Disclaimer: Star Trek is the property of Paramount/Viacom. This story is the property of and is copyright (c) 1980 by Lynda Carraher. Originally published in Saurian Brandy Digest  #27), Sylvia Stanczyk, editor. Rated PG-13.

HOUSE OF MIRRORED FACES

by

Lynda Carraher

 

I

PON FARR

Time of Mating

 

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

I wait, scanning the skies, as my many-times-great grandmothers waited on another world, pacing their tiny balconies and scanning the seas for the return of the seafaring men they had wed. I know the starfaring man I have wed would call my vigil illogical; his ship is no tall-masted whaler to appear on the horizon. Chances are that I will not sight it at all; it will be but a tiny new star, appearing to hover as it momentarily matches its orbit to that of this planet. But they will know, those others in their sterile building, with their lighted panels and infinitely sensitive relays which sense so much more – and yet so much less – than the frail and faulty neurons and synapses of my body.

And yet I wait, because I must, because . . . somehow . . . I will know, without understanding how I will know.

That is illogical, he would say.

Nevertheless, I will know, I answer him.

We have these conversations often in my mind. Or rather, I have them. I know that we are not truly in communication, but my soul refuses to accept that.

The soul, he says reprovingly, is an imaginary organ. It cannot be proven to exist.

It does exist, my distant, logical mate. It can impel the body to action; it can inflame the mind beyond reach of your precious reason; it can lead the self to total negation. Can such a demonstrated force be nonexistent merely because we lack the skill to mount a slice of it on a microscope slide?

I think, therefore I am? he asks with quirked eyebrow.

Yes, I answer. And so I wait, remembering, and wait, anticipating. As the stars move in their inexorable rhythms, so is he driven by the inexorable rhythms of his own kind, independent of his will, perhaps even against his will, to come to me from the vastness of his world to the confines of mine. I wait, and am satisfied that he will come, and think of the currents that draw us together.

My name is Lara Merritt, and I am of Earth. My father is a diplomat; a man whose profession, according to he who is now my husband, is to prolong any given crisis. But his own father is bound to the same yoke, and because of this binding, we are wed, as his father before him was wed to a human woman. I think of her now – the infinitely wise Amanda, who has spent more than half her life on this planet, in this Vulcan world but not of it.

I accept now that it was she who chose me for her son, that she has become the architect of my being because of a chance meeting. Through her urgings, her husband Sarek approached my father and the arrangements were made. I was angry at first, resentful, but eventually I came to see the wisdom of it. Even now I do not fully understand how that slim, determined woman managed it. She has the subtle strength of water wearing away stone, has Amanda, for I have discovered Sarek to be a stubborn man. If I could choose a wedding gift, it would be her secret strength, for she tells me her son has the same stubbornness. I have seen that in him, and it frightens me.

Still, the problem was there. He must marry, and the Vulcan elders must have yet another, stronger tie with the planet which – despite all its protestations to the contrary – is and always was the true power of the United Federation of Planets; the planet Earth, which was once my home but is no longer.

So the arrangements were made, and over a year ago we stood before the elder T’Pau and were promised in the ancient way. Or so it appeared. When he touched me, he did not touch my mind, and when I confided this to Amanda, she only smiled her secretive smile and said, “Wait; it will come. It was the same for me. You have much to learn, Lara, and you have a teacher – which is more than I had. You have better than a year before the pon farr comes again, and by then you will be ready.”

The pon farr. It is upon him now, that violent, compelling drive that brings him to me. Am I ready? I think so, but I do not know. So I take the only action left to me. I wait, scanning the skies.

And now, on this night, the waiting is over. I know it, and as I turn to prepare for the morning, I can hear him saying . . . This is most illogical.

But I think, my husband; therefore I am.

>>> <<<

I come to Koon-ut-Kal-if-fee with the attendants I have chosen and those Amanda has chosen for me. I find myself shaking, and wish for a hand to hold, but there is none.

I catch a glimpse of him, and know as surely as if he had told me, that he too feels totally alone. The attendants he would have preferred have been barred from the ceremony by T’Pau herself. Her reasoning is well understood. Seven years ago, tradition was broken here and the ceremony profaned. But there will be no challenge this time, no combat between men who are bound more closely than brothers.

The ceremony is brief, and then we are left alone to go to the temple to make our joining complete.

Amanda has warned me that this man of Koon-ut-Kal-if-fee will not be the quiet, dignified Starfleet officer whom I had met the year before. I had gone to Amanda’s home to meet her son, armed only with my resentment of her meddling and with my father’s promise that we would pursue the matter no further if I found him unacceptable. I had found a man of quiet, courtly dignity, a man aware of his place in the scheme of things beyond his control. He knew as well as I that this was no casual encounter, yet he made no reference to what might come of this. We spoke of my medical work, or his career, of the Starfleet service we shared.

I left with the knowledge that my life had been changed. Whether he in turn found me acceptable, whether the negotiations between my family and his came to fruition – none of it mattered. I knew it would be long before I would forget that elegant, lean body, the planes and angles of that somber face, and longer still before I would forget the irrational but undeniable surge of sexual excitement I felt in his presence.

The man of that night had been distant, detached, correct; indeed he was a different man from the one who now crosses my fingers with his own in the Vulcan manner as we enter the temple. The only constant is the apparently impenetrable shield around that which se call self. I still do not know him; he is still protected – or imprisoned – behind that wall of his own building.

When we are within the chamber, he pulls me against him, and I lift my face for a kiss that does not come. The kiss has no place in the mindlessness of pon farr.

“Do not resist him,” Amanda has told me, “even though the instant will come when what you thought you desired becomes a violation of your deepest self. Remember that. Hold fast to it. Submission means life – resistance could mean death.”

Even though my body is aroused and my mind prepared, it is hard not to fight him. There is no courtship here, no pretended seduction, none of the delicate nuances of loveplay – only the naked and ugly face of lust. He is so intent, so single-minded, that what our bodies are doing verges on bestiality. I try to clear my mind, to concentrate on the sensations, to will myself to respond.

I catch his rhythm, the drive of his hips, the deep shuddering thrusts, and try to climb the crest of the sensory wave building at my core. Now his hands touch my face, as they did in the ceremony of promise, and I know that this time will be different. I can feel his consciousness invading mine, ruthless, violently probing, experiencing, shining light into the corners I prefer to keep darkened.

I try to move away, but his grip is iron, and I realize suddenly that this is the violation Amanda spoke of; this is the assault I must not resist. The body accommodates itself to the act of mating, however bizarre its manifestations, but the mind does not.

I don’t expect pain, but it rips through me like a bonesaw, driven by his need to know, to possess, and in my surprise I yank away with a “No – wait!”

He pins me, physically and mentally, and I feel a tearing as the force of his mind plunders my own memories and emotions – no not there that’s mine don’t – and he sees it all, ravages it all – lust and pain and pride and joy, shame and fright and love and longing, hunger and envy and loss; don’t go yes touch me there heal give me come back – and there’s an echo not of my own voice, underneath, inside, woven around and mixed through – not good enough try harder mother don’t show don’t feel I burn betrayal earther shame father hide control alone conceal –

I am behind his shield, and it is not a shield. It is a prison, and it contains a lifetime of emotions repressed and denied, emotions relentlessly compressed into a tiny, infinitely dense pinpoint composed of joy and pain and elation and anger and hate; of lust and laughter and fear too long denied. Images and memories flash by, his and mine, shredded and remixed – a face, a gesture, a child’s party, a casket, fragments of a song, light through a prism, snow angels, the movement of cloth across skin, walking over rocky ground, alien flowers that sing to the touch, resin on toe shoes, flickering flame, the taste of lemon, fingers on strings, swimming in warm water, tiers of seats in a lecture hall, the softness of fur, a burgundy gown, a stone idol, the blare of an alarm, the smell of sweat, the feeling of grit on the skin, tired muscles, first sexual stirrings, bodies entwined, penetration – is that what s/he feels? – the panic of loss, falling, a handclasp, an arm around the shoulders, voices, red sky, a starfield, and darkness. Just darkness and freefall. And then nothing.

>>> <<<

Light. Light of the sun, not of the mind. It strikes my face and warms my body. My body, but no longer mine. My mind, but no longer mine. I cover my body, not from any need to warm myself, but from the need to become myself again. All my conditioning tells me I should feel degraded, used. But I do not. Nor am I fulfilled. I am suspended, nonfunctioning.

I call his name softly. “Spock . . .”

It was not my intention to awaken him, but he comes awake suddenly. There is an instant of disorientation, then it is gone. He looks at me, then away, embarrassed by his loss of control, uncertain perhaps of how much I remember, how much he may have revealed. He speaks my name, his voice rasping, and then breaks off. There seems to be no more to say.

It comes to me in this moment that this is my time, perhaps my only opportunity. We have the remainder of this day and the coming night before we are expected to leave this place. If we are to be truly wed in my way as well as in his, it must begin now while he is still uncertain. But what to say? How to begin?

His voice comes, low and hoarse and hesitant. “I am sorry, Lara, that it was painful to you. I did not mean to cause you pain.”

“No,” I say. “That’s no longer important. It was necessary. I understand that now.” I move toward him, dropping the robe, and he looks away.

“Spock – look at me.” There is no response. “Am I so repugnant to you?”

“No.” He looks at me, but there is no expression in his face.

I take another step toward him, and now we are nearly touching. “This is a woman’s body, Spock. It was made to give pleasure, and to receive it.”

“This is not done for pleasure,” he says. “This is done for need.”

“The need is pleasure.”

“It is for the continuation of the race.”

“You are wrong,” I say evenly, realizing this may be the first time in his adult life anyone has dared to say those precise words to him. “You are a scientist; I am a doctor. You know as well as I that the mechanics of conception can be performed in a laboratory.”

“Perhaps it should be done so.”

“Perhaps,” I agree, and he quirks an eyebrow at me, surprised by my apparent agreement but cautious, still, of betrayal. “Or perhaps we should all be androgynous, like the Luridians. You must admit it would be a more efficient system. More logical.”

He stiffens, “Do not mock me, Lara.” There is danger in his voice, warning.

“I do not mock you, my husband.” It is the first time I have addressed him thus, and his gaze falters. “I am only trying to tell you – to show you – that there is a reason why we are created thus. The reason is pleasure, and joy, and love.”

“I do not know these things. I am incapable of giving what I do not have.”

Now. This is the moment. I take his hand in both of mine. “You forget, Spock – I have been behind your wall. I know your mind – I know your soul. I’ve felt what you refused to feel. There is joy there, and love. Perhaps…”  I falter, then go on. “Perhaps it isn’t for me, not yet. Maybe not ever.” Can he know what it costs me to say that? To admit it, and to know it? “But it is there. I felt it; I can nurture it, and if it isn’t for me…” I am perilously close to tears. I blink them away with a shake of my head. “If it isn’t for me, then I’ll accept that, and take my pleasure in having been present at the moment of its conception.” I turn his hand in mine, kiss the palm and the tips of the fingers. I find I am trembling, but it is not from the cold.

“Lara--”

I block his words with my fingers against his lips. “Centuries ago, Vulcans fought here for their mates. Seven years ago, you fought here for yours, and won, and gave her away because the price was too high. Now I demand that you meet my challenge.”

He looks down at me, and his dark eyes are full of some secret amusement. “I find this a most unorthodox way to conduct a battle.”

I permit myself a smile for the first time in months, and touch his cheek. “This, my darling, is only a minor skirmish.” And lift my face again. This time, the kiss comes. It is tentative, curious, and when my tongue touches his lips, he pulls away, as if surprised. I kneel on the pallet and pull him down beside me. “Do you find that unpleasant?”

He considers for a moment. “Only unexpected,” he says.

“There are many things in loving that bring unexpected pleasure. Many kinds of touching beyond the touching of minds.” My fingers meet his face, tracing the line of cheekbone and jaw. “Infinite diversity in infinite combination,” I remind him.

His hand covers mine, captures it. “Yes,” he says, and when his mouth finds mine again, there is no hesitation, no drawing back. Only two people discovering each other as if for the first time.

Later, as dusk comes, we lie separate but touching, his fingers tracing patterns on my breast and belly.

“I begin to understand,” he says, “why Humans place so much value on this.”

“Are you won away from your heritage so easily, Spock?” I am teasing, but he takes me seriously.

“No. To understand is not to accept. And there is still much I do not understand.” He props himself on one elbow and studies my face. “You have known other men, Lara.”

“Yes.”

“And taken pleasure in their bodies?”

Apprehension crawls beneath my skin. “Yes.”

But he seems not angry, only curious. “And yet you did not stay with them. Why?”

“Because… I guess because I never knew one who could let me lead my own life.” The lie comes easily enough; it has been worn smooth by frequent use. The truth has sharper edges. I think for the first time in years of Garret, who wanted only another conquest to add to his list, and of Burr, who left me for a woman more beautiful than I. Did he see those things in my mind, or only the scars left behind?

It does not matter now; now there is only this one man, whose fingers leave trails of fire on my skin and whose mouth is a drug so sweet I would barter my soul for it. As perhaps I have.

>>> <<<

As we take our position for transporting, I feel rather as Eve must have felt when she was cast out of Paradise. Vulcan would strike many as a strange Eden, but it is the only one I have known.

The casting out had already begun before we came to this point, however. The days of our stay here were not many, and the nights far too few, yet even as they slipped through my hands, so did Spock draw away from me. On the last night, I awoke to find him gone, and when I searched for him I found him in the garden, staring at the sky even as I had done.

I felt betrayed, shut out, alone, and I silently cursed the stars, willing them to fall from the skies. I would gather them in my hands and give them to him if it would keep his heart open to mine. But they only hung there, mocking me.

Even though I drew him inside again, wove a loving net to capture his spirit, his body had the cold tang of metal. Afterwards, he lay passive, staring through the open window at the stars.

Now, as we shimmer into being on the Enterprise, I see the face of the serpent for the first time – this ship and what it stands for, and this man and what he stands for.

There is relief in his smile as he steps forward. “It’s good to see you, Mr. Spock.” He turns to me. “And--”

He falters for a moment, unsure of how to address me. I let him stew for a moment before saying, “Dr. Merritt will do, Captain.”

“My wife prefers it thus,” Spock says, stepping down from the pad. “We feel it will eliminate a certain amount of confusion.”

“Yes, of course.” But he does not seem sure as he takes my hand to assist me down, an action I could have accomplished alone. “Welcome aboard the Enterprise” – ah – Dr. Merritt. I’m Captain Kirk.”

“I’m honored, Captain. We didn’t expect a welcoming committee.”

“A committee of two,” he says, indicating the man behind the transporter console. “Mr. Scott, my Chief Engineer. And the honor is ours.”

Scott acknowledges me with a brief nod. He is obviously going to reserve judgment.

“Scotty, show – ah – Dr. Merritt to her quarters. Mr. Spock, I need you on the bridge.”

And so it begins. Why, then, do I feel it is an ending?

*************

McCOY

*************

Paperwork! Damn paperwork! The idea that a starship is propelled by matter-antimatter engines is an illusion; it runs on paper, preferably in triplicate form. I am relieved when Christine enters the office.

“Dr. M’Benga’s replacement is here,” she says stiffly.

I push the papers aside. “All right, Nurse Chapel. Send her in.” I have no time for Chapel’s annoyance today. Ever since she discovered Spock’s reason for going to Vulcan, she’s been about as much help as a broken tooth. I’m going to have to have a good talk with her, and soon. She’s too good a nurse to mope around like some lovesick adolescent.

I look up as the object of Christine’s animosity enters the office, and stand to take the tape she offers.

“Dr. McCoy?”

“Yes. And you must be--”

“Dr. Lara Merritt.”

“Ah . . . yes.” I slip the tape into the viewer and scan it, just to make sure I’m talking to whom I think I’m talking to. I resist the impulse to take a fuller look at the file; there will be time enough for that later.

“Sit down, Dr. Merritt. I’m very pleased to have you on the staff. And I understand congratulations are in order.”

“Sir?”

“On your … wedding?” If this thing has fallen through – like the last time – I’m going to have a large-sized foot in my mouth.

“Thank you, Doctor.”

I take another look at her. She is a small woman, and though her records indicate that she is 29, she looks younger. She is certainly not what I had expected. The few women I’ve known who appeared to get under Spock’s tough Vulcan hide have been rare beauties by any man’s standards. Dr. Lara Merritt is not a woman a man would give more than a passing glance. Oh, it’s all there – short brownish hair, eyes midway between blue and grey, a good enough figure in the short blue uniform – but somehow it doesn’t all come together. Here’s a girl who just missed being beautiful and who has settled for that nebulous tag we call “attractive”. She is waiting patiently, apparently undisturbed by my woolgathering. I switch off the viewer.

“Excuse me, Dr. Merritt. I was just – ah – taking a look at your record. This is your first deep-space assignment?”

“Yes, sir.” Her voice is husky and warm; it seems incongruously sensuous, coming as it does from a firm, no-nonsense mouth.

“And what was your work on Vulcan?”

“It’s all in the record, sir.”

“Yes – ah – but I prefer to – er – hear it from you. Gives me an idea of what you thought of it.” Dammit! This is ridiculous – I’m supposed to be conducting this interview!

“I served my residency on Vulcan, sir. My father is attached to the Earth embassy there. Then I joined Starfleet, and two years ago, I qualified for a research grant dealing with viral mutations. Because of the facilities available on Vulcan, I set up my project there. It also gave me a chance to be near my father.”

“Yes, of course. Well, your record is very impressive, and I’m pleased to have you on my staff.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

At least she has the grace not to point out that I just said that five minutes ago.

“I’ll have Nurse Chapel show you your office and the lab facilities, then, and I look forward to talking more with you this evening.”

“This evening, sir?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t anyone tell you? We’re planning a small dinner for you and Mr. Spock tonight. Nothing fancy, just a chance to get better acquainted.”

She reacts as if I’d touched a raw nerve. I think for a moment that she is going to jump out of the chair and run from the room. She collects herself visibly, then sits twisting her hands together. “With all due respect, sir, I’d like to be excused tonight. I don’t think – that is, it’s been rather…” She trails off, blushing.

“That’s quite all right, Dr. Merritt. I understand.” But I don’t. I buzz for Christine and tell her to show Dr. Merritt her office, then sit back, thinking. I had this woman figured all wrong. She’s not controlled; she’s damped down like a nuclear pile approaching critical mass. I’m going to pull her psychological profile, and if I don’t like what I see, I’m going to ground her. I don’t care if Starfleet does prefer to post married couples on the same ship, I will not have an hysteric female on my staff.

But first I’d better tell Jim not to uncork any champagne. The wedding dinner is definitely off.

*************

“Stardate 3105.5; Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy recording. Initial Performance Rating, subject Lieutenant (j.g.) Lara Merritt, Serial Number ME8573715-874MD.

Professional Rating:  92% and improving. Subject's professional performance has been adequate. Subject works well without supervision and is able to take initiative action. Subject’s diagnostic and treatment techniques are acceptable but reflect a lack of experience in clinical practice. These are improving.

Physical Rating: 100%. Subject is female Caucasian, home planet Earth, age 29. Height 160 cm, weight 41 kg. All physical responses excellent. Subject has an outstanding amount of stamina and is unusually strong for her size. This can be a tremendous asset in cases where the patient is unconscious or uncooperative.

Psychological Rating: 80% and static. This is Subject’s first deep-space assignment. After 30 days, she does not appear to have made any discernible adjustments to conditions of prolonged space duty. Subject displays a marked hostility toward one of her co-workers as well as a covert hostility toward her commanding officer. Subject spends most off-duty hours in her quarters and does not appear to be interested in establishing peer-group relationships.

Summary: Subject’s professional and physical ratings are acceptable, but psychological rating is marginal. Recommend Performance Ratings at 30-day intervals until such time as psychological rating improves. If no improvement is forthcoming within 120 days, recommend reassignment to a planetary post.”

In a pig’s eye! I snap off the recorder. Recommendation – get that woman off this ship right now. There is nothing quite so nebulous, nothing quite so frustrating, as trying to justify a reassignment order on the basis of a marginal psychological rating.

If I say a patient’s skin doesn’t feel right, I can order a dozen tests run until I pin down the problem. If I say a patient smells like he’s got Rigellian influenza, I can have this whole crew immunized within hours. But if I say this woman means trouble, I have to have something concrete to back up my claim. If I can’t produce that something, then all I can do is stand back and wait for the explosion, and hope there’ll be enough pieces left for me to put back together.

For at least the tenth time, I put Lara Merritt’s record tape in the viewer. It hasn’t changed. There’s still nothing there I can nail down, but it’s not exactly a record to use as an example of prime Starfleet material.

There’s that dive in her scholastic record, for one thing. Lara Merritt nearly flunked out of college in her junior year. She failed four out of six courses in the last quarter and just squeaked by in the other two. It must have taken a lot of summer-school cramming and a little judicious pull to get her reinstated.

That kind of dive in itself isn’t too unusual. The reasons that crop up most frequently are personal problems that don’t show up on a record – financial emergencies, affairs of the heart, or just suddenly waking up one morning and saying “What the hell am I doing here?” Especially in a pre-med course.

Then, two years after joining the service, she requested a release. Wanted to quit and get married. And, boom, suddenly a fat research grant – certainly not justified by her performance in the field – and she packs her bags and heads for Vulcan, and Daddy.

Oh, yes. Daddy. The one who’s “attached to the Earth embassy” on Vulcan. I’ll say he’s “attached”. Frederick R. Merritt is the Ambassador to Vulcan. That certainly explains the research grant, and a couple of other things besides.

I feed the record through until I come to that baffling psychological profile again. I know you, Lara Merritt. You’re right here in front of me, all neatly charted out. Now, what’s a woman with a Sensuality Quotient as high as yours doing married to a Vulcan? That must have been some interesting honeymoon.

Well, this isn’t getting me anywhere. I pull the Performance Rating tape, placing it in Jim Kirk’s “Review” folder. I have no doubts that he will be camping on my doorstep as soon as he’s read it.

Sure enough, he shows up just as I am finishing a late meal in the office. His face is grim.

“That bad, Bones?” he says, dropping the deck on the table.

I nod.

“Covert hostility toward the commanding officer?”

“In plain English, Jim, she doesn’t like you.”

He sits down and helps himself to the last cup of coffee in the carafe. “Where in the book does it say that the captain has to be Mr. Popularity?”

“It doesn’t, and you don’t. But somewhere in that book, it says than an officer has a responsibility to put aside personal feelings when they interfere with the performance of assigned duty. Both Dr. Merritt and Nurse Chapel seem to have forgotten that.”

He looks puzzled for a moment, and then understanding lights his features. “Oho. The old green-eyed monster rears its ugly head.”

“Spare me the ancient platitudes, Jim. This thing is serious. Christine took it pretty hard when she found out Spock was getting married again. Asking her to work with his wife is adding insult to injury. As for Lara – either somebody’s told her how Christine feels about Spock, or she’s figured it out for herself. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is that if the situation doesn’t improve, I swear I’m going to ground Dr. Merritt.”

“Maybe if I talked to her--”

“Absolutely the worst possible action. You’re a far greater rival to her than Nurse Chapel.”

“Me?” he yelps, and the hot coffee slops over the lip of the cup. “Me!” He comes out of the chair like a scalded cat – or scalded captain.

“You’re dripping coffee on my desk, Jim.”

“The hell with your desk! You just suggested--”

“I didn’t suggest anything, and I am not casting aspersions on your rampant heterosexuality. It’s not at all unusual for a woman to be jealous of her husband’s male friends. You spend eight hours a day on the bridge with Spock. You work out together in the gym, you play chess by the hour, half the time you eat together--”

“There is a certain amount of ship’s business that cannot be conducted on the bridge. As my First Officer, Mr. Spock must be apprised of--”

“Don’t get defensive with me. I’m not the one who thinks you’re breaking up Spock’s happy home.”

He opens his mouth, and then realizes I am needling him. He sits back down, shaking his head. “One of these days, Bones…”

“But you can see you’re not the person to talk to her.”

“Yes. And I assume you’ve already tried.”

“I’ve talked to Lara and Christine both until I’m blue in the face. And within five minutes, they’re sniping at each other again. I do want you to talk to Christine. And … as much as I hate to suggest it … I think Spock is the one to talk to Dr. Merritt. She is his wife.”

“And you want me to talk to Spock.”

“You are the Captain.”

“Thanks a bunch.” He gets up to leave.

“Jim--”

He turns, waiting, and I find it’s not easy to say what I’m thinking. “Just have him tell her to lay off Christine. Don’t mention … this other thing. It’s something she’s going to have to work out for herself.”

“Sure.” He looks at me and frowns, then crosses to the desk. “Bones … I get the feeling you’re trying to tell me something.”

I hesitate. It’s something I can’t put into words. Not yet. “Just … watch yourself. This could develop into a very sticky situation. I don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”

It seems a long time before he answers, and when he does, his face and voice reflect his concern. “Neither do I, Bones. Neither do I.”

I know he means it, but I am still uneasy after he has gone. This woman means trouble, and the first time she gives me cause, I will have her off this ship.

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

The article is not going well. I have been trying to correlate the research from my grant project into an article for the IPMJ, but my mind wanders, and the notes I scribbled to myself weeks and months ago on Vulcan no longer seem to make any sense. I give up and shovel the entire mess into the top drawer of my desk.

I stretch back in the chair and reflect for the dozenth time that the quarters Spock and I now share seem to reflect our lives ironically well – together but separate. The partition separating two suites has simply been removed, so now there is one long room containing two work areas, each with a sleeping alcove and a small bathroom leading off of it. The marks on the bulkhead where the partition was removed are still new and glaring, but even if they were not there, the room would still be at war with itself. That portion which is his has not changed – it is still vaguely Oriental in its clean, uncluttered lines. The Vulcan lyre hangs untouched on the grilled divider, the pieces on the tri-level chess board are neatly lined up in preparation for a game that is yet to begin, the ancient-looking stone idol whose origin I do not know still scowls solemnly across the room.

The end of the room where I sit is – in contrast – as drab and impersonal as a sterile stopover room in some second-class hostel. The dichotomy annoys me, and I decide to unpack some of my personal items. It is a chore I have been putting off for some time – why, I do not know. It is certainly not for lack of time. I have copious amounts of that.

Spock is always gone when I awaken in the morning; he seldom returns before I have gone to bed. What he does with his time, I do not know, for he has made it quite clear to me that I am not expected to share his off-duty hours.

Somehow, things are not working out as I had expected. Patience, Amanda had counseled. Rivers of patience, oceans of it. If only there had been more time together on Vulcan – more time to strengthen that precious bond before we were shoveled into the voracious maw of the Enterprise.

We have not made love since that last, unsatisfying night on Vulcan. This is more disturbing to me than I had anticipated. In the past, the needs of my body have been easy enough to fill. Even on Vulcan, there were meeting places where non-Vulcans congregated; places where a lingering look or half-concealed smile would bring a response from some appropriate stranger. Words would be exchanged, perhaps a few glasses of wine, and then an encounter that might last for an hour or for a few days before it was over and you said goodbye. No strings, no tears, no grand passion.

In the closed society of a starship, such an episode would be impossible, even if I wanted one. Which I don’t. What I want is my husband – my elegant, beautiful husband, who learned so quickly the delights of the flesh, and who appears to have forgotten them just as quickly.

The door behind me slides open with a soft hiss, and he is standing there. I flush uncomfortably, wondering if my thoughts have pulled him here. There is some kind of lingering effect from the mind-link; something I have not yet been able to nail down, but I often feel the presence of his mind in mine. The presence is not there now, and a look at him confirms that he has other things in mind. He is standing too rigidly, his face too carefully controlled.

“Lara,” he says, and even his voice is bound in careful, tight control. “I must speak with you. Now.”

>>>>> <<<<<

I did not know it was possible to be so angry without exploding into apoplexy, or chair-throwing hysteria, or both. The training I received on Vulcan keeps me sated and tearless, but nothing I can do will stop the adrenalin from flooding my system, or keep the blood from roaring in my ears. When he is finished, he quite calmly goes to bed, leaving me fighting a face that will not stop burning and a stomach which is knotting like a nest of vipers.

I realize that I cannot stay in this cabin another instant without disgracing myself, and I leave wordlessly. There must be enough miles of corridors on this ship so that I can walk this anger to death.

Meddlers! How dare they! How could they do this to me? To him! Any gains I might have made in that brief interlude on Vulcan have been totally destroyed tonight by those … those… I cannot even think of an epithet foul enough for those meddlesome, interfering…

“I have been informed…” he began. I’m sure he has been. By either Kirk or McCoy, or both of them in tandem – that unholy duo who fear that I might disturb the mighty workings of their precious ship.

They have shamed and degraded me as pon farr never could, and through me, him. A Vulcan’s integrity is more precious to him than life itself, and they have made me the instrument to threaten his honor. And Caesar’s wife thought she had to be above reproach!

Without conscious planning, I have come to the entrance to Sickbay, and on an impulse, I go in. It was a mistake, for she is there – Christine Chapel. I turn to go, but she calls my name. I turn, still seething. The cool composed nurse is gone. She is pale, and her eyes are red. Has she been crying?

“I think we need to have a talk, Dr. Merritt.”

“I have had quite enough talking this evening, Nurse Chapel.”

“Please – don’t go. We need to work this out now – tonight – before any more damage is done.”

The damage is already done, you foolish woman. What has been destroyed tonight may never be restored. Yet I do not leave. As much as I hate to admit it, she is right. If I am to keep this assignment, to be near Spock, to try to breach the wall between us, I must be able to halter my dislike for this woman.

“Very well.” I force myself to be casual as I sit down near her.

Now that I have agreed, she seems at a loss to know how to begin. Her face is angled down as she studies her nails. “Dr. M’Benga was a fine man and an excellent doctor,” she says haltingly. “It seemed rather unfair to me that he was arbitrarily transferred, and I took my resentment out on you. That was very unprofessional.”

“So is avoiding the truth.”

She looks up at me sharply, anger flaring in her eyes.

“I am neither blind nor stupid, Miss Chapel. Your dislike for me has nothing to do with Dr. M’Benga.”

She colors, caught in the lie. “How long--” she begins, and her voice catches. She doesn’t need to voice the whole question. I know what she means, even if she will not say it.

“Since the first time I saw you look at him.” Somehow, I am not angry any longer. The anguish is so plain in her face that I am reminded of myself years ago when Burr walked out of my life forever. Suppose I’d had to stay there, to work every day with the woman he’d chosen? I honestly think I would have done murder. But murder is not in this woman’s face, only loss.

“I didn’t know it showed,” she says softly.

“Not to others, perhaps.” I find I cannot meet her gaze any longer, yet there is something else I must say. “But what I saw in your eyes – it was like looking into a mirror. Because I love him, too.”

She moves away, uncomfortable, and resumes what she had been doing when I came in.

Something in her movement strikes me, and I ask, “What were you doing here, at this hour?”

She is flustered. “This cabinet--” she says. “I’ve been meaning to--” She breaks off, looks at me with that bright blue gaze. “No more avoiding the truth, Dr. Merritt?”

“No more. And it’s Lara.”

She closes the cabinet door and sits down, hands folded. “This is where I belong,” she says. “This place – this work – it’s my anchor. As his work is his anchor. If by our actions we’ve cut him adrift from that – I don’t think I could stand it.”

“Nor could I.” Did I call her foolish? She has more wisdom than I, I think, and more courage as well. Had circumstances been different, she might well have attained what she wishes for. But I know now that our enmity is at an end. Neither of us is willing to destroy that which we battle for.

“Truce?” I ask, stepping toward her with my hand out.

“Truce,” she says, and surprises me by extending her own hand in the Vulcan salute, which I return with a smile.

“Now,” I say, “about this cabinet…”

^^^^^^^^^^

SPOCK

^^^^^^^^^^

She handles her anger well, for a Human, this wife of mine. On the outside, at any rate. Inside is a different matter, and it is this inner anger which is burning through the link.

There is a certain amount of anger in my own mind, too, though it is unworthy of a Vulcan to admit it. Anger, like all the base emotions, tends to disrupt one’s efficiency.

She makes no attempt to defend her actions, nor does she offer to change them in the future. Yet she must change them if she is to continue her post on the Enterprise, and she wants that very much. It would be better for both of us, I think, if she were reassigned. Her presence here is disruptive, and her feelings toward the Captain make it nearly impossible for me to work with him when both are in the same room. There is also the fact that her actions reflect upon me, illogical though that is. Illogical or not, I cannot permit her to diminish my usefulness here, and if she is not able to come to terms with the situation, I shall be forced to insist on her reassignment. Or mine.

I have been among Humans long enough to know that leaving the room so abruptly is considered to be “rude”. However, I have transmitted the message as charged, and I see no point in additional discussion. Further, it is necessary to protect myself against the onslaught of raw emotion emanating from Lara.

Soon she leaves, and as the physical distance between us increases, I am able to diminish the link’s impact. It has been fading gradually since we left Vulcan when the pon farr ended; I can manage to keep it on an unobtrusive level most of the time. Each time we came together as man and woman, it became oppressively strong, nearly impossible to tune out. Would it become so again if we lived together as man and wife in the Human manner?

She wants that, I know. In fact, she seems to devote a rather inordinate amount of thought to eroticism. Are all Human females thus? Impossible to determine, as she is the only one to whom I have been linked in precisely such a manner, and it is hardly the sort of thing one could expect to discuss with a woman. If she is typical of Human females, though, it does shed a great deal of light on many of the actions I have observed in others of her species and gender.

I can still feel her anger, simmering slowly now like a neglected cooking pot, and mixed with it are traces of shame and a curious kind of loss. Loss of what? Something she apparently finds quite important.

Enough. This speculation is pointless, and I still have staff evaluations to complete. I tune the link down to its finest, key into my workstation and begin calling up files for review.

Later, as I shut the workstation down, I am aware that the anger is gone.

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

The storage cabinet is indeed chaotic. She accepts my assistance without comment, and we work quietly for nearly two hours.

We are just finishing up when the doors hiss open. I recognize Lieutenant Sulu, the helmsman, whose Asian face is lined with concern. He is supporting a second crewman whose face is hidden because he is bent nearly double.

“Get him up on the treatment table,” I order.

As soon as Sulu releases him, the patient turns on one side and jerks his knees up toward his abdomen. I call Chapel to assist me in getting him turned and restrained so that I can examine him. I recognize him as the young navigator who so often works with Sulu, but I cannot recall his name.

“I’ll go get Dr. McCoy,” Sulu offers.

Chapel gives me a quick glance, then hands me the feinberg. “That won’t be necessary, Lieutenant. Dr. Merritt can handle this.”

I give her a brief look and she nods shortly. I pull the patient’s ID tag – Ensign Pavel Chekov – and hand it to Chapel so she can pull up his file. He is thrashing against the restraints, muttering in Russian, and on an impulse I answer him in the same language, telling him not to worry. He gives me a fever-bright stare and relaxes slightly. Whether he understood my words or only my intent, I do not know.

A glance at the body-function monitors, coupled with what the feinberg has told me, gives me the knowledge I need. Sulu is still hovering at my elbow, uncertain.

“How long has he been like this?”

“I don’t know exactly, ma’am … Doctor. I know he was sick this morning, but he wouldn’t go on sick call. He worked his watch and then went to his quarters. When I didn’t see him around this evening, I went to his room and found him like this.”

He still waits, expectant. When it finally dawns on me what he wants, I realize that I may have been too long on Vulcan, where people do not expect commendation for acting out of common sense. “Thank you for bringing him down, Lieutenant. You did the right thing.”

He lights up in a surprising display of relief. “He’ll be all right, won’t he?”

“He’ll be fine. You can come see him in the morning. Good night, Lieutenant.”

As he leaves reluctantly, Chapel returns with Chekov’s medical record. I glance at it to confirm my suspicions, then tell her, “We’ve got a red-hot appendix here. Will you assist?”

“Yes, Doctor.” Two simple words. Two more links in the chain we are forging tonight. If I had time, I would reflect on that further, but I do not.

“Good. Give him 50cc’s of mangalinon intra-abdominally, and prep him.” I hope the anti-inflammatory drug will keep the infected organ from rupturing before we can get in and out. While she is working, I scan his file and find nothing to indicate that we have any problems to anticipate. Before the night is over, I will have cause to distrust such optimism.

The first problem comes when I open the abdomen and discover that the appendix has ruptured, sending its poisonous contents into the abdominal cavity. We suction him out as thoroughly as we can and expose the cavity to a good dose from the sterilite, but the specter of peritonitis still hovers. I order 100 cc’s of amprozene as a precautionary measure, but it turns out to be one order too many.

Before I have the incision closed, the patient arcs convulsively, ripping one of the arm restraints loose and catching Chapel full in the face with his flailing hand. She picks herself up and restrains him manually while I start in horror at the body-function panel, which seems to have gone mad.

“Anaphylaxis. Dammit!”

Chapel looks up at the indicators. “But he’s never had an allergic reaction to amprozene before!” She sounds vaguely accusing, as if he were doing all this purposely.

“Well, he’s having a beauty right now,” I reply, reaching for a spray hypo.

It is touch-and-go for more minutes than I care to count before the baravyl takes effect and he stabilizes. Finally the convulsions stop, the pulse and blood pressure return to normal, and he is quiet. I finish closing, and Chapel cautiously lets go of Chekov’s arm. She is wringing wet, and I feel a little damp myself.

“Shall I take him into recovery?” she asks.

“I’ll do it. Who was supposed to be on call tonight, anyway?”

“Nurse Hyland.”

“Well, go get her down here to monitor him, and then go to bed.”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“Chapel? – Christine?”

“Yes?” She turns from her position halfway through the door.

“Thanks.”

Chekov begins to come around as I am transferring him to the recovery room, and again I speak to him in Russian. It has been so long since I used my mother’s native tongue, and I had forgotten how softly beautiful the sound of it could be.

Then Hyland is there, still puffy-eyed from being awakened, and I give her my instructions before I stagger into McCoy’s office and collapse on his couch.

>>>>> <<<<<

I am slowly becoming aware that there is a crick in my neck, a buzzing in one hand where the circulation is cut off, and that I have neglected to remove my boots. Why? Then I remember where I am, and why. I push myself off the couch, still groggy. The human body was not designed to function on three hours of sleep. I will check my patient and go back to my own bed.

Nurse Hyland comes into the office carrying a covered tray. “Good morning!”

The sound I make does not reflect her cheer. She puts the tray down and removes the cover. “I thought you might like some breakfast.”

I rub the gritty remnants of too-little sleep out of my eyes. “What I want is a hot shower and four more hours of oblivion.” I fasten my hand on the coffee cup. “How is the patient?”

“Coming around. He’s a little restive, but he doesn’t seem to be in any discomfort now. I gave him the sedative you ordered right after you left. He was muttering something – Russian, I think. Just before I gave him the injection, he looked right at me and said ‘You’re not her’. Other than that, not a peep out of him.”

I go into his room and check the chart. It looks good, and I am initialing it when Dr. McCoy enters. He gives us a surprised look, and before he can ask, I hand him the chart. He looks at it and asks, “Who assisted?”

“Nurse Chapel.”

He cocks a quizzical eyebrow at me in surprise.

“She did an excellent job. I can see why you value her so highly.”

He is checking the incision and running a feinberg over Chekov. “So did you, Dr. Merritt.”

“Thank you.”

He starts to say something else, but is interrupted as Captain Kirk comes into the room.

“Bones, I just ran into Sulu, and he said--” He spots me and breaks off, embarrassed. That tells me it was he who gave Spock the message I received last night. “Dr. Merritt.,” he says in greeting.

“Captain.” I give him a cool nod.

Chekov stirs, tries to sit up. I put my hand on his chest and push him back gently. “Not just yet, Ensign.”

He looks at me, fuzzy with drug hangover. “You’re real,” he says wonderingly, and catches at my hand.

I cannot help but smile at his expression. “I was the last time I looked.”

“And you von’t go avay again?”

“I have to, for now. But I’ll be back later.”

“Promise?” he asks, this time in Russian.

“Promise,” I answer him in kind. “Now rest.”

He lets go of my hand and drifts off into sleep again. I realize that the Captain and Dr. McCoy have been watching in some amusement, and I pull away from the bed abruptly.

“If you don’t mind, Doctor, I’d like to be relieved until 1200 hours.”

“Of course, Doctor Merritt. Take the rest of the day.”

“What I have requested will be sufficient, sir.”

I leave, and realize that Captain Kirk has come with me. We are both heading for the turbolift, and as the doors hiss open he hesitates, waiting for me to enter first. I am in no mood to quibble over the archaic notion of male-female precedence, so I enter. He follows, and turns on a flashing smile.

“You seem to have made a conquest.”

“Sir?”

“Ensign Chekov. Somebody should have warned you that he is extremely susceptible to lovely ladies.”

I close my eyes in annoyance. Even under the best of circumstances, I hardly consider myself lovely. At the moment, I feel decidedly grubby. “Captain--”

He is not to be stopped. “How about some breakfast? I have a few minutes yet before I’m due on the bridge.”

“No thank you. Sir.”

He is rebuffed, at least temporarily. But when the turbolift stops on my deck, he tries again. “If you have some time later on, perhaps you’d like to come up to the bridge. Most of our crew find it quite interesting, and I don’t think you’ve--”

“Thank you, Captain. I shall consider it.” I leave the turbolift, and as I walk down the corridor, I can feel his eyes on my back.

==========

KIRK

===========

Well, Jimmy-boy, you certainly struck out that time. What a cactus! She may be a better match for Mr. Spock than you thought.

I watch her go, stiff-necked and unspeaking, through the door to her quarters. There must be some way to get through that thorn fence. She’s a Terran, and a woman, and an officer. And Spock’s wife. Aye, there’s the rub.

In spite of what I told McCoy, I am very much aware of the fact that she doesn’t like me. I could handle that in any other crew member – have handled it in the past and undoubtedly will again in the future. But she is affecting my relationship with Spock. In some subtly malignant way, she is changing the way we work together, the singleness of purpose, the unspoken communication we have shared for years. There has to be a key to this, and I have to find it.

==========

Perhaps I have found it. McCoy tells me that she has resolved her differences with Christine, apparently while they were operating on Chekov. Perhaps she feels we are overlooking her medical skills. We all rely so unthinkingly on McCoy that we tend to relegate his staff to a kind of professional limbo that reduces them to little more than technicians. That must be a difficult thing for any professional to handle. It’s a wonder it hasn’t surfaced sooner in someone else. At any rate, we’ll give this a try.

When Spock and I enter the transporter room, the rest of the party is already there – Barnes from Security, Goldschmidt from Supply, and Lara, with her medical tricorder. She meets Spock’s eyes, and I feel him stiffen behind me and falter for an instant. Neither of them knew the other would be included on this routine medical check and resupply of the scientific outpost on Banus V – probably an underhanded trick, but I didn’t feel like arguing it out with them beforehand.

I step onto the transporter pad, check to see that the others are in position, and give the order to energize.

We materialize just outside the main research building. Sidney Green, who’s in charge of the outpost, greets us with obvious pleasure. The research team on Banus V is small – only four men – and their contact with the Banusian natives is minimal and restricted, due to the mandates of the Prime Directive.

He pumps my hand warmly, and with some difficulty I extricate myself in order to introduce the other members of the party. He has met only myself and Mr. Spock previously.

“It’s good to see you, Captain. A year is a damn long time to go without seeing a new face.” He turns to Dr. Merritt. “And such a pretty one. Could I induce you to jump ship, Doctor?”

She responds with a smile and a shake of her head, and I reflect that it has indeed been a long year for Green. A year without a woman is just about what it would take to make a man consider Lara Merritt pretty. She is, by any man’s standard, a plain little thing.

We leave Goldschmidt and Barnes to supervise the beamdown of supplies, and Green orders one of his technicians to assist. That settled, he invites us inside and lays on an embarrassingly rich spread of food and drinks.

“Sid, what have you been doing with yourself this past year – besides running a winery?”

He laughs and sips at the emerald wine distilled from the native grapes. “You’d be surprised, Jim. Among other things, we’ve unearthed definite proof that there was a cataclysmic nuclear disaster here approximately 200 years ago.”

“You were investigating that hypothesis last year, Mr. Green,” Spock interjects.

“Yes, but only recently have we prevailed upon the natives to permit us to enter what they call ‘the old lands’. We’d picked up such high residual radiation readings that there was really no other defensible hypothesis, but we lacked supporting data. Now we’ve discovered--”

And he’s off on his favorite hobbyhorse. I really hate to interrupt him when he’s so obviously enjoying this rare opportunity to expound his theories to new ears. But when he begins to drag out artifacts, I must intervene.

“I really am sorry, Sid, but our time here is limited. We have a schedule to keep, and our meteorologist charted a magnetic storm front moving in. I’d like to break orbit as soon as possible.”

“Oh.” His face falls.

“Dr. Merritt will do her physicals, and you can prepare anything you’d like to have us transport back to the Commission, and then we really must leave.”

He brightens somewhat and turns to Lara. “Well, my dear, I can see that Captain Kirk hasn’t changed a bit. He still thinks the galaxy turns entirely on the orbit of the Enterprise. But you, I must say, are a distinct improvement over Doctor McCoy. If anyone has to thump this old chest, I’m glad it’s a lovely young lady. Shall we go to the infirmary?”

Spock also excuses himself in order to give the facilities’ computers their annual physicals – though he certainly doesn’t express it that way – and I go outside to check on the progress of the supply beamdown.

Banus V is not a particularly hospitable-looking place. The blue of the late afternoon sky is muddy, and the terrain is sandy, studded with rock and sparse, sere vegetation. The buildings sit atop a small rise; below I can see a turgid stream and a few ill-tended fields. Downstream is a small collection of huts. Half-naked children and small furry animals tumble about the cooking fires, and their laughter reaches me on the faint breeze. Beyond the village, a group of older children are energetically tossing rocks and sticks at a scrawny bush.

An animal breaks from the cover of the bush and the children give chase, shrieking. The creature quickly streaks out of range, and the children pursue it, stopping briefly to retrieve their throwing-sticks.

Two men are approaching, and as they draw near, I can see they are stocky, bandy-legged individuals, clothed in dressed skins. They are swarthy people, with a great deal of reddish-brown body hair. The larger of the two has a limping gait, and I notice that his left hand is crippled, curved in sharply at the wrist, the fingers splayed. He holds the arm protectively against his belly as he talks to Green’s technician. The other, whose face has the bashed-in look of a seldom-successful fighter, is scrutinizing me thoroughly. His attitude shows neither fear nor aggression, merely curiosity, as he circles me from a distance of about a meter.

He seems fascinated by my boots, and I realize they may be the first he has ever seen, since Green and his crew habitually wear the low-cut oxfords issued to planetary research teams. At length, he gestures to his own clumsy sandals and then to my boots, repeating what sounds like “Kragh?” several times. His movements clearly indicate that he would like to trade.

I shake my head and look away pointedly. He approaches and touches my arm, and I see that in his other hand is a pouch. He withdraws a fistful of dark fibrous roots and offers them to me, again pointing at the boots. I shake my head again, wondering if I can extricate myself from the situation without offending someone who may or may not be of some importance in the village.

Apparently he is not, for the technician spots us and strides over purposefully. He barks a couple of words and makes a “beat it” gesture. The would-be trader crosses his arms in a resigned manner and trudges away, turning once to gaze longingly at my feet.

“Dirty beggars,” the technician says. He is a young man, startlingly blonde. “If I were you, Captain, I’d keep my boots on tonight. They’ll steal anything that isn’t nailed down.”

“Thanks for the tip. But I don’t plan to be here long enough to need to take them off.”

He laughs harshly. “Wish I could say that!”

It seems, however, that we will be staying longer than anticipated. Dr. Merritt has finished her physicals and is packing away her medikit when Sid Green corners me in his office. He explains that the emissaries from the village carried an invitation to a village feast that night.

“Sorry, Sid. Duty calls.”

“I wish you’d reconsider, Jim. We’re finally reaching the point where the villagers trust us and are beginning to allow us to more fully examine the old lands. If we offend them by turning down this invitation, it could take months to regain that trust.”

“If you think it’s that important, Sid. I’ll have to check in with the ship first.” I pull out my communicator and comment, “It didn’t look like they’re that easy to offend, though.”

“What do you mean by that?”

I relate his technician’s actions toward the would-be trader, and he frowns in exasperation. “That Rutledge!” he scowls. “He gives me twice the problems of my other two assistants.” Then he grins ruefully. “But he also produces about six times the work they do. Ever had a crewman like that, Jim?”

I have to grin back. “Dozens,” I say, thinking of one in particular. I raise Scotty on the communicator, but his voice is thick with interference. “Scotty, we’re going to be detained here for a while. What’s the progress on that magnetic storm?”

“ETA in 17 minutes, Captain. And there’s a second front movin’ in six hours behind this one, ye know.”

“Take her out of orbit, Mr. Scott, and get out of the way. Reassume standard orbit in four hours and we’ll beam up then.”

“Aye, captain. Tell Mr. Green to tie doon anythin’ he doesna’ want blown away. You’re goin’ to get some wild weather doon there.”

“Will do, Scotty. Kirk out.” I put the communicator away. “Well, Sid, we’re all yours for four hours. As they say on Orion, bring on the dancing girls.”

==========

It seems that the entertainment on Banus V runs more to dancing men, however. We are regaled by dances of the hunt, dances of the gods, and dances that seem to have no meaning whatsoever beyond seeing who can remain upright long enough to polish off the biggest portion of the tepid native beer from the apparently bottomless calabash in the center of the circle.

I pass on the latest offer of beer, but choose two bite-sized portions of meat from the proffered tray. Surprisingly, Spock does the same, and he takes an inordinately long time in making his choice, though a surreptitious movement a moment later tells me he has merely palmed the questionable delicacy.

“Did you notice the tray, Captain?” he asks.

“Not really.” I try to bring it to mind. “It looked like silver, though, didn’t it?”

“I believe it was a silver-platinum alloy, and most delicately worked. It would appear to be far beyond the capabilities of artisans in a civilization as primitive as this one.”

“An artifact, perhaps, from the previous civilization?”

“That would be the most likely conclusion.”

Before he can elaborate further, Sid Green pokes me in an unsubtle signal for my attention. An old man has taken the center of the firelit circle, and from the attention he is garnering, I would say he is of some importance.

“That’s Borol,” Green whispers. “He’s the Keeper of the Legends.” He switches on a tricorder as the old man spreads his hands and begins to speak in the quavering, high-pitched voice of the very old. As Green listens, his face lights up with pleasure.

The language is nothing but gibberish to me, and my attention wanders to Lara’s face. She is sitting on the other side of Spock, and the firelight softens the planes of her face and colors her skin with its glow. She could almost be considered pretty in this light, but for her expression. She is wearing a look of such helpless, bottomless agony that my gaze is drawn to follow hers.

On the other side of the circle is a cluster of children. They have been everywhere this evening, darting among the dancers and snatching at bits of food or an occasional untended gourd of beer. Now they are still, and for the first time I realize that almost half of them are grossly deformed in one way or another.

The tallest has only one arm; the other ends at what would normally be the elbow. Two vestigial protuberances extend from the arm – fingers? At his feet rolls a child with no legs at all; her forearms are heavily muscled, and as I watch, she hitches herself forward with them, tugging at a woman’s skirt for a bite of meat. Here is a child with a cleft palate and harelip, there one whose body appears whole but whose boneless-appearing face and puffy, vacant eyes show the classic indications of severe retardation. Another twitches spastically, a silver stream of spittle breaking into droplets as her head jerks uncontrollably. They are all indescribably filthy, most of them with open, running sores.

My stomach rolls; I can look no more. I turn my eyes again to Lara’s face. Tears are tracking her cheeks, and her lips are moving soundlessly. She seems to be saying, “the children … the children.” She makes a move toward her medikit, and I move quietly behind Spock to touch her shoulder.

“You can’t,” I say softly, hating the words but knowing they must be said. “None of us can. The Prime Directive--”

She turns toward me angrily. “But they’re just children!” she says, and her voice breaks.

Spock reaches out and touches her hand. “They are mutants, Dr. Merritt. The heritage of a nuclear war.” His voice is as gentle as I have ever heard it, and his eyes reveal that he, too, sees the horror and the waste and our helplessness to do anything to alleviate it.

“But they can be helped!” she insists. “They can be trained, be fitted with prosthetics and android components--”

“And mature, and live to breed more of their kind,” Spock says. “Or die, and permit the healthy ones – the lucky ones – to bear children with less genetic damage. This technology cannot deal with members so unfitted for life in it. It would be a false kindness to try to change the children without changing their society.”

She pulls away from him wordlessly, struggling for composure.

Green joins our group, his lined face flushed with excitement. “This is fantastic!” he whispers, mindful of the tricorder behind him. “Borol is telling the legend of the firebringers – the story of the holocaust!” His eyes gleam in the firelight. “You have no idea how this will advance our studies! I’ll have it translated before you leave. You must hear this – it’s unprecedented!”

My voice is sharper than I intend when I answer him. “I don’t think we’ve got the stomach for it just now, Sid.”

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

I break away from them, stumbling into the darkness. Kirk starts after me; out of the corner of my eye I can see Spock’s restraining hand catch at his arm. I send him a wordless ‘thank you’ and see from his face that he understands. He draws Kirk back into the circle and I continue away from the firelight, away from the voice that rises and falls as it vomits forth the unspeakable tale.

At last I am out of reach of the sound, and I sink down on a boulder and try to control the nausea rising in my throat.

Out of the night comes a streak of flame – three children dashing away with a stolen torch. They appear to be whole, thank God. I don’t think I could stand to see another misshapen body tonight.

The torchbearer stumbles over something, falling against a smaller child, who screams in terror as her shaggy vest bursts into flame. I rush toward them and knock the screaming child to the ground, beating at the flames with my hands and rolling her in the sand.

It is over in seconds, but the terrified child continues to scream. I try to quiet her and motion for one of them to hold the torch so I can see. Her burns appear to be superficial; the tough garment seems to have kept the flames away from her skin. There is a large blister on the back of her hand, and several smaller ones on my own.

I break a tube of regatril salve out of my medikit. If this constitutes violation of the Prime Directive, so be it. This is a healthy child, a normal child, and I will not stand by and see her suffer!

I hold her close, rocking her as I smooth the cream on her hand and then on my own. The anesthetic takes effect almost at once, and my hands stop stinging. I tell her it will be all right, knowing she can’t understand my words any more than she could understand that the salve is antiseptic as well as anesthetizing, and that it contains a growth-promoter to speed healing and an agent to retard formation of scar tissue.

She quickly stops struggling and leans against me for an instant, a quicksilver bundle of bones and little-girl flesh, before she leaps away and the three vanish into the night, leaving the torch upright in the ground.

I sit still for a long time, savoring the feeling of her in my arms, against my breast, the silky hair under my chin. The children … the children.

I am slowly replacing the salve in the medikit when a woman steps out of the shadows. How long has she been watching? Have I broken some tribal taboo?

“Meestah--” she says, holding something out to me. “You fix, meestah?”

I am so astonished at hearing her words that it takes me a moment to realize she is holding a baby. Unable to believe my ears, I say, “You speak English?”

She nods shyly. “Rootlege teach,” she says hesitantly, stumbling slightly on the “r” sound. “You fix, please?”

I take the baby from her. It is a little boy about six months old. Its skin is fair, its hair a surprising blonde – the first one I have seen here. Unlike the other children, it is scrupulously clean, as is the woman.

The child appears healthy, but listless, and as I move it near the light, I can see old bruises slowly fading. The woman’s bare arms also bear bruise marks that appear to have been made by strong fingers, and a half-healed cut traces a line from the corner of her mouth down her chin. An evil suspicion darts into my mind and crawls down my back with a foul chill, but I hand the baby back to her, indicating the bruises.

“These are healing,” I say. “They are … fixed.”

“No,” she says, and flips the baby over expertly. On the left buttock is a festering burn nearly three centimeters across and about half that deep.

Oh, my God. The child’s back and buttocks are ringed with similar scars … old ones … new ones … all the same size. The suspicion grabs my entrails and I fight back the bitter taste of bile. “Who did this? This baby was burned deliberately! Who made these? Rootlege?”

She shakes her head and clutches the baby to her breast. “Please!” she begs, and her eyes fill with tears. “You fix – like other. Please, meestah!”

“Of course I will.” I open the salve again and smooth it carefully over the new burn. “Hold him still – this will hurt.” I spray an emollient on the half-healed wound and peel away the infected crust. The baby doesn’t even squirm as I touch him with the balm. I cap the tube and hand it to the woman. “This will help your face, too,” I say, touching her wound. “Please tell me who hurt your baby. Surely someone can protect you – help you.”

Her eyes are utterly without comprehension. They show only fear, and I realize that she has placed herself in grave danger by seeking my help. She turns wordlessly and disappears into the night, leaving me shaking with impotent rage and a sickness I can no longer contain.

When it has passed, I start back for the buildings, wanting nothing so much as to get away from this hellish planet, yet knowing that even when it is light-years distant, the things I have seen tonight will haunt my dreams forever.

>>>>> <<<<<

It is a nightmare, I tell myself. I am in Green’s office, sleeping on his couch, and the face I see is a dream. Her voice is a dream. Her hands touching me are dream hands.

No. They are real. I sit up, and she is still before me, crying in earnest now. The half-healed cut on her face is broken open, thick blood coagulating on her chin. A new bruise purples her cheek, and her garment is torn and bloodied. Her hands are swollen, the nails broken and bleeding, and the little finger on one is either broken or dislocated. I reach for it, but she pulls away.

“Please,” she begs. “Please.” The rest is incoherent.

“What is it? What do you want of me?” It is too much. I cannot bear the weight of the deformed children, the abused children, the dying children.

She is repeating something, over and over. “Mantu,” she says. “Mantu.”

“What is mantu? Is that your baby? Is he hurt/”

“Gone,” she says. “Mantu takes him to old lands.”

“Who is Mantu?”

“Mantu is husban’. Tonight he drinks the fa’av … he does this--” She gestures at her face. “--and takes Kaleef to old lands.”

“Is he the one who burned your baby?”

“Yes.”

“His own child?” I know these things exist, but I cannot believe them.

She looks at the ground, begins speaking softly, her voice thick. “Mantu says … Mantu says Kaleef not his baby. Mantu says gods take baby from old lands.”

Suddenly it all comes clear. “Rootlege” – Rutledge, the technician who made such a determined pass at me today that I threatened to put him in restraints during his physical. “Rootlege”, who taught this woman English. Rutledge, who is blonde, and a native man who says the fair-haired baby is not his own, who tortures a helpless child and takes him to the “old lands” for the “gods” to take.

“Your husband took the baby somewhere to abandon him? To leave him for the – gods?” I almost choke on the words. I would call them something else.

She nods.

“Where did he take Kaleef?”

“To old lands.”

“But where are they? Where are the old lands?” She gestures toward the door, and I step toward her. “Come with me. Show me!”

She struggles to rise, falls back, moaning. Something gleams in the half light, and I realize it is bone – her leg is broken below the knee and she has somehow crawled or dragged herself to me for help, with that exposed bone furrowing through the dirt…

I cannot think of that. I will not think of it. Her agony, her desperation … no. I close my mind to it. It is irrelevant; it is not germane to my purpose. I deny it. There is a job to be done. A job. A purpose.

Even a human mind can be trained in the Vulcan manner. I am in control. I have a function.

I grab a padd and stylus from Green’s desk. “Show me. Here.” She looks at me blankly. “Make a picture.” Still she does not comprehend.

I sketch in the compound, placing two stick figures outside the building. “You,” I say, indicating one. “Me.” I make a few more hasty marks. God, let her understand! “The village. The river – the water – here. Your fields – your food places. Do you understand? This is a picture. Where are the old lands?”

Hesitantly, she points beyond the river. I make some humps. “These are the hills. In the hills? Beyond them?”

“Here,” she says, and her finger stabs at a point beyond the hills. “Here are old lands.” She shudders and falls across the padd, yanking it out of my hands.

I catch at her shoulders, holding her off the floor, as if stopping this one hurt would banish the others. I lower her gently and reach automatically for the medikit. To heal. To help. That is my function.

To help whom? This woman? Or that child, crying somewhere in the dark? Crying. Alone.

There are others here, others to help this woman. I push open the door, and it is snatched from my hands by a wind that seems to have sprung up from nowhere. Noises born over the wind tell me the feast is still going on in the village.

“Spock!” I scream, knowing as I do so that he cannot hear; the wind is against me. “Spock,” I whisper, “help me.”

Help me? No, he would stop me. He would, or Kirk would. Hands off. Mustn’t touch. Prime Directive. Let the children suffer. Let them die. No! NO!

I must go. Me. Alone. To the child, crying in the night. To all the children.

^^^^^^^^^^

SPOCK

^^^^^^^^^^

Her scream, her need, burns through the link. But only for an instant. Then it is gone, snapped off, and in its place a deep and irrational loathing. Underneath is panic, and desperation.

“Captain--”

He snaps the communicator shut. “Scotty’s ready to beam us up any time now, Mr. Spock. I suggest you locate Dr. Merritt.” He motions Barnes and Goldschmidt to join us. “I’d like to get out of here before the weather gets any worse. Scotty wasn’t kidding about tying everything down.” As he speaks, the first drops of rain begin to fall.

“Captain, Dr. Merritt is in some kind of trouble.”

“Trouble?” He is all attention now; “red alert” as Dr. McCoy calls it. “How--?”

I cannot explain it now, Captain, nor do I know the precise nature.”

He has not put the communicator away; he changes frequency now and calls her. “Dr. Merritt, this is the Captain. Please acknowledge. …Dr. Merritt?” He turns to me and shrugs, then calls the ship.

“Scotty, stand by on that beamup. We’re having a little difficulty locating Dr. Merritt. Can you get a fix on her communicator and relay the location to us?”

“Aye, Captain.”

“How long do we have before the second magnetic stormfront hits?”

“Two hours and 12 minutes, sir.”

“And the magnitude?”

“Force nine, if our sensors are correct.”

“They are quite correct, Mr. Scott,” I am compelled to point out. “I calibrated them before leaving the ship. And I think you will find that the second magnetic storm is estimated at force 9.027.”

There is a brief pause, which somehow manages to convey his annoyance, before he concedes. “I have a fix on Dr. Merritt now, Captain. Her transmitter is receiving at the coordinates we have for Mr. Green’s office, but she’s nae respondin’. Shall I beam her aboard?”

“Negative, Mr. Scott. We’ll take it from here. Kirk out.” He puts the communicator away and we start up the hill. It is raining quite heavily now, and the celebration begins to break up, except for a few natives who seem to be overcome by the effects of the potent fa’av, the native beer.

Mr. Green and his staff follow us somewhat unsteadily; they seem to have partaken rather copiously of the drink themselves. Green is clutching the tricorder to his chest as if it were a child.

A child. Yes. There is something in the link, some resonance, that matches the feelings Lara had when she saw the deformed children. Is she attempting to treat them in Green’s office? Then why the desperation?

We reach the office and the captain throws the light switch. The woman’s body is sprawled across the floor, and as he rushes to her, I am checking the room for sources of danger. I find none, but I do find Lara’s communicator on the floor near the couch. I toss it to him, and he flips it open.

“Kirk to Enterprise.”

Enterprise. Scott here.”

“Scotty, have Dr. McCoy beam down to Sid Green’s office on the double, and with his medikit.”

“Aye Captain. Scott out.”

“Kirk out.” He starts to slip the communicator onto his belt, realizes he already has one there, and places it on Green’s desk instead. His face has the pinched, remote expression a man might wear in a slaughterhouse. “Mr. Spock, would Dr. Merritt be capable of doing this?” There is no apology in his need to ask.

“No, Captain. Not even in an all-in-combat situation. She has neither the physical nor emotional strength required. Besides, the woman was not beaten here. The room shows no indication of such a violent confrontation.”

“She couldn’t have come all the way from the village. Not like that.” He looks at the broken leg, the blood seeping slowly onto the floor.

“You underestimate the strength of the species, Captain, when driven by desperation.” As Lara is driven now.

Dr. McCoy materializes just inside the door, and without waiting for instruction crosses to the woman. He feels for a pulse, turns her over gently, and scans her body with the feinberg. He shakes his head.

“She’s gone, Jim. There was massive internal damage.”

The woman has been lying across a padd. I pick it up and recall the last image entered. It is a crude map, showing the compound, the village and fields, and the river, as well as the hills beyond it.

“Captain, look at this.”

He scans it with a frown. “What do you make of it, Spock?”

I shake my head. “Beyond the obvious – nothing. It is a representation of this immediate area.”

“And you have no idea of where Dr. Merritt is, or what kind of trouble she’s in?”

“I said I could not specify the nature of the trouble, I did not say I could not approximate her location.”

“Then do it, man!” Dr. McCoy says heatedly. As usual, he has thrown himself violently into a situation he barely understands.

“Captain, this is not a precise art. I can give you only a general direction to follow. May I point out that in two hours and four minutes, a magnetic storm of force 9.027 will intercept the orbital path of the Enterprise. A storm of such magnitude would certainly destroy the ship, should it not be clear of the area. Concern for any individual crew member cannot be permitted to jeopardize the lives of the rest of the crew.”

They stare at me incredulously, though I have endeavored to make both my motivation and my meaning clear to them.

“Spock, that’s your wife you’re talking about!” McCoy says, aghast.

“My relationship to Dr. Merritt is irrelevant, Doctor. The risk factor here is unacceptably high.”

The captain’s voice is tersely controlled. “Mr. Spock, I’ll thank you to keep in mind that this is a command decision.”

“Captain, it was not my intention to abrogate your authority in this matter. I merely intended to point out--”

“And you have done so. You will beam back to the ship with the rest of the landing party and assume command. If I can’t locate Dr. Merritt in two hours, you will leave the quadrant. I’ll contact you later.”

“I do not believe you will be able to locate Dr. Merritt without my assistance. I should like to accompany you.”

He hesitates, then nods briefly. McCoy rises from his position by the dead woman. “Jim, whoever did this is out there.  Just … watch yourself, will you?”

“Will do, Bones. Explain what’s going on to Sid Green.” He relays his orders to Mr. Scott, and we step into the night. The rain is sheeting almost horizontally, driven by winds of near hurricane force. The air is ripe with the smell and taste of ozone, and a gigantic bolt of lightning arcs to the ground.

“Which way?” he shouts over the wind.

I do not have to reach for the link; it has been there all along, just under the level of conscious thought. Now it bursts through, vibrating, obsessed.

“Across the stream and into the hills.”

We put our backs to the wind and strike out in the darkness. I know that Jim, with the limited night vision of a Human, is able to see virtually nothing. It is a measure of this man that he knows when to follow as well as when to lead. Nor has he questioned the link. He accepts, and fights with whatever weapon comes to hand, whether it is of his own design or another’s.

We plunge down a steep bank to the stream, swollen and roaring with the volume of the rains. A loose rock turns under my boot and I lose my footing, sliding toward the water.

“Spock!” He makes a dive and catches a handful of my shirt. The tough fabric holds, and I push myself back up the bank with heels and elbows. The sky lights up again, and I see a rude suspension bridge of sorts a few meters upstream. It is whipping in the wind and threatening to collapse at any moment, but it is there. We run for it, and though it swings dizzily under our weight, we cross safely.

Beyond the stream, the ground climbs sharply into the hills. The wet sand shifts and slides under our feet, and before we have gone three kilometers, we are both winded. A rock escarpment offers some protection and we huddle there, fighting for breath in an atmosphere that suddenly seems liquid.

He flips out his communicator. “Kirk to Enterprise.”

Enterprise. Scott here.”

“How much time have we got, Scotty?”

“An hour and 22 minutes, Captain.”

“Beam us down two hand torches, on the double.”

“Aye, sir.” Mr. Scott’s aim is impeccable; the two torches are within arm’s reach in minutes.

“Spock, do you have your tricorder with you?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“See if you can pick up a life-reading for Dr. Merritt.” He grins at me as he focuses the light from one torch on the instrument. “Not that I don’t trust your … ability, whatever it is. I’d just like a little reassurance.”

I switch the tricorder for long-range scanning. “I am picking up a faint reading at course 169, range just under eight kilometers.”

He groans at the thought of the distance.

“It is moving slowly and erratically, Captain. That matches the sensations I am receiving through the link. Dr. Merritt seems to be searching for something.”

“What bothers me, Spock, is the thought of something searching for her. Let’s go.” He tosses me the other hand torch and we move out again.

The wind seems to be slackening a bit, but the rain continues to pour down. We have crested the hills now, and our progress is faster on the downward slope. Lightning continues to flicker, and I can see what appear to be ruins of some kind in the distance. Remnants of a road curve toward it, the pavement buckled and broken, huge chunks of it missing altogether. But it will afford better footing than the wet sand.

The landscape around us begins to look like some massive nursery where a petulant giant has run amok with building blocks. Portions of walls are standing, twisted girders thrust against the sky. The road is gritty with rubble.

I am running now, drawn by the urgency pouring through the link. The thought patterns are breaking up, becoming incoherent, lashing out at my mind like a frenzied animal. I am infected with her desperation. Nothing must be allowed to interfere. Nothing.

Something catches at my arm; I rip away, lashing out. The roar I make comes from the primeval mist of Vulcan’s violent past; something within me is shocked that I would be able to utter such a sound.

“Spock! Spock, what is it?” He is scrambling to his feet, up from where my mindless blow has knocked him.

I drop to my knees, pressing my hands to my own temples. I must diminish the link. Must regain control. Control. Narrow the passage. Control…

Slowly, I feel her madness leaving me. I become aware again of the driving rain, of Jim’s hand on my shoulder, his face lined with concern.

“Spock, are you all right? What happened/”

I stand up, and begin scanning with the tricorder. “I am quite all right now, Captain. I believe I struck you, and I apologize.”

He waves me off. “Is it Lara? Has something happened to her?”

“Nothing that hasn’t been happening for some time. There was a … surge in the link. I believe she is somewhere beyond this wall. About 50 meters away.”

We clamber over the fallen stones, and find ourselves in what was once some kind of plaza. The remains of a fountain stand in the center, its spire tumbled and broken on the paving stones. The beam of my torch catches a slim figure disappearing around its base.

“Lara!” I call.

She turns, hesitates, and then runs toward us, her voice carrying ahead of her footsteps. “You must help me! He’s out here, somewhere.”

“Who is here, Lara? What are you looking for?”

“A baby. A native baby. Its father – well, not its father – one of the men brought it out here to abandon it. Its mother came to me in Sid Green’s office to ask me for help. I left her there – did you find her?” Her words are disjointed; she seems unable to stand still as she speaks.

“We found her,” the captain says. “We left Dr. McCoy with her.” He does not elaborate.

“Then you understand! You’ve got to help me! He can’t survive long in this.”

He looks at me with the unspoken question in his face, and I tell him, “Twenty-seven minutes, Captain.”

“We’ll help you, Lara,” he says. “But if we can’t find him soon, we must leave. Do you understand?”

She nods numbly.

“Why are you looking here?”

“She said he was taking Kaleef to the old lands. To leave him for the gods. I’ve been looking for church ruins – some kind of altar – something.”

I have been scanning with the tricorder. “Lara – there are no life forms registering except ours. If the baby was here … he has not survived.” Her eyes, her mind, blaze at me, but I shake my head. “This is folly.”

“No!” she rages. “This is … Human. Can’t you understand?” She steps toward me, her arm rising for a blow that never falls. She drops her arm, slumping. “Please,” she whispers. “Please … help me.” Her face is wet with a mixture of tears and rain, and her mind begs with a totality that is beyond reason.

I reach for her hand. “Come. I will help you.”

It is the captain who finds him. He approaches us as we search through the rubble of what had once been a lofty building. He holds a small bundle protectively against his chest.

“I’m sorry,” he says simply.

Lara takes the child from him. Its neck has been snapped, but the eyes are closed and there is a look of serenity on the tiny, still face. She holds the cold body for a moment, struggling to keep the tears inside.

“We have to go, Dr. Merritt. I’ll call Sid Green from the ship, and he’ll have someone come in the morning. The Banusians have to handle this in their own way. Do you understand that?”

She is still looking at the child’s face. “Yes, Captain,” she says. “It just seems cruel to leave him like this.”

He takes the child from her and places it on a fallen stone. After a moment, he strips off his shirt and covers the body.

She is beyond tears now; the link is sending only exhaustion and blackness. She sways and almost falls. I catch her arm, and she leans against me with need open in her face and mind. I put my arms around her, and the transporter catches us in that position, drawing us through space, back to the sanctuary of the Enterprise.

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

I lie that night in the circle of his arms, but when I close my eyes, the visions come back to haunt me. Twice I awaken with my cheeks wet. The second time, he touches my face, and I can see the concern in his eyes.

“You must sleep, Lara.”

“I can’t. I dream – that baby.” I shudder.

I feel his mind invading mine, but it is different this time, gentle and caring. The light is not blinding this time; it is soft and golden, like slanting sunlight on a lazy summer afternoon. Unbidden, a line comes into my head … comfort me with apples … and I know he has picked it up, for he rewards me with that rarest of gifts, his slow smile. There is nothing erotic in his touch, yet I am comforted, and I begin to have some inkling of what it would be to be loved by this man.

>>>>> <<<<<

I fully expect a reprimand from Captain Kirk regarding my behavior on Banus V, but the day wears on, and the summons does not come. I am in my office, correlating the results of some stress tests, when the doors hiss open. It is Pavel Chekov, and his round, open face lights with pleasure when he sees me.

“I t’ought I’d find you here. Alvays vorking.” He parks himself on the corner of the desk.

“Starfleet wants these results tomorrow.”

“If I know Starfleet, they vant them yesterday.”

I have to grin at that; he is right, of course.

“Come up to the rec room vith me.”

I shake my head. “I really need to finish these.”

“The Federation von’t collapse if they don’t get them.” He takes a printout sheet from my hand and turns it face down. “I’ll bet you haven’t even eaten.”

Have I? I can’t remember. “I wasn’t hungry.”

He reaches over and cups my chin in his hand. “Come have some supper. And smile for me.”

How have I come to this easy intimacy? What began as a doctor-patient relationship quickly became infatuation on Pavel’s part. He seeks me out in my office or tracks me down in a rec room. He brings back oddities from landing parties he has been on; he draws me into the friendships he has made among the crew, and under it all is the tingle of flirtation.

And what of me? Am I so desperate for a kind word, for the loving touch of a man’s hand? To my shame, yes, I am. He is leaning forward; I know in a moment he means to kiss me. And if he does … oh, if he does…

I push back from the desk, forcing the smile he asked for. “You’re right,” I tell him. “Let’s go eat.”

There are half a dozen people in the rec room – Uhura, with her guitar, Sulu, Scotty, and three others whom I do not know. They greet us with smiles, and Uhura resumes her song as I take my tray from the servo-port.

“Don’t run off,” Pavel says, “I’ll be right back.” He disappears, and I pick at the meal, watching the others, envying their easy camaraderie.

I have given up on the meal and am putting the tray away when he comes back, swinging a balalaika. I cannot help but reach for the fine, smooth wood of the instrument.

“Where have you been hiding this?” I ask. “Oh, I haven’t seen one in years!” He hands it to me, and I pick out a rusty scale. “Do you play?”

“Do I play?” He takes it back, and his fingers call forth a ripple like birdsong. “The Russians inwented music!”

The others laugh indulgently. Pavel’s chauvinism is known as affectionately as his accent. Uhura puts her guitar down. “Play something, Pavel,” she urges.

“Now you’ve done it!” Sulu groans. “We’ll be here all night listening to the glories of Mother Russia.”

Pavel looks at him archly. “You have all the aesthetic sensitiwity of a Cossack, Sulu,” he says without rancor, and begins to play – not a Russian song, but a love song. The vaguely Oriental sound of the balalaika gives it an exotic quality. When he finishes, Uhura picks up her guitar.

“Do you know this one?” she says, and begins to play. Their voices weave a pattern like sunlight through leaves, and I am suddenly homesick for the green Earth they sing of. Various crew members wander in and out, some calling for songs, some joining in, and the time goes by in a warmth and sharing I did not know until this moment that I had missed so achingly. Eventually, we run through everyone’s repertoire, and he does begin on the old Russian songs.

The first one is about a homely matchmaker who can find a husband for everyone but herself, and I translate – rather freely – as he sings. For some reason, Uhura finds this hilarious, and by the end of the song, she is in helpless tears.

“That’s it,” she says, wiping her eyes. “I’m getting punchy. Good night, all.”

“Aye,” Scotty says, rising. “Since the bairn obviously doesna’ know any drinkin’ songs--”

“Drinking songs?” Pavel says, stung to the quick. “Drinking songs! My friend, the Russians--”

“Inwented drinking songs!” we all chime in.

“Vell, ve did,” he says, assuming a look of pained indignation. And proceeds to demonstrate, at length. Time flows like the vodka in the songs. It has become very late; I look around and realize I am the only woman in the room. And that I am enjoying it.

Pavel has apparently exhausted his supply of drinking songs. He begins to play something soft and sweet; after a few bars, I recognize it as a lullaby. The realization comes like a blow, and the face of the dead baby flashes behind my closed eyes.

“Don’t,” I say, and touch my hand to his on the strings.

He looks at me, puzzled. “All right.” He hands me the instrument. “Here. You play.”

“Oh, I couldn’t. I haven’t played in years.” But I take the balalaika from him. It is warm from his hands, sleek and smooth as a living thing.

“Play ‘Ninotchka’,” he says. “Everybody knows that one.”

Indeed, everybody does. It is the first song I learned after I mastered the chords. My fingers move hesitantly on the strings and then they take a life of their own, remembering what my conscious mind has forgotten.

“Do you know the vords?” he asks.

I nod, and pick the chorus. It is a sad song, sung by a young girl who reminisces about her lover’s farewell to her as he went off to a battle from which he did not return.

I look up as someone enters the room. It is Captain Kirk, and Spock is with him. He is intent on what Kirk is saying, his head bent slightly, wearing that look of concentration that so completely shuts out everyone else. My fingers stumble on the strings; my voice breaks.

Kirk sees us and sits down at the table. “Don’t let us interrupt you,” he says.

I hand the instrument back to Pavel. “If you’ll excuse me, Captain, it’s rather late.”

“I’d like to speak to you first, Dr. Merritt.” His implication is quite clear, and Pavel leaves along with the two or three diehards. Spock has not even bothered to sit, and he leaves without acknowledging my presence.

The mood of the room has changed abruptly from one of closeness to one of formal stiffness. Even the air feels different. “I’m sorry I broke up the party,” Kirk says.

I could say it was breaking up anyway, but I don’t. I know McCoy wants me grounded; he waits patiently for my first misstep. I assume Captain Kirk feels the same way, and I have given him a beauty of a cause. What I will not give him is my blessing for what he is about to do.

He is frowning, toying with an empty coffee cup someone has left behind. “The first time you run head-on into the Prime Directive,” he says, “it hurts. I know. I’ve still got the scars to prove it.” He grins ruefully, but I will not be drawn into the net he spreads so cunningly. He shifts uncomfortably in the chair. “I think I owe you an apology for getting you into that situation. I didn’t know … about the children.”

I am puzzled. He seems genuinely disturbed, and I am not prepared for that. “Am I on report?” I ask.

“Because I sent you into a situation I hadn’t prepared you to handle? No. There were … extenuating circumstances.” A shadow seems to flicker across his face, and I remember the expression he wore as he covered the body of the child.

I try to remember that this man is the enemy, but I am unable to see him as one now. He was willing to help; he had an intimate acquaintance with my pain, while Spock… I will not think of that now.

He rises to leave. “I’m sorry, Lara.”

It’s all right, Captain.” And somehow, I think, it will be.

TBC