Jim slipped into the turbo lift and breathed a sigh of relief as the doors closed behind him. He'd managed to avoid Spock for the last three and a half hours, and it was looking good that he'd be planet-side before Spock hunted him down via communicator.
It wasn't that he didn't want to talk to Spock. He did, always. He just really didn't want to continue the argument they'd been having for the better part of a week. So, if he'd tweaked the beam down rotations and was going down a mere forty minutes early, it was perfectly understandable and in no way cowardly. Captain's prerogative and all that. He didn't need to inform his first officer of such an insignificant change either.
With a hiss, the doors opened and Jim exited with a bounce in his step, only to falter upon seeing the oh-so-not-amused look on Spock's face. Well, shit.
"Don't you have better things to do besides stalking me?" Jim continued toward the transporter room, knowing without looking that Spock was following.
"I would be remiss in my duties as first officer if I did not once again try to dissuade you from your illogical decision to beam down without proper protection."
Jim noticed that wasn't an answer, and he rolled his eyes as they entered the transporter room. His gaze immediately zeroed in on Bones leaning against the console and smirking at Scotty, who cursed before handing over a credit chip. Clearly, he should have known Spock would anticipate his attempt to sneak off ship if it was being gambled on. Although it wasn't the first time money had been exchanged based on his or Spock's reaction to each other’s actions. Jim mentally shrugged and decided they would need shore leave soon if the crew was that bored before turning to address the stubborn Vulcan doing an admirable impersonation of his shadow.
"It's not illogical to beam down to a completely uninhabited planet during a completely routine survey. And proper protection doesn't mean you. I have two security officers in each survey group, which is standard operating procedure, so just stuff whatever regs you're planning on spouting off at me."
"May I remind you that you have been injured on three separate occasions while surveying uninhabited planets? Also, as first officer it is my duty to protect the Enterprise's captain and I cannot do that if said captain flaunts regulations and insists on beaming down to every new planet we encounter."
"Look, Spock, it's out of my hands. I'd love to take you down and watch you geek out with the rest of the nerds but you're not cleared for landing parties." Jim reached out and gently tapped his index finger against the netting immobilizing Spock's left hand against his chest. "You're injured. You can't go. That's final."
"Doctor McCoy, please explain to the captain that I am perfectly capable of beaming down and assisting with this survey and am in no way hindered by my current status."
“Jim hid his grin when the glare Spock aimed at Bones made the request a menacing order instead.”
"Goddammit! Look here Spock, you can't go. Your nerves are shot to hell and all it would take to undo the hours of delicate work I put into fixing your hand is one bump. You can't hold a standard science tricorder and you certainly can't throw yourself into harm's way should this fool find trouble down there." McCoy continued talking over Jim's indignant 'hey!'. "If you're so worried, send extra security down, but you ain't leaving this ship. Is that understood?"
Jim looked between his friends and felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise as he stood in the middle of their glaring contest. Yeah, okay, enough of that.
"Spock, there's nothing to worry about. It's two days, tops. One little overnight stay on a quiet planet. Nothing's going to happen."
"There are many questions regarding this planet that are as yet unknown, therefore your placations are illogical and unfounded. However, I concede to the doctor's findings. I also find his suggestion of extra security personnel to have merit. With your leave, I will assign the appropriate security to join your party."
"Woah! If you're assigning more security, it better be for everyone and not just my group. Jesus, you act like I need a babysitter. I'm the God damned captain, for fuck's sake!"
Spock merely raised his eyebrow before heading to the computer terminal to start arranging security personnel. Bones sniggered before clapping Jim on the shoulder. "Experience, Jim. Experience has taught him well."
"Get the hell out of here. Scotty!" Jim bounded up to the transporter to join the second half of his survey party. They all appeared excessively amused by the scene they had just witnessed, which made Jim pout just a tiny bit.
"Energize." Jim caught one last glimpse of Spock's worried gaze before his vision faded to black.
Jim stared at the newly arrived security detail and felt a thread of suspicion take root. He waved a hand in dismissal and flipped open his communicator.
"Kirk to Sulu."
"Sulu here, Captain."
"Just out of curiosity, how many security officers did Spock send your way?" Jim's foot tapped out an impatient beat at the silence stretching over the connection. "Well?"
"Um, just the one."
"Yeah." Jim let out a sigh. "That's what I thought. Kirk out."
Jim repeated the question with Q'lock's group, receiving the same answer. Frustration and affection warred with him as he contacted the Enterprise.
"Explain to me why I have five extra security officers while the other groups have only one."
"It is only logical, Captain."
"How so?" Jim wandered around briefly before settling himself on a fallen log, watching the survey team set up camp while surreptitiously taking tricorder readings of the soil around them. He suppressed a snort at their eagerness to begin studying the planet while he waited for Spock’s response.
"As Captain, your safety is of the utmost importance. You also have a remarkable penchant for stumbling upon hidden civilizations as well as wild-native species of fauna and suffering life-threatening allergies to the most benign substances. In short, you require more eyes watching your movements than the average crew member."
"Spock! Did you just imply that I'm a trouble maker?" Jim couldn't prevent his amusement from sounding in his voice.
"No, Captain. A more precise wording would be…“trouble magnet” I believe is the term."
"You, Mr. Spock, are a worrywart. But whatever, I suppose your babysitters can stay if it will help you sleep at night. Kirk out." A wicked grin stole over Jim's face at getting the last word. He knew Spock would have pointed out how illogical his statements were, but Jim enjoyed leaving him stewing in his logical denial of emotionality.
With a grunt, Jim rose from his seat and set about helping with the camp. His mind wondered over the incongruity of this planet's untapped resources. Their initial scans showed the planet to be rich in not only dilithium and many other minerals and ores valuable to the federation, but it also housed a wide variety of flora that seemed to send Sulu and the botanists into a drooling frenzy. It was, in short, a scientist’s wet dream.
But that begged the question, why was a planet this ripe with so many natural resources sitting untouched this close to the Klingon neutral zone? The Klingons had no problem breaching Federation space to take what they wanted, so why not claim this marvel of a planet? Something tickled at the back of his mind, but he shook it off as the camp was finalized and the ducklings looked at him with pleading eyes to begin their work in earnest.
"Alright, go have fun. Off with you." Jim shooed them away and watched them scurry off, heads bent over tricorders, recording everything they could as they fanned out across the plateau. He had to fight with Q'lock to get the high ground. The Emalten had glared fiercely at being relegated to the prairies on the other side of the plateau. Sulu hadn't cared at all as long as he was included.
This was, perhaps, the largest survey crew they had deployed since beginning their mission four and a half years ago. Three team leaders, fifteen scientists and six, no, thirteen security officers. There was a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it. They were nearing the end of their mission and slowly making their way back towards home and they were no longer allotted the time in-depth research demanded. Their orders allowed for nothing more than a cursory glance that would be followed up by another ship.
Jim sighed at the thought of being grounded for the foreseeable future. He wanted his ship, his crew, and the dark reach of space. He did not want his mandatory teaching assignment or the day-to-day grind of bureaucracy that was about to be thrust upon him. His only consolation was that his crew would be forced into the same situation. Well, everyone but Spock, who would be taking a short leave of absence to assist on New Vulcan. He didn't really know how he'd get through a day without talking to his first officer. He'd come to rely on him during their time serving together and, over time, they had become friends. He would no doubt need to lean on Spock again as he took up the mantle of professor, it was such a foreign notion to him. He would be responsible for shaping young minds, the very future of Starfleet, and that idea very nearly scared him.
Shaking off the unpleasant thoughts, Jim took in his surroundings for the first time. The landscape was mostly barren, with trees scattered loosely around, some in clumps. From the initial scans he knew there was a ravine that cut across the northern section of the plateau and he'd have to approve someone to go down to investigate. That could wait until the morning though; they had plenty to occupy them for the rest of today.
Curious fingers traced a curved growth arcing out of the ground. It looked like a three-foot thorn, the color of sun-bleached driftwood and looked fragile, as if it would splinter at his touch. But Jim was surprised to find the porous wood solid under his hand.
Jim looked up to find Gelahma towering over him. Her wiry frame only appeared more willowy in her security reds. She nodded at the thorn he was touching before speaking again.
"Gavin was telling me that those are all over the surface and also breach the walls of the plateau. Apparently, the trees collect a vast amount of moisture from the air instead of through the soil, as the ore and mineral content interrupts the normal osmotic process."
"Huh." Jim looked around him again and sure enough, the roots were everywhere, difficult to see in the sun but noticeable if one were looking for them. "And just where is Gavin? I'd hate for anything to befall Spock's favorite duckling."
Gelahma smirked and pointed off to the west. "He's found a particularly interesting grove of trees over in that direction. I've left Emory to keep an eye on him."
Jim looked up and down Gelahma's seven foot frame before crossing his arms in defeat.
"I'm guessing that you've assigned yourself as my personal bodyguard then." It was a statement, not a question. He knew her heritage instilled a strong sense of loyalty and that she would allow no other to guard her captain when Spock was unavailable. He also knew that she lurked in the background, keeping him in her sights even when Spock was at his side. He really needed to break his crew of their over-protectiveness before the start of the next mission or he'd lose his freaking mind.
"Actually, Sir, Commander Spock strongly suggested that I pay special attention to you and prevent you from touching something that may harm, maim or kill you, as you have a special history of doing."
"One time! How was I supposed to know that freaking plant was sentient and vengeful? And hey, that was over three years ago. I have learned my lesson, you know."
Gelahma raised one perfectly sculpted brow and looked pointedly at the hand that had resumed tracing the root. "It would appear that that is not so, Captain."
Jim snorted and stepped away from the intriguing wood. "You've clearly been spending too much time with Spock. I'm putting a stop to that right now. It's not good for anyone if his attitude is contagious."
"Indeed." Jim laughed at her perfect imitation and sauntered off to continue his investigation of the plateau.
Night fell quickly over the camp, and Jim settled into his sleeping bag as he mulled over the day's events. They'd confirmed what their scans had shown and also found several medicinal plants growing in the plains. All in all, the planet was a prime candidate for a mining colony, and he was very aware that the Admiralty would salivate once they sent in their findings.
Jim shifted in his bag and watched the shadows dance across the surface of his tent. He was exhausted; he hadn't spent this long in the sun in quite some time and was feeling the pull of sleep tugging at him. With tired limbs, he reached for his communicator and contacted the ship for their last check in until morning.
"Spock here, Captain."
"Why aren't you sleeping?" Jim tried to sound stern, but he was pleasantly surprised to hear Spock on the other end of the communicator. It was a rarity that ship time aligned with surface time and he knew Spock was technically off-duty and therefore should be resting in order to heal more efficiently. It was the logical thing to do.
"I am not in need of rest this evening, Captain, and I am instead preparing to meditate. However, I left instruction with Mr. Scott that I am to receive all communications from the away teams."
"Not just mine? I thought I was special."
"It would be inappropriate to show favoritism, Captain."
"Says the man who gave me four extra, unnecessary security officers."
"I say unnecessary because things are swell down here. Not a single problem all day."
"I am gratified to hear that."
"Rest up, Mr. Spock. These missions aren't the same without you."
"I will, as ever, follow your orders, Captain. Spock out."
Jim curled onto his side and smiled into the dark, finally allowing sleep to take its hold.
Jim awoke with a start and grabbed at his communicator. It showed that it was minutes before dawn and much too early for anyone to be stumbling around yet. He strained his ears to try and hear what had woken him. His heart hammered in his chest as something brushed across the tent wall. He felt an ominous feeling sink deep and take hold and he instinctively reached for his boots and phaser. With trembling fingers, Jim parted the flaps and quickly scanned the darkened camp.
Moonlight flooded the clearing, bathing it in a supernatural glow. He saw a few heads peeking out of other tents and security pacing the perimeter, nervous hands holding phasers aloft. Jim flipped open his communicator to contact Gelahma but no sound emitted from the device. Quietly, Jim pulled back the flap to exit the tent when it started shaking violently as if caught in hurricane force winds. Jim sprung outside and whipped around to see…nothing.
His tent, everyone's tents, continued being buffeted by some unseen force, causing quick evacuation of the makeshift shelters. They all gathered in the middle of camp, security forming a protective circle around them. The air was tense, and Jim could feel his blood pumping in his veins, could hear its throb in his head.
Everything settled as quickly as it started.
The only noise audible was the panicked gasping breaths of his crew. Jim stood at the ready, phaser drawn when he noticed there was no indicator light at its tip. With sudden realization, Jim squeezed the trigger with no result. No defense available, no way to make contact with the ship or the other teams, they were effectively cut off.
His mind swirled with possibilities. Was it Klingons? Was the ship under attack? Was whatever attacked the tents using some unknown cloaking technology? He had no answers, only more questions. He watched Gelahma edge closer to him, her lanky limbs twitching with nerves. Jim turned about and caught sight of Gavin, wide-eyed and shaking in terror. Jim caught his hand and pulled him to his side. The kid was only twenty-three and had never seen a mission gone wrong first hand. Also, he was Spock's favorite; Jim would keep him close throughout whatever the hell was about to happen.
Then Emory collapsed with a gurgling scream. Then Hanson and Briggs. Jim opened his mouth to issue the order but Gelahma beat him to it with a forceful shove against his shoulder.
They dispersed in every conceivable direction. Jim wanted to keep them all together but he knew he wouldn't be able to break through his crew’s chaotic terror. Not with screams rending the air, first from the west, then the east, then directly behind them as Hardy fell to the ground. Jim clutched tighter to Gavin's thin wrist and pulled the boy along as he ran full tilt through the night. He could hear Gelahma behind them, watching their six. He wanted her to flee, she could outrun whatever pursued them with ease, her long limbs able to cover more distance easier then their own shorter, human leg span, but she remained constant in her protective position.
Dawn proceeded to spread its wan light across the horizon, illuminating the northern ravine that ripped through the earth ahead of them. It was maybe six feet across, with the opposite side sitting lower. They could make it.
"We need to jump it!" Jim shouted as best he could with his lungs gasping for air. Between the panic and the run, breathing was becoming increasingly difficult. With a tiny burst of speed, Jim sprinted forward, taking Gavin with him as he leapt across the divide.
The impact was jarring and sent him tumbling into a roll, disconnecting him with the boy. A piercing scream rent the air and Jim turned to see Gelahma, mid-jump, jerked backwards onto the opposite side of the ravine. Jim wasted no time, he pulled Gavin to his feet and pushed him forward.
"Keep going. Don't stop. The edge is straight ahead. Get down, get away. Keep going!"
They ran. It was all they could do.
The red alert startled Spock from his meditation. His heart thumped erratically in his side as he exited his quarters without bothering to don his science blues. It would take too much time to maneuver his hand through the material, time he didn't have. He knew something would go wrong. Jim would call it intuition; Spock called it statistical likelihood.
Spock erupted onto the bridge to find absolute mayhem. Alarms were blaring from every console, crew spoke over each other with each new piece of data they gathered. Mr. Scott stood over the sitting science officer and watched the scans of the planet popping up on the display. He had seen this many times before and knew he was witnessing tightly controlled panic. Spock needed information and he needed it now.
"Mr. Scott, report."
"We've lost life signs on the plateau."
"They just stopped. All at once. We can't get a lock on a single soul down there. No communication either. We've checked with Sulu and Q'lock but they have no clue what's going on. Scans show no anomalous activity to explain why we're cut off and we're assuming that's what this is because otherwise…"
"Understood. Have Lieutenant Sulu proceed to the base of the plateau for visual confirmation of the scans results."
"Already on it, he should be making contact any minute now."
Spock sat in the command chair and gripped the arm tightly with his uninjured hand. It wasn't an unprecedented event; they had lost life signs before due to ion storms and highly concentrated ore content disrupting the signal. But to lose all contact in an area that previously housed a strong signal, with no signs of environmental disturbance, was foreboding. Uhura turned just as Spock felt the armrest start to bend under his hand, and put a gasping Sulu over the intercom.
"I've just reached the edge of the plateau."
"What do you see, Lieutenant?" Spock sat tense, waiting for some idea of what was happening below.
"Nothing. No storms, no phaser fire. Nothing." Before Spock could respond, a distant scream filtered over the connection, raising the hairs on his arms and neck.
"Mr. Sulu, use your viewer to scan the ridge for activity. Nyota, connect Mr. Sulu's viewer with the main screen."
Spock received dual confirmations of his orders and a magnified view of grass came into view before it swept with dizzying speed up the sloped sides of the plateau to the top of the tableland. Spock stood and stepped closer to the screen. His gaze swept the rim as Sulu covered the tree line with a quick sweep before jerking back toward the left as another, louder scream sounded across the open link.
In shock, Spock watched a blue clad figure tumble brutally down the incline, bouncing off rocks and exposed roots before halting suddenly as a root impaled his chest. Spock inhaled sharply; with the body stilled, he could see the pale face, frozen in a mask of terror, and he recognized Lieutenant Gavin. Then another scream filled the air and Spock's heart stopped. Jim.
Another body, this one wearing the gold of command, slid over the edge and started descending the sloped wall of the plateau. It was a controlled fall, Spock could see Jim scrambling for purchase as he slipped down loose shale far too rapidly.
"Commander, we're receiving sporadic life signs from the landing party. They're appearing on opposite sides of the plateau."
"Start locking on to their locations and beam them up immediately." Spock issued the order automatically, his gaze never wavering from the scene playing out in front of him.
He watched as Jim stumbled, began to roll down the embankment before coming to a sudden stop, a root spearing his thigh. Then Jim began to scream, body arching off the ground as though touched by a strong electrical current. Jim clutched at his chest as his free leg found purchase against a solid boulder and pushed. Spock was frozen at the horrific sight of Jim's thigh lifting partially off the root, only to slam back down fully against it, then lift again as Jim continued to push away from the root and the unseen force lifting him off the ground. Jim half twisted and reached for another root, pulling with his arms while pushing with his free leg until the root piercing his thigh bowed under the combined force. Then Jim was falling, tumbling, sliding rapidly down the steep slope.
"Beam him up! Beam him up now!"
Jim's life signs registered at that moment and Spock took his first breath in what felt like hours as Jim faded into nothingness.
"Beam the rest of the landing party up immediately. I want that planet evacuated now."
Spock entered the turbo lift, giving the conn to Scotty as an afterthought, his entire being focused on Jim as he made his way toward sickbay.
The chaos that greeted him was less controlled than that on the bridge. Alarms blared as survivors flat-lined and Spock felt his own heart stop as he searched frantically for Dr. McCoy, knowing that he would be supervising Jim's care. He turned around at the sound of familiar cursing and caught his breath at the sight of blood squirting into the air from Jim's femoral artery.
Without thought, Spock strode forward and clamped his hand tightly above the wound, cutting off the flow of blood while McCoy wordlessly inserted a tissue regenerator into the torn flesh and set about sealing the open vein. At McCoy's terse nod, Spock relaxed his hold enough to assess whether the repair would hold, then stepped back to allow the doctor and nurses to work unimpeded.
"Doctor, what is his status?"
McCoy wiped at the sweat dripping down his face and left behind a bloody smear. His shoulders were hunched as he cleaned detritus from Jim's thigh and cauterized small bleeds.
"I don't know Spock! I'm working as I go here. It was more important to keep Jim from bleeding out then scanning him." Even as he spoke, McCoy pulled his hands from the wound and reached with dripping red fingers for the medical tricorder sitting atop the instrument tray beside the bed. The biobed's readings were sporadic and hard to decipher. Jim's vitals were fluctuating wildly, causing alarms to flare to life then stutter out into silence.
McCoy swept the device over Jim's unconscious form and cursed as the bed began blaring another alarm, this one consistent and shrill, notifying them of Jim's lack of heartbeat. McCoy tossed the tricorder aside and sprinted across the room to grab the bypass machine. With efficient movements, he rolled the machine over Jim's torso and inserted the long, hollow needle through Jim's chest cavity to pierce the heart within. In seconds the alarm faded to silence as the machine sealed bleeders and began cycling Jim's blood even as it jolted the still organ to life with small electrical bursts.
"His chest, oh my God. I don't even know."
"Doctor?" Spock moved to stand beside McCoy at the doctor's beckoning and took in the screen on the machine that showed Jim's bone structure in a haunting green glow.
"Do you see it?"
Spock did and he could not fathom what could cause such damage. Jim's ribcage was littered with micro fissures that ran from the center outward. Three separate ribs had completely pulled away from their connective tissue. It looked as though something had reached through Jim's chest, grasped his ribcage and pulled while squeezing the protective structure. But that was impossible.
"I don't know, Spock. I just don't know." McCoy set the bone regenerator over Jim's chest, angled over Jim's head to access his ribs around the bypass machine that was still filtering clots from Jim's blood. "He's stable for now. We can figure the rest out later. Chapel!"
Spock remained, standing silent sentry over his captain while Nurse Chapel finished repairing the damage to Jim's leg. McCoy flitted about the med bay, checking on the other survivors of the landing party. Uhura's voice over the comm startled Spock from his immobility. He had not noticed the calm that had stolen over the bay as quiet beeps and shuffling feet heralded the return to something like normalcy. However, nothing about this situation was normal. With one last glance at Jim's supine form, Spock crossed the room and acknowledged Uhura's call.
"Spock, Scotty is debriefing the landing parties and will have a report for you within the hour. The signal on the plateau has restored itself, though we don't know how or why. We've been able to beam the remains of the landing party aboard and they are currently being transported to the morgue. Let McCoy know that they'll be available for examination in twenty minutes."
"Were there no other survivors, Lieutenant?"
Spock looked around the room and saw five occupied biobeds, two housing bodies draped in white sheets. Three survivors out of thirteen. Ten lives gone with no explanation.
"Understood. Spock out." Spock released the comm button and was rewarded with a burst of static. He made his way to where McCoy was conferring with Dr. M'Benga over a data padd. They both looked pale and shaken, exhaustion weighing on their bodies and causing them to appear shrunken.
"Doctors, what information have you gathered?"
McCoy sighed and pushed a hand through his unkempt hair. Spock noted absently that McCoy had changed his bloodied smock and had cleansed his hands at some point.
"The chest cavities of all survivors are fairly similar to Jim's by way of damage. Johnson and Bonnet's ribs were crushed beyond recognition," McCoy nodded at the cloth draped bodies being wheeled to the morgue. "Some of the bone was pulverized. Whatever caused that damage was incredibly powerful and managed to cause massive internal injury without marring the external skin. Not a single contusion was found on anyone's skin."
"We've also discovered an unknown and seemingly harmless trace of radiation on the bodies we've examined." M'Benga spoke quietly, as if not willing to admit to such an incongruous statement of fact.
"I have been notified that the remains of those still on the planet have been transported to the morgue facilities and will be ready for examination in 15.42 minutes."
"They’re all dead?" M'Benga paled as he asked his question, the blood seemingly draining from his face as he shrunk further into himself.
The shrill whistle of the bypass machine finishing its cycle cut through the air and the trio moved as one to Jim's bedside. M'Benga extracted the needle and pushed the machine aside while McCoy picked up the discarded medical tricorder and began scanning Jim again.
"His bones are healing well, the ribs have already reconnected with the torn tissue. His heart is functioning normally and there's no sign of infection. I think we're in the clear for the moment. Let's check out the rest of the landing party and see if we can't shed some light on what the hell happened down there."
"Doctor, when will we have an opportunity to question the survivors?"
Tension suddenly sprang up between the doctors as they shuffled their feet nervously and avoided making eye contact with Spock.
"What have you not told me?"
It was McCoy who broke first, running a shaky hand down his face before flopping limply at his side as he released a quiet sigh. "Honestly, we don't know Spock. We haven't sedated anyone, we didn't have the opportunity to do so. They're comatose and there's no medical reason as to why."
"I see." Spock forced the words past tight lips, his body suddenly feeling the chill of the Enterprise's standard environmental settings acutely. "Perhaps you should proceed with all haste to the morgue to begin the autopsies. I am required to report to Mr. Scott to hear the results of his debriefing with the other away teams."
"Yeah. That sounds like a plan. We'll figure it out, Spock. We always do." McCoy looked as if he wanted to reach out and touch Spock in the reassuring manner that Jim used, but his hand merely clenched at his side before he turned and exited the bay with M'Benga trailing behind him.
Mr. Scott's report held no new information. The other teams had neither experienced nor witnessed anything outside of the norm to provide new insight into what had transpired atop the plateau. Mr. Sulu and his team had seen exactly what the Bridge crew had witnessed through Sulu's viewer. They were still in the dark.
A burst of static filled the air as the wall comm crackled to life, emitting the fractured voice of Dr. McCoy.
The conversation was stilted and frustrating as the comm unit cut in and out with increasing frequency. Spock sent Mr. Scott to the bridge to investigate the disruption and headed to the morgue to speak with the doctor in person.
"We've found the same chest wounds on all the bodies, and trace amounts of the same radiation. What's particularly interesting is the decomposition rate of the bodies."
"I do not understand."
McCoy walked over to a covered body and pulled back the sheet to reveal the corpse of Lieutenant Gavin, his skin mottled in a gelatinous patchwork of black and green, his pale, lifeless eyes staring sightlessly up at the ceiling.
"He's been dead, what, five hours? This body looks like it's been days without refrigeration. I don't know if something on the planet caused the cells to break down faster, but every body so far is deteriorating faster than should be possible and it hasn't slowed since we arrived."
"Have you found any evidence as to what could have caused the surviving members to remain in their comatose states?"
"Unfortunately, no. We haven't discovered anything useful at all. I want to check on their status, I'm heading back to sickbay while M'Benga continues the autopsies. Why don't you tag along and fill me in on Scotty's report?"
It took no time at all for Spock to relay what little information he had received, and by the time they reached the threshold to sickbay they had filled the air between them with tense silence. Crossing the threshold, however, brought a fresh round of chaos as the silence was chased away by yellow pulsing lights and the sounds of a siren as pneumatic doors hissed closed, clicking locked.
"That's the quarantine system activating. What the hell?" McCoy turned to a wall terminal and pulled up the ship's schematics, the plans quickly flooding with yellow to indicate that the automatic quarantine response system had activated over 90% of the ship and continued to spread, trapping crew members wherever they happened to be.
"Had you discovered any contagions on the bodies or with the survivors?"
McCoy shot Spock an incredulous look before biting out a sarcastic retort. "Oh yes, loads. But it's my first day on the job so I didn't think it was important. Jesus Fucking Christ! What do you think man? Of course I didn't find anything. We need to get the survivors into isolation booths to try and combat whatever they're carrying."
With quick efficiency, they placed the three remaining survivors into the isolation chambers and set the decontamination field to sweep the rooms, hoping that whatever was contaminating the ship would be contained and effectively neutralized.
They stood outside Jim's room, staring at the unmoving form within as the ship wide decontamination field passed over their bodies, leaving behind a slightly warm tingle tickling along their skin. Spock forced himself to look away and turned toward Dr. McCoy's office.
"I must contact the bridge and confirm the status of the crew." Spock departed from McCoy's side before allowing the man to speak. Once inside the office, Spock closed the door behind him and allowed his body to sag under the immense pressure bearing down on it. He had had only the briefest of meditations the night before, his body and mind fitful with his sense of impending doom; he was exhausted and his hand throbbed painfully from clenching it against his chest as the days events had unfolded.
He wanted to crawl into bed and forget that any of this was truly happening, which was a wholly un-Vulcan desire and highly illogical. He could not wish away this day, could not will Jim to awaken and take charge with his usual grace and good humor. He could not assist as was his wont, and allow Jim to bring about their salvation with his leaps of illogic and unwillingness to concede to defeat. No. The weight of responsibility lay with him and he would not, could not shrug it off.
Straightening his spine, Spock sat at the desk and hailed the bridge. Static erupted from the unit but no voices stuttered across. Spock again tried to hail the bridge with no success. He tried next to reach Engineering and then the commissary, both to no avail. Communications were down, the ship was under lockdown and their captain—along with a geologist and security officer—were suffering from an unknown medical contagion, and Spock had no idea how to resolve any of those issues.
He slumped forward and rested his head on his folded arms, not bothering to move as the door hissed open to allow Dr. McCoy to enter. The visitor's chair creaked as McCoy settled into it, but the good doctor remained silent. There was nothing to say, nothing to do, they were at an impasse. Despite the despair that filled the room, the quiet brought a moment of respite. After the non-stop activity of the last few hours, Spock found he reveled in the beat of companionable solace. It, of course, didn't last.
The alarm on isolation unit #2 blared to life, and they wasted no time in bounding from the room. They skidded to a halt at the doorway of the room to find Chapel kneeling over the lifeless body of security officer Michaels. He lay slumped against the wall, a widening pool of blood spreading around him, soaking into his gown from where he apparently chewed through his own wrist. Even with his limited medical knowledge, Spock was aware that the man should not have bled out so quickly.
"Doctor, what-" Nurse Chapel shifted to the side, allowing more of the body to be viewed from where they stood and McCoy gasped at the gangrenous patches of skin covering the majority of the man's lower body. "What is going on?"
Before any guess could be hazarded, alarms from the remaining two isolation chambers sounded. Spock and McCoy shared a single horrified look before turning to face Jim's room. Through the glass they could see Jim huddled in a corner, a blank look on his face as he repeatedly and forcefully slammed his head into the wall. Blood could already be seen marking the white wall behind his head, and they sprinted into the room to his side to try and halt his actions.
McCoy wrapped his hands around Jim's head to absorb the impact but could not stop Jim from his actions. He shouted at Jim, trying to break through the haze that seemed to hold their captain, their friend, but received no answer. Spock snatched a tricorder from the wall and scanned Jim quickly and thrust the device in front of McCoy to allow the man to read the results without taking his hands from their protective position.
"His brain waves are all over the place! I don't-" McCoy let loose a few choice curses before shaking his head. "I don't know what's happening to him. I've never seen readings like this but, but it's like he's fighting a war inside his head and God damnit, he's losing. He's losing, Spock."
It took a split second for Spock to decide his course of action but once he did there was no hesitation. He heard McCoy yell at him to stop but he just stretched out his uninjured hand and found the psi points that were so familiar to him and then he was drowning. He was caught in a maelstrom of emotion, and none of it Jim's. No, Jim's emotions, in nearly every permutation possible, were familiar to him as if they were his own. No, the menacing, violent thoughts tearing at his consciousness, ripping through his shields with exceptional ease were not Jim's. Spock battled through the swirling mass of vicious thought and sought out the spark, the visual essence that was Jim. It felt like hours, intense pressure built in his head and dizziness began to overtake him. He thought he could take no more, that he would have to abandon Jim to the sadistic mercies of whatever possessed him when he found it. Gathering what little mental strength remained within him, Spock reached out with everything he had and touched Jim's soul and snapped out of the meld with brutal abruptness.
He stumbled backwards as if from a blow and felt his head impact with the deck. It took him a moment to orient himself before he could push himself up on his elbow. The sight that greeted him filled him with intense satisfaction. Jim sat back gasping for air, clinging to McCoy's forearms as though to steady himself but his eyes, his eyes were focused, alert. Jim was back with them, free from the presence that had held him.
"Jim?" Those blue, blue eyes settled on him and a hand reached out toward him, Spock took it without thought. Relief, gratitude and something Spock refused to dwell on filtered through the contact, and he tightened his grip around Jim's hand in response.
"What's going on?" Jim's voice rasped out and choked off at the end. McCoy stood and retrieved a small cup of water from the dispenser in the wall. Jim swallowed it quickly and leaned his head against the bulkhead with a wince, his hand coming up to rub at the back of his skull, coming away red. "What the hell is going on?"
Before any answer could be provided, Chapel appeared at the doorway and shook her head in defeat. They turned their attention to Jim; as the only remaining survivor he held all the answers. Unfortunately, his answers didn't hold the key to their salvation. Instead, they still remained as firmly shrouded in the dark as they did before Jim came back to himself. They explained the situation as best as they could while Jim sat atop the biobed, suffering silently through what was the fifth pass of the tricorder over his body before he pushed McCoy away and stood.
"I need clothes, something that doesn't show my ass, and a computer. We need to override the quarantine. I have to get to the bridge." Finally, with something to do, a tangible goal to work toward, they sprung into action. Jim was provided a pair of scrubs and his boots that had been removed upon his arrival in sickbay, and he and Spock confiscated McCoy's terminal to start the process of hacking the ship's quarantine program. They quickly traced the shortest route from sickbay to the bridge and began accessing the specific coding keeping them from the resources they needed to formulate a battle strategy
McCoy, for his part, disappeared to allow them to work undisturbed. It was a long, grueling process, with Spock forced to type one-handed and Jim needing to rest his arms occasionally in order to take pressure off his still healing ribs. Inside two hours, they had a path to the bridge cleared and a patch installed and running to automatically unseal the remaining locked sections of the ship. They exited McCoy's office to find him standing over a biobed, starring down at the body it held.
Jim approached McCoy, but Spock held back. It was irrational, but he did not want to witness whatever new horror was about to be revealed. Jim stood beside Dr. McCoy and stared down at the still form of Nurse Chapel.
Without speaking, McCoy pulled back the covers and exposed Christine's blackened legs to the harsh overhead lights. The stench of decay filled the air and reached Spock where he stood across the room.
"She's alive, unresponsive and rotting. And there's nothing I can do to help her, to help any of them."
Spock jerked his gaze about the room to see McCoy's staff occupying multiple beds in similar condition. It was horrifying to see so many crew members struck down, knowing there was no help to be had. At least, none at this moment. They had to get to the bridge and assess the threat as it existed to the ship as a whole. He turned to speak his thoughts only to halt at Jim's sudden gasp.
Spock watched Jim catch the collapsing man before he could hit the floor. It took seconds for Spock to reach them and he assisted Jim in gently placing the doctor upon a biobed of his own. McCoy's eyes were unseeing, fixed on some unknown object and the telltale blackness of dying flesh trailed across his hand, up his wrist, and peeked out over the collar of his blue medical smock.
"Jesus, Bones." The whispered words accompanied shaking hands that carded through thick, dark hair. "God."
"Jim." Spock placed a hand to Jim's back and spoke softly. "We must reach the bridge and assess the situation if we are to be of help to anyone."
His hand glided up and down the cotton clad stretch of muscle and vertebrae in a soothing motion. He needed to calm Jim, to assist him with his grief, but he also needed to remind him of his duty to his ship, and his crew.
"We must go, now, Jim."
Jim wiped at his eyes before straightening and pulling the mantle of captain once again over his shoulders. With a quick nod, he turned and walked out of sickbay, away from his dying friend and crew without looking back. Spock could do nothing but follow.
They stepped into the corridor and stumbled to a halt. Bodies littered the corridor in varying stages of decomposition. Chief Security Officer Giotto lay sprawled feet from the turbo lift, his skin glistening and beginning to slide from his bones. It was a gruesome display, and it brought bile to the base of Spock's throat. Only his Vulcan control kept him from becoming ill; Jim was not so fortunate. He staggered to a wall and braced himself with one arm while his other wrapped protectively around his ribs as he retched uncontrollably, spilling the meager contents of his stomach onto the deck, splattering the walls with his vomit.
Spock stepped behind him and placed three fingers to Jim's temple and initiated a shallow meld to help ease the sickness away. It worked quickly and Jim stood, breathing raggedly as he rubbed a trembling hand across his lips. "Jesus. I-" Jim cleared his throat and swallowed whatever words he was about to speak. His glance at the turbo lift that would carry them to the bridge, the room that housed the dearest members of the crew gave Spock a clue as to what he was thinking, however.
At Jim's nod, they turned as one and carefully stepped around Giotto's body to enter the turbo lift. It was an excruciating fifteen seconds, barely enough time to prepare for what they would see, and yet it seemed to stretch into eternity. The magnetic locks engaged and the car slowed, then halted, and the doors opened onto a nightmarish tableau.
They saw Scotty first, sprawled face down across the deck, empty hand stretched before him reaching for something never gained. Sulu was unrecognizable but for the fact that the nearly liquefied corpse lay at the base of the helm. Chekov was next, his body barely sporting the telltale signs of necrosis. Spock held off as long as he could before turning toward the communications console. Nyota was slumped over her terminal, eyes blank and devoid of the warm mischievousness that defined her. He could not tear his gaze away, would not have had Jim not tugged his arm to gain his attention.
"You have to go, Spock." That unanticipated comment snapped him out of his stupor and brought his attention to Jim, who was waving a padd frantically in front of him.
"There's a path to the shuttle bay, it's a bit convoluted and you'll have to make use of the Jeffries tubes, but you can do it. From our current location, you can intercept the Roosevelt in three days time if you follow the trajectory I've outlined."
Spock blinked his eyes rapidly and tried to determine how long he had stood staring at Nyota because he had to have missed a major development to be so completely unable to process what Jim was saying.
"I do not understand."
Jim stepped forward and gripped his arms forcefully, the corner of the padd pressing painfully into Spock's bicep under Jim's palm.
"You have to get off this ship. There's no one left, Spock. They’re all dead or dying. We can't contact Starfleet to warn them; you need to do it."
"Jim." Spock pushed away and stared in horror at the suggestion that he abandon the ship, the crew. Jim. "No!"
"Spock, you're the only one unaffected by whatever the hell this is. If we go off grid, they'll send another ship to our last known location to investigate. Starfleet cannot be allowed to send another ship to that planet. It has to be you. You have to go."
"You will come with me."
With a flurry of movement, Jim tossed the padd onto the command chair and lifted his scrub top while pulling his pants down to expose his hip. "I can't go, Spock. I'm infected."
Spock stepped forward and ran shaky fingers over the discolored stretch of skin. "Oh." The word left his mouth unintentionally, uselessly and so lacking in the depth of emotion that was roiling through him at the sight of Jim's dying flesh.
Jim released his shirt and let it slide down to cover the offensive proof of his impending death. He grasped tightly onto Spock's hand and leaned over to retrieve the padd from the chair. Jim's chair. Spock could not pull his thoughts together. It was impossible that he had lost everyone, the whole of his life in a span of time that did not exceed nine hours total.
He felt cool plastic pressed into his hand and the loss of Jim's warmth as he turned away and took over the helm.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm steering the ship into the sun." Jim relayed this information as if he were announcing a desire to take a walk. It was nonchalant, matter of fact and completely ridiculous.
"You cannot do that."
"Well, it's been a while since I took basic piloting during my Academy days, but I think I remember the gist of it." Jim tossed a careless smirk over his shoulder as he set the course and locked it in with his authorization code.
"You need to get moving. It's going to take at least forty minutes to reach the shuttle bay following the map I drew up for you, maybe longer with your hand. And don't forget that you have to prepare the shuttle for launch with one hand as well."
"Spock, it's done. We've got maybe ninety minutes until we become a dazzling light display. I need you to leave. Now. Please."
Jim wouldn't look at him, his attention on the display before him showing the arc of the ship as it made its way toward the star that would annihilate him and everything he loved. Spock could do nothing but grant him this last request, because following Jim's orders was what he did and he would not fail him in this.
Spock stepped into the lift and placed his hand over the button that would close the doors and take him six decks down before he would be forced to follow Jim's directions. He didn't press it. Instead he waited patiently, his gaze never wavering from Jim. It took only a moment for Jim to stand and turn to face him, appearing no less like the exceptional captain that he was in the light blue medical scrubs.
They held each other's gaze for the span of several heartbeats before Jim smiled sadly and spoke what was circling Spock's mind.
"Maybe in another life, yeah?"
And there it was. The acknowledgement of what they had kept silent so long. Spock felt his eyes burn as he swallowed forcefully to clear the sudden blockage in his throat. "In another life" he rasped out and pressed the button. The doors closed on Jim settling into the command chair, legs spread, body encompassing the width of the chair as no one else had ever been able to do.
Sarek exited his shuttle and was met by Captain Mitchell of the USS Roosevelt.
"I apologize for the unpleasantness of this meeting, Ambassador." Captain Mitchell raised his hand respectfully in the Ta'al.
"There is no cause for apology, Captain. The fault does not lie with you." Sarek returned the gesture and waited for the Captain to dispense with the formalities and guide him to Spock.
"If you will follow me, I'll take you directly to the medical bay."
"That would be most appreciated."
Sarek followed him across the wide berth of the shuttle bay, his steps slowing only as they passed a shuttle surrounded by several frazzled looking technicians. The rear cargo hatch lay open and exposed a disorganized mess within. Wires hung from the ceiling, sending occasional showers of sparks down onto the deck, consoles were smashed in and dents could be seen marring the once smooth surface of the hull. What caught Sarek's full attention and caused him to cease his forward momentum, were two details: one being the designation of the shuttle marking it as belonging to the USS Enterprise, and two, the amount of green blood coating the interior walls and consoles.
"This is my son's shuttle."
"Yes. Ambassador, we have no idea what happened to the Enterprise or what transpired within that shuttle before we intercepted it. What we do know is that your son purposefully damaged the navigational controls, he erased the emergency black box and catastrophically compromised the shuttle's life support system. We have not discovered why or for what purpose. You son shows no sign of illness or mental derangement so at this time all we have is useless speculation."
"Why have you not asked him?"
Captain Mitchell motioned for them to continue and led Sarek through several corridors and two separate turbo lifts before answering his question.
"As I said, the life support system had been compromised. While medical scans show no virus or mental affliction to account for your son's actions, his health is not optimal." They stopped outside what must be the medical bay, but the captain halted Sarek's move to enter with a single raised hand. "You need to be prepared for what you are about to see."
Sarek nodded for the man to continue and waited, without patience for him to continue with his human need to offer useless information before allowing Sarek to see, to know for himself, truly whether his son was well or not.
"While the oxygen continued to work with decreased efficiency, it was enough to keep your son alive until we reached him. The temperature controls, however, were damaged beyond repair. Ambassador Sarek, Spock was suffering from extreme hypothermia and frostbite. We were required to take drastic measures to ensure he lived. As it stands, he’s on bypass and that machine is all that is keeping your son's heart beating."
Sarek felt a cold chill of dread shiver through his body, the captain's words sinking in with impossible weight. Spock was all he had left, surely there was a mistake.
"What exactly are you telling me, Captain?"
"We understand that there are certain rituals among Vulcans when one must face death. Your son's mind is undamaged, but he will not leave this ship alive, Ambassador. I am so sorry."
Sarek pushed past the captain and entered the medical bay. He gaze swept about, frantically searching for a sign as to where Spock was. A group of nurses stood to the side and the nervous looks they shot at a distant door was enough to propel him forward. At his approach the door hissed open and revealed the grisly sight within.
Spock lay, half hidden by the life-prolonging machine covering the majority of his upper body. The sheet covering his lower half flattened unnaturally at mid-thigh and knee level and ran smoothly to the end of the bed. A green soaked bandage covered the stump at Spock's left elbow while Spock's right hand was dark green to the knuckles where more blood soaked bandages covered the holes left by missing digits.
Sarek forced himself to move further into the room, to take in Spock's face. He had to have proof that this mutilated body was indeed that of his son. His legs threatened to buckle beneath him at the sight of the green-black blotch that was once an elegantly pointed ear. Spock's face was varying shades of green, the necrotic flesh closest to the ears and lips nearly black.
He had to brace himself against the bed in order to remain standing. The bits before him were not his son, the only remaining aspect of the Spock that was lay within his thankfully undamaged mind. Sarek heard the doors open behind him, emitting the captain and a doctor, but he paid them no mind. He reached out and stroked a hand through his son's hair before settling his fingers on the psi points, pressing hard to reach the nerve clusters beneath the dead flesh. He connected immediately and fell into madness. An infinite stretch of darkness lay before him, then 'Father, no!' and Sarek broke the connection. He could feel something within him that was distinctly not Spock. It clawed at his mind, tearing through his defenses until there was nothing but cruelty.
The doctor that had entered stepped up to the machine and asked the question without speaking. Sarek could only nod, then the doctor disabled Spock's life support and a shrill whine filled the room before that too was disabled. The room remained silent for some time, then Captain Mitchell stepped beside Sarek to catch his attention.
"We're more than happy to return you to New Vulcan, however we'll have to delay travel until we can receive approval from Starfleet for the detour. We're experiencing communication problems at the moment and haven't been able to establish a connection."
"That will not be necessary, Captain. The overture is appreciated all the same; however, I am quite able to return in the shuttle I arrived in. I would like to request that Spock receive a Starfleet service as I am ill prepared to transport his remains."
Captain Mitchell blinked at the blunt tone but responded in the affirmative. Sarek raised his hand in the Ta'al and excused himself as he made his way back toward his shuttle from memory. It would take him four hours to reconnect with the Vulcan cruiser Kahr'y'tan and a mere month's journey past that to reach the colony.
It was a fortuitous coincidence that he had been in this quadrant and able to respond to the Roosevelt's hail in such a timely manner. Now he would make hast to the Vulcan colony and resume his duties to his people. Yes, indeed, New Vulcan was exactly where he needed to be.
Sarek boarded his shuttle and began preflight preparation and allowed a smile to curve his lips. Soon, very soon, he would be home.