rynne: (k/s this simple feeling)
[personal profile] rynne
Chapter Four


5


They were pretty sure they'd figured out what was going on. Next they had to figure out what to do about it.

"They have to be creating red matter somewhere," Jim argued. "And probably somewhere on Ha-kel. I don't know all that much about my universe sense, but I doubt I feel everything that's going on. I never felt any of the tests the Vulcans in our universe did for their red matter. Proximity probably has something to do with it."

"Logical," Spock agreed. "And therefore I believe we should take this matter to the High Council, who will be better equipped to deal with it."

Jim grimaced, but he couldn't deny that. He did rather feel an inclination to go find the culprit himself, but Spock didn't have to voice all of the arguments against it; Jim knew them well himself. They were only two, and past their prime besides, if it happened to come to a fight. The High Council had a right to know what was going on in their backyard before Jim tried to deal with it. If reinforcements were necessary, the High Council was the one with the authority to call in Starfleet.

"All right," he said. "We go to the High Council."

They made their arrangements to see the Council as soon as they could, which turned out to be the next morning. It was sooner than Jim thought, but he found it difficult to fall asleep that night for nervous energy. Finally Spock raised an eyebrow at him, and almost sheepishly, Jim nodded, and let Spock reach across their bond to make him sleep.

The next morning he found himself practically buzzing with anticipation. He knew Spock could feel it and found it faintly irritating, but he could never calm himself for long. He wasn't sure exactly what he was anticipating, apart from possibly the end of these disconcerting universe shifts.

Jim's impatience led him to suggest they arrive there early for their appointment, and Spock indulged him, though he didn't have to say they'd just have to continue to wait once they arrived. But Jim found something to distract him momentarily in the antechamber reserved for people about to address the Council that day, because Sybok also waited there.

The three of them exchanged the ta'al, then Jim asked why Sybok wanted to see the Council.

"I seek the Council's support in recruiting counselors across the city," Sybok said easily. "The administrators at my hospital allow me my alternate practices, but they are not eager for more. I have hope that a decree from the Council will change their minds, and that of others in Shi'masu."

Spock, who had heard the story of Jim's discussion with Sybok from Jim, frowned almost imperceptibly. "You do realize the Council is no more likely to be open to the possibility than the administrators?"

"Of course," Sybok replied. "But there can be no success when there is no attempt."

"Logical," Spock said, and Sybok inclined his head.

"And you?" he asked. "Why do you need to see the Council?"

Jim and Spock exchanged glances and a brief flurry of images and impressions. They turned back to Sybok, both agreed there was no real reason not to tell him.

"For the past several weeks," Jim began, "I've been having a strange experience. I would be going about my day as usual, and then, in not even the blink of an eye, I would be in another universe. This would only last for a few hours before I would be back here again. Through clues I've gathered in these other universes, Spock and I have figured that someone is trying to go back in time and stop Vulcan's destruction."

Sybok's wide eyes were the only testament to his shock, but he had no time to ask any questions, because he was called into the Council room. Jim and Spock settled themselves to wait, though Jim did have to resist the urge to pace.

Sybok was not in the chamber long, possibly not even more than fifteen minutes, though Jim didn't ask Spock to be sure. He did give them a resigned shake of his head when he returned, but Jim didn't have time to commiserate. He and Spock were beckoned into the chamber next, and he had more things to worry about.

The Vulcan High Council was much reduced from what it had been before Vulcan's implosion, like the rest of its people. T'Pau remained, as did Sarek. He also knew T'Mou, Sovan, and T'Ral by face, though not personally. Another four he didn't know at all. A further two, including T'Korin's grandfather Kopek, were absent.

He came to a stop in the center of the room, Spock a supportive presence at his side. He took a deep breath, trying not to betray his nerves, and began.



"Councilors," he said, "you are aware of who my bondmate and I are, and where we come from. I have also told Ambassador Sarek of the history of how we came to be here, and this included my time in a pocket universe called the Nexus. My inclusion of this time was to explain how I, a human, could be alive in the time period I was before we arrived in this universe, but there was more that came as a legacy from the Nexus I did not think relevant at the time, and did not explain."

He licked his lips. "I do not know precisely how this happened," he said, "but my time in the Nexus changed me. Before the Nexus, I was psi-null. Leaving the Nexus, however, made me sensitive to temporal and universal changes. I knew immediately, for instance, when Spock and I arrived in this universe that we were indeed in a different universe. I've also had other experiences in our original time.

"I tell you this because it is necessary to understand the next part of my story, which began several weeks ago. I had a dream, which I initially did dismiss as just a dream, but which I now do not believe was one. In this dream, I woke up on a Ha-kel barren of Shi'masu -- barren, in fact, of everything but the native species and me. It was as if Shi'masu had never been.

"Since that time I have been thrust into three other universes, all of them different. What is perhaps most significant is there was nothing I could have been doing at the time to trigger such shifts into these other universes, and I returned here after only a few hours each time. It became clear to me, and to Spock, that someone else had to be experimenting with creating alternate universes, most likely by means of time travel. Through proximity and ability alone, I was catching some of the aftereffects of these experiments."

He looked around at the Council, each member of which had a face so blank and still it could have been etched in glass. "Spock and I believe," he went on, "that someone on this planet is experimenting with red matter. Someone who intends to go back in time to prevent Vulcan's destruction." He paused. "Someone who should be stopped, because as tragic as Vulcan's destruction was, and as much as I wish it hadn't happened, red matter is a dangerous substance, and even more so when you don't know what you're doing with it. And I don't think there's anyone, in this universe or even in ours, who truly understands it. Spock and I think it far more likely that Ha-kel will be consumed by the red matter than that whoever is doing this will manage to prevent Vulcan's destruction."

His basic, quickly-prepared speech done, he stopped and waited. The councilors didn't speak amongst themselves, but Jim knew each of them was considering what he said.

"What is it you ask from us, Dr. Kirk, Ambassador Spock?" Sarek asked eventually.

"Resources," Jim replied. "The means to find this person and stop him. Her. Them."

"What if stopping this person is not the best solution?" Sovan asked. "Surely a universe in which Vulcan still exists is to be preferred to one where it does not."

Jim tried to keep his voice reasonable as he said, "Of course. But the thing is, we just don't think it's very likely this person will manage what he's trying to do. For one thing, how can he go back to precisely the place in time he needs? Spock and I weren't exactly able to control where we went."

"Did you try?" one of the unknown councilors asked.

"No," Jim admitted, "but I honestly do not see how we could have done so. We were consumed by the singularity. It left us where it left us, and we had no say in it."

"How can we know your experience is true?" T'Mou asked. Jim couldn't tell if she was trying to insult them or not.

"I vouch for the truth of his experiences," Spock said, stepping forward. "I have not shared them, but I have felt flickers in his consciousness that would be explained by such an event."

"Or perhaps by one of the mental diseases elderly humans are frequently prone to," T'Mou suggested. Jim still didn't know if she meant to insult him, but he was insulted.

He also couldn't forget his first experience with aging, accelerated and unnatural though it had been. He couldn't forget the feeling of his own mind becoming a stranger to him. He was beyond grateful his real aging had not proceeded as the fake one had, but T'Mou's words touched a deep-seated fear.

But he also remembered the way he'd acted then. Accusing Spock of betraying him. As proof that he still did have command of all his mental faculties, he would remain calm and polite and...logical.

"Elder," he said, keeping his voice even, "I have already explained how it is possible I feel these effects. They are not simply delusions. Furthermore, I do have regular medical check-ups, and no doctors thus far have said there is anything wrong with my brain."

"Dr. Kirk," Sarek said, before T'Mou could say anything else, "you have not explained why you are so convinced it is red matter you suspect."

"Honestly, part of it is just the mental feel of it," Jim explained, somewhat reluctantly. Vulcans certainly believed in mental abilities, of course, but they were also empiricists, and had likely never come up against this particular ability before. Neither had Jim, really, apart from Guinan and a few other survivors from the Lakul. "But part of it is that this explanation makes the most sense. I am convinced the universes I've been to came into being from time travel -- time travel does have a distinctive feeling to it. But how many ways are there to reliably time travel? I know of three. One requires a starship. One is located only on a specific planet. The third is red matter. Furthermore, I can't be sure, but I think the shifts I've experienced so far came about because of experiments. It would be logical for the culprit to be experimenting with red matter somehow before trying to seriously use it."

"I am not convinced Dr. Kirk is not imagining these universe shifts," T'Mou said. "We are all aware that humans have...vivid imaginations." Her tone did not imply it was a compliment.

"I give you my word," he replied, somewhat peevishly. "It's not my imagination. While I do have one, it's never been anything like this before."

"Humans are also far more capable of lying than Vulcans," another of the councilors Jim didn't know suggested. Jim found it a lot harder to keep his temper, but he knew losing it would do him no good.

"Why would I lie?" he demanded. "Honestly, can you come up with one good logical reason for me to do so?"

"As well," Spock added, "I am Vulcan, and I find lying as illogical as do you all. I assure you, Jim has had these experiences, and there is danger in letting them continue."

T'Pau chose that time to speak. "We have heard of thy deception to he who is now Captain Kirk," she said, in her dry yet strong voice. "Dost thou deny it?"

"I do not," Spock said, raising his head to meet her eyes, "but deception under those circumstances was logical. Only comrades who trusted each other, trust forged on their own, would be able to do such a deed as defeat Nero. But there is no logic in lying about the issue we bring before you. All we ask is your help in stopping the person who experiments so perilously with red matter."

"But that is not all Dr. Kirk wants," T'Pau observed, her eyes traveling steadily to land on Jim and stay there. "Thou hast asked me before to encourage more open expressions of emotion among Vulcans."

"Yes, because I think it will be healthier for them," Jim said. "But this has nothing to do with that."

"Does it not?" T'Pau asked. "Thou stands here poised to tell us of our peril. That hast been thy intention before. Is it unreasonable to believe thou wouldst try another means to thy end? As well, we know thou art acquainted with Sybok, son of Sarek, who had been exiled from the homeworld, though we were willing to welcome him here. We are also aware thou hast encouraged him in his request to have Vulcans display themselves to strangers."

The way she said it made it sound so vulgar, Jim thought. To her, it probably was.

"Bottling up all of your emotions isn't healthy," he began, but T'Mou interrupted him.

"For humans," she said. "Perhaps. But we are not human, Dr. Kirk. We do not need someone to push alien mores onto us and tell us how we must grieve."

"I'm not telling you how you must, only that you must," Jim argued. "As a race, you are in denial, and this isn't healthy even for Vulcans! As Surak says, pretending there is not a le-matya in your house will not make it go away if there is one."

"And if there is not?" T'Pau asked. "If thou sees the le-matya because thou desires that the le-matya be there?"

"I don't desire it." Keeping his temper was so hard, but to be blatantly accused on delusions and lying.... Spock put a hand on his shoulder, offering his steady strength, and Jim mentally leaned on him as he took in a few deep breaths. "I want your people to be fine." He made sure to look all of them in the eye. "I just don't believe that's possible right now. Your homeworld is gone, your people devastated. Most of the familial bonds you would use to channel the energy of your emotions have been broken. The energy that's building up has to go somewhere."

"Sorrow and grief are not unknown to Vulcans," T'Pau proclaimed. "We do know how to deal with these."

"But not on this scale! Not when everyone feels grief, when everyone has lost so much! You can't make proper decisions when you're emotionally compromised, and I don't know how any of you couldn't be."

"Because thou art human," T'Pau replied flatly. "Even bonded to a Vulcan as thou art, thou dost not understand what it means to be Vulcan."

"But I do," Spock interjected firmly. "Even if you do not accept Jim’s understanding, which I would count a mistake, can my experience be discarded as easily? I was emotionally compromised when our planet was destroyed, and I feel neither difficulty nor shame in admitting it. It is simply a fact. And it is possible to recover, with effort. Commander Spock of Starfleet, my younger counterpart, is progressing through his own recovery. He has rejected the illogical reluctance to ask for help that one needs."

"You cannot extrapolate your personal experiences to an entire people," T’Mou replied. "You may have been compromised due to your own involvement in the event. You and your counterpart are also half-human. Pure Vulcans would have less difficulty containing their emotionality. Your and your counterpart’s examples would not necessarily serve them so well."

“We control our emotions so they do not control us," one of the unknown councilors said, before Jim could do more than take in breath to yell at T’Mou. He kept quiet, but sent reassurance to Spock, soothing the slight spikes of guilt and tired frustration. "Judging by our history, I cannot think anything good will come of letting our emotions have free rein once again."

"The Reformation happened prior to our meeting other intelligent life," Spock reminded them. "Our allies will surely be willing to help us learn alternate coping techniques."

"The only reason there is any suggestion we need such techniques is because of our contact with other intelligent life," T'Mou said. "Had we never been a part of the Federation, perhaps Nero would not have targeted us."

"That is irrelevant," Spock said, almost sharply. "First, Nero was Romulan, and the Romulans are an offshoot of Vulcans who did not desire to be a part of Surak's reform. We have none but ourselves to blame for the Romulans, if indeed there is blame to be had. Furthermore, we have described to you the series of events that led to our appearance in this universe. The Vulcan of that universe earned Nero's enmity with its xenophobia and distrust. Do not let its mistake be your own."

"Do you then accuse us of bringing this fate upon ourselves?" T'Mou nearly spat.

"I accuse nothing," Spock replied stoically. "Part of sentience, however, is the ability to recognize both past and future as well as present, and to understand causality. There is no wrong in learning from another's example. Indeed, it is logical."

"The lesson, however, is not necessarily so clear," said T'Ral, who had been silent and contemplative up until then. She looked at Jim. "And I confess myself disturbed, Dr. Kirk, by the way you speak of what my people must do. It seems to me arrogant to dictate for an entire race what its needs are, particularly when you are not of that race yourself. I do not know if you comprehend the further suffering your path would cause were we to follow it."

"What I know," Jim replied, "is your people are suffering now. Medicine may sometimes be a bitter pill, but that makes it no less necessary for healing to begin.

"Furthermore," he went on, "this is not actually the issue I came to the High Council for. I did not come to argue about the benefits of emotion, but to highlight an imminent danger. Will the Council help me to stop the person experimenting with red matter -- which, I will remind you, could easily consume the planet and most of what remains of the Vulcan people if this person were to be somehow careless?"

There was a moment of silence, then T'Pau said, "Leave us a moment. Await in the antechamber, if thou would, and we will discuss this and return to thee a decision."
Jim and Spock both nodded their heads and went back to the antechamber, where Jim immediately sank into the nearest chair and put his head in his hands. He had not been anticipating a pleasant morning, but neither had he expected to be attacked like that.

"They are afraid, I think," Spock said gently, standing close beside him. "Not even Vulcans are immune to running from what they fear, or even that they fear."

Jim laughed semi-hysterically, the emotions he hadn't let himself express in the Council chamber flooding him now. "I am well aware of a Vulcan's ability to bullshit," he said. "Spock...you do see how deeply in denial they are, right? It's not just me."

When Spock spoke, it was slowly and thoughtfully. "Jim, I do not think this issue is so clear. You believe your path is right because of your perspective. They have a different perspective, and equally valid reasons to think their own path correct."

"Do you think I'm wrong, then?" Jim asked -- whispered, almost. If he lost Spock's support--

He was partially reassured when Spock moved behind him and took hold of his shoulders, kneading them through his clothes to dissipate some of the tension that had gathered there. As Jim relaxed back into Spock's hold, Spock continued, "I do believe, however, that you have a point. And I do believe that some element of the Council's arguments has been wishful thinking. Cthia is a difficult path because it is difficult to see the universe clearly, especially in circumstances such as these. I believe the Council will find their way to cthia in the end, even if not now."

The door to the Council chamber opened, and Sarek stood there. He beckoned them back in with the raise of an eyebrow, but the non-expression on his face was not encouraging. Jim was not surprised when, once they stood again in the center of the room, T'Pau intoned, "This Council can make no determination on the validity of thy experiences, Dr. Kirk. In the absence of clearer evidence, our decision is that no further action is needed at this time."

Jim wasn't surprised, but he was disappointed. And angry. He barely gave the polite jerk of his head when he left, and strode swiftly through the building, ignoring Spock's small attempts to make him slow down. Only when they arrived back in the lobby, about to go out into the heat once more, did he stop and take a deep breath.

He was angry, and he was disappointed, but he was no less determined. He whirled around to face Spock and said, "Once your people paid an unimaginable price for their stubbornness, even if it was the stubbornness of one Vulcan that led to the decimation of another. It's still a tragedy. No matter what the Council thinks, I'm not going to let anything like that happen again."

Spock regarded him serenely, a hint of a smile on his lips. "I would expect nothing less," he said.

--

Spock said there was something he wished to ask Sarek, so Jim waited in the lobby while Spock returned to the Council chamber. He closed his eyes and leaned against the nearest wall, still fighting for calm. Even if most of the Council was afraid, and even if they were indulging in wishful thinking, it was disturbing to think how antagonistic they had been. It was very difficult to help a people who weren't willing to accept they even needed help.

Only a few minutes later, Spock joined him again, and they walked outside to be hit by a huge blast of heat. It didn't particularly improve Jim's mood.

"What was that about?" he asked Spock as they headed for home.

Before Spock could answer, though, they turned at the sound of someone speaking their names. "Dr. Kirk, Spock," Sybok said from only a few feet away. Jim hadn't even noticed him.

"Sybok," Spock said. "Were you waiting for us?"

"I was," Sybok confirmed. "I wished to inquire as to the result of your appointment with the Council."

Jim grimaced. "No better than yours," he said. "And maybe worse, depending on how much they attacked you for your suggestions. At least they couldn't have picked at your species."

"That is not entirely true," Sybok said, with the shadow of a grimace himself. "They were certainly able to tell me I do not act as a Vulcan should. They did not seem to appreciate my response regarding free will and individuality and the benefits of both."

At least Sybok seemed able to hold his own among the Council -- but Jim had firsthand knowledge of both how strong-willed and how charismatic Sybok could be. He turned to Spock again, opening his mouth to once again ask about Sarek, when

He was on the Enterprise.

And he was immediately noticed.

"You there!" a sharp voice said from behind him, and he turned around to see a command lieutenant, by her colors and braids, approaching him. "What are you doing here? How did you get on board?"

Of all things, Jim thought, and of all ironies, this happens right after that Council meeting? Out loud, he said, "Not voluntarily, Lieutenant. And I won't be here long in any case."

Her eyes hardened. "We'll see about that," she said, and, keeping her eyes on him, headed for the nearest comm panel. He made no move while she called Security. Nothing that happened here would matter.

Two security officers, their phasers already out, arrived a few minutes later. One kept his phaser on Jim while the other went to the comm panel and called, "Security to captain. We've apprehended an intruder on Deck 17, sir."

The voice that replied was Spock's -- the younger Spock's, Jim noted, not yet as deep as his own Spock's had been when they first met. "On my way. Take the intruder to the brig."

Jim rolled his eyes when one of the officers gestured him forward with his phaser, but he didn't object. He thought he'd actually welcome some time alone in the brig. The last few shifts had been emotionally strenuous -- a shift where he both recognized his being in another universe, and where he didn't go looking for any revelations, would be nice.

The officers put him in the brig, gave him a quick pat-down to ensure he wasn't hiding any weapons, activated the forcefield, and positioned themselves to either side of the doorway in parade rest. But he didn't have long to wait until Spock got there -- dressed in gold.

He looked so strange in gold. Not bad -- not at all bad. But still, it was very strange to see him in Starfleet uniform and not have it be his science blues.

"You may go," he told the security officers, his hands tucked at the small of his back. "I am quite capable of subduing him if necessary."

The officers both saluted and headed off. Jim assumed they would station themselves nearby, but still out of earshot.

Spock looked at him through the forcefield. He had no recognition in his eyes -- though of course, he wouldn't. Jim knew he was in a shift, so his own counterpart wouldn't be here.

"This ship is currently moving at warp four, and we have not been docked at any starbases or encountered any other vessels for three point two days," he observed finally. "Who are you, and how did you come to be on board?"

"What's the captain doing interrogating a random prisoner?" Jim asked in response. "Shouldn't your head of security be doing this?"

Spock's eyes hardened minutely. "He was lost in our last engagement with the enemy," he replied, his voice clipped. "And as a Vulcan, I have advantages in the questioning of prisoners. Particularly if they do not want to answer my questions."

Jim raised an eyebrow at him, knowing exactly what he was doing. "So you'd perform a mind-meld on your random helpless prisoner, who hasn't even done anything apart from inexplicably show up on your ship? And what do you mean, the enemy? What enemy?"

"I will take what actions I deem necessary for the defense of the Enterprise," Spock replied. He gave Jim a narrow-eyed look, and didn't answer his other question.

Jim shrugged. No reason not to tell him. "I'm from another universe," he said, and watched with amusement as Spock's eyebrow shot up. "I got here because someone in my universe is experimenting with red matter and I'm getting caught up in it. The experiment should end in a few hours, and then I'll be gone."

Spock, unlike a human, didn't start making protestations of disbelief. There was no logical point, Jim knew. Instead, Spock asked, "And your name?"

Jim watched him closely now, wanting to know if the name meant anything to him. "James Kirk," he said.

Something dark entered Spock's eyes -- he definitely recognized the name. "James Kirk is dead," he said, his voice even shorter than it had been for his security chief.

"From another universe," he reminded Spock, though his stomach twisted. "How did my counterpart die?"

Spock looked at him, and perhaps finally believed him, because he explained.

The story was familiar up until Spock had marooned the younger Kirk on Delta Vega for mutiny. Nero had still appeared, destroyed the armada sent to Vulcan, took Captain Pike prisoner, and destroyed Vulcan. Kirk had insisted the Enterprise follow after Nero rather than regroup with the rest of the fleet, and Spock sent him to Delta Vega. That part was familiar.

But Kirk had died there. Spock had only found out later when he retrieved the escape pod, empty. Kirk had left the pod, and died.

Jim couldn't help comparing the rest of the story to events as he knew them. Because the younger Kirk and Scotty had not transported back on board the Enterprise and proved Spock's emotional compromise, he had remained in command. They regrouped with the fleet in the Laurentian system.

Nero destroyed Earth, and Pike with it.

Nero was, in fact, still out there, and still armed with the red matter. He had not destroyed any more planets after Earth and Vulcan, though it was pretty obvious he was still willing to. The Federation headquarters moved to Andoria, and Starfleet came together the best it could, but things hadn't looked good for the Federation, particularly when the Romulans of this universe came in on Nero's side.

Soon afterwards came the biggest surprise of this war -- and it was a war. The Klingons, angry with Nero for the loss of their own fleet of warbirds destroyed when he escaped Rura Penthe, chose to ally with the Federation in their efforts to stop him.

But it was still war, and one where the Federation was barely holding its own. They managed to prevent Nero from destroying any more planets, but had not been able to defeat the Narada, nor remove from him what Spock called the "black hole device," because they still didn't know it was red matter.

Jim didn't know how things had come to such a pass, but he had a guess. "He must have killed Spock," he concluded, thinking out loud. He clarified when this Spock raised an eyebrow at him. "My Spock, I mean. Listen, let me tell you how it went in my universe."

He gave this Spock the whole story, and as he expected, Spock came to the same conclusion. "That is why he hates me," he said, his voice darkened. "I agree with your conclusion. He must have killed my counterpart rather than leave him on Delta Vega, which left your counterpart without a rescuer. I then continued in my plans, and let Nero continue in his."

"You made the best decision you could at the time," Jim said. "That's all any captain can do."

"Yet my decision led to the destruction of another planet and the many deaths that have resulted from this war."

Jim shook his head. "You did what you could," he said. "Even starship captains are fallible. And you have managed to keep your crew and ship intact so far, which from what you've told me sounds like no mean feat."

"I have had to learn swiftly," Spock agreed. "But as you say, I make the best decisions I may with what resources and information I have available."

He turned away slightly, but Jim thought he understood, in the way no one else but another starship captain, or other such front-line commander, would. They made the best decisions they could, but sometimes those weren't good enough, and people died. Sometimes a lot of people.

The comm panel on the nearest wall crackled to life. "Captain to the bridge! Romulan warbirds approaching."

Spock was poised to leave when Jim said quickly, "Let me out. I might be able to help." When Spock hesitated, he added, "You don't have time for an argument, I know. But whether or not I can help, I promise you I won't do any harm."

Spock nodded, then, and turned the forcefield off. "I do not know why I trust you, even this much," he said as they began walking swiftly to the nearest turbolift, "but I do."

Jim knew why, but he didn't enlighten him. It would be cruel to explain when this Spock had already lost his Jim, and before they could even begin to learn what they might be to one another.

There were a few people who looked askance at Jim when he arrived on the bridge with Spock, who moved immediately to the command chair. Most bridge officers, though, were occupied with what was going on. "Report," Spock said as Sulu left the center chair and returned to the helm.

"Three warbirds, sir," Sulu said. "All cloaked. Shields are at sixty-eight percent."

Three Romulan warbirds against one Constitution-class starship were not good odds, even if that starship was the Enterprise.

"Have you returned fire?" Spock asked calmly.

"Yes, sir. We got a few hits in, but not many, and those were just lucky shots."

"Do we have a possible escape route?"

"Not likely, sir. The Romulans follow us when we try."

Spock's face was still, but Jim could guess what he was thinking. The odds were poor, and more so with the Romulans cloaked, with none of the Enterprise's sensors able to find them. Jim had once had difficulty enough with one cloaked Romulan scout ship, and that was not three warbirds.

But that did give him an idea, remembering a later encounter with the Romulans when the Enterprise was outnumbered.

He moved forward until he stood just behind the captain's chair. "Spock," he said very quietly, "I have an idea. Will you listen?"

Spock turned his head to face him. "I will accept any viable ideas you may have," he said, just as quietly.

"Are there any codes you have you know the Romulans have broken?" At Spock's nod, he continued, "Try to get a message to Starfleet Command, using that code. You want the Romulans to understand. Tell them escape is impossible, and your shields are failing. The only recourse left is self-destruct using the corbomite device, which will result in the destruction of the Enterprise and any other matter within a two thousand kilometer radius."

"Dr. Kirk, we have no such device."

Jim grinned. "No, we never did either. But that didn't matter when we could make others believe we did."

"A bluff," Spock said, watching Jim carefully, as if for signs he was mentally unstable. From him, Jim found it amusing rather than insulting. His own Spock had looked at him like that several times in the beginning.

His amusement died when he remembered the Jim of this universe would not benefit from more of those looks. He was more subdued when he agreed, "A bluff, Mr. Spock. Excuse me -- Captain Spock."

Spock inclined his head. "There is no logical reason not to attempt such a gambit. Lieutenant Uhura, open a channel to the nearest Starfleet vessel, code four."

Spock proceeded to pull the gambit off beautifully, and soon the warbirds had warped out of range, the Enterprise following along the opposite heading.

Vulcans always were good at bluffing.

The crisis averted, Spock returned the bridge to Sulu, then escorted Jim off the bridge once more. Spock did not return him to the brig, but Jim didn't know how long he had left until he snapped back to his own universe. Spock offered to keep him company until that happened, and though Jim wasn't sure he should, he accepted.

He was in the midst of teaching Spock not to underestimate his illogical and chaotic chess strategy when he blinked and once more was hit by the Ha-kel heat. He looked at Spock and Sybok, who were both staring at him.

He took a deep breath in, then let it out. The universes seemed to be getting worse, not better. And even if that weren't true, he was getting very tired of being yanked in and out of his life.

Jim was done with this.

"Dr. Kirk, would that be one of the universe shifts you spoke of?" Sybok asked.

"You felt it?"

Sybok nodded, and so did Spock. Jim wasn't surprised about Spock, who had felt the last one, but it was nice to have confirmation from an outside source -- one who didn't live in his head -- that the shifts were real.

Sybok was an empath, though, and one whose abilities did not rely on touch. Perhaps it was not so surprising. "What did you feel?" he asked.

"It was very quick," Sybok replied. "Not more than the space of two blinks. I caught many emotions such as resignation, horror, amusement, and sadness. I also caught hints of my brother, separate from the hints of Spock I normally get from you, bonded as you are to him." He inclined his head to Spock.

"Where did you go?" Spock asked.

"A galaxy at war," was all Jim replied. Another universe where his Spock was dead. He didn't want to dwell on it.

He couldn't help but wonder once again, though, how real those universes were. Had he just disappeared in the middle of a chess game, one that would never now be completed?

He shook his head to dispel the thoughts and focused on his companions again. It seemed to have happened a long time ago now, but before he'd shifted, he'd been about to ask Spock about his question of Sarek. Now he was able to complete his question.

"I wished to know if Sarek had told any but the High Council of the details of red matter," Spock replied. "You were the one who explained our story to him, Jim, when we first arrived in this universe. You told him of how red matter was made?"

"Just that it was made from decalithium," he replied, "and only because decalithium was important to the rest of the story." He understood what Spock's question meant. "Spock, you can't think the person doing this is a member of the High Council?"

"Sarek informed me he told none but the Council," Spock said softly. "It is possible they could have told others, but he does not think they would have, and I agree. The Council is accustomed to keeping dangerous secrets, and the precise details of how we came to be in this universe have been counted among those secrets."

Sybok broke into their conversation, asking with some urgency, "Would you tell me now in greater detail what these shifts are, and what you know of what causes them? You were speaking of red matter."

Jim let Spock explain as he processed what Spock had found out. A Council member was trying to recreate red matter. Did the rest of the Council know? Was that why they had been so antagonistic?

But that wasn't important right now. What was important was that he'd experienced a shift just minutes after his appointment with the Council, an appointment from which only two members had been missing. Unless there was a lab in the basement of the Council building, or somewhere incredibly close by, it was highly unlikely the culprit was someone who had been there.

Which left one of the two missing members. But which one?

Then Sybok said, "I think I know who this person is." He met Jim's eyes. "And perhaps I would not have if I had not shared T'Korin's pain."

T'Korin. "Kopek?" Jim asked.

Sybok nodded. "T'Korin, prior to her illness, has for six months observed her grandfather's obsession with returning Vulcan to its proper place in time. She has seen him leave and arrive home at odd hours. She has noticed him spending more and more time in one of the new laboratories out in the desert, far from the city and interference from its people. At home, she has heard him speak aloud about red matter, though no one else was in the room. When at the hospital, when he has visited her, he spoke of 'fixing' things. But he visited her only rarely, because, as he told her, he had much to do in his lab.

"T'Korin interpreted this as rejection of her, believing there was some wrong in her that her grandfather could not let go of his obsession with bringing back the rest of his family. Her logic was overwhelmed with grief and loneliness, and her pain was very deep. She now understands that her grandfather himself grieves."

Jim ignored the second part, because as much as he liked T'Korin, this discussion wasn't about her. "Why didn't you say something earlier?" he asked.

Sybok shrugged. "I did not see anything in it beyond an obsession dangerous perhaps only to Kopek himself. Before your information, I did not know someone was actually attempting to recreate red matter. But if someone is, and that someone must be a member of the High Council, the most logical culprit would be Kopek."

"Okay," Jim said, accepting that. "Do you know where this lab is?"

Several had been built out in the desert in the early months of the colony's existence. Vulcans were too much the scientists to leave off their research just because they had to rebuild everything from the ground up, literally. They'd prioritized the labs even above individual housing.

"I know which one it is, yes," Sybok said. "But what are you going to do with that information? Surely you do not intend to confront Kopek yourself."

Jim looked at Spock, then back at Sybok. "The Council dismissed our concerns," he said. "And I can't just let it go at that. Even if red matter weren't as dangerous as it is, you'd understand if you'd been shifting universes like I have."

A Spock who lost his Jim after years of marriage. A Spock who lost his Jim without even knowing what he could have had. A Jim who lost his Spock. A universe completely without Spock.

Jim knew his own priorities, of which Spock headed the list, were coloring his perceptions of those other universes. Certainly in at least two of them -- though maybe only one, depending on what that earthquake had meant -- Vulcan had seemed to be fine, which was Kopek's goal.

It probably made him selfish to know he would choose to live in a universe with Spock but without Vulcan over the other way around, but he had come to terms with his selfishness long ago. For Jim, when it came to Spock, the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many.

But it helped that he honestly believed this couldn't end well.

"I will confront him," Jim said. He didn't even have to look at Spock to know Spock would stand at his side when he did. Jim knew Spock would not be anywhere else. "And I think we must do it now."

"Now?" Sybok asked.

Jim nodded. "I just experienced a shift, which means he is likely still at his lab. Whether or not any of the rest of the Council knows of his experiments, so soon after our appointment with them is the best time to ensure they don't tell him anything. So if you'll tell us where his lab is, we'll go now."

It was finally time to end this.


Chapter Six
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