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Transparent aluminum spun a delicate membrane between the spindly green of transplanted Martian foliage and the blue-black Martian sky. As he watched one of the shipyard's many crew transports crawl patiently starward along a sparkling length of duranium filament, it occurred to James Kirk that man-made atmospheres were always the most fragile. Mars's chilly surface, although no longer the frigid wasteland of just a few centuries before, still clung to the planet only through the heroic efforts of her tenants. Outside the tame habitat of interlinked domes and tunnels, carefully tended flora transplanted from Earth's highest mountains and harshest tundras braved Mars' seasonal extremes, while the excess carbon dioxide from captured comets and a few million adventurous humans preserved just enough water on the surface to reward the plants with the occasional rain shower. The end result was a certain defiant beauty -- spidery junipers and upright bracken reaching toward the teal spark of a homeworld their ancestors had left generations ago.
Not unlike humanity. Granted, humans pampered themselves with heaters, oxygen cogenerators, and pressurized suits and homes. But they still survived where nothing larger than a dust mote had survived before them, and Kirk liked the view they'd created.
Utopia Planitia's shipyards stretched from the skirt of the colony's main dome to beyond the horizon, arcing magically upward in the guise of shuttle-bees and crew elevators. The twinkling strings of force and fiber bound the orbiting ships only temporarily. Some nearly finished, others bare skeletons of the great leviathans they would become, they'd all turn outward soon enough. Darkened engine rooms would thunder with the pulse of great dilithium hearts, and the blood and muscle organs in the chests of her eager crew would leap up in answer, until that combined symphony of animal and mineral, creature and machine finally ignited her sleeping warp core. It was a song that kept an officer's heart beating long after no other passion could. Old captains never die...
Kirk stepped off the moving walkway in the northernmost Agridome, the one dedicated to the sparse rock gardens and dark succulents of a Terran gulf environment whose name Kirk no longer remembered. It wasn't crowded the way so many of the lux-enhanced Agridomes always were. Everyone wanted to watch the crews ship out while surrounded by bright Colombian parrots or Hawaiian orchids, as though they'd never really dared to leave Earth at all. But here the lack of tall plant life offered an unobstructed view through the sides and top of the dome, and the foliage reflected the reddish moonslight in silver washes, as though leaves and stems were spun from raw pewter. Kirk remembered coming here as a freshly minted ensign the night before he rode a crowded elevator up to his first assignment on board the U.S.S. Farragut. He'd stayed here until dawn, trying to count the multitude of stars he could see in the single patch of sky surrounding the ship that was to be his home, his life, his family for the next five years. That was more than forty years ago, but it felt like only yesterday. He could still hear the reverent hush of the leaves against his trousers as he picked a path through the foliage, and he still remembered the cool surface of the rock that served as his perch at the foot of the dome's widest panel. Best seat in the house.
He found the man he was looking for seated in exactly the same spot, shoulders square, head high, hands folded neatly in his lap. Beyond him and a thousand miles above, the brilliant glow of a refurbished starship dwarfed the dimmer signatures drifting around her.
Kirk smiled, and paused what he hoped was a respectful distance away. "Quite a view, isn't it?"
The younger captain rose, turning with an alert smoothness born of courtesy rather than surprise. That was something Kirk would always associate with Hikaru Sulu -- the politeness which came to him apparently as naturally as breathing, with no taint of impatience or condescension. That, and an endless capacity for brilliance.
Sulu mirrored Kirk's smile, looking only a little embarrassed as he stole one last look at the magnificent ship hanging over his shoulder. "All the way into forever." He kept one hand cradled close to his waist, and extended the other as he stepped away from his now vacated stone seat. "Captain."
His grip was firm and even, as befitted a man of his position. Kirk returned the warm handshake in kind. "Captain."
"I didn't realize you were in-system," Sulu told him. "If I'd known, I would have stopped by to give my regards." It might have just been politeness, but Kirk could tell from his former helmsman's voice that the sentiment was sincere.
"Just passing through on my way to finalize the Khitomer negotiations," Kirk assured him. "I heard at the commodore's office that you were laid over to take on your new executive officer." A movement from the vicinity of Sulu's cupped hand caught Kirk's attention, and he found himself suddenly eye-to-eye with the small, spotted lizard that had clambered up onto Sulu's thumb for a better view. "He's shorter than I remember."
Sulu glanced fondly down at his stubby-tailed companion, tickling it under the curve of its bemused little smile until it blinked. "Actually, we're not scheduled to rendezvous for another two hours. This is just one of the friendly locals." Or as local as any living thing on Mars. It's anteriorly bilateral eyes and five-toed little feet hinted at a Terran origin, but it was the nearly identical gold-and-brown speckled relatives Kirk could now see lounging among the thick-leafed shrubs that gave its ancestry away. The Martian Parks Service didn't like mixing one planet's flora with another planet's fauna. Therefore, Terran landscaping equaled Terran lizards.
Each chubby little eublepharid had staked out its own rock or branch or hummock, blunt little noses lifted skyward, hindfeet splayed out behind them as though they were laconically bodysurfing on their own bliss. Kirk envied their abandon.
"Anything on your agenda for those next two hours?" he asked Sulu.
The younger captain shrugged one shoulder, startling his small passenger to abort its scrabble partway up his wrist. It paused there, as though forgetting where it meant to go, and Kirk noticed that unlike its lounging neighbors, this lizard's tail looked recently broken. Its curiosity and boldness must have gotten it in trouble recently. "I've got nothing in particular to do," Sulu admitted. "Just some long overdue relaxation while I have the chance." Kirk wondered if he'd been watching the meditating lizards instead of his own starship after all. "Did you have something in mind?"
"Someplace." Kirk caught the politely questioning cock of Sulu's head, and smiled. "The perfect spot for overdue relaxation, as a matter of fact."
"Sounds good." Sulu glanced down as the lizard squirmed determinedly under the cuff of his uniform jacket. Before he could stop it, all that was left was a sausage-shaped bulge and an exposed nubbin where its brown-banded tail should have been. "Are they friendly toward nonhumanoids?"
"I've never known that to be a problem before," Kirk assured him. "And I'm sure that in the lizard world, that little guy was the captain of his very own rock somewhere. He'll be welcome in the Captain's Table."
He led a willing Sulu back out of the Agridomes and down the stately, curving avenues that led eventually to the spaceport proper. The door to the bar was where Kirk remembered it, looking as always like the entrance to a supply cabinet rather than to the cozy tavern he knew lay within. Plain, nearly flush with the Martian stone of this ill-lit subterranean passageway, it was set apart from the other, more ostentatious establishments on either side by nothing except a neatly painted sign just to the right of a hand-operated doorknob: The Captain's Table.
Sulu cocked his head with a thoughtful wrinkling of his brow, and Kirk knew he was trying to remember why he'd never noticed the little entrance before. "This must be new," the younger captain decided at last. He still held his arm balanced across his midsection in deference to the small passenger up his sleeve.
Kirk hid his smile by stepping forward to take hold of the door. "I found it the first year I commanded the Enterprise, but some captains claim it had been around for dozens of years before that."
Sulu gave a little grunt of surprise, then moved back to let the door swing wide. "Sounds like the Federation's best kept secret."
A gentle swell of warmth, and sound, and scent rolled over them like a familiar blanket. "More like the galaxy's most exclusive club." And, just like a dozen times before, Kirk found himself inside without specifically remembering stepping through the doorway.
The Captain's Table had never been a large establishment, and that didn't appear to have changed over the years. A brief, narrow entry hall spilled them abruptly into the bar's jumble of tables and chairs, and Kirk found himself veering sideways to avoid tripping over the tall alien seated directly in his path. Slitted eyes shifted almost imperceptibly within an almost featureless skull; one long, taloned finger dipped into a fluted glass half-full of viscous red liquid. It was a dance they'd performed the first time Kirk came into the Captain's Table, thirty years ago, not to mention every other time he'd stumbled onto the place on Argelius, Rukbat, or Vega. He stopped himself from laughing, not sure the lizardine patron would appreciate his humor, and instead nodded a terse apology before turning to join Sulu in the search for a table.
It seemed everyone was here tonight.
Kirk spun around just in time to catch Prrghh at the height of her leap. It wasn't one of her more spectacular jumps -- Kirk would never forget watching her pounce from the second-floor bannister to land on her feet amid a particularly rousing discussion -- but she still contacted him almost chest-high and entwined legs and arms around his torso in lithe, feline abandon. Kirk felt himself blush with pleasure when she stroked her own sleekly furred cheek against his. Acutely aware of all the other eyes in the bar, he resisted an impulse to wind his hands in her long primrose mane.
"James!" The bartender's roar collided with the low ceiling and ricocheted all over the room. "How in hell are you? Long time gone, boy-o!"
At least seven years, Kirk admitted to himself. But not a damned thing about the place had changed. Not so much as a dust mote.
"Don't be silly, Cap!" Prrghh squirmed around in Kirk's arms to look back over her shoulder, a position that would certainly have dislocated the spine of any anthropoid species. "Jimmy is always here!"
"Everyone is always here," a gruff voice behind them snarled. "Especially tonight." The female Klingon pushed past Kirk as though she had somewhere to go, then stopped abruptly and crouched to thrust her nose into Prrghh's pretty face. "If you're staying, sit down. If not, get out of the way and take your mris with you."
Prrghh's hiss was dry, but rich with hatred. Kirk turned them away from the Klingon, already knowing where things could lead once Prrghh's ruff had gotten up. "Why don't we find a seat, then?" he suggested smoothly. The Klingon grunted, but made no move to follow.
Kirk swung Prrghh to the floor as though he were twenty years younger or she twenty kilograms lighter. He let her fold her hand inside his, though, basketing his fingers with lightly extended claws. Her palm felt soft and familiar despite the years that had passed since it had last been fitted into his. Beside him, he noticed Sulu's failed efforts to hide a knowing grin by pretending to check on the lizard now peering curiously from beneath his cuff. Kirk wondered briefly what sorts of tales Sulu might tell out of school, considering his former commander's reputation. This time the heat in Kirk's cheeks had a little bit more to do with embarrassment.
It might have been a Saturday night, the place was so packed with bodies and voices and laughing. But, then, Kirk's memory said that it always looked like Saturday night, no matter what the day or time. Never too crowded to find a seat, thank God, but always just threatening to burst at the seams and overflow into the rest of the world. Kirk snagged Sulu by the hem of his jacket when the captain started toward the bar along the long end of the crowded room.
"A seat," Sulu said by way of explanation, lifting a lizard-filled hand to indicate his objective. Kirk glanced where the captain pointed and shook his head. The empty seats in question surrounded a grossly fat Caxtonian freighter pilot who appeared to have congealed around a tankard of milky brown fluid.
"He's Caxtonian," Kirk said. "By this time of night -- "
Prrghh wrinkled her delicate nose. "He stinks fiercely!" Her long, supple tail snaked up between the men to twitch their attention toward the foot of the stairs. "This other human is looking at you."
The captain Prrghh pointed out looked human enough, at least. Salt-and-pepper beard, with hair a matching color that hung just a little longer than the current civilian standard. Kirk liked the well-worn look of his leather jacket, with its rainbow shoulder patch and anomalously fleece-trimmed collar. He was lean and wiry, with an earnest smile and tired but friendly eyes. Two other seats at his table were already filled by a rapier-thin dandy with black hair pulled back into a neat queue, and a broad bear of a man with a wild white beard and a curl of pipe smoke covering most of his head. When their leather-jacketed comrade waved again, Kirk acknowledged his gesture by slipping between a knot of standing patrons to blaze a path to the table.
"Gentlemen. Welcome to the Captain's Table." The salt-and-pepper haired human took Kirk's hand in a firm, somewhat eager shake. "Humans?" he asked, with just the slightest bit of hopefulness in his tone.
Kirk glanced at the freighter designation stenciled beneath the ship name on the leather jacket's patch, and recognized the wearer for a fellow captain. Of course. "The genuine article." He stole a chair from an adjacent table and offered it to Prrghh as Sulu conscientiously offered the freighter captain his left hand for shaking to avoid disturbing the reptilian passenger sprawled happily across his right palm.
The freighter captain pumped Sulu's hand without seeming to notice either the deviation from convention or the little passenger. "I'm sure pleased to see you," he grinned. "We were feeling a bit outnumbered tonight." He tipped a cordial nod to Prrghh as she slipped into her seat. "No offense, Captain. I just sometimes get real tired of aliens."
Her ears pricked up and green eyes narrowed on the other captain's lean face. Kirk recognized the expression -- she liked a challenge. "Perhaps you have not met the right aliens."
The freighter captain lifted an eyebrow, and Kirk suspected he enjoyed his share of challenges, too. "Perhaps not," he admitted with a smile. "Maybe you can educate me."
"A surprisingly trusting lot, all points considered." The black-haired dandy tipped the tankard in his hand and squinted down its throat to verify it was empty. He hadn't interrupted his story for Kirk and Sulu's arrival, and didn't interrupt it now as he waved the tankard over his head to catch a server's attention. "They brought us neatly upside, lashed our hulls together, and came aboard with every thought of liberating our hold of its treasures. Alas, our only cargo was a crew of well-armed men and the good old Union Jack. By the time we'd taken our due, that was one Jolly Roger which never flew again."
"A clever story." The white-haired captain bit down on his meerschaum pipe and nodded wisely. "You're a cunning man, Captain, using that pirate crew's own expectations against them."
"The best judge of a pirate is one of his own," the Englishman admitted. His tankard still waggled above one shoulder. "My duties may seal me now to the queen, but I'm loathe to believe that any man who never ran with pirates can ever be their match."
Kirk straightened in his seat, stung by the remark. "Oh, I don't know about that."
The table's patrons turned to him almost as a unit, and he found himself momentarily startled by the frank challenge in their stares.
"Do you mean to disavow my own experience?" There was steel in the dark-haired Englishman's voice despite his friendly countenance.
The white-haired bear lifted one big hand in an obvious gesture of placation. "Easy, my friend. He sounds like a man with experience of his own."
"Some." Kirk settled back as a wiry serving boy scampered up to their table with a tray full of drinks. He gave the others first pick from the offerings, knowing what he wanted would still be there when they were done. "Pirates were never my primary business, but I've run across my share." He wrapped his hands around the mug of warm rum the boy placed in front of him, well familiar with the price every captain had to pay for the first round of drinks after his arrival. "Let me tell you about a time when I rescued the victims of some pirates, only to find out they weren't exactly what I'd expected...."
I told myself it wasn't resentment. I didn't have the right to resent him. He hadn't killed my helmsman; he'd never placed my ship and crew in danger; he hadn't forced my chief medical officer to retire. He hadn't even murdered my best friend. He had never been anything but responsible, conscientious, and reliable. In these last few weeks, he'd stepped into a position made vacant by my own actions -- not because he wanted it or because he hoped to prove anything to anybody, just because it was necessary. He was that kind of officer; service without complaint. Duty called, and he answered.
Still, I hadn't quite figured out how to separate him from everything that had come before. So while he stood there in the gym doorway, waiting for my answer with his damned impenetrable patience, my first instinct was to tell him to go to hell. Instead, I asked in the mildest tone I could muster, "Mr. Spock, can't this wait until later?"
I must not have sounded as patient as I'd hoped. He lifted one eyebrow a few micrometers, and peered at me with the same keen interest he probably applied to alien mathematics problems. Subtle emotions often had that effect on him, I'd noticed. It was as though he couldn't decide what informational value to assign such a random variable, and it annoyed him to settle for an imperfect interpretation.
Except, of course, that annoyance was a human emotion.
"Regulations stipulate that a starship's captain and executive officer shall meet once every seven days to coordinate duties and exchange pertinent crew and mission information." He didn't fidget. He just folded his hands around the data pad at his waist and settled in as though there was no place else he needed to be. "Our last such meeting was eleven days ago."
I turned back to my interrupted workout, leaving him to recognize the implied dismissal. "Then a few more hours won't make any difference." I aimed a high sweep-kick at the sparring drone, and earned a flash of approving lights for smashing into the upper-right-quadrant target.
Spock was silent for what seemed a long time, watching me with his usual cool fascination, no doubt, as I did my best to sweat out my personal demons at the expense of a supposedly indestructible robot.
In the end, they both managed to outlast me. I stopped before I started to stumble, but not before I was forced to suck in air by the lungful, or before I raised dark welts on the edges of both hands. I still secretly believed that if I could push myself just a little further, a little longer, I'd finally beat out the last of my uncertainty and guilt. But I'd entertained this secret belief for at least three weeks and hadn't yet found the magic distance. And now I refused to fall down in front of my new executive officer while I still struggled to find it.
He gave me what was probably a carefully calculated amount of time to catch my breath, then said to my still-turned back, "May I remind the captain that when he is not eating, sleeping, or engaging in some necessary physical activity, he is on duty. As senior science officer, my duty shift is concurrent with the captain's. As acting executive officer, my second duty shift coincides with when the captain is off-duty. Logic therefore suggests that rather than disrupt the necessary human sleep function, the most efficient time period during which to conduct our required conferencing would be during the one-hour fifteen-minute interval between the termination of my secondary duty shift and the beginning of your regular tour." He paused as though giving my slower human mind a moment to process his argument, then added blandly, "Which is now."
I swiped a hand over my eyes to flick away the worst of the sweat, and heaved an extra-deep breath to even out my panting. "Is this your way of telling me you're working a few too many hours, Mr. Spock?"
Both eyebrows were nearly to his hairline; I could almost feel the lightning flicker of his thoughts behind those dark Vulcan eyes. "No, Captain." He was as deadly serious as if I'd asked him to contemplate the course of Klingon politics over the next hundred years. "My current schedule allows ample time for research, personal hygiene, and the intake of food. Since Vulcans are not limited by the same stringent sleep requirements as humans, I find the hours between my shifts more than sufficient for meditation and physical renewal."
I tried not to sigh out loud. My entire Starfleet career would be a success if I could teach even one Vulcan to have a sense of humor. "What would you like to discuss, Mr. Spock?" I asked wearily.
Where anyone else -- anyone human -- would have promptly flipped up the pad to consult its readout, Spock announced, apparently from memory, "According to the first officer's log, there are currently eight hundred fifty-four individual crew evaluations which are late or incomplete."
I paused in the action of scooping up my towel to frown at him. "There are only four hundred and thirty crew on board the Enterprise."
Spock acknowledged my point with a microscopic tilt of his head. "Four hundred twenty-four evaluations are still outstanding from the quarter ending stardate ten thirteen point four. The other four hundred thirty were due at the end of the most recent quarter, which ended on stardate twelve ninety-eight point nine."
And Gary -- perpetually behind when it came to such mundane administrative duties -- died before he had the chance to turn in even one from the most recent batch. I tried to disguise a fresh swell of frustration by scrubbing at my face and scalp with the towel, and began to dictate, for the record: "Since last quarter, Lt. Lee Kelso was killed in the line of duty. Dr. Elizabeth Dehner -- killed in the line of duty. Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell -- " I hid a bitter scowl by turning and banning the sparring drone back to its storage locker. "Killed." The word still tasted like cold gunmetal in my mouth. "I've ordered the lateral transfer of Lt. Hikaru Sulu and Ensign David Bailey from astrosciences to cover the vacant bridge positions, and have accepted Lt. Commander Spock's application for temporary assignment as ship's first officer." Snatching up my tunic and boots with a brusqueness that surprised even me, I came to a stop just shy of touching Spock, knowing full well how discomforting such proximity tended to be for Vulcans. "On a brighter note, Chief Medical Officer Mark Piper has retired to a safe, well-paying civilian position at Johns Hopkins University on Earth, and his replacement, Leonard McCoy, seems to be adapting nicely." That last was half a lie, since I hadn't actually spoken to my old friend McCoy since the day he first came aboard. I hadn't managed to say much even then, thanks to the doctor's colorful tirade against the ship's transporter. I hadn't remembered him being quite so technophobic, and found myself wondering if this was going to be a problem. "Why don't you put all that in Gary's files and call them done?"
Spock said nothing as I pushed past him on my way to the showers, merely stepping neatly to one side to avoid any unseemly physical contact. These were the kinds of little skills he must practice daily, I realized. Memorized patterns of behavior, movement, and response based on the thousands -- perhaps millions -- of social interactions he'd endured with a species whose conduct must seem positively arcane to him. I doubted he even understood much of the social data he mentally collected about his crewmates -- he simply noted which interactions produced what results, and adjusted his model accordingly. If there was a difference between that and how a soulless machine would make use of the same information, at that particular moment I couldn't see what it was.
He followed me into the showers at what was no doubt a carefully calculated distance. Why did his patient silences always make me feel so guilty about whatever random bitterness popped into my head? Probably just another side effect of his conversational style. I made a note to read up on Vulcan social customs, naively believing that I might find some understanding of Spock in their workings.
"The completion of Commander Mitchell's reports should pose no undue difficulty. I calculate that, by committing only forty-two point three percent of my on-duty time, I can deliver the reports to you within sixty-eight hours."
I hoped he didn't expect me to vet them quite so quickly. Eating and sleeping aside, I still had too much shoring up to do with the ship's new crew assignments to catch up on nearly 900 reports over the next three days.
"I must confess, however..."
Reluctance? I paused with the water crashing over my head to stare at him.
He all but rushed on before I could say a word. "I find the guidelines as laid out by Starfleet...baffling."
That admission of near-weakness surprised me more than almost anything else he could have said. I turned off the water and leaned out to study him. "How so?"
If he was human, I almost think he might have blushed. Not in embarrassment, but from the stone-faced frustration young children sometimes display when confronted with an impenetrable question they secretly suspect is a joke at their expense. I wondered if Vulcan children ever teased each other, or if the Vulcan Science Academy practiced hazing.
"The precise goal of such record keeping in the format specified is unclear," he said, quite formally, yet somehow without actually meeting my eyes. "There are no statistical data to be compiled, no discrete procedures to be followed. The desired end result is entirely inadequately conveyed."
I felt a strange warmth when I realized what he was saying. Sympathy, almost. "The desired end result is insight," I told him. He looked at me, and I smiled gently, explaining, "It's the first officer's job to be liaison to the crew. As captain, I depend on your observations -- your instincts and feelings about the crew's state of mind."
Any emotion I might have imagined in his features evaporated with the infinitesimal straightening of his shoulders. "I am Vulcan. I have no instincts or feelings, only logic."
But the crew is human, I wanted to tell him, just bubbling over with emotion. Who in God's name had ever thought a Vulcan could serve as a human crew's XO?
The chirrup of my communicator saved us from pursuing a discussion neither of us was sure how to follow. I ducked out of the shower, careless of the water I dripped as I scooped up the communicator and flipped back the grid. "Kirk here. Go ahead."
The communications officer's honey-rich voice seemed strangely out of place in the conflicting Vulcan-human landscape of our interrupted conversation. "Sir, sensors have detected a disabled ship two point two kilometers to our starboard. There're some shipboard functions, but they don't respond to our hails."
A real problem. Not overdue reports, Vulcan emotional illiteracy, or misplaced captain's angst. A way to avoid feelings of helplessness by directing all my energy toward something I could change. "Plot a course to intercept, and scan the ship for survivors. I'm on my way to the bridge." I was already shaking my tunic free from the rest of my clothing by the time I snapped the communicator shut and tossed it to the bench. "I'm afraid you're on your own with those reports, Mr. Spock." As we left for the bridge, I flashed him a grin over the collar of my shirt, one that was probably as reassuring as it was strictly sincere. "Just do the best you can."
The bridge felt alien and strangely quiet when the turbolift deposited us on its margins. I missed Gary's laughter. It had been omnipresent -- sometimes irritatingly so -- and I found myself missing the sudden guilty hush that meant Gary had been sharing some particularly bawdy story with the rest of the crew. I missed his liar's smile, and his all-too-innocent, "Captain on the bridge" to announce my arrival.
Instead, the smoothly deep voice of my new helmsman made the call, and nobody abruptly ceased what they were doing or ducked their heads to hide a sudden onset of blushing. Decorum reigned, and I felt like I'd stumbled onto some other captain's vessel.
Still, I made that first step beyond the turbolift's doors without any outward sign of hesitation, briskly taking the steps down to my chair as Spock rounded behind me to head for his own station at the science console. "Mr. Sulu, report."
The helmsman -- my helmsman, I reminded myself firmly -- half turned in his seat, one hand still hovering possessively over his controls. "Sensors detect life on the vessel, but still no response to our hails. Their power exchange is in bad shape -- the distress call might be on automatic."
Meaning the crew either couldn't use ship's systems to respond, or were too badly injured to make the attempt. I drummed my fingers on the arm of my command chair, thinking. On the viewscreen, the flat, elongated vessel drifted lazily clockwise, passing into a long silhouette, presenting us her nose, wafting lengthwise again. Her engines had been burned down to nubs, and the characteristic shatter of disruptor fire carved jagged stripes down her sides. It looked like at least half the ship was in vacuum, and the other half looked too dark to be getting anywhere near normal power. If there was anything or anyone still alive on board, they wouldn't stay that way forever.
"Spock, do we have any idea what kind of ship that is?"
He was silent for a moment. I gave him that -- I'd figured out early on that he didn't like giving answers until he'd looked at all the data.
"Sixty-three percent of the identifiable ship's components strongly resemble an Orion Suga-class transport," Spock said at last, still scanning the computer's library screens. "Eleven point six percent are from an Orion-manufactured slaving facility. Four point two percent still bear the registration codes for a Klingon unmanned science probe. The remaining twenty-two point two percent resemble nothing currently on record."
I rubbed thoughtfully at my chin. "Could they be Orions?" I asked after adding up those bits and pieces. "Or maybe Orion allies?"
"Starfleet has reported no recent Orion pirating activity in this sector." While it wasn't exactly an answer to my question, it still led me a few steps closer to something that was. Spock swivelled in his chair to lift an eyebrow at the screen. "To my knowledge, the Orions have no allies."
Which told you everything you needed to know about the Orions. Still..."Just because we don't know about any allies doesn't mean there are none."
I resisted an urge to toss Spock a puckish grin he wouldn't appreciate. "After all, even the Devil had friends."
He tipped his head in grave acknowledgment of my point, and I felt for one startled moment as though he were teasing me. He's a Vulcan, not Gary Mitchell. Vulcans don't tease. I turned forward again to hide my chagrin, and tapped my chair intercom with the side of my hand. "Bridge to transporter room."
"Transporter room. Scott here."
It worried me sometimes that my chief engineer spent so much time with the transporter. I tried to reassure myself that it was a fascinating piece of equipment, with all manner of systems to explore. But sometimes I just couldn't shake the suspicion that there was more to Scott's constant tending than mere affection. Probably not something I should mention around Dr. McCoy. "Scotty, can you get a fix on the life-forms inside that alien vessel?"
"Fifteen to twenty of them," he reported, managing to sound pleased with himself and a little frustrated all at the same time. "Maybe as many as twenty-four -- the numbers are hopping all over the place."
"See if you can isolate them with a wide-angle beam." I muted the channel and glanced aside at Spock. "What sort of environment does that ship hold?"
He opened his mouth, took a small breath as though to say something, then seemed to change his mind at the last minute. Without having to reconsult his equipment, he informed me, "Slightly higher in oxygen and nitrogen than Earth normal, and at a slightly greater atmospheric pressure. Fluctuations in their gravitational equipment average at just a little less than one Earth gravity." Then he continued on without pausing, saying what I suspected had been the first thing to cross his mind. "May I infer from your questions that you intend to bring any survivors on board?"
"Indeed you may." I sent an automated request to security for a small reception committee, and a similar request to sickbay for an emergency medical team. "I've never ignored another ship's distress signal, and I don't intend to start now."
Spock stood smoothly as I jumped up from my chair, his own quiet way of announcing that he was following me down to the transporter room. "And if the captain who initiated this distress call is an Orion ally, as you speculate?"
I looked up at the viewscreen, quickly refreshing my image of its crumpled superstructure and ruptured sides. "Then they still need rescuing." We certainly couldn't tow them anywhere -- I doubted their ship would stand up to the grasp of the tractor beam, much less to having its tumble forcibly stilled and its whole mass accelerated along a single vector. Besides, towing wouldn't take care of their wounded. I wouldn't put any captain in the position of being helplessly dragged along while his crew died around him. Not if I could help it.
"Don't worry, Mr. Spock," I continued as I circled my command chair and took the stairs to the second level in a single step. "We can isolate our guests in rec hall three until arrangements are made to drop them off with whatever allies they're willing to claim." The turbolift doors whisked aside for me, and I slipped inside with one hand on the sensor to hold them open as Spock caught up. "No one's going to get free run of the ship just because we're giving them a ride."
He stepped in neatly beside me, pivoting to face the front of the 'lift with a precision that seemed to be just a part of his movement, not something he planned. "Worry is a human emotion," he stated, as though correcting me on some particularly salient fact.
I stepped back from the doors and let them flash closed on us, taking up my own place on the opposite side of the turbolift. "Of course it is," I said, rather flatly. I kept my eyes trained on the deck indicator to avoid having to look at him. "How could I have forgotten?"
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