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 4

==========

KIRK

===========

I don’t like this. Not any of it. Spock’s initial report was typically terse – the embassy was abandoned, and they have commenced search operations for the members of the Federation contingent which sent the distress call. His last message was even more disturbing – “Captain, we are under fire. I am deploying the landing party to sheltered areas and will contact you when the barrage has terminated.”

That was over 90 minutes ago, and we have had no further communication from the surface of Parsus II. I swivel the chair around to face Uhura’s board. “See if you can raise them,” I tell her.

“Yes, sir.”

The expression on Lara’s face does nothing to reassure me. She is standing within arm’s reach of the chair, in precisely the same spot where McCoy has stood hundreds of times during some major or minor crisis, and the look she wears is such a close duplicate of his that it should be funny. I fail to find it amusing.

Uhura shakes her head, the golden hoops dancing in her earlobes. “I’m not getting any re--  Just a moment, sir. Something’s coming through now.” She listens intently, but her expression does not lighten. “No. It’s from Space Central on Parsus.”

“Put it on audio.”

The controller’s voice is weary. “Space Central to Enterprise,” it says through the crackle of static. I hope it’s static, and not the background sound of explosions.

“This is Enterprise. We’ve been requesting clearance to orbit for some time.”

“Sorry, Enterprise. Things are a bit hot down here. State your intentions, please.”

“We are responding to a priority one distress call from the Federation Embassy. We are currently maintaining synchronous orbit over the city of Nyghos at 900 kilometers and have dispatched a search party to the surface. Request permission to maintain orbit.”

“You are cleared for that purpose. What is your estimated time to break orbit?”

“Undetermined, Central. We are out of contact with the party. What is the status in Nyghos?”

“The city is under attack by Selican ground forces. Communication has been disrupted, and we are currently--” A burst of static cuts through the transmission, and Uhura snatches out the earpiece with one hand while the other plays over the board.

“Come in, Central. Your transmission was terminated. Say again, please.” There is no response to her repeated attempts. Finally she turns to me. “Sorry, Captain. I can’t make contact.”

“Keep trying. And stay with trying to raise Spock.”

Nothing to do now but wait. That’s the hardest part. Always has been.

Where are they? Just sitting here isn’t accomplishing anything. Ought to be something we could do. All the technology in the Federation at my fingertips, and what good is it?

Where the hell are they?

“Captain?” Uhura is looking at me, a question on her face.

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

“Did you say something, sir?”

“No, Lieutenant. Carry on.”

“Yes, sir.”

Did I? Possibly. Lousy habit, talking to yourself. Got to stop it, Kirk. They’ll lock you up.

The minutes crawl by with agonizing slowness; we have been out of contact with Spock for over two hours. The bridge is so quiet I can hear my own heart beating. Lara reaches out and touches the back of my chair.

“They’ll be all right,” I tell her. I wish I could believe it. The magician’s hat a starship captain is supposed to keep handy is empty. There are no more rabbits to pull out of it.

The sound is so sudden it makes us all jump. Heavy with interference, it rips through the open speakers with an unmistakable urgency.

Enterprise! Acknowledge!”

“This is Enterprise.” Uhura’s voice is efficient as always as she responds.

“Lieutenant Kim. Five to beam up. Have a medic--” The static crashes through again, but it’s enough.

“Did you get the coordinates?”

“Yes, sir. Feeding them to the transporter room now.”

Lara is two jumps ahead of me as I start for the turbolift. “Have a medical team meet us in the transporter room,” she flings over her shoulder. “Tell them to haul ass!”

She doesn’t speak as the car carries us to the transporter room, but I know her thoughts are the same as mine. Five to beam up. Where is the sixth man? And who is he? Why Kim instead of Spock, unless…

No. I won’t consider that now.

We almost collide with the medical team as we step out of the turbolift. They are – as Lara ordered – hauling it. The efficiency of the transporter and its crew is so great that the process is nearly finished by the time we get there. The forms on the pad are gaining substance, and only one wears the Starfleet uniform – Lieutenant Kim.

He is supporting a woman who wears the standard green jumpsuit of an embassy team, as do the other three transportees. One of them collapses as the transporter effect loses its hold, and the technicians scoop him onto the gurney.

“Lieutenant Kim – what about the others?”

“They’re still trying to locate the ambassador and the rest of her party, sir,” he says, handing the woman over to one of the technicians.

Lara is mother-henning her charges toward sickbay, and I take Kim to the briefing room where his report can be taped. He is brief and lucid; Kim is not a man easily rattled. The embassy, he reports, was abandoned when the party beamed down, and the city was under attack. Shields were down in several places and severely weakened in others. Communication was almost totally disrupted by the attacking Selicans, who were attempting – successfully, he adds – to keep the Nyghos air and space forces from retaliating.

In a nearby shelter, the landing party discovered a native member of the ambassador’s staff, who reported that the Federation party had taken groundcars and attempted to reach a Nyghos military base about 50 kilometers out of the city. The landing party commandeered another groundcar and went after them, but less than 10 kilometers out of the city had discovered the wreckage of the cars and the four staff members now aboard the Enterprise.

Spock had ordered Kim to remain there and continue trying to raise the ship while the rest of the rescue party searched the area. It was nearly 30 minutes before he could do so.

I log his report and go back to the bridge, but there is no news there. The anxiety is so thick you can taste it, and as end of watch approaches, the off-duty crew members seem reluctant to leave. They are proprietary of their positions, and no one wants to be absent when the news – good or bad – comes through.

I have seen the phenomena before. Or is it something more, something different this time? I can sense the same sidelong looks, the same nervous anticipation that was in the air when news of McCoy’s retirement flashed through the ship. There are the same unvoiced questions, the same perversely human desire to touch the exposed circuit just to see if it’s hot. It is not as intense, however, as it was before Spock made his bold statement with that walk through the ship.

Spock. What must it have cost him to run that gauntlet of eyes? He had to defy every shred of the Vulcan ironclad tradition of privacy to make that walk. But he pulled it off. He really did.

And Lara. A low blow, to pull that on her with no warning. Or did she know? As soon as Spock asked us to go with him to the transporter room, I knew what he really meant. Maybe she did, too. She came through with her spine stiff and her chin up, just as she would have stared Scotty down in that hostel room on Argelius.

But was it enough? Did our walk through the fire buy us anything? For a while, it seemed as though perhaps it had. But the longer we are out of contact with the searchers, the thinner the crew’s trust grows.

They are considering, perhaps, the thought Farris has planted. It would not be the first time, certainly, that a commander has used his power to dispose of a rival. There is, after all, ample historical precedent. King David. Uther Pendragon. Even Colonel Green, if you believe the stories. Not a particularly honorable group to be classified with.

Beat it, old bones! You’re dead and gone to dust, and I’ve got no room for you in my mind or on my bridge. I have other things to do. Like checking on the condition of the party we beamed aboard.

Instead of answering my question, Lara counters by asking me to come to sickbay. Bones used to do the same thing whenever he had bad news. The expression on her face when I arrive at sickbay tells me to expect the worst, but the worst as I anticipate it isn’t half the total.

“You’ve got to get the landing party back to the ship,” she announces.

“Why”

“The Selicans are playing a very dirty little game down there, Jim. It’s called germ warfare – and our people are right in the middle of it.”

“Are you sure?”

She sits down at the desk and pushes a data chip across the surface. “You want autopsy reports? Two of those people we beamed back are already dead, and the other two are dying.” She swings the chair around so that her back is to me. “Sometimes I think we’d be better off back in the caves, throwing rocks at each other. You can see rocks, at least. This thing…” Her voice trails off.

“What are they using?”

“Lymphococcus darvii. Ever heard of it?” She goes on, not waiting for my answer. “It’s an airborne virus – colorless, odorless, tasteless – completely undetectable unless you’re scanning for it. It settles in the lymph nodes and mutates elements in the bloodstream. The body defense mechanisms goes mad and cannibalizes its own red blood cells. Technical cause of death is oxygen starvation. Not that it matters to the victim what the technical cause was.”

“And the landing party?”

She swings around to face me, and her expression is pale and drawn. “They were infected with the first breath they took on Parsus. There is an immunizing agent, but it has to be administered within six hours of exposure, or it’s totally ineffective.”

“Lieutenant Kim?”

“He’ll be all right. I gave him the IMT as soon as I knew what we were up against.”

“Suppose Sanchez recognized the symptoms--” I begin.

“Suppose he did?” she says, and she raises her voice for the first time, pushing out of the chair. “He had no IMT, and no way to synthesize any. If they aren’t immunized in two hours – less than that now – they … will … die. All of them.”

“All right. We’ll get them back. Somehow.”

“How? We don’t know where they are, we can’t contact them--”

“Then we’ll find them. Kim and I can beam down to where we picked him up.”

“I’m going with you.”

“No. If we can’t make contact with the ship, we’d be stranded, too.”

I hope for acceptance; I expect argument. What I get is neither. Instead, she looks at me with a cold and level gaze. “Then why are you going, Jim?”

Why? The frustration and tension of the last hours flares up in my voice. “Dammit, Lara, you just said--”

“I said they had to be brought back to the ship. Lieutenant Kim could head a search party. And he could take the IMT down so Dr. Sanchez can immunize them even if they can’t get back in time. So why are you planning to go?”

“Those people are my responsibility!”

“Is that all?”

“Isn’t that enough?”

“It would be, most of the time. Not this time. You’ve got to go down there because you feel you’ve got to prove Farris was wrong. You’ll find them and get them back safely because you have to. Not for Spock, not for the rest of the crew, but for yourself. For that damn crazy code of honor you’ve got all tangled up with those stripes on your sleeve.”

Her shot is too close for comfort. She sees too much, this woman. There is no point in even denying it. “If you see that, then you know why I have to go.”

“I never said you didn’t,” she replies softly. “But grant me my own kind of honor, too. Jim, if you go, and if you can’t find them in time… Don’t you see, I’ll always wonder if maybe my being there wouldn’t have made a difference.”

She toys with the data chip, her eyes on the desk. Her words are slow in coming, and I can feel the struggle she is having. “There’s a … thing … between Spock and me. It’s strongest when…” She colors and her voice trails off. Then she pushes her hand through her dark hair and goes on. “I can’t explain it, exactly. He knows, sometimes, what I’m thinking. What I’m feeling. On Banus, when I was searching for that baby … I called out to him for help. And he came. You both did. But how … didn’t you ever wonder how he knew where to look?”

I remember his actions on that night – his statement that he knew she was in trouble long before the rest of us even suspected it; the compulsive drive that took us through that rain-whipped night. He, too, spoke of a link, and its force was enough to drive him into a kind of frenzy I have seldom seen.

“Spock said something … about a link. He didn’t want to explain it, and I didn’t press him.”

“I don’t think he could explain it. I can’t. It’s just something that … happens, sometimes. If I can make it happen again – if he knows I’m on Parsus and trying to get to him… I have to try, Jim. I owe him that much. We both do.”

The web of lives crossed, of debts unpaid, of thanks never voiced and trusts violated, are heavy in the room. She has never asked for special favors, never called on our relationship for anything more than what we freely gave to one another. There is only one answer I can give her now.

“Can you be ready in five minutes?”

She looks up at me, and breaks into a grin, like the sun after a storm. “Four,” she says.

She is as good as her word; better, in fact. When I get to the transporter room with the rest of the party, she is already there. She injects the IMT with a quiet efficiency as I give Kyle his orders at the transporter.

“Hold our beamdown coordinates,” I tell him. “If we lose contact with the ship, I want that area monitored constantly. Any humanoid life form that stays within the area more than five minutes is to be beamed up.”

He nods, then a question crosses his face. “But, sir, what if it’s not one of our people?”

“Then you apologize profusely, Mr. Kyle, and put them right back where you found them.”

“Yes, sir.”

>>>>> <<<<<

LARA

>>>>> <<<<<

As visual perception begins on Parsus, I have a moment of near-panic. Jokes about being materialized “inside solid rock” are frequent; though the transporter override is supposed to prevent that, there are always rumors. All I can see, all I can sense, is rock. Black and menacing, crushing in its immensity.

As my vision clears, I can see we are in a narrow canyon, split by a twisting road. The rock face rises on one side as sheer as the face of a building; on the other it is a tumbled mass of boulders and overhangs. The walls must rise nearly a hundred meters on either side of us, obscuring all but a tiny ribbon of metallic lavender sky. The eerily filtered light even gives our skin a purplish tint. I catch Jim staring at me and know I must look as ghastly to him as he does to me.

“Nice little place you’ve got here, Kim,” he says.

Lieutenant Kim, who was mentally prepared for the psychotic landscape, is able to grin. “Thank you, sir,” he says. “I’m thinking of opening a resort right over there.”

He motions at the two twisted groundcars. From the scars on the rocky wall, it appears that one car, negotiating a sharp curve, must have spun into the stone face and then into the path of the second car.

“I see you’ve got the foundations in already,” Jim quips. He pulls out the communicator, but the interference is so heavy he isn’t able to cut through to the ship. He changes frequencies and calls Spock, with no better luck, then gives me a look that says, “It’s all yours.”

He turns to Kim. “Where was the search party going to look?”

Kim motions at the sloping wall. “That wall is honeycombed with caves. The ambassador and her party were going to try to hide out there until dark.”

Jim looks at the wreckage of the groundcars, then back at Kim. “So they just left the others here?” His expression is so readable I don’t need a link – And these are the kind of people I’m risking two ground parties to save?

Kim is as embarrassed by his telling the story as if he had been part of the decision. “The ones they left weren’t able to travel. I guess they thought--”

“Never mind. If we don’t get off these coordinates, Kyle’s going to beam us back up.”

I have been scanning for virus traces, and the readings confirm what I already knew. The airborne infection is present here, too. Even knowing that we have been immunized, I find myself almost hesitant to voluntarily draw the deadly atmosphere into my lungs.

“Here, too?” Jim asks.

I nod. “We’ve got an hour and 45 minutes to find them. And that’s pushing our luck. If they’ve been climbing – exerting themselves – the body metabolism speeds up, and the virus will act that much faster.”

He eyes the sloping, boulder-strewn wall. “If they climbed that, you can bet they were exerting themselves. It’s quite a haul. Can you make it?”

The words are out before I can stop them. “I could do it standing on my hands.”

He stops in mid-turn, looking back at me through time as well as space. Finally, he says, “You know, I think you could.”

I tell myself to think of Spock, to push the other thoughts from my mind. Nothing is to be gained by remembering anything else. Jim has gone on to other concerns; his mind is more disciplined than mine, even when someone is trying to sabotage his thought processes.

“Spread out going up the bank,” he says. “Try to keep visual contact, and don’t get so disoriented you can’t get back here. Check any cave entrance you find, but don’t go so deep you can’t see the entrance. If you can’t find them within the next 90 minutes, report back to the beam-up point. Dr. Merritt, you come with me.”

The men spread out along the base of the sharp slope and we begin to climb. The footing is treacherous, and I am soon using both hands and feet to make any progress. Jim quickly gains several meters on me. He turns, putting his back to the slope, and tries to raise Spock on the communicator as I catch up. When that fails, he shouts, and the rock walls bounce his voice back at him in a cacophony of jumbled sounds.

He slides down the slope and gives me a hand up. “You’re throwing yourself off balance,” he says. “Hug the rock and push yourself up with your legs. You’re pulling with your arms.”

“This is a hell of a time for climbing lessons.”

We scramble up the slope to a narrow ledge. What had appeared to be just a darker patch on the face of the rock now reveals itself as a cave entrance, but no one is there. When the ledge narrows and then disappears, we climb again. I can feel the pulse pounding in my temples, and I gulp the thin air hungrily, all thoughts of its contamination gone now.

I am desperately aware that our time is running out. We enter cave after cave with no luck, and though we can hear the echoes of the voices of the other searchers, there is no answer from Spock.

Come on, Spock. Please. You’ve got to hear me.

What if it doesn’t work? What if there never was a link – or, if there was … what if it’s not there any longer? Or what if he chooses not to acknowledge it?

No. There is a link. It’s there. It’s always been there, from that first violent coupling on Vulcan right down to the moment he stepped onto the transporter pad to keep me from giving in to that frivolous human impulse I unwittingly transmitted to him. He’s always been there, in the corners of my mind, testing, observing, experiencing my emotions…

And if he has? Then he has known from the beginning what was happening between his wife and his captain.

Why, Spock? Why? If you saw it coming, why did you let it happen?

And the answer – from my memory? From his mind?

I thought it would please you.

The realization comes like a hammer-blow, with such force that it literally shakes me. I miss my footing, claw at a rock outcropping that comes away in my hand, and slide backwards, tumbling. The rocks cut through the skin of my hands and legs, and I call out – not for Jim. For Spock. With my voice, with my mind, with every nerve and fiber.

It is not his hands that stop my fall – it is another narrow ledge. Jim comes sliding down after me in a controlled fall of his own. Even in this eerie light, his face is ashen.

“I’m all right, Jim.”

“The hell you are.” He takes my hands, turns up the bleeding palms. “I’m sending you back to the ship.” He tries the communicator again, without success. “Can you get back to the bottom without breaking your neck?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll take you down.”

“No! I’m not going back without Spock.”

“Don’t be a fool, Lara!”

“Why not? I’ve done pretty well with it up until now.”

He gives me a sharp, distracted glance as he breaks open the medikit, but chooses not to respond to the remark. “Give me your hand,” he snaps, opening a packet of regatril.

“I’m not going back,” I tell him again.

“Let’s argue about it later. Give me your hand.” He spreads the cream on the cuts and watches in approval as it foams up, stopping the bleeding and anesthetizing the wounds. “Other hand.”

“They’ll get you for practicing medicine without a license,” I tell him.

“That’s McCoy’s--” he begins, and then breaks off sharply. “Sit down so I can do your legs.”

His touch is familiar and comforting, but as he finishes, the adrenalin begins to drain out of my system and I can feel the shaky beginnings of shock.

He looks at me critically. “Lara, I want you to go back to the ship. We’ve been looking for nearly an hour. I can’t look for Spock and watch out for you at the same time. The link … whatever it is, doesn’t appear to be working.”

“Yes, it is! I can--”

He makes a quick gesture for silence, scanning the sky. “Come on.” He pulls me to my feet and toward a narrow niche leading off the ledge. The rock overhang that juts out from it throws the opening into a narrow band of shadow. In a moment, I can hear what he has already heard – the drone of an engine.

A patrol skimmer appears in the narrow ribbon of sky, working its way down the length of the canyon, hovering a few meters above the sheer opposite wall. Half a kilometer up the canyon from us, it pauses, then rises into the air before loosing a phaser bolt. The sound of sliding rocks echoes up the length of the ravine. The pilot holds the craft steady until the dust of the rockfall has died, then continues his passage toward us.

In a few moments, he has passed out of sight along the canyon’s rim, and in a tight voice, Jim calls into the communicator for the landing party members to report. There is only static, then a portion of a word in a voice that sounds like Kim’s, then static again.

“Damn,” he says softly. “Selican patrols. If they sighted Spock--”

“They have yet not done so, Captain.”

The sound of Spock’s disembodied voice makes my heart jump in mingled surprise and relief. His feet appear over the edge of the overhang above the niche, then the rest of his lanky frame as he lowers himself from the ledge.

“Although they know someone is here somewhere.” He continues his explanation, unruffled by his unorthodox entry. “One of their ground patrols spotted the groundcar we came in and appropriated it. It would now appear they have seen at least part of your patrol. That complicates things considerably.”

“Spock! You knew we were here?”

“You were hardly attempting to keep it a secret, Captain.”

I break a spray hypo out of the medikit clumsily; between the cuts on my palms and the anesthetizing effects of the regatril, my hands feel like lumps of foam rubber.

“IMT,” Jim says to his questioning look. “The Selicans are using a viral agent.”

“Dr. Sanchez assumed as much, but he was unable to isolate it with the equipment at hand.”

“Where are the others? Did you find the ambassador?”

“Yes. They are not far from here. Since we could not reach the Enterprise, we felt it prudent to stay out of sight.”

Jim looks at the sky. “And we blew your cover. Sorry, Spock.”

Spock quirks an eyebrow at him in an expression I have not seen in weeks. “That is a somewhat colorful, but essentially accurate statement, Captain, if I understand the term correctly.”

Jim grins at him with relief written in his eyes. “Kyle is monitoring the area around the wrecked groundcars. If you’ll get your party down there, they’ll be beamed up. I’ll round up my people and meet you there.”

He nods and starts to leave. “Wait!” I tell him. “I’m going with you. Your people haven’t been immunized yet.”

Spock looks at my rock-scraped legs, then takes one hand and turns it palm up. The touch has the force of an electric shock, and I can feel the touch of his mind, like a moth’s wing. “It was very foolish of you to come,” he says.

“That’s part of my charm,” I tease him. Then, seriously, “You know why I did.”

His eyes meet mine for a long moment; I can feel his mind probing again. Finally he says, “Yes.” I know that is as much of an admission as I am likely to get. The link is something we have never discussed. To admit this much, especially in front of another, is a considerable breach of the privacy he closes around himself.

He returns to examining my hands. “It is a very difficult climb, Lara. You could not make it in your present condition. Please go back with the captain. I will take the IMT, and Dr. Sanchez can administer it.” He closes his hand over mine.

I have no more stomach for argument. “All right. Tell him it’s Lymphococcus darvii. He’ll know the dosage.”

He turns to Jim, still holding my hand. “See that she gets down safely.” Their eyes lock for a moment, and their mutual acknowledgement is as clear as it would have been if Spock had physically placed me in Jim’s arms.

“I will,” he says.

The descent is considerably faster than the climb, but it is still rough going. By the time we reach the cliff base, my hands have broken open and are bleeding again. Spock has taken the medikit, so there’s nothing I can do about it.

“Stand over there by the groundcars,” Jim instructs me. “Kyle will beam you up in a few minutes. I’ve got to check on the others.”

When he has gone, I climb a few feet up the base of the cliff, hoping I am out of the perimeter Kyle is scanning. I have no intention of beaming up until I see Jim and Spock back safely.

The skimmer makes another pass, and I hug against a boulder. If his sensors spot me, he gives no indication. My hands are throbbing, my knees are beginning to itch, and I sincerely wish we were all back on the Enterprise and a million miles away from this planet. I am exhausted, and I wonder about Jim and Spock, still straining against time and the cliff, worrying about the Selican patrol, fighting the thin atmosphere.

It is very quiet in the canyon, and for the first time in many months, I feel totally alone. Then, somewhere from the back of my mind, comes a presence, and I know it is Spock’s. It is there only for a moment, and again I know without knowing why, that he is absorbed in the task at hand and must return his total concentration to it. But the loneliness is gone now, and the time passes more quickly.

It is perhaps 20 minutes before a slide of pebbles cascades down the slope, and I turn to see him coming down the rocky cliff face in the same kind of controlled slide Jim had used earlier.

“I thought you were beaming up.”

Before I answer, he spots Jim and the rest of the landing party coming up the road, and goes out to meet them. The quickness in his stride reveals some further anxiety. They are out of earshot, but I can see Jim scanning the skies and then making a gesture at a rocky overhang ten meters up the slope.

Jim gives me an annoyed look as they approach. “I told you to beam up,” he says sharply.

“There’s trouble, isn’t there?”

“You bet there’s trouble. Spock spotted a ground patrol coming up the canyon. Now get over there to the beam-up point. You, too,” he says, gesturing at the men in his patrol.

As we are waiting for the pickup, I see Dr. Sanchez’ party making its way down the slope, and I step out of the perimeter. “Let Sanchez take the ambassador’s party up first. They’re all ill.”

He looks up at the slow progress Sanchez’ men are making with the ambassador and the two remaining members of her party. “All right. Kim, take two men and get up there to help.”

The skimmer makes another slow pass, and this time it cannot help but spot us, though no one makes any move toward cover. Spock catches me eyeing it warily and explains. “His phasers are not powerful enough to carry this far, and he cannot maneuver safely within the canyon. The ground party plans to do the job for him.” He turns to Jim. “The Captain, however, has other plans. Shall we go?”

They start down the base of the cliff toward the overhang as Kim and Sanchez and the rest of the party enter the beam-up perimeter. I can hear the rumble of the heavy groundcars the Selicans are using, and hope we can all get out before they come into phaser cannon range. The vanguard of the ground force appears around a twist in the road, and Jim and Spock scramble up the face of the cliff.

Positioning themselves with Spock above and Jim to one side of the overhang, they level their phasers at it. For a moment, nothing happens, and I can see the armored crawlers rolling up behind the vanguard. Then with an echoing roar, the massive rock jumble breaks loose from the cliff face, rolling down the slope as the vanguard scrambles for cover.

They come back at a run, and Jim’s face wears a wide grin. “That should keep them busy for a while,” he says. “Sanchez, when you get on board, tell Kyle to beam up the second party right away. That slide won’t stop them long.”

Sanchez nods as he begins to shimmer out, and then there are only eight of us left in the canyon. The phaser cannon of the crawlers begins battering at the massive slide Jim and Spock have produced, and Jim shifts impatiently, motioning the rest of us onto the site.

“Go on, Lara.”

“I’ll beam up with you two.”

Both their voices are rich with impatience, but the beam takes the rest of the second party as they walk toward me. The last of the barricade vaporizes under the onslaught of the Selican phasers, and Jim and Spock exchange glances. Apprehension is clear on Jim’s face.

Suddenly, the ground pitches under us, and a blinding glare of light spills through the canyon as a monstrous rumbling seems to fill the air. I feel a hand jerking at my elbow; I am thrown hard against the rock wall with a lean and muscular form pressing against my back. The roar continues unbelievably long, though it must be only a few seconds in reality. Pebbles and larger rocks bounce against us as the ground shakes and Spock’s arms arch over both of us.

Now the rumbling stops, though the air is still filled with swirling dust and small bouncing stones. I look frantically for Jim. There is no sign of him anywhere. Just a massive cairn of rock at the spot where he and Spock had been standing moments before.

^^^^^^^^^^

SPOCK

^^^^^^^^^^

This is madness. I have made the wrong decision. Lara was farther from me, out of the direct path of the rockfall initiated by the crawler’s phaser. It was Jim I should have pushed out of the way, and my alternative action has quite probably cost his life. Even as I begin to claw at the still-settling boulders, I cannot help but ask myself again – what is this woman, that she can so effortlessly abrogate all my training and discipline?

I have the answer almost at once; she is beside me, wrestling with rocks half again her size, her hands staining them with blood that spouts anew from the shredded flesh.

“Get back to the ship!”

“No. Not while there’s still a chance!”

The avalanche has blocked the Selicans’ view of us; it will be some minutes before they are within visual range. If that is enough time … and if Kyle does not extend the perimeter and beam us up before we find the captain…

I uncover a patch of sleeve, then a hand. Both are soaked with blood, but Lara finds a faint pulse. “He’s still alive!”

The words push us both to an even greater effort, and in seconds we have uncovered the still and bleeding form. I pick him up, and for the first time in years send a silent prayer to Cas, or whatever deity this planet holds, that I am not doing more damage than has already been done. The perimeter of the monitored site is only strides away; it seems like parsecs. Lara looks up at me, and her face is ashen and strained with the emotions she cannot control.

“I do not know,” I tell her, and then the beam takes us.

^^^^^^^^^^

Dr. Sanchez is not a happy man. In his brief tenure as Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, he has been presented with more crises and situations calling for expertise both in technical skill and command capability than had ever been his lot under Dr. McCoy.

He takes one look at us as we come into sickbay and pales under his olive complexion. It is Nurse Chapel who appraises the situation and directs an assistant to tend to Lara while the captain’s far more critical injuries receive first priority.

“I’ll let you know,” she says. “We’ll do what we can,” she adds. Unnecessarily, but I do not point that out.

There are other matters to attend to as Enterprise breaks orbit. Debriefings, a report on the situation on Parsus, verification of the use of viral agents – a petty problem for Federation authorities to stew over when the conflict is ended and a victor … or survivor … is declared – official death notifications pertaining to the diplomatic party, both for those already dead and those who will undoubtedly be so by morning.

It is a bitter irony that there will be no survivors of the ambassador’s party. For all the good we have done on this mad mission, we would have been as well off to ignore their distress call. Better off, for had we stayed at Argelius, the man I name friend would not now be fighting for his life.

How could I have made such a mindless error? It would be a simple thing to blame Lara; had she not been there…

No. The fault, the misjudgment, was mine. Her presence there was the random factor and should not have altered my prime responsibility to my captain and ship. I have known for some time that Lara’s presence alters my responses to any given situation; it was and is my responsibility to compensate for that tendency.

I finish the last of the paperwork and get it ready for dispatching over subspace radio, gathering up several items Jim has left. His desk is piled with the paperwork he hates. It is the only facet of command he clearly and consistently despises, and he has a tendency to postpone it until it threatens to overwhelm him. When the input reaches what he calls critical mass, he barricades himself in the office and pushes half a dozen clerical yeomen to the brink of mutiny as he levels the pile.

That point is obviously approaching, from the look of his desk. As I reach for the intercom to summon a courier for my reports, I dislodge a folder from the stack, and the whole tottering tower slides to the deck. As I gather up the folders, I spot my own personnel file.

I put it in the stack myself, 24 hours ago. It contains my request to be relieved of active duty as quickly as possible. Now I weigh the folder in my hand.

Command, at the moment, is mine. I can forward this without his signature, on my own pro tem authority. If he does not survive, he will never see it. If he lives, it will be weeks before he is ready to assume command, more weeks before the request is acted on, and I cannot wait that long. T’Pau’s demands grow too strong. Already I have pushed her to the limits of her considerable patience.

The folder grows heavy in my hand.

That is nonsense. It is no heavier than it ever was. It is only a routine request, after all. I initial the form and mark it eyes only, then call the courier and put it out of my mind.

^^^^^^^^^^

It is quiet in my quarters, quieter than it has been for some time. There are certain disadvantages to sharing one’s living space. That will soon be something I no longer have to tolerate. And my consciousness will be my own again, too. There will be no thought link to allow the raw emotions of a non-Vulcan to interrupt my concentration and clamor for my attention. All will be as it was before.

That is a fallacy, and I know it for one. For the rest of our lives, Lara will be able to contact my mind whenever she wishes to do so. Does she know that? I doubt it. She understands the workings of the link only vaguely. Like a child with a toy too advanced for her, she turns it over in her mind, randomly poking buttons and remembering the responses without any real understanding of what they mean.

If she did understand it, if she could control it properly, she would have known it was not necessary to transport down and then make that hazardous climb. The compelling nature of the marital link is second only to the pon farr drive; it can operate across half a galaxy.

Parted from me and never parted. Never and always touching and touched. She understands those words only on the Human level, never on the Vulcan one. What would she do right now, at this moment, if I called her through the link? Would she understand the drive that could pierce through her anesthetized sleep and pull her from sickbay with its undeniable force? No. She would not. And it is not a toy to be played with flippantly. Its full force could shatter a Human mind.

Lara had some inkling of that force at our first joining. Even though her mind is strong and quick and well-disciplined for a Human, she took refuge in unconsciousness. I could have followed even into that sanctuary, but at a cost I do not care to consider. It was better for both of us that I let her go then, as I am attempting to let her go now.

Lara, why could you not be content with a Human mate? Why do you continue to pursue something you only vaguely understand, and turn your back on one who is your match in every way? You both have such a zest for life, you and Jim. Such an untrammeled joy in the gifts of each moment. And you would be good for him if he would only allow it. You would take away his frustrations and failures and fears, and replace them with something vital and courageous. I know you could; you have done it for me. But I have nothing to give you in return, and he does.

I feel you stirring now in your sleep. Are you dreaming? I could see that dream, if I wanted to. I think I will not try. Some things are best left unshared. Most things, in fact

What time is it? Strange that I should have lost track; I seldom do. But then, I have done many things this day that I seldom do. It is late, the quiet rhythm of the ship’s night tells me that. How long does it take, I wonder, for a man to live or die? Longer for him than for many others, I think. Because I have never known him to admit defeat.

These Humans personify death as a stooped, robed figure with the grinning face of a skull. He would meet that macabre vision standing upright, head raised, wearing that anticipatory half-smile of the warrior. Death is a foe he has seen before. Defeated before. Knows that it waits for him somewhere, but refuses to be cowed by the knowledge.

This is no end for a warrior – strapped down on a table in a sterile room, life ebbing slowly away. It is not what he would choose.

Choice. It is a fallacy to think such a thing even exists. We are all bound, by physical reality on one side and cultural expectations on the other. And we tiptoe on the narrow margin between them and call ourselves free.

I find myself staring at the intercom, willing it to light with Sanchez’ voice. I am as powerless to force his call as I am to alter my own heritage. The call does not come until the small hours of the morning, and it is not Sanchez’ voice at all, it is Christine Chapel’s, slurred with fatigue.

“Mr. Spock, Dr. Sanchez would like to see you in sickbay.” She volunteers no more, and I do not ask.

Sanchez, too, is tottering on the brink of exhaustion. He is grainy-eyed and thick-limbed with it, a trace of Latin accent creeping unnoticed into his speech.

“Your wife’s injuries are not critical,” he begins. “The captain’s …” He shrugs. “He is alive. Though as for why … that I cannot tell you.”

“And your prognosis?”

From McCoy, this would have prompted an outraged response. But this man is cut of a different cloth, and his lack of spirit disturbs me. “I have done what I could,” he says. “The rest is up to him.”

He does not leave so much as he just ceases to be a presence in the room, leaving me knowing little more than I did before. My thoughts are not sanguine as I stare at the door by which he has left.

“I wish Dr. McCoy was here.”

“Wishing will not alter reality, Miss Chapel.” My tone is sharper than I intended it to be. I do not wish to cause this gentle woman pain; I never have, but knowledge of the emotions she has toward me seems to make every statement a two-edged sword.

“No,” she says, and the expression on her face tells me she has seen and felt both my meanings. “I guess it won’t. But still, I’d feel better if Leonard were here.”

“Would it really have made any difference?”

She watches me carefully. “I’m almost tempted to say yes,” she says, “just to see if you’d do what I think you would.”

“Which is?”

“Find him and bring him back here. Not that you’d have to, if he knew what had happened.” She seems about to say something else, but thinks the better of it. “To answer your question – no, it wouldn’t have made any difference. There’s only one way to set broken bones, to treat concussion and shock and the half dozen other things wrong with him. So I guess wishing for Dr. McCoy is just … illogical … isn’t it?”

“Yes.” I can give her no less than the truth. “It is also very Human.”

She colors; whether she understands the admission I have just made, I do not know. “I came in to tell you that your – that Dr. Merritt is awake. Would you like to see her?”

“Yes.” We walk past Jim’s room; he looks more machine than man, wedded obscenely to a tangle of tubes and monitors. The body function indicators are hovering, all of them, toward the bottoms of the scales, and the faint blue trails left by the bone-knitting laser mark his skin in more places than I can count. Or dare to. Christine’s voice reminds me there is another reason for my presence here, and I move away slowly.

Lara’s face is pale and tense, and her mind hurls a question at me before I am through the door.

“He is alive,” I answer. Has no one told her? Or has she not asked, wanting and at the same time not wanting to hear the answer?

She gives a long, shuddering sigh and turns her face to the wall. All the tension, all the drive, is gone from her form. Even in sleep, I have never seen her so open, so emptied of determination. Her apathy draws at my consciousness like a black hole, and I turn to leave.

“Spock.” Her voice catches me at the doorway, some tone in it halting my stride. “Take me with you.”

“You are in no condition to be released from sickbay.”

“No. When you go back to Vulcan. Take me with you.”

“There is no place for you there.”

“As a Terran? Or as your wife?”

“Lara, this is neither the time nor the place--”

“What is the time and place, Spock?” Some of the color is ebbing back into her face, and with it the tenacious drive I have come to know so well. “Every time I try to talk to you about it, you have something more pressing to attend to. It’s my life we’re talking about.”

“Your life is here.”

“Not without you!”

I cannot meet the intensity of her gaze, the intensity of her emotions pouring through the link with hurricane force. I study the deck as I respond to her outburst. “Lara … here, on the Enterprise, you can live a full life, in Human terms, with Human companions.”

“I won’t stay here, Spock. Not without you. If Starfleet won’t transfer me, I’ll resign my commission.”

“You must not do that.”

“Why not? Because it doesn’t jibe with your plans for my future?” She sits forward in her intensity, demanding my attention. “Yesterday, when we walked through the ship with Jim, what were you trying to do?”

“That was necessary.”

“For whom?”

“There were … factors--”

“I know what the factors were, Spock. You didn’t do that for yourself, or for me. You did it for Jim, for that command that means more to him than anything else in the world. Don’t you see? If I stay here after you leave, he’ll lose what you bought for him yesterday.” She falters, and her eyes slide away from mine, color rising in her face. “You know that Jim and I…”

“Yes.” There is no need for her to give voice to something she views as a betrayal; something I viewed as life-giving for both of them.

“That’s over, Spock. Over and past. But no one would believe it if I stayed on. And sooner or later, it would cost him his command. Is that what you want?”

Her words have the ring of truth in them, like gold coins in the palm. She tried to tell me the same thing once before, but I was so locked onto the path of what seemed inescapable logic that I could not hear her truth. After being reared by a Human mother, after serving among Humans for 25 of their years, their motives and emotions are still incomprehensible to me. I study her face; she is still waiting for an answer.

“No. You know that was not the end I sought.”

“What do you want, Spock?”

She reaches out with her torn hands; in her agitation she has knotted the blanket in them and broken open the half-healed wounds. The movement causes the neckline of her gown to slide off one shoulder, revealing the faint blue track of the bone-knitting laser across her collarbone. She sees my eyes on it and sits back, drawing up the garment.

“When did that happen?”

“On Parsus.” She does not look at me as she says it.

“When on Parsus?”

“I don’t know.” She makes a vague gesture. “When we hit that rock wall, I think.”

Then I am responsible for that, too. Another injury I have caused by what seemed at the time a logical action.

“Look, it doesn’t matter. I may have done it when I fell. What does matter is your future. And mine. And Jim’s. Each of us has altered the lives of the other two. We can’t go back and undo that, no matter how much we’d like to. We have to go on and live out the rest of our lives. I’m asking to spend mine with you. But only if that’s what you want, too.”

Is it? Do I want this woman, with her maddening inconsistencies and flashes of intuitive understanding invading my consciousness at the most inopportune moments? It is not logical.

My father… What led him to choose a Human wife? Did he ever wrestle with the demands of a stern Vulcan conscience, as I am doing now?

But I am not Sarek. And she is not Amanda. She is … Lara. Who touches something I thought beyond any Human’s reach. Who opens doors, and if she cannot lead me through all of them, at least demands that I look at what lies beyond the threshold.

“If you wish to come to Vulcan, I cannot stop you.”

“That’s not what I asked.  Do you want me there?” This, too, is Lara, who drives for truth and looks on it without flinching. She asks what I want – and I recognize it as not only her need to know. It is my need, too.

In all my life, I can remember only two other people who ever asked me that question – both women; one Vulcan, one Human. T’Pau and Amanda. What I wanted then, what I still want, is a life of my own. A life that has become centered on this ship and on the other things I have learned to want – the respect of one man. And the love of one woman.

If I cannot have the first, and if its denial costs me the second, is there logic in denying the third? No. The only answer I can give her is the one she wants to hear; the one I have denied wanting to give, time out of mind.

“I want you there, Lara. On Vulcan, or anywhere else I go. Come with me.”

TBC