The bell to the chief medical officer’s office chimed exactly five minutes after the end of beta shift.
‘Come,’ McCoy shouted, still eyeing a report. He was actually off duty, but had found that his quarters felt very depressing, almost alien, as if they were someone else’s. Therefore, he had taken to spending as much time he could in Sickbay, and no one complained, especially not Kirk, who knew where to find him. Now the admiral came inside, his jacket already casually open, and sat down heavily in the patient’s chair opposite of his friend. McCoy put his PADD away. This had become quite a ritual. ‘You off duty now?’ he asked, already fetching glasses. ‘How about a drink?’
‘Sounds great,’ Kirk answered listlessly, staring up in the ceiling without sparing the doctor as much as a glance while he poured the brandy. He put the glass directly in his hands and watched him drinking more than half the content at once. Then he sighed and cradled the glass, as if it were some fragile bird which needed to be protected from the horrors of life. They sat in silence, letting the topic they knew would come up for discussion settle between them like the glass wall down in engineering. As always, Kirk was the one to speak first. ‘Do you think he knew?’
‘Yes,’ McCoy answered after a moment’s thought.
‘He did it even though he knew there was no chance of success.’
‘There was – for the ship,’ the doctor pointed out. The other man raised his gaze from the brandy, swirled it around and tasted it again, slower this time.
‘Was there really no hope, Bones? For his survival?’ he asked. He had not wanted that question, but perhaps it would relieve him of pain to give a truthful answer.
‘Depends on how you define survival. If it’d taken a few minutes less and he’d been able to get out of there, he might have lived days, perhaps a week.’ Kirk pressed his lips together while listening. ‘It wouldn’t have been a life worth living, Jim. Radiation poisoning isn’t a pleasant way to die, but slow radiation poisoning is worse.’
‘It’d have given us more time,’ Kirk said quietly.
‘We’d have had to keep him completely confined and isolated. It would only have been more painful – for you as well.’ For a brief moment, McCoy hated himself for having to say such things, true though they may be. The vague headache he had been feeling the past few days was slowly returning. Cursing it and calling it a psychosomatic ghost didn’t make it go away, so he tried to ignore it. He watched as Kirk emptied his glass and placed it on the desk again. His own drink was almost untouched. They sat in silence several minutes, until the admiral tried to speak again.
‘I… it’s really… Oh, I don’t know. I just wish…’ McCoy almost hushed him, but stopped himself and just said:
‘It’s no use, Jim.’
‘Of course I know it’s no bloody use,’ Kirk snapped back. ‘I know perfectly well I can’t… will him back into existence. I might be a stupid romantic, but I’m not that deluded. I just…’ The doctor interrupted him by filling his glass again, this time not as full as before. ’Cheers, Bones,’ he muttered and nursed the drink for a bit, which kept him occupied. McCoy let his mind wander, and that it did, into a sea of strange thoughts of equations and physics and circuits, of proverbs and philosophy and doubt, of intense, strange, primal love. He thought of things he had never even considered, felt fears he had never had, felt a twinge of wonder at the smallest thing which his conscious mind touched. Suddenly all the thoughts seemed too big for his head and they were actually building up a physical pressure inside his skull. He rubbed his temples, wondering whether the migraines he used to get at med school after exams were coming back. He guessed they were all entitled to be a bit of a mess at the moment, but he would prefer to keep himself in one piece. When they reached Earth he would try to get some leave, spend it with Natira and collect his wits. He, as well as everyone else, would need it.
He returned to his office as Kirk put the glass back on the desk again. Deciding that the admiral’s own thoughts were much too pessimistic to fill the entire conversation, he attempted the friendly but doctorly:
‘How’re you holding up?’ Kirk almost scoffed.
‘Barely,’ he answered, stretching his legs and staring up in the ceiling again. ‘I can do my job. At least I can do that.’ Then he mused: ‘All those poor cadets. If I’d’ve had a training cruise like this, I’d never have set foot on a spaceship ever again. I’d have jumped at the first dirtside desk-job I found.’ McCoy forced himself to chuckle, but the sound was as dull as Kirk’s scoff. The other man voiced his thought. ‘Nothing seems right, though. Not even the ship seems right. Like… like the engines are working in some new way. The hum’s changed.’ It’s not the ship, it’s you, Jim. It’s the charring of grief and the absence of that quick heart you’ve grown so used to. ‘Bones…’ Something in McCoy’s gut tied a knot on itself because of the tone in his voice. He looked up and found that for the first time since he had arrived, Kirk was looking at him. ‘How can I ever cope with this?’
The door opened suddenly, and Chapel entered. She hesitated when she caught sight of the admiral, but the other doctor waved her in.
‘I was looking for those files I handed to you for signing…’
‘They’re over there – I haven’t had time for them yet,’ McCoy answered, pointing at one of the tables. Chapel retrieved them, nodded to them both and left again. The interruption had been welcome; that question was one McCoy did not want to answer. Kirk too seemed to have become distracted, because he had obviously shrugged off his melancholy for a moment and turned to more mundane matters.
‘We’re dropping off some of the cadets on Space Station 3 tomorrow. David, too. Starfleet’s assigned him to do research on the Genesis Planet.’
‘Sounds nice,’ McCoy said. ‘What about Saavik? Is she being dropped off as well?’
‘Oh, from what I’ve heard she’s volounteered to help David,’ Kirk answered, and the doctor did not have to fake a laugh.
‘Well, well, isn’t that a surprise,’ he chuckled, the sound dying away quickly. They sat in silence for a little while, the atmosphere slightly lighter than before, but then Kirk sighed and said:
‘I should let you get some work done.’
‘I’m off duty,’ McCoy pointed out.
‘Well…’ He made a vague gesture, and the other man nodded.
‘All right,’ he said, deciding it would be better not to elaborate. It was plain that Kirk needed some time to sort himself out. McCoy could not disagree, so he just nodded and said good-bye. He felt a surge of guilty relief mixed with an aching loneliness when the doors closed. Once again he let the restraints of his thoughts go and felt his head spinning. The merry-go-round came to an abrupt stop when the door opened and he heard someone putting something on his desk. As if he had just woken up, he looked up, and was to his surprise met by Chapel’s smile. He blinked a few times, shook his head and then realised that what she had placed on the desk had been a cup of coffee.
‘Oh - thanks,’ he said sheepishly, taking it in his hands.
‘Mind if I intrude a bit?’ she asked and sat down when he waved permission. While he sipped his coffee, she seemed to collect her thoughts. When she at last spoke, her words surprised her. ‘I think he’s being unfeeling.’ He looked up, perplexed, from his cup.
‘He was your friend too,’ she intoned.
‘It’s not the same,’ McCoy sighed, putting the cup down and fibbled with the PADD in front of him.
‘Surely he must realise he can’t just dump all his problems on you?’
‘Christine,’ he said, sounding slightly more annoyed than he had meant to. ‘I’m the chief medical officer on this vessel, and my first priority is to make sure the crew is healthy and well-balanced, and that includes the commanding officer. If it makes the commanding officer well-balanced to talk about his problems with me, I’m happy to listen.’
‘But you shouldn’t, if it unbalances you,’ she almost snapped. He had not meant to sit up straight at the comment, but still he did.
‘Do you think it does?’
‘No, well…’ She sighed. ‘All I mean is, you’ve seemed a bit distracted since… you know.’
‘Haven’t we all?’ McCoy sighed, rubbing his eyes.
‘All I mean is that you might need a shoulder to cry on too, and the admiral doesn’t realise that,’ Chapel said, obviously trying to sound gentle.
‘Well, admiral Kirk is not the person whose shoulder I should cry on, if I needed it,’ he said. ‘Damn it, Christine, if we for once can cut the crap and stop beating around the bush, like all bloody officers love to do on this ship – that man’s just been widowed. You know as well as I do what Spock meant to him. Don’t you think he needs our support, more than we need his?’ Chapel looked down on her knees and nodded. Then she asked:
‘What did he say, just before I came in?’
‘How come you ask?’ She hesitated.
‘The look on your face,’ she said at last. So it was that plain, he thought. Taking a steadying breath, he repeated Kirk’s words:
‘”How can I ever cope with this?”’ They both let the words disappear into the ether before either spoke.
‘Don’t you think he will?’ she asked at last.
‘I don’t see how.’ He sighed. ‘Even the ship seems wrong, he said. When a commander starts loosing the feel for his vessel, then…’ The only way he could complete it was with a shrug. He dared no more. ‘Sure, he’ll put on a good charade at first, but I can’t see it last.’
‘Leonard…’ The strange sound of his own name resonated in his ears as she stretched over the desk and touched his hand. He hazarded to glance at her, and suddenly he remembered once, years ago, when she was still head nurse. It had been one of her grey-haired phases – they had been just by the door to sickbay. She had clung to his hands arduously, pleading with eyes and mind, and all he had been able to do was to apologise over and over again, while fighting the shame and desire and trying to think of anything but Jim, who still was all he could think of. As quickly as the memory had come it was gone, leaving him perplexed. ‘Are you all right?’ she asked. Some of his confusion must have showed on his face.
‘I…. I don’t know. Sorry, Christine, I really don’t know,’ he said, rubbing his temples again. ‘I can’t even pinpoint it – sometimes it’s a headache and sometimes it’s anxiety and other times it’s just… emptiness. Not even apathy. And every time I have meat I feel like I’m going to be sick.’ She stood up, walked around the desk and placed her hands on his shoulders, a compassionate gesture rather than a doctorly one. That comforted him slightly; there were few things which were as embarrassing as not being able to diagnose oneself.
‘You’ve been overworking yourself,’ she said simply, hands still on his shoulders. ‘Don’t blame yourself, Leonard.’ He just nodded. The only thing he wanted was to go back to his quarters – no, to go home, and snuggle close to Natira (Jim) and hide from the world (but he left me). McCoy suddenly tensed at the feeling that there was something in his head. Christine only grabbed him harder, stroking his shoulders. Desperately he wanted to tell her how scared he felt, although he could not figure out why. Some hidden calm rose within him and let him master the outburst.
‘Thank you,’ he said, finding his voice hawse, despite the control. ‘You’re right – I’ll try to get some rest.’
‘Good,’ she said, letting go of him. When he stood to leave she smiled and assured him: ‘If you need that shoulder, just beep the comm.’ He murmured thanks and headed towards his quarters. A strange chill, or perhaps some sort of compulsion, passed through him when he passed the sealed quarters a few doors down from his on the deck of the officers’ quarters. He forced himself to pass it, hoping he could wish himself sane.