”

“Indeed. First contact of a Federation ship with the Chareni occurred approximately 52.4 Earth years ago—the USS Eli Whitney, a research vessel captained by Craig Anderson. The Eli Whitney had taken heavy damage from a subspace filament, and a Chareni ship responded to the distress call. They were unable to repair the damage, but the Chareni were able to take on the majority of the Eli Whitney’s crew, leaving only a skeleton crew to tax the ship’s life support systems while awaiting Federation aid, which arrived 3.8 days later.

“The crew of the Eli Whitney were able to learn something of the Chareni in that time. The three continents of Charen, their home world, had been involved in bitter feuding until approximately 40.2 years prior to their encounter with the Federation. Peace had been brokered, however, and the people of the three continents were for the first time in their history living as one under a single government entity. Chareni technology had been rapidly expanding since the advent of global harmony, and of particular interest to the Eli Whitney crew was an attempt to create a clean, efficient global power supply. When the Federation ship arrived and the Chareni returned to their home world, a contingent of ten Vulcan scientists joined them to assist in the development of such a power supply.

“The Federation team remained on Charen for several years and successfully collaborated with Chareni scientists to create a viable global energy source. They departed at that time, but their transport was lost without trace—neither Federation nor Chareni authorities were able to verify their fate. During the course of the inquiry, the human Federation investigators displayed an obvious and irrational suspicion toward the Chareni government—an ‘abdominal reaction,’ as it were, entirely unsupported by any evidence to indicate Chareni involvement.”

“There aren’t many idioms in the Vulcan language, are there?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s a gut feeling, not the stomach flu.”

“It is illogical to state that which you do not truly intend.”

“Ah, but that’s the trick.” McCoy quirked an eyebrow. “We do intend it.”

The black, expressionless gaze fixed on him, and for a minute McCoy thought he was going to get an argument, or at least one of the snarky comments of which Spock was so fond. Vulcans were not, in his experience, quite as unfailingly polite as their reputation might suggest. Salin, however, resumed without further comment. “Relations between the Federation and the Chareni became strained. The Federation declined to offer admission, and the Chareni withdrew from any further involvement with the Federation.”

Then again, maybe it was just him that brought out the worst in Vulcans. “Irrational.” McCoy snorted. “An entire Vulcan science team vanished. And look around you now.” He scowled at the crowded cell. “Doesn’t seem quite so irrational anymore, does it?”

Salin had the grace to appear discomfited. “Perhaps not.” The admission hung in the stale air for a long moment before he continued. “Very little other information is available. There has been no official contact for nearly thirty years, and unofficial contact has been sparse and unrevealing. It offers nothing to explain our current predicament.”

And that seemed to be that. “Doesn’t help much, does it? I guess we’re just going to have to wing it.”

One black eyebrow rose. “Another intentional idiom, Dr. McCoy?”

“You bet your pointy green ears it is.”

McCoy shivered and rubbed his hands briskly together as he followed UyaVeth down the corridor, wondering what had become of Salin, or if he would ever even know. The Chareni moved past several smaller doors and open passageways, turned right at what seemed to be a major intersection, and continued on. McCoy began to see others in the halls, Chareni in various forms of dress. The majority wore no uniform of any kind, only an insignia pendant on the left shoulder that he took to be some sort of name badge or indicator of rank or title. They began to notice him, staring and whispering. A few started after them, but UyaVeth disregarded them and after a time their impromptu escort dropped back. Dozens of gray-hued eyes bored into him, following long after he had passed, and McCoy resisted the urge to hunch his shoulders against the resulting prickle at the base of his neck. He distracted himself instead with surreptitious observation of both the people and their surroundings. Anything he saw or heard was more than he already knew.

They halted before a massive set of double doors. A security scanner was posted off to one side along with two armed guards. The guards came to attention as UyaVeth approached.

“Supervisor. I wasn’t aware that you had returned.”

“Only today. An instructive experience, I must admit.” UyaVeth nodded to each and moved toward the scanner. One of the guards halted McCoy with a rifle across the chest when he would have followed. UyaVeth passed both an eye scan and a voice match, then looked back around. “Gentlemen, the prisoner is with me.”

“But Supervisor …”

“I said, the prisoner is with me.” The blue-silver head tilted. “You may contact your captain, and you will find him well informed of the situation. In the while, I will proceed. Allow him to pass.”

The guards exchanged a glance, then stepped aside. McCoy moved once again into UyaVeth’s wake, suppressing a weary smile at the low exchange which followed.

“What is it?”

“No idea. I’ve never seen one like that.”

“Nor I. Are we branching out, do you think?”

“I haven’t heard if we are. I …”

The doors sealed behind him and the conversation disappeared, taking McCoy’s amusement with it. Branching out from what? It sounded bad, whatever it meant. He turned his attention to his surroundings, and the questions evaporated in the face of this new mystery.

The room was a good five stories high, and perhaps twice the circumference of the bridge of the Enterprise. A walkway ringed the outer portion of the room. The center portion was taken up with a cylindrical column a little smaller than the lower bridge, which rose from floor to ceiling. The outer walls were lined with computer workstations. The base of the column contained several rows of hatches or portholes rising to a point just above UyaVeth’s head. These were topped by a wide ring of some metallic alloy, and then the column went transparent for the rest of its journey to the ceiling. The contents of the column were a swirling, thick liquid that was an emerald green color even in the strange blue lighting. It was also faintly luminous—not enough to discolor the ambient blue, but enough to leave the column standing out against the smooth metallic walls. A glowing network of thin lines embedded within the ceiling ran from the column to disappear beyond the room’s outers walls. McCoy fought back a tinge of awe at the sheer magnitude of whatever it was he was viewing and schooled his expression into one of irritation.

“Are you finally going to tell me what in the blue blazes is going on here?”

UyaVeth was silent for a long moment, staring up the column to where the glowing spider web burst from it and scattered across the ceiling. Finally the gray eyes flickered briefly to McCoy, and then the Chareni began to pace slowly around the column.

“Dr. McCoy. You are in the central processing chamber of the Northern Continental Power Production Plant. What you see before you is the final stage of the process which provides power for the entire northern continent of Charen.”

The power plant. Ironic, considering what he had learned from Salin only days ago. He eyed the swirling emerald column—exactly the color of exposed Vulcan blood. Copper-based blood …

The confusion cleared in one brilliant, terrible rush, and suddenly McCoy didn’t want to know the rest. He didn’t want to know what these people had done to those Vulcan scientists forty years ago, or what was being done to Salin and the other Vulcan and Rigelian prisoners now. He didn’t want to know how the Chareni had discovered a way to power an entire world using the blood of another sentient people. He didn’t want to know how an entire people could sanction such an atrocity. He looked back to UyaVeth, praying that he was wrong, that he had jumped to conclusions as he so often did, and saw the truth of it on the Chareni’s face.

“You are intuitive, Doctor. I see that I need not start from the very basics.”

The anger exploded through his chest and set his ears to ringing, and the only thing that kept him silent was the complete lack of rational thought with that first surge of rage. UyaVeth continued pacing and speaking as if he noticed nothing out of place—or as if McCoy’s reaction meant nothing to him, which was more likely the case. The words drifted in and out, partially obscured by his fury, and he couldn’t bring himself to care what he was missing.

” … combined with the harvested blood cells creates a chemical reaction that puts forth vast amounts of energy. You see the power lines above us.” UyaVeth motioned to the glowing filaments. “These carry the energy out of the plant and into a network of underground lines that, through a series of processes, provide power to the entire northern continent—every home, every hospital, every school, office, workplace, every place in need of energy. All from here, all in a fraction of the time that conventional power sources can provide, all at a fraction of the risk to our populace—”

“How dare you?” The words burst from him, finally freed from the shock. He tore around the column to meet UyaVeth face to face. “How dare you? A fraction of the risk? What about the Vulcans, and the Rigelians? What about their risk? These are people we’re talking about, that you’re—”

“Dr. McCoy.” UyaVeth stepped back. McCoy followed. “If you insist upon this, I must call the guards. I would rather—”

“You would rather?” McCoy snarled. “What about what they would rather? You all are abducting living, breathing—”

UyaVeth tapped a panel on the wall. “Kensa, Farell, your assistance, please.”

” … people for this safe, efficient energy production of yours …”

The double doors slid open behind him, and footsteps rang against floor grating.

” … and you’re harvesting their blood! Are every single one of you insane …”

A phaser rifle slammed into his back. The force field in his manacles sizzled as he tried to catch himself and failed. He stumbled into the second guard, who threw him back against the wall. The first guard slapped his rifle as a barricade against McCoy’s chest.

” … barbarians? You have no right to advance your own society on the—”

The butt of one of the phaser rifles in his solar plexus finally stopped him cold. He stumbled forward, coughing and gasping for air, and one of the guards shoved him again into the wall. UyaVeth approached, fixing him with an unreadable gray gaze. McCoy wheezed, and returned a fierce glare of his own.

UyaVeth was silent for a long moment before he spoke. “Dr. McCoy. Your passion is … impressive, but it will serve you little purpose here. Our power production processes are fixed, and have been so for nearly forty of your years. No amount of argument from you will change them. Accept this.”

Accept it. McCoy uttered a harsh laugh. “Right. The day I—”

“You have been brought here for a single purpose. You will either fulfill that purpose, or we will dispose of you as no use to us. You are free to choose which. No other choice is available to you, nor will it be.”

McCoy scowled. “And what purpose could I possibly choose to fulfill for you?”

UyaVeth motioned to the guards. They hesitated, then stepped back, leaving McCoy bruised but relatively unhindered, so long as he remained against the wall. The supervisor linked his hands behind his back and began to pace in tight circles.

“Once routine injections begin …”

Injections? Missed that part of the opening pep talk …

” … a subject’s life expectancy is significantly decreased, due to the decreased oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood cells. Most Vulcan subjects live for an average of fifteen to twenty of your years, if the males manage to survive the stresses of that peculiar mating cycle of theirs. Fortunately, something within the injection therapy seems to suppress that reaction—many of them fail to even enter into the cycle when the time comes.”

The injections suppressed the pon farr? That was … odd, and more than a little disturbing.

“The Rigelians usually live for about ten years. Romulans tend to be somewhere in between. Some—”

Romulans? You have—”

Some seem to carry genetic traits that react poorly with the serum—roughly ten percent of subjects die within the first—”

“Do you even hear yourself?” McCoy started forward. Both guards raised their rifles and he halted, stepping back to the wall. His entire body was shaking, with both the cold and the suppressed rage. He flexed his numb fingers and glared at UyaVeth. “You’re talking about holding innocent people captive for years, while you use them to—”

” … the first of your years.” UyaVeth’s gaze never changed. “Whatever the life expectancy, the quality and quantity of the altered cells begins to decrease rapidly with time, until they finally become unusable to the power production process. Subjects usually die before this happens. Those who do not are euthanized in order …”

The guards raised their rifles again. McCoy hadn’t realized that he’d moved, or uttered any type of sound, or done whatever it was that had alarmed them. He ground his teeth in an effort to remain silent.

” … in order to free up resources. However,” UyaVeth stepped closer and tilted his head to one side, “we believe that it may be possible to augment the quality of the blood cells produced in a subject’s declining years. It is for that purpose that you have been brought here, Doctor. We wish you to study this matter and to provide a suitable treatment to this end.”

For one wild minute McCoy wondered if this could possibly be some insane, sick joke. It wasn’t, though. It wasn’t, but it was still funny in a twisted, desperate kind of way.

They didn’t seem to know what to make of his laughter. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Kidding, Doctor?”

“I’m not interested. Do your own dirty work.”

The gray eyes refused to shift, or to blink. “You know the alternative, Doctor.”

“Do what you have to. I’m not selling my soul to you.”

Silence stretched for a long, tense moment. Finally UyaVeth clasped his hands behind him and began to pace again. “That is of course your choice, and we are willing to respect your wishes.” Respect, bullshit. McCoy started forward, the rifles came up, and UyaVeth raised one calming hand. “Consider this, however. The formation and circulation of the altered blood cells cause periods of severe pain for the subjects, which only worsen and lengthen as the quality of the blood cells declines. Some subjects experience years of quite intense suffering, despite the pain medication included in the regimen. Your efforts cannot change their final end, Doctor, but any improvement in the quality of the blood cells could provide prolonged, substantial pain relief for the subjects.”

McCoy froze against the wall, the choice before him no longer so clear. He would die rather than aid this travesty—but if it was true, if he could ease the prisoners’ suffering while they lived, didn’t they deserve that? Didn’t he as a physician owe them that? His choices—if they could really be called that—left McCoy’s head spinning. To cover his confusion, he snapped, “Why me? Why don’t you people take care of this yourselves?”

“Chareni blood is cobalt-based. We have unfortunately very little knowledge of copper-based blood beyond that which serves to produce the required blood cell alterations.” UyaVeth emitted an impatient whine. “Given that the power production process continues to function at a nominal level, and budget limitations being what they are, we are not able to invest the time, effort, or personnel required for such research. Therefore, we have been forced to consider alternative methods of obtaining the desired information.”

Alternative methods. He was here because of budget cuts.

“As to why you, specifically, were chosen… The regimen which produces the altered blood cells eventually begins to affect multiple organ systems. It also produces confusion and dementia in some subjects.” Dementia in a Vulcan. It would be the ultimate humiliation. “We therefore do not wish to entrust the research to one of our subjects. Budgetary considerations again being what they are, we could also not justify a non-producing copper-based presence.” Non-producing. He was beginning to feel truly sick, and wondered what would be the reaction if he vomited on one of them. “A search of the Federation’s medical literature revealed your paper, Doctor—successful experimental work with copper-based blood by a non-copper-based physician. You fulfill our needs in this matter quite effectively.”

Another thought occurred to him, one that sent the bile rising in throat. “You attacked that transport specifically because I was aboard?”

“Indeed, Doctor.”

They were all prisoners or dead because of him, then—the fate of all two hundred fifty-odd passengers and crew members of that transport rested on him. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t intended it, or desired it. McCoy leaned over abruptly to rest his hands on his knees, shaking his head to clear the sudden fog. It came to him that he should never have attended that conference. If he had remained aboard the Enterprise they would have had to come for him there, and three Chareni attack cruisers were no match for Jim Kirk and a Constitution-class starship. Twice that many would have been no match. The thought braced him, and he lifted his head.

“I’m a Starfleet doctor. My ship will be looking for me, or at the very least for the people who attacked that transport. They won’t—”

“Your ship, as well as any other party which chooses to investigate, will believe that a malfunction in the antimatter containment field caused an explosion which disintegrated the transport and killed everyone aboard. They will not know that there is any further option to consider.”

“It’s standard procedure to send a—”

“Doctor.” UyaVeth stepped closer, into McCoy’s space, and thrust his head forward until barely two inches remained between them. “We have been taking Federation citizens for nearly forty of your years, and have you ever once heard of it? Heard even rumor of it?” McCoy stared. UyaVeth continued. “Our acquisition specialists know their work, and they do it well. No message was sent from your transport—our people left your transport crew neither the time nor the ability to do so. Your ship will not come for you. No one will come for you. Do not expect or hope that you will ever leave the confines of this power plant again.”

The words were curt, final, and McCoy believed them. If the Chareni were going to be caught at this, it would have happened years ago. UyaVeth stared into his eyes for a long moment, then stepped back.

“You will have one of your weeks to decide. Farell will escort you to your cell. You will find a communication panel on the wall there—if you should wish to contact me, activate it and wait for a response. I will speak with you at my convenience.”

UyaVeth remained still for a long moment, then turned and left the room. One of the guards nudged McCoy with his rifle. “Come. Quickly!”

Everything, it seemed, was “quickly” here. McCoy’s head was spinning too madly for him to do anything but obey. He stepped away from the wall and followed his Chareni guard back into the main body of the plant.

*****

Chapter 5

“Captain Kirk, meet Dr. Diane Trella, formerly head of xenogenetic research on Kaliris II.” Admiral Kowalski halted beside a table in the far corner of the Starbase bar and gestured to the woman seated in the padded booth. She set aside her data slate and rose, offering a brief smile for the admiral and a nod for Kirk. “Dr. Trella, Captain James Kirk of the Enterprise.”

It was the final nail in the coffin—Bones’ replacement, staring him in the face. Kirk took a mental breath and offered the doctor his most charming smile. “Doctor. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” No reason to start off on the wrong foot because of something over which she had no control.

“Likewise, Captain. I’ve heard a great deal about you and the Enterprise.” She indicated the booth. “Join me, please.”

Kowalski took the space beside Trella, and Kirk moved around to the opposite seat. “Good things, I hope.” He settled back into the worn leather—synthesized, Starfleet would never spring for real leather in its Starbases—and glanced around for a server, nearly missing her response.

“Mixed, generally. But by all accounts the Enterprise is a dream posting, and I’ve learned it’s best to keep an open mind. I’m very much looking forward to this new assignment.”

He managed to keep the smile from slipping, but Kowalski must have seen something on his face, or in his posture. The admiral’s laughter rang across the bar.

“You’ll find that Dr. Trella is strictly no-nonsense, Captain. No prevarication or flattery here.” Kowalski observed Trella with a fond grin, then returned his gaze to Kirk. “She’s also known for her focus and efficiency. Will get along quite well with your first officer, I should think—very similar outlook. Do the job, do it well, get it finished, get it logged, move on. No reason for excess steps or prattle along the way.”

It sounded suspiciously like a commentary on McCoy. The doctor had been well-known among Starfleet’s upper ranks, and not always well-liked—a man of his distinctive personality couldn’t help but turn a few heads and ruffle quite a number of feathers. Whether or not Kowalski was in fact covertly discussing Kirk’s previous CMO, Kirk wasn’t in the mood for it. He bit back an acid response and motioned abruptly to the bartender. The man nodded and caught the eye of a passing server, sending her in their direction. Kirk turned his attention and his now rather strained smile on Trella.

“Do you have experience working with Vulcans, Doctor?”

“Not much. There were two Vulcan scientists on the Kaliris team when I arrived—a bonded couple.” Her smile was, for the moment, more genuine than his. “They transferred back to Vulcan shortly after, and I was sorry to see them go. It’s refreshing to work with people who know how to prioritize.”

“That is something that Vulcans seem to do exceptionally well.” Kirk felt himself begin to relax. That’s it. Keep it going, get to know her. You’ll both be fine. “Logic would have it no other way.”

“Indeed, Captain.”

He couldn’t tell if she was trying to match his teasing tone or being serious, but the arrival of the server saved him from having to decide. Kowalski ordered a Minera green tea, and Trella a club soda. Kirk hesitated, askance, then decided he didn’t care. “Whiskey. Double.” The woman smiled at him—no doubt she’d been picturing her tip plummet with the advent of two non-alcoholic beverages at the table—and hurried away. Kirk returned his attention to Trella. “What was your project on Kaliris?”

“I’m sorry, Captain.” Her tone was brisk. “It’s a classified matter.”

Classified. Right. That was probably in the personnel briefing that had been sitting on his desktop screen for the last week. It wasn’t that he’d been avoiding it, exactly, but he hadn’t been able to dredge up any real interest in it either. It was inexcusable, he knew. Grieving for Bones was one thing, but he had a ship to run, and a crew who deserved better from him. Vowing to give it more than a brief once-over when he returned to the ship, he cast around for something else to say. Kowalski beat him to it.

“Diane is one of the premiere experts in her field—she’s written close to two dozen papers on cross-species cellular differentiation and nucleic acid variations.”

“Nucleic acid variations.”

Fortunately, Trella didn’t know him well enough to pick up his lack of enthusiasm, and Kowalski’s attention was still fixed on the doctor. Kirk didn’t know the connection between the two of them—if she was a relative, or if the Admiral shared some sort of love attraction with her mother (or her), or if the man was simply a fan of nucleic acids—but Kowalski had pushed all the right buttons to get her this posting, over Kirk’s doubts regarding her lack of starship experience. Kirk was quite sure the Admiral couldn’t care less if he was in the mood to listen to a rundown of Trella’s latest scientific publication.

“It’s amazing, Captain, the similarities we’ve discovered at the cellular level in species that evolved tremendous distances apart from each other. We’ve taken samples of …”

Their drinks arrived. Kirk tossed back his double and handed the glass to the server before she even moved away, motioning for another. She hesitated, eyeing Trella, who was by now deeply immersed in the variations between Vulcan and Klingon DNA—a comparison that made Kirk hope his new CMO had enough common sense not to share that theory too widely in areas where it might come to the attention of either the Vulcans or the Klingons—and shot him a sympathetic glance before returning to the bar. When his next glass arrived he gripped it tightly, faked an expression of interest with the ease of a practiced diplomat, and fell to pondering how he had ever ended up in this situation.

I hear you’re in need of a new CMO, Kirk.”

He’d stepped carefully around that one. In his experience, it was never a good sign when an Admiral took an interest in your crew selection. “The position is currently vacant, yes …”

I have just the person.” Kowalski stretched widely in his deep, cushioned chair, feeling for something on one of the shelves behind. He was grinning when his head came back into view, holding up a data pad. “Diane Trella. Brilliant researcher, has expressed an interest in a starship posting. I’m sending over her application, and I’d like you to seriously consider it, Captain. You’d be lucky to have her.”

Admiral, the position of CMO requires more than research, as you’re well aware. The Enterprise is constantly exposed to political demands and hazardous situations. The position requires a doctor with quick instincts and experience in both crisis—”

No worries. Dr. Trella is a fully qualified MD. She’s more than capable of handling—”

I’ll be pleased to take a look at her file, Admiral, but without experience on a starship I—”

Kirk.” Kowalski leaned forward over his desk and glared into the viewscreen. “I’d like you to seriously consider her application. Is that clear?”

Kirk sighed, and resisted the urge to rub at the bridge of his nose. “Very clear, Admiral.”

He had spoken to M’Benga that evening, hoping to get some feel for the opinions of the Enterprise’s assistant CMO not only in regard to Dr. Trella, but with regard to M’Benga’s own ambitions toward the position. He’d been considering Jabilo for the job in any case, and if the man who had already spent so much time with the Enterprise was interested in a promotion to CMO, it was a very solid reason to refuse Kowalski’s pet applicant—perhaps the only reason that would hold any weight with the Admiral. The conversation didn’t go exactly as he would have hoped.

I’m honored that you would entrust the Enterprise to me, Captain. And perhaps in a few years …” M’Benga shook his head. “But, I have been involved for half a decade in detailed research with colleagues at the Vulcan Medical Academy. Data collection will be wrapped up shortly, but our analysis will likely take several more years, and until that time I simply don’t have the necessary time to devote the position.” He hesitated. “I’m sorry, Captain. I very much dislike disappointing you, but this research is of great importance to me.”

You’re not disappointing me, Doctor.” Kirk shrugged. “Well, I am a bit disappointed that you won’t be taking the position, but I think you know what I mean.”

Yes, Captain. And thank you.”

Kirk sighed. “Do you … I have a candidate, who has been … strongly recommended. Do you know anything of a Dr. Diane Trella?”

M’Benga’s eyes widened. “Nothing, except the papers I’ve read. She’s on the cutting edge of some fascinating genetic discoveries.” He frowned. “I’m a really bit surprised that she would want to take on the duties of the CMO position.”

I thought you didn’t know her.”

I don’t, but … for the same reason that I’m not currently able to accept, I would think she would not have the time free to devote to the administrative duties required.” The dark eyebrows dipped into a frown. “I wonder if she truly understands what she’s getting into.”

Hmm.” Kirk pondered those words. “I wonder if she would accept a six month trial period. It’s not unheard of, and it would give us both time to … be sure.”

M’Benga glanced sharply at him. “Strongly recommended? You’re being pressured to take her.” Kirk shrugged again, unwilling to openly admit it but aware that the doctor would put it all together. M’Benga nodded slowly. “It might indeed be an option, Captain. It’s not usual, not in Medical at least, but it happens often enough that she shouldn’t be offended.”

Nor the Admiral.” Kirk felt some of the weight lift off of his chest. He clapped M’Benga on the shoulder. “Thank you for your candor, Doctor. I’m glad we have you aboard the Enterprise.

The assistant CMO smiled. “I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else, sir.”

Kowalski wasn’t happy with the idea. Trella, on the other hand, was more than willing to accept a trial period. In fact, she seemed to welcome it.

It only makes sense. You’ll have a chance to get to know me, and I’ll have to time to determine whether a starship posting is what I thought it would be.”

Kirk was relieved by her acquiescence, but the very ease with which she offered it had made it impossible for him to do anything but accept her application and welcome her aboard. Hence, he sat now in a corner booth in a Starbase bar, pretending to be interested in cross-species DNA similarities. He drained his second glass, and opted for something a bit smoother when the server came back around. Pace yourself, Kirk. We’ve got a long way to go. He settled back into the cushions and continued to nod, marveling at her enthusiasm over so many concepts that he could barely pronounce, much less comprehend at this level of detail. If nothing else, the Enterprise’s new CMO was indeed of genius caliber.

*****

“Logic and ‘no-nonsense’ are hardly synonymous concepts.” Spock’s tone edged on tart. “The Admiral is making a broad and questionable assumption based on a singular aspect of Dr. Trella’s personality and no personal knowledge of me.”

Kirk eyed his first officer, turning his attention from the transporter pad upon which Dr. Trella would shortly materialize. It struck him as odd that Spock would choose to waste time on Kowalski’s assumptions, incorrect or otherwise. It seemed … not entirely logical, somehow. Then again, he had found the statement annoying himself, and he wasn’t even the subject. No one liked to be judged personally on the basis of a single (and in Kowalski’s case, misunderstood) racial attribute—and ‘no-nonsense’ didn’t fit Spock that well, at least as far as Kirk was concerned. All of the times that Spock had tolerated the human nonsense around him with nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a dry comment—all the times that Spock, however he might refuse to admit it, had actually initiated a little of that nonsense, to gratify that carefully hidden sense of humor that he would deny to the death … No, Kirk thought that Spock was entitled to be a little offended. Or, whatever the Vulcan equivalent of offended might be.

If that was even what was actually going on. It was difficult to tell with Spock, sometimes.

“I don’t think he really cares one way or the other, Spock.” Kirk tugged at his uniform shirt, wishing the doctor would hurry up and board. He had other things to be doing then standing here in the transporter room waiting for her. “He wanted me to want her, and he was pulling every string he could think of to make that happen.” To be fair, she was only five minutes late—close enough to be considered on time, given the fluid demands on the Starbase’s transporters.

“It seems to have mattered very little whether you actually wanted Dr. Trella, Captain. She is here, and at the Admiral’s wishes. The logic in attempting to force an emotional attachment as well as a professional one, once his desires have already taken precedence over the usual selection process, is shaky at best.”

“I don’t think he was actually trying for an emotional attachment, per se. He could just be trying to make things less awkward for her.”

“His own actions, in forcing her upon the Federation flagship with no previous starship experience, have opposed that goal. If Dr. Trella desired a posting, she would have done better to gain it on her own merits.”

Strangely, Kirk felt the urge to defend her. “I don’t have any evidence that she asked him to do this. And she did agree very graciously to the trial period.”

“That, at least, was wise. As to the other, she may not have asked him to intercede for her, but she also did not reject his interference.”

Despite the unemotional delivery, the comments were far more forceful than Kirk was used to hearing from his first officer regarding new crew members, even those with questionable histories. He frowned. “Is there some problem I’m not aware of, Mr. Spock?”

The slanted eyebrows pulled down. “Clarify, sir.”

“This adamant opposition to a situation not much different than a dozen other we’ve faced. Is there some reason for you to dislike her other than—”

He knew immediately that he’d phrased his question badly. The tall, lean body stiffened, and Spock’s voice turned prim. “May I remind you, Captain, I am capable of neither like nor dislike for—”

“Spock, we both know that’s not—”

“Signal from the Starbase, sir.” Kyle’s voice cut diffidently through the tension. “Dr. Trella is ready to beam aboard.”

“A moment, Mr. Kyle.” Kirk crossed his arms. “Well, Mr. Spock?”

Spock folded his hands precisely behind his back. “In the other situations of which you speak, the crew members in question were ensigns or low-level lieutenants, not senior officers or department heads. You yourself have expressed doubt over the doctor’s ability to direct the medical staff during a crisis situation. It is illogical in the extreme to place lives in danger to gratify what humans would call a ‘whim.’ I do not believe a justified concern over the situation merits—”

“As you were, Spock.” Kirk waved a hand, suddenly exhausted. It had been a rough few weeks, and he honestly couldn’t force himself to care if his first officer was ‘justifiably concerned’ or just overreacting—or if Vulcans were even capable of such a thing. For all he knew, Spock was simply working through his own issues with seeing McCoy replaced. Kirk had certainly been through enough of that himself and with a few other crew members in the past days to offer wide latitude there. Whatever was going on, there was no time to get into it now. Kirk looked over Spock’s shoulder and nodded to Kyle. “Energize, Mr. Kyle.”

They both swung around as the transporter sparkled to life, and a few moments later Diane Trella stepped off of the transporter pad. Kirk greeted her with a smile.

“Dr. Trella, welcome aboard.”

Her return smile was brisk and sincere. “Thank you, Captain. It’s good to be here.”

He motioned to Spock. “My first officer, Commander Spock.”

Trella dipped her head and offered a perfect Vulcan salute. “Peace and long life, Commander.”

“Live long and prosper, Doctor.” Spock returned the gesture with no trace of his earlier objections. Kirk felt himself relax. This was Spock, after all. No matter what his objections to the circumstances surrounding Trella’s assignment, the smooth running of the Enterprise demanded civility between its senior officers, and logic dictated that he offer nothing less (Leonard McCoy aside). “I trust your belongings were beamed aboard as requested?”

“They were, thank you.” She clasped her hands together. “I have been looking forward to seeing sickbay—and the rest of the ship, of course.”

“Of course.” Kirk couldn’t help but remember her comments about keeping an open mind. He couldn’t—he wouldn’t—hold them against her. It was quite possible that she had felt as awkward as he had, and had blurted out the first thing that had come into her head. At any rate, it would be best for their relationship, both working and personal, if he assumed that to be the case. “Right this way then, Doctor.” He touched her arm and motioned toward the door. They exited the transporter room together, with Spock trailing.

A strange double mood pulled at Kirk as they traveled the halls, pride in his ship warring with an uneasy desire to prove that whatever Trella may have heard, the reality of the Enterprise was far beyond anything that she had been led to expect. He offered a running commentary of the areas between the transporter room and sickbay, making a mental note to assign someone—Uhura, perhaps, she was always one of the first to greet new crew members and make them welcome—to give Trella a more complete tour at a later time. He was almost relieved to reach sickbay, where M’Benga and Chapel were waiting. Kirk introduced Trella to her new assistant CMO and head nurse.

“You won’t find a better team in Starfleet.” He smiled proudly, as Trella stepped forward to shake hands.

“It’s an honor to meet you. I look forward to working with both of you.” She turned her attention to M’Benga. “Doctor, I’ve read some of the preliminary writings on the work that your team has been doing. It’s very intriguing—I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss a few questions with you, when we have an opportunity.”

M’Benga bowed slightly. “Of course.” A faint grin crept across his face. “I’m never too busy to discuss my research.”

“Isn’t that the truth.” Chapel rolled her eyes, but the grin lurking at the corners of her mouth softened the words. She looked to Trella. “Doctor, I have scheduled a meeting of the entire medical staff at 2000 hours tonight. I hope you don’t mind the hour, but it’s generally the best time to get all three shifts in the same place, and I thought you would want to meet with everyone as soon as possible. If that’s not convenient, I can—”

“No, that’s lovely. Thank you, Christine.” Trella eyed the expansive medical complex. “I’d like to see my office, and perhaps then the two of you will show me around? I hadn’t imagined that it would be so large.”

Chapel nodded. “Of course.” She started across the room. “People are often surprised, actually. It’s common knowledge that starships are equipped with the latest technology, but it’s difficult to grasp what that means without actually seeing it.” Kirk followed the others across the bay to the CMO’s office, but halted in the doorway. It was sterile and cold now, stripped of McCoy’s persona and not yet settled by Trella. He wasn’t ready to enter it again, and didn’t expect to see it often in the future. In fact, the entire sickbay seemed … distant to him now. It had become unfamiliar, somehow, even in the space of the few weeks that McCoy had been gone. The people in Medical were good officers and some of them he considered friends, but Bones was the reason that sickbay had been as much a haunt for him as the officers’ mess, the rec room, even his own cabin. Things changed, and this was one of them.

A chapter was over, the page had flipped. Being a book lover, the analogy appealed to him.

He was going to stand here and let himself grow maudlin, if he wasn’t careful.

“Mr. Spock, shall we leave them to it?”

“Indeed, Captain.” Spock tilted his head briskly at Trella. “Doctor. The senior staff meets today at 1500 hours. Will you require an escort to the briefing room?”

She smiled wryly. “It might be wise. I will look up the directions, of course, but I can’t guarantee that I won’t get lost on the way.”

“Very well. I or one of the other officers will arrive here shortly before the meeting begins.”

“Thank you, Mr. Spock.” Trella hurried around her desk. “I have a request, before you go. I’ve studied your file, of course, but your physiology is quite unique. I would like to examine you at your earliest convenience, to familiarize myself with your systems. I should hope you won’t need me, of course, but it seems wise to have a baseline just in case.”

Spock nodded. “Indeed, quite wise. I will make myself available tomorrow at 0700 hours, if that is agreeable?”

Now that was unexpected. Kirk shot a quick glance toward his first officer, but Spock’s face was as unrevealing as ever.

“Very much so. Thank you.”

“Mr. Spock!” Chapel was staring at him from across the room, her mouth open. “If Dr. McCoy had asked you to report for a physical, it would have taken him two months and four requests to get you in here.”

Spock’s eyebrow crept up. “Indeed, Nurse. Dr. Trella is, however, not Dr. McCoy, and it is not logical to assume that I would respond to her in the same manner, any more than it would be logical to assume that you or any member of the staff will respond to her in the same manner.”

Chapel blushed, although the dry comment had been not so much a reprimand as a simple statement of fact. “Of course. I’m sorry, Mr. Spock.”

“You have no reason to be.” Spock looked around. “Captain?”

Kirk shook himself out of his own reverie, and nodded. “Yes, let’s get back to the bridge, Mr. Spock.” He nodded to Trella. “Doctor.”

“Captain.” She was already busy with a data pad on the desk, and didn’t look up. Kirk turned and followed Spock from sickbay, pondering on the truth in Chapel’s words. Yes, things definitely changed.

*****

Chapter 6

McCoy hunched over the microscope, rubbed his hands briskly, and resisted the urge to blow on his fingers for warmth. The sample on the slide was uncovered and he had no intention of accidentally contaminating weeks of work without even seeing the final product.

Weeks of work. Days? Months? He had no way to know how long the dim, sterile blue laboratory had been his home. Time didn’t pass here as it did in other places. The lighting never changed, food and other supplies appeared on the small transporter in the corner at irregular intervals, and he hadn’t seen a single other living being, be it Chareni, Vulcan, Rigelian, or even Romulan, since he had been deposited into the lab after that first disastrous interview with Rashall UyaVeth. He had nothing but his own hopelessly confused sense of timing to make such a determination, and he thought it weeks, rather than days or months. Still, that was far from certain.

It was enough to make him wish for Spock and that perfect internal clock of his.

If you were here I’m sure you could rattle off to the tenth of a second how long we’d been here, and I’d be telling you to shut up about it and concentrate on something important. McCoy snorted softly and pressed his eye into the microscope’s curved viewpiece. Course, if you were here, you’d have done something impressive and Vulcan like concoct a homing signal out of the transporter circuitry and those Petri dishes, and Jim would have found us and rescued us by now, and we wouldn’t need to be fighting over that blasted perfectly wound cuckoo clock inside your head. The mental image was too bizarre, even for him. Spock’s puzzled, “Cuckoo clock, Doctor?” echoed in his ears, and he bit back a snort of laughter. Talking to people who weren’t here was one thing. Laughing at them was quite another, and he wasn’t ready to go down that road yet.

The reminder sobered him, and he returned his attention to the green cells on the slide. They weren’t right, not by any stretch, but they resembled the normal copper-based blood cell far more closely than the strangled, misshapen cells that he had first viewed through this same lens. He suppressed a shout of triumph. He’d been sure that last combination had been correct, it had just needed the right proportions. He clicked off the scope light, leaned back on the stool, and surveyed the tables, the dishes, the samples, and the equipment that had become the entirety of his world since his arrival on Charen. It worked in the lab. The true test was whether it would work in a living, breathing Vulcan or Romulan—and there was no way to know except to find some volunteers and try it out.

None of this was to his liking, even with his mind made up and days—weeks?—of single-minded effort devoted to the task. Familiarity with the situation had not eased McCoy’s hatred for the position in which he had been placed.

In the end, the decision had taken less time than UyaVeth had allotted. He had huddled in one corner of the dim blue lab, and stared unseeing over the shining tables and the rows of glistening glassware, and argued the thing fiercely with himself. He could not assist this monstrosity. Such an action would violate everything that he was, everything to which he had sworn himself as a physician. And yet, those same vows demanded that he assist, if by his actions he could ease the distress of the Chareni’s captives. It was his duty to combat suffering wherever he found it. But his actions would bolster the atrocities being committed on those very captives. The arguments merged into one crazy, spinning headache that left him shaking with rage and almost physically ill. Finally, recognizing that he was getting nowhere except to maybe give himself a stress-induced heart attack before UyaVeth even had a chance at him, McCoy had gathered the entire mess, shoved it firmly to the back of his mind, and asked the one question that he had never dreamed he would ever hear from himself.

What would Spock do?

What would Spock do? McCoy’s own instincts were tearing him apart—it was obvious that they would offer him no guidance in this matter. And yet, he had a decision to make, and he would make it. He had no intention of just defaulting to UyaVeth’s week-long deadline and whatever comprised the Chareni version of capital punishment. So. With his emotions compromised beyond any reasonable expectation of solid aid, he was forced to look elsewhere, and Spock’s cool, distant logic seemed the only viable alternative.

The Vulcan would never let him live it down.

The Vulcan would never even know.

He was not at all sure that he would be able to summon any semblance of Spock’s mind, given his current state, but the dry voice was so quick and so real that he almost looked around for its source. “You have been given the means to alleviate the suffering of dozens, Doctor. If you can reasonably expect that your actions could have some positive effect on their well-being, it is only logical to avail yourself of that opportunity.”

“I won’t collaborate with UyaVeth. I can’t.”

No, Doctor. Indeed, you cannot.”

“Even if all I agree to do is treat them, though, the power production processes will benefit. UyaVeth will get what he wants.”

The fact that the Chareni will also profit is regrettable; however, you cannot take that responsibility upon yourself. Your work will be for your patients only, and they will benefit regardless of what the Chareni may do to them, and your oaths will stand.

It sounded so simple, so straightforward. It wasn’t, and McCoy knew that despite all his railing against the Vulcan’s detached, matter-of-fact approach to life, Spock would never presume to consider this dilemma straightforward, either. That would cheapen the anguish that it caused and the people whose lives hung in the balance. If there was one thing that McCoy had learned through his years of often painful association with a being who was on the surface his polar opposite, it was that in his own way, Spock valued such things as deeply as he himself did.

So, treat them. He scrubbed a hand across his face and closed his eyes. But what if I’m wrong?

The voice that was so often caustic when directed his way was unaccountably gentle. “If you err, Doctor, is it not preferable to err in the service of life?

McCoy took a long, shuddering breath, then rose and activated the communication panel. When UyaVeth finally responded, uncounted hours later, he snapped, “I’ll treat them, but that’s all. And I don’t give a rat’s ass about your production process. I won’t work in tandem with it. That’s yours to handle.” It was a gamble, but he was betting that the Supervisor would rather play along and hope for good results than go through all the trouble of finding and obtaining another non-copper-based physician with the appropriate knowledge base.

The silence from the panel lasted for so long that McCoy wondered if he had misjudged and the Chareni had switched him off. Finally, UyaVeth’s voice issued from the speaker. “I will permit the deviation for now. We are not a cruel people. We do not wish our subjects to be in pain. However, if what treatment you devise interferes in any way with our processes, if it decreases efficiency by even the slightest percent, the entire project with be terminated.”

He couldn’t even begin to measure the hypocrisy of that statement. “Not much I can do about that, is there?” McCoy snarled. UyaVeth ignored the response and instructed him to provide a list of necessary supplies within the talreh. McCoy had no idea what a talreh might be, other than some unit of time that did not translate into any Standard measurement, but it didn’t matter. His list was already prepared.

The supplies appeared on the small transporter pad in short order, along with a larger supply of nutritional provisions than he had previously received. He set the food aside with a grumble of distaste—from what he had been able to discover, the tasteless bars were Romulan dietary rations, which was a problem best kept for another time—and began to sort through the equipment and samples, noting both the items that had been sent and those had apparently been denied. He would take that matter up with UyaVeth when he had a complete list—some of the missing items he could do without, but he wasn’t about to start any type of research without a significant sample of the glowing green liquid that he had seen in the central processing chamber. It wasn’t necessary to any potential treatment, given his intent to work independently of the Chareni’s power production processes, but he would make up some story or other. Let UyaVeth believe what he would. McCoy had no intention of confining his research to copper-based blood cells alone.

*****

The outer door hissed open. After so much time spent in a silence broken only by the occasional hum of a transporter and the sound of his own voice, the usually insignificant noise was startling. McCoy resisted the urge to place the nearest lab table firmly between himself and the approaching guard, and instead slung the stocked medical bag over his shoulder and stepped out to meet him. The guard held out the heavy restraints and McCoy slid his wrists into place without argument. He would need his hands to be free later, but it for now it was probably better to just play along.

UyaVeth himself waited in the corridor. He nodded as McCoy appeared. “You may proceed with your test. We will allow two subjects per compound.”

“I need three.”

“You will have two.”

“Not enough! It can’t account for even half of the possible …”

“You will have two.”

McCoy ground his teeth and glared at UyaVeth, but there seemed little choice. He’d better shut up before they backed him off to one just for sheer spite. “Then let’s get on with it.”

His curt response drew no visible reaction. Instead, UyaVeth motioned to the guard, who nudged McCoy out in front with the tip of his rifle. McCoy turned a snarl on the guard.

“Back off! I’m not going anywhere!”

UyaVeth’s eyes narrowed briefly. “We are going to the Vulcan and Romulan compounds, Doctor, as you requested.” The gray head tilted to one side. “Or do you no longer require such an appointment?”

Blast it all. “I do. Let’s go.” Salin was one thing, but he wasn’t about to stand here and explain human language quirks to this bunch.

UyaVeth eyed him for a long moment, then started abruptly down the corridor. McCoy followed before the guard had a chance to prod at him again. They wound through a series of quick turns and two long, mostly deserted stretches of hallway. McCoy wondered if this was generally a low-traffic area, or if all the workers had just gone home. It could be the middle of the night, for all he knew—his circadian rhythms were completely blown, and wouldn’t necessarily apply here in any case. Whatever the reasons, and despite his total isolation since he had arrived, he was just as happy to avoid the stares that had accompanied his previous trip through the power plant.

Eventually they stopped in front of set of double doors that closely resembled those of the central processing chamber. UyaVeth motioned to one of the two stationed guards, who keyed a complex code into a pad at the side of the doorway. Bolts slid inside the metal frame, ad a green light blinked on over the right-hand door. The second guard pulled it open, UyaVeth stepped through, and McCoy’s guard nudged at him with the rifle before he had a chance to step away. McCoy glared behind him, then followed the Supervisor into a low, short, dark corridor. The door slammed shut behind them. The unmistakable metallic click of bolts falling back into place would have unsettled him if the past weeks—months?—had not inured him to the idea of being locked into a room from the outside.  The realization that he had already so far adjusted to his imprisonment sucked the moisture from his mouth in a swift second. He hurried after UyaVeth to distract himself from the implications swirling in his brain.

Light trickled into the corridor from two cross-facing doorways at the far end, and it took McCoy a moment to realize that the light was a normal warm yellow color rather than the usual Chareni blue. Something lurched deep in the pit of his stomach at this tiny familiarity, and it was all he could do to keep a straight face as he followed UyaVeth. He had an impression of open space and a low murmur of conversation from the right before he was nosed sharply toward the left. He halted beside the Supervisor, squinted against the bright, clear light, and took in his first glimpse of the Vulcan compound.

A large room spread back from the doorway, brown stone walls broken roughly every twenty feet by low arched doorframes. It was the first bit of non-metallic structure he had seen since his arrival on Charen, and the novelty distracted him for a moment from the low, smooth-lined chairs and couches scattered throughout. Several wooden structures resembling end-tables dotted the sitting areas, and three long, low wooden tables with benches sat parallel to the far wall. The room was devoid of other furnishings or ornamentation, which offered no surprise.  The shock, in fact, was the apparent comfort of the compound, given the single thin sleeping pad, two blankets, and one tightly-woven pullover which composed the entirety of his own allotted non-scientific possessions. The realization that the Chareni obviously cared far more for the necessary upkeep of their source of power than their single red-blooded captive brought a wry amusement rather than any sort of resentment, and relief that some thought had apparently been given to the physical needs of his patients. That was one battle at least that he wouldn’t be forced to fight.

He had avoided looking to the Vulcans themselves until he had a chance to take in their surroundings, but finally McCoy turned his attention to the room’s occupants. Approximately twenty Vulcans sat in the chairs and couches, or at the tables, or on the brown stone flooring—about two-thirds of the current Vulcan complement, according to UyaVeth’s information. The rest must be in the rooms beyond. A few were conversing, some were reading, two were engaged in a game of three-dimensional chess at one end of a table, and two in what he thought was a game of kal-toh at the other end. All looked tired, and thin, even for Vulcans, and exceptionally pale. The ever-present rage stirred sluggishly, and he yanked it firmly back into its hiding place. He could not afford an outburst here, no matter how he ached to indulge in just that—this was not the time or the place for him to lose his temper.

Some of the Vulcans had noticed their presence. Two seated on a far couch exchanged a quick word, then rose and moved toward the doorway. As they approached, McCoy recognized Senn, one of the Vulcans from the transport. They halted before the door, well back from the faint shimmer of the force field, and folded their hands behind their backs. Senn inclined his head toward McCoy.

“Doctor. We wondered what had become of you. Are you well?”

Well. McCoy snorted. “In a manner of speaking. Probably better than you for the moment.” He looked toward UyaVeth. “You going to let me in?”

The Supervisor touched the keypad beside the door and the force field dropped. McCoy turned to the guard and held out his manacled hands. The guard stepped back and looked away. McCoy turned on UyaVeth.

“I can’t do anything with my hands tied together. I can’t work any of my equipment.” UyaVeth eyed him silently, and the frustration bubbled to the surface. “You people are going to have to learn how to play nicely!” He shook the restraints at UyaVeth. “These have to come off!”

The Supervisor indicated the two Vulcans. “You may direct one of these subjects regarding your equipment.”

“A highly illogical suggestion.” Senn’s companion, an older Vulcan with silver hair and haggard features, spoke with what McCoy considered to be highly illogical calm, given the situation. “Equipment functions most efficiently in the hands of experts.”

The gray eyes turned a dour glare on the Vulcan. “It was my impression that Vulcans were experts in all matters.”

UyaVeth had, apparently, been working with the Vulcans for a while. Or maybe not. When it came to Vulcans, that sort of impression didn’t always take very long.

“Indeed.” The silver head tilted to one side, and for a moment McCoy was forcibly reminded of Spock preparing to deliver some deceptively innocent riposte. “You are quite mistaken, Supervisor. Understandable as it is that some uninformed persons may be erroneously tempted to view intelligence and logic as a type of expertise, it would be foolish in the extreme to claim a proficiency that one does not possess.”

McCoy swallowed a chuckle and looked quickly away. Under normal circumstances, the Vulcan’s response would have produced stark and immediate annoyance. The sight of UyaVeth slowly working his way through the long-winded Vulcan jawbreaker, however, provided the first hint of relief that he had known since he had been beamed into this Chareni version of Hades.

A bit starved for amusement, Bones?”

He ignored that, and returned his attention to UyaVeth. The Supervisor, having finally deduced the meaning of the Vulcan’s words, emitted a low growl, and McCoy jumped in. As much as he enjoyed seeing the man overmatched, he also wanted his hands free. It wouldn’t do to let UyaVeth get too pissed.

“What do you think’s going to happen, anyway? If what you say is true, this compound has been pretty tight for quite a few years now. It’s not like I’m going to escape out the back.” UyaVeth swung a sharp gaze on him. McCoy stood his ground. “And you’ll be right there to stop me if I try it.”

“No.” The Supervisor shook his head. “We do not enter the compounds.”

Interesting. Why not? Probably another thing he’d never know. And how did the whole thing work, then, anyway? He couldn’t picture the Vulcans just calmly presenting themselves for injection. That didn’t sound logical. The Romulans either, although logic and Romulan were not necessarily intercepting concepts—any more than logic and human.

“Look.” McCoy attempted to dial back his irritation. “I said I would treat them. You agreed to allow it.” He rattled the bag slung over his shoulder. “I need access to this equipment in order to do that. Not them. Me. And it’s not going to be just this once. It’s going to be repeatedly. So either let me at it or go steal yourself another doctor, because I don’t have anything else for you.”

UyaVeth was silent for a moment, then abruptly moved forward and thrust his head into McCoy’s space. McCoy was coming to recognize this as a Chareni gesture of dominance, and he forced himself to react with the same show of submission he had observed from the plant guards, lowering his head without stepping back to protect his personal space. The necessity galled him, and he suppressed a grumble, reminding himself that the point was to get into the Vulcan compound, not start a stare-down with UyaVeth. The Supervisor held the pose for a full ten seconds, then stepped away.

“Proceed.”

He expected the guard to argue, and the man—or was it a woman, he hadn’t seen much in the way of differentiating physical characteristics since his arrival, so it was hard to tell—did offer the Supervisor a sideways glance, but the manacles were removed in silence. McCoy rubbed at his wrists, nodded to UyaVeth, and stepped into the Vulcan compound.

The heavy heat fell on him, a shock after the constant chill of his laboratory. He took a long breath, fighting to fill his lungs, and felt the sweat spring out on his forehead and along his arms. Swell. He was going to be not only cold but wet when he went back. Senn and his companion turned toward McCoy as the force field hummed back to life.

“Doctor?”

“I’m glad to see they’ve cranked it up to Vulcan normal in here. That helps things, at least.”

“Indeed.” Senn looked toward the hallway, where UyaVeth hovered and the guard paced the far side of the corridor. “The ambient temperature of Charen is … quite frigid. Have you been provided with adequate environmental circumstances as well?”

“If frostbite is adequate, I’m just peachy.” Two pairs of solemn eyes fixed on him, and McCoy moved past the topic before they could inquire further. He didn’t really want to think about spending the rest of his life between Vulcan normal and the equivalent of a very large refrigeration unit. He addressed himself to the older Vulcan. “I’m Dr. Leonard McCoy, of the … well, I guess formerly of the starship Enterprise.”

“Dr. McCoy. I am Skanet. Peace and long life.”

Neither was likely, given the circumstances, and McCoy was a little surprised that the Vulcan had even uttered the words. Still, he supposed the greeting was so engrained that perhaps Skanet had not even noticed the inconsistency. Or, more likely, perhaps he chose to ignore it.

“Live long and prosper.” He didn’t bother with any attempt at the accompanying salute. By now he more than knew better. “We need to talk. Can I sit down?”

“Of course.” Skanet motioned him toward the sitting area. McCoy moved across the intervening space, noting as he did so that he had become the center of attention for the room’s occupants. A few extra Vulcans had even appeared in the arched doorways, drawn no doubt by the sound of his voice. It wasn’t every day that the Chareni dropped a cantankerous human physician on their doorstep, after all. McCoy perched on the edge of a couch, set his medical bag on a nearby table, and began drawing out equipment.

“Gather round, anybody interested.” He looked up and found his words unnecessary. The space around him positively crawled with Vulcans. The familiarity of the pointed ears, the green-tinged skin, and the calm, collected expressions hit McCoy hard after the weeks—days? months?—of a solitude broken only by Chareni environment and Chareni voices. He looked quickly back to his equipment, swallowed hard, and swore silently. It was just his luck. He would never see another human again, but here he was surrounded by Vulcans and grateful for it. The universe, McCoy was certain, was laughing at him.

“Doctor?”

Crap. He’d been woolgathering. He fiddled with the dials on the medical tricorder, searching for some way to cover himself. “How long?”

“Long?” One of Skanet’s eyebrows inched up.

McCoy sighed. “Since the transport. How long have we been here?” He looked toward Senn, who stepped to the edge of the couch.

“Two weeks, five days since we were transported onto Charen.” Senn tilted his head, studying McCoy. “You have no method in your compound by which to mark the passage of time?”

McCoy seized the scanner and recalibrated it, although it was already perfectly adjusted. “No compound, just a laboratory with a mattress in one corner. And they don’t change the lighting. Just the same blue all the time. It’s like being permanently underwater.” He clenched his jaw, and recalibrated again. Every one of them probably noticed the inefficiency, but he didn’t care. He needed the distraction. He hadn’t realized until just now how on edge he really was, and the last thing he wanted was to lose it in front of a roomful of Vulcans. Not to mention that an attack of nerves probably wouldn’t help much in the way of patient confidence. “Doesn’t do much for the sleep cycle, I’ll tell you.”

“Indeed.” Senn glanced again toward UyaVeth, who had joined the guard at the far side of the hall. “Are you alone, then, or do the Chareni also hold other humans of which we have been unaware?”

McCoy shook his head. “No, I’m it.” He didn’t want to talk about himself. In fact, the more the conversation turned in his direction, the more he didn’t even want to think about himself. He groped for a subject change, hoping that Senn would take the hint. “That Supervisor, UyaVeth, brought me—or, more specifically, a non-copper-based physician, I just happened to be the lucky winner—here for his own reasons. It’s what I’m here to talk to you about, actually.”

“Proceed.” Skanet folded his hands behind him. “We are, as you would say, Doctor, all ears.”

McCoy looked up from the scanner, startled. It was the last thing that he had expected from the regal, emaciated Vulcan, and he was forced to reevaluate. Skanet must have had a fairly routine exposure to other humans in some capacity, if he understood and was comfortable employing human lingo. “Another intentional idiom, Doctor?” He glanced around the group, but didn’t see Salin in the gathering. He pushed away that unease and launched into an account of UyaVeth’s proposal, the “options” he had been given, and the final solution to which he had agreed. It was a fight to keep the bitter defensiveness out of his tone. He had managed very little peace over the decision himself, how was he to expect anyone else, and non-physicians at that, to understand?

The only reaction from his listeners, however, was a smattering of nods and a murmured, “Quite logical,” from a woman who stood beside Skanet. The relief of knowing that he would not be forced to defend against an onslaught of stiff Vulcan disapproval left him almost weak with relief, and for a brief moment he was thankful that he was still sitting. Irritation followed on its heels, and he welcomed it with open arms.

Three weeks away from other humans and you’re already that anxious to please a bunch of Vulcans? Get a grip, McCoy. You’ll never be able to look Spock in the eye again.

Except that he wouldn’t anyway, so what was the difference? It was almost impossible to fathom, that Joanna and Jim and Spock and, for that matter, everyone else that he had ever known were now permanently beyond his reach. A deep shudder racked his frame, and the scanner rattled against the medical tricorder. He doubted that the Vulcans would comment, being Vulcans, but he hurried on just in case.

“So, I have an initial treatment developed. It works in the lab, but I …” He paused, surveying the dark heads around him. “I’m going to need volunteers to test it.” McCoy grimaced. “I’m sorry. I know that every one of you have already been pumped full of drugs and toxins. I know many of you are in a lot of pain. I don’t think this will cause more, but I can’t absolutely guarantee that. It’s untried, but …”

“Doctor.” The woman who had previously spoken stepped forward. “How many volunteers do you require?”

In other words, he was babbling. “Three, but I’m allowed two.”

One delicate eyebrow rose. “For what purpose is the third denied?”

“So I understand who’s in charge, I’d imagine.”

She sniffed and looked to Skanet. “Even now I find the illogic of our captors a source of continual amazement.”

“I do not disagree, my daughter.” The elderly Vulcan seemed vaguely amused. McCoy cataloged that relationship away for future reference. Skanet’s daughter returned her attention to McCoy.

“I am T’Vel, Doctor. I will test your treatment.”

“Thank you.” He nodded to T’Vel as several more Vulcans stepped forward. Apparently, volunteers wouldn’t be a problem. “I’d like to have a male volunteer, as well. Also …” He frowned. “UyaVeth mentioned some of you have had especially intense reactions to the injections?”

“Indeed.” Another woman stepped forward, her crisp gray hair and firm step a stark contrast to the hollow eyes and sallow skin. “We have three such now. Two are no longer able to leave their beds at any time. The third has only just arrived. His initial reaction was quite intense. He has grown somewhat stronger, but still requires a great deal of rest.”

Just arrived. Ah, crap, kid. McCoy nodded. “I’d like to see them—run a few scans, take some blood samples. If one of them would agree to test the treatment, too, it would be helpful.”

“Of course, Doctor. Come with me.”

He followed the woman through the huddle of Vulcans, motioning for T’Vel to follow. “And you are?”

“T’Pana. I received basic medical training during an internship as a systems analyst at the Vulcan Medical Academy. I have been providing for the medical care within the compound.” T’Pana cast him a glance as they approached one of the arched doorways. “I am grateful for your presence. It is a task quite beyond my limited capabilities.” She stopped in the doorway and fixed him with cool, unreadable eyes.

They had a systems analyst playing doctor. Chalk one up for good old basic medical training. The entire galaxy would be in a shambles without it. “I would be glad for your help. Unless they let me bunk here, which I don’t see happening, I’ll need someone monitoring on a regular basis.”

She nodded. “I will be at your disposal.”

“Thank you.” McCoy ducked through the doorway and surveyed the small room, squinting in the dim light. The Vulcans had converted it into an infirmary of sorts, with medical supplies stacked neatly in one corner and extra cots folded against the far wall. The three unfolded cots were occupied, and McCoy’s worst suspicions were confirmed when he made out Salin burrowed into the blankets of the nearest bed. The young Vulcan was asleep and McCoy moved around him, suppressing the urge to vent his anger and frustration in a loud, long string of invectives. T’Pana and T’Vel followed and introduced him to the two bed-ridden Vulcans, explaining the situation and McCoy’s request for a volunteer. Both agreed to the test, and McCoy set about with his scanner and medical bag.

The results were not encouraging. The male, Saval, was too near death to be of use as a volunteer, his blood cells so misshapen that McCoy could do nothing but inject a dose of concentrated pain medicine and offer hollow words of encouragement that neither he nor the Vulcan actually believed. T’Lir was not quite so far gone, but she was elderly, even older than Skanet, and she was also female. That left Salin to test the new treatment, then, if he agreed. He was awake by the time McCoy finished with T’Lir, watching from his cot with dark, shadowed eyes. McCoy attempted a smile as he settled into the floor beside Salin’s bed.

“Hey there. How are you feeling?”

“I believe I need not even attempt to supply so obvious an answer.” Salin’s voice was not strong, but it was sickeningly calm, and McCoy resisted the desire to berate him out of sheer annoyance. The young Vulcan struggled to sit.  McCoy moved to assist, ignoring the hiss of pain and the bruising grip of the slender fingers on his forearm. Once Salin was upright he leaned his head back against the wall and surveyed McCoy. “We have been concerned for your safety, Doctor. We were told that the Rigelians within the party had been transported to production facilities on the other continents, but neither the guards nor the Romulan captives could offer word of you, nor speculate as to why you had been taken in the raid, given the lack of other human captives.”

McCoy paused in his scan, lifting an eyebrow. “You communicate with the Romulans?”

“On occasion.” T’Vel shrugged. “We have very little to say, but we are able to speak across the outer corridor when no guards are present. There is not much to be learned from other hostages, given their similar lack of access to areas outside of the compounds, but it would be unreasonable to completely ignore each other.”

That made sense, assuming Romulans had the same definition of ‘unreasonable’ as the rest of them. Salin’s words also confirmed what McCoy had been told about the absence of the Rigelian prisoners, again assuming the Chareni weren’t lying to them all.

“I am … gratified to find you reasonably well.”

The anger was hot and bitter in McCoy’s mouth. The kid had been kidnapped for his blood and had suffered the equivalent of chemical torture over the past weeks, and still found time to worry about him. Or, whatever the Vulcan equivalent of worry might be.

These people didn’t deserve this. No one did.

He studied his tricorder, comparing Salin’s results to those of Saval and T’Lir. “Well, I wish I had found you the same way, kid.”

“Indeed. I will not …” Salin caught his breath and stared at the ceiling for a long moment until he could speak again. “I will not argue.”

“No, I bet you won’t.” McCoy concluded his comparison. “If you have no objections, it seems that you’d be a good match for the test. What do you say?”

“Test?” Salin was puzzled, and McCoy swore easily.

“Sorry, I forgot you were asleep earlier.”

He gave the young Vulcan the rundown, and Salin quickly provided his assent. “Would it not be more logical, however, to treat Saval or T’Lir? Their conditions are far more crucial than my own, and if the treatment is successful …”

“Actually, in this case that logic doesn’t apply. I’d be happy to argue the matter with you, but I don’t know how much time I’ve got before UyaVeth pulls the plug, and I’d like to get going. Would you be willing to just trust the word of your good old country doctor for now?”

Three blank Vulcan stares reminded him that the term probably had no meaning for his present audience, but Salin simply nodded. “Of course.”

If you intend to subject these Vulcans to an experimental version of your medical witchcraft, Doctor, I assume that you have, at the very least, included the necessary antinauseants in your new potion?”

McCoy bit back an answering grumble, unwilling yet to give the Vulcans the impression that he was completely certifiable, and rummaged in his bag for a suitable antinauseant. He had never been able to determine whether Vulcans as a rule were particularly subject to nausea during medical treatment or if Spock just had a weak stomach, but there was no point in taking any chances.

He gave Salin and T’Vel the first of what he expected would be a series of injections and then sat for some time with T’Pana, going over the medical scanner he intended to leave with her and describing several possible reactions to the treatment, both positive and otherwise. She was understandably loath to be left with charge of such an uncertain medical situation, but logic forbade her from expressing her concerns—McCoy would not be present to monitor the volunteers, and she was the most otherwise qualified person in the compound. He did his best to reassure her, a task made somewhat thankless by the fact that T’Pana refused to admit to any manner of unease, and then reluctantly made to leave. She followed him to the door, leaving T’Vel and Salin conversing with Saval and T’Lir, and halted him before he entered the larger room.

“Doctor. I regret that there has been little occasion to inquire further regarding your own experiences. Be assured that we are not indifferent to your circumstances.”

McCoy didn’t want to talk about himself. “I’m not the one being pumped full of poison, am I? I don’t think my problems are the ones to worry about, in the scheme of things.”

She eyed him severely. “Your words are foolishness, Doctor. By your own admission you have been cold, unable to obtain proper rest, unable to mark the passage of time, and deprived of any form of social or physical contact other than intermittent communication with our captors through a voice panel since your arrival. You have also been faced with a grave ethical dilemma which does not possess any entirely acceptable resolution. Do not attempt to claim or to convince yourself that you have adjusted easily or well to such conditions, especially in so short a time.”

T’Pana’s words pinned him to the spot, took his breath away in the hot, heavy air, and for a moment the full weight of the horror that was now his life threatened to crush him.

“I suppose that’s the Vulcan way, isn’t it?” he snarled, groping for anything that would back her off and allow him to regain the precarious balance that he had achieved over the past weeks. “Talk about it like it’s some fascinating psychology construct. Dissect it. Cut it open, observe, and decide why he hasn’t gone stark raving mad yet. Did it ever occur to you people that sometimes humans just don’t want to talk about it? That sometimes compartmentalizing helps us to cope?”

He bit off the words, cursing aloud when he realized what he had done. This sort of thing would be no help here, surrounded by nothing but Vulcans. T’Pana remained silent, one eyebrow lifted toward her hairline, and McCoy was about to fumble for an apology when a new voice spoke behind him.

“Doctor.” He turned and renewed his cursing when he found Skanet in the doorway, although the invectives were now more exhausted than irritated. The elderly Vulcan held up one hand. “Although none of us here are human, several of us have lived and worked with humans for some years.” Ha. Thought so. “We understand that most humans are social beings who do not tolerate long periods of solitude well.”

McCoy folded his arms and tried for a casual tone. “That’s true.” He attempted a smile for T’Pana. “And that being the case, I owe you an apology. I didn’t intend to—”

“Indeed, you do not, Doctor. I chose to pursue that which you did not wish to discuss. I regret having caused you discomfort, but I felt it necessary to your wellbeing.”

Now he felt like a complete ass. “Discomfort is no reason for me to—”

“Doctor McCoy.” Skanet regarded him impassively. “You should know that we have considered you one of our number since we learned of your existence from our recent arrivals. You may spend the majority of your time in solitude, but do not consider yourself alone.”

He was stunned. It was the last thing in the galaxy that he would have expected to come out of any Vulcan’s mouth. Maybe captivity was messing with other heads than his. Maybe they were just doing their best to be neighborly, given the circumstances. Either way, McCoy wasn’t prepared to deal with the pathetic rush of gratitude prompted by Skanet’s words, and he mumbled, “Thanks,” toward the floor, hoping that they would drop the whole thing and let him leave before he was forced to reevaluate the Vulcan species in general.

“One need not thank logic.” T’Pana’s voice was crisp and final. The flush of annoyance righted McCoy’s rapidly tilting universe.

Logic? What did logic have to do with anything? What was logical about any of this? And why couldn’t a Vulcan ever just say “you’re welcome” like any normal person? I want a drink. A good stiff brandy and some real live human company. Jim-boy, where are you when I need you?

“Right.” He hoisted the medical bag over his shoulder and moved into the outer room. “I’ve told UyaVeth that I’ll need to check on them daily but he hasn’t given me any straight answer, so I don’t know whether I’ll be back tomorrow or not. Just keep recording your observations, and I’ll go over them when I can.”

“Of course, Doctor.”

McCoy strode through the sitting room to the outer force field, avoiding contact with the rest of the compound’s occupants. He was ready to be done with this. After almost three weeks alone, the strain of interacting with an entire pack of ailing Vulcans was more than he cared to admit. And now he had a roomful of ailing Romulans coming. The perfect end to the day.

Stepping into the hall was like entering a freezer after the heat of the Vulcan compound, the sweat and the damp clothing clammy against his skin. McCoy was shivering as they halted before the Romulan compound, and he wished briefly that they had done this in the opposite order when the line of cold, dark stares met him from the other side of the field. He gripped the medical bag as the guard dropped the force field, took a deep breath, and stepped through. The hum of reactivated energy behind him left his mouth dry, but he ignored that and turned his gaze on the Romulans.

There were fewer Romulans than Vulcans on Charen, eleven in all, probably due to the easier accessibility of Vulcans so near Federation space. Seven met him in a group just inside the force field. Four remained seated, and it didn’t take too much effort to deduce that they were in worse shape than the others. Just how much worse he couldn’t say at a glance. His line of sight was cut off abruptly, and he turned his attention to the Romulan who had moved into his space.

“I’m Dr. Leonard McCoy. And you are … ?”

“Lharek.”

He waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. McCoy shifted, hoping his irritation didn’t show. It would be the wrong way to begin. “Are you in charge here?”

“I am not.”

Again the silence stretched. Eleven pairs of eyes bored into him, and this time McCoy allowed himself a frustrated growl. “Then who would be?”

For a moment he didn’t think he would get an answer, and then a middle-aged male nodded. “I am Tahren. You may consider me ‘in charge here’.”

Just peachy. This was going to be a barrel of laughs. McCoy squared his shoulders and motioned to his medical bag. “We have things to discuss. A treatment, maybe, for some of your symptoms.”

“Treatment?” A young woman stepped around Tahren to direct an intense gaze at McCoy. “What manner of treatment is this?”

“That’s what I’m here to talk about.” He glanced toward a grouping of chairs and couches at the center of the room. If they could all just sit down together and talk, maybe the place would start to thaw. “Can we sit?” And speaking of thawing, the temperature here wasn’t too bad. A little warm, but nothing like the oppressive heat of the Vulcan compound.

Tahren folded his arms. His face was solid granite. “You may speak here.”

Fantastic. This was going well.

The woman frowned. “Tahren …”

“Irrel, enough!”

Her jaw locked, but she folded her hands behind her and stepped back in a manner that reminded McCoy curiously of her Vulcan cousins. Tahren looked back to McCoy.

“Proceed, Doctor.”

The thinly veiled sarcasm was actually more amusing than annoying. It was good to know that through everything else, some things never changed. He dropped his grip on the medical bag and folded his own arms, suddenly feeling back on solid ground.

“Your choice, I guess.” He sketched a brief history—his capture, UyaVeth’s demands, his own response and the weeks of work. The Romulans’ reactions varied from disbelief to interest to none at all, but at least they managed to listen without interruption. Irrel, interestingly, made no attempt to hide her fascination, her attention deeply engaged as he spoke of his research and subsequent trials. “So, I’ve given two of the Vulcans a test dose, and I’d like to have a couple of volunteers here as well. I can’t promise that it will work, and I can’t guarantee what kinds of adverse effects might come of it, but the results in the lab were good.”

Tahren snorted. “You’re mad. You think we will allow a human to—”

“Tahren.” Irrel’s voice was reproving. She cast a dark glance toward the Romulan spokesman and stepped toward McCoy, ignoring Tahren’s return glare. “I have questions. The Vulcan physiology is similar to ours, but not identical. You’ve taken this into account?”

“I have, but in this case it doesn’t make any difference. The green blood cells that are the primary carriers of the treatment compound are similar enough that both species should react the same.” He tilted his head. “You have a medical background?”

Irrel nodded. “I am a medical doctor as well. I and two others were taken on a rescue mission, en route to a planet near the Neutral Zone experiencing a viral plague.” Her shoulders hunched momentarily. “My fellow doctors were killed in resistance. I alone have survived, if this can be called survival.” The dark eyes swept a burning glare across the compound. Tahren seized her arm.

“Irrel!”

“Tahren, be still!” she spat, and pulled away. “How can that information possibly be of any use to him here?”

McCoy barely heard the argument. Another doctor. His mind was already racing with the possibilities. “I have questions, too, then, if you’re willing. There are other paths to pursue, more promising, but I’m not familiar enough with Romulan physiology to—”

“She will not aide you, McCoy.” Tahren stepped into his space, and McCoy held his ground. Unlike UyaVeth, this Romulan would receive no deference from him. “Perhaps a human may agree to abet such crimes to save his own skin, but no Romulan would—”

“I’m a doctor!” McCoy’s blood boiled, and after the forced calm of the Vulcan compound he was glad of a target for his rage. “A doctor, not a politician or a philosopher, and certainly not a Romulan, thank you!” He surged forward, and felt a rush of pure satisfaction when Tahren stepped back. “And yes, I agreed to treat you. You, as well as the Vulcans, despite the number of potshots your people have taken at the Enterprise with me on it. Do you know why? Because I was kidnapped too, and taken away from my family and my friends, and from every other human in the entire galaxy, and I will never see any of them again, but I am still a doctor.” He was rambling again, but he didn’t care. Three straight weeks without company, and these Romulans could just deal with it. “I can help you people, and if I refuse that to spite them, then I’ve let them take everything.” He straightened and backed away, jaw clenched. “And I won’t do that.”

Irrel’s voice cracked the brittle silence, sent it spinning in shards around them. “Well spoken, McCoy.” A hint of amusement lurked in its depths, and McCoy wondered what sort of sub-plot he had stumbled into here. Romulan in-fighting, on top of an already precarious situation. Just what the doctor ordered. So to speak. “I will offer what assistance I may. Access to your facilities would, of course, be most helpful, if—”

“The Enterprise.” Tahren shouldered her aside. “You are Kirk’s physician?” The sarcasm was back, the taunt. McCoy stiffened.

“What of it?”

“He has abandoned you here, has he not, the great Kirk? We are in Federation space, it would be a matter of—”

McCoy couldn’t help it. He laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know as well as I do that he doesn’t know a thing about this. He thinks I’m dead, blown up on a Rigelian transport.” He tried for a grin, but it came off as more of a grimace. “Just as your friends probably think you’re blown up somewhere, or killed in a crash-landing, or—”

“Friends.” Tahren snorted and pinned him with searching eyes. “And if he did know of it?”

I wouldn’t still be here playing unwilling assistant to a bunch of alien Frankensteins, that’s for sure. McCoy folded his arms and lifted his chin. “If Jim Kirk knew about this place, he’d be here already.” He let the statement hang, then allowed a smirk. “Who knows? Might even give you a ride out too.”

The angular face was still for a long moment, and then Tahren stepped back. “I will test this treatment of yours.”

Well. Apparently he had passed a test of some sort. Or, maybe it was just the old sub-plot at work again. Either way, he wasn’t about to argue.

“Fine. Anyone else?”

“I will test it as well.”

He shook his head at Irrel. “Not you, I need you to monitor. I’d prefer one of your sickest, if one of them would agree. Better to test both ends of the spectrum, with limited resources.”

Her eyes glittered. Could that be enthusiasm? He had never read Romulans well—probably too much prejudice involved in the attempt. “Your reasoning is sound, McCoy. We will work well together. Come. Let us procure a volunteer.” Irrel swept her arm toward the seated Romulans and then led the way across the compound, with McCoy trailing uneasily in her wake.

 

Chapter 7

“What do you see now?”

Irrel peered into the microscope, then shook her head. “The pattern is still mostly inert. This will produce energy of a type, but only a fraction of what is available from the biological material. Even in large quantities it cannot be made to meet the requirements of a small city, much less an entire continent.”

McCoy muttered beneath his breath and sat back on his stool. “It should work!” He scowled across the table at the beakers and tubes and dishes, and at the Romulan woman near its far end. “All of the base components are there, everything it should need to produce a reaction. Why isn’t it working?”

Her voice was dry. “Perhaps because we are doctors and not engineers.”

“No.” McCoy slid off the lab stool and paced. “No, even on a synthetic level, this is as much biology as computer science. We have as much chance of cracking it as any engineer. More, maybe.” Sorry, Scotty.

“Then explain to me how we have been working for nearly three of your weeks and yet have nothing to show for ourselves.”

He still wasn’t sure what to make of her. UyaVeth had agreed to the collaboration without any real argument, presumably understanding the possible benefits—or at least willing to humor McCoy for the time being. The Romulan doctor had been a routine visitor to his lab since their first meeting, and he was almost ashamed to admit, even to himself, how much he looked forward to the company. She was a break in the silence, someone to talk to other than the walls and the equipment and his memories. Irrel was intelligent and shrewd, with a ready smile and a quick, cutting sense of humor that made it easy for him to laugh—something that McCoy had sorely missed since UyaVeth had derailed his life for the sake of sucking the Chareni’s captives just a little drier before discarding their broken bodies at the end of a long, pain-filled confinement. “Doctor, you are making that time bearable for them, and may yet be the instrument of their release. You cannot—” Good try, Spock. Your logic might have helped make the decision, but it’s sure no good at making me feel any better about it. She also received professional criticism with an ease that smoothed much of the tension that could have resulted from cooperation between a human and a Romulan. She had been an invaluable resource to him in both his primary medical work and his unacknowledged side-project—an attempt to develop a synthetic substitute for the blood-based energy mixture that powered the Chareni world.

If the Chareni weren’t willing to pay for it, he would do it himself. There had to be a way, and he had nothing but time, going cheap.

Even with all Irrel’s positives, though, McCoy had never grown completely easy with her. Maybe it was the gleam he still caught deep in her eyes, masked quickly when she knew he was watching. Maybe it was the memory of that strange tension within the Romulan compound, and her role in it.

Maybe it was simply that she was a Romulan. He couldn’t ignore the fact that he’d been trained to distrust the Romulan people from almost the day he was born. Could the problem be not with her, but in his own mind? At this point, anything was possible.

“We just haven’t hit it yet. Give it time.”

“We have given it time.” Irrel stalked around the table, her black hair shining in the weird blue light. “We have given it more time than it deserves.”

Hmm. McCoy folded his arms and stepped back from her. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” her voice lowered, although they had seen no evidence that the lab contained any listening devices, “that we should be concentrating our efforts elsewhere.”

“Oh?” Why did he think that this couldn’t possibly be good? “Where is that?”

Her impatience had been simmering for days, just below the surface. He’d seen it and been curious, but not enough to ask. In fact, he wasn’t certain he really wanted to know.

Apparently, he had no choice.

“McCoy!” She spun away. “Look at what it is we are doing here! We are aiding them! Our captors! The ones who—”

McCoy snorted softly. “Not yet. At this point, all we’ve got is a bunch of—”

“Do not pretend to misunderstand me!” Irrel turned on him. “You would develop an entirely new—”

“Yes!” He released the ever-present anger, let it cover and wash away his own confusion and doubt. “Yes, I would! But not for them, you know better than that!” His heart skipped a few beats and he was suddenly exhausted, even by such an insignificant burst of rage. It was a symptom of a different problem, one that had only recently made itself known but that he would soon be forced to address—somehow. Blasted Romulan dietary rations. “You know better than that,” he continued, taking long, calming breaths. “If there’s another way to do it, a synthetic way, something they can cook up in the lab that doesn’t involve filling your people or the Vulcans or anyone else with a bunch of toxins and—”

“I understand your reasoning, and I applaud your … optimism.” Somehow, Irrel made the word into an insult, the naïve idealism of a child. Her voice dropped again and she approached more slowly this time, a confidante with a secret. He moved to keep the distance between them. “But what good will it do us, in the end? If you are successful, if our captors no longer depend upon us, what then? Will they release us, once we are of no more use to their energy processes? Will they set us down at your nearest Starbase, with an apology for all that we have endured and the promise of a few coins of restitution for the survivors?”

It was a ridiculous scenario, and an unwinnable argument. They both knew it. “No, of course not.” The best that they could hope for, realistically, was that the Chareni would allow their prisoners to live out their lives in relative peace, locked away in their compounds. More likely, they would all be euthanized once a synthetic substitute was introduced. Not, McCoy was forced to admit, a hugely attractive alternative to what they had now.

Still, though, it was something. The cycle would at least be broken.

Where did those options leave him? Did the possibility of their deaths mean he shouldn’t even try?

Yet another question to which there would never be a right answer. Sometimes it seemed like that was all he had left.

“You would rather leave things as they are?”

Irrel snorted indelicately. “I would rather be home, with my parents and my fiancé.” Fiancé? That was a brave man … No matter his personal opinions, though, Irrel had a point. She had suffered too, more than he had, and she was entitled to her own thoughts. All the captives were. It was not something he’d considered. Suddenly, he was too tired to remain standing. “As it is … if we are to raise an empty challenge to the status quo, why should we not give them cause to regret what they have done to us?”

And here it was, what he’d been afraid of. How was he to answer a justified desire for revenge—especially against the buried fury inside of him that agreed with her? McCoy perched on the lab stool and absently picked up the small vial of glowing green energy that he kept well back from the edge of the table. It was almost half of what UyaVeth had finally given him—and he was lucky, he thought, to have gotten even that. He swirled it gently, watching the thick liquid roll in its depths.

“McCoy?”

“Irrel. Whatever it is that you’re thinking, I don’t—”

“I am thinking that we have access to your treatment compound. Would it not be a simple thing to find some way to sabotage the process? Surely there must be some way to affect a change in our—”

“And what then?” he snapped, a little frightened by his desire to run with her idea and see where it took them. He was a physician, he had dedicated himself to the relief of suffering, and he had spent a month and a half here—a month and a half? Had it really been so long? According to the Vulcans and the Romulans, it had—struggling for ways to do just that. He could not allow himself to be distracted from that by a suggestion which, despite its emotional attractions, would in the end be even more futile than his own efforts.

Blast it all. He really was turning into Spock.

At this point, it didn’t matter. He was committed to his course. “When their efficiency starts to go down, what then? I’ll tell you what! They terminate the entire project. They execute me, withdraw the treatment compound from your regimens, go back to what was before, and it’ll be like none of this ever even happened. Their power process will level back out, and you and your people will be—”

“You are concerned for your own life!” Her lip curled, and she stalked away. “I had thought better of you, McCoy. I had not thought that you would become timid in the face of—”

“Now you wait just a minute!” McCoy surged off the stool. “You don’t have any idea what I—”

The cramp seized his entire calf without warning, bending him double and driving everything else from his mind. He yelled aloud with the pain, gripping for the edge of the table, frantically stretching the leg. He felt Irrel’s hands on his calf, kneading deeply, adding to the agony even as she worked the knot loose from his muscle. Finally the pain subsided to a dull ache and he came back to himself, forehead resting on the edge of the table, both hands holding it in a death grip, eyes staring at the floor and the shattered remains of the vial he had been holding.

Well, crap.

He breathed out deeply, muttering invectives beneath his breath, furious at Irrel and at the Chareni and at the pain and at himself. She pushed away and circled him, her voice tight.

“And what of this? I have seen what they feed you. Your nutritional needs are not the same as ours, and yet they care nothing for that. This pain, too, is on them.”

As if he would ever make any life-or-death decision based on a muscle cramp. Sharp, numbing pain from his right hand was beginning to filter into his brain, and McCoy turned his head to look. Glass from the broken vial was embedded deep into his palm and blood ran freely down his wrist, soaking his sleeve almost to the elbow. Fantastic. Wonder how they’ll feel about an extra load of laundry? He straightened, balancing on his good leg, and tugged the glass free, gently surveying the damage. At least he seemed to have missed any tendons—all his fingers still moved on command. He clenched the fist tightly, closing his fingers over the wound until he found something to wrap it. His palm was slick, and blood dripped from his wrist onto the floor below. As his eyes vaguely followed its progress, one of the drops hit the edge of the glowing green puddle at his feet.

The compound hissed angrily and the outer edge turned a dark, sickly brown. Seconds passed, and the entire liquid mass began to take on the same coloring, radiating out from the single drop of red until the little puddle was nothing but a dull, lifeless mess. A faintly rotting odor drifted up, and he turned away from it, commanding his already unsteady stomach to remain still.

His blood had destroyed it. In less than thirty seconds, a single drop of his blood had destroyed the entire vial of energy compound, small though it might have been. McCoy’s mind churned with the possible implications.

He was almost afraid to look at Irrel.

She had seized a tricorder and was already scanning the brown substance by the time he managed to wrap his hand in a strip of fabric ripped from the hem of his shirt. He would need something better eventually, cleaner, but for now it would have to do. McCoy lowered himself to her level, balancing against the table with his other hand and careful not to put weight on his injured leg. Her eyes flickered up to his, dark and opaque.

“The iron in your blood has bound the energy compound. It is completely inert.”

He shook his head, processing. “But it was only one drop, and only at the edge of the spill. What about the rest of it?”

Irrel stood, abruptly. “It appears that the altered material in turn bound the compound around it.”

“A chain reaction?” McCoy sank slowly to the ground and leaned back against a table leg, trying to work it all through his brain. “How? What sort of—”

“The data is all there, in your scanner.” She dropped the machine carelessly on the table and moved away from him, toward the voice panel in the wall. Once there she turned, and for a long, silent moment each studied the other, unreadable. It was, McCoy was somehow certain, the end of any cooperation they had shared.  He regretted it, even given the unease of their truce. Irrel’s voice, when she spoke, was once again soft. “Your hand needs a better binding, McCoy.” And then she turned, and activated the panel, and requested an escort back to the Romulan compound.

*****

Salin was reading in a chair near the entrance to the Vulcan compound when McCoy arrived. The young Vulcan set aside his data pad immediately upon the doctor’s appearance, drifting to the doorway as the Chareni guards released the ridiculous manacles and dropped the force field. McCoy turned his back on them and limped inside, wondering briefly if Salin had actually been waiting for him. It was a nice thought, soothing after recent developments, and he decided he wouldn’t ask. If it wasn’t true, he didn’t want to know.

“Look at you!”

Three weeks of routine injections had produced results that were, in McCoy’s opinion, little short of miraculous. They had only been forced to depend upon the original, generic treatment for the first several doses—with Irrel’s aid, he had managed to refine the compound to more Vulcan-specific and Romulan-specific parameters in little more than a week’s time. Even that first week had improved T’Vel’s blood tests and Salin’s overall condition. Now, though … now Salin’s color could actually be called good—for a Vulcan on Charen, anyway. His stance was easy, and his movements betrayed little hint of the severe pain that had so paralyzed him upon first examination. The last blood draw for both Salin and T’Vel had shown marked improvement in the shape and oxygen-carrying capacity of the copper-based green blood cells. His Romulan volunteers showed similar results, and on the strength of that success he had begun preparing more treatment compound to begin injections for additional patients. He hadn’t exactly been given the go ahead from UyaVeth, but in this case he assumed that no news was good news—if the treated blood had shown any effect on the power production processes to this point, the Supervisor would surely have shut him down by now.

Proceed until apprehended, eh, Bones?”

You betcha.

He was tired of sitting around waiting for permission to do his job.

Of course, if he ever managed to perfect the synthetic energy compound it probably wouldn’t matter anyway. He pushed that thought away. The sight of a healthy patient buoyed his sagging spirits, and he wasn’t in the mood to let all the rest of it kill his—relative—high.

“You look great. How do you feel?”

“Well, Doctor. Much improved even from the last time that we spoke.”

Which had been about a week, if his information from Irrel was accurate—and he had no reason to believe that it wasn’t. Despite the necessity of every-other-day injections, McCoy himself had only been allowed into the Vulcan and Romulan compounds three times since his first visit. He wasn’t entirely sure of the reason, other than a suspicion that UyaVeth was maintaining tight control of the situation. It didn’t matter. Irrel and T’Pana were more than capable of giving the treatment injections, and he hadn’t much pushed the issue.

“Good. I’m glad to hear it.”

“And I.” Salin eyed him, hesitated, then offered, “Have you been injured, Doctor?”

Right. No way to hide that. He still couldn’t put much weight on his leg, which remained tender and swollen, and his stride probably looked like a drunken sailor. His hand throbbed painfully, and the strip of bedding that he had finally settled upon as a bandage showed a dark red line across the center where the wound still seeped blood. There didn’t seem much point in discussing the obvious.

“It’s nothing to worry about.” McCoy squinted at the Vulcan’s eyes. The pupils were a little too wide for the current light, and a bit unfocused. “When did they come in? Today?”

He had eventually discovered, during his second visit to the Vulcan compound, that UyaVeth’s claim that the Chareni did not enter the compounds was not entirely accurate. That was no surprise, since the entire process was untenable without any physical contact whatsoever. As it turned out, the Chareni did not enter while the Vulcans and the Romulans were conscious—some remnant of caution from one too many run-ins with the Vulcan nerve pinch in early years of the power production process. Good for them. If you can’t get free, at least keep the bastards at arms’ length. Apparently, when the Chareni were ready to collect blood and to give the priming injections they used a wide overhead stun setting to render the entire compound insensible. The collectors then entered, drew blood, injected, and were out again in probably less than thirty minutes, without any interference from their unconscious subjects. It was efficient, and relatively painless, and barbaric.

“Early this morning.” Salin tilted his head. “You are avoiding my question, however. Have you been—”

“I’m not avoiding it.” Liar. “It’s just not at the top of my priority list right now. We should get going. I want to do a last blood draw from you and T’Vel, and then—”

“Dr. McCoy.” T’Pana appeared at his shoulder, taking him in with her cool gaze. “You have been injured.”

Was every Vulcan on Charen obsessed with his gait?

“It’s not—”

“Come. We will speak in the infirmary.” T’Pana turned smoothly, and before McCoy even realized what was happening he was hobbling after her, cursing beneath his breath. T’Vel joined them as they neared the infirmary door, accompanied by her father. Skanet returned McCoy’s nod gravely.

“Doctor.” The elderly Vulcan’s hands were shaking—nothing too obvious, just a tremor, but he would need to keep an eye on that. “You are injured. What has occurred?”

It was a fight to keep from rolling his eyes. He would get stuck with the most solicitous group of Vulcans in the galaxy.

I fail to understand your objections, Doctor. Did you not regale me on an almost daily basis with reasons that I, a Vulcan, should be more cognizant of the emotional needs of others?”

All right. He deserved that. And … it was nice of them to notice. At least, it would have been, had he been in any mood to pay attention to it himself. As it was, he would have been more than happy for them all to just retreat back into their precious logic and leave him be.

“How’s Saval?” When in doubt, change the subject. He ignored Skanet’s question and made his way across the infirmary. As of his last visit, Saval’s condition had substantially worsened from previous encounters. As McCoy approached the cot now he found the Vulcan asleep, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps.

“He is rarely awake now.” T’Pana handed him the scanner, set to display Saval’s readings over the course of the last week. “Constant sleep is usually the final stage—it is not likely that he will live much longer.”

The news should have made him angry, but instead it just increased his fatigue. McCoy took a few readings of his own, injected a dose of pain medication, and moved on to T’Lir. Her condition was little changed, being as much from age as from years of Chareni manipulation, and he spent a few minutes in light conversation with her before injecting a lesser dose of medicine and moving back to the front of the room.

“All right.” He motioned Salin and T’Vel toward one of the cots. “Have a seat. I want to—”

“Doctor,” T’Pana interrupted crisply, reaching for his bound hand. “Your own condition requires attention. We will see to it before—” She broke off as McCoy stepped out of her reach, and was actually forced to snatch at his arm in an ungraceful, most un-Vulcan-like movement. He wasn’t fast enough—her fingers close tightly around him. “Doctor …”

“Look, it’s just not any big—”

“Desist!” She gave his wrist a firm shake that he might almost have called impatient, were she not a Vulcan. No emotions, ha. He stilled beneath her dark gaze. “Doctor.” T’Pana’s voice returned to its usual even detachment—if slightly shorter of breath than normal. “It is not logical that you would care for us but neglect your own needs.”

Not logical. McCoy couldn’t decide whether he would rather rant at her or laugh in her face. He settled for letting his injured hand fall limply into her grasp. “Haven’t you heard? Humans aren’t logical.”

“Indeed?” One of Salin’s eyebrows quirked. “I had not noticed.”

The laughter escaped in a short, loud bark. Who said Vulcans didn’t have a sense of humor? It made him feel better—at least a little, for the moment—and he allowed T’Pana to settle him on the edge of the cot. It felt good to get the weight off his leg. He sat back, rubbed at his neck, and stretched the injured leg carefully. T’Pana unwrapped his hand, pursing her lips at the gray, blood-soaked material.

“How did this happen?”

“Broken glassware.”

“And this?” She held up the bandage, just managing, if he read her correctly, not to wrinkle her nose in disgust.

“Wasn’t much to choose from. The cleaning cloths for the lab equipment have all been used to, you know, clean lab equipment. The blanket was slightly better than my clothes, anyway.”

“Hmm.” She returned her attention to his hand, tilting it back and forth, peering into the deep recesses of the gash. Finally, she released him. “I will clean it, and bind it properly. Your leg?” She moved to tug at the lower hem of his pants, but he shook his head.

“It’s not … it’s not an injury, exactly.”

T’Pana eyed him for a long moment, then rose and retrieved the medical scanner. Recalibration for human biosigns took a matter of seconds, and one eyebrow arched as she surveyed the readings.

“Doctor, your iron and potassium levels are significantly below that which is considered a necessary baseline for humans.”

“Right.” McCoy motioned to his leg. “So, the cramps. I’ve been having minor ones for days, but nothing like this last one. Mild palpitations, too, and general fatigue. Romulan dietary rations don’t exactly … fit the entire bill, from a human physiological standpoint.”

A brief silence greeted his statement. Skanet narrowed his eyes. “Doctor, why have you not previously spoken of the unsuitability of your nutritional provisions?” T’Pana disappeared into the rear portion of the infirmary, and McCoy could hear her rummaging among the supplies. He craned his head around, trying to see what it was she was doing. “Dr. McCoy?”

“Sorry.” McCoy whipped his attention back to Skanet. “I just …” he groped for words, and finally shrugged. “What’s the difference?”

T’Vel tilted her head. “Clarify.”

“I mean, what could anybody do about it? I’m the only human on Charen, as far as I know, and from what I’ve seen to this point I’m not going to put money on the development of nutritional rations especially for me. They wouldn’t even fund treatment research that will in the long-run almost certainly increase efficiency and decrease production costs. I guarantee no one’s going to spring for unimportant things like iron and electrolytes for a …” He sucked in a breath, remembering UyaVeth’s phrasing. “… a ‘non-producing iron-based presence.'” He shook his head. “I’m stuck with what there is.”

“We might have begun a supplemental regimen far sooner.” T’Pana reappeared, adjusting a hypospray. “Your fatalism is detrimental to your health, Doctor, and perhaps to ours in the future, if you insist upon ignoring problems that can be easily mitigated.” She held out the hypospray. “Verify the doses, please.”

McCoy snatched the instrument and waved it in her face. “The vitamin supplements are for you all, not me, and don’t tell me they give you enough to go around, either! I know that’s not true, I’ve seen your supplies. The energy processes make your blood far too unstable as it is, you can’t afford to—”

“Doctor.” Skanet moved a step closer, looming over him, and McCoy wondered briefly if the frail old Vulcan was actually trying to intimidate him. “You know that we consider you one of us, and your need in this matter is as great as ours. No one will begrudge you a—”

“Wait a minute. That’s not what I—”

“Doctor.” To McCoy’s surprise, Salin approached and lowered himself onto the edge of the cot. He wondered if the young Vulcan had been getting pointers from Skanet—despite the good five feet separating them, it was still the most overtly human gesture that McCoy had seen since he’d arrived on Charen. Vulcans, of course, did not show closeness by physical proximity. He wasn’t sure about Romulans, but then, there hadn’t been much of an opportunity since his arrival to observe how they might interact with friends. Just as well, we’re not friends, and I don’t think I’d want one of them this close to me anyway. Especially not after that last argument with Irrel … He resisted the urge to move away, to maintain the distance which had been so vital to his mental and emotional balance over the past weeks, even as every muscle in his body unconsciously relaxed.

He hadn’t realized just how tense he truly was.

“We acknowledge your need to focus your attention and activities outside of yourself. Such avoidance is not our way; however, none of us can know what it is for a human to be entirely alone here, and we understand that you consider this a necessary … coping mechanism. Very well. If you are unable to focus on your own well being, we must assume the responsibility. It is a logical balance—you care for us, and we do so for you.” The dark eyes were steady, the smooth face calm and expressionless. “You have done more for us than we can possibly repay. Allow this.”

Blast it. They were getting positively maudlin on him. And yet, coming from Salin it all somehow still sounded perfectly, utterly logical. He hadn’t known the Vulcans had it in them.

Suddenly, it was all he could do to hold himself upright.

“Not lookin’ for repayment.” He sighed, handing the hypospray back to T’Pana. “The doses are fine, darlin’.”

Her eyebrow shot up, but she pressed the hypospray to his neck without comment. Skanet nodded, satisfied, and stepped away. “Not all repayment must be requested, Doctor.”

“Right.” McCoy leaned back to rest his shoulders and head against the wall, this time allowing T’Pana to examine his leg. Her fingers were gentle, but even so he couldn’t help flinching away from her touch.

“Do you require pain medication, Doctor?”

He closed his eyes and nodded. “That would probably be good. About half of what you would give a Vulcan, I don’t want to sleep for the next three days.”

“It would likely be beneficial for you.” The hypospray hissed again, and immediately a blissful numbness spread throughout his calf.

“Likely. I’ve got other things to do, though.” Thoughts of the synthetic energy compound flooded his brain, driving away the pleasant drowsiness. He sighed and opened his eyes. “No rest for the weary.”

A roomful of puzzled Vulcan stares met his declaration. He waved them away and sat up. “Never mind. It’s just another—”

“Intentional idiom?”

“That it is.” He smirked at Salin. “And this one truer than most.”

T’Pana ran the scanner over him again, frowning at the results. “Doctor, your red blood cell levels are slightly elevated—not excessively so, but noticeable. I am, however, uncertain how a Romulan dietary regimen might cause—”

“It didn’t.” McCoy took the scanner and glanced over the readings. Just what he had expected. “That’s from before. I had …” He hesitated, then decided it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like it would have been a secret anyway, not once he and Spock had published.

Guess that’s something you’ll have to finish on your own now. Try not to be too dry. The point isn’t to put them to sleep.

Indeed, Doctor. However, neither is your particular brand of melodrama the point. I suspect that most of our readers will be more interested in scientific fact than in an overly emotional rendering of your experiences.”

Shut up, Spock.

“I had xenopolycythemia a few months back. This is just the leftovers—I was supposed to have one more treatment yet when I got back to the Enterprise, but it shouldn’t matter, at this point the blood cell levels will stabilize on their own eventually. Shouldn’t be anything to worry about.”

T’Vel’s eyebrows pulled together. “You had xenopolycythemia? Your statement is illogical, Doctor. To my knowledge, it is a universally fatal condition.”

McCoy grinned, glad for something to talk about that didn’t involve the Chareni or screwed up electrolyte levels or synthetic energy compounds or Vulcans and Romulans in pain. “Not so illogical, not any more. As it turns out, a people called the Fabrini had knowledge of a very similar disease, one which increased their own oxygen-carrying cells to levels where the blood no longer allowed—”

It hit him in mid-sentence, what he’d been doing wrong. He trailed off and gaped at the surrounding Vulcans, his mind racing.

“Polycythemia …”

The concentrations of the energy-carrying substance in the synthetic compound were too high. He’d put in too much, an attempt to compensate for its decreased energy capacity as compared to the mutated green blood cells … but it wasn’t helping. In fact, now that he thought about it … the increased concentration was actually blocking the reaction. Yes, it had to be. He’d seen in the microscope how the energy-carrying cells tended to attract to each other, to clump together rather than spread evenly throughout. It wasn’t that the substance itself was faulty—he’d checked that several dozen times. There was just too much of it.

Too much of a good thing …

“Doctor?”

He’d need to run more tests, but … he knew what he’d been doing wrong.

Crap. Now what? Now that the possibility was real, now that it was staring him in the face, what did he do? He’d been ignoring Irrel’s objections and his own doubts, content in the knowledge that it was all at this point just theory anyway, but if this worked … Now what? Where did he go from here? He looked into the attentive Vulcan faces around him and drew a deep breath.

“We need to talk.”

*****

In the end, McCoy approached UyaVeth with the unanimous approval of the Vulcans and, to his surprise, the blessing of eight of the eleven Romulans.

The Vulcan response had been predictable, really, even for a situation fraught with such potentially grave consequences.

“Indeed we may die, Doctor, but if this situation can end, it must. To allow its continuance for any reason, even our own lives, when we have the means to do otherwise would be entirely illogical.”

The overwhelming Romulan agreement had been a bit of a shock. No, more than a bit, and he still wasn’t sure why. Maybe his own doubts, decreased by the Vulcans’ calm acceptance but still very much alive, influenced what he expected from the Romulans. Maybe he’d thought that more of them would side with Irrel—who did object, her eyes dark and angry. Maybe he was still just too prejudiced against Romulans in general to make any good stab at guessing what they might do in any given situation. Whatever the case, what he had not expected was for Tahren to not only support him, but to take the lead in convincing the majority of his people to do the same.

“It is too late for us, but I will not be the one to allow this atrocity to continue, to be a trap for my son, or for his son after him. No, if we have an opportunity, we must end this once and for all.”

McCoy couldn’t decide if he believed the Romulan leader’s stated motives or not. It was altogether possible that he meant what he said—surely Romulan loyalty to family and friends could motivate sacrifice, the same as human and Vulcan loyalty. Still, the uneasy undercurrent between Tahren and Irrel had never disappeared, and McCoy couldn’t entirely convince himself that it was not at least partially responsible for Tahren’s words, given the Romulan doctor’s strong objections to his plan. In any case, Tahren’s reasoning was, in the end, none of his business. He had the Romulans’ answer, and there was nothing more to be said on the subject.

By him, at least.

So he stood before his lab tables as the Supervisor entered, and knew that he could very well be sentencing them all to death, and hoped that the Rigelians, wherever they were, would forgive him. He detailed his research and findings, showed UyaVeth the synthetic compound glittering beneath the microscope lens, and discussed possible conversion scenarios, then stepped back and stood waiting for the Chareni’s reaction. When it came, he wasn’t certain he’d heard correctly.

“Very impressive. You’ve done in two months what it took our own scientists more than two years to develop. Of course, you started with a firmer knowledge base of the existing components, but still, your dedication is commendable.”

McCoy stared. “What?”

UyaVeth circled the table, gray eyes fixed on McCoy. “This work was unnecessary, Doctor. We have had the ability for nearly two decades to manufacture synthetic components for our power production processes.” He halted directly before McCoy, towering over him. “Perhaps if you had indicated what you were truly doing here, I might have saved you the time.”

The lab did a slow, lazy spin around him. His vision dimmed, and his ears began to ring. “What are you saying? You can do it, but you won’t?”

“I informed you from the beginning that our power processes were fixed, and that you could not change them. This,” UyaVeth motioned to the table behind him, “was not what you were brought here to do. Your treatment work shows great promise, but—”

Why not?”

The Chareni whined impatiently. “I need not detail the many reasons for you. Suffice it to say, the cost of converting this equipment alone is more than three such power plants are worth. There is also the receiving equipment throughout the continent—it would take years and untold amounts of—”

“Because of money?” McCoy was beginning to shake. He pushed forward and snatched the microscope with its synthetic contents off the smooth silver table. “You could do this all without kidnapping and torturing and killing, or at least start the attempt, and you won’t, because it costs too much?” He flung the microscope against the nearest wall, barely hearing the sound of crashing metal and shattering glass. “You self-serving, sanctimonious, barbaric—”

“Doctor McCoy, you—”

He lunged at the Chareni, slamming them both into the table before the Supervisor could leverage his taller frame. McCoy managed two good hits before the guards dragged him away, flinging him against the far wall with a force that slammed the breath from his lungs and left him on his knees, panting. By the time he was able to look up, UyaVeth and his guards were standing in the doorway.

“Treatment development is your true work here, Doctor.” UyaVeth’s eyes narrowed. “Your only work. Perhaps you will benefit from a length of time to consider this.” He paused for a long moment, eyeing the laboratory, and then disappeared through the doorway. For an instant the only sound was the scrape of the bolts locking into place, and then the hum of a transporter swept the room.

The lab equipment disappeared, and the lab tables, and the lab stools, and the supplies stacked in all corners of the room. McCoy was left in silence, staring at nothing but the shining silver walls, and the shining silver floor, and the blue Chareni light that washed the empty air between.

*****

Chapter 8

The sickbay doors hissed shut behind him, and Spock eyed the large room. Not finding Trella immediately present, he wound his way through the medical complex toward the CMO’s office. He had nearly reached the door when Christine Chapel’s voice stopped him.

“She’s not in, Mr. Spock.”

He turned back to the head nurse’s desk near the front of the bay. Chapel was seated behind it, surrounded by data pads, cassettes, and even a few actual paper files. Spock himself found the written word bulky and inefficient for the purposes of recordkeeping, but it seemed that Dr. McCoy’s penchant for scrawling notes rather than dictation had transferred to at least some members of his staff.

“Where might I find Dr. Trella?”

Chapel keyed a few quick strokes on one of the pads, then set it aside and ran a hand through her hair. The usually immaculately coiled locks were, for unknown reasons, distinctly worse for the wear. “Science Lab 2, I believe. I can page her if you’d like.”

Spock hesitated. “Is the doctor not currently on duty? I had believed her to be working the Beta shift this week.” In point of fact, he knew her to be working the Beta shift. He had reviewed the shift rosters two days prior, and had specifically noted that the CMO had again placed herself on what was generally considered the evening duty—bringing the number of Beta shift weeks worked by the new CMO to six in the eight weeks since she had joined the Enterprise. It was a tendency he intended to discuss with her in the near future, along with several other curiosities in her scheduling and other procedural decisions. It wasn’t that the choices were incorrect or unsatisfactory. As CMO, she was allowed a significant amount of freedom in the running of her department. He did, however, admit to finding certain of her decisions curiously illogical for a woman whom the Admiral had made a point of describing as ‘focused’ and ‘efficient.’

The medical department’s schedule was not, though, the reason that he had chosen to seek Trella out this particular evening.

“Yes, sir, she is on duty. She left instructions to be paged if she was needed.” Chapel stretched her shoulders, clearly attempting not to be too obvious about the movement. “Do you want me to call her?”

Spock crossed the intervening space and stood before the desk, hands folded precisely behind his back. “On what project is the doctor currently working?”

Chapel shook her head, flipping through the stack of pads before her. The air of distraction was, he observed, distinctly unlike Chapel’s usual unflappable style. “I believe it’s something to do with her DNA research. I’m not—”

“During her duty shift?”

The head nurse froze, as though only just realizing what she had said. She hesitated, and then narrowed her eyes at him. “Mr. Spock …”

“Nurse Chapel, it is a simple question. Is Dr. Trella pursuing the laboratory aspects of her personal research during her duty shifts?”

Chapel sighed. “Mr. Spock, perhaps you should take that up with Dr. Trella.”

“Indeed.” She would be perfectly within her rights to respond, given that such questions were well within Spock’s own rights as first officer. However, it was not his intention to cause tension within the Medical department. Rather than pursue that particular line of inquiry, he turned his attention to the work on Chapel’s desk, tilting his head to read the headings at the tops of screens and folders. “You seem quite inundated with reports. On what are you working?”

Her gaze was wary. “Crew evaluations.”

Spock frowned. “Medical crew evaluations are the responsibility of the Chief Medical Officer.”

“Dr. Trella has … delegated them to me.”

For a moment, he found himself at a loss for words. Then, “She cannot.”

Chapel laughed, a weary sound that matched her strangely frazzled demeanor. “But she has.”

“Nurse Chapel, regulations are very specific regarding the completion of department evaluations. It would be inappropriate for—”

“Mr. Spock.” Chapel’s jaw tightened, and she looked distastefully at the cluttered surface of her desk. “I am quite familiar with the regulations regarding crew evaluations, and to be honest, I happen to agree with them. It’s very awkward to evaluate coworkers who don’t report to you. That being said, these are due in two weeks’ time, as I’m sure you’re aware, and if I don’t complete them, I highly doubt that you’ll see them at any point in the near future. So. Would you prefer completed evaluations, or a stack of overdue data pads on the doctor’s desk?”

Her frustration was apparent, even to him, and he mentally reviewed the crew rosters again. Yes, it was as he’d thought. “You are working Alpha shift this week, are you not?”

She laughed again, soft and tired, and leaned back in her chair. “I am indeed, Commander.”

Spock wondered how many other late evenings she’d spent on paperwork over the past several weeks. A head nurse overworked on routine duties, especially those that were not her own, was a detriment to the entire Medical team. It crossed his mind that Dr. McCoy, for all his idiosyncrasies, had been extremely solicitous of his staff, and would never have allowed such a situation to develop. He shook that thought quickly away. It was inappropriate to compare Dr. Trella to McCoy. They were two completely different people, and would of course not operate in the same fashion—inside or out of the surgery.

“In fact, Nurse, I would prefer a stack of overdue data pads on the doctor’s desk.” Chapel shot him a shocked glance, to which he returned a grave nod. “Alpha shift has been over for two point three hours. I am certain you have other activities which require your attention this evening. I suggest you pursue them.”

Chapel’s mouth actually hung open for a moment, and then she shut it abruptly. “Are you kicking me out of Sickbay, Mr. Spock?”

“Nothing quite so drastic. However, I do not believe I will approve any evaluations from today’s date stamped past the current time. Therefore, remaining any longer will produce no beneficial results.”

Chapel stared at him for a moment longer, and then shook her head. “Nothing that requires my time, Commander …” She rose, and switched off her monitor. “But, I do believe that I will go pursue it anyway.” She flashed him the first real smile that he had seen since entering the medical complex. “Thank you, Mr. Spock.” Then, she hesitated. “I would prefer …”

“Yes, Nurse Chapel?”

“I would prefer that Dr. Trella not hear the details of this conversation.”

“You fear she would react badly to knowing that you gave an accurate report of the situation?”

“No! No, it’s not …” Chapel shook her head and sighed. “It’s not that. But, we don’t know each other very well, and I wouldn’t want her to think that I’ve been complaining behind her back. It just that … things have been different, and it takes a little getting used to.”

Indeed, it did. Spock nodded. “Of course.”

“Thank you.” Chapel started across the floor, and then turned back. “Did you want me to page the doctor?”

“No.” Spock joined her, and together they approached the Sickbay doors. “I will go to Science Lab 2 myself.”

He found Diane Trella hunched over a microscope in the Science Lab, muttering under her breath and typing a series of notes into a data pad. He waited silently, assuming she had heard the doors when he entered. When, after a period of time, she did not respond to his presence, he cleared his throat.

“Dr. Trella.”

She shrieked and jumped, knocking the data pad off the table. He watched in mild amazement as she scrambled after the pad and then turned to him, tucking hair behind an ear and laughing breathlessly. It was not logical to become so impervious to distractions when one knew that one was on call.

“Mr. Spock!” She set the data pad on the table behind her. “I didn’t hear you come in. I’m sorry.”

“Indeed.” He tilted his head. “I had expected to find you in Sickbay. You are on duty, are you not?”

“I am.” Trella sighed. “There wasn’t much going on, though, and I left instructions to page me if something came up that required my attention. Did no one offer to call me?”

“Indeed, Nurse Chapel did offer. However, I declined.”

Trella looked vaguely surprised. “Christine? I thought she was off duty by now.”

“She is, and has been for several hours. Upon inquiring, I discovered that she was completing Medical crew evaluations. It being my prerogative, and the evaluations being beyond the scope of her duties, I sent her on her way.”

Trella flushed, and actually seemed, if Spock read her correctly, vaguely guilty. “Oh.” She turned back to the table and sank back onto her stool. “Well … thank you.”

Spock inclined his head gravely, pondering the suitability of several different tactics. Christine Chapel was not the only crew member aboard the Enterprise who did not know Diane Trella well.

“I am surprised to find you here. Personal research requiring a crew member’s absence from his or her duty station while on shift is not generally encouraged on the Enterprise. Perhaps the detail was overlooked in your orientation?”

As he himself had performed her orientation, he was sure that it had not been. To her credit, Trella did not deny it.

“No, I …” She rose again and paced restlessly. “It just seems like such a waste of good, useable time, doesn’t it? Inefficient, to spend so many hours sitting in Sickbay while nothing happens when I could be moving forward with my work.”

It was honest—more honest than he had perhaps expected. He felt his eyebrow inch up. “Indeed? I believe Alpha shift might provide more stimulating duty hours, if you desire less ‘down time.’ I had not noticed your name often on the roster outside of Beta shift.”

She was, perhaps, as surprised by his straightforward approach as he had been by hers. When no response was forthcoming, Spock decided that a slight change of direction might be in order.

“Dr. Trella, may I ask a personal question?”

Trella’s eyebrows drew together. “Yes, I suppose.”

“By your own admission, you consider your research both important and fulfilling. I have read your articles. They are well researched, well supported, and well written. Your work has done much to advance our biological inter-species understanding.”

“Thank you, Mr. Spock. I’m flattered.”

“It is not flattery, Doctor, but a simple statement of truth.”

As was so often the case with humans, his blunt clarity seemed to confuse her. “What is your question?”

“Why did you wish to serve on a starship?”

She nodded slowly. “Yes. All right, that’s fair.”

Yet another example of the bizarre breadth of the human concept of fairness. It was a simple, straightforward question with little moral implication. What about it could be ‘fair’ or ‘unfair?’

Do you always have to be so literal, Spock?”

Indeed, Doctor, I am quite uncertain how else I might view such a statement. I do not understand what about this inquiry requires the use of hyperbole in its response.

Think outside the box, man.”

Box, Dr. McCoy?

It was an expression that he more than understood, but it had been his experience that pretending ignorance about such things would usually send McCoy stomping off in the other direction, freeing him up to continue whatever activity currently filled his time.

He was not certain how entirely logical it was to converse with a dead man. Vulcan beliefs allowed for personal existence beyond death, of course, but this seemed less a spiritual exercise than the acknowledgement of a memory. Which perhaps, upon further reflection, was also not so illogical as it might at first seem.

This was not, however, the appropriate time to ponder such a question.

Trella began another slow circuit of the room. “You’re right. I do find my research fulfilling. I find it fascinating. And I probably could have continued on at Kaliris for years. But, everything that we have to research there has already been through someone else. Multiple someone elses. I wanted to be out with the new data—be the first to look at it through a microscope, the first to make comparisons to our knowledge base. There was no way that was possible on a research station. A starship posting was the only option.”

“Yes.” Spock nodded slowly. “It is … logical. However, would not an assignment aboard a science vessel have fulfilled such ambitions more—”

“I was actually considering several science vessels, and then this posting on the Enterprise opened up.” Her eyes fairly glowed. “The flagship. You see things that no one else has seen before. Not just no other scientist—no other person. It was too much to turn down.”

Spock straightened. “Dr. Trella, the Enterprise is not a means to your own personal career goals.”

She flushed. “I didn’t say that, Mr. Spock. I only meant that—”

“Have you considered, Doctor, that in accepting the post of Chief Medical Officer aboard the Federation flagship, you have effectively reoriented your priorities? The position that you have assumed requires that all other ambitions be subordinated to the needs and demands of this ship and her crew. How will you serve that crew by spending your on-duty hours in the laboratory? How will you come to know your patients unless you are present in Sickbay when they require medical aid, for minor complaints as well as severe? How will you effectively evaluate your staff—as is your duty, not Nurse Chapel’s—unless you have a firm knowledge of their habits and ethics from time spent working together? How will you effectively lead that staff during a crisis, if you have not taken the time to—”

“Mr. Spock.” Trella’s eyes had reddened. Spock suppressed a sigh. He would never understand the human tendency to be emotionally overwrought by a factual discussion—even a pointed one. “Mr. Spock, I understand your meaning, and I apologize for not having … fulfilled those duties to their proper extent. I hadn’t … I honestly don’t think I really realized the scope of what I was undertaking. I—”

“You owe me no apology, Doctor.” Spock tilted his head, studying her. He had seen very little of the woman that the Admiral described during this discussion with Kirk. Perhaps the Admiral had exaggerated. Perhaps the adjustment had been more than Trella had anticipated. Once she had felt more comfortable in her position, freer to bring her own unique qualities into play, it was possible that her approach might change. “It is apparent that you have not yet settled into your role. That takes time, and a period of adjustment. It is of importance, however, that you take the opportunity to understand what is required of you in these duties and to determine whether this posting is, in fact, what you truly desire.”

“Yes, sir.” Trella sighed, sinking back onto her stool. “Will you be telling the captain about this?”

Spock lifted an eyebrow. “Personnel concerns are the responsibility of the first officer, Doctor. I see no reason to bring such issues to the captain’s attention until the officers in question have had ample opportunity to attempt to correct the situation in their own manner.”

She smiled at him. “Thank you, Mr. Spock.”

“Indeed.” Spock hesitated. “It is not my intention to make you uncomfortable aboard the Enterprise. However, I—”

“No, sir. In fact, I appreciate your candor.” Trella shook her head. “There must be some way to manage it, though. Dr. McCoy researched and published. I’ve read quite a number of his articles. I’ve seen the paper in the Medical files that the two of you were working on together, regarding the xenopolycythemia treatment. I suppose I assumed that there would be plenty of time for both.”

“And perhaps there may be,” Spock agreed cautiously. “However, one thing you must understand is that Leonard McCoy was a medical doctor, first and foremost. Anything else he was able to accomplish was beneficial, but not his top priority.”

It struck him then, how deeply McCoy’s habits and personality had affected his own views regarding the role of CMO and how such a person should behave. He wondered that he had not been aware of this bias previously, and made a mental note to be entirely certain that his evaluations in the future were based on the position requirements and the abilities of the officer in question, rather than on a bar set by a man who could assuredly never be replicated.

The mention of the paper on which he and McCoy had been collaborating, however, reminded him of the original reasoning behind his visit.

“Dr. Trella, I have another issue to discuss with you, this one of a personal nature.”

“Oh?” She swiveled toward him, fixing him with her full attention.

“I entered my medical records earlier today in order to obtain information stored there regarding the possible application of the Fabrini cure for xenopolycythemia in copper-based blood. While there, I discovered that a private medical file specifically keyed for Dr. McCoy’s eyes only had been opened and viewed.”

Trella nodded, her eyebrows creasing. “The file regarding your pon farr? Yes, I reviewed it.”

The very words required him to fight back a flinch, and he was forced to agree somewhat with McCoy’s assessment.

It’s just stupid, if you ask me, to make such a basic biological topic so taboo that you can’t even discuss it at necessity. It’s not like the Vulcans are all still holed up on the same planet anymore, it’s going to come up.”

Regardless of that agreement, Spock was Vulcan, and therefore not at liberty to freely discuss the issue which Trella had, perhaps ignorantly, reviewed without his consent.

“Doctor, did it occur to you to wonder why the file was coded for Dr. McCoy? Not for any medical staff member, or even for any staff physician, but specifically for McCoy?”

It obviously had not. Her frown deepened. “I assumed that it was because Dr. McCoy was your physician, and therefore most likely to need access to the information.” Emotions flickered across her face in rapid succession, perhaps as she reviewed the faulty logic behind that statement. “I am his replacement, I do need to know—”

“Dr. McCoy was present during my … time. He was forced to deal with several of the more unpleasant physical aspects, and was therefore made privy to certain details which Vulcans do not readily share with outsiders. These details were told to him, and only him, in confidence, therefore the lock on that file. I verified the code myself, it would not have automatically opened to the new CMO along with his other files. How did you manage to enter it?”

Her face was beginning to redden. “I contacted Engineering and asked that the file be released. I thought it was a mistake.”

Spock forced his voice to remain even. “Would it not have been more logical to come to me and ask if there were some reason that you had not been given access to that particular file?”

Trella’s lips pursed. “It is a medical file, sir. This information is on record. As such, it makes no sense to wait until the issue comes up again in order to—”

“The issue will not reoccur for some years, Doctor. As you are surely by now well aware. Perhaps you are not well aware that Vulcans are an intensely private people. There are things about us which are not appropriate for you to know. In the future, I would appreciate being informed before you—”

“Before I what? Look in your medical file again?” She stood, and crossed her arms. “That makes no sense, Mr. Spock. I appreciate the sensitivity of the situation, but really, I can’t—”

“As the patient, do I not have a right to—”

Kirk to Spock. Please respond.”

They broke off, staring. This, perhaps, was the ‘no-nonsense’ of which the Admiral had spoken. Spock considered her for some seconds, meeting her gaze. It was direct and challenging, but not, if he read her correctly, angry. He thought again of McCoy—so insistent, so demanding, so abrasive, so wholly protective of his patients and committed to the situation at hand. The information in question was not a matter of immediate need for Trella, as it had been for McCoy. It was, or at least it appeared to Spock, simply a matter of business, one more item to check off her list—far more so to her than her own research.

This time, it was he who was invested in the outcome. It seemed that everyone had their sensitive points.

Perhaps he was judging her unjustly; however, he was out of time. They would be forced to resume the discussion at a later date. He moved to the comm panel.

“Spock here.”

Can you come to my quarters, Mr. Spock? We have new orders to discuss.”

“I shall be there momentarily, sir.”

He switched the panel off, inclined his head to Trella, and left the lab.

*****

“The Federation mines on Dena VII were established 47.5 years ago.” Spock indicated the date on the wall screen. The senior staff and department heads moved to focus either on the overhead data or on the matching information uploaded to their personal data slates. “Although in Federation space, the moon was previously held and mined by Charen, a non-Federation planet. The Chareni had been primarily interested in dilasantium, a material found in the moon’s crust which they used as building material on their home world, primarily throughout the northern continent. The dilasantium mines, however, had been failing to yield pure material for a number of years. The Federation, conversely, discovered that the moon’s crust also contained significant platinum concentrations. As platinum held no value for the Chareni, the moon exchanged hands during a period of cooperation which ended in tensions over the disappearance of a ship transporting Vulcan scientists three years later. However, the new ownership of the moon was never questioned by the Chareni, and the Federation has operated modest platinum mines there through the current time period.”

“Another mine.” Kirk rubbed at his forehead and grimaced. “Not another Horta too, I hope?”

Spock lifted a careful eyebrow, unsure exactly how lightly Kirk intended the question to be viewed. The Horta had been both an intriguing and a trying experience. “Not to our knowledge, sir.” He hesitated, then nodded across the table. “Mr. Chekov?”

The young Russian stepped forward. “Yes, Mr. Spock.” He replaced Spock’s historical data on the overhead with a detailed map of the platinum mines. “Thirty-six hours ago, an explosion originating here,” he indicated a point on the map, “collapsed up to one-fourth of the mining tunnels near the southern edge of the complex. Most of the miners have been safely ewacuated, however, a team of thirty miners was trapped in this area.” He circled an area near the center of the collapsed section.

“Dilasantium being somewhat impervious to transporter beams, the mining authorities would rather not depend upon transporters to rescue their trapped personnel until all other efforts have been exhausted.”

Somewhat impervious, Mr. Spock?” Kirk raised his eyebrows.

“Aye, sir,” Scott spoke up. “In high concentrations, it scatters the signal. It’s possible ta punch through it, but ya never know exactly what ya’ll end up wi’ on t’ other end.”

“Right.” Kirk drew out the word, a habit Spock had noticed when the captain was faced with a surprising or unappealing fact. “So, that’s not our first choice.”

“Nae, sir.”

“What about the mining equipment? Surely they can dig their way through?”

“Possible, Captain.” Spock took up the thread of the briefing again. “However, mining authorities are uncertain at this time exactly what caused the explosion to begin with. They are also uncertain of the conditions and positions of their trapped personnel.”

“I assume that dilasantium is impervious to scans, as well?” Kirk’s voice was dry.

“Aye, sir.” Scott shrugged wryly. “At least, as much as ta the transporters. Ya might get a good readin’, ya might not. In any case, nothin’ ya can necessarily depend on ta guide a rescue crew down the safest course wi’ the least chance o’ collapsin’ the mine any further.”

“I see.” Kirk chewed on his lower lip. “And we have no idea what caused the explosion?”

“Not exactly no idea, sir.” Chekov spoke. “The mining authorities believe it likely that a pocket of buried gases reacted with either a spark from one of the machines, or from the external pressure of the dig itself. However, they are uncertain what type of gas it might be, or whether any of it remains in the air pocket with the miners.”

“You said the dilasantium blocked scans. Do they know the miners are even still alive down there?”

“There are intermittent life form readings, Captain.”

“Then we have to assume that they’re all alive, until we have proof otherwise.” Kirk squinted thoughtfully. “You mentioned the Chareni, Mr. Spock. Is there any hope of aid from that direction?”

“Doubtful, Captain. The Chareni completely abandoned their mines on Dena VII decades ago, and there has been no communication between the Federation and Charen in that time. We do not know how their society has progressed in that time, but the final official communications were not indicative of a willingness to engage in future joint endeavors.”

“All right. We’ll table that thought, then.” Kirk took a long breath, frowning at the map on the far wall, and then straightened. “Mr. Scott.”

“Aye, sir.”

“I want you and your team to begin drawing up a rescue plan, and putting together whatever equipment is necessary. Our equipment is more sensitive than the tools that the miners have to work with, there must be some way to reach those trapped personnel without collapsing everything else around them.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Mr. Spock. I want you and your team to work on a way to modify the sensors and/or the transporters for better results in dilasantium-heavy areas. If we can’t get to the trapped miners with the equipment available and we have to explore other options, I want a little better than ‘somewhat impervious’ for us to work with.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Dr. Trella.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We don’t know what condition the miners will be in when we reach them, or whether the facilities on Dena VII will be adequate to treat so many at once. We’ll need to be prepared to take them up here. See that Sickbay is adequately prepared.”

“Yes, Captain. I’ll see how many we can handle, and send a report.”

Kirk, who had risen and was already moving toward the briefing room doors, paused in mid-stride and looked around incredulously. The noise level, which had started to increase as the end of the briefing drew near, dropped again. Uneasy glances traded around the room.

“We’ll handle them all, if necessary, Doctor. I don’t think thirty miners is too many for us, do you? I don’t want to know a number, I want to know that your department is ready.”

Her face flushed a dark red. Spock, remembering their conversation of the previous day and how decidedly unprepared the doctor seemed for such a situation, stepped forward. “Medical will of course be prepared, Captain. This is the doctor’s first large-scale rescue effort, and as such is her first time through this specific set of procedural guidelines. By the time we reach Dena VII, Dr. Trella’s remaining questions will have been appropriately addressed.”

It was not, perhaps, logical to cover for an unprepared CMO, not on a ship which routinely found itself in high-intensity medical crises. However, neither was it logical to allow the captain of the Enterprise to spend valuable time on what was, in essence, a matter of inexperience that could be handled by other staff.

Kirk looked from Trella to Spock, and back. “See that they are.” He swung back around, and exited into the corridor. Behind him, the room emptied quickly. Trella drifted to Spock’s side.

“Thank you, Commander.” Her face was still flushed, and her breathing rate, Spock noted, was elevated. “He’s … abrupt, isn’t he?”

Spock fixed her with a raised eyebrow. “At times he can be, Doctor. However, he commands the Federation flagship. He routinely expects from his officers and crew what others may consider to be the impossible, and his officers and crew routinely respond. If such is not the case, he does not wish to discover it in the midst of a crisis situation. It is a necessary understanding, if you wish to remain aboard the Enterprise.”

“Of course.” She nodded slowly, a number of emotions that Spock could not read flickering in her eyes. He had neither the time nor the desire to pursue their meaning.

“Dr. M’Benga and Nurse Chapel are well versed in the Enterprise’s large-scale rescue procedures. I suggest you consult with them regarding Medical preparedness for our upcoming mission.”

“Yes, sir, I will.” Trella hesitated. “Thank you again, Mr. Spock. I will be more prepared in the future.”

“Indeed, Doctor, that is wise.”

It was not, apparently, what she had been expecting. This time, the frustration in her posture and eyes bordered on resentment. Her parting nod was stiff.

“Good day, Mr. Spock.” She turned, departing swiftly into the corridor.

“Doctor.” Spock watched her go. Regardless of her feelings on the matter, he did not regret his words—they were true, and necessary.  In any case, there was little time to consider the interaction further. His team was waiting, and the transporter and sensor modifications. He put the doctor from his mind and joined the rush outside the briefing room, heading for Mr. Kyle and transporter control.

*****

Chapter 9

If UyaVeth intended torture by the utter lack of sound, of movement, of occupation—the utter lack of any external stimulus at all—he came very near to success. McCoy doubted that was the Chareni’s intent. To punish him, yes. To allow him time to accept UyaVeth’s words, yes. Despite the Supervisor’s casual coldness, though, he doubted that UyaVeth was the type who would quickly or willingly engage in anything as blatant as torture. It didn’t matter. McCoy had never been so bored, and then so frantic, and then so numb in entire his life.

He sat.

He paced.

He screamed his rage and grief and terror to the walls.

He suffered a mild panic attack.

He paced.

He laid in the center of the floor, stared at the ceiling, and recited Macbeth—twice—a feat possible as a result of a drunken brag to a pretty lit major in his pre-med years.

He paced.

He shouted some more.

He built an intricate tower of Romulan dietary rations, then sat with his back against the far wall and threw unused bars until he finally managed to destroy it.

He fought off another panic attack with a recital of drinking songs mostly learned during an impromptu contest with Jim and Scotty one night.

He listed the names of the muscles in the human body, from head to toe. And the bones. And the nerves. And the arteries. And veins. And then he started over with the Vulcan body.

He recited Macbeth again, for good measure. And the Hippocratic Oath. And as much of the ancient Gray’s Anatomy text as he could remember.

He paced.

He attempted to goad Spock into an argument—or heck, even Jim, and who cared at this point if he was really just arguing with himself—but despite their usually talkative ways, both of his friends remained stubbornly silent.

Finally, his ideas gone and his conscious brain on the verge of a slightly more substantial bout of panic than the last, he planted himself in a corner, buried his face in his knees, and just let his mind float—past any rational thought, past any identifiable emotion—stirring long enough to grasp a dietary bar or the canteen when his body screamed hunger, or to relieve himself in the lavatory that had thankfully not disappeared with the rest of the room’s furnishings. It was better. It was easier.

He didn’t hear the transporter return the tables and equipment.

He did hear UyaVeth’s voice echo through the room. “Our technicians have detected no negative ramifications for our power processes from your treatment, Doctor. I’m quite pleased. Prepare doses for the rest of the subjects. We will escort you to administer them shortly.”

It might have been five minutes or fifty before he rose and made his way to the laboratory tables. He honestly couldn’t tell.

*****

The Romulan compound was jarring after the cold blue silence. Irrel’s unwavering gaze pinned him as he entered, and from the far end, Tahren’s expressionless scrutiny added to the discomfort. In fact, an entire roomful of dark eyes fixed on him, rubbing like sandpaper against his brain. They knew. He had given them a brief hope of an end, and they knew he had failed them, and they had not forgiven him.

It is illogical to accept responsibility for the Chareni’s actions, Doctor.”

Traitor. Decided to finally show back up, did you? Fat lot of help you were in there.

Bones, it’s not your fault.”

Oh, you too. What, did the two of you get together and plan this? That’s nice, thanks.

Neither of them deigned to respond, which was just as well. McCoy gripped the medical bag and wandered to the center of the compound. Romulan eyes pressed on him from all sides, and he found it vaguely difficult to breathe beneath their weight. No one spoke, or moved, or offered any slight hint of encouragement. Whatever progress he had made with them over the past months had vanished.

His brain was still slow, raw after so long alone. He couldn’t quite meet their gaze.

“UyaVeth’s given the word for the rest of you to be treated. I’m here to do the job.”

Tahren snorted, and stalked toward one of the far arched doorways. “To what end? To prolong this? No, I would rather die a painful death than to live here a moment longer than need be.”

“Tahren.” McCoy took a few steps after him. “You’ve already been treated. You’ve been improving for …” How long? Who knew how long he’d been locked away in the lab? Not him, for sure. “For at least a month. Tell them! Tell them how—”

“No more.” The Romulan’s lip curled. “You have given me your last injection, human. I will receive no more of your aid.” He turned his back and ducked into the darkened room.

“Tahren!” McCoy’s gut sank. Unlike the Vulcans, the Romulans had not invited him into their private areas, and he didn’t try to follow. Instead, he swung back around to the others.

“What about it?” He hoped the near despair didn’t show in his voice. Granite glares chilled the air. It didn’t matter—he had already been so cold for so long that a little extra ice meant nothing.  “What about it?” Irritation stir sluggishly. He seized it, grateful. “People, this can help you! You’ve seen what it’s done for Tahren, for Alera. Are you really going to refuse it, live in pain, just to be stubborn?”

Two more of them rose and stalked toward the rear doorways. Three, however, left the group and moved slowly toward him. McCoy nodded and slung the bag onto a nearby table. His fingers were still numb and clumsy with the cold—he hoped he would be able to handle the hypospray without fumbling or dropping it.

Now didn’t seem the time to bring that up.

“Good. Let’s get on with this.”

Three more joined them, and it was in the end all he could convince. Six of eleven. He barely managed to suppress his snarl of frustration.

Stupid idiots!

Of course, once UyaVeth found out they’d refused the treatment, all bets were off anyway. If the Supervisor decided that all the captives would be treated, there wasn’t much of anything that anyone could do against it. One way or another, it would happen.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, either. There were, it seemed, no simple choices anymore, or even simple emotions.

Indeed, Doctor. It would appear that emotions only ever complicate—”

Can it, Spock. I’m not in the mood.

“So.” Irrel’s boots moved into his field of vision as he packed away the hypospray and the treatment vials. “You will simply do as he commands now, without fight or even thought.” Her voice was dry, a delicate sneer. “So much for human honor.”

“What do you want from me?” McCoy glanced around, but let his gaze slide away before her eyes met his. He couldn’t face her yet. It was too much, too soon.

She gripped his arm, strong fingers digging deep. “I want you to consider that there are other ways to end this than a foolish drive toward synthetic suicide! I want—”

What?” McCoy tore away, and despite himself turned a glare on her. “I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but that compound was the only real idea we—”

“Please! It was the weak dream of a—” Irrel broke off, noting the interested glances from the other Romulans. She seized his arm again and pulled him toward the relative privacy of the near corner. “It was a weak dream from the mind of a weak race. It—”

“And your idea was better?” McCoy pried her fingers again from his bicep and stepped back. His arm was throbbing—no doubt he would have some nice finger-shaped bruises in the morning. Perfect. Why not? Everything else already hurt—his hand, his eyes, his brain. Why not add a few battle scars from a conflict with an overexcited Vulcanoid to the list? “Sabotaging the treatment regimen is a dead end! I’ve already told you, UyaVeth’s got half the technicians in the—”

“That is no longer our only other recourse.”

For a moment, he wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. “What do you mean, no longer? You’re telling me something significant’s changed in the last …” He growled, frustrated. “How long has it been, anyway?”

Irrel smiled tightly, and her eyes glittered, much as they had on that long-ago day when they had first met. “Indeed, much has changed.” But, not so long ago, surely. It seemed as though he’d been through six lifetimes in the past few months. “We and the power production Supervisors are no longer the only players in our little game.”

McCoy allowed that cryptic statement to distract him from his unanswered question. He glanced around, dropping his voice. “What are you talking about?”

“Aha.” Her smile, he noted, had trouble reaching her eyes. “You are interested.”

Careful, McCoy. He folded his arms and stepped back another pace. “I just want to know what you’re babbling about. Not too long ago, you were telling me that—”

“What would you say, McCoy, if I told you that the majority of the Chareni people have no knowledge of what is being done to us here?”

Of all the things she might have said, that was not what he had expected.

“What?”

“You have said you find it difficult to believe an entire people could support such a monstrosity. I admit to less idealism, but it seems that in this case you were more correct than you realized.”

It was as though she had programmed her universal translator to only render every third word. McCoy gaped.

“Wait. Just …” His mind spun. “Even assuming that’s true—and I’ve got to tell you, I’m not quite there yet—how do you happen to suddenly know all about it?” It was occurring to him, and quickly, that she could tell him just about anything and he’d have no way to either confirm or refute it. Given his primarily solitary status, he was probably the least well-informed prisoner on Charen.

Irrel rested casually against the wall. “A new guard entered the compound rotation several days after your … incident.”

“What, and the two of you got friendly?” Somehow, he couldn’t see it. “I’m not buying it.”

Perhaps you will allow me to continue before jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions.”

Unsubstantiated conclusions, Doctor? Surely—”

Shut up, Spock.

McCoy leaned his own shoulder against the smooth stone—partly because he needed the support, and partly in an attempt to match her unconcerned air. “Continue, then, by all means.”

Possibly, he wasn’t fooling anyone. Less than an hour out of his solitary confinement, he still felt like someone had taken a carrot scraper to his brain. It was quite likely that he wasn’t yet firing on all thrusters. It was also quite likely that Irrel was more than aware of it.

Heck, maybe she’d even planned for it.

Irrel’s dark eyes narrowed. “His name is Chiya. He is a part of an underground movement which has dedicated itself to finding the truth of Charen’s power processes. Some time ago—eight of your months, perhaps—they managed to plant a member, him, among the facility’s employees. He has been working security in the upper areas for most of that time, but due to several recent … unfortunate incidences, new guards were required in the lower areas, and he was among those transferred down.”

“Unfortunate incidences?”

Her shrug was languid. “This is, apparently, stable and well-paying work. Who knows how long it might have taken for a position to become available? His compatriots were forced to take action.”

A bitter taste filled his mouth. “They killed other guards to get him in?”

Her contempt raked at him. “What are they to you, McCoy? Another Charen to manacle you, to perhaps stick a phaser in your back?” McCoy looked away. Of course he had no love of their Chareni guards. But … murder was murder. “Once he was transferred to the lower areas, it was only a matter of time before he rotated through compound duty. Having observed us for several duty shifts, he of course chose to make contact with us, rather than our … Vulcan cousins.”

That wasn’t much of a surprise, really. The rage and hatred in the Romulan compound practically burned through the force field that held them.  It couldn’t have been a difficult choice.

“Us?”

Irrel smiled tightly. “I and a few others. You need not know more.”

“Of course not.” He shook his head, dragging a hand across his face. “Can I … can we back up a minute? You said the majority of the Chareni don’t know about us. But, obviously these people do. So, what gives? Assuming you’re telling me the truth—assuming he’s telling you the truth—what is actually going on out there?”

Her impatience buffeted him like a real, solid wave. “When Chareni scientists first discovered a method by which to convert copper-based blood cells to energy, the entire process was kept confidential, for fear that public opinion would halt the endeavor before it ever began.”

“Public opinion.” McCoy sighed. “At least the entire planet’s not stark raving mad, then.” It had been difficult, to believe that outright torture had been sanctioned by a whole race. Strangely, hearing that was not the case made him feel a little better. It didn’t change anything … but maybe it lessened, minutely, the weight that had lived in his chest since UyaVeth had first taken him to the processing chamber and showed him the glowing column of green, blood-based energy.

“Perhaps.” She shifted. “When the true source of their ‘safe, limitless’ power was discovered some decades later, the outcry against it was so severe that officials were forced to promise … other avenues. It was during that time that scientists, who had already made significant inroads into such an effort, perfected the synthetic compound of which you were,” her lip curled, “unaware.”

“We were both unaware.”

She was, apparently, back to ignoring him. “So. Officials were able to produce synthetic power, they unveiled it triumphantly to the masses, and life was once again grand. A stain on the story of planetary unity was scrubbed clean. Everyone back to their own lives, their own pursuits.” Irrel stepped toward him, her eyes burning. “Except that, as Supervisor UyaVeth has already informed you, the cost of such a conversion would have broken the planetary government. Given that very concrete stumbling block, it was easier to simply pretend that the alterations had taken place and continue the status quo, rather than admit that they could not possibly fund such a massive endeavor. So, the situation has continued to this day.”

Suddenly, McCoy wished that he was sitting. “So, they covered it up. Everyone else thinks that this has been over for decades.”

“There are stories, of course. Rumors, that everyone spreads and no one believes. Some might speculate over it in their cups, but very few believe it in the light of day.”

Right. It wasn’t hard to believe, Earth’s history was riddled with those kinds of tales—aliens and spies and Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) and Loch Ness monsters. The whole cover-up idea wasn’t actually as ridiculous as it sounded from the perspective of an artificially heated cell in the bowels of an underground power plant on a planet he’d never even heard of three months ago.

“Those few, though.” Irrel moved forward again, until they were almost touching. She was too close, much too far into his personal space, but her voice was so low that McCoy was forced to stay still just to hear her. He wondered if she was doing it on purpose. “Those few never believed that the transfer was accomplished. They had no proof, no support, but they continued on with their research, their activities, and now it has come to this.”

“To what?” McCoy demanded. “How are they going to prove it? Obviously the place is locked down tighter than a drum, if it’s taken them twenty years to sneak somebody in.” Possibly, it was more complicated than that. He didn’t have the time or energy for details. “Did your friend manage to sneak a camera in here? What’s their plan for letting the outside world know?”

“Letting the outside world know?” Her gaze was pitying, and McCoy wondered suddenly what he was missing. Because he was missing something … “That has been tried and failed, McCoy. Letting the people know is not enough this time.” The sparkle swirled in her dark irises. “No, we must be certain this time. There can be no more lies, no more half-truths told to a gullible populace who haven’t the fortitude to follow up on their demands. Chiya and his people aren’t here to expose the process. They’re here to destroy it.”

Destroy it?

That was what he’d been missing.

Earth’s history was riddled with this kind of thing, too …

“So, what? They’ll sneak a bomb down here and plant it in the processing chamber? Take out the power for the entire continent with a single explosion?”

“It might take months to smuggle such a device into the right places.” Irrel’s grin was triumphant, and he didn’t care for it one bit. “But your blood … We’ve seen what it does to the energy compound. Your blood, McCoy, will serve us just as well, and is already here, past all of the upper guards and security …”

He was exhausted, and confused, and terrified, and he couldn’t help it. McCoy laughed, and he didn’t care if she thought he was hysterical, or insane. He braced himself against the wall, and covered his face with his hands, and laughed until the tears tracked down his cheeks, slicking his palms with their salty moisture. When he finally managed to regain control and open his eyes, Irrel’s gaze was frigid.

“I’m going to wake up and be back on the Enterprise, aren’t I?”

“Pardon?”

“Because, this has finally gotten so insane that it can’t be anything but a dream. I don’t—”

“If you truly wish to—”

He interrupted her, savagely. “You want me to give my blood to a terrorist cell so that they can destroy the basic infrastructure of life for more than a third of this planet’s population!”

“McCoy—”

“There are hospitals fed by this energy, Irrel! And food production, water sanitation, dozens of other critical systems. People will die!”

“What possible—”

“And if what you’ve said is true, most of those people don’t even know! They’re not complicit in this, it isn’t their fault! They—”

“They are not innocent, McCoy. They have created a society structured around a demand which can only be met by—”

“I’m not going to argue philosophy with you!” He pushed away from the wall. She glared, and glanced toward the force field. He managed, barely, to lower his voice. “You’re a doctor! How do you reconcile that with the people who will die from this plan? The children, the elderly, the—”

“I am a prisoner.” Irrel’s face twisted. She seized his wrist, and his bones ground together beneath the force of her grip. “I am ill, and confined, and will die before my fortieth year. These people have lived off of my blood, McCoy. My blood—not yours. I do not expect you to understand, but they will receive no compassion from me. I have none to give them.”

For a moment, in the face of her burning rage, he did understand. He understood, and knew an overwhelming desire to just end it. They had the means—he had the means—and they had a plan, and it would be so easy to just forget that the Chareni were people too, with names and faces and families …

Doctor McCoy, I suggest you leave. Immediately.”

A rush of guilt, of shame, washed over him as he realized the direction of his thoughts. He was a doctor … a doctor … he had no business consenting, even contemplating consent, to destruction and death.

He would not lose himself to anger and fear, either hers or his own.

His head was throbbing, and he was so tired …

Bones …”

I’m going, I’m going, don’t get your knickers in a twist. His heart wasn’t in the grumbling, but it was a distraction from the heaviness, the panicked guilt.

“I can’t help you, Irrel.” He stepped back, and tugged at his arm. “Let go of me.”

Her face flushed a dark, angry olive. Her fingers tightened. “Do not refuse us, McCoy.”

Let go of me.”

McCoy ripped his wrist from her grasp, barely feeling the sting as her nails tore through his skin. He snatched the medkit from the table and stalked toward the force field, Irrel’s angry eyes burning holes in his shoulder blades as he went.

*****

He was shaking with reaction when he entered the Vulcan compound, and hoped somewhat dully that T’Pana, waiting to meet him at the entrance, would not notice. She did, of course—her sharp eyes missed nothing—but she merely fell into step beside him as they made their way toward the infirmary. It wasn’t until they neared the arch that she stopped him.

“Are you well, Doctor? We have been concerned over your recent lack of communication.”

“Well.” McCoy snorted gently, rubbing at the sandpapery stubble on his jaw. He still shaved—he found full beards too itchy to sport for long—but recently he had become lax about the discipline. It just didn’t seem to matter anymore. “How long has it been?”

Her eyebrow inched up. “Since you were last here? Two weeks, two days.”

So, he’d been locked away for two weeks. It seemed like two years. McCoy shrugged. “It’s been … a rough two weeks. Let’s just … can we just leave it at that?”

T’Pana’s cool eyes swept him, and she nodded. “If you wish.” Her eyes flickered to the infirmary door and back. “Doctor, Saval has died since you were last among us.”

The bottom dropped out of his stomach. He closed his eyes and leaned abruptly against the wall. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right …

“It was inevitable. You could have done nothing.”

“I know,” he muttered. McCoy took a long, deep breath, and stood upright again. “I know, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Indeed. You would not be a physician if you easily surrendered to death.” T’Pana’s words hit too close to home, after his silent argument with himself in the Romulan compound. He almost missed the next bit of her report. “Skanet’s health has recently degraded, most sharply. He is in the infirmary now.”

Not another one! And Skanet … McCoy remembered the elderly Vulcan’s attempts to make him feel welcome, and hurried inside the room, mouth dry. He found Skanet asleep in Saval’s recently vacated cot, with T’Vel meditating against the wall near the foot of her father’s bed. He dug out his scanner and waved it over the thin frame.

“His blood is actually … not bad.”

“Indeed.” T’Pana stepped up to his shoulder. “T’Vel has foregone her treatment doses for Skanet’s sake. He has improved much during the past week. We have hopes that, with further treatment, this may be only a temporary setback. He is elderly, but not infirm.”

It was a good, solid idea, given that T’Vel had been a—relatively—healthy volunteer. And now that he had doses for everyone, it wouldn’t matter.

“UyaVeth’s ordered treatment for all, apparently everything’s going swimmingly from his end. I’ve got it with me.” McCoy rattled his bag. “I would be interested to examine T’Vel before giving her another dose, since she’s been without for a few. See if there’s been any change in that time, how fast it’s clearing her system.”

“I am certain she will comply.”

McCoy switched off the scanner. “You’ve done well with him—everything I would have done.”

T’Pana nodded once, in the Vulcan way. “I am honored.”

Huh. It seemed you took what you could get. He went to place the scanner back in the bag, and fumbled it with his still-cold fingers. T’Pana caught it deftly. He grumbled irritation.

“Blasted fingers are so numb I can barely hold on to anything.”

She recalibrated the scanner and ran it over him, frowning. “Your core body temperature is low. Come.” She led the way to the cot tucked into the corner near the arched doorway, and motioned toward it. “Sit and rest. I will administer the injections.” She removed a blanket from the stack against the wall and handed it to him. McCoy took it, laughing a little helplessly. Two weeks of nothing to do, and he still needed to rest.

“Do you ever get tired of mopping up after me?” T’Pana tilted her head. “I mean, every time I come in here, there’s something else—”

“Do you tire of ‘mopping up’ after us?”

That stopped him. He tugged the blanket around his shoulders, glad for its extra warmth even in the Vulcan heat. “Touché, I guess.” She couldn’t possibly understand that. It didn’t really matter. “I’m a doctor though. I signed on for this kind of thing. So to speak.”

“Doctor, none of us ‘signed on’ for this.” It was true enough. McCoy hunched beneath the warm knit as T’Pana continued. “And, because my profession is not that of physician, does it mean that your life is of less value to me? Or my life? Or any other?”

“What?” He looked up, appalled. “No, of course not. I’m sorry. I …” He trailed off, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Indeed.” T’Pana hesitated, and then her fingers came down firmly on his shoulder. “We are none of us at our best now, I think.”

McCoy looked around, shocked. No, he hadn’t imagined it. They were there, Vulcan fingers, curled tightly around blanket and bone. He looked up into her eyes, and felt rather than saw her dry amusement.

“It is logical, is it not, for us to make some small concession, if possible, to the particular needs of our patients?”

He seized her wrist and squeezed, reveling in the feel of real live contact that was not attempting to bully him or force some concession from him. T’Pana remained quite still, and after a long moment, McCoy spoke, his voice hoarse. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you would have made one heck of a doctor.”

“Considering the source,” she gently removed herself from his grip, “I could interpret such a statement as nothing but the highest of honors.”

Honor again. Vulcans were obsessed with it, all of them.

Would you wish us ‘obsessed’ with something lesser, Doctor?”

Not at all, Spock. He looked down and away from her, hoping that he could effectively shield his all-too-human gratitude. Not at all.

“Rest. I will see to the others.”

McCoy settled back and closed his eyes, relaxing into the warmth of the room and blanket. His fingers were still cold and he tucked them under his arms, hoping the extra body heat would help. He heard T’Pana move into the main room and speak softly to someone, then another conversation, closer, with a voice he recognized. Rustling sounded nearby, and he opened his eyes to Salin settling onto the floor near his cot.

“Hey, kid.”

“Doctor McCoy.”

Already, Vulcans were trailing toward the door, where T’Pana had set his medical bag on a table and was withdrawing the hypo and treatment vials. So easy, here. If only everything was this easy …

“Do you require anything, Doctor?”

He turned his attention back to Salin, who had rested his back against the wall in what closely resembled a meditation posture. Did he require anything? At this point, what didn’t he require?

“Just talk.”

“Talk?”

“Yeah, it’s been …” The memory of the weeks of silence overtook McCoy without warning, and he shuddered. “Talk about something that isn’t … here.”

Salin’s eyebrow tilted up, and for a moment he remained silent. McCoy was just beginning to think that he had requested something a Vulcan couldn’t give—they weren’t generally known as big talkers, after all—when the young Vulcan asked, “Have you ever had occasion to visit Vulcan, Doctor?”

McCoy snorted, closing his eyes. “Once. Near ShiKahr. But, we didn’t see much and we weren’t there long and honestly, I had other things on my mind than the scenery.” Like Spock going crazy and Jim getting killed and himself practicing a massive, desperate deception under the nose of T’Pau, of all people …

Salin let that go without comment. “Most of Vulcan, you may know, is dry, even desert. However, some few larger bodies of water exist. I was reared in the Raal province, on the shores of the Voroth Sea.”

McCoy pulled his knees to his chest and leaned against the wall, letting the tension bleed from his muscles.

“It was always my intention to leave my home when I had grown—we are far enough from Vulcana Regar to be considered rural, although our community is not insubstantial, and I had no wish to remain in such a setting. However, during our confinement, I find that my thoughts have increasingly returned there.”

“Happens, kid.” McCoy mumbled. “Everyone wants to leave home at some point, it’s what growing up is all about. And most of us don’t really realize what we had there until we’re light years away.”

“Indeed.” Salin was silent for a long moment, and then continued. “My father is a mollusk farmer, our particular coastline abounds with them.” Mollusks or farmers? Didn’t matter. “My mother supplements their income with a tolik orchard and plomeek from her garden. We were not wealthy, but we had enough. It is cool there—perhaps not cool as you would consider it, but the breezes from the sea kept the heaviest heat from settling. My sisters and I spent many of our free hours outside the house, where it smells of brine and, in the spring, the spicy scent of the tolik blossoms …”

The hiss of a hypospray woke him, and T’Pana’s soft voice. “His electrolytes and iron are low again. I would prefer that we were able to supplement on a more regular basis. His temperature has also not yet returned to its baseline.”

McCoy blinked, and squinted up at her. “You done already?”

“It has been more than two hours, Doctor.” She shrugged. “It was as long as I could legitimately lengthen the process. There are, after all, only twenty-eight of us.”

It took him a minute to realize that she had drawn out the process so that he could sleep. The guards usually didn’t descend immediately after his business was finished—they couldn’t be bothered to pay that much attention to him—but once he was done, all bets were off on how long he did have left. Darned Vulcans. He would never figure them out. He managed a sleepy grin.

“Thanks. I’m actually a lot warmer now than I was. It’ll be fine.”

Warmer, and feeling much more centered. It seemed that a good, safe sleep, even only two hours’ worth, could do wonders. He spared a moment to inwardly roll his eyes at the irony that had made the Vulcan compound, of all spots, his safe place. T’Pana sat primly at the foot of his cot and motioned toward his wrist, which now clearly displayed the angry red marks from Irrel’s fingernails.

“I heard your argument in the Romulan compound, although I was unable to make out the words themselves. What has occurred?”

“Eavesdropping?” he drawled. She fixed him with a glare and he moved on, lifting a quick eyebrow in Salin’s direction and receiving the same in return. “It was …” He sighed, the heaviness returning. “It was a big old hairy mess, is what it was.”

He detailed Irrel’s news and requests—demands, really, there had been very little request involved—leaving nothing out, not even his own thoughts and struggles. T’Pana nodded slowly as he finished.

“Your conclusions and decisions in this matter are quite logical, Doctor.”

He had never been so glad to hear those words in his life. Spock, what you wouldn’t give to see me now. It’s pathetic. McCoy looked up from his study of the stitching on the blanket. “You agree, then? Because, it’s not my blood they’re using, it’s not me that I’m throwing under the bus for another—”

You are not …” She halted for a moment, confusion flickering in her eyes. “Responsible for anything that has occurred here.” Ha. Not going to touch that one, are you? Wonder if they ever had buses on Vulcan? “And it is neither logical nor morally acceptable to trade the lives of others for our own.” Her dark eyes roamed the low room. “Even with the power completely destroyed, we will be stranded here, with no way to contact the Federation, survive the Chareni elements, or defend against the Chareni themselves. They are surely better equipped to handle their own planet without artificial sources of energy than we are.”

It was not something he’d considered. “Yes, that’s … that’s true.” There didn’t seem anything else to say, and for a long moment the three of them sat in silence, listening to T’Lir and Skanet’s slow, deep breathing from across the room. McCoy was about to stretch and stand when Salin spoke, abruptly.

“Surely, though, there is something here that we can use to our advantage.”

McCoy coughed, startled, and T’Pana’s eyebrow rose nearly to her hairline. “Clarify.”

“You know more than I about such things, T’Pana, but it seems that there must be a way to sabotage a small section of the power grid, rather than its entirety. The power plant’s lower level, for example.”

She seemed thoughtful. “I suspect that is true, yes. It would hardly be practical to operate a system which was not abundantly subdivided in some manner.”

“Where would that get you, though?”

“Out of the lower level, for one.” Salin stood suddenly, and began to pace. “To communications equipment, perhaps.”

“Communications?” T’Pana sat back. “With whom do you propose to communicate? The Chareni people? We have no knowledge of—”

Salin shook his head. “The Federation.”

They stared. At least, McCoy stared. T’Pana … no, she was staring too, McCoy thought. There was no fancy Vulcan word around that one.

“How …” McCoy stopped, rethought, and tried again. “No one will be directly listening. What is your plan?”

“It is not fully formed yet.” Salin’s voice was dry. “I have only been considering it for five minutes. However, if I was able to reach a communications console and gain access, I may be able to send a coded diplomatic message on a Federation channel. Any monitoring Federation ship would eventually receive it, and seeing the diplomatic seal, would send it for decoding.”

It wasn’t … a completely insane idea. No, who was he kidding? It was completely insane, but it also had a frightening sort of plausibility.

“Who knows how long it would take for anyone to receive it?” McCoy crossed his arms. “We don’t know if there are any ships routinely out this way, or how close they get, or if anyone will even be paying attention if they are there.”

“Indeed.” Salin folded his hands behind his back. “It is a rather large unknown. There are Federation platinum mines on a nearby moon; however, it is not likely that the miners will be monitoring the appropriate channels.”

“Can you send a message on a channel the miners will monitor?”

Salin lifted an eyebrow. “I am not immediately familiar with every Federation communications channel, Doctor. Specific mining channels being outside my area of experience, I would be forced to send such a message on a broader band, with a higher probability of being discovered by the Chareni.”

“There would be consequences, even if the message is not discovered.” T’Pana’s voice was tight. “The power officials will surely know that their systems have been sabotaged. They may suspect us, especially if they move to secure our compounds before we return and find us missing.”

“Us?” Salin’s second eyebrow joined his first.

“Of course. This is a matter for which I am far better equipped than my current role.” She cast a glance at McCoy. “Despite that I would, apparently, be a ‘heck’ of a physician. Who will help you to navigate the computer systems, if they are encrypted or unclear? You surely do not claim knowledge of every communications panel in the quadrant, either.”

Her voice was tart, but McCoy suspected she was teasing the boy. Salin seemed to think so, as well.

“You are, of course, correct. I would not dream of approaching the endeavor without your aid.”

T’Pana nodded, once. “Indeed, I thought not.”

McCoy returned the conversation to its original course, sure that he was running out of time. “There would be a risk of being found out. There would also be a risk even if you weren’t directly caught. They might suspect that we had something to do with it.”

“They might also suspect that the terrorist cell was responsible. Surely they know if its existence.” Salin shrugged. “It is illogical to assume that they would endanger the bulk of their energy supply for the sake of retribution. And if some few of us are required to sacrifice, I would do so for the opportunity to alert the Federation to our situation.”

“And I.” T’Pana’s voice was firm, brisk.

“And I.” It was another chance, something he could work toward, could do to end this, rather than just sit around and follow UyaVeth’s orders. If in the end it cost him his life, at least he could say they had tried. “There’s still a pretty significant hurdle to jump, though. Can we convince Chiya and his people to go for something other than total annihilation?”

“Logically, if—”

Chareni voices sounded near the entrance to the compound, demanding McCoy’s return to the hallway. He stood reluctantly. “Looks like my time’s up. I just want to say, I doubt there’s much logical about this group. Consider their original plans.”

“Indeed.” T’Pana glanced toward the force field, where the guard was beginning to pace impatiently. “Go, Doctor. We will speak to the Romulans, perhaps to this Chiya himself, and see what details may be agreed upon. Somehow, we will get word to you.”

Somehow. The entire plan was insane. They were all complete, utter lunatics. McCoy eyed his two friends, glanced back at his patients, and left the infirmary in far better spirits than he had entered.

*****

Chapter 10

Dena VII was a gray, drab chunk of rock orbiting a medium-sized gas giant of equally drab coloring. The appearance of neither the planet nor its moon had any bearing on their current assignment; however, Spock noted the lack of aesthetics and cataloged it in his brain along with the other facts he had discovered during mission preparation which were perhaps of interest, but also irrelevant. He began initial scans of the pertinent area as it rotated into view, listening as Uhura contacted the mining authorities and Kirk requested an up-to-date report.

“There are definitely people alive down there, Captain. We haven’t been able to contact them, but we don’t know if that’s because of interference from the dilasantium or if their communicators were damaged. We haven’t had any success with getting any closer them, either. Every time we try to begin any kind of dig, we get tremors, and we don’t know what that’s doing beneath the surface—it might be holding up, but it also might be bringing the entire thing down on top of them.”

“Don’t make any further attempts,” Kirk instructed shortly. The captain had been in general quicker to annoyance in the months since McCoy’s death—nothing worrisome, M’Benga had assured Spock when he had approached the assistant CMO with his concerns, but simply a period of adjustment to the loss of a friend and adviser. So, it was simply something to be waited out. It would, however, be … gratifying when that particular adjustment mechanism had passed. “I’ll be down in ten minutes with my science officer and my chief engineer to assess the situation for ourselves.”

“Thank you, Captain. My assistant is transmitting the beam-in coordinates now.”

Kirk twisted around to Uhura, who concentrated for a moment and then nodded. “I have them, Captain. Sending them to the transporter room now.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” The captain returned his attention to the screen. “We’ll be down shortly, Chief Dryson.”

“We’ll be waiting, Captain.”

The screen went blank, and Kirk turned on Spock. “Communications, too? Is this mineral impervious to everything but a pickaxe, Mr. Spock?”

“So it would seem, Captain.” Spock finished his scan and straightened. “The scanner modifications appear to have yielded only minor improvements to the miners’ own scans. However, I am able to confirm at least seventeen life signs in the collapsed tunnels. I am also able to confirm the presence of triane gas in the area, although not its concentrations. It is likely the triane which was responsible for the explosion.”

“Triane?”

“A relative of methane. The composition varies by—”

“Never mind, Mr. Spock.” Kirk shook his head, a hint of a grin quirking one corner of his mouth. “As long as you know what you’re talking about.”

Spock raised an eyebrow. “Always, sir.”

Kirk’s grin widened. “Of course. I wouldn’t expect any less.”

“Of course.”

Kirk shook his head, then nodded toward the turbo lift. “Shall we, Mr. Spock?”

“Indeed, Captain.”

He followed the captain toward the lift, halting when Kirk swung toward Uhura. “Lieutenant, I want you to set up a continuous monitor of all channels for any communications originating in this sector while we’re in orbit. Anything that comes across, record and log. There’s been no trouble reported with the Chareni, but given that our last dealings were not entirely friendly, I don’t want to take the chance that they’ll decided to take exception to the presence of a starship in the area and try to start something. If they head this way, I want to know about it.”

Uhura nodded, already beginning adjustments to the communications panel. “Aye, sir.”

Kirk and Spock entered the turbo lift, and in short order were materializing with Scott in Greg Dryson’s office. The chief of the Dena VII mining colony greeted them with noticeable relief. “We’re glad you’ve come. We’re running out of time before we have to start making the tough decisions, and we’ve had little to no forward motion on our end during the last twenty-four hours.”

“Well, we’ll have to see if we can change that.” Kirk shook the proffered hand, then gestured toward the office door. “I see no reason to delay. Can you take us to the site?”

“Of course, Captain. This way.”

Two lifts and a mining tram brought them to the southern section of the mine. They walked the last tunnel, and finally came upon a large group of miners and heavy equipment gathered near a dark flood of rock and dirt that blocked any further progress. Spotlights brightened the entire area, and most of the equipment idled, but the miners themselves were seated on boulders and gear and the tunnel floor. They rose and converged upon the Starfleet men as they approached.

“Quiet!” Dryson called over the general clamor, and the shouting and questions slowly died away. Dryson scanned the group, then indicated a man near the rear. “Jenning!” Jenning pushed his way to the fore, and Dryson rapped out quick introductions. “Commander Spock and Lieutenant Commander Scott are the science officer and the chief engineer of the Enterprise. Take them through what we’ve managed to this point.”

“It’s not much,” Jenning sighed, pushing his way back through the pack of miners with Spock and Scott in tow. And indeed, when he had finished with the brief, Spock was forced to agree. Other than a vague idea of how far the slide extended from their position, it was not, in fact, much. He removed his modified tricorder and began to take readings. Jenning watched avidly, and from a position rather too near to Spock’s left shoulder. “Can that thing really read all the way through the slide, Commander?”

“Indeed,” Spock murmured, stepping away to continue his scans. “This instrument is more sophisticated than any scanning equipment you possess in this colony.” He made a minute adjustment. “With the possible exception of your platinum locators.”

“Do you think I could have a go?”

“Unfortunately, as Chief Dryson has noted, we are short on time. Your inexperience would only delay our work.”

No reply was immediately forthcoming, and Spock continued on down the length of the slide until Kirk’s soft voice sounded near his other shoulder. “I don’t think you’re making any friends, Mr. Spock.”

Spock looked up and around, locating Jenning with a group of other miners who appeared to be muttering and staring his direction. He reviewed his interaction with the man briefly, and found no flaw in his response. “His desire to ‘have a go’ would have been detrimental to our overall timeline. I was unaware that that our purpose here was to make friends, Captain.”

What about just aiming for not giving the impression that that computer you keep inside your skull has no time or use for the rest of us, Mr. Spock? Would that be too much for you?”

He ignored that.

Kirk chuckled, then motioned to the tricorder. “What have you found?”

“Possibilities, sir.” He called for Scott, who rose from his inspection of the slide itself and joined them. “I have confirmed the miners’ estimates regarding the extent of the slide—it appears to be roughly sixty-seven feet at its widest point.”

Roughly sixty-seven feet, Mr. Spock?” The captain folded his arms.

“Yes, Captain.”

Kirk’s eyebrows drew together. “You can’t be … more specific?”

Spock paused, and glanced down at his tricorder. “I agree that it is a crude estimate, Caption. However, given the dilasantium involved, a more accurate scan is—”

“Never mind, Spock.” Kirk seemed to be suppressing a laugh, and when Spock looked at Scott, the engineer was just turning around to cough vigorously into his elbow. It was possible that they were teasing him, although he wasn’t certain he understood the purpose or found the timing appropriate. Decimal points mattered—it was a fact that had been proven to him time and again. It was foolish to venture out into space using only whole numbers. He hesitated again, then decided to simply move on without addressing the issue.

“The slide is roughly sixty-seven feet at its widest point, and considerably less in some places.”

“Aye.” Scott shook his head. “Fer all the good it’ll do us. She’s completely unstable, Captain. Move one rock and ya’ll get ten or twenty more fallin’ down around ya. There’s nae diggin’ through it from here, sir. Nae wi’ what we got and at the angle we’re workin’ with.”

“Hmm.” Kirk chewed on his lower lip for a moment, then looked back to Spock. “You said possibilities, Mr. Spock?”

“Aye, sir. Although I was unable to scan for any distance beyond the slide, it would seem that the triane levels immediately on the other side are negligible. Using the Enterprise’s phasers, it may be possible to drill through the outer crust at a point just inside the sealed area. Leaving a two to three foot rock ‘cushion,’ as it were, between the phaser burst and the inner tunnel, and considering the low triane levels, the probability of igniting the gas with the phasers is low.”

“Low?”

“Approximately six hundred thirty-eight to one.”

“Approximately.” Kirk grimaced, eyeing the mound of jumbled rock behind them. “And what would be the purpose of this hole we’d be drilling? Could we be beam the miners out, without so much material to go through?”

“I wouldna advise it, sir.”

“Agreed. Even given the transporter modifications, such an attempt may prove risky. However, it is quite possible that a lack of solid dilasantium-based rock between the Enterprise and the affected area, even in such small circumference as would be provided by a phaser burst, would allow supplies and equipment to be transported through. Assuming at least some of the miners inside are still functional, we may be able to communicate with them and to learn more about the situation inside the sealed area.”

Kirk nodded slowly. “That sounds promising. Mr. Scott, we’d need to be exactly accurate—there’s not any room for error. Can the phasers handle something this delicate?”

“Oh, aye, Captain.” Scott appeared offended by the inquiry, as was his usual wont when the abilities of his ship seemed to be in question. “If I canna do somethin’ as simple as drillin’ a hole in the ground, I dinna deserve ta be on the Enterprise, or any other starship.”

The task was by no means simple—in fact, it presented any number of complexities. This was apparently yet another instance of Mr. Scott’s tendency to exaggerate the simplicity and/or complexity of tasks, as befitted his estimation of the situation at hand. Still, given that he had no doubts regarding Scott’s ability to accomplish said task, Spock chose not to raise the issue of the oversimplification presented by the chief engineer.

“Of course.” Kirk frowned for a moment, deep in thought, and then nodded. “Very well, gentlemen. As this seems to be our best bet for the moment, let’s do it. You two get back up to the ship and get started, I’ll let Dryson know what it is we’re doing.”

By the time that Kirk had convinced Dryson of the necessity of their plan, Scott had finished the required adjustments to the phasers and Spock had modified a number of tricorders and communicators for transport. Kirk was muttering beneath his breath when he returned to the Enterprise.

“Man is awfully cautious for someone with no other options.” The captain shook his head, and punched the wall comm. “Mr. Scott? Are we ready?”

Aye, sir. Ready and waitin’.”

“Proceed.”

Aye, sir.”

The actual drilling lasted for 46.3 seconds. Another twenty passed in silence while, Spock assumed, Scott confirmed his readings, and then the engineer’s voice snapped through the comm.

Done, sir. Mr. Spock, there’s … three and a half feet of rock between our tunnel and the sealed-in section.”

“Very well, Mr. Scott.” Spock made the necessary adjustments to the transporters, and activated the controls. The stack of modified equipment on the transporter pads shimmered and faded from view. Kirk hovered near the transporter controls.

“Well, Mr. Spock?” he finally asked, approximately 7.3 seconds after Spock had expected the question. “Did it work? Were you able to get the equipment through?”

Spock completed his readings. “Controls indicate a completed transport, Captain. Given the somewhat tenuous accuracy of our equipment when dealing with dilasantium, I cannot—”

“This is Captain James Kirk of the Enterprise.” Kirk hit the comm button and was speaking before he could finish. Spock tilted his head, waiting. Transporter controls were all well and good, but too many variables factored into this equation—the condition of the miners, the condition of the equipment they had just beamed down, the success of his modifications to said equipment … “This is Kirk, from the Enterprise. Will anyone hearing this transmission please respond?” They waited for long, silent minutes, and Kirk tried again. “This is Kirk, from the Enterprise. Anyone receiving this message, please respond.”

Another long pause followed the attempt. Kirk shook his head.

“What happened, Mr. Spock?”

Spock reviewed the transporter controls, and his readings. “Impossible to say with any certainty, sir. A combination of factors prohibit—”

Crackling static cut him off, and then a voice, faint but firm.

“Enterprise? Captain Kirk? This is David Galloway, crew chief. Are we ever glad to hear your voice!

****

He was dozing, the most he ever really managed in the dim blue lighting, when the sound of bolts scraping open jolted him awake. Usually, UyaVeth warned him. McCoy clawed his way out from under the thin blanket, too intent on putting up a defensive front to note that the single slim figure which slipped inside bore no resemblance to the tall, bulky Supervisor. He was nearly to his feet when he recognized T’Pana, who had stopped near one of the tables and was taking in his laboratory with her usual raking glance. Her gaze was flat as he approached.

“It is little wonder that you are hypothermic. The Chareni have much for which to answer.”

“What are you …” He stopped, utterly baffled. “What are you doing here?”

“An agreement was reached more quickly than we imagined, and the time to act was either now, or weeks from now. There was no time to alert you—we were forced to simply obtain you on our way.”

McCoy rubbed his hands briskly and blew on his fingers, his usual routine to restore circulation after waking. “How long has it been?”

T’Pana’s eyes flitted around the lab again. “Two nights. This is the third.”

“Huh.” McCoy squinted toward the doorway. “In a hurry, are they?”

“Indeed.” Her voice was dry, but he knew Vulcan humor and this wasn’t it. “Do not trust him, McCoy.” She spoke so softly that he was forced to lean in. “He may have agreed to this, but he is hiding something. He has some other agenda. Be vigilant.”

He nodded, biting off his response when another figure loomed in the doorway. The man was a member of an underground group out to kill thousands and destroy the Chareni way of life—of course he was hiding something. Vigilance went without saying.

Still, he appreciated the warning.

“Come, quickly!”

And speaking of … McCoy eyed the tall, hairy figure. He wasn’t certain what to expect, but Chiya seemed much like every other Chareni of his—admittedly limited—acquaintance. He was tall and broad, with charcoal gray coloring. His mane of hair was maybe longer than others McCoy had seen, but he had no way to judge the significance, or even if there was any. He wore the simple guard’s uniform, of course, with its insignia pendant on the shoulder. His gait was the most noticeable difference—smoother, less brazen. Whatever his intentions now, this was not someone accustomed to open bullying with either weapons or authority. The dark eyes bored into McCoy as he stepped into the hallway.

“So. You are the human.”

“I am.” McCoy met the Chareni’s gaze for a brief instant, long enough to telegraph that he had no intention of being intimidated, then looked away, scanning the hall. It would be just their luck to be caught before they ever even got started.

“No one will find us.” Chiya pushed back into his field of vision. “My partner for this night is … indisposed. The other pairs are patrolling their own sections, they have no reason to be in this area.”

Indisposed? McCoy narrowed his eyes, but before he could speak Irrel appeared, stepping around Chiya’s bulk. “You need not worry, McCoy.” Her voice had not lost its subtle insult, the scorn which told louder than words what she thought of his reluctance to do the Chareni harm. He didn’t care—what Irrel did or didn’t think of him had, at some point, ceased to matter. “He is not dead. He will, however, find himself quite ill for the next several days.”

“Fine.” As long as there had been no killing or any other permanent damage, he didn’t really want to know. McCoy twisted around and located Salin, standing immobile against the near wall. The young Vulcan nodded silently and McCoy drifted toward him, eager to put some distance between himself and Chiya. He took in the last section of their immediate hallway, curious if Irrel had been brazen enough to come alone. She had not—he finally located Tahren, standing slightly behind the Romulan doctor and their Chareni escort.

Well. This was a surprise.

“The two of you decide to play nice for a while?”

Tahren shrugged fluidly. “It was an endeavor of which we could both approve.”

Contacting the Federation? Unease stirred in McCoy’s gut. Somehow, he didn’t believe it. It was true that successfully contacting the Federation could only improve the Romulans’ situation as well, but … something still didn’t seem right. Something in their postures, or expressions—something in the little he had learned about them over the past months—warned him that T’Pana was right. There was definitely something else going on here.

“Well.” McCoy eyed the odd group. “What next?”

Chiya moved closer, looming over him, and McCoy bit back a grumble. The Chareni, he reminded himself, didn’t believe in personal space. At least, not when trying to establish dominance. It was really too bad for them that this little trick didn’t work the same with humans—his reaction was less intimidation and more a very real desire to inflict damage somewhere impolite. Teach him to get too close. “There is no need to put yourself at risk, McCoy.” He drew a—very large—syringe out of the pack attached to his belt. “Provide us with your blood now, and you need not accompany us.”

Hadn’t he just been assured that ‘no one will find us’? McCoy snorted. “Nothin’ doin’.” He snatched the equipment from the guard’s hands. “You’re not getting rid of me that easy—I’m not handing over the good stuff until I know exactly where it’s going.” He stuffed the syringe into his waistband, after making good and sure that the needle was properly covered. The last thing he needed was to stab himself somewhere fun halfway to their destination.

Chiya’s whine was more of a growl. He spun abruptly and stalked down the hallway. Irrel shot a dark glare in McCoy’s direction, cut off abruptly when T’Pana stepped between them. It was odd, seeing them together—fire and sea, fury and cool compassion. The incongruity was dizzying.

Of course, that could also be the anemia.

“So, how did we manage this?”

“It was not difficult. We first, of course, discussed the plan with Skanet. He agreed that such an attempt would be logical, given our circumstances.”

Of course. Apparently, though, that meant that Skanet had recovered at least enough to discuss crazy plans—though no Vulcan would ever use that word—and covert operations. McCoy was glad to hear it.

“Knowing that Irrel was Chiya’s contact, we waited until a time when no guards were present and requested to speak with her.” T’Pana’s voice was, he thought, disgustingly even, given the tension and their increased pace. He himself was panting like an Andorian sheepdog from the unexpected exertion. “We … strongly reinforced your decision, and explained our alternative proposal. As no other option was available, it was only logical that she agree to approach him.”

Only logical. Except, they were dealing with Romulans and Chareni here, not Vulcans. It probably wasn’t the time to bring that up. He wondered what kind of discussion had led to a need to ‘strongly reinforce’ his refusal to donate his blood toward wholesale chaos, and was a little glad that he had missed it.

“And it had to happen now?”

“He will not be assigned again to the appropriate rotation for another six of their weeks—which converts to nearly eight of ours.” Salin shrugged. “We saw no reason to delay.”

“You’re ready? You know what you’re going to say?”

“Indeed. The datastream will need to be succinct, small enough to hide amongst other everyday transmissions once set on a repeating frequency, but I believe I will be able to convey enough pertinent data to alert the Federation of the need to investigate.”

It was one of the big questions that McCoy had been pondering for the last few days, alone in his lab. Could they piggyback their transmission onto something else and make it look natural? Because, if it was discovered, there would be no second chance. Not for them, or for any prisoners who came after them. It was a frightening responsibility. Still, he thought, sneaking a glance at Salin and T’Pana, if anyone was going to attempt it, these would be the two he would lay his money on. Maybe he’d be more comfortable with Spock here to oversee things—more as a matter of familiarity than a lack of trust in his current companions—but … of course, if Spock was here, it would mean there was no need for any of the rest of this anyway.

Could it work? Really? Was there even the smallest chance that he could possibly see his friends again? His daughter? That he might someday go to sleep on a real bed, in a room where he wasn’t freezing, and eat food that didn’t leave him anemic and cramping?

He didn’t want to think about it. He couldn’t think about it. If he allowed himself to believe in it, to hope for it, and things went wrong …

No. McCoy jerked his mind back into the present moment, just in time to keep from slamming into Chiya’s back as he rounded a corner. He stepped back, and found himself face to face with a shining, solid wall set with a single, large, double-paneled door. A keypad blinked on one side, beneath a plate bearing an actual deep keyhole. A matching plate and keyhole set into the wall on the opposite site, beneath what looked like a retina scanner. The entire wall holding the door mechanism was protected by a shimmering force field.

McCoy felt his mouth fall open. “Who puts security like this in a power plant?” He’d thought he’d grown accustomed to living behind locks, but the sheer scope of the barriers between him and the outside world sparked a sensation very near to claustrophobia. He swallowed, hard, and ignored it.

Chiya snorted, already moving toward the near wall. “Energy authorities who hold intelligent, technologically-advanced prisoners in this place. A government which has lied for decades to its people regarding the source of their power, and knows that if it is discovered, the consequences will be dire.” He felt along the top of the wall, tugging at an area McCoy had assumed to be a shadow. A panel came away, and even from his position against the opposite wall, McCoy saw the telltale green glow.

This was it. His mouth went dry.

“Well, McCoy?” Irrel’s voice was nearer than he had expected. He jumped, and swore silently. “We are, it seems, waiting on you.”

Right. McCoy pulled the syringe out of his waistband, removing the cap with careful fingers. He had no way to disinfect, so he could only hope that …  T’Pana handed him an alcohol swab, and he flashed her a startled grin of thanks.

That’s right.  He was plotting with Vulcans.  They didn’t do unprepared.

“Do you require assistance, Doctor?” T’Pana’s voice was low.

“No, I’ve got it.” He rubbed his arm, locating the vein, and slid the needle gently in. So far, so good. “What will this shut down?” he asked, more to distract himself than anything.

Irrel’s annoyed hiss reached his ears seconds before Chiya’s response. “The eastern third of the lower level, if we’re fortunate.”

“And we’re sure it’ll get this door?” The blood was running into the syringe now, dark and red.

“Of course.” Chiya’s eyes were riveted to the proceedings, and McCoy found that he was less than comfortable with the Chareni’s fascination. “Do you think I would take such steps without being certain? My compatriots have been in possession of complete blueprints of this plant for several years. I memorized them before being inserted here.” The Chareni crossed the hallway, and the dark face pushed close. “You accuse me of being unprepared?”

McCoy flicked the needle out of his arm, and held out the blood-filled syringe. “Just checking.”

Chiya glared, then snatched the syringe and wheeled back toward the open power junction. Pressure against his arm drew McCoy’s attention. T’Pana pressed a square of folded linen against the needle mark, securing it with a length of medical tape. He nodded his thanks and turned back in time to see Chiya insert the needle into the glowing conduit and depress the plunger.

For the length of maybe thirty seconds, they waited in silence, watching the glow from the open panel dim and finally disappear. And then, abruptly, the lighting died.

*****

It was a grim group of officers that surrounded the conference table. Kirk leaned back in his chair and motioned to Chekov. “Mr. Chekov, would you please update everyone on the situation, so that we’re all on the same page?”

The young Russian stood. “Aye, sir.” He folded his hands behind his back and pivoted to face the length of the table. “Ve have been in contact with the trapped miners for just ower two hours. Chief Galloway and his crew have scanned the area using Mr. Spock’s modified tricorders, and we have received and compiled the data.” He tapped the control console, and an indistinct, vaguely circular map appeared on the overhead screen. “The miners are trapped in an area of roughly 2500 square feet, ceiling twenty feet on one end and tapering to five at the edge of the slide.” He moved toward the overhead and tapped the far end of the area. “Triane levels are highest here. The miners were sinking a shaft in this spot—it is likely that a spark from their drill ignited an unseen pocket of triane, resulting in the explosion that brought down an unstable section of the roof in the tunnel.”

Maria Kentev from Geology shook her head. “They’re lucky it caved in down the line instead of bringing the whole roof down right on top of them.”

“Indeed, Lieutenant.” Luck was a fabrication, and therefore not worth his consideration. However, the miners had been … quite fortunate. Spock joined Chekov. “It seems that three of the miners were caught beneath the slide. Another three have succumbed to wounds received at the time of the explosion.”

“So.” Trella made a note on her data pad. “That leaves twenty-four alive yet.”

He hesitated. “Perhaps.”

“Perhaps?” She looked up. “What haven’t you told us?”

Chekov motioned again to the area containing the aborted shaft. “Five of the miners were far enough avay from the flash point to avoid the immediate explosion, yet fell into the shaft when the ground beneath them collapsed in the aftermath. They have not been heard from—the other miners do not know …” He hesitated, glancing at the captain and Spock before continuing. “They do not know for certain whether they surwived, or what has become of them.”

It was a tender topic, and would no doubt become even more so before the end of the briefing, considering the only logical alternatives that lay before them. Spock braced himself for the inevitable arguments, but Sulu spoke before anyone could question Chekov’s odd hesitation.

“Has anyone tried to reach them? Tried climbing down, or—”

“The levels of triane in the shaft make such an attempt untenable.” Spock indicated a set of numbers on the overhead, directly beneath the shaft. “Levels are three times as high in the shaft as in the area directly above it, and five times as high as in the opposite end of the cavern, against the slide.”

Trella studied the numbers, nodding. “Yes. The levels in the open area are not immediately dangerous, although the longer the miners are exposed without ventilation, the more likely they are to develop some permanent sequelae. Given the length of time they’ve been trapped, they’ll certainly need detoxification and at least low-level treatment. The levels in the shaft, though …” She paused, obviously calculating in her head. “Exposure to that amount of triane would cause almost immediate disorientation, and unconsciousness in fairly short order.”

“They did try it, anyway,” Scott spoke up from across the table. “Had ta haul the poor bugger back up before he reached the bottom, barely conscious. Nae one’s gettin’ ta the bottom of that thing in one piece.”

A long silence followed Scott’s declaration. Finally, Kirk stretched and rubbed at his jaw. “Doctor, given what you’ve just said, is there any chance that those five miners could still be alive down there?”

She nodded, slowly. “There’s a chance, Captain—although not for much longer. If they’re still alive, I wouldn’t give them more than another twelve hours, at the most. Not at those levels.”

Tell them, Spock! Tell them how that boy insists that his brother is still alive down there! Or is it all just too illogical for you? Too much ‘human emotion’ for you to give them any kind of credence? Let me tell you, I’ll put human intuition up against—”

“Captain?” Chekov’s tentative voice interrupted the doctor’s rant, pulling Spock’s errant attention back to the briefing at hand. “Crew Chief Galloway vas rather insistent that—”

“Ensign.” Spock stepped around Chekov before he could drop that topic into the center of an already tense situation. “Thank you. You may be seated.”

You unfeeling, green-blooded computer …”

Chekov hesitated, then took his seat.  Spock motioned for Scott to join him.

“We have been studying the variables involved in a rescue attempt, and have determined that the most viable option is to cut through another section of the crust with our phasers in an attempt to widen a large enough gap that the dilasantium will not interfere with life-form transport. It will require complete access to the cavern—we will be unable to leave a ‘cushion’ as before; however, the moon’s atmosphere, although quite thin, will be sufficient to sustain the trapped personnel for the time it will take to complete the operation and beam them aboard.”

Kirk frowned. “What about the triane, Mr. Spock? Won’t the phasers ignite it?”

“We’ll need ta pump out the triane before we start cuttin’, Captain.” Scott’s eyes flickered to Spock. Spock knew that the man was feeling the same trepidation as Ensign Chekov, in the face of the miners’ rather forceful arguments. It was only natural—the Enterprise’s chief engineer could be nearly as emotional as the late Dr. McCoy. Spock took up the report again.

“Once the pump is in place, Captain, the cavern should be cleared of any significant amount of triane within two to three hours. At that point, we can begin cutting.”

“What about the shaft, Mr. Spock?” Chekov blurted. “The more triane we pump out, the more we’ll pull up from below, and who knows how large that pocket is?”

Spock turned his gaze on the ensign, who subsided. Kirk, however, nodded thoughtfully. “It’s a valid point, Mr. Spock. What are we going to do about the shaft?”

Good for you, kid! It might not matter to the—”

You forget yourself, Doctor. You are not the only being to know that life matters. Do not accuse me of barbarism for simply presenting the logic of the only available plan which may successfully free the remainder of the trapped personnel before they succumb to more severe consequences.

Spock straightened, clasping his hands tightly behind his back. “We will require the shaft to be sealed in order to proceed, sir.”

He braced himself for the usual explosion.

It didn’t come, of course. At least, not audibly.

You can’t do this, Spock! There’s got to be another way, those are people down there and you don’t know that they’re dead, you can still try to save them …”

Kirk blanched. “There are men down there, Mr. Spock.”

“Indeed.” He shifted, trading glances with Scott. The engineer looked down, away. Spock continued. “It is regrettable, and a fact that certainly deserves a more in-depth analysis before we proceed. That does not change the fact that the shaft must be sealed in order to effect a rescue.”

“Dr. Trella.” Kirk swung on his CMO, who had been noticeably silent during the exchange. “You said that the miners in the shaft might have twelve hours left.”

She nodded, slowly. “They might, Captain.”

He looked back around to Spock and Scott. “And there’s no way to tell? You only picked up seventeen life signs, Spock—which doesn’t add up anyway based on our figures from the miners. There’s no way to tell whether any of those missing life signs are because those personnel are dead, or if it’s just our usual scanner troubles with the dilasantium?”

Scott hesitated, wincing, and then shook his head. “Nae, sir. And, it’s likely we wouldna be able ta tell even if we could scan the cavern with any certainty. There’s a good deal more dilasantium between us and the bottom of that shaft—nae chance of seein’ what’s goin’ on down there from up here.”

Kirk’s face was openly torn. Spock drifted closer, hoping by his presence to offer support. The captain, he knew, took such decisions extremely personally. He agonized over them.

No, McCoy was certainly not the only being to know that life mattered.

Kirk fell back in his chair and sat in silence for a long moment. Then, “Doctor. Is there any way that we could get one or two of those miners down there safely? Anything we could give them to counteract the effects of the triane long enough to take a look at the situation and see what we’ve got?”

Trella fiddled with her data pad. “There is a … not a counter-agent, but a substance which may ward off the more severe immediate effects of the triane for a time. It’s a similar theory to radiation counter-agent, if not as effective.”

“What about it, gentlemen?” Kirk turned on them. “Do you think the miners would be willing to give it a go?”

“Oh, aye, nae doubt, sir.” Scott nodded eagerly. “They’re desperate ta get down there. One of the lads has a brother at the bottom, even—keeps insistin’ that he’s sure he’s alive, that he’d know if the boy was dead.”

Typical, illogical humanity. It was, however … understandable, given the circumstances and the species involved. Kirk nodded thoughtfully, but Trella cut in again. “Captain. I remind you that this is only a marginally effective measure at best. We have no idea of the concentrations of triane at the bottom of that shaft, and therefore no idea what dosage to administer. The miners have also been exposed to triane already for more than two days—they won’t be in the best of condition as it is. The dose required might have negative effects, it might wear off too soon, it might not be enough when they get down there. We may simply be trading one life for another, or even adding to the death count.”

This is insane! We’ve got one of the most advanced ships and the best-trained crews in the quadrant, and you’re telling me that the best we can come up with is either ‘let them die’ or ‘we can try, but you might just kill even more of them while you’re at it’?”

Emotionally expressed, but for once, Spock found himself in agreement. He glanced to Kirk, who had subsided once again into his chair and was chewing thoughtfully on a thumbnail. Had the doctor—Dr. McCoy, that was—been actually present, he would have been in full tirade, baiting Spock and lecturing Jim and in general creating a loud, chaotic nuisance until their argument had produced either an unforeseen solution or Kirk had sent them off on a flurry of desperate attempts to find some way around the inevitable …

Yes. It was the general pattern of their briefings in such crises, and had been for some years, since McCoy’s earliest days on the Enterprise. Unease stirred in Spock, and as he studied Kirk he found that it was not easily controlled. On his own Kirk was a quick thinker, an impressive tactician, and a charismatic commander. Perhaps his most undeniable gift, however, lay in that, given the correct tools, James T. Kirk had navigated a path between sometimes ruthless logic and often flagrant emotionalism to create for himself a brilliant equilibrium—one that made him far more than a match for any opponent, be it Klingon, planet killer, politician, or, indeed, caved-in mine.

And now, that balance was … off.

Kirk was still Kirk, of course. He would, in time, find a way to battle any challenge placed before him with somewhat incredible rates of success. It was his nature. He had depended upon the doctor for more than just personal friendship, however—he had also heavily depended upon McCoy’s opinions and guidance and expertise. It was logical to expect that, until he had completed the adjustment period of which Dr. M’Benga had spoken, the captain might experience a few of his more … indecisive tendencies on a stronger scale. Spock had, for one, observed in the past a remarkable penchant for Kirk to second-guess himself—and he was doing so even now, if Spock was not mistaken.

So? What are you going to do about it?”

Indeed. What did he have to offer? Their options were quite limited, and time was growing short.

“Dr. Trella. You said the miners in the upper area are in no immediate danger. Will that change at any point in the next twelve hours?”

She sighed. “There’s no way to be absolutely certain, but I wouldn’t expect it, Captain.”

Kirk nodded, his mind already, as McCoy would have phrased it, ‘seven sectors away.’ Finally, he stirred and looked around, as if surprised to find himself still surrounded by people. “Let’s reconvene in two hours.” Spock recognized this ploy—Kirk needed more time to think, and without being stared at by his staff. The bulk of the group nodded and began to gather their belongings. Scott drifted closer.

“Captain? Do ya want me ta begin preparations ta start pumpin’ the triane out of the cavern?”

“I do.” Kirk looked around, frowning. “But preparations only. Nothing happens down in the mines until I specifically give the word.”

“Aye, sir.” Scott hurried out, and Spock approached as the last of the department heads left the room.

“Captain? May I be of any assistance?”

Kirk shook his head. “No thanks, Spock. I just …” He looked up, and the hazel eyes were hard. “I don’t like losing anyone, and I especially don’t like the idea of helping death along. I won’t do that.”

“Indeed, that is wise. It is in general a … difficult situation.”

Kirk nodded, already sunk back in thought. “I’m sure you have preparations to make as well, Mr. Spock. You might as well see to them.”

It was a dismissal, and Spock accepted it. As he exited the conference room, pondering the events of the briefing, Trella’s voice sounded again in his mind. “The miners have also been exposed to triane already for more than two days—they won’t be in the best of condition as it is.”

The entire idea of sending any sort of triane counter-agent to the trapped miners—who had no medical knowledge beyond first aid and who were surely suffering hunger and exposure themselves—and asking them to attempt a rescue on their own, or even a surveillance of the shaft, was highly illogical and fraught with the possibility for disaster. And yet …

What if it was not a miner making the attempt?

Spock? What are you thinking?”

Transport of a life-form through the small hole they had drilled with the phasers was inadvisable, but even with that, the odds were still in favor of success. Twenty-three to one was not as certain as he might have liked, but it was still probable that he would emerge unscathed.

Are you insane? Jim will never go for—”

The captain need not be forced to participate in this decision, Doctor. Spock turned and strode briskly toward the nearest turbo lift.

You are insane. He’ll skin you alive if he finds out that—”

Doctor. You insisted that something more must be done. You inquired what it was that I intended to do. Will nothing satisfy you?

He’s a big boy, Spock. It’s his job to make these calls.”

Your point is valid; however, if presented to the captain, this option will not increase the ease of his decision. It may, in fact, complicate matters. Therefore, I see no advantage in doing so. It is logical to make some attempt to lighten this burden, given that he has not yet had adequate opportunity to complete his own adjustments, either personal or professional, to your death.

And you think this is the way to do that. Logical, my—”

The argument ceased abruptly as he entered sickbay, awash with preparations for the upcoming influx of patients. It was just as well. The logic behind his argument, and therefore his entire plan of action, was indeed beginning to seem … tenuous. He located Trella in her office, studying the inventory files. She did not hide her surprise at finding him in her doorway.

“Mr. Spock. Can I help you?”

“Doctor. I wish to borrow a quantity of the triane counter-agent of which you spoke in the briefing.”

A frown flickered across her face. “Has the captain—”

“An idea of my own. However, I would like to perform some brief research before I present my thoughts.”

Research. Is that what you’re calling it now?”

Control yourself, Doctor.

“Of course.” Trella led him across the bay to a cabinet in the rear. “All of the background data, dosing, adverse effects, etc, are downloaded into this tricorder.” She paused in the act of handing it over. “Is there something that I can help you with, Mr. Spock?”

“No, Doctor.” Her eyes flickered away, and Spock made an effort to soften his voice. “I’m certain the facts that I need will be found here,” he indicated the tricorder, “and I am equally certain that you have a good deal of preparation to yet oversee.”

Trella huffed out a little laugh. “That’s definitely the truth. I would never have even dreamed of all of the detail that goes into this sort of thing.” She drew in a long breath, her eyes skirting the medical bay. “It’s a terrible thing, isn’t it, Mr. Spock? I wouldn’t want to be the captain right now.”

“Indeed. It is, however, the lot of a starship captain to have many such decisions on his conscience. Captain Kirk understood that when he accepted the post.”

He was aware of the irony, given his mental argument with McCoy only minutes before. Trella, of course, was not. She smiled faintly, accepting his statement for the comfort it was meant to be, and nodded before hurrying away. Spock checked the compound and the tricorder, then slipped back into the halls before Chapel or M’Benga could spot him and discern something of his intent. Chapel especially, he had noted, seemed to have quite a healthy dose of human intuition when it came to this sort of thing. When he had first joined the crew of the Enterprise, he had discounted such things. After so long aboard, though, he had been forced to admit that, just perhaps, human ‘guesses’ might not contain strictly as much ‘guesswork’ as he might have once insisted.

Ha. Bet that hurt to admit.”

He ignored that, and continued on to the transporter room.

“Mr. Kyle. I have work to do here. You may retire to your secondary post.”

Kyle nodded and slipped out the door, leaving him alone with the transporter controls and the triane counter-agent. So easy. It had all been so very quick, so very simple, and now here he was, face to face with his choice. Once the transport was begun, there could be no turning back.

Spock was not one for second-guessing a decision, once made. There was little logic in the extra time and energy expended. He fed the coordinates into the modified transporter, adjusting to a tighter beam for a life-form rather than equipment.

Spock? This is good of you, and darned brave.”

Spock tapped the console, setting the transport delay.

This once, Doctor, I will proceed. In the future, however, the captain must find another to fulfill your role for him. I cannot.

He slung his tricorder and the bag containing Trella’s medical supplies over his shoulder, and activated the transporter.

*****

Chapter 11

For the briefest instant, dark silence suffocated him. Then a dim handheld light pierced the blackness—blue, of course. Which made sense, but if McCoy never saw another blue light again, it would be too soon.

“Quickly!” Chiya snapped, and the light moved toward the door. “In case someone has discovered and corrected the misalignment in the backup generators.” A metallic jingle sounded, and the light followed the path of a small object as it arced through the air. Irrel snagged it as it came down and stepped to the keyhole set to the right of the doorway. Chiya moved to the keyhole at the left.

Of course. The keypad and retina scanner and force field were useless without artificial power, but good old mechanical locks just laughed at a power failure. It was, obviously, a two-key system—a smart precaution, but useless if your intruders (did they still count as intruders if they were trying to get out instead of in?) had both keys. Which they did. Presumably the Chareni power officials did not lock in their own guards with no way out—although at this point, McCoy wasn’t willing to put anything past them. The first key, then, was probably Chiya’s, and the second would have been taken from Chiya’s ‘indisposed’ partner before setting out. In any case, how they had come by the keys was at this point secondary.

“Backup generators?” McCoy moved forward as the keys rotated, accompanied by the metallic scraping of the inner bolts pulling back. “What, you mean this thing might lock again behind us?”

“You were given the option of remaining behind.” Irrel stepped away as Chiya grasped the edge of the door and hauled it open. It was thick and looked heavy, but he managed it with little effort. The display of Chareni strength didn’t make McCoy feel any better.

“I just want to know what we’re getting ourselves into, here.”

“I said in case.” The blue light wavered as Chiya tucked it beneath an arm and motioned impatiently for the others to proceed. “My compatriots were to disable the generators earlier today. I received word immediately before my shift that they were successful, I have no reason to suspect that anyone has discovered the sabotage. However,” he grunted, bracing against the door as Tahren and Salin, then Irrel and McCoy, and finally T’Pana moved past him, “it would be foolish of us to stand staring in the darkness to test their success for ourselves.” He moved last into the open area beyond the door, easing the metal panel closed without so much as a whisper. McCoy bit back a snippy response, assuming it would only made a tense situation worse, and spared a moment to be unwillingly impressed before turning to take in their new surroundings.

It wasn’t much. They were in a small elevator foyer, face to face with what looked like a very dead elevator. Chiya circled them and pushed open a low door set off to one side of the lift. “I hope you are fond of stairs.”

“Swell,” McCoy mumbled, and followed Salin into the stairwell.

It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. They climbed the equivalent of roughly five stories before hitting a dead end. Chiya pushed his way to the front, unlocked the door with another key on his belt, and preceded them into the upper level of the Northern Continental Power Production Plant. McCoy shivered as he slipped into the hall, although the temperature remained constant. Given UyaVeth’s certainty and what he himself knew of the Chareni power process, he had honestly never expected to leave the power plant’s lower level again. Even should their plan ultimately fail—he turned his thoughts quickly away from that—it was a small triumph against the Second Supervisor to even be standing where he was now.

The main power was still on when they emerged, dim night-lighting casting an eerie mix of blue and shadow around them. McCoy bit back a relieved sigh, unwilling to give Irrel another chance to snipe at him. Chiya had promised that the upper level would remain untouched by their sabotage, but it was good to see that in practice as well as in theory. It wouldn’t do for them to draw too much attention, or to cut the power they needed to send Salin’s message. The lights didn’t show much of their surroundings, but what McCoy did see looked more like a back hallway than any kind of main area. He shouldn’t have been surprised—it made no sense to place such a highly secure access in plain sight—but he had somehow been expecting more than the equivalent of the bathroom hallway behind a Starbase bar. It was strangely disappointing.

“This way!” Chiya pointed to the left with his light, and the rest hurried after him.

They turned right after a while, and then left, and finally right and left both so often, through so many halls filled with so many doorways, that McCoy became completely lost—and more than a little uneasy about it. He drifted closer to Salin. “Can you get us back from here?”

The dark eyes flickered, surprised. Or, whatever the Vulcan equivalent of surprise might be. “Of course, Doctor.”

Of course. Of course he could. Because Vulcans always knew where they were, and how much time had passed, and what the temperature was. Couldn’t ever lose track of anything …

You would prefer to be lost, Doctor?”

No. McCoy eyed the walls around them, a chalky blue-tinted white rather than the shining silver to which he had become accustomed. No, I wouldn’t. But, if I had to turn myself into a walking computer in trade, I’d take wandering in circles every time.

It was a weak argument, given how grateful he was that Salin could retrace their steps.

At least someone he trusted knew where they were, since he didn’t have a clue. He didn’t want to have to depend on Chiya or the Romulans, if push came to shove.

“Here!” Chiya turned abruptly toward a nondescript doorway halfway down a nondescript hall and inserted a key. The door swung open, and the Chareni stepped back to allow them inside.

The room was set with banks of computers and monitors—live monitors, McCoy noted, seeing on one lights passing in the darkness outside large glass doors set at the far end of what looked to be a deep, open foyer. Probably the main entrance. The evidence, even indirect, of any kind of normal, everyday life sent his heart jumping into his throat, and he looked quickly away. The other monitors showed various rooms and halls and workstations, all of which were empty and dark.

“What is this place?”

“The upper level security station.” Chiya motioned to the workstations lining three walls. T’Pana pushed immediately past the others and began typing rapidly on the nearest console. “It is our nearest access to the type of equipment I was told you required.”

“The security station?” McCoy stepped out of the way as Salin moved to join T’Pana, and glared at the Chareni. “Are you insane? Are there guards stationed in here overnight? Do they monitor this place with cameras? You don’t think this makes us just a little obvious?”

Chiya whined shortly. “The station guards are on circuit currently. They will not return for …” he checked one of the boards over T’Pana’s head, “nearly one half of a talreh.” As if anyone had ever actually told him in plain Standard how long a talreh was. “There is time, but I suggest that your friends,” he nodded curtly toward the Vulcans, who were now bent together over the board working in swift, silent tandem as only Vulcans could, “work quickly.” He pivoted and disappeared back into the hall. McCoy dove after him, brushing Irrel aside. Low muttering followed him, probably Romulan curses or insults of some sort. The universal translator was, apparently, no better with Romulan invectives than Chareni.

“Wait. Where are you going?”

I intend to patrol the area.” Chiya took a firm grip on his phaser rifle. Whether or not he meant the action as a threat, McCoy took a quick step back. “In case security reappears more quickly than we anticipated.” He stalked off down the dim blue hallway, leaving McCoy swearing in his wake.

What kind of sense did that make? Red alert sirens were beginning to scream in the back of his brain. If the security guards reappeared more quickly than expected and Chiya was off patrolling, then what? No matter what might possibly come out of that scenario, he would be useless to them in a remote location. Even leaving that aside, in what possible world was it logical—blast it, now I’m thinking logically, that’s just fabulous. Might as well just pick up and move to Vulcan when this is all over—for Chiya to just drop five prisoners off at the upper level security station and leave them completely to their own devices? It was true that they were on a short schedule and that they had—in theory—formed a temporary truce, but … something was not right here.

He backed into the security room and slammed into Tahren, who had taken position just inside the doorway. McCoy apologized shortly and drifted across to T’Pana and Salin, noting Irrel’s move to join the other Romulan.

“Chiya went to patrol, in case someone else comes unexpectedly.”

Salin, who was entering data almost as quickly as Spock at his most focused, glanced up briefly and then returned to his task. T’Pana spoke without removing her eyes or attention from Salin’s rapid-fire work.

“That is not logical.”

“No.” McCoy snorted softly. “It’s certainly not, and I don’t like it.”

“Indeed. Keep watch.”

McCoy nodded, fixing his eyes on the Romulans. “How’s it going? You think it will work?”

“This equipment will serve our purposes. It is not, that I can see, generally used for long-distance communications, but it is capable of supporting them. It is also worn—its installation cannot have been recent—and has developed an undercurrent of static that I may be able to use to further cover the transmission.”

Of course it wasn’t recent. The Chareni, apparently, weren’t willing to pay for much of anything.

“Indeed.” Salin halted and backed away from the board. T’Pana smoothly took his place. “Between the code itself, which was designed to blend into background technical operations in case of just such emergency situations, and the possibility of disguising it within this system’s native static, it is highly unlikely that this transmission will be discovered unless someone specifically searches for an outgoing communication.”

“Just such an emergency, huh?” Irrel and Tahren were whispering together, glancing into the hall. McCoy started slowly back toward the entrance. “I bet no one back in the Federation diplomatic corps has ever even dreamed of this.”

“Quite possibly.”

“Can it be too well hidden? We’re already taking a chance on someone being in the right place at the right time to pick it up. Will burying it in static fool our intended audience, too?”

The disdainful arch of T’Pana’s eyebrow almost made him laugh, despite the tension. It was so like Spock, when the first officer was forced to deal with a particularly human, particularly illogical question. Maybe he didn’t need to purchase land in ShiKahr just yet… “Both Federation starships and science vessels possess technology far superior to this.”

“Right.” Tahren disappeared into the hall. McCoy picked up his pace. “Stupid question. I …”

Movement on the monitor covering the entrance foyer caught his attention. He whipped around, then stopped and stared. Dozens of Chareni were pouring in through the glass doors, now thrown wide open. Even as he watched, one of entering Chareni threw … something … and a pane near the top disappeared in a flash of light, shattering onto the floor below.

Blast it. Blast it all …

He turned on Irrel, still alone in the doorway. “What is this?”

Salin ducked around to view the monitor as well, and cast a startled—there was no other word for it, Vulcan logic or not—glance toward the Romulan doctor. T’Pana kept her focus for a moment longer, keying in a few final commands, but suddenly McCoy didn’t see the point anymore. This had obviously never been about sending a message to the Federation. At least, not for all of them …

“What is this?” McCoy demanded again. He covered the distance between himself and Irrel, and grabbed her by the arms. “What did you—”

I did nothing, McCoy.” Irrel didn’t even attempt to move away. Her chin lifted and her eyes glinted, dark and dangerous. “Not yet, at least. I kept my word to your Vulcans. I passed along the Federation’s cowardly counter-proposal, and I—”

A dull thump sounded beyond the doorway. McCoy shoved Irrel into the frame and moved around her into the dim corridor. Already, raised voices echoed and overlapped through the empty hallways.

Tahren and Chiya stood over a single Chareni guard less than two yards from the security office. Thick blue blood expanded slowly around them, soaking the downed Chareni’s uniform and left arm, pooling in the angle between floor and wall.

“What’s going on here?” McCoy started for them, unsure if he intended to confront Chiya and Tahren, to check on the injured guard, or to do something else that he hadn’t even thought of yet. It didn’t matter. Chiya turned and bolted back down the hall. Tahren moved around the prone body to meet McCoy. Behind him, T’Pana snapped, “Doctor!” There was a sudden scuffle, and a loud crack, and a hiss of pain.

“T’Pana!”

McCoy turned back. T’Pana was on the ground, struggling to regain her feet. Salin and Irrel were brawling over possession some sort of blunt weapon, clutched in the Romulan doctor’s fist. A footstep sounded behind him, far too close. Blast it, he had forgotten about Tahren. He tried to twist away—too little, too late. Before he could manage the distance, before he could defend himself, the cold hiss of a hypospray sounded against his neck and darkness took him.

*****

It took longer than usual to materialize, and when the tingling of the transporter finally subsided Spock was significantly lightheaded. He ignored that, of course. He had come through the transport in once piece, and any lingering after-effects were of little concern. The first thing he noted about his new surroundings was the rock looming directly overhead—he had transported into the low end of the area, opposite the triane-filled mineshaft. The next thing he noticed was the stale reek. Three days without airflow had gathered and concentrated the sweat and waste and fear of the miners, as well as the usual odor which accompanied deceased bodies. It was quite likely that the trapped miners had grown accustomed to their surroundings and were no longer even aware of the stench.

They were, he thought, fortunate.

He ducked out from under the low ceiling and peered around the cavern. The area was lit with a series of mining lamps, but the dimmed lights indicated that batteries were running dangerously low. The glitter of the transporter effect had caught the miners’ attention, and a few were approaching him. Some sat against the wall, watching, and some remained inert, their breathing shallow. Not all of the trapped personnel, apparently, were in quite the shape they had been led to believe.

“Where is Crew Chief Galloway?” Spock inquired before the inevitable barrage of questions could commence. One of them motioned him toward the near corner where a human male sat, his leg stretched out and propped on a smooth rock. Spock saw blood on the dusty pant leg. The man had managed admirably, to hide such a possibly significant injury from his voice during multiple communications. He crossed swiftly and knelt before Galloway.

“I am Commander Spock, from the Enterprise.”

“Commander.” Despite the blood, Galloway’s voice was as strong in person as it had been through their communicators. He eyed Spock. “I was under the distinct impression that you folks weren’t transporting any people through this mess quite yet.”

“Indeed.” Spock hesitated. “The situation is … complex.” He possessed neither the time nor the inclination to fully explain said complexities, however. Instead, he moved forward. “Our efforts stand thus: We have devised a plan to cut through the area between this cavity and the moon’s surface with our phasers, which will enable us to use our transporters to remove you from this site. The triane gas, of course, must be removed before that happens in order for us to proceed. Chief Engineer Scott is even now directing the assembly of a pump that will do so—however, the shaft must be sealed to block any triane that may be pulled into this area from below.”

Protests broke out from all angles, and before his voice even died.

“Clirix is down there!”

“Now wait a minute, we can’t just—”

“What about—”

“Justin’s alive, I know he is, you can’t just—”

Quiet!” Most of the shouting died down, but the muttering continued. Spock felt the press of bodies around him and shifted away. Galloway returned his attention to Spock. “Commander, I understand that you people have a job to do, and we appreciate it more than we can say. But I have workers down there. Friends. We all do, and we’re not ready to give them up for lost.”

Spock gripped the medical bag. Despite his intention to proceed with a recovery effort, he felt it incumbent upon him to make the miners aware that the probability of recovering anyone alive was low. “Our Chief Medical Officer estimates that if your crew members are still alive, they have less than twelve hours left to live. She also indicates only a slight possibility that they—”

“They’re alive!” A young man—the one with the missing brother, perhaps?—pushed his way around the others and grabbed at Spock’s shoulder. Spock twisted away, then stood swiftly for better leverage against the agitated miners. “You don’t know, your scanners don’t work down there. You don’t have any way of—”

“Sir.” Spock interrupted the rambling, making a conscious point to keep his tone even rather than abrupt. Were they not aware that their open agitation only complicated the situation? “You are correct. Our scanners do not penetrate the dilasantium in the shaft. However, the odds of—”

“Who wastes time on the odds?” An Efrosian gripped the young man’s arm and turned a formidable glare on Spock. “If there’s any chance that they’re alive, we—”

“We’ll try again.” Galloway’s voice cut through the ruckus, impressive in its calm, if not its logic. “We didn’t know what to expect last time. Ask your captain to give us one more chance to get down there before you start caving the shaft in. We’ll—”

“How will you succeed where you failed before? Neither your limitations nor the conditions in the shaft have changed. However, I—”

You don’t know them, and you don’t care.” The angry voice surged from somewhere behind him. “You’re Vulcan, you wouldn’t care even if you did know them. I’ll go, I—”

“Gent!” Galloway straightened, wincing visibly for the first time. “Enough! Commander Spock and his people are doing their best for us, there’s no call for—”

I will go.”

The miner’s accusation had been intended to sting, but Spock was Vulcan and therefore immune to such petty tactics. The charge was also, in fact, uninformed and completely false—he might not ‘care’ in the emotional sense, but he of course felt a strong, quite logical sense of responsibility for the protection of other life. On those grounds alone, the miner’s words were not worth his attention. He therefore made an effort to funnel away the surprisingly strong surge of indignation, and instead turned a dismissive glance away from the angry Tellarite in the rear.

Jackass. Doesn’t know a—”

Doctor. You would, in all probability, be the first to agree with him.

That’s different. Anyway, still doesn’t give him the right to—”

Enough. Your presence is distracting and highly illogical.

What, scared of a little human—”

Desist. Now.

For a moment the miners, even Gent, gaped at his pronouncement, and then a loud babble broke out. Galloway thundered for silence.

It was fortunate that the slide seemed to be stable against at least audio vibrations. The man had an impressive vocal range.

“Commander.” Galloway turned back to Spock. “You—”

“As a Vulcan, I possess superior strength and stamina.”

“But not superior humility, apparently,” Gent’s voice sneered. It was not meant to be overheard, but Spock’s Vulcan hearing was acute. He ignored the grumbling Tellarite.

Because, Tellarites are such shining examples of virtue and good manners.”

He ignored that, as well, despite his overall agreement with the doctor’s sentiments.

“Even were that not so, your entire crew has been subject to hunger, dehydration, injuries, and general exposure for the past three days. I have not.”

“That’s true. I—”

“I also,” Spock continued, slipping the medical bag from his shoulder and rummaging for the hypospray, “have access to a substance which should block the strongest of the triane’s negative effects.” He checked the dose, which he had set and verified before beaming down, and injected it into his own neck before opportunity for further discussion could present itself. A tingling rush spread from the site, and a brief, uncomfortable surge of dizziness that lasted only a few seconds. He turned his attention back to the startled crew chief. “Time is of the essence. I will require access to your harness equipment, as well as personnel to manage my descent.”

“I’ll go!” The young man with the brother below shot to his feet and began forcing his way out of the press of miners, stopping long enough to grip Spock’s arm. “Thank you, Commander. Thank you.” He hurried across the small space to the top of the shaft with his Efrosian friend and two others following. With a speed born of practice and familiarity, they began preparing the harness equipment and lowering winch. Spock returned his attention to Galloway, who was motioning to his nearest crew member.

“Commander Spock will need a helmet and light.”

“Got it.” The man disappeared into a darkened area across the cavern, and Galloway looked back toward Spock.

“Commander.” He drew a deep breath and rubbed at his leg. “I … thank you. It’s good of your captain to allow this, and it’s good of you to do it. I know you and your people are anxious to get going, but we wouldn’t be able to rest easy without at least knowing if we’d had a chance to save them.”

It was best, Spock thought, to avoid discussion of Kirk for now—Galloway and his people would find out soon enough that his presence was unauthorized. “I … understand, Chief.” Their plight was one with which he sympathized. He too knew the loyalty of comrades, and knew what it was to offer that same loyalty in return. He took the helmet from the man at his shoulder, strapped it in place, and switched on the light. It was dim, but in better condition than the lights currently spread about the room. “Keep your communicator close. I will use it to contact you once I reach the bottom.” He had no way of knowing whether the equipment would work accurately from the bottom of the shaft, but there were no other available options. Galloway nodded, gripping the communicator.

“Commander Spock, you have my apologies for Gent, earlier. He was way out of line. I guess we all tend to think of Vulcans as a little bit cold, but I can see now that you care about other things than logic.”

The words were meant to be a compliment, but they were instead … unsettling. Logic was his base, the philosophy to which he had dedicated his life and the star which guided him. To consider that his present actions were based upon some other discipline, some other purpose, disturbed him more than he could admit—or even fully, at this time, comprehend. This would indeed require … contemplation. He moved away from Galloway, and from the hollow feeling in his own stomach.

Spock. It’s not like you’ve abandoned logic. Maybe in this case, considering everything that’s happened, you’ve just let yourself … start your logic from a different place.”

Perhaps, Doctor. He was uncertain whether to actually put in any credence in such a thought, and in any case now was not the time to pursue such self-reflection. Spock moved across the sealed cavern and allowed the miners to strap him into harness.

He was dangling halfway down the shaft, beginning to feel the first of the bitter aftertaste that signaled the rising triane levels, when his communicator crackled.

Kirk to Spock. Respond, Mr. Spock. Immediately.”

Ah. Apparently, his modifications to the communicators were successful beyond the limits tested. He jerked at the line, and above him they braced the winch. A face appeared in the fast-shrinking opening. “Problem?”

“Not as such. However, I will require a moment.”

Kirk to Spock. Respond!”

“Sure, Commander. Let us know.”

“Indeed.” Spock took a breath and flipped open his communicator. “Spock here.”

Kirk’s voice was chilled. “Would you care to explain yourself, Mr. Spock?”

“Captain, I am currently undertaking quite a delicate endeavor. It would perhaps be better to—”

I don’t care if you’re down there holding up that entire cavern single-handedly, Spock! I want to know what possible excuse you have for beaming yourself down there, without my knowledge or consent, after specifically telling me that the transporters weren’t safe!”

“Sir, we seemed to be at an impasse. It was only logical to—”

Logical? To circumvent your commanding officer in order to initiate an action which both my Chief Engineer and my Science Officer—you, by the way—told me not to take? In what possible universe is that considered logical, Mr. Spock? Please, enlighten me!”

Kirk could be … difficult, when in a temper. “Captain, I—”

Dr. Trella also tells me that you’re doing research involving the triane counter-agent. Is this perhaps a part of that research?”

“Captain Kirk. I—”

What were you thinking, Spock? Your atoms could be scattered to—”

Now the captain was beginning to sound like Dr. McCoy. “Captain, I am partially descended into the shaft in order to determine the status of the five missing personnel. Once that is ascertained, I will alert the Enterprise as to the necessary timing regarding the shaft collapse and the drainage of triane from the cavern. I suggest that Mr. Scott begin beaming down the triane pump and other necessary supplies, then initiate collaboration with Crew Chief Galloway and his personnel regarding their assembly and usage.”

A long silence emanated from the communicator. Then, “You’re telling me that you’re currently hanging in mid-air halfway down a triane-filled mining shaft?”

“That is accurate, Captain.”

The second silence spoke volumes. Finally, however, Kirk replied, “Very well, Mr. Spock. Proceed. Update me if possible once you reach the bottom, and proceed with rescue operations if you find any of the missing miners still alive. We’ll wait for your signal.”

“Aye, sir.”

Spock!”

“Captain?”

This isn’t over.”

“No, sir.” He closed his eyes briefly, grateful that no one was there to observe. “Spock out.”

The bottom of the shaft was a mess of black, blasted rock and twisted metal. Among all the rest were the bodies of the missing miners, still and silent on their bed of dilasantium. Two were obviously dead—he didn’t even need to approach to determine their status. One he checked, only to find no pulse or breathing. There was no way to determine if the miner had been killed upon landing or if he had only recently expired. Two of the miners were yet alive—unconscious, with shallow breath sounds, faint vital signs, and multiple broken bones, but alive. One of the living men, Spock noted, did indeed bear a strong resemblance the young man operating the lowering winch. Despite the apparent accuracy of miner’s prediction regarding his brother’s status, there was still no logical reasoning behind the unsubstantiated arguments, and Spock found himself pondering again briefly the elusive ‘human intuition’. It did indeed, at times, seem a formidable, if completely unpredictable, force. Spock signaled the Enterprise.

Kirk here. What did you find, Spock?”

“Captain, two of the trapped miners are alive. Both are unconscious with multiple injuries. I wish to consult with Dr. Trella determining the best way to proceed with moving them.”

Of course.” Trella must have been nearby. Her voice crackled almost immediately over the communicator. “I’ll direct you in stabilizing them, and they’ll need to be the first up once we’re ready to start beaming people. Can you arrange it?”

“Indeed, Doctor.”

I’ll also want you in sickbay immediately after your arrival on the ship, Commander. Even despite your counter-agent, you’ve been exposed to massive doses of triane. You’ll need a thorough workup and detox.”

“Negative.” Spock’s throat was beginning to feel raw, scratched, and his eyelids heavy. He made a conscious effort not to cough into the communicator. “The miners will take medical precedence, of course, and I will have multiple duties of my own in relation to the safety and follow-up of the rescue operation. I will—”

Commander! I really must insist. We have very little data regarding the levels of triane to which you and these men have been exposed, and I can’t guarantee that—”

Spock fought off a wave of annoyance. Was it a trait of all human medical doctors to exhibit such a smothering, overprotective manner? “Doctor, perhaps you were unable to hear through the static. As a Vulcan, I am able to withstand far greater environmental insult than a human could manage. Other endeavors will require my attention when I return. I have no intention of—”

Mr. Spock.” Kirk’s voice was curt, final. “You will report to the medical bay immediately upon your return to the Enterprise. After Dr. Trella has certified you, you will immediately report to my quarters, where we will continue our conversation of earlier. Do I make myself clear?”

There could be very little mistaking those orders. Spock resisted the urge to sigh. “Perfectly, Captain.”

Good. I’m turning you back over to Dr. Trella. Kirk out.”

Spock gripped the communicator in one hand and braced himself against the blackened shaft wall with the other as a wave of dizziness passed over him. Indeed, it seemed that removing himself from the triane-saturated area as quickly as possible would be wise.

Mr. Spock?”

It was, apparently, not the first time she had repeated his name. Spock responded, focusing half of his attention on her voice and the other half on the miners as she began to detail the appropriate steps to prepare them for transport up the shaft. Even with nearly immediate medical aid, there was no way to know how well either of them would recover. As it was, beam-out for the first of the trapped personnel was still four to five hours away, at best estimate. Either or both of these two might face some permanent disability from the experience. His own mouth was thick and dry, his throat raw, his balance … compromised. He had disobeyed an implied order and would likely find his actions written into an official report. He had behaved … if not illogically, with extremely questionable logical motive. He had been concerned for Kirk, but now found, too, his own internal equilibrium … in question. It was somehow quite difficult to look past it all and remind himself that the lives of the two men beneath his hands outbalanced the rest, making his afternoon’s work a success.

*****

He woke dizzy and nauseated, with a sharp ache inside his left elbow. His face was pressed into the cool flooring, but all around him the noises of running and shouting and fighting and celebration swirled in drunken tandem. McCoy raised his head and caught only a brief glimpse of pitch blackness pierced by multiple hand-held lights before his rolling gut demanded attention. He turned on his side and vomited, curled around his heaving stomach.

Strong, slim fingers grasped his shoulders.

“Apologies, Doctor, but you must be quick. We must continue on before we are trapped here.”

What? McCoy tried to still the nausea, turning sluggishly to squint at Salin. He had barely managed the simple task when something kicked at his leg in the dark. A flash of blue hand-held light, and a strong grip seized his ankle. “Here!” A Chareni voice sounded above them. “Here, I have—”

McCoy gasped and kicked out wildly. The Chareni swore, and Salin surged to his feet. Hampered by his awkward position, the Chareni wasn’t able to offer more than a wild punch, which Salin ducked with ease before felling him with a well-placed nerve pinch. Another shadow loomed out of the darkness, and McCoy shouted a warning. Salin began to turn, but a green phaser flash took the second form. The thick body collapsed beside McCoy. He looked around to find T’Pana propped against the near wall, breathing heavily. She clutched the phaser in one hand, tight now against her body, and her other arm hung limp at her side. Even in the dim shine of the dropped light, McCoy could see the green blood painting her face.

Crap. What had happened?

“Wha …”

Despite that his brain was slowly beginning to work, his tongue apparently hadn’t agreed to play along. Salin seized both of the downed Chareni’s lights, and then McCoy’s arm. “We must go.” He heaved McCoy to his feet, and the next thing McCoy knew, he was hanging awkwardly over the thin Vulcan shoulders. Salin twisted back. “T’Pana?”

“I am well. Go!”

They surged forward along the black hall. McCoy grumbled, fighting back renewed nausea from the awkward position. “Put me down, kid. I—”

“Not at this time, Doctor. You are unable to navigate on your own as of yet, and I require the use of both arms. This is the only logical alternative.”

“It’s darned awkward, is what it is.”

“Indeed.”

McCoy took a long breath, and another wave of dizziness hit. Probably, Salin was right. He couldn’t see himself running in much of a straight line right now.

But, what were they even running from?

“What happened?” If he whispered, he could make the words come a bit faster.

Salin halted for a brief moment, looked left and right, and then continued straight down their hallway. “We were betrayed.”

“Obviously.”

“It seems that Chiya and his compatriots decided to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the unlocked lower level.” T’Pana panted near them. Even dizzy and upside-down, McCoy was worried about the tremor in her voice. “His patrol, of which you were so rightly concerned, was in fact his moment to signal the others to enter. Irrel and Tahren were previously informed—they joined Chiya’s people when we were overtaken.”

“Of course they were.” It all made sense—too much sense, really. Maybe they had been stupid not to see it, to assume that either Chiya or his people or the Romulans would accept any kind of compromise. Lights and shouts filtered from a nearby room. Salin and T’Pana froze, exchanging a quick word that McCoy couldn’t hear. T’Pana gripped the phaser and they proceeded, drifting to the opposite side of the hall. “What happened? I thought … did I get hypo’d?”

“Indeed.” Salin’s lowered voice filtered into McCoy’s confused brain, and he made a mental note to keep his voice down. “Both Irrel and Tahren apparently came prepared to do so.”

His head was really beginning to hurt. If Salin didn’t put him down soon, he was going to have other problems beside dizziness. “But … did they put you two out?”

“No.” T’Pana slipped in front of Salin, peered into the next intersection, and led them to the right with her phaser held before her. “We were busy fighting Chiya’s people, but we were not sedated.”

He was missing something. Again. “But why—”

“Your blood, Doctor.” A Chareni came careening down the hall, yelling and spraying the ceiling with phaser fire. T’Pana stunned him, and they continued around the still body. “They wanted a good deal more of your blood than you were willing to give, and it was the easiest way for them. It is unlikely that you could have overpowered even one of them, but it seems that even so they did not wish for the fight.”

“My …” McCoy blinked at the darkened hall, and suddenly his dizziness made sense. His stomach lurched again. “Put me down.”

“Doctor—”

“Put me down!”

Salin slid him to the ground and McCoy heaved some more into the darkness. When he was finished, he wiped a sleeve across his mouth and spoke hoarsely.

“I’m not dizzy from the hypo, then.”

“Perhaps.” T’Pana’s voice was tight. Her eyes and hand-held light panned the corridor. “However, blood loss is also a factor.”

Oh, blast …

“How much did they take?”

“The tricorder that I obtained is not calibrated for human biosigns, but I estimate 2.26 pints.”

“You estimate.” No wonder he felt so awful. He’d need some fluid replacement, and soon. Still … they could have taken three pints, or five. They could have drained him. Why hadn’t they? Maybe they’d just been too impatient to wait.

At least he was still alive.

“Indeed. I cannot be more accurate.”

“Right, never mind.” McCoy squinted into the blackness, fighting the dizziness and nausea. They had done it. They had blown right past his objections and done it, and he had put himself in a position to let them. He wasn’t sure whether to be angry or just horrified. “How long ago?”

“Pardon?” Salin hauled him to his feet again. This time, he also allowed him to remain there. The young Vulcan dragged McCoy’s arm over his shoulder and hauled them both down the hall, following T’Pana’s fast-receding footsteps.

“They used my blood to destroy the energy compound. How long ago?”

“It has been—” The phaser sounded, and when then turned the corner they were forced to step over another stunned Chareni. T’Pana searched him, coming away with another phaser and tricorder. She crouched against the wall and motioned for them to do the same. “It has been approximately 1.4 hours since the chain reaction took effect and the power source for Charen’s northern continent was destroyed.” Salin slid them both down and lifted an eyebrow at T’Pana.

“We have reached the entrance foyer.” She gripped the phaser. “Remain here. I will survey the area.”

I will survey the area.” Salin removed the weapon firmly from her grasp. “You remain with the doctor and rest. I will return shortly.”

T’Pana visibly hesitated, then nodded slowly and sank to the ground. “It is … logical. Use caution.”

One dark eyebrow quirked. “Of course.” Salin checked the phaser setting, then moved forward in a low, swift crouch. McCoy watched him go, then turned a clinical gaze on T’Pana.

“What happened to you?”

She leaned her head back against the wall. “When Irrel moved to sedate you, I was … not prepared. I moved incautiously, and paid the price.”

That accounted for the snapping noise he had heard, then. “Your arm.”

“Indeed. I received a blow to the head during the subsequent fighting.” She probed the area with gentle fingers. “It is not severe, but the bleeding was copious.”

Copious was right, if the blood on her face and shirt was any indication. McCoy forced down the need to physically check her wounds, mostly because he still wasn’t certain that he could move without falling over. It seemed she was faring well enough, for the time being. Instead, he nodded after Salin.

“What are we doing here? Have we seen any of the other Vulcans or Romulans? Shouldn’t we be trying to meet up with them? It’ll be awfully dark down in the lower level, and it will start getting cold pretty—”

“The bulk of Chiya’s people moved quickly beyond the security location, either entering the lower level or remaining between us and the stairway. We were blocked from returning to the lower level and the compounds—most of the area is littered with Chareni, any way we attempted to enter would surely see us captured.”

“And what do you think they intend to do with us?” McCoy wondered. Now that the group’s primary purpose—the destruction of the power plant—was accomplished, what would happen to the prisoners? Would they be released? Would they be killed off? Would the rioting Chareni take any notice of them at all?

T’Pana took a long, deep breath and closed her eyes. Despite himself, McCoy moved closer. He couldn’t see her color in the weird, dim lighting, but he didn’t care much for her other physical signs. “I do not know. They did not intend to simply let us leave, that much was clear. However, I believe that they underestimated our physical strength. Salin and I were able to fight our way free from the first few, and then we ran. They are … not fast.” McCoy reached for her good arm and found a pulse point. She removed it, gently. “I am well, Doctor.”

“I know you Vulcans. You would say that even if—”

“I am well.” She took another long breath. “The pain is controlled, for now. Once we have found someplace to hide, I will be most gratified to allow you access to my arm, and head. They are …” Her voice was strained. “Uncomfortable.”

She must be in real pain, if she was admitting that. Vulcans were usually so stoic that it was nauseating.

Just as well. He didn’t need any more nausea tonight.

McCoy closed his eyes for a brief moment. “Well. Thank you for bringing me along for the ride.”

T’Pana turned her head, and her dark eyes bored into him. “I believe we have discussed this before. One does not thank logic.”

There it was again. Good old Vulcan pig-headedness. McCoy’s spirits lifted sluggishly. “And it was logical to endanger your escape with an extra unconscious weight.”

“Loyalty is eminently logical.” Despite himself, McCoy’s chilled body warmed at her admission. T’Pana’s voice was brittle, but she was unable to maintain its edge. Instead, she rested her head back again. “I only regret that we could not prevent them from obtaining your blood.”

“You and me both.” McCoy sighed, rubbed at the aching needle wound on the inside of his elbow, and eyed the darkness into which Salin had disappeared. He wished the kid would come back—he was getting nervous. “I wonder why they wanted it.”

“Pardon?” T’Pana’s eyebrow climbed toward her hairline.

“Well, they were in. They didn’t need me anymore, they could have just brought explosives with them and demolished the entire processing chamber. Why use me instead? They knew it worked on a small scale, obviously, but to just assume they could take down the entire system that way when they had a sure, proven means on hand …”

She shifted. “Indeed. Your point is well taken.” She pursed her lips, considering, and seemed about to speak again when Salin appeared suddenly out of the darkness. McCoy swore roundly.

“You scared the ever-lovin’ daylights out of me, kid!”

Salin lifted an eyebrow, but otherwise ignored the completely irrelevant observation. “We cannot go out the main doors, there are multiple Chareni in the foyer. There are also several lines of Chareni with phaser rifles facing the building from the outside.”

“Military?”

“Perhaps. In any case, we dare not make the attempt—there are too many, even if we endeavored to communicate there is no guarantee that we would not be shot on sight.”

“How many people are in this little faction of theirs?” McCoy grumbled. “How is it that ‘most of them’ can be downstairs, but they still have enough up here that the army is camped outside instead of just coming on in?”

Salin shook his head. “I believe it quite likely that not all are from the original faction. You understand, of course, what occurs in most places when the usual means of power is lost and authority scrambles to maintain order—many who may commonly obey the law are willing to join in riots and destruction under the assumption that they cannot be easily stopped.”

Most places. Not, McCoy was certain, Vulcan. No, he was sure that the Vulcans all probably just sat down together and sang Kumbaya until the lights came back on …

“Fantastic, just what we need.” It was true. The loss of power on a large scale was one of the surest ways out there of inciting a general state of anarchy. Who could guess what Charen would be like after a few days of this? It had only been an hour and a half, though. He wouldn’t have expected looting and rioting and destruction quite so quickly.

Then again, this was Charen, not Earth. He knew very little about the Chareni, other than what UyaVeth had told him. The entire planet could be hair-triggered, for all he knew.

“So, you’re saying we can’t get out?”

Salin turned a flat gaze on him. “I did not say that, Doctor.”

“Okay, then. Get on with it, time’s wasting.”

“Indeed.” Salin shifted, motioning in a vaguely diagonal direction. “The largest concentration of Chareni, both inside the foyer and out, is gathered around the main doors. There are also, however, side doors. There is a single Chareni stationed inside at each of the side doors. Our best opportunity for escape is there, unless we choose to return into the building and find another exit.”

Which could take them hours. He needed fluids, and quickly. T’Pana’s wound was still seeping blood. And every extra second they stayed in the building was another opportunity for them to be caught by Chiya and his gang of thugs.

“Do you also believe that we have a lesser chance of being apprehended from the outside by going through one of these auxiliary doors?”

Salin shrugged fluidly. “The side doors appear to lead into alleyways. There will be less room to maneuver, and it may therefore be logical to assume that there will be fewer outside Chareni posted there. If we both are ready with the phasers and move quickly, we may have a chance.”

That was it, really. There was no good chance any way they approached it, but they had to try something. Shouting sounded down the hall behind them, and phaser fire, and glass breaking. They eyed each other.

“Well?” McCoy finally breathed, eyeing the darkened foyer entrance. “What do you say?”

T’Pana pushed to her feet and nodded firmly. “We have no logical course of action to pursue. This seems as likely as any other—let us attempt it.”

“Agreed.” Salin looked down to McCoy. “Doctor?”

“I’m in.” McCoy struggled to his feet and accepted Salin’s supportive grip. Together they slunk toward the opening into the foyer. Salin and McCoy took the lead, cutting sharply around the corner and pressing close against the rear wall as they made their way to the side door. Between the darkness and Salin’s slim form beside him McCoy couldn’t see much, but he could hear the bodies moving, the screamed insults, the shouted orders and sirens beyond the building, even the completely incongruous sound of someone nearby singing, loudly and very enthusiastically. Most of the song didn’t translate, leaving McCoy to suspect that it likely wasn’t fit for mixed company.

They came upon the door with its single inside guard more quickly than McCoy had expected. Apparently, the foyer wasn’t as large as it had appeared on camera. T’Pana glided around him and Salin at the last minute, surprising the Chareni with a neck pinch before he even turned. She attempted to lower him quietly but her broken arm betrayed her, and the thud of the body hitting the floor drew attention from the group in the front of the foyer. A shout went up behind them. Salin melted the lock with his phaser and kicked the door open, and they surged into the alley before anyone could reach them.

Shouting burst out directly to their right, and phaser fire scorched the stone façade above McCoy’s head. Salin stunned the shooter, and T’Pana turned her phaser on a second armed Chareni.

He didn’t fire. He didn’t even try. The phaser-mounted light flashed across them, revealing the three in stark detail, and the Chareni lowered his rifle with a sharp curse.

“What the …” He jerked the rifle up again, but McCoy, Salin, and T’Pana were already backing away, melting into the shadows. “What the …” the translator dropped out, leaving McCoy to fill in the blank, “… are you?” He started after them and the Vulcans picked up their pace, dragging McCoy along. “Wait! Are you …” His voice faded again, and then, suddenly, a virtual stream of apparent invectives. “The power plant! Wait! Are you telling me—”

They didn’t wait. They turned and fled down the alleyway, followed by the guard’s strident cry. “Don’t fire! They’re not insurgents, they’re aliens, don’t fire!”

They burst into an open area without stopping to see if the soldier’s words had any effect. T’Pana stunned the first two Chareni they saw, then they ducked quickly into another alley. A sharp turn brought them to a crossroads, and Salin led them left. Chareni were everywhere—wandering, running, conversing on corners, but no one here seemed to be paying any attention to them. Apparently, the activity of a few blocks over was of little concern to these people. Salin guided McCoy and T’Pana to the next narrow space between buildings, and when no Chareni could be immediately seen, lowered McCoy to the ground. T’Pana followed, breathing hard and shaking. A bitter breeze rushed between the structures, but McCoy’s adrenaline was still so strong that he barely felt the chill.

He would in a few minutes, though. They would all be feeling it. They needed to find shelter and water, soon. McCoy let his gaze wander the black streets around them, and looked up to the brightening, moonlit sky, and the truth suddenly crashed in on him.

“Without power, your message isn’t sending anymore, is it?”

Salin moved to the edge of the building and peered into the darkness. “The communications equipment will of course not function without some means of artificial power.”

Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe. All of this … they had gone through all of this for nothing.

“How long did it run?”

“Thirty-seven point six minutes, before your blood was injected into the energy compound and the power was destroyed.”

Thirty-seven minutes. McCoy thought that he might throw up again. “No one’s getting that, are they?”

Salin hesitated. T’Pana’s voice was laced with pain. “Unless a Federation ship is currently present in this sector and actively listening for a wide range of communications, it is highly unlikely that a short message run for such a brief time will be received.”

McCoy lowered his forehead to his knees, muttering invectives and willing the world to stop spinning. It was over. They had taken their chance, they had played the only hand they had been dealt, and they had lost.

“Doctor?”

“We need … we need to keep going.” He could barely force the words out. He had never felt so defeated in his life. “Find somewhere warmer, find water and food.”

“Indeed.”

It didn’t matter what they needed to do. He couldn’t make himself stand. He couldn’t even stir any enthusiasm for lifting his head back off his knees. McCoy squeezed his eyes shut, tuned out whatever it was that Salin was saying, and wondered if it would have been better not to have tried at all than to now face the fact of their failure.

*****

Chapter 12

Kirk leaned back in his chair, and surveyed the Vulcan statue that was his first officer, and wondered where to even start. He had no idea, and he was quite sure that Spock had no intention of helping him along. The dark eyes had been firmly fixed on the wall over Kirk’s head since Spock had come to a halt before his desk, the lean body was ramrod straight with hands folded precisely behind, the face was utterly devoid of expression. Spock was never more inscrutable than when he was gearing up for a well-deserved reprimand.

Kirk resisted the urge to sigh, and to scowl. He had been doing his best to stay calm and to match Spock’s impassiveness, at least until he had decided how to go about this. Unfortunately, he was no further along than he had been two minutes ago when Spock had entered, and the silence was beginning to grow uncomfortable. He was a little afraid he still wouldn’t know what was going to say when he finally opened his mouth and said it, which was always a bad way to begin with a being who was unswayed by emotion, more intelligent than anyone he had ever met, and who knew him arguably better than anyone else in the galaxy.

No, not arguably.

Not anymore.

He pushed that away, and continued his silence. Spock looked in far better shape than he had five hours ago, upon returning to the Enterprise with the final group of trapped miners. Then, his eyes had been unfocused, his hands trembling, and his voice so gravelly that Kirk had been surprised he was able to even attempt a report. He had, according to Trella, spent nearly fifteen minutes vomiting in sickbay before finally managing to lock things down with his Vulcan controls, helped along by a rather high dose of the usual antinauseant. Kirk was glad that McCoy had thought to document that kind of thing—he had never known Spock to take that long on his own before, and it had been that more than anything else which had finally managed to distract him from the anger which had not appreciably waned since Scott had contacted him demanding to know who was the idiot who had beamed into the cavern area and just why Kirk had given his permission to do so. Presumably, it was nothing to worry about—only another side effect of the disorienting levels of triane to which the Vulcan had been exposed. Still, he was used to thinking of Spock as invincible, and these little reminders that he was not were always more uncomfortable than Kirk cared to admit.

There was little evidence of all of that now, other than the deepened lines of Spock’s face and his coloring, which was, as McCoy had always put it, greener than usual. For Spock, this had nothing to do with green, and more to do with a pale-ish mauve color painting the hollows beneath his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Kirk looked back to the deep furrow between the Vulcan’s brows, and realized rather suddenly that it had not appeared as a result of Spock’s experience in the mine. No … in fact, he hadn’t noticed before, but now that he thought about it, it definitely predated the entire Dena VII mission. He frowned, trying to recall when that tiny sign of Vulcan stress had appeared, and discovered that he didn’t know.

Come to think of it, there had been other signs as well—the extra couple of hours on the front and back ends of an already extended shift, the silence during their chess games, the odd mess hall hours. They were none of them sure signs of anything, Spock being Spock and therefore somewhat inscrutable to the non-Vulcans around him, but … Kirk knew him better than most. Alone, any of those little things could mean nothing. Together they could mean nothing, other than that Spock had found it logical to work extra hours, illogical to take up strategy time with talk, and necessary for some reason to adjust his meal schedule. Even so, he should have noticed.

Usually he did, even if the only result was to tuck it away in the back of his brain for later reference. He’d had … other things on his mind, though, lately. Like filling in and bridging and in other ways circumventing the gaping hole that McCoy’s death had left on the Enterprise, both among the crew and in his own routines and thought patterns. It had been a difficult adjustment for the entire ship, and he had maybe taken Spock’s rock-solid presence a little for granted. Now, it seemed possible that may have been an oversight. Without his usual observations, he had no way to follow the trail back to its beginning, and Spock was less forthcoming than most about such matters.

He might still not be worried—the last couple of months had been busy ones for the Science department, and for Spock by default, which had in the past been known to produce one or all of those little changes—except for … this.

This… this foray into reckless, dangerous disobedience—this could not be explained away as simply a minor adjustment in Spock’s usual routines. It wasn’t that he wasn’t more than capable of such a thing. Their unexpected side trip to Talos IV had proved that beyond a doubt. But, those had been rather drastic circumstances. For Spock to take such measures during a routine rescue mission was … troubling.

Kirk just wished he knew what that trouble was.

And that was the problem. He didn’t know. Because confiding in anyone else, even his friends, was just not Spock’s style. Kirk knew this, he’d always known it, but as much as he was aware of the fact, he was human as well. The irrational frustration and hurt pushed past the anger, and he blurted, “Why, Spock?” without being at all sure it was the best approach. Choosing one’s closest friends from among one’s senior staff brought far more benefits than otherwise, but it made times like this even more difficult and awkward.

Spock straightened, if possible. “Sir, our options were limited. We could not proceed without sealing the shaft, we could not seal the shaft without either discovering the status of the missing miners or simply waiting for them to die. The second option was not desirable, the first was not feasible given the parameters under which we were at that time operating. Therefore, it was logical that the parameters must change.”

“Logical?” Kirk pushed out of his chair and rounded the desk. “Of course, logical. With the approval of your captain, yes, logical. Within the usual decision-making structure of this ship, yes, logical. On your own, with a partially effective counter-agent obtained under false pretenses and against a general ban on transporting personnel into the cavern? That doesn’t sound logical to me, Spock! Unless you are now saying that anything can be considered logical, depending on where you start!”

If he hadn’t been looking directly at Spock, he would have missed the flinch. It could barely be called that, really—more a minute twitch of the shoulders than anything. He had not been friends with Spock so long for nothing, though. He had hit some kind of nerve. He decided to press the issue and see where it led.

“Mr. Spock?”

The Vulcan was silent for a long moment, then, “Sir, I request removal from duty for the next thirty-six hours.”

Kirk wasn’t certain whether to be shocked or to laugh. On one hand, Spock requesting removal from duty was tantamount to shouting to the entire ship—over the intercom, no less—that something was seriously wrong. On the other hand, the smooth side-step around Kirk’s query was so blatantly Spock that Kirk couldn’t help but give him credit for poise under duress.

“Be sure we’ll get to that, Mr. Spock. But I’d like my question answered first.”

Spock remained silent for so long that Kirk started to wonder if he intended to respond. Finally, however, he uttered the single cryptic sentence, “The decision-making structure aboard this ship is not the usual.”

What?

Even given the wide possible range of responses that Spock might have offered, it was … not what Kirk had expected, and he had no idea what to make of it. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Instead of answering, Spock side-stepped again. “Sir, proposing such a plan would have placed you in an even more difficult position than you had already found yourself.”

“You’re saying you were trying to spare me the choice between putting one of my officers on the line and letting the miners die?” It was hard to have any kind of discussion when the eyes of the person with whom one was conversing never left the back wall. “Don’t you think that kind of thing is what they hired me for, Spock? Haven’t I proven time and again that I am willing to make those calls, even in situations with no clear solution?”

Spock hesitated, and the dark eyes flickered. “Indeed, sir.”

Silence descended, and Kirk rubbed at the bridge of his nose. They were getting nowhere, and he was, if possible, even more confused now than when they had started. He decided a change of tactics was in order.

“Mr. Spock, you’ve requested the next thirty-six hours off. I’m more than inclined to grant it, but I would like to know the reason for your request.”

This kind of thing didn’t always go well for him—the stonewalling he had received when trying to pry details out of Spock during his pon farr came to mind. However, Spock seemed more willing to comply this time.

“My meditation periods have been … unsatisfactory, of late. I require a longer unbroken timeframe during which to attempt a resolution.”

Well, they were finally getting somewhere. And … unsatisfactory meditation could definitely go a long way in explaining the little anomalies that Kirk had been pondering earlier. This bigger issue? He wasn’t sure. “Is there some problem, Spock? Something that can be addressed?”

“I do intend to address it, sir, during a longer meditation timeframe.”

Maybe, if he started asking questions that he didn’t care about, when Spock dodged around those subjects he would accidentally give Kirk the answers he was really after.

This was becoming ridiculous.

Kirk blew out a long breath, folded his own hands behind his back, and finally decided that there was no point in pressing things any further—not when Spock was in such an intractable mood. “Your request is granted. You’re dismissed, Mr. Spock. A reprimand regarding the day’s events will be placed in your record.”

“Yes, sir.” Spock nodded once, turned, and made for the door with all speed.

“Mr. Spock.”

The Vulcan hesitated before turning back. “Sir?”

“Those two miners owe you their lives. Dr. Trella says they wouldn’t have lasted out her twelve hour estimate.  They likely wouldn’t have lasted another two.”

Spock stood still for so long that Kirk began to worry again—although about what, he wasn’t sure. When Spock did finally speak, his eyes were once more pinned to the wall and his voice was so low that Kirk had to strain to hear him.

“In fact, sir, that distinction does not belong to me, but to Dr. McCoy.”

McCoy?

The confusion cleared in a brilliant rush, leaving behind an ache and an incredulous stare. “You’re saying this has all been about McCoy?”

Not the usual decision-making structure.

Of course. He couldn’t even pretend not to understand—he was painfully aware of the … the imbalance he’d felt during the last months, the disquiet that had hung over staff meetings and private conferences and even personal decisions. McCoy’s death had been somewhat like losing an arm, and was he still in the uncomfortable, beginning stages of learning how to function around that loss. He was, he thought, coming along nicely and putting up a good front … but his first officer knew him well. Of course Spock was aware. And not only because of their friendship—it was his job to be aware when something was affecting the captain’s decision-making process.

Spock flushed a dark olive, and Kirk read shame in the posture. “Sir, I offered, as usual, the most logical solution to the predicament in which we found ourselves. It has been my great honor to know that you always highly value my advice. However … it has also been my experience that in the final solution, you have most often depended upon some combination of my logic and Dr. McCoy’s … opinions to guide you. Considering that option was no longer available, it seemed logical—at the time—to provide some extra space before you were required to function without completing your adjustments.”

Completing. This kind of adjustment wouldn’t be complete for quite a while. That wasn’t the point right now. They weren’t talking about him, not really. “At the time?”

The Vulcan’s posture screamed discomfort, even while not shifting a millimeter. “It seems that in this case, my logic may have been … flawed.”

It hurt to hear Spock admit that, simply because Kirk knew how painful the admission must have been. He dropped back into his chair and ran a hand over his mouth. “It happens to the best of us, Spock.”

“Sir, such a … lapse is entirely unacceptable. If it should happen again, during some more critical situation, I—”

“Spock.” Kirk leaned forward, directing an earnest gaze toward his friend even though Spock still wasn’t looking at him. “How is it logical to admit that I need time, but not you? Surely even Vulcans require some sort of adjustment period to a loss.” Spock’s shoulders slumped, minutely. Kirk wasn’t certain if the movement telegraphed relief, or frustration—that is, whatever constituted the Vulcan version of frustration—with the further evidence of illogic. He continued. “You’re very correct—it has been a difficult adjustment for me. I’m used to hearing both sides of the story, as it were, shouted around my head as if each was the only possible solution. It’s been a challenge to cope with the … silence.”

“Captain, I do not shout …” Finally, the dark eyes dropped to his own.

He snorted back a laugh. “Of course not, Mr. Spock. The point is, you’ve been very perceptive about my difficulties. However, most of the time we’re less perceptive about ourselves. Could it be that you’re also experiencing some … adjustment issues? You’ve been accustomed to being able to offer me cold, hard logic without compromise, because you knew that without fail, and many times without invitation, McCoy would put his own spin on things. He’d take the edge off your pure logic, and in the end the solution we’d settle on would be the most humane, logical response available. Is it possible, just maybe, that without his input for balance, you’re uncertain just how hard you can come at things anymore?”

Spock was silent, but Kirk could tell that he was considering. Finally, he tilted his head in that odd Vulcan gesture of acceptance. “It is … possible.” It was admitting a lot, for someone who staked his tent on logic and only rarely considered moving beyond that spot.

“I would tell you not to be, to let me worry about that, but … somehow I think you’ll handle this your own way, no matter what I say.”

“Indeed. I … appreciate your restraint, Captain.”

Right. Vulcan psychology wasn’t necessarily his specialty, but even he knew not to try to tell one how to think. He’d leave that to McCoy …

Or not.

“And your meditation problems?”

“Have more to do with the general upheaval of the crew than any reaction of my own, I believe. I have not actively needed to block the crew’s emotional responses since the first few days, but I suspect that the high levels of distress were disturbing to my subconscious. As I had already begun to experience difficulties by the time those levels decreased, the problems continued.”

“And, this time off will help?”

“I believe so, Captain.”

“Then by all means, take it. And Spock … I want you to talk to Dr. M’Benga at some point when this current mission settles down.”

He’d expected a protest, and he was not disappointed. The Vulcan brows drew together. “Sir, Vulcans do not engage in—”

“Doesn’t matter, Mr. Spock.”

“Sir, I—”

“It’s an order, Commander. Give in gracefully.”

Spock gazed at him through narrowed eyes, and finally nodded. “As you wish, Captain.” He turned, disappearing through Kirk’s doorway into the hall beyond.

Kirk slumped back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. What a mess. And, it was at least partially of his own making. He sighed, then dug into the bottom desk drawer. It was there still, the level barely lower than when he had left Spock in the hall on the night that they had learned of McCoy’s death. He withdrew the bottle of Saurian brandy and set it on his desk. After a long moment, he found a glass and poured a small measure, then sat back and stared into it, turning it slowly in both hands. Remembering. Yes, he certainly bore some responsibility here.

We need some sort of program for the Vulcans in the Fleet, Jim. Right now we’ve got stress therapy and grief therapy and post-trauma counseling and a hundred other types of therapy for everybody else in Starfleet, but not the Vulcans. We need to have some sort of—”

Leave him alone, Bones.”

Excuse me?”

Leave him alone. Spock doesn’t work the same way we do. He prefers to get through things on his own, he doesn’t need you harassing him about—”

This is a professional recommendation, Captain.” McCoy growled, and his glare had taken on that particularly ferocious glint that meant you had best either agree with him or get out of his way. “Has it occurred to you that even Vulcans have methods by which to manage loss and trauma? They may primarily meditate their way out of it, sure, but even that has been developed in the larger context of a Vulcan community. Spock, and any other Vulcan out there serving on a primarily non-Vulcan ship, has the meditation part available to him, but not the community. It doesn’t work the same for them out here as it does surrounded by other Vulcans, and it’s irresponsible of us to just ignore that because they don’t want to talk about it!”

How do you know all this?”

It’s my job to know. Spock’s my responsibility. The pon farr thing would have been enough to get me thinking in this direction on its own, given the physical strain and the trauma—yes, trauma—of the fact that he almost killed you on top of it all, but there have been dozens of other examples. All the mind melds—that’s not just something they throw around on an everyday basis, Jim. That bit with Pike and Talos IV. Did anybody ever figure out just how he got to the stage of stealing the ship in the first place, or how he handled all the personal and professional ramifications afterward? He sure didn’t let me in on it. When he sensed the entire crew of the Intrepid die? We groused at each other a little on the bridge, but that was the end of it. He had just felt four hundred Vulcans die. That can’t have been—”

All right, Bones. All right. I’ll take it under consideration.”

But he hadn’t—not really, not seriously. Deep down, he had still been at least partly convinced that it was just another skirmish in the ongoing Spock-McCoy war, and he had pretty much forgotten about it until now.

He wished he hadn’t.

Kirk downed the glass of brandy, then tucked the bottle back into the lower drawer. It was too little, too late—too late to take McCoy seriously, too late to help Spock through this rough patch—but M’Benga was as familiar with Vulcans as any non-Vulcan doctor, and he was here, on the Enterprise. He seemed the perfect place to start. The logical place. Kirk pulled his computer around and began to compose a message to the doctor. This kind of thing always took years, and wouldn’t be of any help to them any time soon, but if anyone would know the best way to get Bones’ idea off the ground, it would be M’Benga. And just maybe, this was something that Kirk could do for McCoy, even if it was after the fact. If this actually turned into something, it was likely that most people would never put McCoy’s name with it … but Kirk would know, and a few others, and maybe that was enough.

*****

“Captain.”

Kirk swiveled around, turning his attention from Sulu and Chekov’s light banter. The Enterprise was preparing to leave orbit, waiting for the signal from sickbay that the last of the miners had been transferred back down to the colony. The bridge crew had been, for all practical purposes, twiddling their thumbs for the last twenty minutes, leading to the—he was certain—slightly embellished account of Chekov’s last shore leave that was currently underway.

“There vere five of them, and only one of me! Vhat could I do?”

He chuckled, careful not to let Chekov hear, and bounded around the railing to the upper deck. “Yes, Lieutenant?”

Uhura frowned, dropping her hand from her earpiece. “Sir, I have been logging and recording all communications originating in this sector, as you requested.”

“Yes?”

“Well … there’s something strange here.”

“Strange?” Kirk crossed his arms and leaned back against the computer bank. “Strange how?”

She shook her head. “The computer is at all times programmed to automatically separate and record all coded transmissions received.” She indicated a reading on her console. “Between 1042 and 1119 hours yesterday, this transmission was recorded. The computer identified it as Vulcan diplomatic code.”

Kirk squinted at the screen. “Looks like static to me.”

“It does, sir, and the computer does pick up static, more often than you might imagine. This particular program is set to a very high sensitivity, which brings a … very high rate of error with it.”

“I can imagine,” he murmured.

“Standard practice is to discard these static pick-ups after a run through the basic identification sequence, but I’ve trained the staff on the Enterprise to hold onto them and run them through a few extra ID sequences when time permits. Just in case.”

Kirk nodded his approval. “And that’s why you’re on my ship, Lieutenant.”

Uhura smiled her thanks and continued. “I hadn’t had time to do that yet, with the extra communications to log, but … then I found this.” She pulled up a second reading. Kirk glanced between the two.

“They’re the same pattern.”

“They’re the same transmission, Captain. And this one comes from the log we’ve been maintaining of communications from this sector.”

He frowned. “But, that still doesn’t mean it’s an actual transmission instead of static.”

“No.” She shook her head and sat back. “But, given that you asked me to pay special attention to this sector’s communications, I pulled it and ran it through all of our identification sequences.”

He had a feeling she wouldn’t be bringing this to his attention if all that she’d found was static. He pushed away from the console. “And?”

“It is Vulcan diplomatic code, sir. And as best as I can tell, it was purposely hidden in the static.”

Purposely hidden. And originating in this sector. There was nothing in this sector, except for Dena VII and Charen itself, and a jumble of lifeless, largely uninteresting suns, planets, and asteroids. Where was it coming from? Kirk asked her. Uhura shook her head.

“As it’s no longer transmitting, I can’t say for certain, Captain. However,” she checked her readings again, “it appears that it originated from the direction of Charen.”

Charen. Spock’s voice flashed through his mind, a barely noticed side-note from the briefing for the Dena VII mission. “… tensions over the disappearance of a ship transporting Vulcan scientists …” Kirk’s gut clenched. Vulcans. Was it possible there had actually been something to that disappearance?

“Lieutenant, is it possible that this is an old communication? Could it have been sent forty years ago, and we’ve only just now picked it up?” Could it be that those Vulcans had been trying to send some sort of message, all those years ago? It was true that they were scientists, not diplomats, but …

Uhura shook her head. “No, sir. That particular code has changed at least eight times in the last forty years. This transmission uses the most current iteration.”

Not from that transport, then. But … what? Something was definitely setting off his alarm bells.

“It’s standard procedure to send this kind of thing in to Starfleet for decoding, right, Lieutenant?” She nodded, and Kirk scowled. “That will take a while.”

“Several hours, at least.”

“Hmm.” He rubbed at his jaw, glaring at the viewscreen. Then, “I wonder what are the chances that Spock could decode it. His father is the Vulcan ambassador, it’s possible he’s had access to it at some point, received messages or even had to use it himself.”

“I’d say the chances are very good, sir.” Kirk looked down and found Uhura’s eyes twinkling. He grinned.

“Do you know something I don’t, Lieutenant?”

She shook her head slowly and looked away, smiling. “I’m only saying that it’s very possible that Mr. Spock has received and sent coded messages from the Enterprise.”

Kirk chuckled. “Well, I’d hate to put that kind of a resource to waste. I wonder if he’ll do it?” He frowned across the bridge at the clock. “He’s got another two hours before he’s back on duty, and I don’t want to ask him to come back early. I’ll—”

“Sir.” Uhura’s eyes were sparkling again. “It’s also very possible that Mr. Spock bowed to the logic of my argument that at least one other person on the ship should be able to read his incoming messages, in case of emergency …”

Kirk felt his smile break into a full-blown grin. “And is it possible, Lieutenant, that you might be that one person?”

“It is, Captain.”

“My crew never stops surprising me, that’s for sure.”

“I certainly hope not, sir.”

Kirk laughed, and motioned to the console. “Would you do the honors, Lieutenant?”

“You realize that this is against protocol, Captain.”

“But it’s not exactly against the rules, Lieutenant.”

“No, sir.”

“I’m willing to take the responsibility, if it becomes an issue.”

“Very well, sir.”

Silence fell as she worked. When Uhura looked up, a surprisingly short time later, she was no longer smiling.

“Sir … the message reads as follows: Federation citizens imprisoned on Charen. Numbers unknown, perhaps nearing one hundred. Investigate Chareni artificial power processes.

Kirk’s gut twisted. “That’s it?”

“Aye, sir. It was quite a short message.” She hesitated. “Which would make sense if whoever sent it was attempting to hide it.”

One hundred Federation citizens imprisoned on Charen? How was that even possible? And what did the artificial power processes have to do with anything? According to Spock, there had been no dealings with the Chareni for decades. In fact, Kirk had never even heard of them—never seen one of their ships, never run into one of them in a bar on a neutral planet. There seemed to be little if any interaction with their species. How had they gotten their hands on one hundred Federation citizens?

If the message could even be trusted.

Still, he could think of no reason to send such a message in such a manner under false pretenses. And given the content, it required investigation, regardless of the possible outcomes.

He nodded. “Lieutenant, I want you to—”

Sickbay to bridge.”

Kirk leaned over and hit the comm button. “Kirk here.”

Captain, the last of the miners has returned to the colony infirmary. We are ready to be underway.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Kirk out.” He looked back to Uhura. “Lieutenant Uhura, it seems we’re going to have to tell on ourselves sooner than expected. Send a message to Starfleet. Inform them of our findings, and that we’ve gone to investigate.”

“Aye, sir.” She nodded, swiveling immediately to her board. Kirk returned to the center chair.

“Mr. Chekov.”

“Aye, sir.” Chekov and Sulu were already watching him, sensing the possible change in plans.

“Plot a new course. We’re going to Charen. How long will it take us to get there?”

Chekov consulted his board. “At warp four, Captain, five hours thirty-five minutes.”

“All right. We’ll start at that speed, but be prepared to slow as we get closer. I don’t want to just tear in there with guns blazing and start trouble for no reason.”

“No, sir.” The navigator and helmsman both fell to entering the new calculations. A soft word exchanged between them, and then Sulu looked back to Kirk.

“Ready at your word, Captain.”

“Then take us there, Mr. Sulu.”

*****

They dropped to impulse some distance away from the planet and coasted to an orbit point. Sulu made the calculations to lock in the appropriate speed and heading. Uhura’s hands were flying across her board even before the ship had settled in.

“Captain … transmissions from the planet are very chaotic. Overlapping and repeating, and … that’s odd.” She looked around. “Sir, all transmissions at any level higher than radio wave are originating from the two smaller continents. The large continent … nothing but radio transmissions, and that sporadically.”

“Captain.” Spock’s deep voice rose from the science station. “It would appear that the northernmost continent—the large one of which Lieutenant Uhura spoke—is also substantially without artificial power.” Power. Given the coded message, the word caught his attention. Kirk drifted across the room to lean on the railing. “Sensors show no evidence of any centralized or connected power flow.”

“It’s also visually dark, sir.”

Kirk turned at Sulu’s words and eyed the planet. The northern continent was bathed in night at the moment, and was for the most part a flat, black expanse on their screen.

“Well. This is odd.” He glanced back to Spock. “What about life forms, Mr. Spock? Any evidence of Federation citizens down there?”

If a Vulcan’s voice could be said to be pained, Spock’s was fast approaching it. “Sir, scans of an entire planet for an unknown one—or more—of over one hundred fifty races will take time.”

“All right, Spock. Get to it.”

“Scans are already underway, Captain.”

Kirk leaned back against the railing. “The message said to investigate the power processes. Is it possible to quickly identify large concentrations of artificial power on the smaller continents, and start your scans from there?”

Spock lifted an eyebrow, nodding slowly. “I will endeavor to do so, sir.”

“Good.” Kirk drifted away. “Mr. Sulu and Mr. Chekov, keep an eye out for approaching ships. Lieutenant Uhura, keep your ears open.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Aye, Captain.”

The bridge fell silent, and Kirk prowled its edges, tense and expectant. What would they find? And when would the confrontation come? Because he was certain that the Chareni weren’t going to let the Enterprise simply drop into orbit around their planet and start scanning without some sort of challenge—especially if they really were holding Federation citizens hostage.

“Sir.”

He almost jumped at Spock’s voice, and crossed the bridge to the railing beside his first officer in three quick steps. “What have you got?”

“I have identified a single large concentration of artificial power on each of the two smaller continents. It appears that the power for each continent is generated in this one place, and distributed throughout the land mass to all other areas.”

“A single source of power for the entire continent?” Kirk craned his neck around to view the planet on their screen again. “That seems rather foolhardy, don’t you think, Mr. Spock?”

“It does beg a large probability of disaster from a single source of failure.” Spock sat back. “It seems likely that this is what happened on the larger continent—a failure in the single power supply, and continent-wide outage as a result.”

“Can you tell where the power source on the larger continent would have been?”

Spock shook his head slowly. “There are several possibilities, Captain. However, the northern continent, as you may recall from my briefing at Dena VII, employs a great deal of dilasantium in their building structures.” He did not recall it, and he suspected that Spock was completely aware of the fact. “Even though our scanners remain modified, their findings on the northern continent are somewhat unreliable.”

Dilasantium. It was quickly becoming one of his least favorite words. And rocks.

“All right, then. Let’s go back to the smaller continents. Start scanning the life signs near the power focus for those continents and see what we get.”

“Aye, sir.”

Spock fell silent again, and Kirk returned to his pacing. The silence stretched.  It had almost become too much for him when three voices exploded across the bridge at once.

“Captain, two ships approaching from around the planet.”

“Sir, we are being hailed.”

“Captain, I am detecting Rigelian life signs near the power centers on each of the smaller continents.”

He spared a single quick glance for Spock—Rigelian life signs, there were Federation citizens here—and then swung around to face the viewscreen. Two small, sleek black ships were coming around to face them, one taking a position substantially behind the other.

“Mr. Sulu?”

“Not a configuration we’re familiar with, sir. Well-armed, but we’re a match for them.”

“Very good.” Kirk looked back at Uhura. “On screen, Lieutenant.”

“On screen, sir.”

He swung around, and got his first good look at a Chareni. It was always an exciting moment, no matter what the situation—that first glimpse of a completely new species. This one was humanoid, large, and also somewhat leonine—short, fine tan hair over the skin, and a thick mane of the same color sweeping back from his forehead. Eyes of that exact same tan coloring pinned Kirk through the screen. A quick glance showed that the crew, at least those that could be seen in the viewscreen, were all some variation of that brown color—some darker, some so pale as to be almost blond. The Chareni in the center spoke, reclaiming his attention.

“Federation vessel. We have no dealings with your people. What is your business here?”

Friendly sort. Kirk decided to start with a half-truth. “I’m Captain James T. Kirk, of the Federation starship Enterprise. We see that your northern continent appears to be in some distress. We may be able to offer aid.”

The Chareni whined, a sharp sound that set Kirk’s teeth on edge. “For what purpose would you offer us aid, Federation vessel? We are not one of yours.”

All right. Kirk decided to play out his line a little and see what came of it. “For the sake of the Federation citizens living on your world. We have an obligation to them, if not to your people.”

The Chareni captain—Kirk wished that he had a name, but that apparently wasn’t in the cards—jerked back, and eyed him for a long moment.

Interesting. What exactly it meant, he had no idea, but … interesting, all the same.

“We have none of your Federation citizens living on Charen. We would not allow it, after the outrage of which you accused us when we did for a short time allow your people access to our world. You are either misinformed or lying.”

Well, the Chareni certainly cut to the heart of things quickly. “I’ll try not to be offended, Captain.” No protest was offered, so he assumed that he had at least pegged his opponent’s rank correctly. “We have been in communication with our citizens only recently, regarding the power situation.” That was really stretching it, but it appeared to have hit home. The captain stepped back a few paces, snarling into the screen.

“I tell you again, Kirk, you have no people here, and no Chareni will believe your lies! I do not know your true motive, whether it be espionage or conquest or some other, but regardless, we will not allow you access to our planet. You have five shontare to break orbit and go, or we will be forced to remove you ourselves.”

It was difficult to tell what else the Chareni captain might be beside angry. Worried? Surprised? Genuinely unaware? Three minutes wasn’t enough time to really pick up any kind of body language from a completely unfamiliar species. Still, the defensiveness itself was beginning to tug at his instincts. Kirk decided to play dumb—not too hard, given that he had no idea what a shontare was, or into what Standard unit of time it might translate.

“We are unfamiliar with shontare, Captain. Are you able to offer us a Standard timeframe?”

The Chareni captain pushed closer to the screen. “Just leave!

Kirk exchanged a quick glance with Spock. “I’ll offer you a compromise, Captain. You hail us when five shontare are over, and we’ll go from there.”

“Kirk—”

“You did offer us that timeframe, did you not?”

The Chareni stared at him for a long moment, then snarled, looked over his shoulder, and made a cutting motion. The screen abruptly went blank.

Hopefully, that meant they had been given the time. He intended to make the most of it.

“Spock!” Kirk whirled, and vaulted up the step to the lift. “With me!” Spock vacated his station. “Uhura, let me know if he comes back on.”

“Aye, sir.”

Spock joined him, and together they left the bridge. “You said you found Rigelian life signs?”

“Aye, Captain. They were gathered quite closely, but I counted twenty-three on one continent and sixteen on the smaller.”

“Do you think we can use the transporter to get a few of them up here?”

Spock’s eyebrow inched up as he considered. “I believe so, sir. The power source, while unfamiliar, did not appear to offer any kind of disturbance that would impede the transporters, and sensors did not detect any other type of interference.”

“Good.” They hit the deck running, and skidded into the transporter room a bare minute and a half later. Kyle back quickly out of the way as Spock slid in front of the controls.  In less than another minute, five figures were materializing on the transporter pads.

The Rigelians looked … terrible. Thin, and pale, and ill. They stood still for a long moment after the transporter effect faded, blinking and gazing with startled eyes around the room. Kirk was about to speak—they were working on a tight schedule, he unfortunately didn’t have time to break things gently—when the woman on the front pad shrieked and dropped in a heap, sobbing hysterically. A man at the rear stumbled back into the wall and slid down it, collapsing onto the smooth platform.

Spock hit the comm button on the transporter controls. “Transporter room to sickbay. Emergency medical team to the transporter room, immediately.”

One of the other women knelt beside the first and smoothed the head of tangled dark hair, never removing her hollow gaze from Kirk and Spock. The man at the front stepped down off the transporter platform, taking in the two officers and the entire room with a quick sweep.

“Is this … true? You know of us? You’ve come after us?”

Kirk truly wished they had time. These Rigelians had obviously been through an ordeal, and they deserved better than to be immediately carted off to the bridge to face their captors again. He felt like an ass, but he had no choice.

“Sir …”

“Tra’k’Tan.”

Kirk nodded. “I’m Captain James Kirk of the Enterprise, this is my first officer, Commander Spock.”

Tra’k’Tan’s eyes widened even further, if possible. “The Enterprise?”

“Yes.” Kirk stepped forward. “My apologies for being so abrupt, but we’re in the middle of a situation. We were brought here by a message that we picked up nearby, indicating that Federation citizens were being held captive on Charen.”

“A message?” The Rigelian seemed bewildered, but only briefly. His dark eyes narrowed. “Indeed, we have been hostages. We have been—”

“I’m sorry.” Kirk held up a hand. “You will have your say, I promise, but we are currently in a confrontation with two Chareni vessels, and are being warned away from the planet. I have stated that we believe there to be Federation citizens here, but the Chareni captain has called me a liar and ordered us to leave.”

Tra’k’Tan snarled softly. “No. They will not admit to our presence. They will not—”

“We were able,” Kirk continued, “to locate your life signs, and beam you aboard. I don’t know what kind of conditions you’ve been living under, and I understand that you may be reluctant to face the Chareni again so quickly, but—”

“My mother and sister both died from their drugs and their procedures.” Tra’k’Tan spat out the words, and Kirk’s stomach sank. Whatever the story, it wasn’t going to be good … “I will face these Chareni with you, and we will prove exactly who are the true liars.”

“Good, thank you.” Kirk gripped the man’s arm, guiding him toward the doors. He cast a glance back at the four other Rigelians, still huddling in stunned disbelief on the transporter platform, then looked to Spock. “Get that platform cleared and start transporting, Mr. Spock. I want them all up here before the Chareni know what’s happening.”

“Indeed, sir.” Spock skirted the transporter controls, and as the doors closed behind Kirk and Tra’k’Tan, he saw the medical team hurrying down the hall from the opposite direction. Things were in hand there, then. He and the Rigelian were halfway to the lift when Uhura’s voice rang through the ship.

“Bridge to Captain Kirk. Please respond.”

All right. They were almost there. Kirk skidded to a halt beside the nearest wall comm and punched the general intercom. “This is the captain speaking! Shields up, red alert!” He slammed the comm button off and dove into the lift with Tra’k’Tan on his heels.

He could hear the Chareni captain even as the lift doors slid open.

“Where is Kirk? Why have your shields been raised? You have been ordered to depart, what is the meaning of—”

The voice cut off as Kirk rushed onto the bridge, the strange tan eyes focusing on the Rigelian behind him. The Chareni stiffened, and Kirk didn’t need to be a body language expert to know that the man understood exactly what he was seeing. Whatever he had said previously, whatever he claimed about the lack of Federation citizens on Charen, Kirk no longer had any doubt that the Chareni captain was perfectly aware of the Rigelian prisoners on his world. What else he knew, they were about to find out.

“Captain.” Kirk flashed his most predatory smile, and stepped off the upper deck. “Perhaps we should start our conversation again.”

*****

Chapter 13

They fled their second shelter when the building across from their basement window entrance went up in flames. It hadn’t been much, as far as protection went—cold and damp, smelling of mold and rat droppings (or whatever rodents lived on Charen)—but it was out of the wind and had the decided advantage of being, as far as they could tell, completely abandoned. Their first attempt, a cluttered shed behind an industrial building of some sort, had at least been dry. It had, however, been overrun within a single Chareni day by a group of loud, drunk Chareni (McCoy would have bet his—well, he didn’t have anything to bet, but he was entirely sure they were soused), who ransacked the place for tools and equipment and whatever else seemed like a good find. McCoy and the two Vulcans had pressed into a dark corner hoping to avoid detection, but Lady Luck had abandoned them months ago. Or, in T’Pana’s case, 8.2 years ago. One of the kids (McCoy also would have bet, with his nonexistent funds, that they were little more than teenagers) happened across them during an effort to track down the keys for what looked like a very large lawn mower.

“Hey! There’s someone back here! There’s …” A handheld light illuminated their corner, and the young Chareni stumbled backward, swearing. “Aliens! They were right, they were right! There are aliens …”

A general chorus of disdain and disbelief greeted him, until the next closest ambled over to flash another light on them. “Jarak, there’s nothing back here.” The voice was significantly higher than any McCoy had heard since arriving on Charen, the hair longer, the form considerably more petite. Well, what do you know? There are females here …“You’re just—” She jumped, dropping her light. “Kiyat! He’s right! There are—”

“Do not approach us.” T’Pana surged to her feet as the other Chareni stumbled forward, gripping her phaser. McCoy had been able to do only a little for her with the supplies available—clean her head wound, bind her arm across her body. Pain and fatigue tinged her voice, but he was fairly certain that no one unfamiliar with Vulcans would hear it. Her aim was rock-steady, she looked competent and even a bit frightening—the vibrant teal bruise darkening her forehead and jaw line could probably only help them here. The shed filled with untranslated invectives as the kids tripped over each other backing away. McCoy and Salin gathered their other phasers and tricorders, then stood.

“You are, aren’t you?” Another female voice, this one from the rear of the group. “You’re aliens!”

They ignored the question, obvious as it was, and started along the wall toward the door. One of the taller ones in the front started forward, and McCoy drew his own weapon. He was still dizzy and nauseated, and couldn’t have aimed straight to save his life. He could also never use it, not on a bunch of drunk teenagers, but they didn’t know that. The Chareni stepped back again, but even the phaser couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

“They’re different! There’s more than one kind!”

“Is it true?” The first girl pushed around one of the males. “Have they been keeping you prisoner? Do they kill you and use your body parts as fuel for our energy processes?”

Apparently, rumor here was no more accurate than anywhere else …

The kid next to her snorted. “They’re still alive, Treya. They can’t have killed them.”

“Oh.” She giggled. “Right.”

Yep. Definitely drunk. McCoy, in the lead, kept edging toward escape. A short male wandered forward, slowly. T’Pana stepped around Salin. “Do not approach.”

He stopped and raised his hands. “It’s your blood, isn’t it? They use your blood as one of the energy components in our power supply.”

This one didn’t seem quite as drunk as the others. Or, he held his liquor better. McCoy reached the door and nudged it open. A gust of wind caught it, slamming it around against the pitted stone structure. Treya jumped and giggled again. McCoy gritted his teeth and stepped into the opening.

Was this entire planet one giant wind tunnel?

“Wait!”

Salin halted halfway out the door. The short male took one step forward, eyeing T’Pana.

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

T’Pana prodded Salin outside, then backed out after him. “Do not follow us.” A particularly brutal gust of wind howled around the corner and sent the door crashing back around. It slammed into her injured arm and she nearly dropped her phaser. McCoy and Salin were ready with theirs—none of the kids stirred. T’Pana rested against the doorframe for a brief instant, then looked up into the chalk-gray gray eyes. “Your people have done enough damage.”

They disappeared into pale evening, followed by a trail of unintelligible Chareni swearing.

The dim blue light signaled the coming of another night, but the streets were still fairly heavily populated. At least, more than McCoy might have expected. He had no way of knowing if this was normal—given their somewhat cat-like resemblance, it was possible that the loss of light was of less consequence to Chareni than it would be to humans—or if the lack of their usual energy source had driven people to remain outdoors later than usual. Whatever the reason, it hindered their search for a new hiding spot. McCoy and the Vulcans stayed in the shadows as much as possible, choosing the emptiest streets and the darkest alleys, but it was inevitable that they were spotted by any number of Chareni. Some simply stared. Most exclaimed in surprise or anger. Some attempted questions, only to be put off by T’Pana’s phaser and a curt word or two. A few followed them, keeping far enough back that the phasers would be useless but close enough that they were difficult to shake. These made McCoy the most nervous, and he could see that Salin and T’Pana were equally unimpressed. They finally managed, through a series of quick, dizzy turns, to shake the last of their pursuers, and found themselves in a grid of dark, narrow, cracking streets, dotted with broken windows and sagging doorways. It was the last place that McCoy would normally have ever wanted to be. In this case, though, it served their purposes as well as any other—many of the buildings looked abandoned, and hopefully no one would notice them slipping in through a window or door.

The streets around them were still, but even so they could hear shouts rising and falling from the blocks around. Sirens pierced the fast-falling night, and artificially amplified voices snapped commands or called for dispersal. In one direction, a faint orange glow flickered above the rooftops. The air, even in their abandoned alleyway, was thick with tension. McCoy feared that it would only get worse. The lights were out, and the Chareni people were slowly learning of the lies perpetrated on them for the past decades. Somehow, he didn’t expect the unrest to die any time soon.

They found a low, broken window and climbed through it, landing in a small basement with packed dirt floor and walls of the inevitable brown stone that seemed to form the vast majority of the foundations and structures they had seen. It felt warmer for a few minutes, out of the breeze, but soon the damp settled in and McCoy wished longingly for their dry corner in the utility shed. There hadn’t been food there, either, or anywhere nearby—not that Salin had managed to uncover during a quick reconnaissance, anyway—but at least they’d been able to use the equipment covers as blankets of a sort. Here, there was nothing but broken glass—broken window, broken bottles, even a broken dish of some sort. It would have to do.

There was water, though. A set of narrow pipes along the wall contained two small spigots, which, when finally coaxed open, produced a dark, gritty liquid. It smelled of metal and tasted like chalk, but the tricorder proclaimed it fit for both human and Vulcan. McCoy’s nauseated stomach rebelled with the first swallow, and he spent the next few minutes heaving against the wall. Given the length of time since he had last eaten, there was very little to come up. When he had finally settled, T’Pana touched his shoulder.

“Try again, Doctor.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Do not be foolish. You are in great need of fluid replacement.”

“I’m in great need of a lot of things. That doesn’t mean—”

“Doctor McCoy …”

He waved them both off. “I know, I know. Just give me a minute.”

Eventually, through a series of rinses, he made himself used to the taste and managed to swallow enough to satisfy both T’Pana’s insistence and his own medical sensibilities. He checked T’Pana’s makeshift sling and head wound. It needed cleaning, but not, he thought, with what was available. Finally, hungry enough to eat his own arm and exhausted beyond thought, he curled up next to the wall and closed his eyes.

“You two sleep, too,” he mumbled, tucking his fingers under his arms for the little extra warmth.

“Vulcans do not require as much sleep as—”

“Don’t give me that bullshit. It might normally be true, but you’re both sick and T’Pana’s injured. You’ve also neither one had a meditation cycle in at least a couple of days. You need all the sleep you can get.”

“Indeed, Doctor.”

He fell silent and concentrated on his breathing. In, out. Ignore the shouts and the wailing sirens in the distance. In, out. Ignore the dizziness and the ache in his stomach. In, out. Ignore the cold and the damp.

In, out.

“He requires food.” T’Pana’s low voice edged into his fuzz-packed brain. “We may be able to last without for several more days, but he cannot.”

“Tomorrow. I will find something.”

“You both need to eat, too.” He hoped they could understand, because he couldn’t be bothered to sit up and work the drawl back out of his speech. “We need to go through this again? You’re both sick, T’Pana’s—”

“There is no need, Doctor.”

McCoy squinted his eyes open, frowning at Salin. “How you doing, kid? Feeling okay?”

“I am well.”

“I want you to tell me the minute that changes, you hear? None of this stoic Vulcan crap. I need to know, understand?” Because, the injections were dosed every two weeks, and his treatment every two days. It was only a matter of time before the treatment compound in Salin’s blood started to wear thin, and then they could very well be back at square one with him—which was a bigger problem than either McCoy’s blood loss or T’Pana’s injuries. The enormity of it all crashed in on him, and he let his eyes drift closed again.

“I do understand, Doctor. I will inform you.”

“Good.”

Bright blue light fell in a patch across the dirt floor when he woke, and he pushed himself up to greet another day. T’Pana was asleep in a near corner, and Salin sat beneath the window in what McCoy suspected was a very light meditation trance. The young Vulcan opened his eyes and nodded when McCoy came and hunched down against the wall near him.

“Morning.” McCoy rubbed his hands briskly, taking a deep breath. The air was fresher here than in the power plant, cleaner even despite the moldy under-odor. Morning sounds drifted in through the window—snatches of sleepy conversation, the rattle of vehicles, small animal noises. It was nice, he’d nearly forgotten what morning was even like. Given that the lighting in his laboratory didn’t change, the last two nights had been the first dark/light cycle he’d seen since he’d arrived on Charen. He still had no idea how long that dark/light cycle actually was—he suspected the days and nights here were both a bit longer than he was used to—but at the moment, that was the least of his concerns. He was beginning to feel sluggish and clumsy in a way that had nothing to do with blood loss. The nights here, while thankfully not significantly colder than the days, definitely dipped in temperature from what he was used to in the power plant. If they didn’t find more coverings or someplace a little warmer soon, he would have hypothermia to deal with too.

Still, it was at least enough to distract him from dwelling for too long on their situation, and on how things had gone so horribly wrong. He could almost—almost—be glad for it.

“Doctor.” Salin blinked, and McCoy thought for just a minute that his eyes looked unfocused. Right. Vulcans might be hardier, but in the end they were no more immune to hypothermia than humans. He would have to watch them, too.

“You get any sleep?”

“T’Pana slept. My meditation was satisfactory, however.”

“Okay. You sleep tonight, though.”

“Indeed.”

They had no idea what the next night might hold for them. It didn’t seem worth mentioning. McCoy looked around at T’Pana. Her bruise had spread, turning patterns of blue and yellow at the edges. In sleep her shivering was obvious, and McCoy wished again for some sort of covering. Vulcans were strong and adaptable, but they were all stretched to their limits here. Any kind of help would be welcome.

“So.” McCoy squinted up at the window. He hadn’t really seen Chareni daylight before—they’d been holed up in the shed for most of the previous day—and he was a little surprised at how bright the blue could be. “You two were talking about food last night. What’s the plan there?”

Salin lifted a dry eyebrow. “The plan, I believe, is to find some.”

“Right.” McCoy snorted softly. “I didn’t see much in the way of likely suspects when we came through last night.”

“No.” Salin hesitated, then tucked his hands into the crooks of his knees. Apparently, he was cold enough that standing on his Vulcan pride was no longer worth it. “However, food stores should be more obvious during the daytime than at night, when there is no traffic to offer guidance.”

“There are also more people to see you.” Salin didn’t respond, and McCoy pressed harder. “I don’t like the idea of sending you out there alone, especially without any shadows to hide you.”

“We have little choice. You are still barely able to walk in a straight line, and T’Pana is not doing as well as she pretends.” The dark eyes flickered to her sleeping form. “If we do not find food soon a healing trance will be a necessity, not simply a desirable option, if she is to continue.”

It was a sobering thought. They couldn’t guarantee the time needed or a safe place for that kind of undertaking. The silence stretched, and McCoy was about to renew his objections to the current food plan, or lack thereof, when Salin spoke.

“Doctor, may I ask you a personal question?”

Huh. “Sure. What’s up?”

“If we had … if our plan had succeeded somehow, and the Federation had come, what would you have done?” The young Vulcan’s eyes remained fixed on the far wall. “It is logical to assume that your position on the Enterprise has been reassigned. Where would you have gone?”

He honestly hadn’t thought about it, but of course they would have a new CMO on the Enterprise. McCoy pushed back that sharp stab of pain—the kid hadn’t meant to upset him—and rubbed a hand across the rough stubble shadowing his jaw.

“I guess I hadn’t actually thought about it,” he admitted. “It seemed like such a long shot, you know, and anyway …” McCoy hesitated, trying to put his thoughts into words that someone else would understand. “There hasn’t been a future since I’ve been here. There’s just been today. Not even that—there’s just been right now. No this afternoon, no tomorrow, no next year. We made our plan, but I never really thought past that.”

Salin nodded slowly. “T’Pana and I have not discussed it, of course—” Of course not. Because, this just wasn’t the kind of conversation Vulcans had. “—but I believe she looks upon the situation in much the same manner as you. Her sons were young when she was taken. I do not believe she wishes to consider the time lost to her, or what might have come if they had been reunited.”

McCoy’s heart lodged in his throat. He hadn’t known about T’Pana’s sons. He knew that her husband was dead, but he had never even heard of her children. He could understand why she wouldn’t want to spend any time thinking about it. He leaned his head against the wall and studied the stone and crisscrossing pipes that formed the ceiling.

“I don’t know. The Enterprise is my home. We’ve been together for less than five years, but still … the people there are my family. If I can’t go back there …” What would he do, if it had come to it? Accept reassignment? Go back to Earth to be near Joanna? Find a colony on some primitive planet where his skills could be put to good use? “I don’t know what I would have done.”

Salin’s dark glance flickered to him, then back to the wall. “I apologize, Doctor, if my queries have made you uncomfortable.”

“Not at all.” McCoy kept his own gaze carefully fixed on the ceiling. He had a good feeling this wasn’t really about him, anyway. “What would you have done?”

A tiny flex of Vulcan shoulders told him that his own question had been on the mark. “I …” Salin was silent again for a long moment, and then, “I believe I would have returned home.”

It didn’t surprise him. Not really. “You wouldn’t have gone back to the Diplomatic Corps?”

“Perhaps it is illogical, but this experience has … altered my desires for the future.” Salin’s eyes dropped fractionally. “If, as you say, I had one.”

It was familiar, solid ground for McCoy, and it distracted him slightly from his own despair. He had talked more than one young ensign or lieutenant through such a crisis. “It’s not illogical at all, kid. This has been … well, I’d be worried if something like this didn’t change you in some way. And, from the little you’ve told me I think you would have done well in the Corps, but I’m not sure it was ever really your calling.”

“Calling?”

Right. That particular term probably had no meaning on a planet where everything was chosen logically. “It’s not … it doesn’t seem like what you were really meant for. It seems like, oh, something you picked because you wanted to get away from home, not because it was a good fit for your desires or your particular skill-set.”

“Ah.” Salin was silent for a moment.  McCoy could tell by the tilt of his head that he was considering. “Your words … bear further study. I had not thought of the situation as such. I only considered it logical that I leave—I am not certain I as closely studied the logic of where I was going.”

Apparently, even Vulcan teenagers could be impulsive. It was good to know.

“Why is that, you think?”

Salin took a slow, measured breath. “I am no longer certain. Perhaps the logic that led me to leave home still applies … but I would desire an opportunity to consider it now, as an adult.” Huh. Wouldn’t we all? “I believe that perhaps my understanding of matters has changed.”

McCoy would have patted his shoulder, or ruffled his hair, or offered any number of other reassuring gestures if Salin had been human. Or, most any other species than Vulcan. Instead, he just nodded. “It happens. And it’s good when we can recognize it.”

“It seems … of little use, now.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Now McCoy did risk a touch, just a light tap on the collarbone. “What matters is in here.” He stopped, then laughed and moved up to tap the dark head as well. “And, of course, in here.”

Salin seemed surprised by the contact, but unoffended. “Of course.” His eyes glinted humor, welcome after their sobering conversation, and McCoy stretched.

“Well. As stimulating as this as all been, I—”

Wrapped up in their conversation, he hadn’t heard any kind of warning shouts, or nearby fighting, or even any movement in the adjoining street. Maybe there hadn’t been any. He never knew what set the place on fire—an angry group, a single Chareni out to make trouble in an already uneasy environment—only that, with an ominous rushing sound, flames burst through the near windows across the alleyway, shattering glass and licking at the window frames and stone façade.

What the … ”

They scrambled to their feet. In the corner, T’Pana woke with a start.

“What is happening?”

“The near building is on fire.” Salin crossed the room and began to gather their small pile of equipment. “We must go, in case it spreads.”

It really wasn’t fair. McCoy spared one brief instant to cuss roundly, then ran to help Salin with the phasers and tricorders. They passed the phasers around, then climbed through the window. Fortunately the fire still had not reached ground level, but even so, the heat pressed down on them. It wasn’t unpleasant, given the ambient Chareni chill, and for a second McCoy fought a completely irrational desire to just stand there and soak it in.

“Doctor!”

Right. He cast a glance toward the main street—bystanders were quickly gathering, voices rose and overlapped, sirens approached—then followed the Vulcans toward the rear of the alley and into another confusing jumble of backstreets.

He had no idea if all Chareni building plans ran this way or if it was simply a function of a city built out from an older center, but so far there seemed to be a lot of narrow alleys and back ways on Charen. They were surprisingly clean, and also surprisingly void of any real traffic. They would run across an unsuspecting Chareni or two every once in a while, but for the most part the alleys, when available, had been a good way for them to get around.

Unfortunately, even the alleys ran out sometimes. They stood at the intersection with the larger road and checked both directions, trying to decide on their best option. It appeared that they had, for the moment at least, left the larger industrial-type buildings behind. The structures on this street were smaller, long across but for the most part single-story, with what looked like short yards in front and even some porches. They had apparently come out in a residential area. It was the first one they had seen, but McCoy noted that the building material was all the same—a type of rough brown rock. Wasn’t much variety here, that was sure. Warehouses and sheds and homes all built from exactly the same thing. It surprised him a little, given the impersonal, shining silver of the power plant’s lower level, but he supposed that most of these areas were older, and of course they had been built for other purposes. The rock was, he supposed, at least homier than all the metal.

Not that any of it was particularly comforting.

He was about to suggest that they flip a coin—mentally, of course, because who had any real coins to flip—when a sharp female voice drifted toward them. “Go, quickly! You’re unwelcome, leave me!”

For a second McCoy thought it was directed at them, but when he finally found the source, it was not at all the case. A single Chareni female strode briskly down the road on the opposite side, followed by two larger males. One of them said something, too low for McCoy to make out, and she turned and spat back, “No! Return to whatever hole you crawled out of!” Her step faltered as she spoke, giving the other male an opportunity to catch up and grab her arm.

Blast. This was no quarrel between acquaintances. More likely, it was yet another problem that accompanied rioting and looting and the general breakdown of order. And it wasn’t happening, not on his watch. McCoy checked his phaser and stepped out from between the buildings.

“Something I can help you with, gentlemen?”

Doctor!” Salin and T’Pana both hissed at him, but he evaded their grasp and moved out onto the cracked pavement, holding his phaser on the two male Chareni. His grip was far from steady, but it would have to do, if push came to shove. There was no chance he would leave another to suffer for the sake of his own safety.

All three Chareni whirled to face him. The males stepped apart, swearing. The female cast him a single, incredulous gaze, then turned and fled.

“Bring company next time, it’s not safe!” McCoy called after her, then shifted his attention back to the others as they started to inch closer.

Well. This was fabulous.

“It’s true. Aliens.” One of them whined softly and glanced toward his companion, who uttered a low chuffing sound that McCoy took to be laughter.

“Seems like Kensil was right about something after all.” He narrowed his eyes and stepped forward. “Just what are you? I don’t—”

A phaser blast sizzled on the stone before him, and T’Pana’s voice, cold as winter, demanded, “Go back. Do not approach us.”

They swore again, halting. “We don’t want anything. We just want to see—”

“Your words are illogical. Desist.” Salin’s form crowded into the space on McCoy’s other side. The darker Chareni laughed again.

Desist? What kind of—”

“Go. Now.” T’Pana stepped forward, her phaser at the ready, and something about her—her eyes, her posture, McCoy wasn’t certain, but T’Pana could be darned frightening when she chose—seemed to convince the Chareni. They backed away, muttering softly, and then disappeared between two of the homes, casting a last glance back at McCoy and the Vulcans. Silence hung around them for a long moment, and then T’Pana turned on him.

“Doctor. That was … most illogical.”

“Illogical? That girl was about to be—”

“Indeed.” Salin lowered his phaser, but didn’t put it away. “Your motives were admirable, Doctor. However, some warning of your intentions, some concerted plan would have been more—”

“I had you covered the whole time. Didn’t look like you needed it, though.”

McCoy jumped and whipped around. The Vulcans managed to avoid obviously startling—he was never quite sure how Vulcans did that, controlling emotion was one thing but suppressing unconscious physical reaction was completely something else—and came around smoothly, phasers up again. A lone figure on one of the porches set aside a huge phaser rifle and raised both hands, taking a single step forward.

“Do not—”

“Approach, I know.” He halted at the top of the stairs and shook his head. “I’m not coming any closer.” He cast a glance across the road, after the two others. “Used to be a better area around here. Of course, right now all areas are suspect. We’ve been staying mostly holed up inside since the power went out—people go crazy without too much encouragement these times, it seems.”

The door behind him creaked open and another Chareni slipped onto the porch—female, and elderly, if the white shot throughout her thick mane and the short, fine hair covering her face was any indication. Come to it, the man who had been speaking was likely of an age with her. He was tall, with a powerful stance and voice, but his own coloring was grizzled and his words were rough with age.

“It’s true, then.” The man shook his head. “We’ve been hoping it was hysterical rumor, with everything else going on. Easy to get started. But … doesn’t seem like it, now.”

T’Pana started to back away, phaser still raised. McCoy hesitated. “It’s no rumor.” He moved to follow T’Pana, with Salin at his heels, but the woman’s voice stopped him cold.

“We’re so, so sorry.”

It was the first expression of concern or compassion that he had heard from any Chareni in his nearly three months on their planet. UyaVeth was cold, the guards were brusque, Chiya was … indifferent. The Chareni since their escape had been startled and curious and angry, but this was the first time that any kind of apology had ever been offered. McCoy looked back around, almost tripping Salin, who was close on his heels.

“Doctor …”

“I don’t know what’s been done to you, if you’ll even accept anything from us, but if there’s anything that we can do to help you …”

McCoy halted. T’Pana grasped at his sleeve. “Doctor. Do not—”

“We’re in desperate need of food and clean water.” His instincts were screaming at him that he could trust these people, and it felt good. After the past months of approaching everything logically, of ignoring his rage and pain and doubt and all the other emotions that would have paralyzed him during his time in the power plant, it was cleansing to just follow his gut. It felt real. Like he was himself again. “Can you direct us?”

T’Pana and Salin hovered behind him, projecting logical disquiet. The woman laid her hand on the man’s arm and he rumbled, a sound deep in his chest that McCoy had also not heard from any other Chareni. Whatever it meant, it was apparently an affirmative, because the woman briefly tightened her grip then moved down onto the first step. McCoy heard a rattle as T’Pana shifted her phaser. The woman stopped and held out one hand.

“Please. We offer you our home. Come inside. We have food and water, and you can rest. You will be out of the streets.”

T’Pana began to shake her head, and Salin took another step back. McCoy could only stare. Who were these people, to invite aliens into their home after such an incredibly brief exchange?

“Ma’am …”

“We have no thought of hurting you.” She hesitated, then took one more step. “Please. We’re not all alike here.”

“McCoy,” T’Pana hissed. “You cannot be considering—”

“Why not?” He turned to her, and took in the entire city with a single gesture. “What better options do we have? We’ve been run out of the last two places, we still haven’t found food, we’ve barely found water. We’ve been too cold for too long. We’re not going to be able to keep going like this for much longer.”

Salin eyed the man and woman, still standing on their porch. “And what makes you believe them trustworthy?”

“I can just tell.”

“You are able to tell?” T’Pana’s eyes narrowed. “That is not a logical—”

“Humans aren’t logical, remember?” He gently pushed down her phaser and locked her gaze. “It’ll be okay. Trust me.” He looked around to Salin. “You said it yourself. We have little choice.”

Both Vulcans considered him for a long moment. Finally T’Pana nodded, reluctance and exhaustion warring in her features. “Very well, McCoy. We will follow your lead in this matter.”

“Good.” He nodded, including Salin in the gesture. He tried to project calm and reassurance—possibly a wasted effort, given that neither of them would ever actually admit to unease, but if they had tried that at that moment to deny it he would have called bullshit. “We’ll be all right. You’ll see.” He turned back to the waiting couple and nodded slowly. “Thank you, ma’am. We accept.”

*****

Spock was waiting when Kirk stepped out of the lift. He nodded as his first officer fell into step. “Captain, analysis of the Chareni energy compound is underway. Given its biological base, Dr. Trella has taken samples to analyze as well.”

“Good. What have you found?”

“Early stages, sir. However, the compound does produce a rather surprising amount of energy, given its components. I am not yet certain how the reaction is obtained. The Chareni equations provided are … inexact.”

“Hmm. I’ll work on getting you something better.” Kirk frowned. “What about the sample from the northern continent. Anything on that yet?”

“Negative, sir, only that it has by some method been rendered completely inert.”

“Some accident, or was it done deliberately?”

“There is insufficient data to speculate at this time.”

“Very well.” Kirk nodded, stretching. One long day had turned into another, and they didn’t look to be getting shorter any time soon. “Minister of State Yesha Dalir and Minister of Intercontinental Affairs Delor Roshall will be arriving via transporter at 1300 hours.”

“The Chareni agreed to your negotiation terms, then?”

“They had very little choice, Mr. Spock.” The Enterprise was currently faced off against a compliment of about thirty of the small black fighters—enough to take them down in a concerted attack. However, the Chareni ships were doing nothing more than hanging there in space. Kirk’s proof of the existence of Federation prisoners, in the form of the Rigelian Tra’k’Tan, had taken much of the wind out of the (still unnamed) Chareni captain’s sails. The man had been forced to contact his superiors for instructions, and responsibility for dealing with the starship now parked in orbit around their planet had quickly shifted up the chain. Given that the Federation Council and Starfleet now knew of their clandestine activities of the past four decades, given the arrival of the research vessels Trenton and Kohmari, pulled for immediate backup from assignments in adjoining sectors, and given that two more heavy cruisers, the Lexington and the Potemkin, were headed their way at high warp, the Chareni government had offered very in the way of little resistance. “They’re a single planet who’s committed an act of war against the Federation. They know the score.”

“Indeed.”

“Anyway, I wasn’t about to let them have home field advantage.” The Chareni president, Hayer Kovarak, had initially offered to host them at his secondary office on the larger of the two small continents. Kirk wasn’t having any of it. He also, once he determined that Kovarak had been more than aware of the Federation prisoners, wasn’t having any of him.

President, we will meet, but it will be on my ship and under my terms.”

Captain Kirk, I—”

I will require your presence for witness and informational purposes, but I will not negotiate with any member of your government who had prior knowledge of the Federation citizens imprisoned on Charen. You will provide the names of the top representatives of your government who were unaware of the details of your power processes. The Federation will treat with those representatives, and will consider their decisions binding.”

Captain. What you ask is—”

We will also expect the arrest and extradition of certain members of your government and power production processes, to be determined by us and approved by Charen’s representatives.”

That definitely got Kovarak’s attention, given that he would no doubt be among such a number. “Captain Kirk. I cannot agree to such terms. We will—”

President Kovarak.” Kirk had moved closer to the viewscreen, exuding a cold politeness which, in his experience, was usually recognizable as a threat by most species. “Your planet has been kidnapping, experimenting on, torturing, and murdering Federation citizens for more than forty years. The Federation has no intention of simply allowing this atrocity to go unanswered. Refuse me if you want, but the Vulcan and Rigelian ambassadors are even now preparing to depart for your planet. Two more Constitution-class ships are on their way, and more can be sent if necessary. Nothing but compliance here and now ends any other way than with your government under the control of the Federation. I suggest you comply.”

In the end Kovarak had agreed, his anger and resentment nearly burning a hole through the viewscreen. Kirk wasn’t in the mood to care. Now, those details set, he was on the way to sickbay to hear Dr. Trella’s report regarding the condition of the Rigelians, and then to speak with the Rigelians themselves. Not only was it his duty, not only did he genuinely want to offer some form of comfort and consolation—although he was still drawing a complete blank on what he could possibly say to these people—but he would need their statements for his negotiations. Spock accompanied him into the sickbay and across to Trella’s office.

The doctor was sitting at her desk, shifting through a series of data pads. When Trella glanced up she looked sick—physically sick—and her eyes carried a haunted shadow. Kirk was reminded forcibly that this was likely the first time that Trella had ever seen anything like this. He sighed and dropped down into the opposite chair.

“We have some unpleasant awakenings out here, Doctor.”

Trella nodded and drew in a deep breath. “Captain, I …” She hesitated, then shook her head and glanced briefly toward Spock. Kirk glanced back for long enough to see the Vulcan at his shoulder nod solemnly, and decided to let things lie. He’d noted that Trella seemed more comfortable approaching Spock with her issues and concerns, and he supposed that was only natural. Spock was her immediate supervisor. It was difficult to remember sometimes that the relationship he’d had with his CMO was the exception rather than the rule for Starfleet vessels. Most of the other doctors could be convinced to stay put, to monitor from Sickbay and provide input when needed. Not Bones. No, he always had to be up in the middle of things, yelling at people and advising on things outside of his field and … well, it was little wonder that Kirk was used to a more direct rapport with his ship’s surgeon. He would just have to get un-used to it.

“Very well, Doctor.” He kept his voice light, kind, to let her know that he understood. “Report.”

“Yes, Captain.” She straightened. “All of the details are in my report. In brief, the compound with which the Chareni injected the Rigelians mutated their green blood cells, presumably to make those cells more susceptible to the energy conversion process. This mutation changed the actual shape of the blood cells, much like the old Earth disease known as sickle-cell. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it? It was eradicated in the—”

“Yes, Doctor.” Kirk nodded. “I know of it.”

She stood. “Good. Basically, what these Rigelians have been experiencing as a result of the injections is very much like a form of this disease, with very similar symptoms. Anemia, pain. I suspect they’re especially susceptible to infection as well. Fortunately their environments were closely monitored, so that didn’t become an issue. I’ve given them all preventative treatment, since they’ll be exposed to a whole range of possibilities out here that they haven’t seen for … well, for almost ten years, for some of them.”

The anger stirred again in Kirk’s gut and his chest, and he pushed it away. Now wasn’t the time. “And how have they been progressing?”

Trella shook her head. “It will be a long process, Captain. We don’t have any kind of treatment for this, and although much of it will correct itself as their own bone marrow begins to produce normal blood cells again, I don’t have any idea how long that will take. I’ve been told they were injected weekly, but that doesn’t mean that in a week all of them will be back to normal. We have no idea how long the actual half-life of the injection is, or how long the bone marrow remains affected even after the drug dissipates.”

“I’ll see if I can get you any information when I meet with the Chareni representatives.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

“I wouldn’t count on much—they may not know either. I get the impression that they didn’t take many people off of this drug.”

“Of course.” Her voice was tight, but she nodded. “Whatever they can tell me would be more than I know right now.” Trella took another long breath, then continued. “There are also the other effects that the process has had on their bodies. It’s different for many of them—some are relatively well off, some are very severely ill. And only time will tell, of course, if there are still more underlying effects that we haven’t yet seen.”

“Can you formulate some sort of treatment for this?”

“I’m already working on it, sir.” She shrugged. “I’ll let you know as soon as I have anything.”

He couldn’t ask more of her. “Very good, Doctor. Can I speak to them?”

“Some of them. There are eight that I have isolated—either they’re very ill, or too emotionally fragile right now to be out in the general crush. The others are in the open bay area.” Trella moved toward the door, then hesitated. “I assume that we expect more, at some point?”

“Hopefully in the near future.” Kirk sighed. “Though, that’s going to be a bit more complicated than I’d like, given the current situation on the northern continent. Mostly Vulcans, if our information is accurate. The message that brought us here used Vulcan diplomatic code, and from the little I’ve been able to pick up from the Chareni so far, the power processes on that continent were primarily … fueled by Vulcans.” He hesitated. “There’s a possibility you may have some Romulans too.”

“Romulans?” Her eyebrows shot up, but to her credit she recovered quickly. “Very well. I’ll keep that in mind.” Trella gestured toward the main bay. “I’d like to suggest that the more stable of the Rigelians be moved out into the guest rooms before we receive any more here. We’re running out of room, and many of these will be fine with a bio-monitor and a check every couple of hours. Some of the nurses have already volunteered to make rounds.”

Kirk nodded. “That seems like a sound plan.” He looked back around at Spock. “Mr. Spock, will you make the arrangements?”

“Of course, Captain.”

“Good.” Kirk rubbed his hands, blowing out a sharp breath. “All right. Let’s go say hi.”

They started at one end of the bay and worked their way slowly toward the other. Kirk stopped briefly at each bedside and spoke with each patient, offering words of comfort that he couldn’t remember afterward and promises that the Federation was indeed now fully aware and was handling the situation. Nurses moved in and out and around him, checking bio-monitors and IV lines and injecting hypos. The Rigelians were grateful, and hopeful, and angry, and exhausted. Kirk mostly allowed them to direct the short meetings, feeling out the ones that he thought might be up to giving him more concrete information about their experiences. Trella made notes as they spoke, both for medical and informational purposes, and of course Spock would remember everything said. He found that more of the Rigelians than he expected were willing to talk about their time on Charen—to offer any detail at all in the hope that it could be of assistance against their former captors.

“Out of nowhere. No time for anything, no time to even send off a distress signal.” The Rigelian before him, a man named Li’l’Mar, shook his head. “They came on board and separated us into groups—Rigelians and Vulcans on one side, everyone else on the other.” The face flushed a dark green. “They are victims here, as well. Our crewmates. Our captain. Our passengers.”

“There were Vulcans with you?” Li’l’Mar nodded, and Trella made a note on her pad. Kirk had asked her to specifically note anything the Rigelians said regarding Vulcan captives. The Chareni had already admitted to their existence, of course, but considering the history of this situation Kirk suspected they couldn’t be too detailed.

“Yes.” The Rigelian on the near bed, Kirk’s next stop, nodded. Apparently these two had been crewmates. “Quite a few, we were transporting from an inter-species medical conference.” He shook his head, eyes dark with memory. “A human was taken with us, even, although we never knew exactly why.”

“A human?” Kirk looked up sharply. This was the first he’d heard of humans in the mix. “Have you heard of other humans on Charen, as well?”

Li’l’Mar shook his head. “No, none. Our compound guards knew nothing of any humans, either, when questioned. If any of them even knew what a human was, I would be surprised.” He looked over at his crewmate. “But remember, the one in charge of the raiding party was interested in this human specifically.” He returned his gaze to Kirk. “He was a doctor, coming from the medical conference. They were interested in some paper he had written, something with a title three years long about Vulcans and part-Vulcans and blood transfusions. I don’t remember it exactly, but they were …”

If Li’l’Mar kept speaking, Kirk wasn’t aware of it. His entire world had narrowed in focus to that one phrase—a title three years long about Vulcans and part-Vulcans and blood transfusions. A crash nearby jerked him back to himself. Mary Clayton, one of the nurses, had dropped a tray of equipment, and was now simply standing over it, staring, with the same pale face Kirk suspected he also wore. He glanced to Spock, almost hesitantly, and wasn’t disappointed. The Vulcan had pinned the Rigelian with his dark gaze, his utter stillness the only hint of deep surprise. Even Trella, who had never met McCoy, seemed to have realized the significance. Of course, she had likely read the paper in question, and probably more thoroughly than he had.

Movement across the aisle captured his attention. Christine Chapel had started away from her patient, gaze wide and shocked. Their eyes met. “Captain …”

The Rigelian finally seemed to realize the effect of his words. He paused. “Captain?”

“The paper.” Spock’s voice was as calm, as unhurried as ever. Kirk wanted to shake him. “Was it entitled Use of the Rigelian Experimental Erythropoiesis-Stimulating Agent RN-6513 in a Vulcan-Human Hybrid for Transfer to a Vulcan Male during Open Heart Surgery?”

Li’l’Mar blinked, then looked to his friend. The other Rigelian shrugged. “I barely even remember anything about a paper, I don’t—”

“What was his name?” Kirk demanded. His heart was racing, and the air in sickbay suddenly seemed as thick as molasses.

Both Rigelians hesitated. “I’m sorry, Captain. Human names are so difficult for us, we—”

“What was the name of your transport?” Spock cut him off.

“The K’dina’Th.”

The room rocked beneath him, almost as if they’d taken fire. No one else seemed to notice. Spock’s jaw tightened subtly, though, and Trella took in a quick breath. Chapel clapped a hand over her mouth and sank to the foot of her patient’s bed, in utter disregard for protocol. Tears pooled in her eyes. “Captain …”

Kirk swallowed the lump of horrified fury threating to choke him, and returned his attention to Li’l’Mar. “Was his name McCoy? Leonard McCoy?”

The Rigelians glanced at each other again. “That … yes, that seems correct,” Li’l’Mar offered. “You know of this man?”

The air was no longer molasses. There was no air even left in the room. Kirk fought the urge to move back and sit on a patient’s bed himself. Beside him, Spock remained rigidly immobile. Chapel was openly crying now, and the other nurses had begun to gather. A soft murmur was starting its way around the room, and Kirk couldn’t manage the presence of mind required to squash this rumor before it got started. He was too desperate to believe it himself.

And too appalled at everything else it might mean.

“Captain, could Dr. McCoy still be alive?”

He had no idea what to say to that—he had only just begun to sort through all the possible implications. Fortunately, Li’l’Mar answered for him, an apologetic gaze directed at Chapel. “The last we saw of him was when we reached Charen. We have seen or heard nothing more of him for months. Anything may be possible.”

Kirk appreciated the truth. There was a fine line between too much hope and not enough, and they would need to walk it carefully. His mind was spinning, his brain already working overtime to fit this new piece into the bigger picture that they’d been forming over the past day.

Bones.

His planned course of action was still the best. There was nothing to be gained by beaming down blind to a powerless, restless continent and searching at random for someone they couldn’t even prove was there—even if that was all Kirk now wanted to do. Their best hope was that somehow, for some reason, McCoy was with the Vulcans. If he wasn’t … if he wasn’t, and no one claimed any knowledge of him, they might never locate him or know what had really happened. Kirk’s jaw tightened, anger crowding out the confusion. No, he would meet with the Chareni as intended. He would secure their aid in locating the Vulcans, and in attaining the prisoners’ safe release and transport to the Enterprise. And if they didn’t find McCoy at that point … he would think of something else. They would try some other way. But right now, this was still the plan with the quickest timeframe and the best hope for success—both for the Vulcans, and for McCoy.

Nothing was different.

But the nurses were staring at him now with tears and pale faces. Spock was standing frozen at his shoulder, without a shred of protest regarding the logic of the Rigelians’ words or his own conclusions. And the thought that his friend might, just might, be still alive was both adding to and distracting from all that he had left to accomplish on Charen.

Suddenly everything had changed.

*****

Chapter 14

Minister of State Yesha Dalir, a short, pale gray Chareni female, was the highest-level member of the Chareni government with no previous knowledge of the planet-wide power production process. Her position was usually ranked fourth in the planetary government, following the President, the Vice President, and the Treasury Minister—all of whom had been disqualified from the negotiations by Kirk’s refusal to treat with anyone who had known about the Federation captives. She was obviously nervous about the responsibility which had been thrust suddenly upon her, but even so, she was well-spoken and carried herself with a quiet poise of which Spock very much approved.

Minister of Intercontinental Affairs Delor Roshall, fifth-ranked, was a reddish male of somewhat medium height and paunchy build, as Spock understood Chareni physique. He rarely spoke, and when he did, the words came in short, forceful bursts. He seemed unable to sit still for long, and routinely glanced at President Kovarak whenever addressed—usually leading to the inquiry or comment being readdressed to Minister Dalir. The man was apparently extremely concerned regarding his standing with the president, and Spock wondered if he truly understood that any power Kovarak yet held on Charen was in name only. If the president had not yet been arrested in conjunction with the affair before them, he would be so shortly. Spock was pleased that Roshall’s position was not reversed with Dalir’s. Such a situation would, he was certain, have led to a very unfortunately different set of negotiations than the one they now faced.

Dalir, for her part, was aware of Kovarak’s presence, but also seemed to fully comprehend the situation as it now stood. Once seated, she addressed her opening remarks to Kirk without acknowledgement of the president, who sat apart from the table, accompanied by a single red-shirted security guard.

“Captain Kirk. As Charen’s chosen representative to the United Federation of Planets, I extend the deepest apologies of the Chareni people for the atrocities committed against Federation citizens on our planet.” She hesitated, and her gaze flickered. “I do not know if it is appropriate, but I also wish to convey my personal loathing for what has happened here. It was my understanding … it has been the understanding of the majority of the Chareni people that the acts committed against your people had been left behind decades ago, at the insistence of our citizens.”

Kirk nodded curtly. “The Federation acknowledges your apology.” He paused, before adding, “Both planetary and personal.”

Spock resisted an urge to glance toward the captain. He knew already what he would see. The same withdrawn scowl had held Kirk’s expression since their earlier meeting with the Rigelians had revealed Dr. McCoy’s abduction at the hands of the Chareni. Kirk had not yet spoken with him about it, whether from lack of time or inclination Spock was uncertain. Even so, he knew Kirk far too well, both as captain and as friend, to not have some notion of what was going on behind that scowl. At this moment, he suspected that the professional in Kirk, who knew and did his duty even when it was not his first or even fifth choice, was warring with the fiercely loyal friend, who wanted nothing more than to transport immediately to the planet and begin an intensive search for the man they had all thought dead for nearly three months.

Who might still be dead.

He was certain it had occurred to Kirk that their current endeavor was the most logical next course of action in discharging both their duties as professionals and as friends. However, when faced with such situations, it had been his experience that humans not only tended to eschew logical thought, but often grew angry when confronted with it. Kirk, while duty-driven, was most assuredly human. That they were here now, rather than on the surface of Charen, was testament to Kirk’s strength of will. Spock hoped that it also meant that Kirk would be able to approach these negotiations with the proper frame of mind. He usually had little doubt regarding Kirk’s abilities at the negotiation table—the man’s distinctive style served him well more often than not. Given the strength of Kirk’s friendship with McCoy, however, he thought it wise to, for the moment, keep a close eye on his captain as well as on the general proceedings.

Dalir folded her hands. “Thank you.” She took a deep breath. “Captain, I would also like to state, for the record, that I am fully aware of the enormity of the duty that we owe to the Federation, and I offer every assurance that we will discharge that duty to the best of our abilities. However, I also owe a duty to my people. It is my hope that whatever is decided here, the Federation will keep in mind that, whatever members of our society have done, our people have not been complicit in these actions.”

Kirk paused, and Spock assumed that he was working out the appropriate phrasing before speaking—always a good sign. “Minister, the primary negotiations will occur with the Vulcan and the Rigelian ambassadors, who are, as you have been informed, en route to our location. However, I can assure you that the Federation is interested in justice. We are not interested in money, at least not in excess of a reasonable amount in the assistance of those who have been imprisoned here, or in labor. We have no intention of leaving your planet destitute, or of forcibly conscripting your people. I can tell you, however, that we will expect arrests and extraditions, as well as full compliance with whatever other demands are agreed upon in the course of these negotiations.”

In his corner, Kovarak stirred. “Captain, as I have already—”

“President Kovarak.” Dalir spoke before Kirk had a chance to respond, without turning or in any other way acknowledging Kovarak. “Your interruption does us no favors. Please remain silent.” Kovarak subsided, muttering darkly. Dalir took another breath, then nodded to Kirk. “We thank the Federation for its consideration, and pledge that we will comply with agreed upon demands to the fullest extent possible. Please continue, Captain.”

Now, Spock did look toward Kirk. The captain seemed favorably impressed—at least, his scowl had shifted to a grudging approval. Kirk glanced at the data pad on the table in front of him before continuing.

“The purpose of this meeting is to deal with certain immediate issues that cannot wait until the arrival of the ambassadors. We’ve been provided by your government with samples of your energy compound and of the science behind it. However, my science officer, Mr. Spock,” he motioned to Spock, who inclined his head to Dalir, “indicates that the equations provided are incomplete. I would like a more accurate detailing of the process by which copper-based blood cells are converted into energy for your planet. Perhaps Mr. Spock could consult with one of your power engineers regarding the details.”

“Of course.” Dalir motioned to her assistant, who made a note on his data pad. “I might find power engineers reluctant to undertake such a collaboration. May I … assure whoever is chosen of his or her return from your ship?”

Kirk just avoided snorting. “Minister, I have no intention of snatching random people from your planet and throwing them in our brig, no matter what their job might have been. I assure you, when the Federation begins to require arrests, the names involved will be based on careful study, not on whoever happens to be on the Enterprise or any other Federation ship at the time.”

“Very good. Thank you.” She murmured something to her assistant, who made another note. “Someone will contact you regarding this matter as soon as possible, Captain.”

“Thank you.” Kirk glanced at his list again. “I also have a request from my Chief Medical Officer for any medical information gathered by your people since the inception of this process, for all species involved. Her search for a treatment may progress more quickly if she has all the background data. She specifically asked for data regarding the half-life of the priming injection, I believe, and the entire range of known side effects.”

“Of course, Captain. We will gather all relevant data and send it as soon as possible. In the meantime, we have this for you.” Dalir’s assistant handed her a data pad, which she passed across the table. Kirk took it, raising his eyebrows. Whether or not she understood the gesture itself, she gathered its intent. “Our initial investigations have uncovered a treatment only recently developed on the northern continent. It is directed toward Vulcans and Romulans, of course, and doesn’t appear to be an actual cure for the effects of the injections—but perhaps it may be of some use to your medical officer.”

“That’s … very helpful, Minister. Thank you.” Kirk passed the data pad to Spock, who glanced briefly at the screen.

And froze.

Given his own surprisingly strong reaction to the news that Dr. McCoy had not been killed in the explosion of the K’dina’Th, but abducted and brought to Charen for reasons as yet unknown, Spock had shunted both that information and his response to a highly controlled portion of his brain, locking it temporarily away until he found a more opportune time to process and fully manage the emotions involved. A meeting with the Chareni government was neither the time nor the place for such an attempt. For a moment, however, he suspected those emotions of leaking into and clouding his judgment.

Only for a moment. Further quick analysis of the equations, chemical structures, and general information lining the pad before him confirmed intellectually what his first glance had hinted—that this treatment had been developed by Leonard McCoy.

At least, the probability was quite high. As Science Officer and CMO, Spock and McCoy had worked closely on any number of projects over the course of the five-year mission. They had also published three papers together, and had been collaborating on a fourth when news reached the Enterprise of the doctor’s death. He was exceedingly familiar with McCoy’s thought processes, with his professional and medical judgments, with the quirks that flavored the whole and made a sharp intellect brilliant in its field. It was not the Vulcan way to bet. However, given the knowledge of McCoy’s presence—at one time, if not still—on Charen, and the pattern and flow of the data before him, Spock would have considered this less a gamble and more an as-yet-unproven statement of fact.

The determination took seconds. He allowed another few seconds to process and control his reaction to this new development, then set the pad on the table, looked to Kirk, and nodded briefly. The time was not right to inform the captain—they were not alone, and in any case, the fact of the treatment’s author had little bearing on the immediate discussion. If it became relevant at a later point, he would raise his suspicions. Unless that occurred, it was best to inform Kirk after the close of the meeting.

Kirk frowned, fully aware that something had caught Spock’s eye. When Spock refrained from comment, however, he returned his attention to Dalir. There would be time later for the extra details.

“Now, Minister—to the safe return of the prisoners held in the power plant on your northern continent.”

Kovarak snorted, muttering something beneath his breath. Dalir winced, just visibly, and Kirk turned a sharp glance on the Chareni president. “You have something to say, President?”

“I said,” Kovarak straightened, “good luck.”

Kirk frowned at him, then pinned Dalir with a hard glance. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Dalir sighed, and rubbed at the back of her neck. “The situation on the northern continent is complicated, Captain. As you are well aware.”

“I am aware. Please explain how this complication affects the return of our people.”

“Since the power was lost, we have had no way to track most of what has been happening on the northern continent, and very little communication with anyone still there. Also, many of the governmental officials and high-ranking utilities Supervisors evacuated to our secondary continent immediately after the power failure. Even if communication was reliable, there is really no one left to communicate with.”

“Hmph.” Kirk’s scowl returned. “Left the people to fend for themselves, did you?”

“Look here!” Roshall spoke for the first time since the meeting’s commencement, pushing forward in his chair. “The police are engaged in crowd control. We discussed sending back-up from our other continents, but when word of this is released, it’s likely we’ll need them where they are. What could anyone else accomplish by staying? You certainly can’t expect that the rest of us could have—”

“I could expect, Minister, that leaders might have the decency to stay and lead. To make your people feel safe—or, at least, safer. To answer their concerns. It seems—”

Spock inclined his head, ready to divert Kirk’s attention from an unproductive rant of which Dr. McCoy himself would have thoroughly approved, but Minister Dalir beat him to it.

“Captain Kirk.” The interruption was diffident, but effectively cut through the escalating tension. “We are even now discussing amongst our active ministers the most appropriate way in which to handle this situation. However, I believe your concern was for your people?”

Kirk glared at Roshall for a moment longer, barely managing to conceal his disgust, then released a deep breath and returned his gaze to Dalir. Spock’s estimation of the Minister of State rose another notch. She was adept at diffusing pressure situations. It would serve her well in the coming days.

“Proceed, Minister.”

“We have been scanning for the past hours, and believe your people to still be within the power plant.”

Spock’s eyebrow inched up. “You are able to effectively scan through the dilasantium in your building structures?”

Dalir gave an odd little shoulder jerk that might have been a shrug. “Marginally. Most of the current buildings on the northern continent were constructed during the days of our early space technology, before scanners became commonplace and we realized that the material rebounded scanning signals. Once it was discovered we found other building materials, but the cost to tear down and replace what amounted to nearly three-fourths of a continent was … prohibitive.” To say the least. It was likely a highly vexing situation for the Chareni, as it had been for the Enterprise during the past days. “Scanning technology has, of course, improved to some extent over time. We are able to pick up … impressions may be the best word. In this instance, we scanned for copper-containing biological signals. Once we had ruled out the energy compound—which, in any instance, since the contamination is no longer scanning as it always has—we found that the highest concentration, and therefore the most likely to be your people, is yet within the confines of the power plant.”

Kirk leaned forward. “Do you have any form of communication still with any of your people in the power plant? Is there a way to verify these readings?”

She hesitated. “Captain Kirk, we no longer maintain control of the power plant. It was completely overrun during the sabotage—the rebel group responsible has reportedly claimed it as their operational center.”

The news was … disturbing. Kirk’s eyebrows shot up, and he leaned back in his chair.

“So our people, assuming your scans are accurate and they are still within the power plant, are in all probability at the mercy of this rebel group.”

“Yes, Captain. That is accurate.”

Kirk rubbed at his jaw and glanced toward Spock. “Well.” Indeed. Yet more variables in an already complex equation. The captain looked back to Dalir. “What do you know about this rebel group? They are against your power process on general principle, I believe. What are the chances they’d be open to freeing our people?”

Dalir looked to Roshall. He craned his head around to take in Kovarak, but the president had collapsed into an uncommunicative slump, and ignored him. Roshall turned back and finally spoke—just before, if Spock was correct, Kirk would have intervened.

“They’re one of several intra-continental organizations that we’ve been keeping an eye on for some years. The Brolin Sak.” Truth Huntsmen, according to the translator. Not an original moniker, but Spock supposed that it served its purpose well enough. “They aren’t the most violent of these factions—they’re willing to kill in furtherance of their goals, and obviously qualms about the overall ramifications of a continent-wide loss of power didn’t stop them, but they don’t leave a trail of dead bodies like some. They’re also not the most communicative, either. We’ve attempted contact with them several times over the years, and at least three times since the incident at the power plant, and have never even received an acknowledgement, much less a response.”

“Maybe they’ll be more willing to talk to us.” Kirk addressed Dalir. “I’d like to attempt communication with the Brolin Sak leadership after this meeting. Can you provide us with the proper channels?”

“We will give you what we have, Captain.” Again, the shoulder jerk. “I can’t promise that it is still correct, or that anyone will respond even if it is.”

“Understood, Minister.” Kirk looked to Spock. “In the meantime, I think we have to proceed under the assumption that we’re dealing with a hostile force and that it falls to us to extricate our people. If we aren’t able to open communications with this group in the next few hours, I don’t want to wait any longer. We have no idea what kind of shape the prisoners or in, and how the lack of power has been affecting their situation.”

“Agreed, Captain.”

Kirk nodded, looking back to the Chareni. “What about it, then? What would be the best way to go about this? We’ll need to get into the building, of course, and we’ll need to know where we’re going once we do. I’d like blueprints, but I would also like a guide, maybe two, who are familiar with the premises. Is there anyone among the evacuees you mentioned who has a good working knowledge of the entire plant? The quickest routes through? Where the prisoners were held? Of course, by now they may be in a completely different section of the plant, but it’s a place to start.”

Dalir turned toward Kovarak, who remained silent. She uttered a brief, sharp whine, and Kovarak finally snapped, “The power plant Supervisors are who you’ll want to see. Most of them evacuated to the secondary continent, they’ll be easy to locate in the general offices.”

“Thank you, President.” Dalir looked to her assistant. “Balif, have the northern continental Supervisors located. Tell them that Captain Kirk will require a meeting.” He nodded and began punching rapidly on his pad. Dalir returned her gaze to Kirk. “I have never been to the power plant, I am the last person qualified to help you plan any incursion. However, I will put you in immediate touch with the Chief of Security for the northern continent. He will be instructed to assist you and your people in planning around any gaps in the information that the Supervisors are able to supply.”

Kirk nodded. “Agreed. I—”

“Minister.” Both Kirk and Dalir swung around, startled. Spock offered an apologetic nod. It was, admittedly, discourteous in the extreme to interrupt during a period of negotiation. His father, for one, would have solidly disapproved. However, given the opening that now lay before them, it seemed appropriate to abandon his resolution not to speak yet of the probable origin of the treatment compound. “Among those gathered to assist us, I believe we would be particularly interested in speaking to Second Supervisor Rashall UyaVeth.”

She hesitated, looking to Kirk. The captain tilted a curious gaze at Spock. “Something we should know about, Mr. Spock?”

Spock motioned briefly to the Chareni pad on the table before him. “According to this data, Supervisor UyaVeth appears to have been primarily responsible for the proposal of and follow-through supervision involved in the development of the treatment protocol of which Minister Dalir informed us.”

“Interesting, and I’m sure Dr. Trella will want to speak with him, but how does this help us here?”

Spock paused. It was, of course, not entirely relevant to the subject at hand. Still, as the Supervisors had now become a topic of discussion, it seemed rather inefficient to break into two conversations what could be covered in one. “I am uncertain whether Supervisor UyaVeth may be of any particular use for the purpose of rescuing the hostages, Captain. However … I believe you will find that he may be a person of primary importance in the final matter you had determined to bring before this group today.”

Kirk’s jaw tightened. Dalir, on the other hand, was simply confused. “What matter is this, Captain?” Kirk took a long, deep breath. She uttered a low, nervous whine and shifted her attention. “Mr. Spock? I am afraid that I don’t quite—”

“Minister.” Kirk straightened. His voice was still level, but had taken on a clipped, tight tone. Dalir obviously sensed the difference—her own posture straightened and stilled. Her expression, if Spock read her correctly, remained perplexed. “We have Rigelian witnesses to the abduction by your people of a human Starfleet doctor along with other prisoners roughly three months past. This is the matter Mr. Spock is referencing—why a human, given the copper base of your energy processes, and what might be done to locate this man if he is not with the Vulcans and Romulans in the power plant.”

“A human?” Dalir’s brows dipped, and she turned to the other Chareni in the room. Roshall was frowning too, and even Kovarak seemed genuinely lost. Her assistant typed furiously onto his pad. “Captain.” Dalir paused. “This is … I have not heard of such a thing. We have detailed records of Rigelian, Vulcan, and Romulan prisoners—you’ve seen them, you’ve been sent copies … but I know nothing at all about any humans.”

Hard hazel eyes pinned Spock. “What makes you think this UyaVeth knows anything about McCoy?”

Spock nodded briefly toward the data pad. “Captain, it is my belief that Dr. McCoy developed, or was highly involved in the development of, this treatment compound.”

A beat of silence, then, “Explain.”

“I cannot, not in a manner which will convince. Suffice it to say, Dr. McCoy and I have collaborated often, and I know his work.”

Kirk’s eyebrows raised. “Intuition, Mr. Spock?”

Spock frowned. “Experience, Captain.”

Kirk scowled for a long moment, then turned abruptly back to Dalir. “It’s been my own experience that Mr. Spock is correct far more often than not, Minister. We will require Supervisor UyaVeth’s presence.” His tone was noticeably chilled.

“Of course.” She nodded, Balif made a lengthy note on his pad, and Rashall exchanged a long look with Kovarak. Spock wondered what was involved in that glance—both had seemed surprised at the news of a human prisoner, if his limited understanding of Chareni body language was accurate, but there was something else at work here. Perhaps UyaVeth himself was the cause. They had, of course, no background information on personal relationships within the Chareni government. It was difficult to speculate without further data. Dalir continued in the same hesitant manner. “Captain, I note that this subject appears to be of particular … importance to you. Forgive me … but, is there something about this human doctor of which we should be aware? Or is it because you are human as well? If there is anything more that—”

“Dr. McCoy was this ship’s Chief Medical Officer.” Kirk’s voice had turned brittle, sharp-edged. “He was a colleague and friend, and we’ve been mourning him for months. It’s been a … bit of a shock, to say the least, to discover that he’s instead been a hostage all this time and we’ve been doing nothing.”

It was illogical to suggest that they should have been searching for McCoy when they believed him dead. However, Spock knew better than to question this particular mood. Kirk would blame himself for what he would, and there was very little that anyone else could do about it—a black hole itself was incapable of sucking away guilt that Kirk was not ready to free. McCoy had, on occasion, found ways to battle this manner of useless self-recrimination; however, Dr. McCoy was most assuredly not at this moment present.

Dalir nodded, once. “I see.” Her stance relaxed minutely, yet her entire posture suddenly radiated a determined air. It was an odd combination. “Captain Kirk.” Kirk looked up from the conference table, drawn by the firm, compassionate tenor of her voice. “Although our society has more and more over the past years edged toward an independence, an isolation from others of even our own kind, Chareni have traditionally held the ties of family and friendship very deeply. Some of us still do. You have my word that we will do everything within our power to assist in this matter.”

Intriguing. He must remember to research these traditional Chareni social ties, when a more opportune time presented itself.

Kirk studied Dalir for a long moment, conflicting emotions warring in his eyes. Finally, he returned her nod. When he spoke, his voice was businesslike. “Thank you, Minister. We have additional up-front questions regarding the security and possible police presence surrounding the power plant, if you wish to mark them down for your Chief of Security’s reference before we meet.”

“Of course, Captain.”

She looked to Balif, who poised his hand expectantly over his pad. Kirk turned his attention to the assistant, and the meeting resumed.

*****

The dimming light outside the near window signaled the coming of another night. McCoy pulled the several blankets closer to his face, relaxing into the soft couch cushions and the glorious warmth of the wood stove. The room itself was dim and quiet, the only noise the voices drifting in from the next room and the occasional street sound. He was full—at least relatively—and exhausted, and not cold for the first time in months, and by all rights he should have been asleep for probably a half hour by now. His mind, however, was moving too quickly to allow it.

Kiran and Gesill had been as good as their word. Immediately after bringing McCoy, Salin, and T’Pana inside their home, Gesill had led them to a room that seemed to serve as both kitchen and dining area and provided large quantities of clear water for each of them.

“It’s not cool, my apologies, but it’s still clean at least.”

Anything room temperature on this planet was more than cold enough for McCoy. He scanned it just to be certain that there were no variations in the Chareni water supply, explaining to their hosts as he worked. They didn’t seem easily offended, thankfully—while her guests drank their fill, Gesill brought a large quantity of food out of a cool-box in the wall and set it out on the counter.

“Perhaps you would like to scan it all. I don’t know what will be appropriate for you.”

McCoy took another long drink, happy that his still unsettled stomach seemingly had no plans to reject it, and wandered over to the laden counter.

“Ma’am, thank you, but we have no intention of eating so much of—”

“It’s just as well shared,” Kiran cut him off, guessing his protest before it was even voiced. “With the power out, this will all be perished in a couple of days. Might as well eat as much of it as we can.” He settled into a chair at the table, pushed it back on two legs, and began the work of cleaning the phaser rifle. McCoy still hesitated, but Salin came up beside him and nodded.

“It is logical. We thank you.”

Huh. Salin was usually the quiet one, in company. McCoy suspected that the kid was being driven more by concern for him and T’Pana than his own hunger, but in the end it didn’t matter. What mattered was that they would all finally eat. McCoy leaned against the counter to keep the relief from dropping him straight onto the scrubbed tile floor.

“All right.” He managed a smile for Gesill, who hovered again near the cool-box. “Thank you.”

“It’s really the least we can do, after what you’ve been through.” She was already rummaging again. McCoy didn’t want to think about what they’d been through. Right now, he didn’t want to think about anything but food. He turned toward the counter and began the process of scanning the foreign food with one of their stolen tricorders, still drinking absently from his large water tumbler. He should definitely make it a point to replace as much fluid as possible while he had the chance—who knew what tomorrow might bring?

In the end, he settled on a round white root plant and some kind of leafy orange-brown vegetable for himself. It was a shame that the meat here wasn’t high in either iron or potassium—he could do with something a little more substantial than turnips and glorified lettuce leaves in his stomach. The meat was, however, fairly high in copper—surprisingly so, actually, given that the animal life here had cobalt-based blood. He grimaced an apology at Salin and T’Pana.

“There’s nothing else here that’s even close to providing the level of nutrients you need. If you can’t do it, I’ll try to combine a few things for you, but—”

“No, Doctor.” T’Pana viewed the meat with a barely concealed distaste, but her voice was calm and undisturbed. “In this instance, it is the most logical option. We will … adapt.”

“Good.” He quirked a half-smile. “In that case … thanks for, you know, being good sports and all.”

“Sports?” One of her eyebrows lifted, and she exchanged a glance with Salin. The young Vulcan simply shrugged.

“Much of what he says is utterly illogical. However, this does seem to be a compliment.”

“Indeed.” T’Pana folded her arms tightly. “It is a wonder to me that humans are ever able to complete a conversation, with all of the unnecessary—”

“Enough, you two,” McCoy growled, but then allowed a brief chuckle. So, this is what it was like to be tag-teamed by a couple of Vulcans. It was a good thing Spock was solo on the Enterprise, he’d never have any peace otherwise …

The reminder sent a shudder through him, and his stomach churned. He moved quickly away from those thoughts, before he was forced to actually deal with the fear and the dull despair he’d been so successfully burying since their plan had collapsed and they’d left the power plant behind. Gesill had gathered the indicated food near the stove and was putting the rest back in the cool-box, but she frowned suddenly at him.

“You are shaking. Why is this?”

He wasn’t about to go into physical reactions based on emotion. In any case, there was a much simpler answer—and probably the one she was really asking about.

“It’s my body’s way of trying to warm itself. We’re not …” He rubbed his hands, colder just thinking about it. “Our planets are very much warmer than this. Theirs,” he nodded toward the Vulcans, “especially.”

She exchanged a glance with Kiran. “You’re cold?” McCoy nodded—a gesture that, he had discovered some time ago, the Chareni seemed to share. “It is the moderate season now. Very comfortable for us.” Kiran was already standing even as she spoke. “My husband will light the wood stoves.”

McCoy frowned. “It won’t be too warm for you?”

“Not at all.” Gesill laughed, reminding him very much of the light, self-deprecating sound his mother had always produced in her own final years when discussing her various ailments. “We’re old. We don’t notice the heat like we used to.”

“As long as you’re not uncomfortable.” Already, his chilled body was relaxing. The thought of huddling up next to a wood stove was right up there at the moment with a mint julep on a hot Georgian afternoon …

No. He couldn’t think about that.

Another, more unsettling thought occurred to him. “If it’s the moderate season, will people question the smoke?”

“Have to cook somehow.” Kiran snorted, and moved off into the other room.

Right.

They heard a banging and a rattle, and then a door slammed near the back of the house. Gesill laid a light hand on McCoy’s arm, and he jumped.

“Sit. It will be well.”

There was really nothing else for it. McCoy returned to the table, but the sight of T’Pana’s ugly bruise reminded him that there were other issues at hand.  He was on his feet again before he had even settled his full weight into the chair.

“Ma’am?” Gesill looked around. “I’d like to take a look at my friend’s injuries. Would you have a first aid kit somewhere?”

He was prepared to explain, as the term ‘first aid’ wasn’t quite universal, but there was no need. Gesill hurried into another room and returned a few minutes later with a large box.

“If you need anything more, we have other supplies in the sleeping rooms.”

“No, this is … this is great, actually.” The kit contained gauze, a cleansing agent that the tricorder registered as near enough to alcohol, and a long, heavy length of material that would serve as a far better binding for T’Pana’s arm than the torn machinery cover that now held it in place. McCoy was in the process of unwinding the makeshift sling when Kiran reentered with an armful of wood.

“We’re low, didn’t think we’d need so much for a while. I’ll have to go down later on and see if Lansk has some I can buy.”

Gesill nodded. “Be careful. Take the rifle.” McCoy was about to protest that there was no need to send anyone wandering in the streets, but the woman shifted her attention to their clothing before he could so much as speak. “I wish we had something else for you to wear. I just gave away all of my son’s old clothes, and I don’t think Kiran’s would fit you, he’s quite a bit bigger …”

“Thank you, but it is unnecessary.” He didn’t like the slurring in T’Pana’s voice. She needed to warm up, and eat, and sleep. Hopefully, that was all coming in short order. “You have done more than enough for us. This clothing will suffice.”

The elderly Chareni tsk’d softly. “Maybe we can at least find coats for you. We won’t miss them, we rarely need them in this area.” She looked around. “Kiran …”

“I’ll take a look when I’m done here.” He spoke without turning, continuing to poke wood into the small covered black stove in the kitchen corner. Gesill wandered back off to the meal preparations, and McCoy returned his attention to T’Pana, raising an eyebrow.

“How does this feel?” He held the new binding tight. “Too much? Too loose?”

“No, it is …” T’Pana blinked, and took a long breath. “It is good. Better than it was.”

“Okay.” McCoy fastened the sling, then turned her face toward the window, squinting at the dilated pupils. Concussion, at least. It must have been some blow—Vulcans were, as a rule, pretty hard-headed. “How is your head? Does it hurt any, other than this bit?” He indicated the bruise. “I don’t like how—”

“It aches.” She straightened, and her voice took on that abrupt, controlled tone to which she so often resorted. T’Pana was, apparently, finished being coddled. “Considering our circumstances, it could do nothing else. You need not hover, Doctor.”

“Ha. There she is.” McCoy offered a weak smile—the most he could manage, given his own lightheaded state, but T’Pana relaxed, minutely. “You need to sleep.”

“I understand.”

“As soon as we’re done eating.”

“Of course, Doctor.”

“And I don’t want to hear anything about—”

Doctor.” The dark eyes narrowed. He dipped a piece of gauze in his water cup and began carefully cleaning the wound edges. “I will comply.”

“Good. Now, hold still.”

Breakfast—or lunch, or whatever it was they were eating at this point—was like a little slice of heaven. Besides being the first real food he’d tasted in months (Romulan dietary rations definitely didn’t count, as far as he was concerned), Gesill had prepared his vegetables in a light, bland broth that had a soothing effect on his stomach. He was glad. Not only did it make everything far more likely to stay down, but it just tasted good. That in itself was a simple pleasure that he had very well thought he might not experience again.

The Vulcans were far less pleased with their repast, being animal-based, but since they were Vulcans they didn’t complain. They gamely worked their way through the generous portions, cutting off small bits and swallowing quickly to mask the taste. McCoy wondered how their systems would do with the meat, given that it wasn’t something generally included in the Vulcan diet, and determined that he would need to keep an eye on them.

After eating they followed Kiran into the next room. He had pulled several long, deep couches close around a larger version of the kitchen’s wood stove. McCoy’s entire body nearly buckled at the sight. He held a quick, whispered conference with the Vulcans, and they decided that T’Pana and Salin would sleep first, followed by McCoy. He was proud of the victory—winning an argument against not one but two Vulcans wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, and here he had managed it twice in the same day.

He kept that little bit of triumph to himself.

There were enough couches and blankets—McCoy drifted over to the extra couch and snagged a blanket off the pile, reveling in the soft texture against his cold fingers—for all three of them, of course. It seemed their hosts didn’t go in for partial hospitality. Still, despite believing that Kiran and Gesill were trustworthy, McCoy also agreed that it was illogical—yep, there I go again—for all three of them to sleep at once. They had to stay vigilant. Too much could go wrong too quickly. The Vulcans settled, and added several extra blanket layers even with the heat radiating off the stove. Kiran shook his head, but merely exchanged a glance with his wife before they strolled back out into the kitchen. McCoy pulled his new blanket around his shoulders and joined them.

It was a long afternoon. He was exhausted, and even real interest in Gesill and Kiran’s stories about their family, and the old neighborhood, and the days before the planetary government couldn’t keep him focused enough to retain much of it. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to require much in the way of response—they simply waited for him to nod at appropriate times, then moved on to the next topic. Somewhere in his sluggish brain, he experienced a strong regret that he would likely not remember anything they were telling him here. Some of it was probably important to their current situation, and even if not, it was the kind of thing that he usually loved to do—sit around and shoot the shit about the old days. Even if they weren’t his old days. His body was too close to crashing, though, and the best he could manage was to not fall asleep as Gesill detailed the exploits of their daughter’s youngest son in his primary years.

Salin had apparently set that peculiar internal alarm that all Vulcans seemed to have. He reappeared in the kitchen as the blue-tinged sun began to edge behind the buildings, looking far more refreshed than he had any right to be after such a short time asleep.

Blasted Vulcans.

“T’Pana is still asleep.”

“Good.” McCoy struggled out of his chair. “She needs it.” He squinted into the next room, at the motionless lump on the near couch. “Hopefully she’ll stay that way for a while.”

“Indeed.”

Salin would probably remember everything Kiran and Gesill said to him, too …

“Well … night.”

Salin nodded, briefly. “Sleep well, Doctor.”

Except that, once he was buried under a pile of blankets on Salin’s abandoned couch, sleep proved elusive. He lay on his back, and stared at the darkened ceiling, and let it all crash in on him—the months of anger and fear, the failed plan, the desperate flight and dirty, freezing hiding places. The hunger. The injuries. The increasing unrest—the shouting and breaking glass and sirens that even now drifted occasionally through the closed windows, so loud after the months of silence in the power plant’s lower level. The knowledge that people were dying from the lack of artificial power, and would continue to die in the weeks ahead, and it was all from his blood.

The fear that they wouldn’t be able to stay here for long, that they would be on the run again soon because it just wasn’t going to be safe for them to stay in one place.

The fear that they would be caught and killed.

The fear that they would be caught and not killed.

The fear that they would not be caught, and they would spend the next however-many years hiding in sheds and ravines, cold and hungry and completely alone …

McCoy was beginning to shake in earnest, and not from the cold, when a knock on the outer door jerked him back to his senses. He froze, sinking down into his cocoon of blankets. T’Pana didn’t stir, and he felt a brief twinge of alarm. It was unlike Vulcans to sleep so deeply that they didn’t note what was happening immediately around them. Then again, she was exhausted and injured and hypothermic. Her body had likely just determined that it had finally had more than it could take. Kiran crossed to answer the door and admitted a single, tall Chareni male. He motioned for silence and led the visitor into the kitchen.

“Granpara, I—”

The voice broke off almost at once, and a flood of invectives filled the little room.

“Tilar!” Gesill snapped. The voice broke off, then resumed with only slightly more calmly.

“Apologies, Granmara, but … what is this?”

This is our guest. His name is Salin.” It was difficult to say whether Gesill’s disapproval was for her grandson’s words or for his tone. Honestly, though, McCoy couldn’t blame the kid. How often, on a planet like Charen, did you walk into your grandparents’ home and find an alien sitting in the kitchen with them?

“I …” The young man’s voice faded, then, “But Granmara, how did this happen? How did you …” He broke off again, and McCoy heard the scrape of a chair. “Apologies, I don’t mean to—”

“No offense is taken.” Salin’s voice was calm. “Your surprise is entirely understandable.”

“Maybe.” Kiran’s rough voice broke in. “But that’s no reason for you to be rude, Tilar.”

Rude. McCoy almost laughed out loud. Rude was the least of their troubles …

“Apologies, Granpara. I only …” A long, deep breath, and then, “Please, though. How did this happen?”

Salin’s voice intervened. “My companions and I were—”

Companions?”

“Tilar!”

Shadows fell in the doorway, and McCoy felt eyes on him. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply—he wasn’t quite ready to take on this conversation.

“How many are there?”

“We are three.” Salin’s unruffled voice continued. “Your grandparents found us in a … situation on this street earlier today. We—”

“Two men were tracking Kolenn Trisal down the road.” Gesill’s voice shook. “She was fortunate that someone saw, it’s not safe to—”

“After the situation had resolved,” Salin continued, “they offered us food and shelter.” He paused. “Your grandparents have been very kind to us, their aid is much appreciated.”

A long sigh drifted into the dark sitting room. “So, they were right.”

“Who were right about what?” Kiran growled.

“Did you know that there’s a bounty out on these aliens?” A bounty? McCoy’s heart sank, and it was all he could do not to swear aloud. Couldn’t everyone just leave them alone? “At least, on one of them. I heard—”

“A bounty?” Kiran’s rough voice dripped anger. “We haven’t done enough to these people? We’ve already imprisoned and tortured them, now we have to drag them back to …” He trailed off, muttering unintelligibly. Then, “And just who is after them, anyway?”

“The Brolin Sak. They’ve put out the word that a particular alien escaped during their raid of the power plant, one that is important to their plans. They say he is different than the rest, they called him a human. No one cares about the others—at least, no one’s offered to pay anything for them—but the Brolin Sak has offered a large sum to see this human returned.”

Blast it. Double blast it. Suddenly, McCoy couldn’t breathe. They were after him? What could he possibly have to do with their plans?

“Dr. McCoy?” Salin was as close to alarmed as McCoy could ever remember hearing him. “For what purpose do they wish his return?”

“I haven’t heard, I don’t know if they’ve even said.” Footsteps again, near the door. “The human is here then too, isn’t he?” Tilar began to swear again. “I came to warn you that people will be coming to search this area soon, perhaps many people. A couple of men claimed to have seen aliens nearby …”

Probably the bastards from that morning. McCoy sank back onto the couch, fighting the horrified nausea and his whirling thoughts. They were after him.

What do they want with me?

Wait.

With him. They weren’t after the others, not Salin and T’Pana. They were after him.

Cold fear gripped his gut and his throat. If this Brolin Sak—Chiya’s group? probably—if they were after him, and if they were paying enough, his odds of escape had just fallen drastically. No matter what, he couldn’t stay in Kiran and Gesill’s home any longer. He couldn’t put them in any more danger than they already were.

And he couldn’t stay with Salin and T’Pana.

McCoy’s stomach lurched again, but he managed to keep everything down.

If he stayed with the Vulcans, it put them in far greater danger than they would be on their own. Without a bounty on them his friends might be curiosities, but people would eventually forget about them. Maybe even help them out from time to time, like Gesill and Kiran had done. No chance of anyone forgetting about him, though, not with good money riding on his capture. And if the Vulcans were with him he was found, there was very little chance that Salin and T’Pana wouldn’t get dragged back in too.

Or killed trying to fight their way free. Or worse, trying to fight his way free.

No. This was it.

Voices drifted in again from the next room. The conversation was softer now—probably, McCoy realized, on purpose, in an attempt to avoid waking them. It was now or never. He eyed T’Pana and found her still asleep. He glanced toward the kitchen doorway and found it clear. Whatever conversation was taking place out there, he hoped that it would be enough to hide any noise from those sharp Vulcan ears. Taking a deep breath, he rolled off the couch, gripped his discarded phaser and tricorder, and crept across the room to a rear window. He gripped the sash and pushed gently. Luck was with him—it slid smoothly, noiselessly. Kiran and Gesill took good care of their home. A quick peek out showed him that the ground was well within reach. He ducked his head under the top pane, stepped carefully over the sill, and settled gently onto the soft dirt below.

He crouched for a few minutes beneath the window, breathing carefully, trying to build up the courage to go. Knowing this was for the best was one thing, but actually doing it was completely something else.

Doctor. Your fear is understandable, but your choice is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.”

Back, are you? He blew out another long breath. And with some Vulcan philosophy for me, too. That’s … that’s just fantastic, Spock. Thanks. Just what I need.

Maybe it was, though, because he finally worked up the guts to creep away from the rear of Kiran and Gesill’s home, into the Chareni darkness. He stopped on the next street to throw up into the gutter, then wiped his mouth and picked up his pace. The more distance he put between himself and anyone he might be endangering, the better.

 

Chapter 15

Second Supervisor Rashall UyaVeth was a cold bastard. They hadn’t even spoken yet, and already the man set Kirk’s teeth on edge. When he entered the conference room with Spock on one side and Chareni Chief of Security for the Northern Continent Danil Morask on his other, UyaVeth was already seated at the table, taking in the room with sharp silver eyes. The gaze came around as they entered, a combination of disparaging humor and studied disinterest. Something that on a human would have been a smile played around UyaVeth’s dark lips, but there was nothing open or friendly in the expression. Kirk allowed his own faint smile, returned the stare, and wondered if it had been a mistake or a stroke of genius to start his interviews with this particular Supervisor.

Well. They would know soon enough.

“Supervisor UyaVeth.” Kirk tugged at his tunic, forcing his voice into a bland politeness. Despite his initial dislike, despite their suspicions that UyaVeth might know something about McCoy, it was counter-productive to start out with an adversarial tone. “I’m Captain James Kirk, of the starship Enterprise. This is my first officer, Commander Spock, and I believe you already know Chief Morask.”

UyaVeth inclined his head. “Captain.” The silver eyes flickered across Spock, paused briefly on Morask, and then returned to Kirk. “The Enterprise. It’s … ironic.”

Fifteen seconds in, and already the man was toying with him. It did nothing to improve Kirk’s temper. “In what way, Supervisor?”

UyaVeth cast another glance around the slick, bare wall panels. “It’s not so different here from the power plant as I had been led to believe.”

Just what was that supposed to mean?

“Right,” Kirk snapped. “No difference at all—unless you consider that we haven’t got any of your people locked up below and—”

“Captain,” Spock murmured, and Kirk bit off the rest of whatever it was he intended to say.

It was just as well. He wasn’t sure what would have come out if he’d kept talking.

UyaVeth was watching him silently, and Kirk resisted the urge to swear out loud. Already. The man had already gotten to him. He was going to have to watch himself. Kirk took a long, deep breath, tugged at his tunic again, and sat back in his chair. “Supervisor.”

“Captain.”

This time, he ignored the faint Chareni smirk. “Minister Dalir informs me that you’ve been briefed on the situation. We’ve had no luck with our attempts to contact the Brolin Sak leadership. We’re continuing our efforts, but in the meantime we’re also planning an incursion into the power plant on your northern continent, to free our people. President Kovarak believes that the energy Supervisors are in the best position to advise us regarding the layout and possible prisoner position within the plant, which is the reason you’re here now.”

UyaVeth leaned back in his own chair. “And what can you promise me if I cooperate?”

“Promise you?” Kirk leaned forward, leveling a glare at the Chareni. “Nothing. Your cooperation will be duly noted, but that’s as far as it goes. I have no intention of making any agreements with anyone before our ambassadors and your government have conducted a full investigation into this matter.”

“UyaVeth.” Morask’s deep voice rumbled beside him. “Your cooperation here is expected. If you do not comply, you will face sanction from your own government, regardless of whatever our investigations determine. Full and willing assistance is your best option here.”

He’d only known the Chareni Chief of Security for about an hour and a half, but Kirk had discovered very quickly that Morask was a good man to have around. He took no crap from anyone.

UyaVeth eyed Morask for a long moment, then nodded. “Very well.” He returned his silver eyes and half-smile to Kirk. “Ask your questions, Captain. I will answer to the best of my ability.”

He didn’t trust UyaVeth, not at all. Still, it was the reason they were here.

“Very well, Supervisor. Are you familiar with the layout of the area in the power plant that housed the Federation prisoners?”

“I am.”

All right. So far, so good. “Did you work directly with the prisoners?”

“I did.”

Kirk exchanged a glance with Spock. He didn’t know how long these two-word answers were going to last, but he would take them for the entire meeting, if he could get them.

“The records provided by minister Dalir show twenty-nine Vulcans and eleven Romulans on the northern continent. Is this accurate, to the best of your knowledge?”

“Twenty-eight Vulcans, Captain.” No such luck, apparently. Then again, two-word answers couldn’t really tell them much. “The most recent Vulcan death had not yet been entered into the larger system.” UyaVeth tilted his head, offering a shrug. “My assistant is behind on her paperwork.”

The anger was building again. Kirk clasped his hands together tightly, watching the knuckles turn white. What was this man’s game? Whatever drove him, he was surely a piece of work …

“And that accounts for the full complement of Federation prisoners on the northern continent?”

UyaVeth’s silver eyes narrowed. “You have our records, Captain. Unfortunately for us, perhaps, our power processes are nothing if not well-detailed.”

Not exactly an answer. Kirk looked again to Spock, who handed him the Chareni data pad that held the treatment information. Trella had been ecstatic to see the data provided by Minister Dalir during their last meeting—at least, according to Spock she had been ‘extremely pleased’, which in Vulcan-speak was only a little short of jumping up and down. He eyed the Standard translation running down one side of the screen, then returned his attention to the Supervisor.

“Supervisor, your government has made available to us a partial treatment protocol developed recently on the northern continent. It addresses many of the symptoms experienced by your Vulcan and Romulan prisoners as a result of the priming injections. Records indicate that you were the primary oversight for this project.”

UyaVeth eyed Kirk for a long moment, then looked briefly to Spock and back again. “Is this a question, Captain?”

“UyaVeth …” Morask growled.

“Were you involved in the development of the treatment protocol?” Kirk snapped.

“It was my idea, yes. Although, at its inception I didn’t quite envision treatment, per se, as its primary purpose.” UyaVeth settled back in his chair. “And yes, I oversaw its development phase as well.”

Kirk sat back, frowning. “What did you envision?”

UyaVeth jerked his shoulders—a languid Chareni shrug. “My original purpose was efficiency—general improvement in copper blood cell function and capacity would necessarily lead to increased power production without increased resources.” His voice was soft, the silver eyes strangely intense. “It was a money-saving venture, Captain. We’re always looking for ways to cut costs.”

Kirk’s gut burned—and yet, at the same time UyaVeth left him cold. He was beginning to recognize now what sat before him, and he wished for a brief moment that they could go about this any other way. He hated this type of confrontation above all else. Give him an angry, self-important ambassador or a bloodthirsty Klingon over this. This was not a man to reason with. There was no better nature here to which he could appeal. UyaVeth was of that breed—thankfully uncommon, at least in his own immediate experience—who felt no guilt because he felt no connection to his fellow creatures. He viewed them with neither malice nor disgust. They were simply useful, as any tool was useful.

How did people like this manage to survive within everyday society for so long? It was a question he’d wondered about, on occasion, but the answer was elusive.

Maybe there wasn’t one.

Whatever the case, Bones had most likely been at this man’s mercy for months.

Kirk pushed away the nausea, the anger, and forced out his next question. How he managed to sound so calm he would never know. It didn’t matter. UyaVeth, he was certain, saw right through him.

“Why was its original purpose changed? What can you tell us about the treatment’s actual development?”

The half-smile played around the Supervisor’s lips again. “Captain. Why don’t you ask your real question?”

Kirk sat back and exchanged a glance with Spock. His first officer was, as always, expressionless—but something lurking in the depths of his eyes told Kirk that the Vulcan was as disturbed by the man before them as he was. “And what question is that, Supervisor?”

UyaVeth sat silent for another long moment, then, “Your doctor ended up being far more trouble than he was worth to me, Captain Kirk.”

The words were intended to infuriate him, to put him off balance, and Kirk did feel a surge of blind, bitter rage as the implications of the Supervisor’s casual statement hit him. UyaVeth had miscalculated, though—his description was so accurate, so McCoy, that a bark of laughter immediately dissolved Kirk’s initial fury.

“Good for him. You didn’t do your homework if you weren’t expecting that.”

UyaVeth uttered an irritated whine and leaned back.

Ha. This time, he’d gotten under UyaVeth’s skin. The knowledge gave him a sense of solid footing that he had previously lacked.

“So, McCoy gave you trouble. I’m assuming he told you to take your efficiency and stick it—”

“Captain.”

Kirk flickered an irritated glance at Spock, but rephrased. “Was McCoy the reason that your project went from an efficiency exercise to a treatment protocol?”

“Indeed.” UyaVeth’s whine was softer this time, but still held an edge. “He agreed to develop a treatment for the subjects, but refused to concern himself with its effect on our power processes. Something regarding a ‘rat’s ass,’ I believe—unclear wording, perhaps, but the message was not. In any case, I determined that—”

Kirk’s laughter drowned out whatever else the Supervisor intended to say. Morask stared, obviously confused, and Spock’s eyebrow edged toward his hairline.

“Doctor McCoy’s expressions have always been … rather colorful,” he offered to the Chareni Chief of Security. “It was, essentially, a refusal of Supervisor UyaVeth’s original intention.” He returned his attention to Kirk. “Captain, I believe your levity is … perhaps counter-productive.”

UyaVeth’s stormy expression underlined Spock’s words, and Kirk bit back his chuckling. It wasn’t so funny, really—more of a sense of relief at this very real proof of McCoy’s presence on Charen.

At one time. It didn’t mean that he was still present now. At least, alive.

Time to get that over with, he supposed.

“And where is Dr. McCoy now?”

UyaVeth’s long hesitation was, Kirk was certain, intended to annoy. Finally, however, the Chareni responded, “I have not, of course, had access to the plant since the energy compound was destroyed. However, he was safely locked away when last I was present.”

Locked away. Some of Kirk’s anger began to reassert itself, and he got a firm grip before it could take over this time. “He is alive, then?”

The silver gaze was bland. “He was three days ago. I can’t speak to what’s happened since.”

Kirk let out a long breath, and for a brief moment pinned his gaze to the far wall. Alive, as recently as three days ago. His friend was smart, and a fighter. If anyone could survive the chaos overtaking the planet below, Leonard McCoy was that man.

Spock’s eyes were on him, and he forced himself back to the situation at hand. Now wasn’t the time to get ahead of himself. He had a job to do. Right now he needed focus and calm.

“Supervisor UyaVeth.” He set down the data pad with the treatment protocol and picked up another that held basic blueprints of the northern continent’s power plant. He tapped an area just outside one of the rear doorways. “We’ve been studying the power plant’s blueprints for the last couple of hours. Assuming we wanted to enter from the outside and reach the lower level with the least exposure possible, would you agree that this would be the best entrance for us to use?”

UyaVeth surveyed the pad. “It does seem a likely starting point.”

“Take us through it. What would be, to your knowledge, the most direct route to the lower level?”

The Supervisor eyed him, then took the pad and traced a pathway through a series of back halls, coming to a halt at the stairwell labeled as the main entrance to the lower level. Kirk nodded, studying UyaVeth’s directions. With the exception of a few minor turns, it was the same route that he, Spock, Giotto, and Morask had detailed earlier, during their study of the blueprints. As far as he was concerned, there were still quite a few weak points—two long stretches of hallway in particular made him unhappy. Still, there seemed to be no help for it.

“All right. Once we reach the stairs, we’ll—”

“Why are you starting from the outside, Captain?”

Kirk looked up. “Excuse me?”

“Why go through the upper level at all? Why not transport in?”

Morask growled. “You know the answer to that, UyaVeth. There’s no transporting through that much dilasantium. The best we can do is to—”

“That’s not entirely true, though.”

They stared at the Supervisor for a moment, then Kirk sat back. “Enlighten us, then.”

UyaVeth scooped up the pad from the table, glanced at Kirk, and tapped a sequence that brought the lower levels schematics to the foreground. “Here.” He indicated a small area labeled ‘Cargo Entrance.’ “When we bring supplies and new subjects into the lower level, we transport them in through this room. The pad here is a transport enhancer—it attracts and solidifies the incoming transporter beam, and it concentrates the outgoing beam in order to keep it intact through the dilasantium.”

Spock’s eyebrow quirked. “A transporter enhancer. How is this accomplished?”

“I’m afraid I’m not an engineer, Commander.” UyaVeth’s voice was dry. “I can’t say how it’s done, only that it has worked for us for at least three decades.”

“Indeed.” The Vulcan was obviously intrigued. Morask scowled.

“Why have I never heard of such a thing?”

The Supervisor studied him. “Perhaps because you do not work in the power plant, Morask. It was, I believe, developed by our own engineers for our own purposes. We weren’t eager to make it widely available for other … shall we say, military applications.” The Chareni Chief of Security’s expression darkened. UyaVeth’s silver gaze remained deceptively mild. Kirk moved quickly on.

“As attractive as it sounds, this still doesn’t help us.” He smiled tightly at UyaVeth. “The power’s out, remember? Your transport enhancer will be useless.”

UyaVeth’s whine was impatient even to Kirk’s untrained ears. “Captain, you speak with such authority of what you do not understand. The enhancer requires far more energy than can be supplied by the general feed. Its power is supplied by its own battery packs. The contamination of our central energy supply will have no effect on it.” He leaned back in his chair. “Of course, you may not be able to see anything once you get in.”

Kirk sat back, exchanging a glance with Spock and Morask. Entry directly into the lower levels changed the entire situation. Without the stairs as a bottleneck, without the extra stretches of hallway and open space, their odds of completing the mission without significant casualties increased drastically. He caught Spock’s eye, and the Vulcan nodded.

“I will, of course, run a series of tests once we receive proper coordinates, to ensure that biological material can indeed be transported safely.” UyaVeth snorted softly, but he seemed amused rather than offended. “However,” Spock continued, “theoretically a transport enhancer such as Supervisor UyaVeth describes is possible.”

“Yes.” Kirk nodded slowly. He looked back around. “Supervisor. Will you give us the exact location of the prisoners, including Dr. McCoy, and the most direct route between the cargo entrance and those locations?”

“Indeed.” The silver eyes narrowed. “What will you do if you find that way blocked, Captain?”

“We’ll go around,” Morask snarled. “We’re not entirely incompetent, UyaVeth. We have planned an incursion or two before this time.”

“I’m certain.” UyaVeth looked relaxed again, and Kirk wasn’t certain he liked it. “Perhaps you might do better to simply invite me along, gentlemen. I would be far better able to direct you in case of the unexpected than a pre-written set of instructions.”

Morask snarled out a bark of laughter, and on Kirk’s other side, Spock quirked an eyebrow. Again. It seemed that his first officer had found plenty to surprise him during the course of this meeting. Kirk crossed his arms tightly and leaned forward. “And why would you do that, Supervisor?”

“Captain Kirk.” UyaVeth’s faint smile played. “I can only assume that complete cooperation will be viewed favorably by both your ambassadors and my own government. If tilting the scales in my favor, as it were, requires that I do the same for you, then so be it.”

A cold bastard, indeed. But UyaVeth was right about one thing—where Kirk would have turned him down flat if the Supervisor had claimed some other motive, this he believed.

That still didn’t mean that he trusted the Chareni three inches out of his line of sight.

“Very well, Supervisor.” Kirk motioned to the security man stationed at the doorway, who came forward to lead UyaVeth back to the holding area where the other power plant Supervisors were waiting. “We’ll take your offer under advisement. I haven’t made a decision, but be prepared to accompany us.”

Morask twitched, but said nothing. UyaVeth too remained silent. He simply stood and nodded, irony and amusement radiating from the gesture. After he had followed the guard from the room, Kirk took a long, deep breath and sagged back into his chair.

“Spock, why do I feel like we’ve just made a deal with the devil?”

“Indeed, Captain.” The dark eyes hovered on the closed door for a moment before returning to meet his. “Supervisor UyaVeth is … quite a disquieting individual.”

“You can’t trust him, Kirk.”

He turned his attention to the Chief of Security. “And I don’t. Unless you have a better option, though, I’ll do what needs doing to get my people and the Federation prisoners out safely. What UyaVeth has up his sleeve is his own business until it affects us—we’ll just have to be on the watch for it.”

Morask rose and paced. “There is a reason that UyaVeth is still the Second Supervisor, Captain, and it has nothing to do with lack of ability or seniority.” The pale eyes stabbed at him. “No one trusts him. And rightly so. I would wager that fewer than twenty people even knew of his little side-project involving your doctor, and none of them his superiors. The man is secretive and self-serving. He has acquaintances and enemies, but no friends.”

Kirk rose as well, and approached Morask. “I appreciate the warning, Chief, and you can be certain that we won’t underestimate him. You’ve heard for yourself that we have no intention of putting our faith in UyaVeth’s good humor.” He allowed his expression to harden, and his tone to firm. “I do, however, have every intention of getting those prisoners back. And if we need to follow Rashall UyaVeth’s lead in order to see that happen, then you’d best be prepared to do just that.”

*****

The cargo entrance was pitch black when they beamed in, but only for the first few seconds. Kirk, Spock, Morask, and the other members of the combined Starfleet and Chareni incursion team flicked on their phaser-mounted lights and stepped off the pad, surveying the room as the next wave arrived. By the time the complete team was gathered around them, twenty in all, the weird clash of yellow and blue lighting had shown that the large room really contained very little but the transport pad and its controls. A few large boxes stacked in one corner, and empty pallets were stacked near the doorway, but otherwise the room was empty.

Spock and Giotto strode toward the door, accompanied by two of Morask’s men. They halted just inside, taking tricorder readings and comparing notes. Kirk made an effort not to hover, but he reached their side in seconds when Spock motioned for him.

“Well, gentlemen?”

“We are not yet able to locate any Vulcan, human, or Romulan life signs, Captain. Although the amount of dilasantium on this level seems to be lower in general than in the structures above, its presence even in the upper level is affecting the distance and accuracy of our readings.” Spock slung the tricorder back over his shoulder and checked the setting on his phaser. “Readings do show multiple Chareni life signs throughout the nearby hallways.”

“Everyone keep your phasers on stun,” Giotto raised his voice slightly, “and shoot any Chareni not with us on sight. Try not to aim for the same ones, though—as you’re all aware, too many stuns at once is just as bad as the kill setting.”

“Right, Chief.” Tara Lincoln snorted, and thumbed the setting on her phaser. “We’ll be sure to stop and check with everybody else before we shoot.”

Giotto rolled his eyes at his second in command and looked back to Kirk. “We’re ready, sir.”

Kirk looked to Morask, who nodded. He took a deep breath, then turned his light on Rashall UyaVeth. “Supervisor, take us to the prisoners.”

UyaVeth nodded and slipped through the door, accompanied by the two Chareni that Morask had set as his personal guards. The others followed, moving silently into the darkened halls. Kirk caught Spock’s arm as they joined the others.

“You memorized the blueprints and our most likely routes, correct?”

“Of course, Captain.”

“Of course. I want to know if it seems like he’s taking us off course.”

“Aye, sir.”

Kirk released Spock and gripped his phaser, moving up beside Morask and UyaVeth. The halls were still mostly dark, even in the yellow-blue glow of their lights, but from what he was able to make out, the construction seemed to consist mostly of clean, functional metal, broken here and there by doorways and control panels. It was all very similar, and it wouldn’t take long for someone unfamiliar with the place to become completely turned around. He was glad that Spock was with them, and that he himself and some of the others had committed their primary route to memory. He wouldn’t want to end up lost down here.

Murmuring and sharp voices sounded behind them, and then the whine of phasers. Kirk looked around, but it seemed that there were no more unexpected visitors—the rear security people were jogging now to catch up. Kirk returned his attention to the front, and rubbed briskly at his arms. He was glad that they had been warned about the temperature on Charen. Their uniforms were designed to combat a mild chill, but in this case would have done very little good on their own. The Starfleet personnel had donned their regulation jackets, much to the Charenis’ amusement and their own displeasure. The jackets were not the most comfortable piece of equipment they owned. Given that his fingers were already starting to feel the temperature decrease, though, Kirk bet that no one was complaining about the jackets anymore.

Bones had lived in this place for almost three months.

He couldn’t think about that now—focus was crucial. He turned his thoughts away from McCoy, onto the sound of two more phasers firing. The sound had barely died when UyaVeth halted before a low, solid door.

“What is this?”

Spock frowned at his tricorder. “I register no life signs at all inside.”

“Likely not.” UyaVeth shrugged. “The locks on this particular door are code-driven, they would have automatically released when the power went down. It’s quite likely no one remains here. However, you did request the prisoner holding areas.”

Something about the way the Supervisor eyed him set Kirk’s teeth on edge. “What is this? Does it have anything to do with the reason we’re here, or are you just—”

UyaVeth pushed open the door. “This is the laboratory where the doctor was held.”

Kirk’s stomach burned. He pushed past Morask and Giotto, following UyaVeth into the room.

It was a low, square, silver room. Its most noticeable feature was a long lab table set with an inlaid computer and neat rows of tubes and beakers and dishes. A single stool rested at one end of the table. A sink sat in one corner, a small lavatory in another, what looked to be a tabletop transporter pad in a third. In the fourth—the light swept across a flat, shapeless bulk and for a moment Kirk didn’t understand. He moved closer, and only then did he see that it was a sleeping pad and a tangle of perhaps two blankets—the pad no more than an inch thick, the blankets narrow and thin. A flash of his handheld light revealed nothing more in the room, and the burning in his stomach slowly rose into his chest and throat. Kirk turned on UyaVeth.

“This is it?” he snarled, pushing closer. He gestured around the sterile, barren lab and turned his anger on the Supervisor. “What did you do, drop him in here and say ‘here you go, get to work’? Maybe promise him another blanket or a space heater if he turned up anything good?”

“Captain.” UyaVeth was unimpressed. “It was a money-saving endeavor, if you remember. We would gain very little by spending our savings here.”

“What gave you the right?” His voice was rising, and he couldn’t be bothered to care. “What gave any of you the right? These are people, with families and lives and—”

“Captain.” Spock caught Kirk’s elbow and pulled him away. “He is taunting you. It was his sole purpose in entering here. Do not give him the satisfaction of such a response.”

“Back off, Spock!” Kirk snapped, but he allowed the Vulcan to separate him from UyaVeth. He could feel the silver eyes on him even in the darkness, and he turned away, struggling to regain control. “McCoy’s been locked in this place for months—probably freezing, probably alone …”

“Indeed.” The face was calm as always, but the barest hint of an edge in Spock’s tone reminded Kirk that he wasn’t the only one concerned over McCoy. He took a long breath, watching as Spock drifted toward the table to survey the equipment. “Anything?”

Spock shook his head. “Negative, sir. There is nothing ongoing, at least not physically present. The computer may hold indication of recent work, but without power we will be unable to access its contents.”

It was possible that they could rig a few tricorders together and provide the necessary power for this station, but right now that wasn’t the point. If Dalir didn’t have a backup of this data somewhere he could set Spock to it later—or best case (please, let there be a best case), just ask McCoy—but at the moment they had other things to think about. Higher priorities.

“Then let’s go.” Kirk caught UyaVeth’s eye again, and this time he managed to maintain his composure against the Chareni’s half-smile. “Supervisor, get on with it.”

UyaVeth offered a small bow, then returned to the hall. Kirk followed, with Spock and the rest of the security force, and tried not to think about what was coming—what they might or might not find. Tried not to worry that McCoy hadn’t been present. The Supervisor had been right about one thing. With no power and free access to the lower level, there was no reason that Bones would have stayed in that lab. He would have gone to join the other prisoners, assuming he knew where to find them. And if he didn’t know, he would have gone looking. In either case, staying alone in a dark, cold laboratory was not tops on the list. So. Find the Vulcans. Find the Romulans. And hopefully, find McCoy.

Flashes of light and babble of translated voices broke out beyond UyaVeth and his guards. Two of Morask’s team and two Starfleet peeled off ahead of the group and ducked around a corner. More phaser fire, the voices died abruptly, and the team members returned.

“There’s a ‘T’ up ahead,” one of the Starfleet lieutenants panted. “Which way?”

“Left,” UyaVeth responded, “and an immediate right.”

Those directions brought them face to face with a rather impressive set of doors, lined with security measures—all of which, of course, were now defunct. UyaVeth stepped back and motioned to the entrance. “This leads directly to the Vulcan and Romulan compounds. If the prisoners remained stationary after the power loss, they will be located here.”

Kirk exchanged a quick glance with Spock and took a breath. Now they would see. Morask had already directed several of his men to the fore, and they were hauling open the heavy doors, two to a side. Kirk gripped his light, motioned to his own team, and stepped into the space beyond … only to be met with a phaser muzzle in his face. He swore and stumbled back, into at least three people crowded behind him. Orders began flying and phasers raised to the ready, but he motioned frantically for calm.

“Wait! Don’t—”

“Starfleet?”

The voice came from inside the compound area, calm but also undeniably surprised. The phaser, just visible against a dim light emanating from further inside, lowered, and tall silhouette stepped from a shadowed corner. Another appeared from the darkness across the way. Kirk stepped forward again and raised his light.

“I’m Captain James Kirk, of the Enterprise. We’ve come for a group of Federation prisoners being held here. Can I assume we’ve found them?”

“Indeed.” The figure stepped fully into Kirk’s light, a gaunt, composed Vulcan of middle age. The second form resolved into an older Romulan female. The twist of her lips when Kirk’s own eyes met hers could not quite be called a smile.

“It seems you’ve found not only Federation prisoners, Captain Kirk.”

Kirk nodded. “We’d been briefed on the presence of your people here as well, ma’am. We’re here for all of you.”

“Very well.” Her expression didn’t lift, but it did seem that her rigid posture relaxed, just slightly. “At this point, I suppose that we are willing to go with almost anyone if it will remove us from this place.”

Kirk chuckled softly. “We’ll see what we can do.” He shone his light down the hall, toward the two entrance arches defined in the flickering, dancing glow.

Just what were they using as a light source? He would, he supposed, find out soon enough.

“Are the rest of you down this way?”

“They are.” The Vulcan started for the compound openings. Kirk, Spock, and most of the Starfleet security detail followed. As previously agreed, the Chareni force remained with Giotto and Lincoln as guards at the outer doors. Kirk hadn’t been certain how the prisoners might react to the Chareni presence, no matter how benign their intentions, and Morask had agreed that it might be wise to remain on the edges for this bit. They moved past a darkened doorway to the right and turned left, into an open, high-ceilinged room scattered with couches, chairs, and cots, and lit throughout by a series of meditation lamps.

That, then, answered the question about the light source. Kirk was a little surprised to see the lamps, given the barren laboratory that they had just left behind, but there would be time for questions later. Now, they had to get everyone gathered and moving.

The Vulcans and Romulans, seeing and hearing the Starfleet presence, were already beginning to stand and make their way toward the entrance arch. Security scattered throughout, assisting those who needed it—and there were, Kirk saw with a jolt of renewed anger, quite a few who did need it.

What gave UyaVeth and people like him the right … ?

Spock and Kai Teffner, one of the Security medics, had crossed the room and were kneeling beside three occupied cots, taking scans and consulting softly. Kirk scanned the room again, swallowing back the bitter disappointment when no extra human, no irascible Georgian drawl, made itself known.

Why not? Why couldn’t it ever be just that easy?

“Captain Kirk.” He looked back around. The Vulcan who had first greeted them had reappeared, accompanied by an elderly male Vulcan and a younger female. The male tucked trembling hands into his sleeves and nodded serenely, despite the deep hollows in his cheeks and beneath his eyes. Kirk wondered what other signs of illness might be hidden from him in the flickering lamplight. “I am Skanet. This is my daughter T’Vel. We are … most gratified to see you. We had not assumed that our people met with success. Is it possible that the message did reach you, even with the power outage?”

“A coded message brought us here, yes. A short burst seems to have gotten through before the power went down. Your doing?”

Skanet shook his head. “Not mine. Three of our number, though, and two Romulans—although we have since learned that the Romulans involved betrayed that endeavor and joined with the cell responsible for the destruction of the energy compound.”

T’Vel tilted her head. “We have been concerned for our people, we have heard nothing from them since the power went out. Have they been safely recovered?”

Shit. Kirk shook his head, regretting that he had nothing more to offer. “I’m afraid not. We’ve reclaimed the Rigelians from the other two continents, but the dilasantium building material on this continent makes locating people a bit trickier. The Chareni government was only able to pinpoint your location for us because of the number of you gathered together—we haven’t managed a way yet to scan for single individuals or small groups.”

“The Chareni aid you?”

Kirk nodded at the still unknown Vulcan, and didn’t miss the glance exchanged between Skanet and T’Vel. Who said Vulcans didn’t get uneasy? Around them, prisoners and Security forces streamed out the single exit into the darkened hallway. Teffner was administering a hypospray to one of the invalid Romulans, Spock was helping another to his feet, and an extremely large—Kirk’s eyebrows raised a little at the sight—Romulan was scooping the third invalid, an elderly Vulcan woman, into his arms. It seemed that imprisonment had broken down at least some barriers between habitual enemies. Kirk rubbed his cold hands together, although he did note that the air here seemed a little warmer than that in the general hallways. Whether it was from the small lamp flames or some other source was also a question for a different time. He caught the eye of Kyla Jensen, who had been taking a count.

“What have we got?”

“Twenty-six Vulcans, six Romulans, sir.”

Kirk looked back to Skanet. “I thought three of your people were missing? We had an original estimate of twenty-eight. We also had an original count of eleven Romulans—if two have joined the Chareni shouldn’t we have more of them here?”

T’Vel exchanged another glance with her father. Kirk had a feeling that he wasn’t going to like whatever it was she had to say. “Captain, more of the Romulans joined the rebel faction after their initial takeover of the power plant. These six who remain with us believed that they were better to avoid Chareni entanglements.”

“Wise,” Kirk murmured, thinking of UyaVeth and wishing he could have avoided a few Chareni entanglements of his own.

“As for our people …” Skanet hesitated. “Only two of them were Vulcan. The other was human—he therefore would not fall into your Vulcan count.”

Kirk looked up quickly, his mind suddenly racing. “McCoy was involved with the message?” Why didn’t that surprise him at all?

One of Skanet’s gray eyebrows rose. “You are aware, then, of Dr. McCoy’s presence on Charen?”

“Yes, but not until just recently,” Kirk confirmed. “We learned of it from two of the Rigelians who were taken with him.” He blew out a sigh, unwilling to expose these Vulcans to the full brunt of his frustration and worry at not finding McCoy present with them. “You haven’t heard from them at all, then?”

“No, Captain.” Skanet continued, interrupting Kirk’s rapid-fire planning for how they could safely cover the rest of the level before beaming out. “We also do not believe them to be any longer present in the power plant, at least not at this level.”

“Why not?”

“A few of our number have searched the area repeatedly—not only for Dr. McCoy and the others, but for supplies and to gather an idea of the immediate situation as it evolves. It was they who found the extra food stores, and their information which assisted in the determination that it was safer, for the moment, to simply remain in familiar surroundings. In any case, they have been quite thorough. It is highly unlikely that they simply missed Dr. McCoy and his companions. It is also unlikely that those three would not have returned here, if given the opportunity.” Skanet turned his eyes away, watching as the last of the Vulcans disappeared with a Security escort into the hall. “It was also necessary that they gain access to the upper level of this place before sending the message—the right type of equipment did not exist on this level. Or so we were informed.” The dry voice left no doubt that Skanet had yet to determine that truth to his own satisfaction. “If they were forced to flee or hide, it is unlikely that they would have returned here to do so, given the number of rebel and … unaffiliated Chareni now present here.”

All right. That was … more than logical, as much as Kirk hated to admit it. His gut sank, and he forced himself not to curse out loud. If McCoy and the missing Vulcans weren’t here, if they were upstairs or, more likely, now hiding in some random spot outside the power plant—assuming they were still alive at all, which definitely was his assumption for the time being—things had just gotten a whole lot more complicated on the rescue front.

“Captain. We must proceed.”

He nodded. Spock didn’t inquire about McCoy, and Kirk knew that there would be no need to repeat any of Skanet and T’Vel’s news for his first officer. It was quite probable Spock had been listening for at least most of the conversation, despite his other activities. He stepped aside and motioned toward the arch.

“Gentleman. Ma’am. Let’s go.”

“Indeed.” T’Vel closely her eyes briefly, then took her father’s arm and moved toward the door. “I will be more than relieved to put this place behind us.”

The bulk of the prisoners were already started down the outer hall, guarded on the edges by the Starfleet and Chareni security forces. The Romulans, he noted, were obviously ill-at-ease with the presence of the Chareni, and even the Vulcans seemed to be leaving a safe distance between, but his own people stuck close and there seemed to as yet be no open discord. They hurried through the hallways, intent on reaching the cargo entrance and safety. Progress was slower this time, given their new complement of ill and injured. They also seemed to be seeing more Chareni, and in greater numbers. Kirk wasn’t sure if their presence had been noted or they were just unlucky—but as they approached their goal and were forced to stop three different times to engage groups rather than two or three individuals, he began to suspect the former.

“Where are they all coming from?” he muttered to Spock, felling the last of a group of about eight with his phaser. He ducked around the corner, following the straggling pack of prisoners, Starfleet officers, and Chareni security forces.

“Upstairs, I would imagine,” came the unruffled response. Kirk sneaked a glance at the Vulcan, trying to determine if his friend was being ironic or serious. It was hard to tell, and in any case there was no time to think on it because another shout and volley of phaser fire sounded from the other end of their group. They raced forward to join the fray.

The doorway to the cargo entrance was in sight. Unfortunately, so was the group of rebel Chareni that they were facing—nearly fifteen, better armed, and obviously expecting them. The phaser fire and shouting were thick around them, as their own group pressed forward, gaining the advantage but at the cost of several downed Chareni and at least two of his own crew. Kirk wondered if the rebel Chareni even knew or cared why they were fighting. If Skanet’s report was accurate—and in his experience, Vulcan reports usually were—there had been little to no contact between the two groups since the takeover. Did the rebel cell have other plans for the prisoners that they had yet to implement, or was it just a matter of battling any outside force that dropped in unannounced? He noted with approval the speed with which his downed people were scooped up by other Starfleet security members, and that the Chareni were also gathering their own downed people.

Good. He wouldn’t have to worry about that, then.

They came even with the door to the cargo entrance, and two of the Chareni security men slammed it open. The prisoners began pouring inside, ducking behind the battling security people forming a guard of sorts at the front of the group. Two more fell, the last of the prisoners stumbled into the room, and Kirk began to herd his people in after them.

“Get out of the halls!” he shouted. “Get the door shut behind us!”

A shove from behind—who, he never knew—sent him reeling into the room. A moment later, the doorway was flooded by incoming Security. They navigated the bottleneck faster than he would have thought possible—before he could get a good breath, the heavy door had slammed behind them and two Chareni were bracing it from inside. Spock was talking on his communicator, directing the first group of prisoners onto the transporter even as one of the Chareni security people settled at the controls. A red light at the base of the pad flipped to green, the Chareni swept his hand along the panel, and the first group of prisoners disappeared into the transporter glow.

The door shuddered. A second group mounted onto the pad. Kirk spared a moment to wish that the Enterprise could handle more at a time—given the size of this equipment, they could probably do the whole group in three trips, if they had something equally large at the other end. Maybe it was something to bring up to Starfleet Command.

“Captain Kirk.”

Morask appeared at his side. The second group of prisoners vanished from the pad.

“Chief. How are we doing?”

“Casualties are light. No deaths, despite their phaser settings. Several significant burns, but our people came out well.”

“Good.” A third group settled onto the pad. “Can we hold them off?”

“Indefinitely.” Morask nodded toward the doorway, where two more of his people had joined the effort. “The design of this door appears to be to our advantage—far easier to brace closed than to force open. I would suspect this entire level of being designed around the concept of keeping the various rooms segregated, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of interflow or communication between any of the areas. This place was meant to be locked down.”

“Right.” The third group disappeared. A fourth moved to take its place. Spock had them all organized, moving along efficiently with no wasted time between.

He was lucky to have the people he did. They were the best.

Please don’t tell Spock I said he was the best first officer in the Fleet.”

Why, thank you, Dr. McCoy.”

Kirk swore softly, watching the transporter effect take the fourth group. McCoy was still alive—after surviving all this time, he had to be. They would find some way. They would think of something. His friend was not going to die on the blue, frigid surface of this planet.

“Captain.”

He turned, alerted by Morask’s tone. “Problem, Chief?”

“UyaVeth’s gone.”

For a moment, he couldn’t process it. “What do you mean? You said—” Kirk broke off. Morask didn’t mean dead. He meant gone. “What happened?” he growled.

“It was during this last volley. One minute he was there, the next …” Morask whined, frustrated. “With all the chaos, it was easily done.”

Well, that was just fantastic. Kirk ran a hand over his mouth, watching the fifth group settle and disappear. There was really nothing for it, though, and it wasn’t like he could blame Morask or his people. His own crew had just as much responsibility for the Supervisor—if anyone could even be blamed at all, which was doubtful. UyaVeth kept his own counsel. Kirk had known that from the start and brought him along anyway.

They’d gotten what they could from him. At least, it wasn’t likely that the Supervisor knew anything further about McCoy and the other two Vulcans, not considering he’d been on the secondary continent since the power sabotage. Still … Kirk hoped they wouldn’t somehow end up regretting this.

He didn’t trust the man at all.

“Captain, you’re up.”

He looked around. Giotto was motioning him toward the transporter pad. Starfleet and Chareni security still littered the room. “Get your people back up, Chief. I’m not—”

“With all respect, Captain, I don’t think so. The prisoners are secured, you and Mr. Spock are next. We’ll be right behind you.”

Kirk hesitated, but his Security Chief was right. It was their duty to make sure that the command crew got back in one piece. He’d be best to let them do their job.

“All right, Chief. Keep things together down here.”

“Aye, sir.”

He nodded to Morask, then joined Spock and three of the injured Security personnel on the pad. The Chareni at the controls repeated the now familiar sequence, the tingling wash of the transporter took him, and the next thing he knew, he was standing in the Enterprise’s transporter room.

Spock was off the pad before he was.

“Captain.” The Vulcan crossed to the door, pausing as M’Benga and two of the nurses rushed through the doors to take charge of the wounded security officers. “Please ask Lieutenant Uhura to inform Minister Dalir that I will require consultation with whomever available is best suited to explain the method by which the Chareni scan through dilasantium. Perhaps between our equipment and their techniques, I may be able to further hone our scanning abilities. I will begin immediately—page me when assistance arrives.” Spock nodded abruptly and disappeared into the hall—probably headed for the computer in his quarters, which Kirk knew for a fact to be the most heavily accessorized piece of equipment on the Enterprise. If Spock couldn’t produce at least a workable theory from there, it wasn’t happening at all. Not on this ship, anyway.

Kirk let his first officer go, rounding the transporter controls to find the comm button and relay Spock’s message. He would have been amused by Spock’s all-but-command tone, if the situation had been any less desperate. Spock’s tight focus, as much as the Vulcan might deny it, was proof of his own concern for McCoy, and Kirk was happy to support that focus in whatever capacity was needed.

Right now, in fact, it was the most useful thing he could do toward recovering McCoy.

He contacted the bridge, relayed Spock’s instructions and a few of his own, then left Scotty to finish beaming out the rest of the security people. Right now they needed all the information that they could get, and his best bet for that was currently the thirty-two new inhabitants of Sickbay.

*****

Chapter 16

Strangely, the fear didn’t last long. In fact, the farther McCoy ran from Kiran and Gesill’s home, from his friends, from everything remotely familiar to him on this strange world, the more distant the dread became—almost as if he had left it, too, under a pile of blankets next to a warm wood stove. By the time he slowed, several blocks away, he was calmer than he’d been at any point since he’d arrived on Charen.

Although, calm might not be exactly the right word. Dulled, maybe. Numb. Deadened.

Vaguely, his brain informed him that this may not be the good thing that it seemed. He didn’t care. He didn’t want to deal with it now. He couldn’t. It was just … in the way.

Doctor. While I cannot agree with your insistence on over-emotionalizing every situation, I must point out that this state should be … troubling for you.”

Spock, everything since I came to this place has been troubling. I’m tired of being troubled. I don’t care anymore.

Doctor McCoy …”

Is this what it’s like for you? Just thought processes, without all the baggage around it? It’s not so bad, really. Maybe I shouldn’t have—

Doctor. You are confusing shock with logic. I am certain that in your usual frame of mind you would never do so. However, given that currently both your physical state and your reasoning skills are far from ideal, it seems that—”

Spock, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

The Vulcan had a point, though, McCoy’s oddly detached mind decided. He was a fully trained psychologist—it was almost a necessity for the CMO of a starship, given the bizarrities (was that a word? he wasn’t sure) and every day drama that were a normal part of life in space—and that training was screaming that if there was ever a time to feel apprehensive about anything, this was it.

He waited briefly to see if his emotions would follow his logic … but no. The calm remained. Well, maybe a vague sense of unease did hover around the edges. McCoy seized on to that as proof that he hadn’t finally grown pointed ears and green blood—”Again, Doctor, I would point out—”—Yeah, yeah, I got it, Spock. Shock, not logic—and decided it was time to stop and take stock of his situation.

He didn’t know how far he had traveled, but the area around him now looked like another business district. Of course, it was always possible that he’d come in a circle and would find himself face to face with the power plant again any time now. He wondered vaguely if he would even recognize it. It wasn’t like he’d had much opportunity to see it from the outside. Still, wherever he was, back at the start or someplace completely new, the streets were wide and clean, the buildings tall and well-kept. This was no residential area or fallen-down warehouse quarter.

Even here, McCoy could see symptoms of unrest. Broken glass and boarded lower windows. Scorch marks on buildings and sidewalks. Chareni in uniform—police? security?—walked the streets. That, he supposed, could be normal. He was really in no position to know otherwise. Still, given the general unease of the run-of-the-mill pedestrians, he would bet that the sight wasn’t usual. And that was another thing—the run-of-the-mill pedestrians. They were either gathered on street corners, drinking and talking a little too loudly and calling to passers-by, or hurrying briskly along the walkways, avoiding conversation and eye contact. He was, as he was constantly reminding himself, no expert on Chareni culture, but something about the whole atmosphere seemed … wrong. Tense. He had seen dozens of societies on dozens of worlds, and something about this one was definitely off.

If he had to guess, the power outage was taking its toll.

Well. He probably shouldn’t just stand there. But … now that he thought about it, he had no idea what to do next. He didn’t know where he was. He had no concept of the city’s layout or social structure. He knew nothing about what lay beyond it. Country? Another city? Suburbia? For all he knew, there was no beyond it—just one huge city that took up the entire continent. He could probably discount that, but at this point everything was fair game. He didn’t even know which way was north, or from what direction the sun rose. He had never been so lost or alone in his entire life. How was he supposed to have any idea where to go from here?

Well, McCoy. He rubbed briskly at his arms, wishing that Kiran had managed to find those coats. Just pick a direction and start walking.

At this point, it was as good a plan as any.

McCoy squinted around the dark streets, then crossed at the corner and ducked between the next set of buildings. He continued for a couple of blocks, turned, and was about to cross the street again when he caught sight of a long, low wall circling a patch of ground in a median between the buildings. A delicate statue of some kind of alien sea creature rose out of its center. A fountain? He couldn’t tell for sure—it was dark and there was no spray running—but his dry mouth puckered at the thought. McCoy pressed back against the cool stone of the closest building and took a quick survey of the area.

He didn’t have much in the way of company. A group of about five Chareni were loitering down the block, but other than that the coast seemed clear—which meant that, without any hand-held lights around, he was relatively cloaked by the night. Before he could move, a couple of guards turned around the corner of a building near the others, and a sharp exchange broke out. Taking advantage, McCoy bolted across the open road and crashed to the ground beside the low wall.

He poked his head over the wall and stuck his hand down the other side before he could let himself think about all the things that could go wrong there. For once, though, something went right. His fingers hit water—cool, and from the feel of it, relatively clean. McCoy made certain that the Chareni were still occupied, then knelt and ran the tricorder over his find. It detected nothing out of the ordinary, no fungus or cleaners or poisonous bacteria. He plunged his face in with a little moan of relief, remembering only at the last minute that his hair would never dry in the cold and it would be best to keep the rest of his head out. He felt dirty and disgusting, but at least he was no longer thirsty.

McCoy drank until his stomach sloshed unpleasantly, then sank down behind the wall and wiped his face and scraggly beard growth with his shirt. There still wasn’t much in the way of traffic on the surrounding streets—either this area didn’t have much in the way of nightlife or people were anxious to get inside somewhere, considering everything that was happening. It was probably safe to sit for a while and plan.

If you could call it planning. Maybe he should just call it what it was. Guessing. Because planning involved some sort of starting point, some idea of the tools at your disposal, some goal. This … this was just him trying to stay out of sight. Permanently.

His gut sank at that realization. It was one thing to have to hide for a few days, but that wasn’t what he was doing here. If he did manage to avoid Chiya and his gang of thugs, all there was for left for him was living indefinitely in sheds and old basements, trying to find enough food and water to stay alive and to not draw too much attention to himself. McCoy’s stomach rolled, and he suddenly wished he hadn’t drank quite so much water. He leaned his head back against the fountain wall and, for the first time since he had come to Charen, studied the stars from its surface. No moon—though he had no way to know whether Charen lacked one or whether it was just in its new phase—but the icy pinpoints were bright and thick. For a moment, he threw caution to the winds and let himself wonder where the Enterprise was up there—if Jim and Spock and Christine and the others were straight ahead, somewhere in this small patch of night that he could see, or if their position was so distant and roundabout that he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of them even if he could see for hundreds of light-years.

What were they doing now? What was their current assignment? Was it morning or evening shift? Were Jim and Spock playing chess, or going over new orders? Was Uhura singing for an audience in a corner of the mess hall, or Scotty even now busting his ass to pull off some miracle that Jim had needed five minutes ago in the face of a Klingon attack?

Were things peaceful or frantic? Was sickbay empty, or packed to its limits?

Who had replaced him?

That thought finally jerked McCoy out of his reverie, and he swore softly. There was no point. That wasn’t his life anymore, and he wasn’t doing himself any favors by dwelling on it. He had to keep his thoughts and his focus on the here and now. Admittedly, the bizarrity of it all (definitely a word, and if it wasn’t, he had just made it up) gave him pause. He had never in his wildest dreams imagined that his life would, in the end, become nothing more than a matter of survival, running alone from an alien rebel group on a cold planet with a blue-tinted sun—but then, nobody ever knew. It was, he supposed, the chance you took by living. And now that he was here, it was best not to let himself get too hung up in what he might have wanted or planned instead.

That decided, it was time to get moving.

But where? He could create a mess just as easily by going left as by going right. Or by staying where he was. He had to pick something, though, because despite the night and the shadows his spot beside a public fountain in an open median was far too exposed.

It was worth considering, though, the fountain. McCoy was feeling better than he had in days, given their stop-off with Kiran and Gesill and the food, water, and warmth they had found there. His fluid levels were better, if the lessened dizziness was any indication, but once he left here he still didn’t know where his next water was coming from. That being the case, he might do just as well to stick around for a few hours. Try to get some of the sleep he hadn’t managed on Gesill’s couch, and have another good drink before he went wandering again. With the lack of obvious Chareni in the area—a quick glance back over the fountain showed that even the security men and the loiterers had disappeared—this was as likely a place as any.

As long as he could find something a little more sheltered. He wasn’t just going to pass out in the grass, as tempting as it sounded.

A survey of the area was difficult in the dark, but it was easier to find a spot for one than for three. He finally came across a deep, ground-level window well sunk into the side of one of the buildings, almost completely hidden by a good-sized statue of another animal—this one a land animal, if the legs were any indication, although McCoy wasn’t quite certain in the dim light if it looked more mammal or insect. Apparently, the Chareni liked their statues. Well, he couldn’t fault them for that, there were statues aplenty scattered about Earth. The tight fit made him a little nervous—if anyone found him, there was no way for him to run—but given that the bulk of the statue covered the window well, and that the opening between the two was so narrow that he scraped skin sliding into it, his hiding place was at least hidden. No one was just going to trip over him here. Someone would have to be looking, and carefully, to find him.

It turned out to be a good choice. Out of the wind, pressed against the stone on three sides and with his knees pulled up to his chest, his body heat, what there was of it, had a fighting chance. He wasn’t warm by any stretch, but neither was he freezing. He managed a light doze, alert even in sleep for any sound that might signal he wasn’t alone. The area remained mostly peaceful for what was probably several hours, although McCoy had no way to tell for sure. There was noise in the background, of course—no city was ever completely silent, and one caught in the grip of unrest and rioting even less so—but nothing he couldn’t successfully ignore until a much closer crash finally jolted him awake. He managed not to crack his head against the stone above him, but a dull headache still throbbed as he hunched silently, waiting for any sign of what was happening and whether it was safe for him to make a run for it. He ignored the pain—a predictable result of blood loss and hunger and cold and exposure and a dozen other things that were now just daily nuisances—and when the crashing, laughter, and loud voices remained on the far side of the fountain median, he slid out of the window well and crawled over the back of the stone Chareni animal, squinting for a glimpse of the action.

Something was on fire—torches, they hadn’t actually burned anything yet—and in the flickering light McCoy saw a group of Chareni breaking through the glass of one of the front windows of an opposite building. The first ones had already crawled through, and they were calling back and forth to their companions still on the sidewalk. There was no chance that they would see him, hidden in the shadows behind a statue on the opposite side of the street, but McCoy decided that it was time to go anyway. There was no telling if this would escalate, or what kind of other attention it would draw. He hesitated for a long moment, wondering if he dared try for the fountain and a drink before he went, but he finally decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. There would be water somewhere else, and he needed the practice in finding it if he was going to survive on his own for any length of time.

As far as McCoy was concerned, that was still a mighty big if.

He was blocks away by the time the dark sky began to lighten. He hadn’t found any more water, but a bin behind one of the lower buildings—a restaurant, maybe?—contained an assortment of discarded edibles that the tricorder assured him was perfectly safe to eat, despite his revulsion at the idea of pawing through a dumpster for food. Well, beggars couldn’t be choosers, and he needed the energy. He held his breath while he ate, doing his best not to smell or taste any of it, and then moved on, making a conscious effort to keep it all down. By the time the bluish sun peeked over the buildings, his stomach had settled into a sort of queasy acceptance, for which McCoy was grateful. He had other things to think about.

Like how to stay out of sight for the day.  And for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately—or maybe not, how did he know—he hadn’t managed to reach anything that even pretended to be an outskirts or a suburb. Still, he had left the business districts behind again, this time for some sort of a market area. There didn’t seem to be many shoppers, at least by any standards he knew to judge, although as usual he had no way to know if this was normal or another instance of the power loss taking its toll.

McCoy’s complete lack of any knowledge, useful or otherwise, about his surroundings was finally starting to tell on him. He was beginning to feel almost physically disconnected—as if he was floating above himself or walking along to the side. Conversely, the unnatural calm that had been a safety net of sorts was starting to dissipate. For the first time since he had left Salin and T’Pana, he felt the stirrings of real anxiety.

There was no time for that.

More than half of the buildings on the little market street remained locked even after the start of business, and only a few of the tents scattered along the rough street were in use. The others remained empty, canvas flaps tied closed. McCoy skirted along the edges, trying to remain out of sight.

He was only partially successful. Most of the Chareni who caught sight of him just stared for a brief moment, then looked pointedly away and went about their business. A few, though, watched him too carefully for too long, before he ducked behind another building or around another tent. McCoy was glad that the majority seemed content to ignore him, but every Chareni who saw him was one too many. His tension and adrenaline were high, and he finally admitted that he was going to have to find someplace to hide again. He had wanted to avoid that during the day. His hiding places were, for the moment, catch-as-catch-can, and there was every chance that any random person might stumble across him. Still, staying alert and out of sight didn’t seem to be working, either. He was hovering back from the corner of a building, trying to decide where to go next, when a woman rounded the corner and walked directly to him.

“You are the human, yes?” She stopped and crossed her arms. “The one that the Brolin Sak wish found?” Blast. McCoy started to back away, but she snapped out an impatient whine. “Why are you here, so close to the plant? Why do you not flee?”

Oh, crap. He was going in circles.

Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe.

“I didn’t know.” McCoy leaned back against the brown stone. Exhaustion and defeat flooded him until his knees nearly buckled. “I don’t know where I am, or where anything is. I’ve been trying to get out of the city, but mostly at night, and I—”

Shah!” She shushed him abruptly, casting an anxious glance into the main street as three loud young males passed, then plucked at his sleeve and motioned for him to follow. “Come. You are four blocks from the power plant. Do not continue on this course if you do not wish to walk yourself directly into their hands.” She tugged him down to the next street, then turned him to the right and motioned ahead. “There. Do you see the tower?”

He squinted against the blue daylight that was infinitely brighter than anything he’d had in his underground laboratory. The full morning force of the alien sun crossed his eyes and blurred his vision. It was hard to … There. Past the rows of buildings, a single stone tower in the distance. It was shorter than he’d been expecting, but still visible above the rise of the city.

“I see it.”

“It lies at the border-edge of the city. It was a guard tower in days past, to monitor those who wished entrance or exit—when there were far fewer of us, and we possessed far less technology.” She shook her head. Her voice dropped and her charcoal eyes were distant, focused on the single worn structure. “It seems more and more now that we would have done ourselves well to forgo at least some of this new ‘progress’, yes?” McCoy wasn’t sure how to respond, or if a response was even expected. Apparently, no answer was required—the woman shook herself, then gave him a little shove in the tower’s direction. “Keep it as your goal, and you will eventually come out of the city.” Her eyes narrowed. “But be cautious. Most may leave you in peace, but there are also many who will not. The Brolin Sak offer more than mere change for your return.” She turned, and disappeared back the way they had come.

Well. Her abruptness might have annoyed or amused him in another lifetime—might have drawn some sort of acerbic comment, muttered to Jim or Spock beneath his breath—but here he hardly even noticed. Here, all that mattered was that now, at last, he had someplace to go. Some destination. The low stone tower, as far away as it still was, grounded him. Suddenly his mind felt sharper, the stone beneath his hand and his feet far more solid. McCoy took a long breath, muttered a thanks for the kindness of strangers, and edged down this new road, keeping his goal firmly in sight.

He made very little headway throughout the afternoon. He kept a constant eye out for someplace to hide until dark, but nothing jumped out at him—no concealed window well or empty basement. He saw a few sheds, but also more than a few Chareni within sight of them. And that was the problem, really. Every place that looked promising also crawled with people. Finally, he decided that he was wasting more time than it was worth. He could be halfway across the city by now if he wasn’t stopping to check out every hole and crevice he came across.

Well, maybe not halfway. But, a lot farther than he was.

McCoy turned his sights fully on the little tower that hovered like a beacon in the distance, and spent the remaining daylight hours moving toward it, steadily but very slowly. He kept to the alleys as much as possible, to the shadows of buildings and bushes, moving quickly from one to the other but trying not to make his movements too obviously out of place. It wasn’t until dusk was falling and a snatch of music drifted to him from the next street over, something that sounded like a cross between a violin and an accordion, that it occurred to him that he had crossed a completely unknown alien city on foot, and he had seen barely anything of it.

He paused for a moment, not sure how he felt about that. These new cities—they were Jim’s thing, and Uhura’s. Both of them loved that first rush of immersion into the strange sights and sounds and smells of a culture completely foreign to their own. Jim could spend an entire day just happily wandering the streets, given half an opportunity—not that he often had that chance, no, the captain of the Enterprise usually had far too many diplomatic and side duties to be allowed any empty hours to just wander—sticking his head into restaurants and bars, listening to the music, checking out the games that the old men played in the parks, and just small-talking in general with whoever he could find. Spock liked the new places too, although his interest was more scientific—what their rocks were made of, what their trees were made of, what their buildings were made of, what their food was made of … and on, and on. He himself had started going along on the landing parties mostly at Jim’s insistence and in order to make sure everybody stayed patched together for long enough to get them back to the ship—space exploration did seem to take quite the toll on the body, human or otherwise—but he had come to develop a certain appreciation for the newness. The surprises. The difference between a civilization’s ale and whiskey, between its dance music and mourning dirges, between its parties and state functions. It had come slowly to him, but eventually he welcomed being the only CMO in the Fleet routinely included in landing parties.

And here he was, smack dab in the middle of one of those strange new worlds, and all he’d seen of it were its basements and alleys.

Doctor, the circumstances are quite—”

Oh, I know. It’s not like I have time to sight-see, and I don’t really feel like visiting, all things considered. It’s just … an observation.

Maybe, when he finally found himself someplace safe, if that ever happened, he would take the time to learn a little about the Chareni people. It was really the only logical thing to do, actually—“Doctor, I would simply like to say that—”—Gloating’s not pretty, Spock—given that, best case, he would be hiding among them for a very, very long time.

That was still in the future, though. Now, he had best keep his mind on his current task.

The evening was more dark than light when he noticed the Chareni across the road—particularly tall, almost white in coloring, and definitely someone he had seen at least twice since leaving the market area. Well, that was just fantastic. It could mean several things, but McCoy had never been a fan of coincidence—which left a very good possibility that he was being followed. Of course, that wasn’t anything that he hadn’t been expecting. He melted back against the near building and took in the rest of the visible area, trying to decide if he’d seen any of the others before. It was hard to tell. There wasn’t much light left, and he wasn’t that familiar with differentiating Chareni physical characteristics. His friend across the road stopped, too, surveying a bin of greenery propped outside of one of the nearby homes with an air that was far too casual to be anything but studied. McCoy swallowed, trying to wet his dry mouth and calm his suddenly racing heart.

What now?

Keep going. There was no other option. If this Chareni was after him and McCoy stopped here, he was just begging to be caught. He drifted to the edge of the long, low set of shops on his side of the street, ducking around the corner when an alley opened up.

Behind him, the pale Chareni crossed to McCoy’s side of the street, as unhurried as if he was taking an evening stroll.

McCoy came out behind the buildings and turned left. Even facing a specific threat, he didn’t want to find himself too far off course. Best to keep the tower in front of him, if possible. He had crossed behind the next block of shops, at a pace far quicker than the one he had been using for the bulk of the day, when his new friend turned the corner into his alley.

Oh, shit.

Well, no question now.

Of course. Of course. What had he been thinking, anyway? How had he ever actually expected to stay hidden on a completely foreign world for any length of time? He was exhausted, he was hungry, he was lost, he stuck out like a sore thumb …

McCoy made another quick left, intending to go back to the main street. A scrape of feet ahead startled him, and pain exploded above his ear, and then there was nothing.

*****

He was … his head hurt, and he was upside down. His gut also hurt—a knee or a … no, a shoulder was digging into it. A swaying movement stirred the nausea, which had returned full force, and rapid-fire conversation drifted above him, too much for his confused brain to handle even with the translator. He moved his head, and swallowed, and wished whoever it was would put him down. A voice exclaimed above him, and then another explosion, this time at the back of his head, and there was blackness again.

*****

Sharp pain roused him. McCoy opened his eyes to a charcoal and black hand slapping his cheeks, and a familiar voice demanding, “Come, enough! Up now!” He squinted until his vision cleared, then groaned and sagged back against the ground.

Well, crap.

“Chiya. Fantastic. How ya doing?”

“Up, McCoy!” Chiya backed away. A sharp tug at his wrists and an angry sizzle warned McCoy that the force field manacles were back in place, and he wondered vaguely if they had found UyaVeth’s or if they had brought their own.

Didn’t matter. The end results were the same.

McCoy got his feet under him and struggled up, trying to make sure Chiya had no excuse to drag him off the ground. Truthfully, though, it was probably good that the Chareni had half of his weight. The world swam around him, the change in position stirring to life two aching, throbbing points on his skull. His vision dimmed for a moment, then cleared. He took a long breath and braced his legs, staying upright from sheer will power when Chiya released him.

For a long moment, the Chareni simply stared. It was uncomfortable, and McCoy looked away, wiping at an itch on the side of his face with his manacled hands. His fingers came away red. Good, more blood loss. That was just what he needed …

What?” he finally snarled, when the dark eyes didn’t look away.

“I would not have thought it of you,” Chiya responded, shaking his head. “You do not seem a hearty type, yet you not only managed to escape, but stay hidden for far longer than I would have thought possible.”

Three days didn’t seem like very long to McCoy. In fact, it really seemed pretty pathetic. And in any case, T’Pana and Salin had done most of the original escaping. He wondered briefly where they were, and if they were safe.

“Well, that’s one up for the humans, I guess,” he drawled, not sure what else to say. He eyed the room around them, but they were alone. No sign of whoever had brought him in—either they were already gone, they were off claiming their reward, or Chiya’s friends had slit their throats and disposed of their bodies to avoid having to pay the bounty. All three possibilities were, as far as he was concerned, equally valid. A jerk on the manacles brought him back to the present, and he followed Chiya out of the room. A single glance around them set him to laughing, weakly and a bit hysterically.

“What is this?” Chiya snapped, looking back at him.

“Never mind.” McCoy gulped back the noise, wiping an arm across his eyes. The power plant. He was back in the power plant. After all the running and hiding, the hunger and thirst and cold nights, he was right back where he had started.

To think, he could have just holed up in his laboratory for the past three days and saved them all a lot of trouble …

“Come.” Chiya tugged him down the hall. McCoy followed, doing his best to ignore the stares and murmuring. They wound through several turns and passageways, and McCoy had just caught sight of the front foyer ahead of them when Chiya halted outside one of the closed doors. Several other Chareni lounged around the doorway, some on chairs and some seated on the floor, but Chiya simply pushed through the group, ignoring them. McCoy felt the concentrated weight of their attention as Chiya banged on the door. Voices cut off inside, and after a short wait, the door swung open.

Rich brown eyes surveyed them, and for a moment surprise distracted McCoy from his apprehension. He hadn’t known the Chareni came in any other color than gray. He’d certainly seen nothing of brown before, or of any other color. Apparently, he knew even less about the Chareni than he’d thought …

“This is him? The human?”

“It is.” Chiya pulled him inside, and the brown Chareni shut the door firmly behind them. The light here was natural, not hand-held. It came from a large window behind a desk on the far side, and McCoy noted the sunlight absently. Apparently, then, he had been unconscious for more than just a couple of hours. Across the room, a gray Chareni and another with the shining hue of cherry wood rose from their chairs and moved to join them. It didn’t take long to guess who was in charge—the gray Chareni fell back as they neared, but the other walked right up to him, eyes fixed on McCoy’s face. The intensity of the gaze was unnerving, even after all of the stares he’d received in the past three days.

The past three months.

“Red blood.” The voice was awed. The Chareni shook his head and grimaced past McCoy at Chiya. “Well done.” Chiya nodded, once. “This is …” The leader of the Brolin Sak looked back to McCoy and rumbled deep in his chest—a pleased sound, if McCoy had ever heard one. “This is amazing. An incredible symbolic opportunity.”

“Look.” McCoy shook Chiya’s hand off his manacles. In general, it would probably be wiser to just keep his mouth shut, but he was past caring. “I’m not interested in making any statement, symbolic or otherwise. I told Chiya, and I’ll tell you—I want no part of this. I’m not—”

The target of his rant emitted a chuffing sound that may have been the Chareni equivalent of laughter. “Chiya did tell me you were stubborn, human.” He strode closer and thrust his face into McCoy’s space. “Perhaps he also told you that we are not interested in your wishes. We have a mission, a statement to make, and you are our best path toward making it. We always prefer willing participation, but be that as it may, we will require your services.”

McCoy’s blood boiled, and he surged forward, almost crashing into the Chareni. Two could play at this game. “Listen to yourself! You and your thugs are just as bad as everybody else! You’re mad your government’s been lying to you, sure, but you don’t give any more of a rat’s ass about the people involved than—”

“Santi!” The Brolin Sak leader pivoted away, and the gray Chareni hurried forward. Chiya pulled McCoy back, shaking him sharply when he would have continued his tirade. McCoy snarled his frustration, but fell silent. This wasn’t getting him anywhere.

“Laren?”

“Go to the front. Tell them all I’ll have an announcement in five shontare.”

Santi nodded and skirted around them, disappearing into the hallway. Laren swung back around on McCoy, and his eyes were hard. “We need you, human, but we don’t need your tongue. Keep it inside your mouth if you wish it to remain attached.” He jerked a nod toward Chiya, then stalked toward the door. Chiya’s large hand seized the back of McCoy’s neck and shoved him along behind.

Well. That was clear enough. McCoy clenched his jaw against any audible invectives, settling on a silent stream that would have burned a hole in his captors’ eardrums, could they hear it.

It would have to do.

They halted where the hall met the foyer, far more crowded now than when he, Salin, and T’Pana had made their run for it. Then, most of the Chareni had been crowded around the front, firing phasers and yelling insults at the gathering forces outside the building. Now, almost the entirety of the floor-space was filled with people—standing, sitting, milling from place to place, some even sleeping in corners or against the wall. People were talking, and laughing, and arguing. Phasers were still in evidence, as were food scraps and overturned trash bins and discarded clothing. Apparently, the Brolin Sak weren’t the tidiest people ever. Then again, as Salin had pointed out, there was nothing that said these were all Brolin Sak. McCoy eyed the packed house, wondering how many here were just ‘me-toos’—how many would be at home with their parents or their children, would be at work or off somewhere minding their own business, lawful and obedient, if the Brolin Sak hadn’t cut the power and given them a chance to let the less-civilized sides of their nature out for a spin.

The mob mentality. He’d seen it, felt its effects too often, in too many places. He’d read about it in the history books, experienced its aftermath on planets across the quadrant. It was another near-constant across sectors and between species, that the mere presence of a group could so change people. The phenomenon baffled and amazed and infuriated him all at once.

At the opposite end of the foyer, a stream of about ten Chareni were making their way out through the large glass doors—what was left of them—and lining up across the front steps, clutching phaser rifles. The forces surrounding the power plant raised their weapons and stood at the ready, but made no move to start anything. There had probably, McCoy assumed, been a lot of back and forth over the past days, and he wondered at what point the stand-off now stood. Laren waited until all his people were settled, then motioned to Chiya and strode through the crowded foyer toward the doors. Chiya nudged McCoy after him.

An excited murmuring swept along behind them as the gathered Chareni saw McCoy and knew that something significant was about to occur. McCoy resolutely ignored them, fixing his eyes on Laren’s back as they continued out into the sunlight. They halted just outside the doors, leaving the single undamaged glass pane propped open to give the people within an equal opportunity to hear Laren’s words. McCoy hunched his shoulders, an uncomfortable prickle spreading through his body at the sudden attention from the rows of police forces squared off against them. He moved to step back, behind Laren, but Chiya hauled him out into the open again.

“You have seen in the past days that all we have been telling you for years is true!” Laren boomed.  McCoy flinched, startled. “Our government ignored our wishes in decades past, but lied to us instead, giving us stories and falsehoods to satisfy our demands rather than action! We will not stand for it any longer!”

A bellow sounded from inside the foyer, the sound of dozens of Chareni howling agreement, the whining ricochet of phaser fire against stone. On the pavement below, the police ranks stirred nervously. Laren held up his hands, and the noise abated slightly.

“We have been forced to take this action by the very government which did not wish to see it come to pass, and now their own actions will be their downfall!” He reached around and seized the back of McCoy’s neck, pushing him forward. McCoy stumbled, but managed somehow to keep his feet. If he’d thought the Chareni attention uncomfortable before, it had been nothing to this. If any one of the several hundred Chareni within eyeshot wasn’t completely focused on him, he didn’t know where that one could be. His skin crawled, and panic stirred in his gut. Laren’s hand remained like a vice on his neck.

“We have discovered that the blood of one of the aliens brought here against the will of the Chareni people will destroy the energy abomination upon which the government would have us depend! It was this alien’s blood we used against this plant, and you see its success. It will be this alien’s blood which takes down the others as well!”

They were going to what? Nothing should surprise him anymore, but for some reason it did. McCoy’s vision swam again, and his head pounded.

Then again, it all made perfect sense. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before, except that this twisted kind of logic escaped him.

This is not logic at all, Doctor, but madness.”

“Our government’s own greed and blindness will be turned against them!”

He was good, McCoy admitted reluctantly. Laren’s followers roared, and McCoy hunched his shoulders, trying to make himself a smaller target. It would be the matter of a quick shot for one of the police gathered below to take care of the problem once and for all …

By the time that thought had formed, though, Laren had jerked McCoy back and returned him to Chiya. Chiya pulled him around—he was getting tired of being manhandled by the larger, stronger Chareni, but there didn’t seem to be anything to do about that—and thrust him behind the nearest armed Brolin Sak member. Apparently, Laren was taking no chances either—although now that McCoy thought about it, the risk probably wasn’t that great. No doubt the police forces had strict orders not to fire unless fired upon. The last thing their superiors likely wanted was a blood bath here, which is exactly what they’d get if anyone started shooting.

“The government will know that if it does not serve the people, the people will respond! We have the means, and we have the right!”

The roar this time was deafening, and Laren stood for a moment with both fists raised over his head before dropping them and turning abruptly back into the building. Chiya shoved McCoy along behind him, and several of Laren’s bodyguards—assuming that’s what they were—surrounded them, keeping the enthusiastic hoards away from both Laren and McCoy. When they reached the hallway, Laren looked around.

“Lock him up and get back here. We have more planning, some new ideas.”

Chiya nodded and steered McCoy away from the general crush. McCoy stumbled along, overwhelmed. He didn’t even care that he was about to be locked away again—as long as no one was shoving him around anymore, he could take the silence and the darkness. A thought of the Vulcans and the Romulans floated briefly through his head, and he wondered if they were still below or if they, too, had managed to flee. He was distracted from that when Chiya stopped in front of a small door.

“Closets are the only thing around here with manual locks anymore, so it might be a tight fit.” Chiya shrugged, nuding McCoy inside. In the instant before the door closed, he saw that the space was little larger than a lavatory on the Enterprise, tall and narrow and tight. Thankfully, this particular closet had either been unused or someone had cleaned it out. At least he wasn’t fighting for room with cleaning supplies or office implements. The door clicked, and a lock snicked into place. Darkness closed around him. He wasn’t sure if it was better or worse than Charen’s blue light. “Water and food on the lower shelf,” Chiya called through the door, and then McCoy heard him move away.

Well. Apparently, they realized they would have to keep him alive if they were going to use his blood. That was encouraging, at least. He dropped to the floor and pawed at the shelf until his hands came across a metal canteen. He took a long, slow drink, then forced himself to cap it and replace it on the shelf. There was no telling how often anyone planned to refill it, so it was a good idea for the time being to make sure it lasted. His hungry stomach twisting, he felt along the rest of the shelf, stopping when he came to a crinkling mound of plastic-wrapped bars. He tore one open, smelled it, tasted it, then sagged back against the wall and laughed.

McCoy had never thought he’d be so grateful for a Romulan dietary ration.

*****

Chapter 17

Spock checked his data pad, then modified the last set of codes. The computer chirruped and flashed a null response pattern. He paused to control and discard the irritation—a task becoming somewhat more difficult, given the number of null responses since the project’s start and the night spent without meditation or sleep—and rechecked his numbers. It was entirely accurate that Vulcans could and did go without sleep for far longer than humans. However, it was also true that such stamina came at a price, and part of that cost was the necessity to expend an increased amount of attention on emotional control. Usually this trade-off was more than satisfactory.  However, Spock was finding that in this instance he quite begrudged the extra effort. The problem before him was … vexing.

He had spent hours the day before in the company of one Turilla Karol, from the Chareni Ministry of Military and Technology. It was an interesting and slightly disturbing combination, but he’d had neither the time nor the desire since learning of it to pursue any further reflection on the subject. She had taken him in detail through the Chareni scanning systems, and through the modifications they had invented over the years to increase scanning ability through the massive amounts of dilasantium on the northern continent. The adaptations, while effective, were far cruder than he had anticipated, and Spock had been forced to consider that perhaps his problems in altering the Enterprise’s scanning technology lay in his approach. He had been attempting to highly refine the systems, when perhaps the best that could be achieved was a more generalized, all-encompassing scan.

The subsequent night’s work might have been more profitable if Karol had been allowed to work with him on the Enterprise modifications. However, despite their nearly desperate desire for functioning scanners, the Federation’s state of quasi-hostilities with the Chareni government prevented exposure of the Enterprise’s computer and systems to any of the Chareni engineers or technology experts. It was imprudent and, in fact, illegal. Even Kirk, in his anxiety to locate and retrieve Dr. McCoy, could not in good conscience give his consent. Spock had, therefore, worked alone through the night, fending off Kirk’s repeated inquiries until early morning hours when, he presumed, the captain had finally fallen asleep. There were others on the Enterprise who would have been more than pleased to assist him, of course, but Spock had found in the past that, when the situation was particularly intense, he often accomplished more without aid.

Don’t you think you’re selling everybody else a little short, there?”

Spock paused, halfway through an entry.

Doctor. As you are quite likely not, in fact, dead, this exchange becomes even more illogical than I at first suspected. I have work to accomplish. Please desist.

Surprisingly, the answering grumble faded. Spock took this as evidence that his prolonged period of meditation several days ago had, in fact, been profitable in allowing him to regain a more standard level of control, and continued with his activities.

When the door slid open behind him during the late morning hours he turned, expecting Kirk. The captain had, of course, stopped by before his bridge shift, but Spock expected regular visits until he either successfully completed his task or admitted defeat. Instead, Diane Trella entered, eying the room curiously.

“Why the transporter room, Mr. Spock? Surely there are other interfaces on the ship better suited to this kind of work.”

Spock nodded, setting aside his data pad. “Indeed, Doctor. However, given the nebulous nature of the scanner enhancements I am attempting, there is no guarantee that, even if we are successful in locating Dr. McCoy and his companions, the instruments will maintain their findings for any length of time. Immediate transport may be crucial, and as I will be the most familiar with the data provided by the modifications, it is logical that I be the one to operate the transporters. Therefore, it is also logical that I remain as near the transporter controls as possible.”

Trella nodded. “I see.” She looked down, fiddling with the data pad in her own hands.

He studied the doctor, noting the lines of exhaustion and the purple hollows beneath her eyes. “You seem quite tired.”

“I am.” She pushed a few strands of hair away from her face, which had come disconnected from her carelessly wound bun. “I was up all night finishing the analysis the captain requested.”

Spock quirked an eyebrow. “Finishing?” She nodded again, hesitated, and held out the data pad. Spock moved away from his console, around the transporter control station, to take it from her. “This is … impressive, Doctor. One would have expected such an analysis to require more time.”

Trella’s shoulders lifted, minutely. “This is my field, Mr. Spock—this type of biological minutia is what I dealt with every day for years before coming to the Enterprise.” There was more, something else behind the words, but Spock chose for the moment to turn his attention to her analysis.

The data was succinctly summarized—it took only seconds to read through the results and the main processes which had produced them. He paused for a moment, taking in the confirmation of what he had been certain the analysis would yield, and looked back to Trella. “Eight-six percent?”

She stiffened. “We were dealing with a sample taken far from the source, Commander. There was no way to—”

“Doctor, you misunderstand me.” Spock set the pad aside on the transporter control station. “It is likely that no one else on the ship would be capable of providing such an analysis, in such a timeframe, with such a high degree of certainty, given what we were provided by the Chareni. Your dedication and skill are quite appreciated.”

“I … thank you.” Trella relaxed, but only slightly. Spock tilted his head, studying her further.

“Something still troubles you?”

“Yes!” The doctor gestured toward the pad. “Eighty-six percent! It means that … in all probability, at least, that—”

“Indeed.” Spock cut off the floundering words. “However, given the available data, we did already suspect these results, did we not?”

“Well, yes, but …” She shook her head, folded her arms tightly, and began to pace a small circle. “How am I going to tell the captain? He’s not going to want to hear this from me! Dr. McCoy—”

“Captain Kirk wishes to hear the truth from you, no matter his personal feelings regarding the outcome of whatever your current project. He cannot otherwise fully perform his own duties.” Spock folded his hands behind his back. “There is also this. Given the information provided by our Vulcan guests, there is no reason to necessarily assume the worst, even given this data.”

“Right.” She continued her agitated pacing. “Of course. But …” Trella stopped suddenly and turned on him. “How do you do it? Well, I know how you do it, of course, but how does everyone else stand this kind of uncertainty, all the strain, and still just keep functioning as if nothing has happened?”

Spock’s eyebrow climbed higher. “I assure you, Doctor, very few people aboard this ship are currently functioning as if nothing has happened.” He paused. “I will inform Captain Kirk of the results of your analysis, if you wish it.” He didn’t know quite why he offered—a Chief Medical Officer unwilling or unable to break difficult news to the captain was a liability, no matter her skill set.

Trella hesitated. “That’s the coward’s way out, isn’t it?” Her jaw clenched. “I don’t care. Yes, Mr. Spock, please inform the captain of these results.” She straightened, her posture becoming almost military. “I would also like to inform you that, at the conclusion of our current mission, I will be submitting my resignation as CMO of the Enterprise and my request for an immediate transfer.”

It was … not what he had expected. Spock took a moment to process her words, to find a response that would not sound either unduly harsh or unsupportive. “Doctor, while your hesitation to approach the captain with results he may not wish to hear is not desirable, I do not believe that—”

“That’s not it, Mr. Spock.” She sighed and resumed her pacing, this time more slowly. “It’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now—since the start of the Dena VII mission, at least.”

Spock frowned. “That is still not a great deal of time to fully contemplate the ramifications of such an action, Doctor.”

“No, but …” She smiled suddenly, a wry, humorous grin. “This isn’t me, Mr. Spock. We both know that.” As Trella was, in essence, correct, Spock chose not to protest. “My research is my life. I’m good at it, I love it. I don’t … I knew there would be a lot of working with people when I took this position and I thought at the time that it would be a fair trade-off, but …” She leaned back against the wall and sighed heavily. “I can’t … the grief of those miners, the Rigelians’ anger, even your people and their … their acceptance! All the horror and anger I’ve been dealing with, that anyone could have done such awful things to other people …” Her eyes were shining now, the tears unshed but still very real. Spock shifted, uncomfortable with the blatant show of emotional distress, but allowed her to continue uninterrupted. “I can’t … I can’t do that all the time, Mr. Spock. And I know you’ll say it’s not all the time, but to never know when it’s coming, or what’s next …” Trella shook her head. “No. I can’t do that, I can’t handle that. I don’t want to handle that. I’m sorry that I’ve wasted everyone’s time, but—”

“Doctor,” Spock interrupted gently. That he, too, felt this best was no reason to allow her to chastise herself over what had the potential to be a significant learning experience. “It was not a waste, either for us or for you. Do not apologize. Simply learn from it.”

Trella was silent for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Spock.” She stood away from the wall, and to Spock’s eye it seemed that a great weight had been lifted from her. “Please don’t inform the captain until after our current mission. I don’t want to be a distraction.”

“Very well, Doctor. I shall leave it to you to choose an appropriate moment.”

“Thank you.” She offered him a small smile, then left the transporter room. Spock picked up the data pad and eyed it again before contacting Kirk.

“Please join me in the transporter room, Captain. I do not have any further update on the scanner modifications, but I have other information to impart.”

I’ll be there right away, Mr. Spock.”

Kirk was as good as his word, appearing with alacrity in the transporter room doorway. “What’s up, Spock? What do you have?”

Spock balanced the pad in one hand, tucking the other behind his back. “I have the results of Dr. Trella’s analysis of the contaminated energy compound, at an eight-six percent certainty, Captain.”

If Kirk thought it odd that Spock was reporting the information rather than Trella, he said nothing. Instead, he eyed Spock closely. “I’m not going to like it, am I?”

“Highly improbable, Captain.”

“Very well. What is the contaminate, Mr. Spock?”

“Human blood, sir.”

*****

Darkness was, McCoy decided, infinitely preferable to the blue light of his last solitary stint. Of course, this probably couldn’t really be called solitary—Chiya had banged on the door with canteen refills at least twice, and the chatter of passers-by and distant conversation provided a break from the silence. It wasn’t as if the closet door was that thick, after all. He even got some good sleep, his stomach finally full—even if it wasn’t with real human food. No, if he had to be someone’s captive, this dark little closet was, as far as he was concerned, not really such a bad place to be.

He might have known it was too good to last. There was no way (of course) to tell time, so he had no idea how long he’d been the Brolin Sak’s prisoner when he again changed hands. The closet door rattled and swung open. McCoy looked up and squinted against the light, expecting to see Chiya, or maybe some other Brolin Sak flunky. When he finally managed to focus, though, his mouth fell open. Literally. Of everyone he had expected on the other side of his closet door …

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world …

He closed his eyes, and leaned his head back against the wall, and muttered to the ceiling. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

A hand seized his manacles. “Up, Doctor. Quickly!”

McCoy glared at Rashall UyaVeth, then scrambled to his feet. Even so, his wrists and shoulders protested the rough treatment. “What the—”

“Quiet! Come!”

This was absolutely ridiculous, and he was tired of it. He was sick of being jerked around by just about everyone on this planet. Regardless of who was and wasn’t involved in the power production itself, these people seriously needed to grow some morals.

It could be, of course, that he hadn’t spent most of his time on Charen in the best of company. Kiran and Gesill had been … well, a breath of fresh air. The woman in the market who had helped him too, and all those people who had seen him, and ignored him, and just let him run.

Be that as it may, the place in general didn’t seem to him to be crawling with compassion.

Another tug jolted him out of his reverie. UyaVeth dragged McCoy out of the closet, and around two unconscious Chareni on the hallway floor. Holding his phaser at the ready, the Supervisor started back into the recesses of the plant, hauling McCoy behind him.

“What is this?”

UyaVeth ignored him, only moving faster. They wound through the halls, taking out any Brolin Sak or other Chareni they happened to see, and it wasn’t until UyaVeth pushed the door open to the stairwell that McCoy realized they were headed for the lower level. He dug in his heels.

“Wait just a second! What are you—” UyaVeth hauled at the manacles again, but McCoy managed to brace his feet against the floor plate. He pulled them both up short. “What are you doing, and where are we going?”

UyaVeth glared and uttered a short, irritated whine. “We are going below, if that is not obvious. My situation having … changed, somewhat, in the past days,” his silver eyes darkened, “I find myself in need of leverage—which I believe you will amply provide.”

Leverage? Well, that was definitely a new one. “Against who? The Brolin Sak? What have they got against you?” The Supervisor stared at McCoy for a long moment, eyes utterly unreadable, and then smirked. He smirked—there was no mistaking that expression—and jerked harder. McCoy stumbled over the threshold, swearing roundly. He’d forgotten, in only three days, what a complete jackass UyaVeth could be … The door banged closed behind him, and they started down the stairs at a rapid pace. “And if you’re trying to hide from them, going downstairs probably isn’t the best plan.” He should just shut up, let the man walk himself into a trap, but he couldn’t seem to manage it. “There are only so many ways—”

“Give me credit, if you would, for knowing my own power plant better than this rabble.” UyaVeth slammed open the door at the bottom of the stairwell and peered into the hall. “Or anyone else who may wish to follow us.” Now, what did that mean? UyaVeth’s phaser came up and whined. McCoy heard a thump beyond the doorway, and swore softly. At this point, he didn’t know who to root for.

“So, you’re saying this is actually a good plan?” McCoy would have scoffed at the idea, given that they were now pinned in the basement—at least, as far as he knew—but UyaVeth had a point. He did know the power plant better than the Brolin Sak. Or anyone else, whoever this nebulous ‘anyone else’ might be. McCoy stumbled after UyaVeth, glancing at the stunned (or killed, he didn’t know UyaVeth’s phaser settings) Chareni as they passed. “Is he dead? Are you killing them?”

UyaVeth didn’t respond, but began a dizzying series of turns through the hallways of the lower level. McCoy followed grimly. He wondered if they were anywhere near his laboratory, or the Vulcan and Romulan compounds. He wondered again if the other prisoners had managed to escape, or if they were all still holed up down here. He wondered which option was really better, in the long run.

He wondered if he would be alive by the end of the day. If it came down to a fight between UyaVeth and the Brolin Sak, there was more than a good chance that he would be caught in the crossfire. And … that might be better on paper, since it would prevent anyone from using him for either leverage or his blood, but even with everything that had happened, he wasn’t ready to die yet. How that could be, he didn’t know, but at the moment Leonard McCoy wanted very much to stay alive.

So he shut his mouth and ran after UyaVeth, and when the Supervisor pulled them into a small, dark side room and propped the door closed behind, he crouched silently in the corner. UyaVeth sat near the door, holding his phaser on McCoy and peering occasionally through the crack. McCoy got the feeling that wherever they were going, this wasn’t it—this was only a stopping off point. It didn’t matter. Whatever their final destination, he didn’t intend to reach it. UyaVeth and his phaser or not, manacles or not, lower level or not, he was free from that closet again, and that was all he needed. McCoy sat quietly in the dark, considering his options for escape.

*****

Kirk strode down the hall toward the transporter room, frustrated and completely drained. There was so much going on, in so many places across the ship, and none of it seemed to be doing the least bit of good toward his primary concern of them all—locating Bones and getting him safely home. It didn’t help that he wasn’t the only one frustrated, although Spock would never have admitted to it. His first officer had contacted him two hours ago to inform him that, despite his best efforts, the scanners would not pick up human traces on the northern continent, inside a building or out in broad daylight.

“We are able to read life signs, Captain, as before, but the dilasantium mineral is too similar to the iron component in human blood. Given the methods I have been forced to employ, the scanners simply cannot differentiate to specify a human life sign.”

Stone knives and bearskins.

Spock had sounded as close to annoyed and ashamed as a Vulcan ever really came, and despite his desire to vent his very real hatred of dilasantium so that the entire ship could hear, Kirk managed to keep his disappointment under wraps. “Very well, Mr. Spock. What about the Vulcans, then? Can we scan for them?” There was no guarantee, of course, that McCoy would still be with the two missing Vulcans, but in any case, they would also have to be located. Spock nodded.

“I have already begun the modifications, sir. I will contact you when I am ready to begin testing, if you desire.”

“I do. Keep me in the loop.”

“I shall, Captain.”

Kirk had gone to oversee the transfer by shuttle of a dozen of the sicker Rigelians to the Trenton and the Kohmari. With the addition of the Vulcan and Romulan prisoners, the Enterprise was running out of room in sickbay. The research vessels, which had to this point been serving primarily an extra Federation presence, were small and couldn’t take many, but they did have room in their medical facilities for a few. It made more sense, given M’Benga’s Vulcan specialization, to keep the Vulcans onboard the Enterprise, and so Dr. Trella had written up detailed care plans for the ailing Rigelians and spoken in depth to the CMOs of both ships. At first Kirk hadn’t followed the logic of sending the worst cases, but when she pointed out that they would be receiving far more personalized attention onboard the research vessels, he couldn’t argue the point. In any case, the Lexington would be arriving within the next four to five hours, and the Potemkin in another twelve, and they could relieve some of the burden that now rested on the Enterprise’s guest quarters and overworked medical staff.

He swung into the transporter room and eyed his first officer, who seemed deeply engrossed in his work. “You paged me, Mr. Spock? Are we ready to begin scanning for the Vulcans?”

Spock nodded. “In fact, I have already begun.”

“And how’s it going?”

“I have not yet detected any Vulcan life signs. However, the scanner confusion experienced from the dilasantium when scanning for human life signs has been significantly decreased.”

“Good. Keep on it, then.”

As he was off duty and there was really no place he preferred to be, Kirk stayed. If it had been anyone else, he might have worried that his presence would distract from the work. Spock, though, was used to his hovering. In fact, the Vulcan had already returned to his scans without acknowledgement that Kirk was even still in the room. Kirk, for his part, wandered aimlessly, fiddling with transport controls and requesting unnecessary updates from the bridge until he finally flopped down on the steps to the transporter pad and just sat, staring at the floor or the ceiling—anywhere but at Spock. His first officer could deal with hovering, but hated (though he would never admit it) being watched while he worked.

Bones was alive—at least, probably. It was still almost impossible to believe, even days after learning the truth. He had lost his friend, mourned him, started the slow process of learning how to function around his absence—and now this. Now, to learn that McCoy was not dead at all, but instead had been a prisoner for months, locked alone in a cold room on an alien world with no hope of rescue …

No. That line of thought would just make him angry again, which was completely unproductive. It was hard not to be angry, though—hard not to feel hatred for the people who had done this to McCoy. To all of them. It was hard not to feel guilt that he had spent three months doing nothing, just frittering away time on routine trips and routine missions. That, he knew, was even more unproductive than the anger. There was no point in feeling guilty when they just hadn’t known. It was, as Spock would no doubt remind him, completely illogical. But that didn’t change anything, and the anger was starting to stir again in his chest, making him restless and irritable.

“Captain.”

Kirk was up and across the room in seconds. “Do you have something?”

“I believe so.” Spock pointed to a string of fluctuating numbers. “Read this sequence aloud at my mark.” He moved toward the transporter control, and Kirk slid into the position Spock had vacated, eyes fixed on the coordinates. Was McCoy down there? Were they about to— “Now, Captain.”

Kirk rapped out the numbers. Spock entered the coordinates rapidly, then activated the controls. Transporter effect sparkled over the platform, took shape and solidified, and seconds later, two Vulcans—T’Pana and Salin, Skanet had said—occupied the area where before there had been only empty space.

They were as filthy and disheveled as Kirk had ever seen Vulcans. Both exuded the unhealthy air that all the Chareni prisoners possessed—waxen skin, sunken eyes and cheeks, gaunt frame. T’Pana sported massive bruising on one side of her face and an arm bound tightly to her chest. Salin was shaking, his entire body taken up with slight but very visible tremors. Both wore torn, ill-fitting clothing. Both clutched phasers, held at the ready. Upon seeing the transporter room, they exchanged a quick glance and lowered their weapons. Kirk stepped forward, but T’Pana spoke first, her dry voice tight with Vulcan tension.

“Have you also secured Dr. McCoy?”

No greeting, no expression of surprise at suddenly finding themselves onboard a Federation ship. No explanation of who McCoy might be, in case of the very real possibility that they might not know. Just a single, terse question.

Kirk’s gut clenched. This didn’t sound good.

“We can’t scan for human life signs, we can’t verify his whereabouts.” Her eyebrow shot toward her hairline, and she looked to Spock, who nodded. Kirk ignored that and continued. “We were told the three of you may be together—is he with you?”

T’Pana’s jaw tightened. “He is not.”

The disappointment was bitter. Kirk shook his head. “We don’t have him.”

She stepped off the transporter pad, cool and focused despite her appearance and injuries. “We have not seen him for nearly two days, but we have heard rumor of him.”

Two days. That put to rest any lingering fear that McCoy had somehow been killed when his blood had been used to contaminate the energy compound. Kirk gripped for the console to steady himself against the rush of relief, even as he demanded, “What rumor?”

“That the Brolin Sak have located him.” Salin, too, stepped off the transporter platform. Despite his very Vulcan calm, Kirk noted a wince of pain—surprising, in a Vulcan, and concerning. Was he injured, as well, or was he simply experiencing the returning effects of the priming injection? Skanet had warned them that the young Vulcan had reacted badly to the drugs and that, depending on how long it took to find McCoy and the others, Salin might not be in the best of shape. “That they have announced they will use his blood to destroy the energy compound on the other continents as well, as a symbolic act against their government.” Salin’s jaw tightened, and his eyes darkened. “It was illogical for him to leave us. Without our company, he—”

“It is illogical, as well, that you continue to blame yourself for his actions,” T’Pana snapped, turning on her companion. “You could not have known that he would hear. I slept less than ten feet from him, and did not hear him depart, and yet I do not—”

“Please,” Kirk cut them off. There was no time for this. “Whatever happened, we—”

“He overheard, while we assumed that he was asleep, talk of the bounty that had been placed on him by the Brolin Sak. Without—”

“A bounty?” Spock’s eyebrow shot up. “They were, it appears, most anxious to make their point.”

T’Pana frowned. “Indeed.”

“So McCoy left to … what? Take the heat off the two of you?”

The Vulcan woman blinked, confused. To Kirk’s surprise, however, Salin only nodded. “We believe that to be the case, yes.”

Apparently, the young Vulcan either had some language training, or had spent enough time with McCoy to catch on.

“Indeed.” Spock spoke slowly. “It is quite typical of Dr. McCoy’s thought process.” He looked to Salin. “Do not trouble yourself over McCoy’s actions—the crew of this ship, the captain and I included, have often had cause to regret the doctor’s … impulsivity.”

“This ship?” T’Pana’s own eyebrow lifted, and she studied the two of them more closely. Her eyes flitted quickly around the room, fixing on the plate bearing the name of Enterprise. “You are Captain Kirk and Commander Spock? Dr. McCoy’s shipmates?”

It took a moment for Kirk to realize. There had been no introductions made, no inquiries after the health of the newly rescued Vulcans, no call to Medical. T’Pana and Salin were escaped prisoners, ill and injured and frantic—in their own Vulcan way—about a missing companion. They required care, and careful, thoughtful debriefing. It was up to him to see that happen, and instead he had simply beamed them aboard and started shooting questions about McCoy back and forth. Kirk swore softly, shaking his head.

“My apologies, I’m not thinking. Yes, I’m Captain James Kirk of the Enterprise, this is my first officer, Commander Spock. Dr. McCoy was my Chief Medical Officer until he was … lost. We were conducting a rescue mission nearby at the Dena VII platinum mines, and our computer recorded your coded message before the power cut off. We were able to—”

“Then, it worked.” Salin exchanged a startled glance with T’Pana—there was no other word for it, Vulcan or not. “We had little hope that anyone would receive it. This is …” He trailed off, then took a long, deep breath, obviously fighting for control. They were exhausted—whatever else was happening with the search for McCoy, these two needed medical help as soon as possible. Kirk glanced to Spock, who nodded faintly and keyed a request for a medical team into the communications relay on the transporter controls. Salin looked back to Kirk. “And the others? Have you—”

“We have them all—the Vulcans, the Rigelians, even a few of the Romulans. You and McCoy were the last ones left.” Kirk frowned, and the worry refocused. “And now, it’s just McCoy.”

T’Pana closed her eyes for a brief moment, and Salin leaned more heavily against the transporter controls. They both seemed to be on their last legs—Vulcans generally only showed such obvious weakness when they were seconds away from falling flat. Kirk glanced toward the doors, where the medical team would appear, and thought rapidly. Dalir had said that the Brolin Sak had claimed the defunct power plant as their control center. If that was still the case, and if they actually had McCoy, and if they had not abandoned it yet …

A lot of ifs. He was turning to get Spock’s thoughts when the comm beeped.

Bridge to Captain Kirk. Please respond.”

He leaned over the controls and flipped the switch. “Kirk here.”

Captain, Minister Dalir is requesting to speak with you. She says it’s urgent.”

“Put her through to the transporter room.”

Aye, sir.”

Dalir’s face appeared on the small wall screen almost immediately, and Kirk could see that she was agitated. “Minister, how can I help you?”

“Captain Kirk.” She folded her hands tightly on her desk. “We received this recording from one of our people on the northern continent only minutes ago. It was taken this morning, but as I have indicated, communications have been sporadic and it took hours for our man to find a way to alert us. It will be of interest to you as well, I believe.” She glanced away, motioning to someone off-screen. “The quality is not good, but it is viewable. What you will be seeing is the front face of the Northern Continental Power Plant.”

The power plant. Kirk exchanged a quick glance with Spock, and saw T’Pana and Salin do the same. The transporter room doors slid open, but he spared only the barest glance for the medical team, motioning for M’Benga and the two nurses to remain by the door. Whatever this was, he had a feeling that their Vulcan patients had no intention of leaving before it played. A jumpy, grainy recording filled the screen—a large, impressive two-story building, with rows of armed Chareni facing it from below.

Up the front steps, a line of about ten Chareni, also armed, were filing out of the shattered remains of a set of large glass doors. The groups stood faced-off for a moment, while the recording jumped and crackled, and then two more Chareni appeared from inside the plant. With them—Kirk’s gut jumped into his throat, threatening to choke him—was a single human, shoved roughly into place and held there by a large gray hand.

Bones.

Kirk closed his own eyes briefly. It was one thing to suspect that McCoy was still alive. It was anotherto see the evidence, the friend he had thought dead breathing and walking and obviously pissed. Despite everything, he was forced to swallow a giddy chuckle. He focused again when the leader began to harangue the gathered crowd, lifting his arms for emphasis and shouting above the enthusiastic roar of his supporters inside the building, but paid very little attention to what the man was saying—he had heard it all before, a hundred different times on a hundred different worlds. The people who rose to lead factions such as the Brolin Sak really varied very little from planet to planet.

McCoy, though, he did watch. The doctor looked tired and … shaggy. Kirk couldn’t see details, but his friend’s hair was longer, and a beard growth of at least several days covered his face. He radiated that past-annoyed-and-onto-seriously-ready-to-rant-at-someone posture that Kirk knew so well, but he was also visibly uneasy. Trying to make himself smaller, even. And although that was just wrong, for McCoy, who could blame him? Half the continent was facing him, with guns pointed his direction, while being told that McCoy was going to be the method by which the rest of their planet would be taken down. One trigger-happy soldier, and it was all over. At one point, McCoy tried to step behind the speaker, but his keeper hauled him back out. Kirk clenched his jaw, fighting back the rising anger.

We’re coming, Bones, I promise you …

The video ended, and Dalir’s face reappeared. “Captain, can I assume this is your missing doctor?”

“It is, Minister.”

Dalir nodded. “Given the Brolin Sak’s threats, our security forces on both the secondary and tertiary continents have stepped up vigilance. Chief Morask is currently meeting with his high-level team leaders at an undisclosed location on the northern continent to plan a response. Our best option is to put an end to this before they ever leave their current location.”

“An incursion?” Spock frowned. “What of Dr. McCoy? Inside the power plant, he will be vulnerable as well to any such attack.”

“Chief Morask will meet with you when he returns. We will, of course, be making every effort to—”

“When will that be, Minister?” Kirk interrupted. He wasn’t willing to leave McCoy just sitting there in the hands of a rebel faction while the Chareni planned for some ‘undisclosed’ length of time.

“I’m unable to say, Captain, but I will contact you again in three talreh if I have heard nothing further.”

Three talreh. He still didn’t know how long that was, but it didn’t matter. This wasn’t happening. Kirk nodded curtly. “Very well, Minister. Kirk out.”

Dalir nodded and the screen went black. Spock turned to face him. “I assume, Captain, that you have some other plan?”

“You assume correctly, Mr. Spock.” Kirk motioned M’Benga and the nurses forward, then moved toward the comm on the transporter controls. “Dalir and her people are concerned with the larger picture, and rightly so. They have to keep their other two continents up and running for as long as they can—they’re already on borrowed time, given that we’ve taken back the primary component of their power source. Our concern is McCoy, and there’s no way I’m leaving him down there to take his chances during whatever Morask and his people have planned.” He hit the comm button. “Kirk to Giotto. Please respond.”

Giotto’s voice crackled back almost instantly. “Giotto here, sir.”

“Mr. Giotto, we’ve located Dr. McCoy. He’s in the power plant.”

The power plant? But sir, we—”

“I know, but he wasn’t there at the time. Do we still have those blueprints?”

Aye, they’re right here on my desk.”

“Good. Can we be prepared with two sets of prints, draw up a search plan, and have a team ready to go down, without Chareni aid, in less than an hour?”

Aye, Captain. We can do it in thirty minutes. I’ve been studying the blueprints since we got back from the last run, on the off chance that we’d need to go back and help deal with the rebels. It’s a pretty simple grid-design, actually—should be easy enough to divvy up.”

His people were the best.

“Good. We’ll be in the transporter room. Get a team together and down here as soon as you can. Kirk out.” Kirk pounded the comm off, feeling the adrenaline starting to course through him. They were so close. It was time to do something, time to take McCoy back from these bastards …

“Captain.” He turned to find Salin at his elbow. “I wish to accompany you.”

He just managed to keep from gaping. It was a … most illogical request, given Salin’s condition and the availability of others to do the job. Kirk wasn’t forced to refuse the young Vulcan, though—M’Benga, who had been scanning him from behind, laughed shortly. “No. Not on your life.”

Salin batted the doctor away as one would a bothersome fly. “I am well. I do not—”

“You are not.” M’Benga glared briefly, a startling expression on the usually calm face. “This is one of the worst blood panels I’ve seen since we arrived. You’re not going anywhere but sickbay, my friend.”

The dark eyes flashed. “Dr. McCoy is my friend. I do not wish to simply—”

“He is our friend as well.” Spock’s deep voice overrode whatever new protest M’Benga might have offered. He strode toward Salin and stopped before him, hands folded behind his back, as calm as if he was discussing the weather on a hot Vulcan day. “He has been our friend for many years. You have my word, we will not return without him.”

It was a bold promise. It was also quite the speech for Spock, who was not prone to saying anything of the sort out loud about anyone at any time, much less about Leonard McCoy, his opponent and sparring partner. Perhaps nothing less than this evidence of fierce Vulcan loyalty, though, would have convinced Salin. As it was, he stared at Spock for a long moment, then simply nodded once and turned toward M’Benga. The doctor motioned him after the nurses, who were prodding T’Pana along backwards as she watched the exchange, then followed them all from the room. Kirk turned back before the doors closed behind them.

“Well done, Mr. Spock.”

“I spoke the truth, Captain.” Spock turned to the transporter controls and began entering coordinates. “Such is generally always well done.” He quirked his head, and re-entered the last sequence. Kirk felt the stirrings of apprehension alongside his adrenaline-soaked anger.

“Problem, Mr. Spock?”

“Indeed, sir.” Spock looked up from the console. “The cargo entrance transporter appears to have been disabled.”

Of course. Nothing was ever easy.

In the end, they transported down outside the rear entrance with Giotto and twenty security personnel.

Twenty?” Kirk had asked incredulously as they began filing into the transporter room. “How did you manage this on short notice? These people can’t all be on duty.”

Giotto had shrugged. “I’ve had a lot of volunteers for duty if this mission came up, sir. We’ve all been standing at the ready since we’ve known that Dr. McCoy might need us.”

Kirk felt a rush of affection for his people, and a fierce pride.  He felt it again as they poured into the power plant, clearing the back hallway with two phaser grenades and dividing smoothly into two teams. “Spock, you know how to get to the stairs, right?”

“Of course, Captain. They are not far from this position.”

“Good. Remember, don’t get yourself bottlenecked down there. If you do, let us know and we’ll try to clear things for you from the top. As far as we know, though, with that transporter down there’s no way out but back up the stairs.” At least their communicators still worked. Small favors.

“Acknowledged, Captain.”

Spock and his group broke for the downstairs stairwell, and Kirk turned with his people toward the opposite end of the hall, where the blueprints indicated stairs to the second level. They didn’t know where McCoy would be held, of course, but it was just as well to check out the second floor first, before the main. There was no point in alerting the bulk of the Brolin Sak they were here before it was absolutely necessary.

Be that as it may, Kirk was almost glad to see the Chareni turn into the hall ahead of them, shouting and grabbing for their phasers. He was spoiling for a good fight.

*****

He didn’t know just what UyaVeth was waiting for, but whatever it was left them sitting in the dark for hours. At least, it felt like hours. McCoy had no idea how long it actually was. In any case, his leg and back muscles were cramping by the time the Supervisor finally stood, and the force field inside the manacles was wearing a raw, sore line around his wrists. McCoy scrambled up before UyaVeth could drag him up, and followed easily as the Chareni seized the manacles and guided them both out of the little room. He was going to have to play things by ear, act when the moment presented itself, but until then he wanted UyaVeth as confident as possible. The less trouble McCoy gave him, the less attention he would be paying—and distraction was really McCoy’s only chance.

The halls were still mostly dark except for UyaVeth’s hand-held, but they seemed busier than before. Dim lights flashed around corners, muted conversation and swearing drifted from all directions. It occurred to him that Chiya and Laren had probably long since discovered his absence, and he wondered if this extra company was the result of a search. It was a little insulting that they would think he’d run downstairs instead of for the next exit if he managed to free himself, but at this point he really couldn’t be bothered to care much what the Brolin Sak thought of his intelligence. He sure didn’t think much of theirs.

UyaVeth guided them slowly, stopping inside doorways and against walls at signs of trouble, turning off his light for long stretches, and then flicking it on again when he was ready to move. McCoy, of course, didn’t know the place, didn’t know where they were going, and was completely turned around. He didn’t recognize any of the halls or doors or junction areas. Wherever they were, it didn’t seem like they were headed back for the stairs. It was an inconvenience, for whenever he managed to free himself, but he would deal with that when it came. At this point, getting away from the Supervisor was his primary concern.

One thing at a time, McCoy. Don’t get ahead of yourself. You’ve probably only got one chance at this, better make it count.

A glow from around the next bend—yellow, not blue, oddly enough, though McCoy didn’t spare it much thought—and the feel of multiple footsteps approaching set UyaVeth to swearing. He pulled them both through the nearest doorway. Neither expected, when they cut around the frame, the room to be already occupied. The Chareni inside, who was in the middle of swearing and shaking his flickering light, was obviously not expecting them either. Oaths echoed all around, and both phasers lanced out.

The unknown Chareni fell, nearly on top of them, and as UyaVeth stepped to avoid him, McCoy felt the Supervisor’s balance shift.

Now. It was now or never.

He leaned into the shift, further unbalancing UyaVeth, and when the Supervisor let go of McCoy to catch himself against the wall, McCoy dropped away, scooped up the downed Chareni’s phaser, and dove back out the door. Run, run, you only have a few seconds …

He stumbled straight into an entire mob in the hallway. McCoy swore roundly as he crashed through the first few bodies and lost his balance, without a prayer of catching himself with his manacled hands. He managed to keep his grip on the phaser as he hit the floor, ready to fight. If they were going to take him back, he was going to make sure they paid for it.

The return swearing, though, and the shouted orders were oddly familiar. His tired, panicked brain couldn’t make the connection, but the confusion stayed his first shots. McCoy rolled instead onto his back to squint into the mass of bodies above him, and found himself in the center of a sea of black-clad legs and red tunics—and from the corner of his eye, a flash of blue.

*****

They were spending more time taking out rebel Chareni than Spock would have liked—nearly as much time as they were spending on searching the power plant’s lower level. Every nook and cranny, every locked closet and vacant room had to be visually inspected, since the tricorder was as useless against dilasantium for human biosigns as the ship’s scanners. That already extended amount of time was increased twofold by the need to stop and battle two or three Chareni every time they turned a corner, and Spock began to wonder just how difficult it was going to be to get back out of the lower level. They had faced resistance during their last incursion into the power plant, but not like this.  Previously, they had seen only a few here and there until the very end. This time they were facing far more opposition. So far they had managed to avoid any major injuries—Ensign Catral had taken a phaser burn to the thigh and Lieutenant Niesen to a shoulder—but as more Chareni appeared, the odds of both a lack of significant casualties and of a return to the main level without the assistance of the captain and his group continued to fall.

The security personnel pressed gamely on, Spock with them. They were here to do a job, and they had no intention of leaving until they had seen that job to its end.

Phaser fire around the next corner startled them—for once, they weren’t involved—and Lieutenant Garrovick motioned them into the hall after it. As they flooded around the bend, a single figure surged out of the near doorway, crashed into them, and hit the ground hard, swearing.

The very human expressions, from the very familiar voice, caught the entire team’s off-guard.  For a moment they stared, frozen. Of every possible resolution they might have imagined, running head-on into Dr. McCoy—or rather, Dr. McCoy running head-on into them—had not been at all high on the list. Crashing and swearing from that same doorway pulled the security personnel back around even as Spock moved to kneel beside McCoy. A single Chareni bolted after the doctor, spitting invectives, and no less than five phaser stuns lanced out. The blasts picked him up and flung him back against the wall. Spock spared a bare moment to note that the Chareni—Supervisor UyaVeth? That was … unexpected, and he filed it away for later—remained quite motionless, then returned his attention to the doctor.

Leonard McCoy was bruised, and filthy, and far gaunter than Spock remembered him. The blue eyes showed fear and confusion and determination, but no recognition. For a brief instant Spock remained still, then reached a slow hand toward the boney shoulder.

“Dr. McCoy.”

A spark lit the confusion, and a creeping bewilderment.

“Spock?” The voice was barely more than a whisper, halting and incredulous.

Spock tugged easily, pulling McCoy upright. “Dr. McCoy. The Enterprise received your message. We have been in orbit around Charen for several days. You are the last of the Federation prisoners to be secured.” McCoy just stared, and Spock found the silent blue gaze unnerving. He reached gently for the manacles that bound the doctor’s hands. “Please remain still, and I will release these.”

It was the work of seconds to short the force field, and his phaser on the lowest setting melted the manual lock. As McCoy’s first wrist came free, he jerked it from the manacle and seized Spock’s elbow in a rough grip. A deep shudder racked the doctor’s entire frame, and as Spock released his second wrist, McCoy pulled his knees to his chest and buried his face, free arm curled over his head. Spock looked around, but Lieutenant Teffner was already kneeling, scanning McCoy with his medical case open beside him. Spock looked back to the bowed dark head.

“Dr. McCoy, it is … most gratifying to see you again.”

Behind the shield of arm and legs, McCoy snorted. “Gratifying? Is that …” He trailed off, and took a long, deep breath. Another shudder shook him, this one not quite as severe, then, “All this time, and that’s really the best you’ve got, Spock?”

It was … a relief, to hear those words. Spock relaxed back onto his heels. Teffner continued to scan. The rest of the security party scattered, checking on UyaVeth and securing the immediate area. “What would you have me say, Doctor?”

“Oh, I don’t know. If there was ever a time for a little effusion, I think this is it.” McCoy’s voice was strained. “For me, I’m just gonna say that you and your commando corps here may be the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.”

Teffner lowered the scanner, grinned briefly, and began to dig in the first aid bag. Spock glanced again at the hand clutching his arm. “Doctor, it seems that your time among Vulcans has not cured you of your own tendency toward effusion. I need not add to the excess already present.” He paused, watching Teffner prepare a hypospray. “Also, I would simply like to say that, as we have no female security personnel currently present, your descriptive may be somewhat—”

From behind McCoy’s knees emerged a muffled sound that could have been either a laugh or a sob. Perhaps it was both.

“Don’t listen to him, Kai. You boys are gorgeous, every one of you.” Teffner snickered, locking the dose into place. The fingers around Spock’s elbow tightened almost painfully. “So if it’s all the same, you can just go ahead and keep your green-blooded opinions to yourself, ya pointy-eared hobgoblin.”

*****

Chapter 18

“Hey, Doc. It’s Kai, okay?” A hand gripped his knee, and shook gently. “Can I get you to look up at me?”

Speak before you touch, boys and girls. There’s no reason to unnecessarily startle someone who’s already been traumatized, not if it can be avoided.

Of all the security medics that McCoy had ever trained, Kai Teffner was the best. He had one of the finest natural bedside manners that McCoy had ever seen, most of his medical staff included—himself definitely included. It had been more than a bit of a surprise, really. Teffner was the product of one of the Federation’s rougher colonies, and it showed. The ensign who had arrived on the Enterprise was almost destructively independent, a practical joker, just short of a real trouble-maker. He had gone up on report multiple times during his first weeks aboard for mouthing off and general misconduct, and Kirk had been all but ready to ship him off again. Giotto had fended it off by arguing that the kid had never been given any real, important responsibility in his life, and asking permission to have him trained as a medic.

“If Doc doesn’t think at the end that he’ll work out, we’ll do whatever you think is necessary, Captain. But I don’t want to give up on him without even trying.”

McCoy had started out with his doubts, but Teffner had been more than just passable. He was good—he worked quickly, he remembered his stuff, and maybe most importantly, he somehow knew without any guidance at all how to gain a patient’s trust. Kai had been as surprised as anyone by this newfound aptitude, and as the ten-week training course progressed, McCoy had watched the kid slowly gain focus and enthusiasm. The young man who received his accreditation at the end of the course was a completely different officer than the one who had entered on the first day asking which nurse would serve as the mouth-to-mouth volunteer. McCoy had privately told both Kirk and Giotto that he’d never seen anything like it. Kirk, too, had been surprised and impressed, but Giotto just shook his head.

“We get the rough ones in Security—the ones who think that they don’t have anything to offer and that they can’t make it anywhere else. You’d be surprised what will give them a little confidence and a turnaround.”

It made good psychological sense, and McCoy was annoyed that he hadn’t thought of it himself. Now, as he almost automatically raised his head to meet Kai’s warm brown gaze, he reflected vaguely that there had definitely been no mistake with this one.

“Good. Good job.” Teffner patted McCoy’s knee again, and lifted a penlight. “You know the drill, Doc. I need to see your eyes before I can give you anything.”

McCoy scowled, and batted at the light. “Get that thing away from me. I’m fine for anything that you—”

“Doesn’t work like that.” Kai grinned faintly. “You know that, you’ve been through the course. You gave me the course.

“Teffner, I—”

“Doctor McCoy.” Spock’s baritone cut in. “You have also been through the Starfleet hostage simulations. As the focus of the rescue attempt, your only task is to—”

“Don’t quote regs at me, Spock.” He was tiring, and quickly. The shock of finding himself surrounded by Starfleet Security personnel, the shock of having Spock of all people kneeling beside him—are you sure, a little voice asked in the back of his head, are you sure you’re not just making all of this up, and you won’t just open your eyes and be alone at the other end of UyaVeth’s phaser again?—was starting to set in, and his thoughts were suddenly, increasingly muddled. “I know …” What did he know?

A Security Commander, a beefy drill-instructor type, standing at the front of the room, barking in a beefy drill-instructor type voice. As the focus of a rescue attempt, your only task is to be rescued. You follow whatever orders they give you, and you let those people do their jobs!

“Doc?” Kai’s hand shook at his knee. “Nope, keep looking at me. I know you’re tired, but we have to keep going.”

“Doctor McCoy, we are surrounded by Chareni and we have very little time.” Spock’s voice was close, but McCoy suddenly couldn’t track it, couldn’t place its source. “I suggest you allow Mr. Teffner to proceed.”

He just wanted to put his head down again …

A hand caught his forehead, and a light flashed in one eye, then the other, blinding him. A murmur of voices rose above him, and then the cool hiss of a hypospray against his neck. Almost immediately, his mind cleared.

“Doc? You still with me?”

McCoy glowered, but pushed himself upright. “You’re awfully quick with that thing.”

Kai flashed a grin, and relaxed. “Gotta be. Stubborn patients, you know.” He dropped the hypospray back into the bag, and began peeling his red outer tunic over his head. McCoy stared.

“You might not have noticed, but it’s pretty cold down here.”

“I did notice.” Another grin. “I also noticed your body temp is way down. You need some extra layers.”

“Mine too, Doc.” Another voice, from another direction. He swiveled his gaze around, and found Garrovick crouched beside them, holding out his black undershirt. “Get this on first, it’ll hold the heat in.”

He knew that, he had a whole drawer full of the things himself—do you? do you have anything anywhere anymore? you’ve been dead, everything you’ve ever had is probably scattered halfway across the galaxy by now—but McCoy just nodded and took it. For a minute he fumbled with it, trying without success to get it over his head, before Teffner removed it gently from his grasp.

“So, Doc …” The medic quirked a half-smile. “I think you’re gonna have to let go of Commander Spock to make this work.”

Let go of … McCoy jerked his head around, and discovered his right hand clenched around Spock’s elbow in an iron grip.

Blast. When had that happened?

The blood rushed to his face, and he snatched his hand away. “Sorry,” he mumbled in Spock’s general direction, trying to pretend that he hadn’t just been hanging onto a Vulcan—onto Spock—like he would disappear back into thin air the second McCoy let go.

“You have no need to apologize, Doctor.” Spock shifted, putting himself into McCoy’s field of vision. “I have not been inconvenienced.” He waited until McCoy nodded, grudgingly, and then looked to Garrovick. “A word, Lieutenant?”

They rose, and drifted across the hall. McCoy turned back to Teffner, trying to ignore the completely ridiculous panic that stirred sluggishly as Spock moved away. It was embarrassing …

“It’s gonna be okay.” Kai squeezed his shoulder, reclaiming his attention, and together they stripped off the torn, dirty smock shirt that McCoy had been wearing and replaced it with Garrovick’s undershirt and Kai’s red tunic. He was far too cold to notice any immediate effect, but the new clothes were softer and didn’t stink, and that alone relaxed him. He became slowly aware that Teffner was rubbing both of his hands briskly between his own, trying to restore a little warmth and circulation. At the same time, he heard Spock’s voice, slightly behind him, and then the tinny communicator-crackle and another, equally familiar …

“Dr. McCoy.” Spock reappeared at his side, interrupting the surge of gratitude and … no, not tears, he was not going to cry, even if his eyes had gone damp for just a moment. The Vulcan held out the communicator. “The Captain wishes to speak to you.”

Kai moved back, and McCoy gingerly took the communicator. He took a long breath, and then forced a grin, hoping it would carry in his voice. “Hiya, Jim.”

“Bones?”

The sheer force of the relief and affection and tightly-reigned anger that radiated across the channel, combined with the nickname that he had not expected to hear again, brought a fresh surge of dampness to his eyes. He swiped it away impatiently. “I hear y’all were in the area. Good of you ta drop by.”

“It’s over, Bones. We’re getting you out.”

It’s over. If anyone else had said those words, he would have accused them of getting too far ahead of themselves. This was Jim Kirk, though. “That’s …” He took another long breath, and a thousand responses flickered through his head. “That’s good. I’d, uh … yeah.”

“We’re coming to help clear a path out, I’ll see you soon.”

“Right. Be careful.”

A light snort. “Always.” The channel clicked off.

“Always, my …” Spock reached down for the communicator, and he handed it back over. Spock tucked it away, and offered his hand again. McCoy took it, and allowed Spock to mostly haul him to his feet. “Thanks,” he mumbled, uselessly dusting off his grimy pants. Spock nodded, once.

“We must go. The captain and his team will attempt to keep the stairwell clear, but we must reach it as quickly as possible.” He quirked his head to one side, and the tiny familiarity seized McCoy’s throat and gut like a vise. Get a grip, man! “Do you require assistance?”

With the first shock beginning recede, he was actually pretty stable on his feet again. “No, I’m good.” Kai, digging in his bag again, pursed his lips.

“Mr. Spock, I’m gonna need you to stay close, all the same.”

Spock nodded, as McCoy spluttered. “I’ve been getting around pretty well on my own for the past few months, I think I can—”

“Doctor, desist.”

McCoy glared at Spock, but subsided. Usually, he would have had something to say about being ordered around like a five-year-old, but right now he was just too tired and emotionally wrung out. Kai was talking, handing over a hypospray.

“His adrenaline is spiked, and his blood pressure, blood sugar, and body temperature are in the tank. I don’t know what’s going to happen once we get going, so if he starts to get shocky, use this and yell for me.”

He is standing right here, thanks.”

Kai slung his bag over his shoulder, and drew out his phaser. “And I’m really glad of that, believe it, but he is also not in the best frame of mind to be making his own medical judgments right now.” He grinned, patted McCoy’s shoulder, and went to join the other Security officers. McCoy watched him go, then shook his head and looked back to Spock, who was tucking the hypospray into his tricorder case.

“Are we …” He glanced toward UyaVeth’s still form, and his stomach rolled. He wanted nothing more than to just leave the Supervisor in a heap in the corner, to turn his back and walk away from the man who had caused him so much anger and heartache.

He was a doctor. If he did that, UyaVeth won.

For a minute, he still thought he wouldn’t be able to get the words out. “We can’t just leave him there like that, should Kai—”

“Supervisor UyaVeth was hit by five phaser stuns at close range.” Spock withdrew his own phaser, and checked the settings. “As you well know, survival of such an assault is unlikely. Lieutenant G’layn has confirmed that he is indeed deceased.”

Dead. The hall swirled around him. McCoy closed his eyes, disbelief and relief and uncertainty vying for top billing in his aching brain. What should he feel about that? Was it wrong to be relieved that UyaVeth was dead, even a little glad?

He was a doctor …

“Doctor? Are you well?”

He shook his head, and forced back the nausea.

“Doctor?”

McCoy opened his eyes and grabbed for Spock’s arm, just in time to stop him calling for Teffner. “Don’t, I’m … I’m all right.” Spock eyed him, obviously undecided. McCoy straightened, and blew out a long breath. “I’m good. Let’s …” He looked around at the dark hall, and the dead Chareni, and shuddered. “Let’s get out of here.”

Spock hesitated, then nodded and signaled to Garrovick. The Security officers pulled into formation around McCoy and Spock, and then moved as a unit back around the corner, phasers at the ready. They had already gone a good distance, smooth and swift and locked into a tight, aggressive focus, when McCoy realized the impact of Spock’s words.

“UyaVeth?” He looked around at the Vulcan. “You know him?”

“Indeed.” Spock’s eyes remained alert, combing the surround halls for signs of attack or other company. “We interviewed the Second Supervisor on the Enterprise, while planning the rescue of the Vulcan and Romulan hostages.” They had the Romulans up on the Enterprise? That should prove interesting. “He also accompanied us on the raid to free the hostages; however, he managed to evade us before we were able to return to the Enterprise.” Spock’s eyes narrowed, minutely. “Supervisor UyaVeth was a most … disconcerting individual.”

Disconcerting was one word for it. McCoy had a few others that probably couldn’t be used in polite company. Understanding was dawning, though. “Leverage.” He shook his head. “That bastard, that’s what he meant, he meant you, not the Brolin Sak.”

Spock spared him a glance. “Doctor?”

“When he pulled me out of that closet, he said—”

“Closet?”

“Yeah, Chiya had … well, you don’t know Chiya, I guess, but the Brolin Sak had me locked in a closet a floor up, before UyaVeth found me. Anyway, he said his situation had changed and he needed leverage. I didn’t get it then, I couldn’t understand what he and the Brolin Sak had against each other, but he didn’t mean them at all.” McCoy shook his head. “He knew. When I asked him about it, he didn’t answer me. I thought he was just being, you know, him, but he was … he just didn’t want me to know that you were here.”

“Indeed.” Spock’s eyes darkened. “I will be most fascinated to hear your tale.” He tugged gently at McCoy’s arm. “However, we must continue our pace.”

McCoy shook his head, and mumbled a few invectives. “Sorry.” He picked up his step. They had other problems right now than UyaVeth, than the fact that the Supervisor had enjoyed knowing that the Enterprise was in orbit but that McCoy still thought himself completely alone.

“Unnecessary, Doctor.”

“Right.”

The halls were beginning to seem familiar. They were moving slower, though, as they got closer to the stairwell and were forced to fight harder for any forward movement. The Enterprise team might have been overwhelmed, being only twelve, but the sound of heavy phaser fire echoing through the corridors ahead of them seemed to be attracting many of their potential adversaries. Apparently, Kirk and his people were facing some fairly stiff opposition as well. They came to a turn and Garrovick started around it, but backpedaled quickly, pushing the forward officers back with him.

“Hold!” He shook his head, and looked back to Spock. “It’s a mess out there. We can’t even get to the elevator landing, there more than twenty—” The whine of phasers drowned his words, and Garrovick stuck his head back around the corner. He cursed roundly, and turned back. “Mr. Spock, you and Dr. McCoy stay here. I need three of you to form a line behind them, everybody else, we need to shave off as much of this group from the rear as we can. Go!”

The rush of bodies around him left McCoy lightheaded, and then a new volley of phaser fire and yelling broke out, almost on top of them.

Crap. He leaned heavily against the wall, and closed his eyes against the ache in his head and chest. This wasn’t worth it. People were going to be hurt, people could be killed, and for what? To rescue a single hostage? He wasn’t worth so many other …

A touch on his shoulder. “Dr. McCoy? We must—”

Move, Bones!” A hand seized his other arm, propelling him forward. A flash of command gold painted the edge of his vision, a seething mass of red around them, running and shooting, and then the unmistakable noise of doors slamming. Muffled pounding, and shouting beyond the metal barriers. The phaser sounds dulled, the soft babbling of the Security team bounced inside his skull, and for the moment, a waiting breath hung in the air. The guiding, bruising grip left McCoy’s bicep, and a pair of arms jerked him into a bone-crushing embrace. He returned it blindly, automatically, grateful beyond thought for the warm, very human action in the midst of chaos. Another shudder rocked him. His knees, recognizing the immediate support, threatened to buckle, but McCoy managed somehow to keep himself upright—this was definitely not the time.

Kirk pulled back. “Bones?” Hazel eyes bored into his. McCoy wanted to try for a grin, wanted to make some kind of joke, wanted to do anything but stare, but he suddenly couldn’t manage any of it. It was humiliating, in a way, to fall apart so quickly once help arrived, but it also shouldn’t have been such a surprise—the stresses and shocks of the past days, the past months, were finally beginning to come too fast, culminating in a rescue he had not expected, by friends who shouldn’t have known he was even alive. Kirk didn’t seem to need a response—when McCoy remained silent, Jim gripped his shoulders and shook gently. “You’re safe.” The familiar voice was both hard-edged and ridiculously comforting. “I promise, we’re getting you out.”

Safe. McCoy closed his eyes against the dizzy onslaught of hysteria, and wished briefly that he had someplace to sit down. No one but James Tiberius Kirk would—could—make that promise against these odds. It didn’t matter. In that moment, it didn’t occur to McCoy to doubt. He looked back to Jim and nodded, trying to telegraph with his eyes what he couldn’t make his mouth say. Kirk seized the back of McCoy’s head, his thick, matted, overgrown hair, and pulled him close for another brief instant. “It’s over, you’re safe.” A moment later, Kirk was speaking over his head, the clipped command tone back.

“Stay with him, Spock.”

“Indeed, sir.”

Kirk pulled away and nodded once, reassuring. Then was gone, back to the huddle of Giotto, Lincoln, and Garrovick against the braced stairwell door. Spock’s long fingers took up loose residence around McCoy’s elbow, a precaution rather than an active support. The door shuddered, and voices rose beyond it. McCoy looked around, and found the door behind them, back into the lower level, braced as well. They seemed, on the surface of things, to be trapped. He eyed Kirk’s animated discussion with his Security chief, and looked back to Spock.

“It’s bad that they’re down here instead of at the top, isn’t it?”

Spock hesitated, eyes fixed on Kirk and the Security officers as well. “It is … not ideal,” he finally conceded.

“Not ideal, right.” The very real danger spiked his adrenaline again, and cleared his head. They had to get out of this foyer, and what options did they have? He drifted toward Kirk’s huddle, and as he’d suspected, Spock shadowed rather than deterred him. Ha. The Vulcan didn’t like being out of the center of things either. As they approached, Kirk’s voice snapped out, demanding options, and McCoy spoke into the considering silence. “Well, maybe Spock could dig us out with his ears.”

Garrovick choked, and turned away to cough. The glare from McCoy’s shoulder would safely have wilted half of the botany lab. “Perhaps Dr. McCoy could insult them all to their deaths.”

“Huh. Believe you me, that’s already been tried.”

Tara Lincoln grinned lazily. “Sorry I missed that, Doc. You’ll have to give me the play-by-play sometime.”

“My pleasure, darlin’.”

Giotto was not amused, and his glower was beginning to radiate. Kirk put a stalling hand on his Security Chief’s arm. “Viable options, gentlemen, or you can stop wasting our time.” The laughter and the reprimand were both clear in his voice, and both disappeared instantly as Spock stepped forward.

“I believe I have one, Captain.”

“Elaborate.”

“When we searched the cargo entrance, I took a moment to evaluate the transporter. It has not been permanently damaged—it is powered by a series of twenty-four battery packs, each of which has been disconnected at the source. If we are able to reach the cargo entrance, I believe it will be possible to re-attach the battery packs, and to beam back to the ship from there.”

“Hmm.” Kirk looked thoughtful. “If not, we’ll have buried ourselves even deeper.”

“With respect, sir,” Giotto shook his head, “at the moment, I don’t think that matters. If we can’t get up the stairs, it doesn’t matter how close or far away we are.”

“Right.”

“The numbers down here are higher than they were last time,” Garrovick warned.

“They still can’t be anywhere near what we’d have to go through to get back up the stairs and reach an exit,” Lincoln protested.

“Agreed,” Kirk cut in. He eyed the stairwell door. “Can we keep this thing shut after we’re gone, at least long enough to give us a running start?”

“We’ll do what we can, Captain.” Lincoln and Garrovick stepped away and motioned for several other Security personnel to join them. Kirk drew Giotto, Spock, and McCoy away as they began to melt locks and hinges with their phasers. The pounding from the other side increased.

“Spock, we’ll need the shortest route possible.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Chief?” Kirk nodded to Giotto. “Brief the troops. We need to move.”

“Aye, sir.”

Giotto moved off, gathering officers that could be spared from door duty for a briefing, then sending them to alert the others. Kirk crossed his arms, eyes shifting between the operation on the stairwell door and the preparations near the door to the lower level. His voice was soft.

Dig us out? Bones …”

McCoy winced. It hadn’t really been the time. “Sorry, Jim. Haven’t really had a chance at Spock for a while, though, what can I say?”

Kirk looked around. Despite the grin, his eyes were serious. “It’s good to see you.”

“Yeah,” McCoy mumbled, and looked down. “You too. You …” He took a deep breath, and the past three months suddenly overwhelmed him, from nowhere. “You have no idea.” He closed his eyes against the memories, and a warm hand gripped the back of his neck. Kirk didn’t say anything, and neither did Spock, who moved closer all the same. They stood in silence, as Security officers flowed past and around them, making last minute plans and dropping into formation. Finally, Giotto motioned for them. Kirk squeezed McCoy’s neck once, then returned to the front, leaving him again with Spock near the center of the group.

“Aren’t you the one who knows where we’re going?”

“Lieutenant Garrovick is well versed in the appropriate route. I will of course be available for consultation, but I believe the captain would prefer that I remain here.”

“Right.” McCoy nodded, and looked away. “Thanks, Spock.”

“Indeed, Doctor.”

“Let’s go!”

Giotto’s voice echoed through the foyer, and the forward Security forces threw themselves against the heavy door that led back into the lower level. Spock seized McCoy from behind as they moved out, pushing him down below the average level of the group, into the safety of its core. Starfleet and Chareni shouts filled the air, phasers whined, the sound of hand-to-hand combat echoed around them. Shoulders and legs buffeted McCoy, and at times Spock seemed to be crouched almost directly over the top of him. They never stopped, though, never paused, but kept moving slowly forward until the sounds of fighting faded. When Lincoln’s voice called a halt and McCoy was finally allowed up, they were huddled in an intersection, for the moment alone.

There were casualties, of course, blood and bruises and phaser burns, but no fatalities. McCoy spared a moment to be thankful for that—he didn’t want to trade someone else’s life for his own. When he looked around for his Vulcan bodyguard, he found Spock examining a deep, ugly burn scorched into his right bicep.

“Lemme see!” He reached for it, but Spock stepped out of his reach.

“I am well, Doctor.”

“Well, my ass! You and your Vulcan stamina, or whatever excuse you plan to use, can’t tell me that doesn’t hurt.”

“Then I will not. I do not, however, require assistance at this time.”

“Look, I don’t—”

“Let’s go!”

Spock allowed him to remain fully upright this time. McCoy followed doggedly and watched the dark walls fall away behind them, ducked when phaser fire was exchanged, struggled to keep his flagging legs moving at the required pace. They had only just disentangled themselves from the latest fight when the whine of another phaser scorched over them. The Security officers around him dropped into a crouch, turning toward the newest threat, but suddenly Kirk’s voice shot out.

“Wait! Starfleet, hold! Wait, we’re not here to fight you!”

What was this? McCoy straightened, and exchanged a glance with Spock. He couldn’t see through the dark and the mass of heads around him, but when the answering voice lanced through the tense air, he found that he didn’t need to.

Starfleet. For what possible reason should we trust you?”

Irrel.

McCoy swore, and started forward. Spock gripped his shoulder, but he pulled away, pushing toward the front of the group. Kirk was saying something he couldn’t pick out, something about a truce, a common enemy and a common purpose, when McCoy shoved up beside him. The captain snapped a sharp frown in McCoy’s direction, but Irrel actually offered a tight, twisted smile at his appearance.

“McCoy.”

Kirk looked back around, hesitated, then nodded briefly. McCoy started to step forward, but both Kirk and Lieutenant Maniya grabbed for him, holding him in place. McCoy halted, crossed his arms tightly, and eyed her.

“You know why they’re here. You helped bring them here.”

Kirk glanced at him. Irrel laughed. “Ironic, isn’t it? Your pathetic plan actually worked. I would never have thought it, not in a thousand years. It seems that even the cowardly are at times thrown a bone.”

He forced down the anger. “I’m not having this argument with you again. There was no need for all of this,” he waved a hand at the dark halls around them, “no good reason to steal my blood and throw an entire continent into chaos.”

“Good reason? I have told you, McCoy, I don’t care about—”

“You haven’t been out there! Things are falling apart, Irrel! It’s not just—”

“Bones,” Kirk murmured, and he caught himself. Apparently, he was having this argument again.

“Look.” McCoy took a long breath, and looked toward the other armed Romulans (apparently, she had gathered some friends at some point after the power went out) spread out behind her. “You don’t have to do this, the rest of you. You don’t have to throw in with the Brolin Sak to protect yourselves anymore!” Silence greeted that, and he pushed on. “I know you—a little, at least. I know how you feel about this place! You don’t have to be here anymore, you can—”

“We can what?” Irrel sneered, delicately. “Give ourselves over to Federation captivity? No. The Brolin Sak have given us a place among them. We have—”

“Among …” McCoy was honestly stunned. “What, you want to stay here? Irrel, are you insane? Be serious! You can’t possibly—”

“We have the rest of your people,” Kirk cut him off, and the dark Romulan gazes shifted to him. “They are recovering in our sickbay with the Vulcan and Rigelian prisoners. We have no intention of holding them. We will contact your government and—”

“And demand an exchange?” Irrel spat. “They will give you nothing for—”

“Irrel, listen to yourself!” This time McCoy did step forward, ignoring the hands on his arm. Maybe she was insane … “He’s not offering to take you for ransom, he’s—”

You are brainwashed by the Federation, of course.” Her phaser came up and swung around on him. “You have no idea what they will be willing to do. You—”

“Put it down!” Giotto’s voice snapped across the intervening space, and he stepped out of the pack. “If you want to continue this, lower your weapon!”

Irrel shook her head, and McCoy saw nothing in her eyes but burning fury—a desperate rage, directed at everything and everyone. “But I don’t wish to continue.”

“Irrel …”

She swung the phaser back around, and McCoy couldn’t tell whether it was pointed at him again, or directed now at Kirk. “No, I will not go with you.”

Kirk’s jaw clenched. “Then allow us to pass.”

“That is not possible, either. You will—”

“Irrel!” McCoy stepped forward again, and her phaser jerked. Before he could move, before he could step back or say anything more, a whine filled the air. Shouting burst around them, Giotto’s hand seized his shoulder, Kirk grabbed him from behind, and he went down between them. For a desperate instant, he wasn’t sure what had happened … and then a new voice spoke, mild and quiet.

“You told me once, McCoy, that Jim Kirk would give me a ride out too, if he ever managed to find you here.” McCoy craned his head around Giotto’s bulk, and gaped at Tahren, standing over Irrel’s collapsed form. The Romulan held up his phaser, thumbed it to standby, and tossed it at Garrovick’s feet. “Now is his chance, I believe. I wish to accept.” He curled his lip down at Irrel. “I, at least, have no desire to remain here.”

Tahren. McCoy sank back to the ground. He had thought that nothing about this particular Romulan could surprise him anymore, but the sheer cold brutality of the man’s actions took him completely off guard. Even knowing Tahren’s tendency to switch sides at a moment’s notice, he wouldn’t have expected this. Kirk seemed somewhat taken aback, as well, and thoughtful—he eyed Tahren for a long moment, glanced toward McCoy, then finally looked back and nodded.

“You’re welcome aboard.” The words were more than diplomatic, but Kirk also motioned Security toward the Romulan, not even bothering to hide his intent. A small smile played around Tahren’s lips, but he accepted his new guard without protest.

The other Romulans, as usual, seemed content to follow Tahren’s lead, and within seconds three more phasers had joined his on the ground before the Starfleet forces. Garrovick gathered them, while Giotto and Lincoln herded the Romulans into position. McCoy pushed slowly to his feet and drifted forward, unsure what he really intended until he finally stood above Irrel’s body, staring down at her. Even in death she looked angry, and he swore softly, suddenly feeling the full force of his exhaustion.

What would her life have been, if not for the Chareni? Would she be married by now? Have children, even? How many people could she as a doctor have treated, have saved? Would she have been happy—or at least not a bitter, hate-filled woman? Irrel had been intense, and brusque, and manipulative, but she hadn’t deserved the life and the pain that had been forced on her, and she didn’t deserve to be lying here dead in a cold, dark hallway on a hostile planet …

“Bones?”

McCoy looked around. Whatever showed in his eyes must have been disturbing, because Kirk moved closer and took his elbow, gently.

“We have to go.”

“Bring her.”

Kirk’s eyebrows rose. “We don’t have—”

Bring her.” McCoy pulled away, and seized Kirk’s arm. “She doesn’t … Jim, no one deserves to be left here.”

Kirk hesitated, then motioned to Garrovick. He spoke to him in a quick, low voice, and Garrovick flagged over Ensign Kal’in. The young man listened for a moment, then nodded, scooped up Irrel’s body, and rejoined the others. Kirk moved back to McCoy’s side.

“We need to go.”

“Thanks, Jim.”

Kirk squeezed his arm, then pulled him back toward larger group and his Vulcan keeper, who was hovering at its edge. McCoy tensed, preparing to field whatever comment was surely coming, but if Spock had anything to say about this most recent exchange, he kept it to himself. Instead, he nodded briefly to the captain, then drew McCoy back into the center of the Security unit, taking up a position starkly between McCoy and the new additions.

McCoy’s rush of amused affection was cut off by the first echoes of shouting and running footsteps in the halls behind them. The stairwell door had, apparently, been breached.

They ran flat out the rest of the way, and in the end, only stayed ahead of their pursuers because they were close to their destination. The door—it was as nondescript as all the others, and McCoy would never know how Garrovick managed to lead them straight to it—hit the inner wall with a crash, and they tumbled inside, the rear guard already exchanging phaser fire. The Chareni were still far enough away that they didn’t have to beat them back in order to get the door closed behind them, but it shuddered ominously as Ensign Jensen shot the bolt and several of the larger men leaned in to brace it. A fan of Security officers spread around them, phasers at the ready. Spock broke away from McCoy, calling, “Captain!” Kirk followed, and as Spock dropped to his knees and began ripping away a section of panel from the base of the large transporter platform, McCoy heard the captain mutter, “People always seem to be after us in this place, Spock. They don’t seem to like us here.”

Spock, typically, ignored the attempt at humor. “Jim, I require your aid.”

“You’ve got it, what do you need?”

Spock tugged a set of four wires out from under the edge of the platform. “These will need to be reconnected for each of the battery packs in a specific sequence. Please pay attention.” Kirk dropped to his back and scrambled to get his head beneath the low platform, as Spock rapidly demonstrated the correct connections. “Do you require a repeat?”

“No, I’ve got it. Go!”

Spock moved to the left and Kirk scooted to the right, grabbing for the next bundle of wires. The door shuddered, phasers whined beyond it, shouting echoed. Security milled between the door and the platform, except for the Romulan’s guards, who stuck to their charges like glue. McCoy drifted toward the platform, remembering the last time he had seen this room—the day he had arrived, when UyaVeth had taken custody of his life and turned it upside down. He halted near the supine captain as Kirk suddenly bellowed, “Spock!”

“Captain?” Spock was moving more quickly than Kirk, of course—he had gone through seven batteries, to Kirk’s five.

“This set is cut! What’s the word on splicing?”

The long silence was, McCoy suspected, the Vulcan equivalent of a string of curses. “Proceed. We have little other option.”

“Right.”

A rattle of wires, a short silence, and then suddenly, the chirp of a communicator.

“Enterprise ta Captain Kirk. Come in, Captain.”

Kirk swore. McCoy heard the clatter of a dropped communicator, and then it skittered out toward him. “Get that, Bones!”

Huh. Well, nothing like breaking the news easy. McCoy snagged the communicator and flipped it open. “Uh, he’s a little busy right now, Scotty. What do you need?”

“Dr. McCoy! Praise be!” He could hear the excited murmur of voices behind Scott, even through the communicator. “It’s good ta hear yer voice, lad, but tell the Captain we’ve got Romulans up here, just uncloaked. Three birds-of-prey.”

The bang from beneath the platform was, McCoy assumed, Kirk hitting his head. “Romulans?” The captain pushed out from under the transporter, and snatched the communicator from McCoy’s outstretched hand. “You’ve got to be kidding me, this is ridiculous …” He adjusted the channel, and snapped, “What are they doing?”

“Just hangin’ there right now. Shields are up, but their weapons aren’t charged—not yet, anyway.”

“Have they hailed us?”

“Nae, sir.”

“Have we hailed them?”

“We tried. Nae answer.”

“Have we heard from the Chareni?”

“Not yet, but …” Scott broke off for a moment, then, “Captain, Minister Dalir is hailing us.”

Kirk expelled a breath. Spock finished his half of the platform, and moved around to Kirk’s. “Mr. Scott, where’s the Lexington?”

“Forty-three minutes out, sir.”

Another round of invectives. “All right. We’re in the cargo entrance again, we’re trying to hook up the transporter here. Warn Kyle to be ready, we’re going to be calling for a beam-out soon.”

“Aye, sir.”

“In the meantime, Scotty … stall.”

Scott’s snort was clear over the channel. “Aye, sir. Scott out.”

Kirk dove back under the platform. “Spock, hurry!”

“I am doing so, Captain.”

Five minutes later, Kirk was done with his splice and Spock was finishing up the last of the connections. The captain rolled out from beneath the platform, yelling for Giotto. The Security Chief appeared instantly.

“Aye, sir.”

“We’re ready. Can you guys keep it together down here?”

“Did it last time, Captain.”

“Right.” Kirk clapped Giotto’s arm. “Good. We’re calling for the beam-out, get them all back in one piece.”

“Aye, sir.”

Kirk motioned to Tahren’s guard, then seized McCoy’s arm and hopped onto the platform. Spock swung up on his other side, as Lieutenant G’layn and Tahren took up position behind them. Spock flipped his communicator open with a sharp flick. “Spock to Kyle. Respond.”

“Kyle here, sir.”

“You have the coordinates?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Very well, energize.”

For a breathless moment nothing happened, and McCoy’s gut was beginning to sink when, suddenly, the familiar tingle washed over him. The dark, chaotic room disappeared, and suddenly they were standing in the bright, clean, warm transporter room of the Enterprise.

His knees promptly buckled.

Spock caught him before he could fall, and McCoy clawed his way back to his feet. “Blast it. I …” He looked around the room again, tasting the familiar air on his tongue, catching Kyle’s nod of welcome, and suddenly, the entire place blurred. He swiped angrily at his eyes. Teffner’s sleeve came away damp. “Blast it all.”

“Spock, get him to sickbay.”

“Aye, sir.”

“You!” Kirk turned on Tahren. “We’ve got three birds-of-prey off our bow. Will you—”

“Of course, Captain.” Tahren turned from his study of the Enterprise’s transporter room. “I am pleased to assist.” He stepped off of the platform, and followed G’layn toward the doorway. Jim pivoted back around, and gripped both of McCoy’s shoulders tightly. Later, Bones, his eyes promised, and McCoy snorted, waving him away.

“Get out of here.” He hadn’t managed to fully regain his equilibrium, and the last thing he wanted was to collapse in front of Kirk. “Say hi to the Romulans for me.”

Kirk’s grin flashed, and he released McCoy with a gentle shake. “Will do.”

He bounded off the platform. “Jim!” Kirk was halfway to the door, but he pulled back around. McCoy stepped carefully off of the transporter. “Tahren flip-flops like a fish on land.”

Kirk’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded, all business. “Noted, Doctor.” He strode out the door, and as they swished shut behind him, Spock took McCoy’s arm.

“We must clear the pad, Doctor, for the others. Let us go.”

He followed Spock into the hallway, pleased that his legs seemed to be functioning again. The halls blinked under the familiar light of red alert, and crewmen hurried by, intent on their duties. No one actually stopped at the sight of them, but under other circumstances, the double-takes would have been priceless. McCoy heard his name murmured, shouted, called after them. A few people waved; Ensign Jaina from Engineering veered from her path to seize him in a tight hug before wordlessly continuing on her way. McCoy was forced to scrub at his eyes again. Spock’s voice was soft.

“Your presence has been missed, Doctor.”

For the first time in months, he didn’t have to force a grin. “Well, that’s good, because I missed y’all, too.”

Sickbay was crowded and busy, full of Vulcans and Romulans and Medical staff. It didn’t matter. They had barely cleared the threshold when a familiar voice shrieked, “Len!” and McCoy’s arms were full of a sobbing Christine Chapel. McCoy gripped her back, tightly, and felt a little more of the tension, the residual fear, leak away. He also, for the first time, really began to smell himself. He disentangled himself, and stepped away.

“I stink, darlin’. You don’t—”

“As if I would possibly care about that, Leonard McCoy!” Chapel gripped his arm, and wiped at her eyes with her free hand. Then she motioned them in, toward a biobed near the front of the bay. It took a few minutes to get there, as most of the Medical staff present converged at once, babbling and crying, each hugging him fiercely in quick succession before returning to the tasks at hand. By the time they reached the biobed, Spock looked more than ready to dive for the nearest cover.

“Dr. McCoy. I will leave you now.”

“What, Spock. Too much emotion in here for you?”

“The captain will require my presence on the bridge.”

“Your arm needs looked at before you go. Sit—”

“My arm is perfectly—”

“You might be able to control the pain, but not whatever impending infection you could have picked up down there. It will only take—”

“Dr. McCoy, I do not require—”

Siddown, Spock!”

Spock sank quickly onto the edge of the bed, one eyebrow shooting toward his hairline. McCoy spun around. “Somebody! I need a hypo of taloquin and denatron, stat! Make it—” The requested instrument appeared as if magic before his eyes. He checked it, and nodded his approval to Kara Wylean. Everyone on his staff knew Spock’s dosages—being different from human requirements, he had quizzed them all relentlessly to ensure that no mistakes were made. “Thank you, nurse.”

“Of course, Doctor.”

As he turned back to the bed, he caught sight of an unfamiliar woman in a white coat standing on the opposite end of the bay, in front of the CMO’s office, staring. Briefly, he wondered if this could be his replacement, but the thought didn’t have time to sink in before Spock stirred. McCoy snapped to attention, shoving the Vulcan back down. “Sit!” He pressed the hypospray to Spock’s neck and released the dose. “Get back down here and get that thing cleaned as soon as you can. Pain control or not, it looks nasty.”

“If you say so, Doctor.”

“I do say so.” McCoy tossed the hypo onto the empty tray behind him. “All right, I’m done. Go on now, get outta my …” The words stuck in his throat, as the memory of the doctor behind him finally settled. It wasn’t his sickbay, not anymore. He looked around again, to the woman who still hadn’t moved or looked away, and swallowed back the sudden nausea.

Three months. It was more than enough time for his life to be disappear, along with his belongings.

“Doctor?”

He turned back to Spock. “Get outta here.”

Spock rose, and surveyed him with tilted head. Finally, he simply nodded. “Indeed.” He stepped back, then turned and moved toward the sickbay doors.

“Spock!”

The Vulcan looked around. “Yes, Doctor?”

McCoy wanted to look away, to avoid the Vulcan’s sharp gaze, but he forced himself to meet Spock’s eyes. “Thank you.”

Spock pivoted sharply and inclined his head, hands clasped firmly behind him. “I am most pleased to have been of assistance.”

McCoy snorted, and folded his arms. “Why can’t a Vulcan just say ‘you’re welcome’, like anyone else?”

Spock’s eyebrow crept up again. “I believe I did, Doctor.” He hesitated a moment longer, then turned and disappeared through the sliding doors. McCoy’s legs gave out, unceremoniously, and he collapsed more than sat on the empty biobed, burying his face in his hands.

Home. He was home.

Was that even true anymore?

Footsteps sounded beside him. “Leonard.” McCoy looked around, into the face of Jabilo M’Benga.

“Hey.” He grinned and started to stand, wearily, but M’Benga pushed him back down.

“No, stay where you are.” The assistant CMO returned the smile and pulled him into a brief embrace, then stepped back and motioned to Chapel, who hovered behind him with the tricorder and an entire tray of medical instruments. “It’s good to see you back, Doctor.” He took the tricorder from Chapel, and the scanner. “Let’s get a quick look at the damage, shall we, and then we can go from there.”

The reek was really beginning to bother him. How everyone else could stand it without gagging, McCoy wasn’t sure.

“What about a shower first?” He looked around to the back, where the sickbay shower stalls were tucked around the corner. “Nothing that can’t wait for a—”

M’Benga shook his head. “How about a preliminary scan, and then, if I’m somewhat satisfied with the results, we can talk about a shower?”

McCoy growled. “I’m walking and talking. I think I’m okay for a—”

“You know better than that, Leonard.” M’Benga’s voice was firm, quiet. “Walking and talking is no guarantee.” He shook McCoy’s arm briefly. “You’re my patient. You know what that means. I know you’re not good at being on the receiving end, but let me do my job.”

His job, right. McCoy’s gaze swiveled to the unknown doctor, who had moved away from the office and was studying the readings above one of the biobeds. Her eyes flickered toward his, and he cut quickly away. “Is that my replacement?”

Chapel’s fingers found his, and squeezed. M’Benga nodded. “Diane Trella. She’s been with us for just over two months.”

Right. Two months, two years. Didn’t matter.

It was long enough.

McCoy sighed, and looked back down. “Do your scans.”

M’Benga’s hand squeezed his knee, briefly. “Leonard.” McCoy looked up, and met his friend’s eyes. “It’s going to be all right. We’ll get these scans, and get you cleaned up, and find you a room somewhere away from all of this.” He waved at the crowd around them. “And we’ll talk, and you’ll talk with the captain and Mr. Spock, and between all of us, we’ll get everything figured out.”

“Right.” McCoy took another long, deep breath, wondering just what ‘figured out’ would look like. It was odd. He had wanted very little more than this place, than the Enterpriseand this sickbay, for the past three months – and now that he was back, he missed it again already, even sitting right in the middle of it.

“Len.” Chapel pulled him close, and pressed her forehead against his. McCoy relaxed against her and closed his eyes, breathing in the comforting scents of antiseptic and Starfleet-issue material. He heard M’Benga begin his scans, and sat as patiently as he could manage, trying his best to ignore the looming presence of Diane Trella, across the room and yet so close he could barely breathe.

*****

Chapter 19

Scott rose from the command chair as Kirk burst onto the bridge, halting in mid-turn as Tahren and G’layn followed the captain from the lift. The engineer eyed the Romulan for an instant, then shook his head and returned his attention to Kirk.

“Sir.”

“Mr. Scott. What’s our situation?”

“Three Romulan birds-of-prey camped off ta the starboard, Captain. Their status is unchanged—shields up, weapons unarmed.”

“Have we heard from them yet?”

“Negative, sir.” Scott shook his head. “We have heard from Minister Dalir, twice since our last communication. She’s very insistent, Captain, she wants ta speak ta you, and she was nae happy when I told her that you were unavailable.”

“You didn’t tell her we were on the planet, though?”

“Nae, sir.” Scott offered a wry shrug. “I figured that was yers ta handle.”

Kirk clasped Scotty’s arm, absently. “It is mine, indeed, Mr. Scott.” He moved toward the viewer, squinting at the field of black Chareni fighters. “Are they closer?”

“Aye.” Scott winced. “They’ve been on the move since the Romulans uncloaked—nothin’ overtly aggressive, but definitely a defend and attack formation o’ some sort.”

Kirk shook his head. He understood the maneuver—had an unknown hostile appeared directly on top of Earth, he would have been the first to mount a defense—but the Chareni couldn’t be allowed to initiate any aggressive action. Not as things stood. “No. Uhura,” he looked around, “hail Minister Dalir. Tell her to stand her ships down, that we will handle the Romulans.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Mr. Chekov, where’s the Lexington?

“Tventy-eight minutes out, sir.”

Kirk nodded, and sank into the command chair, gripping the armrests on either side. “Send them a burst, Mr. Chekov. Let them know what to expect when they get here.”

“Aye, sir.” Chekov pushed away from the navigation board and hurried around to the secondary communications console. Kirk looked back to Uhura.

“Lieutenant, open a channel to the lead Romulan vessel.”

“Captain.” Uhura adjusted her earpiece, swiveling around. Her voice and demeanor were, as always, entirely professional. Only her dark eyes betrayed impatience. “Minster Dalir insists that she must speak with you at once. I informed her that—”

“Put her on!” The tension was too much. Kirk rose again, and began to pace. The Chareni Minister’s voice filled the bridge.

Captain Kirk. I must—”

“Minister Dalir.” There was no time for the niceties, not with three birds-of-prey staring them down the throat. “Stand your ships down, immediately. The Enterprise will engage the Romulans.”

Captain! I can’t do that. The safety of our planet is of—”

“Minister, your best bet for safety is to back off and let me handle this. The Romulans have so far not communicated or made any hostile advances, and we don’t know their intentions. I promise you, though, if you start something they will be more than ready to finish it. Romulans are—”

We vastly outnumber them! They—”

“These are Romulans, Minister. Numbers don’t always—”

Captain! As the acting leader of this world, I have a duty to—”

“Minister Dalir.” Kirk bit off the words, his patience at an end. The birds-of-prey loomed large on the viewscreen. “I understand your duty, but may I also remind you of the Romulan hostages recovering on my ship?” He felt Tahren’s eyes on him, dark and heavy, and remembered McCoy’s warning. He would need to step carefully, between these two extremes. “Your people incited this, and the Romulans have every right to demand an explanation and recompense, as has the Federation. If that is all they want, we will count ourselves lucky … but either way, you are in no position, politically or otherwise, to do anything right now but stand down and let me work this out. Am I clear, Minister?”

The crackling silence was brief, but tense. When Dalir finally spoke, her voice was razor sharp. “I will comply, Captain, but only to a point. If the Romulans make any aggressive movement, I cannot guarantee that our ships will remain unengaged.”

“Then we’ll just have to make sure that it doesn’t come to that. I will contact you when I know more. Kirk out.” He gestured abruptly to Uhura, who severed the link. “Lieutenant, hail the—”

“Hailing frequencies open, sir.”

He nodded approval, then swung back around toward the viewscreen. “Romulan vessel. This is Captain James Kirk of the Federation starship Enterprise. You are in Federation space, in violation of signed and validated treaty agreement. State your purpose.”

For a long moment, nothing happened. Sulu and Chekov exchanged a glance. Scott hovered uneasily near the railing. Uhura flipped another channel and tilted her head, listening. On the upper deck, Tahren stood as still and silent as a stone. Kirk started to turn toward the Romulan, ready to demand his assistance, but a flicker at the front of the bridge caught his eye. As he turned back to the viewscreen, the standoff of Federation, Romulan, and Chareni ships disappeared, replaced by the interior of a Romulan bird-of-prey. A Romulan commander of perhaps middle-age, long and dark and lean, dominated center screen.

“Captain Kirk. I am Commander Bahnet, of the Romulan vessel Rhak’vant.”

“Commander.” Kirk approached the viewscreen. “I repeat. You are in violation of Federation-Romulan treaty. Explain your presence in this—”

“Captain.” The Romulan, too, moved closer. “The Empire has no desire, at this moment, to engage in any altercation with the Federation. However, we have business here. Our Senate has very recently been made aware of the existence of Romulan captives on this world.” His eyes narrowed. “You understand, of course, why this would be of concern to us. We intend to investigate this matter thoroughly.” Apparently Bahnet had decided, for the moment, to play nice—the tone was firm, but not aggressive. It was an unusual tactic, for a Romulan. The severe chin lifted, minutely. “It is true that we are technically in Federation space; however, this is not a Federation world. Whatever quarrel we may or may not have with these people need not involve your Federation. Allow us to proceed about our business. We will not—”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Commander.” Kirk crossed his arms. “It doesn’t matter that this is not a Federation world. We both know that.” He took one more step forward, and speared Bahnet with a hard hazel gaze. “You are still in violation of treaty, and without communication to the Federation or Starfleet of your intentions upon entering our space.” That was an assumption, but it was safe to guess that he’d have heard about it from the higher-ups if Starfleet had received that information.

Of course, that wasn’t to say the ball had never before been dropped by the upper echelons.

Bahnet’s dark eyes betrayed nothing. Into the silence, the hiss of a lift door and smooth, quick steps along the top deck heralded Spock’s arrival. Kirk kept his gaze on the Romulan as his first officer came to stand at his shoulder, and was rewarded by a quick, almost imperceptible flicker as Bahnet’s eyes swept the upper deck. He decided to switch tactics—best, for the moment, to keep the Commander off-guard.

“In fact, your information happens to be accurate. Until just hours ago, there were indeed Romulan prisoners on this world.” Commander Bahnet stepped back, obviously surprised at the admission. Kirk kept on. “Federation prisoners, as well. I know how we were made aware of this, but what about you?” He crossed his arms. “Who sent word all the way to Romulus? How, and how long ago?”

Bahnet shifted his gaze back to Kirk. His eyes hardened. “That is classified information, Captain. I am not at liberty to divulge our methods of—”

“I sent it, Captain.” Kirk jerked around, and Tahren stepped to the railing. He inclined his head toward the lower deck. “May I?”

“By all means.” Kirk snorted, and motioned to the empty space beside him. “If you have something relevant to say, please do.”

The Romulan flowed around the railing, graceful and self-possessed despite his ordeal of the past years. He halted beside Kirk, and turned his gaze on the Romulan commander. For the first time, Kirk detected uneasiness in Tahren’s stance—gone, though, before he could confirm that it had ever existed. “Commander Bahnet.”

Bahnet’s jaw tightened, briefly, before he returned the nod. “Subcommander Tahren.”

Subcommander. Military, then. It didn’t come as much of a surprise. Kirk looked from one to the other. “You two know each other?”

The Romulans were silent for another long moment, eying each other, and then Tahren nodded. “Commander Bahnet is my brother, Captain.”

That … was unexpected. Spock’s eyebrow crept toward his bangs. Kirk stepped back to study the two Romulans more closely. Pointed out, he could perhaps see a faint resemblance.

“A family reunion.” He forced a false cheer into his tone. “This can’t be a coincidence, can it?” A heavy, dogged silence was his only response. Irritation surged. “Well?” he snapped, dropping the act. “Who wants to explain?”

“Captain Kirk.” Tahren shook his head. “Once Charen’s artificial power had been destroyed and we were freed from our prison, the leader of the Brolin Sak offered to those of us who had joined with them a choice—to remain among them, or to attempt communication with Romulus.”

“How?” Kirk narrowed his eyes. “The power is out, subspace communications are—”

“I am not entirely certain.” Tahren admitted, and shrugged. “Laren has somehow managed communication with colleagues on the secondary continent. I assume it was they who sent the subspace.”

Laren? The name was unfamiliar to him. These Romulans would be a good source of information about the Brolin Sak. He would need to ensure that they were properly debriefed. He also wondered if Minister Dalir was aware of the communication between the rebel group and the secondary continent.

“Continue.”

Tahren nodded. “Irrel, of course, insisted that we had little chance of success—that even if we should attract the attention of our people, there was little that could, or would, be done for us here, and no chance of being welcomed home from such captivity with any kind of honor. She very nearly convinced the others, as well.” A faint sneer curled his lip. “She was mad, Captain, having been locked away for so long. Even returning without honor to our own world is far preferable to a lingering death here, in this alien place, among people not our own.”

“So.” Kirk moved away, and instigated a slow, leisurely pace—not from nerves, this time, but to help him process this new data. “You sent your message.”

“I did.” Tahren hesitated. “After five years, however, I no longer knew anything of our current military codes, or to whom such a missive should be directed. Unfortunately, politics too often interferes in the decisions of those non-military contacts of whom I was still certain. I therefore made use of Bahnet’s personal code. It, too, might have changed during the interim—but it appears that it did not.” His eyes returned to the screen. “Apparently, the message arrived.”

“It did.” The Commander’s eyes narrowed. “Sinett was the one to retrieve it from the console—she grew quite hysterical when she heard your voice, and is even now quite displeased at the level of security to which she has been subjected in order to ensure that this incident remains classified.”

Tahren hesitated, then offered a small bow to the screen. “My apologies to your daughter, my brother. I could see no other option.”

“Indeed.” Bahnet surveyed Tahren, expressionless, then looked back to Kirk. “This is not a family vendetta, Kirk. I am here with the full support of the Senate—the Romulan Star Empire will not stand for this manner of outrage, nor for the incursions necessary to obtain Romulan citizens from Romulan space.”

It was the heart of the matter, certainly. Still, Kirk allowed himself to briefly wonder about the relationship between the brothers. Their interaction was not cold, per se, but neither was there any manner of obvious concern or relief over the reunion. Bahnet showed little emotion, of any sort, over the unexpected sight of a brother thought long dead, and as for Tahren …

The single-minded, almost casually cruel Romulan that Kirk had seen in the production facility was nowhere in evidence, replaced with a seemingly uncertain, apologetic younger brother and military subordinate. He wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Admittedly, he knew little of Romulan culture. In fact, the Romulans as a people were a mystery to the Federation. There was no way to know if this interaction was typical, or if some unusual undercurrent, related to either the brothers themselves or Tahren’s recent captivity, was at work.

It didn’t matter.

“Commander. The Federation acknowledges your grievances against the Chareni people, and your right to answers and some manner of recompense.”

A mocking glint appeared in Bahnet’s eye. His nod, however, remained grave. “We thank the Federation for its … consideration.”

“Hmm. I’m sure.” Kirk approached the viewscreen again, and straightened. “The fact remains, however, that you have violated treaty agreement and Federation space. Therefore, this is what will happen here. The Romulan Senate will be contacted by the Federation Council regarding this breach of treaty. Unless determined otherwise by Starfleet, you and your other ships will be allowed to remain in orbit around Charen.” And please don’t make me regret it. “Federation diplomats are even now en route to our position. Upon their arrival, a hearing will be convened to ascertain the facts surrounding this incident and to approach redress. A delegation of three from your ships will be allowed to observe these proceedings. Your participation is not assured, but may be considered. Upon the satisfactory conclusion of these meetings, Starfleet will escort your ships back to the Neutral Zone. Follow up from the treaty breach will be dictated by the Council, not by me.”

Bahnet was silent for a long moment, then offered another curt nod. “These terms are acceptable, at this time.”

At this time, ha. “Good,” Kirk snapped, “because they’re all you’re going to get.” Mentally, he released the breath he’d been holding. The last thing he wanted was to be forced to tangle with the Romulans—not until the Lexington had at least arrived, and preferably not at all. He had too many other balls in the air.

Still, it all seemed a little too easy. He would have to be vigilant, alert to the possibility that this easy acquiescence was some sort of Romulan ploy.

“We will contact you with appropriate information regarding the diplomatic proceedings as it becomes available. Until then, remain in your current orbit. I will communicate the results of this contact with Minister Yesha Dalir of the Chareni government. It may be possible that she will wish to contact you—if so, I will arrange it. In the meantime, Kirk out.”

He started to turn away. Commander Bahnet’s voice followed him. “Captain. I must insist on the transfer of our people to our own ships.”

Kirk hesitated. The previously captive Romulans had information that they needed, especially regarding the Brolin Sak. That said … they were recovered prisoners, injured and traumatized as much as the Vulcans and Rigelians. They would surely be more comfortable among other Romulans, and receive far more certain care from Romulan medical personnel. Agreement, a show of good faith, might also help keep tensions down—crucial if the Federation, the Romulans, and the Chareni were all going to be neighbors for a while.

He had no real, solid reason to object—especially since the Romulans were planning, at least supposedly, to stick around for the negotiations.

“Mr. Spock, Mr. Scott.” He took in his first officer and chief engineer with a glance. “See to it.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Yes, Captain.”

The two started immediately for the lift, Spock diverting for long enough to gather Tahren and G’layn. Tahren followed silently, after a last glance back at his brother. Kirk returned his attention to the screen.

“Some of your people have information that we and the current Chareni government require regarding the rebel group who incited the power outage. We will need access to them for debriefing purposes, which can be arranged at a later time.”

Bahnet’s dark eyes pinned him. “You collaborate with these people, Kirk? Who abducted and experimented upon your own?” The commander folded his arms, slowly. “Truly, the Federation people are not as the Romulans.”

Kirk shoved back the irritation, and reminded himself that the Romulans knew as little about the Federation as he did about them. “You’ve only just arrived, Commander. Get the facts before you make your judgments.” He speared Bahnet with a hard gaze, then stepped back. “Kirk out.”

The viewscreen blinked, and the scene outside—the uneasy coexistence of Federation, Chareni, and Romulan ships—reappeared. Uhura’s voice captured his attention.

“Captain. Minister Dalir is waiting to speak to you again. Captain Thomas from the Lexington has also hailed, and is awaiting your response. They are …” she paused, consulting her console. “Thirteen minutes out, sir.”

Thirteen minutes. He was more than ready for them.

“Tell Minister Dalir that the Romulans will be remaining in orbit, and that I’m currently in conference, but that we’ll hail her with explanations when I’m free. Get Thomas back on.”

“Aye, sir.”

She returned her attention to her console. Kirk glanced at the flashing red lights around the bridge’s perimeter.

“Stand down from red alert. Stay at yellow, though, for now.”

“Aye, Captain.”

The viewscreen flickered again, producing a view of the Lexington’s bridge and crew. Captain Justin Thomas stood, came to stand behind his helmsman, and nodded by way of greeting.

“Jim! What kind of mess have you dug up for us out here?”

Jim snorted, and shook his head. “Nothing but the best, Justin. You know that.”

“I do, indeed.”

Justin Thomas had taken over command of the Lexington from Commodore Bob Wesley after Wesley’s retirement from Starfleet shortly after the M-5 incident. Kirk had worked with him only on occasion, but he liked the man and trusted his judgment.

“Good to see you. Look, I’d invite you over, but …”

“Right.” Thomas nodded. “Company.”

“For right now things seem stable, but I don’t entirely trust it. I think it’s best if we both stay close to home, in case things start to heat up.”

“Agreed.” The Lexington’s captain crossed his arms. “I got your last burst, and I have Starfleet’s briefing, but tell me what’s really going on.” He gaped, briefly. “These people are actually kidnapping Federation citizens for their blood and using it for artificial power? Really? That’s insane.”

Kirk couldn’t agree more. “I’m more than happy to fill you in. Give me a few minutes to find a secure location, and I suggest you do the same. Some of this is classified as confidential.”

“Right, will do.” Thomas drifted back toward the chair. “I’ll be with you in another five—I’ll hail, and your lieutenant can patch me through.”

“Good, talk with you in a few minutes.”

“Thomas out.”

Kirk nodded to Uhura as he made for the turbo lift. “Patch him through to my quarters when he hails, Lieutenant.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Mr. Sulu, you have the conn,” he tossed over his shoulder as the lift doors closed behind him.

Kirk spent over an hour hashing out the situation with Thomas, offering a complete accounting of the incident as he understood it and the actions they had thus far taken. Once brought up to speed, Thomas informed him that the Potemkin had rendezvoused with the Rigelian ambassador’s transport en route, and would be carrying her when they arrived in just over six hours.

“Seemed logical, given that they were fairly close. The heavy cruisers make a lot better time than ambassadorial transports.”

“Right. That just leaves the Vulcan ambassador.”

“Ambassador Sarek’s transport is ahead of schedule, he should be here in about two days. Less, possibly, but for now we’re keeping to the original timeline.”

Sarek himself. The Vulcans were taking this thing seriously—as of course Kirk would have expected. “All right. I’ll leave communication with the ambassadors to you for now, let me know if anything changes.”

“Will do.”

“Now we just have to keep everyone calm until negotiations kick off. Hopefully once people are at the table they’ll have less time to sit around and stew.” It was a bit of a pipe dream, and Kirk would have been the first to admit it. He could guarantee that sitting down at a table with ambassadors, Chareni, and Romulans would have no other effect on him than to incite further anger—and he suspected that it might be the same all around. Still, they had to start somewhere.

The look Thomas gave him was understanding. “Sure, Jim.”

“Sure.” Kirk shook his head. “Okay. We’ll leave it at that, I’ll keep you in the loop if something else comes up.”

“And hope that it doesn’t.”

“Exactly.” Kirk leaned back, shaking his head wearily. “This is more than enough for now, I think. Kirk out.”

He wanted nothing more than to head back down to sickbay, check on McCoy, and perhaps go find a good stiff drink with his old friend. They could both use one, he was quite sure. Dalir was waiting on him, though, and he had kept her on hold for long enough. If she hadn’t been in a good mood before, he couldn’t imagine that the delay had improved things. Kirk sighed, rose, and made his way back to the bridge.

Spock was back. He rose from the command chair as Kirk entered the bridge. “Captain. Transfer of the Romulan captives is underway, and in fact should be completed momentarily.”

“Good, thank you.” Kirk dropped into the chair, squeezed his dry eyes shut for a moment, then craned around to catch Uhura’s eye. “Lieutenant, please let Minister Dalir know that I’m ready for her.”

“Aye, sir.”

Yesha Dalir’s face was becoming easier to read, as Kirk gained more exposure to the Chareni. She was obviously impatient, and her brittle tone confirmed it. Her words, however, remained polite and calm.

“Captain. I’ve been informed that another starship has entered orbit. One of those you were expecting?”

“It is, Minister. And I apologize for the delay, but I was actually in conference with her captain, catching him up on recent events.”

“I see.”

“You have something for us?”

Her gaze fastened to him for a moment, and Kirk had the distinct impression that, like him, she was becoming better at decoding the unspoken signals of this new species with which she had been forced into contact. He smiled blandly and waited.

“I do, Captain.” Dalir sat back, abruptly. “I’ve had communication from Chief Morask regarding his team’s incursion plans. They will be implemented in …” she looked away, toward some unseen timepiece, then back, “less than twenty-five shontare now. It is unfortunate that we were not able to speak more quickly—I doubt it will be possible to include any of your people on such short notice, given the debriefing activities necessary before the operation.” Kirk noted the subtle reprimand, but let it pass. There was no longer any reason to include Enterprise people in Morask’s strike force, anyway. “We will, of course, be vigilant for the presence of your doctor, and expend our utmost to attempt—”

“Minister.” Kirk sat back. “That won’t be necessary. We’ve retrieved Dr. McCoy from the power plant, your team can go in unhindered.”

She blinked. “Your equipment—”

“No.” He might as well get this over with. “Our scanners and transporters are still mostly inactive on the northern continent.”

Dalir understood, immediately. Her eyes paled, and a low, whining growl burst forth. “You launched a mission onto our soil without informing us?”

“We did.” Kirk kept his voice easy, light. “We had the necessary information and manpower, and no intention of allowing a Federation citizen to remain a prisoner on your planet for any longer than absolutely necessary. You understand, Minister.”

A long silence frosted the air between them. It was, admittedly, poor form to launch this type of endeavor onto alien soil without the permission or at least the knowledge of the local authority. That said, Kirk had no qualms about his actions. The Chareni had initiated these circumstances, and despite the overt cooperation of Charen’s current leaders, he was perfectly justified in taking what actions he felt necessary to contain the situation. What was more, he knew that, at least in this case, his superiors would support his decisions.

“I assume, Captain, that your actions had nothing to do with the fact that the prisoner in question was also a close personal friend?”

Maybe. He wasn’t entirely certain.

“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” Kirk leaned forward, and allowed his smile to harden. “Dr. McCoy was a Federation prisoner on your planet. I have an obligation to ensure his best safety regardless of who he is to me—friend or stranger.”

Dalir was, unfortunately, in no position to continue her argument. While the Chareni might, under normal circumstances, have a legitimate complaint, the fact of their actions hung over the entire exchange, bolstering Kirk’s every argument and coloring Dalir’s every protest. She was nothing if not intelligent, and she was obviously quite aware of her position. After another long pause, she bowed her head. Impotent frustration all but crackled in the space around her.

“I trust your doctor will recover, Captain?”

“To the best of my knowledge. I’ve had no report otherwise.” The very fact that he wasn’t able to check in on Bones stretched his temper, and he turned his thoughts quickly away before that tension could further affect his attitude. “I have, however, been busy since we’ve come back on board.”

“Yes.” She nodded slowly. “The Romulans.” Her grey features shifted from agitation to distress. “Captain, I was informed that they have been allowed to remain in orbit. It was my understanding that their presence here is illegal, a violation of treaty. That being the case, if they have undertaken such an action, I am concerned for the safety of my own people. The Romulans are not known for—”

“I understand, Minister, but I believe the situation to be under control.” Hopefully. “I’ve spoken with the Romulan commander. He is a brother of one of the prisoners, but is under orders from the Romulan Senate. The Empire knows of your actions here, and is understandably … perturbed.” Dalir closed her eyes for an instant, drawing in a long breath. “Commander Bahnet knows that the Federation has been informed of his breach, and we have two Constitution-class vessels in orbit—more than a match for three birds-of-prey. He won’t be making any trouble, and if he does we’ll handle it. It’s highly unlikely that any of your people will come to harm, unless your ships engage—which I don’t recommend.” Kirk narrowed his eyes. “You understand that your best defense right now is to remain as non-aggressive as possible.”

He could see that agreement galled her. “I do understand, Captain.”

It could not be easy, being forced to clean up after atrocities that others had committed, and his aggressive handling of the situation certainly wasn’t making things any simpler for her. Kirk felt a moment’s sympathy for Dalir’s position, and a vague sense of regret—he liked the Minister, at least as much as was possible given the brevity and tension of their exchanges, and he thought that in other circumstances they might have found their way to a friendship.

“I have agreed to allow the Romulans three observers in the coming negotiations.”

Dalir’s eyes snapped back up. “Captain, I must—”

“They may or may not be allowed to participate,” Kirk overrode her words. “It hasn’t been decided, and it won’t be any time in the immediate future—not by me, anyway. However, you surely cannot deny their right to state their grievances.”

The whining rumble reached his ears again, soft and long, and he wondered if Dalir was even aware that she was making the sound. Her words were tight. “Of course not, Captain. The Chareni welcome the Romulan representatives to these negotiations.”

Kirk snorted. “I don’t know if I’d go that far, Minister.” She winced, visibly, and he sighed. Humor was not the same across the galaxy. Who knew what she’d just heard him say? Better to stick to the facts. “Minister Dalir, despite our differences, I am fully aware that the majority of your people are innocent in this matter, and I have no wish to see any harm come to them. My actions, and the actions of the Federation, are taken with what we believe to be the best interests of your people in mind.”

Dalir expelled a long breath and nodded slowly. “I … believe your intentions, Captain.” Ah. Well, she was under no obligation to agree with his reasoning, or his decisions. Still, Dalir and Morask and the operating Chareni government had been cooperative, for the most part, and he had no real cause to protest. The Minister caught his eyes, and straightened suddenly. “And in that vein, there is another matter we must discuss.”

Hmm. Kirk found himself straightening in response. “Yes, Minister?”

Dalir drew a deep breath, twining her fingers on the desk in front of her. “You must understand, Captain, that it very much galls me to approach you in this way.” She lifted her chin, radiating a defensive air. “However, we have little other option. As you are … quite aware, we no longer have any capability of generating artificial power on any of our three continents. You know the situation on the northern continent. We have instituted strict power rationing on the secondary and tertiary continents; however, even those measures will be insufficient to last us for any length of time. We are already considering options for further reducing our power use.” She drew in a long breath. “That said, these are only temporary measures—very temporary, I might add.”

Yes. Kirk was aware, of course, that in rescuing the Federation prisoners he had removed the Chareni’s primary source of power, and he supposed he that, in the back of his mind, he knew what that meant for Charen at large. He had been occupied with other things, though, and this particular situation hadn’t yet come specifically to his attention. Apparently, this was it. It was admittedly a significant problem, and he wondered what Dalir wasn’t saying—just how long the Chareni actually had before the entire planet lost power. He also thought that he could see where this conversation was headed. Mentally, he sighed. Although Dalir’s primary concern, above pride or embarrassment or any other consideration, was (and as it should be) the health and safety of her people, the ramifications of any possible response to a potential aid request could be wide-reaching.

He nodded, cautiously. She continued.

“Several decades past, in response to the initial protests against these power processes, scientists claimed to have developed a synthetic substitute for the biological component of the compound. The majority of our people understood this to be the basis for our artificial power over the past twenty years. When we recently learned otherwise, we at first assumed that the synthetic substitute had never actually been developed. However …” She hesitated, and her gaze flickered away from his. “Investigation into the matter proves that particular assumption incorrect. A viable synthetic substitute was in fact available.”

It was fortunate that Kirk had already learned this particular piece of news from Skanet’s initial report, when the Vulcans and the first of the Romulans had come on board. It had taken him hours to calm down again, upon learning that there had been an alternative for decades, and that the Chareni government simply wasn’t willing to pay for it. The initial, bitter anger over the whole stinking situation had reasserted itself with a vengeance, the rage and horror that such an atrocity could happen, could thrive unnoticed for decades, in Federation space.

In any part of the galaxy he loved …

Now, past that first shock and with the added bonus of McCoy safely in sickbay, he was at least able to reign in the anger—to respond to Dalir with some semblance of calm.

“Yes, Minister, we’re aware.”

She blinked, obviously surprised. Kirk responded to the unasked question, as much to move things along as for any other reason. “We’ve gathered a great deal of background knowledge from the Federation citizens we’ve retrieved from your planet—in this particular case, the Vulcans.”

Dalir didn’t seem entirely satisfied, and he suspected that she had no idea how the captives had come by such knowledge. He didn’t go into further detail, though—it wasn’t the time for drawn-out explanations. Dalir seemed to agree. She nodded, slowly.

“Very well, then.” She took a long breath, and then her voice became brisk again, businesslike. “We have begun the process of converting our processes and equipment to make use of the synthetic substitute. However, matters proceed extremely slowly. The new components differ significantly from our current supplies, and the data for the new process is two decades old. Entire sections must be altered in order to bring it into compatibility with today’s equipment.”

“I see.”

To her credit, now that they were to it Dalir didn’t prevaricate. “We require assistance, Captain. My best scientists and power production experts assure me that, on our own, we can in no way be ready when our current power supply fails. I do not know how other worlds function, but Charen is not designed to operate without centralized power for any length of time. If this happens, many will die.”

Of course. Kirk took a long breath, rubbing at his jaw. Details now, decisions later. “What kind of assistance, exactly, are you asking us for, Minister?”

Dalir nodded. “Production equipment, primarily—but people as you can spare them as well. We have many outstanding questions yet regarding this new process, and the more minds focused on it, the faster will those questions have answers. We will also need to produce a large baseline of compound at the outset—again not something for which our equipment is designed. It has been in maintenance mode for so long, and the equipment itself is so old, that it can no longer function in this manner.”

He shook his head. “We can’t give you—”

“No, Captain.” Dalir shook her head. “I misspoke, perhaps. We aren’t asking you for the equipment itself—merely the use of whatever you have available, to aide in our initial production. It need not even be on the planet, it could be produced on your ships and transported here.”

It was … a reasonable request, perhaps. Necessary, certainly, from their point of view. The situation, though, layered whatever response he chose to give with significance that unfortunately had nothing to do with producing power to save lives. Dalir waited, silent. Behind him, the lift doors opened and closed. He barely heard them, and wouldn’t have given the new arrival a second thought but for Uhura’s muted gasp and a light, barely audible murmuring across the upper deck. He looked around in time to see Uhura rise from her station to embrace Dr. McCoy, murmuring briefly in his ear before resuming her post. McCoy grinned down at her and squeezed her shoulder before moving away.

Leonard McCoy, back on the bridge. He didn’t know why Bones was here—Kirk suspected that sickbay, wherever they were, had not authorized a solo side-trip—but something that had seemed wrong with the world was suddenly right again, and he had no plans to argue. At least, not at the moment. He grinned back at the doctor, who nodded in return and drifted toward Spock’s station. Kirk didn’t miss the light grip on the railing, or the subtle shifting of McCoy’s weight against it when he finally stopped. A quick survey of the hollow cheeks, hidden beneath the still-unshaved beard, the angular shoulders and hips beneath the loose sickbay issue scrubs, the pale skin and subtle tremor confirmed that not all was right. Nothing more or less than he would have expected, but he decided not to push the issue just yet. McCoy obviously wanted to be here, and Jim wasn’t ready for him to leave.

“Dr. McCoy?”

Minister Dalir’s voice drew Kirk’s attention back to the viewscreen. He tensed, ready to step in, but McCoy’s voice was easy. “Ma’am. Afraid I haven’t had the pleasure.”

Her eyes cut to Kirk, who nodded. He wasn’t sure this was a good idea, but there also seemed to be no tactful way around it. “Minister, Dr. Leonard McCoy. Bones, Chareni Minister of State and acting governmental authority, Yesha Dalir.”

McCoy offered a brief nod. Dalir dipped her head, gravely. “Dr. McCoy, I wish to offer the profoundest apologies of both myself and my government for what you have suffered. I am … relieved, that you are recovered and recovering.”

“Well.” McCoy’s tired drawl strung the word out, provoking a bemused tilt of the head from the Chareni Minister. Kirk, not entirely certain that she even understood, was forced to suppress a grin. McCoy hesitated, then shrugged. “It seems that the reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.” (1) Uhura chuckled softly. Dalir hesitated, uncertain. McCoy grinned faintly and shook his head. “I’ll live, Minister.”

“That is … excellent, Doctor.”

“I quite agree.”

Dalir paused again, obviously at a loss, then returned her attention to Kirk. “Captain, I of course do not request an answer immediately. I will leave you with time to consider our request—but I beg you, please do consider it. We are desperate, and will only be more so as the deadline approaches. It is …” She straightened, her tone becoming almost formal. “It is the only reason that I would approach you with such an imposition.”

Kirk nodded, slowly. “We will consider it, Minister. And I’ll have a response for you soon, whatever our decision.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Minister Dalir’s eyes cut to McCoy again, then the screen flickered, and the Minister’s office disappeared.

The bridge erupted with calls of welcome, handshakes, embraces. Kirk let it die down before moving over to the railing.

“So, Bones.” He grinned up at the doctor. “Jailbreak from sickbay?”

McCoy snorted, softly. “Nothing quite that exciting.” He shook his head. “Had enough excitement for a while, anyway.” That was entirely true, for all of them. “No, I just … couldn’t sleep. M’Benga did all of his scans, pumped me full of hyposprays, let me take a shower, and sent me off to one of the guest rooms to get some sleep, out of the way of everything else they’ve got going on down there. That just … didn’t really work out, though.”

They had only been back for a few hours. Kirk wondered how long McCoy could have actually given it—considering everything, the time taken with scans and shower and other medical miscellany, he couldn’t legitimately have given it more than fifteen minutes or so. Thirty, if M’Benga had been very quick—and given the patient, Kirk rather suspected that M’Benga had gone for thorough rather than fast. Still, though … McCoy was exhausted. Past exhausted. Kirk knew Bones too well to miss the signs, and he was a little surprised the doctor hadn’t been out before his head hit the pillow.

Then again, who knew what else was at work here? They didn’t know anything yet (at least, he didn’t) about McCoy’s time on Charen, and even outside of that, all the shocks and chaos of the past hours couldn’t be helping anything. Kirk pushed back another surge of anger, of frustration that his attention was divided in so many other directions, and was about to speak—he wasn’t certain what he planned to say, but he needed to lighten the mood—when McCoy asked, “What are we considering? What do they want?”

Kirk sighed, light conversation forgotten, and leaned against the rail. Technically, McCoy wasn’t cleared for access to this kind of information at the moment, but it didn’t occur to him to care.

“They need help. They’re out of power, and out of time. They’ve got an alternative, apparently, but the plans are twenty years old and their equipment won’t handle the first push.” Kirk shook his head. “They’re in a bad situation, and they need a bail-out.”

“Captain.” Spock came to stand near the railing. “I must caution you regarding any technological assistance rendered to the Chareni government. Until further notice, we are still in a state of—”

“Spock!” McCoy snapped, turning on the Vulcan. “People’s lives depend on this power. It’s not as if we’re selling state secrets here. We’re preventing—”

“Doctor.” Spock—almost—sighed. “I appreciate the gravity of the situation. I also have no desire to contribute to any unnecessary mortality. However, it must be appreciated that at the moment, the Chareni are technically a hostile race. Starfleet policy does not condone—”

“Blast policy!” McCoy pushed away from the railing, and advanced on Spock. “Didn’t you hear me the first time, you green-blooded computer? This is about people’s lives!

“My hearing is perfectly adequate, Doctor, as you have attested during each physical for the past—”

“Jim!” McCoy snapped around, startling Kirk. “What’s the problem here? How hard can it be? We’re not even talking about any major equipment or component modifications, just an alteration in—”

“That’s not what Dalir said.” Kirk frowned. “She indicated that they would need significantly altered supplies, and that their equipment would need considerable alteration.”

McCoy rubbed at his jaw. “What are these people doing down there?” He gripped the rail with both hands, and leaned toward Kirk. “Look. I don’t know what kind of alternative their scientists came up with twenty years ago, but I developed one last month, and all with the components I had access to. I promise you, no major supply changes, no major equipment overhauls. I—”

You developed an alternate synthetic energy source, Doctor?” Spock’s eyebrow shot toward his bangs. McCoy snorted.

“Don’t look so surprised, hobgoblin. It was as much biology as engineering, and I had nothing else to do with my time.” He turned back to Kirk. “If UyaVeth didn’t delete it just to be a jackass, it should be stored with the rest of my work.” McCoy stopped, frowning. “If they have access to that, even. With the power out, I don’t—”

“Spock.” Kirk turned on his first officer. “Did you see anything about that in the treatment protocols they gave us?”

McCoy lifted an eyebrow. “You have my treatment protocols?”

“Indeed, Doctor. Quite impressive—at least, for the limited supplies and amount of time available.”

“Why, you—”

“Captain,” Spock turned abruptly back to Kirk. “No such formula, or even indication of such formula, existed within the data that we received. However, as it is not technically treatment data, I do not doubt that the Chareni would have considered it of little use to us.” He folded his hands behind his back. “I must also point out that the introduction of an entirely new power procedure, one not developed by the Chareni themselves, adds an extra layer of complexity to an already—”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” McCoy snarled. “I developed it for them!” He rubbed at the grey-flecked beard and snorted softly. “And I spent two weeks in solitary as payment, I’d be glad for someone to actually appreciate it.”

Solitary. The word hit him like a gut-punch. Spock, too, hesitated—but only for the briefest instant. Then the Vulcan launched himself back in, with a new glint in his eye.

“Be that as it may, Doctor, I must still state that—”

“Look, you pointy-eared …”

Kirk leaned against the railing, and eyed the two of them, and completely tuned out their words. It was … more than he had ever expected, less than a week ago. The heated words washed over him, and he actually felt his tension begin to melt away. It was … ridiculous, actually—but glancing quickly around the bridge, he found that he was not the only one. Grins were poorly concealed, a few tears were in evidence … yes. They had all missed this, more than anyone unfamiliar with the Enterprise and her crew might have ever believed.

More than made any sense at all.

His gaze caught a new figure by the lift, her entry unheard over the ensuing chaos. Dr. Trella hovered near the doors, an IV bag tucked under one arm, staring at the arguing doctor and first officer with frank astonishment.

Ah. Well, time to break this up, then.

Come to think of it, he wasn’t certain he’d ever seen Trella on the bridge.

“Gentlemen.” Kirk pushed away from the railing. Neither Spock nor McCoy glanced in his direction. He cleared his throat. “Gentlemen! Enough!”

They snapped to, turning almost as one to face him.

“Jim, I—”

Enough, Bones!” McCoy subsided, grumbling. Kirk hid a grin, and continued. “We will see what we can do to track your formula down. It’s a good idea to get our hands on it anyway, given that you developed it under duress during—”

“I developed it on my own, Jim. No one forced me to—”

“Dr. McCoy, any action taken during your captivity could be logically considered to be—”

Look! I don’t know if you realize this, but—”

“Bones!” Jim turned his glare on his first officer. “Back off, Spock. I want you to do what you can to track down this formula. Contact Minister Dalir if you have to, or any of the contacts you’ve made over the last few days. I want that data, and I want it nowAfter we have it, I will take opinions—one at a time, gentlemen, and not only from the two of you—about what should be done with it. I will also discuss it with the captains of the other ships on site. Therefore, your arguments, while … instructive, are currently unnecessary. Understood?”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Yeah, Jim.”

“Good.” Jim nodded toward Trella. “Bones, I believe you have a visitor.”

McCoy glanced toward the lift, and his gaze quickly slid away. Hmm. The doctor looked down and took a breath, then drifted back toward the center of the upper deck.

“Dr. Trella?”

Trella nodded. “Dr. McCoy. It’s … a pleasure to meet you.” McCoy nodded, and Kirk noted that once again his CMO—former CMO—seemed uncomfortable in the woman’s presence. It was … not so strange, really. Yet another issue to work through. Kirk didn’t dislike Trella, all things considered, and he had no desire to be unfair to her—but if Bones wanted his job back, Kirk planned to make every effort to see that happen. “I was … Dr. M’Benga wanted you to have an IV, and I said I’d bring it by. I wanted to … meet you.” Well. She seemed fairly uncomfortable with McCoy, too. Also … not strange. This could, however, definitely get awkward. “I was surprised that you weren’t in your room.” Trella cast a bemused glance around the bridge. “I definitely wasn’t expecting the computer to tell me you were here.”

McCoy shrugged. “Well … haven’t seen the place for a while.”

Spock cast a raised eyebrow toward Kirk, who shook his head and shrugged slightly. Trella glanced around the bridge again, then straightened.

“Dr. McCoy, you need this IV, and you need to be resting. I’ll have to ask you to come with me.”

McCoy nodded, without argument. Kirk and Spock exchanged another glance, and Kirk moved around quickly to the upper deck. “Nothing going on here … at least, not for the next few seconds or so.” McCoy snorted softly. “I’ll walk you back, Bones.”

McCoy nodded again, then fell in line behind Trella. Together the three of them entered the turbo lift and rode in silence to the deck housing the guest quarters. Trella hurried ahead of them toward McCoy’s room, to set up the IV. Kirk and McCoy followed more slowly, still in silence. Apparently, McCoy had expended the last of his energy on his argument with Spock. Kirk glanced toward his friend, and receiving no response, put a hand on the back of McCoy’s neck and squeezed gently. McCoy managed a grin, but the fine tremors beneath Kirk’s hand gave the doctor away.

Trella and M’Benga were both right—McCoy needed some sleep, and soon.

Kirk noticed the change as soon as they crossed the threshold of the guest room. McCoy’s eyes fell, and his shoulders slumped, and his pace slackened. They were subtle movements, and Kirk wasn’t sure if McCoy himself was even aware of them. Kirk squinted around the room, taking in the stark walls and lack of décor—on a ship that could carry a large variety of species from any number of planets, it was a safer bet to leave the decorating on the austere side. McCoy’s words from the bridge flashed suddenly through his head—“Spent two weeks in solitary as payment”—and he remembered, too, the barren laboratory that he had witnessed … yesterday.

Had it been only yesterday? It seemed like years ago.

It was a good bet that maybe this was why McCoy was having trouble sleeping.

Well. That was easy enough to fix.

“Bones.” He caught at McCoy’s arm. McCoy looked around, and Kirk grinned faintly. “You know what? I’ve got a couch with your name on it. What do you say?”

It was a measure of McCoy’s need, and his fatigue, that he didn’t protest. The doctor sent a glance of his own around the room, then just nodded and offered a half-grin. “Yeah, that … thanks, Jim.”

“Not a problem.” He looked past McCoy to Trella, who had been setting up an IV pump. “Doctor, could you—”

“Of course, Captain.” Trella nodded. “I’ll be right behind you.”

He caught her eyes, smiling his appreciation of her flexibility. “Thank you.”

She grinned, wryly. “Of course, sir.”

McCoy’s steps were slower and his eyelids heavier as they made their way to Kirk’s quarters. He followed Kirk silently through the door and perched on the foot of the bed as Kirk dug through the tiny corner closet looking for his spare blanket—not Fleet issued, but quilted by his grandmother when he had been born, sized for the man he would become. Whenever he used it, he admired its dark, rich tones and the intricate work, and thought of her. Now, he tossed it onto the bed behind him, spent the next few minutes shoving the closet’s other contents back into place so that they wouldn’t fall on him the next time he opened the door, and turned back toward the room.

McCoy had dragged the quilt over him, pulled his legs up onto the bed, and was already asleep.

Huh. Well, he wasn’t likely to be getting any kind of a break at any point in the near future, anyway. Kirk stood for a long moment, contemplating his sleeping friend, his gratitude, his anger, and the bizarre twists that life had taken over the past days. Finally, he shook his head, dimmed the lights, and made for the door. He met Trella when it opened, pushing the IV pump, and nodded back into the room.

“He’s asleep already.”

Trella smiled, faintly. “I’ll take care of him, sir.”

“Thank you.”

She moved past him, disappearing around the corner into the sleeping quarters. Kirk watched her go, then sighed and headed back toward the bridge. McCoy might be finally getting some much overdue rest, but he, unfortunately, had miles to go before he slept. (2)

*****

Chapter 20

He was … warm. For an instant McCoy tensed, confused, trying to sort out in his sleep-muddled brain where he was and how that could be. A moment later the murmur of voices, low and nearby and familiar, washed over him, and his gut relaxed so quickly that he was actually a bit nauseated. Of course, that could also be partially due to the fact that he hadn’t eaten in … well, he had no idea, but he was really hungry. In any case, the why of it didn’t matter. He sank back into the mattress—strange how three months on Charen could make Starfleet-issue seem soft, even comfortable—and ran his fingers along the edge of his covering. It was Jim’s quilt from his grandmother. He had seen it a few times, folded in the closet or hanging off the bunk. Come to think of it … McCoy squinted in the semi-darkness, eyeing the dim room. Kirk’s quarters. He … vaguely remembered something about ending up here instead of his assigned guest room, but he didn’t recall actually entering, or how he had come by the quilt, or Jim returning to duty.

Or any kind of IV at all. The tape pulled gently on the skin of his left arm. He rubbed at it absently, and shivered despite his warm cocoon, and focused on the voices in the outer room.

“… not located any formula or equation within the doctor’s files that might relate to synthetic power production. We are still searching, but at this time it seems probable that the work was either lost during the power outage or removed by Supervisor UyaVeth to another system of which we are unaware.”

Crap. Well, he remembered most of the components and sequencing, it shouldn’t take him long to rebuild the rest of it.

That meant he would have to get up, though. His whole body rebelled against the thought.

“Well, that’s just great. Fabulous.” Kirk sighed deeply. “All right, keep looking. Let me know if you do find anything.”

“Indeed, sir.” The clatter of a data pad against the desk. “It may be, nevertheless, that it will be necessary to consult Dr. McCoy regarding—”

“I consider that a last resort, Mr. Spock. He’s got enough to deal with right now, I don’t want him bothered with this unless we’ve got no other choice.”

Huh. He grinned a sleepy, affectionate grin, and he allowed himself a moment to just soak it all in—the warmth, the friends, the Enterprise wrapped securely around him. It still seemed almost unreal.

“Agreed, Captain. As the doctor is currently awake, however, and no doubt listening to this conversation, I suspect he is already aware of the possible need for his assistance.”

Darned Vulcan ears.

McCoy pushed back the quilt, then rolled slowly to sit at the edge of the bed. The voices in the outer room stilled, but no one made any move toward the sleeping quarters. McCoy sat for a moment, grateful for the chance to collect himself without an audience, then rose and padded toward the outer room. He was met by two frank gazes, one hazel and one dark, and he lifted an eyebrow in response, folding his arms and leaning against the center partition.

“You two done yapping in here? You could wake the dead, between you.”

Kirk grinned, leaning back in his chair. Spock tilted his head dubiously. “As we had been consulting for 22.6 minutes before you woke, Doctor, I highly doubt that our ‘yapping’ was enough of a disturbance to affect your sleep cycle.” McCoy grinned, and chuckled softly. Even Spock’s usual blasted over-precision was, for the moment, welcome. “I rather suspect that, as the human body is not accustomed to sleeping for 18.3 hours at a time, it was merely—”

“Eighteen hours?” He blinked and looked to Kirk, who nodded confirmation.

“I was going to wake you in a few minutes anyway. M’Benga wants you to eat.” Kirk leaned across the desk and hit the sickbay call button on the side of his console. A female voice answered—Carole DeRosa, McCoy thought—and Kirk informed her that McCoy was awake. She acknowledged, and Kirk thumbed the switch off with his usual heavy-handed enthusiasm. “Someone will bring lunch here for you.”

McCoy’s stomach growled loudly. Yep, he could definitely handle lunch. He drifted away from the partition, noting the crumpled Starfleet-issue blanket hanging over the arm of the couch and another wadded up in the crook. He cast a wry grin at Kirk as he dislodged the blankets, dumped them over the side, and sat.

“Sorry about that.”

“Don’t be.” Kirk stretched carefully. “I’m pretty sure the couch is good for my back, or something. At least, I know I read somewhere that—”

McCoy snorted. “Jim, as your doctor, I can pretty much assure you that there is no Starfleet-issue couch that’s—”

But he wasn’t. Not anymore. He gulped back the rest of the words, and stared for a second, then shook his head and looked away. Kirk rose, quickly.

“Bones?”

McCoy clenched his jaw and drew in a deep breath. He was here. It was more than he had ever expected, or even hoped for. There was no use griping about what he couldn’t get back.

“No, I … Sorry. It’s just gonna take a little while, I guess.”

Kirk strolled toward the couch, settling onto its opposite end. His posture, his expression, might have been casual, except that McCoy knew him too well. “What is?”

McCoy lifted an eyebrow to let Kirk know that he knew what was happening, then leaned back and closed his eyes. He would never complain about the temperature onboard a starship again. “Not bein’ here. Not bein’ …” he gestured a little helplessly, “a part of here. It’s …” He hesitated, not sure he really wanted to get into this.  Still, these were his friends. If he couldn’t say it here, there was nowhere he could say it. “I know—I know—how things are, but it’s just … not that easy to think about somebody else … you know.” He shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Nice, McCoy. Eloquent. Way to jump right in to the thick of things …

“Are you speaking of Dr. Trella, Dr. McCoy?” Spock joined them, standing with his hands folded precisely at the small of his back. McCoy scowled up at him.

“No, I’m talking about Chekov, you green-blooded—”

“She’s resigning, Bones.”

He froze in mid-grumble and gaped at Kirk, his mind spinning.

What?

Jim nodded, locking McCoy’s eyes with his own. McCoy could practically feel the force of Kirk’s telegraphed calm, but it still wasn’t quite sinking in. “Dr. Trella came to see me this morning before alpha shift. She reported that she would be submitting her resignation at the close of this assignment, and that she was open to determining a mutually agreeable time for her transfer.” Kirk smiled, faintly. “I think she was trying to say that if we need her to stay on until you’re ready and certified again, she’s willing to discuss it.”

It was … the last thing he had expected, even during a day (a week? three months?) of routine shocks. For a moment, his brain locked.

“I don’t … Why?” Stupid question. McCoy shook his head, trying to clear it. The action didn’t noticeably help. “Did she just …” He looked up, his gaze hardening. “Did she just assume? Or, Jim …”

“I didn’t say anything,” Kirk defended himself, both hands raised. His grin flashed, but then he shook his head and slowly lowered his hands. “I would have, though.” He forestalled McCoy’s protest. “You’re the CMO of the Enterprise, Bones. She’s here on a six month trial. I don’t—”

“Dr. McCoy.”

Six month trial? Nobody hired a CMO on a trial basis, it was absurd. What was going on around this tin can? He looked toward Spock.

“Dr. Trella is primarily a researcher.”

McCoy squinted around the turmoil and the hunger-induced headache. “Wait. Trella. Diane Trella?” He’d heard the name several times since he’d come on board, but finally his brain was catching up. Spock nodded, and McCoy’s confusion increased—if that was possible. “Is the new CMO?” He swiveled around toward Kirk, who also nodded. “Huh. That’s … I mean, I don’t actually know her, but I guess … it’s not where I really expected her career to go.”

“Indeed.” Spock studied him gravely. “Without betraying a confidence, I believe that Dr. Trella herself would concur.”

“Oh?” Kirk cast a quick glance at his first officer. Apparently, McCoy wasn’t the only one in the dark on this.

“Yes, Captain. The doctor’s reasons for seeking this position were … flawed, and she has only recently become fully cognizant of the fact. When she came aboard, it was without a complete understanding of what the position, the captain, and the crew would demand from her, or that her required response would detract from her primary goals.”

“Primary goals?” Kirk’s brows drew together. “The Enterprise is—”

Spock silenced Kirk with a glance, then returned his attention to McCoy. “Be assured, Doctor, that Dr. Trella would have resigned with or without your presence—or indeed, regardless of whether we had ever come to Charen at all.”

Spock’s version of reassurance, succinct and abrupt as always, both eased McCoy’s mind and left it spinning. His position, his sickbay, was … still his. He wouldn’t be forced to leave the Enterprise—his home, his friends and family …

“Bones?”

He jerked his head around—no, up. (Up?) Kirk had inched closer and was surveying him with troubled eyes. McCoy glanced down, frowning at his drawn-up knees, at Jim’s hand on his wrist. His vision was blurred, and when he rubbed at his eyes his fingers came away wet.

Get a hold of yourself, McCoy …

He extracted himself from Kirk’s grasp and eased his feet back on the floor. “I’m all right. No,” he cut off Kirk. “I’m okay, Jim.” McCoy took a long, deep breath, and blew it out slowly. The door chime cut off any response. Kirk hesitated, then went to answer it. McCoy looked around. “I, uh … thanks, Spock.”

“Indeed, Doctor,” Spock acknowledged, stepping back adroitly as Nurse Clayton hurried by with a covered tray. “However, might I point out that one does not—”

Don’t say it!” McCoy snorted, waving off the inevitable. “I’ve had enough of Vulcan logic lately to last a lifetime.” And that wasn’t even the half of it. He wasn’t ready to go into that yet, though. Instead, he eyed the tray that Mary was settling onto Kirk’s desk and wondered what was beneath the white covering. His stomach growled again. “I’m not thanking logic, I’m thanking you.”

Spock’s eyebrow crept up, slowly. “Indeed. In that case, you are … most welcome, Doctor.”

Thank you!” McCoy turned to Clayton, who had produced a scanner and was running it over and around him. “Well, darlin’, what’s the verdict?”

She smiled at him, clicking it off. “Better, Doctor. Still low on potassium and iron, but your blood volume and blood sugar have risen well, and your body temperature is back to normal.” She dug in her pocket. “I have a nice hypo here for you, all the good stuff.” She grinned as she set the dose, and McCoy tilted his head, grumbling, to give her a good shot at his neck. “Eat everything if you can, Doctor,” she nodded toward the tray, “and let someone know when it’s ready for pick-up.”

McCoy nodded, rising to make his way across to the desk. “Thank you, Nurse.”

“You’re quite welcome, Doctor.” She smiled again, pressed his elbow, and disappeared back into the hall. McCoy dug into the tray.

Lunch turned out to be a chicken-based broth with noodles, a good-sized roll, applesauce, and a tall carafe of water—probably all bulked up with protein, iron, and potassium. McCoy scowled at the offering, brought it back to the couch, and settled in. “All this time, and my first meal back is infant food.”

“You can’t really complain, Bones. How many times have you forced—”

“It’s not the same!”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s just not!”

McCoy ate a spoonful of soup, and the flavor exploded in his mouth. He closed his eyes, savoring. Apparently, routine exposure to Romulan dietary rations could make even sickbay food taste like ambrosia. The soup warmed him on the way down, the roll was soft and actually came with a little pat of butter, and someone had sprinkled cinnamon on top of the applesauce. It was simple, bland fare, but at the moment it was also the best meal he had ever eaten. Like heaven. He downed a long glass of clear, cool water, and as he finished the soup and the roll, Kirk stood and drifted back to his desk.

“Sit down, Spock.” McCoy set his tray on the deck beside the couch. “You’re looming.”

Spock quirked an eyebrow, but went obediently to collect the desk chair. Kirk, who had been rummaging in a bottom drawer, came up with three glasses and a three-fourths empty bottle of Saurian brandy. Behind the desk, Spock froze. The dark eyes flickered a question at Kirk. Jim’s smile was both melancholy and wry.

“You thought I finished it, didn’t you?”

“I …” Incredibly, Spock hesitated over the words. “I did, Jim.”

Huh. What was this? McCoy eyed the bottle, wondering about its significance—because it obviously meant something to his friends. Before he could ask, Kirk handed a glass to Spock, then crossed the room and gave one to McCoy as well. He poured a generous amount for McCoy, another for Spock (here McCoy lifted an eyebrow, but the Vulcan merely avoided his gaze and settled into the appropriated desk chair), and upended the rest into his own glass. Kirk reclaimed his end of the couch, held his glass up to the light, and studied it for a long moment. Finally, he offered another ironic grin.

“So, Bones. This is the bottle that Spock and I shared in your office the night you died.”

Oh.

McCoy looked down at the dark, rich liquid, and had no idea what to say.

“Spock appropriated it from your room before they started packing.”

Spock?” McCoy laughed, startled, and cast an approving grin toward the Vulcan. “Spock, you might start to loosen up if you’re not careful.”

“I assure you, Doctor, it was a single-time endeavor. Exposure to the black hole that was your quarters has quite inured me to any repeat performance.”

It was good, so good, to be here among friends.

McCoy snorted another laugh, feeling a little giddy, and Kirk joined him. “In any case.” The captain swirled his glass gently. “Seems like this is a good way to finish it off.” Kirk laughed again, absently. “Far better than the way we started it.”

Spock lifted a wry eyebrow. “Indeed.”

McCoy thought of his own circumstances that night—of all the fear and rage and pain of more than a dozen prisoners crowded into a tiny Chareni holding cell—and just managed to hold back a shudder. “You’ll get no argument from me.”

“Bones.” Kirk held out his glass, hesitated, then simply shrugged, his voice suspiciously husky. “It’s really good to see you again.”

McCoy nodded, slowly. “It’s really good to be here, Jim.”

They drank together, a healthy gulp each, and then, almost as one, settled back into their respective seats. McCoy sat in silence for a moment, then took another drink and leaned forward again. There was a lot to do—too much to just sit here doing nothing.

“So, where are we with my formula? Have you been able to recover any of it?”

Kirk shook his head. “Bones …”

“It’s time critical, Jim,” McCoy him off. “The longer we spend looking for data that may or may not exist anymore, the longer the power will be out and the more people will die.” Kirk’s jaw clenched. McCoy read his frustration, but getting Charen’s power up and running was more important than Jim’s overprotective captain instincts. “You know that.” When Kirk remained silent, McCoy looked around toward Spock. “Well? What about it?”

Spock paused, glancing at Kirk, then straightened and set his glass aside. “We have not. Other than your word, and that of the Vulcan captives, there is no evidence that such data ever existed.”

The Vulcans. McCoy had been able to speak to a few of them in sickbay the day before—Skanet and T’Vel and T’Lir. T’Pana and Salin were both in healing trances, begun before he had returned to the ship. Logic. He suppressed a grumble. Logic dictated, of course, that the rescue mission would proceed in the same fashion regardless of whether Salin and T’Pana were alert or in trance, and therefore it made sense to proceed with their healing as soon as possible. McCoy had been … disappointed, though, when he realized that their reunion would have to wait. He was glad that his friends were finally able to take the time to heal, of course, but he hoped they didn’t take too long—they had a lot of catching up, the three of them.

“Blasted UyaVeth.” He rubbed at his half-grown beard, then turned his thoughts firmly away from the Supervisor. That was yet another topic for which he wasn’t ready. “All right. The components are fairly straightforward, and there aren’t too many. I kept things as simple as possible, given what I had to work with. Give me some time in a lab with a computer, and I can hopefully replicate the formula. The sequences might take a little longer, but—”

“All right.” Kirk, it seemed, had finally accepted the situation for what it was. “Fine. We’ll set the two of you up in Lab 4—if M’Benga doesn’t have any objections.”

McCoy crossed his arms. “Jim, I’m perfectly—”

If M’Benga doesn’t have any objections.” McCoy grumbled, but nodded reluctantly. It was, he supposed, the right way to do things, since he technically wasn’t in charge of his own case at the moment. That was a situation he would have to remedy sooner rather than later, if Kirk planned to keep waving it in front of him. “Get it worked out, and Spock will take it to the Chareni engineers to get it started on—”

There it was. “It’ll be easier if I have access to their equipment myself.”

“No.”

Kirk’s voice was solid, firm. McCoy shook his head. “Jim, I don’t—”

“You’re not going back down there.”

“Captain …”

“It’s not just you, Bones. None of the prisoners are cleared to—”

“Jim!” McCoy stopped, and drew a long breath. He was reluctant to begin this particular conversation. Knowing Kirk, though, he would need to be convincing. “I don’t … remember doing most of the work on this. I was … tired, and stressed, and cold, and just … not in very good shape. And I knew that if it worked, I was signing all of our death certificates.” The silence in the room was profound. McCoy drained his drink, and gripped the empty glass tightly. “So, yeah. If I have a chance to work with the equipment I used the first time, the equipment they’re going to use to implement the new process … things will go faster.”

He felt the weight of their stares, and wished his glass wasn’t empty.

“I don’t like it.”

“I know you don’t, Jim.”

“Bones, if you were your patient, what would you say to me about this?”

McCoy had no response to that. They both knew what his reaction would have been, faced with this kind of insanity.

“Captain.” Spock’s calm voice was, for once, a welcome relief. “Given the gravity of the situation, I would recommend that we allow Dr. McCoy access to the Chareni staff and facilities.”

Kirk grimaced. “Spock—”

“I shall personally be with him the entire time, sir. He will not at any point be alone with—”

“You bet he won’t.”

McCoy exchanged an uneasy glance with Spock. Somehow, he wouldn’t be surprised if Kirk himself was there, breathing down his neck the entire time …

“Jim.” Spock’s tone never changed, but he radiated that peculiar intensity that only Vulcans seemed to manage. “You know that neither Dr. McCoy nor I would suggest such an action unless we felt it was both necessary and the most logical course of—”

“Don’t drag me into your logic, Spock.”

“Doctor. I am supporting your argument. I would assume that you would—”

“Spock.” Kirk sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. Admittedly, McCoy understood Jim’s reluctance—both as his captain and as his friend. It was a difficult decision, with no right answer.

He had a lot of experience with that sort of thing, lately.

“All right.” Kirk shook his head. “I will talk to M’Benga. If he clears you, we will set something up.” McCoy started to nod, and Kirk speared him with a hard gaze. “Bones, if he says no, I’m not in any mood to argue with him. You’ve been held hostage for—”

“I know where I’ve been, Jim,” McCoy snapped, and regretted it immediately. He was still tired, even after eighteen hours of sleep. “Sorry.” It would probably take a whole lot more before he finally felt like himself again. He massaged the back of his neck, holding up his glass. “You got any more?”

Kirk nodded, drained his own glass, and went to find another bottle. He filled them both up, then sat heavily back on the couch. They drank in silence for a long moment. McCoy was considering closing his eyes again when Kirk blurted, “What did you mean, you spent two weeks in solitary?”

Crap.

Well … he was going to have to talk about it at some point.

“Sorry, Bones.” Jim’s voice had reverted to barely more than a whisper. The hazel eyes were fixed firmly on the far wall. “That wasn’t fair. You don’t have to—”

“They already knew how to do it.” Kirk’s gaze flickered toward him, and Spock stilled. “I just … it was the only way I knew to stop it. To just …” McCoy rolled the glass slowly between his palms. “To end it. I asked permission from the Vulcans and the Romulans, before I talked to UyaVeth. I couldn’t … it wasn’t just me that was going to die, once they didn’t need the blood anymore. I couldn’t ask the Rigelians, but …” He needed another drink. The brandy was going down way too easy—it had been far too long since he’d had any alcohol. Kirk poured him another without comment or even expression. “I showed UyaVeth what I’d done, and I gave him my data, and he told me they’d been able to do it for twenty years but it cost too much to implement.”

Kirk closed his eyes, pressing his glass against his forehead.

“And then he said that wasn’t my job, that I’d been wasting my time, and that I needed a while to think about my, uh … my real work.” He barely recognized his own voice, so twisted with sarcasm and bitterness. It was still a difficult memory, weeks later. “And he beamed out my tables and equipment, and he left, and no one came back for two weeks. It was …” This time, he couldn’t stop the shudder. It shook the entire couch, and Kirk’s hand closed on McCoy’s shoulder before he had fully stilled. McCoy patted it, laughing softly. “It was a long time with nothing to do and no one to talk to. And a lot of blue light.”

Kirk squeezed hard, once. “We saw your lab.”

McCoy looked around. “You did? When?”

“While we were securing the Vulcans and Romulans. UyaVeth took us by, he wanted to … rub it in my face, I guess.”

“Huh. Sounds like him, all right.”

“Rashall UyaVeth was a … highly unpleasant individual.”

McCoy snorted. “He was that, Spock.” He rubbed his thumb along the glass rim, lost in the memory. “He was definitely that.”

A buzz was beginning to settle, pleasant after so long without any defense against his memories or his surroundings. He was warm, and full, and safe, here with the friends he had never expected to see again. McCoy stretched out his legs and rested his head back against the couch.

“So, what’s been going on here? I see the two of you haven’t managed to get yourselves killed yet.”

Kirk grinned. “Not quite.”

“Indeed.” Spock’s head tilt was as close to a shrug as a Vulcan ever came. “The required effort for such an endeavor was far less gratifying in the absence of your usual highly illogical stream of protestations.”

McCoy’s head came off the couch. “Did you just say that it was less fun to try and get yourself killed because I wasn’t there to yell at you for it?” He looked around to their captain, who had suddenly attempted to swallow and inhale a gulp of brandy all at once. “You gonna be all right, Jim?”

“Yeah.” Kirk coughed a few more times. “I, uh … that was surprisingly accurate, Bones.”

McCoy started to toss his hands in the air, but remembered at the last minute that he was holding a glass of brandy. Faced with spilling it or emptying its contents before such a tragedy could occur, he opted for the latter. “You’re both insane. I don’t know why I even bother.”

“Hard to say.” Jim refilled him without even asking. McCoy slouched back into the couch, utterly content for the first time in months, and Kirk topped off his own glass. “What else has been going on, Spock? The mining explosion. And we took Ambassador Calluman to Andoria last month, that was … not fun.”

“You never have fun with ambassadors, Jim.”

“True, Doctor.” Spock’s voice was dry. “However, in this particular instance the captain’s words are more a statement of fact than of complaint.”

“What? You didn’t have fun, Spock?”

“As you are perfectly aware, I do not have fun. It was, however … an unfortunate assignment.”

“Good.” McCoy closed his eyes. “Let’s have it. I could use a good laugh.”

“I believe you will find, Doctor, that this tale will more than suffice.”

*****

Chapter 21

The door to McCoy’s guest quarters slid open after the second chime, just as Spock was considering whether he should try a third. He did not wish to do so—given recent events and their current endeavor, he was reluctant to be seen as exerting any overt pressure, for whatever reason—and he was pleased when the decision was removed from his hands. He was still uncertain what to expect from McCoy in the coming days—and whether, indeed, they were right to expect anything at all.

It was true that the situation on Charen was grave, and that McCoy himself was determined to follow through with his plan to redevelop the synthetic power formula. Indeed, without those two factors Kirk would never have agreed to allow the doctor back on the planet, no matter that McCoy was their best and perhaps only chance of a quick resolution. They had very little other option, however, other than to allow the deaths of thousands of Chareni—which, in the end, was not an option. Both the captain and the doctor realized that, and both were behaving, for a change, in a rational, logical manner.

There had been little opportunity, though, in the 42.7 hours since McCoy’s return to probe his mental state, and the question of his possible reaction upon returning to Charen, working with the Chareni, or the combination of both was still very much an open one. M’Benga had spoken with McCoy privately for over an hour before giving his reluctant consent to the project.

He’s very aware that he’ll be working with Chareni engineers on the surface. He’s also very aware that not all Chareni are the same—he had a few decent experiences with some of the general population during the time that he was on the run. Consciously, he’s got no problem with any of it.”

Kirk crossed his arms. “Consciously?”

M’Benga hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Yes, Captain. Even with all of that, I really can’t say what’s going to happen when he actually gets down there. I just haven’t had long enough to sound him out. If it was anyone else, and any other circumstances—if there was any less at stake—I’d say absolutely not.” He sighed, unhappy. “As it is …” He shook his head. “I don’t recommend that he be left alone with any Chareni at any time.”

He won’t be.” Kirk’s frown was dark, and Spock repressed a sigh. It was quite possible that, given the circumstances, the captain would insist on accompanying them. An agitated Jim Kirk, pacing a science lab and snapping at various team members for little discernible reason, would do nothing to speed the process. He might, in fact, slow their efforts. Spock had already been considering ploys to keep the captain on the ship, and this type of reaction only confirmed that necessity.

Then, just keep an eye on him. If anything seems out of order, don’t ignore it.”

We won’t. Thank you, Doctor.”

Spock quickly scanned McCoy now as the doctor joined him in the hall, taking in the bony frame in the fresh uniform, the trimmed hair and beard. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of the remaining facial hair, and McCoy grunted, catching the gist of his unspoken comment.

“Thought I’d hang onto it until I put a little bit of weight back on.”

Ah. Aesthetically motivated, then. Spock spared a moment to wonder over the human obsession with personal appearance—though admittedly, some Vulcans of his acquaintance had been known to preen far more obviously than any human he had met—and moved on. He hesitated at the sight of the doctor’s red-rimmed eyes. It did not seem the red of fatigue. No, this was something else …

“Are you well?”

“What?” McCoy frowned, then muttered an invective and scrubbed at his eyes. “Blast it. No, I’m fine, it’s just … Joanna sent a message, it got here about fifteen minutes ago. She bawled the entire way through it, set me off, too.” He looked away, clearly embarrassed. Spock hesitated then looked aside, as well, to offer McCoy some relative privacy.

“The cause was sufficient, Doctor.”

McCoy flashed him a brief grin, then returned his attention to the corridor before them. “So, everything set up?”

“Affirmative. All of the components that you requested, as well as a sample of the current energy compound.” He folded his hands behind him, grateful for the subject change. “Minister Dalir was most reluctant to part with even a fraction of their remaining energy source.”

McCoy shrugged. “I get that, but I can’t help it. We need something to work from. If they want somebody else to do it …”

“Indeed. The Minister was eventually convinced of the logic of your requirement, particularly given that such a small quantity would offer very little additional power, in the end.”

McCoy nodded, hunched his shoulders, and fell silent. Spock eyed him briefly—a moment too long, apparently. As he began to look away, McCoy snorted softly.

“I’m not seconds away from falling apart, Spock.”

Spock dipped his head, an acknowledgement of both McCoy’s words and that he had, indeed, been caught in observation. “You will admit, Doctor, that the situation requires close monitoring, regardless of how you may personally … feel, at the moment.” McCoy’s jaw jutted stubbornly. “Use your training as a physician, rather than your very illogical human—”

“I’m sick of logic,” McCoy snarled, turning on him. Spock halted, somewhat startled by the doctor’s sudden vehemence. “I’ve been nothing but logical for months, I stopped and thought everything out before I did it. I was terrified, and … pissed off, and hopeless, and I took all of that and I shoved it down and I ignored it every time it poked its head out, because it was tearing me apart. I couldn’t think around it, I couldn’t breathe around it.” He stepped closer, jabbing a finger at Spock’s chest. “And every time I made that decision, I thought about how you would laugh if you could see me now.” McCoy took a long breath, then shook his head. “So don’t throw logic at me right now, Spock, I’m in no mood to listen.”

Fortunately, the corridor was at the moment clear of other personnel. The silence was tense, profound. McCoy’s frustration and anger were nearly tangible, even without any manner of telepathic sensitivity. And then, suddenly, McCoy shook his head and looked away. His entire frame slumped, and he made as though to shove his hands into pockets that didn’t exist.

“Look, Spock, I—”

“Have you ever seen me laugh, Doctor?”

McCoy blinked, and a faint glimmer entered the blue eyes. “Well now …”

“When not under the manipulation of some outside influence?”

The soft chuckle barely reached his ears, more a sigh than a laugh. “No, Spock. I most definitely have not.”

“Indeed.”

Spock was reminded, suddenly, of his overwhelming shame at the bottom of the mining shaft on Dena VII, in the sickbay afterward, facing Kirk in the captain’s quarters. The results of his brief lapse into impulsivity and illogic had proven positive, but he had betrayed himself—his chosen path, his years of discipline. He had given in to something that he was not, and he doubted that he would ever think of those two miners, or indeed of Dena VII itself, without some twinge of unease.

It was ironic to think that perhaps McCoy felt something similar regarding his adherence to logic during his captivity on Charen—the very opposite of Spock’s own regrets. Ironic, and yet … inevitable. Despite shared friends, shared experiences, shared goals, the two of them remained polar opposites. What one prized, the other rebuffed. It was their way, and it had always been so.

Very likely, it always would be.

The familiarity was … comforting, even in its irony.

“You know what, never mind.” McCoy’s voice jolted him out of his reverie. The doctor’s smile seemed forced, bitter even, and Spock reminded himself that Leonard McCoy had not yet had time to gain perspective on his own actions. Whatever that perspective might be. “Maybe I am seconds away from—”

“Doctor McCoy.” Spock weighed his words, parting with them reluctantly. It was not a topic he wished to discuss … and yet, it seemed only right. Only fair, a human might say. “There are even now two miners recovering in the infirmary at the platinum mines on Dena VII who are only alive as a direct result of your … illogical influence.” McCoy’s eyebrow shot up. Spock continued. “I am not, perhaps, proud of my actions, but I do not regret their lives.” He tilted his head. “Perhaps you would care to hear of them, when an available opportunity presents itself.”

McCoy gaped for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, Spock.” His voice was thick, and he cleared his throat before continuing. “I’d … I’d like that. Thanks.”

Spock offered a tiny bow of acknowledgement, then motioned up the corridor. “I believe our presence is awaited on the surface.”

“Right.” McCoy turned quickly—as ready as Spock, possibly, to be done with this foray into introspection—and they completed the walk in silence.

Lieutenants Lincoln and Garrovick were waiting with Kyle in an otherwise empty transporter room. McCoy lifted an eyebrow and looked toward Spock as the doors swished shut behind them. Spock merely returned the expression, rounding the control panel to verify coordinates. “Doctor, you surely expected that we would implement some manner of security measures while on the planet.”

“Yeah, of course.” McCoy eyed the rest of the room. “You’re telling me Jim’s not going to insist on being part of that, though?”

Spock hesitated. He hadn’t considered the doctor’s wishes in this matter. “Do you …wish Captain Kirk to be present? I’m certain that he—”

“Good grief, no!” McCoy snorted. The sound was echoed by soft laughter from both Lincoln and Garrovick. Only Kyle remained silent, inputting coordinates into the transporter controls. “Can you see him cooped up in a lab all day, surrounded by Chareni? Talk about asking for trouble …”

“Indeed.” Spock nodded to Kyle, then swung up onto the platform. “You surmise correctly. The captain will not, in fact, accompany us.”

“Impressive.” McCoy joined him. Lincoln and Garrovick took up position on the rear pads. “How did you manage that?”

A twenty-minute argument and a stern talking-to regarding Kirk’s shipboard obligations and the necessity for complete concentration in the laboratory had figured prominently in the discussion. It was not something to which Spock was prepared to admit. “The captain has multiple obligations, both diplomatic and preparatory, to oversee aboard the Enterprise. While his desire is, of course, to attend this landing party, he recognizes that his time is better spent at those endeavors.”

“Huh.” McCoy crossed his arms, as the transporter effect took them. “If you say so.”

The presence of two Chareni engineers at the transport site when they rematerialized diverted the doctor from his line of questioning, and Spock was grateful. While he shared McCoy’s … amusement, regarding Kirk’s general impatience and his need for constant physical movement even in very small spaces, overriding the captain’s wishes—for whatever reason—was not the most desirable part of his duties as first officer. He was ready to abandon this discussion and begin with their current project. He himself had studied Dr. Trella’s analysis of the energy compound, and he felt that he knew the direction McCoy would take to begin the research. He was most curious to determine if his expectations would indeed prove accurate.

“Greetings.” The male stepped forward. “I am Dr. Tanin Roghir, this is my colleague Dr. Showna Cafin.” He motioned toward a shorter, younger female Chareni. She offered an intricate type of formal nod, her attention already fixed upon McCoy. It was to be expected, Spock supposed—but still, it would be best to avoid as much awkward downtime as possible. He stepped forward.

“Doctors. I am Commander Spock, first officer of the Enterprise. This is Dr. Leonard McCoy, these are Lieutenants Garrovick and Lincoln.”

“Welcome.” Cafin uttered a short, soft whine, then addressed McCoy. “Dr. McCoy, we are so very grateful for your offer of aid, especially given all that you have suffered here. Please accept our apologies, and our gratitude.”

It was rehearsed, but the sentiments seemed genuine as well. Spock cast a glance toward McCoy, alert as he had been instructed for any manner of distress in the doctor’s response, but McCoy only nodded. “I’m a doctor, ma’am. I’m not in the habit of letting people die if I can prevent it.”

“Very good.” Roghir nodded, motioning them toward the doorway. Lincoln and Garrovick fell in behind as the scientists grouped together, discussing the progress that the Chareni engineers had made to this current point. “Given that this project is of the highest priority, we have gathered the most capable engineers on the planet into the …” Roghir hesitated, but McCoy growled softly.

“The central power plant for your secondary continent. I know where we are, man, there’s no need to tiptoe around it. Just get on with things, and let my keepers here,” he jerked a thumb back toward the security officers, “worry about me.”

Roghir glanced back to Lincoln and Garrovick, who steadily returned the practiced non-expression of seasoned security officers. The Chareni took a long breath, then turned back to McCoy and Spock. “As you wish. We have gathered in the power plant, given the high quality of the laboratories here and the close access to our power equipment. The engineers ….” Again, he hesitated. Cafin uttered another whine, this one of impatience, and took up the thread of the briefing.

“Doctor, given the urgency of the situation, I regret that we have several engineers among our group who have worked in power processing for some time, and were more than aware of our true power source. None were stationed on the primary continent, they should not be familiar to you. Their expertise lends value to this undertaking, however, if you wish them dismissed, we—”

“No need.” McCoy shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. What matters is that we get this thing up and running as soon as possible. It makes no never-mind who actually develops the final breakthrough, we would be stupid not to use the best resources available.”

She nodded, satisfied. “Very good, Doctor.”

They reached a set of low double doors, which Roghir opened. Spock followed the Chareni and McCoy inside, glancing back at the security officers as they entered. Garrovick caught his gaze and nodded, then slipped along with Lincoln to stand behind McCoy. The doctor looked around at them, lifted an eyebrow at Spock—no doubt impressing upon the first officer that he knew exactly what was going on—then returned his attention to the gathered Chareni engineers. His expression was carefully blank; Spock was unable to read either ease or disquiet there. However, emotions were not Spock’s specialty, and not his function here. In a few very short minutes he would be immersed in research, unable to pay any manner of attention to the doctor other than the odd glance or check-in. It was Lincoln and Garrovick’s purpose here to remain vigilant for trouble. He would trust them to alert him if any issue required addressing. Otherwise, a great deal of work remained to be accomplished.

Roghir introduced the Enterprise staff, then stepped back and offered the floor to McCoy. With the weight of eight pairs of brown, tan, and gray eyes affixed to him, the doctor rubbed his hands together and blew out a long, deep breath. For the first time, he seemed openly nervous. It was expected and understandable. Spock remained silent—it was very likely that he would find himself on the receiving end of a torrent of southern ire if he attempted to step in. After a moment McCoy nodded, as if to himself, then spoke.

“All right, everybody. Why don’t you tell me who’s been working on what, here?”

Once in motion, things fell quickly into place. Having determined the specialties and experience of the engineers present, McCoy divided them into three groups.

“You,” he motioned to four Chareni, including both Roghir and Cafin. “Continue on with the base development. Your work so far on your existing base is good, keep using it, but the calcium component will destroy the synthetic energy molecules that we’re going to be developing. I used copper instead, since it’s what I had to work with, but it muddies the water a little, given the composition of the power molecule. Makes things less efficient. Try a few other minerals, whatever we’ve got on hand. Nothing that will bind with copper, though. Create samples with all of it, and we’ll test the whole shebang when we’re farther along.”

It was, Spock thought, highly doubtful that the Chareni engineers were familiar with the doctor’s colorful vernacular. To their credit, however, they simply nodded and disappeared into the rear of the lab. McCoy turned to Spock and two of the remaining Chareni.

“We need a carrier molecule.” McCoy’s direction and division of labor were, then, as Spock had anticipated. He permitted a tiny mental nod of satisfaction. “No bigger than a copper blood cell, preferably sickle-shaped. That structure seems to actually aid the process. Something that will bind with—”

“Copper?”

McCoy blinked, and snorted a laugh. “Only logical?”

“Indeed, Doctor.”

“What are you even standing around here for, then?” McCoy shook his head and shooed them toward the empty computer bank against the far wall. “Go. Get to it.”

Spock tilted an exaggerated nod, gathered his collaborators, and left McCoy and his own Chareni partners to the most difficult piece of their combined task—synthesizing the synthetic energy molecule itself.

The task with which Spock and his team found themselves was not difficult, but it was time consuming, given the number of possible variations, and it required a close eye. When thirty minutes of surreptitious surveillance did not reveal any developing concerns regarding McCoy and his team, Spock abandoned any attempt to divide his attention and focused solely on the problem before them. He and his colleagues soon worked out an efficient process, and within an hour, computerized simulations were beginning to produce the desired data. The testing that followed was repetitive and would, Spock supposed, have been mind-numbing if not for his well-honed Vulcan ability to shun such creeping distraction. His Chareni associates were not as successful; however, their dedication despite the nature of the work was admirable, and Spock found himself favorably impressed. The Chareni engineers—these, at least—were indeed highly skilled and professional.

They were 5.7 hours in, and had tested and discarded nearly one-fourth of their listed variations, when a ruckus erupted across the room—a jarring crash and the babble of overlapping voices. Spock spun around in time to see Lieutenant Lincoln slam one of McCoy’s Chareni partners back against the wall. Garrovick dove into the mix, grabbed Lincoln from behind, and attempted to pull her away from the struggling engineer.

“Lincoln, stand down!” He hauled her bodily back, swearing as one of her feet came into contact with his shin. “Tara, stop it!”

Lincoln went limp, and Garrovick dropped her unceremoniously back onto her own feet. She pulled away, glared at him, then turned her snarl back on the Chareni. “He came back down here to help you, you ungrateful, selfish, misbegotten son of a—”

“Lieutenant!” Spock reached them and stepped between the combatants—or, perhaps more accurately, between Lieutenant Lincoln and her prey. He looked toward Garrovick. “Report.”

All three attempted to speak at once.

“Sir—”

“Mr. Spock—”

“This woman—”

“Desist!” Spock looked again toward Garrovick, but found in the frozen eyes and clenched jaw an anger mirroring Lincoln’s own. Neither, it seemed, would be an unbiased source of information. Roghir and Cafin arrived and began to demand answers, followed in ragged succession by the other Chareni engineers. Spock took advantage of the distraction to survey McCoy. The doctor had stepped back from the commotion, outside the buzzing circle of confused Chareni and angry security officers. His face was white, and the blue eyes were hard. His lips were pressed so tightly that the color had left them. A twinge of unease stirred. This was … profoundly uncharacteristic. Leonard McCoy was not known to be silent in the face of anger. No, when the doctor was angry, everyone in the sector knew about it. Spock funneled away the unease, but began a slow circle around the tight-packed group that would lead him to a position near McCoy.

Roghir looked to the engineer standing against the wall. “Talimar, what happened?”

The pale tan Chareni growled. “He is wasting our time! He—”

McCoy stirred abruptly, and Lincoln snapped, “That’s not true! You don’t know—”

You are not even a—”

“Enough!” Cafin peered around the gathered figures, then motioned abruptly to McCoy’s other partner, a willowy mahogany-colored Chareni. “Nerin! What happened?” Roghir stepped back, relieved to hand over control to his colleague, and Nerin took his abandoned place beside Cafin.

“Talimar.” The dark eyes flickered toward the Chareni in question, and a rumble built in her chest. “He became impatient with the process.” Talimar growled, but Nerin ignored him and continued. “Dr. McCoy asked us to rerun a scenario which we had viewed three times already. He is convinced that particular sequence holds the key, although none of the previous simulations have functioned properly. Talimar objected to the repetition. Dr. McCoy insisted, and—”

“He is wasting—”

“Silence!” Cafin snarled, then looked back to Nerin. “Continue.”

She nodded. “Talimar then proclaimed that it was madness in any case to place our hopes in the hands of the very one who had destroyed so much of our world with his own blood, that we were foolish to trust McCoy, and that such repetitions were simply an attempt to—”

It was quite fortunate that Kirk was not in attendance.

Thank you, Nerin.” Roghir cut her off as McCoy shifted again, and a low muttering spread through the ranks of the listening Chareni. The engineer-in-charge looked toward Talimar. “You are dismissed.”

Talimar pushed away from the wall, into Roghir’s face. “He destroyed our—”

“He was attacked and—” Lincoln shoved forward, and Garrovick grabbed at her again.

Go, Talimar!” Cafin shoved in front of Roghir, growling up at Talimar. “Before we are forced to call security and have you removed!”

For a long, tense moment nothing happened. Then, Talimar shook his head and stalked toward the doorway, snarling beneath his breath. Roghir sighed, visibly relieved, as the door slammed behind him. “Commander Spock.  Please accept our deepest apologies. We are … I’m certain you understand, this is not an easy or a straightforward time for us. Our planet is rife with anger and dissension over all that has happened, and although it is abundantly obviously that neither Dr. McCoy nor the Federation is responsible, there are some who—”

“It was not I who was insulted,” Spock pointed out quietly, when it became obvious that Roghir had no intentions of facing McCoy directly.

Roghir fumbled his words, and looked down. Cafin uttered an impatient whine.

“Dr. McCoy.” She fixed her gaze on McCoy. “Talimar was misguided and incorrect. We understand that you have been through much, and we are profoundly grateful for your assistance here.” Cafin pushed her way through the gathered crowd. From the corner of his eye, Spock saw the doctor drift back as she approached, maintaining a distance of approximately five feet. Fortunately, the Chareni was too intent upon her apology to notice. “You have our deepest apologies.”

McCoy forced a grin and nodded. “Of course, it’s … I understand.” He shrugged carelessly, folding his hands behind his back. “Doesn’t matter.”

It was time to end this. Although he was certain that McCoy’s movement away from Cafin—indeed, his entire unusual reaction to the altercation—had been unconscious, the doctor was obviously stressed. M’Benga had been very specific about such a possibility. At the first overt sign, Spock was to return McCoy to the ship. The power research being now well underway, he was certain that it would continue smoothly without McCoy’s direct administration. There was no good reason to disobey M’Benga’s directives. Spock stepped to McCoy’s side, nodding to Cafin. “Doctor, if you would excuse us for a moment.”

Cafin nodded. “Of course. We will …” A quick survey of the room showed that many of the engineers had already returned to their workstations. “Very good.” She nodded, satisfied. “We will continue.” Cafin dipped her head briefly to McCoy, then moved off to speak with Nerin, who was now alone at her station.

McCoy shook his head before Spock could speak.

“Look, I know Jim’s got you on high alert, but I’m fine. It was just a—”

“Doctor, I believe that you should return to the Enterprise.

“And I believe that you’re insane, Mr. Spock.” McCoy shook his head, starting away. Spock circled around to block him, and McCoy halted, scowling dangerously. “Look, we’re not finished here. There’s no way I’m gonna—”

“We are far enough along that the general principles are clear to the rest of us. Your direct presence is no longer essential to the—”

“With Talimar gone, if I go too that leaves Nerin on her own. I don’t want to—”

“I shall join her. The work on the carrier molecule is proceeding as expected, it will not suffer for my removal to another project.”

“Spock …”

“I am certain that she will be able to explain the basics of your development plan, as well as the reasoning behind your desire to return to the scenario in question.”

Spock …”

“A fresh set of eyes is often advantageous. You know this as well as—”

“You’re not listening to—”

“And you, Doctor, are not listening to me.” Spock folded his hands behind his back, assuming his most implacable expression. “You will return to the Enterprise.”

McCoy’s jaw jutted, and his eyes flashed. This, unfortunately, was the reaction to which Spock was accustomed. He shifted to the next logical step.

“Dr. McCoy. If you return now, with no further argument, I shall not be disposed to disclose the events of this afternoon to Dr. M’Benga.” M’Benga had, after all, quite enough other data with which to work, and if this produced the desired result …

McCoy, obviously expecting something else, pulled up short. He eyed Spock, and a faint grin began to form. “Bribery, Mr. Spock?”

Spock allowed no expression of any sort. “As you choose.”

“Huh.” McCoy stood for a long moment, staring blankly at the far wall, and then, suddenly, shrugged and sighed deeply. “Fine.” He looked down and rubbed at the back of his neck. “I am kinda tired.”

McCoy must be exhausted, indeed, to admit as much. Spock hesitated, somewhat uncertain how to respond to such an unfamiliar admission, then simply motioned for Garrovick and Lincoln. The Security officers joined them from across the room.

“Lieutenant Lincoln.” Spock faced the Security second in command. “Dr. McCoy is returning to the ship. Please accompany him.”

“Aye, sir.” Lincoln hesitated. Her expression was a mixture of frustration and repentance. “Sir … my actions. I’m sorry if they cause any—”

“I do not expect repercussions from this event, Lieutenant, unless Engineer Talimar himself chooses to draw attention to it. While I cannot speculate on whether he will do so, and while I suspect that there are indeed those who would agree with his views, even then I do not believe that he will gain much support of consequence should he choose to make his opinions known. Do not be concerned on that account. Chief Giotto will be informed, of course. He shall handle any reprimands as he sees fit; I will, however, not recommend one as such.”

Lincoln nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

McCoy echoed her sentiments, muttering, “Thanks, Spock. She was just—”

“I understand, Doctor.” Spock motioned to the door. “I suggest you proceed. I will inform Engineers Roghir and Cafin of your departure.”

“All right, but hang on a minute.” McCoy moved away, back toward his workstation. He pulled Nerin aside and spoke briefly. She glanced toward Spock, then looked down at McCoy, nodded, and spoke, pressing his shoulder. McCoy smiled faintly. Spock watched, contemplating Roghir’s words.

Dissension and unrest. Anger and blame. Guilt. These were all to be expected. Much of it would be, as they had seen, misdirected and illogical. Such was generally the way of things when a people was faced with such horrors in its midst. Most could not learn such a truth without some sort of protest—some period of denial. And yet there was much to accomplish, both in the coming days and in the long-term, and many different factors in play. He wondered how strongly the Chareni turmoil would affect the negotiations, the collaborations that must still take place. The rebuilding of the northern continent and the Chareni society at large. Only time would tell, but he suspected that his father, the Rigelian ambassador, the Chareni delegates, and indeed any gathered around the table would meet with quite the challenge, here in orbit above Charen.

McCoy reached up and clasped Nerin’s hand with his own. Then he turned, nodded to Spock, caught Lincoln’s eye, and headed for the door. Lincoln hurried after him, one hand gripping at the hilt of her phaser.

Indeed, the distrust on all sides ran deep.

Spock watched them disappear into the corridor, then went to join Nerin at her station.

*****

Chapter 22

McCoy stretched out in the guest bunk and stared at the ceiling, trying to decide if he wanted to get up. According to the clock he’d been asleep for seven hours, but he didn’t feel it. He had been exhausted and out of sorts before his nap; now, after, he was moderately tired and still out of sorts. The incident on the planet weighed heavily, even knowing that Nerin was right and Talimar wasn’t. It was a hard thing to take lying down—no pun intended—and even though he knew that he had no control over the mindset of anyone on Charen, neither his brain nor his gut seemed to want to let it go. Talimar’s opinion didn’t matter—not at the negotiating table, not to McCoy’s own immediate or long-term future. Why did it bother him so much?

There was no good answer to that. Or rather, there were about eight possible answers, if he really wanted to spend his time pondering human psychology and trauma responses—which he didn’t. He’d had more than enough introspection of late. Instead, McCoy kicked at the blanket, mumbled at the ceiling, and thought about getting up to watch Joanna’s message again. He’d already seen it three times, but there was nothing like his daughter’s sweet face to distract him from his darkest thoughts. He’d always kept a few of her transmissions saved over the years, to pull up when times were toughest. Seeing Joanna, hearing her voice, reminded him of everything that was good about his life, and he could sure use that kind of reminder now.

He moved to get up just as the door chimed. Sighing, McCoy sank back onto the pillow. “Come in!” They were either late with dinner, or early with the next round of hypos. Either way, Joanna would have to wait. He heard the door slide open and shut again, and footsteps approached the partition.

Sarek, Ambassador of Vulcan, stepped into the opening.

McCoy bit back a curse and scrambled to his feet. “Ambassador Sarek!”

“Dr. McCoy.” Sarek nodded gravely.

“I apologize, Ambassador.” McCoy motioned vaguely to his loose pajama bottoms and glanced wildly around for a top. “I didn’t know that—”

“Your apology is unnecessary, Doctor.” Sarek looked away, toward the darkened outer room, as McCoy dragged a shirt over his head. “Indeed, it is I who should apologize. It was not my intention to wake you. If you desire, I shall return at a more convenient hour.”

“No, not at all. I wasn’t asleep.” McCoy rounded the partition. “Lights on.” The room flared to life, and McCoy turned to the Ambassador, clasping his hands behind him. “I didn’t realize that you’d arrived.”

“While you were on the planet. I have been in conference with your captain for much of that time, and with the Vulcan citizens aboard.”

“Ah,” McCoy responded, when it became apparent that Sarek didn’t intend to elaborate further. It was no surprise, really. Vulcans weren’t, as a general rule, much for chit-chat. “I guess things’ll be gearing up pretty soon, then.” Sarek was the last of the major players to arrive. With the Vulcan Ambassador present, the negotiations were finally free to begin.

“Indeed.” Sarek tilted his head. “It is necessary that we speak before that time.”

“Oh?” McCoy raised an eyebrow and motioned toward the couch. Sarek sat, gracefully, and McCoy plopped down into the desk chair.

“I was most gratified, Doctor, when I was informed that you were among those recovered from Charen,” Sarek continued, “although your involvement in this affair is regrettable. She who is my wife also wishes me to convey her love, and best wishes for a quick recovery.” The Ambassador managed this communication with an entirely straight face, which was more than McCoy would have expected, given its content. He suspected that Lady Amanda and Sarek had, at some point, had a rather strong discussion regarding the wording of her conveyed messages. “We were grieved upon hearing of your death.”

The Vulcan Ambassador and his wife had grieved McCoy’s death. Would wonders never cease.

“Thank you, sir.”

Sarek nodded solemnly. “The situation now stands thus. As you are human, Earth is of course prepared to send an ambassador to these proceedings.”

McCoy stirred, surprised. He was a single prisoner, at the periphery of the larger issue. He wouldn’t expect Earth to send anyone all the way out here just for him. When he said as much, Sarek quirked a chastising eyebrow and sat forward.

“Neither your status as the single abducted member of your species nor your separate function on Charen invalidates your right to redress, Doctor. You are a Federation citizen who has been abducted and wrongly imprisoned. You will be represented in the coming negotiations.”

He was strangely embarrassed at the thought that he would, at some point, be the focal point of the entire negotiating table. There didn’t seem to be much he could do about that, though, and in any case Sarek didn’t wait for him to comment.

“Your choices are these. A Terran ambassador can be dispatched. He or she will be some time in arriving, obviously, and it is likely that negotiations must begin before that time. If a necessary situation arises, I will speak for you until the Terran ambassador’s arrival.”

McCoy nodded. It was a workable solution, especially given that no one was going to want to wait another week and half, or however long it would take for someone to get here from Earth, before beginning the talks. “And my other choice?”

Sarek straightened. “Given all that we have learned about the situation on Charen, your close association with the Vulcan prisoners and the sacrifices that you have made on their behalf, Vulcan would be most pleased to represent your interests along with that of our own people.”

That was … unexpected. McCoy gaped. “You?”

“Indeed.” Sarek eyed him calmly. “The choice is, of course, yours. However, if—”

“Ambassador.” McCoy sat forward. “I … there’s no one that I would trust more to represent me in this situation.”

Sarek inclined his head gravely. “You honor me, Doctor.”

“I’m the one who’s honored, sir. Thank you.” That decided, McCoy leaned back in this chair and stared at the ceiling for a moment before returning his gaze to Spock’s father. “So …” He rubbed his hands nervously. He hadn’t really thought of the whole mess in terms of specifics up to this point, in terms of his interests and redress and the like. It wasn’t that he’d been avoiding it, but … Well, who was he kidding? He had been avoiding it. Looked like that was over now. “Will I need to do anything? I mean, what should I—”

“I will require from you a deposition regarding your time on Charen—your quarters, your work there, your interaction with the Chareni, your interaction with the other prisoners. Any knowledge of the Chareni that you may have gained while on the planet. Every detail will be useful, in order that I may gather a complete understanding of the situation.”

Ah. A description. Where to even start with that? There was so much, so many memories and emotions and details swirling around like a demented kaleidoscope inside his brain. McCoy frowned, trying to pull it all into some kind of order. Sarek shook his head.

“Not now, Doctor. We shall speak tomorrow, perhaps in the morning.” McCoy was surprised, but Sarek rose smoothly. “The hour is late. You are fatigued, and now is not the time to begin such a detailed discussion. I will, of course, also require information regarding the events of the past week—the coded message, details of your escape, and your time spent in hiding outside of the power facility. It would, however, be best to speak of those circumstances with all three participants. Perhaps tomorrow afternoon.”

That got his attention. McCoy stood, abruptly. “Salin and T’Pana are awake?” How long ago had that happened? “Blast it all, why didn’t anybody tell me?

“Peace, Doctor.” Sarek radiated an aura of superior calm. “They remain, for the moment, in healing trance. However, I am informed by your specialist that their biosigns are steadily rising. Both are expected to wake at some time during the night.” Sarek tilted his head. “Are you agreeable to such a conference?”

“What? Sure, of course.” McCoy forced down his irritation—Vulcans—and dragged his mind back to the current conversation. “I’ll be at your disposal, Ambassador.”

Sarek nodded, once. “Very good.” He drifted toward the door, but McCoy stopped him.

“Will I … will I have to be at the negotiations? Will I have to say anything?” He was less than comfortable with the idea. Normally, of course, he didn’t care who or how many people were listening, but this was different. He had already talked about bits of his experiences with Kirk, Spock, M’Benga, Chapel. Lincoln, on the way back from the secondary continent’s power plant. He didn’t relish repeating it all in front of a roomful of diplomats—objective voices who didn’t know him, and who were primarily interested in using his story to their greatest advantage. Whatever that advantage might be.

“Several representatives from among the former captives will attend the opening session. It is likely that, as the only human from among them, you will be asked to attend.” Ah. McCoy looked down and folded his arms tightly. Sarek continued. “However, after that time neither your presence nor that of the others will be necessary.” He folded his hands into his sleeves. “Indeed, these negotiations will last for many weeks—far longer than it would be appropriate to expect any of the former captives to remain here. It is also wise to return the katra carriers to Vulcan as soon as possible. Few records exist of katras carried for such a length of time, and none of multiple katras carried. The priestesses have been informed, and will be waiting at Mount Seleya to examine the carriers upon their arrival. After the opening sessions on the Enterprise, therefore, negotiations will move to either the secondary continent or the Potemkin. The Lexington will remove the Rigelians to—”

Katra?” McCoy frowned, trying to remember if he had heard the term. Maybe it was familiar, but if so he couldn’t place it.

“The living essence of each Vulcan.” Sarek held up a hand when McCoy would have asked what a ‘carrier’ might be. “It is, as we have discussed, late in the evening. This is not the time to begin any discussion of Vulcan beliefs regarding either death or our continuance after death.”

“Ambassador …”

“There will be time, should you choose to pursue this inquiry—though many of our beliefs are private and not to be made known to off-worlders.” Huh. Considering the last time that he and Jim had been made privy to secret Vulcan beliefs and rituals, it was probably better not to know. “The Enterprise will return the former prisoners to Vulcan when it leaves this place.” That was news. It had probably been decided since Sarek had arrived. The Vulcan Ambassador nodded briefly. “I shall leave you, then, for now.” He reached into a pocket in the wide sleeve of his robe then, withdrawing a data pad. “My transport has been receiving and downloading messages from Vulcan since I departed, marked for those who have been imprisoned here. There is one for you.”

“Me?” McCoy took the pad, staring at his dim reflection on its smooth surface. “Who on Vulcan would send me anything?”

“I do not read that which is not addressed to me.” Sarek’s voice was stiff.

McCoy rolled his eyes—mentally, of course, he might be more obvious with Spock but he knew where to draw the line—and nodded an apology. “Of course, Ambassador. It was more of a rhetorical question.”

“I see.” Sarek offered a brief bow, then turned toward the door. “Until tomorrow, Doctor.”

“Ambassador,” McCoy responded vaguely, his attention focused again on the unexpected data pad. He glanced up as the door swished closed behind Spock’s father, then turned and wandered back into the sleeping quarters. He flopped on the bed, spinning the pad idly in his hands.

A communication from Vulcan. He didn’t know anyone on Vulcan, other than Sarek and Amanda—and he was fairly certain the Ambassador wouldn’t be personally handing him a data pad that contained a message from himself. Stranger things had happened, he supposed, but … no. So, who? He fingered the power key for a long moment, then sighed and pressed it.

There was, after all, only one way to find out.

The couple who appeared on the screen were not like any Vulcans that he had ever seen. The male was tall and bulky, giving the impression of a powerful physique beneath his simple white tunic. The female beside him was short and spare, whipcord thin. They were sun-bronzed, faces lined not from age but from exposure to the elements and hard physical labor. Despite their alien features, they reminded him strongly of every ordinary working couple that he had ever seen, from any of Earth’s rural areas, and he realized suddenly, incredulously, that he had never met any rural Vulcans. In fact, it hadn’t even occurred to him that they existed. The only Vulcans that he knew—that he had ever seen or spoken with—were from ShiKahr. City folk. Scientists. Ambassadors. Healers. Teachers. Businessmen and women.

But, of course there were farmers on Vulcan. Rural people. Of course. No planet could survive without them. Salin came from such a family, he had said as much.

Salin.

McCoy knew who he was looking at a bare moment before the message began.

“Dr. Leonard McCoy.” The male spoke, offering a small bow to the recorder. His wife followed suit. “I am Suvol, this is my wife T’Kirin. We bid you greetings.”

Salin’s eyes came from his father, but his features very much resembled those of his mother. McCoy was a little surprised that he hadn’t recognized them immediately.

T’Kirin spoke. “Doctor, we have been informed only a few hours past that our son Salin, whom we thought dead, is in fact alive, and has been imprisoned with a small group of our people these past months on an alien world. It has been a … most startling and trying day for us.”

Surveyed closer, they did look a little frazzled.

For Vulcans, that was.

“Indeed.” Suvol laid a light hand on his wife’s shoulder. “We understand that you have been imprisoned on this planet as well, and we offer our sincerest condolences for what you have suffered.”

“Although details are at this time scarce,” T’Kirin continued, “we have been told that our son was made severely ill by the actions of his captors. We have also been informed that it was you who developed a treatment for his illness.” Her lips pursed, minutely. “We are aware, of course, that this treatment was not conceived merely for Salin’s sake. However, we are given to understand that without your aid, it is likely that our son would not have survived to be rescued.”

McCoy scrubbed at his eyes with his cuff. Blast it. He would be glad when he finally wasn’t so tired that the smallest little thing could set him off.

Suvol stepped toward the recorder and bowed again, more deeply. “We wish to convey to you our deepest gratitude, for the life of our son and for your work on behalf of our people. It is our desire that should you ever return to Vulcan, you will know that you are welcome in this house.”

“Live long, Doctor, and prosper.” T’Kirin offered the Vulcan salute, echoing her husband’s bow. They both rose, and stood still together, and the communication ended.

McCoy set the data pad aside and stared at the bare ceiling. They were thanking him. He thought back to his time on Charen—his anger and resentment, his conflicted feelings even as Salin’s health drastically improved and T’Vel’s stabilized—and he thought suddenly of Spock’s words in the corridor that morning. “I am not, perhaps, proud of my actions, but I do not regret their lives.”

Was this what Spock meant? Was this … unease, even in the face of positive outcome, what Spock felt about his own experience? And yes, felt. He could hear the Vulcan’s cool reprimand, but he snorted softly and ignored it. He knew better. He knew Spock. The first officer would never have said what he had if he hadn’t been feeling something.

It was … uncomfortable. He wondered if he would ever be entirely at peace with his actions on Charen. McCoy sighed, and dragged in a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He was still tired, maybe if he laid here in the dark he would fall back asleep. There was no use spending the next few hours fretting over this. It was done with, and even if it wasn’t, he would do it exactly the same all over again.

*****

Despite all attempts, the seven-hour nap and his unsettled thoughts seemed to be conspiring against him. McCoy lay awake for hours through the night, thinking about Charen and UyaVeth, the Vulcans and the Romulans, Kiran and Gesill and the unknown woman who had tried to help him escape the city. It seemed like years ago. He ignored the thought of the coming negotiations—at least, he tried to—and instead tried to picture how Spock and the Chareni engineers might be coming with the synthetic power development. He watched Joanna’s recording again, and the one from Salin’s parents. He bantered for twenty minutes with Chapel when she arrived with food and hypos not long after Sarek’s departure. He tried to keep her for longer, but she only laughed, left him with stern instructions to get some sleep, and disappeared into the corridor.

If only she knew.

It was 0250, and he had long ago surpassed restless for downright grouchy, when he remembered Sarek’s news about Salin and T’Pana. M’Benga expected them to wake tonight. He debated for roughly forty seconds, then rolled out of bed, stuffed on the moccasins that sickbay had provided—they were comfortable, it was a shame they weren’t allowed for on-duty wear—and slipped out into the corridor. Traffic was light during the overnight hours, and he was stopped only twice on the way to sickbay. The lighting in the Medical bay was dimmed for the overnight hours, and he halted just inside the door, blinking to adjust his eyes. Kara Wylean rose from the duty desk near the doorway and came to meet him.

“Do you need something, Doctor? We would have—”

“No, darlin’, I’m fine.” McCoy patted her arm. “I was just awake, and thought I’d come by.”

Kara chuckled softly. “Too tired to sleep? Or just too much of it lately?”

He snorted softly. “Little of both.” He eyed the room. Only a few of the beds were occupied. With the removal of the Rigelians to the Lexington, most of the Vulcans had been moved into the guest quarters. It was, he reflected, probably the first real privacy any of them had known since their abduction. “I heard that Salin and T’Pana might wake up at some point tonight, thought I’d … you know, drop by and see.”

She nodded. “They are awake.” Kara motioned toward the rear of the main bay, where the semi-private rooms were tucked around the corner. “Since about midnight, both of them.”

McCoy grinned, anticipation rising in his chest. “Can I go back?”

“Feel free.” She returned the smile, drifting back toward her desk. “You know where I’ll be, if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Nurse.”

“You’re most welcome, Doctor.”

McCoy headed for the back of the bay, but his attention was distracted by a light shining beneath the door of the CMO’s office. He had been meaning to stop by, to say hello and offer Dr. Trella a better introduction than they had managed yesterday—or was it two days ago now?—on the bridge when he had been mostly asleep on his feet. He didn’t know what she was doing up at three in the morning, but, knowing the position, it could be just about anything. Maybe she wouldn’t mind a break. He veered toward her doorway and pressed the chime.

“Come in!”

She was scribbling on a notepad when he entered, and didn’t look up. “I’ll be with you in just a second, Kara.”

He grinned, crossing his arms. “Take your time.”

Diane Trella’s head jerked up, and her eyes widened almost comically. “Dr. McCoy!” She rose quickly and rounded the desk. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t …” She frowned, and her eyes flickered to the clock. “I definitely wasn’t expecting you. Is everything all right?”

McCoy held up a calming hand. “I’m fine, everything’s good.” Which wasn’t quite accurate, but it was close enough for now. “Couldn’t sleep, so I came by to see if T’Pana and Salin were awake yet.”

“They are.” She motioned vaguely toward the door. “They’re both … yes.” Trella frowned, shaking her head. “Odd process, that.”

It was more than a little odd, he was forced to agree. The idea of smacking a Vulcan was, McCoy admitted, not always entirely unattractive. In practice, though, it just wasn’t done—especially considering that these particular Vulcans were also patients. He had toyed around, over the years, with the idea of developing a type of electroshock device for the process—something that would deliver current at a low level, but enough to provide the focus needed to break the trance. He and M’Benga had even drawn up a rough prototype one afternoon when business was slow. That was all the further they’d gotten, though, and for the time being they were left with physical contact as the only way out of a healing trance.

“It is indeed.”

Trella returned her attention to him. “Do you need a sedative? I can—”

“No.” McCoy shook his head. “No, I’m just slept out for the time being, is all.” He laughed softly. “Although I’ll probably regret it along about 1300 hours.”

Her smile seemed forced, and her eyes drifted to the far wall. The uncomfortable silence descended again. McCoy swore silently, and jumped in.

“Look. I wanted to thank you.”

Trella blinked, and looked back to him. “Me?”

“Yes.” McCoy drifted, pacing slowly. “I’ve followed your work since the beginning. It’s cutting edge stuff, very exciting. That deep genetic stuff is good to know, out here where you’re as likely to have to develop your own cure as you are to find one in the computer.”

Her smile transformed. “You’ve used my work?”

“Absolutely.” McCoy leaned back against the wall. “We need a good, solid base. We’d be sunk if we had to start from scratch every time.”

“I’m glad.” Trella nodded, almost to herself. “It’s good to know that my work has had real life application. You wonder, sometimes …”

“Well, wonder no more.” McCoy eyed the small office, noting the microscopic cells and proteins and DNA variations enlarged and displayed as art around the room. Yes, this was a woman who loved her work. He wondered again why she would give it up for the life of a CMO. “What I’m trying to say, though, is that I know you’re more than capable of this,” he motioned around them, to the Enterprise and the sickbay, “and that it wasn’t necessary for you to resign. But I … this is what I know, this is my life, and I …” He was starting to choke up again, and he was getting really tired of it. It was absolutely ridiculous to not be able to make it through a message or a conversation without having to stop and collect himself. He knew it was the fatigue, and the general overwhelming crush of the last few days—the last few months—but it was embarrassing and he would be more than glad when this particular issue had run its course. “I just wanted to—”

“I’m not you, Dr. McCoy.”

He blinked, and surveyed her wry smile, couldn’t help returning one of his own. “And I’m not you. Glad we got that straightened out.”

Trella giggled—giggled—and shook her head, flopping back to perch on the edge of her desk. “What I mean is, I just don’t want your job. I’m glad, so glad, that you’re going to be the one to take it back from me, but I’ve learned some things about myself since I came to the Enterprise, and one of those things is that I’m just not cut out for this life—to be on call 24/7, to be always ready to jump headfirst into the next crisis or disease or medical mystery that falls in our lap, to write reports and evaluations and small talk with patients when I could be in the lab, oh, breaking down a strand of Gorn DNA to see how close it is to Efrosian.” Gorns and Efrosians? He hoped neither one of them ever caught wind of that comparison … Trella’s expression tightened. “I know how that sounds, I know it seems reclusive and uncaring, but I—”

“It doesn’t.” McCoy headed her off before she could go too far down that road. “It doesn’t. We’re all made for different things. Heck, it’s like I said. If you weren’t in the lab doing your thing, I’d be a lot worse off out here doing mine.”

She eyed him for a long moment, then smiled faintly and circled back around to her chair. “Go find your friends, Doctor.” She nodded briefly toward the door. “They’ll be happy to see you.”

“They’re Vulcan.” McCoy snorted, and pushed away from the wall. “They don’t get ‘happy’.”

Trella shook her head and picked up her pen. “All right, then. They’ll be … quite pleased to see that you are relatively undamaged by your experiences.”

He laughed outright. “You have been packed to the rafters with Vulcans recently, haven’t you?”

“Indeed I have.”

McCoy chuckled softly and let himself back out into the bay area. He wandered across the back and into the hall that held the semi-private rooms. The first was empty, but the second was pay-dirt—both T’Pana and Salin were visible in the low lighting.

They were meditating.

Well, crap. There went that idea. He hovered in the doorway for a moment, surveying them. It was difficult to see their coloring in the dim light, but both sat straight and tall, and were breathing easily. T’Pana’s bruises were gone, and her arm was bound in only a light wrap. Good. McCoy nodded, disappointed but satisfied that his friends had healed well, and turned back toward the hall.

“Will you not enter, Doctor?”

McCoy halted, and looked back around. Both sets of eyes were open, locked on him from opposite ends of the room.

Not so deep into meditation as he had thought, then.

He grinned widely, stepping through the doorway. T’Pana motioned to the foot of her bed and McCoy settled onto it, pulling his legs up beneath him. Sharing any kind of seating space was not the norm when Vulcans were involved—in fact, it was all but a cultural faux pas, under run-of-the-mill circumstances—but then again, their circumstances were anything but run-of-the-mill. Months of sitting together on cots and floors and small couches made this biobed seem the size of a small planet. Salin left his own bed to join them, folding gracefully onto the floor nearby. McCoy groaned, and shook his head.

“Look at that.” He glanced toward T’Pana. “Young pup. I haven’t been able to get down on the floor that easily for—”

“Doctor.” Salin’s voice was dry. “I do not believe a human body of your approximate age is—”

“Don’t say it.”

Salin’s eyebrow rose. “Say what?”

Whatever you were about to say. Don’t say it. Show some respect for your elders, young man.”

“Indeed.” Salin bowed his head deeply. “I am covered with shame.”

McCoy barked out a laugh. “I think he’s mocking me.”

“I believe, Doctor, that you are entirely correct.” T’Pana tucked her knees to her chest. “However, his statement is also entirely accurate, in that—”

“Both of you,” McCoy groaned, and rolled his eyes. “Why did I even come here?”

“It is quite impossible to say.” She shook her head, then rested her chin on her knees. “Human decisions are most illogical.”

He had missed them. He had worried about them, and he had missed them. McCoy took a long breath, studying each of his friends in turn. Up close, even in the dark, he could see what he had not from the hall. They were feeling well. They were still underweight, of course—no healing trance could put on pounds—and would require appropriate supplementation and follow-up treatment, as the trance apparently did not completely cleanse the blood of the Chareni toxins. Still, they were rested and refreshed. Salin seemed much as he had back on the K’dina’Th, and T’Pana was without fatigue for the first time since he had met her.

He wished he could say the same for himself. It was a handy thing, that healing trance.

“Doctor.” He looked up, toward Salin. “Are you well?

McCoy shrugged. “As well as can be expected. I’m coming along, anyway. Should be good as new in a few weeks.”

Salin nodded, once. “I was most gratified to learn earlier tonight from Dr. M’Benga that you had been safely recovered.” He tilted his head. “We were … quite concerned for your safety.”

Ah. McCoy looked down, pulling absently at the biobed covering.

T’Pana, as usual, was more pointed. “You should not have left us. What possessed you to do so?”

Well, no use beating around the bush, he supposed. As if that was ever a possibility, with Vulcans.

“You heard him.” McCoy frowned at Salin. “The grandson. They were after me. Me, specifically. There was a bounty on me.” He shook his head. “People weren’t likely to stop looking, not with good money on the line.”

“Indeed.” Salin nodded his agreement. “In which case, your safety would have been far more secure had you remained in our company.”

“Possibly,” McCoy agreed. “But yours was far more secure if I didn’t.”

“Doctor.” T’Pana’s voice was abrupt. “We had successfully avoided recapture to that point.”

“Barely.”

Her brows drew together. “There was no reason to suspect that we would not continue to do so.”

“Maybe. But I couldn’t take that chance.”

“It was illogical to—”

“Not from my point of view.” He held her gaze, then turned his eyes on Salin. “Can’t you understand? I could not take that chance.” Neither responded—though he suspected that their silence didn’t necessarily equal agreement. The three sat still for a long moment, frustration crackling like static in the air. Finally, McCoy shrugged. “You know what? It’s done. There’s no point in sitting here beating a dead horse.”

Even Salin’s eyebrow rose at that. He exchanged a quick glance with T’Pana. “Doctor …”

“Never mind.” Unexpectedly, laughter bubbled up. McCoy choked it back and tried again. “Can we just all agree to disagree about what I should or shouldn’t have done, and call it a day?”

For a long moment, neither moved. Finally, T’Pana nodded, once. “Very well.” Her lips pursed. “For the current moment, at least.”

Right. Apparently, he wasn’t getting off that easily. It was probably true, though, regardless. “You’ll get another chance, not to worry.” He favored T’Pana with a wry grin. “I’m sure we’ll get to drag it all out again once we sit down with Ambassador Sarek.”

Both Vulcans straightened. “You have spoken with Ambassador Sarek?”

“That I have.” McCoy filled them in on his conversation with the Ambassador, including their coming discussions. “He’ll probably want to talk to us this afternoon. I don’t think they want to push off the opening session too much longer, now that everybody’s here. I kind of get the impression that at this point they’re just waiting for him, and that he’s just waiting for us.”

“Very well.” T’Pana nodded. “We shall, of course, be immediately available at any time the Ambassador desires.” She cast a dour glance around the room. “I do not believe, given Dr. M’Benga’s orders earlier tonight, that we will be released from your Medical bay today, in any case.”

“No, I doubt it,” McCoy agreed. He shrugged apologetically. “Observation is standard procedure, after this kind of thing.”

“Indeed.” Her voice was resigned. “The Ambassador’s deposition will undoubtedly be a welcome relief from the monotony.”

He’d have to be pretty darned bored, to look forward to a deposition. Both Vulcans were decidedly unenthusiastic regarding the prospect of an entire day in sickbay, though, and who could blame them? McCoy decided that a subject change was in order.

“Tell me what happened after I left. Did you manage to stay hidden at the house? Did any search parties come through, or—”

“Of course we were unable to stay, Doctor.” Salin’s voice was dry. “We left to search for you.”

Ah. McCoy sighed. Blast it all. He should have known.

Loyalty was, after all, eminently logical. Or so he’d been told.

He was so tired …

McCoy rubbed a hand over his beard. “I’m sorry.” He could barely hear his own voice, but Vulcan ears were better than his. “You were all I had left.”

“Doctor.” T’Pana’s voice had lost its edge. He looked up, into her calm, dark gaze. “We understand, even if we do not agree.”

Right. McCoy wasn’t sure if that made him feel better or not.

“You are excessively fatigued.”

He almost laughed in Salin’s face. “You think so?”

“I do.” Unlike Spock and T’Pana, Salin was difficult to bait. “The time is not right for such discussions. You require rest.”

For a moment he bristled, but the irritation dissipated quickly. It was his own fault, in a way. The Vulcans had been forced for months to bully him into caring for his own needs; it was probably unreasonable to expect that habit to fade instantly.

Chances were, one of the thirty or so Vulcans wandering the ship had already told M’Benga about that, too. Fabulous. Another exciting counseling session, on the way.

McCoy sighed. “Tell me something I don’t know.” Two quizzical gazes fixed on him. He shook his head. “Do you think I’d be hanging out here in the middle of the night if I could sleep?”

T’Pana’s eyebrow lifted. “Have you requested a sedative?”

“I don’t want a sedative.” He was beginning to sound dangerously like a five year old.

“Very well.” She nodded, slowly, and tilted her head. “Perhaps you would care to rest here. If you sleep, well and good. If not, at least you will not tire yourself further. We will speak more tomorrow. There is time.”

He hesitated. Salin nodded toward his biobed.

“You may rest there, Doctor.”

McCoy lifted an eyebrow. “What about you?”

“I will meditate. I do not need a bed to do so.” Salin moved back to settle against the wall.

McCoy eyed the biobed. His eyelids were beginning to feel heavy again, and it looked suddenly very inviting. “Are you sure?”

“Doctor.” Salin closed his eyes. “Vulcans do not offer unless we are ‘sure’.”

“Right.”

T’Pana had closed her eyes, as well. They were obviously done with him for the night.

Probably, McCoy grumbled softly as he slid off T’Pana’s biobed, all for his own good. Probably, they didn’t even really need to meditate.

Darned Vulcans.

He crossed the room, then stretched out on Salin’s bed. His entire body relaxed. The mattress was soft beneath him, and his eyes were heavy. He pondered for a brief moment the irony that this was the second person’s bed he had stolen since his return to the Enterprise—at this rate, he could go for a month without spending a whole day in his guest room—and the next thing he knew, the lights were bright, voices were drifting in from the outer bay, and Sarek and Spock were standing in the open doorway, staring at him.

*****

Chapter 23

The opening session of the meetings between the Federation, Charen, and the Romulan Empire was scheduled to begin in 27.6 Standard minutes. Spock straightened his dress uniform, checking in the small glass to be certain all the fastenings and pins were properly aligned. The Starfleet dress code was … most vexing, in formal situations. The uncomfortable cut of the stiff fabric and the sheer number of small pieces was quite illogical, and he spared a brief thought to wonder, as he had often before, if the uniform designer had ever had occasion to wear one. It should, perhaps, be a requirement before any change was made to the existing specifications, or any new design was accepted.

This particular line of thought, however, had no bearing on the situation at hand, and Spock returned his mind to their current circumstances. One more day, one long and likely tense session to bring all relevant parties together into the same physical space for the first time, and then the Enterprise’s duties in regard to the diplomatic aspect of this mission would finally be discharged. Spock was … more than ready.

He would have never admitted it, of course. There was no logic in desiring that time proceed at an accelerated pace. For one, time—regular Standard time, at least—was a constant. It would not speed or slow regardless of his or anyone else’s wishes. Spending any manner of thought on the desirability of such an occurrence was pointless. For another, there was a danger inherent in the practice of, as Dr. McCoy would have phrased it, ‘wishing your life away.’ It was well and good to plan appropriately for the future; however, opportunity and education and growth stemmed from the present. It was unsound, as a practice, to trade attention to the present for a longing for the future—regardless of how tedious or tense one’s present activities may be.

That said, he could not deny that the Enterprise had been in orbit around Charen too long for his tastes. The quagmire of diplomatic mines, scientific tension, and psychological distress that permeated every encounter was wearing, even in the face of regular meditation—and he could not call his recent meditation opportunities anything akin to ‘regular’. Spock was grateful for his short leave of absence before they had arrived at Charen. Without that, he was certain that he would be functioning at far less than his usual efficiency.

As it was, he was beginning to feel the several nights in a row without sleep, both in his mind and in his muscles. Not a weakening, indeed, but a … slowing. It was no more than he could easily handle, but he would be gratified when the need for twenty-four-hour duty shifts subsided. The captain would never ask such a thing of him, of course, but necessity was indeed an urgent taskmaster—and his labors had not been in vain.

Less than thirty minutes after Dr. McCoy had left the Chareni surface, Spock and Chareni Engineer Nerin had determined what about the particular scenario in question had drawn McCoy’s attention. A few minor adjustments in the sequencing had produced a formulation which Spock was certain, and Nerin agreed, had been McCoy’s ultimate goal. In other circumstances, he might have been (secretly) surprised that McCoy had missed it—the answer had been almost obvious, once one knew where to look, and despite his emotionalism and pointless chatter the doctor was an observant researcher. It was, however, also obvious to Spock that McCoy, suffering from stress and exhaustion, and without the benefit of Vulcan physiology to bolster him, was simply not in top form. The good doctor would have found the answer on his own eventually. However, circumstances were dire and it was just as well for the project that someone else had stepped in.

Spock and the team of Chareni engineers worked through the night, processing and refining and running dozens of simulations and scenarios. When the blue sun rose over the Chareni horizon, Engineer Roghir was able to report to Minister Dalir that they had succeeded in their efforts—that thanks to the dedication and desperation of a man who had been abducted and held prisoner by their own people, a far less expensive, far more workable solution was hours rather than weeks away, and thousands of Chareni lives would be spared. Dalir expressed a desire to contact the Enterprise and thank McCoy in person, but Spock demurred. There would be time enough for such things—at the moment, he was uncertain whether such an encounter would be a positive one for the doctor.

He returned to the ship, leaving the Chareni engineers to work out the final details. Upon learning that Sarek had come aboard in his absence, Spock funneled aside the vestiges of unease that still accompanied thoughts of the Ambassador and went in search of his father. Their reconciliation had indeed progressed since the fateful journey to the neutral planetoid Babel. That said, eighteen years of estrangement could not be erased as easily as one might desire. There had been hints in his mother’s communications that Sarek was also experiencing a disquiet regarding their more frequent interactions. This observation seemed to Spock more fancy than solid fact on Amanda’s part, as he could not envision any such reaction from his father regarding any subject. However, as Sarek greeted his son in person for the first time since the Babel conferences, Spock was forced to reevaluate. The combination of careful welcome and bland inquiry matched his own efforts, and Spock wondered if it could indeed be possible that Sarek’s outlook in this matter was similar to his own.

“I am informed that the last two of our people woke from their healing trances overnight. Would you care to accompany me to greet them?”

“Indeed, Father.”

The two fell into a companionable silence as they traversed the ship, and neither spoke again until they had entered sickbay. Spock was grateful—many humans, he had discovered, might find the silence unnerving, but to Vulcans, silence was a comfortable state of affairs.

Christine Chapel rose from the duty desk to greet them. “Ambassador. Mr. Spock. How can I help you?”

“Nurse.” Sarek folded his hands into his wide sleeves. “Your Dr. Trella contacted me with news that the last two Vulcans have left healing trance. I have come to greet them.”

“Of course!” Chapel motioned toward the rear of the bay, starting off ahead of them. “Dr. McCoy is here, too. He came by last night.”

Spock speculated with some trepidation regarding the amused smile playing around the edges of the nurse’s mouth. Though years of association had removed any lingering awkwardness between them, however, he was reluctant to initiate any form of non-essential conversation with Sarek in attendance. Therefore, he chose not to pose those questions aloud.

In retrospect, it may have been an oversight.

T’Pana opened her eyes as they halted in the doorway. She was folded into a meditation posture at the foot of the far biobed, mere inches from the feet of a sleeping Leonard McCoy. Spock felt his eyebrow begin to creep up, and made an effort to return it to its usual place, lest an expression of surprise over the admittedly unusual scene give some manner of offense. T’Pana, however, merely offered a nod and greeted them with a customary tone of restrained respect.

“Ambassador. Commander. Be welcome and enter.”

Spock glanced toward his father. It was Sarek’s right, as his superior in both family and rank, to precede him into any situation. The Ambassador, however, remained still, studying the woman and the sprawled figure of the human doctor. Sarek’s face was utterly without expression—it was impossible to tell if his immobility reflected surprise, disapproval, or some other manner of reaction. Spock, more accustomed to reading his father than most (although not of course in recent years) was beginning to detect in Sarek’s posture a type of … resigned acceptance, perhaps, when a movement to their left, rather nearer the entrance, drew attention. Salin stood from his own meditation and offered a brief bow.

“Ambassador Sarek. Commander Spock. You honor us.”

Behind them, he heard Christine Chapel withdraw, though her footsteps took her only to the edge of the larger bay. Sarek nodded a greeting to the young Vulcan, then looked back toward the far biobed. T’Pana returned his gaze with equanimity. “The doctor was quite exhausted earlier; however, he indicated that he was experiencing difficulty sleeping. We suggested that he attempt to do so here. His sleep continued to be restless; therefore, given that humans are made easier by physical proximity, it was logical to relocate my mediation to this area.”

Logical, indeed—and yet, not all Vulcans would consider it so. Spock wondered briefly how Sarek would see the matter, and attempted to gauge his father’s reaction without being obvious. It was true that Sarek, in the course of his work, came into contact with a wider array of species and customs than most. It was also true that Amanda was most assuredly human. Sarek of Vulcan had developed a vast and remarkable tolerance for the ways of other species.

Despite that tolerance, however, Sarek had not—at least in Spock’s experience—developed any manner of willingness to entertain those foreign customs himself. It would have indeed been inappropriate for Ambassador Sarek, a Vulcan of such high rank and family, to behave other than according to the dictates of Vulcan society. He held himself to an extremely high standard, and he expected much the same from those Vulcans around him. Even his human wife had made a great many concessions to Vulcan society when she relocated to her husband’s home. It had been, Spock sometimes felt, the true crux of the original argument between himself and Sarek. There was, of course, his father’s disapproval of his rejection of the VSA, and his disapproval of Starfleet as a military organization. Spock had wondered more than once, however, if above all else Sarek’s greatest disapproval lay more in an apprehension that Spock, son of an ancient and revered house, would somehow, surrounded at all times by other species, beliefs, and cultures, buckle beneath the pressure of it all and become less than Vulcan.

If so, Sarek really knew very little of him.

It was accurate, though, to say that Spock’s own experiences, far more in-depth than Sarek’s regarding the daily and casual aspects of alien culture, had taught him the rather paradoxical truth that at times, adherence to logic dictated a compromise—not of logic itself, nor of its values, but of its outer trappings. He remembered Salin’s desire to accompany the rescue party in search of Dr. McCoy, and he understood that T’Pana and Salin considered themselves Dr. McCoy’s friends—unusual enough, within the Vulcan mindset. T’Pana’s easy expression of that friendship, though—her almost casual acceptance of a need that did not match her own Vulcan tendencies—spoke nearly as much to him as any previous words or actions. He looked at the room’s two Vulcan inhabitants with new eyes, wondering what manner of experience had conveyed to them this truth that he had accepted only through great difficulty. Their association with McCoy? Their imprisonment? Their upbringing? Was such an upbringing even possible on Vulcan? He found himself suddenly quite curious to discuss with McCoy the doctor’s impressions of these two Vulcans with whom he—an irrational, temperamental, emotional human—had developed such a seemingly tight, easy bond.

He was also curious to see how Sarek would respond, outside of their own family and clan, to what the Ambassador would likely consider a breach of pure logic, an obvious bending of Vulcan mores for the sake of human comfort. Spock waited silently at his father’s side to see what ‘resigned acceptance’ would become—or if it would simply remain as it was.

Sarek responded to T’Pana’s words with a brief nod. “Of course.” The tone conveyed neither disapproval nor acceptance. As was so often the case with Sarek, it simply was. The Ambassador lifted a graying eyebrow. “It may be wise at this time, however, to wake the doctor?”

“Indeed.” T’Pana slid gracefully from the foot of the bed, shaking the doctor’s ankle as she did so. This time, Spock could not stop his eyebrow from shooting upward, and he saw Sarek’s jaw tighten minutely. However, the Ambassador offered an easy, practiced nod when McCoy woke, blinked at them through sleep-dazed eyes, and then rolled quickly off the bed, swearing beneath his breath.

“Ambassador! Sorry, I …” McCoy hesitated, taking in Spock’s presence, then rubbed at his neck and shook his head. “Didn’t plan to be here for this long.”

“Was your sleep restful, Doctor?” Sarek inquired blandly. Spock, detecting no sense of scolding or disapproval hidden within his father’s voice, remained in the doorway as Sarek entered the room. Given the likelihood that this visit would become lengthy and detail-oriented, it was wise for him to leave before the conversation grew too involved. He had yet to fill Kirk in on the night’s work, he had reports to write, and a multitude of details for the upcoming opening session still required his attention. As he backed into the hallway, McCoy caught his eye.

“Going already, Spock?”

All gazes turned toward his position. Spock nodded briefly. “Indeed. I have many duties which require—”

“Hold on a minute.” McCoy motioned briefly to the Ambassador, nodded, and slipped around the group of Vulcans, leaving Sarek staring bemusedly after him. He motioned Spock into the hall, stepped close, and lowered his voice. “You’re back. How’s the research going? Are you—”

“It is complete, Doctor.” McCoy’s eyebrow rose. Spock nodded. “Indeed, the scenario on which you were concentrating was workable, there were simply a few bits of the sequence out of place which you had not yet discovered. I will discuss the—”

“So … they’ve got it?” McCoy cut him off. “It’s working?”

“Not perhaps yet, but in hours, I believe.”

McCoy drew a long breath, and his shoulders slumped wearily. “Well, that’s a relief. It’s, uh …” He took another long breath and looked away. “It’s good. It’s good that you were there, to see things through.” The doctor shook his head. “Especially after … well, you know.”

“Indeed. However, it is well that we were both present, given that the entire formula was based upon your knowledge and work. Minister Dalir would like to thank you personally.” McCoy’s head came up, abruptly, and Spock continued. “I informed her that such an opportunity might be arranged, but not at this time.”

“Good.” McCoy nodded slowly, rubbing at his beard. “Good. I, uh, think I’ve had enough to do with the Chareni for the time being.”

“As I suspected.” Spock looked pointedly back into the room, where his father was conversing with Salin and T’Pana. “I believe, Doctor, that you are expected inside. Also, I have much to yet accomplish today.”

“Right.” Taking the hint, McCoy started back into the room, then stopped. “You’re not pulling one of those I’m-Vulcan-therefore-I-can-go-for-three-months-without-sleep-and-work-every-second-of-it routines, are you? Because, you know what I think of—”

“Doctor, we have been in orbit here for nowhere near three months.”

“Right. Thought so.” McCoy snorted, and wagged a finger before disappearing back into the room. “Get some sleep.”

It was, Spock thought as he made his way through sickbay, unlikely, given all that he had to accomplish throughout the day. And indeed, as he finished straightening his dress uniform 26.3 hours later, that expectation had been proved accurate. Another busy day had led to another busy night, and now it was time for him to appear with the captain and Dr. McCoy for the opening session. Perhaps tonight he would sleep, assuming the session today went well. Perhaps tomorrow night, if it did not. In either case, now was not the time for speculating over such matters. Other business required his attention.

Spock exited his quarters into the cool corridors of the Enterprise.

*****

Finally, this show was about to get on the road. McCoy exited his guest quarters and started for the nearest turbo lift, pulling at the tight collar of his dress uniform and grumbling. It was a ridiculous piece of apparel anyway, and he’d had to borrow this one from ship’s stores, seeing as none of his own were left onboard. The shoulders and length were okay, and the torso more than loose enough given his recent weight loss, but the collar must have been made for an ostrich. He hoped he didn’t pass out from lack of air halfway through the meeting—start a whole new hubbub, get a few more blood pressures spiked. Then again, the tension probably already had every one of the attendees well into the red, anyway. At least, those attendees with blood pressures.

They all had blood pressures, right? He’d never heard of a non-silicone-based species without, although that didn’t necessarily mean that one didn’t exist somewhere. As much as he’d seen, it would fill less than a thimble compared to what was actually out there. He’d never thought to see a blue sun rise over a frigid sky, either, but now he could check that one off his list. Yet another adventure, under his belt.

So to speak. A belt was one thing he hadn’t needed today. The pants actually fit fine.

He wondered how in-depth this meeting today would actually be. Ambassador Sarek had assured him that no details of real consequence would be discussed, that it was more of a meet-and-greet than anything else (although Sarek hadn’t used those exact words). He and the other prisoners present might be asked to say a few words, but otherwise his function would be mostly to keep to the back and just remind everyone by his presence of why they were all there. McCoy hoped that was all it really turned out to be. He wasn’t anxious to drag out details again today, not after combing through them so thoroughly yesterday—and definitely not in front of Jim and Spock, who had yet to hear any real, solid facts about his own personal time on Charen. It had been uncomfortable enough yesterday, in front of Salin and T’Pana and M’Benga. Add Jim Kirk’s temper into the mix, and any hopes for a nice predictable meeting went right out the airlock.

It had been his own fault, really—all the company yesterday. After Spock had gone, Sarek had reiterated the need to depose McCoy regarding his time in the power plant, and all three of them regarding their escape and time in the northern continent’s central city.

“You are, of course, permitted to add personal details of relevance as well,” he told T’Pana and Salin. “However, I have much of your information from previous depositions. It will not be required that you each give a detailed account.”

“Logical,” they murmured, almost in unison, and McCoy pushed back a vague irritation. It would be good for the rest of the galaxy if Vulcans learned how to alternate responses every once in a while …

“Dr. McCoy.” Sarek turned dark eyes on him. “Do you desire to speak of your own experiences in private, and return here after, or shall we remain in this place and enter directly into our subsequent discussion once your own details have been told?”

“Doesn’t really matter,” he mumbled, dropping back to sit on the biobed again. What he wanted was just to ignore it completely for a while. Didn’t seem like a good idea from either a political or a psychological viewpoint, though. “We can just stay here. Maybe Christine or someone will bring breakfast by soon.”

“We have already eaten,” Salin informed him, settling easily onto the other biobed. “Breakfast arrived while you were asleep.”

McCoy sighed. “Of course it did. Well, maybe they’ll bring me breakfast, then, if you don’t mind watching me eat while we talk.” It was, maybe, another cultural faux pas, to eat in front of Vulcans during a deposition—although he was less certain about this one—but he was hungry

“Proceed.” Sarek procured a chair from against the wall and sat, drawing a data pad from his wide sleeve. “Request your meal, and we shall begin.”

“Fine, I’ll be right back.” McCoy headed for the doorway. There was no point in going anywhere else, anyway, it wasn’t like Salin and T’Pana didn’t know everything he was likely to say.

That was his mistake, though—because his friends didn’t know everything. He had kept most of his own details from them, from all the Vulcans. He hadn’t wanted to think about it, when he wasn’t in his laboratory. He hadn’t wanted them worrying or feeling sorry for him—or whatever the Vulcan equivalent of that might be. They had asked, of course, but he had evaded. They had speculated, and he had kept silent. T’Pana had seen his lab, but only for a brief instant. And in the rush of the moment, between his nerves and his hunger and his irritation when M’Benga appeared and plopped down with his own chair and pad as if by magic—because face it, there was no way he was going to be allowed to go through this for the first time with no medical specialist hovering, and it was only the urgency of the situation that allowed for it with anyone but a medical specialist at all—he just forgot how much he had kept from them. He didn’t remember until he was sitting again, with a mouthful of toast and a cup of reconstituted milk, and the Ambassador requested a description of his first day on Charen. McCoy realized then, with a sharp pang, that he had never mentioned to the room UyaVeth had shown him to the Vulcans—the huge, impressive chamber with the glowing green column of stolen copper-based blood.

By that point, it was too late to change his mind.

The following hours were … more than awkward, between Sarek’s cool nods, M’Benga’s concern, Salin’s bemused stare, and T’Pana’s (quite logical, he was sure) radiating displeasure. He described the power column. He described UyaVeth’s demands, the guards and the manacles, and his laboratory—although apparently not well enough, because T’Pana interrupted at this point with exact dimensions, a fairly exact inventory of its contents, and a report of its approximate temperature. Sarek and M’Benga both recorded her comments meticulously. McCoy sent a snarl T’Pana’s way, which she ignored. Sarek moved on to his next question. McCoy described his rations, his clothing, his bedding, the lack of a light/dark cycle in the laboratory. He described his work—the equipment he was given, the supplies he was allowed, the Chareni oversight of its administration and effects. He described his collaboration with Irrel, forcing away the vague nausea when he remembered her dead on the power facility floor. He described his medical issues, secondary to the cold and the inappropriate dietary rations, and the injuries he had sustained as a result. He talked about his work on the synthetic power substitute, his discussions with the prisoners, the decision to approach UyaVeth, and the Supervisor’s response.

He told them about the two weeks of solitary.

He told them about resuming his treatment work, about Irrel’s insistence that he join the Brolin Sak, about his own refusal. Then he turned the story over to T’Pana, excused himself, locked himself in the nearest lavatory, and vomited everything in his stomach over the course of the next ten minutes.

A soft knock brought him back to himself. He mumbled a few invectives and batted the latch open. He expected M’Benga on the other side, or maybe Chapel, but it was Diane Trella, armed with an antinauseant and a glass of water. She administered both, and sat beside him on the floor, pressing a cool wet cloth to the base of his neck until the nausea subsided and he felt ready—no, able, he would never be ready—to go back. He squeezed her arm in gratitude on the way out.  She returned the ghost of a smile, and he took her wry compassion back with him into the deposition.

The rest was marginally easier, given that T’Pana and Salin took over the bulk of the narrative. McCoy listened with interest to the Vulcans’ account of their activities after he had left them—although their attempts to locate him had taken them to some places that he had never been, their sense of direction was better than his (of course it was), and it seemed they might actually have even caught up with him had he not been re-abducted in the end. He added his own brief account when they had finished, watching Salin’s eyes narrow (was that frustration? Surely not) as the young Vulcan came to a similar conclusion. He skimmed the bit about the Brolin Sak—that was a story for a whole ‘nother set of ears, really, and he could barely wait—and then it was over. Six hours, nineteen minutes (Spock would be so proud), and the dreaded deposition was finished.

He actually felt … a lot better. Like the boulder on his chest had been replaced with a good-sized paving stone. McCoy knew the psychology behind it, of course—he had been on the opposite end of such a discussion countless times, although never one with quite this urgency or relentless thoroughness—but it was an … interesting experience, from this end. An interesting experience that he hoped never to repeat.

Sarek took his leave, to continue his meeting preparations in private. M’Benga followed soon after, with a significant glance to let McCoy know—as if he didn’t already—that they weren’t done, not by a long shot. McCoy looked around to his two friends, who were both, it seemed, about a millisecond away from some sort of comment, and beat them to it.

“What’s a katra carrier?”

Both expressions went carefully blank.

Ha. That’s right. We’re gonna talk about something other than me for a change.

By the time T’Pana and Salin finished their long non-explanation (really, it was worth the price of admission just to watch them work so much nothing into so many words, even if he still had no idea what they were talking about at the end), they had either forgotten their questions or, more likely, had decided to just humor him and leave it be. For the moment, at least. McCoy chatted for a while longer, then went back to his guest room, crawled back into bed, and slept straight through to the next morning.

He actually felt good when he got up. Rested.

And now, this blasted meeting. Well, better to just get it over with. By tomorrow this time, it would all be over, and maybe the Enterprise would be light years away from Charen and everyone on it.

It was the best idea he’d heard in a long time.

Voices were drifting along the corridor from the room ahead, a larger area outside the conference room where the delegates and other attendees were gathering before the meeting started. McCoy took a deep breath, smoothed his dress tunic, and entered.

*****

The opening meeting was set to start in … Jim Kirk checked the chronometer on the wall. Ten minutes. He should have been in the staging area at least twenty minutes ago, but the decorative stitching on his dress uniform—the rank stitching, which had never been attached all that well to begin with—had torn as he struggled into the unforgiving tunic, and he had been forced to spend a precious thirty minutes tracking down another one. Usually he kept two on hand, but his spare tunic had been destroyed during that incident on Alcarnae five weeks ago, and he had just never gotten around to requesting another. It wasn’t a mistake he planned to repeat.

Kirk stepped into the open area outside of Conference Room 3 and scanned the milling attendees. They were grouped around the room, snacking lightly on the provided hors d’oeuvres and engaging in scattered conversation. Any hostility in the room—and he knew it existed, oh yes, he’d seen it, been the source of it all too often over the past days—was well under wraps, but the atmosphere was almost electric with tension. He nodded to Giotto, who stood near the door to the conference room with Lieutenant Uhura, who would be serving as the MC and general host for this meeting. The security chief returned his nod, and Kirk glanced around to pinpoint the other security officers stationed around the area. They were positioned as discreetly as possible, given the small and open layout of the room, but they were not intended to be entirely invisible. He, and Giotto by extension, had no plans to let any part of this gathering get remotely out of hand.

Ambassador Sarek, along with Skanet and T’Pana, stood speaking with the Rigelian Ambassador, Tri’s’Tol, and two former Rigelian prisoners. Tra’k’Tan he recognized, and exchanged a light greeting as he drifted by. The other was a woman he didn’t know. She kept shooting covert glances at the Chareni party across the way. Kirk wondered briefly if her surveillance indicated fear or intimidation, and whether she was the right person to be here. Not your decision, Kirk, he chided himself. In any case, the Rigelian Ambassador knew what she was about. She would not have brought anyone to this meeting who couldn’t handle the situation, and he had best just let her do her job. The Rigelian prisoners had been transferred off the Enterprise days ago, he certainly didn’t know any of them well enough to be questioning her judgment.

The three Chareni in attendance were bunched together near the conference room door. Yesha Dalir and Danil Morask were, of course, familiar faces, and he crossed over to offer his welcome. They responded politely, if a bit coolly. Kirk couldn’t blame them, really. Given the nature of the situation in general and their somewhat touchy history with him in particular, they were unlikely to do cartwheels over his appearance. Honestly, he wasn’t tempted to do cartwheels over them, either. As long as all of them were okay with that, there was no problem here.

The third attendee, a square, orange-tan Chareni, was unknown to him. Kirk spared a moment to be grateful that Minister Roshall wouldn’t be in attendance—the man would have been nothing but a hindrance—and requested an introduction. He didn’t miss the quick glance exchanged between Dalir and Morask.

“Captain Kirk, I present Pente Teothin, First Supervisor of the Secondary Continental Power Production Plant.”

A power production Supervisor? He managed to keep his jaw from falling open, but incredulous anger flooded him, tingling in his fingertips and drying his mouth. He had specifically ordered that no one with previous knowledge of the Chareni power production attend the negotiations. “Minister Dalir, I—”

“Captain.” The Minister no doubt knew exactly what Kirk intended to say. Dalir lifted her chin calmly—not, if he understood correctly, a stance of aggression, but one of assurance—and an almost inaudible rumble accompanied her words. “Ambassadors Sarek and Tri’s’Tol specifically requested the presence of a delegate familiar with our previous power processes. Supervisor Teothin is authorized to attend these meetings.”

Ah. It would have been nice if someone had told him ahead of time. Kirk swallowed back a number of possible responses, all born of his own temper rather than diplomacy. The Ambassadors outranked him in this area, of course. If they wanted a power Supervisor, so be it. “I see. Of course, in that case. Carry on, then.” So be it. He nodded curtly to Supervisor Teothin, stretched a thin smile at Dalir and Morask, and wandered on.

He caught sight of Spock and McCoy out of the corner of his eye, standing with their backs to the wall near a potted plant. McCoy was drinking something and talking—rather actively, if the rocking level of his beverage was any indication. Spock was standing with his hands folded behind his back, nodding intermittently and occasionally making some manner of reply. The sheer familiarity of the scene chased away the bulk of his anger. Bones was back, and the Enterprise would be out of here tomorrow. The rest, he supposed, was window dressing.

Kirk angled toward his friends, but stumbled almost directly into Commander Bahnet, who was returning to his party from a discussion with Uhura at the conference room doors.

“Ah, Commander.” Kirk bestowed what McCoy called his ‘polite-but-I-wish-you’d-get-off-my-ship’ smile. “Welcome to the Enterprise.”

“Indeed, Captain.” The Romulan Commander returned a chilly, solemn nod.

The Romulans. The Romulans, while not openly aggressive at any time since their arrival, had been a thorn in Kirk’s side for the past days. Bahnet had agreed, after due consideration, that a brief informational meeting could be conducted with the Romulan prisoners who had joined the Brolin Sak. He would not, however, allow the presence of any Chareni at the meeting. It was … inconvenient, but understandable. Kirk had set Uhura the task of working with Minister Dalir and Chief Morask to put together a list of questions for the Romulans. The end result was extensive, ranging from the leadership and composition of the Brolin Sak to their communications abilities to their bases of operations to their future plans. It seemed unlikely to Kirk that the former prisoners would have been privy to this kind of information, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. He downloaded the list to his own pad and promised Dalir that he would do the best he could.

Bahnet also refused to come to allow his people onto the Enterprise for the meeting. It seemed that, once they were off the Federation flagship, he did not trust Kirk to return them a second time. It was ridiculous, and Kirk informed him of that in no uncertain terms. The Commander remained unmoved. He also refused to allow Kirk or any other Starfleet officer onto the Romulan birds-of-prey, on the chance that military secrets might be transferred to the Federation.

“It seems we’re at an impasse then, Commander.” Kirk tried not to look as annoyed as he felt. Given Bahnet’s amused expression, he suspected that he wasn’t succeeding. “What do you suggest?”

“It is not I who desires this information, Captain.” Bahnet’s dark gaze was just short of apathetic. “If no acceptable compromise is offered, I will not regret the loss.”

Right. Kirk trapped his preferred response behind gritted teeth. The Romulan Commander continued to eye him impassively. He thought about offering to conduct the meeting over the viewscreens, but it really wasn’t the best way to gather information. It was done, of course, and on a rather routine basis—face-to-face just wasn’t always feasible. He would do it again if he had no other option, but still, the situation wasn’t ideal. Finally Bahnet agreed to a meeting aboard the Kohmari—relatively neutral ground, in that the ship was Starfleet, but not a heavy cruiser, and not Kirk’s. For himself, Kirk didn’t care where they met. In fact, he was beginning to regret ever bringing up the request. The thirty minutes permitted by Bahnet was actually far more fruitful than he would have expected, however. Tahren remained in stony silence throughout, but nothing about the Subcommander really surprised Kirk anymore. The other Romulans, though, while not openly friendly, were more than willing to answer what they were able regarding the days they had spent with the renegade sect. Kirk and Uhura returned to the Enterprise far more knowledgeable of the Brolin Sak than had previously been the case, and were able to transmit a good deal of useful information to Morask and his people.

It had been his last direct communication with the Romulans.

Kirk looked beyond Bahnet. Tahren was present, of course, lurking silently against the wall. Their eyes met for a moment, and Kirk read … what? What was Tahren thinking? It was impossible to tell, impossible to read him. Impossible to predict with any reliability what might come out of his mouth at any given time. He felt a wave of gratitude that he wasn’t going to be the one to have to deal with it, and moved his gaze to the third Romulan, an unfamiliar male in Commander’s uniform.

Bahnet didn’t offer an introduction, and Kirk refused to ask. They would all know soon enough anyway, once the meeting got underway. He glanced toward Uhura. She tapped her wrist—wristwatches had been gone for decades, but that particular signal remained a constant—and he nodded his understanding.

“It seems we’ll be starting soon.” He flashed another smile for the Romulans, stepping back. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“Of course, Captain.” Bahnet nodded, an exaggerated gesture of polite etiquette. Kirk returned the gesture, then swung around, glad to be free of them. He crossed the room swiftly to Spock and McCoy’s corner, his smile becoming less forced as their words drifted out to him.

“… told you that you needed to get some sleep! Darned fool Vulcans, always thinking you can leap tall buildings in a single bound. I’m telling you—”

“I see no purpose in performing such a feat, Doctor. In fact, such an attempt strikes me as quite—”

Don’t say illogical. I don’t give two cents about your—”

“I am given to understand from recent reports, Doctor, that you can be quite logical, when you set your mind to it.” Spock surveyed the doctor blandly. “It is unfortunate that your usual emotional mannerisms offer such an impediment to further development of such an agreeable asset.”

McCoy broke off, spluttering. Kirk grinned and stepped between them.

“Gentlemen,” he murmured. He gripped McCoy’s arm, and drew Spock’s attention to the time with a tilt of his head. The Vulcan nodded, McCoy set his drink on a nearby tray, and they fell in on either side of him. Kirk blew out a deep breath and closed his eyes for a bare second, reveling in the familiar balance of both of his friends at his side, then tossed back a grin. “Let’s go see what kind of trouble we can get ourselves into.”

*****

Epilogue

The Enterprise entered Vulcan orbit mid-afternoon ship’s time, but 40 Eridani A had just breached ShiKahr’s horizon when the former prisoners, Dr. McCoy, Captain Kirk, and Mr. Spock transported to the surface approximately one hour later. The Vulcan government had arranged for the private use of one of the city’s upscale hotels, where the captives’ families had gathered to be reunited with those they had thought lost. The day would be spent as the various families chose, with an evening meal either in private quarters or in the company of the larger group. Rooms at the hotel had been arranged for each family grouping. The next day would be devoted to business affairs—the redrawing for each of the returning Vulcans of the multitude of documents, licenses, and other legal paraphernalia required to function in both Vulcan society and the larger Federation beyond. The ShiKahr city government had provided for the presence of the necessary officials, who would be available at the hotel throughout the day. The process was expected to take most of the day, but should be completed by evening for all concerned. The following day the Vulcans who had been imprisoned on Charen would leave the hotel, return to home as they were able, and attempt to make some manner of life for themselves again.

The task would be more daunting for some than for others, but McCoy had faith that if anyone could make a go of it, these people could.

He had not originally intended to beam down, a little concerned about intruding.  He had, however, been approached by Salin, T’Pana, and several of the other Vulcans during the course of the journey with the request that he join them. Many, it seemed, wished to introduce him to their families. It was … a little embarrassing, actually, when McCoy realized the extent of their gratitude, but he was more than happy to oblige. He was curious to see T’Pana’s sons, and anxious to meet the couple who had thought to reach out to him, a complete stranger and a human, with their thanks for the life of their son. It was just as well, anyway. Kirk had informed him the day before they arrived that the Vulcan Council had requested his presence at the gathering. “Some sort of official welcome, thank you, that kind of thing.” McCoy had grumbled about that, but he couldn’t really expect Kirk to go up against the Vulcan government over his dislike of ceremony, and so his fate was sealed.

They materialized in a warm, bright, elaborate room. A member of the Vulcan consulate and two hotel employees met them. Starin, the consulate member, greeted them, briefly explained the procedures for the days ahead, and asked if anyone required anything before moving on to the reception room. No one responded—the room was thicker with anticipation than McCoy would have ever expected from a bunch of Vulcans, and he suspected that there wasn’t anyone present who planned to delay the reunion for a glass of water. Starin nodded and motioned for them to follow him from the room. McCoy fell to the rear of the line with Spock and Jim, and together they followed the others along a long, richly-appointed hall and into a spacious area that, had it been on Earth, McCoy would have called a ballroom.

Did Vulcans have balls?

It was his last non-relevant thought, as the low murmuring—so different from what such a reunion would be like on Earth—filled his ears and the doors swung shut behind them. Around him, Vulcans were gathering together and splintering off. Some spoke quietly, some stood silent with hands or foreheads pressed together. To the left, he picked out Salin with the couple from his message. Each of the boy’s parents held one of his hands in both of theirs. Salin’s eyes were closed, T’Kirin’s head rested lightly on his shoulder, and Suvol was speaking softly. McCoy blinked fiercely against the sudden surge of wetness and turned away to give them their privacy. In a far corner he caught sight of T’Pana, standing dwarfed between two tall males who might have been Salin’s age. There was Senn, to his right. Skanet and T’Vel, straight ahead. T’Lir, in a wheelchair surrounded by at least seven Vulcans of various ages. The tears tracked down his face. Jim’s hand squeezed his shoulder. T’Rael over there, Sureth behind that plant …

Daddy!

McCoy’s head snapped around so quickly that his neck popped. At first he saw nothing but dark Vulcan heads and tall lean bodies, but then a group of four moved aside and a flash of pale skin, freckles, and short brown ponytail caught his eye.

His heart stopped.

“Jim?” he whispered, afraid to look away. Behind him, Kirk laughed and gave him a little shove.

“Homecoming for everyone, Bones. Even if you’re not quite home.”

Then Joanna ducked between two close-packed family groups, and McCoy had no time for anyone else. He rounded T’Lissa and her people, met Joanna halfway, and caught her as she dove into his arms. The exuberance of her embrace staggered him—she was a grown young woman now, no longer a child of eight—but he kept them both upright as her teary giggle filled the air around them.

“Daddy,” she whispered, crushing her face in his neck for a long moment. “I missed you, I missed you.”

“Missed you too, sweetheart.”

She pulled back and studied him, laughing again through her tears as she rubbed at the beard. “Yuck. I don’t know …”

“What, you don’t like it?”

Joanna took his face between her hands and kissed one cheek, then the other, then pulled back and wrinkled her nose. “Nope. Don’t think so.”

McCoy pulled her close again. “It’s gone then, darlin’.” He relaxed into his daughter’s embrace and let his own tears flow, and there they stood—two weeping humans in a sea of Vulcan calm.

*****

“Dr. McCoy.”

The whisper was light, but McCoy, accustomed to waking instantly in any circumstance, rolled over immediately and opened his eyes. Light filtered around the window shade—morning, then, but still early if the pale coloring was any indication. Joanna still slept, a silent lump of sheets in the bed beneath the window. It took him a minute to process that—if she wasn’t awake, that meant someone had entered the room from outside. He looked around and found Salin standing above him. The young Vulcan motioned for silence and nodded toward the hallway.

McCoy rose and followed, propping the door behind him. Hotel employees moved up and down the hall, and a few of the guests stirred as well. Most of the Vulcan families would be leaving the hotel today. It was possible that some of them had already gone. McCoy crossed his arms and lifted an eyebrow. “What’s up, kid?”

Salin hesitated, peering up the hall at some undisclosed point for a long moment before returning his full attention to McCoy. “Doctor.” He folded his hands behind him. “You are aware that we will be returning to our homes today.”

“I am.” Oh yes. He was more than aware.

This was a parting he had been trying not to think about …

“Indeed.” If he didn’t know better, he’d think the kid was nervous. “There will be … an additional task for the katra carriers, before such will be possible for them.”

Katra carriers. There it was again.

He wondered what this had to do with him.

“Oh?”

“Indeed.”

He’d never had a conversation in which half of the words were ‘indeed’. It was … uninformative.

“Look, kid, why don’t you just spit it out?”

Salin’s eyebrow began to climb, then returned quickly to its usual place. “In—” The young Vulcan broke off. Apparently, he had noticed it too. “Very well.” He squared his shoulders. “The beliefs of Vulcans in this regard are private, and not for off-worlders to know.”

“Huh. Isn’t that pretty much the beliefs of Vulcans in any matter?”

Salin tilted that peculiar Vulcan shrug. “Perhaps. However, given what you have experienced with us, it has been permitted to make these details known to you, if you will agree that they shall not be passed along to others.”

Huh. All right. McCoy was still a little sleep-fogged and not quite sure what was going on, but he nodded gamely. “Sure. My lips are sealed.”

“Very good.” Salin paused, his eyes distant as he searched for words. “The katra is the living essence of each Vulcan.”

“Right.” McCoy nodded. “Ambassador Sarek told me that much.”

“When death is near, a Vulcan may transfer his or her katra to another. It may be carried by that other for some length of time, during which that Vulcan will benefit from the wisdom and knowledge of the katra carried.” Straight talk, at last. For a Vulcan. Although if he really thought about it, the whole transfer idea was … unsettling. “The katra may also be brought to Mount Seleya, to be placed in the Hall of Ancient Thoughts. The Hall holds the essence of many of the great Masters who have lived and taught throughout our history.”

McCoy struggled to wrap his mind around this. “But they’re not … alive, still?”

“No.” Salin frowned, drawing out the word in an almost human way. Given the discussion, McCoy chose not to point it out. “However, in this way the benefit of who the Masters were, the wisdom of their experiences, is not lost to us.”

How that could be, McCoy had no idea—and honestly, it was probably straying from the point. As if this conversation wasn’t far enough afield. Still, he wasn’t the one who had brought it up. “So, this is done with every Vulcan?” Strange that they were able to keep it under wraps, in that case.

“No.” Salin shook his head briskly. “It is, in fact, quite rare. However …” He paused again. McCoy frowned, thinking back to that first meeting with Sarek in his quarters.

“Ambassador Sarek mentioned katra carriers.”

“Indeed. We did not …” Salin’s eyes were distant. “We did not wish to leave anyone upon Charen, if an opportunity was presented for us to depart.”

Ha. People said that Vulcans didn’t hope. Vulcans said it, sometimes. Hope is an emotion, he’d heard, and more than a few times. But this—this very act—proved every single one of them wrong. Because what was hope, really, but a bunch of Vulcans with no chance of rescue storing up katras year after year on the off chance that someday, somehow, those katras could be released on the sands of Vulcan?

If that wasn’t hope, he didn’t know what was.

“So.” McCoy remembered something, too, about priestesses and Mount Seleya. “None of the Vulcans on Charen were Masters, right? So what will happen to them?” Was there somewhere else they could go? Would they be released into … oh, the Vulcan winds?

“Correct. However, they have been permitted a place in the Hall of Ancient Thoughts. Their knowledge and experience will join that of the Masters, to live on and guide our people.”

It was … a great honor, if he understood correctly. And compassionate. The Vulcans would call it logical, he was sure—have a reason for that label, even—but he called it compassion.

It seemed that Vulcans had it in them after all.

“The katra carriers will be transported into the Forge this morning, where they will approach the mountain on foot and petition the priestesses for entrance.” At McCoy’s raised eyebrow, Salin explained, “The walk lasts only one half of your hours. It is a … symbolic pilgrimage, unlike the days of old. Also, transporters are not allowed on the mountain.”

“I see.”

“The carriers will be required to remain for some time, as the priestesses perform the transfers. However, a short ceremony will be held at the base of the mountain before the carriers enter. Each may bring … companions of their choosing, to send them forth upon the task.” Companions for a secret Vulcan ceremony. That hadn’t gone so well the last time. Salin straightened suddenly. “T’Pana has requested that you and I accompany her to the mountain and participate in the ceremony as her companions.”

It took him a minute to understand. “T’Pana is a carrier?”

“Indeed.” Salin nodded gravely. “A child, who died soon after her arrival. I know nothing more.”

“And … she’s asked for us? Not her sons?”

This was … it sounded like a huge deal, and she had asked for him. An off-worlder. An emotional, illogical human …

“It is not surprising, perhaps.” Salin motioned to McCoy, then himself. “You and I shared much with her during our time on Charen. We three have developed a bond, have we not? Forged in great trial, it will be very much of importance in such a ceremony. It will strengthen her resolve, remain with her during her time on the mountain.” The young Vulcan paused. “That said, T’Pana wishes me to say this to you. You are human. She understands that this is not your way, your custom, and you may not wish to participate in such an encounter. She has no desire to cause you discomfort, and assures you that she will take no offense if—”

“Of course I’ll come.” McCoy’s voice was husky. “I am … very honored to be chosen.” His emotions were overwhelming him again, for an entirely new reason. He had known that they would be separated soon—today, in fact—and would go on to their own lives. He knew, too, that they were special to him, these two Vulcans, but to hear it from them … A bond forged in great trial. It was as close as a Vulcan would maybe ever come to being able to really admit, out loud, what they had shared on that frigid blue planet, light years from Vulcan and Mount Seleya. From Earth. He frowned. “Where is T’Pana?”

“The carriers are already secluded, in preparation for what is to come.” Salin glanced down the hall. “We will leave very shortly, in fact.” He nodded toward the door to McCoy’s room. “You may tell your daughter that we will return before the noon meal.”

“I will, thanks.” McCoy hesitated, glancing down at his pajamas. “Give me a second to change, too. Probably shouldn’t show up at someplace like Mount Seleya looking like this.”

Salin tilted his head. “You are human. Who can say what a human will do?”

McCoy snorted and slipped back into the room to find some appropriate clothes. What did a person wear to a katra carrier ceremony, anyway? Or whatever it was called, there was probably some long Vulcan name he couldn’t pronounce. He’d probably hear it at some point today, and even bets on whether he’d recognize what he was hearing when it happened.

Katra carriers. He paused, allowing his mind to stretch around the concept. It was … fascinating (he winced), physically and psychologically. They held another Vulcan inside of them. Everything that the other had been, had done, was now dependent upon them. It was … well, mind-blowing, really. Could the carriers feel the other Vulcan inside them? Could they … hear the other’s thoughts? Or was it more like an instinct, guiding them almost like their own personal experience until the katra was transferred into the ancient hall?

Crazy Vulcan mind voodoo.

Salin was waiting for him, and here he was dawdling. Time to pick up the pace. McCoy shook his head, dug a fresh shirt out of the closet, and made for the door.

*****

Hot wind scoured the Vulcan sands, kicking up eddies and swirling currents. Silence wrapped them, heavier than the air itself, broken only by the scuff of boots and the distant calls of desert wildlife. Mount Seleya loomed over the approaching supplicants, stark and solid in the hot morning sun. McCoy drew a long breath in, let a long breath out, drew another in. He would normally have been worried about the prospect of a human trekking through the Forge for any length of time, but the Vulcans’ sedate, almost rhythmic pace combined with the light clothing he had chosen allowed for his own physiology to keep up well enough. He matched his steps to those of Salin, hands clasped at the small of his back like the other witnesses, and kept his focus on T’Pana’s sleek figure roughly ten paces ahead. He was still a little nervous, to be honest, given his complete lack of familiarity with any kind of katra ceremony. Salin had assured him that this was not a situation Vulcan had previously faced, though, and that the ceremony would be unique.

In other words, they were all just making it up as they went, and as long as he kept his mouth shut and followed the others’ lead he probably wouldn’t embarrass himself (or T’Pana) too badly.

A light jingling was beginning to thread its way through the gusting of the wind. McCoy looked up from his dust-covered boots. They were nearly on top of the mountain now, maybe five hundred feet out from the base of a tremendous staircase cut directly into the red stone. Two elderly Vulcan females swathed in white stood on the lowest step—priestesses, unless he had completely missed that boat during Salin’s rundown. On either side of the stairs two younger females, both dressed in grey robes similar to those of the priestesses, stood stationed behind tall frames hung with tiny bells that caught and reflected the brilliant sunlight. The frames reminded him of some of the instruments he had seen at Spock’s wedding, although these were too large to be carried. The women shook them, the frames swaying on stationary poles, and their chaotic tinkling reached out to draw the visitors in.

A gong rang out from high upon the mountain, and the carriers halted in their tracks. The witnesses stilled as well, and McCoy settled himself as the elderly priestesses left their post and proceeded regally across the sands. The wind whipped at them, rifling his hair and chilling his newly-bare jaw line even despite its heat. It was … comforting. He felt more like himself without the facial hair, and he was glad that Joanna had convinced him to shave. It was stupid, maybe, but he hadn’t even realized the memories that clung to that beard until it was gone.

The jingling rose in a frantic wave, then cut off abruptly when the priestesses stopped before the katra carriers. There were sixteen in all, over half of the Vulcans rescued from Charen, and the line spread out for a good distance. One priestess stepped forward and spoke in an ancient dialect that the universal translator did not render. Salin’s hushed voice murmured at his side.

“Although you yourselves were in need, you have offered a place to those who could not be saved, that their katras may rest upon the lands of their ancestors rather than in bondage upon a cruel and distant world. All of Vulcan reveres your choice.” A ragged succession of half-bows rippled along the row of carriers. “You have now returned to your home and stand upon the sands of the Forge, before the sacred mountain and the Hall of Ancient Thoughts. What do you ask for these katras?

The response rose from the carriers in modern Vulcan, without need for external translation. “Rest, priestess, among those others who have been granted a place within the ancient halls.”

The first priestess bowed deeply before them. “As your actions have been honorable, so is this request, and it has been granted according to your stated desire. We will meld briefly now, to ensure that each katra brought before us would request the same.” The lined, sunken eyes rose. For a brief instant her gaze lingered on McCoy, but moved on to the others before he could decide whether he should be uncomfortable. “Witnesses, approach.”

All right, then. This show was on the road. McCoy took a deep breath and followed Salin forward, stopping just behind T’Pana. Neither of them touched her, but he was near enough to feel the heat radiating from her body and knew she would be aware of the same. The priestesses moved slowly to opposite ends of the line and stopped before the outermost carriers. Their long, bent fingers unerringly brushed the first facial contact points, and silence fell—words ceased, bells hung still, and even the wind seemed to lay down in respect.

The melds were indeed brief, so much so that he wondered how they could actually learn anything in that amount of time. Still, McCoy was no expert on mind melds, his own couple of times on the receiving end notwithstanding, and he wasn’t likely to figure it out here. Anyway, it was their turn now and he should be paying attention. He jerked his thoughts back to the present and his companions as the second priestess halted before them. T’Pana neither tensed nor pulled back when the wrinkled fingers approached her face. She might have been carved from the surrounding stone for all the reaction she conveyed, and McCoy felt again that reluctant surge of admiration for the Vulcan ability to master instinctive movement. It was over as quickly as the others, and in no time flat the two priestesses stood before them all again.

“The katras within are willing and gratified, and so we invite those who bear them to enter upon the stairway unto the temple.” The priestess bowed her head. “Although this is a time-honored ritual and has been often performed without incident, we must acknowledge that this manner of procedure always bears with it a certain risk. Therefore, we ask each carrier before us to come forward on his or her own to state your intention again, in full knowledge of the path before you. Should you choose to proceed, continue on to the stairway and ascend.”

Risk. There was always risk in any procedure involving either the body or the mind—he had been a doctor long enough to know that—but none of them had come this far only to turn back now. The first of the katra carriers stepped forward, executing another half bow before the elderly Vulcans.

“I am Sinra, priestesses, and I choose to release the living essence of the Vulcan T’Reyal into the ancient halls.”

The wind lifted a haze of sand around them, battering hair and clothing. Sinra stepped around the priestesses, making his way to the mountain, and the next carrier stepped forward.

“T’Lathi, priestesses, and I choose to release the living essence of the Vulcans Sarith and T’Zal into the ancient halls.”

She, too, approached the stairs, and another took her place. The list stretched, and the winds gusted, and the names shimmered in the hot, heavy air. Svayal. Sentir. T’Brin. Sartor. T’Gretha. T’Rel. T’Pana stepped forward, and McCoy knew it was the last time he would see her for … well, who knew? He couldn’t help it—he squeezed her arm gently as she moved away. She looked around, eyes flickering understanding and gratitude, and then she was gone. T’Kitha. Skola. T’Hesh. He knew it was his own human imagination, because the katras wouldn’t be transferred until the priestesses finalized the ceremony in the temple, but it was almost as if he could feel them in the wind around him, swirling free at last beneath the Vulcan sun. Storon. T’Yla. Strangely enough, the winds seemed to be working on him, too—McCoy felt another small piece of the crushing weight that he had carried inside of him for the past months loosen and lift away. He was warm, and safe (as safe as things ever got when you worked for Jim Kirk, anyway), and free. It was time to let all the rest of it go.

T’Cree. Saric.

The last of the carriers spoke their piece and mounted the stairway. The priestesses and their attendants followed. Around him, the other witnesses turned away from the mountain and began to make their way back across the sands to the transport site. McCoy took another long, deep breath, then looked over to Salin and flashed a grin. One dark eyebrow climbed, but the young Vulcan only shook his head and settled his pace to match McCoy’s. For once, McCoy was glad that Vulcans weren’t into idle chit chat. He’d seen and heard so much today that his already overloaded brain was ready for a little bit of shut-down. He would have all the time in the galaxy to think about Vulcan metaphysics. Right now, he was just going to walk quietly and (he snorted to himself) soak in the ambiance of the Vulcan desert.

He was human, after all.  Katra carrying, at least, was one thing he would never have to worry about.

***The End***

(1) Mark Twain (misquote)

(2) Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (paraphrase) – Given Jim’s penchant for old books, I thought this could possibly be an association he might actually make … 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Equilibrium (by PSW)

  1. I stumbled across this website whilst looking for something else, scanned down the list of ‘fandoms’ and decided to give this a go. I am immensely impressed. You kept such a long story going without it becoming repetitive, maudlin or dull in any way. The characters are all plausible and so too their reactions to the situation. You have a tremendous talent. Thank you for sharing it.

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    1. Thank you for your comments — it was so much fun to receive them. I’m glad you decided to give this a go, and that you enjoyed it. It really was a lot of fun to write. 🙂

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  2. I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the premiere of TOS and yet I’ve never read any ST fanfiction until now. What an introduction! This story is complex and insightful. You nailed the voice of McCoy, Kirk, and Spock. I liked how you captured Kirk’s tone (“Ah, Commander.” Kirk bestowed what McCoy called his ‘polite-but-I-wish-you’d-get-off-my-ship’ smile. “Welcome to the Enterprise.”) that we all know so well. McCoy’s experience with Salin and T’Pana (“A bond forged in great trial.”) parallels the bond between himself, Spock and Kirk. Would that this story had been the script for the first ST movie! I’m looking forward to the next great adventure.

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    1. I have fun writing all three, as their thought processes are so different, but I admit it is especially fun to see if I can get Kirk just right — if I can hear Shatner saying the lines, piece … by piece. 😛

      I’m glad you liked it. And I’m also super impressed that you were able to fit this in with everything else you’ve had going on lately! Thanks so much for your lovely comments!

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