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Each of them anticipated something wrong. In hindsight, they saw clearly where the mistakes were made, saw when they should have acted differently, guessed otherwise, held back. Guilt was the result. But the price that was paid? That was far worse than a guilty conscience.
Far, far worse.
Leonard watched the woman with disinterest. He wasn’t certain why he felt removed from what was happening, but it wasn’t a steely kind of calm that kept fear at bay. It wasn’t arrogance or self-confidence. In a way, that was quite worrying. That he was in a dire situation, the possibility that he could be murdered, demanded more than apathy.
He dropped his head to one side to stretch his neck. Then he stretched the other side of his neck. After another minute of watching things being tossed aside or up-turned, he inquired, “Would you like my help?”
His captor bared her teeth. “I’ve told you to shut up! Must I continue to repeat myself?”
He almost countered with this is the most boring kidnapping I’ve been a part of in all my years but decided if someone later on learned that he had said that, he would never live it down (granted, of course, he were still alive at that point).
That set him to thinking some more. “Say, can I ask you a question?”
Instead of whirling around and doing violence to his person, the woman huffed her exasperation and gave him a bland look which was tacit permission to continue.
“Was it murder or self-defense?” he wanted to know.
“The guy found in that bathroom right over there. He suffered trauma, that much any medically trained eye—like mine,” he added, “could see. I was just curious about the kind of explanation you would give for how he died.”
At first he thought she wasn’t going to give an answer because she stayed quiet for so long. Then to his surprise the kidnapper shook her head and said, “My only explanation is this, Doctor: I needed that man alive.”
They stared at each other, weighing the things that went unsaid.
“I guess,” Leonard decided at last, “that I could believe that.”
“I care little if you believe me or not. Although… why? Do you think as a woman I am too weak to take a life?”
“On the contrary, ma’am, I think you’d see no point in lying about it if you did.”
“Ah. That is the only intelligent thing you have said since we met.”
The woman stood up. She did not turn the phaser on him but he had the feeling she was considering it.
“Now I have a question for you.”
“Shoot,” he said, then winced. It was a bad thing to be literal sometimes.
A hint of something touched the corner of her mouth, there and gone before he could discern what it was.
She watched him closely as she asked, “Did you kill him?”
Leonard would have rocked back on his heels if he had been standing. He must have expressed how taken aback he was by her question because she murmured softly, “I see” and turned away, not waiting for a response.
“I didn’t kill anyone,” Leonard said to her back, “but now I’m beginning to wonder just who did.”
“That I would also give much to know.”
Jim’s fingers twitched in the absence of a phaser. Next to him, Spock stood entirely motionless, so motionless in fact that it belied his tension. They had little choice, though. The force field originally put in place by the ship’s security was down, which could only mean one thing.
He motioned silently for Spock to let him through first, and stepped past the opening into the eerie quiet of the inner cabin. At first glance he saw that someone had definitely been ahead of them; the room looked to be in worse disrepair than his last look at it. A bedside light fixture was on nearest the closet—but he saw no figures, no bodies.
Spock shifted next to him and indicated the door to the bathroom; it had a glow under it. Jim caught Spock’s arm to delay his movement in that direction. He was, for a moment, consumed by a terrible vision: Leonard, dead, shoved into the small space between the sink and toilet.
They had to look but he wouldn’t let Spock do it first.
Spock’s mouth opened for a second as if to shape Jim’s name, the skin around Spock’s dark eyes taut.
With a sense of déjà-vu, Jim pushed Spock towards the side of the door where the Vulcan wouldn’t be readily seen just as he had once done to McCoy. He stepped close enough for the sensors to pick up his presence, and when the door slid open—
—someone turned, startled, and blinked at him.
Jim leapt forward with “Bones!”
Leonard’s face lit up.
In the second before Jim reunited with his missing partner, he saw the other occupant of the bathroom.
And the phaser.
His first thought was to shield Bones. The second one was more of an animal instinct, the kind that demanded, Take down the intruder!
Jim turned his forward momentum into a lunge.
“Jim,” he heard the cry, “no!”
Arms came around him, pinned him.
Jim froze, thinking, quite astonished, that Leonard had never physically tried to restrain him from a fight before.
As Leonard drew them both away, closer to the sink counter, Jim looked from Leonard’s exposed back to the phaser in a hand which never wavered. He was about to break Leonard’s hold when from the corner of his eye he saw Spock face their adversary.
“I suggest that you lower your weapon,” the Vulcan said.
“That would be quite a foolish thing for me to do,” came the response.
“You’d better do as he says. You won’t get away with the murder of three Starfleet officers,” Jim snapped. Then he did try to shake Leonard, saying with aggravation, “Bones.”
“Jim,” Leonard hissed back. “Spock, get over here. Nobody’s murdering anybody!”
Spock spoke quite calmly from where he had not budged an inch, “Leonard, I assume this is your kidnapper.”
“Yes,” answered Leonard automatically, and then when Jim successfully freed one of his arms, “no! I mean—blast it, stop confusing me!”
Jim pivoted Leonard to where he needed to be, which was out of the line of fire, and then managed to shake off the rest of the man. He felt almost grimly amused as he turned back to the woman with the phaser. A moment later, fingers groped futilely at the juncture of his shoulder and neck.
“Bones,” he said, annoyed, “stop that.”
Leonard’s hand fell away, and he poked his head around Jim’s shoulder. “One day,” the man threatened him, “I’ll get it right.”
“Unlikely,” pointed out Spock.
“Just because you won’t teach it to me—!”
“Enough, Bones,” Jim interrupted, watching the woman warily. “What is that you want?”
Leonard slid into position beside Jim. “She doesn’t want any trouble.”
“I wasn’t asking you, McCoy,” replied Jim in a captain’s tone.
“Dr. McCoy is correct,” the woman said. “I have no inclination to shoot you, Officer, unless you continue to antagonize me.”
“Not Officer,” Jim said too softly, “Captain.”
“Captain,” she repeated flatly, making Jim wonder if she had already known that much about him. “I am armed and you are not. Do not behave as a fool would. I want you and the Vulcan to return to the cabin. Your doctor will remain with me.”
Jim had no intention of retreating, much less leaving Leonard behind. “No.”
“Jim, do as she says.”
“For god’s sake, Jim, would you listen to me for once? I just got her to agree to work with us! What did you think we were doing in here, hiding? We’re looking for clues!”
Spock moved his gaze from Leonard to the woman and back again. “Have you found any?” he inquired politely.
“No,” Leonard grumped. “Somebody barged in first!”
Jim said, “I don’t believe this. You’re telling me this person forced you through the ship with a phaser in your spine, and you’re upset at me for trying to save you.”
“Now wait a minute, I didn’t say—”
“I do not think this is the appropriate time to—”
“I didn’t overreact! I won’t apologize!”
As the argument gained momentum, the fourth occupant of the bathroom lowered her weapon and made an annoyed indication with her hand for Spock to move aside. The conversation stuttered then, as the men watched her abandon them to their lovers’ spat.
Leonard pursed his mouth.
Jim remarked, “I suppose that’s one way to get rid of an enemy.”
Standing between them, Leonard released a loud sigh and closed his eyes. “Thanks,” he said. “This could have gone very differently.”
Jim wrapped an arm around the man’s back. “We’re glad you’re all right, Bones. You had us worried.”
Leonard opened his eyes and gave them a thin smile. “I think we have other worries now.”
Jim and Spock waited for the rest.
Leonard’s gaze sought the closed bathroom door. “She said she didn’t kill him and I believe her.”
Jim pressed his mouth into a line. “Then why is he dead?”
“That’s the part you aren’t going to like. She said there shouldn’t be anyone else onboard who is aware of their mission.”
“Their mission?” Jim and Spock questioned together.
Leonard made a helpless gesture. “Which means if some third party has what she’s looking for, we’re all in serious danger.”
“Bones,” Jim said impatiently, “just tell us.”
Leonard drew in a breath and slowly released it. “They took one of the Tears of the Prophets,” he said. “If you’ve seen the news recently, I bet you can guess which one.”
Spock said, “I see,” which meant he understood the implications far too well.
“Then it’s,” said Jim with a significant pause, “on this ship? My god!”
“When brought aboard, the Orb must have been sufficiently contained,” Spock began.
Leonard stared down at his hands, finishing, “Or we could be contaminated and don’t even know it. Jim,” he said, and his voice cracked, “this whole ship could be dying.”
A grave silence enveloped the three men. After a time, one of them stirred as if to speak but in that moment they all heard a shout from the next room. It was clearly “CAPTAIN!”
The shout turned into a howl of pain.
Jim barreled out of the bathroom, Spock and Leonard not far behind. What he found momentarily brought him up short.
On the floor, Essler uncurled from a fetal position and rolled onto his back, clutching his head. When he spied Jim, he pointed a shaky finger towards the cabin door that was ajar and said, “T-That way…”
“Bones!” Jim barked, not needing to give an explicit order, and took off into the corridor. Spock went after him.
Leonard dropped to his knees beside the groaning man. Prying at Essler’s fingers, he said, “Let me look. I’m a doctor.”
Essler gave a whimper. “She got away. She hit me and got away!”
“What did you think you were doing? You shouldn’t have come here!” Leonard accused him.
“I wanted to help.”
“Then you ought to know better than to come alone!”
Essler looked like he wanted to say something to that but wisely did not, firming his mouth and pushing at McCoy’s hand.
“Oh no you don’t,” Leonard warned the young man when he tried to get to his feet. “Stay still or I’ll sit on you!”
“Captain Kirk needs my help. He could be in trouble!”
“I doubt that.”
“But she has a phaser!”
“And he has a Vulcan.”
Essler looked at him askance.
“Clearly,” Leonard murmured with a tinge of amusement to his voice, “you know little about Vulcans.”
“…Are they good fighters?”
“They pretend not to be, but take my advice: don’t upset one.”
“Oh.” Essler winced and swore when Leonard pressed gently against a lump on his skull. “Is it broken?”
Leonard sat back on his heels. “If you didn’t have such a hard head, you could have had a fracture.”
His eyes widened. “But I don’t, right?”
“Somehow I think not,” the doctor replied dryly. “Here, sit up—slowly now!” Leonard helped him into a sitting position. “Okay, good. Give me your phaser.”
Essler’s eyes got wider. “What?”
Leonard just looked at him.
“Sir, I mean, Dr. McCoy! I can’t do that!” And then the poor fellow seemed to realize he didn’t have his phaser anyway and stared down in betrayal at his empty hands.
Leonard huffed and picked up the errant weapon beside Essler’s hip. “Thanks,” he said, coming to his feet. “Call for a medical evac. One officer down.”
“Down,” Leonard repeated, his amusement having dispersed. “And don’t bother tracking us, since that’s what you were obviously doing to begin with.”
“I…” Essler opened and closed his mouth, at a loss for words.
Leonard shook his head. “Don’t. There’s far more at stake here than you realize. I’m telling you to leave us be for your own good, at least until—” But he didn’t finish his sentence, just fell silent and headed for the exit.
“Wait!” came the call, causing Leonard to stop at the open door and turn back.
Essler was much paler than he had been a moment earlier. “Are you…?” he started to ask Leonard before succumbing to his own hesitation. “Are you really the bad guys?”
“No,” Leonard said, “but that’s the problem. We don’t know who is.” The doctor’s mouth thinned briefly. He added in his best no-nonsense tone, “Lieutenant-Commander, this is an order from the Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, so listen up.”
Essler certainly looked like he was listening.
“This ship needs to be scanned for any atypical biological agents. Without delay, a’right?”
“Sir, we have the standard—”
“This virus won’t be standard, but it will be fatal,” Leonard cut in, sounding very calm even as he made a dire prognosis for their collective future.
The young man had paled further.
Leonard made no reply to that, as he must have felt there was none to be made, and left the Maiden‘s second-in-command behind to think on the next plan of action. It would have to involve making a call to his superior; and whatever Essler reported, they both knew, would not be anything that Captain Roraqk wanted to hear.
But as Leonard had insinuated, the fate of everyone aboard depended on it.
Jim turned a corner and slowed to where the corridor of the passenger deck abruptly forked. He looked both ways but could see nothing out of the ordinary. Spock came to a standstill beside him. They both remained poised to take off in another sprint.
Spock said, “I do not know.”
Jim’s fingers curled at his sides. “Damn! We need to find her.”
“I am aware of this, Jim.”
Jim tamped down on a rising temper. “I’m not arguing with you, Spock. Go left. I’ll take the right.”
“I would not recommend that we split up.”
“At the risk of losing her completely? I won’t take that risk, Spock. This woman, whoever she is—I want her found.”
“Because of the Orb,” Spock supplied softly. “She can confirm or deny which one is aboard the ship.”
“And just who was crazy enough to take a deadly artifact out of quarantine,” Jim said in his grimmest tone.
“Many acts of insanity, many atrocities and unnecessary violence, have been undertaken in the name of religious beliefs. This would not be the first time for any race that we know of, Jim.”
“But shouldn’t it be our last, if we’re ever to learn from our mistakes?” Jim wanted to pinch the bridge of his nose but didn’t and simply shook his head instead. “Just… go, Spock.”
With a slight incline of his head, Spock took the left corridor.
Jim sighed deeply through his nose and went right.
A man approached but not in time to see the rest of a limb being shoved into the depths of a maintenance shaft. The hatch was closed, sealed, and the figure in the worker’s suit crouched in front of it stood up.
Kirk passed by in an obvious hurry.
A finger rose and fell against the suit material at close to hip-height.
Tap. Tap tap.
Some things had gone according to plan. Others had not.
This was one of those things that had not. Should Kirk die now, or would it be better to…?
There was that other option.
The worker-but-not fished a recently acquired phaser out of a toolbox where it had been hidden and followed the oblivious quarry down the corridor.