Donna S. Frelick
Doctor Leonard H. McCoy, Lieutenant Commander, Starfleet (Reactivated), exhaled shakily and opened his eyes. He hesitated a moment on the transporter pad, taking in the altered dimensions of the room around it, the soft lighting, the undefinable sense of newness. His hand went unconsciously to his chest to confirm that he had arrived in one piece.
The smile on Jim Kirk's face showed he had noticed the movement and knew what it meant. Jim has finally lost a few kilos, McCoy noted with some irony as he watched Kirk move to greet him. But the changes that he perceived were more than just physical. There was a harder edge to the man who had been his closest friend, as if Kirk was carefully shielding the heart that had once been so open. Well, that was hardly surprising, under the circumstances. McCoy was not as willing to share his own emotions as he had once been, either.
"Well, for a man who swore he'd never return to Starfleet..." Kirk began.
"Just a moment, Captain, sir," McCoy interjected. "I'll explain what happened. Your revered Admiral Nogura invoked a little known, seldom-used Reserve Activation Clause." He stepped off the pad and brushed past Kirk without meeting his eyes. "In simpler terms, Captain, they drafted me!"
Kirk didn't sound surprised, which only confirmed what McCoy already knew. The doctor turned to confront him. "This was your idea! This was your idea, wasn't it?"
"Bones, there's a...thing out there..."
McCoy's irritation boiled over. "Why is any object we don't understand always called a 'thing'?"
"...headed this way," Kirk finished. He shrugged, and for the first time in a very long time, McCoy saw the Jim Kirk he'd once known as his friend. "I need you," Kirk said, his voice low and intense. "Damn it, Bones, I need you--badly." His eyes held McCoy's as he extended his hand.
McCoy didn't want to take it. He wanted to turn his back on the Enterprise and Starfleet and the whole damn planet. Everything in him wanted to keep on hating Jim Kirk, to keep on blaming Kirk for the loss that had driven him from Starfleet two years earlier, never to return. The great Captain Kirk, McCoy thought with a well-worn bitterness, who jumps in to save the galaxy whenever and wherever Starfleet needs him. Where was he when I needed him? Damn it, he has saved so many, why couldn't he have saved just one more life?
The Federal was McCoy's favorite drinking establishment among the many that clustered near Starfleet Headquarters. It was a little too sedate for the cadets and younger officers who packed the rowdier joints on the reclaimed waterfront, but not dead enough to interest the brass. In fact, some of the bar's patrons actually worked real jobs that had nothing whatsoever to do with Starfleet and that suited Leonard McCoy just fine.
Since the Enterprise had returned to her home port, McCoy had spent a lot of time in The Federal. Five years gallivanting around the galaxy had given him a thirst for a homey place like this one, and it didn't hurt that the regular crowd had already started to know him by name.
McCoy liked a certain corner table where he could put his back to the paneled wall and watch the goings-on at the long, Texas-style bar. But Jim Kirk, as always, chose the seat that gave him the best view of the bay.
"You know, I had to get special dispensation to allow you to join me here," the doctor drawled. "They don't usually allow admirals in the place."
Kirk settled into the cushioned leather. "Maybe if I act like a lieutenant, they won't notice."
"Nope. You're too old. Better just cover up the insignia and don't get caught using the words 'funding levels' and 'imperative' in the same sentence."
"I'll try." Kirk looked up to order brandy from the server, then turned back to McCoy. "So what have you dragged me down here for this time? Don't tell me you've finally made up your mind about a new ship assignment."
"I'll get a new ship assignment when you get a new ship assignment," McCoy replied. "Until then, I'm on leave."
The smile abruptly dropped off Kirk's face. "I don't think you have that much leave accrued."
"'Accrued'? Three weeks as Chief of Operations and you already sound like a personnel officer."
"All right, all right." McCoy's excitement finally spilled out onto his face in a little catbird grin. "I got a message from Natira."
Kirk blinked once before he found a grin to match McCoy's. "After all this time! Bones!"
"Well, it's not like we haven't communicated since I left Yonada," McCoy said, a little defensively.
"But you've haven't seen her."
"No, thanks to you, the Enterprise was always obliged to be anywhere but in the vicinity of New Yonada."
"But the Enterprise is no longer a factor," Kirk pointed out. "You're practically a free man."
"Right," McCoy said, with more conviction than he felt. "And since she's asked me, I'm taking the rest of my leave on New Yonada."
"Good for you, Doctor!" Kirk lifted his brandy and downed half of it with an enthusiastic flourish.
For a moment, McCoy thought his friend hadn't noticed his hesitation, but Kirk caught on before his glass hit the table again. "So a beautiful woman--who also happens to be your wife, at least under local law--invites you to her... uh... planet. And you, by some damn lucky coincidence, are on extended leave and free to go. So why are you looking at me like I just asked you for a crew fitness evaluation?"
McCoy opened his mouth to retort, but closed it again with the protest unspoken. The truth was he was as nervous as a cat about seeing Natira after so long. She had released him from his vows to her just as the removal of the Instrument of Obedience had released him from his commitment to Yonada's Oracle. And yet...
"Well, what if she takes one look at me after all these years and decides she made a big mistake?" McCoy glared at Kirk, daring him to laugh.
To his credit, Kirk allowed his amusement to show only in his eyes. "C'mon, Bones. She wouldn't have invited you if she didn't want to renew the relationship. She didn't strike me as the kind of woman who would change her mind once she'd made that kind of decision. What else?"
McCoy figured he'd just about reached the limit of what he was willing to discuss--even with Jim Kirk. He let the question hang in the air between them.
Kirk regarded him narrowly. "Are you worried you won't want her? It's been a long time. Do you still love her?"
"Yes, I still love her," McCoy answered, shifting in his seat with embarrassment. He wasn't used to this. It was usually Kirk's love life lying on the dissecting table, not his. "I just don't know what... she...expects of me."
"You mean, does she expect you to act like a husband?" Kirk asked carefully. When McCoy didn't answer, Kirk laid a hand on his friend's arm. "Bones, you're thinking too much. Just go. I guarantee when you see her, you'll know what to do."
"Easy for you to say."
Kirk shrugged. "Let's just say I've had some experience in this area."
McCoy let that one pass in favor of a more serious question. "What if she asks me to stay?"
"'Wedding Bells are Breaking Up that Old Gang of Mine'," Kirk said, but there was a ghost of wistfulness in his smile.
"Damn it, Jim, would you be serious for one second?"
"Sorry." The laughter was gone so quickly from Kirk's eyes that McCoy wondered if he'd imagined it there in the first place. "You want to know what I think you should do if she asks you to stay?" Kirk asked after a moment. "I think you should say yes and thank God that she's crazy enough to want you. I think you'd be a fool to do anything else."
McCoy nodded. There really wasn't any other answer. Still, he hesitated on the cusp of change. "I guess that means I'd finally have an excuse to retire," he admitted.
"I guess it does." Kirk sounded exhausted.
The doctor suddenly realized he wasn't worried about himself so much as he was afraid for the man across the table from him. Too many years of watching over the captain's health and well-being had formed a habit that was hard to break. It's not enough that Spock took the first transport out to Vulcan without even saying goodbye, McCoy thought. Now I'm ready to jump ship, too. Not that there's any ship to jump. "I'd feel a lot better about it if I knew you were off that damn desk."
"We've been over that."
"Yeah, but you still haven't got the message," McCoy insisted, ignoring the warning flags Kirk was raising. "You belong on a starship, Jim, not in a fancy office where Nogura can keep you under his thumb. Desk command is going to break you into little pieces, and I might not be around to patch you back together this time."
"Bones, it's a job, not a prison sentence," Kirk snapped. "I may not like it, but it's my turn to do it. And while I'm here I might actually be able to do some good. At least I know what it's like to command a starship, which is more than you could say for Komack."
McCoy stared at Kirk in disbelief. "You know what it's like?" he repeated. "My God, man, you defined what it should be. Look up 'starship captain' in the dictionary, and you'll find James T. Kirk. That's why I just can't understand it, Jim. How could you give up something you loved so much?"
"Jesus, McCoy, will you please leave it alone?" Kirk sighed in exasperation. "You've been after me for weeks. What do you want me to say? You want me to say I miss sitting at the helm of a starship? Well, I don't. I don't miss having 430 people look to me for all the answers. I don't miss waking up in a cold sweat wondering if I did the right thing. No. Five years on the Enterprise was damn long enough."
"Okay, so it wasn't always easy," McCoy replied. "You've been through a lot, Jim. Nobody knows that better than I do. But you never used to feel sorry for yourself. That's something new you've picked up here at Headquarters. And if you don't get up off your butt soon and do something about it, you're going to end up just as brass-tailed and dunsel-brained as the rest of Starfleet Command."
As true as the assessment was, McCoy wanted the words back as soon as he said them. In an instant, Kirk had engaged all his shields, his face hardening into an unreadable mask. He said nothing for a long moment and when he finally did speak, his voice was as cold and gray as the fog-shrouded bay. "If you're finished with your analysis, Doctor, I have work waiting for me back at Headquarters." His glass wasn't yet empty, but he pushed what was left away from him and stood.
McCoy got to his feet, searching for a way to frame some kind of apology. For the moment, though, Kirk was unapproachable. It was as if a stranger extended the hand that McCoy gripped in the briefest of farewells. "Godspeed to Yonada," the admiral said curtly. "Give my best to Natira."
McCoy nodded. "Goodbye, Jim," he murmured, but his friend was already gone.
Natira was there to greet him when he shimmered into being in the transporter facility on New Yonada. The facility was huge, utilitarian, lacking any welcoming sense of aesthetics. It was, after all, the main port of entry for a newly-established colony. But McCoy hardly noticed the noise and activity of the place. He only had eyes for Natira, standing with her guards in a tiny space cleared of people and cargo for her benefit.
God, she was beautiful--tall and slender, with hair the color of clover honey. When she smiled and held out her hands to take his, the shawl she wore slipped to reveal her smooth, white shoulders. He had dreamed of covering those shoulders with kisses, of unpinning her honey hair and letting it fall over his hands and face. He brought her hands to his lips and kissed them, his heart thundering.
"Ma'Coy," she said, her voice warm and intimate against the din of the spaceport. "I am so glad you came. Welcome to our new home."
McCoy cleared his throat and bowed gallantly to cover his embarrassment. "Thank you, ma'am. I'm delighted to be here."
"Come, this is no place for old friends to talk," Natira said, smiling again. "The temple complex is not far. You can rest and refresh yourself, if you wish. Then we will have all the time we like to remember the past. And, perhaps," she added softly, "to think about the future."
The future. McCoy still wasn't certain whether he had come to Yonada--to Natira--to find it or to escape it. The question hovered as Natira proudly showed him around the bustling capital from which she ruled the new home of the Fabrini people. And it preoccupied him much later as she made him welcome in her quarters in the temple complex.
"I have heard that Captain Kirk is no longer in command of your ship," Natira said as she poured wine from a filigreed decanter.
McCoy nodded. "The captain is now an admiral at Starfleet Headquarters--Chief of Operations."
"He has received a great honor, then."
"Yes, I suppose you could see it that way," McCoy said, accepting the wine from her hand. "The admiral certainly does."
"But you do not."
"I think he belongs on a starship and I told him so," he replied. "We argued about it--on several occasions."
Natira smiled. "He must have known you were only concerned for his welfare."
"I'm not so sure," McCoy said, turning the wine glass in his hand.
Natira watched him for a moment before she changed the subject. "And what of your Vulcan friend?" she asked. "Is he well?"
"Spock has returned to Vulcan to study the ancient disciplines of his people," McCoy explained with a little shrug. "They call it achieving Kolinahr--the total suppression of all emotion. Beats me how any culture could set such an ideal up as the epitome of their civilization, but the Vulcans do."
"That will be an especially difficult task for Mister Spock, will it not?" Natira asked. "Is he not half Human and do not Humans value emotion as the people of Yonada do?"
McCoy smiled tightly. "Yes, I imagine it will be difficult for Spock. That is undoubtedly part of its appeal for him." He shook his head slowly. "I don't know. Maybe he just got tired of arguing with people like me." Maybe. And maybe he was just tired of all the pain he absorbed from those around him. Like Jim, Spock felt he had nothing left to give. The real question is, McCoy thought, do I?
He was suddenly aware he'd been staring into his wine glass again and looked up to find Natira's catlike eyes watching him. "Ma'Coy," she said, touching his face. "You are troubled. Is it the disease you spoke of when we met?"
"Oh, no, Natira," he assured her, sorry that he'd worried her. "I'm healthy as a horse." He grinned at her puzzled frown. "I mean I'm perfectly fine. No, I guess I'm just a little bit..." He started to say "at loose ends", but realized he'd just be causing more confusion. "Uh, adrift. Emotionally, I mean. Oh, hell, I don't know what I mean."
"Adrift--like our planet-ship of Yonada?"
"Yes, I suppose," McCoy answered. "Something like that. I've been in Starfleet for almost twenty years, Natira. I was part of the crew of the greatest starship the Fleet has ever launched. Her captain was my friend. Her crew was my family. Now..." He sighed. "The ship is in SpaceDock indefinitely. The man who was my friend isn't even speaking to me. And my 'family' is scattered halfway across the galaxy."
"I don't know what to do, Natira," he confessed. "Somehow I just can't bring myself to sign up for a tour with another ship." The corners of his mouth turned up in a wry smile. "Probably couldn't find another captain that would put up with me. But it's been so long since I lived in the real world, I'm not sure I know how anymore."
Natira set her wine aside and leaned forward. "Ma'Coy, do you remember the night I asked you to be my husband? I told you that we of Yonada are not accustomed to hiding our feelings."
McCoy nodded. That was a night he wasn't likely to forget.
"You asked me to be honest with you. I will be honest again now." She took his hand in both of hers. "I wish with all my heart that you would stay here on New Yonada--with me."
McCoy looked at her face, so intensely focused on him that he burned. Yet he could say nothing.
"We are building a new world here," Natira said, enthusiasm lighting her eyes. "There would be much for you to do. It is an exciting time for all of my people. But it is very difficult. We are trying to live a new kind of life and many disagree about what should be done. I often wish for a husband to hold me in the night. Ma'Coy--I often wish for you."
McCoy had left her alone so long he hadn't dared hope that she would still love him; he had been alone so long he couldn't imagine he deserved that kind of love. Joy and gratitude and guilt rose in him like a flood and threatened to run down his face in a stream of tears. He struggled to find the words to respond before the rush of feeling carried him away. "Natira. We had so little time together. Our marriage was over before it began. Why--why would you wait for me?"
Doubt clouded her face for a brief moment before she answered. "I waited because I love you, Ma'Coy."
"But you're so young, Natira...and beautiful. When I think of how many others must have wanted you..."
Natira suddenly smiled in understanding. "There have been no others in my life, Ma'Coy. There would have been no others if I had spent my whole life parted from you."
His hands reached to frame her face. "Oh, my sweet darlin'," he whispered. "I was a fool to ever leave you." He kissed her, covering her soft, yielding mouth with his own, drinking in her taste of cinnamon and Deltan heartblossom.
"Our marriage vows still live in my heart, husband," she murmured.
"And in mine, Natira," he answered.
She pulled back to look at him. "Then there is nothing to keep us apart any longer. Let us be joined as our spirits are joined." Trust shone in her eyes, an openness that was at once so innocent and so seductive that it took his breath away. "If you will teach me, Ma'Coy, I will be a willing learner."
He hesitated, half-afraid he might fail her despite his love for her, despite his own need so long denied. He kissed her, his heart crashing in his chest, and let her fearless response lead him until he found his own certainty. Then he loosened her long, golden hair and let it fall. He drew her to her feet and slipped the filmy fabric of her gown off her smooth, white shoulders. He picked her up and carried her to the pillowed recess of the sleeping chamber.
She was curious about him, so he took his time undressing and tried not to let his modesty get in the way of her exploration. When he could wait no longer, he pressed his body to hers, matched her curve for delicious curve, seeking her naked skin with his adoring hands. He made love to her with all the feeling in his lonely heart. And in his ear her breathless words repeated over and over again, "My husband, my husband..."
McCoy knew he wasn't particularly well-endowed, and he'd certainly never thought of himself as especially creative. But he was patient and considerate, and--eventually--his experience gave him confidence. Natira responded with a passion that could only have been born of love for him. Their lovemaking that night was tender and deeply satisfying, as if they had always been lovers. And by morning, when he awoke to find her wrapped happily in his arms, Leonard McCoy had begun to think his Starfleet career was over.
Why not? he thought. What's left for me in Starfleet? Natira loves me; she wants me here. And God knows I love her. Don't I deserve to be happy for once in my life?
But something held him back, something he couldn't name or define. Maybe it was just too soon. After all, he'd been on New Yonada less than a standard day. Better to be sure before he forced Natira to make good on an offer she may have extended in the heat of the moment.
Natira stirred and looked up to smile sleepily at him, her hair charmingly disheveled. "Ma'Coy," she murmured.
She rolled over on top of him and kissed him lightly. "Did I please you last night, husband?"
He laughed in pure delight at the memory. "Darlin', you couldn't have pleased me more if there had been two of you."
"Ma'Coy," she said, shaking her head. "Please tell me you will stay long enough for me to understand the way you talk!"
He grinned. "I'm pretty sure the rest of my life wouldn't be long enough to guarantee that!"
"Let me try, my husband," she requested. "Give me the rest of your life and let me try."
He pulled her closer and kissed her, wondering again why he didn't just say yes. But Natira made it clear she needed no more answer than he had given. She returned his kiss with a sigh of rekindled desire.
Before McCoy could act on the impulse she generated in him, a discreet knock at the chamber door put a stop to personal pleasures. "My lady Natira," a voice called. "I beg your understanding, but it is a matter of some consequence."
"My Chief Advisor, Fara," Natira murmured to McCoy. She rose from the bed and dressed quickly, in the habit of one who was used to having her sleep disturbed.
McCoy grabbed his own clothes and slipped through the door to the adjoining room. He could see there were a few drawbacks to being the consort of a high priestess in charge of a colony world.
He came out of the shower to find Natira pacing his room. Reflexive modesty made him wrap the towel hastily around his waist before he spoke. "Urgent business?" he asked, nodding toward the other room.
She smiled briefly. "An invitation of sorts--from my political rivals."
"Rivals?" he asked, dressing while he listened.
"Even a high priestess is not secure in power once the circumstances of her rule have changed," Natira said evenly. "Since we disembarked on our new home, there are many who think the old ways are no longer valid."
"And you represent the old ways."
"Of course. That is my function, after all. I have The Book to guide me, but everything is so new..."
"But you've adapted so well, Natira. Just look at how much you've accomplished already."
Natira sighed. "It is never enough for some of my people, Ma'Coy."
"Some people can be extraordinarily pig-headed, that's for sure. Makes you think maybe the Creators had something in that Instrument of Obedience." He sat beside her on the low couch. "So these people have invited you in for a chat, is that right?"
"A discussion of our differences, in hopes we may find a way to compromise," Natira said, frowning. "I am not certain they are sincere, but I cannot refuse this offer."
She fell silent, considering. McCoy watched her wordlessly. It was a moment before he realized the tight feeling in his chest was pride, the kind of pride a father might have for a daughter--or a husband for his wife.
Natira looked up and smiled sheepishly. "Forgive me. I did not mean to bore you with my problems."
"Natira, anything that concerns you, concerns me," McCoy said. "I only wish I knew enough to be helpful."
"It is enough that you are here, my husband," Natira said. "The meeting will take place in the town of Selene, just a short trip by hovercraft. If you are willing, I would like for you to come with me. The desert road is beautiful, and I would be grateful for your companionship."
"I'd be delighted to accompany you, my lady," McCoy answered, taking her hand to help her to her feet. In fact, the timing of this trip was perfect. Maybe a look at what might be his future home would help him make up his mind. At least it would give him time to think.
McCoy had driven Earth's Painted Desert at sunset. He had looked down on the endless ochre sands of Mars from fifty kilometers up. He had crossed Vulcan's Forge and New Arrakeen's Purgatory and a dozen other nameless deserts from Sol to Eridani. But he had never seen anything like the emerald sandplains of New Yonada, rolling in glittering green dunes from horizon to horizon like a sea frozen in mid-wave. The powdered fragments of tourmaline that gave the sands their color shattered the glare of the midday sun into unbearable shards of fractured light, enough to blind an unprotected Human within minutes. Even through the polarized transparent aluminum of the hovercraft's viewports, the jagged light tore at McCoy's eyes. He judged it was quite possible, despite the protective shielding, to stare at the awful beauty of that desert until he went blind or mad or both.
"We cross only the tiniest corner of Yas Mirani on our way to Selene," Natira explained. "The sandplains stretch for two hundred kilometers to the mountains in the south. Our way lies west."
"It's beautiful," he breathed.
"Yes. But empty of life and a danger to any who enter, protected or no," Natira answered. "After living for so long in the security of our ship, the people of New Yonada find such a place terrifying, despite its beauty."
McCoy turned to her with a smile. "I don't believe anything terrifies you."
"But you are wrong, my husband," she replied. "I am terrified constantly."
He was surprised to hear the admission from her and would have told her so, but at that moment the skimmer slowed abruptly and came to a shuddering stop in the narrow pass between two towering dunes.
Natira sat forward in her seat. "What is the matter, Fara?"
The advisor turned from the front where he had been riding beside the craft's pilot. "A downed hovercraft in the pass, my lady. They require assistance."
"Of course, we must provide it," Natira agreed. "Instruct the adjutant to see to it."
"Immediately, my lady," Fara answered and reached for the communications panel.
McCoy sat up to see the vehicle blocking the pass. Two slim women stood beside the crippled skimmer, their faces obscured by the dark goggles they wore against the glare. They gestured at the craft and shook their heads as the adjutant and most of Natira's military escort joined them. For a moment, it looked like any other breakdown on an isolated route anywhere in the galaxy.
Then McCoy saw movement on the steep dunesides and the flash of phasers. Beside the stalled vehicles the adjutant disintegrated into a cloud of phase-displaced atoms. The women drew phasers of their own and blasted three more of Natira's guards before the soldiers had a chance to put a hand to their weapons. The rest were cut down by fire from above like so much wheat before the harvester.
"Get down!" McCoy shouted and covered Natira's body with his own in the floor of the hovercraft. He heard Fara give the order to lift up and away. The engines whined, and the skimmer began to move, but it wasn't enough. The phaser stream glanced off the front shields and shoved the craft brutally into the sparkling hillside.
"They've taken out the stabilizers!" the pilot yelled. "I can't lift her!"
"Then crawl, but get us out of here!" Fara barked back at him.
The wounded craft floundered along the ground, engines screaming in protest, but there was no room to maneuver in the narrow pass, now clogged with the smoking vehicles of the destroyed escort. Within seconds, the vehicle slammed into the hillside again, and no amount of cursing from the pilot could convince it to move.
Natira pushed up from the vehicle's floor, brushing off McCoy's protection. "They've stopped firing," she said. McCoy peered through the ports, but could see no sign of the doomed escort aside from their still-smoldering vehicles. Their attackers were scrambling over the dunes toward Natira's craft.
"They want us alive," McCoy said. Of course--Natira was their target all along.
"We are armed, but they are many," Fara added. "I do not think we could prevent it."
"No," Natira commanded. "Give up your weapons. I will not have you killed in a useless gesture."
A phalanx of terrorist troops now surrounded the vehicle, phasers at the ready. Their goggles gave them the appearance of a platoon of army ants, but McCoy was in no mood to find this comical. Their commander stepped forward and grinned broadly. "My lady Natira. I am honored to serve as your escort to the headquarters of the Provisional Government of New Fabrini. No doubt you carry eye protection in your vehicle. I urge you put it on before you join us. Our vehicles are waiting over that dune, and, though it is not far, it is quite far enough without goggles."
"Very funny," McCoy muttered as he pulled the goggles over his head. "I'd like to smack that grin right off his chops."
"Ma'Coy," Natira said, her voice low and insistent. "Say nothing. Do whatever you are told. You are not nearly as valuable to them as you are to me."
The doctor hadn't thought of it that way. He was used to being a Starfleet officer, at least. Now he was simply someone accompanying the High Priestess of Yonada and expendable as hell.
"Throw your weapons out the hatch," the commander said. "Come out one at a time--slowly."
Fara and the pilot did as he said and climbed out one after the other. Troopers stepped up to pull them roughly off to one side. Natira popped open the rear hatch and emerged to meet her captors, McCoy clambering out behind her.
The commander gave her a mocking little bow. "My lady."
Natira stood motionless, her back straight and her dignity intact despite the goggles. McCoy watched her, caught between pride and apprehension. "You have performed your treasonous duty with great efficiency, Commander," she said, gesturing at the destruction around her. "These men were your brothers. They and their families traveled for many lifetimes with you and yours across the blackness of space to find this new home. And you would defile it with their murder."
The commander lost his grin, but not his swagger. "For many lifetimes crossing the blackness of space you deceived me and mine and used my brothers to keep us in our place. You can confine us with your ancient taboos no longer. This is a new world."
"And is violence to rule this new world?" Natira answered. "Had your leaders no faith that we could discuss our differences in peace?"
The commander shrugged. "My leaders do not confide their strategies to me, for which I am grateful. I am a man of action, not of philosophies." He pointed at the ridge above them. "Shall we go?"
They started up the slope, but the commander quickly stepped between Natira and the others of her party. He put a hand on McCoy's chest and pushed him backward into Fara and the pilot. "Not you."
Natira whirled on him. "They are with me!"
"They are of no use to us," the commander said. He lifted his phaser.
McCoy couldn't take his eyes off that phaser, the one that was going to kill him in the next second. His knees buckled, but he refused to go down. He refused to die like a coward in front of Natira, as absurd as that sentiment seemed at the moment.
"Stop!" Natira shouted, struggling now against the restricting grip of the trooper who had grabbed her arms. "Are you certain these men are without value? Are your leaders so understanding they would forgive such poor judgment?"
"My orders are to capture you, my lady," the commander said. "All others are irrelevant, unless there is something about these men that I do not know. This one for instance." He pointed the phaser at the pilot. "Is he anything other than a hovercraft pilot?" When no one spoke, he fired the phaser and vaporized the man.
Natira gasped, but she didn't scream. McCoy could find the breath to do neither.
The commander turned the weapon on Fara. "This is Fara, your chief advisor. If he is any more than a purveyor of bad advice, then speak, and I may spare him."
"He is from a powerful family," Natira said. McCoy could see she was trying hard to keep any hint of pleading out of her voice. "Do you dare offend them before your rule has even begun?"
"Yes, I dare," the commander replied. "Because his family will no longer be powerful under the new regime." He fired again and Fara was gone.
My turn, McCoy thought. He was suddenly very calm. The focus of his vision had narrowed to encompass only the phaser, the man who wielded it and Natira.
"Now this one I confess I do not know," the commander said, grinning. "But your face gives you away, Your Highness."
In fact, her face was a portrait of open anguish, but Natira's voice remained steady. "He is a Starfleet officer of high rank, close friend of James Kirk, Chief of Starfleet Operations. Kill him and you will answer to a Federation starship!"
At this, the commander abruptly lost his good humor. After a moment of consideration, he scowled and holstered his weapon. "Let's go," he said and started up the dune.
McCoy took Natira's arm, as much to steady himself as to offer her any support. "That was some level-headed thinking, Madam Priestess," he told her as they struggled up the slope. "Thanks."
"I could not save the others," she said. "But I would have died before I let them harm you, my husband--duty or no duty."
McCoy thought about that, and what it might ultimately mean to him, across nearly two hundred kilometers of green desert, all the way to the commander's base.
The underground warren that served as the headquarters of the revolution crawled with shadows. In the passages that had been carved deep into the mountain, a few scattered lighting panels illuminated the path in fits and starts, making it seem as though the ordinary men and women who jostled McCoy on their way past were monsters, detectable only in the bizarre silhouettes they cast on the rock walls.
Despite his long association with Starfleet, McCoy was not a military man. As a healer, he usually gave little thought to strategy and tactics, troops and weapons. But even McCoy could read the signs in the crowded corridors that indicated the presence of a disciplined, well-supplied military organization. The Provisional Government of Fabrini was no mere collection of ragtag malcontents. The people he saw striding through the passages had purpose and determination. They were armed and well-fed. And there were a hell of a lot of them.
The corridors led finally to a wide central chamber, the heart and hub of the organization. Though dozens of people worked at comm terminals and data stations on makeshift desks in the chamber, the overhead lighting was no better here than it had been in the hallways. The rock walls and ceiling of the chamber retreated away from the weak rays of the inadequate lighting panels until it was impossible to tell how large the space really was.
In the uncertain light, the woman who introduced herself as the Speaker-designate of the Provisional Government of Fabrini looked young to McCoy, perhaps as much as ten years younger than Natira. She seemed much too young to carry such a weight of responsibility--and far too arrogant to have suffered any of the defeats that lent wisdom to more experienced leaders. She regarded them cooly from the other side of a desk that seemed only marginally larger than the others in the chamber. Contempt lay like frost in the unlined contours of her face.
Natira's first words seemed to drop into a pool of unnatural stillness in the bustle of the headquarters. "This place is far from Selene, Soldana. And this meeting is far different from my expectations."
"Circumstances made it necessary to change the venue of our meeting, Priestess," Soldana answered, unperturbed. "Circumstances will also make it necessary to change your expectations."
"I accepted your invitation in good faith. I believed we could discuss our differences peaceably."
"We have wasted many months waiting for any sign of compromise from you, my lady," Soldana replied. "You ignored your opportunity to open a dialogue with us until it was too late. The Provisional Government is no longer interested in discussion."
"Nor in peace, it appears."
Soldana smiled coldly. "Just so."
"Well, just what are you interested in, if I may ask?" McCoy snapped. "You obviously brought us here for some reason."
"The next few days promise to be somewhat...unpredictable. We brought the High Priestess of Yonada here to ensure her safety," Soldana answered. "You, Doctor, were simply a fish caught in the same net, to employ a metaphor undoubtedly common to both our planets." She assessed him briefly before she addressed the High Priestess again. "It is widely known you are no friend of the Federation, Natira. Why would a Starfleet officer be traveling in your party?"
McCoy felt a stab of surprise. The Enterprise had saved Natira's people and made their settlement on this planet possible. The Federation had provided technical assistance and financial aid. What was not to like?
"I am neither friend nor foe of the Federation. I simply insist on maintaining autonomy for New Yonada," Natira replied.
"For New Yonada?" Soldana asked, her voice heavy with sarcasm. "Are you sure you aren't simply protecting your personal privilege to rule this planet as you alone see fit?"
McCoy's first impulse was to leap to Natira's defense. He knew how seriously she took her responsibility to her people. Still, an ugly seed of doubt was beginning to take root in his mind. How much had Natira contributed to this situation?
"I rule as the agent of the Creators," Natira said, her chin lifting defiantly. "My only privilege is to serve the people."
Soldana's smooth face wrinkled in disgust. "More empty platitudes. You will soon find the people are ready for a new servant."
"The people would hardly choose to be served by a minor political faction led by an overeducated child."
Unexpectedly, Soldana laughed. "An over-educated child, perhaps, but a minor political faction? I see you do not yet understand your situation, Priestess. As we speak, Provisional Government troops are encircling important strategic targets in the capital. We plan to establish control of the communications, transportation and commercial networks within the space of days. You have been deposed, my lady."
Natira went very pale, and McCoy reached for her arm. He could feel her trembling as she spoke. "The Oracle Guard will cut you to ribbons."
"Doubtful, my lady. The former commander of the Oracle Guard leads our forces in the capital. Many of his men fight with him. As for the rest--your presence here ensures that resistance will be minimal."
McCoy felt all the fight go out of Natira in a breath. Rebellion she could withstand; betrayal had cut her off at the knees. Whatever shortcomings she might have had as a political leader, he wasn't willing to believe she deserved this.
"Rest assured that when we have achieved full control, you will be released," Soldana continued.
McCoy snorted. "Next you'll be wanting to sell me some real estate."
Both Soldana and Natira looked at him curiously. "You have given me no reason to think you can be trusted," he explained.
"There will be no further reason to hold the High Priestess once we are certain she will not serve as the focus of a reactionary insurrection," Soldana promised. "And you, Doctor McCoy, will be released as soon as we can arrange your safe passage off-planet."
McCoy stepped forward, reddening with fresh anger. "And what if I don't want to leave New Yonada?"
"Doctor, staying on Fabrini is not an option for you."
Until this moment, he hadn't been sure he wanted to stay, but McCoy was damned if he was going to let some half-assed army led by an overgrown brat tell him what to do with his life. "I'm not leaving Natira," he said. "And you can bet your soon-to-be crumbling financial system on that."
The hostility in his voice mobilized the guards assigned to protect Soldana, but she held them back with a wave of her hand. It was clear she felt no threat. Indeed, she seemed amused. "It is true, then. You are the High Priestess's consort?"
"He is my husband," Natira replied.
Something that might have been sympathy flickered briefly in Soldana's eyes. "The Creators have prepared a hard lesson for you, then, Priestess," she said. "On the old Yonada, you alone could chose your mate. On Fabrini, you alone will be denied that choice. Doctor McCoy will be leaving this planet as soon as we can arrange it. And you will remain here with us for as long as we think necessary."
Jim Kirk stared out at the neat assemblage of architecture that was Starfleet Headquarters--sleekly efficient, aesthetically pleasant, disciplined and orderly down to the last starflower in the Academy gardens on the east side of the massive central plaza--and wished for one blade of grass out of place. He longed for a crack in the pavement, a weed in the flowerbed, even a stray scrap of flimsy or a crumb of uneaten Phaser Bar from the canteen downstairs--anything to subvert the perfect, placid, unchanging symmetry of the scene outside his office window.
Kirk sighed and tried again to concentrate on the report he was reading, one of many queued up in his comm terminal awaiting the attention of Starfleet's Chief of Operations. He was amazed at how quickly the routine of his new position had begun to wear on him. Bones was right, he thought. I was an idiot to accept this job.
But he'd had no choice and he knew it, even if McCoy didn't. He had dues to pay in headquarters, serving his allotted time commanding a desk. It was one of the realities of life in Starfleet he had always hoped to avoid, but when Old Man Nogura wanted you as Chief of Operations, you said no at the risk of commanding a transport tug on the Tellar-Andor route for the rest of your career.
There was more to it than that, but Kirk wasn't any more interested in pursuing that train of thought in his own mind than he'd been with McCoy. He'd already spent too many nights replaying his failures, wishing he could call back the orders or recalculate the equations or re-frame the decisions that had led to so many deaths. It didn't seem to help that those decisions had saved his ship and the rest of his crew time after time. He still mourned the ones he lost--the barely remembered junior officers of ill-fated landing parties no less than the unforgettable encounters of his heart, dead or left behind forever.
Kirk had seen and felt and done too much in five years to ever again look at a starship command with the unalloyed enthusiasm of youth. Those memories had tempered him; he knew they would strengthen him in time. Right now, though, he simply felt hammered.
The BellComm unit on his desk bleated and startled Kirk out of his dark daydream. He hit the activating pad and made a mental note to have the graphics node checked on the unit. His aide looked unusually pale. "Yes, what is it, Lieutenant?"
"It's Admiral Nogura, sir. He's on his way down." The young officer's voice had gone up what seemed like a full octave.
Kirk laughed, though he could have confessed to his own little adrenaline rush. The Old Man doesn't usually make house calls. "Don't panic, Lieutenant. I'm sure it's my head he's after, not yours."
"Yes, sir. I-I mean...uh... Should I get some tea, sir?"
Before Kirk could answer, the aide had snapped to attention. Kirk could hear Nogura's low, deceptively gentle voice over the still-open comm circuit. He disconnected and stood to receive the Commander-in-Chief of Starfleet.
Heihachiro Nogura strolled through the door to Kirk's office as if unaware of the effect he had on lesser beings. The Old Man had an ethereal quality about him, as if his mind was focused on higher things. But woe betide any mortal who was foolish enough to take this for inattention. As Jim Kirk well knew, Nogura missed nothing. The C-in-C might look more like a Buddhist monk than a Starfleet admiral, but he was fully capable of severing your head from your shoulders and handing it to you on a plate before you even knew what had happened.
"Good morning, Jim."
"Admiral." Kirk waited. Nogura wasn't one for small talk, and he didn't make social visits to see how his subordinates were settling in.
The Old Man got right to the point. "You'll be leaving for the Beta Quadrant by 1400 hours, Jim. We've got a little problem on New Yonada that needs your personal attention."
"My attention, sir?"
"Were you aware that Leonard McCoy was on Yonada?"
Kirk's heart froze in his chest. God, please don't tell me I'll be bringing McCoy's body back from some stupid accident. "He told me he was taking leave there, yes, sir. Has there..."
Nogura waved a hand in dismissal. "The doctor is alive and well," he said. "Unfortunately, he is in the middle of a political dispute on the planet that may have implications for the Federation."
"A political dispute? McCoy?"
"It seems he was with the High Priestess Natira when she was taken into protective custody by officials of the Provisional Government of Fabrini."
"'Protective custody'--as in kidnapped," Kirk concluded. "You want me to negotiate their release."
"Not exactly," the Old Man replied, settling into the chair in front of Kirk's desk. "That same Provisional Government will likely be the actual government of the planet by this time next week, a development the Federation views as largely positive."
"I don't understand."
"The High Priestess and her advisors have refused to negotiate open trade agreements," Nogura explained. "They want to limit the Federation presence on Yonada. This makes access to their valuable natural resources difficult. It also makes any thought of building a necessary starbase impossible. The Provisional Government, on the other hand, appears to be very accommodating."
Kirk couldn't believe what he was hearing. All right, so Natira was stubborn, but she was hardly a sworn enemy. Would it really be preferable to deal with a bunch of terrorists? "Since when does the Federation encourage the violent overthrow of a legitimate government to serve its own needs?"
"The Federation is encouraging nothing," Nogura barked. "The Federation is not involved in the internal affairs of its member planets nor the internal affairs of nonaligned planets within its territory. Is that clear, Admiral?"
"So I had always believed," Kirk said smoothly.
"And you can believe it now," Nogura shot back. "Your job on New Yonada is to pick up McCoy-- nothing more, nothing less. Understood?"
Kirk acknowledged the order with a crisp, "Yes, sir." It had been a long time since he'd been pulled up like a green cadet. He squelched the angry response that came to mind and kept his features carefully neutral.
"Change was inevitable once the people of Yonada reached their new home--you know that as well as anyone," Nogura said in a tone meant to mollify. "It just so happens that the natural course of history on New Yonada is turning in the Federation's favor."
Far be it from me to stand in the way of the natural course of events, Kirk thought. But he knew better than to remind the Old Man of his creative interpretations of the Prime Directive. "What about McCoy? And Natira?"
"The Provisional Government wishes to release McCoy immediately to our custody."
"So what's the problem?"
"McCoy refuses to leave."
"Oh." Kirk hooked one hip on the edge of his desk and sat. "I see."
"The Yorktown is in the vicinity of New Yonada, but if I know McCoy, he'll just tell Lystra Davis to go to hell," Nogura said. "And I'd prefer to avoid the spectacle of a platoon of Starfleet security officers hauling the doctor away in leg-irons."
"Admiral, McCoy is just as likely to tell me to go to hell," Kirk said. "A platoon of Gorn wouldn't be enough to drag him away from Natira if he feels she is in any danger."
"The Speaker-designate has assured us Natira will be released as soon as the political situation has stabilized. They insist they are holding her for her own protection."
"I'm sorry, sir, but that is pure..." He caught himself just in time. "...bunk. Why would they leave her free to organize the opposition?"
"Because they wish to be members in good standing of the Federation, with all the privileges that conveys," Nogura said. "They are interested in democratic reforms, including free elections, or so I'm told."
"Right. Then why are they in such a hurry to get rid of McCoy?"
Nogura rose to his feet and shrugged. "McCoy was always something of a loose cannon even on the Enterprise. Are you so surprised they'd rather not have him stirring things up while they try to establish a new government?"
Kirk had to admit the Old Man had a point. But how in hell was he supposed to talk Bones into leaving New Yonada without Natira? "You realize, sir, that, technically at least, McCoy is married to the High Priestess?"
Nogura simply looked at him. "I never said this job would be easy, Jim." He turned toward the door. "The courier Dante is at your disposal. Good luck."
"Natira, will you please be reasonable?" McCoy stopped pacing their rough-hewn quarters and knelt at her side. "How can I possibly leave you now?"
"Ma'Coy, I am being reasonable," Natira answered calmly. "You must try to see things from my perspective."
"What I see is a bunch of terrorists who can't be trusted," McCoy said. "Now what kind of husband would I be if I abandoned you to them?"
"You fear them because you are my husband. You wish to protect me, and I love you all the more for it." She placed a cool hand against his cheek and smiled. "I have led my people fairly for many years. And though these few may disagree with my policies, I do not believe they wish to harm me."
"Natira, this is no longer the New Yonada you led in peace. The rules have changed." How could he make her understand? She knew nothing of the horrors most inhabitants of the galaxy lived with every day. The people of Yonada had had no war, no crime, no violence of any kind for centuries. "You have no idea what people are capable of."
"I have been heartbroken to see what my own people have become capable of since we left our planet-ship," Natira said. "And I understand fully what our captors are capable of in the name of progress. Still, I do not believe they can afford to harm me. They mean to use me to further their cause. I would not be nearly so useful to them dead."
McCoy was a little surprised at the hard edge of her argument. Had that toughness been in her all along? He was beginning to think his characterization of her as naive and vulnerable only applied in the bedroom. Still, he wasn't about to let her face this alone. "Well, if they want you, Natira, they're going to have to take me, too," he said. "I'm your husband and that makes it a package deal."
Natira shook her head. "You are my husband, but you are not of New Yonada. This is a matter the people of New Yonada must resolve. If you are held with me against your will, the Federation will be forced to interfere on your behalf. I want that no more than Soldana does."
She took both of his hands in hers. "You must go, Ma'Coy. It will not be forever. We have survived a separation of years; this one can be no longer than a few months. When the people of my planet have settled their differences, I will welcome you back to New Yonada with joy."
No, no, NO! McCoy said nothing, but every nerve protested. This was wrong. He was as sure of it as he was certain he would find a heart left of center in the chest of every living Human in the galaxy. He didn't have to open every sternum to know it would be true. And he didn't have to wait until the bitter end to know what would happen to Natira as soon as he was out of the picture.
"My husband," Natira said softly. "Our time together is short. I do not wish to spend it in useless argument."
Her smile was an invitation McCoy could not resist. But even as he allowed his anger and frustration to slip away, even as he gathered Natira in his arms and touched her waiting lips with his own, something in him would not yield. Fear had settled deep in his chest, and all the fire his passion could build in him was not enough to melt the frost it had left on his heart.
The trip across the shimmering green Yas Mirani by hovercraft was both inconvenient and unnecessary. Kirk's shuttle could have taken him directly to the insurrection's headquarters in the southern mountains and cut hours off the trip, but the Provisional Government insisted on controlling access. The admiral was obliged to leave his Starfleet shuttle behind in New Yonada's tiny spaceport and take the slower vehicle across the vast tourmaline desert.
Kirk had plenty of time to fume while the sandplains swept past the skimmer's viewports. Nurturing his anger wasn't particularly helpful, but it was better than trying to reexamine the problem Nogura had given him. He'd been doing that for days and hadn't managed to find a creative solution yet. And now that he was as much a prisoner as McCoy, the chances that he would come up with something were even slimmer.
Kirk had himself worked up into a perfectly foul temper by the time the hovercraft finally settled into a berth in the wide mouth of a cave high above the desert. Still, he expected no apologies, and he got none from the woman who would soon rule New Yonada.
"Admiral Kirk." She moved out from behind her desk in the command center and held out a pale, slender hand to him. "I am Soldana, Speaker-designate of the Government of Fabrini."
Kirk took her hand and answered with the most charming smile he could manage under the circumstances. "My pleasure, ma'am. But I understood I was to meet with representatives of the Provisional Government of Fabrini."
"We are provisional only in the strictest sense of the word," Soldana said, giving no sign that she'd been annoyed by his comment. "As of sunset yesterday, we control all the governmental functions of this planet. We expect formal recognition from the Federation within a very short period of time."
The arrogant tilt of the Speaker's chin was making it even more difficult for Kirk to dredge up the appropriate diplomatic response. "If the Federation Council has tendered that recognition, I'm not aware of it."
"I would not expect you to be," the Speaker-designate replied brusquely. She sat down again at her desk and busied herself with the data on her comm terminal. "You are here to collect McCoy."
"I am here to do all I can to ensure that Doctor McCoy and the High Priestess Natira are safe and free to make their own choices." The lowliest yeoman on the Enterprise would have recognized the warning in Kirk's quiet, controlled tone.
But that message was lost on Soldana. She sat back in her chair and considered him. "Really, Admiral? Can any of us truly say we are free to make our own choices? We are all bound by duty and limited by prudence, you and I no less than McCoy and Natira."
Kirk's jaw tightened skeptically. "I hardly think this is the time to argue philosophy."
"I would only remind you that your Commanding Admiral has given you a duty to perform here, just as I have a duty to protect the High Priestess from exploitation by reactionary elements."
"Forgive me, but your duty to protect seems more like a self-serving desire to crush the opposition," Kirk replied acidly. "The Federation usually discourages such tactics."
"On the contrary, the Federation ambassador has been quite understanding in this matter," Soldana said smugly.
Kirk didn't have to be reminded just how powerless he was in this negotiation. There was no one--and nothing--that would back him up if he tried to do the right thing. Without the cover of the Enterprise, without a ship or a crew of any kind, he felt positively naked.
"Natira herself has accepted that easing the transition to a new government is in the best interest of her people," Soldana continued. "The High Priestess is cooperating fully with us. Only McCoy has yet to see his duty clearly."
In danger of losing the argument, Kirk abruptly switched tactics. He spread his hands helplessly and took a step or two closer to the desk. "Madam Speaker, I'm afraid that is exactly the problem. McCoy is only trying to protect his wife, as any husband would. You're asking him to leave her when she needs him the most."
"Although I may sympathize with him personally, Admiral, you cannot expect me to place his feelings above the good of Fabrini," Soldana replied with a tolerant smile.
"But if you release them both, McCoy might be able to persuade Natira to leave Fabrini with him."
"I'm sure you understand Natira herself would be reluctant to agree to such a plan."
Kirk held back a sigh. Of course he understood. Natira would not abandon her people, even if she could only serve them from a prison cell. The problem was, McCoy would not abandon her, no matter how awkward his presence might be for the new government, for Starfleet, for the Federation --or for the man ordered to bring him back.
Soldana stood to dismiss him. "My colleagues and I will be leaving for the capital within the hour to formally accept the transfer of power from what is left of the 'New Yonada' leadership. We intend for the High Priestess to be present at the ceremony, but McCoy will not be required. You are free to return to your shuttle with the doctor once our convoy reaches the capital."
"And if I'm not able to convince McCoy to leave?"
Soldana's mouth set into a thin, cruel line. "I expect you to do your duty, Admiral. How you accomplish it is not my concern."
Two guards stepped up to assist the Starfleet representative in carrying out his duty. Kirk followed them out of the central chamber, a condemned man being led to his own execution. He didn't really believe McCoy would kill him for doing what he had to do, but there would be a death nonetheless. This act of betrayal would deal the final blow to a friendship that had already suffered a few too many fundamental disagreements. It would be yet another death for which Kirk held himself responsible, a loss he could ill afford now that Spock was gone and the Enterprise was consigned to his past. Following the guards through the darkened passages, Kirk recognized the familiar hollowness behind his ribs. He had already begun to mourn.
McCoy simply nodded when he saw who the guards had let into their quarters. He could tell by looking at Jim Kirk's defeated face this was no rescue mission. "I should have known they would send you to bring me back," he said. "I don't suppose it would have occurred to you to turn down the assignment?"
Kirk forced a smile. "Turn down Nogura? Easier to try and stop a supernova."
"So, are you here as my friend or as my superior officer?" McCoy knew how harsh it sounded, but he couldn't seem to control the bitterness that was rising up to choke him.
"Bones, I..." Kirk stopped, frowning.
Natira stepped between them before the dialogue could deteriorate any further. "Admiral, it is good to see you again," she said, smiling warmly. "I regret that circumstances make it impossible to welcome you properly."
"Thank you, Natira." Kirk seemed at a loss for words. He glanced around the dank chamber. "Are they treating you well?"
"Oh, sure, we're doing just fine, Jim," McCoy said, sabotaging Natira's efforts to keep the conversation civil. "If you ignore the fact that this bunch has no intention of letting Natira go."
Natira laid a cautioning hand on McCoy's arm. He felt his face flush with emotion, though he wasn't sure whether it was anger or embarrassment he felt. "We have been treated with respect since we arrived here, Admiral," she said in answer to Kirk's question. "Have you any news from the capital?"
"I'm afraid it's not good, Natira," he said. "Your captors have secured control of the government. They're going to ask you to formally concede power to them in a few hours."
"The hell they are!" McCoy shouted. "Natira's not conceding anything."
"Please, Ma'Coy. I must do whatever is best for my people." Natira took a deep breath. "And what does the Federation say to this?"
Kirk paced slowly to the end of the chamber, then finally turned to look at her. "I'm not a diplomat, Natira. I can't dress the truth up in pretty language to make it hurt any less. Officially, the Federation considers this an internal matter. They won't intervene on either side."
"Unofficially," he admitted, "there are quite a few members of the Council who will be glad to have a new government to negotiate with on New Yonada."
McCoy exploded. "Are you telling me the Federation is supporting this gang of terrorists?"
"No, Bones," Kirk sighed. "I'm just telling you they're not supporting Natira."
"What the hell's the difference? It still means they're leaving her in the hands of these criminals."
"Soldana has promised to release Natira as soon as the political situation is stable."
"And you believe that?"
Kirk refused to meet his eyes. "It doesn't matter what I believe."
McCoy grabbed his arm and spun him around to face him. "Jim, you know as well as I do this is going to end badly. You've got to get Natira out of here!"
"How, Doctor?" Kirk demanded, clearly exasperated. "I'm unarmed. There are two guards just outside the door, at least a hundred troops to get through before we reach the outside. We'd have to steal a hovercraft, avoid detection over two hundred klicks of open desert and somehow get to the shuttle at the planet's only spaceport." Kirk ran a hand through his hair and took up his pacing again. "We just have to play this one out and hope Soldana can be trusted. I can't work a miracle this time, Bones, and even if I could--"
"Even if you could, I would not allow it," Natira said firmly.
McCoy turned to her, determined to change her mind. She put a hand on his chest to stop him. "Ma'Coy, we have already discussed this. I must stay here. You must go. I will have it no other way."
"Natira, please, think about this! Maybe if we..."
"No, my husband." Her voice was still gentle, but McCoy could read the resolve in her eyes. The only way he could get her off this planet would be to drug her senseless--and that would be a violation so deep she would never forgive him. Jesus, he felt so helpless! And so afraid. In all the years of his solitary life, he had never felt so afraid.
He looked at the man who had been his friend, but he found no help there, only the face of someone who knew what it was to sacrifice everything on the altar of duty. Jim Kirk was prepared to take him and leave Natira behind, no matter how much it hurt. Kirk would do it because the interests of the Federation required it, because Starfleet had ordered it, because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. He would do what was necessary to force McCoy to give up this last chance at happiness, just as he had given up his own chances time and again.
God help me, but I hate you for this, Jim Kirk, McCoy thought. And if anything happens to her, I'll never forgive you--or myself.
The door slammed open to admit the guards. "The lady Natira will come with us," one of them said.
The blood and the fear roared in his ears and made him shake. He barely felt the kiss that Natira placed on his trembling lips. He held her as if he could resist the current that would rip her from his arms, until she pulled away from him and gave herself up to it. "I love you, my husband," she said. "We will meet again soon and never be parted."
He watched her go, unable to speak for fear his pain would spill out in a desolate wail. Don't go. Please. Natira.
He felt Kirk's hand on his shoulder. "Let's go, Bones. There's nothing more we can do here."
They left the rocky cell he'd shared with Natira and followed their own quartet of guards through the dim corridors. The smell of triumph dripped from the humid walls. The battle was over, almost as soon as it had begun. The new day was coming. The people they met in the passages were busy packing up to move to the capital. McCoy tried to conjure up a righteous anger to counter their exuberance, but all he could manage was a profound and stifling sadness. He didn't give a damn who governed this godforsaken pile of dust. He just wanted Natira safely back in his arms.
Countless twists and turns later, the guards led them out onto a wide, scrabbly shelf of rock that served as a perch for a small fleet of skimmers. McCoy blinked in the bright sun and struggled to overcome a sudden wave of vertigo. Beyond the ranks of vehicles, the earth fell away into a steep, serrated canyon that segmented the red mountains almost as far as the distant desert. A hot, gusty wind swept grit off the barren peaks to scour the canyon walls--and the living beings making their way across the open ledge.
McCoy shielded his face against the stinging wind and kept close to the guards until they finally stopped at the hatch of a freshly polished hovercraft. He, Kirk and the guards climbed gratefully aboard, and the hatch was sealed behind them.
"Well, isn't this cozy!" McCoy grumbled, slapping at the red dust on his tunic as one of the brawny soldiers settled in next to him.
Kirk smiled, looking relieved that McCoy's sense of humor had at least made an appearance. "Guess they want to make sure we don't get lost going home." He craned his neck to get a glimpse of the pilot's control board. "Shouldn't we be on our way, gentlemen, or do you want to try and stuff a few more bodies in here?"
The pilot didn't even bother to turn around. "We will be part of the escort for the Speaker-designate, Admiral. We will wait here until the Speaker and her party have boarded their vehicles."
"And the lady Natira?" McCoy said.
"In that vehicle ahead, sir," the pilot answered.
Her skimmer was just like all the others parked there on the side of the treeless gorge. The hatches had been closed and the protective shielding activated to shut out the early afternoon sun. McCoy couldn't see her. He wished he could see her.
After a moment, Kirk spoke, his attention directed out the viewport. "You have to give it to Soldana's military commanders. This is about as impregnable a defensive position as I've ever seen." He suddenly turned to McCoy. "Did they bring you in this way?"
"No," McCoy answered slowly, trying to visualize their approach. He hadn't exactly been paying attention. "I think I would've remembered that canyon."
"Multiple entrances," Kirk said, almost to himself. "Even with shipboard sensors, we'd have a hell of a time estimating troop strength or activity."
McCoy looked at him. "Why would we need to? Starfleet is neutral in this conflict, remember?"
"Sorry," Kirk sighed, rubbing his eyes. "Can't seem to stop thinking like a ship's captain."
"That's because you are a ship's captain," McCoy hissed. "And always will be."
"Are we going to have that argument again?"
McCoy clenched his teeth to keep a scream of frustration from escaping his chest. No, he didn't want to have that argument again. He didn't want to speak at all. "No," he snapped and slid down in the seat, closing his eyes to preclude further conversation. Beside him, he heard Kirk stifle a sigh.
McCoy couldn't remember the last time he'd closed his eyes. He was so wrung out the mere act of pretending sleep was enough to rob him of consciousness. Despite the tight quarters and his own anxiety, he was completely out when the crackle of the skimmer's comm unit splintered the silence in the skimmer. Disoriented, he jerked upright in his seat.
"Soldana and her aides," Kirk explained, nodding at the viewport. "They're just getting aboard."
Through the front viewport, McCoy saw Soldana and several others enter a vehicle two skimmers ahead of Natira's. Armed troops filled out the escort vehicles ahead of and behind the Speaker-designate's. "We're carrying a hell of a lot of firepower for someone who claims to be the leader of a popular revolution," he muttered.
"Hmm," Kirk agreed. "There's another escort full of troops behind us. If I didn't know better I'd say they were afraid we were going to make a run for it."
"What? And violate your precious sense of duty?" McCoy said caustically. "They obviously don't know you like I do, Jim."
Kirk looked like he'd been slapped. "Bones, I had no choice..."
McCoy felt his control slipping. Before he could stop it, his anger smashed through into the open. "We all have choices, Admiral. Isn't that what I've heard you tell people on a dozen planets in this galaxy? Or was that just rhetoric for the masses? Seems to me, when it comes down to your own personal choices, you're just another Nazi following orders."
"That's enough, Doctor!" Kirk's low voice held a buzz of warning.
"Hell, no, that's not enough," McCoy shot back. "It's not anywhere near enough! I could have taken this stab in the back from anyone but you. I didn't expect any different from Starfleet. But, damn it, Jim, I would have thought you of all people would understand." He held Kirk's gaze for a long moment, wanting to shame him, to hurt him. Kirk simply waited in silence for the next blow to fall.
"You're supposed to be my friend," McCoy said, biting off the words. "Just this once, you could have let someone else do Starfleet's dirty work. You should have told them no."
Kirk absorbed his friend's condemnation without protest, his face set in a mask of unflinching endurance. McCoy knew how much emotion that expression covered up. He knew, but this time he refused to sympathize. This was not about Jim Kirk and how he felt. This was about Leonard McCoy and what he stood to lose. Right now, there was no room in McCoy's heart for anyone's pain but his own.
"I tried, Bones," Kirk said at last. "Nogura wasn't listening. No one was listening." He shook his head and gazed out the darkened viewport. "The whole damn galaxy just seems to be lined up against us on this one."
McCoy had to admit there was a certain ironic humor in that. "Yeah, it figures," he drawled. "You know, Jim, I hear other people have uncomplicated little affairs--cheating on their wives and the like. And they never involve matters of galactic import."
"Really?" Kirk said, one corner of his mouth lifting with the hint of a smile. "I wouldn't know."
"Just tell me she's going to be all right," McCoy murmured, his eyes on Natira's skimmer as the convoy began to lift off.
Kirk answered with a brief squeeze of McCoy's arm. "I'll try again to speak with Soldana when we get back to the ship. Maybe she'll ease up a little once she's sure of her control."
With an ascending whine, their skimmer lifted from the ledge and fell in line behind the others trailing down a narrow roadbed cut into the cliff side. McCoy looked out the side ports, but all he could see was empty air to the left of the vehicle and the jagged rock face to the right. "Isn't there an easier way off this blasted mountain?" he complained. "The teeny little antigravs in this bucket sure as hell aren't going to hold us if we slip off the path."
The pilot ignored him, but McCoy noticed the huge guard next to him had begun to swallow nervously.
"They do seem to be overfond of skimmers," Kirk said. "I can't tell whether the revolution is trying to avoid sensor detection or..."
"Just cheap, if you ask me," McCoy concluded. "And slow, to boot." He glanced from the stone on his right to the emptiness on his left. "Not that I want to go any faster right now, you understand."
"Almost makes you wish for a transporter, huh, Bones?"
McCoy responded to Kirk's grin with an irritated harrumph and tried to find a place to rest his gaze that didn't make him break out in a cold sweat.
The skimmers picked their way down the gorge for most of an hour, engines straining to hold to the slim ribbon of roadway. As the path descended toward the gentler slope at the lower end of the canyon, the convoy began to pick up some speed. The path widened and the distance between vehicles grew as they came within sight of the canyon mouth and the glittering desert beyond.
McCoy had just begun to relax when Kirk sat forward in his seat. One look at the Admiral's face and his heart jumped back into his throat. "What is it, for God's sake?"
Kirk shook his head. "Something's wrong," he said, his voice pitched for McCoy's ears alone. "We're too far back--they're stringing the convoy out."
Natira's skimmer had pulled ahead by almost a hundred meters. The lead vehicles were out of sight around a bend in the twisting roadway. McCoy had barely had time to take this in when the rock face above them shattered into dust. The skimmer bounced off the rough path, driven downward by the blast. The pilot fought to regain control of the bucking vehicle before it carried them over the edge of what was still a long, deadly drop.
The roadway in front of them erupted in a shower of gravel, and suddenly, the air was full of the hiss and whine of phaser fire.
"We're under attack!" Kirk shouted. "From that outcrop ahead."
The skimmer slid to a stop, and the guards jumped out, firing in the direction Kirk had pointed. McCoy started to follow them, but Kirk pulled him onto the skimmer's floor. "Stay down! There's no cover out there."
"We're sitting ducks in this thing! And so is Natira!"
"There's no place to go, Bones. The roadbed's too narrow."
Another explosion sprayed them with sharp rock through the open door of the skimmer. McCoy dove for cover; he didn't see what happened next. He heard the phasers sizzle, he heard the metal screech in response, he heard the bone-jarring roar of explosive impact.
The shock heaved their own skimmer into the mountainside, throwing Kirk on top of him with a bruising crunch. Rock and gravel pelted the skimmer's roof and rumbled down the mountainside. There was a scream from outside--one of the guards--and a gasp from the pilot in the front seat. There was blood running into his own eyes from a gash on his forehead. All the details of that agonizing moment registered in his mind, but for an instant they had no meaning that he could comprehend.
Until Kirk pulled himself up to look outside and McCoy heard him breathe, "Oh, my God."
Natira! Her name was on his lips, but he couldn't find the breath to speak it. He was frozen, huddled on the floor of the skimmer, too stricken to move. She can't be dead, he thought desperately. I'm still alive. How could she possibly be dead?
Then Kirk was beside him on the floor. "Bones, are you all right?"
McCoy nodded numbly. If he was injured, he couldn't feel it. The gaping hole in his chest where his heart had been ripped out took all of his attention.
"Come on," Kirk said, lifting him gently by the shoulders. "We have to get out of here."
He allowed Kirk to propel him toward the open hatch and the two of them stumbled from the canted vehicle onto the slag-littered roadbed. Their attackers had apparently been killed or driven off ; in the air now, there was only dust and silence. One of the guards from their skimmer had been crushed when the vehicle careened sideways into the mountain. His body was still partially visible in the wreckage. Of those that had been taken by phaser fire, there was no trace.
On the road ahead where Natira's skimmer had been, the mountainside fell away, and the broken rock and scree tumbled in a red flood into the canyon below. At the near edge of the slide, the earth was scorched where the implosion of the antigrav unit had ignited a raging blowtorch from the skimmer's ruptured interior. Far below in the bottom of the canyon--oh, God!--what was left of the vehicle had come to rest.
With terrifying clarity, the sounds of the phaser and the hit and the implosion replayed in his mind. And though he fought to keep them off, the images of Natira's last seconds crowded him, tore at him, left him battered and sick. It was quick, he tried to tell himself. She didn't have time to feel anything. But he couldn't stop seeing her face as the skimmer disintegrated and slid into the canyon.
He shrugged off Kirk's supportive hand and tried to walk toward the cratered break in the road. He struggled to find a way to approach the fatal edge, but his legs wouldn't carry him. He fell to his knees on the path, unable to bear the weight of his grief. "I can't see her," he whispered. "There's nothing left. Sweet Jesus." And the biting wind swept his prayer and his curse down the ravaged wall of rock into the waiting canyon.
For a heartbeat, the sight of his friend's haggard face rendered Kirk speechless. McCoy looked as if he hadn't slept, and it was certain he hadn't shaved since they'd left New Yonada. The fact that the doctor was in uniform was only a grudging concession to the protocol demanded by Starfleet Headquarters. The uniform itself was rumpled and stained, as though it had been worn for days.
"Bones." Kirk came around in front of his desk to take his friend by the arm. He led McCoy to a chair, still unable to find the right words to say. "Sit down. You look like you could use a drink."
Actually, Kirk wasn't sure he didn't need the drink more than McCoy did. What he had to tell the doctor was going to be hard for both of them in any case. He went to the credenza at one side of his office and poured them each a respectable slug of Saurian brandy.
McCoy took the proffered drink wordlessly. He took a sip, then set the glass aside on the desk.
Kirk could tell he was waiting. Might as well get it over with. "I would have come to your apartment with this, Bones, but they wouldn't let me leave the building with a copy." He pushed a sheaf of flimsy across the desk. "It's the final report on Fabrini."
McCoy's eyes flicked over the document, but he made no move to pick it up. He glared across the desk at Kirk instead. "Why don't you just sum it up for me, Jim? I'm sure you're familiar with the details."
Kirk felt the barb lodge in his chest, but he tried to ignore the sting. "I've read the report, Bones. I didn't write it."
"Well, if you didn't write it, who the hell did?" McCoy retorted. "You were Nogura's man at the scene, weren't you?"
If I was, it didn't do either of us any good. "Evidently the Diplomatic Service thought I was too close to the action to be objective. They took my statement and drew their own conclusions."
McCoy grunted. "All right. So let me guess what the conclusions were: It's too bad the government of Fabrini had to start off by detaining the High Priestess Natira, but they apologized so we forgive them. And the government of Fabrini had nothing whatsoever to do with the High Priestess's tragic death, which was the accidental result of an attack on the Speaker of Fabrini by elements of Natira's own army. Am I right?"
Kirk paused, trying to find a way to put it that didn't sound so damned much like a lie. He couldn't. "That's about it."
McCoy laughed bitterly. "You could've saved yourself the trouble of dragging me up here for this, Admiral. The Federation was never interested in what actually happened. They were only looking for a justification of their policy."
Hearing the truth from McCoy fanned the flame of Kirk's own anger. He got up and began to pace the length of his office to burn some of it off before he spoke. "If it's any consolation, I registered a protest at the report's conclusions. I was overruled. They completely glossed over what we found at the scene of the attack."
"What we didn't find at the scene, you mean," McCoy countered. "No bodies. No weapons. No tracks. Nothing to indicate there had been anyone up on that cliff but us. Whoever attacked the convoy just disappeared without a trace. Convenient, don't you think?"
"Bones, you don't have to tell me that attack was a setup," Kirk said in frustration. "But just try to convince that bunch of Federation bureaucrats of the truth."
"Yeah, Jim. Commanding a desk is a bitch," McCoy stood up and faced him. "But then you asked for it, didn't you, Admiral?"
Before Kirk could reply, the doctor reached up and ripped the Starfleet Medical insignia from the breast of his tunic. "I, on the other hand, have had my fill of you, of Starfleet and of the whole God-damned Federation of fuckin' Planets. I quit." He threw the tattered patch on Kirk's desk. "The documents will be in your terminal by 1830," he said and walked out.
Kirk stood for a moment in shock. He had no doubt that McCoy was serious. The doctor had been threatening to do it for months, and Starfleet had just given him every excuse to follow through. No, not Starfleet, Kirk thought. Me. I gave him the excuse.
He crossed to his desk and picked up the piece of cloth. He turned it in his hands. And the only thing he could think of to do was to march into Nogura's office and replay the entire scene for the Old Man, right down to the part where Kirk walked out and freed himself from all the obligations that tiny piece of cloth represented.
It would be years before Kirk could explain why he hadn't done it.
In the transporter room of the Enterprise, after two years as a free man, Leonard McCoy stared at Jim Kirk's outstretched hand. If he accepted it, he agreed to be shackled again with all the chains of duty and sacrifice he'd hoped to break the day he'd walked out of Kirk's office. If he accepted it, he would have to admit that he hadn't truly left anything behind when he escaped that day, except the only friend who could have helped him cope with the awful emptiness in his heart.
The anger and the aimlessness that had been his companions in his years on the outside had been a poor substitute for friendship. McCoy was tired of blaming Jim for something he could not have prevented. He was even tired of blaming himself. If it was reconciliation that Jim was offering now, McCoy knew he needed it every bit as much as Kirk did.
He took a step and grasped his friend's hand with a tentative smile. And because he couldn't say, "I've missed you," he simply said, "Permission to come aboard?"
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