DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of Kelthammer and is copyright (c) 2002 by Kelthammer. This story is Rated PG-13.



Empathy

Kelthammer



*click* the chrono marked another relentless minute from his life.

*click* and what did he have to look forward to?

*click* nothing more than getting *click* drunk as a skunk and *click* a stopover on Base VI, the UFP's third- *click* sleaziest source of revenue and second-rate supplies. Just the *click* thought alone was enough to make him hole up in his cabin while the Enterprise docked and *click* finish up his dwindling brandy supply.

*click*

Leonard McCoy, CMO, was feeling every second of this week's duty when his encroaching depression was interrupted (violently) by the invasion of his Head Nurse/Surgical Assistant/Lead Biochemist/Girl Friday. Christine Chapel slammed her back against the wall with a dramatic groan, a fistful of colored plastic in her palm. She waved the wafers at him. "I've got to take orals in all of this?"

"Forensics is an ugly little branch of medicine." Leonard warned her. "If you want to get certified in that..."

"I'm sure," Christine assured him. "What if something I see could prevent a death in the future?"

"I understand those reasonings, Christine, but," Leonard held up his hand. "I'm certified too. Take it from me. At the best, you're gonna have to put up with snarky comments about your antiquated interests, and at worst, you'll kill your faith in God." Bones fell silent. Pediatric forensics had to be the worst. "I was studying for my certification just as Joanna was born. Gave me nightmares." For years.

Christine's mobile face cringed. "I'm sorry. That's got to be awful."

"Well." He stepped out of the memory carefully. "Just try not to empathize with what you see too much."

Christine sighed and sat down on the edge of his desk. Normally Leonard would have made a point of enjoying the view in an exaggerated way, because if nothing was sacred in Starfleet, it was a woman's thigh.

"Sometimes," she said carefully, tapping her entrance wafers together like playing cards, "I wonder if we aren't meant to empathize with it."

Leonard frowned and she saw something unreadable flicker in his eyes. "Let's talk about this," he said. "Lunch in the rec?"

"Which rec?" she teased, as if they ever had time to take a break elsewhere.

"The usual," he chuckled. "Glad you caught me. I'm gonna be off for 36 hours, and lemme tell you, I am planning on enjoyin' every bit of it."

"You'd better," Chapel warned as she slid to her feet. "Because Starbase VI isn't going to make you feel better."

"Don't remind me." He sighed.

* * *

They took their usual table against the wall, surrounded by a neverending variety of Hikaru's weirder plants. Christine knew her boss was in a mood when he got the paprika chili. Leonard went right for the spice rack when he was feeling down -- you could practically use his menu as a barometer; God help you if he went Bayou Cajun.

Christine decided to go with it. Today she couldn't' stop feeling chilly and some heat would warm her right up. She ordered roobios to drink.

"Nyota really got you hooked on that stuff." He lifted an eyebrow (Spock wasn't the only one with the habit).

"It's good for your immune system," she said defensively.

"It'd be even better for you if it was real." McCoy gave his stew a sickening poke. "I can't wait to eat real meat again. This Textured Vegetable Protein is an offense to everything I stand for."

"I hope you're not trying to persuade me." Chapel was an oyster shucker from way back.

"Yup. Okay." Leonard took a taste of the chili and shuddered. "Okay, now where were we?"

"Empathizing with images." Christine took a deep breath. "I've been thinking about this a lot, so ... well look. Human esper abilities are a proven fact. They are certainly unrefined compared to say, the Vulcan or Deltan species, and they're also very different. But what if empathy is a form of higher perception? I'm not going into that Biblical 'beasts of the field' distinction. I'm wondering if our ability, or our propensity, to get emotionally involved with a representation is more than an overactive imagination. I guess, well ... look at the human people who are gifted in a little esper. They see an image and read the people inside it."

Leonard didn't say anything for a moment, just ate some more of that vile, red chili. Rumor had it the sight made Vulcans ill.

"Have you checked with the Scramble Studies?" he finally asked.

Chapel blinked. "I was under the impression it was unprofessionally done."

"No, no ... It was the language that confused our modern analysts. This is pre-Eugenics War stuff, y'know." He leaned his chin on his hand and frowned. "Empathy's a sticky subject, Christine. It's a downplayed emotional state. To voluntarily feel what another is feeling, well, Vulcans aren't the only people tetchy about that idea." He sighed. "I know more about it than you do, I daresay, because Major Thompson funded the studies practically in the ancestral backyard. Talk about a man who needed killing."

"Didn't Colonel Green finally do just that?" Chapel wondered. The infamous Colonel had a habit of executing his most faithful followers in fits of temper (later learned to be a form of illness -- a brain tumor the size of a melon). You lost track of his victims after a while, just like you lost track of the Old USA Presidents after Lincoln.

"Hell, yeah. Had him hung instead of shot like he usually did. One of my ancestors was part of the slave labor detailed to the grave digging." McCoy had to shrug. "I'm getting off the subject, but the Studies were comprised of 200 photographic images of horror: rape, murder, starvation, disease -- lots of children were involved. Equally half the images were false; faked or staged somehow. Only a code on the back of each printed image told the genuine from the imitation. Viewers' responses were carefully recorded. Now, some people were complete boulders. They didn't react to anything. And some reacted to everything. But a significant number -- twenty percent -- reacted mostly to the real images, and barely to the faked ones." McCoy frowned darkly. "That's enough to raise some eyebrows. Those people were set aside and given different tests to see if they scored on any forms of esper. They did. But here's the frightening thing. The 'boulders' were also tested, to see if they could manipulate -- PKU tests, getting their favorite numbers on the dice rolls, that kind of thing. They did. And they were they types that wound up as the finer sort of narco-whiffing homicidal maniac in the Eugenics Guard."

"Oh, God," Chapel said with feeling. "You're saying people found it safer to dismiss these theories?"

"Yup." Bones lifted his hands. "The reasons were unethical in the extreme, but then, so were a lot of bad decisions."

Chapel exhaled. "I need to start reading," she decided glumly.

"Not on a weekend," he warned. "You'll be unfit for duty. Wait for when we get back on..." He glanced up. "What are you two doin' here?"

Captain Kirk and Spock finished strolling their way to the table. Spock was typically distracted by the blooming canary vine Sulu had up on a trellis. Chapel looked patient. Ever since Sargon had hidden his mind inside hers, she'd been putting up with his overdone Vulcan casualness.

"Sorry to interrupt, Nurse Chapel ... Bones." Kirk wavered between informality and formality and leaned into the spare chair while Spock remained standing. "We just got the most ... fascinating ... communique from Starfleet." He spoke carefully. His expression was at its most neutral, which meant he had no clue as to whether he had good news or bad news to share.

McCoy bit down on a manufactured pinto bean. "Well, spit it out. I ain't got forever to live."

"We're being sent to the Hestian Quadrant."

"What the hell for?" McCoy was understandably startled. "There's nothing there but low-carbon planetestimals and crumbly black diamonds! Well -- there wasn't anything else the last fifty or so times they ran a sweep." One of the first things a green plebe learned in Starfleet was the art of chart-making in the Hestian Region. There was nothing to bump into, and therefore, somewhat safe.

Jim pursed his lips, shaking his head. "Seems there were some intelligent life forms on one of the planets we didn't know about." He looked at the pitcher and Chapel poured him a glass. "Thank you, Christine ... " He sipped gratefully and cleared his throat. "Truth to tell, they seem to have been ... transported to Hestia from wherever they originated from."

McCoy finished his stew, swiped the bowl clean with re-constructed sourdough bread, and leaned back. "What is it you're not saying? Who discovered these people -- Interstellar Geo & Survey?"

"Correct." Spock entered the conversation for the first time. "A Vulcan vessel freelancing their labor for the company's equipment, the Shi'Kahr."

"Then why aren't they dealing with the First Contact and Observation?" McCoy frowned at the disregard for the basic Operating Procedures.

Jim cleared his throat. "They ... specifically asked for us to be there, you and I and Mr. Spock."

McCoy's body went motionless. "Uh."

"There are some unique challenges to communicating with the immigrants that the Shi'Kahr was unable to deal with anyway." Jim added. "For example, each and every inhabitant of the discovery settlement needed to be issued their own Translator Voder."

"Wha?" McCoy sat straight up. "What for? They do triple-harmonic-throat singing?"

"Not exactly ... "

That odd note was back in Jim's voice, and Spock was looking remotely uncomfortable. His dark eyes were studying the doctor closely without seeming to.

Astonished, Christine saw a phenomenon she had heard of, but never before witnessed: the hairs on Leonard's arms were standing straight up as chills walked his skin. Prescience? She felt he already knew what the captain was going to say.

"The people," Jim said slowly, "Possess no vocal cords."

* * *

SD 5477.00

Hi, there, Bones Boyce ... This is Bones McCoy, answering your somewhat testy letter. You really shouldn't let the Medical Admiralty get to you like that. Remember the good old days of semi-autonomy on a starship?

Well, as in response to your loaded question, we are one weary crew.

D'you remember when I submitted my first Log for the Enterprise upon being assigned? I said, 'This ship has been refitted to be bigger, faster, sturdier, and more efficient. I hope this doesn't mean Starfleet expects to run us into the ground. The efficiency of a machine is not what a flesh and blood crew depends upon for emotional and mental support.'

If we make it back from this, I'm going to press for a complete re-evaluation of the Five Year Mission plan. Yeah, yeah, I know ... one of the reasons why we're out here in the first place is to see what we're capable of, but this is too much. Our supplies and resources are far, far too low for the expected output.

The first year wasn't all that bad. We stayed pretty much within the boundaries of well-established space, and did a lot of re-discovering of the various Terrans that are scattered all over. Space is big, and I think a lot of the crew didn't realize it until we found that poor kid Charlie Evans, and the Craters; Dr. Korby ... all these people inside what was supposedly familiar territory. They could see just how easy it was for someone to lose themselves, deliberately or accidentally, on some little moon, asteroid, or impervious planet.

Little things started to creep in our awareness; we find Kodos the Executioner on our very own ship, with his daughter biding fair to match his record of homicide. We see our captain forced to make a decision that might lead us to another war with the Romulans because communications to Headquarters is too slow. We see a psychotic penal psychiatrist experimenting on his own inmates because he's become so out of touch with reality that he thinks he can play god with research. Then we see the real (sorry) McCoy, in Trelane, who can do anything he wants, so long as his parents don't know about it!

We nearly hit into a war with the Gorn, parlay antimatter with the Lazarus men, damn near get lost in the past, bump into egocentric supermen with superid, supereego, and supersuperegos, whiff lungfuls of Happy Plant Spores, get our self esteem tucked in tight with the Organians, witness the Denevan invasion of parasites, and all kinds of other things that I don't really want to talk about.

The point is, we knew space was dangerous when we signed up. But we didn't think the pace would be this unrelenting. And it is. When we threw out First Year Mark party at the end, I heard our helmsman, Hikaru Sulu (Remember him? He trans'd from Astro), say, "Well, that wasn't so bad. A pretty good way to begin."

At the Second Year Mark party, he told me in plain English: "I don't think this year was as good as the first."

I told him that he at least, only gets brainwashed by aliens on average of once a year, while I, due to my close confines with Jim, can look forward to it on a regular basis. He thought I was fishing for sympathy. I'm not. Just look at our records. I didn't even count the number of times we were brainwashed together, like on Beta III or Pyrrus.

Scott overheard, and said being brainwashed compares to the helplessness he feels whenever he has to stand command on the Bridge and watch the Beamdown party go hip-deep in "mucker-trouble." Granted, its not easy for him. And he's had to do that a lot. He's also been zapped by a self-proclaimed God (not somebody I'd care to worship, thanks), been rendered "living impaired" by an insane machine, and set up for murder on a planet where the penalty of that crime is death by slow torture.

It would take me all day to list what we've all been through. Let me just say in conclusion, we're not getting enough rest for the time we're doing, and it would do the morale of the crew infinite good if we knew the supply lines were more efficient. There's nothing like running into a sister starship, adrift and derelict, its crew dead, and knowing that it happened because they were just a little too slow, too ill-equipped, too complacent, too something.

I looked at the Rec-leave specs just now, refreshing my memory. Starship duty is considered 43.221 percent riskier than any other, save Hazardous Survey. Why then, are we not allowed more options of medical and recreational compensation? A doubling of life insurance and Burial Benefits doesn't make us feel better!

Reserve me a seat on the Evaluation Board when we return. I'm going to be there with bells on.

Your friend and beleagured ship's CMO, Bones

* * *

McCoy went through the motions of the rest of the day, but he was glad to be alone in his cabin at the end. The doors hissed shut and he locked them before slumping down on the bed.

He was tired. His back ached from being stuck in an unnatural microscope-hunch for two hours and he resolved to work out heavy at the gym before sleeping. Not that he was a slouch with his physical condition. You didn't survive under James T. Kirk if you weren't athletically inclined somehow, somewhere. And you never knew. Someday all those medals in gym, running and steeplechase just might save his life. As many hostile natives they kept running into, that wasn't beyond the bounds of possibility.

His mind had been wandering. Deliberately. Leonard closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them to look at the shelf of books above his head. He didn't know what he should be thinking about, with an Empathic planet. Of course, no one did.

Hadn't been that long ago ... less than a quarter ... since they'd ran into that unholy duo. Good God ... Bones relived the horror that swept them all to see Linke and Ozaba, dead in tubes with their pain and suffering preserved forever. It made him ill. Doctors for the love of God!

The Vians had hurt them all; Jim and Spock where they were most vulnerable. Jim's worst nightmare was to choose between the lives of his crew. Worse if they were friends he relied on. Spock's nightmare was twofold: insanity and being unable to take responsibility. Nobody wanted to survive when their friends died. But McCoy had already been through that when they were battling the amoeba; Jim's choice of Spock, Spock's almost cocky attitude to go risk his life ... he was still, to this day, fiercely glad that this no-win scenario had been rendered moot, angst and all, with a finely-aimed hypo.

Leonard sighed into the thin air and yanked his uniform off for the shower. The sting of water and pressure couldn't erase the unclean feeling that thoughts of Lal and Thann had left behind. He grabbed a bar of Christine's homemade soap and scrubbed hard into his scalp. Gem, though ...

Gem made him cringe at every thought. She had gone through far too much for one person ... and such a person. Two men dead and she had been unable to stop that because their own "flaws" had led to their deaths. And yet, she had looked upon the Enterprise men with a childlike curiosity, and wonder ... a lack of fear. The fear had came later, when she touched him, trying to heal him ...

Bones shivered, feeling the ice forming again around his heart. He scoured his skin harder. Echoes ... they had shared something when she touched him.

And there was no way he could describe it. Words couldn't define layers of emotions. There weren't even verbal concepts for the feelings. Or were they feelings at all?

Maybe "experience" was a more total word. But when she had touched him, he could have sworn she was talking to him inside his mind.

He leaned into the spray, eyes squeezed tight. It's been waaaay too long, Leonard Horatio. You have got to find yourself a girlfriend.

Nothing doing, his uglier mental voice jumped in. You want another Tonia in your life? Barely got to know each other before she took that "chance of a lifetime" transfer to Tellar.

Tonia had reminded him of Emony, and there was nothing like a resemblance to your firstest, bestest infatuation to send you straight down an emotional wormhole. Never knew where you'd end up, but the odds were against Eden.

Romance and Starfleet mixed about as well as mashed bananas and ketchup. Couldn't blame human nature for trying, but Leonard had realized he was beyond the point where he could deal with this. It was one thing to play the field for fun, but he got tired of that scenario a long time ago. Watching Jim's ill-fated affairs only re-enforced the uselessness of that action.

But Gem's simple touch had conjured up things he had been needing for a long time: concern and warmth, a need not to be alone ...

"You're not going to find somebody until you get out of the service." Leonard gritted his teeth as he said this for the umpteenth time. "You already tried it the other way, and look how that turned out!"

Thoughts like this led to the inevitable: Just how much longer could he stay in Starfleet?

Not too much longer, maybe retire as soon as this mission was over, assuming he survived it! He was sick and tired of regs, admirals, conflicting interests, psychs, moderate-grade equipment, and being alone. There, he'd confessed it. He was lonely. Seriously, seriously lonely. Just not lonely enough to obsessively pursue a walking heartbeat like Jim Kirk.

(Crossing fingers on that one)

Dressed in fatigues, he couldn't bring himself to leave for the gym just yet. He sank down on the bed, feeling his wet hair soak into the mattress. He was going to lose his mind if he didn't get some kind of shore leave soon. As much as he hated the thought of sex with a stranger who was motivated by either money or an equal desire for non-attached ecstacy, it was better than going crazy.

Too bad we HAVE to drag our emotions into everything! He exhaled loudly, knowing this problem rested entirely with the human race. Imagine how much simpler it could be if it was all just about lighting up the nerve endings. 'Thanks for the stimulus!' 'No problem!'

Without knowing it, he dropped off to sleep. But his dreams were haunted of soft rainbow colors shimmering against smooth white skin.

* * *

"If insanity is contagious, we need a vaccine." (written on the Grafitti Wall in the Sickbay Lounge)

"Check out Tholian Space!" (written underneath)

"Theragen is NOT a vaccine!" (written underneath)

"No, just a deadener of certain nerve impulses to the brain." (written underneath)

"Scotch is cheaper, and mixes well." (written underneath)

"Will somebody tell the patients from Engineering to write on THEIR Grafitti Wall??" (the last word)

* * *

Nobody, but nobody was looking forward to the stopover on Base VI. Despite the attempts to standardize the supply lines, VI was in the Rigellian System, which meant the natives had a fifty-percent chance of understanding you and a thirty percent chance of pretending otherwise. The Orion Empire was only a few thousand parsecs away, contributing to the tension immeasurably. Scotty called their equipment "pre-Industrial"; the food was substandard by human norms (and that of three-fourths of the galaxy), and Spock's Vulcan blood was vulnerable to every Tom, Dick, and wandering bug that was currently floating around. It was a dread for more than one reason.

"At least Mr. Spock will be happy." Chekov summed up the situation as he and Sulu stared hopelessly around the center spiral of the station. Various cubicles made a show of selling hydroponically produced foods for Vulcans. That was almost just about it, except for a handful of gloomy-looking shops that made you want to check your credit voucher for safety.

"As happy as Mr. Spock gets, you mean," Hikaru sighed. "Why do Vulcans like to snack on flavored salt, anyway?"

"Conductivity?" McCoy had been behind them with a bag over his shoulder. As they gaped he shrugged. "Beats me. Rumor has it their superior telepathy has to do with superconductivity on their electrical synapses. Just one of those questions that keep me up at night -- not that I'd go anywhere near a lightning storm with a copper-based life form."

"Thanks," Hikaru said sourly. "Thanks a lot, Doc. Pavel here has already messed me up big time with his great ideas."

"All in the name of science," Chekov protested with almost enough sincerity.

"Hooking up a lie detector to an ouija board is not my idea of science."

McCoy let them evolve their quarrel (longstanding), catching up to Jim on the other side of the center. Jim was, of course, in uniform. He seemed to wear his stripes even in civilian clothes.

"Did you find Dr. Yxl?" Jim asked as he fell in step. "That didn't take long."

"Finally," McCoy huffed. "S/he was undergoing a phase of gender fluidity, and quite distracted. Couldn't get more than this--" He held up a single, thin wafer. " -- on empathic species. I feel cheated."

"Cheated on the skimpy material, or cheated that there's a lovely species that can re-create parthenogenically and doesn't need he-men like ourselves?"

"Don't even get me started." McCoy was cranky. Jim knew he'd be too. O'otonmo pheremones did that to humans.

He needs shore leave in the worst way. Jim decided. Too bad this is it. They strolled aimlessly down the center, drifting almost by accident towards the stall of eateries the base kept. Surely, somewhere, there was a token stall for iron-based lie forms. "Empathic species are rare, though, aren't they Bones?"

"Hah," McCoy snapped. "Empathy just happens to be one of the more embarrassing emotions and people don't want to discuss it. We've got Deltans, whose definition of emotion doesn't even fit with ours, we've got the pre-reform Vulcan cultures like the Romulans and Rigellians, the applicant Betazoids -- but I dread the day they're fully inducted into Starfleet. Can you imagine them with Vulcans?"

Jim chuckled. "They'll probably just hang around with the Deltans."

They found what claimed to be a coffeeshop and settled against the bar. McCoy wordlessly pointed at a color image of a large latte and plunked down his credit voucher. The big blond Swede waiting the stall made them stare by pulling out genuine coffee beans and pouring them into a little mill that rested right under a sign that warned arabica beans were known to cause birth defects in Tellarites.

"Real coffee?" Jim whispered.

"Looks like," McCoy whispered back. "Think we've got enough in our accounts?"

"For a cause like good coffee, I'd take out a loan!"

McCoy grunted and leaned his head against his hand in silence. His eyes held tired smears and hew as slumping a lot. Jim thought he'd looked this way earlier, but news of Hestia seemed to have made it worse. If he was afraid of what they would find, Jim couldn't blame him a bit. He often thought of the Vians, and what if they were still around?

"Let's get to where we can watch the ship." Jim grabbed his drink in one hand, McCoy in the other. McCoy followed the path of least resistance, nursing his own latte. "You look tired, Bones."

"I am," Bones snorted. "I am." He let his head fall back for a moment. "M'Benga and I've been helping Christine with her orals. Oh, God. She's destined for greatness. I'll miss her like hell when she leaves but she's too good to stay here."

"You sure?" Jim was chary of the subject. "We can use another doctor."

"I know, but I'm not sure it'd be the best for her. She's a bio, Jim. A great researcher and hard-nutcracker. I'm pushing her for the Dayspring."

"The Dayspring? Bones, the waiting list still has Florence Nightingale! Who do you know?"

"Phillip, of course. And Mark. I'd go there myself if I could." Somewhat listlessly, McCoy stirred his drink. Jim heard the weary resonation in the other's voice, an odd, sad echo of a note out of tune.

I didn't know he was feeling this bad. And he's got to be tired if he's talking to me about this...

"Why don't you try to go, Bones?" he murmured. He was afraid of the answer, but he needed to know.

McCoy looked up, blue eyes meeting hazel across the table, across the cups. I'm staying here, that look said, because without me you won't make it back home. Because I promised Mark and Phillip I'd watch out for you and Spock. "I chose to be here," was what he said. "And I don't regret that decision." I only regret what I'm turning into ...

Jim nodded. "I'm glad, Bones," he said quietly.

The silence was going to turn awkward. McCoy was the older, ever the listener while Jim was the talker, the confessor (once you pried it out of him). Neither was comfortable with hashing the strange boundaries between friendship and rank no matter how badly Leonard needed to confide in someone. Starfleet expected camaraderie; it did not approve of a too-close friendship among officers. As it was, Jim had to constantly defend his open trust of his crew. Aware of this, the usually regs-defiant McCoy hung back, not wanting Jim to get it any worse off than he already was.

Jim's active mind raced, searching for a way to deflect the heavy mood. "Look on the bright side, Bones. At least Christine isn't like Joanna."

Bones blinked. "How so?"

"I remember you told me she got your books out of your office and was using them for her public gaming." Jim began laughing at the memory -- it was just the kind of stunt he would have pulled. "How many eight year olds can get 'corrugator supercilli' on the triple word score plus 'oculi' on the O?"

When Spock found them, ten minutes later, they were still laughing.

* * *

It was a ragged, tired and weary crew that gathered to Brief two days later. In the center of the table sat a triscreen image of a jade-green continent resting inside a calm sea of violet blue.

"This was formerly Hestia VVI," Jim opened the meeting up with the most basic information of the world available. "A barren rock without even water vapor until ... until the Vians did whatever they did to it." His voice ended on a disgruntled note. The professional in him disliked just handing the credit over to the Vians when they didn't know anything for sure. And on a personal note, he didn't like the Vians enough to give them credit for anything related to a humanitarian issue.

"That's a lot of ocean compared to land." Sulu voiced what they were all thinking. "But then, this isn't the Hestian's original world."

"Nae. God knows where thot is," Scott grumped.

"A high possibility that intelligent life is still evolving in the sea," Spock said. "Nearly all forms of life depend on an ocean to begin with."

"Well, sure." McCoy shrugged as he signed the RollPadd and passed it to Jim. "It's one of the easiest ways to create life."

"Easiest?" Jim smiled absently, scrolling down the padd before initialing the bottom. "I might have missed that class."

"You miss a class? To laugh." McCoy grinned. "Nah. It's just that living species have their origins in genetic mutation; and cosmic rays are a rich source for those mutations." He nodded to the viewer. "The main part of cosmic rays at sea level is the mu meson (which we use in Sickbay for lab experiments)."

"Oh, yeah," Sulu broke in. "The muon's created when an atom collides with an extra-terrestrial cosmic ray proton." The former ship's physicist apparently hadn't missed his classes either. "The funny thing is, it would decay long before it reaches the sea, but time dilation in special relativity makes it possible."

"Da." Chekov nodded soberly. "The high velocity increases its lifetime."

"Sorta how you keep the temperature of the water high by moving the molecules around." McCoy lifted his coffee cup to punctuate.

Jim thought that Spock was charmed at the exchange. Sulu, now a helmsman, rarely spoke of his old profession while McCoy was (in)famous for avoiding math on the grounds that he needed to "conserve vital space in his brain."

"Planetary flora is primarily carboniferous with evolving diocotes." Spock picked up the thread. "It would seem they have not progressed far from the Coal Age."

"And there's bipedal mammals down there?" Eyebrows popped up all over the table. "No competition with big green dinosaurs?"

"Hardly, doctor, nor purple ones." Spock was always dryly SuperVulcan when McCoy used the word "green" in any way. "Adequate vegetation would inspire an ecological balance of some sort."

"Adequate is the right word." Pavel's voice sank in wonder. "Three hundred foot palms? Twenty-foot ferns?"

"You could carve a house out of the trunk of one," Uhura commented.

"Why bother?" Sulu was getting that dreamy plant-heaven look on his face again. "You could rig up a permanent campsite under a fern."

"Captain, if I may," Spock politely switched the view to a large jungle panorama. "The Shi'Kahr was quite adamant that we familiarize ourselves with this species." Data scrolled at the bottom off a flock of long-feathered birds in plumage that covered every color in the spectrum.

"Poisonous," McCoy mused. "Interesting. Earth only has one toxic-feathered bird. And it's a jungle critter too. But this looks SOP."

"Even the females have toxic feathers," Uhura was puzzled. "I wonder how they can properly nurture their young?"

"This is a planet full of questions," Jim murmured. Inside he was thinking how much Gem's clothing resembled the birds' feathers. It had to be deliberate. Gem herself have been very birdlike, small and small-boned, light and frail-seeming yet stronger than any of them put together. The rainbow shimmer of her clothing had accentuated that frailty, the way the colors of an opal displayed itself in layers.

"The people, when the concept was reached," Spock continued, "simply called their world, 'home.' They possess varying degrees of awareness." He steepled his fingers. "Despite their being incapable of space travel, they are aware of it, and are quite skilled in the sustainable arts: weaving, metallurgy, sustainable agriculture, stonework and painting. It should be noted that they were amazed the crew of the Shi'Kahr would wear solid colors."

"Would wearing solid colors offend them?" Uhura asked.

"A sensitive question, Lieutenant. But they seem to be merely curious at our differences, and being empathic, understood the landing party was not offensive."

"What about ... " Jim rubbed his jaw. "Family structure? Politics?"

"Family structure is matrilineal," McCoy filled in. "Each house is based on the founding of a mother. The groups are referred to as gens; a large, fluid community structure of members constantly entering and leaving and renewing familial ties. Everyone's related to everyone. Politics, an alien concept. These people are complete matrilineal socialists. They share all, equally. Crime is purportedly nonexistent."

"Sounds pleasant," Jim said cautiously. That claim had been made before. "Did they say anything about being transported here?"

"Only that their people and ecosystem was moved here, and this place is 'identical' to where they used to live," Spock said.

"The Vians weren't kidding about transport," McCoy muttered.

Jim shook himself. "Very well. It will be myself, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock for the first landing party. Mr. Sulu, you and Mr. Scott will be in command on your shifts ... " He rattled of the right sort of data while watching his CMO; McCoy had that tired look again, his long fingers toying with the wafers spread over the table. It didn't look like simple insomnia.

Thinking back, Jim thought he could see a progression of this behavior, a subtle process that began right after Minara, and went steadily worse. The trouble was it was just so ... subtle. Bones, the captain's CMO, was supposed to be the CMO's confiaza; Starfleet specs demanded it. But the reverse was not true. If the CMO needed to talk to anyone, it had to be someone completely out of the command loop; Ship's Psychiatrist, assuming the starship carried one. And half the time, they didn't. Bones filled that occupation in a lot.

As custom, the senior officers remained behind as the rest left. Spock was his usual taciturn self, but the occasional flick of a glance in McCoy's direction told Jim that the doctor's unusual quiet had been noted. Jim was not completely sure which tactic to take with him; McCoy re-defined the concept of "unexpected", and was more complex than a Deltan navigation equation. As much as they bickered, Spock might be able to reach the doctor better. They had in common the status of equal rank ... and were twins when it came to sharing worry over their captain.

"Well, Bones, what do you think?"

"I'm thinking 'bout who it is we'll meet." Leonard was obviously glum and thinking hard. He dumped his empty cup as they filed to the turbolit, and as they watched, worried his fingernail with his teeth. "We're taking phasers, aren't we?"

This from a man who would have let a gladiator open his guts on public TV not all that long ago, was nothing less than astonishing. Spock didn't even bother to hide his surprise.

"Bones, I'm going to go check myself into Sickbay for auditory hallucinations. I could have sworn you were pushing for weapons."

Bones chuffed.

"Empaths?" Jim gaped.

"Oh, for -- if empathy was all that hunkey-dorey--"

-- Spock and Jim had to guess what that meant --

-- "why did the Vians feel Gem's people might not be worthy of being saved?"

That was an ugly question. They absorbed that in silence as he pushed on.

"Think about it. They knew about the Federation. Did they ask for our help to save both worlds? No! They conducted a bad experiment to see if Gem's was deserving of survival! And bein' an empath doesn't mean just the great things in lie, Jim! Frankly, I'm scared of what we might find down there."

Jim looked at Spock. "Have you reviewed the wafer of empathic species?"

"Yes, Captain. Due to the rarity of the condition, there is precious little evidence, but I believe I understand what Dr. McCoy is saying."

"Well, I don't." Jim stopped the lift at McCoy's floor but left the door shut. "Perhaps if you'd enlighten me?"

"Pre-Reform Vulcan has large portions of its history missing," Spock began, the Vulcan equivalent of "once upon a time". "But empathy was a powerful tool in that it helped render our species less destructive."

"Still does, right?" McCoy murmured under his breath.

"Correct." Spock's expression faded. "Once Vulcan chose, as a race, to adopt nonviolence, it increased our racial bond all the stronger."

"To a certain point," Bones grumbled. "What about the trained warriors of your past who could resist mental overtures yet use their own minds on others?"

"You have heard of the H'e'ar?" Spock queried. "That was not in the data."

"I have many sources, and that includes your mother. Jim, imagine the world's greatest con artist who can make you think you want to kill yourself. And that's just the military potential. I'm also thinking of the more subtle forms, such as the brain of all sentient species being susceptible to endomorphic 'highs' ... pain and misery can be a 'high' with trained exposure. And of course, Munchausen's Syndrome, where a person is so dependant on being a savior, they literally damage their own children to stay in that role."

"On another level, there is also the fact that a small portion of the Deltan population is considered 'mentally ill' for deliberately inflicting damage on themselves in order to enjoy healing," Spock pointed out.

"Now d'you see what I'm saying?" McCoy pleaded. "Lock the phasers on stun, but let's not go down without them!"

Jim hesitated, reluctant to reconcile anything bad with his memories of Gem. Besides the Vians, of course. Guilt made him want to play the devil's advocate. "The Shi'Kahr made it plain they saw nothing but pleasant, peaceful people."

"Checking the whole time for snakes in the grass," McCoy added skeptically.

Jim put his hands up. "What can I do? The language used gave me the distinct impression there was nothing to fear. What if the presence of weapons insults them?"

"It didn't with Gem, but I'd rather risk it myself, if it meant the Vians were around."

And it was officially out in the open.

Jim held his breath as the air in the turbolift froze. McCoy's glare was unrelenting.

"Yeah, I've said it," he growled. "I've been thinking about them as much as you have. Crazy freaks."

"I don't know if we can call them that, Bones."

"Why not? If they were all that evolved, and that concerned with the survival of Gem's people, why wouldn't they offer themselves up to Gem's imprintation? Were they incapable of those deeper emotions that they had to use lower-evolved lives like ours? You recall, it wasn't their fault Linke and Ozaba died! It's always the fault of the lab rat if it starves before it gets out of the maze!"

Jim swallowed hard. "I know ... " He looked at Spock who appeared slightly ill.

"I confess I never thought of that." Spock again laced his fingers together, a pose of detached thought. "Nor, as I consider, did they account for any variables in their experiment with us. When we forced them to change their rules, they capitulated with surprising swiftness."

"They were too evolved to think for the little guys." McCoy paced the slim confines, hands behind his back. "Typical Colonel Green attitude. Gem nearly lost her mind! What would have happened to the Hestians then? Ooops, we'll have to start all over? Better luck next time? Next please? It would have made more sense if a representative of each people had been pitted in a contest together!"

Jim's grip slipped on the handle. The turbo doors opened. McCoy held his hand on the bar. "I'm gonna make sure Sickbay is good and prepped before we go down," he warned.

Jim and Spock were left alone.

Jim broke the silence first. "That was ... intense."

"But understandable." Spock had lifted his gaze from his contemplative poise. "I myself was startled by my own insights when Gem instigated contact with me ... the good doctor's contact was far more deep, and much more involved than mine was."

"Yes, mine too." Jim gnawed his lip, almost like McCoy had done with his fingernail. "I suppose there aren't words to describe what I felt. There was a ... kind of communication flowing between us ... she did more than heal my body, Spock. She healed something inside me that ... that I didn't know was broken." He stopped, momentarily drifted back into his memories. What he was attempting to explain, was almost rendered obscene by the use of verbal language.

"Dr. McCoy's behavior is not unlike a Vulcan's who has been forced into healing against their will." Spock reluctantly released this minor bombshell to a stunned captain. "While the body can be healed, the mind can remain defiant. And we know that he was defiant of the Vians on principle."

"Yes ... " Jim would never forget the look on Bones' face as they took in the sight of Linke and Ozaba, preserved in glass tubes with -- horrible gesture -- their own names on them. He'd seen that particular expression on the doctor only a few times before; when Kyle's counterpart was being tortured in that terrible parallel universe, and Jim had been about to jump upon the Capellan that had killed his man. It had been a terrible, utterly still kind of expression that let very little in or out; an impassive waiting that chilled who saw him. It always made his captain think of a wild animal that has to analyze the situation before bolting or fighting.

"My Lumbee blood," Bones had once joked, back when they were waiting tensely for the ship to get Spock to his wedding, in time ... but the joke had held a grim cast to it. "We've spent centuries trying not to be noticed, it just comes natural in a bad situation."

"Well, I guess that explains why you're not afraid of snakes." Jim had attempted a joke in return. Somehow, the way the humor had fallen flat between both of them had eased the tension generated by their worry over Spock. Probably because they were being so pathetic over a grown man. Albeit, a grown man acting irrational.

Jim slowly restarted the turbolift for Officer's Quarters. "In a way, they stood for everything he was against as a doctor ... and as a human being. If he had surrendered to letting Gem heal him, he would have been a willing participant to an unethical experiment, and a party to murder with letting her die."

"Compounded more by his own ethics," Spock pointed out. "He will not take a life, not to save his own. If my speculation is true, he will need healing or his condition will gradually worsen." Spock spoke soberly, very quietly. It was not easy for him to discuss emotions of anyone, although many were fooled. Feelings were so intensely private for him his dread of the subject approached phobic levels.

They stopped at the Off-Deck and got out; it was still early enough in the shift that no one was about. It gave the corridor an eerie feeling of desertion -- a feeling Jim, who thought of the Enterprise as alive, had never liked. "Let's go get something to eat before Bridge," Jim offered.

"I would be pleased, Captain."

"Spock..."

"Yes, Jim?"

They paused at his door, and stepped inside. "Do you think there would be anything that would drive McCoy to ... kill?"

Now why did I even think that?

Spock was silent as Jim pulled out a holiday box of fruit. "I know that he only dissects animals that have already died. I remember that he killed the M-113 being when it was obviously killing you. Confused and uncertain with the sedative and its hypnotic influence, he still would not act rashly." Spock stopped a moment, thinking. "He would prefer death to a life without quality ... " Spock's thoughtful gaze sharpened. "Any one of us may kill. One would think that those of us who do not hesitate, are clouded in their judgement and confidence."

Jim toyed with a slice of dried pear. "I just keep thinking of how badly he fought as a gladiator."

"He is in truth, an excellent fighter." If Spock had said, "I am a redhead" Jim could not have been more astonished. "He was aware that I possessed the skills to keep us both alive without killing in return. Ergo, he did not, as you would say, 'put out.' But if you will recall the events of the anger-feeding entity from Beta XIIA, and you were separated from us--"

"I'm not likely to forget a Klingon as big as Kang mad at me," Jim muttered.

"He led the attack to rescue you. I recall he muttered about a duel with steak knives, but did quite well. His style is a form I am unfamiliar with, but it got him past a defense of armed Klingons." Spock added, "even when he was compelled to be violent, as when under the control of the Archons and Sylvia and Korob, he was very inefficient. Their controls, I would presume, were not whole enough to make him want to kill. Not even the paranoid delusions of cordrazine could drive him to that."

And logically, there was no way that McCoy could not know how to kill. A doctor's skill was a two-edged sword, or the second of the serpents on the caduceus.

Jim chewed that over in silence. "Well, he's just full of surprises." He sorted out a handful of maypops and limes, knowing Spock liked the salty rinds. Spock wordlessly thanked him and bit down on the tart slices.

"But as to your question ... " Spock's eyebrows genuflected all over his forehead. "McCoy prefers not to reveal the reasons he would need for such an action. But he would kill, to protect the defenseless ... as he did to save you."

* * *

Back in Sickbay, Christine Chapel came across her CMO at his desk, a distant expression in his eyes. He was studying an image on his viewscreeen, she realized, of a gorgeous flying bird, wrapped in flowing, multicolored plumage.

* * *

... contusion ... (rhisorius; platysma; levator labii superioris) broken bones (greenstick racture/ulna) impact upon abdominal aorta (visceral and parietal) knee (patelloemoral joint; tibiofemoral joint; proximal tibiofibular joint) wrists -- think about the muscles, the bones, the joints. Label the blood vessels, be clinical. Observe objectively. Wrists -- ellipsoid joint; condyloid. A reduced ball and socket configuration. Interosseous ligament -- Gem, don't touch me. You'll die. Lal and Thann, their pathetic apology to him, absolving themselves of any guilt, telling each other as well as himself there was no other way. He had no use for that. "Get on with it!" Like getting hit with large rocks. Internal stuff; bleeding seeping through the tissues. Damaged organs. Liver? Now that hurt. Gem? What the hell are you doing??

[Hurt/pain? Stop hurt] Gem, get away. You'll die. Too close to death. [Negativefeelingstubborn; stophurt/hurtpain]

Healing slow; cells repairing as she takes the obscenity inside herself. Vians wanting her to want to do this, set her up for it. The death of thy neighbor.

[Puzzlement what is a T-cell?]

As soon as I can, I'm pushing you away -- GET AWAY!!!

McCoy gasped himself awake, found himself in an upright position in bed in his unlit cabin. For a moment, two coldly remote wrinkled faces looked back at him in the darkness, then they were gone.

The Vians and their sincerely-believed -- in sympathy were gone.

Gem was gone.

He was alone.

McCoy pulled a deep, shuddering breath inside his ribs, feeling the floating bones shake. He was in his fatigues again. He rubbed his now-rough face, realizing he'd forgotten to shave. He'd fallen asleep before making it to the gym again.

[?..!]

[Pain?] Gem whispered in his mind, an emotional query.

[Pain! ... stop ... stopTHIS/outrage]

He closed his eyes tight against the flood off images.

[Dare you ... hurt ... ]

She didn't speak in words inside his mind, just ways that defied description. She communicated in feelings as intricate as any language, and if pressed, he could only say that he "knew" what she was saying. Translations were free because he knew what she would say, had she the ability to speak. And he wanted to return to that communication again, see her, look into those deep eyes and find out what the Vians had done to her when they were done ...

Had it been in their power, they would have pulled her limp body from Lal's arms as the trio floated away. But they couldn't; they could only watch, wondering.

He could stay here and wallow in self-inflicted angst, or he could go do something. Anything.

He glanced at his ChronoPadd out of habit; Christine was getting tutored by M'Benga today, subject: The Origins of Embryonic Mutation. Lovely. Better you than me, son.

... Spock was going in at 0400 for a rhinovirus he'd contracted on Base VI

(surprise!). M'Benga was doing that too. Way to go, M'Benga! He didn't feel like donning the warpaint and duking it out with a clogged Vulcan today. They were both low in spirits and liable to start slicing each other open. Anything else? Ohgod. A request from FedMed over that mitochondria sample taken from Miri's Planet. Maybe if he gave Maggie Tong a whole bottle of Godiva Liquor she'd be so kind as to run it thru the compucensor and send the whole damn thing out to those deskbound mathoms ...

He dropped the Padd with a shudder and fled to the gym for about 80,000,000 laps around the small pool. Fled? fled. As in, running like hell. He did not, could not, would not, deal with FedMed. If there was any logic to human paranoia, destiny was pushing him to some sort of confrontation with the Hestians; he hadn't heard from FM for at least a quarter, and it was to sit and listen to High Admiral Waabs cuss him out in her unique mixture of Anglish, Federation Standard, Cherokee and Ojibwa for putting himself on the line to save Spock. "The Captain and First Officer are trained soldiers!" she yelled while he sat politely in front of her desk and tried to think pleasant thoughts. "You aren't! If I ever hear of you pulling another stunt like that, all the semaa in the world won't keep me from yanking you OFF THAT SHIP AND TRANSFERRING YOU TO THE PEDIATRIC WARD INSIDE THE GRAND MARTIAN CANYON!"

"Gawd," McCoy breathed as he dove into the pool. For a few blissful moments his world was nothing more than water and bubbles. Then he broke surface, caught air and waved to Elpel and Yaga on the other side. From badminton to the backstroke; they really needed to cut out these "tutoring" sessions and just jump in the romance.

Who am I to talk? I've got a classic obsession with an alien mute young enough to be my daughter! Well, not QUITE that young; but still really young, and --

He went under again. Cool water went over his head. Yup, that was it. You are *obsessed*. You can't think of anyone or anything else but Gem. And God help you, she's an Empath. She'll find out what you're all about inside ten minutes of beamdown. Ten minutes? Five. Maybe two. Or instantaneously. You're hopeless. Maybe that ward on Mars wouldn't be so bad after all.

He went to the bottom of the pool where depressions were carved out; concaves and convexes, training grounds for the rare undersea maneuvers. He was determined to shut his mind out of this extremely unprofessional fixation even if he had to stay submerged for most of the night. At least, until he could convince himself that the Universe wasn't pushing him to another meeting with Gem.

Unbidden, an image of Spock popped into his head. The Vulcan was sitting cross-legged in a lotus position, eyes closed and chanting, "I am Vulcan. There is no co-incidence."

On the other side of the pool, Yaga, who happened to be a Martian colonist, commented to her hypothetical lover: "He's been under a long time."

Elpel didn't look up from the view of Annbjorg's wetsuit. "Mmn, honey, you need to keep breathing deep. It's good for your lungs."

* * *

An hour later, shaking and sweating (and not wanting to examine the reasons why), Leonard turned on Ship's Channel at random while he changed to dry clothes. Nyota was running DJ tonight, which meant even Spock would be contented with the selection. He felt himself relax enough to smile a little as long, complex notes began to fill his cabin. Maybe, just maybe, he could let the music take him away from himself.

What is it about you, Gem? He stared upward at the ceiling, no longer frightened but there was a deathly calm now, a part that was temporarily exhausted of reaction and only the cool intellect remaining behind. I was in awe of you down there. I still am. I keep wondering if you're ... real. Did you really adapt the way the Vians planned? Or did we hurt you so badly you never recovered? I can't stop thinking about you, I can't stop wishing I could see you again, touch your hands and read your eyes. Something about you struck me when I first saw you. Odd. Usually it's Jim who falls head over heels ... I guess you're never too old to be deranged.

Nope. It seemed that one never got wiser with age. You'd think, that getting his heart shattered into atoms as well as fatherhood from a distance would be the cure. Who was it that said the human heart was the only machine that could still function while split open? They were so right.

* * *

Not far from the doctor, Spock was seated at his desk, filing the day's reports. It was a task he could perform easily and yet think of other things simultaneously.

By the time he finished three duty shifts, they would enter the Hestian orbit. Spock's insatiable curiosity had already wrangled permission to extend the ship's scanners to maximum capacity; if there were tangible means by which the Vians had terraformed this planet, he would be interested in knowing what they were.

Not that he believed those methods would be easily discernible. Psychologically, the Vians fit no profile he had ever encountered, with their peculiar, unfathomable conflict of duty and cruelty. Even their expressions of compassion had been unclear.

Dr. McCoy believed the Vians had forgotten how to experience emotions, and so had been forced to use them instead. Spock strongly suspected this was the truth, and not the least because it was the doctor's impressions. When it came to understanding emotions, the doctor's ability to translate far overtook his own.

And, he had been the most natural bridge between Gem and the Vians. Even at a glance, he had strode toward her without fear -- an action that had privately alarmed Spock. And when they had persisted in thinking objectively, he had named her, forcing them to see her as something beyond a remote particle of the puzzle.

In the end, it had been an equal mixture of extremes that had salvaged them all. Spock found it oddly gratifying that the solution had lain in both McCoy's emotion, and his own ability to put emotion aside. Without either ability, he doubted it would have been more than another failed experiment of the Vians.

He signed his name to the personnel report, and wondered if the Vians had truly intended to keep their corpses in the preserving vials. With the sun about to Nova, he would have thought no, but the presence of this new planet suggested they could have moved their strange laboratory with them.

Or, had the Vians moved at all when they parted ways? Perhaps it had been they who had been transported, for just as suddenly, they were above the surface, answering Mr. Scott's frantic hail over all three communicators.

Possibly, he decided, they would have kept their corpses. Their lack of knowledge about humans and Vulcans was obvious. They might have found specimens useful.

He opened the last file; the programming outline for the week. The Ship's logicians, despite their title, were an easily aroused sort and prone to handle surprises badly. It was in the best interests of high performance that he submit their schedules two weeks in advance.

Debate over the vials finished, Spock mentally turned to the last issue on his mind.

He still did not know if he had broken a confidence or not. As captain, Jim should be aware there might be a medical difficulty with Dr. McCoy. But a medical difficulty fell under McCoy's province. It was possible he should have spoken to the doctor, and not Jim about the possible need for a skilled mind-healer.

He was not at all young by humans standards, but by Vulcan's, he was very young. And his youth/inexperience was glaring in his psyche at this moment. Try as he might, he could not find in his memory a comforting precedent of any kind. This was not something he would know much about until he grew older.

He needed to decide upon a course of action, whether proven right or wrong.

* * *

CAPTAIN'S LOG, SUPPLEMENTAL

"The Shields, as the Hestians call their militant group, are exceedingly dangerous. My First Officer and CMO managed to surrepitiously scan them during their brief appearance from the forest; the results are alarming. Combined with the input of Ofv, the unacknowledged leader, and Spock's access to Hestian records, Hestia is indeed in danger of self-extermination.

"Early in their history, a Shield was selected by lot to defend the people against vicious predators. It was very difficult to kill, and use of plants to alter their moods was the only way this was made possible. Over time, some Shields developed defenses against all traumas and then a pleasurable act of killing mixed with a dependency on the plants. When there were no more predators to kill, a Shield could turn restless enough to kill their own people. Not unlike the example of trained murderers in our own history.

"Apparently the Shields stopped being satisfied with the pleasure of killing animals several decades ago. They are now killing the defenseless members of their own people when the urge strikes them. My CMO has discovered canvanine, the dominant substance in their plant abuse, inspires an intense high to the act of murder...

"McCoy cautions that canvanine is poisonous to ourselves, but addictive to a Hestian. It would take more than empathic healing to help these people recover. They need allopathic and conventional methods that involve isolation from the masses. Sadly, such concepts are unheard of in these people, who truly do suffer the deaths of their neighbors. Attempts have been made to heal these addicts, and the results have all been at the murder of the healer.

"We are saddened to note that one of the healers was Ting, a daughter of our friend Gem. She was killed by Fala, the leader of the Shields, and for this reason Gem left with two friends to be alone. We are hoping to meet with her tonight as her people say she is expected. The growing storm, however, is cause for concern..."

McCoy briefly tuned out his captain's drone as he worked on his own specs. Spock was sitting relaxed and calm at the Communal Table, to all appearances dozing but ready to act at the first warning. McCoy couldn't feel a thing about Spock; it was like sitting next to a giant mass of inertia, his shields were up so high.

That meant he was thinking.

The doctor didn't feel very comfortable sitting under the Communal Roof. It was a lot like a Longhouse, with the walls taken down for the summer and leaving the large, U-shaped roof over sturdy stone pillars. The roof gave a feeling of shelter. The lack of walls made him feel exposed and vulnerable.

His nerves were toying with him. He couldn't blame Jim for his harried expression. The captain was strolling back and forth, his boots dusty from the sandy soil under the Roof. Once in a while, he would look out from under the supports to view the open sky, where storms were gathering with aggression. Distant dark spots showed birds, going up and taking the updrafts for the thrill of the intense winds high above.

"Twitchy," McCoy commented.

"Nervous," Spock agreed.

"Jim's never been patient."

Jim sat down between them, snapping his communicator shut with a little more force than was needed. "Scotty says the storm will be hitting a bit earlier than planned." He laced his fingers together and held them on the table -- forcing himself not to twitch. "If Gem doesn't arrive soon, we'll have to beam up or stay here and wait for the weather to return to normal."

"Which would you prefer, Captain?" Spock queried. It was exactly the question Leonard had wanted to ask.

Jim paused, thinking. "I dislike being forced into a choice." He grunted.

"And I'm worried if we don't see Gem soon..."

"She's out in the woods with twenty dedicated berserkers," Bones snapped. "Can't imagine why you'd be worried. And what's the problem, Jim? We've been planet-ridden before."

"Hopefully there will not be further unexpected complications," Spock considered. "There are still incalculable unknown factors."

"I try to listen to my instincts," Jim said shortly. "And I smell trouble."

"Yeah -- smells like canvanine," Bones shot back.

Spock was staring at them. Because Vulcans could only smell half as well as humans, they understood his stymied look. It wasn't the fault of the literal minded Vulcans that they were confused when humans claimed to "smell trouble."

[Gem should be arriving soon. We may begin eating.]

Oxal's father Ofv, a larger carbon copy of his son -- damn near a clone -- set down a bowl of what looked like red mashed potatoes and went to get more as Hestians settled in, silent with their mouths, but noisy with their hands.

"That's got enough Vitamin A in it that you could read a newspaper under a dark moon," McCoy warned. "Go easy or you'll get a migraine for sure."

"Noted and logged." Jim took a bit and passed it to Spock. "What else did we find out?"

"Not much on top of what Spock le--" McCoy took a sip of tea and sputtered, "No, Spock, don't eat that!"

Spock froze. "Sensors say it is safe."

"It's an insect byproduct." Silently, Spock passed the plate to Kirk, who passed it on to his confusion. If humans had no qualms about prizing honey, why did they avoid this?

"And stay away from the green stick-things. They're seasoned with dry-roasted biting insects. The formic acid in their venom adds a lemon-pepper flavor."

"Bones, I believe I have just hit overload on cultural collisions," Kirk confided.

McCoy shrugged. "Remind me to tell you about Capellan food someday." He took one of the sticks, crunched down and smiled his approval to Ofv. Ofv beamed and set down a platter of what Jim was about to swear was cold boiled maggots, but turned out to be salty pasta. He loaded up. So did Spock.

"Well, I found out that these people originally had vocal cords, but several thousand years ago, a geographic upheaval encouraged the proliferation of a predator that made it bad to be noisy around. They used their abilities to render themselves mute."

"Not uncommon," Spock opined. "The applicant Empathic species, the Betazoids, claim to be able to encourage the growth of certain portions of their brains."

"Well, these critters were just the stuff of nightmares. You think your ears were great, these were monsters. "Strogli" or something like that, and they just loved the way people tasted. I have it on good authority that they weren't at all fussy about what or who they ate; everything was fair game."

Something clicked in Jim's head. "Does this explain the mystery of the toxic-inedible birds?"

"Yep. Nothing really stops a stogli -- stragli -- whatever. But if it tries to devour a member of the flock, it usually choked on the astringent compounds, and died of the toxins. That freed the rest of the flock to live another day."

"That sounds pretty bad," Jim admitted. "I wonder if the Klingons know about these things."

"Imagine," McCoy shuddered, "getting swallowed whole by a thirty-foot legless reptile with sensory organs all along its sides, a head larger than your shoulders are wide and teeny little eyeballs that it doesn't really need. Oh, yeah, and it can compress itself into really small entrances like a snake. Hey, are you sure you want to hear this?"

Jim didn't want to be shown up. "Just give one example."

"Well, okay ... " McCoy said dubiously. "Picture one of those things crawling into a gen in the middle of the night and being trapped inside because it was too big to get out from swallowing your mother. But that's okay -- there's lots of food to go around."

Spock had been about to bite into a large blue fruit. He set it down and favored the doctor with an icy glare.

"He made me," Bones reminded him.

Spock looked at Jim.

"I think I'm going to be sick," Jim said faintly.

"That's cold comfort," McCoy snorted. He picked up his glass of tea and began drinking.

Jim was patently annoyed. "How can you possibly put anything in your stomach after a ..."

A sudden clatter of dishes made them cringe slightly. Ofv was tapping a rhythm against a beaten metal plate of square metal suspended in a small frame.

"Fascinating." Spock lifted one eyebrow. "Were they not overwhelming themselves with the volume, the quality of the music-patterns would be extraordinarily complex."

"They probably spent a lot of their silent existence dreaming up music in their heads," Jim offered. "Maybe in time they'll settle down." He certainly hoped so.

"Hear, hear," McCoy said, drolly ironic.

Jim watched as Oxal joined in with his father, creating a sound effect like a waterfall over shallow rapids.

"If the gens are based on a mother, why am I seeing so many children with obvious older male relatives?"

"The mothers do the majority of the upbringing until the child is of age," Spock explained. "While Ofv knows who his son is, I sensed a distinct lack of cultural interest in the subject. Many times the maternal uncles are the patron, but in all cases, it is the mother who chooses who will take over after her time of nurturing is over."

"Hmn." McCoy had missed that in his detective-work on the Shields. It still amazed him that Gem had had a daughter, full-grown. Obviously the tricorders needed some calibration for this race; they were saying Ofv wasn't much older than Oxal.

Ofv was suddenly walking hurriedly to their side of the table, his face silent and calm against the riotous bustle, bang and clatter of noisy Hestians who considered it good manners to treat their dinner plates like brass gongs.

[Captain may I speak with you please?] Ofv's voder was much smoother than his son's. [Oxal is sensing distress from Gem. I worry. The Shields left not long ago ... ]

"Where do the Shields normally go during storms?" Jim wondered.

Ofv shook his head in ignorance.

"Can you tell us how far away she is?"

[Not far]

The men looked at each other, hoping that "not far" really did mean that.

McCoy sighed and put his glass down. "Let's do this sensibly at least," he said. "Let Spock and his super-vision go first; you, Jim, in your glow-in-the-dark shirt second, and I'll bring up the end with my tricorder scanning for canvanine-laced lifeforms."

"Not to forget," Jim added grimly, "we have phasers. Under no circumstances are the Shields to get them."

"I recommend we lock them on stun." Spock was already fiddling with his. "That way no one but a Starfleet Officer will be able to kill with them."

"Light stun," McCoy suggested softly. "These people have triple the neurons, remember. No need to fry out their nervous systems of cause a permanent erasure of the Boca Area."

Jim's face was set and tight as the evening grew palpably darker. The burning torches made him look much older, the way trouble made anyone look older. McCoy didn't see that as a good omen; it was too much the way he'd imagined Jim would look like, burned out and defeated from too much of the strain Starfleet kept pushing on him.

* * *

The air was wet and heavy. The storm's pressure laid upon them like hot breath, as hot as the torches of burning fatwood they each carried in one hand. Jim's shirt did indeed glow to McCoy's eyes as the doctor followed his young friend's back through a twenty-foot tunnel of shining green leaves. Trumpet flowers hung as if suspended against black trunks, their night-blooming petals burning a cold iridescent white. It made the doctor shiver because it reminded him of the datura of his home. Prolific in the South, its scopalamine chemical components could make an unwitting human ingestor go completely mad ... and cannibalistic, believing they were ravening wolves.

[We stop a moment so Oxal can sense] Ofv's voder explained, harsh in the soft plastic texture of the jungle air.

They all stopped, breathing quietly in the humid dark. The large splinters of resinous wood burned rather quietly, inky smoke boiling from the center of the males with a smell like copal. Slips of starlight glimmered wetly from around scraps of collecting cloud. The smell of rain was everywhere, bringing out the scent of wet earth, mold, growth and chlorophyll. A thin ribbon of river wended its way through the green, sparkling with what little light it could catch. A sturdy flatboat rested on their side off the bank, moored tightly with nearby paddle-poles. A waterfall hummed less than fifty feet away. There was no telling how ar it cascaded with their human eyes.

"Any luck, Bones?"

McCoy shook his head unhappily at Jim's soft voice. "None." He snapped his useless tricorder shut. "Radiant dispersion is just impossible to scan anything this tangled..."

Jim nodded once, forced to accept the unpleasant discovery. "Ofv," he spoke gently, "How is it Oxal can sense Gem? Are you related?"

[Oh, not in blood. Gem recently healed Oxal of a fever. A slight connection remains.]

Leonard was disgusted by a flash of embarrassment. There was no reason for it.

[Gem should be by the boat ... on the other side ... this is odd ... ]

The big man glanced around, frightened for all his size. [Have the Shields found her path? Where could they be?]

Jim shook his head. "We could search the other side if you wish," he offered. The two Hestians swallowed with relief, and Leonard wondered what they were doing, bringing two vulnerable people like this into a situation that could erupt into a war zone.

He looked forward at Spock on a feeling. Spock was standing quietly, alert as a patient owl. His dark eyes made a slight movement, telling McCoy he could not hear anything for now.

"Enterprise." Jim pulled out his communicator.

"Sulu here, sir."

"Mr. Sulu, pinpoint our location and give us a scan; are there any Hestians around us?"

Silence while they waited. McCoy flicked his gaze around, senses aching to detect something, anything. Spock's outward serenity didn't fool him. The creeping, dread sensation was stealing over him again. The Shields were somewhere nearby. Oxal and Ofv were pressed tightly together, shivering with wide-white eyes.

Sulu responded after McCoy counted up to thirty. "Besides the two with you, sir, there's two groups; one is 500 metres 35 degrees upcurrent and closing fast. Twenty lifeforms. The other group is three, and on the other side of the river, further downstream, measurement undetermined from presence of waterfall and--"

"--radiant dispersion," Jim finished resignedly. "And the storm, Mr. Sulu?"

"I'd beam up if I were you, sir."

"Noted, Sulu, and we just may do that as soon as we finish here." He clipped his communicator back to his waist and studied the others. "Gentlemen, I suggest we avoid the Shields that are approaching us with such enthusiasm and get on the boat." The Hestians were already uncoiling the rope. Soft earth squashed under their rigid boot-soles and stank of silt. Small animals splashed away from them without ever being seen. The officers boarded, McCoy's face plainly uneasy as the torchlight spread oily patterns over the moving water. Jim remembered his past history as a drowning victim, and hoped it had nothing to do with his swimming ability.

"Bones, can you swim?"

"Of course I can swim!" Leonard was offended. "Why?"

"Just asking ... since you said you'd drowned before... "

"Wasn't my fault either time!" McCoy rubbed his arms nervously. "My God, Jim! Think of where I grew up! How could I not know how to swim with all that water around me?"

Spock flicked a single eyeball at McCoy's outburst. Jim caught the message; the doctor was sensing the Shields better than they were, almost as well as the pasty-faced Hestians. Jim sought for a witticism, which he wasn't often good at, so what did come out of his mouth was surely divinely inspired.

"Well, Bones, all I know is, I grew up around air, and I haven't learned how to fly yet."

Leonard was startled into a choke of laughter. "You win," he snorted. Jim slapped him on the back and turned his attention to the Hestians.

Wood creaked. Rope fibers stretched and was sulky. Spock suddenly started, his dark head whipping about and peering in the gloom as Jim went up front with Oxal and Ofv.

"Spock?" McCoy muttered.

"I thought I heard something." Spock sounded awfully calm for the quarry of professional berserker assassins. "But I see nothing."

McCoy snorted. "Let's hope those crazy carrots have kicked in your eyes. I'd hate to be killed in a place like this."

"It is not my intention to be killed at all, Ddoctor."

Jim tuned them out; he looked to their rowers, who were applying strong ropy muscles to the current. The waterfall, frankly, made him a little nervous. He thought they were too close, and the sound effects, too loud. "Can we help you in any way?"

[Best not. We know the current. If you are not familiar you could hit a rock or enter the chute, and then we would go over the falls.] The voder sounded far calmer than the owner looked. Sweat shone on the dark face and his arms tightened with effort.

"What's a chute?"

[A dug-out channel in the bed. It flows very, very fast compared to the rest of the river.]

"Like old riverboat channels." Jim grinned. "I--"

"Spock, look out!"

Spock turned swiftly in the boat, sending it rocking, just as Fala's dripping, tooth-studded club came down on McCoy's warding arm. What had intended to crush the Vulcan's skull like an egg did the same to human bones. Spock clearly heard the crunch, the rip of hooked teeth tearing the doctor's shirt and flesh. The Shield pulled; the weapon dragged him overboard into the water.

"They're in the chute!" Jim realized and with perfectly awful timing, the first rumble of thunder vibrated over the valley.

Behind Spock, Jim shouted a warning, a splash, then something hard hit the flatboat. The structure jumped, and rocked, its momentum spoiled.

McCoy had surfaced with a gasp, briefly, then simply vanished in the ink-dark water. Spock had no way of knowing if he was even alive. Fala was swinging, lumbering towards them, the river water sloshing away from his stride in waves. Two more Shields were coming into his view; one was splashing up behind him. Spock dismounted off the flatboat in the rib-high water, fighting his natural instincts to avoid this non-desert environment. He ignored Jim's protest. His mind was focused on protecting the Hestians and Jim from this oncoming threat; he wondered if the Shields had divined the perfection of a water battle, the one place where phasers were forbidden because of the energy dispersion.

A neck presented itself. Spock pinched hard, his free hand wrenching the club away. A Shield on the far shore was hammering his weapons together in a gross parody of his peaceful kin and their dinnerware, his eyes rolled up to white balls in his scarred face in ecstacy. Lightning flashed. Spock shoved the Shield away, knowing full well he would drown before regaining consciousness. His own companion shoved the sinking body aside in his haste to get to Spock.

Behind him Spock heard the nearing Shield stop; a wet sound, a skull broken. He glanced backward as he retreated. Jim had wrested his own weapon from his attacker. His young face had never looked so old or grim in the flickering torchlight.

"GET HIM, SPOCK!"

Spock did not know if Jim meant his attacker, or to rescue McCoy. But he could not see McCoy at all and the current was tugging them inexorably to the roaring falls. Fala was getting ever nearer, his club whistling as he swung it through the air. Torchlight caught the blood on it. McCoy's blood. Spock felt a sudden anguish, and a rage. The next Shield was clumsy in her haste to kill, and again a body sank below the water and drifted to the falls.

Fala's bigger form was traveling against the current with breathtaking ease. Spock retreated, his boots slipping on the algae-slimed bedrock, heard the slap of water against wood and Jim's wet hand grabbed him by the arm, pulling him up with bruising force. Water slapped his face, filling his mouth with the taste of mud. Oxal and Ofv were terrified; their limbs moved sluggishly from the fear that the Vulcan could feel rolling off them in choking miasma. Fala was gaining and Spock's muscles had slowed from the icy cold of the water.

Chilled human fingers clutched his shoulder. Jim was trying to pull him back even as Oxal and Ofv plied the boat with all their strength. But they were not fast enough. Spock opened his mouth to insist Jim let go, stubborn though his captain would be about making such a logical decision --

Fala's blotched, ravaged face froze in a stroke of lightning, his throat opened in a second smile that bubbled and hissed with escaping blood and air. His bloody face a grim mask, Bones McCoy used the last of his strength and his one good arm to push him backwards, over the falls. Fala's hand flew up, and went over into the bath of roaring white foam.

You won't be hurting anyone else, ever again. McCoy had the supreme satisfaction of thinking before the water closed over his head.

* * *

Both times he'd drowned, he'd recovered to blurred vision, aching eyes and throat, and stared down at by anxious parents who couldn't wait to see him be well before he got the spanking of the year -- an unfair scenario to a kid who hadn't intended to get overwhelmed by water in the first place.

This time he simply opened his eyes with a largely pain-free body. The lights were dim because it was still night. And Gem had replaced his parents. A lot prettier, but still alarmed. He tried to move. Mistake. "Ow."

[Be careful, please!] Gem's voder was smooth and well-honed. [You nearly died, Leonard!]

"Again?" He tried to smile, then memory shocked his skin. "Jim and Spock!"

Gem had her elbow on his chest before he could translate the thought to action. [Don't you even think of it! They made it across the river safely; we are still searching for a way to get to them, but, I do not think they are dead. I would feel it.]

McCoy trusted his own instincts, so he had to trust hers, even though his last conscious memory was anything but reassuring. He let himself fall back, relief mixing with a different kind of worry. Were they still in trouble? Spock wasn't adapted to the climate, and he swam like a kiwi (Jim's grimly determined lessons in the pool aside). Jim wasn't very adapted either. Iowa wasn't famous for its jungles...

They were out there, somewhere in that tangled mass with Fala's berserkers. Maybe both groups were looking for each other, maybe they were all just trying to survive. He turned his head as lightning flickered across the room. There was no way they could return to the ship with this kind of atmospheric chaos. Even a shuttle was too risky.

[Here.] Gem passed over a cup of black stuff and he sat up (carefully) to sip it. The steam floated into his lungs and loosened something tight inside. [Be easy on yourself. We will find them when the storm is over ... we will not give up.]

"They don't give up either," he reminded her -- as if she could forget. He glanced upwards at a rumble of new thunder against the invisible dark of the ceiling. This unlit room reminded him far too much of Minara ... even the lightning reminded him of terrible things discovered in the subterranean maze.

He tried to put the image of Linke and Ozaba out of his head. Their own imperfections killed them ... Easy to solve a puzzle when you aren't part of the puzzle! Again, the familiar old stew of anger and sorrow tried to rise up. He closed his eyes and fought it back down. Ozaba's twisted dead face haunted him the worst; a face that had been kind and quiet and humorously spiritual on the recorder. The kind of man who made the perfect grandfather or neighborhood mentor.

Gem shivered. [The seasonal storms always frighten me ... we were afraid to make noise because of the stragli ... sometimes I forget.] Her hued pantsuit clung to her body in the damp. Once again, McCoy wondered how she could look so young and be a mother. Empathic self healing, he supposed.

[Can it be true?] Gem hugged herself as she paced. Her red hair was longer, and clung to her skin like the gauzy webs of clothing. [Can the rouges be poisoned people? I don't know if I want to believe that.]

He didn't know what to say. She knew they hadn't been lying ... but she still had to accept the knowledge.

"Gem ... Fala and his people are addicts to canvanine. And an addict is like any other ... they'll do anything to get what they want."

[This is why no one could heal them. This is why Ting died for trying to help.]

"I'm sorry."

Greatly inadequate. If that had been Joanna ... and yet, he shivered, what if Joanna had been like Fala? That had to be even worse. He remembered explaining Daystrom's obsession for his child-computer to Jim. Even a killer, a parent loved their offspring. Their instincts were too strong. He watched Gem finger her necklace, face a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts vying for supremacy. [We tried to heal them. We really did.]

"Gem ... I believe you." God. What if it had been Joanna? He ached for her; felt the muscle in his chest open up and collapse under the weight of her pain. Disaster. To outlive your own child. Disaster.

Gem blinked tears away. [Fala is dead ... and I cannot be sorry. What does that make me?]

"Normal," he said gruffly. "Don't you think?"

[Not our people. We cannot kill. We ... cannot.] She wrinkled her face, confused, and sank down next to him, leaning her head against his shoulder. [I am sorry you had to.]

"I didn't have much choice. He was going to smash Spock like a pumpkin." Just the memory dried his throat. M-113 all over again, only instead of firing a phaser into a telepath that was killing Jim ... it had been a lot more up close and personal.

Fala had been like a bear, who, once it developed a taste of its own kind, would prey on nothing else.

When Fala's club shattered his arm, the contact had flooded him with Fala's essence -- a dirty, smeary choking miasma of insanity what whirled between frenzied joy in killing, and the orgasmic lull that followed. Until the next killing. He'd understood then why there had been no sign of domesticated animals, no pets in the village -- easy objects to torture to death. Fala had been placed outside the loop of his people, his world, the entire natural order of things, and he would kill until there was nothing left to kill, then he would resort to destroying the forest. Knowing what he was up against had given him the strength to take up his good arm against the Hestian, and risk a killing blow to give the man a quick death. Shock of the entire writhing mass of hate had been what made him collapse. Gem had saved him from that. It was now little more than a faint memory.

[Like Lal and Tha -- ]

He had jumped at her voder's voice.

[I am sorry. I felt you thinking of them.]

"What happened? Where are they now, Gem?" he asked grimly. Quietly. All the healing in the world might let him step back and observe impartially without pain, but he still wanted to speak to those wrinkled Vians. Oh, yes ...

[I do not know. They returned me to my home, here, when I woke up I never saw them again... ] She wrapped her arms around his neck and he hugged her back, feeling very low on resistance. She sighed, a tiny steam-sound. [I do not know if they will come back, or if they are content to observe from afar.]

He was pulling away with a puzzled frown. "Gem, where's your voder?" He stared at her exposed neck.

[voder?]

Realization thundered over his head like the storm. "Oh," he said in a tiny voice. Thankfully, his brain froze up and not a single thought crept through for a few heartbeats. He was never so glad to be empty-headed in his life. "Uhmmm." Clear your throat, Leonard, attaboy ... "How long have you been talking to me like this?"

[Since I healed you. I don't need one of those things right now. The connection is very strong since I healed you from the point of death.] Her long white fingers flipped up like birdwings, settling down in the air that flashed dark, then white from the outside clouds. Her gaze drifted inward as she lifted her head. [It is why I am trying to reach Oxal. I recently healed him.]

"Makes sense," he agreed faintly, still on overload. Or maybe he was just exhausted. He couldn't really tell the difference at this moment. Maybe I'm about to pass out. That would be nice. He probably couldn't embarrass himself if he was unconscious.

She must have been thinking too hard to pay real attention to his mental state. [Had I been able to finish the last time, you would have already been this sensitive ... ] She chewed her bottom lip -- one of his mannerisms, he noted with hazy shock.

Why did the Vians want her people to override their instinct for self-preservation? Did they think it would have to be all or nothing for the Hestian race? The instinct that made Gem falter had been what kept them from killing themselves in doomed attempts to free the canvanine addicts. Imprinting on McCoy had overriden that need to live ... and several had paid the price for that. Including her daughter.

With every answer they fought for, more questions showed up to replace them. And burning the brightest, was the need to ask the Vians what the hell they were doing, playing god.

Gem returned to leaning against him. He was not on her level of skill, but she was clearly fatigued. Her small body bowed down from too much weight.

What did it cost her to take Fala's venom into her own body? [But I'm not taking chances. That tea should put you to sleep very soon.] A crack of thunder made them jump. [You are worried about them.]

"That's an understatement." He groaned. "Those two get in the worst trouble together..."

[But they know how to defeat killers and we do not. Killing ices our souls, we cannot save ourselves from the feeling. We ourselves would die ... ]

She heaved in brief sorrow, and he wondered again what was happening to her. She'd healed him from the killing-trauma, so did that mean she was now a healer who could give herself to the point of death and be able to kill? God, what would she become now? Such thoughts went circular and wore him out.

[We can trust they will shelter until the worst of the storm passes ... Ofv and Oxal are with them, and if they get close enough, we'll find them with our spirits. Now,] she added sternly, her head going up [try to sleep.]

"How can I not?" He tried to grumble but his head was heavy. He was gonna be out as soon as his eyes closed. Behind him she was putting the empty cup up. He heard the click of ceramic.

[Leonard ... can your people heal mine?]

"Sure ... f'they ask's't." It was going to be a battle to stay awake long enough to answer the million questions in her large eyes.

[Then we ask. How do you heal canvanine addiction?]

"Humans," he murmured as reality slipped away, "don' get 'dicted to ... canva ... nine ... "

* * *

Spock had never been so cold. Not even on the polar worlds he had visited under Captain Pike and his ability to control bodily temperature still undeveloped. It was the wet that constantly fell from the sky, leaching the efforts of his thermal-thread uniform into uselessness. For what it was worth, his boots were still dry, and he was thankful as they slogged through the shallows of a choked bed of plants like water lilies deep in black mud. Something long and narrow and muscular pressed against his ankle, then slithered away, still invisible.

Next to him, steam rose from Jim as he kept active, marshaling his strength into aiding Ov and Oxal up the too-steep bank of clay. Spock's impartial powers admired the efficiency of the humidity-evolved human body. It was an enviable trait. Water had gathered atop a leaf above their heads larger than the entire briefing room. Overladen, its fibrous ribs began bending; Jim rubbed at his face furiously, wiping the runoff and blinking rapidly.

"How are you holding up?" he asked, a little too loudly over the sounds. Spock wondered if Jim could even hear himself.

"I am unhindered," Spock answered back at a volume he intended Jim to hear. As soon as they were out of the rain, he would be able to dry and warm his body.

"Good..!" Jim breathed hard, face flushed with his hands on his hips. The latest stormcloud was rolling away, and taking its place was a deafening roar of millions of raindrops slapping against the surface of the river. Lightning turned the river white; the raindrops marked passage with dark craters into the silver surface. When the captain looked, he could just make out the outline of a large brown-clad body with red hair tangled in the reeds.

Bastard, Jim thought, unrepentant. They'd found Fala's club not far away; it was his now, and ready to be used again. Spock was standing still, ignoring the drench, eyes searching.

"Any sign of Bones?"

Spock only shook his head. "He was close to the falls when he went under again."

"I'll accept that when I see it!" Jim spat, rage at the berserkers his predominating emotion.

"Agreed, Captain," Spock answered stiffly.

This has got him too, Jim blinked aching eyes. He was so weary it was a wonder he could stand. And he knew Spock would hold out so long as he did ... which meant, he had to get them all sheltered.

"I'm not giving up," Jim said for the record. He knew Spock could hear him over the drumroll of rain. "As often as we've made him think we were dead ... the least we could do is give the benefit of the doubt."

Spock said nothing, which meant he agreed but had no idea how to express it.

A leaf like the one that semi-sheltered them went past them like a loosened sail. Jim flinched back thinking it would be very unpleasant to get hit by such a thing. Spock was calmly stepping backwards, putting his body between the outer rim of the storm and the Hestians. Jim could see their clothing better than he could see them. Oxal was shivering, and his eyes closed as he leaned against his father.

Now what?

Jim sucked his breath in, violently. Rain drenched him with the same force of the numbing cold rolling down his back.

"Jim?" Spock had to shout over the sounds as a warm cloud struck a cold one and split open in an iridescent tree-branch of fire.

Spock called again, alarmed at the lack of reaction. He staggered through the steep slick of clay, falling on his knees against stones and knotted roots. Jim remained unmoving, even as the Vulcan's cold fingers closed over Jim's solid muscle.

"Did you see them?" Jim screamed over another clap, not turning around to face him.

Spock peered in the weeping gloom; every leaf poured a waterfall of rain all about them, sending mud three and four feet straight up to spatter their uniforms, even their necks. "See who, Jim?"

Jim twisted his head around, a large purple bruise on his neck. Spock had not seen that until now. "I ... " Wide, dilated eyes took him in, then whipped sharp back to the endless black of the canopy tunnel. "I thought I saw them." Only Spock could have heard that mutter. "Who did you see, Jim?"

"Them," Jim answered dazedly. He shook his head as if to clear it. "I thought I saw the Vians... "

Spock heard a distinct squelch of a footfall, and stiffened. "Jim!" He turned his head, wishing he had been able to find a weapon for his own use. Paste-pale faces reflected the atmospheric storm in the depths of the jungle above them.

"Three of them?" Jim asked tightly.

"I believe so," Spock murmured. His eyes swept downward, calculating how long he had to find something to defend with.

* * *

They stood as they always did; side by side, remote, wrinkled, and weirdly timeless. He was standing in front of Ozaba's glass coffin, staring at the dead man inside and hating his helplessness when their reflections caught on the glass above the hands frozen in pain.

He was a family man. The rage of seeing the dead scientists -- murdered scientists -- had never left him. He turned and faced their static features, fists clenched tight at his waist. A good man. Jim had to tell his children and grandchildren what had happened to him. And you say you had to do it.

Lal spoke first, and McCoy thought his lips were wrinkled like soft paper.

We did what we knew how to do.

We have forgotten so much,Thann added in his toneless voice.

Too much, Lal agreed.

Why am I even asking you questions? His rage roared from his throat. You don't understand. Who were the other people?

That person failed, Lal murmured. And with him his people.

Frost grew over his heart. Oh, God ... and you still went through with this? He waved at the glass coffin, hit it with his ring. It made a strange bell-tone in the dream.

We did not know. Lal seemed to think it was important that McCoy understand this.

It has been too long, Thann whispered.

Too long? Too long for what? WHAT? Do you know what you did? He was shouting, but in the dream barely whispered. You made Jim face his worst nightmare! Choosing between his friends on who would have to die! Do you think its easy for him to have friends? He feels every death like its his own fault! It HURTS him to care! And Spock! My God! He'll give until there's nothing left and then he'll apologizing for failing! You don't have any idea what you put them through!

We tried, said one.

It was what we knew, his brother said.

We are sorry.

We regret the pain caused.

Pain? Do you really know what pain is? Why didn't you offer yourselves up for your experiment? Were you too valuable so you had to use Linke and Ozaba? Why did both of them have to die when one failed to give for the other? Why were you planning to do that with all of us?

We are not humans.

We cannot understand as humans do.

It has been too long.

Too long.

It was Linke, wasn't it? He was the weaker one. You picked the wrong one. That's why you wanted JIM to choose which of us would die! You fools!

We learned too, as Gem did, Lal admitted in a voice like a dying wind.

Why did you hurt Jim at all?

So that Gem would understand him. Absorb his concerns and cares. It was the only way.

You hurt him to make her feel? My God!

A deeper bell-tone, like a ring against a glass coffin and the subsonic hum of the T-bar. Their silver robes began to melt, metallic dust powdering to the stone floor around their feet. He was screaming at them to at least explain that but their faces were falling away too, size diminishing until they were as small as Talosians ...

We were Vians once, Lal's softer, more alien voice outlasted the death of his body. The words soaked into his skin, went through the bones of his skull. I do not know if we still are.

* * *

The bell was in his ears; it was a metal bowl, fallen off something and rolling in the stone of the courtyard below.

He woke up slowly to a world of sight and silence; an Empath's world. The lightning was flashing without thunder throughout the jungle. Red and blue electricity arced across the sky, burning black clouds the hue of pearl, and white lightning the most fierce of all.

White lightning, his grandfather had told him, the old-timers believed that red and blue lightning could be put out, white lightning would create a fire that could never extinguish. That was why they named their drink white lightning, because a thirst started could never be quenched.

Winds tossed the frail greenery amid erratic silver sheets of rain. Fern-trees bobbed on slender trunks, their finger-fronds spreading and flowing against the air. Silica giants shed their dreck against its force, leaves and sticks flew like stormbirds across the quick-lit sky and blew into the open room.

Gem was standing in front of the large window, snow-white thunderbolts illuminating her bird-like body. The damp clung her clothing to her body.

She was less than an arm's length away, and her eyes were as remote as the Andromeda Galaxy.

Then she turned, knowing he was aware, and her smile brought her back to the room. [Awake?] Her weight barely disturbed the pallet as she lifted the cover and slid against his chest.

[Help me?] silent plea. [Too much death ... ]

In Minara, she'd given him a fighting chance for life with a kiss as he laid in a helpless stupor. Her hands, hot with the power to heal, had pushed the fog of cold away. This kiss was a request; not to give, but to be given.

He closed his eyes as she brushed against his ear and traced his jawline.

It had been a long time, for both of them. Somehow he knew that.

Her hands were sliding over his chest now, across arms that still remembered ghost-injuries. Her touch had been warm. Now it was hot again, hotter than a reiki healer. Heat like what had been in her hands when she pulled him from the Vians, when she closed the broken skull and shattered arm and filled lungs, heat spreading from her touch to his skin, soaking inside ...

"Gem ... " He gasped and held her tight. She smiled against his neck, every contour pressing through the thin cloth of her suit. "Slow down ... slow down ... "

[Can we have a night together? Before you go?]

Yes ...

She kissed with experience. He held her head back and covered her throat down to her collarbone. Her fingers slipped across his back, her nails anchored in his skin, slid up into his hair. Likewise, her mind was twining inside his like vines, definition between individual identity blurring at the edges. He was beginning to feel what she was feeling, and what she liked. What she wanted. She was smiling, her large eyes glassy. Soft lips parted, a flush spreading up her pale throat to every inch of her face. In sudden impatience, she pulled back enough to fumble her annoying bodysuit off; he chuckled at her irritated expression and they found each other again.

Not even mental words now; it was the communication they'd had on Minara.

He knew. His mind no longer needed to translate the complexity of her language into sentences. There was nothing of him that frightened her, and she'd seen the worst inside.

* * *

"Jim ... Spock ... "

Gem was watching him as he slept. He somehow knew this, or maybe it wasn't his knowledge. Maybe it was hers.

Sleep chained him down like when Joanna and her cousins had buried him in beach sand, only he had pretended to be asleep then ... now he couldn't seem to wake up.

"Are you here ... "

She reached over and touched his face; warm fingers, driving away the fog again. Now the sleep was natural, unhampered by memories.

A flicker, small as a firefly, but it was enough. Gem sighed her relief as Oxal managed to touch her essence. Faster than even telepathy, a brief exchange of identity took place, and was gone leaving each to absorb the information the other had supplied.

More than Fala was dead now; Jim and Spock were not. She could see them the way Oxal had, hunched with their backs underneath a large leaftree, waiting for any new threats. Jim looked tired but capable of keeping the pace all night. Spock ... balancing a chunk of tree root for a club.

They were alive ... and she conveyed that with a touch, felt the worry in the sleeping mind absorb and melt to nothing.

Gem turned her head to the window, exposing her pale throat. Her air had turned expectant, waiting. The storm was dying, and the day was about to begin.

* * *

Jim and Spock emerged from the edge of the jungle less than an hour after the storm cleared.

After the sheltering canopy, it was a pure, bright day full of yellow sunshine, sucking mud and a world pasted with soggy flower petals. The officers were merely bedraggled, but McCoy thought the Hestians looked like drowned, tie-dyed chickens in their multicolored clothes. Oxal had flower stamens stuck in his curly hair like a madman's idea of Andorian earstalks. Jim's beam of joy could be felt across the steaming plaza.

"Oxal said he sensed you were safe!" Jim waved from the gate as their weary feet shambled in. "You got our message through Gem?"

"Yup!" McCoy yelled back, holding up clean and -- yes -- dry uniforms stacked neatly on the Communal Table. Spock moved with a haste that was scandalous for a Vulcan and began peeling out of his muddy clothing on the spot. His lips were set in a tight line, which got the doctor's suspicious nature up instantly. He peered hard at the First Oficer as Jim yanked his own uniform up. "How's that head cold, Spock?"

"Doctor, I am no cooler there than anywhere else."

"Fine. Have it your way. Do things as difficult as possible. A change of pace would give me a heart attack anyway." McCoy perched on top of the table and passed out tricorders and communicators. A swarm of Hestians rippled by in their bright robes, stampeding Oxal and Ofv in a riotous form of hello that politely left the officers alone. Jim decided that was very, very fine. He couldn't deal with that much happiness all at once. "And you got to reach Scott too."

"Yeah, I still had my communicator, which worked once I held it up to drip dry for a few hours." McCoy rolled his eyes up, then switched on his mediscanner. "I figured we can use 'em while the ship searches for the lost stuff."

"You figured right." Jim clutched a pitcher of red tea and poured a massive amount. He gulped thirstily, stopped to get his breath, and drank more slowly. "Where's Gem?" He looked around.

"She had to talk to the gen-mothers ... easy on that, cap'n suh ... I put enough vitamins in that stuff to let a Shetland pony take the Kentucky Cup."

Jim snorted around his drink. "Thanks ... we were really worried about you." He thumped McCoy's shoulder with his free hand while Spock ignored that he had been included in an emotional state. "I guess this time you didn't drown, huh?"

"Gem says I would have died from a skull fracture going over the waterfall first." McCoy shook his head. "Oh, well ... I was worried about myself." He stuffed a mug of tea under Spock's nose. "This is laced with medicine. Drink it or I'm beaming you up to Sickbay right now for a siphoning of the nasal cavities."

Spock's expression could have turned the figurative lump off coal into a higher life form. "An obvious waste of facilities. I am perfectly able to respond."

"Did you ever try this stuff on your mother? Sarek, I can imagine him falling for that linear stuff, but not Amanda. Spock, human ears are pretty bad compared to yours, but even we can hear the whistling in the respiratory tract ... and that's not a good sign." McCoy ran the scanner over him, slowly. "Don't move your tric; it'll get in the way of mine." He read the data, shuddered visibly, and pulled out a hypo. "Take a tip from those of us who evolved on a watery world. When you're caught in the rain, don't look up. It gets precipitation up your nose."

Jim chuckled around a mouthful of tea.

Spock looked hurt that Jim would be amused at his expense.

"I'd go along with him," Jim suggested. "Because if you don't, Gem will want to heal you."

"If you would proceed, Doctor."

"I am proceeding. What the blazes d'you call this?" McCoy pointed dramatically at his scanner.

"Bones." Jim was looking right and left. "Did you see any Shields around the village today?"

"My God, no!" McCoy was shocked. "Are there any left?"

"At least five. The others ... " Jim lifted his hands quietly. "We're pretty sure that ten are dead. They kept rushing at us. We had to protect the civilians." He glanced over to the busy little knot of Hestians. Father and son were sluicing their hair clean at what looked like a giant bird fountain. "They couldn't defend themselves at all, Bones! It was ... scary."

"I can imagine." McCoy turned sober for a moment, his face sad and hushed.

"You looked wiped, Bones. Did you get any rest?"

"Um, no, not after I woke up from Gem's healing." McCoy coolly slid a fresh wafer in his tricorder and thought of poker.

"Well, you really need to get some when we beam up. Don't even try to tell me you haven't been working too hard." Jim put on his Best Captain's Manner as his CMO stared at him. "And don't give me that look. I know how focused you get when you're involved with something. I'll bet you were up all night with Gem."

"Can't fool you none." McCoy strangled.

"So." Jim sighed in satisfaction as he plucked at his clean, dry, wonderful uniform shirt. The rain had left his skin feeling fresh and gleaming. "Did you miss us?"

McCoy didn't bat an eye. "When I revived, yeah."

Jim chuckled, trying to his relief they were all safe. "Honestly, you do look pretty tired."

McCoy sipped more Hestian tea. "I tol' ya, I didn't get much sleep."

"You don't look like you got any sleep." Jim looked at Spock, who had of course, completely dressed with record speed and was now absorbed in his nice new tricorder, next to a pile of neatly folded up wet clothing.

"His hair looks freshly combed," Bones muttered with no small amount of envy. "How in blazes does he do that? So you're sure there are no less than five, and no more than ten Shields left?"

"Reasonably sure." Jim shrugged stiffly. "We'll be leaving a whole contingent of security guards to help protect these people, and send a DNA tank down too. It should make do before the more-equipped Science/Cultural Team comes in."

"Better add a CAT to the Tank." McCoy reminded him. "Those things can save a lot of time."

"And signaltracks for our lost equipment. I hate to think of a phaser breaking down its powercell into a body of water."

"Way ahead of you, Jim." McCoy held up a ListPadd.

Jim took the data gratefully, choking on his drink when he saw the title.

"Things to Do?" he quoted, eyebrows going up.

"What's left to do, anyway," McCoy told him dryly.

"Yes, I noticed you crossed out 'save the planet', thank you. It saves me the trouble. Now all we have to do is 'pitch Federation spiel' and 'introduce Democracy.'"

Spock, who came from a planet of functioning panarchists, looked annoyed.

"Don't forget." McCoy tapped the Padd. "We also have to let them know what bad people the mean Klingons are and how we can protect them from those disruptor-totin' Bumblebees."

"Captain." Spock broke in by coughing against the drainage in his throat. "I believe Gem is coming," he said gently.

All talk died as the little woman stepped across the steaming tiles of the courtyard, eyes bright. Her hair gleamed like the burnished red scales of a copperhead. Jim stood; Leonard stood; Spock was already standing.

Odd how she seemed much smaller in daylight, Bones mused. He was wearing a silly little smile to see her peer up into Jim's happy face, her small hands swallowed up in his. And stolid, starkly dignified Spock was standing before them, hands clasped politely behind his back, stance at protective attention.

* * *

"CAPTAIN'S LOG, PERSONAL NOTE: "I will be relieved when the last of the Shields are found. While they clearly need help that their people cannot give them, my personal experience left me with a lack of ... sympathy to their situation. I cannot describe it any further. In a world where people were meant to bleed for their brothers, these addicts reveled in murder.

"Bones reminds me that our history is full of such examples, such as the narco-whiffing guards of the Eugenics Wars. Not that that excuses them, or anyone, as he is so quick to remind me. "Everyone has a choice, Jim. Even insanity is a choice. But the thing is, a lot of people don't know it. If you're not raised to be responsible for your actions ... " I will need time to adjust to that concept.

"On a more personal note, I am pleased to say Bones is clearly improved from his visit with the Hestians, and with Gem in particular. I understand. The simple act of touching her hands in friendship produces a soothing balm, as if I were with my own mother. It feels odd considering how young she looks, but tricorder graphs show she is closer to Spock's age than mine. Perhaps that longevity (when uninterrupted) will help her people build up their numbers.

"We will all be sorry to go. Tomorrow morning we will beamdown and oversee the settlement of the C-S Team, and attend a communal dinner held in our honor -- this time with everyone attending. This will give Mr. Sulu and the Horticultural Department some time to collect the specimens they so treasure. And then all that will be left is our final good-bye ... "

* * *

[I think you will meet the Vians again,] she said simply.

He could only nod his agreement.

"You take care." Leonard wondered if his words would strike her as amusing. Considering the source, she should. But she merely returned the pressure of his hands and brushed red hair out of her eyes.

[It will be good to see the life returning to our people. All my life, we have been suffering either the stragli, or the Shields. Or both at the same time. Either one had the power to destroy us.]

"It's not easy. Your people made a deal with the devil when they tried to learn to kill. Some people can't do it." Leonard sighed. "I hope you never try to learn. Let others shoulder the burden. Yours is rarer; you're true healers, all of you. We need you."

[The Federation is an exciting possibility for us.] Gem's face, so fluid and changing, was hopeful. [I think Oxal wants to be what you call a diplomat.]

"He'd be a good one." McCoy grinned. "He's a nice boy."

[Yes. He wants to be a better healer. I will be busy teaching him.]

"Tell Ofv that if Oxal can be your official liaison with the Cultural Team, it's a good start and Jim would be willing to sponsor his admission to the Corps."

[Oxal reminds him of his son, doesn't he?] Gem startled him. [Did I upset you? I didn't mean to. His longing reached out to me when he was teaching Oxal the tricorder.]

"Yes," McCoy said very slowly. "But please, don't mention it to anyone."

Gem, ever sensitive, nodded and smiled. [We will see you all tomorrow?]

"None of us would dream of missing one last visit before we warped out." He chuckled at the thought.

[Good.] Gem's small white fingers curled inside his larger brown ones. Suddenly she looked shy or excited or uncertain how to speak. [And above all, we thank your people for giving us the means to defeat the canvanine addiction.]

He blinked. "Thank you, but ... we haven't done anything yet."

Gem chuckled. Well, it was soundless, but he could have sworn that was what she'd just done. [Didn't you say humans are unable to be addicted to canvanine?]

"Oh."

McCoy swallowed.

Hard.

Past information about Hestian family gens ran through his head at lightspeed.

"Just for your information, Gem," he managed a remarkably steady voice, all things considered. "It's good manners to let a human know you want them to parent your offspring."

[Really?] Gem cocked her head to one side, charmed by the novel notion. [How unusual. Why? Do they share the responsibility of parenting?]

"Most of them do," he said dryly. "Sometimes, the fathers do all the rearing."

She was delighted with this amazing information. [I really must tell the other gen ... usually the men raise the children once they approach the threshold of adulthood. This will change our approach.]

"You do that." He watched her go, fairly scampering, to a small knot of women who were probably a lot more mature than they looked.

A lot more mature.

"Hoo ... boy."

"Ready to go?"

McCoy jumped from the captain that had materialized behind his ear.

"Gawd, Jim! I've had enough shocks on this planet!"

Jim crunched another meli. "Sorry. These are good. Ofv's letting us take a bunch back for the bulk molecular stores. I think I may be addicted."

"Please, don't say that word to me," Leonard pleaded. "And remember, all things in moderation."

"Except for buffalo meat."

"Except for buffalo."

"When we hit Earth, I'll grab my bow and we can go hunting on the plains," Jim promised. "I want to see that weird Mere Heath of yours perform."

"Weird?" McCoy knifed his ribs with an elbow. "You Lakota snob. The Mere Heath is the penultimate longbow."

"Bones, it's too thick, too long, too broad, too heavy and the wood's all wrong!"

"So why does it outperform all other wooden bows in the world?"

"If it was that good, why did it have to be re-discovered in a peat bog by underpaid archaeologists?"

"Underp -- ohhhhhh." McCoy made a fist. "And I suppose that if you were invading Saxons, you'd want to encourage the natives to keep using those things on you?"

"Let's invite Spock," Jim offered gleefully. "He can examine the specs and give us performance reports."

"Let's invite Scotty. He can see it as an engineering problem, and he won't get upset at the sight of us up to our elbows in bloody buffalo."

"Come on, Bones. Spock doesn't really hold our primitive urges against us."

"I'm aware that arrogance works against his MO as a superior being, Jim, but I'm just a simple hunter-gatherer, and my shamanic powers are conjurin' a vivid image of Spock's reaction when he finds out he has to share a shuttlecraft back to port with two giggling, meat-drunk oicers and several hundred pounds of once-living and noble woolly herbivore."

Jim and Bones were leaning on each other at that point, gasping for breath.

"Ohhh, no." Tears were rolling down Jim's face. "Maybe I'd better not introduce him to Winoa. Her favorite Native dish is raw kidneys with red wine."

They managed to collect themselves, knowing if they saw Spock before they did so, they'd collapse all over again.

"I'm applying for shipwide shore leave when we get back." Jim let Bones shamble into step beside him as they went to the plaza's center for beamup. Spock was already there, naturally, waiting patiently. "And you're going to be on the first group."

"I'm not complaining."

Jim eyed him strangely. "You're starting to worry me. Just how tired are you?"

"Not so tired that I can't tie up some loose ends when we get back to the ship." McCoy hung his medikit over one shoulder. If he started composing that letter to Joanna today, it might be credible by the time they hit Vega: (Dear Jo, or should I say, Big Sister? ... this is your dad. Remember how your mother reacted when she found out you were pregnant and I defended you? It's time to collect that debt ... give my grandson a hug, and tell him that pretty soon there's going to be another addition to that patch of kudzu we call a family tree. Details forthcoming as soon as I know what the hell is going on ... )

The absurdity hit him. Jim and Spock looked at each other, then at him.

"M'sorry," he managed helplessly. "I'll explain later."

Much, much, much MUCH later ...



THE END

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