If he could have moved, there was no doubt in his mind that Mike Smith would still have been stricken into near paralysis. Before him stood one of the most famous, if not most decorated, Starfleet captain that ever sat in the chair, speaking directly to him.
“That was quite a… daring move you did out there,” Kirk began in his strangely halting words, “I have to say, I’m impressed.”
Mike smiled brighter than a supernova.
“Coming from you, that means quite a lot… Captain. I admire you a great deal, sir.”
Dr. McCoy approached the scene from where he had been busying himself, wearing an even sourer face.
“This man,” he grumbled, waggling a deft finger at Kirk, “is not to be admired!”
“Calm down, Bones,” Kirk flashed a charming smile, “A little admiration couldn’t hurt, could it?”
“I don’t know if I have a brace in the sickbay to support your ego, Jim,” McCoy grumbled before turning back to his tools. He continued to monitor Mike’s state, bringing the young man crashing back into reality. Yes, it was true that he’d done something bold and daring, but what price was he paying for it? He was locked into a device that didn’t allow him to move in the slightest, for fear of rupturing his entire circulatory system. In a torrent, all sorts of thoughts crashed into his mind: will I ever be able to move again, then? Will I ever be able to leave this machine? If so, how many years do I have? Was it really worth it?
That last question rung in his mind like a cathedral bell, clanging out over anything and everything. At once, all of his little niggling doubts were cancelled out, and a half remembered Vulcan proverb came to his feverish brain. Was it worth it?
Damn right it was.
“Did I… did we… win?”
“Excuse me?” McCoy replied, a little scandalized. Kirk’s only reply was a light laugh.
“Oh, my,” the Captain shook his head, quoting the young man, ” ‘Did we win?’ My God, I thought I was the only one who thought like that. I suppose, in that manner of thinking… yes, we did… win.”
“Yes,” Kirk replied, “Everyone’s okay.”
Cynthia Harvey finally stepped forward, her short, gray hair bristling.
“I wouldn’t exactly say everyone’s okay, Jim.”
“Well, I was just trying to…”
“Jim Kirk,” she stood proudly, arms akimbo, “All these years, and you still hate to face it… how old are you?”
“Ah, I always loved that about you, Cindie,” Kirk said affably, “You have such… fire.”
Cynthia held up a palm at arm’s length from the Captain
“Don’t even try that line on me again. I’m a married woman.”
Kirk looked a little dejected, something that pleased McCoy to no end.
“I think, what Jim’s trying to tell you in the nicest way possible, it that you’ve done yourself a disservice. In fact, if it weren’t for the quick thinking of your… strange friend over there…” he gestured to Humak, who nodded in a bizarre sort of acknowledgment, “you’d have probably popped like a balloon over Khitomer.”
“What do you mean?” Mike asked, his head swimming a little. Humak stepped forward, arms behind his back as usual, and spoke in his usual.
“It was a risky procedure, but it was the only viable option. I have conferred with several Starfleet medical staff and we reached the conclusion that the procedure I performed only had a 17% chance of success.”
“That’s great, Mack… now will you tell me what the procedure was?”
“Of course,” he continued, “It was my thought that educating you in regard to the small probability of success would make you all the more grateful.”
“Due to the increased pressure on your vessels caused by Warp flight, I quickly surmised that a precisely metered and monitored removal of blood would allow for the smallest possible amount to sustain life functions, but would also theoretically decrease increased surface tension.”
“Basically,” Cynthia leaned over the sickbay bed with a smile, “He kept you running on less than half a tank.”
“And that… worked?” Mike blinked consciously, astonished.
“I wouldn’t go hailing it as a miracle cure,” McCoy noted, checking a syringe, “and son, if you didn’t believe in a God before… now’s as good a time as any to start.”
“Sounds downright medieval,” Kirk piped up with an odd sense of relish, “I’m almost… sorry I missed it.”
“If it’s any consolation, sir…” Mike said with a sigh, “I missed it, too.”
“You can stop with all that ‘sir’ nonsense, Mr. Smith,” Kirk answered almost immediately, waving a dismissive hand about.
“But…” Mike blinked, again very consciously, “You’re a superior officer… sir.”
“Oh, Haven’t you heard?” Kirk said flippantly, checking on a hangnail that wasn’t there, “you’re no longer Starfleet personnel.”
Even though he could not feel his chest, Mike knew something in there was sinking into a great, black pit. He always knew this would happen, with all the risks he was taking, but even now… he hated the idea. All he ever wanted, and now it was being taken away from him. He might as well be dying.
“Drummed out, I suppose,” he commented bitterly, “will they tear the patch off my shoulder and everything?”
“A-haha,” Kirk gave an odd, airy laugh, “But you see, it’s not like that at all, Mr. Smith.”
Mike focused his eyes on the Captain, resplendent in his red tunic, but it was actually Humak who spoke up first.
“Following the events at the Khitomer Conference, the Catalina pulled out of warp and delivered the message you decoded. The Excelsior, already en route, and the Enterprise, on which we are currently, pursued the other ships involved with the conspiracy, using your cracked code to engineer messages and lay several traps. The codebreaking skill shown is now being evaluated and retooled for use in future Starfleet cryptological and linguistic training for officers.”
“Your mastery of the Klingon language, that… beastly sound, was… particularly remarkable,” Kirk noted, “I could have used some of that schooling when I was on Rura Penthe.”
“We just got away from that frozen rock,” McCoy groaned, “can’t we just never speak of it again?”
Humak waited patiently until McCoy sarcastically gestured for him to continue. The surgeon’s mockery was completely lost on the human Vulcan.
“Unfortunately, due to the several… hundred violations of Starfleet procedure and protocol incurred in your years with CREI, the President has seen fit to discharge you…”
“Figures,” Mike sniffed, “How many people did we save, catching all those conspirators, and they show me the door!”
His name was a shocking sound to hear, and if he could have turned his neck he would have done so quick enough to snap it clean off. All he could manage was to strain his eyes as far as he could to the left, where his name had been spoken… by Humak. His arms were still behind his back, his posture was still impeccable… but he was smiling.
“Can’t you just let me finish my damn report?”
Mike’s jaw fell as far as he could let it. Humak kept on smiling.
“As I was saying,” he began, “You are being discharged… but not dishonorably. You are to be given a full Relief Ceremony as soon as you are able to attend. The President himself is to appear and award you, Mrs. Harvey, and myself with awards and recognition for our efforts to aid Starfleet. Additionally, Mrs. Harvey is being appointed to a ceremonial captaincy position, and I will be admitted into Starfleet in the coming months as a full Lieutenant. You, due to your medical condition, will not be able to continue work in space, but you will be kept on as a special linguistic consultant to Starfleet… with a position identical to Mrs. Harvey.”
It took a moment for those last few words to set in. Mike’s eyes darted around the room, from face to smiling face, all giddy that the news had finally been revealed. Their giddiness soon faded, however, when Mike’s face adopted a more perplexed expression than joyful.
“Do you… do you mean… I…”
“As I said before,” Kirk leaned over Mike’s body and cocked a charming half-smile, “There’s no need to bother with all of that ‘sir’ business.”
“And you and I are going to get fat and old in our retirement, Turtle!” Cynthia said happily, “or should I say… Captain Turtle?”
“Commander… I mean, Cynthia… Cindie…”
“Don’t worry about your Mom and Dad either, Turtle. I called ’em both and after they picked themselves up off the floor they’ll be waiting for you in Calgary with a hero’s welcome! They’re even talking a parade, or a statue!”
“Maybe me and my fella will get a place up there next to you, and we can be salty old veterans with your old man.”
Mike forced himself to swallow, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. As a result, his voice cracked a little when he spoke.
“Cindie… all of you… you know that, after all of this… I’ll probably never be an old man.”
There was a great long silence then, when the only sound was the hum of sickbay machinery. Finally, Cynthia said with a heavy tone.
“They’re thinking you might get five years.”
Another stony silence reigned, but again Mike was reminded of that old Vulcan proverb. He’d done good, he’d done something good… and important. People would remember him, Starfleet would always recognize him… as a Captain. As he looked at all the sad faces, two of which he’d never seen in person before today… and he couldn’t stand it. After all he’d wanted and begged for and broken the rules for… finally people were giving him attention… and he hated it.
“Oh, come on!” He finally managed to shout with all his strength, “Sure I may only have five years left on my life… but I got to see the stars, and I rode in starships, and I got to meet and talk with some of the most amazing non-terrestrial… THINGS I’d never have seen if I had been chained to a desk planetside. There’s no point in being sad over all this, because honestly… if I had it to do all over again… I’d still do it. I’d rather take ten good years than a hundred where I felt unfulfilled. And these past couple of years? Well… I’ve done more than I ever thought I could, and I owe a lot of it to all of you.”
He did his best to look around as he kept talking, even as he felt his strength fail him and grow weary.
“You two… you’re legends. Without the stories I heard about you, I never would have been inspired to try this. Humak, I’ve learned more from you than I could in centuries of Vulcan study at any university in the galaxy.”
“And I have learned a lot from you… my friend.”
“And Cynthia… Cindie… you taught me that sometimes, the world isn’t fair, but if you grit your teeth and keep working… it’ll all…”
His eyelids began to droop then, and his speech began to falter.
“Easy now, son,” McCoy cautioned, “don’t get too worked up.”
“How can I not be worked up?” Mike was nearly laughing now, “This is the greatest day of my life!”
He tried to say a few more words, to be inspirational and brave, but his body was still exerting a lot of strength to repair what little vascular integrity he had left. He made a few noises: quiet, mewling things with no real meaning, and eventually settled into a pattern of gentle snores.
“He’s still just a kid,” Cynthia said, putting on a brave face and brushing away a tear.
“Some of us are lucky,” Humak replied, doing much the same, “we never lose the best parts of our childhood.”
As McCoy and Kirk herded them out of the sickbay, the two old shipmates shared a chuckle and began to realize their own ages.
“I swear,” the surgeon said with a wry grin, “I’ve had conversations like this before.”
“Oh?” Kirk replied, “Does that make you the Vulcan, then… or the woman?”
They both continued joking until Cynthia finally silenced them with a glare, and for one brief moment it was as if they were back at the Academy, with a young Cadet Holland glaring at the impetuous Cadet Kirk seated behind her, all those years ago.
* * *
In all fairness, Mike only made it to three years. He kept working beyond his capacities as linguist for Starfleet, and serving as an honored guest at various institutions and conferences. He became a bit of an inspirational figure, giving speeches and sharing his now-famous story all across the world… though he had to travel by boat to avoid any decompression overseas. He became a well-known spokesman for the thousands suffering from Panthrax Fluidra, and applications to the CREI program doubled in the year after his discharge. His school even retired his football jersey, number 11, and it turned out to be one of the last public appearances he made. Mike Smith, Turtle, the Man of a Thousand Languages and the Khitomer Codebreaker died peacefully in his sleep on what they would have called October 3, 2293. In the back yard on his family plot of land outside Calgary there is a simple stone, listing his birth and death under the name Seamus Q. Pyke, but above all of that was carved the name that confirmed for that young man that every last morning, every last instant of his brief life had been worth the trials.
It read, above all:
Captain Michael E. Smith