Standard Operating Procedures

story by Domenika Marzione | art by Ileliberte


Jim didn't need to see his crew's faces to appreciate that that was not exactly what they'd wanted to hear from their nominal leader. But, along with a feasible plan to get back to the ship and a decent understanding of how they'd gotten into this situation in the first place, he was lacking better -- any -- words of assurance.

Spock, pressed up against the tree next to him, looked about to speak. Jim held up his left hand, the one not holding a weapon, to stop him.

"Unless you're about to announce a brilliant plan that has a better-than-sixty-percent chance of getting us home safely, Commander," he warned. "Stow it."

Most of the time, the fact that Spock had more fleet experience than every other senior officer on the Enterprise combined was a boon. Yes, he occasionally talked to Jim like Jim was mentally defective, but he still had wisdom and experience, especially when it came to the day-to-day running of the ship, that Jim did not yet possess and it was worth being treated like an imbecile by one person to avoid proving himself one to an entire crew that already had enough trouble respecting his authority beyond the letter of the law.

The rest of the time, of course, Spock was the antithesis of helpful. Sometimes this was intentional, too -- like when he had apparently decided that Jim needed to learn something for himself the hard way or when he thought he was being funny (for Vulcan values of humor) -- but most of the time it wasn't. Say, when logic had no practical application or when it was abundantly clear that all of Spock's fleet experience had come either at the Academy or on a couple of peacetime cruises when he was an ensign fresh from his own student days. And today had that vague odor of being one of those times when Spock was not going to be useful apart from having better than average aim and the ability to run fast.

"Sixty percent?" Sulu repeated from a few trees away. "Which of us are you willing to sacrifice to save the others, sir?"

Sulu generally only remembered the honorific when there were senior officers around or he thought Jim was being a bigger idiot than usual. Jim didn't need to turn to see if there were any admirals or senior captains around to know which occasion this was.

"You know that joke about the two guys and the lion on the plain, Lieutenant?" Jim replied jauntily. "The first guy says that they should make a run for it. The second guy says that there's no way they can outrun a lion. The first guy says that he doesn't have to outrun the lion; he just has to outrun the other guy."

And with that, he took off again, dashing through the trees at full tilt, confident that the others would follow him. Even if they didn't think he knew where he was going. Which he didn't, although "away from where the blasters were being fired" was, in his opinion, the right direction.

The right direction, such as it was, was also slightly downhill and into a large copse of trees. Fruit trees, which would be great if they wanted to turn around and fling pears at their pursuers, but right now meant that the ground was slippery in spots with fallen fruit.

"I wonder if these were supposed to be dessert," Jim mused as he caught Uhura as she stumbled. He felt bad for her - she was in her heeled dress uniform boots, not the more practical ones she'd normally have worn on a field exercise - but he knew better than to say anything. About that, at least. About the other thing, well, that he planned on milking for a while. "Although I suppose I should be asking Sulu that question as he was going to be the only one who stuck around that long."

Uhura had been holding on to his arms as she regained her balance, but she pushed off of him with a dirty look. "You really shouldn't be talking, Captain Amorous."

Jim beamed at her as he looked over her shoulder to where Spock was finally visible; he'd been bringing up the rear as they'd been tearing through the trees. "On the contrary, Lieutenant," he replied cheerfully. "It's my chance to give as good as I've gotten. You really didn't think I was going to let an opportunity like this get away simply because we're running for our lives, did you?"

"I lost hope for any chance of maturity from you before the end of your Fourthie year, sir," she replied tartly. Like Sulu, she was at her most careful to respect the formalities of command when she was doing her best to mock the spirit of them.

Spock was only a few meters away, so Jim only shrugged and turned to where Sulu was fiddling with his comm, as if the connection that had gone down hours earlier might somehow have been re-established.

"Any luck?" Jim asked, already knowing the answer but waiting for Sulu's replying grimace anyway. "How much time do we have to get our bearings, Spock?"

Spock paused for a heartbeat and tilted his head ever so slightly. "We have extended our lead over our remaining pursuers to such a distance that considered advancement is possible. But that does not take into consideration that supplementary units have been dispatched."

Jim frowned at him as he tucked his weapon into his waistband, lacking a formal holster.

"Five minutes," Spock said. "Unless there are reinforcements waiting for us below."

They moved on together as a group, picking their way through the pears. Sulu, who was more or less on point, got spooked by a pear that fell as he passed it, whipping out his blaster and spinning around ready to defend.

Jim picked up the pear, rubbed it on his tunic, and bit into it, wiping the dripping juice off his chin with the back of his hand. "The evil is vanquished," he assured Sulu, who wasn't sure whether to be embarrassed or annoyed and tried to show both at once. It made him look constipated, so Jim held out the pear. "Want some? Keeps you regular."

Sulu re-holstered and stomped off.

Jim left his ship far more often than any captain did (or, according to the Admiralty, should) and it wasn't always because it was diplomatically or tactically necessary or because Yeoman Rand had decided that he was getting cabin fever and was affecting her ability to do all of his paperwork for him, although he was always happy to tell everyone when Rand had kicked him out, even when she hadn't.

When Admiral Pike had warned him of all of the dangers of jumping from Cadet Second Class to Captain, he had skipped all of the obvious ones and spoken of the little things that, if Jim wasn't careful, could be even more of a hazard than just his complete lack of experience in the Fleet. And one of those little things was that the flip side of delegating responsibilities was that you also had to delegate delights. You had to give up all of the not-miserable, not-dangerous, not-boring parts of being a space explorer because they were, officially, beneath a captain's dignity as surely as the shitty parts were. But while most captains had had at least had a few years each at all of the junior officer ranks to partake in those little pleasures (and those little messes), Jim would have had none of it. Pike had barely had any time in the junior ranks himself, of course, and Jim kept that in mind as one more reason to pay attention. "Do the little things," Pike had exhorted him; "especially the boring things you're going to make everyone else do as part of your job and theirs. A captain can make demands of his wardroom by law, but he also gets away with it because they know that, once upon a time, he was an ensign on third shift Enviro duty, too. You won't have that respect from your experience, so you'll have to earn it some other way." And so Jim made a habit of occasionally taking crappy duties aboard ship himself (if not quite as crappy as third shift in Enviro) and going down to planets even when it wasn't absolutely necessary and tried as best he could to prove to his crew that he'd never ask anyone to do anything he wouldn't do himself (except maybe third shift Enviro duty). It frustrated the Admiralty, which Jim was tempted to believe had been part of Pike's plan, and it had initially annoyed Spock, too, until Jim had given him a reluctant and hackneyed explanation, after which Spock seemed to think he was some kind of personnel management genius. Especially because it seemed to work.

Right now, however, it was an advantage because until they got to the end of the pear orchard, Jim could pretend that it was just another planet-side stroll with his crew. He'd done this before, they'd done this before, and maybe that lessen the tension enough that Sulu wasn't going to zap anything -- or anyone -- into fruit salad the next time he heard a noise.

"So we've got two options," Jim said as he dropped his pear core into a conveniently hollowed-out tree stump. "We can figure out a way to re-establish comms and get Scotty and Chekov to get us the hell out of here or we can let ourselves be captured and see what, exactly, the Mink were planning on doing with us before our lovebirds managed to hear their nefarious plans over their own beating hearts."

That the planet and people shared a name with a small, furry Earth creature had been a source of endless hilarity aboard ship. Especially after the automatic translators, unable to recognize a proper noun, kept changing the name to reflect the indigenous equivalent of a mink in whatever language was being used (and the junior enlisted over in Commo had pretty much tried all of them once they'd realized what was up; the Enterprise's lower decks could probably pass Commander X'anteru's xenobiology final if they could stop laughing long enough). The only reason Spock was along in the first place was because neither he nor Jim had any faith in any of the linguists to keep a straight face; after a week of hearing a Federation's worth of dialects' words for "ermine" and "chinchilla," even Uhura was at risk of losing her composure at the wrong time.

"I do not believe the latter course is wise," Spock said, giving Jim just enough eyebrow lift to show that yes, he'd gotten the jibe and no, he wasn't going to respond to it. "There seems to be a belief that our trade value is higher than it is."

"If we're expensive, wouldn't they want to trade us back to Starfleet quickly and in good condition?" Sulu asked.

"They don't want to trade us to the Admiralty," Uhura answered darkly. "They want to see how much the Cardassians will pay."

The Mink hadn't been the kind of moustache-twirling bad guys that you'd expect out of the movies; they'd been polite but cautiously friendly, making all of the expected gestures in response to the arrival of a Federation starship, up to and including asking delicate questions as to why the senior officer looked like he should really be a cadet.

(One of these days, Jim was going to answer that question by saying that his appearance was the result of a rare disease or that he was from some ridiculously long-lived species. But not on a day when Spock was with him, since Spock didn't know how to roll with a joke without it being explained in advance and he'd never let Jim go through with it if he did have prior warning.)

The Mink were a moderately advanced society, the former colony of a home planet they had long surpassed in wealth and power. During mission prep, the main line of discussion had been that the Mink were almost boring with their steady economic and scientific growth, good interplanetary relations, and internal stability. They were not part of the Federation, but they had begun the application process three years ago and the Enterprise's visit was supposed to have been merely the latest in a long line of evaluations that had thus far turned up nothing except that the Mink were producers of a kind of fruit-based alcohol that got humanoids very, very high with only a few sips. (Jim had never been so unpopular in his command as when he had banned everyone from either imbibing or accepting any as a gift.) After today's adventures, however, Jim would gladly suspend his hatred of paperwork and all of his efforts to get out of doing any just so that he could write up the recommendation that Mink not be admitted into the UFP.

"So we're back to figuring out a way to get in contact with the ship," Jim said, looking around. There wasn't much to see beyond pear trees, which was fine because it meant that there were no Mink soldiers too close by. "Assuming they weren't lying to us from 'hello,' our best bet might be to find one of their defense garrisons and hack into their network."

Commander Kovax, the head of the Mink Civil Defense Force, had been three tiny glasses into the Juval when he'd started telling Jim (who'd taken one sip of his first glass and then surreptitiously gotten rid of the rest, including refills, after immediately feeling the effects) about how Mink had been able to totally restructure their police and armed forces with recent technological advances. Kovax had been bragging - Mink had been able to end compulsory conscription, crime rates had fallen, lollipops and candy everywhere - and Jim had been (mostly) playing too drunk to do anything but congratulate. But if Kovax hadn't been totally bullshitting, it was their only hard intel on any of Mink's defense capabilities. The Federation packet and Starfleet's own dossier had merely given a cursory overview of manpower and materiel, nothing specific about how Mink planned to defend itself should it be attacked for the first time in three hundred years.

Three pairs of eyes looked at him curiously. "What?" Jim asked. "I wasn't the only person who got the 'wonders of decentralized policing and defense' spiel, was I?"

"I got the story of their FTL development," Sulu said with a shrug.

"Culture lecture," Uhura volunteered with a raised hand and a smirk. Jim had explained to her that she wound up with the social-cultural stuff not because she was a woman, but because she was usually the only one of the visiting party who looked liked they'd listen. ("Because I'm a woman and thus I look like I'm both intelligent and have manners," she'd retort.)

"Is there a discernable advantage to attacking one of their defense posts or is this one of your misguided notions you confuse with brilliance?" Spock asked. Jim took the change of topic for what it was, which was Spock avoiding having to say that he was once again stuck listening to everyone express condolences for what had happened to Vulcan and reminisce about any and all interactions with Vulcan's people that had ever occurred in Mink's history. Spock still grieved, but he was trying to be very Vulcan about it and Jim was willing to let him - and to ignore the moments when that mask slipped and Spock's human side showed through. "We would appear to be at a numerical and materiel disadvantage."

They'd beamed down with what amounted to ceremonial weaponry, plus whatever they could get away with hiding in their dress uniforms. (This, too, was not standard Starfleet procedure, but the Enterprise's crew had figured out by now that Jim had begun his tenure as he meant to go on and that meant always being prepared for a scrape.) They'd managed to steal a few Mink blasters during their flight from the palace, but nobody would confuse them with being appropriately accessorized for their current activities.

"Appearances are deceiving," Jim told Spock. "Commander Kovax was very proud of the fact that Mink no longer has to fully staff any of their garrisons in the Capitol District. The MCDF bases here are a few support personnel and sentries. Their actual infantry is off in the countryside and new territories. I think we can take a few bored security guards and janitors."

Kovax had been proud because the MCDF had looked like it was gracefully ceding internal security to the police when it was really saving a ton of money by shifting resources away from where they weren't needed. But mentioning the police here and now would be counterproductive, so Jim didn't.

"All right, before we blow our five minutes," he went on, "Sulu, see if you can't locate the nearest base to where we are. Try to find one not on a major road."

They had had the maps of the Capitol District loaded on their PADDs; tours of the area had been on the morning's schedule. Only Sulu still had his PADD, though; Jim's and Spock's had been taken during their initial arrest and Uhura's had gotten destroyed during their escape.

"Four klicks that way," Sulu responded after a minute, pointing southwest of their current position without looking up. "It looks like it's still in the park, but it might be on one of the transverses."

They were currently in a royal park that was half the size of the District itself; the park, like the rest of Mink's Capitol District, had been described as meticulously planned with regular access roads that did not interrupt the natural beauty of the place. Jim had been expecting organized gardens and tasteful topiary, since the Mink were kind of control freaks and unwilling to leave anything as it was. But the place was instead wild and uninhabited - by humanoids, at least - and simply protected from the urban expansion that surrounded it.

"Let's go."

They started walking.

"Not that it's important right now," Sulu began as they picked their way over the rocky ground, "but why are the Mink trying to double-cross the Federation? They were a sure shot for admittance once all of the rigmarole was done."

The orchard had given way, rather abruptly, to a cliff. The cliff itself was sheer, but there was a gentler slope near the east face that would get them down to lower ground, albeit depositing them in a place where they'd have to double back to continue on their desired heading. It was delicate going, though, because while "not sheer" was an improvement over "sheer," it was still a precarious angle and the rock was some kind of very fissile variety that meant tiny little bits all over the place and even more sheets of the stuff breaking off with each unsteady footstep. It was like walking downhill on ice without anything to hold on to - except for Uhura holding on to Spock because there was no way she was going to stay upright otherwise - with the added bonus of being in open ground, clearly visible from both above and below as they crossed this dead expanse.

"Maybe they got a better offer," Jim suggested as he quick-stepped to regain his balance. He suspected he'd be the first person to trip, fall, and roll down the rest of the way ass over teakettle; Sulu was extremely nimble and Spock had the same solid equilibrium you'd expect of someone who spent all his time pretending he was unflappable.

"Do you know how much money a Federation membership would bring in to their economy?" Uhura scoffed as she shuffled along next to Spock. "It would likely double their exports, not to mention transportation subsidies and everything else. The Cardassians couldn't possibly top that. Plus, the Mink aren't just not joining the Federation, they're actively attacking them, which cuts them off from whatever trade they already have with the UFP."

"Whatever legal trade," Jim corrected. "There's probably a lot more than Juval getting shipped out of here on the sly."

Juval was a legal intoxicant as far as the Federation went, but there was always a teetotaling faction in the upper reaches of government that, every few election cycles, got enough votes to make the threat of banning all psychotropics less implausible than usual. But as fond of the local hooch as the Mink seemed to be, the unlikely prohibition of it seemed a thin premise for throwing in with the Cardassians and taking on the Federation. There was too much else to Mink besides the moonshine. Mink had ample natural resources and an ever-expanding manufacturing sector; they weren't some backwater colony with pretensions of nationhood that had to lie about their solvency to join only to quickly become the Federation's latest welfare case. They could have gotten on just fine without either joining the Federation or becoming a vassal of the Cardassian Union, which made why they were trying to do either (or both) a non-trivial question.

"Astronautically speaking, Mink is well-positioned as a haven for illicit traders," Spock said, then paused, causing Uhura to almost stumble as she had to stop without warning. Jim and Sulu both froze where they were and looked around until Spock shook his head and began to walk again. "They are proximate to many of the minor trading routes but not the major ones, ensuring that there is not only no significant Starfleet presence, but also little chance that the commercial or military hyperpowers will visit unexpectedly."

"They're a big fish in a little pond," Jim translated. "And they have the Jeweled Barrens."

One of the continents of Mink was resource-rich but unable to sustain itself otherwise - insufficient water, harsh weather, no agriculture. Mink's response had been to build biospheres, company towns under glass with spaceports to get the retrieved bounty both elsewhere on-planet and to the rest of the galaxy. Jim had been able to see the continent from the Enterprise, where from on high the bubbles did indeed look like diamonds in the desert, but there'd been no offer to visit them from the palace despite expressions of interest both subtle and not. Jim had suspected then that things were not quite on the up-and-up there, but he'd been thinking more along the lines of unsafe labor practices (the UFP being a lot more intolerant of such when it came to prospective members than current ones) or shoddy living conditions (same) rather than actual criminal behavior. Now, however, who knew?

"Banditry doesn't pay that well," Uhura said. "And the Federation would outbid the Cardassians on any of Mink's resources because the Union would just find some other world to strip for less."

They were near the bottom of the slope - finally, thankfully - and paused while Sulu re-oriented them. Jim watched the sky, wondering why the Mink hadn't sent any of their aircraft out to look for them, and looked over at Spock, who was doing the same. Spock met his gaze and gave him the tiniest eyebrow shrug, as if he, too, couldn't figure out why neither the MCDF's fighters nor the police's hovercrafts were deployed.

"There's no guarantee that they're moving their own resources," Jim said as he turned to see if Sulu was done. There was a depressingly low correspondence between Starfleet officers who'd aced Astronavigation and Starfleet officers who'd passed the land navigation section of the survival course but Sulu, despite all the crap Jim gave him about his driving like an old lady, was a really good map reader across the board. "Or moving any resources at all."

As if sensing Jim's eyes on him, Sulu looked up and pointed. "Three klicks."

"Barring any more unforeseen natural impediments?" Jim asked sourly, since it would be unwise to let Sulu even imagine that Jim valued his skills highly enough to have had his first fight with the Admiralty over keeping his helmsman.

"It's not my fault you can't fly, sir," Sulu groused as they started off again.

Running at a full gallop, Sulu lead them toward more trees, waiting at the edge of the copse for everyone to catch up.

"What else would they be moving?" Uhura asked as they slowed to a brisk walk. There wasn't as much underbrush here as in the orchard, but the ground was softer and mostly covered in moss.

"Weapons, people, drugs," Jim replied, ducking suddenly to avoid getting smacked in the face with a branch. "All the usual bad-guy stuff. Especially if the Cardassians or someone else the Federation doesn't like are involved. Black market metals don't have much of a profit margin, but drugs? You can clear millions of credits easily, credits you wouldn't be able to come by in large quantities otherwise. And you can turn those into anything you need without the Federation even knowing, let alone being able to do anything about it."

Sitting through Pike's seminar on non-state actors hadn't been a chore, but considering his present circumstances, he'd have preferred it remained an academic exercise. Of course, Pike being Pike, he wouldn't have decided to teach it if he'd thought it wouldn't matter in the Fleet. Jim suspected their relationship had progressed to the point where if he sent an email suggesting that Pike already knew the son's story as well as the father's, the Admiral wouldn't take it badly. Of course, Jim had to get off this mudball to find out.

Sulu, on point, stopped suddenly and muttered something impressively foul in Dopterian. "I think we've found the MCDF," he said as Jim joined him.

At least a company-strength element of the MCDF was standing not three hundred meters to their south. They were in lines three deep stretched east-west as far as Jim could see without taking another step; it was a peculiar formation, as if they were awaiting an army's charge from the north and not four lightly armed fugitives.

"They did not choose this spot at random," Spock said. "It explains the lack of air support."

"Is there anything on the other side of them besides what we want?" Jim asked, gesturing to the PADD Sulu already had out. "And can we flank them on either side?"

Jim didn't think it likely that Kovax or his subordinates would intuit that the Starfleet fugitives would head straight for an isolated and notionally near-abandoned military installation in the middle of a national park the size of Greenland. Jim mentally replayed his conversation with Kovax, wondering if he'd given any indications of his tactical proclivities or if Kovax had somehow subtly guided Jim into making the decisions that would lead them here. Say, by suggesting that all MCDF garrisons in the Capitol District were sparsely populated.

"Just the most direct path to the base," Sulu answered. "And I don't know. It's a long line to have to run by without anyone seeing us and opening fire. Especially since we're not dressed to blend in."

Jim, Spock, and Sulu still had their uniform tunics on; if it had just been the three of them, Jim would have suggested they strip down to their black undershirts. But there was no way Uhura could hide her red uniform dress and it was unchivalrous to put themselves at an advantage they couldn't offer her, so the rainbow refugees had continued on as they were and simply hoped for the best.

"Did Kovax trick me here?" Jim asked aloud, unwilling to hide it if he were to blame.

"Unlikely," Spock replied. "There was no logical expectation that we would flee into the Royal Park, effectively trapping ourselves in a bounded, albeit large, area."

Jim frowned at him, reminding himself that he'd already noted that this was going to be one of Spock's unhelpful days.

"The main barracks in the Capitol District is close to the palace," Spock continued mildly. "Any reinforcements would have had to have come from the same direction as we did, by air or by road. There are no trucks visible and we did not hear or see any aerial transports, which supports the hypothesis that they were already here. As does the fact that they are positioned to defend the garrison rather than search for us."

"So what's in that place that they really don't want us to see?" Uhura asked. "Is it why we're running in the first place?"

"I'm not sure now is the time to find out," Jim said. "I don't like our odds playing Red Rover with this bunch."

Nobody asked him to explain the reference.

"Where do we go now?" Sulu asked.

"What else is nearby?" Kirk asked. "I'll take anything from a phone booth to a radio tower."

Sulu worked the PADD, muttering. "There's nothing else here except trees."

"We should scan for energy sources," Spock said. "If this is indeed a clandestine facility, then any security features or defense mechanisms will be appropriately hidden from plain sight. If we are lucky, we might find something that will let us achieve our purpose without engaging the Mink defense forces."

Jim made a face because, yeah, that would be useful but he'd lost his scanner when he'd been arrested and he didn't know who else still had theirs. It turned out everyone but him; Uhura waved hers at him smugly.

Spock used his own, adjusting the volume before setting it to read the area. Spock being Spock, he didn't let anyone else see the results, just moved silently around them methodically waving the scanner high and low. He was retracing their steps, more or less, heading back east. He stopped suddenly about five meters away, gesturing sharply with his hand that they should join him. He held up the screen to Jim once they were all together again, showing a pretty strong spike, and gestured with his free hand to show its origin. Which was up in the trees southeast of where they were standing.

Jim made a face he hoped Spock would interpret as 'what is it and what do we do about it?'

Spock must have, since he moved his hand back and forth to indicate a line or a wire… that Jim finally saw. It looked like an old telephone or cable wire of the kind he'd seen in the photographs back in Iowa during school trips to the Historical Society. Thick black rubber that wasn't hard to see once you knew to look for it, but who would have thought to look for it?

Jim asked with a hand gesture if they should cut it but Spock shook his head and indicated that they should follow it instead.

Behind them, Uhura and Sulu were waiting patiently for someone to include them in the conversation.

Noise discipline seemed like a good idea with the soldiers so close by, so Jim just indicated which direction they would be going in and waited for them to nod understanding. Then he nodded to Spock, who led them off into the trees closer to the soldiers than they'd been before.

Spock walked quickly in a half-crouch and Jim and the others followed suit, periodically looking up to make sure they were still traveling underneath the cable, which took a turn south, bringing them within a hundred meters of the soldiers and less than fifty from the edge of the tree line. Jim was about to stop Spock and suggest they try to follow the cable from afar when it turned again to the east and brought them a little further into the safety of the trees.

They continued on, the soldiers to their right, for what seemed like forever but was probably only a couple hundred more meters before they were alone again. Spock paused, looking at Jim to see if he wanted to call a halt, but Jim signaled that they should keep going. He did start walking fully upright, though, because his back and hamstrings were starting to kill him.

Their odyssey eventually brought them to a pole that looked for all the world like just another tree from eye level, except it was just a trunk and no branches or leaves. Definitely like Iowa. Spock pulled out the scanner again and waved it around, starting to walk in pursuit of some strong signal. Jim and the others jogged to catch up.

Spock eventually stopped, but not to wait for everyone else. He'd found another cliff and was determining which way to follow the ledge.

"That way," Jim said, pointing to the right.

"The signal is stronger in the other direction," Spock replied.

"Yeah, but the shiny metal bunker is over there," Jim answered with some smugness. Spock looked about as baleful as a Vulcan got and started walking to the right.

Jim smiled and gestured grandly for Sulu and Uhura to precede him before taking up the rear.

They stopped about a hundred meters away, keeping themselves hidden despite not seeing any guards.

"Out of curiosity, is it on the map?" Jim asked Sulu, who pulled out his PADD to check.

"If we are where I think we are, then yes," Sulu replied. "It's an auxiliary supply shed for the Parks Ministry."

Jim and Uhura exchanged sarcastic expressions. "I don't think the King of Mink is that worried about someone stealing his potting soil."

"There is one way to find out," Spock said and set off for the building, Jim in hot pursuit.

"Hey, wait, I'm the one who's supposed to careen recklessly into harm's way," he called out in a loud whisper. "That's what your girlfriend says."

There was no apparent security in place, however, and the scanner was useless in telling them if there was anything hidden. Between the bunker and the console on the ground next to it, there was so much ambient energy that a simple silent alarm would be impossible to detect.

"Okay, now let's exhibit some rare caution and lie low for a few minutes to see if we've triggered anything," Jim announced. "Everyone into the trees."

They hid for ten minutes, but nobody showed up, so they returned to the bunker. Spock swept it again with the scanner, but the readings came back the same.

Sulu knelt by the console and held out his PADD as if to try to get them to interface. Just before he reached out to touch the console, Spock told him to stop.

"Activating the console will most likely confirm our presence here," he warned. "We should have a plan of action to work most efficiently in what limited time we have before reinforcements arrive."

Everyone looked at Jim. Sure, they gave him crap about his command decisions aboard ship, his training regimen, his knowledge both general and mission-specific, his manners, his diplomatic skills, and whatever else they thought they could get away with. They mocked his rank and his authority and his judgment… except when the chips were down and the hard decisions had to be made. And it was in those moments that Jim realized anew that he was right where he was supposed to be. (Yet another thing Pike was right about, but they didn't discuss that one often.)

"Sulu, give me the PADD," Jim ordered. "You're watching our backs. Spock, help him out."

The bunker and console formed a little cul de sac with the open cliff ledge forming the other side. They couldn't afford to get trapped there or else their only recourse would be to surrender or jump.

"How are we going to get… what are you doing?" Uhura asked as Jim started bringing up menus on the PADD with his thumb.

"I am digging up a skeleton key, Lieutenant," Jim answered cheerfully.

"You're going to hack in?" She gave him a disbelieving look.

Jim handed her back the PADD with the relevant program on the screen. "You can't seriously be doubting my skills," he chided. "Hit start. The readout might end up being in Mink, which you'll have to translate and read off to me. But it should just be numbers."

The keypad and the console were relatively far apart, which presumably meant that accessing this site was a multi-person job.

Uhura did as she was told and Jim kept one eye on that and the other on the scene beyond where Sulu and Spock were kneeling in wait. It was quiet for now, but it couldn't be long before the MCDF showed up. Hopefully by that time they'd be inside.

"Okay, we've got something," Uhura called over, murmuring to herself as she translated. "This is definitely MCDF property. It's an auxiliary... radio room?" She read something out loud in Mink.

art by Ileliberte; click on image for full-size

"Telegraphy," Spock said. "But 'radio' is an acceptable alternate translation as it is closer to what they mean."

"So this is exactly where we want to be, then, right?" Jim prompted, since it was entirely possible that the two of them would have an argument ('spirited discussion') about semantics here and now if nobody interrupted. "Do you have the codes yet?"

"They're still generating," Uhura replied. "It looks like it's going to be several sequences. Are you going to be able to understand what I read off?"

Spock was watching him, prepared to hear the negative and offer to switch off, but Jim waved him off. "I can always do numbers and cocktail conversation and ask where the bathroom is," he assured. "Two of the three are great for getting girls."

Uhura accepted his answer with only a roll of her eyes; once upon a time, she'd assumed he'd joined the Xenolinguistics Club solely to get next to her, but Jim actually did have a talented tongue (and he was good at languages). He might've joined to get close to Uhura, but he'd stayed because it was fun.

With an imperious gesture for Jim to ready himself, Uhura started reading off numbers in Mink. There were five sets of five numbers, which made him wonder if this was more than just a radio room.

After the last set, he stepped back and waited for some kind of click or beep or some kind of indication that they'd gained access. But there was nothing.

"Into the trees!" Spock ordered suddenly.

"Where?" Sulu asked, still facing out into the trees, blaster at the ready. "I don't see anything!"

"From above," Spock replied, reaching for Sulu's elbow and dragging him toward the trees until Sulu got his own feet under him and broke free. Jim looked up as he made sure Uhura was in front of him as he followed.

A long minute later, the whine of a hovercruiser could be heard, first softly and then more loudly as it drew closer.

"They know we're nearby," Jim said to nobody in particular. "They'd be using fighters if they were doing a grid search."

Jim switched the safety off of his blaster and waited to see if the hovercruiser landed in the tiny clearing in front of the bunker. From the noise, if it wasn't directly overhead it was close enough. He thought he could hear the men on board talking -- shouting -- to each other over the noise of the anti-gravs, but he wasn't sure and, even if he did hear them, he wouldn't know what they were saying. Odds were pretty good they weren't discussing either canapés or potty breaks.

The pitch of the engines changed and Jim knew that the hovercruiser was landing. Hovercruisers could be big boats, but this one was more of a raft, built for speed and not meant to carry more than half a dozen. Which this one was, which in turn made Jim think that they maybe weren't looking to recapture anyone. Especially as the cruiser descended lower and it was obvious that the soldiers were very well-armed.

Jim tapped Spock's shoulder to draw his and then everyone else's attention. Through hand signals, he assigned everyone a person to shoot, leaving two for whoever got to them first. He kept his fist balled and raised, a stop sign, as the cruiser finished its descent to the ground. Once he heard the creak of the landing struts taking the weight of the boat, Jim signaled to fire.

The MCDF soldiers got off more than a few rounds, but surprise clearly had been enough of an advantage to counteract the difference in firepower. Spock ended up winged slightly on his right shoulder, not enough to do lasting damage but enough to make a mess and assure Jim of a chewing-out from Bones upon their return.

"Lieutenant, strip them of their weapons and see if you can't get that cruiser airborne again with them on it," Jim told Sulu. "They'll be missed if they're on the ground for too long and the odds are that they're not alone."

Maybe if they got the cruiser up again, they could fool whoever was serving as overwatch into thinking that there'd been nothing to find -- assuming that there was an overwatch and that they hadn't been close enough to hear or see the firefight.

"Aye aye, Captain," Sulu said, then got to work sorting bodies and weapons, dumping the former into the cruiser and the latter on to the ground.

Uhura was watching their backs by guarding the open mouth of the cul de sac, but Spock was seemingly trying to help Sulu and Jim sighed, unsurprised. "Don't try to lift anything with that dented wing, Spock."

"I am not trying to lift anything material," Spock replied through gritted teeth. Out of the trees and in the sunlight, the wound in his shoulder looked worse, although the green blood probably didn't look as scary on a blue shirt as red would have. "I am trying to see if any of them have knowledge that would prove useful to our successful escape."

"Good luck with that," Jim said. He wasn't sure any of the soldiers were still alive. He examined their newly acquired cache of weapons, sorting between those that were still clean enough to use and those that had sustained damage. There were four in good-enough shape and Jim handed them out, taking the most suspect one for himself.

"I can lay in a course for the main barracks, sir," Sulu called from the wheelhouse. "It's got autopilot."

Jim offered a hand to totally-pretending-he-wasn't-anything-less-than-steady Spock as his XO climbed out of the cruiser. "Let 'er rip, Lieutenant."

They all stood back as Sulu ignited the engines and the thrusters engaged, sending hot clouds of smoke and dust into the air. The cruiser rose slowly, carefully orienting itself for its return flight.

"Autopilot means you don't go with it," Jim shouted up when Sulu hadn't appeared by the time the cruiser was eye-level.

"Just had to make some last-minute corrections, sir," Sulu called out as he vaulted over the side of the cruiser and landed gracefully next to Uhura. "I set the 'evade' mode instead of the barracks. I guess they use these things for training exercises. Anyway, maybe it'll look like it's us trying to escape and not a boat full of dead guys."

"Good work," Jim said, then turned to Spock. "So you got nothing?"

"I didn't get nothing," Spock replied, "but I did not get much that was useful. These men were not of sufficient rank or status to have insight into their mission beyond killing us."

"Which we'd figured out on our own," Jim agreed. "Okay, back to doing what we were doing, which was breaking and entering."

Uhura switched off with Sulu and Jim decided to let Spock do whatever he wanted to do, since telling him to sit down before he fell down would be counterproductive. Spock would do his Vulcan thing and plow through for the time being.

"Do we have to start over again?" Jim asked Uhura instead once she was back at the console.

"Probably," she replied. "There's got to be a timeout."

They went through the five sequences again after they were generated, but still no indication from the bunker that all of the steps had been taken to secure entry.

Uhura bit off a curse in Romulan. "It wants a password," she announced.

"Type 14330514 into the PADD," Jim told her.

She did and something flashed on the screen in Mink. Jim was about to ask if that was the self-destruct sequence when the door to the bunker hissed open.

"How did you..." Uhura tailed off. "Or was it another hack?"

Jim smiled as they waited for Spock and Sulu to join them. "It's my very best trick for very special occasions."

"It is the classification and hull number of the USS Kelvin rendered completely in numeric format," Spock said as he walked past them.

Uhura looked at Spock, then at Jim. He expected her to say something snarky, but her eyes softened and he could tell she was going to say something nice instead, so he nipped it in the bud.

"Why do you have to be such a buzzkill, Commander?" he called after Spock, turning to jog after him. "Can't a girl have her secrets?"

The bunker looked bigger on the inside, which wasn't such a surprise. It was three rooms, the middle one full of consoles and the far one full of weapons. The first room had blankets and what looked like folded-up tents and other items that looked like they belonged in a lean-to in the middle of a park.

"See if you can't find a med kit," Jim told Sulu, who was staying in the first room as a look-out, before going back into the middle room.

Spock and Uhura were already parked at separate consoles typing furiously and grunting in half-sentences to each other; Jim realized after a few moments that they were speaking a mish-mash of languages, mostly Mink, some English, a little Vulcan, plus some creative cursing in other languages by Uhura, who really did have a bit of a potty mouth.

"Are one of you looking for a way to get our comms re-established?" Jim asked hopefully.

"Among other things," Spock replied as the screens on his monitor flashed by too quickly for Jim to see what they were. "But my suspicion is that we will need to utilize Mink equipment instead of our own."

Jim understood an order when he heard one and went into the third room to go look for something that could be a radio, hoping that they hadn't sent the only ones off with the dead soldiers in the hovercruiser. The shelves along the walls contained neatly labeled boxes, but he had no idea what 'radio' was in Mink, so he went back to the console room and picked up the PADD from next to Uhura and then returned, using it to translate the labels and see if there was anything of use.

The first thing he found were rations, which he grabbed because they'd been running for hours and had only had canapés and drinks before that - they'd been arrested before dinner. He delivered the ration packets to the others and ordered everyone to eat and, especially, to drink. The bottled water tasted stale and flat, but Jim finished his in one go before returning to the storeroom.

The first radios he found were walkie-talkies; he'd seem them clipped to the belts of their captors. He put one aside; maybe they'd be useful if Uhura or Spock could tune into the channel their pursuers were using. The more substantial field radios were buried under crates of rifles; getting them down was a three-step process because he had to first empty the rifle crates in batches. Getting help would have made things go faster, but Sulu was needed at the door, Uhura wasn't going to be strong enough to lift half of the crate, and Spock would try to do more than he was currently capable of and Jim didn't want to have to end up dragging his Vulcan ass anywhere he didn't have to.

The field radios, once liberated, were not quite what Jim would have hoped for. They were what he expected, but that was something else. Mink technology, for both civilian and military applications, was a mixture of the very advanced and the very antique, so it was no surprise to find field radios that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Starfleet Museum sitting a couple of meters away from current-age computers.

"Do you know what to do with that?" Uhura asked from the doorway, gesturing with her chin at the radio, which was now sitting on a stack of grenade crates. From the look on her face, she was sure of her own ignorance and fairly sure of his.

"Actually, yeah," Jim said as he dug into the case for the rest of the cables. "My... family was into ham radio; one of the kits was an antique -- my grandfather's, I think. Anyway, I know my way around old radios."

The problem with this kind of equipment was that it wasn't meant for this kind of work. It would serve -- well -- as a field radio for an infantry unit, especially one that wasn't communicating off-world or even too far over the horizon. To use it to get in contact with the Enterprise, however, they'd need at least a repeater and most probably a lot of luck. They had the repeater; he wasn't sure about the rest.

"What's your boyfriend up to?" he asked, bending over to double-check that the number of pins and the gender of his cable matched where he wanted to put it.

"Commander Spock is trying to disable the jamming signal and figure out why the Mink tried to sell us to the Cardassians," Uhura answered a little tartly. A lot tartly, actually. Jim smiled at her and she scowled in return. "We got in to the main Mink military network and the State Ministry network, but there's a lot of data to sort through."

And hidden and simply not even there. Jim didn't think there was a "Dear Diary, today we're going to capture some Starfleet officers and then try to kill them" entry anywhere. Although that would be helpful.

"How is he?" Jim asked as he inserted the battery. Lights flickered, indicating that the battery was charged and he'd at least matched up the power connectors correctly. "Since he'll just assure me that he's fine and intimate that Vulcans are immune to pain and blood loss if I ask."

Uhura sighed. "He's dizzy and weakened. Hikaru found a med kit with a field dressing and we bullied him into letting us put it on him, but he's lost a lot of blood."

Jim nodded, since that was more or less what he'd decided on his own. He slung the radio pack over his shoulder and picked up the radio itself. "Setting this up by the door will do the most good," he explained as Uhura got out of his way.

Spock didn't turn away from the bank of monitors as they passed and his fingers didn't slow down as they typed, but Jim didn't think for a second that Spock didn't know that they were there or what Jim was carrying.

"All quiet?" he asked Sulu as they joined him near the entrance.

"Suspiciously so," Sulu answered with a frown. "I thought the decoy cruiser would buy us a little time, but it's been almost an hour."

It was a little weird, but not enough to get really paranoid about. At least not yet. "Throw a rock or something into the trees, see if anything happens," Jim suggested. Sulu, being Sulu, eyed the box of grenades. "Not those, Lieutenant."

Sulu did not hide his disappointment well.

"We're going to need to put the repeater somewhere outside," Uhura said thoughtfully, leaning forward to take a look outside. They were all being careful to stay out of the actual doorway, so she ended up making a quick cat-peek and then pulling back. "It'll be nightfall soon. Should we wait for that?"

Jim looked at his watch. The plan had been to check with the ship once or twice, but not more than that -- it was a diplomatic mission to a place Starfleet had been before and, as Bones had put it, nobody wanted to hear the captain drunk-dialing the bridge again. Jim had called in after the city tours, right before the cocktail reception had begun -- slurring his speech outrageously and hiccuping for effect -- and so nobody left aboard the Enterprise would be even concerned for another few hours.

"I'm not sure we can afford to do that," he answered. "The longer we're here, the greater the odds they realize that. All they have to do is blow us up here and their problems are solved. When the bridge calls down to ask where we are, they'll be able to say that there was a terrible accident and they're very sorry."

Uhura nodded. "Give me a minute," she said, then ran back into the other room.

Sulu looked at Jim, who shrugged. His success with women had nothing to do with understanding them.

While they were waiting, Jim dug into the radio pack to pull out the repeater. Or what he hoped was the repeater. He looked it over, made sure the battery was in place and that it could turn on and that it had no switches or any other parts that indicated that there were options for how it worked. They would most likely have one chance only to get it set up and none to make adjustments if the original settings didn't work.

Uhura returned with her dress boots in one hand. She was wearing MCDF-issue combat boots. "They look very sexy with your stockings," Jim said mildly. "I hope Commander Spock noticed."

Uhura made a rude gesture with her free hand as she put her boots down on the ground. "I couldn't find socks," she said, holding out her hand for the repeater.

Jim gave it to her and she looked it over. "This is the on switch?" she confirmed. "Is there an antenna?"

"I think it's that green thing," Jim answered, pointing. "You know what to do?"

Uhura frowned. "All communications officers know basic radio operations, Captain."

Jim held up his hands in surrender. "Sulu, go with her and watch her back while she sets it up."

Uhura looked like she was going to protest, but Jim gave her a look. "You have only two hands and no eyes in the back of your head. You can be the brains on this op, but he goes, too."

Uhura and Sulu set out on a dead run for the highest open ground within eyeshot. Jim unslung the rifle he'd been carrying -- a new one from the armory and not the bloodied one he'd taken from the hovercruiser -- and watched them go.

He sensed more than heard Spock join him.

"Even with the repeater, it is unlikely that the radio is powerful enough to reach the Enterprise," Spock said. "I do not believe the necessary frequency is achievable given the mechanism of wave propagation."

"Maybe, maybe not," Jim replied, not taking his eyes off of the middle distance. Sulu and Uhura weren't visible -- they were in the trees -- but he knew roughly where they would be and followed their invisible progress just the same. "We might get lucky with the ionosphere and I think between the four of us we can cobble together a signal boost."

He was talking out of his ass a little and giving a motivational speech to precisely the one person on whom it would be a total waste, but Spock didn't call him on in. Instead, he turned and sat down - a little unsteadily - to get a better look at the radio.

Jim returned his gaze to the trees, waiting for Sulu and Uhura to reappear. "Did you get anything out of the computer?"

"Applicable to our radio trouble, no," Spock answered. Jim could hear him fiddling with the radio's casing. "An explanation of our more general predicament, perhaps."

Jim shot him a quick look over his shoulder. "You can't find the controls for their jammer, but you stumbled on the 'Let's fuck with the Federation' plans?"

This shouldn't have surprised him, especially on a Spock Is Not Useful day, but it did a little.

They were quiet for a moment, Spock disassembling the radio and Jim watching for his officers. He caught a flash of yellow in the distance and squinted to find it again; Sulu and Uhura appeared at the edge of the treeline far away, near the edge of the cliff where Spock had led them what felt like hours ago.

"Nothing so direct," Spock said and Jim had to think for a moment to remember what Spock was replying to. "It would seem that our visit might have pre-empted a coup."

Jim spared another look back. "A coup? They were going to get rid of the nice King of Mink?"

The Mink royal family seemed very decent for royalty, pleasant and generous and with very little of the kiss-my-ring stuff that Jim had seen plenty of in his limited time as an officer and a gentleman. (In addition to the visits abroad, Jim had been told in no uncertain terms that captains in port were expected to present themselves, in proper attire, at formal UFP events.) And the Mink military hadn't seemed especially avaricious or ambitious - at least before they arrested the Starfleet contingent.

"The nice King of Mink wants to join the Federation," Spock answered absently, attention on his work. "The evaluations required for acceptance would most likely have revealed the illicit activities of the MCDF leadership. So it was deemed expedient to excise the impetus behind the evaluations."

Jim smiled. "So I was right. This was all a big production to cover up for a smuggling operation."

There was the noise of something dropping on the ground - and bouncing, not breaking. Jim didn't turn; Uhura and Sulu were once again in the trees and on their way back.

"Despite all appearances and much supporting evidence, Captain," Spock replied mildly, "you are not a complete idiot."

Jim smiled to himself; he didn't want Spock to start thinking he might be intentionally funny. It would only encourage him.

Sulu and Uhura made it back without incident. Jim was really starting to wonder why the hell they were being left alone for so long.

"You turned it on, right?" he asked once they were back and catching their breath; Sulu was sitting on the floor and Uhura was leaning against the wall.

"Wait, we were supposed to?" Sulu asked innocently, then spoiled the effect by grinning.

"When you're no longer gasping like a beached fish, Lieutenant," Jim began, trying to sound stern because he could fake a straight face better than Sulu, "you can go guard the door. Uhura, go back to the computer room and see if you can't find any kind of data storage device. We'll probably want to take supporting documentation of what went on here; I get the sneaking suspicion that our pursuers will come up with a pretty fancy story about how this is all our fault."

Sulu stood up with a grunt, his rifle sliding on its sling so that the stock hit the ground as he did so. Uhura pushed off of the wall as well, pausing on her way back to the other room to stop by Spock, who said something in Vulcan that Jim understood enough of to realize that it was instructions for how to deal with whatever was on the computers and not any kind of reassurance that he was okay. Uhura, no fool about what she'd gotten into by dating a Vulcan, continued on without a word. She did, however, briefly touch his good shoulder as she passed.

Freed up, Jim took a good look at what Spock was doing, which was apparently trying to wire his Starfleet comm. into the radio. It was a bypass operation of some delicacy and Spock was clearly struggling with the motions.  

"Give me that," Jim said, sitting down next to Spock and holding his hand out. "I can do it faster than you can."

Because appealing to Spock's logic was sometimes the only way to save the man from himself.

Spock handed over the screwdriver and assembly with some reluctance.

"So why are they leaving us alone?" Jim asked as he began to work.

Spock didn't answer right away and as the silence stretched, Jim looked up to make sure Spock hadn't passed out or anything. His eyes were closed.


"The greatest probability is that they do not believe us to be a threat to them at present," Spock said, opening his eyes. "It is unlikely that they do not know we are here. It is almost certain that they also know what is in this complex, including the computer network and our ability to access it."

"And they just don't care?" The screwdriver slipped and Jim nearly dropped it, but recovered in time. "We've got crates of rifles and grenades and access to their network!"

"They have aerial bombers that could reduce this facility to dust," Spock countered. "Despite your continued reference to this building as a 'bunker,' it is not hardened in any fashion."

"So why haven't they yet?"

"It would make tactical sense to take the opportunity to shore up their less secure positions," Spock answered, picking up the radio's cover and running his fingers over the embossed print labels. "Such as preparing the government to properly receive curious Starfleet representatives."

Jim looked at his watch again; not enough time had passed since the last check to make it worthwhile. "I hope they realize how much time they have," he said. "Chekov's not going to be getting nervous for another two hours and Bones isn't going to let him try to comm us for three. Which means four hours before they try to raise the palace directly."

Spock put the casing back where it had been. "We shall know inside that time frame whether or not we will be able to raise the Enterprise," he said. "If we cannot, then we should take advantage of the confusion to explore alternatives."

The translation of which was getting the hell out of here, which might very well include a fight.

"Sir!" Sulu called from near the door. "There's another hovercruiser approaching."

"Fabulous," Jim sighed as he put down the radio's guts and stood up. Spock picked up what he'd put down. "Don't undo my work, Commander."

Spock gave him a very meaningful arched eyebrow.

Jim crossed the room to Sulu, who pointed up into the sky. The cruiser wasn't that close or that low, just barely visible in the early twilight sky. It was summer in this part of Mink and sunset was very late; dusk was supposed to last until almost midnight. He turned back and looked around the room.

"Lieutenant, find some tape or staples or something we can use to hang a blanket over the doorway," he ordered.

Sulu complied. "Why don't we just shut the door, sir?" he asked as he grabbed one of the blankets and tossed it to Jim, who caught it and shook it out. It was heavy worsted wool, or more likely some synthetic version of it, which would be perfect if they could find something strong enough to hold it up.

"Because we can't see outside otherwise," he answered. "I don't know what sort of ventilation this place has or whether it can be remotely controlled. I don't want them suffocating us and I don't like sitting here without knowing what they're doing."

Sulu ended up finding a nail gun, which Jim wasn't sure would work on the material from which the facility was constructed, but it did. Sulu stood on an overturned crate and created their makeshift curtain. Jim pushed two more crates next to it at the base of the doorway and filled them with whatever he could find nearby that was heavy, effectively making a low barrier across the doorway.

"In case they do something annoying like try to roll a grenade in," Jim explained when Sulu didn't lose the confused expression. "Move everything else in the room along that wall, a couple of meters in. It'll give us a place to hide if we have to."

Once Sulu started, Jim turned back to Spock, who was working slowly and unsteadily on the radio, and then went to the doorway to keep watch. The hovercruiser was closer, but not close enough to give any indication if it was going to land or just keep watch from a distance.

"Uhura, get the rifles out of the back room, please?" he called out. She aye-ayed him, but it was a moment before he heard her leave the computer.

She had time to bring the rifles and set them up alongside a case of grenades before Sulu was finished. Sulu hadn't just pushed everything together; he'd designed an actual defensive position. Everything was organized by weight and material to be stable and with an eye toward surviving either a firefight or an explosion. Jim didn't think their chances were very good no matter what they hid behind if the MCDF got a grenade in here, but it was better than nothing and, perhaps more importantly, it made Sulu and Uhura look a little less worried.

With Sulu back on the field stool he'd perched just next to the doorway - he could see out of the gap between blanket and the door jamb - and Uhura back at the computers, Jim returned to Spock and the radio.

Spock had made some progress, but Jim held out his hand for him to turn it over. "You can tell me what to do," Jim assured. "It'll be just like the bridge except you don't have to pretend you're only making helpful suggestions."

Spock looked like he was going to fight Jim on it, but then the screwdriver slipped in his hand. It probably had nothing to do with Spock's injury - the screwdriver was tiny and awkwardly formed - but it was enough.

They worked quietly for the next half-hour. Sulu kept them updated on the hovercruiser (which was not landing) and the light conditions (twilight was slowly melting into dusk, but visibility was still good); Uhura had found some kind of data storage and was saving anything that looked interesting. The storage devices were not very sleek or small, but there wouldn't be a huge problem carrying them. Sulu had found field packs while re-arranging the room.

"Turn it on," Spock said after Jim finished a set of connections. What they had was both haphazard and oddly ascetic; Spock's neat-freak design theory had not been completely overwhelmed by the circumstances.

"Is this grounded?" Jim asked even as he reached for the battery.

"There isn't enough of a charge to cause permanent damage," Spock said as Jim slipped it in. "Probably."

Jim gave him a dirty look as he flicked the switch. "Well, it looks like you don't get your interim command back," he said when he didn't get electrocuted. "On the other hand, if nothing else happens, Commander McCoy still has his and we both know how much he wants that."

Bones hated the fact that he was third in the line of succession among command personnel, but he otherwise rather enjoyed the privileges of his rank when it came to dealing with Starfleet (not on the ship, however, where he took the same schedules as his most junior medicos). As such, he kept his bitching and moaning to only those situations when Jim and Spock were, in his opinion, intentionally making his life difficult. Which was pretty much any time when he was forced to remember where he was in the chain of command.

There was a flicker of lights on the panel, which was good, but then nothing else for a long moment (or what felt like a long moment) and then another flicker and then a third and then steady lights. Spock reached over to the tuning dials and started adjusting and Jim shuffled back without getting up so that he could have better access.

"Take the microphone," Spock said and Jim picked up the handset, turning it around so what was probably the talk button was by his thumb. It was that or the mute button; he'd have to try it both ways if it didn't work the first time.

He waited for Spock to nod before starting with the "Kirk to Enterprise" repetitions. They tried it three times on each frequency, waiting for a count for a response before trying the next one. Jim couldn't see precisely which frequencies Spock was using, but they were clearly going with the main ones first before starting again at the bottom of the dial and creeping upward.

When Jim looked up, he could see that Uhura was standing in the doorway between the first and second rooms. "The data's transferring," she explained when he gave her a questioning look. "I can keep an eye on it from here."

They went up to the top of their available range with no response.

"It is entirely possible that the same system used to incapacitate our comms is also defeating this makeshift transmitter," Spock said. "Or else it simply isn't powerful enough."

"Try it again," Jim instructed. "It's already third shift aboard ship; even if they caught a faint whiff of something, it'll take them a minute to act on it."

There'd be a skeleton crew on the bridge, plus the usual worriers because both Jim and Spock were not aboard. Lieutenant Pratal would have the deck at this hour, with a strong likelihood that Chekov and/or Scotty, the aforementioned usual worriers, were milling around as well. (Bones, being Bones, would be doing his worrying in the medical suites.) Pratal was competent if unimaginative, entirely sure of her own abilities and even more sure that there was no justice in a universe where her skipper had been in high school when she'd been an ensign. If whoever had commo duties picked up even a blip of their transmission, Pratal would have the entire bridge working to track it down, if only to keep everyone from falling into that eyes-open doze that came with third shift duty while in geosynchronous orbit over a peaceful planet.

"Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise."

They moved down the dial as slowly as possible, giving extra time before each change. They were more than halfway when they got a false positive -- it was just a chirp in the static -- and by the time they got near the bottom, even Jim was reconciling himself to failure.

"Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise."

Waiting.... waiting... waiting... and then a nod to Spock to adjust the frequency once more. As he did, the radio came to life.

"--terprise. Your last transmission was garbled. Please repeat?"

"Go back," Jim exhorted. "Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise. Do you read?"

Jim snapped his fingers at Sulu and pointed at the blanket so that the lieutenant would keep his eyes on the outside instead of watching the radio with hope.

"Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise. Do you read?"

Jim counted to fourteen before the radio chirped.

"This is the Federation starship USS Enterprise. Your transmission is garbled. Please re-set your transmitter and try again."

Jim made an exasperated noise. "Who is that, Samoria?"

Lieutenant (j.g.) Samoria had a stick up his ass even on his good days, which might or might not have had anything to do with the fact that he was Arbazan. He was the only junior commo officer who preferred third-shift work because, as far as Jim could tell, it cut down on the social interactions required to get through the day. Why he'd chosen communications as his field in the first place was beyond anyone's understanding.

Spock fiddled with the settings and Jim tried again, getting nothing in return except for Samoria's prim demand that they clean up their transmission.

Jim exhaled loudly, trying to expel his own frustration, and waited for Spock to give him the go-ahead to try again. His eyes fell on the radio's protective case and that's when inspiration struck. "Hey, Uhura, Morse Code's still a basic requirement for a commission as a commo officer, right?"

It was required for the helmsman and navigator positions and Jim, who'd already known it, had gotten tested on it as part of the survival course required for all Starfleet personnel in 'high risk' billets.

"Of course," she replied. "All five standard versions, listening and transmission."

Jim smiled. "How good's your hand? Or, perhaps more importantly, how good's Samoria's ear?"

"Very. For both." Uhura looked at him warily. "What did you have in mind?"

Spock looked up sharply, as if he'd just gotten where Jim was going and was surprised it had taken him so long to do so.

"They can tell we're there because we're making noise, but they can't hear my voice," he explained. "So we communicate with the noise."

He held up the handset to Uhura, who crossed over to them and sat down before accepting it. She looked over the handset for a moment, then looked at Jim. "What do you want me to say?"

Jim thought for a second. "Kirk to Enterprise," he answered. "They'll recognize the ship's name most easily and from there, the rest. Then we can get on with the actual news."

Spock fiddled with something in the radio's guts; Jim thought he was making the noise worse instead of trying to clean it up.

It was a long wait -- or at least it felt like a long wait -- before they got anywhere.

"Good heavens, Captain, where the hell are you?" Scotty's voice sounded excited. Tinny and excited. Jim could imagine him leaning over Samoria to get to the console, no doubt making the j.g. extremely uncomfortable and annoyed at anyone so close. "We can't locate your signals anywhere on the planet."

"Tell him we're in a bunker hiding from the MCDF," Jim told Uhura. "Hell, tell 'em the whole story. Where's the PADD? Can we give them coordinates?"

The PADD was in the computer room and Jim hopped up to get it before Spock got the stupid idea to do it himself. He tossed it to Spock upon his return. "Find the maps."

"Captain, this is Lieutenant Pratal," a mellifluous voice came on the line after Uhura had transmitted their position. "Commander Scott and Ensign Chekov are unable to locate your positions--"

"That's not true," Scotty interrupted. "We know exactly where you say you are; it's right there on the map. But we can't convince the sensors that you're there."

"Ask him if going out in the open would help," Jim ordered, although he doubted it would. The door was open; they were hardly hermetically sealed.

Scotty assured them it wouldn't; they had been off the grid for hours, since shortly after the last time Jim had checked in. They'd assumed it was a side effect of the palace construction and had planned to send a shuttle down to the planet shortly before the reception was due to end since there was no chance they'd be able to be beamed up directly.

"Sending a shuttle down here to pick us up now would be entirely too straightforward and easy, wouldn't it," Jim asked, mostly rhetorically.

"The Mink do not view our survival as an acceptable option," Spock said. "If we are to be framed as the villains in their retelling of this day's events, then it behooves them to eliminate all sources of an alternate narrative."

"So they'd blow the shuttle out of the sky," Jim sighed.

"If necessary, they would take on the Enterprise herself," Spock agreed. "The Federation -- with Starfleet as her military arm -- is a more plausible aggressor than four independent agents of limited experience. That they have not yet moved against the ship indicates that they still believe that they can frame our deaths as an unfortunate accident and stave off an interplanetary incident."

Jim rubbed his face with his hands. "Which leaves us back at 'how the hell do we get out of here?'"

"Captain," Scotty began, "is there any chance you know where the jamming signal is coming from? If we can take that out, then it's just a hop and a skip to get you folks back here."

"If it were that easy, we'd have done it ourselves," Jim muttered. "Don't pass that on."

"What about the base we passed on the way here?" Sulu asked from the doorway. "The one they were prepared to defend against an invading army."

Jim chuffed a laugh. "Hell, I'd be ready to blow that place up on general principles."

"While they are undoubtedly engaged in activities there they'd rather we not know about," Spock pointed out, "if we guessed wrong, it would give the Mink pretext to send their entire fleet up against the Enterprise."

Jim nodded understanding.

"Okay," he began, gesturing for Uhura to start transcribing. "We're going to take out that facility on the basis of that they're definitely up to no good there and we've got no other good ideas short of systematically blowing up every MCDF base on the planet. And even then, who knows -- they could be hiding the transmitter in a bakery. But we do this with one thing clearly understood: if the MCDF comes after the Enterprise, then your primary mandate is to defend the ship. Even at the cost of our lives down here. Do you understand me, Commander McCoy, or do I have to make it an order? Screw it, I'm making it an order anyway."

Jim had no doubt that Bones had been standing there since they'd first realized who was trying to contact them.

"Jim," Bones sighed into the comm. "I understand, Captain, and will comply."

Jim looked around at Sulu, Spock, and Uhura. This wasn't the first time he'd offered up their lives as an acceptable loss for some other purpose, but nobody looked like they were going to argue the decision. If it worked, they'd be back aboard ship by breakfast.

"Start transmitting the coordinates," Jim told Uhura. "Tell them not to do anything until I give the order. I want us to be packed and ready in case we have to run."

"We'd better do it fast, sir," Sulu warned. "The hovercruiser's starting to move and it's bringing friends."

Jim nodded at Uhura to pass on the information, but kept his eyes on Spock. "Can they monitor our transmission?"

"There is no encryption," Spock pointed out. "And we are broadcasting as any radio station would near a standard hailing frequency."

Which was Spock's way of saying yes, of course the Mink could have been listening and might very well have heard the entire business.

"How many are out there, Sulu?" Jim called.

"Two cruisers, some movement in the trees," Sulu reported. "It's getting too dark for me to see how many."

Jim took the handset from Uhura. "You go get the data devices and stick some rations and med kits into the field packs," he told her, then turned to Spock, giving him the handset. "You tell them to stand by."

Uhura gathered the field packs and brought them to the crate of grenades. She stuffed a few in each pack, then brought one each to Sulu, then Jim and Spock, and then did the same with the rifles.

"I want you to answer me honestly, Spock," Jim warned. "Does your shoulder need attention before we set off?"

Jim could almost see the war between the Vulcan training and the human instincts and, for once, he was glad that the Vulcan side won. "A new dressing would slow the rate of deterioration once we are in flight."

Uhura and Jim worked together to clean and re-bandage the wound. Up close, Jim could see the extent of the damage; it would all be fixable aboard the Enterprise, but right now, it looked really not good. And that was before Spock started wearing a pack with shoulder straps.

"Lieutenant Sulu, prep a grenade," Jim ordered once they were done. "On my mark, I want you to throw it and Lieutenant Uhura will tell the Enterprise to fire. If this doesn't work, we're going to have to make a run for it. We're going to be easy targets until we can get out of the cul de sac, so haul ass until we clear the shrubs and then move left. Go a hundred meters into the trees and then stop and see who else made it through. If we get separated… I have no idea what to use as a rally point, so don't get separated. Questions?"

Uhura brought the box of grenades to Sulu, who picked up one with each hand, before returning and reclaiming the handset from Spock. Jim stood, watching the tableau, and counted to five slowly in his head. Then he raised both arms, nodded first at Sulu and then at Uhura, and then dropped them.

Sulu pulled the pins and let fly.

The noise and light were not completely obscured by the blanket curtain; there were two flashes and then screams of surprise and pain and then, in the near distance, the deeper rumble of the other base being attacked. If they'd been outside, they probably could have heard the whine of the incoming blast, but Jim could still feel the slight tremble of the ground as it was bombarded.

Sulu grabbed two more grenades and threw them as well. Jim joined him by the entrance, unslinging his rifle in preparation of having to repel an assault by the survivors.

"Captain," Scotty's voice came over the radio. "We've flattened the place like a pancake, but - wait - no. Okay, we had you and then we lost you again. Their jammer is either on the blink or they're getting the back-up working... Now we've got you, but not well enough to get a fix on you. There's something causing interference and our prodigal ensign can't work this particular miracle. Is there any way you can move around without getting yourselves killed?"

Jim snuck a peek out. There were wounded and dead and the brush nearest the entrance was on fire. It was impossible to tell if there was anyone alive, but then someone took a shot that came very close to taking Jim's head off at the shoulder. Sulu reached for more grenades as the firing picked up. The blanket was getting shot to ribbons, but Jim didn't think it was more than two or three shooters.

"Tell him we've got a long run through fire and enemy soldiers and a short run to a steep cliff," Jim called to Uhura as he brought the rifle up and lowered his eye to the sight.

"If it's at least a fifteen meter drop, Chekov says he can grab you," Scotty pronounced.

There was more, but Jim didn't hear it over the sound of his rifle firing.

"You feel like making a leap of faith, Spock?" Jim called over his shoulder as Sulu gave up on the grenades and joined in as well. Spock would have the numbers crunched already, calculating their odds of survival for each scenario.

"Captain," Lieutenant Pratal began, "the MCDF Air Force has scrambled their Capitol District forces. Less than eight minutes until they come within range of us."

Jim made up his mind without waiting for Spock's reply.

"Tell Chekov that if he doesn't get all four of us on the first try," Jim warned, "then he'll never see j.g. and my dying wish will be that his PFT results get lost every year. I will totally hack the system from the grave."

Chekov's anxiety about his fitness testing was a source of humor to the entire wardroom.

"Ensign Chekov would very much like to see his next promotion," Scotty announced. "He's ready when you are."

Jim looked at Uhura, Sulu, and Spock, who nodded in turn. "Tell them they better catch us."

They all stood together by the doorway, now bare after the blanket had been shot away.

"I'm going to go out first and provide covering fire," Jim told the others. "You just run straight for the cliff and over. No fancy tricks, no returning fire, just go. I'll follow."

He reached down for a grenade, pulled the pin, and tossed it blindly in the direction of the trees. Once it exploded, he stepped out and got into a firing position, ready to shoot the first thing that moved. "Go, go, go!"

He felt the air move as the trio ran past him. There was fire directed at them, but not well aimed. The smoke was thick and the sky was now dark; he could barely see his own people and they were only meters away. He counted to ten and then started running himself, not slowing down as he approached the edge and continued over. It was a little exhilarating.

Okay, a lot exhilarating.

He felt the prickle of dematerialization just as the prickle of holy-shit-I'm-about-to-become-a-pancake threatened to close his windpipe. A moment later, he was on the floor of the transporter platform, filthy and kinetic in a room that was sterile and still. Except not really, because Scotty and Chekov and Bones were there, along with various engineering personnel and the medical team Bones had had on standby, and everyone was suddenly in motion.

Someone was already seeing to Spock and Uhura was handing her pack full of data devices over to Galliardi, the commo NCOIC for this shift, and Sulu was drinking water out of a commissary service thermos.

"I did not get everyone at the same time, sir," Chekov told Jim, a little proud and a little worried - probably that Jim would actually do something about his PFT. "But I did get everyone in the end."

Jim accepted his own water bottle from Petty Officer Riat before replying. "I'll make a note of it in my log, Ensign." He took a long swig. "Good work, by the way."

Chekov beamed. "Thank you, sir."

Jim supposed he should stand up at some point, but he was comfortable where he was. Pratal sent someone down to tell the captain that they'd warped away from Mink without contact with the MCDF fleet and were to be considered underway to their next port of call. Spock was bundled off to Medical with the expected escalating threats and rank-pulling before Bones informed Spock that his standing as CMO trumped the fact that Spock had more time in grade and, in addition, allowed him to order the Captain to get off his ass and over to the infirmary as well, which he was about to do after a certain Vulcan with a hole in his shoulder stopped being a stubborn idiot.

"It's good to be home," Jim said to Riat as they watched Spock try to swan off (for Vulcan values of swanning off) to get treated with a doctor, two nurses, and a pair of orderlies chasing after him because he wouldn't get on the stretcher.

Uhura and Sulu left a good deal more docilely and with less fanfare.

"Anything I need to know about, Captain?" Bones asked Jim, who might have startled a little because he hadn't noticed his arrival.

"I'm just riding out the adrenaline," Jim assured, an answer that was met with a look of disbelief. Because Spock was the more difficult patient, but Jim was the one who routinely lied to the doctors.

He went along with Bones to the infirmary, got checked out, and made sure that Uhura and Sulu were already cleared and that Spock was willing to accept his overnight stay without the threat of armed guards and/or getting cuffed to the bed. He returned to his quarters to clean up and change into a fresh work uniform and while the bed looked incredibly inviting, especially now that all of the buzz was gone and the exhaustion was all that was left, he turned and went out again. He went up to the bridge to congratulate Pratal and Chekov and Somoria on a good night's work before going back down to Engineering and doing the same for Scotty and his people and then finally stopping off at Medical under the pretext of making sure Spock hadn't staged a brig break. It was important for the crew to see him alive and well and worried about them so that they could stop worrying about him. It was a return to the normal course of things.

He'd learned this lesson from Pike, too, although it hadn't been one that had come in the form of a lecture or a casual chat or insightful email. After they'd rescued him from Nero and against all of Bones's protestations, Pike had held court around his bedside, accepting and entertaining all visitors, from officers down to the lowest enlisted ranks, all day long, well past the point of an exhaustion he took care to let nobody see. It had undoubtedly retarded his recovery, but it had done wonders for the morale of the crew, a fact which Jim acutely aware of since he was still acting captain. It definitely made a difference both short term and longer, a small victory for a ship about to return home to the stark reality that hundreds of their friends and colleagues had been lost as well as the billions on Vulcan. Tonight's misadventures weren't on that scale, not nearly, but it was a lesson Jim had nonetheless absorbed.

By the time he got back to his quarters, he had gotten his second wind, or at least hit that point of exhaustion when he was too tired to sleep. So he moved in to his office, took out his PADD, and started composing first his AAR on the mission and then his remarks on the official UFP membership evaluation. He sent a short incident report to the Admiralty, partially in case the Mink started protesting their innocence and victimhood and mostly to get the ball rolling on any trade sanctions that might be levied -- he'd brought everyone home alive, so the likelihood of the Federation doing anything more than finger-wagging and canceling the membership offer was minimal. In it he referenced the data files that Uhura had copied and grabbed, noting that they had yet to be translated, and then told the story as he remembered it.

He was still working when Yeoman Rand walked in, pastry perched precariously atop her coffee thermos. She nearly dropped both when she saw him, since she could count on one hand the number of times Jim had gotten to work before she had and she'd still have enough fingers left over to play the Delterian lyre.

"Ah, you're here," Jim greeted her. "But you didn't bring me breakfast."

Rand was still looking at him like she wasn't sure she shouldn't be calling security. "I can go get you something, sir," she offered warily.

"Don't bother, I could use the walk," Jim replied. "I should check in and see if Commander Spock hasn't discharged himself from the infirmary yet."

Because Spock would totally tell whoever was on duty that it was past ship's dawn and thus his overnight observation was complete and he was going now.

"You're too late for that, sir," Rand replied with a grin. "Commander McCoy could be heard arguing with Commander Spock from outside the wardroom mess."

Jim grinned back. "Well, it's good to know that things can return to normal quickly around here. I'm going to go see about breakfast. I left you some files you might want to translate into official gobblygook before sending."

Spock was on the bridge when Jim showed up for his shift. They exchanged eyebrows raised in challenge -- Jim was getting better at that, but Spock had decades of practice -- and then the formal deck relief routine. Sulu showed up at the very edge of almost-late, which he always did, and took the conn without looking up at the chair, which he always did, to avoid Jim's expression of disapproval. Which Jim always did because he had very few hard and fast rules for his crew, but 'no tardiness' was one of them. But after that, it was just another day aboard the starship Enterprise.

feed me on LJ?

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26 May, 2010