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Twilight, on the city's lower east side.
As the first stars appear in the eastern sky, a man and a woman in love cross a street. The two figures merge against the light of a streetlamp; a third watches them go, thinking of tragedy to come.
It is an old story -- perhaps the oldest story. Love binding, love wounding, the Fates watching: Clotho with her hand upon the wheel, Lachesis measuring, measuring the threads of lives inextricably woven, patient Atropos with her shining scissors poised to snip...
At the far curb, Edith Keeler turned toward the man she loved and spoke the words that would seal her fate. "If we hurry, maybe we can catch the Clark Gable movie at the Orpheum. I'd really love to see it."
Her companion gave a questioning look, as if not quite sure he'd heard correctly over the bustle of the evening traffic. "The what?"
"You know, Doctor McCoy said the same thing!"
"McCoy -- ! Leonard McCoy?" As if the name were a curse, Kirk's smile vanished, leaving a hunted look in its wake.
His intensity was frightening. She fell back a step. "Well, yes. He's in the mission -- "
At that, all the blood left his face. "Stay right here." It was an order, and for an instant she froze in simple reflex. His hands tightened painfully on her shoulders; he was already turning. "Spock!" He released her and started back across the street. "Stay right there -- Spock!"
The Vulcan had already turned and was hurrying back down the sidewalk. He reached the pool of lamplight even as Kirk did, and gripped the captain's forearms to steady him. "What is it?"
"McCoy!" A few feet away, the door of the mission opened. "He's in -- Bones!"
The weeks of tense waiting broke in one joyful moment of recognition. Kirk pulled his old friend toward him, enveloping the doctor's spare frame in an awkward bear hug. Even Spock could not quite stop himself from reaching out to confirm the reality. In their stunned delight, none of the three saw the woman start across the street.
Then, one of them did.
It was the look of alarm in the doctor's face that reached Kirk first -- but he knew, even before he turned, that it was now, this moment -- that there would be no turning from his fate.
Spock's "No, Jim!" followed the captain as he turned, as he took one reflexive step toward her. McCoy made an incoherent sound behind him, and Kirk met her eyes, and then everything began to move very slowly.
Afterward, he would remember it in too much detail. Each stop-action flash of motion seemed to take a small forever, each frame imprinting in his memory with scarring, indelible accuracy. By the time he turned, she was already halfway across. Her eyes were asking him a question, a tiny, puzzled frown gathering between her brows.
She was looking at him. Right at him. He felt more than saw the truck, felt McCoy beside him and Spock at his back, the pressure nearly crushing his heart. The rumble of the oncoming vehicle came up through the pavement, the soles of his feet, rooting him in place. She was looking right at him.
She would know.
Kirk knew what he had to do. He knew it. But he had lost too many times, had made too many choices that had taken too much of his soul. Her eyes were on his, widening suddenly as at last she sensed the motion of the truck bearing down on her, perhaps seeing it out of the comer of her eye. She knew.
Beside him, McCoy started forward.
Unable to take his eyes from hers, Kirk moved. It cost something deep inside him, at the very heart of him, something that burned like acid. And still he paid the cost and moved.
But Spock was already moving, and in his blind grief, Kirk was slower.
Three men in motion -- one in fear, one in sorrow, one in love -- and it is Spock's hand on the doctor's arm, Spock's grip that tries to catch him back, and in the end it is Spock who has miscalculated, underestimating the doctor's determination and thus his inertia. A bare ripple in the flow of time, his miscalculation slows McCoy's motion for a crucial instant.
In one moment a few scant inches become an infinity; in the next McCoy has slipped past his friends, into the street.
James Kirk was not in his body. He was somewhere outside himself, somewhere far away where this could not touch him. He heard Spock breathe, "No..." from close by, and then reality came unglued.
Edith in the street. The truck. And McCoy moving, moving fast with the surge of adrenaline, very fast, too fast --
Fast enough. He plowed into Keeler full force, his momentum knocking her back, hard, carrying him with her to the pavement, out of the path of the grinning steel grille of the truck. It roared past and skidded with a screech of tires, slid sideways and slammed into a parked car not ten feet from where Kirk stood, frozen, his mouth open in what might have been a shout if there were any sound. The car rocked against the curb, squealing, struck the pavement with a screech of metal on metal. The truck shuddered to a halt, and then was still.
For an instant nobody, and nothing, moved.
That frozen moment made a snapshot in Kirk's memory. Then time itself rushed forward, tidal surge through the keyhole of the present.
The street was suddenly full of people stepping forward from the curbs to see. More brakes squealing, as cars stopped to avoid the tableau in the middle of the street. Angry drivers shouting, a rising murmur of delayed reaction from the onlookers. Someone said, "Is she okay?"
She was. McCoy rolled off her stiffly, and the two of them sat up, looking back across the street to where the truck had careened into the parked car. Kirk breathed again as he saw her move and realized that it was over, that she was all right, she was alive. McCoy had saved her.
Which meant --
"No..." The sidewalk lurched under him, and suddenly there was a hand at his elbow, steadying him. Spock. Kirk turned instinctively toward the Vulcan, as he had in so many moments of crisis. Sick realization tightened in his stomach when he saw the answering dismay on Spock's face.
McCoy, reaching the curb, saw that look and knew that his attempt to prevent tragedy had somehow gone disastrously wrong.
Kirk stood at the window of the cheerless little room, gaze fixed on the pool of yellow light cast by the streetlamp below.
McCoy knew he wasn't really seeing it. Kirk had alternated staring out into the night with bouts of viciously controlled pacing, leaving it to Spock to fill the doctor in on the havoc he'd inadvertently wreaked.
"It's not over yet," McCoy said at last, feeling as if he had to say something to break Kirk's fixed stare, his unnatural stillness. "We're still here....There's gotta be something we can do." Captain and first officer exchanged a glance, and something in it chilled McCoy. "C'mon, Jim, we're acting like we're helpless here. We can still change things. Spock said 1936. That means we've got six years before the headline you all saw about Edith and the president. So we can still change things, right?"
Spock's tone was patient. "I do not think you understand, Doctor."
"Well then, explain it to me, will you!"
"Aside from other...obstacles, there are very real practical difficulties involved in tampering with the subsequent timeline -- "
"Wait a minute, Spock. Pretend you're talking to a regular human being. You know, words of less than four syllables."
Spock blinked at him. After a moment's stare that managed to communicate the Vulcan's opinion of his language skills quite eloquently, Spock went on.
"In the flow of time, there are a billion possible futures, a billion points of decision. We have images in our tricorder of only one possible set of these divergent points -- only one possible reality. The very fact of our presence here makes my tricorder's data unreliable at best. This unreliability will increase logarithmically as time passes."
As it often did when he was stressed, McCoy's mouth got ahead of his brain. "No wonder you look so glum, Spock. All those little tubes and wires, and nothing but one poor confused tricorder to talk to!"
Kirk shot him a quelling look, and McCoy managed to control the hysteria. "Well dammit, Jim, we've got to try at least."
"Of course we've got to try! Don't you think I know that?" Kirk caught himself. McCoy looked from him to Spock, sensing something they weren't telling him.
"All right, out with it, you two."
But Kirk pressed his lips together and turned away. At last Spock gave a nearly inaudible sigh and steepled his hands together. "There is another, more serious problem." His eyes flicked briefly to McCoy's, then away. "Perhaps you should be seated, Doctor."
McCoy knew he wasn't going to like this, but he sat, on the edge of the bed that wasn't covered by Spock's homemade Frankenstein machine.
"I'm listening." Spock took a deep breath; McCoy forestalled him. "In English, if you don't mind."
Perplexed, the Vulcan looked to Kirk for help. Kirk sighed and left the window at last, straddling a chair that faced the doctor. He pursed his lips as he searched for a way to explain.
"You know the old story about the time traveler who goes back in time, meets his own grandmother, and accidentally kills her?"
McCoy nodded. "Sure. Go back in time, kill your own grandmother, thus assuring you're never born. Paradox."
"Right. Logic says that killing your own grandmother is a paradox. It can't happen. Unfortunately, when it comes to time travel, logic doesn't apply." Putting the problem into words seemed to provide Kirk with a focus he sorely needed, and he warmed to his task. "In the early days of speculation about time travel, scientists suspected that traveling into your own past might be impossible. Or that if you did travel into your own past, you'd find yourself unable to change anything of importance. But as it turns out, the universe has no problem at all with you killing your own grandmother."
"Grandma might have a problem with it."
Kirk didn't smile. "The real problem comes further down the line, when you find out that by killing her, by changing history, you've in effect put yourself into another timeline -- with no way to get back to your own."
"This stuff makes my head hurt."
"Look, try thinking of time as a river. Each time a decision is made, another little stream splits off and goes its own way." Kirk used his hands to illustrate. "The water itself keeps flowing, always in the same direction, and you can't swim upstream, see. But you can climb out of the river, walk back up the bank, and jump in again. If you change something -- say, if you knock off your own grandmother -- you'll find yourself swimming down a different branch of the river, with no way to get back into the first branch except to get out and walk back upstream to a spot before the split occurred. Time travel."
Kirk and Spock were watching him with identical expressions of sober intensity. Understanding began to gel, and a chill made McCoy's short hairs stand up. "But we don't have a Guardian here. We can't get out of the river."
Spock nodded. "Essentially correct, Doctor. It is still theoretically possible to divert this timestream back toward its original course. If we are very, very fortunate, we might yet succeed in creating a distant future where the Enterprise exists once more -- for some other Spock, some other McCoy, some other James Kirk."
McCoy instinctively looked to his captain, but all he saw in Jim's face was the same bulldog resoluteness the man always showed when the going got toughest. Kirk put a hand on McCoy's arm, the grip strong and sure. "The Guardian gave us one chance, and we failed." Spock started to say something, but Kirk shook his head sharply, cutting him off. "We. Both of us, Mister Spock." His tone gentled. "I'm sorry, Bones. We're trapped here, in this time, this place. We can try all we want to change our own future, but we'll never know if we succeeded, and we'll never get back to the Enterprise."
Across a gray plain scattered with the ruins of a dead world, a steady wind mourned the lost millennia.
Uhura ran through the frequencies, as carefully as she had the first two times. She was excruciatingly aware of the three men's eyes on her. At last, as she reached the top of the band again, one of them broke the tense silence.
She looked up, trying not to let her despair get the better of her. "I'm sorry, Mister Scott. No response on any frequency."
He met her eyes for a long moment. At last, straightening his shoulders as if to bear an unexpected weight, he nodded. "That's it, then. We have to assume that the captain and Mister Spock have failed."
Michael Jameson, security officer and ensign of only two months, had the look of a young man who was scared to death and trying not to show it. "How do we know if we've waited long enough? Maybe -- "
Scott shook his head sharply. "No maybe about it, lad. When McCoy went through, the change was instantaneous. If they'd succeeded, the Enterprise would be up there right now." He met their eyes in turn, weighing responsibility and choosing in the space of a few seconds. "The captain's orders were very clear." His gaze settled at last on Uhura, whose courage was contagious. "I'll go next, and I'll take Ensign Jameson with me. Lieutenant Uhura, you're to continue monitoring for fifteen minutes. If we don't reappear in that time, then you and Ensign Worsley will try."
Her gaze met his steadily, and Scott wished for a moment that he could take her with him. If they were to be exiles, then at least it might be exile shared with a friend. But she must know as well as he that splitting up the officers in the party would increase their chances if he, too, should fail.
She nodded, showing nothing but confidence. "Yes, sir. I understand." She wanted to wish him luck, but it stuck in her throat, an unwelcome reminder of his words to Kirk only a few minutes before. "When you're ready," she said instead.
He turned to the youngest member of the landing party. "Ensign?"
"Ready, sir." The young man's voice betrayed him, but he stepped forward and locked his hand around Scott's wrist. As the captain had not, they said no farewells.
"Time it for us, lass?"
She did, counting down for them, her eyes on the tiny display screen of her tricorder. In another moment, the four Enterprise crewmen were only two.
Kirk squinted at his handiwork. The leaky pipe seemed to have stopped dripping, so he put the tools away, dusted himself off, and went to find Edith.
As he climbed the steps to the second floor, he tried to make himself believe that tonight would be the night Spock would finish, the night they would know for certain what to do. He tried to hope that they still had a chance. But they had been in the city almost a month, and Kirk's confidence in Spock's "river of time" theory was wearing thin. There had been no sign of McCoy.
He found the two of them conferring over a ledger in Edith's office. The Vulcan straightened, seeing Kirk in the doorway. "Shall we continue in the morning, Miss Keeler?" At her bemused nod, Spock made himself scarce.
Kirk came into the room, moving to the narrow window that overlooked Twenty-first Street. Outside, the streetlamps were just coming on.
"He's such an enigma," Keeler said, coming to stand beside him.
Kirk had to smile. "He is that."
"To you, too?"
"As long as I've known him."
She folded her arms beneath her bosom and tilted her head, a self-conscious gesture that touched him with a little pang. It kept taking him by surprise, that feeling. "Have you known each other a long time, then?"
He realized it had been less than two years. "Not really. But we've been through a great deal together."
"It shows. He worries about you, you know."
"Why do you say that?" Kirk wasn't used to anyone noticing that but him.
She turned to put away the ledgers. "Oh, just a feeling I get." The questions she never asked were between them, filling quiet spaces. "Whatever you're hiding from...I feel better knowing you have him to look out for you," she said seriously. "It eases my mind."
"Mine too," he admitted.
And again, she didn't ask, only smiled and came to put her hand into his. "Let me buy you dinner?"
As if they had ever gone to a restaurant, as if either of them could have afforded it. As if they were just a man and a woman who could share dinner and maybe a life together. As if.
He made himself answer her smile with one of his own. "What did you have in mind?"
He was just about to bring her hand to his lips when Spock reappeared in the doorway, wearing a look as troubled as any Kirk had ever seen on that impassive face.
The chief engineer of the Enterprise was with him.
An hour later found the four Starfleet officers gathered around the makeshift computer in the cramped one-room flat. The newcomers had been briefed on the situation, including the likelihood that Edith Keeler was the focal point in time they had been looking for. Spock and the engineer worked on the burned-out interface as they talked, installing the newly purchased replacement components.
Some whim of Fate had landed Scott and Jameson in the city three days before the arrival of Kirk and Spock. It had taken Scott a month to find them; he had been systematically searching the shelters and soup kitchens for McCoy, and tonight, it had paid off. Kirk was still finding the enormity of failure difficult to grasp. Every time he looked at Scotty or the Jameson boy, it hit him again what was at stake here, and how insignificant their chances really were. The fact that he'd overlooked something so stunningly obvious as searching the city's soup kitchens brought home how easily failure could come again. He couldn't let himself think about the scope of it for too long, or he'd drive himself to distraction for sure.
Just then Scott looked up from the tangle of tubes and wires. His amazement at Spock's synthesis of stone knives and bear skins had done a great deal to erase his obvious fatigue.
"Captain, I'd not have believed this if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."
Kirk managed a grin for him. "Makes the case for Vulcan ingenuity, doesn't it?"
"Aye. So you think I did right, leavin' the other tricorder with Lieutenant Uhura?"
"Yes, I do, Scotty. Let's just hope she doesn't have to use it." Kirk included young Jameson in his look. "Each one of us has got to be ready to act at any moment."
Scott nodded, securing a last connection. "There, that's got it. Are ye ready to give it a try, Mister Spock?"
"Affirmative. Captain, I believe we shall have our answer on this screen...."
The answer was plain enough, but two days later they were no closer to knowing when the moment would come. And so they waited, tension mounting by the day while, for Keeler's benefit, they pretended business as usual. One of them remained in her presence as much as possible.
This afternoon Scott had stayed with her at the mission, ostensibly repairing the cranky boiler, which was acting up again. He had helped design antimatter warp engines, but this was the first time he'd ever laid hands on a vintage 20C boiler, not to mention one with an attitude like this one. It was with no small satisfaction that he coaxed the old dinosaur back to life.
Keeler appeared at the top of the stairs just as he was wiping his hands on a rag. "Well, well! It seems you've earned your right to the name 'miracle worker.'"
"You flatter me, madam. But she seems to be obliging, for the moment."
"You have my sincere thanks. And anything else I can offer you -- which at the moment is a hot meal and not much else, I'm afraid." She glanced at her watch, a small frown gathering on her face. "Have you seen our Mister Kirk, by any chance? I'd hoped we might make the seven o'clock show."
He started up toward her, looking apologetic. "I havena seen him, nor Mister Spock."
She sighed. "Well, I suppose they'll turn up eventually." A smile. "Don't suppose you'd care to keep me company while I wait?"
Beaming, he reached the top of the stairs and offered his arm, which she took. "It would be my pleasure, lass."
In the front room, she sat with him while he ate. He longed for a hot shower, but coal dust and grease would have to be scrubbed off. Hot water was not easy to come by. Self-conscious, he apologized for his appearance.
She scolded him. "I won't have any of that, Mister Scott. You look just fine."
He chuckled. "Aye, for a coal miner. I'm not fit to be seen with."
"And here I was thinking chivalry was dead."
"Never in the presence of a true lady, Miss Keeler."
"Now I think you are flattering me, sir."
He pretended outrage. "Not a bit of it."
She grinned ruefully. "I can see I'm going to have to watch my step around here. Between you and Doctor McCoy, a girl could easily -- "
The spoon fell out of Scott's hand with a clatter. "What did you say?"
"What is it? What's the matter?"
"McCoy!" He'd risen to his feet before he knew he'd done it. "Miss Keeler -- where is he?"
She started to rise, too, expression bemused and questioning. "He's upstairs, in the back room. But what -- ?"
Scott was temporarily frozen to the spot with uncertainty. How had this fallen to him? His eyes went to the front window. Across the street, the glow of a streetlamp and a gleam of fair hair caught his gaze. As if in answer to his panic, the captain and Mr. Spock were standing on the curb, waiting to cross.
Scott stumbled for the door, leaving a surprised Edith Keeler in his wake.
"Captain!" The door slammed back with the force of his exit.
On the opposite curb, Kirk's head snapped up. "Scotty?" His voice was small over the rush-hour traffic.
"Doctor McCoy -- he's here!"
Shock flickered briefly over his captain's face, then froze into grim determination as Kirk started toward him.
He never saw the truck. It came around the corner, too fastand Spock, slow by seconds, was too late to shout a warning.
Spock is supremely aware of just how late he is. He perceives the rumble of the oncoming vehicle, the chaos of sound and motion, the flash of red beside him, with perfect clarity. And then the woman's scream.
Spock believes he has moved, or cried the name. But all he hears is that last, surprised intake of breath and then the other sound, the one he knows he will hear for all the rest of his life: the smack of steel impacting flesh and bone.
The truck roars past and skids with a screech of tires. Slides sideways and slams into a parked car not ten feet from where Edith Keeler stands, frozen, unable to scream again because her lungs and heart have seized in clenching horror. The car rocks against the curb, squealing. Strikes the pavement with a screech of metal on metal. The truck shudders to a halt and then is still.
More brakes squealing, as cars stop to avoid the crumpled form in the middle of the street. Angry drivers shouting -- but her gaze is riveted to James Kirk, fallen and not moving, his neck twisted at an angle she does not want to see, cannot bear to see --
The one called Spock kneels beside him, his face telling everything she needs to know. She turns away, the warning she cried too late cooling to ash in her throat. It is at that moment that Leonard McCoy appears in the doorway, in time only to witness the unraveling of all that he knows.
Too much blood -- far too much. Spock knew before he saw the angle of the neck, but he knelt anyway. Hands reached out, seized the broken form, and pulled it into his lap. Were they his hands?
He saw the open eyes then, the absolute surprise.
"No -- "
Spock doubled over, instinctively sheltering Kirk with his body though it was all too clear that no one could protect him now. Faced with that truth, he made a second, wordless sound of denial, and hid his face against the dead man's hair.
It seemed the longest fifteen minutes of Uhura's life. She and Worsley watched history flicker like hypnotic dream images in the mist, both their communicator channels open, both sounding only silence. At the end of the designated waiting period, she scanned once more with her tricorder and ran through the whole band one last time.
There didn't seem to be anything that needed to be said, so when she shook her head and held out her hand, the young Enterprise crewman took it wordlessly. In another moment, only footprints in the dust remained.
There'd been no work at the docks that morning. Kirk had let Edith convince him she needed more help at the mission, even though he knew that she could ill afford even the meager wage she paid him. But Spock needed five more meters of wire and a number of other bits and pieces, so he'd let himself be convinced. The downside was that after last night, after what Spock had shown him, he had found it nearly impossible to face her and smile as if everything were fine.
After the evening meal they walked as usual, but tonight the air felt pleasantly mild, and they didn't stop at their usual corner. Tonight they kept going past Seventeenth Street and Sixteenth, and after a while she started to tell him about the neighborhood before the war, about ragtime in its heyday, about Tin Pan Alley as it had been before the music and the glitter had moved north to Broadway.
Her voice sounded wistful, and he asked how long she had lived in Manhattan.
"Oh, since before the war. That reminds me -- " She stopped under a streetlamp and patted her pockets, coming up with a soft bundle of fabric. "I almost forgot. I thought you might have a use for these."
He looked at what she'd handed him, smiling quizzically. Gloves, a good pair made of tightly knitted wool, and a soft matching scarf.
"For your friend. I noticed he doesn't stand the cold well. The gloves should be an improvement over the ones he has, yes?"
They were lined, he saw, hand sewn, and almost new. "A considerable improvement." They had to have cost dearly.
"They were my brother's. He had musician's hands, like Spock's. They should be a good fit."
He searched her gray eyes, understanding now a part of the sorrow he had seen there so many times. "The war?" he asked softly.
She sighed, confirming his guess. "Stephen loved his music. He was never meant for guns, and killing." She curled her fingers around his, closing the material in his hand.
"I...don't know what to say."
"Thank you is more than enough."
"Thank you, then. From both of us." He tried to find something more. "I have a brother who...I haven't seen in a very long time. I'm sorry, Edith."
She just patted his hand and nodded, letting him go. "So am I." And just then, the wind off the river changed direction slightly, and the sound of lively music drifted to them from what sounded like the next block over.
A delighted smile lit Keeler's face, and it was catching. Kirk held his elbow out for her to take. "Shall we?"
They followed the music until they saw a set of stairs leading down to an open door. A sign over the door proclaimed the name of the club, After the Ball, and as they drew near they could hear the rich mezzo tones of a woman's voice singing, "To my heart, he carries, the key. Won't you tell him please to put on some speed...."
To Kirk's surprise, Edith gave him an uncharacteristically impish grin and pulled him along the sidewalk. She sang along with the next line, "Follow my lead, oh how I need...someone to watch over me." Her off-key, accented rendition was so charming he had to laugh, though his heart hurt with the irony.
They were halfway down the steps when it hit him that, as impossible as it seemed, he recognized the singer's voice.
When Kirk saw her, crooning on the tiny stage in a white evening gown that almost did her justice, he couldn't hide his shock. He could only stare, as his communications officer finished the song and the audience erupted in noisy appreciation.
"What is it?" Edith cried over the noise. "What's wrong?"
"I know her!" he yelled back, when he could find the words. Oblivious to the jostling of the club's patrons, he stood on tiptoe and tried to catch Uhura's eye. For a moment he thought he wouldn't be able to, and he'd have to force his way through the crowd, or wait until the set was over. But finally, thankfully, she saw him, her shocked recognition as obvious as his own. Backstage, she mouthed at him, and he nodded and grabbed Edith's hand, pulling her toward the side door.
Kirk tried to think logically, tried to come up with some explanation he could give Edith for how he and Uhura knew one another. Tried to think what it could mean, that she was here, and what was to be done about it. But when they found her pacing nervously backstage, logic deserted him and he found himself throwing his arms around her, selfishly glad to see her no matter what it might mean. After a startled moment and out of sheer relief, she hugged him back.
Both officers were overflowing with questions, but they couldn't talk in that place, with an audience. Kirk scribbled the address of the rented flat on a cocktail napkin, adding "Tonight, after the show" for Uhura's eyes only. She obviously didn't want to let him out of her sight, but he smiled encouragingly and she managed to wave after them without blowing their cover, or her cool.
When she came to the door much later that night, Worsley was with her. Kirk lit the stove and made coffee, and the four officers related their experiences since coming through the Guardian.
"It's been difficult for us," Uhura admitted, glancing at the security officer. "A light-skinned man and a dark-skinned woman together...you wouldn't believe some of the things we've seen."
"And heard," Worsley added, his lip curling. "I had no idea people could be so ugly."
"Ignorance is always ugly, Ensign," Kirk said quietly. He rubbed his hands over his face tiredly. Spock had agreed that chances were good Scott and Jameson were already in the city somewhere, searching for McCoy even as they were. But Kirk could see they were all too tired to tackle that additional complication tonight. "All right," he said, "let's get some shut-eye. We'll see about locating Mister Scott in the morning."
Uhura insisted that Worsley take the single bed. He had been working odd jobs wherever he could find them, sometimes fourteen or sixteen hours a day; glad to oblige, he began snoring almost immediately. Kirk, curled up on a blanket on the threadbare carpet, soon followed.
Uhura wasn't surprised when Spock made no move to quit for the night. The Vulcan had been working steadily as they talked, hooking up Uhura's tricorder to his jury-rigged interface. Kirk had related the troubling discovery they had made three nights before, and the subsequent burnout that had prevented getting a definitive answer about Keeler's fate. Spock had advised against making another attempt for at least another day, but the acquisition of Uhura's tricorder, with its precious record of three divergent timelines, had prompted Kirk's decision to risk it.
Accustomed to working nights at the club, Uhura found that sleep eluded her. She lay curled on her side, watching Spock unobtrusively through half-closed eyes. Locked within her tricorder's memory were images of the original timeline prior to McCoy's intervention and the one after, the one Kirk and Spock had created, and even the one created by Scott and Jameson. They were now existing in yet a fifth reality -- their last chance to repair the ever-widening rift between the future-that-should-have-been and the future-that-was.
Time travel had always fascinated Uhura, but it was easy to get lost in the twists and double-backs of temporal logic. She began to drift, aware of the soft snores of Kirk and Worsley, aware of the dark head bent under the dim yellow light of the room's one bare bulb.
Then, after what might have been minutes or hours, she found herself suddenly wide awake. She sensed that something had woken her, some sound, but the captain was dead to the world and she could still hear Worsley's even breathing. Her eyes went to Spock.
He had gone very still, a stillness so profound that for a moment he didn't even appear to be breathing. Other than that, she could see nothing amiss. His face was expressionless, his posture exactly the same as it had been the last time she'd looked at him, hunched over the tiny screen. But something about the way he sat there, not moving, made her get up and go to him.
He said nothing, did nothing to acknowledge her approach. It was only when he moved to clear the screen that she saw the way his hands trembled.
"Mister Spock?" she murmured involuntarily, suddenly feeling the chill in the room. "Is everything all right?"
For a moment he didn't answer. But then he seemed to pull himself together. "Yes, Lieutenant. Quite all right."
He started to disconnect the tricorder unit -- and stopped, startled, at the touch of her hand on his shoulder. He looked up.
She nodded toward the kitchen. "Break time, sir," she said, still almost whispering. "You've caught a chill." Her eyes held his. "Come on, let's go warm up."
The tiny kitchen was barely big enough to permit them to stand side by side, leaning against the cracked sink. The warmth of the stove gradually seeped through the pervasive cold of the room, though Spock suspected he might never rid himself of this particular chill.
He stood facing the doorway, where he could see the sleeping man curled on the floor. Uhura seemed content to share the silence, and Spock was both shamed and shamefully grateful that his involuntary gasp had woken her.
One thing, to understand intellectually what forces they manipulated, what kind of power the Guardian wielded. Another to see it, in black and white on a three-inch screen. The grainy photograph felt permanently imprinted on his optic nerves.
"You saw something, didn't you?" she said quietly, after a time.
He didn't look at her, but studied a spidery crack in the ancient baseboard.
"Yes." Despite his best efforts, the word came out a hoarse whisper.
"One of us?"
Time passed, inexorably.
"Yes. One of us," he said at last.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the direction of her gaze, toward the captain, who slept on. "He loves her, doesn't he?" Spock glanced at her, surprised. He didn't answer, but she nodded sadly, as if he had. "It's going to be hardest on him."
"I would spare him that decision, if I could."
She sighed. "I wish I could believe Fate will be that kind. But all you can really do is be there afterward, to pick up the pieces."
Spock didn't know what it was, exactly, that made him speak, what made him tell her the thing that had been troubling him for the past three days. But something about this moment -- here with this remarkable woman in this dingy, drafty kitchen in 1930 -- made the words come easily.
"I am afraid," he confessed, seeing the image again, flashing starkly behind his eyes. "I fear he will not be able to let her die." Spock immediately wanted to take the whispered words back. Too late -- they had taken shape in the tiny room, inescapable.
But Uhura steadily met his gaze, and illogically, he was reassured.
"I don't know how anyone could make a decision like that," she said. "I don't know that I could. But he is the captain. We just have to do what we always do, Mister Spock."
He raised one eyebrow, questioning.
"We just have to trust him."
Scott mounted the stairs from the basement, making a futile effort to wipe his hands clean on a rag. He longed for a hot shower, but coal dust and grease would have to be scrubbed off. Hot water was not easy to come by in this time and place.
The captain and Mr. Spock were standing with Keeler in the dining room, and saw him come up. Kirk smiled, but it didn't do much to hide the strain just under the surface. "Scotty, there you are. We saw Uhura on the way to the post office. She said you might need some help with the boiler."
"Nay, she's working like a trouper. You and Miss Keeler go on now and enjoy your evening." Scott smiled at Edith, then remembered what he must look like after two hours with the boiler. "Forgive me for insulting your nice clean dining room. I'll go wash up."
"You look just fine, Mister Scott."
He chuckled. "Aye, for a coal miner. I'm not fit to be seen with."
"And here I was thinking chivalry was dead."
"Never in the presence of a true lady, Miss Keeler."
"You, sir, are a flatterer."
Kirk leaned closer to Scott and said conspiratorially, "I think she's got your number, Scotty." He gave Keeler a smile and said, "Have to watch this one every minute." He took her hand, and they started toward the door, plainly having eyes only for each other.
Scott watched them go, not wanting to think of what the future might hold for them. He became aware that another pair of eyes watched the young couple with the same thought. "May heaven watch over us all tonight, Mister Spock," Scott said with a sigh.
The Vulcan said nothing about the illogic of his prayer, saying only, "Good night, Mister Scott," in much the same tone.
Kirk called from the door, "Coming, Spock?" and the Vulcan followed them out into the evening chill.
Uhura felt each step throb in the soles of her tired feet. She had been walking most of the day, most recently to check the post office box for possible replies to the classified ads they'd placed in the city's newspapers for McCoy. She had not expected any, nor had the captain, but they were determined that even the smallest possible avenue should be explored. The fact was they were getting desperate.
The light was red at the corner of Twenty-first and Fourth, and she stood on the corner as rush-hour traffic sped by, wondering if she would ever set foot on the bridge of the Enterprise again. She had managed to keep her chin up, for the others if nothing else. But tonight she felt afraid, really afraid, for the first time since the captain had found her.
As if in response to her sudden despair, some hundred meters down the block the door to the mission opened and Kirk himself appeared, Keeler on his arm. The sight of them lifted Uhura's spirits, and she felt instantly better. Spock emerged a moment later. The three stood for a moment on the sidewalk, talking. Then Spock headed off down the street, and Kirk and Edith crossed to the opposite curb. Uhura's light changed; she had just started to cross toward them when a stranger's hand snatched her back forcefully.
Not a moment too soon. A battered truck barreled through the red light and turned, tires screeching, onto Twenty-first Street.
Each stop-action flash of motion seems to take a small forever, each frame imprinting in Kirk's memory with scarring, indelible accuracy. By the time he turns, she is already halfway across. Her eyes are asking him a question, a tiny, puzzled frown gathered between her brows.
The rumble of the oncoming vehicle comes up through the pavement, the soles of his feet, rooting him in place.
Beside him, McCoy starts forward.
Beside him, Spock trusts his captain, and doesn't.
Unable to take his eyes from hers, Kirk pays the cost and moves. Two men in motion, one in fear, one in love. One frozen moment in which a few scant inches become an infinity.
One woman, dead before her time, a thread in the loom.
For an instant nobody, and nothing, moved. Then McCoy, frozen to stillness in the circle of Kirk's iron hold, found words at last for his shock. "You deliberately stopped me, Jim. I could've saved her. Do you know what you just did?"
Kirk let him go, but did not turn, his back kept firmly to the street.
Spock's words were for the doctor, but his eyes were on his captain, whose fist was clenched tightly against his mouth with the effort not to turn and look.
"He knows, Doctor. He knows."
They appeared on the barren plain in twos. Uhura maintained the presence of mind to hustle Worsley out of the way, as a disoriented Scott and Jameson stepped out of the mist behind them. Scott turned to her in confusion. "What in heaven's name -- "
It took Uhura a moment to orient herself, the image of Edith Keeler's death far more real to her than the surreal gray landscape. "There was an accident," she said. Saying it helped anchor her to this reality; she recovered enough to reach for her communicator. As if on cue, it chirped.
Scott fumbled for his own communicator and flipped it open, hope lighting his face. "Enterprise, this is Mister Scott. Come in please!"
"Sulu here, sir. Are you all right?"
"Sulu! Ah, laddie, you don't know what good it does me to hear your voice!"
Sulu sounded amused. "Is that a request for beam-up, Mr. Scott?"
"Aye, is it ever! Stand by." Scott turned to Uhura, grinning broadly.
But she was already turning back toward the Guardian, scanning it for activity. Scott's grin faded, as he realized the others had not yet appeared. "I was saying good night to the captain and Mister Spock, and next thing I know, I'm here. Did you see -- ?" Just then, the misty center shifted, and they were there, first Kirk and Spock and, a moment after, McCoy.
Scott searched Kirk's face, plainly not liking what he saw. "What happened, sir? You only left a moment ago." Uhura's gaze, too, went instinctively to Kirk's, but he did not seem to see either of them.
It was Spock who answered, in an even tone that somehow forbade questions. "We were successful."
The Guardian flickered, a hint of promised wonders within. "Time has resumed its shape. All is as it was before. Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway."
Uhura broke in, offering her captain the one thing that might bring him back to the present. "Captain, the Enterprise is up there. They're asking if we want to beam up."
It seemed to reach him. Kirk's eyes lost their faraway look, regaining focus for the first time. "Let's get the hell out of here."
His officers took up transporter formation behind him. Uhura adjusted the tricorder at her shoulder, mindful of the priceless cargo she carried.
Copyright © 1999 by Paramount Pictures