Jim came to consciousness slowly, though he only remembered opening his eyes to a distorted view. Blurry images floated disjointedly above him – spectral figures of ash and oyster that moved like smoke in the slate grey air. The room tipped and spun in sync with the staccato buzzing in his head. Nausea rose to the back of his throat. He blinked to clear his vision, but it remained veiled.
My god, it was difficult to breathe. He couldn't seem to get enough air in his lungs, didn't have enough strength to draw breath to satisfy his body's hunger for it. He was suffocating. Something soft and unyielding covered his nose and mouth, pressing against him. He rolled his head to shake it off, and that's when he felt the pain. It centered on his left knee, a sharp gnawing pain eating away at his flesh, chewing into the cartilage, burning a trail into his thigh down to his calf.
He groaned and moved against the pain, as if he might escape it.
A warm hand pressed at his chest and he tried to knock it away, to get free, but the hand was strong and immovable. He couldn't focus to see who they were; all he saw were blurry figures, dark and shadowed. They were coming for him and he had to move. His hand was caught by something soft and warm and held. His knee screamed in agony.
Where had they come from? They weren't supposed to be here.
Voices drifted above him, but he couldn't understand what they were saying, the language alien. He only knew they weren't supposed to be here. He was supposed to be alone, but they had been waiting.
He wanted to breathe…to move. He wanted the pain to stop.
"Doctor," the nurse said, offering McCoy the hypo he had requested.
"It's okay, Kate," he said, keeping a protective hand on Jim's chest. "He's unconscious."
He glanced up at the monitor and studied the readouts with concern. Jim's temperature was 40.2 and climbing. The toxins invading his body were wreaking havoc on his respiratory system, interfering with the autonomic nervous system. The oxygen mask was pumping in one hundred percent oxygen at 15LPM, and Jim's SO2 was still below eighty percent.
"He's struggling," Kate said. "I think that's a good sign."
He didn't comment. For the past three days, Jim had been in the isolation room as McCoy and his staff fought to keep the young captain alive. Until eleven hours ago, Jim had been on full respiratory support, a machine breathing for him, while the toxins attained full effect in his body. When Jim began to fight the intubation, he removed the support in favor of the mask. But Jim's slow and agonizing rise to consciousness was both positive and negative. The monitor showed high levels of endorphin release, indicating pain. The broad-spectrum antigen being administered intravenously was counter-active to pain meds—one of the reasons he was grateful that Jim was unconscious.
"Do you want to run another tox scan?" Kate asked.
He shook his head, not looking away from the monitor. Another scan wasn't going to change anything. Until they knew what they were dealing with, he had no way to counteract the toxins. He had just barely kept them from spreading. He looked down at Jim's left leg and winced.
The arrow he had removed from the knee had severed both the anterior cruciate and posterior cruciate ligaments before lodging deep into the tibial plateau. The patellar tendon was gone and the only thing holding the knee together was the medial meniscus. Though substantial, the damage was easily repairable by medical means, but the arrow had injected a highly aggressive, unknown toxin that was killing the cells and soft structures around the knee. He couldn't operate to repair the ligament damage until the toxins were cleared. He had elevated Jim's leg to slow the edema and to stabilize it, but the entire area around the knee was purple and swollen.
"Will you be doing another I and D?" Kate asked, following his gaze to Jim's knee.
He had drained the knee once, with minimal results, but he didn't want to do another procedure if he didn't have to. The knee was already unstable, and inserting drainage tubes risked more damage. As it was, the toxins were destroying the cells. If he didn't find a serum fast, Jim's leg would suffer permanent damage.
The double doors to the isolation room hissed open, drawing his attention. He felt the air pressure shift slightly as the room's sterile field reset. Christine Chapel, the Enterprise's new head nurse, stood just inside the doorway.
"Doctor, Mr. Spock is waiting in the main bay. He wants an update on the Captain's condition."
His mouth tightened. There was nothing to update. He didn't know anything more about the alien toxins than he had three days ago. All he knew for certain was that they were killing Jim.
"Stay with him," he said to Christine, indicating Kirk. "Hang another unit of K14. Watch the O2 sat and let me know the second he wakes."
He felt the familiar pop in his ears when he exited the room and walked into the main area of the medical bay. Spock stood near the central desk, looking as if he'd just arrived to gather McCoy for pleasant dinner and conversation. That was the thing about the Vulcan that bothered McCoy the most, the man's inability to show proper concern, even frustration. Here was Spock, thrust in command of the Enterprise while its Captain lay fighting for his life after an attack by an obviously sentient being, and the Starfleet designated "Uninhabited" planet turning peacefully beneath them. The man could at least look annoyed.
"I told you I'd update you when I had something," he said to Spock. He was annoyed at being pulled away from Jim.
"And I told you, Doctor, that I wanted an update every four hours. You are twenty minutes overdue."
"So shoot me," McCoy said and dropped into the chair at the desk, suddenly realizing how tired he was. The main bay was quiet, except for an Engineering crewman with a minor injury. The young ensign was waiting to be discharged to his quarters, and he sat impatiently on one of the beds. The orders for his release were flashing on the small screen in front of McCoy. He ignored them.
"Until you give me the chemical compounds of this toxin and its origin, I'm working blind."
"I have dispensed a full team of biologists to the planet's surface. They are searching for the components that were found in the toxin."
"It's about time."
The Vulcan had been leery about sending anyone to the planet's surface since Jim's attack, siting regulations and procedures. Not that McCoy wanted anyone else injured, but he needed more information if he was going treat Jim. "I don't even know if the poison is plant or animal. It acts like both. Every time I think I have it isolated, it attacks another area."
Not only was Jim's respiratory system affected, but the toxin had targeted the occipital lobe of his brain as well, affecting his vision. McCoy didn't know to what degree, because Jim hadn't been conscious long enough to communicate.
"Is the Captain stable?"
"For now." He rubbed the back of his neck to ease the tension that had settled in the muscles. "He's breathing on his own, but just barely. It's his leg I'm most worried about. If we can't slow this toxin, it's going to destroy most of the muscle. I hope the landing party comes up with something soon."
"You should prepare for an alternative, Doctor."
He scowled up at Spock. "What alternative?"
"The landing party may not be successful." Spock pulled his hands behind his back. "It is entirely possible that the toxin has been bioengineered."
If the Vulcan had said he was pregnant, McCoy wouldn't have been more surprised. "That's a hell of a jump. This planet is a storeroom of phytochemicals. It's one of the reasons we were sent here. I went on the first landing party and made my recommendations to Starfleet."
"I read your report."
"Then you know it's entirely possible the toxins came from the planet, and anyway, that's where Jim was when he was attacked."
Spock took a breath and lowered his shoulders. "Doctor, are you forgetting that this planet is officially designated as Uninhabited and there has been and remains no evidence of indigenous sentient beings?"
"Of course I'm not forgetting, but someone attacked Jim!"
"Obviously." The Vulcan's tone was infuriatingly calm.
The arrow McCoy had extracted from Jim's knee was primitive to say the least, and yet the blend of toxins used was proving to be highly sophisticated. Was it possible that some being had landed on the planet and saw Jim as a threat? Was that someone still there, somehow avoiding the ship's scanners? Piracy was not uncommon this far out into the Frontier.
"Maybe Jim stumbled onto something he wasn't supposed to see," he said, thinking out loud.
"We searched the area where the Captain was injured and found no signs of other life. The unknown assailant is either very clever at remaining hidden, or has already left the planet. Were there any other marks on the Captain's body that would indicate a struggle?"
"You are certain? The Captain is not given to easy surrender."
McCoy looked up at Spock with barely concealed impatience. "Spock, I know that man's body better than I know my own. There were no signs of struggle. Not even a pulled muscle."
It had struck him as odd when he had first examined Jim. Jim was a born fighter and wouldn't go down easily. McCoy had a difficult time believing that a single arrow – even one filled with poison – would be enough to bring Jim down without resistance.
"That is unfortunate," Spock said. "Unless the landing party discovers something of importance, the Captain is the only one who can provide us with answers as to what transpired."
"He's still unconscious," McCoy said by way of ending the conversation. Jim had been with an experienced landing party in the third wave to beam down when he separated from the group. His bio monitor alarm, standard equipment for off-ship crew, had sounded an alert. The landing party had not noticed Jim's disappearance until Spock ordered an emergency beam-out. Jim was unconscious when he materialized on the transporter pad.
"If it's bio-engineered, it's damn sophisticated," McCoy said in a low voice. "Why deliver such a complex poisonous compound with such a primitive weapon? If someone has the know-how to create a poison like this, they should have a better way of delivering it than by a crude arrow."
"Crude as it is, Doctor, it has proven to be highly effective." Spock raised his eyebrows slightly. "You will inform me the moment he is conscious." It was not a question.
McCoy nodded. The screen flashed in front of him. He signed for the ensign's release and called up Jim's file, reviewing the toxicology report again, hoping he would find something he had missed, something that would slow the progression of the poison that was slowly killing his friend.
The landing party returned with hundreds of samples of plant extracts and insect DNA, none of which matched the chemical design of the toxin. McCoy was forced to continue to treat Jim's symptoms, to try to keep the cellular damage at bay.
The K14, a synthetic antigen – and one of the few antigens Jim tolerated – was gradually taking effect, slowing the progression of the toxin. The bio and chem labs had been working around the clock to find an antidote when it seemed as though the toxin suddenly stopped its acceleration. Like a fever peaking, the toxin began a methodical decline. And that meant that Spock was right – the toxin was bio-engineered. Nothing in nature had a kill gene.
McCoy stood by the bed, intently studying the monitor. Jim's respirations were slow and shallow, though his Sats were coming up. Not enough for McCoy to remove the oxygen mask. Jim's body needed to flush out the toxins completely before the symptoms would abate. And even then, McCoy wasn't certain what damage would be left behind, or if he could repair it.
A soft moan drew his attention.
He looked down at Jim, lying alarmingly still on the bio-bed. There was a flush in his cheeks from the high fever, but the rest of his skin was sickly pale and beaded with sweat. His brows twitched.
It was 0100 and he'd been watching Jim cycle toward consciousness for the past hour, feeling both anxious and anticipatory. He wanted the reassurance of being able to speak with Jim, but he was uncertain as to how his friend was going to react, or how much pain he would be in.
The door to the isolation room opened, but McCoy didn't turn away from Jim. He knew who had entered. He walked around to the other side of the bed and lowered the cooling blanket to reveal the central venous line he had placed in Jim's subclavian vein. Two ports attached to the main catheter, one was for the K14 and the other pushed in essential fluids to stabilize the bio chemicals and keep him from dehydrating. He examined the catheter, as if to busy himself.
Soft, cat-like steps approached the bed from behind him, almost indiscernible from the steady beeps and rhythms of the monitor.
Jim's eyes flickered. His heart rate increased.
McCoy placed a hand on Jim's sternum, noting the hot flesh.
Another low moan.
He glanced at Spock who had come to a standstill on the opposite side of the bed. "He's coming around. I don't know how coherent he's going to be. His fever is still high and he's going to be in pain."
The Vulcan looked down at the sleeping human with concern. "You are giving him an analgesic?"
He shook his head. "I can't give him anything until the K14 is complete. He needs that now more than an analgesic."
Jim's eyes fluttered open. They were clouded and unfocused, a murky blue dulled by pain and the poison.
He put a hand on Jim's forehead, both as a means to anchor his patient and to provide comfort. Jim would be confused and in pain, and McCoy wanted him to know he was safe. Leaning in close, he spoke calmly and reassuringly. "Jim, you're in Sickbay."
Jim's scowl deepened. His eyes blinked. He rolled his head along the pillow, moaning. The monitor pinged, but McCoy didn't look away from his patient. He could feel Jim's heart hammering against the palm of his hand.
"You've been hurt, but you're safe now."
A shudder rippled through Kirk. He continued to blink, trying to focus. He spoke a few words, but they were muffled by the oxygen mask and unintelligible to McCoy. His breathing was rapid and shallow. Without warning, his hand came up and made a clumsy grasp for the mask. McCoy quickly captured Jim's hand.
"You have on an oxygen mask. It's helping you to breathe."
Kirk spoke again, moving his head along the pillow. His eyes were fully open now and large with distress, still struggling to focus. Sweat rolled down his forehead.
"You're on the ship. Do you understand what I'm saying, Jim?"
Jim squeezed his hand.
"Good. I need you to lie still."
Another alarm sounded. McCoy glanced up. It was the respiratory alarm, indicating Jim's distress. He quickly silenced it and turned his attention back to his patient. "Don't fight it so much. Breathe easy. That's it."
McCoy waited for the respirations to slow, but the heart still hammered rapidly. "Good. Small breaths."
Jim kept blinking and looking around, and McCoy knew that his confusion was compounded by the lack of sight and the increased pain. His face was pinched now as the pain took more of his attention.
"I know you can't see well. It'll be okay. It's just temporary." Without moving, he shifted his gaze to Spock and spoke in a low, calm voice. "If you're going to ask him something, do it now. He won't be conscious much longer."
Spock stepped in and McCoy moved back, still holding Jim's hand.
"Captain," Spock said, leaning down toward Jim's head. "You were brought up from the planet with an arrow in your leg. Do you remember what happened?"
Jim said something McCoy could not understand. He watched as Jim moved restlessly, face pinched and distressed. There was desperation in the dull blue eyes and something akin to fear. He released the warm, limp hand and laid a calming hand on Jim's flat belly, hoping to still the restless motions.
"The ship is not in danger. The crew is safe," Spock said. "Do you remember how you became wounded?"
Another muffled word.
"Yes…someone. Did you see who it was?" Spock tilted his head to position his ear closer to Jim's mouth. "Red?"
Jim shut his eyes. His breathing had become labored and he struggled against the mask. A deep moan. He struck out with his arm, catching hold of Spock's left shoulder. McCoy couldn't tell if he was speaking yet or not, but Spock's face had become deadly serious.
An alarm sounded softly.
McCoy looked up at the monitor. "That's enough, Spock." He reached for a loaded hypo and pressed it against Kirk's neck. Within seconds, Jim's features relaxed as the mild sedative took effect. McCoy hated using it, with Jim's respirations already low, but the increased pain only compromised Jim's situation. It was a balancing game the doctor played with patients like Jim who had extensive histories of allergies. Studying the monitor again, he felt a small sense of relief. Jim was out of pain and dropping into the depths of unconsciousness.
Spock straightened; his features schooled and cold.
"What did he tell you?" McCoy asked, eyeing the Vulcan.
"Enough to warrant a lockdown."
McCoy blinked, stunned. "A lockdown?"
It was an extreme command that effectively prevented any crewmember from entering or leaving the ship. It also meant that no communications could be sent from the Enterprise, and all incoming communications would go unanswered. That included Starfleet Command.
"I am initiating Security Level One protocol. There will be a guard on the Captain's door. The guard will be outside of the isolation room, and only authorized personnel will be allowed inside."
"A guard. Wait a minute, Spock…."
"He is not to be left alone. If he leaves the room for any reason a guard is to accompany him.
"Leave the room? Where would he go?"
But the Vulcan was already moving, determination quickening his pace.
"Spock." He rushed to follow. "What the hell did Jim tell you?"
The doors opened and closed as they sailed through into the main bay.
"Damn it, Spock, will you answer me?"
Spock stopped and turned so suddenly that McCoy almost collided with him. The doctor stepped back. There was something almost feral in the First Officer's expression, something lethal and unapproachable. McCoy had seen it before when the Vulcan had stood like a guard at the side of Jim's bed during the two weeks the Captain had been in a coma after climbing into the warp core. Spock had worn a Vulcan mask that veiled human compassion in favor of logic. But no, it wasn't that either. Logic had little to do with what McCoy now saw on the stern features.
"I have made my decision, Doctor. I do not want the Captain left alone while I investigate this incident."
"You think someone on this ship did this to Jim?" It was absurd. There hadn't been a crewmember assassination attempt on a Starship captain in the history of Starfleet, and the thought that one of their own, a trusted individual with whom they shared a common living space, would intentionally harm Jim was even more absurd.
"My job is to eliminate the possibilities and protect the Captain."
"Someone on this ship?" McCoy repeated incredulously. The thought made his stomach tighten. "Why would someone on this ship want to hurt Jim? And where the hell would they have gotten a weapon like this?"
Jim was just shy of twenty-eight and already a legend, though he'd only been a Starship Captain for a little less than three years. In that time he'd made plenty of dangerous enemies. The most recent, if rumors were to be believed, was the Klingon Empire. Romulus would be happy to take a piece of him, as well, even though Nero had no longer represented his home world and, as Nero had said, 'stood apart' from the Empire. Romulans kept to themselves and were rarely seen by the Federation, still an enigma in many ways. McCoy wondered if they were even capable of such a covert and dishonorable attack. Klingons, on the other hand….
"That, Doctor, is precisely what I intend to find out." Spock stood tight-lipped and ramrod straight.
No. McCoy mentally shook his head. He wouldn't believe it. He couldn't believe it. "Spock, listen, Jim is in pain, he's confused, and the toxins are affecting the temporal lobe of his brain. He may not remember what happened, and is telling you something that isn't even real."
"Until such a time as I ascertain the validity of his statement, we will progress with the understanding that what he has told me is, indeed, real."
With that, the Vulcan left, leaving McCoy standing in the medical bay. With Spock's words ringing in his ears, he looked around the large medical area. Capable and dedicated medical staff came and went, moving about the area, checking on supplies, appointments, reviewing files and making certain the individual bio-beds and stations were ready for patients and any type of medical emergency at any moment. It's what activity in the bay looked like on any given day – routine and innocuous.
Nothing out of the ordinary…and yet…. He felt his brows draw together and tightness pull in his stomach. Without another thought, he returned to Jim's room.