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Story Data

Posted November 17, 2009.

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Series: Agent Kirk, DGS

Title: As Sparks Fly Upward

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.

Rating: PG-13

Summary: A few months after the destruction of Vulcan, Captain Kirk accepts an unorthodox mission from Starfleet Intelligence that involves an incognito mission across the Neutral Zone to investigate rumors of kidnapped scientists. 28,700 words.

Notes: Star Trek (2009) team-fic, slightly AU, from Kirk's POV with background canon pairing. Can be read with only that much Star Trek knowledge, but also includes plot/character details borrowed from several TOS episodes (including "The Conscience of the King" and "The Enterprise Incident") and authorized novels (especially "The Pandora Principle", "My Enemy, My Ally" and "Star Trek Academy: Collision Course"). Fic title from Job 5:7; chapter titles from Star Trek XI transcript; Romulan words from the Rihannsu to English dictionary; and fabulous art by ileliberte.

Cover Art by ileliberte

Chapter Index:

  1. Receiving a Distress Signal
  2. He's With Me
  3. Startup Sequence Initiated
  4. Course Laid In
  5. I'll Cover You
  6. Fire Everything We've Got
  7. Epilogue

1. Receiving a Distress Signal

"So," Jim said, grinning in the face of the perturbed expression Starfleet's new Chief of Operations was displaying on the ready room vidscreen. "I see Mallory finally read you in on my full file."

Not that there was anything particularly unusual about the upstart Captain James Kirk inspiring that reaction from Admiral Christopher Pike, but there was normally a bit more amusement mixed in with the frustration. Sometimes appreciation, too; Jim knew enough about Pike to know that the man sometimes saw himself in Jim, as much as he'd ever seen reflections of Jim's father. Today, though, Pike looked about ready to spit magbolts-- and Jim could think of nothing he might have done in the last week or so to earn it.

The end of Enterprise's shakedown cruise had gone as smoothly as a small town's worth of energetic young geniuses and hard workers could arrange, and as far as Jim knew there'd been no unexpected diplomatic fallout from their few stopovers along the way. It had to be their new orders-- and the pricking of his thumbs told him those orders must have come by way of Intelligence.

He'd wondered when that particular shoe would drop; he'd known Pike wouldn't be pleased, especially given his role as Jim's sponsor at the Academy, regarding what he would see as an extended deception. It was bound to happen sooner or later, though, given the admiral's new responsibilities, and the timing-- when Jim and Enterprise were conveniently between missions but still out of immediate reach of Earth-- could hardly have been better, from a purely self-preservational point of view.

The implications for Federation security were a little less amusing, though. Mallory had all but promised Jim a few years off for good behavior. Not in so many words, of course, but he'd sure as shit implied it. How else was Jim supposed to have interpreted the commendation and promotion that had led to his post as Captain aboard Enterprise? Hero or not, the Federation was hardly in the habit of putting its junior covert agents-- never mind raw cadets-- in the center seats of its starships.

"It does explain a few things that have always bothered me about you," Pike acknowledged, his words short and clipped with irritation.

"Only a few things?" Jim asked, then winced, the brief upsurge of amusement slipping away as quickly as it had risen. "Sir."

Okay, so it really wasn't the time to joke about the wool he'd pulled over everyone's eyes with the blessing of the Department of General Services; especially when that wool might have been fraying in places he hadn't yet noticed. His obnoxiously gregarious, more lucky than brilliant persona had been sword and shield for him in more than one tight spot over the last few years, and he'd hoped to get a little more mileage out of it before the universe at large took notice. Maybe if he hadn't been facing off with authority figures all his life who took one look at his face and thought they knew everything about him, he'd have been a little more eager to inspire respect under his own name; as it was, he got more enjoyment out of the triumph of stepping over those who underestimated him than he would from actually having to publicly live up to the standard he aspired to. When his actual reputation caught up with his put-on bravado-- as it was rapidly doing-- he'd lose a lot of flexibility of action.

"Your educational history, for one," Pike replied, as though Jim hadn't spoken. "Your occupational history, for another. Both were fairly ordinary for a farm kid from Iowa until you were about thirteen-- at which point they became patchier and more inconsistent than I would expect from someone capable of aptitude scores as high as yours. Especially given the intensity with which you approached your coursework once you arrived at the Academy." He snorted then, and shook his head. "I wrote it off as insufficient motivation at the time, and wondered how the hell I'd managed to get through to you when no one else had. I guess now I know. It wasn't an accident that I met you in that bar, was it?"

"You, as in Captain Pike? Or you, as in the nearest representative of Starfleet authority?" Jim shrugged. "I knew there'd be a flock of new recruits passing through the shipyard that week, with a few middies and officers in tow. Joining them wasn't exactly in the cards, though; I was thinking more along the lines of having some fun with them. Until you picked me up off the floor and decided to knock some sense into me." He chuckled. "You should have seen the look on Mallory's face when I stepped off the shuttle in San Francisco under my own name." He'd certainly got an earful from the DGS operative at the time; but after the shock of his enlistment had settled, Mallory had been fairly quick to see the advantages of his agent's new position, something Jim had counted on once he'd had time to rationalize and shore up that impulsive decision with a little complementary logic.

Pike's eyebrows flew up at that, the tight lines bracketing eyes and mouth fading in the face of Jim's assurance. "You'd been working for him for eight years at that point," he said, more statement than question-- asking for more information, but still leaving Jim an easy way out of responding.

Not that Jim would take it. Of all the authority figures he had dealt with over the years, Pike had been the first to look at him and see not the tool Tarsus IV and his own driven mind had made of him, nor merely the arrogant undeserving offspring of one of Starfleet's sainted Lost; he'd treated Jim as any other bright kid who could maybe be something, both for his own betterment and the 'Fleet's, if only he was given sufficient motivation. A subtle distinction, maybe-- that Pike had dared, rather than demand or pity-- but one that had meant the world to Jim at the time, and still did, to a degree.

"More or less," Jim acknowledged. "Depends on whether you count from when they questioned me the first time--" he tipped his chin in the vague direction of the colony world where his childhood had ended, still not quite able to casually name it even now, "--or from two years later, when I finally tracked 'Anton Karidian' though a bunch of phony records and civilian databases and spammed the 'net at Starfleet Headquarters with everything I'd found."

He'd had little else to do, still furious and haunted by what had happened but unable to discuss any of it with anyone outside of the ridiculously unhelpful 'Fleet-mandated therapy sessions. The Starfleet officers and aid workers who'd brought food and phasers two weeks too late had said the gag orders and wiped records were for the survivors' own safety, in the event that any of Kodos' missing lieutenants decided to take revenge; Jim had known better, known they'd identified that burned body much too quickly, and decided that the silence was only allowing Kodos a better chance at getting away clean. In the evenings, when the house had sat silent-- Sam burying himself at university, Mom hiding amongst the stars again, and Frank out with his buddies at the nearest bar-- Jim had hacked into the Riverside secure access point and set about the seemingly insurmountable task of proving 'Fleet wrong.

"That's when your grades took a dive-- until you suddenly applied to test out of your graduation requirements the day after your sixteenth birthday," Pike observed.

Jim inclined his head. "Yep." That had been a requirement of Mallory's; he'd broken enough laws with his little hacking spree-- and left enough tracks behind in the doing-- to have made a mark on his record that would have made his other youthful indiscretions look like a kiss on the cheek, car wreck, underage drinking and all. Instead, the DGS operative had given Jim a few ultimatums-- and an outlet. Legal emancipation, his own motorbike, and unmonitored access (supposedly, not that he'd believed them) to all the Starfleet-related reading material he could get his electronic fingertips on had been fair enough trade, to his teenage mind, for a boss issued by Federation Intelligence that he'd had to refer to by the then-odious epithet of sir. Especially since most of what Mallory had set him to had continued to fall under the loose heading of 'proving Starfleet wrong'.

Jim had known even then, of course, that what he was doing was more in the line of pruning than punishing; and that the responsibility for Kodos' actions could only be laid at the feet of the rebel 'governor' himself and his lackeys, not the relief ships that had come too late to actually relieve any of the starving colonists or the authorities that had cut their orders. Still. He'd never once, not since he'd seen the first laser burn through the chest of a child his own age in the name of 'culling the weak that the strong may live', contemplated putting on a uniform and-- and maybe being the one who came too late. Or-- in the dreams he'd had for months after finally getting his hands on the classified Kelvin footage and listening to his father's last moments-- being the one who never came at all.

Pike's ultimatum in the bar had forcefully brought to his attention something he'd somehow managed to avoid noticing during all those years as one of Mallory's pet 'retrieval specialists'. It was one thing to sit around and throw jeers and suggestions from the sidelines, but if you really wanted a thing done right? Better get off your ass and do it yourself.

Something Starfleet's lost, Pike had prodded him, wearing much the same expression he was wearing now.

It hadn't so much been the specific words, even; just that appeal. That belief. That conviction, despite his own share of trials; Jim hadn't been shy about poking into the man's file after that encounter. Those words had got under Jim's skin, like a burr, and spurred him to action. Made him move first and think later-- which is when Mallory'd always said Jim was at his most dangerous, despite all the man's lectures about proper planning and preparation. So he'd gone with it-- and never looked back since.

"I'm starting to wonder how much of a challenge the Academy actually was for you," Pike said, conclusions still visibly knocking one another over like dominoes behind shrewd blue eyes.

Jim shrugged. "Enough. I didn't have much of anything else to do those three years, except for the occasional holiday when only Bones was around to notice if I picked up a little extracurricular action. Which is why I'm a little surprised Mallory's talking to you now; I'm not exactly background noise anymore. Something pretty earth-shattering must be going down if he's calling on us again."

He almost winced at the wording that had slipped out; almost winced again at Pike's expression. Yeah; the adjective 'earth-shattering' was a little less hyperbolic than it had been before Nero, especially to those present for the catastrophic events at Vulcan-- but it also served as a newly emphatic measurement of threat. And "us" could easily be a qualifier for the entire ship and crew, not a more specific reference. There were still some secrets that weren't Jim's own to tell.

"Not quite," Pike confirmed with a grim frown, "but close." He hit a few keys on a console down out of range of the vidscreen's pickup, then nodded to Jim as Enterprise's computer beeped in response. "I've transmitted the orders to your console, with full encryption; but the gist is-- a certain old friend of yours has been monitoring for word of what his former, ah, dance partner's people have been up to, and Starfleet believes your expertise will be needed in defusing a few potential problems before they grow any worse."

Romulans, Jim thought, easily deciphering the elliptical reference. "Understood, sir," he said, acknowledging receipt with a nod.

"Due to the nature of the assignment there is no specific timeline defined for the mission," Pike continued. "Yorktown will rendezvous with you to provide further information, but after that you'll be on your own; no Starfleet ship is authorized to proceed beyond the designated boundaries."

No chasing them into the Neutral Zone, even if they fire first, Jim translated that in his head, then narrowed his eyes as he picked up on the loophole. No Starfleet ship. Interesting.

He punched up the orders quickly on his console, narrowing the vid view onto the right half of the screen as the text scrolled up the left. As he'd thought: the destination Mallory had designated was not only across the near border of the Neutral Zone but beyond it, in an area of space a ship as recognizable as Enterprise would never be able to reach unobserved given the current tensions between their governments. The suggested route passed remarkably close to a Federation planet, however, with a current event eminently suitable for cover and considerable civilian traffic... including any number of small, nondescript cargo ships.

Well. Jim supposed that answered his long unasked question about Starfleet's wisdom in allowing him exactly the command crew he'd asked for, no matter how relatively young or inexperienced they were in comparison with all the deserving, seasoned officers who would have been given the positions otherwise. Because they weren't intended as just a command crew. Given their generally high skill levels, the degree of trust and camaraderie already existing between the lot of them must have been deemed more important than their ages or records. Jim wondered idly how many of them had been aware of the Admiralty's intentions, and bared his teeth in a predatory, anticipatory grin. He'd been looking forward to the Captain thing in its own right, as a challenge worth taking up and doing right; but it looked like he was going to be allowed the best of both worlds.

"That's not going to be a problem," he said, mind already ticking over possibilities as he looked back up at the Admiral.

"Glad to hear it, Captain," Pike replied. Then he softened his expression a little, worried lines forming between his brows. "Be safe out there, Jim. Bring her back to me in one piece. And don't think I won't be expecting a thorough explanation when you get back."

"I'll let you buy me a beer in Riverside," Jim said, by way of acknowledgement. "I hear the new Kelvin's about half-done; she ought to be ready for a tour by the time we make orbit again."

"I'll look forward to it," Pike nodded, then shut down the connection. "Pike out."

Jim tapped his fingers on the edge of the ready room desk for several moments, contemplating the orders that had flowed to fill his screen when the Admiral's image had disappeared. Federation records listed the system only as 872 Trianguli; careful notation attributed to one 'Ambassador Selek' further highlighted the fifth world, named Thierrull in the Rihannsu tongue. In Standard, it translated as Hellguard. Purported source of both a deadly antipersonnel weapon, and its cure; and possible current home of several hundred kidnapped Vulcans.

To a people currently numbered in the tens of thousands, the crews of the four missing ships represented a significant fraction of the overall population. Their disappearances had gone nearly unremarked for many months prior to Nero's attack; even Vulcan ships were subject to the same risk of sudden, accidental catastrophe as any other, and there had been no distress signals, no warning buoys, no indications of foul play along their intended routes. If not for Selek's insight into similar events during his original timeline, they might have been mourned as simply one more set of pinprick tragedies against a larger backdrop of loss. As it was, however, even if they weren't where Selek's information suggested they might be-- even if the 'rumored experimentation' carefully hedged around in logical terminology weren't true, which could easily be the case given the divergence in the timelines-- no one in the Federation was about to pass up the slightest chance of retrieving the vanished scientists.

That the chance was slight, Jim had no doubt, viewed through an objective lens. At least, if one defined the mission as 'successfully rescuing the kidnapped crews without loss of life or provocation of war with the Romulan Star Empire'. It read like a real life Kobayashi Maru. In which case, the DGS had picked exactly the right crew to carry out those orders. Even if they failed at the second part of those orders, he was bound and determined that they'd carry out the first.

He shut down his screen with a quick tap of his fingers; then let them linger against the dark, slick material for a moment, staring at his reflection. Vivid blue eyes alight with the spark of a new challenge gazed back at him, the rest of his features obscured by a flare of light from the overhead panels; the suggestion of a sharp smile and firmed jaw over a blur of gold fabric framed the bottom of the image, the tunic's color nearly clashing with the close-cut dark blond curls he'd inherited from his mother.

Bones was going to take one look at Jim and know something interesting was in the works, and the rest wouldn't be far behind him. So be it, he thought, and rose from his chair, grin widening.

He exited the ready room onto the bridge, then stopped quietly outside the door, observing the bustle of the Alpha watch from the alcove between consoles as the panels swished quietly shut behind him. Uhura looked up at him from her post almost before they had finished closing; she'd been the one to pass Pike's call in to him, and had undoubtedly been anticipating their new orders ever since. He let his grin speak for him, and watched her straighten unconsciously in her chair.

Jim had worked with a lot of silver-tongued swift talkers in his time with Mallory's people; more sentient chameleons than he could count, an extremely diverse range of beings speaking an extremely diverse range of languages. Uhura embodied all of the linguistic talent of every grifter he'd ever met in her one gorgeous body; and if she was perhaps a little too fierce to shift characters like masks the way they did, she more than made up for it with her integrity, loyalty, and brilliance. Besides-- any Human woman who could seduce a Vulcan had more than enough personal magnetism to get the job done.

He let his eyes drift to said Vulcan, and marveled again at the chain of circumstance that had brought him such a man as his second in command, and something approaching a friend. After their initial rough meeting, they'd been bound by loss and triumph, by oppositional yet highly complementary methods of pursuing their goals… and by the echoes of another life where both men had apparently had all their edges worn off before they met up with one another. Jim still had trouble untangling the warm knot of emotions the other, older Spock's mind had labeled with his name during that revelatory meld on Delta Vega, but for all that 'Selek' and his own James Kirk had apparently been closer than Jim and his Spock were, the overall sense of their friendship had seemed almost-- muted, compared to what tied he and his Spock together. Stronger and more comforting, perhaps, but less-- how to put it?

When he thought of what Spock meant to him, both as man and commander, an old verse from his grandmother's Sunday readings came to mind: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." That was true of most of his crewmates, to greater or lesser degree; but it always struck him strongest with Spock. Spock, who was several times stronger than any Human; who could calculate quicker than a computer in the privacy of his thoughts; who could strip secrets from an enemy with a touch; who was private and prickly and as logical about everything as Jim was intuitive-- and who treated Jim as an equal. Despite how badly they'd clashed before his little 'mutiny' during their first disastrous mission, Jim wouldn't be the Captain he was today without the half-Vulcan's support.

Spock looked up from his science console then, probably alerted to his captain's arrival by the change in Uhura's behavior; his spine straightened as hers had at the sight of Jim's face. Dark eyes narrowed and sharply angled brows drew together slightly at whatever he saw in Jim's expression; no doubt he was already drawing up plans and speculations regarding whatever orders Jim might be about to issue.

He nodded slightly to the commander, then skated his gaze further around the bridge; Sulu and Chekov were looking up from their consoles as well, prompted by the change of tension around them. Jim would never have figured Sulu for the enforcer type when he first laid eyes on the man, but he fit that role at least as well as Uhura did the one he'd mentally assigned her in the pattern of the teams Jim had worked with before. The lieutenant had excellent aim, as befit a gifted pilot whose dexterity could mean the difference between life and death for the crew in extraordinary circumstances, but with a sword in his hand he was practically a work of art. For all Jim tended to collect cuts and contusions in hand-to-hand fights, that usually happened under the influence of alcohol, recklessness, and/or an overabundance of opponents; he knew just how good he was when sober and intent-- and Sulu could totally thrash his ass any time he wanted to.

As much as Sulu outmatched Jim on the physical front, Chekov outmatched him in his own areas of specialization. The barely legal ensign was an extremely gifted physicist, and talented at applying those theories across a wide range of disciplines. If he hadn't been so good at Tactical, Jim was pretty sure Scotty would have shanghaied Chekov for Engineering and swapped his gold tunics for red practically the moment they'd shipped out again. Before Enterprise, Jim had never met anyone who could out-geek himself when he put his mind to it; now, there were three or four ahead of him even on his best days, and Chekov was definitely one of them.

"All right, people," Jim said, slapping his hands together as he finished his observations. The crew at the rest of the bridge stations came instantly to attention at the sound, and he grinned around at all of them. "As you may have guessed, our new orders have arrived. No shore leave yet, I'm sorry to say, but as our next stop is Algeron IV, you'll probably get a chance to breathe fresh atmosphere soon enough."

"Algeron IV, aye sir," Sulu said, nodding as he turned back to his console. "Laying in course now."

"We are instructed to attend the peace conference there?" Spock asked, coolly polite and well informed as usual, but Jim was sure he wasn't imagining the dissatisfied undertone to the words.

"More or less," he said casually, smiling again as he strode over to the Vulcan's station. "There are a few... other considerations, but the Admiralty feels it would be the best place to show the flag at the moment. Strike the proper tone for the Romulan and Klingon delegations, you know how it is."

"Indeed," Spock said, quirking an eyebrow, "as the current presence of the Yorktown in that system can attest."

"The more the merrier, right Spock?" Jim replied cheerily, clapping him on the shoulder-- a move that never failed to distract Spock and provoke an annoyed reaction, which was of course why Jim kept doing it. Then, to make up for the perturbed quirk of Spock's brows, he continued in an undertone that wouldn't be overheard beyond the science officer's station: "We're supposed to rendezvous with them there, after all; probably as much so Pike's first protégé can keep him updated as for further information for our mission, but there you go."

"Understood, Captain," Spock said, somehow managing to convey twice the curiosity of before without ever moving a muscle.

"Might want to include 872 Trianguli when you're doing your research on the system," Jim continued at a slightly higher volume, then strolled a few paces farther and exchanged nods with Uhura. "Still up on the dialects that first got you that chair, Lieutenant?" he asked her.

"Of course, sir," she replied, raising her chin a little at the effrontery of his question-- but radiating further curiosity about as strongly as her boyfriend. Theoretically, after all, only the diplomats involved in the conference on-planet would have any need for direct Standard-to-Rihannsu translation, and he'd been very careful not to actually name the language involved.

Hook set, he simply nodded to her and strolled onward, pausing when he reached the command chair, resting one hand on its miniature arm console. "Do I remember correctly that you have piloting experience in smaller non-Federation vessels, Sulu?" he asked casually, as he watched the lieutenant finish plotting their course to the Algeron system. "The Admiral mentioned that there might be some extracurricular opportunities along those lines while the Enterprise is monitoring the conference, and I thought you might be interested."

Sulu looked up at that, his expression equally as speculative as those of the officers Jim had already spoken to; he really had been blessed with a clever crew. "All shapes and sizes," Sulu confirmed. "My family moved to Ganjitsu several years ago; I had the opportunity to become familiar with a lot of the non-standard ship types that you never see on Earth before I enrolled in the Academy."

"Good, good," Jim said, nodding, but didn't elaborate; a moment later Sulu turned back to the navigational controls and made a few last minor adjustments.

"Course laid in, sir," he said, hand poised over the warp lever as he glanced up again.

"Warp six," Jim ordered. "Let's not dawdle-- but don't act like we're in too much of a hurry, either."

"Warp six," Sulu echoed. There was no 'parking brake' mistake this time-- not that anyone who'd heard about it was ever going to let the pilot live that down. The subtle changes of vibration announcing the warp drives' activation rose steadily, then peaked, and the view out the forward window blurred once again into the striations of subspace starlines.

"I'd appreciate your looking into possible covert routes through the nearby border when you can spare the time," Jim added once Sulu's attention was free again. "Ion storms, gaps in patrol and sensor satellite coverage, that sort of thing; I'd like to be prepared in the event that the Romulans decide to find an opportunity to sneak in some military backup for their diplomatic party."

"Aye, sir," Sulu confirmed.

"And, Ensign--" Jim began, turning to the young Russian who'd been listening intently to the conversation.

"I vill assist Sulu with the tactical analysis," Chekov nodded, already ahead of him.

"And do a thorough check of our defensive systems," Jim nodded to him. "Mmm, and perhaps a report on the relative armaments of the types of ships likely to be present in the Algeron system, and those of the current Romulan fleet? It would be nice to know how much backup we'd have available, if things came down to a slugging match."

"Aye, sir," Chekov echoed his friend, eyes wide and bright.

Jim beamed, well pleased with his people. "All right, then," he said. "Carry on, everyone; I'll be in Engineering, then Sickbay, if anyone needs to track me down. Spock, you have the conn."

"Acknowledged," Spock said, rising from his station as Jim turned to stride off the bridge.

Best crew ever, Jim mused, humming distractedly as he gave the command for the engineering deck.

2. He's With Me

Scotty was berating Keenser, as usual, when Jim finally tracked him down. The undersized alien lieutenant was actually the second-best mechanical engineer on board, after Scotty himself, for all the man treated him like a child or pet-- although Scotty was the only one Keenser would accept that kind of treatment from without complaint. The few other crew that had tried, had learned to regret it, in a variety of rather creative ways. Jim figured it had something to do with their long incarceration together on Delta Vega, and didn't ask; as long as they and Gaila kept the ship whirring along in tip top shape and their people in an approximation of order, Jim had no desire to interfere in the workings of the department, regulations or no regulations.

Help out sometimes, perhaps; he'd come down to tinker a time or two when he was having trouble sleeping, often enough that Scotty had learned to pretend he was just another technician when he showed up wearing only his regulation black undertunic and trousers. It was soothing-- kind of a moving mediation for Jim-- and a welcome retreat from nightmares or mindless report writing. The kind of thing he'd used his motorcycle for, back in the day, or the occasional shuttle he'd had occasion to use.

DGS had never sent Jim off planet prior to his enlistment, probably due to the reports from those few therapy sessions he'd gone to after his return to Earth, but he'd had to cover long distances in a hurry more than once when his role had begun to expand from computer work to include field assignments. More than once, he'd hung around the dockyards for an extra day or two just to tinker, to wind down from the job; by that time, everyone but Mom had moved out of the old homestead for good, and since she never spent much time dirtside there was no one to notice when he went missing.

Jim wasn't visiting Scotty today to keep his hand in, though; the Chief Engineer took one look at him, at the gold tunic, Captain's stripes, and serious expression, and shoo'ed Keenser away to handle a repair in one of the aft Jeffries tubes. "Problem?" he asked.

"Not yet," Jim acknowledged, "but we've got our next mission, and it's got an aspect I didn't want to air over open comms. You know you're officially second officer aboard, right?"

That caught the excitable Scot's attention. His eyes widened, and he waved his hands negatingly in front of him. "Oh no," he said. "You swore to me I wouldna have to worry about any of that, not yet. I failed out of the Command track on purpose, you know. Just because I have most of the training, and you completely failed to accept any command-trained crew with a higher rank than I have, doesna mean I want to be left in charge of her when you're away. I belong down here, not up on the bridge faffing about in that chair of yours."

"Scotty, Scotty," Jim chided him. "It's not like it's going to be for all that long. Or even that we're going to be officially off-ship; if anything goes wrong, it'll be on my head, not yours."

"Officially what?" Scotty protested. "I've seen the sort of thing you unofficially get up to when you're away from Enterprise. What are the odds you'll not need our rescue?"

"Ask Spock," Jim said, shrugging. "It's all classified, you understand. And you'll have Lt. Commander Giotto and the Beta shift bridge crew to back you up; they're all excellent officers. I'm sure we'll be back before you even notice we've snuck away from the peace conference. All you have to do is keep the ship in orbit while we're gone, cover for us if anyone asks what we're up to, and not start a war with the Klingons or Romulans in the meantime."

"And why do I get the feeling that won't be so easy as you've just made it sound?" Scotty grumbled.

Jim smiled. Like Keenser, Jim took guff from Scotty he wouldn't from most of the crew; but Scotty was another one of those uniquely brilliant, unorthodox officers who didn't respond well to by-the-book handling. Not to mention, he had met Jim under rather extraordinary circumstances. Jim would be a hypocrite if he expected regulation responses and unquestioning obedience from any of his primary officers in nonurgent situations, much less an innovative genius like Scotty who'd cast his lot in with Jim while Jim was still technically a mutinous cadet.

"Cheer up, Scotty," he replied. "Algeron IV is known for its educational and diplomatic gatherings; there are a lot of archaeological ruins in the sector, and ivory tower types visit all the time. I hear their cuisine is really something. While you're playing Acting Captain, you can have all the sandwiches brought up that you could ever wish for."

Scotty looked wistful, as he always did at the mention of his favorite food group. "I could, at that," he said, allowing himself to be humored by the gustatory distraction. "All right, then. How many of the crew will be in the know?"

"Need to know," Jim informed him, "unless war breaks out. And by need to know, I really do mean need; Intelligence is behind this one, and they didn't even want me to tell you."

"Understood," Scotty nodded, frowning. "How long 'til we arrive?"

"A few hours-- it's just this side of the nearest section of the Neutral Zone. I'll call you up before I announce shore leave; Spock and I and a few others will go down with the first group, ostensibly to meet with the Captain of the Yorktown, and we'll probably slip away from there."

"Need any help making the arrangements?"

"I'll need an item built and delivered to the shuttlebay before we go-- I'll send you the specs when I get back to the bridge," Jim informed him. "Should be fairly simple, but you'll need to work on it alone. Other than that-- well. I'd invite you along, Intelligence be damned, but with most of the rest of the command crew gone that probably wouldn't be practical. Maybe next time?"

"Aye." Scotty sighed, heavily. "Good luck, sir."

"You too, Lieutenant Commander," Jim said, then turned to go, reaching out to trail his fingertips along the exposed engineering conduits as he went. There were very few people he'd trust Enterprise to other than himself, and for all his faults, Scotty was definitely one of them. He'd prefer to have the man's expertise at hand on the upcoming trip-- but while Chekov and Jim himself, not to mention Spock, could probably cover any minor engineering emergencies that might crop up mid-mission, there weren't any other qualified folk he could justify leaving command to who weren't already coming with him.

Well. Theoretically coming with him. He wouldn't order any of them to go-- but he was fairly sure none of them would turn him down, once they knew the specifics.

And the first one to sign up would undoubtedly, as always, be the man he was heading to see next.

Jim stepped back into the turbolift and called for Deck Seven.

Sickbay was quiet when Jim stepped through the doors, clean and reflective in the absence of wounded personnel-- just the way he liked to see it.

He didn't think he'd ever be able to forget the chaos of the crowd that had filled the place after their first encounter with the Narada; shell-shocked survivors of Vulcan, a scattered handful of rescuees from the other starships' escape pods, and members of Enterprise's own crew injured from the shot that had pierced through her shields. Jim had sat there on a bio-bed, letting one of the nurses wrap the hand the Romulan security officer had crushed aboard the Narada's drill, and fought off flashbacks of the traumatic aftermath of Tarsus IV. It was the kind of thing he'd fled from, during all those years of vocal rebellion against Starfleet; it was the kind of thing he'd decided he would join up to prevent, when he'd finally taken that flight to San Francisco. And there he'd sat, all of twenty-five and newly dubbed Acting First Officer, feeling just as helpless to fix or avenge the enormous toll of senseless deaths he'd just witnessed as he had at thirteen. It was no wonder he'd been so short-tempered with Spock on the bridge afterward-- not that that was really a good excuse for his behavior.

Still, that had all worked out for the best-- just like the conversation he was about to have.

He hoped.

"Bones?" he called, nodding to the no-nonsense head nurse, Lieutenant Chapel, as he headed past her toward the CMO's office. She rolled her eyes at him in response, conveying fond aggravation-- which implied her boss was actually in, as Jim had suspected.

There was no answer to his hail until he stepped across the threshold of the office itself. When he had nothing official to do Bones had a tendency to hole up in either the labs or his office with the latest medical journals and turn off the monitoring comms, leaving him in a cocoon of silence unless deliberately interrupted. If the hour was such that he was not officially on-shift, a glass of something high proof and relaxing often made an appearance as well; and from the vivid color of the liquid in the carafe sitting on the desk, it looked like Romulan ale was the drink of choice that day. Bones had been working Delta shift for the last week to better acquaint himself with the night nurses and their procedures, and probably hadn't yet gone to bed from the night before. Sometimes, Jim thought Bones slept about as often as he did, or very little more.

"Bones?" he prompted again, leaning against the doorjamb as he watched his friend scowl thunderously at whatever he was reading on his PADD.

Bones glanced up briefly; his dark eyes weren't bloodshot, but there were shadows under them indicative of a long week of sleeping much less than he should have been. "What, Jim? I'm busy," he said irritably, glancing back down to thumb to another page of text.

Jim decided to forgive him his imperceptiveness by reason of exhaustion, just this once. "No, you're not; you're off duty-- or you should be. What was that you were telling me just the other day about those little red pills?"

Bones snorted at the taunting tone and looked up again, this time tapping the icon to save and shut down whatever it was he was reading. "It's this damned schedule," he said, "not insomnia; there's no comparison, and you know it. And hell, I slept less than this half the time at the Academy. I'll be fine, Jim. Now what brings you down here off the bridge this time of the morning? Something I need to know about our next mission?"

Jim winced. Forget Spock; the real mind-reader among Jim's cadre of best and brightest was Bones, at least as far as Jim himself was concerned. From the moment they'd met on that recruitment shuttle three and a half years before, the irascible doctor had seen further past Jim's barriers than anyone else he'd known since Sam had gone off to college.

That was why he'd left enough breadcrumbs for Bones to stumble across the DGS thing his first Christmas break on campus, and get drafted by Mallory post-haste. Better that than ruin their friendship with secrets, or avoid the man entirely, he'd thought at the time. But Bones had never felt the thrill of the job, the satisfaction of ruining the reputations of corrupt Federation officials or spoking an alien crime syndicate trying to link up with artifacts runners on Earth soil or bringing a terrorist to justice, the way Jim had-- despite being the absolute best field medic Jim had ever worked with.

Bones had looked forward to the idea of leaving all that behind when they'd left Earth. They'd toasted the end of the secrecy, in fact, right here in the CMO's office with a whole decanter of Saurian brandy late at night after Jim's first official, non-disastrous away mission. Everything out in the open from now on, the doctor had said, grimly relieved.

Jim would let him stay out, if he really wanted to; it was his fault Bones had ever got involved in the first place, and he was sure one of the junior doctors would be willing to take on the job and all the secrecy it entailed. Hell, it might even be better that way; Bones would make a good sounding board for Scotty, if everything went to shit in their absence. But even as he formed the thought he knew Bones would never take him up on it, any more than he'd been able to leave Jim behind on Earth when the Academy board's suspension would have kept the younger man grounded.

"Funny you should say that," he said aloud, hitching one hip on the corner of Bones' desk.

"Damn it, I hate when you say that," Bones scowled. "Okay, you've got my attention. Now out with it."

"Ostensibly, we're on our way to Algeron IV to watch over the peace conference," Jim told him.

"Peace conference, right," Bones shook his head. "More like, the Klingons showing up to piss and moan about the fleet they lost at Rura Penthe, the Vulcans trying to hold up the façade of still being a power in the Alpha Quadrant despite having less than a thousandth of their former population, the Romulans blaming everything on Nero up to and including all those little border runs the Neutral Zone outposts have been picking up the last few months, and the rest of the ambassadors kicking back to watch the show. If they actually get any kind of a treaty out of that mess, I'll be shocked."

"You're a font of sunshine, Bones," Jim replied, lightly. "It's no wonder everyone likes you."

"They're not supposed to like me," Bones replied. "They're supposed to trust me to put them back together when things get rough. Speaking of which-- ostensibly, my lily-white ass. Are things about to get rough around here?"

"Not here exactly," he said. "But there were further addenda to the orders-- from Mallory."

"You're shitting me," Bones spat, standing abruptly. His chair spun behind him with the force of the motion; Jim shifted his weight off the desk and took a step back as well. The doctor was only at most an inch or so taller than he was, but when he wanted to he could really loom, height difference or no height difference. Seriously, he was completely wasted behind a desk.

"No, I'm not," Jim said, and quickly summarized the rest of the orders. "Several hundred Vulcans have gone missing, and Mallory thinks he knows where-- a backwater planet on the other side of the Neutral Zone. A starship would never make it there with the way they've increased patrols lately, but a cargo vessel with a nice roomy hold and a load of medical supplies..." He shrugged.

"Several hundred?" Bones echoed, the anger fading a little in favor of stunned dismay. "When did this happen? Why haven't we heard about it before now?"

For all that he still called Spock a pointy-eared bastard when they got to arguing with each other, Bones was usually pretty defensive regarding Vulcans in general these days; he'd nearly got into a fistfight on the last planet they'd stopped at when a patron in the bar with him and Jim had said something disparaging about "the Romulans' stuck up cousins" getting what had been coming to them. Not that Jim had been far behind him, granted; but still, not Bones' usual modus operandi. Jim thought it probably came of having been right there when the planet was destroyed, and seeing firsthand the devastation that loss had wreaked on every last survivor, including the remaining members of the Vulcan High Council. There was no quicker way to get Bones' back up than to threaten a patient who'd triggered his protective instincts, and most of the Vulcan refugees now apparently fell into that category.

"The ships disappeared between check-ins several months before Nero came out of hiding; they were all scientific vessels out on long missions, and no one got suspicious until after Vulcan had already been destroyed. After that, well..." He shrugged. "Wasn't much they could do about it without escalating relations with the Romulan government until they got some kind of proof of what had happened."

Bones narrowed his eyes. "Which they still don't have, or this would be an official mission, Enterprise and all, and damn what the Romulans thought about it."

Jim nodded. "No messages out of the ordinary before their disappearances; no log buoys, no debris in the last systems they were known to have visited. What the Vulcans do have, though, is an informant with a particularly interesting background who remembers something like this happening before, and has a suggestion about where to look."

Bones firmed his jaw, then looked away, raising a weary hand to shield his eyes. "Damn it, Jim," he said, heavily. "You mean that hobgoblin who messed around in your head, don't you." That particular half-Vulcan, Bones had exempted from his protective attitude; he had not been best pleased when Jim had finally told him the entire story of Delta Vega.

"I won't order you to come," Jim assured him quietly, "but if you could at least tell Chapel to assemble any medical gear you think might be useful in the shuttlebay..." he trailed off.

"You know damn well I won't let you go out there without me," Bones grumbled, dropping his hand to stare piercingly at him. "And where would I be, that you don't think I'll be loading that shuttle myself?"

"Sleeping," Jim informed him, pasting on a false, bright smile. "It'll be planetary morning when we arrive, and we'll be going straight into a briefing with the infamous Number One while Sulu and Chekov sneak off to find us a cargo ship."

"Of course you're bringing D'Artagnan and the boy genius," Bones replied, ignoring Jim's other suggestion. "Who else? Let me guess; your green-blooded shadow and his sharp-tongued girlfriend."

"If they agree," Jim shrugged. "I have the best crew in the 'Fleet; it would be a shame to leave them behind, don't you think?"

"I might have known something like this was going to happen when they let you have your first choices for officers," Bones sighed.

"Hey, that's just what I was thinking a few minutes ago!" Jim grinned. Then he let his face fall back into serious lines, dropping all pretence. "So-- seriously, Bones. Are you going to be okay with this? I know you were looking forward to leaving all that cloak and dagger stuff behind us."

Bones considered that for a moment, then nodded. "Hell, Jim, I'd have taken assignment on a planet or a starbase somewhere if it wasn't for you, not a starship; never mind all this special ops nonsense. But I knew three years ago that if I took one step across that line I was never going to have a normal career again, no matter how much I might daydream otherwise. And frankly, I'd never be able to live with myself if I didn't go with you."

Yeah; that was the problem. Jim had never had any trouble understanding why the ex-Mrs. McCoy had divorced her husband, nor how he'd ended up forfeiting ninety-five percent of what he owned in the settlement in this egalitarian day and age. That driven sense of accountability was something everyone claimed to prize in others, but few people actually valued when they had to deal with it in person. Jim did-- but that didn't make it any easier to accept when it ran contrary to his own stubbornly responsible streak. He wanted Bones along, sure, both for his own peace of mind and for the skill he'd bring to the mission-- but he didn't want him to come only because he thought he had to.

Regardless, though, Jim couldn't have asked for a better friend. Not even Gary Mitchell, the operative Mallory had paired him with most often before Jim went into the Academy-- a kid Jim's own age who'd chosen Service just as Jim had when he'd tripped across an Orion smuggling ring in San Francisco about a year after Jim had tracked down Anton Karidian. Wherever Mitchell was now, it certainly wasn't Starfleet; they'd got along like a house afire, and they'd certainly egged each other on to ever crazier and more daring achievements in their time working together, but Jim had never quite trusted the man to have his back the way he did Bones. There was something solid about Leonard McCoy; something Jim knew he'd come to rely on, and feared he'd never be able to voluntarily let go.

"Glad to hear it," he said gruffly, then pointed toward the door. "I meant it about the sleep, though. If you show up in the transporter room wearing the same uniform you've got on now I'll tell Lieutenant Chapel on you, and give her full permission to reorganize Sickbay while we're gone."

"You would, wouldn't you?" Bones said, scowling at him. Then he ran a hand through his hair and scratched at the stubble on his jaw. "All right. Two hours, at least; but that's all I'll promise. There's no way I'm taking along any supplies I haven't inspected myself."

"I'll hold you to that," Jim replied, knowing that was probably the best offer he was going to get. He headed for the door himself-- then paused, looking back over his shoulder, as another thought struck him. "Make sure you pack some casual clothes-- and maybe some cosmetic surgery equipment, too? Might be safest if some of us play Romulan."

Bones reared back as that, as though he'd been struck, himself. "What do you mean, play Romulan?" he objected, incredulously. "Damn it, Jim..."

Jim chuckled to himself and kept walking, running through further contingencies in his head. Some of it would still have to wait until they spoke to Number One, but there were some things that wouldn't change no matter what path they took to Hellguard.

3. Startup Sequence Initiated

Jim had never officially met the Captain of the Yorktown, but he'd heard about her often enough from Pike to automatically think of her the way Pike referred to her instead of by her difficult Ilyrian designation. Languages normally came easily to him, but Ilyrian wasn't one he'd ever had occasion to learn. He worried over the subject a little as he tugged on the edge of his dress tunic, waiting on the transporter platform for the other three official attendees to settle in place, then dismissed it from his thoughts as they stepped up onto the receiving pads around him.

His formal jacket with its gold braid seemed a little bare in the chest area, positively naked except for the one commendation standing out starkly against the green fabric and the ribbon signifying his presence at the Battle of Vulcan. As he glanced around at the others and their equally minimal chest candy, it had never been more obvious just how very, very young they all were; he hoped that that didn't make a bad impression on Number One, either. A futile hope, probably. She and her officers had put in their time; Jim and his crew had practically had the flagship handed to them on a platter. Who wouldn't resent that?

He felt almost like he was going to meet a severe, professional older step-sister or young aunt for the first time, rather than a senior Captain with on-the-spot intelligence. Despite his pride in his reckless reputation, this was one time he would rather have made a good impression. Doubtless she knew about Mallory's hand on his career; doubtless she knew all about Pike's sponsorship of him, and the truth behind the wild rumors circulating through 'Fleet about Enterprise's new Captain. Somehow, though, he doubted she'd take her cue from any of those sources. She'd come to her own opinion of him, and if Spock-- whom he'd often heard described in favorable comparison to her-- were any cue as far as first reactions were likely to go, it wasn't going to be a good one.

Ah, well. All he could do was be himself, do what he needed to do, and keep his own people safe in the process. Everything else was secondary to those goals.

"Everyone in position?" he asked aloud, matching gazes with his crew. First, Bones-- who seemed more alert than before, but still in a dark mood; then Spock-- coolly challenging as ever, who did have a few more medals than Jim despite spending most of his time in rank at the Academy; and finally Uhura-- striking as anything in the sleeves-and-trousers version of the formal Operations uniform. The rich red fabric complemented her dark skin tone well, and the single stripe of rank at her wrists stood out like a statement.

She'd argued once, in their Starfleet Culture course, that while the usual uniform dress was flattering in shape for most female humanoids, it deemphasized rank markers for women so dressed and thereby gave a discriminatory impression. Jim figured she'd swapped styles now to make a statement, seeing as she was about to meet the female Captain who'd famously never worn them. He was amused to see that her fingernails shone with vivid red lacquer, however, despite the severity of the rest of the uniform, and that she'd swapped her usual earrings for a pair of large golden hoops.

"Ready here," Bones said, breaking into Jim's thoughts.

"Ready," Uhura echoed him.

"Affirmative," Spock said, inclining his head.

"On our way down to the surface now," Sulu confirmed over the comms.

"Good," Jim said. "Sulu, Chekov: we'll see you at the rendezvous at 2100 hours." Then he gestured at Scotty, seated at the transporter controls, to cut the channel. "Treat her well, Scotty."

"Aye, sir," Scotty nodded solemnly. "Good luck to you all." Then he stroked his fingers across the controls, and the transporter room dissolved in iridescent swirls of light.

Moments later, the four of them materialized again under an open blue sky, and Jim breathed deeply of the fresh, unrecycled air. There was something about the scent of oxygen born of an ecosystem, not a canister, that starships just couldn't manage to duplicate no matter how advanced technology became. Under their feet, a concrete walkway divided a wide, vividly green lawn; the fabricated stone was edged with bright borders of flowers in cheerful shades of red, yellow, and violet, leading up to the domed building where the peace talks were being held. A small party waited in front of the building's glass doors; they turned toward Jim's party as they noticed their arrival, and strode forward to greet them.

Number One was first of her party, of course; Jim wiped his palms surreptitiously on his trousers as she approached, just in case.

"Captain," he greeted her, awkwardly avoiding the entire issue of the name as he held out his hand.

"Captain," she replied coolly, her grip as firm as he'd expected-- though offset a little by the sparkle of green lacquer at her fingertips, matching the color of her uniform just like Uhura's did. He smiled to see it, feeling a little of his tension leave him; an image of Gaila wearing a similar shade of polish flitted through his thoughts, and he decided flippantly that he was going to have to stick around long enough to see her make it all the way to Captain too, just to see that verdant, vibrant image fulfilled.

"My first officer," he said next, gesturing beside him, "Commander Spock. I believe you've met?"

"Yes, aboard the Yorktown; he served with us for a year before returning to the Academy as an instructor," Number One replied, cool blue eyes drifting from Jim's face to Spock's. She nodded solemnly to the half-Vulcan officer, but did not bother to extend a hand to him. "Commander. It's been a long time."

"Captain," Spock acknowledged, cocking an eyebrow.

And... that was that? Okay, moving on, Jim thought, and gestured next to Uhura, who'd stepped forward on the other side of Spock. "My chief communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura."

"Lieutenant. I've heard much about your facility with languages; the diplomatic corps were quite distraught that you chose a Starfleet career."

Uhura shook Number One's hand as firmly as the other Captain had shaken his, Jim observed, admiring the way their colorful nail varnish glinted, Christmas colors together, in the bright sunshine.

"Captain," she greeted the other woman. "I did consider the diplomatic corps before I submitted my application to the Academy, but in the end, I realized that they only visit places that have already been discovered by someone else. Any new linguistic challenges-- new languages, new methods of communication, new translation algorithms-- will be made by those on the front lines of exploration."

"An admirable motive; Starfleet would no doubt be poorer for your absence," Number One replied, a slight smile warming her features.

"And my chief medical officer, Dr. McCoy," Jim finished the introductions, gesturing to Bones, who'd moved up to stand on his left.

"Doctor," the other captain greeted him, smile fading as she studied him.

Oh, yeah; Pike had been talking, Jim thought, as he took in the grim set of Bones' jaw.

"Captain," Bones replied, then said something else-- some tongue-twisting collection of syllables that had to be her Ilyrian name. Number One's eyebrows went up; then she shook his hand, respectfully.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Bones added, drawl thicker than usual under the words.

"Likewise," Number One replied, then turned to Jim again and began to introduce her own crew. Jim hadn't met any of them before, though her CMO, Mark Piper, seemed a little familiar; he'd probably run into the man at the Academy some time or another, the last time Yorktown had been in at Starbase One. Virtually every senior officer in Starfleet ended up lecturing there sooner or later. Commander Tyler, Lieutenant Colt, and their security staff were complete unknowns, but seemed friendly and competent enough, no Cupcakes among them.

Introductions over, Number One finally turned to lead them inside. Jim admired the sweep of her dark hair against her pale throat as she turned, automatically assessing her the way he would any other woman he'd just met, then hurriedly banished the image from his thoughts. Senior officer, he reminded himself; then fell back a few steps to murmur under his breath to Bones.

"Since when do you speak Ilyrian?" he asked, glancing sideways at his friend.

The curl at the corner of Bones' mouth was distinctly smug. "Did some advanced coursework my third year regarding their selective breeding program-- it it's not quite eugenics, and something less than genetic engineering, but they produce more near-perfect genomes per annum than any other world in the Federation. They've virtually eliminated a wide variety of genetic diseases, though they've also introduced a few others by accident that are real doozies. Number One happens to own the most perfect genome of her age group, hence the Standard version of her name; another girl from another generation might have been Prima, or Preceda, or anything else that you can translate to First, but the first part of their Ilyrian designations would be the same for all of them. I guess it just stuck in my head."

"Go Bones," Jim grinned at him, then stepped up his pace again to even back up with Spock's long strides, just in time to follow the Yorktown party into a small conference room. The atrium of the meeting hall had been done in cool browns and beiges, with ornate columns along the walls and dark curlicues of fruit-bearing vines painted across the ceiling; the side room they'd commandeered was even cooler in aspect, decorated in pastel shades of sky blue and sea foam green. The table was a long slab of stone that looked a lot like Terran marble, but didn't convey the expected density when Jim struck his knuckles against it. It was synthetic, probably; but the pastel shades and silver threads wending through pale faux stone made for a very attractive centerpiece to the room.

His grandmother Kirk would have said a room like this needed great, wide windows and curtains fluttering in a warm, salt-scented breeze to complete the soothing atmosphere, rather than the collection of impressionistic paintings the Algeronian hosts had hung on the pale cream-painted walls. He smiled at the thought, then sank into the chair across from the other captain and steepled his fingers attentively on the table.

"Whenever you're ready, Captain Kirk," Number One said, as the rest of the officers filed in around the table. Jim automatically glanced toward the sonic and signal jamming devices her security officers had been setting up to make sure they had been activated, then cleared his throat.

"Thank you for meeting with us on such short notice, Captain One," he began. "I'm aware that Starfleet left many of the details of the situation out of the mission briefing, presumably to minimize the risk of detection by Romulan agents or sympathizers. Admiral Pike indicated that you'd be able to fill us in on the current Imperial politics and fleet movements that might affect our route to 872 Trianguli, and what obstacles we're likely to encounter if the crews of the lost Vulcan ships are in fact being held there."

Number One's lips thinned. "The few details that Starfleet has been able to verify through reliable sources suggest that 872 Trianguli V, locally known as Thierrull, is in fact being put to the use that Ambassador Selek recalls. The crews of the four missing ships, Perceptor, Criterion, Constant, and Diversity, appear to have been taken by a secretive group of Romulan supremacists determined to return the galaxy to a state of war."

She paused then, as if to emphasize the seriousness of her next words. "According to the ambassador's information, their scientists are currently experimenting with an anomalous form of silicon found only on that world in an effort to produce an antipersonnel weapon capable of mass effect. The substance will render inert all oxygen in any atmosphere to which it is exposed, and then replicate rapidly in a viral manner, meaning that only a miniscule amount of the weaponized form would be required to completely devastate a planet. The Vulcans were taken to be used as subjects to test its efficacy."

"That's monstrous," Bones objected, horrified; beyond him, Spock looked grave and shaken, and Uhura quietly furious.

Jim considered the implications, and experienced a distinct moment of vertigo as he imagined what might happen should the Romulans succeed. It was Nero all over again-- and worse. A weapon that could do that to an entire world-- the Romulans could wipe out entire populations with a single sample, then claim the newly evacuated planets for themselves, with no messy black holes or infrastructure devastation to deal with. Now he understood the hints regarding complete annihilation of the target that had led him to prompt Scotty to build a gravitational bomb. As skittish as the public currently was about the concept of destruction on such a scale, that directive couldn't be made openly, but that didn't make it any less necessary. Such a naturally occurring threat, once exposed, would remain a threat forever-- until it was permanently removed from the universe.

He took heart from the fact that Selek and his Earth had obviously survived the threat in the other timeline, and returned his attention to the meeting. "Obviously, we'll want to eradicate any possibility of that weapon becoming realized, regardless of whether or not the captive Vulcans are actually present on the planet," he said, grimly. "What other problems are we likely to encounter?"

"Commander Tyler," Number One prompted, glancing to her right to cue her second.

The green-tunicked officer looked even grimmer than she did. And as he began to describe the local political and military situation, Jim began to understand why.

It was no wonder Mallory had called Jim back up; he wouldn't be surprised to find there were other DGS teams floating around as well, each with separate but complementary orders to cover several different angles of approach to the problem. Someone needed to get through to stop the machinations at Hellguard from reaching maturity, completely aside from the question of the kidnapped Vulcans-- and, with luck, roll up the secretive alliance that had engineered the scheme and prevent future, similar plots from coming to fruition. If left alone, the powerful Romulans behind the plan would ruin any real attempt at a peace treaty within Jim's lifetime. For all that he'd claimed to stand apart from the Empire, Nero had been more godsend than curse to the factions that longed for renewed war.

Jim knew better than most just how many factions there were on the Federation side of the border who would be more than happy to oblige them. Most of them had their fingers in the pie on Earth, meddling in politics and military bureaucracy in all the same ways their predecessors had been doing for millennia. The historians liked to claim that Humanity had grown up a little in the aftermath of the Third World War, but you couldn't prove it by his experience; and even if they had... Humans might be the most numerous species in the Federation, but they were hardly the only members of the interstellar federal republic, or even the most aggressive. Realistically, the chances of a tiny handful of Starfleet officers being able to stop the slow slide to open conflict were vanishingly small.

On the other hand, Jim had spent the years between sixteen and twenty-two being the lever that a determined, ruthless man sure of his footing had used to shift any number of theoretically immovable obstacles, and had beaten worse odds before. Within the last six months, even, if one counted his seat-of-the-pants campaign against Nero. What were the odds Spock had quoted at him? Something just over four percent? And they'd come through that one all right, in the end. So.

He sat back and listened as the briefing went on, furrowing his brow as possibilities and contingencies bubbled away in the back of his thoughts. When all the obvious questions had been asked and answers received, he nodded sharply and met gazes with Number One again.

"The Enterprise will remain in orbit," he said, "with official orders to assist you in monitoring the negotiations. Feel free to requisition personnel from communications and security; most of our younger officers have never even been on an away mission before, and this would be good experience for them. I've left word with my second officer, Lieutenant Commander Scott, that those of the crew who've volunteered for this mission are down with some kind of virus that affects the mind; that should cover the Federation's involvement in case we're caught. In the meantime, my team will be off-planet in a private craft by 2200 hours, and if all goes well we'll return before the peace conference is over."

He shrugged then, offering the other captain a lopsided smile. "You'll forgive me if I don't go into any further detail; I trust your security measures, but I'll be making half of it up as we go regardless, and at least this way, if the shit hits the fan you can truthfully say you had no idea what we were up to."

"That's hardly reassuring," Number One said, skeptically.

"You can't tell me Starfleet gave me that shiny new ship without exactly this kind of thing in mind," he replied. "I know I'm young, but this isn't my first high-risk covert operation, and my officers are all highly skilled and fully qualified in their fields; I wouldn't have brought them along otherwise."

"Very well," she said, nodding. "Do you require any material assistance from us?"

"I appreciate the offer," he said, smiling wryly as he thought of Sulu and Chekov's enthusiasm for their parts in the setup for the mission, "but I think we've got it covered."

There were a few hours left before the team was due to leave, and plenty of activity to fill them. Jim checked in first at the diplomatic accommodations that the Algeronians had hastily reserved for the Enterprise party, and was gratified to see that their kits had already followed them down from the ship. Bless Scotty.

"Leave your formal uniforms here," he told the others. "Change into your casual clothes, and bring your bags. I have a little errand to run, with Spock's help; you two rendezvous with Sulu and Chekov at the Handbasket and get acquainted with her systems."

"The Handbasket, Captain?" Uhura asked, in amused, dubious tones.

Jim just smirked at her. "Well, that's not its name of record, of course. But I thought it was an appropriate nickname for our purposes."

"Yeah, well, what you think is appropriate and what actually is…." Bones muttered, throwing him a scornful eyebrow.

Jim laughed, then waved dismissive hands, directing the others to scatter to their own quarters. "Shoo. And keep your communicators handy, people. This is the easy part of the mission; it would be really embarrassing if we got tripped up by something stupid before we even left the planet."

He made quick work of changing into his working clothes and disguising his most memorable features, then paused to finger his commendation thoughtfully as he hung his formal uniform out of the way in the room's closet. Cheating, original thinking; two names for the same action, with two wildly different sets of consequences-- the only difference between the two allegations the fact that somewhere in between them he had managed to save the world. What would the Academy Board have had to say about the actions he was about to take? he wondered.

"Captain?" he heard Spock politely inquire at the door.

Probably, that the ends would justify the means, he mused-- if his team could pull it off.

"Come on in, Spock," he called aloud, and turned as his first officer let himself into the room.

Spock had managed to come up with a hand-knit sweater from somewhere, a strangely endearing monstrosity of a garment that made his shoulders look much broader than they actually were, over a loosely collared undershirt. Trousers of some kind of heavy, well-worn fabric and sturdy dockworkers' boots completed the outfit; a knit cap pulled over the tips of his ears and a careful disarrangement (Jim suspected Uhura's hand) of his rigidly even haircut topped it off, disguising his race and occupation to any onlookers not close enough to see the greenish undertone to his skin.

Jim himself was wearing something very similar to the usual Starfleet blacks, though of lighter fabric, more closely tailored to his frame, and possessed of an abundance of carefully stocked pockets that the standard uniform definitely didn't include. He'd rubbed a quick, temporary discolorant into his hair to dull it to a muddy, standard-issue brown, and popped in a pair of greenish-brown hazel contacts. So minimal a degree of camouflage wouldn't fool anyone who'd actually met him before, but it would severely reduce the chances of someone randomly recognizing him on the street or remembering his face from a casual glimpse later on.

"Ready to steal us some new identities?" he asked, grinning widely at his disgruntled-looking second.

Spock frowned at him. "I fail to see why the act of theft is required at all," he said. "Why did you not simply requisition the required garments and documents from ship's stores? The patterns of common Romulan uniforms and civilian garb are not difficult to duplicate."

"The day we get replicators to work for recreating common items instead of just reconstituting food from vegetable and protein stock, maybe that will be the case," Jim shrugged, "but I'd have had to get the Quartermaster to make fresh clothes from scratch, and there's no guarantee they'd get the fabric quality or the stitch count or, hell, the typical patterns of wear in them that a native would expect. Especially given the time crunch. This is a hell of a lot quicker."

"Indeed," Spock replied. "But it seems counterproductive to use such a method of concealment when the owners of the garments must inevitably notice them missing and report their absence."

Jim snorted. "Yeah, to the hotel staff, whom they'll blame for the whole thing anyway. We'll be well clear before anyone starts worrying about alien spies in their underwear."

Spock blinked at that, his expression becoming even blander than usual, if possible. "You have done this many times before," he said, thoughtfully.

"Yeah, like I told you before we beamed down, I've done covert work for Intelligence before; that's why Enterprise got tapped for this," Jim said, patiently. He knew his playboy persona had never entirely fooled Spock, at least not since that first argument on the bridge about the lightning storm in space and what it implied for the seismic activity afflicting Vulcan, so he wasn't sure what was puzzling the other man now.

"Fascinating," was Spock's only further, unhelpful, comment.

Whatever. "We done here?" Jim prompted him, gesturing toward the door as he picked up his bag.

Spock simply inclined his head, then opened the door.

Between the six official members of the Romulan delegation and their various 'staff' they managed one subcommander's uniform, one centurion's, and four sets of civilian clothing, two of them in sizes that matched the uniforms. There was simply nothing broad enough through the chest to fit Bones, nor anything that would make weedy Chekov look like anything but what he was: a very young, curly-haired Human. The surprising part was that the subcommander's uniform was the one that best fit Uhura's shapely frame; he'd never seen a female Romulan officer before, though he'd known objectively that they had at least as many as Starfleet did.

He filed the knowledge of Uhura's measurements away in the part of his brain still solidly ignoring the accidentally gained fact that her first name was Nyota, and dwelled instead on the enormous good fortune that had presented itself to them with that particular windfall. Put a uniform, a pair of pointy ears, and some angled eyebrows on the woman, and even the Romulan ambassador would probably think she was one of their own.

It was perfect. Jim had feared that he would end up being the one who'd have to fake his way through a command performance, and he didn't speak nearly enough Romulan to pass. Mostly just the few curse words he'd badgered Uhura into teaching him, and he knew better than to rely on the Universal Translator in a covert operation. The software worked really well-- when it worked-- on official or business-type conversation, but it sometimes failed to translate the more culturally-defined concepts like slang in the ways one might expect, which could turn even the simplest undercover exchange into a minefield. He'd learned that lesson the hard way.

They might yet get in and out without having to use that particular contingency plan, but Jim wasn't betting on it. As it was, he really wished the centurion's uniform had fit Spock, but it was Sulu's size, leaving the team's two senior-most officers to don civilian wear. Bones and Chekov would have to stay out of sight, if it came to that.

They stuffed the clothing into their bags, then headed for the spaceport. Jim took the long route there from the diplomatic center, straying through the busiest market area, and made a few purchases to one of his personal accounts under a false identity. He'd been tempted to liquidate the majority of the accounts months before and funnel the funds into the Vulcan rebuilding project and Bones' daughter's college fund, but some instinct had held him back. Maybe he had subconsciously been expecting Mallory's call. He certainly wouldn't have been able to afford the Handbasket without them.

He'd accumulated enough credits over the years through one job or another, and multiplied them by virtue of his technical talents, to fund a dozen secret operations without ever touching anything officially associated with his own name. A few baubles, and a somewhat worn spaceship, would barely make a dent. He limited his acquisitions that evening to what he and Spock could carry, but made sure what he bought was expensive and rare enough to maintain the verisimilitude of their assumed role: established smugglers, if anyone bothered to look beneath their surface identities as cargo haulers.

"So what do you think, Spock?" he prodded his first officer when they finally arrived at the ship.

Laden down with bags, Spock took his time appraising the vessel as they slowly approached it. Like most spacefaring ships still capable of a surface landing, it was more streamlined than the average Starfleet heavy cruiser; most of the lower body was clearly cargo storage, with the engines, crew quarters, bridge, and galley up above, accessible by internal ladderways when the ship was on the ground. It could house a crew complement of ten, but could be flown with as few as two, and had a small medical suite that Bones could supplement with his own equipment. Unfortunately, it had very little in the way of defenses beyond the standard navigational deflector screens and one low-power utility phaser. Then again, if things came to a shooting match, their mission would already be blown to hell.

"Adequate," Spock finally said, eyeing dull brown paintwork scarred by years of micrometeorite and atmospheric reentry damage.

Jim grinned at him. "Damned by faint praise," he replied, then freed up a hand to clap the Vulcan on the shoulder for pure annoyance's sake. "We'll see how you feel after a few days aboard her." Then he reached for his communicator, and switched it to the landing party's frequency. "Kirk to Sulu," he called. "Two to beam aboard! We've arrived, bearing gifts."

"Aye, sir, two to beam up; Chekov's standing by to assist," the pilot promptly replied.

"Acknowledged; Kirk out," Jim said, then braced for molecular dissolution. A few long, frozen seconds later, and they were aboard.

They had hardly finished materializing before Chekov was moving from behind the console to help them with their cargo. Jim waved him off, stepping down from the vessel's single, wide receiving pad to head for the corridor. "We've got this, Ensign," he said. "Head on up to the bridge; we'll be there in a few minutes to go over a few last things before we leave the planet."

"Aye sir," Chekov confirmed, grinning at him. In his nondescript orange coveralls, the Russian kid looked even younger than usual-- as young as Jim had been on his own first field mission. It made him feel old.

"And may I say, welcome aboard, sirs," Chekov added, as he left the room.

"Thank you, Ensign," Jim said, and took a deep breath. The scents of rusting metal, old, poorly recycled air that had cooled too many sweating humanoid skins, and a hint of something musty undoubtedly left over from a previous cargo assaulted his nostrils. He grinned again at the wave of anticipation that hit him, and headed to the crew quarters with Spock to deposit their burdens.

4. Course Laid In

They left atmo, as prearranged, at 2200 hours. It was late in the evening shift for the port controllers, hopefully guaranteeing that their departure would be less than memorable. Sulu had had enough time to adequately familiarize himself with the propulsion and navigational controls by then, and took them out as smoothly as if he'd been flying the ship for years.

Once they were safely out of well-trafficked Federation shipping lanes and en route for the near edge of the Neutral Zone under cover of a mild ion storm, Bones shuttled the four of them set to masquerade as Romulans through his makeshift surgery, grumbling the entire time about inadequate sterilization and the lack of another pair of hands to assist him. Jim found the disgruntled background ranting almost soothing; they'd been doing this together a long time, and though he was confident in the skills of all his people, there was a certain amount of security in having his best friend along.

"You do know that this won't fool their scanners?" Bones said, handing Jim a mirror to inspect himself when the last of it was done.

Jim turned his head from side to side, admiring the new points on his ears, then touched one gently. It was still numbed from the local anesthetic, so all he felt from the ear itself was a vague pull at the surrounding skin, but the strange new angles of cartilage drew his fingertips anyway.

"Cut that out," Bones admonished him irritably, swatting at Jim's hand.

"I know, I know," Jim said, lowering the mirror to stare at his friend. "But according to Intelligence the Romulans' ship sensors are only set up to detect vital signs as vital signs; they'd have to specifically reprogram them to filter for species variations in order to detect any difference, and that's not the first thing any Romulan commander's going to be thinking of when they hail our ship."

He grinned appreciatively at that, gesturing with his chin up toward the bridge. Uhura was just as striking in her new disguise as he'd suspected she would be; the dark-glittering fabric and scarlet half-cloak of the uniform suited her coloring, and the very, very short skirt exposed even more of her legs than the equivalent Starfleet uniform did. The look on Spock's face when he'd first beheld his girlfriend's cosmetic alterations had been-- well. Something else to file away in the back corner of Jim's mind, where he stowed all data not to be used in future manipulations.

Bones rolled his eyes. "Yeah, she's something, all right. I think she's getting a kick out of the idea that she'll get to boss you around, if we come across any unfriendlies along the way."

"I know she is," Jim agreed, cheerily. "Ah, the things I do to keep my crew happy."

"The things I do for you, you mean," Bones riposted, but a smile was tugging at the corner of his mouth, too.

"C'mon Bones," he prompted his favorite partner in crime. "Let's go steal us back some Vulcans."

They'd been lucky to start their mission so close to Algeron and its nearby stretch of border in a fast ship; the tiptoeing trip through a swath of Neutral Zone plagued by subspace interference took days in their new, low-profile transport, rather than hours. On the way back out, they might be able to make a faster run of it; but on the way in, they were more concerned with evading the sensor satellites and patrols watching both sides of the Zone than with speed. They couldn't rescue anyone if they never made it to their destination. Chekov's talent for tactical route mapping definitely came in handy-- though what was a fascinating puzzle for him proved not nearly so engrossing for the rest of the crew.

All the momentum Jim had built up in the early, planning stages of the mission fizzled under the ensuing stretch of hurry-up-and-wait; he couldn't help but worry about the ship and crew he'd left behind, and wonder how the diplomatic conference was going in their absence. They couldn't break radio silence while they were still in the no-man's-land between empires, and though 872 Trianguli itself wasn't much farther beyond the Neutral Zone on the Romulan side than Algeron had been on the Federation side, they weren't exactly next door to one another along its length.

There were only five crew berths, intended for use in rotation when the crew complement was at its full capacity of ten; Jim made no comment when Spock and Uhura claimed the same one during their joint off-shifts. It wasn't as though the rest of them didn't spend most of their downtime keeping company with each other, anyway; Jim had never pretended to be a stickler for formal protocol or fraternization regulations, and as long as they were capable of being professional on duty he wasn't going to yank their chains over a relationship that had been an evident source of strength for both of them.

Bones had brought along a few of his journals-- primarily focused on Romulan and Vulcan physiology, which he'd been brushing up on since discovering that the number of Vulcans joining Starfleet had increased in the wake of Nero's attacks-- but was easily distractible with the offer of a game of chess and a bottle of the ale Jim had picked up in the market on Algeron. When it was Sulu he shared an off shift with, they investigated the hold-- still full of the agricultural equipment it had contained when he'd bought the ship, stock and all, out from under its previous operators-- and designed a sort of exercise/obstacle course with the stranger items of machinery. Constructing it took far longer than actually running the thing, but it kept them occupied and out of trouble, at least until Sulu got out his collapsible swords and offered to teach Jim a few new tricks.

It was a good thing Bones had brought his portable dermal regenerator; he rather thought the Romulans would catch on if the cargo haulers they intercepted had scabs and bruises in shades of red and purple, rather than dark green and bronze.

His shifts on the tiny bridge were even less exciting, filled with a great deal of staring out, watching the stars stream by, and picking up linguistic tips from Uhura. He still wouldn't be even close to fluent in Romulan by the time they came back from the mission, but at least he'd be able to navigate, order a beer, and insult someone's mother in the most common of the dialects, which was more than Chekov seemed able to manage.

Jim had spent a memorable week in old Russia once, and hadn't met anyone during the whole trip with half so much trouble pronouncing their Standard V's and W's; he was starting to suspect that the Ensign had some kind of speech impediment. Well, either that, or like Jim with his frat boy routine, was really exaggerating the accent to offset his otherwise intimidating genius. Jim wouldn't be surprised either way.

The first hint of trouble came when they left the shelter of the last spatial disturbance, two hours' distance at Warp Three from the edge of the Neutral Zone nearest their destination. Passive sensor scans had picked up a disturbance at the far side of the ion storm, almost at the edge of their detection range, about where Jim would have expected a ship if one were patrolling the sector. Visual scans continued to read clear, but something about the timing and placement of the blip on the sensors nagged at him, and he sent Chekov back below to keep Bones company in one of the shielded smugglers' holds. Then he settled into the chair in front of the console the Ensign had been running tactical simulations on, and bellowed down the corridor for Uhura. She'd probably look down her nose at him for it, but he'd rather come off as rude than use the intercoms and risk their intraship transmissions being picked up by the enemy.

In their search for information on other secret Romulan projects, 'Fleet Intelligence had recently turned up evidence that the Empire had begun working on practical cloaking technology again, and may in fact have already put units into production. According to the Yorktown's data, no one had yet seen one in operation, but the data 'Fleet had stolen on ship movements showed irregularities and apparent vulnerabilities best explained by the introduction of such technology. It was possible that there was a warbird shadowing them right that minute, even though the sector appeared completely empty.

"Ease us on out, Lieutenant," he murmured to Sulu as Uhura came pelting up the corridor, dressed in her informal Romulan outfit. Jim debated sending her back for the uniform version, then decided against it; they could hold that option in reserve. If there was a ship out there, it would definitely be military, and the last thing they wanted was to have its commander giving Uhura orders.

"We might have company," he announced, nodding to Spock as he followed Uhura onto the bridge, the four of them a close fit in the small space. "If they're here, they've probably already seen us; there's no point trying to hide, so we'll make a straight run for the edge of the Zone. If they are here, though, I fully expect them to stop us within the next few minutes. It'll be up to you then, erei'Riov."

Uhura blinked at the Romulan word for 'subcommander', then nodded, chin up and eyes hard.

"Here goes nothing," Sulu murmured, and stroked his fingers over the warp controls, goosing them up to the cargo ship's maximum of Warp Five.

"Captain," Spock said sharply not thirty seconds later, bent over the sensor control panel at his station. "Detecting a subspace disturbance ahead of us."

"How much farther to the border?" Jim asked, intently.

"Several minutes, sir," Sulu replied, tensely.

"Damn. All right, drop out of warp; we don't want to look like we're trying to run."

The starlines wavered, then reformed into steady, pinprick sparks of light. Seconds later, a distortion crossed the screen in front of them, gradually resolving into the shape of a Romulan warbird; his instincts had been right. He hoped someone else had been sent to steal one of those cloaking devices; the Federation definitely didn't want to leave that kind of technology unopposed in enemy hands.

"We are being hailed," Spock announced, grimly.

"You're on, Uhura," Jim said, and nodded at his first officer to activate the video channel.

The image of the warbird vanished, replaced by a window into the enemy ship. From the center of the screen, a Romulan woman with a firm chin, long brown hair, and hard eyes stared back at them, wearing a subcommander's uniform. Around her, nondescript gray panels gave away no secrets. "Unknown vessel," she said, eyeing them all speculatively. "This is the cruiser Khellian. You are in violation of the Outmarches. Identify yourselves."

Jim was able to follow most of her command, though he had to guess the meaning of a few of the words due to context, not content; the translator software had been deliberately left inactive.

"We are the cargo vessel Lehe'jhme," Uhura replied, flawlessly matching the subcommander's dialect and posture as she embarked on their pre-rehearsed explanation. "Our navigational controls were damaged in an ion storm; we were not aware that we had crossed the border. We will correct the error and return to Rihannsu space at once."

The Romulan narrowed her eyes, then lifted a hand to touch the silver audio wand nestled in her right ear. When she lowered her hand again, her expression had shifted to something a little less wary, and a little more smug. "Lehe'jhme, our sensors show no sign of any such damage to your vessel. What is your cargo and destination?"

"We carry a shipment of agricultural equipment for the colony on Chetzia III," Uhura replied, not giving an inch.

The subcommander touched a hand to the earpiece again, then nodded. "Then you will not mind if we insist on examining your cargo in person," she said, coolly. "You understand, we must be certain that there are no Federation spies hidden aboard your vessel."

"I assure you, there are no spies amongst our cargo," Uhura declared, then unbent a little. "Though perhaps there might be a few delicacies-- obtained through, shall we say, less traveled channels."

"Indeed," the subcommander said, the corners of her mouth curling slightly at Uhura's reply. "If you could provide a few samples when I arrive to inspect your hold? Perhaps we may discover that it is simply a matter of a misadjusted navigational computer, after all."

Yes, Jim thought, struggling not to grin as he deciphered the gist of the exchange. The Romulan commander had taken the bait; he-- or she-- would send the junior officer aboard to take a cursory glance at the equipment in the cargo bay, then take a cut of the suspected smugglers' valuables, and finally-- in all likehood-- let them go with a warning, without taking a deeper look.

"I am certain that can be arranged," Uhura conceded, graciously.

The subcommander smiled. "Khellian out."

Sulu blew out an explosive breath the moment the screen cleared. "Whew, that was close," he said. "What now?"

"Now Uhura and I go down to show the subcommander around and ply her with Alpha quadrant delicacies," he said. "If all goes well, we'll be clear of them in thirty minutes."

Sulu swallowed, but nodded affirmation. "Aye, sir."

"You'd probably better stay up here too, Spock," Jim said next. "I know you're the only actually green-blooded one among us, but your face was pretty widely broadcast after the Nero thing, and it would be just our luck she'd recognize you if she saw you up close."

"And your face wasn't that widely broadcast?" Uhura frowned at him.

"Not this face," Jim smirked, fingering the altered tip of one ear. He was kind of getting used to the cosmetic alterations, though the eyebrows were still pretty damn startling when he looked in the mirror. "I'm less of a risk than Spock, anyway, and one of us should be there to back you up."

"I concur," Spock said, inclining his head. Then he reached out to Uhura, setting his hands on her shoulders. "You are performing admirably," he told her, in all seriousness.

Whatever he meant by that, it drew a smile from Uhura; she reached up to grasp his hands where they rested, then drew away to lead Jim down the corridor to the transporter room. They arrived just as two sparkling columns of light-- disconcertingly unlike the usual Federation technology's pearlescent swirls-- took shape, heralding the arrival of the subcommander and a centurion guard.

Uhura took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders again, then stepped forward to greet the other woman, Jim a steady presence two steps behind her.

True to Jim's prediction, the subcommander's inspection was very cursory; she did a simple visual examination of the crew quarters, bridge, and hold, with only brief glances at the hand scanner she'd brought, and smiled again when an obvious smuggler's cavity in one of the cargo bulkheads was opened to reveal several high-priced items of obvious Federation make. She chose a bottle of Saurian brandy, a small statuette of apparent Vulcan origin Spock had picked out, and the small wooden crate Jim had chosen on a whim full of entertainment data chips. He was amused by her selections, but not surprised.

She was remarkably personable for a Romulan, at least in Jim's experience, almost cuddly in comparison to the only other members of her species he had ever met. She was sharp-tongued, but wry rather than hostile; petite of form and feature, but strong and graceful in her movements; and the owner of a killer pair of legs that made the most of the extremely short-skirted uniform. She gave her surname as t'Rllaillieu, but did not offer a forename-- and Jim suspected that even if it had been in character for him to ask, she wouldn't have offered it, just like another strong-willed female officer of his acquaintance. He almost hoped they'd run into one another again in future, when he was properly back aboard the Enterprise, just to see the look on her face when she recognized him.

Still, both officers breathed a sigh of relief when they beamed the Romulan officer and her guard back to the Khellian at last, after weathering one last carefully-couched lecture on the costs of attempting to evade detection of illegal cargo by skimming through forbidden space. Uhura said all the right things in reply, repeated anything said to Jim in simple terminology as though barking orders to a simpleton, and in short totally sold the role until the last quantum sparkles faded and she stumbled back against the wall, raising a trembling hand to her temple.

Jim smirked at her. "The next time I need someone to play the boss of me, I definitely know who I'm choosing," he said. "Think Spock'll get annoyed if I promote you to First Officer over his head?"

She rolled her eyes at him, laughing as much out of released tension as amusement. "I think I'd have to complete the command track qualifications before Starfleet would let you do that," she said, sighing in mock regret.

"Damn it, foiled again," Jim pouted, then held out a hand.

She took it, and he used it to tug her away from the wall. "C'mon, let's see what Spock and Sulu are up to, and tell Bones and Chekov they can come out of hiding," he said.

"Next stop, 872 Trianguli," Sulu said, grinning, as they reconvened on the bridge. "By way of a short detour toward Chetzia III; we'll change course an hour out, once I'm sure we're past detection range of the Khellian. We should arrive in the system in about-- seven hours, at maximum warp."

Almost there, Jim thought, grinning back. "Punch it, Lieutenant."

The final leg of the journey seemed to crawl, the tension mounting with every lightyear covered toward their destination. They detoured twice more en route to take advantage of spacial disruptions that would confuse their trail and evade postulated Romulan patrol routes, and saw no other ships; by the time the cargo ship dropped out of warp, the crew had long since passed through tense and into hyperfocused calm.

They approached from above the plane of the ecliptic, intending to avoid immediate notice from any in-system ships, but saw no one and nothing bar a few fading ion trails. The system's sun burned fierce and hot, with a twin that would be visible as a tiny, malevolent eye to anyone standing on the surface of one of the systems' worlds-- though any visitor to the four innermost planets would have to wear full protection gear, as they had been baked to bare cinders long ago. The fifth world, Hellguard itself, would be barely tolerable to the physiology of a Vulcan or Romulan. Any Humans transporting down to its surface would need a shot of tri-ox compounds, at the very least.

"Are we picking up any signals?" Jim asked, brow furrowed, as they slid closer to the planet under impulse power.

The sensors had detected evidence of a colony near a rim of mountains on the day side of the planet. The mountains themselves read as a complete blank to the cargo ship's unsophisticated scanners-- though somehow Jim doubted that even the science equipment aboard Enterprise would get any more out of it. They'd found what they were looking for, all right; it all matched Selek's descriptions pretty closely. There was only one thing lacking: people. The colony buildings all showed as intact, but stood empty; there was no sign of life anywhere they could detect.

Which meant either they were too late, or the Romulans had taken their prisoners to another planet in their timeline, or the Vulcans had been moved to the one place on-planet that they couldn't be detected. Jim could do nothing to verify either of the first two possibilities, which left only the third as an actionable option. He didn't like it, but he liked the idea of simply blowing the place up without a thorough investigation even less. Besides, the further underground they could set the gravitational bomb, the better; and that meant scouting the theoretical caverns under the mountains regardless.

If there were ever a time to use the uniforms he'd stolen, that was it. Odds were, there was only one way down, and there'd be no chance of a timely transporter rescue from Chekov even with the subcutaneous transponders Bones had injected them all with before clearing them for the mission. Once they were under the edge of the umbrella of shielding, they'd be on their own until they retraced their path. Anything that might give them an edge in dealing with any Romulans present in the caverns would be invaluable.

"None," Uhura informed him gravely, shaking her head as she pressed still-lacquered fingertips to her earpiece. With Jim back in the center seat, she was at the communications console, working her own particular brand of magic. "No subspace transmissions; nothing on standard communicator frequencies; no old-style radio beacons. No messages of any kind. If there is any type of long-range communication taking place down there, it's either purely visual or under the shielded area where I can't detect it."

Jim furrowed his brow. "What about up here? Would you know if there were any cloaked ships in communication with the Romulan fleet?" he had to ask.

She pressed a few buttons on the console, her expression abstracted as she shifted the range of channels and frequencies she was listening to. "The observed effects of the cloak seem to indicate that the device bends a significant range of the electromagnetic spectrum around the concealed volume. That renders it undetectable to any sensors calibrated for those frequencies, including the visible spectrum and most methods of audio transmission," she mused aloud. "If they sent a signal on a narrow bandwidth aimed directly away from us, it might also be concealed from our sensors by the distorting effect, but I can't be certain."

"Then we'd better plan for that eventuality," Jim said, grimly. That was a motto he'd learned long ago: plan for the worst, and it would be a pleasant surprise when you came out the other side of what life actually dealt you in one piece. "Spock, is there any chance we might be able to come up with a method of piercing that cloaking technology in the next few hours? They can't have completely disguised all emissions; that would be impossible unless they shut down all power sources aboard their vessel, which would kind of negate the purpose of putting the cloak on a ship in the first place."

Spock looked up from his console long enough to shake his head slightly. "Not with the time and equipment available, Captain," he said. "It might indeed be possible to track the exhaust of a cloaked ship, or detect the minute gravitic disturbances produced by its passage, but this vessel is not equipped for such fine control of its sensors."

Jim leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, scowling determinedly at the screen. Well, nobody had said it was going to be easy; and he still had a trick or two in reserve. "Understood. All right, then; here's what we're going to do, people." He looked around at his five teammates, all of whom had crowded into the small room for the approach, and was gratified to see the same assurance-- or resignation, in Bones' case-- in the posture and expression of each one of them.

"Uhura, make a couple of perfunctory hails to whatever's supposed to be the communications center down there. We already know there's not going to be an answer, but make like we're just a confused cargo delivery vessel for their recording system, all right?"

He nodded next to Sulu and Chekov. "Take us down on a careful approach to the colony buildings; it doesn't look like there's a designated landing area, so just park it near an empty warehouse on the mountain side. There's got to be at least one storage space with room to spare if they've been here for any length of time. Secrecy always ties the supply line in knots for secret projects like this; no way to tell what they'd be expecting a shipment of, but there's got to be something. Once down, start beaming the agricultural equipment out of the main hold."

Finally, he turned to Spock and Bones. "We're going to pretend we're still the Lehe'jhme, en route to Chetzia III," he said. "No one's going to take the navigational malfunction story seriously, any more than the border patrol who stopped us-- this clearly isn't a colony world capable of growing much of anything, even if our computers were messed up enough not to know where we were from a simple glance at the star charts, but it'll work as a delaying tactic, at least. No one will expect spies or pirates to actually leave valuable goods behind, and we'll need the hold emptied anyway.

"While that's going on, the four of us with disguises will head for the caverns mentioned in Ambassador Selek's report," he continued. "We'll pretend to be part of the entourage of one of the other members of their little Alliance, sent to check up on their progress. That should at least get us in to assess the situation before we run into any serious roadblocks. We'll have to improvise from there, but I've got some ideas about how to accomplish that. Bones, while Chekov continues transporting the equipment, I'll need you to stay up here on the bridge and monitor for transmissions. You'll have to risk turning on the translator and claim the screen's broken if any Romulans call, so stick close to the story. I'd leave you Uhura to handle it, but I have a feeling we'll need her more."

Bones scowled. "Which means you should probably be worrying about your own skin, not mine," he said. "God knows what kind of trouble you'll run into without me."

Jim nodded. "The minute-- the exact second-- we get out from under the mountains again and call, you'll need to open the external airlock to the cargo section; if we manage to rescue even a fraction of the missing crews, there'll be too many of them for the transporter to handle. You might need to lift the ship again and pilot it in closer for the pickup, too. Any remaining cargo can simply be dumped at that point. I'll slap transponder patches on any seriously injured for immediate transport, and send Sulu with them to take over for you so you can get to your primary job."

"I knew I'd regret letting you talk me into that piloting course," Bones grumbled, but nodded in reluctant agreement. The elective class had originally been part of Jim's campaign to relieve Bones' fear of flying, had morphed into a side project on some of their missions for Mallory, and finally had become a convenient excuse to draft the doctor as part of Jim's makeshift bridge crew for his attempts at the Kobayashi Maru simulation. Now, it might end up helping them save lives.

"Any concerns?" Jim asked, glancing around at the others again.

"Any concerns?" Uhura echoed him, slanted eyebrows reaching for her hairline.

Jim flashed a wry grin at her. "Maybe I should rephrase that; apologies, Lieutenant," he said. "Any specific recommendations or critical emendations regarding the plan?"

She pursed her lips at him in frustration-- at him, at the situation, or at her own inability to offer more assistance, he couldn't tell which-- but shook her head. "None at this time, Captain."

"Feel free to chime in anytime," he said. "We're not exactly on the bridge of a starship right now."

"Make sure y'all come to me for tri-ox shots before you leave the ship," Bones reminded him.

Sulu grimaced. "I suppose rebreathers would look a little out of place," he said. "What else is the environment like down there?"

"The air is dry, thinner than the atmosphere of Vulcan, and contains a high volume of native soil," Spock replied. "The dust is corrosive and sulfuric, but should not pose any significant danger to Humans in limited amounts. The likelihood of sunburn and dehydration is significantly higher; I recommend application of a topical barrier and sufficient water supplies for a twenty-four-hour period for all members of the away team."

Jim nodded. "Anything else?"

"Sir..." Chekov began, hesitantly. "If they are hiding under the mountains, they must know someone is coming to rescue the Wulcans. Vhat if they shoot you on sight?"

"That's always a risk," Jim acknowledged. "But if they're expecting anyone, they're probably expecting a full expedition-- another Vulcan vessel, or a Constitution-class starship, not a small covert group. That's why they sent us. If Uhura and Sulu can get us through their perimeter, Mr. Spock will be able to even the odds." He paused to glance at his first officer then, and raised an eyebrow in imitation of Spock's favorite gesture. "That is, provided he wasn't blowing smoke up my ass when he said he'd be able to hack Romulan computer systems. He never did get a chance to demonstrate that for me the last time."

As expected, Spock stiffened his spine at that, looking disdainful. "My skills will be more than adequate to the task," he said firmly, while the others smirked amongst themselves, worried tension broken.

"Good," Jim said, cheerfully. "Now, if there's nothing else? Sulu, take us on down."

"Aye, sir," Sulu nodded, and turned back to his controls.

On the viewscreen, the red-brown wasteland of Hellguard loomed larger. The time for calculations was over; the time to act was at hand.

5. I'll Cover You

It was late afternoon, local day, when a tight trio of shimmering columns appeared in the dry, dusty street outside the empty storage facility Spock had chosen. The cargo ship's transporter wasn't big enough to send their entire party at once, but fortunately Chekov was quick off the mark; by the time the world had finished materializing around Jim, Spock, and the antigrav case containing the disguised gravitational bomb, another pair of columns was starting to sparkle into view beside them.

He didn't envy the ensign the task of trying to shift all that equipment with only that single oversized pad. Usually, a ship of that type would be loaded via cargo handlers with special equipment in the zero G environment of a space station, or by a crew of workers with antigrav dollies in a planetside dockyard. The Handbasket, aka the Lehe'jhme, had come with its own dolly-- but there were only Chekov and Bones to handle it, and they dared not expose themselves to potential observers.

Jim's first impression of Hellguard was hot. The warmth radiating up from the hard clay surface under his feet and beating down on his head from above struck him like a blow, drawing a gasp from his lungs and making his skin prickle immediately with moisture. Spock looked as unruffled as ever, but as the transporter released Uhura and Sulu, they both blinked and drew deep breaths to echo Jim's. The choking dust drifting between the buildings prompted an immediate spate of coughs from each of them; Jim cleared his throat and tried not to give in to the urge to do likewise that tickled at his diaphragm. Thank Bones for tri-ox and sunscreen; this place would be even more of a nightmare without them.

Up close, the colony's ostensible purpose became more apparent; some of the buildings were in good repair, but others looked to have been long deserted, and the slagheaps and servo-miners abandoned between the buildings and the mountains had not seen recent use. It had been a mining colony, once upon a time, before the Romulan conspirators had got their hands on it and brought their prisoners there for experimentation. Jim wondered what unlucky soul had been the first to discover the ominous properties of the anomalous silicon that had been mined there, and cursed whatever accident of fate had determined that that incident should repeat in the new timeline.

Maybe it had happened before the timeline had split... and maybe it was just one more example of how fucked up the universe was. Hadn't Nero's ship been a mining vessel in his time, one hundred twenty-nine years into the future? There was a sick sort of irony in that: that a profession intended to build up a society should twice be the means of nearly bringing another down. Jim shook his head at the thought, then glanced at the generic PADD he carried and oriented the map it displayed against the actual layout of the mountains. Selek had placed the entrance to the underground complex in a crack in the face of the cliff wall due west of the colony, somewhat to the left of a collection of old mineshafts.

He gestured toward the indicated location, then began the laborious task of picking over the sun-baked, rock-strewn ground. Uhura followed at his heels, trailed by Sulu, as befit the rank sashes on their borrowed finery; Sulu had taken over the task of shepherding the bomb, gently nudging it along in Uhura's wake. The other nonuniformed member of their party, Spock, picked up the rear, scanning their surroundings with a nondescript old bicorder he'd acquired on Algeron IV. You could take the Vulcan away from his science station, but you couldn't take the scientist out of the Vulcan, Jim noted fondly.

There was no border to mark the edge of the dampening field, no fence, no construct of boulders, but it was easy to tell, nonetheless, when they reached it. Spock frowned minutely and hung the bicorder from his belt, and the click-response sequence Jim had been engaging in with Bones via communicator to determine the limits of the ship's range became abruptly one-sided. He sighed, then walked back until he could get a clear signal again and took a sightline from the nearest large boulder.

"This is it," he told the others. "If we get separated, make for this rock and call Bones."

"Make for this rock, call the Doc, and then go back in to get you, you mean," Sulu said, shaking his head as he patted the hilt of the retractable katana hanging from his belt.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Lieutenant," Jim informed him loftily, wiping sweat from his brow as he took the lead again.

Behind him, Uhura snorted, but did not comment. She was breathing hard, but not too hard, and Sulu seemed in good shape as well; stressed, but not unwell. The tri-ox was working. Overhead, the glare had increased as the sun slid toward the horizon, igniting the rim of the world in shades of molten gold, beaten copper, and burnt umber.

Hell of a place. Hell of a mission; worlds away from where he'd been just a few months prior, in more ways than one. Jim wondered briefly what a predator on this world would look like; he wouldn't think an environment like this could produce much in the way of animal life, but then again, he'd never have imagined the enormous red tentacled thing he'd faced on Delta Vega could ever live on such an icy planet, either. Hopefully, the Romulans would be the worst thing they'd encounter on Hellguard. Not that they wouldn't be terrible enough all on their own.

He wasn't looking forward to finding out whether Selek's memories of what he'd found down there had been accurate. Nor whether the ambassador's reports of the evident treatment of the prisoners before their ugly deaths had come to pass, as well. Jim had seen what could happen to the disadvantaged in oppressive hands before, and the thought of anyone else-- especially a group with the unique vulnerabilities of touch-telepaths-- facing that kind of treatment made his stomach churn.

They crossed the last five hundred meters or so of cracked earth and shattered stone in silence, nerves pricking with alarm as they approached the crevice in the rock that would lead them down into the earth. The shadow of the cliff face slid over them as they drew near, sapping a little of the heat from the air. Beneath their feet, however, the scorched clay surface still burned, radiating up through the soles of their boots. Jim would be very surprised if they didn't all have blisters the next day.

The entrance to the caverns was carefully hidden; if Jim hadn't known what to expect, he might have veered off toward the right, toward the grouping of empty tunnel mouths that gaped hungrily in the direction of the deserted colony. He checked the map to make certain once more that he had the right outcropping, then approached it slowly, looking for the rift that would take them inside the mountain. It was there, behind the outcropping, and too narrow at first glance to admit a visitor-- but a closer look proved it wide enough, after all.

Behind him, Uhura took a deep, tense breath, then let it out slowly through her nose.

"Wish you were back on the ship monitoring Spock's frequency?" Jim teased her, quietly.

He could almost feel her glare on the back of his head; she muttered a curse word under her breath in Romulan, then ordered him to enter in the same language.

Behind her, Sulu chuckled. Jim turned to share an adrenaline-fueled grin with the pilot, then a cool nod with Spock-- and finally ducked into the much chillier atmosphere of the tunnel.

He'd been half-expecting a welcome party stationed there, or a mechanical checkpoint of some kind. Selek's memories hadn't featured either, but then again, the older Vulcan had visited the colony long after the last of the adult prisoners had been murdered. By then, the weapons had been shelved for later use, and the staff of the facility had been reduced to a single, blind guardian. They hadn't had time, in this timeline, for things to get nearly that far along-- or at least Jim hoped that was the case. There was nothing there, though; just an expanse of tunnel curving down out of sight, bare of lighting or decoration or even a suggestion of recent inhabitants bar a few scuffmarks on the dusty floor.

Spock and Sulu took handlights from their belts, switched them on, and began scanning the walls as they followed the narrow walkway cautiously downward. Several other tunnels branched off to either side along the way: some barred, others open but leading off into lightless infinity, giving Jim the vertiginous sense of standing at the corner of no and where. The floor took on a more pronounced slope the farther they went; the tunnel bent sharply first one direction, then another, then began to grow unexpectedly brighter, reflecting a shifting coruscation of light and murmur of sound from some wider space beyond the last turn.

A hand-painted sign just before the turn announced that particle weapons were banned beyond that point. Jim took a deep breath, then let it go in relief; one of his fears-- that they'd arrived too late to accomplish anything-- had just been laid to rest. Then he signaled the rest of the landing party to stow their lights away, and gestured to Uhura to precede him.

She took a deep breath, and threw a glance back at Spock; his expression didn't seem to change any, but whatever she saw there put an extra measure of starch in her spine when she faced forward again.

"You've got this," Jim murmured to her in Romulan.

She looked down her nose at him, arrogant and gorgeous and exotically alien with the upswept brows and pointed ears, then turned to stalk up the passageway. Jim admired the view for half a second or so, then gestured Sulu after her and brought up the rear with Spock, schooling his posture to the best approximation he could manage of deferential. The grav bomb floated between them, disguised in its equipment case, an ominous yet paradoxically reassuring presence.

Uhura strode around the last corner as though she owned every square centimeter that passed under her boot heels, chin high and fingernails shining like justice. Jim caught the slight falter in her step as she entered what was obviously the main room, and hoped none of their imminent audience noticed-- then faltered himself, as he exited the tunnel into the large, warehouselike space, supported overhead by a vast gridwork of metal beams, obviously the underground complex's central hub.

At first glance, it was the machinery that drew the eye: the generator shaft in the center, the canisters and conduits and assembly lines where the weapons were undoubtedly being made. Very little dust lay on the shining surfaces; except for the generator it all looked fairly new, evidence of the colony's relatively recent conversion from pure mining camp to experimental testing grounds. The stack of finished product along the near wall was the apparent cause of the flickering lighting that had carried up the tunnel: a glittering stack of clear boxes, each small enough to fit in his two hands, lit with multihued shifting illusions to conceal the choking death within.

Once the scale of the place had had time to register, however, the source of Uhura's pause became obvious. In a cleared space near the far wall, a large mass of bodies had gathered: not nearly the six hundred plus they'd come for, but maybe a third to a half of that number. Vulcans, clad in low quality prisoner's garments, shackled, and unnaturally still, hemmed in by a ring of Romulan guards. More than hemmed in; corralled. The postures of the captives all spoke of grim resignation.

Jim swallowed. It was a slaughterhouse, for all that there was no blood, no vivid phaser fire to color up the scene. No cries of objection or dismay to assault the ears, just despairing acquiescence. One at a time, the Romulans were apparently herding their victims into a series of hollow chambers in the far wall: small spaces, not even as big as a standard starship escape pod, with glass windows in the doors, inset into the rock. The guards, visibly armed with blades reminiscent of the ones he'd seen aboard the Narada's drill in deference to the ban on energy weapons, seemed in no hurry; as Jim watched, they checked, then double-checked the atmospheric seal on the most recently filled chamber, then nodded and reached for the control pad centered on the data slate embedded in the door.

Light danced over the window, casting rainbows from within. Jim knew what that meant, and had to bite down on his tongue to keep from ruining Uhura's entrance; just a few breaths, a few lungfuls of oxygen, were all that stood between that one imprisoned Vulcan and his or her execution. Jim let his eyes skim further across the wall-- at all the sealed chambers already present, numerous enough to account for all those absent among the prisoners, and more-- and let go even that much restraint, reaching blindly for the phaser he wasn't wearing.

A firm hand clamped over his wrist before he could cause a scene, hard enough to leave bruises. Jim struggled against it for a moment as the pure white heat of rage stole reason from him, then froze again as he recognized the grip. It was Spock. Spock had stopped him from reacting. Spock who was kin to these people. Spock who should be angrier than anyone. Spock who--


--was busy backing up Uhura as they proceeded across the chamber, because that was part of the plan that would actually let them free the captives. Right. Jim schooled his face, abruptly aware that he was dripping with sweat again despite the chill in the cavern, and tuned back in to his faux subcommander's tirade. The Vulcan locked in the chamber with the weapon still lived, at least for that moment; at least until the Romulans returned their attention to what they'd been doing.

The vise grip around his wrist relaxed. Jim didn't; his palm sweated on the near grip of the antigrav container as he struggled for self-control and concentrated on paying attention to Uhura's words.

Not authorized, he caught among the shouted words as the rapid-fire Rihannsu beat against his ears. Superiors, sufficient, another purpose-- whatever she was saying, it caught the attention of the military contingent guarding the prisoners, and an officer detached from the group, waving his subordinates to stillness behind him. The Romulan strode to meet the away team in the middle of the chamber, a space adjacent to the network of catwalks stretching over the beating heart of the complex, with a contingent of armed minions at his heels and a furious set to his jaw.

Unfortunately, Jim noted as he scanned the Romulans' uniforms, the conspirators in charge of the place had been able to detach a full riov for security duty. Probably the commander of whichever ship had brought them there. The Romulan with his hand on the hilt of his belt knife clearly outranked the disguised Uhura, which made things even more complicated than they had been already. Jim tightened his grip on the bomb, then glanced at Spock again, collecting himself enough to offer a slight nod; Spock nodded back, then let go his side of the case and ducked behind a support pillar as the two groups converged. None of the Romulans noticed; they were all focused on Uhura.

Jim dared not watch him go, but he thought supportive thoughts in the direction of his science officer as he continued forward. If he could just buy him enough time to infiltrate the complex's computers, there was a good chance Spock could take control of every piece of machinery run by duotronics in the entire space, including the lighting-- and the execution chambers.

That was what they were, after all; not just testing chambers, but instruments used to carry out a sentence the Vulcan scientists had 'earned' simply by virtue of their existence. Jim swallowed bile and had to blink away a sudden vision of the same chambers, dust shrouded and filled with many, many more dead-- including dozens of half-starved children. A fragment of the older Spock's memory from that months-ago meld, caught aloft and snapping in amongst his own like a flag in a high wind.

A memory-- and an omen, if the Enterprise crew failed in their task. Now that he was looking for them, Jim could pick out the hunched forms of several pregnant Vulcan women, and a few others carrying tiny, swaddled infants, clustered at the back of the group of captives under heavier guard. A fresh spike of adrenaline surged in Jim's blood as he realized just why the Vulcans weren't actively resisting; it wasn't just that they'd been thoroughly broken down, as he'd originally guessed. No; the lives of their most vulnerable were being held hostage for their willing cooperation in their own deaths. They had to know there was little chance that their sacrifices would actually prolong the others' lives for more than moments, but those few percentage points of possibility must have been worth it to them.

Just as it had been worth it to George Kirk, Jim thought, and silently promised to make it worth it for those that had died that day. How many of those closed chambers had been filled while they'd been doglegging back and forth between solar systems instead of flying directly to Hellguard? No more.

He glanced quickly in Spock's direction to check on his first officer's progress, and saw nothing; the Vulcan had retreated completely out of Jim's line of sight. Meanwhile, the Romulan commander was busy illustrating his disdain for whatever commands he presumed Uhura had brought him from her patron among 'the Ten'. He made sharp gestures toward her, toward the stars unseen overhead, toward Jim and Sulu, and toward the captives; he had his own orders, he declared, and no valid reason to bow to hers. The prisoners had become a liability, and he was to gather as much information from their deaths as he could before taking the data and the completed weapons back with him to ch'Ríhan. There would be no ransom, not at the risk of beginning the war prematurely, no matter what 'erei'Riov Aelura' claimed her patron wanted.

Briefly, Jim wished Spock had left the bicorder with him; a recording of that conversation would have been very valuable to Mallory and the Admiralty. At least, up until the part where Uhura resumed verbally ripping into the Romulan officer in turn, accusing him of lacking honor and mnhei'sahe and several other things Jim couldn't decipher. It certainly pissed the guy off, whatever she was saying-- in addition to the guards behind him, who all drew their blades, one by one. They looked nothing like the Romulans he'd fought before-- the uniforms, the hair, and the complete lack of tattoos probably had something to do with it-- but there was an intensity to their stares, and an ease in the way their hands curled around the hafts of their weapons, that he definitely recognized. Shit was about to go down.

Jim traded a cautious glance with Sulu, who had a hand on the hilt of his collapsible sword, and felt grateful for the weight of Sulu's backup weapon on his belt. He wasn't anywhere close to Sulu's level, as their sparring practice on the trip through the Neutral Zone had illustrated vividly, but the pilot had shown him enough in the last few months that he was at least competent with it. Even if the guards got the drop on them instead of the reverse, he'd at least survive the first shock of combat.

Luckily, that wasn't going to be a concern, he realized with relief, as whichever fragment of his subconscious had still been tracking Spock called his attention up to the catwalks above the generator, about twenty yards away. There, perched on the flimsy gridwork of metal, his first officer crouched with his hands above a console, giving Jim an inquisitive eyebrow.

Ready, Captain? he seemed to ask.

Jim replied with a tiny smirk: Ready, Mr. Spock. Then he let go the bomb case entirely and unclipped the sword hilt from his belt. Sulu, no slouch, echoed the movement; the guards were just starting to react, expressions shifting from anger toward suspicion, when Spock activated whatever subroutine he'd put into the system and all the overhead lights in the vast cavern went out at once.

Jim was moving before the drastic change in illumination had a chance to register, lunging past Uhura, who was in the process of kneeing the Romulan commander quite solidly in the groin. His first swing took the weapon straight out of one of the guards' hands, even as he finished drawing it, bringing up a thick line of green blood on the Romulan's wrist. The man cried out, clapped his other hand to the wound, and staggered back into the shadows out of range; Jim turned to face the next, instinctively dodging out of the way of Uhura as she smashed the groaning commander's bent head down over her knee and grabbed his weapon for her own. Beyond her, a wet sucking sound and a flash of metal in the dim, shifting coruscation scattered by the experimental arsenal tracked Sulu's forward progress.

Jim cut down another guard, a straight, fatal thrust this time as the subcenturion came at him axe raised, and gloried in the adrenaline flooding through him. He hadn't had a really good fight since the Narada; half his bar fights back in the day before he'd sidestepped Mallory's career path and gone into the Academy had been about capturing that sensation, the immediacy and the rush and the feeling of power it gave him, whiting out for just a moment all the anger and frustration and other, ugly emotions that seemed to dog his every step. He knew better than to let himself go that completely any more, now that the consequences were so much higher, but that didn't stop him from enjoying the feeling. Especially since he already knew they had at best a few more seconds of success before the Romulans recovered from the surprise and started using their greater strength and endurance to good effect. He could already feel his lungs scraping at the air in need of more oxygen; the tri-ox shot had to be wearing off, and there were only three of them against dozens.

If his plan worked, though-- if Spock got over to the captives in time--

Shouted orders in Romulan and the tramp of booted feet reverberated through the cavern, heralding the approach of the rest of the guard to seal the fates of the Enterprise officers. On their heels, however, equally loud cries in Vulcan were accompanied by the ringing sounds of rending metal. Yes, Jim thought as he cut down a third Romulan, then staggered back under a heavy blow to the head from the fists of the one he'd disarmed.

Given a hope, a legitimate chance at freedom offered in their own tongue while the guards were too distracted to hold their own people hostage for their behavior, the Vulcan scientists were breaking free of their chains and fighting back. There were still around two hundred of them, all told; they outnumbered the guards by a significant factor. In an ordinary imprisonment situation they still might not have had a chance, but down there in all the confusion, without disruptors or phasers available to even out the disparity in numbers, the Romulans were the ones at a disadvantage.

The cavern dissolved into further chaos as Jim righted himself and opened the throat of his attacker with his blade. The stockpile of Pandora's boxes was too small to do more than cast shadows and highlight glistening surfaces: the next flash of blade, the whites of the enemies' eyes, the gush of blood, the sparkle of Romulan uniform fabric rustling in movement. It reminded him of the advanced tactical coursework back on Earth in fighting at dawn or dusk, when visual and infrared acuity was all shot to hell and the scope of the battle narrowed to what was right in front of each combatant. Jim struggled to keep his attention on the bigger picture as he fought, but the increasing difficulty in drawing breath, the blow he'd taken to the head, and an axe stroke that left a savage wound in his right shoulder while he was occupied wrenching his sword free of his fourth opponent made that just a little difficult.

He dropped his sword as the pain hit and staggered back behind a vast piece of machinery, clapping his free hand over the wound. If they hadn't already given themselves away, the red color of his blood surely would have. Jim panted for breath as he slid down a metal column, spots dancing in front of his eyes as he watched Sulu efficiently cut down the man who'd felled him. He fumbled at his belt with bloody fingers to retrieve the additional ampoule of tri-ox Bones had supplied him with, then slapped at his neck with it, wincing at the sting and hiss as the medication deployed in his system. Good. That was the breathing problem solved; if he could just get back on his feet--

The noise in the rest of the cavern faded as he sucked oxygen back into his lungs. He had no idea how many seconds passed before a bruised, long-fingered hand intruded into his line of vision; Jim blinked, then grasped it thankfully, grinning tiredly up into Spock's face as his first officer levered him upward. "Status, Mr. Spock?" he panted.

"We are in control of the immediate area, Captain," Spock said, gravely. "All of the Romulans and their prisoners were in this chamber; however, the scientists were evacuated two planetary rotations ago, along with the majority of their research and a number of the experimental antipersonnel weapons. According to the computer records, one Warbird remained in orbit to retrieve the last of the soldiers once the final experiments were completed and the data resulting from the executions compiled."

"Fuck," Jim ground out. "That means it's probably still up there, under cloak. I was afraid of something like that. I hope Bones and Chekov were able to pull off the harmless trader routine."

"Agreed. We must set the bomb and evacuate the prisoners as swiftly as possible."

"The bomb--" Jim jerked his head around the pillar to look for the case he'd last seen floating in the middle of the melee, and hissed as the motion pulled at his wounded shoulder.

Uhura had it under control: she was already at work on the keypad, surrounded by a number of Vulcans with fierce, determined expressions. Greenish-black blood puddled under their feet, pools of inky shadow in the dim light. "Captain!" she exclaimed as she saw him, slipping back into Standard now that the ruse was no longer necessary.

Jim cast his mind back over the length of the trip down the tunnel, assessed the number of waiting Vulcans, and made a decision. "Set it for two hours' delay, Lieutenant," he said. "Drift it over into the generator pit; it's shielded enough, and Scotty said the deeper it was set, the better."

"Got it," she replied, flipping additional switches and keying in her security code.

Sulu stepped out of the shadows, green-streaked sword still in hand, to enter the second confirmation code the device required. A series of numbers lit up on the side, set up to count those two hours down to the last second, and Sulu smiled with grim satisfaction to see them.

The sight reminded Jim of his borrowed weapon again, and he cast around for it, only to spot it a few yards away, sticking out from under the limp form of the guard who'd disarmed him. "Sword," he said; Spock nodded and turned to snatch it up for him.

Jim took that moment to peer around the caverns again. He couldn't see very far in the gloom, but he trusted Spock's word that they'd got everyone. He was just as glad not to have to look into those death chambers again. This was going to haunt his nightmares as it was, along with Tarsus IV, the collapse of Vulcan, and Nero's hands tight around the column of his throat, taunting him about his father.

All the more reason to keep getting up and fighting on, no matter how hard he got slapped down. Which reminded him-- he smiled grimly at the small cluster of upright Romulans, shackled together with the remnants of the Vulcans' restraints and circled around by several of the stronger of their former prisoners, wielding the guards' own weapons against them.

Jim wasn't about to order the enemy soldiers killed out of hand now that the fighting had stopped; nor would he condone locking them into the vacuum chambers to give them a taste of their own medicine, no matter how satisfying that would feel. Unless the soldiers aboard their Warbird managed to pull off a miracle, they'd reap their reward in two hours, and take the entire planet with them. Jim trusted his miracle workers over theirs any day of the year.

"Casualties?" he asked as Spock handed him the sword, wiped clean on the Vulcan's tunic and collapsed back to its most easily portable form.

"Twenty wounded, six additional fatalities among the Vulcan crews," he replied solemnly.

Jim winced. "Will the wounded be able to make it to the surface? I'll call Bones down as soon as Humanly possible, but we can't take our time here, not with a Warbird in orbit and the timer ticking down."

Spock nodded. "They will manage," he said. "All four Captains were killed for their information in the first days of captivity, but several of their officers survived, and I have spoken with them; they have already begun to gather their people. As soon as you are ready, they will follow."

"Good," Jim breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. Remind me when we get to the surface to have Chekov beam up some loose soil-- Starfleet will want it for a countermeasure, in case anyone ever deploys the boxes that were taken from here already."

"Noted," Spock nodded.

Nothing for it, then, but to get moving. Jim watched his pilot and communications officer nudge the antigrav box up over the lip of the generator cavity, then release it; the Romulans' faces were impossible to read over the distance between them in the limited lighting, but he didn't think he was imagining the alarm in their postures.

"Per ardua ad astra, and all that shit," he muttered, then pushed away from the strong support of his first officer's arm. "One more thing, Spock-- the commander, he should still be where Uhura dropped him. I think she just knocked him out. We need to know why."

Spock didn't ask why what, nor what Jim intended him to do about it; the answers were obvious. He nodded, then strode over to the sprawled forms littering the floor where the brawl had begun. He sank into a crouch, then turned the commander's body enough to access his face; his eyes drifted shut as he touched his fingers to the man's psi points.

It only took a moment; Spock frowned, then looked up at Jim and shook his head. No answers there. Well, that would have been too easy, wouldn't it?

"Let's go, people," he ordered, clamping his off hand over the cut in his shoulder again. There'd be time to digest all of this, and heal later. For now-- the riskiest part was over, and it was time to get gone.

Chapter 5 Illustration by ileliberte

6. Fire Everything We've Got

Spock, of course, insisted on Jim accompanying Sulu at the vanguard of the evacuating prisoners, along with the worst of the wounded. It was only logical, after all, to enable the Doctor to see to his injury as soon as possible, that the Captain might be in best form should they run afoul of the Romulans in orbit.

Between the set of his jaw, and the impressive scold building up in Uhura's expression, Jim hadn't been inclined to argue-- just the once. He'd have to remind the Lieutenant later that she wasn't actually the boss of him, but he didn't have the energy to fight her on it at that moment, never mind Spock. The guy could be a real mother hen when he was in the mood for it.

They emerged into a moonless, star-speckled night with little more than an hour left to go on the bomb's timer, and Sulu wasted no time hurrying to the boulder that marked the edge of the dampening effect. Spock hadn't been able to shut it down internally without killing the entire generator, and they hadn't been sure what effect doing that prematurely might have had on the caverns. If, for example, there were any structural integrity fields incorporated into the tunnelwork as part safety and part security measure, shutting off the power might have entombed them there along with the Romulans.

"Dr. McCoy," the pilot called over his communicator. "Dr. McCoy, please respond."

"It's about damned time!" Jim heard Bones respond, and heaved a sigh of relief as he picked a rock to sit down on a few yards past Sulu's position. Behind him, the rescued Vulcans began emerging from the tunnel and clustering together; out of the confined, dim space of the caverns, they looked both better and worse than he'd been expecting. Better, in that most of them still had life in their eyes; worse, in that there was evidence of prolonged abuse to be seen, especially on the pregnant women. Jim didn't even want to ask about that; the echoes of implications he was getting from the fragment of the older Spock's memory were ominous enough. He hoped Bones could help them; that their own healers would know what to do, and be able to provide a safe, non-prejudicial environment for the children.

He also hoped, for some reason, that one of the women was named T'Pren. That seemed terribly important to him, somehow.

He rubbed at his forehead; he'd have to check the Vulcans' names against the crew rosters of the vanished ships later, when they were all aboard and on the way back to Federation space. "Bones," he said into his own communicator, "we have several people in need of your services. Have Chekov standing by; we'll be waiting. And be advised-- there is a Warbird up there somewhere, and if it hasn't pounced on you yet, it's sure to once you get moving in this direction. We won't have much time."

"Oh, great," Bones replied. "Just what we need to round this little adventure off. We haven't got any defenses, Jim!"

"We'll make do," Jim snorted. "Now get your ass over here."

"Acknowledged," Bones grumbled. "And so help me, if you're one of those people in need of my services..."

"See you when you get here," Jim said, mock-cheerily. "Kirk out."

Sulu began distributing transponder patches among those in need of immediate medical attention while they waited. The colony was just distant enough that they couldn't quite see the ship, nor the effect of its takeoff, but the noise of its approach was soon audible. Bones wasn't the smoothest pilot in existence-- it didn't take a Sulu to tell that from the uneven firing of the atmospheric engines-- but he could manage a quick trip from A to B, and he was landing again less than five minutes after the communicator call ended.

The last of the Vulcans were emerging from the caverns, followed by Spock and Uhura, when Bones called again. "Opening the cargo bay doors, now; get 'em on in here. See you in a minute, Jim."

"Acknowledged," Jim replied-- then froze as the transporter effect caught him.

So much for him 'getting them on in there'; Sulu must have tattled on him. Jim nodded at Chekov as he materialized aboard ship at the pilot's side, then stepped off the platform to make room for the tagged refugees. "Did you get the cargo bay clear?" he asked, ignoring the concerned look on the Ensign's face.

"Yes, sir," Chekov assured him. "All but the medical and relief supplies."

"Good," Jim grinned back. "Speaking of medical supplies, I think I'll just--"

"Damn it, Jim!" Bones rushed through the door, scowling like thunder, medkit in hand.

"Too late," he whispered conspiratorially to the ensign, as Bones shoved him off to the side and ripped his tunic off with quick, savage movements.

Sulu rushed past them toward the bridge, nodding to Jim as the hiss of an anesthetic hypo pressed against his neck. "Just enough to keep me going, Bones, you've got a lot of other patients arriving."

"You think I don't know that?" Bones shook his head, whipping a sonic cleaning wand out and waving it over the deep gash. "I'll run a quick muscle-knitter over this and bandage it, but I'll have you back later for dermal regen and a thorough scan, you hear me?"

"Got it." Jim braced himself and nodded to Chekov. "Keep 'em coming, Ensign," he ordered, as the timer continued ticking down in the back of his mind. "Fifty minutes to detonation, and that Warbird's going to stick his wings in sooner or later."

"You sure about that, Jim?" Bones asked, stowing the sonic wand and bringing out one of the buzzy little emitters Jim had learned to fear. "Why didn't they challenge us before, then? We've been here for hours, bumbling around like idiots."

"Watch it!" Jim cursed, struggling against the doctor's iron grip. "I don't know, Bones; maybe they had to respond to a distress call, or were only supposed to return for the pickup-- use your imagination. It happens to Enterprise often enough. But I don't think we can count on them staying away."

Bones frowned. "Not with our luck, anyway. Now, hold still!" He ran the knitting tool over Jim's shoulder, the noise of its operation drowned out by the whine of another transporter beam.

Jim felt a strange, shivery tugging sensation deep under the skin, but nothing else thanks to the anesthetic, and when the tool shut off a lot of the tension seeped out of his neck and torso. He worked the arm a little, decided it would do-- though he wouldn't want to lift his arms over his head anytime soon-- and waved off the bandage. "I'd better get up to the bridge-- see to your other patients, Doctor."

Bones scowled, but turned to help the incoming patients down off the platform. "Put a shirt on-- you don't want to blind our guests, now do you?"

"Ha, ha." Jim rolled his eyes, nodded at Chekov again, and made for his quarters. There wasn't time for a sonic shower, but a shirt was probably a good idea, though putting it on should be an interesting challenge.

"Captain Kirk to the bridge! Romulan ship decloaking in orbit!"

--Or not. Jim sighed and sped up as he hurried down the corridor. "Sulu, report!" he barked, bursting through the door into the cramped room. The pilot did a double-take at Jim's bared, bloody chest, but didn't pause in his answer.

"It just appeared, sir. ID reads the Bhath. They aren't firing yet, but their shields are up and they're attempting to hail; I haven't responded. Commander Spock reports that it will take another five to ten minutes to finish loading our passengers, and we can't seal the airlock and raise our own shields until they're aboard."

Jim glanced ruefully down at himself. "No point answering the hail like this; I think our cover is well and truly blown." He crossed the room to Uhura's station and hastily keyed the frequency for Spock's communicator, ignoring the incoming call. "Mr. Spock: any chance you picked up something else useful out of that Romulan commander's memory, like, say, the command codes for his ship?"

There was a pause; then Spock replied. "Affirmative, Captain. Do I understand that you wish to attempt a takeover of the Romulan vessel?"

Jim chuckled. "We've already been smugglers this trip; might as well play pirates, too. Chekov!" he ordered, flipping a switch to tie ship's intercoms into the channel. "Beam Spock in, immediately; Lieutenant Uhura will have to finish organizing the boarding on her own. Then turn the transporter controls over to one of the Vulcans and get your ass up here, we need you."

There was another pause, then: "Aye, Keptin! Locking on to the Commander now!"

Jim chuckled tiredly as he switched the speakers off again, then stepped away from the communication station and sank down in the captain's chair. "Day's not over yet," he mused aloud. "Chart out a course back to Federation space, would you, Sulu? None of this darting around from ion storm to ion storm; I want to be in range of backup as of yesterday."

"Aye, sir," Sulu replied, fingers darting over his console. "That path will take us across several projected Romulan patrol routes."

"I'm aware," Jim assured him. "I think speed's more important than stealth at this point, though, and I have reason to believe that none of the patrol routes we have are accurate, anyway. Chekov, Mr. Spock," he greeted the other officers as they arrived. "See what you can do."

"Mr. Chekov, if you could establish a connection to the other ship's computer?" Spock ordered.

Chekov sank into Uhura's seat, running a hand through his wild curls as he inspected the controls. "Yes, yes, I think--" He flipped a few toggles, then started keying commands at a high rate of speed. "If I use their own signal to disguise--" He trailed off, as the hailing frequency light continued to blink. "I've got it! If you could enter the command code, Mr. Spock?"

Spock stepped up behind him, then leaned over to type a few characters of his own. "Provided that the Bhath is, in fact, the ship on which the commander arrived," he said slowly, "this should temporarily enable our computer to override the one aboard the Romulan vessel. However, we will have only a very short window in which to act before they are able to reestablish control. Mr. Chekov?"

Chekov hit a few more buttons as Spock leaned away, then nodded at Jim. "Done, sir. Vhat vould you like them to do? Lower their shields?"

Jim snorted. "It's not like we could hit them from here, or damage them much with our little asteroid laser even if we could. No-- I want you to download the specs for that cloaking device, if you can find them; and then trigger their self-destruct mechanism. Lock it into the shortest detonation cycle possible."

Chekov paled, but nodded. "Yes, sir," he said, furrowing his brow as he turned back to the console.

Sulu drew in a sharp breath. "Captain, if this works--"

"Cross your fingers," Jim said, grimly. He didn't like the idea of killing so many in such a backstabbing maneuver, either; but it was what needed to be done, if they were ever to make it out of there.

"They've stopped hailing, Keptin," Chekov announced tensely, a moment later. "My signal has been discovered. I vill not be able to maintain control much longer. The specifications on the cloak are encrypted; I am unable to access them."

"Get what you can, then do it," Jim ordered.

Chekov swallowed. "Activating self-destruct now, on a sixty second delay." He looked up in alarm. "It's asking for another code!"

Spock leaned back over the station again and input another string of characters. "Try it now, Ensign."

Chekov did, then slumped a little in his chair in relief. "Code sent," he said, and mopped a sheen of sweat from his brow. "Losing signal-- confirmation received! It's done, sir."

"Captain! They're powering weapons!" Sulu interjected, studying his own board in alarm.

"What's Uhura's status?" Jim asked, sharply. They were sitting ducks without their deflectors, and they couldn't raise those until the ship was sealed. Even then, a minute would be a long time to hold out against a starship's firepower, even with all of an atmosphere between them to help disperse it; the cargo ship's low-grade shields were meant to deflect random space debris, not enemy disruptors.

"I have a green light on the cargo bay doors," Spock replied, as Chekov switched communications frequencies again.

"Captain! Everyone's aboard," Uhura said, hurriedly, as soon as the channel opened. "I've been trying to reach you."

"Get us airborne, Sulu, and raise those deflectors!" Jim ordered, hurriedly. "Sorry, Lieutenant, we've been a little busy up here. Warn everyone we might be about to take some fire; we're getting the hell out of Dodge, but there's a hostile Warbird in orbit above us."

Uhura gasped audibly, but her voice was steady as she replied. "Understood, sir," she said.

Jim felt, more than heard, the atmospheric engines powering up for launch; the entire ship fairly vibrated with them as Sulu worked his magic. Then the viewscreen came on, showing them a view of the planet's dark, starlit terrain falling away beneath them. The activation of the deflectors gave no such sign-- but it was immediately obvious that they had been activated when the entire ship shook violently a moment later. They wouldn't have been there to be knocked to the floor in the first place, otherwise.

"Evasive maneuvers!" Jim barked, climbing back to his feet and bracing himself against his chair.

"Trying, sir," Sulu said. "Shields at sixty percent, and dropping; maneuvering is limited at this speed. We can take maybe one more hit; I'll try to put the curvature of the planet between us. If we can break orbit--"

The ship shuddered again as clouds began to cross the viewscreen image, and Sulu corrected himself. "Shields at twelve percent!"

And about that many seconds left to go on the Romulans' self-destruct, Jim thought, clenching his hands convulsively on the back of the chair. He glanced over to meet gazes with Spock, and wished with every fiber of his being that Bones and Uhura were up there with them.

Not that he thought they wouldn't make it; he didn't believe in no-win scenarios, after all. But it didn't seem right to be facing mortal danger without them.

"That's so weird," Jim murmured to himself as the viewscreen lit up again with the livid flash of weapons fire. A near miss, this time; the ship jolted a little from the atmospheric disruption, but nothing more damaging. Jim shook his head. He'd never have imagined, four years ago, a day when he would not only willingly take responsibility for so many other lives, but share it, too. He really did have the best crew in the known universe. Or any other, Selek's universe maybe excepted.

"Shields at nine percent," Sulu said, shakily. "If the self-destruct sequence worked, it'll go off in four, three--"

"--two, one," Chekov counted with him, solemnly.

There was a long pause, and then: "Recording the breakup of the Romulan vessel, Captain," Spock said, heavily. "Self destruct successfully activated."

Jim drew a deep breath, held it for a moment, then released it in a long, cleansing rush of air. He pried his fingers away from the back of the chair, then took the few steps around it and collapsed into its welcoming embrace. "Take us to a safe distance, Mr. Sulu," he said. "Preferably where we won't be immediately detected if another ship enters the system; we'll stay just long enough to confirm the detonation. Then lay in our route back to Enterprise, as previously discussed."

Sulu scrubbed a hand over his face, then nodded. "Aye, sir," he said, and began programming his console. "Breaking orbit now."

Just one last stretch to go. Jim stared blankly at the viewscreen as they put the last of the atmosphere behind them, and thought longingly of the wide, bright corridors of Enterprise and the faces of the rest of his crew. Soon. Soon. And hopefully, the next time Mallory called with a mission, they wouldn't be required to leave her behind. That had been a very, very close call.

The disk of Hellguard filled the screen as the crew waited: the dark face of the planet still shrouded in shadows, stitched across by the mountain range that had produced the Romulans' deadly weapon. Chekov hadn't had time to beam up any of the dust for future antidote purposes, but fortunately Uhura had been on the ball; she'd used the ship's antigrav dolly to move a large boulder containing the altered silicon into the cargo hold as the last of the refugees had streamed inside. Hopefully, they would never see the thing so many Vulcans had died for in action, but if they did, Starfleet would have a means to counter it.

Spock had altered the screen to project the countdown timer in the lower right corner, synched to the second with the one he'd been maintaining in his mind. Jim still found it amazing that he could instantly tell the date and time, no matter where he was; it really came in handy at times.

When the countdown reached zero, a spot under the mountains flushed instantly red, glowing like a dull beacon in the night. It brightened swiftly, the effect spreading outward in rings like the ripples that formed around a pebble dropped in a pond, then began to sink inward: the colony, the mines, every part of the complex vaporizing in the face of the explosion. Seconds later, the secondary portion of the charge dropped: the entire face of the planet tore in a massive quake involving every continental plate they could see, spewing forth rivers and plumes of bright magma before vanishing entirely into a storm of dust and fire. If there had been anything left alive on the surface, it was now no more than a cinder. All traces of the mines and the research that had been conducted there were gone.

Bones and Uhura made it up to the bridge in time to watch, then solemnly returned to their duties. Bones dragged Jim with him to the medical cubby, then came back for Sulu, who'd picked up his own share of cuts and bruises in the melee with the Romulan guards. Once that was taken care of, he removed all of the cosmetic alterations; whatever happened next, Jim's crew wouldn't need them anymore.

The five hour run to the Zone was very quiet and anti-climactic after everything that had happened. Jim made sure Sulu crossed into it well away from the Khellian's last known location; he supposed it would be easy to hate all Romulans after what they'd seen, both now and in their first mission together, but he'd already been down that road with Starfleet in the aftermath of Tarsus IV and wouldn't let himself indulge in it again. Whatever his experiences with the rest of her species, he was going to remember Subcommander t'Rllaillieu as a bright spot of the mission, and would prefer not to meet his doom at her hands. It was a pity they'd probably only meet as enemies in the future.

The Vulcans in the main cargo hold had been provided with blankets for temporary pallets, bland but hot emergency rations for all but the infants, and a meager quantity of personal care necessities. He'd planned for three times the number of rescuees, though it would have been a very tight fit; as it was, there was just enough room for each Vulcan to have a couple of arm-lengths of personal space and spare blankets hung as privacy curtains, if he or she so chose. Jim steeled his nerve and went with Spock to check on their needs once he'd broken free of Bones' tender care, and spent some time talking with the officers who'd survived the year and change since the first of the survey ships had been taken.

Spock had already mentioned the destruction of Vulcan to them; Jim was very thankful that he didn't have to break that particular news, though he suspected they'd known already. He remembered the vast, voiceless cry and sudden silence from the memories Selek had shown him, and the fact that they'd found the Vulcan embassy already shut down with grief on their return to Earth, and doubted the effect would have been any less severe on those Vulcans more distant from their homeworld. They had not yet heard, however, about the reconstruction efforts on the new colony, or the shifting Federation politics affecting their people in the months since their population had been reduced to five digit numbers.

Five digits. The two hundred or so Vulcans they'd rescued that day would make up more than a full percent of the total Vulcan population. He saw that sink in for them as he talked; saw Vulcan spines acquire just that tiny bit more steel, weary Vulcan eyes narrow just that tiny bit more with intensity. Survivors of anything needed focus and purpose to help keep from spinning apart in the aftermath, James Tiberius Kirk knew that like he knew his own name, and he didn't think Vulcans were so very different from Humans in that respect. He hoped all of them took it that way; the statistics on Vulcan suicide since their planet's loss were distressing enough already.

He finally remembered to ask about a roster of names, just before Bones came down to chivvy him off to rest. They'd prepared one already; he skimmed through it quickly on his way to his quarters, scanning down the list of names on the PADD until he came to the one he still didn't know why he was looking for: T'Pren. Apparently, she'd been in labor during the escape from the mines, and had finally given birth while they'd been watching the destruction of Hellguard on the bridge. Noted next to her name was another that twanged through him with an even stronger shock of recognition: Saavik, the name she'd given her newborn. It meant 'Little Cat' in Romulan, he somehow knew; a girl-child who would-- or would have-- grown up to do great things.

He didn't understand, or remember, why she was important-- and clearly, she might not even be the same person she'd have been in the other world. But Jim already knew he'd be mentioning her to Selek.

He'd be mentioning a lot of things to Selek, the next time they passed by the Vulcan colony.

The next morning by ship's day, he had Chekov replot the ion storms in the area, and Sulu took the ship straight out into Federation space under the cover of the largest. On the way in, they hadn't wanted to be detected by either side; any kind of noise might have warned the Romulans they were coming. On the way out, however, they wanted Starfleet backup; as long as they didn't trip the Romulans' sensor satellites, it didn't matter what the ones on the Federation side saw.

Six hours later, they were being hailed by the Inaieu, one of the few Destroyer-class ships Starfleet had produced, three times the size of Enterprise and crewed largely by heavy-world Denebians. If any of them had been in dock rather than days away by warp in the Laurentian system when Nero had attacked, those first ships to arrive at Vulcan might have had a shot in hell at surviving. Jim was extremely relieved to see her, though they weren't quite as sanguine to see him. The problem with buying a nondescript cargo boat that could pass on either side of the Neutral Zone was that it wasn't immediately obvious which side they'd come from-- and Jim could hardly hail them under his own name. He was still officially at Algeron IV, after all.

In the end, he got Lieutenant T'Saeris, one of the Vulcan rescuees, to take charge of the communications under one of the one-use false identities Jim knew Mallory had established for his operatives. The name came with all the credentials necessary to request urgent transport to the system of the requester's choosing; believing they were carrying an urgent, top-secret message vital to the outcome of the peace conference, the Inaieu and her Captain gladly agreed to extend their ship's warp bubble around the Handbasket and piggy-back her to the Algeron system at Warp Nine.

It was a matter of hours, rather than the days they'd spent covering the same distance alone, before Captain Nhauris cut them loose in orbit above their destination. Jim rose from his chair as the Handbasket matched orbits with Enterprise, and stared at the clean, white lines of his great lady in grateful silence for several moments before ordering Sulu to take her down.

All hell was probably about to break loose on the planet; he had several duties to catch up on aboard ship, and a long debriefing to deliver to Captain One, never mind his ciphered report to Mallory and the Department of General Services. His shoulder still ached, he'd acquired a new set of hellish images to fuel his nightmares, the rest of his crew had begun to pick up Bones' habit of scolding him first and Sir-ing him after, and he knew none of them would ever officially be recognized for what they'd just done.

That wasn't why they'd done it, though; they'd done it because it was the right thing to do.

Jim grinned around at his crew as they sank back into atmo, and knew that all was well with his world.


"So," Jim said, tipping back the last of his Bud Classic as he stared across the dimly lit table at the Admiral. "Who am I, Admiral Pike?"

Pike shook his head at him, then gestured to the bartender for another. The Shipyard Bar wasn't quite as empty as it had been the last time they'd talked there, but neither of them minded the surveillance-foiling noise or the familiar warmth of red cadet uniforms clustered in the background.

"You're Captain James T. Kirk," Pike said, curling the corner of his mouth in familiar, fond exasperation. "Just with a slightly more expanded resume than I'd known about before. I still find it hard to believe that I never heard any inkling of all that before Intelligence flagged your name for the mission."

Jim shrugged. "You know how they are, especially the special operations divisions; I know you worked with them once or twice yourself. Need to know basis."

"And your whole command crew needed to know?" Pike asked wryly.

"Only a couple of them know any more than the absolute basics," Jim replied. "The others-- well, we'll see how often Mallory calls on us in future."

"You're certain he will, then?" Pike furrowed his brows at that. "Yours is the only DGS mission I've seen cross the Ops desk since I was promoted. I thought the only reason they reached for Starfleet officers on this one was because of the location, and because Mallory knew you were the best person to pull it off."

"Trusted me, you mean," Jim murmured, grimly. "And yet-- they still knew we were coming. They evacuated days before we got there, after you passed on Mallory's message. And half of the supplementary information Captain One passed on from mainstream Intelligence was inaccurate."

Pike looked appropriately disquieted by that, but didn't speak the words aloud. "I see," he said.

"So, yeah, I'm certain." Jim sighed, then nodded to the bartender and accepted the fresh beer from him.

"You do seem to find your way into trouble wherever you go," Pike said, shaking his head. "I don't know why I expected that to change now that you have your own ship."

"Just living up to the family name," Jim acknowledged, able to smile about it now the way he hadn't the first time he and Pike had met. "My grandma Kirk always used to say, 'Man is born unto trouble, as sparks fly upward.' And especially Kirks."

Pike snorted. "Appropriate," he said, then raised his still-half-full glass. "To Kirks, then."

"To Enterprise," Jim smirked and clinked his bottle against it.

"To the next five years of boldly going where I damn well should have got to go, myself," Pike added, smiling ruefully.

Jim froze as that, then grinned widely, feeling as though his face were about to split. 'Fleet's long-term exploration program had been in a holding pattern since Vulcan's destruction; he hadn't dared hope for it to resume this soon, or to involve the new flagship. "A five year mission? Are you serious?"

"Bar the occasional, shall we say, diplomatic detour," the admiral confirmed, lines crinkling around his blue eyes, "you're guaranteed the next five years out there, exploring strange new worlds and defending the ones we've got from all comers."

"Yes." Jim glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then did a fist-pump of victory. "Can I tell the others, or do I need to wait for the official orders?"

"Do you expect me to believe you wouldn't at least tell McCoy, even if told you to wait?" Pike chuckled. "No, it's all right; they won't officially announce it until your leave is up, but you'll need most of that time to finalize preparations."

"Right, right." Jim nodded, then grinned again. "Thank you, sir."

"Just try not to antagonize the other Captains too much, all right?" Pike teased him. "I got quite the earful from Number One after you left Algeron IV."

"Aw, I knew she liked me...."



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