mijan: (To Boldly Go...)
[personal profile] mijan
Title: “No Man’s Land
Authors: Gone_ashore and Mijan
Rating: R
Pairing: Kirk/McCoy
Word Count: 8,200 for part 3.
Warnings: Triggery. References to alien experimentation, graphic descriptions, mpreg.
Summary: Because even in the 23rd century, men don’t have babies. Gender lines have been blurred in so many ways, but not in this.

Notes: This is cross-posted between my journal and Gone_Ashore’s journal. Feel free to read either here, or on Gone_Ashore’s journal.

To Part 1
To Part 2


*********


Part Three

Day Thirty-Five



“Captain’s Log, stardate 2259.87. Our survey of the pulsar cluster in the Beta Six sector is proceeding on schedule. The science department has assured me that EM and ionizing radiation levels are within acceptable limits. Astronomy is studying the emission patterns in order to create an analytical model that will accommodate the complex gravitational fluctuations we’ve been observing. With that, they believe that they'll be able to produce the first gravitationally accurate map of the pulsar cluster on Federation star charts.”

Jim swivels his chair slightly to the right, sneaking a glance at his Science Officer, who looks absorbed in his sensor readings. Jim's not fooled. Spock, undoubtedly, is listening to every word, ready with a prompt correction should the captain demonstrate an imperfect grasp of the science. Taking a deep breath, he continues, "The mapping of the Beta Six pulsar cluster has been difficult due to the unusual density of these stars within a very small region of space. While the gravitational forces would make exploration into the cluster impractical, mapping the phenomenon will provide insights into the structure of space within the sector, and data for further scientific research. We'll remain in this area for at least another seven days. End recording."

Spock has a vaguely surprised look on his face, as if he didn't really expect Jim to get it right. It's amusing, if somewhat insulting. "Anything to add, Mr. Spock?"

"Not at all, Captain. Your summary was accurate. You seem to have a grasp of the major issues."

It's a rare compliment, and Jim relaxes, just a bit. "I've always been interested in astronomy," he admits. "Used to watch the stars a lot, as a kid. Especially when my mom was up there."

"Your mother is still serving as Science Officer aboard the Nelson, I believe?" Jim nods. "Then I assume she instructed you?"

"No, no." That draws a wry grin. Not that Jim's mother wouldn't have been happy to do it, but by the time Jim was old enough to show any interest in science, he was also old enough to reject all of her hopeful offers to teach him. "I was more of an independent learner, I guess."

Independent learner is a good euphemism. Jim has always been a voracious reader, curious and eager to learn, but impatient with the pace of his classmates. After his first few years in school, putting up with the stifling structure became harder and harder. Nothing his uncle tried--from late-night, horribly expensive, subspace guilt-trips from his mom, to doubled chores and physical threats--could make him sit still in class or do his homework, unless he was really interested in the subject.

It used to drive Bones up a wall, that first semester at the Academy. Jim's attitude toward attending classes was much too casual, in the opinion of his instructors, who thought it showed arrogance and a lack of discipline. Bones didn't care about that, but he did object to the demerits that Jim racked up, which left him stuck on campus on more than one weekend, buried under extra assignments. "Just go to the classes. It won't kill you to be a little bored," he told him once in exasperation. "Toe the goddamn line for once, and you'll be free on Saturday nights like everybody else."

"I'm not like everybody else."

"Get that smug look off your face. You're more stubborn than any ten cadets put together. No sense of self-preservation at all."

Bones' opinion of him probably hasn't changed much, Jim thinks. He's a captain now, but toeing the line still doesn't come easy to him. Rules have always seemed more like guidelines, open to debate and flexible interpretation. If something works, who cares if it's by the book? Jim hasn't really followed the rules since he was a kid, and it's worked for him so far.

In fact, sometimes it works brilliantly. After a semester of screwing up, Jim took his tactics classes by storm, showing that there was more to him than his tarnished personal history and a last name that overshadowed him. He'd ripped apart a thesis presentation from a graduating senior, comparing the other cadet's analysis of fleet maneuvers to the failed tactics of military forces from ancient Europe to post-industrial Andorians. Then, he'd iced that cake by putting what he'd learned to use, implementing that senior's proposed model during a training maneuver. It had been successful, and when challenged by his instructors to explain why he'd used a tactical approach that he'd debunked himself, his response was simple: because they hadn't expected it.

Jim loves the unexpected: to be unpredictable, and to do it with spectacular results. Hell, in the end, he even received a commendation for his unorthodox solution to the Kobayashi Maru.

And now he has objective proof that he's not like everybody else. Growing proof, already 7.5 mm long, according to Bones.

Jim's been trying to keep his mind off it, but it's hard. Bones keeps insisting that he come down to Sickbay for "just one more" test or scan, which always seems to lead to another consult with M'Benga and, ultimately, no progress. Bones is still looking for a safe way to operate, and in the meantime, Jim's had to fall back on his usual coping strategies. He doesn't avoid Sickbay, but he doesn't rush down there every time he's called, either. He sticks to his routine, and he concentrates on his work.

He's making a lazy circuit around the Bridge a short while later, feet treading the comfortable pattern, when Uhura is suddenly in front of him. "Lieutenant?"

"Captain," she greets him in her usual clipped manner, with a strong hint of enthusiasm behind it. "I wanted to show you what we've been picking up on the main communications array."

Trying not to appear startled by her abrupt appearance or rushed demeanor, he nods, and is rewarded with a PADD being thrust into his hands.

Uhura leans over and taps the screen. A display enlarges, showing an oscillating graph of... something. Jim is having a hard time focusing on the screen beyond his sudden awareness of Uhura's perfume. It seems stronger than usual. "We've been working with Astronomy, using the communications array to track the subspace and radio wave frequencies from the pulsar cluster. The team in the Astronomy lab believes it will help map the cluster more accurately."

"That's... interesting." The perfume is causing a rise of nausea. He swallows tightly, and tries to lean back a tiny bit, hoping for fresher air. "And what did you find?"

"Well, scientists used to refer to nebulae and star clusters as if they were 'singing' because of some of the unique frequency combinations, but if you look here," she says, leaning in again, and pointing to some part of the graph that Jim can't quite get his eyes to focus on, "you can see where the subspace and radio frequency patterns from this pulsar cluster actually achieve classic Pythagorean harmonics! Sure, stellar cartography will be happy as long as they can turn it into a map, but the rest of us have never seen something this... well, for those of us with a sense of aesthetics... it's actually quite beautiful." She reins herself in and quips a prim, "Captain." Then she smiles. "I thought you might like to take a look."

Jim's throat is clamping painfully, but he can't gag in front of her. What the hell is the matter with him? "Good work, Uhura. Let me have a look at this," he says, turning back toward his chair, hoping she'll reclaim her own seat which is at least three meters away from him. The command chair has access to Bridge environmental controls; maybe he can increase the ventilation rate without anyone noticing.

He sinks into the chair. A gnawing fatigue is seeping through his limbs. It's only halfway through alpha, and already he's beat. He balances the PADD on his lap and tries to concentrate on radio harmonics and oscillating subspace frequencies.

Thankfully, after a minute the nausea fades, and he can breathe easier. He's aware of Uhura's watchful gaze on him. She's giving him a suspicious look, and shit, that was definitely a meaningful flick of her eyes in Spock's direction.

Spock's at his shoulder seconds later, speaking quietly. "Captain, do you feel ill?"

"No!" he blurts automatically. "I'm fine."

There it goes...the eyebrow. Can all Vulcans do that, or is it just Spock? "You look pale. You seem fatigued, and you have been staring at the same screen for over two minutes."

Damn him and his powers of observation. Jim flips the PADD over--Bones obviously isn't the only one who likes to read over his shoulder--and swivels his chair in Spock's direction. "What are you implying? That I'm not doing my job?"

"Merely that you do not seem to be assimilating information at your normally rapid rate," Spock says calmly, oblivious to Jim's irritation.

He's got to put on a better show than this, if Uhura's perfume is making him retch and Spock can tell his concentration's shot. Jim sits up a little straighter. "Well, maybe I'm a little tired. It's nothing to worry about."

The eyebrow returns to a more neutral position, but Jim can detect the faintest downturn at the corners of Spock's mouth.

"Really, Spock, we've been mapping a star cluster. It gets a bit dull, and the human mind tends to wander." He flashes a self-effacing grin. "I'm starting to think they sent us on this mission just to keep me out of trouble for a while." Or because they think it's all I can handle after the Antos mess.

"That is hardly the case, Captain," Spock replies without hesitation. "We have been scheduled to study and map the Beta Six pulsar cluster since the set of orders we received seven months, three weeks, and two days ago."

"Almost eight months ago, you mean."

"That is not a precise figure." It seems Jim's sarcasm is wasted on the First Officer. At least Chekov laughs softly from his station, not quite muffling it with a cough.

"Well then," Jim continues, keeping his voice casual, "whether or not we were scheduled for it, it's not exactly the most exciting mission in the world. Good way to find one's information assimilation lagging."

"I would argue that mapping what appears to be a completely unique astronomical phenomenon is quite intellectually stimulating, but in your case..." Spock lowers his voice slightly. "Perhaps it would be prudent to use the time to rest and recover from your previous ordeal."

Jim glares at him.

"Or not. And you are correct. I have observed that you tend to lag behind your typical level of performance when a task does not provide an intellectual challenge or incite your curiosity." His head quirks slightly. "However illogical that may be, of course."

Jim forces a broad grin. "That's exactly it, Spock," he said, standing with a slow stretch to hide just how tired he really is. "You know, you might just be right. Maybe I should pique the intellectual curiosity a bit and head down to--"

"McCoy to Bridge," a familiar voice interrupts. Jim slumps back into his chair, trying to keep the annoyance out of his expression. He taps the blinking indicator on the arm of his command chair. Bones' sour visage fills the small screen that shoots up in response. "Jim, I've got something to discuss with you. I need you down here when you've got a moment." It's the doctor's way of being discreet, but surely Spock's noticed that the CMO seems to want to discuss things with the captain a lot lately. And not on the Bridge.

Bones is frowning slightly as he speaks, giving Jim his clinical once-over. By the look on his face, Jim's failing to impress him. "Can it wait, doctor? I'm on my way to Astrophysics. Might take a few hours." Then, with a grin, he adds, "The pulsar's a pretty amazing anomaly. We've picked up some incredible radio frequency harmonics on the communications array. Completely unique, and previously seen only in theoretical models. I wanted to go take a closer look down in the lab." Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Uhura smiling in satisfaction.

"Well, it's not urgent, but it's something that needs to be brought to your attention. Sooner rather than later, Jim," he clarifies.

"I'll be there when I can. Kirk out." No doubt the doctor's thought of another embarrassing test or wants to explain how the situation has just gotten even more complicated and risky. "Mr. Spock, you have the con," he announces, jumping up from the chair and striding toward the turbolift. "I'm sure the astronomers will be able to provide me with some intellectual challenge."


*********



At first, Jim wonders if he's walked into a dance club, not the Stellar Cartography lab. There are pulsing lights coming from the main viewscreen, flashing in time to what almost sounds like music. Strange music. A rhythmic beat, punctuated by flickering lights, undercut by low, vibrating tones. And it's loud.

"Dobbs, reset the playback loop and run the recording at two percent actual speed."

Jim finally looks past the flashing lights to see the astronomy and stellar cartography personnel scattered around the lab, some leaning over computer terminals, and some watching the viewscreen with rapt intent. He catches the eye of Lieutenant Commander Cheng, head of Astrophysics, who just gave that order. Cheng waves him over, and he steps up alongside her just as the rhythm in the room changes drastically. The beat is much slower, and now he can hear details between the main beats. It's incredibly complex, and just as Uhura said, it's beautiful.

"Captain," Cheng greets him with a broad smile. "Welcome to the disco."

He can't help but smile back. "I've always liked retro clubs. I should come down here more often."

She reaches over to the main control board and adjusts a few controls. "It's not usually this exciting. We're accumulating a huge amount of information from the readings from the pulsar cluster, but we need to organize it into a coherent picture. We could do this with the digital readouts and raw calculations alone, but this way is more fun." She tilts her head towards the screen. "And we seem to pick up more nuances when we can hear it and see it."

"Pythagorean harmonics, Uhura was telling me. Music in the spheres."

"Yes, Captain. And we're about to try filtering out some of the extraneous emissions, see if that gives us a working model. You're just in time." She makes one more adjustment, then calls out, "Okay, Dobbs, let's try it." To the captain, she explains, "Now we're going to isolate the gamma, delta, and gravimetric emissions and chart them against the modified space-time matrix. We'll correct for synergistic and deleterious wave functions."

Some of the tones and beats of the audio playback fade out, leaving a clearer set of notes, startlingly harmonious and almost soothing. On the secondary viewscreen, a three dimensional chart of the pulsar cluster changes. The positions of the stars shift, and the lines representing their orbits resolve into a coherent network. Throughout the lab, he can hear a chorus of cheers, whoops, and clapping, and he thinks that's Ensign Ortiz doing a victory dance down by the sensor array station.

Jim steps closer to the viewscreen, marveling at the chart. "You were able to pin down the gravitational field," he says, not hiding his appreciation. "I see what you did. You started with the radiation emissions and worked backwards to chart the gravitational structure of the pulsar cluster. From what I know, most stellar cartography work starts with the space-time gravitational structure and then maps the emissions against it. The pulsars didn't work with that model." He glances back at Cheng for confirmation.

"That's pretty impressive, Captain. I didn't know you were interested in astrophysics. Most command officers just know enough to keep them out of the labs."

"I'm just an amateur, Commander. But I do like to read." He tilts his head towards the screen. "Besides, I can't let myself look clueless when I brief headquarters about our mission, right?"

Cheng laughs. "I would hope not." She moves to stand next to him, then expands one region of the display for a better view of some of the pulsar orbits. "The research will be valuable from a purely scientific stance, but it has practical applications as well."

Jim nods. "Absolutely. It will make travel through these regions safer. Your team has done some excellent work."

He feels a warm surge of confidence. For the first time in weeks, Jim feels like he's back in his element. He's in command, he's fully knowledgeable about the operation, and he's seeing something new and amazing. "And you might want to make a recording of this stuff for the crew lounge. It's got a decent dance beat."

"Aye, Captain!" Ensign Ortiz says happily from his spot by the sensor array controls. He's still bouncing slightly to the beat.

Jim laughs. "So, am I interrupting anything too vital?"

Cheng shakes her head. "We've just finished these modifications, and now we've got to let the sensor sweep run for about two hours with the new settings."

"So why don't you show me what you've been up to. The reports I've been getting don't cover everything." Spock was right, he thinks. On the Bridge, far from the action, he was bored. Here in the lab, though, there are things he can learn, and the Astronomy staff can strut their stuff in front of the Captain, which they don't get to do too often. Win-win all around.

"I'd be happy to, Captain. Ortiz, turn the volume down so we can hear each other!" She begins leading him around the lab, explaining the various aspects of their study of the pulsar cluster. `

The research is sophisticated, and Jim lets himself get lost in the information as he enjoys the bizarre yet pleasant music of the sensor recordings. As he follows along, he finds himself wondering what his mother would think of the findings. She has a particular love of unique natural phenomena and the unusual quirks of space exploration, and she always seems to savor it with the eye of both a scientist and an aesthete. So maybe he got his knowledge of science and space from his own reading, but he's sure he got his love of it from his mother. Maybe he'll send her a recording of the music from the cluster.

Maybe I could talk to her about what's going on. The thought jumps unbidden into his mind, and just as quickly, he squashes it. It's been years since he came to his mother for advice about anything. And telling her about the embryo would inevitably mean explaining what happened on Antos II, and about Bones. He can't imagine that discussion happening on a shaky subspace connection, if he can even do it at all.

"Mom, I'm pregnant." No, that conversation is not going to happen. This is a temporary situation, and Bones will fix it soon. He doesn't need his mother's sympathy or pity. He just needs to move past this.

And for now, he needs to pay attention to the complex orbit pattern Commander Cheng is explaining. Five pulsars locked into a single, stable, cloverleaf-shaped orbit. Jim grins. It's really kind of awesome. The beat flows through him, energizing him.

It's the perfect escape.


*********



Man, that felt good. Leaving the lab, Jim's step is more energetic and confident than it's been in weeks, and he's still got the beat from the lab buzzing pleasantly in his head.

Alpha shift is just ending, and he knows he should stop by Sickbay to see what Bones wants, but... well, Bones will probably rant at him no matter when he shows up, so another hour or so won't make a difference. And Dr. Dehner did encourage him to get back into his normal routine.

The gym is always crowded at shift changes, and today is no exception. Pausing at the door, he notes that the holo-treadmills are all in use. He could simply warm up with a few laps around the saucer, and then work on his flexibility or muscular endurance; that equipment is usually free. But today, he wants the headspace of a long, intense run. Unfortunately, the thought of waiting around for a free platform, while he's all revved up to get started, isn't appealing.

As he stands there uncertainly, one of the runners suddenly ends his program and slows to a walk. "Off in ninety seconds, Captain."

Jim waves a hand in dismissal. "No need to hurry off, Leslie." Much as he wants to start his run, he doesn't like to be given special treatment.

John Leslie, a burly lieutenant in the Operations Divsion, laughs good-naturedly. "With all due respect, sir, you look like you're waiting for the starting gun, and I'm just as happy to get off this conveyor belt and hit the resistance training studio."

Well, he doesn't need an engraved invitation. Stepping into the middle of the platform, Jim punches up his personal running trail. The immediate area around him becomes a shimmering, projected hologram. Jim smiles to himself at the sight of the rolling, green hills, a dusty dirt trail, and an endless, blue horizon. Beginning with a brisk walk, he works his way up to a steady, fast pace. Breathing deeply, he recognizes the preprogrammed release of hexanol and leaf aldehyde molecules--the smell of grass. It's not Iowa, but it's close.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, he's distracted, hyperaware of everything. It annoys him that the grass has no weeds and that the color is too vividly green. As he pounds up a short, steep incline, all he can think of is the stiffness in his joints, the pull of the air through his nostrils and into his chest, the way he's holding his hands in loose fists. Just beyond the platform limits, he can make out the muffled voices and blurred outlines of the other crew members busy with their own exercise routines. He pushes them out of his mind, but it doesn't help much. His thoughts are disjointed, bouncing from one thing to another.

And then it happens. Something clicks, and holding his pace becomes effortless. His body is propelled forward as if by some hidden force, and his mind is clear and focused.

He's always done his best thinking when he's running. Back when he was a kid, he ran to escape his uncle's ugly taunts and his brother's furious retorts. Later, he ran to escape his own disappointments and resentments, from the mother who was never there to the dead-end path of mediocrity he seemed to have chosen for himself. For an hour or so, his mind would be crystal clear, and he'd be left with a deep satisfaction that lasted long after the run was over.

In the Academy, he learned to focus on his coursework during his morning run. As he jogged up and down the steep paths between main campus and Crissy Field, he'd visualize military strategies and work on his assignments in applied math. Bones used to lecture him about overuse injuries and obsessive habits... but Jim was convinced that his daily run kept him at the top of his game.

Now, as he runs through the virtual grassy fields, he replays the scene in the Stellar Cartography lab in his mind, savoring the feeling of confidence he had when Lieutenant Commander Cheng had praised his unexpected knowledge of astrophysics in general and pulsars in particular. He loves knowing that he's aware and informed about everything that happens on his ship, even things that fall outside of most Command officers' expertise. It comes to him, with sudden clarity, how much he loves being captain, loves being out here in the stars, having finally found what he was meant to do.

I can't give this up, he thinks.

As he runs, he's suddenly struck with a vivid memory of himself as a child, eight years old or so, sitting on his mother's bed watching her pack. Most of his salient memories of his mother revolve around her leaving him, even though he knows, intellectually, that she spent long periods at home in between missions.


"Who do you have to bunk with on the Endurance?" he asks.

She smiles. "Nobody. I'm a lieutenant commander, remember? I get a single, and it's pretty nice. Not as big as your room, though."

"I like sharing with Sam." Sam doesn't like sharing with him, though. He hates it when Jim sits on his bed and uses his PADD, but Jim does it whenever he's not around because Sam's PADD is a lot faster and has better games. Also, now that Sam's been ignoring him so much lately, annoying him has become Jim's favorite way to get his attention, even if it usually means getting pushed around or yelled at. He used to crawl into Sam's bed at night and sleep with him sometimes, but Sam won't let him do that anymore. He says that Jim kicks him in his sleep and hogs the blankets.

"It's nice that you two are still so close," she says, with a little smile of affection. "Go get me my blue robe from the closet, Jim."

The soft cotton material is comfortable and familiar under his fingers. She's always had the same robe, as long as he can remember. "Are you gonna be back in time for the fair this summer?"

She folds the robe carefully, adding it to the growing pile of clothes on the bed. "I told you that I won't get leave until at least July, maybe later. The Shipyards Fair is in June."

"So who'll take me?" It's the biggest event in Riverside all summer, which isn't saying much, because Riverside is boring. Still, he loves flying the shuttle simulator and trying out all the interactive historical exhibits, like the first moon walk and the Battle of Cheron. Last year, when Jim tried the Battle exhibit, he made some pretty dumb strategic moves and the Romulans won, but this year he's going to be ready for it. And he loves the virtual tour of a real starship.

"Your Uncle Frank can take you. I'll remind him." She doesn't look up from her packing, so luckily she doesn't see the face Jim makes. He's not allowed to disrespect his uncle, but Jim knows that Frank won't bother to take him. Maybe Jim can get Sam to go with him, even though Sam says that he's too old for the fair now that he's fourteen.

"What do you want me to bring you this time, Jim?" His mother always brings him a special present when she comes home on leave, something that you can't buy in a store. "There's a beautiful mineral on Deneb, where we'll be in about a month. It looks like quartz, but it glows blue in the dark."

"No thanks. I don't really collect minerals anymore. But... can you get me a Denobulan ceremonial knife?"

That makes his mother look up and frown. "Why in the world would you want that?"

"I like weapons. I'm starting a new collection," he says quickly. He's already got a replica of a laser pistol, which his grandfather gave him for his birthday. Lately, he's been reading all about the history of weapons: the swords and armor of the knights of the Middle Ages, the deadly bows and arrows of the Native Americans, the Colt 45 that won the American West, and even the Klingon Bat'leth.

"I don't know, Jim..." His mother looks torn. She tells him all the time that she doesn't approve of solving problems with violence and she warns him not to get into fistfights like Sam. But she'll get the knife for him, he's sure. She likes to bring him the presents he asks for, especially when she's gone on a long-range mission.

He doesn't know why he wants the weapons, besides a vague feeling that he needs them. His mom will be leaving soon. Sam used to be around more, but he's off with his friends whenever he can get away. And Frank... Frank doesn't protect Jim. Frank is loud, and mean, and angry most of the time.

So Jim needs to protect himself.


He doesn't blame his mother for wanting to leave. He did, for a long time, but not anymore. How can he blame her for wanting to explore among the stars and make new discoveries, instead of settling for an insignificant life in middle-of-nowhere Riverside? It's what he'd have done, in her position. Even though Jim paid a heavy price for her ambition.

And no child should have to pay that price.

He's struck by an image of himself, standing in the dark behind the old farmhouse. Except in his mind's eye, he's not a child. He's a grown man and there's a baby in his arms, wrapped in a blanket. He's looking at the stars, scanning the skies like he used to do when his mother was in the black and he was so lonely.

No way. He's not staying behind again.

Jim feels a rivulet of liquid forging a tickling trail down his back. He swipes his hand over the back of his neck. He's covered in sweat, chest heaving, his legs muscles numb and shaky. Slowing to a walk, he watches his heart rate on the monitor as it gradually drifts down to a normal level. The hologram fades, and he suddenly becomes aware once again that he's in a room full of people.

"Good run, Captain!" he hears one of them say appreciatively as she steps up to take his place on the platform.

"It clears my head," he says, wiping his face with a towel. "Helps me think."


*********



"Where the hell have you been?" Bones growls at him. "I called you over five hours ago!"

Jim leans back against the wall in the bio lab, enjoying the exhausted ache in his muscles. The endorphin high keeps him relaxed, and he has a small smile on his lips even as Bones rants.

"I said that I needed to see you the minute you were free, and I meant it! So your shift ends and where do you go? To the goddamn gym!" Jim opens his mouth to protest, but Bones silences him with a glare. "Don't try to deny it. Your face is all red, you're fresh out of the shower, and you've got that goofy look you always get after you've been racing on that holo-thing for an hour."

Jim wonders if he's really that readable, or maybe Bones had one of the nurses spying on him at the gym. "I like to run. You should try it sometime." He grins. "I'll program it so you can run through Georgia pines or peach orchards, whichever you want. Complete with the sights and smells of home."

"Knowing you, you'll program in a nice Georgia thundershower in the middle."

"Who, me?" It wouldn't actually be so hard, he thinks. He could install a few hydrosprinklers over the platform, program the olfactory interface to simulate the smell of wet soil... The tricky part would be adjusting the barometric pressure over the platform, but Scotty could probably find a way to do that, if Jim let him in on the joke. He could handle the visuals himself--a few flashes of lightning, darkening sky...

"Well, I'm not going near that damn contraption, so you can stop thinking about it. Just two weeks ago one of the Engineering trainees tried to program in a mountain-climbing holo, fell off, and gave himself a compound fracture of the tibia." Bones gives him a sly look. "If I want to sweat, I can think of better ways of going about it."

"Running can make those ways even better," Jim parries.

Bones grunts in acknowledgement, but his expression sobers quickly. "Let's go back to my office."

The minute Jim is seated across the desk from him, Bones has a hand-held med scanner out, and he makes a slow sweep over Jim's chest. "You shouldn't overdo it, you know. You're still recovering, Jim..."

"Still pregnant, you mean."

"That, too. Still not eating or sleeping well, and when I commed you earlier, you looked exhausted. Why the devil did you decide to do an intense workout today?"

Because I needed to do some thinking. "I felt better. And I've been off my routine for too long. I need to build myself back up."

"Your heart rate and respiration are still elevated, beyond your normal levels. You need to take it easy, kid." Bones sighs, looking uncomfortable. "Anyway, that's not what I called you down here to discuss. And no, before you ask, I'm still not ready to operate."

"Wow. Totally surprised me there."

"Don't get huffy. I'm working on it." Bones looks genuinely apologetic. "Believe me, I know how much you want to get rid of this. I haven't forgotten that for one minute."

Bones' gaze falls absently on the slow holo slideshow that plays across the screen at the corner of his desk. There's an image of a rugged mountain chain covered in dark green woods. After a beat, it fades into a portrait of a white-haired woman with Bones' piercing gaze and a warm smile. Jim watches the random flow of pictures. He's always been both a little bewildered and a little envious of the way Bones surrounds himself with nostalgic images of home, but they do seem to bring him some comfort. And maybe they could both use some comfort right now.

The image morphs into a short movie of a small, dark-haired girl, doing clumsy somersaults on a grassy lawn. She lands a little crookedly, but jumps to her feet, a broad grin on her face, hands raised in triumph. Bones' daughter Joanna, who lives with her mother and hasn't seen her father for eight months.

It occurs to him, for the first time, that maybe he's not the only one who's struggling with this. He's been so wrapped up in his own frustrations that he hasn't taken a minute to imagine what this embryo--this potential child---might mean to Bones. Running through the Iowa fields, the only thing he could think about was his own early experiences--staying behind while his mother explored the stars, abandoned to a caretaker who didn't want him and deserted by the brother who wouldn't stay with him.

But maybe there's another side to this. Jim knows how painful it is for Bones to be an absent father, and how much he's sacrificed personally to be here, on the Enterprise, at his side. Whether he wants to or not, it's time he faces that issue directly. "What do you want, Bones?"

"What do you mean by that?" Bones asks, frowning. "You should know what I want, Jim. I want to help you. I'm sorry that it's taking so long, but I'm not going to operate until I think it's safe."

"That's not what I mean. With the embryo and all... you're part of this, too. So what do you want to do?"

Bones doesn't hesitate. "I want to do what's best for your health." It sounds so simple when he says it, but he's completely missing the point.

"That's not an answer." That's not what I'm trying to ask.

"Sure it is. I want to give you what you want, a successful surgery that'll let you put this all behind you."

Jim shakes his head. "Tell me what you really want to do. Not what you think I want."

"Dammit, Jim, what the hell are you asking?" Bones looks authentically confused.

"I want you to be honest with me!" He's not sure why he's so frustrated, or what he wants the doctor to admit. Doesn't even quite know how to ask the question that's lodged itself at the front of his mind.

Bones is scowling now. "Look, yelling at me isn't going to change things. Be patient. We'll find a way to remove it soon."

This question has been churning in his mind for the last four days, just underneath his conscious thoughts. It pushes up now, bubbling to the surface faster than he can stop it. "Tell me something. Theoretically, could I... I mean, how long do you think this could go on, if we don't operate?"

Bones' mouth falls slightly open and he stares for just a second too long. "Wait a minute -- are you asking me if the embryo is viable? If you could carry this baby to term?" Just hearing Bones use the word "baby" like that makes him flinch.

"Yes. I just want to know... is it even possible?"

Bones leans back in his seat and rakes a hand through his hair, then pinches the bridge of his nose for a moment, eyes closed, before looking back up. "Jim, as you've pointed out many times, you're a man. Men aren't built to carry a baby. You don't have the proper equipment, the hormone balance, or the body structure for it. The artificial uterus is stable for now, but I don't know if it will continue to develop long enough for a complete gestation. It's also wedged between some pretty sensitive organs, and I have no idea what would happen after the whole structure -- uterus and embryo -- gets large enough to put weight and pressure on the aorta and surrounding organs. That being said... medical science has advanced a lot. We can synthesize entire organs from stem cells, safely put a human being in complete stasis for an indefinite period of time, and map the human body down to the molecular level in less than an hour." He sighs and leans heavily on his desk, shoulders bent as if under some unseen weight. "So is it possible? Theoretically, yes."

Shit, shit, shit. It feels like a slap in the face. He hasn't even thought about it before, and now he feels like an asshole. It's a human embryo, and it could be viable. And as fucked up as this is, it's theirs.

Even though Bones is a doctor, and has surely dealt with pregnancy termination before, on some level it's got to be ripping him apart to hear Jim demand, day after day, that he remove it. Kill it. It's his DNA, too. Fuck, Bones had to go and call it a baby. Up until now, it's just seemed like a thing that needed to be excised and discarded as quickly as possible, and Jim never once considered the fact that it could actually become a living, breathing infant. On one level, he knows exactly what he wants -- to put it all behind him, just like Bones said. But somehow, suddenly, the entire problem seems much larger. "Do you think... I mean, if it's theoretically possible, would you want... should I..." He can't quite bring himself to say it.

But Bones only shakes his head. "Whoa, slow down there! Could it be done? Theoretically, maybe. But not practically. I mean, good God, Jim. You can't possibly be thinking of keeping it." Then his eyes go wider. "Are you?"

Jim can't stop himself from flinching at the demanding question. "I don't know! I don't think so. But I need to know if it could be done... and what you think."

Bones blinks, looking almost dazed by the entire line of questioning. "What I think? I think it's a neat trick of bioengineering... but it's a goddamn dangerous thing to be carrying around. For God's sake, Jim, encouraging you to keep it would go against all my medical ethics! This wasn't something you chose or consented to. What they did to you... it's a violation of your body, it's putting your life at risk, and I promise I'll do everything in my power to help you get rid of it."

"It's half yours, you know." Even as he says it, he's not sure if he means it as invitation or accusation. As the words hang uneasily in the air between them, Bones gives him a penetrating look, as if he's weighing what to say.

"Jim, for God's sake, of course I know that it's mine too. Don't you think I'm aware of my part in this? If I could have imagined what would happen..." He shakes his head in disbelief and anger. "It's got our DNA, sure. But it was constructed artificially, and pushed on you involuntarily, in terrible circumstances. This... this isn't... Just because it's been pieced together from our genetics doesn't mean..." His voice trails off, and he runs his hand through his hair in exasperation. "I know it's taking too long for me to come up with a safe surgical plan, and I'm sorry, but dammit, Jim, you can't think of it as..."

"Is it a boy or a girl?" The words fly out of his mouth before he can stop them.

Bones frowns. "I'm not going to answer that."

"But you know."

"Of course I know, I did a genome map. But you shouldn't think of it as a boy or girl. It's just a five-week-old embryo--it can't even be properly called a fetus yet. It doesn't belong in your body, and knowing its gender will only confuse you. You can't... goddammit, Jim, you can't keep it."

Bones is probably right -- it's completely insane -- and Jim's not sure he really wants to know the baby's sex, but he can't help resenting the way every choice has been taken from him. "It's my decision to make," he says stubbornly.

It's not even about keeping the embryo. Not really. At this point, all he wants is a sense of control -- something he lost on Antos II and never quite regained.

Bones looks at him bleakly. "Anything concerning your own body is your choice, but keeping this... that's crazy talk. You're tired, and you're not thinking straight." He sighs. "I'll tell you the gender, if you really want to know, but first make sure you do really want that. Once I tell you, you can't undo that knowledge." He waits until Jim nods reluctantly. "And the reason I called you down here, if we can finally get to that, is that I'd like to start you on a regimen of supportive therapy."

Jim looks at him in confusion. "Wait, now you want me to keep it?"

"Right now, I want to make sure your body doesn't reject it in the meantime, so that I can control when and how we remove it."

"What do you mean, reject it?"

"It's complicated." His tone becomes instructive. "In a normal pregnancy, there's a complex combination of immunological and hormonal changes going on. The mother's body would be producing hormones called progesterone and human chorionic gonadotrophin to maintain the pregnancy, and to prevent the maternal immune system from attacking the fetus and causing a spontaneous abortion. A miscarriage is messy anyway, but if it happened with you, there would be no place for the fetus to go."

Right. No birth canal. "So what would happen?"

Bones' mouth contorts into a grimace. "It would be a serious medical emergency, Jim. Wouldn't matter if I'd found a way to operate safely or not -- I'd have to go in, and it would be under less-than-ideal conditions."

"So why wait?" It doesn't make sense.

"Because for now, it's stable, and until I come up with a technique that has a better chance of success, the risk of surgery is greater than the risk of waiting." His gaze drops. "I keep running simulations, and just when I think I've got an idea that works, the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket."

"I don't get it, Bones. You're a brilliant surgeon, and it's the size of a pea! Why put it off until it's big as a grapefruit?"

"I'm hoping like hell we won't be waiting that long. But... it's the artificial blood vessels. The tissue looks like normal human tissue at first glance, but it's not. I need to figure out what it's doing to the other arteries where it's fused with the existing tissue." His expression turns plaintive, almost like he's begging for something. "I'm trying, Jim. I swear, I've got to be close." Then his face pinches. "But in the meantime, we can't let this thing miscarry."

"So... you want to give me hormones? Female hormones?" Oh God, he's going to get breasts...

His horror must be written all over his face, because Bones gives him a reassuring pat on the arm. "Low doses. You shouldn't feel any side effects. If you'll agree, I can implant a micro-dose capsule in the uterine sac. That would keep most of the hormones from impacting the rest of your body. And at the same time," he says carefully, "I'll take a biopsy."

"A biopsy." Jim's voice is flat, but just the sound of the word sends his heart racing.

"A tissue sample of the uterine sac," Bones amends. "So I can examine it closely, get a better understanding of the cell replication process and the way the blood vessels are developing. Jim, look at me."

With an effort, he raises his gaze from his boots, which have suddenly become a lot more interesting to look at than his friend's face. He squares his shoulders and says, "I'm okay. Whatever. A biopsy's a good idea."

"You won't feel it, Jim. None of it. And it might hold the key to solving this puzzle."

"Do what you have to do." He feels suddenly exhausted, as if his run is finally catching up with him. "So, hormone therapy. Would it keep the... the baby viable?" There, he's said the word aloud too. Baby.

In a heartbeat, Bones' face goes unreadable. "You really shouldn't be thinking about it like that, Jim. Technically, yes. But..." He sighs. "Five days ago, you were almost screaming at me to have it removed immediately. Now, you want to keep it?"

"I haven't said that. I just want to know."

Bones nods uneasily. "I suppose it's a reasonable question. And yes, it would keep it viable... as much as it could be, which I'm telling you is doubtful. I don't think it would be possible to carry it safely to term, even if you wanted to. Your best chance is for us to keep it stable while I come up with a workable surgical procedure, and then we operate as soon as I do."

"That's the plan?"

"That's the plan."

Jim finds himself nodding, even though he's bothered by a nagging thought that Bones must be exaggerating the risks, the way he always does. "Okay. Let's do it."

A look of relief washes over Bones. "Good. And another thing, Jim. I need you to wear a med sensor from now on."

"What? Oh, come on, Bones!" The last thing he wants is a damned leash.

Bones leans towards Jim and furrows his eyebrows. "I need to be able to monitor your vitals, see what effects these meds are having. And since you obviously don't want to be called down to Sickbay several times a day, this is the easiest way. It'll fit around your wrist. You won't even notice it."

"Spock will notice." The protest sounds pathetic, now that he's said it.

"So talk to him. Tell him what's going on."

"Not yet," he says, too quickly. Just the thought of having to explain all this to Spock is making him flush with embarrassment. "I mean, he doesn't have to know as long as it doesn't affect my command ability."

"Fine. But seriously, I want you to take things easy. No more running until this is over, no intense workouts at all. And don't give me that look, kid. You've got to remember that this embryo is directly connected to the largest artery in your body, and it's impacting the blood flow to your organs, your legs.... everything. It's stable if you don't mess with it, but if you go running, the extra pressure could be too much. You can use the regular treadmills -- not those holo-monstrosities -- for walking. Just walking, Jim. If I see that you're having a sudden spike in your heart rate or blood pressure, I swear on my grandmother's peach cobbler, I will keep you in sickbay under constant surveillance until I've finished the surgical plan and we can remove this thing."

Jim barely manages to hide his dismay. "Peach cobbler, Bones? You must really be serious."

"I'll tell Spock." Bones' stare is uncompromising.

Jim clenches his jaw under the scrutiny. He quickly realizes he's fighting a losing battle. Sure, Bones is probably exaggerating the risk -- the man is a mother hen and then some -- but even Jim has to admit that this time, it might be best to slow down a little. He's already been through hell. If anything else happens, it would mean that the Antosians have won again. He's not going to let that happen.

With a sigh, he pulls up the cuff of his sleeve and offers his wrist. "Okay."


(To Be Continued…)

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