DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story and its contents are the creation and property of KarraCaz and is copyright (c) 2004 by KarraCaz. Rated PG13.

Ghost In The Machine


Chapter 1

If you need a friend,

Or a place where you can hide,

I will always be there,

Even though my hands are tied.

"Okay, you can dress now, Spock," Doctor McCoy stated levelly. "I'm all finished."

The Chief Surgeon turned away, his attention ostensibly fixed on recalibrating the diagnostic equipment as the Vulcan pushed his lean body upright and swung his legs to the floor.

Spock's uniform lay draped tidily over the end of the med-couch and the First Officer reached for the immaculate black trousers, shaking out the garment precisely before he inquired, "Well, Doctor. What is your diagnosis?"

McCoy's hands stilled briefly. However many times it fell to him to break bad news, it never became any the less painful. Whatever their differences in the past, he now bled for the man who coolly awaited his answer. "Spock I--"

He could feel Spock's dark eyes fixed unwaveringly on his back, the hawk-like face impassive. McCoy hesitated, picking his words with care, his voice cautiously neutral as he turned to face the First Officer once more. "I'm afraid, the results aren't good."

Already quite aware of McCoy's dilemma, Spock interrupted, "Doctor, there is little need for equivocation. I assure you that I am quite able to accept the truth."

As if to dispel any lingering traces of sympathy McCoy may have harbored, he went on; "Or are you unable to define my -- condition, perhaps? In which case, allow me to be of assistance. It should be filed under the medical term Acute Zonal Koreoretnal Syndrome, a condition affecting the choroid and sclerotic coats--"

He knew he had struck home base when McCoy abruptly leaned across the med-couch, so close that his breath fanned Spock's cheek. The First Officer drew back slightly as McCoy swore.

"Dammit, you smart-assed Vulcan. If you know what you've contracted, you also know what the eventual outcome will be."

"Yes, Doctor. I know." Spock's tone of voice hardly changed, but for an instant the impassive façade slipped and McCoy thought he glimpsed the vulnerable child within the man, the little boy Spock had once been, shrinking from the demons he imagined waiting in the dark.

McCoy closed his eyes, opened them again, cursing himself for letting Spock provoke him so readily, gathering up his professional composure with an effort.

"You must have been deteriorating for weeks. Godammit Spock, if you'd only come to see me earlier I could have--"

"Done what, Doctor?" Spock asked equably, his voice quite serene. "We are both aware that, as yet, there is no cure for the condition."

Bones could not deny it. With an exasperated sigh, he paced up and down beside the med-couch, his helplessness masquerading as irritation. "I suppose you know that you could have put this whole damn ship in danger? What if--"

Spock's eyes tracked him unmercifully, apparently unaffected by the Chief Surgeon's bluster. "'What ifs' are illogical, Doctor. I have maintained my duties without any loss of efficiency, I believe. Nor has there ever been the possibility of danger to the ship. Now, of course, I can no longer guarantee that."

"And so you waited until the last possible moment before getting your verdict confirmed. Thanks, Mr. Spock."

"I intended no denigration of your healing powers, Doctor McCoy," Spock said mildly, one eyebrow elevating. "Although I have always found it discouraging that you call what you do, 'practice'. Is there not an aphorism assuring Humans that practice makes perfect?"

"Perfection is sometimes a moving target, Mr. Spock."

"Indeed, Doctor. That is also my own experience." The First Officer pulled on his trousers and boots, reached for the blue shirt.

It had slipped onto the floor and McCoy, feeling a twinge of guilt, retrieved it. "Here--"

Head tilted on one side, Spock reached for the softly rustling fabric, his fingers sure and unhurried. "Thank you, Doctor."

"You'll be needing something for the pain," McCoy offered, his blue eyes fixed on Spock's tranquil Mephisto features as the Vulcan negotiated the various openings and finally pulled the shirt over his head.

"Not required at this time, thank you, Doctor. For the moment it is under my control."

Feeling completely useless, McCoy lapsed into silence but he knew that he could not prevaricate for long. "Spock, however much I may want to, you know I can't let this ride. Jim will have to know--"

"Certainly." Spock's eyes hooded, his expression unreadable.

"I could -- speak to him first -- break the news, if that's what you want."

Spock inclined his head. "I appreciate the offer, Doctor McCoy. However, I have already requested that the Captain meet me here."

"You were that sure."

Spock folded his arms across his lean chest, grounding himself with a hip resting against the med-couch. "The evidence is somewhat difficult to refute, Doctor. It is time the Captain kne--"

They both turned as the doors to sickbay slid back and Jim Kirk entered as if on cue.

"Time I knew what, gentlemen?" Captain Kirk's jocular mood faded abruptly as he glanced at each man in turn, noticing the anxiety in McCoy's blue eyes and the uncharacteristic tautness of Spock's narrow shoulders as he straightened. "Surely my senior officers haven't been keeping something important from me?"

McCoy avoided the directness of Kirk's scrutiny. "Let's go through into the office."

Kirk frowned. Over the last few years in his experience as Captain of the Enterprise, the Chief Surgeon's office and serious news frequently went together. He spared a glance at Spock but received little joy there. His First Officer remained unusually stone-faced, not even a suggestion of empathy upon his angular features. What was going on here?

However, he obeyed McCoy's request, following the Chief Medical Officer into the adjoining room, aware of Spock trailing on his heels. He took a seat, leaning back, pretending a relaxation he no longer felt, watching as the Vulcan lowered himself warily into the chair beside his own.

"So," he asked as McCoy busied himself with a couple of glasses and the brandy bottle. "Why all the mystery, Bones? Mr. Spock?"

Spock squared his shoulders, but instead of facing Kirk, continued to stare straight ahead, dark eyes narrowed, winged brows drawn together in a frown. His long fingers, clasped together in his lap, tightened fractionally. "I requested your presence here, Captain, to advise you that as from this moment I intend to resign my commission aboard the Enterprise."

Shocked, Kirk dropped his tranquil pose and sat forward, shooting a puzzled look at McCoy. "Explain?"

McCoy poured a large shot of brandy into Kirk's glass before pushing it across the desk. "Spock's developed an extremely rare medical condition, Jim. I have to recommend that he be relieved of duty. Immediately."

"What sort of condition? You look fit enough to me."

"In all respects but one, I am completely healthy, Captain," Spock explained, his soft baritone firm and without acrimony. He drew in a deep breath; exhaled slowly, as if reluctant to continue. "Sir, as Doctor McCoy will advise you more fully, I have contracted a virus that attacks the cornea of the eye and causes severe visual distortions. There is also intermittent loss of vision and episodic hallucinations. I can no longer fulfil my obligations as either your First Officer or Science Officer on the ship. Therefore, I must resign."

There was a pause as Kirk tried to digest his first officer's statement. He addressed McCoy. "And the treatment is -- what, Bones?"

McCoy took a gulp from the brandy in his glass before replying. "There is no treatment, Jim. Not yet, anyway. I can help control the inevitable pain but Spock's sight is not going to improve. In fact, as time goes on the nerve endings to the brain will only degenerate further. He'll go completely blind in a matter of months, less if he refuses to follow orders."

"Blind?" There was open anguish on Kirk's face as he stared at his First Officer. He shook his head in denial. "There must be something you can do!"

"There isn't." McCoy's voice was suddenly harsh. "I've told you, Jim. There're no drugs, no surgical procedures, no miracle cure. I can't help him. No one can."

"No, I won't believe that, Doctor," Kirk said with stubborn resolve, the muscles in his jaw bunching. "You have to help him. I don't care what it takes. Use every resource this ship possesses, but find a cure. That's an order, Bones."

Chapter 2

There has never been a better time,

There has never been a better place,

For you and I together here,

Alone and face-to-face --

The door buzzer chimed a fleeting burst of sound. Spock ignored it, went on playing his ka'ithirah, an upbeat, distinctly Latin dance tune, his hands swift and accomplished on the strings, eyes closed, concentrating wholly on the music he made.

The buzzer rang again, a longer surge, relentless and inescapable. Spock sighed with open impatience, put aside the ka'ithirah, before leaning over to release the door catch.


"Good evening, Mr. Spock." It was Kirk, prominently haloed by the light from the corridor as he peered into the darkened interior of his First Officer's quarters, intently searching for an occupant.

"Captain." Spock automatically rose from the chair, straightening his shoulders, his eyes narrowed against the splintered glare from outside the room.

"I know it's late but I've just finished my duty shift. If I'm intruding, just say so and I'll -- go sling my hook."

"You are not disturbing me, sir." A brisk order to the computer had the lights brightening immediately, softly golden, Terran normal, banishing the shadows and the pulsing, crimson radiance of the asenoi, the beast-like fire pot standing on its plinth within his sleeping area. "How may I be of assistance?"

"This is a social call, Spock." The door slid shut behind Kirk as he stepped over the threshold. "If Mohammed won't call on the mountain, the mountain must -- call on Mohammed. Moreover, unlike Doctor McCoy, I do make house calls. Are you going to offer me a seat?"

Spock's eyebrow elevated both at Kirk's deliberate misquotation and at the pointed reminder that he was being less than gracious. Kirk had seldom visited his quarters and never on a social basis. Although they were friends, Spock's natural reserve and regard for the proper formality between senior and subsidiary officer meant they met either on duty or in the public recreation areas of the ship. Now, he inclined his head acknowledging the implied rebuke. "I was about to prepare some tsa'e, sir. Perhaps you have time to share a pot with me. It is nothing like your Terran coffee but you should find the flavor agreeable."

"Yes, thanks. I'd like that." Kirk took the chair on the other side of the desk. Wood scraped on carpet tiles. There was a soft creak as his weight settled, the fine rustle of synthetic clothing rubbing against the polished timber as he leaned back, a quiet exhalation, possibly of weary relief.

Spock listened, attentive to Kirk's slightest move, knowing that the Captain watched as he prepared the special infusion of herbs required for the tsa'e. Over the ten weeks in which his eye condition had developed, he had evolved several strategies in an effort to adapt to the strange fractured world that now confronted him; memorizing the layout of most areas of the ship he frequented, especially his cabin and the bridge, counting steps between objects, using his other senses to the utmost. The policy had worked so well that no one, not even Kirk, had suspected his increasing disability.

Relying exclusively on his sharp hearing, sense of touch, and Vulcan spatial awareness, he skillfully navigated the sparse furnishings to fetch boiling water from the selector and return to the desk. As he poured the hot liquid into the waiting china pot, gauging the level by sound alone, he heard the Captain's breathing hush. Only when he had safely completed the task did Kirk's breathing resume.

While the tsa'e brewed, Kirk said into the silence, "Your presence has been -- sorely missed -- on the bridge these last few days, Spock. How are you?"

"I am well enough, thank you, Captain."

"Uh-huh. I heard you playing the lyrette. That melody you were performing, it didn't sound Vulcan."

"Quite correct, sir. The music on my world, at least to your ears, would sound inharmonious and dissonant." He looked straight at Kirk; dark eyes alight with the quiet humor that only the initiated could see, his attention fixed on the Captain's face. "It has an -- economic quality, a lack of emotional content. My mother has often remarked that Vulcan compositions remind her of an animal being slowly tortured. I was endeavoring to lighten my -- disposition with a Terran arrangement."

"And did you succeed?"

"Not entirely." He reached for the tsa'e pot, poured a tiny measure into a couple of minuscule bowls, head tilted, hand steady and unhurried. Not a drop overspilled.

"This condition--"

"Acute Zonal Koreoretnal Syndrome."

"Yes. How does it affect you?"

"It varies, Captain."


"Has Doctor McCoy not explained, sir?"

"He gave me the medical details. Now I want to hear your appraisal."

Spock gauged Kirk's mood for a moment in silence. Even concealed behind the professional inquiry, he perceived his Captain's anxiety. "My eyes supply an impression of what my brain believes should be there. However, the images are frequently false, constantly distorted, the colors strident and dazzling. On occasion, there are flashes of extreme brightness. My night vision is superior but even that is changing. It can be -- unsettling."

"But you can see me now?" Kirk asked gentling his tone, the disquiet palpable, wanting to know the whole of this grim state of affairs afflicting his First Officer.

"An -- interpretation only, Captain. I see you indistinctly, a contrast of light and shade, surrounded by an intense corona."

"What about the pain?"

"I am able to control it satisfactorily at the moment."

"But it will get worse?"

"Yes, Captain. It will."

Kirk fell silent, mulling the information over, sipping at his tsa'e, inhaling the pleasant aroma, and feeling heat disperse throughout his body as the first swallow hit his stomach. He had hardly slept since Spock had broken the news to him, concerned for his friend, thoughts, and ideas circling repeatedly in his mind as he searched for some resolution to this unexpected and disquieting crisis.

He studied the Vulcan sitting opposite him, watching for any sign of emotion concealed behind the impassive mask. Spock remained tranquil, at least on the surface. Yet, as Kirk knew from experience, the First Officer had grown expert at disguising his true responses.

At last, he said, "I'm not accepting your resignation, Spock. No, hear me out. We have three months left of our present duty tour. I need you, even if it's in a consultative position. We'll find someone else to be your eyes, Chekov possibly. In that time, who knows what sort of cure McCoy might come up with?"

"Even the good doctor may find it impossible to produce a miracle in three months, Captain," Spock murmured sardonically, one eyebrow shooting upwards.

Kirk grinned, rubbing at his red-rimmed, gritty eyes. "I'm not so sure. Bones has always worked better under pressure. He won't let either of us down."

He suppressed a yawn, taking a gulp of the tsa'e. The beverage had an interesting flavor, nutty like almonds, and a little bitter on the tongue. Combined with the temperature of Spock's cabin, it had him breaking out in a hot sweat and he could feel the perspiration beading his hairline, trickling down his sides in fine droplets as his shirt stuck to his backbone. No wonder, Spock declined to drink either coffee or alcohol; neither compared with even one tiny cup of tsa'e.

If the Enterprise ever runs out of dilithium, I'll know what to use as an alternative, he thought as he pulled at his shirt collar, trying to dissipate the sudden heat.

Spock perceived his growing distress with some inner talent that did not rely entirely on vision. "You seem -- ill at ease, sir. Is anything the matter?"

"It must be the tsa'e, or I'm coming down with a fever. What's in this concoction anyway? It's not a Vulcan narcotic by any chance." He caught his breath, tone suspicious. "The equivalent of hashish, or bhang, maybe?"

"Certainly not, Captain," Spock was quick to assure him. "Tsa'e does contain a slight sense stimulant, an aid to concentrating the mind, but the effect on a human should be minimal."

Kirk blinked, drew in a ragged breath, putting the tiny bowl carefully down on the desk; every movement exaggerated as his brain abruptly went to warp ten. Unfortunately, the rest of his body lagged behind at sublight speed. Something had also happened to his muscles; they responded only slowly, refusing to obey his commands. He stood up, knees turning to gelatine as the room swam before his eyes.

"Then, I -- think I -- must -- be allergic," Kirk intoned. He cleared his throat, hearing his own words distorted as time seemed to slow, drawn out syllable by syllable until speech became unintelligible even to his own ears.

"Perhaps I should summon Doctor McCoy, Captain." Spock's voice, quietly pitched, thundered inside his skull.

"No -- I'll be -- all right -- Just tired, I -- guess." The whirling in Kirk's head came hurtling back and he shut his eyes against the wheel of stars, suddenly nauseous. "I'm keeping -- you - -- up."

Spock came from behind the desk, hurriedly supporting Kirk with an arm around his waist, voice wry. "I believe the reverse is true, sir. At the moment, it is I who am keeping you up."

Kirk registered the humor but could not respond as a charge of static electricity, a distinct jolt, surged through him at the Vulcan's touch. The room abruptly broke up into a kaleidoscope of brilliant color, reforming rapidly, only to break apart again. Kirk watched, mesmerized, as fragmented patterns swirled and cascaded about him. His mind reeled and blood roared in his ears.

Could he somehow be seeing what Spock now saw, this mad hallucination, the crazy whirlpool of intense light that defied his ability to sort into any rational order? Had the tsa'e somehow broken down his mental barriers forging the incredible connection?

"I think -- I need to go -- lie -- down--" His voice echoed in his ears from some far distance, and he relied on Spock's strength to stop him from collapsing entirely.

"Perhaps if you rest for a time, sir?" The Vulcan held him lightly, impersonally, as they moved over to the bed surrounded by thick crimson drapes. "Let me assist you, Captain."

He lay back gratefully, felt the tug as Spock removed his boots and draped something very light and soft over him.

"Thank -- you, Spock. I'm -- sorry -- for this--" His mumble trailed off.

"Apologies are not required, Captain. Good night and sleep well, sir."

Moments later, as if from a million light years away, Kirk heard the soft bell-like tones of Spock's lyrette ringing gently, alien music, conjuring up strange vistas, intangible and otherworldly. With a shiver of presentiment, he finally surrendered himself up to the circling stars and plummeted into their scintillating brilliance.

Chapter 3

When you are weary, feeling small,

I am on your side,

Oh, when times get rough

And friends are just not around,

I will comfort you --

He stood above the mists on a ledge of rock, floating in a swirling ocean, a thick white blanket extending from horizon to horizon, a shimmer with foxfire, while ghostly breakers swelled about his feet. As pale as the mists, her strange eyes darkly aglow with some knowledge she did not wish to share, the girl standing beside him gestured toward the east where Wraith's huge sun rose above the vapor making a cerise and ochre spectacle of the dawn sky. The Enterprise, swan-like and mysterious, hung suspended between the dying star and the rolling waves, and he knew that he had to make a choice--

S'kros, cho'nom Ra'el Kirrke quaer I naradzram --

The computer voice, speaking in Vulcan, penetrated Kirk's dream and he woke with a start, confused for an instant at finding himself still in Spock's quarters, realizing that he had spent the whole night in Spock's bed. Embarrassed by the thought he sat up quickly and pushed aside the vaguely oriental throw that covered him before swinging his legs to the floor. He found his boots by the door, exactly where he would have left them in his own quarters. Spock had got to know him entirely too well --

S'kros neh kharos'hin anh'kwet romeh --

Boots in hand, he straightened again, listening to the mechanical female voice of his ship and what she/it was saying. The senceiver implanted in his brain translated the Vulcan words directly. It was a wake up call; one meant especially for him since Spock's internal timepiece required no prompting. So, where was his First Officer?


There was no answer to his call. Not that he had expected one. Kirk glanced around the austere cabin, the billet of a soldier ready for battle, with few decorations and sparse furnishings, the one touch of individuality being Spock's Vulcan harp, standing where the First Officer had left it on the vacated chair behind the desk.

Kirk touched the strings with a tentative finger, and evoked a melancholy tinkling, a haunting quality of sound perfectly in tune with his present mood, realizing that the Vulcan had left him sleeping off the effects of the tsa'e and gone elsewhere to find the peace he needed to adjust to his disability.

On the other hand, maybe I'm the one who needs to adjust, he concluded, remembering Spock's stoic acceptance of something he could not change.

The thought stayed with him as he stole somewhat furtively out of the door and back to his own quarters, careful that no one should see him exiting from Spock's cabin, boots clasped under his arm. He could well imagine what ships scuttlebutt would make of that news.

Grinning self-consciously, he wondered if Spock had also stumbled upon the rumor circulating that they were, indeed, lovers, his mind's eye providing him with an image of Spock's brow elevating skyward in either disbelief or impatience at the very idea. As for himself, after the initial surprise, he found the possibility strangely tantalizing. His relationship with Spock had grown unusually close over the years they had served together and a warm, professional bond of mutual respect had thrived between them. However, to his knowledge, neither he nor Spock had ever displayed the slightest physical affection, at least not overtly although, apparently, a lot could be read into a concerned glance or a ready smile, or an upraised eyebrow.

Kirk had an open mind about sex in any of its various forms, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or xenogeneic. When the key fitted the lock, so much the better, but he had found that not all species kept their genitals in the same place and resourcefulness had proved helpful on many an occasion when he had not been too sure what went where, or even if it could! However, he felt certain that Spock, while not condemning such nonconformity, might well be more reticent in his own dealings.

He knew, of course, that old saw about Vulcans only being able to mate every seven years, and believed not a word of it. That belonged in the same category, as 'Vulcans could not lie'. Maybe that's true for some, but Spock can sure stretch the truth when it suits him. His First Officer had demonstrated that on several occasions and Jim acknowledged readily enough, that Spock had subtleties to his character that many a 'full blooded' Vulcan lacked.

Once the door shut on his quarters, he undressed and showered quickly, turning the sonics up to the highest setting, letting the vibrations pound against his flesh. He was used to being in control, he was used to acting. He was not used to standing idly by while his best friend went blind. Even without a diagnosis from McCoy, he knew his tension levels were way up high, and stress always made him horny, one reason probably why sex with his First Officer had occurred to him right then.

That he had no way of sublimating the physical craving only added to his pressure. A shipboard romance as usual, remained out of the question. A starship was no place to get involved. Not that he lacked any number of eager candidates, able and very willing to ease his discomfort or scratch the slightest sexual itch. Nevertheless, it was one of his strictest rules to leave emotional entanglements with any of his crew strictly alone. The Enterprise was a small community that functioned only by mutual support and interdependence. They all relied on each other, in the finely tuned, evenly balanced microcosm. A casual flirtation with any of his personnel could upset those scales to such an extent that it might conceivably bring the ship into danger. Kirk relied on his scrupulous self-command to avoid any such situation. In other, similar, situations he had usually suppressed the urge by less damaging bodily activity, playing ferocious games of velocity, occasionally with Bones but mostly with Spock, who proved a vigorous if defensive player. Now, with Spock out of action, even that release was denied him. It was little consolation to know that it must be a hundred times worse for his First Officer.

Deep down, Kirk knew the difficulty he had confronting Spock's blindness was his own terror, the realization that 'there but for the grace of God' … thoughts he normally steered clear of, unwilling to deal with any suggestion of vulnerability, or helplessness. Now, he had no choice but to tackle the situation head-on. The notion of his self-contained, adroit, First Officer reliant on outsiders to lead him around and provide the essential amenities of life, alarmed him more than the thought of Spock actually dying. It came too close to home.

If he had suddenly contracted Koreoretnal Syndrome and gone blind, how would he hack it? No doubt with anger at first, followed by increasing bitterness as he saw his career go down the tubes; there were no blind captains in Starfleet, nor likely to be any, as there were no blind first officers. What would be open to him, a teaching post at Academy, a desk job at Fleet Headquarters, a new career entirely? Would he waste his time chasing a cure or get on with a new life? Spock, of course, was essentially a scientist and not a soldier, though he had adapted skillfully to military life. His father, Sarek of Vulcan, also had diplomatic connections. Would Spock want to go back to Vulcan?

Ordering up a fresh uniform, he pulled it on, his skin still red and smarting a little from the punishing vigor of the sonics. There were too many questions without answers, too many variables. As Spock might well say, even speculation needed adequate data.

I need coffee, a large pot no, an enormous pot of coffee, and some ham and eggs to go with it. Damn the cholesterol for once, he thought with an ironic grin. He would square it with Bones later, even if it meant eating salad for the rest of the month. However, while his body sought the comfort of caffeine and saturated fats, his mood called for company. With that thought uppermost, he abandoned the selector in his cabin and went in search of camaraderie in the crew lounge on the main recreation deck.

Kirk liked the lounge area. He made it a rule to eat breakfast there most days, along with the other senior staff. It was hardly luxurious, though it missed none of the comforts of home. Here he could rub shoulders with the cadets or midshipmen and they with him, without the need for ceremony or the necessary discipline of the bridge.

The beguiling smell of percolating coffee enticed him through the door but he came up short at the threshold when he saw who had pre-empted his arrival. McCoy, seated beside Spock at one of the many bench-style tables, noticed him almost immediately, subjecting him to a lopsided smile before beckoning him over. With his order safely ensconced on a tray, Kirk crossed to the table and sat down.

"Good morning, Bones. Mr. Spock." He poured himself a coffee, added cream, glancing at McCoy to see the reaction.

"Jim." McCoy raised an eyebrow at Kirk's tray but said nothing.

Spock looked at him as if he could still see, head tilted to one side. "Good morning, Captain. You slept well, sir."

A loaded question if ever there was one. "I -- slept very well, with no small thanks to your Vulcan tsa'e I think, Mr. Spock."

"Tsa'e?" McCoy asked wryly. "What in heaven's name made you drink that, Jim?"

Kirk shrugged, forking up a mouthful of his ham and eggs, watching the Vulcan's face, seeing the childlike innocence reflected there as if butter would not melt in his First Officer's mouth. "I'm beginning to think I might have been sabotaged, Bones."

"Sabotaged?" McCoy repeated, looking from Spock to Kirk and back again before the penny finally dropped. "Ah, I see -- prescribing without a license again, huh, Spock?"

"Doctor?" Spock queried his expression entirely virtuous. "I merely offered the Captain some -- Vulcan hospitality. I may have made the tsa'e blend a little stronger than usual, unwittingly. I -- apologize if you were unduly inconvenienced, sir."

"Uh-huh." Kirk took a gulp of his coffee, allowing himself the luxury of imagining for a moment that Spock could really see as he stared straight into the Vulcan's eyes. It was too easy. The First Officer had chosen to break fast with what looked like rice cakes in a rich, yellow sauce. Kirk had noticed on several occasions that the dish appeared to be a current favorite. Spock ate it with Vulcan jom'ir sticks, grace and confidence evident in every gesture, totally at ease with the mechanics of eating and drinking. Kirk had to pay strict attention to realize that he was, indeed, blind.

"You'll be glad to note I slept like a baby, Bones. Ever thought of marketing the stuff, Spock?"

Spock's lips curved in what might have been the briefest of ironic smiles, one eyebrow flicking upwards. "Vulcan already does, Captain."

McCoy grinned. "Tsa'e's a remedial herb, Jim. The Vulcans tend to use it as a meditational support, but among the humanoid species, it seems to alleviate anything from hemorrhoids to menstrual cramps depending on the strength of the mix."

Kirk spluttered into his coffee. "Well -- if I ever suffer from either, I'll certainly know who to consult--"

He changed the subject, his dream of the night before resurfacing. "Spock, what do you know about Wraith?"

"Wraiths, Jim?" McCoy asked puzzled, looking over the rim of his coffee cup at Kirk. "As in apparitions and ghostly portents?"

"No, Doctor McCoy," Spock interrupted. "As in the planet Wraith. At least that is its popular nomenclature. Officially, it is catalogued as Sassandran. A class M planet that has recently been purchased by a private individual who, I believe, has turned it into a vacationers resort."

"Somebody bought a planet?" McCoy asked, agog.

"Indeed. An exceptionally affluent someone, by the name of Hekmatyer Ryhanen, originally from Dha'kaht'chun, Doctor."

"So, how did it come to be called Wraith? By anyone's standards that's a pretty odd name for a planet."

Spock's head tilted, deliberating on his reply. "There is considerable opinion to the effect that the planet is haunted, Doctor McCoy."

"Haunted? So, we are talking about apparitions and ghostly portents! Surely you can't believe that, Spock?"

"Doctor, I merely report the legend, I did not say I accepted it as true," the First Officer stated dryly.

"It's a fascinating peculiarity though, wouldn't you say, Jim?"

Kirk nodded hazel eyes alight with amusement as Spock exhaled lightly at McCoy's emphasis on that particular word. "From what I've heard, that's not the only idiosyncrasy about Sassandran, Bones. Rumor has it that, except for the mountaintops, the world is habitually shrouded in mist."

"Which has added to the superstition, I suspect, Spock added his inquisitiveness obviously piqued. "Moreover Sassandran, although unpopulated now, still has substantial ruins attesting to an earlier occupation by a -- species unknown."

He fixed his unblinking gaze once more on Kirk. "As you are no doubt aware Captain, our present tour includes a stopover at Sassandran at the explicit request of Mr. Ryhanen."

Kirk forked up the last of his breakfast and pushed his plate aside with a contented sigh. He poured himself more coffee and sipped at the rich and creamy beverage. "I am quite aware of that, Mr. Spock. Not only is Mr. Ryhanen extremely wealthy but he also has a great deal of influence with the Federation High Council. His 'request' translates into a direct order from 'Fleet to be sure and go visit."

"Most certainly, Captain."

"Which -- brings me to the matter of your duty assignments, Mr. Spock. Officially, you're on sick leave, of course. However, I don't want you skulking alone for hours in your quarters."

"Skulking, Captain?" Spock protested mildly, winged brows drawing together in dissent at the derogatory term. "I hardly consider--"

"Yes, skulking, Mr. Spock," Kirk affirmed. "You will draw up a schedule with Doctor McCoy so that you get the proper rest. The remainder of your time, until we reach Sassandran will be spent partly on the bridge and partly researching the Koreoretnal condition. Is that understood?"

"Indeed, sir," the First Officer murmured his expression enigmatic. "However, even with Mr. Chekov's help, as you suggested last evening, I -- will be of limited assistance on the bridge and could, quite possibly, be an encumbrance--"

Kirk did not miss Spock's lack of enthusiasm and thought he understood the reason for it. He shook his head and then remembered that Spock could not see the gesture. McCoy merely shrugged as Kirk shot him an uneasy glance.

"I'm not making a request, Mr. Spock." He hardened his tone using his command voice with calculated intent, his regret immediate as he saw the wounded look, concealed almost instantly, on Spock's face. "I know it won't be easy, but I wouldn't ask unless I thought you were up to it."

"Of course not, Captain."

An uncomfortable silence fell that McCoy rushed to fill. "What if we fixed you up with a sensor web, Spock? We could incorporate it into your uniform so that it's not too obvious. Then you'll have no need to rely on Chekov, more than is normal, that is."

"A sensor web, Bones?" Kirk asked. "You mean like the one Doctor Jones wore."

"Exactly, Jim. If we link it up with Spock's senceiver implant I bet he'll even be able to play chess with a little practice."

They both studied the First Officer intently.

"What about it, Spock?" Kirk asked.

Grave, entirely composed, he inclined his head impressed, not for the first time, by McCoy's acuity.

"Thank you, Captain, I accept. Doctor, it is -- an excellent idea."

Chapter 4

Oh, when darkness comes

And pain is all around,

I will take your part,

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will take your part.

Kirk, sitting in the Captain's center seat on the bridge, flexed his back muscles to ease the pressure ache across his shoulders and turned to look at his First Officer. Spock, transceiver placed precisely in one aristocratic satyr's ear, head tilted in absent thought as he listened to the computer dialogue, leaned over his hooded viewer apparently absorbed in the flow of information the ship's sensors imparted, as if oblivious to everything around him. His performance could have won an award for method acting, but Kirk could feel Spock's controlled tension from where he sat, guessed from the stiff way the Vulcan held himself and the deep frown lines between his brows, that the pressure was fast taking its toll. Exhaustion hung over the First Officer like a cloak.

Spock had insisted that his condition remain private, and no one apart from Bones and the Captain knew of it, yet Kirk had discerned the odd worried look mostly from Uhura and Scotty, as they detected an unusual hesitation in the First Officer, Spock's growing indecision when passing on information.

Options, Kirk thought tiredly, what did you do when you ran out of them? He had wanted to keep Spock engaged, stop him brooding alone in his quarters, and show him that the ship still needed his services, but all he had done was to emphasize the Vulcan's predicament.

Unable to forget his friend's pain he faced the main view screen again, the question he had been about to ask Spock left unvoiced. Although McCoy's idea of using a sensor web to help the First Officer 'see' had seemed the answer to their combined problem, it had turned out something of a two edged sword. The strain of sorting and collating both the bizarre images that his eyes provided, along with the sensor information from the mesh embedded into the material of his uniform, had proved an arduous process for Spock.

Kirk had watched the Vulcan deteriorate slowly over the week he had used the device until the lines either side of his mouth and between his eyes had become ever deeper engraved and the time he spent on the bridge became correspondingly shorter day by day.

I have to do something, Kirk thought, loathing his helplessness, refusing to succumb to the wave of compassion that swept over him. I can't let this continue. He leaned forward in his chair, bracing his arms on his knees, attention centered on Chekov.

"What's the estimated time of arrival at Sassandran, Ensign?"

The young Russian answered immediately. "Approximately twenty-one point three five minutes, Kepten."

"That's quite accurate for an approximation, Mr. Chekov," he murmured, getting swiftly to his feet, seeing the quick grin on the boy's face as his compliment registered.

He swivelled to address Uhura where the exotic Bantu woman sat at her boards on the upper aft circle. "Lieutenant, please contact Mr. Ryhanen and advise him a landing party will be beaming down as soon as Enterprise reaches orbit. Have Doctor McCoy report to transporter room three wearing his dress uniform."

With one stride, he ascended the pit steps, his restiveness of the last week finding a sudden focus. "Mr. Sulu, you have the conn. Mr. Spock, come with me."

A chorus of acknowledgments in quick succession followed them both into the turbo lift. The doors shut with a whoosh of sound as Spock came to stand beside him and Kirk gave the order to the computer, twisting the angled control horn. "Deck Five."

The lift came to life, descended rapidly before it slowed again and shifted to a horizontal track, speeding them to their quarters.

"Dress uniform, Captain?" Spock murmured into the silence. "Mr. Ryhanen is honored."

Kirk met his First Officer's dark gaze. "Just greasing the wheels, Mr. Spock."

He did not elaborate, waiting for the Vulcan's curiosity to get the better of him and ask the inevitable question. It came as expected, a moment later.

"You believe Mr. Ryhanen may be helpful to us in some way, sir?"

"Who knows, Mr. Spock? Someday I might need a favor in a hurry. According to that research you did, our Mr. Ryhanen has a finger in any number of prestigious pies."

Spock nodded, musingly. "Indeed, Captain. He does seem to have an industrious nature. Was there a specific 'pie' you had in mind?"

The research, mostly busy-work to keep Spock occupied had, nevertheless, proved exceedingly informative to Kirk. Ryhanen, a true Dha'ka, appeared to attract wealth and prestige like a magnet attracted iron filings. However, Kirk found one fact far more interesting than all the rest of the biographical data put together. It appeared that Ryhanen headed, among half a dozen other concerns, a flourishing pharmacogenetics conglomerate presently researching nanotechnology and cybernetic procedures. Layman that he was, even Kirk could see there might be possibilities in relation to Spock's situation. However, he did not want to raise any false hopes before checking with McCoy.

"I'm open to suggestions, Spock. Perhaps you can think of something during your mid-morning nap."

Though there was little outward sign, Kirk knew his words had exasperated the Vulcan. Spock shifted position, spine stiffening a little as he folded his arms across his lean chest. "Captain, I am gratified by your obvious concern where my health is concerned. However, I assure you I am able to function without a rest every two hours."

"McCoy doesn't seem to agree," Kirk contradicted, secretly amused.

Spock cast Kirk a decidedly probing glance out of arrow-sharp, dark eyes. "If I may say so, the Doctor is being overly protective, Captain."

"You may well say so and you are probably correct, Mr. Spock. What you may not do is flout his recommendations."

"Captain, I must protest--"

"No arguments, Mr. Spock. Doctor McCoy bears the responsibility for the physical condition of every crewmember on this ship. That includes your well-being -- and mine. If he says you rest every two hours that's what you'll do. Understood."

Spock exhaled silently, lips compressed, but even he could not disregard a direct order with impunity. "Understood, sir."


The lift came to a stop and Kirk decanted, followed confidently by Spock who matched his stride as they headed down the corridor where their quarters stood next to each other. Spock knew this territory, had charted it minutely. He stopped precisely before his own door and turned once more to face his Captain. "I trust that I will be allowed to accompany you down to the planet, sir?"

Kirk had deliberated on the wisdom of doing exactly that. However, he had finally concluded that Spock needed the change of scene and could only benefit from the challenge of having a new environment to explore. Bones had not concurred, fearful of the dangers inherent in such a move, but Kirk had used his authority to override the doctor's objections.

"Doctor McCoy doesn't think that's wise at this time," he said, watching the Vulcan carefully.

Spock's eyebrows elevated in what Kirk took to be profound chagrin. "And are you of the same opinion, sir?"

"I can't disregard the advice of my Chief Medical Officer, Mr. Spock. Not unless there is a logical reason for doing so, that is." His hazel eyes lit with suppressed amusement as he continued to tease his First Officer. "You do -- have a sound and consistent basis for violating medical opinion, I take it?"

"Apart from frustrating Doctor McCoy's inclination to become a mother hen you mean, Captain?"

"A mother hen with only one chick in the nest, Mr. Spock."

Kirk could almost hear the neurons firing as Spock shifted his weight to stand evenly on both feet, arms folded, and chin leveled. "Captain, if I may be so presumptuous, I am an essential component of the landing party in as much that I have more practical knowledge regarding Sassandran and Mr. Ryhanen than either Doctor McCoy or yourself."

"I wouldn't dispute that, Mr. Spock. Do you consider that explanation will be acceptable to Doctor McCoy?"

Spock tilted his head. Somewhere along the way, or from something evident in Kirk's tone, he had deduced that the Captain had already made his decision. Spock turned the tables on Kirk and did a little subtle jesting of his own. "I do not believe I have to yield to Doctor McCoy's irrational predisposition on the matter, Captain. It is undoubtedly a command decision. Your decision, sir."

Satisfied, Kirk stifled a grin. "Then you have nineteen minutes in which to change and meet us in transporter room three."

"Nineteen point one four minutes, in actual fact, sir."

"Don't be late, First Officer, or we'll go without you."

Spock raised an eyebrow, " Then I will endeavor to be on time, Captain."

* * *

He made it with two seconds to spare, locating the transporter room with little difficulty, his perception polished by the weeks of blindness to a pristine sharpness. He crossed the threshold with a poise only slightly feigned, quietly elegant in the high-collared blue jacket, the Vulcan symbol of kol-ut-shan, infinite combinations in infinite diversity, fastened to his left breast, a tricorder slung across his shoulder.

As the door hissed shut behind him he paused, head tilted, assimilating and processing the data routed through the senceiver in his brain by the sensor net embedded in his clothing. Spock still found it quite fascinating to watch information as if in fast-forward on a screen located within his very mind. It proved simple to locate the Captain and Doctor McCoy standing with Chief Kyle by the transporter console. He could even differentiate between the three if he concentrated hard enough, analyzing specific details of anything from hair color and skin tones to height and weight ratios. It still could not compare with his natural vision, however, which unfortunately continued to deteriorate. All that remained to him now was a distracting glare so intensely bright that it caused him substantial pain.

The only protection against it Spock had found was to use the inner nictitating eyelid, filtering out the dazzle until his environment became a vague, shimmering place of mists and shadows, a familiar landscape made strange that had grown progressively more hostile and intimidating, filled with indistinguishable shapes where a misstep could spell anything from mere embarrassment to severe calamity.

He continued to persevere on the bridge for his Captain's sake but his concerns grew hour by hour that he might blunder at any given moment, misinterpret an important readout, or commit some major error. The trip to Sassandran promised a welcome relief from the persistent strain, a time to evaluate his position and marshal his reasons against Kirk's stubborn refusal to accept his resignation. By no means did he wish to leave the Enterprise but he could not continue as he was and he knew the miracle awaited by the Captain had little chance of materializing. Kaiidth. What was, was. It would be illogical in the extreme to deny the reality of the situation.

Acknowledging both Kirk and McCoy with a brief nod, he crossed the room and stepped boldly up onto the transporter, taking his usual position on one of the pads.

"I think Mr. Spock's ready to beam down, Jim," McCoy murmured sardonically, loud enough for him to hear.

"So I see, Bones," came Kirk's mild reply. "Better not keep him waiting."

Without further ado they took their places either side of him and Spock heard Kyle call out, "Energizing, Captain."

Unlike Doctor McCoy who often complained about the process, Spock always found transporting an invigorating experience, entirely physical, akin to a sonic shower after an enthusiastic game of velocity or a bout of shan'gahza with the Captain, the Andorian martial art that Kirk at present enjoyed. The act of having his matter scrambled and rematerialized at the beam down point had never previously unnerved him.

However, as the effect began and the iridescent sparkle surrounded him, the Vulcan experienced an unexpected disquiet. The normal restrained hum contained an unusual whine that he had never previously noticed. The IDIC medallion turned suddenly hot, burning through jacket and undershirt until it scorched the soft tissue of his chest. The skin everywhere on his body sizzled with a surge of static electricity, the fuzzy hairs that covered his flesh standing on end.

The next instant an abrupt sensation of crackling energy whiplashed through every nerve and vein in his body, wrenching him apart atom by atom in a fraction of a second, a second that lasted for eternity.

He materialized in what he sensed as a large open space with stone beneath his feet and a chilly, rarefied, mountain air upon the exposed skin of his face, throat and hands. The shriek of a large bird came wheeling sharply to his ears. Disorientated, he raised a hand to his throbbing temples staggering dizzily, deserted by the confidence he had learned aboard the Enterprise. Without walls to touch, or bounce back sounds, he lost all previous reference points. He took a hesitant step, the ground unsteady beneath his feet, before he swayed forward, grasping at empty air.

"Spock, what is it?" Kirk's alarmed voice came from beside him. An arm caught him around the waist, stopped him from falling as his knees gave way, and then lowered him gently to the ground, cradling him there. "Spock, what's wrong? Bones, do something."

"Hold on, Jim. Give me a moment." The hum of Doctor McCoy's remote sensor penetrated the First Officer's confusion. He struggled to sit up but a hand on his shoulder restrained him. "Stay put, Mr. Spock. This won't take long."

He did not have the energy to resist. "Doctor, the sensor web is no longer functioning. I -- cannot see--"

Although his eyes remained open, the universe had darkened, consuming the dazzling brightness that had plagued him for so long and for that fact alone, Spock knew only a profound relief. The warble of a communicator came from behind him. He half turned toward the sound, heard the case snap back. Kirk's voice again, sounding worried.

"Kirk here."

"Captain, are ye all right down there?" Scott's voice was distant, anxious.

"Doctor McCoy and I have transported safely but Mr. Spock's -- unwell. What makes you ask, Scotty?"

"It's the transporter, sir. We've got a short in the main couplings, a possible feedback in the energy coils. I canna beam ye back up until it's rectified, Captain."

"Any idea what caused it, Scotty?"

"I canna' say yet, sir. We're working on it."

"Very well. Keep me posted."

Spock started as Kirk closed the communicator, senses whirling as he fought against a wave of vertigo, his forehead pounding in time to his beating heart. "Sir, I believe -- the transporter malfunction may be connected with the -- breakdown of my sensor web. Before -- I dematerialized there was a definite energy overload."

His words slurred as pain resounded within his skull, affecting his ability to think logically, to reason. He shivered, holding the back of his head with trembling fingers, trying to ease the ferocious ache. The ground still continued to lurch beneath him, spinning bizarrely, and he leaned back into Kirk's loose embrace needing something to cling onto, suddenly cold with the dread of falling into the void that had opened at his feet. Kirk's heart thudded strongly against his left ear and he groped blindly for the hand that tensely spanned the flesh across his lower ribs.


"It's okay, Mr. Spock. I've got you." Reacting to Spock's unease, Kirk clasped his First Officer's hand, returning a light reassuring pressure. "Bones?"

"He could be right, Jim. Spock if I can have your tricorder for a moment." The instrument warbled as McCoy scanned the sensor web and senceiver embedded in Spock's brain. "It certainly appears as if the sensor webs shorted out. The discharge could have affected Spock's senceiver, too."

"How badly is he hurt?"

Spock discerned the renewed anxiety in his Captain's voice.

"There's been some neural damage, I can't tell how much yet. He needs to rest. Somewhere quiet and warm. I'll give him a shot of analgesic just to ease the discomfort."

Even as Kirk agreed, there came the sound of footsteps approaching. Then a powerful voice addressed them all in a deep, aristocratic bass baritone, steady and authoritative, used to command, the tone subtly restrained now as its owner greeted them.

"Meer'tchal, Sers. I am your host, Ryhanen Hekmatyer." The voice held a trace of concern, mixed with perplexity. "I have been remiss in meeting you and now there has been an accident."

"My First Officer is -- ill, Mr. Ryhanen. He needs to rest. If we could be provided with a room--"

"Of course, of course. Let me assist you." And Spock suddenly found himself lifted up into a pair of immensely strong arms as if he weighed no more than a child and hoisted at least six feet off the ground. "If you will come this way--"

"Captain?" he queried uncertainly, but Kirk's reply became lost in the abrupt surge of blood booming in his ears. Pain exploded through his skull, blazing a fiery trail along his central and peripheral nervous systems, until not only sight but also hearing and touch were lost to him. All that remained was the pain, and soon enough even that faded leaving him in a limbo that he could not penetrate.

Chapter 5

Success is failure turned inside out,

A silver tint on the clouds of doubt.

But you never can tell how close you are

It may be near when it seems so far.

You have to stick to the fight

And when things go wrong don't you quit --

The trees he walked amongst grew tall and thin with white bark and pale grey leaves, though color glowed in the parasitical moss that dripped from the overhanging branches in cascades of crimson, jade and amethyst. Low bushes abounded, choked thickly with distorted globular fruits of indigo, wound about with vines and strange climbing plants, all reaching for the translucent light glimmering through the mists.

Strange scents tickled his nostrils, unfamiliar and curiously intoxicating, the fragrances of an alien world. He saw quite clearly, despite the vaporous haze that churned and eddied around him, caressing him with unseen hands, clutching at his feet as he continued to push, unperturbed, through the crowding vegetation.

There was, he realized, someone else in the forest beside himself. Someone or something that remained concealed among the thickets, traveling a parallel course, heading for the tower that he somehow knew lay just up ahead. It played a game of hide and seek with him, a glimmering radiance, appearing just on the edge of sight until he glanced in that direction, only to disappear again in an instant. Unafraid, he paid it little heed, though he recognized that it could mean him mischief. The mist continued to hold him captive, drawing him on, ever deeper into the secret realm of Wraith's interior.

Spock sat up with a gasp, his heart hammering a rapid tattoo against his lower ribs, witness to the sudden spurt of irrational fear. His open eyes stared into stygian blackness and for an instant, he remained confused, unable to understand why he could not see. Then memory returned. The transporter had malfunctioned and he had sustained injuries, further injuries, he amended stoically, recalling that last burst of agonizing pain as the Dha'ka Ryhanen picked him up like a babe in arms and carried him -- presumably to the place he now found himself. No doubt, the quiet area Doctor McCoy had specified. He shifted on the bed, head tilted, listening.

"Captain?" he exclaimed softly. "Doctor McCoy?"

A faint echo returned, giving him the general dimensions of the room, but neither the good doctor nor Captain Kirk answered his call. Apparently, they regarded him well enough to remain alone, at least for a time. That encouraged him and without hesitation, he pushed aside the thick duvets and swung his legs out - only to find himself nearer to the actual floor than he had anticipated. Spock stifled a shocked cry as his left ankle, both knees and an elbow impacted on solid wood. Unbalanced, his momentum carried him forward until he collided with the corner of the nightstand, striking his brow against the wood with a loud thud.

The sound of falling objects resounded through the quiet room. Stunned, he leaned back against the bed; essentially just a wide dais raised a foot or two above the floor and covered with assorted bedding, realizing a little late that lack of sight in this strange environment could prove far more hazardous than aboard the Enterprise. If nothing else, the experience taught him how much he needed to exercise both caution and coordination if he was to survive any additional unpleasant surprises and further, that it was long past time he learned how to be blind. He breathed in deeply, closing his eyes as he steadied himself, discovering an odd sort of peace in the gesture. Although the world was just as dark with eyes open or closed, he found the action focused all his perceptions on those senses still available to him.

Spock pushed himself up onto his bruised knees and from there got slowly to his feet. A quick clap of his hands threw back a faint resonance, enough to tell him that a wall stood nearby. More guarded than before, he shuffled forward, his natural elegance distorted by the awkward stiffness of uncertainty, arms extended at shoulder height intending to circumvent the room by using the perimeter and find his way about without too much inconvenience. Before he did anything else, however, he had to find his clothes, for someone had thoughtfully removed them, leaving him quite naked; McCoy's foolproof way of keeping him from wandering elsewhere no doubt. Fortunately, the doctor had also increased the temperature of the room to an almost comfortable level.

"I can't recall giving you permission to leave that bed, Mr. Spock." McCoy's voice came from across the room, startling Spock who had entered a state of intense concentration and remained oblivious to his entry. "Besides which, it's a sure thing your hands aren't gonna be much use way up there. You're more likely to bump your shins than hit your nose. Try lower down 'bout waist high."

"Thank you, Doctor," Spock murmured, dropping his hands dutifully in response to the logic of McCoy's statement and immediately encountered the back of a low chair. How basic, he thought ruefully. How simple and eminently sensible. Spock would have missed it entirely with his hands held so unnaturally high, cracking his knees or stumbling as a reward for his efforts. "Perhaps you can help me further by describing this room and the rest of its contents."

McCoy stared at the First Officer in sudden absurd affection, though he would rather die than ever admit to the emotion, especially in front of Spock. Whatever life threw at the Vulcan, he managed to rise above it, seemingly without bitterness or anger, indomitable to the last. The Doctor felt his throat constrict and incongruous tears sting his eyes as he watched Spock trying to orientate himself. He wiped them away surreptitiously, clearing his throat before he complied with Spock's request, detailing the room in a clear and concise manner as if describing a tray of surgical instruments set before him, making a special point of mentioning the large but delicate crystal ornament set on a side table, an obvious danger to the blind First Officer.

"You have a distinct talent for observation and description, Doctor," Spock said appreciatively. "Perhaps you should think of changing profession."

"Yeah, as if I need a new career--" McCoy replied without thinking and then cursed himself for being so clumsy. "I'm sorry, Spock."

"Please, do not castigate yourself on my behalf, Doctor McCoy." The First Officer turned from his fingertip inspection of large floor to ceiling windows to stare in McCoy's general direction, his expression enigmatic. "It would be illogical to believe that I could remain on the Enterprise as I am. Vulcans have a propensity for two or even more careers during their lifetime. I have merely reached the turning point sooner than I had expected." He hesitated for an instant before going on, "What continues to perturb me is the Captain's inability to accept my -- disability."

You're right about that, McCoy thought as he crossed the room to join Spock. Jim's an eternal optimist. He won't give up on you without a fight, that's for sure.

James Kirk was in his mid-thirties, the youngest captain in the Fleet, handsome and athletic, while Spock was six years older, tall, and lean, typically Vulcan with an intellectual's wiry physique. Neither man resembled the other either emotionally or physically, yet there existed a likeness in spirit that nobody could miss. Those who knew them both well, and sometimes even casual acquaintances, were more impressed with their similarities than their differences. It was not something you could ever put your finger on exactly. Certainly, you could never mistake one man for the other. However, both had that air of command, a natural authority, so used to being obeyed that they did not have to raise their voices or resort to threats. Jim Kirk and Spock were a matched set. McCoy could understand Jim's reluctance to accept the inescapable; losing Spock would be like having his right arm amputated at the shoulder.

"Spock, there're three things that Starship Captains in general -- but Jim Kirk in particular -- advocate. Women and children first, always go up with the ship, and never forget a friend--"

Spock nodded, eyes hooded in thought. "Agreed, Doctor. However, he must be persuaded to acknowledge the reality of the situation for his own sake."

"Give him time. He'll come round eventually. You know, while you were unconscious he never left your side. It took a hell of a while to convince him you were all right and only when he saw you start to recover did I finally get rid of him. You're an -- important -- part of Jim's life and, naturally enough, he's worried about you."

Spock frowned, folding his arms, his expression impenetrable, knowing McCoy watched him with eagle eyes. "There is no need for his concern."

"No?" McCoy's tone was openly skeptical. It was then he noticed the blood on Spock's face. "Hey, what's all this?"

Spock gingerly touched the cut on his forehead, grateful for the distraction. "A -- miscalculation, Doctor."

"Here, let me take a look. Hmmm, that's a pretty deep miscalculation." McCoy dipped into his medical pouch and came up with a portable tissue regenerator. It was a moment's work to repair the damage. "There, that should do it. Try to be more careful in future. Jim will have my hide if you get hurt again."

"The Captain cannot believe you were responsible for the transporter feedback, Doctor. That would be illogical."

"It was my idea to route the sensor web through your senceiver implant. I should have known better."

"I also sanctioned the procedure. It should not have proved unsafe or deleterious."

"At least the neural damage is already healing. You'll need to take it easy for a few days is all. Lots of bed rest, a few gentle excursions, no tilting at windmills. That sort of thing."

"Tilting at windmills, Doctor?" Spock asked, perplexed, ignoring McCoy's unpalatable statement about `bed rest'.

"Walking into inanimate objects is definitely not allowed, Mr. Spock."

"Ah, I see." Spock's eyebrows rose in unison. He ran a finger over the insignificant new scar on his brow, head on one side, considering. "I will attempt not to do so in future, Doctor McCoy."

The First Officer's lips creased in what could have been a rueful smile as he went back to his exploration of the window, his hands roaming back and forth until he found the release. "Where does this lead?"

"We're in Ryhanen's private castle, really a small town, chiseled out of bedrock, half way up the side of a mountain. The window opens onto a balcony that overlooks the rest of the chain. He calls it Castle Cloud but it's more like Ryhanen's Folly if you ask me."


"You can say that again," McCoy retorted. He saw Spock's eyebrow rise again and forestalled the Vulcan's inevitable comment before he had chance to utter it. "But don't, Mr. Spock. And if you're thinkin' of exploring outside, it may be a good idea to put some clothes on. It's mighty chilly out there."

* * *

Kirk, doing some exploring of his own, found a suitable distraction waiting for him on the dining balcony where he, McCoy and Spock had first beamed down. Standing alone by the parapet with her back to him, looking out over the mountains, the girl, dressed in a long robe of some iridescent silver-grey cloth, appeared to be part of the inevitable mist, and intrigued him enough to divert, for a little while at least, some of his ill-omened thoughts.

The ancient sun had started to set, and he realized with some surprise that he had spent almost the whole day sitting beside his First Officer's prone body, willing the Vulcan to recover from the trauma suffered in the transporter malfunction. Only when McCoy finally convinced him that Spock slept naturally and that the neural damage appeared superficial, did he consider leaving his friend's side to get some fresh air and work the kinks out of his spine although, given the choice, he much preferred something more energetic to work off the nervous tension. Like an all-out dogfight amid a whole bunch of enraged Klingons, for instance; or maybe a bare fisted brawl with Finnegan, his old enemy from the Academy. Lacking those alternatives, a roll in the hay with a willing partner might just do it.

Without stopping to consider his motives, he walked up to the parapet and stood beside the young woman.

"I don't think we've met," he said as she turned to look at him, a frisson of excitement shivering along his nerves as his gaze caressed the fragile, strangely androgynous beauty of her face, the ivory skin pale as alabaster against a cloud of ashen hair.

The girl studied him in her turn out of huge obsidian eyes, the lids shadowed with what appeared to be some dark cosmetic or other, on a level with his own. She regarded him as if his presence there had been planned all along and his sudden appearance came as no surprise. Some heavy, intoxicating perfume she wore seemed to fill the air around her like a tantalizing haze and Kirk breathed it in, his lazy smile widening as he relaxed, enjoying himself for the first time in what seemed like weeks.

"No, I do not think we have," she replied in a cool, husky voice that sent shivers of anticipation running down his spine.

His smile deepened as his tensions took an entirely different turn. "Perhaps there's an easy remedy for that. I'm James T. Kirk, Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise."

"Yes." She continued to stare at him with that startlingly frank, unblinking gaze, holding him mesmerized.

"You've never -- heard of -- the Enterprise, right."

"Should I have?" she asked, those unnerving eyes weighing him up heartlessly, like a cat hunting a particularly tasty mouse, or a spider chasing a bug.

Some cool lady, he admitted to himself, and felt the attraction grow even stronger, relishing the challenge of conquest. His grin vanished as heat coalesced in the pit of his stomach and exploded outwards, incandescent, flaming along his veins, pooling in his groin. "No -- I suppose not."

He swallowed, abruptly, thrown off stride, aware that he was acting like a tongue-tied college boy on his first date. He managed to drag his eyes away from her face, looked out over the balustrade. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

Ryhanen had built his Folly atop the highest summit in the long mountain chain. All the other peaks had surrendered before the slowly rising mist and just one barbed dagger of scarlet rock jabbed into the sky, way off to the north. Kirk stared at the swirling outlier mist tendrils gently exploring his boot. "Is it always like this?"

"Every mistrise and mistfall," the girl replied. She gestured towards the west where Sassandran's sun had started to descend slowly towards the waiting vapors. "As Resyenyhah sinks, Sahasirana rises, conquering the mountains that his radiance held during the day. It is a war, ceaseless and eternal, but Sahasirana has the better of it, for she has the valleys, the plains, and the seacoasts. Resyenyhah keeps only the mountaintops and then only by day."

"You like it here, Miss--? I still don't know your name."

"Names are powerful things, Jaymztikuhkhq." The girl tilted her head to one side, reminding Kirk of Spock's habitual gesture, the cool breeze playing with the silver-blond hair that cascaded down her back almost to the waist, a ghostly mistfall of her own that he yearned to touch. "Do you need to know my name before you make love to me?"

She watched him intently looking for some reaction, the ebony eyes mostly iris and pupil with only a tiny rim of white showing.

Amazed and a little amused by her insight, Kirk floundered for an instant. He decided to stall. "Why should I want to make love to you? We've only just met."

"It is the truth, nonetheless."

"It's hardly surprising." Kirk laughed, deciding to come clean. "You're very beautiful."

Pale, blue veined lids dropped over the striking eyes, hiding her thoughts from him as she inclined her head. "Have you not made love to many beautiful women?"

"None like you," he acknowledged softly. The girl looked at him, her eyes swirling open like dark flowers and he felt an uncomfortable sensation as if she were able to read his every intimate thought.

"I am Tel Shimaan," she conceded unexpectedly as if that explained everything, smiling at his gallantry, and Kirk found himself smiling back, knowing that he had just lost the game they played. She had him hooked like a fish on a line.

"You live here permanently?" he asked.

"This is my home." She turned her profile to him, gazing out over the drop off beyond the balustrade. "It is an insubstantial world, Jaymztikuhkhq, where nothing is ever as it seems. A world of ghosts and mists and clouds, where dreams and reality mix."

"You look substantial enough to me," Kirk murmured, wanting to take her into his arms and crush her to him, flesh against flesh, to kiss the darkly sensual lips until she cried out his name in pleasure.

She smiled, glanced sideways at him then away again as if reading his thought, the look cool, merciless, and predatory, contradicting her fragile beauty. "I sense you are uncomfortable here, Jaymztikuhkhq, so close to the edge. The altitude worries you. Is such a height not meaningless after the cold voids of space?"

Kirk did feel uneasy and found her shrewdness unsettling. "Why don't you call me Jim? I'm not worried, cautious maybe. In space, I have the walls of the Enterprise between the void and me. At least an illusion of safety."

"Illusions, Jimh?" The girl nodded. "Yes, illusions are sometimes important."

"I doubt Spock would agree with you there," Kirk grinned wryly.


"My First Officer. He's a Vulcan. Sees everything in black and white--" Or, at least, he used to. Now all he sees is grey like the mist and shadows down there, an elusive abstraction, robbing him of his life --

However, she was not interested in talking about Spock. Her attention centered now on the drop, on the mists that swirled and twisted. "Do you not see how Sahasirana molds and reforms, ever changing but always the same."

Kirk looked down and saw only that his feet had disappeared, devoured by the rising fog. He frowned, watching the wispy strands, the ghostly tendrils weaving an ethereal web between himself and Tel Shimaan until they appeared to merge into one being. It was an intriguing thought but one he found thoroughly daunting. He raised his head and found her regarding him again, those lustrous eyes like the black empty space between worlds, ready to engulf him as the mists were doing. He shivered, chilled by the icy vapor that swirled about him, conscious that the haze was slowly reaching for his knees--

"Some say that our future can be glimpsed by seeking the patterns in the clouds. We only have to look close enough."

Kirk smiled quickly, nevertheless looking directly where she indicated at the formless swirling all around him. "And you -- believe that?"

"Of course." She smiled as she said it, stepping closer to him, strands of mist leading her advance. "I saw you there."

Her hands delicately touched his chest, moved up to rest either side of his face, her slender fingers cool, describing smooth circles across his brow, down his temples, her thumbs tracing either side of his nose, pausing to brush back and forth along his jaw. Her eyes remained wide open, fixed steadily on his face as if the feather light touch was not enough to hold him.

He flicked nervously at his lips with his tongue just as her fingers wandered to his mouth, and she paused as if analyzing the strangeness of the physical sensation. His eyes remained riveted on her face as she followed the pattern of his mouth with first one finger, then another, then all of them at once. She caught the fullness of his lower lip with a curious pressure of one thumb and Kirk suddenly felt an intense heat, a burst of arousal, and the abrupt need to draw in more air. His lips parted as he sucked in a deep breath. Her touch was incredibly sensuous and yet she seemed to have no idea of the response she was awakening in him.

He knew that he had lost control and it unnerved him. To seize it back he covered her hands with his own, pulling them away from his face, his trembling fingers appearing thick and awkward in contrast to hers. Then he reached for the back of her neck, bringing her closer against his chest, covering her parted lips with his, taking her mouth gently enough but with a rising urgency as she melted into him, caressing and exploring, demanding an equal reaction as he tried to smother the violent throbbing within himself. At first her head pulled back against the unyielding pressure of his hand, then her lips moved beneath his, testing an unfamiliar awareness, unafraid, answering his need.

They parted with reluctance and Tel Shimaan opened her eyes, opaque and incalculable now as she gazed at him.

"You wished to prove something to me." She smiled that half mocking, half sultry smile, her tone soft with pleasure.

"I thought you might like it."

"It is an extraordinary custom," she murmured. "But most agreeable. Why did you stop?"

"I've never kissed a Sassandran before."

"And I have never … kist … a Terranh. It is not our way to touch with the lips as you do. This is our way." Again, she raised her fingers to his face.

The mist followed, cobweb light, brushing his skin delicately, fluttering from brow to chin. Kirk shuddered but he lacked the volition to pull away. He tipped his head back as her fingers moved on, slipping in unison down the smooth slope of his shoulders, pressing lightly against his well-developed biceps that contracted in urgent tension beneath her hands.

His lids dropped like blinds, shading the fervent smoulder of eyes gone abruptly dark, and his lips parted helplessly to pull in another shuddering breath. Her wandering fingers rested for an instant in the center of his chest concentrating his awareness there with an explosion of sensuality. The mist was all about them now, as substantial as her heavy perfume swirling through his senses. He shook his head in an effort to dispel the madness her nearness evoked, his body stubbornly refusing to move away from the electricity of her fingertips.

"Telshimaan--" His ragged breathing made it difficult to speak. His heart thundered and his pulses raced.

Her hands slipped in between their taut bodies, tracing his rigid stomach muscles, the outline of his thighs, the tendrils of mist following her deft fingers, touching him intimately. A startled sound flew from his chest and escaped his lips at the contact.

"Be one with me, Jimh," she whispered softly. "Do not resist. You are for me, Jaymztikuhkhq. You are for me."

* * *

The plexiglas opened with a quiet sigh allowing an influx of cool, mountain air. Spock stepped over the threshold, equally exhilarated and terrified, aware of the great open space before and beyond him, knowing that a false step here could mean his death.

"Your way ahead is clear space except for a few shrubs and trees in pots."

McCoy watched him anxiously but let him find his own way without intruding, just close enough to act if the Vulcan should stumble. Even sightless, Spock had a quiet dignity, an ingenuous poise. Head held high, gaze fixed on some vision only he could see, the First Officer proceeded with almost agonizing slowness out onto the wide balcony, his hands extended from bent elbows in the way McCoy had suggested.

"There's a statue on your left, about twelve feet high. Ryhanen seems to like things big--"

"Dha'kaht'chun are themselves physically imposing, Doctor. At only eight feet in height, Ser Ryhanen is somewhat undersized by comparison to the rest of his race. Does the statue represent anything in particular?"

Appreciative of McCoy's presence, Spock concentrated on his first trip across virgin territory, his ears straining for any and every sound, the sigh of the wind among the crags, the melancholy cry of a bird, his own hesitant footsteps on rough hewn stone, and the doctor's quick, apprehensive breathing at his shoulder.

"A young hominid female, if secondary sexual characteristics are anything to go by, sporting a pair of curving ram's horns from the brow. It looks anatomically correct, the neck's thickened, the shoulders wide and muscular for a woman, but it could be a mythological representation of some sort. She's carrying a weapon, a crossbow, I think it is, and has what appears to be a large animal, vaguely bear-like with prominent tusks, accompanying her. I wouldn't like to meet either of them on a dark night, that's a sure thing. It looks old, too old to have originated at the Folly."

Tendrils of mist brushed Spock's face, delicate fingertips, tentative and exploring as if searching each of his features in turn. The evocative scent of decaying leaves and damp earth pervaded the air, calling to mind his reverie of walking in the forest accompanied by that other, insubstantial as a ghost, cloaked in mystery, yet with an underlying reality that was hard to refute. At the recollection, an eerie silence seemed to descend about him. He stopped, analyzing the sensation, trying to pinpoint its direction.

"Doctor, I believe we are under observation--" He dropped his voice, speaking in an undertone as if afraid that someone would overhear.

"That's not possible, Spock. We're over a thousand feet above the ground. Nothing overlooks this terrace."

"Nevertheless--" Spock's voice trailed off into silence as he stared fixedly towards the waist high stone parapet that encircled the drop off finally locating the source of his concern.

"What is it, Spock?" Puzzled and uneasy, McCoy followed Spock's sightless gaze. The sun had started to descend giving way to the conquering mist tinged now with scarlet light, lapping like ghostly waves upon the shores of the balcony. Already the other mountains in the range had disappeared, swallowed up in the sinuous white ocean. Then the tide seemed to turn and the mists poured over the balcony edge to close in upon Ryhanen's Folly. An intense crimson fog gathered a scant meter distant, in an opaque wall that grew thicker and stronger as the seconds ticked by, dwarfing the two officers as it towered above them. And within the mists, something started to form.

McCoy dragged himself from the stupor that held him transfixed, forced his feet to move, placing himself before the First Officer, a human shield against what he thought now threatened them, his heart thundering inside his chest as he sucked in a lungful of abruptly freezing air.

"Those rumors were true. It's a wraith, Spock--" he hissed over his shoulder, lips suddenly numb, so cold he could hardly form the words. "Get -- back inside -- now."

Without waiting for a response he grabbed Spock by the arm, spun him roughly about and propelled him back towards the open windows by brute force alone. They tumbled across the threshold in a welter of limbs, the wraith-like mist clutching vainly at their ankles as the Chief Surgeon instantly whirled, thumping the window release. It shut fast with a soft exhalation, echoing McCoy as he gasped in breathless relief.

"Doctor?" Spock blinked in bewilderment as if only just awakening from some bizarre dream, head tilted as he stared up at the doctor from his position on the floor where McCoy's dramatic entrance had thrown him. "What has happened?"

Something thumped loudly against the glas with such force the whole frame shivered and a banshee wail keened abruptly into the silence. McCoy launched himself away from the window echoing the fearful cry with one of his own, landing on his knees beside Spock, wondering what would happen if the panes should crack. Unwilling to look in that direction, worried by what he might see, he stayed on his knees, face averted, while something unknown rapped and scraped on the other side of the fragile barrier, trying to get in to them.

It seemed like an eternity before the sounds eventually faded and disappeared. McCoy risked a quick glance at the window. Thick fog writhed and twisted just beyond the panes but some unknown instinct told him it was just condensation, water vapor caused by the evaporation of warm air as night closed in. Whatever had hidden within the masking clouds had now given up and gone away.

At least for the moment, he thought with a shiver. With a weary groan, he got back on his feet, helped the First Officer up, and brushed himself off, trying to control his shaking fingers.

"I don't know 'bout you, Spock but I need a drink. Something large and one hundred per cent proof," he murmured. "Until we get some answers to what just happened, the rest of my exploring is gonna be from out of a glass."

Chapter 6

And in the mirror I glimpse as I pass,

No reflection is revealed in the glass.

Can't you see that the blood in my veins

Is as lifeless as yesterdays rain?

I am nothing but shadow and mist,

And for you I cannot exist.

"And you're sure it meant to harm you?" Kirk asked, glancing involuntarily towards the window, covered now by a draped curtain that McCoy had drawn to shut out the sight of the swirling fog, some obscure memory forcing its way to the surface of his mind before sinking again.

"I'm telling you it attacked us, Jim. Came billowing over the balcony parapet straight for us."

"That is not certain, Doctor McCoy," Spock interrupted softly. "Its intentions, as far as I could sense, were ambivalent. Though assuredly not benign, neither was it malicious."

"You mean it just came to say 'ciao', Spock, or invite us over for dinner, maybe."

"Now you are being facetious, Doctor."

"You can bet your pay on it, Mr. Spock."

Kirk got up from the overstuffed hotel chair and started to pace. "Whether it meant you injury or not, it still doesn't explain what it is or what it's doing on this planet. Could it be native? Is it intelligent? It's a pity you didn't manage to get any tricorder readings, Bones."

McCoy looked abashed, but his concern for Spock had driven any such requirement out of his head.

"Perhaps those questions should be addressed to Ser Ryhanen, Captain," Spock suggested. "The original surveys of Sassandran were carried out by a company under his nominal control. The wraith legend has existed from that time, I believe."

"Agreed, and the ideal opportunity I propose, is the formal dinner our host has arranged for this evening. Think you're up to it, Mr. Spock?"

"Indeed, Captain. It should be most enlightening."

"According to Mr. Ryhanen, the invitation includes all my senior officers. Scotty's still doing the final tests on the transporter but if everything checks out, he'll be beaming down with Uhura and Sulu."

"Sounds like a reunion, Jim," McCoy said, with a grin, cheering up. "Are we expected to be on our best behavior or can we let our hair down at this junket?"

"The usual rules apply, Doctor." Kirk tried to sound stern but failed, his hazel eyes suddenly alight, pushing his qualms about the strangeness of Sassandran back down into his subconscious. "Ryhanen's roped in half of his administrative staff, some of the residents at the Castle, as well as the more prominent colonists presently on Sassandran. Our reputation is on the line. Discretion should be our byword."

"Dha'kaht'chun's have a philosophy of eudemonism, Doctor McCoy. Ser Ryhanen has a reputation for tolerating only the best. I believe even your Lucullan tastes will be effectively gratified," Spock added.

"If that's a fancy way of saying we're going to eat and drink something apart from reconstituted chicken and synthetic coffee, then I'm all for it. A little self-indulgence is better than no indulgence at all in my book," McCoy declared. "Of course as the Enterprise' resident party-pooper, I suppose you'll stick to the usual mixed vegetables, salad, and rice bread, Spock?"

"My dietary needs are simple, Doctor McCoy, I do not pretend otherwise. I see no reason to overeat and disrupt my digestive system. However, if you wish to gorge yourself, please do not let my attendance interfere."

"Why, thank you, Commander. I'm relieved to have your permission to enjoy myself."

"Gentlemen. Gentlemen," Kirk interceded, rolling his eyes ceiling ward. "Shall we declare a cessation of hostilities, if only for this evening? Our strength lies in unity before Mr. Ryhanen, not open warfare."

Spock lifted his face, eyes unseeing but serene. "Of course, Captain."

McCoy harrumphed in grumpy disapproval, still upset by his recent unnerving experience but unwilling to admit that his bad temper originated from that source. "If you say so, Jim. I just hope Ryhanen's not placed us next to each other at dinner, is all. If I'm to get indigestion, I'd like it to stem from the food I eat, not from your First Officer's disapproval of my gluttonous behavior."

However, they had all underestimated the Dha'kaht'chun's desire to accommodate his guests. The main dining area was a haven of cozy warmth and subdued lighting, with the soft strains of a live ensemble playing from the gallery above. A long table, elegant with china and crystal, mixed with arrangements of fresh-cut, exotic-looking, alien flowers and candlelight was the centerpiece of the room. Yet, it was the view through the floor to ceiling transparent shielding out onto the wide balcony that grabbed Kirk and McCoy's immediate attention.

Only a few feet from where they stood the mists surged and pitched in ghostly swells, cloaking everything in a sea of white vapors. Ryhanen's Folly floated alone, a stone galleon upon an insubstantial ocean. An eerie beauty existed in that one startling vista. Looking at it, Kirk felt unexpectedly edgy, understanding very well how Bones had become so easily spooked.

Ryhanen Hekmatyer excused himself from other guests and immediately came to meet them. His was an imposing race indeed; splendidly handsome, his skin emulated the fineness of mahogany, its darkness emphasized by a neatly clipped beard, eyebrows and thick shoulder-length hair of startling white. The Dha'kaht'chun's quicksilver eyes had an intelligent, vital quality and a magnetism that was difficult to overlook. He also topped Kirk by more than two feet, and had the towering build of a grizzly bear. Beside him, the three officers resembled offspring of a much lesser god.

Bowing graciously, he acknowledged them all with the utmost respect, asked after Spock's health and showed them to their places where the other members of the Enterprise' crew awaited them.

There were seventy guests in all, a throng of different races and species, intermingled about the extended table, a glitteringly, smart assembly, sedately noisy, enjoying the luxury and extravagance orchestrated by their magnanimous host. Kirk studied them, his eyes roving nonchalantly as soon as he had seen Spock safely seated on his left. McCoy, despite his earlier protestations in Spock's room, sat on the First Officer's other side. Sulu took the chair on Kirk's right with Scotty and Uhura sitting in the chairs beside him. On the other side of the table Ryhanen, with his Andorian aides, two of his four wives and twin daughters, formed a group of their own. An expectant silence fell as Ryhanen rose to his feet and faced his guests.

"As we are a multicultural assembly this evening, I have taken the liberty of selecting a variety of dishes for your pleasure. Please be reminded however that one man's meat may be another's poison and take suitable care when tasting each other's specialities. I would not wish the occasion to end abruptly for anyone here…"

There came a smattering of wry laughter as Ryhanen regained his seat, followed by the disciplined entrance of a number of attendants and servers carrying various gastronomic delights from numerous worlds. Soon after came the sounds of silverware scraping fine china, the low tones of conversation, and the fragile ring of crystal as glasses were brought together in diverse toasts.

The smokey white wine, made from a native grape, a plump grey thing the size of a lemon, tasted superb and after his first glass, Kirk started to relax. It felt good to sit at a table finely prepared, lulled by the murmurs of contented diners, surrounded by the sounds of a room devoted to elegance and people who appreciated it. He glanced at Spock, noticed the Vulcan's right hand creep unobtrusively to his plate guided by the placement of the silverware, examining the heavy matt tablecloth and the dishes before him with his fingers. The First Officer apparently would not get the chance to eat his mixed vegetables and salad that evening. In front of him steamed freshly baked pri tarmeeli, harageel and yorakar, a heavy crystal goblet nearby containing the finest of Vulcan riman cordials. Without drawing attention to the fact, McCoy quietly informed the First Officer not only what was on his plate but also where the food was placed, receiving a murmured thank you from the Vulcan for his efforts.

Kirk, trading meaningful glances with the Ryhanen women across from him, especially the beautiful twin daughters, suddenly caught the eye of papa Ryhanen and addressed himself to his own meal of thick beef sirloin, deviled potatoes and baby vegetables, the erection he currently sported withering to nothing as the powerful, all seeing, all knowing glance searched his soul and found him wanting. To distract that glowing, quicksilver consideration, he chewed thoughtfully on a chunk of rare beef before indicating the transparent shield holding the swirling mists of Wraith at bay.

"I understand that you own this planet, Mr. Ryhanen. If you don't mind me saying it seems a strange choice for a resort world given the abundance of other, more suitable, locations."

"Hekmatyer, if you please, Captain Kirk. Or may I call you, James?" At Kirk's nod, he smiled graciously, a flash of startling white in that otherwise dark face, but an expression that came easily enough to the patrician features. "Not so strange, surely? Castle Cloud has everything anyone might want, the finest food, entertainments, gambling, good company and all the comforts of home."

"You also have wraiths, sir," McCoy interjected sharply, looking up from his meal of southern fried chicken with green beans, bacon and spoon bread.

"A myth only, I assure you, Doctor McCoy," Ryhanen's subterranean voice rumbled appreciatively. "There have been a number of studies into the wraith legend but nothing conclusive has ever been found."

"Perhaps you dismiss them too easily, Ser Ryhanen." Spock's eyebrow elevated as he stared directly at the Dha'kaht'chun. "There is copious evidence to support the stories, though much of it is, indeed, subjective. Twenty-five disappearances since Sassandran was -- rediscovered, with eyewitness accounts of wraiths by the dozen."

"That is quite true, Commander Spock. The four bodies found had terrible injuries, as for the others -- who knows? However, individual accounts cannot be classed as real evidence. This is a beautiful planet and people come here for many reasons, to climb the mountains, to hunt and fish. It is a wild place and I do not intend to tame it. If some of my guests are unwary and get hunted in their turn by dream-spiders in the forest, the rock daemons, and the fire lizards of the southern plains, among our many other native predators, they are adequately warned before they leave the protection of these walls."

"Surely your duty towards the safety of your visitors extends beyond a mere warning, Mr. -- Hekmatyer."

"James, you must realize that some of my guests disembark here precisely because of the tales told about the wraiths. They are an incongruity in this technological age, a romanticist's dream, and an unsolved mystery. Some individuals are drawn to that. People die on your worlds every day. However, if they die here, apparently, it is because the wraiths lead them astray. No, gentlemen, it is not enough to convince me."

Ryhanen fell silent as the serving staff noiselessly reappeared, cleared away the used tableware, and brought on the next course. Again, Kirk found the food varied and superb. After months of shipboard synthetics, it came near to the sublime. The mistwine too, proved exceptional and he sipped at a second glass, appreciating the mellow, lingering flavor, taking time out to gaze at his fellow diners again, sensing eyes upon him from further down the long table.

His gaze locked immediately with a young woman who continued to stare at him from out of large obsidian colored eyes, a seemingly innocent appraisal, guileless and without implication. He raised his glass in amused salute, watching as she mirrored his toast, her perfect alabaster skin flushing a charming pale aquamarine at his attentiveness. He turned away smiling briefly, his attention centered once more on Ryhanen.

"What about the ruins, sir?" he asked. "I understand they're extensive and quite well preserved."

"They are."

"Would that not add credence to the legends about the wraiths?" Spock inquired with the artless curiosity of one who seeks simply to decipher an intriguing conundrum.

"On my planet, Commander, this part of space and Sassandran in particular, has long been regarded as the place where Dha'kaht'chun first began. Our homeworld, if you will, left long ago when the sun first started to fail. Those ruins are the homes of my ancestors, nothing more." Ryhanen picked up his glass and drank deeply. He dabbed genteelly at his lips with a napkin before continuing, mercurial eyes sweeping over them all. "The mists have a habit of playing tricks with the mind, gentlemen. It is easy to imagine that something inimical hides behind the vapors. Without the mists the wraith saga would have died long ago."

The coffee arrived in carafes of ornate silver accompanied by a pitcher of thick cream and flasks of Saurian and Armagnac brandies.

Ryhanen continued in his deep bass baritone. "All peoples have this need for a mystery, I believe. Did not Terra have its sea monster hiding beneath the waters of a dark lake? Moreover, on Vulcan, are there not tales told of a huge creature that lives beneath the desert sands? It has only rarely been observed, a glimpse here and there, but the conviction remains that it does indeed exist. Cognac, Commander, or iced tea, perhaps? "

Spock, who had eaten sparingly even of the Vulcan dishes, covered the top of his glass with one hand, a winged brow shooting upward as he shook his head.

"Sir, you are exceedingly well informed, and quite correct." He discreetly smoothed the tension lines marring his forehead with the tip of an index finger. "Very little is known about the tcha-besheh, even now. However, our instruments, once we learned how to calibrate them, do suggest that it is real and not a figment of the Vulcan imagination."

McCoy, leaning back in his chair, brandy in hand, snorted cynically. "You surprise me, Spock. I didn't know Vulcans had any imagination."

"In that case I hope you have learned something advantageous, Doctor," Spock retorted quietly, delivering his comment without its usual sting, his face looking wan, rendered into a cat's emotionless mask. McCoy raised an eyebrow, shooting Kirk a meaningful sideways glance.

"Tired, Spock?" Kirk asked gently, picking up on McCoy's silent inquiry. He leaned in towards the Vulcan so that only Spock could hear him.

The First Officer inclined his head; dark eyes heavy lidded, lips narrowed to a thin, pale line. "Somewhat, Captain."

"It's late. Perhaps you should call it a day. Go on, you need to rest. Get to bed. I'll see you in the morning."

Spock did not protest. "Thank you, sir. I believe I will."

Kirk, disturbed by Spock's uncharacteristic acquiescence, glanced at McCoy over the Vulcan's head. "Bones--"

"With your permission, Captain, I do not require Doctor McCoy's assistance. Please allow him to remain and enjoy the rest of the evening." Spock stood up, bowed in Ryhanen's direction. "Ser and Serai Ryhanen. Lieutenant Uhura. Gentlemen. The dinner was greatly pleasing. Thank you."

"Sleep well, Spock," Kirk said affectionate concern clearly warming his voice.

Spock acknowledged him with a succinct dip of the head before turning casually away, his stride deceptively confident. All the same, McCoy, who still watched the Vulcan like a hawk, pushed himself out of his chair and followed a step or two behind until they were out of earshot of the rest of the guests.

"Spock, are you sure you can find your way alone?"

The First Officer halted, half turned to face McCoy. "Perfectly sure, Doctor McCoy. There is no need for anxiety, I assure you. Please, return to the Captain."

McCoy, still worried, persisted. "C'mon, it'll only take five minutes to see you back to your room--"

Spock sighed audibly, eyebrows elevating as he fixed McCoy with a glacial stare. "Doctor, I thought I had left my mother back on Vulcan. I happen to be blind, not incapacitated. I am able to find my room on my own. Grant me some self-respect, if you will."

McCoy reassured by Spock's vehemence, retaliated in kind, his tone sharp and equally sardonic. "And I suppose you can even do it with your eyes closed, huh?"

"Your levity as always is unbecoming, Doctor. However, that is essentially the truth. Now, if you will be so kind as to return to your -- merrymaking. I do not wish to keep you." Spock pivoted around without further ado, his steps faltering slightly as he fumbled for the wall, giving the lie to his self-assurance.

Bones stared after him. "Well, if you happen to fall down a lift shaft and break your goddamned stubborn Vulcan neck, don't come crying to me."

Spock refused to acknowledge the parting shot. His eidetic recall retained the memory of their earlier descent to the dining hall from his room. He surmised all he had to do was reverse the journey in his mind. His initial progress commenced slowly as he counted each step, his pace calculated, deliberate, fingers trailing the wall at waist height, the way McCoy had taught him. He found an elevator readily enough out of the array available in the reception lobby and entered it without any problem despite McCoy's fabricated ill will, sighing in relief as the doors closed behind him. He slumped against the wall, his burning eyes closed, breathing deeply, relaxing for the first time that evening.

A pulse throbbed in his temple, heavy and intense, as pain spiraled across his forehead. He needed to rest. Fatigue dragged at his limbs, his lethargy making it difficult to concentrate. Voice flat with exhaustion, he gave an order to the elevator and it whisked him swiftly upwards with the speed of an accelerating rocket.

Ryhanen's Folly, as McCoy had affirmed was, indeed, a small town. Within the confines of its perimeter walls, it contained a shopping mall, two small, automated factories, a processing plant and a hospital as well as living quarters for Ryhanen's staff and the few colonists who made their homes there. Spock's room was located along with Kirk's and McCoy's, in the hotel complex, which also housed a casino, several restaurants, a professional sized swimming pool, health spa, sports hall, and the latest interactive holography theater.

The elevator accessed onto level eighteen, a broad corridor with a number of doors leading to other guest chambers. Tubs of growing plants stood here and there along either side of the hallway, obstacles that Spock knew of from his earlier outward journey. He stared sightlessly into the distance as he took the first step, his hand brushing against lush foliage as he passed. It took thirty steps to reach the first intersection on his left that he required to reach his room. He moved cautiously down the center of the corridor waiting to feel the tiny draft of cooler air on his cheek that warned of the junction.

It never occurred. Confused, his inner serenity dented, he continued for another five paces before coming to a perplexed halt. Counting steps, he realized belatedly, only worked if the strides were exactly the same distance each time. Disposition, tiredness, or lack of self-assurance could all affect the way of walking. Earlier, Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy had accompanied him. Spock had felt confident in their presence, aware that he could come to little harm while they were with him. Now, he lacked that certainty, knew only the embarrassment of imprecision and doubt. He had lost his way.

He clenched his hands into fists by his side, the pain throbbing behind his eyes, bottom lip caught between his teeth as he struggled for equanimity. He took another step, his innate spatial sense alerting him to something ambiguous a few steps further on, fighting the sudden flare of irritation and frustration at his continuing lack of ability. Head tilted he reached out, floundering at the vacant air, finding only empty space. He clapped his hands together, listening vigilantly to the returning echoes but still failed to interpret what the signals told him.

It was only the thought of McCoy's 'I told you so,' that finally urged him into movement once more. He had to regain his room, find the calmness that was so obviously absent, and try to come to terms with his loss of sight. Either that or ultimately admit defeat and allow the doctor to smother him in cotton wadding for the reminder of his stay. An untenable idea, one he could never countenance and keep his self-esteem intact.

However, he soon found out that he had to consider far more than the counting of steps and length of his stride. What happened next came as a total surprise. Between one step and the next, the floor disappeared and he toppled forward into empty space.

Prominent and well lit, any sighted being could not have failed to see the stairway, but it caught Spock completely off guard.

Thrown into disarray, his feet slipped out from beneath him and he pitched heavily down the short flight of stairs, striking the base of his spine on the edge of a step before he sprawled with startling force on hands and knees. He heard the ominous crack of his left wrist as it took most of the impact.

Cradling the injured appendage in his other hand, he immediately sat back on his haunches, throat tight, breathing in short, shallow gasps. Delayed reaction had his heart hammering against his side, the nape of his neck damp with sweat as he tried to come to terms with the sudden fear, imagining what a ridiculous sight he must have posed, flailing the air desperately before somersaulting head first so ignominiously down the stairs.

This is illogical; there must be another way, a distressed inner voice cried. These limitations are appalling. How can I continue in this fashion?

Hunched over his knees, embracing the ill-treated and most probably broken wrist against his chest, he battled to contain his rage and humiliation. Finally, he leaned back on his heels, shuddering as he pulled in several deep, purging breaths. Using the wall beside him as a support, he waited an instant longer until his equilibrium returned and he managed to get onto his feet.

Half expecting the floor to part and swallow him whole at any moment, he ascended the stairs somewhat slower than his preceding journey down, tapping the riser of each step with the toe of his boot until he stood on the upper level once more. There was a wretched, frayed dignity in the way he straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin in proud disdain at the pain emanating from his aching spine and rapidly swelling wrist, squashing the residual trembling of his hands as he took a further hesitant step in what he hoped was the correct direction.

Nevertheless, after wandering level eighteen for what seemed an interminable time but which his inner chronometer assured him was only fifteen point five three minutes, he came to the inevitable conclusion that he had blundered even more significantly than he had at first appreciated. He could not locate the intersection he needed because, he deduced finally, it existed on the opposite side of the hotel complex. In his urgency to show Doctor McCoy that he could survive on his own terms, he had patently entered the wrong elevator in the lobby. His obstinate Vulcan pride had without doubt contributed to his present bewildered state.

Spock sighed, concerned by his own intransigence. He knew that Doctor McCoy's anxiety for him went with the territory of chief surgeon and that the doctor's crustiness increased in direct proportion to his apprehension and worry. The First Officer could not deny that Doctor McCoy cared for him just as the Captain did and wanted only to safeguard his health and welfare, yet it had proved impossible so far for the Vulcan to admit that he needed assistance. It felt infinitely more comfortable to continue to provoke the doctor whenever the opportunity arose. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, McCoy's innate gruffness had prevailed over his compassionate soul. If pushed hard enough, the chief surgeon still tended to rise to the bait.

Spock rubbed his intact hand across his aching brow as he retraced his steps once more to the staircase, sagging against the wall at the top of the stairs as a strange prickling sensation unexpectedly started up somewhere inside his head, challenging the pain that thumped just behind his eyes. Spock tensed in surprise, recognizing the unnatural tingling that once more originated from the damaged senceiver implanted within his brain. He winced as his headache abruptly intensified, shuddering as tremors shook his lean frame. Had the senceiver somehow become active again?

He stared into the darkness, clearing his mind of conscious thought, waiting for the implant to create its imagery. An instant later, he perceived a ghostly resonance crying out his name, a voice he might have recognized if not for the pain thundering along his nerves.

Spock! Come for me. Spock, set me free! Spock!

"Who is there?" he cried out, turning on his heel, wheeling around in an 180 degree arc; but the astonishing reverberation lasted only an instant before fading again, leaving him shaken and taken aback. His heart beat fast and thick against his side; he heard as well as felt its demented throb.

Troubled by the incident, he recalled that hallucinations were a symptom of the Koreoretnal condition, and the apprehension at anyone observing him in such a revealing state spurred him into movement once more.

The easiest route to his room would have meant returning to the lobby and the probability of someone catching sight of him. He therefore elected to take the long way round, a trip fraught with unknown danger but which would enable him to remain undiscovered. Before the onset of his illness he had studied, as a matter of course, everything recorded about the planet Sassandran and Ser Ryhanen Hekmatyer, including the plans of the Castle. Now he knew his true location he could find his way. All he needed was to trust in his own ability, the hardest and most important lesson he had to learn.

Yet, after his most recent mishap he could not help believing that he might, indeed, warrant the Captain's and Doctor McCoy's joint anxiety. Could his vanity have blinded his judgment as the Koreoretnal Syndrome had blinded his sight and the disability was, in reality, insurmountable? Must he rely always on the sympathy of others in order to survive? If so, it did not bode well for his future or his pride. He had to recover the middle ground, one where his blindness assumed the proper perspective.

Over the years of his service aboard her, the Enterprise had become more than just a Starfleet vessel to him as Captain Kirk had become far more than his senior officer. The ship was his home and he counted Jim Kirk and Leonard McCoy as two of his closest friends. They accepted him unequivocally, in a way that no one else ever had. He had no desire for that to end; certainly not in this manner, yet he could not deny that his career in Starfleet was over. He had to make a new life for himself.

That new life had to start by knowing what he could achieve by his own endeavors. Finding his own room in this unfamiliar and alien environment was his beginning. There could be no guiding hand on his elbow, no words of direction, no sympathetic presence ready to pick him up when he fell. He had to rely on his own senses, use his own judgement, and realize his own goals. It was not an easy path, but in this, he could not permit himself to founder. Kaiidth. At least he had to try.

Chapter 7

You have to search for the hero inside yourself

Search for the secrets you hide,

Search for the hero inside yourself

Until you find the key to your life.

No, he could not allow himself to fail. That thought was like an echo reverberating from the past, reminding him of his childhood so many years ago, a childhood wracked by uncertainty and confusion, never knowing who he really was or where his true path lay. He remembered distinctly the time around his seventh birthday. Then, as now, he had much to prove to himself.

The kahs-wan, an ancient test of strength and courage undertaken by all seven year old boys, was a rite from the ancient warrior days of Vulkhanir. The aim was to survive for ten days without food, water, or weapons in the Sas-a-shar desert, a task that required determination and steadfastness. Many, without undue shame or humiliation, did not succeed in their first attempt. However, he knew that he did not have the same latitude for failure, as did his peers. Sarek, his father, had made it palpably apparent that if Spock did not return in triumph, many Vulkhanir would brand him a coward.

Even at so young an age, he recognized that among the greatest of those detractors would be Sarek himself. Not overtly, of course. Sarek would defend his youngest son with the maximum allegiance against the most steadfast of critics, but Spock perceived his father's concealed disappointment, the private dissatisfaction with his behavior, aware of the late night discussions between his parents when they thought him asleep.

If even Sarek thought his Human genes a shortcoming, and continually found him an embarrassment, maybe the boys who ridiculed him at school were right; he was just an emotional Tehr'n and could never become a true Vulkhanir.

The First Officer stiffened at the reminiscence, his eidetic memory recalling a typical conversation between Sarek and himself as if it had taken place only a few short days ago instead of thirty-three years before. He had asked simply enough, with a child's innocence, what would happen if he did fail the kahs-wan.

"There is no need to ask that question," his father had avowed. "Thee will not disappoint me. Thee will not disappoint - thyself. Not if thy heart and spirit are Vulkhanir."

Sarek's declaration, uttered in the compelling tones applied, at that time, more often than not as cultural attaché in the service of Vulkhanir, resonated ominously in his seven-year-old mind.

It had seemed to him as a child, that the only way he could prove that he possessed the mentality and character of his father's race, without exposing himself or his family to public ridicule, was to undertake a personal ordeal ahead of the scheduled maturity rite. The outcome, whatever it might be, would then determine the course his future life took.

Dressed in a desert soft suit and boots, he had crept stealthily from the rear of the large old house where he had lived for most of his young life, without a single creak from either stair or floorboard, or door. Even M'aih, a Human early warning system if ever there was one, never heard a thing. When it came to stealth, a lematya could have learned a great deal from Spock. It was late, the house shrouded in silence, the surrounding pedestrian ways quiet and empty of movement. Nonetheless, he took care to close the night screens silently behind him, conscious of the light in the upstairs guest room where Cousin Selek presently rested. Surveying the surrounding area cautiously, he left the concealing shadows before moving out into the open.

He took a couple of steps into the wild garden and froze as a rustling sound came from the sprawling vegetation. An instant later, a large familiar shape lumbered into view - Ee-chiya, his father's pet sehlat, wheezing in the late evening air like an asthmatic old man. Shaking his head in dismay, Spock held out his hand, palm up. The elderly sehlat halted obediently at the hand signal but continued to pant and groan.

"No, Ee-chiya," he whispered when the animal showed no sign of returning to its nest in the shrubbery. "This is my own ordeal. I have to do it alone. Stay here."

For an instant, Ee-Chiya seemed to consider his young master's instruction before coming to a decision in its deliberate and patient way. As Spock headed for the garden gate, the sehlat scampered after him.

ShiKahr was a border city on the edge of the Sas-a-shar desert, a meticulously precise oasis set in the middle of an apparent wasteland aptly named Ah'hrak -- Vulcan's Forge -- surrounded by a buffer zone of lush, landscaped parkland. It was an old city, though modern in appearance, with pleasingly designed, geometric buildings; a logical municipality intended for uncompromisingly logical inhabitants.

At the city gate, Spock experienced an instant of apprehension as the automatic sentry defense systems, created primarily to keep out the fierce desert carnivores, scanned him with unseen radiation and hidden sensors. However, no challenge sounded, no tranquilizing darts phocked out at him, no phasers on stun sought to bar his passage as he walked with steady gait into the desert proper.

Before him stretched desolation, painted in shades of harsh ochre, raw umber, yellow, and brown, the sands patterned only reluctantly here and there by an infrequent sprinkling of amethyst or jade. In the distance, a range of forbidding black mountains clawed at the sky with great ragged talons of granite, basalt and gneiss. In the daytime, still some hours off, the thin atmosphere would inspire a roof of flinty orange-red but the arid land now rested under the cool succor of Vulkhanir's sister world Nevas'ashar, a glimmering copper ball hanging low in the night sky.

It was towards the Arlanga Mountains that Spock decided to head. Under the circumstances and given the task he had set himself, the forbidding peaks seemed as logical a place to demonstrate his merit as any other.

Despite his resoluteness, his unshakeable faith that the enterprise was right, there were places where the shadows took on a form and presence of their own, and sometimes Spock could not avoid those places. Going into them was a test of courage in itself. Who knew what might be lying in wait? Spock had rarely been in the desert during the hours of darkness and never alone. Despite his well- developed night sight, there was no limit to what a fertile imagination could, and did, conjure up from the darkness. Nevertheless, heart in mouth, he plodded on, relieved that Ee-chiya still trailed close upon his heels, his task uppermost in his thoughts, fearful yet determined to trudge through the Gulf of Tartarus itself if that is what it took to succeed in his self- imposed undertaking.

When the sun finally rose over the black mountains, it turned the hard-baked desert floor the color of molten lead. Rapid physical collapse was an early threat of the genuine kahs-wan. That, at least, was one test Spock no longer worried about as he strode along at an even pace. Of course, soon it would grow increasingly hot and the sun would start to pull moisture from him. Even with his Vulkhanir metabolism, he could not hope to survive such unforgiving conditions for long. For some months, mindful of that vital truth, Sarek had been instructing him on endurance techniques in readiness for the trial proper.

Spock's father had made sure he had the basic knowledge essential for survival in the Sas-a-shar, and knew all about the xerothermic plant life, the cactaceae with their waxy skins that stored water in both stems and spines -- and where to find them at need. There were dormant roots to eat, a few small, bitter fruits, as well as seeds and nuts. He could fashion a solar still given time, a crude weapon, shelter, or even protective clothing from what the desert provided. Yet, Sarek had stressed that the most important element in the kahs-wan was mental, not physical. Now, the awareness that he was alone without any other soul knowing, apart from Ee-chiya, where he was in a world parched and giddy with fiery heat, had him feeling indecisive and vulnerable. Should he continue to push on towards his goal or stop and take shelter for the day? And what of the elderly sehlat? To Ee-chiya, the mental aspect was not the most important factor.

The big animal's normal environment was the cool, high woodland of the south. Neither was the sehlat used to such extended hiking. Ee-chiya managed well enough in the deep shade of the garden at home but here, in open country, his thick fur proved a heavy burden. The rising heat was already taking its toll on the beast. Slouched on its belly in the hot sand, the animal panted from the unaccustomed exertion as it tried to catch its breath. Ee-chiya's spirit was willing but the flesh was definitely inadequate for the duty asked of it.

Alarmed by the animal's condition Spock, with hands on hips, admonished his pet, tone gentle but frustrated.

"Ee-chiya, go home. You are too old and too fat for this."

The sehlat examined the statement head tilted and ears cocked. It licked its salivating lips, swallowing the moisture, before putting its great head down on its forepaws, assuming an air of quiet dignity. Spock shook his head determinedly.

"No, Ee-chiya. That is how you get your way with A'nirih but it will not work with me. Go home."

The sehlat took no notice. It seemed quite prepared to spend the rest of its existence on that very spot. It was clear that the only way the beast would return home would be while trailing its master.

Thwarted, Spock sighed, shrugged, and lifted his shoulders in a very Human gesture of defeat. He had a great deal to accomplish before that return journey could take place. Once again, he experienced indecision. If he continued towards the mountains, the big old animal would most likely be at risk, yet he could not give up so soon on his quest. He pondered the quandary before finally making up his mind. He would continue and reassess the situation when he reached the foothills. By that time, the old beast may have decided to return of its own accord.

A light breeze off distant desert plains swept sand and twigs into a miniature dust demon, a threatening manifestation of Vulkhanir's turbulent atmosphere as he set off again at a reduced pace in deference to his pet's condition, his mind troubled by a vague sense of foreboding. Ee-chiya waited only the barest of seconds before he lurched to his feet and shuffled off after his young master.

An hour of steady walking later, the desert ended abruptly in the first rocky fortifications of the Arlanga Mountains. Spock knelt, studying the ground, picking out the recent tracks of some large animal, a lematya, probably returning to its lair among the rocks after hunting game during the night. He eyed the distinctive marks apprehensively. Built like a Terran lion but far larger, the animal, with its leathery mahogany hide, leaned more towards reptilian configuration than mammalian, as did the poison in its claws. Not something Spock wished to confront alone and weaponless.

He pushed himself to his feet, glanced at the glowering, ochreous sky, conscious of the storm that fermented in the west, the slow boil of air as one weather front met another far in the distance. He rubbed a hand across his forehead, an ache throbbing behind his eyes as the negative ions built up in the atmosphere. The slight breeze still blew but the air hung hot and heavy, almost palpable to the touch. If it caught them out in the open, the wind whipped dust would certainly flay every bit of skin and flesh from their bodies. Spock found himself ensnared by another difficult choice. If he stayed where he was or turned back, the storm would take them. If they went in search of a place to hole up, the lematya could possibly wake and attack. He took what he thought was the least dangerous option and started to climb, the morning sun exceeding his rate of assent.

In later boyhood, those self same mountains would become a refuge for him, each handhold and support known intimately, the ways of the desert animals acknowledged and understood. As it was, he might still have enjoyed the scramble were it not for his anguished state of mind as the storm front advanced. Ee-chiya continued to mope along slightly behind, his snuffling and wheezing ever more raucous.

Spock climbed slowly and carefully. The various formations of igneous rock he passed as he moved higher into the foothills took on weird shapes and strange contours, starkly beautiful, fashioned by the primeval forces of Vulkhanir itself. If he looked hard enough, he could make out beast faces in the stone, the forms of creatures long extinct.

He came to an old water course, a channel cut into the naked rock between vast stone buttresses on one of which reared the startling depiction of a rampant d'rachanya, a dragon with outstretched wings and gaping maw. Spock eyed the beast apprehensively. He had a distinct impression that it was only waiting for him to get a little nearer before it pounced. His steps became slower, shorter, stopped. He stared. His mouth was very dry and his heart throbbed against his side. Spock knew that he was being illogical but it did not help. He took a deep breath, stole with exaggerated caution beneath the outstretched neck. It stirred. Spock saw it out the corner of one eye. He turned and faced it bravely, but the d'rachanya had returned to stone. It gazed pensively down at the earth as it had done for centuries. Could it have been just a shift in the light, a shadow moving across the fiery surface of the sun? Spock did not think so. He was so frightened he even wished M'aih were there. Better still, A'nirih. It would be an excellent thing, in this haunted place to have Sarek standing foursquare next to him. Not even a living d'rachanya would take on his father without a second thought, or even two. However, M'aih was not there, A'nirih was not there. He was alone -- alone and very afraid.

His eye caught another movement. This time it was in the shadows made by an overhanging buttress of rock. He peered desperately; a pair of large luminous orbs, several feet off the ground, shone out of the gloom. Spock swallowed thickly. If it had not been for his mission, he might have run, if his trembling legs had retained the strength to carry him. However, as it was he just stood and stared, horror-struck.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and there was a sudden flash as lightning discharged into the ground. The wind had grown stronger, ruffling his hair with less than playful fingers, tugging at the loose-fitting kibr of his desert soft suit, whirling loose sand into a tiny imitation of the full size ti'valka, the impending cyclone, that had his temples thumping in reaction.

As if in reply to the booming roar of the encroaching storm, the sheltering lematya gave voice to its own strident cry, a sound like metal rubbing on metal at high speed, grating from the depths of its terrible gullet. Almost bonelessly it slithered from out of the shadows into the full light of the sun, its eyes fixed unerringly on Spock as it crouched ready to spring.

Terror returned the vigor to Spock's shaking knees as the huge animal screamed again in fury, and he backed off down the dry conduit, scrambling for safety as he tried to stay behind protective rocks, following the twists and turns of the ancient waterway. Abruptly he burst out into a broad natural amphitheater and ran for the far side, each boulder strewn upon the level ground intent on slowing his progress, every small fissure designed to catch and trip him. With a quick look over his shoulder, he jumped for an outcropping just above his head, managed to hook his fingers over the edge before clambering up. The beast followed almost leisurely, padding lightly on his back trail, its rasping breath clearly audible above the rising wind.

Spock climbed higher, spurred on by fear, hearing attuned to the mad thudding against his ribs, gulping air, conscious of the lematya at his back. The animal screamed once more, swinging at him with venomous claws. They barely missed a trailing leg, digging gouges into the stone.

Trying to melt into the rock and become one with the stone, Spock reached for the next handhold but instead found a sheer wall of shining black obsidian confronting him. It was no more than three meters high - not much of a barrier. But there was no way up it or any way around. It might as well have been three thousand.

He turned his back to the volcanic glass, awaiting the lematya's charge as he stared straight into luminous yellow eyes alight with a cruel awareness, a carnivore's knowledge that its prey could not escape. The lematya's stomach was still full with its previous kill; it had no need to eat. Yet, it was unwilling to pass up on an easy meal. It hissed, snuffled at his heaving chest with a questing nose and flicking tongue, tasting his scent before batting at him with a huge paw, the venomous talons sheathed, teasing him awhile as a cat plays with a mouse. It patted him again, and a third time, knocking him off his feet before finally tiring of the game. Spock stared in frozen horror as the beast extracted its enormous claws deciding at last to execute the fatal blow.

That blow never fell.

With a snarl of rage, an aging Ee-chiya burst out of nowhere and struck the lematya like a runaway warp drive, rolling the beast completely over on the high ledge. Yellowing old teeth made a deep double slash in the lematya's side, the sehlat no longer the cuddly, good-natured pet Spock knew so well.

Spitting and squalling, the carnivore twisted free, clawing at the sehlat. Ee-chiya darted out of the way and threw a blow with one massive paw that barely missed cracking the lematya's skull. Ee-chiya's low, rhythmic snarls boomed in counterpoint to the creature's high-pitched hysterical screams. However, the carnivore was young and Ee-chiya was old, his jaw muscles were weak, without strength to do much serious damage. The clash of the titans could not continue for long.

Spock stared anxiously at the battle raging below his perch, unable to help his pet, afraid for the animal that now fought for both their lives. Unexpectedly, the sound of running footsteps alerted him to a further presence among the rocks. The footsteps came on quickly following the route that Spock had traversed, what seemed hours ago now, and to Spock's complete surprise after a moment, his Cousin Selek, exploded abruptly into view.

The young Vulkhanir, resembling a tall, lean, adult version of Spock, seemed to immediately evaluate the situation. When the lematya rolled Ee-chiya over, preparatory to a killing strike, he ran forward and leaped quickly onto the carnivore's back.

Incensed at the sudden new weight on its shoulders, the lematya burst into frenzied anger. It jerked and twisted, trying to buck Selek off. Ee-chiya skidded back out of the way as the lematya frantically tried to deal with this unrelenting tormentor. It screamed repeatedly, spinning in circles and leaping into the air, trying to bite at the thing on its back.

Making a vice of his thighs and digging one hand into the rough, straw-like mane, Selek leaned forward along the leathery neck and felt for the certain special joining on the animal's shoulder. Powerful fingers bore down, pressed hard on the nerves there and instantly the lematya shuddered, its wild eyes closing as it sank unconscious to the ground.

Spock hurriedly descended the steep rocks as the lematya collapsed and ran to Ee-chiya. The sehlat pushed itself slowly to its feet as Spock threw his arms around the big animal's neck. The slight boy had no effect on the huge furry mass. It shook itself, long rolling oscillations that commenced at the nose and fluttered back to the short tail. It seemed that his pet was unharmed, merely out of breath.

"Ee-chiya," Spock murmured a catch in his voice. "Good boy, good old boy."

"I suggest we move away from this area before the lematya regains consciousness. I do not believe it will follow us now but it would not be wise to tempt it. The storm is also approaching rapidly. We need to find shelter." The words spoken in a calm, cool, semi- baritone, reminded Spock of Cousin Selek, forgotten in his relief at finding Ee-chiya unhurt.

"True, Cousin." He straightened, surveyed his relative with interest. "I thank thee for assisting us."

"It was only my duty, Spock," Cousin Selek replied with a slight hint of reproof.

"Mother says thee should always say 'thee is welcome.'"

Selek paused as if caught off guard and there was a moment's awkward silence before he replied. "The lady Amanda is noted for her graciousness."

"Does thee suppose I'll ever be able to do that neck pinch as well as thee, Cousin?" Spock asked as they moved away together, glancing back at the threatening shape of the lematya still unconscious on the ground.

"No doubt thee will," admitted Selek somewhat dryly. "Come now, let us leave this place."

Selek led them quickly away from the area, circling the far curve of the amphitheater, heading further into the mountains where the cover would protect them from the encroaching storm front. He appeared to know the area well which rather surprised Spock. Selek was, after all, a stranger to ShiKahr, only passing through on his pilgrimage to the family shrine at Dycoon to honor the ancestors their families had in common. The Vulkhanir peered up at the slope above them, seeking something. Spock followed his gaze. A peculiar formation caught his eye; several large boulders tumbled together, with a narrow dark opening just visible between them.

"We shall take shelter under those rocks until the storm passes by."

However, the hole proved to be a genuine cave and, although the entrance was low, inside the roof was high enough to permit Selek to stand comfortably erect. The walls were rough and pitted and the floor sloped. It was also far from spacious and Ee-chiya took up most of the available room, lowering his bulky body to the ground in relief as he stretched out in the sudden cool, head on paws.

"Thee followed me. Why?" Spock asked of his cousin at last. He had to raise his voice above the shriek of the wind and the rumble of thunder, now directly overhead.

Selek paused, glancing at the brazen, brassy skies from the entrance before making his reply. "I suspected thee might attempt something of this sort. I sensed thy worry about the kahs-wan. Such an expedition seemed a very natural gesture."

Spock nodded, his dark brows drawn together. "I had to see if I could do it. I cannot fail."

"That is thy father's desire?" Selek turned from the entrance of the tiny cavern and hunkered down beside Spock, haunches on heels, long fingered hands clasped loosely in his lap.

Spock, sitting with his back to the rocky wall, arms hugging his upraised knees, considered his words carefully.

"It is. My mother's also. They -- confuse me, sometimes. A'nirih wants me to do things his way, the Vulkhanir Way. When I ask her, M'aih says that I should but then she goes and--" He stopped and looked away from Selek, suddenly made self-conscious by what he had started to confess. However, his cousin seemed to understand.

"The lady Amanda is a Human woman with strong emotions and sensitivities. She makes thee uncomfortable when she displays those traits. Thee is also afraid when thee sees them in thyself because of what thy father wants for thee."

"How -- did thee know?" Spock asked, looking at Selek in quiet wonder.

"What thee does not yet fully understand is that Vulkhanir do not lack emotion, Spock," his cousin explained. "This is an all too common misconception - amongst many Vulkhanir as well as other species. It is merely that we practice arie'mnu, mastery of passion and emotion. This adherence to principles of logic offers a serenity that others - excepting certain theological and philosophical orders - rarely experience in full."

Selek bent, picked up a pebble, and examined it closely before continuing in a calm and serene way. "We all have emotions and feelings so there is nothing of which to be ashamed. It is as natural as having a sense of touch, or sight. However, we deal firmly with them and do not let them control us. Nor are Humans, like thy mother, wholly ruled by their emotional responses. Instead they must walk an uneasy, nerve-wracking, tight-rope between the Vulkhanir principles of logic and reason and their own disruptive reactions."

Spock nodded, his brow furrowed in profound concentration, the habitual, cold tightness inside him unfolding a little as he considered the foreign, adult thoughts stimulated by Selek's words. He had heard the same turn of phrase from Sarek on numerous occasions, but from this man, this strange cousin who had saved his life, they had the ring of personal experience, an understanding and truth that he could not deny. He reached out and idly stroked Ee-chiya's massive head, ruffling the warm fur behind an ear. The huge sehlat whuffed deep in its throat, before opening its eyes to look at Spock in absolute trust -- and in consideration of the tall stranger who so closely resembled his young master. The stumpy tail thumped once and then again before he relaxed back into sleep sighing contentedly.

"A'nirih says the Vulkhanir Way has much to recommend it."

"Indeed," Cousin Selek agreed. "There is no crime here and wars have not been fought in many thousands of years. We practice a regime of unlimited diversity in never-ending combinations. It is a good way but requires dedication."

He placed a hand on Spock's shoulder. "Thee made the desert crossing most efficiently, Spock, and moreover, at night. I believe thee will not fail thy father in the kahs-wan."


"Beyond doubt. Have confidence that the universe unfolds as it should - and also thy place within it."

Wise words from an intelligent and perceptive man.

Spock's hesitant footsteps paused as he remembered the past, the boy he had once been. He had never seen Selek again after they returned safely home to ShiKahr, though he had wished to, many times. Nor did any member of his immediate family. It was as if his cousin had disappeared into thin air. However, that one chance meeting had transformed the direction of his life thereafter. It was because of Selek, not Sarek, that he was who he had become.

Chapter 8

If you think the world owes you a ride,

You'll never find the reason why

Stand on your own two feet

Because can't you see

If we are to stay alive

Only the strong survive.

The hollow amplification of his tread alerted the First Officer to the fact that he had reached an intersecting corridor. The coolness on his cheek confirmed it and he turned left automatically, confident with the choice. He followed the hallway, counting doors until he reached his own, inestimably thankful when the access sensor recognized him and the sliding panel whooshed open.

Spock blinked, manifestly aware of the heat in his injured wrist, and the deep, penetrating ache in his lower back, but the pounding behind his eyes occupied him the most as jagged light flashed across his field of view. He shuddered as that strange, inexplicable sensation resounded within his skull again.

Spock! Set me free. It spoke in pain, eerie, wild, and urgent. SPOCK!

Lifting his head, he forced himself to focus, concentrating on the thin thread of consciousness, brow furrowed, trying to ignore with only limited success the various aches and pains throbbing through him.

"Captain?" he whispered, recognizing the voice at last, a little short of breath, finding it difficult to keep the strain out of his voice, as wisps of thought not his own, flickered through his mind. "Jim? Where are you?"

He blundered into the room, clung to the back of a chair, his senses swimming, tremors shaking him from deep within. In the mental impressions revolving about him, a surge of fear, amorphous and undefined, choked off his breath. Kirk's perception, not his own, he realized. Awareness followed of being poised on the edge of a darkness that seemed featureless and without limit, an unquiet place, where some unseen thing watched and waited amidst roiling vaporous mist.

A loud thudding reached his ears through the disorientation and the pain, jerking him out of the delusion, if delusion it was. Startled, Spock realized it was someone banging on the door and not just the blood hammering through his temples.

"Spock, darn it, are you in there?" The thumping resumed. "Spock!"

Stumbling, the First Officer retraced his steps to the door and released the lock.

Immediately, McCoy rounded on him in a rage, pushing roughly past the threshold and into the room.

"Doctor, it is late. What do you want now?"

"Where the goddamned hell have you been, Spock? It should have taken fifteen minutes, tops, to reach your room. You've been missing for nearly an hour and a half. I've practically ransacked this hotel trying to locate you--"

"Doctor, please. Contain yourself." With leaden resignation, the Vulcan walked unsteadily over to the sleeping dais and sank down upon it, his good hand raised to his aching brow, eyes closed as if to shut out McCoy's tirade, wanting desperately to give in to the fatigue that pulled at him, to sleep away the day's emotional and physical strain.

McCoy paused, belatedly registering the heavy lines of pain etched between Spock's brows, the distant expression on the First Officer's sallow face, the way he favored one wrist held rigidly against his chest. "What's wrong with your hand? Not another miscalculation by any chance?"

Spock's eyes appeared to focus as McCoy joined him by the bed. "I -- slipped, Doctor. I believe my wrist may be broken."

"Well, thank you for your diagnosis yet again, Doctor Spock. You make it sound so easy," McCoy murmured dryly. "C'mon, let me take a look."

Obediently enough, Spock held out the injured hand and allowed McCoy to run his diagnostic sensor over it. The limb had swollen to twice normal size, the flesh discolored and turning a deep shade of olive green around the joint.

"The wrist's fractured and you've sprained the thumb according to the feinburger. I'm gonna have to cut your jacket sleeve to get it over the swelling. Anything else you want to report about this 'slip' of yours while we're about it?"

"I -- struck my spinal column, below the sacrum."

"Uh-huh. Better take a look." He split the jacket seam from cuff to shoulder and helped the Vulcan strip off the rest of his clothing before stretching him out on his stomach. "Did you hit your head at all?"

"No, I think not." Spock frowned, voice dull with weariness, pressing the knuckles of his right hand to his temple. "However, I am -- experiencing -- some discomfort there--"

McCoy guessed that the First Officer's 'discomfort' would be any body else's total agony. "The Koreoretnal condition? I'll give you a broad-spectrum painkiller. Should do the trick."

A hypo discharged against Spock's upper arm. The relief was immediate and profound. Tension flowed out of the First Officer like sand out of an upturned bottle, leaving him limp and enervated. McCoy's fingers were cool, almost imperceptible upon his wounded lower back as they gently probed the bruised flesh and he sighed deeply, wanting only the escape of sleep, his eyelids so heavy he could hardly keep them open; yet a wayward thought intruded into the drug induced respite. The memory of Kirk's voice crying out in despair reverberated in his mind. Half asleep, his voice distorted by fatigue he asked a tentative question.

"Doctor, are you aware of the Captain's locality?"

"Jim?" McCoy's voice sounded sardonic, openly envious. "By now, he'll be tucked up as snug as a bug in a rug, Mr. Spock."

Spock blinked, finding the reference somewhat hard to pin down. Despite his drowsiness, he stirred beneath McCoy's ministering hands. "I -- do not comprehend your meaning, Doctor McCoy."

"He's found company for the evening, Spock. Female company."

The significance of the doctor's statement finally penetrated his hazy thought processes. "You are implying he is engaged in sexual congress--"

"Don't mince words, why don't you, Spock?" McCoy shook his head, sighed at the First Officer's lack of tact. "You know as well as I do, how antsy he gets at times like these. There was a girl at dinner, sitting further down the table. It would have been hard to miss the chemistry between them." He paused. "What made you ask?"

The First Officer frowned, hesitant and unusually cautious. "I thought I heard him call to me. He sounded forlorn, quite bewildered, as if he was unsure of what was happening to him. He asked that I -- set him free. I believe he may be in some kind of danger."

McCoy's fingers stilled before continuing his examination. "Uh-huh. And this happened before or after your slip?"

"You consider the experience a symptom of my accident."

"I think you're under considerable strain."

"I see." The fingers of his uninjured hand clenched abruptly, the knuckles yellowing. "It is your -- medical opinion -- that the occurrence was an hallucination."

"As I said, you've had a pretty traumatic time in the last four months. You need to rest, Spock," McCoy responded carefully. "At least you'll be glad to hear your spinal column's still intact. It'll be painful for a day or two, is all."

Bones tapped him lightly on the shoulder, falsely hearty. "My treatment's a quick shower before I brace that hand, then bed. I guarantee you'll feel better in the morning. Now, what do you prefer water or sonics?"

The thought of water on his skin had Spock repressing a shudder in distaste. McCoy saw the look and grinned. "Sonics it is. C'mon, if you'll excuse the pun, I'll give you a hand."

He helped the Vulcan sit up, supported him as he got on his feet and steered him into the large, well appointed, clensor. McCoy authorized only a basic five minutes under the restorative pummeling before pulling the plug and leading him back to the bed. Spock allowed the Chief Surgeon to ease him down onto the low platform with the solemnity of an imperial prince. Almost asleep by the time McCoy had finished programming the automated splint, the First Officer roused when the doctor rummaged quietly in his medical pouch.

"Doctor -- ?" He turned drowsily towards the tiny sounds of movement.

"I'm still here, Spock."

"Before you depart, I would ask one more service."


"Call the Captain."

"Spock, it's two o'clock in the morning. He's not gonna thank me for disturbing him at this hour."

Spock recalled the voice he had heard, the vibrating cry echoing through his mind, the shock at that summoning like an earthquake trembling violently beneath his feet. "If it eases the situation, you may hold me responsible for the -- interruption. Please humor me in this, Doctor McCoy. If it was merely a delusion, the Captain will understand the inconvenience."

McCoy rubbed a thumb across his bottom lip in thought. He nodded, "Yeah, I guess he would."

Without further hesitation, he leaned forward and pressed another hypo to the Vulcan's bare shoulder. Spock stiffened as the medication discharged, sightless eyes widening, gasping in indignation at the subterfuge. "Doctor, your medical ethics are des -- des -- picable--"

"So, report me to the Surgeon General's Office next time you're down that way." McCoy murmured deprecatingly as Spock's eyes closed and his head fell back with a soft thunk on the pillow.

The doctor hauled a chair up beside the bed, dragged off his boots and tugged off his formal jacket before settling back with a sigh into the overstuffed support, plunking his stockinged feet on the edge of the sleeping platform, his thoughts occupied for an instant with an image of his own comfortable quarters two doors down.

Since his time as an intern, McCoy like many a doctor before him, had acquired the knack of sleeping whenever time and current duties permitted. Now he catnapped, a part of him still attuned to Spock's soft breathing, like a new mother receptive to the needs of her child, his thoughts concerned as he considered this latest, worrying trend in the First Officer's condition. Hallucinations were a symptom of the disease, McCoy knew, the way in which the intellect tried to compensate for the sudden lack of sight, the absence of the usual sensory data, but Spock's remarkable brain, damaged during that harrowing beam down, had apparently offset the deficiency in a way that McCoy had not foreseen. He had never heard of a case where the delusions took an auditory form. Time would tell whether the state was temporary or not. Meanwhile, he was taking no chances of the First Officer wandering off on his own again during the night.

The doctor shifted restlessly in the chair, rubbed at his face, tugged at the neck of his undershirt before settling again.

God it's hot in here. How does Spock stand it? I feel like I'm being cooked alive. Roasting over a fire like a chicken on a spit. Chicken, yeah. How come, Ryhanen knew that was my favorite meal? Just like Ma used to make it. Almost. Nobody could cook like Ma. The wine was good, too. Too good to be true. Mistwine. Strange, I don't feel intoxicated, more like stimulated! Wonder if that Vulcan vegetable curry doodad and carroty loaf was Spock's ideal dish? He certainly tucked into it fast enough. I know that Jim got what he liked best. Yeah. And we aren't talking food here. Definitely. Could Spock be right? Maybe he's not hallucinating. Sounded pretty unsure of himself, though. That's not like Spock. Never, usually says anythin' till he's certain of his facts. This illness has him knocked for six. Is Jim in danger? I'd sooner trust Spock than most anybody else, even if he is delusional. Nah, no way, he's tucked up between the sheets with that young chit of a girl not five hundred yards away. Lucky bastard. A might pale and colorless for my tastes, though. All that silver hair and translucent ivory skin. Snow White has nothin' on her. Remarkable eyes, though. Like staring into a black hole up close. And probably just as dangerous. If Spock said the world was square, would I believe it? Jim's no fool. He can take care of himself. Can't he? Spock will never forgive me for knocking him out like that. Tricky. He'll get his own back, some way that's for sure. Should I have checked? Be on the safe side. Do it now, McCoy while you can. Call the ship. Yeah. Do it --

McCoy inhaled deeply, his eyelids quivering, fingers tightening on the arms of the chair for an instant before relaxing again. He mumbled something unintelligible flicking his tongue over dry lips. After a moment, a soft snore escaped him as he descended further into sleep. And behind his eyes, a strange dream played itself out.

Chapter 9

You've done me wrong your time is up

You took a sip from the Devil's cup.

This time you've gone too far

Who do you think you are?

The vaporous fog surrounded him, sliding and swirling, hiding everything in any direction more than just a few feet away; even his boots were lost in the mist carpet below. He had the impression that it was mocking him, rolling back one minute, leaving him standing alone in a clear pocket within a thick wall of cloud, and the next instant - for no apparent reason - closing in so that he could not see at all. He had blundered into more than one tree when that happened. At his touch, the pale and ghostly plant life swayed gently away, trembling in a non-existent wind as if trying to escape the contact.

The scene was like something out of a fantastical, lucid dream, awash with psychological omens. It was at that point, he realized that he was in fact asleep, that while he appeared to be wandering in the forest, his body lay in the chair back in the First Officer's room at Ryhanen's Folly. However, whether real or a figment of his imagination, the scene had validity, a strength and rightness that he could not question. He knew this place, knew its power, though his waking persona had never set foot there.

He stared around at the fog-bound landscape. Here and there across the land, faint lights, like the shadow of ghosts, drifted between the twisted trees. Spock, an indistinct shape just ahead, strode as if unaware of anything about him, his step self assured and deliberate, cutting a swathe through the fog that parted before him and closed in behind. The Vulcan was heading for the tower.

Thought of that dark, haunted place deep within the forest, and what might be waiting there, had his heart racing and his palms damp with sweat. He wanted to call out, attract the Vulcan's attention, warn him of the danger, but the impulse was cut short by the abrupt awareness that they were no longer alone. He stopped, turned, and searched the shadow patterns in the mist, responsive to that third presence, knowing it watched and waited, for what purpose he could not be entirely sure--

McCoy came awake with a start, his heart still rocketing as he sat up in the chair, his forehead beaded with sweat. Well and truly spooked, he paused, head in hands, his mouth desiccated and his temples on fire. Belatedly, he remembered the brandy he had consumed the night before - and the native wine. What had Ryhanen called it? Yeah, mist wine that was it; certainly packed a punch, if his throbbing head was anything to go by. With a mighty effort he struggled to his feet, supporting himself with a hand on the back of the chair as the room swayed nauseatingly around him. He regained enough poise after a few seconds, to totter over to Spock who apparently had not changed position at all during the time McCoy had slept. The Vulcan was lying flat out on his back, his head supported by the hard pillow.

The First Officer's eyes jerked rapidly from side to side beneath half open lids, his breathing fast and uneven as he muttered something incoherent. McCoy reached for his diagnostic sensor, ran it over the First Officer's prone form, found the readings within normal parameters for Spock. The Vulcan, still under the influence of the soporific from the night before was dreaming and far from pleasantly by all the signs. As McCoy moved Spock's hand to reset the brace, the First Officer's lean body abruptly tautened and he called out, his voice hoarse, rasping with anxiety.


The suspicion suddenly occurred to McCoy that Spock wandered in Wraith's mist-laden forest as he had done only moments before, that somehow they shared the same dream experience. He shivered, recalling the clammy web-like tendrils wrapping him about as the wispy strands explored the flesh on his face and hands, the memory of the mysterious tower, and its anonymous tenant, the sense of walking into danger. However, while he had managed to escape the nightmare by waking up, Spock was still enmeshed in the frightening scenario playing itself out within his troubled mind.

The neurological damage the Vulcan had suffered, while only slight, coupled with the drugs that McCoy had administered, could have lowered the First Officer's ability to shield his mind, allowing the chief surgeon access to Spock's dream. That would explain his own lack of control, the feeling that he was just an observer watching events as they played themselves out. The dream was ripe with symbolic anxiety; Spock's apparent ability to see through the mist, his anxious search for Jim who he thought was in some kind of jeopardy, heading towards that infernal tower where that shadowy presence waited.

The idea appeared absurd, but weirder things had happened to McCoy during his long career and Spock after all was a touch telepath. The Vulcan had always down played the skill, only using it when there was no other choice. Could there be more to it than Spock had made out? Before he could think about it too much, the doctor knelt by the First Officer's bedside. While he had watched Spock initiate a mind meld several times before, he had no real idea where on the Vulcan's face to place his own fingers or even if it was necessary. The action appeared, as far as he knew, just an aid to concentration, nothing more. Instead, he pressed a couple of fingers to the First Officer's pulse hammering madly in his throat, and called softly to him.

"Spock. Spock can you hear me?"

The reaction was immediate. The pulse beneath McCoy's fingers jumped erratically as Spock's breathing faltered.

"Captain? Is that you? Jim, where are you?" The First Officer's voice was indistinct, muffled by the pillow.

"No, Spock, it's not Jim. It's me, McCoy. Jim's safe. He's not in the tower. He's at Ryhanen's Folly." McCoy worried at his lower lip, hoping that last was true. "Come back to the Castle, Spock."

"Jim…" The Vulcan exhaled heavily in what appeared to McCoy like relief, eyelids fluttering, raising the uninjured hand to shadow sightless eyes, his long musician's fingers curled loosely in relaxation. McCoy continued to watch as Spock's breathing quickened for a moment, then steadied, becoming slow and even as he eased into a light, natural sleep. The Chief Surgeon sighed in satisfaction before he pushed himself up onto his feet, picked his communicator up off the nightstand, and staggered over to the clensor. According to Ryhanen, it was something of a tradition on Sassandran, to gather on the dining balcony each mistfall and mistrise to watch the timeless battle between Wraith's elemental powers of sun and cloud, a spectacular display that few missed. It was an hour before daylight. Enough time to call the ship, shower, and grab a quick coffee, before he put in an appearance.

McCoy rubbed his gritty eyes with the heels of both hands, forsaking a look in the mirror at his no doubt shambolic appearance. He ran some water into a glass and gulped down a couple of alcotox to counteract the wine he had imbibed the evening before. Only moments later, the pounding in his temples lessened and the feeling of having spent the night in a waste disposal outlet started to dissipate. He coughed, blinked the rest of the sleep out of his eyes, and flicked open the communicator.

"Doctor McCoy to Mr. Scott."

"Scott here. Good mornin', Doctor. I didnae expect a call quite so early after Mr. Ryhanen's little shindy last evenin'. How's Mr. Spock? Recovered, I hope."

"He's … still not too well, Scotty." McCoy cleared his throat, unwilling to lie outright to the Chief Engineer; uneasy with the deception he and Jim practiced at Spock's request.

"Oh. I'm verra sorry t'hear that, Doctor McCoy. If ye wish tae beam back up the transporter's workin' fine."

McCoy had considered doing just that but he wanted to keep an eye on the First Officer now more than ever, and Spock would be no better off on the ship. Nor did he trust that darn machine to get them back all in one piece. "You've figured out what happened to cause the malfunction."

Scott's voice assumed a cautious quality. "I wouldnae say that, exactly. The problem shouldnae hae happened in the first place. There's somethin' I'm missin' an' that's for sure. Still, there's nae need for the slightest qualm in usin' yon mechanism--"

"Uh, I'll pass for the moment, Scotty. Something shorted out Spock's senceiver implant. Until I know what it was I'd sooner not chance it happening again."

"Aye, I can sympathize wi' that. I'll continue wi' my investigations an' see what I can come up wi'."

"Good idea. Uh, Scotty -- I called to ask a favor--"

"Aye, Doctor, an' what would that be?"

McCoy hesitated. There was no good way in which to couch his query. He licked his lips, pressed on quickly, feeling the blood rush into his cheeks. "Ah, I wondered if you could do a sensor sweep for Jim, just to check if he's anywhere nearby."

Scott's low chuckle came as a surprise. "Ye noticed his interest in yon wee lassie last evening, did ye not, Doctor?"

McCoy exhaled in relief as he realized the Chief Engineer was on the same wavelength. "Yeah, Scotty. I just don't want to disturb him if he's -- occupied."

"Aye, I get ye drift. Will ye be hangin' on while I check?"

"Uh, I'll hang on. Scotty, while you're at it, would you send down some fresh uniforms, one for each of us? If I have to spend another day strangled by the collar of this dress jacket my neck will never be the same again."

"Consider it done, Doctor."

McCoy emerged from the clensor, twenty minutes later, feeling Human at least if not exactly bright eyed and bushy tailed. As promised, Scotty had beamed down the clean uniforms along with depilatory cream and a selection of toiletries. He had also confirmed that Jim Kirk was, as McCoy had suspected all along, in his hotel room. What's more, he was awake and alone. A quick call had brought the captain up to speed on what had happened the previous evening and the developments in his First Officer's condition.

Spock, who overall, had the constitution of a rock, had awoken and sat on the edge of the sleeping platform, looking decidedly groggy, eyes shut, swaying slightly, his face a bloodless mask.

"So, you're up at last," McCoy muttered, hiding his disquiet behind the usual irascible façade. Nothing, in McCoy's previous experience, had floored the Vulcan for long, whether it was an old style bullet in the back, some uncanny jellyfish creature sending him crazy with pain, or even raging hormones.

"You don't look too good. In fact, you look like death warmed up. Bad dreams, huh?"

Spock recoiled sharply, unaware apparently, of McCoy's presence until the doctor had spoken. He turned his head, lips compressed in conspicuous frustration at finding the doctor in attendance once more. "No, Doctor McCoy. More a result of the deleterious concoction you forced upon me against my will. Reassure me that you have not spent the whole night by my bedside."

"Now that's a tomfool notion," the Chief Surgeon murmured, sheepish with embarrassment. A light knock sounded on the door saving him from further discomfiture. With a meaningful look at Spock, he strode across the room to answer it. "That'll be Jim. Shall I tell him you can't see him?"

It was a low blow and he knew it, but being mean to Spock was a habit he found hard to break, especially when his conscience bothered him. The caller was indeed Captain Kirk, dressed in the informal wrap around shirt and black uniform trousers that Scotty had delivered at McCoy's request, via transporter, to the Captain's hotel room. He looked, to McCoy's jaundiced eye, particularly self-satisfied, bumptious almost, more relaxed than he had been in weeks, with a certain glint in his eyes and a glow in his cheeks that told of recent, enjoyable exercise, the kind that Kirk enjoyed the most. He smiled beatifically at McCoy as he leaned nonchalantly against the doorframe.

"How's the patient, Bones? Woken up, yet? I hope you knocked him on his ass for scaring you so much last night. I should send him back to the Enterprise with his tail between his--"

The sound of unexpected movement from behind McCoy made them both abruptly shift their attention towards the inner room. Spock had risen hastily to his feet at the sound of Kirk's voice. As they watched, he took a hurried step in the direction of the door, running full tilt into the chair McCoy had pulled up beside the bed the night before.

"What in damnation --?" McCoy ground out, as the First Officer stumbled back, colliding with the low table nearby and sending the large, modern crystal sculpture that stood upon its surface crashing to the floor. It smashed on impact, littering the nearby thick rug with sharp edged pieces.

"Spock! Stop!" McCoy roared in agitation.

The Vulcan's face had turned yellowish-grey, shining with a thin patina of sweat. His sightless eyes jerked from side to side, an animal at bay, as he swayed drunkenly on his feet. At McCoy's shout, he faltered, apparently totally bemused at what had happened.

Without hesitation, Kirk dashed past McCoy and across the room. He caught the Vulcan by the shoulders, forcefully preventing him from trampling through the broken glass and ripping his bare feet to shreds. Gently but firmly, Kirk overcame the Vulcan's definite resistance as he steered, pushed and maneuvered the First Officer clear of the danger. He continued to hold Spock by the upper arms against the wall as the Vulcan breathed shallowly in irregular gasps, lips compressed together to prevent them quivering, the skin across his cheekbones stretched taut and thin, trying in vain to regain some sort of composure.

"What in green blooded blazes are you trying to do, Spock?" McCoy demanded harshly.

Spock continued to struggle for breath as fresh shudders ran through him.

Kirk said into the silence, "I think he needs the clensor, Bones. Urgently."

"Uh-oh. Gonna be sick, huh? Wondered why your face was so green! Could be the sedatives I gave him last night, Jim. A few of our more widely used soporifics make some Vulcanoids a might queasy. C'mon, quick, let's get him inside before he pukes all over my boots."

The Vulcan retched into the streamlined bowl of the fresher, praying on his knees to a ceramic god of which he had little previous experience, his lean form shaken by spasm after spasm as his body fought to purge itself of the alien contaminates. Kirk, hunkered down on the clensor floor beside his dejected First Officer, supported Spock's head with a hand across his brow, the other imperceptibly touching his shoulder in unspoken fellow feeling.

McCoy, his own gorge rising in sympathy, swept the feinburger's remote sensor over the First Officer but as he had guessed, this new symptom seemed a direct result of Spock's intolerance to the sedatives he had administered and not another perturbing condition associated with the neural damage or the Koreoretnal syndrome. At Kirk's troubled glance, he shook his head, nibbling at his bottom lip.

"He'll be okay, Jim. Just needs to rest."

Spock's shoulder muscles constricted beneath Kirk's fingers, his voice abrasive, rasping with effort. "Doctor, I do not -- wish to -- remain here -- any further. Please, have me beamed -- back to the ship."

Kirk coughed discreetly, still kneeling at Spock's side, his arm lightly enfolding the Vulcan's back. "Bones, why don't you go see to that broken glass out there. I'll take care of Spock. We'll get together over breakfast. He may feel differently after he hears my news."

McCoy frowned, looking down at them both, perplexed by the abrupt tension he could feel between the two men. Something was happening here, he could tell, but neither of them was letting him in on it. The spasms shaking the First Officer came intermittently now, the worst of the sickness over. It was safe to leave him in Kirk's hands.

Jim had told McCoy that morning, of the conversation with Ryhanen after dinner the evening before. The Dha'kaht'chun had agreed to examine Spock to see if he could do anything to assist the Vulcan. While McCoy was as anxious as Kirk to find a treatment for the Koreoretnal syndrome, he could not help feeling a little peeved that Jim had gone over his head. Now, he felt unable to refrain from a testy parting shot. He cleared his throat in grouchy disapproval. "Okay, I can take a hint, Jim. I know when I'm not wanted."

He stomped out, leaving Kirk and Spock alone in the clensor. As soon as the door whooshed shut behind the doctor's retreating back, Spock scooted from beneath Kirk's embrace to flatten his spine against the nearest wall, knees bent in a defensive crouch. He stared apprehensively in the general direction of Kirk.

"Who are you?" he asked his normally emotionless voice less than dispassionate, retaining a faint huskiness from the affect of his recent nausea. "What have you done with my Captain? Where is James Kirk?"

Chapter 10

Oh, no I see a spider web

And I'm caught in the middle

A spider is tangled up with me.

It spins a web,

It spins a web for me--

The voice, when it answered, was suave, warmly compassionate, the steely determination, which was the other side of Kirk's personality, adroitly concealed.

"Spock," it chided in tender reproach, a soft murmur in the breathing quiet of the room. "Spock, your illness has you confused. It's the syndrome. You're hallucinating."

Spock stood perfectly still, pressed hard against the clensor wall, the tiled surface cool against the naked flesh of his back and flanks, imparting its own reality. Head tilted and ears straining, he tried in vain to place the location of that compelling voice but it was as elusive as the mist that shrouded the Wraith world.

"You are not my Captain," he stated unequivocally, heart tripping against his ribs, mouth dry, repressing a shudder of unease as he recalled the sensation of wrongness from the hand that only moments before had soothed his brow, the fingers that had touched his shoulder in apparent solicitous concern. He had mind melded with the Captain of the Enterprise on more than one occasion, knew the tenor of Kirk's thoughts almost as well as his own. No, delusional or not, he had no doubt, whoever or whatever shared the room with him, it was not James Kirk; Spock would stake his life on that.

"There's an easy way to convince you," the Kirk voice cajoled a whisper of sound, strangely charismatic and alluring. "Join with me, Spokhq. Let me show you who I really am."

A touch, light as cobweb, unexpectedly brushed the skin of his brow and cheek, along his jaw, a slight, almost indiscernible awareness. It left Spock with the acute impression of spider feet scuttling over his flesh. At the same instant, a barrage of aromas assaulted his nostrils; sharply acrid and alien, scents of moist earth, strange flora, the musty smell of mold and decomposition. The air in the room turned bitter, a damp cold that seeped into his muscles and joints. Spock's skin erupted into gooseflesh as he tensed in sudden trepidation.

He shrank back against the wall, his whole body tautening, parrying that eerie, offending touch with an upraised arm, only to feel his wrist gripped by a force far stronger than Jim Kirk could generate, one that even his own Vulkhanir strength was unable to combat.

Strong, fleshless fingertips pressed more firmly against his cheek, searching out the distinctive contact sites along the arch of his zygomatic bone and right temple, extending the length of his chin, the strength of it pushing the back of his head against the wall behind him so that he could not struggle.

"Meld with me," the Kirk voice vibrated, less gentle, in keeping with the power of the skeletal digits pressing against his face. "You know it's what you want to do, Spokhq. I know how lonely you are. I'm lonely too."

"You are not -- not Kirk," he protested, forcing his breath to slow and his heart to stop its mad pounding, seeking the calm, still center within, marshaling his defenses.

"Aren't I?" Once more, it was a perfect imitation of his Captain, the soft voice concerned, worried by his stubbornness. "Bones knows who I am. Shall I call him in here? Scotty will confirm my identity if you don't believe McCoy. Has it crossed your mind that it could be you out of step and not us, Spokhq? You're sick. The first stage to getting better is to admit you're wrong. Let me help. Meld with me."

"No," he declared, swallowing thickly, his spine damp with sweat, neck prickling. Yet, that quiet voice so like that of his Captain, his dear friend of many years, ate into his conviction, his confidence that he was right.

Could I be incorrect? Am I hallucinating? McCoy saw nothing amiss. He did not raise the alarm when face-to-face with this-- whatever it is. Am I the only one who senses the difference? Who between us is the most blind?

He felt his resolve crumble as his misgivings surfaced, finding it hard to withstand the insidious onslaught pushing for access at the gates of his mind. He inhaled sharply, restraining the tremors that threatened to overwhelm him, his face waxen, the pale skin slicked with sweat, a testament to the pressure he endured, the invisible battle he waged.

As if discerning his uncertainty, the creature relaxed the tritanium steel band around his wrist and let the hand fall free. There was the sudden warmth of breath on his cheek; the impression of some thing standing before him just inches away, close and yet curiously without substance. However, the swift, staccato, quiver of probing fingertips along his jaw continued to remind him of an arachnid, multi-legged, ghostly pale, crawling over his face. Spock jerked his head back, bumping it sharply against the tiled wall behind him as the sensation moved to his throat, before slipping down to track along his breastbone, leaving behind the sense of spider webs clinging to his skin, binding him with silken thread.

He gasped at the feeling, "What are -- you doing?"

"You know what action McCoy will take if he thinks you've lost your mind. He'll sedate you and confine you to the ship. Do you want that, Spokhq?" The husky timbre of that voice raised the fine, sleek hairs at the nape of Spock's neck. The skin crawled on his face, his chest, and down his back even as the faint musk of Kirk's preferred aftershave teased his nostrils. Kirk's breath warmed his cheek, the beat of Kirk's heart thudded in his ears, a counterbalance to his own thumping pulses.

Is it or is it not? Would the Captain ask this of me? Certainly, that voice spoke the truth about McCoy's reaction should Spock declare his suspicions.

The fragrance of Kirk's skin wafted to him again, acting like a catalyst, startling him into an awareness of the proximity of the impostor, the intense maleness it was exuding, and had to combat the sudden, unlooked for arousal.

"You're my friend, Spokhq. Can you really believe I'd want to hurt you?"

"You are not Jim." He shivered as that spider touch pattered lightly down both his arms, across his open palms, subtle but deliberate, enough to send ripples of sensation through him.

As if the Kirk creature had gained an understanding of Spock from that one, brief reaction, the tender assault on his body stopped for an instant. Instead, it plucked at the brace that still encircled his left wrist in gentle examination.

"No?" Kirk's voice murmured beside his ear. "If not Jimh, who else?"

The prickling massage transformed, donned cool Human flesh, and became Kirk's hands, the short, strong fingers adept and capable. Spock's concentration narrowed dangerously when those hands covered his, palm to palm. The touch sent a jolt of electricity surging through him, an ecstasy of pleasure, which set the blood pounding through his veins in a heavy surge. Without his willing it, images drifted through his mind, Kirk's handsome face, the twinkling eyes and soft mouth, his compact body, the way his muscles corded in thigh and shoulder during their martial arts sessions --

"Join with me. Don't pretend you don't want to. I know how you really feel, Spokhq. I know what you want. You can't hide the truth from me."

The previous, light contact became a sensuous caress, stroking the tautness of Spock's flat stomach and the length of his straining thighs, stirring the flesh there into tumescence, feelings the Vulcan had believed he could never experience outside the mating urge that tormented all Vulkhanir adult males approximately every seven years.

Gossamer thrills encompassed his lower back and buttocks, there and then not there, teasing the specialized glands that lay just beneath the skin. Spider's silk swept over his knees, down his calves to his feet, as if encompassing every inch of his slender body. The chill dampness evaporated and heat flared within him, blazing along his nerve cells and synapses. His head spun, emotions raging in riotous conflict, elemental and primeval, ancient sensations that threatened his sanity.

Spock struggled against that familiarity, eyes screwed shut, his face stiffening into a rigid mask, a distressed moan dragged from his constricted throat as he twisted his head aside in denial. "Do not do -- this. I -- cannot--" He listened to his own ragged breathing, the hoarse urgent sound of it as the relentless touch continued, realizing numbly that in some appalling, terrible way, the Kirk creature had unearthed his shameful unspoken truth.

He had spent his whole life living up to Vulkhanir ideals, enduring the slights and the subtle bigotry of his father's race, aware of their distrust of him, the belief that he was not, and never could be, a true Vulcan. That awareness had given him the strength to make one choice of his own against his father's staunchest wishes - Starfleet instead of the Vulcan Academy. Sarek had disowned him, left him to find his own way, and in that seeking to become whole, to unify the diverse natures of his Human and Vulcan halves, he had eventually found James Kirk. It was the one truly miraculous thing to happen in all the years of his life. Kirk meant more to him than he had ever openly admitted, either to himself or to anyone else. His true regard for his Captain had remained his secret and if he wanted something more profound than the simple friendship Jim Kirk offered, he had buried that desire deep within his soul.

The mind meld as practiced on Vulkhanir was not the most pleasant of experiences, overlaid as it was with a perception of invading the privacy of another's thoughts. He had been taught early the cultural taboo that prevented such an intimate incursion without dire need, considered by the Vulkhanir to be as outrageous an offence as the taking of life itself. Yet, with Kirk, the process had become something else entirely, a phenomenal merging of dual spirits, a unification of two into one, a shattering, intense and powerful recognition. It had given Spock an insight into Kirk's personality, shown him the Human strengths that Kirk called upon and which far outweighed any weaknesses: the Captain's overwhelming capacity for compassion, his intelligence, loyalty and courage, his potency as a leader of men. There was nothing about Kirk that Spock could fault or disparage. He was a truly exceptional man, one the Vulcan had no difficulty in naming t'hy'la, which in the Vulkhanir tongue could mean either brother or lover, friend or life's companion. Spock had risked his life to save Kirk more than once, indeed, would have willingly died for him, and Kirk had returned the favor for his First Officer and friend.

Now those sinuous hands, that beloved voice, although issuing from something other than Kirk's mouth, disclosed Spock's latent hunger, seduced him with an acceptance of his long buried need, used this one inclination to tempt him.

The Kirk creature's fingers were languorous as they stroked his skin, calling forth an incandescent ardor, a frenzied zeal that had only previously affected Spock during the ordeal of pon-farr. His bones melted in the furnace of that heat, the strength in his knees dissolving until he could barely stand. Head thrown back and arms splayed to either side, spread-eagled in a crucifixion of pleasure, his heartbeat rocketed as he gasped for air. He felt the impostor step between his legs, hard muscular flesh grazing his inner thighs. He was a puppet, unable to wrench away from that electrifying touch, the counterfeit Kirk tugging at strings he never knew he possessed.

Hands slid up his chest, his throat, swirled around his ears, catching the pointed tips with a peculiar intensity of thumb and forefinger. The brush of those fingertips sent a wave of excruciating, horrifying craving through him. Chills swept across his shoulders, raised goose bumps over his whole body. Deft fingers stroked his hair, wandered leisurely across his shoulder blades, and encompassed his lower back in a deliberate, firm embrace.

"Do Vulcans kiss, Spokhq?" the Kirk voice asked in a hushed, brandied tone as fingertips splayed once more over his brow and cheek. "You'd like it. Let me show you how Humans make love."

Spock groaned, his senses slipping as dark passions overwhelmed him, no longer sure what was real or a creation of his agitated imagination, unable to resist the demonic touch, although some portion of his brain acknowledged the danger of giving way. His hands reached out, gripped compact shoulders, felt smooth skin and muscle beneath his fingers.

"Jim, stop -- please--" he whispered, his voice torn, frayed with despair, damned by the real truth, profoundly aware that he did not mean it, that the last thing he wanted was to impede the exquisite rapture.

"Be one with me, Spokhq. Do not resist. You are for me, Spokhq s'kahri ansohn t'Sarekhq. You are for me."

The voice in his mind saved him, crying out in terror. Spock! Take care! Spock!

Seconds later, the door to the clensor abruptly whooshed open to admit McCoy. "Jim. Spock. What in green blooded blazes are you two doin' in here? If you don't hurry we're gonna miss the Ceremony of the Dawn Ryhanen loves so much. What the--"

McCoy's words trailed off as he caught sight of the thing that had Spock pinned against the clensor wall, palely amorphous, far taller than a man, strangely ethereal and insubstantial. He recognized it with a spurt of fear. With a strangled cry, he reached automatically for the phaser on his belt but the creature was already in motion. It seemed to swirl upwards, solidifying into a dense shape that his subconscious accepted even if his conscious mind did not, before hurtling like a tornado towards the door. It thrust him aside effortlessly, flickering with an alien iridescence as it abruptly dissipated into thin air.

McCoy blinked, taken by surprise, before he rushed to Spock's side as the First Officer slipped bonelessly down the wall to the floor, panting as if he had just sprinted the one thousand yard dash. An unusual grey mottling, like the spots on an albino leopard, marred the skin along his cheek, brow and jaw line, a bizarre tattoo, extending along his breastbone, and down his arms.

"Spock!" He cried. "Are you all right? The wraith's gone. Did it hurt you? Spock, answer me, Goddammit!"

McCoy gathered the lifeless Vulcan up into his arms, cradling him against his chest. The First Officer blinked, dark eyes glazed, his entire face working with the effort to control the incredible desolation that washed over him, to come to terms with the sudden loss he experienced. He struggled weakly to escape McCoy's confining hold, lacking the strength even for that.

"Jim," he rasped out, confused by the creatures abrupt desertion. "Jim …" With a shudder that rocked his whole body from neck to knees the tension left him as he abruptly gave in and relaxed against the doctor's shoulder, needing the comfort of Human contact if only for that moment. McCoy obliged, rocking him gently.

"It's okay," he murmured. "You're safe now, Spock. You're safe."

It took both Spock and McCoy a while to recover - Spock from the effects of the wraith's sexual inducement and attempted mind meld, McCoy from shock and guilt at letting the creature get by him unrecognized, though it seemed to McCoy the disguise had been damn near perfect. Worried by Spock's pallor, the doctor wanted him to return to the Enterprise but the First Officer quietly demurred.

"We need to locate the Captain, Doctor McCoy. I am certain he is still alive; though for how long that will remain the case, it is difficult to estimate. Did you comply with my request that Mr. Scott make a sensor sweep of the planet?"

"Sure. He's gonna look for any anomalous life readings just like you asked and get back to us as soon as he can."

As neither of them had been in any fit state to attend the mistfall ritual at breakfast, he had sent down to room service for a restorative flask of Vulcan riman wine for the First Officer and a large pot of coffee for himself. Now, McCoy filled Spock's glass and put the drink into his hand. "You think that girl Jim took up with was a wraith?"

With atypical compliance, Spock raised the glass to his lips and drank the cordial in one swallow. McCoy refilled the glass immediately.

"They appear to have the ability to assume whatever shape they require, at least once they have a 'pattern' to follow, Doctor." He rubbed at one of the mottled patches on his cheek, faded now but still visible, feeling the roughened skin beneath his fingertip. It was faintly sore and McCoy had soon confirmed Spock's suspicion that scrapings of skin cells had gone from the marked areas.

"It is logical to assume that the young woman the Captain befriended was, indeed, a wraith. I have no doubt that my own 'double' will emerge in due course. That is why it is imperative we do not return to the ship and no one from there beams down to the planet. Mr. Scott should be on his guard against the Captain, you, or me, Doctor."

"Why me? I've not had any contact with the creatures."

"Not yet, Doctor. However, I do believe an attempt will be made to take you, possibly with either the Captain or myself as the bait. The impostors are -- quite resourceful and convincing." He fell silent, reliving that fateful meeting, the shame washing over him as he recalled the way he had succumbed to the creature's lure.

"Yeah?" McCoy coughed, not liking the sound of that at all. "And you've still got no idea why they want us? Didn't you manage to pick somethin' up while it was trying to meld with you?"

Spock inhaled, narrow shoulders tautening. He rose from his seat on the edge of the sleeping dais, fingers tightening around the glass he still held as he took a tentative step in McCoy's direction, intending to set the tumbler down on the nearby table.

"No, Doctor, I did not. The impostor kept me … somewhat occupied." Warm olive color tinged his pale complexion, emphasizing the pallid blotches. "Unfortunately, the wraith proved far more adept than I did. It may well have access to most of my memory, plus that of the Captain."

He hesitated for an instant, brows furrowed, before changing the subject. "Before you left us alone, the counterfeit Kirk mentioned something about 'news' he had to impart. Do you know what it meant?"

"Huh?" McCoy pushed himself out of the chair he occupied and took the glass from Spock's hands. He had lost the thread of the conversation while trying to figure out what nerve he had unexpectedly hit. It took a lot to make the Vulcan blush but the Chief Surgeon was sure the tide of blood suffusing Spock's cheeks was precisely that, a flush of sudden embarrassment. It sure had nothing to do with the wine the Vulcan had drunk.

"You want another?"

"No, thank you, Doctor." The First Officer sighed, his impatience close to the surface, a sure sign he was more rattled than he wanted to let on. He repeated his question, enunciating clearly as if to a very small child. "Do you recall what the -- 'Captain' wished to tell me?"

McCoy's eyes narrowed, wondering if he should take umbrage at the tone, or whether he could possibly milk more information out of Spock by being cooperative. He settled for the latter option. "Uh-huh. He fixed up an appointment with Ryhanen for you to be examined. Don't get your hopes up but there's a slim chance that he may have something on the boil to help with your eyesight. We can cry off if you aren't up to it."

"Negative, Doctor McCoy," Spock said evenly, ostensibly in complete control once more. An eyebrow elevated in thought. "It will be an ideal opportunity to ask Ser Ryhanen a few more questions."

"You think he knows more about this than he's letting on?"


McCoy gulped down the rest of his coffee. "Then what are we waiting for, Mr. Spock? C'mon, let's not keep our host waiting."

Chapter 11

Don't you know I can't take it?

I'm not going to make it.

I call your name but you're not there.

I don't weep at night, I call your name.

They walked the corridors of Ryhanen's Folly in relative silence, broken only when they passed some area or other that McCoy identified.

"This is the holographic theater. Ryhanen apparently has a horde of virtual reality programmers writing interactive scenarios. Once through the doors, you can do anything or go anywhere, visit a coral reef on Earth, explore the subterranean caverns on New Paris, even climb Vulcan's Langon Mountain range, though why anyone, apart from a Vulcan, should want to is beyond me. I'm thinking of recommending that Starfleet Medical incorporate something similar in all starships. Just think of the possibilities, Spock. We'd cut crew stress levels without even trying. The training potential alone would be worth the cost of installation."

"It is Arlanga, Doctor."

McCoy blinked, cut off in mid-thought and mid-flow. "What is?"

"The chain of mountains on Vulcan to which you referred. They are called Arlanga not Langon, Doctor McCoy."

McCoy shot the First Officer a venomous glare. "Is that all you can come up with, Spock? I don't care a tinker's cuss what you call the mountains on Vulcan. I'm attempting to explain how this technology of Ryhanen's could revolutionize--"

"You made an error, Doctor. I wished simply to correct it."

"Goddammit, the Vulcan talent for stating the obvious never ceases to leave me entirely underwhelmed."

"Perhaps the fault lies not in my -- ability to point out inaccuracies but with your powers of deduction, Doctor McCoy," Spock added unperturbed, matching McCoy's stride, part of his attention on the echoes that bounced back from walls and floor, part on his counter to the doctor's broadside. "I doubt you have considered that the equipment of which you speak may have additional applications, other than those you disclosed."

"Go on, enlighten me why don't you." McCoy cupped Spock's bent elbow and eased him casually around a large statuette, similar to the one they had found the day before, out of place in the modern, somewhat bland, décor of the Folly. The First Officer paused for a heartbeat before following the doctor's lead.

"A squeaking wheel does not always get the lubricant, Doctor. On occasion, it is simply replaced. A holographic physician, for instance, might conceivably substitute for the illogical and often erratic Human equivalent."

"Who are you calling erratic?" The doctor's reply came back in an instant, his brusqueness contradicting the gentle grasp he retained on Spock's arm. McCoy harrumphed noisily, but whether with concealed laughter or out and out rage, the First Officer could not tell. "To err is Human but to really foul things up still requires a computer - even when it has green blood in its veins, Mr. Spock. Look to your own laurels."

"Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, Doctor."

"And most people think they're it. Sounds to me as if this virtual replacement service wouldn't necessary preclude your post either."

"A vacancy certainly exists, Doctor," Spock murmured, with a simple inclination of his head.

McCoy groaned inwardly having once again put his foot well and truly in the muck pile. He gazed at the First Officer as they walked side by side. There were times when Spock had immense dignity. Blindness only emphasized his distinct bearing. His head held high, without the need to look down as the sighted did, he had a peculiar, gangling elegance. His eyes were quiet, gazing straight ahead, steadily fixed on whatever vision lay trapped in the darkness before him. With Spock, the serenity of that gaze made McCoy think not of a blind man but of someone looking at a point far in the distance, someone who could simply see farther than he could.

"You knew all the time, didn't you?"

"What did I know, Doctor? I am acquainted with various data. Be more precise."

"The wraith masquerading as Jim. You knew."

"I had a -- suspicion."

"So, why didn't you say something?"

Spock regarded him levelly. "You already believed I was hallucinating, Doctor McCoy. What would you have done if I had informed you that the Captain was an impostor?"

"Probably sedated you," McCoy admitted.

"Precisely, which would have left me defenseless in the hands of a creature we know nothing about. I deemed it less dangerous to remain silent."

"Logical, if nothing else. I'm sorry, Spock."

"I accept your apology, Doctor McCoy. However, it is of no relevance. Even with most of my faculties intact, it proved impossible to withstand the wraith's -- powers. It demonstrated immense strength. If you had not intervened when you did, I doubt I would be here with you now."

They fell silent again; both immersed in their own deliberations, the question that disturbed McCoy the most hovering on the tip of his tongue. To Jim, the wraith had appeared as a young and strikingly beautiful woman, an image that Kirk would find irresistible. To Spock, it had summoned up the copy of his Captain. What shape would McCoy's nemesis assume if, or when, it came to claim him?

"What sort of powers?" he asked after a moment.

Exactly the question Spock had waited for and dreaded. However, he could not evade it. McCoy's life might very well depend on knowing that one piece of pertinent information.

"It -- wanted to join with me, for what reason I do not know," the First Officer murmured as his heart kicked against his ribs, the memory of the impostor Kirk returning with the pitiless lucidity of a nightmare. "When I resisted it used -- tactile stimulation as a lure."

"Tactile stimulation?" McCoy questioned, still in the dark. He laid a hand on the Vulcan's arm again, slowed Spock's forward momentum. "Whoa, there. Not so fast. Mind the stairs. There are -- ten -- going up."

In acknowledgment of the warning, the First Officer inclined his head to McCoy and reduced his steady pace until he had carefully negotiated the ascending steps.

Once more on the flat, the Chief Surgeon persisted, "What sort of tactile stimulation? I'm not with you, Spock. I know you never liked being touched unnecessarily but--"

Spock stared sightlessly into the distance, very aware that McCoy was studying him. "I believe you are being deliberately obtuse, Doctor."

McCoy pursed his lips in a silent whistle, eyes widening with a mixture of shock and cynical amusement as the Vulcan's meaning finally dawned on him. "It tried to seduce you, is that it? You, Spock."

He blinked, remembering that it had also assumed the image of Jim Kirk to do it. The juicy morsel of scuttlebutt, doing the rounds on the all-talk channel of the Enterprise, came back to him. In recent weeks, it had linked the unlikely pair of Jim and Spock together non-stop. Could the gossip have a basis in truth? The two of them were close, far closer than most Captains and their First Officers, but that did not necessarily make them lovers. McCoy shook his head in disbelief. "Well, I can't say I think much of its taste, or its rationale, Mr. Spock. Knowing the sexual proclivities of Vulcans in general and you in particular, I'd have thought it would've found some better tactic."

Spock sighed, half in relief and half in irritation, if McCoy wanted to avoid the connotations of the creature's attack and the technique it had used to achieve its aim, he did not wish to argue. His mother, Amanda, fond of the occasional axiom might have quoted a favorite -- never wake a sleeping lematya without considering the possible consequences. However, he had to bear in mind that the wraith might well make McCoy its next target. The Chief Surgeon had to appreciate the possible danger. "The use of touch may be part of its modus operandi, Doctor. Again, it may not have any choice in the matter. Whatever the reason for this particular strategy, it is certainly dexterous and highly skilled in the game it plays. Do not underestimate it."

"There speaks a man of experience," McCoy murmured sardonically. "Don't worry, Mr. Spock. If your counterpart so much as runs a hand lovingly across my six o'clock shadow, he'll get his nose splattered over his face."

And a kick up the ass for good measure! McCoy grinned with mocking glee as he saw the Vulcan's skin flush warm olive once more, his remark having unerringly found its intended target.

Spock swallowed his indignation, restraining himself from any visible display, unwilling to provide McCoy with any more bullets for his private arsenal. The doctor was obtaining amusement enough shooting the ammunition he already possessed. The slightest shudder passed through him as he recalled the pressure the Kirk impostor had exerted upon him. He fought against the memory, willing it away, his lips tightening with the effort.

McCoy observed the tremor, the narrowed lips, and assumed it was annoyance. The First Officer's exasperation pleased him in a way that he found hard to explain even to himself. Nettling Spock had become almost a full time occupation. He rationalized the impulse to irritate the First Officer as one of his missions in life, acting as an equalizing power, a humanizing influence to compensate for Spock's ultra logical approach to every situation. He had become a self-appointed safety valve, siphoning off the superheated steam that he imagined building up in the Vulcan's Human half, ready to blow - if he also enjoyed it, so what? However, Spock's strength was legendary. Anger was good as long as it did not become too intense. McCoy did not want to feel the Vulcan's fingers tightening around his own throat. He decided to temper his derision a little. For the rest of the short journey, he restrained his sarcasm to the minimum and allowed Spock to take the lead, giving the Vulcan space to reflect in peace.

* * *

"You been paying attention, Spock? Know where we are?"

They had just ventured out of an elevator that had dropped like a stone to their present location. The elevator ride might have disorientated him, no doubt the doctor's intention; however, Spock had taken meticulous care to concentrate on the almost subliminal sounds of the lift as it passed each floor on the way down.

The Vulcan had realized long since that McCoy's efforts to intimidate him, ad nauseam, was a game the doctor relished. His initial response to the constant mockery was to remain detached, impassive, however, the corollary of that tactic had merely appeared to goad McCoy to a greater diligence. Spock had recognized early on in their association that it could only be a matter of time before the doctor achieved his objective, provoking him into some inappropriate action or rejoinder for, although his Vulcan half remained impossible to incite, the Human part of his psyche was not so well controlled. He logically concluded, therefore, that the best defense was to reward the doctor's behavior with at least a limited result. In effect, he gave as good as he got - and over the years it had become something of an attachment, one that he was now loath to do without. Though annoying at times, the doctor's impertinence was something he would undoubtedly miss.

The First Officer inclined his head, lips pursed as he regarded McCoy with his sightless eyes. "Indeed, Doctor. We are on the lower ground floor deep within the mountain complex. Ser Ryhanen's laboratories, observation and testing rooms are nearby."

Despite the fact that Ryhanen was a very wealthy man, he still personally completed most of his own research, though he now worked mostly from this base on Sassandran.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Lead on, Macduff." McCoy grinned in silent satisfaction as Spock turned confidently to the right, his stride definite and purposeful.

As he made for the atrium leading to Ryhanen's private work area, Spock refrained from correcting McCoy's probably intended misquotation. He continued to follow the plan stored within his mind, the muted strains of a dramatic music arrangement drawing him onward until his fingers brushed the frame of a heavy door.

"I believe this is it," he said, fingering the glass smooth surface.

"Then let's go in."

Spock heard a click as McCoy depressed the switch of a wall communicator. Immediately the music he had heard before erupted from the concealed speaker along with Ser Ryhanen's deep bass.

"Please come in, gentlemen. I have been expecting you."

The door hissed back and Spock entered what felt like a cavernous room. McCoy whistled softly beside him. "Did I tell you that Ryhanen liked things big, Spock? You could hold a concert in here. This place has been hollowed straight out of the substratum. There're masks, both animal and humanoid decorating the walls along with an assortment of ancient weaponry--"

The First Officer reached for one of the masks, his fingers curiously examining it. "Perhaps a manifestation of the flamboyant side of Ser Ryhanen's nature, also demonstrated by his appreciation of Wagnerian opera -- The Ring of the Niebelung, if I am not mistaken, Doctor McCoy."

"Is that what that rumpus is?" McCoy murmured, unimpressed. "Give me some good old bluegrass any day. Even the caterwauling of that Vulcan lyrette of yours is better than all that uproar. There's a door directly to our right."

A further short corridor, cut from bedrock like the atrium, led to Ryhanen's office. The music quietened as he stood to receive the two Enterprise officers coming from around his impressive desk to greet them.

"Gentlemen. I did not see you at our viewing ceremony this morning. I hope you were not taken ill again, Commander?" He indicated two chairs. "Please sit. There is refreshment available if you require it."

"Mr. Spock isn't ill as such, he's suffering from Acute Zonal Koreoretnal Syndrome, Mr. Ryhanen," McCoy supplied, refusing the offer of coffee. "Have you heard of it? There's no known treatment for the disease."

He guided Spock directly to the proffered chair, waiting until the First Officer had settled before taking his own seat.

"It is very rare, I know," Ryhanen agreed, soft voiced, his amazing quicksilver eyes compassionate as he studied Spock. "I believe your assessment is correct. There is no acknowledged cure, Doctor McCoy."

"I understood you might be able to help him, Mr. Ryhanen."

Ryhanen stood before them, calmly erect. "You are aware of my work, Doctor. Commander Spock?"

"I'm just an old country sawbones, Mr. Ryhanen. Nanotechnology's not exactly my bowl of tsa'e. The specifics are more Spock's field than mine."

Spock leaned back in the chair, ostensibly quite at ease, looking up at Ryhanen, his gaze fixed on the Dha'kaht'chun's face, guided by that deep, resonant voice.

"I am familiar with some aspects of the engineering, ser. Advancements in nanotechnology have resulted in improved medical sensors, and the progression in tissue regenerators, for instance. The senceiver implants, a development of one of your companies I believe, are also simple nanomachines."

"Mr. Spock's senceiver was damaged when we beamed down," McCoy interrupted. "Some neural damage resulted which has left him completely blind."

"That is most perturbing. You collapsed because of this failing, Commander?" He shook his head in dismay. "Please, tell me of the circumstances."

After listening to McCoy's brief explanation of the details, he rubbed at a white brow tuft in thought. "It does sound as if the senceiver underwent a sudden power feedback. However, the mystery remains why it should only have happened to Mr. Spock's implant without affecting either yours, Doctor McCoy or Captain Kirk's. The sensor web should not have unduly influenced the instrument. If you will permit me to examine you, I may be able to learn something more, Commander."

Spock inclined his head. "Of course, Ser Ryhanen."

The huge Dha'ka led the way into an adjoining room. Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung still played softly in the background, issuing from some hidden speaker. "Please undress and lie down on the bio-bed. Regrettably, the process is somewhat invasive and -- uncomfortable. The initial sensations should not persist for long, however."

McCoy did not like the sound of that. As Spock started to pull his uniform shirt over his head, the Chief Surgeon glanced meaningfully at Ryhanen. "Perhaps you should explain the procedure a little more--"

"Do not be anxious, Doctor McCoy," Ryhanen placated soothingly. "I will not be using any of my techniques at this stage. I merely wish to check on the senceiver's configuration. I assure you, Mr. Spock will not be harmed."

The bio-bed was a long couch upholstered in grey synthetic leather. Spock, dressed only in black uniform undershorts and tee shirt, pushed himself up onto it and stretched out. Immediately the smoked glass wall behind the couch, inset with monitors and diagnostic screens, came to life. Ryhanen's large, well-formed fingers danced lightly over a keyboard's touch pads while he checked the screens, his metallic gaze keenly appraising. "You seem to be in excellent health, except for the slight neural damage, some localized bruising, and a recent fracture of the left wrist."

"He slipped," McCoy answered absently, also examining the data scrolling leisurely down the screens, attention caught by the twitching tics of axial tomography and electroencephalogram scans. "The brace has almost healed the injury."

"Quite correct, Doctor McCoy." Apparently satisfied by the information on the monitors, the Dha'ka extracted from a sealed vacpac what appeared to be a pair of large protective goggles encased in a flexible frame. "Perhaps you would prefer to help Commander Spock put these on. They must fit snugly to the face."

McCoy took the goggles and turned them over. The outer cups were opaque, the inner hardly more substantial than cornea and conjunctiva lenses, and in the concavities, thin neural extensors probed the air as if alive. The Chief Surgeon asked a question, knowing the answer already. "Where do these probes go?"

Ryhanen glanced at Spock who lay passively on the bio-bed waiting for the treatment to begin. "Once the visor is in place, the tubules will enter through the corners of the eye and patch into the senceiver implant. There is some discomfort but that can be alleviated to some extent if you wish."

Spock pushed himself up onto his elbows. "That will not be necessary, Ser Ryhanen. Doctor McCoy, I am familiar with this equipment, continue with the procedure if you will."

"You sure about that, Spock?"

"Quite sure, Doctor."

While Ryhanen altered the configuration of the bio-bed, so that it supported Spock in a half sitting position, McCoy tipped the First Officer's head back and applied the visor over his eyes. The flexible surround immediately seemed to melt and flow reforming to fit perfectly over Spock's features.

"Please try and relax, Commander. Open your eyes wide to allow the probes access."

Spock did as instructed, inhaling sharply as the tubules spidery tendrils crawled across his covered cheeks and entered his eyes, secreting cold tears of sterile gel that poured into the cups of the goggles. He felt the tubulus fractionally dislodge his eyeballs on their way to locating the senceiver implant, and tilted his head forward in reaction. The next instant a brief retinal color burst astounded him with its brilliance.

"Keep your head back. The gel will help to lubricate the eyes."

A hand on his forehead pushed his head gently against the padded couch behind him, a sudden unpleasant reminder of those other fingers, hard and skeletal that had done precisely the same thing in the clensor earlier that morning. His fingers curled into fists as he struggled against the impulse to snatch the visor from his face, the discomfort he experienced escalating into abrupt pain. A scalp to sole paraesthesia made him gasp as prickling sensations scuttled over his skin, followed by a wave of vertigo that had him clinging two handed to the bio-bed. His tongue and lips burned and an itching in his nostrils heralded a storm of stinging scents --

For a second or two there followed nothing but a numb blackness. The First Officer almost reeled in the unexpected sensory vacuum until McCoy's anxious voice sounded right beside his ear.

"Spock, what is it? Are you okay?"

"I -- believe so, Doctor. However, I seem to have -- curiously lost some sensation in the lower part of my body. I cannot feel my legs." The faintness of his reply surprised him.

"Ryhanen?" McCoy questioned harshly. "What have you done? He's paralyzed."

A pause ensued before Ryhanen's deep bass resonated through Spock's bones. "A temporary condition, I assure you. Commander, I need to calibrate the instruments. If you will recite something, a mathematical equation, or the words of a song--"

"Very well, ser," Spock murmured, gathering himself together as best he could. He tried to swallow, found his mouth unusually dry. "If -- I may trouble you for -- a drink of water first--"

After a moment, McCoy's hand smoothly lifted his head, held a glass to his mouth. He sipped once, and then again, unable to taste the water as it slipped down his throat. He took a further small swallow, realizing that his lips had also lost some of their previous response. Water dribbled out the corner of his mouth and down his chin. McCoy wiped the drops away without comment.

"Thank you, Doctor. Are you ready, Ser Ryhanen?"

"Of course, Commander. Begin if you will."

Spock inhaled before starting to recite, his light baritone positive and well modulated. "My -- soul is dark - oh, quickly string the harp I yet can brook to hear, and let thy gentle fingers fling its melting murmurs o'er mine ear--"

"Poetry, Spock?" McCoy queried. His tone, in contrast, sounded shaken and gruff. "Non-regulation."

Spock disregarded the anguish in the Chief Surgeon's voice. "Byron, Doctor McCoy."

"A little more, please," Ryhanen requested.

Spock imagined the huge Dha'ka's fingers swiftly dancing over his keyboards and touch pads as he continued the poem.

"If -- in this heart a -- hope be dear that sound shall charm it forth again. If in these eyes there lurks a tear, twill -- flow, and cease to burn my brain--"

The last few words slurred as his tongue defied him, growing more inert, anaesthetized along with the rest of his body as the extensor probes continued to drill through his brain tissue.

"Good. Good." Ryhanen stated, his voice calm. "Stay relaxed, please. You are doing very well, Commander."

It became difficult to breathe. Spock shuddered as pain erupted once more within his skull, an intense bright light flashed in front of his eyes and a surge of unknown music thundered in his ears. A voice called to him --

Spock! Spock! Spock!

"Now count backwards for me, please. Start with the highest number you know."

He did so, teeth suddenly chattering with cold, more than cold; the room was freezing, the synthetic leather beneath him glacial. He shivered briefly in reaction an instant before the cold started to burn. Hot aches flared over the soles of his feet, the palms of his hands, across his damp forehead. Paraesthesia prickled unbearably on the inside of his skin.

"Do you see anything now, colors or shapes, perhaps?"

He wanted to answer 'yes', ask how it was possible, but found himself unable to speak. The colors whirled in front of his eyes, or possibly inside his head, he could not be certain, too many to distinguish accurately, all the varied shades of the spectrum; crimson and sapphire, saffron and emerald, gold and amethyst, all shifting and rotating together. It seemed a long time since he had seen anything with such clarity and he found his throat unexpectedly tight, clogged by unshed tears. The evident emotion, out of his control as so much else, likewise unsettled him.

McCoy's voice intruded, sounding aggrieved. "Ryhanen, goddammit. This is taking too long. He's not a laboratory rat for you to experiment with."

"Patience, Doctor McCoy. I must go slowly. The Commander's brain is complex. I do not wish to cause him any permanent damage."

Spock's head whirled as exhaustion swept over him, suddenly drained, his flesh and spirit shocked beyond further endurance.

"He's worn out. Look at your scans. You've got to stop this."

The next instant, sensation rushed back in a flood, not unlike the after effects of a phaser stun. Involuntarily, his fingers clenched into fists, nails biting into the flesh of his palms. He pulled air into his lungs in one huge inhalation, the ensuing giddiness welcome. His bare feet jerked, restless heels drumming on the couch disobedient to his will. The tremors escalated until his whole body shook with a violent palsy.

"Ryhanen, in the name of God, stop this. Stop this now, or -- I'll stop you."

Spock heard the panic in the Chief Surgeon's voice but the threat was real enough. McCoy would phaser the Dha'ka if that seemed his only alternative. Ryhanen had probably misjudged the doctor's true nature, seeing only the querulous exterior instead of the inner determination and courage he mostly hid behind his cynic's mask.

With an enormous effort Spock reached out, his movements unpredictable and random, contacting with McCoy's arm more by accident than design. His shaking fingers closed on McCoy's sleeve as the doctor bent over him. "Have -- trust in him, Doc -- tor. I -- am -- intact. Ask questions regarding the -- forest. Spiders. Dream -- spiders -- Important."

Spock's strength, what little there was, drained completely away. The sound of his heart pounded in his ears, loud and irregular. From somewhere Jim's voice called to him again; it echoed through his mind.

Spock! it cried, weaker than before, the need unmistakable. Spock! Spock!

Limp fingers dropped from McCoy's sleeve, his body slackening as fatigue flowed through him in a quick flood. Blind eyes stared out into the darkness as he answered that call.

Captain, I am coming. Wait for me --

Chapter 12

Just when I thought I'd never grow old

You gave me the reason to try.

Just when my body felt broken and bruised

Nothing could ease all the pain.

Just when my whole world was falling apart

You put me together again.

The mist coiled about him, thick grey swathes, pearled with iridescent dew, billowing at knee height, isolated tendrils idly reaching upwards to touch him lightly on the back of the hand, playing games with his fingers, stroking his palm with the sensuous touch of gossamer. Muted light streamed down through the ghostly trees, softly illuminating the ethereal foliage, limning each pale leaf with silver. Somewhere deep within his heart he recognized the beauty of that haunted place, the eerie fascination it held, and the allure that spoke to the non-Vulcan part of his soul. Like a brief, tantalizing glimpse of never-never land or that secret place beyond Alice's looking glass, it called to the lost boy in him, the child seeking a refuge, a safe haven, a place where he was no longer alone.

The tower built of small, lustrous grey bricks mortared with a silver substance that shimmered in the subdued light stood at the edge of the forest, fifty feet tall and untouched by the hand of time. It too had a glamor upon it, an attraction that he found hard to resist. Although he had never entered it, he knew each tread of the circular stair, made of that same ancient brick as the rest, spiraling down and down below the earth until it opened out into the one central chamber, a place of darkness and echoes, lit only by the circular opening in the center of the roof.

He stepped out into the clearing, the waves of mist breaking against the walls of the tower before him in a soundless rush.

Hearing his approach a boy, Tehr'n Human, with cropped fair hair and a compact, well-muscled body, turned to regard him, a grin abruptly lightening his attractive face.

"What kept you, Spock?"

The youth turned away instantly, drawing an arrow from out of the quiver at his waist, arm quite steady as he aimed the crossbow - notching a bull's eye in the practice target set up against the tower's gleaming bricks. Wearing nothing but a short kilt of silvery grey linen, his sandaled feet entwined by mist trails, the boy seemed to glow in that translucent light, the image of a young Alexander or Mark Anthony. He slipped another arrow into place and leveled the bow. "I thought you would've found me hours ago."

The twang of the arrow vibrating in the target punctuated his words.

Spock stared at the boy, one eyebrow flaring upwards, his curiosity most definitely aroused. "Captain?"

The youth lowered his bow and turned to look at him, hazel eyes alight, the grin widening. "One day, maybe. How about you, Spock? I suppose you'll follow your father into the diplomatic service, 'to the glory of all Vulcan'."

Spock's voice was dry. "Not necessarily."

"Call me Jim."

"Very well, Jim." Spock regarded his companion steadily, head tilted, expression enigmatic. This was undoubtedly fascinating. The boy was too familiar to be anyone other than Jim Kirk, and unlike the wraith, there was no sensation of ambiguity or suspicion.

Have the neural extensors called this up as they burrow through my brain, he wondered, or am I enmeshed in a dream manufactured by the Captain's psyche? He accepted without undue alarm that he too inhabited the body of a much younger self.

"What is this place?" the Vulcan asked, turning his attention back to the tower, recalling that weak cry echoing through his mind, calling his name, as he had lain exhausted in the Dha'ka's laboratory. This young version of Jim Kirk did not seem in the least distressed. It appeared highly improbable that the call had come from him.

The boy lowered his bow again and walked jauntily up to the target to retrieve his spent arrows, the mist parting before him in a wide swathe. He shrugged. "It belongs to Tel Shimaan."

Spock recognized the reference from the research he had done on Ryhanen; telh'shi'mahn, the giver of joy, the eater of souls, the preserver, were just a few of the many appellations given to an ancient Dha'kaht'chun hermaphroditic deity that appeared in various incarnations, the favorite being a large, pale-bodied arachnid. The conundrum abruptly started to resolve.

"Tel Shimaan is connected in some way with this world's dream spiders?"

"Uh-huh." The boy's open expression shuttered as he walked around the target and yanked loose the final arrow, glancing up at the sky. "The momma dream spider. It's getting dark. We have to hide before she wakes."

It had been early morning in that other, conscious realm but the weak light filtering down through the mist had definitely lost intensity. The boy was right; the sun would set very soon. Spock stared at this embodiment of the Jim Kirk that, one day and in another reality, would become his Captain, experiencing an overwhelming reluctance to leave the tower that had drawn him there. "Hide where, Jim?"

"In the forest," the boy said his face solemn but with a glint in the hazel eyes that Spock recalled well. There could be little resistance in face of that unswerving resolve. "We can't stay here. She'll be looking for you."

Spock hesitated and the boy laid a hand upon his arm in reassurance. Taken off guard, the First Officer froze into stillness as the light touch vibrated through his flesh. Jim considered him, his gaze perceptive, acknowledgment in that look. He did not remove his hand. "Trust me, Spock. We'll come back when it's safer."

Ten minutes out from the clearing, the nature of the woodland began to alter. The quake trees thinned out and other species of plant began to appear; stunted little gnome ptereodophtes, rambling gymnosperms and thin spike arrows all festooned with the trailing webs of parasitical moss and glistening strands of fine spider silk.

Vividly aware of Jim's hand still upon his arm, Spock let him lead the way. The forest, mysterious and grotesquely stunning, came alive as darkness fell. He listened intently as the sounds around him magnified, holding his breath, aware as some other presence stirred into wakefulness. He sensed the beating of its heart in the very heaviness of the air, the waiting quality in the vaporous mist upon his brow and cheek; he sensed trepidation, a terrible foreboding, the hair at his nape rising on end, his stomach tightening in an inherent reaction. Bathed in a gentle radiance the moss saturated trees glimmered with an ethereal phosphorescence, the reflection subdued by the waves of mist undulating eerily in heavy swells against the white trunks.

Further into the subterranean woods they came upon a fast, shady watercourse, the moss-light illuminating a solitary osh'kosh'kian, a native ungulate, that had come to drink. It lifted its head quickly, brandishing a large single horn from the center of its brow, pale and startled, then bounded away through the shaking trees, before disappearing into the gathering haze. From long habit, Spock sought Jim's eyes and was rewarded as the boy grinned, sharing the wonder of that magical encounter.

Later, as they climbed a rocky incline, a cave loomed near at hand; a brief inspection found it unoccupied although from the pungent, rusty, scent it had once housed a rock daemon. Together they turned away and continued over the hill until Jim called a halt. Crossbow at the ready he pointed out a rift in the forest floor. The bottom was a sinister snarl of twisted undergrowth, alive with little flickering phantom lights. Trees of all kinds leaned into the hollow, almost meeting in the center.

The mists writhed halfway up the sides of the chasm, but they could still see clearly the glittering strands, as thick as a man's finger, anchored from one side of the gap to the other in a huge web. Each strand of the mesh glistened with iridescent color from a coating of glutinous oils and tied all the lower trees together in a winding convoluted embrace; a shining, fairy copula roofing the gorge, sparkling in the phosphorescent light of the moss. Enchantingly beautiful, it was difficult to refrain from reaching out to touch it. That, of course, was why the dream-spiders spun it. Spock knew from his original research of Sassandran that they were nocturnal predators and the brightness of their webs afire in the vaporous night made a potent snare.

Nor had the trap failed to do its work. The half eaten corpse of an osh'kosh'kian lay near the lip of the chasm, and a great pale bird, bound in bright strands, hung alive but limp only slightly further away. However, those were not what caught Spock's attention.

As he and Jim watched from the shelter of the quivering trees, hunkered down close together shoulder to shoulder behind the masking vegetation, the haze gathered in upon itself, coagulating and solidifying, shot through with shimmering iridescence until a being stood in full view, illuminated by its own glowing radiance. The fog took on the semblance of the statue that Doctor McCoy had described to Spock as they traversed the balcony outside his room at Ryhanen's Folly, taller than any living Dha'kaht'chun, a crossbow held loosely in one massive fist, a horned headdress upon the aristocratic brow. More of the mist collected, reforming into the shape of a beast, huge and distantly bear like, enormous tusks gleaming in the faint light. The wraith and its creature gazed about, their eyes black holes absorbing light. The heart of the forest was abruptly silent again as those depthless orbs turned fully upon Spock. He stared back, frozen into stillness as he experienced once more the sensation of long angular fingers probing his brow and cheek. A voice gusted through his mind, potent and undeniable --

Come, Spokhq s'kahri ansh'oine t'sarekhq do not resist. Join with me. You are for me, Spokhq. You are for me --

It was a siren song, soft and alluring, that spoke to the need in him, his isolation and loneliness. With ruthless disregard, Tel Shimaan peeled back the camouflage of impassiveness, stripped away his carefully constructed equanimity, revealing the hunger, the hidden yearning of his Human half that wanted to love and be loved. She exposed the secret craving, his desire to unveil his innermost self without the fear of rejection. Tenderly, beguilingly, she promised him devotion and acceptance, affinity and joining. She knew him, wanted him with a searing passion, a fiery all-consuming need --

Tel Shimaan's call grew intense, strong and inexorable and Spock found his resolve weakening as the pressure increased. His heart stuttered, forgetting how to beat, finding that summons much harder to resist than the lure of the web. Against his will he started to push himself upright but an arm across his shoulder stopped him just in time.

"No! Wait!" Jim hissed urgently in a whisper, his mouth close to Spock's ear, digging his fingers into the Vulcan's arm, restraining him. "Look, there's Tel Shimaan--"

Spock blinked, his eyes dazed. He turned his head stiffly, looked in the direction Jim indicated towards the far side of the chasm, trying to disregard the imperative resounding through his mind. There came a shifting, a rustling, a quiet stirring and then a return to stillness. After a moment, his eyes picked out the great eight-legged translucent arachnid just emerging from a dark hollow on the far side of the rift. Nearly as large as a grown man its pale body almost invisible, it poised on the lip of the depression, one with the mists swirling lazily around it. Then, as Spock continued to watch, it clambered deliberately over the edge of the gap and crawled slowly up to the forest floor.

The vapors tumbled and swirled, first hiding then revealing Tel Shimaan's paleness as she stalked upon delicately thin, angular legs, through the shifting haze.

"Fascinating," Spock murmured with forced distinctness. "But if that is Tel Shimaan who is--?"

"What do you see?" Jim asked quietly, his breath fanning Spock's cheek as he leaned in close. Spock inhaled, confused by the soft voice in his mind, and the nearness of the boy. Jim, he thought, the name echoing and re-echoing through his consciousness, Jim, Jim --

"A -- wraith in the image of a Dha'kaht'chun deity with its beast," he murmured back after a moment. "There is a statue of that image -- at Ryhanen's Castle."

"It's not what I see," the boy declared in an undertone, without elaborating. "It's just a decoy, to divert your attention from Tel Shimaan. There'll be an escort around somewhere too, her mate."

He glanced about uneasily up into the branches of the trees that shivered in a non-existent breeze, an arrow already notched in his crossbow. "Don't mistake her for some outsize, Gaen arachnid. She's intelligent, Spock. She also likes to eat live meat. Do you hear her? Is she calling you?"

Spock raised a hand to his brow, nodded once. He looked in solemn thought at the boy. Are you a decoy, Jim? "She -- wants to join with me."

The boy's jaw hardened, his lips thinning. "You have to fight it. Don't let her distract you."

"It is -- difficult."

"We'll circle round and go back to the tower." He stood quickly, reached out a hand to help the Vulcan to his feet.

That was when Spock, preoccupied by that soft, enchanting summons, slipped and lost his balance on the edge of the drop. The boy's fingers tightened about his hand but could not hold him as he teetered on the brink. He plunged over the rim to land three yards below, caught in the web. It shook to the impact of his fall but remained intact. Spock stared upwards at Jim only his head and shoulders free, his arms and legs hopelessly ensnared in the sticky strands.

"Don't struggle," the boy called down to him, kneeling on the lip of the gulf. "You'll only end up more entangled. I'll find a way down and get you free."

However, it was already far too late for that. From out of that same hollow where Tel Shimaan had lurked, moving with a light, purposeful gait, the male dream-spider crawled onto the supernatural beauty of the web. Half the size of the female, he was no less dangerous, for though he had no venom, he possessed ferocious jaws, and he was a carnivore. The male wove the crystal fire of the web and made it sticky with his special oils. He tethered the living prey in fine thread until the female, her poison sac full of the gelatinous dreaming venom granted the mercy of ecstasy and bright visions before the final blackness.

Spock's mind abruptly shifted to warp speed as he watched the pale shape of death nimbly advance towards him, a multi-legged high wire dancer suspended on the sticky strands.

"Damn," the boy exclaimed quietly from his stony roost. "That's torn it. Stay still, Spock."

Gradually, warily, he raised the weapon he held, fixing his sights on the enormous arachnid limned in the flare of light from its own web.

"No--" Spock protested abruptly. "Hold your fire."

The spider paused as if aware of its danger then moved even closer to the immobile Vulcan, its feelers gently probing.

"Spock, he's going to wrap you in silk and keep you fresh until Tel Shimaan's ready to dine. She'll store you away neat and tidy in the tower until it's time to eat."

"Jim, please do not shoot," he said again, surprisingly calm.

The arachnid was so close Spock could see each of its eight eyes, staring darkly at him from out of the thick white fur of its face. The fangs were clearly visible at the ends of the chelicerae, the jaw and mouth parts powerful enough to crush him if the creature wished to do so. Yet, the beast made no further move towards him.

Briefly, Spock closed his eyes, reaching for control. Tel Shimaan was here, poised somewhere out of sight, waiting and watching through the depthless eyes of her mate. Spock could sense her surveillance. What did she see, he wondered, what did she require from him?

Was she curious, this planet bound Goddess of the Dha'kaht'chun? Was that why she had taken his Captain, to plunder his knowledge and memories? And where was his body? In that underground room in the tower, perhaps? Had she encased him in a clinging net of silk until ready to consume his flesh along with his thoughts?

The boy was only part of the true James T. Kirk, set free to roam this mist wreathed dream world, perhaps that wild part of him that refused confinement. Did the spirit, the quintessence of all those others who had disappeared, haunt this planet? He knew there was only one way to find out the answers to all his questions, to find his Captain before it was too late.

He opened his eyes his gaze fixed on some far distant scene before refocusing abruptly on the male arachnid hovering near him. Spock knew that in reality his own physical body lay in Ser Ryhanen's laboratory at Ryhanen's Folly, watched over by Doctor McCoy. His psyche had emerged, called to this dreamscape by Jim Kirk's anguish. If harm befell him here, it could conceivably affect his corporeal form lying defenseless in the Dha'ka's laboratory. However, even if that were true, he realized he had no choice. He could not allow his Captain to remain a captive of Tel Shimaan. He could not stand helplessly by while Jim Kirk perished on this alien world.

As if aware of that thought, the male dream spider skittered nearer, the sleek white body held above the shimmering web by its long, angular legs, feelers undulating in the misty air.

"Spock! Look out." The appalled shout came from above him, from the lip of the chasm. "Spock--"

He managed to call out in reassurance. "I am all right, Jim. It does not seem to -- wish me harm."

His eyes fixed on the beast as it finally reached for him; delicate and tentative it explored his form, creeping slowly up and over him from feet to thighs, over his chest, until its thorax and abdomen covered him in entirety. He looked up directly into the arachnid's maw, feeling the heavy weight of its body against his own, the strange, pungent scent of its skin in his nostrils, the fine hairs of its feelers against his face as it brushed lightly across his cheek and temple. Internally he experienced the slightest tremor of consternation, which he monitored but did not inhibit.

Join with me, Spokhq. You are for me --

The sibilant voice ghosted softly through his mind once more, the touch gentle, sensitive, and discerning. Spock's breath came a little faster than usual, a little less even. He heard his heart drub against his lower ribs. Then, without further hesitation he obediently allowed his barriers to fall, opening himself, giving Tel Shimaan permission to enter.

Chapter 13


Why don't you come to your senses?

Come down from your fences,

Open the gate.

It may be raining but there is

A rainbow about you.

Let somebody love you before it's too late.

Spock stirred weakly, opening his eyes on the darkness of his ruined vision, the dream of Wraith's haunted, mist-wreathed, forest stealing away from him, fading into obscurity even as he tried to hold onto it. He retained only the fleeting awareness that the experience had been joyful, euphoric, and he desperately wanted it again in place of the ugly reality he faced once more.

Cold, forlorn, and immeasurably weary he reached up an unsteady hand to rub at his face, realizing the brace around his wrist had gone. Beneath his exploring fingertips, his cheeks were moist, damp with tears he had unknowingly shed during sleep. Discomfited, he wiped them quickly away hearing somewhere nearby a creak of overstuffed upholstery, the hushed rustle of movement, followed by the rapid approach of footsteps. He was no longer in Ser Ryhanen's laboratory but curled up tight, knees drawn up to his chest in a fetal position on the sleeping platform in his assigned hotel room.

"Doctor?" Spock questioned croakily, the sound barely above a whisper. He rolled over onto his back, stretched out his aching legs, tasting an acrid sourness in his throat. He tried to swallow but found his mouth too dry. Pain throbbed dully behind his eyes.

"Spock. Thank God." McCoy's relief was obvious. At once, there came the musical clink of glass against glass, the quick gurgle of liquid pouring. Soon after McCoy's arm slid beneath his shoulders and lifted him up. "Here, drink this."

The aromatic scent of Vulcan riman wine teased his nostrils as McCoy held the glass to his lips and he gratefully sipped at the invigorating distillate. Fire speedily licked through his veins, easing some of the chill anguish as the essence hit his stomach.

He drank again, emptying the glass, the ensuing heat lessening his fatigue. Slowly memory returned, ousting the sense of emptiness, the black edge of despair. He attempted to sit up but his body was troublingly tense, stiff and painful. It took all his will to thrust back the enveloping covers and drag himself out of bed. He sat for an instant on the edge of the platform, swaying like one of the quaking trees in the forest, before pushing himself unsteadily to his feet.

McCoy caught him as his knees buckled and he started to fall. "Oh, no, you don't, Mr. Spock. You're staying right where you are."

"The Captain is in -- great danger, Doctor McCoy. I have to go -- to him."

McCoy had little difficulty pushing him back down - and holding him there with a restraining hand upon his shoulder. "Spock, I'm just as worried about Jim as you are but you've been unconscious for the last four hours. If you don't take it easy, at least for a while, you're gonna kill yourself. Besides, Ryhanen wants to start your treatment. If you're to regain your sight, it's crucial we don't wait."

Spock's body tautened infinitesimally. "Ser Ryhanen believes he can help me, Doctor?"

"He thinks so - and I agree with him, but it has to be done soon, before the damage becomes irreparable."

"Doctor, I thought we had established there is no current treatment for the Koreoretnal Syndrome."

"There isn't."

"I -- do not -- understand."

"You don't have Koreoretnal Syndrome, Spock. The initial diagnosis was wrong."

"The symptoms are quite incontrovertible."

The Chief Surgeon drew up a chair, blue eyes sharply appraising, fingers clasped together and forearms on his knees, unable to disregard the obvious signs of deterioration on the Vulcan's pallid features. Spock's expression was remote. He looked worn out, used up. "Agreed, but it's your brain and not your eyes that is refusing to see."

Spock concentrated for a moment on relaxing his spine. His dark gaze fixed on McCoy's face, expression still impassive, "Meaning what, Doctor McCoy?"

"The scans were almost complete when you passed out and Ryhanen finally agreed to call a halt to his assessment - with a little persuasion. You were wrecked, Spock. There was no way I could let him continue."

"Understood, Doctor."

"Yeah? Well, the tests proved that your eyes were still responding to light - even the vast powers of your brain couldn't stop that involuntary reflex. With the Koreoretnal Syndrome, the optical nerve doesn't react to visual stimuli, such as an object moving quickly towards a subject's face. Like that, for instance."

The First Officer felt the sudden push of air as McCoy's hand rushed towards his face and pulled back in an instinctive reaction.

"There. You flinched."

"A perfectly natural outcome, I believe. I sensed something coming towards me and I responded."

"Possibly. Nevertheless, when Ryhanen subjected you to a barrage of stimulation with no corresponding noise or air motion like my hand made just now, you flinched then, too. Every time."

"And the conclusion is --?"

"You aren't blind. You probably never were."

Spock swallowed the constriction that had started to form in his throat and pushed the words out slowly between rigid lips. "Then how do you explain why I still cannot see, Doctor McCoy?"

"The condition began approximately ten weeks ago, right."

"Ten point four three weeks ago to be precise."

"Which is only a couple of weeks after you were drugged and tortured by the Klingons.(*)

"Even such treatment would not have caused me to go blind," Spock pointed out.

"No, it wouldn't, not ordinarily. However, the Klingons also fitted you with that transputer of theirs. It didn't help believing that you'd killed Jim an' all, either."

"That is undeniably correct. However, you assured me I had recovered fully, that there would be no lasting physical damage."

"Yeah. Except that I hadn't realized that the shock to your system affected the nanocomp in your senceiver implant. The mechanism, apparently, responded to the double whammy by mimicking the Koreoretnal virus symptoms. All viruses work by injecting their genes into a cell and taking over its molecular machinery, using it to produce more viruses. That's what makes viral illnesses so hard to treat. However, you didn't have the virus to begin with, it was the nanocytes from your senceiver emulating the condition."

"Fascinating," Spock murmured. "However that still does not explain why the sensor web shorted during transport."

"I'm a doctor, not an engineer, Spock. The senceiver had already started to break down. Perhaps Scotty will be able to explain that part of it once we give him all the relevant data. No wonder he can't figure out the problem. He's only got half the information to work with."

The First Officer caught his lower lip between his teeth, inclined his head in thought. "Perhaps."

"So, there's no time to waste. Ryhanen is confident he can herd the nanocytes, move them along to someplace where he can pick them up and then remove them completely before they damage any more surrounding tissue."

Spock sat with shoulders hunched, hands lying limply on his thighs, his eyes unfocused, looking inwards. "How long will the process take?"

"It's a delicate operation, probably an hour or two, but you'll be out of action for another couple to three days."

Spock sighed. His head still pounded as if his skull was about to burst and he was undeniably exhausted. "Then, unfortunately, I must decline, Doctor."

"What?" McCoy snapped. He eyed the First Officer with shocked disbelief. "This is your one chance to see again. It's crucial that Ryhanen performs his--"

"The Captain's situation is also critical, Doctor. He could be dead in two hours. Certainly, we cannot delay for two days. The operation will have to wait until we have safely recovered him. You must administer something to counteract this weakness."

"It may be too late for you by then, Spock." McCoy shook his head in dismay. "You're taking a big risk of staying blind the rest of your goddamned life. Think what you might be giving up."

"That is a chance I'm prepared to take, Doctor McCoy," Spock stated flatly. "Now, the stimulant if you will."

McCoy sighed, appraising the Vulcan before him, searching, as he always did, for some hint of emotion concealed behind the strong, angular features, the mask of impassivity that Spock now assumed.

"You know where Jim is?" he asked after a moment of silence.

"I -- believe so." Spock shut his eyes, forced himself to relax as the Chief Surgeon prepared a hypo, aware that McCoy continued to assess him with professional shrewdness. Nausea gripped him within seconds of the stimulant entering his bloodstream but he suppressed the queasiness with what little strength he had regained. "However, my knowledge is entirely subjective. It would be helpful to have it confirmed. Has Mr. Scott been in touch?"

"Yeah, a short while before you woke up. He's done a complete sweep of the planet's surface. If Jim is still alive, he's not showing up on the ship's sensors."

"That is -- regrettable but not unexpected. He is alive, however," Spock murmured his voice distracted, deadened by pain and fatigue. "What of Ser Ryhanen? Did he supply any useful information about the dream spiders?"

"Not much. He's not willing to defy some sort of cultural restriction on the subject. The spiders are tied in with some deity the Dha'ka still regard as sacred. I got Chekov to look them up in the ship's library. They aren't the same as the arachnids of Earth -- or anywhere else either. For one thing, they're much bigger, especially the female - telh'shi'mahn, the Dha'ka call her - which translates apparently into something like restorer, or redeemer, or maybe deliverer, the meaning's a might fluid. Once, they even used to perform acts of sacrifice to--"

He stopped speaking. Spock sat with head bowed and eyes closed, weaving slightly. "You paying attention to me, Spock?"

The First Officer shivered, came back to the present with a jerk, seeming to focus with an effort. "Affirmative -- Doctor McCoy. Please, you were saying--"

"There's not really much more to tell. The female arachnid injects her prey with venom, a hallucinogen that interferes with the normal neurotransmitters in the brain. Let's just say you die slow but real happy." McCoy paused. "This isn't news to you, is it, Spock? I'm preaching to the converted."

"It is true I am au fait with your information so far, Doctor," the First Officer confirmed tiredly. "The Dha'kaht'chun religion is well documented although the significance of the telh'shi'mahn figure was obscure. There are no large arachnids on the world they occupy now."

"But Ryhanen said he bought this place because it was once the Dha'kaht'chun homeworld. He must have known about the spiders."

"Indeed. I am certain the significance did not escape him. At least once the original surveys had taken place. The first ship reconnoitered Sassandran almost ten years ago. It is reported that the captain probed through the mists with his sensors, before setting his ship down on the seacoast plains not far from the forests. Then he sent teams out to explore."

"That sounds like normal procedure."

Spock stirred, sighed, and painfully straightened his shoulders, before continuing. "Affirmative. There were three personnel in each team, all well armed. However, in one case, only a single man came back, and he was in hysteria. This witness reported that he had lost contact with his team in the mists. Apparently, he heard a horrific scream. When he found one of his friends, a woman, she was quite dead, and something was standing over the body.

"The survivor described the killer as man-like, twelve feet tall, and somehow insubstantial. He claimed that when he fired at it, the phaser bolt went right through it. Then the creature wavered and vanished in the mists."

"That's near enough what I saw hovering over you--"

"To be sure, Doctor," Spock murmured before continuing. "The captain of the survey vessel sent out other teams to search for this mysterious creature. They recovered one body, but that was all. Without special instruments, it was difficult to find the same place twice in the mists. Nor could they find any further trace of the creature described. So the story has never been confirmed. Nonetheless, it caused a sensation when the ship returned to its home base. Another ship followed the first to conduct a more thorough search. It also found nothing. However, one of its search teams disappeared without a trace."

"So, the legend of the mist wraiths was born?"

"As you say, the legend was born and steadily grew. Colonists came and went, until Ser Ryhanen landed one day and erected his Castle so that others might safely visit the mysterious planet of the wraiths. May I have my clothes, Doctor?"

There was a pause as the situation finally dawned on McCoy. "Is that what you think has happened to Jim? This telh'shi'mahn, this -- spider has him, down in the forest, hidden in all that mist?"

"Tel Shimaan undoubtedly has him, Doctor. My clothes, if you will."

"You're going to try and rescue Jim from that creature in your condition, Spock? You have to be kidding. You're so weak you couldn't fight your way out of a paper bag. Let me get Scotty to organize a landing party."

"Vulcans do not joke, Doctor," Spock stated, eyes half-lidded as he tried to counter the throbbing within his skull. "Nor would a landing party achieve the Captain's release. The Dha'kaht'chun abandoned Tel Shimaan on this world for a millennium. She took the Captain, and all those before him, through curiosity. However, he proved to be something rare, something precious. The Dha'ka named her rightly. She intends to preserve him, his thoughts and memories at least. His body she will consume as food. My clothes, Doctor McCoy--"

"She can do that?"


"You're in no condition to go gallivanting--"

" And you are prevaricating, Doctor."

"Beats being a pain in the ass. You're on sick leave, remember? I'm the one giving the orders around here," McCoy said tartly.

Spock's eyes fastened on the doctor's face, one eyebrow flaring upwards, manifestly cynical. "Then perhaps you would enlighten me as to your plan for rescuing the Captain."

McCoy hesitated, taken aback. "You know I don't have any such plan."

"Indeed? I am astonished, Doctor."

"Whatever I say, nothing's going to change your mind is it? You're still gonna go down to that tower and try and rescue Jim."


"Damn you, Spock. You're the most bull-headed, green blooded, ornery cuss I've ever come across."

The First Officer's eyebrow arched upwards. "No doubt, a case of the pot calling the kettle black, Doctor McCoy."

McCoy frowned "How come you know that adage but you found tilting at windmills a mystery?"

"I learned it at my mother's knee, as no doubt, you did, Doctor."

"Nah! I don't know your mother that well," he declared irrelevantly. Deliberately casual McCoy rose from his chair and stomped over to the closet. He came back with Spock's uniform and ungraciously handed it over. "Here."

"Thank you, Doctor."

McCoy watched as the Vulcan slowly dressed. Impeded by his obvious exhaustion, Spock fumbled awkwardly with the waistband of his pants but eventually managed to tug them on and fasten the closures. Neither could he entirely conceal his shaking hands as he pulled on his shirt. A quick flick of his fingers settled his disordered hair back to immaculate perfection before he groped for his boots. The effort left the First Officer breathless, his face waxen.

"C'mon, take it easy for a second, Spock." The Chief Surgeon laid a hand on his shoulder. "You're done in. Just relax and get your strength back."

Spock inhaled deeply as McCoy plumped up a couple of pillows behind him, then reluctantly complied, his lean shoulders loosening as he sank into the supporting softness. Seconds later, however, he sat up once more, head tilted, listening intently.

"Doctor, do you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"Engines, Doctor McCoy. There is a vehicle approaching."

"Oh, that," McCoy replied, unable to hear anything. "That'll be our transport."

Spock's eyebrows rose questioningly. "Transport, Doctor McCoy."

"Yeah, Mr. Spock. Ryhanen's put his aircar at our disposal. How else do you think we're going to get down a thousand foot mountain in a hurry?"

Chapter 14

There are hills and mountains between us,

Always something to get over.

If I had my way, surely you would be closer.

I need you closer.

A low-slung black limousine sat purring on its ramp as they exited from the hotel, a tall Dha'kaht'chun woman lounging against the door, waiting to hand it over. She grinned down at McCoy as he gazed up, uttering a friendly greeting.

"Meer'tchal, ser Doktuur Makhqoi. Commanduur Spokhq."

Deftly, she helped Spock climb into the rear of the aircar, tucked a throw about his legs, and secured the safety webbing about him before re-fastening the canopy. He settled back into the luxurious comfort with eyes closed, conserving his strength, only half listening to the murmur of voices that penetrated the streamlined metal shell, hearing enough to realize that a conflict of some sort had arisen between McCoy and their chauffeur. A moment later, he snapped out of a light doze as the forward canopy opened and McCoy, grumbling under his breath, slid into the front seat.

"Doctor McCoy?" he queried wearily. "What is the delay?"

"Nothing that concerns you, Spock. Try and get some rest."

Spock heard him fumble with the limousine's controls, all the while expressing a miscellany of profane language that would have made a dockhand blush. "Do you intend piloting this vehicle?"

"That's the idea, Spock. Unless you want the job."

Spock digested the comment for an instant. "What of the young woman? I assumed she--"

"Well, you assumed wrong. She's Dha'ka, Spock. It appears that the same ethnic limitations apply to all Dha'ka where those dream spiders are concerned. As soon as I mentioned where we wanted to go, she very politely declined to take us."

Spock shifted uneasily. "I do not wish to disparage your flying abilities in any way, Doctor McCoy. However, if that is the case, I suggest the more prudent course would be to engage the automatic control system." Affronted, McCoy shot back, "I'll have you know, Mr. Spock, that in my younger days I used to be considered something of an aficionado in the hotrod department."

"Indeed? May I ask how much younger, Doctor?"

"Just trust me, Spock, okay? After all how hard can it be to --?" The rest of the sentence cut off as he finished keying in the lift sequence codes and the limousine abruptly shot fifty feet straight up into the air.

"Whoa!" he yelled in surprise. Fortunately, as soon as he took his fingers off the touch pad the vehicle came to a halt, wallowing in mid-air on its anti-gravs. He glanced over his shoulder at Spock. The First Officer sat forward, his lean body taut against the seat restraint, his complexion the color of old putty, hanging onto the grab handles for dear life. The knuckles of his fingers had turned yellow, the skin stretched across the bone with the tightness of his grip.

"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you Spock. I definitely have the hang of it now."

"That is -- welcome news, Doctor McCoy." Spock swallowed unobtrusively, his hold on the grab handle slackening only minimally as he sat back in his seat, his expression remaining severe. "There -- is a clearing in the forest. Tel Shimaan has her lair in the ruined tower there. It should not be too difficult to find."

"Uh-huh," McCoy acknowledged, seeing it in his mind's eye, feeling the hair on his nape rise at the thought of actually going there. "Is that where Jim's being held?"


"I suppose you've got the coordinates for the auto-pilot."

"Indeed." He stated them clearly, listening as McCoy laboriously keyed them into the flight log. However, instead of continuing smoothly as Spock had anticipated, the limousine dropped unexpectedly in free fall, only to bank sharply as the engine re-engaged.

"Hey," McCoy crowed, surprised that he was actually enjoying himself. "This is one souped up jalopy."

"Doctor, perhaps you have failed to notice, in your enthusiasm, but this is a mountainous area. Care is essential." Still alarmed, Spock speedily poured cold water over McCoy's elation as the thrust drove them both back into the seat cushions. "I would deem it a kindness if you changed to the automatic control system without delay."

"All right, all right. No need to make a big deal out of it, Spock," McCoy murmured biting his lip. He accelerated sharply, the imp still driving him. "I'm not gonna get us killed, okay? I know what I'm doing."

"Really, Doctor?" Spock did not sound at all convinced.

"Yeah, really. Just have a little faith."

"Doctor McCoy, please enlighten me as to why I should want to place any confidence in someone lacking the slightest knowledge of a principle with no substantiation, about things without parallel?"

McCoy knew he had just been insulted but could not spare the time to work out exactly how as he struggled with the controls. He fell back on invective. "Give up on the back seat driving, will you, Spock? Think yourself damned lucky you're getting a free ride and don't have to walk down this mountain." Nevertheless, having had his fun, he slowed the limousine to cruising speed, and activated the autopilot before turning again to stare at the silent and now very shell-shocked Vulcan. "E.T.A's twenty minutes. As your doctor, I suggest you try to get some sleep. I'll wake you when we get to the tower."

* * *

Spokhq, you are for me --

The hauntingly familiar voice echoed through his mind, emanating from within his aching skull, a psionic lure, powerful and compelling.

Spokhq, s'kahri ansohn t'sarekhq, do not resist. Be one with me -

Disorientated, Spock opened his eyes as McCoy gently shook his shoulder for the third time.

"C'mon, Spock. Wakey, wakey. We've arrived."

He revived slowly, finding it difficult to tear himself away from Tel Shimaan's captivating influence. Unable to bypass his formidable defenses while awake she had waited until he slept, entering through his dreams, beguiling him with tender visions, easing the pain of the anxious outcast child that still lingered beneath the impassive disguise. It proved increasingly a challenge to shut her out.

He raised an unsteady hand to his forehead, pressed the heel of his palm against his temple in a vain attempt to ease the pain. The next instant he heard the low beep, beep of McCoy's remote sensor. With an irritated sigh, he let his hand fall and fumbled for the seat webbing release, his fingers trembling with the effort. However, McCoy laid a hand on top of his, freed the magnetic catch without a hitch, and helped him sit up.

"The pain's getting worse, huh?"

It would have been illogical to pretend. "Affirmative. I will need some relief."

There was a pause, a second or two, when he realized McCoy was studying him intently. "Spock, I--"

"Yes, Doctor McCoy?"

"You -- don't have to do this, y'know," McCoy murmured. He rushed on as though he feared to hesitate, even for a moment, in case he changed his mind. "Tell me where you think Jim is and I'll go get him. You can stay here and rest until I come back."

Spock's winged brow flared upward as his eyes settled on the chief surgeon's face. How much had that one simple declaration cost McCoy in sheer gallantry and courage, he silently wondered. As the doctor might well admit himself, he was no hero, and yet he always rose to the occasion, however profoundly he worried about the eventual outcome. "Your offer is -- most kind, Doctor. However, we will not prevail over Tel Shimaan by brute strength alone -- or even natural cunning. She does not wish to part with the Captain."

"Then how--?" He rummaged around in his medical pouch and came up with a hypo the contents of which he discharged without undue ceremony into the First Officer's neck.

Spock shuddered with relief as the throbbing within his head decreased enough for him to focus on the problem at hand, although the unremitting agony did not cease entirely. "We negotiate."

"Negotiate?" McCoy queried incredulously. "Now I know you've lost your goddamned Vulcan mind. How do you 'negotiate' with a -- a giant arachnid?"

Spock regarded him levelly. "With the utmost care, Doctor McCoy. With the utmost care."

* * *

The reality of the living forest was both like and unlike the dream. Spock's first awareness, something that had been missing from the previous illusion, was of the cold, a bitter, damp chill that sucked the warmth from him and left him with chattering teeth and shivering limbs. Clammy fingers of mist brushed his flesh, leaving a fine trail of moisture droplets upon his skin. His second perception was of the sharp, fresh tang of riotous growth, the aromatic scents of hundreds of different floral and vegetable species. Yet, what impressed him most was the silence, a watchful quiet that encouraged hushed tones and whispered conversations in return.

McCoy crowded Spock's side as they stood in the shadow of the limousine, his breath coming fast and uneven as he stared into the roiling vapors that surrounded the ruins of the alien tower that stood only yards away.

"So, what happens now?" he asked softly. "How do we contact this -- Tel Shimaan of yours?"

"She is hardly mine, Doctor McCoy," Spock returned through clenched teeth though they still chattered regardless of his efforts. He wound his arms about his chest, hugging himself against the cold as the heat of his body leached quickly away, stolen by the mist.

McCoy, shivering more from terror than the raw air, reached back inside the car and hauled out the rug, which he draped around the First Officer's shoulders. Indebted, Spock pulled it close. "Tel Shimaan is psionic, Doctor. No doubt she will contact us."

"So, why don't we wait in the car until she does?" McCoy asked hopefully, unlatching the canopy again.

"We must show our good faith, Doctor McCoy." Abruptly shaky, he wavered on his feet and McCoy reached out to steady him. The doctor wound an arm around his waist, offering a support that the First Officer desperately needed.

"You're pushing yourself too hard. This isn't helping anybody, either Jim or you. C'mon get back into the car."

"No, Doctor." He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat, sudden nausea almost overwhelming him, staying on his feet by an act of will alone. "You must administer a further injection of cordrazine."

"Pigs'll fly first. Another shot and your liver will explode."

"I see no alternative if we are to combat Tel Shimaan. She is immensely strong, Doctor. I cannot hope to stand against her without some help."

"So, what am I, Scotch mist?" McCoy countered in a sardonic whisper. "Or do you think I just came along for the ride? Surprise me with some 'little known' Vulcan technique, why don't you, Spock? Surely, you have one just hiding up your sleeve. What about that mind fusion thing you do. Can't you use my -- I don't know -- psychic energy, I suppose -- to back you up?"

Unable to do any other, Spock leaned against him shamelessly, gaining strength and comfort from his undemanding support, seriously considering the suggestion. "There is a procedure analogous to your proposal. It has been used effectively on my home world although I cannot vouch for its efficacy myself."

"I don't need a personal recommendation, Spock. Just tell me if you think it will work."

"The meld is more -- intimate -- than others, Doctor. It will mean integrating our thought processes. I will not eavesdrop intentionally but I -- no longer have the control to completely block your emotions or memories. You may also have access to my consciousness."

"If you can stomach my feelings, I'll stomach yours. Now get on with it before I change my mind."

"Very well." Lacking the strength to stand alone, he used the limousine as a prop while McCoy moved up to stand before him. Delicately the First Officer reached out to place his fingertips along McCoy's brow and cheek. The doctor's eyelids fluttered before drifting closed.

He stared into the darkness of his inner sight, chasing wandering streaks and flashes that appeared in front of his eyes, listening to Spock's whispered incantation. The words filtered through the strands of both their minds simultaneously.

"Your mind to my mind. Your thoughts to my thoughts. Listen to me, McCoy. Be one with me--"

* * *

McCoy opened his eyes and blinked, startled to discover that he was no longer in the forest. Instead, he found himself standing in darkness halfway down a narrow, spiraling stair that circled round and round a dusty wall of ancient crumbling brick, a faint halo of dim light shining far above and a stygian blackness below. He knew almost instantly that somehow he was within the alien tower, Tel Shimaan's lair, and that Spock was nowhere in sight. That realization sent a shock of fear through him and he stumbled backwards against the wall, eyes darting from shadow to shadow seeing for an instant the ghostly spider shape as it ascended towards him, the eight white legs scraping the sooty bricks.

"Spock?" His halting breath and lurching heart produced a gasping moan instead of the low call he had intended. He swallowed the panic, tried again. "Spock, damn you--"

Calm yourself, Doctor. I am here.

McCoy's impression was of Spock's voice speaking to him but without any audible sound as if coming from within his own head. Telepathy? Extrasensory perception? McCoy knew all the words but had never fully grasped the reality.

We are joined, Doctor McCoy. Our minds are one.

"Then why am I here and you aren't?" McCoy questioned with a flash of his usual belligerence.

Neither of us is there, yet both of us are.

"Oh, well, that explains everything," McCoy murmured, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

We do not have time to discuss the metaphysics of the situation. The Captain is being held in the circular room at the bottom of the tower. Please continue.

McCoy stared into the pitch black of the cavernous abyss beneath his feet, fighting his own terror at the thought of going further down into the dark. "The spider -- is it -- she -- down there?"

I do not sense her presence.

"Is that a yes or a no?"

Continue if you will, Doctor McCoy.

"All right, all right, stop pestering me, Spock. Give me a second to get my bearings." He dragged in a lungful of air then let it slowly out again, curbing the inner dread that had his knees knocking together and the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. He spoke sharply to himself, gaining a measure of reassurance from the sound of his own voice. "C'mon McCoy, get a grip. After all, it's not as if you're actually here."

He felt for the edge of the step with the toe of his boot, lowered himself down. Something wafted across his face, insubstantial and gossamer light, spider silk. McCoy shuddered. How real could this get? Could he be injured or killed if he believed in the possibility? The air was dank against his skin, acrid, the musty smell of age and decay pungently strong in his nostrils. If Tel Shimaan was somewhere in the darkness below and smothered him in her silken thread, would his true body suffocate? He did not want to think about that. "Spock? Are you there?"

Of course, Doctor.

"So, the meld worked?"


"If we aren't really here, why do I have to climb down all these goddamned stairs? Can't we just materialize in the chamber?"

If I may say so, a most logical suggestion. A moment --

There was a pause, a hesitation, a sort of mental gear shift, then the stairway was gone and he was blinking in a soft blue glow, the gentle illumination of moss light where the bryophyta carpeted the floor. Rope-like strands trailed from the crumbling brick intermixed with the iridescent threads of spider web spun into a glistening burrow at the center of which hung a pale cocoon. McCoy's heart jumped with fascinated horror. "It's Jim. Can you see, Spock?"

Indeed, Doctor McCoy. If you move toward the cocoon, being most careful not to touch the strands of web, I will try to contact the Captain--

McCoy took a hesitant step, then another. He glanced down at his feet and felt a mild surprise that the soft blue carpet bore none of his imprints, the moss was untouched.

So, I'm not here really after all. Or maybe none of this is real. If Spock's delusional and I'm inside his head, what does that make me?

He closed his eyes, a new fear growing inside him - a fear like the awareness of a storm gathering nearby, motionless, silent, yet ready to break.

What if I can't get out? What if I'm stuck like this inside Spock's head? Or he's stuck inside mine? He found himself abruptly short of breath, his heart pounding at the prospect. I'll go mad.

Neither of us is delusional, Doctor McCoy. Nor will we remain as we are. The tower does exist. However, what we see is a representation only, symbology that enables our joint minds to function together. Please, you must get close enough to the cocoon for me to touch it.

"Why don't I feel reassured by what you've just said?" he murmured, half to himself, wondering if he could repeat Spock's ploy on the stairway and just think himself before the cocoon. Immediately, he found himself only inches away from the pale silk sheath that enveloped Jim Kirk's body. "Whoa! That's one neat trick if you can do it. Who needs a transporter when you can just think yourself to someplace?"


Tentatively he reached out, laid a hand upon the lustrous, softly glistening, casing finding it difficult to leave his hand where it was and not pull away in alarm as the hidden form stirred beneath his fingertips.

"Jim?" he cried out abruptly, "Jim, can you hear me. It's McCoy."

He hears you, Doctor. However, he is very weak. We must make haste. I am obliged to use all our combined strength now to reach him. You may possibly find the experience -- disorientating. However, there is nothing to fear --

It came in a wave; excruciatingly intense like nothing he had ever felt before, a great darkness or a powerfully bright light, it was difficult to be sure. He swayed on his feet; gulped a lungful of air; let it go in a whimper. It was as if his brain had suddenly caught fire. His knees gave way beneath him and he fell but instead of coming to ground on the moss covered earth, he found himself abruptly adrift. Then a hand caught him by the elbow, lifted him up and steadied him. Dazed, McCoy looked up into Spock's penetrating, dark eyed gaze, fully focused now on his face.

"Are you all right, Doctor McCoy?"

Numbly he nodded his head, looked about at the mist-laden landscape that had taken the place of the alien tower. "You can see me."

At Spock's brief nod, he inhaled deeply and felt calmer. "Where are we and where's Jim?"

Spock stared about at the swirling, featureless terrain, a strange surreal place, one eyebrow shooting upwards in apparent perplexity. His voice echoed faintly as if the two of them occupied some cavernous space. "This is not of my doing, Doctor McCoy."

"Oh, that's just wonderful," McCoy muttered, not exactly under his breath. "Welcome to Erehwon, people."

From out of the mists, there came a faint susurration, a muted whisper, a thin thread of sound. The vapors parted as they watched and Jim Kirk appeared. Naked, his compact, muscular body glistened with moisture, the fine fair hair flattened across his brow and at the apex of his thighs as if he were newly born. He stared at them, his expression dispassionate and unresponsive, without recognition.

"Jim!" McCoy cried and took a step towards him. "Jim -- are you all right?"

Spock barred his way with a raised arm. "Wait a moment, if you will, Doctor."

McCoy protested. "He's sick, damn you, Spock. He needs our help."

"Not yet, Doctor," Spock cautioned, his hawk like features stern, inflexible. "It may be a deception perpetrated by Tel Shimaan."

Jim Kirk's eyes fixed on him; the brown gaze steady and unblinking and Spock experienced a moment of deja vu, which set his heart pounding. Beside his Captain, he sensed another watchful presence informed with an awareness that had survived from a time so ancient it was difficult to comprehend. A shiver went through his bones from head to foot and it took all his strength to stop the treacherous shudders from becoming noticeable. He swallowed the lump in his throat discreetly, stilled his anxious breath, and took a step towards his Captain.

"Do you know who we are?"

Kirk's expression did not change. He continued to stare back at Spock without understanding, the mists curling about his nakedness, concealing his form one moment only to reveal it the next.

"Do you know who you are?"

Heavy lids dropped over the hazel eyes, raised again like shutters. "I -- am James T. Kirk, Captain of the -- Starship Enterprise. What do you want with me?"

"We have come to take you back."

Something stirred within the depths of the green-flecked brown eyes, a tiny spark that with a little prompting might grow into a potent blaze. "Back to where?"

"Back to the Enterprise, where you belong, Jim."

Mention of the ship's name again had him frowning in concentration as his mind fought against Tel Shimaan's seduction towards the true light of consciousness.

"Do you remember, Captain?" Spock encouraged with firm but gentle concern.

Kirk blinked, emerging from his transir state like a butterfly from its discarded chrysalis, his gaze brightening with recognition as he looked more closely at his First Officer.

"Spock…? Bones…? Is it…really you?" He stared around at the fog bound terrain in confounded wonder. "What is this? How did I get here?"

"This place is an illusion only. I believe Tel Shimaan has brought us here. We are linked, sir. Joined mind to mind, our thoughts -- yours, Doctor McCoy's -- and mine have merged in the All. Do you understand?"

"I understand that you should not be here."

"Nor should you."

"I am Tel Shimaan's now."

"You belong to no one but yourself."

James Kirk sighed and in that sound Spock thought he heard the loneliness, the doubt and infinite regret that only someone who had also experienced Tel Shimaan's spell could appreciate. He saw the emotions battle back and forth across his Captain's face, saw him waver, recalling the perception of tranquil joy, the ecstasy that union with Tel Shimaan had inspired. How could one give that up without a struggle, if at all?

Always intuitive, McCoy did not miss the shadow dance of indecision that flowed across Kirk's features. Uneasily, he murmured, "Jim, you have to come with us."

Kirk's gaze shifted to him, studied him intensely, and for that instant yet again, something else looked out of his eyes. The mist coiled and twisted, lazy tendrils enclosing him in diaphanous gauze "Must I, Bones? Why?"

"You don't belong here. If you stay, you'll die. Tell him, Spock."

"Doctor McCoy is correct, Captain."

"Dear Lord, is that all you're gonna say?" McCoy demanded incredulously of the First Officer. "That spider intends to eat him - alive."

"Also, correct," Spock said, apparently unfazed by McCoy's acrimony. "Although, Tel Shimaan does not view her actions in such terms. She--"

"Stow the lecture, Spock. She's gonna kill him and eat him and all that will be left of the James T. Kirk we know, if I understand the process, is another wraith to haunt this planet. Is that what you really want, Jim?"

However, his words were ineffective for Kirk, or Tel Shimaan, or both, had blocked him out.

With a distracted look at them each in turn, the Captain half turned, preparatory to withdrawing back into the writhing fog. "You must leave here now."

"Captain, be assured, we will not depart without you." Spock reached out unexpectedly and clasped McCoy's wrist in a tritanium-like grip. "Doctor, I need your strength now."

Taken unawares, Kirk was defenseless against him as, McCoy in tow, he closed the gap between them. Right hand extended, Spock's long fingers contacted with Kirk's naked forearm just above the elbow. A less than delicate tug had them face-to-face, torso-to-torso. Kirk fought briefly in resistance but Spock's Vulcan control proved superior. There could be no escape.

"Let me go, Spock."

"I cannot, Captain. You are t'hy'la to me. I will not allow you to die in this manner." He transferred his grip from Kirk's arm to the back of his neck, spreading long fingers so they covered Kirk's skull, changing pressures, altering chemical reactions, shifting nerve impulses -- while depthless eyes stared back at him from out of Kirk's face. The certainty grew with every second that passed that Tel Shimaan scrutinized him through the eyes of his Captain, waiting and watching to see what he would do.

Did you expect us to just walk away and leave him here? he demanded with a fierceness that usually lay hidden deep within his soul, a place where pain dwelled, where loneliness lay concealed, where the growing buds of hope and trust and love depended on this one man before they could burst into full flower.

Did you not learn anything about him from your joining? Did you not gain understanding from your meld with me? Can you not comprehend that Humans value their bodies - and each other? Can you not see his determination, his compelling energy, his need for life? Would you snuff out all of that vitality for your own self-seeking?

He awaited an answer unrepentant, yet with thudding heart, apprehensive of the reprisal, the mental agony that Tel Shimaan would exert for his temerity. It did not happen. Instead, when the mind touch came in reply, he experienced only a great hunger, a desire to know more, an ardent thirst for experience and knowledge.

So, once more he opened himself to her skillful probing, bared even those most private of his thoughts and feelings to her avaricious gaze, aware that McCoy and Kirk also shared these most intimate of reflections through the web that bound them all. He disclosed all those secrets that Tel Shimaan needed to understand.

He told of his own world, of the hot desert plains and the black mountains, of the mysteries that were so different from the mysteries she knew so well. He told of his Human mother and his Vulcan father, of a childhood spent torn by conflicting loyalties, never knowing where he truly belonged. He told of the land he cherished, of a people he respected and admired, aware that they looked upon him as a usurper to a way of life that he could never truly attain. He told of his departure for Tehr'a, of joining Starfleet, of meeting James T. Kirk, McCoy, and all those he now identified as his Family aboard the Enterprise. He told of his life among the stars, of the many different life forms he had met and had yet to meet. He told of his capture by the Klingons, of their torture of him, how they had used him, the agony of mind he still experienced because of it. He told of his blindness and the reason for it. He told of his enduring friendship with his Captain, of all the times they had saved each other from death. He told of how essential they were one to the other. He told of his devotion. He told of his distress if he should fail the man who had taught him that commitment, the defeat he would experience.

And at the last, he spoke of oaths, and vows and pledges never to be broken if Tel Shimaan should spare his Captain's life, guarantees that burned, assurances that hurt. He spoke of the knowledge he possessed, the information he could impart as he finally offered his own freedom in exchange for Kirk's, his own life for that of his Captain. In the final reckoning, it was all he had of any worth that Tel Shimaan might accept.

A great shout echoed down the link that bound him to both Kirk and McCoy, an unbelieving cry torn in unison from the throats of his two closest friends.

No, don't do it, you'll die, Spock --

You can't. I won't agree to this --

Nevertheless, from Tel Shimaan came only a sense of approval, of harmony and a profound accord. Her singular voice ghosted along the link they all shared.

Spokhq s'kahri ansohn t'sarekhq will freely share with me, always together, joined as one. This sacrifice I allow. Your Captain is released.

Chapter 15

Say you'll share with me

One love, one lifetime.

Say the word and I will

Follow you.

Share each day with me

Each night, each morning

That's all I ask of you.

McCoy was the first to rouse. He opened his burning eyes to find himself slumped across Spock's prone form where they both lay on the damp soil beside the air car. His aching bones creaked as he dragged himself up, not ready to wake, running a trembling hand through his hair. Mist twisted and coiled around them but could not hide the huge, white arachnid that squatted only a few feet away, death on eight legs, its poison sacs bulging with venom. The doctor's heart lurched, a spasm of fear as his skin erupted in goose flesh and the hair rose on the nape of his neck. He gasped, abruptly slithered back until he came up against the side of the limousine and shook Spock violently by the shoulder.

"Spock, wake up. Spock, damn you, we have a visitor." McCoy shook him no less fiercely a second time and slowly the Vulcan came to life.

The First Officer blinked, eyes unfocused as he stared into darkness, then caught a sharp breath before pushing himself unsteadily up on one elbow. "Doctor--?"

"I'm here, Spock - and so is your date. It looks as though she wants to party."

The creature's many eyes stared at him, round and dark, strangely aware. It was only then that McCoy noticed the pale shape of the cocoon, which the spider guarded so assiduously. "She's brought Jim wrapped in that damn chrysalis."

"Indeed." Spock managed to sit all the way up on the second try. His face was ashen and there were dark rings beneath his eyes, a result of the effort he had expended in the mind meld with Tel Shimaan. "Is he … alive, Doctor McCoy? Are you able to release him?"

"Spock, there's a goddamned giant spider not four foot away. How do you expect me to--"

"She will not harm you, not unless we look as though we may renege on our agreement, Doctor. Please, if you will make certain the Captain is uninjured."

With a supreme act of will, he staggered to his feet, held onto McCoy's proffered arm to stop himself falling. Together they stumbled over to the glistening silken chrysalis, the arachnid sidling out of their way as they passed. The cocoon, subjected to the damp air and the fractured light, had started to break apart.

McCoy swept his feinburger over it, one wary eye on the spider, the other on his readings. He spared a quick look at Spock. Too feeble and tremulous to remain on his feet for long, the First Officer hunkered down beside him, a thin patina of sweat moistening his brow and upper lip.

"You really mean to go through with it, don't you Spock? You're gonna give yourself up to that damned arachnid in exchange for Jim."

"I made a promise, Doctor."

"It was made under duress. Nobody with any decency would hold you to it. Jim wouldn't want you to do this. Not if it means your life for his."

"The Captain has no say in the matter, and nor do you, Doctor. Please, do not try and dissuade me." His gaze was keen, even though he could not see as he stared directly at McCoy. "Nor will you try and sedate me again. I am sure Tel Shimaan has room to accommodate all of us if you attempt to deceive her."

"I'll do what I goddamn well please, Spock. I didn't agree to any such exchange. Your promises aren't binding on me."

Without warning, Spock reached out, grabbed McCoy's wrist and hauled him so close that the First Officer's breath, normally warmer than a human's but now burning with feverish heat, seared his cheek. The Vulcan's mouth tightened into an exasperated line as his eyes turned hard and glacial. Even enervated, Spock's iron grip could not be broken, though McCoy tried his utmost. He felt the small bones in his wrist grind together excruciatingly as the First Officer tightened his hold.

"Doctor, perhaps I need to clarify the situation. You are not my conscience. You do not choose for me, now or ever. I go to Tel Shimaan because that is my inclination. You will not try to stop me. Is that clear?"

Unexpectedly, he let go of McCoy's wrist and pushed him away. McCoy landed ignominiously on his butt as Spock rose precariously to his feet.

"Good Lord, listen to yourself, Spock. I'd swear you want to die. Much easier than living with all that pain you've got stored up inside you, am I right? In Tel Shimaan's imaginary world, you can see and out here, you can't. You'll throw everything else away to regain what you've lost. Even if you have to become a -- ghost to do it."

"Believe what you will, Doctor McCoy. It is of no matter to me." He turned back to the cocoon, which had cracked on its long axis and had started to separate, head tilted as he listened to the faint cry that came from within the broken strands.

"The Captain needs your assistance. You will tend to him."

"Hell, Spock, don't do this. Think of what it will do to Jim. He loves you like a brother. You must know that. Why in God's name would you do this to him?"

Spock swayed on his feet, swallowed thickly, hands clenched tightly into fists by his side. "I -- do what must be done, Doctor."

McCoy drew a deep, tight breath that hurt his lungs, torn by divided loyalties. He bent over the chrysalis and grasped the ragged edges. The material split with a rasping, dry sound like ripping cloth. Kirk blinked up at him shocked and disorientated, gasping as if for air.

"Bones--" Kirk's pupils were black pinpoints unused even to the dim, hazy light of the glade, his face white. In a hoarse whisper he demanded, "Spock? Where's -- Spock? Don't -- let him -- I won't--"

"Jim -- take it easy. Spock's here."

Spock listened to the conversation, reassured by the sound of Kirk's voice, strained though it was. He took a backward step away from his two friends, taking note of the alluring call within his mind. Tel Shimaan, who had waited tolerantly enough, now insisted on her prize.

Come, you will join with me. It is time.

I know, Spock rejoined silently. I thank you for your patience.

Do not be afraid, child. I will not hurt you. We will be one spirit, one mind, one soul. As our thoughts merge, understanding will come. You will be my guide. Share with me Spokhq s'kahri ansohn t'sarekhq. Let me see the stars.

Afraid, but also fascinated by the mystery that was Tel Shimaan, he stared in the direction of the broken cocoon where he could hear McCoy comforting his Captain. Spock would have liked the chance to say his farewells but he could not take the risk of either Kirk or McCoy trying to stop him from keeping his word. Quietly, he turned away and headed for the tower, hearing the scuttle of spider legs as Tel Shimaan preceded him, the mist wrapping him around in a filmy shroud.

McCoy did not know what alerted him to Spock's secretive departure; perhaps it was the snap of a twig under the First Officer's tentative footfall or the rustle of those long, angular legs of Tel Shimaan's. Whatever it was, he grasped the situation immediately.

His eyes flashed from Kirk still encased within the cocoon, to Spock and the giant arachnid fast disappearing into the vaporous fog. Shocked, he acted completely on impulse. His hand reached instinctively for the phaser at his belt. It was as if time slowed to a crawl. The recent conversation with Spock replayed in his mind. He could not stand by and allow Tel Shimaan to consume the Vulcan anymore than he could allow Jim Kirk to suffer that same fate. He recalled Spock's impassioned outpouring during the meld, felt the Vulcan's deep-rooted pain as if it were his own, and remembered the promise the First Officer had made. He did not know what would happen if that promise were broken but he could guess. Tel Shimaan could move faster than any Human could. She certainly had the means to either kill them outright or disable them with her poison. Neither fate appealed to him at all but there seemed only one way to solve the dilemma.

As if in a dream, he reset the phaser, aimed it carefully, his arm fully extended, his hand rock steady. Knowing precisely what he did, he pressed the firing stud. Spock dropped to the ground as the light stun beam enveloped him in a bright pink glow and lay unmoving, a darker shadow in the slowly roiling mist.

Still in that slow motion time, McCoy strode over to the First Officer and turned him onto his side so that he would not asphyxiate. Spock's mouth worked as he fought the phaser stun and tried to speak.

"Sorry, couldn't let you do it, Spock. Look after Jim. He needs you." McCoy got back on his feet, hearing the quick scurry as Tel Shimaan swiftly approached. He stared into the eyes that studded the flat white face of the arachnid, the tremors starting somewhere deep inside him and working their way outwards. His fingers shook as he dropped the phaser and raised his hands above his head.

"Okay, you want a sacrifice, you've got one. Leave my friends alone. I'm willing to join with you."

"No, Doctor--" Spock's voice, distorted by the phaser stun was a muted wail of grief as he realized how McCoy had defeated him.

He struggled to sit up but his muscles refused to cooperate. Dazed beyond thought and weak with anguish he could only lie on the ground where he had fallen, an unwilling audience to the doctor's gallant submission. Blindness had honed his already exceptional hearing to a new level.

The doctor's voice as he spoke to Tel Shimaan, was arrogant, spoiling for a fight, but beneath the belligerence, Spock detected McCoy's fear. He heard it in the doctor's rapid breathing and his thundering heart. McCoy did not wish to die, there was still far too much for him to live for.

Tel Shimaan, he cried out within his mind, knowing that she heard him. Spare him. He knows not what he does. I am for you. Take me as we agreed.

A long time ago, when still a child, his mother had told him to be careful what he wished for because one day it might come true. He thought of that once more as he felt the Dha'kaht'chun Goddess' consideration turn fully on him again. Strangely, she appeared amused at McCoy's subterfuge and not angry as he might have expected.

Without prior notice, he was back in that state where dream and reality met, his weariness gone, able to see clearly. On either side of him stood both Jim Kirk and Bones McCoy, as disorientated as he but less able to hide their bemusement.

The mists, flowing about them in a surge of billowing white as usual, leisurely transformed until an extraordinary life form stood before them. It was tall, hairless, neither male nor female. Clothed only in the diaphanous haze, it looked down upon them in tolerant delight. Quicksilver eyes beheld them each in turn; saw through the conceit, the Vulcan control and Human pride, baring their souls before that all-seeing gaze.

What wondrous children you are, indeed. So brave and impudent, to give your short lives to save each other.

The voice echoed within their minds, speaking in the tongue they each knew best, the sound overlaid with a curious pleasure.

It is certainly long and long since I met with such as you. Do not fear that I am displeased, for I am not. Each of you has shown me the meaning of courage, though it cost you dear. You bring me hope for the future. Tell me, are there many such as you within the Greater Creation?

The question was not rhetorical but this latest, and possibly truest, incarnation of Tel Shimaan took the answers directly from their awestruck minds, pondering the mysteries of so many species and races that remained unknown, isolated as s/he was on the mist wreathed planet.

I would know more of these matters. Will you share with me, Jaymztikuhkhq, Spokhq s'kahri ansohn, and Bohnsmakhqoi?

Tel Shimaan's laugh was light, a little rueful, as s/he sensed their indecision and the reason for it.

Worry not; there will be no absorption if you do not wish it.

At the reassurance that s/he did not mean to consume them, Kirk's concurrence came fast, without further hesitation. The computer banks of the Enterprise held an enormous store of knowledge enough, surely, even to satisfy the needs of a goddess. Tel Shimaan read the thought and laughed again.

Enough for a short time, at least Jaymztikuhkhq.

Again, Tel Shimaan's metallic gaze inspected each one of them in turn: Kirk then McCoy and, at the last, Spock.

Your pain is deep, child. You have suffered much. However, it will not always be so. Trust in these good companions to aid you in your need. You have much yet to see, much to learn. Do not be so hasty to part from all that you have. Now you must return for I see that you are weary. Goodbye, my children, you have taught me much. I shall not forget.

And, suddenly, he was riding the crest of some giant wave, a wave of starfire and mist and exultation. It swept him up and up, round and round, a blaze of light and joy and sudden understanding, growing larger and larger until he was Tel Shimaan and s/he was him in one cataclysmic joining that also included Kirk and McCoy and a host of others who had been absorbed by the Dha'kaht'chun goddess over the centuries. It was not death, nor was it life, as he knew it, but a kind of immortality that any questing soul might find irresistible. Certainly, his human half yearned to embrace the bliss that Tel Shimaan offered, and that Vulcan part of him, the rational, judicious, logical, element that had borne such humiliation and degradation at the Klingon's hands, and which continued to endure in stoic silence, found it hard to discipline that profound desire.

McCoy had spoken the truth. He had chosen death over life and now required a reason greater than duty and honor to continue the old struggle. A great sadness overtook the euphoria as he teetered on the precipice, realizing how great the distance, was, how far above the ground he seemed and how easy it would be to plummet to destruction.

An image of his Captain slowly formed. Kirk's hazel eyes were compassionate, understanding, as they looked at him, aware of his anguish, and willing to share his torment - if Spock would let him. In silence, Kirk held out a hand and something unspoken passed between them. The Vulcan struggled to rationalize his many fears as he anchored himself in his Captain's eyes. Light headed and feverish, he reached out and grasped the proffered fingers. The touch conveyed such warmth that it awed even the Vulcan part of him.

Kirk spoke to him, some wonderful, comforting word that Spock could not quite hear but which seemed to ease all his suffering. Then his fingers slipped from out of Kirk's grip and he started the long fall down to the earth, back to reality, back to the sightless world he had come to know. He stifled a cry, unwilling to go back into the darkness alone.

Kirk caught at his First Officer's wrist, tightened his embrace, held on. His mental voice was calm, reassuring.

Trust me, I won't let you fall, Spock. You aren't on your own. I'm here.

Captain --

All his famous Vulcan reserve drained away and he felt the weak tears spring into his eyes at Kirk's words.

It is too late for me. Jim, I cannot continue as I am.

I won't let go whatever happens, Spock. If you fall, I'll fall too. But there's another way. Come on, we can do it together.

And miraculously Spock found himself lightly descending with Kirk's arm encircling his slender waist as if supported on angel's wings. Then his vision blurred, wavered and finally went dark. It was a fruitless struggle to hold onto awareness, yet even as the shadows engulfed him, he retained the feeling of Kirk's arm surrounding him with tenderness. The knowledge that he could never plummet out of control while his Captain watched over him so diligently proved a comfort to him even as the blackness stretched up to take him in its grasp.

* * *

"Oh, shoot, not again," McCoy mumbled, feeling distinctly queasy as he returned to his body to find himself on his knees beside the tower stairway, his forehead bowed in seeming obeisance on one of the small, decaying brick steps. "This is worse than transporting ever was."

He raised his head with difficulty; focused on two giant white arachnids instead of the one which had outfaced him before, and suddenly found the strength to get on his feet and scramble backwards. He tumbled across Spock's prone body, ass over heels, and ended up beside the First Officer in the thick leaf mold that littered the ground. Sight of the Vulcan, appallingly pale, breathing stertorously, brought him to his senses.

"Spock, can you hear me? Spock?" There was no response.

With trembling fingers, he grabbed hold of the First Officer under the arms and hauled him inch-by-inch back towards the limousine, keeping a wary eye on the spider bookends that still stood sentinel upon the tower steps. He was dripping with sweat by the time he reached the car, the Vulcan officer's apparently slight body a dead weight in his arms. Every few seconds a tremor went through Spock from head to foot and he moaned, his eyes partly open but unaware of what was happening. His condition was deteriorating rapidly and McCoy was only too guiltily aware that the phaser stun had not helped.

Exactly where he had left him, naked as the day he had departed the womb, Jim Kirk lay within the ravages of the silk cocoon stirring feebly, little better off than his first officer.

Breathing in heavy gasps, McCoy knelt beside him. "Jim, are you okay?"

Kirk's eyes flickered, opened, and stared up at him. At least his pupils have regained their normal shape and his color's a might healthier looking, McCoy thought, his anxiety decreasing at least a little. He fumbled for a hypo out of his kit, discharged a shot of cortolin directly into Kirk's neck. The resuscitating drug took affect even as he watched.

"Bones--?" the Captain's voice creaked hoarsely. "Spock -- safe?"

"At least from those damned spiders," McCoy huffed, glancing back at the tower, his neck hairs prickling. "We've got to get him back to Ryhanen before it's too late to save his sight, Jim. C'mon, can you get on your feet? He's damned heavy and I can't lift him and you. These bones aren't as young as they once were, y'know."

It took a minute or five, but eventually Kirk managed to find his feet and stay on them. He wavered back and forth, as McCoy, swearing every second breath, heaved and lugged until finally the First Officer's inert mass was back in the limousine. With an exhausted grunt, he boosted Kirk in beside the Vulcan and draped the throw over both of them before taking his own seat. Quickly he pulled the restraining straps into place.

"Okay, this little beauty takes some handling, Jim. I might have to shave some corners so hang on. Here we go--"

He got off the ground a lot smoother than the last time he had tried it and took off for the mountains as fast as the limousine and the prevailing mists would allow. He even became so blasé about the whole thing that he managed to put in calls both to Scotty on board the Enterprise to tell him they were all safe and also to Ryhanen to give the Dha'kaht'chun some advance warning to get his equipment ready. Spock, still looking extremely wan, stirred feebly in Kirk's enfolding arms only as they began the final approach to the Folly.

Kirk held onto his First Officer's hand, concern written all over his expressive face, haggard now with stress and fatigue as old memories were triggered, familiar instincts touched. "Hang on, Spock. We're nearly there. Bones, is there anything we can do?"

"The meld with Tel Shimaan took most of his remaining strength, Jim. The nanocytes are reproducing just as if they were the Koreoretnal virus, breaking down the synaptic pathways to the brain. Spock doesn't have enough reserves any longer to put up much of a fight. He seems to be responding to you, though. That has to be a good sign. Talk to him. Let him know you're there."

"He can hear me?"

"In a sense. He probably knows we're here and what we're saying but he can't respond. Most likely he's more aware of you holding his hand. Vulcans have three times more nerve endings in their palms and fingertips than we have. Did you know that, Jim?"

"No," Jim murmured, suddenly self-conscious, feeling the hot blood surge into his face.

Along with McCoy, he had participated in Spock's anguished discussion with Tel Shimaan. What had Spock called him, his t'hy'la? All his care, all his loyalty, all the years they had served together, Spock had been in love with him and he had never known. How hard Spock must have worked to keep him from discovering his secret. They had sparred together, showered together, even stood side by side in the ship's head together. Kirk had not seen a look, a touch, so much as a word out of place. But there must have been. There must have because the news was all over the Enterprise.

However, instead of releasing his hold, he gripped Spock's fingers even more firmly.

I'm here, Spock. You aren't alone. I won't let you fall. I'm here.

It was like a doctrine repeating in his mind. For a moment, Spock's fingers tightened fractionally. His dark eyes half opened, stared upwards as if trying to locate his Captain, lips thinning in exasperation when he failed to accomplish the task.

"Jim?" Amazed to hear him speak at all, Kirk had to bend close to the Vulcan's mouth to catch the filament of sound. "Where --?"

"On our way to the Castle, Spock. We're nearly there. You're going to be all right. Just hang on a while longer."

"I -- will strive -- to -- do so, sir." Black shards of pain burst inside his skull and he shuddered. "Jim -- I--"

Fog swirled about him and his body disappeared. I am dying, he thought.

A great pressure weighed him down as the darkness overwhelmed him. Nevertheless, even as it swallowed him up, he was aware of his Captain's hand wrapped about his own, his Captain's voice crying softly in his mind.

Hang on, Spock. Do it for me. Just hang on.

Chapter 16

I am scared

So afraid to show I care.

Will he think me weak,

If I tremble when I speak?

I am falling like a leaf,

Falling like a star,

Falling where you are.

Catch me don't let me drop,

Care for me don't ever stop.

He opened his eyes, blinked, and blinked again. The room, at first just a pale grey blur, slowly came into focus. He found the light extraordinarily intense. It made his eyes water and his head hurt.

At the back of his mind, there existed a subtle sense of dislocation, a vague confusion. Then he realized that, after so many weeks of failing vision followed by complete darkness, he could actually see again. He was no longer blind.

He stared up at the ceiling, strangely detached: sickbay, he decided after a moment's lethargic reflection, then cautiously tried to turn his head at the sound of footsteps and low voices nearby. His head refused to move, traction, perhaps - or something more ominous.

His heart jumped in apprehension as his brain sent a message to his fingers, to his toes. There was no physical response, zero reaction. To escape the terrible understanding that came to him, he struggled to sit up, feeling a sudden dark, uneasy coiling within his stomach.

Have I regained my vision at the cost of paralysis? If so, it is an inequitable trade-off.

Finding reason to put more effort into the attempt, he concentrated on the sensations his body experienced, isolating the smooth texture of sheeting material against the skin of his shoulders, spine and flanks, the firm support of a flat pillow beneath his head. His eyes appeared sore and swollen; a wayward itchiness tickled his cheeks and forehead, a result of Ryhanen's insidious procedures, no doubt necessary to the extraction of the rogue nanocytes. Although he could not move, there were sensations in his limbs, warmth in his hands and feet. Somewhat reassured by his own logical reasoning, he sighed deeply.

The murmured conversation he could still hear in the background abruptly ceased and two sets of footsteps quickly approached. Faces peered down at him. It was Doctor McCoy and his Captain. Sight of Jim Kirk, drawn and careworn with anxiety, brought an odd tightness to his chest.

"Spock, you're awake."

"Indeed, sir." He looked directly into the weary hazel eyes, beyond them to the short fair hair, tousled now as if with nervous fingers. Kirk's resolute features had softened with concern and revealed the haunted expression of a man who had very nearly lost his best friend - or possibly learned the full truth about him. "May I inquire how long I have--"

"You've been unconscious almost a day and a half. We were starting to get worried." His face cleared as Spock watched, the corner of his mouth gentling into the familiar half-smile. "You can see."

"Affirmative, Captain. My sight is restored," he confirmed, one eyebrow uplifting eloquently. "Obviously, Ser Ryhanen performed his surgery to good effect. However, I -- do seem to have undergone some loss of voluntary movement."

McCoy, studying the body functions panel above the med-couch, spared him a glance. "Nothing to worry about, Spock. I have you in a traction field. It's imperative you don't move until the neural tissue has fully healed or we'll be right back where we started."

"Of course, Doctor," he murmured, hopefully masking his relief from McCoy's penetrating gaze. "You have improved sickbay's technology since last I was here."

"Uh-huh. At least this is one, new-fangled contraption, that seems to have its uses, especially where recalcitrant Vulcans are concerned. It'll keep you in your place, right enough. "

Spock's mouth creased in an ironic almost-smile. However, abruptly fatigued, he was unable to provide a suitably tart riposte, though he tried his best. "You -- have a keen grasp of the obvious as usual, Doctor."

His eyelids fluttered closed. Immediately, he forced them open but he was fooling no one.

Kirk smiled. "Get some rest. There'll be time for us to debrief when you've recovered some of your strength. Pleasant dreams, Spock."

"Thank you, sir. May I say -- how pleasant -- it is to see you again, Captain?"

"I can't disagree with that, Mr. Spock. Sleep well.

"Night, Spock."

"Goodnight, Doctor McCoy."

McCoy dimmed the lights and they left him alone, although not in peace, to sleep. His eyes were irritated, hot and dry and a muscle twitched tediously in his thigh. Behind his closed and inflamed eyelids, he saw Kirk's face again, glimpsed awareness concealed behind the kindly warmth. His secret was out in the open. He had revealed it himself and now both Doctor McCoy and his Captain knew of his desire so long undisclosed, the unrequited yearning that filled his soul.

It should never have happened in this manner. He thought distractedly. It should never have happened at all.

How long before the whole ship knew? He clenched his jaw until his teeth ached.

"It has happened," he said aloud into the dim reaches of sickbay. "Now I must deal with the consequences."

How could his Captain forgive him? He had shown James Kirk what he was, what he had always been, and what Kirk had been too gracious to see. Not only his infatuation but his susceptibility, his inclination towards emotion, the unceasing battle between his Human and Vulcan halves. He was a fraud. Everyone on Vulcan knew that, his father knew that. Now, not only Doctor McCoy but also James Kirk knew it, too.

He must request a transfer off the Enterprise. A transfer application would save Kirk the awkwardness of asking him to re-assign. It would also save Spock the agony of watching his Captain's friendship turn to wariness, to wondering what abhorrent aspirations lay behind Spock's words, Spock's glances, Spock's loyalty --

Most of all, a transfer would give Spock the opportunity to overcome his absorption with his Captain. He needed that. He craved it as an addict hungers after drugs.

However, even with the decision made, knowing that it was the rational thing to do, he still felt an overwhelming dread. To calm himself he mentally started to compose his transfer request, including a plan for reorganizing the science department, as well as suggestions for the most likely candidate to replace him. It was logical and well thought out. It left Captain Kirk without any latitude to refuse, not that he would want to of course, given this opening.

Spock's throat choked on a silent cry, his face contorting with bitter anguish. Held transfixed in the traction field, when the hot tears finally squeezed through his pinched up eyelids, he could do nothing to impede the slow trickle down his cheeks, or prevent the pillow beneath his head soaking with his grief.

* * *

Two interminable days later, McCoy pronounced him well enough to leave sickbay but only after eliciting the promise that he would return without delay to his quarters and rest. He gave his word without the slightest hesitation, undoubtedly intending to honor it. However, he made certain his route passed through the forward observation deck. The area, a labyrinth of web-like hull supports and force field generators provided a maze of odd shaped, private alcoves and small cubicles, each with its personal view of the stars.

Well designed and comfortable, the section was popular among off duty crew who might wish to find a quiet place for whatever pursuits best suited their mood at the time, whether just to watch the stars pass by, to meditate in peace, or to cement some long time or burgeoning friendship. It was a sanctuary that Spock had used often in the past. Now, troubled by doubt and uncertainty, he needed to look out upon the stars, to see the vastness of the universe and to know that he was not only a small part of that, but the All of it, too.

The Vulcan chose a bay with one of the broad, spherical observation ports. He closed the hatch behind him and in the darkness released the circular iris onto space. Enterprise dilated the pupil of one huge eye as for him alone, enabling him to look directly onto the splendor she saw each moment of her great life. He had much to contemplate, for he still had not tendered his relocation request to Captain Kirk.

Why should it prove so difficult, he asked himself as he stared out at the dazzling intensity of the stars? Of course, he knew only too well. It was because of Ra'Kirrke, his t'hy'la.

Ignoring the cushioned lounger against the far wall, he knelt on the floor in the Vulcan way, steepled fingers before him, the starlight washing in through the port soothing his psyche. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, then slowly released the breath.

"I am a Vulcan," he intoned softly, "the mind rules -- the mind controls. Logic is the center of control. Control is the spirit of purpose. I -- am in control."

A memory intruded, he shuddered at its vividness, the intensity of the reminiscence. He was back in the clensor of his hotel room at Ryhanen's Castle. The impostor Kirk had him pinned against the cold wall tiles. Spock's abdominal muscles tightened abruptly as he relived those moments of combined ecstasy and anguish bought about by the dexterous touch of his Captain.

"I am in control," he whispered once again. "Logic is the center of control. Control is the spirit of purpose. The mind rules--"

He gasped for air as strange chills swept up and down his spine. His heart pounded with anxiety, and excitement both, and his skin tingled with adrenalin, pulsing with sensations that he should not be able to feel.

"I am a Vulcan--" His steepled fingers shook in front of his face. With a cry of shame, he lurched unsteadily to his feet and stumbled over to the port. Knees shaking, he leaned his brow against the cool, transparent steel, sucking air into his straining lungs.

He shook his head. Why was he so afraid? Eroticism had influenced Human affairs since the species had dragged itself out of the primeval slime. It was an essential component of their culture, part of what they were - and a fundamental ingredient in Jim Kirk's nature.

Most Humans could not function efficiently if they were denied the activity for any length of time. He knew this; he had learned it within weeks of his arrival on Tehr'a. Humans were not content unless they had abundant opportunity to rub this or that part of their anatomies together. The knowledge that they conducted the interest while entirely rational, even to the extent of being able to engage in polite conversation at the same time had, in the past, the power to shock him rigid with disbelief.

It was certainly far from any definition of ardor by Vulkhanir standards and even after so many years among Humans, he still found this infatuation with sexuality mysterious, complicated, and discomforting. Now, here he was, clutched by those self same emotions and sensations that he had eschewed most diligently since childhood, sensations he most definitely did not wish to feel.

"Shouldn't you be in bed, Mr. Spock?"

Kirk's quiet voice sounded from the hatchway. Spock spun round to face him, profound shock evident on his face, only just able to smother the cry of confusion and alarm that worked in his throat.


"Guilty conscience, First Officer?" Kirk murmured light-heartedly.

"By -- no means, sir." Spock's adam's apple jerked spasmodically as color surged into his cheeks. "I -- did not hear you come in. I -- was startled for a moment that is all."

Kirk strode into the room and before Spock could evade the touch, laid a hand on his shoulder. "You're trembling!"

Desire slammed through Spock as abruptly as the fear had done. Taken aback, startled by an emotion he did not understand and told himself he did not want, he bridled with mortification, his spine stiffening as he crossed his arms before his lean chest in a defensive gesture. "There is really no need for concern, sir. I truly did not intend to disregard the good doctor's instructions. I came -- to view the stars for a moment before I retired."

It was a reason that Kirk readily understood. "You'd better sit down for a while. Computer, increase temperature to Vulcan standard."

"That will not be necessary, sir. I assure you, I am perfectly well." Recovering a little composure, he eased out of Kirk's gentle hold and turned back to the port, avoiding the stringent consideration his Captain bent upon him once more. "What of your own health, Captain? Have you fully recovered from Tel Shimaan's incarceration?"

The tactic appeared to achieve its purpose. Kirk leaned against the port at Spock's side, gazing out onto the awesome starscape, chin propped on his bent forearm, face abruptly wistful. "Now that's a question and a half. The universe is a strange place, don't you think? Always so full of surprises? Who could imagine such a creature as Tel Shimaan?"

He spared Spock a quick glance. "Bones told me that in the dim and distant past, the Dha'ka used to make blood offerings to the arachnids. That's not the whole truth though, is it?"

"No," Spock replied, recalling his union with the Dha'kaht'chun goddess. "The dream spiders are only part of what Tel Shimaan is, Captain. Those who join with her usually do it willingly. There is no coercion. The corporeal form is not important to the Dha'kaht'chun. It is merely a shell the -- spirit -- inhabits. The dream spiders consume it for food but the essence, the soul if you will, joins with Tel Shimaan. S/he is just a link, the medium for the billions of Dha'kaht'chun that have lived and melded together over thousands of years. They are effectively immortal, preserved for as long as Tel Shimaan exists."

He was silent for a time as they both mulled that information over, reliving their differing experiences. At last, he continued, "When the Dha'kaht'chun left their world, the practice had fallen into disfavor. Most of the doctrine was lost or misunderstood. Tel Shimaan continued, however -- and stirred back to life when Ser Ryhanen rediscovered the planet. You were a new experience, Captain. S/he did not wish to lose you."

Kirk sighed, looked purposely at Spock. "I know. S/he had a -- certain allure, one hard to resist. Who doesn't want to live forever or know that we aren't totally alone? We're always searching for something, trying to make contact across the fathomless abyss. Most of us never succeed and even if we do, it's never permanent. Love, sex, companionship, it's all a kind of reaching out -- staving off those fears of being on our own."

"You resisted the temptation, however, Captain."

"I'm not Dha'ka, Spock. We Humans have our own Gods. Perhaps, I'm holding out until I meet the real thing. At least the tourists visiting Sassandran should be safe now. Our library banks should satisfy hir immediate thirst for information and we can call on the other Federation members to keep hir supplied indefinitely."


Kirk grinned quickly. "Enough philosophizing. I promised McCoy I'd see you tucked up in bed - and that's what I'm going to do. Come on, I'll walk you back to your place."

Still puzzled by one occurrence Spock asked, "What of the transporter malfunction, Captain? Has Mr. Scott managed to ascertain the difficulty?"

"Uh-huh. Once he knew all the facts about your sensor web and the senceiver implant. He blames it entirely on you, Mr. Spock."

The First Officer frowned, "How so, Captain?"

"Apparently, it had to do with your I.D.I.C. medallion which is, I think, made up of an amalgam of different metals as well as the central crystal."

"Agreed, sir."

"Uh-huh. According to Scotty, those metals interacted with the sensors through the medium of the crystal, causing the feedback through both the transporter and your senceiver. Without the I.D.I.C, none of it would have happened."

"I see. So, in effect, Mr. Scott believes it was my own fault, sir."

"Scotty wants me to charge you for the time and trouble he was caused, plus the damage to his pore wee circuits."

"I believe a case of his preferred uisge beatha, should be adequate compensation, if you concur, Captain."

Kirk's senceiver translated the phrase as 'water of life'. "His favorite Scotch whiskey should do just fine, Mr. Spock."

They stopped before the Vulcan's door. Instead of leaving him there and continuing to his own cabin, Kirk remained on the threshold, his lips curving upwards as he saw the realization dawn in his First Officer's eyes. He had made a promise to Bones and he was intent on keeping it - to the letter. Spock's eyebrow elevated. To save face he murmured into the growing silence, "If you are not too busy, may I invite you to partake of some more tsa'e, sir?"

"Only if you can assure me that I'm not going to be dead to the world for the next eight hours, Mr. Spock. I'm on duty again in precisely three."

"I will endeavor to ensure the mix is not so potent this time, Captain."

"Then there's nothing I'd like more."

They sat as they had done on the previous occasion, each side of Spock's desk, sipping at the tiny bowls of hot herb mixture the First Officer meticulously prepared. The Vulcan's ribs were a vice around his heart as he looked anywhere but at his Captain, knowing that he must speak out now while the opportunity existed, that he must tell Kirk about his decision to leave the Enterprise.

Kirk maintained an almost dominating presence, gazing at him in silent contemplation as if he knew already of Spock's resolution. The air of tension in the room became almost palpable.

At last Kirk put down his bowl and said softly, "I think we need to talk, Spock."

"Indeed, Captain." Spock's eyes hooded, still not meeting Kirk's forthright gaze, deeply concerned at having to admit his mental anguish.

He hesitated, taking long seconds to compose himself enough to speak. Kirk, unusual for a Human, allowed him the time, waiting silently until his First Officer felt able to begin. "I have ruined our relationship, sir. For that I apologize."

"I doubt that, Spock. You felt what you felt. I'm sorry I didn't recognize it sooner."

Spock placed his bowl on the desk before him, pushed himself quickly to his feet. He strode a step or two away to stare up at the pulsing asenoi. The winged feline peered down in enigmatic silence. "I commemorate every moment you remained in ignorance. At least then we were friends."

"We still are friends, Spock. Nothing has changed." Kirk rose too, coming to stand at the Vulcan's shoulder. "No one knows me the same way you do. You're a part of me, Spock. Probably the best part if truth were known. We need each other."

"I have betrayed your trust," Spock whispered, unable to conceal his misery.

Kirk raked a hand through his hair. Unwilling to stare at Spock's stiff back any longer, he took his First Officer by the arm and led him unwillingly to the neatly made bed. "Come on, let's sit down, and talk about this."

He pushed Spock down, taking a seat beside him, wondering how best to tackle the Vulcan's supposedly repulsive infatuation. The First Officer's expression was dazed, overwhelmed.

"I cannot remain here, Captain. I wish to transfer to another ship."

Kirk had expected something of the sort. "Nothing doing, Mr. Spock. You can't just run from this and hope it will go away. I never took you for a coward. We have to work this out. Both of us."

"It is -- my problem, not yours, sir."

"Is it? What makes you so certain?" Kirk asked. Further words of explanation failed him as he clearly saw the pain etched upon his First Officer's features. What had he done to earn such devotion, he wondered. Without taking time to consider his actions, he reached out and cupped the side of Spock's face. The touch set free a lightning blast that jolted up his arm in a surge of static electricity. It was the only sign he needed. Unashamed, he clasped Spock gently by the shoulders and reached up to kiss his friend on the lips.

Spock stiffened in disbelief but did not pull away. For a time, an eternity, neither of them moved. Kirk could hear the blood ticking in his ears; feel both his and Spock's heart beating in counterpoint to each other. The Vulcan's body was lean and hard, so hard there seemed nothing to him but sinew and bone. That should not have stimulated him, for Kirk liked his women to be soft and curvaceous, but Spock's body was hot against his own, the Vulcan's skin smelling faintly of cinnamon -- cinnamon toast, Kirk thought wondrously.

He slid his hands slowly up the heated flesh of Spock's back, feeling slender muscle and the bony protuberances of spine beneath his questing fingertips. They tingled with an unknown and delicious pleasure.

Spock may have felt discomforted by the mysteries of Human passion but he knew the ground rules well enough. The effect he had on Human females had not escaped his notice. Christine Chapel was only the latest in a long line of love-struck women who had fallen for his innate falcon-like hauteur, undeterred by his evident lack of interest or his inability to reciprocate. However, despite the fact he had gone through pon-farr on at least one occasion and had fathered a daughter, he was a virgin in comparison with Kirk's sexual prowess. (*)

The hardness of his Captain's mouth was strange; ditto the weight and breadth of his compact body. Spock sat quiet under the incongruity, accepting what Kirk gave, returning what he could with childlike hesitancy. He had rarely experienced this Tehr'n custom of touching mouths; the Vulkhanir did not practice it at all. Even so, his lips throbbed with the unusual pressure and he felt again the inherent need start to awaken within him. He could not suppress the poignant moan of desire or the tremors that shook his lean frame as he abruptly wound his arms around Kirk's waist.

The sound, the touch of Spock's fingers on his back, the innocent response, ignited Kirk's own hungry yearning but he knew he could not rush this; he had to go slow and steady for Spock's sake. His lips wandered to a pointed ear tip, gently mouthed the convoluted cartilage within, before caressing Spock's temple. He stroked the silken strands of Spock's hair, marveling at its smoothness, remembering the last time he had done so when the Vulcan had been a captive aboard Kor's battle cruiser. Had that been the moment this had all begun for him? Then as now, he had taken the Vulcan into his arms, offering freely a comfort that Spock had sorely needed. He had known something had changed between them even then but had not been able to identify it. Now he knew that he never wanted the Vulcan to leave his side. He had found what he had been looking for.

All the women he had loved and left, his bed-hopping through the galaxy, the driving force that had compelled him into space, looking for someone he could truly depend on, who would always be loyal whatever he did, who would never turn away or leave him on his own. That someone had been here all along. He did not need Tel Shimaan's immortality or her brand of ecstasy because he already possessed something similar. It resided in the form of his own First Officer, his friend Spock. It was a revelation but also something he had known subconsciously for some time. Now, all he had to do was convince Spock.

He drew a slow, tender line around Spock's forehead with his fingertip, met the confused gaze of the dark eyes that searched his own.

"Why would you do this?"

"Because you're my friend - and I love you." It was the truest thing he had ever said. His sincerity was unquestionable. He repeated it, hearing the wonder in his own voice. "I -- love you."

Kirk pulled Spock closer, kissed him again on the temple, rubbing the tense muscles between his friend's shoulder blades. It was not going to be easy, this relationship, he knew. They both had a few major hang-ups to get over but if they wanted it enough, if they worked hard at it, surely they could make it succeed?

As if in reply to his unspoken question, Spock turned his face to catch the brushing journey of Kirk's mouth.

"I -- need you, Jim."

Kirk was unsure how Spock intended the words. His groin throbbed and he felt himself become rigid. Gently, he kissed the Vulcan again, chaste and soft, before pulling away, although it took all his will power to do it.

"Don't let's run before we can walk, huh?" His voice was both tense and husky. "This -- is going to take some getting used to. I don't think either of us is up to too much excitement right now. Let's give it a day or two."

Spock inclined his head with consummate Vulcan dignity. He inhaled deeply, before releasing the breath on a sigh. "A -- most logical suggestion, Captain."

"No more talk of transferring off the Enterprise, though. You hear me, Spock?"

"Is that an order, Captain?"

Kirk ran a shaky hand through his hair. "No. I meant what I said. I do love you, Spock. If that means letting you go where you'll be more at peace I'll do it."

It will break my heart and something vital will have gone out of my life, but I will do it.

His heart plummeted as he saw Spock's habitual, enigmatic expression fall back into place, his manner as coldly controlled as he had ever seen it. The First Officer sat a little straighter on the bed beside him, his face half turned away, as if contemplating his words. An aloof silence seemed to swallow Kirk. He waited. At last, the Vulcan looked straight at him, entirely focused, one eyebrow on the rise.

"I do not believe I am a coward, Captain. I hope I am not." His tone was measured, steady, but still a little pensive. "However, you do understand that Vulcans only come into sexual heat every seven years?"

Kirk blinked, gulped, then shrugged. "Once every seven years is -- better than nothing, Spock."

Spock thought about that for a moment before quietly reaching out to take Kirk's hand within his own long fingers. Instantly a connection formed between them, a mind thread. Softly, he murmured, "Perhaps there is another way, sir. Let me show you how the Vulkhanir kiss--"

The Beginning.

(*)Debt of Dishonor.