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"And does not life go down with a better grace, foaming in full body over a precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in sandy deltas? For surely, at whatever age it overtake the man, this is to die young. The noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched, the trumpets are hardly done blowing, when, trailing with him clouds of glory, this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the spiritual land."

–Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Chapter 1: The Memorial Plaque

 

Standing in the transporter room of the Enterprise-B, Captain John Jason Harriman Jr. smoothed the red material of his duty jacket with his hands. He didn’t want there to be any visible wrinkles in his uniform when his honored guest arrived. He’d already put a pretty serious black mark on his career a few months ago, so right now he didn’t want to ding his reputation any further by slipping up on little things like proper uniform dressage.

 

The female transporter chief tapped a button on her console in the control booth. “Sir, the Victory’s First Officer signals that Captain Spock is ready for transport on their end.”

 

Harriman swallowed nervously. And why shouldn’t he be nervous? He’d been dreading this meeting for days, ever since Starfleet had informed him that the illustrious Vulcan wanted to meet with him. Spock, retired from active service for eight months now, was obviously here to get some kind of explanation from him. Captain Kirk had died on his ship, on his watch, while they’d been engaged in a rescue mission. A legend was gone, and he was the one who was ultimately responsible for that.

 

He really didn’t know what to expect from Spock during this visit. How could one possibly anticipate the reaction that a Vulcan might have after learning about the death of an old shipmate and commanding officer? Everybody in Starfleet and their dogs knew how close of friends Capt. Kirk and Capt. Spock had been. The two had served together for twenty-eight years, virtually inseparable from one another during that time. Starfleet had offered Spock a command of his own several times during the Vulcan’s extraordinary career, only to be turned down each time by Spock with the simple reason of “I prefer my current assignment on the Enterprise under Capt. Kirk to any other.”

 

They’d cheated death on so many occasions, fighting their way over and over again through impossible odds, until some people in Starfleet had begun to seriously believe that fate would never be able to catch up with the pair. Anyone who picked up a book covering recent Starfleet history could read about the time that Kirk had risked his career for the sake of Spock’s soul by stealing the original Enterprise to travel to the Genesis Planet. That had been an amazingly brash and ballsy thing to do, considering that nobody had known at the time that the Genesis effect had regenerated the Vulcan and that the only “proof” Kirk had possessed to indicate Spock was in trouble was obscure Vulcan mysticism. Taking action like that had been an incredible leap of faith on Kirk’s part, of the sort that a person only made for the closest of friends and family.

 

If only it were genuinely possible to avoid fate forever. Unfortunately nobody could ever trick, cheat, or fight one’s way out of death indefinitely – not even when one was as skilled a combatant as Jim Kirk. In the end the Grim Reaper always turned out to be the finer marksman. Always.

 

The timing of Spock’s visit to the Enterprise-B was somewhat mystifying to Harriman. It had been just over five months since Kirk’s passing, but Spock had made no effort to visit the ship before now, nor had he even shown any interest in speaking with Harriman until a few days ago.

 

The transporter chief cleared her throat politely, bringing Harriman out of his thoughtful reverie. “Captain, shall I initiate transport?”

 

Harriman glanced back over his shoulder at the ginger haired Chief Petty Officer. He sighed quietly. It was better to get this over with, rather than putting it off for another few borrowed seconds of false peace. “Yes, please beam him aboard.”

 

Light filled the room and Spock’s tall, lean form materialized on the transporter pad. The black robes he wore gave him a brooding appearance that was grimmer than the typical Vulcan’s. As the shimmer effect vanished in the transporter bay, Harriman lifted his right hand. His fingers split into the familiar v-shape of the Vulcan hand salute. “Welcome aboard the Enterprise, Capt. Spock.”

 

Spock’s own right hand came up from his side in order to return the ta’al. “Thank you, Capt. Harriman. I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me. I know full well the kind of demands that are placed on a starship captain’s valuable time.”

 

“Think nothing of it. It’s the least that I can do.” Harriman looked down at his black boots in a guilty fashion. The least he could do…he should have done so much more. He should have found a way to save Kirk, should have been able to face the prospect of speaking at Kirk’s memorial service in San Francisco rather than making himself conspicuously absent from the event at the last minute…should have been a stronger captain, a better captain, rather than the empty shirt he was. “I’m guessing that you’d like to start by seeing where it happened, right?”

 

Spock walked down the steps of the platform, looking at the young captain expectantly. “It is a logical place to begin.”

 

Harriman nodded somberly. “If you would just follow me then…”

 

In silence he led Spock through the corridors until they came to the deflector control room on deck 15, section 21-alpha. “Well, this is it,” he announced unceremoniously. He touched his fingers to a bronze plaque that had been placed on one of the bulkhead panels.

 

Spock took a step forward so that he might read the inscription. In Memoriam: James T. Kirk, 2233-2293, Captain of the Enterprise. “Risk is part of the game.”

 

After inspecting the plaque, Spock distanced himself from the bulkhead wall. He directed his attention back towards Harriman. “This isn’t an officially authorized display for engineering work areas. It should be removed.”

 

Harriman went a little wide-eyed at the statement. Even for a dispassionate Vulcan Spock’s reaction seemed incredibly cold and removed from reality. “I know it’s not strictly regulation, but putting it here seemed like the proper thing to do.”

 

“An understandable impulse by human standards, but unnecessary. It serves no useful purpose beyond ornamentation. So I must urge you again to remove it at once.”

 

Harriman could hardly believe his ears. What kind of unfeeling person was this Vulcan who stood beside him? Harriman had thought that Spock, of all people, would appreciate and understand the gesture that had been made to Kirk’s memory. They had been friends after all. The best of friends. What Spock was asking him to do now did not seem to be the request of a friend, however. Was it possible that the history books had gotten it wrong about the relationship dynamic between Kirk and Spock all these years? That was a difficult notion for Harriman to entertain. It didn’t seem possible that they could pull the wool so completely over the eyes of a dozen different biographers, all of whom asserted that the two confirmed old bachelors had been good friends, lifelong friends.

 

“It serves a purpose for me,” Harriman responded stiffly, struggling to hide his current feelings of disgust. “When I need a place to think in private, I come here. This plaque serves as a reminder, to me and to everybody else on the ship, of the high cost we can wind up paying when we are not prepared.”

 

Spock glanced at the bronze plaque again, just for a second or so, before he turned his brown eyes towards some distant part of the control room’s ceiling. “You were not responsible for his death, Captain.”

 

Harriman shook his head once in disagreement. “No, I am. This is my ship. Her safety is my responsibility. The safety of everyone on her is my responsibility. It should have been me down here, not him. I should never have allowed him to come down here in my place.”

 

“Given the limited amount of time that the ship possessed to break free from the energy phenomenon before its assured destruction, you were wise not to challenge his decision. You would never have been able to convince him to change his mind, and the ship would have lost valuable time all the while as you argued your point.” Spock’s eyes came to rest upon Harriman once more. “Capt. Kirk was only following his nature to act. He understood full well the risks that were associated with the choices he made.”

 

“His nature.” Harriman ran a hand over his mouth, feeling somewhat sick to his stomach. “It’s too bad that I didn’t have that same instinct for command. Capt. Kirk might not be dead if I would’ve.” Harriman turned his back on the plaque, his hands squeezing into tight, angry balls by his side. “I was so confident. Arrogant even. I’d had the gall to think that I was totally prepared for the awesome responsibilities that awaited me the day this ship left spacedock. But when the time came to prove myself I froze up completely on the bridge, and Kirk saw that. What your friend must have thought of me, his replacement in the big chair of an all new Enterprise, as he made his way down here.”

 

Looking down at his boots again, Harriman despondently shook his head a little. He’d worshipped Kirk as a child. While still in grade school he’d read every scrap of information he’d been able to find about his hero and the missions that the legendary captain had undertaken during his historic five-year mission. It had been devastating to him on an intensely personal level knowing that Kirk must have felt disappointment when looking at his appointed successor. The fact that his idol had died while covering for his own hesitation and incompetence as a leader had almost broken his spirit entirely in the months that had followed. He’d even tried to resign his commission at one point, but a single quick interfering word from his father, Admiral John “Blackjack” Harriman, to the commander in chief of Starfleet, Fleet Admiral William “Bill” Smillie, had prevented him from making his quiet exit from Starfleet. Leaving the service with what little dignity and honor he had left was apparently not an option for him while Bill and Blackjack were calling the shots.

 

Harriman muttered bitterly under his breath. “Some successor I turned out to be.”

 

Spock shot Harriman a look of the sort that instructors use when dealing with their less worldly students as they try to correct errant opinions. It was a look that Spock had perfected in the years he had spent teaching cadets at the Academy. “I highly doubt that Capt. Kirk bore you any ill will, Capt. Harriman.”

 

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, Capt. Spock. But I saw the look in his eyes just before the turbolift doors on the bridge shut with him inside the car.”

 

With his gaze still on Spock, Harriman paused, his thoughts returning back to that day. Jim Kirk may have seemed like a man in control to everybody else on that bridge, but he had been able to tell by the sparkle in Kirk’s hazel eyes that the former captain had been scared, as though he had been the loneliest man in the universe at that exact moment.

 

It was five months after the fact, and that look of Kirk’s still haunted him in his dreams while he slept. “We were in a crisis, and it was painfully obvious from my vantage point that I was definitely not the individual Capt. Kirk wanted to see standing there on the bridge. I don’t know who he was hoping to see, who could have banished that sense of desolation from his mind…but I do know I wasn’t the one that Capt. Kirk needed to have by his side.”

 

Well, this statement wasn’t actually the truth, but Harriman was trying to be kind to the Vulcan. He knew exactly who it was Kirk had been looking for; it was the same person whom Kirk had looked to during a crisis for 28 years: Spock. The legendary captain’s friend hadn’t been there, and so when the time came Kirk had been stuck staring at Harriman on the bridge instead. And when the final moment had come Jim Kirk had died alone, without anyone present to ease his passing into the next world.

 

Harriman saw the Adam’s apple in Spock’s throat bob up and down as the Vulcan swallowed. The legend’s voice retained its studied neutrality of tone, but it had gained an undercurrent of uneasy tightness. “With all due respect to your beliefs, I knew Capt. Kirk for a great deal longer and a great deal better than you did. He was my friend, as you said. And I can tell you with complete certainty that he could not have held the kind of opinions towards you that you believe he did. That was not a part of his nature.”

 

Harriman pressed his lips together, as though he were trying to hold back a flood of difficult emotions. “I just wish I could have that day back…that I could go back and tell my past self that the christening ceremony needed to be delayed for another week, until the ship’s systems were all installed and tied into the main computer. We wouldn’t have been out there in the first place if I hadn’t been in such a big hurry. I wish I could go back to talk some sense into myself, to make me see that leaving spacedock without some of the ship’s key systems in place was a mistake.”

 

One of Spock’s eyebrows lifted. The young captain was being rather hard on himself, in Spock’s estimation. Harriman had not been alone in rushing the Enterprise-B out of spacedock. Starfleet politics had played a role as well. Bill and Blackjack had pushed for an early launch for reasons pertaining to public relations; as a result the untried Capt. Harriman had not been able to ignore the pressures coming at him from above, and he had agreed to an earlier launch date than he would have otherwise done.

 

But Spock chose not to mention any of this. Instead he chose only to address the more immediate outcome of that fateful day. “I doubt the forty-seven El-Aurian refugees you saved would express a similar sentiment if asked about that day. Had the Enterprise not been in space and responded to the Lakul’s distress signal, those forty-seven individuals would be dead right now. Their continued existence can hardly be considered “a mistake.” I also believe that if Capt. Kirk were here right now he would tell you that giving his own life in exchange for those forty-seven, as well as for the lives of your crew, was a more than equitable trade with Death. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”

 

Harriman nodded a little in agreement, but it was a subdued motion. “He taught me so much in such a short amount of time; who knows what else I might have learned. I wish I could’ve had more time with him.”

 

“Indeed.” Spock turned his eyes back towards the plaque, but Harriman got the sense that the Vulcan wasn’t actually looking at the square of bronze. The brown eyes were distant, doing a million yard Vulcan stare into nothingness. “That is a sentiment you and I both share.”

 

Harriman read the dates printed on the plate once more: 2233-2293. A mere 60 years Kirk had lived. It was such a paltry sum considering that the average life expectancy for humans currently exceeded 110. It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for the more hearty to make it to 120. For a robust individual like James T. Kirk, a life cut short by half of its potential length wasn’t just a shock or a tragedy; it was a sick joke on the universe’s part. What might such a man have been able to accomplish in the second half of his life with all his talents unleashed, given how much he had already contributed in the first half of it? Such questions could only be speculated upon and answered by counterfactual historians now, and those same “what if” questions left him feeling tight-throated and misty-eyed.

 

Harriman rubbed at the side of his nose, looking down at the deck plating as he took a few seconds to regain his full composure. “You must miss your friend very much.”

 

A ghastly quiet overwhelmed the space in the control room. Harriman waited almost thirty seconds for Spock to make some kind of response, but the Vulcan never gave him one.

 

“Well,” Harriman said quickly, trying to fill up the uncomfortable silence, “I’ll leave you alone for a while. Feel free to use the intercom if you need me for anything.”

 

He turned on the ball of one foot, and was just about to start heading back out into the corridor when Spock finally spoke again.

 

“Capt. Harriman?”

 

“Yes?”

 

Spock gave him a stern look. “I want this plaque removed from the bulkhead. Today.”

 

The first two times that Spock had asked him to take down the plaque had been requests. This time it was clearly not a request; it was an order, one which Harriman knew better than to disobey. The coldness in the Vulcan’s voice was enough to make Harriman shudder. Capt. Spock: the walking, talking, emotional freezer unit – whether he truly was one or not, it was the impression the retired officer gave off to those around him.

 

“Yes sir,” Harriman acknowledged stiffly.

 

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