The Vulcan fabric under his fingers feels smooth and almost oily. He runs a finger along its edge, slowly, half-expecting the ambient heat of flesh to warm his skin.
His fingers touch a cool, pale hand, curling around stiff fingers.
“Jim, are you almost ready - “
“A minute, Bones.”
He doesn't say the words. Doesn't try to. They come out, anyway. There's a small pause, and then a rustle of movement as McCoy moves away.
The face of his friend has never looked more alien than now, cold and composed under his gaze. His heart quickens. He can almost imagine those eyes opening – a trance is not so different from this, really -
- and, the captain exhales. “...Alright.”
Quietly, McCoy moves to the door, and steps outside to signal to three security ensigns. Jim steps away as they come in, close the casket, and clamp it into place.
The crew is sober, and rightfully so. But this is not, even, a normal sort of grief. Jim chides his selfishness for the thought even as it hits him; he is projecting.
But is it wrong, to think that the crew will be affected too?
The room fills quickly. The senior officers file in at the front, and then the science staff after them. Jim clears his throat and is stunned to find it hard to breathe. He's never had a hard time speaking in front of people.
He can't mess this up, though. Not this.
“We are gathered here today,” he begins, and notes people straining forward, squinting, trying to hear, “to pay respects to an honored member of this crew, and a dear friend to many of us...”
McCoy's eyes bore into his from the back of the room; he does not look.
He does not remember what words he speaks, either; but he must say something, and catches himself at the tail end, adding, “Those who sacrifice themselves for others live on through their comrades, and we, all of us, carry a piece of that legacy...”
Something tugs at his memory; and, quietly, the lights flicker off.
No one says anything. Then there's a rustle of movement, and Scott's voice rises from the darkness, calling quietly, “Excuse me, excuse me, lads, I need to see what the problem is...”
Then the lights are back, and Scott pauses from his place halfway to the exit, clearly torn between duty and an obligation of a different sort.
Jim makes it easy for him, and signals the ensigns handling the casket.
In the audience, Uhura takes her cue to start picking at the strings of a familiar Vulcan harp. A tune rises in a discordant melody. The casket slides into place, where – fittingly, Jim thinks – a probe launcher would normally lie. Everyone waits.
“I have no desire to be returned to Vulcan,” Spock once said to him. “A space burial will suffice.”
“That's a lonely way to go, Mr. Spock.”
“Not among the right people.”
And here are the people. Jim should say so, say something more; but his throat closes.
And then the moment is gone, and the casket shoots out faster than his eyes can travel. There is a moment of silence as the crew watches its trajectory.
Jim can't look away.
As people file out, some lingering by the wide windows or glancing at Jim, he stands and traces the path of the casket with his eyes.
Across the black expanse of space, the missile flares white and brilliant, like a new-born comet. It arcs into the curve of a star, growing small and faint as it ellipses out of sight.
Soon, the heat of its descent will melt the casket into tiny, indistinguishable particles, molding those fine pale hands into the dark Vulcan robe. Dead skin will sear and bubble. Then, catching fire, the whole vessel will become ash and smoke and air.
He closes his eyes.
“Did it work? Are the systems repaired?”
“Repaired– yes, Spock, everyone's fine... hold on, Bones is coming...”
“Mr. Sulu, you have the bridge.”
Sulu almost winces with the order, as he has for the past two days. His neck is stiff, and he nods with a quiet, “Aye, Sir,” as he stands.
It makes things harder.
Jim lingers by the door to the turbolift, watching his new First Officer take the center seat; then he leaves.
The turbolift hums loudly as he descends, and seems to take an age to fall. Jim sighs.
Finally the lift stops, and the doors slide open – part of the way, anyway. A startled lieutenant peers at Jim from the other side of the lift, and then wordlessly they each grab one edge of the door and yank it open.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Jim says wearily, slapping the emergency stop button so no one else can call the lift. “If I might recommend the turboshaft?”
He keeps walking.
He places a call to Scotty about the broken lift once he reaches his quarters, then sinks back in a chair, one fist clenched around a datapadd.
On his table, a half-finished chess game sits untouched. In the corner of his room, jarring but somehow not out of place, is a Vulcan firepot.
(“I understand this human custom, keeping objects to remember lost family – that at least is understood to us - “
“So your family, you would leave them things to remember you by in your will?”
“...I would leave them practical things, and matters relevant to the clan. My mother, a few items. But I am not 'close', as you would say, with my family on Vulcan.”
“That's a shame.”
“Blood is not everything, captain.”)
Books of Vulcan poetry tease his eyes from the shelves, catching his attention with their slow curling script when he turns his head. He turns away when he clicks on the datapadd, breathing slowly through his nose.
He reminds himself that, though Spock's death is a tragedy, to Command little – functionally – has changed. The Enterprise is due to pick up a new Science Officer on Starbase Five in two weeks. Sulu has capably assumed the role of First Officer. It will reflect poorly on Jim to let his efficiency drop; he can't appear anything less than perfectly competent, not now.
His head is pounding - but he doesn't think seeing McCoy, even for that much, would help his equilibrium.
Still, perhaps it wouldn't hurt if he lay down to rest...
Just... a little...
At night, he dreams.
He is on Vulcan. And though he has only ever seen the barren place of the koon-ut-kal-if-fee, he looks around and recognizes the L-Langon mountains and the soft, deadly sands that make up Vulcan's Forge.
He is with Spock, on the edge of a mountain, and unsurprised by this fact. And they are both with someone else, a female who is not quite female. She only looks female. She is neither human nor Vulcan, either. He accepts these facts implicitly.
Spock looks at him, and opens his mouth. But only soft static emerges. It weaves with the night-sounds of the desert in a way that makes him think of the Vulcan lute.
The woman is watching them both and he loves her. She knows this and laughs at him, but not mockingly. Suddenly she turns away. She walks from them and steps off the mountain, dropping like a stone onto the desert sands below.
He does not move to stop her.
He looks at Spock, who is watching him. Spock makes more soft static-sounds, and just tilts his head when Jim can only smile helplessly.
“The stars look different on Earth,” he says.
“But that's alright.”
Spock is still watching him. He takes a step forward, and Jim starts to take in details. The waxen pallor of the Vulcan's skin, the stiffness of his limbs, and most importantly the strange darkness to his impossibly-closed eyes...
Jim looks at these details. Spock looks back. And then Jim says, “What do you think of luck, Mr. Spock?”
They replace Spock with an Andorian named Thelin.
They replace Spock with an Andorian named Thelin and the man has Aenar blood, which means he is gray-skinned and looks at Jim with disconcerting eyes the color of dried eggshells. He is polite and friendly and without presumption, and he clearly knows he is not wanted, and somehow that makes things worse.
The science staff hate him on principal and the science console keeps bursting into flames and Thelin's antennae are starting to stand rigid with the stress. Jim should do something about all these things. Spock used to call him an excellent commander and a friend and brave and a thousand traits that slipped over his ears and brought blood to his face, but now, he is trying to remember if he was ever called a good man.
Today, Thelin taps at the science console as it spits blue sparks at him, and Jim says nothing.
Today, Jim thinks: Spock could fix it.
(Today, Jim is not so good, not at all. But he is human.)
“Still on Deck 9, Sir, repairing the atmospheric controls - “
“We're losing air pressure down there. He won't have much time.”
“I know, Sir, but he isn't answering his comm - “
“Sir, the bird of prey is decloaking!”
“Fire at will!”
“The weapons aren't responding, Sir!”
“Keep trying,” Jim tells Chekov. The ensign leaps up, running to the console on the far side of the bridge. Jim spins his chair to face Thelin. “Where are the Klingons?”
(How he hates Klingons - )
“Turning around, Captain,” the science officer reports. “I believe they have scanned the damage to our control and relay-systems.”
“No good, Captain!”
Scotty has a similar report, down in engineering: “I can give you shields, but not warp,” he says. “And not even shields for long.”
“Well you're going to try,” Jim snaps, and ends the signal.
His mind races, but for once, he's coming up blank. A ship that won't respond to commands is dead in space; can he bluff himself out of this? Can he come to some understanding, impossibly, with the Klingons? People of the same race who once -
“Captain, they're powering weapons,” Thelin declares.
Jim takes a slow breath. “It was a pleasure working with you all,” he says.
“Captain!” Chekov yells.
On the viewscreen, a burst of red plasma blinds them – and when it clears, the Klingon attack ship is splitting into pieces, fracturing with concussive bursts of flowering fire.
Jim sags back into his seat as the bridge celebrates.
“Thank you, Mr. Chekov,” he says quietly.
“But, Sir. It wasn't me – the controls still are not responding.”
“Sir, they say the same thing in the main weapons room! No controls are responding – the phasers fired on their own.”
“That's not possible, Ensign.”
“But it happened, Sir.”
The atmosphere is quickly going from jubilant to uncomfortable. Sulu catches Jim's eye, but Jim doesn't know how to explain what he's thinking. “I'll have Scotty look into it,” he says. “For now, let's not look a gift horse in the mouth, shall we?”
“Sir, it looks like Mr. Spock was successful. Atmospheric functions are restored.”
“Kirk to Spock. Come in, Commander.”
“I have the bridge, Sir.”
“I'll be back.”
He goes to the Observation Deck to think, because it is a place that has in the past been of comfort. He goes to the Observation Deck to think because Spock used to do this, too.
This is probably a bad reason.
It seems like he can hear everything about the ship today. He has long since become attuned to the low, constant shudder of the warp-engine that thrums under his skin, but this is something else. When he walks, the ship breathes in tune with his stride. The metal plates sing under his feet. He touches the edge of a wall, and it feels warm beneath his hand.
He does not know what he would do, without his command. Without the Enterprise.
Or perhaps, he thinks, I'm just finally going mad.
Spock had asked him that, once. All emotions were a curiosity to the Vulcan. “Surely all humans must fear death,” he had said, and Jim had replied, “Not me.”
“Then what is your greatest fear,” he had wanted to know.
“Losing myself. My control. Losing who and what I am.”
“Would that not, also, include dying?”
“I could die as myself and be content... But madness, real madness, that is something different.”
Through the deck's window he watches the slow arc of an asteroid around a far planet; it must be distant, to seem so stable for a ship in warp, but even as he watches the vision slides past him. Soon, he can't see it at all, and he is left looking at the stars and his own reflection.
For a moment, he almost thinks he can see a familiar shape standing at his shoulder. But he looks, and no one is there.
(Sometimes, he thinks he is not mad, not at all. And that is more frightening than anything.)
Scotty talks about power-depletion in the engines, mutters of inexplicable energy signatures which vanish or move upon investigation. “Like a game of cat and mouse,” he says. “And either the mouse is very smart, or we're not the cat.”
“An amusing metaphor, to be sure,” Jim mutters uneasily.
But it does not seem an apt one, he thinks, more privately.
Crewmen all over the ship talk of such things; disturbing oddities in the systems, heat surges, static in the equipment....
When they complain, though, Jim has to say: “You know, I was about to ask why everything was working so well.”
“Damn it, Scotty, what is this - “
“We can't get to him, Sir, the way's blocked – why do you think he was repairing it, in the first place? I'm sorry – You'll have to wait til we can cut a path...”
The hydroponics bay is far from the most peaceful place on the ship, simply because it is one of the most popular. But Jim likes it anyway, imagining that the imported soil under his feet continues forever, and that if he brushes aside the thick foliage around him he might see wide blue skies instead of walls.
He has always been good at that, the pretending.
Today, though, the place is oddly deserted – more of those so-called 'malfunctions' are at fault, he suspect. He will enjoy the silence while it lasts, though.
He takes with him a good book and sits surrounded by meadow-sweet and some alien plant with red blooms and fat yellow thorns. As he sits, though, it becomes difficult to focus; a breeze is blowing at the pages of his book, flapping them aggressively when he tries to read.
Then, eventually, he sits up and thinks: what breeze?
Some sickly-sour scent is in the air; he inhales slowly, and catches a glimpse of a puffy white pollen drifting hazily in the artificial light.
Everything starts to fade.
When he wakes up in Sickbay, the first thing McCoy says is, “Damnit, Jim, couldn't you have found an easier way to give Sulu some practical experience?”
McCoy jabs him in the shoulder with a hypo. The sting does, in fairness, bring him to alertness. “Some of the new plants Botany brought in reacted badly with each other. Thelin was about to read the riot act to his scientists, I think, 'til he realized one of the plants belonged to Sulu. Don't know how you go about reprimanding your superior officer. Anyway, you would've been dead by the time we found you, except the damn filtration systems down there were malfunctioning again, like everything else on this ship. You really do have all the luck.”
“A malfunction,” Jim echoes.
“That's what I said, isn't it?”
“...” Jim slowly leans back on his bio-bed. “Well... I guess it's good, after all, that Scotty hasn't found the cause of those yet.”
“Yeah.” McCoy is fidgeting with his instruments, and clearly has lost interest in the conversation. “Good for you, definitely.”
“For me.” Jim repeats. He taps his blanket, and stares blankly at the ceiling. “Good for me.”
(“You really don't want me here,” Thelin asks. “Do you?”
“You do your duties very well,” Jim replies.
“That's not what I asked.”
Jim looks at him. “It's my answer,” he says.)
Jim asks, “Have all the effects been bad?”
“No malfunction is a good thing,” is Scotty's opinion.
Jim looks at him.
“Er... Excepting, or course, what happened in hydroponics, Sir – not meaning to imply - “
“Yes, yes. What I'm saying is, for all I'm hearing about the frequency of these malfunctions, you haven't seemed actually concerned. And even minor disturbances can be deadly on a starship. So what kinds of issues have been happening?”
Scotty frowns thoughtfully. “Well, minor things, now that you do say it, Sir. And you're right, you know, nothing really bad – in fact a few of the malfunctions have been fairly lucky accidents - “
“Oh, aye. Why, just yesterday Ensign Ozzin was in the biology lab when the fire suppression system started up a minute before a fire started. Oddest thing. Someone set some chemicals to drain too close together, is my understanding.”
“And the labs have cameras, don't they? Hooked into the main computer of the Enterprise?”
“Well, yes – though I'm not sure what that would show...”
“Just a thought, Mr. Scott. Thank you.”
“Fix him, Bones.”
“Jim. I can't – I - “
“Why are you just standing there?!”
“Jim, let go, alright? You're covered in – come on.”
“That beam got him right through the lung, Jim. Nicked his heart. He's gone.”
“You're not yourself, Jim.”
“What makes you say that?”
“If you have to ask,” McCoy answers, “That just worries me more.”
Jim looks at him. He didn't really think about it, when McCoy invited himself into his quarters with a bottle of good bourbon and two small glasses. Now, he's starting to suspect McCoy's purpose for this visit. “Whatever you're thinking, Bones...”
“You haven't talked about him.”
“There's nothing to talk about.”
“He was your best friend.”
Jim is silent a moment. He takes one of the glasses, but doesn't fill it, tracing the smooth frame with one thumb. “He's a lot more than that.”
“You act like he's not gone.”
“You've never liked telepathy,” says Jim suddenly.
“It never seemed important, to mention it. The...” He lifts a hand, reaching up slowly to brush his fingers over the side of his own face. He can imagine another hand, with longer fingers, making the same motion.
My mind, to your mind...
McCoy is staring at him.
“With a bond like that,” says Jim distantly, “You can... feel each other, all the time. This little spot of warmth. And you know, what, how the other person... It just happens sometimes, Spock said, between certain people. And it goes away when someone dies. Just. Cuts off, all cold.”
McCoy struggles to find something more to say to this admission; then, failing, he pours a thumb of bourbon into Jim's glass. Jim stares down at it, throat working.
He tries to find a way to keep talking. To tell McCoy the rest: that the bond is warm and alive and vibrant, bigger than before. That he feels Spock all around him. Everywhere. Protecting him.
That he knows, somehow, that Spock is with him.
Instead he picks up the glass, leans back his head, and drinks the shot.
The usual malfunctions have been stopping, Scotty says. He also says this is strange, because nothing has been fixed or found.
In Jim's quarters, a warm gust of air greets him whenever he steps inside. A soft hum of Vulcan music comes from the computer speakers as he sits down. And, if he listens very, very closely, he can hear a soft whisper of static popping and crackling under the thrumming of a Vulcan harp.
So he does not listen too closely. He enjoys the music and lets the warmth seep into his bones, and he thinks of absolutely nothing at all.
(“We should talk about that bond,” McCoy says.
“We talked, Bones.”
“More than enough.”
“Command will want an evaluation.”
“I don't need an evaluation.”
“Don't want one, Jim? Or don't think you'll pass?”)
“You humans can be so sentimental,” Spock had sighed once over a chessboard.
Jim had laughed.
“What do you find so amusing?”
Jim had smiled, eyes warm, watching Spock absently smoothing the wrapping of a wound he'd received while jumping into a disruptor-blast meant for Jim. “Humans can be very sentimental,” he had agreed lightly. “But Vulcans, you know, they can be hypocrites – so, that's alright.”
“Let me help you,” Jim says, later, alone. He stands in his quarters, moving slowly, looking at the walls like they will reveal to him some private secrets. “Let me help.”
His computer turns on, and releases a soft rumble of static.
He closes his eyes, and smiles.
“Hey, Bones,” is how he starts. “You should have this.”
McCoy takes the tape automatically, and then looks at it. “What's this?”
“Just an update,” Jim says. “Of my – last commands.”
McCoy looks at him sharply.
“Now that – that they've changed.”
McCoy continues to watch him. “Jim,” he says slowly. “You aren't having any – funny ideas...”
“I'm fine, Bones. Just put it with the other tape, alright?”
McCoy does not look reassured – and his hand starts to reach for his black bag.
McCoy's expression when Jim snaps an elbow into his wrist is almost comically surprised; the doctor has never been good in a fight. Within a minute, he goes down like a stone.
Jim hides him in an empty room and feels oddly calm. The doors open before him as he walks. Lights flare behind his steps. He has no fear of McCoy being found; the room, he knows, will be locked at least for awhile.
Scotty doesn't ask what business he has with the main computer. Jim minored in engineering and he has been known to putter around with the systems when he's restless, though not so much lately. The only problem is, he has no way of knowing if his attempts work. This is all guesswork. But he closes his eyes as he works, waiting, feeling. Eventually, under his fingers, he can almost feel skin and bones, and a familiar mind...
He gets up and leaves.
The guards in the shuttle bay leave when asked, too. And once the door locks, he turns on a computer terminal, takes a breath, and says, “Computer, this is Captain Kirk speaking. Enacting Protocol Ghost, Prompt Alpha Zero Zero One Eight Nine Eight Seven Omega.”
“Override accepted,” chirrups a smooth voice.
Outside the transporter bay, he hears cries of surprise.
He gets on the Galileo Seven, newly refitted, he knows; and as expected the shuttlebay doors slide open smoothly after two minutes.
Behind him, the Enterprise floats dead and silent, and will continue to do so for seventy-two hours.
It takes four hours before he dares to put in the data cube from the Enterprise.
It takes longer for the data to upload, far longer than such a ship usually takes to accept any new information. Jim closes his eyes throughout this process, breathing slowly. If he tries, he thinks he can almost feel the shuttle, small and bright, sailing swiftly through the expanse of space. It's a very different feeling than on the Enterprise, but...
“Are you alright?” Jim asks at last.
And the silence stretches on.
For a moment, he thinks he has lost. He has lost everything, everyone. His ship, his command, his friends, and most of all...
Suddenly, the console warms under his fingers. Heated air blows from the vents, and the communication system breathes out a soft, unmistakable pattern of beeps and stops that any serviceman could recognize.
Yes, it says. Again: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Less recognizable, but only just: Yes, Jim.
Jim closes his eyes, leaning forward against the ship's window.
He has lost his ship, his command, and maybe his friends.
And he has kept something far, far more precious.