DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Juanita Salicrup and is copyright (c) 1978 by Juanita Salicrup. Originally printed in STARDATE: UNKNOWN, Gerry Downes, editor. This story is Rated PG.
A Bridge of Crystal and Light
In the sweet aftermath of their lovemaking, Spock cradled his drowsing wife in his arms, his cheek pressed tenderly against the top of her head. There was an almost dreamy expression in his sable eyes as he caressed her, his gaze straying to the flickering images of their entwined shadows against the red draperies on the wall. Never had he thought contentment this complete would come to be his. Idly he recalled the words of the 19th century Terran poet Christine had been reading earlier that evening ... Sir Edwin Arnold ... a fragment from his piece, "Destiny":
"Somewhere there waiteth in this world of ours
For one lone soul, another lonely soul--
Each chasing each through all the weary hours,
And meeting strangely at one sudden goal;
Then blend they -- like green leaves with golden flowers,
Into one beautiful and perfect whole--
And life's long night is ended,
And the way lies open onward to eternal day."
At the time the words had hit him with a special impact, so evocative were they of the five and a half-month long bonding and marriage between Christine and himself. To be sure, there were still many adjustments, things they'd yet to learn of one another, thoughts and feelings yet to be shared. For Spock, it was a sometimes frightening exploration into the half of himself he'd always held at almost desperate bay.
Briefly, at the time of their bonding, and in the warmth of the sharing since then, Spock had seen himself through Christine's eyes, a perception he still thought was her own rose-colored view. But in flashes, he'd gotten a glimpse of something Jim had once suggested to him: that he should have the key to the best of both his possible worlds since he was neither totally Vulcan nor exclusively Human, but a unique creation more than either one.
His thoughts turned to the ship and duties. Life had assumed a sort of daily routine though no duty, no day was ever quite the way they had been before. Unconsciously, he smiled in the flickering darkness as he caressed Christine. Touching and touched, always hereafter... She stirred slightly in her sleep, her arms tightening around him before quieting again. His smile widened, and he sighed contentedly.
Things aboard ship had been numbingly routine for weeks now, and the strain of boredom was showing in everyone except Christine and himself. Only they, in their new and wondrous world of touches and glances, of private loving and hidden laughter, were immune to the dragging hours and days.
There were times on the bridge lately when Spock was aware that several people were on the verge of nodding off at their stations. Jim was even getting testy. Ordinarily he would have sought out his First Officer to liven up the off-duty hours, for Spock -- unaffected by Human boredom -- could always be counted upon to come up with some distracting ploy.
Once it had been a sort of scientific scavenger hunt, a shakedown of the Science departments that Kirk had gone along with and, in a burst of enthusiasm, had extended to the rest of the ship. Another time, their strenuous exercise workout session had inspired Kirk (was it really possible the Captain had been unaware of the suggestions gently made by the Vulcan?) to organize a ship-wide athletic competition that quickly assumed the proportions of a decathlon. On both occasions -- and so many others -- both Kirk and the crew had been prodded out of their ruts and invigorated. Spock had been performing in that capacity for his Captain for years.
Lately though, Spock had noticed that Jim had refrained from attempting to claim any of the First Officer's off-duty hours. The glow that the Vulcan exuded all the time now grew to silent incandescence in the presence of his wife, and Spock surmised that Kirk just could not bring himself to interrupt when he and Christine went off together after dinner.
"I suppose the honeymoon will be over at *some* point," Spock had overheard him say wistfully to McCoy as the First Officer and Christine left the dining room one evening.
McCoy had given the Captain a sharp, if wry, look. "I wouldn't count on it, Jim -- not with those two, not after all the time they waited for this. What's the matter -- you bored?"
Kirk's brow had arched as he turned back to McCoy. "As a matter of fact, Doctor, I *am* bored ... a little. Got a remedy?"
Spock hadn't heard McCoy's reply, but as he yawned prodigiously now and settled himself for sleep, he reflected that the coming planetary scan assignment would at least give the Captain a chance to get off the ship for a while, even if it didn't hold the promise of great adventure or, fortunately, the threat of great danger...
* * *
Morning was one of the joys of Christine's new life. The singing thrill of wakening beside her husband was still as fresh and new as on that first morning. It was more than the morning love they often shared. It was the warmth in everything they did, the glow that came through their bonding, the comforting assurance that each, for years so alone and lonely, would never be bereft so long as the other lived.
Christine moved about, humming happily, making their bed as Spock dressed, since he was due on the bridge forty-five minutes before she had to be in Sickbay. Her sudden tinkling giggle brought him about, one eyebrow raised in curiosity. She grinned at him and gestured toward the large, until recently non-regulation double bed.
"I was just remembering how we got this," she explained. His silken brown eyes came alive with laughter as he pulled his uniform tunic down and smoothed it flat. She shook her head. "You'd think Starfleet would have learned something of basic psychology before this."
"Wife, you expect the impossible of a bureaucracy which constantly proves itself incapable of nearly any sort of comprehension," he told her, taking her in his arms.
"Mmm," she murmured into his throat as she snuggled against him for a moment. When they were alone, he was so open and tender she often suspected it was as much to please himself as to fulfill her needs, though she would never violate his dignified Vulcan self-image by suggesting it. She leaned back in his arms to look up into his finely chiseled face. "How are things on the bridge lately?"
He gazed at her, perplexed. "To what do you refer?"
"Sickbay is so dead these days you could shoot a moose in the examination room, and I wondered--"
"Why and how could one endeavor to hunt large Terran mammalian quadrupeds in Sickbay?" he asked in total astonishment. His eyebrows had disappeared beneath his bangs.
Christine dissolved in laughter at the look on his face. "Oh, Spock, it's just an expression! I meant that current conditions breed Human boredom. I was wondering if you felt it on the bridge."
Shaking his head at the impossibility of Terran colloquialisms, he told her, "I do not feel it, but it is there. Only last night I reflected that we may see a welcome change very soon."
"Oh-oh. Jim must be nettlesome," she guessed.
"Indeed," Spock sighed expressively.
"Well, what's coming up that will get him off everyone's back?"
"In 1.5 days, we shall be entering a small solar system in this sparsely-tenanted quadrant. There is a 93.7 percent chance that one of the four planets orbiting that sun will be a most probably unpopulated Class M planet."
"Ah, I see. And Jim will decide to go along with the landing party to give his considered command advice."
"Exactly ... though he will not put it precisely that way," Spock replied.
"I'll bet the crew can hardly wait."
"Indeed." He kissed her gently. "Now, wife, I must go."
"Yes, husband. I'll see you this evening. Have a--" She paused. "--peaceful ... day." She walked with him to their door.
"That, at least, is guaranteed. May your day be more interesting."
She grinned as he straightened his tunic again, assumed his formal Vulcan mask and departed. Christine showered, dressed quickly, and began coiling her long blonde hair into the coronet she wore both to keep it out of the way as she worked and to honor the Vulcan custom that women wore their hair bound when in public.
She glanced at the large double bed, grinning wryly to herself, remembering her words to Spock. It was only six months ago that Starfleet had most belatedly changed its regulations concerning quarters for married couples stationed on a starship. For years, such couples had been assigned twin beds, which not only struck Christine as short-sighted but a violation of everything she believed in. Fortunately, Spock concurred. It seemed Vulcan husband and wife also shared one bed, sufficiently large and firm for mutual health, and Spock had no intention of sleeping separately from his new wife.
Since the new double bed equipment was still unavailable to those assigned to the more far-flung quadrants, and that included the U.S.S. Enterprise, it looked very much as if Chris and Spock were stuck with the twin beds. Realizing through their bond that it really bothered Christine, and with their wedding day fast approaching, Spock had resolved to do something about it. He'd had a brief, private consultation with Chief Engineer Scott, who was delighted at being asked a favor by the normally reticent Vulcan.
The next thing Christine knew, Spock had surprised her by taking her to the new, larger quarters they were setting up together and -- there was the new bed. She smiled now and bent to smooth the black and gold Vulcan coverlet, remembering their joyful initiation of their new possession. *Christine,* she told herself, *you are undoubtedly the luckiest lady in Starfleet, probably the luckiest in the Federation -- and possibly even in the Galaxy!* Humming happily, she left the cabin, headed for Sickbay and her moose hunt.
* * *
When Spock reported for duty on the bridge, he was the last of the senior officers to do so and his quiet "Good morning, Captain" as he walked to his library computer station almost literally bounced off Kirk's stiff back.
Spock glanced at Uhura as he passed, nodding to her, and was surprised by a warning look she gave him that encompassed both the Captain and himself. He was wondering what it meant when Kirk's voice broke in on his thoughts.
"Mr. Spock!" The tone was cold and argumentative.
Spock turned from his station, hands clasped behind him, face blandly impassive. "Captain?"
Spock was so startled, he scarcely knew what to say.
Kirk had half-turned toward him. "I think we're all aware of your reasons, but your shift begins at a specified hour and I'll thank you to honor that responsibility unless there is a clear-cut emergency."
Spock had gone poker-stiff. "Yes, sir," he said softly. He was aware of the surprise on the faces around him and turned quickly to his station. He had no intention of apologizing since, with his Vulcan time sense, he knew that in fact he was on time ... exactly on time. A glance at his console chronometer told him instantly what the problem was. The chronometer was a full five minutes off.
"Captain," he said, swiveling his chair toward Kirk.
Kirk turned from initialing a fuel consumption report. "Yes, Mr. Spock?"
"Sir, there seems to be a malfunction in the bridge equipment."
"I detect an error in the time-keeping equipment at my station, sir, and it is possible that--"
"An error in the--? Mr. Spock, I've never heard you give an excuse for a mistake in all the years we've served together!"
"Sir, this is *not*..."
Kirk cut him off, turning to Sulu. "Helmsman, main chronometer reading."
Sulu gulped, stealing an apologetic glance at Spock. "08:50.35, Captain."
Kirk swivelled to Uhura. "Communications reading, Lieutenant."
Uhura looked as if she wanted to say something, then thought better of it. "08:50.36, sir," she said. She looked very unhappy.
Kirk turned to look back at Spock. "And yours, Mr. Spock?"
"08:50.37," Spock replied, undaunted.
"Well, they all seem to be in agreement. Where's your malfunction?"
"Sir, I cannot explain it. It is merely that the chronometers -- all of them -- are out of time."
"Oh, really?" Kirk's voice was dangerously soft.
"Yes, sir. Really." Spock was stubborn Vulcan stone.
At that moment, Scott came onto the bridge and immediately sensed the battleground atmosphere. "Captain, sir -- I ... er ... wish to report an error--"
"Don't tell me the Engineering chronometers are off, Mr. Scott!"
"Ach, no, sir. But the ones here on the bridge may verra well be."
A silence so loud it hurt the ears descended on the bridge. Kirk turned his chair all the way around to face Scott, his mouth open. "What did you say, Mr. Scott?"
"I said, sir, that the bridge chronometers are verra probably some--" He consulted the light board in his hand. "--five minutes off. They're likely runnin' fast."
Kirk visibly gulped. "Explain."
Scott sighed, not at all happy. The whole ship was aware of Kirk's short temper when boredom set in, and the tales of late had verified the phenomenon. "Sir, yesterday I sent a new man up here to work on some of the basic console equipment. Officers had been reportin' faulty relays and such, and I knew it had to be fixed.
"I have my regular teams strippin' down the Jefferies tubes, so that's why I sent the new man. He did everything just fine, except -- I didna get to read his report until just now. He had to pull out the chronometer equipment, cut the power, while he worked up here. 'Twas only five minutes, but the lad reset the time incorrectly when he finished. I take the full responsibility on mesel', sir."
"I see." Kirk took a deep breath and turned slowly back to the rest of the bridge crew. There was embarrassment written all over his face. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, my deepest apologies for chewing you out. I should have known better when you *all* appeared to be reporting late..."
Disclaiming murmurs came from all sides, but Kirk held up his hand. "No. I was at fault, and I acknowledge it. A Captain also has a responsibility, and that is..."
Before Kirk could say any more, Spock stepped into the well of the bridge from his station, his voice calm, even gentle. "Mr. Sulu, position status, please. Miss Uhura, communications report to the Captain, if you will. Mr. Scott, I trust you will see to your 'new lad'. Nothing serious happened this time, but at a critical moment, such a misstep could be a calamity. Give your report on it to the Captain as soon as possible." He turned to Kirk. "Sir, I believe you may be interested in some preliminary data on the G260 system we are set to scan tomorrow. I have it at my station."
Around them, officers sped to comply with orders.
Kirk gave Spock a weary half-smile. "Spock to the rescue again -- and I haven't even apologized to *you* yet."
"Unnecessary, sir. Your statement included all of us. Now, if you please, the statistics?"
Kirk gave him a tired, knowing grin. "Not going to let me apologize, are you?"
Spock said nothing, but continued to look at him intently. Kirk finally shrugged and followed Spock to his console, where they were shortly absorbed in the facts the Vulcan's nimble fingers called up from the library computer.
"It looks promising for geological and botanical survey teams, Captain. And -- perhaps you would care to oversee the landing parties yourself, sir?" Spock concluded.
Kirk gave him a sharp look. "You're the Science Officer, Spock."
"Yes, sir, but I feel I may be of more use here, coordinating all the data into the computer. I had planned on sending Lieutenant Brendt, as the new Assistant Science Officer, since it will prove invaluable training. But I believe your superior experience would be the added factor necessary in the event that anything unexpected should occur."
"Do we expect the unexpected, then, Spock?"
Spock's face was pure, bland innocence. "It is always advisable to prepare for any eventuality, Captain."
Kirk's lips twitched. "Okay, Spock, you win. I'll go for a little planetary walk on M2601 to clear out the cobwebs from my brain."
Spock nodded, giving his Captain that warm look that was nearly a smile. He started to turn away when Kirk touched his arm; one Vulcan eyebrow arched in inquiry.
"Look, my Vulcan friend--" Kirk began, his voice pitched to a near-whisper, "--even if you don't want to listen, I want to apologize. I had no business taking such a low swipe at you before. It was childish and unkind to make reference to your life with Christine, as if it interfered with your duties. I know better. I guess maybe I was ... expressing my own feelings of -- being ... left out of your life." His eyes dropped. "I'm not proud of that, Spock, and I really am sorry."
There was a moment's silence and then Spock asked softly, "Captain -- Jim -- why did you not tell me before this? I felt you drawing away, but did not know why."
Kirk looked back up. "I ... didn't want to interrupt your new-found happiness with your wife."
Spock's eyes were soft. "It is a poor life that only has room enough in it for one other person, Jim."
A smile quirked Kirk's mouth.
"Captain, would you care for a game of chess this evening? I am becoming -- encrusted with ferrous oxide corrosion."
"You mean rusty." Kirk laughed delightedly.
"I believe that is what I said, Captain."
"Yes, yes. You did, Spock. And ... yes, I'd like a game. Very much."
"Rec Room 4 after dinner, then?"
"That would be fine, Spock." He straightened to return to duty, adding only, "Thanks."
Spock gave a nodding half-bow and turned back to his console.
Kirk grinned to himself as he walked back to his chair, reflecting that Starfleet Command would be astonished to know the exceptional capability his First Officer possessed in understanding and handling Humans, especially cranky starship Captains.
* * *
Precisely at 1250 hours the next day, after quick sensor scans of the other three planets in the G260 system, the Enterprise locked into orbit around the single Class M world, unimaginatively labeled M2601. All over the ship, science labs and computers set up for the eight-hour planetary scan, and three separate scientifically outfitted landing parties prepared for beam down.
On the bridge, Spock was giving final instructions to Lieutenant Frank Brendt, his recently-appointed Assistant Science Officer. Around them, officers moved to take stations as the principal science team prepared for departure. When Brendt had been fully briefed, Spock turned from his station to acknowledge the Captain. Kirk was standing before the command chair, eyes fixed on the main screen view he had ordered of the planet they were orbiting.
"Not a very glamorous name -- M2601," he commented as Spock stepped up to the chair.
"Glamorous, Captain? It is a scientifically applied name, therefore accurate."
Kirk grinned at him. "Trust you," he murmured, and Spock's eyebrow climbed.
"You're sure there's no intelligent life down there, Spock?"
"No, sir, I am not *sure*. However, all sensor evidence supports the early fly-by mission findings made twenty-five years ago. Abundant mineral deposits, varied flora, absolutely minimal -- perhaps even non-existent -- fauna. Of course, these assumptions are all made on the basis of that twenty-five-year-old information. Equipment and methods are far more sophisticated today. Those scans may have been adequate to determine the actual status of the biospheres, but we do not know whether there was a pre-existing fauna structure, perhaps even a civilization. Those are some the facts our scans, and the landing party investigations, will determine."
"Yes, well. Not too likely that the previous reports are entirely wrong, is it?"
"No, sir. I am sorry."
"For what? Your teams will be sending you lots of nice, comfy data pretty soon, and you beat the socks off me last night at chess."
"I meant, sir, that I wish you might expect something of greater interest down on the planet."
"I'll just settle for a nice walk in the country. You mind the store." Kirk stepped to the turbolift.
"Yes, sir. Enjoy your ... walk."
Spock received command with a last warm smile from the Captain and turned back to his sensors.
* * *
In the transporter room, Kirk took a communicator and tricorder from Brendt. He picked up a phaser from habit, checking the personnel around him: Brendt, Rollins, Geology; Ferguson, Biology; Miller, Botany... The door snapped open to admit the newest member of the first landing party, Lieutenant Christine Chapel.
"Christine! I didn't expect you. I thought a certain crusty medic was due to come along on this little jaunt."
"No, sir. We drew straws and Dr. McCoy abstained. He said he was beyond his quota for jousts with the transporter this month, and besides, with no real animal and no sapient population, he felt safe sending only a nurse along."
"I see. Well, at the risk of sounding rather feather-headed, I'll say you're much more attractive than he is -- and your very competent and charming company will be most welcome."
"Thank you, sir."
Kirk nodded to her and turned to the others. "Landing party, assume stations. Mr. Kyle, prepare to beam us down. Let's go take a look at M2601."
"Aye, sir. Energizing."
* * *
M2601, as some unimaginative but painfully accurate scientist (probably Vulcan, thought Kirk) had named it, proved to be a singularly unattractive world. Its predominant color -- in soil, rock, trees, vegetation -- was a dull, grey-green, some shaded darker, some lighter, but all almost universally the same.
Odd-looking, gnarled, thin-trunked trees with only clumps of leaves at their very tops clustered here and there. Scrub brush and bushes and a long, stringy grass seemed to complete the vegetation picture. The soil beneath their feet was even grey and more like dust both in color and consistency than either the dirt of their home world or the sandy soil of Vulcan.
The sky above, which was a dull, pale green, was heavily clouded, almost overcast, and far ahead a stream or river could be heard. To complete the bleak scene, a persistent wind whined faintly over all, blowing dust around and adding to the general inhospitality of the scene.
"Beautiful," Kirk muttered. "All right, everyone. Spread out and begin scanning."
The scientists spread out, leaving Kirk and Chapel standing at the beam down point. Kirk turned to the nurse ruefully. "Well, Chris, it isn't much, but may I have your company for a stroll?"
She smiled at him. "I'd be delighted, Captain."
Kirk set off, aiming almost unconsciously for some rock cliffs off to the right about half a kilometer away. They walked easily despite the dust and uneven terrain.
"You know your husband wished me a pleasant walk. If it weren't for your company, I'd have a hell of a time complying with his request."
"I think he just thought you needed a change of scene, Captain."
"Well, this sure fits *that* bill, doesn't it? This has got to be the ugliest planet I've ever seen."
"It's a scientist's dream, sir."
"Oh? What makes you say that?" Kirk turned to look at her.
"No distractions like glorious flora, dramatic scenery or breathtaking skyscapes."
Kirk grinned at her. "Explain yourself, Lieutenant."
"Even a scientist can be distracted by natural beauty, Jim." She smiled back.
He gave her a careful, measured look, noticing for the hundredth time since she and Spock had been bonded and married that she wore a previously unseen glowing beauty. "So I've noticed ... in the case of my Chief Science Officer. But it doesn't seem to have affected his ability to beat me all hollow at chess, three games in a row -- among other things."
"You're just out of practice and overtired from not enough to do. You'll get him next time," she assured him.
"Maybe. Incidentally, I'm sorry for dragging him away from you last night."
She smiled at him. "In the first place, you and he need each other in a way I can't possibly fulfill -- I'm a terrible chess player, for example. Secondly, even a marriage as wonderful as ours needs a little variety in it. It gave me the chance to work with Uhura on the entertainment she's putting together."
Kirk grinned at her, picking out the one important word in the whole explanation. "So it's 'wonderful,' is it?"
She blushed, eyes dropping, the lashes shadowing her high cheekbones. "Yes, it's wonderful."
"I'm glad, Chris."
She smiled, blushing again. Abruptly, her communicator queeped. "Chapel here."
"Nurse, this is Brendt. We need you and your medikit. Lieutenant Miller got over-enthusiastic about his botany research and tripped over a rock. He has a cut on one hand. I don't think it's bad, but you'd better take a look. We're over by the grove of trees near the creek."
"On my way, Brendt. Chapel out." She gave Kirk an apologetic farewell and headed off in the direction of the other landing party members.
Kirk sighed, envying her the activity, and continued on in the direction he'd been heading when they'd been interrupted. He walked along aimlessly, breathing deeply, noting that at least the air was fresh and clean. Presently, he found himself at the foot of the rocky cliffs. He sighed again, looking around, realizing there was nothing much to be seen. He was about to turn back the way he had come when his eye caught a shadowy depression on a ledge some ten meters above the ground and about twenty meters further along the cliff.
Out of sheer boredom, and because he hadn't done any climbing in a long while, the Captain began working his way up the cliff, taking it slowly, searching out hand- and footholds. He was somehow heartened at the climb, since it required concentration and effort. There was always the chance the depression was a cave of sorts and that gave him something to anticipate. The shadow did indeed prove to be a cave, apparently a deep one, and Kirk felt the urge to investigate. But without a light, he couldn't go very far, and he had no eagerness to stumble into the unknown.
Just inside the entrance, he unslung his tricorder and aimed it ahead toward the rear of the cave. The reading showed no life-forms, a gradually sloping floor and a long, winding tunnel working its way gradually downward for some 1.5 kilometers. Kirk worked his way along slowly, sliding his hand along one wall, until he realized that the light behind him was fading. Since he couldn't very well continue on, he turned to leave, wondering whether the geologists would think it worth investigating, since it seemed remarkably even-featured, almost as if it had been artificially excavated. Sudden realization of the possible importance of this fact alone took his attention so completey that he missed seeing something that stirred deep inside the cave.
He'd begun making his way out when a faint sound behind him brought him around, reaching automatically for his phaser. Deep in the tunnel's blackness, something seemed to stir, and it seemed to Kirk that the air rippled as his vision was being affected. He shook his head to clear it, realizing the reaction was not internal, but a nameless something *there*. Yet the tricorder had shown no life-form. Abruptly, a wailing wind seemed to rise and blow over him from within. Startled, and suddenly unaccountably afraid, he whirled, running for the cave opening, when all at once a rippling thin grey-black transparent veiling overwhelmed him.
The air was suddenly smotheringly hot and a metallic, maniacal laughter rang out, ironically chilling him to the bone within a malevolent, suffocating cocoon that was somehow a *thing* between material and spirit. He stopped, dropping to his knees, trying to breathe. He'd no idea when the phaser had fallen from his grasp; now he clawed desperately at his belt for his communicator. Abrupt pain clamped down, piercing the shell of his skull. It felt as if his suddenly superheated brain was writhing within its bony carapace, and he was sure he screamed, though no sound came to his ears. He was unaware he'd dropped his communicator.
Groaning, he struggled to his feet to stagger toward the spot where the cave entrance seemed to be, and was brought up short in horror and fear by a repetition of the maniacal laughter. This time, it came not from around him but from inside his own head. "What--?" he gasped.
*At last! At last! So long have I waited -- but now ... a body at last! Eyes, arms, lungs! Muscles, senses! Once more -- I LIVE!*
Mystified and frightened, Kirk watched his hands reach and arms flex, felt his chest heave as his lungs filled with air ... actions not one of which he'd willed or performed on his own. "Who? What?" He seemed helpless to do more than ask the faltering questions and saw through strangely dimmed and distorted eyes that he'd not made much progress toward the cave opening.
The metallic voice in his head cried, *I am the last of the world -- my Lybythos. For more than five hundred of your years I have been trapped here. All that is left of me, that which you call my spirit, has waited, a lonely prisoner. But now, you have come ... and I am free at last!*
"What -- do you want ... of me?" Kirk spoke haltingly, his tongue thick.
*You? I will live again -- in you! What you see, feel, think, know, taste, touch, smell, and hear will be mine. I am you ... henceforth! Before, I was Spirit. Now I am Being once more!*
Again, the chilling, insane laughter resounded in his head, and Kirk was aghast at the implications of the horrible speech. "No! I do not belong to you! What you're doing is enslavement, and I am a free being! I *will not* be your slave, your body, your means of feeling and life! I WILL NOT!"
*You pitiful, weak creature -- *will* not? You have no choice. I am *you* henceforth. I AM YOU!*
"Be damned to that!" Kirk shouted and, catching sight of the cave entry, he darted toward it at a staggering run, aware through a rising wave of blinding pain and pressure that he had little control over his own body, and that it was failing as the creature became more familiar with his mind. Desperately, he plunged toward the cave mouth, knowing he had to get to the landing party at all costs, but the entity inside his head read his intentions and exerted increased pain and pressure to stop him. Kirk staggered, still managing a shambling run despite the fire in his brain and body, bouncing off the cave walls as he went.
Finally, he burst out of the cave mouth into the overcast light which now seemed incredibly bright after the interior darkness. Aghast, he saw his speed was too great for the narrow cliff ledge beyond the opening. But with imperfect control over his limbs, Kirk couldn't halt quickly enough. With a helpless, echoing cry, he tumbled headlong off the cliff, twisting end over end in the air like a high diver over a pool, arching toward earth with sickening speed. Then he hit the dusty ground with crushing force, light exploding in his head. All went dark.
* * *
Spock was bent over his sensor hood reviewing planetary data being fed into the computer when Christine's call came through Uhura's board. The Communications Officer swallowed hard, removed her earpiece and turned toward the Vulcan. "Mr. Spock, emergency on the planet's surface. The Captain has been injured!"
At her first words, he'd whirled and started toward her station. She added, "It's Nurse Chapel, sir."
He nodded, switching on the local speaker. "Spock here." His face showed added tension, nothing more.
"Sir!" Christine's voice was equally tense, but businesslike. "The Captain has been injured; a fall from a cliff ledge--"
"Can he be beamed aboard, Lieutenant?" he interrupted, all formality.
"Yes, sir. I believe so. Concussion, several broken bones, possible internal injuries -- but none serious enough to prevent use of the transporter."
"Very well, Nurse. I shall alert both Sickbay and the transporter operator. Leave your communicator open for pickup signal. A medical team will await you."
"Spock to McCoy." In a few terse words, he conveyed the news to McCoy and a med team was sent to the transporter room. He turned to Uhura. "Lieutenant, alert the transporter officer. I shall meet Nurse Chapel there. Tell Lieutenant Brendt and the others on the planet to remain on the surface to conduct an immediate investigation of the circumstances of the Captain's accident and of the area near where he was found."
"Yes, Mr. Spock."
Short minutes later, Spock stood beside McCoy at Kyle's console as Christine and the injured Captain were beamed aboard. Two medtechs with a gurney waited just to one side of the platform. As the transport sparkles dissipated and the two forms solidified, McCoy and his team leaped forward to take charge of Kirk. Spock signaled Christine aside after she'd given her preliminary assessment to McCoy. The two of them cleared a passage for McCoy and the technicians as they hot-footed it for the turbolift and Sickbay. Christine's eyes followed the medtable.
"Nurse, your report, please."
She jerked back to face her husband -- who, at the moment, was also her Commanding Officer. "Yes, sir."
Crisply, she gave him a report of hearing Kirk's cry and then the landing party's dash to the cliff foot where they found him unconscious on a patch of fortunately soft-packed earth. Even as she spoke, she watched him with eyes of love. It would take one who knew him well, but she could see his worry written plainly in the shadows in his eyes and the tense mouth.
"His injuries are serious, but not as bad as they would have been had he landed on a harder or rock-strewn surface," she finished. He nodded in acknowledgment of her report and the effort she'd made at reassuring him, but he was all Commander and very Vulcan just then. Neither the warm husband she knew privately nor the more relaxed though still formal public Spock of the past few months could be seen.
"I expect that Dr. McCoy will require your services in Sickbay, Lieutenant. When you are free, please report to me. I shall be on the bridge awaiting word."
He nodded, turned on his heel and was halfway out the door before a nonplused Christine could say, "Spock?"
He turned, eyebrow canted ceilingward.
"--er, sir, a moment, please," she faltered, and followed him out of range of Kyle's ears. Her voice softened to a near-whisper and she put a hand on his arm. Tense, he glanced at her. "I'm -- sorry, Spock."
He nodded, almost curt, but at the touch, a partial telepathic contact sprang to life and she could read the intensity of his worry and the strength with which he was containing it.
"Just remember," she said, "You're not alone anymore."
For a moment, Spock was taut, a vibrating harp-string ... and then, he softened, gentleness touching eyes and mouth. "Thank you, wife," he whispered. He turned and strode away.
Feeling better, Christine turned in the other direction and left for Sickbay.
* * *
Some minutes later, Spock sat in the command chair, listening to the report from Lieutenant Brendt.
"Nothing, sir. We've searched the entire area. No signs of life-forms, other than the small animals we've found here. There's no indication of what caused the Captain's fall. We were about to investigate what appears to be a small cave on the cliff edge located just about directly above the spot where we found the Captain."
"Very well, Lieutenant. I take it you are adequately equipped for a sub-surface probe."
"Yes, sir. We have tricorders and belt lights and extra phasers brought down to us by the security team you sent along."
"Then proceed, Lieutenant -- in pairs only. And keep alert to any possible indication out of the ordinary. Whatever caused the Captain's accident could very well be inside that cave. Despite the fact that tricorders and sensors have shown no life on that planet, the cave could be shielded from probes by some substance in the walls. Extreme caution is recommended."
"Aye, sir. We'll be careful."
"Check in with Lieutenant Uhura at fifteen-minute intervals as a precaution, Lieutenant. Spock out."
He sat back, hands steepled before him, to contemplate the report. The Captain was not the sort to take a precipitous fall through mere carelessness. He was in excellent physical shape, better in fact than he'd been in recent years, and the cliff Lieutenant Brendt had described would have been an easy climb for Kirk. If his fall had come about because of something he'd encountered in that cave...
The chair speaker at his elbow interrupted. "McCoy to Spock."
"Spock here, Doctor."
"I'm ready to make my report, Spock -- and I think you'd better come down here."
Spock frowned slightly. "On my way, Doctor. Lieutenant Uhura, you have the con."
The communications officer slipped into the seat as soon as it was vacated, looking after Spock with a matching frown of concern. As soon as the turbolift doors snapped shut behind the First Officer, a young ensign voiced the suddenly oppressive feeling that overwhelmed them all. "Why didn't Dr. McCoy say that the Captain would be all right?"
No one dared speak the answer that hung in the air.
* * *
When Spock walked into Sickbay, he found Christine waiting for him, garbed in what he'd learned to recognize as the protective film outer suit the medical staff wore while treating patients kept in the isolation ward. She was holding a second suit; he cocked an eyebrow at her.
"Dr. McCoy is with the Captain in isolation. He asked you to put this on and come with me."
Wasting no time for questions, Spock slipped into the gear and followed his wife through the vacuum-tight door marked RED LINE - AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY - WARNING: DANGER OF CONTAMINATION. Instead of going on through the double iris-lock decontamination chamber that led to the sectioned-off cubicles, she drew him over to a quartzite window that overlooked a bed on the other side. Kirk lay quietly on the bed, the panel above his head telling its own story.
From his knowledge of the ship's myriad instrumentation, Spock had learned how to interpret much of the significant indicators on the diagnostic panels. This one did not look promising. His eyes met those of the shrouded figure, whom he recognized as McCoy, bending over the Captain. McCoy nodded to him and went to a wall intercom.
"I'll be with you in a moment, Spock." The Doctor's voice was metallic, filtered through the intercom speaker into Spock's observation area. "Chris, will you take over here, please?"
Christine nodded and left Spock to disappear through the irised opening into the decontamination chamber. In another moment, she appeared at the door to Kirk's cubicle. McCoy gave her instructions and then left her in his place as he came out to join Spock. The Doctor's first question surprised Spock more than he would have been willing to admit.
"Have you got anybody left down on that planet?"
"Yes, there are several combined scientific-security teams down there currently investigating the area near where the Captain was found. They are looking for any evidence of cause for the Captain's accident."
"Well, as Chief Medical Officer, I'm advising you -- officially -- to call them back from the surface, put them through basic decontamination in the Transporter Room, and have them report immediately to Sickbay."
"Aside from his injuries ... and they were serious enough, though not critical, thank Heaven -- Jim is manifesting the symptoms of some sort of disease that looks unlike anything I've ever seen. I've got him in there--" He thumbed over his shoulder toward the chamber."--because I still don't know whether or not it's contagious, and am not taking any chances.
"The only thing I know for sure, Spock is that ... whatever it is ... he didn't have it when he left the ship. My only conclusion is that he got it down there on that planet. I don't know whether it's connected to his injury or not, but I don't recommend exposing anybody else to that -- whatever it is."
"Logical, Doctor. A moment, please." Spock took two long strides to a wall intercom where he wasted no time giving the necessary orders.
"Aye, sir," came Uhura's response over the speaker.
The Vulcan turned back to McCoy, who motioned him over to the window by Kirk's bed. "You can see from the overhead monitor that all Jim's vital signs are lowered. He's not in any pain and his injuries have been treated. The pathological readings have come up with a number of anomalies I can't match to anything I've seen. The lab is working on the samples, but they don't look promising for a quick solution. We'll just have to wait and see."
Spock nodded thoughtfully, his face tense. He was watching Christine as she took further test samples and compared hand analyzer readings with the overhead board. "Doctor..."
"Yes, Spock?" McCoy shifted his attention from his ruminations to eye the First Officer carefully.
"Christine -- is she...?"
"In any danger? Not so far as I can tell. The fact is that she was the one physically closest to Jim following his accident but that she hasn't exhibited any symptoms of any sort and reads 'normal' is a good sign, I think ... but I'm keeping an eye on her."
McCoy's look softened in sympathy. "Don't worry, Spock. I think she'll be fine."
"When will you know for certain about Christine or the Captain?" His eyes remained fixed on the two in the isolation cubicle.
McCoy frowned. "That's hard to say. Depends on what the labs come up with."
"What is the cause of the Captain's unconsciousness, Doctor?"
"At first I thought it was concussion -- and it was, though it didn't last long. About the time I thought he should be regaining consciousness, he slipped into a state resembling a shallow sleep. Except that he couldn't seem to be roused."
Spock swung around to look at him directly. "Is that not unusual?"
McCoy nodded slowly, chewing his lower lip. "Very. All I could conclude, from the combination of other readings, was that it's somehow connected to the ... infection, virus, whatever ... that he contracted down on the planet. Anyway, I've added that fact to the others for the lab computer to analyze." He looked squarely into the angular face before him. "I'm sorry to be so damned indefinite, Spock -- but for the moment, I just don't know any more."
Spock nodded, looking back at Kirk again.
"I'll tell you one thing, though."
The Vulcan glanced back at him.
"Unless Christine or one of the others starts manifesting symptoms that include a light, unshakable sleep, I think it's safe to assume nobody else in the landing party has contracted whatever this disease is."
"How long until you are certain?"
"Shouldn't be long. Christine's already been examined and I've tentatively cleared her. I suspect the others will check out just as healthy or we'd have gotten some word from the landing party before this."
"I see." Spock gazed off in the distance a moment, then turned to McCoy. "Doctor, is there any possibility that what Jim has manifested is the result of something that was in its incubation period until now -- something he contracted elsewhere?"
"I don't think so, Spock. Aside from the fact that this 'disease' is totally unfamiliar to me, the only place we've been in the last two months is space -- star-charting. And before that, we were at Starbase Eleven. And *that's* located on a stone-faced asteroid with no atmosphere aside from the artificial domed one over the starbase.
"No disease I know or have ever read about waits more than two months to incubate and burst into life. If you want to be certain, you can check back by subspace radio, but I think you'll find there hasn't been any outbreak of anything unusual at the base. No, Spock. I'm almost certain that Jim 'caught' this down on that planet."
"An astonishingly short time for someone to contract a disease no one else has manifested, would you not say?" Spock inquired.
"I would. Where exactly was Jim when he was found?"
"Christine explained ... and I have since confirmed ... that it was at the base of a cliff he had been climbing. There was a cave above the spot where he had fallen and he may or may not have been in that cave."
"Well, I'd say that might explain it. If he was in the cave and touched or encountered some substance, some alien form or germ -- well..."
Just then, a medtech in germicidal protective garb came into the restricted observation area. "Doctor? The landing party has just reported to Sickbay for decontamination."
"Oh. Thanks, DiStasio. Set them up for examination, will you?"
"Yes, sir." The medtech disappeared.
McCoy turned to Spock. "I'll let you know."
The Vulcan nodded. He turned again to look back at Kirk. "Doctor--"
McCoy turned back. "Yes, Spock?"
"When you are finished examining Lieutenant Brendt and have cleared him to your satisfaction, please let me know. I wish to speak with him."
* * *
Lieutenant Brendt, a slim, dark-haired young man who wore a perpetual look of earnestness, sat quietly in the briefing room even as Spock stood to one side, arms crossed. The Lieutenant's voice was tight, but otherwise there was a collected, professional calm about him that Spock approved. It was one of the principal reasons for his having recommended Brendt for the post of Assistant Science Officer.
"We followed your orders exactly, sir. I left a pair of Security officers at the cave mouth and then, with another Science Department staff member and two more Security men, I entered the cave. One team took one side of the cave, my team the other. We recorded everything we found, but I'm afraid it added up to nothing. There was no substance or life-form, no vegetable or animal matter, nor any sign that there'd been any in hundreds of years. There was, however, one note of interest."
"The cave itself, sir. It appeared to have been drilled or excavated artificially. We were in the process of following the cave inward when Lieutenant Uhura reached the landing party."
Spock nodded contemplatively.
Brendt went on. "Sir, we ran all basic tests on the atmosphere, geological composition of the cave walls and floor, age of the stone -- everything. The findings are contained on these tapes, but they're not very revealing. Nothing unusual in them." He pushed the microcassettes at his elbow toward Spock. "Sir," Brendt leaned forward, betraying his eagerness. "We didn't really have the chance to examine the cave to my satisfaction. I'd like the chance to rectify that situation. Request permission to..."
"I am afraid I must deny you permission -- at least for the moment, Lieutenant."
"But sir, there could be something important..."
"I am aware of that, Lieutenant, and I quite understand both your frustration at not being able to complete your investigation and your interest in further examination of what appears to be an archaeological discovery of some importance, but for the moment, I must refuse. The planet will remain off-limits until the medical staff has isolated both the Captain's illness and ruled out the possibility of contagion. Is that clear?"
Brendt didn't look happy, but pressed his lips together and nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Very well. You may go."
* * *
That, at least for the moment, was that. By the turn of watch, there was still no conclusion from the labs working with Kirk's physical condition data, and none but the most tentative conclusions had been reached regarding the ugly, grey-green planet below. For Spock, the only point of relief lay in McCoy's late word that -- at least for the present -- both Christine and the other members of the landing party were clear and could be returned to duty.
Spock and Christine were more than halfway through their evening meal when the Vulcan finally commented on the absence of the Chief Medical Officer. "Is he not dining this evening?"
Christine looked at her husband over the rim of her coffee cup, aware of his slightly distracted look. It was the first real conversation he'd initiated during their entire dinner and Christine found him unusually taciturn. "No. He had a medtech bring him a sandwich and coffee. He said he was going to spend the evening going over the preliminary lab findings on the Captain's illness."
Spock nodded soberly, continuing his meal in silence. After another long pause, he asked, "Is he working alone, then?"
Christine laid down her cup, regarding him intently. "Yes. He thought it would shorten the time the lab spends on research if he fed the data into the computer himself."
Spock looked up, surprised. "He is not over-fond of the necessary mathematics that entails."
"I know, but I think he's impatient to find answers. He alternates between looking in on Jim, checking on the lab research, and prodding Lieutenant Brendt to find him historical precedents for Jim's symptoms. Every hour or so, he takes a completely new set of readings and feeds them to the lab techs to cross-correlate with what they already have."
Spock nodded and drained his teacup. Before he had a chance to voice his intentions, Christine beat him to it. "You're going to the lab to help him with the computer work, aren't you?"
He looked subtly startled. "Yes. How did you know?"
"It's written all over your face." She smiled at his look of wounded innocence. "Go on. I'll take care of your tray. I'll see you later."
The First Officer nodded and rose. "There are advantages to marriage I had not guessed," he said dryly.
She snorted. "Go on -- go," and watched fondly as he walked out the door.
After dinner, Christine returned to Sickbay, telling herself that she only wanted to look in on Nancy Compton who had the night shift watch over Kirk. But after she spelled Nancy for a dinner break and then found herself watching over the patient, taking new readings and passing them to the lab technicians, she admitted her own concern.
No one would sleep or live comfortably until the Captain was on his feet again. At 2230, after spending her time with the lab techs researching similar symptoms, Christine looked up from her bioscope and stretched luxuriously. She didn't know about the others, but she bade the techs goodnight and stopped in Sickbay to check on McCoy. She was sure she'd find him (and Spock) hard at work.
It was as she expected. McCoy sat over his viewer at his desk, a half-filled coffee cup at his elbow, so engrossed in his history tape readings that he never even looked up when she stopped by his door. In the lab, Spock sat on a stool before the biocomp, his long fingers dancing gracefully over the console buttons, a tiny frown drawn between his wingswept brows. When Christine walked over to stand beside him, he nodded to her and returned to work.
"Anything?" she asked after a moment.
"No." He kept his eyes on the screen, reading comparison tables of figures at a lightning rate, then calling up a new set to compare, and so on. Unobtrusively, Christine stretched her own work-cramped shoulder muscles, and studied his lanky body carefully. She was virtually certain he hadn't changed position in the four hours he'd been at work here and she found herself envying his Vulcan constitution for what must have been the hundredth time since they'd first met.
When he failed either to break his pace or look up at her again, she sighed resignedly. "Spock." She put her hand on his lean, blue-clad shoulder; the steely bands of muscle were bunched with tension. She bit her lip as he turned.
"Are you about finished here this evening?"
There was a touch of surprise in his voice. "No. Had you thought I would be?"
"Let's say that I *hoped* you would. You've been at it for a good four hours."
"I am aware of that, wife." He watched her curiously, clearly eager to return to his work.
After a moment she nodded. "I take it you're not coming to quarters for a while, then."
"That is correct. I intend to finish at least the current group of correlations before I retire."
"I see. All right. Well, I'm going, if that's all right with you."
"Certainly. As you wish. I shall remain here for the present." He nodded to her and turned back to the biocomp. "Do not wait for me to retire. This may take some time."
"All right." She nodded, and since they had the lab to themselves, she ventured, "Good night then, love." When he didn't respond even to the light touch of her hand cupping the silky black roundness at the back of his head, she knew it would indeed be "quite some time" before he quit the lab that night. Just before she left, she turned back once more to give him a thoughtful look. It may be, she decided, a whole series of nights -- if they couldn't find a cure for the Captain soon.
* * *
Five nights later, Spock shut down his research activities shortly after 0400 hours. As he walked back toward the quarters he shared with his wife on Deck Five, he was aware of the quiet of the third watch. The dimmed, grey-blue titanium corridors were ghostly with palpable shadows that masked even the minute sounds of his soft, catlike tread.
*A starship functions on loyalty to one man,* he thought to himself, remembering vividly the one time it had been necessary to Jim's well-being that he spell out the dimensions of that loyalty to him. Now it made its demands once more, not only upon the crewmembers who hid their fears as they cooperated in the massive effort undertaken to save Kirk, but upon himself as well.
He did not begrudge the efforts he was forced to make, but the continuing frustrations in the laboratory and at the computer had sown seeds of doubt. *Could* he save Kirk as he had so many times before? And if he could not... The thought was more than sobering, it was, in its own way, frightening.
A world without his Captain was impossible to contemplate. Were it not for Christine, Spock could not have even faced the possibility without flinching. The thought of her warmed the cold fear he felt inside, banishing it to the backroads of his mind. Silent as a wraith, he let himself into the heated dimness of the quarters he shared with her.
The only light was cast by the fire-pot's flickering flames. As he tiptoed into their sleeping quarters, he saw his wife curled up on her side, her slender body pink-gold in the fire-pot's glow, her hair spread on the pillow like a burnished golden fan. Sparing her a tender glance, he made for the lav and a shower.
He had just emerged, nude, and was in the process of placing his uniform in the laundry disposal chute when Christine stirred and came awake. "Hello, love," she whispered, stretching languidly.
"I regret waking you."
"You didn't; I was only cat-napping. I wanted to be up when you returned."
"It was not necessary, Christine. You need your rest," he told her, pleased nonetheless that she had waited for him.
"I'll be all right," she murmured. She watched him with a small half-smile of pleasure as he set out a fresh uniform for the following morning. She suspected she would never get enough of watching him, at any hour, in any pose, warmed by the knowledge that they now belonged to one another.
The graceful movements, the play of reflected firelight in the smooth, green-bronze skin served as their own special aphrodisiac -- and were enough to content her in themselves on nights when they were too weary or tense to do more than fall asleep in one another's arms.
Finished, Spock lay down beside his wife. They turned toward one another and he slid an arm around her. She snuggled next to him, her head nestling in the hollow of his shoulder. Gently, he began to caress her, reveling in the silken feel of her soft, firm-fleshed body.
"Spock ... I want to talk to you."
"Do so," he purred. Warm lips explored the hollow beneath her ear.
"You're making it -- awfully difficult."
"I am?" Another tiger purr.
He gave her a look of bland innocence and continued as if he hadn't heard a word.
"How did the research go after I left tonight?" she asked, trying to keep her voice level and her mind on the subject.
"Much as it has over the past days and nights. We seem to be as far away from a solution to the problem as we were at the outset." His words were interspersed with kisses.
"Do you mind talking about it?" Surreptitiously, she caught his questing hand.
He sighed. "Not at all. What is it you wish to know?"
"Well..." She wriggled again as he worked his hand free and began his caresses once more. "I was working with Brendt and Dr. McCoy on the history tapes; just going over the comparable diseases library is taking an incredible number of hours. But I wanted to ask about the tests. What's been tried so far?"
"We have run separate tissue and blood culture tests, a Rhineman-Bloch system chemistry series, full brain scan, the Sarteen-T'Vora wave analysis range -- all of the standard tests..."
"What is it? I am attempting to answer your questions."
"That's not all you're attempting," she muttered, trying to deal with what seemed to be his suddenly abnormal number of limbs.
"I?" Again, the bland innocence and busy hands.
She groaned, trying to listen and ignore the delightful distractions.
He attempted sobriety. "We have also tested the more esoteric availabilities: Koclanloc corpuscle scan, Braxton and M'Threen testing, the entire interspecies contamination series, and we have broken out separate geological, atmospheric, and spectroscopic readings for cross-correlations."
"Sounds discouragingly complete," she agreed.
Beside her, Spock stretched, pantherlike, stroking her body with his own lean, muscular length. She sighed, breaking off to return his caresses, then continued breathlessly, "And you still found nothing?"
"Nearly nothing," he corrected. "The entire business is complicated by the Captain's continued deterioration ... for which the Doctor can find no accounting."
Christine was wide awake now. She nibbled at her lower lip as she listened to Spock catalogue the details of the investigations. Some elusive clue hovered just outside the edge of her conscious awareness. Mentally, she cursed her own rustiness in research. If only she could recall something! The continuing caresses were no help.
"Spock," she murmured, trying to ignore his warm mouth trailing across her throat. "Please!"
"Yes?" he inquired lazily, continuing his delightful play, ignoring her protests.
"I'm thinking," she admonished.
"Yes -- *indeed*." She tried to glare at him, but couldn't stay angry in the face of his obvious enjoyment. Suddenly, her thoughts coalesced and she sat bolt upright, snapping her fingers and jarring loose of his embrace.
Spock gave her an exasperated raised brow.
"The Scibinitz tests!" she exclaimed, turning eagerly to him. "Did you try them?"
A frown creased his forehead and his hand momentarily stilled at her waist, then he pulled her back down beside him. "No, I do not recall seeing a record on them ... nor were they scheduled among those yet to be attempted." He found the thought of the oversight more disconcerting than he would have cared to admit.
Christine arched a brow of her own at him. "Wouldn't you say that was a little unusual? I've been away from active research for a long time, but *I* came up with something you missed."
Spock thought he could see where she was leading and found him- self with a most unVulcan desire to rationalize. "It is not so unusual, wife. Your time spent recently in the labs has renewed both your interest in research and awakened familiar methods and pathways of investigation."
"That may be true, Spock, but the fact that you missed a series of common tests for pathological unknowns tells me a good deal about the state of your mind."
"The tests are not all that common," he offered. Even to himself, it sounded somewhat lame.
She refused to be dissuaded. "Don't try to muddy the waters, Spock. It isn't like you." She fixed him with a level blue stare. "I think you're overtired, and that's why you missed those tests."
"Christine, Vulcans do not require as much rest as Humans..."
"That's true, but even Vulcans have an optimum peak of performance, don't they?"
Spock sighed. It was answer enough. He drew her close again.
"That's what I thought," she said smugly, then gasped, "Spock!" He nuzzled her throat. With some difficulty, she pulled away. "Listen to me!"
"Yes?" he murmured softly, patiently, lean fingers at work once more.
"How can you--?" She gulped and wriggled in pleasure. With some difficulty, she continued, "How -- can you ... hope to attend to your duties when you spend -- the full day in command and more ... than half the night in research?" She gasped again, helplessly, and then continued accusingly, "You aren't even eating properly."
When he opened his mouth to protest, she laid two fingers across his lips. "And don't tell me, logical one, that Vulcans don't need to eat as much as Humans. The fact is--" She broke off as he took to nibbling the fingers intended to silence him. She tried to falter on, "without -- er ... without proper rest -- and ... food--"
She broke off again, shivering and gasping with delight. His hands and mouth had centered their assault and she was helpless with the waves of ecstasy that trembled through her. With a ragged sigh of final surrender, she arched against him, eager for his mouth's gentle demands. As their bodies and minds began to entwine, she sighed mentally.
*Spock -- oh! -- Spock ... you're taking outrageous advantage of-- Oohh!*
Spock's Vulcan ability to concentrate on two things simultaneously proved itself once again. As his embrace deepened, he told his wife, *True. However, I promise one thing. I recognize your concern and shall give it serious consideration.*
She uttered an incoherent murmur of assent and gave herself up to the warmth of her husband within and around her.
* * *
Christine struggled upward through gossamer layers of sleep toward consciousness, aware of a gently insistent call to wakefulness. With a murmur half of protest and half of response, she finally came fully alert. Yawning and stretching, she turned toward where she expected Spock to be and instead found only the empty bed.
She sat up, looking around curiously. "Spock?" There was no answer and she realized her call has been a telepathic suggestion left behind to ensure her a gentle awakening in time for her morning duties. She smiled and the thoughtfulness and yet was mildly annoyed.
Rising, she made for the shower, reflecting on the most pleasurable means Spock had used to distract her from her concerns and questions the night before. For all his Vulcan-ness, he was often surprisingly Human. *And he can be as devious as the devil,* she thought. *Probably something he's picked up from us.* It occurred to her that he'd known perfectly well what she wanted to tell him, and rather than initiate a dispute, he had made love to her to get her mind off the matter and evade telling her that he had every intention of continuing as before.
*I suppose I was a fool to think otherwise. Where Jim's concerned, there are no half-measures.* Even as the thought took form, it stopped her in her tracks. Absently she scrubbed one leg again. *No half-measures,* she thought. There never had been any between the two men. Ever since she'd signed aboard the Enterprise, she'd observed the special quality of the relationship. *They're more like brothers than friends,* she reflected as she rinsed herself off.
Unbidden, a dozen different incidents sprang to life out of the past. Spock stepping in front of poisoned darts meant for Jim, Kirk disregarding Starfleet orders for his First Officer, Spock taking a rifle bullet on Tyree's planet... She tried to turn aside her thinking, concentrating her interest on following up on the previous day's tests, but even as she dressed and left their cabin, she was aware of a small gnawing at the back of her mind, persistent and mouse-like. With some of the Vulcan techniques Spock had taught her, she suppressed the mental itch and reported to Sickbay for the day's work.
* * *
To Spock, efficiently busy on the bridge at his duties as Acting Captain-cum-Science Officer, the warm memories of the time spent with Christine were but a comforting foundation on which he built yet another day of puzzlement and tensions. Though he covered it well, there was a rolling impatience inside him, driving at him steadily. His time was well occupied, but if truth be told, it would have suited him to be busier. As it was, he seemed to be everywhere an amazed crew could find him:
--on the bridge overseeing the morning schedule for the crew
--down in Engineering to confer with Scott about a shuttlecraft fly-over of the planet below
--over in the main computer section helping two technicians dismantle and then rebuild one of the overworked and malfunctioning units
--prowling through the labs, stopping at every computer terminal and 'scope for a personal report
--in McCoy's office for an exchange of cryptic and unencouraging questions and answers
--all-too-briefly in the Officers' Mess for a bowl of protein- rich Vulcan vegetable stew
--at Lieutenant Brendt's desk to pore over his findings
--back to the labs to suggest the Scibinitz tests Christine had remembered the night before
--and then back to the bridge to start all over again
And each time, on each trip, Spock would stop by Kirk's bed in isolation, silent, unobtrusive, unbothersome to the medical staff that performed its duties around him. He would stare briefly at the dignostic panel above the bed and then catalogue the skin tone and each line in the sleeping face of his Captain, mentally comparing it to the visit before. Just as silently as he had come, he would walk away.
* * *
On the heels of one of Spock's visits, McCoy came out of his office to stretch limbs cramped by hours over 'scope and tape reader. He focused an inquiring glance at Christine, who was disposing of soiled dressings.
"Who fell now?"
"Forsyth, Engineering. Minor lacerations and a mild sprain. Dr. M'Benga took care of it."
"Hmm." McCoy dialed himself yet another cup of coffee from the servo-comp in the corner of his office. The number of stray accidents was mounting each day. *If something doesn't break soon, *we* will,* he thought sourly and absently took a gulp of coffee. He grimaced at the black bitterness and dialed for cream and sugar. As he stirred, he sneaked a glance at Christine.
*Yep, there it is -- that radiance again.* When he'd first noticed the phenomenon, he couldn't remember and, for a variety of reasons, he wished he couldn't see it now. It was embarrassing, like being able to view hidden intimacies. *Damned superior Vulcan,* he grumped to himself. *Runs around like a robocomputer all day long, spends more than half the night in the lab, and still has the energy to leave his wife glowing like that all day! It isn't fair!*
With a rueful sigh that acknowledged the multiplicity of unfairnesses heaped together in the finite universe, he took his coffee back to his desk. *Jesus, I'm tired!* he thought as he rubbed his eyes. Angry at the continued frustrations, he deliberately sat back, avoiding the tapes and reports spread out before him and sipped his coffee, contemplating, wondering at the elusiveness of the disease evading their research. *Damned thing keeps changing form ... as if it knew we were after it and it was bent on escape,* he thought angrily, sighing again at his own ridiculousness and pulled out the next report tape. *Get back to work before you begin to see cows jumping over moons!*
* * *
Within the trap of Kirk's mind, the entity of Lybythos raged with the frustrated fury of a captive jungle beast. *Useless! You are useless to me, host! To prevent your revealing my presence, I must keep you prisoner and therefore myself as well! And this inadequate shell you call a body fails even as I wait out the hours until your brethren relax their vigil and one of them can be made a victim!*
Faintly, what was left of Kirk's individual will struggled, indomitable. *That was my intention, you bastard!* The Lybythosian responded with a flash of pain for his pinned victim. Kirk managed a strangled chuckle through his agony. *Keep it up,* he invited. *You're only making me weaker -- and it's exactly what I want, the only thing you can give me ... that will satisfy me.*
*Be warned, host! I am the stronger, and I will survive. I have existed all these centuries... I *will* survive.*
*Not if I can help it -- and not if I die before you can catch another victim.*
*Empty threats! You cling to life too stubbornly to give it up for any price. And before your puny shell fails, I shall have one of your weakling subjects.*
*They're not my subjects. They're my crew,* snapped Kirk, irritated by his immediate dilemma. *And I promise you one thing -- you won't get my ship! I'll die before I let you have another of my crew ... and you'll go down with me!*
*Valiant Captain!* taunted the Lybythosian. *And how they will love you for it -- your noble sacrifice. Even now, the silent one of the pointed ears takes your place.*
Despite the battle and his pain, Kirk laughed. *You don't know the half ... and wouldn't understand the rest!* The wave of torture that followed in furious reply sent him deep into the black caverns of his own mind. For a while, he would be silent.
Above his head, the 'lyzer board registered the brief struggle as a series of minute flickers on the EEG scanner. They would have been visible to a trained eye, but days of observing had extracted their price from an overworked crew. The nurse at the monitor console was Compton, and she was weary enough to be very glad of the break provided by a few pleasantries exchanged with a rather special medtech named Bryan. When she turned back to the board, the indicators for Kirk were innocently stable once more.
Bryan made his way back through the labs, collecting tapes for McCoy's review. He was very fond of Nancy Compton, liked her quite a lot, in fact. He had hopes that there might be something for them in the future. A sardonic voice broke in on his thoughts.
"What're you noodling over *now*, Bryan?"
Guiltily, Bryan started. He looked up to see two lab techs grinning knowingly in his direction. Despite himself, he blushed. They laughed and the blush deepened. One elbowed the other.
"Come on, Feldman. You know what's got him in dreamland."
"I do?" Feldman was all innocence.
"Sure. It's Nancy Compton, the sweetest little nurse this side of Beta Aurigae."
"Ah-ha! Is that so, Bryan?"
"No, really. Tell us -- how does it feel to be marked for the kill?" The two broke up at their own cleverness.
Bryan's scowl turned to puzzlement. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You mean you don't know? Man, are you ripe for a plucking!"
"I don't know what?" Bryan disliked these two mental Siamese twins even more than he cared to admit to himself. They'd dogged him as a hapless junior crewman ever since he'd come on board, and his all-too-painfully apparent interest in Nancy Compton only made it worse.
"Gee, Bryan, I thought even a green one like you could hear the wedding bells in a girl's voice when she said *hello*." Hastings looked smug.
Feldman delivered the coup de grace. "Yeah, Bryan. Ever since Chapel snagged the First Officer, Compton's been humming Mendelssohn. Everybody knows that!" He moved closer to the shorter ensign. "And you don't want to end up like Spock, do you? All tied up like a Thanksgiving turkey, ready to roast?"
"I'm not so sure about that, Harvey," said Hastings, suddenly sober.
"What do you mean?"
Hastings pointed wordlessly toward the corridor where Spock silently passed by, headed back from one of his numberless visits to ICU. "There he goes again -- the Phantom," Hastings said when the First Officer was out of sight. "I'm not so sure that Chapel has him tied up after all."
"Specify," said Feldman. It was a fair imitation of the Vulcan exec.
Hastings shook his head. He wasn't smiling. "If you ask me, for a newlywed, our First Officer sure spends a hell of a lot of time visiting the Captain's bedside. Could it be he's more attached to Kirk than he is to his wife?"
There was a leaden silence and then Bryan snapped up their tapes. "You know, Hastings, you've got a filthy mind."
"Filthy mind ... filthy body," Feldman quipped. "Take your pick."
Bryan was at the door when his tormentor gave him the parting shot. "Think I'm wrong, huh? Well, you think about it for a minute. After five years of running like hell every time he saw her, exactly why did Spock marry our Head Nurse? And if he's so much in love, why the hell does he spend so much time looking in on Kirk and driving us all half buggy looking for a cure for the whatsis that has hold of the Captain?"
Bryan shook his head and practically dove out the door to escape. He made a quick left, absorbed in his own thoughts, muttering denials under his breath. He didn't see Christine Chapel standing frozen in shock down the corridor behind him.
* * *
For what seemed an eternal stretch of time after Bryan disappeared into another lab, Christine stood rooted to the spot by Hastings' words. She tried to tell herself that those who eavesdropped, however unintentionally, often heard ill of themselves. She also tried to tell herself that it was just jealous speculation from a crewman who had never liked either herself or Spock. She tried a great many things; none of them worked. The rodent-like doubts nibbling at the edges of her tension, clouding her overtired mind for the past several days had come out of their mouse holes now -- with Hastings' help. And now they chittered at her in a growing chorus that would not be stilled, even by her firmest efforts.
For the first time since Spock had so joyously startled her with his proposal months before, an insidious question had surfaced. Why, indeed, had he married her? And why all the attention for Kirk? All her earlier temporizing had faded before the resurrected ghosts of her own insecurity, and though she strove mightily to bury herself in work for the remainder of the day, the terrible thoughts refused to be banished.
* * *
Unluckily, she and Spock missed each other at the meal break. Forced to eat in the company of Nancy Compton, she found all the innocent conversation about Bryan and his devotion a bit more than she could bear in her present frame of mind. As soon as possible, she pleaded other duties and practically ran for the security of the quarters she and Spock shared.
Pacing through the red-glowed warmth, she found little comfort in all the reminders of the unity between them. When they'd set up these quarters, Spock had been adamant that the rooms reflect as much of an intertwining of their cultures and interests as their marriage did of their lives. Her collection of odd-shaped antique mirrors above the desk, his red ceremonial draperies and ancient weapons, her needlework, his bellbanners, her poetry books, his Vulcan harp -- over and over, wherever she looked, there was evidence of all that now seemed to be in question.
The hours that dragged by without Spock's arrival wore on her nerves. She tried to read, tried tea and a hot bath for relaxation ... and nothing helped. She paced tensely as she brushed her hair, trying to ignore the lure of the desk chronometer. She knew where he was, but was too agitated to go after him. She had a horror of revealing personal matters in public that almost equaled Spock's. Even if he hadn't been Vulcan, she couldn't expose him to outside criticism. He was, above all else, the First Officer, and just now, acting Captain. He needed the crew's respect and confidence in order to function.
*But,* she vowed to herself, *when he returns, no matter how late it is, we're going to clear this up, or I'm going to know the reason why!*
For a while, that seemed to satisfy her rolling emotions. But as the minutes continued to stretch out into hours, she found her anger returning, along with an insidious, growing worry. She began to fear that she was only seeing the tip of what could be a rather ugly iceberg, and didn't want to look at it too carefully. Typically, once one negative thought had invaded, it brought a host of others along with it. Somewhere long after midnight, she switched off a booktape after having read the same paragraph three times.
*Damn!* she cursed to herself. The chronometer stared back defiantly, proclaiming the lateness of the hour. *It's no use waiting up. He probably won't show up here until at least 0400 at the earliest. And even with all his promises to 'consider' my concerns, he'll figure out a nice, neat, logical reason why he should be wearing himself out the way he is. Oh, damn you, Spock! For a logical Vulcan, you're awfully damned Human-stubborn sometimes!*
She forced herself up, disposed of the tea things and snapped off the lights. She turned to the bedroom, struggled out of her robe and lay down without feeling the slightest inclination to sleep. The bed seemed very hard and uncomfortable, and the rising tide of questions continued to plague her. She tried to deny the flare of jealousy that surfaced when she thought of Spock's devotion to Kirk, but it wouldn't go away. The minutes dragged into another hour, and she tossed restlessly. This was no time for a confrontation, but her nerves were too jangled to bury her feelings any longer.
*How did this happen so quickly?* she wondered, staring at the ceiling. *Or was it there all along, something I refused to see in my dreams-come-true state of mind? Jim's always meant so very much to him ... but what do *I* mean?* Her heart pounded uncomfortably. She felt ill, recalling that he'd told her she was necessary to him, that he cared for her, that she had a special place in his life. *Being necessary is not quite the same as being loved,* she thought inevitably, and once the thought was born, it grew, augmented by her never-quite-forgotten deep insecurity and days of tensed overtiredness.
She was almost unaware that hot, bitter tears had escaped to streak her face and wet the pillow beneath her head. There was a terrible, hard-edged knot in her breast that wouldn't seem to work itself free. Helplessly, she turned over to bury her face in her pillow. Deep, harsh sobs shook her body, echoing in the quiet.
* * *
Spock pulled away from the microscope readout screen reluctantly. There was a gnawing ache beneath his right shoulder blade and his eye sockets seemed lined with ground glass. He closed his eyes and stretched softly, easing the accumulated weariness with some difficulty. He needed no chronometer to tell him the lateness of the hour, and neither McCoy nor a stack of report tapes were needed to tell him they were no closer to a solution than they had been when Kirk was first brought into isolation. Time -- they had so little of it!
He snapped off the 'scope and returned the samples he'd been studying to their housing. *Christine was correct,* he mused as he put the lab station in order. *There are diminishing returns to be realized here when I am becoming too weary to analyze microscope findings.*
He glanced around once more to affirm the lab's condition and then snapped off the lights as he departed. Quietly, he headed back toward the turbolift and the quarters he shared with his wife. The hint of a smile quirked one corner of his finely cut mouth. Christine would be pleased to know he'd conceded. *And if she is not awake to learn it for herself now, I believe I may disturb her rest to tell her as much. Her patience and understanding have been a great comfort. I owe her a great deal.*
He was passing Sickbay just then and decided to take another look at Kirk. The Captain had been fairly stable earlier that evening, and Spock felt a need to reassure himself that such was still the case. The ward was dark and silent, untenanted, the corridors and examination room quiet. He passed the door of McCoy's darkened office, somewhat surprised not to find the doctor bent over his reader-viewer with the inevitable cup of coffee at his elbow. A glance inside solved the mystery. McCoy lay curled up on the small couch, a blanket drawn up about his hunched shoulders.
*We are all of us becoming exhausted by this constant struggle,* he thought as he continued on to the Intensive Care Unit. Earlier, he'd heard McCoy say he was moving Kirk to a standard cubicle there. Contagion had been virtually ruled out, so there seemed no good reason to keep the Captain isolated any longer. Kirk lay on the bed in the first cubicle, his still-boyish face peaceful in the dimmed light of the diagnostic panel. Spock came to a halt beside him, studying the amber-gold face, made thinner and pale now by the silent battle he was waging.
Here in the quiet, Spock could admit to his own deep, private fear -- that Kirk would quietly slip away from them before they could unravel the mystery of his ailment. *All the King's horses and all the King's men ... * he thought with uncharacteristic depression. He glanced up at the diagnostic panel; there was a minute quivering of the brain scan indicator and then another slip of the needles across the board. Pain flashed through the Vulcan at this renewed proof of deterioration. *Not stable,* he thought. *Not at all. Oh -- Jim ... *
He looked despairingly at Kirk's face, almost willing a response, certainly wishing for one -- even though it wasn't very Vulcan of him to do so. Abruptly, Kirk's eyelids fluttered and a muscle near his mouth twitched. Spock froze, eyebrows lifting. He glanced up at the board. His brows swept downward into a black frown. The indicators were insultingly mute, yet -- he *had* seen, had he not?
Again, the slight movement. Again, the indicators remained level. Compelled by both worry and curiosity to solve the riddle before him, Spock extended sensitive hands to Kirk's temples. He intended no invasion, but perhaps Kirk was reaching out for help. Effortlessly, he opened his mind to his Captain, reaching out in turn for Kirk's mind. The pathways were familiar to him, but this time he found a strange difference within. The clash with Kirk's bright, fiery force of personality did not come as he'd learned to expect it should. Instead, there was a shadowed emptiness and a suggestion of something alien and evil.
*Jim?* he called, uneasy. *Captain Kirk -- answer me!*
There was no reply ... and yet there must be one. He knew that Kirk should not yet have slipped back into the depths of his own subconscious as death took its dominion over him. Again he called out, moving forward cautiously. Suddenly, there was an agitated, struggling flurry before him and simultaneously with a gasped scream of warning from Kirk, he was overwhelmed by a profoundly malevolent essence, a writhing invasion that drowned him in its obscene, furious greed for control.
*Spock! Get away from it!* Kirk's gasped cry was desperate, though very weak. *Get the hell out of here!*
Spock obeyed the warning as if it were a command. With all his strength, he broke away from the meld, staggering back against the wall. Helplessly, he gave a choked cry of protest as he realized he had brought the creature with him, a strange, powefully foul miasma. The sensations that tore through him made his flesh crawl and it took a supreme effort to keep from retching.
He gasped for air as the creature took possession of his lungs, cutting off any further sound from him. Struggling furiously, Spock stumbled out of the cubicle and rammed against the corridor wall to stand, breathing heavily as he came to grips with the entity. Behind him, as Kirk's condition altered radically, the 'lyzer board indicators went crazy and an alarm brought the night shift medical staff on the run to the Captain's bedside. In the confusion, no one took notice of the distressed First Officer who walked out on legs as stiff and wobbly as a newborn colt's.
The outer sickbay doors snapped shut behind him and Spock leaned against the bulkhead to steady himself. *What are you?* he demanded.
*The Lybythosian -- and you are my new host.* The raw-edged metallic sub-vocalization chilled him.
*Get out of my mind!* Spock snarled, not really expecting meek cooperation. He was unsurprised by raucous, maniacal laughter in reply.
*Ah, no, my dear host! You are mine now. You no longer command here! I do ... and you will obey me!*
Spock flinched at a sudden spasmodic cramping of every muscle in his body. *What is it -- you want?* he gasped.
*What I now possess -- yourself! This excellent body, so much better than that of your weakling Captain ... will serve my needs admirably!*
Again, the protesting Vulcan was punished with wrenching pain.
*Yes, you will! Your sensations and experiences will be mine. I already have your mind, access to your knowledge and memories. You will act on my command and I will know the joys of physical life through you.*
*No, you will not,* Spock grated in defiance.
The screeched laughter was a saw on sensitive Vulcan nerves. *How little you know! Your Captain also was convinced he might best me -- but he was unequal to my strength. You, though you are strong, a fine physical specimen, will also fail. Your choice is clear. Obey easily or suffer the consequences.*
Spock's only answer to that was an oft-heard Human epithet. He was done with argument. He turned toward the turbolift, intending to battle this out in the privacy of his quarters. In that silent, warm sanctuary, his own familiar territory, he could concentrate every effort without interference. The turbolift doors had snapped closed behind him and the 'lift had begun its rise toward Deck 5 when he slammed it to an abrupt manual halt.
*Without interference,* he thought, somewhat dazed. *Christine!*
A sudden spasm of agony shot through him, the creature's call for attention. *Who is this 'Christine'?*
In a flash, Spock realized his error and tried desperately to blank his mind; it was a futile gesture. He had the sensation of hot metal fingers probing at his brain, ruthlessly rifling memories, scattering them askew like a ransacker disordering a private chamber.
*Ah, yes! Yes!* The laughter of discovery was so obscene that Spock shivered. *The female is -- important to you, I see ... your mate. This is better than I could have hoped. Your Captain did not have this. Oh, how long forgotten and well-mixed enjoyment to offer ... *
A profound wave of disgust coursed through Spock as he obtained a flashing perception of the Lybythosian's avid anticipation. *No!* he protested, and with a mighty effort, blocked out the smallest thought of his wife. He ordered "Deck 12," and the turbolift reversed and dropped heavily.
Reading the First Officer's intention to draw as far away as possible from his cabin and his wife, the Lybythosian screamed a protest and hurled Spock across the turbolift, slamming him into the wall with nearly bone-breaking force. Spock grunted helplessly and slid down the wall. There was a minute warm, green trickle at one corner of his mouth. He wiped it away absently and climbed to his feet, his resolve unshaken. The turbolift came to a stop and the doors swished open.
Before the creature could stop him, Spock fled out of the car and down the night-dimmed corridor away from it. The pain of stiffening leg muscles pulsed through him and he slowed against his will. As he tried to keep running, the Vulcan was turned back toward the 'lift and only a desperate lunge at the ladder rails of an access hatchway kept him from being forced back.
With all his strength, Spock clung to the rails, knuckles white with strain. His body was tugged back fitfully as the Lybythosian tried to force him toward the 'lift and Christine. Still fighting the force, he became aware that this greedy entity intended to intrude itself into the precious bond between his beloved and himself. "No!" he choked, taking a still-harder grip on the rail.
*Yes, you will!* the creature insisted.
Spock shook himself like a dog, gritting his teeth against the electric storm of pain that tore through him. *No, I will not!*
*You will do as I say -- because I wish it! There is no point to protest unless you enjoy pain. I wish this experience, and you will give it to me!*
Sweat broke out on Spock's brow and body as he fought to retain his hold against the pain and the pull of the creature within him. With a sense of near-despair, he watched his sweaty hands slip. He was losing this battle ... and if he lost it, Christine would become victim of this foul invasion.
More than anything else, he wanted to insure against another falling under the Lybythosian's influence. It was the reason he'd chosen this deck; his own office and department were located here and at this hour, the rooms would be empty. That their equipment might also provide him with tools to deal with the invader was something he knew without having to think about.
The pain and pressure increased as the maddened creature sought to force his compliance. It came to Spock in a flash that he had one slim chance to end this battle. With a supremely painful wrench that tore at nerve endings in both brain and body, he severed the marriage bond in one decisive cutting stroke. As its golden warmth fell away, and with it the sheltering comfort of linkage to his beloved, he knew a cold, black loneliness that chilled more deeply than even Sarpeidon's ice age winds. The heart within him cried out at the loss, howling like some grief-torn wolf.
When his mind finally cleared of reaction to the bond severance, he was aware once more of the alien thing in his mind as it shrieked with frustration. *You will pay for that, Vulcan! Deny me nothing else, or you will find out for yourself the extent of my powers ... and it will not be pleasant!*
With all that remained of his indomitable will, Spock forced his concentration down to a pinpoint. His only chance lay in depriving the creature of any but the narrowest awareness. If he could keep it penned in tight sensory confines, he might find a way to best it. He lurched down the corridor toward the silent computer center. The Lybythosian punishments were teeth gnawing at his vitals.
* * *
Morning came to Christine with a pounding headache and gritty eyes. She turned over, uncurled from the fetal clench in which she'd slept, to find the bed vacant but for herself. Disoriented, she pulled herself up to look at the intercom chronometer on the shelf behind the bed. The reading was 0723 hours. Startled, she turned to regard the untouched half of the bed. Not so much as a wrinkle marred the surface, and she knew without being told that Spock had not returned to their quarters at all.
The insecurities and angers brought to light the night before returned, and with them came a new awareness. A cold emptiness sat dead center in her breast, a bleak chill that caused her to shiver even in the Vulcan heat of the room. She sought the shower, appalled at the depth of her own fears. As she stood under the spray, wondering at this black fear within her, she thought of Spock's failure to return. Suddenly, without knowing precisely *how* she knew it, she felt that there was something terribly wrong between them, something that might have been there all along but which had only been brought to the surface now.
Yet there was something almost physical about this ... a deep-seated terror the likes of which she'd not felt since that horrible time when Spock had nearly been killed in the Romulan attack. It was out of that horror that their relationship had grown and flowered into bonding and marriage. Christine's hand stilled the shower controls. The bonding! Perhaps it was only her new anxiety, but she felt none of the warmth, sustenance or strength she'd learned to identify with the bond and she felt a surge of panic. What had happened, and why had Spock not returned at some time during the night?
Hastily, she dressed, her heart pounding. Over and over she heard the harsh words between the two lab techs, the implication of Spock's greater devotion to the Captain than to his wife. She wanted to cast the thoughts aside, but his failure to come to her last night and this new cold feeling inside gave an insidious weight to the careless gossip. If he *did* love her, said her fears, then why had he not returned? He knew how she felt. She'd told him just the other night.
By the time she was ready to leave quarters, she was too nervous to contemplate breakfast or her duty shift with any sense of peace. Knowing only that she must speak with Spock before another hour passed, she set out to find her husband.
* * *
In the privacy of the Science Officer's cubicle on Deck 12, Spock eyed the desk chronometer warily. Morning. The crew was waking, and some would soon be returning to the adjoining computer center to face the day's duty. Through the waning hours of night, he had battled the creature within his mind to no avail beyond a stalemate. All efforts to record a message of warning had been met with pain and pressure that had nearly broken his Vulcan strength and left him shaking with exhaustion. Desperately afraid of contact with anyone else for fear of the enslavement of another by this creature of Lybythos, Spock had locked himself away and fought to cast out the intruder. The hours had fled away and he was still a prisoner.
Floor and desk were littered with tapes and the computer console edge bore a green stain where Spock had slammed his hand against it in an effort to fight the consuming, choking agony with agony of his own. He was uncharacteristically disheveled; his tunic showed stains of unfamiliar sweat, there were bruises beneath it where he'd been hurled repeatedly against the bulkhead by the infuriated creature, and the silken cap of hair was rumpled.
Now, in a momentary lull in the fierce battle, as he listened to the sounds of the wakening starship around him, Spock realized he could not keep at this much longer. Sooner or later, he would succumb and the creature would be in total control of his mind and body, allowing him only the moves, thoughts, inclinations as were necessary to mask the nature of what possessed him. There was but one thing left to him -- and that was to get as far away from the ship and crew as he could, to carry the intruder away from the others ... to prevent it from realizing its goal of escape from the dead planet that had been its home and prison. As soon as the thought came to him, he banished it in an effort to keep the creature from realizing his plans.
With a massive effort, he concentrated on mathematical complexities as his hands found a tricorder and communicator and fastened them in place at shoulder and belt. Both hands shook as the First Officer made repairs to his appearance in the 'fresher attached to his office. Then, still mentally juggling mathematical problems, he was on the point of leaving when Christine came into the office with a quiet, almost tentative step and a hollow-eyed anxiety that tore at the edges of his resolve. She stood leaning against the closed door and watched him quietly. He froze in place, terrified that she would come too close to him.
For a long moment, she said nothing, her heart taking dismayed note of his closed, rigid face and stiff posture. She thought of questions and disregarded all of them as pointless. Finally, she asked in a soft, pain-filled voice, "Oh, Spock, what's wrong?"
It took all Spock's considerable strength and fierce will to answer normally. "Wrong?" he asked stiffly. "I do not understand. To what do you refer?"
Her lips trembled. "Don't play with me," she said, her voice breaking.
Spock moved to the desk, subtly putting it between them, pretending to concentrate on the tapes before him. He must distract her from the condition of the office and himself -- get her away before she came close enough to fall victim to this terrible possession. "Play?" he asked wearily. "You fence with words, wife. Come to the point."
Christine gasped softly. She'd known Spock to be withdrawn and aloof in the years before their marriage, but he'd never been rude.
"Spock? Please?" Her hand went out beseechingly.
He sighed with apparent impatience. "I am short on time. What is it you would discuss with me?" He sat down on the high stool before his desk, seemingly ignoring her concern. Inside himself, he fought spasms of pain with iron-faced impassivity, hoping desperately that he could find the means to make her leave before his strength broke and she became endangered.
Suddenly, her sorrow erupted into fury. She slammed both hands flat on top of the computer console. "Damn you, Spock! Look at me! What's so important that you can't be bothered to give your attention to your own wife?"
Spock looked at her coldly, flinching inwardly at the pain and anger in her beloved face. Inside, the tiny voice of his heart whimpered for her forgiveness even as his face remained closed. "You know my duties, the research in which I am engaged on the Captain's behalf--"
"The Captain! The Captain! Always the Captain!" she grated, her control snapping like dry twigs. "It never occurred to me before all this that I have been a colossal fool! Let me ask you this ... if I were the one in Sickbay, would your efforts be so resolute on *my* behalf?"
He didn't answer, and her breath caught in an angry sob. She forced the next question out, though it terrified her to even speak it aloud. "Spock, why did you marry me?"
He faced her with an apparent detachment that was utterly alien. "If you gave the matter intelligent consideration, you would know the answer to your own question, Christine. Or do you not know that I could not survive long unmated?"
At her anguished cry of denial, Spock fixed obsidian eyes on her face. "Must I explain it in detail? You claimed to care for me. I took you at your word. It made the serving of my need easier for you, but if it had not been you, there would have been someone else. The survival instinct is very strong in Vulcans. Now if you would please leave, I have duties to attend to, and I believe you are due in Sickbay."
White-faced, her eyes almost black with shock, Christine moaned and backed away from him toward the door. She shook her head, saying, "No! No! Oh, no!" over and over -- and then, with a torn sob, she fled out the door and away.
Behind her, Spock slumped against the desk, his heart aching with loss. "Forgive me, Christine. I beg thee ... forgive me," he whispered, cringing as the Lybythosian erupted into wild laughter inside his mind. As the Vulcan slumped there, his cheek resting against the cool metal of the desk top, gasping with mental and physical agony as well as a profound state of loneliness, the creature danced around inside his head, gleeful and triumphant at his misery.
*Perfect!* the creature screeched. *Perfect! I could not have devised a more fitting punishment for you than the one you brought upon yourself! Forgiveness? Bah! She will never forgive such coldness in the face of her pain! And now you are alone, but for me! How perfect!*
Spock shuddered helplessly. The spectre of his loneliness was all too real, an echoing coldness that froze his heart and body, reminding him of the years before he'd had the inspiration and courage to reach out for Christine. In his weakened state, emotions he always controlled were now treacherously close to the surface and it took a long time and terrible effort to draw back from the pit of his own black sorrow. Finally, he succeeded, and with blind courage lurched to his feet. Once more, he concentrated on mathematics and forced himself to walk out of the office, wearing his deceptive calm again. Inside, the Lybythosian beat against the bars of his consciousness.
*Where do you go now, Vulcan?* it demanded. *Do you not hear me? I asked you where you go?*
The familiar physical punishment assaulted him, but Spock gritted his teeth and pressed on. When the demanding query was put to him again, he answered mentally, *I have duties.* Warily, still watchful, the creature subsided, to await developments.
* * *
Christine bent over the light board by the drug supply bin, pretending to work though there was no one to question the time she spent over trivia or the surreptitious way she wiped at her eyes. She prayed that no one would disturb her until she'd regained her composure, and so far no one had.
But the cover of work couldn't keep out the burning coldness of Spock's words as they repeated themselves over and over in her mind. She shook her head with blind, angry agony, trying to push the awareness somewhere off to the side until she could deal with it, but it would not be eliminated. Finally, she threw down the light board and stylus and sat on a stool, allowing it all to flood in on her.
But even as she tried to face the devastation inside, she found herself recoiling from it. It was so inexplicable, and there was such an emptiness there, an emptiness she hadn't felt for months. *Oh, he couldn't have meant it ... not that way!* she moaned to herself. *So terribly cold -- and yet he's not been cold since the day he asked me to be his wife.*
She tried to take comfort in warm memories, but found the echo of Spock's chilly dismissal intruding upon her thoughts again, shattering fragile hopes and dreams. To be merely necessary and useful--! It warred with all the things in which she believed. And it warred with her memories of Spock himself, even before they'd been bonded and married. He, who would gladly sacrifice himself rather than cause pain to another, had always been gentle, compassionate and honorable.
*Yes ... honorable,* she thought. *Always honorable. But there was nothing of honor in that declaration to me.*
She pondered it miserably for a while longer, always returning to the Spock she'd known for years, the man whose dignity and integrity were so far above question, whose gentleness had been an unspoken but recognized reality which she'd perceived by instinct from the very beginning.
And she had to admit that until their horrible exchange today, he had been that man of honor above all. A disconcerting thought occurred. *Is it possible he was ... lying to me?* She was stopped by the thought. *But why? Why would he lie to *me* about -- something so intimate? Why say such terrible, hurtful things if they weren't true?*
She tried to puzzle it out but hurt, confusion, weariness and her own insecurity kept twisting around inside her so that all she could see was a meaningless jumble with only his face in the midst -- tight-lipped, iron-jawed, batwing brows drawn together in a frown of some emotion that might have been anything from anger to ... pain.
As she sat there, lost in thought, Nancy Compton stuck her head into the supply room. "Oh, there you are! Thank heaven! McCoy's been bellowing for help. You'd better come right away."
Jarred away from personal concerns, Christine rose to follow her. "What's wrong?" She wiped at her cheeks to erase the last vestige of tears.
"It's the Captain. He's coming out of his coma!"
Both nurses hurried to the intensive care unit, where a steady stream of techs was coming out of the second cubicle. McCoy's growl was at full volume. "Where the hell is Compton? Or Chapel, for that matter? Why the hell can't I find a member of my staff when I need one? Is everybody on vacation around here?"
Nancy Compton put on speed and was soon at the Doctor's elbow, assisting him and receiving a non-stop dressing-down at once. Christine tiptoed in and made herself unobtrusively useful to one side, knowing her turn would come. She viewed the patient curiously. The monitors above the bed had risen remarkably and under the influence of the stimulant McCoy was administering, Kirk was stirring and moaning softly.
Between snapped comments to his staff, McCoy murmured soothingly, "Easy, Jim. Come on. Come on now. You can make it."
His eyes shifted between Kirk's pale face and the monitors. The indicators wavered, slipped, and slowly crawled upward again. "Come on, Jim," he repeated. By now the doctor's voice was hoarse. He had been at Kirk's bedside constantly since the ghost watch hour when the alarm signals had brought the staff running. For a while back then, it had seemed that the Captain would revive to total consciousness, but instead, after a brief period of what the doctor could only think of as a struggle, he had fallen into a normal though deep sleep.
*Now,* thought McCoy. *it looks as if he might make it after all.* He turned to Compton. "Two cc's of cordrazine."
She slapped the hypo into his open palm and he jammed it against Kirk's shoulder. The Captain twitched, moaning, and abruptly his eyes snapped open. He glanced around wildly, gasping as if he'd suddenly come up for air.
"Jim!" McCoy's cry was joyful.
"Yeah, Bones. Welcome back, sleeping beauty!"
"Where--? Bones ... Spock! Where's Spock?" Kirk grabbed at McCoy's tunic, twisting it with desperate fingers.
"Easy, Jim -- easy," McCoy soothed. "We'll get him. Just take it easy."
"You ... you don't understand!"
"What don't I--?"
Kirk's grip tightened. "That -- that *thing*! It was in the cave on the planet ... and then it was in my mind! Ugly, crawling, obscene!" He shuddered, vision turned inward.
The listening medical team gasped, fascinated as Kirk pulled at McCoy. "*Bones*!" Kirk's sudden cry chilled them all. McCoy paled at the alien tone of it. Kirk dragged the physician down toward himself. "Bones, it -- it left me... During the night, it -- left me and *it took Spock*!"
Christine shuddered, a whisper of protest escaping her.
"Jim! Jim, calm down! You're all right now! What do you mean, 'it took Spock'?"
"He came here ... *was* here ... came into my mind ... I don't know when. It was waiting, hiding in my head, holding me prisoner! Bones, it wants the ship! It ambushed Spock, took over his body! Bones, where is he?"
McCoy tried to soothe Kirk's near-hysteria, but to no avail. "All right, all right! Dammit! I'll call the bridge and you'll see... He'll be there. It was nothing but a dream, Jim! Just a dream!"
"Damn it, Bones! I tell you, it was no dream! Call Spock ... call him..." Kirk fell back, pale, his hazel eyes dark with anxiety.
McCoy clutched his arm reassuringly and reached for the intercom switch. "McCoy to bridge."
Behind him, Christine edged toward the door. Inside, she felt a growing terror, a sudden certainty that needed no substantiation. Without knowing how she could be so certain, she knew that Spock would not be sitting placidly in the command chair. She waited only a moment for the comfirmation that came from the bridge and then, in the confusion, escaped sickbay. She dashed to the turbolift, ignoring the greetings of crewmen, intent on her mission.
*Spock,* she thought as the 'lift dropped toward Deck 12. *Oh, Spock, how could I have doubted you? And how well you know me that you knew exactly what to say to push me away from you! Forgive me! Please be all right!*
This last thought, she knew, was mere wish fulfillment. The turbolift doors opened on Deck 12 and she dashed for his office, praying he'd be there. "Please..." she murmured, hitting the access plate.
The door hissed open on an empty office. Christine's throat tightened as she stepped in. Without Spock's forceful presence, the emptiness nearly echoed. And she noticed now what she had not seen before when his carefully, lethally worded distraction had filled her mind: the uncharacteristic disorder. Tapes were strewn around the desk, and one or two had fallen to the floor. Near the stool lay the shattered pieces of one of the microcassettes. Christine shivered as she examined the shards. The wafer had been crushed, and she had no difficulty picturing the strong fingers that had done it.
The edges of the cassette were stained with a green substance she recognized all too quickly. As she looked around, her heart flip-flopped sickeningly. There were drops of blood on the floor and, as she looked up the side of the cabinet, she saw a large stain on the edge of the computer console. With shaking fingers, she reached out and touched it. When her fingertip came away wet, she moaned softly. "Oh, Spock! Dear God!" she murmured as the implication of what she was seeing hit her with devastating impact.
She looked around, noticing other things. For the first time, she saw the door to the supply cabinet standing ajar. Spock's tricorder, the special one Kirk had given him as a gift upon completion of their five-year mission, was missing from its storage place -- and it was then that she was certain deep in her heart that he was no longer aboard ship. Hastily, she scrambled to her feet and rifled the supply cabinet for a second tricorder and communicator. Some instinct she didn't want to examine too closely also made her take Spock's small hand phaser from its locked compartment. With a desperate hope in her heart, she left.
* * *
The transporter effect had cleared, and Spock looked curiously around him. The climate and landscape of Lybythos were as bleak and inhospitable as the landing party had reported. Abruptly, a bolt of fire flashed along his nerves, and a choking suffocation overwhelmed him. He tried to gasp for air, failed to draw any into his lungs, and fell to his knees. Bands of fire circled his ribs as he tried to breathe and a green-black haze dimmed his eyes.
*You have brought me back to that which I escaped!* the creature within him roared. It howled and gibbered inside his shell, punishing him with a vicious, alien cruelty that only firmed his resolve to take it as far as possible from the ship and crew. When Spock could no longer tolerate the suffocation, he began to slip in and out of consciousness, blackness waxing and waning before his eyes. With Vulcan detachment, he estimated the time left before his heart and brain failed, taking minute satisfaction from the knowledge that he would take the creature with him into the blackness of death.
A mental screech cut through the fog of incipient unconsciousness. *Ah, no, host!* Spock became aware that he lay panting in the grey-green dust. The tricorder cut into his ribs and one arm was folded awkwardly beneath his body. *I am not yet prepared to give up either my existence or my mastery of you, my host!* the creature announced, and by gradual stages it forced him to his feet, where he stood swaying for long moments, his lungs tingling with the return of air. *Return to your ship!* the creature demanded.
Spock shook himself like a wet dog, divesting himself of his tricorder and communicator, dropping them into the dusty soil at his feet. Resolutely, he set off toward the horizon. Furious, the creature screamed for attention, but Spock trudged onward, ignoring the pressure. Once again, he was assaulted by the familiar litany of pain and pressure, and once again set his will against it. He was fleetingly aware that the task was becoming more and more difficult and was glad to be alone in his battle, staggering and stumbling like a drunkard, mind set on his goal.
The entity continued sending shocks of burning pain flashing through him, twisting muscles and nerves in an attempt to bring him to heel. When the pain caught the Vulcan in its grip, he could think of nothing except pushing onward, often on all fours when he could no longer walk, an indomitable will taking him where physical strength could not. In the small spaces between, when mind and body were briefly free from agony, disjointed images filled his thoughts: Jim as he had been on the bridge before Lybythos, shyly apologizing for his jealousy of Spock's new happiness ... McCoy, weary and confused after hours and days of fruitless research and ineffective treatment ... Christine, her eyes filled with horrified, painful bewilderment ...
Spock winced at the memory of the pain he had brought the woman he loved. The spectre of her condemnation, her turning from him and the aching loneliness of the severed bond overwhelmed him. It was the loneliness in particular that nearly shattered his controls. "Forgive me," he whispered as he made his faltering way onward. Suddenly, his mind erupted with the Lybythosian's weird, chilling laughter.
*Ah, you do have a weakness! Forgiveness you seek, and loneliness you fear! You fool! Do you not realize that you must return in order to have her again?*
When Spock didn't answer, but only pressed on, the creature taunted him with distorted waking nightmares of his own lonely death and Christine's hardened lack of forgiveness. He groaned, pressing onward, ignoring the insane laughter echoing in his brain, the metallic voice that taunted, *She does not understand, will not -- ever. We shall survive together, Spock ... and you shall take me with you. We will live together always -- and you will be alone, always alone. There will be no one to care, to talk with, to touch ... to love. No one with you but me. Always here in your mind, host -- always!*
The agony that tortured the Vulcan's mind and heart was made worse by far than that which alternately burned and froze his body. Never to see Christine again, no more to know her touch or her love...! He'd not realized until then how vital she had become to his very existence. He would never see her again, but knew he would give up worlds and galaxies to be able to tell her how much she had come to mean to him, to erase that look of betrayal and pain he'd put into her eyes.
Delighted with his misery, the creature crooned to him, *Remember, host, alone. We are alone -- and will be alone ... each with the other only -- always.*
Ruthlessly, Spock forced his mind away from Christine and all that lay behind him, concentrating instead on getting as far away from the beam down point as his strength and will would permit. Awareness stopped down to the tight focus of putting down one hand, then the other, one knee, and then the other.
* * *
To Christine's chagrin, the main transporter room was occupied. Ensign Massey was in the process of shutting down the transporter mechanism when she burst through the door. He grinned at her, remembering a recent bout with an alien virus that had kept him in sickbay, miserably ill, for over a week. Christine had been on duty, and as far as he was concerned, she qualified as his own personal ministering angel.
"Hi, Nurse Chapel. How are you?"
"Just fine, Massey. And you?"
"Great. You know, I've been doing real well since you fixed me up last week. That cycla-whatsis stuff you gave me--"
"Tetracycline," she snapped, too upset to carry on the chatter. "Have you seen my husband?"
"Yes. Commander Spock. The First Officer." Mentally, she gritted her teeth.
"Oh -- yes, ma'am." For some ridiculous reason, Massey blushed. "He beamed down to Lybythos."
"Where?" It was her turn to be non-plussed.
"Lybythos. You know, the planet down there. Where Captain Kirk was injured."
"Who called it that?"
"Why, Mr. Spock, ma'am. He said that was its name."
Christine felt the blood drain from her face. As far as she knew, the official entry in the ship's records for the planet read "M2601." There was only one way Spock could have learned its ancient name. She ran to the transporter platform and positioned herself on a disk. "One to beam down, Massey. Energize."
"You heard me, mister. One to beam down. Now be quick about it!"
"Ah, Nurse Chapel, I can't--"
"But Mr. Spock said no one..."
"He just communicated with me and asked for my assistance." She waited. Massey chewed his lip. "For God's sake, Massey, I'm his *wife*! You don't think that order includes *me*, do you?"
"Well, ma'am, I don't know--"
"Well, mister, I do! What is this on my sleeve?" She held out her arm; the gold braid caught the light.
Massey gulped, uncomfortable. He looked at his former "angel" as if she'd slapped him. "It's a stripe, ma'am," he said unhappily.
"Indeed," Christine replied, borrowing Spock's most formidable tone. It helped her position a good deal that the transporter platform made her a full head taller than the husky ensign. "And what does it mean?"
"That you are a Lieutenant, ma'am." Massey looked as if he wished he hadn't gotten out of bed that morning.
"And you are -- what, Massey?"
"I rest my case. One to beam down. Energize."
Massey sighed deeply. "Yes, ma'am."
* * *
Somehow the grey-green landscape of M2601 seemed even more bleak and sinister to Christine than when she'd first seen it. As soon as she materialized, she looked around for a sign of Spock. He was nowhere to be seen, but a faint trail set off in one direction. As she started out, her foot hit an obstruction and she looked down. Her blood seemed to freeze in her veins. Half-hidden in the dust at her feet lay Spock's tricorder and a standard-issue communicator. Their message was chillingly plain. He would not be needing them again, so he had dropped them here.
He did not expect pursuers. He'd left orders that no one was to follow. It would have taken useless minutes, perhaps longer, for those on board to realize he was gone. And by the time they attempted to find him? He could no longer be traced through his equipment and who knew how far he could have gone? It would be a surprisingly big planet to search for one half-Vulcan officer by ship's sensors alone. A wordless prayer in her heart, Christine reached for her tricorder, then hesitated. Slinging it back over her shoulder, she reached down for Spock's personal 'corder, and pointed it in the direction of the faint trail, even then being obliterated by the persistent wind-blown dust. Yes, that was the direction.
She started off, half an eye on the tricorder screen, watching the trail as she walked. Like the discarded equipment, the trail clearly told its grim story. The stride was uneven, broken, and periodically the imprint of his body lay etched in the dust. Sometimes he'd staggered, and even crawled. She'd not gone more than five hundred slow yards when her communicator signaled. Distracted, she pulled it out. "Chapel here."
"Christine, this is Mr. Scott!" The Chief Engineer sounded angry enough to have lost his familiar Scots burr.
"Yes, Mr. Scott?"
"Lass, what d' ye think y're doin'?"
"I am in pursuit of my husband," she answered with simple dignity. Her eyes ran over the trail ahead; she winced at the signs of blood on jagged rocks in the path.
"Now listen, Lieutenant. You hold it right there while ah beam down a search party--"
"No, Mr. Scott! Scotty, please! You must not!"
"No! I know it's an order, and that you are in charge. You don't have to tell me that. But you must not send another soul down here! That -- *thing* which has control of Spock is far too dangerous! Who knows but that it will leave him to take over someone else? No, Scotty. I will find him ... alone."
"And when ye do, lass? What then?" Scott's voice was gentle, even over the communicator.
Christine faltered, biting her lip to keep back sudden tears that threatened. "I'm -- not sure, but I'll help him. That I *do* know. We'll fight it together. Please, Scotty! It's how it must be!"
"I can understand yer wantin' that, lass. But what if ye fail?"
Christine's face became drawn and grim, and though he could not see her, Scott could hear that same grimness in her voice when she answered him. "I ... have a phaser, Scotty. At the least, that creature will not be allowed to return to the ship."
There seemed no more to say. Scott's voice was reluctantly resigned and abruptly tired. "All right, lass. Keep us posted at intervals of fifteen minutes. If ye fail t' call in, we'll either beam ye aboard or ah'll send a Security team after ye. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Scotty. Thanks."
"Good luck, lass."
"Thank you for that, too. Chapel out."
She put away her communicator and continued onward, wondering, if it became necessary at the end, would she actually be able to use that phaser? She pushed the thought aside to concentrate on the trail before her. Each sign of struggle sent a pang of remorse through her. How she had doubted him! If only she'd known his trouble!
Of all the horrors that could have possessed him, this was the worst -- this mind-rape by an alien entity so terrible it had even horrified the unflappable Jim Kirk! To Spock, always so Vulcanly careful of mental contact, such invasion spelled the worst crime, the most obscene penetration and torment a being could know, far surpassing any torture or degradation that could have been perpetrated upon the body.
*How he must be suffering!* She recalled too, that for all his pain and revulsion, Spock had still had the strength and courage to protect her. Her heart knew only one motive for that, though she realized he could quote her a dozen reasons, all well-founded in logic. *He *does* love, though he cannot say it. I know it is true of the way he feels about Jim, and if I'm honest and don't give in to childhood insecurities, I know it's true of the way he feels about *me*. And if the one is greater than the other...?*
The idea trailed off, and she stopped in her tracks, eyes searching ahead. Still no sign. The question in her head was repeated: *And if one love is greater than the other...?* She hung suspended a moment until the realization slammed home. *I don't care! I only want him back, safe and well -- and then I can deal with anything, even that ... but only if he is there!*
In its own way, the realization gave her comfort. Her resolve affirmed, she banished all doubts and set off once more, faster now, fearful only that she might be too late to tell him what she'd finally learned about herself and him. The planetary sun was setting behind a steely overcast, and she saw she'd gone more than five kilometers when she began to wonder if she could find him before an inhospitable night settled on the planet. She made another periodic call-in and increased her pace. Then, off in the distance, she spied a spot of bright blue near a copse of ugly, gnarled trees. Snapping closed the tricorder and slinging it back over her shoulder, she broke into a run.
"Oh, please! Let him be all right!" she whispered as she ran.
Desperation made her fleet-footed over the uneven terrain as the spot of blue slowly took form as Spock's tunic. When she could finally see him clearly, she aw that he lay half-propped against the base of one of the misshapen grey wood trees. He was slumped there, arms wrapped around the thin, twisted trunk, face contorted in pain, eyes screwed tightly shut. Her heart eased some of its painful pounding when she saw that his chest heaved like a bellows.
His concentration was turned inward so fiercely that she'd drawn quite near, calling his name, before he roused. Suddenly, her frantic cry of "Spock!" broke through to him and his eyes snapped open. His head jerked up and he saw her; shock and dismay warred for supremacy on his face. She'd never seen such naked emotion on that still, proud face and it gave her the measure of his suffering. His eyes were wild, shifting pools of fire, but when she took a step toward him, hand outstretched, he gave a hoarse cry and scrambled to his knees, flinging up a hand to halt her in her tracks.
"No!" he choked. "Christine, no! Stay away!"
"Spock -- oh, Spock!" Her voice broke on the last syllable and she dropped to her knees.
"Why?" His face was agonized, lined with exhaustion and strain, voice a raw whisper. "Why did you of all ... follow me?"
"Who better to follow you, beloved?" she asked brokenly.
"You -- must go back!" The effort of speech was costing him, she saw, but the fire in his eyes told her he was still in some kind of control.
"No, Spock. Jim came out of it ... he told about the ... creature you're fighting."
"Jim!" Relief flared briefly in his eyes. "He is well?"
"Yes," she whispered. "He is well."
The relief fled before a wave of engulfing fear that showed plainly. "But then -- you *know* -- and you must go back!"
"No, Spock, I can't. I can't go back." She reached out toward him again, but he flinched away.
"No! You -- must not touch me! You cannot know this ... this--" He faltered, gasping again for breath.
"Oh, Spock ... let me come to you, beloved," she pleaded.
The Vulcan shook his head stubbornly, but still with enough fight left in him to resist. Christine's eyes ran over him in a professional assessment. He was losing the battle. Clothes torn, dirty, worn out, he showed clearly the effects of the internal battering. His skin was faintly grey through the normal pale-green bronze. She wondered if she would end up watching his autonomy fade before her eyes and knew then that she did not have the courage to kill him, even if he did come to belong to the creature. There had to be another way.
"Spock, please. Let me help you. Please! You can't go on fighting this alone."
"But you can't. Even now, you're growing weaker. Please -- let me help. Please ... beloved!"
*Let me help.* He mouthed the words, remembering so much: Jim and Edith Keeler, his own love for Christine. All the times, even before they'd married, when she'd been there for him. He was so tired -- and so lonely without their bond. His resolve was weakening when the creature in his mind cackled with triumph ... and his will hardened.
"No. You cannot ... be allowed to suffer -- this."
"You *must* allow it. You can't continue to fight alone. If you meld with me, use my strength, we can fight it together. Together, Spock! *We'll be stronger together!*"
The sudden naked longing in his eyes told her she was on the right track at last, and even as she pleaded, repeating the word "together", he drew closer. "Spock, together we may be strong enough to defeat the entity. You once told me the bond between husband and wife lends a special kind of strength -- and Spock, we have love as well. Please! Let us try!"
"I ... wished to protect you -- from this ... " he whispered, weakening.
Her eyes suddenly filled with tears. They spilled, unheeded, down her cheeks. "How?" she asked huskily. "By severing our bond? Don't you know? Life without you just doesn't mean very much at all -- to me..."
His glance came up, sharply, at that last admission. The creature within chortled gleefully. *Go ahead, host -- then I will have two of you! And then you will take me back to your ship!*
Ignoring the venal message, Spock looked at Christine with all the love and tenderness of which he'd always been capable, though he had hidden it so long from others. "Wife, it seems that I cannot do otherwise..." He reached out to her and she came quickly into his arms to hold him close. Weakly, he lifted a hand to her temple. "Your mind to my mind ... your heart to my heart ... your soul to my soul..." There was a sudden flash, and she realized he'd re-established the bond between them. Once more, thoughts and essences flowed warmly between them -- husband and wife. There was a comfort and certainty again that made her realize a little of why she'd doubted him so fiercely without it.
Then, agony so blood-bright it blinded her tore through Christine's mind and body -- the creature invading a newly vulnerable being, searching out for the power and pleasure of total knowledge, total control. The fire that consumed her grew in intensity until, without knowing that she did, she began to scream, wrenching away from Spock. She reeled back, screams escalating, eyes turned inward to the pit of flame that was her mind and all-too-fragile Human body.
As she tore free of his grasp, Spock shook himself, his mind clearing somewhat. His exhaustion and pain paled before the sudden wave of primitive anger that surged upward from his vitals. "No!" the enraged cry was ripped from him. "*Leave her alone!*"
The savagery of his fury was elemental Vulcan, a long-buried emotion drawn out of him by this new conflict with the creature. He clasped his wife to him again for protection, gathering from her fresh spirit the additional strength to wage his final battle. His vision turned inward. *You will withdraw from her!* he roared at the Lybythosian. His only answer was the creature's thick, obscene laughter. *Withdraw, I say!* He paused. When he received no answer, Spock's voice snarled, *Then suffer the consequences!*
Shaken out of its complacent enjoyment, the entity replied, *You dare to threaten me? You puny, crawling nothingness -- I am ill of your resistance! This female, your mate, will serve me well, for she is weak and controllable. When she has learned that she can avoid pain by behaving as I wish, she will be mine. You are no longer needed!*
Spock groaned as the full malevolent strength of the shadowy grey entity turned on him within his own mind. It cast Christine's mind aside like a discarded toy and she went limp in his arms. Bracing himself, Spock met the Lybythosian head-on. His own blade-sharp mentality and that overwhelming, suffocating shadow-smoke clashed, and like two tumbling wrestlers, struggled back and forth across a windblown, barren landscape. To one side, Christine's golden spirit lay insensate. As Spock closed with the Lybythosian and they writhed across the landscape, he was aware of the weakness within him from the long hours of struggle and pain. Grimly, he hung on, Vulcan strength of will and mind his only weapons. Somewhere inside, he spared the hope that he could hold out.
Christine stirred and came to awareness of the battle before her, moaning at the renewed knowledge of Spock's pain and struggle. Spock's voice came to her.
*Christine! The creature! It is weaker.*
The mocking voice of Lybythos screeched in protest, and the struggle redoubled in fury. Christine watched fearfully. Again, Spock called out.
*Help me, wife! Together -- perhaps...*
She called out to him, *Husband! Yes! Take my strength.*
Physically, she wrapped her arms around Spock, sensing from his exhaustion that he was desperately augmenting the last of his failing strength, preparing for one final effort. With all her will, she put aside every thought of misunderstanding, every doubt that had surrounded her about his love for Kirk and herself. She closed her eyes and let herself go in the way he'd taught her, giving herself up to him, trusting him completely. Spock's spirit melded with that of his wife and the green-gold brightness once more clashed with the creature of Lybythos.
Physically, she wrapped her arms around Spock, sensing from his exhaustion that he was desperately augmenting the last of his failing strength, preparing for one final effort. With all her will, she put aside every thought of misunderstanding, every doubt that had surrounded her about his love for Kirk and herself. She closed her eyes and let herself go in the way he'd taught her, giving herself up to him, trusting him completely. Spock's spirit melded with that of his wife and the green-gold brightness once more clashed with the creature of Lybythos.
*Creature of Lybythos!* The voice was both Spock's and Christine's, echoing together. *Begone from us! Leave! Desist! You have no place with our kind!*
The opposing cry in reply held the first overtones of weakness, and the internal landscape erupted into battle once more. Back and forth, the battle waxed and waned, pain, shock and fear the Lybythosian weapons employed against the melded Christine/Spock. Yet the more powerful creature tried to strangle and destroy the bonded pair, the more resistant they grew. Back and forth in death-dancing battle, they struggled while the landscape crackled and resounded with sounds of war. It was as if, the more they clashed, the single being that was Christine and Spock grew, gathering energy from a warmth within. A warmth that glowed and flamed, a controlled burning fed by the unified brain and will.
The green-gold essence, undefined in shape and blazing with light, struggled with the formless malevolence that was as grey and ugly as the surface of its planetary prison. There was no quarter asked, none given. Writhing, tumbling, the entities fought savagely, first one, then the other gaining supremacy only to lose it as they rolled over and over in fury. Then the greyness seemed to grow, to fight harder in an effort to survive, and the green-gold light began to dim.
That part of the light which was still Christine called upon all her strength and gave one more bit of fuel to their joint brightness: her love. The light flared. Unbidden, moved by her unselfish example, Spock drew upon the secret well-spring deep inside himself and offered up the passionate love buried within. The blaze they now shared blended with the joined strength of mind and spirit and brightened to blinding intensity. Before it, the grey, shapeless shadow retreated, slowly -- slowly -- and suddenly, blessedly, fled. A moment later, Christine was once again Christine and Spock was Spock, still touching and touched within their bond, but separate once more.
They were both gasping for breath, and Spock slumped against her exhausted. Then he shook himself, looking around, suddenly giving an inarticulate roar of fury. A dim shape in the air nearby spelled the momentarily bested consciousness of Lybythos, and Spock lunged toward it, a pre-Reformation Vulcan war cry erupting from his throat.
"No!" Christine screamed as he dove toward the Lybythosian, murderous anger on his hawk's face. "No! Spock, don't! Leave it!"
He shook off her restraining grip and made for the creature, his intent obvious. "Must kill...!" he cried, eyes ablaze with the rage of pure *Vulcan* emotion. Before he could engage the entity, Christine grabbed him about the waist, wrapping herself around him. She was no more than a distraction, but as he struggled to break free without hurting her, she managed to work her communicator loose.
"Chapel to Enterprise -- emergency!"
A filtered voice replied, "Scott to Chapel. What's..."
"Two to beam up, these coordinates. *Now*, Scotty!" She clung to Spock with all her strength, praying, heels digging into the dusty soil. There were sparkles before her eyes, then a moment of non-being, nausea, disorientation, and then the transporter chamber coalesced. She almost fainted with the relief of still holding the struggling Spock in her arms.
"Must *kill*!" he raged again as they solidified. He wrenched free of her, only to come up short when he realized where he was. Two security guards and Scott stood open-mouthed beside the transporter console. As the impetus of volcanic rage drained away, the collected exhaustion and pain of his long hours of battle caught up with Spock at last; legs giving way, he folded slowly, almost gracefully, to the floor.
"Spock?" Christine went to her knees beside her husband, gathering him up to hold his head and upper body against her.
His brown eyes, clearer now but dulled with fatigue, searched her face. "You are well, wife?" It was a bare whisper.
"Yes, love, I am. And you will be, too. You're free now. We're safe." At her reassurance, the Vulcan gave in to his weariness, falling against her in a shallow faint. Tears spilled heedlessly down the nurse's cheeks as she cradled him.
McCoy, summoned by Scott, arrived just then with two technicians and a medtable. He knelt beside the couple on the platform, pointing a scanner at the now-unconscious Vulcan. "Sickbay -- fast!" he ordered the two techs, catching the weakened Christine as they took Spock from her. "You all right, Chris?" he asked. She staggered against him, her eyes still on her husband's limp body.
"Yes, I -- think so. Just tired." She smiled briefly up at McCoy as they started after the others.
* * *
In sickbay, McCoy set Christine down in a chair to rest. His hand scanner soon confirmed her good health -- her fatigue fading even now and with a smile, he left her and turned to Spock. Dr. M'Benga and Nancy Compton had Spock on a diagnostic table beneath an analyzer board. Comtpon adjusted it to Spock's physiology and McCoy took a full set of Feinberger readings, checking them against those up on the board. Christine watched anxiously from her vantage point across the room. Presently, a warm hand fell on her shoulder. She looked up into the drawn face of James Kirk.
"Hello, Chris," he said softly. Respect, sympathy and worry shadowed his hazel eyes.
"Hello, Jim," she whispered. She turned to look back at the team hovering over Spock, grateful for the Captain's support.
A moment later, McCoy looked up with a relieved smile. He nodded to M'Benga, gave a few soft words of direction to the other physician and nurse, then came over to where Christine sat quietly, hands clasped tensely in her lap. She could feel Kirk's fingers tighten on her shoulder as McCoy approached them.
"You ought to be in the bed in your cubicle where I left you," he chided Kirk gently.
"Never mind that now, Bones. What about--?"
McCoy smiled down into Christine's worried face. "It's all right. He's going to be fine. He's exhausted, physically depleted, some bad bruises, a few lacerations -- but he'll be okay. Rest, food, supplementary nourishment and vitalizers ... that's what he needs." He smiled reassurance at Kirk too, noting his relief, then reached out and caught Kirk's arm. "And you're going back to bed for the rest *you* need, Captain."
"All right, Bones." There was no need to be stubborn any longer.
"Christine--" McCoy said softly. The nurse dragged her eyes from the sight of Spock being transferred to a medtable once more. "What he'll need more than anything when he wakes up is you. Go to him."
That was an order all too easy to obey. Christine smiled and followed the technicians to the cubicle where Spock would be settled to convalesce.
"I guess the bone I have to pick with her about that little stunt of hers can wait," Kirk grumbled, mouth twitching at the corners in spite of his attempt to appear stern.
McCoy grinned at him, supporting him back to bed. "Yeah, Jim, it can wait. For lots of good reasons: You. Spock. Chris. Besides, do you really think she needs to be told?"
Kirk settled back against the pillows, wearily smiling back at McCoy. "No, not really. If you want the truth, I think she may have been right about *what* she did, if not how..." His voice trailed off.
McCoy checked his readings automatically. "You're not delivering any lectures just yet, Jim."
"I'll be all right, Bones."
"Yes, you will, because you're going to lie there and let Scotty play Captain ... and that includes delivering any reprimands, and deserved or not is up to him, too. Clear?"
Kirk opened his mouth to protest, but the look in the Doctor's eyes and thought better of it. He subsided into reluctant silence.
"That's better. Nothing I like more than a cooperative patient," McCoy asserted with a satisfied nod.
"Bully!" Kirk muttered under his breath as the doctor left. It wasn't much in the way of rebellion, but it would have to do for the moment.
* * *
It was more than two hours later when Spock finally shook himself free of his exhausted sleep and returned to consciousness. As his vision cleared, he saw that Christine was sitting beside him on the edge of the bed, one hand clasped in his.
She smiled at him. "Welcome home, beloved," she said softly, stroking his hand lightly.
A small, tentative smile touched the corners of his mouth. "I see we were victorious, wife."
She nodded tremulously, squeezing his hand. "Yes."
"You were correct, Christine. Together we were stronger. It seems I have much for which to ask your forgiveness."
"You have nothing for which to ask my forgiveness, Spock. Nothing at all."
"In point of fact -- I do. The words I said, the entire circumstance; even the research ... Christine, I still have much to learn about being a husband to a Human wife. For whatever hurt I have caused, I beg your forgiveness."
Christine smiled. "You were only trying to protect me."
Spock raised an insistent eyebrow and she finally conceded. "If it will give you peace to be forgiven, even if I don't think there's anything you need to be forgiven for -- then, very well." She smiled as she borrowed a phrase from him. "We shall speak of it no further."
There was an answering sparkle in his deep brown eyes.
Christine grew serious again, looking down at his hand where it rested in her lap. She raised it to her lips and kissed it, then bit her lip. "Spock, I know I owe *you* an apology."
His head tilted to one side, questioning.
"For -- thinking ill of you ... for not realizing that, within your heart, there is more than enough room for all the different kinds of love we Humans seem to think we have a monopoly on feeling." She was very much aware of his liquid eyes on her. "Love for Jim and for me, even if you don't call it by that name. I'm so sorry. Can you forgive me for misjudging you?"
"As you have said, Christine, there is nothing to forgive," Spock answered gently.
"But there is. There's more to it than misjudging your feelings for me or Jim. It's a lot of things I didn't spare the time to think of until these last two hours. Then, watching you sleep and realizing how close I'd come to losing you -- I realized that I've done you a number of injustices."
He looked at her, frankly puzzled.
"I once told you I loved you just as you are, but I seem to have let you turn yourself inside out for me."
"Everything -- from the bonding ... when I refused to entertain the idea of accepting a Vulcan ceremony, to eliciting a pledge for a Terran marriage ceremony, to questioning your concern and caring for Jim -- as if ... you had to present me with a testimonial, so that I might believe you." She met his gaze, searching. "Oh, Spock -- how could I do that to you? I know how long you and your father had been estranged before Babel ... and how much it meant to you to re-establish that link. And -- yet I allowed you to lay aside your beliefs and insisted on my rights ... as if you would try to take them from me."
He interrupted her gently. "I once told you that I would do anything within my power to make you happy. I meant it."
"I know you did, love, but I didn't have to take you quite so literally that I ignored *your* wishes to insist on my own way."
"Christine, you felt strongly about certain matters. Your principles are too valuable to lay aside. It is one of the things I respect about you."
Christine looked at him sadly. "It wouldn't have hurt me to compromise enough to allow the same for *you*."
"I am not displeased, wife. And I do not wish your compromise if it costs you self-respect. I am content."
She squeezed his hand again. "Thank you for that, love, but I'm *not* content with what I've done. I should have trusted your integrity and realized that you don't want to own me. And I should have trusted in the honesty I've always seen you display. Please forgive me."
"I do. Do not concern yourself so. All is well."
She smiled. "Not yet, but it will be."
His head tilted quizzically again.
"When you're up and around," she continued, "please send a message to Vulcan. As soon as it can be arranged, I wish to go there with you -- to be married in a Vulcan ceremony."
Spock stared at her for a long moment. "I do not require it of you, Christine."
"No," she agreed. "I understand that. Let's just say that I require it of myself."
He studied her thoughtfully. "Very well. I give you my thanks for your understanding, and I will send the message. In all likelihood, we may be able to go back to Vulcan once we are finished with our present mission."
She smiled again. "Good." Then she bit her lip again. "I think I *do* have *one* bone to pick with you, however."
"Bone to pick?"
"Yes. And you're perfectly aware of what *that* expression means, aren't you?"
He assumed a look of innocence so outraged that she began to laugh. "That's what I thought." A moment later, she sobered. "I -- wish you hadn't severed the bond between us. I wish you'd seen fit to let me know of your fight against the creature instead of going off alone. As you've seen, I was of some help to you."
"Yes, I know." Spock's gaze faltered a moment. "Christine, I learned something in that battle, something I might otherwise never have realized. I deeply regret severing the bond, though it was done with the best intention. When I was alone with that creature -- truly alone for the first time since our bonding -- I ... made a discovery I could not ignore."
"And what was that?" Christine whispered, his revelation holding her spellbound.
His eyes were deep and soft. "I discovered that I could not bear to live that way, alone ... without you ... again."
"Oh -- Spock!" She could say nothing else, only able to hold his hand, letting her misty eyes speak for her.
"As to why I severed the bond ... the creature was a horror, an invasion. I could not willingly subject you to that."
"Spock, being Human, I'll admit I'm not very logical, but to me, it was far more painful to be shut out of your mind and your life than it was to bear that other pain and fear *with* you."
"I understand that now. I shall endeavor to remember it."
"It seems we've both learned something precious, even if the lesson was costly. I guess it's part of the reality of our marriage instead of the dream of it that I once had."
Wryly, he said, "Having is not the same as wanting, is it?"
"No, it's not." She smiled at him tenderly. "It's better -- *much* better ... husband!"
Incredulous joy blazed suddenly in Spock's eyes. *And life's long night is ended,* he thought, recalling the last line of the "Destiny" poem: *and the way lies open onward to eternal day.*
Christine's fingers intertwined with those of her husband, clasping tighter, and a long-awaited silent peace descended over them, never to be broken again.
*Slowly, we have built a bridge of crystal and light, a fragile, sometimes perfect thing, stretching, arching the clear, blue air between us -- a crystal bridge from me to you and you to me. All it will ever be is crystal and light, a fragile, oh-so-fragile thing -- a breath of cold, mistrustful quakes, black betrayal or a lack of faith can send it crashing to the chasm that always lies between. Daily we construct it, adding faerie cables and beams of the sun that shines in the love I have for you and you for me.
*Airy, indefinite, just barely there -- but strong enough to stand the storms and tremors from without, threatened only by a lack of vigilance from within. Oh, love, let us tend our bridge with care so it may always stand for us to travel the longest -- and shortest -- journey we will ever take: that from me to you and you to me.*
(Excerpt from the journal of Christine Chapel, stardate 5801.6, written ten days after the Lybythosian mission, while the Enterprise was en route for the 40 Eridani star system and the planet Vulcan.)