There is a long pause, followed by a sigh. “Let me guess,” says Bones. “Admiral Komack, right?”
Kirk was not sure exactly what to expect, but stoic resignation was almost top of his list. Joint top, anyway. It was either that or a full-scale Georgian wrath-explosion, and he’s been on the outskirts of one too many of those to want to actively pursue another. Resignation is almost preferable – but for that flatness of tone and the fading of something in the Doctor’s eyes that’s only actually noticeable when it’s not there. It’s a little too easy to put himself in Bones’ shoes right now, and the Captain would rather not go there.
“Probably,” he says now, in lieu of words of consolation while he waits to see how Bones wants to play this. “The orders came through Commodore Chainey’s office, but it’s Komack’s purview.”
“Figures,” says Bones wearily. And then, “I need a drink.”
He stands heavily and crosses to the cabinet as though his bones are too big for his body. Kirk hears the clink of glasses and the gentle splash of decanting liquid. He says, “It’s your choice, Bones. I can always assign M’Benga. I’ll cite conflict of interest.”
“No, no.” A glass is pressed into the Captain’s hand. The liquid inside is blue. This does not bode well for the Doctor’s state of mind. “I don’t like how that looks. Friend Komack’ll be expecting something along those lines, no doubt. Word to the wise, Jim: James Komack’s not a man you want to get on the wrong side of.”
It’s not the first time Kirk’s heard that sentiment expressed, and he has no trouble performing the psychological arithmetic that places a mercurial southern doctor with no shortage of opinions or qualms about expressing them on the blacklist of the thin, ascetic man whose smile never quite meets his eyes. Kirk’s never had cause to distrust Admiral Komack, but he distrusts him just the same.
He takes a sip of his drink. Yup, Romulan ale. He decides not to notice. “What makes you think he even knows about you and Nancy Crater?” he says instead. “She’s changed her name since you knew her.”
It’s tactless, and he’s immediately annoyed with himself. McCoy’s eyes shoot up over his glass and fix on the Captain’s, and it looks, for a moment, as though he’s going to say something, but he drops them and takes a gulp of his drink instead. “Maybe you’re right,” he says. “Just seems a mite convenient, is all.” He drains his glass and sets it down on the desk with an audible thump. “Jim Komack and me had a conflict of opinion ‘bout ten years back. Seems like ever since then he says no on principle soon as he hears it’s me doing the asking. You telling me we’re the only ship in range of that planet, or the Craters couldn’t wait another week for their medical?”
“It seems unlikely,” says Kirk.
“You bet it’s unlikely,” says McCoy. “Maybe Friend Komack knows about me and Nancy and maybe he doesn’t, but you can bet your ass he knows something. I reckon he’s gotten a feel for the way the wind blows and decided it’d be a nice little exercise in making Dr. McCoy take a good, hard look at what he can’t have. Be like ordering you twenty-five light years out of your way to go pick up, I don’t know…” He hesitates as Kirk’s eyes shoot up in sudden, reflexive alarm. “…I was going to say Ruth, Jim. Anyone else out there you nearly married?”
Kirk smiles around his glass to hide the thumping of his heart. “Nearly married?” he says lightly. “No.”
But the Doctor’s stare is relentless. “Mite jumpy, aren’t we, Captain? Who’d you think I was going to say?”
He’s sure he can feel his color rising, and he’s even more sure that Bones won’t miss it. Bones misses nothing. So he says, pointedly, “Perhaps it’s the effect of illegal liquor, Doctor.”
“Huh,” says McCoy. “Notice it didn’t stop you drinking it.”
Kirk drains his glass and suppresses a wince as it strips the skin from his tongue to his stomach. He says, “We’ll be at M-113 in seven hours. Certain you’re all right with this?”
For a moment, he thinks McCoy will argue the point. The thoughts line up behind the Doctor’s eyes and almost make it as far as his mouth, before he visibly works out that the complicated web of deflection and counter-deflection might just as easily work against him and thinks better of it. He sighs and leans back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head. “I’ll be fine, Jim,” he says, although it sounds as though he’s trying to convince himself. “Might do me good to see her again, who knows? See that she’s moved on.” He raises an eyebrow at Kirk in a way that is certainly intended to be meaningful. The Captain resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Hell,” adds McCoy, “it’s not like Nancy and me were ever married. Wait til Jim Komack gets it into his head to order the Enterprise to rendezvous with Jocelyn Winkler-formally-McCoy-nee-Carter.” He gives a low chuckle. “That’d be some real fireworks.”
Kirk has met the former Mrs. McCoy on two separate occasions, and has cause to believe the Doctor’s words. He sets his glass on the desk and stands. “It’s a form-ticking exercise,” he says. “We’ll be in and out in an hour, Bones.”
“Oh yeah?” says McCoy with half a smile. “Seems like I’ve heard that one before, Captain.”
Kirk laughs. “Goodnight, Doctor,” he says.
“Night, Jim,” answers the Doctor, but he watches Kirk closely as he leaves, and his gaze lingers on the doorway for some moments, lost in thought.
It has been classified as a routine mission, but Spock has yet to find evidence that such a thing exists, so it was a logical decision to elect to remain on the bridge while the away party beamed down without him, the better to monitor the surface scans for unusual weather conditions and to ensure that ship-to-shore communications remain at optimal levels. It is also an opportunity to address some of the non-urgent paperwork that has had to be sidelined during the eventful preceding weeks, and he has taken advantage of the hiatus in order to institute a number of essential but low-priority maintenance projects on the bridge. The Engineering console has been temperamental since the incident with the crystals, and, since for now at least they are in no immediate danger of explosion or attack, there is a particular satisfaction in knowing that the time will be used to restore these minor things to their proper order.
It ought to be a period of quiet contentment. Nobody is in danger, and he appreciates these moments that allow him to settle a little of the background chaos – the small details that generally have to be ignored in favor of the substantive necessities of starship travel. And still he finds that his mind is uneasy. More than that: he finds that he is unwilling to explore the reasons why his mind is uneasy, which, he supposes, is an answer in itself.
He is well aware that he does not read Humans as well as they read each other. This does not bother him particularly, because, of all the Humans he has met, only one has bothered to try and read his Vulcan body language at all, but there are times, he concedes, when it would be useful to have a universal translator that could interpret nuance of expression. It is excessively frustrating. The Captain said, “Yes, I quite agree, Spock – it makes sense for you to stay on board while we beam down. No need to quote regulations,” but Spock is reasonably sure that the words were preceded by a flash of emotion in his expressive eyes, and he would like to know, definitively, whether or not the emotion was hurt.
He is 93 percent certain it was hurt.
It would not be logical for the Captain to blame himself for the events of the past few days, but neither would it be wise to assume that the Captain shares this assessment. Spock came to the conclusion during their hunt for the imposter that Kirk’s radiant agitation would best be cataloged as embarrassment. And when he noted it in the following days, he decided that the most prudent course of action would be to refrain from mentioning any of the Captain’s… less characteristic behaviors while the imposter was on board. Indeed, the most prudent course of action would be to designate them as aberrant and refrain from analyzing them at all. There is no sense in attempting to discern meaning from actions that are divorced from an overarching consciousness, and of course they were considerably more comprehensible once they were contextualized in light of the transporter malfunction. The man performing the actions looked like Kirk and spoke like Kirk, but the actions, clearly, were not Kirk’s. It is not logical to speculate on their motivation.
He finds himself speculating on their motivation and diverts another eight percent of his conscious controls to suppressing the urge.
A movement to his left catches his attention and he glances up from his PADD to find that the Communications Officer has wandered over to the command chair. Since no communications have been received, he assumes that she wishes to discuss the paperwork she submitted earlier this morning. “Miss Uhura,” he says, “Your last subspace log contained an error in the frequencies column.”
“Mr. Spock,” she says, “Sometimes I think if I hear that word ‘frequency’ once more, I’ll cry.”
It is unlike her to present sub-optimal work, and her response confounds him. “Cry?” he says.
She laughs. “I was just trying to start a conversation,” she says and places her hand on his arm.
She is a Communications Officer, fluent in seven languages and proficient in a further four. She cannot be unaware of the significance of the gesture, and the hand is quickly removed, although her smile remains. He is uncertain what to make of it. “Well,” he says, slowly, “Since it is illogical for a Communications Officer to resent the word ‘frequency’, I have no answer.”
“No, you have an answer,” she says. Her tone is light, although her hands are carefully retracted from the immediate vicinity of his person. “I’m an illogical woman, who’s beginning to feel too much a part of that communications console.”
These are the facts: she has approached him for no discernable reason; she has placed her hand on his arm; and she is conversing with him in a pattern that makes no logical sense. It strikes him as something the Captain might do. But why would she attempt to emulate the Captain in his absence?
She folds her hands beneath her chin and rests her head on them. “Why don’t you tell me I’m an attractive young lady?” she asks now. “Or ask me if I’ve ever been in love?” The word strikes a tinny note of alarm and, unbidden, his thoughts flash to Leila. He dismisses the analogy as unhelpful, but it is discomfiting. “Tell me how your planet Vulcan looks,” she continues mercilessly, “on a lazy evening when the moon is full.”
Now he is utterly lost. “Vulcan has no moon, Miss Uhura,” he says.
Her eyes narrow. “I’m not surprised, Mr. Spock,” she says.
Fortunately, the ship’s whistle ends their conversation at this point, before he is obliged to admit that he has no idea what she’s talking about.
“Transporter room to bridge,” says Ensign Greer over the com. “Landing party returning.”
It’s enough to prompt Lieutenant Uhura to return to her station, and Spock cannot suppress the sudden release of tension in his shoulders.
And Greer adds, “They report one death.”
It would not be entirely accurate to state that time appears to slow. Certainly, Spock is aware of its passage, from second to second and minute to minute, in a manner that makes it possible to section and utilize it most efficiently. This information requires the immediate and violent suppression of a chaotic emotional response, so it is the perception of time that slows as he mobilizes his controls and focuses them intently upon the maelstrom within, forcibly settling it in less than a second, while a tiny voice inside howls insistently. He ignores it, presses the communications button, and snaps, “Bridge, acknowledging.”
“I don’t believe it,” says Uhura behind him.
Her outrage is beyond comprehension. “Explain?” he says sharply.
“You explain!” she says. “That means that somebody is dead and you just – sit there! It could be Captain Kirk – he’s the closest thing you have to a friend!”
He is uncertain as to how, exactly, she thinks he might have failed to realize that it could be Captain Kirk. Moreover, he cannot understand how she can believe that his first, most pressing, thought was not precisely this. “Lieutenant,” he says coldly, “My demonstration of concern will not change what has happened. The transporter room is very well manned and they will call me if they need my assistance.”
He hears, rather than sees, her turn away in disgust. At least the allusions to Leila have been comprehensively shattered, he reflects. It is less comfort than it might have been a moment ago.
The comm buzzes again. “Transporter room to bridge,” says Greer.
“Bridge, Spock here,” he says. Uhura may well be glaring at him. Something is prickling at the back of his neck.
“Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy on board, sir,” says Greer, and Spock holds his shields in place only through the greatest of effort. “Requesting you meet them in sickbay immediately.”
“Acknowledged,” he says. “Spock out.”
He stands and moves quickly towards the turbolift on legs that hold him only because he is able to contain the tumbling tidal wave of relief. Uhura’s eyes follow him until the doors hiss shut.
“Jim, you can’t do this every single time,” says the Doctor’s disembodied voice, and Spock hesitates outside the dispensary.
“Is that so, Doctor?” says the Captain. “Perhaps you could tell me, then, how many crewmembers need to die before I should give up and accept it?”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” says McCoy in that weary voice he uses when he apparently wants to provoke an extended emotional outburst.
“Do I?” snaps Kirk, proving the efficacy of the Doctor’s tone. He sighs. “Bones,” he says, more evenly, “He was twenty-four years old.”
The Doctor mirrors the Captain’s sigh. “I know, Jim,” he says.
In the ensuing silence, Spock abruptly becomes aware that he is eavesdropping. He knocks on the door.
“Ah, Spock,” says Kirk.
“First Officer Spock, reporting as ordered,” he says. Something flashes on Kirk’s face, but McCoy laughs it off.
“What’s gotten into the hobgoblin?” he asks Kirk, whose eyes linger on his First Officer’s for a moment too long before dropping to the floor. “Come in, Spock. Sorry about Mike Darnell. I know you worked closely with him.”
“Lieutenant Darnell was an exemplary member of the science team,” says Spock.
“He was a good kid,” says McCoy, which may be an agreement and may equally be a censure. It is almost impossible to tell.
“Spock, Mrs. Crater says she saw the lieutenant eating something called a Borgia plant,” says Kirk now. He drags his eyes up, belatedly, to meet Spock’s. “Bones hasn’t heard of it and we need some information for the autopsy. I assume there’ll be an entry for it in the science databanks?”
“Most likely, Captain,” says Spock. “I will report back when I have further details.”
“Thank you, Spock,” says Kirk. He takes a breath to say something further, but stops himself. Spock takes that as his cue to leave.
“Now, what do you suppose is up with the Vulcan?” says McCoy.
Kirk raises his eyebrows. “I’m not sure what you mean, Doctor,” he says.
Of course, he should have known that wouldn’t work. You’d think he would know by now. And it’s worse when Bones just gives him that little look, the one that says, I know you know what I mean, and you know I know you know what I mean, and the fact that you’re pretending otherwise is something that I find very interesting and will absolutely not let go of until I work out why you’re pretending you don’t know what I mean. It’s impossible to argue with that look, mostly because Bones denies there’s a look at all.
The Doctor falls into step alongside him as they walk briskly towards the transporter room to beam back down to the planet in search of some answers. If the Borgia plant is not responsible for Lieutenant Darnell’s death, then Professor Crater has some explaining to do, and Kirk wants the McCoy’s medical expertise at his side when the confrontation happens.
There’s an air of caution in the Doctor’s tone, for which Kirk can’t really blame him, and he has the distinct impression that Bones would like to push the issue but isn’t sure he has the latitude at the moment. He accepted Kirk’s apology easily enough, but the sting of the Captain’s earlier outburst hangs between them. It bothers Kirk. It bothers him that he’s been sufficiently unsettled by recent events to vent his frustration on Bones for expressing a sentiment that, until recently, Kirk himself had professed to understand. Of course Bones was mooning over Nancy Crater – it’s exactly what Kirk expected him to do. They were joking about it two hours ago, laughing at Bones’ obvious discomfort when his ex-lover used a pet name for him that Kirk has mentally filed away with a note that reads, be sure to call Dr. McCoy “Plum” in Spock’s earshot at the earliest opportunity. He would like to blame his temper on the loss of a crewmember, and it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to do so, but it followed a little too closely on the heels of Spock’s communiqué from the bridge for Kirk’s comfort. Nothing alarming, nothing earth-shattering: just a report on the Borgia plant from ship’s records, confirming that the pathology of Borgia poisoning did not match Lieutenant Darnell’s symptoms, and delivered in a flat, professional monotone that broadcast the disconnect between today and four days ago like a subspace beacon. That tone, combined with the, First Officer Spock, reporting as ordered; this is what turned a bad mood into an undeserved release of excess pressure, pointed in McCoy’s direction because he happened to be the closest face at the time.
No wonder Bones is edgy.
But he’s not that edgy. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed it, Jim,” he says easily enough. At least he’s back to Jim again. It was Sir not ten minutes ago. “Any other day of the week, wild horses couldn’t keep him from beaming down with you to make sure you stay out of trouble. Frets more than I do, and I’m the one has to patch you up again when you come back with your arms and legs hanging off.”
“Regulations,” says Kirk vaguely. It earns him another Look, this one delivered sideways. He takes refuge in authority. “Look, Bones – you’d better let me do the talking when we get down here,” he says. “It’s going to be delicate – and your situation with Mrs. Crater…”
“I know all about your delicacy, Captain,” says McCoy. “How many back-up personnel did you say you were bringing? In case your delicacy fails.”
“Just two,” says Kirk. “…Plum.”
Delicacy fails almost immediately in the face of Crater’s intransigence.
“Mrs. Crater,” says Kirk, arms folded belligerently across his chest, “I won’t ask again.”
“Possibly at the other diggings,” concedes her husband. “We don’t keep military logs…”
“Green,” Kirk nods to the young Crewman, “Find her.”
“Yes sir,” says Green.
Kirk flips open his communicator as Green departs. “Mr. Spock, stand by,” he says.
“Standing by,” says Spock. Disembodied, he sounds more detached than ever.
“Sturgeon,” says Kirk to the Science Officer, “Transport a sample of the Borgia plant to Mr. Spock – we’ll check if it’s actually the Borgia plant or something we don’t understand. You got that, Mr. Spock?”
“Complete analysis,” he answers in a voice so professionally distant it might have come from the other end of the galaxy. Kirk snaps his communicator closed.
“Captain,” says Crater, at precisely the wrong moment. “Considering the inescapable fact that you are a trespasser on my planet…”
“Your complaint is noted, sir,” says Kirk sharply. He tries again. “Look – something we don’t understand killed one of my men. It could prove to be a danger to you and Mrs. Crater too.”
Crater purses his lips. “We’ve been here for almost five years,” he says. “If there were anything hostile here, we would know about it, wouldn’t we?”
“Bones,” says Kirk. “Tell the Professor what the autopsy revealed.”
“Our crewman died of salt depletion,” says McCoy. “Sudden, total loss of it. Medically impossible, by any standards.”
“And by coincidence, both you and Mrs. Crater requested salt tablets,” says Kirk.
“And your esteemed physician cannot explain our need for salt tablets?” says Crater.
“We’re all aware of the need for salt on a hot and arid planet like this, Professor,” says Kirk. He can feel his temper rising again and leashes it firmly. “But it’s a mystery. And I don’t like mysteries. They give me a bellyache, and I’ve got a beauty right now.”
Into the tense silence, Crater looses a tiny noise of derision and crosses suddenly to a chest in the corner. “Nancy and I started with 25 pounds,” he says, lifting the lid and reaching inside to retrieve a glass canister that holds a scattering of white tablets. “This is what we have left. Now what is so mysterious about that?”
Kirk takes the jar from the Professor and decants a handful of the pills. McCoy lifts one from his upturned palm and sucks it experimentally. “Salt,” he confirms.
With the greatest of difficulty, the Captain restrains himself from rolling his eyes. It’s what he’d really, really like to do. Instead, he returns the canister to Professor Crater with an air of infinite patience, and says, “One of the missions of the Enterprise is to protect Human life in places like this. I’m going to have to ask you and Mrs. Crater to stay aboard my ship until we find out what killed that crewman.”
“But you can’t do that!” protests Crater.
“But I can, Professor,” says Kirk evenly. Or as evenly as he can manage in the face of severe provocation.
“You mustn’t do it! It’ll interfere with our work!”
“How?” says Kirk. “You’ve been here five years; will a couple of days make a difference?” Crater says nothing. Kirk searches his face for a moment and does not like what he finds. Something is off, but he can’t put his finger on what.
He flips open his communicator again with an air of resignation. Time to confirm once more that Tuesday’s half-naked fandango has ruined everything. “Mr. Spock,” he says.
“Spock here,” comes the voice of Vulcan indifference.
“Did you get the plant analysis?” asks Kirk.
“It is the Borgia variety, Captain,” says Spock. “Could not have caused Darnell’s death.”
The Captain flips the communicator closed, and wonders if now might be the time to lose his temper. It really feels like it might be the time.
But McCoy intervenes with an unexpected observation. “Jim!” he says. “He’s run off!”
Crater has disappeared into the ruins that scatter the surface of the planet like a child’s discarded building blocks, and behind one haphazard pile of ancient rock they find the body of Crewman Sturgeon.
For a moment, it looks as though they have lost Crewman Green as well, but he appears, suddenly, behind them as they are calling his name.
“Did you see this?” demands Kirk, pointing at Sturgeon.
“Yes, sir,” says Green. “Sturgeon was dead when I found him. I was circling, to find whatever it was.”
“Same red rings on his face,” says McCoy, staring at the mottling that also covers Darnell’s skin. He looks up at Green. “Have you seen Nancy – Mrs. Crater?”
“No, sir,” says Green. “I checked all through the ruins.”
“I’m worried about her, Jim,” says McCoy, urgently. “She’s not at the quarters, she’s not at the dig – she could be in trouble!” He crosses to the edge of the stone circle. “Nancy!” he shouts. “Nancy, it’s Leonard!”
He is tense, sprung, like a sprinter on the starting pad. It’s clear that the next few seconds will see him disappear off into the sands in pursuit of the missing woman, and they have already lost two men today. “We’re beaming aboard the ship, Doctor,” says Kirk.
“You can’t leave her…!” says McCoy.
“We can’t search this whole planet on foot,” says Kirk.
“Jim!” The Doctor grabs Kirk’s arm, and Kirk has had just about enough.
“You could learn something from Mr. Spock, Doctor!” he snaps. “Stop thinking with your glands!” And won’t that just come back to bite him, he realizes abruptly, with a niggling little prickle of remorse that does nothing to improve his rapidly deteriorating mood. Luckily, McCoy is in no frame of mind right now to work out exactly where Spock and his glands fit in to all of this, and Kirk plows on relentlessly in order to make sure that doesn’t change. “We have equipment aboard the Enterprise that could pinpoint a match lit anywhere on this planet – or the heat of a body.” He flips open his communicator. “Transporter Room – Kirk speaking. Three to beam up.”
Bones is clearly exhausted, and Kirk wonders how much of his good humor this morning was for the Captain’s benefit. He also wonders how he managed not to notice this – but this, after all, is what McCoy is for: to notice when crewmembers are struggling and needle the Captain for being an ass about it, and the system kind of breaks down when McCoy is the one with the problem. That’s twice now that Kirk has had to call him out for unprofessional behavior when it comes to Nancy Crater, and he’s not happy about the way he handled it either time, but it’s unsettling to see the Doctor so unfocused. Kirk relies on him to be the ship’s conscience, and it’s not helpful when the ship’s conscience takes an emotional vacation in the middle of a mission.
He was expecting more of an argument when he told McCoy to get some sleep, but he acquiesced without a fight, and that’s been niggling at Kirk ever since. The tone of Bones’ voice, the hunch of his shoulders, the dullness of his eyes: they remind the Captain uncomfortably of the Doctor’s reaction to the news that they’d been ordered out of their way to M-113, and he wonders, belatedly, exactly how much this mission is costing his friend.
Dinner is served on the bridge. The Yeoman who brings the tray to the command chair is not Rand, which is another exciting reminder of the kind of week that Captain Kirk has just had, as if there was any ambiguity remaining given the rigid line of a Vulcan back, conspicuously and pointedly facing away from the bridge since he acknowledged Kirk’s return with a clipped, “Captain.” Wearily, Kirk signs off on a PADD and accepts a plate from Yeoman Garner and doesn’t notice that he’s staring at Spock until Spock abruptly turns and catches him in the act.
This is getting ridiculous.
Spock says nothing, but his eyebrow asks the question, and Kirk realizes that he can either drop his gaze like a guilty schoolboy or manufacture a legitimate reason for it, and he has less than half a second to make a decision before it starts to look weird. He stands quickly and crosses the bridge in three purposeful strides, which are useful for making it look as though the maneuver is deliberate, but less helpful in terms of the time they allow his frantically oscillating brain to come up with an excuse for his visit.
The obvious choice is obvious for a reason, so he opens with, “Any update, Mr. Spock?” Of course there is no update, because Spock would have told him if there was, but it’s not outside the boundaries of possibility that Kirk would have asked anyway, were things not strained between them and had he not been obliged to pretend he wasn’t staring at the back of his friend’s head.
“Negative, Captain,” says Spock, and it’s likely that Kirk only imagines a question buried underneath the layers of Vulcan reserve, but he decides to answer it anyway.
He says, “I’m worried about Bones, Spock. This business with Nancy Crater seems to have gotten under his skin.”
Spock does not look startled, per se, but he does offer the rare double eyebrow-raise and folds his arms across his chest. Kirk tries desperately to remember if, at any stage of their association, he has ever shared an emotional concern with his First Officer, but the exercise is borne of hope rather than expectation. Of course he hasn’t. It’s Spock. He couldn’t have made this any weirder if he’d… stripped half-naked and waltzed across his quarters at a Vulcan. Gods.
Nothing for it but to carry on. He hopes he’s imagining the eyes of every member of the bridge fixed firmly on the diptych by the science console, but he doesn’t dare check. He says, “It’s vital that we find her. I don’t want to lose any more people to this thing, whatever it is.”
One eyebrow lowers, but the other remains resolutely quirked, and Spock’s face tightens into the sort of mask Kirk might wear if someone asked him to work out the square root of 1,742 in his head. Presently, he says, slowly, “And you believe that Doctor McCoy might endeavor to take matters into his own hands, should the surface scans produce no workable solution to her whereabouts?”
Kirk considers. That’s actually a plausible interpretation of what he just said. Considering the fact that he pulled it out of sheer desperation and the prospect of a serious wound to his pride, it will do very nicely. “I’d prefer it didn’t come to that,” he says.
“Understood, Captain,” says Spock, and it may be – it probably is – Kirk’s imagination, but that could be a tiny undercurrent of warmth seeping into those words. “Sensor readings are unchanged, however I will have updated surface scan readouts in three point four minutes.”
By the benevolence of a merciful universe, McCoy chooses this moment to buzz up to the bridge and the whole nightmare conversation is unobtrusively concluded. “Excuse me,” says Kirk, and crosses back to the command chair to speak to the Doctor.
McCoy’s face on the screen is lined and heavy with fatigue. It has been almost three hours since he left for his quarters, and he clearly hasn’t slept at all in that time. “Nothing to report, Doctor,” Kirk says gently. “We haven’t located Mrs. Crater.” Now is definitely not the time to mention that long-range sensors have only picked up one lifeform on the planet. He changes the subject. “What’s the matter, can’t you sleep?”
“No,” says McCoy shortly.
“Try taking one of those red pills you gave me last week,” says Kirk. The effect is something similar to what he imagines it would feel like to be repeatedly beaten around the head with a concrete elephant. “You’ll sleep,” he adds, with feeling.
Spock straightens at the console as Kirk signs off, and he approaches the command chair. Kirk feels warmth tighten in his belly and focuses on his plate to distract him from the sensation that this is finally something normal again. “The simple fact is,” says Spock, “Unless there’s something seriously wrong with the ship’s equipment, there’s only one person within a hundred mile circle.”
There is nothing wrong with the ship’s equipment. Moreover, there is no way that Spock believes there is something wrong with the ship’s equipment, or he’d have pulled the paneling away from the console and be chest-deep in wires and relay circuits by now. The warmth in Kirk’s belly flares as he realizes that this is Spock’s way of saying, I know you’re worried, and I’m sorry I can’t help.
“All right,” says Kirk levelly. “We’ll triangulate on him. We’ll let Professor Crater explain what happened to his wife.”
Spock nods, and takes a step towards the turbolift door. So much for regulations, then. Kirk could punch the air, but he holds himself steady as he offers final instructions to Uhura, hands his plate to Garner, and joins his friend in the lift.
The Captain is standing closer to Crater’s line of fire than Spock would like, but experience has amply demonstrated that not only is it eminently useless to try to talk him out of gestures such as these, but gestures such as these are apparently significantly less dangerous for Captain Kirk than for anyone else in the galaxy. Spock suspects it has something to do with his uncanny ability to persuade his opponents to do what he wants them to do, which clearly extends to not killing him when he’s standing directly in front of them. Nevertheless, it is always safer to assume that today will be the day that logic trumps verbal acrobatics, and it is while he is skirting around the ruins to find a better vantage point from which to offer covering fire that he comes across the body of Crewman Green.
He remembers his overheard conversation outside the dispensary and hesitates. Spock is aware that the Captain feels every loss of a crewmember as though it were his own personal responsibility. It is not logical, but it is what makes him the captain that he is. And then Kirk’s communicator chirps and Sulu reports another death, on board the Enterprise this time, and he can delay no longer. He pulls out his communicator.
“Spock cutting in, Captain,” he says. And yet, he cannot make himself say the words, knowing that they will invoke that desperate self-flagellation, so he prevaricates. “Something here – through the arches to your left.” There is no rational reason to equivocate: it will be seconds only before Kirk is confronted with the reality of Crewman Green’s death, and he finds that he is unwilling to speculate on why he chose to withhold the information.
Kirk hesitates for a moment when he rounds the shelter of the ruins to find Spock knelt beside the Crewman’s body, and Spock witnesses a flash of grief play violently across his face. “Green,” says Spock gently.
Kirk crouches beside the young man. “He beamed up to the ship with us,” he says.
“Or something did,” corrects Spock.
The Captain’s face tightens and he stands abruptly, flipping open his communicator. “Enterprise, from Kirk,” he says.
“Bridge – Sulu,” comes the response.
“You have an intruder aboard – could be masquerading as Crewman Green,” says the Captain. “General Quarters – Security, condition three.”
“GQ, Security Three, sir,” says Sulu, and Kirk closes the communicator.
There is a long, tense moment. The Captain’s face is unreadable while they wait for confirmation, and Spock straightens and crosses the narrow patch of sand to stand beside him.
“Reporting GQ3 secure, Captain,” says Uhura, within minutes. “Do you require assistance there?”
“Crater knows the creature,” says Spock. “If we can take him alive…”
“Negative, Lieutenant,” Kirk tells her. “But keep locked in on us. Kirk out.” He snaps the communicator closed and glances up at Spock. “Let’s get him,” he says.
They fan out, but Spock has barely taken three steps before the whine of phaser fire cuts through the air and the pillar beside the Captain explodes in a hail of dust and stone shrapnel. Spock dives out of the way, checking behind him as he falls, but the Captain is uninjured and has taken refuge behind the pillar adjacent.
“We don’t want you here!” hollers Crater. “We’re happy alone!”
While Crater is shouting he is not firing. Spock takes advantage of the lull to shimmy across the sand on his belly to where the Captain has flattened himself behind an outcrop of thick, desert weeds that offer abundant cover and a clear line of sight. Kirk acknowledges him with a tense little nod.
“I’ll kill to stay alone!” shouts Crater. “You hear that, Kirk? Or you’ll have to kill me! I don’t care either way!”
“Obviously, taking him alive is going to be difficult,” says Spock.
“Set your phaser on one quarter, I’ll leave mine on stun,” says Kirk.
It is logical, of course, but so is the preservation of the Captain, and this particular plan seems to unduly privilege one over the other. “Why risk your life for his?” says Spock, because it’s his job to point these things out.
“He’s not trying to kill us. He’s trying to frighten us,” says Kirk. He glances at the disintegrated ruins above them. “And he’s doing a pretty good job,” he adds.
He glances back at Spock, and for a moment his eyes dance. It’s a while since they’ve taken fire together – the last time was on Ariadne VII, shortly after gas mining negotiations between the Federation and the colonial council were explosively discontinued – but it’s in moments like these that Spock is reminded why, precisely, he is regularly drawn to reflect upon the fact that he has never served under a captain quite like this. These are the moments in which communication seems to flow wordlessly between them, when the same thought seems to arrive in their heads together and it takes little more than a nod and a hand gesture to convey the kind of complicated defensive strategy that ought to take three battle tacticians and a relief map of the vicinity to plot. Safe in this knowledge, he points at a spot above and to the right of Crater’s position and Kirk breathes an appreciative, “Yes,” and this is enough to assure Spock that their plan is understood. He shimmies back the way he came, while Kirk offers a brief check of his surroundings and scurries forwards.
Spock allows the Captain sufficient time to achieve his new bearings before he flips open his communicator, training his phaser onto the no-man’s land between his position and Crater’s. Kirk answers without preamble: “Set.”
“Acknowledged,” says Spock, and calls, “Crater!”
Startled, Crater turns over his shoulder in the direction of Spock’s voice, and Kirk seizes the moment of his distraction to fire a stun shot directly into the Professor’s chest. He crumples against the stone behind him, and they hurry forward to disarm him.
“Your wife, Professor – where is she?” snaps Kirk.
Crater licks his lips but does not answer. Spock glances up at the Captain.
“Your wife, Professor – where is she?” says Kirk again.
Crater sighs. “She… was the last of her kind,” he says slowly, his voice thick and heavy, distorted by the residual effects of the phaser fire.
Kirk’s eyes snap up, seeking Spock’s, but he has no answer for the question in the Captain’s gaze. “The last of her kind?” says Kirk.
Crater smiles and nods. “The last of its kind,” he confirms. He stares at the ground for a long moment. “Earth history, remember?” he says suddenly, looking up, “Like the passenger pigeon. Or the buffalo.” He grimaces. “I feel strange,” he adds.
“You’re just stunned,” says Kirk. “You’ll be able to think in a minute.”
The silence drifts on as Crater visibly struggles to collect his thoughts. “The earth buffalo,” prompts Spock. “What about it?”
Crater looks up, and his eyes are sad. “Once there were millions of them,” he says. “Prairies black with them, one herd covered three whole states. When they moved – like thunder.”
“And now they’re gone?” says Spock. “Is that what you mean?”
The Professor nods. “Like the creatures here,” he says. “Once there were millions of them. Now there’s one left.” He pauses, stares up at Kirk. “Nancy understood.”
Kirk glances up at Spock again, and he realizes that they are thinking the same thing. “Always in the past tense,” says Spock.
“Where’s your wife – where is she now?” demands the Captain, and Crater’s face clouds.
“Dead,” he says simply. “Buried up on the hill. It killed her.”
“When?” demands Kirk.
“A year… Or was it two?” says Crater.
Kirk’s eyes shoot up again, and Spock finds that he is already staring. The Captain is clearly troubled, and Spock is scarcely less uneasy. He can offer no comfort as Kirk pulls out his communicator again. “Kirk to Enterprise,” he says.
“Bridge to Captain – Sulu here.”
“It’s definite, Mr. Sulu,” says Kirk. “The intruder can assume any shape. Crewmen, you, myself – anyone, do you understand? Go to GQ4.”
“General Quarters Four, Captain,” says Sulu, and signs off.
“The creature was trying to survive,” says Crater vaguely. “It has that right, doesn’t it?”
The Captain ignores him, but he is increasingly disturbed and it shows in his demeanor. “Kirk to transporter room,” he says brusquely. “Three to beam up.”
“They needed salt to stay alive,” says Crater, as though Kirk has not spoken. Spock wonders if he is fully aware of his surroundings; his eyes have taken on the haze of a man staring into another time. “There was no more salt. It’s the last one.” A pause. “The buffalo. There is no difference.”
Despite the growing disconnect between the Professor and his grasp on reality, Spock cannot help but acknowledge a convoluted logic to his words. It is unpleasant to contemplate, but surely, in the grander scheme of things, there is merit to the idea of sacrificing four members of a populous species to the survival of one that faces extinction? Four Humans have died at the creature’s hands, but, reduced to the language of numbers and statistics, the only language that truly matters to the universe, they are a tiny fraction of the overall whole. Is it not logical to sacrifice a percentage so infinitesimal when the percentage saved represents the totality of the planet’s native population?
The Vulcan in him accedes but remains unsettled. Logic should not be unsettling. Disconcerted, he glances up at the Captain, whose face is a mask of cold fury. “There’s one difference, Professor,” he spits. “Your creature is killing my people!”
And there it is: the unbalanced equation at the centre of the mathematical tangle. He should have known it came from his Human side. Logic can only be sustained from a safe distance. It breaks down where the numbers become people – living, breathing people – who are important to someone, the way the Captain’s crew are important to him. Crater has accepted his loss philosophically, abstractly measuring the sacrifice of one Human life against the survival of a species, but should the scales not have been weighted in Nancy Crater’s favor? Could he himself dispassionately balance a life against an entire culture, if the life to be ceded was his bondmate’s? Logic demands it. He would like to think he could.
Rand’s presence at the briefing room table is necessary, since it transpires that she’s spent a portion of her afternoon in the company of Crewman Green, despite the inescapable fact of Crewman Green’s death just before lunch, but Kirk is certain she’s no happier about it than he is. She keeps her voice light, professional and friendly. He keeps his authoritative and even, and between them they manage to take the first tentative steps towards re-establishing a working relationship again. The circumstances could be better, but it’s a start.
McCoy, though… At first, Kirk wonders if it’s the lingering effects of the sleeping pills – it is, after all, only an hour and a half at most since the Doctor buzzed up to the bridge – but there are hypos for that, as Kirk knows from bitter, personal experience. More than that, he doesn’t seem drugged. He just doesn’t seem 100 percent there. Kirk has to ask twice before he gets his attention, and then the Doctor mumbles some barely-coherent apology for the creature that basically involves feeding it salt and leaving it alone, at which point the Professor chimes in to concur wholeheartedly. The Captain blinks his way through a McCoy/Crater salt-creature defense tag-team that largely consists of them agreeing with each other about how fluffy and loveable a quadruple-killer it really is, until Spock brings the love-fest to a conclusion with one of those deadpan understatements of his that always make Kirk wonder if he’s actually laughing at them all underneath that mask of Vulcan inscrutability.
“A very interesting hypothesis, Doctor,” he says innocently, but before Kirk has the time to find out what he means by that – which could be anything from, do please continue, through, I am humoring you right now, to, are you out of your tiny Human mind? – the ship’s whistle sounds. “Briefing room,” says Spock, as he opens the comm.
Sulu’s face appears on-screen. “All the halls sealed off,” he says. “All weapons accounted for and locked away. Security 4 in effect on every level – still no lead on the intruder.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” says Kirk. “Continue the search.” He glares up at the Professor. “Crater – we don’t know who or what we’re looking for. We need your help, and now.”
But Crater is shaking his head before the Captain has finished speaking. “I demanded. I even begged that you get off my planet,” he says.
Kirk does not see the point in disguising his impatience any further. “Can you recognize this thing when you see it?” he demands. Crater says nothing, but his rapidly-averted eyes answer the question by themselves. “Professor,” says Kirk, exercising what he imagines may well be superhuman restraint. It certainly feels like it. “I’ll forgo charges up to this point. But this creature’s aboard my ship, and I’ll have it, or I’ll have your skin. Or both. Now where is it?”
There is a long, tense moment. For heavy, difficult seconds it seems as though Crater will refuse to answer. When he speaks, though, he might just as well have kept quiet.
“I loved Nancy very much,” he says, and Kirk wonders if he’s now actively seeking to provoke a murderous rage or if he just doesn’t much care anymore whether or not the Captain vents a portion of his frustration by simply shooting him through the wall. “Few women like my Nancy,” he continues obstinately. “She lives in my dreams. She walks and sings in my dreams.”
Kirk narrows his eyes. “And it becomes Nancy for you?”
“Not because of tricks – it doesn’t trick me,” says Crater. “It needs love as much as it needs salt. When it killed Nancy, I almost destroyed it, but… It isn’t just a beast. It is intelligent. And the last of its kind.”
“You bleed too much, Crater. You’re too pure and noble,” says Kirk. He can barely keep the anger out of his voice. “Are you saving the last of its kind, or has this become Crater’s private heaven, here on this planet? This thing becomes wife, lover, best friend, wise man, fool, idol – slave? It isn’t a bad life to have everyone in the universe at your beck and call. And you win all the arguments.”
“You don’t understand,” says Crater, and turns his face away.
“Have you learned to see this thing in whatever form it becomes?” asks Kirk.
A hesitation. “Yes.”
“Are you going to help us find it?”
A longer pause, and the air seems to crackle with tension. “Sorry. I can’t,” says Crater.
He is not sorry. He is the opposite of sorry, and his face is defiant as he glares mutinously up at the Captain. Into the dangerous silence, Spock says, “Recommend we use truth serum, Captain.”
But that, of course, requires McCoy’s input, and he’s still staring vacantly into space. Kirk is not even sure he’s heard. “Doctor?” he prompts.
McCoy seems to startle out of his daze, and focuses on the Captain with some difficulty. “Well, I resist using it,” he says slowly, “But in this case… if the Professor will give us the truth… I…”
It ought to feel like progress at last, but the sensation is more akin to discovering, halfway down a hill that terminates abruptly in a sharp cliff, that the brakes are out. Kirk stares at him, hoping to find some evidence in Bones’ face that he has the slightest idea of what he’s just agreed to, and coming up with a blank wall of torpor. He nods uneasily. “Thank you,” he says.
He doesn’t glance at Spock. He doesn’t need to. The First Officer is standing before the Captain has finished speaking, and is already moving towards the door to intercept Crater and McCoy. “I’ll accompany you, Doctor,” he says.
McCoy blinks. “Oh. Yes. Of course,” he says. He glances at Crater as the Professor gets to his feet, and then back up at Spock, and the sudden flare of something in his eyes spills ice-water along Kirk’s spine. What’s more, Spock has noted it too; his eyes flash back into the room as he turns to leave, seeking the Captain’s, meeting and holding them long enough to communicate a shared unease. Kirk takes half a step forward to follow, driven by the prickling of some latent sixth sense that Spock would certainly mock with an eyebrow or possibly a tilt of the head, but the ship’s whistle abruptly puts paid to the idea before it’s even fully formed, and instead he gets to listen to ninety-plus seconds of security telling him they still haven’t found anything.
When the call comes through, hot on the heels of the non-update, that there has been an incident in sickbay, he is running before he’s even aware that his legs have begun to move.
It is only afterwards, long afterwards, that he is able to label the cacophony of adrenaline in his veins as panic. In the suspended moments after Lieutenant Goltz commed the briefing room with a garbled account of an attack and an injury, First Officer unconscious and bleeding from the head, all Kirk is aware of is the fact that he knew something was wrong, that things are still not okay between them, and that this is not – cannot be – how it ends.
He pushes his way through the security cordon outside the dispensary, and his first conscious thought is that Spock is on a biobed with an orderly beside him. His second conscious thought is lost as Spock opens his eyes and says, “It wasn’t McCoy.”
Relief assaults him, stealing any reply that half forms in the seconds before he realizes that, if it wasn’t McCoy, then Spock is not the only friend whose safety he has to worry about.
“It was the creature,” says Spock. “It hit me.” His voice is tight, breathless with pain, and his forehead is stained green from an ugly gash that snakes up into his hairline. “Crater grabbed my phaser,” he adds. “Wondered about McCoy… Doubt had crossed my mind…”
“Captain!” says Rand suddenly, startling him; he had not noticed her following. He crosses to where she stands beside the door to McCoy’s office, and sees the reason for the horror in her voice. “Professor Crater!” she says.
He is dead, prone on the floor, his skin a patchwork of red mottling. Kirk spares him half a glance before striding quickly across the dispensary floor to stand by Spock’s bedside, where the First Officer is struggling to sit up.
“It could have had you too,” he says.
“Fortunately, my ancestors spawned in another ocean than yours did,” says Spock. “My blood cells are quite different.”
There is just enough of Spock in the words to reassure the Captain. A smile washes across his face, and he places a restraining hand on the First Officer’s shoulder. “I’m very glad to hear it, Mr. Spock,” he says. “But you’re injured. Better let Mr. Powell here give you the once over.”
“Captain, Doctor McCoy…”
“I’ll check on Bones, Spock,” he says. “You stay here.”
“Captain, the creature is extremely dangerous,” he protests. “It is unwise to attempt to apprehend it alone.”
“Believe me, Mr. Spock, I don’t intend to take any chances,” says Kirk. “And that includes bringing an injured officer with me.”
“That’s an order, First Officer!” He checks his phaser and tucks it into his belt. “Update Security to GQ5 and inform Commander Giotto about this latest attack. I’m going to Doctor McCoy’s quarters. Have a medical team on standby.”
He crosses to the door without looking back. He doesn’t need to see the look on Spock’s face.
It is precisely what Spock would have done in the same circumstances, only with two key exceptions. First, without the benefit of superior rank to back him up, he would have had to resort to subterfuge; and second, he would actually have been right to do it. It is not logical for the Captain to risk his life so carelessly. Moreover, he has no experience with the creature and cannot be fully prepared for either its strength or its method of subjugation. The Vulcan body is three times stronger than Human physiology, and it knocked Spock to the ground with barely a sweep of its hand. If the Captain finds the creature, he will be essentially defenseless.
It is not logical to allow this.
However, orders are orders, so he waits patiently for the 76 seconds that it takes Mr. Powell to seal his head wound and affix a dressing over the tingling flesh, before sitting up smartly and swinging his legs off the biobed.
The orderly dissolves into quivering indecision. “But, sir…!” he protests. “The Captain ordered…”
“The Captain ordered me to remain in sickbay while you ascertained my general health,” says Spock. “You have accomplished this, have you not?”
“Well…” wibbles Powell, and Spock can see the perfectly reasonable no form on his lips and die under the heat of a withering Vulcan glare. “I mean… But your head…”
Spock checks his phaser charge and tugs his tunic back into place. “Kindly assemble a medical response team and direct them to enter Doctor McCoy’s quarters on my orders,” he says. “No one is to enter until I or the Captain have expressly given the all-clear, is that understood?”
It is a tactic that he has employed to great effect on many previous occasions. For some reason, Humans have a tendency to acquiesce to almost anything if you ignore their objections for long enough. The length of time required for success is inversely proportional to the object’s level on the chain of command, and Powell gives in almost immediately. “Yes, sir,” he says.
It is possible that the Doctor is still alive, but Spock thinks it is unlikely. His mind drifts, unbidden, back to his overheard conversation that morning; to Kirk’s face when he rounded the shelter of the ruins and saw Green stretched out lifeless on the sands. Whatever happens, he does not want to leave the Captain alone now.
The first thing he registers is that McCoy is still alive. The second is that the creature that is not Nancy Crater has the Captain locked in some kind of trance in front of her, and McCoy hesitates by the door, unable to shoot.
The third thing he registers is the fact that logic is not always the paramount consideration in every situation. It turns out that there are circumstances in which his first instinct is to let a species die.
The planet stretches lazily across the viewscreen, a hovering ochre sphere splashed carelessly with wisps of white and grey. A man given to anthropomorphization might call it lonely, but Spock does not operate in elegy or poetry. What he sees is a world where there was one, and now there are none. He sees a world where, but for random intervention, a Human man and the last scion of a forgotten culture have coexisted for two years and might have continued to do so for a little longer. It is impossible to classify this mission as a success, but he cannot quite call it a failure either. It is not logical, but, then again, this has not been a good day for his logical side.
McCoy has been uncharacteristically quiet since Doctor M’Benga pronounced him fit for duty, beyond insisting upon following the Captain up to the bridge. The Captain has not been pronounced fit for duty as such, but this is apparently one of those rare occasions in which his insistence upon flagrantly disregarding his own physiological wellbeing has dovetailed with McCoy’s own inclinations, and the Doctor brushed off M’Benga’s solicitations with a taciturn, “Let him be, Jabilo. He’ll live.” McCoy stands now to the Captain’s right, his gaze locked on the planetscape before them, while the Captain’s eyes are fixed firmly on the floor, half-focused and lost in thought.
He is absolutely, categorically, not all right.
Spock will be the first to admit that he has no expertise in the management of Human emotions, and there will be a long queue of assorted colleagues and associates behind him, all too eager to back him up, but this requires something. It’s time to dig deep. He hesitates, and then crosses the bridge.
“Is something wrong, Captain?” he asks gently. It’s a foolish question; utterly illogical and completely without merit, because he knows something is wrong, and, what’s more, he knows what it is as well. But it may be that Spock is learning a thing or two at last, because Kirk visibly rouses himself from his melancholy deliberations and tugs a tiny smile across his lips.
“I was thinking about the buffalo, Mr. Spock,” he says quietly.
This is the point, Spock thinks, where another Human would offer some words of comfort. The consumption of alcohol would presumably be suggested. There might be some form of physical contact – perhaps a hearty slap on the back or a rough squeeze of the shoulder. All of these things are possibilities, if he only knew the format they were supposed to follow. But the Captain glances sideways at McCoy, who returns his smile with a little quirk of the lips that is less convincing than it is sincere, and it’s enough to know that there is understanding there at least. Perhaps later, they will sit together in the mess and McCoy will tell them both stories about the woman he used to know, and Spock will raise an eyebrow and redirect the conversation to the scientific significance of their discoveries on M-113, and McCoy will flare and call him a green-blooded computer with duotronic relay where his heart should be, and the Captain will watch with poorly concealed amusement as the discussion rapidly degenerates into invective.
Perhaps. Or perhaps it will wait until another night.
Spock takes his place by the Captain’s side as they warp out of orbit, and remains there for as long as it is practicable to do so. And then a couple of moments more.