The Once & Future Captain

Part 7

The atmosphere throughout the ship during the trek back to Tarsus IV was tense. If the rest of the crew noticed anything amiss about the ship and it's captain and senior crew, they said nothing.

Uhura was sure she could see flashes of guilt in Jim's eyes, but they were often gone before she could get a second look. She wasn't sure what to think; on the one hand, the fact that Jim had hijacked his own ship and risked court martial and a dishonorable discharge from Starfleet infuriated her. On the other, given what she saw on that planet… if anyone needed to sort out his issues it was Jim.

Spock was furious, in his quiet, Vulcan way. He never had to say a word, only looked at Jim with a hard glint in his otherwise impenetrable expression. Their friendship was compromised and Spock wasn't sure if continuing that friendship would be to the benefit of either of them anymore.

Riley had merely laughed when the Spock and the others questioned him about how Jim had managed to take over the ship and at the same time, have it appear to be completely in Starfleet's command with all systems normal. "In case none of you guys have figured it out, Jimmy's a tactical genius. My guess is the entire time he was assisting with maintenance on the ship and helping out the various, he was inserting undetectable and untraceable subroutines." It was so stupidly simple, and not a one of them had questioned Jim on why he was assisting various crew members here and there.

While Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu kept to themselves, worried for Jim and worried for the future of the ship, it was Bones who bore the brunt of Jim's moods. Ever since he'd spoken his piece, Jim had avoided talking to him whenever possible. As it turned out, the captain only really had to check in with Sickbay once a day at most, barring disaster. Bones tried to stick to what he'd said though; right now neither of them were in any great shape for a relationship. What bothered him most was that Jim was risking something he'd worked hard to earn and had risked his life for - his commission as a Starfleet captain - in order to go back to planet that had chewed him up and spit him out. He knew that Jim was stubborn, but this was madness. As they drew closer and closer to Tarsus IV, the more determined Jim seemed to become.

"Captain, we have reached the entered coordinates," Chekov's voice rang. Jim and Riley sat up. They shared a long look before Jim spoke. "Acknowledged and maintain standard orbit. Transporter Room 3, prepare for beam-down to the planet." Jim stood and stretched. "You ready for this, Riley?"

Riley nodded. "At first I thought you were crazy, but then I realized that you've been crazy since the day we met. It's a good thing you're going to do, Jimmy."

Jim swallowed hard and picked up two black duffel bags. He handed one to Riley. "Let's go, then."

They left for Transporter Room 3, and were only vaguely surprised to find Spock already there waiting for them. "Captain, Lieutenant," he acknowledged. He was carrying an away team satchel and followed them up onto the pad.

"You're not going with us," Jim said. "This doesn't concern you."

"The safety of the captain concerns me, therefor it is only logical that I accompany you and the lieutenant to the planet's surface." Spock countered.

"Jimmy, just drop this one," Riley urged. "We are going to need the help, after all."

Jim looked anything other than pleased, but still gave the command to energize.

The planet hadn't changed in the few weeks they'd been gone. It was still the same barren and desolate place they'd last encountered. The sun, thought bright in the sky, only seemed to serve to showcase the depressing atmosphere of the dead world.

"Right," Jim said. "Since you were so determined to come down here with us, you're going to help. Two sectors east of the city is a mass grave that Kodos dug when the executions started. Starfleet expanded it when they came here with their relief efforts. Everyone from the streets and residential areas were buried. But everyone in the buildings that were gassed and sealed off are still in the buildings. They deserve a proper burial and that's what we're going to do."

Spock was visibly taken aback. He hadn't been expecting this; he had fully been expecting another breakdown in the form of Jim destroying something as he had the statue of Kodos. That Jim would risk expulsion from Starfleet in order to give his fellow citizens a proper burial was… honorable.

"How are we to go about this?"

"I know where the ground crews kept their equipment. There are some excavators stored away and if we can't those up and running there are always shovels. The generators haven't failed so we can use the city vans to transport the dead." Jim said. "Riley, you think you can get us into those storage sheds?"

Riley grinned. "I broke into them once. I can do it again, no problem." He started chuckling. "At least this time I'm not going to have the enforcers chasing after me!"

Jim snorted. "Not to mention you won't have the 30 hours of community service afterwards, either. Landscaper Matthews was so pissed with you!"

"It wasn't as if I meant to destroy the seven-year anniversary garden. It was a total accident," Riley said. "They blew it completely out of proportion."

Spock watched this exchange with fascination. Neither the captain nor the lieutenant seemed aware the that memories they so fondly recalled sprung from the planet they both had not wanted to return to. How did this contradiction exist?

"Will our phasers be enough to breach the seals of the buildings?" Spock inquired. "Will we need to use the…" he paused at the unfamiliar word. "Excavators for that task as well?"

Jim shook his head. "I think a concentrated phaser burst on stun setting to the main doors should be enough. Then it's just a matter of getting everyone out." He considered. "The labor will still be hard, but there is the consideration that we were all starving when they died. They won't be as heavy."

"Let's get to work then," Riley said impatiently before hastily adding "Captain." at Spock's raised eyebrow. He took off for the storage sheds and Spock and Jim followed.

It took several buildings to develop a method, but soon enough, Spock, Jim and Riley were moving bodies out of the previously-sealed buildings, transporting them to the mass grave that Riley had spent over an hour extending with the excavator, and then burying them. Prior to his new-found knowledge of Jim, Spock would have been surprised at how Jim remembered nearly every person they buried. Riley's memory was remarkably accurate as well, but not as precise and detailed as Jim's.

"How is everything going down there, Captain?" Uhura's voice chimed in. Jim was busy helping Riley lower another body into the grave so Spock answered. "Everything is proceeding within acceptable parameters." He lowered his voice. "Is this channel secure?"

"Of course, Commander."

"The captain's mission was one of honor. I have chosen to assist him. If you wish, you and the others may beam down to assist us as well."

"Spock?" She sounded so puzzled.

"Nyota, the assistance, while not necessary, would be appreciated. And I do believe it will go a long way towards restoring the captain's faith in us. Also I do not believe that Starfleet needs to be aware of the situation."

"I'll let the others know and we should be down shortly."

Other than Sulu, who had flown down a shuttle, the others were down in short order and Jim looked up at them in shock. He rested against his upright shovel and nodded. "Thank you," he said. The emotion was clear in his voice. "Thank you all."

It took the better part of two days to finish burying the dead colonists. No one really talked about what they were doing; they just continued to load up the bodies from the buildings around the city into the shuttle and vans, take them them over to the mass grave, and carefully and respectfully bury them.

Over four thousand lives had been lost and all because of one man. To a crew who had spent more than a year recovering from the genocide of an entire race through one man's anger and the slaughter of hundreds of their closest friends, it was almost more than they could take. Yet they continued to work, uncomplaining. In a strange way, the fact that there were actually bodies to be buried was something of a comfort, despite the fact that the ones being laid to rest had died over a decade prior.

When they'd finished combing the city and the last victim had been retrieved and interred, Uhura, Spock, Bones, and the others had quietly beamed back on board the Enterprise, leaving Riley and Jim alone on the planet.

The two of them had visited the cavern one last time, before stopping by the graveyard to say goodbye to the children they'd tried to save and couldn't. They walked back to the city slowly, talking and reminiscing about their time on the planet so many years ago. Much to their surprise, Jim and Riley had found that the more they talked about it with each other, the less burdened they felt. Years of anger and guilt and loss started to fade slightly, leaving the pair of them feeling as though they would be able to finally begin healing.

They made their way to the residential area and Jim waited for Riley to finish his business in the house he'd once called home.

"Jimmy," Riley said, coming out with his black duffel full. "I'm going to head back. I think I'm done here."

Jim smiled over at Riley. It was a heady feeling, to know that he'd finally gained one of his closest friends back. "Go on, I'll be up shortly."

"You'll be okay?" Riley asked.

"Yeah," Jim said. "I'll be fine." And for the first time ever, he really and truly meant it. "I really do think I'm going to be all right."

"I'll see you back on the ship, then," Riley said, leaving for the beam-up point.

All alone, Jim walked further east as he had hundreds and hundreds of times. He had so many thoughts racing through his head, but strangely he felt at peace.

He stood on the sidewalk in front of his old house and closed his eyes. He could still hear Mr. Mullet mowing his grass and the sprinklers going off across the street over at the Stanislavs. He heard Sir's eager barking, glad to have his master home. Hoshi Sato waved at him from where she was tending her flower box. Opening his eyes, he smiled. He opened the gate quietly and walked up the path before opening the door and stepping into the home he'd loved more than anything.

He surveyed the living area and the kitchen and began the trek up the stairs. He lovingly ran his fingers over his aunt and uncle's bedroom door and when he came to stand in front of the white door that read "Jimmy's Room," he didn't have the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that he'd once expected.

His room was just as he'd left it, the others' intrusions aside. He smiled sadly as he looked around at the life he'd once lived. He reached into his closet and pulled out a black duffel bag. He started at the dresser by the closet. He laughed softly at the holo of him and Riley and the rest of the Tarsus IV Academy Glee Club. He laid it gently in his bag along with another holo of his Aunt Claire and Uncle Arthur. He combed his bookshelves and picked out A Separate Peace and The Adventures of Captain Macomber to go into the bag as well. He glanced at the baseball and mitt on his bed and tossed it in. The model of the XCV 330 Enterprise was carefully placed in. Jim could remember building the model like it was yesterday; he'd been so pleased with himself.

He crouched to reach underneath his bed and he pulled out an empty holo album that he'd received as a gift, but had never actually used. His mind made up, he pulled the loose holos out of the duffel bag and started sliding them into slots in the album. He opened his desk drawer and started riffling through the holos in there, picking and choosing his favorites to join the others. Then he left the room. Downstairs, he went straight for the mantle and pulled off the family pictures. He quickly carried them back upstairs and laid the frames in the bag. The album went in, too. He picked up the folded quilt his Aunt had made for him when he'd arrived and he delicately placed it in with his other possessions before zipping up the bag and setting it down.

Jim sat at his desk for a good ten minutes before he finally decided to turn the computer on. Slowly but surely the screen flickered to life and when he was completely in, he transferred more pictures to a memory stick he'd pulled from his pocket. Then he looked around at his room. He wasn't sure if he should or not, but in the end, he made up his mind. He selected the commands for a video log entry and when the red light started to flash, he took a deep breath.

"Jimmy Kirk here. Captain James T. Kirk, actually. For real, this time, I guess." He stopped, not sure if he was really wanting to do this, but before he could over-think it, he barreled on. "It's been over ten years since my last log entry here. And to pick up where I left off, Starfleet finally came and rescued us.

"I tried so hard not to look back. My life since this place… I'm not sure how to describe it, really. I guess you could say that I was lost and that I was angry and scared and betrayed and… so many things I just didn't want to feel. Things I wasn't ready to feel. So I did whatever I could to make sure that I wouldn't. I became the troublemaker everyone back on Earth used to say that I'd become. I drank, I smoked what can only be described as massive amounts of pot – which is legal on Earth, by the way – and I got into more fights than I can count. Sex was easy and putting everyone off became my new focus because anything was better than thinking about this place.

"I knew how to live here on Tarsus IV. It was simple here, I guess. For the most part, I knew where I stood. Here it was like my potential was limitless. I could do anything I set my mind to and then suddenly it was all taken away. And when I got back to Earth, I didn't know what to do. I didn't have anyone to turn to because all the other survivors were too busy dealing with their own pain to even notice me. And the crew I'd led had their own lives to figure out and didn't need to worry about their one-time captain."

Jim sighed.

"I don't know how I managed to make it through all those years up until Captain Pike found me drunk and bleeding on the floor of a bar and dared me to do more with my life. I brushed him off, like I did everyone, but then – and here's the strange thing – for some reason I'm still not sure of, I went to see the ship Starfleet was building in Riverside. And I saw that ship and," he stopped and swallowed heavily. "I wanted that ship more than anything. It was like a sign telling me that my life didn't have to be the way it currently was. For the first time since I'd been rescued from this place, I wanted to matter. I wanted that focus back; I wanted to feel like I was something special.

"I joined Starfleet and I worked my ass off to get through the academy. And I remembered everything I'd ever learned here, believe it or not." He laughed. "Xenolinguistics, engineering, physics, everything, I remembered. And I flew through Command Track. If I wasn't the top student in a class I was in, then I was in the top three percent. And I heard all the voices of everyone I'd ever learned from here, telling me that I could it, that I could make it. And I did."

He was more focused, more intense.

"What takes everyone else four years, sometimes five, to accomplish I did in three. And then my world went to hell again when Vulcan was destroyed and Nero targeted Earth, but I knew I could save everyone. I knew I could, you see? Because I'd already faced down hell. And I saved them. And that ship I saw sitting in the shipyard? It's the Enterprise, the flagship of the Federation and she's mine."

He was quiet, trying to figure out his next words.

"I spent years trying to forget this place because the memories were so painful. But like Hoshi told me once, I couldn't run forever. And coming back here was like my worst nightmare come to life. The pain of seeing everything you ever loved destroyed and being helpless to prevent it cannot be overstated. I didn't want to come back but I had my orders.

"And I wasn't alone. Riley was with me the entire way and so were my friends, my crew. And that's how I got through this. And it's been so… hard, being here again. It's been so painful to see this place and be in this house and see nothing that used to make this world such a wonderful place to be." He ignored the telltale stinging in his eyes. "But I did it. I came back and I faced the memories and the pain. I completed my mission and I laid my demons to rest. And I'm glad I did."

"I don't know if I'll ever be back. I don't know what my future holds. I could live to be a retired admiral who's a hundred and fifty or I could go out on my next mission and be killed unceremoniously by an allergic reaction to space pollen. I don't know. But whatever comes, I'll face it.

"When I was younger, Tarsus IV told me that I had the ability to accomplish anything. And despite what happened, this place, ultimately, was right. And since being back here, I've learned something." He swallowed heavily and spoke with conviction. "I'm going to be okay," he said. "I'm really, truly, going to be fantastic. I know that now.

"The only thing stronger than this world I used to live on, stronger than the memories and the pain and the horror of what happened here… is me."

He looked directly into the camera and smiled widely.

"Kirk out."

He pressed the commands for the video to stop recording and he shut the computer back down.

He slung his duffel back over his shoulder, went downstairs and left the house, locking it as he did so. He made his way back to the beam-back point and stopped.

"Kirk to Enterprise, ready for beam-up."

"Aye, Captain," he heard Scotty say.

He looked around him at the buildings and the street signs and closed his eyes.

He stepped out of the shuttle, clutching his duffel bag as he looked around wide-eyed.

"Welcome, travelers, to Tarsus IV, a Federation sanctioned Earth Colony focused on the full realization of individual and societal potential."

It was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. There were tall buildings gleaming in the sunlight and everywhere he looked, people went about their business, smiling. There was a large fountain that was changing colors as the spray varied and off to the east he could see the beginnings of neat housing units with grass so green he was sure this place was paradise come to life.

He'd been so scared to come here; he hadn't known what he'd face. But looking around, seeing this beautiful, peaceful world, he suddenly felt great.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Kirk?" the shuttle pilot asked, carrying his luggage over.

Jimmy smiled widely. "I feel like I can take on the world."

"Jim?" he opened his eyes. Bones was talking. "Jim, are you still down there?"

"Yeah, I'll be up in a minute."

"How are you feeling, Jim?" Bones asked.

Jim grinned and looked up to the stars that were slowly starting to appear as day turned to night. His life was up there, waiting for him. "I feel like I can take on the universe," he answered. "Energize." He felt peace as the energy field surrounded him and took him home.