DISCLAIMER: This story is rated NC-17 and contains graphic sexual content. If you are under the age of 18, back out of here right now. Otherwise, please note that the Star Trek characters are copyright by Paramount Studios. The rest of the story is copyright (c) 1999 by Lilith Sedai and Cheree Cargill and may not be reproduced in any form without express written consent of the author. A single copy may be downloaded for personal enjoyment of the reader.
The Best Medicine
and Cheree Cargill
As she dusted Bob, Dr. McCoy's prized stuffed lizard, Nurse Chapel reflected grimly that Jim Kirk's Enterprise might not be the best possible work assignment for a young, upwardly-mobile doctor-in-training. Bob glared morosely at her from his perch on the bulkhead, seeming to agree completely.
Christine smoothed her midi blouse unconsciously, as always made uncomfortable by its extreme brevity. Its shortness was not even regulation -- with a needle, thread, and half an hour's careful work, she had let out the half-inch of hem until only about 1/8 of an inch remained, but she still felt the need to make sure that she was using every possible iota of the extra 3/8 she had illicitly obtained. Starfleet claimed that the design of the females' uniforms was efficient and unencumbering, but Christine scoffed every time she heard it. On the day Jim Kirk wore a midi blouse and miniskirt combo onto the bridge, then she would finally consider respecting the official Starfleet bullshi- uh, justification of sartorial regulations.
Finished smoothing her skirt, she touched at her hair -- a second characteristic gesture indicative of her habitual discomfort and insecurity with the fashions dictated by regulations, which stated that a woman's hair should not fall below her collar. Whatever had possessed her to join the fleet? Whatever it was, it seemed that the military had succeeded in turning her back into the gawky teenager she'd once been, bobbing and awkward in her height, her elbows always akimbo.
At least here, though, nobody ever asked if she played basketball. However, she suspected that everybody she met was still wondering when or if ambassador David Chapel's ugly duckling of a daughter would ever turn into the graceful swan her mother had always confidently prophesied she would be.
Finished with her duties and with no patients at hand, she puttered about, dusting and arranging already spotless surfaces and cabinets. She disliked housework, but she would rather do anything than think about her latest and greatest faux pas to date. The Tormolen virus, named after the unfortunate young man who had been its only fatality aboard the Enterprise, had given nearly everybody aboard something to be ashamed of, but she could hardly imagine anything worse than having propositioned Spock.
The intercom flickered to life and she was thankful that it interrupted her distressed woolgathering. It was McCoy.
"Nurse Chapel to the transporter room at 1400 hours. Prepare for away mission: standard bio-scanning gear and vegetation sampling cases. We're orbiting a Class-M planet, no large predators, and no sentient natives." His usual drawl was more clipped and formal than usual.
Kirk must be pressuring him in some way, Christine knew -- probably by announcing this away mission only 20 minutes in advance. The captain never seemed to realize how badly his lack of structure and his neglect to provide adequate planning time bothered his CMO. She clucked to herself with amusement. Everybody on board, Spock and McCoy included, seemed to knuckle under before James Kirk's macho demeanor more often than she believed was really necessary.
As she packed a kit bag with the supplies McCoy had directed, she smiled to herself, imagining the cranky doctor's attempts to duck and cover his irritation. Kirk had apparently diverted to make an unexpected stop at a planet where they could hunt edible vegetation to supplement the ship's falling stores, and maybe collect new sample curiosities for the ship's botany lab. She added a few things McCoy had probably forgotten to request. She had some room left over, and as a precaution she also crammed in a medical coverall. Men never did consider what things like sharp wind-whipped grasses or prickly underbrush did to a woman's bare legs.
Christine hurried to the transporter room with only two minutes to spare. Her nervousness returned as her flurry of activity dissipated, and it was compounded by the identity of the other members of the beam-down party. The two security men were no problem, but she was less pleased to see that Kirk was going down, and she was positively mortified to see Spock, whom she had been diligently avoiding.
Harrison, McCoy, and Chekov rushed in almost on her heels, and she took refuge among them, helping Pavel, who struggled under the burden of even more bulky sampling containers than she had brought herself. Apparently Spock was a demanding tutor. The commander himself looked typically cool and oblivious, his only burden the tricorder he wore on his hip. It seemed he had no issues with using subordinates as beasts of burden. She tried not to grin at her own disrespectful thought as he accompanied Kirk onto the platform and shimmered into nothingness.
As she ascended the platform herself, she realized that her insolent thought had succeeded in restoring her customary good mood. Spock didn't need to know that she'd just brought him down a peg, and thus her impish humor would harm nobody. Her last idea before the beam took her was to wonder how many people were aware that Spock's too-dignified front was just as much a fragile protective construct as Kirk's swaggering machismo. Well, his secret was safe with her, at any rate.
Christine dematerialized, smiling.
* * *
" Dammit! I could've sprained my ankle."
"It would be logical to watch where you place your feet."
"Gentlemen, please. Less arguing and more scanning."
The voices filtered through before vision did, the customary boys' bonding session already in progress as the rest of the team arrived at the beam down coordinates. As soon as her motor control returned, Christine wiped the smile from her lips and replaced it with a properly diligent expression, reaching for the case of instruments she'd brought. If she got started quickly, there would be less chance that Spock would think she was deliberately lingering in his presence like a schoolgirl. She stepped to one side and nudged Chekov, scanning the horizon alertly.
"Lots of vegetation over there," she commented to Chekov softly, well aware of the acuteness of Vulcan hearing. After all, who'd administered his last auditory exam? "Let's grab a guard and get going."
As second in command over the medical department, she had the authority to choose her actions unless otherwise ordered. Deftly she deposited a few of Chekov's sampling containers next to the Doctor, who was frowning at his tricorder as furiously as though it were Spock himself ... just as furiously, and with just as little real anger. She tilted her head at the red-shirted man nearest her. Briggs, she thought his name was. "I want to get some scans from that stone outcrop at the edge of those trees," she explained with a gesture in their direction, and the guard and Chekov nodded simultaneously. McCoy absently fumbled up the equipment she'd provided and headed off with Harrison and the other guard, mumbling about being a doctor, not an orienteer.
"Rendezvous here in an hour," Kirk decreed, already heading for the opposite side of the meadow with Spock in tow. "Don't get lost!" he called to McCoy, laughing. McCoy scoffed and mumbled something that was perhaps best left unheard.
* * *
Christine slogged through the tall grass until Spock and Kirk disappeared over a grassy knoll, then called a halt and rapidly stepped into the coverall she had packed to protect her legs from the dense growth and the insects stirred by their passage. She raked up the zipper and grabbed her gear. Deciding to delegate some duty on her own authority, she handed Briggs the awkward but light sampling cases, slinging her scanning kit over her shoulder. They reached the boulder a few moments afterward, Chekov's tricorder whirring busily. It stood about twenty meters high, its top offering an elusive but inviting prospect over the meadow and surrounding territory.
"This rock's a geological anomaly, if you ask me," Chekov complained in his heavily accented English. "How did it get here? There are no mountains or rivers for miles, and there's no evidence of glacial activity. It's not a natural outcropping of a subterranean formation. There aren't any volcanoes close enough to have spat it this far, and it doesn't have the surface burn characteristics or the impact crater of a meteorite."
Christine listened attentively, for he had a point. "Maybe an extinct race of natives moved it," Briggs suggested, sounding bored. There'd been little use for his special skills so far, and it didn't look like there would be much more any time soon.
"But there's no residual evidence of civilization," Chekov retaliated. "And to move a rock this big, you'd have to have a pretty impressive civilization. One..."
Christine knew what was coming, and spoke the words along with him.
"...like we have in Russia." She laughed with delighted amusement. "Well, however it got here, it's here. Let's use it." This was one activity where her height had always been an advantage. Slinging her case to the small of her back where it would be out of her way, she walked around to a less vertically sloped face of the rock, reached for handholds, and hooked her boot over an outcrop at knee level. The rock's surface was grainy and rough, plentifully provided with places for fingers and toes, and she reached the top in a few minutes.
"Come on up. It's beautiful!" she called down the side, and listened to the scrabbling as Chekov puffed and panted his way up the steep incline, followed by Briggs, both men struggling considerably more than she had. She stood upright and gazed around the rock, scanner in hand, noting the best concentrations of foliage that contained edible nutrients. Some distance away, Dr. McCoy was sneezing his head off in the midst of a broad band of flowers, apparently preparing a hypospray with an antidote for his hay fever. Kirk and Spock were proceeding along a broad fold of land with a dark green band of vegetation waving gently at its crest, and Spock was scanning the ground diligently, perhaps tracing a vein of mineral ore far below the surface. She could hear birds, or the local equivalent, singing from the nearby forest.
The top of the rock was surprisingly flat, as smooth and natural as though it had been worn for millennia by rushing water. Chekov would have a fine and stressful time trying to explain its flatness to Spock, she thought with a smile. She lay down on the top of the flat rock to wait for Chekov and Briggs, stretching her arms and legs out to absorb the radiant heat of the sun and the rock beneath her, closing her eyes luxuriously as she basked.
* * *
" ...and when we reached the top of the stone, she was gone!" Chekov was visibly distraught, though he was trying to hide the fact from his captain and first officer. Spock squinted as he gazed up at the flank of the flat-topped boulder, and Kirk bit his lip with a mixture of worry and annoyance.
"Well, did you look for her?" McCoy demanded, unnecessarily. Chekov's investigation had been exhaustively complete and had included scans of the stone and the surrounding vicinity.
Chekov favored McCoy with a wounded look. "I stayed on top of the rock and Briggs climbed back down. He went all the way around the rock and searched to see if she'd fallen. I could see in a perfect 360 degree circle around the rock -- I could see all of you, but she wasn't anywhere to be found. There's no way she could have made it to cover without me seeing her. It would have taken her at least ten minutes to arrive at the woods, and I reached the top of the boulder no more than five minutes after she last spoke," he finished.
"And Christine wouldn't hide, Jim!" McCoy asserted belligerently, covering his worry with gruffness.
"Obviously, Doctor." Spock's comment was acid. He looked calmly at Kirk. "A silenced transporter beam could have removed her in the interval you describe, ensign. Did you scan for signs of transporter activity?"
"As soon as we realized she hadn't fallen, sir. There were none." Chekov shrugged.
"Fascinating. With your permission, Captain?" Spock reached to take one of McCoy's scanners, advanced on the stone and climbed, tracing Christine's path carefully as Chekov had indicated it to them. He reached the top of the stone and gazed about the countryside carefully. After a few moments, he scanned the rock, bending to one knee. "Residual traces of human DNA," he called his findings down. "I am recording my findings for computer analysis."
After Spock was satisfied with the thoroughness of his scans, Chekov beamed up with the tricorder readings, but the ship's computer revealed little other than that the pattern of cellular and fiber fragments indicated that Christine might have lain down before her disappearance. The lack of information left the command team at a loss, and Kirk commanded Briggs and Wilson to remain at the site and monitor for Chapel's possible return or further signs of unusual activity. Gathering Spock and McCoy with a nod, he ordered Scotty to beam them aboard.
* * *
Consciousness returned, and with it a sense of panicked vertigo. Christine still lay as she had, but she missed the warmth of the sun, and the sounds and scents of the meadow were muted, the light low -- evening had fallen and night would soon come. She wondered how the hell she'd let herself fall asleep, and how much time had elapsed. Where was everyone?
Standing, she was not much comforted by the sight of a brilliant azure moon edging its gibbous disc over the far horizon. There was no one to be seen. With a sinking heart, she realized this was much worse than having fallen asleep and goldbricking on duty.
"Chekov? Briggs?" she called, her heart beginning to thump heavily in her chest. "Captain?" She walked around the circumference of the smooth surface on which she stood. "Doctor?" Her voice had risen in pitch, and her lips were dry. "Spock?" Her voice fell forlornly and she licked her lips. She lifted her communicator and hailed the Enterprise, her heart sinking further as her only response was static. The faint echoes of her calls returned from the woods, disturbing the silence only slightly. She hurriedly made her way down the side of the rock, knowing that it would be useless to search since she could see nothing even from her elevated perch, but knowing that she had to act if she didn't want to surrender to the panic that threatened to fill her. Why had they gone and left her?
She sincerely hoped that she would not have cause to regret the answer to that question when she learned it.
* * *
Leonard McCoy was distraught. He cared for Christine like a fond father, though he wouldn't have wanted to be accused of such sentimentality. But even distracted as he was, it was growing obvious to him that he was not alone in his dismay. After seventeen separate analyses of the tricorder data, Spock showed no sign of fatigue or discouragement. McCoy almost wished that the matter were less serious so that he could needle the Vulcan about showing signs of irrational determination, but the last thing he wanted was to persuade Spock to stop his efforts when there was still a faint chance that some hidden clue might emerge unexpectedly and reveal the nurse's whereabouts.
At last the Vulcan raised his head from the scanner, a hint of weariness shadowing his dark eyes. "The tricorder data has nothing further to tell us," he stated flatly. McCoy opened his mouth to protest, but the Vulcan spoke over him. "And when recorded observations fail, the scientific method dictates that there is only one thing left to be done." McCoy looked at him, beginning to feel an irrational flutter of hope. Spock met his gaze calmly. "We shall attempt to re-create the incident."
McCoy tried not to let his excitement carry him away, casting about automatically for something to suit his customary role of devil's advocate. "It'll put another crew member at risk," he pointed out.
"You are correct, Doctor," Spock nodded. "Therefore logically, the most self-sufficient crew member should perform the re-enactment."
"In other words, you're going to do it yourself," McCoy guessed, finding it hard not to grin at the Vulcan teasingly in spite of the seriousness of the situation. "Jim's gonna blow his stack."
"That is one possibility." Dark eyes glinted with what seemed almost somber merriment. He pressed the button on the intercom. "Spock to Captain Kirk."
* * *
After it was too late, Leonard McCoy wished he could have recorded the ensuing conversation to play for Christine when she (knock wood) was found. The captain did indeed blow his stack, and Spock parried his superior officer's vociferous words with maddening calm, his determination unshakable. Spock used the word "logical" at least nine times in the first five minutes, with McCoy counting, almost unable to believe his ears.
"The damn green-blooded bastard," he reflected with amazement, leaning back in his chair and watching heat and ice fly between his two best friends. "There'll be no wriggling out of this one. I've got the goods on him this time!" McCoy felt his heart grow lighter. He only regretted that he wouldn't be able to tease Spock about it, for Christine's sake. He wouldn't want to hurt her feelings or embarrass her, after all, not even if her distress were only on Spock's behalf. If what he suspected was true, then heaven help whatever force stood between the seemingly stoic Vulcan and the lost nurse.
James T. Kirk and his Vulcan first officer were arguably the two most brilliantly capable men in the galaxy. As McCoy watched Spock's merciless refusal to relent finally begin to batter through the Captain's resistance, he understood that it was the stronger of the two men who would be searching for the lost nurse. He smiled faintly, rising from the conference table with them at the conclusion of the discussion, secretly wishing he could shake Spock's hand and wish him well.
* * *
Promptly at four-fifteen the next afternoon, Spock climbed the rock under the direction of Chekov, who described to him Christine's exact motions as nearly as he could remember. Jim Kirk stood fretfully by and McCoy tried hard not to resent the Captain's obvious hope that the experiment would not work. In truth, he was concerned himself -- if it did, after all, there would be two of his dear friends missing, not just one. And the assumption that they would be able to understand what had happened was just that - an assumption.
Kirk frowned at him and McCoy realized that he was muttering audibly about 'making an "ass" out of "u" and "me,"' so he fell silent.
"Then she spoke and if the tricorder readings are correct, she lay down, sir," Chekov struggled to keep a crisply efficient tone as he climbed behind Spock, duplicating the circumstances of the previous day. The Vulcan's head bobbed and disappeared to the accompaniment of scuffling boots.
"Fascinating," his words were muffled, fading oddly toward the end of the sentence. "I am experiencing a sudden state of encroaching somno-"
The sudden silence was broken by Chekov's dismayed yelp and James Kirk's explosive and savage oaths. Every sensor clearly registered: the top of the rock was as bare as though nobody had ever set foot there.
* * *
Christine fed her tiny fire a handful of twigs one at a time, coaxing it toward strength. The draft was bitter tonight. Apparently winter was setting in with a vengeance.
It had been roughly six months since she had awakened atop the stone in total isolation. Since then she had blessed her foresight in bringing the medical coverall, now beginning to tatter seriously, and the few jealously guarded pieces of equipment that told her which plants and animals were safe for human consumption and where shelter might be found. A phaser would have been useful too, but healers seldom carried such things, and so she had to go about her hunting in more primitive ways, but she had survived.
She tossed her long blond braid over her shoulder, sighing and adding a larger stick to the delicate stack of twigs. Adapting the bioelectric stimulator to produce electrical sparks had been standard academy training, but she feared the day when its power cell, never intended for such crude discharges, would expire. Hopefully it would last the winter, and the next summer she would simply have to migrate to a warmer climate and give up on her hopes of being found in the vicinity of the stone.
The next summer. Christine sighed. She'd begun to accept that she'd never be rescued. She still wasn't sure what had happened to bring her here, and though she revisited the stone periodically, almost daily, nothing ever changed, no matter how long she lay atop its broad surface begging the powers that might be that when she tried her communicator, she would be answered by Uhura's familiar warm tones.
The wind howled about the mouth of her dugout cave, whirling a few spatters of sleet through the chinks in the lashed-together brush that formed the door of her shelter. The sleet spattered into the dugout nearly as far as her sleeping area. A sparse mat of furs lay tucked against the cave wall behind her fire pit, the skins of animals she'd managed to trap in crude pits and snares. She hadn't been able to tan them properly, but she had stretched and dried them, and they were fairly warm, if still a bit odorous.
The fire had begun to warm the enclosed space and she lowered the zipper of the jumpsuit slightly, picking up her tricorder. It had been giving strangely fluctuating readings of late, and she worried that the instrument might be failing, or worse, that it might be correct. According to McCoy's information, this planet had not contained large predators or a native sentient species, but the tricorder occasionally indicated differently, especially in these last months. She supposed that nomad peoples or predators might have wandered south for the winter, and she hoped they would not find her cave if her readings were true. She scanned again, out of nervous habit, and suddenly her pulse beat hard in her ears and her heart rose into her throat.
A reading. Clear, but fading, a life signature she had given up hope of ever seeing again.
Christine leaped to her feet, nearly knocking the tiny fire to flinders. Hastily placing some large branches where they might kindle, she raced out into the snow. Somehow there was no need for her to consult the tricorder. She already knew he would be on the stone, that he had arrived just as she had.
* * *
A treacherous glaze of ice covered the ground, and she could feel the sleet freezing in her hair. "Hypothermia," her mind warned mechanically as she slithered over the ground, threading her way through the trees with the aid of a branch she'd cut and kept for a walking stick. "Frostbite," an even grimmer voice answered, and not entirely out of worry for herself. Vulcans preferred a minimum ambient temperature at least 20 degrees higher than humans, and if she was worried about hypothermia... the fifteen minutes' walk to the stone had never stretched so long. Zero degrees Celsius, perhaps negative one. If he'd arrived just as she had, he would have been unconscious. Had he ever regained consciousness? The sleet was freezing on her tricorder display but she could just read the flickering indicator. She'd bet that he hadn't. Damn it, why hadn't she scanned earlier? When had he arrived?
Christine raced against time and arrived at the stone, staring at the icy rock face with desperation. There was no way she could climb that with only her fingernails and her worn boots. Ice had frozen at least an eighth of an inch thick on the exposed surface of the rock. She'd kill herself trying.
Well, she thought grimly, if I have to, so be it. She peered up into the bleak, darkening sky, ice crystals catching in her lashes and stinging her eyes. "Spock!" she shouted as loudly as she could. "Spock, wake up! Do you hear me? Spock! You have to climb down..."
She scanned her tricorder again desperately, noticing a stir in his vital signs. He had heard and was responding, but he was chilled nearly to death. Swearing, she beat at the surface of the smooth-glazed ice with her stick, hoping to create rough patches that might afford some traction to her numbing fingers. It was like striking solid metal with her bare fists. "Don't you freeze to death," she ordered him uselessly, shouting over the wind and beginning to scrabble for handholds.
It was touch-and-go, and she fell twice before she finally scrambled to the top of the stone. Her fingers were totally without feeling now -- she'd been forced to lose precious body temperature in using her bare flesh to defrost some of her handholds before she could make it to the top.
There he lay, ice riming his jet-black hair and eyelashes, water running rivulets down his exposed face and into the collar of his uniform, which was all he wore -- he had no protective foul-weather gear.. Frozen sleet had begun to collect on his trousers and the chest of his blue shirt, indicating an alarming drop in his core temperature. Some sensor equipment clung to him, probably tracing devices. How in the hell was she going to get him down?
She crawled to him quickly, breathing on the tricorder to melt the ice that clung to its face so that she could take readings. Damn. Even if she got him down, how would she get him back to the cave before he died? He was a heavy man, far more than she could carry for more than a few feet, or drag for more than several yards without a travois or some other load-displacing construct.
"Spock!" she cried, shaking him, hoping to rouse him enough that he could walk at least part of the way, but there was no response other than the faintly pulsating readings on her tricorder, readings that indicated he was slipping away even as she spoke, readings that warned her she was on the verge of serious hypothermia herself, as if the violent shaking in her body hadn't already warned her some time ago.
There was no other option.
Christine wrestled with his weight, sliding him toward the least steeply sloped edge of the tall stone. With a half-incoherent apology, she simply pushed him over the edge, wincing horribly as his limp form slid and jerked along the rough surface, accelerating until it dropped over the final ledge and thudded audibly to the ground below. She reversed her position and started down after him, and the wind caught her startled shriek as her boot slipped and she hurtled down after him to crash to the ground with a thud atop his left leg, her ankle painfully twisted underneath her.
It was their death, she understood as she instantly realized the extent of her injury, and she passed out from the surge of agony and despair that swept through her cold-ravaged body.
* * *
Warm. So warm. A stinging pain zinged through her and she mumbled irritably, stirring, her eyelids like lead. The motion sent a stab of agony through her ankle, wakening her more fully. It was warm! She forced her eyes open and gazed around frantically. The fire crackled merrily and he must have been a dream -- but there was the torrent of pain racinng through her leg as she jerked herself upright, gazing about frantically, and the sudden draft of cold air on her back informed her that the source of the delicious warmth was not the fire snapping and dancing before her face, but someone who had lain at her back!
She jerked her head around, looking over her shoulder, and he was there, the sight of him prompting her to sob half-hysterically: The first person she'd seen for months, him, come to rescue her.
She struggled to turn to face him fully, then stopped as his face came into view -- his lips were set in a rictus of pain, his high cheekbones and the tips of his ears an ugly gray, but that was not the source of his agony, for she could see that his leg lay at an unnatural angle. Of course -- the fall, and she'd landed on him. She drew back the blankets and sucked in a horrified breath. His left thigh bore a crust of greenish-black blood slicked with a fresh stain of newly spreading fluid where she had jarred his leg and broken the scab. A compound fracture, and she had only the most basic medikit -- he must have regained consciousness and dragged them both back to her dugout, using his tricorder to follow the thermal residue of her campfire. She sucked in a deep, startled breath of dismayed sympathy -- he would not admit to his pain, but she knew that for all his self-control, his body produced nerve signals equivalent to those humans experienced as excruciating agony. In addition, he'd nearly bled to death while she recovered enough to return to consciousness.
She snatched for the medikit and cut away the leg of his uniform trousers and the thin black insulating underwear he wore to protect him from the uncomfortably cool temperatures aboard the Enterprise. Professionally she began to work on the damaged leg, heedless of her own injuries, not pausing to address a word to him even though his fathomless dark eyes followed her frantic movements. First to stop the bleeding. She would have to attempt more permanent measures later, when he was stronger -- for now she sealed the worst-damaged blood vessels and repaired what tissue damage she could.
"It's going to hurt," she spoke softly when she was satisfied that she could align the fracture without him bleeding to death as a result, and he nodded almost imperceptibly. She made a mental note to attend to his frostbite at the earliest opportunity. "I can't fuse the bone. I'll have to splint and wrap it."
He nodded and visibly relaxed himself, preparing his mental disciplines so that she could align his leg. Hanging onto roots in the wall of the dugout she arose, hopping on her one good leg in spite of the fact that her foot was probably frostbitten in its own right, and retrieved two fairly straight sticks from the woodpile to use as a splint. There was only one thing to use to stabilize the sticks on his leg, and she unzipped her coverall and let it fall to her ankles, struggling out of her second layer of clothing -- the tattered nurse's uniform. She refused to ponder that she now stood totally bare before him, highlighted by firelight. She bent with difficulty and yanked the coverall back over her body, catching her discarded clothing in one hand and turning back to him. Gratefully, she noted that his eyes were closed.
"I'll begin now," she warned him, and gritting her teeth, she plunked down, reeling with the pain from her sprained ankle. Her agony subsided gradually and she steeled herself to lift his injured leg. His eyes remained stoically shut.
* * *
When she'd finished she ran the cell growth stimulator over her own ankle and also their frostbitten skin, accelerating the natural healing process of both their bodies. Luckily, the tissue damage was not deep. She'd reached him just in time. She'd have to exfoliate and heal the frostbitten areas several times over the next few days, until the damaged tissue sloughed away.
She finally let herself pause when she had done all she could. A little of her uniform remained, and she bound her ankle with it. Then, kneeling between him and the fire pit, she laid several substantial pieces of wood onto the blaze, enough to last until the morning. She was so weary her hands were shaking.
"If I'd known I was going to have company, I'd have prepared a guest room," she quipped feebly. She could make it through the long night without the blanket if she had to, but even with it and the fire, he would be cold. He required her body temperature, of course, and as a trained nurse she was obliged to offer it. If only she hadn't made such a fool of herself before...
Before she could speak, he shifted slightly, leaving open the space she had occupied when she awoke, and deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Christine simply accepted the position as her due and returned to it without a word.
* * *
Exhausted, Christine slept for twelve hours. When she awakened with a start, light was flooding in through the holes in the brush that was her makeshift door. The sun was out, and it was bitterly cold. She guessed that little of the sleet was melting on the ground outside. A sudden crackle and rustling smash reminded her of the noise that had startled her awake, and she realized that the sleet must have accumulated into an ice storm. It would be dangerous to go out into the woods while weak tree branches were still breaking under their wintry load, but fortunately she'd stored plenty of wood here in the cave against just such an eventuality.
Her mind instinctively occupied itself with trivialities for several minutes, shying away from dwelling on her situation, but in the end she could not escape the nagging sense of responsibility that dogged her. Spock was here and hurt, and it was undoubtedly her fault. It only required the smallest exercise of logic to know that the sensors that had been attached to him when she found him on the stone indicated he had chosen to make a deliberate, monitored attempt to follow her here and retrieve her.
She bit her lip, her eyes filling with tears. It struck her as terribly sad that his life might have been lost for hers, and even sadder that he would regard the sacrifice merely as a logical portion of his duty. But then, that was part of what she had, until shortly before she was lost, secretly loved about him: his thorough and matter-of-fact attention to any responsibility, no matter how slight.
He might not realize it, but that was a quality she liked to believe she shared. In fact, she realized, their predicament had given her the opportunity to prove herself to herself and to him, for now she was doubly, perhaps triply, responsible for his well-being. She had always been responsible for not allowing her emotional needs to inconvenience him, and she had succeeded until circumstances beyond her control had forced her to betray herself. He might think that he was in charge, and believe that he was responsible for her simply because he was her superior officer, but she knew better. She was responsible for his presence here, which meant that not only was it up to her to ensure that he regained his health, but whether he knew it or not, Christine Chapel knew that she was duty- and honor-bound to do whatever it took in order to get him back on board the Enterprise and into his chosen life as rapidly as possible. If it were possible.
Christine's jaw firmed with determination. If there was a way, she would either find it or die trying.
He stirred behind her back, and instantly her thoughts were distracted by the intensity of her physiological response to the subtle physical reminder that they lay pressed tightly together. Ah, she thought ironically with the part of her mind that always seemed to parrot Spock's philosophies to her, however wryly or inappropriately. The logic of physiology -- elegant and inescapable.
Remember. He's a touch-telepath, she warned herself, prudently withdrawing from the unaccustomed close contact with him, refusing to admit how reluctant she was to do so. He lay still behind her, dark eyes shutting the world out, sealing him inside himself. She examined his leg for any seepage of blood and was satisfied to discover that the terrible wound had scabbed well.
Arranging the blankets over him to conserve his body heat, she struggled to her feet and hobbled over to get some wood for the fire, cursing inwardly at the pain of the frostbitten areas on the sole of even her good foot. Her ankle was a dull ache by comparison even when it stabbed as she tested it to see whether it would bear weight. It wouldn't. She'd have to improvise a crutch before she went to search for food for him -- the remains of a roasted rabbit-like rodent that she'd eaten for her own supper the previous evening would not do. She thanked her lucky stars that she'd found some edible tubers growing in the edge of the meadow, but there were only a few in the dugout and she would have to fetch more. Worse, last night's frosty weather had probably finished all but the toughest and least nutritionally wholesome of the local edible greens. Well, if she had anything to say about it, he'd live even if he had to eat bark. He'd live even if she had to tie him up and cram the remainder of that roasted rodent down his throat herself! Like a human, he had to be able to insert something in his throat in order to muster the gag reflex, and she'd damn well make sure he couldn't get anywhere near--
Christine suddenly realized she was stabbing the fire so savagely with the poker stick that sparks were rising in clouds that threatened to set fire to the animal skins she'd wrapped him in. He was awake, looking at her silently with those deep black eyes that methodically channeled the entirety of the world directly to his active brain, those eyes whose magnetic power had damned her to this ridiculously hopeless unrequited love affair the first instant she looked into them.
"Good morning." She was aware that her embarrassment at being caught stabbing the fire made her voice gruff so that the words almost sounded sulky. "Thanks for coming after me," she managed to add more sincerely, unable to meet those ebony depths, breaking the gaze to stare down at the small licking flames just beginning to claim the new wood she'd laid over the bed of last night's glowing coals.
"It was the logical thing to do." His voice had almost the same texture as his gaze, velvety and yet painfully cool. It gave no hint of the agony he must be experiencing due to his broken leg. At times, Spock could be the most honest of men, but when it came to acknowledging weakness... well. The first time she'd heard the saying "A Vulcan can't lie," she'd been in a bar on shore leave, drinking a well-earned glass of brandy and she had snorted so hard it had gone into her nose. Damn, that had stung.
Of course, Spock was not the only one who had a switch labeled "Dishonesty mode on." Christine forced herself not to sigh or make a cutting comment to express her true emotions. She could almost hear McCoy snapping, "and sometimes your damned Vulcan logic gets you in more trouble than you can handle, doesn't it!" but she satisfied herself with a formal nod. As always, his cool comment had something of the air of a cut about it; there was the faintly disapproving inference that thanking him had not been logical for her to do. She recognized that the disapproval was a defensive mechanism, one of his customary methods of holding people at bay. Only Kirk and McCoy had ever satisfactorily breached that defense, as far as she knew.
In any case, his implied disapproval cast a damper on the conversation. Christine covered the moment of awkwardness for them both by reaching and retrieving a tuber from her meager cache of food. She had learned to wrap the roots in leaves and roast them inside a tent of flat rocks surrounded by coals. That minimized the charring of the surface of the tuber and made the roasting time more nearly equal throughout the root by distributing the heat evenly about it. Properly done, the result was an almost palatable, fibrous mass with something of the consistency of tough cooked asparagus stems. She prepared the root for roasting in silence, uncomfortable at the sensation of his eyes upon her, though she supposed he was merely learning the food-preparation technique.
"This vegetable matter will be compatible with your physiology, and fortunately I know where we can dig more," she explained at last, when she had completed the preparation and inserted the food into its cooking rocks. Without activity, the weight of his eyes grew too heavy very quickly. "That is, if Captain Kirk doesn't find us soon."
"I believe it is highly unlikely that we will be located quickly, if at all," Spock informed her soberly, his eyes judging her reaction minutely. "I had not expected the test to work as well as it did, based upon Chekov's tricorder readings immediately following your disappearance. There was no evidence of unusual energy surges or measurable variance in radiation levels. I believe some mechanism or phenomenon as yet unknown to Federation science is responsible for the displacing action of the stone. As a result, it may be extremely difficult to discover the operating principles of the effect, and until that discovery is made, there may be no way to reverse it." Aside from his slightly rumpled hair, Spock looked as though he were delivering a lecture in the calmly controlled environs of Starfleet Academy rather than discussing their being marooned, but that did not reduce the impact of his announcement.
Christine gulped. It was worse than she'd thought.
"How long has it been since your displacement?" The cool eyes were still fixed on her, judging the extent of her human dismay.
"One hundred and seventy-nine days," she responded promptly and with an exactness she knew he would appreciate.
Spock inclined his head in acknowledgment, the faintest whisper of a frown suggested in the way his eyebrows lowered. "Then if another rescue party were dispatched, there is no way to tell when or even if it might arrive. Subjectively, I have experienced less than 48 hours since your disappearance. Apparently you have stumbled upon a temporal anomaly. It would be interesting to know if we have been sent into the past, or into the future."
Christine nodded agreement numbly. "We'll just have to stay in the vicinity of--" she started, and his hand leapt up suddenly, a slicing gesture, commanding her to silence. His head cocked to one side and he listened intently.
"Ms. Chapel, I believe we should prepare for company," he murmured to her urgently, reaching for the end of a stick that lay with only its tip in the fire. "It would be prudent to arm yourself."
She scrabbled around for a pointed stick that she could use as a spear, painfully aware that the pair of them were not fit to fight off any kind of intruder. Spock was operating her tricorder with his free hand. Christine realized with a sinking heart that his phaser must have been lost the previous night, and there was no time to seek along their path for it now.
"Sixteen humanoids and several canids are converging on our shelter," he announced calmly, but in a low voice. "I believe they must be aware of our presence."
Of course -- he would have been bleeding as he dragged her from the stone, and canids would have picked up the scent of the alien blood. She shifted to put her back against the wall at his side, muttering a mental curse. She had barely settled herself when the eerie silence (at least to her human ears) was shattered by furious howling yelps that sounded like a cross between a wolf and a strangling grizzly bear. The sound sent chills up and down her spine, but she refused to cower against Spock for protection. She would give a good account of herself, if it came to that. She devoutly hoped it wouldn't.
With a rending crunch, the door of her shelter was ripped away, and blinding sunlight streamed in through the opening with a flood of freezing air, making the fire flicker and smoke. Spock held his firebrand aloft, though the menace of his gesture was spoiled by the obvious damage to his splinted leg.
A hairy figure eclipsed the sun and for a moment Christine wasn't sure whether it was one of the animals she'd heard, or one of Spock's humanoids. Then her eyes adjusted and she realized it was a humanoid, wrapped in fur. He withdrew with a gesture, and four men streamed into the small dugout, bending over to avoid the low roof. They held stone-tipped spears and wore fur tunics, cloaks, and boots. The smell hit Christine's nostrils and made her eyes water.
Spock spoke quietly. "We come in peace." Of course, the universal translator could not work without material, but his tone carried no threat. One of the men barked at another one, and the translator garbled softly, sorting through phonemes. It could take as much as a day for a rudimentary vocabulary to emerge, if this were not a known language. Christine devoutly hoped that it wasn't an unknown one.
The first man, his matted beard twisted into a coil and thrown back over his shoulder, now decided to enter the dugout himself.
"You come from the Stone," he spoke, the translator picking through his words with a little difficulty, but rendering them. Christine exhaled a sigh of relief. It would be possible to communicate from the first.
"We come in peace," Spock repeated. "We were brought here by the stone and we do not know how to return. Do you know how to use the stone?"
"The Stone takes those whose time has come," the hairy, fur-clad man glared down at Spock with contempt. "Sometimes those come who would take the Stone. You will not take the Stone."
"We do not want the Stone. We wish to return to our homes," Spock replied. "We will take only what we brought with us."
The leader snorted, his grin revealing misshapen, stained teeth. "You may go," he eyed Spock carefully, "if you will leave me the woman."
"That is an unfair bargain and your terms are not acceptable," Spock replied smoothly before Christine could recover from her surprise enough to accept the bargain and fulfill her mental vow. "But I am willing to barter information in exchange for information."
Christine battled exultation and dismay. Both emotions were premature, as the leader proved immediately.
"There is nothing I need to know from you, outcast," the leader sneered and spat against the wall of the dugout. "But I will tell you one thing you need to know: if I want to take the woman, you will not stop me." He gestured contemptuously at Spock's splinted leg.
Spock held the smoldering stick perfectly still, meeting the leader's eyes through the stream of smoke that rose from its glowing end. "I will," he spoke simply, and rose, favoring the leg only slightly.
Christine groaned inwardly, resisting the impulse to flutter over him with concern -- he could not afford to lose face just at the moment, but a fresh smear of bright green began to seep into the cloth of his bandages.
Losing face. That was it! Her training in cultural anthropology and xenology was proving useful. Christine laughed suddenly. "Do you provoke a confrontation with an injured man because you fear to face him when he recovers?" she stared challengingly into the eyes of the bearded leader. One of his companions tittered suddenly and composed himself immediately, chastened by the leader's furious glance, but Christine's jibe had struck its mark dead-center.
"Otarin of the Otaraks fears nothing." The reply was a deadly hiss. "Including the words of a woman." He spat at her abruptly, the liquid falling into the fire with a crack and hiss.
"Then accept this bargain." Christine did not flinch at the crude gesture. "Take us to your village. Shelter us. I am a healer, and I will tend your people if you do not have a shaman of your own. In eight weeks, his leg will be well," she glanced askance at Spock, wishing she could confer with him, but unable to stop in mid-stream. "...And then you may fight, if you are still unafraid. If you win, tell him the secret of the stone and I will stay with you. If you lose, tell us the secret of using the stone and we will leave your people in peace."
"Otarin does not bargain with women," the leader spat again, his spittle landing on her coverall this time.
"Then bargain with me," Spock spoke sternly, "for she has spoken my terms."
"Otarin will agree to this bargain," the leader growled. "I want no outcast healer in my village. I want no woman tending my warriors! But Otarin is also a generous and kind leader," he eyed his men, making sure his words registered on them. "I will allow you to live among us as members of our tribe for eight weeks. Then if you can defeat me in battle, I will give you your choice of the females in camp and tell you how to use the Stone." His eyelids narrowed. "But should you fail or break our bargain, I will take your woman and your life."
"It is agreed," Spock stated simply. Christine relaxed with a low sigh of relief. After seeing him practice his defense skills in the gym, she would wager on Spock to win any battle, any day.
Otarin gestured to his warriors, who advanced and seized Christine and Spock unceremoniously. Christine found herself dumped over the shoulder of one squat blond man in a graceless fireman's carry, her braid dangling nearly to the ground, while the heavier Spock was supported between two men. The fourth man gathered their equipment and kicked apart the small campfire as they were hauled out of the dugout and into the blinding sun.
Explosions of light burst along every available surface, tree branches and twigs coated with two centimeters of ice. The trees bent weirdly, saplings touching the ground and tied to it by a sheet of clear ice. Even as she glanced out of the corner of her eye, upside-down, a large branch gave way and crashed violently to the ground only yards from them in a violent flurry of sharp ice crystals, sending the nervous canids scattering.
She stifled a grunt of pain as she was flung onto a sled at Spock's side, rubbing her bottom surreptitiously to take away the sting. Six of the... she supposed "dogs" might be close enough, though these animals had no tails and their legs and feet were jointed more like those of a bear... were already hitched to the sled, little more than a rough flat-bottomed sledge with no runners.
Spock was quiet, still bleeding slightly, but she had no equipment to treat him with. Hopefully the chill in the air would help his wound to coagulate quickly. A droplet of water plopped onto her nose from a slow-melting branch above, and she licked it away as it trailed over her mouth. At a shout from Otarin, the dogs lurched against their traces and the sled slowly started to move across the bumpy forest floor.
* * *
After a lengthy ride, Christine identified the approach of the village by a scent of smoke in the air. She nearly whimpered with relief -- she was almost frozen, the frostbitten spots on her cheeks and feet stinging viciously. She and Spock did not release their death grips on the sides of the sledge and on one another until the primitive vehicle came to a complete halt. The ride had been a bumpy one, further opening the wound in Spock's leg and making her own ankle ache fiercely. She'd have to stop his bleeding immediately -- his blood volume had already been dangerously low, and there was certainly no way she could obtain suitable blood for a transfusion here.
Fur-clad members of the village converged on the sled, emerging from low, dome-shaped, hide-covered lodges in surprising numbers. Children stared at the newcomers frankly, exhibiting their shyness through what Christine suspected was a very untypical silence. Their parents discussed their two ... guests ... in loud, excited voices, the universal translator picking out random phrases from the babel that surrounded it.
"How tall she is--" "His ears, look." "Outcasts--" "Is that blood? What--"
Otarin cut through the crowd by main force, shouldering people aside roughly. "There is an empty lodge on the edge of the village that you can use." He smiled abruptly, more of a sneer. "Tenrik's time came only a few weeks ago. If you try to flee, the boken will find you," he gestured at the sled animals, now relaxing near the sledge, purplish tongues lolling. "They track by scent. They are trained to kill. You will keep the bargain, in one fashion or another." Abruptly he turned and shoved his way back out of the crowd, heading for a large lodge in the middle of the village.
No help was forthcoming, and the handlers removed the dogs from the sledge. With a furred boot, one of Otarin's henchmen ungently shoved Christine and Spock from the sled itself. Spock was absolutely silent, his jaw clenched tight, and Christine knew he must be near the end of his strength from cold and loss of blood. Cursing softly to herself, she crawled behind him and, on her knees, began tugging him in the direction of the abandoned lodge Otarin had indicated.
The ice, which had been such a hindrance the previous night, was all that enabled her to make the fifty yards' journey that lay before her. Knees numb, slipping and cursing, she dragged Spock as she crawled backward, knowing that his journey of the previous evening, carrying or dragging her in spite of his fractured leg, had been over a much greater distance and had caused him far more suffering than she now endured. "Just a few more feet," she muttered to herself. "Then it'll be warm. Then you can lie down. Just a few more..."
At last maneuvering his limp form into the low-roofed lodge, she longed desperately to collapse, but there was no rest for her. Easily as cold inside as outside, the dome-shaped and skin-covered frame of bent saplings suffered from tears in its hide walls, and the fire in the fire pit had been left dark since its owner went to the stone. The blackened fragments of wood were cold and dead. Nearly crying, Christine tugged Spock into the sleeping nook and covered him with fur blankets that were still lying rumpled there. She spent a precious few moments fumbling with his splint, which had loosened, and re-wadding and tying the makeshift bandages, slick with his hot blood. There was nothing sterile to use as padding to absorb the new flow. How much more blood did his body contain? Her eyes stinging, she re-folded the fragments of her uniform, placing a dry spot against the worst part of the wound, and bound it as best she could with her numb fingers.
Her instruments had not been returned to her. How was she to start a fire? Scrambling around, she rummaged through the former occupant's personal possessions. She had no idea how to use a flint and tinder, even if she discovered them, which she didn't. At least, she thought not -- she would not have been sure she would recognize them if she did find them.
"Christine," the whisper was soft and hoarse as the dry scrape of a leaf settling to the forest floor, but it cut through her desperate fuming as effectively as a shout.
"Spock," she responded, hastily scrambling to kneel over him, laying her hand on his chest to reassure him with her presence. His chest jerked convulsively under the light touch, and she flinched away before she recognized the motion as a cough. Her heart sank into her numbed toes. She had no antibiotics to treat any kind of viral infection, even if the instruments she'd brought were still available to her.
"I must use the Vulcan healing trance," his words escaped on an agonized sigh of breath. "Strike me to wake me. Give..." he coughed again, weakly. "...two days..." His voice trailed away, his breathing slowing, the grim rictus of his face relaxing into unconsciousness. Christine sank back on her heels, her lips trembling, devoutly hoping that his decreased respiration was a function of the trance, which she'd never heard of. Strike him? She lifted her hand, staring at it, wondering how she'd manage to make herself do that. If she was even around to do it. If she didn't get a fire started fast, she wouldn't be, even if he survived that long.
Taking a broken spear shaft abandoned by the absent owner of the lodge, she forced herself to her feet and hopped back out of the lodge, slithering precariously on the smooth sheet of ice. When it started melting, the entire camp would be ankle-deep in mud, she realized dismally, struggling toward the nearest lodge. A woman knelt outside, pounding some of the edible roots into mush and placing the mush in a cooking kettle with green leaves and chunks of meat. Christine approached her, shivering. "Please," she spoke softly, trying not to threaten the woman. The woman looked up, cringing nervously away, her black eyes wary. "May I take a branch from your fire to light mine? I will gather wood to repay you."
"Take it," the woman replied, gesturing timidly with one dirty arm. "Take it and go."
"Thank you," Christine whispered, her eyes filling with tears of gratitude. She bent, trying not to touch her injured leg to the ground, and somehow managed to struggle back to her feet, holding the smoldering branch. "I will bring wood tomorrow." She turned when there was no response and hobbled back to the lodge where Spock lay, unmoving.
* * *
A night's rest, even without nourishment, did much to restore Christine. The previous owner of the lodge had left all his possessions, it seemed, and though there was no usable food, there were fur tunics, cloaks, and boots. She also found snares, a bow, and some arrows, along with household necessaries. The head of the broken spear was there as well, if she could find a new shaft and thongs to bind it on with. Today she was able to place a little weight on her injured foot, and true to her word, she gathered wood for her neighbor, leaving it in a stack next to the native woman's cooking kettles. The wood was mostly green, taken from ice-felled trees and branches, but given the state of her ankle it was all she could manage.
Setting a snare in hopes of catching a foraging animal, Christine also dug for tubers. Near the village, most of the harvestable food was gone. Apparently these people were nomads and did not pursue agriculture, living hand to mouth. She foraged as far afield as she dared, returning with a meager handful of wheatlike grass seeds and two puny roots. She would have to venture further as her ankle healed, but for now, she was glad to have what she had managed to gather. She was too hungry to cook, so she chewed the roots raw, ignoring their bitter tang. The seeds she set aside for Spock, since it would keep longer than the roots. Once dug, they quickly dried out and became unchewable.
Hearing a rustle outside, she stiffened, leaning protectively over Spock's still form. She had seen few of the natives today -- apparently the men were hunting and the women cowering inside, conserving heat. The rustle receded and she peered outside, seeing the flashing heels of her neighbor -- no, her friend, Christine decided, for a small hide pouch tied with a thong lay before the door of her shelter. She brought it inside and untied it -- flat-pounded strips of dried meat, and some dark, sticky lumps that, when tasted, proved to be dried fruit. Christine wanted to weep for happiness as she set the fruit aside with the seeds for Spock and tore a small strip of the meat to chew, making herself ration it for later. The meat was heavily peppered, burning her tongue, but it was food and after the bitter roots, it tasted heavenly.
She was about to bank the fire for the night when she heard the baying of the returning party of hunters, and bundling herself again in the too-large fur clothing of the departed Tenrik, she ventured outside, tucking her braid down her back and covering her head with a fur hat, hoping to blend with the villagers and escape notice.
The sledges were heaped with furry mounds, and she realized that the hunt had been successful. Good -- her friend would not go hungry as a result of helping her if the village had plenty of meat. Christine might even be able to barter for food for herself again.
Otarin bounded atop one of the furred mounds that Christine recognized as a bovine ruminant that had migrated south with the onset of winter. She'd never been able to kill one of those herself, and had avoided their herds prudently. Probably this tribe had arrived along with the animals, following their southward trek and hunting from the flanks of the herds for food and for hides. She recognized the fur of the animal now as being the same as the clothes she had taken from the lodge, and the leather of the lodges was probably that same hide, cured and sewed into sheets. She stopped woolgathering, realizing that Otarin was speaking.
"We are bold hunters and the ices of winter are nothing to us!" he bragged, pounding the butt of his spear against the animal beneath his feet. "I, Otarin, provide for the Otaraks!"
"Otarin, chief of the Otaraks!" the crowd shouted triumphantly. Otarin leaped from the carcass and prodded it with the spear. Helped by several of the warriors, he pushed the topmost ruminant off the sledge and onto the ground. "To the poor of the village, Otarin gives this portion of his plenty," he thundered, his chest puffed with pride. "Otarin is a generous and kind leader!"
Christine remembered the comment from before and understood it as a formulaic boast.
Stone knives flashing, the warriors skinned the beast swiftly. Christine hung back, sickened by the gush of blood, caught by women in hide vessels, and by the steam that rose from the warm carcass. Otarin knelt, his knife working busily, and when he straightened, Christine watched his eyes rove the crowd. They stopped, locking with hers. "Let it not be said that Otarin would starve an enemy out of fear," the chieftain shouted, drawing laughter from his supporters, and he flung the cut of meat over the heads of the crowd, to thud into the icy, muddy slush at Christine's feet.
She knelt, struggling to swallow her squeamishness as she picked up the foreleg of the beast -- not a prime cut, but it would feed her for days. Otarin need not know that Spock would not eat it -- for every mouthful of meat she was given, Christine could contribute that much more of her foraging finds to Spock's nourishment. The important thing was to get him well enough to fight within the time span she had specified. Turning, hardly hearing the laughter of the assembled tribe, she hurried back to the lodge to cook the joint Otarin had given her.
That night she slept well against Spock's motionless side, her stomach full and her heart daring to hope.
The next day went much the same, with the exception that there was no hunt -- the women of the village devoted the day to preparing the carcasses of the beasts and feasting their men. They also made more of the pepper-dried meat Christine had sampled, cutting strips from the carcasses, pounding the peppery seasoning into the meat with stones, and hanging it in the weak yellow sun to freeze-dry. Christine observed their preparations as she worked at mending the tears in the hides of her lodge, using rawhide she had found within the past owner's belongings and a splinter of bone taken from the leg of the ruminant she had been given.
Late in the evening, Christine mustered herself to obey Spock's instructions. She built up the fire, warming the inside of the lodge as much as possible. Peeling back the dressing on his leg, she was relieved to see no sign of infection. The skin had closed over the wound, which made her blink with astonishment -- unnaturally rapid healing, perhaps a result of the trance he had mentioned? But she was not as pleased with the sound of his breathing. He had developed a low, slow rasp that rattled deep in his chest, and it worried Christine terribly.
Oh, well. He'd told her to strike him, and to waken him in two days. Timidly, Christine drew back her palm and smacked his cheek. There was no response. She frowned, trying a little harder, and was rewarded by the slightest flicker of his eyelids. Shrugging mentally, she struck him a little harder, observing a more intense response. She sat back, hoping it was enough, but his stirring subsided. Sighing, she summoned a memory of a masher who'd hit on her in the Academy who wouldn't take no for an answer, and superimposing his features over Spock's in her imagination, she let him have it, her open palm cracking on his cheek so hard it hurt her.
"Harder," he rasped, his voice thick, and she tried again, wincing but obedient.
At last his eyes flickered open and she sat back with relief, wringing aching palms to dispel the pain. He blinked fuzzily at her, as though trying to place their circumstances.
"Dinner's ready," she informed him, proud of her achievements. She helped him struggle weakly to a sitting position, handing him a crudely carved wooden bowl. "Rootleaf stew, I call it," she made conversation, spooning a mouthful of broth into him. "Roots, leaves, water, and pepper. It's terrible, but it's hot and it will be good for you."
He swallowed without complaint, then waved away a second spoonful. His chest hitched and, though his effort to restrain himself was visible, he began to cough. She set the bowl aside and supported his head with both her hands as the spasms shook him. Damn. He was worse than she'd feared -- those deep bone-rattling coughs hinted at a possible fluid buildup in his lungs.
"Thank you, nurse," he rasped at last, his eyes streaming, and she dabbed at them with her fingertips, wiping away the moisture.
"Don't mention it," she picked up the bowl again and filled the spoon. "Just eat."
He did, and she helped him lie back down, horrified at his weakness. Hopefully her soup would help nourish him, give him back some strength, but if that cough was so bad his healing trance hadn't helped it... She swallowed her fear. In spite of the fire, it was terribly cold; night was falling and the temperature had plunged. She stacked more of their dwindling supply of wood on the fire and looked down at him. "We've got to keep you warm," she explained. "Or you'll get sicker." He nodded minutely, and she lay at his side, gathering him into her arms like a sick child, settling the blankets around them.
Through the night, his cough grew more frequent and deeper. She held him determinedly, fearing he might shake himself apart or have a hemorrhage in his lungs from the abrasion of the constant spasms that shook him. Her mind relentlessly cataloged the symptoms. Pneumonia. Rigellian fever. Other diseases, perhaps even ones she knew nothing about -- all had in common a few basic elements. They were violent viral infections encouraged by chilling and weakness, all attacked the lungs, and all were potentially deadly without prompt antibiotic treatment. At last his stoicism wore thin and he clasped her desperately for sheer physical support as the uncontrollable coughing racked him. Christine's sympathetic tears formed a horrible lump in her throat, but she keep her voice soothing, reassuring him over and over again. Ripping a handful of cloth from the leg of her tattered coverall, she helped him cover his mouth.
The morning light revealed that the makeshift handkerchief was flecked with his blood, and she made her determination. She would get help for him no matter what it took.
His dark eyes, blurred with fatigue, met hers as she rose. "I'll be back. I'm going to get my instruments and find something that will help you get better," she soothed him, placing her palm on his fever-hot forehead. His eyes closed and she forced herself to turn and leave him.
* * *
Smoke rose in billows from the hole in the rooftop of Otarin's huge lodge as she approached, indicating that someone within had woken and fed the fire. She cleared her throat nervously, not sure how to knock. "Chief Otarin?" she called hesitantly.
A woman poked her face out the flap, blinking suspiciously up at Christine. "What do you want, outcast?"
"I must see the chief regarding the bargain he has made with ... with my chief," she explained. "The terms must be changed. My chief is very sick."
The head disappeared, and Christine could hear muttering from within "Bring her in," Otarin grumbled gruffly at last, and the woman sullenly admitted Christine inside the flap of the tent.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. "I wish to alter our bargain on behalf of Spock, my chief," Christine spoke to Otarin, who reclined on his side amidst a mound of furs, a long-haired redhead lying with her cheek on his chest, stroking his arm. "He is very ill. If you would have him survive to face you in honorable combat, he requires care. I need my instruments back. They are instruments of medicine. And I need to consult your shaman in his care. Perhaps there are herbs that will help him."
"What is it to me if he dies?" Otarin laughed. "I have fulfilled my half of the bargain. If he dies, he forfeits his." He ran his heavy, broad palm down the back of the woman who caressed him. He well knew the desperation of her dilemma, and this time, no simple accusations of dishonor would stir him, Christine knew -- there were no men here to shame him before. She was at his mercy.
Christine swallowed harshly. "I have little of value to bring to the bargaining," she heard herself say, her voice hollow. "But what I have, I offer now. For my instruments and the help of your shaman -- and, if I require it, the loan of a warrior and dog sledge to carry me to seek plants or materials that I may need -- I offer myself. When Spock recovers, you will give him the secret of using the stone, and I will..." She gulped hard. "...stay with you."
The chieftain laughed, cuffing the red-haired woman from his side. "I already have women enough," he mocked her offer. "But Otarin, chief of the Otaraks, is generous and kind." His eyes burned with fire as he surveyed her speculatively. "Perhaps I can be convinced, if I find you adequate." His eyes grew hard. "You may attempt to prove your worth."
Christine fumbled at the fastening of the fur cloak, her head swimming. Spock's only chance. Even now he lay back in the lodge coughing his lungs out, utterly helpless and dependent on her. Suppressing a shudder and refusing to rethink her decision, she let the furs she wore fall to the ground.
* * *
When she returned to the lodge she now shared with Spock her instruments were slung in their proper place at her hip. Her stride was proud but quick, her head high. The fire was beginning to burn low, but the air was warm enough. She adjusted the blankets around his shivering form, noting that he still had a fever. Blood stained his lips, and she regretted her prolonged absence. His coughing was weaker now, indicating that he had worsened.
Wasting no more time, she scanned him methodically. Her lips twisted as she viewed the readouts. An unknown virus, one for which his system had few defenses, and it was filling his lungs with fluid. He needed antibiotics badly, and unless there was a local equivalent for penicillin, she had none to offer him. She rose, glad she'd made Otarin tell her where to find the tribal shaman. She'd hate to have to indulge in another bartering session so soon, especially since she didn't think Spock had much time. She faltered slightly at the memory of her bargain, then steeled herself, shoving the unpleasant memory down hard. Spock was worth it. Now she had to keep hold of herself so she could collect the benefits of her difficult action.
Ignoring her still-painful ankle, Christine trotted from the lodge in search of the shaman, praying to whatever powers might be that there would be some help there.
* * *
Herbal remedies and what McCoy would have disgustedly termed "beads and rattles" were what she received from the unwilling shaman. He crouched at Spock's bedside, mumbling and listening to the Vulcan cough. She surreptitiously scanned the dried plants the medicine man offered. There were good properties in many of them, but she suspected Spock needed them in greater strength. New plants would not be available till spring.
Christine crumbled the herbs and brewed them as per the shaman's directions, helping Spock swallow them along with more of her rootleaf stew. She hoped his Vulcan physiology would respond to the herbs, which had only been tested on humanoids. At least there should be no harmful compounds present in the tea she had steeped. As an afterthought, she encouraged Spock to swallow the slimy residue of the herbs themselves, for the remainder of the medicinal chemicals they contained. His breathing eased slightly as soon as she finished, and she felt her second genuine burst of relief for the day -- the first having occurred after Otarin exhausted himself and reluctantly permitted her to leave his furs.
The memory nearly made her retch, and she struggled to hide her distress from Spock. It was just meaningless sex. He couldn't touch her soul, her spirit, she reminded herself. But if Otarin would bathe more frequently, it would certainly make "just sex" with him a lot less unpleasant. She sincerely hoped she wouldn't get lice from the dirty furs she'd been obliged to share with the filthy tribal chieftain, or get her throat slit by one of his other concubines. The red-haired girl had looked as though she would certainly like to murder Christine as she slunk out of the chieftain's lodge at Otarin's command.
The worst of it was that in this cold, she couldn't bathe herself and rid her skin of the feeling of his touch, cleanse her body of the reek of him. She desperately feared that Spock could already smell Otarin on her body and would quickly guess the desperate deal she had made. Certainly if Spock had been healthy, it would have taken only moments for him to intuit the situation from the subliminal clues that surrounded him.
How would he react? She didn't want to injure the delicate emotional structure that she knew lay deep within her beloved Vulcan's psyche, and guilt was a powerful negative emotion that Spock might just have a great deal of difficulty coping with. She guessed his reaction would not be pleasant on any level.
Christine eyed the sleeping furs that Spock lay wrapped in, feeling her physical and emotional weariness pressing down on her shoulders like a yoke. She had shared Spock's warmth for several nights now, a quiet and trusting closeness that no doubt benefitted them both, but tonight ... no. Somehow, in spite of her weariness, she simply couldn't bear the idea of lying down at his side and forcing him to share in the filth that had rubbed off onto her, the unwanted nastiness which had invaded and pervaded even the deepest intimacies of her body. She huddled in her fur cloak and leaned against the wall of the lodge instead, watching Spock's still form, counting the seconds between his coughs, until she nodded off in spite of herself.
* * *
In the morning, his cough had subsided substantially, and she knew that the dearly bought herb was helping his natural immune system combat the virus in his lungs. Her sacrifice had been worthwhile. The knowledge nearly made her heart sing, and she was able to face the coming day with more equanimity than before. She brewed more, and heated more of the soup, this time adding an onion-like bulb that was part of her reward from Otarin. The soup actually smelled tasty as it cooked, and she heard her stomach rumble as she held the leather bottle for Spock to drink. He was able to spoon up some of it himself and she was startled at the rapid improvement.
She felt herself shying away from his immediate vicinity, surprised at her reluctance to help him finish his stew. The smell of the vegetables would surely eclipse any others, she tried to reassure herself, but she was glad when he finished, and she scooted back, sitting on her heels.
"I have to go out and dig for roots. I'll hunt for greens, too. I ... may be gone for a long time," she nearly bit her lip in frustration at the hitch in her voice. Spock nodded and settled back into the furs. "There is more soup, if you want it."
"Thank you, Christine," his voice was definitely stronger. "I will be quite comfortable here."
She forced herself to rise and step confidently out of the lodge into the daylight. Her stomach turned as she followed the path to the center of the village, hardly noticing the mud squelching around her boots in her reluctance to continue.
* * *
Days passed, with Spock growing progressively stronger. Christine had grown more used to her role, and to the scent of unwashed primitive nomad, but her interludes in the chieftain's lodge were torture, at best. Spock seemed oblivious as he focused his energies on recovering his health, and her excuse of foraging for food seemed to convince him. There was no reason it should not -- she usually returned with adequate food for them both, and he had no reason to suspect that she had lied about how she obtained it.
Even better, the brief cold snap had passed, and now there were times when the air was warm enough that Christine could venture a quick sponge-bath in a nearby stream, as though any amount of washing could remove the imprint of the chief's hands from her body. She winced, looking at herself. Her feet were immersed in liquid ice, but she didn't want to climb from the stream until she had washed the stains from herself. However, some would not come off. The marks of teeth, the prints of cruel fingers -- her stomach rolled queasily. She had not been eating well; her bones were showing at her hips and ribs. Somehow, she never felt hungry anymore.
Spock was now well enough that he had announced his intent to help her forage in the morning, and she was not quite sure what could be done about it. Perhaps it would be possible to send him in one direction while she pretended to go in another, and actually returned to keep her part of the ugly bargain with the Otarak chief. She shivered, only in part because of the handful of cold water she had lifted to her shoulders. It was time to get out and dress and return to Spock, with today's ill-gotten gains.
She splashed out of the stream, reaching for her dirt- and sweat-stained furs.
The sound of a throat clearing nearly made her leap out of her skin, snatching the furs and clutching them before her. Her eyes jerked upward guiltily to meet Spock's. He stood propped heavily on a makeshift crutch, regarding her bruises with a face absolutely devoid of expression.
"I have wondered how you had become so proficient at gathering," the Vulcan commented quietly. "And you have seemed particularly silent. Also, it seemed unlikely that the tribal shaman would offer his services as a result of an outcast female's request. It occurred to me that Otarin would conclude that you had only a single valuable trade commodity to offer him."
"It was the only logical option," Christine felt herself turning painfully crimson. "You were dying." Damn. Damn, damn, damn. "I'm a good nurse. I couldn't just let that happen. Besides," she forced herself to meet his eyes, shrugging a shoulder casually. "It's not such a big deal. Humans frequently engage in casual, recreational sex." She played her trump card. "Just look at the Captain." She tried not to look at him too intently, afraid that her intensity would reveal that she was desperately trying to convince him of a lie.
Spock regarded her silently, and she was keenly aware that portions of her body were not concealed by the robes she clutched in front of her. "I do not think James Kirk could do what you are doing," he stated simply. "It would destroy him."
Christine felt a huge, horrible sob forming in her chest, and she battled it frantically. "I'd like to be alone to dress," she managed, her voice quavering wildly in spite of her best efforts to control it.
The Vulcan turned and departed, his crutch stirring the dead leaves in a receding rhythm.
She delayed as long as possible before the sobs that she'd restrained for so long claimed her and drove her to her knees on a patch of dead moss.
* * *
After she had cried herself out, she dressed shakily, her fingers blue with cold. Evening was falling. She made her way back to the lodge, struggling to erect a shield of composure that could survive his eyes. He was waiting, seated next to the fire, stirring a kettle of boiling roots.
"I regret that I am presently unable to engage in combat with Otarin," Spock spoke simply and without prelude. "However, I may be able to assist you in other ways." He gazed at her, struggling visibly with his next planned words. "When we spoke earlier I neglected to express my thanks for what you have done. I would be honored if you would allow me to show my gratitude by easing your burden."
Gratitude. An open admission of emotion, and as close to an apology as she was likely to get. But...
"How?" she asked him warily, unable to unbend before him. To impress Spock, one must be more Vulcan than Vulcan. It was hard to let herself relax and trust him, especially with the tangled mass of emotions that lay within her now.
"I can provide mental disciplines that will help you separate yourself from ... unpleasantness," he spoke softly, his eyes rich with an emotion unfamiliar to her. She gazed at him suspiciously. Pity? She didn't want his pity.
"There's no need," Christine lied. "I'm all right. Thank you."
Spock shrugged, the moment of warmth in his eyes fading. He handed her a bowl of stew and she added some pieces of meat, turning half away from him to eat her portion.
He finished his meal quickly and neatly, setting the bowl aside. "I will tend your injuries," he stated flatly in a voice that brooked no denial. He retrieved the medikit and approached her, awkwardly shifting his splinted leg about the floor of the lodge.
Christine's heart skipped a beat as his long, elegant fingers moved toward her and parted the cloak she had draped about her shoulders. His fingers curled under the tunic before she could protest that she was quite capable of undressing herself, and he lifted it gently, revealing the worn coverall she still wore beneath. He parted its collar gently, leaning close to Christine. She felt her fists clench involuntarily as she struggled against a mix of desire and dismay. The very idea of sex had become repugnant to her, but her body and emotions responded to Spock nonetheless.
She felt paralyzed as he drew the cloth away from her shoulders and bared her breasts in order to pass the medical equipment over her damaged skin. She stared helplessly as his head tilted intently and he began to work methodically, looking at what he was doing with a clinical cool that would have impressed McCoy. He finished with her breasts and her neck and pulled the jumpsuit down further, unclothing her in gentle stages. Christine shut her eyes and tried to hold her breath. She bit her lip, hoping he would hurry, but he seemed to take forever seeking out bruises and treating them. She shuddered helplessly as he slipped the coverall to her thighs, the heels of his hands inadvertently brushing her hips.
"I am sorry," his voice was soft and sober, oh so close to her, too close. "I did not mean to hurt or distress you."
"It's all right," she managed to mumble.
"You are not eating enough," he observed, turning her leg ever-so-gently with one warm palm. "You are increasing your chances of becoming ill."
Christine shivered at the feel of his palm on her skin, and he lifted his gaze to her face, trying to read the emotions in her eyes. His palm remained where it lay, tormenting her ... tantalizing her. She felt the burn of his high body temperature down to the bone, his pulse flickering like a flame on her thigh. Her heart skipped a beat, straining as though it wanted to fall into synch with that rapid rhythm, and his eyes seemed to bore through her. She realized, a moment too late, that it was happening.
"Don't," she spoke, hearing it echo -- hearing him hear her.
His presence fluttered against her mind, pausing delicately. //I will come no further.// He did not speak aloud. //I can show you the mind rules as we are.//
She faltered, knowing that he could hear the tumult of confused emotion in her mind, knowing he could feel the desires and the revulsions his touch had stirred. There was no further chance of lying to him, and indeed, she could sense that her earlier lies had never been believed. She huddled around her secrets, hard, but it was like the time when she was small that she had hiccups, and her aunt told her to cure them by sitting on a stump for half an hour not thinking of black cats -- even as she did it, she realized that tthe very act by nature brought the worst of her emotions into sharp relief on the surface of her brain, flashing in brilliant neon for him to read in the split instant she recalled it, a moment infinite in depth in spite of its brevity.
**Christine stood trembling and naked before Otarin, acutely conscious of her inexperience, filled with a virgin's terror, sickened by the hands that reached and roughly caught her waist. Wiry hair scrubbed at her body and suffocating weight compressed her chest. The fierce stab of pain, and horrible violated nausea--**
And a gauze shield fell between her and the hateful memory, thickening, muting, calming. The act behind the shield might have happened to someone else entirely. Its horror was remote from her, growing fainter, replaced by understanding and shelter.
"I didn't realize," his quiet voice stirred in her ears and in her mind simultaneously. "I am sorry." The tenor of Spock's thoughts was soft with sympathy -- a beautiful, muted emotion, hinting of the warmth she'd seen in his eyes earlier. True regret, and a desire to share her pain and lighten it. But under that ... under that... what was it? It related to her, she was certain of it from the way his mind flickered and fell blank, the defensive reaction of a trained telepath. Christine felt some part of her focus sharply, probing, but the ghost of unexpected emotion vanished as though it had evaporated. Had he hid it from her deliberately, or had she imagined it? No. There was a shield there, like the one he had created inside her mind, only perfectly opaque, impenetrable. She reached out, pressing her senses against its obstinate surface uselessly.
Christine exhaled in frustration, and felt his chest rise and fall in tandem with hers, realizing that her hands had risen to his shoulders. One of his smooth, heated palms lay against her face, his fingers touching her brain. She had refused her permission, and he had acted in spite of her wishes. The realization dawned, kindling anger in her. He recoiled, withdrawing almost timidly, the fragile link vanishing. Christine stared at him furiously through the watery lens of angry tears rising in her eyes, confusion and rage whirling through her. He had entered her mind against her request, taken her secrets, and then he had deliberately hidden his own from her!
"You have violated my trust," her voice shook, and Spock's gaze dropped with unmistakable shame.
"I had no intention of doing so." He looked up at her again, pain visible in his strained expression. "I did not mean ... if I could try again, to show you--"
Christine exhaled, shuddering. "I can't. Not tonight. Maybe never." She scooted away from him on her bottom until she reached the side of the lodge. She still had to face Otarin the next day, too. "When will you be well enough to fight?"
"I could try in a week. The healing trance accelerated the building of the bone," Spock's voice was wooden, withdrawn. "If I can close with him and deliver the nerve pinch before he attacks the weakened area, I can defeat him."
Christine shook her head with frustration. They could not risk Spock's defeat -- if she were stuck here with Otarin permanently, she would probably kill herself inside a year. She wrapped her shaking body in her arms, realized she was still bare, and hastily drew the fur cloak over herself.
* * *
Spock tried not to stare at Christine as she covered herself. Shame was a thunder in his mind, the fact that he felt it shaming him all the more. What had he done? He hadn't had such a lapse since he was a teenager, and now he had committed two unforgivable violations, both directed at a woman who was already near complete emotional and psychological breakdown due to the regrettable consequences of his physical weakness.
He could imagine his father's expression of pained disgust, and feel the rejection as the pure-blooded Vulcan man turned away from him, just as had happened too many times in his youth. Spock was keenly aware of Christine curling into a fetal position inside the fur garments, her back to the fire and to him.
*This is why I restrain my emotions, Christine*, he addressed her silently in his mind. Of course, she couldn't hear him -- the link had been temporary, not a bondmate or t'hy'la bonding. He did not know if creating such a bond would have enhanced the problem, or solved it. Dealing successfully with emotional matters had never been his strongest skill.
Spock had obtained far more than Christine had guessed from the brief contact, reading thoughts effortlessly from her subconscious that never even registered in her conscious mind. Perhaps it had been his preoccupation in doing so that led to his own slip -- the secret of his own that he hadn't dared reveal to her. He had never revealed it to anyone, man or woman, though the powerful set of emotions had occurred within him more than once before.
He suspected it was the Vulcan hybrid equivalent of what humans called love. At least, it had elements of that emotion as he had sensed them in mental contact with human beings. It also contained elements of lust which, if possible, dismayed him even more. As a hybrid, he was uncertain whether giving free rein to those emotions might not initiate the cycle of pon farr even in the absence of a bondmate. It was a risk he was not prepared to take, and thus he had withdrawn from Christine, one of the few humans who had ever inspired such emotions within him. There was no way to explain these things to her. He simply did not have the skill in emotional self-expression, and she had understandably refused a second meld. She was a woman of deep and complex emotions, many of which he feared he had just permanently damaged.
The lodge stirred, responding to a change in the wind, arousing him from his troubled reverie. His senses told him that the weather was changing. This wind was from the north; already the temperature had dropped approximately .8 of a degree outside the hut. Initial atmospheric scans had indicated that the region of the stone would have severe weather fronts. It was unfortunate that he had not arrived earlier, before the nomadic natives had been forced southward. Together, he and Christine might have found some way to utilize the displacing action of the stone and return to the Enterprise. Now such experimentation was out of the question -- if they tried to reach the stone, they would be hunted and destroyed. He did not believe his leg was strong enough at present to make the trek. Possibly in a week, as he had informed Christine.
He gazed over at her. She shivered in the draft blowing under the wall of the lodge, for she lay on the northmost edge of the dwelling nearest the impact of the wind. Spock felt a pang of regret for having pushed her away, but what alternative was left to him? He could not risk honesty -- in her fragile emotional and physical condition, she surely could not withstand the potential results of freeing the Vulcan sexual demons that he feared from their prison deep within him.
The door flap lifted, fluttering free of the rock that held it down, and he crawled across the hut to re-secure it, catching a glimpse of Otarin's lodge as he did so. Now a new emotion welled in his heart -- hatred. The only place for hatred in Vulcan culture was at koon ut kalifee, deep in the heart of pon farr, but he felt it now nonetheless, as he felt the threat to a woman under his protection, a woman he ... cared for. The significance of the link between rage and lust was not lost on Spock. He had thought his defenses against both were considerably stronger. Perhaps the stress of his illness and weakened physical condition was partially responsible for his lapses in control.
The events of the day had certainly taught him one thing, however painful the lesson. An ugly, uncivilized, potentially savage beast lay snarling within him, and for whatever reason, it was now barely restrained by the veneer of his training. Spock's eyes narrowed. This was surely not the pon farr, for he had none of the clinical symptoms of the plak tow except for a loss of emotional control. However, when he faced Otarin, he knew that the fight would be to the death, as surely as if there had been a declaration of koon ut kalifee, the challenge for a mate.
Spock's hands trembled as he realized he would take pleasure in destroying the Otarak chieftain, and he stilled them with an effort, glancing at the sleeping woman who lay shivering in the sinking firelight. She should be innocent of this, but she would never again be innocent as she had been before.
Not really believing her lies about casual sex, he had spoken of how her actions would destroy Jim Kirk, meaning that he knew it must be damaging her also. However, his lack of tact had hurt her. Possibly anger had made him blunt -- her use of the captain's behavior as a defense had angered him; Kirk was one of the few humans for whom Spock had felt intense devotion, and he knew Kirk's contacts were anything but unimportant to the human captain. His contact with Christine's mind had completed the disclosure of her lie, allowing him to experience the true wretchedness of her state of mind, a state badly worsened by his tactless remarks and by his refusal to allow her to see what she had sensed was hidden. Christine needed him, needed his emotions.
His fist knotted, knuckles whitening with strain, and he allowed a grimace to twist his lips, reflecting the conflict of his indecision. Rage boiled in him, helpless frustrated fury. He could not sit idly by and allow her to return to the Otarak chieftain unprotected -- he had seen in her mind how the contact with the abominable man had made her feel worthless, unfit to be close to Spock even though her supreme sacrifice was preserving his life. He had to prove that she was wrong, had to show her her own value. He knew only one way to do so. She could damn him for this later, as she liked. He would deserve every iota of it. The reasons were illogical, but the risks must be taken.
He approached her, deftly twitching away the layer of fur that covered her face. "Forgive me, Christine," he spoke softly, and his hands fell on the telepathic contact points with the strength of steel, and a growl of thunder rumbled across the sky as he sank deeply into her sleeping mind.
* * *
Christine's mouth fell open with a helpless cry, her glazed eyes opening as he pushed fully into her consciousness, as fully as he had ever extended a meld, then further -- an exquisite ache as the paradigm shifted to make one of two. They were Christine; they were Spock. He knew every excruciating instant of her time with Otarin, experienced rape and the helplessness of a woman. She felt the snarling of the beast within leaping at its chain, tasted a Vulcan's fear. Words swirled through their shared mind, the part that was Spock dimly recognizing himself as their source: *--parted from me and never parted. Never and always touching and touched--* and the mind realized that the bond had formed without volition, cementing itself deep within their shared being.
Christine whimpered and their bodies exhaled the small sound together; they were barely aware of the patter of rain on the stretched hide of the lodge. He opened his hidden passion to her. She entered it, embodied it -- she was the desire, and she was flame. He was flame. Intent formed, its identity indistinguishable. He felt her body open to receive him and he was within her and there was only one body, only one mind, one being reaching for the glorious light, struggling for it, exploding with it, incandescent and infinite. Lightning and thunder shattered the space about them in a pale imitation of the crescendo of joining souls.
Momentarily spent, they held one another tightly, feeling themselves re-coalesce, the channel still wide open between them. Christine tasted the salt of her tears on his lips as he brushed them across her cheek. Spock felt the small, fading spasms of her body as it calmed, the clasp of her body, the solidity of his presence within it.
Christine drew a shuddering breath, unable to tear her eyes from Spock's. Nothing remained to say. He bent forward, breathing gently into her mouth, and her tongue met his as he began to move softly within her once more. She closed her eyes and abandoned herself to him.
*A storm like the storms of Vulcan.* Her mind held red, sand-swept plains, the towering clouds, the sudden blue lightning and terrible wind. *The T'Beshia, the spring storms. Nothing withstands them.* He withdrew from her and turned her, snuggling her against his length, his hard heat sliding between her thighs and into her again. He sensed her need to be touched, rolled a nipple between sensitive fingers, kissing lightly at her throat. *As I could not withstand you.* Delicately his fingers opened her, touching her most sensitive parts. She moaned softly, hearing the rain beat, feeling the electricity of a nearby lightning strike. He shuddered as he felt her pleasure at his touch, moving more quickly within her. She rocked against his fingers, moaning his name, feeling his joy in hearing her caress his name with love. *As dangerous as what we have done, and as unpredictable. But the rains bring sweet flowers, and for a day, perhaps a week, Vulcan's Forge blooms.* He stroked the soft petals of her, his mind sending to her the perfume of the Vulcan lily. The thunder shook them, a droplet of rain making its way through a seam in the hides and splashing onto her breast. Another fell on her shoulder and he licked it away, his tongue like a flame, making her think of--
Christine blushed and shied away from the thought, but he had heard it and his amusement was rich and warm. Withdrawing, he turned her to her back and bent to her, for her pleasure was his own, and nothing that pleased one could be repugnant to the other.
When morning arrived, they slept with bodies entwined, deep snow muffling the sounds of the village and birds, wrapping them into a small world that only contained the two of them, one against another.
* * *
Spock lay awake, his palm resting on Christine's waist possessively. The contact was not precisely necessary, but it made mental contact easier, and he was engaged in keeping her nightmares at bay, gently shifting her dreams away from the fear and disgust her self-prostitution had larded throughout all levels of her consciousness. Her sacrifice, willingly and unhesitatingly made, was nonetheless a torment to her -- one that he refused to permit her to endure any longer. He could not prevent her body from being victimized, but her mind would be safe.
At last he judged she had slept long enough. Sinking into her consciousness, buffering her with himself, he found the motor centers and touched them, urging her to rise. Dazed, dreaming, she did so. He watched silently, nearly all his being contained within her, as she left the tent. He could not close down her consciousness entirely, but he could mask her experience, and make it a pleasant one for her. She would believe she had been dreaming.
There would be time for explanations later, when he had avenged her honor.
* * *
There was sunlight blazing on snow; her feet were freezing, but she had a goal to drive her. Spock would be with her. Spock was urging her, guiding her. To what? A flicker of confusion, disorientation, but then everything was right -- Spock was there, he was ... he was her goal, he was waiting for her. Yes.
She stepped into the hut, bending her head to move below the threshold. It seemed fully natural to her that Spock occupied the hut of the chieftain. Of course. She came here every day ... to be his.
She felt a rush of desire kindle in her belly. He was waiting for her, there in the shadows, she knew. She had no need to look closely. She could sense him within her. She could sense his mood -- the flicker of anger kindling, suffusing his passion. Oh, God, yes. It was going to be rough, and she was ready. With a moan, she yanked the furs she wore from her body, throwing them aside only moments before his hands caught her waist, dragging her fiercely to him. He forced her to her back in the furs, thrusting her knees apart. She could feel the surges of heat intensifying as her body craved him, then he mounted her, shoving himself deep inside her body. Her back arched, her mouth opening in a silent cry, her nails digging into his muscular biceps.
She would never have suspected him to be capable of such sheer animal frenzy, but she welcomed it, her breathing coming in wordless whimpers, she succumbed ecstatically to him, kissing blindly and meeting the heat of his mouth, her body melting around the hot shaft that occupied her. She writhed, feeling sensation building within her, her body starting to tighten in anticipation of climax. He groaned and his lips crushed hers, his arms forcing the breath from her lungs - her head was giddy, the world was spinning, that elusive moment coming closer and closer with each shallow gasp of breath.
Then the suffocating weight of his chest moved, and he rolled himself beneath her. She sat astride him, her fingers tangled in the crisp mat of his chest hair, her breasts bouncing wildly as she maintained the driving pace of their lovemaking.
She threw back her head and screamed in triumph as the climax swept all remainder of restraint from her. He rolled her beneath him once more, his teeth marking her throat as he claimed her.
* * *
Spock sat still, fists clenched and knuckles white, a single bead of sweat trickling over his brow, holding on by his fingernails to the hurricane he had unwittingly created. He could not have known how completely she would respond to the idea of having him in such a way -- it was all he could do to maintain the control required to shield her from the truth of her partner's actual identity. She was in control of the rest. Her passion unnerved and awed him -- his body ached mercilessly, needing to take part in what his mind experienced, but that could not happen now. Just as protecting him had cost her, he would accept the price of protecting her now.
* * *
Exhausted, Otarin finally released Christine. He stared exultantly at the lovely sway of her hips as she rose, unabashed, and gathered her clothing, moving slowly, as though in a dream. So much for the reluctant virgin! He had made a woman of her at last, taught her to crave his bed with the voracious eagerness of one of his slaves -- only she was more than they; better. There was nothing of pettiness in her wanton pleasures -- there seemed a pure joy, an unselfconscious and unselfish pleasure in the way she reacted to him now.
She bent over, catching up her cloak, and he raised himself to his feet with a groan -- he was tired and sore, but he had to have more of her, he couldn't have had enough yet! He had to have her one more time, had to savor the simple, honest responses of a lover who acted as though she cared for him, only him, nothing more. Not his wealth, not his chieftainship ... the beautiful pale-haired, pale-eyed woman with her long, willowy body wanted him, and he had made her, he had made his woman.
He caught her hips, fingers digging into her belly, and dragged her onto himself. She gave a luxuriant, sensual purr, reaching forward, grasping a wall pole and stretching her lean, sleek body out before him, bracing herself for him, letting him claim her body again.
"You're mine," he whispered, exultant. "I have beaten you, and I will destroy him."
* * *
Spock's secret heart wept as she, still controlled, removed her clothing, revealing the bedraggled, battered condition of her fragile body. He would help her, he would induce the healing trance. He gently pulled her into the curve of his body and curled himself around her, stroking her hair, sorrow making a horrible lump in his throat, one that somehow obstructed even the formation of words to speak through the telepathic bond that linked them.
Six more days. Six more days and then, for the first time in his life, Spock would kill a man -- with pleasure.
* * *
He could not, of course, keep Christine a puppet during the entire time that remained. Even if the strain of control had not been so great that it would take a Master of Gol to do so, in her fragile psychological condition she could have been driven into catatonia. He allowed her to waken naturally the next morning, observing with satisfaction that the worst of her injuries had faded considerably.
She stretched against him, purring like a cat, remembering the previous day only as a dream... a dream of him. Her eyes opened without warning, sparkling up into his alertly, her lips curving in a smile. He tipped her chin up with a finger and kissed them lightly. Her bare arm slipped around his waist and she pressed herself tightly to him, deepening the kiss, feeling the surge of his body's response. Gently Spock pushed her away, the mental link enabling him to reassure her that his action was one of prudence, not of rejection.
"There is business we must attend to," he murmured. "Aren't you hungry?"
Her eyes seemed to focus inward for a moment, and he could feel her stomach rumble at the mere suggestion. "Goodness, yes," she mused with surprise. "I could eat a hors--"
Spock covered her mouth on impulse with his palm. "As a vegetarian, I must insist that the only animal I will permit you to 'eat' ... is me."
Her eyes widened with disbelief that overflowed into delighted laughter, smothered behind his palm, and she nipped at it teasingly. He moved his hand, permitting himself a near-smile to acknowledge her pleasure in his joke.
"Mmmm," she licked her lips, gazing into his eyes, her face alight with happiness, her smile mischievous. "Good!"
He felt his blood surge with the force of a Vulcan's passion. "Perhaps we might spare a few moments for an appetizer," he acknowledged, regarding her seriously.
Christine laughed again and pounced, rolling him under her. He let her.
* * *
Spock was relieved, sometime during their love-play, to hear the village hunters leaving. Otarin would not remain behind when there was glory to be gained. With luck, the men would be gone for some time, perhaps several days. Spock might be recovered enough to fight by the time they returned.
When they were satiated he made himself rise. It was time to prepare a weapon, if he could. He had observed the stone blades the tribe used and, while he was aware that fashioning such a blade took time and skill, he believed he might make an acceptable substitute, if he could find suitable stone. Failing that, he must locate wood and provide himself with a stout cudgel and perhaps a crude wood-tipped spear. In either case he would need a straight, tough sapling for a spear-shaft.
"Spock? What are you looking for?" Christine rose on one elbow in the furs. "The person who owned this hut left a lot behind. Maybe you can find what you need?"
Spock raised a brow, acknowledging the logic of her statement and chiding himself for having neglected to consider such an obvious course of action. "Indeed," he followed her gesture to a mat of hide that covered sticks laid over a pit in the ground. He dug through the possessions of Tenrik, the man who had owned their lodge, pleased to see the spearhead Christine had discovered earlier. One problem solved, far better and more easily than he had dared to hope.
Indeed, the find served to give Spock strong hope that he could defeat Otarin. He had received the standard Starfleet training in martial skills, on top of the training he had been given as a child with traditional Vulcan weapons such as the lirpa and ahn woon. And though Jim Kirk preferred fighting with his fists, Spock had also trained with the captain in using several traditional human weapons, among them the bo, or quarterstaff. He doubted that Otarin would either expect or know how to counter a spear used for much more than stabbing. The chieftain would know a few crude parries, but Spock was relatively confident he could disarm the man. And then...
His fist curled around the stone blade so tightly that the sharp edge cut his palm. Then.
"I must find a sapling to use for the shaft." Spock rose to his feet, hobbling a little on his bad leg. Christine had begun breakfast, a fur casually wrapped about her body. "There is not time for it to dry naturally, but I believe I can use fire to temper the wood. I will return shortly." He left the tent in search of an appropriate tree.
* * *
Luck held, and the hunters remained away for three days in pursuit of game, while Spock prepared his weapon. Their store of food rapidly dwindled, and there was little more to be had, the natural reserves near the camp having been exhausted. Even Christine's scanning equipment failed to locate more of the edible tubers or greens. Christine's small stores of meat ran out on the second day, yet she refused her half of the last tuber, pointing out her higher ratio of body fat and the fact that he must keep up his strength for the battle as logical justifications for her decision to fast. Spock would not have admitted it, but his temper shortened when she used logic against him; the food held no savor as he sullenly forced himself to chew and swallow, aware through the link of her unabated hunger pangs.
The hunting party returned the third night, but this time the sleds were almost empty. Christine stood in the door of the lodge, listening to the muted wailing of the camp's women and the irritable snarling of their men. Otarin stood near the largest sled, that with the most meat, and shouted for quiet.
"The k'tai have moved far south," he announced. "Perhaps it is the harshness of the winter. We must leave this camp and follow them. Prepare the meat we have brought -- tonight we feast, and tomorrow we travel."
Spock's hand fell on Christine's shoulder, letting her know he had emerged from the lodge to listen.
"They'll leave the vicinity of the Stone," Christine breathed, dismayed.
"Then my plans must be accelerated. I will challenge him in the morning and win our freedom."
Christine hesitated, not sure how to tell Spock what she had to tell him, guilt choking her for not having told him before. She had been surprised when he didn't pick up on it in the mental link, though she supposed that it had been heavily eclipsed by the force of her emotional trauma. There was nothing for it but to correct him. "Actually, Spock, that's your freedom."
He turned a gaze on her that was ice-cool and terrible all at once.
"I had to change the terms of the bargain to get your medicine," Christine admitted in a small voice. "I agreed to stay..."
Spock turned without a word and stalked into the darkness that surrounded the village, leaving Christine staring helplessly after him.
* * *
The state of mind he found himself in was precisely why Spock had always resisted becoming involved in romantic relationships, though he hadn't quite had something this improbable in mind when he pictured the results of an attempt at dating. It was improper to be so distressed when there were logical options for action, but Christine's quiet martyrdom had both dismayed and angered him -- dismay because his weakness had made it necessary for her to prostitute herself, anger because she had concealed both that and her promise to stay from him, even in the intimacy of telepathic bonding, and irrational anger at himself for permitting this whole mess to happen. Christine had acted with flawless logical pragmatism. He could not find fault with her actions. Still, his distress distracted him from the falling ambient temperature, which cut his Vulcan physique to the bone.
His wordless retreat right now was possibly causing her considerable emotional distress, he realized, but the circumstances surrounding his plans had changed and logic dictated that he must act quickly, so he had not taken the time to formulate a comment before leaving. Otarin must be taken off guard, before he could have an opportunity to strike and eliminate Spock. He might choose to do so if it occurred to him that honor was not currently an obstacle to eliminating his rival, particularly if he pondered their previous verbal interactions and concluded that in wars of words before his people, Spock and Christine had invariably defeated him with ease.
He struck straight for the grove he had discovered earlier, hoping to locate another straight, sturdy sapling for a spear shaft. There would now be no time to temper it, not even crudely -- his first attempts had failed, anyway, which was the reason this sudden and unpleasant trip was necessary. He would simply have to trust to speed and strategy, for the burly Otarin would probably be able to shatter a green-wood spear during Spock's first attempt to parry a blow.
Limping on his weak leg, it took Spock half an hour to locate another adequate sapling. The cold tore viciously at him as he knelt and sawed at its base with the stone spearhead that was his sole cutting tool. He had not told Christine, but often he could still feel a heaviness in his lungs that indicated the infection that had caused his pneumonia was not entirely gone. He was currently able to mask his symptoms, but the chilling he had received tonight would do the opposite of easing them. It was merely another logical reason to be done with Otarin swiftly, and to find and use the Stone to return to the Enterprise, if possible.
Christine's sudden mental shriek of terror caught him completely off-guard.
Spock lunged against the sapling convulsively, splitting it lengthways for over six inches before he caught himself and released the pressure. Ruining the shaft would not defend Christine. He hacked vigorous at the fibrous matter with the spearhead, now not caring whether he dulled its edge. The tree yielded swiftly under his full force. He would use the split to couch the spearhead, and the rawhide from his bootlaces to bind it in place. Yanking free several inches of twine from each boot, he tied the remaining strings and struggled to his feet. His legs were numb from the cold.
He suppressed a cough and, ignoring the pain of his half-healed leg, began a staggering half-trot back to the village, fumbling with half-frozen fingers to trim the shaft he had cut and attach the spearhead to it.
The trip back was interminable, and Christine's distress hammered against his brain relentlessly. He could not obtain control of her mind as he had done before. Her fully-engaged terror was too strong for him to sublimate without physical contact. The emotion was raw, and no images came through, but there could be only one explanation: Otarin.
Spock very nearly growled as the first stinging crystals of snow began to needle his cheeks. He barely noticed either the pain or the chill -- on a subliminal level, he knew that he had begun to feel quite warm. Plak tow, a fleeting wisp of rationality commented, in a curiously detached tone. As soon as he realized it, he knew instinctively that it had already inevitably claimed him. His last pon farr unresolved, his bondmate threatened by a hated rival, Spock lost himself in the fire of primitive Vulcan fury, welcoming the surge of energy that came with it.
* * *
A weird roar barely penetrated the edges of Christine's consciousness at first, but as Otarin raised his head warily, her awareness focused on the sound. It was repeated, from much closer, and the chieftain lunged up off her, subjecting her bare body to a blast of chilled air. She scrambled to her knees in the furs, clutching one around herself, scuttling backwards and away from the chieftain without even pausing to wipe blood from her lips. The Otarak clambered into his rough hide trousers almost frantically, stamping his feet into boots. Christine felt hope flicker and dared to open her thoughts toward Spock.
Yes! She exulted for a moment as she understood the source of the furious sounds she had heard, but her eyes widened at the unfamiliar green-tinted rage that had magnified to infernal dimensions within the calm, reasonable Vulcan she had previously known in their mental contacts. Koon ut kalifee. Spock bellowed the words, advancing on the tent relentlessly, crude spear in hand.
"The challenge!" Christine shrilled, making sure Otarin understood fully. The chieftain's lips twisted upward in a contemptuous smile as he spared her a glance.
"He may win the knowledge he wants," Otarin smirked, "but remember that even if he wins, you are mine." His gaze swept Christine's body, making her shudder and shrink against the rear of the tent.
Shirtless, Otarin strode from the tent to meet Spock's challenge.
Christine threw on her robes with unseemly haste and scuttled out in his wake. The burly, bearlike chieftain dwarfed the slender, limping Vulcan, but Spock's rage was clearly the dominant emotion in the confrontation. Plak tow held him fully in its grasp. Christine had to wonder if he would be able to withstand the instinctive hormonal drives of his condition long enough to leave the village and return to the Stone even if he won -- she suspected that the fight was only the first stage of the pon farr, and that the victorious Vulcan in the confrontation immediately celebrated his victory physically with his bride.
That would not be possible here even if he won.
Otarin began to circle his smaller adversary, and Spock pivoted smoothly, his spear facing the brawny alien. A crowd began to gather, alerted by the noise, grouping about the small courtyard before Otarin's tent with a predictably humanoid love of spectacle. Christine was forcibly reminded of fights she'd witnessed as a child in school, where student spectators packed in about the melee so tightly that administrators were unable to press through the crush and stop the battle.
"Otarin of the Otaraks is generous," the formulaic boast rumbled from the chest of her tormentor. "The woman has agreed to stay with me. Go. Use the Stone if you will -- I will have the shaman go with you, to activate it. Lie atop the stone with your heels facing west."
Otarin clearly did not understand Spock's condition -- the Vulcan was committed to the battle; Christine herself could not have stopped him. She understood why the big man made the offer he did -- he understood he might appear ridiculous fighting such a puny adversary before his people. There would be no honor in crushing such an insignificant foe. And worse, if Spock defeated him, he would lose even more honor before his people.
But the Stone -- the instructions! The shaman? That must be the key, but Christine and Spock had no shaman before when they -- of course. Chekov. Christine's heart leaped. Someone must trigger the Stone -- Chekov had climbed behind her and must have accidentally activated a triggering mechanism while she lay above. Knowing Spock, they'd duplicated the situation exactly when he followed her. Could she trigger the Stone while he lay atop it? It seemed probable. But then ... without help, only one of them could leave...
A sharp crack startled her from her realizations, and she snapped her head up. Spock had lunged at his adversary, and Otarin parried his blow effortlessly. The Vulcan rolled and regained his feet, favoring his injured leg slightly. Christine's fists clenched, her nails cutting into her palms. She had to help. Spock was so small, so vulnerable, before Otarin! What could she do? She cast her gaze about, frantically... and her eyes locked on a shadowy corner inside the chieftain's hut.
She was aware of a flurry of blows behind her, a cry of pain, but she could not listen. Yes. Her fingers wrapped around a pole, lifted it. She hefted the weight of a heavy ceremonial spear with a two-foot blade. Her eyes narrowed and her head turned. It was treachery -- the tribe would attack.
*Hang on, Spock,* she sent the words to him forcefully, not knowing if he could discern them or not. They had to have a way to escape when the tribe turned on them, after. There were no riding animals and Christine could not approach the sled dogs herself; they seemed infuriated by her scent and would go into a frenzy of snapping and snarling.
Outside, the crowd yowled and surged as a telling blow fell; Christine did not know who had landed it, but she had no time. And then she remembered. If they could make it that far! Their lives depended on this single chance. She snatched a set of two stone knives, tucking them into her clothing. Her fingers locked around the spear shaft and she stalked forth from the tent, holding the spear behind her and to one side, masked from the view of the crowd by the tent wall.
Spock had fallen, his leg crumpled beneath him, his breath coming hard and with a rasp. Christine's eyes narrowed. She thought she could see blood on his lips. Fury surged in her. He held Otarin at bay with the spear point, shifting painfully as the chief circled, looking for an opening for his kill. Just a little further. Just... a... little... THERE.
Silent, savage, Christine lunged forward and leaped, mustering all the rage and pain of the rapes, the torment, and her fury at his mistreatment of Spock, using them to augment her strength as she drove the spearpoint into the chieftain's back with all her weight behind it. It sank deep and he arched weirdly with a gurgling cry -- she'd estimated the location of his heart, and missed, perhaps puncturing a lung. Snarling, she tried to twist the blade but her hands lacked the strength, and he was turning from Spock, wrenching the wooden shaft from her hands, his gaze terrible, his mouth working with hatred, his eyes promising her death. He was probably a dead man, but his immense physical strength belied effects of the dreadful wound she'd inflicted. Christine backed away -- she had nothing with which to parry the spear he held. His arm drew back, the point of the spear aligning with her chest -- and just as his arm whipped forward, Otarin shuddered and cried out again.
Christine heard splintering wood, knew Spock too had stabbed the chieftain, breaking his spear in the process; a hand of its point now stood out from the front of Otarin's chest covered in his blood. His cast at Christine went askew, nicking her shoulder. She felt hot blood roll down her arm, freezing in the fur garment almost immediately. The Otarak chieftain's shaking hand touched the spearpoint with disbelief. This time his eyes were glazing -- Spock had pierced the vital organ she had missed, but it had been she who gave him the opportunity.
The crowd was silent, horrified. Spock staggered around the dying Otarin on a leg that clearly almost refused to bear him, his eyes burning -- he thought only of her now, in the throes of the plak tow. She darted back into the tent, knowing he would pursue her. It was their only avenue of escape from the crowd. She was already delving into her blouse, withdrawing one of the knives she'd stashed, using it to slash through the rear of the tent. Spock's hands caught her waist, the touch intensifying their bond immediately, his intent battering at her sense of purpose.
"Soon," she responded frantically. "We must wait." She gave the thought all her urgency, momentarily thwarting the onslaught of necessity in his mind. He could wait then, if only temporarily. Good. She took part of his weight on her shoulder and they staggered forth as several of Otarin's men carried their dying leader into his tent and laid him on his bed of furs. She heard women wail and keen, and heard other men give a call for the sled dogs to be released. Christine swore, leading Spock staggering from the perimeter of the village.
A hundred yards away stood the head-start she had needed so desperately. The village stood on the edge of a wide lake, fed by the stream she had used for bathing. She struggled to pull Spock up the suddenly steepening land, angling away from the lake. Only days ago she had seen the Otarak children milling about this spot, a bluff that sloped to the waterside. They had cleared the slope of vegetation and smoothed it, leaving a crude wooden sledge lying at its top. They had not used it then, fearful of the lake-ice, but she had realized what it was for: when the lake froze hard, the children would climb the bluff and ride the sledge down its side, skating far across the bare, windswept ice.
She hoped the ice was strong enough now. The dogs had begun to bay and would be on their heels in moments. Dumping Spock onto the sledge, Christine moved behind it and grasped the handles, preparing to push. No time to lose. She struggled -- the thing had frozen to the ground, and only by throwing her fragile body against the handles was she able to free it, bruising ribs already sore from Otarin's crushing weight. It began to slip downward and she seized the handles with a shriek. Half running, half dragged, she trailed in the wake of the sledge until she could scramble on. They bumped down the interminable hill, nearly upending several times, gaining speed until finally they shot out onto the lake, skewing and yawing wildly. She and Spock clung desperately to the edges of the makeshift conveyance until it finally settled on a leading edge, plowing across the ice side-on. Christine heard ominous creaks and groans from beneath them but their speed seemed to protect them from the cracking ice, at least for the moment -- even though the sound of pursuit was growing fainter, the speed of the thing was diminishing relentlessly. Soon she'd be pushing the sledge across the ice, that is, if it would hold them.
A crack sounded, like an old-fashioned pistol shot, and Christine swore as the sledge bumped through a skiff of snow, slowing still further. They were near the middle of the lake, and the weakest of the ice. Christine dug out her knives again and began stabbing at the ice and shoving at it, preserving their momentum as much as she could. They still moved faster than they could walk, but not for long.
"We must abandon the sledge. Its weight," Spock rasped. She spared an instant to glance at him. The moonlight showed black blood on his face, and his leg was definitely almost useless, and there were the dogs, baying as they worked their way around the lake. "The ice will not hold it."
Christine nodded reluctantly. Her efforts to propel it were not working well, anyway. It had continued to slow. She reached from Spock's hand and they tumbled from the sledge together. He rolled further from her, distributing their weight on the ice, and the sledge slid to a final stop several yards away, causing ominous creaks and groanings from the ice in its vicinity.
"Head for shore," Spock's head jerked toward the nearest land, but he did not stand. Instead he began to scoot forward cautiously, his injured leg trailing. Christine imitated him, crawling, struggling to hurry as she heard the ice crack behind them, near the sledge. The liquid sounds of its sinking were soon evident, and she felt a crack open under her hand and threw herself to her belly, scuttling desperately like a crab as the frozen water threatened to open and swallow her.
But Spock had chosen their direction well. She could see that the ridge of land before them extended a good way into the lake, and there was a shelf of shallower water along its arm, protruding from where it disappeared into the lake proper. They followed the ridge now. Soon Spock dared to stand and she moved under his shoulder once again to support him. The frozen white night seemed to have cooled his blood, at least for the moment. Christine tried to ignore the dogs and the light of torches making their way around the lake behind them. She could not understand why the tribe had chosen the longer traverse of the lake. Perhaps the leaders of the vengeance party had miscalculated. Spock too cast a glance over his shoulder.
"There will be a reason," he said coolly, reading her thoughts. "I suspect it will have to do with terrain."
Her heart sinking, Christine knew he was right.
The ridge was steep enough to block their easy escape and in fact within a half mile rose to a daunting forty or fifty meters in height, its face almost vertical. It would have been virtually unclimbable even in good weather and if they were healthy. Now, wounded, exhausted by their ordeal, and with a keen north wind numbing their bodies to uselessness, the ridge might as well have been the lava cliffs of Tarsus 2.
The only good thing about it was that the Otaraks and their dogs couldn't get down it anymore than Spock and Christine could get up it.
Carefully negotiating his way across the ice toward the base of the ridge, Spock said, "It will be full dark soon and the temperature is falling rapidly. We must find someplace to wait out the night."
The sharp, frigid air brought on an involuntary coughing spell, not bad but something Christine definitely did not want to hear. He'd never fully recovered from the deep infection in his lungs and the exertion and cold had him gasping.
Plus she could see the way his legs were beginning to tremble under him. His barely healed left one had been badly strained by the fight and their frantic escape. It was still splinted for support. In his present condition and with snow beginning to gust around them, she knew that he'd never make it to the Stone, let alone be able to climb it.
Straining to see ahead of them as the wan moonlight faded behind thickening snowclouds, Christine searched for some place where they could shelter, but it seemed that the frozen lake met the cliff face at a perpendicular angle without any break.
Keeping an eye on the points of light coming nearer, they slipped and slid along the hard, thick ice. Despite the fur tunics and cloaks they wore, both of them were beginning to lose all feeling in their extremities.
Christine found herself sitting flat out on the ice before she'd even realized that her feet had gone out from underneath her. Dazed, she sat stuporously for a moment while Spock turned back and helped her to her feet, himself none-too-steady.
The wind was picking up and now they could hear the howling of the dogs plainly. Christine prayed that the beasts wouldn't be able to get down that slope and onto the frozen lake. She and Spock would be torn to pieces if they did. The irrational image sprang into her mind of a scene from an ancient Earth book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and she visualized Eliza being chased across the frozen river by bloodhounds. Only the things chasing her were worse than bloodhounds and their masters worse than slave catchers. Her fate and Spock's would likely be that of trophy heads mounted on the next chieftain's lodge wall.
Overhead on the ridge top, she could now see torches clustered together and hear the faint grumble of voices. The two fugitives pressed themselves against the ridge wall and held their breaths. Faintly, they could make out what was being said.
"I don't see them," one man complained. "It's too dark."
"They're there," another answered. "I feel my bones ache."
"Look out there. Can you see? That hole in the ice? The sledge fell through."
"They're dead," said a third voice.
"No," answered the second. "She's too clever, that one. She witched Otarin into taking them in then kept him sotted. Don't you know that she visited him every day and made him rut her? What regular woman could do that?"
Christine cast a horrified glance at Spock, but his face was calm and expressionless. However, he reached out and took her hand in his, squeezing it in support.
"I can't see a thing," groused a fourth voice. "I agree, Korak. They're dead. Nobody could make it across that ice."
"I'm going back," said one of the men. "I need a fire and my own woman. My blade is cracking in this cold. It needs a hot sheath to warm in."
"We can come back and look for their bodies at dawn," said the fourth.
There was a general rustle of movement and the sounds began to move away, back toward the village. Spock and Christine remained motionless and silent for what seemed like a very long time.
After a while, Christine spoke in a whisper. "I don't hear them anymore," she said.
"Nor do I," he answered softly. "It would be logical to assume, however, that they will be back very early tomorrow morning. Come, we must find a shelter." He cautiously started along the base of the ridge once more, Christine following.
It was slow going, for the ice here was not smooth. As it had frozen, it had broken and ground together and refrozen. Rocks and debris protruded through the rough ice, making footing treacherous, and time after time Spock, who was leading the way, stumbled or hit his numb feet against obstacles.
Finally, he called a halt, breathing heavily and doing his best to suppress a deep harsh cough that was beginning to occur more and more frequently. "I need something to lean on," he panted, taking the weight off his injured leg. "See if you can find a long branch that I can use as a crutch."
There was barely enough light reflecting back off the snow on the ice to make a search possible, but Christine bit her lip and bent to the task. The ice storm of a few weeks before had caused a lot of broken limbs and branches to flow or fall into the lake waters. Waves had washed them toward the shorelines before the ice had locked them into its grip. There was a lot of material to choose from, if she could just find a suitable one and get it free of the ice. Spock moved away to undertake the same task.
She had worked her way down the shoreline a bit when she found a particularly large pile of washed up branches. Through the dark tangle, she thought she saw a limb long and straight enough to serve Spock's purpose. As she was tugging to get it free, footsteps crunched the icy crust behind her and she half turned. "Spock, help me with--"
She was whipped around by a rough, strong hand and would have screamed if another hand hadn't clapped itself around her throat, shutting off any sound. A large, fur-clad form towered over her and for an insane moment she thought it was Otarin come back to life. Then she realized it was Korak, the one who had been leading the search party. How he'd gotten down that embankment, she couldn't imagine, but she spared that no thought, for her whole being was seized with absolute terror and the knowledge that she was about to die.
"I'll wear that yellow hair on my belt as a tribute to Otarin, my father," he hissed close to her face, his breath stinking of rotting teeth and a diet of nearly raw, spoiling meat. "And I'll feast on your brains to gain your knowledge of witchery. But first, you'll tell me where the other is. The ratak man."
"The what?" she managed to gasp, trying to draw breath around the grip on her throat.
"The man with you. Whose mother rutted with a ratak and birthed a monster. Where is he?" Korak demanded.
"Right here!" a terrible, rasping baritone thundered. Korak spun to his left -- and was slammed full in the face by a sizeable tree limb swung like a bat, its force driven by all the ferocity and rage of a fever-maddened Vulcan protecting his mate.
Blood and bone exploded from the impact and the Otarak warrior catapulted backwards a good five feet, where he landed spread-eagle on the ice. He didn't move.
Christine staggered and was immediately caught and held by Spock's strong embrace. He was still clutching the huge branch in one hand and she could feel the heat that radiated off his body. The plak tow had erupted within him again, still unresolved following his combat with Otarin, and the way he held her against him made her fear that he was still intent on consummation. His rough breath was nearly a growl emanating deep in his throat, a savage challenge to Korak to rise and come at him again.
But the man lay still and Christine could see now that his face was little more than a dark mass, his features caved in by the massive blow Spock had dealt him. As the realization soaked in that Korak was dead, the Vulcan dropped the cudgel and turned to Christine, yanking her harder against him, groping to feel her body through the layers of fur that separated them.
"Spock, wait!" she pleaded, fending him off, her protest muffled as he pulled her mouth hard against his, bruising her lips, his hot tongue thrusting forcefully between her teeth. The blood fever was burning him up inside and the combination of a victorious combat and the physical presence of his female was driving him to an almost irresistible obsession to mate. He reached down one hand and clawed at the hem of her tunic, trying to get under it, to find the top of her pants. Even through the furs, she could feel his arousal.
Christine managed to wrench her lips away from his and push harder at him. "Spock! Not here! Not now!" A growl rumbled out of his throat and he tried to capture her mouth again, increasingly frustrated with his inability to sate his growing need.
She reared back and slapped him. Hard.
His whole body jerked with the shock. She doubted that she'd actually hurt him but it seemed to snap him awake. He sucked in a huge, reflexive breath of air and then coughed harshly and painfully. For a minute, he leaned his forehead down onto her shoulder, still holding her, and she could feel him shake with weakness as the fever abruptly lessened its grip on him.
"We have to find shelter," she murmured gently, her cheek against his ear, noting that it was like ice. She was freezing. She couldn't begin to imagine what he was going through.
He shivered violently once again and clutched her almost desperately for a moment longer, then straightened, taking control of himself with iron determination. "Get his cloak," he rasped. "We'll need it for the extra warmth."
It took both of them to turn Korak's heavy body over so they could strip him of the huge pelt he wore over his tunic and pants. Christine had no idea what animal had originally owned it, but she guessed it was something the size of a cow. The hair covering it was long and coarse with a thick undercoat of soft downy insulating fur. All she cared about at the moment, however, was keeping her stomach from revolting violently at the sickening smell of unwashed skin, voided bodily wastes, and the metallic tang of blood. Steam curled up from the gaping wound that had once been Korak's face, wafting the odors away on the wind.
Spock worked with tight-mouthed determination, nauseated both by the man himself and the fact that his Vulcan demons had unleashed such violence. The knowledge that he had been the instrument of this man's murder twisted his gut into a painful knot, but he forced the immense guilt behind a screen of cold, emotionless logic that stated frankly the necessity of Korak's death. What he regretted was that he had accomplished the task under the emotional excesses of plak tow and not with the severe efficiency that logic dictated.
It was illogical to dwell on it now and he ruthlessly filed the turmoil into a compartment of his mind, to be dealt with later. After they had rid Korak of his cloak, Spock straightened and said, "Wherever he came down this ridge must not be very far away. However, I do not believe it is possible for us to locate it in the dark. And the snowfall is increasing. We will shove his body up under this brush pile so that it is not easily seen and then we will continue to look for shelter. We must find something soon."
Christine rolled up the bulky hide for easier carrying while Spock managed to get Korak's body out of sight. Then they continued on the way they had originally been heading. After a few moments, Spock stopped and peered hard into the blowing snow.
"I see something," he said. He resumed his slow progress and she followed in his wake. What he'd seen was a washout at the base of the ridge. Wave action during the warmer months had slowly excavated shallow indentations along the shoreline of the ridge, everything from tiny scoop marks to little caves large enough to accommodate a half dozen people. Spock made for one of the larger ones and managed to pull himself up into its shelter. Reaching down a hand, he hefted Christine up beside him and then the two of them huddled close together, spreading the newly acquired cloak around them like a blanket, shielding themselves from the biting wind and thickening snow.
For a while all they could think of was getting some circulation back into their hands and feet, but gradually their combined body heat began to thaw them a little. It wasn't much, just about enough to keep them alive through the night. Spock had begun to shiver so hard his teeth were rattling and Christine pulled him as close to her as she could get him, making sure the hide was tucked snugly around him. Combined with his shivering was the deep, tearing cough that had returned to take him every little while.
He didn't resist her efforts to warm him, his head cradled against her breast like a child. In such close proximity, Christine could feel the heat radiating out of his body and instinct aroused suspicion in her heart. She tucked one hand underneath her armpit for a few minutes to bring it to as normal temperature as possible, then she withdrew it and laid it against Spock's forehead, pushing his tangled bangs up out of the way.
He was burning up with fever and something told her that this had nothing to do with plak tow or his naturally higher body temperature. This was infection, set back into his lungs and rampaging through his body. He desperately needed medical attention and a warm environment, but neither was likely to appear in the near future. All she could do was keep him as warm and quiet as possible tonight and hope for the best in the morning.
Grimly, the thought entered her head that it all would end tomorrow morning ... one way or another. Either they would gain the Stone and make it back to their own time, or they would die in the attempt.
With a sigh, resignation settled over Christine and she felt her fears fall away. She'd never considered herself fatalistic, but there was something rather comforting about accepting one's fate. She felt peaceful for the first time in weeks, probably since she'd first arrived here. Well, if she had to die, then dying with Spock gave her a measure of comfort that soothed and even amused her.
He raised his head from her breast, aware of the change that had come over her. "What is wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing," she answered, smiling a little. "How are you doing?"
"As well as one could expect," he responded then fell silent, peering at her through the darkness. She could see him only as a dark against dark form, faintly outlined against the barely perceptible ambiance of the snow-covered landscape outside. His night vision was more acute and it was possible that he could make out her face. She couldn't be sure.
In any case, he lifted one hand and gently brushed his fingertips across her cheek. "I desire you greatly," he whispered. "Were it possible, I would find a place for us where I could protect you from all harm and where we could lie together as we wished. The plak tow still burns within me. My heart is flame when I think of you."
His hand had slipped around to cup the back of her neck and now he pulled her forward to meet his lips. For a second, her heart pounded in panic that she might have to fight him off once more, but he was in control of himself now. He only wished to kiss her and express his need for her.
When their lips pulled slowly away from each other, Christine leaned her forehead against his, closing her eyes, and slid her now warmed hands up to cover his ears. They were ice cold and she doubted there was any feeling in them at all, something that made her feel irrationally sad. She loved the elegant, alien shape of his ears, the distinctive Vulcan feature that was the first thing most people noticed about him.
"I'm sorry, Spock," she breathed against his mouth, trying to keep tears from forming.
"Sorry? Why?" he asked.
"If it weren't for me, you wouldn't be in this mess," she answered. "You would be safe on the Enterprise and not freezing to death in a hole with a bunch of blood-thirsty savages out for your head."
His hands came up to caress her face, his skin unnaturally hot against hers. "Christine, why do you think it was I who attempted a rescue?" he questioned softly.
That startled her into pulling back away from him slightly, needing to search his expression, but unable to see him in the deep darkness. "I ... I don't know. I guess I'd never thought about it," she faltered.
"Do you truly not know, Christine?" he whispered. "Do you truly not know that part of me would have disappeared along with you? That I would have been incomplete had I not found you?"
Now tears did well up in her eyes and she drew a breath that choked into a sob. For a moment she couldn't speak, then she stated emphatically, "I love you, Spock. No matter what happens to us tomorrow, all I care about is that it happens to us together."
He remained silent for a long moment, as if her words had made him think of the events of the morrow for the first time, then his hands changed position slightly against her face, his fingertips moving into meld position. "Give me your thoughts," he said in a soft, rough voice.
She complied willingly and their bond soared open between them. Gently, quickly, Spock slipped into her mind, the essence of his soul merging and twisting together with hers like twin columns of smoke caught in an updraft. He caressed her with thoughts of contentment and peace, with deep-held emotions, of hopes and dreams that he had not dared to acknowledge -- a life with her by his side, home, family, fathering her children. The last thought flowed smoothly into flame and he swept her into the firestorm of his desire for her, his need to merge their bodies into one, to know her in the heat of passion and desert storms, to quench the searing conflagration of his Vulcan fire in the cool depths of her Earth-born seas.
As Christine gasped and swayed in the meld, Spock gently eased her into a calm, drowsy state, bringing her into a relaxation that was almost post-orgasmic. When she was ready, he moved deeper into her mind, deeper than he had ever gone and at last opened himself to her, pouring out all that he was, all that he had known, all that made up the essence of the being known as Spock.
Christine drifted in a twilight world of wafting images and depthless sensation. As she sank into the deep oceans of slumber, the last thing she recalled was Spock's fingers pressing hard into her face and his dark, velvet voice whispering over and over in her mind, "Remember..."
* * *
Dawn found the two of them almost halfway across the distance to the Time Stone. They had spent a fearful, uneasy night crouched in the little refuge, attempting to maintain some warmth underneath the heavy, stinking hide.
Throughout the night, Spock attempted to keep himself in a light, healing trance, but it proved impossible to do. Not long after they had huddled together in the little cave, both Spock and Christine were startled back into wakefulness by a cacophony of howls and snarls coming from the direction of Korak's body.
Predators had found the corpse and were now in full combat over the remains. Drawn by the scent of blood on the air, creatures the two people could not begin to imagine were fighting over the meal they had found, ripping the body apart and each one battling for a mouthful of meat or bone.
Shaking with fear, Christine hid her face against Spock's chest, clutching at him with barely restrained panic, and tried to block out the sounds of savage destruction. He held her as comfortingly as he was able, himself still wracked by fever and coughing spasmodically, feeling a peculiar sense of despair and helplessness. If the animals should track them to their hiding place, there was nothing they could do to fend off the attack. They were unarmed and vulnerable.
But toward dawn, the night fell back into a snow-blanketed silence. It was intensely cold, still, the air heavy with more pending snowfall. At the first, faintest hint of light, Spock roused his companion from an exhausted slumber.
"Christine, wake up," he said softly, shaking her gently. "It is imperative that we leave here before the Otarak search party returns. We haven't much time."
Drowsy, aching with fatigue, she stretched stiffly and they crawled out of the sparse shelter that the washout offered. Christine dragged the hide after them, insisting that Spock wrap it around his shoulders. He was more susceptible to the cold and the frequency of his coughing had her intensely worried.
They hadn't gone far when Spock suddenly gave a sharp, startled cry as his foot shot out from under him. He fell heavily, twisting his still-splinted left thigh. Christine hurried to help him up. He managed to rise by hanging onto her, favoring his left leg, but she saw his face contorted in pain. "My leg," he said through clenched teeth. "I may have reopened the fracture."
"Oh, God," she murmured in despair. Quickly she ran her hands down over his thigh, pressing and feeling expertly. When she reached the site of the bone break, he involuntarily sucked in his breath with a gasp of pain. She shook her head. "I can't tell if it's the bone or if you tore a muscle when you slipped. Either way, it's not going to support your weight."
"Then you must leave me and make a run for the Stone," Spock said hoarsely, his face set in a grim mask.
She swung to stare at him, her features settling into a like expression of determination. "I will not leave you!" she answered firmly. "We go together or not at all!"
"Nurse Chapel, that was an order," he responded, glaring at her.
"And this is mutiny, Mr. Spock!" she shot back. "I will not leave you! Now shut up and let me think. You need a crutch. There was a good strong limb in that brush pile last night. I was trying to get it out when Korak attacked me. You wait here. I'll be right back."
Before he could protest, she hurried back the way they had come, moving as fast as she could in the barely waning darkness and across the rough ice.
It wasn't far to the pile of branches and detritus. Christine hoped she could find the branch she'd been tugging on or one just as good. As she neared the site, her steps faltered and she slowed to a stop, staring in horror at the scene before her.
The frozen lake surface had been the scene of a carnage, the trampled snow and ice stained red with blood, bits of fur and hair the only evidence left that there had ever been a man's body here. Christine felt her stomach lurch and harshly forced her bile back down. She didn't have the time to get sick. She had to complete her task and return to Spock as quickly as she could.
As she turned to the brush pile, something unnaturally straight and long caught her eye. In the semi-darkness, she couldn't make out what it was, but reached for it nonetheless. Her hand came up clutching a hefty, six foot long, straight sapling, carefully shaped so that its surface was smooth, the end firmly set with an oval piece of stone, secured with rawhide, its edges chipped into razor sharpness.
It was Korak's spear. He must have set it down just before grabbing her. Christine could barely keep herself from shouting. Not only would it serve as an ideal walking stick for Spock, but now they had a weapon as well! Quickly, she retraced her steps back to where she found the Vulcan leaning against the ridge wall, taking the weight off his injured leg.
She didn't need to tell him what she'd found at the brush pile. He'd listened to it happen all night long. Instead, he merely took the spear with a twitch of an eyebrow and they set out into the gray light of pre-dawn, searching for a way up the ridge to the flat plains above, Spock hobbling along, putting most of his weight on the spear shaft.
They hadn't gone far when they discovered Korak's route down the ridge face. During the warmer rainy months, a stream poured over the ridge to the lake, eroding a narrow, v-shaped gully. It was steep and snow-covered now but thick roots cris-crossed it, forming a sort of natural ladder.
Christine surveyed it. "Do you think you can make it, Spock?"
"I have little choice but to make it," he replied solemnly. "I would suggest that I go first and you follow close behind. Should my leg fail to support me, you will be able to assure I do not fall."
"Okay. Let's go."
The climb was torturous on Spock and, by the time they reached the table land above, he was so exhausted that he merely lay in the snow, his eyes closed, gasping for breath. That brought on a devastating coughing spell. Christine bent over him, holding him as steady as possible, certain that he would bruise a rib or burst a blood vessel as he fought for air.
The desperate struggle for breath finally abated when, on his knees and bent double, Spock retched then spat out a big wad of bloody yellowish stuff. Automatically, Christine's nurse's training supplied a diagnosis -- bronchitis, possibly beginning to slip into pneumonia. His lungs were infected, anyway. Worried, she listened to the wheezes and rattles coming from deep in his chest as he inhaled and exhaled. His lungs were filling up again with fluid and mucous.
Oblivious to her study, Spock drew a deep, careful breath and tried to stand, his eyes streaming. He didn't make it the first try but Christine managed to get him on his feet the second time. He leaned heavily on her, his legs visibly trembling. But then he transferred his weight back onto the spear shaft and said breathlessly, "I am all right now."
Like hell, she thought, but she didn't say anything. There was nothing she could do for him.
Together they turned and looked out across the snow covered landscape before them. About a half mile away, the Stone rose out of the plain like a flat-topped pyramid, eroded down to a nub by the passage of centuries. It stood about sixty feet high, its surface pitted and scarred as time worked inexorably on it.
Spock had studied Christine's tricorder readings of it and had discovered its geological nature. It was an immense chunk of granite, possibly what was left of a gigantic lava bomb from a long-forgotten volcanic eruption. Its large gray-pink crystals showed that it had once been molten but had been slow in cooling. The larger the crystals, the slower the lava had lost its heat, and the Stone practically sparkled as the first timid rays of sunlight breaking over the eastern hills behind them struck the facets of its surface. Undoubtedly, this made it magical to the primitive people who lived here, in and of itself. How and why the time warp had become attached to its apex was a complete mystery and one that would need to be studied thoroughly ... provided they made it back alive.
For a bare minute, Spock and Christine stood appreciating its beauty, then he said, "We must hurry. There's isn't much time left."
As if to add impetus to his words, from far across the lake, they could hear the baying of dogs. Just now light enough to see, the village was coming alive and the search party would soon be on their trail. The two fugitives had to make it to the Stone before the Otaraks caught them. In the open, they didn't stand a chance.
They set out for the Time Stone, moving as fast as Spock could go. Using the spear as a walking stick, he soon had set a fairly steady pace, using the weapon to bear the weight of his injured left leg. While he focused solely on his goal, Christine kept glancing behind them, checking on the progress of their pursuers. She didn't like what she saw. Across the lake, she could see two groups of figures, one following the ridge top around, the other down on the frozen lake surface itself, coming around the edge on the ice. Both groups had dogs with them.
And she didn't like the clear trail she and Spock were leaving in the light covering of snow. Once the Otaraks got around to this side of the lake, there wouldn't be any doubt whatsoever which direction their prey had gone.
She looked back around to find the Stone growing steadily closer. Glancing over to check her companion, she found Spock's face set rigidly, his jaw clenched, as he limped along. His breath puffed out in little bursts of fog in the frigid air, but thankfully he didn't cough. She could still hear his lungs rattling, though, as he breathed.
Another look behind her made her gasp and clutch at Spock's arm. "Oh, my God! Hurry, Spock! They've almost reached our trail!"
He spared a quick glance then snapped, "Run, Christine! Get to the Stone!"
Her blue eyes widened with panic. "Not without you!"
"Go!" he ordered again.
"Not without you!!" she cried and quickly slipped underneath his arm, lending her support. "Come on! We can make it!"
With Christine's help, the two began a desperate, shuffling run, covering the final distance to the base of the Stone. As they reached it, Christine felt like flinging herself against its pitted surface and kissing it, but Spock collapsed again into a lung-rending coughing spell.
When he finally caught his breath again, he gasped, "Get on top of it! Hurry!"
Far behind them a burst of distant howling jerked both their heads in the direction they had come. The dogs had caught their scent and they could see dark, stocky forms bounding in their direction. In their wake ran upright, bear-like figures -- the Otarak warriors wrapped in their furs, hot in pursuit.
Spock turned back to stare intently into Christine's fear-filled face. "You must get to the top of this rock! It is imperative that you get back to our true time."
Her eyes were filling with tears, terrified at what she was hearing him say. "I won't go without you, Spock! Together or not at all!"
"Christine, listen to me." He gripped her face urgently between his hands. "If you do not live, then I do not live. Please. If you love me as you say you do, then begin climbing! I will be right behind you. I promise." His eyes held hers in an intent, depthless gaze, speaking volumes, drinking in her features as if it were the last time he would ever see them. Then abruptly he pulled her into an impassioned, fervent kiss, his lips devouring hers with a despair and hunger that made her heart constrict in love and fear.
Then he broke the kiss and embraced her, quick, hard, whispering hoarsely in her ear, "Go! Go!"
He released her, giving her an encouraging little shove in the direction of the rock face and, with an uncertain glance at him, she started up the rough granite surface. In the distance, she could hear the dogs getting closer, rapidly covering the half mile between the Stone and the lake, then, as she climbed higher, she was overjoyed to hear Spock beginning to climb below her.
Once, she paused and made a motion to start back down to help him, but he instantly stopped her, his voice like the crack of a whip. "No! Get to the top! Now!!"
She was nearly to the summit but he had only made it about a third of the way, struggling with his injured leg and shortness of breath. Choking back a sob, Christine obeyed him. Her soul screaming to go to his aid, something in his voice terrified her even more than the prospect of facing the dogs and the warriors' spears. There was a note of frantic desperation there and it told her that he feared her death even more than he feared his own.
And it told her something else. He wasn't going to make it. He was going to sacrifice himself in order to trigger the time device. For Spock, the necessity of her making it back to their own time had become the driving force of his existence. For reasons only he understood, her getting back suddenly transcended all that they had endured, all that they felt. Everything depended on her getting back. Everything.
The icy dagger that realization sent plunging through her heart nearly pushed her over the edge of full-fledged panic. She had no idea why it was so important to him, so imperative, but it spurred her into action. Her vision blurring as her eyes suddenly filled, she looked up and saw her destination just ahead of her. Hot tears cascaded down her cheeks as she began to climb with all her strength, her numb fingers slipping on the icy rock
Just as she reached the summit and hauled herself onto its flat, snow-crusted surface, at the base of the outcropping came the sound of galloping feet, huffing breath, and snarls. Then the growls burst into full-throated roars and the Otarak dogs were upon them.
They weren't dogs, of course, but something more akin to mastiff-sized bears. And now they leapt up the base of the rock, scrambling with extended claws to find purchase on the steep surface and reach the man who was just out of their reach about twenty feet above them. The angle of the slope hampered them but did not prevent their advance. Fixated on the prey now almost within reach, the dogs leapt, dug in, fell back, and leapt again, all the while keeping up a hair-raising noise of snapping jaws and ferocious bellows.
Two or three were literally snapping at Spock's heels now, doing their best to sink their gleaming fangs into his flesh as they scrabbled for a secure hold, and he pulled himself up another foot, kicking ineffectually at the beasts and yelling harshly to ward them off. Here he had no choice but to take a stand. Balancing precariously on the edge of an exfoliation sheet, where the granite sloughed off in its natural weathering, he awkwardly hefted the spear -- Christine had no idea how he'd managed to hang onto it -- and began jabbing at the rabidly slavering animals, a yelp and tumbling body testifying to his infrequent hit. It did nothing to stop the assault, but only infuriated the half-mad creatures into intensifying their attack.
On her hands and knees, looking over the edge of the stone's edge, Christine watched in horror, sobbing in near-hysteria.
Spock exclaimed in alarm as a dog managed to get hold of one of his boots, ripping out a tuft of fur from it as the creature fell back under the battery of the spear point. Even as it did, another dog caught the spear shaft between crushing jaws and wrenched it from Spock's grasp, nearly pulling loose his tenuous grasp on a rock ledge.
Christine couldn't suppress a shrill of dismay that turned into a near-wail as she looked past the pack of baying dogs. The warriors had arrived, loping across the snow covered landscape in a long, tireless, ground-eating stride. Even from her vantage point, Christine could see the triumphant leers on their faces, their yellowed teeth showing through their thick facial hair.
The leader gave a guttural shout that sent the dogs into a frenzy of barking and roars and they all charged up the rock face with renewed enthusiasm.
Spock turned and looked up at her, his dark eyes locking onto hers with an intensity that choked the breath out of her with its strength. And then she was slammed back with a Sending of immense psychic power as he dropped every mental barrier he had and the full force of his intellect, his suppressed emotions, his personality blasted into her mind.
She cried out and grabbed her head, feeling as if her brain were about to explode. It lasted only a couple of seconds, then she managed to drag herself to the edge again and look over it once more. Below her, Spock was straining to reach something just above him, just out of his reach. Struggling to see what it was, she made out a fist-sized outcropping of clear quartz protruding from the stone face. At this angle, the rising sun struck through it with blinding radiance and suddenly she understood.
It was the trigger! The thing that activated the Time Stone. And Spock was doing his best to cover it with his hand.
//Get in position!!// his voice said abruptly in her mind.
But she couldn't move, too frozen with horror at the events erupting just beneath her. As Christine watched, one of the dogs locked its teeth into the hem of Spock's fur legging, yanking him a foot down the rock face, his fingernails tearing as he fought to maintain his hold on the granite, frantic to keep from being pulled completely down.
He managed to shake off the dog and lunged back toward his goal. The dogs scrambled after him, their claws scraping hideously against the stone as they leapt in blood-frenzy after their prey, the warriors below bellowing encouragement.
Spock made a last ditch, supreme effort, hurling himself upward with all his strength -- and his palm closed triumphantly over the protrusion of crystal. The action shut off the sunlight burning through it and instantly Christine felt the world around her begin to swirl.
Time stretched and spiraled, dragging her with it. The last thing Christine saw before blackness took her was Spock being overwhelmed by the pack of bloodthirsty predators and the whole writhing, battling mass of them, man and dogs, tumbling from the rock face and crashing to the base of the granite massif, as her own terrified scream was lost in the frenzied cacophony of snarling, fighting animals and yelling warriors, the shriek of warping time, and a roar like a tornado sucking her up into its maw.
* * *
There was softness underneath her and warmth over her. The air was warm, too, and didn't have the bite of snow or stink of primitive encampments. Birds were singing softly around her and she could sense movement, quiet footsteps that she somehow found soothing. In the background there was a low, constant rush of air and for some reason she found this soothing as well.
She groaned and moved her head, simply accepting that she was no longer in pain or fear, no longer cold or hurt, not thinking, not analyzing. Simply accepting.
Someone's warmth moved close and a gentle hand pressed against her forehead. Then a voice, a soft baritone, familiar and comforting, spoke. "Christine? Can you wake up now?"
She drew a deep breath and turned her head in the direction the voice had come, but she didn't want to wake up. She liked the cosseted, safe state of unconsciousness. Frowning a little, she managed a small noise of denial in her throat.
The hand moved down to her cheek. "Come on, Chris. Time to wake up now. Open your eyes."
She sighed again and managed to get her eyes open a crack, her groggy brain sluggishly beginning to come alive, to recognize and categorize things. McCoy. It was Dr. McCoy bending over her. Of course it was McCoy, she thought. Why did some part of her feel surprised to see him?
He smiled, his blue eyes the same color as the tunic he wore. Not fur. Not tanned hide. Satiny, the light moving across it.
Her mind became more alert and she understood where she was. Sick bay. On the Enterprise. The birdsongs were the chirp of instruments on the bio panel above the bed. The rush of air was the muted background whisper of the warp engines, their power felt more than heard through the fiber of the ship.
She was home. She was safe. She was--
Memory exploded in her like a photon blast and she vaulted up with a cry, seizing McCoy's tunic in both hands. "Spock!!"
Christine whipped around in the direction of the deep, oh-so-familiar voice. And there he was, standing next to Captain Kirk. Calm, hands clasped behind his back, observing her with detached curiosity.
She couldn't help it. She burst into tears, all the terror and heartbreak and struggle of the past several months erupting as if a dam had broken at last. "Spock! Oh, Spock! You're all right! You're all right!" she sobbed, reaching out to him.
The Vulcan merely allowed his brows to lift in surprise, but otherwise he did not move. "Of course, I am all right, Miss Chapel. Why shouldn't I be?"
"But ... but I saw you ... the dogs ... you were..." She trailed off as she watched Spock exchange curious glances with the Captain.
"What dogs?" asked Kirk.
"The ... the Otarak dogs..." Christine looked from face to face in bewilderment.
"Otarak dogs?" repeated Spock. "What are Otarak dogs?"
Christine's head spun, reality whirling out of sync. This didn't make any sense. None of it made any sense. She must still be unconscious, dreaming. Spock was dead. She'd seen him fall to his death, being torn apart by the nightmare creatures. She'd heard the impact of his body thudding into the ground and watched the Otarak warriors leap to finish him off with spears and clubs.
Covering her face with both hands, she began to lose control, her sobs rising into a high pitched keen of elemental grief.
Something hissed against her arm and almost immediately she felt tranquility sweep over her. Gentle hands laid her back against her pillow as the drug took effect. When she took a deep shuddering breath and stopped crying, she found that Spock and the Captain had moved up closer to her bedside, with McCoy across from them.
"That's better," the doctor said, watching the readings on the bio panel. "Now ... do you remember what happened to you? The day of the survey?"
Christine thought back. That day seemed like ancient history, a lifetime ago. "Chekov ... Chekov and I were doing a ... a reading and I climbed up the rock. To get a better vantage point. It was so nice and warm ... sunny ... that I lay down for a minute." It began to come back to her. "The next thing I knew, I was there. I mean I was still on top of the rock but I wasn't where I had been. I don't know if I was in the future or in the past, but I was alone."
A sob struggled up out of her throat and Kirk laid a gentle hand on her arm. "It's okay, Christine. You're safe now."
She nodded shakily, her gaze unfocused, her mind's eye seeing another time, another place. "I waited and waited, but no one ever came. Days went past. Weeks. Months. I learned to survive, found shelter, but I stayed around the rock. I kept hoping..." She gulped. "Finally winter came on and I was thinking I was going to have to move ... find food ... and then..."
She turned her intense blue gaze on Spock's face, making him shift uncomfortably. "Then ... Spock came."
The Vulcan's brows went up again. Kirk glanced at him and demanded, "Come again, Miss Chapel? He what?"
"He came to find me," she answered. "Only he was hurt ... badly. I thought he was going to die."
Spock was frowning, tilting his head slightly. "That is impossible, Miss Chapel," he said softly. "I have gone nowhere. Mr. Chekov and I were doing some test studies on the place where you vanished when you abruptly reappeared. You had only been gone for approximately 24 hours. And yet you relate that you were in your other world for a number of months."
"Time paradox," Kirk suggested. "She was certainly in bad shape when she popped back in."
"How bad?" Christine whispered, looking uncertainly at McCoy.
The surgeon shot a glance at the two other men, then straightened and related in a clinical tone, "Hypothermia. Frostbite. Malnutrition. Bruises. Cuts. Insect bites and something like lice. Internal parasites. And ..." He paused again and sent another hard glare across the bed. "...and evidence of severe sexual abuse."
The specter of Otarin's stinking, sweaty body working over hers, pounding into her again and again, day after day, was almost too much for even the tranquilizer to damp down. Christine's face crumpled and she nearly lost control again.
McCoy patted her arm and walked around the bed. "Perhaps we should continue this later, Jim," he said, pointedly ushering the captain toward the door. "She's gone through a massive trauma. Let her rest."
"All right, Bones," Kirk answered, looking back in concern at the woman lying in the medical bed, wiping tears off her face. "I'll check back later."
Spock started to follow his commanding officer, but McCoy caught his sleeve and stopped him. "I need to talk to you a minute, Spock. Come back in here."
The Vulcan arched an eyebrow but silently followed the medical officer back to Christine's bedside. She had managed to stop crying and looked up at the two men. McCoy addressed them both. "There's something else I found in my examination that you must know."
The doctor stopped and wet his lips nervously, wondering how best to phrase it, then decided to say it flat out. "Chris ... the scans also show that you're pregnant."
Christine drew a sobbing gasp, once more overwhelmed by the memory of Otarin, sweating, grunting, dumping his load of semen into her day after day after day ... filling her with his stinking sperm ... impregnating her ... his monstrous offspring growing in her now ... consuming her ...
She clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming and squeezed her eyes shut, a fresh bout of tears running down her face.
Spock stared at her with obvious concern, then looked back up at McCoy. "Indeed. Unfortunate. But I fail to understand why you should tell me this and withhold it from the Captain."
McCoy gripped his arm and leaned closer, his voice an intense whisper. "Because the fetus is Vulcan, Spock! I double- and triple-checked the DNA scans. It's your baby! Christine is pregnant with your child!"
Spock stiffened and pulled away, staring hard at the doctor. "That is utterly impossible, Doctor," he stated in a icy tone. "I have never had the slightest hint of sexual dealings with Miss Chapel. You are mistaken."
"I am not mistaken, Spock! You can run the tests yourself if you don't believe me! I don't know how, but Christine is pregnant with a healthy male Vulcan embryo, apparently conceived during the time she was in that other time period! And it is yours!" McCoy hissed. "Right down to the artificially created chromosomes that the Vulcan geneticists engineered to make your cells viable! They're there! They were passed along during sexual reproduction! Now, how?! You tell me how?!"
Spock was glaring stone-faced at this surgeon. "I do not know 'how', Dr. McCoy. I only tell you that it is physiologically impossible."
"And I'm telling you--"
"Oh, God..." Christine sighed, interrupting the argument. Both men turned to stare at the woman who had been almost forgotten for a moment. She was resting both hands on her abdomen, a smile of relief quivering across her face. Tears were still leaking between her lashes, but they were tears of joy now. "Oh, thank God..." she said again. "It's Spock's... Oh, thank God ... Spock's..."
Disconcerted, the first officer turned to face the blonde woman and at last he spoke, his voice soft. "Perhaps you can explain this to us, Miss Chapel."
She looked up at him, her face suffused with a disbelieving hope, of the impossible made possible. "It is your baby, Spock," she whispered.
Spock stared at her for a long moment, then turned to McCoy. "Doctor, could you leave us for a while? I believe I should speak with Miss Chapel alone."
McCoy hesitated then nodded. "Of course. I'll be in my office." He glanced at his head nurse and then stalked out of the medical ward.
Spock drew up a chair and sat beside Christine "Perhaps you should tell me what happened."
Haltingly, speaking softly, she told him the whole story, from the night he had appeared atop the Time Stone, through the harrowing days that followed in Otarin's camp, through nights in which they at first shared only body heat and finally the heat of love and passion, to their last desperate flight from the vengeance-crazed Otaraks.
When she had finished, he stood and began to pace, his head down, hands behind his back. At last, he came back to stand beside her. "An incredible tale," he commented. "But one I might tend to believe except for one major flaw -- how could I have traveled to that other time, fathered a child on you, and then died ... when I obviously have not left this time?"
"I don't know," she answered, saddened. "I only know that it happened." Then she brightened and looked up at him. "I can prove it happened, Spock. Mind meld with me. See for yourself that I'm telling the truth."
He hesitated, taken aback at her request. It was not that he had never shared thoughts with another -- indeed, he had become quite adept at it -- but to meld with her... The idea made him decidedly uncomfortable, afraid of what he might find, what might happen, if he bared his psyche to her as was necessary during a meld.
She understood his reluctance and gazed up at him with mute appeal in her soft blue eyes. "I won't hold you to anything, Spock," she said quietly. "No matter what you discover. Not even the child. But you have to know."
He blinked and she could see the apprehension fade from his dark, fathomless eyes. He dropped his chin in an acknowledging nod and walked toward her bedside, kneading his hands together in preparation. Then he bent over her and reached to place his fingertips into position on her face. "Open your mind to me," he instructed her in a soft, dark, velvet whisper.
The sensation of his touch, of his large, strong hands upon her once more, sent Christine's heart rate soaring and her thoughts leaping unbidden to the night in their lodge when he had first come to her, the night of thunder and lightning and crashing emotions. Again she experienced the joining with him, mentally and physically, as they merged their souls into one, even as their bodies molded together in flame and joy.
She felt his surprise now at the memory and he almost withdrew from their current meld, but then he pushed on, reliving the endless days and nights they had spent together. He experienced her struggle to keep him alive, the violence and violation of Otarin's rapes, the shame and humiliation she felt, coupled with the determination that she save Spock's life, no matter what. And then came the happiness as the two of them snuggled together in their fur nest, warm and momentarily secure, lost in love play and each other's minds, bonding their hearts into one.
Christine felt Spock pause uncertainly here, surprise and revelation becoming evident in his psychic touch. He examined these memories with the lightest of strokes, unsure of himself or the emotions he felt from his shadow self.
Then he moved onward to the battle, the flight across the ice, the night spent in the little cave, each memory drawing him deeper into her mind, probing into the darker recesses of thought.
Abruptly, wrenchingly, he broke the mind meld and fell back away from the bed, staring at Christine with shock painted across his features, such naked emotion that he didn't bother to hide it for a long moment.
Christine sat up in alarm. "Spock! What is it? What's wrong?"
All the blood had drained from his face and he seemed to have trouble catching his breath. Then he got control of himself, although obviously still shocked. "Why didn't you tell me all of it?" he finally managed to say.
"I did," she answered.
He shook his head. "No. You left out one very important part. Why didn't you tell me what I ... he ... what happened your last night together?"
She wracked her brain but could find nothing that she had left out of her story. "I told you everything. Everything that I can remember, anyway."
He nodded and approached the bed once more. "Yes. All that you remember. But you did not remember enough."
She was beginning to feel frightened. "What are you talking about, Spock?" she pleaded. "What happened just now?"
"I went deep into your mind," he whispered. "And I met myself there."
"Christine, you hold my katra within your mind. The other Spock. My counterpart. He must have known he would die there and he transferred his katra ... his soul, if you will ... into you as his Keeper. He must have reasoned that, if you made it back, there was a chance that you would be able to, in the very least, return it to Vulcan and the Shrine of the Ancestors."
She was shaking her head. "I don't understand what you're talking about," she answered, trembling, but then understanding flooded over her like a crashing wave on a beach.
That was the reason Spock had been so adamant that she make it back at all costs. That was what he meant when he said, "If you do not live, I do not live." She carried his living soul within her. She was his savior, his courier. His body might die, but his knowledge, his experiences, all that he knew and was ... the essence of the man would be salvaged.
She looked up into the face of that same man standing over her now, his features once more composed and calm, but with depthless dark eyes troubled and searching. "I don't know what to do, Spock," she said in a barely audible voice, choked with tears. "You have to tell me what to do."
His eyes never leaving hers, he eased himself onto the edge of her bed, facing her. "I must take it back," he answered in a like voice. "It is part of me. I must be whole again."
She nodded shakily and closed her eyes, lifting her face up a bit, ready to open herself once more to his powerful, seeking thoughts. She felt his fingertips press into her face and then he was filling her, overwhelming in his strength and force of will. Gently, quickly, he moved down the neural pathways and sensory trails, deep into her brain, unerringly returning to the buried psychic bundle that was himself.
Time slowed into nothingness, her consciousness lost in a drifting netherworld something like sleep, only the bits and snatches of dreams that moved past and through her were not her own. They were phantoms of another life, another being, told in a language she did not understand, suffused with intense emotions, rigid discipline, heartache that would never know release, yearning, denial, solitude, sadness. And an aching gentleness, an unfulfilled need. A voice saying softly, "I'm sorry. I am sorry" because he wanted to love her but could not, must not love.
Then she was suffused in a warmth that took her breath away, a roaring inferno of rage and lust and need ... and she stood at its center, not its originator but its cause. And she felt herself wrapped in dancing flames that nuzzled and caressed her naked form, but did not burn her, that kissed her hot and intimately, but lit her from inside with incandescent radiance.
It was his unresolved plak tow, the fever and fire in his blood seizing upon her once more, inflaming his urgent need for her, the instinctive, undying hunger to unite with the mate of his heart and to make her his for all time. It was a promise, a vow to her, a reaffirmation of a bond they had made in the midst of terrible honesty and sacrifice on both their parts. And the radiance of that renewed bond bathed Christine in the glorious heat of desert suns and shimmering vistas. There was no more ice, no more snow, no more frozen hearts or hands, simply the heat of ignited love.
Christine came back to herself with that heat pressed hard against her and found herself enfolded in the firm embrace of the man she had left behind at the base of the time rock. He was holding her with the desperation and relief of a man who had been lost and was suddenly found, who had come upon remembrance and redemption where he had least expected it.
"You are home now, Christine," he murmured into her hair. "We are both home. We can both begin to heal now."
"Oh, Spock," she smiled, snuggling her cheek into his, tightening her hold on him. "That's the best medicine I could possibly receive!"