The core of Memory Prime, the premier AI research station in all of the Federation, is not the gigantic computer banks, nor the kilometers of cooling solutions encapsulating them. It not the Commodore's office, nor even Auditorium A, famous for the bi-annual award ceremony for the Zee-Magnees prize for Scientific Excellence.
The actual core of Memory Prime is an eight kilometers long waste-disposal trench that bisects the gigantic station. Here depleted bio-batteries are slowly reprocessed into more useful and less lethal forms of energy. Depending on the stage of the process for the particular unit one walks by, the temperature is either below freezing or in the high 500s on the T'Para scale. Enough to turn the average human into a sweating heap.
"Shit," James T. Kirk said and looked at the clump of non-composed matter that had stuck to his foot. Well, he wished it had been ordinary shit - decomposing bio-batteries smelled worse than anything he could imagine could come out of an organic stomach. He'd been stopping every few meters and retching in the beginning, but it was getting slightly better now. Not looking at the broiling mass in the trench was also a good strategy.
He had a gas and toxin mask, of course, but the old kind that he'd sworn never to use again after basic training. Its filters were so heavy that every breath was labored and within a minute he felt as if he was being slowly choked. He'd ripped it off, promising himself to go through a proper training session with it once they got back home, only not just right now, because things were bad enough as it was and he didn't need another thing to pile on top.
He scraped at the clump of matter, dislodging most of it. He pushed it towards one of the sanitation bots that was idling on the walkway, but, unsurprisingly, the thing didn't move. He wondered if any of the tertiary systems here worked as they should. In this part of the sanitation system the radiation levels weren't dangerous, but given enough time he was sure that the toxins would eat a nice little hole in his boot. He'd turned on the charm with the Supply tech who had gotten him the suit, promising her that it'd be back in a jiff. That had been two hours ago, and before he'd realized that a) his tricorder didn't work down here and b) even when he caved and decided that although he really did want to do this is person, because it was important, maybe he'd just call Spock and try to figure out which section he'd holed up in... well, his communicator didn't work either.
"Spock!" He shouted again. His voice bounced along the cavernous tunnel. The plasti-concrete reflected it back to him as an echo.
No one went here, well except for Sanitation Detail. It was big, smelly and dark. Decomposing bio-matter, two walkways to either side, a semi-functional light system that reluctantly lit up every once in a while as he plodded on in his heavy containment suit boots. And him. Walking, walking. This repentance thing was quickly losing what little romantic sheen it had once had.
"Spock! Where the hell are you?"
Then, far-away, he saw a light. It was blue and centered right over the trench. Right. He picked up his pace. He tried shouting once more when he got halfway there, but got no response.
But it was the Vulcan! He was seated on one of the intermittent giant concrete pillars, three by three meters wide, that (for reasons unknown to Jim) sometimes appeared in the middle of the trench. He was sitting cross legged, posture perfect, a blue sheen from the pad in his lap lighting up his angular features.
Irritation overcame Jim and he fumed a bit as he came closer. Really, this was just childish, even in this situation he'd expected better.
"Didn't you hear me calling?" He challenged as he drew up on the walkway directly across from the pillar.
Spock looked up, his hands continuing typing on the pad with undiminished speed. "I did not, Captain," he said, voice flat and unscrupulously polite.
Jim narrowed his eyes, but then closed them and took a deep breath. Right. Force curtains every fifty meters. They'd stop the soundwaves. Of course Spock hadn't heard him. He thought about explaining his mistake but then decided that it really wasn't important.
He looked at the pillar. Six meters, maybe six and a half. The current Federation record for unaugmented humans was nine meters three centimeters for the long jump. So theoretically it was possible.
"What do you reckon my chances are of jumping over there?" He asked Spock.
This time Spock kept his gaze at the pad. "2881 to 1, Captain," He answered tonelessly.
Alright. That... was probably reasonable, actually. If Jim had asked, Spock could no doubt quote him the odds for a half Vulcan making the jump. Jim himself calculated the probability to: laughingly simple.
Jim sighed and started looking around. Bare plasti-concrete walls. A flickering light in the ceiling about ten meters up. Another idle sanitation bot that was ignoring the occasional little splash as matter ended up on the walkway... Well, he did have an Academy minor in engineering.
He sat down on the walkway and dragged the heavy bot to his lap and flipped it over.
"So, Mr. Spock, you are a hard man to track down," he said, trying to start over.
"Well, presumably you had a particular section you were assigned to down here, but I might have been a little too distracted to actually look it up."
Jim opened the bot and put the cover on the walkway beside him. Then he had to stop for a little while to just breathe - of course the bot stank as well.
"Distracted, Sir?" Spock asked eventually. Jim hadn't actually meant to leave a long silence, but it was hard getting his stomach under control.
"Yeah." He coughed, "Spock, you're not bothered by the smell?" The Vulcan's gas mask lay behind him.
"Vulcans can regulate their olfactory receptors, Sir," Spock answered primly. He picked up a second pad and placed it to his right. It obediently lit up.
"Right. Of course you can." Jim coughed again. "Yeah, so, distracted. You see, I'd come to pick up my science officer only to find that he'd been reassigned to Sanitation Detail by the commodore."
Spock said nothing.
"Now, this was a bit of a surprise, since said commodore had spent months trying to get said science officer to accept a position here on Memory Prime as head of Theoretical Quantum-Computing." Jim considered the energy receptor for a moment and then pried it loose. This activated the internal battery and he suddenly had a lapful of struggling bot.
"Now placing this science officer on the Sanitation Detail, well, that’s a terrible waste of resources, if you ask me. There's a little joke in there, Spock, for those of us who are human-inclined, but it's not important. I amused myself with it the first hour or so down here, once I'd simmered down enough to not just rehash my meeting with the commodore over and over again. One useless human emotion replaced by another, I guess. Ha!"
The bot was doing its best to lift off, its industrial strength drone motors only stopping because Jim held a hand inside them and the drone was smart enough to know not to harm an organic (or at least to not lift off with something in its engine. Oh well, same difference.) Jim grinned at his handiwork, glancing up at Spock to see if the Vulcan had seen. But of course Spock was focused on his pads.
Jim picked off the remote control unit and ordered the thing to chill. Then he stepped onto the half-meter long disc. Then he thought better of this and knelt down awkwardly to keep his center of gravity low. He glanced at the broiling mass of matter in the trench. It wouldn't be lethal, he was sure of that. Partly because the meter-high warning labels on the tunnel walls said so, but mostly because Spock wouldn't have let him get on this thing if it had been too dangerous, no matter how definitely-not-pissed he was.
"So, I... Gah!" He ended with a little yelp as the bot took flight with far more force than he had expected and then spent a few seconds very focused on his remote control as he flew over to the pillar. He stepped cautiously off the bot and then grinned before he realized that the smell was even stronger here. He considered putting on his mask again, but rejected it.
It would get better. It was just a matter of perseverance.
"Interesting mode of transportation, Captain," Spock said, which Jim translated to "I am choosing to not kick you off my pillar right now."
"Thanks. Wow, what is that?" Spock's screens were filled with calculations.
"My work assignment, Sir," Spock responded. After a second he added, "Loosely interpreted."
"Right. You've got any water? Don't give me that look. I did have water. Not enough, clearly, but still."
Spock inclined his head toward the pack beside him and Jim started to rifle through it, but then froze as he saw the contents and his voice turns incandescent.
"He didn't even assign you quarters? God, Spock, what the hell did you say to the commodore? No, wait it doesn't matter what you said, what the hell does he think..."
"I was assigned quarters, Jim." Spock interrupted, and Jim quieted down because it was the first time that Spock had used his given name since they'd met up down here. "I was given a cabin in the upper ring as soon as I arrived, though whether that still stands after my meeting with the commodore, I do not know.
"Alright. That's good news for the commodore, and right now he needs all the good news he can get," Jim said angrily, and then his voice softened. "Spock... what happened?"
Spock tilted his head. "I was again offered the position as head of Theoretical Quantum-Computing. I declined."
"That's a pretty useless summary. Come on, Spock, I just threatened a commodore that I'd get him transferred to the outer rim. I need some data here.."
Spock's hands stilled. "Captain, you cannot transfer a commodore."
"No, of course not. But Admiral Nogura can. He's a pretty big fan of yours. Or Komack."
"Jim, you have previously said that Admiral Komack, to quote, hates your guts."
"Mine, yes, but he's crazy about the sheer volume of science papers your Enterprise labs put out. Some of the brass might not like me much (because they are short-sighted desk-jockeys obviously) but almost all of them treasure you. And that is part of the problem here, of course."
There was a little silence and then Jim insisted, "So what happened?"
Spock's hands resumed typing. "I was informed that the Memory Prime research center would be honored to have me as a coordinator, especially considering the number of ground-breaking quantum computing discoveries I had contributed to during the last few years. I thanked the commodore, but informed him that my response remained the same as it had been the fourteen previous times, and that it did not matter if the offer was extended in person or through subspace. Then I was informed that I needed to focus on my career, and that this position on Memory Prime was a remarkable honor, given my youth. I once again thanked the commodore, but said that, as I had managed to produce, to quote him, several ground-breaking papers on quantum computing, and was the science officer of the Federation's flagship, I believed I had my career exactly where I wanted it."
Spock glanced at the captain. Jim's smile was a little subdued. "Good answer," he said simply.
"I was then told that it was my scientific and patriotic duty to take up the position that Starfleet had assigned me to. I replied that Starfleet never assign captains' positions, be they in the field or in administrative areas, because a desire to lead is considered of paramount importance for such leadership roles. It therefore remained my right to decline. A moment, Jim," Spock said and finished up some lines of code and then set up a simulation.
Spock prefered simulations to run raw data instead of nicely graphical figures and the content was lost on Jim. He waited patiently for a few minutes, but then prompted, voice uncharacteristically low:
"And then what?"
Spock hesitated. "I am not sure it is relevant," he tried, but Jim shook his head.
"Please tell me?"
"The commodore said that it was cowardice of me to refuse the position, that my standing in the scientific community would be ruined and that personal emotional ties were the only reason that I insisted on staying on the Enterprise." Spock raised his eyebrow, "Though his word choice was rather more... colorful than that."
I bet, Jim thought. I'm so sorry, Spock...
"And what did you say then, Commander?"
Spock focused on his screen. "Before I left his office, the commodore indicated that he was going to avail himself of his right to assign me a field demotion to ensign, Captain, so I'm not sure that that is the correct rank..."
"Oh, he's changed his mind, believe me, Spock. Then what? Please."
"Then I informed the commodore that I was quite aware of my bibliographical list of academic publications, both classified and un-classified, and that since it was a simple arithmetic calculation to prove that the ranking of those papers clearly outperformed those of most other scientists working within Starfleet, including the commodore's own, I was not overly concerned about my standing in the scientific community."
Jim whistled. "Ah. Yeah, I can see that he wouldn't have been to pleased about that, factual as it might be, of course. Well, the bastard had no right..."
Spock cleared his throat. "Ah. Then I further told the commodore that if and when I might decide that my scientific duties were not best fulfilled by a posting on the Enterprise, I was quite certain that Starfleet would grant me whichever research institute I wished for, since the alternative would be for me to seek a position outside the organization, such as the Vulcan Science Academy or the Daystrom Institute."
Jim blinked. "You know," he said a bit weakly, "from a human, that would sound rather arrogant and unsubordinate. So... good thing that you're a Vulcan. And, obviously the commodore should have accounted for that." He started to say something but then stopped.
"There's more, isn't there?" He asked.
Spock's eyes flickered a little. "Yes. I implied that if I had had any pressing wish to join the Memory Prime research institute, I would simply ask the Memory Foundation for the commodore's position."
Spock's typing slowed and he glanced over at the human beside him. The captain had a pensive look. "Captain?" Spock prompted finally.
"Hmm? Oh, just thinking. About whether I might owe the commodore a bit of an apology for some of the things I said once I found out that he'd put one of the most decorated Starfleet officers on Sanitation detail." Jim tilted his head and pursed his lips. "Nah. He deserved everything."
Jim took a deep breath. "And speaking of... You know, back on the Enterprise, when I was being an idiot, there were some things that I forgot to say."
Spock raised an eyebrow.
"I still stand by everything I said about your expertise and your skill, and the fact that if you were to lead this Memory Prime research team, you'd be revolutionizing science as we knew it within the decade. I just forgot to add, that of course you were already doing that from the Enterprise. And when I said it was your duty to come here and hear the commodore out, I forgot to add that I'd lost my perspective after having had him call me once every week insisting I was ruining Memory Prime, your career and possibly science itself by keeping you on the Enterprise. And..."
"No, let me finish. And when I said that you couldn't let any personal loyalty to me stand in the way of your duty to the 'Fleet, I forgot to say that without your presence on the Enterprise, worlds would have been lost, not to mention the ship itself. And that I was blithely sacrificing my loyalty to you, my trust in the fact that of course you had already balanced all these things, far better than I could, and that if I had to choose between you and the warp reactor as a necessary part of our ship, Spock, I'd chose you any day."
Silence reigned for a few minutes.
"Captain," Spock said finally, "Are you aware that it would take two hundred and nine years, five months and two days for us to get back to Earth from this position, using only impulse engines?"
Jim smiled. For us .
"It would still be worth it." Jim cleared his throat. "So, The commodore rescinded his recent orders putting you down here about three hours ago, so at this point we're sitting in a waste disposal tunnel voluntarily. Commander, what say we get you home?"
Spock glanced down at his pad. "Actually, Sir, I'm not quite finished."
Jim, who'd been halfway to his feet sank down again. "Alright." he said softly. "I can wait."
"Jim... I am not trying to monopolize your time. Please feel free to return to the Enterprise without me."
"Not happening. What are you up to anyway?"
Spock frowned. "The primary and secondary waste disposal systems are exemplary, but the tertiary ones have been neglected for the last fourteen years." Spock gave Jim a very pointed look and he quickly made sure to nod and frown to put himself firmly in the category of commanders who would never let a system, any system, get into such a state.
"Shocking," he agreed.
"The issue seems to be low level radiation interfering with the sanitation bots command circuits, and instead of fixing this issue, station management have attempted to alleviate the problem with manual cleanups of the walkways every few months."
"Ah," Jim said. "So you fixed it?"
"Yes." Spock said but then amended. "98% of the bots are now online." He glanced at the silent bot by Jim's knee. "Of the un-amended ones, that is."
"But, let me guess, you would really like to get it to 100%. Of course you do." Jim looked around. At least he'd sort of gotten used to the smell. "Very admirable work ethics, Mr. Spock. But terrible strategic planning."
"Captain?" Spock said, glancing up from the rapidly updating simulations.
"You spend so much effort to make sure that you will not be bothered by the commodore again, and then turn around and solve a fourteen year old station-wide problem in, what, three hours?" Jim tsked and shook his head as he reached for Spock's duffel bag. A few pokes and it was an acceptable shape, and he sank down on his improvised pillow.
"Ah," Spock said and seemed to consider this. "I see your point, Captain. But I could not leave the system like this. It was in an absolutely unacceptable state."
Jim smiled and closed his eyes. Really, this place wasn't so bad, once you got used to it.
A few minutes of companionable quiet later he murmured,
"You didn't jump over here, did you, Spock?"
"There's a walkway, isn't there? Accessible if you push some little button somewhere?"
"Indeed." Spock hesitated and then added, "Captain, if you had..."
"If I'd asked, of course you would have told me, yes, Mr. Spock. Still, you have to have been a little impressed by how quickly I rigged up the flying bot, yes?"
"Quite impressive, Captain," Spock said. A beat. "For a human."
Jim huffed in exasperation.
No, the commodore had still got what he deserved. He grinned. And so had he.
Author’s note: Done! I hope you liked it :). If you did, I’d love to hear about it, especially what your favorite line or part was!
As you might have seen, I’m trying to learn to write complex plotty things, but as I struggle on with my WIPs I have to reward myself with some of these small one-hour character exploration drabbles :).