DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Johanna T. Cantor and is copyright (c) 1989 by Johanna T. Cantor. Rated R. Originally published in R&R #23.

Introduction for any reader unfamiliar with the Images of Flame series:

More wounded that he ever realized by T'Pring's rejection, Spock could not believe he would find a bondmate. So as his second pon farr approached, he asked Sarek to arrange a seeding -- an unbonded mating whose issue would belong to the woman's family. The childless widows of the house of T'I agreed rather than see the house die out in this generation. Spock mated with four of them, the daughters of T'In the matriarch, T'Ria and T'Lan, her son's widow T'Pan, and her Romulan foster child, Katholia. T'Pan's priorities had been as simple as Spock's. An orphan who had lived in the house of her dead bondmate since her parents' death, she wanted to give the house a child that would carry on their line. But something happened to Spock and T'Pan very similar to the illogical human process of falling in love. That was almost a year ago. Spock is the biological father of an infant he can never honorably claim. He managed to get to Vulcan in time for the birth in spite of a surprise -- and still unexplained --Kzin attack and has just rejoined the Enterprise.

For those who have never seen the animated episodes, Communications Officer M'Ress is a Caitan -- a feline race resembling bipedal lions. The savage leonine race, the Kzintim are an invention of science fiction writer Larry Niven; he used them in the episode "Slaver Weapon" which he wrote for the Star Trek animated series in the 1970's.

WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC SCENES THAT MIGHT BE UPSETTING TO SOME READERS - DO NOT CONTINUE IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH!!

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CAVE OF THE KZIN

by JOHANNA T. CANTOR

"Well, I suppose it's one way to spend a shore leave. If your tastes run that way, I mean."

Spock looked up alertly. Had he heard a wistful note in that gentle zap? Or was his captain simply tiring? Now that he thought about it, they had been sitting over pie and coffee for an unconscionably long time.

"I've kept you too long," he apologized, rising. Really, it was not his habit to go babbling on about himself! "Let's get you back to your quarters so you can stretch out." The captain gave an annoyed grunt but nodded and rose. Spock's helping hand was pointedly ignored, but once they were on their way down the corridor Jim allowed Spock to slide an arm under his. That Kzin kamikaze had left Kirk still officially classified as walking wounded. Spock thought the emphasis should be on the latter.

"Spock." Kirk was speaking very low, to protect his first officer's privacy. "I'm sorry about the little boy. I know you wanted to claim him."

"Yes. But he is the only child left to T'In. T'Ria never conceived. T'Lan's son died with her. Katholia's is -- wherever she is, I suppose. And T'In is so ill..." He couldn't push away the image of the woman as he had first seen her, hardly more than hungry eyes glaring from a powerchair, wasted hands lifted against him as though to ward off a blow. "Only a dastard could make such a claim."

"Or a father." Spock could not reply. "I'm sorry it hurts so much."

"The next will be mine."

"You'll see the baby a lot. T'Pan will keep you in the picture."

"Yes. And Sarek and Amanda stand grandparents, by T'In's own wish." He had been babbling about that to Jim too. About Amanda's delight in her grandchild and how even the seemingly unaffected Sarek had been caught in the very act of tickling the giggling infant. He had even told Jim, just a little, about the illogical perfection of a being so tiny ... the pliancy of an infant mind already driven by a curiosity that must encompass all there is to know, yet seemed instinctively attuned to the mind of his sire. Deplorable! He called Jim brother and in the family all was silence. But no wonder his captain was fatigued!

"Care to come in for a bit, Spock? I have a bottle that wants opening. We'll drink to the baby, eh?"

Something in the captain's tone warned Spock it would be impolite to refuse. "That would be pleasant."

Jim's mouth quirked in amusement, but he looked away quickly so Spock didn't have to notice it. "What's the baby's name again?"

"S'Falt."

"S'Falt," Jim repeated carefully, getting the pronunciation almost right. "Family name?"

"It was the name of T'Pan's bondmate."

"The one who died?" Jim spoke a little sharply.

"As a youth," Spock nodded, concentrating to control the tremor the thought of his childhood friend always sent through his stomach. Illogical. T'In was sure S'Falt was dead, as was T'Pan. And in his many matemelds with T'Pan, he had never sensed a rival. T'Lan's memory of her lost husband had intruded, but with T'Pan-- "I'm sorry!" he exclaimed as Jim, bored with hovering in front of his own door, grasped his elbow to propel him forward.

"S'all right. Grab a seat. I'll--"

"You sit down, Jim, and put your leg up. I'll get it." The captain complied, smiling ruefully as Spock settled him, then bent for glasses and the bottle. Jim was tired, Spock noted, resolving to make short work of this ceremony. But first he had a ritual of his own to observe. "I was woolgathering," he apologized.

"You're entitled." The captain cast him a penetrating glance. "There's a lot happening with you," he pointed out gently. "A lot to assimilate. Nice, but -- a lot." Spock was mute; Jim reached abruptly for the bottle and poured them each a drink. "To S'Falt!" he raised his glass. "May his shadow never decrease!"

Spock almost smiled, thinking of the minuscule shadow S'Falt would cast now. He hid it successfully by drinking the toast, and Jim began to chat of neutral matters. Spock responded politely. But as soon as he saw an opportunity he urged Jim into bed, making sure reader and entertainment center were in easy reach. Jim suggested chess. Probably he sensed that Spock's cabin seemed empty to him these days. But Spock refused, administering instead the hypo labeled in Chapel's no-nonsense-now script. Jim needed his rest. He said good night and left for his own quarters. Work would fill the emptiness.

His worktable held three tunics, modified to specifications. He donned one, opened a drawer, got the signature T'Pan had given him, and slipped it into the new side placket. It disappeared neatly; a full-dress inspection before the mirror revealed nothing nonregulation. He logged his thanks to Wardrobe with a request that the change be made permanent.

He'd grown out of the habit of wearing his signature in his years away from Vulcan. That had seemed excessively odd to T'Pan -- accustomed like all Vulcan to wearing one dawn to dark. So she'd gotten his records from Amanda and ordered one for him. She'd made it a gift to commemorate S'Falt's birth, but it held another message as well. The material she'd chosen was an alloy of the silver-black Vulcan obsidian known as "Maiden's Vow." It was a matter of considerable difficulty -- and expense -- to bind the electronic strip stably to the back of the engraved signature. But once that had been accomplished a Maiden's Vow disc was virtually indestructible. Spock knew that was no coincidence.

He gazed around his cabin, feeling illogically disinclined to go over the reports. Repairs were complete. Accomplished under Scotty's eye, they didn't really need the first officer's review. He wasn't interested in reading. The gym and pool were under repair. McCoy was still on personal leave and Jim had better be asleep. The entire functioning recreation area had been given over to the bocci tournament Uhura and M'Ress had organized. It was a good idea, giving the crew the best possible substitute for their much lamented recreation facilities. But having been away during the preliminaries, he'd worry them if he showed up now, even to watch. He left his quarters, stealing past the captain's door and headed for the Bridge.

Everything was running smoothly; he knew that as soon as he'd taken one step out of the lift. Sulu was in the command chair. Spock waved him back into it, crossing to the science station. Maldonado made way for him a trifle too nervously -- a brisk review of procedures wouldn't hurt that young woman a bit. This section of space had been cataloged to the inch these two generations, but he punched in a protocol, waved her back to the console, and proceeded to be kind but firm.

Perhaps in compensation, it was Maldonado who spotted the object as she scanned in highly enhanced infrared. Something was moving slowly, dark and signal-less, at the extreme edge of their sensors' range. Spock reported crisply to Sulu, who promptly brought the ship around, ordering full scans. "Mr. Spock?"

"Still too far away, Mr. Sulu," he responded coolly. Actually he felt a high degree of certainty, in the pit of his stomach if not in thought, but it was illogical to guess.

The chronometer ticked by as they drew into range. "Hailing frequencies, sir?" M'Ress asked nervously.

"Negative, Lieutenant. Let's see what we've got first."

Clawed digits drummed on the Caitan's console; their owner silenced the clicking with an apologetic grin. Of all the crew, M'Ress had probably had the closest sustained contact with the Kzinti. It hadn't taught her to like them.

"Readings complete," Spock announced. He had to swallow, to control his distaste for going on. Everyone swivelled toward him, so he simply nodded. "Two Kzinti life forms, and--" He swallowed again. "-other life forms."

"Have they seen us?"

"Unlikely at this distance. Also the ship seems to have sustained significant damage."

"Continue scan, evaluate damage. Call the Captain to the Bridge, M'Ress. And see if you can pick up any signals without alerting them. Helm, plot a course that will bring us in directly behind her."

The Captain was on the Bridge within minutes. He listened to their reports, examined Spock's data, and rapped out an order for transmission to 'Fleet. Then he sat, snapping a fresh tape into his deck. "This is Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise, representing the United Federation of Planets," he recorded sternly. "You are in Federation space, with no flight plan on file, in violation of treaty. Identify yourselves and establish your bona fides immediately. Repeating, this is Captain James T. Kirk..." He repeated the message a third time.

"Coming into projected Kzinti sensor range," Spock announced.

"No signals." M'Ress hovered over her monitors, ready to pounce at the slightest indication. "Either they haven't seen us, or-- "

"Let's take them," Kirk growled. "Helm, I want a single warning shot across her bow; prepare to fire on my order. M'Ress--" Spock moved swiftly to get the captain's tape and click it into one of her decks. M'Ress nodded thanks, her eyes never leaving her readings. "Open a frequency; I want that message sounding as soon as they see the shot. Helm, fire when ready."

The blue bolt sliced neatly in front of the dark ship's nose, illuminating it as the recorded message began. Spock bent to his sensors, determined not to be caught twice. The message ended and recycled. "Are they receiving?" the captain asked.

"Unknown." M'Ress' voice just missed being a hiss.

"Power reading! Here she comes."

"Fooled me once," Kirk snarled. "Not twice. Transporter room, scan that skimmer and get a fix on its pilot."

"There are two of them, sir," the console replied. "Locked in."

"If taken prisoner--" Spock began urgently.

"Right. Security to transporter room on the double. Set phasers on heavy stun and fire as needed."

"They're coming right toward us!" Maldonado almost shrieked.

"Not this time," the captain soothed her. "Helm, lock in on that skimmer. Now, Scotty! Activate transporter!"

"Got 'em, sir."

"Fire." The skimmer disappeared.

Someone on the Bridge gave a long sigh. Everyone pretended not to hear. Everyone but the captain. "Second the motion," he said bracingly. "Good job, everyone. Let's see what we bagged. Mr. Spock?"

"Take over, Maldonado." Spock got to the captain's chair in time to extend an unobtrusive helping hand. Kirk nodded, allowing Spock to support him to the lift.

"Sulu, resume command." The lift opened. "Transporter Room."

* * *

Silent Security personnel circled the pads. Phasers were still at ready -- they'd learned not to take chances with Kzinti. But their captives were clearly out cold. Spock studied them. One was missing an eye and a good part of the face that should have surrounded it. The other needed an arm.

"How did they survive?" Annette murmured, studying the injuries.

"The Kzinti aren't big on reconstructive surgery," Nygaard told her shortly. "Or on medicine in general. Their wounded either survive or they don't."

"Get them to the Brig," Kirk ordered. "I want restraints and a round-the-clock guard. This time we'll get some answers." He moved to the console. "Anything new on their ship?"

"No Kzinti life forms on board, Captain," Scotty responded tightly. "But other readings ... are confirmed, sir."

"Shit!" Kirk rested an arm on the console, trying to disguise the fact that it was holding him up. Spock stepped forward, waiting quietly. "All right, Mr. Spock, I'm sorry, but it's yours. Take a medical team and anyone you want from Security and Engineering. Let's wrap this one up."

* * *

Spock kept his team together as they explored the Kzin Bridge. Data on this freighter were scarce, but he kept on looking. There was no hurry about what they knew they would find in the Hold. Finally he took Chapel and a guard, and they began to make their way below decks.

A few cabins stood empty and open. A mess hall and cramped recreation area showed signs of long disuse. "Were there just the two of them?" Chapel wondered aloud. "For how long?"

"Quite possibly since the treaty, Doctor."

"You mean they've just been wandering around in empty space all this time?"

"No. Their drive was damaged, leaving them to travel by impulse and inertia. But I believe we will find they had a specific destination." Spock couldn't help hoping fervently that that destination would show up somewhere in the navigational records he'd beamed over to the Enterprise. It wasn't likely. Even cursory examination had shown carefully erased areas. But the alternative made the search seem highly worthwhile.

They traveled by ladders, avoiding the lift. They'd found no indications of sabotage. But there was no telling what two survivors might do to a damaged ship just to make life more interesting, Kzin-style. He sent two of the engineers to examine the engine, taking one of his Security as guard, then opened his tricorder. He was aware that Chapel's breathing quickened, but she was right behind him as he followed his guard to the Hold.

The temperature was the near-freezing he'd expected. He activated the lights; they flooded the area. "The system appears functional," he observed tightly. That might be a good thing now. They moved slowly toward the banks of canisters.

"This one's empty," Chapel observed moving around a bank. "And-- Oh!" Spock braced himself and moved around toward her. "Vulcanoid," she warned, fearing that might upset him.

"Sentient life form," he amended heavily. Kzin victims were Kzin victims. This one was enough to turn any stomach. What was left of the body was male, possibly Vulcan, possibly middle aged. He lifted the skull. As he'd expected, the brain pan was empty. Hopeless. He moved around to locate the toggles. There seemed significant risk of pulling the wrong one, so he traced the leads to the canister and snapped them. Chapel gave a choked sound, half protest, half pity.

She waited until the indicator had faded into nonexistence. But then she stepped up to the corpse to begin an examination: "Oh! Here's a signature disc."

"Good. That will save time. Put it aside for me, please. I will examine it later. Come."

Bank after bank of the cold sleep canisters spread out in front of them. They walked down one aisle together, then Chapel turned to another bank so they could examine two rows at a time. There were well over a hundred, filled with a wide array of victims. "Most are vegetarians," Spock observed -- this had been a prime cargo. A few of the canisters had malfunctioned and no one had bothered to clear them. But most contained living victims, undamaged, and quite possibly revivable. Spock began to explore with increased curiosity. "Do you see any women and children?" It did not take them long to establish that the cargo consisted of aging males. The best cuts had been removed.

"Here's another Vulcan," Chapel informed him in professional tones. Duty took Spock toward her. A Kzin victim was a Kzin victim. But as he looked at the middle aged man, his examination turned into a stare. "Do you know him?" Chapel asked sympathetically. Spock nodded, unable to speak. He knew the man as an acquaintance of his own family. But he was seeing the face before him, not as it sagged in cold sleep, but through the mind of a woman now dead. The eyes were closed, the jaw slack, but he remembered that face as T'Lan had remembered it at the moment of mating: furious and fervent, yet with a hungry tenderness... He put a hand on the canister to steady himself.

"Dr. Chapel, please have this victim removed to Sickbay. Revive him as quickly as you deem medically advisable. This is urgent!" Now why had he said that? It was urgent only to him. But he had to know. If S'Aen had survived all these years, why not another? Abruptly he went back to repeat the rounds of the canisters. There were seventeen Vulcan males, none the one he sought. But S'Falt might have gone with the younger ones, to -- what? He snapped his communicator open and ordered himself beamed back, never realizing he was dizzy with apprehension until the transporter chief came bounding up to grab his arm. He pulled himself together while submitting to a chair, triox, and solicitude. A thought struck him; he called Sickbay from the transporter console and insisted on speaking directly to Chapel. "Inform me as soon as you read any brain activity -- any patterns at all, night or day. This may be crucial." He cut her acknowledgment off with an unintentionally quick snap, and headed for the lift.

"I've never seen Mr. Spock unsettled by the transporter," he heard Dell worry behind him.

"It's not the transporter," the chief replied knowledgeably. "It's that damn Kzin freighter. Kzin cargo. Yeough!"

Spock stepped into the lift, concurring silently. He managed to control his shudder until the doors closed. Kzin cargo. Yeough!

* * *

He worked on the ship's records for the next three periods straight, hoping against hope. Inevitably much of what they really wanted was fragmentary, or missing entirely. Some records had been selectively erased, but whole sections were simply gone. "Pulled out, looks like," M'Ress growled. Spock hunted on; a mere shake of the head was his report when the captain returned to the Bridge.

Finally he had to concede defeat. He straightened slowly, and turned to Kirk. "I will require time to prepare," he said formally.

Relief crept into Jim's eyes, at not having to ask. He nodded.

"Mr. Spock?" M'Ress said from behind him. "Message from Sickbay."

"I will be there directly."

The victim was still in his canister. Spock went to the readouts. They were unencouraging, but it was worth a try. He braced himself and grasped the temples, ignoring the cold that seemed to reach toward him. There was no response to his probe, so he merely planted his question, and returned gratefully to the warmth.

"All right, sir?" Chapel was studying him professionally. He nodded and she relaxed. "I found his identity disc. His name is S'Aen, a citizen of-- "

"I know." That was too curt; he softened it. "Thank you."

"Of course. Mr. Spock, we were wondering if -- that is, we're just about to change shifts. Would you join us in our quarters for a bite of supper?" Krou came up to put his arm around his wife, seconding her invitation with a cordial nod.

"Thank you," he replied sincerely. "But it will be best if I do not eat now. Another time?" They nodded politely, puzzled eyes following him as he marched resolutely to his quarters.

* * *

He gave himself a full two periods to prepare. Then, as ready as he'd ever be, he called the Brig and ordered the prisoners webbed. They were common soldiers, he reminded himself.

He need fear no mental resistance. His controls fumed to perfection, he left for the lift. He stopped in at Sickbay on his way down. S'Aen's brain functions were rapidly resuming. He melded again and this time he was sure he had established a state of reception. //Respected S'Aen,// he communicated formally. //I regret intruding on your grief. But as soon as possible, we must have your help. Where are the children?//

Allen was waiting for him in the Brig. "The captain wants you to report to his quarters as soon as you're finished, Mr. Spock. Is there anything you need?"

"Any observers must remain silent." He moved toward the inner cells resolutely, barely hearing Siebert's acknowledgment. The force fields dropped. He moved quietly toward the prisoners webbed to the table. Poisonous fangs bared; feral eyes glared at him in yellow hate. He ignored both, stepping toward their heads. He had forgotten that the skin would be furred. He closed his eyes, concentrating to block out repugnance, then reached, and joined.

There was resistance, but it was emotional -- puerile. He set it aside and searched out what he needed. It took time, but his controls held. He withdrew neatly and stepped back. "I do not need the other. Return both to precautionary restraints. Continue preventive observation." He walked steadily out of the Brig and on to the lift. "Deck two."

"Come," the captain called.

Spock stood at attention, beginning his report immediately. "The ship was the Kwarigi, out of Sffargh. The ... cargo is largely captives of the T'Leara raid, though the ship also received miscellaneous onloads from other sources which the crewman does not know. The ship was damaged in a hostile encounter; he knows no details. Most of the crew were taken off. The ship was placed on automatic heading in charge of two crew deemed unfit for battle. Their heading was 91:2:6; he does not know their destination.

"Did you get an ETA?'

"No. I can try the other, but I doubt-- "

"Hold on. Let's see what this plots out to." The captain activated his terminal and punched in the heading. Spock waited impassively. "Well, well, well! An asteroid cluster. Kinli 23: Pilot's Bane. It's in no man's land now, but it was Kzin territory before the treaty. They wouldn't have made it for years at the rate they were going. But it intersects precisely."

A stir of excitement cut through Spock's control. "We intercepted the pirates in that sector."

"And they launched an attack the second we hailed them. That could explain it. It could explain a lot."

"Yes." Suddenly Spock became aware that that thrill of interest had cut through too much. "With permission, sir, I would like to return to my quarters. I wish to review the records of-- "

It didn't work. Somehow he'd known it wouldn't. Even as he spoke the captain was rising painfully. An arm circled him; he was drawn to the workchair and seated. He felt himself trembling; he had to bring his hands up to hide an uncontrolled face. Nausea rose almost uncontrollably as the meldmemory surfaced. Teeth tearing into living flesh, tender enough to fleck whiskers with dark blood and juice. He could have screamed at the taste of it. But his captain's hand was steadyingly on his shoulder; it brought him through quickly. Soon he was able to sit up, nodding thanks. Jim turned his back while he pulled himself together, then came over to rub his neck. "Want the bed?"

"No." But he did not have the energy to protest as Jim let down the chairback and threw a blanket over him. It seemed logical to close his eyes...

He slept for an hour, sank his body into deep rest, then returned smoothly to meditation. It was not long before he felt repaired. "In all my long life," he thought through all of T'Laria's famous epigram, "I have seen naught endure, save logic..." He opened his eyes, sitting up.

Jim was at his desk, smiling at him. "Fleet's sending a hospital ship for the sleepers. Rendezvous in 76 hours. I've got a board set up; how about a game?"

The fierce challenge of the game blotted out everything else, until Jim casually handed him a thermal mug. Automatically, Spock opened it: spiced plomik. "Thank you." The "Mother" that rose to his lips was clearly emotionalism; he suppressed it, and sipped, letting the hot spiciness spread through him.

The captain watched him in amused understanding. "Actually I don't see how you can drink that stuff," he zapped. "I'd think your teeth would melt. Want some ice water?"

"No, I thank you." Spock moved a pawn enticingly. "I have often thought that the human predilection for freezing the taste buds may account for some of the cuisines you have evolved." He sipped tranquilly as the captain frowned over his gambit, conscious that balance had been restored.

* * *

"The doctor believes you well enough to talk. Do I intrude?"

S'Aen glanced up incuriously, then set aside private misery, straightening courteously. "I am S'Aen, of-- "

"Spock," Spock interrupted, too nervous to endure the other's pedigree.

Startlement crept into politeness. "Son of Sarek?"

"Yes."

"But you ... illogical. The doctor says it has been over 30 years."

"Yes. There will be much that is strange."

"Much ... to which I must accustom myself." The brooding mask was returning. Spock ached with pity.

"I grieve with thee."

S'Aen might have reacted to the familiarity. Instead he stared at his knees. "Spock, can you tell me how my ... T'Lan died?"

"Yes." He gave the older man time to prepare, waiting for a nod. It came. "An aircar crash." There was a long silence. "When?"

This was going to hurt, maybe more than anything. "I regret--" That wouldn't make it any easier. "Six weeks ago." S'Aen's eyes closed.

Spock should have left him in privacy. Instead, he broke through desperately. "Respected S'Aen! I beg forgiveness. But I must know! S'Falt?"

For a terrible moment he thought the other would ignore the question. Then, painfully, S'Aen drew breath. "Dead."

It wasn't enough. "Captured?"

"No." S'Aen shuddered. "He tried to hold them off. Fought them at the hanger doors. I got the children into the shuttle and launched it " The horror of the events -- yesterday, to him -- betrayed him into a short, bitter laugh. "It was illogical. Hopeless. The Kzinti merely threw out a tractor beam and brought them all back."

"But S'Falt!" Spock begged.

"There were seven of them. Against one boy. They tore him to pieces as he fought." Spock was silent, wrestling with his emotionalism. S'Aen looked at him, then courteously looked away. "I regret... He was your friend."

Spock rose abruptly, stomach on the fret. But there was one more thing he must do. "Respected S'Aen, what of T'Zaid?"

S'Aen flinched. "Dead these years. What else?"

"Quite possibly alive in the cold sleep." Spock gulped; he had to hurry. "Respected T'Lan never tasted your daughter's death. I believe the chances are good that with your help, we -- excuse me." He left gracelessly, running for the head. He just made it.

Long after his stomach had finished expressing itself, he remained in the shelter of the cubicle. He must re-establish his control. But every attempt was blocked by his horror at himself.

"Spock? Spock! Answer me! Are you all right?"

"Yes." Spock emerged reluctantly. He was in for some more mothering for sure. And he knew what their anxious eyes were seeing in his face. But there was no help for it. He allowed Jim and the doctor to take an arm each and went passively with them to an inviting easy chair. He could not deny that a period of quiet would be welcome. But once he had pulled himself together, he must speak again with S'Aen!

Chapel gave him a comforting pat and left. There was the welcome sound of privacy screens. Then his captain's hand was warm on his shoulder. "Give me your hand." Spock closed his eyes. "Dammit! I said give me your hand!" Spock started at the bark. Then he realized he was gripping the chair arms. He freed one hand and lifted it, staring at this part of him that could create -- this part of him that could kill. "That's better." His captain took his hand, cradling it warmly. Then he simply waited.

"I do not wish to talk about it!" Spock rasped. It was empty defiance -- he was going to speak truth or choke on it.

"Okay."

"It -- S'Falt--"

"The baby? Something's wrong with the baby?"

"No. His--" The word didn't translate and Spock didn't have the energy to paraphrase. "T'Pan's ... bondmate. The Kzinti. He -- heroic. Tried -- the children. They tore him ... devoured--" Spock shuddered.

His captain's hands tightened. "Horrible."

"Yes. And I -- I...am glad.

It was a moment before Spock found the courage to lift his eyes. But his captain's face held only warmth -- almost amusement. "But of course you are," his captain said gently. "For Pete sake!"

* * *

Uhura's buzzer sounded. "Come!" she called. She cussed a bit as she shifted her bandaged knee for the tenth time in five minutes, but brightened as she saw her visitor. "Come in, M'Ress. Well! A new outfit? Playsuit? Smart!"

M'Ress gave a deep purr, then laughed. "Watch." There was a ripping of velcro and M'Ress -- almost all of M'Ress -- stood, paws on hips, modeling a strip of material that unmistakably suggested play.

Uhura gasped; then her eyes narrowed. "M'Ress," she spoke in an odd mixture of exasperation and concern, "your dagger is showing."

"Damn! Maybe I'd better attach it to me instead of the suit."

"M'Ress--"

"Kzinti females are clitorectomized at birth, you know. That's why they have about enough sense to come in out of the wet. Once that's done, the intelligence dust never develops."

"M'Ress--!"

"Caitans have never had that custom. Our males like a challenge, I'm here to tell you." M'Ress smiled ferally; then she was dead serious. "So I've still got these and those. And I intend to use them!"

"Forget it, M'Ress."

"Unfortunately the Kzinti adhere to a lot of their ancient customs. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if I have to assume the position at some point.

"No."

"Oh, I don't mind. It won't be the first time I've lifted my tail for the good of the Federation. We like to keep it light, you know, till ... the real thing comes along. 'Only a fool sighs while the catnip is lush."'

"M'Ress, if you think for one minute--"

"The problem is, someone might get a good look. It's not likely -- Kzinti tend to close in fast. But if someone does realize I've got all my equipment, I'll make that his last realization."

"Stop it, M'Ress. You're not going. I ... I can't spare you!" M'Ress was silent; Uhura forced a smile. "Wouldn't want you to waste a new outfit, though. Wear it on duty!"

"Then I'll be in the Brig and unable to relieve you anyway. We can work out a schedule, can't we, Lieutenant?"

"I suppose so, but we're not going to. You're too valuable to risk on a suicide mission."

"It won't be a suicide mission. Mr. Spock is leading it."

"So go talk to Mr. Spock.

"He won't let me volunteer unless you okay it. Please?"

"Damn it, M'Ress!"

"I can pass for a Kzin. I've done it."

"I know. That's why you've got all those pieces of plastic in what passes for your brain."

"'Hura,, if the scuttlebutt is half right, this could be the biggest bust since Murria. Besides, think of all those victims. Imagine if they're alive! There could be thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Revivable!" M'Ress produced a roster. "Now look. I figure that Fitton's well enough to stand a watch every other day, okay? Now you keep the main duty shift and put Jason in on second, just till I get back..."

* * *

"Oh, Spock. Good. I -- hey!"

Spock continued his furious strides down the corridor. He'd pretend he hadn't heard, get someplace private, compose himself--

"Spock!" Spock halted. Then, realizing he was making Jim walk unnecessarily, he turned and moved slowly back. "It's a bad time," the captain deduced, looking at him, then looking away. "I'm sorry, Spock, but we've got to talk. Come." The captain led the way to a briefing room, nodded Spock into a chair, then turned and carefully locked the door.

Spock took a deep breath, accepting the inevitable, then began a much merited apology. "The apology is mine," Jim waved him to silence. "But let's table both of them, can we? I've got Starfleet on my tail, and half the crew as -- well."

"The crew?"

"Hell, yes. I never realized how many of our people lost someone to the Kzinti. Seems like every third crewmember is trying to find out if we might possibly be going to find Aunt Mathilda. The library computer's logged so many requests for information on cold sleep, there's probably a groove in the circuitry. And Starfleet--! Spock, are we really headed for a large find of Kzin victims? Revivable?"

"I cannot compute probabilities on the basis of the data available. However, it seems clear that the Kwarigi was a feeder ship."

"Clear on what grounds?

"There were no women or children in their cargo. Yet we know S'Aen was mentor of a party of schoolchildren, including his daughter, a ten year old named T'Zaid. The man I ... the first victim we found was, from his identity disc, a native of T'R'ta who must have been captured in an entirely separate foray, probably some years previously."

"So you think that asteroid cluster--"

"May hide a mother ship, or perhaps a storage vault -- perhaps a vault large enough to have supplied the entire Kzin empire."

"If so, why wouldn't they have taken it with them when they withdrew?"

"They may well have. However, there might be several reasons why that was impossible or impractical, the simplest, perhaps, being that they preferred to keep it a secret, in the hopes of retrieving it intact."

Kirk thought that over, then nodded. "Okay, I think that should be enough. But -- listen, Spock, you know I'm sorry. But you know Fleet's going to ask. What is S'Aen to you?"

The coldness in the pit of Spock's stomach began to ache, but he loosened his throat to reply calmly. "For Starfleet, a connection of my family. It is true that in that sense I have a personal interest in pursuing the matter. However, to urge such a course would be illogical were there not a high probability, of finding many revivable victims, not only of my family, and not only Vulcan."

Jim nodded, rising.

"More personally..." Spock focused on steepled fingers. "S'Aen's bondmate, T'Lan, was T'In's daughter." He could sense Jim's widening eyes and he nodded without looking up. "She was one of the women whom I--" He choked and had to swallow suddenly. "She died in an aircar crash six weeks ago, carrying the child I got on her."

"My God," Jim breathed quietly.

"He does not know," Spock confessed. "I have tried to tell him. Tried twice. I ... cannot." Jim did not reply. But the sympathy in his silence encouraged Spock to talk it out. "I have told him the entire story. I told him how T'Pring challenged." Spock's mouth quirked bitterly. "Why should he be deprived of a tidbit all Vulcan dines on?" Jim's hand rested on his shoulder. Spock shrugged it off, suddenly impatient with himself. "I am a fool. Also a coward! I told him about the arrangement -- the seeding, you understand. I told him T'Pan has borne a child I got. But--" He stood abruptly. "And of course I have sent word of S'Aen's rescue to T'Pan. It is only a matter of time..."

After a long moment Jim gave his shoulder a pat and went to his terminal to raise Starfleet. Spock remained staring into nothing. He appreciated the sympathy. But it didn't get him any closer to knowing how to do what must be done.

* * *

"ETA?"

"Two hours.

"Acknowledged." Kirk sighed faintly, less than thrilled about the shape of things. Command had developed one of its tiresome old womanish streaks -- worrying about offending the Kzin Empire of all damn things. Of course in fairness, he didn't have much to go on. A telepath's extraction of an erased heading, an interested party's "logical analysis": such was not the material of persuasive dispatches. But the result was one of the damndest half-assed shouted compromises he had ever had to accede to. A reconnoitering party (one that could be disavowed by the UFP if convenient), with the Enterprise skulking among the asteroids, coincidentally nearby... Kirk snorted bitterly. Of course, if he could lead the landing party, everything would seem different. He was cursing that Kzin kamikaze as he entered the briefing room.

There wasn't much to discuss. Their sensors could pick up almost nothing from the rocky asteroid other than the life forms they'd pinpointed. Their plans were correspondingly simple. There was one concentration of Kzinti in the interior. Life support systems were operational, the environment tolerable for the projected party. Beyond that they could not go. "Notify navigation, and plan a series of sweeps. I want the best map we can get."

* * *

Spock had formed the habit of dropping by to look in on S'Aen several times a day. The older man was definitely on the mend, but Chapel insisted on keeping him in Sickbay, around people, and under her eye. Spock had to approve. S'Aen's whole demeanor suggested that recovery was not volition, but duty reluctantly undertaken.

As he began to feel better, S'Aen did begin to ask questions. He courteously avoided any reference to Spock's private affairs, but he was interested in hearing about T'In and her health, Katholia's departure for parts unknown, T'Pan's research... One day he inquired rather particularly after T'Ria. Spock was surprised at that -- he was so used to thinking of that respected elder as a shadow in the background. But S'Aen seemed rather interested in the fact that she was still living in the house of T'In. Spock made a mental note to discuss this with T'Pan. It would be quite the thing for S'Aen to take a wife from his deceased wife's house. Certainty it would please T'In. But he reined in his thoughts. Early days.

As the plans for the reconnoitering expedition took shape he took every opportunity to discuss them with S'Aen. He meant to argue T'Zaid's possible survival as a means of motivating S'Aen to heal. But that strategy quickly ran up against the barrier of logic. Both of them knew that the more succulent victims would have been the first sold.

Finally all was ready. He made a last visit to S'Aen, who politely wished him safe return. There seemed so little energy behind the etiquette that Spock was impelled to push it once again. "Of course, I will be watching for T"Zaid."

"Your concern is appreciated."

Spock paused in the doorway to look back. S'Aen had turned his face to the wall. But Chapel was moving toward him, hypo at the ready, her face determined. Spock gave her an approving nod and left.

* * *

"Okay, I think that's it." Kirk closed off his terminal with a snap. "Now you listen to me." He settled down to repeat himself in his best command voice. "I don't care how few life form readings have been picked up, it's dangerous over there. I want you quietly in and quietly out, fast, and in one piece. Stay out of trouble."

"Of course, Captain."

Kirk snorted, unappeased. He'd heard that from Spock before.

* * *

"Come into my bedroom, M'Ress, and close the door." The Caitan obeyed. Uhura studied her. "It's settled. You're going."

"Just reconnoitering." M'Ress gave a faint hiss, then brightened. "Of course, if we happen to find something of interest..."

"How deep?"

"Certainly past the tunnels we can read. Did you see the hologram Scotty made? It cut our preparation time more than half." Uhura made no move to take the map. "Now, 'Hura." M'Ress put a paw on her friend's good knee, claws carefully sheathed for the sake of her hose. "You know we've thought it all out. Mr. Spock and I have night vision comparable to a Kzin's. We'll be in constant communication."

"Until you get to the interior." Uhura brooded a moment, then reached to pick up a small pile of fur and velcro on her bed. "You'd better try this on. I got the tail size from Wardrobe, but I had to do the color by eye."

"What is it?" M'Ress inspected the piece, then purred deeply in amused appreciation. The next second her tunic was on the bed, followed by her shorties.

"Bend over." The process of attaching the piece sent the Caitan into chirps of ticklish laughter, but once it was in place, she declared it perfectly comfortable. "It won't stand up to close inspection," Uhura warned. "If it comes to that, you'll still have to defend yourself." But Uhura's voice held a pardonable note of satisfaction. To the casual eye, both the dagger and the dangerous "those" were almost invisible.

M'Ress dressed quickly, hesitated, then pounced. On the verge of a final admonition, Uhura found herself wearing a cold nose and furry cheek. Then M'Ress was out the door. "Don't worry, Uhura. We're just reconnoitering. I'll be back before you know it!"

"Well, see that you are. And in one piece."

"Yes, Ma'am!" The outer door activated.

"Be careful!"

"I will." The outer door closed. Uhura frowned; she'd heard that from M'Ress before.

* * *

"It seems our readings were correct," Spock pronounced. "There are no Kzinti in the perimeter."

His voice held a professional satisfaction M'Ress could not share. They'd been around at least a quarter of the perimeter, just to confirm readings she'd have been willing to accept from the Bridge. "It was occupied," she pointed out.

"Clearly." They had found any number of suites opening off the passageways. All stood neatly ready, probably for travelers confined to the Empire since the treaty.

"And there's got to be an interior complex."

"Unquestionably. We have penetrated barely four kilometers into a radius that averages 10."

"Mr. Spock!" M'Ress heard the urgency in her own tone, and paused to marshall a logical argument. "It wouldn't be surprising, would it, sir, to find a natural passageway to the interior?" There was no reply. "Just a small one?" she urged. "Maybe just big enough to admit a smallish female Caitan?"

"Nothing would surprise me more, Lieutenant," the reply came blandly. "Such a passage would necessarily be large enough to accommodate a tallish male Vulcan." M'Ress could feel her whiskers twitching but she stayed silent, eyes searching his face in the half light. "And, of course, a small female Caitan."

They turned all scanners on the inner walls, scrutinizing the readings anxiously. "It's damn thick. I wonder why they maintain life support out here."

"Probably there is a central power complex. In that case it would be more trouble than it's worth to modify it to shut down some portions. If the complex was built by the W\rang, the Kzinti may not know how to -- ah!" M'Ress bridled anxiously, but kept her mouth shut. "Spock drew his phaser and began the task of finding a natural passageway.

The blue light cut neatly back through the area he had read. He stopped to warn M'Ress to take up a position behind him, her phaser drawn and ready. Then he fired another brief spurt. "We're through."

They waited, scarcely breathing. Satisfied by the silence, Spock reached into his pack and extracted the infrared scanner. M'Ress smiled, took it from him, and scrambled up on a thoughtfully presented knee to push it through the aperture. "If you will monitor the readings?" he requested politely. M'Ress nodded, then concentrated on holding absolutely still as the phaser cut to her left.

The last few minutes were anxious ones; they couldn't get the scanner far away from the phaser to get true readings. But at last the passageway was big enough. Within seconds they were both through. "Ladies first!" M'Ress purred, tiptoeing ahead. She half expected a reprimand. But her first officer's footsteps were right behind her.

They explored for a while in growing disappointment. They had cut through to another suite. There were many of them. But they all stood empty. M'Ress was just about to express her opinion of this reconnoitering when Spock held up a hand. "Life form!" he whispered. "Directly beyond this passage."

"Well, all right! Let's--" Spock closed his tricorder, stowing it neatly, and moved back toward their cut. M'Ress hissed softly in the darkness, tail alash. Then she shook herself, gave her whiskers a brisk smoothing and followed him back. Regs were regs, and Vulcans were Vulcans. Beam Mr. Spock into the heart of hell -- he'd try to raise the ship.

At least he'd been quick about it. A security team was forming as M'Ress scrambled through their passageway. She stood at attention, less than surprised to catch a glint of gold braid. The captain listened to Spock's succinct report, inspected the cut, and nodded. Probably only M'Ress saw a pair of phasers change hands. Then Spock headed back through the passage. M'Ress got an encouraging buffet on the shoulder, a low-voiced caution. Then she was through, standing beside a scanning tricorder. "Can you pickup that lifeform?"

"Negative." She grabbed her phaser and the scanner, knowing without being told that this time they'd cut straight and fast. The first shot was wide-beam. A mansize section of rock glowed red and disappeared. M'Ress was through the next instant, so fast she barely scorched her fur.

"Wow!" A magnificent staircase lay before them, leading from a sloping walkway to their left down to what looked like a public courtyard, deserted and echoing. Beside her, Mr. Spock was already thinking tactics.

"If they are expecting trouble--"

"'Even if they are, they won't expect us to use the stair."

Spock thought it over, but shook his head. "Too open. I read a number of passageways behind and beneath the stairs. Give me your phaser."

M'Ress felt herself bridling, controlled herself, and exchanged weapons. Spock's was nearly exhausted. She grabbed a power pack from her belt and clicked it in. The first officer was already moving forward. RHIP, she reminded herself and scampered to catch up.

The passageways behind the stair seemed to follow its contours, twisting and meeting in a crazy quilt pattern. "Female paths!" M'Ress concluded in a hiss. "They should take us right to the--" She broke off abruptly as a scent cut across her awareness. Mr. Spock had caught it too. With one accord they turned toward its source, then ducked.

They could hear pawpads now, the scratching of claws in half boots in the passageway behind them. M'Ress drew her breath in sharply. She could crouch almost invisibly in the passage-mouth. But it had never been designed to conceal Vulcans. She ran back toward the staircase and sprang to its ornamental balustrade. Her utility belt dropped neatly out of sight. There was no help for the sound of stripping velcro, but it might attract her quarry. In seconds her uniform had joined her belt and a smallish female lounged on the balustrade, grooming a luxuriant tail.

Scent and sounds grew nearer and stopped. M'Ress looked up, waving her tail in languorous interest. She nearly froze as she caught sight of her prey -- Kzinti always turned her stomach. Then she gave a tiny, admiring chirp.

The Kzin had halted in astonishment. Then he answered her chirp, feral eyes beginning to gleam in appreciation. He took a step forward and fell at Mr. Spock's feet.

"Good work, Lieutenant." Spock cast a doubtful look at the playsuit, but refrained from comment. He set his phaser on heavy stun and fired at the crumpled body, then knelt to inspect it. M'Ress moved to her belt and extracted their webbing. Spock caught it as she tossed, beginning to secure their prize while M'Ress and retrieved her shorties and tunic.

"Mr. Spock!" she hissed. He froze. Silently she jabbed with a paw, indicating the shadow she'd seen moving. She bent for her phaser as Spock rose casually.

"Look out!" It was a feral screech. It was also Caitan. M'Ress leapt to Spock's side, fur bristling. Above them came an ominous rumbling. A small furry body hit them both, knocking them back. A huge shadow was forming around them. They scrambled into an archway just in time. A shower of small stones and debris fell past the opening. Seconds later a huge stone rumbled by. They could hear it whomping down the steps even above the roar of the small landslide. "Damn the pair of you!" the strange voice spat.

"You built a slide?" Spock inquired calmly. "A booby trap?"

"I've been trying for K'ven for months," the stranger answered resentfully. "I decided I'd get him, at least."

"Well, you certainly did," M'Ress assured her.

"We have lost most of our equipment, Lieutenant." Spock returned to priorities. "We must contact the--" A muffled sob drew his attention back to the stranger. "I am Spock, first officer of the Starship Enterprise."

"And I'm Lt. M'Ress." M'Ress observed her compatriot critically. "Why are you crying? We'll help you. There's a whole starship--"

"There's no time! K'Vrrur's going to shut -- to shut--" Her voice broke into a wail.

Spock cast M'Ress a rather helpless look and she stepped forward, taking the other woman in her arms. "If there's no time, there's no time to cry," she said firmly, palliating this severity by licking the tears from the other's cheeks. "What's K'Vrrur going to shut?"

"Power to the W\rang vaults! He's been working up to it for weeks now -- ever since he lost his last ship. Today he decided -- I don't know why. He came down from the control room spitting and told them to get the escape pods ready."

"The scout we intercepted?" M'Ress asked softly.

"Quite possibly, Lieutenant. They may have missed a check--"

"Anyway something happened," the Caitan interrupted impatiently. "He's been hanging on, hoping to salvage part of his ... stock. Now he's decided he can't. But he means to shut down -- to kill all those people!" The girl began to tremble. "Just for the satisfaction!"

"How many?"

"Hundreds -- thousands? I don't know. I've only seen the vaults twice. I didn't dare make them suspicious."

"You've been passing for a Kzin?"

"Yes. They're so used to ignoring females that--"

"Excuse me," Spock interrupted. "When does K'Vrrur intend--?"

"They've having a final banquet. Tonight. K'Arg's been working on the circuits all day. I -- I don't know exactly."

"We must contact the ship." Spock turned on his heel then halted, staring at the rubble blocking them. He tried his communicator, just in case. M'Ress was less than surprised to hear no answering beep.

"There's no time!" the Caitan said urgently. "Once K'Arg is finished it'll only take the flick of a toggle. They're so close to dead anyway -- there's no time!"

"How many Kzin are here?"

"Eight males." The girl's tail began to lash. "Only eight! We can take them. Pick them off one by one. Please!"

For a being who could spend hours motionless, just thinking, while crew activity swirled around him, Mr. Spock could decide fast when he had to. "What's the quickest route, Miss -- what is your name?"

"Fvrass." The girl brightened, running her paws quickly over her face. "Cut through here. That will take us to the service lift." Spock nodded to M'Ress. It took wide beam and a lot of power. Too much power. But finally she had an opening wide enough to admit a tallish male Vulcan. Spock examined it, considering. Then he unstrapped his pack and belt, dropping them where he stood.

M'Ress cursed silently, her fur bristling. Spock had been laden as heavily as they'd dared with the scanning equipment. All the lighter equipment, what they really needed now, was buried with her belt. Power packs, medical kit ... she was running through a dismal litany when Spock asked, "Status, Lieutenant?"

She examined her phaser. "Under a quarter."

Spock nodded acknowledgment. "You will please remember, Lieutenant, that we are without additional power packs. Ms. Fvrass, you will lead; Lieutenant, follow me." He paused, studying Fvrass, then added kindly, "You need have no apprehension. I shall be close behind you."

The women exchanged a glance, then they scrambled out until they reached a passage where they could move in the formation ordered. Fvrass led the way to a large lift, inserted a claw in a slotted panel, and twisted. The lift began a creaky descent. Fvrass faced straight forward, a jaunty tune purring deep in her throat. It was the Caitan equivalent of "It's so nice to have a man around the house" -- rather a famous tune, Spock reflected. IIt had made a fortune for the tail dancer who'd recorded it in tri-d. But a Vulcan first officer could remain officially ignorant of such matters and Spock had often found it expedient to do so. He made no comment, therefore, only studying the few functional indicators that marked their progress to the very bottom of the shaft.

Fvrass led out, signaling for silence. It was very cold at this level; Spock's skin began to crawl. Suddenly it was good to think that a watchful female walked at his back, in the position of trust. Someday... His fingers started toward his signature, nestled in its placket at his side. He controlled the gesture.

M'Ress' phaser spat behind him. Spock whirled in time to see a very old Kzin fall sprawling across a cart. Three females alongside it dropped to a crouch, surveying the intruders with dull, frightened eyes. Then one of them bolted. M'Ress fired again and brought her down. But her phaser crackled into silence.

"It's K'Arg!" Fvrras exclaimed in horror, studying the unconscious Kzin. "They've started the banquet! He must have finished with the circuits!" She glanced around wildly. "They'll all be together, now!"

"Wait!" M'Ress interrupted bracingly. "Who selects the dinner?"

"K'Arg. What do -- oh! You could pass too! But what about Mr. Spock?"

"Specialite de la maison. What else?" M'Ress began to strip. Spock averted his eyes from the energetically ripping seams and found himself focusing on Fvrass, and the very small child she was moving to the lower shelf of the cart. It was a Tellarite, impossibly tiny, pink against the Caitan's fur.

"No!" he grated.

"He's dead, Mr. Spock. They had a brainfeast last week. And they'll be expecting a delicacy. Dessert. We'll never get past the door without it."

It was logical. It was also intolerable. Spock stood motionless.

"There are hundreds here, Mr. Spock. My man. My mother. Maybe my brother. I haven't come this far--"

Spock shuddered. Then, yielding to logic, he bent over the tiny form. The baby was only a few months old, hardly bigger than S'Falt. Fingers on the skull, he double checked. Fvrass was right. But he had to be sure. He turned the body, hands on the neck. His thumbs met between the vertebrae and pulled apart with almost no resistance.

"Come on!" Fvrass insisted. Spock drew his phaser and handed it to M'Ress, leaning on the cart. The cold emptiness was creeping through his stomach with the feeling of cartilage parting under his thumbs... Furry hands tugged at him.. He managed not to resist as he was pulled onto the cart. "Wait! This is a special occasion!" Fvrass scurried away. Something covered him. "Vulcan sous cloche. Let's go!"

Spock was aware of a forward motion. Doors closed and they started up. "All right, sir?" M'Ress whispered. He nodded.

"Don't move!" Fvrass hissed. "You can open and shut your eyes, but you mustn't let them realize you can see. And whatever you do, don't move. Ready, M'Ress?"

"Ready." A door clanged. Spock was wheeled out. The odor of Kzin male hung around him; someone growled an interrogative. "K'Arg?" But at that moment there was an impatient roar from ahead. The two females scampered to get the cart moving.

Roars of enthusiasm greeted his entrance. He shut the sound away, concentrating on remaining limp. He slowed his breathing, wishing he had some method of verifying Fvrass' count. Eight males. Now seven...

"Psst!" A gentle whisper stole past his ear -- M'Ress, as she arranged him ceremoniously on a large flat surface. "Psst!" There was nothing more. He puzzled over it, until he realized that M'Ress was simply trying to let him know she was close by.

He lay still, waiting it out. He must depend on M'Ress now, lest he betray them all. Twenty eight minutes passed. Then he heard that gentle "Psst" again. A paw touched his face, turning his head gently to one side. M'Ress was stroking his cheek, purring hungrily deep in her throat. He wondered fleetingly if Vulcan looked tasty to Caitan as well as Kzin, then reminded himself that M'Ress would never entertain a thought so disrespectful of her first officer's person.

M'Ress rose, smoothing her whiskers. A large form stepped past him, gathering speed as M'Ress scampered away, her tail pluming in invitation. They left his range of vision. But moments later, M'Ress stepped back into view, smoothing tail and whiskers. She smiled past him, then dropped to a crouch, tail arching high. Another male moved past him. How many of them had she dispatched, before she contrived to get over to where he could see? And where was Fvrass? They might pick a few males off, but how long before the others--?

Heightened noise caught his attention. A very large paw took his head, turning his face upward. His skin crawled. But training held, good; he stayed limp. He hoped the Kzinti's other victims had been too far gone to realize what was happening to them as his arm was lifted, hand taken close to an opening jaw. Yellow teeth were bared, the venom fang retracted--

"Freeze!"

Spock was off the table in an instant, snatching his wrist from an astonishment-slackened paw. M'Ress was at his side, phaser at the ready. "Good work, Lieutenant.

"All right, up against the wall. All of you!" One male started forward. She opened the floor at his feet; he looked down and retreated.

"My clothes -- bottom shelf -- underneath the platter." She was panting a little. "Get the other phaser." Spock moved quickly. There were still five males; an additional phaser would have a salutary psychological effect. His hands found the familiar shape in the bright fabric; he held it up, puzzling over the material. How women ever -- there it was. "No!" M'Ress screamed.

Spock whirled in time to see K'Wang snatch up a handy female and hurl her at M'Ress. She ducked, instinctively firing on the shape flying toward her, and K'Wang was out the door.

"Guard them, Lieutenant!" Spock raced after the running Kzin.

"No!" M'Ress screamed after him. He ran on, bringing the Kzin to bay just inches from a large panel. Behind him he heard M'Ress' phaser spitting, but he kept his eyes fixed on his quarry.

"Revenge?" he inquired coldly. "Illogical." He leveled the dead phaser on his captive. "Place your hands behind your head."

Logically it should have worked. Unfortunate that logic was not the Kzin's strong suit. The feline gave a deep snarl and leapt. Spock fired (illogically), jumping back. Then he was down under the Kzin's weight. He had just enough room to twist sharply, so the bite aimed at his entrails missed, opening a long gash in his side. Pinned, helpless under the other's superior weight and strength, Spock waited for the deathbite. Instead the Kzin sat up, howling, pawing at his muzzle. Spock closed in for the neck pinch just as M'Ress gave a warning shriek. Her phaser blast caught the Kzin squarely; he dropped, stunned. It caught Spock too. He fell, his limbs rubber. M'Ress hurled forward to kneel at his side. "I hit you too," she panted. "I'm sorry.

Spock's neck muscles were barely working, but he managed a nod. "Uh- ooh--"

M'Ress's ears twitched in the effort to understand. Then she got it. "The others? Stunned." She massaged his throat with a gentle paw. "Damn. I really crocked you, didn't I? And -- oh!" Her paw went to the wound on his side. Spock tried to flinch, then tried not to. He couldn't manage either.

"Let it bleed," he warned. The words were totally unintelligible. But M'Ress was already bending. He couldn't control the sighs of pain that emerged as she manipulated the wound, making it bleed, sucking and tonguing the area vigorously.

"That's the best I can do," she straightened, panting. "If I open it any more I'll probably do more harm than good. Damn, I wish we had some serum. But it's not deep, Mr. Spock."

"No," he managed. "Something -- stopped. Teeth."

"Something -- his teeth?" M'Ress bent to examine the slack muzzle, then began to laugh. "This is what stopped him." She yanked hard at the jaw and held out Spock's signature. He tried to reach for it and she put it into his hands. T'Pan's gift. He just managed to close his fingers on the smooth disk.

M'Ress stroked his forehead. He tried to pull away. They must contact the ship, mop up here, get him to Sickbay, get a medical team beamed over to work with the victims ... all of which was going to be quite beyond his power to articulate. He tried. "Shh--" He tried again.

M'Ress was not a communications officer for nothing. "The ship? Right. Fvrass! Have you got them tied up yet?"

"Yes, pretty well. But there are a lot of females."

"Leave them free. Get over here. Bring a shirt or something."

Spock shut his eyes, trying to deal with the burning beginning in his side. He could sense the start of a dull ache in his head; nausea began to stir. He'd gotten some venom, without question. He tried to block the pain, then to slow his circulation. His stunned nerves rejected any input. He lay helpless.

The two females were arguing. He tried to make out the words. Suddenly M'Ress' voice cut through. "No, Fvrass! I'll get back as soon as I can, I promise. And I'm sure the captain will consent to have your family y revived first. But I've got to get to the perimeter and raise the ship. And you've got to stay with Mr. Spock. Now is that clear?" There was silence. "All right. Let the wound bleed for another few minutes. Then bandage him. And I want you to promise me you'll stay with him. Your family would be vegetables now. The whole lot of them would, if it weren't for him." There was another moment of silence. "All right. And see if you can make him comfortable. That phaser was on high stun."

M'Ress came back and knelt by him. "I'm going to raise the ship now, Mr. Spock. I'll have medics back here before you know it." He nodded, noting that it was easier this time. M'Ress took off at a run. Spock swallowed. His throat was beginning to obey, at least. He tried to raise a hand. It trembled so badly that he abandoned the attempt.

Fvrass was swathing K'Wang in a shirt. She made a tight job of it, then came over to him, smiling nervously. After a moment, he felt material at his side. He winced as it was bound tight. Fvrass fidgeted for a moment, smiling down at him nervously. Then a look of determination crossed her face. Spock felt himself lifted. His head was pulled into a furry lap and the Caitan began to stroke his forehead with fur-sheathed digits.

The next hour must be uncomfortable; it need not be hideous. Spock took the deepest breath he could manage. "Fvrass?" He could not manage the trilled R, but the rest of the name came out almost normally. "A favor?"

"Of course."

"The victims. Your family, of course. But also a Vulcan child--"

"M'Ress said to stay with you."

The comment that he outranked M'Ress rose to his lips; he vetoed it as unwise. "M'Ress ... does not know. My kinswoman. Only a little girl."

"They have the children in a separate section! There are a lot of them, but I could narrow it down. I could get down there and be back before you can shake your -- I mean, before you know it!"

"Please."

Spock's head hit the floor with a painful thump. It was a small price to pay for peace.

The minutes dragged by. There was nothing he could do about the pain, the increasing misery. This was what it was like to be human -- unable to block pain. To feel poison leeeching into the system, but be unable to isolate the area... He set his teeth. M'Ress would have medics here stat. It was up to him to remain as still as possible.

Ten minutes. Twenty. One Kzin female, wandering aimlessly, paused. She seemed inclined to investigate the recumbent Vulcan. Illogically, he clutched T'Pan's signature as she made up her mind. She moved toward him; he raised his fist suddenly, clenched as if to strike. The female whimpered and ran away.

Half an hour. Three quarters. Suddenly the corridor was full of light, motion and noise. Teams from the Enterprise seemed to swarm around him. Medics converged on him in a flurry of orders. There was an injection -- serum, at last. Then emergency treatment of his wound. That gave him a very bad five minutes, but he managed it in silence. Both arms sported IVs.

Antitoxin, vitalizers, an injection to combat the phaser's effects. He closed his eyes trying to speed his system's assimilation, to no effect.

"Spock?" The correct pronunciation brought him to with a jolt. S'Aen was determinedly calm. He melded, controlling his own reaction, to probe an analyze. //Venom.// he concluded. //Unfortunate.//

//The serum will counteract it,// Spock replied with a confidence he wished he felt. S'Aen focused tightly, trying to help Spock slow his circulation. The stunned nerves were no more responsive to his input than they had been to Spock's. //Useless,// Spock concluded. //Go. Find the children.// The older man moved away. His place was taken by the captain, who grabbed Spock's hand and gripped it for a moment, conveying a silent imperative. Then he too was gone. Spock was lifted, felt his body moving in the weightlessness of an antigrav stretcher. He closed his eyes, trying to fight off the dizziness.

When he opened them again he was in a Sickbay pallet. Chapel was moving silently with grim efficiency adding substance after substance to the IV. Fluids, he guessed. Supportive therapy. There was still nothing he could do. A hand touched his head again. He braced himself, but the meld brought him only a barely containable joy. //T'Zaid lives, Spock. She was here! Your captain ordered her revived immediately. Soon--!//

//I rejoice in the joy of your house,// Spock responded politely. But S'Aen's emotional reaction -- most understandable, of course -- was threatening the little control he had. Realizing that, the older man pulled himself sharply together and began to probe Spock's condition once more. Some control was possible now, but the damage had been done. S'Aen concentrated to lend him energy, then remained in touch to comfort him. But the proximity to another -- this other -- was unbearable. The truth seemed to scald his throat, shrieking to be heard. //Respected S'Aen! There is something--// Impossible. //Break off, please.// The older man complied, but his hand remained on Spock's temple, fingers stroking to soothe.

"I think I have guessed," he whispered. "T'Lan thought me dead, did she not?"

"No. You were declared dead. These years. She was given the chance to give new life to her house and she decided to take it. But you were in her mind! When I-- " That was what he didn't want to say. He choked and turned away, too upset to observe even the most basic of proprieties.

S'Aen too was moved beyond control. He rose and turned to the wall, fighting for calm. Spock lay panting, wondering if his heart was racing because of the venom or the situation. But after a moment S'Aen came back to him. A hand was laid carefully on his side, as close to his heart as he could get without touching the wound. Spock lay quiet, inexpressibly grateful for the comfort of hands placed to hold his heart. Then his stomach turned. Venom. He held his signature out to S'Aen. "Keep this for me," he whispered. "And will you tape T'Pan? Before she hears of this from the newssquibs?"

"Certainly." S'Aen's voice caught; he coughed lightly to clear it, then turned to inspect the disc. "The engraving is undamaged," he reported quietly. "But I fear the strip has been rendered quite unusable." He studied the signature for another moment and reached the logical conclusion. "I will send it to T'Pan so she can arrange for its repair."

"Please tell her I regret the damage to her gift," Spock managed. As he had hoped, the older man left. "Erect privacy screens." The orderly obeyed, but he remained, hovering watchfully. Necessary, of course. It would be some time before he could be private. He struggled for a few more moments, then surrendered to the inevitable. "Basin, please." He turned over, to make it as easy on all of them as possible and waited, grimly gathering his courage. This was going to get a lot worse before it got better.

* * *

"Well. Better?"

Spock took a deep breath, then involuntarily stretched. Indeed he was. He nodded and was rewarded by a radiant smile from Dr. Chapel. He was weak as a baby and profoundly grateful to have the last ten hours behind him. But he did not need Chapel's conscientious report on his readouts to tell him that the toxicity had at last diminished. He was convalescent.

He had absolutely no inclination for activity. But it was pleasant enough to lie still, drifting in and out of sleep, to be tidied by Chapel's deftest orderly, and settled back on clean sheets. He was raised and a glass was brought to his lips. He wasn't too sure about that, but then he caught a faint odor of mint. Someone had gone to the trouble of flavoring the nutriment, not for any functional purpose, but just because it was generally known that he was fond of mint. Either the odor or the sense of being pampered settled a stomach still inclined to fret, and he sipped, serene in the knowledge that his breakfast would stay put. The morning routine completed, he relapsed into the healing quiet.

"Two minutes." Chapel's voice was stern. He opened his eyes to see M'Ress looking down at him. Her anxious look turned to a grin; she extended a paw. He took it and they exchanged a congratulatory handshake.

Spock drifted for a while longer. When he opened his eyes, M'Ress had suffered a sea change. He blinked, then focused on his captain and greeted him weakly, entirely forgetting the expression of calm control he had been pasting on his face.

Jim smiled down at him. "That's better, isn't it?" he whispered, relieved. Spock nodded.

"Excuse me," S'Aen's voice was troubled. "I regret -- but there is a priority from T'Pan--"

Spock jolted awake, looking wildly for the source of the voice. Illogical to use priority service unless-- S'Aen held out a printout. Spock reached for it, unfolded it with hands inclined to tremble, read it, then lay back with a gasp of relief.

"Everything okay at home?" Jun asked.

Spock nodded, handing the printout back to S'Aen. "She received your message." S'Aen read it and handed it to Kirk. His captain chuckled, reading it aloud.

"Better damaged signature than signer stop. Infoseek health stop. Reply priority. T'Pan"

S'Aen just managed not to smile. To cover his reaction he crossed to get a stylus and pad and situated himself by Spock's bed, clearly ready to take immediate dictation. "There are times little T'Pan is very like T'In," he observed innocently.

Spock opened his mouth to refute this, then shut it, remembering he spoke to a respected elder with longer experience. Then he pulled his thoughts together and dictated.

"Signature indeed convenient stop. Recovering stop. Taping tomorrow. Spock"

"Please send it priority. Thank you." S'Aen moved to a nearby terminal. "Could you ask the doctor to come over, Jim? I believe I would like a mild vitalizer." The medication was quickly supplied. Spock turned his attention to assimilating it, then to sleep. It was the logical thing to do. Tomorrow he must tape T'Pan.

THE END