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Personal log, James T. Kirk, Stardate 8415.9.
No longer an admiral, I am a captain once more, but a captain, as of yet, without a ship. The Enterprise-A remains in spacedock, while Chief Engineer Scott prepares our new starship for final testing and service.
With time on my hands, and my future on hold, it is the past that occupies my thoughts. Old decisions, and new regrets, haunt me, compelling me to embark on a solemn pilgrimage to the site of what may have been one of my greatest mistakes....
"We're approaching Ceti Alpha V," Sulu announced from the helm. "Switching to impulse."
"Very good, Mr. Sulu," Kirk responded. "As always, your piloting is to be commended."
The Yakima was a compact, warp-capable cruiser, only slightly larger than a shuttlecraft. Besides Kirk and Sulu, the chartered vessel held only two other passengers: Spock and McCoy.
"I still think there are better places to spend our vacation time," McCoy groused. The doctor sat opposite Kirk in the cruiser's cabin-sized passenger compartment, next to Spock. Like the captain and Sulu, McCoy had eschewed his Starfleet uniform in favor of civilian garb. A rumpled brown jacket hung over his bony shoulders. "Next time we're going to Yosemite or something."
"Nobody forced you to come along, Bones," Kirk said with a smile. A turtleneck sweater and trousers served as casual attire. He knew McCoy too well to take the doctor's grumbling too seriously. "This is a personal matter, not a Starfleet assignment."
McCoy's tone softened. "That's what friends are for, Jim." All kidding aside, the doctor's innate compassion was written upon his weathered features. "You shouldn't have to make this trip alone."
"Indeed," Spock concurred. "For once, Dr. McCoy and I find ourselves in agreement." Clad in an austere black robe, the Vulcan maintained a dignified posture upon his seat. His hands were clasped before him as though in prayer. "One does not have to be human to understand that this particular voyage is bound to trouble your emotions."
That's putting it lightly, Kirk thought. It had been less than a year since the deadly return of Khan Noonien Singh, who had blamed Kirk for his disastrous exile on Ceti Alpha V. Since then, Kirk had often pondered whether Khan had been justified in his quest for revenge. Was I wrong to maroon Khan and his followers there so many years ago? Am I responsible for all those deaths?
Kirk felt he owed it to the memory of those who had died on Ceta Alpha V to visit the planet himself, and perhaps learn more of what had transpired there after he'd left Khan behind all those years ago. "Thank you," he told his friends sincerely. "I'm grateful for the company."
He glanced out a porthole at the surrounding space. The stars, which had been streaking by the windows at warp speed, coalesced into discrete points of light as the Yakima dropped to impulse. Isolated chunks of solid matter bounced off the cruiser's deflectors, while the ship gracefully wove through an obstacle course composed of larger rocky fragments.
"Heading through an asteroid belt," Sulu warned them by way of explanation. "Things could get a little bumpy."
"Wonderful," McCoy drawled, buckling his seat belt. "I'd forgotten how delightful this system is." He rolled his eyes. "You know, I never did understand how the Reliant managed to mistake Ceti Alpha V for Ceti Alpha VI in the first place. Mind you, I'm a doctor, not an astronavigator, but how do you misplace an entire planet?"
"More easily than you might suppose, Doctor," Spock replied. "This remote sector has not yet been extensively charted, so Captain Terrell had to rely on the Enterprise's original survey of the Ceti Alpha system, conducted many years before. According to that survey, there was a total of only six planets in the system, bordered by an extensive asteroid belt." He tilted his head at the porthole, where myriad granite boulders continued to zip past the window. "As Reliant approached the system from the outside, they naturally assumed that the outer planet was Ceti Alpha VI -- and mistook the remains of the real Ceti Alpha VI for a portion of the asteroid belt mentioned in the survey."
Exactly, Kirk thought. Reliant had no reason to suspect that the sixth planet had been completely destroyed. He seized on Spock's argument to help ease his own pangs of conscience. Just as I had no way of knowing that Ceti Alpha VI was going to explode.
Or did I?
Should I have looked harder? Anticipated every possibility?
The nagging questions gnawed at Kirk's soul.
"All right," McCoy conceded. "But that just raises another question. How in blazes did Starfleet manage to forget where we put Khan? Didn't they realize that maniac was, at best, only one planet away?"
"Blame Starfleet secrecy," Kirk explained grimly. He'd asked himself many of the same questions in the weeks after their return engagement with Khan. "The details of the Botany Bay incident had been classified top-secret by Starfleet, which didn't want to advertise the existence of a colony of genetically engineered superhumans on Ceti Alpha V. As a result, Captain Terrell, immersed in the equally top-secret Genesis Project, was completely unaware of the system's history." Kirk's frown deepened as he remembered how that lack of information had ultimately cost Terrell his life. "Lord knows it wouldn't be the first time that Starfleet's right hand didn't know what the left one was hiding."
"Or, to be more precise," Spock observed, "had hidden eighteen years earlier."
McCoy shook his head, still not satisfied. "But Chekov was right there on the Reliant, not to mention John Kyle. They must have remembered about Khan and the others. Hell, Khan personally attacked Kyle that first time around. I treated his injuries."
Kirk had to admit that Khan Noonien Singh was hard to forget. "I spoke with Chekov about this, afterward," he divulged. "You have to remember that Ceti Alpha VI -- or, rather, what Reliant believed to be Ceti Alpha VI -- was just one of several planets that he and Terrell had checked out in hopes of finding an ideal site for Stage Three of the Genesis Project. They'd had every expectation of Ceti Alpha VI being rejected as a candidate just like all the others." Kirk smiled wryly. "Apparently, Carol was being extremely picky when it came to choosing just the right planet for her experiment."
"Dr. Marcus is known for her rigorous scientific methodology," Spock confirmed.
Kirk knew that was high praise coming from a Vulcan. I wonder how Carol is doing? he thought sadly; it had not been easy telling her about David's death on the Genesis Planet. Bloodthirsty Klingon bastards!
He pushed his vengeful thoughts aside -- for now. "Chekov was caught in a bind," he continued. "Like the rest of our original crew, including Kyle, he had been sworn to secrecy regarding the Botany Bay affair, on a strictly need-to-know basis. And, at the point that he and Terrell beamed down to what they thought was Ceti Alpha VI, Terrell did not need to know...not when Chekov had every reason to believe that Ceti Alpha VI would be quickly rejected as a test site, and that Reliant would be leaving the entire system shortly."
Kirk sighed, sympathizing with the Russian officer's dilemma. "Naturally, had Ceti Alpha VI been selected for the experiment, Chekov would have immediately informed Terrell of the existence of a human colony one planet away. But that hadn't happened yet and, as far Chekov and Kyle were concerned, Khan and his followers were safely stranded on Ceti Alpha V, without the means of spaceflight. They seemed to pose no threat to Reliant -- or so Chekov believed."
A reasonable assumption, Kirk thought, if tragically mistaken. The ghastly consequences of Khan's escape from exile were still fresh in his memory. Not only had Clark Terrell perished; Khan had also ruthlessly slaughtered nearly the entire science team at the Regula I Space Laboratory, and later launched a sneak attack on the Enterprise itself. Kirk winced at the thought of the many fresh-faced cadets who had lost their lives in the battle against Khan, including Scotty's own nephew. According to the eventual Starfleet investigation, more than three dozen people had died as a result of Khan's return, not counting Khan's own crew, whose exact names and numbers remained unknown.
And those were just the direct fatalities, Kirk realized. Khan's escape had set in motion a chain of events that had led to Spock's brief but harrowing demise, the creation of the Genesis Planet, the destruction of the original Enterprise, and the murder of Kirk's son. Who was really to blame for David's death? Kirk asked himself. The Klingons? Khan? Me?
Where did it all begin -- and where in God's name will it end?
"Probably just as well that Chekov is not along for this trip," McCoy observed. "Pavel suffered enough on that godforsaken planet."
"Agreed," Kirk said. The stalwart Russian had volunteered to join them, but, on his doctor's orders, he had stayed behind on Earth in order to fully recover from the injuries he'd sustained during their recent whale-rescuing excursion to the twentieth century. "I'm sure Scotty and Uhura will appreciate his help getting the new Enterprise shipshape."
Plus, Kirk knew, Chekov has his own burden of guilt to deal with.
The Yakima executed a last few elegant maneuvers; then its flight path leveled out once more. The floating debris outside the porthole gave way to open space. "We're through the asteroid belt," Sulu reported. "Ceti Alpha V dead ahead."
Here we are, Kirk thought. The prospect of setting foot on the planet that had driven Khan mad cast a melancholy pall over Kirk's spirits. All the more reason to see it for myself, he resolved. After all, I was the one who banished him here.
"I hear what you're saying, Jim," McCoy said thoughtfully. He peered through his own window, watching warily for the first glimpse of their forbidding destination. "But, me, I'm inclined to blame that whole mess with the Reliant on nothing more complicated than Murphy's Law."
It was, Kirk admitted, as good an explanation as any.
Ceti Alpha V loomed into view. It was an ugly planet, its surface hidden beneath clouds of yellowish brown vapor that swirled madly in the planet's turbulent atmosphere. How very different it looked from the lush, green world Kirk remembered.
We're coming, Khan, he thought. Let's find out what made you hate me so much....
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