"Hang on, Spock. Bones and a medical team are on their way."
Jim was still hanging on to his first officer's arm from examining it, but he sure as hell wasn't going to let go now. He stayed right where he was, at Spock's side, because what else was he supposed to do?
Spock was slipping quickly toward unconsciousness, but he was fighting it—something Jim was encouraging. He couldn't help but worry, as little as they knew about what was wrong, about what would happen if Spock did lose consciousness.
"I don't understand what is…it is not logical…" Spock said, but with fading clarity. His head moved suddenly, in the captain's direction, as if trying to focus on him but too close to senselessness to really see anymore. "Jim…"
It sounded for all the world like a plea, and Jim clamped his free hand on the Vulcan's shoulder. "I'm right here, Spock. I don't understand it, either, but we'll figure it out. We will."
Spock managed a small nod as his head fell back against the wall and his eyes closed. Jim tried to talk to him after that but there wasn't any answer. That, thank god, was when the door to the corridor opened again and Leonard McCoy barreled inside with a medical team behind him.
"What happened?" he demanded, spotting the two of them on the floor.
Jim held up the arm cradled in one of his to call attention to the worrying, spidery green lines. "I don't know. I haven't seen this before. What the hell is it, Bones?"
McCoy initially seemed as confused as he. "The blazes…?" He started a tricorder scan, but began shaking his head immediately.
"Nothing. I'll have to recalibrate; obviously something's in his system, but whatever it is has gone undetected before now except for the symptoms. Under the radar somehow."
"Spock said he felt worse…you think whatever this is is was causing those symptoms to begin with? It's making him sick?"
"Has to be; there was nothing else that would have been making him sick, unless it was the stress, but Vulcans aren't really the type for psychosomatic illness. Now this is here, and—"
Jim cut in, pointing out that the strange lines made their way up to Spock's neck and beyond.
"Damnit," Bones groused. "I knew he was getting sicker. I should have had him back in sickbay yesterday, but there's that damn Vulcan propriety of his and I didn't want to make him come back unless he absolutely had to—"
"Usually you're not much concerned about it."
"Well excuse me if I thought he'd been through enough already. He hates sickbay. Or whatever the blasted Vulcan equivalent of that is."
"Easy, Bones. I'm not blaming you. Just find out what's doing this to him."
"That would be the plan."
They got Spock back to sickbay immediately, but once again Jim found himself in the way. He was forced to spend several more lonely hours in the doctor's office, because he didn't want to leave this time, either. This time, though, he couldn't have fallen asleep if he wanted to. Though it was late by the time Bones tracked him down back there, he was wide awake and up and pacing for maybe the sixth or seventh separate time.
This time, when McCoy found him, the doctor did not look at all happy.
"Bones? What is it? What's happening to him?"
The doctor just shook his head. "We don't even know all of it and I don't like it, Jim."
"What is it? Those devices must have…"
"At least one of them injected some sort of toxin at the point on his wrist where we found the wound after they fell off. That's what's making him sick and keeping him from getting any stronger. What we don't understand is why or how."
Kirk frowned, trying to remember those awful several minutes in the surgical ward. "Just before those things came off his wrists, they grew dimmer. Like they were losing signal and they knew it. It must have been something they were programmed to do if they were about to lose contact. The loss of signal…triggered something. Either only one was supposed to inject, or that mechanism had already been damaged on the one you were trying to cut through."
"I'd had a few thoughts along those lines."
"We kept them, didn't we? In case we needed to examine them?"
"A science team should be doing that."
Bones nodded. "I figured you'd say that; I've already got someone digging them out of storage."
"What about the toxin? Can you take care of it?"
"Jim, we don't know what it is. It didn't show up on any standard medical scans before now; we would never have found it if we hadn't known to look. We've found it now, but that's about it. I don't know if this is as sick as he'll be, or if it'll get worse, or even whether or not it has the potential to kill him."
The captain grimaced. "It certainly seemed like they wanted him dead when we escaped."
"True, but if they just wanted to make sure any escapee died, don't you think it would've been something a little more fast-acting?"
"Maybe. But they seemed very preoccupied with the subject of punishment," Jim remembered grimly.
"That could be a good thing, too. If that's what they were after when they programmed those bracelets, it might mean that's all this is and it's not a threat to Spock's life," Bones reminded him. He sounded hopeful, but then he let out a breath of frustration at his own meaningless hypothesizing. "But we don't know," he admitted. "And that's not the worst of it, Jim. It isn't the toxin that left those marks on him. It's not even the real problem."
Kirk's gaze snapped back up quickly. "What? What do you mean?"
McCoy went to the computer terminal on his desk and called up scan images. "Look at this."
There was a scan of Spock's brain on the screen, but there seemed to be a strange haze over it. "I don't understand, Bones."
The doctor pointed at the image, especially indicating the areas where the unidentified effect seemed thickest. "What you're seeing here? Nanoprobes. An army of them that've made camp in his brain."
"Nanoprobes? You mean, like microscopic medical machines?"
"Basically. Very similar to technology used on late twenty-first century Earth before the rise of safer technologies like the dermal regenerator. Research for them was abandoned then—it never went any farther. On Earth, anyway. These…we don't know much about them yet from the few scans we've gotten, but we know they're more sophisticated than anything Earth ever had."
Jim swallowed. "What are they doing in there? What about the markings?"
"They were injected with the toxin, and the path they took to his brain left those marks. They were only irritated veins; nothing more. We've already taken care of that. The problem is that these probes are in his brain. And they may not being doing much yet, but they way they're positioning themselves they could really do anything they wanted if we don't get them out. But we don't have an immediate safe way to do that.
Very slowly, Jim sat down again, on the edge of the desk. "Like what?" he asked warily. "What could they do?"
"They're in his brain! They could do anything. They could kill him right this very second if that's what they were programmed to do. And they have the gall to brag about it. Some sort of low-level field they were generating was protecting them from scans, and it's not that we cut through it. They just stopped giving it off—as if maybe they were vulnerable while they were traveling through his bloodstream, but now that they've set up shop…"
The longer McCoy talked, the more worried he sounded. "They could do anything, Jim. They could control him, they could make him sicker than he already is…they could cause him more pain than he ever felt while we were on that planet if they have a mind to. They could turn him into a vegetable, or like I said—they could just kill him. And the only ones that seem active at all right now, where they are…I think they've already begun to disrupt his mental abilities. His telepathy. His control."
"Oh god…" Jim scowled. "He did seem confused before he lost consciousness. He...well I didn't really want to think about it, Bones, but he really looked scared for a moment there."
"I don't doubt it. He may be worse when he wakes up," the doctor said gently. "We won't know until he does." McCoy flipped through a few more images, but Jim wasn't really looking at them. He wasn't really looking at anything.
"A few of them had already started to screw with his respiratory system, too," McCoy was grumbling.
Jim chewed on the inside of his lip. "I noticed. That hitching had started up again." He frowned. "What cause that the first time, then? When it started on the planet? He wouldn't have been injected with anything by that point."
Bones dropped into his desk chair. "That was just the ridiculous amount of physical and neural stress he was under at the time because of the pain. Now it's because those things are in his brain disrupting signals and causing erratic function. Some of the symptoms they're causing I can combat, though, and that's one of them for now, thank god. I've got him breathing all right now."
Both of them sat in silence for a while after that. Jim was still trying to grasp the gravity of the situation.
That his first officer was now at the mercy of these…these machines, because their captors couldn't just let their prisoners go.
It was all pointless, meaningless. Despite their seemingly innocuous purpose in being there, the aliens on the world they'd been imprisoned on—that they had never even seen—were more brutal and cruel than Jim ever could have imagined. Whether their devices were now meant to kill his first officer or not, that was still true. There was no purpose in any of this, and his stomach churned with the feeling of helplessness.
"My god, Bones, what are we going to do?"
McCoy didn't quite look at him, and since he wasn't one to be shy Jim knew that didn't bode well. "I might suggest prayer. And not just because I'm an old country doctor, either—we'll need it find an answer, and doubly so to make sure he stays alive long enough for us to do that."
Back to square one, then.
No panicking. No panicking. Wouldn't be very becoming for a captain, would it? Spock's made it through worse. There was doubt in the back of his mind, though. Has he really? Has it ever really been quite this dire?
At least not since Jim had taken command of Enterprise, it hadn't. Not really.
How was Spock going to react? Having something alien inside you that could do anything to you it wanted was horrific enough an experience once. This, though, wasn't the first time. It was far too much like what had happened at Deneva for comfort, and this time, if Bones was right, Spock might be stripped of his mental control along with whatever else was done to him before they could fix it.
No suffering in silence this time. No pretending nothing was wrong.
If Spock were human that might have been a good thing, that he might be robbed of his ability to bottle things up this time around. It was better for a human not to do that. But Spock wasn't entirely human. He was also very much a Vulcan.
"How soon can we get him back to his quarters?" Jim asked at length.
"What are you talking about? We can't. We need him here so we can be sure we're doing everything we can."
"You can't just take the samples and readings you need and—? I understand how serious this is, Bones, but if these things are doing what you think they're doing to him, he isn't going to want anyone to see him like that. He was horrified enough about the one time he shouted at Nurse Chapel a few weeks ago. He stayed in his quarters until we made it to Vulcan for a reason; he didn't want the crew to see him compromised." He made a face. "Granted, there was also the part where he might have been a danger to them in that state, and this isn't quite like that, but you know what I mean."
Bones nodded wearily. "I know what you mean. But giving him a room to himself here is the best I can do now, Jim. With those machines up there there's no telling what could happen, at any time. He has a better chance if he stays here, as close to anything we can do for him as possible."
"Sickbay doesn't have any private rooms—except for the medical isolation chambers, and those tiny sterile things…"
"I've already got my staff rigging up one of the smaller labs we're not using—taking out the extra equipment, moving a biobed and monitoring equipment in. It'll be as comfortable as we can make it, and he'll have as much privacy as we can give him as long as he's stuck in here, but…"
The doctor spread his hands helplessly, but Jim managed a small bark of warm laughter despite himself.
"No, Bones, it's all right…that's good. It's good. It's a lot better than nothing." McCoy tried to pretend he didn't care about their Vulcan first officer as much as he did, but Jim had long since been able to see right through him.
Jim squeezed his friend's shoulder for a moment and nodded in understanding.
"When should he come around?" the captain asked then.
"Any time now."
"We should be in there, then."
Bones nodded and rose to follow him.
Spock was not at all surprised to wake in sickbay again, nor was he surprised to find the captain and Doctor McCoy hovering near his bed when he woke. They both seemed very concerned, and from what he could remember of the last twelve hours or so he supposed they had a right to be. He would like to know what was happening just as much as he was certain they did.
It seemed, however, that there was already an answer—or part of one—but the doctor did not seem eager to explain. It took prodding to get him to do so, and Spock told himself that he did not prod because he was anxious. The banter was simply an illogical waste of time.
There was also the fact that physically he felt quite feverish and weak—a disturbing feeling, for him, as Vulcans did not usually take ill—and he was not certain how long he could adequately focus on the doctor's explanation whenever he chose to give it. Thus it was logical to encourage him to begin as soon as possible, to ensure Spock would understand what he was being told. He wouldn't if he were to lose consciousness again or become too insensate to listen.
It was strange to need to consider such things, but he had no choice. He had not meditated in any capacity for more than two days, because he could not. Even the few brief days since their rescue from the planet that he had been able to gain some level of meditation, it had not been much, or deep. Without the refresh of meditation his other mental disciplines were slipping, and any abilities he might otherwise have in that sense were therefore nonoperational or becoming so.
"Doctor, please, if any answers have been forthcoming I would request that you convey them." It was the third time since waking that he had made such a request. Whereas before the captain and doctor had only exchanged uneasy glances, this time McCoy gave in with a huff of frustration.
"Fine! You want to know what's wrong with you so damned badly, I'll tell you!" But then he sighed, and any anger was soon gone as he began to explain Spock's situation to him.
It was ironic, how similar it all was to what had happened to him at Deneva. That was not lost on him. The fact that it was now microscopic machines in his brain rather than alien neural tissue twined throughout his body did not make much effective difference.
At least this time the entity or entities within him were not attempting to force him to be a danger to the ship and its crew. It gave him some small comfort.
Still, with his control weak…Spock felt the fear and helplessness, and he could not deny that he did. He had the completely illogical sensation of a cold hand closing in a vice-grip around his chest. He remained as controlled without as he ever did—that, at least, had not (yet?) been taken from him—but the captain was a remarkably sensitive man.
Spock lay propped against pillows that had been positioned behind him once he woke, silently listening. Somehow, though, Jim knew something, or saw something. Approximately halfway through the doctor's exposition, as Spock began to understand the depth of the matter, Jim moved a bit closer to the bedside. He was nearly brushing his first officer's shoulder. He rested a hand lightly on that shoulder and kept it there.
In any other situation Spock would have allowed it for a moderate length of time, and then found some polite way to extricate himself if the contact continued. On the planet, conversely, he had not had a choice but to allow it to continue; he had needed the physical support or had been too withdrawn from the pain to realize, entirely, that it was still there in those cases.
At the moment, as in any usual situation, he did have a choice. Still, he didn't seek to somehow discontinue the contact. Reluctantly he realized that he did not want to.
"Spock? Are you all right?"
Jim's voice broke into his consciousness, and Spock realized that the doctor's explanation was over. He remembered all of it, of course, as a Vulcan, but the rest of him still felt strangely as if he had gone through the past several minutes in a strange haze.
"I understand my position, if that is what you are inquiring." His voice still sounded rough and weak, not much better than it had when Jim had found him. He did not like it.
The captain, who had asked the question, shook his head and let his hand fall from Spock's shoulder. "I don't know what I'm inquiring." He appeared quite at a loss, and…at the moment, Spock could not blame him.
The doctor spoke again at length, though he seemed hesitant to do so. "The first order of business will be to take a sample of those probes—your room should be ready by then, and we can get you moved into it. Like I said, I'm afraid I can't let you go back to your quarters. Not this time; the situation is too sensitive."
Spock nodded once. "I understand, doctor."
He also understood why they were preparing a room for him here, beyond the fact that they wished to give him the best possible chance of surviving. However, none of them said it and Spock was grateful for that.
He was also grateful that they were doing it, because he knew they were likely right. If the toxins and other actions of the probes continued to break down his mental barriers, if they continued to weaken the area of his brain that allowed him to construct them…
It occurred to him that they could not possibly have been programmed, specifically, for his species. If so, what they were doing would be, logically, only a first step meant to make the remainder of the process—whatever it was, whether a journey to death or not—a worse experience for the victim from the beginning no matter the species. Such a step would not have taken long in most humans, with what comparatively little mental defenses they had.
It was another small consolation, that with him these devices were having so much trouble even beginning to carry out whatever programming they might have.
"We'll take the samples in the morning. For now, both you and the captain are in need of sleep." The doctor looked pointedly at Jim, who rolled his eyes.
"All right, Bones, all right…"
And then both of them just stood there.
They were both shifting uncomfortably, worriedly.
"Spock…" Jim began. But he stopped.
Spock understood, too, that in a way this was more dire than Deneva. The neural parasites had wanted their victims alive to do their bidding, but the programmed will of these machines was unknown. Feasibly, it was possible now that any moment until they could be removed or deactivated might be Spock's last.
But Spock knew as he watched these friends who cared for him that it was not death itself that concerned him.
It took only that. The captain relaxed visibly, and nodded, as if to say that he knew everything would be all right.
Human body language and the things they conveyed with it were often illogical, but Spock had come to be able to read them easily enough in most circumstances. It was easier, too, to do it in people he was closer to. That was why Spock understood; he could not think of any human that he had ever been closer to in friendship than Jim Kirk.
"I'll be back as soon as my shift is finished tomorrow, if I'm not back in the morning," Jim said then. He looked at the doctor. "Keep me informed."
"Go to bed, Jim." McCoy looked at Spock next. "You too."
Spock did not protest. He could feel himself tiring again already. He had not been able to get up from the floor in his quarters after he'd fallen, and he could scarcely sit up now; that much had been proven when he woke and attempted to.
At least they had let him try unhindered this time.
Anyhow, all strength he had begun to regain was gone now that the probes were working. If he recalled the doctor's explanations correctly, it was the disguised toxins they had released upon injection that had prevented him from progressing any farther than he had until now. Now even that was moot.
Spock attempted to take a deep breath, and found himself coughing and then having difficulty taking in enough air to bring it to a stop. The captain, who had been turning to go, spun back to them.
McCoy reached for his patient with one hand and waved at Jim with the other. "It's all right; he just needs another dose of what I'm using to keep his breathing steady. He'll be all right." The captain stayed frozen in the doorway to the ward anyhow, until the doctor had quickly gone for a hypospray and injected it. "There. Better?"
Breathing was immediately easier, flowed more normally, and Spock nodded. "Thank you, doctor."
McCoy snorted. "Better watch yourself; go too long without smart-mouthing me and I'll start worrying." The statement, of course, was not logical; Spock knew the doctor was already worried.
Sarcasm then. Of course. How could he have forgotten? He was tired. He felt the drag of exhaustion and sickness. He could breathe easily enough, but his head ached—his whole body did, really—and the fever and nausea remained. If he were any more upright he would have been dizzy as well. All of it the same as the past few days, but more pronounced now. Apparently these symptoms persisted even beyond whatever other concoctions the doctor had seen fit to inject him with before he woke, and with Federation medical technology what it was that did not bode well. Such simple symptoms could usually be eradicated easily.
"I apologize that I disappoint."
The doctor smiled somewhat, seemingly comforted by the mild retort. It seemed to put the captain at ease again as well, and he left as he'd meant to.
Soon enough Spock was left alone with his thoughts, but tonight it was not somewhere that he wished to be.
The situation was quickly rectified as the darkness pulled him under once more.
In the morning Doctor McCoy explained that the simplest way to get at any of the probes was to extract them via the base of his skull. Some of them had clustered there, around his spinal cord. While the fact that any of them were precisely there at all was worrying to the doctor, it prevented the need for surgery just to get a sample of the things. Seeing as he was in a great deal of danger either way, Spock considered it fortunate that the procedure would instead be relatively simple.
That was how he found himself face down on a table in the surgical ward, somewhat sedated to be certain he remained still, but not unconscious. There was no need for him to be unconscious. The extraction would not take long, and he had been told that while there might be some discomfort it should not be painful. Such claims, when doctors made them, were usually quite untrue, but it did not matter. It was necessary.
Spock remained still when he was asked, and felt the uncomfortable pressure where he had expected to feel it. For a moment, that was all he felt, and he thought that perhaps the doctor had been correct.
Then his head blossomed in sudden pain, blinding pain. Spock heard himself shout and felt himself press involuntarily into the table under him to keep from moving—to keep the doctor's effort from going wasted.
He heard swearing above him.
"Damnit! Nurse, get some more help in here! We have to get this sample and if he starts moving—"
The pain grew worse as McCoy continued to attempt to take the sample he needed. The probes were retaliating. They did not wish for any of them to be removed. The pain spread, searing his nerves as it had on the planet. Spock tried not to move, but when the orderlies that followed Nurse Chapel back arrived, they were needed. He was gasping, and he couldn't control it. He cried out again.
It was supposed to be over. There wasn't supposed to be any more pain, but now…
He had thought that perhaps the illness was what they were meant to deliver, and that perhaps it was not pain that they were meant for as the metal rings had been. Illogical, of course. Why would they colonize his brain if the toxin, which had already been released, was their only purpose? He had not thought it, he knew now; he had hoped it, and that was a very different thing.
"I've almost got it, Spock, just a few more seconds," McCoy told him. Anxiety was clear in his voice.
And then the pressure was gone, and with it went the pain. His head still pounded mercilessly, but that was manageable even by human standards…and it would have to be. Human pain management levels were very nearly all he had remaining to him.
"Spock?" There were hands on his shoulders, prodding him to turn over and offering to help. "Are you all right?"
Spock allowed the doctor to help him in turning over onto his back, even as he attempted to catch his breath and to still his now-trembling hands. It was difficult.
"Are you all right?" McCoy repeated, a little more demanding this time.
"I am…the pain has ceased."
"Ceased, or you're using your tricks on it?" the doctor asked skeptically.
Spock's eyebrows went up, and he wasn't quite looking at McCoy. "I have no…'tricks' left, Doctor," he said quietly.
He did not realize until he said it that his eyes were not quite dry, and that something inside him trembled as surely as his hands did.
"How is he?"
The captain stood in McCoy's office doorway, and the doctor sighed and got to his feet.
"I don't know, Jim. The other symptoms are getting worse—harder to counteract. Other than that I couldn't tell you. He hasn't said a word since we took the samples this morning." Bones winced. "Then again, it didn't exactly go well."
McCoy told him, and Jim wanted to know why he hadn't been called immediately.
"It was over as soon as it started, and there wasn't any more pain after we had the sample. They just tried to keep us from getting it, is all."
"But they can do that to him. Now we know for sure," Jim grimaced. "Damn."
Bones nodded slowly. "And I don't think he realized just what all of this meant until it happened. Hell, maybe even I didn't." He passed the captain and led him back in the direction of the labs and other sickbay sections, presumably leading him to the room they had given Jim's first officer.
"I keep wondering what's going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and then I tell myself he's a Vulcan, I shouldn't worry like that—shouldn't get over-dramatic about it. Then I remember he's human, too, and I don't know what to think anymore," McCoy was saying as they went.
Jim couldn't help but understand what he meant, and when the door to the small room opened he saw it. He saw Spock, still in his bed and staring blankly at the ceiling. The blanket had slipped down somewhere between his chest and his waist. There was a thin sheen of sweat visible on his forehead. Jim exchanged a worried glance with Bones.
"Like I said, he's been like that most of the day."
Jim nodded and swallowed a little, and McCoy moved on and let him go in alone. The door closed behind him and he made his way to the stool that was already by the head of the bed.
He wondered if Bones had been in here earlier. Nurse Chapel or whoever else was looking after him was more likely, but then again Bones had been rather protective of their Vulcan lately. Jim didn't blame him.
Jim sat in silence at first, and Spock didn't seem to notice him. But no matter how sick he was still Spock, and Jim knew he knew who was beside him.
"Fear is a perfectly normal emotion, you know. It doesn't mean you're weak, either." There wasn't any answer. "Anyone would be afraid in your situation. Most people wouldn't handle it very well at all; certainly not as well as you."
Still no answer.
Jim sighed. "Spock…" He had to say his friend's name once or twice more to get any reaction at all, much less an actual answer. Finally there was one.
"I do not wish to be afraid…and yet I…am."
"That's part of what it is to have emotions, Spock. It means we don't usually get to choose them."
Jim shrugged. "Yes, it is. But it's human. Nothing more, nothing less. It's what we are."
Spock finally looked at him, hesitantly, tired eyes pleading in a way Jim wasn't used to from his first officer. It made his stomach clench, and he knew they had been right to make certain that Spock would have his privacy here. His emotional control already waning fast.
"I remember the pain, and I don't want to experience it again. Nor do I wish to die. I have been willing to die, in the line of duty. I would still do so. It would be logical. This…" Spock shook his head and frowned. "This is not logical. It serves no purpose."
"I know," Jim said quickly. "I know it doesn't make any sense. No one wants to die for no reason. You're not going to."
"You cannot be certain of that."
Jim huffed. "Fine. I can't. But I know we're going to do everything in our power to make it a certainty."
"I am certain that you will." Then the Vulcan's expression softened, and he focused on the captain more clearly. "Thank you, Jim…even if it is not enough."
It was a rather emotional statement, even if his voice didn't convey much. Jim wanted to reach out to him again, as he had yesterday, just a hand on his shoulder, anything…but he wasn't sure he should. Spock was teetering on the edge of control, and any further intent contact with his emotional friends might only make it worse. Might push him over into the chaos that was coming—that Spock feared.
So he didn't. Not now. But they had known each other long enough that the small nod of understanding he gave his first officer was enough.
Their efforts to save him would be enough, too, Jim told himself. They had to be.