It was, perhaps, the most difficult assignment he had undertaken in his young life.
On his homeworld of Vulcan, Xon had been a respected teacher and scientist. His work was acclaimed all over the Federation, and his reputation had even begun to spread throughout the galaxy as well. But Xon was restless. He had always maintained an intense interest in space science and galactic exploration, and so he applied to, and was eagerly accepted by, Starfleet Academy.
Xon fell to his studies with a vengeance. His intellect was awesome; he was a genius by Vulcan standards, a fact which is all the more remarkable when one considers that even a Vulcan rated "dull-normal" on intelligence quotient gradients (assuming, of course, such a mythical individual even existed!) would have been more than an intellectual match for the likes of an Albert Einstein. This, coupled with the supernormal physical prowess of his Vulcan physique, enabled him to complete the grueling four-year course of studies in only eight standard months, while also securing the highest academic marks in the history of the Academy. Due to this unprecedented achievement, Xon bypassed the lower grade ranks and was commissioned as a full lieutenant upon graduation.
Since he was a graduate of the highest caliber, it seemed only natural that Xon was appointed Second Science Officer aboard the celebrated U.S.S. Enterprise, the crown jewel of Starfleet. He was both elated and dismayed at his assignment. He was gratified that Starfleet considered him competent enough to join the Enterprise crew, but he had hoped to serve aboard an all-Vulcan starship like the Kongo. For despite his all-encompassing knowledge and ability as a potential science officer, the young lieutenant was a miserable failure when it came to dealing with the Human Factor. The most difficult aspect of his training at the Academy involved working and interacting with Humans. They were perplexing, illogical creatures prone to blathering displays of emotion, behavior which Xon found shocking, and, at times, even revolting. He attempted to limit his contact with Humans as much as possible.
But when he learned that he would be serving on a vessel which was chiefly manned by Humans, Xon resigned himself to his fate and did the logical thing: he strove to learn as much about Human psychology and behavior as he could. He also studied their history and culture, and found to his amazement that Humans, despite their emotional foibles, were quite a fascinating, remarkable species. His respect for them grew, even though his understanding of them was still limited.
But Xon did not realize just how limited his understanding was until he boarded the Enterprise!
His studies only scratched the surface. Having no emotions himself, Xon could not begin to comprehend some the extremes of Human nature. He was continually surprised and shocked by what he saw, but he tried valiantly to control his reactions. It was less difficult for his immediate superior, the legendary Mister Spock. Spock, of course, possessed a Human half. He had also experienced a mind-link with the omnipotent V'ger being, and had come away with a better understanding of the dichotomy of his own hybrid dual nature. Xon sometimes played chess with Spock during off-duty hours, and had spent a good deal of time discussing the vagaries of the Human equation with the older Vulcan. Spock had been most helpful. There were, however, many facets of Human nature that Spock himself was only beginning to comprehend. As a result, Xon's queries sometimes came to a dead end. But his mentor made him realize that he would have to conquer his reaction to Human emotional displays if he wished to successfully fulfill his duties. Xon also knew that he would be forced to look inside himself and attempt to discover the emotions and feelings that Vulcan society had buried for millennia. He would have to try to become more "Human-like" in order to fully understand his Human co-workers and to do a good job.
It was a constant struggle, a difficult task, and one which Xon did not relish in the least. He slipped badly at times. His attempts at simulating Human emotions were often laughable and downright comical--much to the chagrin of a certain Mister Spock! And as hard as he tried to disguise his discomfort at the illogical goings-on he observed around him, Lieutenant Xon was not entirely successful. Many of the junior crewmembers picked up on this. They went out of their way to carry on a deliberately bizarre, inexplicable manner around Xon, thus compounding the young Vulcan's confusion.
And there was one aspect of Human behavior that puzzled him above all else. Xon often found himself the object of feminine scrutiny. Many times he would experience the uncomfortable impression of being watched. He would turn around and invariably find himself gazing into the appraising eyes of a female crewperson. It happened much too frequently to be mere coincidence. Xon also found that many of these same young women had an irritating penchant for creating situations that placed them in close physical proximity to him.
All this unwanted attention was totally bewildering to the young Vulcan. He thought of talking to Spock about the phenomenon, then realized that the first officer was probably no better equipped to understand the situation than he was.
There was one man aboard the Enterprise who might be able to shed some light on the problem. He above all others understood the eccentricities of the Human mind, most likely because he himself was one of the most eccentric individuals aboard the vessel.
Thus it was that Lieutenant Xon now found himself reluctantly approaching the office of one Doctor Leonard McCoy.
He was dreading this meeting. He maintained a sort of feuding, 'friendly adversary' relationship with McCoy, much like the one between the physician and Spock. Leonard McCoy seemed to enjoy poking and probing at the imperturbable exteriors of the two Vulcans, hoping to hit the nerve he felt lay just underneath. He considered the young lieutenant to be a special challenge because he felt Spock had "mellowed-out" since his V'ger encounter. Despite the doctor's irascible and often illogical nature, Spock grudgingly admitted to Xon that McCoy was an astute observer of Human nature--and that he, Spock, would deny ever having said any such thing if confronted!
Xon hesitated momentarily outside the double-pocket Sickbay doors, preparing himself for the torrent of sarcasm he would likely encounter. McCoy was shuffling through a stack of medical reports when the young Vulcan entered his office.
"Doctor McCoy, might I have a word with you?"
"Sure, come on in and sit down, Lieutenant," the physician replied, gesturing to a lounger facing his desk. "You sick? You do look a little green around the gills...oh, excuse me, I forgot; that's your natural pallor!"
Xon ignored the barb. He fidgeted in the chair. "I require your advice on a matter of Human behavior that is causing me some distress."
"It must be some kind of problem, since just about everything we illogical Humans do seems to disturb your and Spock's senses of propriety."
"It is not a matter I find easy to discuss, Doctor."
Something in the tone of Xon's voice gave McCoy pause. Whatever the matter was, it was really sticking in the young lieutenant's craw. The physician's features softened.
"Why don't you tell me about it, son? And I promise, no more wisecracks--at least for now!"
Xon's expression was grateful. He cleared his throat and haltingly explained his situation to the physician.
McCoy listened intently. Finally, when the Vulcan had finished, the chief surgeon leaned back in his lounger, his bright blue eyes twinkling merrily.
"You know, Lieutenant, there's not one healthy Human male on this ship who wouldn't give his right arm to be in your situation. They'd enjoy it immensely."
"I fail to understand why," Xon returned stiffly. "I find this frequent pursuit by Human females to be an annoying distraction. Why do they persist in such illogical behavior?"
McCoy chuckled. "I've been through this a hundred times, with Spock, with Jim Kirk, with God-knows-how-many jealous crewmen who can't understand why their girlfriends would rather go off chasing Vulcans. It's sort of a throwback to this 'knight in shining armor' thing. You're just too good to be true, Xon. You're stronger and more intelligent than a Human male. You're handsome, brave, honest, sincere, to the point of ridiculousness. You, and Spock for that matter, are probably the closest thing to perfect most of these young ladies have ever seen."
"But do they fail to see the illogic of such feelings? A Vulcan male cannot respond satisfactorily to these overtures. All male/female relationships are based on logic, and have almost nothing to do with romantic love or emotion. As for, uh, sexual activity...." Xon paused, seemingly embarrassed.
"I know a little about the seven-year pon farr cycle," a grinning McCoy said in a classic example of understatement. "Something about your so-called non-emotion intrigues most women, Xon. It's a challenge to them. They feel that there really are feelings under that stoic facade, that you're just suppressing them, and that they are woman enough to draw them out of you."
"I am a Vulcan!" Xon snapped a bit too hastily. "I have no emotions."
"Maybe you didn't before you came here, but can you honestly say you don't now...not even a little bit? It's been my experience that exposure to Humans over a period of time often causes a Vulcan to begin to feel some emotions himself. Call it a sort of contamination if you want, but it seems to happen. Doesn't it?"
Xon glanced nervously away. "I endeavor not to display such flashes of weakness whenever they infrequently occur," he answered, almost inaudibly.
"It's not a weakness, Lieutenant," McCoy said softly. "At least, it shouldn't be. But can you see now why you get so much attention from the distaff side?"
"Not entirely, Doctor, although I am somewhat less confused than before." Xon stood up. "I appreciate your time and trouble in this matter."
"Don't mention it," McCoy returned. "And try not to let it get you down."
He watched the young Vulcan exit Sickbay before returning his attention to the sheaf of reports on his desk. He shook his head in bewilderment.
"Half a shipload of little cuties chasing after him, and he calls it an 'annoying distraction'!" the physician muttered. "That boy's got a lot to learn."
It was about 1800 hours shiptime later that same day when one of Xon's annoying distractions strolled into the mess hall for the dinner hour. Ensign Lisa Templar, exobiology division, a pert, blue-eyed blonde, had attended some classes at the Academy with Xon, and had been assigned to the Enterprise a few months after he had. Being in the Sciences section had its advantages; she often got the opportunity to work with Xon. She despised those women who threw themselves at men, for despite the liberated climate of relationships between the sexes in the Twenty-third century, there were still a few females who behaved in such a blatantly predatory manner--just as, unfortunately, there were still more than a few men who harbored a chauvinistic attitude toward the opposite sex.
Templar was impressed by the strength and quiet dignity of the second science officer. He possessed a charming naiveté concerning Human relationships, despite having diligently studied all he could about Terran behavioral sciences. She loved to watch him attempt to imitate Human emotional responses, more often than not with little success. It pained her when some of the crewmembers went out of their way to befuddle the young Vulcan. He was trying very hard to come to grips with something he knew and understood almost nothing about. It was awkward for him. He continually announced to all who would listen that his displays should not be mistaken for true emotion; he was a Vulcan, incapable of such feelings. He acted as he did only to facilitate his interactions with Human personnel. It was, after all, the logical thing to do.
As in most cases of "fascination," Lisa Templar felt a strong physical attraction to Xon as well. He had the lean, supple, athlete's physique that seemed inherent in his race, and he was handsome by any standards, Terran or Vulcan. And there was an unmistakable, almost magnetic aura of latent sexuality about him. It seemed buried just beneath the surface, requiring only the appropriate stimulus to release it. Templar possessed a healthy, open attitude, seeking out men she thought to be attractive. She often found herself fantasizing about Xon, wondering what it would be like to make love to him. Templar sometimes mentally chided herself for such behavior, but she enjoyed it nonetheless.
She had just pulled up a chair at an unoccupied table when she noticed her friend, Ensign Carla Baker from Engineering, approaching. Templar motioned for the trim brunette to join her.
"Carla! Glad to see you could get up from Engineering for a while."
"Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord!" Baker chuckled. "I was lucky enough to get put on standby for a while. This Cetus Void probe has the department at full muster. You know how it is when we probe unexplored territory; always expect the unexpected. The captain wants us to be able to go from sublight to Warp Twelve at the drop of a hat if need be, and Mister Scott makes certain that we can!"
Templar laughed. "I'll bet it keeps you hopping! Biology hasn't been busy at all, because so far the Cetus Void has been living up to its name--it's totally empty. There's nothing out there, almost no stars, and no unexplored planets."
"So what have you been doing all this time?" Baker queried, picking the green peppers from her salad with her fork.
"We've been collating some material on Klingon physiology," Templar returned. "A K't'ingabattlecruiser blew up in the fringe territory near the Organian Treaty Zone. Whether the Klingons were there by accident or design, we don't know. At any rate, a rescue ship found some intact, perfectly preserved specimens of Kh'myr warriors. Starfleet offered to have the bodies shipped home, but the Klingon High Command said, no, if they were in Federation territory, they were obviously outlaws and could rot for all they cared."
"They wouldn't take 'em back?"
"No." Templar chuckled. "Surgeon General's office did post-mortems on them, so now we've got a wealth of information on their physiology." Her eyes shone with wonder. "God, Carla, the Kh'myr are absolutely perfect biological machines! They're the highest example of bioengineering the galaxy has ever seen, and if they could find a way to defeat the natural aging process, they'd be all but immortal!"
Her friend shuddered. "They give me the creeps! Those eyes--like glowing red coals, so flat and dead! They look so soulless!"
"You should develop more tolerance for diverse lifeforms, Carla!" Templar chuckled.
"Speaking of diverse lifeforms, isn't that your heartthrob over there?"
Templar followed her pointing finger. Xon had just entered the dining area. He selected a tray and programmed the dispenser for a vegetarian meal.
"Maybe you'll get lucky and be with him when he goes into pon farr!" Baker needled.
Templar blushed. "C'mon, Carla, lay off!! Besides, you know how sharp Vulcan ears are--he might hear you!"
"Now that would embarrass you, wouldn't it?" her friend asked. "By the way, I've never asked you--what does Tony think of all this?"
"Tony?" Templar's eyes narrowed. Ensign Tony Lamarre of Security was a sore spot with her right now. "What Tony thinks really doesn't matter, Carla. I've gone out with him several times, but that doesn't mean he owns me. We're not seeing each other just now. Even if we were, it wouldn't make any difference. I don't belong to anybody, and I prefer it that way! It gives me the freedom to meet whomever I want, whenever I want."
"Whew! Sorry 'bout that!" Baker apologized. "I didn't mean to open a can of worms!"
Templar grinned sheepishly. "It's okay. It's just that I resent it when somebody tries to tie me down. I mean, I just turned twenty-two. I'm not ready to settle down, don't know if I ever will be. Besides, I wantmy career!"
They continued to eat in silence then as Xon came to sit at the table across from them. The Vulcan's back was to them. Templar sat watching him, trying not to look as though she was staring. She watched--and wondered.
In order to insulate their quasi-telepathic minds from the confusion of the jumbled thought patterns of those around them, Vulcans constantly maintained a sort of mental defensive screen--particularly when surrounded by Humans. However, this requires a great expenditure of energy, and on this particular day, Xon had been extremely busy. So perhaps he could be excused for relaxing a bit and dropping his guard.
He was just a few moments into his meal when he realized to his horror that he had slipped.
An image intruded into his consciousness with crystal clarity, as sharp and clear as if he were actually seeing it with his eyes. It was a fantasy vision; the Vulcan saw himself naked, sitting on the edge of a bed. Ensign Lisa Templar was there also, and she, too, was naked. She knelt before him, energetically initiating an aggressive, voracious orogenital contact upon the appropriate member of his Vulcan anatomy--which was responding magnificently. Her head bobbed up and down vigorously as she bent to her pleasurable task.
Xon shot up from his chair, appalled, his tray overturning with a clatter. His face was pale as a sheet; then it began to suffuse with bright green as the blush spread all the way to the tips of his ears. He turned, trembling, to confront Lisa Templar, his mental screens forcibly locked in place.
Templar started visibly at his reaction. As Xon wheeled around, she realized that he knew, and she felt as if she would faint. It seemed as though all eyes in the mess hall were fixed upon her and the Vulcan.
He strode over and stood before her, his face set like granite.
"Ensign Templar," he intoned icily, "you have a somewhat exaggerated sense of proportion."
And then, without another word, he turned on his heel and stalked stiffly from the room.
"Wow!" Carla Baker exclaimed. "That must have been one hell of a daydream! What were you thinking about?"
"Never mind!" Templar's face had taken on the hue of an overripe tomato. "I forgot about Vulcan mental sensitivity. I'll definitely have to be more careful from now on!"
"I'll say!" her friend snickered. "He jumped from that chair like he'd just been goosed by an antimatter damping rod!"
"Carla!" Templar growled warningly. "Can it, will you? I'm so embarrassed that I don't know how I'll ever face him again!" She stood up. "I'm not hungry any more. I've got to go!"
Templar fled to the safety of the outer corridor, away from the curious questioning stares of the nearby diners. Baker's eyes quizzically followed her friend's somewhat hurried exit. A bemused grin lit her face.
"I'd give anything to know what she was thinking!" she murmured aloud.
Then, with an off-handed shrug, she returned to her half-hearted attack on her chef's salad.
Several days passed before Lisa Templar again encountered Lieutenant Xon.
She was alone in the biochemistry lab, running a series of endocrine scan samples of Kh'myr Klingons through a biomed computer when the young Vulcan entered. Templar gasped aloud when she saw him, and Xon visibly stiffened. He cleared his throat perfunctorily.
"Excuse me, Ensign. I was unaware that this terminal was in use. I can return later."
Xon turned to leave, but Templar brought him up short.
"No, wait, sir. I'd like to talk to you. Please?"
He hesitated, raising his right eyebrow. "If you wish, Ensign," he intoned. His expression was blank and unreadable, but somehow Lisa Templar screwed up the courage to press on.
I'm--I'm sorry for the other day when I...when I..." She drew a deep breath. "Just how much did you, uh, perceive?"
"Your thought impressions were quite clear, Ensign--not to mention extremely graphic and explicit."
"Oh, my God!" Templar closed her eyes, shuddering. "I meant no harm. It's just that I--"
"There is no need for you to apologize," Xon cut in. "Fantasy is a natural function of the Human mind, and according to some studies I have read, it is quite normal and healthy--if not carried to extremes. To some extent, it is involuntary behavior; therefore you cannot hold yourself responsible for it. I would, however, question the logic of harboring such notions about it. As I am a Vulcan, you must know that I am not...."
Templar held up her hand. "Whoa, that's enough. I know just what you're going to say about Vulcan non-emotion and the whole gamut. To be honest with you, I'm not sure I understand it all." She sat down in the console chair again, facing him, and she exhaled deeply before continuing. "And just as I'm sure I don't understand Vulcan non-emotion, you don't understand Human emotions, even though you try so hard. You can't derive a 'Human equation' from our emotions, Lieutenant Xon. There's nothing logical or symmetrical about them. They can give us indescribable joy, or they can be a curse. We don't even fully understand them. We can't control them, that's for sure."
She paused, gazing at him searchingly, and her tone softened. "And love is the worst of all. When we don't have it, we're miserable. Then when we do fall in love, more often than not we're worse off than before. Love is the least logical of all Human feelings, Xon. We can love someone even when we know he or she can't love us back, even when we know that loving that person is wrong for us, or even harmful to us."
Her voice caught then, and Xon noticed that her bright blue eyes were moist with tears. "I can give you a thousand reasons why I should have no feelings for you, and I'm sure you can give me a thousand of your own," Templar continued. "It makes no sense, and it's certainly not logical, but, damn it, I...I think I love you, Xon. And I can't even explain why."
The young Vulcan was flustered; he found that he could not speak. He started to reach out to her, but his hand dropped uselessly at his side.
"I'm sorry," he murmured finally. "You must understand; no matter how much you may wish it, I cannot change my nature."
"And I can't change mine," Templar sniffed. "God, I hate this! I am supposedly a mature woman, and here I am, chasing after a man like a lovesick puppy."
"Ensign Templar," Xon said haltingly, "believe me, I do not wish to cause you distress. If there was some way I could understand or help you...."
"There isn't," the young woman whispered. "You can't help. You can't understand...not even something like this."
She stood up abruptly and kissed the startled Vulcan full on the lips. Xon pulled away, pressing his fingertips to his mouth, a shocked expression on his handsome hawklike features.
"See?" she asked miserably. "You didn't feel a thing--except disgust, maybe." She choked off a sob, turning away from him. Look, Lieutenant, I apologize for any discomfort you've suffered on my behalf. It's my problem, and I'll just have to deal with it."
"You have caused me no undue stress," Xon affirmed, his tone placating. "But I do not understand. You are physically attractive by Terran standards. You are also highly intelligent and a fine officer. Surely there are any number of men who would be quite pleased to have you as a companion."
Lisa Templar smiled sadly. "Oh sure, there are other men, but it has to go both ways. Now, if you don't mind, I'm not exactly rational right now, and I do have to finish running this program."
She returned her attention to her computer bay. Xon stood by watching her for a few moments. He seemed to want to say something more, but when he saw that Templar was fully immersed in her work, he turned and left the lab.
As he exited, Xon was passed by a dark, swarthy young man in a security duty uniform who was on his way into the lab. Ensign Tony Lamarre's handsome face registered suspicion and distrust. He glared at the young Vulcan who took no notice of him.
Lamarre harbored an active dislike for Xon. The ensign was, to put it mildly, extremely fond of young Lisa Templar, and he considered the second science officer to be a definite threat to his happiness. He knew Templar had been smitten by Xon. It was a shame; she'd been acting strangely ever since, and had called a halt to what Lamarre considered a budding relationship. If only he could convince her she was wasting her time pursuing the Vulcan.
He turned away from the door, smiling softly as he saw Templar at her console, absorbed in her work. He silently crept up behind her, suddenly clamping his hands over her eyes. "Guess who?"
Her reaction was somewhat stronger than he expected.
Templar yelped, startled. She tumbled from her chair, then scrambled to her feet, furious. "Tony, you asshole!" she spat. "You almost gave me a cardiac arrest!"
"Jeez, calm down. It was all in fun."
"Well, as usual, your timing is atrocious. What do you want?"
Her eyes glittered angrily as the aftershock of adrenaline swept through her nervous system, and Lamarre frowned when he saw her tear-streaked, swollen face.
"That Vulcan was just here--did he cause this?"
"No, he did not, and it's none of your business anyway!" she snapped. "Now, I'll ask you again, what do you want?"
Lamarre was taken aback by her venomous demeanor, and a hurt expression settled over his features. "I just wanted...I thought we could talk, you know, about us."
"There's nothing to talk about," Templar returned levelly. "I'm sorry, Tony, but I just don't think we can make it together. We're not right for each other."
"I don't want to hear this!" An anguished note crept into his voice. "Please don't say that! I think we could get it sorted out, Lisa. Please--I want you for my girl."
"Your girl?" Lisa repeated sourly. "Jesus, Tony, do you realize how that sounds? Your girl--like I'm something to add to your official roster of personal belongings in the quartermaster's computer bank, right up there with your comb and toothbrush."
"I didn't mean it to sound like that."
"Oh, but you did!" she exclaimed. "That's one of the problems, Tony--you're too possessive. I would've liked a casual relationship, where we could get together occasionally and still be free to play the field. But not you. You wanted exclusive rights. I just don't want to be tied down!"
"But you'll chase after Xon, won't you?" he retorted acidly. "You'd have better luck getting a response from a rock."
"That's another thing!" Templar was shouting now, her face red with rage. "That's all the hell you think about! You remind me of some of those guys back at the Academy! After they got a girl in the sack, they keep her panties as a souvenir of their big score! Well, that doesn't cut it with me--there's got to be more to a relationship than just sex!"
"you mean you didn't like it?" he asked quietly. "You never gave me that impression."
"Sure I did!" she replied. "I enjoy the hell out of making love--it's just that I've got to have more than that. Two people in a relationship have to share one another; they have to communicate. They don't just roll over and snore after they get their rocks off!"
"I see," he said coldly. "We don't communicate--is that it?"
She could hear the hurt and confusion in his tone, and it made her pause. "Hey, look, I'm sorry. I've been stung, and I'm taking it out on you. But you've got to understand--I mean what I said. I don't think there's anything for us."
"You're upset right now," he murmured placatingly. "You don't know what you're saying. Why don't you sleep on it, give yourself some time?"
She just sighed, too weary to argue or be angry anymore. "Tony, it won't make any difference. Now please, just leave me alone. I've got a lot of work to do, and I'm within an ace of being extremely rude to you again."
He held out his hands defensively. "Okay, okay, I'm going. But listen--after you've calmed down, if you feel like talking, you know where to come."
Why doesn't he just leave me alone? she thought bitterly. She angrily snapped off the terminal. It had been a long time since she'd had a good cry, and today she was making up for it in spades. She had never felt more miserable or confused. She clenched her fists tightly as the tears began to flow unchecked. Finally, she couldn't take it any longer, and the dam burst.
The young woman buried her head in her hands and vented the roiling emotions that churned inside her.
Captain's Log, Stardate 7495.3
Captain James T. Kirk gazed intently at the dancing image on the forward viewscreen. There was something compelling about the planet. Kirk couldn't quite put his finger on just what it was; perhaps because it bore such a striking resemblance to Mars in the Sol-Terra system. The planet exhibited a rusty red surface area, broken only by an occasional, forlorn patch of dark green and the gleaming expanses of polar ice caps. On first examination, it seemed like a fairly ordinary world. Why, then, did it fascinate him so? Kirk surmised that he was probably just elated over the break in the boredom of the past few weeks, and he grinned wryly.
"Almost a month out here in this desolation, and all we come across is the big sandpile!" piped up Doctor Leonard McCoy from his post behind the command console.
Kirk chuckled. "Stop complaining, Bones. It sure beats the hell out of staring at an empty screen! Looks so much like Mars it's scary."
"Indeed, Captain," Spock straightened up from his viewer at the sciences console. "Doctor McCoy's 'sandpile' is much like your so-called 'Red Planet.' The red sands are the product of surface oxidation. It appears to be a dying world; it has an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere which is slowly escaping. However, it is breathable without support, although it is extremely thin. Gravity is zero-point-six-nine Earth-Normal. I would catalogue it as a class-M planet, subclass three-A."
"Point-six-nine G's" Kirk mused. "That ought to put a little spring in your step, Bones."
"I take it this means I get to go on a little excursion," McCoy grumbled.
"You got it!" Kirk turned to his Vulcan science officer. "Spock, you'll have the conn. I think we owe it to Lieutenant Xon to let him head up the sciences aspect of this landing party. He'll need some support. Who are the top four names on the duty roster for your department?
Spock punched up a series of readouts at his terminal. "Next four in line for landing party detail are Jameson from Geology, Templar from Biosciences, Greer from Biosciences, and Torrance from Botany."
Kirk turned to the other members of the bridge crew. "Commander Uhura, have the sciences team report to the transporter room. Lieutenant Chekov, take four of your people with you to accompany the landing party; we'll split up into three-man teams for the surveys. Mister Sulu, standard orbit."
He turned to McCoy as a chorus of "Aye, sirs" rang out onto the bridge. "Well, Bones, let's go take a little walk. You feel up to it?"
"No," McCoy returned sourly, "but I know you won't let that bother you!" He stalked toward the turbolift as Kirk and Chekov followed in his wake.
The hot, stinging winds howled over the desert, moaning like a lost soul. Kirk shivered despite the intense heat. Everything he saw reminded him of a scene from Dante's Inferno, rusty sand, the color of dried blood, shifted and shimmered in rolling dunes, and the desolation was broken only occasionally by an outcropping of black, jumbled rock jutting up from the flat desert floor.
Behind the captain, Lisa Templar crossed her arms over her breasts, clutching her shoulders as though trying to embrace herself. She, too, felt strangely cold. There was something vaguely malevolent about this place. A nameless feeling of dread tugged at her. She couldn't put her finger on just what it was, but it made her decidedly uncomfortable. Templar glanced at Lieutenant Xon. He already had his tricorder out, scanning the immediate vicinity. She grinned, realizing that trying to explain a case of the screaming meamies to the logical, precise young Vulcan would be a hopeless task!
"All right, we'll break up into groups and survey the area," Kirk said. "Spock had us beamed down on the fringe of one of those green patches we saw from space, since they seemed to be the areas where we'd most likely encounter lifeforms."
McCoy snorted. "I don't think we'll find much on this rock pile. What good is it? Surely you don't expect to find intelligent life?"
"All our scans indicated no evidence of sentient beings," Xon put in. "However, this planet could be terraformed quite conveniently, and there may be evidence of some past civilization--although the odds seem to be heavily aligned against that eventuality."
"All right, people. Let's get down to it," Kirk ordered. "Bones, you come with me and Barnes. Mister Chekov, take Jameson and Buckley with you. Greer and Torrance can team up with Mota, and Lieutenant Xon, you can have Templar and Perez."
Templar and Xon looked at each other uncomfortably, and Kirk caught the gesture. "Lieutenant, Ensign, do you have a problem with my method of team member selection?"
"No, sir," Xon replied evenly as Templar shook her head.
"Very well, then. Let's get to work." The landing party began to split up, heading in different directions. "Be sure to contact me every half hour," Kirk called out as they separated.
Xon stalked off over the sands, with Templar and Ensign Antonio Perez from Security following in his wake. The Vulcan and the woman worked wordlessly, scanning with their instruments, stooping down occasionally for a close look at something that caught their eye. Perez's eyes roamed over the bleak landscape, on the lookout for anything that might be a threat to them. Something about this place gave him the creeps. He'd be glad when they finished this survey.
After a while, the strained, enforced silence of the two science personnel began to wear on the security officer. He felt he had to say something, anything, to relieve the tension.
"Sure is hot down here, isn't it?" he mumbled, regretting how inane the words sounded even before they were out of his mouth. When he received no response from either of his teammates, Perez shook his head in disgust, muttering something about what a talkative bunch they were.
Walking was easy in the lighter gravity, and they soon came to the edge of the green area. As far as the eye could seen, the ground was covered with what appeared to be primitive forms of plant life similar to lichens and mosses. The scrub growth seemed to be extremely hardy, subsisting as it did in the poor, sandy soil. Xon bent down and took samples of various species of the ground cover. Then the trio waded out deeper into the verdure, Xon and Templar keeping their tricorders pointed toward the earth, scanning the plant life as they trudged along.
They had not gone very far when the Vulcan lieutenant suddenly pulled up short. He frowned tightly. "Odd," he intoned. "Most odd indeed."
"What is it?" Templar queried, concerned.
Xon looked almost embarrassed. "I realize that this is not very scientific, but ever since we beamed down for this survey, I have experienced a sense of unease. I have been unable to explain it, just as I have been unable to purge it from my consciousness."
"Me, too," chimed in Perez. "I thought maybe it was my imagination, but something's been giving me the willies."
"Well, that makes three of us," Templar said uneasily. "Either we're all suffering from the same hallucination, or...." Her voice trailed off.
"Indeed," Xon returned. "Just before I stopped a moment ago, I began to receive mental impulses that seem very akin to thought processes, but on an extremely primitive level. I have not sensed any cogent verbalized commands. However, I suddenly have a strong compulsion to explore off in that direction."
He pointed to a moss-covered ridge about a half-kilometer due east. Templar's gaze followed his outstretched arm, and her blood suddenly ran cold. As soon as she looked at the low hill, she had sensed it; something alien, something subliminally terrifying, calling to her without calling, beckoning her come, like the mythical call of the Sirens of the Greek legend.
As if by mutual consent, the three Enterprise officers started to hike toward the ridge.
Perez's hand rested lightly on the grip of his phaser. He didn't like this, not one little bit. But their starship was out here to explore. Man would never have made it to the Moon if he had chosen to run from the unknown. Besides, he had been in numerous landing parties before, many of them in a lot stranger places than this. He just couldn't explain why this place made him so jumpy.
Suddenly, something scrabbled out from behind a rock ahead of them. Perez brought his weapon up in a flash, but he lowered it sheepishly when he saw the small, lizard-like creature running speedily over the ground on two legs. The little saurian's jaws opened, emitting an unpleasant, screeching hiss that sounded like fingernails scraping along a chalkboard.
It wasn't long before the trio reached the small hillock. They topped the rise, and gazed down into a shallow valley below.
"Fascinating," Xon breathed.
The plants were huge. There were almost two dozen of them scattered among the scrub growth. They measured almost six meters in circumference at the base, which consisted of a jumble of spiky, snaky tendrils, thick as a man's arm and several meters in length. Templar was reminded of a painting she had once seen of the reptilian head of Medusa, and she shuddered involuntarily. A central stalk as big around as a tree trunk supported a large, clamshell-shaped pod nearly four meters across.
It was the stuff nightmares were made of.
"My God," Templar whispered, gazing at the greenish-brown monstrosities with a mixture of wonder and revulsion. "Are these what are causing your impressions, Xon?"
"Quasi-thought impressions, Ensign," the lieutenant chided. "Yes, it would seem so. The impressions are stronger now than ever." He strode down the embankment toward the huge plant-things. Templar and Perez followed, an icy sense of foreboding crowding everything else out of their minds.
Xon strode over to the closest plant and knelt in front of it, his tricorder scanning with meteoric speed. The second science officer's eyebrows suddenly rose alarmingly. "Incredible!" he exclaimed. "I am receiving what appear to be cortical impulses, analogous to primitive brain-wave activity! These plants are sentient--only barely so, of course, but it is a fascinating discovery nonetheless. They also appear to be quasi-telepathic...."
The young Vulcan was so engrossed in his readings that he failed to notice a stirring in the gigantic plant behind him. Huge tendrils uncoiled, snaking toward him, with sinister intent.
Lisa Templar gasped in horror. There was no time even to call out to him. Without thinking, she launched herself into a body block which knocked Xon clear of the danger.
Unfortunately, it threw her right into the path of the plant's questing extremities. Monstrous tentacles wrapped and coiled with crushing force, four, five, six times around her body, like a huge jungle serpent enfolding its prey. The luckless woman shrieked in agony as thousands of two-inch long needle-sharp spines pierced her flesh. A haze of red occluded her vision; above her shrill screams, she could hear a sickening, crushing sound as her rib cage began to cave in under the constricting pressure.
"Lisa! My God, no! No!"
She heard Antonio Perez scream in horror. He sounded as if he were shouting from very far away, and suddenly everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The thorns--something was being pumped into her, something icy cold and viscous which dulled her senses. The spines must be like hypodermics, she mused, marveling at the fact that a compartment of her mind could calmly contemplate this obscenity all the while she was screaming in pain at the top of her collapsing lungs. She watched with detached horror as the giant pod slowly opened like a hideous, gaping maw, looking for all the universe like a colossal Venus-flytrap as the tendrils slowly, inexorably pulled her to her death. Something green and slimy drooled from those deadly jaws; a few large drops of it splattered on her fallen tricorder, which almost immediately dissolved into nothingness.
Digestive juices. This is how I'm going to end up--lunch for some killer plant on an alien world.Somewhere in her pain-glazed mind, she was startled at her own black, gallows humor. I'm dying, she thought. I'm really dying; I should be terrified, but I'm not. She suddenly became aware of twin beams of blinding blue energy shrieking maniacally in the rarefied air. Xon and Perez had apparently been firing their phasers full force at the base of the plant for quite some time. Stalk and tendrils finally burst into flames, and the thing began to writhe and twist frantically in seeming agony. Just when it seemed that Templar would be drawn into that horrible mouth, the tentacles relaxed and unwound. Templar fell several feet to the ground. She landed hard on her back and lay absolutely still.
Xon and Perez rushed forward, heedless of the twisting, burning plant. As they gently picked up their fallen comrade, the deadly foliage shuddered in a final spasm. A tendril lashed out, raking the calf of Xon's left leg. He gasped, almost stumbling, but he didn't cry out, and he helped Ensign Perez carry Lisa Templar out into a clear area, out of the reach of the tentacles. They laid her down gently on the soft moss, trying to make her as comfortable as possible. Perez raised his wrist communicator to his lips, frantically filling McCoy in on the terrible accident.
Templar moaned in pain. "W-where are you two? It's...getting too dark to see..." She suddenly drew in a sharp, shuddering breath. "Ohhh, Jesus God, it hurts...it h-hurts!" She groped around blindly until she found Xon's hand, and she clung to it weakly.
"Lie still, Ensign," Xon murmured. "Doctor McCoy is on his way, and will be here shortly." He winced at the sudden shooting pain in his left leg, and was surprised to see several green beads of blood where the plant's thorns had scraped his skin.
"Yeah, just hang on," Perez added brokenly, blinking tears away. "Doc's coming now. You're gonna be fine, babe, just fine." Who am I trying to kid?! he thought bitterly. Look at her! She's as pale as a sheet. There must be a hundred of those needle marks on her face, and thousands more on her body. She'll be lucky to last until McCoy gets here!!
Xon gazed down at the woman's broken body, and a deep frown knitted his features. She was bleeding heavily from the mouth, a sure sign of several internal injuries. And there was an unnatural flatness in her thoracic cavity. In all likelihood, her ribs had been crushed by the constricting tendrils, and the splintered ends had pierced her lungs. She was in very grave condition. Xon surprised himself by gripping her hand more tightly, as if trying to keep her alive by the force of his will alone.
Somehow, Templar sensed what was happening. "Oh, no..." she whispered weakly. "T-this is...really it, isn't it? Oh, p-please...no! Not yet! I-I'm not...ready...." She gasped again, whimpering in agony. She gritted her teeth determinedly, and, when she spoke again, it was with great effort. "Tonio...."
Perez bent down, barely able to hear her. "I'm here, Lisa."
"Tonio, don't let them bury me here, and don't...let them bury me in s-space. I want...to be buried on Earth. I-I want them to ship me back home. Promise me...you'll see to it."
Tears were running down Perez's face now. "C'mon kid, don't talk like that."
"Promise me!" she gasped.
"Okay, I will," he returned, swallowing hard.
Ensign Lisa Templar turned her head weakly, trying unsuccessfully to focus on the Vulcan's face. "Xon...I-I'm so s-sorry for being such a damned, d-dumb...fool..." She stiffened suddenly, and her hand slipped from Xon's grasp.
"Shit!" Perez slammed his security helmet on the ground. He turned away, gazing up into the sky as he valiantly attempted to keep from breaking down in great sobs. "She was just a kid," he whispered to himself. "Just a kid. This shouldn't have happened."
Xon continued to stare down at Templar's calm, dead face. The ensign was right. She should not have died. There was no logic to it. It should have been him under those tentacles. Why had she done it? The equation didn't balance....
Her words came back to him suddenly. You can't derive an equation from our emotions, Xon, she had told him. Emotions--that was the key. With dawning horror, Xon realized why she had thrown him out of the way. Because of her supposed feelings for him, she had sacrificed herself so that he would live. Totally illogical...but she had done it.
"No," Xon whispered. "You shouldn't have...." He gasped suddenly, clutching at his leg. It hurt far more than just a scratch should have. Perhaps there was some kind of venom involved. If so, he would have to act quickly.
Just then, Kirk, McCoy, and Security's Ensign Barnes bustled up to the scene of the tragedy. McCoy knelt immediately, and wordlessly began to scan Templar's lifeless body. He switched off the instrument, shaking his head sadly.
"Nerve poison," he muttered. "Poor kid, she never had a chance. If the poison hadn't finished her, the internal damage would have. Every bone in her body from neck to waist has been shattered."
"My God!" Kirk murmured, white-faced. "We saw one of those things pick off a lizard creature. We were going to patch through and warn everybody when Ensign Perez called Bones."
McCoy glanced over at Xon, a frown deepening on his features. He saw the look of nightmare horror on the lieutenant's face, an expression he had seen on another Vulcan, years ago, when he had awakened from the throes of pon farr to find that he had apparently killed his captain. Xon continued to stare fixedly at Templar's corpse.
"Lieutenant, are you all right?" McCoy queried. He noticed the tear in Xon's uniform trousers and the scattered, bright green pinhole wounds beneath. "Oh, boy," he breathed. "Looks like someone used you for a Vulcan pincushion. Let's have a look at that." He scanned with his medical 'corder, whistling softly to himself. "Whew. You took a nice little dose of that nerve poison yourself, Xon. It won't be fatal, but you're going to be a pretty sick boy for a couple of days."
"Doctor." The young Vulcan's voice was almost inaudible. "Doctor, she pushed me out of the way. It should have been me."
"Yeah, I've heard that before," McCoy grumbled. "Let me give you a shot of universal antitoxin. That'll slow down the effects until I can run the venom through the biocomp."
Xon glanced over McCoy's shoulder as the physician coded a hypospray. Behind him, Kirk spoke quietly into his communicator. Seconds later, two medtechs beamed down with an antigrav stretcher. The hypospray hissed against Xon's arm, and the throbbing pain in his leg began to ease almost immediately. He watched as the techs gently worked Templar into a body bag, then one of them zipped the bag shut with brutal finality.
Kirk started at the harsh, rasping sound. He gazed off into the distance, squinting against the blazing yellow-orange sun which hung low in the pink sky. Another statistic in the James T. Kirk catalogue of casualties. How many were there now?
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust--and all of them sent to the Grim Reaper by the illustrious Captain Kirk. From Gary Mitchell right up to this poor young woman, they had all done his bidding, and they hadn't come back. How many more wouldn't come back, he wondered, and when would the time come when hewouldn't come back? That would be the ultimate joke--the Grim Reaper's major supplier finally seeing his own number come up. He heard the hum of the transporter behind him, and turned to see the medtechs beaming up with their burden.
Kirk sighed wearily, raising his communicator to his mouth. "Kirk to landing parties. Stand by for beam up. The survey's over. Kirk out." McCoy was helping a shaky Xon to his feet as their own transport signal came through. Let's get the hell out of here before we lose somebody else, Kirk thought sadly.
"...And so we lay to rest the body of our shipmate and friend, Lisa Templar. We knew her only a short time, but in that time, she acquitted herself as a fine officer, and, more importantly, as a fine Human being." Kirk paused, gazing out at the sea of sad, somber faces, at the black-draped bier where the body of Lisa Templar lay in state beneath the gentle, blue-green glow of the stasis field. Her facial wounds had been cosmetically removed by microlaser surgery. She looked beautiful, like an angelic, sleeping child. Only this angel sleeps the sleep of forever, Kirk mused bitterly. He drew a deep breath, steeling himself to say the next words. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. May she rest in eternal peace."
The memorial service was finally over. McCoy breathed a sigh of relief. He hated these things. Maybe it was because he saw more of death in his work than a man should have to; he didn't need to be reminded of it at other times. Members of the Enterprise crew filed past the catafalque to pay their last respects to Lisa Templar, some of them weeping openly. The physician shook his head. Such a waste! She'd had her whole life ahead of her, and, in five horrifying minutes, on a backwater planet that meant absolutely nothing to anybody, that life had been brutally crushed and torn from her. Sometimes he really had to sit back and think hard to find reasons to justify what they were doing out here. Thousands of new planets beckoning to them, thousands of new and exotic methods for Human beings to die a horrible death. And thousands of new and exotic methods of demonstrating just how helpless a physician could be.
McCoy watched Xon closely as the young Vulcan took his place in line. He had seen some of the openly hostile, hateful glances that had been cast at Xon during the service. There were quite a few crewmembers who, for one reason or another, held him responsible for Templar's death. They knew she had had a crush on him, and felt that she may not have moved to save him if she'd had no feelings for him. But if Xon was aware of their animosity, he didn't show it. If anything, he was more stoically Vulcan than usual. McCoy frowned. He couldn't get the second science officer to admit it, but the woman's death had affected him deeply. Oh, he doubted if anyone else could tell. Xon wore the same blank, masklike expression that all Vulcans affected. Only years of Spock-watching had given Leonard McCoy the acuity of vision to see beyond the facade, the ability to perceive the momentary flicker of expression, the glimmer of pain and doubt that sometimes flashed behind dark Vulcan eyes. Xon was troubled.
Suddenly, a commotion broke out in the crowd of mourners as Xon reached the open casket. A dark-haired, muscular young man, his face twisted with grief and rage, broke out into the clear area adjacent to the bier. Shouts of dismay rang out in the nondenominational chapel as he brought up a phaser and leveled it at the Vulcan.
"You killed her, you green-blooded, pointed-eared, son of a bitch!" he howled. "Now it's yourturn! Die, you bastard!"
Chekov and Perez had been the closet people to Lamarre when he had burst from the throng. Now they threw themselves at the crazed security ensign, bringing him down a split-second before he fired. The shot went wild; it missed the startled Xon, but tore into the pulpit where Kirk still stood. He was slammed against the wall as the rostrum exploded before him. He quickly moved out of the line of fire, shaking his head as McCoy started toward him. He was all right. But Lamarre wasn't finished. With the strength of the demented, he easily shook off Chekov and Perez, and doubled over a charging Sulu with a savage punch to the solar plexus. He leaped on Xon, his hands closing around the young Vulcan's throat with a murderous grip as they both tumbled to the floor. Lamarre shook Xon like a dog with a bone, smashing his head against the floor again and again.
But then the grief-maddened ensign looked down into the face of his adversary and saw something that managed to penetrate the haze of his insanity, something that chilled his blood.
The events of the past day and a half had taken their toll on Xon. Lisa Templar's death, his wound, the medication he was taking, subconscious mental stress he would not acknowledge, all had conspired to rob him of his customary control. Now someone was trying to kill him, and the paper-thin veneer of civilization that covers all sentient beings crumbled around him.
Lamarre found himself staring down into a savage face that one might have seen on a warrior of pre-Reform Vulcan!
With a bellow of rage, Xon lashed out at his tormentor. He felt the satisfying crunch of bone under his fist, and Lamarre flew halfway across the room, blood spurting from his broken jaw. Pouncing like a le-matya, the Vulcan leaped after him, ignoring the startled onlookers. He hauled the sobbing ensign to his feet, then hoisted him high overhead. Xon's eyes blazed like twin coals of living fire. He would kill this insect, slam him to the floor with a crushing force!
Spock's shout rang out like a gunshot, and it had the desired effect. Xon's eyes widened with surprise. Slowly, his fury fled from him. He gently eased the semi-conscious Lamarre to the floor; then he stood there, as immobile as a statue, his expression one of numb astonishment. Kirk and McCoy ran toward him now, the physician breathing a sigh of relief. Chekov and Perez shouldered the now-quiescent security officer to his feet.
"Get Lamarre down to Sickbay, and put him under restraint!" Kirk snapped. "I want him kept under guard at all times!" He whirled on McCoy as Spock joined them. "Doctor, when you get a free moment, I want you to get discharge papers drawn up on Ensign Lamarre. I'm afraid he's going to need a good, long rest."
"Yes, sir," McCoy acknowledged. He turned to Xon, who still hadn't moved. "Are you all right, Lieutenant?"
"What...what happened to me?" Xon asked, bewildered.
"I'd say somebody tried to smash in your skull," McCoy rasped. He thought he heard Spock groan aloud, but he wasn't sure. "C'mon, Lieutenant. I'm taking you back down to Sickbay to make sure nothin' got shook loose, and I want to check your response to the antidote I whipped up." He started off toward the exit, and Xon followed in his wake like a sleepwalker.
"All right, everyone," Kirk said quietly. "The excitement is over. Just continue to pay your respects as before." He turned to Spock, who frowned as he watched McCoy leave with the younger Vulcan. "What is it, Spock? What happened to him?"
"Unknown, Captain," he responded. "Most unusual for a full Vulcan. It appears that he underwent an extremely strong stress reaction."
"I'll say," Kirk agreed. "Remind me never to get him mad at me."
Meanwhile, McCoy and Xon rode the turbolift in silence as it dropped toward its destination. The Vulcan stood ramrod stiff, staring straight ahead. When the doors hissed open, he followed the physician meekly down the corridor to Sickbay.
"Make yourself comfortable," McCoy offered, motioning to a diagnostic table. He calibrated his instruments, then strode over to stand at the bedside.
Xon stared fixedly at the ceiling. "I could have killed him," he murmured softly.
"Yeah, and he could have killed you," McCoy returned distractedly, scrutinizing the readouts. "Guess that makes the two of you even."
"You miss the point, Doctor," Xon replied flatly. "I am a Vulcan. I have never engaged in such an outrageous display of emotion in my life. I should not be capable of responding in such a fashion."
"Are you sure, Lieutenant?" the doctor asked quietly. "Remember what I once told you about emotional contamination? What are you feeling now? Are you going to try to lie there and tell me that Miss Templar's death hasn't affected you? I've been watching you. It's eating away at your insides, son."
"They hold me responsible for her death," the Vulcan whispered, almost to himself. "Perhaps they are correct. She would not have thrown me out of the way if she had no feelings for me, and had she not done that, she would not have died."
"You don't know that for a fact," McCoy said. "She might have done the same thing for Perez, or anybody else. It could just been her response to the situation." He paused, smiling gently. "You've got guilt written all over your face, Lieutenant. The good ol' Vulcan martyr complex strikes again."
"I am not capable of--" Xon stopped, then sighed deeply. "It...is not logical. I feel somehow responsible for what happened to her."
"Well, that makes three of you then. It might interest you to know that the captain and Ensign Perez feel the same way--each one of them thinks it was their fault that she was killed."
"But that is not logical," Xon said, his eyebrow canting in surprise. "The captain was not even present, and Ensign Perez was looking in the other direction."
"Yeah, but that's the way they feel," McCoy said. "Jim, well, he takes it upon himself to feel responsible for everything that happens in whatever quadrant of the galaxy we happen to be in at the time. He's the captain; I guess it comes with the territory, sort of a side-effect of his job. Ensign Perez, on the other hand, is putting the blame on himself because he was the security man assigned to your team. He thinks he failed in his job because he didn't protect the two of you. Lisa Templar was killed, and you were injured. He was also kinda sweet on her." The physician's face darkened. "I think he feels bad because he never tried to make something out of it. At any rate, it's obvious to you and me that neither of them have any reason to take the rap for this. And it's just as obvious to me that you're hanging this thing on yourself unjustifiably."
"But...." Xon began.
McCoy held up his hand. "I tend to run off at the mouth once I get started. Hear me out. You can't hold yourself responsible for the actions of another, Lieutenant. That is not logical. And you can't put yourself on the hook for the way someone feels about you, either. That plant killed her, Xon--not any feelings of love she may have thought she had for you. There was no way you could have known she was going to push you clear. So stop tearing out your heart over it."
The Vulcan said nothing, and McCoy watched his eyes intently. "That's not all there is to it, is it, Xon?"
Xon was silent for a long time. Finally, he spoke once more. "She...I cannot grieve for her, Doctor. It...it disturbs me somehow. I can acknowledge the waste of a young and productive live, but I cannot feel sorrow. If I could somehow express...something for her, it would alleviate this unease."
"Maybe the fact that you are disturbed is your way of expressing grief, Xon," McCoy said quietly. "Besides, you're a Vulcan, remember? Vulcans can't feel grief--or can they?"
Xon appeared startled at that. "Besides," McCoy continued, "it wouldn't bring her back, would it? Totally illogical, this grief. Serves absolutely no purpose at all--that is, if you overlook the cathartic, cleansing effect is has on our emotions. It tends to make one feel better. But I wouldn't expect you to understand something you can't experience." He snapped off the scan panel. "Okay, Lieutenant, you can go. You're none the worse for wear after your little tussle with Ensign Lamarre, and the antitoxin has removed all traces of the nerve poison. I'd catch up on my rest if I were you, though. You've been through quite a lot."
"Thank you, Doctor," Xon said as he swung down from the table. "I will follow your recommendations."
Xon left Sickbay and strode slowly down the corridor. He felt very strange; never before had anything twisted at his insides the way this incident had. He walked on distractedly, unaware of the faces that turned to stare at him.
"Lieutenant?" a quavering voice said. "Could I talk to you, sir?"
The young Vulcan looked up to see Ensign Carla Baker standing at a branch in the corridor. Her tear-stained face was swollen and puffy from crying, and her lower lip trembled when she spoke. "I...I just want to apologize--there've been some people here who think Lisa...d-died..." She broke into sobs then, and had to pause several seconds before continuing. "They think she died because of you," she said finally. "Tony--Ensign Lamarre was telling everybody how she had a crush on you, and that was why she pushed you out of the way. I always thought he was a little crazy because he was so jealous." She smiled wanly through her tears. "I didn't know until today just how messed up he was. I think...Lisa's death sort of shoved him over the edge. Anyway, I just wanted you to know--I was her best friend. I guess I know...knew her better than anybody else on this ship, and I can tell you, it wasn't just because of you. She'd have done the same for me, or anybody else in the same situation. That's just the way she was. She loved people; some of them she loved a little too well, but it wouldn't have made any difference. She'd have shoved somebody she didn't even know from those plants."
"I appreciate your telling me this, Ensign," Xon intoned.
"I couldn't see you taking the blame for what happened," Baker continued. "I'm sorry if some of us made you feel uncomfortable. I think most everybody else understands now, and if they don't, I'll see to it that they do."
She turned to leave.
"Ensign," Xon called out, and Baker looked back at him. "Thank you. I realize how difficult this has been for you. My condolences on your loss."
Carla Baker's face began to crumple. "Thank you, sir," she sobbed, then spun and ran hurriedly down the corridor away from him.
Xon sighed wearily. He shuffled over to a turbolift access port and entered the car. "Level Five," he murmured softly.
And as the lift hummed into life, Xon frowned in puzzlement at the peculiar feeling of tightness in his chest.
Ensign Steve Whittier of Security made one last turn around the now-deserted chapel. Visitation was over; the captain wanted the place locked up tonight. Tomorrow they would close up the casket with its self-contained stasis field and seal it inside a shipping crate. The box would be transferred to the cargo bay at Starbase Four and put on the next transport/tug leaving for Earth. Lisa Templar was going home.
He stole one last glance at the bier and shook his head mournfully. She looked so small and lonely like that. Whittier found it hard to accept death whenever it happened, but when it claimed someone so young and vibrant, it was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. He gazed down at her composed, pretty features. At least she looks as though she's at peace, he thought. This was the way she would look all the way to Earth, even though the trip would take weeks or months, as the stasis field cheated the ravages of death and decay. The security man sighed, raising his hand in an archaic salute to her. Then he turned to leave.
He flipped off the few remaining lights that were still lit as he exited, plunging the chapel into an inky darkness that was relieved only by the soft, blue illumination of the stasis field. The doors hissed shut behind him. Seconds later, the clicking sound of the lock tumbrels echoed through the deserted chamber. Someone inside could still get out, but no one could get in unless he knew the combination.
After a few moments, something stirred in the darkened chapel. A shadow detached itself from the blackness and came to stand inside the blue glow of the field.
Xon stood with his hands clasped behind his back, gazing down into the open coffin. Templar looked for all the world as if she were only sleeping. For one wild moment, Xon entertained the illogical, irrational hope that she might suddenly yawn, stretch, and sit up, wondering in bewilderment at her surroundings.
But nothing changed.
He stood in respectful silence for a long time. When he found his voice, it was strangely hushed.
"I do not know why I am here," he said, as if she could hear him. "I am standing in an empty room, addressing a corpse. It is not the most logical thing for a Vulcan to do. However, it is not the first illogical thing I have done in the past two days." He paused, peering into the surrounding darkness before he continued, fervently hoping no one was observing this. "I have been unable to grieve for you," he went on. "I understand that, in Humans, the inability to express grief is considered unhealthy. But I am a Vulcan, and Vulcans do not grieve. We do not possess the emotion, and..."
He stopped again. Suddenly, something Spock had once said came back to him. The emotions are there, Xon, the first officer had said. Vulcans do possess them. You must look deep inside yourself to find them, deeper than you ever have before.
It was then that Xon realized that, for whatever illogical reason, he did wish to mourn her. He turned his mind inward, searching with all his might, concentrating with every fiber of his being. He searched until, finally, his body trembling from the effort, he had to break it off.
"I did try," he whispered. "It is just that..."
The sudden ice-water realization that his cheeks were wet struck Xon with the force of a physical blow. Impossible! And yet, he could not deny the evidence of his senses.
He was crying.
A sob broke from him then, and Xon's mind reeled in horror. Is this grief? Is this what Humans feel at a time like this! It is terrible! Such an empty, lonely, inconsolable feeling! He realized with a shock that he had lost control of his newly-discovered emotions. He felt something give way; tears streamed unrestrained down his face as great, wracked sobs shook his lean frame. He went to his knees from the pain, hands folded in supplication.
"I am s-sorry," he said brokenly. "Why did you do it, Lisa? Why did you throw away your life? I...I sincerely hope th-that you acted as you did from love for your fellow beings, and from s-some misplaced feelings you had for me! You had so much to live for, and I--I could have given you nothing." He was overcome by a fit of sobbing then. When he could finally go on, he whispered. "I am s-so sorry."
Guilt, McCoy had said. Guilt and grief and a thousand other nameless feelings now swirled crazily through Xon's very being. He mourned her with as much intensity as he had ever evinced in his life. "It should have been me," he whispered, his voice quavering. "It should have been me, not you."
Suddenly, he clutched his hands to his stomach and moaned in agony. He was out of control; his Vulcan physique was breaking down from the crushing, unaccustomed stress. These emotions were raging rampantly inside him.
If he did not rein in on them, he would soon die.
Gasping in pain, the young Vulcan fought for control. He searched for the emotional restraints he had practiced all his life, and almost panicked when he couldn't find them immediately. But he cleared his mind of the pain, the shuddering sobs. Slowly, inexorably, he struggled back through the maelstrom of sorrow that threatened to swallow him up, fighting for his sanity and his life.
And peace came upon him once again.
Xon rose shakily to his feet. He was back--and yet, he wasn't back. Somehow, something that comprised the essence of Xon had been subtly altered. He had full Vulcan emotional control again, but he had awakened something inside of himself that had lain dormant in his people for thousands of millennia--something that might have been better left undisturbed.
He felt cleansed, somehow renewed. Was this a bad thing--to feel this peace because he had vented those emotions of grief and guilt he had felt over this young woman's death? Part of him felt that it was good, but cold reason chastised him, rumbled to him that emotions were illogical. He gazed down at Lisa Templar once more.
Somewhere deep down inside, he felt a pang of remorse fighting to clear its way to the surface.
He shuddered. He was Xon of Vulcan--a Vulcan. He was in control of his emotions. He had mourned her; he had given all of himself and more. Now he was at peace with himself.
"You departed before your time," Xon said softly. "It does not seem just, but it is fact." He lifted his hand in a Vulcan salute. "May you sleep undisturbed through the ages, Lisa Templar of Earth."
Xon took his leave of her then. He slipped cautiously out into the corridor and summoned a turbolift, gratified that the halls were empty just now. It was unseemly for a Vulcan to be seen in such a state, eyes swollen and bloodshot from weeping. The experience had been a shattering one; it had affected him deeply. He could not deny that it had wrought an essential change in him. What had happened would be with him from this time forward. He was not the same Xon who had remained in the darkened chapel--not quite the same, anyway. As the turbolift whisked him toward Level Five, Xon wondered if this change would be for the better or worse.
And he realized that only time would tell.
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