This is what he knows.
He knows how to gentle a horse with his hands, and how to steer a shuttlecraft though an ion storm with his fingertips.
He knows every intermix formula in Mister Scott's repertoire (plus a few more purely theoretical options he's boned up on, just in case). He knows the sweet spot on deck six where he can hear through the soles of his boots when they've got it just right.
He knows how to spot the ensign who's about to have a crisis of confidence, and push them just far enough to spark, but not so far the light dies.
He has learned how to detect when a Tellarite is uncomfortable (the nostrils being the window to the soul in this case) and how to wrap a gift for a Deltan so the recipient can delight in the unwrapping (fur is preferred, silk acceptable).
He knows three ways to cook Katarian eggs, he knows he doesn't have the patience to meditate and that he'll never understand the concept of a hobby.
He knows that when you're attacked by a larger opponent the secret is to make yourself small, to use their sense of superiority against them, to trust your body, not your brain. He knows how to take the pain from a well placed blow and bury it away so it becomes a thing apart.
All this he knows.
But he doesn't know how he's going to get through this. He doesn't know how to wake another morning to the thud, the punch in the gut, the knowledge that Spock's gone. He doesn't know if he can ever step onto the bridge of a starship again and see that empty spot and command a crew with the better half of him missing.
He has a lifetime ahead without Spock and he doesn't know how he's going to get through the next week. Hell, he doesn't know how he's going to get through the next five minutes.
He is running. The darkness hunts him.
Feet pound through wet leaves, arms pump in relentless rhythm. His breathing is harsh in his ears, agony in his chest, so loud the thump of his heart is not sound but vibration.
As the path grows steeper he thinks he might explode with effort. Yet still he runs, through the dark trees that bend ever closer to the path, through the rain that sheets off his skin in streams that could be tears but are not. Pushing the limits of his endurance, embracing the pain as an old friend.
Friendship and pain. He hasn't always thought of them as connected. He'd spent so long looking for the subtleties he'd missed the obvious; open is just another word for vulnerable.
He has reached the ridge where the path turns abruptly sideways into the trees. The pain is almost enough now, it almost outweighs, but the darkness is still closing fast.
He can't stop, won't stop while he has a choice.
"You have a choice, Captain."
The Klingon commander stares from the viewscreen with the complacency of someone who not only holds all the cards, but has bought up the entire casino.
The memory is old now, years old. The second mission. Post V'ger. Those were the years he'd begun to listen to his First officer's flawlessly logical arguments, when he didn't lead every landing party. Even as he gazes calmly at his adversary, inwardly he's cursing Vulcan risk assessments. He should be down there.
"Leave now and we will keep your people hostage. I give you my word as a fellow warrior they will not be harmed. Stay in orbit, persist in your pathetic rescue attempts, and we will still keep our hostages. But we will reduce their numbers. And the means of reduction will not be...pleasant."
Choices. Decisions. Yes or no. Life or death. Just another day at the office when you command a starship.
Sometimes there's no such thing as the right choice. There's just a choice and a deadline and two and a half stripes on your sleeve.
Sometimes there's really only one question -- are you in command or aren't you?
The trees are gone.
For a moment he is weightless. He is falling.
There is no fear as he falls. Surprise, yes, but faint and far off. It is someone else's surprise, not his.
And then there is nothing but earth. Earth in his mouth, his nose, his ears. Planet and soil and nullified electrical charge. He is grounded.
He welcomes it -- this burial, this smothering and suffocation. He will not fight it. There is comfort in passivity. The hunt is over.
Why did he ever think he could cheat death? "I don't believe in a no win scenario." He does not recognise the man who said those words. This is the man he is now -- a man drowning in dirt and darkness.
The stars have gone out.
He'd be the first to admit the plan lacked finesse, but the clock is ticking. A whispered three way conversation with McCoy and Uhura, orders buried among louder panicked phrases, and the wheels are in motion.
"Time's up, Captain."
"Okay, Commander. You win." Kirk tries to inject just the right note of wounded pride and indignation. "We'll leave but if you touch a hair on the heads of my crew..."
He prides himself he does bluff and bluster pretty well and he keeps it going long enough to make sure McCoy has time to do what is needed.
It almost doesn't work.
The Klingon crew are so busy celebrating their victory, rejoicing that they've sent the great Captain James T Kirk scurrying away with his tail between his legs, that they nearly miss it. But fortunately their comms officer is the suspicious type.
As the Enterprise prepares to leave orbit, his station intercepts a brief burst of uncoded data direct from the starship’s sickbay to the library computer -- a request for incubation information following the entire crew's recent exposure to the Nagus 5 virus, a nasty little mutation known to be debilitating to humans and fatal to Klingons. Rapid interrogation of the hostages is now inevitable.
Time passes. A few minutes. An eternity. He cannot tell. But he is still here to experience it. It sits heavy on his chest, weights his arms, binds his legs. He is a prisoner of time, and of the earth. The earth he can feel on his eyelids, between his teeth, coating his tongue with mud.
He can feel.
And suddenly he's furious. The cry rises beneath him, from under the soil. It is too deep seated in him, this need to escape, this refusal to accept defeat.
The cry is a thing apart, an alien sound of pain too long compressed, of tears not shed. It pushes him, this cry, up and out, from the horizontal to the vertical, exploding from the mud as if he's being born even as he wishes he could die.
And now there is one star in all that black. A star that wavers -- that blinks and flickers and will not stay constant. A star that grows and glows until it blinds him and he flings up his mud coated fingers to protect his eyes. And he hears a voice say the name of the man he does not remember.
"Admiral Kirk. Thank God."
"Warp speed, Mr Sulu." How often had he said those words? But long before Cochrane, in the days when the Enterprise had sails not nacelles, warp had a different meaning. One he's now pondering as they head out on a boomerang course beyond the range of the Klingon sensor array.
Warp and weft. The warp is the thread stretched over the loom, the weft is the thread that weaves and fills in the holes. He's not sure which of them is warp, which is weft. But he knows Spock is tightly woven into the fabric of his existence. And he's relying on that meshing of minds now to make his plan work.
She does not recognise him, although the tracking unit that has traced his path here from the cabin insists the search is over. He is coated head to toe in black. The rain continues to pour down making white streaks through the dirt on his cheeks. At least she thinks it's the rain.
He is sitting in a sea of soil and broken branches and he offers no resistance as she grasps his mud slicked fingers and tries to take his pulse, to examine him for injuries. She curses her absent medkit still sitting on the seat of the aircar. Is he concussed? He's looking at her as if she's a stranger.
"Sir, it's me, Chapel."
"Chapel?" He's frowning. She can't blame him -- it's been years, and a hillside in Idaho is the last place he would expect to run across his former ship’s doctor. She moves the light closer. Eyes focused. Pupils reactive.
"How's your vision, Admiral? Can you follow my finger?"
He makes a sudden movement and, before she can stop him, he's up on his feet, blinking through the raindrops, taking in his surroundings.
"Hang on, sir. You need to let me take a look at you."
He pulls his arm from her grip. Turns his head away from the light but not before she sees the blood on his face.
"I'm fine. I can manage."
His voice is harsh, hoarse perhaps from that shout. She finds it hard to believe the sound she'd heard in the mud came from the man she knew.
He wasn't far from the trail, but she cannot understand what would possess anyone to venture out at sunset in the worst downpour of the year. Hell of a time to go for a run. The rain had been falling for days, flooding the valley, soaking and softening the hillside until a landslip was almost inevitable. He is lucky to be alive. And yet, as he ignores her plea and sets off towards the lights of the waiting aircar, he seems unhurt. Only James T Kirk could walk away from half a collapsing hillside.
But then he's lucky, isn't he? To those outside, those who had never served with him, this man had been the luckiest CO in Starfleet. Only his crew knew their captain made his own luck -- that his legendary reputation was built on fierce intelligence and command instincts so sharp his triumphs seemed easily won, even inevitable. But now he's lost everything that ever mattered to him. That's another reason she doesn't recognise him. The man who always wins looks defeated.
The Nagus 5 virus. As he'd hoped, as he'd known really, when the Klingons start talking about the obscure training scenario he and Spock had designed between them, it's enough of a clue for his First Officer. No further communication is needed. And when the guards discover their prized hostages unconscious, the result of a Vulcan nerve pinch in five cases and deep meditation in a sixth, it is predictable they are hastily transferred from the heavily shielded facility to an isolation ward for further investigation. And that gives Mister Scott the window of opportunity he needs.
He watches the muddy water pooling on the floor of the shower. He's so tired that even to step from the cubicle seems too much effort, so he continues to stand, the scalding water pounding his skin. How did he get here? The last few hours are a monochrome blur, the days before have fractured into a series of fragmented, poorly linked sequences.
He remembers their ignominious return. No reception, no fanfare. A seldom used transporter pad in the bowels of Starfleet Command and a march through cleared corridors. A stormy galactic conference swirling above their heads and a stormier galactic controversy raging behind closed doors.
If Genesis was about creating new life, he thought with the part of his brain still able to appreciate the irony, it had certainly succeeded in one respect; it had reinvigorated some of Starfleet's dinosaurs.
He'd kept his answers short and to the point. Clamped down hard on his anger as admirals who hadn't logged a star hour in decades churned out their smooth 'forgive me for asking' questions. They started by revisiting ancient history in the form of the logs of his first encounter with Khan 16 years and a lifetime ago. Why had he allowed access to the Enterprise's technical manuals before he knew the true identity of his 'guest'? Why release the man who'd tried to suffocate him and the entire bridge crew to a new life?
In retrospect it's easy to scoff at his naive determination to approach every new encounter with an optimism his older battle hardened self doesn't recognise.
But then, the panel reminded him ("Just for the record, Admiral. No-one's suggesting..."), he'd performed little better when he ran into Khan again, at least not at first. Why hadn't he seen the warning signs? Why had he ignored General Order 12 and failed to raise his shields when the mute Reliant approached?
Why indeed? The same questions haunt him every waking hour of every too long day. But he's paid the price, hasn't he? He faces his punishment in the first seconds of consciousness as each day begins and in the dreams that haunt him when fatigue forces him into grudging sleep. The 'what ifs' sit breathing stale air on his shoulder right next to the 'if onlys'; he barely has to turn his head to inhale regret.
Of course, the panel weren't really interested in his answers. This wasn't a disciplinary hearing; this was about political point-scoring between command cliques with their own agendas. And even the hardest eyed among them knew how close the Federation had come to losing Genesis to a madman, and gave him credit he felt ill-deserved.
Worse than the questions were the manly squeezes of his shoulder and the meaningful looks. He hated it. Hated the sympathy from the few he counted as friends, the veiled glances from the many he didn't, and the 'how do you feel' from the bereavement counsellor who was waiting for him outside the debrief and had been sent away with his over-reaction ringing in her ears.
How did he feel? He'd told McCoy he felt young. But a more accurate word would have been numb. Alone was a good word too. And, when he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he thought he looked hunted; he has to resist the tap tap of temptation to look over his shoulder at the darkness he will not name.
Mister Scott was unequivocal. The newly repaired transporter could only handle five of the six hostages. Take all six and lose all six. Take five and they would survive.
So, who to leave behind while the coils recharged? How do you weigh one life against another? Remove the emotion and it's an equation -- the life which is more valuable to Starfleet, and to you, versus the odds of survival for the one left behind. If he were a Vulcan he would assign numerical values -- use percentages and probabilities.
He is not a Vulcan. He is the Captain and he cannot attach a value to friendship -- unless, in this situation, that value is preceded by a minus sign.
"You made the logical decision, Captain. It is the decision I would have made had I been in your place." His friend's eyes are gentle staring up from biobed, the darker green of bruises already fading under the ministrations of the regenerator.
But he knows the truth. And he fears that next time he will not be able to bring himself to use the minus sign.