There came the sound of loud pounding, followed closely by “Hurry up, Jim! Do you want good seats, or don’t you?”
“Should I proceed ahead and reserve our place?”
“That’s not a bad idea, Spock,” Leonard said, turning away from a closed door. “As excited as Jim usually is, not even an act of God will get him out of the bathroom until he’s fixed his hair just the way he likes it.”
“I have noticed. Humans can be quite vain.”
Smiling, Leonard flicked a finger at the straight line of Spock’s bangs. “Well, we can’t all be as immaculately groomed as a Vulcan.”
Just then, the bathroom door slid back and Jim came out, saying, “Were you talking about me?”
“You’d like to think that,” Leonard retorted.
“Of course you were,” decided Jim. “I’m ready now.”
“That is fortunate,” remarked Spock, tucking his hands into the sleeves of the Vulcan robe he had chosen to wear that day. “I estimate a delay of another ten point five minutes would reduce our options for seating to only a few solitary, unappealing choices.”
“Plus, you’re not making me stand up,” Leonard pointed out to Jim, “so let’s book it.”
“‘Book it‘, Bones? You say the strangest things.”
Leonard took offense to that. “Strange? Your face is strange!”
Jim rubbed at his clean-shaven jaw as they moved towards the double doors of their suite. “No, I would say it’s handsome.”
“Move aside, Spock. Let Jim and his ego through first. It’ll be a tight fit.”
With a laugh, Jim strode ahead of them out the door and then, once in the corridor, turned around with hands on his hips and a hint of a smirk on his face.
Spock glanced at Leonard.
“I know,” he murmured in response to the Vulcan’s look. “How did we ever end up here?”
“Our hasty judgment of character.”
“So in other words we were just smitten at the time, and now we’re stuck with him.”
Their third companion cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, I believe a discussion of my merits can be postponed until after the show.”
“It’s not your merits we were discussin’, Jim,” Leonard replied as he and Spock joined Jim in the hallway.
Jim situated himself in the middle and placed a hand on each back. He said, “As long as I still have you, you can complain all you want.”
Leonard softened upon hearing this. “You know you’ll always have us.”
It was odd that as Jim looked away, a smile, almost sad, touched the corner of his mouth. “I know… I’m counting on it.”
Leonard didn’t know how to answer that, and he didn’t think Spock did either. Then there was no time for a reply anyway as Jim’s unusual mood melted away and he ushered them along the corridor towards the nearest lift.
The kind of star cruisers built for public thoroughfare in space were some of the ricketiest, most crowded, unhygienic death-traps a person could travel on but they had one thing going for them: their observation platform design. There wasn’t a better view of the stars among current-day spacecraft to be found, including the constitution-class starships which were constantly re-engineered to be the most advanced space-faring vessels that the Federation employed.
And their seats, Spock had said, were optimally positioned for the show. Leonard had a feeling their sneaky Vulcan had reserved the seating far, far in advance.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Jim whispered, who was transfixed by the cluster of colorful stars and space dust above their heads.
In the dark of the auditorium, Leonard studied Jim’s profile and, beyond Jim, Spock’s. “They’re beautiful,” he whispered back.
Spock’s gaze shifted slightly, caught his, but he did not comment on the fact that Leonard wasn’t watching the stars. He would know whose beauty to which Leonard referred.
Leonard suppressed a ridiculous urge to reach across Jim and seek out the Vulcan’s hand.
Spock’s eyes held him a moment longer and just before they let Leonard go, he felt a caress that was not physical but affectionate nonetheless. To someone who had never experienced the telepathic abilities of a Vulcan, it would have been an unsettling sensation.
Leonard knew exactly how to respond. He concentrated as hard as he could on the cuteness of Spock’s pointed ears and then he imagined pinching them.
Spock shifted minutely in his seat.
Leonard grinned. Apparently the message had gotten across.
A hand came out of the darkness, settled on Leonard’s thigh, and squeezed it. It was a sign that Jim had an inkling as to what Leonard and Spock were up to under the guise of stargazing.
Leonard linked their fingers so that the silly fool wouldn’t feel left out. Then, and only then, did he turn his attention towards the transparent ceiling and the mesmerizing sight beyond it.
The lights came up, and a computerized voice said, On behalf of the captain and crew of the Star Maiden and H.F.M. Entertainment Enterprises, we thank you for joining us on this tour through the Lorenti Cluster. The next showing will resume in fifteen minutes. Please follow the lighted walkways to your nearest exit.
“Are we staying?” Leonard asked, looking to Jim and Spock.
“I am amendable to a second viewing,” Spock replied. “Within a few minutes, the cruiser should adjust its bearing sufficiently so that we will be able to see a diffuse molecular cloud covering a large area of the constellation. It is similar in size to the TMC*.”
Jim’s expression brightened with interest.
“I guess that settles that,” Leonard muttered. “Since we’ve got a little time on our hands, I’m going to stretch my legs.”
“All right, Bones. Spock, I thought I saw a nebula earlier on but the tour guide didn’t point it out.”
“What you saw were planetary nebulae, Jim, formed from the material left behind by this sector’s last red giant. It was supposed at one time, some twelve million years ago, that the Lorenti Cluster had a sun which went supernova, spawning another nebula which, oddly, is less visible to our eyes than one would expect given its age. Its ionized gases have gained incredible mass, creating a dense area of space which light particles cannot fully penetrate. However I should be able to point out the nebula’s neutron star. If my sources are accurate, it lies at the coordinates—”
Leonard left them to their discussion. Honestly, there were times when he thought Jim would have made an excellent scientist. He had the curiosity for it, and a passion for learning and exploration as well.
But there was no denying that the man was made for Command, too. Where a scientist wasn’t always of the temperament to be a commander, Jim knew instinctively how to take the lead through the unknowns of their galaxy. Moreover, he could bear the burdens which came with such a demanding responsibility and didn’t buckle or let those burdens ruin him.
In Leonard’s opinion, Jim Kirk was a special man. He never wanted to be Jim, but Leonard knew why he wanted to be with him.
The steady flow of people who had opted not to remain for the next show carried Leonard from the auditorium. He bumped into several others along the way without meaning to, once almost tripped on the edges of someone ensconced in robes much too long for them, and nearly found himself in the arms of a mother and babe, the latter of which grinned at him from behind a spit bubble and grabbed onto a fistful of his hair. It took a few minutes of coaxing from Leonard and the very amused mother to make the child let go.
He figured by this time that he ought to find a drink before he dared venture to the overcrowded restrooms. The bar in a small lounge located cattycorner to the main lobby was less busy and had an open chair at the end. Leonard slid into it and said to the bartender, “Mint julep, if you can manage it.”
The Orion gave him an acknowledging glance and set about, Leonard supposed, in the task of preparing such a drink. He studied the bartender, thinking how unusual it was to see an Orion male on a charter cruise that was—well, simply put—legal. That wasn’t to say all Orions took up the profitable venture of bootlegging and pirating but a good many of them did, being born on the city-ships that nomadic Orions called home while they traveled around the galaxy selling their wares. They were a race of merchants at heart who rather enjoyed having a roguish reputation.
The bartender caught him staring and came back, mint julep in hand, to say, “Like what you see?”
Leonard grinned. “Sorry, but I’m taken.”
The Orion complained, “You stole my line.” Then he grinned too, teeth startling white against his dark green skin. “How’s the julep?”
Leonard tried it. “Not bad. It’s not replicated, that’s for sure. Thanks.”
“Since we advertise that we don’t replicate the good stuff, I would hate to be called a liar.” The bartender tilted his head in the direction of a nearby hutch in the wall. “But if I don’t know how to make it or if you prefer a more unappealing taste, the synthesizer is over there.”
“Nope,” replied Leonard, raising his glass slightly, “what I have is fine.” He checked over his shoulder at the coming-and-goings of the other passengers in the lobby. The line at the restrooms had significantly diminished. “This is just a pit stop. Do I need to open a tab?”
The Orion handed him a padd. “Swipe your room card. The bill comes due at the end of the tour.”
“Thought so,” murmured Leonard. He downed the rest of his julep, knowing there truly wasn’t time to savor it and make it back to Jim and Spock in time, and stood up. “Thanks,” he said again.
“You’re welcome. Come back anytime,” said the Orion.
Leonard headed for the restroom at a brisk pace. Someone pushed in front of him into the facilities, and he made certain to give their trailing robe a wide berth this time. One of the stalls was occupied, the others empty. Leonard chose one at random and went for it.
That was his mistake, he would think later. He should have been suspicious of everything after finding a dead body on a vacation.
The hand that landed in the middle of his back nearly shoved him forward into the toilet. Leonard caught himself on the stall wall with a curse, but by the time he was turned around, there was a small phaser tucked beneath his chin.
His attacker pushed back the robe’s hood, revealing a Bajoran female or someone with very similar genetics.
Leonard opened his mouth to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing.
She warned him first, “No talking.”
They locked eyes.
“You will make no noise at all, Mr. McCoy,” she added in a low whisper, “or it will be the last thing you do. Am I clear?”
“I’m pleased we understand each other. Now, you have something which belongs to me and I want it back.”
Oh boy, Leonard thought, Jim and Spock were going to love this.
The ship’s computer made the last call for the upcoming show, and Jim twisted around in his seat with a frown, searching the remaining figures slipping into the darkened auditorium to find seats. None of them looked like Bones.
“Where do you think he is, Spock? He should have been back by now.”
“I cannot know.”
A couple with a child made their way down the aisle and pointed to the seat next to Jim, the one which should not have been empty.
Jim made a snap decision.
Spock rose as he did with a questioning “Jim?”
“It’s okay. I’ll find him. You stay. Bones and I can catch up with you later.”
It only partly surprised Jim that Spock ignored the suggestion and followed him from their row to the aisle.
Jim nodded to the father carrying his youngling and said, “Be my guest.”
“Thank you,” came the reply as the available seats were hurriedly taken.
Jim had to blink twice and stand still for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the brightly lit, busy lobby outside the auditorium. He looked around, unable to determine the best direction in which to start his search, and gave in to the urge to rub at the back of his neck.
“Why,” he said plaintively to Spock, “do I have this feeling that he’s in trouble?”
“I should hope that is not the case. I will search the concession area while you inspect the nearest personal facilities. There is also a bar, although I doubt we will find him in there.” Spock was already moving away with designated purpose.
Jim opened his mouth but closed it just as the red alert at the back of his neck became serious enough to raise the tiny hairs there. He turned to find Roraqk standing behind him.
That tone, that voice, that word—it was all Jim needed to know that something very wrong had happened. He felt Spock’s return before he saw the Vulcan from the corner of his eye. Together, they faced the Captain of the Maiden.
Jim looked Roraqk over and felt himself fall into a kind of deadly calm that came over him when he was in command. “Captain,” he greeted the other officer. “What is it?”
“I think you should come with me.”
“Can it wait? It seems that we’ve misplaced our friend.”
Roraqk made a rumbling noise, a judgment of some kind that sounded very foreboding.
Jim narrowed his eyes.
Roraqk’s second-in-command appeared behind his captain and said somewhat stiltedly and apologetically, “Captain Kirk, you should—that is, I’m sorry I think—I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“No misunderstanding,” grunted Roraqk. Without further explanation, he moved away from the entrance to the auditorium, his formidable size and bullish-like behavior forcing the crowd of passengers to open up a path for him.
Jim was on the verge of telling Spock to stay behind and find Leonard when Essler spoke first, his tone more subdued than ever.
“Sir,” he said, “I’ll have to request that both of you follow me.”
“Why?” Jim asked.
As the young man stared at Kirk, his gaze took on a betrayed look. “I’m afraid we might have discovered what your Dr. McCoy is up to.”
Jim had never heard more frightening words.
Spock stepped forward and said, “Lead the way, Lieutenant-Commander.”
Jim stared at the feeds with a sort of buzzing in his ears. To his right, Essler was watching him anxiously, waiting for a reaction.
“Play it again,” he ordered.
Roraqk issued the command to the ship’s computer.
Jim leaned forward, hyperaware of Spock at his back, and watched for a second time the order of events which ultimately led to Leonard’s absence for the show. He noted his partner’s body language at the bar, curious yet at the same time impatient to be elsewhere. Then he watched Leonard enter the restrooms with someone and leave with that same person. The footage froze on the pair just before they walked out of range of the ship’s video record.
With a feeling of dread, he asked, “Do we have a different angle of that shot?”
Roraqk regarded him with suspicion. “Why?”
Anger flared in Jim, and one of his hands balled into a fist.
Spock said, “Another vantage point should prove what we already suspect, Captain—that Dr. McCoy did not leave the lobby of his own volition.”
“I don’t suspect anything of the kind,” replied Roraqk. “I think he’s been caught, and you’re trying to cover for him.”
Jim leapt out of his chair. Spock’s hand came down on his arm in a gentle but unyielding grip.
“Sir,” the Vulcan said, his tone growing cooler as Jim stilled, “I do not follow your logic. Based on what evidence are you accusing us of a crime when you have already acquitted us of guilt in the murder?”
Roraqk eyed them.
Essler swallowed before he spoke up. “The Captain issued an order to keep you under surveillance. I thought that was just to… never mind. Sir,” he said, turning to his superior, “I cannot claim to know what is going on here, but I can tell you that Captain Kirk is not the type of man to be involved in… whatever this is.” He glanced at Spock, adding with less certainty, “Mr. Spock, too.”
Jim straightened his spine. “Listen to me, Roraqk. I don’t care what you think right now. One of my own is likely a hostage and in danger. We’ll have to discuss your suspicions some other time. If you want to be of any help to us,” he said flatly, “you will provide me with their heading so that I can intercept them.”
“In danger? You’re making an assumption you shouldn’t, Kirk. Let me tell you what I see: the accomplice was in the auditorium, then left with McCoy when he excused himself. They crossed the lobby together, split up to throw off suspicion and later reconvened for their pre-arranged meeting. If we intercept them now, we won’t find out what they’re up to and why a man died.”
Jim felt his blood pressure rise to a dangerous level.
“Are we being detained?” Spock asked bluntly.
Roraqk hesitated before admitting, “No.”
The fool knew he didn’t have a leg to stand on, thought Jim. “Then we’re leaving,” he announced aloud and strode for the door, hardly able to think of anything but the worst scenarios. He did pause at the door, however, to turn back and say directly to Essler, “Comm me when you find him.”
The young man’s eyes went wide. “On your personal comm, sir?”
Jim smiled without mirth. “None other, Lieutenant-Commander.”
“Yes, sir—I mean, of course, Jim!”
“C’mon, Spock,” Jim said to the silent Vulcan beside him. “Bones needs us.”
Roraqk growled at his second-in-command once Kirk was gone: “You won’t tell that arrogant bastard anything. This is not his ship. That’s an order!”
At the commanding tone, Essler immediately came to attention. “Understood, sir.”
Roraqk released a great, big snort and turned back to the ship’s computer. A wide-eyed crewmember sitting at the console there scrambled to look busy.
Essler uncrossed the fingers behind his back and, careful not to rustle his clothes, took out his comm unit. He scrolled through his contact list, to a private number there which he hadn’t dared use since he found it printed on the passenger paperwork. He vowed he would not fail Jim Kirk.
“Can I say something now?”
“I said keep quiet.”
Leonard pursed his mouth. “I guess you’re the one responsible for the dead body in my bathroom.”
The business end of the phaser dug sharply into his side. Leonard huffed softly and leaned back against the inner wall of the maintenance lift they had snuck into.
Her glare said he should be intimidated.
He decided there was no point in pretending. “Ma’am, I ought to tell you that this ain’t my first rodeo. Now you can point that at me all you like—you can even knock me around with it—” Here he rubbed at a particularly sore spot on the side of his head. “—but the fact is you can’t kill me until you get what you want.” He scowled at the phaser. “And why in blazes couldn’t you just ask first?!”
“Mr. McCoy, you talk too much.”
“It’s Doctor McCoy.”
Her mouth pressed thin. “Doctor.”
Leonard drummed his fingers on the wall and glanced up at the turbolift display. “Why don’t you tell me specifically what you’re looking for? Maybe I don’t have it.”
His kidnapper said nothing.
Leonard pointed out, “If you’re going to kill me anyway, can it hurt to answer my questions?”
“Do you wish for me to kill you?”
“Not really, but it seems like the right assumption.”
Her eyes narrowed as she studied him. Abruptly she said, “You aren’t afraid.”
He drawled, “I’ve learned to hide it better. Being in Starfleet teaches you that.”
Her eyes widened slightly, and she stood up straighter. The phaser came up a notch higher too. “Starfleet?”
Leonard smiled sardonically. “Yes, Starfleet. You didn’t do your homework before you kidnapped me, did you?”
“What is Starfleet doing on a tourist ship?” the woman hissed.
He harrumphed and crossed his arms. “What else? Touring.”
She poked the phaser unforgivingly into his gut. “If you are truly with Starfleet, Doctor, then you have given me more than enough reason not to let you live.”
He held her eyes for a long moment before he asked, “Is it worth it, whatever you’re after? Is it worth the blood on your hands?”
“Oh yes,” she replied too softly. “It is worth your life and mine.”
Leonard’s stomach made a sickening turn. He looked away, needing those handful of seconds to keep his fear from showing. “All right,” he said at length, turning back to her, “I’ll give you what you want… but I can’t just tell you where it is. I’ll have to show you.”
“You have chosen correctly, Dr. McCoy,” she congratulated him, drawing back to an arm’s length. “But let me offer you this advice before we go farther: I never bluff.”
He had known from the first look into her cold eyes that she didn’t. She had been, he had guessed, trained that way. He was recognized a militant when he saw one.
What he didn’t like was the gleam in her eyes just a moment ago. A militant and a zealot—the two rarely mixed well with good results. He had no doubt now that whatever her cause, she was willing to die for it.
Well, little did this woman know that he also had a cause. He had two, in fact, worth everything to him, and he would be damned if anything harmed them.
Jim prowled in front of the door of the turbolift which had yet to arrive. “Can’t you sense him?”
“At this moment it is difficult to discern anything beyond your distress. You must contain it.”
Jim stopped moving and tried to calm his thoughts. It didn’t last long. “Damn it!” he cried, smacking a fist into the palm of his other hand. “Where do we even start? What if he’s already been taken off ship? If this were the Enterprise—”
“A futile wish, Captain. I suggest we focus on what we know.”
Jim closed his eyes. “A body.”
“Yes—found in our quarters, which were ransacked either during the struggle with the killer or in an attempt to find something in the room.”
Jim opened his eyes. “If the object wasn’t found, then someone could still be looking for it.”
Spock’s eyes glinted in the overhead light. “Precisely. Our most logical course of action is to start where the mystery begins.”
Jim was silent for a moment, then said, “If I were Bones, and I knew the captor wanted something, what would I do?”
“First, tell the truth.”
“And if the truth didn’t work, then what?”
Spock replied, “I would say that logically one should let them search our belongings in order to prove there is no lie. More importantly, this could lead to their capture. However, Leonard’s approach will be quite different. He will not take them to our room.”
“Because that would lead them to us.”
“And perhaps anyone else who has the misfortune to be in the way. There is only one area that we can be certain will not be occupied on this ship.”
“As you said,” Jim remarked, “‘where the mystery begins’.”
The lift dinged to alert them to its arrival but neither of them entered it immediately.
“Spock,” said Jim, “on the off chance that we’re wrong, I want you to go to the suite.”
Spock responded politely with “I cannot do that.”
“I’m not asking as your captain.”
“I am not declining as your subordinate.”
Jim managed a partial smile and stepped into the lift, murmuring, “It was worth a try.” He waited until Spock was inside and the turbolift was en route before he said, “If we get out of this intact, Spock, remind me to put a lease on Bones.”
“I have considered the solution before and concluded that, though as amusing as it would be, a lease would hardly curb his penchant for trouble—or yours.”
Jim cut his eyes to the Vulcan next to him. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
Spock only blinked.
Jim fixed his eyes forward again and silently counted the seconds until their destination.
* – TMC stands for Taurus Molecular Cloud.