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Caya

Choices, Redux

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I finally put this up again on ao3 (took a wee bit longer than the few days I expected :smile:), but since the story wouldn't exist without this board, I thought I'd post it here as well. Once more, my thanks go out to Carol, brave hunter of every errant comma, Fox, Khan expert extraordinaire, and T.o.b.y, who made me realize all the subtext I never intended.

 

 

Chapter 1: Trust has to start somewhere

 

 

A weak fluttering of the eyelids, almost imperceptible; dark lashes in a pale face trembling. Captain James T. Kirk had read up on cryogenic stasis, and he knew that cognitive and aural capabilities should be fully functional by the time motor control started to reappear. He therefore perched himself on a ledge next to the pod and addressed its supine occupant.

“Relax, you’re safe. You’ve been put into cryostasis again, and right now you’re thawing. You should be fully in control soon enough, especially since you only spent two years in stasis this time. But you know that process better than me, I guess.”

Kirk’s words had clearly reached the pod’s resident, judging by his reaction; however, the desired relaxation effect failed to materialize. He strained to move, managing no more than a feeble writhing, though, and his throat formed a guttural, “Gggghk...”

Kirk stifled a sigh – he had expected such a reaction to his voice; it wasn’t unwarranted, to be honest. While he had been waiting for the first signs of motor control, he had entertained a dark corner of his mind with fantasies of how he would tell the fully aware, but still helpless man lying below him of how Christopher Pike had felt when he lay dying. He knew that wasn’t really a wise option, but it had felt sweet
imagining it.

Instead, he acknowledged the response, trying to sound steady, “Yes, it’s me, Kirk. You are safe, regardless.” Knowing the one bit of information that might bring his opponent to hear him out, he added, “And so is your crew. Spock had them removed from the torpedoes before those were beamed onto the Vengeance. Their pods are right next to yours.”

The body below him went still all of a sudden, concentrating all his efforts on moving his eyelids. Kirk found himself staring into painfully familiar eyes, clear and pale, the color of roiling clouds, the gaze still unfocused but clear in its intent.

Kirk nodded in response, hopped down and stood next to the pod, carefully grasping Khan’s head and shoulders; even after hours of being subjected to the awakening process, the other man’s body still felt unnaturally cool in his hands. He turned him to the right ever so slowly so he could see the others’ pods beside his, lined up in a double row in the dimly-lit storeroom, a silent honor cordon.

The captain could feel in his fingertips when the information had registered – the tension left the body he was holding as if a string had been cut. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge a similar tension trapped in his own muscles, he lowered Khan into the pod again as gently as he could and resumed his position on the ledge, smoothing an escaped blond strand out of his eyes.

Khan was trying to talk again, straining to form a silent W. He’s not missing a beat. Of course. Kirk closed his eyes – this was the part he’d dreaded, but there was no avoiding it. He tried to steady his voice as he began to speak.

“My crew is imprisoned on Rura Penthe.”

The name reverberated through the half-empty storeroom, echoes lurking among the shadows, giving a painful reality to the situation, to his friends trapped on the world described as the alien’s graveyard. His breath caught in his throat, and he had to collect himself for a moment before he was able to continue speaking.

“We were ordered by Starfleet Command to interrupt our five-year mission to attend a ceasefire talk with the Klingons. Shortly after we’d arrived, during dinner, an assassin struck and poisoned their chancellor. We were seized and accused of the murder; at first we were confident, thinking it was a simple enough mistake, their blaming us aliens, and that it would all clear up soon.”

He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d held. “Then there was the trial, when it became clear we’d been framed. All eight of us who had been present were sentenced to life imprisonment on Rura Penthe. However, my sentence was suspended, to return the Enterprise and her remaining personnel to Federation space and to tell the Federation of our lawful treatment.”

Kirk squeezed his eyes shut so tightly they hurt. “I should have refused. I should have gone with them.”

He shook his head sadly. “But at that point I was still convinced that the Federation, that my Federation, would clear this all up; that, failing all else, they would let me mount a rescue mission. Instead, I got words.”

The captain didn’t even attempt to keep the bitterness from creeping into his speech. “Difficult situation. Fragile ceasefire. Diplomatic channels.” He spat. “They wouldn’t do a damn thing except for tepid inquiries through those dammed diplomatic channels about their welfare.” He slowly opened his eyes again, looking down at Khan. “The lifespan on Rura Penthe is measured in months. My friends are dying, and nobody gives a damn.”

Khan seemed to have regained a measure of control about his facial muscles in the meantime, for his expression could best be described as the exact opposite of surprise. The question in his eyes was clear, however.

Kirk nodded in acknowledgement. He grasped a thin metal chain around his neck, pulling forth a small data cube from his shirt – his uniform shirt, he reflected bitterly. He explained, “While we traveled back to Earth, I saved all recent data from the Enterprise’s logs as well as my personal tricorder files onto this encrypted cube and deleted the originals. At that time, I was afraid there would be more attempts to frame us and tamper with the records – maybe the assassin had a mole on our ship. But when it became clear that Starfleet Command would not act, I refused to share my data, and now I am glad I did – all they did in response was threaten me with a court-martial, as if I cared."  

He grasped the cube so tightly for a moment that its edges bit into his palm – it was all that remained to him of his beloved ship, which he would now never be allowed to fly again. Getting a grip on himself, he relaxed his grasp and continued, “While traveling to the rendezvous point in the neutral zone, we were brought off-course by an ion storm in the Mutara sector. We were knocked out of warp right inside the Mutara Nebula, sensors practically useless. It was by pure chance that we stumbled upon a bubble within that vast nebula, containing a small cluster of three suns, with maybe a dozen planets altogether, several of them Class M. We didn’t think much of this discovery at the time, since these systems were so isolated and therefore unlikely to be colonized; we couldn’t even receive subspace communication there due to the nebula. So we simply recorded the location and were glad that this bubble allowed us to jump to warp speed again and reach the rendezvous in time.”

He locked eyes with Khan, his blue eyes unflinching as he stated what he would have called treason not too long ago. “But now this cube is the only record of the coordinates, or indeed the existence, of a handful of planets almost impossible to find by conventional means, within Federation space but beyond the reach of the Federation.”

Khan gave an almost imperceptible nod and slowly fought to answer, his deep voice still weak but his words clear. “And if I help you free your crew, you will give these coordinates to me.” It was a statement, not a question, his face looking resigned.

Kirk shook his head, still holding Khan’s gaze. “No. We are already on our way there. In fact, we should arrive within the hour.”

What?” Khan sat up in shock, leveling eyes with Kirk.

The bastard only pretended to be helpless still, to lull me into a false sense of security. Kirk couldn’t say he was surprised, really. He tried not to flinch from the face next to his as he answered, as calmly as he was able to, “It’s a bit hard to tell from here, I know, but we are on board a colony ship I stole. I found one, the Chrysalis, whose deployment was delayed indefinitely due to the current unstable situation and hacked into the logistics database to have your pods brought on board by automatic transports. Then I forged a launch order, snuck on board, lifted off and was gone before anybody was the wiser. As far as I can tell, neither I, you nor the ship are being missed so far – Starfleet probably thinks I’m still sulking in Iowa.” 

Khan was studying Kirk with an inscrutable expression, leaning in even closer until their faces almost touched. “What game are you playing, Captain?”

Kirk shook his head slowly. “No more games. This is the 23rd century, and we are supposed to be so much more civilized and wiser than the turbulent, savage 20th century you hail from. Yet all you have encountered so far has been deceit, betrayal, coercion and blackmail. This has to stop, and it stops now. I am not Admiral Marcus. I will not use your crew’s welfare as collateral to force you to do my bidding. I am helping you and your followers because you are people, not pawns. Whether or not you are going to help me is entirely your own decision.”

Khan seemed taken aback by this outburst. He studied Kirk silently for a minute, and then slowly asserted, “You must have read up on my history by now, Captain. And yet you would entrust the lives of your crew to my sense of honour? You are a fool.”

Feeling a surprising calm wash over him, Kirk replied, “No, Khan. I chose this way because there is no other option left to me. If I forced you to work with me, it would only end in backstabbing and betrayal, like last time. If we and my people are to survive a break-in into the Klingons’
penal colony, we must learn to trust each other. And trust has to start somewhere; therefore I chose to trust you and put all my cards on the table. I know that you could just as well crush me in your hands now, and maybe you will. But my friends are dying on that godforsaken snow rock, and there is no risk I would not take to save them.”

Khan took in his words silently, turning to let his gaze sweep over the assembled pods. Kirk knew he should have felt fear, or anything really, but the calm remained – he’d said what needed to be said. When Khan pulled up his legs to lower himself from the pod to the floor of the storeroom and then turned towards him, he left his ledge and stood in front of the taller man, unafraid, awaiting his decision.

For a few heartbeats Khan just stood there perfectly still, watching him, his face impassive. When he finally spoke, his words cut through the stillness of the storeroom like a knife.

“This ship must have a database. Let us see if we can get some information on Rura Penthe before we arrive at the Mutara nebula.”

He turned to leave, striding by the still-occupied pods without checking to see if he was being followed. As Kirk sped to keep up with Khan’s pace, he reflected, Of course he doesn’t – he knows I have no choice but follow. Nevertheless, the first hesitant glimmer of hope since the trial slowly stole its way into his heart as they made their way towards the bridge.

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Chapter 2: Do not waste his gift

 

 

Just how fast can he read? Kirk wondered as he watched Khan silently absorb information from a PADD. It had taken him all of five minutes to grasp the purpose and full functionality of the colony ship and to take stock of her inventory, and now he was poring over the Rura Penthe data files with a look of utter concentration, his bright eyes dancing over the screen far too fast for Kirk to follow. He finally gave up and concentrated on his own PADD again, trying to learn more about the prison world.

 

However, when the ship beeped to announce its leaving warp space and they arrived in the middle of the Mutara Bubble, both men’s concentration was instantly focused on the readouts of the planets around them. Kirk hesitantly ventured, feeling it was none of his business but curious regardless, “Aren’t you going to wake your crew?”

 

Khan answered without taking his eyes off the screen, “Only when we have landed and I have ascertained their safety.”

 

That made sense, Kirk reflected. Still, his crew probably would have wanted a word in the choice of which planet to settle. Before he could voice something to that effect, though, Khan pointed towards the screen, indicating the third planet orbiting the smallest of the suns. “This one looks like the best choice, doesn’t it?”

 

Surprised that his input was being sought, Kirk hurried to study the readout and the accompanying orbital pictures. The smallish planet looked breathtakingly beautiful, its lush vegetation and bright sandy beaches reminding him of Risa. From what he could grasp from the data, the planet was geologically stable, as was its single moon; the climate was mild, the weather calm, the native flora and fauna harmless, no discernible dangers and no intelligent life-forms detected. In other words, the kind of planet wars had been fought over all across the galaxy. He didn’t tell Khan as much, though, simply agreeing with his choice instead.

 

Khan quickly set course for the planet, guiding the huge Chrysalis with a surety that belied the fact that he’d never been on a modern colony ship before. Soon he had chosen some sweeping grassland protected by a mountain range to the north and facing an expanse of beaches to the south as their landing place and touched down. Turning towards the access hatch, he asked without looking back, “Care to join me?”

 

Kirk had no idea what Khan was planning, and his attempts to include him left him somewhat unsettled, but he had no intention of rocking an already fragile boat, so he just nodded. He got up, stretching his tired muscles, and joined Khan as the hatch lowered and opened, and together they took their first steps on the virgin soil.

 

This is a planet you could fall in love with, Kirk thought, as he felt the ground softly give way beneath his feet and a fragrant breeze caress his face. He had been on many worlds in his time as the Enterprise’s captain, but few were as gently enchanting as this one, he reflected, as he watched waves break on the distant alien shore, letting a blade of grass, almost Earth-like, slip through his fingers and enjoying the small sun’s warmth on his skin. A pity the planet’s prospective inhabitants weren’t likely to encourage tourism.

 

Khan had crouched down in front of him, running a bit of soil through his fingers, intently analyzing it, looking for something Kirk couldn’t fathom. Suddenly, though, he straightened and turned back, remarking, “This is indeed the best choice. I am going to start the anchoring process now.” He strode into the ship again with his characteristic long steps, making sure that Kirk was inside, however, before closing the hatch. Curiouser and curiouser, Kirk mused, as he watched him start the long process that would transform the ship into a base for new colonists, his movements as sure as any captain’s.

 

Satisfied that the process was running smoothly, Khan turned towards Kirk again, asking, “Will you help me wake my crew? You are obviously familiar with the procedure.”

 

Kirk took a deep breath and replied, “Gladly.” They made their way aft towards the storeroom again and wordlessly began the task of getting 72 cryopods to safely let go of their occupants.

 

It was a tiresome, repetitive process, and Kirk quickly lost count of how many pods he’d activated, concentrating on doing one at a time and then one more. When finally all the displays were lit, he stifled a sigh of relief.

 

Suddenly he realized Khan was observing him. He spoke, his tone uncommonly soft, “When was the last time you slept, Kirk?”

 

Kirk pondered the question and was surprised to realize he couldn’t even remember. Something to that effect must have shown on his face, for Khan stated, his deep voice almost gentle, “By my estimation it will be at least twelve hours till my crew are awake enough to be enlightened about our situation. Go find a bed, Kirk, there should be colonist quarters starboard. I will keep watch over my people – I have slept for two years, after all.”

 

Kirk set out to protest, then stopped when he realized that Khan was right. If he didn’t get some sleep soon, he was probably going to keel over where he was standing. Yet he felt uneasy leaving Khan alone and unsupervised, even though he berated himself for it – it was apparently easier to make a bold statement about trust than to actually follow through with it.

 

Time for bold actions, then. Kirk tugged at the metal chain around his neck, pulling it over his head. Handing it over to Khan, he said, “Thank you. And if you find the time, please go over my files of the meeting, maybe you’ll find something that we missed. The encryption key for the cube is SC937-0176CEC.“

 

He barely even registered Khan’s astonished look as he turned and headed towards the colonist quarters. For all his misgivings about sleeping, he was fast asleep the moment his head hit a pillow.

 

***

 

Slowly stretching and yawning, Kirk awakened from a deep and blessedly dreamless sleep. Only half awake yet, he was glad to register that he was apparently still in the colonist quarters, and also still alive, for that matter. The tiny glimmer of hope inside him that he would yet see his friends again began glowing a little stronger.

 

As he padded off aft, a steaming cup of coffee from a food synthesizer warming his right hand, he heard Khan’s rich baritone reverberating through the corridor. It seemed to originate from port, though.

 

Confused, he checked a console on the wall, and blanched as he realized that he must have slept almost 16 hours. He sped up and sprinted through the corridor, coffee in his hand forgotten, and burst into a large, brightly lit conference room. Khan was standing in the center, next to a holographic display of Qo’noS, seemingly in the middle of giving a lecture about recent galactic history to the assembled men and women sitting around him. They all turned to stare at him.

 

Khan regarded him with what could almost be a smile as he remarked, “Welcome back among the living.” Turning towards his audience, he added, “This is Captain James Tiberius Kirk, whom I told you about earlier.”

 

One of the men sitting close to Khan regarded Kirk contemptuously and spat, “He’s a Norm."

 

Khan’s gaze suddenly chilled, and his face became the cold, reptilian mask Kirk remembered all too well. Immobilizing the man with a piercing stare, he stated, deceptively calm, “He is a friend."

 

The man met Khan’s gaze in a mixture of surprise and defiance. For a few seconds, they just stared at each other in mute challenge. Then the other suddenly lowered his eyes. Khan continued his lecture as if nothing had happened.

 

Kirk located an empty seat and almost collapsed on it, while the crowd turned their attention towards the display again, none daring to stare at him anymore. He wasn’t sure what exactly he had just witnessed, but remembering his coffee, he decided it could only help him understand, so he sipped the part he hadn’t carelessly splashed and listened absentmindedly to Khan explaining human-Klingon relations in a high-speed condensed version.

 

Khan concluded with the words, “And this is why I have to leave you now, for the captain and I are about to mount a rescue mission for his crew. I am aware that I am leaving you at a difficult time, and this was not a decision I took lightly. But time is of the essence for his people.”

 

One of the women, a tall redhead, spoke up, “Can we accompany you?”

 

Sadness resonated in Khan’s voice, and he regarded the woman fondly as he answered, “I wish you could fight by my side in this, Mhari. And I wish I could make this not sound incredibly harsh and backward, but I cannot allow any of our women to accompany us on this perilous mission. There are only thirty of you, and you are the future of our people. You need to protect yourselves.” Visibly pulling himself together, he added, “But we will gladly accept any man volunteering to accompany us.”

 

Given the stares he had received earlier, Kirk was pretty nonplussed when someone did in fact speak up. He was even more surprised when that someone turned out to be the stocky Asian who had so scathingly called him a “Norm” earlier.

 

Khan, however, seemed perfectly at ease with this and thanked him for joining them. Soon another spoke up, and then one more, and finally five men had volunteered, for reasons Kirk couldn’t imagine.

 

Khan, however, just nodded. “Very well, then. Dossouye,” he turned and addressed a lithe black woman among the crowd, “you are in charge here until we return. All of you, take it easy. Settle in, learn more about the centuries we spent sleeping, learn to use 23rd century technology; give yourself time to adapt. Learn to pilot the runabouts parked in the aft bay so you have a means of escape should something go awry on this planet. And learn to relax – we are safe here, finally. Our mission group will hopefully be back soon, but even if we do not return, you will do just fine. Captain Kirk has given our people a future. Do not waste his gift.”

 

A heavy silence descended upon the room. With one last lingering look at Mhari, Khan turned and left, motioning for Kirk and the volunteers to follow him.

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Chapter 3: Take a look at this

 

 

When their group reached the aft bay, Khan led them towards the largest of the half-dozen runabouts, evidently having reached the same conclusion about its suitability as Kirk had, back when he’d decided to swipe that particular ship: it was large enough for the rescue mission, yet surprisingly maneuverable, and decently armed for its size, plus it sported a small sickbay.
 
The group entered the cockpit, and Kirk briefly scanned the interior while waiting for Khan to take the pilot's seat. He was taken by surprise when the tall man squeezed into the ops chair with difficulty, then turned back to him with a terse, “Captain.”
 
Kirk quickly settled down at the conn station, trying to hide his astonishment. While Khan to his left sent the signal for the bay doors to let them pass, he started the impulse engines, and as soon as the rest of their team had taken their seats at the consoles behind them, deftly guided the runabout through the narrow opening and up towards space mostly by reflex, still stunned that Khan had apparently declared him in charge of this mission, in front of his men no less. Yesterday’s question stole into his mind, what game are
you playing?
 
When they had jumped to warp and set course towards Klingon space, Khan entered a series of commands into his console, then turned to his men. “Please look up Rura Penthe and study the available data. Any input about potential weak spots and attack strategies is crucial to our mission.”
 
The men began reading the files with the same eerie intensity Kirk had seen Khan display earlier. Khan, meanwhile, turned towards him and returned his data cube. “Thank you for lending me this,” he remarked, “I did analyse your recordings, and I found something most interesting. Have a look, I copied the relevant parts,” he added, pointing towards Kirk’s console.
 
Kirk tucked the cube under his shirt again, then started the playback, recognizing the recording he had made of the event on behalf of Starfleet and wondering what he might have missed that Khan had apparently picked up. The recording sped up on its own and slowed down again at the fateful dinner they had attended – his stomach still cramped when he remembered it.
 
It zoomed in on the hand of one of the Klingon attendants as he was serving some gagh
to Lt. Sulu, who accepted it with equanimity that would have made his ancestors proud. “Look closely,” he heard Khan whisper next to him. Straining his eyes, he wondered what was so special about that hand – it seemed to be completely occupied with the task of serving, which in the case of gagh could hardly be called harmless, but nevertheless fairly mundane.
 
Then suddenly he noticed that at the base of the index finger there were several tiny spots, impossible to notice except in close-up, that had a very un-Klingonlike pale color. Either this Klingon had a very peculiar skin condition or he was ...
 
“A human disguised as a Klingon,” Kirk finished his thought out loud. “But to blend in among them, he must have had one hell of an expert disguise.”
 
“Oh, we are definitely dealing with experts here,” Khan replied, his voice dark. “But it gets better yet – keep watching." 
 
The playback sped up again, and then slowed once more and zoomed in on the same waiter standing in the background, next to a female Klingon. A furtive glance, and a small package found its way from his hand into hers. The recording zoomed in on the woman’s face and ridges.
 
“She is well disguised, I will give her that, but this is in fact De’Qan of the Imperial Intelligence,” commented Khan.
 
“I’m not even going to ask how you know her,” Kirk retorted, which was answered by an amused snort.
 
The recording zoomed in again on the disguised human, stepping behind a distant door frame as if to fetch more food. The image froze, and an acoustic wave analysis appeared superimposed on the picture. One particular sound was picked out and amplified.
 
Kirk’s breath caught in his throat. He should have recognized the sound of beaming even over the incredible din of a Klingon banquet. Especially the lower-pitched hum of transwarp beaming.
 
“Now who appropriated Lieutenant Commander Scott’s transwarp formula again?” Khan commented drily. “I admit, I stole it as well, but since I was frozen at the time of the assassination, I believe I have a watertight alibi.”
 
Kirk felt as if his blood had turned to ice. “Section 31,” he gasped. “But would they be so foolish as to leave a transwarp device behind for the Klingons to find?”
 
Khan regarded him with a look that made him feel as if he’d just said something truly stupid. “I wanted to be followed, Captain,” he explained, deliberately, slowly and in the same overly patient tone that Kirk hated Spock for using whenever he wanted to demonstrate humans’ intellectual shortcomings, “that is the only reason I left my device behind. It is not difficult to modify it to, say, utilise its residual energy to silently disintegrate after use, leaving only dust behind.”
 
Kirk was not even surprised anymore when the recording moved forward again to show the Klingon woman serving a smoking cup of chech’tluth to the Klingon chancellor. He stopped the playback – he remembered all too well the events unfolding afterwards. The toast, the cups clinking, tasting the vile, potent beverage; the chancellor suddenly keeling over in pain, writhing on the table, the serpent worms wriggling all around him. The accusations at the trial: the poison being of human origin, their bringing the cups together shortly before the chancellor died. He closed his eyes, feeling bile rise in his throat. “Why would they do such a thing?” he demanded, addressing no one in particular.
 
Khan nevertheless answered. “Politics makes strange bedfellows. One party in this peculiar alliance has so diligently prepared for a war that they would be sorely disappointed if it ended so prematurely, seeing as they believe they could actually win it with all their shiny new toys.” Bitterness crept into his voice, but he continued, “And especially considering their influence would certainly wane substantially in times of peace. As for the other party involved, the traditionalists among their people find the concept of peace so repulsive that they would do almost anything to stop it, even if that meant working with the enemy against their own government. In their eyes, they are probably saving their people from their chancellor’s treacherous dealings.”
 
“But why would they do such a thing to us
?” Kirk demanded again, his tone almost pleading.
 
Khan sighed. “Think, Captain. After what happened two years ago, do you think Section 31 holds a favourable opinion of you and your crew?”
 
Kirk flinched as if he had been struck. “Of course not. Instead of being obedient pawns in their game and dying like we were supposed to, we caused the death of their precious leader, the destruction of the USS Vengeance
and a considerable scandal that severely curtailed their operations. They must hate us.”
 
“They are not the forgiving kind, generally speaking,” Khan agreed. “Of course they also tend to be rather practical, and I doubt the new leadership would have sought vengeance just for the sake of it. But when this ceasefire talk gave them the opportunity to conveniently kill two birds with one stone ...”
 
Kirk slowly opened his eyes again and turned left to see Khan observing him intently. He cleared his throat and began, “Thank you for finding the truth of this matter and sharing it with me.”
 
Khan seemed faintly impressed. “Most people would shy away from such an ugly truth.”
 
Kirk shook his head. “I needed to know about this. And Starfleet needs to know as well. Even the Klingons should be made aware of it.”
 
Khan raised an eyebrow. “You forgive more easily than I expected, Captain. Nevertheless, I advise against making this public before we have freed your crew. They may be convenient scapegoats now, but this could turn them into dangerous witnesses in the eyes of the Imperial Intelligence.”
 
Kirk nodded, conceding the point. “Still, we have to share this with someone who will make it public should we fail in our mission. And I know just the person to do that.”
 
***
 
When the elder Spock’s face appeared on the viewscreen, he looked slightly surprised but happy upon recognizing Kirk. Then he saw who was sitting next to him, and his Vulcan tranquility left him for a moment.
 
Spock closed his eyes. “What are you doing, Jim?” he whispered. “You should have come to me.”
 
Seeing the old man’s pain so plainly on his normally stoic face, Kirk felt a pang of guilt. “You are a Federation ambassador, Spock. And you told us our path was ours to walk alone,” he replied, trying to keep his voice calm and make it sound like a statement, not an accusation.
 
“I am your friend first of all, Jim,” was the soft answer.
 
Damn it. Elder or younger, either Spock really knew how to make him feel wretched.
 
Kirk cleared his throat. “Actually, you can help me with a very important matter, Spock, if you still wish to. Please have a look at this recording.” He glanced over at Khan, who had remained still so far, but now with a few touches on his console sent the data via hyperchannel, then leaned back to watch Spock’s reaction with interest.
 
Spock studied the recording, and Kirk felt secretly frustrated by how much more quickly he seemed to grasp the situation, only needing additional input regarding the identity of the Klingon operative. When he had finished, he looked up at them again, still visibly shaken but his voice firm. “How long until you reach Rura Penthe?”
 
“Twelve hours,” replied Kirk, giving his best estimate – he had never traveled so far into Klingon territory before.
 
Spock nodded. “I hope you did at least have the foresight to place a viridium patch on me.”
 
“A what?” Kirk replied, bemused, which elicited a simultaneous sigh of frustration from both Spock and Khan. “That would indeed have been a good idea,” Khan opined, and Spock agreed.
 
Just great. Now these two, of all people, are bonding over their mutual contempt for my intellectual capabilities, Kirk grumbled to himself. Aloud, he merely said, “If you don’t hear from us in, say, 36 hours, please release this recording to the general public.”
 
 “24 hours should be sufficient,” Khan corrected him, and Spock nodded. “I will add a commentary and then make sure every sentient being from here to Qo’noS knows the truth about this."
 
“Thank you, Spock”, Kirk replied, and Spock looked at him with a hint of sadness in his eyes. “Of course, Jim,” he stated simply, then paused for a moment, and seemed to be weighing matters in his mind. Apparently he reached a conclusion, for he began typing something into his console rapidly, then looked up again and addressed Khan directly, “Take a look at this. Twelve hours is not much, but I am sure you will be able to rig up something.”
 
Khan studied the incoming data attentively. Suddenly his eyes went wide, and he looked up at Spock, visibly shocked. Spock raised his eyebrow in acknowledgement. “I knew you would understand.”
 
Khan pulled himself together. He solemnly addressed Spock, “Thank you for your trust, Ambassador Spock. I will put this to good use.” He got up and addressed one of his crew, a lanky, dark-skinned man, “Subatoi, I will need your help back there. It is time you learnt about modern deflector shield grids.” The man nodded, and the two of them left the cockpit before Kirk had a chance to ask them what they were doing.
 
He turned towards Spock again, “What was that about?”
 
Spock looked down for a moment. “That was me once again breaking a vow, as well as each and every rule of common sense. I can only hope that you, at least, knew what you were doing when you formed such an alliance.”
 
Kirk swallowed an impulsive, You and me both, Spock, and instead replied, “I trust Khan, Spock. Yes, I know perfectly well what he is capable of. Still, I know he won’t let me down.” He hoped he sounded more sincere than he felt.
 
Spock studied him. “Did not end so well last time, though.”
 
Kirk nodded. “It wasn’t him who struck first, though,” he admitted. He had been pondering that lately – if he hadn’t told Scotty to stun Khan as soon as they reached the bridge, how would events have unfolded? A memory returned unbidden – the two of them in the debris field, blasting towards the Vengeance. Quite literally trusting Khan blindly when his heads-up display had failed had saved his life that day.
 
“Never mind, Jim,” Spock interrupted his train of thought, sounding weary. “The die has been cast; let us hope your gut instinct is proven right once more. I am going to start the broadcast at the appointed time. I am also going to assemble the High Council and have them grant you and your crew asylum on New Vulcan, so you have a safe haven to return to.”
 
“Thank you, Spock,” Kirk stammered, trying to hide the fact that he hadn’t even planned that far ahead yet – he had been so focused on the rescue, he hadn’t stopped to consider what to do afterwards.
 
Spock regarded him with faint traces of both exasperation and amusement. “Be safe, Jim,” he said softly, then raised his hand in the traditional Vulcan salute. While Kirk still struggled with his own salute (he’d never been able to do one quite correctly), the screen faded and the call ended.

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Chapter 4: Why are you here?

 

 

Kirk fiddled with the flight controls, trying to hide his jumpiness. Khan and Subatoi still had not returned to the cockpit, and faint clanging sounds could be heard from aft. He would have gone to check, but he didn’t like the thought of leaving the other Augments alone at the ship’s controls.

 

The four men had remained mostly quiet so far, studying data or typing something into their consoles, only occasionally murmuring to each other in low voices, sharing theories they obviously didn’t see fit to include him in. Now, however, he turned as he saw the Asian approach from the corner of his eye.

 

The man offered him a curt “Captain”, unabashedly staring at him and waiting for his reaction. Kirk, refusing to be drawn into any kind of contest, instead acknowledged him with an overly polite, “I am afraid you have the advantage of me, sir.”

 

The left corner of the man’s mouth turned upwards in amusement. “Isamu Himura, Captain”, he replied, his tone now unfailingly polite as well. He briefly paused, then continued, “We have been informed that there is a cache of modern weapons on this ship. Do we have your leave to familiarise ourselves with their use for the anticipated combat situations?”

 

Kirk tried to swallow his uneasiness; he had seen Khan in action, and he doubted that any of these men would bother with a weapon should they decide to overpower him. He answered, “Help yourselves to them, gentlemen. They’re just a couple of phaser pistols, though.” He had found weapons hard to discreetly come by on Earth.

 

Himura had a crooked smile on his lips. “They will do for a start, Captain. I am sure the Klingons will have plenty of weapons for us to take from their corpses.”

 

Kirk nodded, trying to suppress a shiver. “Very well then.” The man started to turn away, but Kirk stopped him. Impulsively deciding to drop the pretense, he simply asked, “Why are you here, Mister Himura?”

 

Something like approval briefly flickered in the man’s dark eyes. He replied, “I have never known Noonien to respect a Norm. I wanted to know who you are.”

 

Kirk raised a questioning eyebrow. “And who am I?”

 

Himura gave him a mocking smile. “You are a fool, Captain Kirk. Whether you are the proverbial wise fool or merely an imbecile remains to be seen.” He turned away and left the bridge, followed by the rest of Khan’s men.

 

***

 

Kirk was dozing in his seat when he was startled by footsteps. Pivoting his chair to face them, he was greeted by the sight of Khan and his men returning to the cockpit, holstered phasers at their sides. Khan exchanged a brief greeting with Kirk and handed him another phaser while his men took their places again, facing the center of the cockpit as well.

 

Kirk tucked the phaser into his belt as Khan raised the central computer interface. He touched it, and a holographic display of a desolate world appeared. “Let us recap what we know about Rura Penthe,” he began, and the display zoomed to a close-up of a structure almost buried in snowdrifts, while Khan outlined the facts they had gleaned.

 

Watching him, Kirk fought hard to retain his composure. The matter-of-fact way Khan told about the harshness and the dangers of the place brought home what his friends were enduring in a way that was disturbingly visceral and threatened to overwhelm him. At the same time, Khan’s melodious baritone gave the narration an unreal, documentary-like quality that made the experience decidedly surreal. Kirk’s vision slowly began to swim.

 

Khan shot him an alarmed look and stopped his report. “The most relevant insight we gained,” he said, shifting his tone, “is that humans, as a species with low resilience from a Klingon perspective, are normally quartered in the areas closest to the equatorial region,” he pointed to a spot on the hologram. “Since there are two women among your imprisoned crew, they will not have been placed on one of the male-only levels. Based on Admiral Archer’s first-hand report of the mining activity hotspots, and extrapolating it to the present, our best guess is that we will find them on the third level of this complex here."

 

He indicated a translucent glow enveloping the inhabited parts of the planet. "Given that Rura Penthe’s magnetic shield prevents us from simply beaming them aboard, I suggest we land here,” he pointed again and the hologram obediently zoomed, “and work our way down along this path.” A glowing band appeared on the holographic surface, winding downwards. “Upon finding them,” he continued, “we can then follow this route back up to our ship.” The band wound its way up again, forming a twisted ouroboros.

 

Kirk studied the image; what immediately caught his eye were the impressive photon torpedo batteries next to the designated landing place, a feature that Khan was apparently unconcerned about. “How are we supposed to land there without being shot to pieces?” he asked incredulously. “We don’t exactly look like a Klingon dilithium transport.”

 

Khan exchanged a glance with Subatoi and chuckled softly. “If the two of us did our job correctly, we are not going to look like anything to the Klingons,” he announced. Seeing Kirk’s puzzled look, he added, “Your friend kindly sent me schematics for a cloaking device.”

 

Kirk’s eyes went wide. “I know that the Klingons have such devices,” he began, “but they are supposed to be huge and draw so much energy that only their biggest ships have them and ... and this isn’t present-day technology, is it?” he finished, as his train of thought finally arrived at the station.

 

Khan nodded, turning serious again. “Do not worry, Captain,” he stated, “Should anyone tamper with the device, it will immediately self-destruct. Even if we fail, it will not fall into Klingon hands.”

 

“A wise precaution,” Kirk agreed, leaving unsaid, but you still know how to build another one. Now he understood Khan’s reaction to Ambassador Spock’s data, as well as the latter’s remarks. He felt both alarmed and strangely humbled by the old Vulcan’s trust ... even though Spock obviously had strong reservations against Khan (from what his Spock had told him, they had apparently clashed in his own timeline), he had decided to entrust something as huge as this to him, for Kirk’s sake. Should Khan ever end up harming the few remaining Vulcans, Kirk knew he’d never be able to forgive himself.

 

He took a deep breath. For starters, they’d have to survive this mission; he’d worry about the future as soon as it was certain he had one.

 

“Thank you all for your input,” he told his assembled … team, for lack of a better term. “We are going to arrive in about 40 minutes. I presume you have answered any open questions about this mission amongst yourselves. If not, now would be an excellent time to voice them.”

 

He paused briefly, then decided to throw caution to the wind and faced them each in turn. “I won’t even pretend to understand why any of you have chosen to accompany me in this. You are putting your life at stake for strangers or even,” he cast a look at Khan, “former opponents. Whatever your reasons, I am deeply grateful for the risks you are taking on my behalf, and I am humbled by your bravery, to follow me into hostile territory to face a savage enemy on a world that even they themselves fear. Know that, whatever we may think of each other in other respects, I am proud that I will be fighting by your side. And,” he allowed himself a small smile, “given the kind of havoc I’ve seen your leader wreak on his own, I cannot wait to see what half a dozen of you fighting in concert can do. The Klingons won’t know what hit them!”

 

One of the men, a wiry black guy whose given name Kirk had heard but couldn’t remember, broke into a broad smile, but the others were clearly unsure how to react. Of course – they are waiting for Khan’s reaction, he realized. Well, so was he.

 

Khan briefly studied his men’s faces, an enigmatic smile on his lips. Then he turned towards Kirk and remarked, “Well, I believe you have just answered the one remaining question. Now let us show the Klingons that they picked the wrong man to separate from his crew. Lead on, Captain.” He turned the computer off, and while it retracted into the floor, he took his place by Kirk’s side again.

 

Everyone turned around and concentrated on their instruments in silence for a while, but it was a more amicable silence than Kirk would have hoped for; the time for words had simply passed, now that battle was almost upon them. Soon it would be time to begin a different sort of talk with the Klingon jailers.

 

***

 

Flying under the smokescreen of a cloaking device turned out to be a nerve-wracking experience.

 

Plotting their course as if there were no enemies whatsoever, calmly passing right between the Klingons’ impressive orbital defenses (silently thanking the elder Spock for his help and foresight once he realized, up close, just how impressive those were) and closing in on the designated landing spot while the photon torpedoes below were aimed directly at their path, knowing that if the futuristic, makeshift device failed, they’d be pulverized in seconds (from what little he understood, it was either cloaking or shields, so they were practically naked) ... all of that took its toll on Kirk’s already-frayed nerves.

 

Khan and his men, on the other hand, were practically glowing with anticipation during their descent. He’s looking forward to the fight, Kirk realized, watching Khan out of the corner of his eye. He has acted all calm and composed these last two days, but the savage is lurking below the surface, waiting for his chance to strike.

 

He shook his head, feeling ashamed of the mix of repulsion and fascination he felt. After all, this is why I woke him up. An uncivilized warrior in a civilized age. In that respect, Admiral Marcus and I are just alike. Both of us were close to Admiral Pike, and neither of us let his death stop us from doing what we felt we had to. Dammit, Christopher, wherever you are, I can only hope you’ll forgive me for this.

 

He pulled himself together and concentrated on the task at hand, landing the runabout next to one of the huge torpedo batteries, using it for shelter from the wind so that the lack of whirling snow would not give their parked ship away should any Klingon happen to check. Touching her down ever so carefully, he let out a relieved sigh once they were safely parked and still hadn’t alerted anyone. So far, Khan’s plan seemed to have gone swimmingly.

 

Suddenly, his nervousness vanished, replaced by blazing excitement. Here he was, against all odds, on Rura Penthe, and nothing but a few Klingons were still separating him from his crew – okay, quite a few Klingons; still, they better beware. Try and stand between me and my friends and see what happens.

 

Aloud, he merely said, “We had best start by deactivating those torpedo batteries, or else the Klingons might get a lucky shot when we’re taking off.” He looked at Khan and Subatoi. “I assume you two are best at this. The rest of us will cover you should the tampering raise an alarm.” Khan merely nodded his assent, and so Kirk wordlessly moved to the exit hatch, drew his phaser and set it to kill, and cautiously stepped outside while the others followed.

 

The cold air hit him like a giant fist. Good grief, this is the equatorial region? I’ve never been so cold in my life, he thought, as his eyes darted around, searching for movement in the bleak landscape, squeezing his eyes against the snowflakes. Starfleet uniforms were supposed to protect against a wide range of temperatures, and yet his teeth were chattering already ... even Delta Vega had been toasty in comparison. He hoped that Khan’s men in their 20th-century clothing were better protected – they didn’t seem to mind the temperature too much, though, as they darted about the landscape, dark shadows against the icy background, while Khan and Subatoi set to work on the control panels. He tried to distract himself from the cold by memorizing exactly where their ship was parked and where to open the hatch, not an easy task with her still being cloaked, but the icy wind cut through his clothes and thoughts regardless.

 

The sabotage took surprisingly little time, and yet Kirk felt like an icicle by the time Khan motioned that they were finished. Their group quickly moved in the direction of the loading ramp that was their designated entry spot into the underground complex. So far, no alarm seemed to have been raised, but that would doubtlessly change soon.

 

When they reached the entrance, they pressed themselves flat against the wall on either side of the gate, and Kirk, after checking to see if everyone was ready, hit the door opener. A blast of blessedly warm air streamed outside, and irritated muttering in Klingon could be heard.

 

Showtime.

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Chapter 5: Showtime
 

 
They stormed inside, weapons drawn, but before Kirk could even make out the Klingons’ status or position, the Augments' phasers were buzzing all around him. The Klingons, understandably surprised, hit the ground before any of them had a chance to trigger an alarm. Not sure whether to be impressed or worried, Kirk decided to concentrate on matters at hand and closed the gate behind them, while Khan and his men started to comb the mostly-empty warehouse for any hidden resistance and help themselves to the enemies’ weapons.

No further shots were heard, so Kirk moved towards the warehouse’s interior exit to meet up with the others. Khan rejoined him halfway there, eyes gleaming with elation, his movements like a predator on the prowl. He offered Kirk one of the two massive disruptor rifles he had picked up, which he gladly took, tucking his phaser away again. Together with the rest of the team they filed into the corridor that would lead them further inside the complex, rifles at the ready.
 
They moved through the maze of corridors, leaving the navigation to Khan. As they approached the pathway to the prisoner levels, they found only occasional resistance and no general state of alarm – Klingons apparently disdained surveillance cameras, or maybe the prisoners were simply welcome to flee to the icy surface and freeze to death. But just as they had dispatched several Klingons guarding a massive security door, and Kirk was beginning to believe that this was going easier than anticipated, faint shouting in Klingon could be heard behind them, and the unmistakable sound of an alarm started blaring in ear-splitting volume all across the complex. Well, it couldn't last forever. Let’s get moving.

 
Kirk quickly led his team through the security door and closed it once everyone was inside, using his phaser to seal it shut. Giving up caution for speed, they hastened down a ramp leading towards the prisoners’ quarters.
 
They burst into a huge refinery, rifles blazing, quickly ducking for cover as the first Klingon guards fell and the others recovered from their surprise. A plethora of aliens, most belonging to races Kirk had never seen before, scattered as they approached, for which he was profoundly glad. From what he remembered of Khan’s report, the prisoners on this level were those serving limited sentences, and he’d hate to take the life of any being that had a chance of actually leaving this frozen hellhole.
 
He took shelter behind a massive furnace and maintained cover while he fired at a group of overseers who charged at him, screaming in Klingon and wielding strange metal sticks with tips glowing dully red. He had no idea what they were, but no intention of finding out. He was quickly becoming cornered, downing the approaching Klingons, so he had no chance to check on his team, but the continuing sound of gunfight told him they were still fighting, at least.
 
You had to hand it to the Klingons, he thought. Even though he kept firing, felling more and more of them, they kept advancing, undeterred, determined to reach him at any cost. A desperate salvo downed another one, but then the last two were upon him.
 
Kirk dodged into a roll, dropping the now-useless rifle, as they stabbed their sticks at where he’d been just a split-second before. Coming up again, he brought his boot against one Klingon’s knee, kicking hard.
 
His target just grunted and stabbed at him again, almost hitting him this time.
 
Desperately retreating, he dodged and weaved as the jeering Klingons followed, trying to connect with the tips of their sticks. He couldn’t keep this up forever, he knew. Time to improvise, then.
 
From the corner of his eye he saw a Klingon corpse lying in his path. He altered his course slightly, moving backwards, then bumping into the corpse and stumbling, going down. With a cry of triumph, his two opponents were upon him.
 
Kirk drew a wicked-looking knife out of the dead Klingon’s scabbard and rammed it right into the leading Klingon’s belly, pulling up as he fell, the dying overseer on top of him. 
 
The other Klingon gave a roar of rage and flung his dead comrade aside to get at Kirk, the stick forgotten, trying to throttle him. Kirk tried to break the man’s hold on him, but his arms were like solid brick and nothing he could do would move them. Dark fingers closed around his throat, and his vision began to blur.
 
Desperately clawing around, his fingers got hold of something. Not caring what it was, he flung it at the Klingon’s face.
 
The scream his opponent gave was like nothing he’d ever heard, as he desperately clawed at his face and throat, where molten metal ran down in smoking rivulets, eating into skin and bone. Kirk stared in horror, the half-empty pot in his hand forgotten till the heat became so intense that he dropped it reflexively, trying to tear away from the dying Klingon.

 
And then his world exploded in a burning multi-hued torrent of pain. 
 
He lost control over his body. Not even able to scream, he crumpled in a twitching heap. The searing pain coming from his back had knocked all air out of his lungs. Dimly, he heard dark, triumphant laughter above him as the current of agony raced across his body. He was being burned alive.
 
There was a brief swooshing sound, and then the torment was gone as suddenly as it had appeared. With his last ounce of strength, he pushed himself up far enough to turn around, just in time to see a Klingon female with one of the sticks in her hands and a startled expression on her dark face fall apart into two neatly separated halves, having been cleaved from left shoulder to right hip.
 
Behind the dismembered Klingon stood one of Khan’s men; Thabo
, Kirk suddenly remembered. “You’re okay?” Thabo asked, his concerned expression in stark contrast to the bloody bat’leth he was wielding.
 
Kirk tried to answer and got out only a hacking cough, so he tried to get up instead, and managed to do so with some difficulty. The other nodded, satisfied, and enthusiastically joined the fray again.
 
Retracing his steps to get at his discarded disruptor rifle and trying to attract no notice until his muscles had recovered enough from the ordeal for him to put up a fight again, Kirk tried to assess the situation around him – which proved to be a daunting task, since it was utter mayhem. Mayhem that suspiciously centered around half a dozen nuclei, however.
 
He could make out Himura in a cluster of Klingons, wheeling among them in a complex dance, wielding two jagged swords and cutting through flesh and armor left and right. Further inside the refinery was Khan, alternating between blasting foes with a massive cannon he had acquired somewhere and slaying them with a bat’leth he impossibly managed to wield in the other hand. More rifle fire all around told him that the others were likely up and fighting, as well. Relieved, he picked up his own weapon and started looking for targets.
 
He managed to dispatch a dozen Klingons before they even took notice of him again. Of course – they are drawn by the challenge of the Augments’ battle prowess like moths to a flame. He decided that, for the moment, he was okay with that. Going toe-to-toe against Klingons was a surefire way to a quick and brutal death, and while he was not above bouts of bravado, he had to survive for his friends. So for now he limited himself to firing from cover, giving his battered body time to recover fully.
 
The sounds of battle slowly began to die down, and soon the only sounds were the low humming and hissing noises of the neglected machinery all around them. Their team reassembled at the distant end of the refinery; Kirk was relieved to see that all of them were still standing, and none the worse for wear, to boot. Quite to the contrary, Khan’s men seemed as if they were having the times of their lives, wielding an astounding array of weapons taken from their fallen foes and waiting for more enemies. Kirk belatedly realized that none of them had, of course, ever seen a Klingon before, and it seemed they thoroughly enjoyed the new, alien challenge.
 
Only Khan seemed more restrained. “We are going to clash with the guards who have arrived as reinforcements from the lower levels as soon as we reach the caves,” he told them, pointing to an archway. “They are tougher and better disciplined than those guiding the lesser prisoners, so conduct yourselves accordingly.”
 
“How can you even tell the difference?” Kirk asked, perplexed. He hadn’t seen any kind of uniform on the scores of dead Klingons behind them, and they all seemed quite the same level of ugly and brutish to him, male and female alike.
 
Khan made an impatient gesture. “No jackal mastiffs, for starters. The point is, they are not going to be such pushovers. Be careful.”
 
Pushovers? And what the hell is a "jackal mastiff"? The next fight was going to be fun, Kirk thought gloomily, but merely added, “He’s right, gentlemen. You fight like nobody’s business, but even you are mortal, and we’re up against overwhelmingly superior numbers. I don’t want to save my people only for him to lose his, so use your big brains as well as your big brawn in the next fight, okay?”
 
Himura challenged him. “We have fought against far superior numbers.”
 
“Yes, and we lost,” Khan commented, drily.
 
Not even Himura had anything more to say to that, and they passed through the archway in silence, weapons at the ready, entering a broad, winding passage.
 
When they neared its end, the deafening silence ahead of them made Kirk’s hair stand on end. Khan was definitely right – something big was coming up.
 
They looked at each other, then in mute agreement stopped and pressed against the wall behind a bend in the passage, sheltered from view from the cavern ahead. Subatoi carefully put down the large, serrated knife he was carrying in his right hand and reached into the folds of his clothing to produce a small, spherical object of apparent Klingon provenance. He looked at Kirk questioningly.
 
Kirk had no idea what that thing was, but decided to trust the other’s expertise and nodded. They all braced themselves as Subatoi wound up and flung the object into the caverns.
 
The silence ahead was shattered by a deafening explosion of sound, light and smoke.
 
They charged through the dense fog together, and Kirk almost went down, tears streaming from his eyes. Whatever this stuff was, it was clearly meant to subdue foes, and even though he was holding his breath, it almost managed to down him. He barreled ahead, not caring where he went, as long it was away from that smoke.
 
A dark object appeared in his path, and he dove over it, tumbled to his feet again and, finally out of the fog, took shelter behind the nearest object, which turned out to be some sort of jumbled heap of prisoners' belongings. Bringing up his rifle, he started to down the Klingons in his vicinity before they could become aware of his position.
 
He got three of them before the others had a chance to react. However, Khan had been right, these Klingons were definitely made of sterner stuff. Instead of blindly charging into his rifle, they took cover themselves before returning his fire, slowly trying to circle him. However, he had landed in a fairly defensible position, since this cave turned out to be an uneven mess of pits, stalagmites, and shelters the prisoners had built for their own use, so he felt confident he would be able to hold them off for quite a while, and even dispatched another two who became impatient and incautious.
 
That was when the hounds came.
 
Jackal mastiffs, Khan had called them. Hellbeasts would have been more appropriate. Huge, massive and all slavering fangs, they were rushing at him with snarling jaws, five or six of them, with bloodlust in their eyes. He knew there would be no stopping them until they had reached and mauled him.
 
He also knew that, being animals, they would not recognize the distinctive high-pitched whine that his phaser started to emit as he frantically fumbled with the controls. Their Klingon masters, however, did recognize the sound, and began to shout wild commands, but nothing would deter the hounds’ blood frenzy. The foremost one had just reached the barrier and readied itself to jump.
 
Kirk dropped the overloaded phaser and somersaulted backwards, trying to roll with the explosion.
 
The blast hit him in mid-air and slammed him against a cave wall, and even among all the shots and shouts he could hear one of his ribs cracking. He fell to the ground at the base of the wall, trying to breathe despite the pain, otherwise lying as still as he could, pretending to have been knocked unconscious or killed in the explosion.
 
He heard a single pair of booted footsteps come closer. He lay very, very still, hardly daring to breathe.

 

The muzzle of a disruptor was jabbed into his side. With a cry born both of pain and the attempt to surprise his opponent, he jumped up, snatched the weapon out of his hand and shot him at point-blank range. The Klingon stood there for a moment, blindly staring at him, his face an uncomprehending grimace, but at least he gave Kirk cover from his other foes as he zigzagged in search of more permanent protection.
 
As he ran, darting between the ragtag structures the prisoners had built and trying to avoid the wide-open areas, he noticed a flurry of activity to his right and below. Himura was at it again, whirling through the center of a large pit, cleaving Klingons left and right with his swords, completely lost in the dance.
 
And completely missing the burly Klingon female above, who was just aiming a massive launcher at him.
 
Without thinking, Kirk ran and jumped.
 
Chance or dumb luck made him miss the swords and impact Himura on his back, knocking the two of them down into the dirt. He felt the hard muscles beneath him tense angrily just as he sensed a scalding hot object graze the back of his head, singeing his hair.
 
Then the explosion behind them lifted him and once again slammed him into a wall, harder this time. The world went silent and black.

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Chapter 6: We're all friendlies here
 

 

The first thing Kirk felt when he regained consciousness was massive pain in his left side – this time, more than one rib seemed to have given way. But feeling pain at least meant that he was alive, probably.

“He’s coming to,” he heard from a familiar voice next to him, which was answered by two words in a language he didn’t understand. He did, however, recognize Khan’s distinctive baritone, sounding clearly relieved.
 
Slowly and with difficulty, he opened his eyes.

 

He was lying on his right side on something that a prisoner had apparently been using as a bed - a ragtag pile of belongings with some tatty furs thrown on top, like an overgrown bird's nest. Around him were more simple furnishings, held together by the prisoners' hopes rather than by sound construction principles; drafty shelters, makeshift tables, a still that looked like it would explode if it were ever used. Oddly enough, that still was the only thing left in sight untouched by the recent carnage. Everything else was either riddled with smoking holes, toppled over, or both. The ground was strewn with fallen Klingons and pieces of debris blackened by explosions, and fresh holes adorned the cave walls.

 
He must have missed one hell of a fight.

 

When his wrist was carefully grasped to check his pulse, he realized that the voice he had heard before belonged to Thabo, who was sitting beside him with a worried look while the others were standing watch around them. Khan walked over to them, crouching next to Kirk, facing him. “That was really brave of you, and also really, really stupid,” he chided softly. “How do you feel?”
 
“I’ll survive,” Kirk responded, testing his theory by trying to sit up and managing, to his surprise. Khan, watching him, nodded in approval. “Thabo set up a transfusion between us, but even my blood takes time to work, so for the moment it will have to do if you can walk. Which would be good, incidentally, because the riots that have broken out on the lowest levels by now will not keep them occupied forever.”
 
Thabo grumbled, “Don’t rush him. He could have been killed in that blast.”
 
Khan rose, eyeing their surroundings watchfully. “He could still be killed if we do not get moving soon. And once the riots reach the upper levels, his friends are in danger too.”
 
Kirk swung his legs off the makeshift bed and slowly got up, ignoring the protests of his bruised body. “I can walk.” Khan studied him intently for a moment, then just replied, “Good.” They set off towards the back of the cave, Khan leading the way, and the others around Kirk, shielding him from all sides. Walking was slow and painful. But when he stumbled over a piece of debris in his way, he was amazed that the hand that reached out and steadied him was Himura’s.
 
***
 
The way through the vast, echoing cave seemed endless, although at least the pain had dulled after a while. Khan’s augmented cells were probably already at work inside him, again, or maybe his body was just becoming numb to the sensation; either way, he was grateful for the merciful dullness. It was hard enough to traverse the caves like this, anyway, as useful in a fight as a kitten, having to be protected by his team.
 
As he watched Khan dispatch a pair of Klingon jailers with a single stroke of a long knife, throw it at a third guard, impaling him, then shoot two more with the rifle in his other hand while he took a replacement knife from one of the corpses, all in one fluent, cat-like motion, he wondered, not for the first time, how these people had ever been beaten. Granted, Khan easily outpaced the rest of his team; still, he wondered just how superior those numbers that they had alluded to earlier must have been.
 
They ran into several more groups of guards on their way across this level, but no massive ambush like before; which meant that there was probably another one waiting for them elsewhere. Khan had mentioned riots on the lowest levels, however he’d come by that conclusion, but Kirk doubted that those riots would keep all of the Klingons busy and away from them. Sooner or later, reinforcements from other complexes were bound to arrive, as well.
 
His gloomy musings were interrupted by the sight of a dark tunnel, sloping downward. With intense relief, Kirk realized that this was the one that would bring them to the level where Khan had said his friends were likely to be.
 
He quickly pushed aside the doubts: whether they were even there, whether they were still alive. They had
to be. 

 

Footsteps could be heard echoing in the tunnel before them, and his team readied their weapons, but Khan halted them with a gesture. “Those are no Klingons,” he said softly. “Let us see who else is coming to visit us.” They all took position facing the tunnel opening, concealed by the prisoners’ pathetic shelters, and waited.
 
In the darkness of the tunnel, Kirk could barely make out a small group of humanoids coming into view. They were definitely not Klingons, but bundled in furs as they were, it was hard to make out more in the darkness.
 
Their leader stepped outside, and as he raised his hand to warn the others to stay back, light fell on his face and Kirk found himself hurtling forward to meet him, calling out his name, and a second later he and Spock were hugging each other, all his pain forgotten.
 
For a few heartbeats, they just remained like this, Spock whispering, “You came for us, Jim,” his voice breaking, and Kirk whispering in return, “Of course I did.” Then his friend seemed to remember they had company, for he let go, straightened himself, and turned to McCoy, saying, his voice cool and collected as if nothing had happened, “I told
you that this commotion meant that the captain was here with a rescue team.”
 
McCoy, stepping outside to embrace Kirk, grinned. “I believe that your exact words were, That is Jim, he has come to save us!” Spock looked indignant, but did not deny it, as he replied, “At least admit I was right, that we should make a break for the upper levels to facilitate our rescue.” Kirk found himself welcomed and hugged by his whole crew – to his immeasurable relief they were all there. All of them were looking haggard, though – Chekov in particular was looking rail-thin, and he noted with growing concern that Marcus was so pale that her face looked like parchment stretched taut.

 

McCoy, meanwhile, conceded Spock's point and added, “Not that it seems to have been necessary, though. Judging from the all the chaos down there, you must have brought half of Starfleet with you. Where is everybody, by the way?”

Oh. Yes. This is gonna be tricky. Kirk disengaged from the welcoming embraces, took a step back and faced them. Feeling that this was not the time for long explanations, he opted for brutal honesty, stating, “Starfleet would not act, so I had to find help elsewhere.” Seeing their reactions – ranging from Sulu (eyebrows knit in confusion) to Uhura (staring in shock) – he added, “So I must now ask you to trust me when I say everything is okay and we’re all friendlies here, and then I’ll introduce you to your rescue team. Can you do that?”
 
That brought universal confusion, voiced most succinctly by Scotty, “Anyone who gets me out of this hellhole is muh mate, Jim”. But Kirk insisted, and only when every single one of them had agreed, he motioned for Khan and his men to come out of hiding.

When they stepped into view behind him, weapons lowered, a heavy silence fell over the cave.
 
It was McCoy who found his voice first. “Are you out of your corn-fed mind, Jim? You thawed half a dozen of those homicidal maniacs?”

“Get real, Bones, they are neither homicidal nor maniacs,” Kirk replied, trying to sound calm, “and we actually awakened all of them. These men are those of Khan’s crew who volunteered to accompany us. I’m afraid the formal introductions will have to wait till we’re somewhere with fewer Klingons.”

His friends still stared at him as if he’d gone mad. Spock was trying to sound dispassionate, but Kirk could hear the faint vibrations of shock in his voice as he remarked, “Why should we be so naive to believe that they would help us?” 

Before Kirk could answer, he heard Khan’s deep voice behind him respond, “Because you would already be dead otherwise, Commander Spock.” He was surprised to hear an icy edge in Khan’s speech, and turning around saw that he had gone dangerously still and that his pale eyes had acquired their cold, hard stare again.
 
Of course, he realized. It’s been two years for us, but from Khan’s perspective, only a few days ago Spock had him believe his entire family was dead.
 
This, of course, was hardly helping. Still, Khan had a point there, and Kirk tried to rephrase it for his crew. “If you don’t trust them, trust me. Or at least have a long, hard look at all those freaking dead Klingons behind us and guess how much of a chance you’d stand!” He didn’t realize that he had raised his voice until he saw Chekov’s face. “I am sorry,” he continued, trying to calm down, “but I’m exhausted and too hurt to continue fighting and if we keep standing around here staring each other down we won’t accomplish anything but allowing the Klingons to catch up with us again. I’m open to any reasonable suggestion, but right now I can’t think of any except for ‘Let’s get moving and save the talking for when we’re safely off this frozen rock.’” 
 
None of them had anything to reply to that, and finally Spock nodded, his jaw set hard. Relieved, Kirk stepped up to him, laying a hand on his shoulder, and gently told him, “I know that I am asking a lot of all of you. We will get out of here, my friend, and then I will explain everything.” Seeing a flicker of trust in Spock’s dark eyes, he briefly squeezed his shoulder, then dropped his hand again. He turned around and asked Khan, “Since there is no need to reach the third level anymore, what is our new route?”
 
“This way, Captain,” Khan responded, pointing behind them and to the left, his voice still noticeably chilled. Kirk suppressed a sigh as he realized that he would have to smooth ruffled feathers among his team as well. Hoping that those riots on the lower levels would keep the guards nice and busy for just a little while longer, he faced his crew once more and took a deep breath, which his ribs instantly reminded him wasn’t a good idea. “And let me make one thing perfectly clear: Khan is my friend. If you plan to betray any of the men who came here by their own choice to rescue you, you might as well shoot me first.”
 
He saw their incredulous looks. Great, now they think I’m brainwashed or something. Khan, however, hesitated a moment, then approached them and offered his disruptor rifle to Spock, who looked apprehensive but nevertheless took it.
 
Khan addressed Spock, “You heard the captain. Point it towards the Klingons, you will have plenty of targets soon enough.” Turning towards Kirk, he added, “Are we ready to head back?” Kirk was relieved to see that his eyes had thawed considerably. He nodded, and they all set off in the direction Khan had indicated earlier.

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Chapter 7: Not until I turned on him first

 

 

Having your team by your side is great. Having your crew is even better. Having both is definitely too much of a good thing, Kirk reflected wearily, as they made their way across the upper caves once more.
 
When they had set out together, Khan had taken the lead, and his men had automatically taken their positions around Kirk, protecting him. This, of course, hadn’t sat well with his own crew, who had clustered around him in turn. It had taken a few stern looks till they at least had left him enough room to breathe, and now their combined forces were travelling in some awkward clump-like shape that definitely wasn’t any kind of tactical formation.
 
He noticed McCoy by his side studying him carefully and grumbled, “Stop diagnosing me, Bones, I’m okay.” McCoy ignored this and continued his visual check-up, commenting, “You know, for someone who has experienced as much blunt trauma recently as you seem to have, you actually are in pretty good shape.”
 
Kirk just moved his head wordlessly in Khan’s direction, which caused McCoy to snort. “Again? We’ll have to keep you out of Asia, you'd make one lousy tyrant."

 
The chuckle they shared lifted a heavy load off Kirk’s soul. Bones affectionately nudged him and softly said, “I only hope you know what you are doing, Jim.”
 
Kirk gave him a small grin. “You know, that is exactly what Spock said as well. Channelling your inner Vulcan?” he taunted. Seeing his confused look, he added, “The other one, obviously.”
 
“He knows about this?” McCoy asked, baffled, and as Kirk nodded, added, “And he didn’t stop you?”
 
Kirk shook his head. “We might not even have reached Rura Penthe if not for his help.” The Klingons’ rather chaotic response so far, he guessed, showed that they probably hadn’t anticipated a surprise attack by a small landing party, seeing as said party would have to reach the complex on the surface first. Given the kind of orbital defenses this planet had (they seemed none too keen on dilithium theft and guarded their valuable source well) plus the magnetic shield, that was
a rather unlikely occurrence. And while he prided himself on his piloting skills, he wasn’t at all sure he would have been able to beat those odds; he was fairly sure that the elder Spock had come to the exact same conclusion before sharing his cloaking device blueprint with them.
 
McCoy shook his head slowly. “Either everyone around me is going mad, or I am. Currently I’m favoring the latter diagnosis, actually. I really hope we’re getting out of here in one piece, because I for one can’t wait to hear this explanation of yours.”
 
He sighed. “And now you’ll have to excuse me, Jim. I have to go look after Carol.”
 
Kirk cast a worried glance at Marcus, who was walking at the back of the group – she was keeping up with the group's pace without apparent problem, but her lips were pressed into a taut white line and she was ignoring Sulu next to her. “She doesn’t cope well, huh?” he sighed. “Can’t really fault –“ 
 
Disruptor shots rang in front of them. Seeking cover behind a makeshift bed and dragging McCoy with him, Kirk shouted for his crew to do likewise, as they were still unarmed except for Spock, who was already crouched behind a stalagmite, taking shots at the attacking Klingon horde while Khan and his men were rushing forward to meet them.
 
Having checked that all of his crew were safe for the moment, Kirk kept an eye on the surroundings, feeling powerless and frustrated but determined to at least watch the situation and alert the others to any dangers.
 
Which was why he was the first to see the pack of jackal mastiffs charging at them from the depths of the cave to their right.
 
He yelled a warning at Spock, but realized at the same moment that the Vulcan couldn’t even aim at the beasts because Chekov was right in the pack’s path. Fighting a rising wave of panic – he had first-hand experience of just how fast those hounds were – he called to Chekov, pointing behind him.
 
When Chekov saw the danger, he shot off to seek shelter behind Spock and his weapon. Spock took aim at the horde, felling them as they ran, but Kirk realized he would never manage to get them all before they were upon them. They needed more weapons.
 
“Everybody with me”, he shouted, and sped towards the ongoing fight against the Klingons, ignoring the sharp, blinding pain in his side – there would be plenty of weapons on the ground already.
 
His crew followed his order without hesitation, dashing towards the combat while Spock provided cover for them, following behind while still firing at the beasts that kept charging relentlessly even as more of them fell.
 
Having reached the first Klingon corpses, Kirk snatched a weapon from the ground and promptly felt something snap inside him. Collapsing in excruciating pain, it was all he could do not to lose consciousness as his friends took up arms and tried to down the remaining hounds.
 
The pack had gained on them dangerously during their flight, but their concentrated disruptor fire made short work of most. Two, however, wounded and bleeding, nevertheless still kept going and, Kirk saw in despair, were trying to reach Marcus, who fought to get off another shot before they were upon her.
 
Events seemed to slow down as Kirk frantically tried to get up and get to her. He saw Spock run to put himself between her and the beasts; Uhura wielding her rifle like a club, trying to knock the hounds away from Marcus; the others, too far away and not daring to fire into the melee, desperately trying to distract the animals. None of them would make it, he knew in a flash of despairing clarity, as time slowed down to a crawl.
 
A tall, dark figure landed between Marcus and the mastiffs as they jumped, pushing her down while grabbing the hounds and jerking them upwards, tumbling over her prone figure and landing on the rocks behind her, beasts on top of him. They tried to savage him, but a quick snapping motion, and he tossed their lifeless forms aside as he jumped back on his feet and rejoined the Klingon fray.
 
Time sped up again, reached its normal speed and kept accelerating until the world spun in a dark blur around Kirk and then went still. 
 
***
 
“Jim? Can you hear me?” McCoy’s voice floated to him through the darkness.
 
“What has he done now?” That was Thabo.
 
A short pause. Then:
 
“I’m not sure, though I can venture a guess. He keeps doing stunts like that – I'm Dr. Leonard McCoy, and I've had to find ways to patch him up afterwards far too often.” 
 
“I can just imagine. Dr. Thabo Wright, pleased to meet you.” 
 
Four hands started to palpate him carefully.
 
Kirk opened his eyes with effort. “I’m okay,” he managed to tell the pair of faces above him, both looking relieved to see him come to. “Is everybody ...”
 
“Yes, they are, and no, you are not. Now keep still and let us do our work,” McCoy snapped, with Thabo – Wright – nodding approvingly.
 
Faced with such opposition, Kirk closed his eyes again and let his head sink back on the stony ground, figuring it would be over faster if he didn’t hamper the process. Besides, he was aching way too much to move right now anyway.
 
“He should recover, in time,” Wright finally said. “I must say he’s reacting better to Noonien’s blood than I expected.”
 
“He already had one transfusion, years ago”, McCoy answered after a short pause. “Could that be the cause?”
 
“That would explain it, yes,” Wright answered. “Probably has latent TGF-ψ complexes in his extracellular matrix.”

“That would also explain”, Khan’s voice chimed in from somewhere behind them, “the itch in my left arm when I awoke from stasis.” Surprisingly, he sounded more amused than anything.
 
When the doctors’ hands withdrew, Kirk opened his eyes again and slowly and with difficulty rolled onto his right side to take stock of everybody. Most of his crew seemed okay, if slightly shell-shocked, which he was sure wasn't helped by seeing the corpses of jackal mastiffs and Klingons strewn all around them. Nevertheless, they were watching their surroundings as attentively as the Augments, who of course were enthusiastically looking for more Klingons.
 
The lone exception was Marcus. She was sitting on the ground, feet drawn to her body, head lowered, and ignored her surroundings. She was leaning against Uhura, who had a hand around her shoulder and tried to calm her.
 
Kirk exchanged a worried glance with Bones, then gently called out to her, “Carol? Are you hurt?”
 
She did look up then, and he saw that her eyes, so bright and warm normally, were full of shock and fear and unshed tears. She held his gaze as if it kept her from drowning as she whispered so softly that he could barely understand her words, “That ... that was him
... he  ...?” Unable to finish her question, she just mutely appealed to him for help with her eyes.
 
Unfortunately, Kirk doubted that his answer would be the one she wanted to hear. He did not want to lie to her either, though, so he replied, as kindly as he could, “I think so, Carol. It all happened so fast.”
 
“But why ...” she whispered, and shivered. Suddenly her mood changed without warning, and she practically roared at Khan, shocking Uhura, “Why did you save me?”
 
Khan, who had been scanning the passage behind them for enemies, turned around and regarded her with a look of polite puzzlement. “Because the jackal mastiffs would have killed you otherwise. Is this a problem?” 
 
“You bloody well know there’s a problem”, she hurled at him. “You crushed my father’s skull in your hands right before my eyes!”
 
Khan sighed, lowered his weapon and walked towards her; she began to shake silently, but stared at him in defiance and didn’t back off. Spock looked alarmed and poised to intervene, but Kirk sought his attention and shook his head. For a moment, Spock wavered, but then settled down again, muscles tense and ready to act.
 
Khan settled down in front of Marcus and Uhura, cross-legged, laying his rifle by his side. He told her, his voice matter-of-fact but not unkind, “That I did, Doctor Marcus. You know why.”
 
She hung her head. “I know my father was not a good man. He was still my father.”
 
“For this, you have my regret, Doctor. I know how it is to grieve for your family,” he responded.
 
“Stop it!” she cried, lifting her head again to meet his eyes. “Whatever game you are playing right now, stop! I don’t know what you are planning to do to us and I don’t know what you’ve done to Jim to make him believe your ruse, but I know who you are. I saw your true colours that day, the glee in your eyes as you prepared to kill us all. Whatever horribly sadistic thing you’re planning to break us with, F***ing do it already and be done.” 
 
Khan studied her face silently for a while, then began, “I admire your honesty, Doctor Marcus. However, you are putting me in a bit of a quandary. This is neither the time nor the place for long explanations, but even if it were, I doubt I could dissuade you from your conviction. Nevertheless, we will have to find a way to proceed if we wish to leave Rura Penthe alive.”
 
She glared at him. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? You have us exactly where you want us. We cannot refuse to march on towards whatever you have in store for us, for the Klingons will get us otherwise. You dangle a faint glimmer of hope in front of us to get us to play along. The knowledge that we walked into your trap fully aware of it will make the final betrayal so much sweeter, won’t it?”
 
Khan closed his eyes for a moment, looking weary. “Doctor, whatever else you may think of me, I swear to you that I have never betrayed anyone in my life. I do not strike first; I never have. Throw down the gauntlet, though, and you better be prepared to reap what you sow.”
 
“How dare you claim that?” she spat at him. “You betrayed us
.”
 
Before Khan could react, Kirk interjected. “No, Carol. Not until I turned on him first.”
 
She stared at him, speechless. Khan, too, was watching him, his face carefully impassive.
 
Kirk forced himself to keep his voice steady as he continued, “Remember how Scotty stunned him, or thought he did at least, when we were on the bridge of the Vengeance? That was on my order, yet until then Khan had given us no cause for such backstabbing. Well, apart from the whole terrorist bit obviously, but he had not harmed any of us so far and had actually saved my life twice. Nevertheless I didn’t trust him – I was afraid of him and what he would do, frankly, and Pike’s death was still burning inside me, which is why I gave that order. You know what happened then.”
 
It had become very still in the cave. He had the feeling all eyes were upon him, but he refused to meet their gaze except for Carol’s; she was looking at him and Khan in turn, and he could almost see her mind process the new information.
 
She finally took a deep breath and addressed Khan, her voice still trembling but a good deal calmer than before, “Let us leave aside, for the moment, the very valid points of reasonable distrust towards an acknowledged terrorist and disproportionate retribution against uninvolved personnel. That still leaves the question of, in light of what you and Jim have claimed, why on earth you would help a man that betrayed you if you are as honourable as you maintain.”
 
Now she’s put her finger on it
, Kirk thought, his admiration for Carol’s methodical intellect cutting even through his feeling of burning shame.
 
Khan seemed surprised by the question. Nevertheless, he answered, choosing his words with obvious care, “Your captain came to me openly and honestly. He chose to forfeit a very real chance to force my hand, using it to make amends instead. I saw he finally understood the question I had asked him on the Enterprise.”
 
He paused for a moment. “I chose to accept his contrition. And he is not the only one who regrets what happened on the Vengeance.”
 
Before Marcus could react to that, he took his weapon, got up and said to no one in particular, “We should really get moving now, the Klingon reinforcements are practically upon us.” Turning towards Kirk, he added, “Can you walk, Captain?”
 
Kirk nodded. “I will manage.”
 
He got up with difficulty and some help from McCoy, and Khan, seeing him stand, gave a small nod, then turned and wordlessly once more took the lead, showing them the way back to the surface.

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Chapter 8: These are far from normal circumstances

 

 

They had two more skirmishes with the Klingons on their way to the surface, then no more, and no major battles at all. Kirk, walking in a haze of pain, began to wonder where the reinforcements Khan had spoken of were – his predictions had been uncannily accurate so far, so he doubted that this one would prove false. Not for the first time, he wondered how Khan and his followers had lost the Eugenics Wars, since he had shown such an unerring ability to predict his enemies’ movements.
 
But then they reached their designated exit, a warehouse on the top level. Khan, peering through a small observation window to the right of the doorway Kirk was just passing through, motioned for him to come take a look. When he did, he finally realized where those reinforcements had been hiding.
 
The icy ground around the loading ramp they had used as entrance to the complex was packed with a massive number of Klingons, weapons at the ready; some of them had even brought rather ugly-looking heavy weapons with them. He found it hard to gauge their numbers, given the distance between the two complexes, but he could definitely confirm it was in the range of "way too many to fight".

           
He let out a low whistle. “Good thing you’ve planned a different exit route.”
 
“It is a good thing they apparently have not stumbled upon our runabout yet; though it is hard to tell for sure, of course. This still leaves us with the problem of how to reach it.” Khan responded. 
 
Spock, peering through a window to their left, frowned. “What runabout? I do not see any ships.”
 
“Exactly, Commander Spock, and neither do the Klingons; thanks to you, actually,” Khan responded.
 
Spock paused for a moment, then looked at Kirk accusingly. “What did I do, exactly?”
 
“Hey, don’t look at me, that was all your idea,” Kirk shot back. “Well, not yours, but … look, I’ll explain when we’re on the ship, but right now getting there is the more pressing problem.”
 
“Indeed. The most sensible approach would seem for one of us to move to the ship, evading detection, and then bring it here so everyone can board; I can do that,” Khan stated. “However, given the Klingons’ proximity to our parking spot, I shall need some sort of distraction – if they notice me and then see me vanish, they may fire into that general area, and given its shieldless state, our runabout would not withstand some of these weapons very well.”
 
“A distraction should be easy to arrange,” Spock commented. “We are standing in a room with crates full of dilithium, are we not? Under normal circumstances only Orion pirates are foolhardy enough to use dilithium explosives, but these are far from normal circumstances.”

 

Kirk stared at Spock, shocked. He was fully aware that his friend often appeared (and indeed strove to appear) cold, but this callous suggestion of what would amount to wholesale slaughter was extreme even for him. He shuddered to think what his crew had endured on this planet to harden Spock like this towards their Klingon tormentors.
 
Khan, on the other hand, considered the idea and nodded approvingly. “This should be easy enough to construct with the materials at hand but difficult to gauge correctly – we will want to hit as many enemies as possible but still keep our ship outside the blast radius, and ourselves for that matter … the runabout is over there, by the way,” he told Spock, pointing at the torpedo battery. Turning around and walking towards a Klingon computer interface, stepping over its previous user, he added, “Let us map this out, Commander. Subatoi, we will need your help – and yours as well, Lieutenant Commander Scott, if you please.”
 
“And mine”, a female voice chimed in. Khan turned around in surprise, but then acknowledged her, keeping his voice carefully businesslike, “Of course, Doctor Marcus – this should be easy for an expert in the field like you. Let the captain show you where our ship is parked, so you can assess the maximum radius.”
 
Carol stepped next to Kirk, and while he was leaning in, pointing the vessel’s location out to her, his shoulder touched hers, and he could feel her trembling violently. Not knowing whether his comfort was welcome, he limited himself to giving her a quick, sympathetic hug, whispering to her, “You don’t have to do this, Carol.” She smiled at him, but shook her head, turned and walked towards the group of experts, taking up her place between Spock and Scotty.
 
Still feeling weak, Kirk sat down on a crate, watching them discuss and calculate, then start to work on an odd contraption made of some of the crates’ contents as well as a few of the assembled weapons, ever so carefully fusing it together with a phaser beam. The others kept watch, but no Klingons came their way – they really seemed to be convinced that, by stopping their patrols, they could lull them into a false sense of security and then ambush them as they reached the surface. Well, the joke’s on them.
 
Finally Scotty walked towards the gate leading to this warehouse's loading ramp, and after fiddling around with the controls a bit, managed to open it almost soundlessly – luckily it was facing almost directly away from where the Klingon troops were massed, so any activity there was shielded by the warehouse itself. Icy wind instantly filled the hall, gripping them in its chilly fingers, while Khan and Subatoi cautiously carried the missile-like contraption towards the exit. Scotty set up a makeshift launching pad, and Spock and Marcus carefully angled it. Weirdly, it was now pointing in almost the opposite direction from the Klingon horde, but Kirk assumed that they knew something he didn’t.
 
Everybody stood well back except for Khan and Marcus. He saw them exchange a glance, and Carol asked, “Ready?” Her voice was shaking slightly, which was to be expected, but Kirk was surprised to see a hint on discomposure on Khan’s typically stoic face.
 
Of course. She fears he will vanish with the ship and leave us at the mercy of those furious Klingons because she doesn’t realize he would never leave his crew behind. And he fears she purposely increased the blast radius to kill him because he doesn’t realize she would never sacrifice her crewmates for her revenge.
 
Well, trust has to start somewhere. Lack of alternatives is as good a point as any, as I can attest.
 
It seemed to work in their case as well, for Khan nodded, and she bent down to the device and almost tenderly touched a spot on its side, then quickly darted back as Khan shot out of the gate and to the right.
 
Just when Khan had cleared the gate, the thing sped away from its launching pad with a long exhaust flame, but almost soundlessly. 
 
Returning to his viewpoint at the observation window, Kirk saw it fly along a long, graceful arc to the right, as the lone figure of Khan raced across the snow to the left. The device passed the Klingons wide, unnoticed, before slowly and silently turning back on its path and heading straight for them. Suddenly it began to emit a high, piercing whining.
 
Oh, neat trick! They’ll never guess where it really came from. Spock’s and Khan’s joint brainchild, no doubt.

 
The Klingons had a second or two to realize what was happening; then, exactly when panic had set in, but before they could react, the thing detonated in their midst.
 
It was not a pretty sight.
 
The explosion itself was small, but the blast wave was intense and ripped the Klingons closest to the impact to shreds, crushed those a bit farther away and knocked most of the rest off their feet, some of them permanently, while the heavy weapons all around them ruptured under the stress, causing yet more fatalities. Among the few guards left standing, there was total pandemonium, some of them firing all around them, disoriented, some bellowing in rage, storming towards the apparent source of the device.
 
And then there was nothing left but anxious waiting, the seconds stretching endlessly, until he heard the unmistakable sound of their runway landing outside the warehouse.
 
Everybody recognized the sound, and they were already moving towards the exit when an opening hatch appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Kirk instructed them to quickly take a seat, any seat, as they were heading inside, then followed, with Spock bringing up the rear, rifle at the ready, closing the hatch behind them.
 
Looking for an empty chair, Kirk saw that they had saved conn for him, so he quickly dropped into that seat while Spock headed aft. He put his hands on the controls, then turned left to ask Khan if they were ready for takeoff.
 
He froze.
 
Khan was sitting rigidly in his chair, face pale, left hand pressed to a wound in his side, blood gushing between his fingers, forming a dark, sticky pool on the floor. He managed a soft, “Let us get out of here, Captain”, before closing his eyes in pain.
 
The long years of training took over as Kirk let himself be completely ruled by his hard-earned reflexes, mechanically directing the runabout upwards, flitting through the orbital defenses, leaving the system behind and then entering the coordinates of New Vulcan into the console, deftly guiding her through her jump to warp speed. When she was flying steady towards Federation space, he checked the planned flight path once more, unnaturally calm, even as Wright arose and lifted Khan out of his seat, carrying him effortlessly to the ship’s small sickbay.
 
Only when Kirk had reassured himself that they were on their correct course and that the energy-draining cloaking device was turned off, did he hand the bridge over to the person sitting to his right, who turned out to be Chekov, and went aft himself.
 
He found Wright and McCoy bent over a motionless Khan, who had been placed on one of the cots. When McCoy heard him come in, he greeted him with, “Ah, just the man I was looking for – you head over here now,” and pointed at the other cot.  

Kirk shook his head. “Later, Bones. How about Khan – is he …”, the word caught in his throat.
 
Before he was able to find his voice again or a rather baffled McCoy could answer, though, Khan’s unmistakable voice cut in, weak but clear. “Stop the melodramatics, Kirk. I got hit by a lucky shot, nothing that will not heal on its own in a day or two.”
 
Kirk stared at him in surprise, and saw the hint of a smile on his lips that took the sting out of his words. He smiled back, relieved, as Khan continued, “Hurts like bloody hell right now, though, so excuse me if I do not cling to consciousness.” He closed his eyes and drifted off, and Kirk, relief washing over him, turned to leave. His blood is what keeps me going right now, and here I am, making a spectacle over a flesh wound. He didn't care – he was much too glad Khan was okay to feel embarrassed. 
 
“Not so fast, Jim,” McCoy’s voice stopped him. “Where do you think you are going?”
 
He sighed. “I promise I’ll be back, Bones, but I have to call Ambassador Spock first.”
 
“What is so urgent?” Still the strict doctor voice.
 
Kirk replied, “I must tell him that all went well and that we’re on our way to him, for starters. And that he can start distributing a certain recording that I’ll have to tell you about later.”
 
“On our way to where, now?” McCoy looked at him sceptically.
 
“New Vulcan – he said he would make sure we’d be granted asylum there by the High Council. We’re all fugitives now, remember?”
 
That induced a groan. “New Vulcan? Is it too late to take my chances with the Klingons?”
 
Kirk just grinned at him and went back to the bridge to make his call.

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Chapter 9: Take good care of your people
 

 
McCoy let Kirk get back up shortly before they were scheduled to drop out of warp, since he had been such an unusually compliant patient this time. As Kirk made his way back to the bridge, leaving the good doctor behind with the still-unconscious Khan, he hoped Bones didn’t suspect that it wasn’t concern for his health that had kept him in sickbay for once, but rather the welcome respite it had given him from his friends’ questions. He hadn’t dared sleep in case some altercation should crop up, only slipping into a light snooze from time to time, just to be awakened by the slightest sound, lying in the dark and listening for voices being raised. Fortunately, given the absence of both leaders, the two crews had seemingly decided that ignoring each other’s presence was the best way to deal with the close quarters during the flight, a decision for which he was profoundly grateful. 
 
Indeed, nobody seemed keen on disturbing the peace so close to the end of their shared journey. When he sat down at the conn and remarked that they were about to reach New Vulcan, still searching for a polite way to phrase a somewhat impolite request, Himura and the other Augment present (whose name Kirk still hadn’t learned, which was fairly embarrassing, come to think of it) got up, gave a small nod and disappeared aft, out of the viewscreen’s field. Kirk called Spock forward to take ops beside him, then brought the runabout out of warp.
 
When they hailed New Vulcan, the communications officer who took their call seemed unsurprised, if not entirely happy, to see them – but of course it was hard to tell with Vulcans. He told them they were cleared for the landing pad at Ambassador Spock’s residence and transferred the coordinates. Kirk brought the ship down carefully, always on guard – the elder Vulcan had told him they had indeed been granted asylum (though he hadn't told him how he had managed to arrange for that) but Kirk still felt better when they had touched down and no Federation vessel had appeared looking for trouble.
 
When he had finished entering the commands to complete the landing process and release the hatch, he looked up through the viewport and saw the elder Spock waiting for them at the edge of the landing pad. Joy was written plain on his face in a way that his own Spock would feel embarrassed by – in fact, he did seem pretty embarrassed about his elder self's blatant show of emotion. Kirk smiled back at him and put the controls on hold, preparing the ship for her takeoff.

His crew disembarked behind him, visibly unsure how to take their leave of the Augments. They mostly left with a few mumblings, with the notable exception of McCoy, who shared a warm goodbye with Wright. His former team flocked into the cockpit, readying for their journey home; he knew he would have to bid farewell to the five of them now, but he was struggling to find the right words. He was unsure, too, how to address them without Khan present, and it felt utterly wrong to leave without saying goodbye to him, but neither could be helped, it seemed.

 
Before the stretch of silence got too embarrassing, he pivoted his seat to face them each in turn and began, “Please excuse me, but I’m struggling for words where there really aren’t any strong enough to tell you how overwhelmed I am by what you’ve done for me and my crew. The incredible courage and skill you displayed when you fought for my friends is something I’ll never forget. I owe you all a debt that I can’t even begin to repay.”
 
“Nonsense, Kirk”, Khan’s dark voice interjected, and Kirk saw him enter the bridge, still even paler than usual but at least up and walking, albeit somewhat uncertainly. “You took care of our people, and we took care of yours. We are even.”

 “You risked all your lives for their ungrateful asses,” Kirk noted. 
 
“You threw away your career for us,” Khan replied. “Starfleet may yet forgive you your trespass into Klingon space, but once they find out about us they will not react kindly.”
 
Kirk shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t leave Starfleet, Starfleet left me.” He got up, somewhat reluctantly leaving the conn station. “But thanks for reminding me of something.” He brought forth the data cube once more and fondly held it for a moment, thinking of his ship, silently awaiting her new captain at the stardock. Then he pulled the chain over his head and handed the cube to Khan. “If I don’t know where you are, not even Section 31 can force me to surrender the coordinates.”
 
Khan looked at the data cube in his hand, then at Kirk, solemn. “Take good care of your people, Jim,” he stated simply.
 
Kirk felt something well up inside him. “You too, Noonien,” he answered, and they embraced. Then he quickly turned and left the ship, hearing her lift off behind him as he walked towards the elder Spock and his crew.
 
He stood among his friends as they watched the runabout disappear into the bright sky over New Vulcan. The silence that followed was finally broken by the younger Spock’s voice, remarking, “It appears that the inevitable betrayal we were all waiting for was, in fact, evitable. Fascinating.”
 
Scotty put it a bit differently. “Ah’ll be buggered, the captain’s been right.” 
 
“For which we should all be grateful,” the elder Spock remarked. “Come inside and feel at home. My guest quarters are yours for however long you want or need them.”
 
“That could turn out to be a rather long time, I’m afraid”, Kirk replied, as they were walking towards the ambassadorial mansion.
 
The old Vulcan shook his head, thoughtful. “Do not be so sure about that. Your recording is already sending ripples through the political landscape of both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Wait and see how the chips fall in the end.”
 
Kirk shrugged, not wanting to contradict his optimism. All his friends were alive and safe, and everything else mattered very little in the end, actually.  

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Chapter 10: I know how fiercely Starfleet defends their own

 

 
They spent a few days doing nothing much at all, resting and healing, staying close to each other during most of the day but not interacting much – everybody being together again was enough for now. Their host did his best to make them feel at home, offering his impeccable hospitality and sharing political tidbits, but while Kirk gladly accepted the former, he didn’t really have either the energy or the inclination to care about the world at large. This house and his friends in it were all that mattered at present.
 
Since the matter had lost its urgency, his friends hadn’t even bugged him for the explanation of their rescue (and their rescuers, more to the point) as yet, giving him time to recuperate first – or maybe they were still digesting Spock's edit of Khan's recording, which he had shown to them the day after their arrival so they would know why they all had been framed, and by whom. It seemed, however, that things were about to change.
 
Kirk was lounging on the couch in his room, alone for once, idly watching an indoor fountain’s water split the afternoon sun’s rays into multihued dancing lights, a spectacle he had found oddly calming these last few days but which was beginning to make him fidget now, a sure sign that he was well on his way to recovery from the ordeal. So when Spock knocked and entered, looking his usual stoic self (though Kirk could easily discern that this was no courtesy visit) he welcomed the distraction. Besides, he had been meaning to check up on Spock anyway, but had been unsure when his friend would be ready for it.
 
Spock sat down in the armchair opposite him and began without preamble, “If you are feeling well enough, Jim, I would ask you to recount the tale of how you came by this improbable alliance that, against all odds, persevered. I tried to analyze the data available to me, but I could not make much sense of it.” The frustration in his voice was palpable. “I theorized from your statement about awakening all of Khan’s crew and from his comment about your forfeiting a chance to force his hand that the two of you somehow brought his people to safety before you came for us – and I feel safe speculating that their present location is within the Mutara Bubble.”

 

Kirk nodded. “Excellent reasoning as usual, Spock.”

Spock bit his lower lip – his equivalent of tearing his hair in frustration. “And yet I cannot find one, not even one single, logical explanation for the fact that Khan did not simply kill you when he had what he wanted. Even presuming he knew that I would share such sensitive knowledge as a cloaking device with him to help you on your mission – and that is presuming a lot, even allowing for his intellect – does not explain your continued survival past that point, let alone our rescue. From my point of view, Doctor Marcus’s assumptions were perfectly valid, and yet they were disproven handily.”
 
“Logic cannot explain everything, Spock, as you are well aware,” Kirk chided gently.
 
“Well it should be able to”, Spock shot back. “But since it obviously fails me in this case, I ask for your explanation.”
 
Kirk smiled at him. “This would be difficult to explain well enough to meet your requirements. But I can show you.” He took a deep breath, and then, before Spock, visibly perturbed by the implication, could interrupt him, he continued, “However, I must ask something of you in return. I want to see what happened to you on that damn ice rock that wounded you so.”
 
Spock flinched for the briefest of moments, then quickly tried to appear nonchalant. When he saw from Kirk’s reaction that he was failing at it, he sighed and allowed his walls to come down. “You do not want to hear about that, much less experience it, Jim”, he said, anguish plain in his eyes.
 
“What one person can endure, another can share, Spock,” Kirk told him gently. “This is eating you up inside, my friend. The others were not there when whatever it was happened, am I right?” Spock’s reaction showed him that he was. “You have been keeping this from them all the time, putting up an uncaring front.”
 
“Story of my life, Jim”, Spock commented with uncommon directness.
 
Kirk had to smile. “Indeed. But this one secret is too big for you alone, and you won’t share it with Nyota for some reason. So come to me, my friend.” He sat up straight, allowing room for another person on the couch. “Let me see what they did to you, and let me show you how I reached out to our enemy because I was all alone and you were dying.” He knew he was asking a lot of Spock, to surrender to fear and pain together in a way his friend was barely able to on his own, but he was afraid what this would do to Spock if he continued to let it fester.
 
For a few seconds, Spock hesitated. Then he abruptly stood up, took his place on the couch next to his friend and looked at him with such unconditional trust in his dark eyes that Kirk felt overwhelmed by this gift, doubly precious from a man such as him. When Spock raised his hand to Kirk’s face, murmuring the ritual words, “My mind to your mind”, Kirk welcomed both touches.
 
***
 
A couple weeks later they all found themselves in a rather restless state. Stories had been shared, both of their imprisonment and of their rescue, and even the elder Spock had told them a bit about his own experiences with Rura Penthe (much better organized in advance, Kirk had to admit) and Khan (much grimmer, making him feel glad they – and Khan – had walked down a different path). All wounds, if not closed, were at least healing. It was time to begin looking forward again.
 
Kirk knew that he should start exploring their future options – even though he was grateful for the Vulcans’ hospitality in general and one Vulcan’s in particular, he knew they couldn’t stay forever … McCoy, for one, would likely go mad, and none of them was really suited for a planetlubber’s life. He hadn’t quite brought himself to broach the subject with his friends, though, and was in fact trying to work up his resolve one evening after they had shared dinner, when the elder Spock approached them and asked Kirk to accompany him.
 
Kirk excused himself and followed Spock into an adjoining room, curious, as the Vulcan’s face betrayed nothing. Spock led him to a communication console, telling him, “I have been consistently disavowing knowledge of your whereabouts, but this call I thought you might want to take.” Seeing his baffled look, he added, “Starfleet”, then before Kirk could protest touched the console and retreated as the screen went live.
 
Kirk found himself virtually face-to-face with a stern-looking woman, her auburn hair showing the first touches of gray. When she recognized him, she straightened herself and addressed him, “Greetings, Captain Kirk. I am Fleet Admiral Janeway, speaking on behalf of Starfleet Command.”
 
“Just Kirk, as I don’t doubt you know, Fleet Admiral. Congratulations on your promotion, by the way”, he replied, trying to keep his voice calm and feeling profoundly glad that a few days ago he had finally found the resolve to give up his old uniform; he felt a bit awkward in Vulcan clothing, but it beat having to face her in a uniform they both knew he had no right to wear anymore. He remembered Moira Janeway – a woman a Vulcan might describe as “a little emotionally distant”. Then again, during the Khan scandal she had been one of the most vocal supporters of curtailing Section 31’s operations, so there was that.
 
“Thank you. And you have not been court-martialled yet,” she responded. “Depending on your future behavior, it need not even come to that.”
 
Oh, really? This should be a good one. At least now I can be sure they haven’t realized the bit about Khan and his people yet. He let her go on, trying not to let too much of his skepticism show.
 
She scrutinized his face and then told him, “As you are doubtlessly aware, a certain recording of yours has caused considerable political upheaval within both the Federation and the Klingon Empire, due to its rather ugly implications. I would call the numerous not-particularly-voluntary resignations among the admiralty and the cabinet "bloody," but then I would lack a word to describe what happened among the Klingons according to our sources.”

 

She shivered at the memory, then continued, “At any rate, we were contacted by the new Klingon chancellor’s representative a couple of days ago. It appears that the warmongering parties within their High Council have lost considerable influence due to the assassination, so their new leader is a man of peace – for a Klingon, at any rate. He wants peace with the Federation so that they can concentrate their war efforts on the Romulans; which would be perfectly fine with the Federation, actually. There is just one little snag between us and a peace treaty.”
 
She locked eyes with him. “The chancellor insists that the only human worthy to treat with them is, I quote, ‘that guy who had the moQDu’ to storm Rura Penthe and free his crew’. Get yourself on a shuttle to Starbase 12 so we can pick you up there and bring you to the Neutral Zone, and Starfleet is prepared to overlook certain questionable, but understandable, actions you undertook.”
 
Kirk nodded. “I see. And if this treaty turns out to be a ruse by the Klingons to seize me and punish me for what I did on Rura Penthe, I can look forward to my trial and punishment in serenity, for I know how fiercely Starfleet defends their own when they are wrongly accused. Thank you, Fleet Admiral, but I’m not interested.” He disconnected the call before she had a chance to respond.
 
“That was … less than diplomatic, but more than understandable,” he heard his host's voice to his right. He turned and when he saw the regret on the old man’s face, his anger faded away. He asked softly, “Am I getting you in trouble with Starfleet by staying here? Should I leave New Vulcan?”
 
Spock shook his head. “You underestimate the public interest in your and your crew’s case, Jim, ever since our broadcast. You were wrongly accused and the Federation left you high and dry; and even worse, our own people were involved in setting you up. The whole affair did not exactly engender trust in our elected officials and Starfleet among the general populace, to put it mildly. Starfleet recruitment has dropped alarmingly. Traders refuse to deal with remote colonies, feeling inadequately protected by the Federation. Meanwhile, what little details surfaced of your daring rescue turned you into the hero of the day. Neither the Federation nor Starfleet would risk touching you right now, fearing the backlash that would cause.” 

A hint of sorrow flitted over his face. “Also, you have officially been granted asylum here. While the Federation has been known to violate the autonomy of local governments once or twice, they would not dare that in case of New Vulcan. The fact that the Federation could not protect Vulcan from destruction caused considerable alarm among many member races. If they were seen to move against New Vulcan in any way, those among them who have always maintained that Starfleet deliberately allowed Vulcan to be destroyed would be getting an amount of audience that might tear the Federation apart. No, Jim, you are as safe as you can be in my house.”
 
Kirk nodded, hesitated a moment and then realized he had to ask. “Do you think less of me because I refused to play my part in what might actually not be a ruse, but a chance for peace?”
 
Spock shook his head. “Quite to the contrary, I think it showed a wisdom I did not expect you to develop for two or three more decades. If it is indeed a ruse, the Klingons will suspect the Federation saw through it if you do not show up, and they will become unsure and pushy and might tip their hand. If, on the other hand, the Klingon chancellor really just wants to meet you – and this is entirely possible, given Klingon nature – he will not mind a small delay that much. Meanwhile, Starfleet Command will have time to ponder your response and their own culpability. So all things considered, it was a wise response.”

 

“You do realize that I was just lashing out at her, right?” Kirk ventured.
 
“Of course. But that does not change the fact that your instinctive reaction was the correct one once more, Jim,” Spock responded, trying not to smile and not quite succeeding. “Come, let us rejoin your friends.”
 
***
 
Two days later (days during which Kirk had tried very hard to forget about the whole episode and of course utterly failed), when the elder Spock called him into his study, he both hoped and feared that this would be about Starfleet again. And of course, it was.
 
At least Fleet Admiral Janeway, present on the screen, was not her usual, aloof self... she was looking seriously peeved. When Kirk entered, she glanced at him and grumbled, “Your friend drives a damn hard bargain. But that’s what I get for thinking I can cross swords with a Vulcan ambassador.”
 
Trying not to let his surprise show – what bargain? – Kirk approached the screen. A document appeared on the console below it.
 
“Very well then, Captain,” Janeway began, still sounding grumpy, “please find attached a general amnesty for you and your crew, covering any and all actions undertaken during the period beginning with the order to attend that ceasefire talk and ending today. Also included is a confirmation of your ranks within Starfleet and a reinstatement in your functions on the USS Enterprise." Her tone abruptly shifted and became less formal; the anger, however, was still going strong. "We even threw in a blanket amnesty for whoever joined you in your caper, since the Klingons mentioned that you were not alone and anyone who assails Rura Penthe and survives is more than welcome to apply at Starfleet Security, so pass that on. This document has been signed by both the Federation President and the commander in chief, and it turns valid the moment you acknowledge it with your fingerprint, which you better do this damn instant. Then we’ll haul your ass over to the negotiations so they can finally start.” She glared at him, silently daring him to refuse.
 
Kirk turned to Spock. “Is this legit?” He had never been good at legalese.
 
Spock nodded. “Not only is this a lawful decree – the moment you validate it, it is also going out to all members of the ambassadorial network as well as selected members of the press who helped publish the truth about your wrongful conviction, to help Starfleet remember it.” The false smile he gave Janeway was one of the scariest things Kirk had ever seen.
 
Kirk only needed a moment to consider his options. My friends will have their life back. He did not care much anymore whether the Klingon negotiations were a ruse. With a decisive motion, he pressed his index finger to the console.

 

Janeway breathed a sigh of relief. “Glad you are showing some sense for once in your life, Captain. I expect your crew in Ambassador Spock's study in 20 minutes; the USS Bradbury, which has been waiting in orbit for you to sort out your priorities, has been authorized to beam them aboard and bring them to Earth, to prepare the Enterprise for launch as soon as you return from the negotiations. You go change into your uniform and rush over to the ambassador’s landing pad, since the whole delegation is already assembled and only waiting for your arrival. The Surak is going to pick you up there and bring you directly to us, so get moving!” She abruptly cut the transmission and the screen went dead. 

Kirk looked at Spock, fighting for words. “How can I ever make up for what you’ve done for us?”
 
A sad smile touched Spock’s lips. “Just remember me next time you need help, before you start unfreezing historical villains.” Seeing Kirk’s reaction, he added, more gently, “I do not hold it against you, Jim … you were alone and desperate and not in a state of mind to consider asking anyone associated with the Federation. Besides, it worked out in the end, and no one but you would have given Khan that kind of chance. But please, next time remember that I have been and always shall be your friend.”
 
Kirk nodded, tears welling up in his eyes, and pulled Spock into a fierce hug. “I will never again forget that, my friend.” When they separated again, Spock told him indulgently, “Now run and tell the others. That admiral did not leave you much time.”
 
Kirk nodded. “Yes, she seems like kind of a sore loser. And you did ...” a thought suddenly occurred to him. “She doesn’t have the first idea who they gave a blanket amnesty to, does she?”
 
Spock’s mouth twitched ever so slightly. “You are not the only one who has neither forgotten nor forgiven how Starfleet treated you and then tried to treat you again. I must admit I am rather looking forward to her reaction once she finds out.”
 
Kirk, threatened to be overcome by a laughing fit, pulled himself together with difficulty so he could be off to tell the others the news.

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Chapter 11: The things I do for the Federation
 

 
Kirk’s old uniform felt strangely unfamiliar as he took his seat aboard the Surak and watched the pilot, a dark-skinned Vulcan, bring the shuttle skyward, and the fact that her uniform was, of course, impeccable while his was rather threadbare after what they had gone through together didn’t help. Ah well, he would get used to it again, he hoped, and the Klingons surely wouldn’t mind the souvenirs of combat. 

They jumped to warp, and he settled back for a dull flight. He briefly entertained the thought of taking up a Vulcan challenge (it might be his last chance, after all), but remembering the bruises that Uhura had sported during Spock’s pon farr last year decided against it – he was not sure his body was ready for that level of action yet, sadly. 
 
One uneventful flight later they rendezvoused with the USS Republic, and Kirk found himself as the nominal leader of a delegation consisting of politicians, diplomats and admiralty, all outranking him by a considerable margin. The absurdity of the situation would have made him snicker if he hadn’t still been so pissed at the entire bunch of them. At least some of them had the good grace to look remorseful in his presence, only to put on empty diplomatic smiles like the rest once they boarded the Klingon flagship.

 
The Klingons, on the other hand, were astonishingly easy to handle. Surprisingly good sports, they treated him like the toast of the town, congratulating him on his daring feat and slapping him on his back so hard that his newly-healed ribs threatened to crack again. Formalizing the peace treaty only took a couple of hours and was done in a rather convivial atmosphere. Then, when everything was signed and sealed and sent, it was time to say hello to gagh again. 
 
The things I do for the Federation, Kirk thought, as he prepared to swallow another mouthful of wriggling serpent worms. His wariness was slowly beginning to fade, though – apparently the elder Spock had been right, as usual, and this was no trap after all. When the toast had been raised and no one had keeled over dead yet, he started to relax and even enjoy the evening a bit.
 
The potent Klingon beverages did their work, and one by one the members of both the human and Klingon delegations either excused themselves to head off to bed or fell over snoring and had to be hauled off by attendants. After a couple of hours, only the Klingon chancellor, Kirk, and Fleet Admiral Janeway (who seemed determined not to let him out of her sight) were left at the table.
 
Kirk had just recounted his encounter with the business end of that Klingon cattle prod and the chancellor, a huge man with a nasty scar almost bisecting his face, was nearly doubled up with laughter. When he recovered, he smiled at Kirk fondly, then turned to Janeway and told her, his slurred speech and heavy accent making it barely comprehensible, “See, that is why you should be so proud of your guy. Those others with him, everybody who went against them and survived told us the same tale, that they were some kind of new super human you must be breeding – don’t worry”, he added, seeing her look aghast, “I’m not going to ask you about them, that’s for our military intelligence to try and find out and for yours to try and hide. But anyway, those soldiers, they were stronger and faster than ours, and yet right in between them was that normal human, the kind that would almost die from contact with a simple painstik, and even so he fought with all he had, the survivors told us, and he gave them one hell of a fight. That’s true bravery for me.” He got up and patted Kirk on the shoulder in an almost paternal way. “It’s been a real pleasure getting to know you, Captain, but I’ll have to go catch some sleep now before I have to face the High Council tomorrow. I hope we will meet again someday.”  

 

 “So do I, Chancellor," Kirk responded, trying to remember which hand went to which shoulder in the Klingon salute and how to correctly pronounce "Qapla'" as well as he was able to after all that chech’tluth. He was surprised by the sincerity in his voice and realized he actually meant it.
 
He watched the chancellor depart, and before he could consider his next move – the way Janeway had looked during the chancellor's retelling of events had given him the distinct feeling that trouble lay ahead – he heard a communicator being activated behind him and Janeway’s voice, “Two to beam over.” When they materialized on the Republic, she told him without looking at him, “With me,” her voice ice.
 
Ah well, better get it over with, he thought while he followed in her wake, trying to clear his brain of the alcohol-induced haze. Then again, he didn’t really feel like being sober for that particular confrontation over his choice of battle mates for the assault on Rura Penthe anyway. 
 
Janeway led him into her quarters and ordered him to sit down. When he did, she stood over him with fury in her eyes and spat at him, “What did you do?
 
Her trying to hector him actually made it easier for Kirk to remain calm. Looking up at her, he told her pleasantly, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to hear the answer to, Fleet Admiral. Or those that you already know the answer to anyway.”
 
For a moment that left her speechless, gasping for air. Then she snarled at him, “So you did thaw some of those psychopaths to do your bidding?”
 
He rolled his eyes. “Why does everyone assume that? First of all, Khan and I thawed all of them. Second, they are not psychopaths. Third, believe me when I say nobody makes them ‘do their bidding’. Or ask the late and hardly lamented Admiral Marcus if you don’t believe me.”

That managed to put a shade of pink on her face he would have found surprisingly lovely had the situation been different. She asked him, her voice having gone dangerously quiet, “You have the gall to openly admit what you have done?”
 
He stared back at her defiantly. “I proudly stand by what I have done.”
 
“Why, you insolent ... I’ll ...” she stopped for a moment, and then her face went pale all of a sudden, and she barely whispered, “I am going to rip his F***ing pointy ears off his F***ing head.”   

Ah yes, there was the reaction Spock had been looking forward to. A pity there hadn’t been a chance to record it for him, Kirk thought regretfully – but then again, Spock could read it in his mind anyway.
 
Janeway looked as if she was within a hair’s breadth of a heart attack, and suddenly, inexplicably, he felt compassion for her. He rose and pulled up another chair, telling her, “Sit down before you collapse,” and much to his surprise she followed his order. Pulling two mugs of hot coffee from her food synthesizer, he handed one to her, and she gulped it down, then clung to the empty mug while he sat down again and finished his own coffee.
 
When he put down his mug and asked her, “So can we talk about this like civilized people now?” she nodded, but did not say a word, waiting him out.
 
He stifled a sigh and, hoping the coffee was doing its job, began, “Yes, the men who accompanied me to Rura Penthe were Khan and five of his crew. No, they won’t be a danger to Earth. Yes, I know perfectly well what they are capable of – Admiral Pike was my friend, if you recall. No, I still think I did the right thing. Yes, I have my reasons for all of these assumptions. Will you give me the chance to explain them to you?”
 
Janeway looked as if she was going to speak for a moment, but then slumped back and just nodded again. Kirk got them two more mugs of coffee and geared up for a long night.
 
He started by telling her of the events two years ago – of Khan saving their lives on Qo’noS, then surrendering. That talk in the brig when he had told them about what Marcus had done, when, for a few heartbeats, the cool, controlled mask had vanished and Khan had been nothing but a man despairing because he couldn’t keep his family safe. Their working together and how it had all turned sour when he had broken their truce first.
 
He told her how he had only really understood Khan when he had been back on Earth, all alone, knowing that his friends were dying on an alien planet and helpless to do a thing about it. How he had arranged for the Augments’ safety – he confided in her everything he had done, but did not disclose the destination of that journey, only revealing that he no longer had the coordinates. How he had woken Khan and been open with him, trying to make him see that he understood now, acutely aware that the lives of his crew depended on this.
 
Briefly, he outlined how they had worked together on the rescue mission. How Khan had gone above and beyond what he had asked of him, from finding out the truth behind the assassination to putting up with both crews’ skepticism. How they had claimed each other as friends to get everyone to work together, only to realize the truth behind the statement in the end.
 
He finished with, “I am perfectly aware of what Khan is capable of – I witnessed some of it and read up on the historical rest. And I know, and knew then, that there was nothing stopping him from doing more of it once I awoke him and made him realize that his people were safe now. It was a huge risk to take, but I am not going to lie to you and tell you I am sorry I took it. As captain, you have to learn to rely on your instinct to keep your people safe, or you will hesitate in battle and get your entire crew killed. I chose to follow my instinct in this matter, and my friends are alive and well. My instinct also tells me that Khan won’t trouble Earth any more. Make of that what you will.”
 
Janeway, to her credit, had heard him out without a single interruption. Now she took a deep breath and then commented, “That is quite a lot to ask of me.”
 
“I am aware of that, Fleet Admiral,” he responded.
 
She closed her eyes for a while, lost in thought, and Kirk couldn’t help but notice that when she wasn’t actively cross with him or despairing of him, the harsh lines around her eyes were smoothed out and she looked like a totally different woman. A pity he wasn’t likely to see that side of her very often.
 
Finally she opened her eyes again and sighed. “Very well – let us stop pretending that I can do a damn thing about this anyway, thanks to your shrewd Vulcan friend. Since no one can, in fact, I will not make this public. Seeing as you have brought the Augments safely beyond our reach, we have no choice anyway but to wait and see whether you were right about Khan’s plans for the future, so there is no point in more people fretting about this. I do hope you covered your tracks well, at least.” 

 

Kirk had to grin. “I am sure you remember the Kobayashi Maru hearing when I was a cadet; that was the last time anyone ever caught me hacking. I do learn from my mistakes, and besides, Commander Spock is on my side now.”
 
For a moment he could have sworn he saw the corner of Janeway’s mouth twitch, but when she spoke, her voice held no trace of mirth. “To your credit, at least you attempted to find a solution to the Augment problem; whether or not it actually turns out to be a good one, only time will tell. But it was a more constructive approach, at any rate, than simply leaving them in cryostasis, which was execution by another name, as I told the board several times, not that they’d listen.”
 
“Thank you”, he told her, and when she looked at him quizzically, he added, “For trying to get them to do what was right instead of what was politically expedient. I wish there were more people like you in Starfleet Command.”
 
She did smile then, a sad little smile. “If we give up on Starfleet instead of working on changing it from within, only the elitists, toadies and bureaucrats will remain. On that note, thank you for giving us a second chance, Captain. I’m not entirely sure we deserve one.”
 
Kirk got up and looked at the stars through the viewport in her quarters. They were clearly visible against the vast darkness of the universe, for the Republic would not jump to warp for another hour or two, so as not to disturb the dignitaries’ sleep. But once she did, in only a few hours he would be back at Earth. Back on the bridge of the Enterprise.
 
Back home.
 
He reached out to Janeway to help her rise as well. “I don’t think I could ever truly leave Starfleet”, he told her. 

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Chapter 12: Epilogue 

 

 
Kirk sat by the panoramic viewport of Starbase 12’s vast bar, nursing a Starfleet-regulation-compliant alcohol-free cocktail and fervently wishing for some Romulan ale instead. He doubted it would improve his mood much, but at least time would pass quicker if he was drunk.

 

The view of the endless array of stars usually cheered him up, but not now when he could not get to them. The four months that had passed since his reinstatement as the Enterprise's captain had barely begun to fill the void that the thought of never flying again had left in his soul, and now, just as he was starting to relax, he was grounded again.
 
They had been restocking supplies at the starbase when news of the quarantine had reached them. Plasma plague outbreaks had been reported on several outer colonies, and because of its lethal nature Starfleet had mandated strict quarantine regulations. All ships except for medical emergency vessels were grounded till the pandemic could be contained.

 

That had been two weeks ago. By the end of week one, he had already been pretty grouchy – at least they could have been stranded on nearby Risa or somewhere similarly interesting instead of this dull base. By now, he was ready to go through the Starbase roof – he needed to get out there and fly, dammit! 

 

Idly he watched a small shuttle approach the base, looking for the red markings designating a medical vessel and irrationally envying the medical corps. Then he decided he might as well check if it brought any news, got up and made his way to the docking bay – not like he was missing much of anything here in this boring joint.
 

When he arrived, he was unsurprised to find several people already waiting for the shuttle’s arrival; among them, though, were the admiral in command of the base (a dour-looking Andorian he knew only in passing) and the chief medical officer (a Risian he would have liked to get to know better, but hadn’t approached yet since she was fairly stressed out by her job at the moment). Clearly this was no routine visit.

  

The admiral greeted him curtly and then informed him, “The researchers at Regula I have apparently managed to develop both a cure and a vaccine for the plague and are in the process of distributing them. They called to inform us that they were sending one Doctor Johnson over with samples. I have been informed by Starfleet that any ship with a fully immunized crew is released from the quarantine restrictions, so please let me know when you are ready to leave.” Clearly, he was as keen on the idea as Kirk himself.

 

Cure? Vaccine? Kirk’s brain was still trying to process these tantalizing words even as he mechanically thanked the admiral and assured him that he would of course do that. He was aware of Regula I’s existence (a biotech research station somewhere in this sector if he recalled correctly) but not much more. Right now, though, as the shuttle went through the docking process, he decided that he was prepared to adore each and every one of the people working there if their research meant he would finally be free to fly again.
 
The bay door opened and Kirk put on his most winning smile – only to have it freeze on his face as he saw the wiry black man approaching them in the unmistakable, powerful but understated stride of an Augment.

 
Doctor Johnson, my ass
. That was Doctor Thabo Wright.
  

Kirk tried his best not to let his shock show as Wright exchanged greetings with his reception committee – he had no idea what Wright was up to but gave him the benefit of the doubt and had no intention to expose him. Still, he was sure that his “Greetings, Doctor Johnson” must have sounded fairly unconvincing.

  
Luckily, nobody took much notice of him as Wright approached the CMO and handed her a small package, explaining, “These are samples of both the cure and the polyvalent vaccine we informed you about. You should be able to add these to your medical database and synthesize an adequate supply – please let me know if you run into any difficulties.”
  

The doctor thanked Wright with exactly the smile Kirk hoped she would give him some day, but he only smiled back politely, then turned to Kirk and told him, “I brought samples for your ship’s doctor as well, Captain. Would you be so kind to have us beamed over?” Not trusting his voice fully, Kirk just nodded, then activated his communicator and called the transporter operator on duty.
  

By the time they had materialized in the transporter room, he had shaken off his surprise somewhat, so when he used a console to summon McCoy and to tell Uhura to recall all personnel on leave, his voice sounded perfectly normal. He then asked Wright, “Care to head off our CMO at the turbolift, Doctor?” A host of questions were on his tongue, but he couldn’t very well ask them in front of the young transporter engineer.
 

Wright told him with a straight face, “Oh, I can’t wait to meet him, Captain,” and they stepped outside. As soon as the doors were securely closed behind them and Kirk had made sure that the corridor was deserted, he turned around to Wright, but all he managed to get out was, “What the ...?” Then again, that summed it up pretty well, actually.
  

Wright gave him a warm smile. “It’s good to see you again, Captain. I’m sorry for the shock I gave you, but even though I’m not all that notorious and feel pretty safe showing my face in public, I think using my real name would be pushing it. And yes, these are the cure and vaccine for plasma plague. We helped the folks over at Regula I with their development, and when we heard that your ship was held up here I volunteered to deliver these samples.”

  
That hadn’t really so much answered his question as raised more, Kirk reflected. He set off slowly towards the lift, and with Wright walking beside him, he tried for a more specific question. “It’s good to see you too, Doctor, and I’m really glad to see that you appear to be doing fine, but what are you doing on Regula I?”
  

“That’s a bit of a long story, Captain,” Wright replied, “and I’m not really –“. He stopped, and a moment later Kirk, too, heard footsteps approaching them. Putting on a nonchalant smile, he started, “So, Doctor Johnson, about –“, but dropped the act when he saw that it was only Bones coming to meet them.
  

When McCoy saw the pair of them, he looked absolutely baffled for a second, but overcame his confusion quickly and, after checking that no one was around, addressed them, “Good to see you, Wright – what’s the matter? Something not right with you guys?”   

 

Wright smiled and shook his head, “Everything’s fine, I’m glad to say. Good to see you too, McCoy – I brought some vaccine samples for you.” He handed them over.
 

McCoy breathed a sigh of relief. “Bless you, I was already looking into ways to sedate our friend the captain here if this quarantine business had lasted any longer.” Kirk glared at him, but McCoy continued, unperturbed, “Want to join me in sickbay while I synthesize four hundred of these? Better place for a chat for sure.”
 

“Gladly”, Wright replied, then turned to Kirk and added, “What I was trying to say before was that you might want to beam over to our shuttle for the rest of the story.”
 

Kirk stared at him for a second, not sure if he had understood the implication behind his words. But as Wright said goodbye and went off toward the turbolift with McCoy, his encouraging smile seemed to confirm Kirk's impression. He looked after the pair of them, chatting amiably like old colleagues, then shook his head and retraced his steps to the transporter room.
 

He felt oddly tense as he stepped on the pad and told the operator to beam him over to the docked shuttle. As he materialized, the shuttle’s pilot swung around to face him.
 

It was indeed Khan.
 

His mind stunned, Kirk blurted out the first thing that came to mind, “I thought I’d never see you again – damn, it’s good to see you alive and well.” With Khan coming forward to greet him, he caught himself and added, “You’re looking great, actually – I hope that means everything is okay with your people.” It was the truth; while Khan still had his characteristic stillness about him, the underlying tension, the impression that he was about to strike, was far less pronounced.
 

“You are looking good, too, Jim”, Khan replied, taking his seat again and inviting Kirk to take the other one. “That might be because this is the first time we are meeting each other when we are not in the middle of a calamity.”
 

Kirk had to smile as he sat down. “Good point. That is a first, so forgive me if I’m still struggling for words a little.” He paused a moment and added, “But thank you for coming to see me, Noonien. I am aware that this is quite a risk for you.” True, there was that amnesty, but he was fairly certain Section 31 would be unconcerned with such technicalities.
 

“I do not think it is that much of a risk”, Khan reassured him. “The scientists of Regula I were kind enough to lend us one of their shuttles, so who would go check on a Federation pilot?”
 

“Right – Regula I.” Kirk’s thoughts came back on track. “How come you’re working together with a Federation lab?”
 

“Oh, that happened rather accidentally,” Khan explained. “A couple of weeks after we had returned to Shangdu, we received an open distress call from that station.” Seeing Kirk’s puzzled look, he added, “Shangdu is what we named our planet.”
 

“But how could you receive anything within that nebula?” Kirk wondered.
 

“We found a workaround for that”, Khan stated off-handedly. “We built a subspace relay hidden within the outer reaches of the Mutara Nebula that just passively listens to all incoming traffic, then every few hours launches a data capsule. So while we always get our news and updates somewhat late, we are not completely cut off from the rest of the galaxy.”
 

He carried on with his explanation. “So at that time, tensions were running a bit high in our colony; we are, it must be said, not a docile people and not particularly suited for quiet colonial life. So when that distress call came, stating that they were being raided by Orion pirates and had barricaded themselves in the high-security labs for fear of being taken as slaves, we figured that, first, a good fight might cheer us up, second, it was practically around the corner anyway and we would be there and gone before any Starfleet response, and third, we could certainly empathize with fear of enslavement.” His eyes had taken on their hard, cold look during the last part, and Kirk knew what he was thinking of.
 

Banishing the memory with visible effort, Khan continued, his tone neutral again, “So a couple of us took the Shadow, hopped over to Regula I and made short work of the Orion slavers, which did in fact cheer us up mightily. The researchers were rather baffled by our appearance, but grateful as they were for their rescue, decided not to ask too many questions. Since Thabo – you know him – promised we would be around should any more attacks happen, they offered us use of their labs in turn should we require them. I must admit I suspected a trap behind this at first, but so far they have kept quiet about us, even though they must have figured out by now who we are.”
 

A shadow of a sad smile flitted across his lips. “If not before, then certainly after the run-in I had there with your Vulcan friend last week.”
 

“Spock?” Kirk asked, surprised.
 

Khan nodded. “Indeed. Thabo and Zaviera were doing some analysis at the station’s labs – those are admittedly far superior to anything we have on Shangdu so far – when news of the plasma plague reached the station, so of course they set their minds on helping with the cure. They sent me a message they were going to need some of my blood, so I stopped by – and naturally, Ambassador Spock had to choose that very day to deliver some viral samples from the Vulcan Science Academy. Our meeting was a bit awkward, as you can probably imagine.”
 

“I guess so,” Kirk answered – even though Spock had accepted his decisions regarding Khan, he was probably still guided by his own, darker memories of him.
 

Khan continued, “He was somewhat skeptical of my stated reason for my presence on the station – given that it is a biotech research laboratory, I cannot really fault him for it either, even though I lack both the inclination and the know-how to perform the genetic manipulations he probably suspected me of doing. I am not much of an expert in genetics, truth be told. So we agreed to have a heart to heart, or to be more precise, mind to mind.” Seeing Kirk’s astonished look, he added, “He told me he wanted to know more of my intentions. I told him I wanted to know just what his problem with me was. He suggested this as a method to achieve both.”
 

He shook his head slightly. “Turns out we had quite a bit of history, culminating in his death the last time we met. I understand his caution better now.”
 

“His death?” Kirk asked, baffled. “How is that even possible?” That was a part of his story Spock had evidently not shared with them.
 

“It is kind of a long story, and I am not sure that I can put it into words adequately, so you would have to ask Spock for that,” Khan replied. “The point is, he has seen me at my worst”, and in response to Kirk’s raised eyebrow, “Much worse.” 
 

Kirk thought of Khan on the bridge of the Vengeance and wasn’t sure if he wanted to imagine ‘much worse’. “Well, from what Spock told us, you had good reason to be,” he conceded. “Marooning you and your people and then never bothering to check on you wasn’t our finest hour.” This conversation was slowly beginning to take on that disorienting vibe that talking with both Spocks at the same time had, but he could feel something was deeply bothering Khan about this, so he soldiered on; he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were fast approaching the reason why Khan had taken the risk (and a risk it was, no matter how he downplayed it) of coming to meet him at a Starfleet base.
 

“That was not what I was talking about, Jim,” Khan stated; his deep voice had taken on an odd tone. “I saw through Spock’s eyes what happened in his time when you, not Marcus, got to the Botany Bay first.” He closed his eyes as if in pain. “I saw you awaken me and bring me on your ship, explain my situation to me, give me access to your library, treat me decently. And I saw myself, still burning with fury over my loss of power and the indignation of having been beaten by common humans, full of desire for vengeance, covetous to reclaim what I thought I was mine by birthright; and I knew what was going to happen.” He opened his eyes again, searching for Kirk’s, holding his gaze. “You trusted me, and as soon as you gave me the flimsiest of pretexts I repaid your kindness by trying to take over your ship and kill you, and I very nearly succeeded.”
 

“Yes, Spock told us about that, but ... that didn’t happen,” Kirk replied, trying to keep his voice gentle, not understanding what was so obviously disturbing him. “Not to the two of us, anyway. Which I am profoundly glad for, actually.”
 

“But it could have. Instead, our ship was found by that bastard Marcus.” Khan shuddered, his pale eyes clouded. “And it took Spock to make me realize that, in the end, I should be grateful for that happenstance.”
 

Grateful? For what – being forced to enable his mad schemes, coerced into obedience?” Kirk asked, incredulous.
 

“Grateful for being unable to take rash action, for being forced to take a long, hard look at myself and this new world I found myself in,” Khan replied, sounding sad. “For being pushed to the limits of my despair and realizing that, contrary to what I thought, it was not power that mattered most to me. I will not lie to you,” he sighed, “I still miss my rulership; ambition is the demon that burns inside all of my people, and hottest in me. But in this new world that has reached out into the vastness of space, if we failed again, there would be no hiding, no biding our time, anymore. This time, failure would mean the lives of my family and the end of our people. And no ambition, nothing would make me risk that. My people are my life.”
 

Kirk took a deep breath and then began to choose his words carefully, acutely aware of the amount of trust behind Khan’s avowal. Slowly, he told him, “If you feel you needed to be taught such a harsh lesson, that might at least give some sense to the whole sorry mess Marcus made. But I can’t agree with you there – what you saw in Spock’s mind wouldn’t have happened between us, not like that. The Kirk he knew, that open-hearted soul, he,” he swallowed as his throat had become dry, “he died the day I was born, together with my father. I am not him, and I might have been able to show you the reality of your situation without so much pain and so many people dying. Thanks to Marcus’s meddling, we don’t know and never will.”
 

He paused for a moment and gave Khan what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “But I do know that I trust you implicitly, Noonien. I don’t care what demons haunt you – well, I do, because it makes me sad to see you so torn, but they don’t change a thing. I didn’t realize it then, but leaving your family behind right after they woke up in a new century and heading into unknown danger with me must have been the one of the hardest decisions you ever faced; and yet you did it, for me, and for this I will always be your friend. Nothing you did, nothing you are going to do and certainly nothing you might have done is going to change that.”
 

Khan wavered for a moment, but then his face hesitantly lit up. He attempted to say something, but was interrupted by the beeping of Kirk’s communicator.
 

Casting Khan an apologetic look, Kirk took the call, which turned out to be McCoy. “We got everybody but you vaccinated, so haul your ass over here, Wright and a hypo are waiting for you in the transporter room. As soon as you’ve gotten your shot and seen him off, we can launch.”
 

“Will do, Bones, thank you”, Kirk answered and ended the call. Turning towards Khan, he tried to form an apology but Khan just smiled and told him, “Your ship awaits you, Captain.”
 

Kirk got up. “I’ll keep in touch, now that I know how to reach you,” he assured Khan. “And if you ever need our help, please call us.”
 

Khan nodded and rose to bid farewell to him. “The same goes for you, of course. I shall send your Lieutenant Uhura an encryption key for contacting us. Safe travels, my friend.”

 

When he called the transporter operator, Kirk felt an odd mixture of sadness and anticipation. But as soon as he felt the immaterial fingers of the confinement beam grasp him, excitement won over.
 

The final frontier was beckoning him, and he couldn’t wait to heed the call once more.

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