NOTES: This story is part of my Academy-era story arc, which includes "Convergence" (which is the prequel to the main trilogy) and "And All the King's Men," which is the first story of the actual Academy trilogy. Both of those stories are complete, and are already posted on my profile. "Crossfire" is the next story in that series, and there's one more to come. Although you could jump into this story and follow it just fine without reading the other fics, several things in this story will not make sense unless you've read at least AAtKM first. I'd really recommend reading the others first.
"Crossfire" is COMPLETE. Yes, the whole thing is written and beta'd and ready to post. I'll be posting a chapter every couple of days until the whole thing is up. It's approximately 140K words long. Aaaand... I've just about finished writing the fic that comes after "Crossfire." The title of that one is "The Needs of the Few." I'll start posting that one as soon as "Crossfire" is up.
Anyway, this is a fic that ate my brain while I was writing it. It swallowed several months of my life, where I thought about nothing else, and took every spare minute to write, edit, re-write, write again, and finally come up with something that I was proud to post. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And if you like what you read, I'd really appreciate it if you took the time to let me know. It really makes my day.
That was Jim Kirk's voice. Unmistakable. And if Leonard kept his eyes closed and didn't move, perhaps that voice and the body producing it would go away.
"Hey, you awake?" Jim's shuffling footsteps came closer. "Lights."
Leonard's eyelids weren't quite thick enough to keep the light from penetrating them – he flinched sharply. Why the hell had he given Jim the pass code to his dorm room?
"I saw that. C'mon!"
That's right - he'd surrendered the pass code because Jim would have figured it out anyway, pain in the ass genius that he was. Pressing his face into his pillow, Leonard groaned, "Dammit, Jim, it's the middle of the night! I have clinic duty at Starfleet Medical in the morning!"
"I know, but while you're busy treating skinned knees over there, I'm going to be piloting my first shuttlecraft beyond Earth's orbit."
"And this concerns me why?" He turned his face away from the source of his annoyance and pulled the blanket up over his head.
The edge of the bed dipped as Jim sat on it, oblivious as usual about personal space. "Because I want you to watch. On the flight recorder feed."
Under his blanket, Leonard squeezed his eyes shut just a bit tighter and pressed his lips together, just barely biting back the sarcastic retort that the seemingly childish request deserved at this ludicrous hour of the morning. Immediately, the retort was replaced by a faint ache in his chest that he'd never admit to God himself without at least seven rounds of really good bourbon… and even then, probably not. This was a side of Jim Kirk that nobody else ever saw, and one that nobody could understand if they didn't know Jim the way he did. Jim liked to pretend that he didn't need anyone: he stood on his own, nothing could break him, and he had the scant emotional support he needed wrapped up in his own self-confidence. That's what the world saw. Leonard knew better.
Opening his eyes, he rolled over and propped himself up on his elbow. "Jim, I can't. I'm sorry, but I'm working at Starfleet Medical now. It's not like the Academy infirmary. I'm being evaluated constantly, I'm leading a research team, and my posting after graduation depends on it."
Jim's face fell. Well, no, he actually grinned and punched Leonard lightly on the arm. "That's my Doctor Bones, with all the big responsibilities now."
Leonard saw past it. He could read Jim like a tricorder, even as the kid clucked at him with not-so-mock-approval. "Jim," he growled lightly.
"And I know you want a planetside posting," Jim continued as if he hadn't heard him, "but you'll need to get some space experience so you can be my CMO when I've got a ship of my own."
If Leonard didn't know better, he would have thought the comment was made in jest, but this was Jim, and he knew Jim. The kid meant every word of it. Just like Jim knew there was no easy way for Leonard to respond to that. Having no decent answer to give, Leonard rolled his eyes and dropped back down onto his pillow with a groan of surrender. "How about you get the space experience, and I'll send you a weekly communiqué to make sure you're eating your vegetables."
"Fuck it!" He lurched sideways and sat up, leaning heavily on one hand, so he could look Jim in the eye. "Listen, I'm taking the mandatory Basic Spacecraft Piloting and Engineering course this semester. Next month, we start working on the actual shuttlecrafts. Even medical folk learn to pilot the damned things so we can pick up the reckless space cowboys who get themselves mangled doing whatever crazy things you people do." He pointedly ignored the slightly stung expression on Jim's face. "So don't worry, I'll get my space experience eventually. But right now, I'd like to get some sleep, without having nightmares about explosive decompression and shuttle crashes." With that, he flopped back down as he grabbed his extra pillow and dropped it over his face, blessedly blocking out the overhead light.
"Thanks for that mental image, Bones." Jim pulled back the corner of the pillow... just far enough so that Leonard couldn't avoid eye contact. "Ya know, it's just what I needed before going out on my first real extra-orbital training mission."
"You're welcome, you brat." He grabbed the pillow out of Jim's hand. "Nothing like a bit of realism to keep you from getting complacent. And when something goes wrong on that flying death trap of a tin can and you crash your sorry ass, don't come crying to me. Do you know how long it takes for human blood to boil in a vacuum?"
"Thirteen seconds," Jim said smartly as he stood upright and stepped back from the bed. Why did he have to sound so goddamned careless when he said that?
Leonard snorted. "Oh good, you've finally learned something from me. Now shut up and let me go back to sleep!"
"I appreciate the heartfelt wish of good luck and the affectionate send-off, Bones," he shot back lightly as he sauntered back towards the door. "Make sure you watch the training mission. I already patched the transmission from the flight recorder directly to your PADD. You know, if you have time to watch it between fixing sprained ankles and treating headaches."
With a sigh and a groan, Leonard launched his spare pillow at Jim's retreating form, hitting him in the back of the head.
"Thanks, Bones!" The pillow fell to the floor with a soft thud as the door slid shut.
Leonard shook his head to himself in the empty room. Jim had hacked his PADD again, but he was used to it by now. How Jim Kirk had so thoroughly entrenched himself into Leonard's life was too complicated to quite understand, but as much as the kid drove him nuts, he wouldn't trade it for the world. Besides, Jim had saved his life once. Of course, if it hadn't been for Jim, he wouldn't have almost died in the first place, but hell, who was keeping score?
A bemused grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Good luck, Jim," he muttered to himself, letting just a bit of affection seep through his irritation. Then, punching his pillow back into shape, he rolled onto his side, calling out, "Lights off."
Geosynchronous orbit, Jim decided, must be the most peaceful state of existence in the universe. Two hundred years ago, he wouldn't have had the luxury of artificial gravity, which meant he would have been treated to the exhilarating sensation of perpetual freefall, but this wasn't bad either. Surrounded by the stillness, he gave himself a moment to watch Earth floating in the blackness of space as the sun behind the shuttlecraft cast the rays of morning on San Francisco, 35,786 kilometers below. It seemed like something sacred, if such a thing existed. His only regret was that he didn't have the time or the privacy to take it in the way he wished he could.
"Kirk, are you paying attention?"
Doing his best not to roll his eyes at Cadet Tambe, who was a third-year cadet and his flight squad's Team Leader, Jim pulled his gaze from the viewport. "Yes, sir."
"Could have fooled me," she said, but not harshly. "We're receiving telemetry from Mars Orbiter II."
"Right," Jim mumbled to himself as he opened the data packet in the navigational computer. "Cross-referencing telemetry and approach vectors with the nav charts. Just a moment... Course plotted."
"Good. Transmitting course parameters to shuttlecrafts Capricorn and Aquarius."
Jim stole a few more seconds of gazing at the Earth as they waited for the other shuttlecrafts to coordinate their flight plans. It was 0820 hours at Starfleet Academy. He'd been up since long before daybreak, doing pre-flight checks on the shuttlecraft in the training hangar. Hell, he'd been awake long before he technically had to be, but he hadn't been able to sleep. Too excited. Plus, he'd needed to stop by Bones' dorm room before heading to the hangar. Needed to make sure Bones would watch.
Not that he wanted to admit it aloud, but after years of having nobody around to watch his accomplishments, he'd stopped caring about accomplishing anything. The past year had changed all that. Life at the academy, a new sense of purpose, and actually having someone around who might just give a damn about him... behind all the grumbling and warnings not to die, of course… had changed everything. Jim smiled at the memory of the pillow that had hit him in the back of the head as he'd left the room. He'd found it oddly comforting.
It had been a good first year, once he'd managed to get his bearings and wrap his head around everything that had happened… including almost losing his best friend before he'd realized he even had a best friend. And really, his second year was shaping up to be even better than the first. His ambitious three-year plan was actually on-track. Nobody managed to do that unless they already had an advanced academic degree, and yet it really looked like he was going to do it, and do it well. Not only did he have Bones, whose friendship he'd simply decided never to define, but he also had his flight squad. He'd become an assistant instructor in Basic Hand-to-Hand Combat, and had joined the Xenolinguistics club... much to the annoyance of one very lovely, sharp-tongued linguist he knew. And on top of it all, he was really adjusting to Academy life. Starfleet life, really.
It was good.
His thoughts were quickly interrupted as a reply transmission came over the comm system.
"Shuttlecraft Pisces, this is Cadet Okoru aboard the Capricorn. We've received your telemetry. Course is confirmed. Begin maneuver in one minute. Ready to roll, Tambe."
Tambe flipped the comm switch. "Pisces confirms - one minute."
"Aquarius also confirms - one minute," came Thaleb's voice. "Good to go."
The comm went silent as each shuttle crew made final preparations to break Earth's orbit.
"Ready for this, Kirk?" Tambe asked lightly as she did a last systems check.
"Course I'm ready. I was born in one of these things," Jim said, letting his voice go flat with dry humor, and knowing that Tambe would take the joke the way it was meant.
"Well, unless you were piloting it at the time, I'd say you've still got to show the evaluators that you can do it." Tambe was one of the few people in his advanced classes who knew exactly who Jim was and was completely indifferent to his identity. It was refreshing. Granted, his whole flight squad was really great about it, and they had all become surprisingly close over the past few months, but Tambe hit the balance almost as well as Bones did. Truth be told, he was really glad to be co-piloting with her for this mission.
"Yeah," he said slowly, tapping the last vector into the nav chart, "I was too short to reach the pedals last time."
She snorted. "And here you are, barely an Academy second-year, and already flying your first shuttle out of orbit. You don't even need a pillow on your seat to see out the viewport."
"We corn-fed Iowa brats grow fast. All that lingering 21st-century fertilizer in the soil."
"Uh-huh. Well, unless they do a lot of flying in Iowa, all that fertilizer won't help you much."
"I flew a car once. One of those early models from the 20th century." He tried to keep a straight face, and just narrowly failed.
Tambe rounded on him, her face incredulous. "What? Those don't have anti-gravity propulsion. What the hell are you talking about?"
"Well... the car flew. I bailed. But I couldn't quite reach the pedals then either."
Tambe's mouth opened, but she bit back her words and shook her head. "I think I'd rather not know." She finally let herself laugh. "Romano thinks you're going to botch the maneuver, by the way. He stopped by the hangar while you and the rest of the squad grabbed breakfast."
Jim gave a dry laugh. Romano was in Helios Squadron, another flight team on the same track as Nova Squadron, and he seemed to think just a bit too highly of himself. "Cadet Romano doesn't think they should have let me take anything except the standard second-year courses. So let him. He just can't handle the fact that my assessment for flight training was higher than his current standing, and he's graduating in May."
"Well, let's show Cadet Romano... and the evaluators..." Her voice trailed off as she noted the countdown beep. "Ten seconds."
Feeling a little thrill, Jim gave his seat harness one last tug and laid his fingers on the shuttle controls. "Course laid in. Ready to break orbit. Proximity sensors engaged... locking position at the right wing of the V-formation."
"Okay, Kirk. Take us out."
Inertial dampeners made it impossible to feel the change in velocity as the shuttlecraft broke orbit and accelerated away from Earth, but Jim imagined he could feel the increased speed pushing him back in his seat. "One-eighth impulse and holding," he said, not quite able to keep the excitement out of his voice. There was a joyful independence in such a small craft, flying away from Earth, completely under his control. It was like the thrill of independence he'd felt the day he stole the car, the day he'd left home, and every time he'd taken his life in his own hands and moved forward. For better or worse, he was in control. "Approaching the lunar slingshot."
The comm panel chimed. "Pisces, this is the Capricorn."
"Go ahead, Okoru," Tambe replied.
"Change of orders. The Pisces is lead shuttle now. Take it from here, boss."
Jim stifled a chuckle. Tambe was the Squad Leader, and Okoru the Assistant Squad Leader, but they were also roommates. Okoru dug for the eye-rolls by calling Tambe "boss," as often as possible. It worked this time, too.
With a dramatic eyeroll, Tambe slapped the comm panel. "Confirmed, Capricorn." She toggled the switch off and glanced sideways at Jim. "You like that a bit too much."
Jim merely grinned. "Receiving telemetry, boss."
Tambe groaned as the comm hail sounded and an unfamiliar male voice filled the cabin.
"Pisces, this is the Mars Orbiter. Maintain lead around the lunar slingshot, linear formation, and the convoy will accelerate to seven-eighths impulse after breaking lunar gravity."
"Confirmed, Mars Orbiter. Pisces over," Tambe replied before the comm channel clicked off. "Got it, Kirk?"
"I'm on it." Jim cross-checked the telemetry and altered their heading. The convoy shifted into a linear formation with the Pisces at the lead as the moon grew on the viewscreen. "I wonder why the change in orders."
"They always do stuff like that, so I've been told. No matter how simple the change, they want to continuously throw the unexpected at us -"
"Then we're always ready for the unexpected when it happens," Kirk finished for her. "Right. But that just means we get the front row seat for this. Look at that view," he mused as they approached the lit side of the moon and began the slingshot maneuver. "You know, I heard that some junior professor doing research in advanced warp physics said that if you do this at maximum warp around a large enough star, you can break the time barrier. I'd like to give it a try someday."
"Kirk," she groaned with amused exasperation, "just fly the damned shuttle."
"Aye, sir! Flying the damned shuttle, sir!" Kirk grinned, not at Tambe's long-suffering sigh, but because he imagined that exact sigh coming from Bones. Yeah, he'd have to make sure Bones saw the flight recorder logs of this mission if he wasn't watching it in real time. For now, he settled himself down and prepped the power couplings for an increase to seven-eighths impulse in twenty seconds. "Charging power relays for increase in impulse velocity."
The surface of the moon was pitted blackness above them with a rim of blinding whiteness as they skimmed the far side of the planetary satellite.
"Power relays are charged," Tambe confirmed. "Impulse engines at eighty-nine percent efficiency."
"Eighty-nine?" Kirk frowned and pulled up the readout. "That's not right. The pre-flight checks had efficiency of the impulse engines running at ninety-four percent."
"It's still within parameters," she countered, but she was frowning too. "Are you sure about the pre-flight checks?"
"Ran them myself. Did a level-two diagnostic of the entire impulse drive system before we stopped for breakfast. Checked the whole system top to bottom, and everything was fine." Jim glanced up quickly at the nav console. "Shit, we don't have time to check it again right now. Preparing to break lunar orbit on my mark…" He held his breath and watched the digital readout until it hit the zero, and activated the thrusters. "Mark! Accelerating to seven-eighths impulse."
"We're on course... and so are the other shuttles." Tambe breathed a small sigh of relief. "Nice bulls-eye, Kirk."
"Thanks, but I still don't like that efficiency reading." He unfastened his harness and lurched out of his seat, not waiting to ask permission. "We're on a stable course for the next six minutes. Let me take a look at the engine system."
She gave him a look that would have rivaled Bones' best glare of incredulity. "We're well within specs for a mission like this, Kirk. We're not being rated for engineering acrobatics today – just piloting. It's good enough."
"This is Starfleet, Tambe. Good enough never is." He gave her an imploring look. "Please… six minutes."
She sighed in surrender. "Five and a half."
With a nod, Jim strode to the back of the shuttlecraft, leaving Tambe to deal with navigation. He pulled open the starboard engine access panel then hit the engineering controls. "The control panel is showing normal functions. This doesn't make sense. A five-percent drop in efficiency with no explanation..."
Things don't happen without a reason, Jim, Bones had told him after finals last spring. You got sick because you didn't sleep for three days to study and claimed you were too busy to eat. You used up all your energy and did nothing to replenish it, and NO, we still don't have a cure for the common cold. Now stop being such an infant and drink your orange juice.
"There has to be something causing this... using up all the energy..." Jim whispered to himself, blinked, and then called back over his shoulder. "I think something is draining the power from the system."
"Like what?" Tambe asked skeptically.
"A space leech! I don't know!" He pulled back a secondary panel and began a direct scan of the system. He was no engineer, but the day he passed his flight assessment and got accepted straight into level 2 pilot training, he'd started studying engine and navigation systems, top to bottom. He'd even gotten his roommate, who was on the engineering track, to give him some pointers. He'd learned too well that when the shit hit the fan, there wasn't always someone else to do a job. He had to be able to figure this out.
He leaned in closer, sticking his head and shoulders through the access port. "Something has to be diverting energy from the system because the power core is functioning at full capacity and there's no system damage that a basic scan can detect, but not all the power is making it to the engines."
"Well, figure it out fast! You're the one being assessed as the primary pilot on this run, not me."
"Okay, okay!" Trying to think clearly despite the time crunch, Jim ran the scanner along the power conduits, tracing back as far as he could reach without taking apart half of the section. The power feed from the main core was fully charged at the beginning of the primary conduit, but by the time it reached the impulse engines, it had lost over eleven percent power - not the usual four to six percent. "There's got to be something wrong in the primary power conduit loop. I'm going to reroute the power through secondary conduits."
"Just hurry it up," Tambe said, sounding distinctly impatient.
"Fast as I can... wait." He stared at the system for a moment, then shook his head. "I've got an idea."
"More doing, less talking, Kirk."
"I am doing!" He started disconnecting secondary conduits and fixing them in a new pattern. "My roommate is in the engineering track. He showed me a more efficient way to reorganize the power grid. If I can just -"
"Fine!" Tambe should know what he was doing to their engines, but the last thing he needed was to piss off his co-pilot. Gritting his teeth to keep himself from rattling off the details of what he was doing, he dug back in. A moment later, he checked the efficiency readings. Eighty-eight now. Jim scowled. How the hell had he lost another efficiency point? Had he done it wrong? Maybe one more adjustment -
"General maneuvers in two minutes now," Tambe called out.
"Pisces, this is Mars Orbiter II. Your craft will continue to lead the convoy until further notice. Your first maneuver will be Alpha-seven. Execute the maneuver in approximately two minutes. Transmitting telemetry. Mars Orbiter out."
"Shit," Tambe snapped. "Kirk, get up here."
"Great... just gr-OUCH!" He growled as he clipped the back of his head on the edge of the access port as he straightened up. Rubbing his head, he stepped back to the front of the shuttle and sat back down heavily into the copilot's seat. "I've got the maneuvers... can you try to figure out what's wrong with the engines?"
"Kirk, it's not an issue. The engines will be just fine," she said as she cross-checked the gravitational sensors with the map of their course. "You did the pre-flight checks, and I'm sure you would have caught anything that might have been a problem. You're too competitive to have missed anything. So start programming the maneuvers, and I'll transmit to the other shuttles."
"But what if there -"
She spun away from the ops console and faced Jim straight on, jaw set firmly. "That's an order."
Jim opened his mouth, but snapped it shut again. Tambe was his squad leader, even though she was acting as his co-pilot today for the skills assessment, and despite the fact that she almost never pulled rank. But in the end, her orders stood. She could be absolutely fierce when things came down to the wire, which Jim respected. And it was true - they were still within specs. She was absolutely making the right and rational decision.
Although he didn't much like admitting it, he needed someone to rein him in once in a while, keep his head on straight so he could focus on the top priorities. That someone was usually one Leonard McCoy, but Tambe filled those shoes pretty well, too. He just hated leaving something like that efficiency drop alone. In the accelerated track, he was under intense scrutiny, and had learned that his only guarantee of being allowed to continue the accelerated program was to keep his record flawless. Double-check everything. Cover his own tail. Even some of the more creative antics he pulled in tactics classes couldn't get him held back as long as he met every evaluation flawlessly.
Maybe he'd missed something on the pre-flight diagnostic. For command-track, his engineering skills were above par, but he didn't know everything. Still, he was going to be evaluated on his piloting today, not his engineering. He needed to focus on his primary mission. "Inputting calculations for maneuver one."
"Good." Tambe's tone was surprisingly sympathetic. "Take a deep breath, Kirk. It's just a training mission. If the efficiency isn't up to your shiny standards, we'll tell the evaluator that you noticed it during maneuvers, and get some extra credit doing maintenance on it later. It's not important right now."
He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. "You're right," he said, even though his gut instinct was screaming otherwise. "Thanks, Tambe."
She nodded with a sly smile. "Of course I'm right." She looked back down at the control panel and they worked quietly for a few moments. "Telemetry calculations have been received and confirmed by the Capricorn and the Aquarius. Ready to begin maneuver one." With a smile, she gave him an encouraging nod. "She's all yours."
Jim nodded, then toggled the comm switch. "Capricorn and Aquarius, this is the Pisces. Begin maneuver at heading 146-mark-7."
Two voices confirmed the maneuver, and seconds later, the line of shuttlecrafts slipped into a series of loops and twists that made Jim think of an old-fashioned roller coaster. He swore he could feel the pressure of gravity shifting around him with each loop, but he knew it was all his imagination. A few minutes later, the maneuver was completed, and Jim let out a soft whoop of relief.
"Nice job, Kirk, but that's just the first one," Tambe said with a nod of approval.
"Pisces, this is Mars Orbiter II. Acknowledge that the maneuver is complete, and the shuttlecraft Aquarius will be taking the lead for the next maneuver."
Tambe hit the comm panel. "Mars Orbiter, this is the Pisces. Acknowledged, over." She turned back to Kirk. "Well, the evaluators liked it enough, or they'd keep us in the hot seat for a second maneuver."
"Good to know," Jim said, taking a moment to catch his breath before the Aquarius sent the next set of telemetry. He should have known this wouldn't be a simple pleasure cruise - it was training, after all. But still, for his first flight out, he hadn't expected quite this much tension. Most of it was from the uncertainty about the power loss hanging over him.
Maybe that was part of the test - to see how they'd handle a mechanical problem during a mission. Would he let a minor fluctuation go unexplained and unfixed if it was still within specs and the mission was more important? Would he stop the mission if there was a mechanical risk to the shuttle? Jim clenched his jaw in frustration. Maybe they wanted to test his decision-making skills. "Are you sure we don't have time to check the engines again before the next maneuver?" he asked. "I know I can get the efficiency rating back up."
"Kirk, give it up." Tambe sighed and gave him a placating look. "If the readings drop below tolerance levels, we'll tackle it, but for now, the maneuvers are our priority." A split second later, they received the flight plan and new approach vector from the Aquarius, and Tambe let out a low whistle. "Damn, this one is going to take us almost all the way to Mars."
"Got it. Course laid in." As they shifted vectors, Jim swore he felt the acceleration press him against his seat. No... just his imagination. Psychological response to a change in direction. Inertial compensators handled that sort of thing.
"Did you feel that?" There was a hint of nervousness in Tambe's voice, something that didn't sound right on her.
If Jim's gut had been twisted only slightly from imagined g-forces before, it had definitely tied itself into a knot now. "You too?" Jim didn't like the look of Tambe's nod, and he blew out a slow breath, trying to keep a level head. "Shit. Let me take a look -"
"No," she cut him off. "This is your evaluated piloting run. You need to stay focused. I'll check it."
Jim could feel his jaw clench, but he forced himself to look calm. He did the pre-flight diagnostics; he was responsible. But Tambe was in charge, and she was right – he was being evaluated as the primary pilot today. "Just... okay. Okay, I'll handle the piloting."
"Good - I'll check the inertial dampeners," she said quickly, pulling up the systems status on the control screen. "This isn't right. Efficiency is down in the inertial dampeners, too. 84% and dropping." She looked over at Jim, eyebrows furrowed tightly. "What did you do to the engine?"
"I..." Jim swallowed tightly as he got a sick feeling in his gut. "I rerouted power to a simpler circuit, bypassing the conduit where we seemed to be losing power. I used one central conduit for the impulse engines... and the inertial dampeners."
"What? Why the hell did you do that?" she snapped, clearly not wanting an answer. Growling, she turned away from him and flipped the comm switch. "Pisces to Aquarius and Capricorn. Are either of your shuttles experiencing power fluctuations?"
"Negative, Pisces," Thaleb replied from the Aquarius. "All functions are normal."
"The Capricorn is fine, too," Okoru said. "The maneuver begins in ninety seconds. Are you having problems your shuttle?"
"We're still within specs, but we've got an efficiency drop in our impulse engines, and we're showing similar fluctuations in our inertial dampeners."
"Can you complete the maneuver?" There was a strong note of concern in her voice.
For a split second, Tambe hesitated, and Kirk wasn't actually sure what he wanted her to say. There was no reason his adjustments should have caused this problem. Something just felt wrong.
However, Tambe finally nodded and said, "Affirmative. We're good to go. Pisces out." Then she turned to Kirk. "Run the maneuvers. I'll keep an eye on the energy readings. If things get too unstable, I'll comm the Mars Orbiter directly and abort the mission."
Jim could only nod in reply, keeping his eyes glued to the nav controls. The shuttle formation shifted into an inverted V, and he eased the Pisces into the front-left slot as they approached the starting point for the run. As soon as the countdown hit zero, his focus narrowed until nothing else existed except the controls and patterns flashing in front of him. Maneuver Delta-three leading into a classic planet approach for high orbit...
The shuttlecraft vibrated slightly. Then it shook. "What the fuck..."
"Stay with the formation, Kirk!" Tambe barked the order as she unsnapped her harness and moved to the back of the shuttle. "I'll see what I can do."
Jim looked back over his shoulder, unnerved that he couldn't finish the repair himself. He didn't like this - leaving something half-finished, incorrectly done. But more than that, he hated having that control taken from him. Still, he was surprised that he was finding himself seriously nervous... on a training mission, of all things. Briefly, Bones' warnings about the dangers of shuttles and space travel came flooding back, but he pushed them out of his mind. He hesitated, then said, "Tambe, can I have another go at it? I know I can finish –"
"Just pilot the shuttle! I've got this."
Jim didn't particularly like taking orders, and it didn't come naturally, but he'd learned to work as part of a team in the past year. Teamwork had saved his skin once... and Bones' life. That had to be worth something. And Tambe was good. Even if he'd rather do it himself, he could trust her assessment.
They were coming within range of Mars when Tambe flopped back down into her seat. Her face was flushed with stress, and some of her dark hair had come out of its tight braid. "I've diverted power from the auxiliary generators to the impulse engines and inertial dampeners. Even with your patchwork circuit, the power levels are up. We're stabilized and within specs. That should be enough to get us through the final maneuver until we dock with the Mars Orbiter. They can deal with the repairs before we take it back to Earth."
"Sounds good," Jim said, feeling just a tiny bit of the tension drain from his shoulders. "We just received an updated approach vector from the Capricorn. I guess it's their turn to lead a maneuver."
Tambe slid to the edge of her seat and looked at Jim's nav panel. "A low orbit bounce? Don't they usually use that in advanced pilot training?"
Jim shook his head, feeling the small boost of confidence that comes with knowledge, no matter how obscure. "Not always. In the advanced classes, it's a dense-atmosphere maneuvers, but Mars has an ultra-thin atmosphere... enough to give us a feel for hitting an atmosphere without as much of the risks. I've done it twice in simulation - it'll be fine."
"Makes sense. Okay." She was reaching for her harness when another alarm beeped. "Oh what now?" She ran towards the back of the shuttle just as the comm panel chimed.
"Capricorn to Pisces and Aquarius- the approach vector and course have been transmitted. Confirm please."
Jim slapped the comm switch. "This is the Pisces. Vector and course received and laid in. Ready to execute high orbit maneuver." He barely heard the Aquarius echo his confirmation as he double-checked the course. They'd be approaching the high orbit at a shallow trajectory, almost tangential to the planet's surface. Just as they'd hit orbital altitude, they'd take steep dive and use the atmospheric pressure to aid a bounce-back and accelerate at full impulse away from the planet again. Chewing his lip - a nervous habit he'd never quite broken - he ran the numbers again. "Tambe, have we lost any more power?"
"I don't think so. There's an odd fluctuation though." She spoke slowly, as if still puzzling to herself.
Jim didn't like that tone. "What's causing it?"
For a moment, she didn't speak. There were clanking sounds as she fiddled with something in the engine hatch. Finally, she blew out an exasperated breath. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"Do we need to call off the maneuver?"
"I don't think so."
"You sure?" He spared a glance back at her, just in time to see her replacing the inner panel.
"No," she said as she walked back to the front of the shuttlecraft. "But there's no reason why it shouldn't work. With the auxiliary engines supplementing primary power, it should give us enough juice to get through the training exercise. It's okay - one more maneuver, and we can dock." She brushed a stray lock of dark hair out of her eyes as she sat back down in the pilot's seat. "Never a dull moment, huh?"
Jim snorted, thinking of how much insanity he'd experienced in just over a year since he'd started at the Academy. "You've got that right," he said as he brought up the energy schematics and rerouted the power flow. The timer ticked to zero, and all three shuttlecrafts accelerated to full impulse, speeding towards a high Mars orbit. The red planet appeared as a tiny spot on their viewport, but rapidly began to fill the screen. "Slowing to one-eighth impulse... Tambe, your harness! Atmospheric contact in five... four... three... two... one..."
The shuttle lurched like it had slammed through a brick wall. Tambe hadn't managed to re-fasten her harness and went headfirst into the control panels as the alarms wailed.
"Tambe!" Jim yelled out in shock, only to hear a faint moan in reply, but he couldn't get up to help her - the shuttle was still shaking around him. The angle of entry was taking them deeper into the atmosphere at breakneck pace, and they were seconds away from hitting the next atmospheric layer. There was only a tiny window of time to execute the sharp turn that would bounce them off the atmosphere and shoot them away from the planet.
Eyes snapping back and forth between the navigation and ops consoles, Jim saw that the inertial dampeners had dropped to forty-five percent efficiency. "Shit..." There wasn't enough time to fight with the inertial dampeners, and as the nav console flashed the proximity warning for the next atmospheric layer, he punched the engines to bounce off the layer.
The shuttlecraft shook with another jolt, throwing Jim hard against his harness and snapping his head forward, but when he looked back up, their trajectory hadn't changed. The engines weren't responding.
"Pisces! This is the Capricorn! You've broken formation and your velocity is unstable. What's going on?" There was panic in Cadet Okoru's voice.
"Engine malfunction! I don't know..." Jim shook his head, making a second attempt to engage the impulse engines. There was a whine, and the high-pitched crackle of electricity. A slight change in velocity, but not nearly enough to pull them away from their course towards the planet. Fuck. He slapped the comm panel. "All frequencies, this is Cadet Kirk aboard the shuttlecraft Pisces. We've lost impulse engines, and inertial dampeners are failing. Cadet Tambe is injured. Requesting immediate assistance!"
"Pisces, this is the Mars Orbiter. We're trying to get a lock for an emergency beam-out, but you need to stabilize your vector and attitude. Switch to maneuvering thrusters."
"Acknowledged," he said, trying to keep his voice level and failing. "Attempting to use maneuvering thrusters to compensate..." The shuttle shook again as the thrusters fired unevenly, and the degrading orbit faltered as the shuttle began to spin towards a free-fall. "Maneuvering thrusters are dead! We've got no power. Requesting emergency beam-out immediately!"
"Pisces, our transporter crew is trying to establish a lock. Stand by."
"It's kinda hard to stand by when you're about to crash!" Jim blurted, not caring if it earned him a reprimand later.
The Mars Orbiter crew said something else, but Jim didn't hear what they said and didn't much care as he wrenched off his harness and slid down to the floor where Tambe had fallen. The engines had failed - there was nothing he could do from the nav controls, but he could try to help his co-pilot. First aid... check for pulse, check for breathing... she was alive and breathing, but based on the trickle of blood across her forehead and the purplish lump rapidly forming there, she'd whacked her head pretty hard. "Come on, Tambe, I need some help here." He knew she wouldn't respond, but he had to fill the void while he waited desperately for the transporter beam he wasn't sure was going to come.
With a grunt, he hauled her up into the seat and fixed the harness around her. If they crashed - we're not going to crash - they should both be harnessed in place. For all the fucking good that's going to do. Nanofiber harness against a planetary gravity well. Oh yeah, that's a fair fight.
There was a voice on the comm panel, and they were telling him to stay calm and stand by, but that was bullshit. He stumbled to the back of the craft, trying to keep his footing on the shaking deck plating, and looked through the engine access panel again. The readings were bizarre. Power was being generated, but it wasn't reaching the drive core. He needed to look directly at the internal hardware. Reaching deeper into the engine access hatch, he grabbed the first internal panel and pulled, tossing it aside. Then the second panel. Reaching into the bowels of the engine with a EM-scanner, he held his breath and looked for... something. Something was interfering... something...
"What the fuck is tha -"
The shuttlecraft lurched, sending Kirk careening into the other side of the deck with a heavy thud. Scrambling, half-crawling, he made it to the front of the cabin and pulled himself into his seat. Alarms were wailing, and the surface of Mars was close, too close. Then, wondering if it was the last thing he'd ever do, he strapped himself back into his harness, feeling it snug tightly over his shoulders, across his chest and stomach. It felt like suffocating. Forcing himself to take a breath, he reached forward and whacked the comm panel again. "Mars Orbiter, this is the Pisces. How about that emergency beam-out, huh?"
"Kirk, we're trying to get a lock. Hold still - there's an unusual energy pattern, and your velocity still isn't stable. Try to kill all power to the engines and non-essential systems. That might stabilize your velocity."
"Okay... okay." Jim reached across the control panel and began shutting down every system he could possibly reach except life support and the inertial dampeners. On a desperate whim, he fed all remaining power into the inertial dampeners, hoping beyond hope that it might cushion the impact, even a little bit. Hopefully, he wouldn't have to test it. The artificial gravity cut out, and he felt himself float against his restraints. Well, isn't that just ironic, he couldn't help but think. Natural zero gravity... finally got to experience it.
There was nothing left to do. No action he could take. No frantic effort that could possibly comfort him with the transparent pretense at control. All he could do was to wait helplessly and hope that some transporter technician he'd never met would be able to pull a miracle out of some circuitry, but engineers weren't miracle workers. At least, none that he'd ever met. Circuits and wires and machines wouldn't care that this was only his first training mission, or that his dad had also died in the black. Maybe Bones was right - machines were cold and heartless. So was space.
As the Martian surface filled the viewscreen, Jim wondered if the initial impact would kill him, or if he'd last long enough to find out if his blood really would boil in thirteen seconds when the hull cracked on impact.
What would Bones say about that?
He wondered if Bones was watching the flight recorder feed at that moment. If he was, then what was he thinking, watching the shuttle plunging towards the surface of another planet? Would he panic? Sit still in shock? It felt like a sort of insanity, but Jim imagined Bones yelling at him for being reckless and getting injured again, and then telling him to sit down and shut up while he fixed it. Bones could fix it. He could fix anything. And Jim Kirk could beat any odds... right? For that moment, Jim could believe it, because he had to.
He wanted to laugh – to go out laughing in defiance of what should scare anyone witless – but it caught in his throat, and as the altimeter readout sped to zero, all he could do was stare at it blankly and whisper, "Shit."