Disclaimer: Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the property of and is copyright (c) 1982 by Rosalie Blazej. Originally published in Spin Dizzie #6, Marilyn Johansen, editor. Rated PG.

An Obligation

Rosalie Blazej

A scowl darkened Leonard McCoy's face as he walked beside the first officer on their way to Briefing Room Six.

"You're not really suggesting that we just let the Lorn die, are you, Spock?"

"I suggest nothing, Doctor. I merely point out that the death of the Lorn could be considered the next logical step in the evolution of the Lorn/Stiven symbiosis."

'''The next logical step'? Spock, you're condemning to death one of the most unique sentient beings in our universe. No human has ever seen it. One, Spock. One in our whole galaxy. The Lorn has been alive for who knows how long..."

"The existence of the Lorn on Urda IV can be traced back 6,376 standard years."

McCoy's scowl deepened. "The store of knowledge, wisdom, experiences it contains must be beyond belief. And you want it to die?"

Spock stopped momentarily. He withheld a "Doctor, you weren't listening", fixed McCoy with a patient look, and continued. "The evolution of the Lorn/Stiven has been so rapid as to suggest that it is not a true evolutionary process as we understand it. Perhaps it is a single metamorphosis, a life process on a grand scale. We know that at the beginning of its existence on Urda IV the Lorn/Stiven was essentially one being with the Lorn as the brain. In this analogy, the Stiven would be its sensory receptors, the gatherers of information; they had mobility but no mind of their own. Though the Lorn seems to have an exceedingly long life, the Stiven's life span is much shorter. With succeeding generations, the Stiven gradually became more and more autonomous until they were no longer physically dependent on the Lorn. They are now functionally independent beings, although they still share a deep bond with the Lorn. However, as the Stiven gained independence, the Lorn lost vitality and is now definitely dying. A natural process."

They reached their destination, and McCoy turned to face Spock.

"I'm a doctor, Spock. I know death is a natural process; I have even known it to be my friend. But I will fight it -- with every tool and every scrap of knowledge I have."

Spock returned his gaze, dark eyes warming slightly.

"Yes, Doctor. I know."

They entered the room and took adjoining places at the far end of the briefing table. Captain Kirk, several security personnel, xenobiologist Lieutenant Lawson, and Lieutenant Graton of communications were already present.

"Gentlemen, now that we're all here--" Kirk stared pointedly at the latecomers. "--we can begin.

"In four days the Enterprise will establish orbit around Urda IV. Our aid has been urgently requested by one of the two sentient life forms there, the Stiven. They are an intelligent and gentle race and share a unique symbiotic closeness with the other intelligence on the planet, the Lorn. Recently, however, the normal telepathic communication that has always existed between the two has ceased, and the Stiven have been unable to re-establish it. They believe the Lorn to be dying, and that is the problem. The Lorn is a single entity; its continued existence is of extreme importance to the Stiven -- and to Starfleet."

Kirk stepped aside to allow a clear view of the screen at the front of the room. "Viewer on." The screen lit, revealing a star map of the area in question, and Kirk continued.

"As you can see, Urda is located at the edge of the Klingon Empire; its strategic importance is therefore obvious. In addition, the planet is a virtual wellspring of several rare minerals, one of which, tritinimite, is urgently needed for use in Federation warp drives. Viewer off. If the Lorn dies, it could, and likely would, throw Urda into chaos, and the Klingons would be more than ready to move in. There are even reports that the Klingons are more than passively interested in the Lorn's death. The Enterprise has been ordered to render whatever medical aid possible to the Lorn and to insure against a Klingon takeover. The landing party will consist of a medical team headed by Doctor McCoy, myself, and a full complement of security personnel. Lieutenant Lawson will also accompany us. It will be his job to establish the telepathic communication with the Lorn. Mr. Spock will remain on board in command."

McCoy straightened in his seat at that last sentence. It seemed strange to him that Spock would not be included in the landing party. He wondered if it was the captain's or Spock's idea. Turning to the first officer, he searched for any sign of surprise on his part. Finding none, he asked quietly, "Spock, whose idea was that?"

"Whose idea was what, Doctor?" Spock was used to McCoy's non sequitors and had learned to be patient with them.

"Your not going to Urda IV. I thought you'd jump at the chance to learn firsthand about the Lorn/Stiven relationship. You can't deny that it interests you."

Spock became pensive, almost wistful. "No, I do not deny it. It is true that understanding the nature and development of the Lorn/Stiven symbiosis would add greatly to our store of knowledge. It truly is a unique situation."

"Then why aren't you going?" McCoy was becoming impatient. "Was it your idea or Jim's?"

"It was no one's 'idea', Doctor. It was a decision dictated by circumstance."

"What circumstance?!" The doctor's voice rose in direct proportion to his level of frustration. It did not go unheeded by the captain.

"Gentlemen, please. If you don't mind, I'd like to continue this briefing. Mr. Spock, your science report."

McCoy tried to attend as Spock reported his findings, but his mind kept circling back to the question of Spock's remaining behind. The captain might want to have his first officer on the ship in case of Klingon hostility, but Scotty was a seasoned officer, and there was no hard evidence that the Klingons were even going to attempt anything. Sending Lawson in Spock's place didn't make much sense. True, Lawson was a xenobiologist in addition to being the only other telepath aboard the Enterprise, but he was new, had never been on a landing party before, and this was an important mission. Even if Lawson did go, that was no reason for Spock to absent himself. McCoy tried to recall what he knew of Lawson. It wasn't much. No one seemed to know much about him other than that he had an uncanny way of sneaking up behind people and just standing. The only person he seemed to avoid was Spock.

But if it wasn't Kirk's idea, then it must have been Spock's, and that made even less sense. Spock's passion for knowledge was legend, and Urda IV certainly had more than its share of mysteries. Nothing made sense.

Damn, thought McCoy to himself, I never could understand that Vulcan.

Of course, it might help if you listened sometimes, something within him countered.

For a brief moment, McCoy conjured up a childhood image of a little angel sitting on his right shoulder. No, it wasn't there, but his conscience was, and he would have to face it: he could have kept Spock from going back to Vulcan, back to the Masters of Gol who would exorcise his soul.

When Kirk had accepted his promotion -- one that had come couched in terms that made it seem as if the very existence of the Federation depended on his acceptance Spock had simply offered quiet congratulations and was thereafter silent on the subject. But the night before he left for Vulcan, he'd gone to McCoy -- uprooted, questing, reaching. McCoy didn't even realize that he was leaving. The doctor had one thing on his mind -- Kirk, and what a ground assignment would do to him. He had railed against the bureaucrats, against a system that would take a man and use him for its own gain. He had ranted so loudly that he could hear nothing else -- couldn't, wouldn't hear Spock or see what the end of the mission and separation from Jim would mean to him. In the end, Spock turned to the fanatics who would deny need. The doctor was sure he could have prevented that if only he had not been blind to the Vulcan's desperation. The next morning, Spock was gone, and McCoy didn't see him again until that day on the bridge of a newly refurbished Enterprise. They had certainly needed him then. And he had come through. Somehow, Spock always came through.

McCoy thought back to that mission, to the desperate haste with which they had launched the new ship, to the frantic fear as they sped to a meeting with the living machine that was on a destruction course with Earth. He remembered Spock's melding with V'ger. Unauthorized, Spock had done it on his own, fully aware of the danger. After the meld, McCoy was sure they had lost him. The laughter that had engulfed Spock when he awoke was to McCoy like sun breaking through after a cold and stormy winter. It was the basis for a new beginning. And McCoy had determined to nurture that light, to--

Continuing the thought became impossible. Suddenly, searing pain lanced up the doctor's left side. Sounds of Armageddon echoed in his ears. Blinding light and acrid smoke filled the room. Then there was nothing.

* * *

Spock crawled painfully around twisted and broken bodies to the head of the table, to Jim Kirk. He found him, blood streaming from body wounds and mouth, limbs twisted in unnatural order. Spock looked down at the man he called brother, gently placed two fingers to his forehead and eased the other's pain.

Lucidity returned to Kirk, and as he focused on the naked face above him, his lips formed a single word: "Spock." No further words were required, no response necessary. Slowly, Spock submitted to the gathering oblivion.

* * *

"Hey, Spock. Come on, wake up."

Sheer will forced eyelids to open. Leaning over him was Leonard McCoy, left arm encased in plastiform.

"You've been out for quite some time." The doctor's voice was gruff, but his eyes betrayed relief.

Spock made to sit up. At that, waves of nausea gripped him. He tried mightily to still his stomach but was not successful. A hypo to his neck eased his discomfort before a gentle hand pushed him back.

"Let that be a lesson to you. You have a concussion and several cracked ribs. For the next few days, you will lie still and do as you are told."

Spock's eyes held fear as he forced words past a cotton tongue. "How is Jim?"

"Alive. And stable for the moment." Spock's stare continued, and McCoy did not flinch from it. "I won't lie to you. I don't know if he'll make it. Everyone else who was there is dead. It's a good thing the blast was confined to the briefing room, otherwise there'd be a lot more dead. That was some explosion. Scotty's been running checks on all systems trying to find out what caused it."

"It was sabotage, Doctor." The statement was made with quiet assurance.

"Sabotage?"

"Yes. Lawson was a Klingon agent. At the moment of his death, his telepathic barriers fell, and I received his mental emanations."

Spock fell silent for a moment, and McCoy could see him withdraw into himself as if trying to marshal his thoughts. Finally he looked at the doctor. "My recollection of the event is fragmentary, and I am having trouble correlating the information. It is most distressing."

"Partial amnesia," McCoy assured him. "After a crack on the head like you just got, it's surprising that you remember anything. Don't worry; it'll probably all come back to you after a while."

Spock was again silent, again withdrawn. When he spoke, it was with cold determination. "I am the only one able to establish a link with the Lorn. It will be necessary for me to go down to the planet's surface."

"Not for a while, Mr. Spock."

For the next three days, Spock did as he was told. Except for inquiring as to the captain's condition, he spoke to no one. For once, he was a model patient.

If McCoy found such behavior unusual, he also found little time to ponder its possible meaning. All his energy was consumed in keeping Jim Kirk alive. The captain's condition wavered maddeningly between critical and encouraging. McCoy would be just at the edge of giving up hope for his friend when a miraculous improvement would occur; he would be just ready to declare a victory and some new development would plunge the captain critical again. It was a draining, demanding battle, one that McCoy was not sure he had the tenacity or physical strength to endure. At least Spock would recover.

Four days after the bombing, Spock was discharged from sickbay. His Vulcan physiology had once more seen him through. To him, his next task was clear: tomorrow the Enterprise would attain orbit around Urda IV. Tomorrow he would go down to the planet of the Stiven and the Lorn. Tonight he sat in his familiar quarters and relaxed in the knowledge that everything in the room was in its place, that all was ordered. With a slow, reverent glance at the flame pot, Spock activated the intercom to call the chief engineer. He needed to speak to him about the bombing. He wanted to do it personally.

* * *

"Well, I must say, Christine, that is not the most alluring costume I've ever seen you wear. Hope it keeps you comfy."

Doctor McCoy, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet, was commenting on the shapeless, insulated coveralls the landing party was wearing to stave off the persistent freezing rain and near gale winds which constituted a pleasant day on Urda IV.

Doctor Chapel would be in charge of the medical team. The captain's still uncertain condition and his own recent injury had made McCoy decide to stay on board. At least Christine would have a chance to prove her mettle. She deserved it.

They were all assembled in the transporter room, except for Spock, and he would be there soon. The doctor knew where Spock was, had been for the last hour: in sickbay. With Jim. When McCoy had chanced on Spock there, he had at first wanted to order the Vulcan out. The diagnostic panel over the captain's head was moving erratically in response to Spock's touch. Whatever silent communication was occurring was causing distress. But then the monitors positioned themselves at a level more stable than they had been since the captain's injury, and the doctor decided to leave without making his presence known.

Spock stood at Kirk's bedside -- remembering. The parting of three years ago had been a painful one, but it had been logical, too. Over the years, he'd become more and more concerned for Kirk, this special human who insisted on taking foolish, life-threatening chances. But those dangerous opportunities would not exist for someone safely ensconced behind a desk on Earth. And so, when Kirk's promotion had come, Spock had done nothing to dissuade his friend from accepting it. The separation hadn't been one Spock had sought, and it had created a terrible void for which he'd been unprepared, but with it he'd also felt a weight lifting: Jim would be safe; he would be alive.

The separation which lay before them now, however, was not a decision; it was a necessity caused by the capricious march of events. It would be permanent.

Carefully, he linked minds with his captain.

//Jim...//

//Spock? Spock!//

//Yes, I'm here.//

Then without preamble, for he wasn't versed in the art of 'breaking the news gently', //I must go down to Urda IV.//

Spock waited. There was no response. He had braced himself for an angry denial, a command to remain on board. Nothing. Frantically, he cast about, afraid that he had miscalculated, that in Kirk's weakened state, he had done irreparable damage.

Then a quiet, //No.//

The soft negation spoke volumes of a love and of a bond closer than brothers. And Spock found that he could not answer it.

Silence stretched between them. Finally it was broken.

//Why?// There was no anger, only a need to understand.

//To not do so would be to be an accomplice to genocide.//

//For you to go would be to commit suicide.//

//It is only one life against many.//

//You're in command now; your life is not expendable.//

//There is no one else.//

//What about Lawson? He's not Vulcan.//

//Not possible. He is dead, ensnared in his own trap. He set the explosion. He was a Klingon agent.//

//A Klingon agent?//

//Mr. Scott will explain later. Now, I must go.//

Kirk understood. Once again he must allow his friend to face death. With Klingon sabotage and open intervention, the Enterprise had to investigate, and only a telepath could communicate with the Lorn. It had to be Spock. They both knew it. //Go in peace, my friend.//

Imperceptibly, Spock shifted the position of his fingers, and for the next hour they relived challenges and promises of the first five-year mission. There was comfort in the past.

* * *

Spock was late to the transporter room, and several caustic remarks about tardiness sprang to McCoy's mind, but something in the Vulcan's demeanor warned the doctor that now was not the time. So instead, he solemnly wished Spock a safe and successful mission, carefully avoiding the use of 'good luck'.

Spock accepted the doctor's salutations with consideration and dignity. He knew that he would never see the Enterprise again, and he steeled himself with Vulcan will to follow the path which lay before him. But he hadn't expected it to be so difficult. The parting with Jim had been extremely distressing -- and emotional -- and now he was finding it surprisingly hard to leave McCoy. He felt an irrational need to explain to the doctor, to get his approval, maybe his absolution. Resolutely, he turned away from such thoughts. They served no purpose. What must be, must be. All he wanted was to get on with it, to be done with it. He took his place on the transporter platform and gave the order to energize.

* * *

The landing party materialized on a frozen plateau. The minerals that made Urda IV so valuable also played havoc with communications and transporters, and so they were forced to beam down to an area far from city and mines. Wind howled mercilessly around them, driving sharp needles of frozen rain. Instinctively, the humans huddled together, tightening hoods and drawing in gloved hands. Inside the insulation they were quite comfortable. It was something in their collective conscience that made them turn from the raging god to seek an inner warmth. Only Spock of Vulcan, who had never known such things, stood upright and alone in the middle of the plain, awaiting the Stiven.

Out of the cold grayness, approached a group of twenty Stiven. Arms outstretched, body membranes unfurled, they raced on silver skates before the constant wind. Gray was the color of Urda IV, and gray was the color of the Stiven. Their body fur glistened gray, drops of frozen rain fractured and reflected the meager light. A pair of cinder eyes peered from deep within the protective fur, and steel gray talons gleamed at the end of each long arm.

Because of their body membrane, which extended from wrist to ankle, the Stiven had been compared by some to Terran flying squirrels. To Christine, they appeared much more as wind-blown seeds, almost one dimensional in appearance, light and delicate with a look that belied a deeper strength. The grace and agility with which they moved mesmerized her, forced her to look directly into the oncoming wind so that she could trace their every movement until, in a shower of shaved iced, they came to a halt in front of the landing party.

Spock spoke first. "I am Spock, First Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. We are here in answer to your request for assistance. We come to serve."

What in the distance had appeared to be an even grayness revealed itself close up to be intricate patterns in subtle shades of silver. Individual designs covered each Stiven, embellishing the full seven-foot height. Christine could not tell if they were natural or somehow applied to the soft fur; if the patterns indicated rank or station, or were only decoration. The Stiven who spoke in response to Spock was adorned in one of the more intricate designs.

"I am Lareel. We thank you for coming, but I fear you are too late. The Lorn dies and with it our way of life. We know no other. Chaos will reign. Still, there may yet be something you can do. Come, we must hurry."

The landing party was at a loss as to how they were expected to traverse the frozen distance to the city, let alone how they were to hurry there. That soon became clear, as each Stiven produced a small packet which unfolded to reveal a web of gossamer threads.

"An eerant, made of the fiber of a plant that grows where the winds are fiercest. It will hold you easily," explained Lareel.

In a moment, each of the landing party was enclosed in a fine web. Being held in an eerant was like being wrapped in a cocoon.

Effortlessly, taloned maniples lifted the eerants to rest against the Stivens' backs. Once more the wind caught the sails of their membranes, and they sped off across the ice, this time tacking into the wind.

All save Commander Spock were lulled by the warmth, the motion, the embriotic closeness. They dozed; they dreamed. He remained rigidly alert, surveying, collecting, cataloging data. His mind reveled in the newness. It danced in the light of the unknown. He didn't deign to recognize the weakness within him that had already started.

The arteries to the city teemed with life. Stiven with bulging eerants glided past one another in intricate dances, swooping and diving into the great cavern that was the city of Rocoors.

Once inside, the Stiven immediately removed their ice blades and decanted their living loads. Now only Lareel remained with them.

As gray as the surface of Urda IV was, so bursting with color was Rocoors. Gay tapestries hung from all angles. Lights danced from every crevice, casting bright pinpoints on the high vaulted ceilings. Fantastic multi-hued ice sculptures graced every corner. Beneath their feet sparkled a crystal pathway. The overall image was one of a snowbound fairyland. The effect was not lost on the landing party as they stood, mouths slightly agape, the very picture of awe-struck children. Even Spock wore an uncharacteristic expression of rapture. Now Christine was sure that the body designs on the Stiven were not natural but wrought with the same exquisite hand that had fashioned this wonderland.

Silently, Lareel led the party deeper into the network of caves. Always they took the path that was most lavishly decorated. This, Lareel explained, was the way to the Lorn. Other paths led to different subdivisions, and Christine assumed that these were the living and mining areas. She noticed a curious lack of machinery. All loads were carried by the Stiven themselves, in eerants, and transportation here was strictly on foot. There weren't even the usual noise that would accompany a mining operation. The valued minerals must be in such abundance that there was no need for heavy machinery.

Though there was no noise, there certainly was sound: the tinkling sound of uncounted bells, the lilting sound of laughter and song. It descended from the heights. It surrounded them, enclosed them. Indeed this was a wonderland.

Christine had not felt so delightfully giddy since she was sixteen. All would be right in the universe. She would single-handedly effect a miraculous cure on the Lorn. The Stiven would accord her accolades and compose anthems in praise of the Federation. The Klingons would be vanquished.

Absently, she put out an arm to steady a stumbling Spock. It was not like him to miss a step like that. She smiled to think that she had caught him also daydreaming.

* * *

Leonard McCoy jumped slightly at the sound of the buzzer. He had been engrossed in the captain's medical charts, and he was just ready to declare a victory. If only Jim Kirk didn't pull any more nasty tricks.

The door hissed open to reveal Commander Montgomery Scott, temporarily in command.

McCoy surveyed the chief engineer with an accustomed medical intensity. It was hard to believe that it was eight years ago that they had first served together. Yes, thought McCoy, Scotty wears command like he does his Highland tartan -- with great dignity and respect. But here was more than the usual gravity.

"Don't be so glum, Scotty. I think we've finally won. The captain's going to be all right."

"Well," Scotty's face lit up, "that's the first bit of good news I've had all day."

"That bad?"

"Aye. I've been pulling this poor lady apart all day and finding these." He held up a handful of small, green gelatinous spheres. "They were on the bridge, in auxiliary control, engineering, everywhere. There was even one in the chapel."

"What are they?"

"They, Doctor, when activated by one of these--" He held up a small object of similar dimensions, only this one was definitely mechanical in construct-- "will turn a perfectly good room into a slag heap."

"Like Briefing Room Six."

"Aye, like Briefing Room Six. But you know, it's odd..." Scotty's face held a puzzled expression as he continued. "The activator works by transmitting sonic waves which excite the molecules in these nodules. The pressure builds up slowly to the point where the structure can no longer contain the massive energy, and it explodes. Unactivated, these green balls are extremely stable. We found two intact in the briefing room. Apparently only one exploded, as if the activator had been turned off but not in time to prevent the build-up of critical pressure in all of them."

McCoy was suitably impressed and more than a little curious. "And where did you find the activators?"

"On deck three, hidden in a maintenance shaft. Mr. Spock said I'd find them there."

"Spock told you that? Well, I guess it all came back to him."

"Doctor?" Scotty eyed McCoy quizzically.

McCoy reached out and gingerly touched one of the green orbs. "When Spock regained consciousness after the bombing, he identified Lawson as a Klingon agent and said there was something that he couldn't remember. I told him not to worry, that it all would come back. I guess it all did. It's strange, though," McCoy continued, looking up, "that Lawson wouldn't have gotten out of there before the explosion."

"Well, Doctor, as I said, only one went off. Maybe he thought he'd caught them all in time."

"But he didn't, did he, Scotty? The room blew up, and he was caught just like Graton and that eager young kid from security -- D'Esteg, that was his name. Do you know that he'd gotten his promotion to lieutenant just the day before? Just in time to be included in the briefing." McCoy's thoughts were turning morose. He remembered the twisted image of what was left of the briefing room: the atrocities of war, even a quiet, undeclared war.

Since the Organian Treaty, which made open warfare with the Klingons impossible, the instances of sabotage had increased greatly. McCoy knew that was true of both sides. He shook his head slightly. "You know, Scotty, as glad as I am for the Organians, there are times I'd just like to know who my enemies really are."

"I know what you mean, Doctor. It's not good for a man to have to look over his shoulder all the time. We depend too much on our fellows to keep wondering where the next Klingon is going to show up."

For a moment each was quiet, caught up in his own thoughts. Finally Scotty broke the silence. "That still doesn't explain why Lawson changed his mind at the last moment."

"Unless," McCoy countered, "he was just as surprised as I was that it was going to be he and not Spock who was going to establish the telepathic link with the Lorn. Once on the planet and in communication with the Lorn, he could assure a Klingon takeover. It would have been his golden opportunity, and all he had to do to take advantage of it was to deactivate the bomb. Didn't quite make it.

"There's something I don't understand, though, Scotty: how the Klingons planned on using these things. I mean, you just can't go around blowing up rooms. People are going to get a little suspicious. And anyway, how did they get all over the ship?"

"To answer your last question first, Doctor, they were planted here, pure and simple, while the Enterprise was in drydock. That bit of information should make things a little interesting in San Francisco for a while. As to how someone could get away with it, well, I suppose if anybody could, it's be a telepath: a suggestion here, a bit of information forgotten there. Eventually he'd have to stop; 'til then..." The thought was clearly painful, and McCoy wasn't sure if it was the prospect of personal injury or damage to the ship which was most upsetting to the engineer. Scotty continued. '''Course Mr. Spock, being a telepath himself, would have gotten wind of him eventually. It's no wonder Lawson avoided him."

Yes, it all made sense now, as much sense as the killing of one sentient being by another ever did.

McCoy looked at Scotty with the same critical eye that had scrutinized the chief engineer on the way in. They had unravelled the mystery of the bombing, and the ship was apparently safe, yet something else was bothering the commander. "Are you sure you found them all, Scotty?"

"Aye. As soon as Mr. Spock told me what to look for, I had a team combing this ship inside and out. We got them all. Still, I want to stop at a star base first chance we get. Just to make sure, mind you."

To which McCoy whispered an 'amen' and added, "Something else is bothering you, Scotty. What is it?"

"Well, Doctor, I'm not sure," he hedged, "but there was something mighty strange about Mr. Spock. Now, mind you, Mr. Spock's ways are different, and I often have a hard time understanding him, but I got the feeling that something was different, wrong."

"Don't tell me that he laughed at one of your jokes, Scotty." The attempt at levity fell flat and was ignored.

"After he gave me my orders, I figured I was dismissed and got up to leave. He called me back, looked at me for a full minute, then said, 'Engineer, I have always found your work most commendable.' It was as if he never planned on seeing me again."

For a few moments, the chief engineer and the chief medical officer were quiet. Then the doctor responded. "As you say, Scotty, Mr. Spock's ways are different. He's been under a lot of stress lately."

McCoy said it, but he didn't believe it.

* * *

After Scott left, McCoy stared at the closed doors and felt a strange outbody feeling. He didn't want to face himself, to listen to the maddening, accusing voice in the back of his mind that would not be still. All of a sudden things began to arrange themselves, and he could not face the image that was being built.

Slowly, mechanically, he called up Spock's science report on Urda IV from the computer. He had meant to study it before. He had meant to, but what with caring for and worrying about Jim, he had somehow never gotten beyond the abstracts that portrayed Urda IV as a cold and dismal Class M planet. Nothing that should prove inimical to human life. Not inimical, but damned unpleasant, he had thought.

Now, methodically, he poured over the work. At 0240, ship's time, exactly 13.4 hours after the landing party had left, Doctor McCoy had his answer. Now he knew the circumstances that should have prevented Spock from going down to Urda IV, why the Vulcan could not go down and return alive. It was all clear now: why Spock had been such a model patient; why he had announced his intention with such cold determination; why he had linked minds with the unconsicous Kirk, one last time. Yes, McCoy knew now, but he should have known sooner -- sooner, when he could have done something. If only he had not been so blind. Again. Only this time Spock would not come back to stand on the bridge. McCoy would have no third chance. A trace element, less than one part per million, interacting with the abundant metals that made Urda IV so valuable, to create a third unstable substance: radiation. No shielding possible. Harmless to humans. Fatal to Vulcans. Always. And it wasn't a pleasant death. The copper-based hemoglobin would be destroyed, at first slowly, causing weakness. Then it would snowball until vital organs were destroyed. It would be painful. Excruciatingly so.

With a body that belonged to someone else, Leonard McCoy ordered the tests and computer searches he knew would be useless.

At 0250, Doctor McCoy called Mr. Scott to request a second landing party. A man from a world of deserts should not have to die on a world of ice.

* * *

On the planet's surface, the first landing party arrived at their destination. The opulence of the city had not prepared them for the glory that was the chamber of the Lorn. It was a rococo painting come alive, but without its affectations. One would almost expect to see cherubs and seraphim descend from the blaze of light that was the canopy of this amphitheater.

The party descended steps which formed concentric rings around a raised platform. On the dais was the Lorn. Doctor Chapel's heart fell. She had expected a flesh and blood being, different, surely, from her, but of physical substance -- something she could use her medical knowledge to treat. Here was an entity that transcended physical form, something whose outline shifted and wavered. It seemed to be made of the same light that permeated the hall, or perhaps it was the source of the radiance. Sargon's identity, his essence, had been held in a spherical container. This went beyond that. It was living light.

As she watched, Christine became aware that with each pulsation the form on the dais wavered more and became a little less radiant. Perhaps she could not use her medical acumen to treat the Lorn, but it served her well enough to tell her that this being before her was dying. She understood why no one before had ever seen the Lorn. At full and vigorous health, its brilliance would have been beyond human endurance. She turned from the being and saw Spock advance to the dais.

Although growing weakness and mounting pain made walking torture for him, resolutely, he continued his march. Once standing before the Lorn, he was sure of his decision. He had not wanted to die. He did not want to die. But if his death resulted in the preservation of the beauty that he had witnessed, then it was an equitable exchange. Wordlessly, he stretched out his hands and touched the corona of light.

//May I?//

Silently the request was made, and silently assent was given.

Quickly now, because he didn't have the luxury of time, Spock dove through layers of consciousness and experiences. Waves of anguish and pain -- pain of mourning for an ending before completion -- and above all, an overriding loneliness assailed him. Instinctively, he recoiled, shielding himself. But he had come this far. He could not retreat. And so he dove deeper, into levels where creativity and growth overshadowed the loneliness. Before him, out of the earth, grew Rocoors in all its splendor. It grew like a field of crystals, sparkling as it multiplied. He saw the Stiven grow in independence and was overwhelmed with joy and pride. But still the loneliness did not dissipate. He witnessed a beginning, the arrival of the LornlStiven on Urda IV. And yet the aloneness remained. Faster still raced time backwards on its journey until he stood before an assembly of Lorn, and as he watched, their beings took on shape and became the bodies of the Stiven.

//Yes, Commander. Uncounted millennia ago, we were one.// The voice that spoke in his mind was gentle in its sadness, ageless and definitely feminine. //The world we lived on was physically similar to this one and neither very just nor very unjust. Wars devastated out lands. Always we skirted oblivion. Then our science developed a means of imparting virtual immortality. It was decided that a small number, those judged brightest, most creative, should benefit from this discovery. In this way, even if disaster should befall our race, some would remain to preserve the highest ideals of our civilization. But the price of immortality was great .. Over the centuries we, the chosen, developed out minds to great heights. Our bodies were no longer important, and in fact we could no longer sustain them. Still, we needed the mobility and senses that only a body could provide. With our great minds, we bent the masses to our needs, first as assistants, then as servants; and then finally, as parasites, we consumed their will. They became our extensions, living out life cycles but never knowing life.

//I saw the horror we were creating. Without the Stiven we would die, but in order to live we destroyed, destroyed the Stiven and destroyed the civilization we had so righteously set out to preserve. I could not make the others see, or if they did, their fear would not let them act. And so I took several Stiven with me out of our galaxy and brought them to this planet. I vowed that I would give them back their lives. Through the years I have weaned myself of them and they of me. Carefully, I have imparted to them the best of our heritage: the art and the beauty. I did not let them know of the wars and hate. I so feared destruction that I kept them from any knowledge of our technology. I would die; I knew it and did not shrink from it. But the aloneness over all the centuries was almost too much to bear. Even that I would willingly have endured, but now I see it was all in vain. Because of my fear, I have made the Stiven into a race great in beauty and kindliness but without understanding of the dark side of sentience. They are defenseless agalnst the onslaught of greed and hatred. When I die, they will be prey to the predators, to the Klingons, and yes, even to your Federation. And now there is nothing I can do. I have seen my mistake too late. The centuries of loneliness have been for nothing. I now longer have the strength to transmit my knowledge.//

//Is there nothing you can do, nothing we can do?//

Several moments passed before there was a response. //There is something I can do for you. I know that your life will soon end also. I have no power to stop that, but I can make the hours left seem a lifetime. A lifetime where neither of us need be alone.//

* * *

Spock stood in the plain of Ord facing the rising Vulcan sun. Silver birds etched dark lines across its red face and filled the air with the music of their wings. He threw back his arms and delighted in the hot breeze. There was moisture in the air and the scent of spices and jasmine. It had rained here last night for the first time in over 80 Vulcan years, and already blossoms were poking their heads through the sand. Carefully, he bent down to brush away a few grains of sand from a petal.

"The krolors have not flowered since the last rain. It is a good day for a child to be born."

He looked up to see the approach of his bondmate. She did not carry herself with the austerity of Vulcan women. There was grace and life and even laughter in her walk, and her face shone with an inner joy. He could feel her mind entwined with his, sharp, quick, accepting his duality without fear or shame. Standing now, he was only slightly taller than she. He noticed that she had abandoned the tightly sculptured Vulcan hair style to wear her dark hair loosely gathered at the nape of her neck. It was most becoming. Like him, she wore a soft tan desert caftan. Hers bulged noticeably in the front. Yes, today they would have a child. This was his: warmth and peace, continuation and belonging. It was all his.

* * *

//An illusion, this is only an illusion,// his mind protested. //A fabrication assembled from the deep recesses of my being. Masterfully conceived. Convincingly, so convincingly.//

* * *

She extended two fingers and eagerly awaited his embrace. Longingly, he made to echo her action 'til a voice within him cried ...

* * *

//No! NO I CANNOT!//

The plain of Vulcan, his wife, the warmth and spice, all were gone. He was alone again.

//I can give you what you desire. Will you not accept my gift?//

//What I desire is transcended by a greater duty. An obligation to preservation of life. There must be a way to transmit the necessary knowledge. I will not accept that my death will be without meaning.//

//And what of me? Will you deny me the wholeness I lacked for millennia now that it can be mine?//

//You recognized the obligation long ago and authored a plan to return life. You must not forfeit that now.//

At first there was no reply. Through the link Spock sensed the Lorn's struggle, and from that struggle grew realization.

//You are right. I cannot discard a lifetime obligation. Neither of us can. But that does not make the necessity any less painful or the alternative any less attractive.

//There may be a way. It will consume all my energies and hasten your death, but it is the only hope. Alone, I lack the power to transmit my thoughts; together, perhaps we will have the strength to impart of the knowledge. Your consciousness will form a bridge between me and the Stiven. Through you will telepathically flow the knowledge I kept from the Stiven for so long. If we are successful, they will then hold the power to defend themselves and to destroy themselves. Neither of us' will ever know how they use that power. There is peace for me in knowing that my task will be complete. I only regret the necessity of your sacrifice. An ending without pain is all that I can give you.

//We will require the attention of all the Stiven. Tell Lareel to call for a joining of the people.//

The contact broke abruptly, and Spock staggered backwards. There was no longer any pain, but the weariness that engulfed him told him that he must move swiftly.

"Mr. Spock, are you all right?" It was really not a question. Christine had been watching the exchange, and as she watched, her concern grew. She had seen Spock in mind melds before, had seen him after his melding with V'ger. Something more was playing here. She took out her medical scanner and adjusted it for the Vulcan.

"I am functional, Doctor."

Christine pointed the scanner at him. With cat-like ferocity, he snatched it from her hands.

"You will cease prying, Doctor!"

He glared down at her face and saw, not fear or chagrin, only steady concern. He remembered the look of delight with which she had greeted him on his return to the Enterprise, a look which he would not acknowledge.

Gently, he held out his hand, offering back the instrument. "Please, Christine." Silently, she accepted the offering, surprised at the use of her first name.

Spock turned to Lareel who had been quietly attending without real comprehension. "Lareel, call for a joining of the people."

Lareel looked questioningly first to Spock and then to the Lorn. Understanding replaced bewilderment, and he turned and quickly retraced his steps to leave the amphitheater. Once outside, he stopped before an intricate frame of silver bells. In one swift motion, he lifted his great talons and struck the bells in rapid succession. The music rang out true and clear and swelled in ripples throughout the city. It overwhelmed all other sound and left total silence in its wake.

Spock did not need the return of Lareel to know that the minds of all the Stiven were now poised in attention. He turned to the Lorn, hands extended, prepared to initiate the meld. The path into the Lorn's mind was now familiar. Easily he slipped into the deepest level. //I await your command.//

//Do nothing. Accept my thoughts. Think of nothing. Allow my consciousness to flow through you.//

With a facility honed by a lifetime of training, Spock blanked his mind, and with a mastery erected over millennia, the Lorn orchestrated the projection of her thoughts against it. Through Spock's mind reverberated the emanations. Mirrored and magnified, they erupted in a crescendo of teaching. Eagerly, the Stiven absorbed the knowledge. Before them lay the complete history of their race. For the first time, they became aware of the avarice and deceit from which they had always been sheltered. The technology denied them for so long was now theirs. With it came the power to build and to destroy. All the knowledge of the Lorn became theirs, whole and complete.

With great weariness, the Lorn turned her thoughts to Spock alone. //It is done. There is nothing more that I can give. The path they choose is now theirs alone.//

Quietly, Spock answered the unvoiced fear. //It is never ours to know the future, but what you gave was more than the sum total of the knowledge of your race. You imparted an understanding of the essence of your being. It was you alone who dared release the Stiven. How can an understanding of that sacrifice do anything but foster in them wisdom in the use of power? It is my conviction that they will use their knowledge wisely and with restraint, for protection against the forces that would again enslave them. Our task is complete, and I share with you the peace and joy of its success.//

Spock felt a final arc of brilliance and then, like the light of the moon before the rising sun, the entity within him faded until it was no more. He felt the icy blast of death in his own being and did not hide. With full knowledge, he had assumed this task; with peace, he would accept its consequence.

* * *

It was now 0513 ship's time. Leonard McCoy was in sickbay, sitting as he had been for the past hour and a half, passively gazing at his hands. Spock would steeple his fingers, he thought. Absently, he mimicked the gesture.

"My god, no!" It was a negation he had uttered many times that night, but always the answer came back 'yes': yes, Spock was on Urda IV. Yes, Spock was dying. Yes, by his ignorance he had allowed it to happen.

A soft groan caught his mind and spun him around. Kirk was coming to. That meant that the battle here was won, that the captain would recover. The joy of that realization was not sufficient to dispel his gloom, but he did not allow it to surface as he smiled brightly at the awakening figure.

"Glad you decided to come back. You had us all pretty worried for a while there."

"I'm glad to be back." The reply was weak but sure. "What happened?"

"Do you remember anything?"

"Not much." Kirk furrowed his brow in an attempt to recall what had happened. "I was in the briefing room. Next thing I remember, it just sort of ... blew up. Spock was there. And you and Graton and... Bones," the words were now coming in rapid succession, "what about everyone else? What about Spock?"

"Easy, Jim," the doctor soothed. "Spock had a couple of cracked ribs and a concussion. I released him yesterday. You know Spock and his damned Vulcan physiology. Nothing can keep him down." Clinically, McCoy noted the reassuring effect of his words.

"And to think I missed it all," Kirk smiled wryly. "I can see the two of you going at it now. Will either of you ever learn?"

Not even a twitch betrayed the doctor.

"What about everyone else? What caused the explosion? What..."

"Whoa, Jim. I am only your friendly physician. I do not give debriefings. You will have all your answers. Right now, I want you to get some rest."

Before Kirk could protest, the doctor had a hypo hissing against his shoulder. The medication took effect almost immediately, and McCoy had to bend low to hear what the captain whispered as he slipped asleep: "Bones, you know, I had the damndest dream. I dreamt Spock went down to Urda IV..."

Slowly, the doctor rose and replaced the hypo.

* * *

Spock lay prostrate next to the empty dais. The radiance that had filled the room was extinguished. Weak artificial light cast ghostly shadows everywhere.

Christine was numb. She really couldn't feel anything. Nothing registered. Everything was a jumble. Then suddenly, her years of training pulled her together, and she raced to the dais, to Spock, and started to search for vital signs. She found one -- a pulse, very rapid, very shallow. Quickly, she aimed her mediscan. No hand reached for it this time. A massive dose of triox was all she was able to do for the moment. Further treatment would have to wait 'til they got back to the ship.

She worked swiftly, assuredly, the adrenalin coursing through her veins imparting renewed strength. She gave orders to take Spock through the cleared paths to the entrance of the city. Though it was impossible for the communicators to get through, still she had the security teams try. Christine was gambling on the impossible. With a shuttlecraft, they would be able to transport to the ship as soon as they reached orbit. The long ice trek would be eliminated.

As they raced out now along the same lavish route that had taken them to the Lorn, Christine recalled the feeling of hope that had accompanied the journey in. How easily that hope had shattered. The Lorn was dead, and Spock might well soon be. She rememberd how Spock had stumbled. Doggedly, she beat back the image. She did not have time to indulge in reminiscences. All her energies were focused on reaching the entrance.

Up ahead, a group of Stiven were running toward them with Lareel in the lead. Stopping before the party, he turned to Christine. "Doctor, a shuttlecraft from your ship has just arrived.

"Our people have much to share. I look forward to an exchange of delegates."

Christine had never really believed in God, but now she raised a silent prayer of thanksgiving. If random factors continued to play in their favor, Spock might have a chance.

* * *

As soon as the materialization stopped, Christine strode from the platform. The waiting medical team gathered Spock and placed him on the waiting litter. Fleetingly, she noticed that McCoy was not among them. He must be in sick bay, preparing. She would be able to spare a moment to change her clothes.

As the medical team raced into sickbay, McCoy greeted them and supervised Spock's transfer to a diagnostic bed. For a few moments, he studied the monitors intently and then dismissed the team. Alone now with Spock, he looked down at the comatose figure. The life level indicators mutely testified to what he already knew: Spock would soon be dead. Vividly, he remembered his conversation with Spock on the way to the briefing room: "I am a doctor. I will fight death with every tool and every scrap of knowledge I have." But what happens when that is not sufficient? The tests and computer searches had all come back negative. He had known they would. Epsilon wave radiation had thwarted the best efforts of science for over a hundred years. He had the power to keep Spock alive for another four to six hours. But to what end? His bodily functions taken over by machines, synthetic blood coursing through his veins. Spock would just as surely die then as he would now. What would five hours of frantic search do other than salve McCoy's own conscience? Spock, the man who had always viewed Terran medicine with distrust and distaste, would die anyway. Despite all their poking and prodding and selffserving heroics, Spock would die. McCoy couldn't let him die like that. Vulcan dignity. Once he'd said that he could not grant what he did not understand. This he would grant him. No matter how high the price, this he would grant him: a death with dignity.

Gently, he placed a hand on Spock's shoulder. "My friend, there are many things I wish I had said. Forgive me. I learned too late."

Quietly, he left the room.

That is how Christine found Spock -- lying peacefully, dying on a bed. Alone. She could not believe her eyes. Where was life support? Where was McCoy? The adrenal glands that had been supporting her gave another measure as she sailed through the doors of the chief surgeon's office.

"Why aren't you doing something?" she demanded.

"Sit down, Chris."

"I asked you a question. He's dying. We have to know why."

"I know why. Sit down."

She bristled at the patronizing tone, but her legs threatened to give out on their own accord, so she accepted the offered chair.

"What is it?"

"Epsilon wave radiation. It's in Urda IV's atmosphere."

She knew. He didn't have to tell her: fatal to Vulcans. Always fatal. "Did he know?"

"Yes."

"And he went anyway." It was obvious, but she had to say it.

"Yes. "

"But why aren't you doing something?" She had to make sure of this madness. Her desperation showed.

McCoy did not answer for a long moment; when he did it was with infinite sadness. "Chris, you know there is no cure for this. We've been trying to find one for over a century, and there is none. I should have known about the radiation. It was my job to know, but I was too stupid and too blind to see. Spock's going to die because of my incompetence. I will not compound that by keeping him artificially alive for a few more hours. It's the last thing I can give him -- a dignified death."

Christine Chapel sat dumbfounded. This couldn't be happening. But it was.

"A dignified death?!" she shouted, suddenly on her feet. "How can you sit there and speak of a 'dignified death'? Spock's alive. He lives. I don't know for how long, but I do know that I'm going to do my damndest to keep him that way for as long as I can!"

"Chris, please." McCoy spoke gently. "Sit down. I know how emotionally involved you are. I know what Spock means to you..."

He was cut off by Doctor Chapel's steely calm voice -- charged vehemence held in stasis. "Doctor, my emotions are not involved in this. In the next room is a patient. He is dying. I will do all in my power to forestall that. The only emotions involved here are yours. You have convinced yourself that you are a worthless bastard, and you are going to let Spock die in order to prove that you're right. Well, Doctor, you'll have to prove it by your own hand. I will not participate. I have a patient to care for."

McCoy stared for several minutes at the door, which closed silently behind Doctor Chapel's retreating figure. He knew that he could not stop her, and he didn't have the will to try. There was a new strength about his former nurse. At any other time he would have admired it. Yes, the two-and-a-half years between missions had changed them all. Suddenly, he longed for the solitude that was his during those years. His decision to devote himself to research had begun as a protest against a manipulating society and had grown into a comforting security where he alone was master of his fate. The isolation, the work--

HIS WORK! Was he truly blind?

* * *

In sickbay, Spock was on complete life support. Doctor Chapel had seen to that. And, as there wasn't a sufficient supply of T-negative blood, she's turned to synthetic blood to carry the necessary oxygen. It was a stopgap measure. Everything was a desperate attempt to forestall what might well be the inevitable. But she refused to think of that.

Now, she looked down at the pile of tapes she had called up: Vulcan response to radiation, thesis on hybrid Vulcan/Human physiology, Vulcan recuperative ability ... There were so many and so little time. She'd told McCoy that she was not emotionally involved -- she'd even tried to believe it -- but now, looking down at the unconquerable heap, she could feel the effects of the past hours catching up. The adrenalin had been spent, and yes, oh god, it was Spock that this was all about. It was Spock. Her body shook. Her shoulders heaved. She would not cry. She would not cry!

She didn't hear the doors open. Silently, a hand swept aside her pile and replaced it with one only slightly smaller.

"I've had computer checks run on all of those already," said McCoy, indicating the tapes she had been studying. "They're all negative. This is the culmination of my work on the Fabrini medical knowledge. It's what I was working on for two-and-a-half years on Earth before I was yanked back here. It's not finished, not completely catalogued, but I think we may find something here. The Fabrini had a great understanding of hematological disorders. I'm proof of that." He smiled and then added quietly, "Spock did the translation."

It was a race against time. The two doctors poured over the tapes. The labs worked at full complement. Spock's vital signs slipped. Encouraging leads led to dead ends. And Spock's vital signs slipped further.

Everywhere in the translation was evidence of Spock's hand, leaps of genius that betrayed pure delight in the task. Christine saw them as manifestations of the man himself. They were her stepping stones, keeping her from falling into the torrent of despair.

Slowly, it became clear that the Vulcan race was not known to the Fabrini. The closest they had come to it was a race with a similar copper-based blood but with a vastly different internal organ structure. A similar malady was described and a remedy suggested but, with the different physiology, it would be too dangerous to try it on Spock. They requested follow-up tests from the labs and continued their search.

The shrill call of the intercom demanded their attention.

"Doctor McCoy, Doctor Chapel, Mr. Spock's vital signs are plummeting."

As one, they raced through the door into Spock's room. All indicators were screeching their alarm. On the bed, thrashing in convulsion, lay Spock. Two attendants were vainly trying to contain him. With all the apparatus, it was hard to see where Spock ended and machinery began.

The two doctors knew there was no choice. The formula prescribed by a long dead physician to an alien life form was their only hope.

McCoy turned to leave but was stopped by a grip on his arm. "Leonard, even if you had known, you could not have stopped him. It was his decision."

"Yeah, I know, Christine." He attempted a smile. "Damned stubborn Vulcan. Come on."

* * *

It was six hours since they had administered the Fabrini medicine and over thirty-six since either doctor had slept, yet neither would leave .. They would learn the outcome.

Nothing happened at first. The indicators continued their wail. At least they didn't blink out. Then slowly, each climbed and became silent. It was a very slow process, and sometimes a gauge would dip, causing those who watched to sharply catch their breaths. But the drug was working. Fresh hemoglobin was being produced. There had been damage to the organs, but Spock would be able to go into a healing trance later and repair it.

The chronometer read 0140 when Spock stirred and opened his eyes. Relief flooded over McCoy and Christine, and each gripped the side of the bed by which they were standing, both unable to trust their legs.

Spock's eyes searched out McCoy. "I see, Doctor, that you have once more managed to 'pull a rabbit out of a hat'."

"Not me this time, Spock," McCoy smiled. "I was ready to consign you to a dignified death. Christine seemed to prefer you alive."

Spock's gaze shifted and found Doctor Chapel. "Indeed?"

She met his look squarely. "Yes. Indeed, Mr. Spock." A small part of her wanted to giggle a denial, but it was only a very small part and easily silenced.

Tomorrow, thought McCoy, tomorrow will be a new beginning.

Right now, he was going to check up on the captain. Jim would be very happy to know that everything was in the end just a bad dream after all. He gave Spock's arm a squeeze and left the room.

THE END