Title: By Choice or By Blood
Characters/Pairings: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, various. Background Spock/Uhura as I write only canon, but overall there's very little ship but friendship here, folks
Word Count: 17,500+
Rating: T for movie-level violence, language, and minor character death

Warnings/Spoilers: My readers probably know by now that any tiny details from TOS are fair game to be unconsciously integrated in my AOS fic and may not be specifically footnoted. Specifically to this fic, nods to widely-accepted AOS canon backstory. Spoilers for the TOS episode Operation: Annihilate!, though no knowledge of the episode is necessary to understand the story. Plotlines & characters you recognize do not belong to me, the twist to make the science more believable does.

Summary: What is supposed to be an ordinary supply transfer to a civilian mining colony in the Denevan star system turns into a nightmare, culminating in one of the most difficult decisions he's ever had to make as Captain of the Enterprise.

A/N: This is just an expansion of a couple scenes that were cut from and therefore never made it into one of my five-and-ones, rounded out into something more resembling a completed oneshot for my own peace of mind. As will become obvious, a Rebooted version of the above-mentioned TOS episode.

Thank you for reading!


"Beginning our approach, Captain."

"Sir, I have the colony for you." The finally goes unspoken, but annoyance is clear in his communications chief's voice, and he hides a smile. Missions like this little diversion are good for all of them, reminding them there is a Real World out there beyond the rigidity of the 'Fleet. None of them enjoy having to deal with the lackadaisical attitude of civilians sometimes, but it doesn't hurt to shake things up a little, remind them that the universe does not, in totality, run on the Federation's timetable alone.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. Who am I talking to?"

"Not a clue, sir. They obviously don't engage in identification protocols here, Captain. And this is the only channel I could get a response on, I'm not even sure what exactly its function is on the planet." The backwater idiots is also unspoken but quite clear, and he clears his throat to cover the laugh. A muffled snort from the helm tells him one of the two up there wasn't quite that successful.

"Well, put them on and let's get it over with, then. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'd like to get the rest of this system explored and get it behind us in time to be back on track for shore leave at Starbase Twelve. There's a nebula cruise with my name on it, and for once I plan to take advantage of my free 'Fleet tickets."

His words are met with a lessening of tension and half-a-dozen weary smiles from around the Bridge, as he knew they would be; it's been a long few weeks in empty space.

"Yes, sir. The signal's a little lower quality due to atmospheric interference, I'll work on cleaning that up. One moment."

He settles back in his chair with a stifled yawn, glancing out of habit toward the Science station before the screen turns on. Spock looks more bored than anything else, and that's no surprise; this mission's been a cakewalk for the entire ship but it's been almost insulting to their Science departments. He'd hoped being pulled to investigate weird reports from colonized planets in this system might afford them something interesting, but the first one they'd inspected had yielded literally nothing – it had obviously been long abandoned.

This, the second in the system, has for the last fifty years sported a small Federation-allied mining and geological survey colony that may or may not be close to the same, judging from how hard it's been to raise anyone on a comms channel, Federation-operational or not. They need to coordinate a supply drop point, their secondary purpose for being routed to this particular system, and obviously the supplies aren't that badly needed if it's taken this long for someone to mosey over to the comm.

"Signal clear, Captain."

"On screen."

The viewer flickers in an alarming burst of static for just a second, then settles into its normal holopic view, showing what looks like some kind of scientific laboratory or observatory as backdrop behind the man greeting them, a somewhat disheveled individual clad in a generic workman's jumpsuit with what looks like a slightly stained lab coat thrown over it. The man blinks, squinting at the screen, and then shakes his head.

"Well, I'll be." The harsh drawl is like sandpaper on wet glass, not kind and warm like that of their Chief Medical Officer. "A goddamn starship, all the way out here. What makes us so special we get you and not the usual Fed' freighter?"

Seriously, he does not have time for this. Does no one on this planet care about protocol or reading communications?

Resisting the urge to facepalm, he stands and moves down the steps with an impatient gesture of dismissal. "My name is Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise, representing the United Federation of Planets to the independent Denevan mining colony. To whom am I speaking?"

He's surprised, and instantly a little wary, to see the man's expression abruptly change. The annoying, almost bored smirk disappears, and their contact steps closer to the viewer, squinting at it again. "Jim? Jim Kirk?"

He takes a slow, very slooooow step backward, out of pure reflex. People out here in the void who know his name almost never have good intentions toward him or his ship. From the corner of his eye, he can sense more than see Spock moving out of his chair. This Enterprise warps into no more ambushes, this they'd both vowed when she launched from Yorktown Base nearly four years ago now.

"That would be my name, yes." He raises an eyebrow at the screen in challenge, his own projected calm washing away the edge of unease that had suddenly rippled over the Bridge.

"Seriously, a starship captain!" A harsh, almost mocking bark of laughter that seems more disbelief than amusement filters through the connection. Jim's mounting irritation must show on his face, because it's abruptly cut off and the viewer adjusts focus as the man takes a step closer. "You really don't recognize me?"

"Not exactly a brilliant deduction on your part, since I'm asking you to identify yourself," he says dryly. He hears a faint snort from somewhere near the EC station. "I'm assuming you believe I should recognize you?"

"Jim, it's me." Dark eyes bore into his from the screen, and for all the man's apparent conviviality he sees nothing familiar in them. Given the number of people he's pissed off over the last decade just in charted space alone, that's not surprising.

"You're going to have to give me more than that."

"It's me. It's Sam, Jimmy. Gods, how the hell did you end up in the 'Fleet of all places?"

What.

He doesn't really hear the last part of the rambling dialogue, because his brain has just screeched to a halt on the steep edge of the precipice which is the first half of it. That, along with all its completely insane implications, is not what he signed up for when he got out of bed this morning.

From the corner of his eye he sees Spock and Uhura exchanging one of those weirdly communicative glances that equal parts frightens and amuses him on a good day, but right now just makes him a little pissed that they probably have already figured out to the last detail a part of his personal drama he very much does not want the rest of the crew getting a front row seat to.

But he is not the impulsive, damaged child he was when he wormed his way into Starfleet Academy, full of equal parts arrogance and potential and hope and dreams and sheer determination to give the middle finger to every last piece of his past. These raw wounds have scarred – never completely healed, because they don't – but they no longer have the power over him they might once have had. Time and love and hope heal where he might never have thought it possible, and that's something his own fractured flesh and blood never managed to grasp.

He can sense at least a dozen pairs of confused eyes on him from around the Bridge as his brain comes back online finally, to realize the idiot's still grinning insolently at the screen and yammering something, gods what is he saying and why will he not shut up.

He manages to get a hand up to stop the word vomit, and hey, what do you know, it's not even shaking. He's freaking awesome. "Are you the Enterprise's contact for this supply drop?" he asks evenly.

Sam eyes him, squinty like a weasel. "Mm-hm, I'm the scientist in charge of the facility while Doctor Prust is on leave. Got a doctorate now, can you believe it?"

"Not really. But seriously, congratulations." He receives a double-taked blink, and then an eyeroll, which he ignores, continuing. "The Enterprise has locked a geosynchronous orbit with Deneva's primary observation colony and will be ready to receive transporter coordinates within thirty minutes. My away team will beam down at that time for the 'Fleet-mandated inspection of the storage facilities and oversight of the transfer. They will require a team of technicians fully trained in all thermal detonation safety protocols, as was indicated in the initial communique from Starfleet Command."

"Sure, sure, Jimmy. Look, how about –"

"I expect you to refer to me by my title when in the hearing of my crew, Doctor," he snaps, fingers twitching reflexively as he fights to not clench them into fists. "And those instructions were not suggestions. They were orders. I expect them to be followed."

Sam glares at him through the screen, hostility clear in his eyes. "Now look, Jim, I am in charge of this facility, and –"

"And if you do not comply with the Captain's orders you will be temporarily removed from that position and another instated, under Federation-Civilian Trade Regulation 276.5, subsection C, Obstruction of Goods Transfer from a Federation Starship."

Jim tries not to smile as the voice comes from just behind him, chill as supercooled Neutronium. Spock's presence at his shoulder is a reassuring calm in the storm that's just descended.

"Civilian or not, until the Enterprise leaves orbit you are subject to many of the same regulations as a Starfleet Officer, if you desire Federation cooperation in the replenishment of your colony's supplies. I suggest you behave accordingly."

"Who the hell is this, Jim?"

"Commander Spock, First Officer and Chief Science Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, specialized diplomatic representative of the New Vulcan colony to Starfleet and renowned Vulcan scientist in the United Federation of Planets."

He can fairly feel Spock's eyeroll on the back of his head, but hey, he has the best crew in the 'Fleet and if he likes to rub that in other people's faces once in a while, well. Sue him.

"And you just let some alien do the talking for you on your own ship?"

Yeah, okay, now he's pissed.

"He's also living embodiment of the fact that blood is not what makes you family, Sam." His voice is colder now than a Vulcan's ears on Delta Vega. "Get those transporter coordinates to my communications officer before I decide to just dump these detonators on your doorstep without safety protocols and let you risk an implosion on your own time and money."

Okay, so that probably wasn't exactly diplomatic. Spock's got that little cringey slow-blink of Surak-give-me-patience-I-work-with-morons going on that tells him he's crossed a line, even if he didn't already know that.

This conversation's fast hurtling toward emotionally compromised and the whispers around the Bridge are clear indication of it. He needs to put an end to it before he crosses that line, because he's better than that. Or he should be, after all this time.

Sam's stupid freckled face is beet-red now with either anger or embarrassment, maybe both – he never could take being shown up in public – and he's obviously gearing up toward a full-on blowup that is probably not a good thing to have on the Bridge in front of everyone. Really not good. Jim should probably do something about that, except he's still a little shell-shocked by the whole thing and the sheer audacity of the man in the first place.

Sam opens his mouth –

And the viewscreen cuts out, fading back into the peaceful starry scape surrounding the rocky planet below.

He blinks, and then turns around, eyebrows raised in question.

"Oh, dear. I'm afraid we lost the signal, Captain." Uhura murmurs blandly, inspecting her earpiece in close detail. "It was a bit patchy, you know, sir. Shall I try to get him back for you?"

He could kiss her.

"Hell, no. Sulu, take the Bridge. While I go…stick my head out an airlock, or something. Sorry, guys." After all this time, there's very little point in acting like he didn't just almost lose it; there are no secrets in this crew. No one's going to even think twice about it, bless them. They are far better to him than he deserves.

Also, no one even questions the fact that he never questions the fact that Spock's going to follow him off the Bridge, which is kind of hilarious.

One shake of his head before the turbolift doors close, and Uhura's finger moves back off the ship's intra-comm switch; she'll give him a little while before siccing Bones on him.

"Uh…" He pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to marshal his thoughts as the directional computer beeps impatiently at him.

"Transporter Deck," Spock supplies calmly, and the lift whirs into life with a low hum of mechanical approval. "Unless you would prefer to visit Sickbay prior to beaming down, Captain."

"God, no."

"It would also certainly be permissible to remand custody of the supply transfer entirely to Sciences."

He side-eyes his First, then snorts, relaxing slightly. "You'll use any excuse to keep me off of away missions, won't you?"

"That is one of my duties as First Officer, sir, as specifically outlined by Starfleet Command at the inception of our second mission."

He laughs at that, finally leaning back against the wall of the lift. "Just for that, I'm tempted to let you deal with him all by yourself. But thank you."

Spock's inclines his head in silent acknowledgment of what remains unspoken, and then turns to the wall computer to begin typing in orders to call the away team to the Transporter Room.

"Better add Bones," he says with an absent wave, in answer to the half-questioning look over his XO's shoulder, "otherwise he'll probably just get wind of everything and gate-crash the party halfway through. And add Lieutenant Barclay from Xenobio, the kid's been recuping in Sickbay for the last two months from that Engineering accident, he needs off the ship. Other than that, standard away team rotation."

"Acknowledged." For a moment, only the beeping and faint hum of the lift fills the silence.

Might as well get it over with.

"So, you have questions," he mutters the obvious, rubbing the back of his neck.

Spock shoots him another glance over his shoulder, then turns back to finish sending out the orders. "Are you prepared to answer them at this time?"

"Probably not."

"Then they can wait. Computer, send verbal and written summonses to listed crewmen for duty report in fifteen minutes' time to Transporter Room Three."

Acknowledged. Summonses sent.

He smiles as the lift begins to slow on the Transporter Deck, finally opening just as Spock turns back around. They exit in sync and begin moving down the hall toward the Cargo Staging area, pausing to nod briefly at a trio of hurrying Engineers who side-step and snap off an informal salute at the sight of their superiors, despite Jim having outlawed that habit years ago.

"Well. That was my dickhead of an older brother," he volunteers, apropos of nothing, as they walk.

Spock's lips twitch. "I gathered as much."

"It's been…geez, over twenty-five years? Since I've seen him. Didn't really figure he was still alive, to be honest with you."

Spock glances at him. "One would think that to be cause for slightly more enthusiasm than you appear to be displaying, Captain."

"Yeah, well. One didn't have to stick around for another seven years with an abusive asshole for a stepfather after Sam bailed off-planet when I was eleven," he snaps back, with way more bite than Spock deserves.

An awkward beat of silence.

"That's another reason why I have anger issues?" he tries, sheepishly.

"I believe humans have an adage regarding glass houses which applies, Captain. Given past incidents which we share, I will not be casting geologic projectiles."

He cackles loud enough to draw the attention of the lieutenant on duty as they round the corner into Cargo Staging. By this point, he's like 99% sure Spock acts ignorant of human expressions just to yank their chains, but whatever the reason, it does the job. The tension which has been threatening to present him with a gift-wrapped migraine before they even beamed down has dissipated.

Maybe he'll even be able to make it through this without an incident.


That, was a bit much to hope for, he guesses.

In his defense, it's really not his fault in any way, at least personally. Probably some small portion of the blame does rest on the Enterprise's Xenohistorical Department, because likely there were warning signs at that last planet they stopped at, but they hadn't really done more than a cursory scan by ship and then on-foot recon once it appeared long deserted. That's water under a very burned bridge now, but he'll have to learn for next time. If they'd found something, maybe they would've been able to foresee this. It's a very small possibility, however, and there's no point in pointing fingers of blame at anyone.

Because they didn't find anything. And because of that, he's been completely blindsided by the fact that this entire colony is infested with some kind of weird neural parasite that's hellbent on taking over the entire star system, absorbing it planet by planet by planet and using the sentient life-forms on it to do the heavy lifting.

He's also been blindsided by the fact that apparently, Spock's been having Security drills with the redshirts, because he's going to absolutely murder both him and everyone in the entire Security division for following protocol once this is over, just watch him.

Scotty's eyes are wide as transporter pads over the top of the shield-screen when Jim pulls back from punching the wall, his swearing still ringing down the corridor in both directions. The two redshirts have long since scuttled behind Scott to hide, which in another situation should be hilarious since their Chief Engineer is at least a head and a half shorter than each of them.

"Uh…sir?" Lieutenant Marple makes one brave attempt to speak, and promptly backs off when he gets a good look at Jim's face.

"Don't," he snarls, stalking out of the room. Wishes not for the first time that the doors on this damn ship were able to slam behind him. He hears Scotty murmur a quick order and then scurry up behind him.

"Captain, what's the devil's going on? I canna lock onto anyone else down there or even raise anyone on the landing party."

He closes his eyes. "Mr. Scott, implement General Order Twenty-One. Then get up to the Bridge, you've just been promoted to Acting First Officer."

Scott's face pales at the implications. "But – Captain!"

"Did I stutter, Mr. Scott?"

"No, sir."

The whisper cuts through the haze that's clouding his head, and he takes a second to lean against the wall, hands over his face. Drags them slowly down, shaking his head to try and dissipate the cloud of panic that's starting to seep in through the cracks in his control.

"Sorry, Scotty. I'm just…"

"Sir, y'don't have to explain anything to me, y'know that." His CE shifts uneasily. "But…"

"Okay. Okay." He exhales slowly, and forces his brain to focus on one problem at a time. "Lock our orbit onto the mining colony, and then contact Sickbay. Tell Christine Chapel she's been promoted to Acting Chief Medical Officer, effective immediately. Any information McCoy was able to transmit back to the ship before hell broke loose down there, she needs to get assimilated into the Medical and Engineering mainframes like yesterday. And then both of you, get to work. I need a way to distinguish who down there is affected by these…parasites, or whatever they are, and who isn't, and I need to be able to do it from the ship. I'm not sending anyone back down there."

"But…sir, that's impossible, our scanners aren't set up for something like that! We're talking an almost cellular scan at orbital distance!"

"Scotty, if we don't find a weakness in this thing…" He swallows. "It'll go from being a Priority One Recovery Mission to a General Order Twenty-Six. With our people still down there."

Scott inhales sharply.

"I'd prefer the name Enterprise never be associated with the destruction of an entire planet, and I intend to bring our people home, one way or another. Am I clear?"

Scotty nods, and turns to scuttle down the corridor without another word.

He's lucky. Jim has to continue to the turbolift and what's going to feel like a horribly empty Bridge.


Uhura takes the news in stride, as he knew she would, even laughs for a second at how pissed he is – though he thinks that's probably a coping mechanism – at the fact that what's supposed to happen on a landing party gone wrong actually did happen.

"You do know that's standard procedure, even if it never seems to happen on this ship."

They're in his ready room, away from the rest of the Bridge; he had to give her that at least, even if they're short on time.

"But – "

"There are no buts, Captain!" she snaps, with quite a bit of bite, and he blinks in shock. "The safety of the ship's captain is paramount, period, and on an away mission it's imperative he makes it back to the ship to take responsibility for the command decisions which must be made. You need to get that through your head. Yes, Spock's been drilling Security on it. Because you scare us half to death sometimes. Deal with it."

He glares across the table at her. It had all happened so fast, so insanely fast, that he'd not even had a chance to figure out what was happening until it was way too late – but obviously, his people had reacted much faster, blindsiding him in surprise. They'd been leaving the last storage facility to search the rest of the complex for more infected colonists, when they'd been attacked out of nowhere by an impossibly huge swarm of those disgusting parasite things in a dark, narrow corridor between two buildings. He'd heard Spock snap an order he couldn't quite make out in the chaos, and next thing he knew he was being bodily hauled into the sunlight by two of the four Security men, one of whom was yelling into a communicator, while two others covered their retreat with a barrage of wide-beam phaser fire, effectively cutting him off from the chaotic swarm a few meters away. His trio were shimmering in an emergency recall transport beam even before he could voice a protest, and he was tearing apart the transporter room in his fury not ten seconds later.

Given the state of the colonists they'd discovered upon entering the underground storage facilities and the logs that said colonists had managed to make before dying, he knows his people are either dead, or they're in a state very close to it, kept alive by whatever these things are due solely to their value to the colony.

Hindering their efforts now, he has no way of knowing how many of the colonists are infected, or how many are down there dead – or how long they've been that way. For all he knows, Sam could have been infected all along, might be down there now running around in full cooperation with one of those things; he'd gone back to the labs before they had started their inspection tour. Bones had been able to determine it was some kind of neural parasite, and something they'd never seen before, but it had killed the colonist they were trying to examine before he'd been able to get any more readings from it.

Jim doesn't know a lot about xenomedicine, but he knows neural science is the one branch of medicine that still has a very low recovery rate. Even if they do figure out how to kill these things? There's a very small chance that anyone survives the shock unless they find a way to kill it that's non-invasive. Which has never been done, to his knowledge.

His fists clench reflexively, and he sees the anger fade from her expression. Shaking his head, he holds up a hand to forestall the apology he can tell is coming.

"We can't afford to do this right now, Lieutenant."

"Understood." She stands, duty being put back on like a uniform. It's part of why he still has both her and Spock as senior officers despite their relationship, part of why his command team is still a sharp and dangerously skilled machine, highly feared in the galaxy. "How long do we have."

He doesn't insult her by pretending not to know what she's really asking.

"I don't know. I don't have enough information. And I'm not letting anyone go back down there to get it."

"You may have to."

"I can't risk it."

"You may have to." She follows close on his heels as they hit the lift, heading back to the Bridge. "And if you need a volunteer –"

"I can't." His tone is more pleading than anything else right now. If the worst has happened? He can't lose anyone else. He just can't. He can't even think about it right now, he has to hope there's still a chance. "Don't make me do that unless I have no other option."

"Then find another option." The doors open onto the Bridge, and she gives him a pointed look before moving back toward the Communications console. "That's what you do. Don't prove us all wrong now."


For six hours, the atmosphere aboard is so tense you could snap it into a thousand brittle shards.

Sickbay, along with the help of their fourteen science labs, is doing what it can to modify their scanning systems, making every effort to find a way to distinguish life signatures of those who have been infected from those who may not be. Two of the labs are experimenting with the little data they do have on the organism, and what could have survived on the dead planet they came from – he's already sent a shuttle back toward it, but it'll be another four hours before it returns and another two before any signal from it can reach them – and on Deneva, trying to find some detail that might be of assistance in finding a way to destroy it. Xenosociology and Stellar Cartography have discovered a disturbing fact in their own research; it appears that there is a horrifying pattern of dead planets zig-zagging across this sector of the galaxy, originating from somewhere beyond the Galactic Barrier. The pattern is not so precise as to be immediately discernible unless one is looking for it, but now that they are? It's very obviously, a definitive pattern.

Whatever these things are, they're making a very methodical beeline through the most populated part of the sector, heading straight through the heart of the galaxy and wiping out everything in their path.

Jim knows it has to stop here; these things die on Deneva, with or without the planet itself. With or without the people living on it.

With or without his crew, trapped on the planet along with its doomed colonists.

They draw the line here. And if this is where it all ends, well. He will do his duty like the starship captain he is, like the one his officers ensured escaped the same fate. That is the least he owes them.

It doesn't make things any easier, or any less painful.

The Bridge is quiet, calm. His people are tense, but professionals to a man; most of them are no longer the young officers they once were. He is peripherally aware of the occasional glance his direction from Sulu or Chekov, or the odd murmur of reports being passed around, but for the most part things proceed as if it were a normal day. There is little he can do until his people come up with something practically scientific.

Then the familiar, almost soothing quiet erupts into the screech of a Security klaxon, an Intruder Alert. He hates the extra-shrill wail of that damn thing. But at least it's not accompanied by blue lights, so it's not coming from Medical, meaning it's not a Biocontaminent alert. He vaults up the steps in one jump even before Uhura's booting the wide-eyed kid at the secondary controls to open up the channel it's coming from.

"Transporter Room, sir," she says, over the wail of the alarm. "I can't raise anyone in there."

"Get me a camera on that corridor," he bellows over to the Security station, and the young lieutenant in red scrambles to obey.

"Sir, the feed's been cut from the Transporter Room itself!"

His fist clenches on the Comms console. "Shut off that damn siren at least!"

"Yes, sir!"

A moment later he can hear himself think again. "Computer, state last person to access Security feeds on Transporter Deck."

"Unable to comply. Transporter Deck Security feeds offline."

"State last crewman to access Enterprise primary transporter."

"Unable to comply. Transporter currently offline. Crewman recognition software offline."

He swears under his breath. Uhura leans over. "Something set off Intruder and Security, so whoever they are, they're infected with something the transporter protocols couldn't recognize as a crewman species and therefore called intruder, Captain. Has to be one of the colonists or our people." She frowns. "Only four of them have the clearance to shut off Security footage –"

He pinches the bridge of his nose. "And probably only one the control, authority and ability to convince the idiot on duty he's no longer infected."

They are so screwed.

He turns and jumps back to his chair, slams his hand down on the panel at the base of it while pressing the shipwide comm with the other. "Attention all hands, this is the captain speaking. Implement Security Protocols Beta 231-A through Beta 231-D. Locate and apprehend Commander Spock by use of any force necessary." He sees half the Bridge turn around to look at him in alarm as he retrieves the phaser from its compartment. "Priority Two Medical and Security Teams report to Transporter Deck with caution. Priority One Security Teams to the Bridge and Engineering immediately. This is not a drill. I repeat –" His head jerks up and he whirls around as the turbolift doors open.

Well, crap.

"Move!" Uhura dives away from the comms board as he fires, a wide beam set on heavy stun because Spock's stupid fast, and man does he look pissed. "This is not happening." He rams the button further to the left, a heavier stun, because it didn't even slow him down, and fires again. And then a third time, because holy crap.

Spock heads straight for his fiancée, who to her credit looks just as pissed but for a different reason, and before she can dodge has her by both shoulders in a grip Jim knows has to hurt, he can see the tightness of it from here. And he's not about to let two of his officers destroy or endanger their relationship with unintentional abuse due to something beyond their control.

But Uhura's more than capable of taking care of herself, and the fact that they're involved has absolutely no bearing on the fact that she has zero problems with fighting dirty and knows exactly where Vulcan pain points are.

Jim really should have known better.

She does snap out something in Vulcan first, and when it obviously doesn't register on that blank face, she gives Spock a well-I-did-warn-you look and delivers a knee to a place no male, half-Vulcan or not, ever wants impacted with that much force. She then belts him firmly across both sensitive ears with one sharp double blow using the heels of her hands, while he's still bent forward trying to wheeze in a breath. Spock staggers backward in shock, obviously disoriented, and she takes the chance to dart out the opposite Bridge doors into the port-side turbolift. Jim knows she's both getting rid of herself as the primary distraction and likely is comm-ing Sickbay to get artificial assistance to take their rampaging Vulcan down; he just needs to stall until she gets back.

Like, really stall, because Spock's seriously pissed now, and Jim's obviously next on the list for people-to-be-killed.

He's already backing up across the Bridge by the time Spock recovers, Sulu and Chekov having scrambled out of their chairs and to the other side of the room, dragging several slower-on-the-uptake beta crewmen with them as soon as their First Officer had all but exploded out of the lift.

"Captain, what –"

"It's the parasites, Mr. Sulu!" he hollers, firing again at a way too heavy stun setting. "Jesus, why are you not going down! The colonists' logs said their MO is to strip a planet of its resources and move on, after building a starship big enough to house their current hosts. My guess is they like the idea of not having to build one from scratch and thought they could seize the opportunity here!" He misses the next blast and Spock gets in one good body slam that tosses him like a sack of bricks over the nav console, and ow.

The ceiling spins in a lazy circle above his head, and he's still on the floor wheezing, trying to catch his breath when he sees that six of the Bridge crew have been stupid enough to try and tackle their errant commanding officer, and if it wasn't scary as hell it'd be hilarious how Spock just sort of shakes all of them off like a dog shaking itself after a bath. Chekov literally goes flying somewhere off behind the Science console, and he really hopes the kid remembers to tuck and roll.

He staggers to his feet and rams the stun setting further to the left, levels the weapon as much as his unsteady hand can, fires again and hits his XO smack between the shoulder blades. Spock staggers under the hit this time, stumbling against the nav console with an audible sound of pain, and shakes his head like he's suddenly dizzy. He's pale as a ghost, and shaking slightly like he's about to have a seizure.

Shit, that's way too high a stun setting. With that parasite controlling his brain functions and neural functions, Jim could cause brain damage if he does that again or ramps it up any further. "Damn it, I can't keep hitting him with this!"

"Well he's not going down, sir!" Sulu's nursing an obviously fractured wrist, wryly gesturing with the other from a semi-safe position on top of a now partially-destroyed EC console. "You have to do something!"

"Seriously, I'm already way above a safe setting for any humanoid species, I could burn out his telepathic centers or something!" He gestures wildly with the phaser, and so totally misses the fact that those three seconds have just cost him the advantage. Something blindsides him at nearly the same instant as a shout of warning sounds across the Bridge. Two seconds later, his skull hits the bulkhead hard enough to see nebulas flare up all around. The phaser skitters off somewhere unseen.

"Seriously, not the throat again." He grits his teeth, trying in vain to break the grip on his neck.

"Captain!"

"Sir, should I stun him again?"

He doesn't know exactly where his people are, but he makes a negatory slashing motion with one flailing hand in what he hopes is their vague direction - because this is the first real look he's had at his XO and it's scaring him half to death.

Spock's eyes are dead – totally empty, unseeing and void. He has no idea if his First is even still in there, somewhere.

"Sir?!"

Certainly, it feels like there's nothing left but pure intent to take over the ship in this inexorable grip.

Well, two can play that game.

"Computer," he manages hoarsely, before his throat closes completely. "Execute Order Seventeen immediately, voice authorization."

"Voice authorization accepted: Kirk, James T., Captain. Complete shipwide lockdown of all essential computer mainframes initiated."

He looks back at those empty eyes and smirks as a flicker of ice-cold alien realization dawns.

The grip tightens briefly on his throat.

"Not a smart idea, considering…aack…considering only my voice override can unlock it again." The fingers loosen slightly, though he's still effectively and painfully pinned in place. "That's right. No one takes over my ship. Welcome to the Enterprise, assholes."

And there – he sees something, some tiny light that flickers and dies just as fast in that expression – but it had been there, and he saw it.

That was Spock, not the parasite.

He reaches up hesitantly and grasps the wrists still clenched around his throat. "And until today, I would have said no one takes over my crew, Spock." He feels a slight twitch in those cold fingers. "You can hear me, I know you can. I need you to fight this, Commander. Fight this with every last piece of your stubborn pain-in-the-ass half-human soul because I will burn that planet to the ground with our own people on it before I turn this ship over to whatever this is that has its claws in you. Are you seriously going to make me do that? Are you?" Spock's eyebrows clench slightly. "I know, I know you're fighting this thing, whatever it is – but you've got to fight harder. I need you. I need you here. Now. I need you to hear me."

From somewhere to the side he hears the lift doors open again, but to his surprise Spock doesn't seem to notice – and with Vulcan hearing, that means something's happening in his head, he's concentrating on something. Please, be concentrating on me. Please.

"I know you're in there." The hands around his neck have loosened, little by little. He grips them reassuringly. "Come on, Spock." He just can't seem to break through whatever wall there is – this mind control obviously is far too strong when coupled with the neural control. Perhaps there really isn't any hope, any chance. Maybe Spock's really gone, and this is just the last shreds of him making a last stand.

But he has to know.

"Damn it, snap out of it!" His frustration overrides his common sense, and before he can think about what a Not Good Idea it is, he slides Spock's fingers up from his neck to his face, in a randomized approximation of a mind-meld that suddenly connects like an electrical charge, horrifyingly desperate and painful and confused and relieved and exhausted and very, very much still Spock.

He's alive, and yeah, he's fighting this thing like a drowning man, Jim can feel it. He can also feel how much it hurts to do that, and it scares him half to death, because it's the kind of sheer physical and mental agony that can literally kill a man.

He's thrown abruptly back out of the meld with a dark finality that's just this shade of vomit-inducing when the connection's chopped like a blow to the head, and staggers against something with a strangled dry heave.

"Please do not throw up on me."

"Ngh. No promises." He blinks, rubbing his eyes, and manages to stand upright with an effort, wobbling only slightly. "What just happened."

Uhura gestures wildly between the two of them, glaring at him. "You tell me! What the hell was that! Were you seriously trying to force-initiate a mind-fusion with someone who could be mind-controlled by an unknown alien parasite?"

"Uh." He swallows hard.

"Do not throw up on me. Christine?"

"Captain, are you nauseated?"

"Uh, yeah. A little. Mind-melds aren't meant to just like, get sliced in half like that." He tries not to hurl. "I need to sit."

"Oh…" She looks concerned as he plunks down where he stands on the upper Bridge, trying to settle his stomach. "That's not in the files, we'll need to put that down. I'm sorry, Captain. We just administered a heavy sedative to the Commander to keep him out until we can figure out…well, what to do, exactly. And…" She gestures vaguely to the wrecked Bridge.

Someone coughs.

He manages a wheezy laugh through a throat that's already swelling, he can tell from way too much experience.

"No, yeah, good idea. Get him down to Sickbay, heaviest restraints you have and a force-field around his bed. Start running every test you can to try and figure out what this thing is. I want to know if it can be killed and how, and I want to know yesterday." The nursing team is already nodding, transferring his unconscious XO to an anti-grav gurney. "And, Nurse," he adds, as Chapel turns to leave.

"Sir?"

He flicks a glance at Uhura, who's worrying unconsciously at a strand of her ponytail, then back toward the med-team. "He's still very much in there and he's fighting that thing like hell, so keep him under if at all possible, understood?"

She nods, making an entry on the data-padd as they move toward the lift.

"Sulu, go with them, get that arm looked at. Anyone else hurt?"

"You," Uhura says dryly, extending a hand to help him back to his feet. "How many times does that make it he's tried to kill you over the years, four?"

He snorts. "Ask the betting pool in Engineering, I have no idea." He motions toward the lift. "Go on, get down there, I'll be down in a few minutes." She flicks him one grateful look and moves after the team, scooting into the lift just as the doors close. "Do we have a report from the Transporter Room yet?"

"Aye, Keptin." He turns, and sees with some relief that Chekov's at the Science station, obviously hacking his way around Spock's sabotage. The kid's uniform's torn at the shoulder and his hair's flying all over the place but he appears relatively undamaged. "It looks as if he dropped Meester Kyle with a nerve pinch, sir, then simply took everything offline. Medical is in there now, sir. The Security alarms do not go off inside the Transporter Room itself, sir, so the…parasite, thing, likely thought he had the element of surprise until exiting the room."

Small favors, at least he didn't leave a trail of destruction and/or death through the ship.

"All right, now that that little excitement's over…" He coughs a little around a fast-swelling throat, and yeah, he needs to go get that taken care of. Looks at the wreck of the place, and pinches his forehead. "Somebody get Maintenance up here? And draft a memo to Lab One for me, this is so coming out of the Science budget for this month."


"Run that by me one more time." He leans back, rubbing tired eyes to try and bring the screen back into focus. "So it's not a parasite?"

"Not exactly. Granted, this isn't my area of specialty, Doctor McCoy would be much more qualified to make a guess as to what exactly it is." At his look, Chapel clears her throat and hurries onward. "But it certainly doesn't fit into any known biological categorization as we understand it. Like the team already surmised, it definitely originated outside our galaxy and so that fits, it likely has an entirely unknown biological makeup. But it's not purely parasitical in nature as the definition stands."

He pinches the bridge of his nose, blocking out the sight of the diagrams they have pulled up on the monitors of the CMO's primary computer screens. "I'm really hoping this isn't what it looks like to me."

"You see the problem, then."

He swallows hard. "I assume it's not operable."

"Not even the most advanced Federation technology could do that, Captain." Chapel glances sideways at him, not without concern. "I've run every analysis we have available, sir."

"Report." He can't think about anything else right now.

"My best guess is it's some sort of simple cellular organism, Captain, and we're seeing the second stage of its growth here, the first stage being the…creatures, you and the Security lieutenants described to me. It behaves strangely like a single-celled organism, like a bacterium or virus rather than a complex life-form, and it behaves in the same manner as some cancers do, spreading rapidly throughout the body after being delivered somehow, my guess is through a stinger or bite of some kind."

He pauses, looks up over the top of his hand. "But we can cure cancer. Is there a derivative treatment that can at least slow this thing's process?"

"We've already started experiments, but nothing has had an effect so far."

Of course it hasn't.

"The fact that it originated outside our galaxy no doubt is going to make this much harder, sir. It could take weeks to find a cure, if there is one to be found."

"We don't have that kind of time."

Chapel's lips tighten.

"What killed the colonists we found in the storage facility, you think?" he asks tersely.

"My guess would be shock. The stress upon the nervous system alone would be enough to kill anyone with a compromised immune system, and just from these scans…" She trails off for a moment, but continues under his look, "Sir, the mental strain is as high as the physical, the body can only take so much for so long. Judging from the readings we're getting from Commander Spock, it appears to be capable of inflicting intense physical or mental pain – the diagnostics aren't capable of distinguishing between the two – my assumption is, when the individual is awake and fighting its influence. His K3 pain indicators are nearly off the charts anytime he begins to come out of sedation, and only go back under when we put him back in a near coma-like state. A full human could only stand that level of pain for a matter of days, which would mean survival only if they didn't try to fight whatever control the creature is inflicting. If anyone tried to, like you said the colonists' logs of the last few weeks said they did? I would doubt a prolonged survival rate. But I couldn't give you an accurate assessment without seeing one of the bodies, sir."

He leans forward for a second, hands locked behind his head. So there's a very good chance that, after over twenty-four hours now, his people are dead, or else far beyond help, under the thrall of these things.

"But you said the creatures' method of operation was to keep their victims alive, sir. And you know how stubborn our people are. Let's not borrow trouble just yet."

He half-smiles. "Your pep talks are much kinder than your boss's, Nurse."

"Yes, well." She snorts. "I have work to do, and you're still cluttering up said boss's office."

He laughs at that, although it's a little shaky. "That's more like it." His stumble to his feet is a little punchy with weariness, but it's an exhaustion that's not going to go away until this is finished. "You'll let me know if you figure something out?"

"Of course, sir. We're still performing extensive experiments with cancer treatments, that seems to be our best lead."

He nods. "I'll be in Engineering if I'm needed. Make sure you boot Uhura out of here at some point or at least get her a bed, yeah?"

"Already done, sir."

He smiles and makes a mental note to put a commendation in her file when this mess is over, and then leaves Sickbay as silently as he entered. Spock's still under complete sedation back in the ICU observation ward and Uhura doesn't need him distracting her, and he needs to find Scotty and see if a second set of eyes on the logistics of this thing might help.

He's missing something, he just can't tell what. And if he doesn't find it soon, he's going to have to make some really awful decisions.


Scotty's banging away on something, a racket that sounds suspiciously more therapeutic than productive, and it takes Jim yelling four or five times to get his attention and finally get permission to ascend the catwalk with the appropriate safety measures.

"Watch your feet, laddie, I wasna expecting anyone up here. And activate the protocols on that anti-grav belt, 'tis not for decoration." Scott indicates the scattered debris and gives him a pointed look over the laser torch he's wielding.

Jim sheepishly presses the button to engage the safety protocols which will automatically snap on if the sensors detect rapid motion, saving him from a fall. "Sorry, been a long day. Two days. It's only been two, right?" He settles on the catwalk, leg crooked around a strut for stability.

Scotty mutters something unintelligible before giving the panel a final solder and shutting off the torch. "Not quite two, sir. How's the Commander?"

"No change." He scrubs a hand down his face. "And no further contact from the ground. Obviously when he didn't come back the things, whatever they are, knew no one else would be successful in taking over the ship. If there's anyone left to try."

"Jim. You cannot be thinking like that just yet." His CE swings off the scaffolding back onto the catwalk and settles heavily beside him, tossing the torch onto the metal with a quiet clank. "At least some of colonists were still alive, maybe even uninfected. Our people may be too."

He leans back against a strut, eyes closed. "Scotty, whatever this thing is, it's spread completely throughout the nervous system. Inoperable and untreatable. Even if they are alive, the possibility that we can find a way to drive it out? And still leave them undamaged? It's next to impossible."

Silence, broken only by the distant clanks and groans of the ship, the faint hum of her standstill engines.

"Well, sir, you do specialize in the impossible, y'know." Scott's voice is tense, but totally sincere.

He laughs bitterly. "Yeah, well. Our luck's running out here. And it's not me that comes up with these things, you know that. We're a team, this ship. And, well."

"Aye. Half your team is down for the count, so to speak. You do not have to justify yourself to me, Jim," his CE says with a small smile, when he starts to protest, and he subsides more out of weariness than anything else. "Lord knows you and the Doctor and Commander are one o' the reasons this ship still flies."

The idea that very likely, it will be flying away from this planet with only him in less than forty-eight hours, makes him physically sick to think about.

"Do you have anything else that might help me?" he asks instead. "Anything at all, Scotty."

"Sir, I left everything I had with Nurse Chapel, there was no point in continuing to tweak the scanning program once we had the Commander to use as a live sample, so to speak. Sorry, sir." Jim's look obviously had triggered this last, and he waves a hand to get the man to continue. "But anyway, we could likely pinpoint life-forms which have an elevated blood pressure and K-3 pain indicator, based on the exponentially high readings she got from the Commander. That would let us know who's infected and who isn't. But the information is of no practical use to us."

"Not really, no. Our best shot is that someone in the labs will come up with a treatment program." He sighs. "Did the team from the last planet report in?"

"Aye, sir, they're finishing up scans and should be on their way back shortly."

He rubs his forehead, thinking. "Do we have any other information that might help us figure out how to fight these things? The pattern we found they were tracing through the galaxy, was there anything significant about it? That's the only thing I haven't seen personally yet from the lab reports."

Scott pulls his Engineering padd closer and shuts down a program to pull up the Operations mainframe, accessing a series of files which he then scrolls through to find the particular one he's looking for.

"I've not seen anything in particular that would be of any practical use, not from where we are, but let's have another look, shall we?" he says, and flicks the map upward into tri-d mode, where it hovers in holographic projection over the padd.

Jim leans forward to look at the lines traced on the map. Galactic shipping lines show in faint yellow streaks, thankfully none of them close to the flight path of these creatures – so there shouldn't be risk of cross-contamination from the flight path, and since the creatures seemed to stick to Class M or L planets as their MO he doubts they ever made pit stops on others.

"See, this is the projected path the xenobio teams believe it likely took," Scott traces the red line back through the stars. "Cutting through these star systems, and right through the most populated portion of this part of the galaxy. Considering it's never been charted properly, that explains why the pattern was never found before and why we've never heard of these creatures."

Jim starts looking at each planet along the route, some single-colony planets, some entire worlds, some nothing more than small moons, some entire star systems that had been decimated. "And these have all been confirmed casualty planets?"

"Aye, sir. Lieutenant Uhura confirmed with reports from local or systemic communications channels herself that at some point in the last four hundred years or so they were destroyed, at least back to…this point here, we have no communications past this part of the galaxy and won't until we can get close enough, it's beyond the reach of subspace channels."

He frowns, keeps tracing the slightly zig-zag flight path. Then he stops, and enlarges one of the star systems with a quick flick of his fingers. It's the only system along the path where he notices a small purple dot, indicating a Class M planet in the system that is not intersected by the creatures' flight path. He further enlarges the map to pull up the information on the planet.

"Sir?"

"Scotty, there's a thriving population on this planet. Highly intelligent animal life that's three hundred years old and a primarily human 'Fleet colony from the really early days." He glances up, pointing at the dot and its accompanying paragraph of information.

"Uh…yes, sir? Some sort of experiment in botanical engineering that's still in use today, if I remember correctly, vegetation growth that close to an extremely hot sun and dense atmosphere. Why is that significant, exactly?"

He points at the map. "Why is it the only planet out of, what, thirty-plus? That didn't get hit by these things in their flight path?"

Scott blinks, and looks down at the map.

"It can't be coincidence."

"Aye, sir, it's a bit much of one, isn't it."

"It has to be significant. It has to, these things are too methodical. Why would it just leave one planet out of four in this star system, and out of all the dozens in its path. Look, it's like right in line with these other two and it literally just got skipped over. That can't be coincidence!"

"I'll get the team out there right away, sir, before they make the jump back our direction." Scott jumps to his feet, and extends a hand. "With the new warp drives in those shuttles they can be there in less than twelve hours and finding answers."

For the first time, he feels just a tiny ray of hope. "Tell them to cut as much time off that as they can safely and I'll see they get double the shore leave next time we dock."

"Aye, sir. And Captain."

"Yeah?" he calls, already backing down the catwalk ladder.

"Do not make me send Christine after you with a sedative, get some sleep!"

He can't decide if he wants to laugh or cry, at how much Bones has influenced this ridiculous crew.


"So are we saying the radiation's our only lead? No, wait, that can't just be it, those things were out in the daylight on Deneva," Jim says wearily, rubbing one temple as he lifts his coffee cup with the other hand.

"Yeah, but Deneva doesn't have a red sun, and it has a much less dense atmospheric layering system," Sulu points out. "Maybe that's the difference, a dense atmosphere?"

"True." Gods, he's so tired. He goes after the coffee again, only to find the cup's empty. He sets it back down with a thunk. "Still, didn't Lab Fourteen experiment with radiation treatment?"

"Yes, Captain," Chapel interjects calmly, scrolling down a data-padd. "Given the organism's similarities to cancer cells, radiation experimentation was one of the first things we tried. While there was some small improvement, meaning the cell went…dormant, I suppose would be the best word, under certain levels of radiation, there was no great progress made. If radiation is the answer, then it would be at levels which would certainly kill a humanoid life-form. And would destroy the humanoid nervous system as the organism dies."

"O-kay, that's out, obviously." He rubs his eyes. "It's not radiation, then. The atmosphere on Planet M-411A has an atmosphere with unusually high concentrations of…what, again?"

"Of radon among other things, Captain," Lieutenant Xi from Sciences replies promptly. "We began experiments with that as soon as the information was transmitted from the team back to the Enterprise."

"And?"

"No success, sir. My guess is it's not significant. We also tested for other variances in the atmospheric readings but nothing popped up that gave us a lead despite its atmosphere being unusually dense overall."

He sighs. "What else was significantly different about the planet?"

"I ran the data through the Enterprise's data-banks, Captain," Uhura interjects for the first time. She looks even more tired than Jim feels. "It's really not that significant of a planet. It has thirty-two hours of daylight per day due to its extremely elliptical orbit around its sun, and its atmosphere is much more protective than many class M planets due to that – which by extension means it's extremely hot and humid most of the time. It's got very little natural water, that was a terra-forming project the original colonists had to put into place. A much higher vegetation level than the others in the system, massively oversized flora which we thought might be significant, but there have been other planets in other systems with even higher vegetation levels which were attacked so that theory doesn't make sense." She waves a hand in helpless confusion. "Nothing makes sense."

"So, basically, we have nothing," Sulu points out wearily.

Jim looks around the table, trying to keep a tight rein on his temper, and sees his own frustration reflected on every face. "Okay, back it up. We know, what, about the planet?"

"It has wery big flowers," Chekov drawls from over his coffee cup.

"Not helping!"

"Chill, Lieutenant. Basically, it's got lots of plants, and you don't want to go outside for very long because of the dangerous heat and humidity levels for thirty-two hours at a time." Sulu shrugs. "That about cover it?"

"In essence," Xi admits unhappily.

"This is bullshit, people. We are the most brilliant officers in Starfleet. We should be coming up with more than this." Uhura's pissed, and while she has a right to be, she's starting to slip a little under the tension, and Jim needs to put a lid on that like, now. They don't have one of those thirty-two hour days to fix this, they only have twelve now. And –

Wait a minute.

"Hang on a second," he says slowly.

"Sir?" Chapel zeros in on him immediately.

"We've done extensive experiments with radiation, right?"

"Everything we can think of, Captain," Xi answers promptly.

"But have we actually experimented with just light?"

"What." Sulu raises a weirdly Vulcan-like eyebrow. "You want to just shine lights at it like scaring off a raccoon or something."

Jim holds up a hand. "Hear me out. Lieutenant?"

Xi shakes her head, looking thoughtful.

"She's correct, Captain, we haven't done any experiments with light," Chapel replies, obviously cautiously.

"Well, M-411A has a thirty-two-hour period of daylight in heavy atmospheric conditions. On Deneva, we saw those things in the daylight but they were always like, underneath something, and we were attacked in a dark corridor between buildings. The dead colonists were underground, in the storage bunker. What if they're not sensitive to radiation, but it's something to do with daylight?"

Or he could just be totally grasping at straws here.

"That's a little out there, isn't it?" Scotty asks, skeptical. "No offense, sir."

"None taken. I'm reaching for the moon here, people."

"It's not any weirder than some of the things we've seen, though," Sulu points out thoughtfully.

"There is some type of scientific precedent, too," Xi agrees. "Radiation and light have similarities in certain treatments but are definitely not the same thing."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning these experiments will take time and I can't promise they'll have any effect," Chapel says. "Most life-forms we recognize in xenoscience which utilize solar energy or light waves of some type are more insectoid in nature. However, it certainly won't hurt anything to try it. The coincidence could certainly be significant."

"Do we have any better leads to follow right now?"

There's a depressing silence.

"Both of you, go start the tests immediately. Pull as many people from whatever departments are needed to move the process along, I need answers as soon as humanly possible, positive or negative."

He meets Chapel's eyes as she stands, and he knows she can hear what he isn't saying. They have hours, at most, before Command is going to require him to make a decision he prays he still doesn't have to make.

When the doors have closed behind them, he folds his hands on the table, and clenches them to ground himself while he speaks.

"As the primary command crew, you should know that we have been under a General Order Twenty-Six since the flight path of these organisms was confirmed over forty-eight hours ago," he says quietly.

He's never been prouder of the fact that his people wait for him to finish, allowing only mild looks of shock and/or horror to cross their expressions.

"In the event that a solution for these things' destruction is not found in another twelve hours, that order will be executed to prevent the spread of the organisms to yet another Federation world," he continues, with a cold firmness that even he can't even realize is his own voice.

"But sir!"

"Captain!"

"We have orders, gentlemen. This is not up for debate." His voice cracks over the room like syntheglass shattering, startling the voices into silence. "We draw the line here. These creatures go no further."

He glances around the table. "However. Should any of you wish to formally protest this decision, it is your right as an officer to do so now, on the record."

Though none of the looks he gets are happy, he can tell that Sulu and Chekov will, as always, follow his decisions. Scotty just looks sad, and he knows the man's still holding out hope that a miracle will happen.

And Uhura…

He swivels his chair to face her.

"You have the right to protest this on the record, and to tell me to go to hell off the record, because you know what I have to do," he says quietly. This is one of the worst things he's ever had to do, and it's killing a part of him too – but it has to be as bad if not worse for her. "Get it out of your system now, because I need you on the Bridge in six hours."

She looks at him for a moment, tense and unmoving. Behind him, he hears the door shut as the other three quietly leave. This briefing was so bizarrely…dead, without Spock and Bones's familiar bickering to keep things interesting.

"We have twelve hours," he repeats, almost desperately. "We've done more, in less time."

Fire flashes in her eyes, white-hot and dangerous. "Do not patronize me."

"You know me better than that." He rubs his forehead wearily, giving up the attempt at comfort she clearly doesn't want. She stands and heads for the door, face set in stone.

"Nyota, look, when the time comes…"

Her boots squeak on the durasteel flooring as she quarter-turns in a perfect half about-face, ponytail flying in a graceful arc behind her.

"Burn it down, Jim. Burn it all down, and never look back."

She's never looked more Vulcan, and it frightens him.


He's now gone over thirty-six hours without sleep, and over another twenty-four before that with just six hours of it, and everything's starting to take on that weird hazy quality that indicates he's not going to be able to keep it up much longer and still make sense of much. Ten of the twelve remaining hours have dragged by, an entire shift rotation, and there's still not much word on whether or not they're close to a breakthrough.

One of the labs has gotten results with a light treatment, but it's at such a high wattage it would blind any human life-form on the planet and actually kill any non-humanoid life, not to mention making the entire colony uninhabitable for weeks due to the destruction of the terraforming technology in use within the upper atmosphere…suffice to say, they have tons of work still to do in refining and experimenting, and time is something they just no longer have.

The atmosphere on the Bridge is tense. He'd sent everyone on his primary crew off-shift immediately after the briefing so that they'd be back on when the time came to make a decision, and as that countdown clock relentlessly ticks the minutes away the tension ratchets up another notch.

He'd finally sent Uhura back to Sickbay an hour ago, because he's not heartless, and it took all his self-control not to follow her; but his place and his duty are here. And he will take responsibility for this decision when the time comes to pull the trigger on eight of his crewmen and the entire population of the planet down there.

Gods, Sam. He hasn't even thought about his brother for most of this time, really. What kind of horrible person is he? Guilt gnaws at him like a living thing, because his own flesh and blood's at the bottom of his priority and concern list right now, and he really can't conjure up any concern for that, he has to stay focused on his ship. And try not to focus on the fact that very likely, he's never going to see Bones or Spock or any of the other brave men and women in that landing party again, at least not under their own autonomy.

He's so tense that when the comm on his armrest chirps in the silence it about scares him to death. He jumps half out of his seat, and waves off the round of nervous laughter that the motion triggers, shaking his head with a rueful half-smile as he sits back to open the channel.

"Bridge."

"Chapel here."

A sick feeling starts curling in his stomach.

"Go ahead, Nurse."

"You're needed in Sickbay, Captain."

No no no, this can't be happening, not yet. They still have two hours.

"I'm on my way."

Sulu's already moving toward the central seat, motioning for him to leave, before he can even get to his feet, and he gives his helmsman a quick look of gratitude as he makes a dash for the turbolift. The ride is interminable, the enforced calm walk down the corridor even more so. It wouldn't do to spread panic below decks, more than the rumors already flying around due to their unexpectedly long stay over Deneva and the fact that their landing party returned minus most of its members.

He bursts into Sickbay like a bat out of hell, startling a nurse who thankfully is too professional to drop a sanitizing tray and only gives him a seriously? look as he hurries onward to an inoculation cubicle.

Uhura's head pokes out of the ICU ward even as he moves that direction, and he hastens his steps, anxiety twisting deep in his gut at what he's going to hear. He draws even with Spock's cubicle and glances inside, then slips in with a silent sigh of relief, because the sensors above the bed are still hovering in that barely-above-coma range. He's still alive at least.

Christine glances up from a padd as he enters, and he glances between the two women expectantly.

"There's good news and bad news," his head nurse says without preamble, gesturing vaguely with the padd.

"…Okay?"

"I'm not sure it's enough to help us in the time we have, though, Captain."

"Which is?"

"One hour, thirty-eight and a half minutes," Uhura says automatically.

Chapel glances at her with sympathy. "As she said, sir. It's not really enough time."

"Nurse, I'm running on fumes here, and these are my people you're talking about. Spit it out."

"They've found a way to kill the parasite. Organism, whatever it is," Uhura interrupts, holding up a hand to stop the nurse's report. Her eyes haven't left the unconscious figure on the bio-bed. "Concentrated long-wave infrared bursts, the lab has the exact formulas but IR-C infrared waves will both kill the things and stimulate regrowth of the damaged nerve cells simultaneously, preventing permanent damage due to the thing's sudden death and release."

"Infrared therapy's been in use on lesser developed worlds who don't have access to neural regen technology, and it's not hard to extrapolate the process into our own tech's algorithms with the information we now have. The fact that something beneficial to healing nerve damage will also destroy the genetic makeup of this organism is the next thing to a miracle," Chapel adds.

He stares at them, hardly daring to hope. "That's – why isn't that amazing news?"

"Because we only have sample tissue to test it on, Captain," his Head Nurse replies. "The only way to be sure it actually kills the organism in a live host is to test it on a live host. And there's not enough time to recreate the conditions of an infected life-form in the medical mainframe's simulation matrix, run it through the different species for possible outcomes, come up with projected treatments for possible side effects, and so on. There's every possibility the shock of the organism dying within the body's nervous system will kill a life-form."

"So test it on a life-form, then."

"We can't do that! It's against every code of medical ethics ever created!"

"You're seriously going to pull that card when we have an hour and a half left on that doomsday clock?"

"Captain, I am a nurse, I will not condone animal testing – or humanoid testing, for that matter!"

Uhura turns, and he can see the debate warring in her eyes as she glances between him and the bio-bed.

"We both have to agree on this."

He blinks. "Who's we."

"You're still listed as his second power of attorney. We both have to sign off on a medical ethics waiver and it has to be done now, if we're going to test it at all."

"How am I still –"

"We both thought it best in case one or the other of us was compromised or off-ship during a mission, you never know out here," she says impatiently. "My paperwork says the same thing. That's not important right now, this is."

"This, could very well kill him, Captain!" Chapel interjects, typing furiously on a padd.

"Nurse, if we don't test this thing, and if it doesn't work? I'm going to have to kill him and 40,000 other people in less than two hours. We don't have another option." He looks at his comms chief, who nods curtly. "Do it. Send the waiver to my personal terminal for signature and get the test ready."

Chapel's lips thin but she hurries out of the room with a hasty nod.

"I need all the information from that test sent to Engineering immediately. Tell Scotty to start reviewing it and figuring out how we can broadcast that amount of infrared light, or whatever it is, down at the planet's surface in the same concentration."

"Yes, sir."

"I'll be down there in Engineering if…" He glances back into the room, and clears his throat. "Look, just comm me when it's over, yeah?"

Eyes, glinting, she nods, and then startles him by stepping forward and giving him an honest-to-gods hug, which is like so weird because he can count on one hand the number of times he's seen her hug anybody. She's not a huggy person, one reason why she can stand being engaged to a Vulcan, he guesses.

But it's kind of nice, because he's basically just doing his best to not make this about him right now, since that'd be a dick thing to do, and it's nice to just shut his brain off for about five seconds and not think about how horrible everything in the world is right now. This whole thing just sucks, and there's literally nothing he can do about it.

After a second he steps back, exhaling shakily. "Okay. You got this?"

"Got it. Go on and figure out the planet part. If the lab's specs are right, we should know if it's working almost immediately and all traces of the thing should be eradicated in a matter of minutes. Neural damage would be fully restored in an hour, barring side effects, maybe two or three at the most if there's a complication."

"I can buy us that much time if it comes down to it, probably, but there's already a cleanup crew on their way and they'll be here in four hours, totally ready to do the job for us if we refuse. We don't have more time than that."

"Understood."

One way or another, the test will be over in just a few hours.

Everything, may be over in just a few hours.


He's back on the Bridge, jittery from way too many cups of coffee and lack of sleep but feeling a little relief that the nightmare's going to be over soon, one way or another, when it happens. He's not dared to comm Sickbay for an update, and he knows if the worst had happened someone would have come to get him so that means there's still hope…but the anxiety's still eating away at his insides, and he knows he must look as bad as he feels based on the side glances of concern being sent his way from most of the Bridge crew at one point or another.

But he's got to stay focused on these specs, double checking Scotty's calculations in the absence of Spock to do it. Someone has to take responsibility for the plan in case it all goes wrong, and that someone is him. They have to try this, whether or not Spock survives the treatment, and if it doesn't work, then he has to nuke that planet in the next thirty minutes.

His hands tighten around the padd at the thought, shaking slightly.

"Sir," Sulu reports from the helm, a little more gently than he normally would. "We've completed the planetary circuit and returned to our previous position. All satellites have been dropped in the pattern laid out as Mr. Scott indicated."

"Thank you, Mr. Sulu. Hold position."

"Aye, sir." Sulu glances sideways, indicating something on the screen as he and Chekov bring the ship back to a halt over the primary colony, and then back at him again. "Captain –"

Jim looks up as the turbolift door cuts off the rest of the sentence, and sees a look of shock mingled with alarm on his helmsman's face. He turns his chair swiftly toward the lift, and then the padd drops from his fingers to clatter on the deck.

"It's all right," Uhura says hastily, hands upraised as she moves a step forward. "I promise, he checks out. Comm Sickbay if you don't believe me."

Jim cuts a sharp glance at the Comms station, and the young lieutenant on duty bobs his head in hasty acknowledgment before hitting the board with alacrity. He slowly moves out of his chair, approaching with not-undeserved caution.

"You were supposed to comm me when everything was over," he says warily.

"Yes, well, you said you'd be in Engineering, and when I turned my back to locate you in the computer he tried to make a break for it out of Sickbay. I can't babysit and do my job remotely," she retorts.

Jim finally gets a decent look at the 'he' in question, still staying at a safe distance just in case this is all a ruse. Spock is as pale as the walls of the Bridge and looks like he's been through hell and fought his way back without a weapon – but he's standing on his own two feet, and that does look like him in there.

"Spock?"

"The treatment devised by the Science and Medical teams was effective in eradicating the parasitic organism, Captain. While there were some slight complications during its biological breakdown due to my hybrid physiology, complications which we will need to monitor in certain of the colonists, there is no reason to believe the treatment will not be as effective on the planet." Spock's eyes are haunted, and it's testament to how bad he must still feel that he accepts without complaint the chair which the wide-eyed ensign manning the Library station stealthily scoots up behind him. "Doing so without delay would be preferable, sir. This is a most powerful biological entity, and its inability to achieve possession of this ship has angered it to accelerate its plans for absorption of the Denevan colony. While as a scientist I do not condone the wholesale destruction of life in any form, as a Starfleet officer…this must go no further, Captain."

Relief swamps him in a cold, clammy wave that threatens to take out his knees. "Well, I guess you wouldn't be recommending that if you were still infected," he exhales shakily, leaning on his chair.

"No, sir."

"Are you…okay?"

The question's a stupid one, he's well aware; but he also knows Spock won't mind him being a stupid human and asking for tradition's sake. His First tilts his head in a weirdly familiar gesture, before raising one eyebrow with what looks like a sigh. "I am…functional. Sir."

He nods, scrubbing a hand down his face. "Is there anything I need to know, before I pull this trigger?"

For a second it looks like Spock's about to say something, but then he appears to think better of it, and shakes his head, silent.

They can deal with this later. If he stops to think about the relief crashing against his adrenaline shields he's going to go down, hard. And there's no time for that.

"Okay. Stay in that chair if you insist on being up here. Lieutenant, take your station, please."

"Yes, sir."

"Bridge to Engineering. Mr. Scott, are you prepared to begin broadcasting that signal on my command?"

"Aye, sir, actually just finished rigging it up a few minutes ago. Tell the Commander when he wakes up that his people in Lab Twelve are mighty fast when they want to be."

He smiles briefly. "Tell his people that Commander Spock is awake and it appears he will be making a full recovery." He hears a distant chorus of hollers and cheers that warms his heart, and a glance at Spock's surprised face makes his smile more genuine, despite the situation. "Now let's see if we can fix the rest of these people, shall we?"

"Aye, sir. Ready to broadcast on your command, Captain."

"I'll signal you when we're in position beside the primary satellite. Bridge out." He clicks the comm off and settles back down into his chair, rubbing the sandy itch of exhaustion out of one eye. "Bridge to Sickbay."

"Chapel here, Captain."

"I want every available medical officer standing by in the transporter room along with a Security contingent to beam down once the radiation has dissipated from the surface. Depending on how long these things have had their claws in this colony?"

"Understood, sir. I've already begun making preparations to receive the colonists for triage if required, with your permission, sir."

"Permission granted. Mr. Chekov, Mr. Sulu. Bring us into position beside the primary satellite. We have a broadcast to make."


For once, everything goes as it should.

The ring of infrared satellites they placed around the planet, forming a chain of rebounding IR-C radiation to bathe the entire planet in a network of long infrared waves, do no harm to the humanoids living on the planet but destroy the invading parasitic entities, all the while rebuilding the damaged nerves in all but the worst affected of the colonists. As soon as the broadcast had stopped transmitting, Enterprise Medical and Science had swarmed the colony and the outlying areas, hunting down any traces of the creatures - but the signal had penetrated even the underground caverns, there were residual traces of the creatures and nothing more within.

There were casualties, too many of them. Jim listens to the report, standing in front of the viewscreen with the doomed planet hanging below, and tries to be glad there weren't more. But the creatures had obviously gotten hold of some of the colonists weeks, months or even years, ago – and the neural or psychological damage had been far too great. If they didn't die of shock, they did of brain damage, and there was nothing even 'Fleet Medical science could do about that.

But he pulled this trigger, and it is he who bears responsibility for these civilians, men and women and, god help him, even a few children, who now are dead because of these things. The relief ship has arrived and is even now beaming down to help with the medical efforts, giving his people a much-needed break. They are all, in dire need of a break.

He vaguely wonders if it's been two days since he slept, or three, or maybe more now, because either the temperature controls have gone wonky on the Bridge or he's starting to get that jittery back-and-forth sick feeling he always gets when his stress indicators are through the roof and there's no one and nothing to pull him back to being grounded in reality.

The nurse on the other end of the comm finally finishes the report, and he unfolds one arm to pinch the headache away from his forehead. Out of almost 40,000 civilians, there have been 243 confirmed casualties so far. The number isn't that high, all things considered, but it is so damn high for a civilian mission.

It's been a long time since he had a body count that high on a mission.

The comm suddenly scratches back into life, so abruptly that from the corner of his eye he sees Uhura briefly tug at the earpiece with a silent expression of annoyance.

"Chapel to Bridge." His head nurse's tone is snapping with business-like efficiency, so like McCoy that it's a little frightening.

"Go ahead."

"Sir. We've located the landing party. Eight officers preparing to beam up."

His vision tunnels down for a moment as the relief sweeps over him, the biggest sword over his head crashing to the ground along with the adrenaline that's keeping him on his feet.

"Are they all right?"

"Relatively speaking, sir. Garcia is still unconscious, but given his esper ratings that's to be expected. He's stable though, Captain. Everyone else is conscious, or was at some point, and displaying no signs of permanent nerve or brain damage. Doctor McCoy has already sworn at me three times and told me I was reading the spectrodictalygraph incorrectly, so you can sit yourself down and take a breath, sir. They will be fine."

He does just that, because at this point it's that or fall down where he stands, and embarrassingly misses his chair completely, hitting the floor hard enough to draw an alarmed exclamation from half a dozen crewmen.

"Holy – "

"Sir, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, I'm good," he manages after a deep breath, and swats away a well-meaning hand that sends poor Chekov scuttling back to the helm. "Uh." He swallows down a flare of nausea. "Tell her thank you, Lieutenant, and I'll meet them in the transporter room shortly."

"Right," Uhura drawls, tapping the earpiece to mute the connection briefly. "Because you're totally mobile right now."

There's an aborted snicker from somewhere on his right. And left.

"You all are fired." He hauls himself back to his feet, scowling, and hopes nobody notices that he holds onto the chair arm until the Bridge stops spinning.

"Yes, sir."

"I mean it!"

"Of course, sir."


Somehow, he doesn't really know how, he's still on his feet almost six hours later, a second wind driving him at warp speed through welcoming his exhausted-but-intact landing party back on board, packing them off on so many anti-grav gurneys off to a nice long nap in Sickbay, then greeting the returning shuttle crew who was responsible for transmitting the information back from the dead planet, then getting thrown into a three-hour debrief with the Admiralty in which he has to answer for the events of the last forty-eight hours.

Finally, someone on the Board seems to sense he's nearly at his breaking point, or maybe those insistent messages which keep beeping on the interrogating admiral's padd are actually one of his staff politely doing everything in their power to interrupt the meeting – he wouldn't put it past Uhura or Spock to concoct some sort-of-emergency on the airwaves – but finally, he's been interrogated enough over the tragedy that they feel things can settle and he can be off the hook for the foreseeable future, his decisions meeting reluctant but firm approval as the only course of action conscionable. The relief ship can take over, and Enterprise can rest. For now, at least.

The screen blanks out, finally, leaving his ready room in blessed, blissful silence – which lasts for about three seconds before his brain is screaming ten thousand things at him, places he needs to be, departments he needs to check on, reports he hasn't read, and what time even is it, anyway? And his people are safe but they're still exhausted and sick and he needs to check on them, and…gods, he's totally forgotten about Sam.

Again.

He leans forward against the table, head hanging over his hands as he exhales in an attempt to calm his racing nerves. Then he straightens back up and dials up the most recent reports from the Dauntless in determination, using his captain's access codes to override the security blanket hiding the names of the deceased until their family members can complete official identity. He's suspected the worst since Medical began their sweep of the colony, just based on the fact that no news is very rarely in this business, good news…but he has to know. Is there one more failure he needs to add to that never-ending list that haunts his dreams and lurks in the shadows of his waking moments. One more mistake he's made that he can never take back, one more relationship he destroyed without giving it the second chance he was fortunate to have been gifted by a too-kind Fate.

He's just halfway through the haphazard listing, when his own last name seems to leap off the padd at him, stabbing an accusatory finger straight through his heart before the picture even appears on the identification list.

Estimated duration of infection: fourteen months. Cause of death: brain aneurysm due to sudden and intense neural shock. Death likely instantaneous.

No.

Fourteen months?

Dulled by exhaustion, his brain takes a few seconds to catch up with the information, but when it does the stark reality of the impersonal medical details blindsides him like a shuttlecraft.

"God damn it!" The padd hits the wall with a small chirp of protest, soon drowned out by the much larger crash of the chair that follows.

But he's too tired to tear the room apart like he wants to, and too disappointed in himself to take it out on his beautiful ship. He sways on his feet for a second, chest heaving; leans on the table with one hand, rubbing his eyes with the thumb and fingers of the other.

Then strides out the doors of the room, leaving the mess for another, less out-of-control, less hellish day.

His ready room is a ten-second lift ride from the Bridge, and he hasn't quite got it back together by the time he fairly clips the edge of the door exiting it, judging from the look he gets as he blows past the Communications station.

"Have the final reports been submitted to Starfleet Command and control of the Denevan colony transferred over to the Commander of the Dauntless, Mr. Spock?" His voice cracks across the Bridge, diamond-hard and sharp as a razor, and when four of the beta crew jump half out of their chairs he makes a conscious effort to exhale and offers them a reassuring half-smile and nod.

"Yes, Captain." Spock gives him a weird look, but that could just be because he shouldn't be up here on the Bridge, he should be asleep in his cabin and he's been caught red-handed.

"And our people have all been beamed back aboard?"

"Yes, sir. The final group of Medical personnel was just cleared for duty from precautionary decontamination thirty-one-point-four minutes ago."

"Good." He sits in his chair with a definitive thud, and braces his hands on the armrests. "Mr. Sulu, get us the hell out of this star system."

Sulu half-wheels in his chair with a very clear WTF expression, but is too good an officer by now to question him. Either that, or sees something in his face that makes him turn hastily back to the console and begin punching in coordinates. Jim doesn't even ask or care where they're to, and obviously Sulu's not about to ask him.,

Behind him, he hears movement from the Comms station, and he holds up a hand without turning around.

"But, Captain, don't you want me to –"

"No, Lieutenant." His calm is at deadly levels, and he makes an effort to try and unclench his grip on the armrests. "Inform Captain Bo'rann we will be continuing our mission, and then discontinue transmissions to the Denevan colony."

"Yes, sir."

"Course laid in, Captain." Sulu eyes him almost warily, and Chekov hasn't even turned around yet, flicking uncertain glances at the console and at his seat-mate.

He exhales, slowly. There's no point in waiting around for a mass memorial service that's going to be as personal as a Starfleet memorandum template, and anything that was Sam, died on Deneva fourteen months ago. He made the decision he had to make, to save his people and the rest of the colonists, to preserve the safety of the rest of the galaxy and destroy a galactic threat.

Or maybe Sam's not the only one guilty of running away from a mess of guilt and bad decisions.

The Bridge suddenly seems too constricting, too much a reminder of duty being the shield he's able to hide behind. He stands abruptly, ignoring the startled jumps of a couple officers nearby.

"Engage, Mr. Sulu. Commander Spock, you have the conn. I'll be in my quarters."

The awkward silence that follows his exit is almost more accusatory than his own mind's never-ending litany of reminders.


The aft observation lounge is deserted this time of ship's evening, that twilight hour just after ship's evening mess when most of the crew who enjoy socializing are either in the rec rooms if they're on alpha shift, or just finishing up work if they're on beta shift. He'd love nothing more than to just crash somewhere at this point, and there's going to come a time where he's not going to have an option, it's just going to happen. Adrenaline has always been his secret weapon stemming from chaotic Academy days, but she's a worse drug to withdraw from than any recreational one he's ever tried – which hasn't been for twenty years at least, but still. Principle of the thing.

He's starting to get a little shaky, though, and the world's got that murky haze on it that indicates he's about to crash and crash hard, so he can probably be excused the fact that he doesn't hear the door open and so goes half-flailing off the couch when his dozing, slitted eyes finally catch movement behind him in the barely-lit lounge.

Hello again, adrenaline.

"Jesus, how many times have I told you not to do that!" He flops back to the cushions, hand pinching his aching forehead.

"Little jumpy, aren't you Jim?"

Oh god, not both of them. He cannot deal with this tonight. And they should both be in their own beds, anyway, because hello, parasites from hell less than twelve hours ago.

He flops an arm over his eyes. "I believe I told you I would be in my quarters, Mr. Spock."

"So you did, sir. A deception which you seem to be under the impression was believable."

The sass is so real.

"I would have thought it was a clear enough indication of a wish for privacy." His words are pointed, but not yet angry, he's just too damn tired to be angry.

"Don't get snippy, Jim. Shove over, I'm not sittin' on the floor."

"Screw you, I was here first. Ow!" His head's unceremoniously shoved and bumped and wiggled until he's staring up in cross-eyed consternation at his just as exhausted-looking Chief Medical Officer. "You look like half your brain's been eaten, Bones. Go to bed."

McCoy flicks him gently in the forehead. "Not funny. Those things were straight out of the pit, I tell you. Dunno how the hobgoblin here even could talk straight after getting stung, 'least not enough to yell at the boys in red to get you out of there, Jim, but I'm sure glad he did."

He tilts his head slightly on Bones's knee to see Spock's taken up a seat in a weirdly sloppy meditative position on the floor in front of the couch, and is either asleep or meditating – or maybe somewhere in-between. Or he's just freaking tired and has his eyes closed because he's just done with everything for a while. "Yeah, me too. I was so pissed at the time, though."

"I bet you were." A short laugh. "Scotty said you about tore the transporter room apart."

"Yeah." He tries to laugh, but it doesn't quite make it out, and he realizes he's a whole lot closer to tears instead – exhausted, painful, sickening, what-would-I-have-done-if-this-hadn't-worked ones. He closes his eyes instead, tries to will back the sensation before he totally freaks like he hasn't in years.

He feels a hand in his hair. "Jim."

"What."

A sigh. "I didn't want you to find out from a report. If I'd known you were going to…I lost a lot of time, today. I should have just told you right away, when we beamed up. I'm sorry."

He blinks rapidly. Trust Bones to take responsibility for delivering bad news that's totally not his responsibility to tell, when the man still should be on a sickbed recovering from nearly dying.

"It's okay." He swallows thickly. "The…report, said it was fast."

"Had to have been, Jim. I wasn't there, he was in another building, but…the readings indicate it had to have been basically instantaneous, most aneurysms are. He wouldn't have even known what happened, if the parasites were in control and then got hit by the infrared blast. Would have just been over without him even realizing."

"That's good." He closes his eyes again, jaw clenched.

"Jim…I'm so sorry."

"Stop apologizing. I'm the one who pulled the trigger."

"You can't think about it like that."

"Tell that to the 250 people I killed." He opens his eyes, stares at the ceiling dark above them. "I'm no Kodos, but I just destroyed a whole species and a starship's worth of innocent civilians."

"You do yourself an unconscionable disservice in making such a comparison. That species, and possibly those civilians, have already killed and would kill again, Captain. Have destroyed countless civilizations already and would have gone on to accomplish that end upon the entire inhabited galaxy." Spock's voice fills the silence for the first time, and its quiet calm is soothing to his screaming mind.

"I know. I know, I do. I just…" He raises a shaking hand to his eyes. "This one was personal. And it sucked." His voice cracks like he's a child again, brittle and fragile. "Gods, it sucked. What were the odds."

"With you, kid? Pretty damn high."

That startles a precarious laugh out of him, because it is a little funny. What's not quite as funny, is that it sends him teetering wobbily on the edge of that way-too-steep precipice of adrenaline-crash-infused hysteria that's lurking at the edges of his exhausted consciousness, waving like an annoying old friend.

"Take it easy, Jim." The arm across his chest tightens slightly, a hand patting his shoulder. "Just take a breath for me, okay? There you go. You know the drill, again."

He finally yanks himself firmly back from the edge and nods, waving a hand in a vaguely shooing motion.

"One more for me. Shut up, I didn't ask you."

"I didn't say anything!"

"You don't have to. Does he."

"Negative." Spock intones, dead-pan. Dude hasn't even bothered to open his eyes.

He splutters for a second at the unexpected tag-teaming, but it does the trick. Bones's expression relaxes slightly, so he must look a little less like he's about to lose it.

"You okay?"

"I'm fine. Geez." He sighs, rubbing an eye wearily. "I just…I can't even think straight right now. I need sleep."

"So go to sleep."

"I can't, not yet. I still have to file my final post-briefing reports, and I haven't even touched any of the technical paperwork for the last forty-eight hours, and I haven't checked in on the landing party, and…" He can fairly feel the blood rush from his head as it only occurs to him for the first time. "Bones, I have to call my mother." The thought turns his stomach more than the events of the day, because their calls are anxiety-inducing at best, even when only pleasantries are being exchanged.

"Slow it down there. One, landing party's seeing no one because they're either recovering in their quarters or wishing they were but sitting here in the dark with you instead, genius. And two, you're doin' no more paperwork until at least tomorrow evening. Doctor's orders."

"Bones –"

"That's not up for debate. Nothing's so urgent it can't wait twenty-four hours or be handled by one of your staff. That's what they're for, Jim."

"Spock, help me out here."

"I am the highest ranking member of said 'staff,' sir. I second the doctor's somewhat disrespectfully stated but not incorrect assessment."

"Ugh, fine. I'm too tired to fight against both of you at once."

"A sound strategic choice, sir."

He rolls his eyes at the back of Spock's dark head.

"And three." Bones's eyes narrow as he rolls his head back to meet the pointed look directed downward. "Nothing says you have to call her, Jim. You can let one of us take care of that."

God, that would be wonderful, to not have to. To just for once, once in his life, get to be the one who bails on his responsibilities instead of being left behind, holding the bag for those who did.

After all, it is kind of his turn now, isn't it?

But he is not the petty child he once was, and he'd like to think the man who died fourteen months ago might not have been the boy he was. Either way, he owes them both better. No matter how painful it is.

"No. I appreciate the offer but that's just not…" He waves a hand vaguely in the air.

"Not what."

"I don't know, not okay! It's her son, Bones. I should be the one to do it. Even if she may not really care about the details," he mutters, afterthought under his breath.

"Jim, those calls never go well even on a good day. How many times have you shown up in Sickbay with a migraine afterwards?"

"What's your point." He glares up at his CMO, daring him to make more of the issue.

"My point is, that you've done enough for one day. Let someone else handle this." McCoy shrugs. "You can call her in a couple days if you feel up to it, but you don't have to do this, and you definitely don't have to do it now."

"Bones…there's like, rules for this stuff, in the 'Fleet. It's supposed to be family, y'know? Whenever possible." He rolls his eyes. "Not that we've ever had a functional one, but whatever. Semantics."

"Jim."

He looks up, exhaustion pulling shadow-thick at every limb. "What."

"Captain, I believe the Doctor is attempting, in his own atypically illogical way, to point out that your family is here, aboard the Enterprise. By your own words, upon multiple occasions. Perhaps you should permit them to take on such a familial obligation."

He blinks for a second in surprise, as overhead McCoy sputters like a dying shuttle engine before leaning forward to poke his First between the shoulder blades with a bony finger.

"Nobody asked you, you green-blooded busybody!"

"I quite agree, Doctor, he asked you. And we would be here throughout the duration of the ship's night if clarification were left to your uniquely branded method of talking in a circuitous route around the subject at hand. I, for one, would prefer to spend said night in my own bed, as would Nyota."

He hides a smile, because it's very rare that he gets to hear Spock on the border of a pretty close to 100% cranky human temper tantrum, and it's freaking adorable.

"I'll have you know, my 'unique methods' are the only thing keeping you on your feet right now, thanks very much!"

"I am not on my feet, Doctor. Obviously."

"It's an expression, you –"

"Guys, for real." He's closer to tears now than he was before, and not for the same reason. "I…thanks. Seriously." He scrubs a hand over his face, and then wearily hauls himself to a sitting position, narrowly avoiding smacking his CMO in the nose as he sits. He leans forward and slowly, so Spock can sense the movement and stop him if it's going to disturb his mental shields, puts a hand on his First's shoulder. "How about…can I have a compromise? Let's all get a decent night's sleep, and tomorrow?" He glances between the two, slightly hesitant. "I…would really appreciate the backup."

He's no telepath, but even he can fairly sense the relief coming from his no doubt exhausted XO, and that's probably the same he can read in his Chief Medical Officer's expression. They neither one should be in here, they should be recovering in their own cabins instead of worrying about him. Yet he has no doubt that, despite their banter, both had entered this room with the full intention of staying as long as he needed – all night if necessary, despite their own physical and mental needs.

He has to smile at the difference; rather than being left behind by a brother, now he literally can't get rid of them. Even when he wants to sometimes.

"What's so funny," McCoy mutters grumpily. He makes sure Spock gets to his feet without mishap and then hauls himself up with a grunt and popping of joints.

Still seated, Jim leans forward, elbows on his knees and fingers steepled under his chin. "Nothing really. Just…thinking."

"Now that's scary."

"Shut up." He waves a hand over his shoulder in dismissal, grinning at the window-reflection. "Go to bed, guys. I'm heading out in a minute too."

"Mmhm. I think I'll wait outside and make sure you do."

"Uh, no. I'm fine."

"Just the same. I'll wait."

"Jesus, Bones, I'm not a child!"

"Right. Did I or did I not have to disable the German chocolate cake option on your meal card because you kept eating it for breakfast?"

"That's totally irrelevant! And furthermore, I – is he asleep standing up?"