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“James T Kirk, by the authority vested in me by

Starfleet Command, I hereby arrest you on

charges of High Treason against the peoples of

Earth and the United Federation of Planets. All

rights, duties and privileges as a Starfleet officer are

hereby withdrawn. You are not obliged to say

anything, but anything you do say will be recorded

and may be used at your trial. Do you have anything

to say?"



The huddled figure in the chair shook his head

wordlessly.



The pitiless young voice went on, "In that case you

will be held in the secure accommodation at this

base until such time as a ship can be found to take

you to Earth where you will stand trial. Take him

away."



As the guards came to lift him to his feet, the prisoner

raised his head for the first time since entering the

room. "Lieutenant, can you tell me where my ship

is?" he said. His voice was husky and he seemed to

be having difficulty focusing his eyes.



"You no longer have a ship, and I'm sure as hell not

going to tell you where any of the fleet are, you

treacherous bastard." The young man's professional

veneer cracked wide open. The prisoner looked at

him gravely and the lieutenant felt an unexpected

pang of shame, then the head dropped and the

prisoner allowed the guards to hustle him out of the

room and down to the cells.



Once there they began to shackle him. Technically

physical restraints were illegal but nobody was taking

any chances, his ingenuity was legendary. Nobody

spoke to him unless they had to, indeed it seemed as

though they could scarcely bear to look at him. Until

that is, the very last moment, when the humiliating

procedure was drawing to an end and the last man

in the cell was kneeling before him, checking the

locks. Suddenly the man looked round quickly, leaned

over and whispered in the prisoner's ear, "The Enterprise

is safe."



The bowed head came up at that, looked the guard in the

eye and recognised a former shipmate. A smile of singular

sweetness broke over the pale face and then faded as the

prisoner rolled over to face the wall and closed his eyes

against the clean, bright, sterile light of the high security

facility.



He stayed in the cell for a week, eating the food they

gave him, taking exercise at the ordained times, submitting

to medical examination and psychological testing and

talking to no one. He was under constant watch, and

seemed to those who guarded him to have withdrawn

deep within himself; he did not even react to the

myriad tiny but stinging indignities inflicted by the

security lieutenant and one or two of the guards who

were unable to resist the temptation to let their disgust

boil over into harsh words and rough handling.



During his confinement he was not permitted to contact

service personnel and wrote only one letter, to his mother,

a cheerful message full of hope and reassurance totally

at variance with his situation and his obvious despair.



The medical examination showed signs of recent, extensive,

physical torture, hurriedly but efficiently treated. However,

in the eyes of every man and woman on this frontier

base that was no excuse. His and their duty was to die

rather than reveal what he had revealed, and when his

appearance on the Romulan civilian newsnets and his

abject, servile confession to a host of real and imaginary

'crimes' was picked up by Federation relay stations and

broadcast the length and breadth of the Galaxy, a once

more than respected name became a byword for

cowardice and treachery. There had even been calls for

the re-introduction of the death penalty for treason.



His crimes were all the more detestable because of the

current, unstable position along the Neutral Zone.

Following the first incursion, which had been halted by

the Enterprise, scientists had worked day and night to

give the Federation an edge against both the plasma

weapon and the cloaking device. They had only been

partially successful.



There had been enormous improvements in the motion

sensors which, together with improved tachyon detection

and communications intercept facilities, meant that it

was just about possible for highly-skilled personnel to

track a cloaked ship and lock the sophisticated weapons

targeting computers onto it. Indeed it had even proved

possible to adapt the communication sensors to execute

this function so that major refits were not required. A

crash program of training had then ensured that every

communications and science officer in the front line

fleet was instructed in the close team-work

necessary to use the new equipment.



In addition, Federation scientists working from the sensor

readings taken by the Enterprise had also come up

with greatly improved shielding for ground-based

installations. This had enabled the outposts and the

starbases immediately behind them, including 23, to

withstand the hit-and-run raids that had followed

within a matter of months.



The bad news was that they had not been nearly as

successful with ship shielding. Although some

improvement could be made, major upgrades were

impossible due to the drain on ship's power.



The effectiveness of both these developments depended

on absolute secrecy, for once the enemy knew about

either they would inevitably improve their own

techniques. In the spiralling, tit-for-tat world of military

secrets, a few months extra concealment could make the

difference between victory and defeat.



Kirk, as a trusted starship captain, had access to all

this information and more, and a frightened and angry

Starfleet Command had found itself forced to conclude

that he had sold those secrets in return for passage

back to Federation territory. Three weeks after his

shameful appearance before the Empire, his captors had

shipped him over the Neutral Zone to the remote base

under a flag of truce.



It was this remoteness which was causing the delay in

returning him to Earth. Unless they could put him on

one of the big ships, the journey would take months and

public opinion was demanding immediate action. Ever

mindful of its image, and possibly even more mindful of

the forthcoming meeting of the Federation Budgetary

Committee, Starfleet decided to dispatch a cruiser.



Which was when they met their first problem. The order

was sent to the Hood, however three hours after receiving

it, that ship suffered a sudden and catastrophic warp drive

failure. No one was hurt and little serious damage was

done but the ship was left with no alternative but to limp

into the nearest starbase for repairs. The second problem

was the only available replacement - the Enterprise.



There was consternation at Fleet HQ. The loyalty the traitor

inspired in his crew was notorious but, if there was to be a

trial before the year's end, there was no other choice and

surely no one, no matter how loyal, could wish to help

or support man like that. Even Garth's crew had mutinied

in the end when faced with conduct too appalling to be

condoned.



In the Briefing Room with the command crew and Doctor

McCoy, Spock replayed the orders he had received from

Admiral Delgardo, and sat impassively while they listened

to the details of theassignment. Delgardo was angry and

embarrassed and it lent his tone an unusual and

inappropriate severity. "You understand, Commander?

You are to treat him as you would any other prisoner and

return him to Earth at a speed of not less than Warp 5.

I want your word of honour as a Vulcan and a Starfleet

officer that you will have him taken straight to the brig."



The Vulcan ignored the stifled cries of protest from the

rest of the Bridge crew and listened once more to his

own voice saying, "You have it, Sir." Shortly after that,

the Admiral signed off.



Before anyone could speak or protest, he turned to the engineer.

"Mr Scott, I would be interested to know how you

managed to disable the Hood." Mr Scott had threatened to

do ... something unspecified, and Spock had misdiagnosed

his words as mere hot air, he was conscious that he did not

usually underestimate people that badly.



There was an embarrassed harrumping noise, and when Mr Scott

finally spoke his accent was more than usually impenetrable.

"Ah well, Mr Spock did ye not know Maddie Masterson is now

Chief Engineer of th' Hood?"



"No, I did not," said Mr Spock in complete comprehension but

he let Mr Scott continue. He had learnt a lot since the Galileo

incident and he knew the others needed to understand too.



"A year an a half ago she was one o' my laddies. I only had to

ask ... she served under him an' all."



Spock spared half a second to wonder why Mr Scott referred

to someone as abundantly feminine as Engineer Masterson as

a "laddie" and then, recognising the thought as a symptom of

rising hysteria, thrust it aside and asked, "What is the engine

status, Mr Scott?"



"You name it - you got it." Was the imprecise but forceful reply.



"In that case Mr Sulu, set course for Starbase 23, Warp 8 - no

doubt, Mr Scott, you will inform us if that proves a problem.

ETA?"



"Eighteen hours 42.3 minutes." The helmsman had started the

calculations the second the Admiral had finished speaking.



"Mr Sulu, you have the Con, I shall be in my quarters. Anybody

who feels the need to communicate the news to the staff in their

Department has my permission to do so." He got up to leave.



"Mr Spock." As he passed her, Uhura, greatly daring, put her

hand on his arm. "You're not really going to turn him over to

them, are you?"



"I intend to follow my orders, Lieutenant," he said calmly and

with that he left the room.



A bewildered Chekov began a half-hearted complaint about this

cold-bloodedness, but Uhura was having none of this. "Pavel,"

she said gently, "whose orders do you think he was referring

to?"



Scott pushed back his chair wearily and levered himself to his

feet. "Well, I hope yon Vulcan is more careful with his tongue

in front of the crew, they're in an awfu' funny mood." He caught

Doctor McCoy's eye and the two older men exchanged a look

of understanding; they had both worked hard over the previous

weeks to maintain at least a degree of calm aboard; but they

both knew that, despite their best endeavours, that calm seemed

likely to shatter irretrievably at any moment.



Alone in the heated sanctuary of his quarters, Vulcan fists

unclenched and tense shoulders relaxed. At last, an end to

waiting. His internal clock continued to keep him accurately

informed as to the passing of the days and weeks but the last

four months had given him his first insight into the human

perception of time as something malleable and plastic, the

speed of whose passing distorted according to the events

which filled it. The whole horror of those events, from the

Captain's disappearance while on a shore visit to the order

from Admiral Delgardo, had taken only four months, two

weeks and 21.2 hours and yet Spock felt as though he had

lived a lifetime during it.



Only McCoy knew that Spock had moved heaven and earth

to remain in command of the Enterprise and had then been

obliged to do the same all over again to retain his rank. It

had taken days of delicate negotiations and political manoeuvring

and the ruthless and highly distasteful use of his personal

status as a member of one of Vulcan's most prominent families

and of his standing as one of the Federation's leading

scientists.



Intellectually Spock had found the entire process grindingly

difficult, and both men had marvelled again at the Captain's

ability to ride the convoluted threads of relationships and

statuses which made up Starfleet HQ. It was a skill Kirk was

oddly ashamed of, probably because it conflicted with his

self-image as a bluff, straight-forward military man, and he

hardly ever chose to exercise it; but when he did, and it was

always for the sake of the ship or its crew, he was masterly.

Until recently the word had been that, once you were one

of 'Kirk's own', you need never worry about your career again.

It had been a status not easily won and all the more prized for it.



McCoy had been first impressed and then deeply worried by

Spock's apparently limitless faith that the Captain would return

to the Enterprise. When he had tentatively suggested that Kirk

might be dead, Spock had merely said "No" and then refused

to discuss the matter further; leaving McCoy unsure whether the

Vulcan was giving voice to that most unVulcan of all emotions

- hope – or whether he actually knew something nobody else

did.



Even the Romulan broadcasts had not appeared to shake his

confidence. Unusually for him he had made a point of appearing

in the Mess where comments over dinner about the Captain's

"resourcefulness" and "skill at what I believe is called 'the big

bluff'," had done much to calm the situation.



Back at Starbase 23, the news that the prisoner was to be

transported to Earth on the Enterprise provoked the first real

reaction from him that anyone had seen since his arrival. He

was obviously and completely horrified. Indeed so total

was his distress, that the prison authorities sent for a doctor

to sedate him, fearing he might do himself some injury.

However when the doctor arrived he found the prisoner

lying quietly in his usual position with his face to the wall,

apparently resigned to whatever came next. His guards

noticed that he did not sleep at all that night.



Next day he was given a shower, a shave and a haircut and

issued with clean, new, prison fatigues. Then, still in

handcuffs, he was taken under guard to the base

transporter room where two guards and the security

lieutenant were waiting to beam up and formally hand him

over to the Enterprise.



During the short conversation with the ship one of the guards

saw him lift his head, suddenly alert, at the sound of the

measured tones coming from the comms panel but, when

the time came to take up position for transport, the head

fell once more and the expression became unreadable.



"Energise." The familiar tingle enveloped them all as reality

faded out and was reborn. "Lieutenant Tarsalimo and

prisoner requesting permission to come aboard."



"Permission granted." The response came from Giotto, Chief

of Security. The prisoner shuddered almost imperceptibly,

but he stepped off the platform obediently and stood on one side,

waiting patiently.



"I expected to see the C.O. - couldn't bear to be in the same

room as him I suppose."



"I couldn't say." Giotto was terse to the point of rudeness.

"Where do I sign?" The formalities were soon over and the

security detail left, glad to escape the heated atmosphere they

could feel but not decipher. All this time the prisoner stood

quietly, only the bunching of the muscles in shoulders and

neck and the tightly clenched fists betraying his tension.



"If you will come this way." The gentle words hardly seemed

to register until the older man went up to him and touched

him lightly on the arm. For a few seconds he didn't move, then

he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, lifted his head and,

face Vulcan-calm, followed Giotto towards the door.



And then his miracle happened.



As the door swept open he heard the sound of a well-known

voice. "Ship's Company 'shun!" and the muffled thud of boots

and there, lined up on either side of the corridor, in full

dress uniform, the crew of the Starship Enterprise stood to parade

attention. On either side of the door the bosuns' whistles sounded

in formal acknowledgement of a captain's arrival on board.



He swayed slightly and the voice sounded in his ear. "Just a

minute, Sirr, I'll soon have these damn things off ye." Mr Scott

in the tartan glory of his clan, wielding a pair of bolt cutters, released

him from his shackles. An honour guard from Security formed

in front of him and Mr Scott put a tactful hand under his elbow,

then they set off down the corridor. As each crew member was

passed, they saluted in the rarely-used, old-fashioned, military

manner and each of them murmured their own greeting.

"Good to have you back, sir." "Welcome home, sir."



As they turned a corner he glanced back and saw the crew racing

away and realised that they were running to relieve those on

duty so that they too could join the welcome. He pressed a

hand to his chest - the pain over his heart was scarcely bearable.



One or two of the crew were openly crying as they stood to

attention, and only by working his way through the crew list,

ticking off people in his mind as he passed them, was he able

to retain his own self-control.



They entered the security section, marched into a cell and

then without a break marched straight back out again. A brief

smile flickered, he understood perfectly.



He knew his strength was failing fast as they entered the

turbolift and swept up to the senior officers' quarters. It was

there that he found those who were closest to him - his yeoman,

Christine Chapel, Giotto, who had somehow found time to change

uniforms, the bridge crews DePaul, Kyle, Leslie, Riley,

Palmer, Chekov, Sulu, Uhura.



He paused for a moment outside the door to his quarters and

passed a wondering hand over the name plate he had thought

never to see again, then he went in alone. They were here as he

had known they would be, not stood to attention as the others

had been, just waiting for him. He opened his mouth to speak

and they had to run to catch him as he fell.



Vulcan reflexes ensured that Spock won the race. Gently he

lifted the limp and frighteningly light body onto the bed and

stood, tense but impassive, while McCoy ran a scanner over it.

The doctor had already reviewed the records sent by the prison

authorities and so he was not surprised by the readings. He

looked up at the Vulcan and smiled reassuringly. "Exhaustion

and emotional overload - I'm not even gonna take him down to

Sickbay. What he needs is quiet and a friend or two to talk to."

He saw the narrow shoulders relax and watched with some

concern as the Vulcan sat down heavily on the bed. Poor bastard,

easy to forget how hard this has been on him
, he thought and then

aloud, "D'ye want me to take the first watch? There ought to be

someone here - if he wakes up alone in his condition he's liable

to think we've had second thoughts."



Spock nodded, unable to speak. He had been unutterably shocked

by the sight of the white-faced figure who had just come in. He

had seen the body relax its upright stance, the mind its strained

hold on consciousness and both surrender willingly to the dark. Jim,

who never surrendered to anything! He was horrified, both at the sight

and at its effect on himself. If he was to be of any use at all to his

friend, he must regain control, re-erect his shields against emotion

before he sat down in a corner and wept like a child. McCoy,

stronger in this if in nothing else, patted him on the shoulder.

"Off you go then, I'll call you in six hours."



Spock was turning to go when the man on the bed opened

his eyes and spoke. "Mom?"



"She sends her love, says to tell you she and Peter never

doubted you and they're both looking forward to seeing you

soon."



The eyes drifted shut and then forced themselves open.

"Moira Mitchell, will you check she's OK, please?"



"We'll see to it - don't worry, just go back to sleep." McCoy was

talking gently, in the same voice he had hushed his infant

daughter with in the years before his divorce.



"And please will you turn the lights out - I haven't had any

darkness..." His voice trailed off as Spock dimmed the light and

he slept. They noted silently that every thing he had asked

of them had been phrased as a request not an order. Although

neither man doubted him, they both realised that whatever

had happened to him and whatever they felt about it, James

Kirk no longer considered himself captain.



They went to stand over by the door to talk so they would

not disturb him. "Doctor, who is Moira Mitchell?"



"Gary Mitchell's mother, she's disabled - Almatorsi fever, Jim's

been supporting her since Gary died."



"Surely he had service insurance?"



"Young bastard hocked it as security for a loan – the money lender

called it in when he died. She thinks she's getting a 'fleet

pension, she doesn't know that if it wasn't for Jim she'd be destitute."



Spock nodded and thought how typical were both the act and the

reticence. He now had a good idea what had lured the captain

off the base without telling anybody where he was going, an

act that had raised unavoidable suspicion in several very high

places. All it would have taken would have been an invitation

to a meeting with or about Mrs Mitchell and the captain would

have been anxious to avoid discussing his destination with

anybody. Someone, somewhere had made it their business to

get to know Jim very well indeed and he reflected that it took

a particularly ugly ruthlessness to use a man's most decent

instincts to lure him to his own destruction.



He glanced towards the bed and left the room. Outside he found

Uhura waiting alone, obviously deputised as crew liaison. He

explained the position to her; repeating the doctor's diagnosis,

unaware that his reputation for truthfulness made his

reassurances more valued than McCoy's.



The news spread rapidly though the ship. Throughout the preceding

four months, faith in the captain had remained surprisingly

high. Most of the crew had served under Kirk long enough

to grow accustomed to the sight of him pulling rabbits from

hats and when he had first disappeared they had all hoped

for and even expected the best. Very few had been prepared

to believe the worst before they had to.



The broadcasts when they came had the effect of dividing the

crew into two, perhaps unexpected, groups; those who

refused to believe the captain a traitor and those who, having

seen the condition he was in, believed that he might have

talked but who nevertheless could not bring themselves to

blame him. Knowing him as they all did, they realised that

only unimaginable horrors could have reduced him to the

state they could see on their screens and they were

prepared to welcome him back on that basis.



Anyone harbouring darker suspicions kept them to

themselves especially after the lynch mob rhetoric of the

media reached the Enterprise. The resultant backlash against

"civilians", "desk jockeys", "press vultures" and outsiders

in general had generated a fierce, protective loyalty

towards "their" captain. A loyalty that had welded the

crew into a single, focused and rather terrifying unit that

was more than ready to forget recent history and remember

instead their service with him. They all owed him their

lives but for many it was the memory of a thousand

tiny courtesies and examples of consideration that

weighed more heavily upon them and they found

themselves basing loyalty on things as small as an arm

round grieving shoulders, a smile of thanks, an apology

or a letter of reassurance to an injured crewman's

worried parents.



Unaware as yet of the fierce emotions his return had

stirred up, Kirk slept the thin, unrestful, dream-ridden sleep

that had been his portion since the last time he had occupied

the same bed.



Kirk woke early the next morning and lay for a few

seconds luxuriating in the dark, peaceful hum of his quarters.

Then memory crashed over him like a tidal wave and he

rolled over onto his stomach, groaning. Instantly someone

was at the side of his bed and without thinking he jerked

into a foetal huddle, covering his head with his arms.



"Jim - please!"



Even above the thunderous pounding of his heart the

shocked voice of his friend penetrated, he uncurled and

looked up into Spock's openly appalled face.



He swallowed convulsively. "Sorry - force of habit," he said

awkwardly and looked away, unable to bear the sight of

the naked emotion he had forced on the Vulcan.



He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed and

realised that someone had removed the fatigues while he

slept and that he was wearing only the anonymous,

starfleet issue underwear of T-shirt and shorts, the kind that

was supplied to prisoners and serving crew alike. He

wondered vaguely which of them had had the sensitivity to

realise that he wouldn't want to contaminate his quarters

with tangible reminders of his imprisonment. He shivered

slightly; the memories were not going to be that easy to

deal with.



"I'm going to take a shower - you will be here when I come

out, won't you?" He was unable to look his friend in the

face and so missed the eyes widening in startled

comprehension and heard only the reassuring "Yes".



As soon as the bathroom door closed, Spock moved to the

intercom and softly alerted the doctor who arrived seconds

later. Quickly he explained the situation and watched as

McCoy reacted explosively. "Poor devil, still not sure of us!"

Furious though he was, the doctor still had the presence

of mind to keep to a whisper. He paused in his pacing to

look at the Vulcan. "What are you picking up from him?"



Although primarily a touch telepath, prolonged daily

proximity and a number of actual mind melds had left the

Spock with the ability to sense the captain's general

emotional state. He concentrated, choosing his words

carefully. "Shame, exhaustion, fear and guilt," he said

eventually.



McCoy nodded. "Yeah, that's just about what I expected.

Torture's like rape and that's the classic pathology of the rape

victim - doesn't matter what they did, doesn't matter how

hard they fought, they still feel like collaborators in their

own violation." A sudden horrible thought occurred. "You

don't think..."



Spock did not pretend not to understand. "Possible but

unlikely, given what we know of the Romulans' warrior code."

The Vulcan was stone-faced. "I take it your medical

records." The doctor's shake of the head cut off the rest of the

sentence, and the two men settled down to wait for their

friend.



In the shower Kirk stood under the pounding water, temperature

and pressure turned up as high as the computer would allow.

Having done his best not to think about anything important

for weeks, he now found that he was incapable of rational

thought at all. The words he'd forced himself to memorise

all those weeks ago trudged through his brain, an endless,

dreary round of names and places and figures interspersed

with nauseating memories of his own voice pleading for

mercy. Wearily he leant forward and rested his forehead

against the tiled wall, hoping to drown out the noises in his

head with the drumming of the water and the far-off

throbbing of the engines.



He stayed under the water so long that McCoy was starting to

fret and when he eventually came out, naked save for the

towel round his waist, a whole new cycle of anxiety

started up. It wasn't just the all too visible rib-cage or even

the extensive scar-tissue, for by now Romulan medicine was

known to be strong on returning a man to fighting strength

and weak on the cosmetic side of surgery; it was the symbols

crudely tattooed into his chest high on the left shoulder that

shocked McCoy to the extent that, hardened as he was by

years of front-line, military medicine, he had to choke back

the vomit. There was something particularly obscene in the

sight of the alien script, the flaring orange and black colours

and the way the inflamed flesh round the edges glistened in the

subdued light. The medical records had spoken of "scarring to

the chest and abdomen"; there had been no mention of this

mutilation.



Kirk flushed under the scrutiny and turned away to his clothes

locker. Ignoring the drawers containing uniforms, he

rummaged around until he found an old pair of corduroy

pants and a woollen shirt, kept for the laziest of shore leaves.



Military life, with its shared facilities and communal living,

soon kills off personal modesty; however with increasing rank,

habits of privacy usually tended to re-establish themselves.

There was something curiously pathetic about the way he

neither asked nor expected to be left alone to dress. Unable

to bear the sight of the scars anymore, McCoy, forgetting

all the taboos, took Spock by one surprisingly tense arm

and led him to the opposite end of the cabin and together

they stared at the wall.



Behind them they heard the quiet sounds of dressing and

then the thud of a dropped shoe and a muffled, "I can't do this."

The strain in his voice seemed grossly disproportionate

to the difficulty disclosed when they turned to find him sitting

on his bed, struggling with the laces of a pair of old shoes.



Gracefully the Vulcan came over, knelt at his feet, and put

his hand over the trembling fingers. "You don't have to," he

said gently as he dealt deftly with the fastening.



McCoy looked over his shoulder and understood something,

there was no easy way to ask this but he had to know.

"Your motor control is damaged, isn't it?"



"Yes." The close-cropped head remained bent, revealing a

ring of scars running right round the bone-white neck.



Swiftly McCoy ran his scanner over him, how much else

had the Base medic missed? He examined the readings and

sighed with relief. "Never mind, the damage isn't

irreparable. You come down to Sickbay and I'll have you

sorted out in a couple of hours, we'll deal with that godawful

tattoo thing at the same time."



"No!" The voice was low but definite.



"It's only a coupla minor operations.."



"No! No more operations!"



The scanner in McCoy's hand began to read massive increases

in blood pressure and adrenalin and, in a sudden flare of

horror, he understood. "They didn't give you any anaesthetic

did they?" he whispered.



Kirk shook his head and then forced himself to lift it so he

could apologise to his friend face to face. "I'm sorry about

the reaction, Bones. I know it'd be different with you but

you're not allowed to treat me. My body is part of the

evidence for my trial."



The extent and vehemence of the doctor's cursing brought

the first smile they had seen to the tired face, and for a

moment they had a glimpse of the vital, living man they

had known before. Spock raised an eyebrow and essayed

a contribution to lightening the mood. "Really, Doctor, I

don't suppose Starfleet Command knows where a Falactrian

bandit keeps its hoard and I fail to see how demanding

they insert themselves in it could possibly help."



The pale face looked up at them both and smiled slightly

and then the eyes filled with tears. McCoy, who had been

waiting for this since Kirk's arrival on board, cheerfully

abandoned 40-odd years of conditioning on the

acceptability of physical contact between men and, sitting on

the bed, hauled his friend into his arms.



After a split second's hesitation Spock, who was still sitting on

his heels at Kirk's feet, knelt upright and put his arms round

both of them. Sandwiched between his two friends, his face

buried in someone's shoulder; James Kirk wept as though his

heart would break. Not quietly, as the despairing weep, but

with a sort of noisy misery that spoke of great pain and of a

strong mind still struggling to understand what had happened

to it.



When he had finished, the doctor produced a real silk

handkerchief from up his sleeve and Kirk blew his nose and

wiped his eyes. "I can't imagine why women think this such

a good idea," he said, real amusement in his voice for the

first time. "I feel terrible."



"Well, in my medical opinion, you look a whole lot more like

yourself and less like the zombie-walking-death that came

aboard yesterday," retorted the doctor, giddy with relief.

"You hungry?"



"Yes." He was surprised. "Hell, that's a first. I haven't felt

hungry since they grabbed me." He was talking to the doctor

but his eyes were on the Vulcan, who had dropped back to

sit on his heels, his face impassive save for the pulse beating

in his forehead.



"What'll you have?"



"Anything but combat rations." His eyes were still on Spock.

"They wouldn't give me anything else on 23, and I've had

enough reconstituted protein and high energy biscuit to last a

lifetime - if they ever call a war I'm taking a lunch pail."



McCoy laughed delightedly and bustled away to the intercom

to order a meal. Kirk leaned forward. "I'm sorry about that,

Spock," he said quietly. "How much of it did you take on board?"



"Very little - after the first thirty-five seconds I found it

intolerable and was obliged to choose between shielding my

mind against it and moving away."



Kirk eyed him narrowly and then relaxed at the candour of the

gaze that met his. "I thought I could feel you mentally

standing back. S'okay, I was relieved - I wasn't sure what

downloading four and a half months of grief in a few

minutes would do to you. It's bad enough for me and I'm

used to emotional loads. I don't think I could bear it if I

forced you to take it on as well."



Spock looked down quizzically as he got back to his feet,

touched by Kirk's familiar, and frequently exasperating,

willingness to deal with another's hurts before his own.

Remembering the previous night's request he said,

"About Mrs Mitchell, as of three weeks ago she was in

excellent health, indeed there has been a 4% increase in

circulatory efficiency and her doctors believe that it may

be possible to operate and give her at least assisted mobility."



Kirk stared at him open-mouthed then threw up his hands.

"That's it - I give up! You are without doubt an absolute

miracle - how the hell did you find that out all the way out

here?"



"I checked your messages, I hope you do not object - there

was one from Mrs Mitchell dated three weeks ago. She

gave you her news and assured you of her support."



Kirk smiled his thanks to them both as McCoy came back

bearing a tray loaded with the sort of breakfast he didn't

usually let anybody eat in peace. They took chairs and

watched in satisfaction as he sat down at his desk and tucked in.



Cautiously Spock tried a little morale boosting. "Jim, I

strongly recommend that you read your mail, there are

many messages of support you would no doubt find

encouraging." He still found human humour difficult but he

knew that it was based at least in part upon incongruity so

he continued, "I must confess that some of the senders are a

little unexpected. They include Mother Horta and, almost

more surprisingly, Ambassador Fox."



It must have worked because Kirk swallowed a mouthful of toast

and grinned. "I bet that's the first time those two have appeared

in the same sentence! Mother Horta?"



"Yes, apparently thanks to her contact with the miners she has

become greatly addicted to the newsnets and now that her

children are doing most of the work, she has plenty of time

in which to indulge this regrettable weakness. According

to the mining manager who sent her message, she states

that she does not believe a word of any of it because you

are far too - I believe the word she used was endoskeletal."



Kirk laughed, an oddly rusty noise. "Endoskeletal?" he said.

"I've been called a lot of things in my time but that's a new

one - anyone know what it means?"



"It means she thinks you've got too much backbone to have

done what you're accused of," said the doctor.



Kirk's smile faded. "Pity to spoil the poor creature's illusions,"

he said lightly, then shoved his plate aside. "Sorry Bones, I

can't eat any more." He grabbed and retained the coffee mug

as the doctor whisked the tray away and drank deep,

filling his senses with the unaccustomed richness. After

months of mere nutrition without taste, the flavour of the

coffee seemed to be made up of many different layers and

nuances, complex and wonderful. He looked up to see them

watching him. "I was just thinking how much we take for

granted. Even the ship's coffee tastes good."



"Captain," began Spock but was interrupted at once.



"Not 'captain'. They've taken that from me and I've got to get

used to it." His voice was light but firm. "Tell everyone to

call me Jim. I'd like that, nobody has called me that since

I was... taken."



"Jim then." Spock took a deep breath. "I would like to

apologise for yesterday's detour by way of the cells, I trust

you did not find it too distressing."



"No, I wasn't upset. Made you promise to glasshouse me

did they?"



"Indeed. I was quite prepared to .... override that promise

however Mr Scott and Doctor McCoy insisted that you would

'appreciate the joke'."



Kirk smiled, savouring the complex web of loyalties involved.

Spock had been prepared to break his word but neither

McCoy nor Scotty had been prepared to let him, and both

of them had trusted their former captain enough to know that

he wouldn't want it to happen either. "They were right – besides

after that welcome how could I possibly object to anything.

Did you organise it?"



Unable to keep quiet any longer, McCoy intervened. "Nobody

organised it, it just sorta grew in the last few hours before we

got to 23. Started with Security givin' their boots an extra shine

and snowballed from there."



"So how come they sent the Enterprise to get me? I was

expecting just about any other ship." He watched in some

amusement as McCoy and Spock shared a look of uneasy

complicity.



Spock looked at the wall over Kirk's head and began,

"The original intention was to send the Hood, however that

ship had ... problems so the Enterprise was given the order instead."



"What sort of problems?"



"Engineering problems."



"Ah." Kirk too remembered Engineer Masterson and decided

against further enquiries. He yawned hugely. "Sorry, I've only

just got up and I'm ready for bed again."



"Wanna rest?"



"No, not yet - let's talk." McCoy opened his mouth to speak but

was cut off. "No, not about that, I can't – not yet anyway. Tell

me about the ship."



Spock had been wondering how long it would take him to ask

about the ship. The question of command was going to be

difficult. Jim had never before had to deal with its permanent

loss and his reaction, judging by the business at Gamma

Hydra IV, might be violent, still there was no point in trying

to hide the true position. "I am in command of the

Enterprise at this time," he said and watched in some surprise

as Kirk blew out his breath in a vast gust of relief.



"Thank heaven for that! What with the welcome committee

and you still having only two stripes up I had visions of some

poor captain, bound and gagged and stuffed in a store-room

somewhere. Why haven't they promoted you?" His pleasure

and interest were both obvious and sincere.



"As you know I have no wish to command, however Starfleet

appear to be labouring under the misconception that I can be

persuaded to take up such a position," Spock said blandly.



Kirk eyed him, unfooled. "Played Halberson off against

Fitzpatrick did you?"



McCoy was incredulous. "How the hell did you know that?"


Kirk shrugged. "It was the logical thing to do," he said with a

certain dawning mischief in his voice. "Halberson wants the

ship for that protege of his and Fitzpatrick wants anything

except what Halberson wants - they both have the power to

make the decision or to stop someone else making it. Spock

would be the ideal interim candidate for both of them while

they rally their power-bases."



Spock had the unaccustomed sensation of being out-thought;

it had taken him three days of delicate manoeuvring and

inquiries to come to the same conclusion.



Kirk leaned forward, gathering their attention into one narrow

focus. "Spock I want you to keep the ship. Accept the

promotion and captain her. You can do it, however little you think

you can, and you are the only person I can entrust her to."



Spock looked at him, his heart sinking. Kirk had obviously lost

all hope. Hope was often illogical but for this human it was

essential and it was gone. Only in that extremity would Kirk be

prepared to hand over the ship that was more to him than his own life.



He thought of his own plans. He had no desire to continue in the

service if Kirk were forced to leave it, having once known the

balance and ease of such a relationship he knew he was unwilling to

serve without it. He had been alone before and he did not relish a

further experience of it, especially not aboard the Enterprise,

especially as he knew that McCoy, that most loyal of men, had

also decided to quit the service if Jim were convicted.



He had acknowledged the unVulcan illogic of the reaction weeks

ago, but found himself both unable to suppress it and unwilling

even to try. This double self-betrayal had occupied his meditation

period for several days before he had been obliged to set it aside

as a paradox, an equation without resolution. It was his duty to

stay and yet he would go.



He had resolved to resign his commission and take up residence

and whatever research work was available near whatever prison

or rehab. colony Starfleet consigned his T'hy'la to. He could

and would offer such comfort and support as the law and his

friend's stubborn pride would allow, but he knew that he was

utterly unable to remain aboard the Enterprise alone.



He looked into the earnest face opposite and found himself

incapable of giving the assurance that was demanded of him

but equally unable to refuse. "We will speak of this another

time," he said and hurriedly continued, leaving no time for

interruption. "As for the ship's status - we are currently skirting

the Neutral Zone on course for Earth at warp 5. ETA 3 weeks

4 days ll.3 hours, the ship is in excellent condition and all

personnel are functioning to within 94% of maximum

efficiency ratings."



Kirk opened his mouth to argue and then thought better of it.

Who was he to insist? The time when he could issue orders was

gone. He cast around for another topic of conversation.



"Look, I noticed yesterday you have the same crew complement

we had before I disappeared, we were due a crew rotation two

months back - what happened?"



Spock was conscious of an odd sensation, part regret and

part relief. If Kirk had been able to notice that in the condition

he had been in yesterday, then the habit of command was

by no means broken, somewhere deep inside the old

responsibilities still tugged at him. No doubt this residue of

captaincy would make relinquishing command harder but at

least it meant that there were enough of the basic building

blocks of his character left for him to rebuild himself and

his life.



He thought back to the mass refusal to leave the ship until its

captain's fate was known and phrased his answer carefully.

"No rotation was necessary, 17 people re-enlisted, 12 people

refused promotion and/or re-posting, 28 people refused to take

accumulated home leave and 2 cases of Fasothla Swamp

Disease were accidentally recorded in the Medical Log as

influenza, thereby avoiding the compulsory shore convalescence

laid down for that illness. There were therefore no crew

vacancies to be filled."



Kirk's eyes were shining: this was like all his birthdays come at

once, so much trust, so much love. "What about the 4 from

the lower decks who were due to take late entry to the

Academy last month?" he said sternly.



"Ah yes, most unfortunate. It appears that the entire pre-

Academy training group contracted chicken pox and had to

be quarantined. Their entry has therefore been postponed until

next year."



Kirk flung his head back and gave voice to the laugh that had

been building. "Chicken pox! What the devil is chicken pox?"

he yelled in delight.



"It is of course more Doctor McCoy's province than mine, but

I understand it is an ancient Terran disease hitherto believed

extinct." Kirk laughed again and half way through the laugh

became a yawn. "Jim, perhaps you should consider resting further."



"OK Spock, I'll just have another shower and then I'll have a nap."

He caught sight of McCoy and wagged a finger at him. "And you

can take that psycho-analytical expression off your face, Bones!

Being clean is another thing I've taken for granted, that's all."



McCoy was unconvinced. "Will you be OK on your own?"



"Oh yes." His voice was firm but the eyes had a strange look in

them. "In fact I think that was one of the worst things, nobody

ever left me alone." He shook himself and laid a hand on both

their shoulders, urging them towards the door, "Now off you go

- I'll see you when you come off watch."



They let themselves be persuaded. McCoy however had the

morale of the rest of the ship to worry about. "Jim, are you up to

seeing some of the others tonight? They're all real worried about

you..."



"Yeah sure. I'd like that, but not too many and.... tell them no

captain-stuff."



They left him and outside turned to look at one another. McCoy

spoke first, he was never sure how accurate the Vulcan's

diagnoses of emotion were and he was anxious that there be

no misunderstanding. "He appears to be coping with it but

he's still hurting."



"That is to be expected, under the circumstances." Spock

understood only to well. The thirty-five seconds of mental

contact he had endured had almost overwhelmed him. He

had picked up virtually nothing of the ordeal itself probably

because, even in his extremity, Kirk had sought to protect

the telepath he called T'hy'la. It would have been both

cruel and unseemly to probe further; however the torrential

flood of shame and self-loathing had been unmistakable.

Normally the insights gained in the meld were sacrosanct,

but he was conscious of his own lack of experience in the

healing of emotions and decided to confide in Jim's other,

nearest friend.



He looked down the corridor checking for the presence of

other ears than McCoy's. "The Captain," out here he had no

intention of calling him by any other name, "is a man of

conscience." He put his hand up to halt the doctor's

explosive interruption. "He is also a man for whom it is

imperative to act in accordance with that conscience. At this

time he believes he has failed us, the ship, the crew, the service,

the Federation and himself. The memory of his tribulation

burdens him little in comparison with that."



McCoy blinked, startled at his perception. Spock was right;

Jim was a man who constantly felt the need to question his own

actions and motives. The belief that he had behaved wrongly in

a matter that so nearly touched his personal honour would

be intolerable to him - quite apart from the question of any

military secrets. He nodded and the two men separated, each

lost in his own thoughts.



Dinner that night was an unexpectedly jovial affair. Kirk was

determined to keep the occasion light and the others, Scotty,

Uhura, Chekov and Sulu took their cue from him. He had

dealt with the matter of names the moment they arrived by

the simple expedient of kissing Uhura on the cheek and

calling her by her first name. However nobody felt able to

reciprocate except Mr Scott, who had known him as a cocky

young ensign and at the time had even outranked him.



So it was Scotty who raised the question that was uppermost in

all their minds. After a long leisurely meal in which the talk

had all been about old times and as they sat over the brandy

decanter, he took his courage in both hands and asked,

"Have ye decided what ye want to do, Jim?"



Kirk's head was spinning slightly as a result of the brandy after

so long an abstinence but he did not pretend not to understand.

"I'm going back to Earth to stand trial." He waited until the

protests died down. "I know you want to arrange an escape

for me but if I'd wanted to do that I would have run from

23 - wouldn't have been that difficult to jump a ship and I

could have done it without involving anyone else."



He looked them, his face serene but still hopelessly wearied.

"I'm going back to see my family and to take what's coming to

me. I'm not as bad as I painted myself in that broadcast but

I deserve at least some what I'm going to get - so don't waste

too much pity on me." He grinned and passed his hand over

his bristling scalp. "I don't suppose they can do anything to

me much worse than this haircut - practically counts as cruel

and unusual punishment on its own."



An appalled silence formed and he hurried to fill it, "By the way,

I've got a bone to pick with you, Scotty. How could you

persuade Madeleine Masterson to risk her career like that?"



Mr Scott, like the old-fashioned officer and gentleman that

he was, accepted the decision and responded to it. "Sirr!" His

indignation was a beautifully judged parody of one of his

famous tirades in defence of his 'bairns'. "Are ye insinuatin'

that a laddie I trained couldn't disable a ship wi'out being caught?"



Kirk shook his head and hastened to deny it. "Heavens no!

I wouldn't dare! And I suppose now I'm aboard Maddie

will suddenly find a way to make repairs."



"I wouldn't be a bit surprised."



"Tell me, what if it hadn't been the Hood?" He was genuinely

curious.



Scott smiled affectionately; did Kirk really not know how much

loyalty he had built up over the years? He leant forward and

patted him on the arm. "Jim, between us in this room - you, me

and Nyota here - we've got laddies on every ship in the

quadrant. There was no way they were goin' to avoid sendin

' th'Enterprise." He grinned evilly. "Mind you, y'know Tom

Styles is on the Lexington now? Well, I always thought his

plan to programme the food replicators to add a huge dose of

laxative t'everything was a wee bit on the crude side."



They all laughed and the moment passed. Kirk was never

quite sure how true that last bit had been.



The meal drew to a close after that, his fatigue was obvious

and nobody wanted to tax his strength.



Uhura was the last to leave and, as she passed him in the

doorway, she put her arms round him briefly and was shocked to

feel the fine tremors running through his body. This was

more of a strain than he was letting on.



A wave of almost intolerable compassion swept over her and

she nearly offered to stay. If anybody needed someone to

hold him through the night, it was James Kirk.



There had been a physical attraction between them for years

which neither of them had ever had any intention of pursuing,

not only because service regs disapproved but also because

they were both anxious not to ruin a first class, professional

relationship. However, at this moment, she could see his

need and it over rode her scruples.



She opened her mouth, hesitated and then closed it again.

She couldn't. It was too like admitting that he would never

be captain again, too much like giving up hope. She hugged

him hard and left.



Back in her own cabin she reflected on what she had seen.

She did not believe the half-confession he had just made

for an instant, recognising in it the familiar sound of the

captain taking up responsibility for things that were not his

fault. She must remember to have a word with Chekov, he

was scarcely more than a boy, she'd better make sure he

hadn't got the wrong idea.



During the next few days the crew got used to seeing Kirk

padding round the ship in casual clothes and a pair of loafers

Spock had somehow persuaded the fabricators to disgorge.

To the crew he appeared cheerful and grateful and resigned.

The clothes, the crew-cut hair and the fact that he was a good

twenty pounds underweight made him look ridiculously

young, like somebody's kid brother, but even so hardly

anybody could bring themselves to call him by his first

name. Indeed very few of the crew could bring themselves

to talk to him at all, daunted by both the scars they could

see and the knowledge that there must be more, both

physical and mental, that they could not.



He was, however, in no danger of mistaking this for rejection

because, time and again, in corridors and lifts and Mess

queues he found himself meeting crewmen and women

unable to express their feelings except through gentle

hands which patted his shoulder or squeezed his arm or

grasped his hand.



He never went to the Bridge, preferring to spend his time

wandering round the areas of the ship a captain never gets

much time to see. He even spent an entire day up a Jeffries

tube with Mr Scott, renewing the magnetic interphase coils

for the number two impulse engine. Nobody doubted that he

was saying goodbye to his ship.



McCoy and Spock waited to be confided in but it never

happened and eventually, driven by increasing concern, the

doctor, with a somewhat reluctant Spock in tow, went in

search of him. They found him in his quarters, rubbing his

head with a towel after yet another shower.



McCoy glared at him, angry, embarrassed and afraid. He knew

damn fine that, whatever he was about to hear, he wouldn't

like it. He also knew that it needed to be said so he charged

in headlong.



"Jim, you have to talk to us," he said crossly, "I don't know

what you've done and I don't much care but you have to talk

to somebody about it. I got the computer to monitor the water

use in here and it's four times higher than anybody else's on

the ship. Whatever it is you're washin' off, I want to know about

it and I want to know now!"



Spock winced internally at this tone but Kirk seemed unoffended.

He merely turned away and tossed the towel into the disposal

chute. "I was wondering how long it would take you to come and

badger me," he said calmly. "I don't suppose it will do any good to

say I'd rather not talk about it?"



"No."



"Thought not. Et tu Spock?"



"If you would rather not talk in my presence I would be happy to

leave you alone with the doctor."



"Hell no - that's not what I meant and you know it. For someone who

claims to know nothing about emotions, you're getting entirely too

good at knowing which of my buttons to press. If I do talk about it –

it'll be to the both of you. I'm just not sure I want to talk to anyone."



McCoy pulled up a chair and settled down for a good argument.

"Look - what's the standard procedure following a mission with

casualties?" There was no answer so he plunged on. "You

debrief the people involved, find out what went wrong, try to

stop it happening again and try to stop them feeling responsible

for things they couldn't help - that's all I want to do now."



Kirk was not about to give in that easily. "The two situations are

hardly analogous," he said stiffly.



"Why not? You sure look like one of the walking wounded to me

and you're bleeding guilt all over the ship."



Spock felt it was time to intervene. "Might I offer an alternative

view point? We are currently skirting the Neutral Zone, Romulan

incursions along the border have been increasing over recent

months and only the Federation's enhanced shielding has

protected ground-based operations since then. Although I

estimate the chances of you actually being a traitor to be

3,589 to 1 against, the fact remains that you must have told the

Romulans something and it would greatly assist me in my

capacity as commander of this vessel if I knew precisely what."



"3,589 to 1 eh?" Kirk couldn't help but be amused. "Pretty good

odds." He looked at them with an expression that was

half-affectionate, half-angry. "You two are getting Machiavellian

in your old ages - what is this, a variation on good cop/bad cop?

Bones appeals to my emotions and you appeal to my command

instincts?" He dropped into a chair. "I don't know if I like

being that predictable. I'm sure as hell not that easy to manipulate."



McCoy could practically see the need to talk written all over the

stubborn face on the other side of the desk. "OK," he said brutally

"It's straight emotional blackmail time. Tell us because we're

your friends and we're asking you to."



"Oh for..."



An explosion of the rare but cataclysmic Kirk temper seemed

likely and Spock hurried to join in the doctor's request.

"Please Jim," he said simply and took up a chair opposite his

friend. His years with humans had taught him all about their

simple need to say out loud the things that weighed upon them.



Kirk found his objections melting. It was a simple request that

said in effect - come and be helped. His shoulders relaxed and

he sighed. "Looks like I am that easy to manipulate after all,"

he said eventually.



He ordered two mugs of coffee and one of the pungent

Vulcan brew Spock favoured from the replicator, settled back in

his chair. After a few seconds of tense silence, he began to

talk, his voice unconvincingly casual.



"OK let's start at Starbase 18. I went ashore to see the Portmaster

about those two men (Watson and Ramirez wasn't it?) who'd

gotten into a brawl shore-side. As I was leaving I got a

message that Doctor Matheus was on the base and would like

to see me. I'd been in communication with him for years about

Mrs Mitchell and the message said he had good news. I didn't

think twice about it, there was some sort of medic's conference

going on and 18 is half a galaxy away from any danger, usually

so safe it's dull. I went to the hotel room I'd been told and got

jumped. I came to on a Romulan ship, the Tar'shevek."



He paused, this was even more difficult than he had expected.

Intellectually he knew all about the psychology of trauma, he'd

been carefully trained to help anyone under his command who

found themselves in this sort of situation, but knowing he should

talk was a long way from feeling able to. The truth was

he didn't want to remember, he didn't want to have to put into

words the things that had happened to him and most of all, despite

everything they had said and done, he did not want to have to lay

his dishonour bare before his friends. The very thought of it

produced a wave of nausea and a horrible griping sensation in

the pit of his stomach.



On the other side of the table they watched him, their eyes bright

with concern. He tried to speak and couldn't. He looked down

and, when he looked up again, his face was white and strained.

"I'm not sure I can do this," he said slowly. "I know it's stupid but

you two have such a ridiculously high opinion of me ...."



McCoy leaned over the desk; his exasperation only partly feigned.

"Listen to me, Jim-boy. Me n'Spock don't care if you told the

Romulans everything from the combination of Komack's safe

to the President's inside leg measurement. We've both spent

four and half of the worst months of our lives worrying about

you - now you're back we don't give a plugged nickel about

anything else. You should tell us because it'll help you, it won't

make a blind bit of difference to us."



Kirk glanced at the Vulcan. "Colloquially expressed," began

Spock and the other two joined in the chorus, "but essentially

correct." Kirk smiled; it was good to be home, even if it

wouldn't be for long. He got himself another mug of coffee,

rapped his hands round the warmth and started again.



"OK, OK I'm convinced." He took a deep breath and deliberately

unfocussed his eyes; he couldn't do this if he had to watch

their reactions.



"We all know the Regs. 'Regulation 143.3.2 - It is the duty of

every captured officer to escape if possible'
- well it

wasn't. They weren't the military, every military organisation

I've ever met has a moral code of some kind, even if it appears

alien to us. This was the Tal'Shiar, Imperial Intelligence and

they had no concept of the civilised treatment of prisoners.

They didn't want me to escape so they broke my legs with a

grab-handle." His voice was dispassionate, if he told the story

as though it were someone else's perhaps he could get

through it. The open indignation of the doctor and Spock's

gradually increasing rigidity of body went unseen.



He took another deep breath and started quoting again,

"'Regulation 143.3.3 In the event that escape is impossible it

shall be the duty of every officer in possession, either physically

or mentally, of classified material to ensure that such material

does not fall into the hands of the enemy'
. They call that the

suicide clause, though it doesn't say that in so many words.

I could have killed myself during the journey. They never, ever

left me alone but I could have used that technique I made

you tell me about Spock, the breathing thing."



Spock suppressed his reactions. That thought had been almost

the worst thing about the whole ordeal, not knowing

whether to be glad that he had taught his friend the Vulcan

technique for painless euthanasia and had thereby given him a

way to avoid the worst, or whether to be sorry that it was he

who had shown Jim how to die.



"I couldn't do it. I don't think it was fear of dying because I already

considered myself dead. They'd question me, probably under

torture and then kill me - I knew that and I was ready for it.

I just couldn't kill myself, it was too like..." the scarred fingers

flexed as though grasping for the right words, "giving up

before I had to.



I wish I thought it was courage - I've a nasty feeling it was more

like vanity, maybe I've built my self-image up to the extent

that I'd rather betray the Federation than compromise it. 'I am

Kirk - and if I quit, I'll never hear the end of it'," he said wryly,

quoting practically the only two respectable lines of a scurrilous

lampoon which had circulated through the ship to great applause

a few months before his disappearance. He shook his head and

shrugged. "Maybe it was fear, I don't know any more."



"I think I was on the ship for about three weeks, I couldn't move.

I was dependant on them for everything." A nauseated expression

appeared briefly and was gone. "I don't know where we ended

up because we transported down at night. All I saw was a big

courtyard and a huge white building shaped a bit like the Tented

Hall on Vulcan, only larger and more flamboyant. I was expecting

something out of Edgar Alan Poe - you know, Bones – old and

dark and creepy. This was more like a hospital - light, clean, efficient."



It was getting really difficult to talk now. "The first few weeks

were taken up with the standard sort of thing. Sub-harmonics,

subliminals, hypnosis, auto-suggestion, sleep conditioning,

DPR, sensory deprivation, drugs. Surprisingly enough, the

command conditioning worked - it was all pretty horrible but none

of it was unbearable."



He paused but forced himself to continue, "Then there was a

nasty attempt at a forced mind meld, a weasily little bastard

with a flat head and eyes like a dead fish. You'd told me how

to deal with that one, Spock. I gathered up all the hate and anger

that had been building in me since they'd grabbed me, and I

rammed it down the link he built up after they'd tied me down."

He grinned wolfishly. "I don't know what it did to him but they

carried him out, bleeding from the nose and ears and I never saw

him again."



Despite himself he caught sight of McCoy's shocked expression and

became suddenly angry. "Sorry Bones - I'm afraid 'Good Ol' Jim'

is on vacation right now. Maybe next week I'll start feeling sorry for

my enemies again but for the time being you'll just have to put up

with Jim the Sonovabitch, the one who thinks the only good

Romulan is a dead one."



The anger drained away and he rubbed his eyes wearily and looked

at them both. "Do you really want to know all this?" He didn't

wait for an answer. He just started talking again and soon the

words were pouring out in a desperate, cathartic stream.



"There was a gap of about 60 hours, I think they were waiting for

some brass hat to come and decide what to do next. Then two

new people turned up, they looked like middle-ranking

bureaucrats, a man and a woman, both about the same age as

me. They looked pretty harmless but I could see everybody was shit

scared of them and I soon found out why.



They were the Imperial Examiner-General and her assistant sent

specially from the Praetor's Household, and they got down to the

good ol' fashioned, down home, physical torture. Near-drowning,

electric shocks, beatings, cold, heat, sleep deprivation, low intensity

disrupters, white noise, hanging - I've no idea how long it went on for, it

seemed to be eternal. The command conditioning crumbled. After

a while I would have killed myself if I could but by then I

lacked the physical co-ordination or the mental control to do it.

I hung on as long as I could and then I talked." He paused and

looked down at his hands; they were shaking visibly. He stared

at them for a long time until the shaking subsided. He seemed to

have run out of the strength to go on.



"What did you tell them?" asked Spock gently.



Kirk sighed. "Garbage - a useless mishmash of stuff they must

know already, stuff it doesn't matter if they know, stuff that

was out of date the second I was listed AWOL and outright

lies. I knew what they wanted and every moment of coherent

thought I had I rehearsed my answers. I invented them and I

learnt them - like an actor learning lines, like poetry learned

by rote. I thought of nothing else, literally nothing else, ever; from the first

day they grabbed me to the day I spilt my lying guts all over

the floor. Not the pain, not the ship, not my family, not home,

not you, not even my own life, just the lies. I repeated them

over and over and over again. Sometimes starting in the middle

or near the end, sometimes in a different order, now backwards,

now forwards. Every moment of my waking life, every conscious

second, even when they were beating me, even during this,"

he pointed at his shoulder.



He caught their eyes and they could see the bone-deep anger in

his. "Want to hear some?" He began to recite in a wooden

monotone, and after a few seconds Spock recognised a

description of the early tests of a force field with shipwide shielding

potential which had been the talk of Federation weapons experts

a few months earlier. Later tests had proved that the technology

did not and could not work, indeed Spock himself had been

part of the group that had found the scientific theory that lay

behind that failure. He had discussed the project with Kirk

over the chess board and Jim had evidently used those discussions

as the basis for an elaborate and elegant fraud which, if pursued by

the enemy, would entail them in months of fruitless and

highly expensive research.



The recitation continued for a few minutes, the voice getting

gradually louder and louder, and then it was cut off suddenly.

Kirk shook himself angrily. "I can't forget it even now. It

still rattles around in here." He struck his forehead with a

clenched fist. "Like an advertising jingle or a song you can't

get out of your head – only there's hours and hours of it, fake

ship movements, fake command structures, fake codes, fake

weapons...."



There was silence while they watched him drag himself back

under control. When he began to talk again his voice was

tight and clipped. "They taught us that concentration will help

you resist pain. The lies probably did help me hang on but it

was only a postponement of the inevitable - sooner or later

you talk."



McCoy leant over. "Why are you so angry with yourself?" he

asked, perplexed. "You beat them. You told them nothing and you

didn't break!"



Kirk looked at him coldly. "Oh I broke, don't ever doubt that," he

said bitterly. "I broke, I had no choice. These people are experts.

Eventually, despite everything I did and everything I was, they split

me open like a rotten log and I emptied out the lies I'd concocted

because, by that time, they were so much a part of me telling the

lies was easier than telling the truth. Without those lies I would

have told them everything I knew."



He seemed to be looking inwards at something only he could see,

the trembling in the hands started again and , to the fascinated

horror of his friends, he began to rock gently backwards and

forwards, hugging himself.



"I thought they'd kill me then. I was desperate for it and horrified

when they didn't. I blacked out, I think for a couple of days, and

when I came to they were re-building my face and hands,

repairing the visible damage. The governor of the prison came and

said I had to make a recording for the newsnets. I tried to think

but I didn't seem to have a mind left to do it with - I still thought

they were going to kill me and this seemed to be the only

chance I'd get of letting you two and my mother know what had

happened to me. They say not knowing is the worst. Trouble was

there was a good chance that the Tal'Shiar would rather keep it all quiet

while they exploited the information I'd given them."



He began to shiver and Spock rose, went to the locker and gave him

a woollen sweater. He tried to put it on but the trembling was so bad

eventually they had to help him with it.



When he started to speak again his voice was so low they could

hardly hear it. "I knew I had to put on a good show - make it

so 'entertaining' that they wouldn't be able to resist showing

it - so I gave them....what you saw. I tried to make some of it

sound inherently implausible but I was too far gone by then

for much fine tuning. I knew you two and Mom wouldn't

believe it and you were the only people I cared about by then,

everything else had been killed by the pain."



"Why do you think they let you go?" McCoy didn't care but he

wanted everything to come out.



Kirk shot an odd look at Spock and seemed to hesitate. "I don't

really know - I don't think there was a reason. Partly

because they thought they'd got everything I had to tell them;

partly because I was a loathsome specimen by this stage, beneath

anyone's dignity to kill, and partly because, 'though the leadership caste

are merely exploiting the Warrior Ethic, it still plays well with

the public and sending me back was a chance for a big gesture.

You know - 'The Empire will not soil its hands with the

oathbreaker - we return him to you for his punishment'."



He covered his eyes with his hand for a moment and took a

shuddering breath. "It may also have been because I begged

them not to."



"Why?" Spock was blessedly uncritical.



"Briar patch principal - I'd got to know how their minds work

by then." He smiled mirthlessly. "Nothing like a couple of

days with someone who's breaking your metacarpals one

by one for giving you cultural insight. I was forsworn in

their eyes, the lowest of the low and whatever I didn't want

was probably exactly what I ought to get. I think that's

why they fixed me up before they sent me back. So what

I'd done wouldn't be obscured by the condition I was in."



He shrugged. "I didn't really think it would work but after all

the rest I didn't feel as though I could give up without the

effort, so I grovelled and pleaded not to be sent back. I

even..." He broke off, breathing deeply through the nose.

"No." There were some things no one should burden his friends

with.



"They started to fix me up, I thought they were just getting me

ready for another round of questioning. I forced myself to

memorise another set of lies for them. I had visions of an

endless series of questions and operations and more

questions. I could feel myself going mad. I even tried to make

it happen. Then one day they gave me a shot of something

and I woke up on 23. I'd lost all contact with reality by then, I

wasn't sure whether it was real or a Romulan fiction or a

hallucination, by that stage my dreams were often more

vivid and certainly a lot less painful than being awake. It

wasn't 'til I saw one of the guards was Jon-Jo Hasek who'd

been with me on the Republic that I realised I was back."



"I could see they all hated me. I don't blame them - stuck

out there on the edge of the Neutral Zone; front line troops

presented with a man who had sold them out for the sake

of his own miserable skin. Most of them were only kids

and at that age you always think you'd be ready to 'do or

die'. Hell, even the doctor could scarcely bring himself

to touch me." McCoy made a furious mental note to contact

the Federation Bureau of Medical Ethics; there was no

excuse for negligence on this scale.



"I didn't think like that back there of course, I'd stopped

thinking at all, I was just.... lost. Both sets of lies began to

tangle and for some reason it seemed desperately important

to try to sort them out and keep them separate. When

they said the Enterprise was coming to get me I broke

down completely - I'd become convinced that you'd

despise me too." He put up a hand to stifle the protests.

"Why shouldn't you? I despised myself. It wasn't

until I came aboard I realised..." He shied away from

putting the great gift he had received into his own words

and took refuge in quotation. "That I was not to be...

'cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and

wailing and gnashing of teeth.'."



Finished at last, he put his elbows on the desk and hid his

face in his hands, not in shame but in simple exhaustion.

Something inside Spock's chest seemed to twist at the sight.

The ordeal he had just heard described filled him with a pity

and an anger he could not even begin to control and which

he only just managed to prevent appearing in his face.

However, while he could understand Jim's anger only too

well, he was baffled by the overwhelming sense of failure he

could almost see radiating in waves from the slumped figure

on the other side of the desk. Quietly, he did his best to put

the question into words.



"Why do you blame yourself?" he asked. "The kidnap was

not of your making, you told the Romulans nothing and

you returned. I do not see that you have done anything

with which to reproach yourself."



Kirk sat upright, responding almost automatically to the

request for information. "It was only luck, Spock. If they'd

been a little better at their filthy trade I'd have been unable

to stop them finding out anything they wanted to know. I

should have killed myself in the beginning - then there'd

have been no chance of me betraying anything."



"Jim!" It was McCoy's turn now. "Stop beating yourself up

for not giving in before you had to. That's what you are and

it's saved all our lives more times than I can count. And as

for it being luck that kept you from talking - you've always

made your own luck and a dam' good job you've made of it too."



The Vulcan took up the argument. "You have always demanded

too much of yourself, you are only.."



There was a sudden flare of anger "Human? Believe me Spock,

I was only too well aware that any Vulcan could have done

better than I did."



Spock was undeterred. "I was going to say 'mortal' and as for

the rest you are incorrect. A Vulcan would have caused his

own death as soon as it became apparent that there could be

no hope of rescue. It would be illogical to suffer pain in those

circumstances." He paused and then said, "Although I regret

your pain I cannot regret the return you purchased with it; nor

do I believe that you yourself would wish to die at the hands

of your enemies if there was any method by which you could

avoid it."



Kirk swallowed and shook his head, ducking it to hide his face.

McCoy debated whether he had had enough but decided to let

things take their course, better get it all out while he was in the

mood to talk. It probably wouldn't last. "So why the hell are

we all acting like we're on our way to a neck-tie party? You

tell Starfleet you ran rings round the Roms, they say 'well done

Kirk, have another medal' - end of story !"



Kirk looked at his friend wearily; so passionate; so certain; so

naive. "It doesn't work like that, Bones, you ought to know that

by now. Why should they believe me? And even if they do and

I get acquitted at the court-martial, the acquittal won't be one

tenth as good a story as the sight of me on prime-time Tri-V

betraying everything I'm supposed to hold dear. The first was a

'Galactic Incident', the second will be a closing half-minute on

the late night news. Wherever I go I'll find someone who knows

the first half of the story and doesn't know the rest. Can you really

see Starfleet sending me anywhere on that basis?"



He could see his two friends loking at him with dismay; this

accurate, cynical hopelessness was so uncharacteristic neither

man knew how to deal with it.



He stretched out a hand to them. "Hey, don't look like that! After

the hell I've been in - this trip – knowing everybody aboard still

accepts me, it's more than I ever dared hope for. It's more than

enough. Until four and a half months ago I had the best life in the

known Universe, I can hardly complain about the price now."



McCoy was not convinced. He knew his friend better than he

knew himself. At the moment he believed what he was saying,

after what he had been through he was entitled to a little

resignation, a little exhaustion, but it wouldn't last. In a few weeks

or months or maybe even years the longing would come back.

The stars, the unknown, a ship to call his own, all these things were

rooted so deep within him it would take more than the Romulan

Empire's worse to dig them out. He tried a protest. "Surely you'll

get some credit for spreading - what's the jargon - black propaganda?"



Kirk smiled tiredly. "That's the real irony of it – if I'd known a little

more I could have done some real damage. As it was, most of

what I told them won't fool them for more than a few weeks or months.

They'll find out about the new sensors some other way, they'll

improve their shielding and we'll have to find something else to do

to regain the upper-hand."



He yawned and stretched. "Mind you," he said, "I'd like to be a

fly in the shuttle when they try to find the dilithium on Beratacri

III." McCoy found his hopes rising at this sign that even torture

had not entirely eradicated the schoolboy side of Kirk's sense of

humour. They had surveyed the planet over a year ago and

found nothing much except high winds, sand and a parasitic fly

with a craving for copper-based blood. The Romulans would not

enjoy the planet one little bit.



McCoy tried again, half for his friend's sake and half for his own.

"Are you sure you're not being too dam' pessimistic about this.

You got away leaving the Romulans with nothing but trash - that's

gotta be worth something!"



"Oh, it'll make no difference. I know exactly what Starfleet'll do –

I've always known. If they think I'm guilty, they'll try me and

lock me up but if they think I'm innocent, it'll be even worse."



The certainty in his voice was chilling and they were forced to

remember that here was a man who knew and understood the

inner workings of the organisation to which they all belonged

and who could predict with precision how it would react.



"They'll tell me that it's my duty to let the misinformation run

its course, causing the maximum possible disruption to the

Empire, no matter how trivial that proves to be. They will

point out regretfully but firmly that, while they of course believe

me, nobody else ever will and that, unless I join the Orions,

I'll never sit in a captain's chair again. They'll try to persuade

me that my last sacrifice for the flag and my oath should be

to let myself be tried for a crime I haven't committed.



By that time Good Ol' Jim'll probably be back and he's always

been a sucker for that sort of talk, so there'll be a show trial and

I'll be sentenced to imprisonment in exile someplace light years

away from anywhere, where no one will ever go and check.

They'll take my medals off me in public and give 'em all back

in private, probably with one or two extra. Then they'll pay me a

lot of money which they'll call a pension but which everybody

involved will know is really conscience money and ship me off

permanently to somewhere isolated but not unpleasant."



His mouth twisted bitterly. "And if I really lose all self-respect

they'll even supply me with a steady stream of women paid to

come out and spend a year or so sleeping with me."



They all sat for a long time, a deeply wronged man and his

friends. None of them wanting to believe the worst but all of them

knowing it was all too likely to happen. Kirk felt tired and

empty but at least some of the tension that had gripped him

ever since he had arrived on board had dissipated, now all

he wanted was sleep. There was only one last duty to perform

and then he could let go. He glanced at the chrono - 1.00 am

ship's time. He looked at the doctor, read his distress and knew

there was nothing he could do to alleviate it except send him to

bed, so he did.



Spock too got up to leave but caught sight of a quick shake of the

head and stayed behind. As soon as the door closed behind a

dejected McCoy, Kirk came round the desk and looked up

into the face some called impassive but which he could read

as easily as the Bridge screen. "How much?" he asked quietly.



The Vulcan did not reply; he merely raised an eyebrow.



Kirk shook his head. "C'mon Spock, scar tissue isn't the only

thing I've picked up over the last few months. My 'conversational

Romulan' improved by leaps and bounds. I'm not up to

Uhura's standard but I overheard them talking and even I can

work out what 'blood price' probably means. You're the only

person I know with the money to do it and the brains to work

out how. I wasn't sure until just now or I would have said

something sooner. So - how much did you pay for me?"



Spock could not lie but did not want to tell the whole truth.

"Considerably less than I was prepared to," he said calmly.



"Are you going to tell me how much?"



"No."



"Nor how you did it?"



"No - although in truth it was not difficult. Like all military

dictatorships the Empire is riddled with corruption and there are

always neutrals and renegades who are prepared to trade over the

Neutral Zone."



Kirk smiled slightly and bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Very

well," he said gravely. "I shall not seek to devalue your gift by

inquiring further; still less by saying that you should not have made it.

You cannot hide behind the formula about 'a valuable Starfleet

officer' this time, my friend and brother, we both know my career

is over. This was for me and I'm grateful and honoured."



Spock returned the bow and stood searching for the right response.

"You are my captain and my friend," he said eventually. "All I have

ever known of friendship and community has been a gift from you.

The debt is all upon my side."



Then, before emotions got completely out of control, he changed the

subject. "Jim, I truly do not see why you are in such distress, is there

nothing I can do?"



Kirk looked him straight in the eye. "No, you can't help with this,"

he said and sighed. "I want what I can't have - I want to feel .....

decent again and I want to feel in control of my life." Anger began

to build again as he remembered his helplessness, his jaw tightened

and his voice became harsh. "And most of all, right now I want to

find a fist fight and pound three kinds of shit out of somebody."



Spock recoiled slightly from the violence in his friend's voice and

Kirk saw him do it and started to apologise. Spock's raised hand

stopped him, and when the Vulcan spoke the deep voice was solemn,

the words a benediction.



"You have no reason to feel guilt about any of this, my T'hy'la.

What you see as weakness is merely your inability to control the

uncontrollable. You are still the 'master of your fate and the captain

of your soul', " he said, paraphrasing an ancient poem they both knew,

"but you cannot command the actions of your enemies nor can

you govern the response of our superior officers. Let them react

how they will but be assured of this – to those who know you, you

are as you have always been, a man we are proud to know and would

be proud to serve under once again."



He stood for a moment as though assessing the effect of what he

had said then, once assured that he had struck home, he turned

on his heel and left. Although they never spoke of it again, Kirk

never forgot the moment and carried the words with him, like

medals, until the day he died.



First watch the next day began with Spock on the Bridge and

Kirk and McCoy in Sickbay; the doctor having finally persuaded

his friend that even Starfleet did not expect him to risk blood

poisoning from his wounds. McCoy could see there had been as

improvement, for one thing, although Kirk still insisted on his

own guilt, he had obviously had his first decent night's sleep

since he came aboard.



McCoy was just about to congratulate himself on the success of

his strategy when the shipwide speakers burst into life.



"RED ALERT! RED ALERT! ALL HANDS TO BATTLE

STATIONS! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!"



He turned. "Hey, Jim..." he began and was just in time to see

Kirk dashing out of the door, struggling back into his shirt as he

ran. "Talk about Pavlovian responses," he muttered as he joined

his staff in preparing Sickbay for the worst.



Kirk entirely forgot about his demotion until the moment he

catapulted out of the turbolift to hear the security man's delighted

yell of "Captain on the Bridge." For a split second he checked and

then the pull was too strong; Spock rising from the command

chair, relief in every line of his body; the happy grins exchanged

between Sulu and Chekov; the soft "Yes!" from Uhura; his own

rising excitement. This was where he belonged, this was something

he could do and do well. Starfleet would really have his guts for

it and he couldn't have cared less.



"OK Spock, what have we got?"



"Long range sensors have just detected signs of an on-going battle

ahead. Two Federation frigates, probably Indomitable and

Gustavus Adolphus engaged against an unknown number of Romulan

vessels of similar configuration which are flickering in and out

of a cloaked condition, firing at will. The situation is complicated

by the presence of a civilian convoy consisting of a further four

vessels, including the liner Terran Princess. The frigates are having

to extend their shields over the civilian craft."



"Civilians! What the blazes are they doing out here?"



"I believe they may be colonists taking the direct route to the

new settlement on Epsilon Decani IV."



"Hell of a dangerous short cut! Uhura, can you track the Romulans?"



"Not at this distance, sir, the other ships are masking the readings

and sir - I'm picking up a message to the Gustavus from the Hood,

it's a Code four, tight-band micro-squirt. The Romulans won't

have picked it up. Message reads, 'Hang on we're coming - ETA

five hours'."



Kirk bit at his knuckle in a familiar gesture that sent a warm feeling

running through her. Of all the stupid things to get emotional

about,
she thought.



"They're not going to last that long. Can you find the cloaked ships

if we get closer?"



Her stomach plunged but she forced herself to consider the

problem. "Probably, given long enough - but I can't guarantee it, sir."



He smiled, a huge, charming, reassuring grin. "One of these days,

Lieutenant, you're going to realise how good you are and there'll be

no holding you back." Then he was all business again. "Get Palmer up

here, she can take comms while you're busy with Spock."



Spock came down from his station to the command chair. "Captain,"

he said carefully, "I cannot advise engaging the Romulans so close

to the civilian vessels, in the event of a matter/antimatter explosion,

it is unlikely that the frigates' shields would be sufficient to protect them."



"Then we'll have to draw them away, you two make sure you don't

lose them once you've tagged them. Scotty, I want absolutely everything

we've got to the shields as soon as we drop out of warp, including the

warp drive, the impulse engines, the phasers and every non-essential

system on board. Just leave Sulu enough to correct for drift."



"Sirr! If the shields go we'll be dead in the water!"



Kirk smiled affectionately. He knew that and he knew that Mr Scott

knew that he knew, the engineer just wanted to say it out loud.

"Noted Mr Scott, now jump to it and I want shield condition showing

on the navigator's screen where I can see it."



Mind now up to racing speed, he thumbed the intercom. "Crewman

Chakravati to the Bridge." He caught sight of Spock looking at him

with mildly bemused interest; Chakravati was a low ranking member

of the Quartermaster's Department, notable only for a completely

expressionless face which in fact belied an unusually cheerful disposition.



"Chekov, plot me an intercept course, an elliptical curve to

bring us in from 2418 mark 7. Sulu, I want one of the aft

phasers ready to fire into the shields, 10 % power and pulse it –

I want those shields to shine." They hurried to obey, an almost

tangible excitement sweeping over them, part relief, part trust

and part terror. Whatever was going to happen it surely wouldn't

be dull.



Palmer arrived at a run and took up comms. Uhura moved over

to the console next to Spock's and began to set up for the search

they were about to make.



Kirk considered for a second; there was no going back now. He

threw the last of his caution to the winds, pressed a button on

the arm of his chair and spoke to the ship.



"All hands, this is the captain." In Sickbay McCoy's jubilant yell

was heard two decks away. "There's a battle going on and there are

civilians involved. I'm going to try talking so don't be surprised if

nothing much happens for a while -don't lose your edge, we could

be fighting at any second." He hesitated. What the hell, he thought,

I might never get another chance to say it. "What ever

happens I'm proud and grateful for this chance to serve with you again."



The ensuing silence was ruptured as Chakravati shot onto the Bridge,

impassive as ever with only the trembling of his hands revealing

his shock. Kirk swung the chair round to look at him. "Don't look

so worried, man; you're in no more trouble than the rest of us."

The crewman's hands stopped trembling; there was something

infectious about the captain's ferocious high spirits. "You're going

to be the Enterprise's telepathic tracker - go sit at the Environmental

Control Station. If we get on screen with the Romulans close your

eyes and look inscrutable. Every few minutes go and whisper in

Mr Sulu's ear. The Romulans think we're using specially trained

Telepaths to track them while they're cloaked."



"Why on earth would they think a thing like that?" Scott, looking

up from his station, was openly baffled.



Kirk's eyes were dancing. "Somebody must have told them - I can't

think who. If they're all wearing lead-lined helmets we'll know they

believed it. Phaser programmed?"



"Aye sir."



"And course plotted, sir"



"Then take us in Mr Sulu, Warp 6 as long as it's safe, then full impulse

to five thousand K and all stop. Then prepare some evasives. Chekov,

I want the light show as soon as we drop out of warp."



Spock looked up from his console, his eyes if not his expression

faintly alarmed. "Captain, if your intention is to make the Romulans

believe we have new shielding technology it will not take them

long to realise this is a mere ruse."



"Doesn't have to last long, Spock. Just long enough for you two to

find the ships and for me to get 'em mad enough to chase after us,

we just have to keep them on the hop 'til then. Uhura, anything yet?"

She shook her head and he swung the chair back to look at the

screen. "Sulu?"



With the ease of long practice the unasked question was answered.

"Intercept in 2 minutes 12 seconds."



"Good. Listen up everyone. Sooner or later they're going to try and

use our old pre-fix code. Scotty, on my signal I want you to repower

the engines, Chekov, you turn out the lights and Sulu, get us the

hell out of there. Synchronise between yourselves, you'll have about

half a second to do it in."



Chekov wiped his sweating palms on the leg of his pants and tried to

cultivate some Vulcan calm. It didn't work.



On the Bridge of the Terran Princess, a terrified and exhausted Captain

Walker and his crew watched in astonishment as, like an avenging

angel, a ship coruscating in silver and blue suddenly hurtled out of

nowhere and joined the battle.



His comms officer lifted a startled head and shouted over the klaxon

blare of the red alert, "It's the Enterprise!"



He touched a button and the Bridge heard a relaxed, confident voice

say with unmistakable relish, "This is Captain James T Kirk of the

USS Enterprise. Romulan Commanders surrender or I'll blast you

out of the stars."



Captain Walker blinked and a sudden wave of hope swept over him,

he forgot recent history and remembered only the stories of victory

snatched from the jaws of defeat, the miraculous escapes, the lives

saved. "Put this out shipwide," he said, "let's give our passengers

some hope."



Back on the Enterprise, Palmer was receiving. "Sir, I have a

Romulan Commander, visual." As he had hoped, the shock of

hearing who was in command had tempted someone into contact.



"Uhura, have you traced the source?"



"Not yet, sir."



"On screen then." The picture wavered and steadied, and there

was a spontaneous and utterly genuine burst of laughter; all

the Romulans they could see were indeed wearing cumbersome,

metal helmets, not the light skull caps known to be uniform for

some lower ranks but enormous clumsy artefacts with huge

earpieces to enable them to hear without loss of shielding.



Every ship in the area was picking up the transmissions from

both sides and the colonists, all twenty-three thousand of them,

were clustered round the view screens in their ships. They saw

a Romulan commander, his face contorted with fury, confronting

a casually-dressed, young human who was obviously trying

hard not to laugh. A new legend began to form.



Kirk pulled himself together. "I'm sorry," he managed eventually

when he had command of his trembling lips, "That was very rude –

private joke I'm afraid." Beneath the hectic thrum of adrenalin in

his voice was the authentic ring of amusement. Lieutenant

Commander Bailey, formerly of the Enterprise and now in command

of the Indomitable following the death of all his senior officers,

recognised a familiar note - Kirk was up to something. His heart soared.



"Now, where was I?" The question was plainly rhetorical. "Oh yes –

surrender or I'll blast you out of the stars." Kirk folded his hands

and stared at the screen with an air of cheerful expectation. A cloaked

ship shimmered into existence, let loose a shot and recloaked.

The Enterprise rocked and steadied. Kirk ignored it. "Well, come along,

I haven't got all day, are you going to surrender or aren't you?"



The Romulan Commander sneered. "I surrender to no man, least

of all you, Oathbreaker!"



"Oathbreaker!" Kirk stared at the screen as though he could not

believe his ears. Then, when he spoke, his voice was full of

amused contempt. "You poor, sad sack, son of a bitch," he said

with gentle mockery, "you really believed it all didn't you? You still do!"



He sat back, folded his arms and snorted with derision. "For

heavens sake, man, I'm a Starship captain. They don't let just

anybody drive one of these things you know. We're trained to resist

and I did. I realise people don't normally survive the Imperial

Examiner-General but then again," he said, smiling sunnily, "I'm

not normal. Have you any idea how much it costs to find and train

someone like me? Hell, with that many credits you could buy a

decent meal for everyone on your planet."



He grinned and digressed infuriatingly. "Which wouldn't be a bad

idea, you people have terrible food. Nobody expects haute cuisine in

a torture chamber, but how any sentient species can consider that

t'reff stuff edible is beyond me."



"Forswor..."



Kirk appeared irritated; he jumped to his feet. "Messhetk!" he said

harshly and the Romulan blinked at the gross obscenity. "Did you

really think all you had to do was grab a Starship captain, jump up

and down on him for a couple of months and he'd tell you everything

he knew?" The scorn was laser-edged. "I don't know which is worse,

the insult or the stupidity."



Behind him he heard Uhura's voice say softly, "One," and swept on,

warming to his subject and ignoring more hits to the deflectors.

"Think about it! If I am a traitor what am I doing sitting in this chair?"



Then, with one of the disconcerting flashes of insight that made people

wonder if his esper rating was really as low as he claimed, he seemed

to read the Romulan's mind. He leant forward, one hand on Sulu's

shoulder and half- whispered in conspiratorial fashion, "Unless this

is all a bluff to make you think the stuff I told your people was false

when in fact it's all true."



He paused for a moment's pregnant silence, then straightened up and

grinned happily. "In which case, is the fact that I've mentioned the

idea actually a cunning double bluff?" He spread his hands as though

inviting the Romulan to join in the game. "And what's more, now that

I've mentioned that I've mentioned it, does that constitute a triple bluff?"

Behind him he heard somebody giggle and had to bite his lip to prevent

himself joining in, adrenalin- fuelled hysteria was dangerously close.



The Romulan Commander, who had been wondering about the possibility

of just such a trick, was stung by both the insight and the farcical

nonsense Kirk had spun out of the idea. He launched himself into an

argument he should have ignored. "You did not resist - you proclaimed

your faithlessness before the whole Empire."



Kirk dropped back into his chair laughing. "Commander," he said,

"I don't care if the entire Romulan Empire thinks I eat babies for breakfast,

with a side order of strangled kittens. I still came out ahead of the game."

His tone was lightly taunting. "After all - your people had me, I told

them a complete load of peltri droppings and not only did they believe

me, they let me go afterwards! Pretty dumb or what?" Careful, he thought,

this is getting juvenile - you'll be sticking your tongue out next.



Juvenile or not it seemed to be working; the other enemy ships must

have been monitoring the exchange because they abandoned their

original prey and concentrated all their fire on the Enterprise. The

enhanced shields, boosted by the full power of a starship, held. On

the Federation frigates damage control parties seized the respite and

started on emergency repairs.



The Romulan Commander had the hunted look of a man who has

lost command of events. The forlorn, stuttering wreck he had seen

on the newsnets might never have existed; the man on his screen

exuded certainty, authority and the confidence that comes from having

the upper hand. Doubt began to coil in his mind. The shield

readings were so peculiar ... He started as his second in command

cut off audio, leant forward and said something.



Kirk, effortlessly reading lips with a skill born out of his terrified

captivity, answered the question before it was asked shocking the

Romulans still further. "Yes, I am out of uniform. Thanks to your

food and the Imperial Examiner-General none of mine fit any more,

I didn't expect an Admiral's inspection out here so I didn't bother

reprogramming the fabricator. Next question?"



Uhura's voice said "Two" as he grinned and launched back into

speech, no point in giving them time to catch their breaths.



"Of course," he said cheerily, leaning back in the chair and putting

his hands in his pockets, "this really could be an enormous bluff.

Perhaps I am forsworn. Perhaps it was all true - the stuff I told the

Examiner-General. Perhaps when I said just now I was lying - I was

lying. Perhaps they only let me out of the brig a few minutes ago

because I'm so dam' good at beating you people. Who knows?" He

shrugged. "Perhaps I'm not even the real Kirk."



He waited just long enough for startled speculation to creep into the

eyes on the screen then he reached up, grasped the collar of his shirt

and pulled it over his head in a single, fluid movement. "Wrong again!"

he said smugly and peered down at the tattoo, "Impressive isn't it?

I'd half a mind to keep it as a souvenir until I realised they'd spelt my

name wrong. There is no 'hir' in Kirk!"



Sulu felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end; there was

something frightening about the Captain in this mode. He knew that

Kirk was monitoring not only Chekov's but also his own display

by the way a seemingly careless hand had pressed him to one side

when he had obscured the monitor; Kirk was also listening to the

by-play between Spock and Uhura and at the same time controlling

the Romulan Commander, tantalising him with glimpses of the truth

but never giving him time to think, keeping him angry and off

balance and (most importantly of all) in communication. By flaunting

his identity, he had drawn the enemy ships away from the other

Federation vessels in the knowledge that, for the time being at least,

the Enterprise could stand it. What he was doing was insanely

dangerous, completely necessary and utterly masterful.



The soft voice said, "Three"



Kirk was still talking, constantly needling, stoking the fury he

could see in the alien face on the screen. "By the Five and the One,"

he said, using the ancient Romulan curse, his accent very nearly

perfect. "You people are such idiots! I bet you even went looking

for the Federation's secret dilithium dump on Beratacri III." His

voice laced the idea with just enough melodrama to make it totally

ludicrous.



McCoy crowding round the view screen in Sickbay with his nurses

watched with jubilation as, wearing his mutilation with jaunty

insouciance and in dramatic pictures that were being recorded on

the liner and would soon be flashed all over the Federation, Kirk

wrote himself back into the history books on the side of the angels.



"Four"



"So, Commander, what you have to ask yourself is - have we really

got enhanced shields or is this a trick? Is Kirk lying when he says he

was lying then or is he lying when he says he's telling the truth now"

He hoped the translators could keep up with this babble.



"Five and that's it." Quietly Uhura sent the final co-ordinates to helm

and weapons stations where computer target-lock was engaged. Now

everybody knew where the enemy were and, thanks to the new

equipment and the skills of those who manned it, would not lose them

when the real fighting started.



Kirk checked the shield status; they couldn't last much longer, time

to wind this up. The inane grin was starting to make his jaw ache

but he plastered it back over his face and gave the Romulans one

last shove.



"Or maybe some of what I told your people was true and some of it

wasn't. After all we found you didn't we? Was that luck or was it

Chakravati here?" He waved an airy hand towards the stone-faced

crewman. "Has one of you people left his helmet off and let his

psi-waves leak out or all you all wearing tea kettles on your head

for nothing." The Romulan visibly flinched at that last crack and

turned to snarl something to a crewman standing behind him.

This was it.



"Stand by Scotty." The words were breathed just below the

chair's audio pick-up level.



Palmer spoke behind him. "Incoming pre-fix code."



"No!" Kirk leaped to his feet, terror painted all over his face.

With pre-arranged precision Mr Scott re-routed the energy

back to his engines, Chekov dropped the 'light show' and

Sulu thrust the Enterprise forwards and 'down' under the

lead Romulan ship.



Within five seconds the Enterprise was surging through

hyper-space at warp seven, the pre-set evasive course a seemingly

random trail of twists and turns; within ten seconds all the

Romulan ships were tearing after them, weapons blazing,

half-believing that the end of the coruscating corona meant that

the enemy's shields were down.



Kirk stood, mock terror gone, his attention straining as though

he could actually force himself see what was happening behind.

"Are they all following us?"



"Affirmative."



"Do we have still have lock on them?" He shifted his stance as a

glancing blow to the shields rocked the ship.



"Affirmative."



"Spock, what's the spread?"



Spock leaned over his monitor and glanced into its blue light,

effortlessly he correlated the sensor readings and the

communications traffic and produced a figure that would have

taken most humans several minutes. "Eleven point five light

weeks."



"Damn, too far apart." Kirk stood for a few seconds, rapidly

running through and discarding strategies, then decided.



"Chekov, I want a cluster of torpedoes jettisoned - not fired –

from the portside bays, timed to detonate as we drop out of

warp. Sulu, throw her into a double Moebius, five million K

diameter, minus 80 degrees to the galactic plane. Signal when

ready. We jettison and drop out of warp the next near miss or

hit to the shields."



By this time the whole Bridge crew were working at

the heightened pitch that only mortal danger produces.

Swiftly the men at helm and navigation performed the

necessary operations, working together, sharing their

data with the perfect harmony formed over their weeks

and months of service, neither of them waiting to work out

what was happening, both content to trust.



The great ship tumbled into a twisting loop, regular enough

for the computer to be able to calculate the detonation time,

complex enough to evade attack and to hide its true form

from the Romulans for the few seconds necessary for the

scheme to work.



Chekov's call of "Ready" and a massive hit to the deflectors

followed close on one another. The torpedo explosion and

warp dump which ensued appeared simultaneous and the

Romulan ships, believing their enemy mortally wounded,

closed for the kill as they too dropped out of warp.



"Fire all phasers and starboard torpedoes." Spock came and

stood beside him, his presence indicative of complete

confidence in the strategy. "Portside torpedoes - stand by.

Mr Sulu continue evasives."



As he waited, Kirk felt the dawning creep of regret at the back

of his skull and realised that 'Good Ol' Jim' was back; all those

brave men and women; all those families he was about to

bereave. He knew that the choice between friend and foe was no

choice at all but still....



Watching on long range sensors the crews of the Indomitable and

the Gustavus Adolphus saw the Enterprise burst into existence,

the lancing dart of phaser fire, the comet leap of torpedoes

apparently into empty space and the obscene blossom of

antimatter explosions as the Romulan ships, cloaked but only

lightly shielded, flamed and died.



Kirk stared at the screen until he received formal confirmation of

the hits and then dropped back into his chair; the draining away

of adrenalin leaving him feeling suddenly tired and depressed. He

looked round for the shirt he'd tossed aside; it was getting chilly.



"Scan for escape pods." There was no hope but he gave the order

anyway, then, "All decks, damage control reports."



"No sign of survivors, Captain."



His lips tightened and after a few moments he asked softly, "How

many were there on those ships, Spock?"



"There is no accurate... "



"Spock." He was neither angry nor irritated; he merely insisted on knowing.



"Approximately one thousand." Diagnosing his mood with an expert

eye, the Vulcan picked up the shirt and handed it to his captain.

"There are many thousands of men, women and children on the

colonists' ships," he said, "they are the innocents."



Kirk nodded in appreciation of the thought; there would come a

time when it would help, it wasn't now. "Okay Mr Sulu take us

back to the convoy, warp one."



The Bridge crew slumped in their seats, maintaining just

sufficient attention to guard against sudden attack. Only now did

they understand what they had been doing. Sulu, clenching and

unclenching fists that had locked, so fierce had been his

concentration, knew that he had seen an artist at work. The

difference between a master craftsman and mere workmen

demonstrated on a huge canvas, millions of kilometres wide,

a feat all the more remarkable because of the hatred for death

that lay beneath it.



He glanced behind him and saw the captain, grave- faced and

shivering slightly, and noticed his whole body relax as the

"No serious casualties" report came in. Suddenly and for the

first time, Sulu appreciated the duality at the heart of command –

the drive to save life only accomplished by the risking and the

taking of it. Half appalled, half exhilarated at the prospect, he

wondered if he was fit for the responsibility.



"Go to yellow alert." Kirk rubbed his eyes with the heels of his

hands as his yeoman, realising that civilian clothes would not

be as temperature responsive as a uniform, arrived with coffee

and a warm sweater. Despite his usual dislike of "mother hens"

he was grateful for both and said so.



The next few minutes were spent reviewing the damage reports

and Scotty's repair schedule, then he took a drink of his coffee

and called, "Listen up everybody." The Bridge crew turned to the

centre chair. "Well done," he said simply and met each pair of

eyes in succession for a second of individual communication and

appreciation; spines stiffened.



Mr Scott, passing behind his chair, patted his shoulder, an

almost fatherly gesture, part congratulation, part consolation.



A few seconds later McCoy erupted into the busy quiet of the

Bridge, folded his arms and surveyed him sardonically. The

doctor knew exactly how he was feeling and set out to give his

own brand of comfort, working as ever on the counter-irritant

principle. "You read too many comic books as a kid. 'Surrender

or I'll blast you out of the stars!' indeed. I'm never gonna let you

hear the end of that one! Who do you think you are? The Last

Galactic Hero?"



"I was trying to get his goat." Despite his mood Kirk found himself

answering defensively. Spock opened his mouth but Kirk glared

at him. "And I don't need any 'Captain, what does a Terran animal

of the caprine variety have to do with the situation' comments from

you, Spock. Just once in a while you two might like to consider letting

me be depressed in peace."



McCoy opened his mouth to argue but they were interrupted.

"Sir, I have the Indomitable and the Gustavus calling." Uhura had

reclaimed her station.



Kirk groaned, remembering his status. "I suppose it's too late to go

to the brig?" he said ruefully.



"Almost certainly," answered Spock calmly.



"Oh well, on screen." The stars vanished and were replaced by a split

screen showing the damaged Bridges of the two frigates. Kirk flushed

as, amidst the smoke, the surviving officers could be seen standing

and applauding.



Captain T'sao of the Gustavus was receiving treatment to a shoulder

wound but she still managed to salute. "Captain Kirk," she began and

from that first tiny step his acceptance back amongst his peers began.



Whatever Starfleet Command itself would have done was neatly

pre-empted by a grateful Captain Walker who quickly released his

recordings of the ship to ship transmissions to the media. The irresistible

combination of victory and humour under adversity soon ensured that

they were played, replayed and played again on Tri-V and newsnet

stations all over the Federation.



As McCoy pointed out, with ego-deflating accuracy, the fact that

the entire battle could be rerun between commercial breaks probably

didn't hurt either.



As the Enterprise made its way to Earth, throughout the Federation

the engagement was being analysed in depth by public commentators

and print medium columnists, complete with diagrams and careful

explanations of exactly why the Romulans had become so enraged.



This very quickly developed into complimentary examinations of the

Enterprise's other missions; then favourable articles began to appear

in even the least intellectual sections of the press; popular comedians

wrote the events into their routines; a regrettably vulgar song about

the incident became wildly popular; books were written and politicians

queued to applaud the victor of what the media christened 'Kirk's

Second Battle of the Neutral Zone'.



Public opinion, always hungry for heroes and particularly desperate for

encouraging news from the dangerous Romulan frontier, swung back

in the captain's favour and, by the time the ship arrived in Earth orbit,

it was all over bar the shouting.



Even before then, McCoy got permission to treat his friend's remaining

scars and injuries by the simple expedient of leaking his complaint

to the Medical Ethics Bureau to the press complete with pictures.

What he caustically referred to as 'Permission to heal' came

precisely twenty- four hours after the story broke.



Hardly anybody, even among his worst enemies, could believe in

Kirk's guilt now that the military secrets he was supposed to have

betrayed were being laughed at on every planet in the Federation.

The massive publicity also ensured that there could be no question

of a show trial or indeed of any disciplinary action against the

Enterprise crew as a whole. In the face of the victory and the lives

saved who could possibly object publicly to the relinquishment of

command to the man who had won that victory and saved those lives?



There were those who ascribed his changing fortunes to outrageous

good luck or to the intervention of some deity or other; the

Communion of the Strictly Devout on Nova Sionis, who had hated

him ever since he refused to let them burn one of his crew as a witch,

even blamed the Prince of Darkness. But those who knew him

well recognised just another demonstration of his gift for exploiting

the turns of fate and were grateful that, in saving others, he had

been able to save himself.



Those who knew him very well indeed even had a sneaking suspicion

that the battle might have been deliberately fought in a way likely

to catch the public eye and thus pave the way for his return to

active duty, especially as Uhura reported a number of private conversations

between Captains Kirk and Walker. When taxed with this, during one

of the many riotous parties which the various departments on board

took turns in throwing to celebrate his re-appointment as captain,

he merely laughed and declared himself flattered by the compliment

to his intelligence. A lot of people noted that this was not actually a denial.



His court-martial was one of the shortest on record. Afterwards Starfleet

even gave him another medal, though McCoy, catching sight of the

expression on his face at the presentation ceremony, was not surprised

that he never afterwards wore it.



However, if the Board of Inquiry had been a formality; the public acclaim

was a horrible embarrassment. The day after one of the Tri-V gossip

shows discovered and announced that James T Kirk had received

proposals of marriage (or near equivalent) from 12,538 women, 2,794

men and almost 400 beings for whom the distinction was irrelevant,

Kirk decided he'd had enough.



During a hunted and desperate visit to Sickbay, McCoy was bribed

with shameless promises of improved equipment and regular and

uncomplaining attendance at physicals to issue a bulletin:







"Doctor Leonard H. McCoy MD. FGIXM,

FGIXS Chief Medical Officer USS Enterprise.



With effect from 0900 hours today Captain Kirk is

confined to his quarters under quarantine. No shore

visits will be possible and all appointments are hereby

cancelled. Quarantine will remain in effect until after

ship's departure.



The Captain is suffering from chicken pox."







The End
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