Disclaimer: Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the property of and is copyright (c) 1984 by Lynda Carraher. Originally published in Saurian Brandy #36), Sylvia Stanczyk, editor. Rated PG-13.

Reflections of Honor, Part 2

by

Lynda Carraher

-----VII-----

A dull ache woke in James Kirk as he opened his eyes. He accepted it with resignation as an old acquaintance, if not exactly a friend. He knew its dimensions and its depth and its insistence quite well by now. It had been his constant companion for months, ever since the day…

No, he decided. He would not dwell on that. He would permit the ache to gnaw at him in those moments when there was nothing else to occupy his mind, but he would not allow it to consume him, as it had threatened to do in those first few days.

He got up and began preparations for the day’s duties, wishing McCoy was still on board. Bones had been his rescue in those first horrid days after the Nyhie incident, but Hirayama’s tour was over, and Bones gone with it – reluctantly, true, but gone all the same.

Kirk had sensed that McCoy could easily have been pushed into asking for active duty again, but he would not do that to his old friend. Bones had begun a new life, and seemed happy with it. He had given enough to the demands of Starfleet duty, had lost enough of his life in the sterile embrace of a cold silver mistress called Enterprise, and Kirk could not ask him for more. He had to learn to live with himself, by himself; to accept that two of the most important people in his universe were gone because he had not acted on his instincts nearly three years ago in that ruined house on Vulcan.

Bones could do all the rationalizing he wanted – Kirk was not God, not omniscient; Lara was a sentient adult and thus fully entitled to choose her own path, as was Spock; Kirk’s reaction to Nyhie’s attack had been the only possible response… Yes, Bones, I know. I know. But still…

The day’s business held no attraction for him. The Federation could have accepted Vulcan’s formal petition for re-entry without every available starship in attendance. He would much rather be out mopping up Republic hold-outs, or throwing the power of the Enterprise against the still-active Romulans.

There would be time enough for that later, the admiralty had pointed out to him when he voiced his objections. It was politically expedient that as much Starfleet brass as possible be present for the acceptance of Vulcan’s petition. Any skimping on Starfleet’s part would have made it look as though it was an act of surrender by the Vulcan High Council, and any hint of that would have collapsed the whole intricately-wrought façade.

He smoothed the final closure on the dress uniform and decided to skip breakfast. It would never do to appear at the ceremony with toast crumbs under his neckband or egg yolk on his sleeve.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

It was every bit as painful as he had known it would be.

Everywhere he looked, there was a smooth, dark head bent in courteous attention, the elegant line of upswept ears, a set of strong, long-fingered hands, a pair of lean shoulders set just so… Everything he saw and heard brought him an agony of recognition – a sudden soaring of spirit, followed by the ugly realization of inescapable truth.

He listened to the grand speeches, the formal, careful movements of this surrender which must at all costs never seem to be one, and heard not a word. He watched as the senators were introduced one by one, and blinked back tears when Sarek’s name was called.

At the reception afterward, he purposely avoided entering the line of uniformed officers who formally proceeded down the rank of Vulcan dignitaries, knowing he could not face Spock’s father without breaking down completely. He had seriously considered leaving directly from the open plaza where the ceremony had been held, but knew he could not do so without drawing undue attention to himself. Somewhere in this building, he thought, there must be transport booths where he could depart in privacy, if not particularly in dignity.

He was searching for one in the maze of corridors when he heard his name called, and turned to see Amanda coming toward him.

“Captain Kirk! I thought that was you.” There was kindness in her tone, and a true note of welcome. Somehow, that was worse than accusation.

“Amanda.” He took her offered hand, swallowing down the thickness in his throat.

She gave him a curious look. “Are you unwell, Jim? Vulcan can be a bit overwhelming, I know.”

He could not believe she was saying these things – slipping back into the easy familiarity she had adopted when he had been a guest in her home once, eons ago, lifetimes ago. The horrible thought struck him that she didn’t know – didn’t know she was holding the hand of her son’s murderer. The thought made him feel abruptly ill, and he dropped her hand.

She frowned then, and reached up to touch his face. “You’re not well! Come, sit down.” She pulled him to an unpadded bench along the wall. “Let me get you some water.”

He caught at her skirt. “No, Amanda. Thank you, no. It was just – the shock of seeing you again.” She sat next to him, still questioning. “Amanda … I’m so sorry. About Spock. He, of all people, should be here today.” That was enough. He would not – could not – say more.

“Yes,” she agreed briskly. “He should indeed. But you know he hates being fussed over. And he’s had more than his share of that since he came home, what with—Jim? Captain!”

It was no wonder she was shocked – he was laughing and crying at the same time, hugging her exuberantly and then releasing her as he jumped to his feet.

“He’s here? He’s all right? Oh, God, Amanda – I thought he was dead! I thought – oh, it doesn’t matter now. Where is he? Can I see him?” He was babbling, and he knew it, and didn’t care. Six months of guilt, of agonized self-recrimination, were gone and he was like a coiled spring suddenly cut free – out of control and reaching heights he’d never dreamed.

He grasped both her hands and pulled her to her feet. “Lady, I could kiss you! I think I will!” And he did – a joyous smack on the cheek that drew forth a startled gasp and then a wry chuckle as she stepped back and tucked an escaping strand of hair into her coiffure.

“Young man, you had better restrain yourself. Here comes my husband, and he hasn’t killed a man for making a pass at me in ages.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

Ages it seemed indeed before he could get it all explained to them and they located a comm booth to let Spock know he was coming. He felt an absurd urge to weep again when, standing out of the unit’s pickup range, he saw his friend’s face and heard that familiar and well-loved voice.

Amanda had broken the news to her son, who displayed only a raised eyebrow at it. Kirk could not bring himself to use the comm – he wanted their meeting to be private, and trusted neither his voice nor his face to behave properly in public.

He hailed a skimmer and urged it on until they were within a quarter-mile of the house, when the panic hit him. He ordered the driver to stop, and got out. If the driver was at all nonplussed by his passenger’s behavior, he did not show it.

Kirk stood on the neat path, and felt the uncertainty rise in him. What would he say; what kind of reception awaited him? He was … frightened. Petrified at the thought of meeting this man who had been brother, compatriot, friend. The realization angered him, and he walked the remaining distance propelled by that anger. It ran out on him as he passed through the front gate, and he stood sweating and scared under the hot white sun of Vulcan.

The chaos and ruin of the courtyard the last time he’d been here had been replaced by careful cosmetic work that hid the scars of ShiKahr’s strife. New plants and slender stripling trees flourished about the repaired fountain, and both the houses wore unmarred outer coats. He had not thought to ask which house.

There was a movement at the doorway of the older, larger dwelling, a sudden darkness in which a darker form stood silhouetted. Like a bird hypnotized by a snake, like a robot answering some electronic summons, he moved toward the doorway, thinking, Meet me, dammit! Come halfway! Do something!

And at the last moment, he did. He stepped through the doorway and across the flagstones with his hand out. Kirk didn’t know later how he’d made that last step. He knew only the warmth of the handclasp and then the sudden, startling embrace, and the sound of a husky voice saying his name.

They broke apart, mutually embarrassed as only strong men can be when emotion grabs them by the nape of the neck and shakes them till their souls rattle. Then they were inside, with the door closed behind them and seated facing each other across a low game table littered with chessmen.

Kirk began, his voice still ragged. “I thought … oh, Jesus, Spock. I thought you were dead. On the Nyhie. And that I’d done it.”

Spock’s eyebrow climbed, and he almost smiled. “I am very glad I am not. Was not.”

“I should have known it wasn’t you. He came right at me – right down our throats. Jesus.”

“Jim,” he said softly, “your deity had very little to do with it, I think.” He met Kirk’s outstretched hand and clasped it in his own. “It is very good to see you, my friend.”

“Yes,” was all he could manage, and he knew he’d been right to avoid the cold and impersonal comm booth.

Spock released his grip and clasped his hands together on the table, very contained, very Vulcan. “I presume … Lara … did not beam down with you.”

Kirk’s joy came crashing down about him. There were no words in him to say what must be said. “No.” He didn’t elaborate.

Spock sensed something amiss, and thought he had found it. “She would not wish to come, I suppose, if she thought--” He broke off. “Lara would have known,” he said slowly, as if explaining it to himself. “Through the bond, no matter how much… She was not with you when you destroyed the Nyhie, was she? And she is not with you now.” There was no question in the tone.

“No, Spock, she isn’t.” He reached for the Vulcan’s hand; found only emptiness. “We think… oh, dammit, Spock, she was on a hospital base the Romulans raided. There were no survivors.”

“No.” It was not a plea, not a denial. It was a simple statement of fact.

Kirk reached again, still found nothing. “Spock, I’m sorry.  We just don’t know--”

“She is not dead.”

Kirk was stunned into silence. That Spock, of all people, would refuse to accept an ugly fact…

“Just as she would have felt my death through the bond, so I would have felt hers. She is not dead, Jim.”

Kirk came to his feet, sending the table and the chessmen spinning. “Then where the hell is she? You sit there calmly and tell me she could have survived the carnage I saw on that base! I saw it, Spock – and it still makes me want to vomit every time I think about it! So don’t tell me you have some inside link to a dead woman. If she’s alive, where is she? Use that magic link, dammit, and tell me!”

The look Spock gave him was filled with infinite patience, infinite compassion. “I do not know. I only know she is alive.”

How, dammit?”

“Sit down, please, Jim. Shouting will not change the facts.” Spock righted the table and picked up a pawn, toying with it as Kirk sat.

“I’m sorry, Spock. It’s just … I don’t know. Everything went straight to hell. Lara wouldn’t stay on the Enterprise – because of me. She reactivated her commission, and wound up on that hospital base. I didn’t hear about her until just a few minutes before the Nyhie attacked us. For six months, I thought both of you were dead. Now you’re not, and the first thing you want to know is what happened to the life you entrusted to me. Then you tell me she’s not dead, either. Deal it out in smaller doses, will you?”

“I shall try.” He spoke slowly, the hands that worried the chess piece telling how difficult it was for him. “When a Vulcan man and woman bond … in marriage … a very deep link is formed. Its purpose is to ensure the wife’s response when her mate … enters pon farr. There are other … uses.” The pawn tumbled slowly between his hands, its jade hue nearly the color of his skin. “When the physical distance between the pair is close, they can feel each other’s pain, or fright, or need.”

Kirk nodded slowly. “The way you did on Banus, when Lara was looking for that baby. And later on Parsus II, when we were looking for you.”

“Yes. I should have known Lara was not with you, from before – when I intervened in that Romulan attack. She was already gone then, wasn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“I could not find her fear. I thought…” He trailed off. Some things could not be discussed. Not even with this man. “There must be a certain … proximity, as I have said, for the emanations of fear, or of pain. But death … no, Jim. When two Vulcans are bonded and one of them dies, the effect is shattering. There is no mistaking it.”

“Lara isn’t Vulcan,” Kirk said softly.

“And I, only half. This is true. But we bonded, just the same.” The pawn changed hands again, twisting in its fall. “We shared … I shared … I had access to her emotions almost constantly, whether I wanted it or not.”

Kirk squirmed slightly in the chair, feeling the color rise in his face. He’d assumed as much, long ago, but to have Spock admit it to him…

Spock went on quietly. “I have no doubt that we share a link nearly as deep as two true Vulcans. I would know, Jim; believe me.”

“But where is she?

“If it was Romulans who attacked the base--”

“It was. We have some of the early-warning tapes, and there were some Romulan weapons recovered from the site.”

Spock met his friend’s eyes, and his fist closed slowly around the pawn as he spoke. “If Lara is alive – and I am convinced she is; and if Romulan forces attacked that base – and you are convinced they did; then she is somewhere within the Romulan Empire.”

-----VIII-----

Lara was asleep when the sirens went off. The screaming incorporated itself into the fabric of her dream, and she could not understand why Jim hadn’t shut the alert klaxons off, because everyone was at the proper battle station. She told Spock to make Jim stop the noise, but he looked at her calmly and began pounding the desk-top with his fist.

Then, suddenly, she was awake with the sirens blaring painfully in her ears and a muffled voice coming through the door, which shook with someone’s frantic blows.

“Doctor Merritt! Wake up! We’ve got trouble! Doctor Merritt?”

“I’m coming.” She grabbed her robe and yanked the sash tight as she pulled open the door. Kettring, the ward orderly, grabbed her arm and jerked her into the hallway. “What’s going on?” she demanded.

“Those are attack sirens. We’re supposed to evac everybody into the underground levels.”

She allowed him to pull her down the corridor as other night workers were roused and hustled away by day personnel. “This is a hospital base!” she insisted numbly.

“Yeah, well, somebody didn’t get the message. Come on! Christ, you sleep like the dead.”

You sleep like the dead.

It was a phrase she would remember.

She had been helping evacuate non-ambulatory cases when the building she was in was hit, plunging her into black unconsciousness. When she came to, she found herself under the body of the patient, with someone’s blood drying on the front of her robe and harsh voices in her ears. The weight of the dead man was suddenly gone, and she was yanked up by one arm, staring into the Vulcanoid face of a scowling, helmeted man.

She was pushed and pulled and shouted at in an unintelligible language that sounded remotely Vulcan, herded together with perhaps fifty people in a crazy mix of medical staff and support personnel and ambulatory patients, dematted in a poorly-balanced mass transport beam and rematerialized so abruptly that it was hours before she could do anything but sit very still and try not to vomit.

When she could move again, and think, she found that no one knew any more than she did. There were about 200 of them, as nearly as she could estimate, in a large, bare room whose floor vibrated slightly. Not a warehouse, then, or any building on a planet. But whose ship, and why, and who the others were, she didn’t know.

She found Kettring, unconscious in his own filth, and turned him so he wouldn’t choke, and tried not to panic. There was a rumbling sound, and she turned to see wide doors opening. A line of helmeted, uniformed men stood across the doorway, and what she at first thought were weapons revealed themselves to be hoses. The icy water knocked her off her feet, but it carried away the filth left by those who hadn’t had the sense – or the experience – to wait out a bad transporter ride quietly.

The water began to drain away through grilles in the deck, and she thought of Kettring as the doors closed again and warm air poured into the huge cell. The force of the hoses had carried him, along with three others who had been unconscious, to the far wall. All four were dead, drowned in the six inches of water that had flooded their prison. She collapsed against the bulkhead, pulled Kettring’s still form across her lap, and waited for screaming hysteria that did not come.

She had no way of telling time, and she knew that large portions of it disappeared in sleep or delirium or hysterical catatonia. Either by design or because their captors breathed a different atmosphere then Humans, the oxygen content in the room was critically low. Movement brought dizziness, logical thinking brought sleepiness. At one point, another three dozen prisoners were beamed aboard en masse, and they went through the transporter-sickness period and hosing-down process again. Two people drowned in that one.

There was food of a sort delivered to them, and she found toilet facilities in one corner of the vast room, though many of the prisoners were too ill or disoriented to use them. She helped drag the two bodies to the food-delivery door, where they were removed at the next mealtime. She wondered who had performed that service for Kettring, where his body was now.

From talking to some of the others, she began to see a pattern. Members of the last group beamed aboard had been on a hospital transport ship; the others had been on hospital bases. All told the same story of attack and abduction, and the former patients confirmed her suspicions that their captors were Romulan.

She was in the first group to be transported off the ship; disoriented as she was, she could not tell whether it had been a matter of days or of weeks. When she rematerialized, her body told her she’d been held in transit for too long. She tried to explain that to the soldier who pulled her off the pad, but he didn’t understand or didn’t care, and she had the small satisfaction of fouling his uniform as she gave way to nausea again.

He snarled at her and thrust her through a door, and for the first time in uncounted days, there was some semblance of reality in her world again. It was a room scaled for people, not cargo, and it held an armed chair, a desk-console with a second chair behind it, and two Romulan men who were clean and well-fed and actually smiling kindly.

One of them – the younger – led her to the chair and gave her a clean, damp cloth. As she washed her face and hands and tried to clean the caked and smelly robe, he fastened webbing across her ankles, took the cloth away, and repeated the process with her arms.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said softly. “I know you have not had a pleasant journey, but you have nothing to fear now.”

He crossed the room to sit behind the console, and the second man approached her. “We have only a few questions, so you may be processed here to everyone’s benefit. It is very important that you tell us the truth, and you will not be harmed. What is your skill, please.”

Lara looked at him in stupefied shock.

“Come now, my lady, you must have a skill.”

“I’m a ditch-digger,” she snapped, and something inside her head exploded, sending torrents of pain through her body. She realized she was screaming, and choked the sound off, humiliated, as the waves of pain receded.

“Please do not lie again. It is most unpleasant for all of us. What is your skill?”

“I’m a physician.” She tensed against expected pain, but it did not come, and her questioner did not miss the reaction.

“You see? We do not harm you, or cause you needless discomfort.” He sat on the edge of the desk. “What is your name?”

She was tired, so tired. And dirty. She could smell her own rank odor. All they wanted was her name. If she told them what they wanted, perhaps there would be peace for her. She would tell them, yes. Her name. Her whole name, the one she used on legal documents and for solemnly formal occasions. Was this a solemnly formal occasion? She could not remember.

“Your name,” he repeated, and she took a deep breath so she could get it all out right, the way they wanted it.

“Larissa Federikovna--”

The door flew open and a squarish man burst in, jabbering excitedly in Romulan. The two men exchanged glances; her questioner gave a brief nod, and the younger man left with the intruder.

The older man, the one who had been questioning her, crossed the desk to sit behind the console. “I apologize for the interruption, Dr. Kovna. Things are a bit unsettled here,” he said, studying a screen hidden from her view.

She pushed back giddiness from a mind racing with sudden possibilities as the seconds ticked by and she was not assaulted by the excruciating pain. They were not infallible!

“What is your specialty, Doctor?”

She tried to will her reluctant brain to logical thought. What would be the least useful skill to these men?

“Obstetri—” She broke off as the pain struck her again, the convulsive arching of her body straining against the restraints. When it ended, she slumped against the webbing, breathing hoarsely.

“Dr. Kovna, you are doing this to yourself. As long as you are within the verifier’s field, any purposeful falsehood you voice will cause you pain. Tell me your specialty, please.”

“May I have some water?”

“Certainly.”

She wanted water less than she wanted a few seconds to nurture the rebirth of rationality in her thoughts. There would be no more lies – she did not think she could endure another punishment like the last. Yet partial truths did not seem to activate the verifier. Something told her any information she could withhold from these men might conceivably be of help to her.

He held the cup to her lips and smoothed the tangled hair off her brow, a touch that filled her with a revulsion she forced down. “Now,” he said, when he was again seated at the console, “your specialty.”

“At the hospital base, I worked in the burn ward.”

“And before that?”

“I originally specialized in viral mutations.”

His attention went from the screens to her face with a snap that disturbed her deeply. “I see,” he said. “And why did you change?”

“After … hostilities broke out, there was a much greater need for clinical practitioners than for researchers.” The half-truth passed without punishment.

“Of course. I have just a few more questions, Doctor.”

The other things he asked her were routine and seemingly random queries about her general background. After a few minutes, a Romulan woman – the first she had seen here – entered, apparently in response to some hidden signal.

“Thiera will show you to your accommodations now, and issue you some clean clothing, Doctor Kovna.” As the woman knelt to release the restraints, Lara could not resist a question.

“What is my status here, please? Am I a prisoner of war?”

He looked at her with the kind of solemn regret she had sometimes seen in Spock, and the unbidden comparison chilled her. “My lady,” he said softly, “in times such as these, are we not all … prisoners … of war?”

His response, and her unwilling comparison of this stranger to her husband, disturbed her deeply. She was little comforted by the man who spoke to them after the evening meal. A group of fifty, some of whom she recognized as physicians from her own hospital, had been given a formal dinner in a candlelit room, windowless, as were all the rooms she had thus far seen.

He introduced himself as Jernall, commander of the facility. “You are guests of the Romulan Empire,” he said graciously, the candlelight making the lines on his face look like deep ravines in sere earth. “We regret the necessity which brought you here, and hope it will soon be possible to return you to your comrades and families. The speed with which that is accomplished depends, of course, entirely on your own Federation command. While you are with us, you will be accorded all courtesies due your status.

“Tomorrow, you will be shown which areas of this facility are open to your use. Please do not attempt to leave them. It is necessary that much of this facility be off limits to you, and I am sure you understand that.

“It has been our experience that many of you will have received training in escape procedures. Please do not attempt to put that training into use. This is an underground facility on a planet whose atmosphere is deadly to you. Should you manage to leave the protected area, the result would be fatal. The only transportation to and from this facility is accomplished through dematting, which works much like your Federation transporters. And the only demat receivers in the area are on board Romulan vessels. Your welcome there, should you somehow achieve dematting, would be less than friendly.

“Now, I am sure you are all weary after your long trip. Your rooms await you. For your own safety, do not leave them after you have been escorted there. Good night.”

As the group left the room with half a dozen Romulan escorts, one of the doctors Lara had known on Starbase 16 fell into step beside her. “Somehow, I don’t feel very reassured,” Kurt Petersen muttered.

“Me, either. Listen,” she said, keeping her voice low, “do me a favor. As far as our hosts know, my name is Dr. Kovna, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

He gave her such a sharp look that one of the Romulans stepped in front of them, scowling. “How--?” Petersen began.

“Later,” she said, forcing a disarming smile at the guard. He gave both prisoners a sharp look but took no further action and Lara wondered whether he was there to monitor their conversations, or merely to break them up.

She did not for a moment believe Jernall’s insinuation that their presence here was merely one of the unfortunate vicissitudes of war, or that Federation cooperation had anything to do with how long they would be detained. Jernall, or someone up the chain of command, had a very specific use in mind for them, she was sure; and whatever it was would surely benefit the Romulan Empire far more than anything or anyone else.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

For three weeks, nothing happened. Nothing. She slept, ate, exercised rather desultorily in the facility provided for them, traded speculation and medical trivia with the others – who all seemed to be doctors, from one facility or another – and tried to pull her mind and body together after the nightmare flight that had ended here.

It was late one evening – or what passed for evening in the artificial rhythm of her prison – that she had a caller. It was Damann, the Romulan who had first questioned her, and who had frequently checked on the prisoners’ needs in the weeks since. He spread his hands in a gesture of harmlessness when she opened the door.

“Dr. Kovna, I am sorry to disturb you, but we have a problem.” When she didn’t answer, he went on, not making any attempt to enter her room. “Some of the Humans who came here with you have fallen ill. We have no one on our staff qualified to treat them. Would you--”

“I can try,” she said, anticipating his request. It was not as if they were Romulan patients, after all. And it would break the monotony. “Although I don’t know how much I can do without proper equipment.”

He looked a bit chagrined. “My lady, I have to confess – and I hope you will hold this in confidence … your Federation is far advanced in terms of medical expertise. Most of our equipment is patterned after your own.”

Patterned after? she thought, when she saw the lab he led her to. It was lifted right off that hospital transport they attacked, or I’ll eat that anabolic protoplaser! Even the pharmaceuticals and the synthesizer were Federation issue, right down to the labels. She did not point it out to Damann. Doubtless he knew precisely where the equipment had come from, but if he wanted to think she was deceived, she would allow it.

The four patients in the ward he showed her were not just ill – they were deathly ill, and she was furious at their condition. “Damann, this is disgraceful! Why was someone not summoned earlier?”

Again, that apologetic look. “My lady, we are a proud people. It is most … difficult for us to admit there are skills we do not possess. I will tell you another confidence. Commander Jernall will be most upset when he finds we have requested your assistance. If I should appear in the dining hall tomorrow in a green tunic--” He gestured at her own prison uniform. “--you will know he has discovered my actions. Do you Human physicians not swear an oath--”

“Forget about my oath, and get out of my way, Damann. I have work to do.”

Lara did not realize how much she had missed clinical practice until she began treating the three men and one woman given to her care. She settled in without a second thought, setting up coolant pads to reduce fevers, taking blood and tissue samples and vital signs, trying to determine what was wrong.

Where the infection source had come from or whether it was contagious, she couldn’t yet determine. To be on the safe side, she made a quarantine sign and hung it on the door, and chased away a curious guard a few hours later with such force that Damann appeared minutes later, obviously rousted out of bed.

She refused to let him in, gesturing through the door glass to the comm unit on the wall. “I don’t know what they have,” she told him through the intercom, “but it may be airborne – contagious. Contact your own medical staff and have them set up whatever decontamination procedure they normally use – they’ll have something established. Meanwhile, nobody comes in here and nobody goes out.”

“But, Dr. Kovna, you must eat, and sleep--”

“When I’m tired, I’ll sleep. When I’m hungry, I’ll let you know. Meantime, I’m busy. And nobody comes in here. Nobody!” She was surprised at the wave of satisfaction that swept over her as she shut the comm on his protests. Even in bondage, private rebellion was possible, she decided, and returned to work.

Much of it was waiting. Tests took time, standard treatments had to be begun and watched for effect, and changed if no improvement was forthcoming. None was.

It was like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together while wearing a blindfold. She had no idea of their medical histories, no inoculation records, and for the moment all she could treat were the symptoms. Even those, with the patients comatose, were general and vague. High fevers, occasional spasming of the muscles in the back and thighs, and enough evidence of past vomiting that she set up intravenous saline drips for each of them, to ward off dehydration and to try to keep some semblance of electrolyte balance. Then there was nothing to do but wait for something to show up in the tissue cultures.

The woman died early in the morning, as sounds in the hallway told her the base’s personnel were beginning another day’s duty. The answer – or at least part of it – showed up in the post-mortem. Brain and spinal cord tissue showed severe inflammation of both external and internal membranes, hallmark of any one of several varieties of meningitis.

She was looking at the slides and trying to remember long-ago lectures on the subject when she heard the door of the ward open. Angry that the quarantine had been violated, she stalked into the ward. Damann and a guard, both wearing isolation suits, were carrying a stretcher.

Damann didn’t wait for her to start. He just explained there were two more cases of illness and handed her an isolation suit.

“I’ve already been exposed, Damann. And they’re hot to work in.”

“I am not a physician, Dr. Kovna, but I believe some diseases are more communicable in the early stages. And these two are not yet so sick as the others.” He stepped away from his companion and touched the security channel control on his suit microphone. “I regret having possibly endangered you this much, my lady. If you should fall ill, I should be desolate.” He gave her a slightly sheepish grin. “I should also find myself reassigned to the sanitation crew on a battlefront cruiser, according to Commander Jernall.”

She tried to remind herself that this man was an enemy, and could not. In truth, she was beginning to regret having volunteered so incautiously; the idea of becoming a patient herself held very little appeal. “Tell you what,” she said. “You get me a computer tie-in to whatever Human medical data you have, and I’ll wear the suit.”

He gave a half-bow, and something inside her churned at the familiarity of the gesture. “You drive a hard bargain, Dr. Kovna. But I shall see what I can do.”

Apparently, the medical data bank from the starship had been lifted right along with the terminal, for she found a relatively full response to the questions she asked it later. The inflammation of both the dura and pia mater had given her the first clue, and the computer’s data backed up her guess. Vegan choriomeningitis – or something very similar – was the prime suspect.

For her three original patients, there was very little she could do. Prompt treatment – within 24 hours of appearance of the first symptoms – was critical. But for the two new arrivals, there was hope. She programmed the synthesizer for the antibiotics she wanted, and injected the two newcomers. Then she called Damann.

“I need some nursing help.”

“Dr. Kovna, it is not possible.”

“Don’t tell me that! There were over 200 prisoners on the ship that brought me here, and I know for a fact that some of them were nurses. I want at least two – four would be better.”

The comm unit she was using had no screen, but she could hear his hesitation. Finally, he said, “Only the physicians were given separate quarters. There is a high probability that all the nurses have been exposed to the ailment.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Look, I know what this thing is, and if it gets loose on this base, you’ll have more trouble than you’ve ever thought possible. Everyone here needs to be inoculated, and I can’t do it alone. Have your own people do it if you don’t trust me. They can tap into my medicomp for the information.”

“I will pass your recommendation to my superior,” he said coldly.

“I still need nurses here. The patients I have need constant monitoring, or I’ll lose every one of them. The original ones are beyond my help already, I’m afraid.”

The hesitation was longer this time. “You may have to consider anyone already infected as expendable,” he said at last, “and concentrate on the preventative inoculations you mentioned.”

“That’s inhuman!” she said, unthinking. When he did not respond, she realized what she had said. “I’m sorry, Damann. But if you have your own people handle the inoculations and provide me with some nurses--”

“I said I would relay your recommendations, Dr. Kovna. But some things are beyond my power. If you would like to be relieved of your task, I would understand.”

She felt sick. Not in the way her patients were sick, but in the way she had felt when the concept of triage had first been explained to her – in some situations, one simply had to eliminate treatment of patients whose recovery was unlikely, and spend one’s energies on those who had a chance for survival. The idea had been abhorrent to her then, and it still was. But to just quit… There were still other lives to be considered.

“Dr. Kovna?”

“I’ll stay, Damann. But, please, try to find me some nurses.”

He broke the connection without answering. And there was no recovery for any of her patients. When the two for whom she had the most hope died, post-mortems showed an inexplicable difference in the infecting bacteria. By that time, five new patients had been delivered, and this time she started with spinal taps, wanting a look at the bacilli before she started shotgun treatment.

She tried five different compounds in the end. Four of them failed. Heartened by the success of even one, she used the treatment on the next group of patients carried into her ward, only to lose each one of them. It was maddening. Each time she thought she had a handle on the problem, the bacillus appeared in a slightly altered form. Caught up in the research that kept hitting brick walls, working alone with inadequate sleep and hasty meals that were inevitably cold when she got to them, she found herself functioning in a remote, uncaring daze. The men and women who kept appearing in the ward ceased being sick people in need of treatment; they were only sources for tissue samples so she could begin trying to catch and identify the elusive, mutating bacilli.

The days blurred; she lost track of them. She might have been an automaton on some assembly line, or a besotted fortune-hunter chasing some malignant rainbow whose pot of death kept dancing just beyond her reach. It might have gone on forever, had she not caught her isolation suit on the corner of her desk and ripped a 10-centimeter hole in the fabric.

She shut herself in the lab and called for help. Damann’s voice was calm and rational in response, and she remembered suddenly that there was a world outside the lab, outside the ward; someplace where people did not sicken and convulse and die. Someplace where she could nurse her own beaten soul before it, too, died.

“I want out,” she told him flatly when he brought her a replacement suit.

He studied her carefully through his own mask. “Yes,” he said. “You’ve done enough, my lady.”

She was too numbed by fatigue to be surprised at the decontamination booth he led her to. She simply submitted to the procedure, put on clean clothes for the first time in memory, and allowed herself to be led back to the room she’d left so long ago. She was too tired even to consider the tray of food waiting there; all she wanted to do was sleep forever.

She couldn’t, of course. Eventually – how much later, she was unsure – she did wake up, stomach growling, sleep center sated. She had slept long enough for the food on the tray to solidify into an inedible mass.

She went prowling for something to eat, and was two full steps into the dining hall before she realized it was full of Romulan soldiers. She plunged out, some level of her mind mildly amused that she could still be panicked by a gathering of uniforms, and collided solidly with another figure in the hallway.

“Lara?” Without the voice, she would never have been able to identify Kurt Petersen. The robust dandy was gone, replaced by an unkempt and bearded scarecrow.

“My God, Kurt, what’s happened to you?”

He managed a weak grin. “Damn near everything.”

She realized, suddenly, how long she must have been isolated, and now it seemed vital to learn what had happened to the others. She glanced quickly up and down the temporarily empty corridors and grabbed his hand. “Come into my room, Kurt. I need to talk to you.”

Once there, he sat on her rumpled bed and looked hopefully at the tray, scowling when he realized the state of its contents. “Damn,” he said. “Can’t this little conference wait? It’s been so long since I’ve had a real meal that my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”

“Believe me, you don’t want to go into that dining room. Half the fleet’s in there.” She sat across from him in the room’s single chair. “Kurt … what’s going on? You look so … have they been mistreating you?”

He managed a dry laugh. “Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid. No, I did this all to myself – The Doctor Galahad Syndrome. You know – the dedicated, self-sacrificing young physician, locked in mortal combat with the forces of death and disease.” He made a face at his own facetiousness, then sobered. “After we’d been here two or three weeks, Damann came and asked me if I’d treat some of our people who’d come down with something particularly nasty. Y’know – he’s really not a half-bad fellow – for a Romulan. Anyway, I got caught up in this thing. You know how it is. There’s never a convenient time to stop and eat, and it’s such a hassle to decontaminate and go back to quarters that you end up sleeping in the wards…” He trailed off.

Lara felt a cold chill, and then anger. If the two of them had been permitted to work together, relieve each other, pool their findings… She passed her tongue over suddenly dry lips. “Meningitis?” she asked.

Petersen had been idly scratching at his beard. “What?”

“Was it meningitis?”

“No. Wish it had been – that, I can treat. No; it was some kind of anthrax.” He rubbed at his beard again, and she saw memories of rage and frustration flicker over his face. “Lara, it was the damndest thing I ever ran into. Every time I thought I had it nailed down, it changed on me. I’ve never seen so many spontaneous mutations. And they wouldn’t give me any nursing help … they just kept bringing in cases ... it was hell.”

She sat frozen in the chair, her mind racing, searching for some reason behind this madness. One outbreak of deadly disease, she could accept. But two? Or more? She thought of all the doctors who’d been in her elite little group of prisoners, and how she hadn’t seen any of the patients or nursing staff that had accompanied her on the ship … or had she? Hadn’t there been a patient here who looked familiar? A wasted, pale face that might have been identifiable, if she’d only taken the time to look… And Damann … so kind, so thoughtful. And everything he’d done had backed her into a tighter and tighter corner.

Petersen was speaking to her, reaching out from some vast distance to touch her arm. “Lara? Are you all right?”

She drew a deep breath. “Kurt,” she said slowly, “I think we’ve been had.”

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

Damann brought her food tray in the morning. She was glad; it saved her the trouble of trying to track him down. She glared at him from across the room, furious.

“What kind of hell-hole are you people running here, Damann?”

“What are you talking about, Dr. Kovna?”

“I’m talking about human guinea pigs. I’m talking about spontaneous mutations that aren’t spontaneous at all. I’m talking about the bill of goods you sold me to get me to play along with the plan! Is this why you people raided hospital bases to begin with? To get experimental animals for your little games?”

He set the tray down carefully and moved to stand between her and the door. “You are overwrought, my lady. I should not have permitted you to spend so much time treating those poor individuals--”

“--that your people purposely infected,” she finished. “How many nasty little germs are you playing with here on the Experimental Farm?”

Damann’s solicitous manner fell away; she wondered how she could ever have seen anything of Spock in him. “You are very clever, Dr. Kovna. Now I suppose you will make some dramatic statement about how you will no longer be a party to preparations for germ warfare. Spare me, please. Dr. Petersen has already played that scene this morning.” He removed a communications device from a pouch on his belt and opened a channel. “Send a guard to transfer Dr. Kovna to the subject barracks,” he said. He put the device away and picked the tray up.

“I am grieved by your cleverness, my lady. You were one of our most promising researchers, and I quite looked forward to reading your reports as you logged them in your computer. We were confident that when we created a mutation even you could not treat, we would have a supreme weapon to turn loose on Federation home planets. Now, I fear, you will simply become … what did you call it? A … guinea pig … I believe.”

He stood aside to permit the guards to enter. “Goodbye, Dr. Kovna,” he said as they took her away.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

She looked around the drab dormitory and cursed her own stupidity for the thousandth time. What had she thought to gain by her attack on Damann? That he would give her a medal and free passage home?

She’d had free passage, all right – a one-way trip to a grey-walled holding pen, where she would wait with forty other women until someone chose her body to play hostess to death. She wondered what had happened to Kurt; what would happen to her. How long would they let her wait, thinking each time the door opened that someone would point at her and motion her to follow?

It happened late on the second day. The square, swarthy guard who made the seemingly random choices picked her out of the dinner line and prodded her down a hallway. In spite of her resolution to be calm when it happened, she felt the cold sweat gathering on her skin and the pressure fluttering like a netted bird in her chest.

The guard stopped at a bright blue door, opened it, and pushed her inside. A man stood with his back to her, and she had a moment’s mad image of herself leaping at him, striking out, doing anything but going quietly to slaughter, and then he turned.

It was Selek.

She felt as though she had been hit in the chest, and she grabbed the back of a chair for support, her vision blurring. Spock’s son, here…

“It is you,” he said. “I thought so, when I saw you in the dining hall, but they told me your name was Kovna.”

She fought down panic. “A slight misunderstanding,” she said, surprised that she could talk at all.

“And a most fortunate one. It would have been most embarrassing to your husband to find you a prisoner of his allies. It might even have been fatal for him.”

“What are you doing here, Selek?”

“My duty, as a member of the Republic-Empire alliance. Things became boring on Vulcan after you left, and there seemed to be many more opportunities in the service of the Empire.”

“You’ve never served anyone but yourself.”

He smiled, and the coldness of it frightened her more than anger would have. “You are very perceptive, Aunt. Or should I say Stepmother? It becomes rather confused.” He crossed to where she stood and kicked the chair out from between them. “I think we need not bother clarifying that relationship, since we have a new one now – owner and property.”

She backed away, but he lunged after her, and she fell, twisting out of his grasp. She fought him grimly, silently, remembering the last time, in the cellars of B’al Graai. But here, there was no weapon with which to strike out, no Spock to respond to cry or thought. There was only one hundred pounds of Earthwoman pitted against a battle-trained Vulcan male. The outcome was never in doubt.

He did not take her then; he only proved, graphically and painfully, that he had the power to do so any time he liked. When he let her up, they were both scratched and bleeding. He tossed her the ragged remnants of her prisoner’s tunic.

“Cover yourself, woman. We go to my ship now.” He pulled his communicator from a sealed pocked and ordered dematting for both of them, without bothering to see if she had complied.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

The journey was something she was never able to remember clearly, and she accepted that blurring as merciful. There was a tiny cabin – apparently Selek’s rank was not so high as his reference to “my ship” might have led her to believe, but he did rate private quarters.

When it was obvious that the door was going to remain firmly locked, and that everything in the room was either securely bolted down or made of plastiform, she spent most of her time asleep, safe from herself in unconsciousness. Selek returned only to demonstrate her subjugation in an unending series of sexual assaults that ranged from sheer brutality to carefully planned and exquisitely cruel cat-and-mouse games. Then he would sleep heavily, arise, prepare himself for another day, and leave again.

One day he brought her a dark, shapeless garment that reached to mid-thigh and brusquely ordered her to dress. “We are leaving,” he said.

She remembered the Romulan eyes that watched her from the corridors of the ship as they walked to the dematt booth, and how they were replace by new eyes, equally dark, equally curious, as they rematted.

She had seen enough military bases to know when she was on one; had seen enough of military life to know from the degree of deference offered Selek that he was a middle-ranking officer – a Lieutenant-Commander, perhaps, or whatever the Romulan equivalent was. And she had seen enough military housing to recognize the dark and poorly-built quarters to which he unceremoniously hauled her as housing benefitting his rank.

The first night, she ran.

She wriggled out from under the arm that pinned her between Selek’s bulk and the peeling wall, put on the dark dress, tried unsuccessfully to pry open the storage locker where he kept his weapons, and ran barefoot into the darkness.

The base was quiet, locked down for the night. There was activity only near the airstrip, far across the compound; in the rumble of a garbage crawler as it scavenged the bins; and at the main gate. She hugged the pools of darkness, slipping from one to the next with an animal stealth she did not know she had. She knew better than to simply try to walk through the perimeter. There were no walls, only four-meter tall towers spaced at ten-meter intervals. But the scorched grass and the drying bodies of small rodents told her the towers’ force field was deadly.

She crawled into the spiny shrubbery just out of the circle of light at the gate, and waited. The sounds of the crawler were the only noises in the night, drawing slowly toward her and then fading away. Finally it approached the main gate, the stench of old refuse hanging about it like a fog.

It stopped in the circle of light, and the driver got out to walk into the guardhouse. She sprinted for the covered bed, hauling herself up over the tailboard by fingernails and scraped toes and raw determination, slipping into the bed as the crawler began to move. She refused to consider what she might be standing in. She only knew it stank and felt slippery under her feet.

The crawler rounded a curve, slowing as if for a climb, and the guardhouse disappeared behind the shoulder of a hill. She vaulted over the tailgate and dived into another patch of the spiny shrubs. When the vehicle’s rumble had faded, she took a moment to orient herself, and then she began to run.

It took Selek four days to find her. In that time, she learned that the base stood in an uninhabited desert, marked by gullies and clumps of thornbush and an occasional pool of stagnant, bitter water. She learned that the leaves and smallest stems of the thornbushes were edible … almost; and on the fourth day, she learned she could catch a lizard with her bare hands and eat it raw.

She learned one other thing. She learned not to run.

Selek did not come alone. The punishment he had designed for her began as soon as they had run her to ground, and it lasted throughout the rest of that day and far into the night. There was cessation only when her new captors found themselves temporarily out of virility or imagination. They had a great deal of both.

When they returned to the base, Selek beat her into semi-consciousness and locked her in a closet. When he finally let her out two days later, she knew she would not run again. Ever.

-----IX-----

Kirk stood alone on the observation deck, looking out at the stars. He knew he shouldn’t be there – looking out across the vast distances made him realize just how futile their search was – but the place held a fascination for him that he could not shake.

He passed a weary hand across his face and sat down in one of the chairs. If you had any sense, you’d go to bed, he told himself.

Actually, he corrected, if you had any sense, you’d take that admiral’s star and Earthside post Nogura’s been dangling in front of you for six months, and leave the mopping up to someone else.

But he’d seen this war start, and he would see it end, all from the bridge of the Enterprise. Whether they ever found Lara or not, he could not walk away from this particular unfinished task.

He really should go to bed, he knew. They’d jumped a Romulan light cruiser late that day, and he was feeling the bone-deep, battle-bred exhaustion that always came from making too many crucial decisions too fast; from buying his life and his crew’s lives with the blood of other beings who were momentarily designated “the enemy”.

Maybe it was time to hang it up. A man could be on line only so long, and then he burned out. Sometimes he took a lot of other people with him when that happened.

He heard a politely-cleared throat and turned to see Spock standing behind the row of chairs. It still gave him a jolt to see the Vulcan here, but out of uniform. He remembered the strings he’d pulled to get Spock observer status to begin with, and wondered if he’d ever be able to pay back all the favors he’d called in for that caper.

“Sit down, Spock. How’d you know I was here?”

Spock settled in beside him, watching the slow dance of the starfield through the plasteel port. “I believe some of the crew have begun referring to me as ‘The Bloodhound’. Is it not that creature’s function to find things?”

Kirk felt a twinge of anger, mixed with guilt. It was he who had first used the term, in trying to explain why he wanted Spock on board. The official title settled on was “Locator”, since part of their mission was to try to find the Starfleet personnel who continued to vanish from attacked hospital ships and bases. He wished he’d never drawn that particular canine analogy, though; he should have known someone would pick up on it.

“I’m sorry, Spock. I’ll let it be known that I don’t approve--”

“It is of no importance. I thought it might amuse you, or I would not have mentioned it.”

“Nice try, Spock. But I’m afraid not much amuses me any more.” He opaqued the viewport. “What’s on your mind?”

“Lieutenant Uhura has been able to obtain a directional fix from the record beacon ejected by the Romulan ship. The transmission is directed at a star system within our patrol sector.”

He nodded and pushed up from the chair. “Okay. I’ll authorize the course change. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Spock considered pointing out the fallaciousness of that statement, and decided against it. The two men still trod very carefully around one another, and neither was fully comfortable with the gentle teasing that had marked their former relationship.

He sat quietly after Kirk left, staring at the opaqued viewport. He did not need to clear it; did not need to see the starfield to know the immensity of his task … their task.

That was one thing they still shared.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

For three days, they followed the path pointed out by the brief burst of signal from the Romulan’s record beacon. The star system resolved itself into a white dwarf with six planets, two of them habitable. On the fourth day, as they began to sort data on which of the two M-type planets would be the more likely choice, the matter was resolved for them.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, a squadron of tiny intrasystem fighting ships appeared, peppering the Enterprise’s shields with blasts from every direction. Surprise was their biggest weapon; that and sublight maneuverability. Enterprise took out three of them before her shielding began to overload and Kirk ordered them to warp out of the system. The fighters, lacking warp capacity, could not follow.

The maneuver did not particularly please Mr. Scott. He was torn between the desire to “go back an’ teach those insolent puppies a lesson” and his realization that the defense systems of his beloved ship had been strained to the danger point by the attack.

“It’s all right, Scotty. We’ve got what we need, anyway. There’s something the Romulans feel is very important on that third planet.”

Uhura, also in on the briefing, frowned. “Captain, what communications I could monitor appeared to be directed at the fifth planet.”

He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. “That’s right.”

“Then why--” Sulu asked.

“Sulu, did you ever do any grouse hunting?”

“Sir?”

“Grouse-hunting. In the nesting season, or before the young can fly. You can always tell where the nest is, because it’s in the opposite direction from where the hen flies. I don’t know if the Romulans have grouse… but I know if I had a base and nothing but those little fighters to protect it, I wouldn’t jump up and yell ‘Here it is!’ the first time an enemy ship stumbled into the system. I’d feint, and call for help. Which is why we’re going to take a little closer look at the third planet.”

He felt even more sure of it after the fighters jumped them again on the next try. When they warped out again, Kirk had his plan ready.

“I don’t think we can risk a beamdown, even if we had a scan of the layout – which we don’t – because we also don’t know what kind of intruder alert system they have. But the transporter would be the fastest way to get us – and any prisoners – out. Scotty, can you convert the cargo transporter to take large numbers of people safely? And did you get the bugs worked out of that shuttle-adapted cloaking device?”

Though the Romulan-designed cloaking device had largely been abandoned on ships of the line because of the power drain at warp speeds, Scott had insisted it was still a useful tool on shuttles where invisibility to sensors might be needed. And to that end, he had been working for months on an adaptation to do just that, and was delighted with an opportunity to field-test it.

“Aye on both counts, sir.”

“Rig it for the Columbus then, and we’ll go down that way. Mr. Spock, Mr. Chekov, Mr. Sulu, and whatever security team is on top of the roster will be assigned. Oh – make one of those security men O’Bannion. Isn’t he the one that transferred over from covert ops?”

“That’s the one, Captain.”

“Good. If there are no prisoners there, maybe we can still pick up some information on Romulan movements and tactics in this sector. Whatever’s down there that they’re so anxious to keep us out of should prove to be interesting.”

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

It didn’t look particularly interesting, at first. Columbus was making tedious scansweeps of the surface from an 80-kilometer orbit, and had found only a great deal of desert, a few landlocked seas, and three apparently active volcanoes. Other than that, nothing.

Kirk was beginning to get a little nervous. What if he had outsmarted himself? He looked back at Spock, sitting directly behind Sulu’s pilot position, with a questioning expression on his face. Spock caught the look and shook his head slightly.

Nothing. Kirk wished he had more confidence in Spock’s insistence that Lara was alive somewhere; that they could use the link to track down the missing personnel, now numbering over five hundred. Spock wouldn’t lie … not about this. Not to him… But suppose he was wrong? Suppose he was Human enough to delude himself into believing something he wanted very much to believe?

“Captain, I’m getting a power reading.” Sulu’s voice yanked him back to reality, and he looked at the screens. “There – on that high plateau on the sub-continent. See it?”

It was gone almost before it registered, but a second sweep confirmed it.

“Doesn’t look werry big,” Chekov said from the seat behind Kirk.

“Wouldn’t have to be, for a P.O.W. camp, or maybe a supply base. They’re pretty far off the beaten track, and not very well defended, so it’s probably not a major staging area.” Kirk turned back to Sulu. “Where’s the terminator?”

“Less than an hour away from this longitude, Captain.”

“Okay. We’ll wait it out. You can use the time to pick us a landing site within hiking distance. After it gets dark, we’ll set her down.”

The long twilight of the desert had deepened to black, and the first moon was just rising when they made planetfall. The security team drew straws to see who would ferry the shuttle back to the Enterprise as the other six crept into the darkness.

Kirk had never particularly enjoyed commando raids, but this was one exploratory trip he wasn’t going to miss out on. Before they left the landing site, Spock had pulled him aside. In the moonlight, the Vulcan’s face had an ashen pallor, the skin drawn taut over the bones of his face, his eyes unreadable pits of blackness.

“Lara is here.” He nodded in the direction of the base, a blue-white glow over the rim of a hill.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Spock hesitated, and Kirk had to resist an urge to shake the answer out of him. “The link … is very weak. Altered.” He touched Kirk’s shoulder in a rare gesture. “Jim,” he said softly, “you may not be pleased with what we find. But you must accept it.”

Kirk tried without much success to shake off the foreboding Spock’s words had caused, as they crept to the darkest part of the base’s perimeter. Things were not yet settled for the night, and they sought shelter in a gully while waiting. Sulu and Spock came back from an exploration of the perimeter with the news that a force field with an apparently deadly charge surrounded the base.

“Can we divert it long enough to get through?”

“Not in the time we have available with the equipment at hand, Captain,” Spock said. “We have three options – to take out one of the towers, which would surely result in a general alarm; to locate and disable the base’s primary power source, which would give us the advantage of darkness; or to enter through the gate, which would mean a direct confrontation with the guard.”

Kirk didn’t like any of the options; somebody was liable to get hurt any way they played it.

“I’d like to get in as quietly as possible. That means the gate. Blowing that power source could be a good cover for getting out if we need a distraction. We’ve got some time to work with; let’s spend it on those two options, and on picking our targets.”

He had estimated two hours; it was closer to three before they were ready. A central, windowless building looked to be the most likely spot for handling large numbers of prisoners. They would concentrate their efforts there, with Chekov and one of the security men detailed to stand by at the power plant. He made a last-minute check with Scotty to see that the transporter was ready and waiting. It was.

“Phasers on maximum stun,” he ordered, and they moved.

The first moon was near setting; they would have slightly less than twenty minutes before the second one rose. They went over the crest of the hill cautiously and slithered down, six creatures of darkness.

Two sentries stood at the gatehouse, talking in low tones. Kirk could feel the sweat of tension pasting his shirt to his ribs and back. The sentries parted, one of them walking back toward the compound with his weapon slung carelessly across his back. The second stood for a moment in the gatehouse, speaking into a comm unit on the wall, and then settled down with his feet on the desk, munching on a large brownish-green fruit.

Kirk gave an almost imperceptible nod, and then inched closer. A rock tossed into the shrubbery at the base of the guardhouse pulled the sentry’s attention away from his snack; as he stepped into the night to investigate, the beam from Kirk’s phaser knocked him down on the spot.

A quick tricorder check confirmed the gateway was free of the deadly force field, and they moved forward swiftly, hauling the guard’s unconscious body into the chair and propping him upright. They filtered through the darkness, aiming for the main building, when Spock stopped suddenly, his face a mask of strained concentration.

“No,” he said softly.

“Spock?”

“She is not there – not in that building.”

“Where, then?”

He nodded toward a row of raw, angular buildings, none of them much larger than an officer’s cabin on board the Enterprise. From one of them, light filtered through the window coverings.

Kirk halted the group, “Change of plans,” he announced softly. “Spock and I will check out that place with the lights; Sulu and O’Bannion, you take the big one. If you find any prisoners, signal me and beam everybody up after you’ve taken out any guards. If there’s no one in there – O’Bannion, that’s your department. You know what we’re looking for and where to find it. Chekov and Walz, go on to the power plant. If we need it blown, somebody will signal you. If the power goes, everybody get out fast. Otherwise, wait for my signal.” He checked out the faces, an almost talismanic ritual of his. So far, everything had gone well. But they were still a long way from home. “All right, move out And good luck.”

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

“K’nand-ti,” Pragnyn said, playing his last tile. The other men at the table voiced varying degrees of disgust as Pragnyn raked in the pile of credit chips.

Selek was not happy with the turn of the tiles, but he was not happy with much these days. He called for another round of drinks, and watched as the Earthwoman brought the tray out carefully. That much was good, at least. He’d made it very clear to her, before the k’mand-ti players arrived, what would happen to her if she misbehaved in front of his friends.

He didn’t really expect any problem, though. The woman had been very quiet lately; too quiet, in fact. She no longer fought him with the white-hot hatred she’d once possessed, and that diminished his pleasure considerably. Most of the time lately, it was like bedding a corpse. When the game ended – if it ever did – he would try the technique Klavat had told him about this afternoon. Klavat got the idea from a procurer in Trankket, who claimed it would put the spirit back into the most jaded goods. Once was all it took, he claimed; most of his girls were so petrified by the thought of a repeat performance that they became extremely amendable to any suggestion made to them thereafter.

Yes, he would definitely try that. He grinned and felt a pleasant anticipatory twitching in his groin at the thought.

“Selek, are you in this round or not?” Pragnyn asked.

“In.”

“Then pledge.”

“I pledge.” He took a five-credit chip from the basket near his hand and tossed it into the pledge pile as Pragnyn pushed the ten tiles to him. The basket was nearly empty; his luck tonight had been terrible. It was probably the Earthwoman’s fault. He had been ill-at-ease for days at the thought of having the knives his guests always carried brought into the same house with her. Selek was extremely cautious with his weapons, keeping them all under lock, even his boot-knife. Except tonight, of course. He’d sooner be publicly flogged than to have his companions know he normally went bladeless at home because he couldn’t trust his woman.

“Selek, are you playing or not?” Klavat snapped.

He stood the game tiles on edge, one at a time, then turned them face down again, suppressing a smile. Good. Four power tiles, two voids, and a sweeper. With a selection like that to play, and three miscellaneous losers to lead, he should take the round easily. He checked the board, played a loser, and began to concentrate on the round.

One by one, the play moved around the table. After the first circle, Klavat dropped out, and each of the remaining players pledged again. By the end of the third round, Selek had played all his worthless tiles, and his chip basket was empty. Pragnyn led a power tile, as did Chambra, and Selek touched the first void, which would give him the advantage.

“Pledge,” Pragnyn snapped as Selek picked up the tile.

“Carry me.”

“No.”

“Pragnyn, you know I’m short. Carry me; if you win this round, I’ll work your training drill tomorrow.”

“No.”

“I’ll carry you,” Klavat offered, reaching for his chip basket.

“We agreed before – no carrying.” Pragnyn was adamant. “Pledge or yield.”

Selek fumed. He had drawn the best hand of the evening, and all he needed was 35 credits to stay in to the end. “Be reasonable,” he cajoled.

“I am always reasonable, Selek, We did, however, settle the rules before we began.” The old warrior coughed delicately and drained his glass. “Tell your woman I am out of skarn.”

She came into the room at his summons, and Selek was struck by an idea. “Pragnyn,” he said carefully, "I have a pledge, if you will accept it for all the rest of this round.”

“Let me see it.”

“It just filled your glass.”

Pragnyn watched as the woman moved away and Selek grabbed her by the wrist. He considered the foam on his skarn. “And if you lose the round?”

“Then I forfeit my pledge, and you have a new bed-warmer.”

The older man snorted. “That one? She’s so skinny I’d cut myself to ribbons the first night!”

Klavat grinned. “There’s more there than you think, grey-beard. I was with Selek when we brought her back from the desert, and I know.”

“I want no runner.”

“She won’t run,” Selek said firmly.

Pragnyn wavered. “I like to see what I’m getting,” he said.

Selek turned to Lara. “Disrobe,” he said in Vulcan. Her chin came up at that; it was the first word she’d understood in the whole conversation.

“Disrobe,” he said again, nodding to the grizzled elder across the table from him. “Pragnyn wants to see what he thinks he will win.”

She pulled back, cheeks blazing, understanding now what their conversation must have been about. Selek came out of his chair and slapped her. His powerful hands caught at the neckline of the dress and ripped it away in one quick motion. She gasped and tried to turn away; he grabbed her by the hair, and suddenly the room became chaos.

The lights went out as the front door crashed in; she heard the sound of breaking windowplast and the crash of a table being overturned. There were shouts, punctuated by the bright stab of a phaser bolt, then another. Selek let go of her, and she spun crazily across the room, tripping over Klavat’s unconscious form. She struck her cheekbone on the sole of his boot, and felt the skin split open. As she reached up to brush the blood away, her fingers stumbled onto something hard … the hilt of his boot-knife.

She focused for a moment on the gleam of the hilt in the darkness, her concentration an island of calm in the melee around her. Then suddenly, all the rage and humiliation of the past six months boiled up inside her. She drew the weapon from its sheath, and its weight in her palm filled her with a growing sense of power.

Klavat was first – he of the thornbush switches and the tweaking fingers. She slit his throat as he lay there, feeling the warm blood cascade over her hands, and began to laugh softly at the simplicity of the act.

She came to her feet, exultant, slashing out at anything that moved. Her knife connected with something solid; she twisted in and up, inflamed by the man’s scream. She recognized Selek’s silhouette as he turned toward her, and she lunged for him with the double-edged blade held low, feeling her blood sing as his flesh ripped open under its kiss. She burned with power, and fell with him as he collapsed, striking again and again, losing herself in the rhythmic rise and fall of the blade.

Someone grabbed at her from behind, and she whirled, slashing out with a roar. The form backed up, fell, and she moved in for the kill. Then there was a firm touch on her neck. And then there was nothing.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

Kirk knew there was a needle in his arm, knew it before he opened his eyes. He didn’t want to open them; he didn’t like needles. But awareness was coming back, and with it the memory of his last conscious moment.

The power plant had been blown just as he had decided he was going through that window, lights or no lights – when the big man in the Romulan uniform had grabbed Lara by the hair. Then the lights did go out, and Spock went crashing through the front door as he dived through the window, and everything became a blur of phaser shots, falling bodies, and the demon with the knife. She’d slashed him across the arm seconds before he fell, and if Spock hadn’t been there…

He refused to think about that, but his mind continued to replay the scene – the beam-up, reforming on the pad, trying to shut off the bleeding as bright red arterial blood spurted from his arm, the medical team crashing through the doors, a glimpse of Lara’s naked, blood-smeared body as they transferred her to a gurney and pulled a blanket over her. He didn’t want to remember any of that.

He surrendered to the present instead and opened his eyes. M’Benga was watching him. “How do you feel?” the black man said.

“Shitty. Why the needle?”

“Only way I know to get blood back inside people. And opening up a 20-centimeter gash tends to let quite a bit out.”

“Is everybody all right?”

“They will be. With the possible exception of Dr. Merritt.”

He started to sit up and found both arms in restraints. “You’re not going anywhere,” M’Benga announced, “and neither is she. If I have to sedate you, too, I will.”

“How is she?”

“Sedated, like I said. And she’ll stay that way until we get to a starbase, if I have my way.”

Kirk studied M’Benga’s solemn face. “Spill it,” he ordered.

“She came around in the treatment room and went completely berserk. She decked Chapel with the instrument tray and came after me with a pair of surgical scissors. When Spock tried to stop her, she threw a basin of disinfectant in his face – he’ll be all right, but that stuff was not made to go in the eyes. By that time, there were three orderlies in the room. One of them has a broken nose, one has about half his thumb bitten off, and one of them’s going to be singing soprano for a week.” He shook his head slightly at Kirk’s barely-concealed grin. “It’s not funny, Captain. Dr. Merritt is apparently still locked up in her very own hell, and I don’t know if we can get her out of it or not.”

Kirk breathed a soft curse. “Maybe Spock can--”

“Ab-so-lute-ly not. I know what you’re thinking, and I won’t permit it. If he were to link with her, the condition she’s in, we could have two maniacs on our hands. And one of them would be a Vulcan. No thank you, sir.”

“He’s already linked with her, Djo. That’s how we found her.”

“You mean the marital bond?” He stopped Kirk’s question by reminding him that Vulcan medicine was his sub-specialty. “That alone is one reason for keeping Dr. Merritt out. That and her general physical condition.”

“Which is?”

“Not good. She’s severely malnourished, for one thing. I did an extensive examination when we finally got her sedated, Captain, and it’s no wonder she cracked. There are classic indications of extended periods of the worst kind of abuse you can imagine – general as well as sexual. She has a hairline fracture of the jaw, several broken and rehealed ribs, an abdominal hematoma the size of my hand, lacerations of the--”

“That’s enough, Djo. I don’t think…”

“Yeah. I know what you mean. It’ll all be in my written report, anyway. I wouldn’t advise you to read it on a full stomach.”

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

The room was as silent as any room on a warping starship can be. The ventilator hummed to itself, the heating unit clucked softly from time to time, and the walls gave faint vibratory echoes of the massive warp engines. The only other sound was the soft breathing of the man who sat cross-legged on the bed.

Spock did not consciously hear the susurration of the systems that conspired to keep him alive in the hostile environment of space. They were too much a part of his life to be obtrusive, and there were other stimuli that riveted his attention now, despite his attempts to shut them out.

Lara was screaming. Deep within her sedated consciousness, some essential part of her mind continued to strike out, and it set up an answering call within him. Like a loop of tape in a viewer, she relived – and he relived – that moment when the knifeblade sank into the yielding flesh of Selek. His son.

He had recognized Selek the moment he and Kirk had begun observing the occupants of the house, and it had taken all his control to keep from intervening immediately. Only when Selek’s intent became obvious to him had he asked Kirk to have the power plant blown, and sketched a quick scenario for getting Lara out. Part of his hesitancy had come from the knowledge that he would not leave that room until Selek was dead. But Lara had beaten him to it, and had done so with such violence and passionate emotion that it had cost her her sanity, and might yet cost him his.

He knew what he had to do. Had known it from the moment he rendered her unconscious. To save her life, he’d had the assistance of his best friend and the technology of a mighty civilization. To save her mind, he had only himself, and the teachings of another civilization, equally mighty, equally demanding. He shook off the light state of meditation he had achieved, rising gracefully from the bed and slipping into the dimly-lit corridors of the sleeping ship.

The night nurse was reading something from a padd, occasionally checking the monitor screens. She did not hear his approach; did not really feel the touch on her shoulder until the instant before blackness engulfed her.

Wraithlike, he moved to Lara’s room and touched her neck with a spray-hypo whose contents would counteract the sedative in her bloodstream. Within minutes, the body function monitors started to rise and she began to stir, her frenzied mind fighting through the narcotic to strain her limbs against the restraints that held her in the bed. He did not wait for full consciousness to return before initiating the mind-meld; he did not want her waking screams to bring any interruption.

The jolt of her madness caught him almost instantly, before he had delved below the most elementary level. It gripped him like the jaws of a ravening beast, and he choked back a cry, struggling for a firmer hold. She met him like a warrior at full battle-strength, battering his hold on her and on rationality, flooding his mind with disjointed images of crashing fists and male bodies and the anguish of forced penetration, screaming and lashing out. He let her mind pummel his, absorbing the blows like a vast ocean absorbs the torrents of a winter storm, accepting all the pent-up fury she possessed.

Deep within her mind, the screaming subsided to convulsive sobs, and his mind wept with hers in anger and heartbreak at the death of some essential innocence which had nothing to do with sexuality.

Reaching within his exhausted self, he searched for the strength to go on, faltering, reaching a state of near panic when he knew he did not have it; could not call forth the Herculean effort to go beyond fury, beyond death, to renewed life. He was empty … he did not have the strength. He felt their interlocked being slipping toward some black void, and knew he was powerless to stop it. He called out to her, the anguished mental cry of a drowning mind … and she answered. From some chasm of soul, from some essence that had endured untouched, a force mustered itself, marshalling strength as it gathered in her mind, surging forward with irresistible force to engulf him. He locked onto it, refracted it through his own being, and found the same essence within himself.

Their minds mingled, and he knew his wife as he had never known her – as child and woman at once, growing, changing, absorbing disappointment and relishing triumph, building on both, gathering the reservoir of strength that had ultimately saved them both. For all that Selek had taken away, he had not robbed her of this ultimate strength and the willingness to share it.

Gently, he broke the physical link, feeling the remnants of the deeper touching still within him, whole again but at once less and more than he had been before. And understood, with a deep and tearing pain, why his attempts to turn Lara’s love to Jim had been foredoomed, why he would have always been a ghost at the banquet, and the pain he had caused them both in his clumsy attempts to manipulate their lives shamed and belittled all of them. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes to find her watching him, still a bit confused, a bit unsure.

He released the restraints and moved to brush the dark tangle of hair away from her damp forehead. She flinched away from him, drawing into tense readiness and he felt a great rending within his chest. When she realized what she had done, tears gathered in her eyes.

“Oh, Spock. I’m sorry … I just--”

“It’s all right. I understand.” And he did. She had given all she could, had reached out beyond the farthest boundaries in a way she had never thought possible; but in so doing, she had left nothing for herself. Her mind was whole, her body would heal, but that brief glimpse of Lara he had been given in the depths of the bond was closed to him now, perhaps forever.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t understand. To come so far … and then to retreat into the ultimate symbol of all that is Vulcan … why, Spock? Why the Kolinahr?”

They were in the guest quarters assigned to her after her release from sickbay, a site he had chosen carefully to tell her of his intentions. The discussion was not going well.

“You are correct in saying I have strayed far from my origins. It is for that reason that I must undertake the discipline.”

“You talk as though you’re ashamed of your Human half!”

“No. But I am not Human, Lara, and can never be. Much that I have done in the five years we have been fully bonded has come about as a direct result of yielding to that Humanness. Would you have accepted my yielding so gladly, had you known the pain it would cause you?”

She had no answer for that, and he went on.

“I cannot survive without half of myself, any more than you could survive without your immune system. It gives you the strength to overcome infection; my Vulcanness gives me the strength to overcome the weakness of my mixed heritage.”

“Being Human is not a disease!”

“I did not mean to imply that. It was perhaps an unfortunate analogy. But the fact remains that I must return to the source of all we became, or I will be destroyed.” He toyed with a data chip lying on the desktop before going on. “Lara, if you had not killed Selek, I would have done so. Not out of revenge, not because in choosing his depravity he forfeited his right to live – I would have killed him, and slowly, for the simple pleasure it would have given me.

“Twice, I gave him life. Once, through the trickery of his mother. And in the cellars of B’al Graai, when I had my hands around his throat, I gave him life again … because I made the one conscious decision that ultimately separates man from beast – I will not kill today.

“I could not make that decision today; not for him or for any other being whose death would bring me pleasure.” He looked up at her. “Lara, do not ask me to become what my son was. And I will, if I do not undertake the Kolinahr.”

She flung herself into a chair and rubbed at her forehead. She sighed and looked at him, not wanting to ask the next question, but knowing she must. “And what about pon farr?” He gave her no answer beyond a raised eyebrow.

“Spock, you can’t think I’m not aware of it. As deep as the bond is right now, I’d know from half a galaxy away. You can’t be more than six months from the beginning of another cycle. I can sense the need growing in you right now; sometimes it wakes me up at night, and I lie there wondering what I’m supposed to do – what your response would be if I got up right then and went to your bed.”

“And what of your response? I feel your nightmares, Lara. I see you draw back whenever a man comes within touching distance of you. I know the terror that waits for you in the darkened corners of every room.”

“I’ve lived through worse,” she snapped. “They say you never miss a slice from a loaf that’s already been cut.”

He frowned at her. “That is unnecessarily crude, my wife.”

“Pon farr is crude, Spock! And I am bonded to you. If you walk away now, you condemn yourself to death, and me to the torment of enduring it, all because of some stubborn, pigheaded pride that’s … that…” She stuttered to a halt, casting about for some comparison to make, then shook her head in frustration and ran her hand through her hair. “You are doing precisely what you did before,” she said finally. “Making decisions about us without consulting me at all.”

“The Kolinahr decision concerns only me, Lara.”

“You are part of us! That’s what I’m trying to get across to you – and you’re not listening!”

“I am listening. And I will grant you your definition of ‘us’ if you will acknowledge the necessity of my undergoing Kolinahr.”

“I can’t imagine you becoming what Selek was,” she said with a shudder. “But to live with the fear it might happen … yes, I can see the necessity of it. That still doesn’t answer the question of pon farr. You as much as admitted, when we started this … discussion … that they won’t even consider accepting you until you’ve completed this cycle.”

“I do not recall having made such a statement.”

“Not in so many words, no. You said something about their demanding fitness, preparation – a willingness to submit yourself totally to their discipline. Did you think I wouldn’t understand what that meant?”

He regretted having made the statement, and regretted even more the quick intellect which gave her so much more knowledge than his brief reference had contained.

“I won’t preach logic at you,” she continued. “There’s only one answer, and you know what it is. I’m your wife, and your bondmate. Let me be that, Spock, at least this one more time. And then go away to your Kolinahr, and wall yourself up forever, if that’s what you want. But don’t leave me with your blood on my hands. That’s the one thing I don’t think I could survive.”

“You are asking me to do what Selek did, Lara – to use your body as a convenience.” He chose the brutal words deliberately, delivered them without emotion, and saw her go pale and clamp her jaw shut tightly in an effort to hold back tears.

“That was cruel,” she said softly, when she had her voice under control.

Pon farr is cruel,” he said, just as softly.

“But you are not.”

“Not now, perhaps. But in plak tow…”

She rose from her chair and crossed to where he sat. “I remember the last time, Spock. It doesn’t frighten me.”

“Do you also remember a caution I once gave you against lying to yourself?”

She colored and looked away from him. He rose uncertainly, knowing he had wounded her and regretting the necessity of it.

“You remember too much,” she said. “Yes, I’m frightened. I’m terrified that I’ll never be able to be touched by a man I love without remembering…” She turned to face him, her eyes bright with tears. “Oh, Spock, I’m so scared! Help me, please!” She stumbled into his arms and he held her quietly for a long time, until she stopped trembling.

There would be no nightmares this night, and no demons lurking in the darkness that gathered as he lowered the lights, then turned to take her in his arms again.

-----X-----

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 7407.5:

“I am pleased to report that Starfleet Command this date confirms our patrol sector secured. The information gathered by Lieutenant O’Bannion in the raid on the Romulan supply base six weeks ago has been of inestimable value in clearing this sector, and a commendation for that work is attached hereto, to be entered in his service record.

“Information extracted from the captured data also permitted us to locate the site at which the Romulans were holding the missing medical personnel. Contact was made at 0946 hours, this date.

“We encountered only automated defenses in our approach to the base, which sensor readings indicated was an underground facility on a J-type planet with a methane atmosphere. Our hails to the base were not answered, nor did they offer any response to our initial barrage. Part of the facility was breached in that assault, and a landing/rescue party was beamed down in environmental suits.

“For a full report on the condition of the base, see Chief Medical Officer Djomo M’Benga’s report, appended to and hereby made a part of this record. In brief, it appears that the Romulans were conducting biological warfare experiments at the facility, utilizing Starfleet personnel as both researchers and subjects, when one or more of the organisms being studied contaminated the facility. Dr. M’Benga theorizes that the contaminant was a variant of the microbe bacillus anthracis, which he discovered in the air filtration system of a barracks housing male prisoners. Whether the contamination was accidental or an act of sabotage by one of the prisoners cannot at this time be determined.”

Kirk hit the ‘Pause’ button, wondering if he needed to add anything more. His concentration was interrupted by a buzz at his office door. “Come,” he announced.

Uhura was in the room and in front of his desk before the doors stopped moving, her smile a nova in the darkness of her face. “Captain, we just got word – the Romulan High Command is asking for a cease-fire! We’re ordered to break off patrol and proceed to Starbase Nine for refit and home leave.”

He could feel his own face moving in a smile, and held on very tightly to his image of the proper behavior for a dignified starship captain who has just been told that his war, for all intents and purposes, is over. It was a losing battle to begin with, and he surrendered completely when Uhura impulsively leaned over his desk and tossed a folder full of notes into the air. He came out of his chair with a grin and swung her off her feet in a jubilant bear-hug. Ensign Madigan came through the door just in time to see him clear the entire surface of the desk with one grand sweep of his arm.

“Don’t just stand there,” he said, taking in her astonishment. “Celebrate something! I have a course change to order and a very fine announcement to make.”

The captain and the lieutenant charged out of the office, leaving one very confused clerical yeoman surveying the chaos and shaking her head.

Officers! She thought, and started picking up folders.

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

It was the first time in the entire mission that the dining room had been used. Dinner in the mess hall had seemed totally inappropriate, but as Kirk emptied his wine glass, he wondered if the decision had been the correct one, last night out or not. M’Benga, Scott, and Sulu, deep in a heated three-way discussion over whose department was throwing the best staff party, had left for a first-hand tour of the situation, leaving himself, Lara, and Spock in an uncomfortable silence.

The grapevine told him Lara had moved into Spock’s quarters two weeks ago. He told himself it was what he had expected – she was Spock’s wife, after all … but somehow he was having more trouble with the fact than he had anticipated. On a ship that buzzed with home-leave plans, with rumors of promotion and reassignment, these three had been silent, each unwilling or unable to initiate a discussion of what the future held for them as individuals, as three people who had altered each others’ life-patterns irrevocably.

“We have to talk about this,” he said finally.

Lara pulled herself together first. At the base of her throat, he could see a pulse beating, slow and steady. “Yes,” she said. She unclenched her hands and reached out to touch Spock. Their fingers intertwined on the tabletop, an intricately carved sculpture of jade and alabaster. A long look passed between them; then, as if a message had been conveyed, Lara’s other hand moved tentatively toward Kirk, palm up, open, waiting.

He almost reached out to take it. Every muscle in his body, every atom of his being, was drawn to that delicate hand, as metal filings are drawn to a magnet. But he was not a pile of metal scrapings, not a random collection of errant molecules. Though he was not sure precisely what she meant by the gesture, he feared it. His soul was still bleeding; he would not throw it onto a bed of nails again.

“No.”

“Jim,” she said. “Please.”

In the silence, five years tumbled through his mind. Years of hope and trust and betrayal, of choice and change and the one constant … the one ineluctable fact that stood paramount in his being – he loved this woman. Had loved her as he had never loved another, had surrendered more for her than he had ever surrendered for any other. And all she wanted was a touch. A simple, Human gesture he would have given to any stranger on any street he had ever walked, under any alien sun.

“Jim,” she said again, and her fingers stretched out toward his.

Almost of its own volition his hand moved; his fingers touched hers and were enclosed and moved by the warm Human strength of them, to cover and  join with the clasped hands of Spock and Lara. The jade and alabaster sculpture became jade and alabaster and bronze.

The triad of flesh set off a clamoring resonance in his mind; a tangled, dissonant symphony of apprehension and regret mixed with acceptance and calm; the whole overlaid by the distinctly sexual tension he recognized as his own unvarying response to some imminent and potentially deadly physical conflict. Its incongruity here, now, startled and disturbed him, and he would have broken the telepathic/telempathic touch – whatever it was – had the other hands not held him fast.

His eyes met Spock’s, and he thought, No wonder you never liked to be touched, if it was always like this.

Spock nodded as if Kirk had spoken. “The manifestation … is particularly strong at the moment, Jim. It is seldom so powerful. But the three of us have … touched one another’s lives in so many ways … on so many levels…” He trailed off, unwilling or unable to finish it. Kirk felt both attitudes.

Lara took up the voicing. “We’ve talked about our futures, Jim – Spock and I. And about yours, too.” She pushed on over his incipient objection. “I’m sorry – we couldn’t … we couldn’t deal with each other without an awareness of you. You’re too much a part of us.” She bit at her lower lip, and then went on. “I’m going to Vulcan, for a while. It’s … necessary.”

She didn’t need to elaborate. Kirk realized that not all the visceral male tension in the room was coming from him, and he understood.

“But I can’t stay. There have been too many changes. In Spock, in me, in you. Change is the only constant, really. None of us can escape that, none of us can withstand it. Spock wants--” She broke off, shook her head. “Spock needs … to master the Kolinahr discipline, and he can’t do that in the presence of a bondmate. I need to seek my own kind of discipline – the kind I was looking for on that Starfleet hospital base, before the Romulans came charging in. I’d like to go to Hadrian, to that children’s hospital post you offered to get for me once, if it’s still a viable project, and if you’re still willing to pull a few strings. And you, Jim, whether you realize it or not, you need to get on with your life. We’ve stolen enough of it from you.

“The grapevine says there’s an Admiral’s star waiting for you. You know that, even if it’s not official. Nogura doesn’t access a man’s whole service record for nothing.” She caught his look and grinned, and for a moment she was the Lara he’d begun to love a million years ago when she sat in his sickroom and listened to him talk about his childhood.

“Don’t start looking for any one person to blame. It’s common knowledge all over the ship.” She squeezed his hand. “Change, Jim. That’s what it’s all about. You can dig in your heels and fight it, or you can ride it like a comet, but it’s coming, and you can’t stop it.

“All we’ve done, all we’ve learned, all the hurts and healings we’ve given each other, are just a part of that change.”

Something in him knew she was right; knew they could never turn the clock back to that day in sickbay, or to any other moment. What he and Lara had once shared was ended; the need for it was ended. The hands that touched his were defining the new order, not re-establishing the old one. All anyone ever had was now … this moment, this decision, this life that was the sum total of everything that had gone before, for good or for ill. The only constant was change, and he had to let it happen or be broken by it. He did not want to be broken.

“Lara,” he said, forcing a grin, “I don’t believe I have ever won an argument with you in all the time I’ve known you.”

“Nor have I, Captain,” Spock said with a quiet smile in his dark eyes. “And that, I believe, is one thing that will never change.”

Kirk withdrew his hand from the union, breaking the triple bond; feeling not loss, but a sense of completeness and of healing. That healing, that completion, was what they had meant to accomplish, he realized. One final, loving touch to say goodbye on.

He poured the last of the wine into their glasses. “One more toast my friends. To change … and to us.”

They touched glasses and drank silently, consecrating the moment, celebrating themselves. Kirk put his glass down carefully and stood up. He touched each face briefly with his eyes, imprinting the moment in his memory, against the changes he knew would come.

“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I still have a ship to run. In case you’d forgotten … we’re going home.”

THE END