DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of M. L. "Steve" Barnes and is copyright (c) 1979 by M. L. "Steve" Barnes. This story is Rated PG-13.

I Need You, Baby

M. L. "Steve" Barnes

Captain James Kirk strolled down the corridor of his ship enjoying the softly filtered sound of music. Although the melodies were usually kept at the subliminal level, he had given Chekov permission to pipe this particular program at the entertainment volume. The young Russian was a close friend of the artists now performing and he had assured the Captain that all the younger crew members would share his enthusiam over their style. Kirk had to grin at the memory of the ensign's unspoken exclusion of such ancients as himself. Chekov had overlooked a fan, there, for Jim Kirk was 'reaching' the sounds as well as any of them. He followed the words of the earthy ballad.

...no matter how I play the game,

it always turns cut just the same --

I can't do without your love.

I need you, baby...

"I need you..."

Those words had been spoken recently to Jim Kirk by a young lady who had regretfully seen him pass out of her life. There had never been any suggestion that he would forsake the Enterprise for her, yet she had never fully accepted the fact until the final moments. Kirk glanced up now at the sleek, silver skin of his ship, fully aware of her jealous possession of one Jim Kirk. His feminine companion had voiced her feelings about it in no uncertain terms...

"Helen Noel warned me about you," she had said. "She said you have no heart, especially when it comes to women. But she's wrong. You've a heart, Jim Kirk, a big one. The only trouble is, it's matched to the throb of the Enterprise's engines. I don't really think you need anything else in your life."

Maybe she was right, he thought now. He glanced around, feeling the almost human intensity of his ship's demands. I only know the hunger of the Enterprise's needs, he thought. I've never had time to think about my own.

If there were personal needs that the ship could not satisfy, he had always managed to smother them in the press of his responsibilities. It had been the lot of a captain since long before Star Fleet had ever come into being and it would continue as their life long after the Federation ceased to exist. Kirk thought he'd made the adjustment long ago.

The strains of the song were drawing to a close as he entered Sick Bay and looked around for Doctor McCoy. While he waited, he began to roll up his left sleeve to examine for himself the still livid scar there.

"Do you mind if I look at that first?" Leonard McCoy came from the interior office to finish the task. "You can only make your diagnosis after I present mine."

Kirk laughed and offered the arm.

"Okay, Bones, okay. I was just curious to know how you got it to heal so quickly. It's only been a few hours."

McCoy grunted noncommitally and pressed the flesh around the wound firmly, watching for a wincing reaction from the Captain. When none was forthcoming, he pulled the sleeve down and released Kirk's arm.

"All I was able to do," McCoy confessed, "was to probe the wound and remove all the foreign particles I could find. The barbs of the Vecta creature are a total mystery to us, Jim, so far. I guess in this case they were beneficial. I wish I could take credit for the way it healed, but I can't."

"Admitting your fallibility, Doctor?" asked a familiar, coolly amused voice from the doorway. Both men looked up to see Spock standing there, his face emotionless under his superb control. But Kirk saw the flash of something in the dark eyes, something he had come to recognize as good humor. "I can hardly believe my ears," Spock said drily.

"I can hardly believe your ears, either, Mr. Spock," McCoy said wickedly. "But far be it from me to embarrass you."

Spock stiffened a trifle. Touche, Kirk thought.

"Doctor," the Vulcan began in his most formal voice, "the fact that you are completely lacking in aesthetic appreciation of the finer things in life..."

Kirk laughingly raised both hands in a gesture of peace.

"All right, you two. Cease fire."

"Seriously, Jim," McCoy said. "I'm glad to see you're suffering no ill effects from the wound. You gave us a few bad moments while you were down on the planet."

Kirk realized that the verbal brush had been staged for his benefit, a way for the two of them to let off steam, and he felt a warming towards both of his friends.

"Well," he said, stretching mightily. "Personally I'm going to be glad of a few days of relaxation."

"We'll be at the base on Tau Ceti in a few days, won't we?" McCoy asked.

"Yes," Kirk nodded. "And need I remind you that thanks to making that emergency run with medical supplies to Cygni 2, we've never had an opportunity to sample any of the well known pleasures of that beautiful place."

"Ah, yes." McCoy rubbed his hands together. "I vaguely recall hearing about those lovely pleasures."

Spock's voice cut into the Doctor's reverie.

"At your age, Doctor, I should think hearing about them would be sufficient."

"Now see here, Spock!" McCoy literally bounced on the balls of his feet. Then he caught sight of the tell-tale gleam in Spock's eyes. He flushed with confusion and ducked his head. It always unnerved him to find himself at the mercy of a humorous Vulcan.

Kirk hid a grin and headed for the door.

"See you later, Bones. Come on, Spock. We're both off duty. Let's finish that chess game."

Spock trailed after him but Kirk noticed a certain reserve in the Vulcan's manner, an air of preoccupation. He looked up at the alien's face. "No chess today?" he asked.

"The bio lab is just completing the first series of tests on the fragments of the Vecta barb Doctor McCoy removed from your arm, Captain," the Vulcan replied. "I thought I might look in and..."

"Of course, Spock, of course." He was well aware of Spock's almost feline curiosity about alien life forms. He turned toward the turbo lift.

"Captain..." Spock hesitated as Kirk faced him, the Vulcan seemed hard pressed to vocalize his thought. "Have you been feeling all right?"

Kirk searched the serious face before him thoughtfully. "Why, yes, Spock," he said quietly. "I've been a little tired, that's all. Why do you ask?"

For a moment he thought he wasn't going to get a response, then the First Officer made almost a shrugging gesture as he straightened his shoulders. "I ... am not certain, Captain. But I find it particularly disquieting that the creature should have chosen that moment to launch that barb at you..." He broke off and gave Kirk a brief nod. "Enjoy your off duty time, Captain." He went on down the corridor to the bio lab.

Despite his cheerful words to Spock, Kirk was aware of a disturbing lack of energy since the battle on Vecta. He was glad to reach his quarters and throw himself down on the bed. The memory of that battle rose vividly in his mind now. They had responded to a Class One emergency call from Vecta and had arrived to find the small colony there almost totally obliterated.

Kirk and his landing party had found dead and dying colonists with their limbs contorted, their faces twisted with agony, their eyes mad.

The ship's sensors had suddenly picked up a high energy reading of undetermined origin and while the landing party was investigating the colony, it swept down on them.

Kirk could still recall the horror he felt as he watched the strange pulsing, gaseous cloud bearing down on them. As he watched, his phaser useless against it, it had begun to coalesce, to alter to a solid form, and then it attacked two of his men.

The two crewmen had died like the colonists, in agonized convulsions. And as they died, Kirk saw a momentary flare in the pulsing heart of the creature.

The thing continued to solidify as he called the ship's photon torpedoes to fire on it. The creature died before Kirk's eyes, slowly dissolving into a mound of soft, noxious garbage. What its final shape might have been he could not tell. Now, in its last second of existence it raised a portion of its gelatinous body and launched a small dartlike object at Kirk. The tiny golden missile had been intended for his head. Jim had thrown up his arm and taken the barb on the underside of his wrist.

He had wrenched the dart out of his flesh and looked up to see the creature collapse in a grey puddle. His last conscious thought as pain swam over him was that they'd never know if it was the aggressor or if they had unwittingly intruded in its territory. Then he fell forward, senseless.

He had remained in a stupor until McCoy had surgically removed the splinters of the barb from his arm. Since it was possible that the fragments were all that remained of a species, he had given the bio lab permission to run tests on the pieces. Today, only hours later, the wound appeared completely healed. Strangely though his strength had not returned.

He let the troublesome thoughts fade away and his mind drift drowsily into the world of half-sleep. He smiled lazily as he thought of their imminent leave on Ceti. Perhaps this time he would beam down himself and personally sample the famous 'recreation' on that planet.

"I need you, baby."

The words were a whisper in his mind. They seemed to be spoken in a familiar voice and his smile deepened as he recognized it. Areel...

...golden hair, body like a sun warmed apricot ripe for the plucking. He raised sleep weighted eyelids and she was there, beside him, one hand reaching out to him. He shook his head at the vision, feeling a heaviness behind his eyes as if drugged. His fingers sought her, caught at her falling gown as she disrobed ... and closed on nothingness. He fought a growing dizziness as he stared at her topaz beauty. Highlights and shadows that could drive a man wild...

He was powerless to drive the dream away. He felt a pressure against his body, a weight that fitted hollows and curves to his aroused body. Through a darkening haze he looked up and saw Areel's mouth curling into a welcoming smile. Lush lips came down to find his own, a quick probing tongue sought his.

The weight grew more sensuous in its fluidity, covering and surrounding him, electrifying his entire body. He had never experienced so powerful a surge of need in his life. He arched his body to invade the willing presence...

...and drew pack, fully awake now, aware that he'd been imagining the whole thing. But the image of Areel lingered, hovering above him and panic seized him.

This was too real fur any dream! He was gripped by a sense of foreboding, a shocked and primal loathing. He must escape before it was too late. Whatever this was, it reeked of evil intent. He gave his head a violent shake in an effort to clear it and felt sky-rockets explode behind his eyes with stinging pain. He slipped into a deep, black sleep that bordered on unconsciousness.

He was awakened by a buzz at his door. He threw one arm over his tortured eyes to ease their throbbing and then sat up slowly. He felt as if he'd aged two hundred years.

"Come," he commanded wearily.

McCoy filed in, followed by Spock. The two seemed concerned, their faces unusually grave.

"Jim, how do you feel?" McCoy came to his side, reaching out to pass the medi-scanner before the Captain.

Kirk caught the doctor's arm in mid sweep, but not before he saw McCoy exchange glances with Spock and the slight nod that passed between them. The knowledge that they were keeping something from him caused him irritation.

"You two didn't come here to inquire about my health. What is it?"

There was one of those nerve racking silences. He saw the same glance exchanged. "Out with it! Spock?"

"Captain," the Vulcan began slowly. "The bio lab's preliminary report has just been completed. In view of the creature's physical makeup it is rather extraordinary. The findings suggest that the barb you took was some sort of seed pod."

"Seed pod? Seed pod? What do you mean, seed pod?" He managed to focus on their faces clearly for the first time since they entered. "What are you trying to tell me, Spock? That it was..." He resisted the sudden impulse to look down at his arm.

"Seed pod may be a slightly inaccurate term, Captain," Spock advised him, "but the analogy is essentially correct. The creature killed on Vecta was an adult. We know from our sensor readings that in its natural state it exists as a pure energy mass formed by a highly cohesive electro magnetic field. But our observations have led to the knowledge that during periods of stress, such as the reproductive cycle, it alters to a solid, physical form. That was what you saw on Vecta."

"And this seed pod I took ... were the fragments removed in time? Doctor?" With admirable control, Kirk turned to look at McCoy.

McCoy allowed some of his optimistic balm to flow. "There's a good chance, Jim. The wound appears to have healed cleanly. There's no sign of infection. However..."

"However? Spock?" Kirk turned to drill the Vulcan with impatient eyes. He saw the First Officer's throat move as he swallowed and the sight was not reassuring. "Spock?" The name came out with more restraint this time.

"Captain, the bio lab has seen how rapidly this creature can penetrate the nerve endings. And Doctor McCoy has indicated to me that his medical readings show that your nervous system is undergoing unusual changes." The Vulcan hesitated only for a second. "I feel there is very little chance you are not harboring the developing Vecta young at this minute."

Kirk's weary mind reeled with shock. That was it, then. The reason for his feeling of malaise. He had become a walking time bomb, carrying around within his body the possible destruction of his own kind.

"You said 'developing', Spock. How long before they mature?"

"A week, Captain ... with luck."

Kirk realized with surprise that he'd never heard the Vulcan use that particular word before. It made the gravity of the situation strike home with compelling force.

Kirk sighed. "What will happen? Will I go mad like the colonists and die, or what?"

"Jim," McCoy said slowly. "You're host to a parasitical invader. They need you, for the time being at least. There's no reason to believe they'll harm you."

Kirk shuddered. He felt the flesh of his forearm crawl, his guts tighten at the words.

"But if we allow them to remain," he managed to say calmly, "one day, a week or so from now, I'll release a disaster on human beings that has no equal." He frowned. "I was on Vecta, gentlemen. I saw how these things can kill."

"Jim," McCoy interjected. "Why not let us take you to Star Base Six? They've one of the finest research facilities in this sector. We could..."

"No, Bones. That's out. I don't want to take this thing into a densely populated area until we can be sure that it's no threat. I won't be responsible for endangering more lives. The two of you will have to find a cure in time."

"Jim, this isn't like treating a disease," Spock explained. "So far anything that might be effective against them would kill you, too."

Kirk gave him a steady look. "It may come to that."

"Now, Jim, don't be hasty," McCoy interrupted lamely. "We'll find away to rid you of these things. Just give us time."

Kirk looked at his desk chronometer, aware as he'd never been before of how crucial time had become.

"You have forty-eight hours," he said quietly. "After that... well, we'll see."

There was no doubt of his meaning. Both of them knew the lengths to which he would go to avoid endangering ether humans. Spock made no reply, but his eyes darkened in recognition of his Captain's intent.

McCoy said steadily, "We'll make it, Jim."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Kirk asked.

"It would aid our research if you reported any unusual symptoms, Captain," Spock said gravely. "We still are not certain how the creatures manage to exist. Their 'food', so to speak. Have you noticed anything?"

Kirk massaged his neck gingerly. "Not unless you count a 'rip roaring' nightmare as a symptom."

"I'd say it was natural, considering the strain you've been under," McCoy said at his elbow. "And I'm ordering you off duty for the duration. The best thing you can do is get some rest, save your strength. Leave the worrying up to Spock and me." There was the muted hiss of his air hypo. Kirk rubbed his bicep ruefully.

"You don't give a man much chance to argue with you, Bones," he complained.

"That's why I became a doctor," McCoy said with a slight smile. "We always get the last word." He turned to leave. "Coming, Spock?"

"I shall be along shortly, Doctor," the Vulcan said quietly.

Kirk rested on his bed, his eyes growing heavy as the sedative took effect. His brain began to drift into the soft world of relaxation as soon as his head touched the pillow. He decided that his weary mind was playing him tricks, but the image of the tall figure standing watch above him persisted until he slipped into unawareness.

* * *

The ugliness was back, smothering him, causing his breath to tangle in his throat, his body to become drenched with perspiration. Out of control, his body was forced through a degrading ritual that left him drained, exhausted and sick with revulsion. Kirk fought his way back to consciousness and staggered to his servo sink where he lost what food he'd eaten that day.

"I need you, baby..."

The phrase lingered in his mind along with the dregs of bitter arousal. He draped a towel around his shoulders and sat down slowly at his desk. His door buzzed and he tripped the latch by remote control. The panel slid open to admit Mister Spock.

"Are you all right, Captain?" the Vulcan asked as he stepped before Kirk.

Kirk sighed and turned the room lights up a notch. He reached up with a corner of the towel and mopped the moisture from his perspiration-dewed forehead. ''That's a matter of opinion, Mister Spock. McCoy's sedative failed to hold off another bad dream."

"You had another hallucination, Captain?"

Kirk stared at the wall opposite him. "They're more than hallucinations, Spock. I'm actually living these things."

Spock nodded slowly. "I had expected that as soon as the lab completed the last series of tests."

"You've found something?"

Spock avoided the question momentarily. "First, let me ask you, Captain ... what is the nature of these ... dreams?"

Kirk thought about it. It would have been easy to tell McCoy. "...one of the wildest wet dreams I've ever had, Bones..." But how could he explain to the Vulcan, a being so removed from human sexual experience that he succumbed to the mating drive only once every seven years?

"I only ask in the interest of supporting a hypothesis I've formulated, Captain." The voice was quiet, almost gentle.

Kirk swung around in his chair, locking his gaze with the First Officer's. "They're sexual fantasies, Mister Spock. Sheer, raw sex. How does that help support your theory?" Spock looked not at all disconcerted, merely interested.

"I believe that it completes the extrapolation, Captain." He paced to the center of the room and folded his arms, every line of his body taut as he concentrated. "Consider, if you will, a creature that lives off energy drained from other organisms. Particularly from sophisticated organisms capable of producing waves of mental energy. Consider also that this creature may possess a method of tapping into those mental patterns and causing a sudden increase in their discharge." Kirk blinked. "The rays the Vecta launched at the crew men?" he guessed.

The Vulcan nodded. "From our study of the immature Vecta taken from the fragments removed from your arm, we've discovered they have some way of collecting the feedback from those rays. They stimulate and at the same time collect the electrical energy produced from the brain of higher beings. It is their sustenance."

"Then that's why the colonists died in convulsions," Kirk said slowly.

"Yes, Captain. Our readings showed the creature created much the same erratic pattern of brain waves as one sees in an epileptic seizure. Only in this case, the surge was great enough to cause death."

"But what method does it use to stimulate a brain to such excess?"

"That was why I asked about your hallucinations, Jim." the Vulcan said simply. "They seem to have a selective effect on the human brain, choosing those areas that are most easily reached and stimulated." He paused and hurried on.

"It's not an unknown method, Jim. If you recall on old Earth, in the late 1900's, the behavior control studies. Scientists were experimenting with the various areas of the brain that could be stimulated to produce predictable reactions. Each emotion is produced in a particular region of the brain. It is simply a matter of stimulating the proper brain center, usually by an electrical probe, and any emotion can be called forth, be it rage, fear, pleasurable fantasies, pain. The response is completely automatic. The Vecta creature is merely a highly specialized energy probe that activates these centers. Unfortunately, it continues to stimulate until the victim dies. Doctor Raymond Chalforth, on old Earth, did extensive research into the various neural centers..."

Kirk raised an arresting hand. He sometimes had the feeling that Spock loved the sound of his own words, wearing them as an adornment along with his logic and pointed ears. "I'm familiar with the behavior control idea, Spock," he said.

"I believe the Vecta young are acting on those areas of your brain that create sexual drive and are using the resultant outpouring of energy to grow."

Kirk swallowed the bitter taste that had risen suddenly in his mouth.

"Well, McCoy's sedatives only make me more susceptible to it. There must be another way."

The Vulcan moved a step closer. "Captain ... Jim ... we can defeat these creatures. We know they are not yet strong enough to kill and there's no danger to the ship and crew until they reach a stage where they can exist outside your body. If we can override the emotions they create, we can destroy their source of nourishment. I believe they will die within a matter of moments after that. They are, after all, immature and vulnerable."

"What about a stimulant for me?"

"Unwise in your condition, Captain. It could provide the threshold the creatures need for unbridled growth."

"What can I do, then? So far, I've been able to pull myself back from the imagery in time, to fight them off, but my strength is going, Spock. I don't know how much longer I can hold out."

Spock leaned towards him, every line in his body speaking of his concern. "You must remain awake, suppress the imagery they create, Captain, in order to defeat them." He dropped his gaze. "I therefore ask your permission to put you under my control by mind touch. I may be able to help you."

Kirk gave him a long, understanding look. "Thank you, my friend, but it's too dangerous. I need you free of it in case I don't make it."

"Jim," Spock's voice had assumed an unaccustomed intensity. "I'm used to suppressing emotions -- it's the way I must live. Let me help you."

Kirk shook his head emphatically. "We can't take the risk." He paused thoughtfully. "There's something else rue must discuss," he said slowly. "Spock, you know what must be done if this thing can't be licked. I may not be myself -- later on. I could go out of control, wildly insane like the colonists of Vecta. I will not be responsible for jeopardizing hundreds of lives. I'll give you and McCoy another twenty-four hours to find a solution. If you don't ... I'm counting on you to take the proper steps if they become necessary."

"Captain ... Jim..."

"Those are my orders, Mister Spock," Kirk said firmly. "I trust you to carry them out."

The Vulcan's eyes became hooded, an effect that dampened all sign of feeling, all life within their depths.

"I understand, Captain."

* * *

The ship's corridors were dimmed to their nighttime level. Although there was a full complement of crew on duty, most of the Enterprise's personnel had retired for the night. Throughout the hushed emptiness, the breathy rush of air from the life support system made a soothing background noise.

Leonard McCoy was bent over his electromicroscope, observing another disappointing failure in the effort to uncover an antidote to the Vecta spawn Jim Kirk harbored in his body. The doctor sat back and rubbed at his eyes, the futility of his task carved in deep lines on his face. He had been in the lab for more than ten hours this day, searching for the answer.

His attention was caught by the flicker of motion outside the room's door. The outer lab was dark and he went to investigate.

He tapped the light control and the room was bathed in a glare of illumination. There, looking larger than life in the sudden brilliance, stood the First Officer. McCoy took one look at the deeply set planes of that face and prepared himself for the worst.

"Jim?" he asked without preamble.

The Vulcan remained motionless for a moment, his hands clasped behind him, staring into the inner room with unfocused eyes. Finally he drew himself straighter but he still did not look at McCoy.

"I do not know how much longer he can hold out, Doctor," he confided. "I've informed him of our latest findings and he's aware of the dangers. But his strength is failing rapidly." McCoy smote his desk a flat handed blow of frustration.

"Isn't there anything you can think of, Spock? The Captain may be dying!"

"I'm aware of that, Doctor. I'm also aware that if the creatures within his body obtain the necessary nourishment -- and they will as soon as he loses control of his consciousness -- they will rapidly reach maturity and will pose a threat to this ship, if not the entire populace of this quadrant."

McCoy took a step nearer and searched the Vulcan's face closely.

"You sound as if you're contemplating the hastening of his demise, Spock," he said in a deceptively soft tone. "You're not, are you?"

Spock shifted his gaze at last and met McCoy's eyes. The doctor was surprised to see a flicker of emotion cross the Vulcan's eyes. It was gone as quickly as it had come, but McCoy was taken aback at the raw pain he'd glimpsed.

"It was his own command, Doctor," Spock said simply.

McCoy, upset by the peek he'd just had into the First Officer's inner being as well as his own anxiety, spun away to throw himself down in his chair.

"I know, Spock," he said more gently. "We don't often see eye to eye, but I think we do on this. It's just that to even consider obeying an order like that..."

Spock's mouth tightened a trifle. He drew his feelings hack into that impenetrable place inside him.

"I see no reason to debate the possible actions of a future circumstance, Doctor, but we must face the unalterable facts." Spock brought the next words out in an intense rush. "There is nothing we can do to prevent them from feeding off his mental energy. They are gaining strength, and they may soon reach the point where they will no longer need him. When that time arrives, he will be just as dead, Doctor." He looked somberly at McCoy. "That was what I was contemplating." He paused. "Have none of the formulas been affective against the creatures?"

"One or two looked promising, but the test animals died within three hours of injection with the serum. The technicians had been working for over fourteen hours, non-stop. I finally sent them out to get some rest. No, Spock, I don't think the answer is going to come from the lab."

"The Captain refused me permission to use the mind meld in an effort to suppress his emotions, to destroy the creatures."

"Well, then..." McCoy shrugged. "It's his decision, Spock."

Spock moved suddenly, his normally graceful movements abrupt with impatience. He paced a step or two.

"There is more, Doctor." He frowned. "For the last hour or two I have been distracted by vague imagery, an impression of approaching danger. Call it a warning."

McCoy gave him an understanding look. "Sympathetic nerves, Spock?"

"I think not, Doctor McCoy. There have been other times when I have received insight like this. For instance, the incident with the Intrepid..."

McCoy massaged his cheek. "You mean some sort of telepathy?"

The First Officer gave a quick nod. "Unquestionably a related form of communication, but from a non-verbal, non-sentient species."

McCoy's eyebrows went to alert position. "I'm afraid I don't follow your line of reasoning, Spock. How can the type of life you've just described develop any sort of communication?"

"Doctor," Spock assumed that patient manner that McCoy found so irritating, "there are creatures, even types of vegetation, that have methods of communication. On your Earth I believe the notable example is the Telegraph plant. No one quite knows how the various parts of it receive information, but they do, nevertheless. Besides, what I am experiencing cannot be termed a 'message'. Call it more an awareness of intent."

"Ah, yes." McCoy rocked back on his heels. "Now I see. Something like the knowledge Jim obtained in his brief contact with the vampire cloud of Tychos 4. Is that it?"

"Precisely. I have no proof yet. The ship's sensors detect nothing within range, yet I'm certain of it. And I believe I know where the threat originates."


"From adult Vecta, Doctor, that is homing in on this ship, guided by the increase in activity of the young lodged in Jim's body."

"My God, Spock! Do you know what you're saying?" McCoy's face blanched, but he recovered quickly. "No ... now wait just a minute ... we can't go off half-cocked just because your Vulcan sensitivity is working overtime. I think you should consider the fact that you're operating under a strain, that you may be reacting to stimuli within your own nervous system. What I'm suggesting, Mister Spock," he said more gently, "is that you may be so worried about Jim that you're imagining things."

"Shall we ask the Captain?" Spock's question was crisp.

"You mean he...? You think he's aware of this ... thing, too?"

"If he hasn't already felt the shared communication between them, I believe he will soon. There is some subtle, unexplained network of contact between these creatures. Because he has the young lodged in his body, I cannot help believe that he will be aware of it eventually."

McCoy pondered a moment, staring at the deck, then nodded slowly.

"All right, I'llconcede the point." He raised his eyes. "But first answer one question. You said the young are in contact with an approaching adult. Have you also deciphered the message they're sending?"

"It can be summed up in one word, Doctor."

McCoy swallowed painfully. "And that is...?"


There was silence between them for a moment.

"And if that thing locates us, can rue stop it?" McCoy asked finally.

"We were fortunate before, we may be again. Our photon torpedoes seem effective against it. But I'm not so concerned for our well being as for the other humanoid life in this quadrant. Once drawn into an inhabited area, this creature may sense larger game and turn aside to prey on any of the nearby planets."

McCoy sighed, massaged his chin and frowned more deeply.

"Then I see no alternative, Spock. You must use the mind meld to bring the emotional stimulations under control and destroy the young before the adult gets too close. Can you do it?"

"I can try, Doctor. It will be extremely dangerous for him under the circumstances."

"If I understand Vulcan practices, it will be as dangerous for you as Jim." Spock chose to ignore McCoy's statement. The doctor stared down at his own hands as if surprised to see them unclenched before him.

"But he'd want to take the risk, Spock, rather than be the possible instrument of death for hundreds."

"I agree, Doctor, but you must help me convince him to permit it. He ... is an extremely dedicated man."

McCoy's eyes sought the ceiling as if staring upward through the decks to the Captain's quarters. He gave Spock a wry, half-smile. "Would we have him any other way?" he asked.

* * *

Jim Kirk had been a fighter all of his life. He possessed that inborn stubbornness that makes a man refuse to surrender against the most impossible of odds. His was the indomitable will of the warrior, but now, as he lay in his cabin staring at the walls, he realized that this was probably the darkest moment of his life. There seemed no way out of his dilemma short of doing away with himself and he would far prefer that solution to endangering the lives of his crew and other humans in this sector.

With a resigned turn of mind, he found himself calmly examining the methods available to him. There was the merciful injection, of course, but he felt sure that McCoy would violently oppose such an act. There was the possibility that he could steal a shuttlecraft and crash it on some remote asteroid. And there was the transporter with which he could scatter himself and the creatures he harbored into a million disorganized atoms.

When he thought seriously about it, the transporter seemed the best choice. And he found just enough bitterness in him to be pleased with the idea of destroying this thing in the very emptiness of space that had spawned it.

Suddenly he sat up with a sense of shock. What was wrong with him, he wondered? There was still hope, enough time left. He could do no greater disservice to McCoy and Spock than to disregard their enormous talents and give up without allowing them a fair chance to solve the problem.

He got up from his bed and punched the button above the servo sink for a drink of water. He stood drinking, feeling the rough, raspy rawness of his throat, the irritating grit behind his tired eyelids. He would give McCoy and Spock their chance, but he prayed that a solution would be found soon. He longed to relax, to just let go...to sleep...

Kirk blinked. Panic surged up in him bathing him in a clammy sweat. He had been that close to surrendering to the creatures' stealthy attack. One moment of being unaware and it had almost claimed him.

He stalked to his chair and sat down, resting his shaking knees against the edge of his desk, grateful for its solidarity, for the hard ungiving outline of its reality.

The outline of the desk suddenly felt odd. The sharp outline of its reality softened. He noticed a strange yielding to its surface, a subtle sense of contact with living flesh. He even imagined he could feel a human warmth as it touched his thigh.

Abruptly he was aware of what was happening. The desk, the chair, everything around him was altering, becoming one vast, heated, encircling cage of flesh. It pressed on him and he felt the beginnings of response in his too-willing body.

"I need you, baby... I needyoubaby ... needyou ... needyou ... needyou..."

His head began to whirl with the echo of the pulsing melody. His eyes seemed blinded by grey fog. He reached out to clutch the corner of his desk and was horrified to feel his fingers sink into what appeared to be living flesh.

The touch was a jolt to his entire nervous system. It sent wild messages surging through his body, strangled the breath in his throat. His heart began to pound with an aroused beat.

"No ... I can't! I won't let you!" The words were forced out of his straining throat.

But the fight was with his own body now, not the creatures in his mind. His flesh was responding to the build-up of arousal, a sexual Niagara that threatened to overflow at any second. He clenched his teeth on his lower lip, struggling to control his subconscious.

With a last determined effort, Jim Kirk tensed his already aching muscle and threw himself sideways. The chair tipped, lost the struggle with gravity and toppled him in a heap on the deck.

The blow jarred the wind out of him, but it also gave him a moment's respite from the creatures' stimulations. He shook his head, felt the expected flash of pain and then was free of them.

Except that ... for one instant he was in contact with the energy from the seething hive of life lodged in his mind, felt their life forces as they sent some type of communication spinning out into blackest space ... and he was chilled by the sudden knowledge that there had been an answer.

He struggled to his feet, shaken and drawn, blood seeping from his lip where his teeth had met through the flesh. He staggered to his sink and splashed his face, staring with unseeing eyes at the pink stream that ran from his chin, puzzling over the strange new manifestation.

"What the hell was that?" he wondered aloud about the sensed messages. Then he shook his head sadly. The creatures must have destroyed his sanity at last, he decided. The being he'd suspected of answering the Vecta young must be a figment of his own shattered mind. He walked slowly and stiffly across the room, avoiding the desk with a glance of repugnance, and paused in the center of the room. He massaged the back of his neck and stared at the wall, his eyes bleak with their lack of hope.

His grim thoughts were interrupted by the buzzer on his door. He had not locked it this time and it slid open at his command to admit the Vulcan and Doctor McCoy.

"Jim, what in heaven's name happened to you?" McCoy came quickly to the Captain's side but Kirk tipped his head away from the doctor's examination.

"It's nothing, Doctor. Just a cut."

McCoy gave him a calculating look. "Well, you don't look as if you're in the best of health. As a matter of fact..."

"Let it go, Bones." Kirk's voice left no room for argument. He turned to face them both and drew a deep breath. "It came back ... and this time I wasn't asleep. I was fully conscious and trying to hold it at bay. We need a solution -- now." He spread his hands in a gesture of appeal. "I'm losing, gentlemen."

"All the more reason, Jim," McCoy urged, "to let Spock try the mind meld. I think he may have the answer. He's certainly more practiced at suppressing emotions than either you or I, and you need help." He hesitated. "By the looks of you, the sooner the better."

Kirk shook his head, the stubborn motion making his tired head ache.

"I've already been over the same ground with Mister Spock, Doctor. I will not jeopardize his life. What if this thing should infect him, too? Then there'd be more of these things." He sighed, decided to take them into his confidence. "Besides, I believe it may already be too late for me. I'm having strange premonitions, weird ideas about monsters lurking in space. No," he shook his head once more. "I can't permit him to take the risk."

He failed to see the look exchanged between Spock and McCoy. Now the Vulcan stepped forward, his eyes searching out and holding Kirk's.

"You're not losing your mind, Captain," he said. "There are more of them. One of them is headed this way, at the moment, guided by the increased activity of the young Vecta. Jim ... please..."

Kirk waved the Vulcan to silence. "This is no time for subterfuge, Spock," he said curtly. "I appreciate the gesture, but the answer is still 'no'."

"Jim," McCoy glanced from Spock to Kirk, hardly daring to intervene. He could sense the two strong personalities in conflict with each other and since they were both his friends, he found his position more difficult .

"Spock's not inventing another Vecta just to persuade you to let him help you. There really is another one. Spock came to me not more than ten minutes ago with the same strange tale ... something about approaching danger from deep space. That's why we came again to ask you to reconsider Spock's offer of help." He folded his arms and rocked on his heels. "Now I'm not as good as Spock at figuring odds for identical premonitions occurring in two people at the same time, but I'm willing to bet they're pretty high."

"Are you trying to tell me...?" Kirk broke off, searching their faces for any trace that they might be lying to him. He found none. He felt a flash of his old energy and asked, straight faced, "And just what are the odds, Mister Spock?"

"Astronomical, Captain," Spock replied, his dark eyes revealing nothing.

Fizzbin, Kirk thought, and his mind leaped out to share the Vulcan's quiet attempt to alleviate the tension. He gave both his friends a tight smile, then sobered.

"It's still a risk I won't ask you to take, Spock. You'll be needed as Captain of this ship if..."

"Captain," Spock, normally so polite and correct, interrupted him. "If it's all the same to you, I'd prefer to go on serving as your First Officer."

The words caused a ridiculous surge of emotion in Kirk and he didn't reply for a moment. Then he frowned. "I can't," he said quietly.

"Captain ... Jim ... I'm not making this plea simply as your friend," Spock stopped short, but the word was already out and it gave Kirk a glow to hear it echo in the room.

The Vulcan hurried on, as if to distract from his lapse. "You must consider the fact that this creature approaching us must be an adult and it can not only stimulate minds as the young are doing to yours, but it can kill. And quite efficiently, as the other adult did. And our position puts us perilously close to a heavily populated sector of this quadrant. I must do the mind touch now. If this creature should be drawn into this area, those colonies will have little more chance than the Vecta settlement did. There is no time to lose. We must halt the upsurge in your brain activity and destroy the young while we have the chance."

This was something Kirk had not thought about. He had, however, realized at once the danger to Spock, and the reluctance the Vulcan normally had to such intimate contact. (Damn it, Spock, do you always have to be right? Even about something I've no business to ask of you?)

Spock's level gaze was his answer. If the Vulcan had understood him, if he had received the mental query, he gave no sign. It was not the first time he'd used his logic to quell Kirk's objections.

"We should begin right away," McCoy interrupted the Captain's private debate. "I want both of you in Sick Bay so I can monitor your bodily responses to the stress. Just give me a few minutes to get everything set up." He paused, glanced from one to the other. There was a lot he wanted to say, but this wasn't the time or place for it. "The best of luck ... to both of you." He turned and left them alone.

Kirk heard the hiss of the door as it closed behind the doctor but he stood unmoving in the center of the room. His mind was in turmoil, besieged with a dozen conflicting emotions. Indecision flowed over him, robbed him of his will.

"Captain," the Vulcan's voice penetrated his confusion. "Shall we join the doctor? There is not much time."

Kirk merely nodded and they walked the short distance to the nearby turbo lift. The Captain was lost in private reflection for much of the journey to Sick Bay.

Kirk realized that Spock valued his friendship in a special way, that the Vulcan had never before formed an alliance based largely on emotional rapport. He would probably never achieve another one and that thought left a great deal of responsibility on Kirk's shoulders.

Spock could irritate him, aggravate him as no one else could. Yet in the midst of that irritation, he might find Spock's gaze on him and the Vulcan saying, as he once had, "Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them. A starship, Captain, also runs on loyalty. Loyalty to a man -- one man. Nothing can replace it ... or him." And Kirk would once again find a strange obstruction in his throat that hadn't been there a moment before.

The first time Kirk had become aware of Spock's effort to share his problems and his anguish, he'd been surprised. Surprised and touched to find a man who prided himself on being totally unemotional, completely logical and decidedly superior in many ways, would discard his very necessary reserve to share his Captain's pain.

And Kirk could recall with absolute clarity the time Spock had literally held him in his arms as Kirk gasped, "I've lost command!" There had been only the quiet voice to draw him back to reality, that and a surge of Vulcan strength that flowed from the touch-telepath's body into his own. It was not the only time Kirk had experienced this depth of caring from his First Officer.

They had a priceless thing in the relationship between them and Kirk wondered if he were worthy of it. He was not even certain of his motives in encouraging it and not being a man prone to introspection had never tried to analyze them. Now he wondered -- for my own part what is behind the special bond between us?

The turbo lift had completed its journey. Sick Bay was just a few steps away. Kirk turned to Spock, wanting to say the words, but not certain how. "Spock ... I..."

Kirk knew the moment was escaping him. Spock would turn away any effort to thank him as 'illogical', yet Kirk held that level gaze by force of his will and formed the words in his mind. ( I owe you my life a dozen times over ... funny, I think I've said those words before, but never to you, old friend ... never to you...)

Spock's expression did not change but Kirk saw an almost imperceptible darkening of the Vulcan's eyes. The moment slipped into time and was gone, but not lost.

"Shall we go, Captain?" The Vulcan asked once more and Kirk gave a silent nod. Together the two entered Sick Bay.

McCoy had adjusted one of the Sick Bay monitoring panels to record the two patients' readings simultaneously. He had cleared the area of other medical personnel and they were alone.

Kirk stretched out on the prepared bed. There was a stool at his elbow for Spock.

"Okay, Jim?" McCoy asked, his forehead creased with concern.

"Okay, Bones. I just want to get this over with, one way or another. I'm tired ... the responsibilities ... the worry..." His voice trailed off. (No beach to walk on. Not for me. Not ever.)

Kirk pulled his mind back to the present. "Sorry, Bones," he apologized. "These things are making me ramble."

McCoy gave his shoulder a squeeze. "Ready any time you are, Mister Spock."

The Vulcan stepped forward kneading his supple fingers -- the Vulcan surgeon preparing to repair the injured mind.

"There must be no distractions, Doctor," he warned. "To break my concentration may endanger the Captain's life. There are certain safe guards I will set up to protect him in case of a broken contact, but they are not absolute. Do not interfere, no matter what happens. Only if I should call you by name must you then intervene. Step forward, grasp my shoulders, shake me. Strike me if necessary. But break the contact at once. Do you understand?" At the doctor's earnest nod, a look of intense concentration came over the First Officer's face. He bent over Kirk with studied care.

Kirk saw the long fingers come down, felt their sensitive touch, their Vulcan heat. Then he was lost in the spiraling nebula of intertwining minds.

* * *

For Spock the journey into Kirk's mind was an unnerving one. Not only had he never willingly trespassed this deeply into the Captain's subconscious, but it went against Spock's inherent aversion to violating another's privacy. His reluctance to do so was his personal acknowledgment of Kirk's prerogative to personal dignity, something the Vulcans valued above all else.

And there was another side to his disinclination, a side he dismissed as unimportant and illogical; that of the necessity for lowering his own mental shields in order to accomplish the mind touch. Even dropping them to Kirk was a painful and disturbing idea to him.

As his fingers made contact with Kirk's face, however, he willed himself to drop those barriers, to release the dominions of his mind. For a few seconds he allowed himself only the preparatory thoughts.

(My mind is opening ... I am moving closer to his mind... Our minds are moving toward each other... Our minds will join...)

As usual, the first faint waves of imagery created a mild confusion in him. Bits of information, vagrant thoughts, and most of all Kirk's feelings produced a seething sea of emotions in him. It was at this point that he was always tempted to withdraw from the mind meld in his contacts with humans; the experience caused a temporary unbalance in his normally logical mind that he found distasteful. This time, however, he ignored it, allowing his mind to probe deeper...

("No beach to walk on," he'd said. And do I have my beach? Is there a single moment that I'm not aware of his orders, his wishes, his needs? Even when I attempt to shut them out, they're there. The touch of his thoughts on mine is as binding as any command he might give. He suspects that. He never uses it against me. And yet...and yet...

(He does not need to command to persuade me. I defer to his wishes. I defer because he is my Captain, because he is Kirk. Because he is my friend.


(Once I thought the word had no meaning. Now he's taught me that it is a bond between two people. There must be a sharing and responsibility ... and love flowing both ways for it to exist. For awhile I thought sharing and responsibility would be enough. But with an insidious influence, the relentless strength of his personality, he overwhelmed my reluctance. I don't remember when it happened, I no longer care. But at some moment he reached out and without thinking I came the distance required. He's like that. He knows what his warmth, his interest, his compassion can do. And as any good commander, he uses it to advantage. I should resent it, but I don't.

(And I have my compensations. We both know I'm better structured, physically and emotionally, than he. I'm aware that at times his humanity forces him to choose the more difficult way, and he suffers for it. I'm not swayed by similar considerations and he knows it. If he were a lesser man I would feel contempt for his weaknesses. And if he were a lesser man he would hate me for my lack of them. But, he is not.

(Since he is the kind of man he is, the Captain he must be, he is the only one who can appreciate the loneliness of the pinnacle I seek to ascend, because it is his pinnacle, too. And occasionally, in the blackness of this lonely land, it is welcome knowledge to know that someone climbs at your side, and that someone, a friend. It becomes a need at times to know they are there. It is an illogical reaction but I must face the facts; he is not invulnerable and neither am I.)

Abruptly Spock's mind was caught in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions, feelings that surged and swirled around him, threatening his control. He knew it was Kirk's mind, resisting him; he recognized the ambivalence of Kirk's thoughts about the mind touch, his concern for Spock, his worry over his ship and crew. Spock had encountered this forceful will before. He deepened his own concentration, finding it immensely difficult to overpower Kirk's mind. He set up the safe guards he had told McCoy about, and with his own considerable mental powers, finally broke through to Kirk's inner consciousness.

At first he functioned only as an observer, not attempting to interfere with Kirk's thoughts, a part of the mind, but not an active one. He let his own consciousness lie coiled and waiting in the deep recesses of Kirk's brain, remaining dormant until the creatures struck again.

And he hadn't long to wait. Slowly at first, and then with a rush of physical warmth he became aware that the creatures were attacking the Captain's mind once again. He clamped down immediately on Kirk's emotional response, attempting to keep it within safe limitations, but he allowed the imagery to unfold so he might study it's pattern.

"I need you, baby..."

The girl who formed in the pool of their common mind was no one that Spock recognized. She was fair of hair, slender to the point of fragility, yet she radiated such appeal to Kirk that Spock felt shaken to the core of his being by its intensity. He realized that he had no framework of comparison on the depths of feeling the human teenager was capable of, yet he found the urgency, the poignancy of this feeling surprising in its strength.

He probed Kirk's mind analytically, and at last drew back, satisfied but as yet without understanding. She was Kirk's 'first love'.

("Joy ... my beautiful, carefree Joy...")

A gust of passion swept over the Vulcan. He was unprepared for the currents of anguish and pleasure that were entwined in Kirk's feelings for the girl.

Could Jim, at the age he must believe himself to be at this moment, be capable of such longing, such tenderness, such fevered yearning, he wondered? He was forced to admit that it must be so. And the creatures had the ability to focus the memory, to make them almost unbearably real.

Spock had experienced these same feelings only once or twice before in his own life and each time he had found himself unable to cope with them. They were a part of his life that unsettled him, left him without defense. Now, the power of Kirk's memories were having the same effect on him and he was shaken. Without hesitation he reinforced the withdrawal safe guards and left Kirk's mind.

* * *

For a moment Leonard McCoy had no idea that Spock had broken the mind touch. The Vulcan remained bending over the Captain's body for a second. His face was drained to the point of total blankness. The doctor realized what had happened only when the First Officer took his hands from Kirk's face. McCoy was startled to see the tremor that shook the Vulcan's hands as he removed them from contact with Kirk.

"Spock?" He stepped forward hastily, anxiously. His eyes flew to Kirk who still rested on the bed, eyes closed. "Are you all right? What happened? Is anything wrong?"

Spock exhaled an unsteady breath.

"In answer to your questions, Doctor -- yes, I am quite all right. And no, nothing went wrong. But I do not believe I should continue."

"Don't think you should continue! Spock, are you out of your mind?" McCoy blustered a little, upset. "What about Jim? Are you just going to let those things kill him without making an effort to save him? And what about the nearby planets? You can't quit now!"

"I'm not forgetting any of those factors, Doctor, but there is a danger here. I ... may have overestimated my ability to help. Perhaps we should proceed with our research on a medical antidote. I may be sacrificing the Captain's life if I continue."

"Don't you think I should be the one to decide, Spock?" The quiet voice came as a surprise to both of them. James Kirk, looking a little more finely drawn, a little more exhausted, was observing them from the Sick Bay bed.

Spock's face grew morose, he seemed deeply concerned.

"Captain," he began, "there are certain individuals who possess such strength of will, such dynamic minds, that they can scarcely be kept under the control of the mind meld. Their mental processes literally overwhelm those of the one attempting the contact," Spock sighed. "You are such an individual."

They were interrupted by a signal from the Sick Bay communications device. McCoy strode to the wall and hit the button with unexpected force.

"Sick Bay," he snapped. "McCoy here."

Sulu's voice came through in shattering intensity.

"Doctor, if you're able you'd better inform the Captain or Mister Spock of a change of status. We're going to need one of them on the bridge in a very short time."

Kirk managed to get to his feet. He started an unsteady walk to the intercom, waving off Spock's offer of help. "Kirk here. What's the problem, Mister Sulu?"

"We're picking up a strange energy reading, Captain," the Oriental replied. "Mister Chekov says it matches that of the creature on Vecta. It's moving towards us at sub-light speed right now, but it's gaining momentum."

"Any sign that it is hostile?"

"No sir. But the Gervania colonies lie directly between it and us. I just thought you should know..."

Kirk drew a ragged breath. "Plot an intercept course, Mister Sulu. Warp Factor Two. Get us between that ... thing ... and Gervania. Keep us informed. Either Mister Spock or I will be up shortly." He turned away from the intercom and looked at the Vulcan. "There it is, Spock. You have no choice."

"Captain..." Spock's voice trailed away. His eyes met and locked with Kirk's. McCoy saw something familiar, an almost palpable communication, pass from Kirk to Spock. He knew what its effect would be even before the Vulcan's shoulders slumped with resignation. "Very well, Captain," Spock said quietly. "Shall we proceed?"

Once again Kirk stretched out on the bed, once again Spock seated himself at his elbow. The Captain gave Spock an encouraging smile.

"I'll try not to fight you this time, make it easier," he promised.

McCoy noticed that the Vulcan made no reply and later he was to remember Spock's strange silence. The Doctor watched as the First Officer placed his fingers at Kirk's temples almost grimly. "It has to be done, Spock," McCoy offered helpfully.

"Silence, Doctor ... please." The Vulcan's eyes slowly receded under his lids. "Our minds are moving closer ... closer..." His voice became inaudible to MCoy.

This time Spock found himself reliving something from his own past as he delved into Kirk's mind, moved slowly into the hidden depths. He knew that his exchange with McCoy had triggered the memory but he found the intrusion no less disturbing.

...He had been in the medical lab, researching similar energy life forms they had encountered in the past, when Christine, always sensitive to his tensions, had approached and offered to help.

Spock, concerned for Kirk, concentrating to the depth of his ability, had rebuffed her. Not patiently as he had in the past, not even with his usual consideration for her feelings, but absently, almost curtly. McCoy, entering the lab at that moment, had seen tears in the nurse's eyes as she left the room hurriedly.

"In the name of heaven, Spock," he complained to the Vulcan. "Can't you get it through your head that the woman loves you? Be gentle with her. Who knows, you may find yourself in the same situation you did a few months back and then you'll understand her feelings. In the meantime, try and appreciate a good woman's worth."

Spock, distracted at last from his perusal of the tapes, turned abruptly on McCoy.

"I fully appreciate the worth of any crewmember, Doctor McCoy," he said shortly. "Man or woman. In that, I differ from you. You seem able only to appreciate the female members of this crew as an odd sort of artistic creation. And I reject your chauvinism on the matter."

"No, Spock," McCoy argued. "It's not my attitude you reject, it's your own. You're half human. I know you're capable of responding to a pretty face or figure. I've seen you react to a beautiful woman, don't forget. You're just as capable of an emotional response as the rest of us. Capable, but not willing. You've deliberately tried to excise that part of your nature. It's almost an obsession with you. You've found the only way to accomplish it is to dedicate yourself to something ... or someone."

Spock was eyeing him coldly. "Doctor, I find your unrestrained flights of illogic particularly disquieting at a moment when the Captain's life may..."

"There's no room left for any woman, is there, Spock?" McCoy interrupted him, shrewdly pressing his point. "You belong to Jim Kirk and you'll never be free." He rubbed his chin reflectively and his gaze softened a trifle. "Maybe that's what you need after all. Someone who depends on you, who expects you to deliver the very best that's in you -- the inhuman effort towards perfection. And striving towards that perfection reminds you of what you want to be, doesn't it, Spock? Not what you actually are -- a half-Vulcan, half-human with normal limitations and abilities. That's what you need so desperately, isn't it? Someone who pays no attention to those little flaws we all have and that you can't accept about yourself." McCoy paused and his voice was quieter as he went on.

"You set impossible standards for yourself, Spock," he said. "And you're constantly disappointed when you can't achieve them. No Vulcan that I know expects such unrelenting perfection from themselves. But you do. My God, Spock, when are you going to accept that you're half human? More importantly, when are you going to accept that you're only half Vulcan?"

A stony silence greeted his outburst. Then Spock had turned back to the tapes. After a moment, McCoy sighed audibly and left the room.

Now, Spock relived those moments and another from an earlier time. What was it she had said?

("Where would you estimate we belong, Miss Keeler?"...

("You? At his side ... as if you've always been there, and always will...")

He did not want to analyze his response to the idea, not now, not when Kirk's life depended on his complete attention.

But his distraction with the memories was an almost fatal error. The creatures were back, their approach more in the nature of a studied assault this time. They had gained valuable and dangerous knowledge in their brief contact with his mind.

"I need you, baby."

It came as a distinct shock. The woman he saw, that he touched, who touched him, was not from Kirk's past. She was his golden Leila, the one love of his life. The old tenderness and longing rose in him, he found himself trembling with it.

Spock fought down the imagery with desperation. The creatures were trying to trick him into acting out and sharing Kirk's emotional responses. He willed their common mind to resist them and he felt the influence of their stimulations fade reluctantly.

Then suddenly without warning, chill winds swept his body. The physical sensations were so strong that it was impossible to doubt their validity. He felt the sting of icy needles against his face, but his body was warm, painfully so. Then he was out of the storm, away from the cold, his body caressed and cradled by soft furs and something more exquisite to his keen senses.

Golden hair spread out beneath him in a tawny fan. Tendrils of it a silken beauty slipped across his fingers as he buried his hands to the wrists in it ... Zarabeth!

His lips sought hers and her body rose to welcome him. He braced himself over her, ready to lose himself in a primeval ritual...

Spock smothered the manufactured dream almost savagely. He battered down the insidious imagery and its erotic influence with all the determination he could master. But he knew his control was weakening.

The creatures renewed their onslaught, sending strange visions, memories and sensations coursing through the Vulcan's brain. He clung grimly to his mastery over them, fighting to keep the Kirk/Spock mind from responding. But he was not accustomed to such fierce emotions. He had no defense such as that a human might develop over the years. Even as he forced the stimulations to expend their energy uselessly, he knew he was treading on dangerous ground.

Suddenly his body was shaken by a violent spasm. A remembered restlessness seized him, a growing irritability. His body was fanned by the furnace heat of his desert heritage. Sheer agony gripped him as his physical chemistry began a subtle shift. Spock felt as if he were being sliced in two by a giant's knife.

He felt the irresistible currents within his body beginning to rise to an apex, his blood begin to boil. His nerve endings were suddenly raw as his whole being screamed for relief. Within the sanctuary of his mind, Spock faced the horror of total madness. Unbidden the hated words rose in his brain...

(I must possess ... she cannot refuse ... I will ... I MUST ... the fire burns within... Her touch will quench the flame... T'Pring, I NEED!)

From the darkness surrounding his tortured brain, he felt the soothing touch of someone's thoughts, someone who offered solace, comfort, a haven ... Jim.

But it was too late. The well-known image rose before his mind's eye, but it advanced bearing weapons. A blade glittered and flashed in the ruddy sky.

(He challenges! Traitor! I will do what I must! I MUST POSSESS!)

Some part of his brain shrank from the approaching deed. Spock twisted in agony at the memory, sought help from another quarter.

(T'Pau... forbid... FORBID! T'Pau, I plead with thee ... I beg...")

("Thee speaks?") A sense of awe in the words. And then the final agony, the last degradation... ("Art thee Vulcan, or art thee human?") and nothing, not even the fear for Kirk, could remove the humiliation he felt at hearing those words. Even now she questioned him, even now he was unacceptable to his own people, even with his body drowning him in molten lava. His cry had the ring of a soul eternally damned.

("I burn, T'Pau... My eyes are flame ... my heart is flame..!") And he knew as he uttered them that there was no hope for either himself or Kirk.

He looked down. Once again his hands were winding the white sash around a beloved neck. He shuddered with horror at his act, yet his frenzied body drove him on. The well-known face was going dark, the eyes closed beneath swollen lids. A second more and triumph would be his.

Spock, deep in the mind meld, felt Kirk's consciousness cringe away from the memory, from death at the hands of his friend. The Vulcan sensed the shock to the Captain's nervous system, the falter of Kirk's vital signs. This time there would be no McCoy to spare them. Spock's mind, deep in the plak tow, held his tongue prisoner. This time his brain would complete the job, would murder the Captain in its fevered power.

Spock made a final effort, drew the life energies of the creatures into his own mind. There was no time to establish the safe guards for himself. He triggered them for Kirk and then with one searing wrench, Spock tore his mind from the Captain's, hoping he was not too late.

The fragile mental link snapped with the sharpness of a rubber band that had been overextended, and then Spock's brain was hurled into the blackness of eternal night.

* * *

Leonard McCoy later prayed that he'd never have to witness such a sight again as long as he lived. His two friends were locked together, one twisting in the agony of death, the other of murderous hate and lust. Spock's hands were at Kirk's throat and the Captain's face was blackening from lack of air. The Vulcan was in a state of complete arousal, his brow dewed with perspiration, the thin nostrils flared, his body taut and hard.

McCoy leaped forward, not even certain what he intended to do, but hoping that he would be in time to separate the two. As his hands reached for Spock's shoulders, the Vulcan suddenly jerked backwards, pulling himself free from Kirk. Then he staggered and before the Doctor could reach him, the First Officer toppled to the deck. He struck heavily and did not move.

McCoy rushed to the Captain who was half-conscious, massaging his bruised throat. The doctor took time only to ascertain that Kirk had suffered no permanent damage, then he bent over the Vulcan.

His mediscanner detected virtually no life. The vital signs, normally low for Spock, were ebbing. The brain activity had ceased to register. McCoy knew without a doubt that the Vulcan was dying.

"Bones... Bones?" Kirk sat up, his gaze fastened on his unmoving First Officer. "The creatures are gone! Do something for him!"

Kirk had seen Spock motionless, had watched the Vulcan suspend his breathing until it was almost imperceptible. He had seen his First Officer suppress any unnecessary movement, but that had been power held in check by a control that was beautiful to watch, energy in stasis. But he had never seen the Vulcan so death-like and it was a knife twisting in his guts to witness it now. He watched with anxiety as McCoy completed his examination.

The Doctor stood up slowly, shaking his head. He glanced at Kirk.

"Bones, he saved my life! You can't let him die!"

"Jim... I.." McCoy arched his eyebrow ruefully, a sign of his helplessness. "There's nothing I can do, Captain. The shock of breaking the contact was too much for his mind. He's gone down into Klee-fiah."

"Klee-fiah..." Kirk's voice faded over the dreaded word. He'd once heard Spock describe it as the last resort for a Vulcan's mind, a sanctuary where they retreated to either be healed or ... die. No one knew how to bring a Vulcan out of Klee-fiah if they did not want to return. Still Kirk failed to accept it.

"Bones..." There was a wealth of entreaty and accusation in the name.

"I'm sorry, Jim." McCoy glanced away from Kirk's grimace of pain. "I wish there was something I could do."

The intercom chose that moment to summon them. Kirk gripped the doctor's arm. "Do what you can." He managed to reach the intercom.

"Captain?" Sulu sounded a trifle surprise, but he recovered quickly. "Captain, we've reached the intercept point of the energy mass. Contact in four minutes."

"Has it altered to attack Gervania?" Kirk asked.

"Not yet, Captain. It's holding to its original course and we're directly in its path."

Kirk glanced at the figure of the Vulcan. McCoy had summoned his aides and they were tenderly lifting the quiet body onto the same bed Kirk had so recently occupied. Kirk wavered a moment. If he left, Spock might be dead when he returned. And he suddenly felt as if his place were here, at the side of his friend.

"Jim," McCoy came to stand beside him, his face creased with worry. "There's only one thing we might try. You were the last person in contact with him and also his friend -- a friend he thought enough of to sacrifice his life for. If there was a way you could reach his subconscious, communicate with him, you might he able to pull him out of the Klee-fiah. It could be his only hope."

"You mean talk to him, Bones? How? About what?"

"I'm ... not sure. You know him better than I do." McCoy shook his head apologetically. "It's all I can come up with. I'm sorry."

"Captain?" Sulu's voice, sounding nervous and distressed, cut into their words. "Will you be coming up to the bridge? The energy mass..."

"Yes, dammit! I'll be there!" Kirk caught himself and amended his tone. "I'll be up immediately, Mister Sulu. Prepare the photon torpedoes."

He let his hand drop from the intercom button and turned to look again at the Vulcan. His eyes met McCoy's and he saw sympathy in them.

"I think he'll be okay for a few minutes, Jim. I've injected a stimulant to keep his heart going. But make it quick. Spock's life may depend on you."

"Spock's life against four hundred thirty and this ship." Kirk looked around the vessel's walls. He turned to leave Sick Bay. "I wish it wasn't a choice I had to make" And showing little sign of what he'd been undergoing the last few hours, he headed for the bridge.

* * *

On the bridge, Kirk slipped into the command chair and requested an updated status report from Sulu. He could almost see the tension ease as his bridge team awaited his orders.

Alone, he thought, the word playing a liet-motif to his serious concentration as he listened to Sulu's evaluation. (Alone again. All of them looking at me for help, the right decision. That's what it's all about ... command. But I could use that staunch friend beside me...)

"Captain!" Sulu interrupted his private thoughts. "The energy force just turned towards Gervania! It's just been hovering out there for the last few minutes as if it were disoriented, but now it's headed straight for the colony!"

It's found a new source of food, Kirk told himself. He leaned forward. "Edge in closer, Mister Sulu. Get us between it and the planet again. Mister Chekov, be ready to fire on my command."

At what point did Spock and I become so close? Kirk puzzled as he studied the screen for a glimpse of the creature. Surely not back at the beginning when I first came aboard the Enterprise.

He could recall snapping at Spock about Gary Mitchell, "Will you try for one moment to feel, at least act like you've got a heart?" and he winced at the memory, for Spock had displayed a fine sensitivity to Kirk's innermost feelings as time went on. And there was no other person on board who could really grasp what it meant to stand alone on that bridge, no one else who had been on that lonely precipice. Despite the fact that their methods might differ, Spock would be the first to back up Kirk's decisions.

Does he realize, Kirk wondered, how much it means to know that if I ordered this ship into the jaws of hell, one man would stand with me? His Vulcan mind would reject the illogic of such an act, but he would go.

"Contact in twelve seconds, Captain." Sulu was hunched over his scanner. Chekov sat tensely poised above the fire button on his console.

"Steady as he goes, Mister Sulu." Kirk's mind came to full alert as he saw the familiar gaseous cloud drifting between the ship and the bright orb that was Gervania.

"Give me a count-down, Sulu. Point-blank range, Chekov. I don't want to miss it. We've got to get it with the first shot or it could turn on us and it's unbelievably fast."

(My right arm I called you. You're that ... and more. As much as I love this ship, I don't want it at this cost, Spock. It's too high a price to pay. Don't leave us.)


(Hang on Spock. I won't abandon you.)


The ugly pulsing vapor with its erratically changing shape and the faint glow of energy in its heart was directly in front of them. Kirk felt a chill grip his body. Even as they watched, the transparent creature halted and with startling swiftness, swept towards the ship.

"Captain!" From behind him, Kirk heard Uhura's voice go shrill.

Kirk leaned further forward, his mind eager to do battle with this grotesque force, to kill it as it had the colony on Vecta and his crewmen, as it had almost killed him and had perhaps killed Spock.

"Fire photon torpedoes!"

The brilliant lances of light shot out in twin beams, buried themselves in the depths of the shimmering transparency, and then there was a blinding burst of light as the creature's energy reacted to the torpedoes' detonation. Kirk shivered as he thought he sensed a lingering death cry from the beast in his mind. Then it was gone and the image vanished from the viewscreen. The blackness of space was restored and Kirk relaxed as he saw the normal pattern of stars.

"Dead center!" Chekov pounded his console and Sulu swung around to grin at Kirk. The Captain felt Uhura's fingers press his shoulders and he drew a sigh of relief. He got slowly to his feet, still searching the screen, unable to believe that it was finally over.

"Cancel red alert, Mister Sulu. I'll be in Sick Bay if I'm needed." He headed for the turbo lift.

Uhura blocked his path to the elevator. "Doctor McCoy has been keeping us informed of Mister Spock's efforts to help you, Captain," she explained. "And we know what happened... I'm sorry. Will he be all right?"

Kirk could only manage an unreadable look.

"We don't know yet, Lieutenant. But I hope so." He left her standing uncertainly by the door as he left.

He was glad that it took the turbo lift a few seconds to get him to the proper level, for once again he found himself thinking about the unusual alliance between himself and Spock. No other officer in Star Fleet had been able to form a close bond with a Vulcan. In fact, the Vulcans had proved so difficult for humans to comprehend that they had finally been assigned their own ships; entire crews composed only of Vulcans. The humans had felt a sense of relief and Kirk suspected, so had the Vulcans.

It was true that Spock was half-human, but Kirk had always believed this was not a factor in their relationship. In fact, it was probably Spock's alien half that sometimes provided Kirk with a required insight into problems. Spock could maintain his detached scientific viewpoint and yet he was a compassionate being. The mixture was a rare and valuable asset to Kirk.

In his first days aboard the Enterprise, Kirk had set about wooing the Vulcan to his side with calloused directness. He wanted to insure that his First Officer's indomitable will was matched to his own. There was no other way for James Kirk to operate efficiently aboard his own ship. Call it ego, call it idiosyncrasy, yet it marked a man singularly fitted for command. The decisions would be solely his, with the vital second-in-command welded to him as an extension of his resolution. He had not really thought about the person behind the alien face, had not, at first, bothered to understand.

And he had not realized until much later that in attempting to influence Spock's attitudes, his own would be affected, that his detached feelings would eventually soften into a tolerant liking and finally into a deep friendship.

He had been groping his way towards an answer to free Spock from the Klee-fiah as his reflections brought him from the past into the present. He had felt there was a silent communication between them, at times he'd been almost certain of it -- a command left unfinished, but instantly obeyed, an inner turmoil unexpressed, but quietly assuaged, yet he had no real proof that Spock ever received his mental emanations. He had no idea if Spock, even conscious, would have picked up his messages from the bridge this day.

It was a fact that Spock had been careful to disguise any response to Kirk's thoughts. The Captain understood that this was necessary to the Vulcan's integrity; every living Vulcan had learned long ago to suppress the mental imagery of other beings, it had saved their sanity more than once. It would be an unprecedented event if a Vulcan citizen had dropped those safe guards to admit the thoughts of a human. Yet, somehow, Kirk was sure that Spock had.

It was all Kirk possessed in this battle to save his dying friend. Was the bond between them this strong, he wondered? Kirk hoped that it was. As the turbo lift slowed its passage and prepared to stop, he closed his eyes and concentrated with a grimness he'd seldom shown.

(Don't leave us, Spock. Come back.) He knew abruptly and with his usual total honesty what he must say, the truth about himself that he'd sensed in their relationship, the knowledge he'd gained in his contact with the alien's mind. (You're right, old friend, I'm not invulnerable.) Knowing himself, he thought it would be difficult to admit, but the plea came easier than he'd expected. (Stay with me, Spock... I need you.)

There was no sensation of response, no expected answer. Kirk stepped from the turbo lift, feeling depressed and sad. Spock might already be dead. Heavy-hearted, he started down the corridor to Sick Bay.

McCoy came charging through the doorway as he approached. The doctor's face was lit with a happy glow, his eyes were dancing with excitement.

"Jim! I was just coming to tell you! Spock's coming out of it! I don't know what happened, but just a second ago he stirred and began regaining consciousness. It's unbelievable. I can't explain it, but for some reason he's come back from the dead!"

Kirk drew a long unsteady sigh that released some of his pent-up tension. Had he communicated with the Vulcan, he wondered? Had that been the reason that Spock had suddenly made his return to the world of the living? Kirk had no way of knowing and it wasn't important anyway. All that mattered was that the Vulcan was alive and going to be all right.

He stepped into Sick Bay and peered cautiously around the door of the inner room. He found his eyes matched by Spock's calm and level gaze.

"Welcome back, Mister Spock," he managed to say quietly.

* * *

It was the last duty period of the day and Spock had finally located the Captain on the observation deck. Kirk had been absent from the bridge for some time as the ship proceeded leisurely to the base on Tau Ceti and the First Officer had at last gone in search of him.

The Captain was leaning back from the well of the quartzite window, his arms braced before him, his hands resting on the rim of the huge port. His gaze seemed to be lost in the countless sparks that glowed in the eternal blackness.

His ears detected the Vulcan's soft step and he turned.


"I was preparing to go off duty, Captain," the Vulcan said. "And I was wondering if you might like to finish that chess game?"

It seemed an odd moment to express interest in a game and Kirk felt sure the Vulcan had used it merely as an excuse to seek him out. His mind went back over the past hours and he thought, has it only been three days since we played chess? It seemed a millennia.

"Not tonight, Spock. Thanks, but I'm not in the mood." He hesitated. "You understand, I hope?"

Spock inclined his head gravely, but made no reply; obviously there was something else on his mind. He cleared his throat and finally folded his arms in his characteristic manner.

"I have vague memories, dim," the Vulcan began. "An impression of your trying to reach me in the Klee-fiah. It saved my life. I wish... that is ... uh ... I want to express..."

The words were impossible for Spock and Kirk took pity on him.

"There's no need to thank me, Spock," he interrupted gently. "You risked your life for me. Besides, you give me too much credit," he said with a slow smile. "The act wasn't entirely unselfish."

(Nor was mine.)

The reply rang in Kirk's mind with absolute clarity. He stood scarcely breathing, caught by surprise and unwilling to destroy the lingering warmth of the unexpected contact. Had he imagined it? He didn't think so...

The Captain's smile expanded and he thought he saw an answering gleam in the Vulcan's eyes. He knew there was no further need For words between them and at last he turned back to resume his study of the drifting stars. Spock moved to his accustomed place at Kirk's elbow.

They stood there for a long time sharing the beauty of the alien stars that slipped past their silent ship. Two lonely men, no longer alone.