Chapter One: Choices
He lay on the hard deck of the shuttlecraft, the air around him cold and growing colder. His breaths came in gasps, now, as the oxygen slowly diminished. Darkness appeared to surround him, but he managed to keep his vision fixed on the steady gaze of warm, brown eyes. His head ached, not only from the effects of slow asphyxiation, but also from the recent hasty and intense joining with another’s mind. He inhaled raggedly, his voice barely a whisper. “Kobayashi Maru, Spock….pretty sure…what you did is…cheating…never…let you…live it down…”. The blackness expanded, and his body grew limp, his lips still curled in a final, defiant grin.
Fourteen hours earlier...
The Enterprise appeared to soar away into the star-lit black as the shuttle Copernicus angled sharply away and down along its departure vector. Captain James Kirk smiled, admiring his beautiful lady with as much excitement and awe as he had the very first time he had seen her fly.
“Shuttle Copernicus to Enterprise, we are clear, turning now to thirty-two mark zero-eight, engaging impulse drive.” Spock’s crisp monotone from the co-pilot’s chair brought Jim’s attention back to the board in front of him.
“Enterprise acknowledges,” Uhura replied over the comm channel, her voice considerably more animated. “Confirming emergency channel code alpha-charlie-ten and rendezvous at Delta Ceti III in six days.”
Jim toggled his own control. “Confirmed, Lieutenant. Tell Sulu to keep her in one piece for me.”
“Affirmative, Captain. He says he’ll do his best. Pleasant trip, gentlemen.”
“Roger, Enterprise, Copernicus out.” Jim flipped a switch and the comm light blinked out. He watched his lady grow smaller and smaller still, the upswept nacelles gleaming impossibly bright with reflected starlight. Reluctantly, he punched up the tactical and navigation overlay on the screen and shared a glance with his first officer. “Ready to go?”
“Affirmative, Captain, all indicators green, heading laid in; warp speed on your command.”
“Punch it.” Jim smiled to himself as Spock hesitated just slightly before initiating the command. It wasn’t that long ago that the half-Vulcan would have, at the least, pretended not to understand Terran slang, or would even have taken Jim’s wording as an invitation to lecture him on proper protocol. Their friendship, which had previously been guarded, at least on Spock’s side, and fraught with miscommunication, was newly forged in the harsh crucible of Jim’s death and Spock’s resultant emotional maelstrom. A miracle-and-a-half later, Jim had been resurrected, and Spock had been, well, different.
Jim knew that still waters ran deep. In the two weeks Jim had been in a coma, Spock and Uhura had apparently broken off their relationship and Spock had spent practically all hours at his bedside. Not that Spock had mentioned it himself, of course. Bones had brought it up almost accusingly later on. But, by that time, Spock was back to being his usual calm, logical, slightly aloof self, albeit with slightly more warmth where Jim was concerned. Jim chalked up Spock’s response to the effect of emotional shock on a Vulcan who had literally lost his whole world already.
Vulcans, as a rule, barely acknowledge emotionally strenuous topics, much less introduce them. And Jim, who had been through the hell of Tarsus IV, had no desire to force a difficult conversation, especially when he found he was appreciating his friend’s newfound openness. Therefore, neither of them had endeavored to bring up what happened in the warp core during the year of refit time on Earth or even during the subsequent thirteen months of their deep-space assignment. Despite that, however, they seemed well on their way to the 'defining friendship' that had been promised. They talked, they played chess, they worked out together. Jim, who had always shied away from significant relationships of any kind, with the notable exception of his friendship with Bones, was finding surprising contentment in the loyalty, acceptance and respect of his half-Vulcan first officer. And despite Bones’ frequent mutterings about Jim’s secret crush, the captain kept his strong attraction to the Vulcan strictly under wraps. Unrequited lust was one thing, but unrequited love was something Jim was resolved to avoid.
Indeed, the first year-and-change of their groundbreaking five-year mission had been a complete success for the young command team. Their rare rapport proved invaluable under frequently encountered dangerous and unpredictable circumstances. At times, Jim almost felt as though he could read Spock’s mind, and vice versa, despite the Vulcan’s insistence that that would be quite impossible. And the captain genuinely enjoyed the time they spent together. So now, the looming prospect of a day’s travel to a classified command-level summit in a shuttle didn’t appear to be as mind-numbing as it might have been.
As the stars streaked past the forward viewscreen in all the brilliant colors of warpspace, Jim sat back in his chair, ran a hand through his hair and breathed in deeply. “Guess we’re on our way. I’m gonna grab a coffee; want a cup of tea or something?”
“Negative, Captain,” Spock promptly replied, turning his chair slightly to face his captain.
Jim waited, eyebrows raised, blue eyes dancing.
Spock blinked at him, recognizing his captain’s illogical habit of finding humor in insisting on Spock’s use of human expressions. Vulcans do not sigh, but the slight shift of the set of his shoulders could have interpreted as such. “Thank you.”
“Ha!” Jim exclaimed. “I’ll make a human out of you yet.”
“There is no need to be insulting, sir,” replied Spock evenly, but he allowed the corners of his mouth to rise an infinitesimal amount.
Appeased, Jim chuckled and rose from his chair to walk to the replicator in the back of the craft. He could almost feel his friend’s intense gaze following him. As he waited for his coffee to appear, he snuck a peek back towards the control console. Indeed, Spock had turned and was studying him. Jim smirked and Spock raised an eyebrow, amusement and exasperation flashing through his very human brown eyes before he turned back to his instruments.
Returning to his seat, Jim sipped at his coffee and made his usual scowl at the taste. He looked over the boards and noted nothing out of the ordinary. Satisfied, he let his gaze wander over the cockpit. The Copernicus was one of the few shuttlecraft designed specifically for long-range travel. Fitted with engines capable of a respectable warp factor two point five, deflectors and screens, and extended cabin space, she had an almost posh feel to her. Despite the relative comfort, Jim shifted restlessly; not even a half-hour into their flight and his incessant need to be active was encouraging his mind to wander. The captain found himself watching Spock’s fingers move gracefully over the console. He often caught his gaze lingering over his friend’s hands. Perhaps it was because one of his last memories before his life had ebbed away was Spock’s hand pressed against the transparent aluminum door, seeking unsuccessfully to touch Jim’s own.
Wincing at the memory, Jim averted his eyes, instead staring out at the blurred star trails through the main screen. He was a naturally tactile person, using casual touches to confer affection, express camaraderie, or to convey encouragement or approval. Vulcans, being touch-sensitive telepaths, rarely instigated or tolerated physical contact. Jim wondered what he would have felt if they had been able to touch, back in the warp core. Maybe he could have understood why Spock had reacted so strongly to Jim’s death, having remained almost impassive through the loss of his planet, mother, and even in the face of his own demise on Nibiru. Maybe Jim could have better understood the strong affection he had for the Vulcan, the underlying need to touch, the irresistible pull that brought them together even after violence, seeming betrayal and misunderstandings, despite their contrasting personalities, even across universes.
Lost in his musings, Jim was startled to glance over and meet large dark eyes. Spock was looking at him with a strange almost-expression on his face, the barest crease between his slanted brows. Jim felt his face flush, even though there was no way for his friend to have known what he was thinking. He mimicked Spock’s usual raised brow and offered a questioning smile. The Vulcan’s eyes widened slightly before his face returned to its normal implacable state. “We are on course and on schedule, Captain. We shall reach our destination in twenty-two point seven hours.”
Never one to give away his hand unnecessarily, Jim merely nodded in acknowledgment and, settling back in his chair, busied himself with checking his messages and recent shipboard departmental briefs.
They had been traveling for just over ten hours. Spock had remained in the co-pilot’s seat, monitoring the controls and working quietly on reports. Not wanting to interrupt his first officer’s concentration, and feeling slightly useless, Jim reclined on a fold-out bunk towards the back. He had been attempting to sleep, but now he found himself again watching his friend. In the dimmed interior light, and with the forward viewscreen now shuttered, Spock’s form was backlit by the multi-colored lights on the console. Jim recalled a planetary exploration mission they’d had several months before. The team had beamed down at the edge of a dense forest, and Jim, ever espousing the phrase 'to boldly go', had wandered towards the trees, amazed by the almost immediate darkness that surrounded him due to the density of the vegetation. Spock, predictably, had followed his captain, tricorder at the ready, and Jim remembered his own surprise and excitement when the trees had released a type of pollen at the intrusion. The pollen had glowed in the darkness, changing color as it caught the air currents. Jim had laughed aloud at the wonder of it, and eventually noticed Spock looking at him, head tilted slightly, the faintest smile curving his mouth, the pollen casting a colored halo on his dark hair. Jim remembered thinking that his friend was beautiful.
Feeling the need to break his current train of thought, Jim pulled himself up off the bunk, stretched his back, and wandered to the front of the shuttle, throwing himself with deliberate lack of grace into the pilot’s chair.
“I trust you were able to rest,” the Vulcan commented without a pause in his rapid typing.
“Yeah, sort of,” Jim replied through a huge yawn. He leaned over the central panel to peer at Spock’s screen. “You still compiling that report on sector seven-nine-six?”
“Affirmative, Captain.” Spock’s fingers stopped, and he regarded Jim intently. “I shall have the draft ready in twenty-two point six minutes, if you would care to peruse it at that time.”
“Can’t I just look at the pictures?” Jim grinned. “And, it’s Jim, by the way. Again. Please. I’ll get enough ‘Captain this, Captain that’ at the summit.”
Now he got the eyebrow. “Jim. I fail to understand why you insist on behaving as if your intelligence is significantly less than it is.”
“It keeps people guessing,” Jim said, poking at his own screen. He again called up the message that had sent them on this merry joyride in the first place. Admiral Evan Hamilton, newly promoted and in charge of Starfleet intelligence after the ignominious end of Section thirty-one, had called for a top secret meeting of the command teams of the three starships currently within Beta quadrant to meet at Outpost J, a more-or-less central location within the outermost sector that served as a fueling depot, but moonlighted as a military position. The message did not provide details beyond the meeting site, stardate, and transportation instructions. To preserve secrecy, the ships in question would continue their standard orders while the command teams traveled by shuttlecraft along highly classified trajectories. Spock had privately expressed reservations about the safety of the plan, and the captain, himself remembering another time when several command teams had been assembled in a single location, concurred. But the orders were confirmed from the highest levels, so here they were.
Spock was still watching him, apparently waiting for a more substantial answer to his query, and noticed the content of Jim’s screen, as well as the captain’s deepening frown. “You are concerned about the meeting,” the Vulcan said quietly. It was not a question.
“Yeah, I’m concerned. Not a mention of why we’re going, which is never good. And the Admiralty isn’t exactly stacked with geniuses these days, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a problem that will need to be fixed yesterday and with twice the manpower we’ve got available.” Jim glanced over, blue eyes suddenly hard.
Spock inclined his head slightly. “Kaiidth, Jim. What is, is.”
“Well, it is until we have to fix it,” Jim replied, a bit dryly. He leaned back and swiveled his chair to face his first officer. Now that he had Spock’s attention, he was reluctant to let it go. “The report can wait a bit; want to indulge me in a game of chess?”
“Of course, Jim. I will join you in a moment, as soon as… .” Spock’s sentence was abruptly cut off by an explosive sound from the rear of the craft. Alarms blared, restraints automatically snapped around the men’s bodies, and the cabin lights came full-on. The shuttle shuddered violently and the infrastructure moaned as they suddenly dropped out of warp.
“What the fuck just happened?” Jim yelled, his hands flying over the boards. He could smell smoke in the cabin, and the panels in front of him were lit up in red. His neck ached from being wrenched sideways and he tasted blood where he had bitten his tongue.
“Engine failure. Environmental system failure. Structural faults detected in main thrusters and impulse drive. External coolant leak. Internal hull integrity holding. Screens at sixty-five percent.” Spock’s rapid-fire response was delivered almost as fast as Jim saw the displays register. A new alarm sounded, high-pitched and insistent. Spock looked sharply at the sensor readouts and then at his commanding officer. “Captain, sensors indicate a contact bearing three-eleven mark five, incoming on high impulse. Estimate we will be within their weapons and transporter range in two point two minutes.”
“Shit!” Already running high on adrenaline, Jim felt a fresh chill go up his spine as he surveyed the emergency diagnostic readout in front of him. “We’re a goddamn sitting duck. Any chance at all of repairs?”
“Negative, Captain,” Spock replied, his voice calm. “Recommend beacon deployment and message on emergency comm channel.”
“Do it,” Jim responded immediately. The shuttlecraft was not equipped with much by way of defenses. No phasers, limited shields. Their only hope was to get off a message on the emergency coded frequency. Spock’s hands flew. “Emergency beacon deployed, sir.” He flipped a switch. “Shuttlecraft Copernicus declaring a state of emergency. Engines inoperable and environmental systems failing. External contact approaching with possible hostile intentions. Position follows.” Spock keyed in their position and status logs and turned to his captain. “Contact will be within range in one point five minutes.”
Jim set his jaw and hit the switch to activate the viewscreen. He wanted to see what was bearing down on them. This was all too convenient to be a coincidence. “Spock, if all command teams’ locations were compromised… .” His voice trailed off.
“If they do not immediately destroy this vessel, they will no doubt wish to take us alive, “ the Vulcan responded. “Shields are, at present, sufficient to prevent direct beam-out, but we could be boarded directly via the airlock.”
“Fuck that,” Jim hissed. He released his restraints and swung around to the weapons locker behind the pilot’s chair. He passed a phaser and extra power pack to his first officer and pulled out another for himself, checking the charge. The craft’s external airlock was towards the back. They could close the crash doors directly behind the forward section if necessary, but that wouldn’t hold off determined intruders for very long.
“There, Captain, the contact is now visible on the viewscreen.” Spock’s face was impassive, but his voice betrayed a hint of surprise. Approaching them was a Starfleet-issue long-range interceptor. Interceptors were built as front-line heavy fighters, fast and deadly, with a crew complement of about ten and most of the ship’s bulk devoted to engines and weapons systems. “They are scanning us, sir. No attempt at communication as yet.”
“Hail them,” Jim commanded. His steady outward demeanor belied the storm of his thoughts. As harsh recent experience with the disgraced Admiral Marcus taught him, Starfleet identity did not necessarily mean benevolent intent.
Spock hit the comm button. “This is Starfleet shuttlecraft Copernicus hailing approaching vessel. Respond.”
The interceptor loomed to a halt tens of meters from the front of the shuttle. The comm channel crackled to life and a heavily accented male voice barked from the speakers, “Starfleet officers, you will stand down and prepare to be boarded. Resistance will not be tolerated.”
“Identify yourselves,” Jim snapped.
“Spare us your noise, Starfleet. You are in no position to resist. Your environmental systems have failed, have they not? We will simply wait until your air grows thin, and your weapons fall useless from your hands.”
“And we have sent a message to our fleet,” Jim replied belligerently. “You will find it difficult to wait patiently while being pursued by a starship.”
A barely stifled chuckle was heard over the link, and a flash of brilliant phaser light to the port side of the shuttle signaled the end of the emergency beacon. The voice returned, “We have intercepted your message and destroyed your beacon-no aid will come for you. You will be brought on board and experience the latest glorious invention in truth-finding. Tell me, Starfleet, have you heard of the mind-sifter?”
Jim froze. He shared a look with Spock. The mind-sifter had been identified by Federation intelligence after having been used eight months ago on Commodore Ikamura of the science vessel Valiant, which had strayed into Klingon-occupied space on a routine cruise. Ikamura had exchanged himself for his crew’s lives, but the ship’s main engines and communications had been destroyed and the computers wiped, and by the time they had limped to the nearest starbase, Ikamura had already been found dumped on a nearby colony. He was barely alive and in a mentally vegetative state, having apparently told the Klingons everything they wished to know of Federation defenses and command codes. For six months, Starfleet had been hard-pressed to defend against raids on outlying systems and Federation computer experts had to re-program multiple security protocols after terabytes of classified data files were hacked. The fiasco had led Starfleet to order command personnel to avoid being exposed to the mind-sifter at all costs. Protecting Federation security meant suicide, if there was no other choice.
The captain reached out and killed the comm link. “Spock, how long do we have before our air gives out?”
“Approximately three hours and ten minutes, Captain.”
“What do you make of their claim that they prevented our emergency communication from getting out?”
“I would consider it valid, sir. Our short-range sensors are picking up an energy-dampening field originating from that vessel. The field is of sufficient strength to significantly restrict subspace transmissions.”
Jim took a breath and thought hard. No communications, no weapons. Engines gone, life support on its way out. They can vaporize us easily enough if they wanted to, but made a point of mentioning the mind-sifter, as if they knew… . “Spock! Why would they tell us about the mind-sifter? Could they know of the kill-order?”
The Vulcan bit his lower lip. “Perhaps, Captain. They obviously knew enough classified information to intercept our position, and obtained highly restricted access to sabotage the shuttlecraft.”
Jim stiffened. “Sabotage. You’re sure?” He was actually pretty sure himself, but he wanted to hear Spock say it. Sabotage would mean that there was a high likelihood that Enterprise herself was compromised, his crew in danger.
“It is logical, Jim,” Spock replied gently. “The systems involved appear to be specifically targeted to prevent our escape and to restrict our continued survival. The rapid appearance of our adversaries confirms it. Given their apparent knowledge, I fail to understand why they would inform us of their intentions regarding the mind-sifter unless they wish us to extinguish ourselves.”
“So all that would be found would be a dead hulk of a shuttle and two bodies.” Jim’s voice was steel. “So, we off ourselves, or they get to do it anyway, plus probably get some bonus information from the interrogation.” He glanced up and met Spock’s unwavering gaze. “Maybe they’re bluffing about the device?”
“Perhaps,” replied the Vulcan, "but I do not hold the odds of our survival to be promising in any case. If we invoke the kill-order, we die. If we stay here until our diminishing environmental support renders us unconscious, we will be captured. If mind-sifter is used, you will die, or be reduced to a vegetative state. To preserve the illusion of non-interference, our deaths would be necessary in any case, and most likely made to appear to be a result of shuttlecraft malfunction.”
“Wait, wait,” Jim interjected, "you said I would die or be a vegetable. What about you? You don’t think they would use it on you?”
“I believe they would,” Spock answered archly, "but Vulcan mind techniques may be able to thwart the device. Intelligence inquiries after Commodore Ikamura was discovered focused on the methods by which information was extracted, corresponding to the areas of greatest damage to his brain. Vulcan shields may be sufficient to deter said methods.”
“Well, bully for you,” Jim said sarcastically; he couldn’t help himself. Spock apparently chose to ignore his captain’s flippant comment, turning back towards his board. But Jim noticed that the dark eyes seemed focused elsewhere, the set of his shoulders tense.
Two hours went by. Their captors appeared to be standing by their stated intent to simply wait until the shuttle’s air supply ran out. Jim had moved to the back of the craft to see what he could do about the engines, and Spock had remained at the forward console, using modulation techniques to attempt to break through the dampening field. The harsh voice they had heard earlier from the other vessel interrupted them only twice more to gloat over their non-progress and to reiterate the earlier threat. Jim had been wracking his brain. He knew his strength as a captain came from his ability to make intuitive leaps, wrestling solutions to impossible problems by bending or breaking the rules. He abhorred the idea of being completely out of control, of a no-win scenario, and the fact that he seemed to be facing one now shook him to his core. Even when confronted with his own death in the warp core, he had known that his sacrifice was on his terms, his choice. Now, he would die, and his best friend with him, for what? He knew the long-reaching consequences of their knowledge falling into the wrong hands, but he couldn’t help the fierce anger that was welling up within him. Who were their captors? What was the end-game? Who had betrayed them? He thought of the Enterprise, somewhere out there, unaware of a saboteur on board. He thought of the possibility of the other command teams facing this same scenario. He thought of the damn Kobayashi Maru. Finally, he thought of Spock, who had been forced to watch him die before. Well, this time, at least, it would be quick, he would be sure of that.
Another half-hour passed, and the air was growing noticeably stale and thin. The engines were hopeless. They couldn’t even muster enough power to make a solid final run at the interceptor. And the shuttle had no self-destruct mechanism. Squaring his shoulders, he walked back to the front of the shuttle. Bones was going to kill him for dying twice in two years.
Spock heard him approach, his hands stilled over his board, but he didn’t turn around. “Spock,” Jim said, his voice pitched quietly but firmly.
A pause, then, “Yes, Captain.”
“Spock, look at me. Can you think of anything we have left to try, anything we may have missed?”
The Vulcan finally turned to face his captain. Something flashed through his eyes but he made no response.
Jim nodded, and moved to lower himself into the pilot’s chair. He put his hands on his knees so they wouldn’t shake and solidly met Spock’s eyes, his jaw set. “Spock, I want you to perform tal-shaya on me. You can decide whether to stop your own heart. If you think you truly could withstand the mind-sifter, I would want you to stay alive and have a chance, but… .” His voice suddenly cracked and he stopped.
Spock stared at him, his eyes appearing almost black against the sudden pallor of his skin, but he didn’t respond. Jim forced a smile that he hoped was reassuring. “Look, it’s better this way. Quick, painless, you told me so yourself a while back. We’ve got no other choice. I don’t want to end up like Ikamura.”
There was still no response from the Vulcan and Jim felt a twinge of irritation. “Come on, Spock, you’ve got to… .”
“No.” Spock’s voice was soft. “I cannot. I cannot, Jim!” A shudder ran through his body and he blinked, his gaze shifting to focus on the bulkhead over Jim’s shoulder.
“Spock.” Jim hesitated, and then, very slowly, reached out a hand and placed it on the Vulcan’s shoulder. When Spock didn’t flinch away, or even react, Jim let his hand gently move once down his friend’s arm and back up again. He felt the heat from Spock’s body through the uniform, the muscles beneath his touch tight and unforgiving. Jim was about to remove his hand when, to his surprise, Spock lifted his own to cover Jim’s. Jim felt a strange sensation where their skin touched, almost like pins and needles. He saw Spock nod, as if he had come to a decision, and, gently grasping Jim’s hand, moved it from his shoulder to hold between them. Jim looked down at their loosely clasped hands, feeling the odd, pleasant tingling along his palm and fingers. The captain knew he could pull away easily, but he didn’t. He remembered all too well that they hadn’t been able to touch the last time. And he needed this. He wanted this, whatever this was.
Jim heard Spock’s voice as if from far away. His friend’s hand was so warm. “There is something, Jim. I would not offer it unless…”.
“What is it?” Jim responded absently. He didn’t hold out much hope. If there was anything to be done, Spock would have mentioned it before, surely.
“I could…create a mental bond between us. I may be able to use the full bonding link to protect and shield your mind from the device.”
Jim looked up, brow furrowed as he tried to remember what little he knew of Vulcan customs. “A mental bond? Don’t you need a healer for that?”
Spock studied Jim’s hand. “Not in this case, Jim. Our minds are quite compatible: so much so that a spontaneous link already exists. I would only need to strengthen it through a full meld.” He met Jim’s eyes levelly, tightening his fingers slightly over the human’s. “This is why I lost my emotional controls so badly when you…died. I did not recognize our connection until I felt the pain of a tearing link in my mind and realized what was happening, what had happened. You are t’hy’la to me, Jim.” There was an intensity behind that word that was palpable.
Jim’s mind was racing. A mental link? Maybe he hadn’t been crazy to think that he could predict his first officer’s thoughts. Maybe that was why he could always read Spock so well, why they seemed drawn to each other. He felt suddenly confused and more than a little angry and abruptly pulled his hand free of the Vulcan’s. “I don’t know what that word means, Spock. Why didn’t you tell me about this link before?”
Spock withdrew his hand and straightened in his chair. His face closed off into its normal impassivity, but there was pain in his eyes. “You would not have accepted it,” he said simply.
Jim shook his head mutely. That was no answer, but they were running out of time. He wasn’t sure what to make of the whole situation, but he knew that Spock was offering a chance for them both to survive. From the way his friend had presented it, he knew it might not work. He knew he understood neither heads nor tails of Vulcan mental disciplines and that he would be jumping in the deep end with no idea of how to swim. He might still have his brain sieved and wind up dead, but, in the end, he trusted Spock. And he hated losing. Leaping before looking, he thought wryly.
“Do it,” Jim said.