Title: Pressing Sail
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: Property of Roddenberry, Paramount, JJ Abrams, etc. Alas.
Summary: There was more in play here than just what Kirk might or might not deserve on his own merits. 2600 words, Pike POV.
Spoilers: Star Trek XI (2009)
Notes: Angst and politics, following "The Press of Duty" and "Pressing the Point" in what seems to have become a series. The title is a nautical term, for "as much sail as can safely be carried", i.e. making sure you're going as fast as you can in the direction you need to go.
The subspace comms were finally repaired on the third morning of their return journey, and with them Enterprise's connection with Starfleet Command. It brought home the reality of their situation in a way that none of the events of the preceding few days had; the adrenaline and the shock were fading, and it was time to begin dealing with the long-term consequences of Nero's attacks.
Christopher Pike had been hoping to avoid that until they got back to Earth. He knew himself well enough to fear that he didn't have the energy to both fully process everything that had happened, and keep up the wise Captainly façade that his very young crew soaked up like sponges when they stopped in to see him. Unfortunately, the slow speed of their return journey had made denial impractical to sustain.
He should have listened to his own lecture to Kirk. Captain, lead thyself. They'd had one chance at stopping that drill, and he'd taken it; the loss of Vulcan, his own pain, and the additional deaths the Narada had inflicted on its path to Earth despite Pike's efforts did not invalidate those crucial minutes when Kirk and Sulu had reenabled the transporters and with them the chance to save a fragment of Earth's oldest allies and the heritage that had made them the complex, vital, and logical people that they were. In the course of that decision, he'd also named Kirk First Officer-- and Kirk had repaid him a thousand times over, saving the people Pike's willing captivity had endangered.
None of that changed how he felt about what had happened, though. Despite the truth toxin that had made it impossible for him to deny Nero what the insane Romulan had wanted from him, despite the knowledge that everyone broke eventually regardless, the fact that he'd talked at all still burned at him, like shrapnel embedded under the surface of his soul. The betrayal of the frequencies for the border protection grids was always there in the back of his thoughts; he could sense the Admirals' judgment in every clarification they asked for and every careful glance they gave him.
It wasn't the first time Pike had been caged against his will, nor the worst, but it never got any easier, and he wasn't as resilient as he'd once been. Phil Boyce had told him once, back before Talos, that he set standards for himself that no one else could meet; he liked to think that he'd found a better equilibrium since then, but it was hard to remember the lessons of maturity when the costs of his recent decisions were still so raw.
He had a sinking feeling that no matter how quickly he got back on his feet-- and he would, thank God, McCoy had begun muttering about "recovery" rather than "impairment" the last time he'd checked him over-- Command wasn't going to let him stay out here among the stars where he belonged. He'd had a hard enough time with the mandatory therapy sessions after his five-year mission aboard the Yorktown; Starfleet's current obsession with officers they could rely on didn't mesh well with unique solutions and extenuating circumstances. He was going to make them fight for it, though; the promise of Enterprise had kept him going over the last few groundbound years, and he wasn't going to give her up after just a few days without so much as a whimper.
The Dean of Starfleet Academy was the last caller to get through to him before McCoy called up to Lt. Uhura with a litany of dire threats. Admiral Barnett was a friend of Pike's; not a close one, but they'd worked together since the Yorktown had been transferred to Number One's command. The price of getting his First her own ship and securing the future flagship for himself had been a temporary desk job, recruiting for the Academy and involving himself in the shaping of future starship captains. Pike didn't always agree with Barnett, but over time they'd come to understand one another fairly well.
Unless, of course, the topic at hand had something to do with Jim Kirk.
"I've read the highlights of your reports, Chris, and Kirk's too, but I still find the whole thing rather difficult to believe," the older officer addressed him, forehead creased into a disgruntled frown. "It's a miracle that any of us are alive at all, and I don't just mean the odds that were against us to begin with. I'm not sure whether I'm more tempted to award the kid a medal, or lock him up and delete the keycode."
Pike understood the feeling; there'd been times in the past few years when he'd wondered whether he'd been mistaken in believing Kirk could ever live up to his potential-- most recently the moment the cadet had stormed onto the bridge of the Enterprise when Pike knew damned well he'd been suspended from active duty. And Barnett had never trusted Kirk to begin with. "I know what you mean, Richard. But he pulled through for us when it counted, and he didn't do it alone."
Barnett shook his head again, as though he didn't want to hear it. "Kirk might be top of his class in tactics and survival, but that hardly makes up for his shortcomings. You were there for his disciplinary hearing! Are you out of your mind, leaving him in charge of the Federation flagship when the action was over? Why didn't you transfer command to one of your more solid officers?"
"You said you've read the reports," Pike shrugged, stifling his frustration with the other man's obstinacy. He'd already explained his decision in his logs; Barnett just didn't want to hear it. "You know how much of the command structure was lost. Who do you think I should have replaced him with? Commander Spock, who'd already removed himself from consideration? Lieutenant Uhura, who hasn't yet completed the command track qualifications? Or Lieutenant Sulu, who's spent the year since he was commissioned ferrying diplomats around in shuttles?" All excellent officers, and easily capable of holding the conn for a shift, but a little unready for full authority over an entire Constitution-class starship. Not that Kirk was technically any more prepared, but he had a certain instinct for it that just couldn't be taught.
No need to even mention Chekov, who'd been aboard to earn his student-officer experience credits; the Russian whiz kid still had a couple of years' worth of coursework to complete. Or the engineer Kirk had picked up on Delta Vega; lieutenant commander or not, all Pike knew about Scott beyond his technical ability was that he had the personal enmity of Admiral Archer. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Barnett spread his hands wide in front of the vidscreen pickup. "I'm just saying, I realize the kid's a damn hero now and he has a reputation for being charming, but that ego of his is not enough to hold a crew together!" He sounded genuinely distressed, which eased Pike's irritation a little; he really did believe he had the ship's best interests in mind.
"You'd be surprised," he replied, wryly. "Right now, I think Kirk's bullheadedness is keeping the ship going at least as much as the impulse engines; the crew are taking their cues from him, and it's keeping them too busy and focused to dwell on what they've been through. If you can't trust me when I tell you that he's got more raw talent for command than any cadet I've seen in years, then trust the facts; you're the one who's kept me up to date on his academic achievements. His ego alone doesn't explain how he completed four years of coursework in three, without sacrificing either a very active social life or outstanding grades. I thought it prudent to let him test his leadership skills outside of combat while the opportunity was available, and he's holding up to the challenge remarkably well.
"Besides." Pike paused for emphasis, meeting Barnett's gaze squarely. There was more in play here than just what Kirk might or might not deserve on his own merits; the careful framing of the day's previous conversations had told him at least that much. "Whatever happens next, I doubt Command will be able to afford the luxury of letting him climb the ranks the usual way; I think you know that already."
Barnett sighed, slumping forward a little at his desk, and rubbed at his forehead. "I do. I'd have preferred you or Commander Spock, for reasons that should be obvious, but-- the backlash is already beginning. Starfleet is going to need a heroic image to rally around in the immediate future, and the captain who led the Enterprise to victory is the best we're going to get. The Romulans are claiming no official connection to the attacks, of course, but they're already using the 'expectation of unjust retaliation' as an excuse to stir up even more activity on their side of the Neutral Zone, and the Klingons have been equally agitated since the reported loss of their fleet near Rura Penthe. Whether they blame the Romulan Empire or not, they're likely to initiate hostilities with someone as a way to recoup their lost honor, and the destruction at Vulcan is going to make the Federation look like the weaker target in the short run.
"And those are only the obvious external threats; the anti-Vulcanoid movement that sprang up years ago after the destruction of the Kelvin is flaring up again. There have been several demonstrations in the last few days, and besides the attack itself, there's been precious little else for the newsfeeds to focus on. We've been withholding casualty lists until we could make contact with you again, and noone's heard a peep from the Vulcan Embassy in days; understandable, since the loss of a planetful of telepaths probably made quite an impact on the survivors, but unfortunate in terms of political spin. I'm afraid you're going to have to resign yourselves to a media blitz the second you arrive in spacedock, Chris."
Pike winced, and suppressed the urge to rub his own forehead at the thought. "I'll make sure the crew is warned," he replied, "as well as our guests. We can beam the Ambassador and the elders directly to the Embassy when we arrive, but there won't be enough room there for the rest of the Vulcan refugees."
Barnett frowned thoughtfully. "We'll make sure something is arranged. It'll be weeks before the Federation Council gets any significant work done, even on a matter as urgent as establishing a new Vulcan homeworld, and in the meantime I'm sure they'd prefer we keep the harassment to a minimum."
"We're in agreement there," Pike replied, with a tired smile.
"Speaking of Vulcans," Barnett added, after a moment's heavy pause. "Has Commander Spock given any indication as to his future plans?"
"No, not yet." Pike shook his head. "I hadn't thought it polite to ask."
Even if he had, he didn't think Spock was in any state of mind to be making firm decisions at the moment. The recordings of his encounter on the bridge with Kirk upon Kirk's return from exile had proven as much, though both had downplayed the encounter when they'd discussed it with him later. Pike had known that Vulcans were theoretically capable of great feeling under their cold surfaces-- he could hardly have escaped his own Academy training without learning the basic cultural characteristics of the Federation's founding species-- but he'd never witnessed it in person, and had certainly not expected such an outburst from the young man he'd chosen as successor to Number One.
He wouldn't blame Spock if he chose to return to his father's people in the aftermath of their near extinction. But somehow he doubted that the logical path would hold much appeal for the man on that recording, the one whose passions were nearer to the surface than Pike would have believed. He'd nominated Spock for his XO partially to balance out his own style of command, a strategy that had also informed his choice of Kirk as Acting First Officer when he'd transferred command to Spock, but when it had come to the assault on Nero's vessel Spock had taken another tack entirely. Perhaps in an ordinary situation he would remain a stabilizing influence, but during the crisis he had reinforced and amplified Kirk's intensity rather than restraining it, even when they'd been in conflict about their goals.
Pike had chosen wiser than he'd known when he'd picked the half-Vulcan for his command team. And in the event that it took Pike longer to heal than it took the engineers to repair his ship-- well. Starfleet could do worse; a damn sight worse.
Barnett sighed. "He's been one of our best instructors, these last four years-- the students tend to find him standoffish, but the ones who pick up on what Spock's trying to teach them have a tendency to turn into stellar officers. I knew we wouldn't get to keep him here once Enterprise launched, but I'd been looking forward to seeing what he'd accomplish out there, too."
"Only time will tell." About that, as about so many other things.
"Too true." The admiral drummed his fingers against the PADD on his desk a few times, then nodded to him. "Well, I suppose I'd better leave you to rest. I'll need to start informing the families, now that we know how many-- how many of the cadets-- well." He swallowed, abruptly looking every moment of his age. "We'll hold the ceremony a few days, until after you arrive, but the fact that there aren't any bodies, or even any debris to bury because of that damned black hole..." He trailed off again.
The image of the Mayflower's saucer section, broken and drifting toward Enterprise-- the largest single fragment in a field of death and destruction that had once been six whole, shining ships-- floated up from Pike's subconscious; the horror of that shocking instant flooded back through him, and he closed his eyes to regain his composure.
Barnett paused briefly, then cleared his throat and continued. "I think everything else can wait until you return," he said, gruffly. "Try not to trip over any more disasters on your way back. The escort ships we called back from the primary fleet should catch up with you sometime tomorrow, but we'd prefer it if you didn't actually need their assistance."
"Understood," Pike replied, opening his eyes again and giving the man a curt nod.
The admiral nodded back, then reached toward his vidscreen. Before he shut the connection off, however, he hovered for a long moment, strain and sympathy drawing lines on his face. "I'm sorry, Chris. I truly am."
"I know, Richard," he replied, roughly. "I know."
Pike stared into the empty screen for a long breath, then scrubbed a hand over his face. Three more days of this, he had to look forward to; three more days stuck in this limbo of both suspense and reprieve, before all of their lives changed-- in one way or another.
Heavy-hearted, he reached back behind the bed to flatten a palm against the nearest bulkhead, and allowed himself a moment to grieve. Then he pulled back, clicked the comm to summon Lt. Chapel for more headache medication, and pulled the shreds of his dignity back together.
He was still the captain of the Enterprise, however long that might last. And the Captain could never let his crew see him bleed.