Donna S. Frelick
The starship hung amid a fine netting of umbilicals and moorings, a graceful dragonfly caught in the spider's web of Spacedock. From a catwalk tube circling the dock's third level, James T. Kirk gazed at her with an ache he'd long ago given up trying to suppress. This starship was not his starship. He had no idea what misadventure or routine maintenance need had brought her here. He knew nothing about her mission or her crew.
He only knew he wished she was his.
It was an old and familiar wish by now, and a futile one. He was no longer a captain in command of a starship. He was an admiral, officially assigned the task of passing on his knowledge to a new generation of Starfleet cadets. And the task that had brought him to this catwalk overlooking Starfleet's newest Safe Haven-class spacedock had precious little to do with command or his old dreams. Kirk held back a sigh and turned from the view out the tube to the short, balding man at his side.
"As you can see, our repair capability is top-notch, Admiral," Commodore Chen was saying. "And we think Starbase Seventy-Four has the best engineering training facility in Starfleet. I hope you agree, sir?"
"Yes, Commodore. Everything looks up to specs." Kirk found it hard to dredge up the enthusiasm Chen seemed to want. By rights this should have been Scott's inspection, but try convincing Starfleet Command of anything so sensible.
"Good. Then you'll be returning to the Academy tomorrow?"
Kirk smiled thinly. "Why, Commodore! You can't be that anxious to get rid of me!"
"Of course not, sir," Chen sputtered, reddening. "That is, I..."
"At ease, Chen," Kirk said wearily. After two days, Chen's lack of humor was grating on him. "I still have a few questions, if you don't mind."
"Concerning what, sir?"
Was there some hesitation in Chen's voice? "Concerning certain reports that have reached Starfleet Command of sabotage, vandalism, fighting with the local population," Kirk answered evenly. "Tarsus Three has been all over the newsnets for months now--and political demonstrations against the presence of Starfleet don't make for a pretty picture, Commodore."
Chen smiled indulgently. "Admiral, surely you don't believe everything you see on the newsnets? We have had some incidents, yes, as you have seen in my reports. With such a large number of our personnel stationed downplanet at base headquarters, there are bound to be a few, ah, altercations. But the streets are quiet now--you saw that for yourself. The situation is certainly not serious enough to affect the quality of training we are able to offer your cadets."
"What kind of relationship do you have with the local officials?"
"Why, I'd have to describe it as excellent, Admiral. We've all tried to do our best with a difficult situation."
Kirk nodded. Tarsus III was no one's idea of a pleasure planet. It was hot and dusty and had nothing to recommend it to settlers beyond the hope of making a credit off of Starfleet. A tough post--but the engineering facilities were excellent, and Chen's tour had revealed nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, for all that Kirk had seen, Starbase 74 might have been set in the middle of the Nevada desert.
Yet Kirk's gut was telling him something wasn't right. He had too much personal history with the Tarsus system to think life would be easy here--for Starfleet cadets or for anyone else. If Tarsus IV could breed a mass murderer like Kodos, what might the gritty streets of Tarsus III yield up?
"Did you have other questions, sir?"
Kirk managed a polite smile. "No. You will have those quartermaster's reports in my terminal by tomorrow morning?"
"Of course, sir," Chen answered, leading the way out of the catwalk tube to the main shell.
Kirk took a last lingering look at the starship hanging in the vast repair bay and followed Chen into the corridor.
"I need to be back in my office for a staff briefing at eighteen-hundred, Admiral," Chen said. "Will you be joining us or...?"
"No, thank you, Commodore. It's been a long day." Kirk had had more than enough of staff meetings and polite dinner conversation with officers obliged by protocol to show him their hospitality. Steven Chen, in particular, was almost as entertaining as one of McCoy's physicals. Another evening of listening to his theories on the similarities between Tibetan chants and Altairean poetry was more than Kirk could stand.
"You should know I plan to make a favorable report to Starfleet Command," he added. "I don't see anything here that indicates a problem. I'll stop in your office tomorrow before I return to headquarters."
Chen looked like a kid let out of school early. "Very good, Admiral. Then if you don't mind I have some matters to attend to with the supply officer. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow."
Kirk watched the commodore disappear down the corridor, then started off in the opposite direction, looking for the transporter station and some diversion that didn't involve an intimate knowledge of Starfleet engineering methodology.
The sound of angry voices spilling out an open office door provided one before he'd gone more than a few meters.
The argument was loud and decidedly unprofessional. The code above the door indicated this was a liaison office for the Spacedock maintenance section. Kirk couldn't see who was arguing, but shouting was hardly the best means of liaising with the civilian population. He decided with a sigh that he'd better step in and throw his admiral's weight around a little.
"Captain, Starfleet is not required to allow any commercial ship access to Spacedock facilities," someone was saying as Kirk neared the door. "We'd be doing you a favor--a big favor."
"Yeah? And how many favors do you owe me, Harker?" someone else shouted back. "I ask for this one thing..."
"Shut up, Orlov. This is the third time I've seen you this week."
"Look," a female voice interrupted, "none of this is helpful. I realize providing this kind of specialized repair is only done in emergencies, Lieutenant. And I wouldn't be asking if I could get the work done anywhere else in a hundred parsecs. But you know as well as I do that I'm stuck. I'm carrying perishable vaccines. You have to help me out here."
The clerk's voice changed subtly as he replied, "Well, maybe we can help each other out, Captain."
This had definitely gone far enough. Kirk turned the corner in the office in three quick strides. He stopped and waited for the rattled office staff to bring each other to attention. "Is there a problem, Lieutenant?" he asked, allowing all but the last bit of anger at what he'd heard to come into his voice.
The officer in charge stammered a response, but Kirk suddenly wasn't listening. All his attention was drawn to the merchant captain as she turned to see who had spoken. It had been fifteen years--or was it sixteen?--but her body was still slim and smoothly muscled, her eyes were still the most astonishing feral green. Her short, dark hair was marked now with a slash of silver where it swept over her right brow. Otherwise, Captain Kate Logan looked much as she had the night they'd met on Starbase 12. Even after all these years, her beauty still cut straight through him.
Logan smiled as she recognized him. "Admiral Kirk, I presume?" She looked as if she wanted to say or do something considerably more dramatic, but she stayed where she was, within baiting range of the young maintenance clerk.
He smiled back. "Captain Logan."
Kirk finally noticed that the office staff was standing awkwardly at attention. "As you were," he told them. "Mister--?"
"Harker, sir." The lieutenant swallowed nervously.
"Mister Harker, I can personally vouch for Captain Logan. If she says she needs an emergency repair on her ship, you can be sure the emergency is real. I suggest you assign her vessel a slip in Spacedock and a place on the maintenance schedule at the earliest opportunity."
"Uh, is that an order, sir?"
Kirk turned to him and asked with deceptive mildness, "Am I an admiral, Lieutenant Harker?"
"Then snap to it, Mister!"
"Oh, and Lieutenant."
"Never let me hear you or anyone else in this office suggest a personal aspect to doing business again." This time Kirk didn't bother to keep any of his anger out of his voice. "Is that clear?"
Harker blanched. "Perfectly clear, sir."
Logan bowed fractionally in Kirk's direction. "Thank you, Admiral."
"My pleasure, Captain."
Kirk waited in the corridor for Logan to finish her business with a much-subdued maintenance staff and marveled at his sudden change of mood. Funny how she'd showed up just when he needed--what? A distraction? A friend?
Just like the first time. He'd been involved in one of the toughest assignments of his career when he met her, one that took him off the Enterprise and away from the friends he'd come to rely on. If it hadn't been for Kate Logan, he wasn't sure he would have survived it. She was smart, she was a fighter, and she was one hell of a starship pilot. Even if there had been nothing more between them, he would have loved her for that.
But, of course, there had been something more. Something he had never forgotten, though there had been other women in his life since then.
Logan emerged from the office and came to him, smiling as if she knew the effect she was having on him. She took both his hands, kissed his cheek close to his ear. "Hello, starman," she said. "It's been a long time."
They beamed down to the surface and survived a harrowing hovercab ride through the choked streets of the city to a place she knew, well away from the starbase. The bar was dark and unassuming, a perfect environment for reweaving a connection that had unraveled over the years.
"So you're at the Academy now," she said. "Do you like it?"
"I don't mind it."
"Somehow you don't strike me as the academic type."
He shrugged. "Somebody's got to whip these kids into shape."
"Why you? Seems like a waste of a good starship captain to me."
"I had my turn at the helm," he said, trying to keep an unwelcome edge out of his voice. "Time to give the youngsters a chance."
Her eyes narrowed. "Oh, yeah?"
"How about you?" he said quickly. "How's Roxanne?"
Logan was quiet a moment, considering him. He had time to notice the tiny lines around her eyes that deepened when she smiled, the confident strength in the set of her shoulders. He had time to recognize the familiar buzz of sexual tension between them. "Did I say something wrong?" he asked her.
"No. It's what you didn't say that worries me," she answered. "But that's okay; I've got all night. We can start with me if you want to."
Logan talked for a while about Roxanne, the lifeform they had discovered together on Rho Orionis V. The creature had been her partner and constant companion since the day it had merged with the computer systems of her ship to save their lives so long ago.
The sentient ship and her captain had had a few close calls over the years, Logan told him. They'd had a few successes, a few spectacular failures. In fact, Kirk knew she was being modest. She'd won the merchant fleet's highest honors not once, but twice, for her skill in outwitting the Orion and Kzinti pirates and renegade Klingons who bedeviled the trade routes. He'd followed her career over the years. So he knew, too, that she'd long ago outgrown her lone-wolf hauling business; she managed a prosperous network of trade partners now.
What he hadn't heard was that Logan had been married once, briefly. That bit of news stirred something in his heart he wasn't ready to admit to, even though she explained the marriage hadn't lasted beyond the first contract period.
The plain fact of it was that Logan was comfortable with herself. She was happy. She had seen her faith in herself borne out in countless situations in her life. And her failures, whatever they had been, had only made her stronger.
Kirk wasn't sure he could say the same of himself. Certainly he had had more than his share of success, but it had never allowed him to escape a certain restless self-doubt. He'd had more than his share of lovers, but they had left him little more than pain. Edith Keeler and Miramani, who were dead because of what he had done, or failed to do. Carol Marcus, who had shut him out of her life and his son's. Half a dozen others he'd let slip away because he wouldn't compromise his career.
Kate Logan had been different from the beginning. She had never asked him for anything except honesty. She had always been the one woman from his past he could think of and smile. He was grateful for the smile she brought him now. He'd needed it more than he'd realized.
"Had enough?" she said after a while. "Are you bored yet?"
"Never." He reached up to touch her face. Her skin was like warm silk under his fingers.
"Well, I seem to be running out of things to say," she said softly. "I don't suppose you'd like to tell me what's happening in your life?"
In fact that was the last thing he wanted to do. "There's not much to tell."
"Uh huh," she said, her mouth lifting slightly at the corners. He felt a sudden, overpowering urge to kiss her. He would have, too, but he was afraid that once he started he wouldn't be able to stop.
"Uh, why don't we get something to eat instead?" he said.
She looked at him, the playful hint of an invitation in her impossibly green eyes. "Okay, Jim. You don't want to talk. I don't want to eat. You don't dance, and I don't play chess. What's left?"
"Your place or mine?" she asked.
They settled on her hotel, which was closer and provided less opportunity to fuel the starbase rumor mill.
"I only have one question for you, Admiral," she said as he shrugged out of his heavy red uniform jacket. "Who's the Starfleet genius who designed those damned uniforms?"
"I don't know, but he obviously doesn't have to wear them."
Kate stepped up to him and slipped her hands under his Command-white turtleneck. "You were so much more accessible in that tight gold tunic," she said.
He tugged the offending shirt over his head. "Never let it be said that I was inaccessible."
She slid her hands across the skin of his chest, down and around his sides, up the muscles on either side of his spine. "You know, it's been a long time since anyone looked at me the way you've been looking at me tonight," she said. "I've missed that."
"Why shouldn't I look? You're even more beautiful than I remembered."
She laughed softly. "You always were an incurable romantic."
He pulled her closer and kissed her, recalling in a rush a hundred little details about their lovemaking--the way she smelled, the way she tasted, the way she responded to a certain touch, a particular rhythm. The way she came in rising waves of passion that left them both exhausted.
He opened the vest she wore and caressed her breasts through the filmy undershirt beneath. He wanted to spend hours, days remembering her. He wanted to rediscover all her secret places, wanted to set them on fire one by one. He wanted to hear her call his name again as he moved inside her. He wanted to love her so much he couldn't speak, he couldn't breathe.
She reached down, confirming for herself how much he wanted her. Her touch drew a small gasp of pleasure out of him and she smiled. "Come on, starman," she said, taking his hand and leading him to the bed. "Show me what you've learned in fifteen years."
They slept finally, and Jim Kirk slept well for the first time in weeks. He dreamed, not of abandonment and death, as he had for so long, but of reunion and fulfillment and joy. The dream still held him when Kate woke him before dawn. He made love to her again, caught between waking and sleeping, not entirely certain that she would still be there when he opened his eyes.
When at last he did open his eyes, she was smiling down at him. "Well, there is definitely something to be said for experience," she said. "I never knew how much until tonight."
He laughed. "Sometimes that's all we old spacedogs have to offer."
"Jim Kirk, you are a long way from being in the old spacedog category."
He thought so, too. But those birthdays kept reminding him differently--like the one he had coming up marking a half-century. No amount of stardate manipulation could get him around the impact of that number of years.
She was looking at him more thoughtfully now. It had been a long time, but he knew that look--she was about to ask him a question he didn't want to answer. "You've changed, Jim. We both have. That's not such a bad thing; it's part of what life is all about. Why are you taking it so hard?"
"You give every indication of a man carrying a lot of baggage."
"Maybe it's the weight of all those mistakes I've made over the years," he said. He'd meant to deliver this line lightly, but it came out leaden and etched with the bitterness he'd been struggling to deny. Admitting out loud what he'd come to believe in his heart frightened him. He hesitated before he asked her, "Do you ever regret the choices you've made, Kate?"
"Regret? No. Do you?"
"Sometimes. What about your marriage?"
"It didn't work out, but I can't say I regret the attempt."
Absurdly, he felt a flush of jealousy. It was a feeling he knew he had absolutely no right to claim. Yet he envied the man who had once been Logan's husband the time they'd shared, the place he'd had in her life. "What was he like?"
She pulled away from him and sat up. "He was everything he should've been. He was a good man; he loved me. I guess I loved him, too, for a while."
"So what went wrong?"
She was quiet a long time before she spoke. "He wasn't you, starman," she said.
She moved to leave the bed before he could reply, but he grabbed her arm. "That's quite a revelation," he said, wanting more. "How am I supposed to take it?"
"You asked me. I told you the truth."
"That doesn't answer my question."
She shook her head. "I've got to go."
"At this hour? It's not even light out, Kate."
"I've got to catch the early transport back to Tarsus Four," she said, abruptly all business. "Roxanne's in pieces in the commercial spacedock. I told her I'd be back today to get her in shape for the move here."
He sighed. She would tell him what she wanted him to know in her own time. Or not. But he wasn't going to let her go without giving her at least some of the time she needed. "Okay. Want some company?"
"Don't you have some pressing duty on the base today, Admiral?"
"As a matter of fact, I don't. I was on my way back to San Francisco today until I ran into you. Now I'm thinking I may take a few days' leave. Unless you think you'll be too busy."
She grinned at him. "For you, I'll make time."
With all the distractions of that morning, it was a while before Jim Kirk realized he'd invited himself on a trip back to hell.
The fear rose in a long, low moan of despair from the crowd in the square below. Herded into a tight mass, they held each other in groups of two or four or five--husbands and wives, lovers and friends, children. Children. He could still remember the children crying, some of them screaming as they were torn from their mothers' arms and placed with strangers on the other side of the barriers.
The guards weaved their way through the dazed crowd, winnowing the last of the chosen survivors out from among those who were scheduled for execution. When they were done, they joined the ring of armed men on the outside of the barriers and waited.
The crowd in the square waited, too, struck dumb with horror, as Kodos spoke the words that would burn in Kirk's memory forever:
"The revolution has been successful, but survival depends on drastic measures. Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of society. Your lives mean slow death to the more valued members of the colony. Therefore I have no alternative but to sentence you to death. Your execution is so ordered.
"Signed, Kodos, Governor of Tarsus Four."
When he finished speaking, the guards raised their laser rifles and murdered more than four thousand men, women and children. Four thousand lives. The work of less than five minutes' time.
And from a rooftop overlooking the square, Jim Kirk, thirteen years old and sick with rage and fear, tried, but could not look away.
That Kirk survived that day on Tarsus IV was an accident of luck more than of Kodos' twisted genetic theories. He had been visiting relatives the summer the deadly fungus claimed the last of the food stocks and plunged the young colony into chaos. Jim Kirk's name appeared on no one's census. So he lived, while so many others died. He had never stopped asking himself why, even after the bitter end of Kodos' life played itself out on the Enterprise stage more than twenty years later.
Even now, as he sat in a workers' transport bound from the third to the fourth planet in the Tarsus system, more than thirty-five years later.
"You never used to be so introspective, starman," Logan said quietly. "Was it something I said?"
"Not this time."
"I haven't been back to Tarsus in a long time. I hear it's built up quite a bit lately."
She looked at him, but left the question in her eyes unasked. "Biggest trade hub in this sector of space."
"Hard to believe, given the history of the planet."
"Since when has history stood in the way of economics?"
Never, as Kirk was well aware. But if it had been up to him, Tarsus IV would have been ringed with quarantine buoys and left as a silent memorial to unholy arrogance.
"Too bad a little of that prosperity couldn't have rubbed off on Tarsus Three," Logan said, nodding at the rear viewscreen that now showed the planet as a tiny blur of reflected light behind them. "The place is a dump."
"That's why Starfleet built the base on Three," Kirk said, still preoccupied with the past, but trying to talk his way out of it. "Hoping to stimulate a little development."
Up near the forward bulkhead, the transport's only other passenger, a boy of about seventeen, jumped up from his seat. His longish black hair fell in a ragged curtain over his eyes, but the scowl on his face was plain to see. "Bullshit," he said, starting back toward them. "Starfleet built the base on Tarsus Three because it was cheap. And because we were too weak to say no."
Kirk opened his mouth to answer, but he never got the words out. In the space the boy had just left, a ball of blue plasma blossomed improbably and blasted several kilos of shredded bulkhead in their direction.
The first of it hit the youth and knocked him off his feet as Kirk's mind finally acknowledged the shattering roar of the explosion. Kirk dove toward the shuttle deck and dragged Logan down with him as a second blast ripped through the cabin.
A lacerating hail of shrapnel fell out of the choking darkness and pinned them to the deck--until at last there was nothing but the swirling dust and the shrieking of the ship's alarms.
Kirk sat up slowly, working with the experience of a lifetime to overcome the effects of shock and clear his head. In the ruddy glow of the emergency lights, he could just make out the outlines of his own body. Everything seemed to be intact. He wasn't in pain--at least, not that he was aware.
He also wasn't breathing. He made himself breathe.
"Kate, are you all right?"
She sat up beside him, testing arms and legs cautiously. "I think so. You?"
"I'm okay." He scanned the ruined cabin in an attempt to get his bearings. As his eyes adjusted to the murky half-light, he began to put the chaos of warped decking and ruptured bulkheads in perspective. But he couldn't see what he was looking for. "What about the kid? Do you see him?"
"I can't see a damn thing," Logan answered. "Wait--I think I hear him."
A moan from several feet away marked the boy's location. Kirk and Logan scuttled awkwardly across the buckled deck toward him. "Hey," she called out. "Are you okay?"
"Shit, no, I'm not 'okay'," the kid's voice came back. "I've got about a ton of sharp objects sticking out of my fucking back."
"Hang on, son. We'll have you out of there in no time," Kirk said.
"Oh, thanks, Dad. I feel so much better." The wheeze in the boy's voice did little to obscure the sarcasm.
The emergency systems provided just enough light for Kirk and Logan to find him, lying face down under a pile of corkscrewed plasteel and polymer that hid all but his head and shoulders. They tried to clear away some of weight, but succeeded only in shifting it. The boy screamed. "Okay, okay," Kirk told him quietly. "We'll get some light. It'll be easier when we can see what we're doing."
"Christ..." the boy moaned.
"There should be an emergency locker somewhere," Logan said. "I'll see if I can find it."
"Where the hell is the frigging pilot?" the kid said.
Kirk could see through the fractured interior bulkhead to the helm, and he suspected there wouldn't be much of the pilot left to find. But he saw no point in saying so. "What's your name?" he asked instead.
"Colonel Green," the boy answered. "What's yours?"
"Jim Kirk. You know," Kirk added conversationally, "I've met Colonel Green, and he doesn't sound a bit like you."
"Right. Check your chrono, old man. I think you're about two hundred and fifty years behind."
"Okay. I suppose I could go on calling you 'son'," Kirk said. "But if you die, I won't know who to send the body to."
The kid wheezed. Kirk realized he was laughing. "Name's Eli. And you might as well send what's left of me to Kodos. They're the ones who organized this party."
"Kodos?" Eli's casual use of the name sent a chill through Kirk. "The Executioner?"
"Kodos the Executioner has been dead for fifteen years. Kodos the revolution is alive and well. You know, if you starfloggers didn't have your heads so far up your asses, you might actually learn something about the real world."
Metal creaked and clanged in another part of the car, and Logan let out a muffled shout. "Found it!" A second later, a broad beam of light swept the cabin and settled on Kirk and the tangle of wreckage that concealed the boy.
"The pilot's dead," Logan said when she joined them. "I didn't have time to check all the systems, but it doesn't look good." She passed the light to Kirk and took a hypo and a dose of painkiller from the medikit.
She glanced at him. "No. And no lifepod either."
"Don't you just hate it when the crew ignores safety procedures?" Eli rasped.
Logan found the boy's arm and emptied the hypo into it. "You should feel a little better in a few seconds."
Kirk stood and played the light over the twisted mass in front of him. He saw immediately that neutralizing the artificial gravity onboard wasn't the answer to their problem. A battered plasteel plate a meter wide and half again as long was wedged solidly in a ragged tear in the inner starboard bulkhead. The opposite end of the plate ground the boy's body against the deck. There was no hope of moving that plate without a winch and a laser cutter. Unless help arrived soon Eli was going to bleed to death in a pincer of crushing metal. And there was nothing Kirk and Logan could do to stop it.
Logan stood up next to him. He could see by her face she knew what he knew. "Let's see if we can get this bird moving," she said.
They started forward to the transport's tiny bridge. "Hey," Eli hailed them. "You're just going to leave me like this?"
Kirk stopped and knelt beside the boy. "We can't move the plate on top of you without help. We have to get back to port."
"Great," Eli said. "Just be sure you do it while I can still appreciate it, okay?"
"That's the plan," Kirk said. "Is the medication helping?"
"Yeah, but it's no fun. Got any trimorph?"
Kirk smiled at him and moved forward to join Logan at the pilot's console.
"What's he want?" she asked absently, busy trying to run a systems check from a hastily rigged computer access.
"Not much. We've lost navigation control, communications, and sensors for sure. I can't tell yet whether we've got power."
Kirk scanned the scorched control panels, trying without much success to understand the layout. It had been a long time since he'd been anything but a passenger on a ship like this one. It had been a long time since he'd been anything but a passenger on any kind of ship. "What about the emergency beacon?"
Logan shook her head. "I activated it, but the computer won't confirm whether it's working or not."
"Can you breathe?"
"Then you know as much as I do." Her contrived access to the computer sizzled and popped ominously. Logan got down on hands and knees, wrestled open a panel and went to work on the damaged components.
Kirk got the message. Scott had told him as much countless times. Logan's experience with a small ship and no one but herself to rely on was obviously much more appropriate to this situation than his own. She knew what she was doing. Best to leave her alone and let her work.
Besides, there were other questions that needed answering.
He moved carefully around the gaping hole in the decking and inner bulkhead created by the explosions. The force of the blasts had bent the edges of the holes outward and downward toward the small cargo hold. There was nothing left of the forward bulkhead or of the row of seats the boy had occupied.
This had been no engine malfunction. Whatever it was that had caused the explosions had been in that row of seats.
Kirk headed back to where Eli lay imprisoned by the destruction. "What was in the bag, Eli?"
"What bag?" His voice was defiant, but Kirk could read the fear in his face.
"The bag or the box or the suitcase--whatever it was you brought on board with you."
"My dirty shorts, what d'you think?" He wheezed again. "Guess they're scattered all over the cabin now, huh? How embarrassing."
Kirk settled in to a more comfortable position on the deck next to the boy, determined to take his time. "You said Kodos was responsible for this. What did you mean?"
"Jesus, man," the kid moaned. "I'm laying here under a pile of shit--dying, maybe--and you wanna play twenty questions?"
"You're not dying," Kirk lied. "Why'd you do it?"
"Now, wait a minute, Sherlock. I may be stupid, but I ain't that stupid. I didn't have anything to do with this."
"Whatever sent that piece of plasteel flying into your back was in the seat next to you. Lucky you got up when you did, or I'd have been scraping you off the deck instead of asking a few questions."
Eli closed his eyes and said nothing.
"Eli, do you know what that kind of blast would've done on a full transport? Dozens of people could have been killed. Any closer to the port bulkhead, and you'd have breached the outer hull. I don't think I have to tell you what that means. Why, Eli? How could you justify something like this?"
"I don't have to justify anything, old man. This wasn't my idea. But I doubt you really want to know why this happened. The answer might not fit your perfect Federation view of the universe."
"I've seen enough of the Federation to know it's anything but perfect."
"Yeah, I bet. How bad can things look from standard orbit? Or from Starfleet Headquarters? Can you see Tarsus Three bleeding from your desk on the bay?"
The kid had a way of knowing just where to hit him, but Kirk reluctantly passed up the chance to defend himself. "Tarsus Three is a poor planet."
"Poor? Yeah, Tarsus is poor, all right. And Starfleet is determined to keep it that way."
"Starfleet is the planet's largest employer."
"Yeah, so you keep reminding us. Well, I don't know about you, but I don't call prostitution or black market hustling legitimate employment."
"You're suggesting Starfleet personnel are involved?" Kirk felt a massive knot forming in his stomach, anticipating the answer.
"Involved?" Eli nearly choked on the word. "They're running the whole fucking show."
The image of Chen's face, as he spoke with him on the catwalk, flashed through Kirk's mind. He'd been afraid, Kirk was sure of it now. And the relief he'd seen on the commodore's face later was a clear sign Kirk hadn't asked the right questions. "There are appropriate channels for handling those kinds of charges," he said and hated himself for the way it sounded.
"Shit, man, why am I even talking to you?"
"Kodos has a better way to handle the problem?"
Eli sighed. The sound was almost a sob. "I used to think so."
"It didn't start out that way."
"How did it start out?"
"Look, old man, I don't have time to give you a history lesson," Eli said, fatigue thick in his voice. "Let's cut to the chase. I carried the bag for a friend. I didn't know what was in it--how could I?"
"What kind of friend would ask that of you, knowing you could be killed?"
Eli snorted. "An old lover. Guess she was more pissed off than I thought."
"I need the name, Eli."
"Jim, I'm ready to test the engines," Logan called out. "I could use a hand."
"On my way." Kirk held Eli's gaze for a moment, then moved forward to join Logan at the pilot's station.
"I've rigged up a bypass that might give us some helm control," Logan said. She positioned herself in front of what had been the helm and waved him toward her computer access board. "Watch those engine readouts for me, would you? Let me know when they max out."
Kirk nodded and waited for the power levels to build. "Stand by," he said as the levels began to steady. "Now!"
Logan touched the control board, entered a few simple commands. She watched her own readouts tensely for a moment. Then she grinned. "Well, graceful we aren't, but at least we're moving. How's the power?"
"Holding steady," Kirk said. "Congratulations, Captain!"
"Thank you, Admiral. Now let's try something just a little more complicated," she said. "It might be useful if we could set a heading."
Kirk glanced up just as Logan touched the board again and saw the panel erupt, gushing white-hot sparks and acrid smoke where the jerry-rigged connections had abruptly collapsed. Before Kirk could react, a jolt of raw current kicked Logan backward to the deck. She twitched once, then was terrifyingly still.
Kirk ignored the flames sputtering to life in the frayed circuitry to get to her. He pulled her away from the hemorrhaging control panel and reached to check her pulse. There it was, strong and steady. He began to breathe again.
A second later she opened her eyes and gave him a puzzled smile.
"What happened?" She glanced up at the still-smoking control board. "No, don't answer that. I don't think I want to know."
She started to sit up, but Kirk put a hand on her shoulder. "Just lie still a minute."
"I know," he said. "I'll get the medikit."
The burns weren't deep, but they were extensive. Kirk sprayed her hands with dermaplast and noted with relief that the strain in her face eased immediately. He started to give her a hypo of painkiller, but Logan shook her head. "Save it. Eli's going to need it later."
She insisted on sitting up so she could get a better look at the helm. She scanned the fused panel and slumped back against Kirk's supporting arm. "Damn."
"Can we salvage anything?"
Logan shook her head. "Maybe if I had a week."
"So we wait," Kirk said with a shrug. "Another hour until we're confirmed overdue. Two hours for the tug to get to us."
"I wish I knew if that damn emergency beacon was working."
"There's no hope for restoring communications?"
"Not a chance. I checked that first." She looked around slowly, breathing deeply. Kirk suddenly became aware of the haze of sour smoke hanging in the unmoving air. He listened, but couldn't hear the hum of the ventilation system.
"I think it may be time to take a look at life support," Logan said, struggling to her feet.
Kirk started for her computer access board, but she stopped him. "I'm not getting any readings. We'll have to go below."
He lifted the hatch to the engine room below the main deck and climbed down the access ladder. Logan came behind him, clutching the ladder awkwardly with her injured hands.
The lower deck was cluttered with pieces of fractured decking and ceiling panels. A gritty coating of dust covered every flat surface. The propulsion unit housings were dented in spots, but otherwise undamaged.
The life support unit was another matter. Behind him, Kirk heard Logan's sharp intake of breath as she saw it.
Kirk cleared away some of the debris that had come through the deck above. "Filtration pump took a hit," he said quietly.
"And the main circulation compressor." Logan knocked off a mangled access panel and peered inside. "Backup's gone, too."
"How long do we have?"
Logan exhaled slowly. "Ninety minutes. Two hours if we're lucky."
Kirk sat in the gathering cold and went over their actions step by step. What had they missed? Was there anything he hadn't thought to try, anything he'd overlooked? He'd been over it a dozen times already, but it hadn't helped. There was nothing left to do but wait.
The oxygen in the cabin's unfiltered air was getting thin now. He could feel the strain on his lungs. The extra effort was costing Eli his life. Kirk didn't think the boy would live long enough to see the resolution of their problem.
"Where's Starfleet when you need 'em, that's what I want to know," Eli muttered.
"Save your strength, Eli," Kirk told him.
"What for, old man? I'm not going to make it out of here. At least I can entertain myself while I wait for that final moment."
"You wouldn't want to talk yourself to death just before help arrived, now would you?"
"Oh, that's right. The calvary will come riding over the horizon any minute. You Starfleet geeks kill me."
Logan looked at Kirk. "Is he speaking English?"
"I'm not sure."
Eli suddenly smiled as if he'd been hit by some kind of inspiration. Kirk couldn't help but see how the expression transformed his face. He was only a kid after all. "Hey, are you the same Logan that pilots that android ship?"
"Roxanne's not an android," Logan said. "She's a living being."
"Who just happens to live in the computer systems of your ship," Eli said. "You were all over the newsnets when I was a kid."
Kirk grinned. Logan just looked embarrassed. "Yeah, we cut quite a wide swath through the galaxy," she said.
"You're a merchant captain, right? Why don't you tell the admiral here how things work on Tarsus? For some reason I don't think he believes me."
"What are you talking about?"
"Eli is one of those who'd like to see Starfleet out of Tarsus," Kirk explained.
"Don't put words in my mouth, old man," Eli snapped back.
"Well, don't ask me," Logan said. "I'm just an honest merchant captain trying to make a living."
"So tell me," Kirk said. "What's going on at that starbase that an honest merchant captain wouldn't know anything about?"
Logan shrugged. "I guess it's always been just a little harder to get anything done at Seventy-Four without greasing the wheels of the bureaucracy some. And a little easier to get the wrong kind of work."
"Bribery," Kirk said. "And smuggling? Why didn't you tell me this before?"
Logan looked at him quizzically. "You didn't ask me. And, quite frankly, business was the last thing on my mind."
Kirk could feel his face reddening. "I spent two days touring that base. How could I have missed it?" But he knew he hadn't missed it. The evidence had been all around him. The conversation he'd interrupted between Logan and the liaison officer was just the most obvious example. He'd done worse than overlook the problem. He'd ignored it.
"You only saw what they wanted you to see," Eli said. "Believe me, they're very good at managing visiting brass."
"How do you know so much?" Logan asked him.
"I'm not as young and naive as you seem to think I am," Eli said wearily. "Besides, you'd be surprised what's common knowledge."
"Kodos must have found you very valuable," Kirk said.
Eli's bitter whisper was barely audible. "Not valuable enough, apparently."
Logan looked at Kirk and shook her head minutely. "We've still got some of this joy juice, Eli. You want another hypo?"
"Why bother? I can't feel anything below my shoulders anyhow."
Minutes went by in a silence as dark and implacable as any enemy Kirk had ever faced. Every muscle tensed, every nerve jumped with the need to fight back against the dark and the cold. It just wasn't in him to sit and wait for the end--whether the end was death or rescue.
He looked at Kate Logan, waiting calmly in the dark with him. What he read in her face was not fear or acceptance, but determination. This was a woman who would go down fighting, he knew. Just as he would.
Kirk knew intellectually that they were both human, that they might survive this threat, but they wouldn't survive forever. Still, in his heart, he could not give death its due. He'd seen it take loved ones again and again, but the idea of his own death had never seemed real to him. He'd cheated it at every turn since that day on Tarsus IV.
Had he returned to Tarsus after all these years to find the reality of his own death? Could it be that here, without Spock to devise a winning strategy, without Scott to improvise a miracle, without Bones to offer comfort, he might actually have to face death on its own terms?
"Funny, isn't it?" Logan said into the quiet. "Here we sit, no helm, no communications, life support fading. And the grav systems are working just fine. They're usually the first to go."
"Yeah, there's another thing I'll never get a chance to do now," Eli breathed. "I've always wanted to do it in null-G."
Kirk and Logan both spoke at once. "It's highly overrated."
Their laughter was sharp with something close to desperation, but it felt good to Kirk just the same. "Well, I don't know, we never tried it together, maybe..."
"Please," Eli wheezed. "The thought of you with any woman, old man, especially one that looks as good as she does, is enough to offend my sensibilities."
"Kid, you aren't old enough to have sensibilities when it comes to relationships," Logan said.
"Who said anything about relationships? I was talking about sex."
"So was I."
"Okay, you win," Eli said, his energy ebbing visibly. "Just shut up and leave me alone for a while." He closed his eyes against the pain and drifted off--into sleep or unconsciousness Kirk couldn't tell.
"God, where are they?" Logan whispered, running a hand through her hair in frustration. "He can't make it much longer."
"They'll be here," Kirk said, but he no longer believed it would make any difference to Eli.
Logan looked at him. "Don't you ever give up?"
"I haven't yet."
"I was afraid Starfleet had beaten that stubbornness out of you."
"I keep it on reserve for times like this," he said with a little smile.
She moved to face him, took both his hands carefully in hers. "Well, I've got a little stubborn streak of my own," she said. "So I want you to promise me something, Jim. When we get out of here, promise me you'll give up that desk job for a starship command."
It was about the last thing he'd expected her to say at this moment. He tried to deflect it. "What? And leave my prestigious position at the Academy?"
"Training young minds is a noble calling, Jim, but it's not yours. You have a gift for command. You'll never be happy unless you're using that God-given talent the way you were meant to."
It was ironic, really. He had finally settled down--whether it had been his choice or not was a moot point. The one woman he could conceive of making a future with had just reappeared out his past. And she was asking him to take to the stars again--alone.
He reached out to touch her hair. "I had another kind of promise in mind."
She studied his face for a long moment, and he knew she wasn't going to give him the answer he wanted. She shook her head. "No. You're not ready for that kind of promise yet, starman. If I thought you were, I'd sign on right now and never look back. The galaxy's not through with you yet. You've got unfinished business that requires a starship and a crew under your command."
"What makes you think so?" he said, exasperated. "Starfleet's gotten along for eight years without Jim Kirk in command of a starship. I think they can handle whatever might come up. And as for me, I've been without a starship for long enough that I don't miss it anymore."
"Don't give me that."
"All right," he said, angry now. He turned away, refusing to meet her eyes. "Maybe I still miss it. But I've learned to live without it. My life is different now. Some things you just have to get used to."
"Okay," she said after a moment. "I'm out of line. I'm sorry." She stood up. "We were so close once...but that was a long time ago. Maybe you've changed more than I thought."
Logan turned and made her way forward. Kirk watched her go, trying to make sense of his feelings before they swamped him.
She was right, of course. He'd felt it for months. Some defining experience--some ultimate test of fire--lay ahead of him. Whatever it was, it would either kill him or save him. But he wouldn't find it evaluating cadets at the Academy. And he could never be happy until he'd learned whatever lesson that experience was meant to teach him.
She was right and for some reason it made him furious. Damn it, how could she know so much when he had to fight for every scrap of insight? Everything he'd learned about himself in almost fifty years of living had come at a price, sometimes an awful price. What made it so easy for her?
"Love," Eli said. "Ain't it a bitch?"
"Don't worry, old man. Pretty soon I'll shut up for good. I just have one or two things left to say."
Preoccupied, Kirk was silent.
"Are you listening, Admiral?" Eli's breathing was labored now, his voice a rustle of dry leaves.
Kirk heard something urgent behind the whisper and moved closer. "I'm listening."
"You know, when I was a kid, I used to read about you. I'd follow the reports on the newsnets and think, yeah, that's me when I grow up."
Kirk said nothing. In truth, he didn't know what to say.
"So I'm going to trust you with something. Because I think you actually might be that guy I used to admire so much. You can do what you want with it. I'm not going to extract any deathbed promises or anything."
"What is it, Eli?"
"The woman who gave me the bag lives in the Gregarin residential sector. Name's Rey Kim. My other contact in the organization lives on Tarsus Four, in Sector Twelve. Horst Wilhelm. Kodos has a campaign all laid out. They want the complete dismantling of the starbase. But they'll settle for much less. Replace Chen and his top two aides, and you won't have any more trouble with Kodos."
"How do you know that?"
"You said it yourself--they considered me a valuable member. Until I quit."
Kirk nodded. "Why tell me this now?"
"Because you and I both know I won't make it until the tug gets here. And because I think you'll believe me."
"Okay," Kirk said, because he did believe him. "I'll do what I can."
"Thanks. One more thing."
Kirk waited while Eli found enough breath to continue.
"Tell my dad I'm sorry."
By now the boy's voice was nearly gone. Kirk lay on the deck and put his ear close to Eli's lips. "Who, Eli? Who do I tell?"
"Chen," the boy whispered. "Commodore Steven Chen. Commander, Starbase Seventy-Four."
Kirk stared at him in amazement, saw him close his eyes and slump in exhaustion. He put a hand to the boy's neck and felt the thin thread of his pulse falter and fade. In a moment Eli was dead.
Kirk knelt there, one hand gently stroking the boy's hair, and rode out a wave of disappointment and guilt. An undertow of grief caught at his heart, so powerful it surprised him and left him gasping for breath.
He hardly knew the boy--hadn't known him at all three hours ago. And yet--Eli hadn't been much younger than his own son, a son he had rarely encountered but had loved all these years just the same. A son who had never wanted his involvement, but for whom he was responsible nonetheless. Just as he was responsible in some strange way for Eli.
He felt Logan squeeze his shoulder. "Let it go, Jim. There was nothing you could have done."
Nothing. And Eli was dead. But Jim Kirk was damned if he would watch this woman die without doing something to stop it. Death could have him at long last if that was the price he had to pay, but Kate Logan would survive. And, for once, he would not have to live on with blood on his hands.
Kirk stood and surveyed the smashed cabin once more. "We're going to tear this place apart," he said. "There must be something we've missed that can help us--emergency respirators, maybe, or thruster suits."
"I didn't see anything in the emergency locker."
"Look again. Maybe things got scattered in the blast."
She nodded and followed him forward. They scrabbled through the mess of broken bulkheads and splintered compartments, some of it splattered gruesomely with the remains of the pilot. They pried loose collapsed panels and dug under the drifted debris until their hands were bleeding and their lungs were burning with the effort of breathing. Kirk had begun to think they wouldn't find anything when Logan suddenly looked up at him.
"Jim, give me a hand. I think there may be a locker under here."
Together they lifted a heavy piece of decking--and found part of a crushed polysteel compartment. "It must have been in the bulkhead behind the pilot," he said, struggling to hold the decking while Logan checked their find.
"Respirators!" Logan said, reaching inside the locker's twisted frame. She pulled two masks from the box and tossed them on the deck. "And this!" She reached inside with both hands and drew a wadded bundle of heavy fabric into her lap. A thruster suit.
"Is the helmet and breather intact?"
"Seems to be," she confirmed.
Kirk dropped the deck plate and sat back, grinning with relief. Logan grinned back at him. "Some of that famous luck working, starman?"
"Yours or mine?"
She laughed. "This time I think we needed both."
"Go on, suit up. You're using up my oxygen."
She looked at him a moment, but she didn't argue. She got into the suit and adjusted the controls for a conservative respiration rate. "How about I try the communicator?"
He nodded and watched her toggle the throat switch. The communicator wouldn't have much range, but any rescue tug would be monitoring that frequency. He heard her recite the standard mayday as he turned to examine the respirators.
One was still functioning. Kirk took a welcome draw of oxygen from the mask to help him cope with the thinning atmosphere of the cabin, then he switched it off again. He judged he could continue in that way for almost another hour. In fact, it began to look like he would freeze to death before he suffocated. They'd found a tattered thermoblanket under one of the seats. He covered himself with it as best he could and settled in again to wait.
In the square the laser rifles ceased to whine and the smoke lifted into the empty air. He watched from the rooftop while the soldiers folded the barriers and marched off down the deserted streets.
Beside him, tears fell from the one eye Tommy Leighton had left. The other side of his face was a misshapen mass of raw meat where the guards had blasted him with the laser rifle. Tommy had tried to stop them, but they had taken his family anyway and left him for dead in the street. "You should have left me there, Jim," he sobbed. "Why didn't you just let me die?"
Kirk turned to him in fury. "Don't you think there's been enough death today? Your dying wouldn't have saved any of those people." He turned back to the desolate square and his voice dropped, shocked into stillness. "Your parents are gone, Tommy. My aunt and uncle, my cousins...are gone. But we're still alive, Tommy. We're alive! And we're going to stay alive and remember this. Forever."
Kirk swam upwards out of a wellshaft of darkness. He struggled toward the light shining on the surface of consciousness, and as he broke through at last he recognized it--the soft lighting of a ship with breathable air and warmth and life. He floated there a moment, gathering the strength to open his eyes.
"He should be coming around in a minute."
"I told you the triox would do the trick."
"You've been scanning the medical nets again."
"I find them stimulating."
"You're going to go into one of those nets one day and never come out."
"If I hadn't been scanning frequencies when that emergency beacon came in, you'd still be waiting for someone to pick you up. The tug is at least thirty minutes behind me."
"And that would have been just about thirty minutes too late, I know. Still, you've overloaded all your systems trying to get here without half your parts. You are going to be able to get us back to Tarsus Three?"
"No problem. Just don't expect me to hit warp drive anytime soon. My Jefferies seals are still leaking."
"Jim got us a berth in Starfleet Spacedock. We'll have you fixed up in no time."
"Which reminds me. What the hell are you doing with him?"
"My business, Rox."
"And we had just about gotten him out of your system."
"Okay. Don't say I didn't warn you. How is he?"
"He's getting some color back."
Kirk tried to shake off the lingering effects of unconsciousness and managed, finally, to open his eyes.
"Hey, starman. I thought for a minute there we'd lost you." Logan smiled down at him, her hand cool against his cheek.
He tried to sit up and failed, blanked by a surge of dizzy nausea. He tried again, more slowly, and felt the weakness begin to subside.
"Hello, Admiral. Welcome aboard." The voice seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.
"At your service. Nice to see you again."
Kirk smiled. "Same here. But I thought, weren't you...?"
"Roxie has a habit of monitoring the comm channels while she's sitting in Spacedock," Logan said. "When our emergency beacon came in, the frequencies really started popping. Evidently the possible loss of a transport with a Starfleet Admiral on board had everyone all atwitter. She took off after us as soon as she could clear the gantry."
"Thank you, Roxanne."
"You're certainly welcome, Admiral."
"Well, you're looking better," Logan said. "Ready to head back to Tarsus Three?"
Kirk nodded. "Let's go. I have one hell of a job ahead of me. The sooner I get it over with the better."
A gaggle of senior officers, obviously relieved that the great Admiral James T. Kirk had not been lost on their watch, greeted them in the transporter room of Spacedock on Starbase Seventy-Four.
"Admiral Kirk!" Chen said, rushing to shake his hand. "We were so concerned! Are you sure you're all right?"
Logan touched his arm and whispered, "I'll catch up with you later." Then she wove her way through the crowd around the pad and disappeared.
"A terrorist group that calls itself Kodos claims it blew up the transport," Chen continued in a rush. "We're investigating, of course."
"Commodore, I need to speak with you in private," Kirk said. "Now."
Chen looked puzzled. "Certainly, sir." He turned to one of the officers standing nearby. "Commander, could we have the use of your office?"
The commander showed them to an empty desk in a cluttered cubicle a few steps down the corridor. Kirk entered after Chen and closed the door behind them.
He took a deep breath and began. "Commodore, I'm afraid I have some painful news. Your son was aboard that transport. He was caught under some of the debris of the explosion."
"Eli?" the commodore said, not fully comprehending.
"Eli's dead, Steve. I'm sorry."
Chen fumbled his way into a chair, sat looking at Kirk as if the admiral had suddenly started speaking a language he didn't understand.
Kirk sat on the edge of the desk and struggled to find a way to say the rest of it. "He was a remarkable boy, Steve--gutsy, intelligent. I had time to learn that about him before he died. I was glad to have had the chance."
Chen nodded. "We have...had been estranged for some time."
"I understood as much from what he told me."
Chen looked up sharply. "What did he tell you?"
The change in the man was so abrupt that Kirk was momentarily speechless.
"You know, he didn't have much love for Starfleet," Chen went on. "Or for me, either, for that matter. He supported that bunch of terrorists. He might have said anything."
Kirk got to his feet in front of the officer. "That's where you're wrong, Commodore. His last thoughts were of you. As for what he said, I'll be sharing that with a Board of Inquiry. After I have another look at your operations."
Chen jumped up. "What are you talking about? You went through here and didn't see so much as a locking pin out of place!"
"Apparently I wasn't looking in the right places," Kirk said. "I won't make that mistake again."
"You can't be serious!"
"You're temporarily relieved of duty, Commodore," Kirk snapped. Then his voice softened. "Go home to your family, Steve. I'll keep you informed."
Chen made no move to leave, but Kirk had done his duty. He turned and left Chen standing in the office, with an expression as empty as the desk in front of him.
In the golden wash of light from Tarsus' setting sun, Kate Logan looked younger than her years--young and full of life and ready for the future. Jim Kirk watched her as they walked the landscaped path along the river's edge that was the city's only concession to romance. She moved with the grace of strength, with the confidence of time. She was beautiful enough to break his heart, and he could feel it happening even as he watched.
"Roxanne was cleared for departure today," she said without looking at him.
"You'll be leaving soon."
He nodded. "The Board of Inquiry convenes in a couple of days. I'll testify, then I'll head back home."
She stopped and turned to face him. "I think I owe you an apology."
"We were in a tight spot on that transport. The last thing you needed was a lecture from me about how to run your life."
"Could be I needed it more than you know."
"My timing was lousy. I'm sorry."
"You didn't tell me anything I haven't told myself a dozen times."
"So what are you going to do about it?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
She started walking again, but he caught her arm and drew her closer. "Kate..." He stopped, not certain even what he wanted from her, much less how to ask for it.
But she knew, as always. "When you've finally made your peace with the galaxy, starman, come and find me. No matter how long it takes, I'll be waiting for you when it's over."
Jim Kirk took those words and locked them in a place deep in his heart. He took the memory of her face in that moment and locked that away, too. He made sure he had what he needed to survive until he saw her again. Then he made love to Kate Logan one last time as night slowly revealed a sky full of stars.
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