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

Part 2

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

McCOY

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

This is ridiculous, I tell myself. Swallow your professional pride and admit you’re at a dead end. Viral mutation is her field of specialty, after all. And I’m not doing Dan Korda any good by beating my head against a stone wall.

I snap off the medicomp. It’s not telling me anything I don’t already know. While on a routine planetary expedition, Korda apparently picked up a virus. It is mimicking viral pneumonia, but it isn’t responding to standard treatment. If it is a mutation, I need her help. So why don’t I ask for it?

Because I don’t like her, dammit. I still smell trouble every time she walks into the room. And that fiasco on Banus V six months ago is just the forerunner. I really thought I had her then. I had my recommendation for reassignment all ready to send in with Jim’s official reprimand. Only he didn’t make one. I could have sent it in anyway, but that would have put Jim on the spot with Starfleet. I still remember our rather heated discussion of the matter.

I went to his quarters to ask when he was going to submit his report on the incident. “There’s not going to be a report, Bones,” he said. “In my judgment, it doesn’t warrant one. If I make a report, I’ll have to include a reprimand of Dr. Merritt’s actions, and it’ll be on her record for the rest of her career.”

“And it should be. Her actions were irresponsible and unprofessional and--”

“Unprofessional?” He fixed me with a cool stare. “Tell me, Bones, if you could have gotten to that native woman earlier, would you have treated her?”

“Of course I would have.”

“Even though, for all we know, it may be standard procedure on Banus V for a man to beat his wife to death if he thinks she’s been unfaithful? That’s a violation of the Prime Directive.”

“But you called me down there!” I snapped.

“Yes. I did. Because I had a human response to her pain. As you did. As Lara did – to the woman, and to the child. Because she is human. And a doctor. She’s also a rookie, and I put her into a situation she wasn’t ready to handle. I won’t let you or anybody else wreck her career because of a judgmental error on my part. That’s not my style, and you know it.”

“So you’re just going to let her waltz away scot-free?”

He shook his head, suddenly pensive. “She’s not free of what happened there, Bones. None of us are. God help any of us who could turn away from those children without … without…” He was struggling to put his thoughts into words, an unusual affliction for him. “If we can turn away from that without seeing the waste, the terrible uselessness of what happened there, then we’re leaving the way open for it to happen again and again. And isn’t that what we’re here to prevent? Isn’t the whole idea of the Federation for us to evolve together to a point where we’re not tempted to blast each other back to the level of animals?”

I could see he was deeply disturbed by the incident, so I let it drop. But Dr. Merritt has been a sore point between us ever since. I made the mistake weeks later of referring to the way she acts around Ensign Chekov, and he nearly took my head off.

“Why don’t you just get off her case, Bones?” he flared. “You’ve made your point. You don’t like her. Okay. When her professional performance falls below your standards, I’ll consider your professional recommendations. Until that time, I don’t care to hear any more on the subject.”

I gathered what was left of my dignity and departed the battlefield. We have not discussed Dr. Merritt since. Which is not to say that I have not thought about her. The one positive thing which came from the episode on Banus V was the change in her attitude toward the captain. The last of the Performance Evaluations showed that clearly, and I am left without a leg to stand on in my attempt to have her removed from my staff.

I leave my office and take another look at Dan Korda. He gives me a wan smile. “How’s it goin’, Doc?” he wheezes. The effort it costs him shows up immediately on the body-function monitors.

“It’s going fine, Dan,” I lie. “You just rest now, and we’ll get you back on duty soon.” I can feel his eyes on my back as I leave the room to call on Dr. Lara Merritt.

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

She looks up from the viewscreen, frowning.

“What do you think? Are we dealing with a mutation here?”

The frown doesn’t go away. “I’d like to do some more tests on it. Meanwhile, I think we ought to run checks on everyone who was on that landing party.”

I call for the information, and what I see makes my blood run cold. The party was composed of Korda, Ensigns Ron Chandler and Dean Walker, Yeoman Holly Martin … and Spock and Jim.

I am reaching for the intercom when Nurse Chapel calls me from sickbay. “I have a new admission, Doctor, whose symptoms are the same as Lieutenant Korda’s.”

“Who is it?”

“Lieutenant O’Keefe, sir.”

O’Keefe? I look at the computer screen again. He wasn’t on the landing party.

“I’ll be right there, Nurse.” I feel a thickening of the skin on the back of my neck; a signal I have learned to heed. It doesn’t go away as I examine O’Keefe. He is showing the same temperature spike, the same increased heart action and chest râles as Korda, and I remember uncomfortably that the two are close friends. By the time I finish admitting him, the signal has turned to a full red alert.

As I call the other members of the landing party down to sickbay, I am almost smothered by the sickening sense of urgency, of fighting against an indefatigable, many-armed enemy whose face is the grinning skull of death.

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

Jim is annoyed at me, because he knows what I’m going to say: “Bed, Jim.”

“Bones, I’ve got a ship to run.”

“Not with a temperature of a hundred and two, you don’t. And your chest sounds like a wind tunnel. Everybody who was on that damn planet has this bug, even Spock. And it looks like it’s contagious.”

He is grumbling, but he yields. That in itself is an indication that he has been running on nerve for some time. They all have, from the looks of the test results. What is it in this man, I wonder for the nth time, that keeps not only himself but everyone he comes in contact with pushing, reaching for that second wind, that 101-percent effort?

Christine Chapel’s appearance cuts off my musing. “Doctor--”

I know what she is going to tell me, and I don’t want him to hear it. I meet her in the hallway. “It’s Korda, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“About ten minutes ago. Dr. Merritt is with him.”

She is standing by the bed, glaring angrily at the body-function panels, quiet now, over Korda’s bed. I have never seen her lose a patient before, yet somehow I am not surprised to see that her reaction is much the same as mine – anger.

I call an orderly to take the body to the autopsy room and steer her into my office. When Korda’s body appears on the table for the post-mortem, he will have become a weapon in my battle against death, but I will not witness this ceremony of my failure, nor will I permit my staff to witness it.

“Any ideas?” I ask.

“Not yet. I’ve got some things cooking in the lab.” She ignores the chair I offer and begins to pace. “Dammit!” There is a fluidity in her movements uncommon for such a small woman, and there is an intensity in her that I find somewhat unnerving. She finally stops behind the chair and grips its back for an anchor. “What about the others?” she asks.

“They’ve all got Korda’s symptoms. Yeoman Martin and the captain worst of all.”

“Spock?”

“He’s got something, Definite râles. Slight fever – not as marked as the others. Vulcan physiology--”

“I am familiar with it, Doctor.”

I decide to ignore the rebuff; she is beginning to sound annoyingly like her husband. “What really bothers me is O’Keefe. He wasn’t exposed to the primary source of infection, but he’s got the same thing. If it’s contagious, we could be in for a full-blown epidemic.”

She casts off from the chair and begins pacing again. “This thing looks like a bacillus, but it’s acting like a virus. If we can isolate it … maybe breed a less virulent strain, we might be able to come up with an immunizing vaccine.”

“All right. Keep working on that, but keep hoping we won’t need it. Maybe O’Keefe is just a coincidence.”

He is not a coincidence. Within 24 hours, I have 12 new admissions – Nurse Chapel and Dr. Sanchez among them. Within 36 hours, the number of patients has climbed to 40, and we have had our second fatality – Holly Martin, the yeoman from the landing party.

After everyone seems to be settled for the night, I grab a cup of coffee and head for the lab. Dr. Merritt is injecting a large white rat and noting his number on a chart. “How’s it going?” I ask.

She looks at me a little fuzzily, and I suspect that she, too, has been subsisting for the last day and a half on lukewarm coffee and grim determination. She shakes her head and hands me a padd with her test results on it. They are all negative.

I am trying to think of an approach she may have overlooked when Spock walks into the room. “What are you doing out of bed?” I snap at him. “You’re sick.”

“On the contrary, Doctor; I am fully recovered.”

I go off to get a feinberg, and when I come back he is looking at the padd and talking to Lara. He sits down and submits impatiently to a quick scan, then looks at me with an arched eyebrow. “Are you quite finished, Doctor?”

“Spock, I don’t know how you do it, but if everybody on this ship had your constitution, I’d have to take up knitting.” I wait for his comeback, but he makes none. Maybe he isn’t completely recovered after all. Then Lara touches his shoulder tentatively and the expression on her face makes me feel like the proverbial fifth wheel.

“I’m going to the bridge,” I announce. “I want Scotty to turn this ship around and get us to the nearest starbase while we’ve still got enough crew to do it.”

Mr. Scott, however, has other considerations on his mind. We are on a routine patrol along the Romulan Neutral Zone, and he refuses to break off the mission without an okay from Starfleet. I hang around the bridge impatiently for an hour while we wait for their response. When it comes, it’s hardly reassuring. We are instructed to remain on patrol until relieved by the Potemkin, which is currently docked at Starbase Nine for refitting. They estimate they can rendezvous with us in four standard days. Scotty looks at me with a shrug.

I am not happy with the decision. I have only four empty beds – five, if Spock is going to insist on being healthy – and no end is in sight. I need to make arrangements for vacating quarters on that deck for additional bedspace, and then I need a drink, and then I need to grab as much sleep as I can before the roll call of the sick begins anew.

Six hours later, Nurse Hyland is valiantly attempting to revive me with alternate applications of hot coffee and cold facts. We have six admissions already that morning, including Lieutenant Uhura, who passed out at her board 10 minutes after reporting for duty. Ron Chandler, one of the men in the landing party, is growing progressively weaker. Jim seems to be holding his own, but nobody is making any improvement. And Dr. Merritt would like to see me in the lab.

The caffeine finally gets my heart started, and as soon as I can get my feet to track, I go down to the lab. They are both there – Spock looking healthier than I feel, and Lara wearing a wrinkled uniform that looks like she’s slept in it, which she probably has.

“Have you been here all night?”

“We were having too much fun to leave,” she cracks uncharacteristically.

Spock raises both eyebrows at her. “I would hardly refer to it as ‘fun’; however, it has been most productive.

“Then you’ve come up with something?” That news finishes what the caffeine started.

“I think so,” she says. “I took a blood sample from Spock and we seem to have isolated some antibodies. We’re culturing another generation now, and I’ve just injected some rats with first-generation serum. I thought you’d like to know.”

“That’s the best news I’ve had all day.” I should have known better than to say anything. The words are hardly out of my mouth when I hear myself paged.

“Dr. McCoy to the bridge, please. We have a medical emergency. Dr. McCoy to the bridge.”

The medical emergency turns out to be Scotty, who has followed Uhura’s act by passing out on the bridge. The inventive engineer, however, has added a new finale. He managed to crack his skull on the control console on the way down, and is bleeding profusely from a 10-centimeter gash in his scalp. Like most scalp wounds, this one looks worse than it is. I follow the gurney down to sickbay and clean him up.

Time seems to contract around me; I move from bed to bed, from crisis to crisis, and yet have no sensation of moving at all. I see Dr. Merritt going into the critical ward and wonder how the lab tests are going. Hyland informs me that Chandler has stopped breathing on his own and is now on a respirator. I know we are going to lose him, and I snap at her without meaning to. She is back in a few minutes with a tray, insisting that I eat something. Before I can apologize, she is gone, blowing a wisp of hair off her forehead.

Whatever is on the tray tastes like sawdust; I compromise by lacing my coffee with cream and sugar and taking it with me to the lab. There is no one there but a technician scowling into the microscope viewscreen.

“What’s the problem, Penelli?”

“These cultures. They’re dead.”

I join him looking at the display. There is no movement on it; the cultures have indeed died. “What about the rats Dr. Merritt injected with first-generation serum?”

“I don’t know, Doctor. You’ll have to check with her.”

As I am reaching for the intercom to page her, she comes in, looking harried, and I give her the bad news. She bursts out with a fine old Anglo-Saxon epithet I haven’t heard since I left Georgia, glares at me as if I had personally killed the culture, and crosses to the rats’ cages. Her back is to me, but her words are as clear as etchings on a glass plate.

“We just lost Chandler.”

I am tempted to add a few choice epithets of my own, but I just can’t find the energy.

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

It begins to look as though something is finally going to break our way. The rats immunized with antibodies from Spock’s blood are resisting infection. The loss of the second-generation antibodies is annoying, and I have a suspicion that the cause was an inattentive technician. I will chase down that possibility as soon as I have time.

Time … where does it go? It is walked to death in the simple passage from bed to bed; it slips away in those few hours when hastily-snatched sleep is the only alternative to irremediable collapse.

We have 86 active cases and have had nine fatalities. Enterprise has a complement of a little over 75 percent of her crew, but she is wallowing along her immutable course as if she had less than half. The virus seems to be almost viciously selective, striking down those key members of the flight crew and often their immediate replacements.

The medical staff has also been virtually decimated; both McCoy and I have spent hours we could not spare going through personnel records to find healthy crew members who’ve had more than the mandatory basic first-aid courses. Anyone who can read a body-function panel or administer a spray-hypo is subject to being yanked out of his or her assignment and thrown into the front lines in our personal war against this menacing invader.

I am on my way now to the bridge. With less than 70 hours until our rendezvous with the Potemkin, I am going to try to persuade Spock to turn the con over to Lieutenant Sulu and come back to sickbay with me. We need his talents, his stamina, his ability to cut through the extraneous. If he will supervise the labs and continue with his experimentation on a possible cure, that will free me for work in the wards.

I am in the turbolift when the red alert klaxons kick on. I am tempted to return to sickbay when the doors open on the bridge. A tremor runs through the deck beneath my feet, and Sulu’s cool voice announces, “Deflected, sir.”

The ship on the forward viewscreen is a small one, a CZ class with no markings. The commander must be mad to think he can take on a starship. Or desperate. The ship veers in a sharp bank, obviously getting ready to make a run for it.

“Phaser crew stand by,” Spock says. He gets a nod from the ensign manning the communications board, and keys open a hailing frequency. “We repeat, this is the Federation Starship Enterprise. You are in restricted space. Identify yourself.”

“She’s pulling away, sir.”

“Pace her, Mr. Sulu. Phaser crew, fire across her bow.” The beams cut through the starfield, but the ship does not come about. “Tractor beam,” Spock orders.

Sulu moves a toggle, consults the screen and then his board again. “They’re not responding, sir.”

“Manual override.”

“It’s not the controls, Mr. Spock. Tractor beam hasn’t been activated.”

“Engineering. This is Spock. Activate tractor beam.” There is no response.

“CZ vessel pulling away again,” Sulu notes.

“Increase speed to Warp Six. Engineering, please respond.”

The voice that crackles through the speaker is harried. “Sorry, sir. This is Lieutenant Leslie. We’re having a little trouble down here.”

Spock chooses not to respond to the excuse. “Activate tractor beam,” he repeats.

“Yes, sir. Tractor beam activated.”

“Lock on target.”

“Sir--” the navigator interrupts. “They’re crossing into the Neutral Zone.”

Spock moves in the command chair for the first time, hunching forward and clasping his hands together. “Belay that order, Mr. Leslie. Break off pursuit. Secure from general quarters. Mr. Riley, return to course 159, mark eight.” He makes a temple of his index fingers and presses them against his lips in the gesture I have learned he uses when he is concentrating on something dancing just beyond his grasp. He does not appear to have noted my presence at all.

I suddenly realize I have just experienced my first combat action, and that I had expected something a little more dramatic. The bridge seems somehow out of kilter, and it dawns on me that only Lieutenant Sulu is in his accustomed place. Spock is in the command chair, and Chekov at the science console. The other faces are strange to me; I might be on some other starship entirely. The feeling is vaguely uncomfortable.

Without turning, Spock asks, “Did you want something, Dr. Merritt?”

Startled, I momentarily forget what my purpose for coming to the bridge was. “What was that all about?” I ask, stalling.

“Renegades,” Chekov answers me. “Probably running contraband.”

“Possibly,” Spock says. He swivels the chair around to face me, sitting back. He has not forgotten his question, or my evasion. “Doctor?”

I remember my purpose. “I’d like to see you in sickbay.” If I can get him off the bridge, even momentarily, I stand a better chance of enlisting his skills in the lab.

“My presence is required on the bridge.” He swivels away from me, and I approach the chair.

“The immunizing factor looks promising,” I tell him, “but we need another blood sample from you.”

He hesitates, rubbing at the bridge of his nose in a gesture I have often seen Captain Kirk make. Or perhaps is comes automatically with the con… I know that Spock, like every other crew member still functioning, is torn with the need to be in two places at once.

“Very well,” he says, rising. “Mr. Sulu--”

Chekov’s voice interrupts him. “Sensors indicate the CZ ship has returned to Federation space.”

Spock drops back into the chair. “Come about, Mr. Riley.” He does not spare me even an apologetic look. “Red alert, Ensign Howard.”

Chekov is shaking his head. “Vhatever they’re running must be mighty important.”

“They are not ‘running’ anything, Mr. Chekov, or they would have continued on to their home port. They are either on a mission they consider highly important, or…” He does not complete the thought aloud. “Switch to extreme long-range scanning. Magnification factor 12 on the forward viewscreen.”

“Yes sir,” Chekov says, puzzled. He looks up from the sensor’s hooded screen. “Vhat are ve looking for, sir?”

“Mind your sensors, Mr. Chekov.” His eyes are fixed on the viewscreen.

In a few minutes, Chekov announces that he is indeed picking up something. On the viewscreen, the renegade CZ is clearly defined; beyond it is something more, hazy yet to my untrained eye.

“That,” says Spock with a nod toward the screen, “is what we are looking for.” The image wavers, clarifies. Now even I can make it out – a Romulan cruiser. So the CZ has reported our inability to apprehend it, and like a shark in the Earth ocean sensing a prey in trouble, the Romulan cruiser is circling for the kill.

“Please leave the bridge, Dr. Merritt.” He is intent on the viewscreen.

I touch the arm of the chair, keeping my voice low. “Spock, I need that sample. It’s critical.”

“Send a technician up to take it here. I cannot leave the bridge. Now please return to sickbay.” Hidden under the words of request are the tones of command.

I am in the corridor leading to sickbay when we are hit again. This is no tremor – it is a sickening lurch that nearly throws me off my feet. The lights in the corridor dim; their power is being diverted to a place of greater need. Hopefully, the shields.

Sickbay is in chaos. Unrestrained patients have been thrown from their beds, IV’s pulled out, tubes tangled. Hyland and two other nurses are doing their best to put things back together when we are hit again. This time the lights go out completely. In sickbay itself, the auxiliary generators kick on in seconds, but the hallway remains dark except for the luminous emergency panels. I think of the patients housed in crew quarters and hope none of them are on life-support machines; power to quarters has no doubt been cut as well.

An automatic distress signal is beeping from the critical ward, and since the nursing crew has their hands full, I respond.

It is coming from Kirk’s bed. The body-function panel has gone mad. Pulse 190, pressure falling, respiration six and so labored it is barely registering. I grab an oxygen mask and turn the petcock wide open.

“Hyland!” Get in here!” I shout, shooting another look at the panel. Temperature 106 … what has happened to the coolant mechanism? Everything is falling apart…

Kirk is struggling against the pressure of the mask. Somewhere in the depths of his fevered mind, he is registering the pounding we are taking, and if I don’t get restraints on him, he’s going to be on his feet. I drop the mask and grab at his arm.

“Spock!” he yells. “Get down!”

I restrain one arm and reach across him, hunting for the other restraint. The deck pitches under me as we are hit again, and I am thrown across the bed, sliding to the floor on the other side with the tubes from the oxygen mask fouling my legs. Pushing up to my knees, I catch his other arm in the restraint.

“No!” he gasps. “Let me go! Spock!”

I disentangle the tubing and press the mask over his face. He sucks hungrily at the air for a moment before he begins fighting me again. Hyland comes in, scrubbing at a bleeding nose.

“Get me a respirator and a hypo of baravyl.”

“The respirators are all in use,” she says blankly.

“Then steal one, dammit!”

She wanders off, dazed, and I find myself wishing for Christine Chapel’s uncomplicated efficiency.

I can see the problem in the coolant mechanism; a tube is kinked and the liquid is backing up. There should have been a routine check on it within the last hour. I can’t reach the chart to check it, and it wouldn’t do me any good if I could. Except to know whose frame to climb when this is all over. Again, I get the feeling that everything is falling apart.

Hyland comes back with the hypo setup, and a technician follows her pushing a portable respirator. I lubricate the feeder and entubate the device. “Free that coolant coil, will you?” I order the technician. “Hyland, get in touch with Engineering and tell them we’ve got to have power in the crew quarters on this deck. We’ve got patients in there.”

“Dr. McCoy already did. He says we’ll be getting casualties down here in a few minutes.”

I inject the baravyl and watch the body function monitors as the heart rate starts to drop. Kirk stops fighting the nasal tubing, and I secure it.

“I want a special in this ward around the clock.”

“There’s nobody available, Doctor.”

The technician is getting ready to leave. “What about you?” I ask. “What’s your name?”

“Takagawa, ma’am.”

“Takagawa, you are now a special-duty nurse. Hyland, brief her. And then get an ice pack on your nose. I think it’s broken.”

When the captain’s pulse has stabilized and his respiration has eased, I meet McCoy in the corridor and ask him about casualties.

“Three flash burns and a broken leg,” he says. The corridor rocks under us. “So far.” He glances upward. “I wish I knew what was going on up there.”

Whatever it is appears to be finished, at least temporarily, for the red alert klaxons cut off and the lights begin to flash yellow alert at us. When we have cared for the casualties, I try to find a technician to send to the bridge for the blood sample. It appears that locating one will be more time-consuming than going myself, so I collect a kit from the lab and go up to the bridge again.

Spock is at the science console with Chekov, and he bares his arm to me without comment. I draw three 10cc samples and tape a pressure pad over the puncture site. He returns to the command chair, and I turn to leave when my knees suddenly go to water and everything starts to spin. Chekov grabs my elbow with one hand and the tray of vials with the other, guiding me down into the reassuring solidity of a chair.

“Just a minute,” I say, putting my head down. Suddenly I am hollow and shaking as the delayed reaction hits me. The fear I hadn’t had time to acknowledge until now suddenly grabs my chest. I remember once when I was a student there was an explosion and fire in the lab where I was working. I hadn’t had time to be frightened then, either, until that night, when I’d started crying and had been unable to stop.

I sit up and clench my shaking hands together. The tremors start up my arms, and I look at them remotely, as if they belonged to someone else.

Pavel sets the tray down and catches my hands in his. He grins at me crookedly, a purpling bruise darkening his cheekbone. “It gets easier,” he says. “I shook for three days after my first Romulan attack.”

“Is it over?”

“For now. They’re on their own side of the fence, licking their vounds, and ve’re on our side, licking ours.”

“Then you think they’ll be back?”

“Probably. That CZ was a Romulan Surweillance wessel. Vhen ve couldn’t stop them, they decided ve must be crippled, and they called in big brother for the kill. Now they’ve got a Gorn by the tail. If they let us go, they’ve got an unprowoked attack to explain. So they’ll have to try to jam our communications and finish us off so ve’ll be just another question mark on Federation records.”

The news is not reassuring. “Can they do it?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. But I do know I’d feel a lot better if Potemkin vould come charging over the hill like the Cossacks at Balaklava.”

“I’ve got a better idea. Let’s get out of here. Warp nine would be nice.”

“Da. If ve had any varp drive left.”

“So we just sit here and wait for them?”

“No. Ve pull ourselves together and get ready to hit them vith everything ve’ve got left vhen the time comes. And hope it vill be enough.” His face is somber; he looks more the soldier than I have ever seen him. Then a change comes into his eyes and he lifts one hand as if to touch my face. “Lara--”

I get up, hoping my legs will hold me. I don’t think I want to hear what he is going to say. Deathbed confessions can be awkward if the patient recovers.

“Thank you, Pavel. For being honest. And for being here.”

I pick up the vials and make it to the haven of the turbolift before I start shaking again.

>>>>> <<<<<

I prepare three cultures – one on plain agar, one on chocolate agar, and on impulse draw enough Vulcan blood from the supply to make a green agar for the third culture. I leave half a dozen requests to be called in six hours and stumble to my own quarters.

My head is buzzing with ideas for treating the cases we have, but I am too tired to sort them out. The epidemic, the attack, the battle to keep Kirk alive, the sidestepping of Pav’s attempt to voice his feelings, all have drained me to the point where I don’t care if the Romulans or the virus get to us first. I only know I want it to happen when I’m asleep.

All attempts to maintain an Earth-normal day-night rhythm on the ship have been suspended; we are in a limbo of timelessness which increases the feeling of disorientation. I peel off my uniform and drag myself into the shower. Setting the spray on cold keeps me awake long enough to wash off the layers of accumulated grime, but no longer. I don’t even remember having gone to bed, but I must have, because that’s where I am when the red alert klaxons begin blaring again.

I am struggling into my boots when I think to look at the chronometer. I have slept almost seven hours. So much for leaving a wake-up call. I flip on the intercom and call the lab.

“This is Dr. Merritt. Have somebody get those cultures out of the incubator, stat. I’ll be down in a few minutes.” As soon as I can get these damn boots on.

I look down and realize I am trying to put them on the wrong feet. I stifle an urge to laugh at myself; I have the feeling if I give in to any emotion at all, it will rapidly become hysteria. I steal enough time to sit down on the bed and pull my mind together. I bless Amanda for supervising my training in the Vulcan technique of concentration, and bless the whole enigmatic, exasperating, fascinating race for having developed it at all.

I am halfway through the door when the deck bucks under me, and I fall against the frame. I taste the salty warmth of my own blood and my hand comes away from my lips stained. For a moment I am tempted to stay huddled against the doorframe, or better yet, under the bed. Then I think of Spock’s single-minded concentration, of Pavel’s promise to hit back as hard as possible, of Kirk’s fight against his own treacherous body, and I know that I have to go on, too.

The corridors are busy with crewmen responding to the alert. One of them stops to ask if I’m all right. Apparently he doesn’t recognize me, for he suggests I check into sickbay to get my lip tended. I suppress a laugh and send him on his way.

The admissions log in sickbay shows 12 new cases. The last one entered is Nurse Hyland, and I wonder if anyone is even bothering to keep track of them any more.

We are hit hard, and the lights flicker again. My knees start to shake, and I grab at the counter for support. I want to be with Spock, somewhere away from this. Somewhere quiet, somewhere safe. Then I think of his remoteness on the bridge and know he would refuse any haven I found for him if it meant giving over without the effort he is making now. I can’t remake the universe for him, nor he for me. We can only deal with what we have.

I leave sickbay without even trying to make rounds. The culture trays are still in the incubator, but someone has turned the temperature down. I prepare a slide from each medium, and the rolling of the ship and the hits we are taking recede into the background. It seems I have always worked with a lab table that jolts in front of me and the echo of klaxons blaring in the background.

The culture from the agar medium is dead; I toss the slide into the disposal chute without even a twinge. The culture from the chocolate agar shows no life, either, and I reach for the last slide telling myself it doesn’t matter. There’s always something else to try.

The view on the display screen is swimming in front of me. I try for a clearer resolution twice before it hits me that the movement is not improper focus – it is the living antibodies, growing and functioning. I am seeing life – life that I have sustained and life that means hope for the rest of us.

I pull more Vulcan blood from the stock and start rebreeding, holding out enough second-generation growth to start the inoculations. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t … I’ll try something else. There’s always something else.

I make some notes on my chart and grab a technician to watch over the incubator. “Where’s Dr. McCoy?” I ask.

“He went into his office a couple of hours ago and threatened to lobotomize anybody who came in after him. I think he’s asleep.”

I know the feeling. “When he comes out, tell him I want to see him. And don’t botch those cultures, or you’ll be the one with the free lobotomy.”

When the turbolift spills me on the bridge, the scene is quietly tense. The Romulan cruiser’s metal hide shows blackened patches as it maneuvers away from us sluggishly, and I wonder if Enterprise looks the same from their bridge. Spock is not watching the screen; he is watching Chekov, who is intent on the sensor readout. When he begins to speak, his back is to the command chair, but his voice is carefully level.

“Their main shield has completely collapsed. Power levels dropping below attack capacity.” He turns to face Spock and the elation he has kept out of his voice cannot be kept out of his stance or the expression on his face. An almost audible ripple of relief spreads through the bridge, but Spock has swung around to the forward viewscreen again.

“Hold your position, Mr. Sulu. Mr. Howard, maintain red alert.” He keys open a switch on his console. “Weaponry division, stand by. Maintain red alert.” He resumes his scrutiny of the Romulan cruiser as it drifts slightly toward us.

There is an uncomfortable stirring among the crew; a few glances are exchanged, but nobody says anything. I almost voice it for them – finish this! Put an end to this attacker now, before he pulls a knife out of his boot and slides it between our ribs.

Spock takes his eyes off the viewscreen long enough to acknowledge my presence. “What is it, Dr. Merritt?”

“I’m ready to start immunizing against the virus. I’d like to start with the bridge crew.”

“Please do so.” He turns back to the screen. “Mind your sensors, Mr. Chekov. I am particularly interested in the Romulans’ impulse and warp-drive power readings.”

I start the inoculations at the engineering console. I can’t decide whether to be awed or annoyed by Spock’s curt dismissal. One would think from his attitude that developing an immunizer against a viral mutation totally unknown scant days ago was as commonplace an event as getting up in the morning. I find it hard to believe I have lived with this man for over seven months and that he still addresses me as “Dr. Merritt” when others are present.

I have finished the engineering console and have injected Ensign Howard. I am moving toward Pavel when he waves me back. “Mr. Spock – the Romulans are moving toward us on impulse power. Sensors show a definite veakening of their matter/anti-matter shields. I think they’re going to try to ram us.”

“A logical assumption, Mr. Chekov. It is also logical to assume that their calculations indicate an imminent collapse of their matter/anti-matter shields. It would appear they intend to effect our destruction along with their own. Mrs. Sulu, range please.”

“Twelve hundred kilometers and closing. Moving at sublight speed.”

“Arm photon torpedoes.”

Instead of compliance, a voice comes back on the intercom. “Beg pardon, sir, but we haven’t the thrust to get them out to recommended firing range. If we fire them, we may very easily blow ourselves up.”

“Your recommendation is noted, Mr. Brock. Arm photon torpedoes.”

“Armed, sir.”

“Mr. Sulu, I want range reports at hundred-kilometer intervals.”

“Aye, sir. Range 1,000 kilometers and closing.”

The bridge falls into silence except for Sulu’s inexorable figures. I continue with the inoculations, feeling a little silly about making such a positive commitment to a future which may not extend more than a few minutes, but I don’t know how else to justify my presence on the bridge. And tractor beams couldn’t get me off it at the moment.

I enter the well of the bridge as Sulu is calling out, “Six hundred kilometers,” and I realize Spock is watching me with a look of quiet approbation. I look at him questioningly before crossing to the helm, and he gives me an almost imperceptible nod. I feel the sunlight of his mind touching mine and cannot help but give him a smile in lieu of the embrace I would prefer to give in recognition of what his approval means to me at this moment.

“Five hundred kilometers,” Sulu says, and winces as I give him the injection. He looks up at me quizzically.

“We can’t have you catching this bug, Mr. Sulu. I think you’re just about indispensable.”

The black humor of it strikes him, and a grin tugs at the corner of his mouth before he turns back to the helm. “Four hundred kilometers and closing steadily.”

Spock has contacted engineering. “I want all available power channeled into weaponry. Shut down everything but life support and impulse engines.”

“Affirmative.”

“As soon as the projectiles are launched, divert all power to impulse engines and front deflector screens and prepare to deliver full reverse thrust on my signal.”

“Aye, sir.”

Sulu announces the range. Three hundred kilometers. Spock goes on shipwide intercom, and his voice comes booming back at us hollowly through the bridge speaker. The amplification reveals an undercurrent of fatigue I had not noticed until now.

“This is Commander Spock. All hands prepare for extreme concussive turbulence in approximately 93 seconds.” The click as he closes the connection echoes across the bridge. I find I am holding my breath.

“You’d better take his advice,” Sulu reminds me. I sit on the step down to the well and wrap one arm around the railing and the other around my medikit. “Two hundred kilometers.”

“Fire photon torpedoes.”

“Photon torpedoes away.”

“Full reverse thrust.”

The ship groans in stress and I barely have time to wonder if we are going to break up in the maneuver, when the viewscreen bathes the bridge in a blinding blue-white light. Ensign Howard reaches belatedly for the intensity controls, but he never completes the move. The roar and the shaking of the concussion is like being caught in an immense tidal wave. I am thrown against the railing and then wrenched away; I can feel muscle and tendon screaming at the stress. Or is it Enterprise herself screaming?

A body hurtles into mine from behind, breaking my hold on the railing. I curl myself around the medikit, somersaulting forward, and flash a thought to the cultures in the lab. Then my back slams into something hard and unyielding and the pain that shoots through me knocks everything else into oblivion.

When I can breathe again and stars have stopped shooting across my field of vision – I am aware enough to be startled by the fact that people actually do see stars – I realize the deck has stopped shuddering, people are picking themselves up and shaking unbroken limbs, and somebody is laughing at the sheer joy of discovering he is still alive.

The whine of a feinberg registers in my mind, and I look up into Spock’s face. Satisfied that nothing is broken, he lifts me to my feet, and I allow myself the luxury of leaning against him. He reaches around me to flick on an intercom, but makes no move to pull away.

“Engineering, report.”

“We’re navigable, sir, just barely. Considerable structural damage in the forward compartments. Impulse engines look good, but we won’t have warp drive again until we can make a starbase.

He closes the switch. “The Romulans, Mr. Chekov?”

“Their ship is totally destroyed, sir.”

There is no jubilation in Spock’s face. Our own casualty reports are coming in, and they are grim. I move away from him reluctantly and walk into the turbolift, not waiting for sickbay to page me.

McCoy is on the verge of tearing his hair. There are nine reported fatalities and 14 seriously wounded crewmen, with two decks still to report. No one has begun to count the bumps and bruises; a nurse is handing out painkillers and sending the walking wounded back to their quarters. There is simply no place else for them to go.

It is almost eight hours before I can get back to the lab. The technician I had left to monitor the culture growth is gone, snapped up by Dr. McCoy to help him administer the last of the inoculations. He did a commendable job in keeping the incubator from breaking up during the last attack, but the rest of the room is a clutter of broken vials and scattered notes.

I drop the broken glass into a disposal chute and start gathering up the papers, trying to remember the approach I was using on treating the infected patients. Several sheets of Spock’s notes have become mixed in with mine, the figures and key words marching across the page in reflection of his own well-ordered mind. It seems years since we shared the quiet intimacy of that night in the lab. I have lost all sense of time and wonder when he last ate or slept.

My own notes chart a series of dead ends, and I pick through his again, rescuing missing sheets from under the lab table and behind the computer console. I note that he had called for a readout from the medicomp, the retrieval interrupted when he left to take Scott’s place on the bridge. I request a condensation of the data he has pulled; it is a summary of cancer treatment used in the mid twenty-first century.

Cancer treatments? Cancer … a viral mutation which can attack and metastasize with overwhelming speed. A viral mutation… Something begins to buzz in the back of my mind and I shuffle through his notes again. There – on the top half of the last page – a curving graph and the symbols under it indicating that it represents a particular sonic wavelength.

Specific sonic disruption. The destruction of the nucleus of aberrant cellular structures. He was so close…

And so correct, as the treatment of half a dozen lab animals shows. In the next few hours, I lose only one of the treated animals, a female which had already gone into respiratory failure when I took her from the cage.

McCoy is irascible when I page him in his quarters, but the gruffness disappears when I give him the news. He is in the lab almost before I get the intercom shut off. He is smiling for the first time in days; we cannot work our way through the wards fast enough to suit him.

By the time we are finished, the cases in the critical ward where we started are already showing a definite improvement.

“Dr. Merritt,” he says formally as we are leaving the ward, “I would be most honored to buy you a drink. Or do you share Mr. Spock’s Vulcan disdain for the waters of life?”

“I do not. One of the greatest frustrations of life on Vulcan is the difficulty in finding anything to drink stronger than a plomik slush.”

He restrains a shudder and guides me into his office where he unlocks the liquor cabinet and reverently brings out a long-necked bottle. “Saurian brandy,” he announces, and pours two snifters. “I wish Jim was here.” He hands me the glass and reaches forth with his own. “L’chaim,” he says.

L’chaim, Doctor. To life.” The spicy warmth of the brandy spreads through my limbs like honey, loosening the knots and smoothing the raw edges of my mind.

We drink in quiet companionship, and when I leave to return to my quarters, I find I am humming “Ninotchka” under my breath.

>>>>> <<<<<

Spock has his back to me when I enter the room. He is studying the computer screen, and a tray of food sits untouched at his elbow. I cross to him and put my hands on his shoulders. The muscles are tense as stone under my hands, and I begin to knead them. After a minute, I can feel the tension flowing out of them, and he reaches forward to snap off the screen. Before the image fades, I can see that it is the final list of fatalities from the day’s action.

He leans back against my hands and I run my palms down his back, reaching for the knotted length of the trapezius. But the angle is wrong; I can’t get any leverage.

“Why don’t you go and lie down, and I’ll give you the Lara Merritt special? No extra charge.”

My flippancy appears to have offended him, and he stands up. “That will not be necessary, Lara. Vulcans have the ability--”

“Yes, I know. Vulcans can do anything. I’m really beginning to believe that, you know.”

He looks at me quizzically, trying to decide whether or not I am being facetious, then turns away, going into his own sleeping quarters.

It’s not the Vulcan half I am concerned about – it’s the human half trapped inside the Vulcan physique. The human side, that knows it needs food and sleep and even occasionally the loving touch of another human hand, even though its needs are denied by the rigidity of Vulcan tradition. Spock has never attempted to deny the fact that his mother is Human; such a negation of simple biological truth would never occur to him. Not on the surface, anyway. But what about within? What private Vulcan demon drives him to be smarter than anybody, stronger than anybody, more impassive than anybody? Is there a nagging, insatiable fear that if he allows the tiniest crack, the wall he has built around himself will crumble and leave the Human in him exposed and vulnerable to the pains and doubts that assail the rest of us?

Some private imp of my own impels me to my dressing table, and I take down a vial of nathuria oil and carry it with me into his bedroom. He is lying on his stomach with his chin propped on his fists. I sit down on the edge of the bed and uncork the vial. He flinches a little as the cold oil hits his bare skin, but he doesn’t resist as I start to work it in. It warms quickly from the heat of his body, sending its spicy aroma into the room.

I tell him about the success we have had with the treatment of the virus. He seems pleased, but something is still disturbing him. There is still tension under my hands; he is not yet ready to relinquish that iron control.

My hands are beginning to tingle from the relaxing effects of the oil, and I sit back. He rolls to his side and props himself on one elbow.

“Do you know that you are a remarkably talented woman, Lara?”

“Why, thank you, sir. Was that a compliment?”

“It was intended as an observation of fact.”

“Then that makes it doubly precious to me. A woman – a human woman, anyway – likes to hear occasionally that her man values her.”

“I value you highly.”

But not quite so highly as you value the Enterprise, my private imp insists.

He stretches a little, moving his shoulders as the heat of his body intensifies the soothing action of the oil, loosening the knots and warming his skin. He reaches out and touches the vial. “That is a most interesting substance.”

I swirl the amber liquid, and the light through the cut glass makes shifting patterns on the wall behind him. “On Argelius, it’s considered a most effective aphrodisiac.

He raises an eyebrow at me. “Indeed?”

Indeed. Whether it is the heady aroma of the oil, or McCoy’s brandy in my empty stomach, or just the unaccustomed intimacy of our being together like this, something is most certainly having its effect on me. He touches my face and his touch sends a tremor through me that finishes what the brandy has begun. I feel the weariness he cannot or will not acknowledge and his bitter distaste for the deaths among our crew. There is even a kind of sorrow for the destruction of the Romulan ship and the lives it carried, and the sense of betrayal of his own code of pacifism … a strange code to find in a military man, but there all the same.

“Is this a seduction, then?” he asks.

Yes … no. Seduction implies the taking of something, some private succubus to draw the life from a man, when what I want is to give it back again. To put sunlight and gentleness back into the mind that touches mine.

“If you wish it to be,” I answer him, knowing he has already felt it in my mind.

“I do,” he says, and draws my body down across his own.

I shall be the particular succubus of his need, then, and draw away the sorrow and the guilt and the utter bone-crushing weariness of defeat that hides behind the mask of victory.

==========

KIRK

===========

Enterprise limps her way toward Starbase Nine, and I can hear Scotty in the next room, bemoaning the indignities suffered by his beloved engines. He sounds as tired of recuperating as I am. He is indicating that if someone would give him his pants and a magnetic torque infiltrator, he would have the Enterprise back on warp drive in minutes.

His optimism is greater than mine; I have seen the damage reports and I have a feeling he has not. If he knew how close we all came to buying the farm four days ago, he’d be after Spock with a claymore. Not that it was Spock’s fault. He has been in to see me several times, and between the reports he has bootlegged in to me and our discussions of the incident, I know he did his usual superlative job. He has asked for commendations for Lieutenant Sulu and for Ensign Chekov, and I concur. The report which surprises me is McCoy’s. He has not only commended Lara Merritt, he has recommended her promotion to full lieutenant.

He must have read the surprise on my face when I saw his report. “I still can’t say I like her, Jim,” he said. “But she did one hell of a job.”

I can believe that. Somewhere I have a vague memory of her holding something down over my face with a determination surprising in a woman of her size. Maybe it was just my own weakness that made her seem strong. This bug has taken all the starch out of me. I woke up three days ago feeling like somebody had stolen all my bones. I got up yesterday, over McCoy’s howls of protest, but it wasn’t long before I regretted the action. When he started in on me again, I was glad for the excuse to go back to bed.

I switch on the viewer. Though I have viewed this tape before, it is better than lying here staring at the bulkhead or eavesdropping on Scotty’s conversation.

Petey’s face stares out at me – Pete’s face, I remind myself. At 19, he is suddenly very concerned with being addressed with the formality called for by his new station in life. The tape is choppy, fragmented. He obviously recorded it in the odd snatches of time available to him between classes. He looks so much like Sam did at that age that it is hard to watch him. He talks a great deal about someone named Sharon, and he makes me feel suddenly, unfairly, old.

“Am I interrupting?” It is Lara.

“Not really.” I reach out and stop the tape as she checks the hieroglyphics on my chart. She looks fresh and rested; happier than I remember her. A kind of sea-change seems to have occurred since I’ve been sick. McCoy, Lara, even Spock; they are all different somehow. I can’t put my finger on it, but it is there.

“Are you as impatient as your Chief Engineer to get back to work?”

“I am. In fact, we’ve decided that if you won’t give us back our clothes, we’re going to make kilts out of the sheets. That was Scotty’s idea.”

She runs the feinberg over my chest, then checks the reading against the body-function panel. “I’d like to see that,” she says, grinning. “I’ll bet you’ve got terrific legs, Captain.”

Her quick reply catches me off-balance. I am suddenly aware that for all her professional detachment, she is still very much a female. If she notices my discomfiture, she gives no sign.

“Sit up, please,” she says, briskly professional again. She moves the feinberg across my back and follows it with her palm, beneath the hospital jacket. The touch of her hand against my bare skin is cool and disturbing. “Have you been up yet?”

“Yesterday.”

She puts the instrument away. “You can lie back now. How long were you up?”

“About half an hour.”

“And how did you feel?”

“Okay.” I look into the level eyes and know she sees through the answer. I have an uncomfortable feeling she also knows why I find it hard to face the truth. “Well … maybe a little wobbly.”

“That’s what I thought.” She writes something on the chart and replaces it. “You’re pushing your luck, Captain.”

“Which means?”

“Which means you’re laying yourself wide open for a secondary infection. Back off. Give yourself a little time to recuperate.”

“Doctor’s orders?”

“Doctor’s orders.” She turns to go as an orderly brings in my lunch tray. She lifts the cover off a dish and nods in approval. “Looks good,” she says.

“Join me?” I ask on an impulse.

She shakes her head. “I’m meeting Spock in half an hour.”

“Then keep me company?” I envy her the freedom to walk out of this confining space.

She hesitates, then takes the tray from the orderly and dismisses him. As she moves the viewer away to make room for the tray table, she notices the frozen image of Pete, caught in mid-gesture with a lock of hair falling over his brow. There is open curiosity on her face.

“That’s my brother’s boy, Peter,” I explain. “He’s in his first year at the Academy.”

“How does he like it?”

“He loves it. Even though they’re running his fanny off. I remember my plebe year … I think the most important thing I learned was how to fall asleep in 30 seconds. And how to wake up in ten.”

She laughs, and the soft sound of it tells me she shares a similar memory. “I did the same thing in my intern year,” she says. “Only we also had to learn how to get rid of Corcoran’s kisses.”

“How to get rid of what?

“Corcoran’s kisses. Jeff Corcoran was the resident in charge, and he was hell on wheels if he caught any intern sleeping on duty. Of course, we all did, so he had all the couches covered with a thick, nappy fabric that made marks on your skin if you laid down on it. We called them Corcoran’s kisses.”

“So you do you get rid of them?”

“You don’t. We started swiping linens and covering the couches with them. We got quite ingenious at hiding towels and pillowcases.” She looks down at the front of her uniform. “That’s the only time in my life I ever had a bust.” She laughs again, easily and without embarrassment, and I have to join her. She looks back at Pete’s face. “He’s a nice-looking boy. His parents must be proud of him.”

I think of Sam the last time I saw him alive; his vibrancy echoing back poignantly from Pete’s face. “They would be very proud of him, I think. Both his parents were killed on Deneva about five years ago.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“I didn’t think you were.” But I reach out and turn off the viewer anyway. I can’t look at Pete’s face any more just now.

She sits quietly, watching me push food around the plate. Finally she says, “You must have been very close to your brother.”

“I was when we were younger. Then I went into the Academy, and he was planning to enter when he met Aurelan. They got married, and he began to have second thoughts. It’s rather ironic in a way … he decided against Starfleet because he thought – they both thought – it was too dangerous for a family man. Sam was always the cautious one.”

The memories of him are shouldering past one another now, each one eager to be seen and heard, and it’s important to me somehow for her to hear them; for her to know how it was with Sam.

“Once, when we built a raft – told everybody we were going to sail to Hawaii. They said ‘sure, kids, have fun’. I was … oh … seven, I guess, and he was nine. Just two kids with big ideas. But we meant it, you know? I mean, we had all kinds of stuff squirreled away. My dad was piloting a Mars shuttle then – it was … I don’t know … about a year, I guess, before we moved back to Iowa. Anyway, he’d bring things home – old T-rations, broken navigation instruments he’d conned out of the engineers. Things like that. And we’d cart this junk down to the raft until finally we decided we had enough. Sneaked out one night after everybody went to bed, and cast off for Hawaii.

“We caught an outgoing tide, and of course a couple hundred meters offshore, the raft starts to break up. With the tide running against us, we couldn’t make the shore, but there were some rocks about 30 or 40 meters further out. We hung on to what was left of our raft and swam out to them, and sat there cold and wet the rest of the night. No matches, no light, no food. I figured we’d probably starve to death right there in sight of land, and maybe in ten years or so, they’d find our skeletons. It’s funny now, but at the time I really believed it.

“Then, just after sunup, we heard a boat. I couldn’t believe it. We jumped up and down and yelled like crazy men, and it turned toward us. It was our dad. Turns out Sam didn’t want anybody to worry about us, so he left a note. My dad got up early that morning to go fishing and found it. Came looking for us. Which was a good thing, because when the tide turned, those rocks were under water.

“I was always getting us into something like that, and Sam was always pulling my tail out of the crack. It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that he’s not around to do it any more.”

She has been sitting quietly, a small smile playing around her eyes. She looks comfortable with the idea of Sam, and that pleases me for some reason.

“I wonder sometimes if he ever told that story to Pete.”

“If he didn’t,” she says, “you should. I think he’d like to hear it.” As she is speaking, Spock comes in, and I wonder again if it is Spock who has changed, or if it is only my perception of him which has altered. His expression, his stance, his voice … they are the same. But not the same.

“Dr. Merritt,” he says, gravely formal as ever. “I believe you were supposed to meet me in your office.”

She turns to look up at him, and the smile moves from her eyes to light up her whole face. “I believe I was, Spock. Am I late?”

He starts to say something, then thinks the better of it, addressing me instead. “Captain. I trust you are feeling better.”

“Much. Thank you for the company of your lady.”

He gives me his oddly formal nod of acknowledgement, and as they turn to leave, I notice that he reaches out to cross her first two fingers over his own in the traditional Vulcan manner. Spock, who dislikes being touched, and who seldom touches anyone of his own volition.

They take something with them when they leave; some quality of light or vitality, and the room seems suddenly confining again.

==========

I wouldn’t mind losing so much, I try to tell myself, if he weren’t so damn cocky about it. But it doesn’t do any good, and besides, it’s not true. None of it. Chekov isn’t cocky; he’s just full of being 25 years old and healthy as a Russian dray horse. Forty-five minutes on the handball court with him, and I feel as creaky and debilitated as Enterprise herself. And I do mind losing, dammit. I mind it very much.

I used to get chewed out quite frequently at school for not being able to “lose graciously”, as they put it. Until I got to the Academy, where such things are understood. People often express surprise at the lack of emphasis on team sports there. No homecomings, no big games, no boozy weekends with old grads trying to be plebes again. Fairness, the administration said. There is no soccer on Rigel, no basketball on Vulcan. But it is something deeper than that. It is the awareness that it is not the function of a Starfleet officer to lose graciously.

Our physical training was rigorous, but it was against our own standards that we most often competed, or against the inexorable demands of the clock – against the complaining muscles and bruised psyches that came back again and again to strive for the ultimate effort and the ultimate victory. There is no such thing as a gracious loss.

All in all, I’m in a thoroughly foul mood. The only bright spot on the black horizon of my mind is the fact that we will be docking at the repair satellite for Starbase Nine in 36 hours. It has been a tedious trip; the first half spent in a sickbay and the second half spent on the bridge of a ship that’s only millimeters from being a basket case.

As I pass by the workout room, I notice that the doors are still jammed open, and this further sign of the ship’s multiple malfunctions increases my annoyance. I hit the manual closing switch, but they refuse to budge. Then I catch a glimpse of movement reflected in the backwall mirror.

It is Lara, and she has one foot precariously balanced on the molding that runs waist-high around the room. She arches her torso over the upraised leg, reaching with her outstretched arms, bending like a willow in the wind. As she straightens, she sees my reflection and turns toward me.

“Captain!” she calls in greeting. “Care to join me?” She twists her torso away from the wall and somehow winds up facing the other way. The upraised leg is now behind her, though it has not left the molding.

“Join you? It hurts just to watch you.” As I cross the room toward her, I can hear some kind of music coming from the playback unit on the deck. She grins up at me as she reaches downward, and I can feel my irritation beginning to melt away. This woman I had called a cactus now seems to be capable of creating an island of calm around her. One of us has definitely mellowed. Probably me – an indication of encroaching senility, no doubt.

I realize she has been speaking to me. “What? I’m afraid I was thinking about something else.”

“Obviously.  …I said … if you’ve got a minute … I need to … ask you something.  ..I’m almost … done.” She isn’t puffing, exactly, but she measures her words to the rhythm of her movement. As I sit down, she turns her back to me, but I can see the reflection of her face in the mirror. It is flushed with exertion, and tiny wisps of hair frame her forehead and cheeks, held by the mist of perspiration. She is doing something that looks like deep knee-bends, but they aren’t, because the position of her feet and the angle of her knees are all wrong.

She is wearing some kind of one-piece garment that clings like a second skin; the lines of her shoulder blades and the hollow of her backbone are clearly marked, and her small breasts push like ripe young peaches against the tight, slick fabric. She is considerably more covered up than she is in her brief uniform, yet the impression is that she is wearing much less. I reflect that there is considerable difference between substance and form. It is an almost successful attempt to divert my mind from the reality of Lara Merritt as an individual female.

She steps away from the wall and does a couple of all-over stretches, then drops to the deck cross-legged and reaches for a towel to wipe her face.

“You wanted to ask me something?”

“Oh. Yes. I asked Mr. Scott, and he said it could be done, but I had to clear it with you. When we’re docked for repairs, could I have somebody put a regular barre in here?”

“A what?”

“A ballet barre. About so big around and two or three meters long. It’s mounted on brackets and stands out from the wall about 15 centimeters.”

“I see. Well, any request to alter standard gym facilities is supposed to be accompanied by 14 pounds of red tape. But I’ll put my career on the line and give you a definite maybe.”

“Ah. A man of decision, I see.”

“It comes with the captain’s stripes.”

The smile dances as the corner of her mouth again. How could I have ever thought of her as a plain little thing? She’s as evanescent as sunlight on water, and just as hard to pin down.

“Seriously, I don’t see why not. Tell Scotty I said go ahead.”

“Thank you.” She sways a bit to the music, humming under her breath.

“What is that song?”

“You don’t recognize it?”

“The Federation Anthem?” I guess.

“It’s the second-act opening from Krionis’ Aphrodite. I thought everybody knew it.”

“Not me.”

“But … the Federation Anthem? Come on, Captain.”

“Everything sounds like the Federation Anthem to me. I’m tone-deaf.”

“Not really.”

“Really.”

She props her chin on her fist. “Another illusion blasted. I thought you were the man without a flaw.”

I know she is teasing, but still the comment stings. I have felt particularly flawed for the past two weeks. “I really do have to go,” I say, getting up. “Can I walk you home?”

She shuts off the playback unit and hands it to me as she stands. “I’ll even let you carry my books. And thank you again. That practice barre will really help.”

“You should have asked sooner. Have you been working out like that long?”

“Only for 25 years.” She catches my look. “You mean on the ship. Yes, every day if I can. I’ve done it for so long that I really feel lousy if I skip a day.”

“You make it look easy.”

“Thank you, kind sir.” She pauses at the entrance to the turbolift and drops a formal curtsey, incongruous in her pale-green tights. “Once upon a time, I was going to be the prima ballerina of the entire galaxy.”

“What happened?”

She gives a little shrug, and her face in profile is pensive. “Not enough … push … I guess. It’s a very narrow life. It’s like living in a glass bubble. There’s no reason to it for anything but dancing, and no room for anybody but yourself. I didn’t think I wanted to live that way. Sealed off. You know?”

“I think so.”

“And then there’s the little matter of talent. The competition is killing, and I have a natural aversion to playing out of my league.”

“Do you?”

She turns to look at me as the turbolift stops on her deck. “That’s a rather cryptic remark.”

“I was just wondering how many Terran women would consider marrying a Vulcan to be playing in their league.” Something clicks shut in her face, and I regret the remark. Like Bones, I often find myself wondering about their relationship, but unlike him, I have never before questioned it out loud. She turns to go, and I step out with her, catching her arm. “I’m sorry. That was out of line.”

“May I have my playback unit, please?” Her face is as unreadable as Spock’s as I hand her the unit. She pulls away and starts down the corridor. It is disturbingly like an earlier parting, and for the second time this day I feel I am losing something. But this loss is one I will not tolerate.

“Lara!” I start down the corridor after her. Heads turn in the passageway; a starship is not a private place. I ignore them. “Lara!”

She stops as the door to her quarters slides open. “What is it, Captain?”

“I’m not going to discuss it out here.” My private losses – or victories – are not for public eyes.

“Come in, then,” she says, and I follow her into the room.

“I’m sorry. I had no right to say what I did. Your private life is your own.” She puts the playback unit on her desk, but doesn’t reply. “Didn’t you say, just a few minutes ago, that you didn’t want to live sealed off in a glass bubble? Well, if you come out, if you make room in your life for someone else, you’re going to get your toes stepped on sometimes. That’s life, lady, and you can be part of it, or you can shut yourself up like some princess in a tower. But you can’t have it both ways.”

For a moment, I think she is going to throw me out. Then she drops into a chair, propping her elbows on the desk and her chin on her fist. “Do you know what’s so damned infuriating about you, Captain Kirk?”

I can feel the pressure bands loosening in my head. “There have been a number of theories advanced. Would you like to add to the list?”

“Even when you’re wrong, you’re right.”

“Would you like to clarify that?”

She hesitates a moment, then shakes her head. “No. I think you’re clever enough to figure it out.”

Her grey-blue gaze is disconcerting, and I find myself remembering the touch of her hands in sickbay. If she were not Spock’s wife… “I think I’d better leave.”

She does not move, and the air between us is charged with the electric tension of a man and a woman acknowledging each other’s sexuality for the first time. Finally she says, “Yes. I think you should.”

The doors slide shut behind me, and I find myself in the corridor. The strange thing is that I still don’t know if I’ve won or lost. Or even what it was that I was fighting for. It is a distinctly disturbing feeling.

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

I had not known, until we made planetfall on Starbase Nine, just how much I suffered from what veteran spacers call “landsickness”. Spock is tolerant of my peculiar madness, though he says it has never afflicted him.

He is a man more comfortable within walls, securely in command of his environment. But he accompanies me when I get up before dawn to go outside and watch the huge red sun roll up across the mountainous horizon; he waits patiently as I examine the wonder of the blue grass, fine as a baby’s hair, or drown my face in the exotic scents of the furry flowers. It is an almost sensual delight to feel real ground under my feet, to see the blue vault of sky arching over me, to smell the early-morning scent of rain on a vagrant breeze.

It is a common reaction, he says, particularly among those on their first deepspace assignments. After months of confinement on a starship, breathing filtered air and eating synthesized foods, the sensory organs are overwhelmed by the varied input of an uncontrolled environment. His pedantic explanation does not diminish my joy.

He balks only when I suggest a picnic on our last day. “I see no logical reason,” he says, “to transport ourselves and our food to some distant point which is undoubtedly less comfortable, less convenient, and altogether less desirable than our present location.”

He would hardly have been amenable to any suggestion, however, because he has been invited to participate in a physics seminar today, and he is impatient to be gone. I sense in him the same restlessness that drove him in our final days on Vulcan. To a Vulcan, “rest” means merely the cessation of all activity. What we consider vacation seems to them an unnecessary dissipation of misdirected energy.

He leaves immediately after breakfast, and I spend only a few minutes looking out the window before I determine not to waste this last day sulking. I am just putting my boots on when someone sounds the door buzzer.

“Come in.” It is Captain Kirk, whom I have seen only briefly since the day I asked him about the practice barre.

“Is Spock here?”

“He went off with Gregor Timovitch. They’re going to spend a glorious day discussing variations in field density. Or something equally esoteric.”

“Oh, the seminar. I’d forgotten about that.”

“I think there’s some coffee left. Would you like a cup?”

“No thanks. Actually, I was planning to hike up Aqinah this morning, and thought he might like to go.” He looks at me, thoughtful. “How about you?”

Purposely, I misunderstand him. “I thought I’d poke around some of the shops. Would you believe I haven’t spent a credit since we got here?”

He is neither distracted nor deceived. “That’s not what I meant.” He doesn’t add, “and you know it,” but we both hear it, anyway. “Come climb a mountain with me. I promise I won’t pry into your personal life.” He is wearing a wry grin, and I suddenly realize why. I am sitting on one of the twin beds, and its pristine cover and obviously unused state contrasts sharply with the unmade, tangled one behind me.

I can feel the blood burning in my face. Damn them all, the nosy, prying, would-be voyeurs. I have had full enough of the questioning glances and unspoken curiosity, and I want to stand up and yell, “Yes, dammit, we sometimes sleep together! And what’s more – we enjoy it. Both of us!” But I won’t lower myself to the level of their back-room humor. I will, instead, simply call his bluff.

“Yes, Captain. I’ll climb any mountain you care to point out.”

If he is surprised, he doesn’t show it. “Why don’t we leave the captain and the doctor at home? They seem to get on each other’s nerves at times. Jim and Lara are much more compatible.”

>>>>> <<<<<

The trail winds along the side of the mountain like an ochre ribbon. The sign at the base says “Aqinah Summit, 6 km.” I stop and look at the length of it stretching away before us, at the bluish trees that arch over its length, hiding the switchbacks beyond.

“I’m not sure I’m up to this.”

“It’s an easy climb. You could do it standing on your hands.”

“On my hands and knees, maybe.”

He looks at me, and his eyes are the same brownish-green as the stream that cuts down the mountainside. “It’s funny,” he says, “I never had you pegged as a quitter.”

“I’m not.”

“Then come on.”

We start up the trail, and at first I match him stride for stride. On the third switchback, the angle increases sharply. I can feel the muscles in my calves protesting, and fix my eyes on his back as he gains on me. He is wearing a bright red backpack that moves laterally with the motion of his shoulders. He stops, turns around, grinning and cocky. I take a deep breath and force another step, then another. As I grow closer, I can see that he is sweating, too. It is costing him something, then, this macho image he is projecting, and the knowledge pleases me.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he says.

“I can do it standing on my hands, huh?”

“This is the steepest part. There’s something I want you to see at the next switchback.”

“You may have to carry me.”

“You think I can’t?” He steps toward me; I really think he means to try.

“I think if you do, you’ll end up breaking both our necks, Captain.”

“Jim. We left the captain down there. Remember?”

“Oh yes. Down there … with my common sense.”

He catches my hand and hauls me up the last hundred meters by main force. We break out of the trees at the turn of the switchback. The valley spreads beneath us in a vast panorama. The starbase facilities are militarily neat, like a toy town laid out by a fastidious child. The control tower for the airfield stands like a tall, exotic flower in the center. Beyond it lie the shops like sun-dogs around a sun. I can see the broad circles of fields, blue and green and gold in their bearing, and the wide tangle of park where Spock and I have walked. There are no words for it, and I feel an ache in my chest that doesn’t come from the exertion of the climb.

“You knew this was here?” I say when I can trust myself to talk.

“Yes.” He is standing behind me, and he puts his hands on my shoulders, turning me toward the east. “Look – you can even see the coast.”

I can, too. I can see the water, stained red with its load of plankton, beating against the black rocks, and a stretch of black sand beach curving out into the breakers. Small boats bob on the waves, their bright sails spread like birds.

“I make this climb every time we dock here. I never get tired of looking at it.”

“And it’s always like this?”

“No. It’s different every time. You should see it with a storm rolling in.” He turns me again, west this time, toward the peaks of the mountain range. “The thunderheads come down through that pass,” he says, pointing. “It looks sometimes like they’re touching the ground. They roll and boil like living things, and the ground beneath them is black with the rain. If the light is right, it can make a rainbow from the mountains to the sea, so bright … so strong … you feel like you could scoop it up with your hands.”

I turn away from the view. “Thank you for bringing me, Jim.”

He pulls his eyes away from the mountains. “Thank you, Lara, for not being a quitter.”

“We’re not at the summit yet.”

“You’ll make it. The rest is easy.”

“What does it look like from there?”

“It’s … different. You can see it all, but it doesn’t make me feel like this. But I always go on, anyway. I don’t know why.”

“Maybe you’re a compulsive over-achiever.”

He grins at me. “Maybe.”

He is right about the summit. The base is dwarfed, out of focus somehow. The details of the coast are lost, and the sky is pierced jaggedly by the higher peaks that rise behind Aqinah Summit. They wear coats of snow, and the wind that whips off them is cold. We stay only a few minutes, to catch our breath and rub aching legs before we start down.

As the bulk of the mountain rises behind us, the cold of the summit becomes just a memory. The great red sun is directly overhead and our very shadows scurry for cover under our feet. Coming down should be easier, but it isn’t. The strain has shifted from muscles to joints, and now it is ankles and knees that complain instead of calves and thighs.

Just above the switchback where we had stopped before, the stream cuts across the path. We had crossed the bridge, hardly seeing it after the view of the valley; now it is like an oasis.

It is a nondescript sort of bridge, spanning the water, its clean lines of metal alloy somehow incongruous here. I start across it, but Jim shuns its sterile width and starts to cross on the broad, moss-covered rocks that dot the surface of the water. I stand on the bridge, yelling encouragement and laughing at him. He is nearly across when he makes a miscalculation and slips into the knee-high stream.

He wades out, dripping and laughing, and sits down under a tree to strip off his wet boots. I join him, grateful for the shade, which falls across my arms and face as softly as a cloak of Orion velvet.

“First Hawaii, now this,” I tell him. “If I were a fortune-teller, I’d advise you to avoid journeys over water. You seem to be jinxed.”

“You think this was an accident? I always bathe my feet on a hike. Recommended practice.”

“True. But I think it’s also recommended that you remove your boots first.”

He makes a grimace of mock annoyance. “I always forget that part.” He slips out of the backpack harness and lies back on the grass, pillowing his head on his palms. He is relaxed and contented. The coiled-spring tension of a starship captain is gone. I am glad we left him behind. There is an ease between us, an atmosphere much like that day in sickbay when he talked about his childhood.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he says.

“Oh, they’re worth much more than that.”

“I’m a very good credit risk.”

“Actually, they were about Captain Kirk.”

“Uh-oh. Do I want to hear them?”

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “Is he a friend of yours?”

“We’re on speaking terms. Sometimes I get the feeling he doesn’t approve of me much.”

“I get the same feeling.”

He looks at me, suddenly serious. “You shouldn’t. He thinks Lara is a pretty terrific lady. It’s just that Dr. Merritt keeps getting in the way.”

I don’t have an answer for that, and I look away. He is coming on very strong, and I don’t quite know how to handle it. This is different from the teasing flirtation with Pavel, and it frightens me somewhat. He makes me feel young and pretty and clever, and at the same time a little scared that any minute he’s going to discover he’s talking to and flirting with Lara Merritt – that plain, uninteresting nobody – and then he’ll go away and find somebody who’s really all those things he thought I was.

What am I doing here, anyway? I’ve got no business wandering around a mountain with a man who isn’t my husband, particularly not with a man who makes me feel the way I’m feeling now. I love Spock, and he … what? He loves me? Or just tolerates me and accepts my presence in his life and his bed as something which is inevitable and therefore should be utilized as efficaciously as possible?

“You’re doing it again,” Jim says.

“Doing what?”

“Slipping back inside that glass bubble. Don’t do it, Lara. It looks very lonely in there.”

The sound of the water over the rocks is a soft chuckle in the silence that lies between us. I know he is expecting a reply, and I choose the words as carefully as I would choose stepping-stones across a raging river. “Wolfe said that loneliness is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

“Do you believe that?” There is a softness in his voice.

“Sometimes. Most of the time. Don’t you?”

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he looks at the interlacing pattern of leaves above him. The light filters through the leaves, playing changing patterns on the planes of his face. Finally he says, “I think this conversation is entirely too deep for a day like this in a place like this. It belongs to some quiet corner, late at night, over a brandy.”

I think about the night in McCoy’s office when he wished for his friend’s presence as he poured drinks for us. Jim was there, in a way, in both our minds at least.

“Saurian brandy, I presume?”

He looks at me and flashes his quicksilver grin. “How did you guess?”

“Something McCoy said on the ship. Over a glass of it.”

“I didn’t know you two and Bones were drinking buddies.”

“We’re not, really. That was a very strange night. And it was very quiet. And very late.”

His expression is reflective, and he shakes his head. “You are a remarkable woman, Lara Merritt.”

His words are such a close echo of Spock’s on that same night that I feel the crawl of gooseflesh on my arms, remembering what came afterward. Jim looks at me, puzzled.

“Tell me something,” he says.

“What?”

“What were you really going to do today?”

“I told you. I was going shopping.”

“I won’t buy that. You’re not the shopping type.”

“How do you know what type I am?” His assumption annoys me.

“The shopping type wouldn’t spend every morning of a shore leave hiking through the park.” He goes on, cutting off the retort I am framing. “Don’t deny it. I’ve seen you. That first day you looked like you wanted to get down and roll in the grass like a colt.”

His insight is uncanny, and I’m too embarrassed to admit he is right.

“So what were you planning?” he goes on, unwilling to leave it alone.

“Oh, nothing special.  …Well … a picnic.”

“Alone?”

“Of course not! I thought maybe Spock and I--”

“Spock? On a picnic?” His face is a play of conflicting emotions. Finally he shakes his head. “I’d love to have seen that.”

“You don’t have to look at me that way. I don’t see anything so odd about it.”

“You amaze me. You really do. You’re going to make a Human of him yet.” He reaches for the backpack. “Well … I try never to disappoint a lady. A picnic, she says. Voilà!” He pulls a piece of fruit from the pack and tosses it to me.

“What? No cold pheasant? No white wine?”

“Sorry, lady. We do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

“I’ll bet you didn’t even bring the salt.”

“Salt I’ve got.” He reaches into the backpack again and tosses the shaker at me. It slips out of my hand and rolls down the bank. We both reach for it at the same time, and my chin cracks sharply into the back of his head.

“Ow!” I sit back on my heels, the back of my hand pressing against my lower lip. I can taste blood.

He turns quickly, grabbing my arms. “I’m sorry, Lara. Are you hurt? Let me see.”

I touch my lip gingerly and regard the tips of my fingers. “It’s all right, really.”

“No, it’s not all right.”

I look up at his face, very close, seeing the concern in his eyes become something else, something I have seen coming for days now, but refused to acknowledge. He bends his head toward mine, and I could move away, but I don’t want to. Instead I move to meet him, and he kisses me, tentatively at first, and then with a growing intensity as my arms circle his back.

What the hell am I doing to myself – to him? I break away, shaking, and we look at each other for a long time. Finally he says, “That didn’t happen.”

“No,” I agree. “It never happened. Never.”

“I think we’d better go.”

“Yes.”

We gather up our belongings without looking at each other, and as I follow him down the trail, I think that we have started a different kind of journey this day; one that we may never see an end to.

>>>>> <<<<<

Enterprise is whole again, and to Mr. Scott’s obvious relief, she seems none the worse for her narrow escape. Scott is something of an enigma to me, though there are doubtless many others like him in Starfleet. He loves this ship more passionately than any man ever loved a woman. I have seen him touch a control board with a caress as soft as a lover’s, and Pavel says Scott often talks to her. And swears she responds.

He nearly drove the repair crew to mutiny, crawling through the exposed and injured entrails of his mistress, goading laggards, demanding perfection, rejecting whole days of work as being below his exacting standards. Now he is happy, and he prowls the corridors with his dark head cocked to one side, listening always to the siren song of his ship as she purrs in contentment.

Scott is alone in his satisfaction. The rest of the crew is somewhat less than happy with our current assignment, ferrying a cargo of dignitaries to a royal wedding on the planet Eos.

It seems that the young Matriarch of Eos, since her accession to the throne three years ago, has been somewhat less than a staunch supporter of the Federation. Even though Federation forces – in fact, Kirk’s own Enterprise – assisted her in quelling some sort of minor rebellion during the first few days of her rule, her participation in Federation affairs has been given only grudgingly and at the highest price she could command.

Now it seems that treaty negotiations with Eos regarding its considerable mineral wealth are at a particularly sensitive juncture, and the young Matriarch is stalling off the final negotiations, using her forthcoming nuptials as an excuse. Therefore, it seems the politically provident thing to send every Federation diplomat who owns a sash and a planetary commission to pay homage to the importance of the Matriarch’s wedding.

The passengers are a touchy, temperamental lot, and to make matters worse – for me, at least – seem predisposed to an inordinate amount of space-sickness. I have handed out more sedatives and anti-emetics in the last two weeks than in the entire previous span of my career, and in not a few cases, placebos as well. Dr. McCoy ordered these, and his mood has been so foul since we left Starbase Nine that I have been totally unwilling to cross him.

Our moment of companionship after the epidemic seems long ago and far away. I find it difficult to believe that it ever happened, even though I have a service commendation and a promotion to show for it.

Now he glares moodily into his wine glass, and emits a sigh as the last of the beribboned ambassadors leaves the room. Only Jim, Spock, Dr. McCoy, and I remain amidst the litter of the formal dinner we have all endured. Two yeomen are clearing away the stained linen and empty glasses, glancing at us surreptitiously from time to time. Their glances clearly say that they wish we would leave so they could go about their business. But neither Jim nor Spock seems inclined to end the evening, and I am too full of wine to contemplate any independent action.

McCoy pushes his heavy plate away from him and emits a grumble. “I swear I’m going to put the whole crew on a salad and clear broth diet when we dump these overstuffed delegates of Federation diplomacy. And if I so much as see another plate of lorvache in cream sauce, I’ll resign my commission.”

Jim grins at him, his hazel eyes sparking. “When this is over, Bones, I’ll have a special medal designed for you. Crossed wine glasses on a field of chopped corfal.”

“More likely a knife and fork propped over an open grave,” McCoy snaps. “I could cure all those hypochondriacs with a balanced diet and a strong purgative.”

“Testy tonight, isn’t he?” Jim says to no one in particular.

“I can discern no change in the doctor’s manner,” Spock goads.

McCoy grumbles wordlessly at them. It is an old game, this two-on-one baiting, and one they all seem to enjoy, no matter whose turn it is to be the object of their needling. I do not play; I am not part of the trinity.

“They’ll all be beaming down to Eos in the morning anyway, Bones. They’ll have four days of wining and dining, and then you can put them all on bread and water till we get them home.”

McCoy brightens visibly at the thought. “Do them all a world of good.” He looks across the table at Spock, and a gleam comes into his eye. “Going to the wedding, Spock?” The tone in his voice and Jim’s quick glance at my husband tell me that the balance has changed; it will now be Jim and McCoy who play off Spock.

“I do not believe anyone on the crew has been invited.”

“A mere oversight, I’m sure,” McCoy says, draining the last of his wine. “I should have thought that the lovely Matriarch would want you there. Perhaps you should give the bride away.”

“That particular Earth custom, Dr. McCoy, stemmed from the concept of females as chattel. It is hardly compatible with Eosian society.”

I am puzzled; there is definitely something going on here below the level of words. If Spock’s clipped tones had not told me, Jim’s careful study of my husband’s face would have done so. The game is no longer a game; McCoy is playing for blood.

“I suppose not,” McCoy replies. But the needle is in his hand and he is not willing to let it go without a few more thrusts. “Still, there must be some place in the ceremony for the rejected suitor.”

“As usual, Dr. McCoy, you have reached a highly erroneous conclusion. I find your feeble attempt at humor – if that is what it is – most distasteful. If you will excuse us, Captain.” He starts to rise, extending his hand for mine in the Vulcan manner.

“You look a little confused, Lara,” McCoy insists. “Surely Spock has told you about Princess Kyra. He seemed quite taken with her the last time we were on Eos.”

“Bones, that’s enough,” Jim cuts in sharply, rising to his feet. “My apologies to you both,” he says, turning toward us. “I believe the good doctor has had too much wine.”

Spock’s fingers under mine are as icy as his voice. “Good night, Captain.” He does not speak to McCoy as we leave.

^^^^^^^^^^

SPOCK

^^^^^^^^^^

McCoy has gone too far this time. He will have to find another subject for whatever obscure emotional gratification he obtains from his provocations. I will no longer be the object of his cat’s-paw games.

What is happening to me? I am caught in the sticky, nebulous strands of other people’s emotions, cobwebs fouling my limbs and drawing across my face as the spider sits patiently in the center, waiting. Waiting to suck me dry. Who is the spider? Is it McCoy? Lara? Or is it my other self?

This marriage was a mistake. I should not have yielded to T’Pau’s insistent entreaties. It seemed so simple at the time. Such a small price to pay for repatriation; a simple key laid in my hand by fortune. Simple and fitting. A woman was the cause of my loss; a woman would be the means to restore that which was taken away.

But not this woman. I should have refused. T’Pau wanted me back on the smooth path she had laid out for my life. She would have found another. A proper Vulcan woman, to wait in the time-honored way; to be chatelaine of my lands and mother of my children; to meet me in the mindlessness of pon farr and then withdraw, satiated; to function independent of me, content and complete in her own world.

And if she had not? Could I have continued to function, disinherited, disenfranchised, banished forever from my home? I think so. Alienation has been my shadow all my life. I was never at home there. My life is here, despite T’Pau’s plans for me. I am Spock. I am First Officer of the Enterprise – valued, respected, secure in what I am, what I do.

The seven-year cycle is not inviolable. I have known that for many years; when my bond with T’Pring was broken in the challenge arena, I did not die of the rutting madness. And when pon farr came again, I was drawn as much by T’Pau’s promise as by my bond with Lara. There have been other women. Not many, but enough. Females who by word or action made it clear that they were available without the potentially deadly arena of Vulcan’s Koon-ut-Kali-if-fee. One of them would have sufficed. One of them could have quelled the fire of pon farr without the complications Lara brings.

She walks beside me now, back to our quarters, Vulcan training on the outside, calm, unquestioning. But inside is a very Human female alternating between curiosity and outrage. She seeks to protect me from what she views as emotional assault, not realizing that her ‘protection’ is in reality another attack on my integrity. Another set of emotions seeking to impress itself on my psyche.

She is a witch, this one. A sorceress. Did T’Pau know that? I doubt it. I did not know it myself until it was too late. And Amanda, my mother? Did she know it? For her Human hand was busy in this mating. I know it, yet I cannot know precisely where, or how.

^^^^^^^^^^

The invitation that comes in the morning is not precisely an invitation, despite its being couched in the flamboyant language of diplomacy. It is in reality a summons demanding the presence of Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and myself at the reception this night at the palace of the Matriarch.

Jim reminds me, needlessly, of the importance of the delicately balanced treaty negotiations, promises a brief appearance limited to the demands of propriety, places his imposing stature on the front lines of the battlefield that stretches between McCoy and myself. It is not a new posture for him. He has more than once been the calm voice of reason that kept my hands off McCoy’s throat, and the doctor’s from mine.

He places himself between us, not only emotionally, but physically as well as we enter the overheated, overcrowded reception hall. We are late; the reception line has been disbanded, and so we will have to stay long enough to make our presence known by seeking out those dignitaries whose business it is to nurse minor social gaffes into interplanetary malignancies.

As I scan the room, I am surprised by a Vulcan face. He stands in the midst of a group of Eosians, wearing the same violet and grey robes they affect. Before I have time to puzzle out his unexpected appearance, a very tall woman dressed in a severely cut, almost unornamented uniform, crosses the room toward me.

“Commander P’Lef,” I greet her.

She acknowledges my greeting with a nod of her well-shaped head. “Mr. Spock. I see that your memory is as prodigious as your many other accomplishments.”

“One can hardly forget a person of your importance to Eos, Commander. It would be in exceedingly poor taste.”

She gives me a cold smile. From what I remember of the Commander, she would have as little use for the pleasantries of small talk as I have. Now she comes quickly to the point. “I am glad you are here. Her Matros wishes to see you. If you will come with me, please.” She crosses the crowded hall, ignoring the invitations to join this group or that, and I follow her down a hallway and into a small room.

When she leaves, the prowling feeling of déjà vu floods my senses. I have been in this room before, waited before for the girl who was then Princess Kyra of Eos. I cannot help but wonder what changes the past three years have wrought.

I do not have long to wait. She comes into the room like a slim shaft of moonlight, amethysts sparkling in her silver hair, her eyes reflecting the tints of the jewels. But the girl is gone, and in her place is a woman, an incredibly beautiful woman without a trace of the vulnerability she showed three years ago. There is a sureness in her walk as she crosses toward me with both hands out.

“Spock,” she says, and her voice is vibrant as the strings of a lyre. “I am so glad you came.” She takes my hands; accepts as her due the bow I make over them. “You didn’t have to wait for a formal invitation, you know. You are always welcome on Eos.” Her slanted eyes meet mine; I can feel the tentative touches of her mind as well. As before, she is too free with her telepathic power, too inquiring. I set a shield between us; busy thoughts of swarming bees.

There is a trace of petulance in her mind, in her voice. “You might at least say you’re glad to see me.” When I don’t answer, she drops my hands and walks away, then turns on me, her diaphanous skirt marking the line of hip and thigh and foaming at her feet like breaking waves. “By the Comet, Spock, say something!”

“Why does a Vulcan wear the court robes of Eos?”

She smiles and nods, and her elongated canine teeth shine briefly. “Very good, Spock. Direct. Succinct. To the point. You haven’t changed.”

“And you have not answered my question, Your Matros.”

She is not accustomed to being spoken to in such a manner, and her face shows it briefly before she composes herself. Her long, slim fingers toy with the pendant stone of her necklace, trace the line of her collarbone. The look she gives me is pure sensuality, and I can feel the dark wings of her mind beating at the barrier I have erected between us. There is no entrance, and so she turns instead to my question.

“He is my Minister of Science. I have long wanted a Vulcan in my… court. The one I chose … refused me.” She sits down on a chaise, toying with the folds of her skirt. “I understand why, now.”

“Do you?”

“I think so. I have made a rather careful study of Vulcan in the past three years. And a very particular study of one particular Vulcan. Shall I tell you what I have learned?”

“If you wish.”

“It will not be news to you, of course. But it might be interesting for you to learn that the facts are so easily accessible to anyone with the patience to search the records. Or the funds to pay someone else to search.”

She pours a glass of wine and offers me one. “No?” she says, as I wave the offer away. “Have it your own way, then. You usually do, I have discovered.” Her amethyst eyes are bright as she regards me over the brim of her glass, and I feel the assault of her conflicting emotions. Three years ago, she was a young and disturbing woman. Now she is older, and thoroughly dangerous.

“Almost eight years ago,” she begins, “you were charged on Vulcan with an offense called kfa’at. The term does not translate, I am told, but it seems to fall midway between blasphemy and treason. It arose from your actions during a ceremony which was supposed to be your wedding. You were tried in absentia and found guilty. The penalty was banishment from Vulcan. Your lands were seized by the state, and you were forbidden on penalty of death to ever return to your home.

“Then, two years ago, without explanation, the sentence was commuted. Your property was returned, and within weeks came the ceremony of promise between you and the daughter of the Earth ambassador, which was followed last year by your marriage to her.

“I am not a novice in the labyrinth of political maneuvering, Spock. Someone high in the Vulcan council wanted that union between the Earth’s Vulcan embassy and Vulcan’s Federation embassy. Wanted it badly enough to see that your unfortunate … lapse … was forgiven, on the condition that you agree to the marriage. That was the price you had to pay for restoration of your lands and reinstatement in the good graces of your government. You bought your way back into Vulcan society with your marriage, Spock. All I want to know is – was it worth the price?”

“Yes.” There is no hesitancy in my voice; my doubts are my own. She seems surprised.

“Do you love her, then?”

“Vulcan marriages are not predicated on that particular emotion. It is foreign to us.”

“I know that, Spock.” Her voice is softer now, entreating. “Now you are the one who doesn’t answer my question. Do you love her?”

Indeed. Do I love her? I am not sure precisely what she means. It has been my experience that each person who expresses love perceives its attributes in a slightly different way. I know that I have grown to value Lara’s company. I know I feel protective toward her; that I was so concerned for her safety during the Romulan attack that her presence on the bridge interfered with my efficiency. I know her body gives me pleasures and releases I had never dreamed existed. Is that what the Humans call love?

My mind-shield weakens; I can feel Kyra’s mind probing my thoughts and filtering them back through her own parameters of reasoning, and I object to this invasion of my privacy. “I see no point in continuing this conversation,” I tell her.

She smiles slowly, her amethyst eyes glittering. “I only have one other question, Spock. Does she know why you married her? Does she know what her dowry was?”

When I do not answer, she sits back on the chaise. There is a victorious relaxation in her movement. “You once thought to play chess with me, Vulcan,” she announced. “Would you care for a game now?”

“I am under the distinct impression that we are already having one.”

She laughs, and the sound is molten silver. “Better and better, Spock. We are indeed. And I offer you advance. From pawn to … what? King? No, my husband-to-be holds that position. It is too restrictive for you, anyway. What about knight? You have the speed. You would have the freedom, the power. The protection of the queen. What say you, Vulcan?”

“And all it requires is the change from black to white. I presume you are white?”

“Of course. The advantage of the first move, you know. You needn’t answer tonight. I go in the morning for a field trial of some young hawks. Come with us.”

“I shall consider it.”

“I shall expect you, then.”

“I said I would consider it, Your Matros. Kindly keep in mind that even a pawn has the option of not moving.”

^^^^^^^^^^

I hardly hear the Captain’s questions when I rejoin them. The questions in my own mind are too insistent. Just how much does she know, and how did she learn it? No doubt the records indeed gave her the gist of it, and she has drawn the correct inference from what is not written there. Or has she had access to more than she tells? The reasons behind the actions are locked in the souls of half a dozen people; even I do not understand them all.

When it became known on Vulcan that murder had not been done in the arena on that day so long ago, the logical assumption was that a premeditated hoax had been perpetrated. Had that been the fact, the charge of kfa’at would certainly have been justified. Nor could I return to clear myself without implicating Dr. McCoy, whose actions were motivated by the love he has for Jim. If I could present no defense, there was no reason for me to return for the Council’s judgment. I could only accept it, and refuse to contemplate what would happen in seven years when the pon farr would come again.

Then, without explanation, had come a communication from T’Pau. Would I be interested in seeing the sentence commuted? Would I, on those terms, be interested in committing myself to a politically-motivated marriage? I would, and I was. I knew that relations between Vulcan and the Federation had grown increasingly strained. What I did not know, nor do I yet, was how T’Pau managed to bully her proposal through the Council. My mother knows, I think; perhaps was even instrumental in some way I cannot perceive. Her communications to me, smuggled out during the period of my banishment, always held intimations of my eventual exoneration. Was she, in some way, Kyra’s source? If not Amanda, then who?

It is something I mean to discover, and so I present myself at the appointed time and place.

The birds roost quiescently in their cages as the aircar speeds us silently to the hawking ground. They are streaked with the tans and greens and brilliant crimson of the desert land they hunt, and their powerful talons grip the stands. Their raptor’s beaks jut forward from the brightly-colored hoods. They are mute, motionless, powerless until this woman’s command shall free them.

She has taken the controls of the vehicle, over the objections of those charged with her safety, and she and I alone pull away from the others, curving and banking less than a meter above the rocky ground. Her face reflects the joy she feels in the intimate control of the powerful, responsive machine. We do not speak; her concentration is all on her craft. And she is good at it, bold and sure of herself in this as in so many other things. It is unfortunate that one of the tasks of her husband will not be to master her. Still, it will be a wise thing to see her married. A wandering beauty is a blade out of its scabbard. An Earth poet said that, centuries ago. It is still an elemental truth.

She slides the aircar to a stop below a rocky scree. It hangs suspended, quivering like a wounded beast. “Did you enjoy the ride?” she asks.

“It was … exhilarating. But is it wise to leave the others so far behind?”

“They’ll be along shortly. And there’s no danger here.”

“Are you so sure?”

She studies me, her head resting against the back of the seat. “You don’t approve of me, do you, Spock? You never have.”

“It is hardly my place to approve or disapprove of the Matriarch of Eos.”

“Even a cat may look at a queen. An Earth poet said that, too, I believe.”

So. She has been in my mind again, and this time I did not even feel her presence. I must be more vigilant in my screening. I shut her out, like dousing a flame of burning phosphorous. It is not easy. Without the skills I have gained from being linked with Lara, I doubt I would be able to do it.

Her eyes change colors even as I am watching; grow darker as I shut her out of my mind. “You’re getting very good at that,” she says.

“The skill improves with the necessity of its use.”

“Do I threaten you, then?”

“If I wanted you to know that, I would not shut you out.”

She arches an eyebrow at me. “Touché, Mr. Spock. First blood to the Vulcan.” She twists around in the seat. “Here are Tisai and the others now. I told you they’d not be far behind.” She draws on her heavy falconer’s glove and leaves the car.

I watch as she approaches Tisai, the young Eosian who is so soon to be her consort. He is scowling, his handsome face dark with anger, and as he speaks to her, he jerks his chin in my direction. It takes no telepathy to know I should not leave my back unguarded against this one.

She laughs off his questions and calls two attendants to unload the hawks. Kyra takes the first and removes the hood with the nimble fingers of one hand. The bird looks about with quick, jerky movements of its head, orienting itself. It stamps on her gloved hand, fluffing its plumage and spreading its wings. She brings it to me where I stand by the aircar.

“This is Aqun,” she says. “This will be her first field flight.” The hawk fixes me with its ruby eye, then looks away, coiled tension in the line of its head and shoulders. “She is a kyriet. The name comes from the sound of their hunting cry – as does my own name. Perhaps that is why I have such an affinity for them.” She strokes the barred breast. The hawk submits, but there is no pleasure in it. “Come,” Kyra says, leading the way up the rocky spine of the hill behind us.

Tisai breaks free of the others and climbs with us, his hooded eyes as malevolent as those of the kyriet. Kyra watches the plains below as we climb, and in her distraction steps on a turning stone. Unbalanced by the weight of the hawk on her hand, she starts to tumble backward. Instinctively, I reach out for her; at the same time, Tisai reaches from the other side. His glare is murderous. I release my hold on Kyra and step back. I have no wish to challenge this young cockerel for his bride.

Kyra regains her balance, her glance flickering over both of us. In the distant north, a monolithic stone building rears against the horizon. Kyra gestures toward it. “P’mie,” she says. “Do you remember it?”

“Very well, Your Matros.” P’mie, once a rebel stronghold where we were briefly held prisoner three years ago. And a certain room within it, a room where I once reached into the most intimate depths of her mind in a desperate attempt to save both our lives.

“I was going to have it razed,” she says. “But I decided to leave it standing. As a reminder. And who knows? It might make someone a fine property some day.” Her message is clear. Does she really think she can buy any Vulcan with a pile of stones?

The kyriet moves restively on her gloved fist. She beats her wings and rises the few inches the leather jesses around her legs will permit. “Soon, my beauty,” Kyra croons, stroking the feathered breast. “Soon.” Her gaze returns to me. “She is impatient. It is typical of the breed.” Kyra draws back her arm; flings it forward as she releases the jesses.

The hawk lifts off, her wingtips brushing my face. She mounts a thermal and goes into a lazy, circling climb, searching the brush below for some revealing flicker of movement. We sit on the warm rocks, watching her, and the sun climbs higher as she circles and quarters without finding quarry.

My mind circles and quarters with her, the questions burning to be answered. Patience, I counsel myself. This is not yet the time.

The bird hunts without success for nearly an hour before she lands, dejected and moody, on a shrub. The handlers bait her back with bits of flesh on leather thongs, and when they bring her to Kyra, she takes the hawk impatiently on her gloved fist.

“Bring out the nyhie,” she orders. “I’ll not have her go back without a kill.”

The handlers return to the aircar and remove a small cage. One of them brings out a small bird with brilliant sapphire plumage and throws it into the sky. The wind carries the drum of its wingbeats to us, and the kyriet comes alive, straining at the jesses again.

Kyra launches the hawk like an ancient javelin. There is no lazy circling now, no searching for the rising thermal – only the beating wings as the bird climbs as swiftly and as surely as a launched spear. The brilliant plumage of the released nyhie flashes in the sun as the smaller bird makes for the towers of P’mie. The hunting hawk becomes only a speck against the sky, and Kyra presses a televiewer into my hands.

“Watch her,” she says, raising her own viewer.

It takes me a moment to focus the instrument, and a moment more to find the kyriet in its field. She seems to halt in midair at the top of her arcing flight. Then she folds her wings and plummets like a stone.

“Come in, my beauty,” Kyra murmurs, and the tone in her voice chills me. “Carefully now. Carefully.”

The hawk drops so rapidly I can hardly keep her in the viewer. Suddenly both birds are in the frame and the nyhie becomes aware somehow of the death falling from the sky. It fans its wings, slowing like a swimmer. It dives abruptly, then banks upward as if to meet its fate head-on.

I hear Kyra’s voice, breaking now with the strain. “No! Break off, Aqun! Break off!” But the kyriet does not pull out of her deadly dive. Her cry splits the air, talons reaching. A split second before she plunges into the nyhie, the smaller bird pulls itself over backwards with a reach of its sapphire wings. The hawk smashes directly into the nyhie’s reaching claws. There is an explosion of feathers and the kyriet screams again as the locked forms plummet to the ground.

Kyra is meters ahead of me as she leaps and slides down the face of the scree. We reach the two forms at the same time the handlers do. They are locked in an embrace fiercer than love’s, sapphire and crimson and tan mingled on the sand. The nyhie is limp and lifeless but the kyriet still lives, her wings beating feebly as one of the handlers reaches for her.

“She lives, Your Matros,” he says. “I think, perhaps--”

“No.” Her voice is harsh. “Finish her.”

“But – “

“I said finish her! She’ll never make another stoop without remembering this one. She’s useless to me now.”

The handler bows. “Yes, Your Matros.” His ungloved hands move like a striking snake, and he snaps off the hawk’s head as deftly as a man might break a weedstalk. I do not wish to watch the debasement of the hawk’s death throes. I turn away and start for the aircar.

“Have you a weak stomach, Vulcan?” It is Tisai, who grins as he walks beside me. “I have heard that your kind have forgotten the way of the hunter.”

“We have outgrown the need to obtain pleasure through the destruction of other life forms, if that is what you mean.”

He is not rebuffed. “Later, I will fly the n’kaap. Then you will see something you won’t soon forget.”

There is already much to this day I will not forget. Kyra’s voice urging the kyriet on for the kill, and her face as she ordered its destruction … these are new facets of her personality. This is not the girl who, when faced with the choice of taking a life or losing her own, froze into immobility. Being Matriarch has taught her much, I see, and not all of what she has learned is pleasant to dwell upon.

She joins us now, stripping off the heavy falconer’s glove, and she speaks to her betrothed as she would to a servant. “Leave us, Tisai. I have business to discuss with the Vulcan.” Again, the angry flush colors his face, and I can feel his glare on my back as we walk around the base of the scree, away from the eyes and ears of the others.

“It is unfortunate you lost your hawk,” I offer.

She makes a sound of disgust. “She was rash in her judgment. She forgot even the nyhie have claws.”

“You might learn from her, Matriarch. It is not unusual for the hunted to turn on the hunter.”

“Are you speaking of yourself, Spock?”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps Tisai will become your nyhie. There is hate in that one.”

“He is utem. A braggardly fool. But he brings a fine dowry. And his family has many mining interests.” She gives me a sidelong glance. “He is also young and strong. He will give me fine daughters.”

When I make no reply, she goes on. “Not so fine as the ones you might have given me, had things been different.” She stops, shuts her eyes, the better to see them. “By the Comet, Spock, what rulers they would have made. Nothing in the galaxy could have stood against them!” She turns to me and takes my hands, and her eyes, open now, are bright with the thought of it. “It still could be!”

“Kyra, I have a wife.”

“And I shall soon have a husband. What difference does that make? Any daughters of my body are of the royal house. I offer you power, Spock, such power as you have never dreamed of! The galaxy could be ours to rule. Think of it!”

“You have big dreams for the ruler of a small planet. The Federation--”

“The Federation is dying, Spock, as T’Pau of Vulcan is dying.”

I pull her against me, circling her wrists with my hands, feeling the bones as my grip tightens. “Who told you that? Who pours such lies into your ears?”

She looks up at me, ignoring the pain I know I am inflicting on her. “They are not lies, Spock. T’Pau is dying. There is discontent on Vulcan – you know that. The Council grows weary of seeing the planet’s finest young people swallowed up in the belly of the Federation. How long do you think Vulcan will stay in, once T’Pau dies?” She breaks away from me, rubbing the darkening bruises on her wrists.

I can feel the full power of her mind beating at me, demanding entrance, and I know I cannot keep her out much longer. My only defense is attack. “And where does Eos fit into this? I see no place here for your dreams of empire.”

“Vulcan will pull others away, and Eos among them.”

“The Romulan Empire would gobble you up in the blink of an eye. You cannot stand alone.”

“Nor do we intend to. We ally with Vulcan, with the Rigellian system, with all those who refuse to be maggots in the corpse of the Federation. We will have the Vulcan technology behind us, with Eosian and Lyran and Rigellian spacepower forming the striking arm. You must come with us, Spock, or be crushed.”

“You are mad, Kyra. It is you who will be crushed.” I turn away from her and start back toward the others.

“You’re a fool, Spock! A fool and a coward!” She flings her scorn after me. “I’ll see you broken. I’ll see you hung on a cross of your own making, and I’ll spit on you as I pass by. Do you hear me, Vulcan? Do you hear me?”

I fight against the anger that boils within me as I stride back to the makeshift camp, the anger that curls my hands into fists against my will, the anger that could have snapped her bones as easily as the hawk-handler snapped off the head of the kyriet. Being near this woman has always had this effect on me; has always assaulted the tight line of control a Vulcan must maintain against the black and boiling racial memories of a violent past. That is the danger in this woman, that is the deadly siren call she voices without words.

I must be alone. I must regain control. Control is all. The intellect is all. There is no anger. Anger is wasteful. I … will … have … control.

I can feel it coming back. The body responds to the mind. My hands relax, but the images Kyra has planted begin to blossom. Is it true? Is T’Pau dying? And does she acknowledge her mortality? If she does, then she must soon summon me home. I had not thought it would come so soon. She has seemed as ageless as the very stones of Vulcan, as eternal as the twin planet that hangs always in our skies. She promised me a Human lifespan in Starfleet before I must return. The period of training she wants for me must be long. I was to have years of apprenticeship before I took my place in the Senate; years more before she hoped to place me in her own Council seat. If she dies soon, there will not be time, and I will be free of our bargain. Free!

What am I thinking of? Do I wish her dead? My own tcha-klei? She was teacher, mentor, godparent, and more, all in the Vulcan tradition. I owe her loyalty above the family, above the gods, above life itself if it comes to that. So is the tradition. If not for her influence, I would never have been permitted to leave Vulcan for the vast reaches of Federation space. I would have been forever planetbound, forever locked within the bonds of my father’s house. I made a bargain with her – I traded her the last half of my life for the freedom to do as I desired in the morning of my years. Would I break that bargain if she were not alive to see its honoring?

Tisai’s voice breaks into my thoughts. I have walked unheeding into the midst of the Eosians. This is blindness that would have been fatal in other circumstances, that once nearly was so. The constant vigilance against Kyra’s telepathy is making me careless. Even the nyhie have claws…

“Come, Vulcan, and I will show you what few outworlders see.” He gestures toward a freestanding crossbar and toward the mighty eagle that rests hooded there.

I recognize it as the n’kaap he spoke of – the near legendary predator of Eos, the n’kaap which spreads its wings on the banners of the royal house, immense and deadly in its power. Its hooded head is as large as a man’s two fists clenched together, its curving beak shining like the deadly weapon it is. In ancient times, so the legend goes, n’kaap were trained to attack foot-soldiers in battle.

I can hear Kyra’s voice from behind me, still shaking with rage. “Tisai! Cage him at once!”

“You promised!” Tisai argues. “You gave him to me. You said I could fly him.”

“I said you could fly him when you are ready.”

“I am ready now!” He extends his right arm, padded in a heavy gauntlet that reaches to his shoulder. “I have met all the tests. Fahí says I am ready.” He gestures toward the handler, who is putting the smaller hawks away.

“He has done well, Your Matros,” Fahí says. “The n’kaap has not been flown for weeks. He needs the hunt.”

“And you promised!” Tisai puts in. “Is this how the Matriarch of Eos keeps her word? My mother will hear of this, Matros, and weigh it well against your other promises to my house.”

Kyra is trapped by her own maneuvering. “Fly him, then,” she snaps. “And I hope he takes your eye out.” She stalks away to the aircar, getting in and slamming the door.

Tisai approaches the stand and slides his forearm under the wicked talons. The bird is so heavy that he must support his bearing arm with a grip from the other, and the corded muscles of his neck stand out with the strain. “Unhood him, Fahí.”

The handler approaches the eagle with respect, murmuring to him as he loosens the lacings on the hood. The n’kaap stretches, looking about, declaring his sovereignty. He opens his beak, and his hunting cry rings on the air, causing the smaller hawks to beat against their cages in apprehension.

“Look well on him, Vulcan,” Tisai says, coming toward me. “Look well on the might of Eos.”

The tensing of his stance warns me, and I step back, throwing up my arm as he launches the n’kaap at my face. I see the blur of the needle-pointed talons and sense the destruction in the raptor’s beak.

The talons lock on my arm and the weight of him pulls it down, exposing my eyes to his attack. I jerk my head away, feeling the gouge of flesh ripped from bone as the thrust of his lunge and my own movement send me over backwards. I hear Fahí’s shout and Kyra’s scream, both from far away as my free hand seeks the eagle’s throat. The bones of his wing-edges beat at my face like clubs as I roll, planting my knee on the great body. My hand tightens on the feathered throat and I rip my other arm free from the grip of the talons, feeling the blood spurt from torn muscle and tendon. There is no response in the fingers, so I use the arm as a brace to hold back the beating wings. I feel the bones crush beneath my hand, and the black blood of the n’kaap gushes from his beak. Even in death, he fights me, his talons reaching up to shred the fabric of my shirt and mark green rivers of blood along my ribs. But there is no longer the killer force in those talons, and the convulsions under me are the mindless upheaval of death.

I hear Tisai’s shriek of rage, and his boot-tip catches the side of my chest, rolling me off the eagle’s body and into the shifting sand. He leaps for me, and both my feet catch him full in the chest, throwing him back. Fahí pulls him to his feet, pinning his elbows back.

“Enough!” he barks. His expression turns to one of fright as the furious Kyra approaches him. “I am sorry, Your Matros. Had I known what he planned--”

His words are cut short as Kyra’s open hand cracks against the side of Tisai’s face. “Utemi!” she spits. “I’ll have your heads for this. Both of you!” She turns to me as I push myself to my feet. “Spock. I did not mean--”

“No,” I say, reaching for the transmitter at my belt. “You meant to put your mark on me in a different way.” I call the ship and request to be transported aboard, and as the beam takes me, I feel my knees giving way.

TBC