To Jim it looked like a mirage, a faint distorted image wavering on a backdrop of inky black. No, not even an image, but a slowly shifting void, a kind of ghostly something suspended by nothing at all. In the center, an opening, expanding, contracting. An entrance, perhaps…a portal. He could almost see what lay beyond, but it was nothing more than a promise.
"You can see?" Bones asked, tugging on his arm.
Jim turned his head toward the doctor, and with the movement, his sight disappeared. Blackness fell across his vision and he instantly reached out to touch Bones, alarmed at the sudden change. Frowning, he turned back to the portal. He could now see it clearly. "Only the gateway. You can't see it?"
"No," Bones' replied.
Jim took a halting step forward, tethered slightly by Bones' hand on his arm. Maybe because it was the only thing he could see, maybe because it was the gateway, he was drawn to it like a moth to flame, feeling the familiar pull in his middle, an urgent need to join with the alien apparition. "It's closing."
Spock moved to stand in his path, blocking him from moving further. "Jim, we must proceed with caution. We don't know the purpose of this structure, and it has already proven to be dangerous."
The use of his first name, rarely uttered by the Vulcan, pulled Jim up short. He turned his gaze, wanting to see his friend's face, but was again met with disappointing blackness. He scowled, frustrated by his lack of sight, then refocused on the gateway and all it promised. "I don't think it intends to do harm."
"And how did you come to that conclusion?" Bones asked, keeping a firm grip on his arm. "I'm the one who pulled the damned poisoned arrow out of your knee, remember?"
He didn't know how the arrow had gotten in his knee. He didn't know who or what lay beyond the gateway or why. But what he did know is that something waited for him, and that pull was stronger than any argument his friends offered. "It's closing," he said again and shifted anxiously.
"The entity is controlling the gateway, Jim," Spock said quietly, his tone deep and intense. "Its desire is strong, but you must maintain balance. We must learn more about this before we proceed, and avoid entering the gateway if possible."
"Why?" Spock's suggestion alarmed him. He had thought only of entering the gateway, of passing through to whatever waited for him within. The thought of remaining behind made him strangely apprehensive.
"Jim." Spock spoke his name deeply and softly as if that single word were being drawn from the bottom of his soul and held with all his strength and all his promise. "We must remain in our own dimension."
Kirk took a measured breath and ran his tongue between his lips. It took all his discipline to hold himself in place, because Spock was right. He couldn't just go waltzing through an alien portal into another dimension, despite the urgent need to do so. He had a responsibility as Captain, not only for his own safety and that of his crew, but also to the Federation. This planet had been unclaimed and believed to be uninhabited, and now there was compelling, viable evidence of a race of sentient beings, a gateway to the unknown, opportunities and threats that could not be defined or predicted.
He nodded, still looking at the gateway, and reached out and squeezed Spock's arm reassuringly. "Let's find out what it wants."
It was only a short walk to the gateway, and yet it felt as though time had suddenly slowed; each step he took barely lessening the distance. As he approached, his nerves tingled from the energy the portal emitted. He shivered, feeling the strange sensation deep in his muscles, penetrating to his bones.
"Are you okay, Jim?" Bones asked.
Don't they feel it? How alive it is? How it wants me?
A restraining hand rested on his arm. Not gentle and comforting, but strong and certain. He knew the warm touch of the Vulcan, and felt a familiar strength run through him, realizing that Spock lent him mental support through the link they now shared.
"It's all right," he said, and pulled away from them to face the gateway alone.
The whirl of Spock's tricorder filled the air. Jim didn't know what his friends saw, but for him it was simply an opening, bright and moving, a narrow, spiraling kaleidoscope of colors. It was both beautiful and menacing. He couldn't see through it, and yet he knew someone waited on the other side. The tingling intensified to an annoying itch. The alien link felt shielded, and he didn't want to try to connect mentally to whoever had established it. Content with the safeguard in place, he took a step forward.
"I'm here." It was all he could think to say.
The pain struck him so suddenly, he barely had time to react. His head filled with an explosion of white light and searing pain. He grabbed his head as a laser-fine beam bored mercilessly into his skull. In an instant he was on the ground, pressing his hands to his head as if to push out the pain.
Hands seemed to be everywhere –comforting, supporting, securing. He felt the ground on his back as he rolled onto his side, instinctively curling into himself, trying to escape the pain. The voices around him were muffled and incoherent.
Suddenly, everything stopped – the pain, his breath, his thoughts. He was suspended in time-real and artificial, existing and imaginary. Vaguely and slowly, he came back to himself, feeling his friends' hands still gripping him. There was no more pain or tingling, no pressure in his chest or buzzing in his ears, but his body felt hypersensitive as if the nerves were exposed and raw. He drew a cautious breath and opened his eyes.
The sky was cast in the colors of hot embers, and it moved like a gentle wave above him. It was no longer night and the air was filled with the sound of life. From insects to birds, the symphony wafted around them as if to welcome them.
"What the hell?" Bones said. He was breathing heavily and pushing up to his knees, looking around in alarm. "Where are we?"
Where you've always been.
The voice startled Kirk. He sat up, instantly alert and looked around. Nothing had changed, and yet everything was different. The security guards, disoriented and startled, were climbing to their feet and reaching for their weapons. Spock rested on his heels, composed and vigilant. Had he also heard the soft voice?
"It's all right, Jim," Bones said, keeping a hand on him while reaching for a scanner. "Are you in pain?"
He shook his head and disengaged from Bones' grip. "No…and I can see."
Both of his friends looked at him.
"Everything?" Bones asked, studying him intently in a very clinical manner as if he could somehow validate the truth of Kirk's statement simply by sight.
Jim smiled hesitantly. "I'm not sure how, but I can see clearly."
Bones rested a hand on the side of Jim's face and activated his medical scanner with the other. After a moment, he said, "There's no inflammation or neural disruptions. Your vision seems perfect."
"I just said that." He pulled out of Bones' grasp and looked at Spock. "I take it we went through the gateway."
"Not precisely," Spock said, surveying the area. "The gateway opened around us."
Kirk climbed to his feet, impeded slightly by the brace on his knee and the tightness in his calf. Though he didn't have a headache and the troublesome pressure in his chest was gone, his knee still ached. He adjusted his weight sharply and clumsily.
"Take it slow, Jim," Bones said, getting to his feet as well, and looking around anxiously. "We still have to get home from wherever the hell we are."
"We are home," he said, ignoring Bones' penetrating look. His gaze took in the surrounding area. It was the same small clearing he'd seen in his dream, only the dwarf-like inhabitants were missing, and the jungle was empty. Still, it looked familiar in another way. A sense of déjà vu overwhelmed him, bringing a feeling of both dread and relief.
"It's not the same place, Jim," Bones said, narrowing his eyes as he scrutinized Kirk. "There's life here. At least some form of life."
"The doctor is correct. There are multicellular species present." Spock was studying his tricorder with a slight frown. "And bipedal beings."
"Yes," Kirk said, still looking around, trying to place the location. And then he knew. "This is where I got shot."
Bones moved to stand closer, uneasiness radiating from him.
Like a door opening, Kirk suddenly remembered everything.
The gateway opened in front of him before he had a chance to react. In an instant, he was moving through, in a flash of white light that blinded him. He rolled onto his back, swinging his legs up as he tumbled to the ground. Pain exploded in his left knee, all but crippling his efforts. He cried out, clutching at his knee, and felt the protruding shaft and the blood running down his leg. Time seemed to stop. He didn't know how long he lay curled on his side, but as he came back to himself, his vision was blurring and receding into greyness.
Tiny hands attached themselves to him, surprisingly strong. Suddenly, they were everywhere, touching him in a way that suggested amazement and adoration. Everything was opaque, and a loud buzzing in his head disoriented him. The beings spoke without saying a word, in a language he could only feel. Dozens of voices were penetrating his mind.
They had been waiting for him. Waiting.
Instinct took over as he pushed the hands away and forced himself to his feet, forcing back the pain that erupted in his injured knee as he put weight on it. It was difficult to breathe. A tight band constricted around his chest. He lost his equilibrium and staggered to keep his balance, to keep them from touching him.
He turned, unable to see anything but the white space of the gateway he'd just come through. He ran….
The beep of Spock's communicator interrupted them. It seemed to startle Bones and surprise the guards, but Jim knew they had not strayed from the ship, had not crossed into another dimension. They were, as the voice had said, where they had always been.
"Sulu, sir. Are you all right?"
"We are unharmed, Lieutenant."
"We picked up a temporal disturbance on the planet and … well, sir, our scanners…it doesn't make sense. There's life on the planet."
"Run a full scan of the surrounding area, Lieutenant. Monitor our parameter and stand by." He shut the communicator and looked at Kirk.
Kirk nodded and turned his attention back to the jungle. He didn't have to wait long before the small figure emerged from the thick foliage. He noticed the decorated headdress. At first it was only a single figure and he somehow recognized it as the gatekeeper. But soon, behind that solitary figure, emerged dozens more. They did not rush, but their movements were animated, excited. As the gatekeeper approached, Kirk shifted his weight, both nervous and reluctant. From the corner of his eye, he caught the stiff movements of the guards.
"Stand down," he ordered. He didn't want a show of weapons, and he knew they would have no effect on the inhabitants.
The guards hesitated a moment before complying. Their eyes stayed trained on the approaching figures.
"Jim…." Bones said uneasily.
"It's all right," he said, holding up his hand and stepping slightly ahead of the landing party to greet the gatekeeper. He felt as if he were returning home from a long sojourn.
The beings stopped a few meters from Kirk. The gatekeeper stood like an emissary of authority, proud and confident with all his disciples behind him. His copper-colored eyes were unusually bright with a softness that conveyed compassion and wisdom. He stared at Kirk, not with suspicion or rage, but with gratitude and love.
Long is the time we have been waiting for you.
Kirk heard the words, which were not words at all, imprint into his mind. I know, he sent that thought, wondering if the small being heard him.
The head tilted and the eyes sparkled. You have at last returned to us.
Kirk's head began to pound, and he raised a trembling hand to rub his aching temples. He felt unsteady and strangely fragile…like a precarious house of cards awaiting the faint breath that would topple it.
"Are you all right, Jim?" Bones asked, moving to stand closer.
Kirk held up his hand to halt Bones' steps. He knew his arm was trembling with the effort. His body didn't feel his own. "Stay where you are, Bones." His voice sounded heavy and thick, stumbling over his tongue.
"They are communicating with you," Spock said, and it was not a question.
He nodded. His thoughts were sluggish and he found it difficult to speak aloud as though he had to pull them out of the depths. It took a great effort to put his thoughts together before he spoke. "You hear them?"
"Faintly, as if their communication were filtered. They are telepaths, but they seem drawn only to you, Jim. They have not responded to my attempts at communication."
Kirk could barely hear Spock's voice. It seemed to be coming from a great distance. Looking back at the gatekeeper, he allowed himself to sink into the strange dialogue that felt more natural and easy than his native tongue. He asked the one question that had been in his mind since the moment he had awakened in Sickbay: Why?
McCoy watched Kirk with growing concern. He didn't need a scanner to know that the man was barely on his feet. The trembling was visible, as was the obvious cognitive impairment. Was it the link Spock had spoken of that caused Jim's confusion, or was something else going on, something more sinister and threatening? He shuffled his feet, debating whether to interfere. Jim had opened the gate—wasn't that enough?
Kirk swayed slightly.
"Spock," McCoy said, casting a warning glance to the Vulcan before glancing down at the small scanner he held in the palm of his hand. He scowled. Whatever was happening between Kirk and the small inhabitants was having a profound physical effect on Jim. McCoy watched the med-scanner display. The mobile device had limited reporting capacity, focusing on basic vitals. He could narrow the beam to a specific area, but—
Kirk's blood-pressure suddenly dropped. Looking up in alarm, McCoy and Spock caught Jim just as the young man collapsed. McCoy swore under his breath as they carefully lowered him to the ground. The small native with the colorful headdress stepped forward and would have touched Jim if not for Spock's immediate intervention. The Vulcan successfully blocked the move, putting himself in front of Kirk in a protective, yet non-confrontational stance.
The guards rushed forward, but stopped at Spock's command.
"What the hell happened?" McCoy asked. With one hand on Jim, the other dug into the small med kit that hung from his hip, retrieving a loaded hypo.
"The mental link is compromising him."
"No shit." Jim's O2 sats were dangerously low. McCoy drove the hypo home, emptying the contents into Kirk's unconscious body. Immediately, the oxygen saturation improved, but the blood-pressure stayed low. "I need to get him to the ship."
Spock remained in place and focused on the native who appeared distraught at Jim's sudden collapse. "That may be impossible, Doctor."
McCoy pressed his fingers to the side of Jim's neck, feeling the sluggish pulse. He reached for another loaded hypo, hoping to bring Jim's blood-pressure up. He pressed the hypo against Kirk's carotid artery and took another set of vitals. Still low, but stabilizing. He peeled back one of Jim's eyelids and checked his pupil response. Also sluggish. The vitals dipped again and Kirk drew a staggered breath. McCoy glared up at the Vulcan. "Do something, damn it!"
"I am." Spock gracefully sank to his knees, bringing himself to eye level with the tiny native.
McCoy kept a protective hand on Jim's chest as he watched Spock. The guards shifted uneasily, their eyes trained on the small group of natives that now gathered close together, creating a tight mass. Only the one with the headdress remained separate, facing Spock.
Minutes stretched as the air stilled. Jim's heart beat beneath McCoy's palm and his chest rose in uneven breaths. Finally, Spock turned to McCoy.
"He has agreed to break the link," Spock said.
"It's about damn time."
The small native stepped around Spock to kneel at Kirk's side. McCoy scowled, suddenly uncertain, and held his hand out to prevent the native from touching Jim. "Wait."
"Doctor," Spock said evenly, "it is our only option. This link is harmful to the Captain."
"That's what you said about breaking it."
"I said to remove it without knowing its purpose would be dangerous."
"So what's changed?" McCoy studied the small creature. "How do we know that he isn't going to harm him?"
"We do not."
McCoy snapped his head around to glare at Spock. "Well that's a comfort. I'm not letting this creature touch Jim."
"Then you condemn Jim to a life of blindness and possible permanent mental disability." The Vulcan's voice was controlled; the words a warning.
McCoy's lips tightened into a thin line. Goddamn it, he hated this. He looked down at Jim's peaceful face, pale and relaxed in unconsciousness. He was CMO. He had the right to refuse, to demand that Jim be taken back to the ship. But what if Spock was right? What if he was condemning Jim to a future without meaning? Jim was still so young, the universe his to explore….
"Wait a minute, damn it!" He was a trauma physician. He had always made decisions of life and death in a matter of seconds – what medications to push, what procedure to perform. Indecision killed patients. It was the first thing they taught as doctors in residency. Now, suddenly, his well-honed skills abandoned him. For the first time in his career as a medical doctor, he didn't know what to do.
"It may ease your apprehension," Spock said quietly, "to know that I feel their great love for him."
McCoy stared at the Vulcan, completely speechless, wondering if the First Officer were joking. But Spock's face remained composed and serious. McCoy turned his attention to the tiny creature that knelt on the opposite side of Jim, waiting for his approval.
"If they wanted to kill him," Spock continued, "they most certainly could have done so by now."
The declaration didn't make McCoy feel better, but he decided there was no good choice. So he made the decision that he knew Jim would make himself. He nodded to the gatekeeper, and kept his hand on Jim.
The being gazed at Kirk. The copper-colored eyes softened to a shade of spun gold. The angles of the strong, rectangular face seemed to disappear and transform the alien features into something almost reverent. McCoy watched as the eyes became liquid with unshed tears. He could almost feel the sorrow radiating from the small being, pushing up uncomfortably against him. As McCoy watched, the other reached out a hand toward Kirk's head. It extended a single finger and touched Jim's forehead, closing its eyes as it did so.
McCoy felt Jim's heart rate increase beneath his palm, and he reached to settle a hand on Jim's bicep as if to reassure the both of them.
After a brief moment, the being withdrew the touch. Jim exhaled a soft breath, but did not move. McCoy pressed his fingers to the side of Jim's neck and took a quick pulse, feeling the strong, steady beat. He looked at the being who was taking something off its necklace. Gently, it took Kirk's limp hand and pressed something into it, closing his fingers around it. In one smooth motion, it stood and walked away. The others reluctantly followed, their previous animation subdued.
McCoy looked at Spock in confusion before reaching for his medical scanner and passing it over Jim. He frowned at the readings.
"His vitals are coming up – heart rate, blood-pressure, oxygen saturation," he said slowly. Had the link been keeping Jim ill all this time? He looked up and discovered that the natives had disappeared, leaving the landing party alone in the small clearing. "Where did they go?"
"To tend the planet, as is their function."
McCoy looked quizzically at Spock, then back again to the empty space the beings had occupied. "They looked like they were mourning."
A pensive expression altered the Vulcan's taciturn features. "They are, Doctor."
McCoy took a deep breath. An unpleasant and all too familiar heaviness sank into his bones. Suddenly, he was tired, bone-weary tired. All the intrigue and mystery had left him empty and cold. All he knew was that the man who lay in front of him had somehow been used.
"Let's get the hell out of here, Spock."
McCoy stepped quietly onto the bridge. His eyes settled briefly on the still, isolated figure that stood before the bridge's large viewscreen before scanning the rest of the bridge crew and making contact with the First Officer. Spock sat at his station, straight-backed and noticeably uneasy, for a Vulcan. The pensive expression told McCoy all he needed to know. He gave the Vulcan a barely perceptible nod and turned his attention back to the Captain.
The silence on the bridge was almost tangible, as was the discomfort. McCoy had released Kirk from Sickbay more than thirty hours ago, finally clearing him for restricted duty. Kirk's vision had returned to 20/20, the painful headaches had disappeared, vitals were now normal and the tox screen was clear. Despite everything the young man had been through, he had made a remarkable recovery, regaining his strength rapidly. It was Jim's uncharacteristic quietness that bordered on brooding that concerned McCoy.
Jim was a difficult man to keep down. In the years McCoy had known him, even serious injury and exile had not kept him restrained for long. It was a quality that McCoy both admired and disdained. To see him so reflective and still, set off McCoy's internal alarms.
I should have known something was wrong, he thought. Jim had been too isolate and unwilling to talk since regaining consciousness in Sickbay. Not that he had ever been eager to talk, but McCoy could usually coax him to open up, with a quiet meal in the privacy of Jim's quarters, a welcome glass of Saurian brandy. But this time all the doctor's attempts were rejected, Jim feigning fatigue. Spock tried to explain it to him – the profound effects of a severed link – but he didn't really understand. He had thought Jim would be relieved, would celebrate the removal of the alien link. Instead, if he had to define it, he would say the young Captain was grieving.
McCoy took a breath and stepped down into the bridge center, passing Chekov with a slight nod and coming to stand behind Kirk. On the viewscreen, Aegis turned peacefully. According to Spock, Jim had been standing at the front viewer for the entire shift, saying very little to anyone. McCoy had never understood Jim's desire to watch space, which always seemed cold and forbidding to him.
Kirk must have felt his presence, because he glanced back at McCoy. Still pale, the electric blue eyes seemed unusually brilliant…and profoundly sad. At least they were clear now, and focused. Without a word, Jim turned back to the screen.
"Nice view," McCoy said, studying Jim intensely, acutely aware of the crew that pretended not to observe them.
Enterprise had completed her mission on Aegis and from what Spock had told him, Starfleet Command was pleased with the results. The now-inhabited planet was thriving under the care of thousands of the small beings that tended to the planet's needs. Aegis turned out to offer much more than first thought-with the gateway opened, the planet's lush ecology and potential for rapid advancement seemed unlimited. The once insignificant planet now offered the Federation an entirely new host of possible resources, not the least of which was the enigmatic gateway itself. The Federation was already planning on sending a diplomatic and scientific team. As far as missions go, Aegis had turned out to be an unexpected success.
Enterprise had been released of all obligations, and the USS Constitution was already in orbiting position. Enterprise should have been underway more than two days ago. No one knew why the Captain kept the ship orbiting Aegis.
Kirk looked down at the small object he worried in his fingers, turning it over and over. McCoy knew what it was, though he couldn't see from where he stood. He'd taken it out of Jim's hand while the Captain was still unconscious down on the planet, barely noticing it at the time. It was Spock who had retrieved and examined it. Later, the Vulcan had brought it to Jim, who had not let go of it since.
Kirk shifted his weight to his good leg, expelling a soft sound of pain.
"Shift is over now, Jim," McCoy said quietly, hoping his words would be enough and that he wouldn't have to pull medical rank. Jim wasn't supposed to be on his feet for long periods, the new muscle and ligaments in his leg still tender and unhealed. McCoy had kept the light knee brace in place as a precaution.
Kirk nodded once without looking at him, still focused on the viewer.
After several long minutes, with Kirk showing no signs of leaving, McCoy moved to stand next to him and lowered his voice so that only Jim could hear. "It's time to go."
It took a moment for Jim to look at him. In that brief pause, the closed expression fell away and McCoy glimpsed something in the young face that was so raw, so tormented that it took his breath. Before he could react, it was gone, and the mask of the confident starship Captain was back in place. Jim looked down at the object in his hand, and it seemed that he had resolved something…or maybe he had just returned it to the place where he kept his pain.
McCoy looked at the object. "What does it mean, Jim?"
Kirk rested it between his fingers and appraised it like a gem. The bronze-colored pin bore the design of the Starfleet Command insignia, made of material found only on Earth. Spock had deemed it authentic, and over a hundred years old. But how could such a hundred year-old Earth-made pin have found its way to a people that did not yet exist on a planet that contained no sentient life?
"It means you can't change the past." Kirk looked at him and gave a small smile that didn't reach his eyes.
McCoy let it be. Jim would come to him in his own time and maybe share whatever the beings of Aegis had shared with him through the link. Until then, he'd be there for his friend.
Jim looked past him. "Mr. Sulu, take us out of orbit." He smiled then, the pin clasped tightly in his hand.
A/N – Thank every one of you for sharing this journey with me and for your beautiful reviews. While I cannot respond to them, I do read each one and love the attention and care you have for this story. As always, it is my greatest pleasure to share my vision and, hopefully, make you feel. Readers trust a writer to take care with the material, to be considerate of their investment of time, and to not disappoint.
Thank you for your trust.