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



Waking and Dreaming

Kelthammer



Her dreams of Roger were always the same: standing before her, pleading with his eyes to understand what had happened to him. Sometimes it was the android she saw spilling from the charred cloth of his suit, all wires and relays. And sometimes, it was the human; pale twitching intestines laced with fine red and blue blood vessels, the dark organs behind the slippery curtain.

She could smell in these dreams; the scorched fabric, the melted plastine and silvery drops of metal falling to the floor like the iron-stinking drops of blood and burned tissue. And always, no matter what Roger was in her nightly visits, the dream was the same. He always turned the phaser on himself.

Christine blinks. After all this time (not years, but mileage of anguish), she no longer wakes up with a wet face. Her eyes burn hot and dry.

She cannot wait to leave the ghosts and get to Sickbay. Her only concern is Leonard. He knows when she has the nightmares. If she looks bad enough, he'll make her take a Reminex.

No. No sleep-aids. She hates the dreams, but she hates the oblivion of deep sleep even more. Anyway, Leonard won't take the Reminex for his own nightmares, and in her book, what he went through was even more ghoulish.

Shower. Dress. Beat your boss to work today. Start in on the paperwork and be too busy to pay him much attention. Maybe then he won't notice. Sometimes she won; sometimes he won. At least in the daytime struggles, of human and human. But when it came to the monsters at night, they always lost.

* * *

Vulcans rarely slept. They had other ways of refreshing themselves, but even Spock had to take a subconscious rest on occasion.

He rose from his kneeling position in the dark alcove of his sleeping chamber, folding long legs down to the floor and the firepot beast that eternally burned the scents of his home. Lifting his hands in the dry smoke, he washed his hands in it, then brushed his face and the back of his neck. His hair absorbed the odor of the desert and carried with him; a calming presence on a ship that was too cold, too dark, too damp for his liking.

He was not sanguine about today's profit. Logically this confrontation with the captain was to be expected; had been fuming since the Halkan Dilemma.

Never before had he weighed his allies and enemies with as much reason.

He did not think Marlena would change her mind about being his ally. Her fear of the captain returning had been genuine. "Do you know what he'll do to me?" Her hiss had carried reasonable fear, and Spock knew why. Kirk was not forgiving of himself for failure, and less so for his crew. All he needed was to imagine her spending time with his double. The result would be nothing but agony for a woman who had been nothing but loyal to him. Uhura and Scott were loyal to him, in their own fashion. Like himself, they followed Kirk's orders and tended to their own business. They had the most seniority of the Bridge Crew, and for that had more stability, and less fear for their position. Sulu was out for himself, for power. Of all the officers, he was the most like Kirk. Spock considered him the captain's equal in brilliance, and in cutthroat initiative.

Chekov he never bothered with considering.

Preparing for the damp chill outside his cabin, he reached for his thermal jacket. It did much to improve his level of comfort.

His mother, who knew him better than anyone, would have called him "frustrated" this morning. Of course he would have denied it. He was simply under many factors.

And one of his larger factors was an extremely annoying human CMO.

The algorithm would be much neater, he thought, if Chapel was in McCoy's place.

* * *

The defective hypo explodes in his hand. Designed to pull a man from death, the drug refuses him oblivion. The pain is beyond all imagination.

He should have lost consciousness at the first touch of cordrazine. He should have collapsed on top of the near-electrocuted Sulu. But cordrazine doesn't work that way. One drop can save a dying man; ten drops can kill a healthy one. His last conscious thought before the burning curtain descends, is the memory of Piper handing him this medikit, and ordering him to the Bridge to treat Sulu.

He was awake before his chrono went off. In the simulated light cycle of the ship it was still "dawn." Time for another day.

He fumbled for his Officer's Blade in the dark and switched the lights on low. He dressed mechanically and strapped the thin holster inside his boot (wondering again how often he had performed this particular action. Considering the times he'd actually had to use the thing ... too many). The standard reg "Hollowhilt" went to the right in his sash. It always gave McCoy a faint chill to see himself wearing the gold. After all, he'd got it from killing Piper, but there had been no joy in the action.

The morning mail was filtering in while he punched out several cups' worth of coffee. Mostly the usual Empirical balderdash -- the news about the Romulan Alliance was interesting, considering the Enterprise was slated to be sent to Altair for the latest Treaty. The doctor frowned slightly when he read the projected list of names. The Flagship for the Warbird Fleet would be there -- well, that without a doubt meant the Enterprise would be too. Wonder what the Klingons would think about that? Three Empires, and all of them at least respected each other, but McCoy usually felt the Klingons had the better sense of humor. Kang could even make Kirk laugh, hard as that was to believe.

Unfortunately for all Kahless-descended Klingons like Kang, Kor and Koloth, the caste-race was on the rise. Who was to say what that area of space would look like in a few years? Unsettling prospects in an unsettling Galaxy.

Christine had dropped him a note under his day's worksheet: word had gotten out that he was scheduled for a confidential talk with The Big Two. That was all she said, but McCoy was grateful. She was warning him that the gossip wagons were already rolling. Best he get ready for it now.

But ready for what? He didn't quite know. It wasn't a good thing to have an Officer's Meeting in the privacy of the captain's room. Best to be ready for the worst.

If life moved half as fast as rumor, McCoy thought with well-deserved morbid humor, I'd be at my own funeral now. No matter what, it was unthinkable to have a bad showing. Even if it was that theoretical funeral. The Empire did not look kindly upon debility or any other kind of weakness. Worse when it was an officer. And if he died badly, then Joanna would have an unfortunate legacy indeed to struggle again. He barely knew her, but he couldn't do that to her.

At any rate, when Dr. McCoy slipped his Officer's Blade into his boot, it was with the knowledge that it might be the last time.

And am I relieved? Or am I not? he wondered as he walked down the hallway, answering salutes while on automatic. McCoy was unique among the officers in that he had no bodyguards. But it was not so unique for the medical field. You just didn't want to get a doctor angry at you. Their forms of revenge could be as horrible as they were impossible to trace. The fact that McCoy didn't play such games couldn't override the long-ingrained tradition of layman's fears.

Ethical? He smiled to himself slightly, startling a passing tech (scaring the hell out of him might be a better description). Well, that's one way to put it. More like a case of very bad parenting, to hear Spock...

But Spock had cut down on his gibes of late. McCoy didn't know to be grateful or nervous at that. The Vulcan ignored him when he wasn't making a contemptuous comment about his lack of spine, or his favorite accusation, "sentimental ... soft!!!"

Things had changed since their hellish trip to that parallel universe. And now it was as if the Vulcan was waiting and watching for him to display some kind of particular behavior. McCoy compared it to being the only human in a bar of hungry Gorn and disliked his predictament immensely.

* * *

Christine took a moment to look at him in the bad light. Her boss was slumping with fatigue, his head hanging down over his desk. If M'Benga or Hollister saw him like that...

But they weren't there. She was relieved at that. Especially Hollister ... her own personal version of M'Benga to McCoy.

"You know what your problem is?"

McCoy felt Christine's husky voice soak into his central nervous system. "I need to be cloned?" he muttered into his hands.

"God help the aliens who attempt that." Christine sat on the edge of the table next to him. "You need to find yourself a woman."

"No, thanks." He barely repressed his shudder.

"Why not? I know you have an eye for the ladies."

"Not on this ship, I don't. C'mon, Christine, get real. I can barely afford to keep afloat, much less keep a woman."

"You wouldn't be so strapped if you didn't keep funneling every credit to research." And to a daughter you never see, she added silently.

He heard her not say it. It was an old issue between them. He acknowledged what she didn't say by not saying anything right back. That was one of the mixed blessings of being old friends.

"You've got to meet with the captain tonight," Christine murmured uneasily. "Anything I can do to help clear your desk?"

"Um." Chills went down his spine. "I couldn't say. Just duty as usual, Nurse." So said, he got to his feet, leaving the relative safety of his desk. "Just make sure you've got those biochem specs for Spock."

"Always," Christine said confidently. Dryly.

He gave her a look. "Can't blame you for setting your eyes on him, but don't get yourself hurt."

"I don't intend to, quit being my mother hen."

"Mother hen you? What a laugh. Christine Chapel, you're my insanely overqualified Head Nurse, and I'm very fond of you indeed, but I don't think you'd accept help from the Caesar himself if he offered!"

Still shaking his head, he left his office for the supply room.

* * *

You had the regular storeroom, the security of which rivaled the front door to Engineering. And then you had the private stores, which only the CMO and AMO had access to. Technically, Chapel wasn't allowed inside, but McCoy trusted her over M'Benga anyday -- and the AMO was nearly insane with jealousy.

McCoy privately loathed the circumstances that made daily scanning necessary. Aiming his sensory tricorder upon box after plastic box on the narrow shelves, he waited as the beams read the digital "ID" on the labels of each vial, and matched it up with the contents. It was supposedly the only way to ensure no one could switch drugs for something deadlier. Substance abuse among the medical staff was the stuff of legends.

His eyes narrowed at the cordrazine box. It was smaller than the others, with only three vials and what those three held could drive the entire ship -- even the Vulcans -- insane. It was the most dangerous thing they owned. And after Piper's botched attempt on his life, he never wanted to look at it again. Keeping his thoughts at surface level was the only way he could handle being in the same room with it. Anything else...

Nobody knew if he would ever flashback on the drug. And as the survivor of the largest dose ever taken, he was the subject of much attention. Living in a veritable fishbowl, but if anything could trigger it, stress might.

It said a lot about M'Benga, that Kirk preferred a CMO who might someday try to kill him under a drug haze, as opposed to having a man weak to bribes and coercion take his place.

* * *

Christine had done as much work as was required, and now she was free to file the biochems to Spock's department. She had no fear that it would get to him; nearly all the Vulcans aboard were in Bio. Most were also his bodyguards, and no Vulcan would ever go against Spock. He was simply too much of a legend to his people. He was considered inestimable in value, and his work had in its own way, improved the living conditions of all Vulcans.

Despite Leonard's teasing, he had no more illusions about her position than she did. Spock was ... well, Spock. If he had ever wanted a woman, he would have taken one. Past history indicated he preferred humans when he had the choice -- no doubt a desired change against his legally bonded wife. But even Spock's affairs were ... boring. Few and far between, and over with quickly.

Except for the Romulan Flagship Commander... Chapel shook her head as her thoughts pursued the point, spiral-like, to their inevitable conclusion. He'd seemed serious as a heart attack over that romance. Too bad the way it had ended.

Vulcan mores were not unlike Humans. Chapel understood the dynamic of legitmate/illegitimate, concubine and actual wife. Spock was the product of his father's human concubine, while his older brother Sybok, 100% Vulcan if not 80% sane, was the "true" inheritor of the clan's property. Chapel had no doubt Spock was content with being the non-attached and long-shot, last-resort heir to the House of Sharien. He seemed to carry distaste for any responsibility that would detract from his never ending love of science and exploration. Spock could take on any concubine he desired, so long as T'Pring ruled his House at home.

God forbid something ever happen to Sybok, because Spock would be catapulted into being the one and only valued heir and then he'd have to start putting out more than an occasional letter home.

He'd probably even be sent home. Nerves clawed her gut, all the way up her throat. And I don't want to think about that.

She listened to the quiet thump-clink as Leonard maneuvered his way around the claustrophobic maze of the Dangerous Drugs Storeroom. One eye was on the door, in case of any outcome. Christine never lied to herself. It was a guaranteed way to die. She dreaded the idea of an Enterprise without Spock.

Not just because she was interested in him. Spock kept Kirk in check. Controlled his growing homicidal urges. What if Sulu or somebody killed him? What then? Even Leonard, who was in space as an exile, might have to consider killing Kirk in order to save the ship someday. In fact, she had been ready for him to do that, after Yonada. Even Leonard had his breaking point, and the deliberately messy slaughter of men and women armed with only curved knives had driven the CMO ballistic.

Spock risked everything to keep the Fabrini from dying altogether, and now what? Chapel wondered sadly. They might as well be dead. When the borders of Rigel had shifted, many planets, including those of the Daran System, had fallen to Romulan rule. A double loss. Kirk might have seized their computer banks, but military men never considered the value of the living.

* * *

McCoy took a break and punched up a lunch in the mess. He found himself re-reading what was known as Rehasher News as he ate; Uhura had piped in updates from earlier beams. And despite all efforts not to be stupid, he went right to the latest on the upcoming Antares Treaty.

Fortunately (or not) for his nerves, there was actually something about the Daran System. He cursed himself to feel the skip in his chest as he went over the brief paragraph. The actual conquest of that, and the Old Rigellian Rim Territory had been one of the more humiliating defeats for the Empire. Those in charge of defense had been utterly and totally asleep at the helm; the Romulans didn't even have to do much to get it. Just sailed right in and set up housekeeping.

The Empire couldn't do a damn thing about it now; there was no prying an established Romulan force. The best they could hope for was a re-opening of trade, and maybe an exchange of prisoners.

Lord only knew how the Ambassadors could pull that off. Romulans weren't against humanoids per se, but it tickled them to have Terrans and Centaurians as slaves. To their thinking, it was a bloodless revenge against old scores. Not unlike ancient tribal warfare policies on the doctor's home planet. What the Empire disliked was that human captives and "indentured servants" tended to resist rescue after they'd been held for so many years. It was demoralizing against their campaign of the Filthy Enemy, and nobody relished the idea of going up against a long-lost relative inside an enemy warship. He wondered how the Yonadan colony was faring under Romulan rule. Natira was a survivor, but she didn't want to be. He couldn't encounter thoughts of the High Priestess without terrific guilt.

I'd never interfered with anyone's desire to die before. If anything, he'd risked his own to defend that right. Why the hell did I stop then?

Damn it, but he knew why.

The Fabrini had needed Natira more than they needed their own worldship. He'd pulled some dirty emotional blackmail to pull her out of her self-destructive funk. And while he'd won, she'd never thank him.

There was nothing more about the Treaty. He sighed and reached for another spring roll.

And that was when the security alert sounded.

All around the doctor, people were jumping to their feet. McCoy jumped too, a terrific twist in his heart. He knew that particular pattern to the klaxon. Somebody had just attempted -- or succeeded -- an attempt against the captain.

* * *

His name was Technician Rochemont. He was three years older than Joanna, and he'd gone up against a much bigger opponent.

McCoy leaned forward and made a small adjustment on the K-3 graph of the bioindicator above the wax-white face. Behind him he could feel Kirk's presence, burning like an angry sun.

"I don't know," he said at last, not turning around as he enhanced gauge after gauge, left to right down the display. The heart that beat so strongly and calmly was under artificial stimulation. It would beat just as strongly if the brain finished shutting down.

"I want to know who hired him for such an idiotic stunt." Kirk's soft voice was tight. He rarely raised his voice, but when he did...

McCoy felt a bath of icewater at the memory. Ever since he'd embarrassed himself in that cell in the Parallel Universe, Kirk had been idling. And McCoy knew he, Scott, and Uhura were just living on borrowed time because if the captain didn't forgive their witnessing, or put it past him, he was going to be thrice as easy to provoke.

Just as Marlena was no doubt living on borrowed time. Kirk's jealousy was amazing. McCoy didn't think there was much point in feeling threatened at one's counterpart, but the night after their return, Moreau showed up at Mess with a black eye.

"I'll do what I can, Captain." McCoy spoke the truth easily. He'd already promised himself what to do. Kirk just didn't know what that would be. "But there's been a lot of damage to the brainstem; Farrell's the best knife on the ship, y'know."

Kirk nodded curtly. He did indeed know.

"I don't know how much longer I can keep the cortex viable."

Medical fact was 100% on his side. Humanoids were so variable from planet to planet, subspecies to sub, even space-born and planet-born, that anybody who ever tried to write a medical text on the generalities of the primitive brain would get laughed all the way to a straightjacket and a lifetime supply of happy pills. Even common laymen like Kirk knew that.

Not that Kirk was ever common, as in ordinary. He was damn near a genius, if not brilliant, and his mind could grasp anything ... anything that it wanted to. McCoy quite often had nightmares that dealt with underestimating him.

"Estimation?" Kirk shifted his weight to his left. Not a good sign. It meant he was searching for an opponent to rip apart.

"Barring some unforeseen miracle, we've got about six hours to wring any information out of him."

Kirk spun on his heel, took three paces, stopped and spun back. "Do what you can. It's possible Spock might be able to do something."

McCoy nodded as if that announcement didn't make him ill. Mental invasion -- whatever happened to just quietly killing somebody and being done with it?

Alone now, McCoy waited patiently until he was certain no one would interrupt in the next five seconds. Then the hypo he'd been forced to hide in his sash at the captain's arrival hissed quietly against Rochemont's throat. It would take time for Kirk to persuade Spock to even consider a distasteful meld, and by then, the boy would be quietly, peacefully, irreversibly dead.

* * *

He was finishing another spate of endless shift reports when AMO M'Benga rode in. And with M'Benga, Hollister would be someplace close. You might not see her, but they stuck together like glue.

"Heard another punk was paid to take a shot at the captain." M'Benga didn't waste time, he went over to the table for a look-see.

"Sure what it looks like." McCoy agreed neutrally. They never made casual conversation; this was no exception. Strict business, and on the AMO's part, professional curiosity.

M'Benga shook his head at the readings. "They never learn." He marveled under his breath. Sharp dark eyes that rivaled a laser's flicked over to McCoy. "He's not doing well. Is the captain going to question him?"

"I told the captain he didn't have much time to make that decision." McCoy shrugged with one shoulder, as stymied as M'Benga why Kirk would want to pay that much attention to some teenager who probably didn't even know who paid him in the first place.

The future corpse faced them blindly, unaware and unseeing. All senses turned off, not even able to hear. Farrell's knife across the back of the neck had all but severed the head from the trunk. Too bad he hadn't. McCoy had searched but found no signs of activity that would hint the boy was conscious in any way. God, but he hoped not.

"Any regime I need to stick to?" M'Benga asked. He was repeating McCoy's earlier actions of checking and rechecking the biogauges. They might have infinite differences between them, and they would never be friends, but there was that professional respect.

"Alert me and the captain if there's an obvious change." McCoy couldn't wait to leave today. He tossed his stylus and straightened his back. "I'm not hopeful that he'll pull through, but then, I've been surprised at Vegans before."

M'Benga started. "He's a Vegan?"

"Vegan-born, yeah." Deliberately lackadaisical, McCoy yawned and adjusted his sash. "Okay, that's that. Later."

M'Benga's response was absently delivered. He was already thinking of how it would be to his advantage to inform Kirk of the assassin's background before his superior.

* * *

He was trying to resume that half-jettisoned plate of spring rolls and tea when an unexpected visitor showed up with his full cadre of bodyguards.

"At ease." Spock sounded as distracted as M'Benga had earlier. McCoy sat back down at picked up a roll. Without preamble, Spock sat down and promptly dominated 3/4ths of the space in McCoy's cabin.

"I'll try to be," McCoy muttered.

Spock's gaze flickered. At best, he was impatient with the doctor -- or at least he had been. That "fishbowl" look was back, and McCoy felt absolutely demoralized to be the focus of it.

"What is your prognosis on the technician?"

At least Vulcans didn't mince words unless they were in court. McCoy bit down into his very late lunch and chewed before replying. "Full report?"

"Yes."

"I can't predict Vegan mental synaptic conditions anymore than I can a Rigellian's. You know more about mental interviews than I do; I can show you the graphs." He was already reaching for them, thin sheets of clear plastic, color patterns superimposed over each other.

Spock spared a single glance. "That is all I need to see." He nodded curtly.

McCoy leaned back. "Sorry. Do you want some tea?"

Spock paid into pure Vulcan culture norms by not verbally acknowledging the offer, just poured himself a serving from a cup taken out of the replicator.

"If the boy is a Vegan, his reasoning for attempting the captain's life might be understandable." As in 9,000 dead countrymen put to the sword under Kirk's command. Moral: uprisings can be costly. Of course, it was easier to focus one's rage on a single mortal target -- Kirk -- than try to take on the entire Empire at once.

"Possibly." McCoy was cautious before he agreed. It was his personal belief, but he didn't want anyone to know that. Let M'Benga and Spock feel they drew their conclusions by themselves.

"The question is, why was this never in the records."

"His background?" McCoy shook his head. "Imperial reports are very basic, you know. If he's never done anything before, then, he was either very very good at covering his trails, or as innocent as he looked."

"I'll never understand how your language can judge someone's mental perspective by appearance."

McCoy ignored the criticism. He was quite used to it. "You don't have much time if Kirk's wanting an interview."

"I do not believe it is possible ... or profitable." Spock's fingers tightened, just ever so slightly, around the cup. "Our meeting has been postponed until tomorrow morning."

Odd. McCoy only nodded, and worked on another roll. Kirk must have a lot on his plate.

And now, in the close confines of his cabin, another meeting was about to take place.

"Does the captain have a reason to harbor anger against you?"

Well, that question came right outta the ol' blue. McCoy actually stopped chewing, astonished that Spock would have to ask that question. Normally the Vulcan was better at reading dynamics. "It's no secret," he said finally.

"I would prefer your point of view." Spock's way of saying he was in the dark.

"Um." McCoy pushed back his plate and poured himself a refill. "Well, it's not just me. You might have noticed his temper of late, aimed at Uhura and Scott as well."

Spock's expression barely changed, but McCoy had struck a nerve.

"When we were on the ... Parallel Ship, Kirk said some things at your counterpart when he thought he was talking to you." McCoy suddenly scowled and looked down. "I feel no need to quote verse and chapter. It's my personal opinion that what he said was unimportant. Apparently, the captain feels otherwise."

Loss of face got more inferior officers killed than possibly any other factor. Spock digested this while McCoy went through the motions of drinking. The Vulcan was a pragmatist; the prospect of Kirk finding reasons to dispose of half the senior crew, could only result in a power vacuum. And if it was due to pride ...

Spock was warrior enough to know that pride was important, yet not vital.

"I would suggest, then," Spock rose to his feet, interview over, "you tell your compatriots to be wary. I noticed M'Benga was visiting the captain today."

McCoy's response was unexpected. The human merely looked tired and resigned.

"Kirk can dispose of me any time he wants to," he pointed out. "I've been on parole ever since the cordrazine."

Spock had not realized McCoy could be so blunt. "Indeed." He did not insult the other with elaborate language. "And so far you have behaved adequately. But it may not be just the captain that wishes your replacement."

McCoy bristled at the not-so-subtle jab. "The only person I'd trust to take my place on this ship is Christine Chapel." He too, was on his feet. "But I don't think you or Kirk are capable of understanding what she's like."

McCoy's observation of Chapel as CMO was perilously close to Spock's own.

"And what understanding does one require?" Spock asked with his usual even calm -- a state that invariably annoyed McCoy.

"You'll never get Christine Chapel's blind obedience, Spock. Not you, not Kirk, not me, not anybody. What she gives is her loyalty. And that's a damn sight rarer, and a lot more valuable."

* * *

"The Altair Conference is going to be all about the Antares Treaty." Kirk rested his palms on the small table, leaning forward until the muscles in his arms thrust out. "There are other issues, naturally, but this is the real reason. Our diplomats will be expected to parlay for the Daran and Rigellian Rim System, and the Romulans will be expected to run them in circles." Disdain tightened Kirk's mouth on one side.

Spock made a thoughtful sound behind his beard. "What roles will we be expected to play in this affair?"

Trust Spock, McCoy mused. He did have a way with words. Made you wonder about the nuances of his native language.

"Roles? Good question." Kirk approved automatically, without warmth. "The Romulans have demanded a show of peace. Minimal weapons. And an open sharing of medical technology." (McCoy shifted at that, beginning to suspect.)

"We are the only starship allowed to attend, just as their flagship is the only one permitted. Dr. McCoy and four other members of Life Sciences will be on entourage with the same number of unknown Romulan Life Scientists. While this exchange of brittle civility is taking place, you, Mr. Spock, will be enduring your own acting with our old friend the Flagship Commander."

Spock instantly fossilized at the table.

Oh, oh. McCoy inwardly sighed. Now if this isn't a recipe for Kitchen Antimatter ...

He didn't envy the Vulcan. Commander Charvenek, after all, had threatened to do things to him that nobody on the ISS Enterprise had even heard of before. For his part, Spock invariably acted like the very mention of the woman was enough to send him to a life of contemplation at Gol.

Didn't envy the Vulcan? He didn't envy himself, damn it! M'Benga was going to be in charge of his sickbay while he put up with unstubtle Romulan contempt.

If Kirk was going to kill him, this'd be a pretty good way of doing it. The possibilities were damn near limited to only one's imagination.

And McCoy wasn't blessed with imagination. He was cursed with it.

* * *

Spock paused in the hallway. His guards paused too, a polite distance from their master. Each commander held datapacks in one hand, hardcopy preps for their assigned tasks.

"Were you speaking to me, Doctor?" McCoy bristled. "I was talking to God, if you must know." Spock was flexible, as far as understanding humans went, but his mother's sense of humor was very different from the doctor's. He was almost going to assume McCoy was being defensive about his religious convictions.

McCoy turned to face him, stock-still in the hallway. "I meant what I said about Chapel."

Spock had no idea why the man was returning to a topic ended seven hours ago. "I remember what you said." He lifted one eyebrow.

The doctor pursed his lips, on the verge of saying something. As Spock watched, he made the decision. "She's loyal to you. M'Benga isn't."

Spock watched him stalk down the hall to the privacy of his small cabin. He wondered if McCoy was trying to tell him something else besides the literal.

McCoy let the doors of his room shut, and rested his back against them, closing his eyes. His restless night was coming back with a vengeance, and it was now time for bed.

But what he really wanted to do was never sleep again.

* * *

He hadn't been there for the actual slaughter. Hell, he wasn't even sure what caused it. Some word of defiance, a glance gone wrong, maybe the people looked too independent for the tastes of the captain. And Kirk was, of course, a starship captain; trained to take initiative and err on the side of caution. Any explanation of rebellion against a sword-sworn soldier of the Caesar was reason enough to aim a phalanx of phasers on kill into five hundred and thirty-two men, women and children.

He saw Spock first, when he beamed down. The Vulcan was standing stock-still under the red of the artificial sky, centered in a pile of rainbow-striped corpses. He looked like a raven sculpted of blue and black.

The phalanx had disbanded and were milling around, toeing corpses over and searching for souvenirs. There were none; over the disappointed babble of the looters, McCoy could make out these people carried no ornaments, no jewelry.

Spock's head was down; he had been regarding a child's body with an enviable calm. As the doctor picked his way around the killing field (he avoided the living looters more than the actual dead), Spock looked up to acknowledge his arrival. And for a shred of a second, McCoy almost stopped dead in his tracks, for the Vulcan was wearing a look of open loathing on his dark face.

McCoy was no stranger to massacres. He'd walked in cities phasered to molten glass, watched as continents were crushed of life. But something had happened here between Spock and Kirk that he wasn't privy to.

What the devil happened?

Spock's expression frightened him. Spock never, never showed any disapproval in Kirk. Even a disagreement of opinion was considered blatant disloyalty to a Vulcan raised as traditionally as Spock.

"The captain has a hostage for your perusal, doctor." Spock reported mechanically. "A heavy stun victim. Expedience would be appreciated."

McCoy nodded and made no other response. A hostage. That meant the leader of these people in this strange world-ship ... or someone close to the leader. It was his job to make sure they were fit and well for inevitable "questioning" and "coercion" to the ways of the Empire.

* * *

"I hate this."

You could always trust Christine to be honest. He smiled ruefully over his desk. "Sorry."

Chapel exhaled and folded her arms across her insignia. "In other words, you're telling me that I'm really the one in charge of Sickbay, only M'Benga isn't supposed to know about it."

"Or Hollister. They'd be on you like hair on a tribble."

"Lovely. So who else is going to this medical-trade conference?"

"Um. Thermopolous, Wagner, R'i'kk, and Barr ... I think. Don't know who'll be the pilot." He watched as Chapel shook her head again. "What is it?"

"I was just thinking ... this is the fifth time inside what ... a year ... that the Romulans have offered a medical trade."

"Yeah, pretty amazing, isn't it?"

"They've been doing this since the Fabrini fell under their power."

McCoy was silent as he pondered this new insight. "You're right. I never thought about that ... makes you wonder what's going on, doesn't it?"

"Extremely." Chapel rubbed her chin with the ball of her thumb. "So far they've not been asking for anything that could be overtly dangerous ... "

"They wouldn't anyway, and you know it. You can make any information dangerous. But their medical technology is behind ours, even with the use of the Fabrini databanks. Spock projected it'd take at least fifty years to absorb all the information out of that galloping huge computer!"

Chapel gave him a long look. "Don't you have the Fabrini encrypta in your translator program?"

"For what it's worth ... " McCoy had started to shrug, then saw what she was getting at. They stared at each other in frozen silence, grateful no one else was around.

"I'm just paranoid." Chapel tried to dismiss her fears. Paranoid that my boss is going to get kidnapped or killed because of what he knows ...

"Um ... that's not being paranoid. Not when it comes to my safety." McCoy looked down at his desk as he spoke. Next to Spock, McCoy knew more about the Fabrini than any other member of the Empire. What did that mean to the Romulans?

What was that worth to the Romulans?

He shivered at that sudden question, and found no easy answer. His preparation package, with its detailed requests of information for this and that, was useless compared to what he really wanted to know.

* * *

Christine sighed and aimed her scanning-gun at the last box. First scan: Cordrazine labeling. Second Scan: contents 100% cordrazine. Lahdedah ... Third scan ...

Her face went cold as all the blood fled her skin. The scanner clattered to the floor and her communicator clawed out of her sash.

"Oh god, oh god, oh god ... " Her fingers clambered over the frequency keys; Leonard, answer! Answer!

"Christine?" Puzzled at her unusual call, McCoy's drawl was barely discernible over the background noise of the moving shuttle.

"Leonard!" She screamed. "Watch out! There's cordrazine missing!"

Whatever he'd been about to say, she never heard it. There was the beginning of a voice, then a sharp, short click sound of plastic and metal.

Christine was left standing with a communicator full of white noise.

She was still staring at it when the doors to Sickbay opened.

"Good evening, Nurse." M'Benga didn't look up from his Padd. He was busy, he was efficient, he was perfectly innocuous.

He was Leonard's killer.

Christine had learned not to cry years ago. She never actually wept for Roger, or for her dead family. But her eyes stung at the thought of Leonard dying alone and mad, and the only consolation was her dagger in M'Benga's heart.

Through a red haze she heard an intake of breath. As she wiped the blade on M'Benga's own sleeve she looked up with mechanical disinterest. Nurse Hollister, her assistant, her rival in Sickbay, was standing white-faced and shocked in the doorway. The redhead's blue eyes were open to round circles.

Silly fool, Chapel thought. Just because she'd earned her rank through merit didn't mean she'd never gotten her hands messy. She was used to people not understanding that, and surprising them later. And judging from Hollister's face, she wasn't believing anything she was seeing.

You killed him too. She spoke without a sound. You and M'Benga.

The advantage of eternal nightmares, she thought as she rose to her feet, dagger leveled at its new target, was that it left you hardened against astonishment in the waking world.

* * *

"You do realize this looks suspicious."

Suspicious?

Christine favored Commander Spock a look that rivaled twenty daggers from across the Briefing Table. M'Benga's sash didn't fit her very well, but she'd adjust it later.

"I'm not certain I understand you, sir."

Spock actually paused from atop his Padd and regarded her thoughtfully. They were quite alone in the large room. Kirk no longer concerned himself with the scientific aspects of the Enterprise, leaving that duty to his First Officer. Dr. Chapel's status was now "self-appointed" on the ship's rolls, as anyone was who acquired their rank through assassination. Some called it "field promotion" and for reasons unknown to Spock, considered that humorous.

McCoy's last conversation in the hallway had been on his mind a great deal. He had not been inclined to take the doctor's worries of Uhura and Scott seriously. Now he did. Time was growing short for Spock of Vulcan. If Kirk had grown irrational enough to come to this ...

Chapel continued to study him with Vulcan-like regard. She was not about to break. Some humanoids were prone to such behavior, flush with the adrenaline of their advantageous kill, many rarely survived the first day of their "field promotion." Chapel's advantage was she had killed her two worst rivals out of rage, not selfish concerns. And frankly, the Enterprise was the better for it. Kirk's sudden favoritism of an openly bribable M'Benga had been ... disconcerting. Moreso because M'Benga had been the "official" expert on Vulcan physiology, albeit McCoy had been the upcoming expert on Spock's unique hybrid nature. Chapel had been McCoy's assistant in everything, and he had no doubt she would soon approach her predecessor's level of skill and comprehension. McCoy's words came back to haunt him at that particular moment: Chapel would give him loyalty, but not blind obedience. If Spock was willing to accept that brand of faith, he would have more than an ally with the new CMO. But that would mean taking on a special responsibility. He hoped he had the time for it.

Spock set his report down on the triangular briefing table that rested between them. They were alone in a room that was far too large for a simple conversation. A psychological edge he'd often found over humans. It was not working on Chapel, who was no debutante with psychology.

"Perhaps you would permit me to use the language of your people, Dr. Chapel, and say, 'shall we put our cards on the table?'"

Chapel's haggard blue eyes sank deep into his, bolder than most women would, and dangerous for her if he should choose to use his mental controls. But whatever she was searching for, she seemed to have found it. She nodded, letting her gaze politely break from his again. "Please speak, Mr. Spock."

Spock nodded a silent thanks and rested one arm on his rim of the table. "As Head of Life Sciences, you answer directly to me now. Do you feel you can cope with the power vacuum in your Sickbay, or will you need to request assistance?"

"If you mean additional physicians and a nurse, I'm sure that can wait until after our admittedly delicate mission is over with."

Tactically intelligent. Spock approved. "If you feel you are capable, then there is no problem in that regard." Inwardly, he doubted she could not; Chapel had never shirked her duties, nor was she known to complain. "I am to assume Dr. McCoy had you ... prepared for this eventuality?"

"You might say that," Chapel murmured.

Spock slid his stylus back into his carrying slot. "It is not common procedure for a Nurse, however qualified, to be responsible for the Dangerous Drugs Storeroom. McCoy was training you?"

"He was."

"And how do you rate your performance?"

"Lacking, of course."

"Of course?" His eyebrows shot up.

"Dr. McCoy suggested I go through the storeroom checks. Had I done so earlier, I may have been able to prevent the loss of life."

Spock had listened to her words closely. She had been cautious in saying "may have", and referred to the general loss of life as everyone on the now-wrecked Copernicus. Again, tactical. It was fortunate for him that he had no cause to distrust her; otherwise she would be one to watch with advised caution.

"Mr. Spock ... I would like to know what happened."

Spock did not reply at first. "I cannot say precisely what happened. I can only give you the Bridgeview."

"That will have to do."

"Pilot Methuen had signed off contact with the Enterprise before the time you said you attempted to contact Dr. McCoy. Romulans are not savvy about humans, Dr. Chapel. Because they consider it normal procedure to keep radio silence whenever possible, they assumed -- foolishly -- that our procedures are the same."

Chapel said nothing to that, but her eyebrows met in mild surprise. At least in their Empire, humans were taught to never assume. Then again, Charvenek's people were not known for being overly flexible in their thinking. Even other Romulans complained about that.

"The Copernicus simply continued on its registered flight plan, which was approved by the Romulan flagship."

"I see." Chapel mulled that over. "What was the destination?"

"Daran V."

"So nothing was seen amiss until the Copernicus ... began to degrade over the atmosphere."

"Correct." Spock was privately impressed Chapel was taking the details of her predecessor's death so clinically. "Complying with our treaty agreement, the Nighteagle did not attempt to interfere with the failing craft, but alerted us. There was nothing we could do."

Chapel absorbed the grisly facts stoically. Whatever had happened, McCoy must have done something, possibly killed everyone else on board who could pilot. She knew he was a fair pilot; either he had been dead or incapacitated ...

"Daran V is heavily populated." She commented at last.

"Not at the polar region. By happenstance, the craft degraded over the Northern Barrier Reef."

She hoped Leonard was dead. Had been dead fairly quickly. She didn't want to think of him going through the cordrazine madness a second time. The risk of flashbacks had haunted his world enough.

In a way, maybe she was relieved that he wouldn't have to live with the nightmares anymore.

"Doctor, what was the extent of your communique with McCoy?"

Back to the present. Chapel rallied. "I was warning Leonard that cordrazine was missing from the stores."

"And you suspected M'Benga?" Spock wanted to be very clear on this.

"And Hollister. They were not subtle about their desires, sir."

"I see. What logical reasons do you have for suspecting M'Benga?"

"He'd been in a private meeting with the captain previously. He'd also been extremely late to work this morning. Generally, the only time he is not punctual is when he's doing something he shouldn't. He knew how dangerous cordrazine was to Leonard."

"Not necessarily, Doctor. Cordrazine is an infamous drug."

"Agreed, but not many people outside the Laymen's world know of its true nature." Chapel then hesitated, and to Spock's private curiosity, turned a dusky rose.

"What nature would that be?" he wondered.

"Mr. Spock, cordrazine causes extreme paranoia, delusions of persecution, and delirium. And there are few cases of anyone surviving a full dose like Leonard had." Chapel swallowed, hard and loudly. "The truth is, it's a fine tool for assassination for those who don't like to get their hands dirty. Anyone has a good chance of surviving, but when they're an obvious risk to the public ... "

"I believe I understand. You are saying M'Benga did not actually assassinate McCoy, he only instigated matters so that someone else would do the killing."

Chapel glanced down, nodding.

Spock disliked the implications, although they fit what he knew of the AMO. He had bodyguards, it was true, but when he killed, he killed by his own hand and he did not respect anyone who relied on others to be their physical strength. Chapel would be good for the Medical Department. She obviously shared his distastes.

Kirk had never held anything but contempt for people who "hired death". But that was before he had discovered the Tantalus device. Perhaps he still thought he did his own killing when his enemies (and admittedly, Moreau's) disappeared. But making an enemy vanish into thin air was not a responsible way to deal with opposition. There had been a time when the captain would have never considered such actions.

* * *

Spock walked in silence, his bodyguards respectfully in tow, automatically sharpening their awareness to permit him the means to think.

McCoy had tried to warn him. Not for himself, but to warn where Kirk was headed. Now the doctor was dead, and Scott and Uhura could soon follow.

Spock considered the Chief Engineer and Chief of Communications absolutely indispensable to the safety of the Enterprise. If they were to be disposed of, everyone would be all the more vulnerable. Angela Martine-Teller and DeSalle were adequate replacements, but lacked the training and experience of their seniors.

Spock stopped before his door and quietly coded it open. His guards posted themselves silently at each side. Arid warmth and comfortingly high gravity enfolded him like a cloud. While he always sought calm, it was easier to do so in the privacy of his quarters.

Kirk had not always been this way. Early in the mission when he had been less eager to kill. Less paranoid of his position and power. But with the "invincible weapon" in his quarters, the absolute power had begun a slow corruption.

Spock considered himself corrupted by the simple knowledge of the Tantalus Device. Kirk's counterpart had been clever. Like the legend of Eden, Spock could not more avoid thinking of the Device, than Eve could stop thinking of the forbidden fruit. After setting Spock up to take control and end the illogical waste of the Empire, he had literally made it impossible for Spock to turn his back and walk away from it. The trap was elegant; worthy of any Kirk in any universe.

He could not walk away from the Device now that he knew it was there. So far he had only stalled in the inevitable action. It was his old hatred of assuming unwanted responsibility, and his love of personal freedom.

It was that love of freedom that had sent him to space, on a mostly-human ship, exploring and risking his life far away from the confines of family and Vulcan. "You can't run forever," his mother had murmured wistfully, brushing her son's hair back for the last time. "I hope you'll have fun while you run, though."

It was time to stop running. Before more lives were lost.

It was time to have that long-overdue, promised conversation with Marlena Moreau.

* * *

Stardate 5476.3

Under a painted red sky that reflected the artificial light of a sun crafted of rose quartz and radiation, the ISS Ship's Surgeon was trying to fulfil his assigned tasks without being aware of the power game going on just behind his crawling back.

"Captain, the Fabrini are a unique relic of their world. The possibilities of knowledge--"

Kirk whirled on Spock. "Not one more word out of you, Mister! I let you save the Halkans -- that should be enough for one lifetime!"

Spock backed away, eyes wary. "My apologies, captain."

Kirk didn't deign to answer, just turned his back on the Vulcan. "I'll expect your report as soon as we get beam up." Spock stood motionless in a field of dead or dying Fabrini, watching his captain stalk away from him as if he were no longer of note.

"She's been heavily stunned." Kirk's crisp voice had clicked and popped over the communicator. "Get her back in shape, Doctor."

"Aye, sir." McCoy responded mechanically. Revive another valuable pawn in Kirk's endless conquests. Revive for future subjugation. The fact that Spock had faithfully repeated Kirk's orders to McCoy was an open gall; either Kirk wanted to prove a point with him, or prove a point with Spock at the public snubbing. McCoy suspected it might be a little of both.

(Very pretty.) McCoy couldn't refrain from noting that any more than he could miss seeing the color of the sky. (And that's a lot of hair!) It swept down her head in a loose, thick wave of brown as dark as his own with gold lights. Her skin almost didn't look real, it was so smooth and flawless. But after glancing at the stunned or dead Fabrini on the ground, he could see that must be an anthropological trait of the people. The faint red spectrum of the strange Pellucid world made him feel as though he'd spent three weeks tanning on a beach.

He noticed something else, too. Why isn't she wearing plaid like everybody else? The color scheme was truly, in his mind, godawful. But typical of subterranean races with little contact with sunlight; an old trick of enforcing retinal stimulation and delaying the effects of sun-deprived ailments and depressions. He'd no doubt they coped in other ways ... probably had the Saami version of black current vodka and subsonic music to stimulate/depress needy portions of the brain.

And these people only thought they had a real sun ... Oh Lord, what a mess this all was!

After consulting the tricorder's readings in silence, he matched up a suitable vitamin shot that would help her recover from the heavy stunning. Almost as soon as the hypo finished its soft hiss, a blush of color came to the smooth cheeks and her long lashes fluttered.

"Lady Natira." He whispered her name at first, not wanting to pull her into a fresh shock. "Lady Natira. Can you open your eyes? It's important that you do so."

* * *

Natira heard the voice before her eyes could see the owner. She thought that was a very strange accent, even for an outsider.

She remembered her men were dead. As bad as it had been when the Surface Rebels attacked in her mother's time. But these people were from outside their world. They all wore solid colors like the Clanless Ones and carried weapons. Soldiers. The shorter man in gold -- the leader? Who was speaking to her?>>

"Who speaks?" she demanded, still not opening her eyes.

McCoy privately sighed in relief. "Leonard McCoy, Ma'am. Ship's physician." (For now, at least.) He couldn't avoid feeling self-sarcastic. "You had a heavy stun from the Empire's weapons and you'll be feeling weak and dizzy for the rest of the day."

"I have felt similar under the Oracle," Natira answered stoically. "We have ways of recovering our strength."

"I'm glad to hear that." The strange voice was quiet. "Would you prefer those methods?"

"You would permit the choice?" Her voice was sharper than she should have let it.

"I don't quarrel with ways that work, ma'am."

* * *

Those incredible eyes were on him, going through him.

"Look." He swallowed dryly, and was ashamed of himself for reacting like a stupid kid. "We don't have much time, and I'm sorry if this is rushing things. If your people are going to survive, they're going to look to you to guide them." He forced every iota of his personality into meeting those green-flecked gems. A tiny flicker in those depths, and he realized she was unused to being met like this. "The Empire is a cruel place -- and the military the cruelest of all. Kirk won't hesitate to make an example of you."

He'd stopped talking again. McCoy swore at himself and forced himself to keep going. "They'll want you to swear loyalty to the Empire. They'll demand tithes of your resources. And they'll make sure no one will contest your right to rule."

Outrage flared her nostrils. "No one would contest my rule!"

"THEY will," he said grimly. "Believe me, Lady Natira. They will. They'll put a puppet in your place." He looked away, unable to watch those eyes any more. "I've seen it happen over and over."

"You are not like them." She was stating this, not questioning.

"I work for them. That makes me like them." He said it harshly, lashing himself with his own words. When she said nothing he realized she deserved a better explanation than that. "Lady Natira, I'm from a different generation. My Empire is under the rule of the blood eagles now. Conquest is all they know."

"How did you come here then?" She was like a dog with a bone, worrying at this until she understood it.

He sighed. "Exile," he said simply. "There was nothing for me at home, so I went for the stars." He rubbed his forehead, feeling another spell of nausea.

"As I said, we don't have much time. When I've declared you recovered from the stun you'll be expected to speak with the captain. He'll demand your surrender and if you won't give it to him, your entire world will be nothing more than a cinder when he's done."

Natira's first emotions showed. She swallowed. "That might would be for the better."

At one time, McCoy might have agreed with her. God knows, he'd helped many a person to suicide to spare them suffering. But this was different. He forgot himself and grabbed her arm, hard. "No," he hissed through his teeth. She was shocked at his presumption, too shocked to speak. "NO. Natira, if there is any good in your people, and I think there is, then you cannot let them die!" His own voice frightened him. "We need good people, who don't hide their feelings, hide their natures, hide period! It's what led us to the Empire of today -- hiding! For the love of God, let your people live!"

They were both breathing harshly in the badly lit world. Her eyes were wide. Astonished at his temerity, he decided. She obviously wasn't vulnerable to fear.

His hand was stiff; he forced himself to let go. "I'm sorry." He hoped there wouldn't be a bruise under that sleeve. "I've seen too much death. I don't want to see any more."

He'd been prepared for her to say something to that, but she was merely silent.

His mouth was dry. "How much time do you think you need?"

"Time?" she echoed softly. He looked back at her. She was studying the ceiling-sky, her eyes lightyears away from the room. "I am ready now."

"No." He contradicted. Again that flash of surprise. "You may think you can deal with this, but you cannot. I'm going to tell the captain that you'll be able to speak to him tomorrow morning. That should give you time to ... think over your announcements."

"Who are you?" For the first time, something calculating was showing in her eyes.

"Name's McCoy," he answered brusquely. She was looking *through* him, and he didn't like the feeling.

"Ma'koi." She repeated, committing him to memory. "I will not forget." Who could blame him for the chill that went down his spine at those slow, deliberate words?

* * *

Kirk was in a far better mood now that the Fabrini "military" was completely disabled. He gestured for Marlena to pour drinks for all of them. His woman complied with a pleasant smile, but McCoy hesitated just a touch, before taking his glass off the tray. Lately he'd been wondering if there was something going on with that little chemist.

If Spock hadn't told Kirk it was Marlena who discovered the presence of their doubles, the captain might have killed her out of jealousy, imagining his counterpart with her. Such things had happened before, and McCoy tried hard not to think about such scenarios. You'd think it would make a woman reconsider becoming Kirk's, but at least it weeded out the chances of a *soft* woman aiming for the position ...

"The Subduction went well, captain." Spock, as his usual fashion, set his own glass at his side and drew one leg across the other, foot perfectly level, Vulcan-style as a makeshift table. "Humanoid they be, the Fabrini are exceedingly well trained and unwilling to act without orders from the Oracle."

"Unsurprising, considering the punishment for infractions is pain." Kirk snorted. "Your proclamation?"

"The technology is beyond current Empire Abilities, but someone such as Mr. Scott would find little trouble discerning the designs. Despite the age of the world-ship, there is almost no damage. Self-healing circuits are apparently reality to these people." Spock lifted his glass for the first time. "Searching the Oracle Room revealed the Book of the Fabrini, which is just as holy to the people as the Oracle herself. There is a great deal of medical information inside. They were the most famous healers of their heyday."

McCoy made a thoughtful sound.

"What, thinking of research?" Kirk asked with a knife-edged voice, slicing his thoughts.

"No, thinking of the contradiction in terms." McCoy answered with his own bite. "Advanced medicine generally connotes a liberal slant -- I was wondering of the circumstances thattt made them decide to go stale inside the control of a computer."

"Possibly for the good of the species' survival." Spock said placidly. "The creators would not wish to leave anything up to chance such as revolt, civil unrest or perhaps a mentally unstable Oracle."

"Ugh." McCoy thought that mentally unstable *computers* were nightmare enough.

"Prognosis on the Oracle?" Kirk leveled his hard eyes on McCoy.

"She'll be up to the Meet tomorrow morning. She's adjusting to the loss of the Implant more than the stun. Right now, she's experiencing a great deal of amazement that nothing will punish her thinking."

Kirk laughed. "Stay close to her, McCoy. She has reason to dislike *me* and I want it to stay that way. Use some of that charm you're famous for and be the Good Imperial. It shouldn't take her long to warm up to you."

McCoy took a swallow from his glass. "I have the charm of a Tellarite!"

Marlena muffled a choke into her hand from the back of the room. Spock lifted one eyebrow as a comment. It was probably the reaction of the stump-stolid Vulcan that made Kirk laugh.

"That's not what the women say in the sauna," Kirk answered sweetly. Just as swift, his hard bloodstone eyes flicked to Spock. "Now that most of this is out of the way, I want Sulu to arrange a public execution for those security guards who fired without my orders."

Spock bowed from his neck. "Agreed."

McCoy concentrated on finishing his drink. Yeah, agreed all right. Good policy to deal swift retribution to soldiers who acted on their own initiative ... and failed. But Kirk had another reason for putting twelve men to death. Over half of them were in Sulu's pocket. Having the Security/Helmsman issue those orders out would keep him intimidated and away from Kirk and Spock for at least a month.

Politics. The games people played, to see who got what of someone else's.

* * *

The fog was dissipating. Maybe it was the cold. Or the wet. Condensation was dripping from somewhere overhead, on his wrist. It'd taken him long enough to be aware of it. Even longer to do something about it. His sense of up and down was royally confused. He still wasn't sure if he had it right. Or left. Or backwards. Or forwards or -- shocky --

He dug his fingers into his temples, closing his eyes. Too quiet. Space-black and vacuum-silent. But the fog was still there, curling at the furthest edges of his consciousness. And it wanted in.

Let me in let me in, the ghost rapping at the Bronte's window; the relentless drip of freezing water from overhead. Overhead from where? He didn't even know where he was.

Somebody was underneath him. Partly. He felt around in the blackness, couldn't tell more than it was a man, and a big one. His hand came away with a sticking sound and feel. Syrup that reeked of iron. His overstressed heart was pounding a drum in the darkness.

What happened?

He tried to think, but nothing was forthcoming. It hurt to try to remember.

* * *

Christine was cleaning out Leonard's desk -- she'd taken a lot more satisfaction out of emptying M'Benga's and throwing most of what he had into the trash.

This was a hell of a chore, she thought bitterly. And she didn't know what the devil to do about the few personal effects. Leonard was about as material as Jesus Christ was a pro football player. About his only hobby was collecting archaic and frightening remnants of ancient medical technology; scalpels, bone-spreaders, forceps ... all that primitive stuff that was guaranteed to throw a horror into anyone coming in to Sickbay.

She didn't know how often she'd told him that it wasn't reassuring to anyone to see the 19th-century autopsy tray (replete with tools) mounted on the front wall.

Still, everyone had a dark side, and Leonard's native-born morbid streak manifested in his unstoppable fascination with the witch-doctor stuff. She shook her head at an ancient petroleum-byproduct stethoscope and stuffed it on top of the other "questionable" stuff in the box. Some of this stuff was actually real plastic. Worth a fortune. Not that she had the stomach to sell anything. Maybe donate it to some museum ...

She exhaled at the sight of the small address-wafer in the top shelf, and picked it up with a sigh. This was probably the only means of contacting Joanna. And from what she knew of the McCoy Family Dynamic, she'd be better off trying to reach the girl without her mother running interference. Maybe she should try through the university. Or use the medical branch channels. Joanna was almost through with her training to be a nurse.

Drat! How's she going to afford school without Leonard? The sudden thought hit her right between the eyes. Joanna's mother (referred to as "Cottonmouth" by the disgruntled former husband), had not approved of Joanna's career choice.

Chapel sat down hard, shocked at the amount of guilt that had struck her.

She hadn't seen it coming. And now she was swamped with self-loathing for not being able to prevent his death.

Oh, Lord. She rubbed her face with both hands. Hard. Well, maybe it wasn't her responsibility, but on the other hand, if she'd any loyalty to Leonard at all, she should try to do something.

She didn't have a clue as to what.

Adjusting M'Benga's now-snug sash about her waist, Chapel drummed a pattern on the edge of her new desk. Possibly she should try to open communications with Joanna McCoy first, before she tried any noble heroics.

* * *

Nyota Uhura hadn't been expecting Christine at her door. A visitor, yes -- one in particular, but not the new CMO.

"Well, I'm surprised," she confessed and stepped to the side. "Come on in. I haven't seen you in ages."

"Big ship." Chapel smiled without humor.

Nyota's eyebrows went up. "I'd congratulate you ... but I don't think I should."

"No, you shouldn't." Chapel suddenly stopped in the middle of the antelope-hide rug and looked lost.

"Have a drink?"

"Sounds great."

Nyota kept an eye on her as she reached for the millet beer. "D'you want to talk?"

"About what?" Christine wasn't losing that confused look in her eye.

"About ... what happened." Nyota wasn't about to venture to say anything, because she wasn't sure what to call the recent events. "Kirk's Coronary" might cover it from the Bridge-view end of things.

"Ohhhh." Christine grabbed up the red-glass bottle and sank down on a stuffed cushion. "I didn't ask for this. I really didn't, Nyota. I'm suddenly taking on the work of three people on top of my own load. M'Benga wasn't a workaholic, but he was pretty blasted busy. Hollister was busy -- busy trying to suck up to him and get close enough to my good graces for a knife. And Leonard was an insomniac who worked when he couldn't sleep. I need a medical secretary to take over just the filing!"

"Sounds bad. Anybody you can trust?"

"There's Barrows," Chapel said doubtfully.

"Barrows? Didn't she have a thing for your boss?"

"Sort of. Frankly, I don't think it was anything more than stress-release. What's so funny?"

"W-well ... a lot of people thought you and McCoy were lovers."

Chapel blinked with tired, bloodshot eyes. "Including you, huh? Very funny. Very, very funny."

"You mean you weren't?" Nyota couldn't hide her surprise.

"We weren't going to ruin a good partnership with an ill-advised romance, Nyota." Chapel took a healthy gulp of the beverage. "Name me one Inner-Departmental Romance that didn't blow up later."

"You got me there." Nyota shrugged. "So you're needing to unwind some steam?"

"Whoof." Christine ran her fingers through her hair. "I was wondering how much it would cost to send a comm out to Earth."

"Earth?" Uhura winced. "A lot. Where exactly?"

"Mississippi University. I'm trying to get ahold of Leonard's daughter."

"Didn't know he had one."

"Well, to hear his ex talk, he didn't. But I feel like she should know about what happened to her father, besides an official Black Comm in the mail and a posthumus medal."

"Ulp." Nyota took her own drink. "It's expensive, but if you're willing to live simply for a few months, I could rent you a bandwidth. Are you hoping for a one-way, or two-way?"

"Two," Chapel confessed. "Might as well go all-photons."

"True." Nyota's response was halted by another chime. "That must be my company." She winked. "Come in."

Commander Scott stepped inside, pausing to look upon Christine. "Dr. Chapel." He nodded cautiously.

"Hello, Mr. Scott." Christine smiled softly and spoke gently. Of all the senior officers aboard, Scott and McCoy had the most in common. They'd been born before the warhawks, and remembered there had been other things to life besides anarchist command. She didn't insult him by offering her condolences. Scott never spoke of what bothered him.

Instead, she said, "Leonard left a bottle for you in Sickbay. I didn't think to bring it."

The big man smiled slightly. "Tis not necessary, Doctor. I can stop by tomorrow. If ye'r sure its for me."

"Oh, I'm sure. The note tied to the bottle refers to a 'woodscolted, tonedeaf sassenach.'"

"Hmph." Scott snorted. "Th' turnbrained miscrant would get the last word on me."

"I don't think that sounds like you, Scotty ... " Nyota murmured with false demurity.

"And miss out on a bottle?" he wanted to know. "I'm gude for a few names."

Chapel suddenly felt out of place. "I should get out of here." She began to get to her feet.

"Och, stay, lass."

"Yes, stay." Nyota managed to be comforting and scolding at the same time. "You need to be fashionably absent from your quarters for at least a while, you know. Give Sulu time to rip his security spies through everything you own and turn over anything interesting to the captain."

"What he disnae keep t'hisself." Scott rolled his eyes with a wry grin.

"This is why I've avoided command," Chapel managed at last. "I don't see how you can handle the casual invasion of privacy."

"We're Military Lifers, Christine. You aren't. There's a ... mental difference." Nyota passed a third bottle to her latest guest as she spoke. "Once you make the decision to be in the Fleet forever, you kind of ... well, jettison a lot of sensibilities."

"Keeps ye sane," Scott said helpfully. "And speaking of, will ye be keeping the post or stepping down?"

Christine was astonished by the question. "I don't know," she confessed. "I never thought about it."

* * *

She was not a creation of a cordracrazed mind. And so much of his personal identity was in pieces, that he didn't know if he was grateful to be back in reality or not. Once the first steps to awareness were made ... He remembered all too well the last time. The way genuine memories had revealed themselves into being lies, and what he'd thought were insane images, actual reality. Days had been needed before he could even sift through the past and recover lucid thinking. Some people never recovered from the betrayal of their own minds. They suicided.

Impressions of a cavernously large room filtered in first; what had been a cacophony of clatter and discord had turned out to be nothing more than a handful of rainbow-clad Fabrini talking in measured voices. On the few times a voice had lifted, McCoy had relived a new version of hell; sound had pierced his skin like being tattooed with bamboo splinters all over. Unable to pull away from vibrations that came from everywhere, his body had merely stiffened like a corpse, paralyzed with the auditory shock.

They'd tried keeping him upright, but the cold stone floor had grounded his burning body, and it was soon advised to leave him there.

Natira's silence was stone hard, stone heavy. It filled the room outward, weighed him down even worse than the restraints. He felt it press against the fatigue that crushed him, and felt himself yield to it. A lack of concern for himself had replaced his usual persona hours ago when he had prepared himself for death on the Copernicus. As far as things appeared, the inevitable was only delayed.

And if it meant never feeling the cordrazine again, he would be grateful for death. His first flashback. He didn't even know how he'd survived it. Hadn't wanted to. Why did he? Facing another spell of pure insanity was more than he could comprehend. Why hadn't his heart burst? Questions kept whirling, nonstop, piling upon each other and pulling against him like a tornado in his mind.

The black and white tile pattern on the floor suddenly opened up and collapsed into a black hole. Beyond this unquestionably riveting moment, he was aware that some kind of excitement was going on around him.

* * *

It took a lot of effort, but the floor tiles had become his definition of reality, and he finally managed to get them to fall back together in the ordinary checkerboard pattern. It was slow going. He had to start at the hand lying inches from his face and decide if the tile under it was black or white. That took a long time. Like a synaptically confused victim of bad mushrooms, he kept getting confused on what he was looking at.

When his concentration lagged, squares fell away from the edges, and he had to work ever harder to bring them back. Exhausted and hopeless, he was starting to think it would be best to give up the ghost.

No ... Joanna would not have to live with being the daughter of a raving lunatic. Disgrace enough he was an exile.

Audible checkerboard tiles floated around his ears, equally chaotic: conversation. Footfalls of low-soled Fabrini shoes. Military-style boots.

He wasn't all that curious about discerning what was going on. It was enough to know he was cold, soaked in his own sweat, others' blood, and less than a modicum of rationality.

Unfortunately, as his visual reality slowly strengthened, so did his audible reality. It added to his distraction, and made focusing all the harder.

" ... Ha'aff aliibii ken oraki ... "

" ... po'ri?"

"Bi ... yana ma'kari tomo-e goezin."

Wondering what the hell's wrong with me. If things weren't so pathetic, it'd be funny. Another spurt of Fabrini worked its way through his subdermal translator and the humor congealed. They found the shuttlecraft logs! He couldn't imagine how else they could know about the assassination attempt. But how'd they know to crack the Imperial codes? Was there another Imperial spy working for the Romulans?

Too many mysteries right now. Too many assaults against his mind. He didn't know if his monsters would return again, but he didn't want to stick around and find out the hard way. Closing his eyes against the bewildering flicker of firelight against the zebra-colored floor, he let everything go.

* * *

They'd dropped him back in the icy green field, or maybe this was just another hallucination. Or was it a memory that had finally caught up with him? He couldn't question his senses right now, not in *his* condition.

Bodies everywhere. The fine cold rain couldn't wash them clean any more than his uniform could empty out the maroon that had painted his shirt, dyed his sash crimson. Crimson. Command sashes should be that color; since one got their rank through killing another.

(Killing, killing, killing, killing ... )

His hands went to his temples, fingers digging deep wanting to pierce his skull but that manic strength was gone. What had ripped his co-workers apart had spared him, and now his life was in shreds.

Co-workers ... they had been about to kill him. Didn't make a difference though, did it? Piper had been about to kill him, only the faulty hypo hadn't worked quite the intended way. He didn't remember killing Piper at all, just the sight of the body when the curtain lifted. But this ... this he was remembering. The images were fuzzed and confused. He wasn't certain how genuine his reality was. But enough remained in his mind. Just barely enough ...

His strings cut loose, he folded up on the long wet grass that cut like razorwire into his legs and hands. Yeoman Barrs was just off to the edge of his eye, white as an ice floe, and as cold. The rain was silvering her skin, covering the red of her sleeve.

Who wanted a mad doctor? If aggression triggered the cordrazine, he'd surely never survive another ten minutes on the ship. They'd pack him to Ebla, where they threatened to send him all along, an "opportunity to learn" on the drug-study program. Permanent guest.

He wouldn't last more than a week before they cut his brain up beyond all recognition and held the slices up to the sunlight.

Slowly, the conclusion he'd been reaching for made its way through. The energy flux had rendered the phasers null, and probably the medical 'plasers, but there had to be something left in the shuttle. Something sharp. Sharp enough to cut open his throat. His daggers were gone, buried in various crewmembers. Someone else's? Had to find *something* before the fog came back.

He could feel the insanity tapping on his skull, wanting in, wanting in, like the Bronte ghost at the window *let me in! let me in!* He had to find a dagger. Something. Anything. It was coal-black in the shuttle, and he'd have to search with his hands.

His hand rested on the lip of the impact-bent shuttle, and that slight weight sent the overstressed metal to bow down. Rain, ice-cold from his overheated skin, tumbled down his head, sending blood-pinked water down his back.

* * *

Water, hot enough to burn, tumbled down his face, rinsing against the caked blood. The smells of live grass, scorched earth and metal and death were slapped away. Incongruous change to soap and burning firewood. His hand rested on the lip of the stone sink, trying to support himself. As if sanity could be physically conjured. Clink of a wrist-restraint against the stone.

* * *

Too dark to see anything, and the light was getting worse outside. He fell to his knees and went flat, trying to cover as much ground in the uneven craft as possible while his hands searched. A burn on his temple throbbed, revenge against the numbing of the rain.

* * *

The burning on his temple was dying from something cold. His head twisted, shocked at just how incredibly icy it was; like liquid nitrogen it gave off its own split-second burn. A hand was holding him still and he tried to claw it away.

* * *

Something soft. It gave like gelatin, millions of tiny air bubbles breaking under impact. A brain. A bone-shard raked his palm; he jerked away, and ridiculously, he thought of the dangers of infection in such an unsanitary cut. Humans were the filthiest species ... Matted blood and worse things were drying from his body heat, stiffening the fabric of his uniform.

* * *

His hand was forced palm-flat, that icy sensation going from his temple to the cut. He could hear someone talking to him, knew they were trying to get him to calm down, but he didn't know if it was a woman or a man, if they were lying or telling the truth. And actually, he didn't think it mattered. He might be sane for a while, but the monsters kept coming back.

This isn't like the last time. He thought it with an astonishing lucidity.

What isn't? he asked himself. Or was someone asking him?

Crazy. They didn't keep coming back.

Who didn't?

I can't stay here. I keep falling.

Do you know who I am?

I don't even understand that question.

* * *

The warped floor of the craft bowed up; pads off the broken seats scattered like clumsy pillows. His shoulder struck against one when he lost his balance and fell on his side. Coarse cold hair matted and sticky met his fingers. He pulled his hand away and his sleeve caught on something hard and narrow. Hollowhilt. But the blade was gone, cheap metal snapped away from an impact. He knelt down over the invisible body, hands searching among the cloth, trying to find a sash, a boot-knife ... a sleeve weapon ... something fell down from above in the blackness, smothering wet cloth reeking of blood and intestines ... he pushed frantically with his arms, knocking the body backwards. It swung from the exposed powercords, and the last of the blood and air escaped from the severed stump of a neck, hissing and gurgling ...

* * *

He was too confused. Memory was overriding the present.

Slowly, things sorted itself out. Very very slowly.

The blood-clammy uniform was gone. He couldn't see what he was wearing, just felt the weave of cloth against his skin. He somehow knew the air was supposed to be chilly, but after bathing in the memory of freezing rain, the stone room felt warm. And dry. The blanket thrown on top of him was dark green. Thank god, not the red that the Fabrini used so much. He didn't think he could stand that dark dried-blood shade. The hissing was coming from wood in the fireplace, sap burning and giving off a sugary-pine stench.

Natira finished pouring out a large pitcher (the gurgling sound had triggered the memory of the headless body). She turned around to find him motionless, lying quietly and quietly watching. There was no expression in his eyes at all, sort of a glazed lack of sensation that she recognized very well.

Taking this in, she took the chair against the low, cot-like bed and held up the slim glass. "Can you drink this?" A spark of alarm at the thought lit his eyes. Not trusting himself to speak, he shook his head mutely.

Thinking, Natira stepped away, her heavy skirt rustling past his ear. She returned a moment later with a clear fluid. "This is not wine." She said to his look of nausea. "It is water."

He thought about it, and shook his head again.

"Do you know where you are?" she tried.

She watched as he turned the question over. Finally, his lips parted. "Dar ... an ... "

"Yes," she almost whispered. "Daran. And you, Ma'koi, are extremely fortunate to be alive. If that is good fortune, or bad, I cannot say yet."

Force of habit made him try to rise. Sitting up went rather well, but he knew he couldn't go past that point for a while yet. A weak spell shook him and he closed his eyes, releasing his breath out.

At least, he frowned weakly at the dark brown cloth around his wrist, he wasn't wearing plaid. Just the thought of the vomitous Fabrini colors made his aching abdomen clench back up again.

Natira didn't speak for a long time. He was aware her eyes never left him while she paced. She was going to make this as raw as possible. Not surprising. The time had come to pay dues. He didn't know just how hard it had been for her to survive, but he knew she would match that difficulty, inch for inch, on him.

Pay the Piper. The unexpected pun ached; pay Piper, indeed. The man's actions still rippled after his death, and would probably still ripple until his intended victim died.

Behind him, Natira was sliding a drawer open; the sound of wood whispered, clicked shut, and she was walking around to the low table at his side. She set the object in her hand on the polished surface, and McCoy wondered if it was possible to have a heart attack on top of everything else. One Empire-issue Covert Operations File. Every starship had one. And this one had the familiar harpoon-sigil of the Enterprise on its top.

Natira's lips smiled so slightly, with bitterness. "Our allies have their own allies on your ship." She announced. "You have ... interesting co-workers, Ma'koi."

They were the first real words she had actually spoken to him. And he didn't know where she would take it. Privately, he was burning to know who would be friendly with the Romulans. The first guess would be Spock -- would have been, before the disastrous falling-out with the Flagship Commander ...

Unless that's what we were supposed to think. The first trickle of suspicion rested cold fingers on his neck.

Long lashes flicked downward, veiling dark brown-green eyes. "I spent many hours studying this," she said softly. "I wanted revenge against Kirk. I wanted to find some way, however small, to ease my hatred against him."

And me, he added silently.

"And you," she agreed.

She'd always seemed to know his thoughts, to look through him and read the inside. The resonation between them had been what made his actions all the harder, knowing the agony she was feeling, and forcing her to live through it when all she wanted was sweet death. No wonder she saw him as the ultimate betrayer.

Her long nails tapped the plastic, a harsh woodpecker sound that went through his skeleton. "You have had your first cordrazine recurrence, have you not?" She wasn't asking. She knew damn well what it was. "I watched you."

Watched me constantly. It was her eyes he'd felt in his delirium.

"Do you know you spoke in your fever?"

The question, leveled like a phaser, struck hard. He felt the edges of his view fuzz out to gray, then with a force of will remembered to breathe again.

"No." He finally remembered how to talk. It hurt. From his broken lip down to his throat.

"You spoke," she repeated in the short, crisp way Fabrini did. "I asked you questions. You answered them."

He wouldn't ask what he'd told her. There was no point. The Empire took a dim view of officers who cracked under pressure. Even an Admiral could be assassinated, or executed, for giving the enemy information.

I'm dead. I've BEEN dead since the flashback. Why can't they hurry up and make it official?

"You knew that we might meet again someday." Natira's greengold eyes were citrine and tiger's eye.

"I knew," he agreed. There had been no other possible route. His last vision of her on Yonada had been the determination on her face. An answering for what had happened.

"You made me live, Ma'koi." Her pale hand tightened on the plastic square. His eyes automatically slid to the motion, and she took it for avoidance.

The hand reached, gripped his chin and forced it up. "I wanted nothing more than to die, and I was going to die. But you made me live. You forced me to see that I could not be so selfish as to leave what was left of my poor people behind. You used words I could not argue against."

Her grip went hard, and the blow came. "So now our positions are reversed, and I see the same look in your eyes. Do you deny that the Empire owes the Fabrini?"

"No," he forced out. "I never did."

"Agreed. You wish for death, Ma'koi, but you will never find it. My decree on you, is that you will live."

What she feared and hated, was his own fear. And she was going to make him endure what he had made her do. He wasn't surprised. Just sick inside.

But he had to know something, and all this could wait. "Tell me something," he whispered.

Her gaze never wavered. "What?"

"You have the ship's logs. You saw what happened."

"Yes."

"Did I kill anyone?"

For the first time, a genuine emotion broke the ice of her calm. Astonishment. "You do not know?" she asked.

"I can't remember. I think I did. But cordrazine ... it lies." He couldn't describe the confusion any other way.

Her brown eyebrows tilted, meeting in a light frown. He wondered what the devil she had to debate about. Either he did kill, or he didn't.

"I will tell you," she said at last. "But now is not the time, Ma'koi. If you are still this confused ... " A shrug was her answer.

Finally, slowly, a smile that was completely without humor ghosted the side of his mouth. "Have it your way." She had her reasons for being deceptive. So be it. His life was no longer his, and he was in no position to demand.

Again, the green-gold eyes vivisected him. "You think you're permanently mad?"

"Probably." It was all he could conjecture at this point.

Her head cocked to one side. "You had more than the cordrazine to worry about." He didn't understand what she meant. "There are ... other factors. You'll learn of them when you're ... recovered."

"Oh." He wondered if it mattered. Maybe he cared only from habit. Didn't seem like he was really concerned about what happened. All he really knew, was he was tired, too tired to to anything but close his eyes and watch the nightmares that would come.

* * *

Chapel couldn't remember drinking this much beer while on ship before. And Nyota was determined to keep pouring it in.

"Will you hold on." She finally clunked her bottle down. Scott chortled in the background.

"Sorry." Nyota shrugged. "Anyway, where was I?"

"Halka." Scott reminded her.

"Oh, thanks, Monty. Halka."

"What about Halka?"

"Well, don't you think it's odd Mr. Spock persuaded the Empire to save them?"

Chapel mused over the question, and, enslaved to habit, actually took another drink. "Couldn't argue with his reasoning," she said at last. "I mean, why kill them all when we need slave labor to mine the crystals?"

"Aye, but no one ever thought about that before." Scott pointed out. "Most of the time, we just level the main cities or even th' whole planet."

"Not like we have to worry about Halkans rising up against the Flag." Nyota snorted. "You should have been down there, Christine. Pacifist is just not the word for them."

"They'd sooner die as a race than let one life be taken from their dilithium." Disgust painted a Scottish burr as the big man leaned over for another millet. "Can ye ken thot?"

"The whole race??" Christine was nonplused. "They'd let their own children and old people die for that?" The other two nodded seriously. "That's just weird," she said flatly. "And frankly, irresponsible! Leonard called people like that 'parasites'."

"Huh?" Uhura blinked with an alcoholic bleariness.

"Parasites. He said people who are too good to kill are too good to get their hands dirty. That makes them helpless, so they have to be taken care of. At least if they're mining crystals for us, they're not being useless." She shook her head in scorn. "Hmph. They should count themselves lucky. Think of what the Klingons would have done to them!"

"Or Orions."

"Oh, you know how it is. People look at their 'finer' contributions, like art, music, literature, poetry, as if that justifies the lack of a spine." Uhura snickered. "Does that make me a Philistine?"

"You? Just open your mouth and sing." Scott grinned at the tiny woman with open adoration. "Maybe I should leave," Christine said again.

"Och. What's yer hurry?"

No hurry, just don't want to interfere with a romance ... Christine shrugged sheepishly.

"Well, where was I?" Uhura wondered.

"Halka," the Engineer and CMO said together.

"Oh, yes. Halka. Anyway. I think it's good that they're sweating their highbrow lives away in those mines. People that don't fight, they're useless."

"Um," Christine agreed. Nyota wasn't going off tangent, as much as talking in circles. "Makes you wonder if any Halkans will start signing up for the military to get away from the mines."

"Hah. As highbrow as those prissies were? Honey, you weren't there!"

"Glad I wasn't, considering where the lot of you went before you got back."

"Honey, you weren't there," Nyota repeated. She poked Christine in the chest insignia. "Nobody lifted their voice, they all spoke one at a time, and we were under-evolved mud under their pansy sandals!"

"Pansy sandals?" Christine tried to picture it.

"Pansy sandals," Nyota repeated.

"If they're so evolved, you think anyone will join the military?"

"Hah. There's deviants in every society! I give 'em high odds that once they really understand what it's like to be like any of us -- fighting poverty, hunger and scrabbling for shelter -- they're gonna go back down the evo-looshunary scale and sign up for Fleet-sponsored food and supplies!"

"'Join the Empire. See the Galaxy,'" Scott quoted, ever so seriously. "Take a share in loot und kill lots of Klingons."

"I think we kill Klingons for free." Uhura frowned.

Christine opened her mouth to say ... something ... but her communicator chirped at the same time.

"Oops." She bent down and fumbled in her sash.

"Dr. Chapel. Are you indisposed?"

Chapel shivered at Spock's imperious baritone, and her audience respectfully shut up. "Not at all, sir."

"Your presence is required in Sickbay."

To the curious stares, she could only shrug.

* * *

Christine was just as surprised as anything to see Spock in the company of Marlena Moreau, and the little Latino was cradling a large red burn on her bare forearm.

"What seems to be the trouble?" she asked even as she pulled out the basikit.

"I burned my arm," Marlena grumbled. Her mouth was twisted up on one side, and she added with a growing smile, "It was the best way to get down here."

"We don't get many hypochondriacs." Chapel commented drily. "Masochists and sadists, yes ... but not many hypo's."

Spock had his hands clasped behind his back. His eyebrow had slipped up. "It was the simplest way to have a private meeting," he said simply.

Christine paused while leveling Marlena's arm out. The spray of sterilite poised over the burn. "Oh?"

Spock did not answer her directly. "Despite what happened to the Copernicus, we will still need to meet with the Romulans. The meeting place has been moved to the flagship herself."

Chapel went chilly inside. "That's ... interesting." She licked dry lips and applied the spray. Marlena watched with fascination as the solution's active enzymes devoured the layer of dead and damaged cells at record speed.

"As the new Chief Medical Officer, your presence is required."

Chapel's first thought was wholly absurd: Easy come, easy go! referring to her suddenly brief position as ship's doctor. Well, maybe they could get Dr. Chang up. She was a fair surgeon, after all...

"Who else will be attending?" She was proud of her neutral tone. Marlena looked up and cocked a wicked eyebrow, openly amused.

"For now, it will merely be myself and yourself." Spock was holding his calm quite well. Chapel wondered what was really going through his head. After what Commander Charvenek had promised to do to him ... or rather, to his nose, his ears, his thumbs and his beard ...

"I see," Chapel managed. "For this we need to have a private meeting?"

"The captain can't spy on anyone while he's on duty." Marlena smiled. "We're just making a few shortcuts."

"Ah." Christine was still in the dark, but figured things would come out eventually. She picked up the regen and misted a fine gel bandage over the arm. "Keep it dry for ten minutes," she advised.

"Is that all you have to say?" Marlena asked in amusement.

"Well, no. I've found a new nurse for the ship. But some strings may have to be pulled to bring her aboard."

"Why would that be, Commander?" Spock asked placidly.

"She's Leonard's daughter." Christine didn't give them time to blink from surprise. "She's just graduated, she's been an EMT since 14, and grossly overqualified to be planetside."

"If she's been an EMT that long, she can't possibly be squeamish," Marlena commented.

"Squeamish is not a word that would come to anyone that encounters Joanna McCoy." Christine took a deep breath. "I would like her on the staff."

"Do you foresee difficulties?" Spock leveled.

"One." Christine looked him dead in the eye. "She is unfortunately attractive." Leonard still thought -- had thought -- she was 'cute as a bug' -- but Christine knew it was a good thing the girl had all those black belts.

"Mmmmn." Marlena's smirk was not pleasant. "If you're worried about the captain's eye ..."

"I'm not asking for anyone to lie, but if there were rumors she had a protector that no one wanted to cross ... " Christine left it unsaid.

"I see." Spock folded his arms at the military at-rest. Christine might be going mad from the stress, but she could have sworn there was a glint of amusement in the dark eyes.

* * *

"What do you think?"

Marlena was always blunt. An appreciable trait. Spock did not answer at first. The hallway was momentarily crowded with saluting crewmen.

"The rest depends upon the captain," Spock replied slowly.

Marlena's expression was shrewd as she glanced up at him. "Still thinking, hmn? You Vulcans do that a lot."

"Compared to some, indeed." Spock did not rise to the limp bait. It was Marlena's turn to be quiet. "We'll see." It was not a promise, or a writ upon stone. For a moment, she looked tired and older than her real years. Spock did not envy her the burdens she was bearing. There had been a time when she had cared deeply for the captain. And that care had been reciprocated. But now was not the case, and Kirk was keeping her either from habit; or because she was too useful to transfer or kill. It was not a good thing to be tolerated in any way; loss of pride led to homicides.

Spock knew no matter what, he owed her a debt. She had stayed with Kirk longer than she would have of her own volition, to keep her own promise to him. She could have been the captain's woman on the ship of her choice months ago. But without her help, Spock would very likely be dead.

Marlena broke the silence by changing the subject. He'd known she would do that eventually. Humans were oft predictable in that matter.

"I'm just hoping the Commander doesn't make that necklace of your fingerbones."

"It is not a prospect that pleases me either, Lieutenant."

Marlena knew Vulcan irony. It was the only humor they admitted to. "Well. It could be worse. My great-grandfather's South Sea ancestors made pothooks from their enemies' digits."

"As you say," Spock agreed blandly. "And we shall see. Events are moving swiftly, Moreau. I advise caution, and a preparedness to move without hesitation."

Marlena snorted. "You'll never have to worry about that from me," she told him. "So long as I get what I want."

"We have discussed this." Spock agreed. It was also his way of dropping the subject.

* * *

Alone in her Sickbay -- her Sickbay. She was beginning to hate it. Christine sighed and toggled her comm.

"Uhura here."

"It's me." Christine hesitated. "How soon can you set up the band for Earth?"

"I can probably do that as soon as I set up my diag's on the Board when I get back on duty." Uhura yawned sleepily. "Stop it, Monty! You'll make me pass out!"

Christine smiled wryly. The secret to Uhura and Scott's relationship, she knew, was the fact that they had almost nothing departmentally in common.

Neither one would ever be jeopardized by the other. Talk about peace of mind ... "When are you going back on duty? I thought you were off?"

"I thought I was, too. But Angela called in sick. Don't worry. I gots ... lotta soberalls. Um. I'll be back on in an hour."

"You'd better add a stim on top of the soberalls."

"Thought they had stims."

"Not all of them."

"Well that's just wonderful!" Uhura revived a little from her major annoyance. "What do you recommend?"

"Coffee. Black. Lots of. All the sugar you can hold."

"Some doctor."

"Blame M'Benga." Christine was already tiring of the banter. "Look, I've got to go. Soon as you can set up the band, tell me."

* * *

Uhura was a hard worker on the ISS. One of the hardest; in that, she had everything in common with her Bridge-peers. Backstabbing might be so common that it was worth no more than mild surprise ... but if you gave your word, you'd best keep it. Otherwise, you'd find yourself without any friends. Quickly. Overnight. Friendless people equated walking dead ones.

So her first thought was: Chapel won't like this, when she saw the chaos running all over the Bridge. Obviously, it would be more than a simple matter of diagnostics to get out of the way. Maybe she'd have to stall on the bandrent until after she was officially off duty.

"Lieutenant." Kirk had swivelled in his high-backed chair, sparing her a cursory once-over. Salute still firmly affixed to her breast insignia, she bowed with her head and swung her arm outward like a wetship boom.

"Clean your board. I want all available channels on standby, full spectrum. No messages of personal or private nature to be sent out for the next 48 hours. Is that understood?"

"Aye, sir. Is this an official sound-black?"

"Consider it so." Kirk had been about to turn his back on her, but the doors opened, the guards stepped aside, and Scott was entering.

Duty called. He gave her no more than a stiff nod of acknowledgment, answered Kirk's quick burst of orders. She watched from her station as he stomped to his, a big man that moved lightly ... when he so chose. Maybe they could meet later ...

Uhura privately sighed for an opportunity lost as she fixed the transdator firmly into her ear, checking first for anything amiss. All you needed was to have an ear infection traded around the Communications Crew to make people really cranky.

Now was not the time to consider it, but she really did want to consider moving deeper with Montgomery. Sulu's attention waxed and waned, and she cared for neither phase. When he was interested in her, he just about drove her mad. When he wasn't, she felt the same because she kept obsessing on when he'd start paying attention to her again. Scotty was almost untouchable with Sulu's circle of power. If the Helmsman tried anything, he might learn very quickly that Scott already knew all there was to know about electronic revenge ...

Nice thoughts. It lifted the mood off her shoulders somewhat as she followed orders. She ran over the positronic crystals several times until she was satisfied at their warmup speed, and placed no less than four major channels, three hailing frequencies, and six scrambled/lessor beams on automatic standby. There. One touch of a toggle and she'd be saying the dreaded, "Hailing frequencies open, sir."

Sulu's deep voice murmured, out of Uhura's easy range of hearing in her forest of chirrups and bleeps.

"Onscreen, Lieutenant," Kirk snapped.

Uhura glanced up, ready for any order, as the main screen changed from its view of the Daran System Border, one Romulan Flagship, and the pale Daran Sun. In its place was the cramped-looking confines of the older-style Romulan Bridge. In the middle of it all and dominating the view was Commander Charvenek.

"Captain." Charvenek spoke with the heavy dry irony Vulcanoids were famous for. "To what do I owe the honor?"

"Simple duty, Commander." Kirk leaned back in his chair, one leg across. "Answering your requested hail and acknowledging there will be a further transfer of medical information."

One delicate, charcoal eyebrow went up. "I am surprised." The dry voice filtered across space and inflected perfectly. She was using her own knowledge of Imperial Standard, and not a translator.

"Surprised at what, Commander?"

"That you're willing to follow through with your word." Her smooth lips twitched, and Uhura had the distinct impression that Kirk was a source of amusement somehow. Not a good situation.

"Why wouldn't I, Commander?" Sharp edges knifed around each word the captain used. Uhura knew his light eyes were glinting like stones now.

"Oh, nothing much. Just that we couldn't help but notice that your CMO managed to get himself assassinated en route ... when he was the one we specifically requested."

Uhura's throat froze in the middle of what could have been a betraying gulp of surprise. Further down, she saw Spock's dark head, lifting from the viewer for the first time.

Kirk was smiling now, his voice warm with it. "I'm afraid I have little say in the little political games that my people enjoy."

"Obviously. It must be a dreadful burden to be you, Kirk. Not an honor I would take upon."

"With luck, you won't have to." Now the knives and smiles were side by side in his speech, and he'd leveled cities with such behavior. Uhura risked a quick look to Scott, who was perfectly staid and unmoving at his post. "When will you state the time of visit?"

Charvenek turned her head slightly; a soft gabble of consonants rippled in the background. After a moment, while Uhura nervously watched the ramrod straight Spock join Kirk's side, she returned her gaze.

"Our diplomats have safely ensconced in the palace. We are told your diplomats are there as well. Security is considered clear. You may send your shuttle over at your own discretion."

"No sense wasting time." Kirk smiled.

Charvenek's eyes slitted to obsidian, and in the shriveled second before she waved the connection off, her gaze sliced at Spock with murderously controlled heat.

Kirk chuckled to himself. "Romulans," he said to no one in particular.

"Course holding, sir." Sulu's voice was wary. Quiet. Anyone could tell things were tight and tense in their part of space. What was worse, Kirk seemed to know everything that was going on ... but he wasn't telling.

Spock looked down at his captain. "Sir?" he murmured softly. "When shall I send for the team?"

"Why, you can do it now, if you want." Kirk smiled. "Just yourself and Dr. Chapel, Commander. No one else."

Spock hesitated. "Storn is an excellant biochemist."

"He is also indispensable. Now that Life Sciences is on the verge of a, shall we say, power vacuum, I don't care to leave the ship without backups."

If that's so, why is he letting Spock go? Uhura blinked across the Bridge at Scott.

Storn worked part-time as one of Spock's bodyguards. Most officers were never refused at least one liegeman. Kirk had his reasons for being rude, but they weren't really standing up. For some reason, he wanted Spock alone and unprotected on the Flagship.

Scott met her eyes. His complete lack of expression said he was thinking the same thing ... and drawing the same conclusion.

* * *

Chapel had been on a Romulan enclave once, way back before a lot of borders had juggled around. She knew that despite the skimpy uniform, she'd be sweating herself silly, and then sniffing from arid sinusitis. She'd be sympathetic to Spock, only he would probably take the visit to the Nighteagle as a vacation.

Humph! Right! Vacation in hell! She rechecked her seat restraints; Spock glanced her way as he finished the program. Leaning back, she watched the shuttlebay doors open up, revealing a too-large Warbird, and a great deal of empty space.

Spock had something on his mind, all right. She wasn't about to ask what it was. As soon as make a horse drink as pry a Vulcan. Then again, you could always stick an IV in a horse.

She sighed. She wasn't a CMO. Not really, not at all. And here she was, pretending to be one. It would have to do until she either found her feet or became another casualty on the Food Chain of Rank. Talk about a possible possibility.

This is where Spock should be giving her any needed advice. And at this point, she'd be grateful for a "keep the curtain inside the shower" speech. But her Commanding Officer never said a word, just watched the warship grow larger in their viewscreen.

Vulcans, she thought wearily. If I wasn't so damned accountable for my own stupidity, I'd blame the Universe for this stupid crush!

* * *

Lt. Uhura had achieved her rank by a blend of strength and flexibility. And it was Montgomery's strange body language that was sending off the alarms in her mind, not Spock's absence, not Kirk's peculiar and smug silence.

The Chief Engineer was extremely busy at his stand-post, keeping his eye on the energy readings and waiting for any orders he might get as Acting First Officer. But the man was nervous. Twice she saw him flick a look to the turbolift doors, or to the two men posted on guard. She wasn't sure from where she was.

What the devil is going on? There's something he didn't tell me? Or something he didn't know about until just now? She wished she knew. She wished she could figure him out.

"Surprised she doesn't blow the shuttle out of space," Sulu commented wryly.

Kirk chuckled. "Maybe she will." He shrugged. "You know how it is with women."

Hmph. She did not appreciate that gibe, but she'd grown up with a lot worse in order to survive. Let chauvinists think what they wanted. It made it all the better when you stuck a knife in them.

And sometimes, she'd just love to knife Sulu.

"Romulan ship opening Docking Beam," Farrel reported from Navigation. "It looks like the Oort is boarding without mishap."

"I," Kirk murmured, "would be very surprised."

* * *

Charvenek hadn't changed one iota since their last infamous meeting (Well, Leonard called it "a real horn-locking"). The Commander was wearing quilted trousers under her kilt, the undress-warstyle that was now in her Fleet, but that was the only difference.

Her almond eyes swept up and down Christine appraisingly. "Dr. Chapel. Perhaps I should congratulate your promotion."

"I could live without the honor, Commander. But I thank you for your consideration."

Charvenek flicked an eyebrow up, then down. She nodded at Spock. "I just spent an interesting savam speaking to Kirk. The man gets ... more interesting ... every time I see him."

"I cannot disagree," Spock replied politely.

Christine had been expecting one or the other to pull out a weapon and start using it. And here she was in the middle. When no flashing, aiming or swiping resulted, her nerves began to prickle.

"Let us get out of the shuttlebay." Charvenek shook her head, sending her shoulder-length hair brushing against her face. "I find it too cold for my liking."

Cold? Christine was sweating. She prepared herself for a temporary tour of hell.

The Enterprise folk fell into step behind Charvenek, a phalanx of guards politely bringing up the rear. Christine tried to remind herself that phasers at her back were Romulan good manners, to ensure no one would assassinate one of their guests, but her skin prickled the entire way across the metal floor. Boots rang and echoed in the hanger; helmeted men and women stopped to bow as well as salute.

"I will not be amiss in my manners, Commander Spock." Charvenek stopped just after the doorway and waited for them to catch up. "Will your physician join mine and myself for a cup?"

Spock bowed, Romulan-style. "That would be appreciated, Commander."

Oh, my Lord. Christine hoped her reactions didn't show. Spock obviously hadn't thought himself transparent, but ... men in love..

Transparent as hell! She couldn't believe she hadn't seen it before.

"Allow me to lead you to our lounge, doctor." Charvenek bowed calmly. Now that Christine was on the alert, she found herself searching the olive face. She didn't see anything near the glimpse of heroine-worship that had flicked, firefly-swift, over Spock's face. But then, women were a lot better than men at dealing emotions.

"Thank you, Commander." She bowed back.

Leonard had once told her that 70% of medicine was in acting ability. If that were so, she should win a medal for this performance.

* * *

Sulu's glossy head shot up as a light came on his board. "Sir, my readings indicate a power surge on the Nighteagle."

"Increase scanning, Mr. Sulu. Hold your distance. Science Officer?"

Science Officer Pro Tem Giles was stuck as firmly in his viewer as Spock ever would be. "Increasing form of plasma flux, sir. It seems to be coming from the shuttlecraft area."

Scott had plugged his board into Giles'. "Sair! That appears tae be some kind of explosive weapon!"

Sulu went rigid; Kirk leaned back in his chair.

"Hold your position, Mr. Sulu."

Sulu twisted around, unbelieving. "Sir?"

"I gave you an order, Lieutenant."

"Sir," Sulu whispered through white lips. His hands shook over the controls.

"Sair, 'tis a bomb!" Scott blurted. For reasons Uhura could not see, he shot a panicked look past her to the turbolift, then back to Kirk.

No sound in space; it all came from everyone's board as sensors lit up. A thin trail of metal combustible wafted up from the rear of the Romulan Bird of Prey.

Spock! Uhura thought. Chapel! They were on board, had to still be in the area -- dead now!

Kirk! She spun in her chair; Kirk was looking up at the livid-faced Engineer strode towards him. He was smiling, waiting for Scott to do something--

Scotty, stop! Uhura screamed inside the privacy of her own mind. Her only understanding was that Montgomery was going to get himself killed, that Kirk had been ready for this, had some backup that would erase his Chief Engineer for trying to kill him.

Scott's big hand wrapped around his personal weapon, a skein dhu he carried in his boot. The short staghorn hilt gleamed like fresh ink in the red light of the Bridge. His face was grim, set, ready for Kirk.

And Kirk did nothing.

The instant before Scott struck, the captain's face changed from smug assurance to betrayed shock. Uhura's eyes widened in her own shock, but there was no time to react. Before Kirk could say anything, Commander Scott had coolly thrust his knife into the other man's heart.

Kirk was dead before he finished folding up on the floor, but Scott, methodical as always, never took a chance. He ripped the agonizer and dagger from Kirk's sash before they could be used, and stepped out of the line of the dying man's arms.

"Mr. Sulu," he barked. "You are now First Officer. I suggest you check our shields for maximum strength. The Warship may not be pleased at us at the moment."

Sulu was galvanized into action -- possibly at his new promotion more than anything. "Aye," he snapped, and slapped the shields up.

"Lt. Uhura." Scott sank heavily into the Command chair as if it burned him. "Open hailing frequencies on all channels. Respond to the first one they return."

"Aye, sir." Uhura moved by rote, her long minutes of preparation putting her in good stead. But her thoughts were still free to fly. Why didn't the guards at the door kill Scotty? She shot a look upwards.

And for the first time, she recognized the men. They worked for Spock, were loyal to him. And they were smiling the tight-lipped gallows smile of men who had followed their orders.

* * *

Dust filtered down from overhead; dust made of powdered metal and crystal lens and platine and capable of blinding the eye. Christine heard a man screaming in the wobbling darkness. The catwalk ground shrilly, her ears assaulted as woven metal fibers ground against others.

She was holding on to Charvenek's loose sleeve, and part of the ranking fringe. Good thing the fringe was a part of the uniform; she needed the leverage. Christine coughed with aching lungs in the thin atmosphere, in heavy gravity that took so much of her strength away, and prayed for someone to come. She didn't know how much longer she could hold on. And she didn't have the space in her lungs to scream for help.

And no help was coming.

The only coherent thought Christine was capable of, was the look on Spock's face if Charvenek died. It held her together, and she gritted her teeth to keep from screaming as the other woman's gravity-dense body slowly dislocated her arm. The Commander was infuriatingly limp and still; hysteria threatened the doctor's mind at the possibility she was dead.

But she couldn't let go.

* * *

She woke up to the Romulan version of Sickbay: green spectrum lights, yellow-tinged equipment. It gave Charvenek a sick olive complexion as she bent into Christine's view of the world.

"Are you able to respond?" the Commander asked politely. Christine stifled the urge to laugh. The trouble with Vulcanoids; they just didn't know how funny they could be.

"Who wants to know?"

Charvenek looked past Christine's head. "I think she's still non-competent."

Spock's bearded face joined the view, upside down and wearing a plastiskin bandage over his left eye. "Doctor?"

"Yes?" She took a deep breath. It didn't hurt. "What happened?"

"At this point, I can only conjecture the shuttlecraft was a bomb." Spock said dryly.

"That we only barely got rid of," Charvenek added in the same voice.

"Oh." Christine thought about that. "Now what?"

"Now what?"

"Did Kirk do this?"

"It is a safely conservative assumption."

"That ... that ... ohhhh." Thoughts of revenge were negated by the start of a headache. "Oh, I'll kill him later." She groaned. "Right now, I'm in too much pain."

"Is she serious?"

"Possibly, Commander. Humans have an unfathomable sense of humor."

"I'll show you unfathomable," Christine snarled through her teeth. Whatever they'd given her medically to kill the pain of her dislocated shoulder, was bubbling through her head like nitrous. "He killed my best friend. My best friend in the entire Galaxy. Now I'm stuck with a job I am not qualified for and I can't get 'holda Joanna to let her know about Leonard in person, my new pay raise is going to go into bribing my staff into not killing me on a regular basis, and my mother is going to ask me why can't I just make my way in the Universe the old fashioned way and marry some ambitiously wealthy moron. That's unfathomable, sir! Taken in that context, I'd like to know how un-absurd my situation is supposed to be!"

Spock listened to this with an oddly chastised expression. Christine had no idea her rant closely resembled those of Amanda Grayson's when Sarek was being overly Republican with her.

Charvenek was blinking. A smile flashed across her face and was quickly stilled. "Perhaps you should talk in private," she murmured.

Spock looked nervous at the thought. Charvenek chuckled and lifted her fingers up. After a moment, Spock returned the gesture, as awkwardly as a teenager giving a candy apple to a girl.

Then they were alone.

Spock cleared his throat. "Doctor, I am to understand you ... have feelings for me."

Christine was determined to spare his pride. "I have a lot of feelings for you, Mr. Spock. Right now I'm mostly amazed you haven't killed Kirk after all these years."

He cocked his head to one side. "Your thoughts were open when you saved Charvenek's life," he said flatly. "It is considerate of you to try to ... pad ... my sensibilities. But even a well-meaning deception will do us no good here."

"Oh." Chapel sighed. "Well. So what?"

"You do not understand. Charvenek saw your mind. It left ... quite an impression on her. She owes you her life, and feels you should have happiness."

Chapel felt the boil again. "I didn't save her life to get her gratitude. Or yours."

"Honestly." Charvenek had returned. "Spock, I'm sorry. Let me speak. You had best contact your ship and make sure Sulu isn't running amuck."

Spock sighed, the first show of exasperation Christine had ever seen. "I wish that were not possible."

"Well, it is. I'll explain everything."

Christine watched him go, feeling quite out of her depth.

"Men," Charvenek commented. "It doesn't matter what species, I've found. There's a gap in communication, and it begins when their XX chromosome loses the leg and becomes XY."

"Um." Christine cleared her throat.

Charvenek sighed. And smiled. To the human's surprise, she picked up the cool hand inside hers. "Don't worry," she assured her. "Now. Let's talk."

* * *

"Sir ... The Nighteagle is hailing us on a peaceful frequency." Uhura said it numbly. She wasn't sure she believed it herself.

"Onscreen, Uhura." Scott rested his hands on his legs and leaned forward.

Spock's familiar bearded face suddenly looked back at them. SubCommander Tal stood at his side, scowling as darkly as one so innocent-looking could.

"I take it you are well, Commander," Spock commented evenly.

"Aye, sair. Not in time tae stop th' captain. Was too late that I learned what he was up ta. I would like tae know how he managed ta' hide that wee giftie on yer ship."

"As would I. Military forensics should tell us much. Subcommander Tal's men have volunteered." Spock suddenly sighed, looking tired. His dark eyes rested on what he could see of the still body at Scott's feet. "A regrettable outcome, but when a lematya goes mad, the desert suffers."

The turbolift doors hissed open, and Marlena Moreau stepped out.

Uhura thought she'd been crying. Her face was swollen but her color was normal. Perhaps makeup was hiding her embarrassment. She never glanced to the floor where her lover was.

"Lt. Moreau." Spock bowed from his neck.

"Mr. Spock." Moreau bowed back. If Spock looked tired, she sounded it. "I should say, congratulations, Captain Spock."

"Not a reward I preferred. But necessary," he said softly. "Have you made your decision?"

Marlena took a deep breath. "You have started a chain of events, Captain," she announced heavily. "Perhaps I am just as safe in a rebel's ship, as I am anywhere else."

* * *

When the people were first placed on Yonada, they were moved under the earth to both let them forget, and to slowly accustom them to a very different planet. The rebels, the Clanless Ones, who fought against the Oracle, lived above the soil in the Forbidden Mountains, and eventually caused so much damage to the computer that controlled their lives in order to save them. Eventually the small band of malcontents died out, but their effects remained in a journey that was far too long in space, adrift from its true route.

Many thousands of years had passed since the Fabrini created a sun of rose-quartz and radiation. Daran V, the intended new home, had suffered climactic upheavels and a once-drier, warmer world was now wet and moderate. Deserts rested under the swelling oceans; low mountain ranges were now atolls and keys. Reefs grew coral over ancient beds of rock and the flora and fauna flourished to unimagined glory.

Natira liked Daran V when it was like this: magenta in the fading of the day, with infinite large snowflakes spinning down to cover the drifts of new snow. She liked the cool weather; most of them did. Beyond the sweep of rolling hills the dark green mountains held much of the planet's wealth: Ethnobotanicals, natural sources of some of the Galaxy's rarest and hardest-preserved flora. Even the fauna, if one considered the unique properties of the venom of several poisonous reptiles.

These natural riches, which compensated for the Daran's lack of valuable mineral or metal, ensured a degree of autonomy. No one would overharvest the wilds any more than they'd kill the goose that laid golden eggs. And none knew the plants better than the natives.

None knew the art of harvesting and preservation better. The Fabrini belonged here, and the Romulans were only the latest in a wave of invaders upon the planet who were willing to protect the people from another, and trade their resources. Natira felt it an added bonus that the Romulans, like the Orion, Rigellian, Klingon and Sigman races, found Daran V an intolerably frozen swamp. No one felt obligated to stay longer than they had to. There were a few Romulans on long-term stations here, it was true, but they were always in and out of Healer Fapala's clinic with endless rhinovirus, bronchial and pneumatic ailments. They liked the drugs of Daran V. They liked the rendered venoms and flavoring agents. But they never stayed if they had the choice.

And if the Romulans ever lost their hold on Daran ... whoever replaced them as "conqueror" would find no reason to change an efficient system. Natira always gave a mental shrug at this conclusion. History invariably proved the outcome.

She blinked fat snowflakes out of her long eyelashes, smiled that a veil of lace was beading her long hair. With a shake she flung herself free, and stepped across the roof of the Fabrini Capitol. Like everything else on Daran, it was cut of the dark blue-gray granite and stronger than steel.

She left the growing storm gratefully, wet white sweeping her wake as she hung up her long green coat. Inside it was warm and dry. Her people nodded hurriedly as they all passed each other in the stone halls. Time was often short for her people. The fact that things had been better for them under the Romulans had not gone unnoticed. This was why she had been so willing to treaty the Lost Fabrini Medical Lore with them. Odd how that had given them another kind of autonomy; it could take a hundred years before Yonada's memory was fully plumbed. And still the planet's riches would remain. She did not fear Romulan takeover in that regard. They truly did find this climate horrific.

If they were to remain independant throughout the following generations, they would have to develop their own medical technology, build their own facilities, operate their own healing guidelines. It was her idea to standardize the Fabrini medicine into a giant research library. But she needed (and was getting) adequate help from others.

And she had a scheduled meeting with one of those sources right now.

Healer Fapala glanced her way as she stepped before her small knot of bodyguards. His white hair was rose-tinted with the bending sunlight, the red and orange stripes of his family line showing up even stronger. "My Lady." He bowed.

"Fapala. How goes the progress?"

The old man pursed his lips. The bodyguards had politely made themselves invisible, but would materialize in a second. "We are not behind schedule," he said at last. Natira's initial smile at the announcemment faded at his sober look.

"Is that not good?" she wondered.

His dark brown eyes were a little hard, impatient the way he'd always been when she was small. "Before the massacre of our people, we never hid our feelings."

Natira felt her spine stiffen. "That is so." She agreed without actually conceding he was accusing her.

"I have worked hard today," he informed her with that wonderful blunt acidity the older ones had with the younger. "I will not be available to Stand Watch tonight. Someone should."

Now she knew what he was saying. Challenged, her jaw thrust out just slightly. "Then I will take your place, since there is a need."

"There is." He turned his frail back on her, and slowly stepped away.

* * *

McCoy looked up from dinner at her arrival. The calm disinterest he'd worn since waking up from the cordrazine had never left him. Irrational though it might be, Natira had an occasional urge to shake him by the shoulders just to see if he would react to it.

Such as now.

Not that he was as calm as his face indicated. As soon as he dropped into REM sleep, he would begin the predictable pattern of nightmares. The mild ones he simply slept through, tossing and turning the whole time. But it was more typical that he wake up screaming. It was too dangerous to leave him alone outside of a conscious state; someone was always on watch in case of an accident. And while she knew he hated it, he never complained, and never intended to. His silence was a rebellion.

He complied to her demands to the letter. Not one day of the month had passed without contributing to the computer transcriptions. His experience with the Galaxy's current grade of artifical intelligence left him more qualified than anyone else on the planet. He was even teaching Fapala better methods of adapting the Fabrini memory cubes into modern relays.

Natira suppressed the urge to say something imperious as he acknowledged her entrance without meeting her gaze. That was his other rebellion. She could make an issue of it, but knew it was a waste of time.

"There is news about your ship," she told him without preamble. "Kirk is dead, killed by Officer Scott."

McCoy looked a little surprised, in a detached kind of way. "Scott? Kirk must have pushed his engines too far."

Natira wasn't certain what that meant. "It would seem Kirk had enlisted his woman in a ... trap to kill Scott. When she failed to participate, it left Scott ample opportunity to place a dagger in Kirk's heart. Spock is now the captain."

The doctor's eyes flickered at that. "Better Spock than Sulu. And Marlena? Guess that answers that." The last was muttered, as if an old suspicion was now confirmed. She took the seat across the table from his, where Fapala or one of the healing assistants normally sat. Again, he managed to look at her without letting his eyes slip into hers.

"There is more." Natira poured a slim pitcher. "The Enterprise has entered an ... alliance with the Romulan Fleet. They are inviting any of your Empire's ships to join, and their intention is to overthrow the old regime."

A year ago, McCoy would have broken a rib for laughing at the notion of Spock as a Spartakus. But even surprise was something that took more energy than he usually had.

"You are not interested?" she asked, eyes calmly shrewd.

He met her look across the table. "You're not likely to know what I'm curious about."

"Such as?" She ruffled, ever so slightly.

"The new CMO."

"I heard it was a woman."

"A what?"

Natira was surprised to see him go completely white. She eyed him warily.

The implant against his temple would prevent him from berserking, but that was not a scene either would want. His left hand slowly released the water glass, and moved below the table where she couldn't see it shaking.

Christine? CMO? She was the only woman qualified. Was M'Benga dead? And if so, was Hollister? He could only hope so, but how had any of it happened? Christine didn't kill people. You had to push her hard before she took out the knife, and even then, she'd growl a warning first!

The pieces of a suddenly new puzzle whirled like the outside snow as he existed in a state of shock.

Calm down. Take a deep breath. He stuffed his astonishment under the nearest rug in his mind and began stamping on it.

"And you don't know who the woman is," he stated.

"No." Natira was still watching him closely. "I could find out."

"If you could," he managed. Because there was an equally good chance the CMO wasn't Christine -- maybe one of the women Dr. April kept training up. Christ, he was probably just mouthing the hook again. But he had to know.

Natira's face was settling into steadier lines. That knowing expression she had so often was back. And as usual, he did his best to ignore it.

It was hard knowing that he'd spilled his figurative guts while vulnerable from M'Benga's cocktail of drugs. He understood Natira well enough that she'd asked him everything she ever wanted to know that he could supply. And he couldn't remember a damn byte of it. He wouldn't be surprised if she knew him better than he did.

Okay, dinner endured. It was over with. With a great deal of relief he put the empties on the servant's board and resolutely stalked to the other side of the room. Fabrini didn't know how to make beds to keep you from falling off them, but if he stretched out very very still and didn't talk or open his eyes, maybe she'd go away.

Natira thought he had the air of someone who fully intended to be stabbed in his sleep as he pulled off his shoes and flopped back on top of the covers.

This was not going well.

The Heirophant sighed, feeling it hiss through her lungs. Fapala's earlier words were the harshest scolding she'd endured in years. Truth might burn, but it was worse when it fought free from burial. McCoy was laboring under misinformation. A great deal of it. And she'd done nothing but encourage that.

She searched for a way to begin. It was difficult. He was lying still as a corpse, concentrating on the sound of his own breath.

"McCoy." She'd finally learned his name properly. "Do you know how old I am?"

"No," he answered at last. Not a question one would expect at three hours before midnight.

"I am almost exactly your age." Natira listened to her heart beat a few times.

"You carry it better," he said dryly.

"Since infancy, I had been trained to serve my people to the best of my abilities, and do what I can to protect them."

Bitterness was leaking into every word. Just as a man will open his eyes and look if he feels his house is on fire, McCoy warily left his inner world for the outer one.

"I have never forgotten my duties as Priestess, Ma'koi." She flubbed his name again as her accent returned full force. "Never in all my life."

He didn't see why she was re-hashing obvious facts. "I believe you."

"When Kirk killed so many of us," she continued, riding roughshod over him, "I forgot everything I was sworn to do." Now Natira was talking through her teeth. Each word had to be pushed through the narrow gaps. "Everything. I imagined I had failed. I forgot my duties to those who survived the massacre. All I could think of was I should die. I should follow the ones I had failed in life."

Her large eyes glittered, tears from many motives. "And you made me live." She whispered hollowly. "You told me what my duties were. You reminded me of the charges I had carried my entire life, and had forgotten."

He didn't speak. He just stared at her trying to talk to him ... or flay him open; he wasn't sure which.

Incredibly, she looked away first. He still stared as she watched the wall on the other side of the room. Her jaw looked ready to break, it was out so far, and he'd never seen her this dark with emotion, even when she was trying to hold in her pride and bow her head to Kirk for allegiance.

"I don't hate you," she said at last. "I don't think I ever did. But ... you hurt my pride, Ma'koi. It is not easy for me to think I could so easily forget my duty."

McCoy didn't think the bloody massacre of harmless civilians was a simple issue, and leaders did a lot worse than flake out under lighter matters. He was smart enough not to say anything. When in doubt, stay put.

"You hurt my pride that I had to be told," she repeated again.

Natira was wanting him to respond to that. After a long moment in the growing darkness, he simply exhaled.

"What do you want me to say?" he asked.

She twisted back to look at him. Wary and confused and intense, he was probably looking the same way.

"You want blame ... or praise ... I can't give it to you. You're the leader of your people. You have no peers to judge you, and no computer-oracle to punish you."

Natira's gaze was incredulous upon his. He had no idea what'd he'd said or such a reaction. Color was beginning at the bottom of her bare throat, and spreading upward like a radiation burn.

"Ma'koi, that is not what I was meaning!"

Her teeth clicked shut loudly, making him wince. A moment later, she was stalking out of the room, her winter-weight skirts rustling after her.

McCoy pondered the fact that he was alone at night, for the first time since he'd slammed into Daran V, and wondered how long the blessed privacy would last.

Hah. He wearily closed his eyes. Somebody would come. Someone always came to keep an eye on him.

* * *

Clumsy with being woken quickly from her deep sleep, Natira fumbled for a light and her fingers found it by accident. She blinked painfully as the blue-shadowed room illuminated.

Her vision cleared. McCoy was sitting with his feet on the floor, head in his hands and wincing.

Someone should stand watch, Fapala had said, implying it should be herself. Natira felt ill. She'd no idea that the fits were still as bad as the night of the crash. Without thinking of it, she had just assumed the intensity would die away.

Her heart was still pounding from what had left her ears ringing.

As she stepped away from the wall, she thought to speak to him to bring him back to a more solid awareness. But he pushed himself upright, and staggered away.

* * *

Christ.

He was running through a mental list of every deity he could think of, partial blasphemy, partial distraction. Every god or goddess, every self proclaimed divine species his ship had ran into, every single damnblast one of those.

God.

Still shaking, he rinsed his mouth and spat out the remaining bile. Least he'd gotten to the sink tonight. Thank god for small favors. Or somebody.

Without looking up, he felt Natira's presence blocking the doorway, reinforcing the sensation of a box trap.

Taut as a drumskin, he shut the door between them. It felt as though he had an acre of sweat on his skin, and he listened for any trouble as he scrubbed it off. But she granted him his need for isolation.

* * *

Natira had plenty of time to do some thinking. Her mind worked as she kept above the kettle of hot water. Neither of them were going to get much sleep tonight. She glanced out the black window every so often and noted the snow that was still piling against the thick pane. A moisture-laden atmosphere broke up radiation. Planetary sensors would be confused tomorrow, possibly slow down the day's trading.

McCoy came out dry and clean. With the air of long practice, he pulled the quilted sheet off the bed and got a replacement.

She sighed and held out a thick clay mug of hot tea. "I do not know what this is," she said to his eyebrow. "Fapala said to try it."

He examined the steam and made a tiny shrug. Wide awake, he had no urge to stretch back out, and just wrapped the new quilt around his thin body and took a place by the low-burning fire.

It still surprised him that such an obvious heirophant would wait upon herself, but Natira added new logs with easy skill, and wordlessly took her own cup to her own place. Not far from him, but not too close.

"Was Kirk always like I knew him?"

Her reward was a tiredly surprised glance. "No," he said shortly.

"What was he like?"

"Different," McCoy said bluntly. "A lot less closed in. You could approach him. He ... inspired loyalty." Each word tasted bad, and came out hard. "He took care of his crew. He never risked the ship without reason."

Natira tried to imagine it. She found it impossible, and looked back at McCoy. Judging from his expression, she was trying to visualize the impossible. What Kirk had been, he had left that persona forever.

"Why did he change?"

McCoy didn't answer for a long time, just watched the fire. She wasn't used to being answered so slowly, and had to remind herself that this was McCoy's way when he was tired.

"We saw it happening." He picked up the thick mug and rested it against his chin, feeling the radiant heat. "It's not easy to be a captain. You can rise in power only so far before you have the choice of 'eat or be eaten.' Back in the old days, all he wanted was his ship. And he could have stayed the way he was, safe on the Enterprise."

McCoy took a long drink. "It started with Vega. An open rebellion. They give new captains tests like this. Make them show their teeth, and make sure they aren't vulnerable to ... the finer sensibilities. He wound up having to kill over 9,000 of them. Planetside, too. And while we were still in the system for cleanup, we get sent to Deneva. There was a colony infested with ... Lord, I don't know what you'd call them. They were a flying parasite, nearly mindless but they'd use the intelligence of the people whose bodies they took over--"

McCoy saw her face. "They're gone," he assured her flatly. "Very, very dead. We had to blast the entire colony to ash. Thousands of people were cremated alive. It was the only way to kill the things that ... that owned them. And Kirk's only surviving family had been on that colony."

"Oh," Natira said with great inadequacy.

"Then," McCoy added with a terrifying calm, "We find out much later that High Command had been overzealous in ordering us to exterminate the population. The things abhorred strong light. But ... we hadn't been given time to find out."

Natira swallowed dryly.

"So, exit one semi open minded, somewhat inquisitive and curious Starship captain. Enter one soul-damaged monster on a bend for self-destruction." McCoy finished the cup in a gulp but kept the warm clay in his grip. "And, incidentally, that's when he really started killing."

Natira swallowed, her throat papery.

"I noticed," McCoy added evenly, "that he never killed except from a distance. His enemies disappeared nice and neat after that ... no personal bloody quashings, nothing that would leave a body behind. His way of distancing himself from what he was doing, I figured. Yonada was started by his men, but even Spock couldn't ignore how he acted after it was done."

He was done with talking, done with remembering. He got to his feet and set the mug down, click, on the nearby table. "Good night," he said curtly. Oh, sure, maybe his abruptness was downright rude, but he couldn't bring himself to care about it. If she was really annoyed about it, she'd enact some kind of discipline.

But, Natira never said anything, not even to threaten. She never even looked at him. Time passed and he opened his eyes to a wary check, sensing himself on the verge of sleep. But the Priestess of the Oracle was still sitting in the chair by the fire, unmoving with the cup in her lap.

* * *

Chapel materialized with a pang of nervousness; an old fear about unfamiliar surroundings. As her vision readjusted she was startled by a looming chunk of marble or granite that made her think of the main entrance to Yonada. Square-like glyphs were cut, so lightly she didn't think they were very practical against the wear of time, to her shoulder-level. It was unlike any written record she'd ever encountered as her days in xenoarchaeology under Roger Korby.

No chance in hell I could translate that. I bet Spock could ... The thought made her lips tilt up, no longer wry, but warm.

Around her, Fabrini stepped lightly to their assigned tasks. Their clothing was muted somewhat; Spock had explained that each color symbolized a specific family in their bloodlines. An odd form of personal ID, she supposed. Rather like the Highlander tartan, only taken to extremes. She remembered Natira wore shades of green. An orphan, the Empire's file had revealed. Raised since birth to be an empathic oracle for the service of her race.

Spock had sent her down to Daran V in order to "oversee a small delivery of medical goods" that would be transferred to Charvenek's ship. His peculiar expression as he relayed her orders stayed with her mind as she followed verbal instructions to the Capitol Building. She almost believed he was ... worried about her.

Their relationship had grown much closer, in and out of professional aspects, but she had to trust he had a reason for not explaining why he wanted her to beam down for the ship's pickup. Anyone else would have done. She'd volunteered plenty of her staff but Spock had merely stroked his ever-lengthening beard and said:

"Perhaps you are the best choice for the task."

And that was that.

Whatever, she decided. She loved Spock. She even liked him, and that could be even harder to find in the Empire. So she just trusted that his oddball behavior would become clear on the planet.

A lightly armored guard stepped politely in her way and bowed from his neck. If he had angers against a member of the Enterprise, she saw no sign. Fabrini weren't like a lot of the humanoid species they resembled.

"Are you expecting me? I'm to pick up a box of medicines for the Nighteagle."

His ruddy face cleared under dark hair. "This way. You could get lost."

That she could well believe. She followed his colored back: dark and various shades of green and faint yellow on a black background. It was easier on her eyes than some of the schemes ...

Three floors deep into the building, and Chapel hoped she would get a guide out as well as in. Been in space too long ... I'm used to everything laid out in straight lines!

"Someone will guide you from here," the guard said obliquely, bowed his head in that odd little way again, and was gone before she could protest.

She looked around. Now what? Nothing looked helpful; this was some kind of library for Godzake. A few people were milling about here and there, reading or accessing the book-thin computer terminals, but no one was looking at her with an offer to help.

"Chris..?"

White-faced, Chris slowly turned around. She stared back at a face as pale as her own. Then grips locked tight, held even tighter.

* * *

"I thought you were dead," she finally said, dumbly. Most of the shock had eroded, and they were sitting in a private alcove. It was mostly a wide ledge against a window that overlooked the valley to the forested mountain.

A moment later, she instantly kicked herself for saying something so utterly, patently stupid.

Leonard laughed softly, reading her expression correctly. "I thought I was dead too ... for a while. You haven't changed." He lifted his dark eyebrows up in approval. "How does all that gold feel on your sleeve? Weighing you down?"

"Not likely, damn it." She glanced impulsively down at her wrists anyway. "Leonard ... how the hell did ... " Words failed her.

"Um." He blew out his breath and looked to the high beams of the ceiling.

"Truth to tell, Christine, I'm not sure how I survived. It wasn't from some higher power, I'm sure -- I'd like to think even the Squire of Gothos is smarter than that." He rubbed his right temple with a light frown. "Ah, to make a long story short, I came out of the cordrazine in the wreck of the shuttle."

"Did anyone else make it out?"

His face shut down, giving her the answer. "No," he said curtly.

She nodded, and did not ask. She resolved never to ask, unless he was willing to talk. "I take it the Fabrini found you."

"Oh, they found me all right. They'd instigated the crash of the Copernicus," McCoy said with shocking bluntness, and an even more shocking calm. "There was a rumor, you see, that Kirk was on the shuttle, not me. A screwup in Intelligence of Biblical Proportions." He waited for her to adjust to that bit of news before he went on: "I'm told it wasn't Natira who gave the actual order to have the ship brought down. She'd know Kirk wouldn't ever do something that risky. All I remember is after the crash, thinking that the 'power surge' had rendered all power tools useless." His mobile face halted after that sentence. "Funny. I don't remember the power surge itself, but I remember thinking about the power surge after the, uh, landing."

Chapel sensed he was not telling her everything, and she didn't know he was blocking the memory of his botched suicide. "A power surge? That's a pretty tricky weapon if it's true. The Enterprise detected nothing but the ship degrading its shallow orbit."

"Yeah. Nice technology. Scotty would love it. It uses the plasma in naturally prolific solar winds. One of the few defense systems they have here -- at least its not chemically fused weapons."

Chapel wiped at her upper lip, thinking hard. "How are you?" Leonard wasn't the only one with the gift for bluntness.

"How am I?"

"Natira didn't report your survival. We all thought you were dead."

"She told Spock just last night."

"So that explains it."

"What?"

"He was acting weird." Chapel scowled. "And you know what I mean. She could have reported you in a long time ago. Traded you for something she wanted."

An unreadable look filtered over his eyes. "She has what she wants."

"I don't understand." She didn't want to understand.

"Natira needed -- needs -- a transcriber for the Yonadan computers. Personal knowledge has gone down under the dictatorship of the computer. It's so bad, typical Fabrini healing is more like herbalism, folklore and moxibustion than it is surgery, diagnostics, and formulization. I owed her, and she decided how it would be paid." He got to his feet with a sigh. "C'mon. You need to see the clinic."

"You owed her?" Chapel followed him. "I can understand that, but how long will you be paying?" His silence said everything.

* * *

She tried again later after he showed the box of selected drugs the Enterprise would give to the Nighteagle. After one look at the list of contents, she was holding in on her envy. Some of these plant derivatives ...

"Leonard, are you going to be staying here?"

He hesitated and leaned forward over the large plastine box, using it as a table for his elbows. It wobbled slightly on its antigrav sled. "Spock didn't tell you everything, I guess."

"No, obviously. I only knew to come down here. I guess I was meant to see things for myself."

Leonard didn't answer her directly. "You did figure out that Spock and Charvenek's hatred was just a big setup to hide their true feelings."

Chapel snorted and rolled her eyes. "I figured it out the second I saw them standing together. Poor Spock. It was so ... obvious."

He chuckled lightly. "And you don't mind sharing him with the Commander."

"How did ..." She cleared her throat. "No. No, I don't. It was rather ... Charvenek's doing."

He blinked. "I'm surprised. She didn't seem the sharing type. Hum. It's because you saved her life, isn't it?"

"Why are you bothering with asking me anything? Your sources are better than mine!" Chapel snapped, her color heating her neck. It wasn't fair.

"Not that much better," he said with some of his familiar old deadpan teasing. "We just happen to be the Hub of the Galaxy down here, didn't you know? Do some shopping before you leave. The ale is cheaper than the fruit juice."

"No thanks. I'd like to live to see middle age." She took a deep breath. "Yes. Well. I can't explain the situation."

"Don't have to." He shook his head. "I just wanted to know if you were comfortable with it."

"What, you aren't going to ask me if I'm happy?"

"Happy is a nonpermanent state. Comfort is something you can rely on."

Well, he ought to know. And it was a good question. Chapel remembered back -- a hundred years ago -- when she'd occasionally permitted herself to fantasize about being Spock's woman. All those scenarios had accepted he would still be married to T'Pring. And now, T'Pring was divorced, and Charvenek had taken over. Christine considered Charvenek a vast improvement to the viper-silent Vulcan woman.

"We're all getting used to each other," she said at last. "Charvenek's hardly around, she has her own duties like Spock does. But there's no ... infringement of feeling, I guess you could say."

Concubines were common in all cultures; just under different names. Spock, being the product of a Vulcan Senator and a human concubine, would hardly neglect her life. She had no problems with not being the source of "direct inheritance" -- that honor came chained with responsibility and endurance.

She was glad to know that if she ever had any children, they would enjoy freedoms a "direct heir" would never know.

"It's comfortable," she said at last. "I had to think about it, and analyze your question, but I don't want to complain or change what is happening."

"Let's hope the Galaxy stays that way for a while." McCoy involuntarily glanced upward, invoking the Orbital Defense System.

She switched the subject quickly. "You never answered my question. Are you going to leave?"

Leonard sighed and looked at his nails. "Christine, as badly as the Fabrini wanted Kirk dead, they wanted me or Spock to re-introduce their medical technology to the Modern Age. We were the only computechs with the Fabrini Language program in our transponders. Natira made it ... clear that she was willing to do what it took to have that goal."

"I guess I can understand. Their knowledge is really the only weapon ... or bargaining tool ... they have."

"For now. They're working like you wouldn't believe, trying to get their other skills going. Their knowledge of metal and stone architecture rivals anything I've ever seen, and would contribute a lot to building settlements in geologically unstable, or radioactive colonies. But the memory banks are what everyone's desperate to have. They have cures for diseases that we thought were incurable. I still can't believe some of the things I've been finding, and there's something new every day."

Chapel listened between the words. "You're trying to make me feel better, aren't you? You said you or Spock. Spock is ... untouchable. He's now a Romulan ally, and the Romulans are in good with the Fabrini. You're not."

Again, he answered her with silence.

Chapel didn't like it, but she could see it. Spock might want Leonard back because of his undeniably higher skills and experience, but he could hardly turn down the woman who controlled all access to Fabrini Medicine. Nor, logistically, could he refuse the Fabrini a demand that was so vital ... and so easily satisfied.

And then he completely surprised her.

"I can't go back to space anyway." He was toying with a thread hanging off a brown sleeve. "I flashbacked, Christine. It's too dangerous."

Christine hadn't wanted to let him go, after recovering from the shock of finding him alive.

He misread her silence, as he often did -- Chapel was rarely predictable when she was internalizing. It was his first reflex to say something utterly absurd.

"Could probably get a paper out of myself. What do you think?" As he mouth dropped open, he grew even more straight-faced. "Sort of like a workstudy program, like Ebla II wanted to have with me, only I can do my own lobotomy. Rig up a few mirrors ..."

"Leonard McCoy, you are insane," Christine said slowly and clearly.

"S'ok." He grinned at her, and it actually reached his eyes -- but then, Len always did have a sense of the ridiculous. Probably because of what she'd said. Too late, she regretted calling him insane.

"I'm going to have to keep an eye on you," she said at last, after filtering through a lot of possible comebacks, none good.

"Sounds good. Now that you're honorary Romulans, they've got to be nice to y'all down here."

Chapel involuntarily snorted. "Well, Spock says we'll be stopping back over in a few months." She glanced down as she spoke, torn between the need to tell him Joanna would be on the staff by then, and the logic of not working him into a state. She compromised. "Do you want me to tell Joanna you're alive?"

He stopped. "Probably best not." He looked away. "She can finish school with my Burial Compensation."

Chapel had to fight the urge to tell him the truth. She knew it was a terrible risk to smuggle the girl across a suddenly chaotic Galaxy. What if she never made it to the Enterprise? For that reason, she locked her mouth down. And the fewer that knew, the better. For now.

"I understand." She licked her dry lips. "And I wish I could stay longer."

"Mmmn, maybe you'd better not." He let go of the box and put his back against the wall, folding his arms across his chest with that little half smile still on. "I hate goodbyes. Just say ... 'see you later.'"

"See you later ... then." Christine stepped around the crate and they hugged one last time.

Of course, he got the last word. He usually did: "Don't be too hard on Spock. That's Charvenek's job."

* * *

He jumped at a light touch. The nightmare broke apart, its pieces winging like flying glass. Natira was blocking the fire, her hair loose and red-tinted in the light.

"You were having a nightmare," she told him.

About 3,000,000 comebacks occurred to him, but none of them were mannerly -- or even all that intelligent. He pulled a deep breath in his lungs and gave in to the shivering.

Natira remained where she was on the side of the bed, hand still on his shoulder as if he needed it to stay conscious. "Can you remember these dreams?"

McCoy shook his head. "They're always gone when I wake up." Only the feeling of them remained, the panic and terror ... and underlying terrible tension.

Natira got up and returned just as quickly with another cup of the hot stuff Fapala had created. As far as sleep aids went, it wasn't effective -- but nothing was. It just helped his body relax. He was glad enough to get it.

Two weeks had passed since Natira had taken over the "Watch", and McCoy felt they were both under a truce. A shaky one. She was careful not to say anything inflammatory, and so was he. But that didn't make any of these long, involved nights any easier. He'd preferred it when Fapala, or anyone else, had been here. Nobody else could look inside him and see what was there like she could.

Natira was thinking back to the worst of the cordrazine spell, when he hadn't understood her questions, or known who she was. "I'm falling," he'd said once, blank-eyed, as his sanity had begun to drift away again. He didn't remember that either.

Later, he'd regained a measure of lucidity. Could answer questions -- any questions, so long as he could hold his attention on them. His mind had wanted to wander, go off on peculiar tangents that laid open his psyche bare for inspection. She hadn't liked that at all, because it had told her more about him than she wanted to know.

Natira had been comfortable with blaming the offworlders for her troubles. Kirk's death had been met with equal parts joy ... and disappointment. It was impossible not to remember Yonada without wanting personal revenge. In a way she felt denied. But the Galaxy was better off without a man who killed for the sake of killing.

As to McCoy ...

McCoy coughed one last time and let the empty cup go to the floor as he sank back. She watched him in silence, knowing why she did it, just not capable of telling him.

Gradually, his breathing evened out and his eyes were closed naturally. She watched his chest rise and fall in sleep. This was a bad night. It was his second spell, and she sensed another coming. Fabrini empathy could be very ... inconvenient ... at times.

After a while, she sighed and got up to find something to drink for herself. He should get what sleep he could, and she would have to make sure he didn't stay asleep long enough for the worst of the dreams. Kirk is dead, Natira reminded herself in strong language. No one else should pay for his crimes.

In so many ways, the Galaxy was inexplicable. Hard enough to believe murder, corruption and hatred was taken for granted. She missed the straightforward simplicity of Yonada. Even their minds had been controlled, but ... the Oracle had been programmed to protect them. Here they were in a very different world, a very different place. And her people had learned how to lie, and in lying, they hid their feelings.

Not good. Natira set her drink down and rubbed at the start of a headache. Not good. We held truth above all things on Yonada. And we didn't even know we were living in a lie of a world! Our innocence was lost and it will never return. But would the despair that drove them to reject the Old Ways keep driving them to deeper, more serious mistakes?

Behind her, McCoy was already beginning to move.

She took a deep breath of fragrant steam and sipped from the rim. We held truth dear once. And I do not know if we can do it again.

It helped, a bit, that there were some peoples that had irrefutable reputations for honor and honesty. Vulcans were onesuch. She understood that Sigmans and Capellans were the same way. It was important for her to see the Fabrini carry the same label. Because if they did, then they would stand all the stronger for it. They barely had a viable population as it was -- they needed every trick to survival as they could find without becoming mindless beasts ...

This was an old argument with herself. She had it every day. There was no simple solution, just hard work.

McCoy sucked his breath in, tensing. Natira moved quickly. Her free hand was cold to his skin and he jolted awake.

"I am sorry. You were dreaming again."

Dreaming again. He heard the hollow laugh escape his throat and finally ... finally ... he'd had it. He curled his body inward and put his back to her, trying to block her and the whole damn Universe out. It was enough if he couldn't see anybody else in the darkness. Loose hysteria was threatening his control and he was tired of fighting for something that didn't seem to want to stick around him anyway. Again. Dreaming again. Dreaming.

He heard her saying his name, dreadfully accented, in the shapeless void and then he was locking his face in his arms and letting everything go. His body wracked him and he couldn't stop it, just through the spasms as they came and went and came and went. Everything coalesced to the exhale, and the inhale that followed.

* * *

Natira silently worked his loose shirt open and began a bath against the ocean of sweat. There was no way of knowing how much time had passed; it was still just dark. And heavy.

He felt as though someone had beat him within a nanosecond of his life and then walked away from the scene. The protective numbness was broken through and every nerve was exposed and raw.

"That's the difference," He heard himself saying.

"What?" she whispered.

"Waking and dreaming. Reality and unreality. I can't call it sanity and insanity ... I don't know what that means anymore ..." That same hollow laugh escaped again. "Don't think I ever did."

"I don't know if anyone does." Natira told him cautiously. "Perhaps there are times when there is no doubt ... but ... not always."

He made a non-com noise to that, keeping his eyes closed. Light bothered him after the dark of sleep.

"How do you feel?" he heard Natira ask.

Unbelieving, he slowly opened his eyes. "That," McCoy said very carefully, "is one hell of a thing to ask."

"I'm wondering," she pointed out, not quite understanding his irony.

He sighed. "How do you think I feel? I guarantee, it's probably not that far from your best guess." He shook his head and reached for the washcloth. "Please."

She watched as he scrubbed the slick off his face and hands. He did it all with fatalistic distaste and finally got up to stand close to the fire. His back was knotted with tension all the way up the spine and across the shoulders, and he leaned one hand against the fireboard for support as he watched the flames. The shirt he finally peeled off his arm and tossed without looking into a corner.

"Fapala thinks you may not be forever stricken with the nightmares."

"I know what Fapala thinks."

"Do you believe him?"

"Nobody knows what's going to happen to me, Lady Oracle. Me included."

Natira chose her next words slowly. "Would you be better if you had less to do during the day?"

"No."

"Are you certain?"

"What d'you think is keeping me sane?"

"I do not know," she confessed frankly. "I'm afraid to ask you questions."

"You never were before."

Her face colored with its own heat and she moved to his side. "At the time, I thought I should."

"At the time?" he repeated. Just as quickly, he shrugged. "Oh, well."

"Ma'koi ..." Natira momentarily clenched her hands. "Will you turn around and face me?"

He very slowly obeyed. They were almost of a height, and his eyes were not far from hers.

Truth ...

She took a deep breath and decided that nothing was worth this silence. "I'm sorry." Her hand lifted to rest on his shoulder. She sensed the surprise under his skin. "I do not know what else to say. But I am sorry."

She waited, and he waited.

"I don't know what to say either," he reminded her. "I told you that weeks ago."

"Maybe you didn't have to say anything." She felt more confident now that there was actually a start. "I do not want us to be enemies."

"You think I did?" McCoy folded his arms across his chest, frowning. "I never wanted that. I didn't expect you to like me for what I did to you, but I never aimed for enmity."

She felt he'd given her an opening. "No, Ma'koi, you didn't expect me to like you, but you wanted to, did you not?"

Damn ... He looked back at the fire, but she was still talking:

"The entire time I was a prisoner on your ship, I saw Kirk only once. Spock twice. But I saw you every day."

"I had my orders," he reminded her sharply. They'd already been over this, over a year ago when she'd imperiously asked him why he had to watch her so much.

"Yes, you had your orders," Natira agreed. "Not that that ever meant much to you." When he said nothing she exhaled and took a risk: she pulled his chin back to face her. "Once my people never hid their feelings," she recalled. "What of you?"

"Once."

She had to stretch slightly, but she managed to touch his lips with hers.

He didn't try to stop her.

"Do you think we can learn again?"

"I don't know," he breathed. She knew what he was feeling above all: fear. Fear of reaching only to be hurt later for it.

"I do not know either. But I am tired of living in a lie."

She slipped her arms around his waist and slowly leaned her head above his heart. Inwardly, she felt relief. There was no knowing the future, and who knows, they could all be dead tomorrow. But there was no need to live in fear of what ifs. As before, he did not try to stop her. As she waited, she felt his large hands slowly, hesitantly, slide up to her shoulders and rest there.

* * *

Christine entered Spock's quarters to find a mess. For a long moment, she just gaped, taking in the atypical chaos.

Like most Vulcans, Spock preferred to contemplate under low lumen. The firepot beast gave off more light than the dim overhead, and its flickering shadows glittered off the disarray that covered most of the floor.

Pieces of alien equipment and tools that had to be personally designed for them were in what was probably a logical setup on the floor, but she couldn't see any of it.

She didn't move. She didn't want to step on anything.

Spock had looked up from the center-left of the minor junkyard. "Try not to step on anything," he advised.

"I wasn't about to." She searched for some place to clear. He was rising to give her a hand when she suddenly jumped to the left, and cleared a hand-spanner by inches.

"Is this ..." She took in a lopsided frame of a pale metal. The Tantalus Device. She shuddered. "I just saw Marlena off. She says you'd better take care."

Spock's eyebrow went up in puzzlement. "I've never understood that phrase among humans. I have never failed to act without forethought."

"It's indirect language, Spock," Christine explained patiently. She went to the wall and punched up a vegetable soup. "She wants to wish you well without embarrassing you."

"Then she should just say so. Vulcans are always direct."

"Oh?" Christine pointedly left that alone ... for now. A bowl came out, and she ran a quick toxiscan before setting it on the table. "At any rate, she has enough friends at Memory Alpha. Once she gets set up we should have easy access to their banks."

Spock nodded thoughtfully and carefully pin-welded two odd looking pieces of metal together.

"Have you learned anything useful from that?" she wondered.

"I am beginning to doubt this truly was a weapon of murder," he said slowly. "Marlena could tell me little of its origins, save it was from an alien scientist and a plundered laboratory." As Christine watched, another even less explicable part was joined to the first two.

Christine had to blink at that. Several times. "Well Kirk used it for murder. Isn't that the same thing?"

Spock considered that. "The same distinction, I suppose. But ..." He looked down at a large memory bar. "The programming I have not completely deciphered, yet the majority of what I can fathom appears to be equational formulae for dimensional breaches."

Christine chewed and swallowed. "You mean like the Tholians?"

"Exactly. Of all the races in the known Galaxy, they are well known for their ability to transverse the variant levels of existence. They have always claimed their ability for breaching was a species talent, confined to their unique space. Perhaps we were amiss when we believed them."

Chapel stopped eating. This was more interesting. "We don't really know much about them. Just what they've told us."

"Agreed. And they have told us their area of space is 'mutable.' That may be so. But surely that has given them the unique opportunity for study." Spock got to his feet in a smooth movement, tools still in his hands. In one long-legged stride he was out of the circle of parts and sitting on the edge of the bed, arms folded with a distinctly annoyed expression. At that moment, Christine had a very good idea of what he must have looked like as a small boy with a difficult problem.

"The Tholians are a psychologically rigid species," he said at last. "Every aspect of their existence appears to be in linear development. The Tantalus Device itself is not rigid. It is engineered among rounded, organic and soft lines, aesthetically the opposite of what we know as Tholian. I was a fool not to consider this before."

"Symbolism?" Chapel murmured. She was starting to catch on to what Spock was getting at. "If they're so rigid, they would want a pattern to recognize. So if you're right, the Tantalus Device would have to be of a nonlinear design, if its nature was nonlinear."

Spock's dark eyes gleamed with respect. "Exactly. Kirk used it to dispose of his enemies, but one can do so without killing. An enemy that can no longer reach you is an equitable solution."

"Marlena was pretty convinced this was a method of mayhem."

"True. But it was Kirk who plundered the laboratory. Not Marlena. Naturally he would tell her as much of the truth as suited him." Spock stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Of course, I cannot discount the possibility that the captain thought this device was anything more than an efficient killing machine. I suppose we will never know the truth of that."

"Well." Christine put her spoon down. "What do you think the thing was actually used for?"

"I believe it was a Gate."

"A Gate," she repeated.

"For interdimensional travel."

Neither woman nor man said anything else for a very long time.

"Spock?" Chapel cleared her throat.

"Yes?"

"Are you going to put it back together?"

"That is my intention, yes."

"And knowing you, you're trying to fix whatever's wrong with it while you're doing it."

"Of course."

Chapel couldn't take her eyes from the suddenly menacing jumble of metal.

"Can you promise me something?"

"If I can."

"If you put that thing together," she said very slowly and very clearly, "and something comes visiting ... don't answer it unless I'm here too."



THE END ... !

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