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Ann Zewen



So much death.

Jim Kirk looked around at the bodies, Human and alien, littering the ground and raised one hand to knead the aching muscles at the back of his neck.

"Damn!" He said it softly, the weariness he heard in his own voice giving the mild oath a level of obscenity usually reserved for much stronger profanity.

"Damn!" he said again, louder this time, and was startled when he heard a low moan in response. The sound was close by, one of his own men. Studying each of them in turn, he decided that the medic, the botanist and the engineer were all as dead as he’d originally believed them, as were the head of his security detail and the man’s second-in-command.

That left just one member of the security detail, a young crewman on his first landing-party duty. What was the kid’s name? Kirk shook his head, unsure whether it was to clear it of the cobwebs or shake some information loose. It didn’t matter. He didn’t know the young man’s name. He was just one of the many red-shirted crewmen who accompanied their captain on such missions for the primary purpose of keeping Kirk’s butt out of trouble.

Well, they’d succeeded — at least so far as keeping the captain alive. But they’d given up far too much for the privilege. For all but this one young man, that responsibility had ended in their deaths. And another glance told Kirk that this one likely would join his comrades all too soon.

The "Red Shirt" moaned again, and Kirk mentally slapped himself for just sitting there, thinking stupid thoughts, while one of his crew obviously was in need of help that only he remained in condition to provide.

The captain of the Enterprise crawled the three meters to where the wounded crewman lay and tried to determine the extent of the young man’s injuries. "He’d have been better off if it had been the medic who survived," Kirk mumbled to himself, then crawled another four meters to where that crewman lay motionless, his tricorder at his side. Checking the instrument to be sure it still worked, Kirk crawled back to the Red Shirt and activated the tricorder, checking its readings to see what he could do to help his injured crewman.

He shut the instrument off and tossed it aside, not even caring if he damaged it. The readings had told him all he needed to know. There wasn’t a thing he could do for the young crewman. Suffering from severe disruptor burn, the man was dying, so badly injured that it was unlikely that even Bones could save him. But Bones would at least try. Bones at least had the medical knowledge to make the attempt.

Jim Kirk, on the other hand, was helpless — helpless and worthless, unable to do a damned thing to help a dying man.

"Captain?" The voice was weak, and the single word ended in a fit of coughing that drew Kirk closer to the young man’s side.

"I’m here," he told the Red Shirt, placing one hand on the young man’s shoulder in an attempt to bring him comfort.

"I’m dying, aren’t I, sir?" the man asked.

Kirk hesitated. Should he try to reassure the crewman or give him the final gift of honesty?


"I’m here," Kirk repeated, opting for half-truths. "And the ion storm will pass soon, so we can re-establish contact with the Enterprise. As soon as we get you back home, I’m sure Doctor McCoy will do everything he—"

"Sir," the crewman interrupted. "I’m dying, aren’t I?"

Kirk sighed and slumped into a cross-legged position, arms resting on his thighs in dejection. "Yes, son," he told the young man who was not nearly young enough to be the youthful captain’s son. "Yes, you’re dying."

The Red Shirt relaxed. The knowledge seemed a relief. Or maybe he had known all along and just needed the reassurance that someone else knew, too — knew and cared. Kirk stiffened his spine. He couldn’t save this man from the injury that was stealing his life, but he could help him make that final journey; he could keep the boy from having to make it all alone.

"Tell me about yourself, soldier," Kirk ordered. "Tell me about your family, your home."

"Home..." The word was said wistfully, as though this very young crewman were a bit homesick still. "Home is on a bayou in southern Louisiana, about nine or eight miles southwest of Lafayette. Maman is still there." A ghost of a smile flashed across his swarthy features, and his voice strengthened a bit. "She’s probably making up a big pot of filé gumbo right now — or jambalaya. Oo-la-la, my maman can make a mean jambalaya — lots of andouille and chicken and shrimp or oysters, if she can get them, mudbugs if she can’t."

"Mudbugs?" Kirk couldn’t help asking. It didn’t sound appetizing.

"Oui. Mudbugs. Crawfish." The Red Shirt coughed again, then asked, "Have you ever heard the story about the mama crawfish who set out one day to show her baby crawfish the world — and before dark?"

Kirk shook his head in negation, then shook it again in disgust at himself after the Red Shirt closed his eyes and began to tell his story. He was supposed to be comforting his injured crewman, and this young man was entertaining him with stories — stories about mama crawfish at that! Surely there was something he should be doing, some way he could help the crewman. But he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it would be.

"He’ll eat any damned thing!" the Red Shirt finished his story with a laugh that ended in another coughing fit.

Finally, Kirk thought, something he could do. Easing closer to the young man, he slid one arm beneath the crewman’s shoulders and eased him into a partially sitting position, providing some relief from the coughing. After a moment, the spell ended on a sigh, and Kirk eased the man back onto the ground, allowing him to catch his breath.

"Maybe you shouldn’t be trying to tell stories right now," Kirk suggested.

"Maybe," the crewman replied. "But it’s such a funny story."

Kirk nodded his agreement, although he couldn’t remember any of the story except for the opening line and the punch line. Who’ll eat any damned thing? he asked himself, realizing he’d probably never know, because he certainly couldn’t ask the injured man to repeat his story. The captain searched for another topic of conversation.

"Do you have a girl?" he asked finally.

"Do I have a girl! Ooo-whee, captain, you should see my Madeleine." He drew the name out in three distinct syllables: Mad-a-layne, a pronunciation Kirk had never heard. "My Mad-a-layne, she makes me gumbo almost as good as my maman."

Kirk was so busy listening to the unusual lilt to the man’s speech that he didn’t notice for a moment the shadow that crossed the Red Shirt’s face — not until the crewman spoke in a softer, more serious tone. "Sir?"

"Yes, son?"

"Would you tell them...?" His voice trailed off.

Tell who? What? Kirk wondered.

Although the captain hadn’t spoken aloud, the Red Shirt answered the silent question: "Tell my maman and my Mad-a-layne that I died well."

"Yes, son, I’ll tell them," Kirk promised, making a mental note to be sure this tape was a very personal one, detailing the crewman’s heroism, humor and thoughts of his loved ones in his last moments.

"Thank you, sir."

And the boy stopped breathing.

Kirk stared at him a moment, then brushed one hand gently down the crewman’s face to close his eyes, allowing his hand to remain over them for a moment, as though the contact might still bring some comfort — to whom, he wasn’t sure.

He took a deep breath and let it out in a long shudder, then—

Crackle. "Enterprise to Captain Kirk."

Kirk pulled his communicator from the waistband at the back of his pants and flipped it open. "Kirk here." He glanced around him. "Tell Scotty... Tell him to beam me up — now."

He’d send another crew to recover the bodies, and a little later he would make his official report on this failed mission, then prepare the necessary condolence tapes for the fallen crewmen, with special attention to two messages for one young hero.

But right now, all Jim Kirk wanted to do was go home.

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