A/N: I'm a little rusty, but I come to you with an offering. The style's a little different-I've been experimenting lately. Let me know what you think. Also, there's a good chance that a companion fic will be coming along for this, so keep an eye out for that. Thanks to Stray for the encouragement and excitement, to Ginger Ninja for the beta, to ColtDancer for checking in on me and encouraging me to get my rear in gear, and to those who continue to read and review my stuff even though I'm not always consistent in my posting. Y'all are wonderful.
Disclaimer: Star Trek, its characters and anything affiliated with it don't belong to me. The poetry quoted in here is a line from Samuel T. Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which is an excellent read.
"The swimmer adrift on the open seas measures his strength, and strives with all his muscles to keep himself afloat.
But what is he to do when there is no land on the horizon, and none beyond it?"
- Georges Duhamel
"It is not so much our friends' help that helps us, as the confidence of their help."
It isn't the sweltering hot of the humid Iowa summers of his childhood, nor the arid hot he'd experienced on his recent visit to New Vulcan. No, this thick, sticky heat is the kind of hot that leaves him sweating without moving and makes him want to jump into the clear violet water to find some kind of relief - carnivorous water creatures and broken left femur be damned.
He's not sure if the fact he's alone makes the heat worse or not.
He's laying at the bottom of the rickety wooden boat, keeping his eyes up toward the sky so as not to look at the long crack in the hull that's inching steadily closer to the waterline. Cuerentin's sun is still too low in the sky to see over the weather-beaten wood, but he can feel its rays beating down on his blistering hands and face. It's only the dawn of his second day adrift, but the skin that's not protected by his Starfleet-issue pants and undershirt is already deep red and blistered.
After waiting a few moments to see if his fatigue will evaporate in the heat of the sun (it doesn't), he pulls himself up, concealing his groan more out of habit than necessity. He's long been an expert at hiding his aches and pains - it's second-nature for him now, even when there is no one in sight. The violet-colored ocean stretches around him endlessly; the boat bobs gently in the waves, water slapping against the sides softly each time it rocks. The cerulean sky is unmarred by cloud, bird, shuttle, or ship.
He's well and truly alone.
Raising his arms toward the sky, he stretches as much as he can without jostling his leg or rocking the boat. He twists a little, hissing as his back pops several times in a row before he lowers his arms. His sun-blistered hands scream at him when he spreads his fingers apart and curls them, but he shoves the pain aside as he looks down at his latest project.
"Back to work," he murmurs softly, picking up the pieces of the shattered communicator from where they lay scattered in his lap.
It was supposed to be a simple mission with minimal risk. Cuerentin was described as a large planet with a small population. Scans showed water covering ninety-nine percent of the surface, and the one percent of land visible was a small chain of islands in the southern hemisphere of the planet. The islands were barely larger than small hills, and the settlements that had been built on the land consisted of small groups of huts large enough to hold a handful of people - hardly a threatening group.
He should've been suspicious from the start; past experiences have proved that nine times out of ten the "minimal risk" missions turn into unequivocal disasters - disasters that generally put him and others of his crew in sickbay.
But by all outward appearances, this had looked like an easy mission. They'd been asked to make sure the native inhabitants were in no danger of being destroyed by the high volume of water on the planet, as well as gather some data on the planet's ecosystems. A few quick tests, a scan of the planet, and they could be on their way again.
The only trouble he'd anticipated was trying to stay out of sight of the natives so as not to violate the Prime Directive, since Cuerentin's technology was far from advanced. Even the shortest of estimates had said the people wouldn't be ready for space travel for at least another four centuries.
He'd underestimated them. That had been his biggest mistake.
When he was younger, he had always enjoyed tinkering with machines. He'd taken an antique radio apart when he was four and rebuilt it when he was seven. He'd fine-tuned the Corvette's engine the day he drove it over the quarry's edge. He'd worked long enough to buy the parts needed to build his own motorcycle. At the Academy, he'd taken every available mechanical engineering class he could squeeze into his schedule just so he could design and build things.
But with each and every one of those projects, he'd had tools to help him out with the smaller pieces. Now, as he tries to connect the proper wires to reestablish a signal from the communicator, he only has his fingers - fingers so blistered they can hardly bend the way he wants. And his work surface is far from stable - the boat moves with every little wave on the ocean surface, making it even more difficult to work with the tiny wires.
Sweat drips down the curve of his neck as he leans in closer to his work. The muscles in his back ache, but there's not much he can do about that - if he moves too much, there's a strong chance the boat will capsize. The craft's small, barely longer than he is tall, and there are no seats or benches built into it, which means he has to sit on the splintered and slightly warped bottom of the boat with his legs stretched out in front of him - a position that's far from comfortable. He doesn't have much choice, though - he needs to keep his leg as straight as possible to keep the pain to a minimum.
He manages to untwist a couple more wires and then pauses, looking up at the sky. The sun has moved up a few degrees, causing the temperature to rise with it. He licks his cracked and bleeding lips, trying to work up a little saliva to ease the dryness of his parched throat, sighing when all he tastes is the copper from the dried blood on his lower lip.
Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink, he thinks bitterly as he glances at the violet ocean. Never thought I'd get to experience Coleridge's words first-hand.
A sharp crack draws his head down, and his eyes focus intently on the fissure in the hull. It's snaking down from where two pieces of wood had been joined together just off the front of the starboard bow. The hull is splitting further with each passing hour - the water is wearing through the weather-beaten pitch used to hold the wood together, and the boards are beginning to pull apart as a result. As the boat dips down into the trough of another small wave, he sees a few drops of water slip through the crack.
The corners of his mouth turn down and he focuses his attention back on the communicator.
He knows without a doubt his crew is looking for him, but it won't hurt to try and help them along.
In retrospect, he probably should've taken more than three people with him. And he probably should have let Spock come instead of siding with McCoy and forcing his XO to remain behind. But the mission was minimal risk - even Spock had agreed with that - and the half-Vulcan was still recovering from their run-in with a giant bliw'tha the week before, so he'd done what he thought best and left his senior officers behind, taking two security officers and a science officer down to the surface with him.
The severe lack of land mass made it too difficult for Scott to locate a suitable site for the transporter, so Kirk had taken the away team down in a landing shuttle, approaching the northern-most island from the northwest in an effort to avoid being seen by the natives. They'd reached the island without incident, and Polwok, the science officer, had deployed a series of probes to study the currents with no problems.
Everything had been going smoothly when the attack happened. His only warning was the sudden sense he was being watched followed immediately by the quiet gurgle from Thorton as the lieutenant drew in one last breath through her slashed throat. He turned in time to see a figure covered in mud and leaves plunge a long knife into Polwok's chest before something slammed into him. He tumbled to the ground, rolling over twice before landing on his back. Blinking a couple of times to try and clear his head, he propped himself up on an elbow when he heard a sharp, fearful cry of "Captain!"
"Wilson!" he bellowed as a set of webbed hands gripped the security officer's head. Wilson stared back at him for a brief moment, utter terror in his eyes, before his head was sharply twisted to the side. The resounding crack of the officer's spine snapping made bile rise in his throat as he watched Wilson fall limply to the ground.
He scrambled backwards, hands scrabbling frantically in the sand, as the silent ambushers turned their attention toward him. He'd known the Cuerentins were small, but he had never imagined they'd be so fierce. The attackers were humanoid, covered with mud, leaves and other debris that didn't quite disguise their scaly skin and webbed hands and feet. The tallest one couldn't have stood higher than his shoulder, yet even the smallest of the group looked so intimidating that he had to swallow back the fear bubbling in his chest.
Narrowing his eyes, he pulled his phaser from its holster on his hip and aimed it at the group, making sure it was set to stun. The Cuerentins blinked in astonishment at the sight of the small weapon, dark, beady eyes flicking from their primitive but deadly knives back to his phaser. The one closest to him curled his lips back, revealing a row of sharp yellowed teeth, then raised his knife and lunged forward with an ear-splitting shriek. The phaser shot caught him right in the chest and he tumbled to the sand without another sound.
The others stared at the fallen Cuerentin, and he took the opportunity to scramble to his feet. Keeping his phaser trained on the other warriors, he reached for his communicator. He had just flipped it open when he heard the snap of a twig behind him. Whirling around, he saw the blur of a club in another Cuerentin's hands just before it connected with his left thigh. White-hot pain consumed him, blurring his vision as the sound of his femur snapping echoed over the beach. The communicator and phaser dropped from his hands as he fell to one knee, clutching at his throbbing leg. He heard someone approach, but before he could look up something connected with the back of his head, pitching him forward into oblivion.
Four of the larger wires inside the communicator are the exact same shade of green. He knows that if he hooks one of them correctly from the power pack to the transmission chip, he'll be able to create a signal. He doubts it will be strong, but if Scott, Uhura, and Chekov are paying any attention to their station monitors, one of them will be able to pick it up. As long as the Enterprise remains in standard orbit around the planet, he still has a chance.
He growls in frustration when the second wire he tries fails to create the signal. He rips it out of the hardware and tosses it next to the first one he tried. The thin wire floats at the top of the small puddle water coating the bottom of the boat. He can feel the water seeping underneath him as the crack in the hull grows steadily larger. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have any affect on him other than cooling him off from the hot sun; unfortunately, the water is bitter enough to make him gag the first time he chances a sip.
Still, the coolness is refreshing, and he wants to do nothing more than go for a swim now - his black shirt and pants are doing nothing to keep him cool, and the burns on his hands and face are steadily growing worse. The heat's doing nothing for his concussion, either - it's taking every bit of effort to concentrate on the project, despite the fact that all he really wants to do is sleep, even more than he wants to swim.
But the breach in the hull is now below the waterline, the thin trickle of water pouring into the boat has transformed into a small stream, the horizon has darkened ominously with the signs of a coming storm, and if he doesn't get out of this soon, he'll have more problems than just a broken communicator and some aches and pains. He grabs the third green wire, biting the tip of his tongue lightly in concentration as he tries to make the connection.
His crew is looking for him - he knows that without a doubt - but a small part of him is starting to wonder if they'll ever be able find him out in the middle of an ocean that practically covers the planet.
Waking up after the ambush was a slow and painful process. The throbbing in his head competed for attention with the throbbing in his left thigh, and he wondered why his CMO wasn't hovering nearby and haranguing him for doing something so stupid as leading an away team again. Bones was always nearby when he was in this much pain, hypo in hand to make it go away. He'd never realized until that moment how much he had come to rely on his best friend to be there to patch him up after something had gone wrong.
Then the surface he was laying on rocked gently, and he realized whatever was beneath him was even harder than the extremely uncomfortable bio-beds, which meant he wasn't in sickbay.
He forced his eyes open with a soft groan, wincing as sunlight pierced his vision. Above him was nothing but wide open sky, one of the bluest he'd ever seen. He could hear the soft sound of waves crashing against something, and a moment later he felt everything shift slightly as he was rocked again.
Rolling his head slightly, he stared at the short wall of rickety wood in front of his eyes. It took a long moment of staring before he realized that he was in a small boat. He searched his memory, trying to recall exactly when he'd climbed into it.
He didn't remember getting into the boat; he did remember the gaping hole in Thorton's throat, the blood spurting from Polwok's chest, and the awkward angle of Wilson's snapped neck.
The small boat rocked violently as he grabbed the side and pulled himself up, barely getting his chin over the edge before he vomited everything in his stomach - which wasn't much - into the water. Then the throbbing in his skull caught up with him, sending his stomach into another bout of dry heaves, which did nothing but increase the frequency of the throbs in his head.
Once the heaves passed, he wiped his mouth and forced himself to sit up straight, hissing softly as the movement jostled his leg and made his head spin a little. He blinked a few times, trying to clear his head but failing miserably. The world twirled around him, even when he had his eyes closed, and the disorientation was enough to make him dry heave a few more times and spit stringy acid into the sea.
His boat shuddered as something suddenly bumped it. He turned and saw another tiny boat drifting next to his. It looked to be about the same size, but it rode lower in the water. He gripped the edge of his own boat tightly when he saw the body lying half-submerged in the water covering the bottom of the boat. Polwok's eyes were mercifully closed, but there was a jagged hole where his heart used to be, and the water that had leaked into the boat had turned a deep violet-red from the blood still draining from the body.
He swallowed, shifting and turning as much as his throbbing head and leg would allow. He saw yet another small boat drifting at least twenty yards behind him off the port side, and the longer he stared at it the farther it drifted away, caught in the pull of a different current. He had a strong feeling there was once a fourth boat in their little convoy. Judging by the rather shoddy craftsmanship of his own boat, he also had a feeling that boat was now at the bottom of the ocean somewhere.
Burial at sea, he realized, a hint of hysterical laughter escaping his lips as his grip on the edge of the boat tightened. How quaint.
He scanned the horizon again, and his shoulders slumped slightly when he saw no sign of land. He wasn't sure how long he'd been unconscious, but by the water around him and the distinctively empty feeling in his stomach, it had been at least a couple of hours. Definitely a concussion, he lamented silently, raising a hand to his throbbing head. He fingered the large lump on the back of his skull and was mildly relieved when he pulled his hand away and saw no sign of fresh blood on his fingers-as painful as a concussion was, a cracked skull was worse.
A flash of sunlight glinting off something caught his attention, and he turned back to look at Polwok's half-sunk boat. His eyes widened when he saw the science officer's communicator resting on his stomach in several pieces. There were bits and pieces of other devices floating around in the tinted water - parts of the equipment Polwok had brought down to the surface, as far as he could tell.
In any other situation, the communicator wouldn't even be considered salvageable. But he really had no other choice - that communicator was his only hope for contacting the Enterprise. His own communicator was gone, as was his phaser. Polwok's phaser was missing as well; he had a feeling there were some very excited natives experimenting with their new weapons.
Part of him - the part that lived for exploration and loved meeting new people - hoped they kept the phasers on stun until the power packs ran out; the other part - the part that raged at the senseless deaths of three of his crew - hoped they unintentionally set the things on kill and pointed them at each other before pulling the trigger.
He reached over and grabbed the edge of the slowly sinking boat, wincing when he accidentally moved his leg. He breathed deeply through his nose a few times to suppress the pain, staring into deep, clear water. His forehead furrowed in confusion when he caught sight of a dark outline far below the two boats. It was long and serpentine, and it circled ominously, like a shark circling a kill.
His eyes suddenly widened in realization as he glanced back at the bloodied water surrounding Polwok's body. Some of the tainted water had started leaking back out of the boat, and he could see a thin trail of it twisting in the current behind them.
Ignoring the pain shooting up from his leg, he tugged the other boat toward him. There was a thud as the two vessels connected again. He reached out and frantically snagged as many of the shattered communicator pieces off Polwok's torso as he could reach, glancing back down at the water as he did so. The creature had stopped circling and was steadily growing larger as it approached.
With a grunt, he ripped off a loose piece of wood from Polwok's boat before shoving the craft away as hard as he could. He set the communicator pieces in his lap and began using the wood to paddle further away from the boat.
Then his own boat suddenly lurched violently as the surface of the water exploded, and Polwok's boat disappeared in a mix of spray and shattered wood. He dropped his makeshift oar, gripping the side of the boat with one hand and clutching the shattered communicator pieces with the other as he ducked down inside the boat.
A moment later, the light from the sun was blocked, and he looked up with wide eyes as the creature arched over his own boat. Water dripped down from the monster's dark, scaly hide. It resembled a giant snake, three meters wide and at least ten times as long. He caught a glimpse of large gleaming teeth before its head slid back into the water with another splash. He tightened his grip on the boat as the small craft rocked violently in the waves. The creature's tail flicked out of the water, sending spray high into the air before it came raining down on him. He shifted and adjusted his weight accordingly in an attempt to keep the boat from capsizing as the last of the monster's long body slid beneath the water.
Within seconds, the water was as peaceful as it had been before. The only sign of disturbance was the small bits of wood floating where Polwok's boat had been moments earlier.
The sea is no longer smooth. Instead of crystal clear depths, there is a violet-tinged froth of water on the surface blocking his view. When he looks out, all he can see are white caps appearing and disappearing in the fading light as the sea is stirred by a gusting wind.
The storm blew up suddenly; within the span of an hour the sky had transformed from cerulean blue into a stormy mix of green, brown, and gray, and the boat rocks violently in the tumult. He's been trying unsuccessfully since the storm blew in to get the fourth green wire connected. It would be difficult even without the storm-he can hardly move his fingers anymore, his vision went double some time ago, and he's having a hard time concentrating past his continuously pulsing headache and the water that is almost covering his legs.
Lightning illuminates everything for an instant, and thunder rumbles overhead a moment later. He ignores it, gnawing at his blistered, bleeding lip as he tries once more -
There is a brief cackle of static before the boat is jostled by another wave, which causes the connection to break. Still, he can't help but grin a little as he tries to connect the wire again. He's been waiting for the sound of static for hours now; he doesn't have a microphone to speak into, so even if he can reestablish connection with the Enterprise, he wouldn't be able to talk with anyone onboard.
But, he reflects as he manages to make the connection again, there are other ways to communicate besides speaking.
He moves the wire a little, breaking the connection, before remaking it again. He repeats the process and hopes that either Scotty or Bones are around to hear the signal; he's not sure if anyone else onboard knows the archaic Morse code. Thunder rumbles again as he tries to tap out the only message his muddled mind can remember: S.O.S.
He's almost finished with the O when the boat lurches violently. The unexpected movement causes the ramshackle communicator to fly out of his clumsy hands, and before he can even attempt to grab the device, it's disappeared into the waves beating against the boat.
"No!" he shouts in frustration. The boat jerks again, and he reaches out to grasp the sides as water sloshes over the starboard side. He doesn't need Spock's calculations to know that his boat is minutes away from disappearing beneath the waves, nor does he need Bones' lecturing to know he's in no condition for a swim. His shoulders slump as he looks up at the stormy sky, searching for any sign that someone from his crew is coming in for a last-second save. All he sees are churning clouds and flashes of lightning.
The boat lists violently as its broadsided by another wave. He has a moment to register that his tiny vessel is capsizing, but before he has a chance to draw in a breath, he's tossed into the ocean.
Beneath the surface of the water, it's quiet. He can still hear waves crashing and thunder rumbling, but it's muffled now, mere background noise. He forces his eyes open in time to see several of the shattered remnants of his little boat slowly sinking to the depths of the ocean. Looking back toward the surface, he can see the shadows of a few more pieces of wood getting tossed about in the waves.
Using his arms and his good leg, he half-swims, half-floats to the nearest piece of driftwood. He manages to toss an arm over the debris when his head breaks the surface, and he clings to the plank as he coughs and gasps for air. Another wave crashes over him, but he's somehow able to keep hold of the wood.
Rain has started falling now - not that it makes a huge difference, since he's already soaking wet - but it pelts against his face, making it difficult for him to do much more than bury his face in his arms. He bobs in the water, letting his legs drift as limply as possible to keep the pain in his broken leg to a minimum.
At this point, however, all of the pain in his aching body is starting to fade. In its place is a bone-deep weariness; he's tired - tired of the pain, tired of fighting to stay awake, tired of waiting for a rescue that isn't coming in time.
The captain always goes down with the ship, he thinks as another wave crashes over his head. He doesn't bother fighting; instead, he continues clinging to the wood and lets his own buoyancy take him back up. When he surfaces again, he blinks a couple of times and squints up at the sky. Somewhere up above the clouds is his beloved Enterprise, circling in orbit as her crew looks for him, using every tool and trick they have at their disposal. He knows this, and despite the fact that it's not going to work this time, he's grateful for it. He just wishes he had the chance to tell them that.
His forehead furrows as something descends through the clouds. As it approaches, he sees the bold NCC-1701 painted across the side of the shuttle, and he can't help but grin.
The captain always goes down with the ship, he thinks, unless the crew says otherwise.
He waves his arm back and forth once as the shuttle approaches; the action wears him out, and he lets the appendage drop back to the water. For the first time in his life he's longing for the safety of sickbay. He's going to sleep for a week after this, maybe two if Bones sedates -
Then everything disappears as a giant wave sweeps him up and then tosses him down deep below the surface. He turns head over heels a few times; the plank is ripped from his grasp, and the wild movement jars his leg until all he's aware of is pain and disorientation.
The world is muffled again, but this time he can't tell which way is up. Even if he did, and even though he knows he could be moments away from rescue, he can't find the energy to struggle for the surface. He forces his eyes open once more. Everything's dark and blurry; he slowly moves an arm until he's looking towards the lighter-colored water at the surface. It's meters away - too far for him to even attempt to float up. A dark shape rests over the surface, but before he can figure out what it is, another dark shape suddenly appears in a cloud of bubbles. He tilts his head as it moves toward him; some part of his brain is flashing a warning of possible danger. But he has no energy to try and swim for air, let alone swim away from any threat.
His eyes drift shut as the shape approaches, and his attention turns to the burning in his lungs. He should probably try and relieve that, he decides as something snags him around the waist and tugs. The thing is, he can't quite remember how to solve that problem.
Sounds change around him, and he's suddenly aware of someone shouting in his ear. "Breathe! Damnit, Jim, just breathe!"
He reacts to the order instinctively-or tries to. It takes a firm pressure jerking his stomach in and up for his body to realize the need to expel the water from his lungs first and then breathe. The arms around his chest and stomach move a little, trying to support him and keep him afloat as he coughs violently, and he instinctively curls in toward the warmth radiating from the body next to him. After a moment, he realizes the body is still talking.
"- goddamnit, Jim, you're turning me gray before my time - that's it, just keep breathing, nice and easy - and shit that was close but we got you, you're gonna be fine, you hear me? Keep breathing, Kid. We got you and you'll be fine, I'm gonna fix you up as good as new and then you can turn around and get yourself in another pickle-"
Finally the owner of the voice registers. "Bones?" he gasps.
There's a relieved sigh next to his ear. "Yeah, Jim."
They move up and down suddenly, and he registers rain still falling on his face and the weightless feeling of drifting in the ocean. "How come still in th'water?" he whispers as they bob in another wave.
"Scotty's gonna beam us straight into sickbay, just hang on another minute, alright?"
He nods once and lets his head drop back onto his friend's shoulder. "Knew y' find me," he murmurs sleepily.
The arms around him tighten instinctively. "I'm just glad you were stubborn enough to hang on until we got here."
His lips curl into a slight smile. "Figured y'd get mad if y' did tha' work f'r n'thin."
A chuckle. "Yeah, you'd be right about that. Hang on now, we're beaming up."
He vaguely registers the push-pull feel of the transporter and doesn't bother fighting to stay awake and upright when they rematerialize. He can hear voices echoing in the space, and there are several pairs of hands easing him down onto something as he drifts off. There's no fear as blackness takes over his mind, just peace.
He knows his crew will be there when he wakes up.