Title: A-Haunting We Will (Boldly) Go
Characters/Pairings: Spock, Kirk, Uhura, McCoy, various (background only Spock/Uhura)
Genre: Gen, H/C, Humor
Word Count: (this bit) 15,000
Rating: T for themes and movie-level language
Warnings/Spoilers: Various vague spoilers for all AOS movies.
Summary: Five times something haunted the U.S.S. Enterprise, and one time it got kicked off the ship only just in time.
A/N: Thank you again to everyone who's stuck with this silly little scribbling to the end; much love to all of you!
The wonders of twenty-third century medicine are vast, and some of the most amazing of modern miracles to be seen in the galaxy. Long gone are the Second Dark Ages, where medical research stagnated under nations remaining embroiled in civil unrest rather than turning that energy to nobler causes, and a better world has emerged victorious over most of the deadly diseases and ailments that once plagued Federation worlds.
Most civilized planets have never even seen cases of serious birth defects, for they are all but things of the past, able to be corrected soon after birth through specialized surgeries or even prior to birth in some cases. While illness still sweeps worlds and cultures, as it is wont to do, those serious diseases which still remain un-eradicated in the galaxy have fully-publicized cures and treatments, carefully honed with precision over decades of research for each Federation species. Such things as incurable cancers are exceedingly rare, cases one among hundreds of thousands and only due to extremely unusual immunities to standard treatment methods. While, hilariously enough, there has yet to be found a cure for the various rhinoviruses which are lumped together under the umbrella of the "common cold," most minor ailments can be banished in very short order with standard medications, anti-toxins, or anti-microbials which can be easily reproduced aboard ship in a matter of hours at most.
In order to serve as Chief of Medical on a Federation starship, one must possess at least two doctorates, one of which must be a specialization in some type of comprehensive xenobio medicine, and as such the hand-picked Medical staff of the higher-class starships are some of the brightest and quickest recruits in the 'Fleet, certainly at the top of their Sciences division. That expertise can make all the difference, when a ship is buried in uncharted space, far from 'Fleet assistance or any known civilization and reliant only upon its own supplies and crew ingenuity for survival.
And yet, despite all precautions and all medical expertise and all the highly advanced modern technology they possess…things still happen.
And on this ship, they happen a lot.
At this point, Jim suspects they have their own special subsection under Murphy's Law (see U.S.S. Enterprise, Paragraph 2, subsection b: Maybe we just shouldn't touch anything, ever), because nothing should surprise him at this point, nearly finished with a second five-year-mission and at least eight days' journey from charted space at normal warp travelling speed.
So of course, this late leg of their mission is when 85% of his crew suddenly start dropping like flies, completely out of nowhere.
It starts small, as these things usually do, a rash of beta crewmen on his single weekly beta shift. He takes over that afternoon to find four of them not the ones on the duty roster he'd reviewed only two hours prior to the shift change. All four, using sick leave on a slow and boring mid-week day? That's legit illness, there, and it's weird.
He stops by Sickbay that night after his duty's ended, just to bounce his concern off of Bones, and is stunned to see that nearly half the beds in the outer ward are full, something he's never seen unless they're immediately recovering from a battle or that one notable time Chekov and Sulu challenged the entire Botany department to a hot-dog eating contest.
Thank the deities of several neighboring star systems, they've grown up since then.
A harried-looking nurse points him toward one of the recovery cubicles, hurrying by with a tray of used hypospray cartridges, and he is careful to stay out of the well-established traffic patterns as he makes his way across the ward, pausing here and there to greet an alert (or only semi-alert) crewman.
No one looks like they're on death's door, thank goodness, and most of them seem to be sleeping peacefully, so his blood pressure's back down by the time he nearly runs into Bones coming out of the cubicle, eyes equal parts tired and frustrated over top of a surgical mask.
"Don't tell me you've got it too." The words are more growl than anything else, and the man's already reaching for a scanner.
"Whatever it is, I don't," he says, hands in the air.
"Good, because I got no idea what it is, yet. I don't think it's transmitted through the air or we'd have a pandemic on our hands, but get a mask on if you're gonna be talkin' to them, just in case."
"What's going on, Bones?" He obediently takes the mask an alert intern tosses at him as he scurries by, but doesn't strap it on yet.
"I wish I knew. I got six Engineers, seven of your Bridge crew, and I don't know how many from Sciences in here or I sent 'em back to their cabins for preventative quarantine. All kinds of screwy symptoms. Mostly flu-like symptoms, nothing life-threatening yet, but we're over a 2% infection rate now and that's a red zone. We hit 5%, and this ship goes into lockdown until I can figure out what it is, even if it's not life-threatening, Jim."
"Understood. How can I help?"
"Stay out of here, drink fluids, and for the love of my sanity, Jim, don't touch anyone infected. God knows what your immune system would do with some new and improved superbug."
He rolls his eyes. "Bones. I like, don't even sneeze anymore, haven't since Khan. I'm not going to catch the flu of all things."
"I have no idea if that's all it is, this is the first 24 hours I'm seeing symptoms and I seriously doubt this many of these young fools are resistant to the blanket vaccine. Promise me I won't see your ass on one of these beds, Jim."
"Only if you go get some sleep, for pity's sake. You're probably going to need it."
McCoy sighs, glances at the chrono on the wall. "I can't do much until the next batch of bloodwork comes back from the labs anyway, and Spock's watching that. So yeah, I'll walk you back to Deck Five."
"Are all the species affected the same?" he asks, as they hand off sterilization equipment and leave the 'Bay.
"Basically. Only four species affected so far anyway, mostly humans. Basic symptoms are fever, coughing, vomiting, passing out, some mental confusion, among others." They enter the lift, and McCoy sighs. "Problem is, they've all tested negative for Altarian, Denobulan, and Medusan flu, and they're missing the massive headache that comes along with all varieties of meningitis…I dunno, Jim. If it's a 'flu, it's something I'm unfamiliar with. And I'm familiar with a lot."
"I'm more concerned with how whatever it is broke out on board, with us traveling at warp through uncharted space," he muses, frowning. "There wasn't some kind of accident in the labs I wasn't told about, was there?"
"Of course not! You think either one of us would hide something like that?"
"No, I don't, but I think you both work too hard and if someone filed a report incorrectly it might have somehow slipped through the cracks. Or they might've just not filed it at all," he points out soberly.
"God, I hope not. Spock will kill them, if I don't get to them first. That breaks every law of medico-science ethics in existence, not to mention a half-dozen lab safety regulations."
"They'll be lucky to escape a court martial, if they caused a shipwide epidemic," he agrees. "I'll look into it first thing tomorrow. If you talk to Spock before I do have him start reviewing footage of the labs, yeah?"
"You got it. And seriously, Jim – I need you to make sure you don't come down with this. I don't want to have to quarantine the Bridge."
"You and me both, Doctor."
He's woken what feels like only seconds after his head hits the pillow by the insistent chirping of his computer comm, and after a moment of bleary staring at the chrono that verifies yes, he's only been asleep for barely over four hours, he silently whimpers his way over to the desk, bends down and presses the button to activate the screen.
"Kirk here." He pinches his forehead briefly, then glances up, and frowns. "What are you doing on the Bridge at 0300?"
"I haven't been to sleep yet, and your delta Comms officer just lost his dinner behind your chair," she says dryly. "And apparently your delta watch officer can't stand the smell of vomit. I'll leave the rest to your imagination."
He groans and puts his head down on his arms. "Shoot me now. Please." When she doesn't laugh, he lifts his head again, and then blinks into awareness at her sober expression. "What is it?"
"We have a problem."
"Bigger than the condition of the Bridge furniture, I'm guessing?"
"Let me get changed and I'll come up there. Call Doctor McCoy to the Bridge as well and make sure he brings all the info we have on this thing."
"He won't be coming, Captain," she says quietly.
His blood turns to ice. "Why."
"Because he's put Sickbay under lockdown. A complete quarantine that can't be lifted except by him."
"What?" He runs his hands through his hair, pulling on it in frustration. "Why would he do that?"
"Because in the last three hours we just lost eight of the seventeen infected crewmen, completely out of the blue. Nothing he could do to stop it."
Sleep forgotten, he stares at the screen in numb, shock-induced horror.
"And they're still dropping all over the ship." Her tone is matter-of-fact, but he can see the tension in her eyes. "He said until he finds a reason for the deaths and nails down the method of transmission, no one leaves Sickbay, including him. He was gone for less than two hours and all hell broke loose, so you know nothing's going to get him out of there now."
"This is bad. I need him in the labs, if what was minor symptoms turned that deadly that quickly."
"Spock is rewiring the Medical mainframe to insta-sync with Science Lab Fourteen, that's where they've been doing the bloodwork tests."
He blows out a frustrated breath, trying to tamp down on the lurking fear that's threatening to overpower even the grief at the knowledge that they've just unnecessarily lost good people, for no reason at all. The first in quite a long time, and there's no reason why, not yet at least.
"They're going to make it work, Jim." The use of his first name, quiet though it is so that none of the background delta crew hear, is enough to tell him she's just as on edge as he is about this. Things never are that easy, not for them. Not for this ship.
"Yeah," he breathes, running a hand down his face. So much for going back to sleep. "Okay, look, get the rosters rearranged and get off the Bridge. I'm sorry, but I still need you back up there on alpha shift tomorrow."
"Is Spock still in the labs?"
"He hasn't left since this morning."
"See if you can get him to go with you, at least for a few hours; I'm going to need him too if Bones goes down. I have to figure out what to tell the Admiralty and how far we are from help. Or if they'll even let us back into charted space to get it until we figure out what's loose on this ship."
"What are you going to tell the crew?"
"Nothing yet. If Bones locked down Sickbay they won't know about the deaths, and we have to keep it that way until we have more information. For now, just that there's a massive strain of a mutated flu virus starting to spread aboard, so minimal physical contact and for gods' sake nobody cough or sneeze on anyone. Shut down the rec rooms until further notice, and make sure the food replication systems are being inspected rigorously. Delegate that to Scotty, but don't tell him how bad it is yet. A bunch of the ground zeros were his Engineers."
"Yes, sir. I'll send out the comms before I leave the Bridge." She glances behind her, and then leans forward. "I'll have the sanitization bots sweep the Bridge before the shift turnover too."
He snorts, managing a badly needed laugh. "I don't want to know."
"You really, really don't."
Twenty-four hours later, they've made what in other circumstances would be remarkable progress in the case.
Despite being trapped in a wing of the ship with a few dozen deathly ill crewmen, McCoy's been able to rule out nearly all of the usual culprits which would cause these symptoms, with the aid of the Medical Mainframe and the equipment available in the main Sickbay. Spock's people, conversely, have been able to tell them that it's apparently not a virus, nor any known pathogen in the Federation databanks, but rather what they suspect is a silicon-based lifeform or micro-organism based upon the inert matter which they've discovered in the bloodwork of one of the deceased victims. Silicon-based lifeforms are of course is completely incompatible with any carbon-based lifeform, which would explain the 'flu-like symptoms, a typical reaction of the white blood cells against an invading foreign substance. It would also likely have an abnormally fast replication rate, which would explain the unusually rapid decline of what is at first just simple symptoms in most infected crewmen.
The unusual factor, is that the Science and Medical personnel have been unable to isolate any such organism in the samples taken from each infected crewman. Either the organism is far beyond the capabilities of their equipment, or it is in a form that their equipment is not able to recognize. And the equipment should recognize any kind of life, even silicon-based, as there exist similar lifeforms in the databanks. But it does not; they can find indicators that something is there, but cannot find the organism itself.
But something is killing his people.
In that twenty-four hours they've lost another nineteen crewmen, and over seventy more have reported symptoms, with the number still climbing. Exponentially climbing, as it spreads like a wildfire through the ship.
Since locking down Sickbay obviously hadn't stopped the contagion, Bones had finally released the lockdown around mid-day today, and he's now on the Bridge, though somewhat hilariously still wearing a bio-contaminant suit just as a precaution, going over the last reports with Jim and their very tired-looking Chief Science Officer.
"I just…" Jim rubs his forehead, leaning one hand on the Science station for a minute. "Even if we can't find out what exactly it is, how have we at least not figured out how it's spreading?"
"That's what's really bothering me, Jim," is the immediate reply, somewhat muffled behind the suit's breathing mask. "There's no common denominator to indicate it's transmitted by bodily fluids; two of my nurses got coughed on directly in the face by patients and they're still fine. Some of the deceased had no open abrasions where it could have been transmitted by blood contact, none of them ate at the same food processors, they're bunked all over the damn saucer section…I've run every test I can think of."
"As have I, Captain," Spock says quietly, his first contribution to the conversation. The last two crewmen they'd lost were technicians from one of his labs, and Jim knows he's been taking this harder than he's been letting on. "They have been of all backgrounds, all occupations aboard ship, eight different species, and there has been no commonality on duty or off duty which we can discover. We have no idea how, precisely, it is spreading. Emergency sanitization procedures have been in effect in all public areas shipwide since 0800 hours today and we are still seeing no decrease in the spread of the contagion."
He's starting to feel sick himself, but he can tell that's just the swamping nausea of fear and helplessness, not any illness.
"That's not good enough," he snaps, anger in his voice to cover the fact that he's terrified they're about to spin out of control entirely, dead in space. Literally. "I need answers, not excuses."
"Understood, sir." If anything, Spock looks even more drained at the words.
He catches Uhura's disapproving eye behind his First's back, and pinches his forehead, sighing. "Sorry. I'm freaked, guys."
"So are we, Jim." Bones shakes his head, still studying the padd. "Believe me, if I had any ideas left, I'd be using them. We're missing something, obviously."
"And we still don't know how it got loose aboard, either."
"Only that there was a malfunction in the medical cryostorage units some six hours prior to the first signs of an outbreak, Captain." Spock's eyebrows have now formed a permanent frown line. "It does appear to be entirely mechanical in nature, and I can see no reason why a crewman would wish to facilitate such an event."
"Neither can I, but we have to stay alert to the possibility. You have someone tracing the source of the malfunction?"
Spock nods. "Mr. Scott has a team already engaged in the process."
"Good. We just need to know for sure. If there is human error involved…"
"They're gonna be spendin' the rest of their career at a penal colony for being responsible for over two dozen deaths," McCoy snaps, scrolling down another report with an angry skritch of stylus.
"We know what could have been damaged in that cryo malfunction?"
"According to the reports, nothing. And I inspected the containers myself, nothing was tampered with, nothing was damaged. At least that I can see," McCoy replies.
Jim sighs, trying to think straight for a minute. It's hard to do on a second day running with no sleep, because with one thing and another it just didn't happen again last night, he was just running from one department to another and before he realized it, it was alpha shift again.
From the helm, Sulu suddenly coughs, and every head on the Bridge jerks up in alarm.
"Whoa, whoa!" Their young pilot holds up both hands in mock surrender. "I had a frog in my throat, that's all. Geez, guys. You gonna jump Chekov next time he sniffles, too?"
"Runny nose isn't a symptom of this thing, smartass," Bones snaps, moving down to the central Bridge with a scanner. Sulu submits patiently to the scan, and only raises an eyebrow when it's finished. "No fever, no lung issues. Any nausea, unexplained hot or cold flashes, mental confusion?"
"No, Doc. Seriously, if I'd known everyone was going to freak out I'd have just like, gone to the lavatory and done it."
"Well, just the same. You keep an eye on him," Bones snaps, stabbing a gloved finger at their young navigator, who blinks wide-eyed back at him.
"Da, I do that."
"You do that." Bones rolls his eyes, and re-mounts the steps to the upper deck. "We're all gonna be jumping at shadows here for the next few days, Jim."
"Better that than ignoring symptoms, I guess." He shakes his head. "How are your teams progressing on finding a vaccine?"
"No real progress yet. We've never had to deal with anything silicone-based before, that's a totally new arena. It's more his people's expertise than mine." McCoy gestures to Spock, who only inclines his head in silent acknowledgment. "But in another few hours we might have something that could slow the organism's reproductive abilities, that'd give people a fighting chance at least instead of only about 18 hours from the start of the symptoms."
He exhales slowly. "A fighting chance would be good, Bones."
"You're telling me. This thing just doesn't play fair, Jim. I mean, who ever heard of…hey, Spock, you all right?"
His head jerks up just in time to see his First Officer's eyes lose focus entirely as he collapses. Nyota's already out of her chair by the time he hits the ground in an awkward fold with an armful of unconscious Vulcan scientist, at least preventing a concussion on top of whatever the hell just happened.
"Everybody, stay back!" The words are snapped out with an authoritative force that even the most curious of crewman doesn't dare to cross. "Careful, Jim, don't touch his hands. I dunno exactly how to handle an unconscious touch-telepath."
"Kllhe'mnhe, he's completely out."
"Spock? Come on, buddy, you're scaring us here."
"Lieutenant, I need you to get a full med team up here with biohazard gear, then get yourself down to Sickbay and into a decon chamber. It's probably too late but it won't hurt anything. You too, Jim, you need to get back now. If he's got this he could have just spread it to you, I need you to go."
Gods, why hadn't he said something? Had he really just ignored it, or had he just thought it was simple exhaustion? How does this thing even affect Vulcan physiology?
"Now, Jim. I'm not joking. Total decontamination, and don't touch anyone." Jim looks up to see Uhura straightening from the Comms console, removing her earpiece and looking more scared than he's ever seen her in the hazy blue light that's flashing a Level One medical alarm on the wall. Behind him, Bones's voice cracks across the Bridge like glass shattering. "Both of you, go."
He scrambles to his feet after another second, and moves across the Bridge. "Sulu, take the conn."
"Yes, Captain." A worried look at the scene unfolding on the Bridge. "Sir…"
"Get back to your duties, gentlemen. Doctor McCoy will keep you informed, I'm sure. And no one touch Commander Spock's science station until the biodecon team has initiated proper decon procedures. Did he touch anything else up here today?"
"Negative, Captain, he has only been working at that station unless in conference with you and the Doctor," Chekov pipes up readily enough, looking worriedly up at them. "But he vas in Engineering this morning, I believe."
"I'll take care of it, you go."
He gives one quick nod. Uhura's holding the lift for him, and he scoots inside as the doors close. She's worrying at the vokaya necklace she always wears, a simple gold band added to it all these years later in lieu of wearing an ostentatious bonding ring.
"I don't know," he says quietly, in answer to her unspoken, side-eyed question. "I mean, you saw he obviously had a fever, but I couldn't tell anything else. He was acting fine until a few minutes ago, and even then he just got sort of quiet, nothing weird."
"How did I not notice?"
"Don't do this to yourself. Did you guys even see each other today? I know he was in the labs all night."
"We took the lift to the Bridge for our shift together earlier this morning, and we just had lunch an hour ago. He seemed fine then. He actually ate, which is more than I did. Not had much stomach for it since the other night up here, really."
"Bones says this thing's symptoms appear like out of nowhere, and you know how he gets when he's focused. You can't take the blame for that. If anything, it should be me, because I've spent the last two hours discussing this mess with him and never noticed a thing."
"Why the hell didn't he say anything!"
"He must not have realized it was anything other than just exhaustion and lack of sleep, or maybe it's one of those Vulcan things where they just ignore the physical because they're so focused on the mental, I dunno. He's not an idiot, Nyota – if he realized he was infected there's no way he'd risk bringing it onto the Bridge."
She sighs. "You're right. He's just…indestructible, you know? In over ten years, I don't think I've even seen him cough more than twice!"
He laughs, but there's no real amusement in the tone. "I know, right. I was keeping it together, but I'm not gonna lie, I'm scared out of my mind now."
"I'm with you there, sir." The lift opens onto Deck Six. "Ugh, I hate decon. Let's get this over with."
He gestures for her to precede him into the corridor, then hurries after her, carefully sidestepping a passing Engineer. He makes sure not to touch the walls or anything else, just in case.
They haven't even made it halfway down the corridor when she stops suddenly, so abruptly that her boots squeak on the polished decking.
"Geez, warn a guy."
"Stay back," she says, a little breathlessly, one hand on the wall and the other over her eyes, pinching her forehead.
She half-turns to put her back against the wall, and gives him a rueful, sort of sad smile. "Loss of appetite, nausea, sudden unexplained dizziness and severe hot/cold flashes."
"Uh…little too much information there. Do –"
"I thought I was just on edge from this mess, but that was before the dizzy spells and hot flashes started. You need to go get Chapel or someone, and stay back just in case."
"Like hell I will. And that could just be because you haven't slept, Lieutenant." He refuses to believe otherwise until slapped in the face with a different reality.
"Give me some credit, here, Captain. This doesn't feel like simple exhaustion. And I am not about to infect more of this ship, so go get someone, and then get your ass into a decon chamber like McCoy told you to."
"You're infecting this corridor the longer you stay in it," he points out, not unreasonably.
She glares at him then, and he can see for the first time there's a lack of total focus in her dark eyes.
This is not good.
"Come on, let's go." He reaches warily for her arm. "Then you can have an isolation chamber all to yourself if you want, but let's go."
"I am sick, not stupid, you condescending…" Her half-hearted shove turns into a nosedive, and damn she is not as light as she looks, that must be muscle mass. "Tcha'be'she."
"For the record, you owe me," he mutters, painfully shifting so that her head isn't bouncing around and then setting off at a brisk trot down the corridor toward Sickbay. "And what the hell is a sandworm?"
Twelve hours later he gets ambushed by McCoy halfway through another pacing trek between his desk and his couch, and while the hypo only keeps him out for four hours it's enough to keep him from hallucinating all through this third day of Nightmareland.
When the man himself has had time to sleep and eat, he's got no idea, but he's trusting his CMO to not be stupid and his Medical staff to follow that example. Chapel at least is still on her feet, and she won't take anyone's crap for more than a few minutes, so he suspects he's not the only one who's been forced into unwilling catnaps.
The crew is still falling right and left, so much that they've shut down all public areas of the ship except for the Mess Hall, and made the recommendation that crewmen remain in their cabins as much as possible when not on duty. Taken the duty rosters down as low as they can, skeleton crews only.
It's not enough.
They've managed to slow the death toll, but not stop it, with a combination of decompression treatment and a heavily adjusted anti-inflammatory which seems to have halted the progression of the various lung and pulmonary responses that have so far been the primary cause of death.
"It's a stop-gap, Jim, that's all. Like puttin' someone who needs a regrown kidney on dialysis. It's not going to hold up, and not every species is responding well to it. Spock's people have been working around the clock trying to adjust the dosages, and mine are trying to find a cure – but a vaccine? I'm days, weeks away from that, probably. Unless you can tell me how it's spreading, or what it even is at the source."
"I've gone over every possibility myself, Bones, I don't see a pattern either. I even had Scotty put a team together and inspect every inch of ductwork, Jefferies tubes, any filtration system that could have housed the contagion and shot it through the ship before it dissipated or something – and we can't find anything. Scanners show no unidentified life-forms of any kind, silicon-based or otherwise."
"God, we need Spock on his feet."
"How's he responding to the treatment?"
"Not well. Fool never gets sick, so the only notes in his medical file are trauma treatments, that's not helpful in this kind of situation. Everything's a gamble with him, and nothing's working so far. He's in some kind of weird Vulcan trance right now, I hope that's a good thing."
"Not a coma?"
"No, he still reads high on the GSC, calm down."
"I'm fine." He exhales shakily, tries to ignore the room spinning for a second before settling back into place. "We have to figure this out, though. We're already at a sixty-two percent infection rate. If we don't get it under control by the time we reach Yorktown base?"
He swallows, mouth dry. "It's General Order Six, Bones. They've already put it in effect, based on the ship's remote logs."
"They can't do that!"
"They have to do it! If whatever this is spreads to a starbase? Especially that one? We're talking a galaxy-wide plague. I'm oath-bound to destroy this ship before I let that happen."
"Y'all are crazy, the whole bunch of you. Playing games with people's lives wholesale like that." McCoy collapses shakily in his desk chair, staring at the computer monitor. "There's got to be something I'm missing."
"Maybe if you got some sleep you'd have a better shot at reading that."
"You're one to talk. And stop lookin' at me like that. I'm a doctor, Jim, I know what I'm doing – and I'm the only one who's left to try and stop this thing, so I can't afford to just go down. I've been napping regularly, even if it's just an hour at a time every few hours. I'm in a lot better shape than half my staff, if you want to split hairs about it."
"You're the boss. But I worry, Bones."
"Well, worry about yourself. Don't think I didn't see you conning the delta shift interns out of stimulants one by one last night."
"Bones, I have to stay on my feet until we figure this out. With Scotty down now, there's no command officer left standing but the two of us."
"I'm not saying it's not necessary. But have some common sense about them at least. Not even you can handle withdrawal if you go too far with those things."
"Noted." He doesn't mention the weird buzzing in his ears that started after the last one turned his stomach inside out. "I promise I –" He's cut off by the intra-comm chirping.
McCoy reaches over with the hand not currently holding up his own head, and slaps the button wearily. "Sickbay, McCoy here."
"I'm sorry, Doctor, but we have a Blue Alert in Secondary Engineering. Looks like three possible new cases. That's an entirely new outbreak location and you said to notify you immediately if we had another."
"Initiate immediate isolation procedures and evacuate the area, then seal it off for bio inspection."
"What makes you think you'll be able to find anything after the fact?"
"I probably won't." The physician hauls himself wearily to his feet. "But I have to try something."
"Can I help?"
"Absolutely not. I don't care if that superblood's made you immune – which I'm not 100% sure of in the first place – you are not going into a known infected area. We can't afford to lose you too, Jim, someone has to command this flying death trap." The door closes behind him, leaving Jim staring at it in tired, reflex-dulled consternation.
The problem is, the expression isn't hyperbole.
She is becoming a death-trap, flying and otherwise.
He shivers and hurries out of the empty office, into the controlled chaos which is still a very well-run Sickbay, despite the atmosphere of unease which obviously hangs over the ward. A nurse glances at him, sees he doesn't need anything, and returns to her patient, a figure in Ops reds who is hacking out a lung on one of the Intensive Care biobeds.
He stops to greet the one crewman who seems to be aware of his surroundings here in the outer ward, then moves back into the Critical Care ward toward the most stable patients, taking the time to stop and chat with those who are alert and spending a moment trying to encourage the poor overworked medical staff who are in barely better shape than their boss at the moment.
He pauses outside one of the CC cubicles, and almost keeps moving. Uhura hasn't responded well to the treatment; something about her physiology, or maybe she just got a worse dose of the pathogen, whatever it is…longer exposure, maybe? Bones doesn't know, but she's in worse shape than some of the others who were infected around the same time frame. And Jim's never been able to stomach seeing someone on a ventilator, it just creeps him out. But he tiptoes in, because it's not fair to do otherwise, and at least talks to her for a few minutes, warns her not to die on him because nobody wants to deal with Spock if she does, the usual.
He leaves with a shiver as soon as he tactfully can, hoping that if she can't hear him, she's at least not feeling as awful as she looks.
Scotty and Pavel are both sequestered in their quarters, people around them having been paranoid enough to force them down to Sickbay the instant symptoms appeared, and because their conditions weren't critical at that time they were sent back to their cabins with instructions to return or call for help when their conditions worsened. He'll have to stop by there later, but as of this morning they didn't appear to be in as much danger as many of the patients here right now.
Spock half woke up more than once in the ensuing twenty-four hours after his collapse, barely conscious and almost hilariously, humanly cranky. That is, until he finally dozed off last night, scaring every nurse on duty half to death when his vitals abruptly dropped almost to zero across the board.
Freaking Vulcan trance-things. Whatever it is, it had better be working.
He silently slips inside the cubicle, noting with absent approval that Bones has employed a sound dampening field to help with sensitive Vulcan hearing.
Nothing has changed; if he didn't know better he'd be just as freaked as Medical was last night, because the indicators are so low they might as well read zero. He walks over to the bed just to make sure they're actually functioning (and that the guy's still breathing, because that also looks debatable), and exhales in relief when both are indeed actually happening.
"Bones says you're in there somewhere, you better not be leading him on," he mutters, leaning against the wall in utter weariness. He rests his head back against the cold duranium, closes his eyes. He doesn't dare sit down, not at this point; every time he does, he nods off. "I hope this means you're kicking its ass, whatever it is."
He sighs, rubs the back of his neck in a vain effort to loosen the muscles there. "If we could just figure out what it is, or how it's spreading with no apparent pattern. Damn it, Spock, I need you." Tears of complete exhaustion burn at the back of his eyes, acidic and painful. "What am I going to do?"
What you have always done. Find hope in the impossible.
His laugh is bitter, shaken. "Gods, I must sound like a fool sometimes to you. Acting like I know what I'm doing when I still don't, even after all this time." Also, talking to himself, but that's beside the point. He pushes off from the wall on shaky legs, paces a tight line to the opposite wall and back again, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I can't find hope in the impossible if I can't figure out how it's killing my people, or what it even is."
They can't even figure out that last. It leaves residual indicators of being a silicon-based life-form, but it either exits the host, leaving lasting damage that somehow keeps growing, or else it remains behind in some undetectable state. It's not like any silicon-based lifeform they've ever encountered in the galaxy. This ship has the most advanced medical tech in the 'Fleet, and can't detect this micro-organism, virus, whatever it is – and they're equipped to detect even energy-based life-forms now, the slightest indication of intelligent life, in any form.
"You know I don't do helpless very well, Spock. What would you do?"
Eliminate the impossible.
"Yeah, okay, but that would mean whatever it is, isn't actually a life-form at all," he snorts, half-drunk on lack of sleep and exhaustion.
Adrenaline sends a stabbing burst of clarity through his head, forcing back the haze under the sheer force of focus.
"Oh my God." He takes a reeling stagger-step toward the door as the room waves slightly, then rights itself. Then he whirls around, new purpose fueling his steps, and in two seconds is back across the room, bending over the silent, deathly still figure on the bed.
"I hope we're on to something now. But even if we're not, you better be on your feet next time I see you, understood, Commander? You check out on me and the rest of this mission can go to hell, I don't even care. Do not stick me with trying to explain to your pissed-off wife and a board of snooty Admirals how I let the most brilliant First Officer in the 'Fleet die on my watch." He swallows. "Please."
There's a commotion in the outer ward, and he darts toward the door in concern, knowing it's likely one of the ICU patients fighting for their lives, and so misses the tiny bleep of one sensor moving fractionally as he leaves.
It's another hour before he can corner his Chief Medical Officer in some remote corner of Secondary Engineering. And it's just as well, because it looks like Medical's only just unsealing the corridor when he arrives, out of breath and actually this probably wasn't the best idea because his head's starting to spin and maybe he should have eaten breakfast or had some coffee at least, and yeah, floor looks as good a place as any to sort of fall-sit.
Something stabs him in the neck, a familiar pain by now, and sudden clarity floods his brain.
"Breathe, Jim." His head's being pushed toward his knees, despite a flailing hand of protest. "What in the name of all that's sensible were you thinking, anyway? And I told you to stay away from this area!"
He inhales deeply, oxygen flooding his system and bringing reality back with it. Then he scrambles across the corridor to snatch the dropped padd. "Bones, I might have it," he says, scrabbling to get the thing turned on and the report pulled back up.
A horrified silence penetrates his concentration after only a second, and he glances up, then realizes what he said. "Not the contagion! I mean I might know what's causing it. Sorry."
"You're gonna turn me gray before we finish this mission."
"I said sorry. Here, look."
McCoy takes the padd, glances up at the Medical team who's been patiently waiting for the drama to unfold. "Get the results to Lab Fourteen and then take yourselves off duty, full isolation procedures. You know the drill."
"Okay, Jim, slow down. What am I looking at?"
"The itemized list of what was in the cryostorage compartments when the malfunction occurred."
"I've already gone through this, and we already went through every compartment. Anything biological and anything that could be weaponized was inspected. Thoroughly, Jim. It's all still there, in full concentration."
"Bones, that's the problem. We've been looking for some kind of bioweapon, or some kind of life-form."
"Well, yeah, genius. This is a Medical issue."
"But we haven't been able to isolate anything! Doesn't that put up a red flag for you?"
"You know damn well it does. But I don't have an explanation for it. That's Spock's department, not mine." Bones looks exhausted. "I don't deal in theoretical medicine, Jim. It could just be some life-form we don't understand yet."
"Our sensors should still recognize it as a life-form, based on the criteria it has to meet."
"What are you getting at?"
"Did you ever, at any point try examining and analyzing those samples for non-lifeforms?"
The physician blinks. "For what?"
"For mechanical intelligence, or something like that. Something the computer would disregard as a life-form, since it's not technically a life-form."
"…no, that's not standard procedure in any way. And that's impossible, Jim. It would kill most species within a matter of minutes, some kind of, what, mechanical parasite? Attacking the body. The symptoms would manifest totally differently."
"Would they? If the technology's far ahead of ours?"
"What are you getting at?"
"One of the items in the cryostorage capsules at the time of the malfunction was Organian nanobot technology." He points out the item in question on the list.
"I did a complete inventory myself, and the capsule's weight was exactly the same before and after the malfunction, Jim. Nothing got out."
"Look at how rapidly the thing's been replicating itself inside the human body, who's to say it's not capable of doing that inside a canister?"
His friend's beginning to look uneasy. "Jim, you know what you're saying?"
"It would explain why there's no method to the spread of the contagion. Nanobots are capable of transmuting into any type of matter, any object, they choose, and they're all but invisible even to sensors. They could be literally crawling all over everything in this ship and we'd never know. Transforming themselves into the touchscreens of every console. Inside the processors. It's another Tribble infestation all over again, but one we can't even see."
"Dear God. I hope you're wrong."
"So do I, but it's the only lead we have right now."
"Come on, I gotta get to the labs and run those tests. If you're right, they'll show up in a detailed spectrodictalygraph after we run a dye test on the patient blood samples."
Unfortunately, or fortunately, however you want to look at it, Jim was right.
Organian nanobot technology, for some reason in their cryostorage (upon research, it looks like it's a holdover from Section 31 that the Board didn't want lying around on Terra, so sure, the smart thing to do is send it out into uncharted space aboard the freaking flagship. Brilliant.), had lived up to its famed intelligence and escaped during the malfunction, making its way they can only assume into the ventilation system, which is the only escape route from a sealed cryo compartment. Nanobot tech is highly advanced, but its directives are simple; review, correct, and reproduce. The tech is supposed to be controlled by a master program, one which they were not given along with the tech, and so left without specifics to guide them, the tiny AIs simply found what they thought would be the closest, easiest targets and began to recreate them into "better" versions of themselves.
Unfortunately, this recreation process obviously is meant for fellow silicon-based life forms, not carbon-based ones, and so what might just be an unpleasant series of incidents for silicon-based life-forms has blown into a horrific event of epidemic proportions for this ship.
"My guess is they're everywhere, and it's just a matter of time before the whole ship's infected, if we don't get rid of them ASAP," Bones says, at their officers' briefing, if it can be called that with only Sulu, Giotto, and DeSalle from Engineering still on their feet and able to attend. "We sterilized everything on the Bridge again, and everything in both Officers' and Lower Decks' Mess, but that's no guarantee we got the little menaces. We lost eight more crewmen last night, and it stops now."
Jim's now on his fourth night of only catnaps, and he's pretty sure his judgment is questionable at best, so he looks across the table at Sulu's wary glance. "I need options."
"Do we know how to destroy them yet?"
"I got two possibilities which worked in simulations, but neither of 'em are within human tolerance, not t'mention the other affected species," McCoy says. His accent's deep enough to drown in now, slurred by exhaustion.
"Can we slow down their destruction of the body, sir?" Giotto asks.
"Yes and no. We can basically freeze their reproductive programmin' with a good blast from all sides in a modified radiation chamber. But it looks like it only lasts about 2 hours, and I only got two chambers in Sickbay. You do the math."
Sulu swears under his breath. "Can you up the radiation to kill the things permanently? Disrupt their signals for good?"
"Not without killin' the host too."
"Aren't they all supposed to be controlled from a master program?"
"Yes, and if I knew where that program was being broadcast from I could probably hack it, but I don't think in this case they're following anything other than automated software that's been pre-installed. Like a sort of safe reboot mode, probably started up when the cryostorage malfunctioned. Otherwise they'd be following a much more specific directive, like to rebuild this ship into their new home or something."
"So…if they're in safe mode and following their own programming, can you just, like, pull the plug?"
"How? They're tinier than microscopic, Lieutenant!" McCoy snaps, tossing his Medical padd down on the table.
"I don't know, Doctor, I'm just trying to help!"
"Guys," Jim says, dragging his hands down his face. "Bones, he's got a point. We can't really go in and hit an off switch, but…" He straightens up. "Could we shut them down with a virus?"
"A what?" DeSalle ventures, eyebrows drawn.
"That's it, sir!"
"Jim, what are you getting at."
"What if we introduced something into an infected patient that would, I don't know, attack the nanobots? Like a computer virus attacking a computer. And because they're just basically in safe mode, they'll shut down. That might buy us some time to figure out how to destroy or remove them."
McCoy's eyes light up suddenly. "That might actually work. With it being silicon-based, elements like fluoride will react to it at room temperature, so we wouldn't have to risk the radiation treatment."
"You're going to kill the things with mouthwash?"
And this is why he needs his alpha crew. He resists the urge to whimper.
McCoy has no such patience reserves left. "You worry about Engineering, let me worry about Medical, thank you very much."
"Sulu, you're done for the day, go get some sleep."
"Uh, sir…you'll pardon the observation, but you look like you need it a lot more than I do."
"Not arguing that, but if this goes south I'm going to need to be in the chair to accept responsibility." He offers the young helmsman a brief smile. "Go get some rest, I'll need you back in eight hours."
"Yes, sir. But call me if you need me before that." Sulu casts a pointed look at McCoy, who's totally oblivious and scratching out computations on his padd for the cross-species bloodwork simulator.
"I can see you just fine," the physician growls. "You want to be helpful, stay healthy. Now get."
"Yessir, Doctor sir."
"You too, guys. Try to stay out of Sickbay for another forty-eight hours, yeah?"
"Yes, sir, Captain."
He laughs for the first time in what feels like – probably is – days, as the door shuts on the three young officers, then jumps as Bones fairly rockets out of his chair.
"I'mma head down there and run the first batch of simulations, get the dosage right. Go back to the Bridge and I'll call you if I have news."
He knows better than to argue at this point, and besides, the idea of going more than a few feet back to more than just sitting down again is not at all attractive. He's crashing, stimulants or not, and he's got to keep it together for a few more hours at least.
The Enterprise has been flying at top speed back toward civilization for three days now, ever since that second evening when McCoy's reports finally scared someone in the Admiralty enough, but they were forced to slow slightly yesterday when Engineering finally went down to a skeleton crew and the Bridge as well, many systems on autopilot due to the lack of personnel able-bodied and capable of manning them. His Bridge crew glance up as he enters, and as one brighten perceptibly as they see him, so he's putting up a good show at least.
"Good morning, gentlemen. I am happy to report that Doctor McCoy may have good news for us before very long today." A chorus of quiet cheers and smiles ripples around the Bridge, still subdued from its normal hustle and bustle. "Until then, we have work to do. Status report?"
Alpha shift turns into beta, then into gamma, and he still hasn't heard from Sickbay, but he doesn't want to distract Bones from this far more important work, so instead of comm-ing and making a nuisance of himself, he decides to just head down there after the delta crew file in to man the auto-pilot stations for the evening.
He's already in the lift when the intra-comm finally whistles for his attention.
"Jim, I think you need to get down here."
A fist of ice clenches in his stomach. "I was already on my way. What's wrong."
"If you're on the way just get down here and we'll talk. Sickbay out."
The doors open on a deserted corridor, all the more creepy with the pall of death and sickness that's lingered over this ship the last few days. He half-jogs a few meters down the corridor and then has to stop, chest heaving, as his body reminds him in no uncertain terms that physical activity is not a good idea right now, and not for a while – not until he gets some sleep and flushes those stims out of his system.
Just a few more hours, and maybe he'll be able to crash. He hopes that's the case. Damn superblood doesn't do anything to keep you awake and alert, unfortunately.
He rounds the corner and bursts into Sickbay with enough explosive force to startle a wide-eyed intern, who yelps and nearly drops a tray of instruments.
"Jim, for Pete's sake!"
"Sorry," he mumbles, giving the poor young woman an apologetic pat on the shoulder as he passes. "What's going on?" McCoy disappears back into his office, and he follows, irritated. "I am on my last nerve here, Bones, I do not have time for –" He stops in the doorway, staring.
"Sit down before you fall down."
Yeah, that's a good idea. He fumbles his way into the closest chair, the one not occupied by one very much awake, if a little pale, Vulcan First Officer. Spock offers him a weary, half-apologetic look that's got more than a hint of concern hidden in it somewhere.
"It's been a hell of a forty-eight hours," he whispers.
"So I understand," is the quiet reply. "Captain, I assure you, had I realized –"
"I know, I know. Just…don't do it again." He closes his eyes, leans forward to just breathe for a second. "Catch me up here. And keep it simple, Bones."
"I've administered a compound that's stopped the nanobots from replicating in the infected crewmen, which is an improvement on the past five days. I'm still hours, maybe days, away from figuring out how to deprogram them, but that'll give us the time we need. And with him back up and running – or at least walking – we may have a chance," Bones says soberly, gesturing at their CSO.
"I am well-versed in this Organian technology, Captain; the reasoning behind its confiscation was the subject of one of my theses as a graduate student at Starfleet Academy."
"The Organians, as you are aware, were in the early days of the Federation prone to experimentation upon various cultures and societies, under the guise of proving their worthiness to join in alliance with the more advanced Organian culture. Once they were convinced to join the Federation, naturally such activities were forced to cease."
"Yeah, there hasn't been an incident in decades from them, that's why they control the trade routes, right?"
"Correct. However, some of their…experiments, still linger, and this is one such experimental device, or rather experimental technology. It was remanded to Section 31 for research at some undetermined time and then to the Enterprise for safekeeping, once Section 31 was disbanded nearly ten years ago. The idea never crossed my mind, given that inventory remained the same in the cryostorage compartments after the malfunction, that this could be the culprit behind the contagion."
"Why would it, we were looking for somethin' biological."
"Blame is a futile game here, guys. Tell me how to fix this." He looks from one to the other, hoping his desperation isn't showing.
"The most efficient way would be to contact the Organians to see if they still retain record of the original programming code for these nanobots, Captain. Once we possess that, creating a virus to force their self-destruction or at least their de-programming should not be difficult."
"That's gonna wreak havoc in a carbon-based life-form's body, Spock! We've got to figure out how to actually break down the structure of the bot into a form that the body can process, or it's going to just leave inert matter in the lungs and pulmonary systems."
"Then I suggest you begin applying yourself to that problem, Doctor, because I see no other solution that will give each species a fighting chance for survival. The only other way known to technology by which to completely destroy these artificial intelligences is by means of a controlled tachyon pulse at close range, something which no carbon-based life-form can withstand in any concentration. Much less such a high-velocity concentration needed to pull apart the silicon-based molecular structure of these creatures."
"He's right, Bones. Can you figure a way to help eliminate the inert matter from the body in a short a time as possible, then heal the damage to the lungs and other systems they're leaving behind?"
"On a strong, healthy crewman, that might not be an issue – but we have several dozen who are hanging on by a thread, Jim. You got to give me some time to figure out how to stabilize them during such an invasive procedure."
"We may not have that time, Doctor." His First is already looking over specs on a data-padd, a frown darkening his pale features.
"One of them is your wife, Spock! We move too quickly on this, we could still lose another forty of the crew. I won't allow it until I know I can stabilize the critical patients."
"You have likely twelve hours at most, Doctor, before the nanobots themselves move on to phase two of their programming, which is to move beyond the replication process and begin elimination of anything which does not immediately conform to their pre-programmed state of being." Spock's dark eyes meet his for a moment. "They will no longer simply attempt to change the crew by replicating themselves and altering physiology."
"They'll just eliminate anyone who doesn't match their programming."
"Looks like you have work to do, Bones. Spock, what condition are you really in?"
"I am functional, Captain. The healing trance was successful in purging the foreign programming from my bodily systems, though I doubt the nanobots are completely gone, given their prevalence aboard the ship in general."
"Then come with me, we have to get hold of the Admiralty and the Organian High Council, and I don't think I can negotiate my way out of a paper bag right now. I need you to make sure I don't say something stupid."
"You do not appear to be at your most lucid state."
"Yeah, well, you try setting a new galactic record for lack of sleep and see what you look like. Bones, we'll be in my briefing room, call as soon as you got something."
"You know I will. Mr. Spock, you start feelin' weird, don't try to be a hero. You call me."
Spock inclines his head in silent assent, but looks steady enough when he finally gets to his feet. Thank the gods for Vulcan physiology. Jim exhales and stands, mind already on how the hell he's going to spin this to the Admiralty; the Organians are a peaceful people, but not overly cooperative.
The abrupt change in altitude is a big mistake. His ears start ringing like a five-alarm fire, his whole face turns red-hot and then ice-cold in the space of like three seconds, and the room spins briefly into a weird shade of hazy reddish-gray before righting itself again. When it stops…yeah, he just about took a header right into his Chief Medical Officer's desk.
Said CMO is now looking at him with wary concern, already reaching for a medical scanner.
He holds up a remonstrating hand, loosening Spock's grip as he moves. "I'm fine, Bones. No other symptoms, I just stood up too fast. And I need sleep, like everybody else does. Once this is over, you can bet I'm crashing for like a week, but until then I have to keep it together."
"The rest of this crew haven't been overindulging in energy supplements to keep themselves awake pulling duty shifts, but I don't have time to argue with you at this point," McCoy mutters, turning back to his computer. "Commander, watch this idiot, will you? Convalescing or not, you're in way better shape right now probably."
"I resent that."
"You resemble that. Now get outta my office, I have simulations to run. And tell whoever that kid is up on the Bridge to stop messin' with the Medical intracomm, the static is drivin' me nuts. Gods, I'll be glad when Uhura's back on her feet."
The door closes behind them, and Jim glances around the ward wearily, noting that everything's starting to take on that peculiar hazy quality that comes from severe lack of sleep.
"Hold on, I need –"
"Doctor McCoy expressly forbade me to permit you the use of another artificial stimulant, Captain."
"Who the hell uses words like forbade anymore?" he demands crankily, dodging a hurrying nurse who laughs at his words, flashing him a tired smile.
Spock doesn't even twitch, his eyes on the CC ward at the back of the room and mind probably miles away. Jim scrubs a hand down his face. "Did you…I'm sorry, she collapsed right after you did, no more warning than you," he says quietly, as they pass through on their way to the corridor. "If you want to work down here until we get on the call –"
"My presence will not benefit her recovery in any way, and my efficiency will be…distracted."
"Understood. Once more unto the breach then, my friend. Let's go finish this."
"I told you, don't let him near another stimulant!"
"I was unaware that included –"
"You cut off my coffee, I cut off your hand," he snarls, slamming the cup down on the table and curling his other arm around it in a protective gesture. Across the table, he hears a stifled laugh. "Button it, Sulu!"
"You did not have to deal with him the last six days," the young man says pointedly, giving their still very much recovering Communications Officer a gentle nudge.
Though she'd gone down hard, Uhura's bounced back in the last twenty-four hours since receiving the nanovirus treatment like the powerhouse she is, and while she's not officially on duty, she's driving Bones nuts enough that she's been permitted to work strictly light-duty, partial shifts; and as such, is attending the briefing primarily as a spectator.
Spock eyes him warily, and he realizes he probably looks a little manic at this point. One more briefing, that's all he has to get through. Thirty minutes, and he can finally go die somewhere. Or whatever. As long as it's not sitting upright, he'll take it.
"Spit it out, Bones," he mutters, rubbing his eyes.
"That your official start to this briefing, sir?" Uhura asks innocently, as she's the one taking notes in Pavel's absence, the poor kid still puking his guts out in Sickbay after a reaction to the nanovirus.
"I will kill all of you. One by one. 'Cept you, Spock, you didn't do anything."
"Thank you, sir."
"Ahem." Bones glares at them both across the table, and elbows their sniggering pilot, who subsides after a moment into that half-drugged state of grinning idiocy born of relief that this nightmare's almost over.
"So, thanks to the nanovirus Spock's people managed to cook up in record time we only lost one more man to the contagion, everyone else looks to make a full recovery. Lab Twelve's techs still need commendations written up for that insanely fast turnaround, by the way," McCoy adds, and Spock nods, making a notation on his padd. "And I've been able to synthesize what amounts to a preventative artificial-antibody to administer to everyone who managed to escape infection, so if there are any of the little bugs we missed in the radiation sweep, nobody should have a reaction that bad again."
"Did we miss any?"
"Not according to the modified sensor scans, Captain. Commander Scott reports the radiation sweeps complete as of two hours ago, and all personnel redistributed throughout the ship. No damage to any portion of the ship from such intense radiation save a few minor systems in the Jefferies tubes, which are easily repairable."
Bones nods in agreement, indicating for him to look at the Medical report that was just sent to his padd. Like Jim can actually see straight right now, that's hilarious.
"No shields were damaged during the personnel shifts and relocations, meanin' we did hit the goal of zero percent crew exposure to the radiation. And all sensor sweeps show the silicon matrix of each nanobot has been destroyed, at least as far as I can tell. The resulting bio-shell should degrade within a matter of hours. If for some reason it doesn't, I have a Plan B involving another fluoride-based treatment, and Scotty's monitoring the degradation with an ongoing sensor sweep, aft to stern."
Scott isn't at the briefing himself due to the fact that Engineering's been shut down too long due to the aforementioned heavy radiation sweeps, since such radiation impacting their warp core would of course blow the ship into so much space jetsam. Now, they just have to get the core back up and running if they're going to get back to a base for refueling and restocking without having to start rationing procedures.
"And the core, are we going to be able to start without incident?"
"Yes, sir. There will be no need to risk a cold-core start and we will be ready to proceed on full warp speed if necessary within the hour."
"Good, good." He exhales slowly, wondering if that's the inertial dampeners flickering or just his head feeling like it's going to spin off his body. "And…" Damn it, what was he going to ask?
Everyone's looking at him expectantly, and he clears his throat, trying to focus. "Did we jettison that nanotech?"
"Indeed, Captain. It has been launched to a deserted Class L planetoid, with a series of warning beacons placed in orbit to ensure no other vessel attempts to utilize its technology, though that is an unlikely scenario given that we are still in uncharted space. An experimental Medical vessel will be dispatched to retrieve it at a later date yet to be determined by the 'Fleet Science division."
The fact that the bugs are off the ship makes him lightheaded with relief. "Good work, guys." He rubs his eyes briefly, and sits back. "Bones, what about our men."
His CMO's face is shadowed, almost as weary as his own. "I've finished the reports, so all that's left is carrying out whatever their last wishes were. There's three that I know of who requested their bodies be sent back to their home planets, I already got them in cryostorage. And I know at least one has some pretty long cultural rituals that have to be done before any kind of 'Fleet service should be held."
He sighs, rubbing his temples with hands that won't quite stop shaking. This is the first major loss they've had in months, and it's going to suck so, so much. They've lost too many people over the years, and it never gets easier.
"Captain. Doctor. I am still technically off active duty for the next forty-eight hours, and I speak every language aboard. You both need to delegate at this point," Uhura interjects, not unkindly. "Your staff is just as tired as you are, Doctor, and that's not a good combination to be dealing with grieving friends and family either in person or over subspace communiques."
"It's not your responsibility, Lieutenant."
"And not every single detail on this ship is yours, sir. You've both done enough the last week. At least these preliminaries, you need to let someone else handle."
He glances across the table, and takes Bones's shrug of weary surrender as a sign of assent. He gives her a quick nod, knowing she'll be able to discern the gratitude in his expression as well. "Divert any communications resources you need from other areas of the ship, and don't hesitate to call on the quartermaster if you think we're going to need supplies for the memorial service. Aim for…three days from now? And try to give me a heads up as to what we'll be looking at, yeah?"
"Of course, sir."
"After you get some sleep, Jim."
"I'm not arguing that, Bones," he sighs, waving a hand dismissively between them. "I can't even see straight at this point, much less do justice to something that important. The condolence letters will have to wait, I'm not going to chance screwing those up."
Beside him, he sees Spock scribbling another note on his padd, and he has a sneaking suspicion he's going to find decent drafts for each of those letters in his inbox by the time he wakes up. After all these years, he's not too proud to gladly take the help when it's offered, either – he lost that pride somewhere between Altamid and their third mission aboard the Enterprise-A.
Ten minutes, he needs to stay awake for ten more minutes. Finish the briefing, make it back to his cabin. "Ok, Sulu, how long until we reach charted space?"
"Still a good four days' journey at normal cruising speed, sir. If we take her up to Warp Six, we could cut that down to two and a half."
"That's probably not necessary, but if Scotty thinks it's safe go ahead and do it. Yorktown won't care if we're early, they know what shape we're in."
He turns to his First, trying to focus on images that are starting to waver in his jumpy vision. "Am I forgetting anything?"
"No, sir." Bless you, Spock, you can always tell when I need words of one syllable.
"Oh, good." He ignores the laugh that ripples around the table, and stands, motioning for everybody else to do the same. "Get out of here, people. Dismissed. Or whatever."
"Captain, before you crash, just sign off on these for the next twenty-four hours so no one bothers you," Uhura says, moving around the table with her padd.
Right, good thinking. He grabs the stylus and bends over the Bridge duty rosters, only to stop as the comm in the middle of the table whistles.
"Bridge to Captain Kirk."
Everyone pauses around him momentarily as he sighs and reaches forward to snap the switch with a little more force than is warranted.
"Kirk here. What is it, Mr. Riley."
"Sir, there's a Priority One for you on Channel Three from Admiral Barnett. I told him you were in an important briefing but he said he'd wait, sir."
He rests his head on the table for just a second with a noise somewhere between a curse and a whimper. Because of course, it's a Priority One, of course with one of the few Admirals who actually doesn't hate him and will in consequence talk his ear off for like an hour if he gets going.
Duty sucks. But a starship captain he is, and a captain he will act like, even when he wants to break down and throw something at the stupid comm unit instead.
He lifts his head and straightens up with a resigned sigh.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Tell him –"
Something stabs him in the back of the neck.
"What the hell!" The table blurs in front of him, and he shakes his head dazedly, which spins him right into two sets of blue-shirted arms for a perfect ten-point catch. His head suddenly fills with cotton, Sulu neatly catches the padd that falls out of his hands, he can't tell if he's actually falling or if it just feels like that, and did they all actually just choreograph that?
"Tell the Admiral the Captain is indisposed, Mr. Riley."
"But…Lieutenant Uhura, he's most insistent…"
"The man's had a grand total of like twelve hours of sleep in the last week and has pulled triple duty shifts on several of those days, so Admiral Barnett can either leave a message or request a call back."
"If you're not capable of relaying that then pipe him down here and I'll talk to him. Or tell him you're getting too much subspace interference and pull the plug, I don't really care. But pick one, or I'll see you get transferred back to Mr. Scott's phaser crew and out of Communications for good, am I clear?"
"Yes, sir! I mean ma'am! I mean – "
"Yes, ma'am! Bridge, out!"
"Lieutenant, remind me never to piss you off."
"Doctor, I believe that starship sailed years ago, but thank you. Think we should at least inspect those poor kids on the Bridge, Hikaru?"
"Damn straight. 'Night, Captain."
"Thisss a mutiny, is what it is. All 'f you, on report. Like now."
"Duly noted, sir. Pleasant dreams."
"If you can still talk you can move your feet, Jim, don't make us carry you. Come on, five more minutes and you can sleep for twenty-four hours if you want."
That sounds nice.
"I thought it might. In you get, Jim, come on. Deck Six."
He gives up trying to make sense of why the floor's moving so much, because everything's taken on a sort of hazy softness that's singing him to sleep where he stands. Leans. Whatever he's doing, the wall's cold.
"I need to run by Sickbay and grab that stim withdrawal treatment, you got him from here?"
"He starts snoring, just give him a good shake, it won't hurt anything."
He cracks one eye in a glare, but the doors have already closed and the lift is moving again. His stomach lurches along with it, and he hides his eyes in his arm again.
"'M good," he mutters, shivering.
"That is debatable." The doors open, loud in the muffled cotton that's filled his head. "Jim. We have arrived on Deck Five."
"I know. Y'want me moving or not puking, y'don't get both." Maybe he'll just fall asleep standing up and they can just like, sweep around him for the next day or so, that'd be fine.
He hears a soft noise of exasperation, and then the floor turns sideways.
"What the – put me down, dammit!"
"Unless you prefer every officer currently off-duty on this deck hears you, I suggest you lower your decibel level."
"They've heard worse," he mumbles inelegantly, finally landing a half-hearted flailing shove to Spock's torso that accomplishes absolutely nothing except to drain his last reserves of energy. He finally goes limp, exhausted. To hell with his command image. After almost ten years, this crew's seen him in worse situations. "Gods, I'm so tired, Spock."
"That is understandable. I believe you are well past the physical breaking point of human endurance from this last crisis."
He makes a vague noise of assent, eyes at half-mast. "'M too old for this."
"I do not believe age was a factor in your refusal to cede command for an appropriate rest period, necessary though the action might have been."
"That is their unofficial classification, yes."
The soft triple chirp of a door lock being deactivated by bio-signature recognition, and then semi-darkness, total quiet due to the better insulation of the command crew quarters.
He thinks about what it would have been like, to be the only one left aboard in the silence.
"They told me we were under an active General Order Six, Spock," he finds himself saying, barely above a whisper.
His feet touch ground again, not as solid as he'd like, as his First stops in his tracks, letting him take his own weight again. He leans against the cold wall, arms folded across his chest to hide the fact they're still shaking, either from withdrawal or the sedative or from something deeper, something worse that he can't even really vocalize.
"That would explain your insistence upon remaining on duty until events were satisfactorily concluded," is the cautious observance that comes out of the half-darkness.
He almost laughs, but doesn't, because he has no idea how hysterical it might come out. "Somebody had to be able to activate the self-destruct sequence, right?" He drags both hands down his face, exhaling in a ragged, painful rasp. "Who knew that stupid superblood would come in so handy. Full immunity, so guess who gets to pull the trigger after everybody else is gone!"
"I know, I know," he says shakily. "I'm too old for a meltdown, too. I'm just gonna…" He motions vaguely to the sleeping alcove. "Thanks for making sure I didn't fall on my face trying to get back here."
"I am unconvinced that skill will not still be needed, as you have yet to move since entering this cabin." The words are light, the nudge of gentle humor he needs to ground him in the quicksand of wild hysteria he's drowning in – but they're serious, and he appreciates that.
"Don't you have another convalescent wife to go nag?"
That gets him an eyeroll, which is good. Normality means less time spent trying to get rid of his well-meaning crew means less time until he can actually fall apart without anyone he loves being able to see it.
"Are you certain you will be able to manage –"
"Dude, I've been putting my own pajamas on for years, pretty sure I can handle it. Go." He makes a little shooing motion with his hands, and Spock obediently moves toward the door after one more moment of hesitation. Jim conjures up a small smile from somewhere in the half-drugged portion of his psyche long enough for the door to close, and then manages to voice-lock it with his highest clearance before stumbling into the sleeping alcove on wobbly legs. Damn Bones's hypo-happy medical treatments, he knows drugs lower Jim's tolerance for everything, which is why he avoids them like a plague.
His legs give out before he can take more than a step into the room, and he slides down the wall to the floor, shaking. The knowledge of how close it had been – twenty-four hours more, and it might've been too late – is still lurking mockingly on the edges of his sleep-deprived consciousness, beckoning him to give in and rest, fairly daring him to brave the nightmares he's sure will come.
It's been months – well over a year – since he came that close to losing anyone, much less everyone, he loves. He's become a better, wiser, more cautious captain in recent years, done everything in his power to keep his people safe; and this had almost just thrown it all out the airlock in a matter of days.
He pulls his knees up, shivering, and scrubs a hand over his face, only then realizes it's wet. Awesome, he's losing it now, in addition to not being able to so much as think straight. He's just so exhausted his whole head is ringing. Like a red alert, except he knows there isn't one because there aren't any lights flashing on the wall. Just half-darkness, and that's pretty blurry as his eyes can't stay open.
So he never hears a thing, and therefore about jumps out of his skin when something moves beside him.
One well-practiced feint and block stops the wild fist he swings out of reflex, though the lack of force behind it probably wouldn't have hurt anyone.
"Good grief. Can you not?"
Heart still racing, he startles as a blanket descends out of nowhere around his shoulders, tugged into place with gentle hands. Great, and here he is basically crying like a child alone in his bedroom where apparently anyone on his staff can find him. He straightens, clearing his throat and giving a discreet swipe to his eyes. "How did you get in here?"
"McCoy put you on Medical Leave as soon as you left the Briefing Room, so your clearance codes are inactive right now," she replies.
That freaks him out almost more than anything else, because it means he has a total lack of privacy now.
"I locked it when I came in," she reassures him, interpreting his expression correctly. "Only Spock and McCoy himself can override it, so calm down."
"I'm perfectly calm," he snaps, with way more bite than he should. She's a communications expert, she'll pick up on that immediately. If she hasn't already.
From the look on her face, she already has.
"Why are you here. I'm supposed to be sleeping."
"And yet you're on the floor having a meltdown."
"I am not." He clears his throat, glaring straight ahead. "I was just…resting. Got dizzy. Drugs, y'know."
"Mmhm. Drugs also the reason you're clutching that blanket like it's hugging you?"
He drops the thing like it's a hot potato, and she sighs. Picks it back up, and replaces it in its previous position around his shoulders with the put-upon patience of a patron saint.
What the hell, he's cold. He'll take it.
He will not take her sitting down on the floor and squirming into a position beside him, however.
"Medical Leave or not, I can demote you."
"Try it, sir. Your Comms board will be a shuttle wreck within two shifts and you'll be crawling back to me."
He has to laugh, because it's totally true. The laugh trails off into something more like a sob than anything else, and he doesn't quite get it buried in his arms quick enough. A hand gently rests on his shoulder for a few seconds as he pulls himself together again, then moves to briefly brush through the hair at his temples.
"Mm, Leonard is right, you are going gray."
"Oh my God, I hate you."
"No, you don't."
"I really kind of do, right now."
"Somehow I think I'll survive." It's a bad choice of words, all things, considered, and it must show on his face, because she winces. "Sorry. You know what I mean."
He looks away, head still spinning, and lets the awkward silence snatch at his consciousness with nightmarish claws.
Maybe he can stave off this meltdown with work, that's his usual MO. He clears his throat, resolutely shoves everything he can back under a thin veneer of calm that's nothing more than intense willpower over a haze of drugs.
"Did you come in here to just be nosy, or to let me know plans for the memorial services?"
"I'm good, but not good enough to set all that up in twenty minutes," she replies, with amusement. "I came in here because Spock's on the Bridge freaking out. He had no idea what to do with you, and McCoy got delayed in Sickbay with one of the ground zeros who's still having issues with the nanovirus treatment."
Geez, now he feels like a tool for word-vomiting his issues on the least emotive species in the galaxy. Who is also a touch-telepath that probably picked up a whole lot of unneeded baggage before beating a hasty retreat just now.
"Seriously, enough with the guilt trips, Jim; it was just an explanation. We get it, this mission was hell. And none of us are stupid kids anymore, this stuff isn't as easy to shake off as it used to be."
"That's not sufficient excuse," he mutters, swiping a hand over his face. "I don't know why this one's affecting me this badly."
"It might be because the people who put you at the helm of this ship told you if you didn't fix the problem you'd need to destroy her in forty-eight hours, or because your body is telling you it should have been asleep five days ago," she says dryly. "And like I said. None of us are stupid kids anymore. You might have been able to blow through this ten years ago, but you can't just expect to shake it off now. Nobody blames you for that."
"You're outvoted. Sir."
He laughs, a brief and almost rueful sound in the quiet of the room. "Just like that, huh."
"Just like that. Now get off your ass and into that bed so I don't have to call Security, there's no way I can haul you over there. Not while still recovering myself, anyway."
"Call me that ever again and you'll wish you were on that planet with the nanobots."
He hears her snort from the other side of the sleeping partition as he makes an ungraceful sort of swan dive into the bed. He manages to kick off his shoes before the meds really catch up to him, making him pause in the middle of a remarkably lucid debate about whether or not the rest of the uniform is really worth the effort, because it's not like he's going to be alert enough to even care in like sixty seconds anyway, judging from how fast the room's spinning.
In the end, gravity makes the decision for him, and if he tears the stupid tunic in his sleep that's nothing new to the quartermaster at this point anyway, so. Whatever.
"Liztenprcn," he mumbles into the pillow, but the stupid lights don't obey him, and he gives up, because after an hour they'll shut off anyway to conserve energy.
He hears a soft laugh, and footsteps somewhere close by.
"Lights, ten percent." His eyelids go dark, thank goodness. The lights must like her voice better. A quiet sigh. "Really, Jim, you couldn't at least get under the sheets before passing out?"
He really is too exhausted to even respond to that, somewhere in that hazy, almost painful land between sleeping and dozing, jerking awake one second and gone the next but limbs too heavy for movement. Something warm and soft settles on top of him, and it has that sneeze-inducing, vaguely incense-y smell that tells him it's that same blanket she had to have dragged over from Spock's cabin when she barged in here a few minutes ago.
It's weirdly comforting, as is the fact that she didn't try to dig around in his things to find one of his. None of them really have any personal boundaries left, not at this point in their missions – but there are some gestures of respect they still never cross, and they help him keep his command, keep his sanity, on days like today.
And tomorrow? Tomorrow's another day. Another totally different, but probably just as difficult, day.
And they'll help him keep it then, too.
Kllhe'mnhe is a mild untranslated Romulan invective
Tcha'be'she really is a Vulcan sandworm. Think Dune, Vulcan folklore style
Silicon-based lifeforms weren't even seen in the TOS universe until Devil in the Dark, much less recognized as valid, but as the AOS is more advanced (as is obvious from the fact that you can see multiple species visible just on panoramic shots of the AOS Bridge alone) in many ways I've taken the liberty of saying it's a well-recognized lifeform by this point in the timeline and tech.
General Order Six is an actual Starfleet Order, seen in the TAS episode Albatross. In the event a starship was completely overtaken by an unknown contagion with no hope that a cure could be found, their orders were to self destruct rather than risk spreading an unknown epidemic to charted planets
The Organians were a legit parent universe race of beings, first seen in one of my favorite TOS episodes Errand of Mercy (totally unrelated to this chapter) but first seen chronologically in the parent universe timeline in the ENT episode Observer Effect, from which I've pulled small bits and bobs of the plot, if anyone's actually interested. Anything you recognize from that episode does not belong to me, while the rest of the reboot and rebooted concepts are mine.