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Carol Davis



Chapter 1

No time for thought.

That was one of the reasons Jim Kirk enjoyed handball: during most of his waking hours (and even, it seemed, during most of his sleeping hours) he was faced with making one decision after another. Nothing aboard the Enterprise could be accomplished without input from him. Input from others turned into thought, weighing of possibilities, measuring the possibilities against past experience, all evolving into decisions, thousands of them, one after another, all day and all night long. Twenty-three years after receiving his first command, he had begun to feel the oppressive burden of so many decisions, so much thinking, so much responsibility. But here, in the handball court, with the reduced-gravity field in effect, the only decisions to be made were the most elemental. There was no time to think out the possibilities. No time for anything but watching the ball. And for watching his opponent.

He had scratched his memory a few days ago, trying to remember the first time he'd played reduced-grav handball. Back in high school, he'd decided, a year or so before he'd entered the Academy. That amounted to...what? Thirty-seven years of handball. In all that time, among all those opponents (of skill so widely varying it was ridiculous), he had never seen anyone so singular minded on the court as Gretchen Jaeger. She played the game with a vengeance that was almost chilling, as if nothing in life mattered except winning.

Sometimes, leaving the court, Kirk wondered if she remembered that it was all just a game.

He turned his head a little to the left, and the ball streaked past him like a torpedo. Flinching, he pulled his head in out of harm's way, an automatic response to the threat that was already past. He felt himself smiling nervously, but Jaeger didn't respond--not that he expected her to. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the observation window connecting the court with the corridor. McCoy and Chekov were there watching, Chekov wearing a mild expression of pride in his champion, McCoy grinning smugly. Twisting so he could propel himself away from the wall, Kirk returned his attention to the ball and caught it on its rebound, scooping it up and sending it back to the wall, noting unconsciously that he hadn't given the push even half Jaeger's power. She didn't hesitate. Bouncing gently up from the floor, she drifted slightly, and, in the same instant, she twisted, thrusting both feet out to connect with the wall and shoot her halfway into the court so that she could meet the ball barely into its rebound. The ball struck the opposite wall so hard that Kirk half-expected it to keep going, leaving a perfect round hole in its wake-like phaser fire. It seemed to lose none of its momentum on its return, and when Kirk connected with it and sent it flying back to the wall, the impact made his hand throb even inside the leather glove.

The volley continued for several minutes, until one of Kirk's returns slid off the edge of Jaeger's glove and she was unable to recover it. He found himself smiling at the hard-won victory.

"Twenty-twelve," Jaeger said, bobbing lightly off the floor on the ball of one sneakered foot.

"Really?" Kirk asked. "I didn't think..."

She seemed puzzled and nearly apologetic. "I'm pretty sure," she said hesitantly. "Did I miss a point for you, sir?"

"Oh, I doubt it," said Kirk, unsure that he'd scored anything near twelve points, although the amount of effort he'd expended made it seem that his score must be something near a thousand. He let his mind drift for a moment, taking advantage of the brief respite and making a mental note to remind McCoy that he could get all the way through a match now without feeling as if he'd taken part in an Iron Man relay. The first time he'd played Jaeger, he'd managed to finish the match maintaining a careful facade of physical fitness, and some ten minutes later had collapsed on the bunk in his cabin, certain that he must be dying. His heart had throbbed fitfully, and another ten minutes had gone by before he could pull himself up to the intercom to send for McCoy. The doctor had been perversely amused, and Kirk infuriated at his lack of concern.

"You're not dying," McCoy had pronounced. "You're just in lousy shape for someone your age. Which is why I suggested you play some handball in the first place." He'd stood back a step, folding his arms across his chest. "It was your idea to take on the intramural champion."

Kirk had scowled blackly. "She's a little girl, Bones."

"Exactly. She's twenty-one years younger than you are, and in excellent physical condition." McCoy half-turned to head for the door, stopped and said over his shoulder, "Chauvinism ill becomes you, Captain." He ducked through the door as Kirk pitched a sneaker in his wake.

The "little girl" bounced again and shot off another rocketing serve. Waiting for Kirk to return the volley, she pushed off with one foot and drifted up near the ceiling, turning a smooth, gentle somersault so that she was hanging upside down when she reached out to crack the ball. Kirk avoided reacting; he was used to her playing style now, used to the brief acrobatics she indulged in to waste time while the ball cruised back and forth. He'd tried it once or twice himself (although there weren't many occasions when he had time to waste during a match) and knew the reasoning behind it: a bit of extra showing off, of proving herself in front of her captain. He knew she meant no harm by it, probably wasn't even aware of what she was doing, other than that every movement contributed to the match. He had to strain to reach the ball this time. She returned it without difficulty, and when he vaulted to catch the shot, it sailed by so near to him that he could feel the wind.

"Game point?" Kirk asked.

Jaeger hesitated. "Yes, sir."

"Well, Lieutenant," Kirk smiled, "either I'm improving, or you're slacking off. You didn't trash me quite as thoroughly as usual." He dropped one foot, pushed himself away from the floor, and retrieved the ball. "You're not throwing the game, are you?" Her eyes crossed, and Kirk laughed heartily. "I didn't think so. I must be improving."

She reached for the gravity control switch and slid it down so that the court's gravity would return to normal. "You're not a bad player, Captain."

Kirk laughed again. "Thanks for the generous compliment."

"That's not..." she stammered. "I didn't mean..."

He remembered the day she'd joined the Enterprise's crew, just over a year ago. She'd reported to the bridge, orders in hand, uniform crisp, head erect, possessed by utter and complete nervous terror. Two months had gone by before Kirk could speak to her without feeling like a school principal rebuking an unruly student. Now, a year later, while they were still not friends (and Kirk resisted the possibility), they could at least speak to each other normally. He remembered, too, the day the change had occurred: the first time they'd played handball together. She'd beaten him that day, and on every occasion since. He was irked at first (though with himself for having lost, and not with her for having beaten him), until he realized that the winning gave her some solid ground to stand on. She'd bested him, and he could feel the satisfaction that gave her. He knew she still stood in awe of him, but she was no longer afraid, and that was fine. While Jim Kirk insisted on respect from his crew, he had no use whatsoever for fear.

The normal gravity took hold, and Kirk and Jaeger both paced the court reaccustoming themselves. Kirk grabbed up the towel he'd left looped around the ring near the door, tossed Jaeger's towel to her, and mopped at the mist of sweat at the nape of his neck. Towel in hand, she seemed to forget he was there. She leaned against the bulkhead for a minute, closed her eyes, and took a series of long, deep breaths. He said nothing to disturb her silence, just went on mopping trickles of perspiration from his arms and legs. He caught sight again of McCoy and Chekov at the window, and beyond them, someone approaching from the direction of the turbolift. McCoy's grin had faded; he was waiting for Kirk to come out, no doubt so he could offer his usual sage advice on the values of handball. Chekov's eyes were on Jaeger. Idly, Kirk wondered if she made love as vigorously as she played handball.

The sound of approaching footsteps made McCoy turn from the window in the direction of the turbolift. He was immediately sorry--given the choice, he preferred not to acknowledge the existence of the young man who'd come out of the lift. Wearing his usual self-absorbed look, Peter Kirk stopped arm's length from McCoy and gazed through the window into the handball court. McCoy began counting silently; the young Kirk never took longer than ten seconds to offer a comment.

"Who won?" Peter Kirk asked mildly. "Not my uncle."

"Gretchen won," Chekov replied, struggling to keep his voice even.

The young Kirk smiled. "Naturally," he murmured, and cocked his head a little.

Chekov echoed, "Naturally," though in a totally different tone of voice. "She is...invincible." He hated the word as soon as he'd spoken it. He hadn't spent more than a month all told in his native Russia in the last fourteen years, but bits of the accent stuck with him. His compliment to Jaeger came out sounding more like "inwinceeble": another reason for Peter to offer comment.

To Chekov's surprise, the young Kirk let it go by. "Nobody labors under that delusion for very long," he laughed softly, with a sound that didn't quite succeed at being a sigh. "Spiritual fulfillment through sweat," he observed, though more to himself than to the other two men, and without waiting for any kind of response, pivoted and strode off down the corridor.

"Are we sure he's the captain's nephew?" Chekov asked McCoy.

McCoy wagged his head, watching Peter Kirk disappear around a corner. The young man had inspired the usual response in both the doctor and Chekov: the urge to punch him. He'd known that, and yet the knowledge meant nothing to him. At this point in his life, at the age of twenty-seven, Peter had gotten a rise out of so many victims on so many occasions that he seldom noticed any more. "I don't know," McCoy said. "But every time I see him, it reminds me of one thing: how ungodly long one month can be."

The door to the handball court hummed open. James T. Kirk ushered Jaeger out ahead of him with a sweeping gesture of one hand, and she moved to accept a hug and a lingering kiss from Chekov. McCoy and Kirk exchanged small smiles, sharing the same amusement at the effects of the younger officers' love affair: Chekov had turned forty-two some three days before, and Jaeger was thirty-three, but their being in love seemed to spark in them an amazing child-like ability to forget they were in anyone else's company. Until the glow wore off, no one but the two of them lived in their private little universe. Moments ticked by, and the two senior officers shared another thought: nostalgia for the time they had each felt the rich, warm glow of being in love. For each of them, that had been ages ago.

Finally, Kirk cleared his throat. Jaeger and Chekov both turned to him, both straightening unconsciously. He held back a smile, made a shooing gesture with his right hand, and said mildly, "Dismissed."

"Thank you, sir," Chekov beamed.

Jaeger nodded slightly. "Thank you, Captain."

Kirk draped his towel around his neck as Chekov and Jaeger walked off arm-in-arm down the corridor. McCoy was grinning again. Kirk frowned. "Want to let me in on the joke, Bones?" he inquired.

"What are you dismissing them from? Neither one of them is on duty. And what exactly are you dismissing them to?" The doctor shook his head again. "I should do some sort of psychological study on those two. They change direction like a scout ship changing course. Five minutes ago, she was on the court with you, and she was so fixed on that game that the ship could have blown up around her and she'd never have noticed. Now neither one of them seems to know that they're on a ship. They're walking around in a pleasant little fog. In two hours, they'll both be on duty, and..."

"And they're two of the best officers I have," Kirk filled in.

"Exactly. I want to know how they can pop in and out of consciousness like that."

"Young love, Doctor."

"Young, my eye. Chekov's forty-two years old."

Kirk sighed heavily--a bit more heavily than he intended. How long had it been since he'd walked around in that "pleasant little fog"? Edith! If he closed his eyes, he could still see her face, though he'd begun to think the memory had been colored by time more than a little. Had she really been as beautiful as he seemed to remember? Or was it that wonderfully brilliant smile and the gently musical laugh that made her beautiful? Edith. She'd died so long ago. Died in front of him, in front of McCoy. A pang of anguish shot up from somewhere inside of him. "I think it's been too long, Bones," he said after a minute. "We're both having too hard a time remembering what it was like." He fought off the nostalgia, traded it for a smile. "So tell me: has the McCoy Physical Fitness Plan been successful?"

"Has what...?" Realizing, McCoy nodded. "Well, you've lost the twenty pounds. How do you feel?"

"Fine. I feel fine."

"That's all? Just 'fine'?"

"How do you want me to feel? That little girl beats the hell out of me every time we play. That doesn't exactly put me on top of the world."

McCoy took stock of his captain, decidedly unmilitary in shorts, tee shirt, sneakers and thick white socks, blotched with sweat. "But you feel better than you did."


"Two and a half years ago. When they gave you this brand new Enterprise."

Frowning again, Kirk asked, "What do you mean?"

"You were a mess. Don't tell me you weren't." Kirk opened his mouth to respond, but McCoy waved him into silence. You spent ten years wandering around Starfleet Headquarters...."

Kirk said quietly, "Seven. And a half. Off and on."

"Seven and a half, then," McCoy shrugged. "Spock died. You got back your son, then lost him and the Enterprise. Spock comes back, but not in one piece. And then we were all on Vulcan for three months with nothing to do but eat and drink, while Sarek tried ironing out legal problems and the Vulcan techs took apart the Bird of Prey and put it back together." Memories popped into his head of those months: David's death, the Enterprise, waiting for Spock to regain his memory, waiting for orders from Starfleet. Vulcan's heavy gravity, thin air and oppressive heat precluded any kind of exercise--for anyone not extraordinarily fit, merely walking around was exhausting after a couple of hours. So Kirk, McCoy, Scott, Sulu and Chekov had spent most of their evenings indulging in the only sort of exercise they found agreeable: imbibing. McCoy had quickly lost count of the number of raised eyebrows they'd caused among the Vulcan population. "We got back to Earth in about the lousiest condition the bunch of us has ever been in. And you, my friend, were the worst." He gestured Kirk into silence again so that he could continue. "Blood pressure too high, blood lipids too high, chronic insomnia..."

"Enough!" Kirk said. "I remember." Now it was his turn to gesture McCoy into silence. "Like I said...I feel fine now. You ran all the tests last week. Tell me how I should feel."

McCoy was silent, studying Kirk's expression. True, the biomedical tests he'd run on the captain were excellent. Kirk was in better shape, his endurance better than it had been in years. Everything that had been out of balance was now back in balance, mostly due to a carefully regulated diet (McCoy recalled snatching a plate of scrambled eggs out of Kirk's hands just a few days ago) and the bi-weekly thrashings on the handball court with Jaeger. But there was still something about Kirk's condition that McCoy didn't like. Something was lingering below the surface. Something like the depression he'd suffered when he'd lost his command status and had been stranded behind a desk in San Francisco. Something like that...but different. McCoy couldn't quite put a finger on it, but it was there, and it had irked at him for weeks.

"I don't know, Jim," McCoy said finally.

Smiling, Kirk reached out and gripped McCoy's shoulder in one hand. "I'm fine, Bones. I feel great. You've got nearly five hundred other people on board to worry about, too. Give one of them a turn, okay? Now, I've got a date with a jacuzzi."


Jaeger tied the belt of her robe around her waist and shook her head vigorously to loosen the curls that had kinked up from the steam of the jacuzzi. Her face was flushed, both from the workout and from the whirlpool. "Better?" she asked.

Chekov shrugged. "I like you better with the robe off."

"We go on duty in an hour, Commander."

"Who needs an hour? We've accomplished a lot of things in a lot less than an hour."

Teasing, she slipped out of his embrace and shut down the controls for the jacuzzi. The water would drain out now, be recycled and purified in the ship's storage tanks, and remain ready for use again. Jaeger had wondered on occasion how many times the ship's relatively small supply of water had been used, purified, and reused. She didn't bother to wonder about the myriad of things the water had been used for. Chekov followed her into their shared sleeping room, tapping the control panel that would shut off the bathroom lights as he passed through the doorway. Jaeger stopped halfway to the bed and frowned at herself in the mirror. "Pavel," she said solemnly, "do you think it bothers him?"

"Do I think what bothers who?"

"The captain. Do you think it bothers him that I always win?"

Chekov sat on the side of the bed, his hands resting palm down on the bed frame. "Nobody likes to lose all the time. On the other hand, if he wants to win, he knows better than to play with you. You're..." he hesitated, then repeated his compliment, careful with his fluttering accent so that the "v" came through. "...invincible."

She moved to stand in front of him, resting her hands on his shoulders. Chekov slid his arms around her waist. "I feel...I don't know, guilty sometimes. As if I shouldn't win."

"Do you think he'd feel any better if you let him win?"

"Well, no. But he is the captain."

"And you are the best handball player in Starfleet." He reached up to chuck her under the chin. "It's allowed."

Wagging her head, Jaeger moved away again, wandering around the room with her hands in the deep pockets of the heavy cotton robe. "I still feel funny about it, Pavel. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to act around him. I'm not scared any more, not really, but it seems like..." She paced distractedly, breathing so deeply that Chekov could hear each breath. "They told me at the Academy that if you were extremely intelligent, and extremely brave, and willing to give a hundred percent a hundred percent of the time, that where you wanted to be was serving under Jim Kirk. So that's what I put in for." She wheeled. "They told me that..." She had to pause, because the phrase still sounded a little ridiculous. Dave McClennan had been more than a little drunk the first time he'd quoted it to her. "That everybody on this ship was willing to walk straight into the jaws of hell for Jim Kirk."

"We have," Chekov replied. "And more than once."

"And that he would do the same."

"He has."

"I didn't figure I could do that for Captain Styles." She stopped pacing to look at Chekov. "And I didn't think he'd do it for us." Chekov nodded. He'd never met Styles, but had heard enough tales about him that he believed Jaeger instantly. She'd served under Styles for nearly a year aboard the Excelsior, the pride of Starfleet, the first ship equipped with the revolutionary (if somewhat disappointing) transwarp drive; she'd been chief navigator, a position to be proud of, but somehow Jaeger had never felt any pride, either on her own part or on that of most of the other crew members. Working with Styles didn't foster pride--didn't foster much of anything except frustration. The man gloried in being master of the Excelsior, wielded the captaincy like an egotistical child, delighted with himself because the best ship in the fleet was under his control. The trouble was (and Styles failed to understand) that he'd won the Excelsior by default. Hikaru Sulu, the Enterprise's former chief helmsman (and now a captain in his own right on the U.S.S. Cooper), had been first in line to command the glorious new ship. Then had come the Genesis fiasco. Starfleet, true to form, had protected itself from any possible embarrassment by snatching Sulu's command from him before he'd even assumed the captain's chair, and had dumped the prize into the lap of the runner-up: Styles.

Jaeger rubbed at her head, as if the very thought of Styles had given her a headache. "The captain is supposed to be...up there somewhere." She gestured toward the ceiling. "Someone you look up to. When he gives you an order, you don't question it, you just obey it. Nobody ever wanted to follow orders from Styles. He's a nincompoop."

"I would have used another word," Chekov smiled.

"No," Jaeger replied. "I think 'nincompoop' suits him. I could never see him putting himself in danger for any of us. Or for the ship. Or even for himself. That's why I couldn't stay with the Excelsior." She turned to him. "What about you? Are you where you want to be?"

"Yes." He got up from the bed and crossed the room to join Jaeger. "I belong here. And I have a prettier roommate now." He gathered her into his arms, half expecting her to move away and begin pacing again, but this time she didn't stray. Content, Chekov pulled her closer. She was still warm and damp from the jacuzzi. She looked up at him, but something in her eyes was distracted. He'd grown used to that; it happened every time they discussed the Excelsior, or her service there, or her sudden transfer to the Enterprise. He'd resigned himself to never being satisfied with her explanations, and that distant look remained. Ignoring it, he said with a small smile, "As your superior officer..."

"Yes, Commander?"

"I order you to stay right here."

"Yes, sir."

"And you're going to show me how much you can accomplish in forty-five minutes."

Jaeger chuckled softly, and moved to help him untie the belt to her robe. "You know one thing about handball, Commander?"

"What's that?" Chekov murmured.

"It teaches you to move very fast."


Captain's Log, Stardate 8771.8

We are en route to Dianas, third planet in the Aurora Epsilon system. The Federation has completed negotiations with the Citizen's High Council of Dianas, and has voted to invite Dianas to join the Federation. that invitation has been accepted, and we are to act as Federation representatives to the planet until the arrival of Ambassadors Jakel and D'Novio in ten days.

The inclusion of Dianas in the Federation will considerably extend its boundaries, which has met with increasing opposition from the Klingon Empire. In addition to acting as Federation envoys, we are to guard Dianas and its people against any possible hostile actions by the Klingons.

Estimate our arrival in the Aurora Epsilon system in thirty-four point two hours at present speed.


"Message coming in from Council Chambers on Dianas, Captain," Uhura announced as Kirk tapped the "off" button on his console. "They acknowledge our transmission. Awaiting our arrival as scheduled." She smiled as she concluded, "They're preparing a reception for you and the other 'most welcome Federation representatives'."

Kirk nodded. "Reply, 'Message received. Looking forward to meeting with the Council.'"

"Aye, sir. Sending now."

The bridge fell silent again. Kirk glanced around, taking stock of his crew, all bent to work at their stations, quietly absorbed in individual tasks. For several minutes, once Uhura had finished transmitting the message to Dianas, there was no sound on the bridge but the humming and chirping of the computer consoles and the distant, almost unnoticeable throb of the engines. The crew's backs were all to Kirk, giving him a view of the backs of some dozen-odd very young heads. Save Uhura, Spock, and Kirk himself, no one on the bridge at the moment was over thirty-five years old. Kids, he thought, I'm commanding another boatload of kids. His eyes strayed to the helm, and he found himself wishing Sulu were there. Hennessy was good, extremely good, but nonetheless Kirk held onto the feeling that no one could guide the Enterprise quite like Hikaru Sulu. Not until Hennessy turned to give him a questioning look did Kirk realize he had sighed.

"Sir?" Hennessy said.

"Nothing," Kirk replied, shaking his head. Hennessy nodded and returned his attention to his console. Kirk watched him for a moment, wistfully aware of how much (from the back, at least) the young lieutenant resembled his son, David. Hennessy was three years younger than David had been when he'd died. Twenty-six, Kirk believed--he'd checked on Hennessy's age when assigning him to the helm. Twenty-six? Kirk held back the expression of disbelief he felt creeping into his face. I've been a commanding officer since this kid was three years old?

Uhura's voice broke his reverie. "Captain?"

He swiveled the command chair to face her. "What is it?"

She was touching her earphone. "I'm getting something, sir. Very faint. There's a great deal of interference...but it sounds like the universal distress code."


Spock was bent over the science station, working in conjunction with Uhura's communications board to clarify the signal and identify its origin. A moment went by while Spock's long, thin fingers moved over the buttons keyed into the ship's main computers. Finally, information began to appear on the main screen. "Source is in the Alpha Reticuli system, Captain. The interference is coming from an ion storm in that system. No identification yet on the vessel transmitting the signal."

"Alpha Reticuli? Can you pinpoint the location?"

"Yes, Captain," Spock said somberly. "On the surface of Duncan's Planetoid."

Kirk sank back in his chair and rubbed at his temples. "That's not what I wanted to hear, Spock."

"Unfortunately, Captain, the fact remains."

"You're sure."

"Quite sure." Spock glanced at the screen again.

"Somebody mining for malium crystals, no doubt," Kirk said heavily. "If I had a malium crystal for every time somebody's crash-landed on Duncan's Planetoid trying to find malium crystals, I'd be hopelessly rich." He turned to Uhura. "Signal on speakers." Uhura nodded, keyed the instructions into the board, and winced a bit as the subspace static erupted through the bridge speakers. Fingers moving swiftly, she augmented the signal, washing out most of the static and leaving the thin, regular beep of the universal distress code: two short, two long, two short. "Damnation," Kirk murmured. "Any identification yet, Spock?"

His first officer responded, "Negative, Captain. We do have an approximate location on the surface of the planetoid, however."

"Alter course, Mister Tenaka," Kirk told the navigator on duty. "Take us to Duncan's Planetoid."

"Aye, sir. Changing course to...one five five mark one six."

"Mister Hennessy, take us to warp six."

"Warp six, aye, sir," Hennessy replied.

"Captain?" Tenaka said over his shoulder, his eyes still on the board. "Has there ever been a successful mining expedition to Duncan's Rock? All you hear about are the crashes." The round-faced Polynesian shot a glance at Kirk; the captain's mood was painfully easy to read. He was drumming his fingers on the arm of the command chair, though softly enough that it made no sound.

Spock replied for Kirk. "Two hundred-thirteen known crashes. Two known successful landings. If I recall correctly, the actual number of malium crystals that have been taken off Duncan's Planetoid..."

"Seven," Kirk said. "There are seven."

"Two hundred crash landings? To get seven stones?" Tenaka let out a long, low whistle. "Why do it, sir? I mean, it seems so crazy, to take that kind of a chance. Come all the way out here, risk your ship and your crew, when the odds are so bad."

Kirk examined the navigator's face for a moment. If anything, given his age, Tenaka should have been far more possessed of the "spirit of adventure" than Kirk could hope of being. Nothing in Tenaka's background hinted at his being unusually cautious. Yet he seemed truly mystified by the history of "Duncan's Rock". "Human nature, Mister Tenaka," Kirk said finally. "I can't speak for any of the other races in the galaxy, but as far as human beings go, the possibility of winning--no matter how remote--outweighs the risk. Even when you're risking your neck, and the necks of your crew. How's your American history?"

"Rusty, sir," Tenaka admitted.

"Do you remember anything about the great gold rushes of the eighteen hundreds? Men murdered each other over stakes in a gold deposit. Thought nothing of it."

"Yes, sir, but for only seven crystals..."

"Seven have been taken off the planetoid," Kirk reminded him. "Each one of extremely high value. Everyone assumes that that's only a sample of what's left to be found. Anyone who could successfully set up a camp long enough to tap into a large vein of the crystals and take them back to a trading post would be rich beyond his wildest dreams." Even as he spoke, Kirk found himself echoing Tenaka's thoughts. Rich enough to justify over two hundred crashes? he wondered. All those small ships, almost a hundred people killed, hundreds more injured. All for the chance of finding a vein of the hypnotically beautiful blue gemstones on a planetoid claimed by no civilized race in the galaxy. Find it, and it's all yours. So they keep trying! Kirk thought. And crashing. And sending out distress signals so that we can go and pick them up. Keep at it, boys; the Federation will come and save your skins if you get into trouble. Even if we have to risk our own lives to do it. Grumbling to himself, Kirk tapped the intercom. "Scotty?"

"Scott here, Captain."

"Is the transporter operational?"

"Aye, Captain," the chief engineer's voice came back.

"Mister Spock tells me that we're headed into an ion storm. We've got to rescue some fortune-seekers from Duncan's Rock."

There was a long, pregnant pause from the other end. "Aye?"

"What are our chances of transporting anyone in?"

"In an ion storm, sir? I wouldna try it."


Another pause. "The shuttle's your best bet, Captain, but it's still risky. If that ion storm is up to Alpha Reticuli's usual standards, they'll be going in there blind."

"Opinion noted, Mister Scott. Kirk out."

"I concur with Mister Scott's judgment, Captain," Spock said, straightening up from the science console. His screens had begun to register the interference from the storm, though the Enterprise was still a considerable distance from it. The main screen was offering a wide-angle scan of the planetoid's surface: inhospitable to say the least. Rocky, mountainous, few native life forms, thin atmosphere torn by high winds. "If I might volunteer to command the landing party," Spock suggested. "I have done considerable research on the history and conditions of this particular system. With the proper pilot for the shuttle, I believe we have an acceptable chance of landing safely. And returning safely to the Enterprise."

Kirk gnawed his lower lip. "Your opinion as to 'the proper pilot'?"

"Lieutenant Jaeger."

"I see. Any particular reason?"

Spock paused for a moment. "As I understand it, Captain, during her senior year at the Academy, Lieutenant Jaeger was rather fond of flying the shuttle simulator blindfolded."

"Blindfolded?" Kirk blinked.

"Yes, sir. And if I am correct, she had an acceptable success rate." Spock waited for Kirk to respond. He did not bother to define "acceptable" or "success", and Kirk did not ask. "Of course," Spock went on, "that was under simulated conditions, with no actual danger present. However, being blindfolded would be somewhat analogous to..."

"To flying in an ion storm," Kirk finished for him. "All right, Mister Spock. I trust your judgment. Assemble your crew." Spock nodded acknowledgment and moved toward the turbolift. The lift doors sighed open as he approached. Blindfolded! Kirk thought with a shudder, recalling the one time he had tried that stunt himself-- and had most definitely not been successful. "And Spock?" he concluded. The Vulcan turned. "I'd like a word with whomever you bring back from Duncan's Rock."


"Commencing planetfall, sir. Hull temperature seven hundred degrees and rising. Course, bearing point seven seven. Altitude..." Under Spock's coolly watchful gaze, Jaeger resisted banging on the panel to make the digital readout reflect their descent. The number had not changed in some seconds. "Estimate altitude at ninety-one point four kilometers."

Spock nodded. "Adjust course to point seven five."

"Point seven five, aye, sir."

"Surface temperature, minus eighteen degrees Celsius," Spock read from the sensors. "Sensors show an atmospheric content of four percent cyanoalisitate."

"Cyanoalisitate?" That was Will Hollis, strapped in with the rest of the landing party in the row of seats behind the pilot's and co-pilot's chairs. "That stuff smells like burning rotten eggs!"

Spock's left eyebrow slid up under his bangs. "A reasonably accurate comparison, Lieutenant. And cyanoalisitate in this percentage is rather hostile to the human respiratory and nervous systems. I would exercise caution against inhaling even minute quantities of the atmosphere." He flipped a couple of switches and touched a toggle on the control panel, but the adjustments did nothing to steady the flashing readouts from the shuttle's systems. They had lost contact with the Enterprise several minutes ago, almost from the time the shuttle had left the protection of the landing bay, and now the ion storm was making increasing havoc of all the Galileo's electrical systems. There were readings, yes, but none of them seemed correct. Jaeger glanced intermittently at Spock, beside her at the controls, his lack of expression belying their situation. The only information being received with regularity was the rhythmic bleep of the distress signal.

"Altitude eighty kilometers," Jaeger said. "Hull temperature...eight hundred degrees and stabilizing."

The Galileo hit a sudden pocket of turbulence as solid as rock. Harry Gibbs' head jerked backward, connecting with the padded headrest behind him with a teeth-jarring thump. "Jeeesus, Jaeger!" he howled. "Watch those bumps, willya?"

She checked the panels, waiting for a reaction from Spock that never came. A small voice inside her wanted to suggest turning the controls over to Gibbs if he thought he could do better, but she resisted saying anything to the security officer. "Thermal inversion," she said quietly to Spock.

The Vulcan agreed. "Hold course, Lieutenant."

"Aye, sir. Holding course at..." As Jaeger bent to check the readout, the panel flashed and went dark. Jaeger's eyes went automatically to the viewport in front of her. They were descending rapidly through a heavy layer of clouds, thick trailing things that obscured visibility beyond a few meters outside the shuttle. Spock began working on the console, flipping switches, crossing circuits. After a moment, the panel lit again, but half the indicators would do nothing more than flash like tiny strobe lights. The altimeter read a persistent, flashing "0.00".

Spock seemed almost amused. "According to our instruments, Lieutenant, we have crashed."

"No instruments. No visual. Guess I get to fly by the seat of my pants, Mister Spock," Jaeger replied, with a vague attempt to keep her voice level.

"On instinct, Lieutenant?" Spock translated.

"Yes, sir."

"God help us," Harry Gibbs murmured.

"I trust your instincts," Spock said. "Continue present course and set us down."

Jaeger's hands had gone cold. Marveling at the fact that she could still move her fingers to make the minute corrections in their course, she forced a small smile and remarked, "Did they ever tell you that at the Academy I was pretty good at flying the simulator blindfolded?"

Spock had abandoned the shuttle's on-board computer and was running a series of computations on his tricorder, glancing intermittently at the viewport. They had passed out of the worst of the cloud layer, continuing to descend, visibility now extended to what McCoy would refer to as "a stone's throw". "I am aware of that, yes."

"The last half-dozen times I didn't have a single crash landing."

"One might observe, Lieutenant," Spock replied, his eyes still on the tricorder, "that statistically speaking, you are perhaps overdue."

Her mouth gaped. "I..."

"I trust your instincts," Spock repeated. "If I did not, you would not be flying this craft."

Jaeger closed her mouth. "Understood, sir."

The landing party began to fidget in their seats as much as the restraining straps would allow. All three young men--Gibbs, Hollis and Cooper--wore the same expression of tightly controlled panic. They had all heard the stories about Duncan's Rock and the abysmal results of the hundreds of attempted landings in small craft. Most of the stories now entered the realm of the fantastic, but they were still realistic enough to inspire fear aboard the Galileo. Gibbs, Hollis and Cooper were all security officers, all highly trained and selected for their ability to remain calm in the worst of situations, but now, with the conditions of their own landing on Duncan's Rock deteriorating rapidly, even they were not highly trained enough to ignore reality.

Tom Cooper began to search his memory for the words to the Lord's Prayer. Will Hollis's palms had sweated so much that the knees of his flight suit were soaked through. Harry Gibbs wondered why in the name of all that was logical, their commander was leaving their lives in the hands of "Roadrunner" Jaeger. Given the choice, Gibbs was quite ready to forget the distress beacon and hightail it back to the warmth and safety of the Enterprise. Instinct? Gibbs thought with a silent, hysterical laugh. In an ion storm? Flying on instinct, trying to land on a gigantic orbiting rock famous for the number of people who were now a part of the landscape. Gibbs wanted badly to be sick. Grimacing greenly, he looked at each of his companions in turn, and found some shred of satisfaction in discovering that each of them was fighting nausea. At least Jaeger has something to do, he thought.

"Maintaining rate of descent," Jaeger announced. "Commencing landing procedures."

Spock glanced up from the tricorder. "Very well."

She squinted furiously at the viewport, as if that would help clear the forward visibility. The clouds had thinned out a bit more, but the shuttle was still too high up for Jaeger to pick out anything solid on the ground. She began to wonder how to go about finding a landing site without being able to see. Spock still seemed completely at ease, though she knew (mostly from Chekov's many anecdotes) that he was probably no less worried than she, just immeasurably better at disguising the worry. Shuddering, Jaeger tried to steal a look at what he was computing on the tricorder, hoping that he knew enough about the planetoid to find open ground by the seat of his own pants. She had never lost sight of the fact that flying a simulator blindfolded was a lark, the kind of stunt that was practically expected of all Academy seniors, in spite of all the realism she'd attempted to give it both in her own mind and in the stories she'd told afterwards. She also knew that all the larks had stopped the minute she graduated from the Academy and received her commission as a Starfleet ensign. A joke was a joke. And no matter how good she had been at guiding the simulator to a smooth landing half a dozen times (seven, if you counted the time the simulated shuttle had bounced off a simulated tree before landing softly on the simulated ground), this was no joke. This time there would be no cartoonish readout announcing "YOU HAVE CRASHED," no simulator doors sliding open to reveal a group of her fellow cadets clustered outside.

Concentrating, she moved her hand gently on the throttle controls. The shuttle bounced spastically. Jaeger shivered again.

"Steady," Spock said quietly.

She felt a sudden need for the comfort of the jacuzzi and a good strong belt of Chekov's cherished ice-cold vodka. "Firing braking thrusters."

A dozen nervous minutes later they were on the ground. The Galileo rested in the closest thing to an open field to be found within a hundred kilometers, a twenty-meter wide space in the midst of a peppering of enormous rocks and the planetoid's largest indigenous life form, skeletal things much like petrified trees. The wind, driven on by the relentless ion storm that tore the planetoid's slight atmosphere into miniature hurricanes, howled around the shuttle as its crew of five released themselves from their safety harnesses. Jaeger took another long look out the viewscreen. The panorama ahead of the shuttle, with its skeletal trees and swirling, misty atmosphere, had the look of Scottish moors.

Spock was already slipping into cold weather gear. The three security men followed his cue and also reached for breathing apparatus. "Heads up, Jaeger," Hollis said brightly, tossing a set of gear to Jaeger.

"You don't need an airpack, sir?" Cooper asked Spock.

The Vulcan shook his head. "Cyanoalisitate has no effect on the Vulcan respiratory system. However, I would caution you again, Ensign, not to inhale any of the atmosphere here." He accepted the communicator and phaser Gibbs handed him and buckled them in place on the belt of his coat alongside his tricorder. "Our sensor readings are somewhat inaccurate at best," he informed his crew. "The distress signal is apparently coming from a point roughly three kilometers away, in that direction." He nodded at the port side of the shuttle. "We will spread out, covering as much of the area as possible but remaining within minimum communicator range of each other and the shuttle. If any of you lose contact with the others, maintain your position and we will find you."

"Excuse me, sir," Hollis said, "but do you really think the communicators are going to function under conditions like this?"

"Perhaps not, Ensign."

"Well, then, sir, if the communicators don't work..."

"Then use your voice, Ensign."

"Sir?" Hollis frowned.

"I believe it is an old Terran phrase, Mister Hollis. 'If you need help, yell.'" The four Humans stared at him. Spock ignored the looks and shut down most of the shuttle's systems, putting the rest on standby. That done, he waited for the crew to finish fastening on the thermal coats, pulling up hoods, sliding on gloves, buckling on the breathing apparatus, clipping on phasers and communicators. When they were done, all he could see were their eyes, which seemed preternaturally bright. He knew they were all nervous and afraid (he would have thought them to be mentally deficient if they had not been), but they were all ready to follow his lead, out into the hostile surroundings of the planetoid. They had made it here safely, if a little bruised, but none of them knew whether they'd be returning safely to the Enterprise. Spock considered them for a moment. "Phasers on stun," he said finally. "We have no idea who is sending the distress call, or what condition they are in. We shall maintain caution."

Without waiting for a response, he released the lock on the shuttle's main hatch, pressed the control, and stepped back as the hatch slid open. The little craft was immediately filled with the keening wail of the wind.

"Welcome to Duncan's Rock," Harry Gibbs said.

The four Humans followed Spock out of the Galileo like ducklings trailing their mother. When they had gone about fifty meters, he stopped and pulled his communicator from his belt. A series of quick tests assured him that all five communicators were working acceptably...at the moment. Returning the device to its clip, he motioned for the others to spread out.

"We'll find 'em, Mister Spock," Will Hollis assured him, his voice sounding eerily tinny through the speaker of the breathing apparatus. "Let's just hope they're still alive."

"Indeed," Spock replied. "Carry on."

Bending against the wind, the landing party and its commander spread out across the landscape. For the first five or six hundred meters they were within sight of each other, though none of them really bothered looking. They were all (except for Spock) shaking, but none of them could have answered whether that came from the cold, or fear, or just the heavy buffeting of the wind--or all three. Moments later, as they moved on ahead, the clustering of rock formations increased, giving the four Humans the impression that they were moving into deep gullies rather than across a nearly flat surface. The light gravity of the planetoid combined with the push of the wind made forward progress difficult. At the end of another hundred meters they could no longer see each other, or anything else except the rocks and the weird, skeletal trees.

Hollis' words came back to Jaeger as she plodded ahead through the wind. Still alive? she wondered. Spock had not mentioned the possibility that the distress beacon might be an automatic one coming from the computers of the crashed ship. Though, come to think of it, neither had he said anything about receiving life form readings. The ship's occupants might have been dead for some time, and the computer would nonetheless continue broadcasting distress until the ship's batteries had been totally drained. Some swell field trip, Jaeger thought. Poking around this place looking for somebody who might have been killed months ago! She stumbled, caught herself, and cursed under her breath. It was a habit she'd learned from her father at so young an age he hadn't been aware she was learning: fighting fear by cursing as vehemently as possible, in as many languages as possible. Normally it worked, and it seemed to be working now.

Then she heard Hollis scream.

She grabbed for her communicator with her left hand and the phaser with her right. They had fanned out like the fingers of a spread hand, Hollis the closest to her, probably no more than a couple hundred meters away on the other side of the long rock formation to her right. "Hollis? What's wrong? Hollis?" There was no response, just the eternal crackle of static. She flipped through the communicator codes for the others and had no better luck. Thrusting the communicator back onto its clip on her belt, she began scrambling up the rocks to close the distance between herself and Hollis. It took her several minutes to scale the rocks and come down the other side, fighting the wind every step of the way. Once she had reached the crest, she slowed her pace a little so that she could keep a tighter hold on the phaser. The wind covered the sound of her movements. When she had reached level ground again and began moving in the direction Hollis had taken, she had reason to be grateful for the cover of the wind.

Hollis was some twenty meters away, flat on his back on the ground, unmoving. Standing over him, showing little effect from the biting cold and the foul atmosphere were the three stranded explorers the landing party had come to rescue, each armed with a disruptor and a ceremonial blade.

Klingon warriors.

"Oh, shit," Jaeger said.


"Helm, report."

Hennessy glanced at the readouts and said over his shoulder to Kirk, "Maintaining stable orbit, sir. Altitude one thousand kilometers."

Kirk nodded. "Uhura, anything from the shuttle?"

"Nothing, Captain. Just static." Uhura tapped out a medley on the buttons on her console. "Still receiving the distress beacon, sir. It's grown a bit fainter from the interference, but still maintaining one complete signal every ten seconds."

"Keep tracking," Kirk said. "Keep trying to find the shuttle; I don't want to lose them."

"Yes, Captain."

Kirk's hands tightened rhythmically on the armrests of the command chair. Twenty-three years? he thought. Have I been doing this for twenty-three years? A sour taste began to rise in his mouth, and he reached for the cup of coffee he'd brought up with him from the officer's mess some hours ago. It was long since cold, but he gulped some of it down anyway, grimacing at the taste. He'd forgotten when he'd had his last solid meal--it seemed like days ago. He looked around the bridge, frustrated by the lack of something constructive for him to do, and thumbed the "record" button on his console. "Captain's Log, Stardate 8771.9," he dictated quietly. "We still have not regained contact with the shuttle Galileo..."

At the weapons board, Pavel Chekov turned a little. His expression was a dour reminder to Kirk of Chekov's vested interest in the safe return of the landing party. "Sir?" Chekov said. "Permission to take the science station?" The captain had barely nodded his assent when Chekov rose from the weapons station and crossed the bridge to Spock's chair in a half-dozen steps. Sliding into the seat, Chekov began activating sensor probes. Most of the readouts were gibberish, fouled by the interference of the ion storm. He muttered a breathy Russian curse, tapped some more buttons, tried an alternate system. On the other side of the bridge, Uhura flinched from the increasing pitch of static in her earphone. She and Chekov exchanged mutually frustrated looks.

"Anything?" Kirk asked.

"Garbage, sir," Chekov replied. He tried cutting into another computer circuit and got a shower of flashing lights on the board. "The storm is interfering with computer circuits, Captain."

Kirk's grip tightened on the armrests. "Communications?"

"Nothing, sir," Uhura murmured.

The bridge seemed too silent again, in spite of the faintly audible crackle from Uhura's phones and the whispered sound of continued Russian oaths from Chekov. The main viewer displayed the same picture for over half an hour: the churning clouds covering the surface of Duncan's Rock, an occasional flicker of lightning that from this altitude looked like a Terran firefly. Somewhere down there, Kirk thought frustratedly, was his shuttle. His people: Spock, Jaeger, Gibbs, Hollis, Cooper. He'd no choice but to send them; he was painfully aware of the long-standing Starfleet regulation that no distress signal was ever to be ignored. So the shuttle had gone, half an hour ago, down into that ion-charged soup. Sensors fouled, visuals almost non-existent. Twenty-three years of this, Kirk thought.

"Sir!" Chekov erupted.

Kirk shot upright in his chair and swiveled to face Chekov. "What is it?"

"Klingons, sir!" Chekov shouted. "The computer has identified the source of the distress beacon. It's a Klingon scout ship down there."

"Damn," Kirk spat. "The shuttle? Where's the shuttle?"

Uhura's shoulders sagged. "Can't find them, Captain. Nothing on any frequency."

"Find them!" Kirk shot to his feet, although he had nothing to do either sitting or standing. All systems were being capably manned, all frequencies being monitored, everything being done that could be done. His fists were clenched so tightly that his fingernails bit deep ridges into his palms. His people were out there somewhere, heading right into a Klingon trap. Spock and four kids. "Find them!" Kirk snapped. "And get them back here!"


If she had been aware of how little time actually passed while she was huddled in the shelter of the rocks, Jaeger would have been amazed at how much had gone through her mind. Starfleet regulations, the captain's standing orders, war games, practice drills, training sessions, classes at the Academy. Textbooks, rulebooks, training manuals, library tapes, long hours of instruction from everyone in authority who had ever crossed her path. What was in front of her now seemed to boil down into what her teachers liked to call a scenario.

And the question is, Jaeger, she thought, what do you do now?

The three in the clearing were arguing among themselves. Over what, she was unable to determine; the howling wind and her rusty memory of Klingonese allowed her to translate only bits of what was being shouted out in the open. It had something to do with Hollis and "the other one" (Gibbs? she wondered). Carefully, Jaeger brought the phaser up in front of her and considered her options. If she remained hidden, she was unable to take a clear shot at any one of the Klingons with the phaser on narrow beam. On wide field, she was likely to get Hollis along with the Klingons. All three of them were armed, and if she moved out of cover, they were likely to target her with disruptor fire before she had eliminated more than one of them-- leaving Hollis still vulnerable.

It occurred to her that the reason she and Hollis and the others were here was to rescue whoever had sent the distress call. Certainly that had been the Klingons. Rescue? she thought. The regulations called for immediate response to distress calls, but she was unable to remember any subsection dealing with rescue of the enemy.

The enemy...

In fact, a handful of Kh'myr Klingons had murdered James Kirk's son on the Genesis planet simply to exercise their own sense of superiority. Chekov had described the incident for her one night in the dark, and in her mind's eye she could see Kirk sliding out of the command chair onto the floor, stricken with rage, and grief, and pain. Someone in the mire of Starfleet records-keeping still maintained a list of casualties caused by encounters with the Klingon Empire; it went on to the point of being numbing, in spite of the much-heralded Organian Peace Treaty. There was no declared war between the Federation and the Klingons, but that was not to say that there were no battles. They were a people driven by hate, it seemed. Loving nothing so much as the victory, the kill, the destruction of the enemy.

And Klingons have no mercy no mercy no mercy.

Abruptly, one of the Klingons reached down and hauled Hollis to his feet. Hollis seemed to be regaining consciousness, and struggled feebly against the much stronger grip of the Klingon. The three warriors exchanged more heated words. The one holding Hollis dangled him easily from one hand, studying the young man as he might some sort of biological specimen. He tossed his head, laughed loudly and raucously, and then, in a movement so swift that Jaeger never saw it happen, brought his ceremonial blade up, thrust it in, and brought it back down. He dropped Hollis to the ground and withdrew the blade easily, wiped it on the sleeve of his uniform, threw back his head, and resumed laughing.

Jaeger's mouth lolled open. Her stomach rolled over slowly, and she was forced to swallow hard several times to keep anything from coming up.

"Evaluate," she heard one of her Academy instructors droning inside her head. Johnson? Yes. He'd been fond of comparing battle to football games. "Evaluate. Size up your situation. Then take the ball and run with it."

If nothing else, Gretchen Jaeger had been an excellent student. In the space of a few seconds, she sized up her situation, seized the ball, and ran like hell with it.

The three Klingon warriors barely knew what was happening. In the midst of quarreling over what to do with their captive (a moot question now that his entrails were spilling out onto the ground), they had made the mistake of assuming that there were no more Federation people nearby. Now, seemingly from out of nowhere, another of the puny Starfleet people had exploded into their midst. They were scrambling for cover and drawing disruptors when phaser fire cut down one of them. The other two dove behind rocks and shouted to each other. Jaeger, coming out of the furious roll with which she had thrown herself across the clearing, took shelter a short distance away.

Something was wrong with her phaser; despite its "heavy stun" setting, which should have done no more than jolt the Klingon off his feet, the single shot had blasted him into infinity--and with more intensity than Jaeger had ever seen come from a hand phaser. Heart throbbing furiously, she brought the phaser closer to her face to examine the settings, and her eyes widened in horror. Almost inaudibly because of the shrill of the wind, the phaser was bleeping rhythmically in sync with the tiny amber "OVERLOAD" light set into the grip. More instructions popped into her head from the week-long training session intended to make the cadets as familiar with phasers as they were with their own hands. Jammed with safety features, the little phasers didn't often malfunction, but when they did, and the "OVERLOAD" warning appeared, there was only one option open to the weapon's owner: get rid of it, and do it fast.

Rolling onto her side, Jaeger curled her arm and gave the phaser a beautiful, powerful toss out and away. Three seconds later, it plopped to the ground alongside the Klingon who had murdered Will Hollis. Frowning, the Klingon reached out, seized the tiny weapon and drew it closer to examine it. He had no time to notice the bleeping of the flashing amber light. Twelve seconds after Jaeger had jettisoned the phaser, it reached critical overload and exploded. Two seconds after that, all that remained of the phaser were needle-sized shards of metal. Not much more remained of the Klingon.

The last of the Klingons bellowed a horrible, echoing curse in his guttural native dialect. Nothing answered him but the howl of the wind. Furious, but struggling to maintain what was left of his warrior's dignity, he shifted into a squat behind his pile of rocks and abandoned his Klingonese for a heavily accented version of English.

"Come out!" he yelled across the clearing.

Only one word came back. "Bastard!"

The Klingon rocked onto his heels. Female? The cause of all this trouble was a female? Never mind, he told himself; she would be unarmed now...or so he hoped. Creeping slowly to one side to allow himself somewhat of a clear shot, he brought his disruptor up to shoulder level and fired toward the mound of rocks behind which Jaeger had taken shelter. Chunks of rock exploded into the air, flickering with sparks. There was no movement visible. The Klingon began to smile as he drew himself to his feet and strode across the clearing, rounded the rockpile and pointed the disruptor at Jaeger. As he had suspected, she had no other weapon. It was just like the simple-minded Starfleet people to depend on a single phaser! "Come out of there," he said, consumed with amusement.

Jaeger glared up at him. "You murdering Klingon son of a bitch."

He knew more than enough colloquial English to understand the meaning of her words. One female, he thought, and such a small one at that. "I said come out of there."

She climbed to her feet just slowly enough to demonstrate that she was not pleased with the situation. "Murderer," she snapped.

He was a full half meter taller than she, and was at least double her weight, but he could tell he had a job on his hands convincing her who was now in charge here. There was rage in her eyes when he reached out, took hold of her thermal coat just below her chin, and hoisted her into the air so that they were face to face.

Her face drained of color. "We came here to help you."

The Klingon began to laugh.

She wanted to struggle, try to set herself free, but knew that was what he expected, so she hung limp and weighty from the end of his arm. "You had no reason to kill him."

"You are the enemy. That was all the reason we needed."

"We came to help you!" she snapped into his face.

"Unfortunate." The Klingon glanced around. "Your ship is nearby, and in good condition, or you would not bother coming to find us, in spite of your...good intentions. So, little one, I have no need of you or your comrades. I'm sure I will be quite capable of piloting your craft out of here without your help. I would rather have had Kragan and Kurlon to accompany me, but," he shrugged, "fate seems to have had other plans for them." He grinned again. She was fuming so hard behind the breathing mask that it had begun to fog up. "Rest assured that when I reach home, I will let everyone know that the Federation came to rescue us from this lovely place. I'm sure my friends will find that most amusing." He moved his hand slightly, letting her sway back and forth like a child's toy. "I hate to dispose of you," he mused. "You would make a most interesting captive."

Her eyebrows came down so low that they sank into the top rim of the breathing mask. "I'd rather die."

"Fine," said the Klingon.

"I thought you people don't take prisoners."

"Most of the time, no. It's not worth the trouble. But in certain cases..." He chuckled softly. "You could serve to amuse me during the journey home. But since you're not interested, I'll send you to join your two comrades."

"Two?" Jaeger murmured.

"Yes. That one," he jerked his head in the direction of Hollis's corpse, "and the one who argued with Kurlon's disruptor." He studied her expression. "You didn't know about him? He's gone, little one."

She was beginning to quiver involuntarily in his grip, though it was half because his clench on her coat collar was squeezing her windpipe. They spent a long moment examining each other across the narrow space between their faces. She felt oddly detached, as if this were yet another Academy scenario (they had acted out dozens of them, with other students dressed as Klingons), somehow unconvinced that her life would end here, as Hollis's had, yet unsure why she was not afraid.

Several seconds had ticked by when she caught sight of movement over the Klingon's left shoulder. "Let me go," she croaked. He frowned but said nothing. "I said let me go!" she sputtered. He grinned widely, unaware of what had caught her attention behind him.

Before he could react, in a move to rival anything she had ever accomplished on the handball court, she brought her legs up and in, slammed the soles of her feet against the Klingon's midriff, and tucked herself into a roll as his grip on her coat was snapped loose.

As she hit the ground a couple of meters away, she heard the whine of a phaser and the Klingon's abbreviated scream of protest. Her vision blurred for an instant; when it had cleared, Spock was bending over her moving silently and rapidly.

Until she felt his touch, she had been unaware that in pulling away from the Klingon, she had broken the strap on the breathing apparatus. She lay still, holding her breath as much as possible while Spock finished repairing the damage. She remembered Hollis's comparison: the air did smell something like a bonfire of rotten eggs, and her stomach churned from the sharp lungful she had inhaled when she hit the ground.

"Are you all right, Lieutenant?" Spock asked finally.

She coughed spastically. The fresh air coming through the breathing mask didn't seem to do much to clear her offended lungs. "I think so," she wheezed.

With a firm hand on her upper arm, Spock hoisted her to her feet, keeping hold of her until he was sure she wasn't likely to topple over. Tom Cooper stood a few feet away, alternately watching his shipmates and the tortured figure of the Klingon. The enemy warrior's body was convulsing, surrounded by a flickering, sparking aura of eerie greenish light. He was obviously dead, yet continued jerking on the ground like a beached fish. Jaeger peered down at him, then looked curiously at Spock. "His molecular structure has begun to dissolve," the Vulcan said dispassionately.

"But your phaser was set on stun," Cooper pointed out.

"Indeed," Spock replied. "The ionization in the atmosphere caused the phaser to malfunction."

"Mine overloaded," Jaeger told him. "Took two of them with it."

Spock examined his phaser briefly, checking for signs of overload. Clipping the weapon back onto the belt of his jacket, he asked Jaeger, "Then this was the last of them?"

"Yes, sir. There were just the three--that I know of."

Cooper was looking around, frowning. "We'd better find Gibbs."

"They got him," Jaeger said quietly.


"Before they..." Her eyes went to Hollis. Some of the blood soaking his coat had dried in the wind. His right fist was clenched in a final, futile protest. Jaeger's vision misted over. "Before they...oh, God, Hollis." She looked plaintively at Cooper, then at Spock. "I was too late, Mister Spock."

He nodded solemnly. "We were all too late, Lieutenant. But we have all done everything we can do. I believe we should try to return to the Enterprise."


"Sensors picking up something, sir," Chekov said. "Unidentified."

"Hailing frequencies open, Captain. No contact with the vessel." Uhura tapped on her keyboard, the fingers of her other hand resting lightly on her earphone. She had been listening to static for so long that the sound began to seem natural.

Kirk's fist clenched and opened. "Go to yellow alert."

"Yellow alert, sir," Uhura confirmed.

Chekov went on urgently tapping instructions into the computer relay. His reaction to the relentless static in his ears and flickering through the computer screens was opposite that of Uhura; it was more than he could stand, and he felt a wicked urge to pull up the board and begin ripping out circuitry modules and fiber optics just to silence the noise. He tried feeding the shuttle's specifications into the computer and asking it to verify whether the approaching blip met the same specs, but the computer insisted in its inscrutable green on black readout, "INSUFFICIENT DATA".

"Come on, come on," Chekov muttered, switching tacks and scanning the planetoid's surface for large metallic objects. "Don't tell me 'insufficient data', machine. Tell me where the shuttle is, and tell me now."

Kirk was watching his lack of progress. "Visual on the vessel, Mister Hennessy."

"Aye, Captain." Hennessy set the main viewer to pick up visual scan of the area around the blip, filling the screen with the gray-brown image of the planetoid peppered with static. "Nothing yet, sir," Hennessy said quietly, adjusting the controls to augment the image slightly. An interminable couple of minutes went by, then, at last, a tiny, wobbling object appeared near the center of the screen. "There, sir!" Hennessy exclaimed.

"Full magnification," Kirk told him.

Hennessy touched the zoom controls. Approaching the Enterprise on an increasingly ragged course was the Galileo. "Sir?" Hennessy said. "It doesn't look like they know where they're going."

"It may not be the landing party," Kirk said through his teeth. "Uhura, keep trying to raise them."

"Galileo, this is Enterprise," Uhura said softly but urgently into the mike. "Galileo, this is the Enterprise, do you read? What is your status, Galileo? Come in."

Chekov stopped playing with the computer and alternated watching Uhura and the main viewer. Most of the color had drained from his face. Kirk's words had stricken him; was it possible the Klingons had overcome the landing party and taken the shuttlecraft for their own? He doubted they'd be stupid enough to take on the full crew of the Enterprise, even if they were heavily armed. On the other hand, the shuttle had insufficient power for them to head anywhere else.

"Collision course, Captain," announced Hennessy.

"Homing beacon," Kirk instructed. "Full power. Turn on all the docking lights. Whatever you can do to guide them in."

Uhura said soberly, "No answer from the shuttle, sir."

"Keep trying."

They watched for another urgent moment while the Galileo bobbed closer, looking like nothing so much as an amusement park ride. The tiny shuttle's stabilizers seemed to be gone; that, or it was being driven by a very drunken pilot. "Gretchen?" Chekov whispered. His thoughts bounced between wanting it to be her (and not hostile aliens) and wanting it not to be her (for on her worst days she would never pilot the shuttle so badly). He began to rise from the science station seat, moving unconsciously closer to the viewscreen. "Sir," he said sickly, "they're out of control. We've got to do something. They're going to hit us."

"Tractor beam," Kirk said to Hennessy. "Haul them in here."

Hennessy programmed the information into his board and touched controls. "Tractor beam locked on, sir."

Kirk was out of his seat now, too, moving toward the turbolift doors. Over his shoulder, he said to Uhura, "Full security detail to the shuttle bay. Phasers on stun. Go to red alert... until we find out who's on that shuttle. And have Doctor McCoy meet me outside the landing bay. On the double."


Surrounding the shuttle were six security officers, all crouched with phasers aimed at the doorway of the shuttlecraft. When Spock stepped into the doorway, brows hiked in surprise, they held their position, but all looked to Kirk for instructions. Kirk said nothing for a long, heavy moment: he was staring at the front of Spock's thermal coat, which was soaked through with blood: red, not green.

"What happened, Spock?" Kirk asked tersely.

"The distress signal was from a Klingon scout vessel." Stepping off the ramp, Spock beckoned McCoy to go inside. "I believe that Lieutenant Jaeger needs your attention, Doctor. Her breathing apparatus was torn off briefly." To Kirk, he added somberly, "Gibbs and Hollis are dead, Captain."


"Gibbs from disruptor fire, I believe. Hollis is inside."

McCoy--with Chekov two steps ahead of him--had already gone into the shuttle. He had glanced at Hollis's body just long enough to assure himself that the young man was beyond any help he could offer, then had joined Chekov at Jaeger's side. Chekov was holding Jaeger's hand, talking to her softly, enormously relieved although her pasty expression should have done little to reassure him that she was all right. With one eye on the doorway as Kirk entered the shuttle, McCoy ran his mediscanner in front of Jaeger and made mental notes of the readings it produced. Chekov looked at him hopefully.

"She'll be all right," McCoy said, straightening up. "Lieutenant, can you walk on your own?"

Jaeger nodded, stood up, and swayed alarmingly. Chekov seized her by the arm. "I guess not," she said to McCoy, trying for a smile.

"Take her to Sickbay," the doctor told Chekov.

Spock had placed Hollis's body stretched out in the rear of the shuttle, where it occupied most of the available empty floor space between the bulkhead and the crew seats. The security officer's eyes were closed, but even so his face left little doubt as to what kind of pain he had been in when he died. His jaw was contorted; his fair, whiskerless cheeks were drawn back as if he had been trying to scream. The thermal coat bulged open from the slice the Klingon dagger had made, although Spock had tried to press it closed to cover the enormous wound underneath. Kirk stood over the boy, wedged between the crew seats, gazing down at the body with something unreadable spread across his face. The air in the shuttle was tangy with traces of cyanoalisitate and the smell of Hollis's blood.

"Jim?" McCoy ventured quietly.

The captain turned to him, his expression still enigmatic but with a severity in his eyes that startled McCoy. His glance went past McCoy to Spock and to Cooper, standing near the front of the shuttle, waiting for orders. Kirk's fingers moved a little, then, abruptly, he snapped, "Report at oh-eight-hundred hours for debriefing," and strode out of the shuttle.

Cooper turned to Spock, his eyes full of questions. "Sir..."

"Dismissed, Ensign," was Spock's only response.

Chapter 2

McCoy shoved aside the stack of medical record tapes he had been working from, thumbed the intercom button and punched in the code for the bridge with a force that threatened to send the button through the console to the underside of his desk.

"Bridge. Commander Uhura."

"Uhura, where's the captain?" McCoy asked sharply.

The chief communications officer's voice had a strong thread of stress in it, too. "I don't know, Doctor. He hasn't been on the bridge for some time. Would you like me to --"

"No." McCoy thumbed the button again and tried the code for Kirk's quarters. This time there was no reply. Gritting his teeth, McCoy got up from his chair, and smacked his knee hard on the edge of the desk. The pain brought a couple of involuntary tears to his eyes. "God damn," he muttered, directing the oath at the wall beacon which had been flashing red alert for the last two hours. Favoring the injured knee, McCoy strode to the wall and examined the intercom with a rising fury, trying to decide if dismantling the unit was more than a five-minute project. Zapping the infernal thing with a phaser would be a lot faster, he thought.

The door to the main corridor hummed open, and Spock stepped into McCoy's office, frowning when he noticed the doctor moving toward the wall speaker with a slender medical instrument in his hand. "Are you planning to stab it to death, Doctor?" he inquired.

McCoy wheeled. "Damn it, Spock," he began. Over the last half hour he had perfected the art of talking through clenched teeth, and had to make a conscious effort now to unclench them. "Jim canceled the alert almost two hours ago. We got out of the ion storm almost that long ago. How long is it going to take to silence this thing? Or are they testing me? They want to find out how much of this it takes to drive me into a homicidal frenzy."

"I doubt that anyone has you singled out, Doctor," Spock replied mildly. "The alarm goes to every part of the ship."

"I know. I checked."

"The maintenance team is working as quickly as possible."

"That's what they always tell you," McCoy hissed. "They're 'working on it'."

"Do you have reason to doubt them?"

McCoy opened his mouth to reply, then thought better of it. Twenty-one years of practice had taught him that volleying with Spock was usually pointless, and, at the moment, his nervous system was far too frayed for him to enjoy the effort. "No," he sighed. "I don't."

The Vulcan nodded. "How is Lieutenant Jaeger?"

"I released her into Chekov's care. He was driving me crazy, too, with his hovering." McCoy sank into his chair and rubbed gingerly at his knee. "She seems to be recovering. I don't think she got enough cyanoalisitate to do any permanent damage, although she's going to have a hell of a headache for a while." He nodded at the empty bed. "I told her to rest--although how anyone could rest in all this racket is beyond me."

Hands clasped behind his back, Spock leaned toward the desk to scan the information on the viewer. It was a report on the effects of cyanoalisitate on Human life forms. "Interesting. If you don't mind, Doctor, I should like to review this information later myself."

"Do it now, if you want. I can't concentrate."

"Later will be fine." Spock paused, straightened up and moved away from the desk a pace or two. McCoy peered at him curiously. "I am concerned about the captain."

"Join the club."

"He seems to be taking Hollis and Gibbs's deaths much too seriously."

McCoy switched off the viewer and sat back in his chair. "I know."

"I haven't seen him quite this...preoccupied in some time."

"You're not going to quote me a precise number of months, days and hours?" McCoy asked perversely. Spock lifted a brow in response but said nothing. The doctor went on, "He's been...all right, 'preoccupied' for a few weeks. I don't see any reason for it. Nothing's changed. It's been over three years since the trouble on Nimbus Three. He's gotten over his problem with you--fine. Now, he seems to be getting worse. When I ask him about it, he either ignores me or laughs it off. I don't like it, Spock. I don't like it a damn bit. We're supposed to meet with the Citizen's High Council of Dianas tomorrow, and he isn't...well, let's say he doesn't represent Starfleet in its best light."

Spock asked, "There's nothing medically wrong with him?"

"Not a thing. Those handball matches with Jaeger have whipped him into shape. Physically, he's fine."

"I believe we should talk with him."

McCoy considered the suggestion for a long moment. He didn't begin to think they'd have any sort of success; his attempts in the past to get Kirk to discuss an emotional problem had usually resulted in arguments, denials and bad feelings on both sides. But, he reminded himself, it was his duty to supervise Kirk's emotional health, no matter how difficult that might be or how much Kirk resisted it. Nodding, he got up from the desk. "All we have to do is find him. Nobody's seen him for over an hour."

"I know where to find him," Spock said.

"Oh, you do?"

"Of course, Doctor. The captain would not leave the bridge without informing someone of his whereabouts. He is depressed, not irresponsible."

McCoy countered, "Well, it was nice of you to share the information."

"He wished to be alone. I respected that wish. Informing the crew of his whereabouts would not have served to accomplish anything, in either event."

Why can't I ever win an argument? McCoy wondered, ushering Spock toward the door, then amended the thought, No, I don't want to win. Don't care if I win. I just want to come out of one of these discussions feeling like what I've said makes some sense.


Captain's Log, Stardate 8772.1

We have passed out of the ion storm and have resumed course toward Dianas. Sensors, communications, and computer systems have returned to normal, although there are some residual problems with malfunctions in circuitry on board the Enterprise. The maintenance crew anticipates having these resolved shortly. Doctor McCoy has informed me that Captain Spock and Ensign Cooper have suffered no ill effects with regard to the landing on Duncan's Rock. Lieutenant Jaeger has suffered minor complications from cyanoalisitate poisoning but continues to improve, and Doctor McCoy anticipates that she will suffer no long term damage. Starfleet has been informed of the deaths of Ensign Hollis and Lieutenant Gibbs. The record will show that they died in the performance of their duties.


Jim Kirk sat alone in the officers' lounge, two levels below the bridge in the Enterprise's eleven deck saucer section. He was slouched in one of the softly cushioned chairs, his legs stretched out straight in front of him, his arms folded over his midriff. In front of him, just out of reach, was the fifteen-meter-wide viewing port, and beyond the glass, the glittering blackness of space. He watched star trails stream by for a long time, his mind largely empty though there was an aching heaviness inside him. All the artificial lights in the room were out, leaving the lounge in almost total darkness.

His eyelids began to feel heavy after a while, but he resisted giving himself up to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes he could see Hollis's face floating in front of him. Light brown, fuzzy hair, bright blue eyes, a crooked scar over his left eyebrow that he'd never bothered to have removed. He was a gregarious kid, funny, the first one to liven up a gathering on the rec deck. Kirk remembered seeing him one evening not long ago, loudly leading an off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday" for some fellow crew member around an obviously hand-fashioned birthday cake. That faded into the memory of two hours ago. The look on the boy's face--he had died in inconceivable pain. Soon Kirk would have to perform that least pleasant of all commander's duties: sitting at the BellComm terminal in his quarters and sending a commpic to be forwarded to the boy's family. A few words about how brave their son had been, how he had died gallantly protecting the galaxy from...what? A handful of stranded Klingons? Kirk rubbed fiercely at his temples.

Things could have been different, he thought. I could have saved Edith. Could have stayed back there with her. He shut his eyes and tried conjuring up her face instead of Hollis'. They'd had such a short time together, just a few days--but there had been so much caring, so much emotion in that little time. She didn't have to die! he thought. So what if it changed the future? There are so many alternate futures. One lost wouldn't make that much difference.

He used that argument with himself more often lately: that he could have made a life back there, with Edith. A home, children, a solid, regular existence that didn't involve sending someone else's children to their deaths. Occasionally, it occurred to him that even when he had had a home on Earth, he had not been happy, but he ignored that train of thought. At one point, he even wondered how it had happened that he had fallen so completely in love with Edith Keeler over the course of a few weeks--love enough that she had haunted his memory for twenty years. What do I want? he asked himself. He sat forward in the chair, leaning his elbows on his knees and resting his chin on his fists. Her? Do I really want her back? Want to be back there with her? Something Spock had said when they were battling the entity that called itself V'Ger came back to him: "It knows only that it needs. And like most of us, it does not know what." Pain throbbed at the back of Kirk's head. So tell me, James T. Kirk, he thought. What is it that you want? What do you need?

Something, he thought. Something more than this.

"Damn," he murmured.

He'd had high hopes a month ago, when they'd picked up a passenger at the Prothos colony, a Starfleet specialist bound for a year's tour of duty on Dianas. Peter, his nephew, the only surviving son of his brother Sam and Aurelan Kirk, one of the few living relatives Kirk had left. The captain, barely restraining a broad grin, had dashed from the bridge down to the hangar deck to greet his guest, anticipating a month of good times before Peter's service on Dianas began...and was met by a stranger. The young man who stepped out of the Federation shuttle and faced James Kirk was most decidedly not the child Sam and Aurelan had borne. He was stiff, unfriendly and unwilling to acknowledge his uncle in any way that was not demanded by the elder Kirk's rank. Dislike emanated from every square inch of him. Jim Kirk had been startled, then puzzled, then hurt, then angry, and, after a single day of trying to penetrate his nephew's defenses, had walked away from the boy and left him in the hands of the science department. McCoy had questioned both Peter's coldness and Kirk's reaction, but neither offered the doctor any explanations. In the ensuing month, uncle and nephew had not spoken a single word to each other.

Something more than that, Kirk thought. I need something more than that. Someone more. Someone I don't need to leave behind.

He stared out the viewport at the flickering vista of stars. This is what I chose! No home, no family. This. He'd lamented once, long ago, about not having a beach to walk on. Beach? he thought. No solid ground at all. And I picked it. A sigh welled up inside him, and he didn't try to hold it back. Swell choice, Jim! You'll be old and doddering, and there you'll be, on the bridge, till they have to haul you out of there because you can't handle it any more. Unless you reach the point where you can't handle it anymore before you get old and doddering. He smiled wryly to himself. Then what would you have? he thought. Less than what you have now...

The lounge door opened, but Kirk avoided turning his head.

"Private party?" McCoy asked.

Kirk said stiffly, "Yes."

Spock and McCoy crossed the room to stand near Kirk's chair. He could barely hear their footsteps, cushioned by the heavy pile carpet. A minute ticked by, weighty with silence.

"Spock," McCoy said finally. "It's quiet in here."

"Yes," Spock agreed.

The doctor persisted, "I mean, you can't hear the damn klaxon in here."

"Of course not. I disconnected the circuit to this room."


Another beat of silence. Kirk could imagine the look Spock was giving the medical officer: that same look he had every time he felt himself wasting time giving obvious information to the unenlightened.

"So that it would be quiet in here," Spock replied evenly.

McCoy shot back, "Well, thanks a lot. That was thoughtful of you."

"You're quite welcome, Doctor."

"Gentlemen," Kirk said softly.

"Captain?" Spock inquired.

"Get out."

"We came here to talk," McCoy said.

"I don't want to talk. If you two want to talk, be my guest, but do it somewhere else. This is a big ship."

McCoy looked around as his eyes became accustomed to the dim light. He could hear nothing save the sound of their breathing. Funny, he mused, I never noticed it could be this quiet in here. He rested his hands on the back of an empty chair. Kirk was still staring out the viewport.

"Jim," McCoy said, "that boy's death wasn't your fault." Kirk said nothing, didn't even stir, so McCoy plunged gamely ahead. "Or Spock's, or anybody else's. It just happened." He waited. Still no reply. "It was a risky mission, Jim. He knew that. They all know it. This is no church picnic we're on. You don't sign on with Starfleet if you enjoy being safe and cozy. It's a risk--every day, every minute." He glanced at Spock.

The Vulcan was watching him curiously, not contributing, not interfering, just listening.

Somehow McCoy found that annoying. "We've lost personnel before. God knows, we'll probably lose more. But you can't blame yourself for it. That's not realistic, Jim."

"Are you through?" Kirk asked.

"No, damn it, I'm not through. Take this for what it is, Jim. It's the same thing every commander has gone through for thousands of years. You have to make the decisions. Sometimes you don't like the results. But there was no other way. You had to respond to that distress call, no matter who sent it, or where it came from. That's your duty."

Kirk stiffened a little in the chair. "Don't tell me what my duty is. I know what my duty is."

"Then either live with it, or resign. Those are your options."

There was another long moment of silence. Then Kirk got up from the chair, moving slowly, and stood with his back to the viewport so that his face was practically invisible to Spock and McCoy. "If you want to remove me from command," he said stonily, "then do so. Otherwise, keep the lectures to yourself. I don't need any lectures. I know what my job is, and I'm trying to do it. Now get out of here, and leave me alone."

I knew it, McCoy thought. "All right...Captain."

McCoy stalked out of the lounge, not looking to see whether Spock would follow. The door hummed open to allow him to pass and hummed shut behind him. Spock stayed where he was, his face impassive, his arms hanging easily at his sides.

"Well?" Kirk said hotly.

"I did not come here to talk. Only to listen."

Kirk studied his friend briefly, his face chiseled with a furious frown that gradually slid away and left nothing in its place. Then he began to pace back and forth in front of the viewport, his hands clenched, his shoulders so stiff that they would ache for hours afterward, his breath coming in and out startlingly loud in the hush of the dark lounge. He stopped pacing intermittently to look at Spock. The Vulcan changed neither posture nor expression as the minutes passed; if need be, he could stand frozen for several hours, though he seldom found occasion to try. He just waited until James Kirk was ready to unleash the emotion building up inside him.

Fully twenty minutes passed before Kirk finally spoke. "How would you feel, Spock, if you went through your life and after fifty-four years all you had left of your family was my nephew, Peter?"

"I'm afraid I don't see your point," Spock replied.

"I've lost both parents, my brother and sister-in-law. My son. I have no wife, no children left. My uncle passed away last year. My cousins don't speak to me, neither do Georgie or Marcus. All I really have left is Peter."

"You find that to be a problem?"

"He hates me."

"Your nephew," Spock pointed out, "hates every living being he has encountered in this galaxy. Including, I might add, himself." He shifted position slightly, moving to gaze out the viewport at the retreating stars. "There is some fault in your logic, though. Unless you refer specifically to blood relations, I believe you tend to regard Doctor McCoy and myself as family. You have expressed that opinion on several occasions." He turned to the captain. "You are not alone, Jim."

Kirk sighed. "I'm not so sure."

"In a sense, the entire crew of the Enterprise is your family," Spock went on. "Perhaps that is what is causing the difficulty? You feel too strongly about..."

"How many have I lost, Spock? Since I got command of the Enterprise-A?"

"Seventeen," Spock replied.

"Seventeen? Seventeen people in three years? Jesus!"

"Actually, Captain, that is an extremely low ratio. Not even including the Kelvan War, there are several current ranking officers in Starfleet who have lost a majority of the people under their command. Of course, it would depend upon the particular circumstances. Captain Esteban of the Grissom lost his entire crew--and himself--but I doubt anyone in the fleet claims that it was his fault."

Kirk began pacing again. "I owe them something, Spock. These kids look to me for...to do the right thing, make the right decision. They depend on me. Why is it my right to sit on the bridge like some king on a throne, and send these kids out into God knows what?"

Spock cut him off. "I have not found it your habit to 'just sit on the bridge'. In fact, over the years, I believe you have stepped into far more dangerous situations that you should have." He moved in front of Kirk so that the captain would be forced to stop pacing. "To follow your present line of thought--is it your opinion that when the need for a landing party arises, we should choose that landing party only from among those senior officers who volunteer to take part? And leave the young people here on the ship? If the landing party were killed, the crew would have no leadership. As I believe Doctor McCoy would express it, they would be 'afloat without a paddle'. As unfair as it may seem, this crew, any crew, needs a commander. And as the doctor attempted to point out, they are not children. They are highly trained military personnel. They all knew what was involved when they received their commissions. They do not expect this to be a 'church picnic'."

"I know, Spock. I know."

"There is a burden, Jim," Spock acknowledged quietly. "But do not let it overwhelm you."

A smile grew in Kirk's face. "I thought you didn't come here to talk."

"The opportunity presented itself."


If Spock had been more than half Human, he would have smiled in return. As it was, he felt the gentle impulse inside him and, as usual, pushed it aside. He considered Kirk briefly and came to the conclusion that their conversation was over and that he had accomplished a good deal more than McCoy had. Knowing that Kirk would not be distressed by the Vulcan habit of walking away without a good-bye once a conversation was over (after so many years, he was still infinitely puzzled by the Human need for punctuation of situations that had resolved themselves), he simply turned then and left the room.

Kirk watched him go. "There is a burden," he said softly. "The question is, Spock, how long am I supposed to carry it?"


Chekov took a final critical look at the contents of the cafeteria tray as he approached the door to his and Jaeger's cabin. Medical orders be damned; he'd take the things he knew she couldn't resist: French toast with plenty of syrup, scrambled eggs, bacon, melon and hot, sweet coffee. The mixed aromas had beguiled him all the way from the mess hall even though he'd already had his own breakfast. He'd gone up to the mess hall for his usual spartan bowl of hot cereal so that she could sleep a while longer rather than hear him clanking around the in-room food processor unit. Halfway through his meal, it had occurred to him that nothing was as likely to cheer her up as the most enormous, non-nutritious, smelly tray full he could create. He'd even considered trying to cook some of it himself in the galley, without the aid of the computer, but decided that would have taken far too long...and might have produced a disaster. A very blackened disaster.

"Gretchen?" he said when the cabin door slid open. "I've brought you some breakfast." He moved into the room far enough to catch sight of her, and stopped. When he'd left half an hour ago, she'd been sound asleep (or at least seemed to be), huddled under the bedcovers with her pillow balled under her head. Now she was standing in front of the dresser, in full uniform, brushing her hair. Smiling brightly, she turned to him, saw the tray, and sniffed at the air.

"Thanks!" she chirped. "Smells great."

"What are you doing?" he asked dourly.

She put the brush down, took the tray from him and set it on the desktop. "I have to go to the debriefing."

"And then what?"

"I'm going on duty. It's my watch."

"Not until Doctor McCoy says you're fit."

"I'm fit. I talked to him." She went on talking as she cut into the French toast and nibbled at slices of bacon, half her words coming out around large mouthfuls of food. "He can't find any reason to find me not fit. He went through record tapes all night, and there's nothing to indicate that there should be anything wrong with me. I just have a wicked headache; that's all."

Chekov's dour look degenerated into a scowl. "He said the cyanoalisitate is a toxic substance which interferes with--"

"God, you sound like a textbook." Jaeger scooped up the rounded, brightly colored stone they used as a paperweight. It was a sample of a native mineral something like chalk, so that while it was nearly the size of a baseball, it was closer in weight to that baseball than a rock. "Here," she went on, tossing it lightly to Chekov. "Pitch it to me. Any time you're ready." He began to protest, but she waved him off. "Just throw it, and I'll see if I can catch it. No fumbles allowed." Chekov frowned at her, let a few seconds tick by, then tossed her the stone in a creditable underhand pitch. Jaeger's right hand shot out and she caught the paperweight easily in her palm. "See?" She put the stone back on the pile of reports it had been securing. "Now what would you like me to do? Walk a straight line?"

"Don't make fun of me, Gretchen."

"I'm not, baby, I'm not." She got up from the desk and went to him. He resisted her embrace for a moment, then softened. "I'm okay, Pav, really."

"I worry about you," he said, trying to sound angry.

"I know. I appreciate it. But I can't sit around here any more. It makes me think too much. I have to get back to work. There's no reason for me to stay in here, if there's nothing wrong with me." She kissed him soundly but quickly and went back to her breakfast. "This is great." He sat on the edge of the desk. She held out a slice of bacon. "Did you eat?"

"Yes." Even though it wasn't kosher, he took the bacon anyway. "It'll go away, you know."

"What will?"

"The nightmares."

Jaeger lowered her eyes but went on eating. "Nightmares?"

"Now you're going to lie to me and tell me you didn't have nightmares last night? You woke up three times."

"I didn't think you knew," she murmured.

"Of course I knew."

Head still low, she began prodding at the remains of the French toast with her fork. Chekov reached out and rested a gentle hand on her shoulder, surprised at the tension that had come into her muscles. "I can still see it, Pavel," she whispered. "Especially when I close my eyes. What they did to Hollis. And the Klingon--the look on his face while he was holding me." It hadn't occurred to her at the time, but once safely back on board the Enterprise, she had remembered some of the gossip about what happened to Klingon prisoners. Back at the Academy, during long summer nights around a bar table, the stories of Serenidad and Stradia had been spookily involving. Now they seemed closer to real nightmares. The Klingon had talked about taking her prisoner. In her dreams, her mind had conjured up scene after scene of what might have happened if he had done so. Shuddering, she raised her face so she could see Chekov's. "He wanted to...he wanted..."

"It didn't happen," Chekov said firmly. "And what did happen is over now."

"I don't know if I can forget it."

"You will."

"But you haven't..." she hesitated. "You still have dreams about the Ceti eel. You don't talk about it, but I know about your dreams, too."

He shrank back from her, repulsed by the memory. "Not as often," he muttered. The aroma from Jaeger's breakfast was beginning to turn his stomach.

The haunted look in his eyes made her forget the Klingon. She didn't know the entire story of the torture he'd endured at the hands of Khan Noonien Singh, but she had coaxed enough of the details out of the ship's computer to know Pavel Chekov had reason to be haunted. The idea of a tiny, larval creature crawling around inside your skull, seeking to curl itself into your brain... Jaeger was sorry she'd spoken. "Pavel," she said quietly. "I shouldn't have said anything. It was stupid and mean."

"It's all right," he said, but it was a lie.

She embraced him again, held him close and waited until his tension began to loosen. "I love you, Pavel. I love you so much."

"I love you, too."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't...sometimes I talk without thinking."

"Everybody has their own bad memories," Chekov said. He forced a smile that almost succeeded at being genuine. "Are you done eating? We'd better go down to the briefing room."

"I'm done," she nodded. "I think I spoiled my own appetite."

He slid an arm around her shoulders and steered her out of the cabin. Neither of them spoke during the short walk down the corridor to the turbolift. "Level, please?" the computer voice said when they stepped into the lift. Chekov rolled his eyes a little; although he'd been around talking non-living things since he was a small boy, the computer voice in the lift still disoriented him, especially when he was preoccupied. "G Level," he said, feeling the familiar pang of embarrassment at talking to a wall. "Main Briefing Room." The car slid into motion, gliding rapidly sideways then down, depositing Chekov and Jaeger on G Deck within a matter of seconds. Jaeger stopped outside the door to the briefing room and carefully straightened her tunic. Chekov grinned widely. "Practicing to be a Vulcan?"

"What?" Jaeger frowned.

He shook his head. "Nothing."

He remembered the first time he'd seen her. It had been inside this room, over a year ago, on the occasion of her first briefing as a new member of the crew. Kirk had come down to give the seven women and four men his usual orientation speech; later would come the one-on-one getting-acquainted chat. None of them had met the captain before, and he inspired the same terror-stricken awe in all of them. For some reason he was still not certain of, Chekov, sitting across the table from her, had particularly noticed Jaeger. She was paying diligent attention to Kirk's every word as if she were trying to memorize the whole speech, her hands tightly clenched together on the tabletop, her face painfully expressionless. Chekov recalled feeling much the same way during his first orientation, but Kirk had been a lot younger then and much more of a hardass, demanding nothing less than the best from his crew and from himself. Relax! he wanted to tell the attractive, curly-haired lieutenant. This is easy! He won't bite you--tell him a joke, and he might even laugh.

But the lieutenant hadn't noticed him. The eyes of all eleven neos had never strayed from the captain's face. If Kirk hadn't been used to that, it might have made him flinch. He tried his damnedest to get the little group to relax, lightening his tone a bit, using a few subtle jokes of his own, but they had listened to too many epic sagas concerning Jim Kirk. They would all do their jobs, and do them well, but it would take them months to learn the meaning of the two simple words "at ease".

And she's still nervous, Chekov noted as Jaeger fussed with her uniform. After a minute, he prodded her in the shoulder. "Let's go, Lieutenant."

She started. "Sorry."

They went on into the briefing room. Spock was already there, sitting placidly at the long table, his hands folded. He nodded in acknowledgment when Chekov and Jaeger entered and sat together across the table from him. The captain's yeoman had come and gone ahead of Spock, leaving an urn of coffee and a plate of sweet pastries, both of which Spock had ignored. Under his even gaze, Jaeger ran herself a cup of coffee and seized one of the pastries and disposed of both with a speed that made Spock blink. Nervousness, he observed, made her eat even faster than normal--even though her usual pace would have caused rampant indigestion in anyone else. Spock had once heard McCoy observe that the young lieutenant could eat more and eat it faster than anyone he'd ever seen, and despite McCoy's love of hyperbole, this particular time Spock believed there was no exaggeration involved.

"Lieutenant," Spock said as Jaeger self-consciously and surreptitiously licked powdered sugar off her fingers, "you are not here to be punished."


"This is merely a debriefing. I assume you know what that means."

"Yes, Mister Spock. We each tell the captain our version of what happened."

"Do you have some reason for believing you are at fault?"

Jaeger looked searchingly at Chekov, then at the tray of pastries, then at her fingers (there were still traces of sugar, but she resisted the urge to aim her fingers at her mouth again), then finally back at Spock. "Well, sir, I..." She sighed. "Yes, sir, I think I do."

"Why is that?"

"I didn't act quickly enough. To save Hollis."

"I see."

She shoved her hands under the table, holding them aloft so that the powdered sugar wouldn't rub off onto the lap of her uniform. Spock reached over to the small pile of napkins beside the coffee urn and handed one to Jaeger. Eyes down, she wiped her hands, than made a quick swipe around her mouth. If Spock thought there was anything wrong with the entire performance, he made no sign of it. When she was finished, she held the napkin crumpled in both hands. Spock seemed to be waiting for her to proceed with her explanation, so she continued, "If I had acted faster, I could have done something...stopped the Klingons. I just sat there, trying to figure out what to do. I waited too long. I should have known...should have done something." She looked to Spock for a response, some sign of approval or disapproval, but found none. He merely considered her for a long moment without expression. Jaeger let her eyes drop again and played nervously with her napkin, wondering how long it would be before Spock's intense gaze made her blush.

"There is a concept in Vulcan philosophy," Spock said at last, steepling his fingers. "It is called Kaiidth. There is no exact English translation, but you might call it 'what is, is'. I believe Mister Chekov is familiar with it."

Chekov nodded. In his mind he could hear the words not in Spock's voice but in the gentle, musical voice of Amanda Grayson, Spock's mother. During those painful months after the struggle with Khan, when Chekov had often believed that he could never drive the memories from his mind in spite of lengthy bouts of elbow-bending with Scott (when he had downed enough vodka to float the Enterprise on an eighty-proof sea) and in spite of the hypnotherapy treatments with McCoy, Spock's mother had sat with him on an ornately carved bench in her garden and explained Kaiidth in terms he might hope to understand. The Lady Amanda had studied Vulcan philosophy since her marriage to Sarek, Spock's father, some sixty years ago, and, while many of its concepts were still beyond even her patient understanding, she had grasped this particular one when the death of Sarek's brother had made it necessary. She had sympathized in her own unique way--as mother, as teacher, as student--with Chekov's anguish over the death of his captain, Clark Terrell; the deaths of the Regula personnel; his own part in the loss of Genesis to Khan Noonien Singh. She knew too well the Human habit of taking blame onto oneself for something that had been painfully unavoidable. Now, listening to Spock explain Kaiidth to Jaeger, Chekov could hear the echo of Amanda's voice in his mind.

"It is also referred to as 'mastery of the unavoidable'," Spock went on. "To simplify, it means that there is no point in overt emotional reaction to an event over which one has no control."

"The fact that you were there, that you played some role in what happened, does not mean that you were to blame," Amanda's voice said inside Chekov's head. "No one person is entirely to blame. Not even Khan himself. Any event, no matter how seemingly simple, is the result of many interrelating causes." She had smiled warmly at Chekov, who began to understand how even the logical heart of the Vulcan ambassador had been melted by this woman so many years ago. "As any Vulcan would say, to blame yourself for the death of another, even, sometimes, if you yourself held the weapon, is an example of Human conceit. In other words: the world does not revolve around you. Or any of us. You were merely one catalyst among many. Find it in your heart not to blame yourself." Chekov had still been skeptical. Amanda reached out to rest a gentle, lined hand on his arm. "Does anyone blame you, other than yourself?"

"But I did have control," Jaeger argued.

"If you have recounted the series of events accurately, Lieutenant Jaeger," Spock countered, "the amount of time between the moment when you first sighted the Klingons and the moment when they executed Ensign Hollis was approximately thirty seconds."

Jaeger's jaw sagged. "But that's not possible!"

"I assure you, Lieutenant, it is not only possible, it is a most accurate assessment." The Vulcan gave her a long look. "If you have reconstructed everything correctly."

"Thirty seconds? That's all?"

"That is all."

"But that doesn't..." She began shredding the napkin, totally unaware that she was doing it. "No disrespect, sir, but I could swear I was there five or ten minutes. I mean...I watched them. They kept arguing about something--what they were going to do with him, I guess. I couldn't make out very much of it. My Klingonese isn't very good. It was a long time that went by, Mister Spock. A lot more than thirty seconds. It had to be."

Chekov said quietly, "Time slows down."

Jaeger turned to frown at him. The rustle of air caused by her movement made some of the shreds of cloth flutter off the table onto the floor. "What?"

"It's hard to tell how much time goes by. It might seem like forever and only be a few seconds."

"I suppose. But..."

"I'm sure Mister Spock is right, jajub...Lieutenant."

"Thank you, Mister Chekov," Spock said.

Pushing his chair away from the table, Chekov gathered the remains of the napkin and carried them to the disposal bin. Jaeger had begun wringing her hands down in her lap. Chekov and Spock exchanged glances but said nothing. They had both experienced this situation before: Chekov with Jaeger, Spock with someone else. Chekov smiled wryly, wondering how long it would take Spock's Vulcan patience to wear thin if he intended making Jaeger accept the philosophy of Kaiidth. When she fell into a funk like this, she would blame herself for the very existence of Klingons if the thought occurred to her. He glanced at the chronometer over the door: 0757 hours.

"May I suggest that you give the matter additional thought, Lieutenant," Spock said. "But on some other occasion."

"Yes, sir," Jaeger said morosely.

"For the time being," Spock continued as the chrono ticked over into 0758, "I would recommend not claiming any responsibility for the events that took place during the rescue mission...and not wasting the captain's time with anything other than facts. He has a good deal more to occupy his attention than dealing with rampant emotionalism on the part of one of his crew."

"Yes, Mister Spock." Jaeger's eyes dropped once more. She was reddening in earnest now.

Chekov leaned over and whispered (knowing that Spock could hear him nonetheless), "Remember, this is Starfleet. If you've done something wrong, they'll blame you." He meant it as a comfort, with a broad smile intended to spark a grin from Jaeger, but all he got in return was a horrified stare.

The briefing room door hummed open, and Tom Cooper hustled in, trailed by McCoy and Kirk. The two senior officers had resumed their argument along the way; Kirk's face was frozen, and McCoy was scowling. Kirk moved to the chair at the head of the conference table, surveyed his assembled personnel, nodded and sat down. Spock, Chekov and Jaeger, who had risen as the captain strode into the room, resumed their seats as McCoy and Cooper found chairs on Spock's side of the table. Pretending to ignore Spock's long, assessing look at him, Kirk drew himself a cup of coffee and plucked a Danish off the plate, daring McCoy with a steely look to say anything in protest. The hard-lost twenty pounds lingered just over his shoulder, he knew, but if he felt like making breakfast out of a gallon of coffee and half a dozen Danish, then he would damn well do just that. After a long swig of coffee, he reached out to tap the "record" button on the console.

"Record of official debriefing," he said into the little condenser mike in the table. "U.S.S. Enterprise, Starfleet registry number NCC-1701-A, Captain James T. Kirk commanding. Stardate: 8772.7. Present: Captain Spock, First Officer; Commander Leonard H. McCoy, Chief Medical Officer; Commander Pavel A. Chekov, Chief of Security and Personnel; Lieutenant Gretchen L. Jaeger, Relief Navigator; Ensign Thomas J. Cooper, Security Specialist." He gulped a large bite of Danish. "We are here to record and examine the events which took place during the rescue mission of Stardate 8771 to Duncan's Rock in response to an unidentified distress call received from the planetoid surface, which rescue mission resulted in the deaths of Lieutenant Harold Gibbs, Ensign William Hollis, and three...citizens of the Klingon Empire." Watching McCoy, he swigged down more coffee and another huge mouthful of Danish. McCoy's lower jaw was sticking out, his eyes narrowing. "Captain Spock, would you please relate for the record your version of the events that took place during the rescue mission."

"Go ahead," McCoy told Kirk hotly. "Poison yourself."

"Save it," Kirk snapped.

Spock began to talk, quietly and evenly, into the mike in front of his chair, seemingly oblivious to the anger rebounding between Kirk and McCoy. He recounted little that Jaeger and Cooper had not been aware of; so little time had passed while the landing party was separated that not much had occurred on the surface of Duncan's Rock aside from the encounter with the Klingons. Spock's final comments were on his discovery of the Klingons' wrecked spacecraft.

"It was intact enough to serve as shelter," Spock went on.

Kirk replied, "Supplies?"

"There were enough food stores left for an additional seven to ten days. Water for approximately two weeks."


"Non-functional, except for the distress beacon."

"So if the Enterprise had not responded to the distress call, the Klingons would have been able to survive for another two weeks."

"At best, Captain, assuming another rescue party did not come along."

Kirk nodded. "Let the record also show that according to all known surveys of Duncan's Rock, there are no natural sources of water or anything that might be used as food on the surface of the planetoid. The only indigenous life forms are poisonous to most humanoids." He turned to Jaeger, then to Cooper, and listened in silence while they recorded their own versions of what had happened. He had heard most of it already, from them and from Spock, and had few comments to interject when they were finished talking. Inwardly, he was surprised at how little emotion surfaced during the debriefing, though he suspected Spock had forewarned the two younger crew members against it. He had watched Jaeger's and Cooper's eyes while they were speaking; the grief, the regret, the sense of failure he felt in himself were in them also, but what went into the ship's record was bare fact. As it should be, he thought, wishing there were another, separate way to record everything that was being suppressed by Spock and the two young people. "Very well," he said ultimately. "Anything else that should be added into the record?" Everyone at the table shook his or her head. "End of record," Kirk said into the mike, and touched the "stop" button.

"There is one more thing, Captain," Spock said, "but I do not believe it should be part of the official record of the incident."

"What's that?" Kirk inquired.

Spock lifted onto the table the small, drawstring cloth bag he had been holding in his lap since taking his seat over an hour before. Under the curious gazes of the others, he loosened the drawstring and emptied onto the polished table surface a heap of malium crystals as big as his fist. The five Humans gasped in unison as the crystals tumbled loose on the tabletop, their natural facets reflecting the overhead lighting.

"Bozhe moi," Chekov breathed.

"Spock," McCoy said with a noticeable catch in his voice. "Do you know what you have there?"

"Yes, Doctor. At the current rate of exchange, one hundred sixty-three million, seven hundred forty-six thousand, nine hundred thirteen credits."

"Holy cow," Cooper said. "You could buy yourself a planet!"

"I could," Spock responded evenly. "But the crystals are not mine to dispose of."

"Where did you find them, Spock?" Kirk asked.

"Inside the Klingon scout craft."

"Really." It wasn't quite a question. Kirk's hazel eyes hadn't strayed from the crystals for an instant since Spock had poured them onto the table. He had to consciously restrain himself from reaching out to gather up a handful. So this is what all the fuss is about, he thought, at once understanding (at least partially) why so many people had gone to their deaths on Duncan's Rock on the off chance of obtaining what Spock had in front of him. "So you...salvaged them from the Klingons."

"Yes, Captain. In the strict sense, that is exactly what I did."

Kirk's gaze flickered up. "I see."

McCoy also pulled his attention away from the crystals to examine the typically unreadable expression on Spock's face. "You can't really intend to...give them back to the Klingons?"

Spock shrugged. "What would you have me do, Doctor?"

"I don't know," McCoy sputtered. "Don't you have a favorite Vulcan charity you could donate them to? Something! Anything!"

"As I said, they are not mine to give."

"Confound it, Spock! Stop being so damned honest."

"I cannot be anything else, Doctor."

McCoy began wringing his hands, his attention bouncing from Spock to Kirk to the crystals and back again. He, too, understood the reason for all those mining expeditions. Like love at first sight, he thought. He'd never seen a malium crystal up close, only on record tapes which failed to capture even a fraction of the stones' hypnotic beauty. During all his years on Earth and in space, he'd encountered few objects he could truly refer to as breathtaking, but the malium crystals were definitely breathtaking. When the thought occurred to him, he had to shift his attention for a moment to make sure he was still breathing.

Kirk asked quietly, "Why did you take them, Spock?"

"I am not certain, Captain," Spock replied.

Kirk studied the face of his first officer for a long moment, finding no more answers in Spock's expression than McCoy had. Was it possible Spock was as hypnotized by the stones as the rest of the people around the table? He'd had more than one surprise from Spock over the last couple of years, since the Vulcan's death and rebirth and retraining. Somehow, this time around, the Vulcan Masters had slipped up with Sarek's son. His hold on Vulcan mysticism was much more tenuous this time, his suppression of emotion almost sporadic. His Human side slipped through now. Kirk felt his tension sliding away, forgot why exactly he'd been so angry with McCoy when they'd come into the briefing room. As he sat watching Spock, he began to grin widely. "Recommendation?" he said, and almost gagged on the word.

"I had hoped for a recommendation from you."

A flash of memory went through Kirk's mind but was lost. "All right, Mister Spock. My recommendation is that until we are able to decide what should be done with the malium, it should be held for safekeeping." McCoy and the others were watching him closely. "In my safe. It goes unsaid that this is confidential. Highest security. No one mentions the existence of the crystals to anyone. Clear?" He received a series of nods in reply as Spock scooped the crystals back into the drawstring bag and handed it over. Kirk's hands closed over the bag, and in that moment the flash of memory came back. That's what this is, he thought, and went on grinning. This is like when I was small, and Sam stole one of my toys away. I just stole away Spock's toys. He choked down the hearty laugh that was bubbling up inside him and slid the bag into the pocket of his uniform jacket. "Dismissed," he said, a bit more gaily than he'd planned. "Those of you on first watch, report to your stations." A moment later he was gone, followed by Cooper, Jaeger and Chekov.

"That's one for you, Spock," McCoy said when the door had closed behind the others.


"You made him laugh."

"That was not my intention."

"Doesn't matter," McCoy replied. "It's a step in the right direction."

Spock considered the idea. "The real question is, Doctor, whether laughter is of any permanent value in the captain's present state of mind. It is quite possible--indeed, it is very likely--that he will return to the mood he was in when he entered this room. Once the joke wears off."

"Why did you take the crystals?" McCoy asked pointedly.

"As I told the captain...I do not know."

"Really?" McCoy snickered. "There's another one for the books."


For most of his life Tom Cooper had heard the cliché about opportunity knocking at the door. This time, he reflected, it had not only knocked at the door, it had come in and sat down in his lap. And though Thomas Jefferson Cooper had never been listed as a genius under anyone's classifications, neither was he anybody's fool. He had spent most of the day ruminating over what he had seen that morning in the briefing room and how best to take advantage of it, and had arrived at several conclusions, one of which was--unfortunately-- that he would be unable to accept opportunity's offer single-handedly.

At the moment, he was seated in one of the fatly cushioned chairs on the rec deck, apparently kibitzing on a game of poker between four other members of the ship's security force, but actually keeping a careful eye on Gretchen Jaeger. He had located her on the rec deck forty minutes ago after a hurried check of the several other places she was likely to be in the late afternoon, intending to outline his plans for her in as much privacy as possible, dismayed when he realized she was involved in an animated conversation with an Andorian lieutenant from Personnel. Maintaining as much of a casual air as he could muster, he found a seat at the fringe of the poker game and settled for watching Jaeger out of the corner of one eye, mentally urging the Andorian to find another diversion. He had nearly reached the limits of his patience when the Andorian elaborately nodded her head, made several concluding remarks and scuttled away from Jaeger in the direction of the turbolift doors. Slowly, languidly, Cooper got up from his chair, burrowed his hands in his pockets, and ambled across the room.

"How's it going?" he said casually when he was close enough to Jaeger's chair for her to hear him.

She looked up, recognized him, smiled. "Okay."

"I wondered. The way your mask came off and all. You didn't look too hot when we got back here."

"I'm all right," Jaeger said mildly. "But thanks."

Cooper nodded. "You handled that shuttle pretty well, by the way. Tough job. Like piloting a rowboat in a hurricane." He rolled his eyes, shuddered a little, moved his face, absolutely certain she would have no idea that he didn't have a bleeding ounce of interest in her ability to pilot the shuttlecraft.

"I did all right until the stabilizers went out," she frowned.

"Oh, well, hell, that wasn't your fault."

"No, I guess not."

He nodded again and sat down casually in the seat the Andorian had vacated. "Some surprise Captain Spock came up with, huh? That stack of crystals."

"We're not supposed to discuss that," Jaeger replied.

Cooper shrugged that off. "A hundred and thirty million credits," he went on, a slightly lower tone of voice his only concession to Jaeger's warning. "You know what you could do with that much?"

"On board ship? Not a whole lot."

"Anywhere." Slouching back into the chair, Cooper stretched his long legs out onto the footrest. His expression was still deceptively mild; inwardly, he fumed at the lack of results he was getting. Come on, honey, he thought. You can't be that square. "A hundred and thirty million. Hell, even if we split it, that's still a bundle."

She frowned. "Split it?"

"Sure. Three ways. That's fair enough, isn't it?"

Jaeger's eyes widened with disbelief, and she glanced around to see if they were being overheard. "You're kidding."

"No, I'm not kidding."

"Get off it, Cooper. Mister Spock found the malium."

"If he hadn't," Cooper argued quietly, "somebody else would have. Look...we all risked our lives going down there. Hollis and Gibbs didn't even make it back. We all had an equal stake in that trip. I think we ought to have an equal stake in the reward." The look on her face made him pause. He could see her mind working behind her eyes. He didn't know her well--had only encountered her a few times before their trip to Duncan's Rock, and then very briefly--but he knew she was engaged to a senior officer, and began to think that he was very likely propositioning the wrong partner. "It's just an idea," he said mildly.

She watched his face for a long moment. "There's no 'reward', Cooper. This isn't the Cub Scouts."

"Don't I know it."

"And we're not supposed to be discussing this. Captain's orders."

Cooper gnawed his lower lip. Captain's orders, he thought. I suppose if the captain ordered her to jump into the trash disposal, she'd do that, too. "It was just an idea. I thought if we both went to the captain..."

"Count me out." Jaeger got up from her chair, eyes on something beyond Cooper's left shoulder. He turned to look; the Andorian was returning, a portable computer game tucked under her arm. She gave Jaeger a broad smile and gestured with the game, but Jaeger shook her head lightly and patted the Andorian's arm. "Maybe later, S'jaei, I've got to go." She glanced back at Cooper. "I think you ought to forget everything you saw this morning. You'll just drive yourself crazy. And get into trouble."

"Just an idea," Cooper muttered sourly as she walked away. The Andorian looked at him curiously, her head cocked to one side. Cooper sighed heavily. "Hey," he said after a moment, "How do you say 'fuck you' in your language?"

The Andorian, who had been asked similar questions countless times during her tour of duty, smirked and wrinkled her nose, then made a guttural yet musical sound.

"Thanks," Cooper said wryly.


"Come," Kirk said in response to the door chime.

The door to the corridor whooshed open, revealing Leonard McCoy standing just outside, but the doctor didn't move, regarding Kirk at the far side of the room with an expression nearly as inscrutable as Spock's usual one. Kirk lowered the book he had been reading and gazed back at the doctor; after a moment, he beckoned, and McCoy strolled into the sitting room.

"You've come to harass me some more?" Kirk asked mildly.

"No." McCoy bent and deposited the bottle of Saurian brandy he had toted up from his quarters on the little table to Kirk's left. "I came to see if you want to play cards."

Kirk frowned. "Cards?"

"Name your game." McCoy produced a well-worn deck from his pocket. "Gin Rummy, Poker, Canasta...Old Maid."

"Fizzbin?" Kirk responded.

McCoy snorted and sat down. Kirk was referring to a mythical card game he'd invented years ago to help himself out of a tight spot on Sigma Iotia II. "Not one of your finest moments," the doctor pointed out.

"Really? And how many card games have you invented, Doctor?"

"None. Same reason I don't bother trying to invent new cocktails. Some of us are inventors, and some of us are consumers." Dropping the deck of cards onto the table, McCoy crossed the room and selected a pair of brandy glasses from the collection on a shelf of the wall unit. Under Kirk's still even gaze, he poured each glass half full, handed one to Kirk and sat at the end of the couch to nurse the other glass. Nodding in the direction of Kirk's book, he inquired, "What is it?"

"Twentieth century. Tolstoy."

McCoy hiked a brow. "Light reading?"

Kirk let his spectacles slide down his nose and peered at McCoy over the rims. The glasses were a gift from McCoy, to replace an earlier pair that had been broken and then sold to an antique dealer back in San Francisco. The captain wore them only in the privacy of his quarters, grateful that his vision still had not worsened to the point where he needed spectacles for anything other than reading. Corrective lenses had been replaced years ago by chemical treatment and surgery, and existed now only as a curiosity...and Kirk had no desire to be connected with a curiosity, no matter how much it helped his vision. His particular problem could not be remedied with surgery, and he was powerfully allergic to the usual medicinal treatment, which left a choice between wearing the glasses or giving up reading. Thoughtfully, he took them off, fingered them for a moment, and laid them on the table.

"I need to forget," he told McCoy.

"Have a drink." The doctor sipped at his brandy.

Kirk swirled the golden liquid around in his glass, watching the way it caught the light. "I don't think I need a hangover right now."

"One glass does not a hangover make."

"We're a long way from home, Bones."

"What's that supposed to mean?" McCoy sniffed.

"What are we doing out here?"

"Now you're going to get philosophical on me?" McCoy took a long pull of the brandy. "For crying out loud, Jim. You know exactly why you're out here. And I know why I'm out here. It was either this or living on a remote mountain top someplace. Although sometimes I ask myself why I didn't opt for the mountain top. I could have avoided a lot more problems that way." Kirk didn't reply, but finally took a small sip of the brandy. "I heard from Joanna, you know," McCoy went on, referring to his daughter, the only child of his disastrous brief marriage. "All's well. She's settled, happy. I can just imagine the stories she tells those kids about their loony grandfather." He smirked. "There's your answer. Let's resign from the fleet and become gentleman farmers. I could see the grandchildren every Sunday. Sit on the porch and watch the sun set. Very bucolic. Picturesque. Just what we need." Sipping again, he looked at Kirk over the rim of the glass. "A life of absolute, stupefying boredom."

"That from you?" Kirk asked. "The way you kicked and screamed when Admiral Nogura called you back from retirement?"

"I hate retirement. It's like practicing for death."

Kirk smiled, a warm expression that reflected twenty years of knowing the man seated on his couch. "I'll remember that the next time you try telling me how much you hate Starfleet."

"You know what I mean," McCoy said crossly.

"I know what you mean."

"It's a matter of reconciliation. Reconciling what ought to be with what is."

Kirk smiled again. "Now who's getting philosophical?"

"Not me. I came to play cards."

"Thanks, Bones."

"For what?"

"You know what I mean."

McCoy drained his glass, considered the brandy decanter for a moment, then answered his own silent question and poured himself another drink. "Sometimes, Captain, I wish I didn't."


Even before eight-pound, seven-ounce Tom Cooper had made his howling entry into the world, his family had decided how his life should be best led, and that choice led straight to Starfleet. The 'fleet had turned his father down due to a series of unusual medical problems (never defined to young Tom), and his mother felt herself not the military type, but Tommy, their sturdy, athletic, clear-eyed boy, was obviously meant to build himself an inspiring career in space. So as far back as he could remember (and long before that, he assumed), his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, various and sundry family friends, his teachers, and even strangers off the street had pointed out to Thomas Jefferson Cooper exactly how proud he would make his mother and father by becoming a Starfleet officer.

At the age of eighteen, he followed their instructions and entered Starfleet Academy. Of course, he had done so simply to shut his family up. Once he was away from home, he found it relatively simple to avoid hearing from them: keep person-to-person calls short, on the pretext of missing a class, or a drill, or a meeting, if the call lasted more than a minute or two; and toss their frequent comm tapes into the disposal chute. He had been at the Academy less than a year when the family's endless harping changed slightly. Now it was pointed out to him exactly how he could best find success. Command school, of course. A leader of men, that was their Tommy. Why, eventually he could captain a starship! Wise, and brave, and true, with the beginnings of a hero's career behind him and brilliant gold braid decorating his shoulders, there he would be in the center seat, crisply issuing commands, a man his crew would be honored to follow into battle and back out. But by this point, their Tommy had had quite enough of listening to advice. He was, after all, a grown man, a member of Starfleet (if only a fledgling), able to make his own decisions. Nodding dutifully at his parents, he made his own decision and announced to his advisors which branch of Starfleet he would most enjoy entering. The perversity of it delighted him. Not Command; no center seat for him. Not Engineering, or Sciences, or even Maintenance. Thomas Jefferson Cooper, age nineteen, opted for the branch of Starfleet in which he was most likely to get himself killed before the age of thirty. He became a Security officer. The horror his decision inspired in his parents filled him with unbounded glee, and he took to his new calling like every fish had taken to water since the beginning of time. He was a security guard, and hot damn, he was a good security guard. No matter that the odds on his survival were abysmal. It was the luck of the draw, no more than that, and he found that the God-awful odds thrilled him the way nothing else ever had. The fact that he was posted aboard the Enterprise after graduation was testimony to his skill at his chosen profession, and he crawled into his bunk each artificial night knowing that he had done right, done well, done for himself.

And he would go on doing for himself.

Deep in thought, barely noticing the popular music piping from the speakers in the bulkhead beside him, he folded his arms up under his head and gazed up at the gray-white ceiling. It had been several hours since he had sought out Gretchen Jaeger in the rec room (and to hell with her, anyway; he should have known she was one of the captain's faithful little flunkies). Now he was waiting quietly, patiently, for the return of his cabinmate, the only other person aboard the Enterprise he was sure disliked James Kirk as much as he did. He hesitated at telling anyone new about the malium crystals, but decided it couldn't be helped. He needed a cohort, even one he did not respect. A right-hand man, an underling, a peon. He had gone to great pains over the past four weeks to convince Peter Kirk that in this one cabin, he was tolerated, if not liked. And Kirk seemed to think that was enough.

A little past nine o'clock, the outer door to the other sleeping room opened and Tom Cooper's roommate ambled in, hands burrowed deep in his pockets, a heavy scowl on his face that said he had just crossed horns with someone between here and the lower-level science labs. Cooper, who had sprung off his bunk at the sound of the door, lounged in the doorway of the bathroom that divided the two sleeping rooms. "Hey, buddy," he said amiably.

Peter Kirk snorted something in reply that failed at being words, yanked off his uniform jacket and flung it onto the end of his bunk. "What do you want?" he asked, fixing Cooper with a pointed stare.

"Hey...ease up. I'm just saying hello. That a crime?"

Jerking his head (neither a yes nor a no), Kirk dropped onto the bunk and began pulling off his boots. After a couple of minutes, Cooper's intense, watchful silence began to bother him and he swung around to look at his roommate. "Why are you staring at me?" he snapped. "Are you that bored?"

Cooper meandered around the room, pretending not to notice the younger Kirk's growing irritation. When he was sure Kirk would tolerate the beating around the bush no longer, he turned languidly, smiled, and said, "Buddy, have I got a deal for you."


The Enterprise was on night watch.

In deep space, there is no day and no night, but because of the Human need for near-natural surroundings, Starfleet had decreed long ago that on long voyages, the ship's computers should be set so that for eight out of every twenty-four hours, the lights would be lowered throughout the ship to give a night-like feeling to the corridors, public areas and even the bridge. Few areas of the Enterprise remained brightly lit during night watch: Engineering was one of the exceptions, where Montgomery Scott had been known to sit up through several consecutive watches, nursemaiding his beloved engines. During this particular watch, however, even Scott was asleep, along with two-thirds of the Enterprise's crew and her captain. The entire ship was hushed; those crew members who were not asleep were reading, clustered in small groups around the video game terminals on the recreation deck, meditating, making love, or manning their assigned stations with an attitude that occasionally drifted into a highly watchful doze.

The circular bridge, so busy during first watch even when the ship was uneventfully cruising from one assignment to the next, was at present manned by only two officers: Relief Helmsman Yehadi Remaden, and Commander Nyota Uhura, whose assigned duties had ended at midnight but who had crept quietly back to the bridge when she discovered that she was too restless to sleep. When the intercom sounded, she began to wonder if her unusual spell of insomnia had been entirely natural.

"Cooper here, Enterprise," an unfamiliar male voice came through Uhura's earphone.

"Greetings, Cooper," Uhura replied. "Is Captain Sulu available?"

"Affirmative, Enterprise. Hold on while I patch you through."

Half a minute went by, a remarkable short time in view of the distance that Uhura's words and their response had to travel across space. Uhura closed her eyes briefly, drinking in the hush of the bridge. All she could hear was the regular clicking of computer circuits. Yehadi was breathing so softly that she had to remind herself that she was not alone. The helmsman, native to an area in southern India, had told her about his skill at stalking prey: before joining Starfleet, he'd worked odd seasons as a guide for tourists on camera safaris and had an unequaled record for sneaking up on wild game. Uhura's hearing was far above par, but for all she tried, she was unable to pick up the slightest indication of the Hindu's presence on the bridge. During the half-minute, she became so absorbed by the silence that when Hikaru Sulu's voice came through the ear piece, she was so startled that she bounced several inches out of her chair.

"Enterprise, this is Captain Sulu. Uhura?"

"You bet," Uhura replied, feeling her startled heart throbbing inside her chest. "How are you, Hikaru?"

"Never better. Hey, who's got the helm? Reichard?"

"No. Yehadi."

"That cowboy? Better watch out, Nyota. If you don't keep an eye on him, he'll be playing tag in the nearest asteroid belt." Sulu's voice was solemn, but Uhura knew the joke; Sulu had trained Remaden himself and had recommended him for a spot at the helm when the captaincy of the recently refitted Cooper was offered upon their return to Earth from the center of the galaxy. Sulu went on, "Keep your finger on that yellow alert button as long as he's got the wheel."

Uhura half-turned in her chair to face Remaden, who had turned toward her when he heard his name mentioned. Holding back a smile, she relayed Sulu's message. Remaden's placid expression didn't flicker, and, in a voice as smooth as pond water, he replied in several long, lyrical Hindi sentences.

"Hikaru?" Uhura said into the mike. "He says you are a son of a Denebian slime-devil, and he heaps curses upon your ancestors."

Sulu burst into riotous laughter. "Hugs and kisses to him, too."

Once again, Uhura relayed the message. Still deadpan, Remaden pressed his palms together, bowed his head, and blew a kiss to the communications chief to be passed on to his former teacher. Uhura, too, burst into gales of laughter, buoyed on by the guffaws coming from Sulu over the subspace channel. By the time she had regained her composure, tears were flowing over her cheeks and Remaden had finally also broken into a grin.

"Listen, Nyota," Sulu said, trying for something approaching proper demeanor, "down to business. What's got you requesting a priority channel at this hour?"

"Captain Spock."

"Serious? You got a problem out there?"

"He wouldn't say."

"Better patch him through, then. Good to talk to you."

"You, too. Switching now. Hold on, Hikaru." Uhura tapped the subspace equivalent of a "hold" button, then keyed into the intercom and pressed the code for Spock's quarters. She had barely removed her fingers from the buttons when Spock's voice came through the 'com. Must have been sitting on the console, she thought, fighting an active battle not to begin laughing again. "I have Captain Sulu for you, Mister Spock. Patching him through now."

"Thank you, Uhura." Spock waited the few seconds for the relay to be completed, then leaned forward towards the mike on his desk console and said evenly, "Spock here."

"Greetings, Mister Spock," Sulu's voice came back, full of the deference he had always used with the Vulcan, in spite of the fact that they were now equal in rank. Assuming correctly that Spock would not want to waste time--especially on a priority channel--with small talk, he asked, "Anything wrong?"

"I need a favor, Mister Sulu."

"Name it."

"I would like you to locate someone, and, if possible, bring her with you to Dianas. Am I correct that you do not leave Earth for another two days?"

"That's right. We have to wait for Ambassador D'Novio to get back."

Spock nodded to himself and named for Sulu the object of his request, ignoring the soft chuckle that came across even through subspace. "I believe two days should be sufficient time for you to contact her. She is presently working at the Federation Science Institute outside Seattle, according to the personnel status listings."

Sulu replied mildly, "Enough time for me to find her...but not much notice for her to drop everything and hop a ship to Dianas. What if she's busy?"

"I trust you will persuade her, Captain."

"I'll give it a try, Mister Spock." Sulu paused. "Can I ask the reason for all this subterfuge, or is it none of my business?"

"I believe her presence on Dianas would serve to alleviate a certain difficulty we are presently experiencing."

In his cabin aboard the Cooper, Sulu crossed his eyes. He had years of experience translating Spock's highly logical, linguistically complicated speech, but yet, after all that time, he still marveled at the Vulcan's complete inability to give what Sulu would term a simple answer. Stifling another chuckle, Sulu rubbed at the back of his head and responded, "Would this 'difficulty' have anything to do with Captain Kirk?"

"It would."

"He misses her? Is that it?"

"I do not believe so. To be precise, if he does 'miss' her, I do not believe he is aware of it. However, he has developed a sudden fondness for a beverage called 'Michelob,' which she introduced him to." Puzzling over a mental picture of Kirk frowning absently into a mug of the computer's best attempt at recreating Michelob, Spock continued, "I understand that to be a trade name used in the late twentieth century. Its generic name I believe is 'beer.' As I said, the captain has become quite fond of it of late. He seems to be especially fond of staring into it until it becomes quite flat."

This time Sulu let loose a hearty laugh. "I'll do my best, Spock," he promised.

"I would appreciate that."

"I'll get her there. Is there aquatic life on Dianas?"

Spock replied, "I am quite sure there is."

"That should sway her a little. Just hold things up on your end in the meantime. We'll see you in nine days." Sulu waited a moment to see if Spock had anything else to say, knowing that if Spock was finished, he was likely to break the channel without much warning. The Vulcan said nothing, so Sulu concluded, "Keep well, Mister Spock."

"Thank you. I shall. Keep well, Captain Sulu."

Spock touched the key to break the connection, then sat unmovingly at his desk, his gaze fixed on the communications console but his thoughts elsewhere. Lightly, between the thumb and the first two fingers of his left hand, he held something he had kept back from Jim Kirk: the smallest of the malium crystals. He had told Kirk and McCoy he did not know why he had taken the crystals from the Klingon scout craft, and, if they had asked, he would have said he did not know why he had not given this particular stone to Kirk with the others. Under the red lights of his cabin (meant to give his rooms the look of his native world under its red sun), the stone was deeply purple, its facets twinkling as Spock turned it in his fingers. The Humans found malium to be unbearably lovely, but Spock would have claimed that it had no such effect on Vulcans.

If anyone had asked.

He thought back over his conversation with Sulu, and wondered briefly at his taking what on Vulcan would have been an unforgivable breach of another's privacy...but then, he was not on Vulcan, and the one whose privacy had been breached had never subscribed to Vulcan thought. Whether he would be offended by Spock's actions was another question, but Spock had not let Kirk's passions guide him. He knew only that Kirk needed help, and that he would find a way to supply that help, even if it went against every grain of his Vulcan training. Jim...my t'hy'la, he thought. The Humans translated the term as "friend", but it had so many shades of meaning that a correct translation into English was impossible. He hoped that Kirk would understand his actions, for in the heart that had denied emotion for so long, he could find only one path to follow. He had questioned himself many times, and each time had arrived at the same conclusion: that there was nothing he would not do for James Kirk.

He laid the malium crystal gently on his desk. It continued to glitter, although the light source overhead was steady and still.

His father would have been horrified.

Even through horror was an emotion, and Sarek held tight to the notion of logical, emotionless thinking, he still would have been horrified. Vulcans did not amass personal wealth; the personal belongings they allowed themselves to collect were mostly of what Humans would term "sentimental value".

Yet here was Spock, the son of a Vulcan, who could have held all his personal belongings in his arms, now the owner of a fantastic fortune in gemstones.

The little stone caught his attention and held it.

The Humans had decided to call the substance malium; other cultures, in other languages, had given it a variety of names, but most of those, too, reflected the thought that the crystals were bad news. The peoples of several worlds Spock had encountered maintained that the malium had a curse of some sort connected with it, and, while Spock held nothing more than a mild curiosity towards superstitions, he was willing to agree that the malium--native only to Duncan's Rock--did indeed have more than its share of a negative history. The original owner of three stones taken off the planetoid fifteen years ago had met a violent death in an unexplained warehouse fire; five of his eight nuclear family members had died during the next several years. The other four stones--making up the seven that had been secured from Duncan's Rock until Spock found the cache in the Klingon scout craft--belonged to four different owners: one to a museum whose curator had developed a rare and deadly neurological disease, one to a wealthy native of Regulus V who had disappeared without a trace, one to the ruler of a planet in the Orion system who had been impeached and imprisoned, and the last to an Earth woman who had had the stone made into a ring, and who, at last count, had been married eleven times.

Bad news. But hypnotically lovely.

The stone Spock had held back from Kirk was no larger than his thumbnail, with a large, penetrating flaw on its widest facet. According to the normal determination of such things, the flaw rendered this particular stone utterly without monetary value. However, that did nothing to diminish its appeal for Spock. Half the night went by as he sat at the desk, his attention fixed on the crystal. When the ship's night cycle came to a close, he still had no idea why he had brought the stones back to the Enterprise...at least, no idea that satisfied the logical part of his mind. He had salvaged them from the Klingon vessel--whose ultimate fate certainly seemed to support the "curse" theory--but for what?

Night turned itself into morning, and Spock began to regret that he had ever come across the crystals.

He regretted even more who he had turned them over to.

Chapter 3


The transporter technician replied, "Energizing, sir," and slid the quartet of levers from top to bottom in their parallel tracks. As the transporter sang, the figures of the six members of Kirk's senior landing party shimmered, grew indistinct, faded and vanished. A moment later, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Kirk's nephew Peter and Science Specialist Laurel McCutcheon rematerialized in the transporter chamber of the Citizen's High Council building in Dianas's capital city.

"Welcome to Dianas, Captain Kirk."

Kirk had straightened himself automatically as he felt himself rematerializing; the others came to attention at the sound of the unfamiliar voice. Before them, standing near the transporter console, was High Councilor Gehaan, the head of Dianas's government, flanked by two of his fellow council members. The Dianasians and the Starfleet personnel looked each other over for a long moment, each making mental notes about the other. Peter Kirk and Laurel McCutcheon both had tricorders hanging from their shoulders, but did not move to activate them for the time being, contenting themselves with making only visual observation.

The three Dianasians were shorter than the Enterprise's representatives--save for Laurel McCutcheon, who stood five-feet-six in bare feet--and were stockier than the Federation people except for Scott, who had disdained McCoy's recommendations and weighed the same hundred kilograms he had when the Enterprise crew had left Vulcan four years ago. Under the artificial lighting of the reception area, the main distinction between the Dianasians and the Humans was obvious: the Dianasians were vaguely blue--which McCoy felt gave them the look of oxygen starvation--but was actually due to a difference in blood chemistry. Their hair, too, was a sort of silvery blue, worn loose and nearly shoulder length, brushing against the collars and shoulders of their soft-looking, jumpsuit-styled clothing. All three were dressed varyingly: Gehaan in dark gray with black piping, the others in deep red and pale green respectively.

"Thank you, Councilor," Kirk said as he stepped off the transporter platform and extended his hand to Gehaan, as he had been informed was proper. Gehaan pressed his palm to Kirk's. The Councilor's hand was quite warm, but dry, his fingers long and slender. He smiled broadly at Kirk, bringing Kirk's attention to his eyes, which were somewhat larger than a Human's, giving him and the other Dianasians the look of being perpetually startled. Kirk smiled warmly in return and retrieved his hand from the Councilor. "May I present--" He indicated each in turn. "--my first officer, Captain Spock; our chief medical officer, Commander Leonard McCoy; our chief of engineering, Commander Montgomery Scott; and our science team, Lieutenant Peter Kirk and Lieutenant Laurel McCutcheon."

"You are all most welcome," Gehaan beamed, and went to each of the Federation people with the same hand-pressing greeting he had used with Kirk. "May I present my fellow Council members, Rebaak and Salaarn."

"Gentlemen," Kirk said.

"You speak English very well, Councilor," McCoy observed. He did not add that he was profoundly grateful for the Councilor's abilities; if the Dianasians had not been able to speak English, the landing party would have had to come equipped with computer-connected universal translators, the use of which McCoy found annoying in the extreme.

"Thank you, Commander McCoy." Gehaan exchanged smiles with his peers. "We...learn quickly. The tapes that the first two Federation ships left with us were most useful. All of us on the Citizen's High Council have taken the time to familiarize ourselves with Federation laws and customs, and we have requested that our people attempt to learn your language as quickly as possible. We hope that you will have occasion to acquaint yourselves with our language as well."

"Of course," McCoy said, though that was nearly a lie.

Gehaan beckoned Kirk's people to move with him out of the transporter room into the corridor and went on talking as the five Humans and Spock swept long looks around their surroundings. Rebaak and Salaarn trailed along in the rear. "We hope you will make yourselves at home during your stay with us. We have prepared accommodations for as many of your crew as wish to take shore leave on Dianas, and we look forward to meeting all of them." He stopped walking and turned to face Kirk. "Will some of them be able to join us for the celebration tonight?"


Gehaan frowned and looked to the other two Dianasians for help. "I am using the wrong word?" The three Councilors all murmured for a moment in their own language, came to agreement, then Gehaan turned to Kirk again. "Celebration. A welcoming party? For you and all of your crew, to introduce you to some of our citizens. There will be much food and drink, and music. Will you allow your crew to attend?"

The Councilor looked like nothing so much as a small child with grand plans. Kirk didn't dare turn him down; he had the distinct feeling that if he demurred, the High Councilor would begin to cry. "Of course, Councilor," he agreed pleasantly. "We'd be more than happy to attend. But my entire crew...the Enterprise's crew is well over four hundred people."

"We have room. Plenty of room," Gehaan said brightly.

"Yes, Captain," Rebaak agreed. "Our grand ballroom holds a thousand easily."

Salaarn added, "They would be most welcome."

The captain stifled a smile. The enthusiasm of the three High Councilors, whom he had expected to be as stuffy as most of the planetary governors he had encountered over the years, was almost comical. He wondered if they treated all visitors this eagerly. Located well away from the Federation's trade routes, in a system that had almost nothing to offer to either legitimate merchants or pirates, Dianas had practically escaped notice by star-travelers over the millennia. Its people's lack of interest in interplanetary travel did nothing to alert the rest of the galaxy to Dianas's presence as the home of sentient life.

It had only been five years ago that a Federation scout craft had come across the planet by accident, and Federation knowledge of Dianas's existence had certainly not put it on the "must visit" list in the meantime. According to the reports Kirk had been furnished, Dianas had a lovely, temperate climate--most of its weather corresponded to that of the mid-Atlantic coast of North America, due to the particular angle of its axis--attractive flora and fauna, a flourishing culture well into its high-tech period, and warm, friendly inhabitants. However, the galaxy was full of such planets. Dianas had nothing to encourage travelers out of their way, except for the fact that its inclusion in the Federation would nudge the Federation's borders a bit further outward. Another name to be added to the planetary roster...and another thorn in the side of the Klingon Empire. It made absolutely no difference in the scheme of things that Dianas had nothing the Klingons would want. Whether it was something or nothing, the Klingons simply did not want the Federation to have it. Kirk suspected that Spock would have a supremely logical argument against the struggle to possess nothing...but then, the Klingons were not logical. Nor, as Spock was so fond of pointing out, were the Humans. So the quibbling goes on, Kirk thought. Just to see who can put together the biggest collection of nothing. The Federation's ambassadors would be here in a few days, ready to sit down with the Dianasians one jump ahead of the Klingons, to add Dianas to its list of non-possessions.

Smiling slightly, he remembered to be glad he was not an ambassador.

The rest of the landing party was waiting along with the Dianasians for Kirk's reply--even Peter Kirk, who had fixed his uncle with a bland stare that Kirk tried to ignore. "I can bring down most of them, Councilor," Kirk said finally. "But I have to leave at least a skeleton crew aboard to run the ship, even though we're in stable orbit."

"Of course. I understand. We would not want to do anything to interfere with the operation of your ship," said Gehaan.

"It takes a while to beam down so many," Kirk went on, beginning to feel uneasy under the constant, brilliant gazes of the High Councilors. He glanced at Spock, who merely raised an expressive eyebrow. "Our transporters can only handle a small number of people at any one time, and it takes several minutes for the system to recharge." They were still waiting. He held back a sigh. "What time is the party?"


"Approximately seven point four hours from now, Captain," Spock announced.

"Very well. Sundown, then," said Kirk.

"Excellent!" Gehaan replied gaily. "In the meantime, Captain, if you will permit us, we would like to show you around our capital city. We have transportation arranged to take your science team to the Central Laboratory Complex on the other side of the city so that they may acquaint themselves with the facility and return before the celebration begins. They may leave now, if you would like."

Kirk nodded. "That would be fine."

Gehaan strode on ahead down the corridor with his own people and Kirk's six in his wake. Thirty meters ahead, the corridor ended in what seemed to be the lobby of the Citizen's High Council building, an enormous round room with a domed ceiling ten meters above the tiled floor. The Starfleet personnel all craned their necks for a look at the ceiling, which would have put Earth's aging Sistine Chapel to shame: intricate gold work in the shape of delicate vines and leaves surrounding support braces of a type of polished marble. The doorways, half a dozen of them all leading into various corridors, and the splendid central stairway leading to the second floor were carved of the same marble.

"Transporters and marble staircases," Scott mused.

"One for function, the other for beauty," Gehaan told him. "Surely you have similar on your home planet."

"Aye, that we do," Scott smiled.

Peter Kirk and Laurel McCutcheon had moved a little toward the main door, waiting to be shown their transportation to the lab complex. Leaving McCoy, Scott and Spock to continue taking in the splendor of the domed lobby, Kirk joined the science team near the main doors. "Remember," he said quietly. "These are very private people. They value their 'oneness' above everything else, and they may not take kindly to intrusions...or anything that seems like an intrusion. If you're not sure about something, ask."

"Yes, sir," McCutcheon replied. "They do seem very friendly, though."

"Nevertheless, we don't want to do anything to offend them. This planet is important to the Federation."

"Yes, Captain," Lieutenant Kirk said mildly.

Kirk bristled. "I trust you don't need any supervision, Mister?"

"I worked without supervision for two years on Prothos, Captain. I'm sure I'll do just fine here. And don't worry; I won't do anything to irk the natives."

"Make sure you don't." If they had been alone, Kirk would have had a good deal more to say. As it was, he dismissed the younger Kirk with a sharp glance that was acknowledged with a broad, artificial smile. Then, without more formal dismissal, Peter Kirk moved into the open doorway and stood with his back to the group in the lobby, gazing placidly up into the sky.

Jim Kirk took a couple of deep breaths and tried to will his blood pressure back down to normal. Laurel McCutcheon was watching him, but her gaze was so mild that Kirk let her wait until he no longer felt like exploding. "You have everything you need, Lieutenant?" he asked, meaning something entirely different.

She smiled. "I've been working side-by-side with Lieutenant Kirk all month, Captain. I just take him for what he is, and let it go at that." She did not bother to add that what she thought he was was an arrogant, self-centered son of a bitch.

"I admire your patience," Kirk muttered.

"Oh, it's not patience, sir," she chuckled. "It's a battle of wills. When it comes down to it, I can be just as miserable as he can. You've had two porcupines working down in Lab Four for the last couple of weeks." She glanced in Peter Kirk's direction. He had his hands clasped behind his back, quite obviously ignoring both his hosts and his fellow crew members. This came as no surprise to the people who knew him; in fact, they were glad for the chance to be away from him. The Dianasians seemed not to notice that they were being snubbed, either, and went on quietly discussing the artwork of their council building with Spock, McCoy and Scott. McCutcheon blew out a breath that spoke volumes about her attitude toward Peter Kirk. "If he gets out of line, sir, do I have your permission to belt him one?"

Captain Kirk's eyes widened. "I...yes, Lieutenant, I think you do."

"Good. I may need it."

Salaarn moved away from the group and joined Kirk and McCutcheon. "I will take you to your transportation now," he announced. "If you will come with me, there is a vehicle waiting just outside."

"Good luck, Lieutenant," Kirk concluded.

"Thank you, sir," she smiled. "See you at the party. If Peter and I haven't broken each other's necks by then."


At the dinner party, McCoy lifted another forkful of the delicate, lacy vegetable mixture on his plate into his mouth, chewed it a little, then closed his eyes. His expression changed slowly from curiosity to near rapture. He hesitated to swallow the mouthful until he had peeked at his plate to assure himself that there was still more available. For the first time in his life, he was inclined to follow the old adage and chew each bite twenty times.

"Something wrong, Bones?" Kirk asked curiously.

"This is cooked," McCoy murmured.

Kirk frowned at his plate, half full of the same vegetable dish the doctor was eating. "Uh...sure it's cooked."

"I mean it's cooked. Somebody grew this. In the ground."


"Don't you get it?" McCoy said, brandishing his fork like a conductor's wand. The others at the table were beginning to turn in his direction, each giving him puzzled looks as if they were afraid of some strange outburst on their physician's part. "This is real food," he went on, letting his voice drop to just above a whisper. "No computer has touched this with its infernal microcircuits. It's not been frozen. It's not reconstituted. It's not been microwaved. It's one hundred percent natural." He scooped up another forkful and chewed it with gleeful enthusiasm.

Spock, seated across the table from McCoy, agreed in the same hushed tone. "The doctor is correct. However, I do believe it was chemically fertilized."

"Who the hell cares?" McCoy hissed.

Uhura put her fork down and fixed her shipmates with a piercing look. "Are we going to eat this or dissect it?"

"She's right, gentlemen," Kirk said. "Let's just eat."

"Fine," said McCoy. "I'm eating. Is there more of this? I could use another helping." Uhura slid him the large, ornate serving bowl, and, with unaccustomed gusto, McCoy heaped more of the vegetable mixture onto his plate. Chemical fertilizer or no, he hadn't tasted anything like the Dianasian cuisine in more years than he cared to think about. The Starfleet handbooks insisted that shipboard, computer-prepared food was every bit as good as "home cooking", but there were few aboard the Enterprise (or any other ship in the fleet) who would swear they could tell no difference between computer-prepared lobster newburg and the real thing. The galley computer was programmed to duplicate the thousand best recipes of the thousand best chefs in the Federation, but somewhere along the line between chef and mess hall table, the recipes were ever-so-slightly garbled. McCoy had yet to encounter a computer that could come anywhere close to preparing pasta primavera anything like that from Delmonico's...and now, with his mouth pleasantly full of vegetables, delicate sauce, and tender, sweet noodles, he remembered his last visit to the restaurant and grinned insanely.

"Restrain yourself, Leonard," Scott chuckled. "There's more. You can have the whole bowl if you want it."

"I just may," McCoy replied around his mouthful.

Uhura took a sip from her glass and said softly, "So it is true."

"What is?" McCoy asked, beginning to frown at the look of high amusement she was giving him.

"That the way to your heart is through your stomach."

"If you're using this kind of bait it is."

A group of servers in spotless white had entered the room from the kitchen and was beginning to distribute large, steaming platters of yet another dish. McCoy was the only one at his table to notice their approach but kept most of his attention on his meal until one of the servers leaned between Scott and Uhura and deposited a platter on the table. A brand new aroma wafted around the Enterprise's bridge crew. Spock's nose wrinkled almost imperceptibly. Scott leaned forward a little for a closer inspection of the new arrival. "I think you'll have to share your vegetables with Spock," he told McCoy. "This one's meat."

Spock, who had taken a single helping of the vegetable dish and was working his way through it with an almost maddening slowness, remarked, "I have plenty, Mister Scott. If the doctor wishes to finish the damariarle single-handedly, he may do so with my blessing."

"What do they call it?" Uhura asked.

"Damariarle," Spock repeated.

"Pasta primavera," McCoy said. "They can call it whatever they like, but it's still pasta primavera."

"A rose by any other name," Scott remarked.

"...Still tastes like pasta primavera," McCoy insisted.

Scott slid the serving platter toward Uhura, who transferred a healthy portion of the meat dish to her plate. Rather than help himself to more food, Scott hoisted his glass, considered its contents, smiled broadly, and extended the glass in a toast. "To our hosts. And their fine idea of a party." The others lifted their glasses, shared in the toast, then returned to their meals. "It's not scotch," Scott went on, "but it's close enough." He drained the glass and looked around for a server to refill it for him. He had finished the refill, along with three more, by the time dinner was finished. Still far from being intoxicated, he leaned back in his chair and once more considered his empty glass while McCoy, Uhura and Kirk considered their full stomachs.

"This is more than I've eaten in..." Uhura began, then corrected herself. "You know, I don't think I've ever eaten this much."

"There goes your waistline, lass," Scott grinned.

The communications chief clucked her tongue at the big Scot. "And what happened to yours?"

Scott looked down at his midriff and feigned surprise. "I don't know!" he told Uhura, and patted his expansive stomach lovingly. "But I've got plenty of happy memories of the food and drink that contributed to this." His attention drifted across the room. Gehaan had risen from the Citizen's High Council's table and was moving their way. When he reached Kirk's table, he stopped, folded his arms, and gave the Federation people the broad smile they were by now accustomed to.

"I trust you have enjoyed your meal?" he beamed.

"And then some," said McCoy. "That was the best meal we've had in a very long time, Councilor. Thank you."

"Most welcome," said Gehaan.

The others at the table echoed their thanks, and Gehaan nodded at each in turn. If he had been happy early in the afternoon at the arrival of the first landing party, then he was ecstatic now, nearly wallowing in joy at being surrounded by some three hundred strangers in maroon and black uniforms. Kirk's table mates waited quietly, wondering what was coming next and hoping that it was not more food. They had worked their way through seven tremendous courses, each more delicious than the last, and all except Spock had reached their bellies' capacity long ago. Spock had been content to nibble at each course that did not contain meat and had consumed only enough to nourish himself, as was the Vulcan custom. Very few Vulcans ever attempted the illogical engorgement that his Human friends practiced, and Spock found some small satisfaction in knowing that the over-eaters would all regret those extra helpings. He would offer no comment to that effect, of course; he'd known since his first encounter with a Human that they most often took their pleasure in illogical indulgences.

"Now," Gehaan continued, with a broad, sweeping gesture toward the center of the enormous room, where no tables had been placed, "there will be music. I hope you will enjoy it." He bowed slightly in Kirk's direction. "I take my leave. I must extend wishes to the rest of your crew."

A minute later, the ballroom was filled with the sweet, lilting strains of Gehaan's music. Since no orchestra was visible, the Starfleet people decided that the music must be recorded; however, none of them was able to detect any sort of speaker or amplifier. The servers went on with their work of clearing tables, moving so quickly that the job was complete before the first musical selection had faded away. Some of Kirk's crew had their eyes closed, swaying a little to the tune drifting over their heads. At the far end of Kirk's table, Chekov and Jaeger, who had had eyes only for each other during dinner and had eaten no more of it than had Spock, broke their concentration on each other and listened intently to the music.

"A waltz," Chekov mused. "Here?"

Spock listened to the tempo a moment longer, then nodded in response to Chekov's question. "There is some slight variation in structure, but generally speaking, I do believe it is a waltz."

"It's lovely," Uhura said.

Chekov and Jaeger resumed looking at each other; the same thought had occurred to both of them almost simultaneously. "Mister Spock," Jaeger asked quietly, "do they...dance...here?"

Spock mulled it over for a moment, silently poring over the brief conversation with Gehaan earlier in the day, his study of the few Federation reports on the Dianasian culture, and the artwork he had observed in various parts of the capital city. "I am not certain, Lieutenant," he replied finally. "But since few cultures employ music on occasions such as this without the accompaniment of dancing, I believe the odds are in your favor. The empty area in the center of the room would also seem to indicate that our hosts anticipate our wanting to dance."

"'Our'?" McCoy echoed.

"A relative term, Doctor," Spock responded. "I did not intend to include myself in the generalization."

Chekov and Jaeger stayed in their chairs, both looking around to see if anyone else had the inclination to dance. No one else had gotten up from the various tables lining the walls of the ballroom, but several of the Enterprise's junior officers were also scanning their surroundings. "Go on, Chekov, ask the lady to dance." Scott encouraged. "If you're waiting for somebody else to get up first, you could be sitting there all night."

"We won't offend anybody?" Chekov asked uncertainly.

"If you do, we'll find out about it quick enough." Scott looked to Kirk for a reaction but received none other than a mild shrug of the captain's shoulders.

Chekov got up from the table as if he were diving into cold water, circled around to Jaeger, took her by the hand and led her out into the empty center of the floor. They did not have to wait long for a reaction; the level of conversation in the room dropped noticeably as they began dancing. The Dianasians, scattered among the Starfleet personnel at the dining tables, immediately fell silent and watched Jaeger and Chekov move around the floor with a fascination that bordered on awe. Chekov felt a sudden stab of guilt, but rather than slink back to the table as his subconscious mind was suggesting, he held tighter to Jaeger and twirled her around a bit more elaborately. After another couple of minutes they were being watched by everyone in the room.

"This is all wrong," Uhura observed aloud but mainly to herself.

"Hmmm?" Scott replied.

"They're in uniform," Uhura said, nodding at Scott to indicate her knowledge that everyone from the Enterprise was in uniform. "It looks...I don't know, out of place." She smiled wistfully, imagining Jaeger in a soft, clinging dress with a full, twirling skirt. "Scotty, dance with me," she added abruptly.

"Now?" Scott asked.

"Yes, now." Uhura got up from her chair. "We can't leave them out there all alone with everybody staring at them. Come on, dance with me."

"All right," Scott said with a bit of hesitation. "But don't blame me if I trample on your toes. I'm a little rusty."

Uhura mocked Spock's habitual raised eyebrow. "You don't think I am? I don't spend my off hours waltzing in my cabin."

"Ah, darlin'," Scott smiled, "that wouldn't be the strangest thing anyone's ever done off duty." He took her by the arm and nodded toward the open floor. "Come on, then, let's show the youngsters how it's done."

McCoy watched them go, squirming in his chair in an attempt to find a comfortable position in which to sit. An unborn but potentially astounding belch was lingering somewhere just above his stomach, and he had begun to feel the bite of indigestion. Small price to pay, I suppose, he thought, and wondered what the Dianasians had in the way of an antacid. He had the distinct feeling of being alone: Kirk was absently smoothing a tiny wrinkle in the tablecloth with the tip of his forefinger, and Spock was intently watching the Dianasians watch Jaeger and Chekov. McCoy followed the Vulcan's glance around the room. The hundred-odd Dianasians (except Gehaan, who had stopped circulating to stand near a marble pillar, his hands intertwined and his head cocked) were all still seated, leaning forward, their expressions full of curiosity and wonder. Jaeger and Chekov seemed to have stopped noticing that they were the center of attention and were once again intent upon each other and their dancing. Not bad, McCoy thought. They would never win any competitions, but they both had the same easy grace, the same instinctive, fluid movements.

"Well," McCoy observed, "at least they aren't offending anyone."

"To the contrary, Doctor," Spock replied. "Our hosts seem to be quite fascinated."

"And here we sit," McCoy murmured.

Kirk broke his attention from the tablecloth. "What...did you want to dance, Bones?" he asked mildly.

"Not with you," McCoy scowled.

Kirk let the remark go by. He'd been listening to the music, feeling the pull of it, envying Scott and Uhura their happy, unselfconscious turns around the room. True to his word, Scott made a few missteps, but neither he nor Uhura seemed to notice. After a moment, Kirk let his body begin swaying a little from side to side in time with the music. Edith, he thought. They'd danced together one night--although the music had been nothing like this; as he recalled it, it had been some popular tune of the time--and he remembered the feel of his arm tucked around her slender waist. She'd been laughing softly, much as Uhura was laughing now, tossing her head back now and again, her dark eyes reflecting the room lights, her free hand warm against the back of his neck. Kirk closed his eyes. His hands closed too, though he was unaware of that. Edith...

"Uh-oh," McCoy said. "Here he comes again."

Kirk looked. Gehaan was trotting toward the table, purposeful, his mouth open slightly. When he arrived at the table he was as breathless as if he'd been running the hundred-meter. "Captain!" he wheezed. "This is most interesting!"

"Councilor?" Kirk inquired.

Gehaan plopped into Scott's vacated chair and made a broad gesture toward the two dancing couples. "I have never encountered anything like this. It is most fascinating. Please explain."

"The dancing, you mean? It's a waltz. Native to our planet. I think it's been around for five or six hundred years."

"No, no, no. The emotion."

Kirk frowned, puzzled. "I'm not sure I understand. Which emotion?"

The High Councilor's hands were quivering. He shot looks back and forth between Kirk and the dancing couples. McCoy began watching him more closely: the Dianasian was close to hyperventilating. Spock also turned his attention to Gehaan, though his interest was more clinical and less medical. "I do not understand either, Captain Kirk," Gehaan went on, now indicating that he meant Jaeger and Chekov. "I have never seen anything quite like this. I had observed them communing during the meal, but I thought perhaps they were telepaths." McCoy coughed abruptly, barely managing to contain the belch, and put his hands over his mouth. If Gehaan noticed, he made no sign. "The emotion they share...I do not understand it."

"Love," Kirk said. "They're in love."

Worry lines appeared around Gehaan's eyes and mouth. "Love," he mused. "I recall reference to this concept in the record tapes that were left with us by the other Federation people. But it is unfamiliar. We have been unable to translate."

"You don't know what love is?" McCoy asked.

"No, Commander. Please explain. We are all most curious."

Kirk groped for words and was unable to find any, the task not made any easier by Gehaan's intent gaze, now matched by one from Spock. Now, how am I supposed to explain this? he wondered. As a young man, he had decided that when the time came to explain love (and sex) to his children, he would be completely honest, holding nothing back, shrouding nothing in useless euphemisms, giving his children the benefit of everything he had learned. But his only child, David Marcus, had grown up without him and had gone to his mother when the time came for explanations; Kirk's grand plans had never been needed. He had never had to explain love, only to experience it. And now that he needed words, his mind seemed to have conveniently emptied itself. "Well, Councilor," he said, realizing that he was stalling, "it's not an easy thing to explain. It's a...very complicated emotion, something that means different things to different people."

"What does it mean to them?" Gehaan asked, attempting to be helpful, pointing to Chekov and Jaeger.

"It means..." Kirk watched his security chief and his handball partner gliding across the tiled floor. It means pain, he thought. It means losing, and being left behind to remember what you had and how it was taken away from you. It means having a hole in your heart when you see what other people have and you know you can never have it back again. He heard Spock's voice echoing through his memory: a few words spoken in a tiny, dingy hotel room in Chicago, so long ago. "Jim...Edith Keeler must die." Then the sound of squealing tires, and the sight of she who held his entire soul in her delicate hands, lying broken in the middle of the street, the life gone out of her after only a few seconds. He had not cried then, or ever; after all, he was the captain of the Enterprise, the authority figure, the one who must maintain control at all times, show no weakness, no humanity. He had not cried, but he had cursed the roads his life had taken. He had chosen Starfleet, following in the footsteps of his restless father, had wanted the stars, wanted the command of a starship, wanted ultimate control, wanted everything. The cadets at Starfleet Academy told stories about James Tiberius Kirk, some true, some a little gilded, elevating him to near-god status. He had his starship (had lost it once, but now it was his once more, and he would be damned if he would give it up this time), had his command, had under his thumb four hundred and eighty-nine people who would obey his every wish or be punished for saying no to Jim Kirk. All of that. And what the hell do I really have? he thought.

McCoy coughed again, bringing Kirk out of his reverie. Gehaan was waiting, smiling a little.

He wants the answers to life's mysteries, Kirk mused. He picked a great one to ask!

And Gehaan, finally aware that Kirk was near being stumped, offered gently. "I have much time, Captain. Many things that are worth knowing are not easily explained. I will wait while you think."


Hands in his pockets and his eyes cast down, though more to watch for obstacles along the path than as a reflection of his inner gloom, Kirk strolled toward the beach, leaving the Dianasians' version of a hotel (some of the younger crew members had tagged it "the Dianas Hilton") behind him. He was still some twenty or thirty meters from the waterline when he noticed that Jaeger was already there, sitting on a large, flat-topped rock, her head thrown back so that the sun shone directly on her face. She was dressed in exercise gear and sneakers, the underarms of her tee shirt ringed with perspiration. Kirk moved closer, his pace still slow, his own sneakered feet making no sound. When he was within earshot of Jaeger, he observed in a low tone, "When you've been aboard ship for a while, you start forgetting what the sun feels like." She didn't move, didn't open her eyes, but the corners of her mouth curved up slightly. So she had known he was approaching, he noted with satisfaction. Good thing she wasn't armed; she might have dropped him with phaser fire. He grinned reflexively. "You're up early, Lieutenant," he went on.

Now she turned to look at him. "I came out to run. I haven't run on the beach in a long time."

"Where's Pavel?"

"Still sleeping. He sleeps a lot longer than I do, usually."

Kirk took a few more steps and leaned against a tree just beyond arm's length from Jaeger. "Beautiful morning."

She peered at him. "Are you all right, sir? You look tired."

He smiled wryly and let out a little puff of air that didn't succeed at being a laugh. "I was up late last night. The last three nights in fact." He watched her shut off the curiosity in her eyes; she assumed he'd been enjoying the local hospitality along with the rest of the crew. "The High Councilor has been grilling me," he went on. "About you and Pavel."

"Sir?" she said, eyes widening in near horror.

Kirk waved it off. "He's...curious."

"About.... Did you tell him we plan to get married, sir?"

"Uh-hmmm. He didn't understand."

"What? Marriage?"

"Marriage. And love. And friendship. Or anything even approaching that line of thought. I've spent the last two days trying to get him to understand. It's like trying to explain 'green' to someone who's been blind since birth." He smiled again, still trying to ease Jaeger's obvious dismay at being the object of such discussion, noticing the bluish circles under her eyes and the discomfort reflected in them. She's not well, he thought. Not just from lack of sleep. "Don't worry about it, Lieutenant," he said. "You haven't done anything wrong. The Dianasians just don't seem to understand certain types of emotion. Their philosophy of life is quite a bit different from ours. Mister Spock explained their idea of 'oneness' to you, didn't he?"

She nodded. "Yes, sir. It was part of our orientation before we beamed down."

"They're very...isolated, in a sense. Each of them walks around in his own little universe. So, apparently, any concept that involves emotion between two people is foreign to them."

"But that's awful, sir."

"Everybody's different," Kirk shrugged. "I've come across a lot of strange philosophies in my time, and this isn't the strangest one."

"Have they always been like that?" Jaeger asked, gnawing at her lower lip.

Kirk tossed his head in a gesture that was neither a yes nor a no. "For several thousand years, at least. They seem to like to think they've always been the same, but the High Councilor said their holy writings talk about a 'gift'...their word is 'theaemrayal'. According to our computers, that translates as 'giving of oneself'."

"To someone else?" Jaeger filled in.

"To someone else. That doesn't quite fit in with the 'oneness' philosophy." He thought back over his two days of convoluted discussions with Gehaan, wishing Spock had taken part so that Gehaan could be kept to some sort of logical path. Gehaan's consuming interest seemed to be on the subject of love, which he claimed not to understand, but Kirk had gotten a distinct impression that the Dianasian did not want to understand, in spite of all his questions. He had returned continually to the idea of the Dianasians' "gift", which none of them had possessed for thousands of years, but which seemed to be (at least in Gehaan's eyes) virtually a raison d'être. According to Gehaan's scriptural quotes, if the Dianasians followed faithfully a quest for knowledge and understanding, both of themselves and of every stranger who came along, eventually they would find their mysterious gift once again. However, neither Gehaan nor anyone else Kirk had surreptitiously questioned seemed to know exactly what the gift had been or how it had been lost.

"It will all be explained to us when the time comes," Gehaan had concluded sagely.

Kirk mused, "So you're looking...but you don't know what you're looking for?"

Gehaan had sat back in his upholstered chair and had gazed placidly at Kirk for a long moment. Finally, in a voice fringed with irony that did not seem to suit him, he inquired, "Do you always know what you are looking for, Captain?"

Kirk had no answer to that question, either for Gehaan or for himself. He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist; it was early yet, and Gehaan did not expect him until late morning. After the first night's pointless verbal merry-go-round, Kirk had explained to the Councilor that Humans needed a good eight to ten hours of undisturbed sleep in order to function at peak efficiency. He flinched inwardly at the bald lie, hoping that Gehaan would never discover the tiny percentage of the Enterprise's crew who would even attempt sleeping that long, shore leave or no. To his enormous relief, Gehaan had not questioned the statement, had dismissed Kirk with a broad, enthusiastic smile, and requested that the captain return yet again to talk when he felt rested. Pushing the memories aside with an inner shudder, Kirk asked, "What about you, Lieutenant? Are you all right? You look worse than I do."

Jaeger's hand drifted up against her temple. "It's just this headache, Captain. Doctor McCoy said it would last a while, but it just goes on and on. It's been days now, and it doesn't get any better. I thought maybe if I came out and got some fresh air and sat in the sun a while, it would help." She sighed deeply. "But I think now I feel worse. My head feels like a stone."

"Then you should see McCoy again."

She paused, then said, "Yes, sir."

Kirk shaded his eyes with his hand so that he could get a better look at her expression. He'd recognized the tone in her voice: she was trying to determine if he'd issued an order or just a friendly suggestion. Another doctor-hater, he thought with a twinge of amusement. Since assuming command of the Enterprise, he had rarely been able to avoid McCoy for more than a few hours at a time, but (though he knew keeping healthy was in his own best interest as well as the crew's) Kirk had never professed any fondness for the medical profession. It was an attitude inherited from his father, and his grandfather, and from all the other males in the family since time immemorial: you visit a doctor only under one of two circumstances, when you are bleeding to death or when you are in so much pain you can't see. On all other occasions the Kirk men held fast to the "ignore it and it'll go away" school of thought. And, perversely, the Kirk women had fought that stubborn philosophy tooth and nail.

"...too stubborn for your own good, Jim Kirk," his mother retorted, exasperated.

"Ah, Mom, I'm all right."

She had stood her ground, two paces from the bed, arms folded across her chest and fire in her eye. That morning, clowning around with Sam, he'd thrust out his arm to break a fall that Sam had induced and had dislocated his shoulder for his troubles. The local doctor, an old fossil named Hermitage, had put the shoulder back in place under Marjorie Kirk's intense scrutiny and had prescribed several days of rest for fifteen-year-old Jim, with the wounded shoulder protected by a gray canvas sling.

Jim had nodded in pleasant agreement, had ridden home with his mother in near silence, and once back in the safety of his cluttered bedroom had tossed the sling onto a pile of books and magazines. Marjorie Kirk, bearing a tray of snacks, had found him curled on his bed with his treasured copy of Moby Dick and had nearly dropped the tray to the floor. They were still arguing the merits of second-guessing a seventy-eight-year-old G.P. when Sam came pounding up the stairs and popped into the open doorway.

"Tell her, Sam!" Jim had pleaded. "I don't need the sling."

"He doesn't need the sling, Mom." Grinning, Sam had pitched his younger brother the apple he'd toted in from the orchard. Jim caught it in a move so quick it was nearly invisible, and with his injured arm, to boot. Marjorie Kirk blanched and whirled on Sam, who thrust both hands up in front of his face to protect himself. "Whoa, Mom, easy!" Sam laughed.

Mrs. Kirk ignored her younger son's habit of calling his older brother 'Sam.' A stubborn Jimmy Kirk long ago had decided his brother and father couldn't possibly have the same name, and had taken to calling his older brother Sam. But she would have no part of it. "George, don't you encourage him," their mother said through her teeth. "You're even worse than he is."

"Good catch," Sam told his brother.

Jim bit into the apple, running his tongue down to catch the trickle of juice that escaped over his chin. "Thanks. Think I'm major league yet?"

"You bet," Sam replied, tossing his head back.

"I'm all right, Mom," Jim said once more.

Her eyes narrowed. "Someday, Jimmy, you're going to realize that there are people on this Earth who know more than you do about some things. Sometimes we tell you things for your own good."

He'd sighed deeply. "I know, Mom. I know."

Another voice penetrated the memory. Kirk blinked; Jaeger was peering at him curiously. "Did you say something, Lieutenant?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. I was just wondering...well, there was something Pavel and I wanted to ask you about." Kirk nodded for her to go on. She hesitated for a moment, glancing down at the ground, then out over the water. "I know we originally planned to wait till we get to Starbase Eleven, and have the chaplain there marry us. We can still wait until then; the time is no problem. But we've changed our minds." She flashed him a tentative smile. "If you'd consider it, Captain...if it's all right with you...well, we'd like you to marry us."

He returned the smile. "I'd be happy to."

"Really, sir? It's no trouble?"

"It's no trouble. It's an honor. Let me take a look at my schedule, and we'll work out a date and time."

She seemed enormously relieved. "Thank you, sir."

"You're welcome." Kirk straightened away from the tree and stretched his arms over his head. "Well, Lieutenant, if you don't mind being alone again, I think I'll try a run on the beach myself. It's been a while since I've run anywhere except the ship's gym." She was still forcing that attempt at a smile; if she tried any harder, he suspected her jaw would lock. "Get McCoy to take another look at you," he told her, thought of his mother one more time, and amended, "That's an order."

"Yes, sir," she murmured.

Kirk went off at a slow jog down the beach, intending to stop and do some warming-up out of sight of Jaeger and anyone else who might stroll down from the hotel. He was unaware that Jaeger had stopped watching him the moment he jogged away, and had resumed looking out over the water, where a pair of the Dianasian version of seagulls was doing kamikaze dives over the waves. She rubbed at her temples intermittently, trying to will away the dull, throbbing headache that hadn't left her since she'd boarded the Galileo back on Duncan's Rock. McCoy had given her a single, mild injection for the pain when he'd first examined her, then had suggested that it might be better to let the headache run its course so that he could more accurately monitor the ill effects of her cyanoalisitate exposure. Fine for him to say, she thought. He doesn't have anybody pounding on his head. She'd considered seeking the doctor out early that morning but had decided against it, sure that he would do nothing more than order another round of tests and then quote his earlier instructions.

"The hell with it," she muttered, and got up from the rock, blinking at the stab of pain that shot into her head just above her eyes. A little more sleep, that would take care of it. She'd already slept more than her customary five hours, but it had been a heavy, drugged sleep that left her as exhausted as if she had never been to bed--more than five hours filled with flashes of nightmares she couldn't remember. Just after sunrise she had struggled out of bed and pulled on running pants and T-shirt. Chekov had rolled over, murmured, "You are a driven woman, Gretchen," and instantly returned to sleep. She wasn't sure he'd be awake now, but no matter; she'd just crawl back in beside him.

Shoving her hands into the deep pockets of the running pants, she trudged back up the path to the garden entrance of the hotel (the Dianasians called it a guest building, but the Enterprise's crew would never think of it as anything other than an alien hotel). Nothing stirred except for a cluster of tiny, rainbow-feathered birds splashing in the fountain of the broad, marble-walled courtyard. Jaeger stopped for a moment to look at them, then moved into the lobby. It was dim inside; the artificial lights had gone off at sunup, but the sun's rays didn't penetrate far beyond the doors and windows.

The lobby was constructed of more of the ever-present pink-veined marble ("Half the planet must be marble quarries," Bob Tenaka had commented), the walls hung with tapestries, the floor dotted with thick woven rugs and massive, but beautiful upholstered wooden furniture. On Earth it would have been considered a ghastly mixture of decorative styles, but here, brightened by the beams of morning light, the clash was oddly appealing and much in keeping with the Dianasians' desire to be surrounded by beauty and comfort. None of the natives were around now, though, and the lobby was even more hushed than the outdoors; not so much as the hum of a chronometer broke the silence.

Jaeger padded along on sneakered feet, headed for the nearer of the two marble staircases leading up to the guest rooms. McCoy had bleated in dismay their first night on the planet at the complete absence of turbolifts. "Quite logical," Spock had responded. "None of their buildings are more than three floors tall. Are you unable to manage two flights of stairs, Doctor?" McCoy's reply had been whispered and extremely rude (at that moment, he felt astoundingly unable to manage two steps let alone two flights of stairs), but he had trailed Spock on up, not sharing the amusement of the younger crew members clustered behind them, one or two of whom had never seen a staircase before.

Jaeger was halfway to the stairs when she was halted by the sound of footsteps coming from the main entrance to the building. She turned in the direction of the sound.

"Good morning," said the newcomer. "A member of Captain Kirk's crew, I presume?"

Jaeger's hand flashed to her hip, and panic flooded through her when she remembered that she was both out of uniform and completely unarmed. She managed, but barely, to keep herself from shaking as the strength sapped out of her arms and legs. She said nothing, but her mouth drooped a little. There were two forms in front of her, one much taller and more imposing than the other, though it had been the smaller of the two who had spoken. The smaller one was smiling cheerfully, the bigger one looming behind him, silent and sullen. This is another nightmare, Jaeger thought. I'm dreaming all this. They say you never really know the difference between reality and dreams, so it doesn't matter how real this seems, it's just a bad dream.

The smaller form stuck out his right hand.

He wants to shake my hand? Jaeger thought hysterically. She tried to turn but her body refused to move.

"My name is Koloth. And this is Kilon. You are...?"

No matter that she was being rude, if this was only a dream. But then, was it possible to be rude to a Klingon anyway? Jaeger studied him, the pounding in her head now rivaled by the frantic pounding of her heart. Captain...? she pleaded silently. Why don't you come in here right now? Koloth didn't seem to notice that she was being rude. Was it possible that no time was passing? Of course....that was it. Time had stopped, like Chekov had suggested back in the briefing room. She felt a rush of relief and went on staring. Kilon, the bigger one, was dressed in the military uniform Jaeger was accustomed to, though there were no weapons dangling from his belt. His height, his clothing, and the belligerent sneer on his face made him a typical Kh'teb Klingon. Koloth, however, wore a deep green robe trimmed with soft leather and gold buckles. He was a full head shorter than Kilon, which would make him about Kirk's height, and the practically friendly look on his face belied his heritage. He was of the Kh'fjin sub-race

"Is something wrong?" Koloth asked finally.

"I..." was all Jaeger could force out.

"Please, please," Koloth said encouragingly. "There's no need to be afraid."

He was extending his hand a little further now. Barely half a meter separated them. He intended seizing her hand if she did not offer it to him. An instant before his gesture would have been complete, Jaeger's paralysis broke, and she bolted around Koloth, made the stairs, and tore up them two at a time. When she reached the sleeping room she was sharing with Chekov, she slammed the door control with the flat of her hand and almost fell through the doorway. Chekov was still curled under the bedcovers, his pillow bunched over his head; he was snoring.

"Pavel!" Jaeger shrieked.

Chekov's eyes shot open, and he sat up automatically, though still not really awake. "What...what's the matter?"

"In the lobby..."

"Calm down and tell me what's wrong." He groped his way out of bed, blinking heavily against the sunlight, his eyes bleary and bloodshot. Inwardly it surprised him that he was able to cross the floor to Jaeger without stumbling. She was breathing like an old steam-engine gone berserk. If he had been a little more awake, he would have remembered both his Starfleet training (which made reaction in situations like this totally automatic) and the fact that Jaeger was not a hysteric.

"There's a Klingon in the lobby," she blurted.

His eyes opened a little wider. "There's a...? Jajubimets, there are no Klingons on this planet."

"There's one...no, two. In the lobby. Downstairs."

"What are they doing?"

"One of them tried to shake my hand. Aren't you going to do anything?" she asked shrilly.

Rubbing at his head, Chekov padded across the room to the chair where his clothes were tossed, and ferreted in the pile until he located his communicator. Under Jaeger's frantic gaze, he flipped up the grid and said into the mike, "Enterprise."

"Enterprise bridge. Levine here," a woman's voice came back.

"This is Commander Chekov. Are there any Klingon vessels in the vicinity?"

After a beat, Linda Levine replied, "Negative, Commander. No vessels in this system except the Enterprise." There was a note of uncertainty in the voice of Uhura's relief officer. Nothing came over the communicator's tiny speaker to betray it, but Chekov could sense the increased level of activity on the bridge in response to his question. "Were you expecting any, Commander?" Levine asked.

"Negative. Do me a favor, Levine, and run a sensor scan. Are there any Klingons down here?"

"Hold a moment, sir. Checking now."

Chekov smiled benignly at Jaeger. She seemed to be unconvinced, and unsoothed by the calm that radiated from Chekov and from the Enterprise's bridge. He reached out to touch her, and her eyebrows crushed together in an expression of frustration and growing anger. Chekov rolled his eyes, which did nothing to improve her feelings.

"Commander Chekov?" Levine's voice said.

"Go ahead, Lieutenant."

"Sir..." She sounded puzzled, and not a little worried. "Sensors show two Klingon life forms within one hundred meters of your position."

"Are you sure?" Chekov barked into the communicator.

"Yes, sir. We ran the scan twice. The computer positively identifies two Klingons at...ninety-six point four meters from your present position. I think that would be in the same building you're in." When Chekov didn't reply, Levine prompted gently, "Did you want a security team down there, Commander?"

"Negative," Chekov said. "Stand by, Enterprise. Chekov out."

"Now do you believe me?" Jaeger asked.

Chekov flipped the grid down on the communicator, tossed it onto the end of the bed, and began yanking on his uniform. He was already half dressed when he said, "It's not that I didn't believe you. There aren't supposed to be any Klingons on this planet. According to the information we were given, there hasn't been a Klingon vessel in this sector for over a month." He fastened the front of his tunic and reached for his boots. "Were they armed?"

"Not that I could see. One of them...I don't know, he wasn't your typical Klingon."

"What does that mean?" Chekov asked, one boot dangling in the air.

"I told you--he tried to shake my hand. He wasn't in uniform." She thought back, trying to call up details of Koloth's appearance. "He was wearing some sort of a robe...something like their ambassadors wear. And he had this little furry thing hanging from his belt." The detail surprised her even as she mentioned it. At the time, she hadn't been aware of trivia.

Chekov stood up and settled his feet into the boots. "Little furry thing?"

"Uh-huh," Jaeger said hesitantly, puzzled by his expression.

"A tribble?" Chekov suggested.

"It might have been. It didn't really look like a tribble, though. It looked sort of...well, I guess it might have been dead. But why would anybody walk around with a dead tribble hanging from their belt?" Chekov had begun to pace the room agitatedly. Jaeger stayed where she was, growing more confused by the moment. He was obviously remembering something he didn't care for: he had that same knotted, intense look he wore whenever he was faced with something repugnant. "Pavel?" Jaeger said. "If it helps...I think he said his name was Koloth."

He bunched his hands and let out a howl of disgust, following that with a hot, Russian curse. It took him a moment to recover. When he had, he stuck the communicator and his hand phaser onto his belt, up under the back flap of his tunic, out of sight. "The captain isn't going to like this," he muttered, then amended, "No...the captain is going to hate this."

"Why? Who's Koloth?"

"It's a long story. A very long story." He moved toward the door.

Jaeger trailed him out into the corridor. "The captain's out running on the beach," she said, hustling to keep up with Chekov's long strides.

Koloth had already found Captain Kirk. After Jaeger had run off, he had made his own way down to the beach, smiling bemusedly at the sight of the Enterprise's commander jogging along the sand. Kirk was so involved in the run and in his own thoughts that he failed to notice Koloth until he had returned to a spot near where Jaeger had been sitting. He was walking around, cooling down, when Koloth stepped out from behind the tree that had concealed him and said ebulliently, "Greetings, Captain!"

Kirk shot upright, his hand moving toward his hip as Jaeger's had. When he found no phaser there, he let the hand drift down and straightened himself to face his accoster. "What..."

"You don't remember?" Koloth inquired. "I'm disappointed."

Kirk knew the voice. He had hoped never to hear it again, after the debacle of twenty years ago. Tribbles! he thought. On the bridge, in the corridors, in every cabin, every deck, in the food processing machinery. Little, pulsing, furry masses that reproduced at an incredible rate. The presence of the tribbles alone would have been bad enough, but then there was that pontificating Federation ambassador--what was his name? And the Klingons. He recalled Scott starting a fight in one of the space station bars when a Klingon had insulted his beloved Enterprise. Hadn't blinked twice at an insult to Kirk, though. Tribbles! Kirk held back the impulse to spit. "I remember all too well," he responded, hoping that his tone of voice was even. "Captain Koloth...or, rather Admiral Koloth these days."

"Glad to hear it, but I'm no longer in the military service now. I'm...I imagine you would call it an 'ambassador at large'."

"What are you doing here?" Kirk asked suspiciously, doubting that Admiral Koloth was no longer in the Klingon Defense Force.

"Meeting the people," Koloth replied pleasantly. "Getting to know this lovely planet. Familiarizing myself with their customs, their history, their culture. Quite interesting, don't you think? This concept of 'oneness' of theirs. Something like the Vulcan."

"Not really," Kirk snapped back.

"Ah, Captain, don't lose your temper. Not just when we're becoming reacquainted. I've missed you, you know. It's been a long time."

"Two years. Not long enough, Koloth."

Koloth took a few steps around, ostensibly examining his environment, idly touching a tree branch and pulling off a leaf. "I have as much right to be here as you do, Captain Kirk. I'm here as a visitor."

"Horseshit," Kirk said.

Eyes widening, Koloth threw back his head and laughed raucously. "I'm glad to see you haven't changed, Kirk. I was afraid that after all the years you might have mellowed. Become one of those old 'stuffed shirts' they talk about. But I underestimated you. You're still the same short-tempered Earther you always were. I must be sure to tell the Klingon Council. They'll be interested in your...lack of progress." Kirk said nothing, just glowered. Unaffected, Koloth reached down to unfasten one of the ornaments from his leather belt and extended it in Kirk's direction. "I've thought so much of you," Koloth went on, "that I kept a souvenir of one of our encounters. Rather well preserved, considering it's been dead for twenty years, don't you think?"

Kirk was careful not to move any closer, even though the angle of the sunlight kept him from seeing the object clearly. He was determined not to give Koloth any advantage in the conversation, but, to his annoyance, that seemed to be happening anyway. "A tribble," he guessed.

"Of course. One of many...very many."

"Thousands," Kirk said.

"Hundreds of thousands. All transported from your ship onto mine by the good graces of your engineer. And not on one occasion, but twice." Koloth returned the long-dead tribble to the clip on his belt. He'd had the creature deboweled and stuffed long ago (after having dangled it from the belt of his uniform with its innards intact until he'd left the military and surrendered the uniform), and had had it chemically treated several times since then, but it still gave off a faint, pungent odor. Idly he wondered if Kirk could smell it. Human revulsion for bad smells was well known--as well known as the Klingon fondness for the same bad smells. "By the way, Captain...is this some new uniform your crew has adopted? You're the second person I've seen this morning wearing this...unstructured outfit."

"We're on shore leave," Kirk snapped back. "The crew has my permission to wear anything they like."

Koloth exclaimed, "Really! How generous."

"Get to the point, Koloth." Do I really need the uniform? Kirk wondered. I can't be that insecure, to not be able to face him without the uniform. He was beginning to feel out of control, just enough to make him uneasy. In another minute he would feel as uncaptainlike as if he had been naked, and he cursed Koloth silently for destroying his composure that way. "I know you must have a point. What are you doing here?"

"I told you. Observing. Learning."

"The Citizen's High Council of this planet has already made their decision. They're joining the Federation. The agreement has been drawn up. It's going to be signed as soon as the Federation ambassadors get here."

"They've made up their minds," Koloth echoed.


"And they can just as easily un-make them," Koloth said.


Koloth waved the Enterprise's captain into silence. How he was enjoying all of this! It made the long years of study so worthwhile. All those record tapes: thousands of them. He'd suspected that the Starfleet people made a log entry every time they ate, spat or inhaled. And the history tapes! He nearly shuddered at the thought. Halfway into his first tape, a record of twentieth century Terran civilization, he'd wondered if a mistake had been made and this tape was really an entertainment program, some sort of satire. With that sort of background, no wonder the Humans acted as they did! With his old friend Kumara's help, for twelve standard years Koloth had read, listened and studied, filling his brain with every scrap of knowledge he could find about the Federation, about Starfleet, about Earth and about James Tiberius Kirk.

Now that Kumara himself was dead, Koloth knew he was the nearest thing the Klingon Empire had left to an expert on Terrans. Few of his peers respected him for that; they were a battle-happy people, establishing merit from a warrior's battle record, and Koloth, being a Kh'fjin, had a battle record that was spotty at best. He had had his own ship once, and had it taken away by the Kh'myr. He was promoted to Admiral, and given a desk job. Through his cunning, he survived the civil wars as Admirals Kusan and Khalian battled for control of the Empire. Following the purges which he managed to escape, the population of Kazh had devoted itself to warring amongst itself and with whatever Federation ship or planet or base that was in their way.

The majority of Kh'myr Klingons regarded him as a pathetic weakling, one of the few surviving members of his sub-race, a being not even worthy of battle. He paid little attention to the ridicule that followed him around like a pet animal. He had chosen his own path to honor as a D'Har master, and he had stuck to it faithfully. And now, as he faced the very unmilitary James Kirk (clad in drooping, stretched-out blue trousers and a tattered, thin shirt from which the sleeves had been torn off), he knew more of life from Kirk's point of view than any Klingon ever had--or, he suspected, ever would. That gave Koloth an extraordinarily heady sense of victory that he had never attained in battle.

The smile faded into a slight uplift at the left-hand corner of his mouth. Koloth fingered his stuffed tribble and watched Kirk fuming at him. "If you have a problem with my being here, Captain," he ventured, "I suggest you bring it up to the Citizen's High Council. They invited me to remain when my ship left to return to the Empire."

"Are there more of you here?" Kirk demanded.

"Just my aide, Kilon. You may remember him; he was formerly Kor's aide. I would have sent him on his way, too, but Admiral Kusan thought it unwise for me to remain here by myself. So Kilon is here as my...I think you refer to it as a 'bodyguard.'"

Kirk's hands fought to clench. It took quite a bit of will to keep them open. "You might need a bodyguard, Koloth. To protect you from me." Koloth's expression didn't change. He and Kirk both knew that if they had not been alone, Kirk would not be speaking this way. But with no witnesses...

"A little threat between friends?" Koloth inquired. "And after our Empire helped saved your Federation from the Kelvans. Tsk tsk."

"I will be going to the Council," Kirk concluded. "To see what the hell is really going on here."

"Be my guest. I'll be around. Do let me know when you're ready to talk some more. I'm looking forward to continuing." Koloth dipped into a bastardized bow. "Now, Captain, I really think you should do something about your appearance. Very...unimpressive. Shore leave or not. You're not living up to your reputation. I expect more of you."

Kirk strode past him, aiming for the Dianasian guest building.

Smirking, Koloth called after him, "You can't imagine how pleased I was to find out you were coming here. It's made everything worthwhile."


Spock moved the joystick lightly and noted with satisfaction how easily the aircar responded to his touch. The car slid smoothly upward, clearing by at least a meter the tree that Spock had climbed to avoid. He had been at the controls only half an hour, but had become so accustomed to flying the little craft that he was making adjustments nearly by instinct, and was able to devote the better part of his attention to the landscape and not the instrument panel.

When he had first ventured out of the guest building, it had been just before sunrise and he was alone in the quiet streets of Dianas's capital city. Rather than go directly to the hanger where the aircar was parked, he had strolled through the city for nearly two hours, silently absorbing the details of his surroundings. The small city was unique; despite the Humans' insistence upon comparing it to other places, other worlds they had seen, Elyantorvan was quite different from anything Spock had ever encountered. True, there were small similarities in architecture and in the plant and animal life, but, for the most part, every detail, every species, every line in the carvings that decorated the building facades, was unique in and of itself. It was in keeping with the Vulcan joy in the philosophy of infinite diversity in infinite combinations (IDIC, or as McCoy insisted on referring to it, "idick", which bore no relation to the melodic Vulcan words) that Spock found himself absorbed in cataloging the thousands of tiny differences he found. Now, as the morning progressed, he was at the controls of the aircar Gehaan had loaned to him, taking a better look at the city from above.

Pleasant, he thought to himself as he angled the car a bit higher, cruising some twenty meters above the ground. Gehaan had assured him that he would disturb no one by flying low over the huge park that bordered Elyantorvan's western limits; the aircar ran silently, and there was still no one to be found on the city's broad, tree-lined streets. Spock had left the craft's window panels open so that the sweet, cool morning air could sweep through the car, and heard nothing over the rush of wind other than the myriad songs of the birds hidden among the tree branches.

The Dianasians had done a fine job of maintaining their city to appeal to their love of beauty, he observed. It had no tall buildings, no narrow streets, no visible garbage, no signs of disrepair. No dust rising to irritate the eyes or prick at the nostrils, no smells of decomposition or waste, no harsh facades. The buildings were all of marble or other carved stone, with an occasional wooden panel for decoration. The streets were paved with a pebbly substance that gave minutely underfoot to lend the impression of walking on grassy soil rather than pavement. Storefronts were filled with potted flowers and gay fabrics to set off the wares being displayed, and the small, comfortable dwellings were flanked with broad lawns, trees, shrubbery, flowers, small fountains and lovely carved statues of birds and animals. Nothing seemed out of place. It was a world of singular beauty, Spock noted. In that sense it was like so many others that the crew of the Enterprise had come across in their journeys: "like the Garden of Eden," they would invariably muse. But unlike most of those other worlds, Spock had been unable to find the serpent in this particular Eden. The Dianasians seemed to have achieved a remarkable balance: technology without technology's usual demons. He had given some thought shortly after the Enterprise's arrival here, to the Dianasians' other remarkable balance: they seemed, as McCoy would colloquially put it, to "have a handle on their emotions." They did not know love, but on the other hand, neither did they know anything about hatred. Or jealousy, or greed or ambition. They were a wonderfully placid, settled people who found great joy in their world.

But, Spock wondered, was there truly such a thing as a one-sided coin? Beauty without ugliness? Joy without pain? The concept of the two-sided coin could be found in Vulcan philosophy (though in somewhat different terms), and in the Human, and in the philosophies of thousands of other races throughout the universe. A justification? Spock wondered. A way to reconcile the mind to everything negative it might encounter. Everything had its opposite, surely. Would the Dianasians know that? No joy without pain. The thought made Spock breathe a quick sigh as he guided the aircar in a smooth arc to bring it back into the limits of the city.

Their concept of 'oneness' saddened him, too, in a way that it would not have earlier in his life. The younger Spock had tried to follow his forebears' insistence on pure logic as a guide for life--had tried to purge the Human half of his heritage in a quest for what the Vulcans called Kolinahr. He had spent nearly a year with the Masters of Gol in their forbidding mountain temple, trying to forget the Humans he had called his friends, trying most of all to forget Jim Kirk, trying to bury his emotions in a place so deep that even he would be forever unable to find them. He had almost succeeded.

Then, across the void of space, the being that called itself V'Ger had called to him. And in V'Ger's vastness, he had found the flaw in the Kolinahr. Logic, V'Ger cried out in its black emptiness, is not enough. V'Ger, the living machine, on a journey of eons across the universe, had gathered into itself all that was knowable, every particle of information it could find as it crossed from one end of time to another, and, when its journey was through, it cried out in its pain and loneliness: is there nothing more?

Spock had wept for V'Ger's isolation, its endless yearning for the answers to its own existence, its life without feeling, and had looked for the joy in his own life. "Your answer lies elsewhere, Spock," the Vulcan masters had told him when he failed at Kolinahr, and that was true. His answers were not on Vulcan, not in the discipline of pure logic, not in the great loneliness that reliance on logic alone would bring. He had searched his soul endlessly, wondering how his Vulcan fathers could bear that sort of isolation, and had ultimately been reminded that he too was a part of "IDIC", a unique being who must follow his own path in life. Though he was not entirely sure why, he still maintained the mask of the Vulcan, but underneath lay an entirely different Spock, a creature who enjoyed no "oneness" but who cared as deeply and felt as much as his Human companions.

Once, years ago, before he had learned to see through the mask of the Vulcan, McCoy had observed with some sympathy, "Think of all the things you'll never know...just because the word 'love' isn't written in your book."

To Spock's endless gratitude (and perhaps to McCoy's as well), McCoy had been wrong.

Down below, the Dianasians were beginning to emerge from their homes, headed for their day's activities. Some of them were dressed in jumpsuits like the ones the High Councilors had worn to greet the Enterprise crew; others wore long robes that swished around their ankles as they walked. They seemed not to notice the aircar that floated high above their heads. For beings whose "book" did not include the concept of love, they seemed remarkably pleased with each other, with themselves and with their surroundings. Not one of them wore a negative expression; no scowls, no frowns, not even the absence of a smile. Perhaps that could be considered a drawback, Spock observed. Having lived most of his life in the diligent avoidance of smiling, he wondered about the wisdom (the logic? he thought) of smiling all the time. Surely these people did not, could not. Surely they were not this pleased with life all the time. How profoundly unfair that would be! Spock had never wasted much of his time in the pursuit of anything as ephemeral as happiness (even at this point, he still felt that to be the most fruitless of Human passions), but for these people to be so overwhelmingly self-satisfied while one of their visitors was so overwhelmingly self-defeated.... He thought of the expression on Kirk's face the night before as he had left the dining room on the coattails of Gehaan, who was murmuring on and on about the Dianasians' lost "gift". No smile there. Just endless weariness, a quick resigned quirk of one corner of his mouth in Spock's direction, and then no expression at all. He was in pain of a kind, chronic, the sort that would wear away at him until it had defeated him entirely.

Curious, Spock reached out with the part of his mind that belonged to the link and searched for his t'hy'la, sighing again when he bumped into the same wall of annoyance and frustration that had occupied Kirk's mind for weeks. He probed a bit further, and found one thought being repeated (beyond a string of what Spock referred to as "colorful metaphors"): Koloth. Spock's brow slid up under his bangs. Koloth? Here? He was not conscious of altering the aircar's course, but a moment later it was turned completely around, headed for the storage hangar.


"Councilor," Kirk said, struggling to keep a nearly polite tone in his voice, "you have to understand..."

"I understand what Koloth had told me," Gehaan said mildly.

"His people..." Kirk began again.

Gehaan lifted a hand and gestured for Kirk to be silent. "His people have come and gone. Koloth has stayed behind to study, to be among us, to learn from us and to allow us to learn from him. He causes no harm, Captain. We are certainly in no danger from him or from his companion." He seemed not to notice the rage boiling under the surface of Kirk's expression. "Please. Allow us to make our own decisions. After all, Captain, you are a visitor here, as is Koloth."

Kirk's mouth opened, but a moment went by before he replied. "Of course, Councilor."

"Good," Gehaan smiled.

Deflated, Kirk sank into one of the plush chairs in front of the High Councilor's enormous carved wooden desk. Sitting down made him feel even less in control, and he began to wonder what had happened to his sense of authority. Ever since Koloth had pointed out the oddness of his worn-out jogging clothes, he'd had the feeling of descending a long staircase that seemed to have no end. Full uniform didn't help, even with a communicator and hand phaser tucked under the back flap of his tunic. He had not one shred of authority over Gehaan (or anyone else from Dianas), or over the two Klingons; the only members of his own crew he'd seen that morning were Chekov and Jaeger, with whom he had collided in the lobby of the guest building. He remembered addressing them in a tone that now reminded him of Captain Dynhart, the most obnoxious of his Academy instructors, full of anger and frustration. Chekov had heard him bark too many times in the past to let Kirk's tone bother him, but Jaeger had shrunk back with obvious puzzlement in her eyes. Damn it, Kirk thought, what the hell's happening here? He looked across the desk at Gehaan, who for the moment was not broadcasting that ridiculous childlike grin of his.

"Councilor," he began once more, "we simply feel that you should be aware of the Klingons' intentions."

"You speak for them?" Gehaan inquired.

"No, sir. I speak from experience." Kirk paused, waiting for a reaction. All Gehaan did was steeple his fingers. "The Klingon Empire believes in domination, Councilor, not in friendly co-existence, which is what the Federation offers. We have no desire to conquer your people."

"The Klingons have made no attempt at conquest, either, Captain."

"They may be merely biding their time, sir."

Gehaan sat back a little. The hinges on his chair creaked with his weight. He rocked in the chair several times, almost as if he were provoking the creaking, and his gaze wandered around the room, taking in his collection of paintings and tapestries, the fabric of the drapes at the tall windows, the sunny view of the garden outside. When he finally turned back to Kirk, there was no suggestion of the ever-present smile, and his tone had darkened. "I do not believe you understand our people, Captain Kirk. There are few of us, and our philosophy is one of peace and the enjoyment of life. There would be no profit in conquering Dianas; we have no wealth here, and we are not in a position that would make us a valuable planetary base. We have been left alone for thousands of years, Captain. No one, save ourselves, has found anything of value here. And what we value most of all is our solitude. We have made you welcome, because our ancient teachings celebrate the value of learning, and of teaching. We take joy in learning from you and in giving learning to you." He paused, and the chair creaked painfully. "However, if you insist on bringing discord to our people because of your disagreements with the Klingons, we will be forced to ask you to leave."

Kirk felt himself bumping down several more steps. "You have my sincere apologies, Councilor," he said. His stomach had begun to burn. "It wasn't my intention to create any sort of problem among your people. Captain Koloth and I will...take our disagreements elsewhere."

"That would be best." After a long moment of thought, Gehaan slid open one of the drawers of his desk and pulled out a fat, leather-bound book. The musty smell of old paper wafted across the desk. "This is the Ghanni," he told Kirk, cradling the book gingerly in both hands. "Our holy book. You would do me great honor if you would read it." His smile began creeping back as he eased the book across the desktop toward Kirk, and he continued, "I believe the computer aboard your ship can translate?"

Kirk murmured, "Yes. It has a scanner that translates printed material."

"Then you will honor me by reading our Ghanni?"

Stuck again, Kirk thought. "Yes, of course," he replied, trying to match Gehaan's smile and not quite succeeding. "I'd...be glad to." He accepted the book, judging by the weight of it that he had a lot of reading ahead of him. Normally he enjoyed reading and had a collection of printed volumes in his cabin aboard the Enterprise, but holy books had never been among his favorites. On the other hand, he thought ruefully, the Christian Bible was composed mostly of stories; perhaps this book was much the same, rather than being thousands of pages of deadly-dry philosophy like the Vulcan holy works.

"You will learn much about our people from the Ghanni," the Head Councilor went on. "I hope it will help you understand what I have been trying to say."

"I'm sure it will, Councilor," said Kirk, who was not sure at all.

"Excellent." Gehaan got up from the creaking chair and ushered Kirk to the massive door of his office. "Please do return when you have finished reading, and we will talk again. I think we have much still to learn from each other." He reached beyond Kirk and opened the door. "I hope your crew is enjoying their visit here?"

"They seem to be."

"Good. Go well, Captain."

The Councilor seemed to be waiting for something, but Kirk had no clue what that might be. Hugging the book closer to his chest, he nodded to the Dianasian and said quietly, "Thank you, Councilor." Gehaan bobbed his head in return. When Kirk had moved through the doorway into the corridor, the door softly thumped shut behind him.

Spock was standing down the corridor a few paces, his back to the wall. "Jim?"

"I've been rebuked," Kirk told him.

"Not surprising," Spock said, paying no attention to the startled look he got from his friend. "A collision of philosophies was bound to occur sooner or later. I do not believe that the Dianasians' view of life could possibly differ from yours any more than it does." Kirk opened his mouth, but Spock shook his head and continued, "I imply no criticism. Merely a statement of fact."

"Hmmm," Kirk said, frowning.

"Actually, the Dianasians have been most gracious at accepting the crew of the Enterprise, despite the differences in philosophy. They simply do not understand Humans."

Kirk muttered, "Maybe you could give them some pointers."

Spock began walking down the corridor toward the lobby of the council building. After a pause of a few seconds, Kirk followed him, taking the first few steps rapidly so that he could fall into pace with Spock. "I believe some of the Dianasians were actually quite perturbed about Chekov and Lieutenant Jaeger sharing a room. As I am sure you've noticed...the Dianasians do not believe in sharing one's living quarters with anyone. It is a gross violation of their 'oneness'. They seem to be allowing the situation to continue simply because of their desire to learn new things."

Rolling his eyes, Kirk inquired, "You're sure they don't have the room bugged, Mister Spock?"

"'Bugged'?" Spock echoed.

"Listening devices. They aren't eavesdropping, are they?"

"I do not believe so."

"That would be a violation of 'oneness', then."

"Of course."

Kirk mused, "Thank heaven for small favors."

They went on walking, footsteps echoing down the corridor. "I see Councilor Gehaan has given you a copy of the Ghanni," Spock observed.

"Homework, Mister Spock."

"I read it myself during the night. I believe you will find it interesting. The language is quite beautiful." Kirk said nothing in reply. Spock stopped walking and regarded his friend, waiting for a response of some kind. Kirk stopped arm's length away, clutching the book, still frowning. "I did not intend to criticize," Spock said again.

"I know." Kirk paused, looking around. "Things are getting away from me, Spock. It never used to be that way. I used to be able to hold my own."

"You are not the same person you were, Jim."

"I've been in a position of authority for almost half my life, Spock. Why do I feel like I'm...losing hold?"

"You have changed," Spock said. "I believe you now have the ability, as Doctor McCoy would say, to see past the end of your own nose."

"And I didn't have before?" Kirk asked.

"Not at first. Not when you first took command." Spock resumed walking, and again Kirk fell into step beside him. "I admire you for what you are, and for what you have learned, Jim. You are more than able to command...and I am not."

"But you are. You've taken command many times."

"Briefly," Spock acknowledged. "I find myself unwilling to accept the responsibility for a ship and a crew. I see in myself the same questions, the same pains that you have. I do not believe I would be able to shoulder command of a starship. I am simply not a leader, Jim. I content myself with being a teacher, and a student. You are the captain. Admiral Nogura knew that when he gave the Enterprise to you. You proved yourself to be the finest starship commander in Starfleet. You became everything Captain Pike had been...perhaps more. I have never felt a moment of regret that Starfleet Command gave the Enterprise to you."

"Thank you, Spock," Kirk said solemnly.

"I wish I could provide more of the answers you seek," Spock went on.

"Nobody can," Kirk murmured.

"If my advice helps you, I will continue to offer it. However, I do not feel..."

The chirping of Kirk's communicator cut Spock off in mid-sentence. Indicating with a nod that Spock should hold the thought, Kirk plucked the communicator from his belt, flipped up the grid and said into the mike, "Kirk here."

"Jim?" McCoy's voice came back. "I need you up here."

"Up...?" Kirk frowned, momentarily confused. "What are you doing on board, Bones? I thought you were down here."

"I was. Chekov and I brought Jaeger up a little while ago. She passed out and fell down half a flight of those infernal marble stairs." There was a pause. When McCoy spoke again, his voice had become noticeably harsher. "She's pretty banged up. Those people ought to discover the wonders of a turbolift and forget about the pretty staircases."

Kirk said narrowly, "Bones...what do you need me for?"

"I'd sooner tell you when you get here."

The captain rubbed at his hair. The nagging feeling in his head that had begun while he was talking with Gehaan was turning rapidly into a headache. "Doctor," he said with an edge to his voice, "you don't need me to hold Jaeger's hand over some bumps and bruises. I'm sure Chekov can handle that quite well. Now, if there's something more important you want me up there for, tell me. I don't have time for guessing games."

Static crackled through the tiny speaker as McCoy paused once more. "All right, then. You're going to have to find yourself another handball partner, Captain."

"Bones!" Kirk roared.

McCoy's voice dropped to near a whisper, just barely audible over the speaker. "We've run the tests three times, Jim. I've recalibrated every damn way I can think of, and the results all come out the same. Jaeger's dying, Jim. Now will you come up here?"

Kirk exchanged a long, pained look with Spock, and squeezed his eyes shut. "I'll be right there," he told McCoy.

Chapter 4

"Normally," McCoy said, aware that most of what he'd been saying up to this point was familiar to any high school biology student, "the red blood cells piggyback oxygen around in the body." He tapped a key on the computer console, and a simplified molecular diagram came up on the screen. None of the people around the briefing table seemed terribly impressed. "But when a person is exposed to certain substances--carbon monoxide, cyanoalisitate, a few others--those substances bond onto the red blood cells, preventing them from carrying oxygen." One side of his mouth crept up in a sickly grin that had absolutely no humor behind it. "The red blood cells simply like the other stuff better." Spock hiked an eyebrow; Kirk and Chekov merely looked blearily at the doctor. Losing the grin, McCoy went on, "The effect of carbon monoxide or cyanoalisitate depends on the amount of exposure. With a little bit, all you get is a headache, maybe some nausea. With increasing exposure..."

"Severe headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, lack of coordination, difficulty in interpreting visual stimuli," Chekov muttered.

McCoy tapped the console button again. A new diagram popped onto the screen. "Right. This is what it looks like--hemoglobin bonded to a cyanoalisitate molecule. As you know," he forged ahead, suspecting that none of them did know, except possibly Spock, "there isn't much research on the effects of cyanoalisitate exposure, due to the fact that few planets have any cyanoalisitate gas in their atmospheres. It's normally found as a solid. But from the research that's been done, unless a certain dosage is exceeded, the cyanoalisitate seems to just sit there. It bonds onto some of the red blood cells, but then it doesn't seem to do anything." He paused.

"Keep going," Kirk told him tiredly.

The doctor brought up a new drawing onto the screen. "Now, in the atmosphere here--on Dianas--there's a trace element. The locals give it a name with about twenty syllables." He tapped the computer screen with a forefinger. "This is it, here. This stuff, whatever it is, bonds onto the cyanoalisitate and forms an entirely new molecule." Once more he touched the console and prompted a new schematic. "The whole thing is attached to the hemoglobin. And it doesn't let go, the way oxygen ultimately lets go of the hemoglobin as it's transported through the body. It is an unstable molecule, however, and after a certain period of time it breaks down into two separate molecules, which look like this." He touched the screen when the last schematic appeared, indicating the two separate molecules represented there. "Neither of which is hemoglobin."

Kirk studied the screen for a long moment. His high school biology days were long behind him, and he hadn't had much occasion to refresh anything he'd learned back then. "That's wonderful, Bones," he said without enthusiasm. "What does all that mean, exactly?"

"It means," McCoy replied, "that once the cyanoalisitate and this other stuff bonds together inside your body, then starts breaking down, after a while you end up with no red blood cells whatsoever."

"There's nothing you can do?"

"Not that I can find. Like I said, you can't unbond this thing."

"What about transfusions?" Kirk suggested.

McCoy waggled his head. "As fast as we pump in new red blood cells, the cyanoalisitate bonds onto them, whether they're produced naturally in the body or transfused in. And this cyanoalisitate-whatsis molecule clings to the lining of the blood vessels, so even if we did a complete transfusion with whole, new blood, it wouldn't do any good at all. The damage is already done. Seems like it was done the first few minutes she was here. So it doesn't make any difference now whether she stays up here aboard ship, or goes back down to the surface."

"How long, Bones?"

With a heavy shrug, McCoy settled back into the chair, away from the computer screen. He'd looked at the series of schematics so many times during the last hour that he could still see them even when he closed his eyes. "Hard to tell. But it's a slow process, the breakdown I mean. I'd say maybe a week, two weeks." He rubbed at his temples. "Of course, that's not to say she's going to be in top form the whole time. She feels pretty lousy already."

Chekov lifted his head, gazing first at McCoy, then turning a little so he could face Spock, his expression heavily clouded. "This is your fault," the Russian said a moment later.

"Chekov..." McCoy said.

"You took her down there," Chekov murmured. "None of this would be happening if you hadn't taken her down there."

"Take it easy, Pavel," Kirk warned.

Shaking, Chekov bounced up out of his chair, lowering his head so that he was staring stonily at the Vulcan first officer. As he spoke, his voice grew progressively higher in pitch so that by the time he was finished, he was practically screeching. "You're supposed to be so logical! If the cyanoalisitate is only harmful to Humans, why did you take Humans with you? Why didn't you take somebody else?"

"It was an accident, Chekov," McCoy urged.

"It never should have happened!" Chekov howled. "He should have known!" Kirk and McCoy both got up from the table, went to Chekov and firmly sat him back down. The younger man had begun to quiver convulsively and tears were overflowing down his cheeks. He made no attempt to resist the captain or McCoy, just slumped back into the chair, his hands in his lap, and eventually began to sob hopelessly. "Why?" he snuffled. "Why didn't you know what would happen? Why did you take her down there? Why couldn't you pick somebody else?"

McCoy sighed deeply. "He didn't do it deliberately, Chekov. It was an accident. Nobody meant for anything like this to happen, for God's sake."

Chekov peered at him. "You don't understand."

"I do, Chekov, I do."

"No you don't," Chekov persisted, tears running off his chin onto the front of his uniform jacket. His nose had started running too, and he swiped roughly at it with the back of his hand. "How could you understand? Any of you?" He jabbed a finger in Spock's direction. "And how could he understand? He doesn't have any idea how I feel about her."

"On the contrary, Mister Chekov," Spock replied quietly. "I know all too well."

Kirk took a sudden step away from Chekov's seat, resting a hand on the briefing table to support himself. Somewhere inside his head he could hear that horrible thump again, feel his arms around McCoy as he held his friend back, prevented him from running into the street to stop the collision. McCoy had gaped at him, shocked, unable to interpret Kirk's expression, unaware of the absolute hopelessness that had overtaken Kirk as the truck came out of nowhere and slammed into Edith. It was the worst sound he had ever heard, that single thump: an odd sound, like a sack of flour hitting a wall. A moment later she lay on her back in the street, blood oozing over the pavement, and he tried to find some shred of gratitude that at least she had died immediately. It had been difficult; most of what swept through him was a sort of black emptiness.

"Jim? You all right?" he heard McCoy asking.

He took a deep breath, nodded, and stepped further away from the table. "I'll be in my cabin if you need me," he told the doctor, pivoted, and hurried out the door of the briefing room. He was not in the corridor long enough to notice if anyone was nearby. The briefing room door had barely closed behind him when he strode into the smaller conference room across the corridor, dropped into a chair as the door closed, lowered his face into his hands and gave in to his own tears.


"Distress call on the emergency channel, Captain."


The collection of cadets manning the bridge listened to the distress call as had hundreds of rookies before them--tinny, static-filled, the voice thick with fright. Jaeger straightened in the command chair, knowing what was coming, trying to organize her thoughts so that she could speak without a waver when the message ended. She could feel Spock's eyes on her like two cold spots at the back of her neck. Okay, Jaeger, let's do this right, she thought. The question was, was there or was there not a Kobayashi Maru in real jeopardy out in the middle of the Neutral Zone? The freighter was under attack, so the distress call maintained: life support systems out, only a few minutes' worth of air left, no other help available in the sector. They needed help from the Liberty, and they needed it now.

If, indeed, there was a real Kobayashi Maru out there.

"Patch me in," Jaeger told Bess Lauderbeck, her roommate, presently sitting in at the communications console. Lauderbeck tapped several buttons, nodded in affirmation at Jaeger. "Kobayashi Maru, this is the starship Liberty," Jaeger said loudly enough for the overhead mike to pick up her voice and send it across space. "We are receiving you, but your message is breaking up. Can you boost your signal?"

"Affirmative, Liberty," the voice came back, a bit louder but still crackling with static.

"What are your coordinates, Kobayashi Maru?"

The voice at the other end read off a series of numbers. Smack in the middle of the Neutral Zone, as Jaeger had known they would be. She frowned slightly, not enough to be obvious, and tapped into the intercom. "Transporter room, did you get that?"

"Got it, Captain," the reply snapped. "Standing by."

Jaeger considered the main viewing screen in front of her for a long moment. Walking Bear had brought up on the screen a schematic of where they were in relation to the Neutral Zone, where the stricken Kobayashi Maru would be. Another time, at another place (though not far enough away that the memory could be avoided), there had been another ship in much the same situation. It had answered a distress call and had never returned to Federation space. Spock's gaze seemed to have drilled halfway through the back of her neck. Jaeger rested her hands lightly on the arms of the command chair, marveling at the fact that she was not sweating. "Transporter room, keep a fix on those coordinates. When you can lock onto the survivors, move like you never moved before. We won't have much time."

"Aye, Captain."

She turned again to Lauderbeck. "Message to Starfleet Command. We're going into the Neutral Zone...in violation of the treaty accords, on my responsibility. Rescue mission." Lauderbeck acknowledged the order and immediately began sending the message. "Helm, how long to reach them at Warp Eight?"

Walking Bear had already calculated it. "Three point six minutes, Captain."

Almost four minutes. Under the conditions they'd be flying into, four minutes could be endless. On the other hand, it could all end very quickly. Jaeger eased in a deep breath, tried for calm, and said rapidly, "Yellow alert. All shields up. Phaser banks and photon torpedoes armed and ready. When we're close enough to lock on with the transporters, we'll drop the shields for fifteen seconds. No more."

"Aye, aye, Captain," Walking Bear said quietly.

"Warp Eight, Mister Walking Bear. Now."

The surge of increased power shuddered through the bridge. The schematic on the main viewer changed rapidly; at Jaeger's signal, Walking Bear replaced it with the normal full-ahead picture. A few seconds later, the irritatingly precise voice of the computer announced, "Warning. Warning. We are in the Neutral Zone. Warning. We have penetrated the Neutral Zone. We are in violation of treaty."

"Lauderbeck, shut that thing up!" Jaeger snapped.

Lauderbeck touched a button and the computer voice was cut off in mid-word. She had one eye on her board, one on Jaeger, and, if it had been possible, would have had a third eye on Spock, who was manning the science station, present as one of the three required Academy instructors for the duration of the Kobayashi Maru test. Though each of the cadets would eventually have his or her turn in command (at least for the purposes of the test), this was the first time any of this particular group had taken part in what their instructors referred to as "the no-win scenario." Jaeger was one of their own--a popular one of their own--and the entire group had a vested interest in her success. If she failed, in a sense it would make all of them look bad. They waited, literally on the edges of their seats, and their intensity did little to ease Jaeger's rapidly fraying nerves.

"Sensors?" she said over her shoulder, not wanting to turn and face Spock. "What's out there?"

"Some natural space debris, Captain," Spock replied evenly. "And an ion cloud--causing some interference with long-range sensor sweep. There is, however, an object on screen that might be a ship."

"Just one ship," Jaeger replied, not quite a question.


Her eyes were on the screen again. They were out there somewhere, she was sure, waiting for the right moment. In spite of what the sensors might indicate, they would be there, guarding their side of the Neutral Zone like weeds alongside a fence.

"Intercept in two minutes, mark," Walking Bear announced.

Spock said abruptly, urgently, "Sensors picking up additional objects, Captain."


His fingers moved over the keys on the science panel, almost too rapidly to be seen, calling up augmented information. "Three ships, moving in at Warp Seven. Klingon battle cruisers, Captain."

Kenny Bushmiller, beside Walking Bear at the navigation console, said wryly, "Here comes the wolf pack," and nodded at the screen.

Jaeger's hand slammed down on the command chair console, activating the alert system. The bridge lights dimmed to scarlet and the alert klaxon began its strident whooping. Keying into the ship-wide intercom, Jaeger said tersely, "Battle stations. All hands, battle stations. Full power to the shields. Ready with phasers."

"Phasers ready, Captain," Walking Bear confirmed.

"Torpedoes armed?"

"Armed and ready. Awaiting your order."

She turned just enough to be able to see Lauderbeck out of the corner of one eye. "Open hailing frequencies." Allowing Lauderbeck a second to do so, she went on, "This is the U.S.S. Liberty. We are on a rescue mission. Repeat, we are on a rescue mission. Hold your fire."

"They're jamming us, Captain," Lauderbeck replied.

Though still a huge distance away, the Klingon ships nearly filled the main viewscreen. Jaeger's hands tightened on the arms of the command chair. "Evasive maneuvers, Mister Walking Bear. Keep us out of their way."

"Aye, Captain." Walking Bear's hands moved deftly; the perspective on screen changed as the Liberty dipped in space and headed off on a tangent away from the converging paths of the Klingons. The enemy ships changed course just as rapidly, once more closing on a point in front of the Federation ship. Walking Bear tried another tack, the ship responding quickly and smoothly to his commands, but it accomplished little, the Klingons responding in kind. "They're arming weapons, Captain. Still closing."

"Five hundred thousand kilometers," Bushmiller said. "Four fifty..."

A glowing ball of red appeared at the nose of one of the Klingon vessels: a photon torpedo, aimed at the Liberty's foremost vulnerable points. When it impacted, the bridge shuddered, the lights blinking briefly as if unsure whether to stay lit. "Shields holding," Spock announced.

"Fire torpedoes!" Jaeger said sharply.

Bushmiller's fingers danced on the keys. "Fire one...fire two..."

One of the torpedoes found its mark, on the port side of the middle Klingon ship. Instantly all three ships returned fire, rocking the bridge with the impact of the triplet of explosions, shorting out electrical systems and filling the air with trailing wisps of smoke. Damage reports began coming in over the intercom. Bushmiller continued sending off torpedoes, with little effect; for every one that found a target, several more soared off into empty space.

"Still closing!" Walking Bear called out. "Two hundred thousand kilometers."

"Forward shields down to sixty percent," Spock announced. "Starboard shield inoperable. Damage to decks three and four. Casualties on deck three, no fatalities."

"In phaser range, Captain!" Walking Bear shouted over the growing racket on the bridge.

"Fire all phasers," Jaeger called back.

Bushmiller's fingers flew again. "Firing phasers!"

Two of the Klingon ships began dancing around the Liberty while the third remained dead ahead, holding its position relative to the Federation ship. The two coming around behind continued their assault, barraging the Liberty with both phaser blasts and torpedoes. The noise on the bridge doubled, tripled, and with it the amount of smoke in the air as more of the bridge systems shorted out. Yet another photon torpedo found its mark just off the bridge, and the Liberty was jolted sharply, rocking half the bridge personnel out of their seats.

"Losing power to phaser banks!" Bushmiller shrieked.

Jaeger whirled the command chair around. "We need power to the weapons!"

Spock shook his head, more grave than alarmed. "Impossible, Captain. Batteries are down to twenty percent and draining off rapidly."

"They have us surrounded, Captain," Walking Bear shouted over his shoulder.

For an interminable few seconds, Jaeger considered her situation. The bridge continued to be rocked by explosions, though Bushmiller did his best to counter them and a handful of his shots did indeed find targets. Warning lights were flashing all over the bridge, alerting the crew to the failing status of most of the ship's systems. Another well-aimed shot from the lead Klingon vessel destroyed the communications system, with a resulting massive electrical short that threw Bess Lauderbeck out of her seat to lie crumpled on the floor. A few seconds later, the science console exploded, and, though Spock had seen it coming soon enough to pull his hands away, the blast was still violent enough to throw him onto the floor beside Lauderbeck. Bushmiller glanced around, shuddered and returned his attention to his board, beginning to wonder how long it would take until it, too, blew out.

"Captain," he said sickly, "I believe we are well and truly fucked."

"Mister Walking Bear," Jaeger said. "Pivot."

Walking Bear shot her a startled look. "Captain?"

"Pivot, Mister Walking Bear. You're an expert. Get us out of here while we still have power!" She gripped the command chair's arms, appending silently: And before I throw up.

Walking Bear didn't bother informing her that the stress on the ship from the maneuver she proposed would rip the Liberty apart. It would have wasted time, and, beyond that, he himself had taught her the maneuver and knew she was aware of its dangers. "Pivot," he confirmed, and programmed it into his board, ignoring the frantic ABORT MANEUVER SYSTEMS OVERLOAD on the little screen beneath his hands. Under his command, the Liberty strained and upended herself, nose up, tail down, and dropped below the galactic plane of battle. They were some ten thousand kilometers from their original position when Walking Bear's board blew out. He managed a scream before he hit the deck.

Jaeger's mind cranked out a dozen vehement curses in as many different languages. Shuddering, she tapped the console buttons that would arm the log buoy and propel it into space in the direction of Starfleet Headquarters, to be intercepted by the first Federation vessel to encounter it.

"Power's gone, Cap'n," Bushmiller wheezed. "We're dead in space."

She glanced around. Two of the other cadets were still in their seats, watching her worriedly through the smoke, hacking for air and blinking frantically. What's he waiting for? she thought; Spock had not moved from his crumpled position on the deck. How much more do we have to blow up here? "They're not taking my ship," she told Bushmiller.

"You gonna take it with you?" he coughed.

Choices, she thought. I could call "abandon ship," let anybody who's still moving go in the escape pods, but the Klingons wouldn't let them get ten feet. Ditto the shuttles and the fighters. Nobody on this boat is going anywhere no matter what happens. The corners of her mouth crept up. Yes, ma'am, she thought, we are all well and truly fucked. "Damn straight I'm taking it with me," she told Bushmiller, pushed herself out of the command chair, stepped over Spock's unmoving form, waving at the plumes of smoke still wisping from the science board and keyed into the only ship's system remaining operable: the self-destruct sequence.

"Lights," Spock said from the floor.

Jaeger sank into the science chair. Overhead lighting, somewhat more brilliant than the normal bridge lights, clicked on, and the sliding panels that formed the aft wall of the bridge hummed open to reveal the wide corridor beyond. The air conditioning kicked on, blowing fresh air in and sucking out the acrid smoke. Slowly, and with more dignity than it seemed possible for him to muster, Spock climbed up from the deck, straightened his uniform, and gave Jaeger an even, expressionless, appraising look. She blinked uncomfortable, but managed not to flinch. "Cadets," he said quietly, "report to the briefing room." He held her eyes for another minute, then silently followed the line of sooty, bruised rookies out into the corridor in the direction of the main briefing room.

"Hikaru's Hope?" Lieutenant Commander Dawson Walking Bear said, wincing as he got up from the deck.

She rested her elbows on her knees and her chin on her fists. "It was the only thing I could think of."

He sat on the edge of the helm chair. "You could do worse."

"I ripped the ship apart."

"The ship was doomed no matter what you decided, kid," he replied with a mild shrug. "They just want you to be creative."

"I guess I was that."

"You were that."

Jaeger groaned heavily and leaned back in the chair, which creaked under her weight and threatened to give way. "I really bollixed this up something fierce. Lost the ship...killed my roommate." She glanced out toward the corridor; Lauderbeck had been one of the first cadets to stumble out into the fresh air. "What a mess." Walking Bear didn't reply. Jaeger looked at him curiously. "So there was no Kobayashi Maru."

"Sometimes there is."

She shook her head and made a loud, guttural noise of distress. "God, what a mess. Look at this."

"They'll clean it up."

"I lost my ship, Mister Walking Bear! I walked right into a trap."

He shrugged again. "No choice. You can't ignore a distress call. Listen, Jeeter, you miss the point of this whole magilla."

"Which is?" she asked halfheartedly.

"To see how you handle yourself. And you did fine. You did all the right things...well, most of them. Spock was pleased."

"Spock is never pleased," Jaeger sighed.

"Trust me. Spock was pleased." Walking Bear got up from his chair, crossed the debris-strewn floor, and rested a reassuring hand on Jaeger's shoulder. "There's no way to win, kid. That's the point of this. They just want to see how you handle it." His expression sobered a little. "You heard Admiral Kirk: 'how you face death is at least as important as how you face life.'"

How you face death, she thought.

The turbolift eased to a halt and the doors hummed open onto the bridge of the Enterprise. Jaeger stepped out of the lift and stood quietly for a moment. The bridge was sparsely manned. Bob Tenaka, who was slouched back in the navigator's chair, was idly working on a battle simulation. Filling the main viewscreen, the surface of Dianas glided by as the Enterprise continued her orbits.

"Bob?" Jaeger said tentatively.

Tenaka shot upright in the chair. "What...?! Oh, it's just you, Jaeger. You scared the hell out of me."

"You're lucky it was me and not the Klingons." Jaeger stood behind the navigator's chair. "What's going on?"

"Not a thing. It's like a tomb up here." He nodded to the empty helm station. "Levine went to get some coffee for us a few minutes ago."

"Will she be back soon?"

Tenaka scowled a little. "What are you, the hall monitor? We're in stable orbit. There's nothing going on. She set the board to buzz if we drifted...if we drifted. You figure I don't know how to correct an orbit?"

She sighed. "Why don't you take a break and leave the helm to me?"

"It's not your watch," he argued, then saw the twinkle in her eyes. He grinned in return, but let that fade when he noticed the circles under her eyes and the purplish bruise under her jawline. Well...none of my business, he thought. He didn't think Jaeger and Chekov were the type to take out their frustrations on each other physically; on the other hand, he didn't know either one of them well enough to inquire. If she was offering to take over his duty station when she still had more than a day of leave coming, maybe she had had a fight with Chekov. Tenaka made a mental note to check the rumor mill in the cafeteria and said to Jaeger, "You sure? I wouldn't mind the break."

"Go ahead. I signed myself back in. I don't think anybody minds whether I sit watch, or you do. As long as somebody does."

He considered it. "Probably not. Thanks, Jaeger. The conn is yours."

"No problem." Jaeger moved into the navigator's chair when Tenaka vacated it, and smiled at him once more as he trotted off to the turbolift.

Halfway there, Tenaka stopped. "Hey...something you can look for." He returned to the board and pointed to the image of Dianas. "We're on the far side of the planet now--when we get around to the other side, keep an eye out for the little horseshoe shaped continent in the southern hemisphere. That's where the capital city is. There's some kind of a tracking tower or something down there, and every time we pass over it, their signals start playing bingo with the sensors." He tapped the board. "Looks like a video game. Craziest damn thing you ever saw. Keep an eye out for it on our next pass over. Might keep you from falling asleep, anyway."

"I will. Thanks, Bob."

"Yeah," Tenaka said. "Want anything from down below? Cup of coffee or anything?"

"No thanks."

"Okay. Hey, listen...every hour, do a sensor sweep of this sector, will you? Captain's orders. He's looking for Klingons." He rolled his eyes. "There aren't any Klingons within a million parsecs of this place, except for those two strays down on the planet, but what can you do. They say 'jump,' we say 'how high?'"

Jaeger smiled a little, understanding what Tenaka was not saying as well as what he was. Neither one of them would have even considered ignoring an order from Jim Kirk, no matter how foolish it seemed, but the long hours of doing nothing at a duty station had worn on both of them many times. "Anything else you forgot?" Jaeger asked.

"Don't think so." Tenaka thumped her on the shoulder. "See you later, Lieutenant."

When the hum of the turbolift doors indicated that Tenaka had finally gone, Jaeger sagged into the chair and squeezed her eyes shut. McCoy had been close to right in his assessment of her condition: she not only felt lousy, she felt exquisitely lousy. Her headache had taken on a life of its own, and was joined now by a throbbing in a dozen points on her body where she'd bounced on the marble staircase. She had no memory of falling, only of turning to say something to Chekov, who was behind her, then resuming consciousness at the bottom of the stairs. If anything, she supposed that fainting had saved her from more serious injury by allowing her to take the tumble without stiffening. An hour later in Sickbay, McCoy had made his pronouncement. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant," he had postscripted, and she'd believed that--the miserable look on his face didn't leave much room for doubt. But dying? Walking Bear's words came back to her again. How you face death...

She reached out and made a minor correction on the board. The turbolift doors opened, and Levine returned to her station, nodding a greeting. Hell of a way to run a ship, she thought. True, they were in stable orbit, but even so, the ship wouldn't run itself. Left alone, without benefit of occasional minor adjustments, the orbit would decay over a period of time and the ship would plunge into the planet's atmosphere and incinerate.


She'd rejected the idea from the beginning. She couldn't recall ever having felt as completely bad as she did now, but it would pass. Headaches, sprains, broken bones--they all eventually healed themselves. She had not, and would not, surrender herself to the terror that had welled up inside her as McCoy was speaking. She was only thirty-three years old, and she would not give herself up to anything as insubstantial as "trace elements." She was, as Chekov had pointed out, invincible. Dying? Of course not. She was thirty-three years old, and by anyone's estimate she had at least a hundred good years left.

The only trouble was, while she refused to believe McCoy's diagnosis, everyone else was not quite that stubborn. It had taken some glib talking on her part to convince McCoy to release her from sickbay; she'd told him she was headed for her cabin--to rest in her own bed--and she'd been sufficiently penitent that he hadn't suspected that she was lying. She had no intention of spending any time in the cabin, whether or not Chekov was there. In fact, she had not seen Chekov since moments after McCoy had finished examining her. He'd ducked out of Sickbay with a pale, stricken look on his face, and Jaeger was unable to find any desire in herself to seek him out. Obviously, he believed McCoy, too, and that she did not need. Better to be here, on the bridge, doing something useful... She concentrated on the console in front of her, carefully watching its myriad readouts; slaved into nearly every bridge system, it informed her of the status of everything aboard ship with its quiet chirpings and bleeps. Boring as this might be, it was work.

Almost two hours had gone by when the turbolift doors hummed again. For an instant, she hoped the new arrival would be Tenaka, back from his rest break; almost as quickly she knew that it was not. Well, here we go, she thought, steeling herself. Here's where I get tossed off the bridge. She turned a little in the chair to see Spock standing at the rail separating the two deck levels. He seemed unsurprised to find her on the bridge, but by rights he should have been surprised to find her anywhere but Sickbay, doing anything but sleeping. Is it possible he hasn't spoken to McCoy?she wondered. All he did was stand there, palms resting lightly on the rail, gazing blandly at the blue-green image of Dianas on the viewscreen.

"Status, Lieutenant?" he asked finally.

"Standard orbit, sir. Altitude...one one seven nine point eight four kilometers. One complete orbit every four point six hours. All systems normal."

He nodded slightly. "Carry on, Lieutenant."

"Aye, sir."

His footsteps were soft, catlike, but she could tell he was crossing the upper deck to the science station. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him settle into the chair and begin keying instructions into the console, paying no attention to her at all. She had no way of knowing that fully half his attention was on her. He had passed Bob Tenaka in the corridor, questioned Tenaka's being off the bridge, and had then learned Jaeger's whereabouts. He had indeed spoken with McCoy, and as patently Human as it seemed, had come to the bridge with the express intention of keeping an eye on her.

He had also spoken, briefly, quietly, with Jim Kirk, pretending not to notice the captain's reddened eyes.

Kirk looked up at him from his seat on the couch in his sitting room, listened to what his first officer had to say, finally shaking his head in morose disagreement.

"With all due respect to the good doctor," Spock replied, "I do not believe that is true. To paraphrase an old saying...some things are more difficult than others, but nothing is truly impossible."

"You may be lining yourself up for a lot of frustration, Spock," Kirk sighed.

"I do not..."

Kirk hiked a brow. "Tell me you don't get frustrated. Then you'd be lying. And Vulcans never lie."

"You know me too well."

"Probably," Kirk said heavily.

"Nevertheless, I would ask your permission to do some research on my own. There may be something Doctor McCoy has overlooked. There is not much material available on the subject, but there may be avenues which have not yet been explored."

"And you intend to explore them."

Spock hesitated for a moment, taking his eyes away from Kirk's. "I have no other choice. I find it difficult to accept Doctor McCoy's diagnosis without at least attempting to find a solution." He looked again at Kirk, who was resting his forehead against his hand, eyes closed. "Since it may remove my attention from some of my customary duties, I must have your permission."

"Go," Kirk murmured. "Explore."

"Thank you, Jim."

With his back to the young woman at the navigator's console, Spock tied the science station into McCoy's medical computer and called onto the screen one section at a time all the information the ship's banks had relating to Jaeger's condition. As McCoy had pointed out, there was painfully little, but enough to use as a starting point. And while he worked, he would allow her to continue to work, in defiance of McCoy's insistence that she rest. Sick or not, he felt certain she was enough of an officer to remove herself from duty if she became unable to carry on the few duties required of her. From the words he had exchanged with her, and from the look on her face, he had understood her need to be here. If she had wanted to be alone, the ship was full of places to accomplish that. If she wanted simply to be on the bridge, she had no need to dismiss Tenaka. If she wanted to work...well, he would allow her to work until her condition disallowed it.

Fingers playing silently on the console, he recalled her performance on the Kobayashi Maru test. Hikaru's Hope! She'd sat at the long table in the briefing room, hands folded as was her habit, unflinching in her belief that she had "screwed up." But he had taken note of her quick reactions, her attention to detail, her refusal to give up the ship that was not truly even a ship, just a training simulator. She had been, and was now, a fine officer, the loss of whom would affect captain, crew and ship. A supremely talented navigator, with potential for command, extremely valuable to the 'fleet. The vacancy her loss would create would be most difficult to fill. That was the logical line of thought.

However, logic had no place here.

Twenty years ago, Pavel Chekov had been Spock's protégé, brought aboard the Enterprise at Spock's specific request. He had overseen the young man's training, both as chief navigator and as Spock's assistant at the science station, and had noted with satisfaction Chekov's rapid progress in both fields. After the Enterprise's encounter with V'Ger, it had also been under Spock's recommendation (as glowing as much as as was possible for a Vulcan) that Chekov went on to serve as first officer aboard the doomed Reliant. And during all that time, Spock had been very much aware of two things: Chekov's skill and talent, and his loneliness, which mirrored Spock's own, though not to as great a depth. So it was with silent joy that Spock had taken note of the change some four months ago in Chekov's relationship with Gretchen Jaeger. Chekov was a man in love, and though it tended to decrease his efficiency by some three point seven four percent, Spock would not have wished things otherwise. His protégé was exuberantly, deliriously happy.

Now, this "condition" (McCoy had no other name for it) threatened that. And if Spock had been even slightly inclined to follow McCoy into dejected resignation, ignoring the fact that Gretchen Jaeger herself was logically worth fighting to keep, his fondness for Pavel Chekov served to erase any fragment of doubt that remained. For Jaeger's sake, and for Chekov's, he would not follow McCoy's lead. There was something to be accomplished here, and he would accomplish it, no matter how long that might take. So, on the bridge, with her back to him, he went on studying the computer records, waiting for an answer to show itself to him.

One of the sensor lights blinked at Uhura's communications board, with an accompanying bleep, and Spock turned his attention to it, brows lifted in curiosity. Before he could speak, a number of other lights flashed on, blinked in a nonsensical sequence, and were matched by a series of beeps, chirps and pulses from the helm.

"Lieutenant?" Spock asked.

She said over her shoulder, "Tenaka said this has been happening, Mister Spock. Every time we pass over this area of the planet, every sensor goes crazy. He said the signal is coming from a tracking tower."

"There are no 'tracking towers' on Dianas, Lieutenant. The Dianasians have no aircraft." Spock got up from the science station, crossed to the nav board in three steps, bent alongside Jaeger and began adjusting settings. When he was unable to resolve the situation to his satisfaction, he tapped into the intercom. "Captain? Spock here."

"Kirk," came the reply. "What is it, Spock?"

"I need your attention on the bridge, Captain."

"On my way. Kirk out."

Spock keyed off the intercom and turned to Jaeger. "The signal is coming from somewhere just outside the capital city. But as I said, the Dianasians have nothing that would account for this. It is most unusual."

"Makes the ship sound like a big pinball machine," Jaeger mused.

"Indeed," Spock said dryly.

A moment later, the turbolift doors opened and Kirk shot out onto the bridge, jerking to a halt just short of the steps to the lower deck, startled by the cacophony of noises and lights. "What the hell....?" he said as Spock turned to face him. "What's going on, Spock?"

"Unknown, Captain."

"How long..."

"Approximately three point two minutes."

Kirk pivoted, taking in the entire bridge and noting that there were several unoccupied stations. Nearly every panel that was capable of making noise was now doing so, every light flashing strobically. "Where is everybody? Let's get some people up here to man these controls, Spock!"

"Yes, Captain." Spock crossed to the communications board and opened the ship-wide intercom frequency. "First watch bridge crew to your stations," he said into the mike. "First watch bridge crew to your stations." That done, he stepped away from the console, taking up a position near the railing. Kirk looked at him frustratedly. "I believe this condition is being caused by a beam emanating from the planet surface, Captain."

"Source?" Kirk scowled.

"Unable to pinpoint it, Captain," Jaeger replied, her fingers moving over the sensor controls. "I have approximate coordinates...within say a ten-square-kilometer area."


"Just outside the capital city limits, sir."

"That's not good enough, Lieutenant! I want to know where this beam is coming from."

She went on tapping instructions into the panel. "Our sensors are being blocked, sir, by some sort of net effect. We can't get exact readings on anything inside that ten-square-kilometer area. Sensor beams are being deflected back." She paused, wondering if Kirk would come closer. At times like this, when he was unsatisfied with the results being given to him, he was likely to half-sit in someone's lap and take over the instruments himself. He seemed agitated enough to do that now. However, he seemed to find nothing wrong with the fact that she was manning the nav board; and because the nav board had been slaved into every station on the bridge except Spock's science station, she was virtually running the entire bridge single-handedly. It wasn't a new experience for her, but given the circumstances.... She looked over her shoulder at Kirk, who simply went on scowling, and continued instructing the sensors. "Getting more information on the beam now, sir. We're reaching the edge of its range...should be moving out of it any second now." She had barely finished the sentence when the noises and the flashing lights stopped abruptly, as if someone had flipped a switch. "That's it, sir," Jaeger said. "At our present altitude, maximum width of the beam is approximately five seven eight point five oh five kilometers."

Kirk dropped into the command chair and hit the intercom button. "This is the captain. All decks, report."

The replies began coming in as Spock slipped back into the communications chair and acknowledged them one at a time. He had nearly finished when half a dozen of the first watch bridge crew, all in uniform and all displaying various degrees of puzzlement, trotted out of the turbolift and took their positions. Tenaka leaned over the nav station and whispered, "What'd you do, Jaeger? Everything was quiet here when I left."

"The beam," she whispered back.

Tenaka had heard the results of the beam down in his cabin. "It didn't make all that racket the last three times. What gives?"

"All decks reported in, Captain," Spock announced. "All systems normal."

Drumming his fingers on the arm of the command chair, Kirk thought the situation over for a moment, ignoring the expectant stares of his crew. "Is that beam still being emitted from the surface?"

"Affirmative, sir," Jaeger told him.

"Constant? No frequency variations?"

"No, sir."

"Then they're not...looking for us."

Spock replied from the comm station. "It would seem not, Captain."

"Then...what are they looking for?"

"Unknown, Captain," Spock said.

Kirk drew in a long breath. "Spock, see if you can reach Gehaan. I want to know if he knows anything about this." He paused. "Or if the Klingons do."

Fingers flying, Spock programmed a sensor scan of the area of the capital city, Elyantorvan, and received in response to his specifications a pair of blips only a few hundred meters from the guest building Kirk had spent the night in. "According to our sensors, Captain, Koloth and Kilon are still at the guest building, some twenty kilometers from the nearest edge of the blacked-out area."

"That doesn't mean they had nothing to do with that beam."

"True...but their involvement seems unlikely."

"Explain," Kirk snapped.

"I do not believe it is within their capabilities."

"Why not?"

"According to the information on file with the Dianasians' visitors' liaison office, the Klingons left Koloth behind without much more than a change of clothing."

Kirk replied, "He could be using Dianasian equipment."

"True...but doubtful."

"Sneaky devils," Tenaka whispered into Jaeger's ear, then slipped into the helmsman's chair, which had remained empty; none of the five helm personnel had responded to Spock's call. No one protested his action, so Tenaka unslaved the board from navigation, checked it briefly to assure himself that nothing was abnormal, and sat with his hands resting lightly on the edge of the panel, waiting for instructions. He had run back up to the bridge, glad for a little excitement to break the tedium of the last few hours, but the excitement seemed to be dissipating rapidly, leaving nothing to spark the bridge but Kirk's agitation. He's looking for Klingons under every bed now, Tenaka thought. Just because of what happened to Hollis and Gibbs? He stifled the urge to shake his head in wonderment, and went on waiting for Kirk to say something. Silence fell over the bridge, broken only by the normal sounds of the equipment and the rhythmic drumming of Kirk's fingers on the chair arms.

"High Councilor Gehaan, Captain," Spock said.

"Put him on screen," Kirk replied sourly. Spock nodded, tapped in the cue, and the picture of Dianas was replaced on the main viewscreen by Gehaan's pale blue features. "Councilor Gehaan, this is Captain Kirk."

Gehaan hiked an eyebrow in a good approximation of Spock's usual expression of curiosity. "Yes, Captain?"

"Do you know anything about an energy beam being sent out from somewhere just outside your capital city? We just passed through it, and it disrupted practically every system aboard my ship."

"No, Captain, I know nothing about it."

"We attempted to track it with our sensors, but there's a screen of some sort blocking our transmissions in a large area around the source of the beam. It's..." He looked to Spock for the information. Spock read off the coordinates for him, and Kirk repeated them to Gehaan. "We would appreciate any information you can give us, Councilor. I'd like to avoid having the ship's systems disrupted every time we pass over that area."

"Our central laboratory complex is in that area, Captain," Gehaan offered. "I believe your people are still there." His expression changed almost imperceptibly; he seemed to be holding back an explosion of mirth. "Perhaps they are sending the beam."

"A point perhaps worth considering, Captain," Spock said.

Kirk twirled the command chair to face his first officer, momentarily lost for words. "How can..." he began angrily, then cut himself short. Was this the sort of thing Peter would consider, even to exasperate someone he considered well worth exasperating? A few days ago, Kirk would not have thought so. In spite of Peter Kirk's taciturnity, he had viewed the young man as a professional, a member of Starfleet. Damn it! he thought. Gehaan's joke was lost on him, but the idea had lodged itself in his mind. Slowly, he turned the chair back around to face the viewer. "Thank you, Councilor," he said. "We'll get back to you later. Kirk out."

Spock killed the connection, and Gehaan's face faded off the viewscreen. After a moment, Kirk got up from the command chair. "I'm going back down to the surface, Mister Spock," he told the Vulcan. "If they won't tell us what's going on, then it seems we have to find out for ourselves."

"Do you need Security, Captain?" Spock inquired.

Kirk thought it over. "No. No, that would attract their attention. You're still working on your...problem, Mister Spock?"


"Ask Mister Scott to accompany me. You have the conn."

Spock reached for the intercom button. "Acknowledged, sir."


Resisting the urge to grin maliciously in response to Peter Kirk's gritted teeth, Laurel McCutcheon sliced off the remnants of his uniform sleeve and liberally sprayed his burned forearm with antiseptic. He didn't flinch, but she could see in his eyes that the spray hadn't done much on contact to ease the pain of the burn; it would take a minute or two for that to happen. As the antiseptic dried, she dropped the container back into the first aid kit and pulled out a packet of plastiskin, tore it open and laid the patch over the burn. "That ought to take care of it," she announced.

Kirk scowled at her handiwork and gingerly flexed his elbow. The plastiskin tugged a bit, but the antiseptic spray had begun to work and the injured area no longer shrieked at him. "I could have done that myself."

"With your left hand? I'm sure."

"If you had the gift, you wouldn't need the...what is it? First aid?" That was Beleen, the young Dianasian scientist who had been assigned to help McCutcheon and Kirk during their first few days of experimentation at the laboratory complex. She had sat perched on the corner of one of the lab tables during McCutcheon's ministrations, watching with that same fixed curiosity that seemed never to fade from the Dianasians.

McCutcheon replied, "Gift? What gift is that?"

"The healing."

"Your people can heal themselves?" the young Kirk asked crossly.

Beleen giggled softly, making the ends of her hair dance against her shoulders. "Of course not. It's a legend. Nobody's had the gift for many centuries. I was making...an amusement?"

"A joke," McCutcheon corrected.

"A joke. I was making a joke." Beleen hopped down from the table and resumed her position at the microviewer. "I forgot you don't like jokes, Lieutenant Kirk. I extend apologies to you."

McCutcheon snickered. "He likes jokes, Beleen. He just doesn't like them when they're on him." She grinned at Kirk, who was giving her his best outraged expression. "Belay that crap, Peter," she told him. "It's not working! Listen, go grab me some more culture dishes out of the storeroom, will you? And try not to set yourself on fire again."

"I'm not your God damn slave, McCutcheon," Peter Kirk snapped.

"I know that," McCutcheon said archly. "I just thought it would give you a minute to go off by yourself and lick your wounds."

Lost for a properly scathing reply, Kirk stalked out into the corridor, pivoted and headed for the storeroom at the far end of the building. The two women could hear the heavy impact of his footsteps for several minutes, and McCutcheon laughed heartily, then shook her head in wonder. Amazing how childish he could become when she'd one-upped him! No doubt now he would stay in the storeroom until he became "good and ready" to return, making her wait for the culture dishes, which she had not really needed in the first place. Gnawing at her lower lip to cover a hysterical grin, McCutcheon went back to work preparing slides for Beleen to feed into the microviewer.

"Why do you and Lieutenant Kirk behave so?" Beleen asked.

"So how? Oh, you mean the bickering? Don't think anything of it, Beleen. That's just how he is. And I play along with him. It's the only way to react to him without letting him drive you crazy."

"But to insult each other so...I do not understand."

"It's his way."

"Does he truly dislike you this much?"

"Hard to tell. I don't think so. I don't think he dislikes anybody as much as he pretends to. Cutting other people down just makes him feel better."

"I do not understand," Beleen repeated, brows furrowed.

McCutcheon laid down the slide and turned to rest her backside against the table, grasping the edge with both hands. She thought for a moment, smiling at Beleen's piqued curiosity mirrored in the wide blue eyes and the gentle pale features. "It's sort of hard to explain. Peter doesn't think too highly of himself. He's insecure. And his way of making himself feel better is to point other people's faults out to them...even when they don't really exist. It makes his faults not look so bad. At least that's what he's aiming for. Really, he just ends up making himself look worse. Not many people like him because he's that way." That didn't seem to satisfy the Dianasian, who began to waggle her head in dismay. "Peter's had kind of a tough time," McCutcheon went on. "His parents were killed when he was young, and he went to live with his grandmother. Then she got sick and died, so he's got nobody left to care for him--so he thinks."

"'Care for him'?" Beleen echoed.

"Somebody who loves him." McCutcheon paused, trying to interpret the other woman's growing bafflement, then abruptly realized the problem. "Oh! I see. You don't understand about.... You see, Beleen, we don't have...we don't believe in 'oneness' like you do. We need other people to care for us, and we care for them. Otherwise we grow lonely. Some people can stand loneliness, but others...well, some get bitter, like Peter, and some even kill themselves. It's a terrible pain, for us."

Beleen said softly, "I am sorry for that, Lieutenant."

"No need to be. It's not your fault."

"It was explained to me that you have no 'oneness', when I was asked to assist you in your work," Beleen told McCutcheon. "I find this most confusing, but I understand that each people...each species has its own peculiarities." McCutcheon grinned at the word. Beleen went on, "But could you not learn the 'oneness', if it is so painful for you to have no one to 'care for you'?"

"I suppose so. Like I said, some people can stand the loneliness. I suppose they know what 'oneness' is. But most of us can't. We enjoy being with others of our own kind, and sharing emotions."

"Most confusing," Beleen mused.

"Haven't you ever had someone to care for you, Beleen?" McCutcheon asked. "Even your mother and father?"

"I do not know my mother and father."

"Are they dead?"

Beleen waggled her head again. "I do not believe they are dead. It is possible, but since they would not yet be in their middle years, I believe they are alive."

"And you've never met them?"

"Oh, I am sure I have met them. But I would have no way to know which of our people are my mother and father." The Dianasian glanced around, then studied McCutcheon's expression for a moment, uncertain how much the Human woman had been told about the Dianasian culture. When she spoke again, her tone was softer, near a whisper, as if she were afraid of being overheard. "It is a private matter. We must each forsake the 'oneness' for a short period in order to...preserve...our people. Have I chosen the right word?"

McCutcheon shrugged. "I think I know what you mean. Go on."

"The male and female come together for a short time to reproduce. They do not remain together. The male continues his oneness, and the female carries the child until birth. After birth, she resumes her oneness. The child is housed in one of the Children's Buildings until it becomes of age. Then it may have its own dwelling place and assume its own oneness."

"Who cares for the children?"

"There are those who volunteer. They are highly honored."

McCutcheon ran a hand through her hair, looking away from Beleen's intent expression for the moment. A world where even the children knew no love! The idea made her shiver. But, she thought, Beleen didn't seem to be any the worse for having been raised that way. Aside from her tenacious sense of privacy, she was much more open and friendly than Peter, who'd had love lavished on him for most of his life. "That's quite a story, Beleen," she said finally.

"It is our way," Beleen replied. "I fear we are too different, Lieutenant McCutcheon."

"I fear you're right," McCutcheon smiled wryly.


Scott changed the settings on the tricorder sensors and slowly turned in a complete circle, making sure the instrument was reading in all directions although really the gesture was unnecessary. The tricorder gave off a steady pip that failed to indicate what Scott was looking for. Gravely, he shook his head. "Nothing, Captain. I think we're underneath the sensor web, but the tricorder should still pick it up. All I'm getting is normal background readings."

"These are the right coordinates?" James T. Kirk frowned.

"Aye. We're standing almost smack in the middle of the blacked-out area they picked up on the bridge. But there's nothing here, Captain. Everything's normal."

Kirk did a slow pivot himself, as if he expected the mysterious beam or the sensor net to be visible. They were standing at the curb of one of Elyantorvan's wide streets, about fifty meters from the main entrance of the laboratory complex. Dianasians strolled nearby, going about their daily routine, paying only passing attention to the two Humans. Blowing out a long breath, Kirk craned his head back and looked straight up into the late afternoon sky. Finding nothing there but drifting clouds, he pulled out his communicator, flipped up the grid, and said into the mike, "Enterprise."

"Spock here, Captain," the first officer's voice came back.

"Are you still getting the same readings, Spock? On the beam and the sensor web?"

"Affirmative, Captain. Readings have remained steady."

"Can you scan the surface at all? Where are we in relation to the sensor web?"

There was a brief silence, then Spock responded, "Most curious."


"We are receiving your communication clearly, Captain, but sensors do not show your location at all. I believe you are within the limits of the blacked-out area?"

"As far as we can tell, Mister Spock," Kirk said, his impatience again growing.

"And you are receiving our transmission clearly?"

"Yes, Mister Spock."

"Fascinating," Spock mused. "Apparently, the sensor net is limited to transmissions of certain types. Communications go through, but informational sensors do not."

"You're still reading that beam?"


"We get nothing down here. No beam, no net, nothing but background radiation." Kirk turned to Scott, who was still fiddling with the settings on his tricorder and seemed to have the thing focused on an aircar that had passed by some fifteen meters overhead. When he noticed Kirk watching him, Scott indicated with a nod that the tricorder was receiving normal readings from the emissions of the aircar. "We're going into the lab complex, Spock. Let me know if those readings change at all. Kirk out." He clipped the communicator onto his belt. Scott shook his head at the tricorder and let it dangle from its strap against his hip. "We're in the middle of it," Kirk said. "And it's not here."

Scott agreed, "It's got me boggled, Captain."

Kirk's shoulders sagged a little. "Let's go talk to Peter."

"You think you'll get any satisfaction out of that, sir?" Scott asked mildly.

"Probably not," Kirk replied.

They found McCutcheon and Beleen working alone in the low-ceilinged laboratory at the north end of the building, McCutcheon now bent over the microviewer while Beleen passed slides to her. When the two senior officers entered, McCutcheon straightened into something near attention, and Beleen smiled politely. "Hello, Captain," McCutcheon said, puzzled by Kirk's intense expression. "Is something wrong?"

"Where's Peter?" Kirk asked, looking around for his nephew.

"Sulking, probably. I sent him to the storeroom to get culture dishes half an hour ago, and I haven't seen him since. He's mad because I made fun of him for setting his sleeve on fire."

"He..." Jim Kirk began, then stopped short. He found himself not caring that Peter had been hurt, only annoyance that the young man had been careless enough to let it happen.

"I will bring him for you," Beleen volunteered, and trotted out of the room before Kirk could accept or refuse the offer.

"That was Beleen," McCutcheon explained. "They assigned her to help Peter and me. I'm not sure exactly what her job is around here, but she seems to know what she's doing. We've put together almost two hundred slides of the plant life already." She spoke slowly, waiting to see if Kirk would interrupt to tell her why he had come; obviously he and Scott weren't there to check on the progress of the science team. Scott seemed at a loss, too, and spent the time glancing around the room, acquainting himself with the Dianasian laboratory equipment. After a moment his eyes fell on the wide table at the back of the room, and McCutcheon observed with a small smile that he'd noticed its contents almost immediately after entering the room but hadn't said anything until Kirk's silence prompted him.

"What's all that?" he asked McCutcheon.

Kirk, too, turned to look at the table, but unlike Scott he hadn't noticed it before. "Lunch," McCutcheon explained. "Peter's and mine."

Scott walked a little closer to the table, which was covered with platters and bowls of food much like the dinner they'd enjoyed that first night in the ballroom. "There's enough here for twenty people!" he exclaimed.

"At least," McCutcheon nodded.

"They don't believe in leaving ye unsatisfied, do they?"

"I guess not, sir," McCutcheon chuckled. "I think they think we eat as much as they do. You should have seen what Beleen put away! I made her eat some of it so it wouldn't go to waste. Of course, she's a little above average because she's young, but I asked her to let me run some scans after I watched her eat--her basal metabolic rate is almost four times as high as mine! She's got the metabolism of a volcano. And they're all like that! The way they eat, if they didn't burn it up so fast, they'd be as big as mountains."

"Ah, well, lass," Scott smiled, "there's something to be said for people who enjoy their food and drink."

"In spades, sir," McCutcheon replied.

"Lieutenant," Kirk broke in, and the other two could see from his expression that he had paid no attention to the food beyond his first glance, and possibly had not even heard their exchange regarding it. With McCutcheon's attention now on him, Kirk briefly explained the situation regarding the mysterious beam and the sensor net, then concluded by asking, "Do they have sensors of any kind here? Something we could use to track that beam? The tricorder doesn't pick it up--we need something more powerful. What have they got around here?"

"Nothing like what's on board ship, Captain," McCutcheon told him, "but there's a computer center in the next building. You might be able to program it to scan for the beam."

Kirk nodded. "Take us there."

He was already moving toward the door. McCutcheon cut in front of him and led the way down the corridor, out a rear door and across the grounds to another building much like the one they had originally been in. Humming sounds betrayed the presence of several large computers. McCutcheon took the two senior officers through the first doorway they reached into a wide, high-ceilinged room lined with computer banks, all of which seemed to be in operation. "Hi, Dalaarn," she said to the young Dianasian computer operator who turned from his work when they entered the room. "This is Captain Kirk and Commander Scott. They'd like to do some work with the computers, if that's all right with you."

The Dianasian dipped his head. "Most certainly. I will leave you, if you would be most kind to summon me when you have finished."

"Sure thing, Dalaarn. Thanks."

Dalaarn scuffled out of the room, nodding a good-bye to Kirk and Scott. The big Scotsman looked after him in confusion and said to McCutcheon, "Just like that? How does he know we don't want to rip the thing apart?"

"He doesn't. But he can't ask."

"Why in the world not?"

"That would disturb our oneness. That's one of their big sins here, being rude enough to ask somebody else what their intentions are. They assume you know what you are doing, and that you wouldn't do anything to interfere with anybody else's oneness. He'll go meditate in the garden now, until we go get him and tell him we're finished."

"Trusting souls," Scott commented.

Kirk sat down at one of the computer modules and leaned close to examine the controls. "Scotty, can you do anything with this?"

"Aye, Captain. Give me a few minutes." Scott settled into a seat near Kirk's, flexed his fingers and went to work reprogramming the module to scan the surrounding area for the beam and the sensor net. Within a few minutes, the computer was flashing results onto the screen between Scott and Kirk. "There," Scott murmured, his hands still moving over the panel, adjusting settings and narrowing the focus of his search. "That should do it. Now let's see what's out there." He pressed a button with the flat of his forefinger and sat back to see what the computer would find. Information flashed onto the screen. "That's it, Captain," Scott announced. "There's the source of your beam."

McCutcheon leaned toward the screen to see what Scott had found. "But that's five kilometers up in the air."

"Aye, lass," Scott confirmed.

"But, Mister Scott, there's nothing up there but air. They don't have any satellites or aircraft here, and there's no land mass near here that reaches that high. All they've got is the aircars, and their top altitude is only a few hundred meters. That beam is coming out of nowhere."

Kirk's brows crunched together. "Scotty..."

Scott knew what was coming next. "Aye, sir?" he asked in a low tone.

"I want to know where that beam is coming from. I don't want any more mysteries. That thing is disrupting my ship."

"We'll find it, sir," Scott promised. "Just gi' me a wee bit o' time to work with the computers. I'm not familiar with some of the preprogramming they've got going here. That has to be gotten out of the way first, then I can feed in some more of my own specifics." Kirk was about to go on sputtering, but Scott urged him into silence with a look as firm as he dared give. They'd known each other for twenty years, gone through every possible experience together, but still there were times when he dared not open his mouth to argue with the younger man. What the captain wants, the captain gets, Scott reminded himself silently, glad that Kirk was giving him the chance to continue. "The Enterprise is in no danger for the moment, Captain," he suggested to Kirk. "All we need here is a little time. We'll find what ye need. Won't we, lass?" He beamed at McCutcheon.

McCutcheon nodded. "Yes, sir."

Jim Kirk thought it over, then slowly got up from the computer console. "Very well, Mister Scott. Carry on. But keep me posted on your progress."

"I will, Captain," Scott promised, add silently: Or ye'll call me every ten minutes to check.

"I'll be in my quarters." He was moving toward the door.

"Sir?" McCutcheon interrupted. "Do you need a ride? You said the transporter doesn't work inside the sensor net."

Kirk stopped short. "No," he said through his teeth. "I'll walk."


James T. Kirk was halfway across the bridge before he realized that he and Scott hadn't crossed any bridges on their way to the lab center. The idea that he might be lost didn't faze him; in fact, being lost for a short time seemed an acceptable distraction. At least he could take these few minutes to be alone without reminders of the damned beam, and the presence of Klingons, and Gehaan's growing uncooperativeness. Kirk had felt himself no longer wanting to be here, biding time until the arrival of the Cooper.

It was another baby-sitting mission, and as he had always told himself, he was no diplomat. Rubbing at the back of his neck, he stopped in the middle of the bridge and leaned against the guardrail to look down the river to the horizon. The water was surprisingly muddy, and he wondered idly how that gibed with the Dianasians' frenetic pursuit of cleanliness and beauty. Birds swooped overhead, and, after several minutes, one of them cruised toward Kirk and landed neatly on the guardrail a few meters away. Some things are the same everywhere, he thought. No matter what planet you're on, all birds have the same little beady eyes. This particular bird blinked at him curiously and cocked its head. In an odd way, the expression reminded him of Spock. He chuckled softly, tossed his head and resumed gazing along the river. There had been another time...

"How high do you think this is?" he asked.

"I don't know, a hundred feet. I don't know." Leaning against the rail beside him, Jessica Kyle tipped her head, eyes widening in growing horror. "Hey, wait a minute! Don't you dare!"

"Dare what?" he grinned.

"Don't you even think about jumping off here! What do you think you are, an Olympic diver? For crying out loud, if you hit the water wrong, you'll break your neck." She went on studying his expression and began to relax when she found the twinkle in his eyes that told her he was putting her on. "Besides, if you get killed, your mother'll bring you back to life and then she'll kill you."

He snickered. "Maybe."

"I don't believe you, Jim Kirk. God, the things you do to drive your mother crazy." She tossed her head, and her blonde curls bounced against the shoulders of her plaid flannel shirt. "If I was her, I'd kill you too."

"She'd kill me if she knew what we just did."

Jessica let out a shriek and covered her face with her hands. "You can't tell her, Jim, promise you won't tell her! If my mom and dad ever hear about it...oh, Christ, they'd have me for lunch. You think I could ever convince them that sixteen is old enough? I'd have a better chance of sprouting wings and flying. Don't you dare say anything to anybody, or I swear I'll never speak to you again as long as I live."

"Not even Sam?"

"Not him either! Nobody! Jim, you can't!"

"I promise." He scooped her into his arms and gave her a long, loud kiss. "Stop worrying."

"I have to worry. I never know what you're going to do."

Unaffected, he bent down to scoop up a handful of the gravel that littered the edges of the bridge surface, and began pitching the bits out across the water, mentally calculating the distance each one flew before it dropped into the river. Jessica leaned her head against his shoulder, and he turned a little to kiss her hair. The curls were warm from the sun and smelled of flowery shampoo. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you, Jess."

"Better not," she said archly. "How could we end up getting married if I couldn't trust you?"

He shrugged, the way he always did when she broached the subject of marriage. "Don't know."

Jessica looked at him sharply, though not critically. "You won't end up marrying anybody, I bet," she said after a moment. "You'll be one of those people who's married to his ship." She made herself laugh. "You'll be...Captain James Kirk, with a woman on every planet, but no wife and no home." Kirk did nothing to disagree, and she sighed a little. "My parents don't think you're good enough for me anyway," she told him. "My dad wanted to know if your middle name was Foolhardy. James Foolhardy Kirk."

"Maybe," he said quietly, his attention more on the river than on the girl.

"Why do you have to go?" Jessica asked. "You could stay here. Go to regular college, like George. Be a scientist. There's nothing wrong with that. It could be exciting. You could...discover things. Why do you have to join Starfleet?"

His eyes still away from her, he pointed toward the sky with his chin. "I want to go out there. I want to find out what's out there. See it. Touch it." He turned then, so suddenly that it almost made her stumble. "My dad said there are forms of life out there that you couldn't even imagine. It's like nothing here on Earth, Jessie." His tone of voice rose, his excitement showing on his face. I couldn't go to any regular college. That's okay for Sam, but not for me. I've got to go out there, Jessie. I want to see it all." Realizing that he was only compounding her disappointment, he stopped and took her arms in his hands. "Don't you see? It's something I have to do."

"I understand," she said softly. "If you stayed here, you wouldn't be happy."

"No. I don't think I would."

She nodded and half-turned away, but not before he had seen her luminous green eyes begin to glisten with tears. By the time she turned back she had blinked the tears away. "Let's go back down to the field," she said gaily. "I want to watch the team practice some more."

"Sure...whatever you want."

"Hah," Jessica said.

Kirk's communicator chirped and startled him out of his reverie. When he flipped up the grid and said, "Kirk," into the mike, the voice of Kevin Leslie, the transporter technician on duty, replied, "Captain, we have a fix on your position. Ready to beam you up on your signal."

"Acknowledged, Mister Leslie," Kirk said, and took a final look down the length of the river. "Energize."


Spock stepped into the turbolift, let the doors close, then hit the "stop" button a moment after the car had begun to move down toward C Deck in response to Jaeger's command. She was angry, but containing it, and he considered her impassively for a moment before he spoke. "Lieutenant," he said quietly, "I believe you to be a reasonably intelligent woman, and you are a Starfleet officer. You have a responsibility to the fleet, to this ship, and to her officers and crew. I trust you not to make any foolish judgments. Your mental capacity appears to be unimpaired, so I will allow you to make decisions regarding your fitness for duty. If you believe yourself to be unfit for duty, then you will remove yourself from duty and report to Sickbay. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Jaeger said to the floor.

Something ached inside him in response to her obvious misery. "I did not ask Mister Gnutson to relieve you because I wanted to banish you from the bridge, Lieutenant," Spock went on. "I seldom act out of pity or sentimentality. As I said, I am allowing you to make your own judgments regarding your condition. However, you have been at the navigator's station for a full watch. As far as I am able to determine, you have not had anything to eat all day, and you have been out of bed since very early this morning. I believe you should have something to eat and then get some sleep if you intend to resume your duties tomorrow."

Jaeger's eyes came up, and she blinked at the first officer. "I...all right, sir. Thank you, sir."

"I am not doing you a favor, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir. I mean no, sir," she stammered, wondering: maybe he really doesn't know? It seemed strange that no one had tried to remove her from duty, or had even come looking for her since she'd left Sickbay. "Mister Spock," she said heavily, "Doctor McCoy...says I'm dying."

The Vulcan did not reply for several seconds, during most of which his eyes were on the 'lift doors and nowhere near Jaeger's face. When he spoke again, it was with a bitterness he had never before heard come from his own throat. "Lieutenant Jaeger," he told her, "in some sense, we are all dying."


First Officer's Personal Log, Stardate 8780.2

The doctrine of kaiidth has failed me.

I find myself asking if there is a reverse side to the Vulcan philosophy: If we are each responsible for nothing, then perhaps we are also, in some other sense, each responsible for everything. Mister Chekov's words remain in my mind: "This is your fault." It was I who assembled the landing party, knowing that Lieutenant Jaeger has little experience on rescue details. It was I who instructed Hollis, Gibbs, Cooper and Jaeger, and, as a result, two have died and one is dying.

I have spent many hours, when so little time is left, trying to find an answer. McCoy has resigned himself to what he believes to be inevitable, but I must keep trying. I do not believe that a chain exists which cannot be broken. Lieutenant Jaeger herself compels me to continue. The strongest instinct among living beings is to continue living, and yet she clings to her life, her consciousness, her duty, with a tenacity I have rarely seen. She is much like Jim in that way: She will not surrender control until the last breath goes out of her. But she is not a scientist, and can do nothing to find her own cure. Perhaps, like McCoy, she does not believe there is a cure, and she survives merely because of her own stubbornness.

I must find an answer for her.

Chapter 5

A hearty giggle from across the room roused Jaeger from her fitful doze in one of the rec deck's fatly cushioned chairs. She stirred and opened her eyes, and pain shot between her temples. Felt like that before, she thought sleepily. When? She closed her eyes again, trying to drive away the pain, sinking deeper into the chair cushions. When? Long time ago...baseball...hurt...


"Oh, God, Pug, I'm sorry!" He ran to her and cradled her in his arms, holding her startled face against his chest. "Daddy didn't mean to hurt you. Are you all right?"

She snuffled into his shirt. "Guess so," she mumbled.

"I'm sorry." He held her back at arm's length and looked into her teary eyes, then smiled encouragingly and brushed stray curls from her forehead and smudged the tears from her cheeks with the flat of his thumb. She'd zigzagged suddenly and had walked right into his pitch. Luckily, she hadn't wailed; that would have brought Fran running, and Fran was opposed enough to his teaching baseball to a six-year-old girl without hearing that he'd beaned the child. Satisfied that she was all right, Doug Jaeger moved to his feet, scooping Gretchen up into his arms, and walked to retrieve the ball from its resting place on the lawn. "You have to remember, Pug, to keep your eye on the ball. The idea is to catch it with your hands, not your noodle."

"I'll try, Daddy," she promised solemnly, and snuffled again.


The giggling went on. Jaeger peeked through her lashes: one of Scott's engineering crew (Washburn?) was leaning over the horizontal board of the Tri-Cross game, inspiring fits of high-pitched laughter from a young blonde woman Jaeger didn't recognize. The laughing wouldn't have bothered her at all if it hadn't been so shrill. In fact, she'd come to the rec deck specifically because there were other people there. The cabin she shared with Chekov was dark and empty, and when she tried to rest there alone, the darkness and the silence had stricken her with a sudden black terror. An ages-old child's prayer had forced itself into her mind and clung there: "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." After ten minutes of remembering that refrain, she had scrambled out of bed, pulled on warm clothing, and stumbled to the comfort of the rec deck. Who the hell had made up that thing, anyway? she wondered. What a God-awful thing to teach to kids. Or to anyone! Shivering, she drew up her legs so that she was crushed into the environs of the chair, aware that she probably presented a strange picture to anyone who might walk by. She began to feel more alone than she'd felt in years--since she had lived at home, in the little tract house her father had settled them in on Ganymede Triad 6, a colony on the Jovian moon. Funny how cold Mom had turned there, like a stranger, leaving Gretchen to feel like someone who rented a room from her.

"Pug? You sleeping?"

She opened her eyes and broke into a wide, beaming smile, reaching up to accept his embrace. "Daddy!"

"Ssshhh. Andy's asleep." He nodded toward the matching small bed where Andrea, her sister, was curled beneath the covers, clutching her stuffed panda. "Listen, Pug," he whispered, nudging her bottom toward the far side of the bed so that he could sit beside her, "I have to go away for a while. It's a long mission, so it might be a while before you see me again. But I'll get in touch with you as soon as I can, I promise. I'll send you tapes, and you can send me tapes. Tell me all about what you've been doing. And I'll get back here just as soon as I can. Now, you're the oldest, so you have to help Mom look after things, and take care of Andy and Jeffer. Okay?"

She frowned, and he cuffed her gently under the chin. "Okay, Daddy. I promise. Where are you going?"

"Not sure, Pug."

"On the Armstrong?" She'd visited his ship, the U.S.S. Armstrong, and fell in love with its sleek lines, the wonders of its computer systems, the sense of hurry among its crew even in spacedock and especially with the captain, Elizabeth Dell. A lady captain! What daydreams that had inspired! "With Captain Liz?"

"Uh-hum. That okay with you?"

"Sure. I wish I was going with you, Daddy."

"Well," he smiled, "maybe when you're a little older, Pug. Right now I think you're too short to reach the controls."

She sighed. "I'm little for seven. I heard Mom say so."

"You'll grow. Everybody grows in their own good time. Just eat all your vegetables and go easy on the cookies." His eyes twinkled. "Bet you'll grow up to be just as tall as you want."

"Really, Daddy?"

"Bet you. You wait and see." He ruffled her hair. "Then..." He paused. The idea of his child on board a starship, living that sort of life, had sent a flicker of horror into him. "Then if you still want to, you can sign up with the 'fleet."

"Will they let me? Even if Mom says no?"

"You can do anything you want to do, Pug. And knowing you, you probably will, whether Mom likes it or not."

Mom hadn't liked it. Mom had cried, and yelled, and pleaded, and thrown dishes against the kitchen wall to shatter in a shower of flowered china shards. No matter that Gretchen was now seventeen, aching to make her own decisions, ready to give up the idea of a "normal" college education and follow her father into Starfleet. No daughter of Frances Hollard Jaeger would go into the service, no sir, not over her dead body. Gretchen wanted to be like Daddy? Well, then, if she wanted to get herself killed just like Daddy, she could open the electrical circuit board in the wall and grab onto a live wire. Then she could die like Daddy had, and she wouldn't have to leave home to do it. Ignoring the pain on Gretchen's face, Fran Jaeger had sunk into one of the chrome and plastic kitchen chairs and howled.

Feeling hollow, Gretchen had slunk into the bedroom she still shared with Andy and lay on her stomach on the bed. He'd made her promise to look after Mom, but was that possible, when Mom wouldn't listen? Starfleet was a proud profession, one of honor, and good Lord, not everyone got killed! Why, there had to be thousands of career officers who lived to see retirement, gray hairs intact. Admiral Mills, who had signed her letter of recommendation with a broad flourish, was nearly ninety and had suffered nothing more serious than broken bones in all his years of service.

"You're out of your ever-loving mind," Andy offered sagely, rummaging deep in the bedroom closet. "What do you want to be in Starfleet for?"

"You'd never understand," Gretchen muttered.

Daddy would have understood. Would have been proud. He'd told her that it was all right to enlist. And Daddy had never been wrong! It wasn't his fault that the trouble had happened. He was following orders, serving aboard the Armstrong as weapons officer during her two-year scouting mission in the fringes of the Neutral Zone, and since he was something like fifth in the chain of command, it was hardly his fault that the Armstrong had ventured into an area of the sector that the Klingons claimed was a violation of their space. There had been no Organian Peace Treaty then, so the Klingons saw nothing wrong with pursuing the Armstrong, issuing a single perfunctory warning, and then blowing Captain Liz's ship into baseball-sized debris. Gretchen ached over his loss every day of her life. But since none of it had been his fault, she could see no reason for rejecting the life he had chosen. It was a proud career: Admiral Mills told her so. Choosing to believe Admiral Mills and the memory of her father rather than her mother's hysterical tirades, she had gathered the other three required letters of recommendation, sent them off to the Academy Review Committee, and eleven weeks before her eighteenth birthday received her letter of acceptance as First Year Cadet, Starfleet Academy. She pursued her proud profession, and in all the years that followed, she did not once hear from her mother.


She peeked once more but said nothing. Chekov sat down on the footrest in front of her chair and folded his hands in his lap. His eyes were puffy and bloodshot, his face pale and streaky. For a few long minutes he too said nothing more, listening with a small part of his consciousness to the cheerful laughter coming from the direction of the Tri-Cross game and the soundtrack of the holo-film being shown across the room. His feeling that no one in the universe had any right to be happy had faded away hours ago and left him without much in the way of emotion. Maybe this is what Spock feels like, he thought idly. Drained. "I'm going to resign, Gretchen," he said finally. "I don't want to stay in Starfleet any more. I thought maybe...I still have family in Moscow."

"Thanks," Jaeger said.

He didn't seem to hear her, or notice the effect his words had taken. "I haven't seen my mother in a long time. I used to be good at farming. Or teaching. I could teach. Russian history. I would enjoy that." His accent had begun creeping back, and he could hear in himself the echo of the young ensign of nearly two decades ago. How many times had Kirk thrown up his hands in exasperation over Chekov's thousands of tidbits of romanticized history? According to the 22-year-old Chekov, when God had created the world in six days, he had had a Russian at his right shoulder directing him. Chekov smiled wistfully at the memory.

Jaeger got up from the chair. Her stomach was cramping, but she had no idea whether that was from her illness or from what Chekov had just told her. "Thank you, Pavel Andreievich," she said bitterly. "I appreciate you writing me off."

"What...?" He looked up at her, startled. "I'm not..."

"You're making plans!" she shrieked. Across the room, Washburn and his girlfriend turned to stare in her direction. Tears streaking down her face, she balled her fists and held back the sudden urge to vomit. "I can't believe you're making plans for after I'm dead. How could you do something like that? How can you even think of it? Of all people, I didn't expect anything like that from you. You rotten, self-centered bastard." A sob forced its way out. Mouth open, Chekov gaped up at her but made no move to help her. "Do you think about me at all? Do you care how I feel? I'm the one that all this is happening to, damn you! All you have to do is watch. You don't have to die." She sank back into the chair, hands up to her face, gulping in great lungfulls of air and sobbing them back out. "I hate you, Pavel Chekov. I can't believe this is how you feel." He reached out to her, but she slapped his hand away. "Get away from me!" she screeched. "I never want to see you again. I'll do this all myself. I don't need anybody with me. And I know I don't need you. Just get away! Go ahead, resign your commission and go back to Russia. Starfleet is better off without you, if that's the kind of loyalty you have!"

Chekov whispered, "Gretchen...I'm sorry."

"Sorry? Sorry! You're just like everyone else. The only thing you care about is yourself. You're just like her. She never cared about me, or Daddy. All she cared about was what was good for her." Mommy? Jaeger thought. The rec deck was spinning around like a carnival ride. Dozens of people seemed to be staring at her, though it was really only Washburn and his girlfriend, and three people who'd been watching the holo-film. Mommy? Daddy? She clung to the arms of the chair, which felt like the seat in the null-gravity simulator at the Academy, but this time there were no restraining straps to hold her in place, a comfort against the wild sensation of being flung out into empty space. Her vision was filled with flashing lights. She barely felt Chekov taking hold of her, gathering her up. "Pavel?" she muttered. "Pavel, help me. Please help me. I don't want to die!"

"It's all right, jajubimets," he murmured, frightened at the way she was shaking. "I'm here." He held her head against his chest, trying to steady her. "It's all right."

All right? she thought. His uniform tunic had that peculiar computer-generated smell about it, the way all Starfleet uniforms did, no matter how much they were worn or how much they were aired out. Artificial sort of a smell, mixed with the normal musky Human smell. Warm, she thought. Just like Daddy. Her shaking increased, and she nestled closer to Chekov, no longer hearing anything else that was going on in the room. All right? Yes, it seemed all right. The familiar smell and the warmth comforted her a little.

"It's all right, Pug," she heard him say, though of course Pavel would never call her that, had no idea that anyone had ever called her that. Daddy...just going away for a little while, but don't worry, you can send tapes and I'll send tapes back...nothing to worry about...

He began stroking her hair. "Daddy?" she whispered. He didn't reply, but tightened his hold and went on stroking.

Going away for a while, with Captain Liz. Where? Not sure, Pug. But nothing to worry about.

Nothing to worry about...

Admiral Mills was standing in the living room, obviously uncomfortable, cap in his hands, his feet a little apart, some of his kinky white hair sticking straight up like a horn. His kind, wrinkled dark face seemed a little flushed, as if he'd run there, but of course he'd come by transporter, probably hadn't run anywhere in years. In a dog's age, Daddy would say. Gretchen crouched in the hallway, peering around the corner into the living room, frowning intensely at the Admiral's nervousness and her mother's wringing hands. "I'm sorry, Frances," he was saying. "No one saw it coming...the trouble. The Armstrong was destroyed. No survivors."

Frances looked up at him but if she felt anything other than anger, she kept it in check. "I knew this would happen," she snapped.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" the Admiral asked.

"No." She sighed. "What could you do?"

"Help you...with the arrangements. Whatever needs to be done."

"Arrangements?" Frances got up from the sofa and began to pace a small circle in the center of the living room. Her face was still impassive. "What arrangements? The ship was destroyed in the middle of space. Are you trying to tell me there are remains, Admiral?" Mills shuddered, more at Frances Jaeger's attitude than anything else. "I didn't think so," she went on. "There aren't any arrangements. He's been gone for six months. We'll just keep going the way we've been going. He's always been gone, in one way or another. Nothing's changed. He might have died years ago, for all the difference it makes."

Mills looked around helplessly, clinging to the brim of his cap, and, for the first time, noticed the small figure crouched at the end of the hallway. His face full of pity, he went to Gretchen and knelt in front of her. "Hello, Missy, how are you? Did you hear me talking to your mother?"

"Yes," she said. "Is my daddy dead?"

"Yes, dear, I'm afraid he is. His ship was attacked, a long way from here, and everyone on board was killed. But your daddy didn't suffer, and he died a hero."

She could still see the expression on Mills's face: trying to help, trying to be kind to a child.

Daddy, she thought.

Just gone for a little while, nothing to worry about.


Thoughts began to crowd into her head, all disjointed, rushing, not lasting long enough for her to sort them out. Ship destroyed...trouble...long way from here. Daddy dead now. Where? No remains...destroyed in the middle of space. But where now? Where is Daddy now? Gone? Nothing left, destroyed, no remains, doesn't matter, gone all the time anyway. Just gone for a while. The thoughts spun in her head. She lost track of the feeling of Chekov's arms around her and seemed to be floating in space herself, with the mad rush of disconnected thoughts spilling around her mind. Her existence seemed to be nothing but a gray fog. Daddy gone? No, Daddy not gone, Daddy promised never gone. But where? her mind insisted. If not gone, then where? Dead now, not coming back, no remains, no Daddy any more.

Daddy dead Daddy dead Daddy now me dead...

The new thought exploded in and she felt the blackness falling over her again, the way it had a couple of hours ago when she had tried to find sleep in the darkened cabin on E Deck. There, at least, she had had a little control over it, could stumble out of bed and find others, find light, find a way to reassure herself. Now there was nothing, nothing but a spinning, horrible grayness, into which the thoughts kept forcing themselves.

No more me? Me dead...nothing...no more anything...ever...no more self, gone where? Where?

Nothing nothing nothing nothing...

Somehow, her lungs found air and she began to scream, hysterically, her voice rising in pitch and renewing itself though she was completely unaware of doing anything at all but careening around that vast gray emptiness inside her head. Chekov clung to her and continued vaguely trying to comfort her. She went on screaming in pulses that lasted five or six seconds but seemed to go on forever.

"Commander?" a voice said urgently. Chekov looked: it was Washburn, eyes wide with fright, his girlfriend hovering just behind him, hands resting on him. "Do you need help, sir?"

"Yes," Chekov choked out. "Get Doctor McCoy."


"She worked herself into a state, as my grandmother used to say," McCoy observed. His voice was quiet, though even if he had shouted, it would have done little to disturb Jaeger's fitful rest. "Her oxygen absorption is down to sixty percent of normal, and when she started yelling at you, it used up what little she's getting and caused her to black out. I gave her some tri-ox. She'll be--" He avoided saying 'all right.' "--comfortable as long as she takes it easy."

"Takes it easy?" Chekov echoed. "She never takes it easy."

"She hasn't got much choice." McCoy pulled a chair up alongside the bed and urged Chekov into it. "She keeps asking for her father. He's Starfleet, isn't he? Do you know where he's stationed?"

Chekov shook his head. "He died when she was a little girl. He was weapons officer on the Armstrong."

"The spy ship?" McCoy asked, brows lifted.

"Yes." Frowning, Chekov brushed a stray lock of hair off Jaeger's forehead. She flinched in her sleep, as if the touch hurt her. "She doesn't talk about him any more. Or about anybody else in her family. Her mother stopped talking to her when she entered the Academy. Her mother hates Starfleet, and everybody associated with it. I think she passed that on to the other two--Gretchen's brother and sister. So now she has nobody."

"If she won't talk about it, how do you know all that?"

The corner of Chekov's mouth quirked into a smile, but there was no humor behind it. "I'm Chief of Security and Personnel. I read all of her psychological studies."

"That's a nice invasion of privacy," McCoy said.

"I needed some answers."

"So do we all," McCoy told him wryly.

Answers, Chekov thought. About why she kept getting up out of bed and running out of the room, leaving him alone and baffled. She hadn't resisted the sex; it was intimacy she wanted no part of. She'd made him remember the times he and Sulu had worn away long, boring hours by cataloging every name in every language they could think of for the act of sex, and he tried to decide which one suited Jaeger. Certainly not "making love," because there was no love involved (at least not on her part). It was more like an athletic event, and as soon as it was over, she escaped back to the privacy of her own cabin in spite of his numerous protests. He confided his confusion to no one, though not really because he was embarrassed, and finally, at a loss for other solutions, had accessed the computer records on Jaeger, Gretchen L., serial number 24NR1516.

The following night when, on schedule, she headed for the door of the cabin, he stepped in front of her and quickly fed the "security lock" code into the door controls, ensuring that no one but himself, the captain or First Officer Spock could open the door without a phaser. "Wait a minute," he told her.

She was immediately flustered. "I don't understand."

"I want you to stay. Why won't you stay? Nobody cares if you spend the night in here."

"I'd rather not."

"Why, Gretchen? Just tell me why."

Her eyes dropped. She was pointedly avoiding meeting his gaze. "I just would rather..."

"You don't have a reason, do you?"

"Pavel, let me go." Her hands were working nervously, but she still would not look up at him. "You got what you wanted. Why do you want me to stay here?"

His mouth lolled open. "I got what I wanted?"

"Yes..." she murmured.

"Is that all you thought it was? 'I got what I wanted'? Bozhe moi," he said, shaking his head. Why do I like this woman? he wondered. It's not because I like frustration. I get enough of that on duty. Why should I go looking for more frustration? I'm not that much of a masochist. Am I?

Involuntarily, he shuddered. "Gretchen," he said, reaching out to take her shoulders in his hands, "I don't know why you wouldn't believe this, but I like you. I like you very much. I don't ask you here so I can 'get what I want.' I like being with you. I thought you liked being with me. Now I'm not sure. Will you please tell me what's wrong? Tell me why you keep running out of here." Her head still drooped, as if all the vertebrae were gone out of her neck.

Sighing, Chekov stuck a hand under her chin and hoisted her head up so he could see her eyes. She flushed. "Come on, Gretchen, out with it."

"There's nothing," she mumbled. "Really, there's nothing."

"Then you're like this with everybody?"

She tried looking sideways, upwards, over his shoulder. "There isn't any 'everybody'. Please, Pavel, I'd like to go now."

"No," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because I want some answers." He paused, considering the possible consequences of admitting his snooping to her, then plunged gamely ahead. "Listen...I read your files. I know about your family." She colored even more and seemed to shrink in his grasp. "But I don't have anything to do with that. You don't have to be my 'buddy.' I care about you."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"I think you do. You get along great with everybody as long as you can be their buddy, be 'one of the guys'. You had more friends at the Academy than anybody else in your class. The person everybody can turn to when they need a favor." He paused again. "But you never ask for any favors. You never confide in anybody, you never ask for help. Being a friend works both ways, Gretchen. I don't need any more buddies. I have enough of those. I need you to open up to me. I need you to make me feel like there's somebody in there." Trying for a smile, he rapped her temple lightly with his knuckles. "My father doesn't talk to me either, Gretchen. He hates Starfleet and everything it stands for. But I don't use it as an excuse to not care about people...or letting them care about me." She blinked hard, and turned her head as far as she could with his hand glued under her chin. "Stop pretending, Lieutenant Jaeger. I read the files. I can see through you."

She said into her lower lip, "You had no right."

"I had every right in the world. I care about you. I wanted to find out how to help."

"I don't need your help."

"I think you do. Mine, or somebody's. I'd like it to be mine." He smiled again. "Don't fight me. There are enough other people around you can fight."

"I don't..." she began again.

"Will you try? That's all, just try. Trust me a little."

She sighed heavily. "I suppose."

"I fought for her," Chekov said to McCoy. "I fought her for her. Everything was...wonderful." He turned and looked at the doctor. "Now this."

"I know how you feel, Chekov," McCoy replied solemnly. "I'm not made of stone."

"Yes...I'm sorry. I said some things..."

"Forget it," McCoy said with a small shake of his head, trying to remind himself that he'd been through situations like this too many times to let anything said in grief affect him too seriously. But, damn it, he thought, I'm not made of stone. "So she doesn't speak to them," he went on. "But they'd want to know, wouldn't they? Her family?"

Chekov replied bitterly, "They don't care that she's alive. Why should they care that..." His voice trailed off.

"Still, I think they should be notified."

"Later. Tell them later. If they haven't cared for all these years, they won't care now."

"That's assuming a lot," McCoy said. Chekov gave him a sharp look. "All right," the doctor conceded, "so last-minute reconciliations aren't worth a lot. It just soothes the guilt of..."

The whooping of the alert klaxon cut him off in mid-sentence. At the same time, the diagnostic panel over Jaeger's bed began flashing, together with every other instrument in the sickbay connected to the ship's electrical systems. A moment later the room lights too began to blink on and off.

"Son of a bitch," McCoy said hotly. "Now what?"

Jaeger's eyes opened and she looked up at Chekov and McCoy, awake if somewhat foggily so. "Beam?" she said.

"What?" Chekov replied, leaning closer.

"Is it the beam? We're not on alert, are we?"

"Are we?" Chekov asked McCoy.

McCoy's eyes opened a little wider. "You're asking me?"

The ship's intercom bleeped, cutting through the racket of the klaxon. "All hands," Kirk's voice came through the speaker, perfectly even but with a cutting edge that both Chekov and McCoy noticed, "this is the captain. We are not on alert. Repeat, we are not on alert. We are experiencing a temporary malfunction of the electrical systems which should last only a few minutes. Stand by. Kirk out."

McCoy rubbed tiredly at his temples. He'd had a good solid hour and a half of sleep before Washburn had frantically wakened him, and the prospect of additional sleep anytime soon no longer looked promising. He began to wonder about Kirk, and that thread of rage behind the steady, modulated words to the crew. Must've eaten half a chair before he came on the intercom, McCoy thought. "There's your answer, Lieutenant," he said quietly. "We're not on alert. This is just a test...of my nervous system. Which I believe no longer exists." Left without the aid of the diagnostic panel, he bent over Jaeger and peered into her eyes. "How do you feel now?"

"My head hurts," she muttered. "What time is it?"

"The middle of the night. But it doesn't make any difference. I'm not letting you out of here this time."

She let out half a sigh. "Don't do this to me."

"Do what?"

"Keep me in here." She glanced at Chekov, who seemed content to go along with McCoy's prescriptions while clinging to Jaeger's right hand and looking mournfully solicitous. "I can't just lay here, Doctor McCoy," she went on, thinking remotely that her sister Andrea had worn the same expression as Chekov years ago when their cat had been attacked and badly wounded by a Ganymedian wompbat. "I can't. I can't lay here and wait to die. What the hell does that accomplish?"

"Jajubimets," Chekov urged, "you don't have to accomplish anything."

She ignored him. Fine lot of help he was turning out to be, the back of her mind said. He'd been a Starfleet officer for twenty-one years, and, according to everything she'd heard, held up remarkably well in tight situations (aside from a bad tendency toward screaming). Now that seemed to apply only to situations where he himself was under threat. As far as she was concerned, he was no tower of strength, and the last thing she needed was somebody gazing at her with the same pitying, misty expression Andrea had used on that mangled cat. McCoy wasn't misty, but he too had given up the ship. "I want to go back on duty," she said abruptly.

"Forget it," McCoy told her.

Pushing herself up onto her elbows (Chekov's hand slid right along with hers, as if it were grafted on), she fixed the doctor with as stern a look as she could manage. "I need something to do. I want to go back up on the bridge, even if I just assist."

McCoy waggled his head. "I can't let you do that. Your condition isn't...your judgment might be impaired."

"My judgment is not impaired!" she shrieked.

The doctor's expression narrowed. "Watch it, Lieutenant."

She fought the impulse to continue shrieking and brought her voice down to a reasonable level. "You can't make me stay here. I can't..." She pulled her hand out of Chekov's and sat up on the bed, wavering only for a second as dizziness came and went. Maybe my judgment is goofy, she thought, if I'm talking this way to a senior officer. She considered backing down; arguing would give her something to do, but arguing with Chekov had made her pass out in the rec room, and she remembered just enough of that to not want to repeat it. "Please, Doc. Don't make me just lie here. I have to do something."

"You could read," McCoy offered.

"Jesus in a sidecar," Jaeger groaned. Both McCoy and Chekov looked startled at that. She gnawed her lower lip for a moment, groping for a way to escape Sickbay and all this maudlin scrutiny. Spock! she thought. He seemed to be the only one who hadn't written her off. In fact, his attitude seemed to be much like hers. "Can I see Captain Spock?" she asked, with the sweet, "pretty-please" tone of voice she had used as a child to wangle favors out of her mother.

"Will you lie back and rest?" McCoy countered.

Same as Mom, Jaeger thought. The ploy had never failed. "Yes, sir," she replied pleasantly, lay back down on the bed, and pulled the thin blanket up over her chest.


Scott rubbed thoughtfully at his chin, eyes following the printout on the computer screen as it unscrolled line after line of data. "Lass," he said finally, in the tone of a proud teacher, although McCutcheon was really no student of his and they had been working together only a few hours, "for a xenobiologist, you make a fine hacker. I think you're in the wrong line o' work."

"Just a hobby," McCutcheon told him. "I like to tinker."

The big Scotsman snorted. "I've seen professionals who can't handle a board like that as well as you can."

"Well," McCutcheon conceded with a grin, "I'm a good tinkerer, then."

"Aye." Scott returned the grin, then reached for the keyboard and began tapping in more specifics for the program he and McCutcheon had created. They had tracked the mysterious beam all evening and into the night, their work interrupted only by periodic trips to the enormous table of food the Dianasians had provided in the science lab, and by several unobtrusive visits from Beleen, who, after hours of searching, had been unable to locate Peter Kirk. Although the Dianasian woman had originally volunteered to find Kirk only as a favor to McCutcheon, she now seemed to regard the task as a sort of personal quest and pooh-poohed McCutcheon's suggestion that spending so much time on Kirk's trail was a horrid waste of a perfectly good evening. Just before midnight (two hours ago), Beleen had finally given in, said her goodnights, and went off home. Scott and McCutcheon settled in for more work, uniform jackets tossed aside and shirt sleeves rolled up to their elbows. At this point they knew the beam intimately and had printed out on a mile-long trail of paper all the details the computer could provide--everything except where the beam was coming from. Nodding in acknowledgment of the continuing flow of information on the screen, Scott keyed into the communications system and said to the mike, "Are you getting all this, Enterprise?"

Uhura's voice came back through the finely-circuited speaker as clearly as if she had been sitting in the computer room. "Affirmative, Scotty."

"All of it?" Scott queried.

Uhura chuckled softly. Like Beleen, and like Scott and McCutcheon, none of whom seemed to have noticed that it was well past midnight, she was well acquainted with personal quests. Their devotion to the project had long since passed a desire to provide Kirk with an answer; now the three Enterprise officers were tracking the beam for themselves, to the point of filling a dozen computer discs with information that might or might not ultimately prove useful. Glancing at the scrolling information on the screen above her communications board, Uhura let her voice drop a notch to the conspiratory level, though it was entirely for Scott's benefit. "Now, the question is, Scotty, what do you want us to do with it?"

Scott chuckled back, eyes twinkling. "File it, of course."

It was an old joke between them, recalling a God-awful trip to Outpost 7734 seven years ago, when a certain Federation commodore had decided to use the Enterprise to haul himself, his surviving staff, and a collection of "essential" papers from the destroyed Outpost 7734 to his new post in the Beta Epsilon system. These days (indeed, as far back as either Scott or Uhura could remember) few worlds with up-to-date computer technology still used hard copy, relying instead on computer discs, from which information could be retrieved in a moment. The Dianasians, however, seemed to have a romance with paper, and their voluminous use of it in the computer center had recalled the old joke. The commodore's "files" had packed two of the Enterprise's storage bays from floor to ceiling, and halfway through the trip from the abandoned Outpost 7734 to Beta Epsilon, the cadets aboard the Enterprise had begun finding relief from their boredom by creating a repertoire of comedy routines about Finnegan's files.

"Of course," Uhura echoed. "And do we send a copy to Finnegan?"

"In triplicate, Commander," Scott said, sounding archly offended.

"Enterprise is coming up on the beam, Mister Scott," McCutcheon pointed out, quietly enough not to intrude on his exchange with Uhura.

Scott nodded and said to the mike, "Stand by, Enterprise. Crossing into the beam in...one minute, mark."

The open channel to the ship let Scott and McCutcheon hear what erupted on the bridge as the beam took effect for the sixth time. McCutcheon watched the screen, which reflected a trebled output of data from the computer in time with the cacophony on the bridge. "It's doing something different this time, Mister Scott," she said puzzledly, tapping requests for augmentation into the keyboard.

"Affirmative that," Uhura's voice agreed over the speaker. "Receiving something...it's an old binary code, Scotty."

"I see it. Translating."

The Enterprise's main computers worked in unison with the Dianasian computer banks to pound out a translation of the rapid-fire blips coming in from the beam. There was a brief pause from the ship over the comm speaker, filled with machine chatter, beeps, trills and klaxon whoops. "Oh, for..." Uhura sputtered. "Are you getting a printout on this, Scotty? Are we decoding this right? If we are, somebody thinks they're mighty damned funny."

"Aye," Scott groaned. "The captain's going t' have kittens."

Shaking his head, he touched the printer controls and resumed the printout of hard copy. The computer's translation of the coded pulse from the beam looked no better on paper than it did on the video screen. Scott rolled his eyes at McCutcheon, who released the smirk she'd been holding back, waiting to see if the engineering chief was really angry or just anticipating another firestorm from Kirk. Printed across the full width of the paper (for the computer had not been programmed to break the message into components) were the words THREE BLIND MICE THREE BLIND MICE SEE HOW THEY RUN SEE HOW THEY RUN THEY ALL RAN AFTER THE FARMER'S WIFE SHE CUT OFF THEIR TAILS WITH A CARVING KNIFE HAVE YOU EVER SEEN SUCH A SIGHT IN YOUR LIFE AS THREE BLIND MICE.

"It can't be anybody from Dianas doing this," McCutcheon said after a moment. "How would they know anything about children's rhymes from Earth? All they know about us, they got from the Federation first-contact tapes. The last I knew, the tapes didn't include stuff like this. This is...is it a joke?"

Scott sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his midriff. The printer went on spieling paper into a neat heap on the marble floor. "If it's not one o' them," he mused, "then it's either those two Klingons...or it's one of us."

"How much do the Klingons know about nursery rhymes?"

"Maybe a bit," Scott shrugged. "They have people poking all around practically every Earth colony there is. But I don't know, lass." He made a face of well-worn disgust. "I never met a Klingon yet with a sense o' humor."

"Which leaves one of us?" McCutcheon responded.

"And isn't that a pleasant thought," Scott sighed. "Uhura? How much o' this is the captain getting?"

"Nothing, Scotty," Uhura replied.

"Come again?"

"He's not getting anything. He shut off his comm terminal just before we crossed into the beam. I think he's still in his quarters..." There was another brief pause, filled with racket, as she ran a status check through her board. "Yes, he's still there. He's accessing the library computer automatic translation reader. But the comm terminal is off."

Reading? Scott thought. Reading what? Nodding half to himself, he said to both Uhura and McCutcheon, "Not much more we can do now, in the dark. We've got coordinates for the source, right down to the square inch, but even if we went up there we wouldn't have much chance o' finding anything. In the morning I'll come up and get a thruster pack, and when ye ride through the beam again, I'll go take a look. Scott out." He keyed off the comm channel; without the chatter from the ship, the computer room fell oddly silent in spite of the clicks and taps from the hard-copy printer. "There's got to be something up there, Lieutenant," he said thoughtfully. "I've seen people come out o' nowhere, and energy fields, and illusions, and heaven knows what all else. But things that come out o' nowhere don't broadcast nursery rhymes. There's a source for this."

"Five kilometers up in the air?" McCutcheon asked. "It sure looks like it comes out of nowhere, Mister Scott. There's nothing solid up there. I'd say it was a bird, but if it was, it's developed a hell of a hover capacity."

"Where's your spirit of adventure, lass?" Scott smiled. "Ye don't like a good mystery?"

She grinned back. "I guess so. It's sure more interesting than making slides by the hundreds in the other lab. But the captain expects some awfully fast answers."

Scott sobered a little. "The captain's never been one for mystery solving, Lieutenant. Just answers. It may take a bit longer than he likes, but we'll find the answer. Five kilometers up, or not--there's something up there. We'll find it." He considered the young woman for a moment. Lines of tiredness were beginning to show around her eyes. "Why don't you go get some sleep, lass? There really isn't much more we can do till daylight."

"I think I will," McCutcheon nodded. "If it's all right with you."

"Go. You've already put in better than a double watch. Nobody really expects triple out o' ye."

"But you're staying," McCutcheon observed.

"Aye," Scott admitted. "I'm used to it. I've spent many a night baby-sitting machinery. Now I sleep better in a chair than I do in a bed. Don't worry about me. I'll just get myself another plate of food and keep watch over this thing. Go, get some sleep."

"All right." She reached for her uniform jacket and slid into it. "I should go tell Dalaarn to go home, too."

"Dalaarn?" Scott's eyes widened. "You mean the computer operator?"


"Will he still be out in the garden? It's been hours! He'll have meditated the life out o' those plants by now."

"He said he'd be out there till we finished," McCutcheon smiled. "They're true to their word. If he said he'd stay there until we come and get him, then that's where he'll be." She stretched, accompanied by a tiny yawn, and fastened the flap of her jacket. "It would disturb our oneness to have to go and look for him, you know." Taking a last look at the printer, which was now into its umpteenth printout of "Three Blind Mice", she concluded, "I suppose I'd better take a look for Peter, too. God knows he's not likely to be anyplace he said he'd be. He's not worried about anybody's oneness." She hadn't quite finished speaking when the printer stopped its savagely rapid production and lapsed back into a slower, methodical listing of stats from the beam. "They're out of it again," McCutcheon said, and bent to gather up the stack of paper.

Scott said quietly, "Where is Peter likely to be? What's-her-name must have covered half the planet looking."

McCutcheon caught his train of thought. "You don't really think Peter would do something like this, Commander?"

"I don't know, lass. You tell me."

She stood with the heap of paper in her arms, thinking back over a month of exposure to Peter Kirk. Peter, do all this? she thought, feeling the weight of all that paper. "I don't know either, sir," she told Scott. He took the mountain of paper from her, and she scooped up her communicator and the tricorder she'd left lying on an extra chair near the console. "This is how I find Peter," she told Scott hesitantly, tapping the tricorder. "I...got kind of tired wasting time looking for him in the middle of experiments. So I did a little tinkering. Had to delete some of the other functions, but it'll find Peter if he's within ten kilometers."

"Sneaky of ye," Scott observed.

"I'd never find him otherwise." She paused. "I suppose I should have given this to Beleen, instead of letting her waste her whole evening looking for him. But...oh, they just get to you after a while, Mister Scott. All that constant cheerfulness. I can only take it for just so long. I know that isn't very tolerant..."

He cut her off in mid-word. "I know what ye mean. I don't blame ye." He nodded at the tricorder. "Or for that, either. It's not exactly regulation, but we can keep it between us. Now off wi' ye."

McCutcheon draped the tricorder strap over her shoulder. "Good night, Mister Scott."

"Good night, McCutcheon. Don't search for too long. And don't bother gettin' up too early. Whenever you're ready in the morning, I'll be here."

McCutcheon nodded acknowledgment and went on out. Once outside the building she activated the special search mode she had programmed into the tricorder. The tiny instrument bleeped obediently and ran through several scanning cycles as she walked through the lab center grounds and out onto the street. By the time she reached the aircar the Dianasians had left for Kirk's and her use, the tricorder had located her errant colleague some five kilometers southeast of the lab center--nowhere near anyplace Kirk had any business being. Figures, she thought, climbing into the aircar. The air was still and quiet, full of the cool dampness that would be gone shortly after sunrise. The area around the lab center was mostly shops and businesses, all closed down for the night; the only light came from the aircar itself and the glow of Dianas's trio of moons. McCutcheon listened to the silence for a moment before keying the aircar's hatch closed. A moonbase baby, she was unaccustomed to the natural sounds of the outdoors; even during her several years as a Starfleet biologist she had spent more time in the labs than out in the field.

It took her less than ten minutes to reach the area the tricorder had identified: a wooded section just outside the capital city limits, empty of buildings but wound with narrow, interesting footpaths. McCutcheon brought the aircar to the ground in the nearest open area, shut down its operating systems, and climbed out, the tricorder held in front of her so that it could pin down Kirk's whereabouts. Its beeping sounded unnaturally loud in the hush of the woods, and with something close to embarrassment McCutcheon switched off the warble function. She kept her eyes on the screen, with occasional glances at the path to avoid tripping, and followed the readout as it closed the distance between her and Kirk to a hundred meters, then fifty, then thirty, then twenty. Something's not right here, she thought, standing still for a minute to sweep a look around. Why am I out here in the middle of the night, wandering around in the woods? Let Peter come back on his own! She shivered, thinking, Why do I even care where he is? She was considering turning back when the sound of voices--two? three?--from up ahead interrupted her train of thought. Who's he talking to? she wondered, shrugging off her nervousness with difficulty and treading softly ahead along the path. She was tempted to call out to him, just to break the quiet, but long months of training reminded her how unwise it might be to sing out in a strange area, in a strange situation, armed with nothing but a jury-rigged tricorder and the communicator clipped to her belt.

Another twenty paces ahead she found Peter Kirk.

As the mixture of voices had told her, he was not alone. Another Enterprise officer, out of uniform, dark-haired and younger than Kirk from the look of him, lounged against a tree as though he had only been listening to the conversation and not taking part in it. He stiffened away from the tree when he spotted McCutcheon but had no weapon to reach for. His movement attracted the attention of the others in the small clearing and within seconds all eyes were on her. It was an odd tableau, everyone watching her but frozen in place, Kirk's right hand extended, offering something that looked like a computer record cassette to the third member of the group. If Scott had not told her there were Klingons wandering around Elyantorvan, she would have been horrified. As it was, she was merely confused.

"Peter?" she said quietly. "What's going on?"

She had no time to say anything more. The flicker of a feeling like a heavy static shock ran through her, giving her an instant to think the word "phaser," then, within another instant, the world spun, went black, and she dropped to the ground like a stone.

Peter Kirk's hand jerked back. "You stupid bastard," he said to Kilon, who had come up behind McCutcheon with his disruptor aimed and ready and had flattened her with a point-blank shot. "What did you do that for?" Shoving the computer cassette into his pocket, he ran the few steps to McCutcheon and knelt beside her. Only stunned, he thought, turning her onto her back on the mossy ground. "You didn't have to fry her," he snapped, this time to Koloth.

"I thought you didn't care about any of your shipmates," Koloth said dryly.

"You didn't have to..." Kirk repeated.

"The only thing we 'fried' was this," Koloth replied, taking the few steps to reach McCutcheon and shoving the tricorder away from her with the toe of his boot. The instrument emitted a flurry of sparks, then fell dark and silent. "I imagine all its circuits are fused. But I believe your...friend...will be all right in a few hours." He glanced at Kilon, who spoke no English and was waiting for instructions, the disruptor dangling from his hand. Koloth told his underling in a glance that he'd done well, as far as Koloth was concerned. Kilon blinked agreement and let the disruptor down to point at the ground.

Kirk sat on his heels and glared at the senior Klingon. "Have you ever recovered from phaser stun?"

"Life is full of difficulties, Lieutenant Kirk," Koloth smiled.

Tom Cooper planted his hands on his hips and took a step toward Koloth. The Klingon greeted him with a raised eyebrow, and Cooper stopped abruptly, unsure whether he'd prompted a shot from the disruptor for himself but unwilling to press his luck by venturing further. "Look," he said quietly, "can we finish? It's late."

"We can," Koloth shrugged. "But there seems to be a snag in your arrangements now."

Kirk fished the computer cassette out of his uniform jacket pocket and tossed it at Koloth, who caught it easily and took a long look at it, although he had no way of determining if the labeling on the case was correct. "We'll take care of it," Kirk said through his teeth. "Don't worry about it."

"Oh, I'm not worried, Lieutenant Kirk."

The Klingon's expression gave Kirk a shudder he wasn't quite able to suppress. He glanced from Koloth to Tom Cooper, and to his discomfort found little difference between the Klingon's smirk and Cooper's. "We'll take care of it," he said again.


"You're soft, Kirk," Tom Cooper announced. "I didn't think you were soft."

Peter Kirk kept his back to the younger man so that he wouldn't have to endure any more of that increasingly feral expression Cooper had been wearing for the past hour. They'd been arguing since Koloth and Kilon had left them to return to the guest building near the beach, and Cooper had expressed his point of view with a vehemence that was beginning to turn Peter's stomach. "I'm not going to commit murder," he said quietly. "We draw the line there, Cooper. Nobody dies so we can do this."

Cooper leaned against the door frame and crossed his legs at the ankle. "Like I said...you're soft."

"That doesn't have anything to do with it," Kirk snapped.

"Doesn't it?" Cooper asked. "How bad do you want this to work out? I don't think it's worth a whole lot to you, really, if you're not willing to risk..."

"I said nobody dies!" Kirk shouted, turning now so he could look at Cooper, whose face was in deep shadow in the angular light from the lantern Kirk had perched nearby. Fists clenched, Kirk moved to his feet and stood a couple of meters from Cooper. Cooper's stomach twitched; he was stifling a laugh, his eyes on McCutcheon. Kirk's gaze went down to her, too: he'd laid her on a pile of blankets on the dusty floor, arranged in a position he thought would be nearly comfortable when she finally roused out of the disruptor stun. He'd tied her hands and feet, though he was quite sure she wouldn't be up to running off anywhere. For the moment she seemed placid enough, but that would end the moment she regained consciousness and began feeling the worst of the disruptor's effects. Something turned over inside Kirk, and he fought not to let it show in front of Cooper. "I'll...make sure she doesn't foul it up."

Cooper began to whoop with laughter. "Oh, sure!" he gasped between breaths. "She won't tell. Just give her your best smile. Lay on the old Kirk charm, and she won't run straight to the captain."

"She--" the young Kirk started.

Shaking his head, Cooper cut him off. "The first word out of her mouth is gonna be 'traitor' and the second one'll be your name. Don't kid yourself, Kirk." The laughter had gone out of him, and he considered Kirk for a long moment in the lantern light. "I don't want any trouble, Kirk. We can't afford it. I spent a lot of time working this out, and I won't let her, or anybody else, get in the way." He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist. "I'm getting out of here. Sit here a while if you want--think it over. But think it over real careful, buddy. I need you, but if you screw this up, I'll try real hard to find a way not to need you." Kirk said nothing. The corner of Cooper's mouth crept up. "Don't sit here too long. You know what the chief lizard said about this place," Cooper concluded, referring to Koloth. "The buildings have a bad habit of falling down."

Then he was gone.

Kirk sat on the floor near McCutcheon's makeshift bed, knees drawn up near his chest, and began unconsciously wringing his hands. "What did you have to show up for?" he muttered at McCutcheon. "Now we have to..." Do what? he thought. Sighing, he leaned back a little and looked around the room. With Koloth's help, he and Cooper had brought McCutcheon to a cluster of long-abandoned buildings that had apparently been a settlement over a hundred Standard years ago. The Dianasians seldom ventured near here now, Koloth had explained, because the area was seismically active and all the buildings they'd laboriously constructed with their usual tons of pink marble and carved wood were, over the course of time, jiggled apart by the near-constant ground tremors. No point in making your home in a structure that was likely to fall down around your ears! In fact, Koloth had smiled, seven hundred Dianasians had lost their lives in just that way in a period they called the Black Upheaval. Contrary to Earthlings' ancient habit of building homes on top of fault lines and then refusing to leave them even after disasters like the Black Upheaval, the remaining settlers of this area had packed their belongings and moved eastward, toward the sea. Now nothing remained in the green, fertile valley of Kasmarin but the tumbled remains of the buildings and the contents the Dianasians had not been able to take along.

Kirk and McCutcheon were in the bottom level of someone's former home, which because of the hilly terrain was half above ground and half below. The four rooms were littered with toppled pieces of massive furniture, broken statuary, crumbled pieces of floor and ceiling. It seemed safe enough for the time being, though being in the rearmost room (and thus underground) gave Kirk the uneasy feeling of being entombed. A more superstitious person would have felt the ghosts of all those crushed Dianasians nearby, he supposed; as it was, he merely felt alone, and buried, and at a complete loss for ideas.

Not my fault! he thought several times. I didn't ask her to come looking for me! Why can't she just leave me alone?

He looked over McCutcheon, who had stirred in her sleep, her face puckered as if she had eaten something disagreeable. Kirk smiled wryly, thinking, Wait'll she wakes up, if she thinks she feels bad now. He'd been through phaser stun once, on Prothos, when he'd surprised a guard who didn't take kindly to surprises. Coming out of the stun felt like a combination of the Shanghai flu and the worst hangover imaginable: every nerve ending singing, head pounding, vision spinning. And the nausea! If she had anything in her stomach...

What do I know? he thought.

Abruptly, something fluttered through the room, dipping close to his head, and with a cry of fright he flung himself face down on the dirty floor, hands crossed over the back of his head. The things! he thought hysterically, feeling his heart begin to pound. He could hear it swooping back and forth. "No!" he shrieked. "Get away! Get away!" There was dirt in his nose and mouth, but he didn't dare lift his head. The thing went on flapping back and forth, and after an endless minute he shifted his head a little to one side, looking for a piece of furniture to crawl under. It'll get me! his mind screamed. Every breath he took filled his nose, throat and lungs with more dirt, and he coughed and sneezed, eyes beginning to water. Nooooo! he thought, and hunched himself up enough to scrabble across the floor to the shelter of a toppled wooden wardrobe. Crushed between the back of the wardrobe and the wall, he snuffled heavily, trying to blow the dirt out of his head. Things! his mind went on screaming. Bad things! Behind that, from somewhere in his memory, he could hear other screaming: his mother. Mommymommymommy, he heard himself howling. And voices.

"She's dead, Jim. I'm sorry."

McCoy? Yes, it'd been McCoy. And his uncle. They were hovering around his mother, who had stopped screaming finally. Peter hadn't opened his eyes, just huddled deeper into the bed, and a while later his uncle had come to stand beside the bed, gloomily silent.

"Peter? It's Uncle Jim, son. Your mother..."

He'd known all along that she would die, just like all the others, like his father, and virtually all his friends. The things had gotten Peter, too: he could feel them, as if there were someone--many someones--living inside his body. He supposed he would die eventually, howling like his mother. The thought made him tremble. His uncle must have seen that, because he took Peter's hand and clasped it tightly, brushing a stray lock of hair off Peter's forehead with his free hand.

Peter clung to him, eyes still jammed shut...but now there was no other hand there, nothing to hang onto but empty air. There was somebody calling his name, but it wasn't his uncle.

The voice said again, "Peter?!"

He opened his eyes, shooting a rapid glance around, looking for the things. "Where is it?" he called back nervously.

"Where's what? Peter, what the hell is going on?"

"The thing! Is it gone?"

McCutcheon let out a noise that was a groan, a whine, and an explosion of rage all at the same time. "Is what gone? Peter, there's nothing out here but me and this pigeon."

"It's a...pigeon?"

"Peterrrr," she moaned. "I don't know; it looks like a pigeon. Whatever their local version of a pigeon is, that's what this is. Will you stop carrying on, and come out here and untie me? Now!"

Chagrined, he crawled out from behind the toppled wardrobe on his hands and knees. The fat, grayish bird he had fled from was sitting alongside the lantern, pecking idly at it, unmindful of the frenzy it had caused Kirk. McCutcheon was glaring at him, looking about the same shade of gray as the bird. Slowly Kirk straightened up, glanced down at his uniform and brushed dirt off his knees and sleeves. "I can't untie you," he announced, trying for a modicum of control. "This isn't a joke."

"Then sit me up," she said, her voice wobbling.

"Look, McCutcheon," he told her, loudly enough to make the bird blink, "don't you..."

Her reply came out one carefully enunciated word at a time. "No, you look. I am going to throw up in about two seconds. Sit me up."

The look in her eyes left no room for doubt. Kirk shot another look around the room, scooped up an ornamental bowl with a large arc broken off one side, shoved an arm underneath McCutcheon's back and hoisted her to a sitting position with the broken bowl under her chin. The bird fluttered down from its perch beside the lantern and scuttled across the floor to watch curiously as McCutcheon got rid of everything she'd eaten with Scott back at the lab center. When there was nothing left in her stomach, she suffered through several minutes of dry heaving with Kirk clutching her right arm and the bird watching from alongside her left foot. "Peter," she said through her teeth when it was all over, "untie me, or I'm going to kill you with my bare hands." She gave no thought to the impossibility of carrying out the threat, just glared at him with an astounding hatred. After a minute of that, Kirk let go of her, carried the bowl outside and tossed it into a clump of bushes.

"I told you, McCutcheon," he said when he returned to the little room at the back of the house, "this isn't a joke. You weren't supposed to show up there."

She tried propping herself up by leaning slightly on her bound hands, but all that accomplished was a strain on her already aching shoulders. "You were giving computer tapes to the Klingons?" she said softly, half-listening to her head pound. "Why, Peter?"

"None of your business."

"You're working with Klingons? What in God's name for?"

"I'm not 'working' with them," Kirk scowled.

"Then what do you call it?" McCutcheon opened her mouth to continue, then stopped and stared at the floor. It took her a moment to understand that the vibrations she could feel were external and not internal. "The ground is shaking," she muttered. "Peter, where are we?" He didn't reply, just shifted his head so that he was no longer looking in her direction. She looked around, taking in their surroundings, trying to sort out the information in her mind, which seemed to be filled with oatmeal. Cold sweat broke out on her arms and down her back, and nausea bubbled up again. "Where are we?" she asked again. "Peter, are we in the Kasmarin Valley?" Still he said nothing, but now his silence told her as much as a reply would have. "We are, aren't we? You brought me to the Kasmarin Valley."

"I had to," he said, and turned his back on her, folding his arms across his chest.

"Peter?" She was almost whispering. "Are you going to kill me?"

"Cooper wants to." His attention was on a tattered velvet tapestry, hanging in large, drooping folds from three hooks on the wall. It was some local scene, he assumed. Trees, soaring birds, small animals on the ground. "You shouldn't have tried to find me. You weren't supposed to show up there. You should have just...why can't you mind your own business?" He pivoted, arms still folded, fists clenched. "What do you think you are? My keeper? Nobody appointed you to keep an eye on me, McCutcheon. Well, it serves you right! You walked up on me once too often. Now you're stuck. You're not getting out of here." He tried for vehemence, but the sight of her, sagging half-upright on top of the heap of blankets, didn't allow for that. "Why can't you just leave me alone?" he shouted.

McCutcheon shut her eyes, wishing for a free hand to rub her pounding head. "They'll come looking for me," she said quietly. "Scotty expects me back in the morning. When I don't show up, they'll look for me."

"Not out here. Nobody comes out here."

"Peter...I thought we were friends."

His mouth lolled open and his brows crushed together. "You thought we were what?"

"Friends. I thought you were my friend."

His mind started to churn, rejecting, rejecting, rejecting. "Why the hell would you want to be my friend? What the hell would you get out of that?" Heart beating faster, he started to pace the dusty floor, shoving the bird aside at one point as it tried to trot alongside. "You think that'll get you somewhere with the captain, is that it? Keep an eye on the misfit nephew? I suppose he asked you to do it! He hasn't trusted me for a minute since I came aboard. He needed somebody to keep an eye on me, didn't he?"

"You're out of your mind," McCutcheon told him.

"I am?" he shot back. "Why else would you hang around somebody that nobody else can stand? Why would you give a flying shit what goes on with me, McCutcheon? Friends?! Jesus Christ, how stupid do you think I am?" Bothered by the yelling, the bird craned its stubby neck and pecked at Peter's boot. Face reddening, he raised his foot and tossed the bird across the room. It broke into flight halfway there and came to rest on top of the wardrobe, where it could watch Kirk and remain well out of his way. Kirk sucked in a long, trembling breath. "The captain's gonna find out eventually what happened to his spy," he snapped.

McCutcheon was shaking, no longer from the effects of the disruptor. "Peter, please. Listen to yourself. You're not making any sense. The captain didn't ask me to--"

"He doesn't ask. He orders."

"Let me go, Peter. We can try to work this out somehow. I won't say anything to anyone. Just...I don't know, we'll figure something out."

"No chance," he said. "No chance at all, hotshot. You screwed yourself, following me around. You've buried yourself now. I don't have to do anything." The corners of his mouth snaked up. "I'll just leave you here. Sooner or later, this building is coming down on top of you. Unless you starve to death first. And I don't have to do a damn thing. I just have to not do anything." He grinned at her, aware that he was putting on quite a performance. McCutcheon's mouth hung open. Even the toadishly fat bird seemed fascinated. Kirk was half inclined to bow. "See you around, McCutcheon," he concluded, turned, and strode out of the room. He could hear her calling faintly after him as he left the building, but outside there was no one to watch the starch go out of him. As he sagged into the seat of the aircar Cooper had left behind him, he thought one more time, What the hell do I do now?

Chapter 6

High overhead, the sky took on the pale silver color of pre-dawn. Jaeger craned her head back to look at it and asked quietly, "Vulcan isn't like this, is it, Mister Spock?"

"No. Vulcan is quite arid, and a good deal hotter than this," Spock told her. "There are no large areas of plant growth like this, except in laboratories."

"Like this one?"

"Like this one."

A soft, whistling trill came from somewhere off in the distance, capturing Jaeger's attention until she realized it was a bird and not the intercom. The concrete bench began to feel uncomfortably hard against her backside, and she drew her legs up underneath her, resting her hands at the rear edge of the bench as a prop. At the horizon, barely visible between the branches of the variety of trees, the sky was turning to pink and gold. Almost looks real, Jaeger thought. She had been in the botanical gardens many times before, but had never had occasion to study her surroundings as much as on this particular day. They were down in the Enterprise's secondary hull, in a room barely a hundred feet square, filled with hundreds of varieties of plant life originating from all over the galaxy. Carefully plotted footpaths, together with the thick vegetation and the hanging branches of the trees, gave the impression of a much larger space, and here, at the center of it all, the gardens' architects had created a spot in which it was possible for an Enterprise crew member to forget he or she was aboard ship. Dozens of birds and small animals added to the realistic impression; computer-tracked lighting, holographic projections of clouds near the slightly domed ceiling, air conditioning simulating gentle spring breezes and an occasional "shower" from the sprinkler system feigned mild weather conditions.

"Do you miss Vulcan?" Jaeger asked.

Spock thought the question over for a moment, watching the progress of a squirrel as it toted a collection of nuts one at a time to its nest high in the branches of a weeping willow. "No," he said finally. "I did at one time, but there is very little on Vulcan now to draw me back."

"Your parents are there, aren't they?"

"On occasion. They travel a good deal. They have spent more time on Earth during the past several years than they have on Vulcan."

"Then you're more at home here, on the ship?"

"Very much so."

Jaeger tossed her head back and shifted her position again. "Me, too. It's strange...to feel like a starship is your home, but I guess a lot of the crew feel that way, don't they?"

Spock nodded.

"I think Pavel does. He put that poem Commander Uhura wrote up on the wall in our cabin--the one that says 'No more will I sleep beneath sky and wind; Endless space will be my canopy; These decks and walls my home.'"

Spock's expression changed minutely. He knew the poem, and treasured the copy Uhura had given him. He was recalling the rest of the verse when Jaeger went on, "I don't think I've ever been homesick. There wasn't much on Jeeter that I was too crazy about even when I lived there."

"'Jeeter'?" Spock echoed.

"Ganymede Triad Six. That's too much for people to keep saying, so everybody who lives there just calls it G.T., or Jeeter."

Spock murmured, "I see." The Human desire for simplification, he reflected. Any Vulcan would have stubbornly called the place Ganymede Triad 6, since that (and not "Jeeter") was its name.

"They called me that, too. At the Academy."

More simplification: nicknames. The Humans loved them, and Spock avoided them. He used Kirk's nickname because that was what Kirk preferred, pointing out that no one except the Ph'ecdalyn-possessed Gary Mitchell had ever referred to him as "James." For a reason he had never been able to pin down, Spock had never even considered using Kirk's full name. He was simply Jim, whether that was the result of an illogical Human habit or not.

"In the house we lived in when I was little," Jaeger continued, not noticing whether Spock was following her disjointed train of thought, "I could climb out my bedroom window and sit out on the kitchen roof." She smiled slightly. "Late at night, after everybody turned off their house lights and went to bed, you could see millions of stars. My dad climbed out there with me once. He said over there--" She gestured in the direction her father had pointed out, though the starscape above her childhood home bore no relation to the holographs above her now. "--was Sol, and that was where Earth was. And that way--" Another gesture. "--was the Klingon Empire." She stopped abruptly and heaved a sigh.

Spock ventured, "May I make an observation, Lieutenant?"

"Sure. I guess so."

"I find it to be an unfortunate tendency of Humans to lay blame for the occurrence of certain events. As if the laying of blame would assuage the situation. You seem not to blame the Klingons for what happened to your father."

Jaeger lowered her head. "Do you know what happened to my father, Mister Spock?"

"To some extent. I have seen the official records."

"The official records are bullshit," she said with a sharp edge.

The first officer hiked a brow. "I beg your pardon?"

She got up from the bench and paced around it, scuffing the soles of her boots in the grass. "The official reports don't have anything to do with what happened." She met Spock's eyes again for a moment. "I made a lot of friends when I was in the Academy. One of them ended up working as a clerk for Fleet Admiral Mills one summer. I did...him, the clerk, a...well, a favor, and in return he helped me get access to the 'unofficial' reports. The Armstrong was fifteen parsecs inside Klingon territory when it was destroyed. It went there to pick up a scout ship that had lost power--instead of rendezvousing in Federation space like they were supposed to, they had to go into Klingon space to rescue him. I guess they thought they'd have enough time to get in and out safely, because they didn't pick up any sign of Klingon ships in the area." She smiled wryly, painfully. "They got surprised." A minute went by as she paced several more circuits around the bench. "I thought my father was a hero. That's what they told me when he died. But I was only a kid then. My father was no hero, Mister Spock. He was a spy, and he wasn't even a good spy. The Armstrong was destroyed because he fouled up."

Spock watched her pace, prepared to stop her if she became too agitated. "But he was working for the Federation," he pointed out quietly. "Surely..."

Jaeger cut him off, shaking her head vehemently. "There could have been a war, if the Federation hadn't buried the truth about what happened. An intragalactic war, and it all would've been my father's fault." She paused. "I thought he was a hero. I thought there wasn't anything he couldn't do. I guess it's easy to think that way when you're little. The last time I saw him, I was only six years old." Her eyes were beginning to glisten as she forced another wry smile. "There aren't any heroes, are there?"

"It depends upon your interpretation of the term," Spock replied mildly. "Generally, I find that 'heroes' are simply people who take unnecessary chances."

She nodded. Tears were dribbling down her cheeks. "I wish he was here now--the way he used to be, when I was little. He always made everything all right." Spock said nothing. There seemed to be some measure of sympathy in his expression, but she was unsure whether it was real or imagined. "There hasn't been anybody to take care of me since my father went away," she murmured. "I used to feel like I got cheated, because after my father died, my mother stopped caring about things. She was ashamed of my father, you know. She wouldn't talk about him, and she got rid of all his things. So I didn't have a daddy anymore, and my mother didn't care. I figured out how to take care of myself, but it's not the same. Sometimes you need somebody to take care of you. I don't have anybody."

"You have Chekov," Spock pointed out.

"He tries," Jaeger agreed softly. "But he can't...he can't give me what I need, not now. I guess it's not his fault. I just want somebody to wake me up and tell me everything's all right."

Spock's mother had cried now and then during his childhood: bad news from home, the death of Spock's uncle, a few times out of frustration, though she was a woman of great strength and normally did not give in to the emotion that her husband's people thought to be a failing in her character. But there were those few times when the tears could not be held back, and she had retreated to the privacy of her bedroom to sob quietly into a towel or a pillow. The child Spock had stood nearby and listened, until he grew old enough to understand that eavesdropping on another's sorrow was wrong, wondering at the terrible emotion that must lie behind his mother's heaving sobs. He himself had cried only once as a child, when the taunting of his playmates had shattered his attempt at Vulcan stoicism. As an adult he had wept a handful of times, but never with the heartfelt pain he had heard in his mother's room. Now, as he sat on the worn concrete bench, with the artificial sky above him gradually lightening into pale blue, he heard that awful pain again, and without thinking he rose from his seat and gathered Jaeger into his arms. She shrank there and went on weeping, her tears quickly soaking the front of his uniform jacket. After a while the strength went out of her and he sat on the grass in front of the bench and held her there, huddled half on his lap and half on the ground, until finally the heaving stopped and her breathing turned slow and even. She seemed very much like Doug Jaeger's six-year-old daughter then, and like a child, she had cried herself to sleep.


Spock glanced up. The sky was fully bright now; time had passed, but he was unsure how much. Jim Kirk was standing on the path a few meters away, gazing at the picture of his first officer sitting cross-legged on the grass with Gretchen Jaeger curled up against him. She was obviously asleep, and Spock had been unconsciously stroking the back of her head.

"You going to leave her lying there on the ground?" Kirk asked.

"She seems to be sleeping peacefully," Spock replied, his voice low. "If I move her, it may disturb her."

Nodding, Kirk took the few steps to the bench and sat down. Both he and Spock were silent for several minutes. Funny how it all spirals down like this, Kirk thought, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin on his hands. You worry about--what did they used to call it? The Big Picture. A starship full of people, the future of the Federation, whole planets. Everything big and grand. He recalled the words he had exchanged with Spock as the Vulcan crouched, dying, inside the reactor room at the rear of the Enterprise's huge engine pod. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one." Always the many, Kirk thought. You worry about the greater good, what's best for four hundred and eighty people, or a planetful, or the whole Federation, or the whole galaxy. So many people you can't count that high. And then, sometimes, it all comes spiraling down. And the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the whole damn galaxy. It all comes down to this. Spock had resumed stroking Jaeger's hair--but to comfort himself, or her? If Kirk had been seated a little closer, he would have reached out to match the gesture. What does she care, now, about the galaxy? he thought. Not a tinker's damn. When you come down to it, all that's real is what goes on between your ears, and when you lose that...

"Have you found anything?" he asked Spock. "Any hope?"

Spock shook his head gravely. "I do not believe there is any hope. I have searched through every piece of information in the computer banks. Everything I am able to find says 'no'."

"So now you pray," Kirk smiled.

The Vulcan's expressive brow rose. "Pray?"

"People invent religion for times like this, Spock," Kirk sighed. "When you can't find any more answers, you can turn to something bigger and say, 'I give up. Please help me.'" He shook his head. "A couple of days ago she whipped the hell out of me at handball. I figured I was getting somewhere because I only lost by nine points. Thought with a little more time, I might stand a chance of actually beating her." He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "Damn it, Spock, I want a chance to beat her at handball."

"Yes." The Vulcan considered his friend in silence for a moment. "I believe I understand now how you feel. I have betrayed a trust."

Kirk looked at him sharply. "You...Spock, you can't think of it that way."

"Is that not how you yourself see the situation?"

"You had nothing to do with what happened to her. There was no way you could have foreseen..." Kirk stopped. Spock was regarding him calmly, yet Kirk could tell that what was beneath the surface of his friend's expression was far from calm. "...the outcome," Kirk went on, as if he had not interrupted himself. "Spock, there's no reason for you to do this. If there's no answer, then there's no answer. Some problems just don't have a resolution--or at least not the resolution you want."

Spock replied, "The Kobayashi Maru test?"

"Exactly. A no-win scenario. I was--I think I still am--the only cadet to find a way out, and I had to do that by cheating."

"That was still an answer," Spock persisted. "Even if it was not the answer your instructors had anticipated."

Kirk stared at him. Something in Spock's expression (or perhaps missing from it) bothered him. For a moment he wondered if Spock could be using Kirk's own lack of logic to turn the situation around and make him surrender his stubbornness. But no, Spock was far from shallow enough to use Jaeger's illness as a tool toward an end...any end, even helping Jim Kirk. Kirk knew his friends were used to seeing him wallow in his own version of self-pity from time to time; they were also used to seeing him come out of the funk by himself eventually. What, then? Kirk thought. His eyes hadn't moved; neither had Spock's, though Spock's hands were still now, one resting on Jaeger's left shoulder, the other against her temple. "What are you doing?" Kirk asked abruptly, sharply.

"What do you mean?"

The captain gestured at Jaeger. "I thought you couldn't stand contact like that, without blocking...you're not blocking, are you?"

"I fail to see..." Spock began.

"Spock," Kirk said. The Vulcan went on gazing at him evenly, but the answer was evident in his lack of response. Kirk's thoughts went back over the years, remembering his first contact with Vulcans, and the whispered advice of a classmate never to touch a Vulcan: their sensitivity to the thoughts and emotions of others, strong even without physical contact, became so powerful when contact was made that the touching was a source of terrible mental stress. Adult Vulcans touched no one under normal circumstances. The rule was broken only in cases of emergency, or during the mind-meld process, when the Vulcan could maintain the integrity of his or her self only with the most careful control. Touching brought on a flood of conflicting impulses. Spock was a bit of a different situation: his shipmates had all been warned about touching Vulcans, but being Human, accustomed to touching in the most routine of circumstances, they forgot the warning more often than they remembered it. Kirk had wondered idly how Spock had managed to endure all those years of thumps on the back, taps on the arm, clumsy near-collisions in the corridors, even an occasional hug from Uhura. Perhaps, McCoy had suggested, because of his half-Human heritage Spock even secretly enjoyed the physical thumpings from his crewmates but out of sheer stubbornness would never admit it. Kirk doubted that; he himself was guilty of breaking the rules on umpteen occasions and had gotten the sense that Spock endured the touching because he know the other person found satisfaction in it. But over all those years, at all those times, Kirk had never seen Spock break the rule himself as violently as this. He understood now what had felt wrong. Spock wasn't sitting here on the ground because he thought it would help Jaeger. Obviously, she had been asleep for some time and was unaware of Spock's presence.

"How long have you been sitting here?" Kirk asked.

"A little over an hour, I believe. I have...lost track."

"Don't do this, Spock." Spock's only response was to look away, breaking his eye contact with Kirk. Talk about wallowing in self-pity, Kirk thought. He was no telepath; the only way he (and most other Humans) could immerse himself in negative emotions was to create them himself. But for Spock, born with the Vulcan ability to mind-link.... He's soaking it up just like a sponge, Kirk realized. He's drawing everything she's feeling into himself. Something about that seemed wrong, horrifying, like a bizarre form of mental rape.

Spock saw Kirk's assumptions taking form on his face. "I have not intruded on her privacy," he told Kirk. "There has been no mind-link."

"Then for God's sake put her down."

After a moment of consideration, Spock did so, depositing Jaeger carefully on the cool, mossy dirt, then straightening up to face his captain. Kirk got up from the bench, and the two men stood regarding each other with the artificial spring breeze ruffling their hair and the artificial sunlight warming their shoulders. "If I recall correctly," Spock said finally, "you do not believe in no-win scenarios. Yet you would ask me to do just that."

"No. I'm asking you to be realistic. There's nothing you can do to help her."

"There is still time, Jim."

Kirk's eyes widened. "Time to do what? You said you've been through the library tapes a dozen times. The cyanoalisitate compound is killing her red blood cells. There's nothing you can do about it. You're not a doctor, Spock. You can't invent a cure. There is no cure."

"But there is time."

Nobody ever taught him there's dignity in giving up when you have no other choice, Kirk thought with a sigh. "So it's not over till it's over, is that it, Spock?"

"I owe her nothing less."

Kirk looked down at Jaeger, sleeping placidly on the artificial ground like an infant safe in its cradle. Curled there, still dressed in the rumpled sweat pants and tee-shirt she had been wearing since Spock had dismissed her from duty the previous night, she looked as little like a member of the Enterprise's bridge crew as Kirk himself had when he had confronted Koloth on the beach. "I think we need a faith healer, Spock," he observed wryly.


"Faith healer. Don't tell me that's something you haven't studied?"

"I have--to some extent."

Kirk smiled, but there was no amusement behind it. "Wonderful, colorful personalities. Very adept at separating the hopeless from their money. My grandfather used to go to revival meetings. Said they were better than theater. Some slick operator all in white, like an angel, only it wasn't always a robe. Sometimes it was an expensive, tailor-made suit. Lifting his arms to heaven and shouting, 'Believe and you will be healed!'"

"Indeed," Spock said.

"Most of them were charlatans, but there were a few who seemed to be genuine. They actually did cure a few people, and nobody's quite sure why, or how."

"Faith?" Spock suggested.

"Or something." Kirk paused. "I suppose anything that works..."

Spock said quietly, "Yes."

Kirk glanced at the chronometer on his wrist. "I have to go. I promised Councilor Gehaan I'd bring him his book back. He wants to sit down with me and talk it over. At great length, no doubt." He smiled without humor once more, the weight of the universe back in his eyes. The thought of reviewing the Dianasian holy book at length with Gehaan filled him with something near dread. As Spock had predicted, Kirk had found the book interesting reading only during the spells when his attention had stopped wandering. Once more he wished he could send Spock in his stead, devoting another day to reading the book rather than haranguing with the High Councilor. Spock never seemed to mind pointless discussions; in fact, the Vulcan had initiated more of them than Kirk cared to count. "He wants to talk about their 'gift,'" he said to Spock. "Again. And again."

A moment went by before Spock replied; when he finally spoke, his thoughts seemed to be elsewhere. "Theaemrayal," he said softly.

"Yes..." Kirk frowned.

The distraction in Spock's expression disappeared as quickly as it had come. "A fascinating concept," he went on. "The Ghanni discusses it at length."

"I know," Kirk sighed. "I know." Nodding down at Jaeger, he added, "Can I convince you to turn her over to Chekov? I could use you on the bridge. We'll be passing through the beam again in another twenty minutes, and it seems to get worse every time. I'd rather have you on the bridge to keep an eye on things than down here."

Spock nodded. "If you wish."

"Thank you, Spock." Kirk turned to walk away, then stopped and said, "Be careful."

His first officer hiked a brow. "In what sense?"

"Whatever it is that's going through your mind," Kirk replied. He could find nothing in Spock's expression to justify the uneasiness that had begun to creep through him; nevertheless, the feeling was there. "Just be careful." Spock inclined his head, not quite a nod, and Kirk gestured his acceptance and strode off in the direction of the turbolift, holding back the urge to shudder.


Tom Cooper traveled the length of the corridor between the turbolift and his cabin as quickly as he dared without attracting attention from the few crew members who were in sight. His arms and legs felt chilled and slightly numb from the flood of adrenaline, and his heart seemed to be pattering six times its normal speed. With the cabin door sliding closed behind him, he reached into his pocket and produced a hand phaser, which he tossed across the room to Peter Kirk. "Time to go, buddy," he announced. "Captain's gone down to the surface. You've got about ten minutes before we hit the beam."

"What if I changed my mind?" Kirk asked, turning the phaser over and over in his palm.

Cooper's brows knit together. "Don't try me, Kirk. I told you: I don't need you that bad. I'll find a way to do it myself. The only reason I pulled you into this in the first place is because you're one of the few people on this ark who'd have any kind of an excuse to be in the captain's cabin. If somebody finds you in there, you can talk your way out." He sneered. "Unless they find you with your hand in the safe." He studied Kirk's face for a long moment. Kirk's expression was nearly unreadable; most of his attention was on the phaser. "How come you need to change your mind? Decided you don't want your share of the crystals any more?"

"There's too much that could go wrong," Kirk told him.

"No there isn't. We all have a lot of thought invested in this. Nothing's going to go wrong--if you do what you're supposed to do. Go for it! It'll all be over in an hour. We'll have the crystals, and we'll be out of here. In a couple of days we'll be where nobody can touch us." Cooper shifted his weight back and forth. His nerves were far too ragged to allow him to stand still. "Look, Kirk, the crystals aren't theirs anyway. Spock stole them from the Klingons. We're just giving them back to their rightful owners."

Lieutenant Kirk replied mildly, "Some of them."

"You heard Koloth," Cooper said with an expressive shrug. "He doesn't really care about the crystals. He's just helping us so he can piss off your uncle." He glanced at the chrono over the door. "You better get going. You don't have much time to get down there."

Kirk got up from his bunk. Things seemed to be moving much too fast, and he wondered for the hundredth time since breakfast why he had ever agreed to Cooper's scheme. Contrary to Cooper's assurances, there were too many things that could go wrong: for one thing, a large part of the plan depended on the cooperation of the Klingon, Koloth, who seemed to regard the whole plot as a monumental practical joke. And now McCutcheon was involved.

Involved? Kirk thought. I left her tied up in an abandoned building a hundred kilometers away--no food, no water, in a place that's falling apart in big pieces. He remembered her puzzled, frightened expression as he was leaving her behind. It was becoming harder and harder to convince himself that she'd done anything wrong enough to deserve dying alone out in the Kasmarin Valley. She'd said she was his friend.

"Look alive, Kirk," Cooper said.

Something Peter Kirk had not stopped to consider was the fact that Tom Cooper was five years his junior in age and a full grade his junior in rank, two inches shorter and ten pounds lighter. Yet when Cooper spoke, he knew enough about conveying authority (not only due to his training as a security officer) to make Kirk obey without thinking. They'd roomed together long enough for Cooper to understand why the rest of the crew believed Kirk to be a self-absorbed, arrogant bastard whose only claim to glory was being the nephew of the captain. That same month of living together had convinced Cooper that what the captain's nephew was in truth was an enormous fake. No ego, no talent, no strength. Just a mama's boy who had lost his mama, and was trying his damnedest to appear otherwise. He was, in short, somebody Cooper could use.

Cooper put his fisted hands on his hips and projected across the room all the authority he could muster. When he spoke again, the soft, whispering tone of his voice belied the bravado in his stance. "Afraid you'll fail?" he asked his cabinmate slyly.

The words seemed to shoot a little backbone into Kirk. Gnawing fiercely at his lower lip, he shoved the phaser into his pocket and strode past Cooper out into the corridor. He was halfway between anger and misery, but he forced himself not to think much about what he was doing, just to perform automatically. Whether there was anyone else in the corridor, he could not have said; his focus was completely inward as he walked up to the turbolift and slapped the summoning button.

The car arrived immediately and carried him to the senior officers' quarters in a matter of seconds. He straightened his shoulders a bit as he stepped out of the lift, preparing himself for encounters that did not occur. The corridor was empty and eerily silent. Heart fluttering, Kirk walked down the corridor past the door to his uncle's cabin and pressed himself against the wall around the corner. His chronometer showed two and a half minutes left, and when most of that time had ticked away, Kirk's arms and legs seemed to belong to someone else. He counted off the final half minute mentally, using the last five seconds to stride back to his uncle's cabin door and aim the phaser at the lock.

Though he was prepared for the reaction of the ship's systems to the beam coming from down below, his heart jumped at the onset of the noises and the flashing lights. As Koloth had promised, it was worse this time: not a single circuit seemed to be unaffected. The corridor lights flashed strobically, mixing with the blinking red of the alert signals. From every possible direction noises erupted: klaxons, bells, the intercom hail, dozens of kinds of music from the wall units inside the senior officers' individual cabins. Kirk grit his teeth and burned out the captain's door lock with a brief burst of phaser fire. The security alarm whooped frantically, but the new sound was unnoticeable above the other racket.

Kirk hustled into the cabin as the door slid open, turned long enough to make sure it closed properly behind him, and shot a fast glance around to assure himself that the cabin was indeed empty. The safe was right where Cooper had indicated, in the divider unit beside the desk. Still running on automatic, Kirk fired the phaser again and fried the lock on the safe. The little door sprung open involuntarily, triggering yet another security alarm. Kirk shuddered involuntarily, driving away the thought that he could hear running footsteps headed for the cabin, not quite convinced by Cooper's assurances that by this time, the beam would have caused so much disruption aboard ship that no one would pay attention to one extra alarm from anywhere-- even the captain's quarters. Kirk's heart was throbbing in time with the alert klaxon as he dipped to his knees, reached into the safe, felt around for a moment, and scooped out the drawstring bag containing the malium crystals.

"Gotcha," he muttered, and tried to straighten up. His wobbling legs refused to support him, and he had to rest a hand on the desk to steady himself long enough to stand. As he moved away from the safe, a small satin-covered box, dislodged by his ferreting, tumbled out onto the floor and popped open from the slight impact. Inside, resting on crimson velvet, was James Kirk's Starfleet Medal of Honor. It glittered up at Peter Kirk, reflecting the strobing room lights.

"So this is the hero's nephew," he heard a voice saying inside his head.

Kirk stared at the medal for a moment, then snaked his foot back and sent the little box sailing across the room. It dropped out of sight beside the couch.

"You're being silly, Peter." That was his grandmother's voice, talking to him from the other end of a comlink. "Just be yourself, and do the best you can. You don't have to live up to anything your Uncle Jim has done. He certainly doesn't expect you to. People like to be petty sometimes. They're jealous...that's the problem. Do the best you can, and don't let them bother you. They'll get tired of it after a while and they'll leave you alone. Don't forget, your uncle Jim had to live up to your dad's image for a long time when they were young."

Dad. Peter barely remembered his father. He had flashes of a very tall man with thinning hair, more slender than James Kirk, moustached, with crinkles around his mouth and eyes that made him look as if he were perpetually smiling. He and Peter's mother, Aurelan Swift, had gone to Deneva to continue their work, aiming for another paper to publish in the Journal of Xenobiology, but the paper had never been completed. Not long after Peter's seventh birthday, the neural parasites had infested Deneva, killing George Samuel Kirk, Jr., his wife Aurelan, and over a thousand other colonists almost instantly. Many more deaths lay in store, despite the very best efforts of the captain and crew of the Enterprise. It chilled Peter to think that he could picture the creatures--flat, unfeatured, something like flying leather pancakes--far better than he could his father's face. Dad had been enormously proud of little brother Jimmy, though he seemed to take the many tales of Jim Kirk's exploits with a grain of salt. He'd avoided Starfleet, the path Peter's grandfather and uncle had chosen, opting instead for the relatively quiet life of a scientist, hopping from Deneva back to the family farm in Iowa with Aurelan, Georgie, Peter, and on one occasion, little Marc in tow, but he was far from disdaining military life. He seemed to understand the calling his younger brother followed, and kept track of Jim's travels as closely as fleet censorship would allow. Stuffed away in Peter's few belongings were photographs of the last time the Kirk brothers had seen each other: a brilliantly sunny afternoon, a laughing touch football game, a picnic lunch spread out on a plaid blanket.

Laughter, as George's high-flung pass soared over Jim's head, and Jim, leaping toward the ball, lost his center of gravity and went sprawling on the grass. The ball sailed another fifty meters and thumped to the ground close enough to the picnic blanket to make Aurelan shriek.

"Damn you, Sam! I'm not an eagle! Where are you aiming?"

More laughing, until the brothers were both red-faced, tears running down their cheeks, George's sun-browned, Jim's fairer and pinkish. Peter sat on his heels beside his mother, hoping for an invitation to join the game, considering the forgotten football and finally scooping it up and running with it to present it to his uncle. Jim had ruffled his hair and hugged the boy effusively. "Watch that father of yours, Peter," he'd cautioned, wiping away tears with the heel of his hand. "He never learned to play fair."

Fair? Peter Kirk wondered. What was fair about it all? His father was dead now, and his mother, his grandmother, and the grandfather who had existed only in stories told in Peter's childhood. Add to all that two brothers who may as well have been dead. And Uncle Jim was still alive, overseeing the Enterprise from his padded seat on the bridge, issuing commands, the golden boy, who by rights should have been killed years ago. It was the military that was dangerous: how many battles had Jim Kirk fought, exactly? Peter had no idea. Dozens? Hundreds? Unscathed from the look of him. His life was a litany of honors now, citations, commendations, awards, testimonials, medals. Medals.

The young Kirk looked around the cabin at the periphery of his uncle's life. The shelf of old books, the brandy decanter and glasses, discarded printouts, odds and ends collected from visits to worlds Peter would never see. What gives him the right? Peter thought furiously. Why is he untouched? Dad, and Mom, they were only scientists. What they were doing wasn't dangerous. And Gram: she never asked for trouble from anybody, a quiet, gentle woman whose body had turned on her and resisted cure. Nobody left now but Uncle Jim, the hero, Captain-then-Admiral-then-Captain-again, James Tiberius Kirk, the glory of Starfleet, who could do no wrong even when he ignored direct orders from Command, stole one of their ships and destroyed it. He blew up the God damned Enterprise! Peter thought. And what do they do? They give him a new one.

The lights blinked more slowly now, leaving the room dark for several seconds. Lights...

She'd turned the lights off, that first day, then flicked them back on, revealing her standing near the door, arms crossed over her breasts, computer flimsy dangling from one hand. The sudden darkness had made Kirk jump and he turned on her with fury evident on his face.

"What..." he began.

She'd smiled, ever-so-slightly. "Just wanted to see if it was true." She paused. "That you glow in the dark. Guess not."

His fingers tightened, rolling into fists. "What do you mean?"

She seemed not to notice how angry he was, just strolled across to the lab table, laid down the flimsy, glanced at the rack of test tubes filled with a half-dozen kinds of sera. "You're the captain's nephew, right? Everybody seems to think that makes you perfect." Her expression indicated that Lieutenant Laurel Eloise McCutcheon, Science Specialist First Class, was not about to give quarter to anyone because of rumors. This was her lab, her ten-meter-square kingdom, and she had already decided that no newcomer was going to strut in and take over, regardless of who his relatives happened to be. When Peter Kirk said nothing more, she turned to him again, resting back against the edge of the table, and considered him with a look almost as poker-faced as Captain Spock's. "Looks to me like you walk on the floor like the rest of us," she said.

He could feel himself reddening, and cursed himself, his family, the Academy rumor mill, his classmates, his teachers, his lack of control, and most of all his churning brain for failing to provide him with an adequate comeback for this woman, this smug, secure, uniformed bitch. He muttered something she couldn't hear, but she seemed to understand what he had said, or at least its intent. Shaking her head mildly, she took off her uniform jacket and went about her work as if Kirk were not even in the room.

Let her be smug, he thought. All of them. The hell with all of them.

Glancing around one last time, he thumbed the controls on the hand phaser as he did a slow pivot, targeting the walls and the furniture with a dozen short blasts. "How do you like that, hero?" he said bitterly, still squeezing off shots, watching exposed wires begin to sputter and spark, hypnotically colorful under the blinking room lights. "Wait'll you come back and take a look at this." The phaser was beginning to heat up in his palm. Shuddering, he flicked it off, buried it in his pocket with the drawstring bag of gemstones, and hurried out of Jim Kirk's cabin. He was once more unaware of whether or not the corridor outside was empty.

Behind him, the captain's cabin was in flames.


"Mister Spock?" Uhura said urgently, twirling her chair to face the first officer at the same moment that he turned the command chair toward her. "There's still an alarm coming in, sir, from the captain's quarters. All other systems are normal. I think this is a legitimate signal."

Spock said, "Send Security."

Nodding, Uhura paged the security guards on duty nearest the senior officers' quarters and waited out the minutes it took for them to respond and report. "Acknowledged," she said into the mike. "Stand by, Ensign. Someone's broken into the captain's quarters, Mister Spock. Significant damage...there's been a fire, but Security has it under control." She paused as more information came in. "The safe has been opened. Security is unable to tell what's missing, or if anything is missing."

Spock was well aware of what might be missing. "Have them seal the area, Commander. No one in or out."

"Yes, sir. Should I notify the captain?"

"No. I'll inspect the damage, and contact the captain myself."

A flicker of dismay crossed Uhura's face, though more at the thought of what Captain Kirk's reaction would be than at Spock's expressionless rebuff. She wondered at what Kirk might have locked in the safe that would prompt this, the first forced entry into his quarters in all the years she'd served aboard the Enterprise. No one was aboard except those crew members not on shore leave, and all of them had been security-cleared by Starfleet before assuming their duties over a year ago. No, change that, she thought. There was one newcomer: the captain's nephew. I wouldn't put it past that one to break in! She suppressed a wry smile. But what would the captain have locked up in there that he'd want? She turned her attention again to Spock, realizing that he'd been watching her face the whole time. Damn, I wish he wouldn't do that! she thought, though she knew Spock hadn't been probing her mind; he never would, under these circumstances, but all the same, that intent, bland expression of his made her feel exposed to his scrutiny.

"Carry on, Commander," the Vulcan said finally. "I shall be in the captain's quarters."


Tom Cooper selected the largest of the malium crystals and held it up to the light, sighing deeply at the twinkling blue stone. "Now you see why we went to all this trouble?" he said over his shoulder to Peter Kirk. "With these beauties, we can write our own ticket anywhere we want to go."

"They'll find us," Peter Kirk replied distantly.

"Who will? The captain? Starfleet? Come on, Kirk! I told you, Spock stole them from the Klingons. As far as I know, he and the captain never had any intention of telling Starfleet Command--or anybody else--that they even had the stones. You think they're going to start searching the galaxy for us over something that they weren't supposed to have?"

"No," Kirk said. "For desertion."

Cooper laughed heavily. "Man, do you ever like to overestimate your own importance. They might put out a bulletin on us--send our pictures around to the starbases. If we show up anywhere, they'll have us arrested. But we're not going to be anywhere in Federation territory. They can't get us. And believe me, Kirk, they won't waste much time trying. We're little fish." His back still to Kirk, he scooped the crystals back into the bag and hurried around the cabin, gathering the few of his possessions he considered to be essential and yet innocent enough to escape notice by the transporter tech. "You learn that fast in the 'fleet: they don't waste time on little fish. By the time they even notice we're gone, we'll be long gone. And by the time they connect us with this--" He gestured at Kirk with the drawstring bag. "--they'll have no hope of tracking us down." Ignoring Kirk's expression, he burrowed the tiny pouch down inside the duffel bag of his belongings and shouldered the duffel. "I'm off," he announced. "I'll meet you in two hours, where we planned."

"And you'll have the crystals with you?" Kirk asked, eyes narrowed.

"Hey, old buddy," Cooper snickered. "You think I'd run out on you?"

He didn't wait for a reply. Kirk could still hear the echo of his snickering after the door had closed behind him.


Pavel Chekov couldn't recall a time in his life when he had ever felt this lost.

He'd come aboard the Enterprise twenty years ago, fresh out of the Academy, still feeling the hugs and kisses and thumps on the back from his family and friends that had sent him on his way, his head full of glorious dreams and expectations. He'd been quite giddy, and with good reason: he was a Starfleet officer now, serving aboard the Enterprise, the glory of the fleet, under a captain who barely past the age of thirty had already racked up an unsurpassed list of achievements. And Chekov? He was sure of three things: that his superior officers would be as impressed with him as his instructors had been, that he would soon begin building his own roster of glories to rival James Kirk's, and that every woman he encountered would wilt at his feet, dizzied by the uniform, the face, the wonder that was Pavel Andreievich Chekov. It didn't take him long to discover that he would not succeed at any of those three things.

Unfortunately, his superiors not only were unimpressed by his performance, most of the time they failed to even notice it. When he did something right, no one saw. When he did something wrong (which he took nearly hysterical pains to avoid), then they saw, and took note, and rebuked him. Consequently, there were no commendations to record under his name for a long while, and when they did come, Chekov received them for acts he had not gone out of his way to perform. He reflected on the contrariness of that, and tried his best to understand the way the system worked, and earned nothing for his troubles but a massive headache. His sense of pride at being chosen to serve on the bridge evaporated quickly when he realized that he was the "bridge baby," the youngest of the dozen-odd personnel surrounding the captain, which made him eligible for the closest scrutiny, the worst rolling of eyes at a movement or word made in error, the sharpest criticism. He supposed that eventually all that wicked attention would hone him into a better officer, but on each particular occasion, the thought of ultimate success years down the road did little to soothe the sting.

Over the past twelve years, he'd managed to serve as an executive officer on three different occasions, but each of those assignments had ended with the death of his captains. He had decided he was a jinx, pure and simple, and when Sulu had asked him to come aboard as an executive officer, he had told his friend no. He'd chosen to stay aboard the Enterprise. During the Kelvan War, he'd received command of a corvette, but following the war, Captain Kirk had asked him to come back to the Enterprise to serve as its third officer. Who was he to refuse James T. Kirk? So he'd come back. Oh, certainly, he'd gotten a lot more time in the center seat, but had his career advanced? No, he had to admit, not really.

And the women?

There were nearly two hundred of them aboard the Enterprise, but of course they were not impressed by Chekov's uniform, nor his wonderful record at the Academy, since they each had their own uniforms and their own fine Academy records. As for being drawn in by his personal magnetism, well...the first time he relaxed with his crewmates on the rec deck, sipping a glass of vodka and watching a game of Tri-Cross, he heard over and over again (mostly in whispers, followed by sly smiles or an occasional giggle) the name of the owner of the only noticeable personal magnetism aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise: James Tiberius Kirk. Even those women who said they weren't interested, or weren't impressed, or had a husband, fiancée, or lover who took precedence, had noticed what made James Kirk the subject of stories. Perhaps they didn't swoon physically, but they knew. They knew.

Janice Rand, the captain's yeoman when Chekov arrived, transferred off the Enterprise a few months later. Better assignment elsewhere, they said, but Chekov know that wasn't true--he'd seen Rand red-faced, holding back tears, creeping silently back to her quarters because the hopeless devotion she felt for Captain Kirk was not, and never would be, returned. Rand, and all the others--he held them all in the palm of his hand. Now, two decades later, James Kirk was not so young (nor quite so unapproachable), but the women were still drawn to him, not just from among his crew but on every planet they had visited, every starbase they had anchored at, even back home on Earth. If someone had invented James Kirk as a fictional character, Chekov thought, no one would believe in him. But there he was, sitting cross-legged in the command chair, rubbing absently at his chin with his forefinger, watching the forward viewscreen intently, completely unaware of the effect of his personality.

Then, finally, after Chekov had resigned himself to a quiet life aboard the Enterprise, surrounded by friends and spiced by the odd shore leave, his life had swung itself around.

He was a full commander now, no longer a nervous ensign doing his best to prove himself the finest navigator around, but Chief of Security and Personnel. He had the respect of his fellows (and, glory be, his captain) now. He was no longer a boy. The job no longer felt like magic, as it had when he'd taken those first tremulous steps away from the transporter platform. It was routine, and often stupefyingly boring, but it was his life, and he surrounded himself with it like a comfortable old suit of clothes. Most of the time, despite the warm company of his friends, he was alone, and had his own cabin in the senior officers' quarters, quiet and empty when he returned from duty for a few hours' rest. Alone. Until those last few crew replacements beamed up from the surface and took their places throughout the ship.

On Earth, which they were leaving behind for five years, it was April. Afterwards, when he thought about it with a flush of romantic nostalgia, that seemed apt. He watched her that first day, saw the way she looked at the captain the way they all looked at the captain. But this time, Pavel Chekov would be God damned if he would let the captain win. He was no believer in love at first sight (at least not that he would admit), but there was something about her that drew him. Not beauty, for although she was attractive enough to be noticed, there were plenty of women aboard who were more beautiful, carried themselves more gracefully, knew more about "feminine wiles," about flirting. This one would never flirt! The next morning, in front of the mirror, he asked himself why he should bother and was unable to provide himself with an answer. Nevertheless, he would bother. And he would win, if it was the last thing he did.

She had been on board less than twenty-four hours when the door to his office hissed open and she stepped in, exactly on time, coming straight for the gym, hair still damp from the shower but perfectly regulation. To his utter dismay, she snapped to attention with a kick of her boots together. He'll break her of that soon enough, Chekov thought. Captain Kirk had no use for such an anachronism, considered it a waste of time; he preferred that his crew show their respect by their actions, not this nonsensical snapping of hand to forehead.

"Jaeger, G.L., reporting as ordered, sir," she said.

He sat there behind the desk and considered her for a long, pregnant moment, then smiled (he hoped not too eagerly) and nodded her into a chair. "Welcome aboard, Lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir." She folded her hands in her lap and waited.

And waited.

Inside his head, Chekov heard himself reciting the orientation speech he used with all the other new arrivals, heard her responding as all the others did, acknowledging his comments on her good and bad points, offering a few comments of her own on what she hoped to accomplish as a member of the crew of the finest ship in the fleet. Several minutes went by, and he was utterly silent, and so was she, waiting respectfully for this odd, smiling chief of security and personnel to say something...anything.

"Is something wrong, sir?" she ventured finally.

That broke him out of his stupor. "No...no, nothing's wrong, Lieutenant." Bozhe moi, he thought, she must think I'm an idiot. Or that I'm conducting some sort of weird psychological test. He glanced at the printout of her service record, which had grown quite damp under his hands. "You have an excellent record. I think you'll fit in well."

She opened her mouth to thank him, but he went on haltingly before she could speak. "The captain is assigning you to the bridge as one of the relief navigators. It's an excellent position. He doesn't often give a new crew member a bridge post." He rebuked himself silently, fiercely, certain that every word coming out of his mouth sounded abysmally stupid. "He's very impressed with your recommendation from Captain Styles," he plodded on.

"I'll do my best to live up to his expectations, sir."

She was smiling vaguely, tentatively, as if she was still not sure of his mood. All the "sirs" began to bother him; she was using the word like a punctuation mark. To distract himself, he looked down at the printout of her records, glancing through the page-long summary of the last fifteen years of her life. Everything was in order, with a minor commendation here and there and not a black mark to be found. And there, at the end of the page, were the few lines summarizing the end of her service aboard the Excelsior and her transfer to the Enterprise. Chekov frowned. "Your transfer seems to have gone through very quickly, Lieutenant," he said quietly. Eight days? he thought. She filed a request for transfer with Styles eight days ago?

"Yes, sir," she agreed, moving her shoulders in the slightest suggestion of a shrug.

Chekov glanced at her, then down at the paper again. If nothing else, twenty-one years of service had taught him that requests for transfer moved snailishly through the cogs--unless someone pushed them along. But who? Not Styles, certainly. Although he had no reputation for brilliance or ingenuity of any kind, he knew a good crew member when he saw one, and held onto the few he had with bullish tenacity. Even with the Excelsior likely to be taken away from him at any time, he was hardly likely to let Starfleet bleed away his few good people without at least a scream or two to hold up the paperwork. Gnawing at his lower lip, Chekov flipped through the sheets of flimsy, looking for some sign that Jaeger had been specially recommended, and by whom. Another thought crossed his mind: a method of advancement that had been used for centuries. She was attractive, and given Captain Kirk's reputation... No, he corrected himself. If she'd slept with Kirk, she would have ended up anywhere but the Enterprise. Still puzzled, he set aside the papers, folded his hands, and asked solemnly, "Why did you want to be transferred to the Enterprise?"

The words he was expecting, the ones that came from nearly all of the new arrivals ("Because it's the best ship in the fleet.") didn't come. She replied instantly, honestly, "I wanted to serve with Captain Kirk."

Captain Kirk, he thought. Always Captain Kirk. "I see," he said.

She tried the tentative smile again, apparently deciding that it was all right to fill the awkward silence. "I heard that the Enterprise would be going out again--another five year mission--and I wanted to be part of it. Everything went very fast. I guess I was lucky."

Or something, Chekov thought. "Yes."

"I appreciate the opportunity to be here," she went on. "It's the best ship in the fleet."

There! Chekov let out a long breath, relaxed by the familiar words. "We all think so," he agreed. She seemed to feel the change in atmosphere too, and her smile broadened a little. "We've assigned you to room with Lieutenant Iverson. She's been with us for a while. If you have questions, I'm sure she can help you out. If she can't, I want you to feel free to come to me. Just leave me a message on my terminal, and I'll try to answer it as soon as I can."

"Thank you, sir."

A tiny voice in his subconscious howled at him to ask her to call him by his given name, but he stifled the thought. Let it wait, he told himself firmly.

It waited four months.

The cafeteria was nearly empty; it was an off hour, and most of the crew had eaten long ago and gone elsewhere. Seated alone at a table at the far end of the room, Jaeger was working at an enormous plate of chicken stew. Chekov watched her from the corner of his eye as he filled his own tray, then strolled in her direction and cleared his throat to catch her attention. "Hello, Lieutenant," he said jovially. "Late dinner?" And don't call me "sir," he appended silently.

She swallowed a mouthful and nodded. "I was working in Auxiliary Control. Didn't realize what time it was."

"Do you mind if I join you?"

"No, go ahead. I'm glad somebody familiar came in. It's deadly quiet in here."

Chekov walked around the table and took the chair opposite hers. She didn't seem bothered at all by his presence, and went on eating with her usual gusto. He'd watched her surreptitiously on several occasions over the past few weeks, and noted with some surprise the amount of food that such a small person could put away, though having also seen her on the handball court, he knew every scrap was being burned off with fierce efficiency. "You aren't disappointed that you transferred to the Enterprise, then?" That had come straight out of left field, but it didn't seem to bother her; she just smiled, shook her head enthusiastically and went on eating. He began pushing at his food with the tip of his fork, and after a moment that seemed to stretch on for ages, ventured, "I'm glad you did."

She had picked up her glass, and held it suspended halfway between the table and her mouth. "Thank you."

"You haven't called me 'sir' yet tonight," he pointed out.

Jaeger sipped at her water. "Well...you don't want me to, do you?" she replied, then added quietly, "Pavel?"


He turned his head. She was peering at him curiously, looking up at him from her seat on the ground in front of the stone bench. Unable to decide whether or not she had asked him for something, he settled for moving down off the bench and sitting beside her on the grass, then slid an arm around her and tugged her close.

"Pavel," she said after a while, "I'm scared."

"So am I," he told her.

"I'm sorry for running away from you," she went on, her voice low and quavering. "I need you with me. Promise you'll stay with me." She shifted so she could see his face. Her condition made him shudder; the few hours of rest had done her some good, but the cumulative effect of the poisoning had taken most of the color from her face and left her ashen.

"I'll stay with you as long as I can," he promised.

It was an ungenerous promise, he was sure. How long would she have left? A few days? McCoy had told him quietly that if she hadn't been so extraordinarily fit to begin with, they could have counted the time left in hours and not days--but the extension of time didn't seem to be worth much. Days! Chekov thought. Days had gone by already, with nothing to slow them down. He felt horribly, hopelessly lost, and the most pressing feeling inside him was the awareness that he was helpless against something he did not quite understand. Oh, the basics of it were plain enough, and he had soaked up sufficient knowledge of biology during his life to make him believe McCoy when the doctor told him there was nothing left to be done. Why can't I know more? he asked himself. If I knew more, maybe there would be something I could do. Some way I could help ...at least give her some comfort.

"You could ask Mister Spock," he suggested. "He...died, and came back. Maybe he could..."

Jaeger's head moved side-to-side against his chest. "I asked him already. He said his was an 'unusual circumstance' because of how it happened...Genesis and all." She paused, looking off among the trees. "He said the part of him that died, really did die, and is a part of the energy of the cosmos now. The part of him that's alive now is from the...the katra?...that he stuck inside Doctor McCoy's head. So part of the original Spock is gone, but part is still alive." She paused again. "He said everybody has a katra, but there's nothing I can do with mine because I'm not a Vulcan."

Damn him, Chekov thought. "Then he doesn't remember dying?"

"No. Because the part of him that died is gone. He said I'd probably become part of the energy of the cosmos, too." There was a frantic note in her voice; she was struggling to remain calm now, remembering what her panic had done to her during the night. "Pavel?" she murmured. "Tell me my father'll be there waiting for me...wherever it is I'm going."

"He is. He will be. I'm sure. He'll be there."

She looked up at him again. Like fighting a demon, Chekov pushed aside every glimmer of despair, and exhaustion, and fear, that welled up inside him so that none of it would show on his face. I will be strong, he told himself, because she needs me to be. He doubted he would be able to continue the pretense for very long, but for the moment, he found a genuine smile. He watched her expression change. There seemed to be a little of the old light in her eyes, and she returned the smile, tentatively at first, then more securely. It's not happening yet, he thought. Not now. There's time.

"I should have been a fighter pilot," she said abruptly.

He frowned. "What in the world for?"

"I think I'd rather go that way. In battle. Have you ever flown a fighter? I took one of the new Arcos out once. It's wonderful, the speed. In a little ship like that, you really feel how fast you're going. You just touch the controls..." She gestured rapid figure-eights with both hands. "I should have gone for that, instead of navigation. Sitting up there, on the bridge...oh, it's exciting, but it's sort of like flying a building. The fighters are different." She straightened up, moving away from Chekov a little. "I would have rather gone that way. A good, direct hit. Instead of just sitting here waiting."

"Gretchen..." Chekov began.

"If everybody has a destiny..." She sighed heavily. "What the hell kind of destiny is this? God, Pavel, I'm a soldier! They hauled me out for two weeks of survival training and made me eat leaves and bugs! They taught me what to do if I was captured by the enemy. They let me pretend to be the damn captain and asked me what I'd do in a no-win situation, and I scored in the upper ten percent. They taught me how to find strength when you don't think you have any left...how to live for days and days without food or water...how to go through torture without losing my mind. I know how to sit up there on the bridge and move this God damn enormous boat when it's surrounded, with no way to get out. They taught me how to get out of every kind of a snag they could think of, and do it with my brains intact, but they never taught me this. They never taught me how to sit here and wait." She stopped then, a little breathless, and looked at Chekov, who was watching her with his mouth open. She plucked agitatedly at the grass for a moment, then went on with a bit less fervor. "They let me serve with Captain Kirk. I've watched him, Pavel. I listen. And I've never seen anybody like him before. He must have tuned them right out when they taught him how to surrender to the enemy when you have no other choice."

"Yes," Chekov nodded. "He never would."

"Never. I learned that from him. You don't surrender with grace, or any other way. You do everything else you can, but you don't surrender. He blew up the old Enterprise rather than surrender."

Chekov smiled wryly. "I know. I was there."

"So how do I do this, now?" Jaeger asked fiercely. "How do I just give up?"

"I don't know," Chekov said, with a soft exhale that almost succeeded at being a laugh. "If Doctor McCoy wants you to die, I believe he may have to shoot you."

She was startled for an instant, then pulled back and gave Chekov an enormous shove that sent him sprawling onto his back on the grass. Gaping at first, then giving in to laughter, he scrambled up and was about to return the blow when she warned him. "No fair to hit a lady, mister," she grinned.

"Ah, Lieutenant, you are no lady."

She laughed then too and knocked him down again, and before he could recover enough to sit up, she straddled him and pinned his arms against the ground. "I always was tougher than you, Chekov. Say 'uncle'."

Something inside him ached, but he went on laughing. "Uncle."

"I'm not letting you up," she said.

"You have to. I'm your superior officer."

"So put me on report. I'm not letting you up." She dipped her head and kissed him, her hair brushing against his face. He made a soft, muffled sound against her mouth and strained to pull his arms out of her grasp. "No chance...sir," she murmured, but after a moment she released his arms and moved into his embrace. His hands moved to find the familiar places, and she closed her eyes, half afraid that the empty grayness would return, but it did not. The ground stayed solid under her knees and the artificial breeze, scented with the perfume of trees and flowers that had never been part of any real garden, played with her hair, whispering it against the back of her neck. With the artificial sunlight shining down from a sky scudded with holographic clouds, warming her shoulders as much as if it had been real, she surrendered to the Enterprise's chief of security and personnel, and loved him as fervently as if nothing at all had been wrong.


"It's a mess in there, sir," the security officer told Spock.

He turned to look at her. Her name was at the front of his mind instantly, though he had not encountered her more than four times during the past fourteen months: Haveran. Nancy. That was a source of unending annoyance to McCoy, Spock's ability to recall the names of all four hundred-odd crew members without so much as a flicker of effort. He knew those names as well as he knew his own. At this particular moment, though, the idea that his mind could hold all that information and spurt it out automatically seemed wrong, when there were more important things to use mental energy on than recalling the name of a security officer. Names...at least two apiece for four hundred eighty-one people, over a thousand altogether. He could have stood there in the corridor outside Kirk's cabin and recited them if anyone had asked.

Haveran covered her nose and mouth with her hand and went on talking. "The fire suppression system didn't come on until we passed out of the beam. There's quite a bit of damage." She motioned inside the room; the door was frozen open to let fresh air pass in. As Spock walked past her into the captain's sitting room, she let out an explosive, rattling cough.

Spock took an appraising look around. The other security guard (Martin, he knew immediately, which did nothing to alleviate his sense of annoyance at himself) was standing near Kirk's desk, a sheaf of papers in one hand, shaking his head. He seemed to be breathing easily enough in spite of the awful chemical smell, but his eyes were watering and bloodshot. "We notified Maintenance, sir," he said, with the slightest hint of a wheeze. "They'll start cleaning up as soon as you give the okay."

"The intruder?" Spock said.

"No sign of anyone, sir. We sealed off the section and searched room by room. Whoever was in here got away before we got here."

Most of the cabin, aesthetically at least, had been destroyed. The furniture, though treated to be flame-retardant, was scorched beyond repair and heavily damaged from the fire suppression system as well. The walls, formerly a pale blue, were splotched in shades of sooty gray. And above it all was the stink of the chemicals let loose when the flames had licked into the fire-retardant furniture. With the two security people watching, Spock went to the safe, crouched, and reached inside. He knew before he extended his hand that the drawstring bag containing the malium crystals would not be there.

When Spock straightened up, Martin extended to him the sheaf of papers. "These were on the desk, sir. I don't know how important they are, but they're not too badly damaged."

There were a half-dozen sheets, partially covered with Kirk's clear, firm handwriting. The papers were in rather good condition, considering the circumstances. Not so Kirk's precious collection of books, which had lined most of the shelves in the sitting room. Nearly all of them had been destroyed by the fire or the fire suppression system. Spock reached out and lightly brushed some of the ruined bindings with his fingertips. How to tell Jim? he wondered. The old volumes were irreplaceable. "You may call Maintenance, Ensign," he told Martin. "Have them clean this up as quickly as possible. And please transfer the contents of the captain's safe to the safe in the Security office."

"Yes, sir. Right away."

Leaving Martin and Haveran to their work, Spock went out, scanning Kirk's papers as he walked toward his own cabin. Notes from his reading of the Dianasian holy book, obviously, written in longhand rather than dictated into his personal log, idle thoughts jotted down to help Kirk connect his thinking before he sat down with Gehaan.

the gift - what is the gift?

Gehaan - seems important to him - possibly prime importance

book full of references, nothing clear - suggestions of something existing here from the beginning but lost now.


Ask McCoy - some sort of healing process??

And at the bottom of the first page, scribbled, Kirk had made a joke with himself.

and they think they can get the answers from ME??

Still reading, Spock entered his cabin and sat down at his desk, reaching out to flip on the comm screen and access the library computer banks as he turned to the next page of Kirk's notes. "Working," the computer said obediently. Spock keyed in his access code and the personal code that would bring up onto the screen his own notes of the day before. Though more in depth (and certainly much longer) than what Kirk had written, they contained not much more information than Kirk's few words.

what are they missing?

-- oneness



A healing, Spock thought. He had no need to ask McCoy for further information. "Computer," he said quietly. "Current information on Dianasian biological function, humanoid species only, specifically with relation to internal healing processes."

"Working," the computer responded.

Barely a minute later the screen was filled with a scrolling readout of data programmed in by the original Federation contact team, by the Dianasians themselves, and most recently by Laurel McCutcheon and Peter Kirk. Though the Dianasians did seem to have a rate of healing some twenty percent higher than that of Humans, there was nothing in the data to indicate an ability to promote healing in others, nor any record of such an ability existing during the past thousand Standard years.

"Stop," Spock said. "Current information on Dianasian philosophy of 'oneness' and relationship, if any, with humanoid physiology."

More pages of data scrolled by.

"Stop." Spock glanced again at Kirk's notes.

what are they missing?


"Information on psionic transfer of life energy."


The computer flashed page after page at a nearly unreadable pace. There were volumes of data, dating far back into the history of hundreds of civilized planets (and some not quite so civilized), notably from Earth, where the science of faith healing had reached its peak during the late twentieth century. The faith healers had claimed their ability came from God, or from some other source they could not identify; few of them were conceited enough to claim it came from themselves. Yet that was the key. Spock was not distracted by the early healers' insistence in gifts from on high. His mind working at nearly as fast a pace as the computer, he called up still more data and correlated it with what he had already seen, and with the problem that had troubled him for the past two days. Twenty minutes later he had arrived at a conclusion.

Nodding almost imperceptibly to himself, Spock shut off the computer screen, contacted the bridge and requested a call to Kirk's communicator. A moment later, the intermediary link with the bridge broken, Kirk's voice greeted him.

"Kirk here. What is it, Spock?"

"There has been an incident in your cabin, Captain. An intruder. The safe has been broken into, and a... certain item is missing. It seems the intruder started a fire to cover his tracks. Security has been unable to apprehend him."

There was a brief pause at the other end. "I see. Any more good news?"

"'Good' news, Captain?"

"Never mind. How bad was the fire?"


Though Spock said nothing more, Kirk was able to read between the Vulcan's lines. He paused again, and when he resumed speaking, there was a heavy pain in his voice. "My books?"

"Destroyed, Jim. I am sorry."

"No one was hurt?"

"Not that I am aware of. The beam shorted out some minor electrical circuits, but they are being repaired. There was no other damage." He could almost hear Kirk thinking: Just my books. The fringe of his friend's emotions he was able to reach through the Link was leadenly oppressive, hurting, despairing. "Maintenance should have your cabin cleaned shortly," Spock pointed out, though he suspected that that was not entirely true. On the other hand, perhaps the novelty of taking care of the captain's cabin would spur them into something more than their usual laconic pace.

Kirk said wryly, "Things are going to hell in a hand basket, Spock."

"Yes. It would seem that way."

"You're agreeing with me?" Kirk's voice was full of surprise. "Is that logical?"

"Perhaps not."

"I used to think the Enterprise ran like a finely tuned instrument, Mister Spock," Kirk observed.

"It does," Spock agreed, not bothering to add that the crew seemed to have sensed Kirk's weariness and despair and had shown signs of it themselves, as if it were communicable. He had noticed long ago how quickly Humans picked up on both positive and negative emotions and reacted in kind; when Kirk recovered, no doubt the entire crew would recover. But how long that would take, Spock had no idea. And under the circumstances, he regretted having to broach the second reason he had contacted Kirk. He hesitated briefly, then said quietly, "Jim..."

Kirk sensed the doubt in Spock's mind. "What is it?" he asked warily.

"I must ask your permission to turn command over to Mister Scott. I am not certain for how long."

"Can you tell me why?"

"I believe I have found a way to help Lieutenant Jaeger."

"Really? How?"

The Vulcan hesitated again. "It is somewhat complicated to explain. It is...a variation of the Vulcan healing trance."

"If you think it's worth trying..."

"I do."

"Then do it." Kirk was about to continue, but stopped himself; there was still a heavy sense of doubt in Spock's mind and in his tone of voice, although it would have been unnoticeable to anyone but Kirk. "Spock," he ventured, "is there a risk involved in this?"

"Yes," Spock admitted.

"If it's an unreasonable risk..."

"It is difficult to define 'unreasonable'," Spock pointed out.

"Damn it, Spock," Kirk sputtered.

The question is, Jim, Spock thought, aware that Kirk might be able to catch some of his mental trailings through the Link, how many do we lose before the loss becomes unbearable? How many times do we step back and say, I did the best I could, and I could not prevent this? How many times can we say, this was not my fault?

"May I have your permission?" he asked again.

"You need to do this?" Kirk responded.

"Yes, Jim."

"Then do it," Kirk said again, and severed the comlink.


From the Ghanni Eobl Navrrh (Book of the Fathers), translated Stardate 8779/8780, library computer, U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-A, registered by James T. Kirk, Commander, Enterprise, Stardate 8780.4, certified by Gehaan Eobn Eimrh, representing Citizens' High Council, Dianas, Stardate 8780.6.

And the people said, Speak to us of knowledge, and wisdom. And the traveler replied, Seek knowledge first within yourself, for only within your own heart can you find that which is worth knowing. Once you have come to know your own Self, then it will serve you to seek the teachings of others. Find joy in the giving and taking of knowledge, but the truest joy will come from the full understanding of what is within you...

And from the crowd, an old woman came forward and asked, Will you speak to us of the Gift, stranger?

And the traveler was silent, until much time had passed, and then he lifted his hand and spoke to the people.

And the traveler said, The Gift has always been within you also, and you will find it there when the time has come for you to extend the Gift to another, and when that moment has come, let you give of your fullest Self to he who needs. Give with joy, and with the final knowledge of your Self, and all the wisdom of the fathers will be yours everlasting.


When Spock interrupted, they were standing in the shade of an enormous elm tree, folded in each other's arms, kissing. The Vulcan had been there for several minutes, completely unnoticed until Jaeger broke away from the kiss to brush a stray lock of hair away from her eyes. Her start made Chekov turn; his first thought was to ask Spock why he had failed to knock, then he realized that there was nothing available to knock on except trees.

"I must speak with Lieutenant Jaeger, Mister Chekov," Spock said.

Chekov frowned and said tiredly, "Go away, Mister Spock."

If Spock thought that improper in any way, he made no sign. "It is urgent, Mister Chekov. If it were not, I would not have intruded on your privacy."

"You can tell both of us, Mister Spock," Jaeger said.

Spock considered that briefly, then nodded. "There is something I would like to try. A...variation of the Vulcan healing trance."

"But I'm not a Vulcan."

"It can be taught. It was taught to me."

"Will it work?" Chekov asked.

"I do not know," Spock replied evenly. "However, I believe the possibility of success warrants trying. As I am sure you realize, at this point there are not very many alternatives."

"How big a possibility?"


Jaeger sat down on a bench and watched the two men in silence, looking for more information--either encouraging or discouraging--from either one of them, and receiving nothing. Healing trance? she thought. To heal what?

"I would ask you to trust me," Spock said to Chekov.

"Mister Spock..." Chekov began.

Spock gestured him into silence. "Mister Chekov," he said quietly, "we have known each other for many years. I have been your teacher, and your mentor, and your superior officer. On occasion I have been your commander. I speak to you now as your friend. I ask you to trust me. I have thought this matter over very carefully, and as I said, I believe the possibility of success warrants the attempt."

"Excuse me," Jaeger said. The two men stopped in mid thought and looked down at her. "Am I wrong, or isn't this up to me?"

Chekov frowned again. "Of course it's up to you."

"Yes," she told Spock.

There was a flicker of approval, of satisfaction, on his face. "I think it would be best if you waited here," he said to Chekov.

"Why?" Chekov asked.

"Because you would only serve as a distraction."

Chekov sat down beside Jaeger, gathered her hands into his and examined her expression for a long moment. She had been briefly annoyed at being discussed over the top of her head, but that had passed; now she seemed rueful at Spock's dismissal of Chekov, who had agreed less than an hour ago to stay with her as long as he could. "Pavel," she murmured, "I'm sorry. Do you...can you..."

"I'll wait," he said.

One of his primary school instructors had told him years ago that life was composed largely of waiting. Whatever was left over, he had decided at some point in his career, was composed of being told what to do and doing it without question. He recalled a particularly bad day when he had loosed his frustrations on Sulu, seated beside him on the bridge: Do this, Chekov; do that, Chekov. Another test, Chekov. More blood, Chekov. This won't hurt, Chekov. Jump through a hoop, Chekov. Sulu, who had been through it all himself a thousand times, only smiled in mute agreement and sympathy. Even now, in a position of authority aboard the Enterprise, Chekov found that he still received more orders than he issued. And even now he had little choice but to obey. And to wait. "As long as I've known you, you've been running away from me," he told Jaeger somberly. "If you want to try this, then go. I'll wait."

She leaned over to kiss him again and let her hand linger against his face. "Thank you."

He nodded. "I'll be here when you want me. Or somewhere."

"I will send for you," Spock told him.

They left Chekov standing under the elm tree, his shoulders drooping, his left hand clenching and unclenching in the only outward sign of his frustration.

Stay out of the way, Chekov, he thought.

He realized as they disappeared from sight that Spock had presented the matter to him first not because he felt Chekov should make Jaeger's decisions for her, but because Chekov would be the one who would question, who would protest. Jaeger's decision had been made in an instant; as Spock had pointed out, she had very few alternatives from which to choose. For her, there had been no real "yes" or "no". She had made her choice, had gone off with the only person willing to go on fighting for her. And Chekov was left to wait. Once they were gone, he sat down again on the bench. He had been tempted to call after Spock, to tell him: She is the dearest thing in my life, Mister Spock. Bring her back to me. But he had said nothing; the words had stayed inside his head. Speaking them seemed pointless anyway. He suspected Spock would have responded with something logical. Logical? he thought. None of this is logical. To be dismissed like a small boy, to be told to stay behind and wait while the adults...

"Healing trance?" he muttered. "To heal what?"

He took a step in the direction Spock and Jaeger had taken, and stopped abruptly. Words tossed in his head --the little Spock had told him, and what he knew about the healing trance. The few Humans who had tried it, whether taught by Vulcans or not, had little success with it; their limited mental capabilities simply did not allow for the immense concentration required. What usually resulted after a Human's attempt at a healing trance was nearly the same amount of healing that would have resulted from a long, undisturbed sleep.

So Spock had not quite told the truth.

What he did not realize was that Spock had carefully omitted from his explanation any elaboration on "the possibility of success." He had said it was acceptable--but only to himself. He had not quoted odds, as he would have under other circumstances with Kirk and McCoy, but he knew the odds. In his endless quest for precision (and to answer questions for himself), he had calculated the chances for success. His personal log entry for this day closed off with a very brief line: "I find that there is a ninety-nine point seven four six percent chance that I will not succeed." So he had not given further explanation to Jim Kirk, nor to Pavel Chekov, for those odds were "acceptable" only to Spock himself. There was, as he had said, a possibility of success. And a far greater possibility of failure.

And if Spock failed, by the end of the day both he and Gretchen Jaeger would be dead.

Chapter 7

It was gone.

Forty minutes after the Enterprise had passed through the beam, at 0722 hours ship's time, the main computer screen on the bridge stopped its flow of data and read silently NO INPUT NO INPUT NO INPUT. It beeped softly to indicate the change in function, rousing Scott from his intent stare at the main viewscreen. Setting aside the sandwich he'd brought up from the cafeteria, he crossed from the command chair to the science station in three steps and slid into Spock's seat. "Now what?" he muttered, keying instructions into the terminal. He'd hooked the Enterprise's computer system into a direct feed from the laboratory center on Dianas; down below, in the computer room, the constant spiel of data had been recorded on reams of flimsy for future study. Now, after hours of printouts, there was nothing--just the words NO INPUT, followed by a blank screen.

Uhura glanced over at Scott from the communications station. "What happened?"

"It stopped. The computer's not picking up anything from the beam."

"The beam is gone?"

Scott went on tapping instructions into the console. "Aye. Looks like it."

"Hallelujah," Uhura sighed.

"But there's no reason. One minute it was there...now it's gone."

Uhura shook her head lightly and gave Scott a wry smile. "Do you need a reason? After...what? Six times? I've had about enough of that beam." She held out her hand to remind Scott of the blister she'd received when her communications board shorted while her fingers were on the controls. "The joke's worn out."

The big Scotsman sat back in the chair and considered the blank screen. He'd had almost no sleep during the past twenty-four hours, just a few minutes of dozing in the chair at the computer center, and had returned to the Enterprise just after dawn to fetch a thruster pack. When Laurel McCutcheon failed to appear in response to his call on the intercom, he'd gone down to the surface alone and used the thruster pack to fly up to the coordinates furnished by the computer, annoyed but not surprised to find nothing there. Shortly afterward, with Scott back on board the Enterprise, the ship had gone through the beam once more, setting off the increased electrical interruptions that resulted in more noise, more flashing lights, more wiring shorts... and the fire in Kirk's cabin.

Fine time for Spock to want a nap, Scott thought. He'd been on his way to the transporter room to return to the computer center on the surface when the Vulcan had summoned him to the bridge and left him in command of the Enterprise. No explanations, no word about when he would return. Kirk was with Councilor Gehaan and would return shortly, Spock informed the engineer. Then, with no further by-your-leave, he was gone. Scott rapped his knuckles against the edge of the console. Hell, even Kirk no longer seemed to be terribly interested in the beam or what it was doing to his ship! The afternoon before he'd had a near-stroke when no one could dump answers in his lap. Find the source! he'd snapped. So Scott had found it...well, found where it should have been. There were mountains of paper down below, enough to mollify even Jim Kirk, but Kirk was gone to discuss philosophy with the grinning Dianasian High Councilor.

"They've all gone daft," Scott said to himself.

Uhura turned to him again. "Hmmm?"

"It's turned us upside down. Gotten worse each time we've passed through it. Yesterday the captain wanted Heaven and Earth moved. Today no one cares."

"I care. I care that it's stopped."

"Do me a favor, ring McCutcheon's cabin again," Scott said.

Nodding, Uhura punched in the code for McCutcheon's cabin and let the intercom sound several times. "Nothing," she told Scott, then keyed in the ship-wide system and said into the mike, "Lieutenant McCutcheon, call the bridge. Lieutenant McCutcheon, please call Mister Scott on the bridge." She and Scott waited a minute, but there was no response. "You're sure she came back up here last night?" she asked.

"Said she was going to. Where else would she have gone?"

Uhura had already tried the guest building on Dianas, where no one had seen McCutcheon. "With Peter?" she suggested.

If anyone else had been involved, Scott would have suspected a romantic rendezvous and let it go at that (though with a twinge of disappointment that she had abandoned their search for the beam just to go off for that). But with Peter Kirk? Scott snorted softly. So far as he knew, the young Kirk had never been romantically involved with anyone, and no wonder. Any woman with brains would refuse him a second chance once she'd experienced one of his incessant barbs. Still, what does that leave? Scott wondered. McCutcheon had disappeared as completely as the beam, without warning and without trace, and that prickled at Scott's intuition. Aye, he thought, there's something verra wrong here. He straightened up in the chair and resumed punching instructions into the console. They'd left him in charge, and after all, it was as much his ship as it was Jim Kirk's. Maybe Kirk had stopped worrying about the damage the beam had caused, but Scott had not...nor would he stop worrying about Laurel McCutcheon. And Peter Kirk.


Spock touched the door controls lightly, and his cabin door hissed open, letting the reddish light from within flood out into the corridor. "Be careful," he warned Jaeger. "The gravity field is set higher here than in the rest of the ship." He moved into the cabin ahead of her and waited, ready to catch her if she stumbled. She took a wary step into the room and her knees buckled slightly but she did not fall. Once she had passed the threshold, the door slid shut behind her.

She stood in the middle of the sitting room and looked around, testing the gravity gently with the ball of one foot, taking in the red ceiling lights, the meter-tall idol with the perpetual flame in its belly, the display of ancient weapons on the wall, the meditation stone. And the heat. Spock's cabin was twenty degrees hotter than the corridor and most of the rest of the ship, still cooler than Vulcan's desert heat but near enough to make him comfortable. Elsewhere in the ship he was constantly chilled but had learned long ago to ignore the feeling. Tiny beads of sweat began to form around Jaeger's hairline, and standing up against the firm gravity made her calves ache.

"You didn't tell us everything back there, did you?" she asked the first officer abruptly.

"He would not have let you come," Spock replied.

Tired of working against the gravity, she sat down on the edge of the meditation stone. "How much didn't you say?" Chekov had told her about Spock's way around the Vulcan edict against lying: He would not lie; however, on occasion, when the need arose, he was not beyond omitting large portions of the truth. Lying was not logical, of course, and seldom came to good end in the long run, but there were times even for Spock when the truth would have accomplished little better. Back in the gardens, there had been something in Spock's shadowed expression that told her this was one of those times. "You're not sure this will work, are you?"

"No, Lieutenant. I am not sure."

"How long will it take?"

"I do not know that either. This has never been attempted before."

"The healing trance?"

Spock sat at the other end of the meditation stone, though more for Jaeger's comfort than his own. "What I would like to try is something more than that."

"I kind of wondered."

She was looking at him earnestly. Even standing, she was a full foot shorter than he. Sitting, she was about the height of a child. Doug Jaeger's child. Spock had watched Terran children playing several times, in the small park near the Vulcan Embassy in old San Francisco, listened to their laughter, their shouts. In his mind's eye he could imagine Gretchen as Douglas Jaeger had known her: tiny, delicate, with dark pigtails bouncing against her shoulders, wide eyes searching for answers, for confirmation. She had trusted him above all, and he had betrayed her in the worst way of all. But the searching was still there, peering out at Spock from those earnest eyes.

"Do you trust me?" he asked her quietly.

She thought of what he had told Chekov in the gardens. "You were my first captain, Mister Spock. I trust you."

"Without knowing what I intend?"

She looked away for a moment. "Yes. Yes. I trust you."

"Do you know what the mind-link is?"

"Yes. Pavel told me."

"This will be something more than that. Much more. And it will not work unless you trust me completely."

"I don't have anything to lose," she told him.

"Then come." He reached out to grasp her hand and helped her rise from the meditation stone, then led her around the corner into his sleeping quarters and the bunk he seldom used. He gestured toward the bunk, and she turned half away from him again, not quite hiding from him the flicker of a smile that crossed her face and then disappeared. He waited until she had settled herself on the bunk, then said, "Your mind will attempt to resist the link--it is an alien thing. But you must not fight it. Do you understand? You must not fight it."

"I understand." She smiled again, very faintly.

He sat on the edge of the bunk and slowly, methodically set about clearing his mind of distractions. Jaeger's lips were moving almost imperceptibly; she was counting backwards from one hundred, her attention fixed on a point on the ceiling. He moved his right hand into the field of vision, distracting her from her counting for a moment.

"Do you believe we can succeed at this?" Spock asked.

"Yes," she murmured.

"You must believe that. Above all else. You must not admit to yourself the possibility of failure."

"I won't."

"This is a very simple task...and yet not simple. We need accomplish only one thing: to break apart the foreign substance inside your body. It is only a chain, and it can be broken, but you must believe that it can be broken. You will do it yourself, and I will guide you. But remember: do not fight my control, and do not lose touch with me. If you lose contact, you may not be able to return to consciousness. Stay with me, and I will guide you."

Her eyelids flickered sleepily. "I understand."

Of course she did not understand, not wholly, but that would come later. Believe, Spock thought. He had forced the numbers from his mind, the odds against success. It had begun as an attempt to be precise, then had turned into a game he played with Kirk and McCoy, a game they anticipated now and asked for when he demurred. Sometimes, he observed, it would be better not to know the odds. Especially this time.

He shifted his hand and rested his fingers lightly on the neural centers of her face. She gasped. "Do not fight," he warned again, though he had expected that initial flash of rejection. His body temperature was several degrees higher than a Human's and his hands were certainly no colder than Jaeger's own, but Kirk had told him years ago that at the first instant of contact for the mind-link, Spock's fingers felt ice cold. "Do not fight," Spock repeated, and Jaeger began to relax. Her hand moved and came to rest on his arm just below the elbow. "Good," Spock whispered. It took a long moment of effort for him to maintain his own concentration; the first probing of the link had flooded his mind with a torrent of emotion, all disjointed, but with a sense of purpose deep beneath that reminded him of Kirk. Yes, he told her inside their shared thoughts. We will succeed at this.

Yes, her mind murmured in return.

He drifted past the layers of her thoughts, past the cascade of emotions, the fear, the passion, the anguish; past the memories of what had gone by, the loss of her family, the gathering of friendships she had surrounded herself with but had kept at arm's length, save for Chekov, the fierceness of her loyalty to this ship, this crew, this captain; past the knowledge of what had brought her to the Enterprise over the frantic objections of Philip Styles; past everything that made her what she was, and beneath it, to a stream of consciousness like shimmering silver threads. Come, his mind beckoned.

He felt her sharing of that part of his thoughts that was not guarded. It was little enough to give, after trespassing upon her privacy, knowing that she had no mental barriers like his own. She found his layer of emotion, skimmed the surface of it, seemed to smile at how much of it there was behind all those years of denials. Fear, and anguish, and pride, and loyalty, and love: love not only for the one, his t'hy'la, but for this crew, these Humans come together in the service of their common cause. When the time came, he would pull away, but for now he let her share, and experience, and understand.

Then his mind said Come, and he took her with him beyond, beneath, past the silver threads into something that McCoy's schematics had only hinted at, into the simplest, the most elemental, the smallest part of being.

They went in search of life, and death, and another sort of link forged by nature and meant not to be broken, past fear, past uncertainty, past all emotion, past consciousness itself. There, the battle would either be won, or lost, in a place her Human mind could not even conceive, let alone understand.

And hidden behind the barriers of his mind were the numbers Spock would not give to Jaeger, or to Chekov, or to Kirk, the numbers that would have assured he would be prevented from trying this, the numbers that assured he would fail. However, he had told himself, buoyed only by his Vulcan stubbornness, there remained an infinitesimal chance that he would succeed. And in his Vulcan stubbornness, he traveled to the place beyond consciousness, and took that infinitesimal remaining chance with him.


And around and around we go, Kirk thought.

He had been in Gehaan's office for over an hour--in fact, he had observed, he had spent so much time in this office during the past several days that it seemed as familiar to him as his own cabin--and no new ground had been gained. His headache seemed omnipresent now, and there was little he could distract himself with that would not frustrate him as much as these "talks" with Gehaan. The ship? The ship was being disrupted every four hours and forty minutes by that damnable beam, the source of which no one could find. (He knew about Scott's endless reams of computer printout, had glanced at them only once and knew he would find no satisfaction there. What he'd first taken to be a danger to the ship had metamorphosed into a practical joke, something from a carnival, with noises and bells and no permanent damage, captioned with nursery rhymes. Kirk had even tried varying the ship's orbit by a few degrees to escape the beam, only to discover that the confounded thing followed the Enterprise. And now Scott was offering him paper--miles of it. The very sight of all that flimsy had made his headache bubble up like lava and threaten to erupt out his ears.)

And people? My people? There was Peter, the mirror image of the nephew he'd expected to find a month ago on Prothos. And Jaeger, who was dying by inches. And Spock, who seemed to be devoting his whole consciousness to helping her--at what risk? He'd been unwilling to tell Kirk his plans. Spock! Kirk thought. Don't do this! Don't risk yourself...

And Koloth. Koloth, that most earnest of Klingons, who popped up at the oddest times and in the oddest places, so that it seemed he was trailing Kirk like a character out of a second-rate detective novel. His whole consciousness was devoted to Kirk. My Klingon shadow, Kirk thought. But why?? Koloth had talked about convincing the Dianasians not to join the Federation, to ally instead with the Empire, which the Organian Accord gave him the right to do, but he seemed to have done nothing to accomplish that end; in truth, he seemed to be unconcerned with Dianas's choice of allegiance. He was concerned only with Kirk.

Kirk sighed heavily and straightened a little in his chair, hoping that moving would keep him awake a few minutes longer.

"...So you see, Captain," Gehaan was saying.

Kirk gestured him into silence. The High Councilor sat back to await Kirk's response. "The 'gift,' Councilor," he said slowly, thinking, what round is this? "The book talks about it. But nobody seems to have any answers."

"We no longer have the Gift, Captain," Gehaan replied softly. "Our people lost their Gift many centuries ago."

Kirk leaned toward the desk so that only the meter-wide expanse of carved wood separated him from the High Councilor. "And you don't think you'll ever be able to get it back?"

Gehaan shook his head solemnly. The brilliant morning sunlight cascading through the window behind him filtered through his drifting bluish hair and gave it a halo effect that seemed consistent with his expression.

"I don't think you really believe that," Kirk persisted. "Why else would you spend so much time worrying about it?"

"We do not..." the Councilor began.

"Councilor," Kirk said, "you told me that you take pleasure in the giving and receiving of knowledge." He rested a hand on the leather cover of the book he had returned to Gehaan. "Unless I'm translating this wrong, it tells you to give and seek knowledge because that's the only way you're going to get your Gift back. That's why you've allowed us to come here...why you let the Klingons come here, when you have no real use for either of us, when all we seem to do is disrupt your way of life. It's true, isn't it? You expect an answer. If not from us, or from the Klingons, then from somebody else. You want back what was taken away from you."

Gehaan rested his hands on the edge of the desk. "Agreed. We want back what was taken away. But not at the price of destroying our oneness...the oneness of each of us."

"But that's the problem, Councilor," Kirk said.

"What is?"

"Your oneness. That's what took your Gift away from you. The idea of oneness."

The Councilor's brows furrowed and his hands tightened on the edge of the desk. The placidity was gone again now; every nuance of his expression told Kirk that he would not put up with this line of thought for very long. "Captain, you interfere in that which you do not understand."

"Hear me out," Kirk said. "You asked me what love was. None of your people understands it." Mostly to avoid Gehaan's increasingly stormy look, he got up from the heavily padded chair and paced back and forth on the spongy carpet. "On my home planet, they did a series of scientific studies years ago on orphaned children--children without parents, without homes of their own--brought up in public shelters. They had very little individual attention. They had food, clothing, a roof over their heads, toys to play with, everything they could want. But no one to love them. Just an overworked staff who couldn't possible love every one of those children individually. In the beginning, the government thought that food and shelter and clothing were what mattered. They were wrong." He pivoted on one heel and rested a palm against the surface of the desk.

"Oneness doesn't work, Councilor. At least not where I come from. No matter who you are, you need to be singled out. You need to have someone to say 'I care about you.'"

"Have you such a person?" Gehaan inquired mildly.

"Yes, I do. Several of them."

"And if you lost these persons? What would happen to you?"

Kirk said soberly, "I've already lost some of them. It hurts. It leaves you empty. But you go on."

"There is pain, then."

"A great deal of pain. Yes."

"I do not share that with you," Gehaan said, folding his hands in a clear expression of what he thought was his superiority. "I am alone in my oneness. The death of others does not diminish me."

"Then I feel sorry for you, Councilor."

"There is no need for that, Captain."

Prime Directive, Kirk thought; what about the damned Prime Directive? He'd been accused on dozens of occasions of wielding his own brand of conscience on the inhabitants of the worlds he visited, of unjustifiably trampling a culture or a mind-set simply because it did not gibe with his own. His training, and the memory of all those accusations, warned him that this might be another one of those times. But they want their Gift back! his mind shouted. They don't even really understand what it is they lost, but they admit they want it back. On the other hand, oneness was their entire way of life, and it seemed to have proven fairly successful: their world was beautiful, and tranquil, the people gracious and gentle.

"People die without love," Kirk said abruptly.

Gehaan reached out and slid the holy book toward him, as if he suspected Kirk of contaminating it. "That would seem to be a waste."

"It is. Someone who could have been happy and productive."

"If they did not pine away for lack of an unnecessary emotion," Gehaan countered.

"Necessary. It is necessary."

"Not for us, Captain. We have our oneness. We thrive without this need of your people." He paused. "Your people are not telepaths."

"Most of us are not, no."

The Councilor leaned back in his chair and shook his hair off his shoulders, gathering himself inwardly, the product of many years of persuasive talk. "I believe what I see before me is the totality of James Kirk. True?" Kirk tilted his head, unsure of Gehaan's point. Gehaan went on, "If you were to lose all of those persons you believe to be so important to you, you yourself would continue. The totality of James Kirk would continue. Perhaps you suffer the pain of loss, but that will not interrupt your own life process. Your oneness will go one until you are finished with your life."

Kirk met the High Councilor's gaze for a long moment. "You're condemning yourselves to living in a cage."

"We all live in cages of several different kinds, Captain," Gehaan replied. "You simply allow others to reach through the bars of yours."


Peter Kirk checked his wrist chrono for the dozenth time in as many minutes. He was alone with the Klingon ambassador, Koloth, in the little clearing where they had met the night before. Koloth had avoided bringing Kilon for protection this time, and Tom Cooper was over half an hour late. Listening fiercely for the sound of an approaching aircar, Kirk paced back and forth across the width of the clearing while Koloth watched in benign amusement.

"He should have been here," Kirk muttered.

"Is he always this unreliable?" Koloth inquired.

"What? No. I don't know." The young Kirk stopped pacing. "He said he'd meet us here. With the stones."

Koloth sat on a large flat rock and arranged his robe around his legs. "It would seem that--what's the expression? We've been double-crossed."

"We can find him."

"It's a big planet," Koloth pointed out.

"But with sensors...we ought to be able to track the stones. They've got a very specific molecular makeup. If we can't find Cooper, we could at least find the stones."

"With whose sensors?"

Kirk frowned. "Yours."

The Klingon chuckled deep in his throat. His hand strayed to the stuffed tribble dangling from his belt, his fingers stroking the still-soft fur. "My dear boy," he said, "how much equipment do you think I have with me? As much as your uncle--and the rest of your shipmates--seem to doubt the fact, I am an ambassador here. Don't believe all those stories of Klingon treachery you've heard. Chancellor Gorkon and Admiral Kusan didn't deem me worthy of so much as a scout ship of my own. I was left here, Lieutenant Kirk, to wait for the arrival of the Enterprise. We have no stockpile of weapons. No ship. Very little equipment. All we have are two disruptors, a long-range communication device, and the...toy I loaned to you and Ensign Cooper. If you want to use sensors to find the malium crystals, they'll have to be your sensors." He smiled slightly. "Which at the moment it seems you are not in a position to use."

"Don't you want your share of the crystals?" Kirk asked, perplexed by the Klingon's apparent lack of concern.

"Of course I do. And I'll get them. Eventually."

"But how? If he's gone?"

"Gone?" Koloth went on caressing the tribble. "Gone to where?" He waited for Kirk to realize that there was no reply to the question. "As I said, it's a big planet...but it is a planet. Since the Dianasians have no spacecraft of any sort, your Ensign Cooper has only two ways open to him of getting off this planet: aboard my ship, when it comes for me, or aboard the Enterprise. I don't think he's likely to go back to the Enterprise. Which leaves him to wait for my ship. Need I point out to you the unlikelihood of his getting aboard a Klingon cruiser if I do not want him aboard?" Kirk said nothing, but his face was working animatedly. Koloth went on, "We'll get the stones. All we need to do is wait. And patience, as they say, is a virtue."

A sudden, unnatural breeze whipped the silvery branches above their heads. Kirk spun on his heels. "An aircar. I was wrong. He's just late." Relief swept over his face, and leaving Koloth on his rock, he rushed out of the clearing in the direction from which the gust of wind had come.

A moment later he returned, with two armed security officers at his back.

"Wrong again," Koloth said.

One of the security guards pulled out his communicator, flipped up the grid, and said into the mike, "Enterprise?"

"Scott here," the engineer's voice came back. "What've you got, Mister Beck?"

"We found him, sir. The Klingon is here, too."

"Is the situation under control?" Scott inquired.

"Yes, sir. We have them both. No one else in the area."

There was a brief pause at the other end. "Take him to the science center. The Klingon, too, if he'll go wi' ye without causing much trouble. I'll alert the captain and join ye there in a few minutes." Scott paused again. "And, Mister Beck? If he tries to get away, ye have my permission to do anything necessary to stop him. Scott out."

Beck gestured at Peter Kirk with his phaser. "You heard him." He glanced at Koloth, who the other security guard was covering with his own weapon.

"I'll go along," Koloth said effusively.

"No sudden moves," Beck warned.

"Oh, don't worry, Lieutenant," Koloth beamed. "You'll find me a most cooperative prisoner."


Paul Beck snapped to attention when Kirk entered the room. Kirk's eyes went from Beck--his phaser lowered now but still armed and set to stun--to Peter, who stood beside the long conference table, trying to appear indifferent but falling a long way short of succeeding. Koloth was seated at the far end of the table, leaning back in his chair, grinning.

"What the hell's going on?" Kirk demanded.

"Now, Captain," Koloth said soothingly. "Your nephew and I were just having a little talk. There was no need for your security people to interrupt us."

"You're the enemy, Koloth. Or don't you see it that way?"

The Klingon slid his chair back and propped his feet up on the table. With a long, easy shrug, he told Kirk, "It depends. If it's Empire against Federation...ideology against ideology, then I suppose so. But on an individual basis, well, let me point out to you, Captain, that I personally have never been responsible for an attack on a Federation vessel or a Federation outpost. Not a drop of Federation blood has been spilled because of any action of mine. And for the time being, as I told you, I serve only as an ambassador-at-large. I fail to see any harm that could possibly come as the result of your nephew and I having our little chat."

Eyes narrowed, Kirk turned to Peter and fixed him with an icy stare. "I want an explanation, mister."

"We were talking," Peter Kirk said. "Just talking."

"Against regulations."

"He's just an ambassador." Peter Kirk's voice began to grow shrill.

"You know the rules," Kirk snapped. "He's a Klingon. I don't give a gold-plated damn what his job title is. You don't meet with Klingons without having it cleared first." He looked Peter over, trying to contain his rising fury, and noticed the duffel bag at Peter's feet. "What's in there?"

"Personal belongings, sir," Beck replied. "No contraband. Except for this." He extended his hand and passed to Kirk the hand phaser Peter had gotten from Tom Cooper. "It's been used recently, sir. Setting Two, sustained firing."

"Where?" Kirk asked Peter.

"I didn't..." Peter began feebly.

"I want to know where you used this!" Kirk roared. "And where you got it! No weapons on shore leave. No weapons aboard ship except for on-duty security personnel. What are you doing with a phaser?"

Peter's jaw had begun to quiver, almost imperceptibly, and he locked it in place for a moment, trying to hold it still. His ears rang with his uncle's words, and his mind tried to substitute the words "not my fault" for the stinging rebuke. Kirk, the security guard, and Koloth were all watching him intently. He was almost sure they could all hear his heart pounding. "What do you want from me?" he shrieked.

"Answers," Kirk said through his teeth.

"I don't have any answers! I was just talking to him! What do you want me to say? All right, I broke the rules! I broke the God damn rules!"

"Calm down," Kirk told him. "Koloth, get out of here."

Languidly, the grin still lingering across his face, Koloth eased himself out of the chair, straightened his robe, and moved toward the door. "Don't be too hard on the boy, Captain," he smiled. "It can't be his fault."

Kirk waited for the massive wooden door to close behind Koloth, then turned on Peter again. This time he gave a firmer try at keeping his anger in check, but the attempt made his words sound like something from a computer program. "Peter," he said slowly, "I want answers, and I want them now. No excuses. And for God's sake, stop acting like a child. You're an officer. You've committed a possible court-martial offense. The only way I can get you clear of this is if you give me some straight answers. Now."

"Court-martial me, then," Peter snapped. "You want to get rid of me anyway. Everybody aboard wants to get rid of me."

"You brought that on yourself, mister."

"No, I didn't. You brought it on me. You've made my life miserable for the last ten years."

Kirk snapped back, "What are you talking about?"

Peter leaned toward the table and gave one of the chairs a shove to release some of the energy that shot up and down his arms. It squealed across the room and bounced to a stop against the far wall. "The Academy," Peter hissed. "Do you have any idea what that's like...Uncle Jim? Do you know what I went through? Every day, every minute? I couldn't walk down the hall without them looking at me. Watching me. Waiting for me to do something wrong. The Admiral's nephew! I didn't have an existence of my own! I was Admiral Kirk's nephew." His chest worked hard, like a bellows. "They didn't let me make mistakes. Every day. For years, every single day, I had to live up to you. The amazing Captain Kirk. Well, there's not much that's amazing about me...sir. I get average grades. I work my ass off to get what I get. I did everything I could at that place just so I could live up to your image." He stopped, blinking back tears. "I went there to make you proud. I thought it would be what you wanted. I wanted...I wanted...you to be proud of me. And look what it got me. Look."

Kirk was shaken. "Peter..." he began quietly. "I am...proud of you."

"The hell you are."

"I'm not proud of what you've done. But you're Sam's son."

"Sam's son. And your nephew. What does that mean? Who does that make me? I can't follow in the footsteps of a hero. I'm no damn hero."

Kirk murmured. "Nobody expects you to be."

"Yes, they do. They all do. They want another you."

Kirk rubbed tiredly at his temples. "Peter...even I can't live up to me." He remembered something McCoy had said a while back, confronting Kirk on a difficult occasion. Kirk had insisted on proving himself, pushing too hard, driving himself past all reasonable limits. "Prove?" McCoy had barked. "What do you have to prove to anybody? You've got so many medals now that if you pinned 'em all on, you'd look like a damn chandelier. You don't have to prove anything to me, or the crew, or to Starfleet. We all know what you are, and what you can do. And what you can't do. Give it up, Jim. Let it rest. Just be what you are." He considered repeating the words to Peter, and realized how little it would accomplish.

"Then where does that leave me?" Peter demanded.

Kirk remembered the first time he had gazed into the boy's eyes.

He was an ensign then, halfway into a brief shore leave on Earth, called early in the morning to the county hospital near the family farm in Iowa. Sam and Aurelan had gone there half a day earlier, joined during the night by Jim's and Sam's mother. When Jim Kirk arrived, rumpled, rubbing sleep out of his eyes, it was all over with except for the crowing.

Sam, who looked like something resurrected from the bottom of the laundry hamper, beamed at his younger brother, nearly hysterical with joy.

"Here!" he exclaimed, scooping the blue-blanketed bundle out of Aurelan's arms. "Do you want to hold him?" He gave Jim no time to protest, and a moment later Peter James Kirk, two hours old, was gazing myopically up at his uncle. "Say hello to your nephew, Ensign Kirk," Sam chuckled.

Surrounded by his grinning family, Jim looked down at the little flushed face. The infant seemed to be grinning too, but that was undoubtedly from gas. What am I supposed to say? Jim wondered. Not that the baby was cute; he was brick-red and his warm little head came nearly to a point. Not that he looked like either Sam or Aurelan; in fact, what he looked most like was a Centaurian cat-monkey.

"Congratulations," Jim Kirk offered feebly. The baby began curling himself into a ball, the enormous blue eyes closing and the tiny fists clenched. He weighed barely more than eight pounds but that seemed far too low a figure; his forearms had begun to ache, and he was sure the blue blanket was half filled with lead fishing sinkers. He was about to surrender Peter to his mother when the blue eyes popped open again and gazed earnestly (if not quite focused) up at him, and he understood in a rush of emotion what it was that made Sam grin so insanely.

Now those same blue eyes were looking at him again. Flashing, trying for arrogance, stability, strength. And failing. What was I supposed to do? Kirk thought. I couldn't stay with him! Give up my captaincy and go back to Iowa and baby-sit? He didn't know me anyway. He's never known me. Just days at a time. A day here and there, every couple of years. He needed Mom, not me.

"I did the best I could," Peter said bitterly. "For you."

"Peter...I'm sorry."

Peter looked around as if he were considering bolting out of the room. Beck didn't move, but his expression spoke volumes about the wisdom of staying put.

Before any of them could speak again, the door swept open, and Scott rushed in, breathless, as if he had run twenty times farther than the distance from the science center courtyard to the conference room. Once inside the room, he pulled himself to a halt and gave the scene a fast appraising glance. He'd had Uhura take over the conn so that he could beam down to the surface, only to discover that one of the residual effects of the Enterprise's last trip through the beam had been a glitch in the transporter circuits.

By the time the problem had been repaired, Scott was nearly half an hour later than he'd told Beck he would be. The situation seemed to be well in hand, though--or as well in hand as it could possibly be. Peter flashed him a sullen look that took a struggle not to respond to. After a deep breath and a silent count to ten, Scott snapped at the young man, "Where is she?"

"Where's who?" Jim Kirk asked.

Scott turned to the captain. "McCutcheon. She's been missing since late last night. She went off in search of that one--" He jerked his head in Peter's direction. "--and nobody's seen her since."

"Peter?" Kirk said.

Peter set his jaw and looked intently down at the floor. "I don't know."

"That's a lie."

Cooper! Peter thought with alarm. That's where Cooper went. He didn't trust me to take care of her--and he wouldn't leave her there alive. Just in case. He'd left the ship hours ago. Hours...and he had a phaser. "She's dead," he muttered.

Scott's face turned scarlet. "Where? How?" he roared.

"She wasn't supposed to get involved," Peter said into his lower lip. His head was beginning to pound, and he ceased wanting to look at anyone in the room: all those angry faces. All angry at him. If they had been alone, he knew, Scott would have torn him apart. "It wasn't...I didn't mean for..."

Kirk said sharply, "Where is she?"

Peter said nothing, just stood there quivering.

"Peter! Now!"

"The Kasmarin Valley," Peter sighed. "In an abandoned house. We left her there."

Kirk swept a look from Scott to Beck. "Where's that?"

"About a hundred kilometers from here," Scott replied, barely managing the words through his fury. "There's nothing there but ruins. It's seismically unsound. The government has it marked as an 'off limits' area."

"Was she alive when you left her?" Kirk demanded of Peter.

Peter nodded.

"Take us there," Kirk said.

Peter hesitated. Scott took a step forward and seized the young man by the arm in a grip that made Peter's shoulder sing with pain. Peter winced and tried to withdraw, but Scott only tightened the grip. Beck and the captain did nothing at all to stop him or even caution him. "She was alive how long ago?" Scott said through his teeth.

"Last night. After midnight."

"Then how do you know she's dead now?"

"I don't," Peter stammered. "I'm not sure...I just think...I don't know. I'm not sure. She might not be."

"You take us to this abandoned house, laddie," Scott raged. "And so help me, if you're the cause of all this, I'll kill ye myself."

"Let go of my arm," Peter whispered.

"Let go of it? I ought to pull it off and beat ye to death with it." Scott looked from Peter to the captain, and Peter saw in his eyes the familiar expression that had followed him through half his life, across half a galaxy.

How could this one be related to you? the look said. It was anger, and puzzlement, and disappointment, and a fair portion of ridicule. And unfulfilled dreams--but all the dreams had been Peter's own. And failure. That was the worst of it, the failure, when no Kirk should fail. Peter flinched in Scott's grasp, but moving only made the pain worse. He never failed, Peter thought, lifting his eyes to his uncle's face. Not him. In another hundred years, after Jim Kirk had finally died, he would not merely be a memory. He would be thought of with Hercules, Ulysses, David against Goliath. The farm boy who followed his father to the stars and became the finest starship commander in the galaxy. There was no living up to that. Peter began to wish that Scott would follow through on his threat and be done with it.

"All right," the young Kirk said to the floor. "I'll take you."

"Gehaan's outside," Scott told the captain. "He heard our transmissions. He's with Koloth."

"Let's go," Kirk snapped.

Gehaan was indeed in the hallway, waiting, overflowing with curiosity. Koloth, standing beside him, his hands tucked into the wide cuffs of his robe, had answered some of the Councilor's questions, but that had only brought to mind new ones. "Captain?" Gehaan said.

"One of my people is in the Kasmarin Valley," Kirk said.

The Dianasian cocked his head. "That area is not open to guests."

"You can bring that up later. One of my people is there. And in danger. We need to go out there and find her."

"I cannot permit..." Gehaan began.

"I'm not asking, Councilor."

"But you must ask! Kasmarin is unsafe. Our own people do not go there."

Kirk snatched his communicator out and barked into the mike, "Enterprise. Transporter room."

"Transporter room. Leslie."

"Stand by." The captain glared over the communicator at Peter. "Coordinates?"

"I don't know them," Peter muttered. "We drove out there."

Koloth, who had been watching with barely veiled amusement, cleared his throat to catch Kirk's attention. The captain whirled on him, scowling. "I might be persuaded to give you the coordinates, Captain," he offered sweetly. "If I can go along."

"Forget it," Kirk told him.

The Klingon scratched at his chin. "There is one other small point. I believe Cooper took my resonator with him. Unfortunately, he has no idea how to deactivate it. And unless it's deactivated relatively soon, it might... well, shall we say it might cause a variety of problems that would better be avoided."

"What problems? What's a resonator?" Kirk turned to Scott for information. Scott shook his head. "What's a resonator?" Kirk demanded of Koloth.

"A rather well-engineered Klingon invention. Captain."

Kirk's jaw tightened. "Which does what?"

"Among other things, it interrupts Duotronic circuitry."

"On my ship."

"Among other things." Koloth smiled. "Of course, that's not quite what we invented it for. And might I hasten to point out that I had nothing to do with using it to disrupt your ship. That was all the doing of Lieutenant Kirk and Ensign Cooper. I merely loaned it to them as my part of a small bargain we struck."

Pieces began to fall into place in Kirk's mind. He still had no firm understanding of what a resonator was, nor did he care; but here in front of him were the key players in everything disagreeable that had occurred during the past two days. Most of them, at least. "Cooper?" he said. "Tom Cooper? From Spock's landing party?"

"Yes," Peter said. The look on his uncle's face made him shrink back, but he was unable to move more than a few inches thanks to Scott's still iron grip on his upper arm. "He went out there to kill McCutcheon. It was hours ago. I don't think..."

Kirk cut him off with a sweeping gesture. "Coordinates," he said to Koloth.

"Then I can go along?" Koloth inquired.

"Yes. Yes. You can go. To disarm the resonator." He thumbed the "send" button on his communicator. "Leslie, beam us directly to these coordinates." He counted heads rapidly. "Five of us."

"I forbid it, Captain," Gehaan said.

Kirk opened his mouth to reply, then saw in Gehaan's eyes the same look that had washed over him in the Councilor's office: the threat that if Kirk did not cooperate, Gehaan would have him tossed off the planet together with his crew and the as-yet-unsigned Federation membership agreement. Kirk raged inwardly for a moment, then swallowed hard against the sour taste in his throat. "A young woman's life is at stake, Councilor."

"Kasmarin is unsafe."

"I take full responsibility for our actions. The Federation won't hold you or your people responsible for anything that might happen to us."

Gehaan continued mildly, "It is full of the spirits of the dead."


"I will go along to make certain you do not cause damage."

"Damage? Damage to wh..." Kirk cut himself off in midstream, realizing that he was arguing with someone who played by a child's rules: unbending, very sly and very slick. "Six to transport," he said ruefully into the communicator. "These coordinates." Koloth fed him the numbers, which Leslie confirmed. "Energize," Kirk confirmed.

The tingling effect of the transporter took longer than normal to fade away, and Kirk and Scott (who could each count in the thousands the number of times their molecules had been scrambled by the device) both noticed immediately something different and very nearly wrong about this particular trip. "Leslie?" Kirk said to his communicator. "What's going on with the transporter?"

"Not sure, Captain," Leslie's voice came back, crackling with static. "We're getting a lot of interference from your present location. I can't seem to pinpoint the cause. I'm...not sure I can lock back onto you, sir."

"Work on it."

"Yes, sir. Working on it now."

Stowing the communicator, Kirk joined the others in a look around. They were standing in the dusty center of what had once been a main road. Crumbled remains of buildings surrounded them on all sides, overgrown with weeds and ivy and dotted with brilliant blossoms of a dozen different colors. Only a few seconds had gone by when each member of the little group became aware of the vague but steady trembling of the ground beneath their feet. Beck took hold of the tricorder dangling from its strap on his shoulder, programmed it quickly and swept it around in a quick scan of the area.

"Tremors, Captain. Ranging between one-point-seven and three-point-three on the Richter scale."

"The resonator," Koloth announced.

"Where's the house?" Kirk demanded.

Peter looked around as much as Scott's grip would allow. At a glance from the captain, Scott released the young man; the sudden absence of pressure made Peter wince nearly as much as the pain had. The area seemed familiar--he recognized the spot where Cooper had left the aircar the previous night, but there was no car there now, and the buildings all looked different. Mindless of how Scott and the security guard would react, he broke into a run and loped down the road to the place he remembered from the night before. When he pulled to a stop, the quivering of the ground nearly threw him off his feet. The others, who had run after him (save for Koloth, who used a more normal pace, grinning the whole time), stopped a few feet away and looked in the direction Peter's eyes were taking.

"There," Peter said thinly. "Oh, God."

The aircar Cooper had taken rested in a small open area, its door open, the glittering metal surface coated with a thin film of dust from the road. He'd had just a few meters to walk into the long-unused house, carrying the Klingon resonator with him. The tremors had struck moments later. There was nothing left of the house now but a nondescript heap of crumbled stone decorating the hillside into which a long-dead Dianasian's home had been built.

Scott seized the tricorder from Beck and aimed it into the ruins, his fingers working frantically at the controls, muttering under his breath at the fluttering readouts he received. He had to brace both feet to keep the tremors from tossing him off balance. "I'm getting a life form reading," he told Kirk. "Human. There's somebody alive under there."

"One? Two?"

"Can't tell. It might be two. Or an echo."

"Where was she?" Kirk barked at Peter.

"In the basement...the bottom floor. In the back." Peter turned to look miserably at his uncle. "Under all that."

"Get some equipment down here," Kirk told Scott. "We've got to dig."

Gehaan had been examining his surroundings, nosing around in the direction of the hill. "No, Captain," he said abruptly, taking Kirk by the arm and steering him toward the hill. "Take the other way in." He groped for the right words in Standard, was unable to come up with them, shrugged off the problem and spoke the words in his native language.

"What?" Kirk replied.

"'Under door,'" Peter translated. "What's that?"

"There. In the hillside," Gehaan said, still moving in that direction and towing Kirk along with him. The others had little choice but to follow, grasping at saplings and piles of rock to keep their footing as they skirted the hill. When they were nearly opposite the remains of the house, Gehaan let go of Kirk and began pushing his way through the heavy underbrush, finally dropping to his hands and knees and clearing the rest of the way to his objective. The others moved in behind him. "Here," Gehaan said, holding aside a clump of shrubbery. In front of him, nearly hidden by the brush, was a small wooden door less than a meter high.

"What's that for?" Scott winced. "Dwarves?"

Gehaan spouted another stream of Dianasian, mainly aimed at Peter. "It's for pets," Peter translated. "Like those doggie door things they used to use on Earth."

"It leads into the house?" Kirk asked.

"Yes," Gehaan replied. "Into the bottom level, in the back."

Kirk pointed to Peter, who was the smallest member of the group. "Can he get through?"

The Dianasian looked Peter over carefully from head to toe. His scrutiny was painfully slow for the circumstances; at least too slow for Scott, who grumbled under his breath, moved to his knees, found a solid grip on the lip of the little wooden door, and jerked it open. Beck reached to his belt and tossed Scott his emergency light. Scott caught it easily, switched it on and shone it into the tunnel beyond the door. The passage seemed to be unobstructed, but Scott was unable to determine exactly how far it reached or what lay at the far end. He glanced over his shoulder, and Beck handed him the tricorder.

"Clear?" Kirk asked as Scott scanned the tunnel.

Scott nodded. "It's clear. About twenty meters long. There's still open space at the end, so the house isn't entirely collapsed."

"Twenty meters?" Peter squeaked. "You want me to crawl twenty meters in there?"

"Aye," Scott said firmly. "Go. You brought this on yourself, laddie. Now work your way out of it."

Shuddering, Peter tried to ignore his fear and moved into the tunnel. This is a tomb, he thought. It could all fall down on top of me, and I'll be buried under this damn hill. The roof of the tunnel scraped at his back as he crawled along, reminding him of how small the passageway was and how easily it could bury him. It seemed to be well braced on all four sides by an interlacing network on narrow wood and metal slats, but the original builders had never counted on the constant, heavy tremors that vibrated the ground now. Peter crept on as quickly as he could manage, sharpened pebbles on the tunnel floor digging into his palms and knees, dirt from the roof filtering down into his hair and sifting into his nose and mouth.

Why am I doing this? he wondered frantically. He doubted sincerely that Scott (in spite of his threats) would do anything more serious to him than a broken bone or two, or that his uncle would employ any weapon more dangerous than his voice. A sudden jolt rolled through the ground, much stronger than the earlier tremors, and Peter's excretory system threatened to act involuntarily for the first time in twenty-five years. He could see the other end of the tunnel; the emergency light Scott had pressed on him as he'd moved inside revealed his surroundings almost too well. There seemed to be another wooden door at the far end, indicating nothing of what might remain of the room where he and Cooper had left Laurel McCutcheon. What if it's not her alive in there? he thought. What if it's Cooper...and she's already dead?

"I thought we were friends," he heard her voice saying.

"Sonofabitch," he whispered. "I'm gonna die in here. I'm never gonna get out of here."

He forced himself ahead, inches at a time, quickening his pace by fractions, thinking of the tons of soil and rock that lay above him. It occurred to him that this was the only thing he had ever done that even remotely approached heroism, and it took no internal debate for him to decide that it would be the last--one way or another.

A minute later, he reached the second door. His mouth was full of grit and dust, and he coughed spastically, unable to get a clean breath. Resting the emergency light on the tunnel floor, he pressed his shoulder to the little door and shoved. It popped open instantly, sending him tumbling through the doorway into what was left of the basement room. The ceiling had come down, bringing with it much of what had been above, half-filling the room with broken stone, furniture, and huge clods of earth. Peter grabbed back into the tunnel for the light and shone it around.

"McCutcheon?" he called sickly.

There was no response. Peter sat on his haunches and continued sweeping the light around, orienting himself to what remained of the room and his memory of what it had looked like before. The spot where he'd arranged the blankets for McCutcheon was completely buried. Still, Scott had said there were life form readings. Could anyone possibly be alive under all that? he wondered. He waited a moment to see if his conscience would tell him if he ought to try digging, an action that seemed pointless and would probably result in bringing more debris down around him.

"Peter?!" his uncle yelled from the other end of the tunnel.

"I can't find anything...anybody," he called back, collecting himself a little. "There's nothing."

Scott shouted in, "Somebody's alive in there, boy!"

Peter moaned deep in his throat. They intended him to keep looking until he found whoever was still alive (but was it McCutcheon, or was it Cooper??), no matter how long it took and in spite of the threat to his own life. You brought this on yourself, Scott had said, and that seemed true enough. He'd agreed to Cooper's plan against his wavering better judgment; he'd left McCutcheon here alone for Cooper to return to, when it wouldn't have taken much effort to hide her elsewhere; he'd stood there with the Klingon, waiting stupidly, as if the entire scheme would work itself out if he waited long enough. I failed, he thought. I screwed up. I screwed everything up. Serve me right if the rest of this house fell down on top of me. He heard another moan, thought for a moment that he had made it, then realized with horror that it hadn't come from his throat and that it was pitched a lot higher than his own voice. Also a lot higher than Cooper's.

"McCutcheon?" he called out. "Where the hell are you?" He began scrabbling around, searching the last few places that remained to be searched, coming at last to the enormous toppled wooden wardrobe he had hidden beneath when the pigeon-like bird had threatened him. The wardrobe was nearly covered with rubble, and surrounded with it. At the far side, revealed when Peter yanked away a chunk of ceiling plaster, was an opening the size of a dinner platter. Peter braced himself and dug furiously with both hands, no longer mindful of what might come tumbling down as a result of his actions.

The moaning came again, several times, and he answered it with muttered sounds of encouragement, not sure whether he was trying to encourage McCutcheon or himself. "I found her!" he yelled toward the tunnel and went on digging, enlarging the hole rapidly until it was wide enough to accommodate his shoulders. Shuddering again, he shone the emergency light down into the space behind the wardrobe. "McCutcheon?" he said, surprised at how much his voice trembled. "Are you okay? Can you move? I'll get you out."

"Peter," she murmured back.

He pulled more debris away from the hole. "How bad are you hurt? Can you get out of there?"

"I don't know." Her voice was faint, filled with pain and fear.

"Wait, then, I'll help you." He thrust the stem of the light into the dirt so that it would shine into the hole, anchored his knees into the ground and reached into the opening to grasp McCutcheon under her shoulders. When he tightened his grip enough to begin pulling her free, she howled in pain and stiffened away from him. "Take it easy, McCutcheon," he told her firmly. "Just take it easy. Once you're out of here, we'll get you up to the ship and the doctor can patch you up." His left hand slid; the side of her uniform jacket was soaked and slippery with blood. He wondered vaguely how badly she was hurt, and took hold again, ignoring her protests. "I can't leave you here. Now quit it. Let me pull you out. Help me if you can."

She made a thick, guttural sound. "I can't. My leg..."

"Your leg's broken?"

"I don't know if it's there."

Jesus, Peter thought.

Voices came from the other end of the tunnel again. His uncle and Scott, both wild with impatience, and not a little fear of their own.

"Would you give me some God damn time?" Peter screamed back.

McCutcheon howled again and began sobbing steadily, far from being able to help extricate herself. Peter chomped down on his lower lip and kept pulling, hoping in a small corner of his mind that she was not missing a leg--or anything else. With one final, huge tug, he dragged her from the hole and half-fell backwards with her weight on top of him, moved her quickly onto the ground and shifted back onto his knees. Relief swept through him: no missing legs. But the blood! If her uniform hadn't been scarlet to begin with, the stains would have been terrifying. She continued to sob, tried to draw her legs up and was unable to. The rope was still there, binding her ankles together, but the length that had held her wrists was gone, with circles of raw flesh in its place.

"Listen," Peter told her firmly. "There's only one way out of here." He pointed to the tunnel. "There. It leads outside. It's not far. My...the captain and Mister Scott are at the other end."

McCutcheon stopped crying for a moment and peered up at Peter. "The ground," she said oddly. "It started shaking harder. The ceiling started falling down...I got loose. Then he came in. He said he was going to kill me."

"Cooper?" Peter said.

"He had a phaser. He said he couldn't leave me here. He was going to kill me. But the ground...everything started coming down."

"Everything's going to keep coming down," Peter snapped. "We've got to get out of here. You've got to help me. I can't drag you the whole way down that tunnel like a sack."

"I can't," she moaned.

"You have to!" he shouted at her. "You..."

Another tremor rolled through, making the ground heave like an ocean swell. Debris rained down on them, prompting McCutcheon to begin howling once more. Peter yanked himself to his feet and stumbled toward the end of the tunnel, intending to call for help, but never made it. The tremor threw him off his feet, and he pinwheeled his arms wildly, clutching at empty air for the few seconds until he hit the ground. The back of his head connected with a big piece of broken marble statuary with a dull, sickening thud.

McCutcheon's screaming echoed down the length of the tunnel to the little group still clustered outside. Surrounded by deeply rooted trees, they were in no immediate danger from anything rolling or falling, but the increasing groundshakes had tossed them around enough that each of them now clung tightly to the nearest solid object for support.

"Captain," Koloth said pleasantly, as if he were discussing the weather, "I'd suggest encouraging your nephew to hurry."

Kirk cranked his head around and fixed the Klingon with a cold stare. Koloth was merely reflecting Kirk's own thoughts, and Scott's (he had gone ash-white, and only the absolute knowledge that he would not fit into the tunnel kept him outside), but the one thing he did not need on this particular day was a Klingon telling him what to do, no matter how agreeable his tone of voice. He considered a number of options nearly as quickly as Spock would have, decided on one, released his hold on a sapling and moved toward the tunnel door.

"Sir," Beck said immediately, "I'll go."

Kirk shook his head. Beck was no smaller than he, and probably not much faster in spite of his youth. "No. I'll go."

"Yes, sir," Beck replied doubtfully.

"Contact the transporter room," the captain told Scott. "Have them ready to beam us all out of here as soon as we're back out."

It took him barely two minutes to scuttle through the tunnel. McCutcheon was still shrieking when he emerged at the far end; the noise made his head throb, and as he pulled himself free of the tunnel, he said sharply, "Lieutenant!"

She opened her eyes and fell silent immediately. "Captain?"

"How badly are you hurt?"

"I...I'm not sure, sir," she snuffled. "My leg..."

He was already bending toward Peter, quickly and efficiently assessing the young man's condition. There was no blood, but Peter was deeply unconscious. "There's one way out of here, Lieutenant," Kirk said firmly, nodding toward the tunnel. "I suggest you move as fast as you can."

"But sir..." she muttered.

He returned to her, taking stock of the bloodstains covering her uniform jacket. "Where are you bleeding from?"

"I'm not sure, sir."

She was gazing up at him wide-eyed and rather blankly. Kirk moved to his knees, flipped open the fastenings of her jacket and peered underneath, checking for wounds and finding nothing, though she winced loudly at his touch. "I don't see anything," he told her, and indicated the bloodstains. "What's all this from?" Her eyes flickered away from him; she seemed to be trying to remember something that was eluding her. "Lieutenant?"

"I think...I killed him."

"Who? Cooper?"

McCutcheon straightened slightly, grimacing, and gestured with her head at the pile of rubble that stood where her makeshift bed had been. "He came after me, Captain. He was going to kill me." She showed him the raw marks on her wrists. "I got out of the ropes before he got here, and I..."

"He's under there?" Kirk indicated the mound of debris. McCutcheon nodded, watching his eyes. "We'll deal with it later," he told her firmly. "Get yourself out of here. Go backwards. Lean on your arms and pull yourself along on your butt, and just drag that leg along behind you. You'll make it."

"Yes, Captain," she said doubtfully.

Kirk moved away from her, allowing her enough space to maneuver. She shifted around as quickly as she could manage, sending a rocketing pain up her injured leg and into her back, but with Kirk's eyes still on her she would not cry out. He nodded slightly, encouragingly, and she kept on, holding his attention until she had moved into the tunnel. As she began creeping through, he returned once more to Peter and gently shifted his nephew so that he could back into the tunnel in McCutcheon's wake, pulling Peter along by his shoulders.

The ground continued to roll, and he wondered vaguely how much time had gone by and how much still remained until the rest of the building crumbled into itself. He glanced into the tunnel; Scott's face loomed at the far end, beyond McCutcheon's retreating form. Not that far, Kirk thought.

He felt the tremor building, the vibration buzzing into his knees and up through his legs, and became aware of it gaining strength without breaking. You took too long, Jim, he thought with wry, fatalistic amusement, and heard McCutcheon shriek once more time as the building continued its piecemeal collapse. A chunk of ceiling nearly as large as his trunk slammed into his left shoulder, tossing him onto his back, breaking his grip on Peter's inert form. The air whooshed out of his lungs, and he was sure he heard a snapping sound as the great block of stone came to rest half on top of him and half on the ground. His eyes were closed and he lay still for a moment, with dirt sifting down onto his face and the echo of McCutcheon's scream ringing in his ears. Well, then, he thought, is this it? He tried to move, and the chunk of ceiling settled dutifully against him, pinning him more securely the more he struggled. He could hear Scott calling to him from outside, but somehow that no longer seemed important.

Slowly, with enormous pain building in his chest, he wiggled his right arm around underneath the stone to try pushing it up and away. The effort made him gasp. Must go, what? he thought, three or four tons? The situation began to seem ironically funny: a baby-sitting mission that had all gone bad. By the time the Cooper arrived with the two ambassadors, Spock would have assumed command of the Enterprise.

Spock, he thought.

He let his mind drift, searching for the tendrils of the Link that were always there.


The place where the Link should have been was oddly quiet; not empty, as it would have been if the link had been broken, but silent and very placid. Sleeping? Kirk wondered. His mind sighed. He was unsure how he ought to react: reaching out more firmly was pointless, since even if he had been able to contact the Vulcan, the chances of Spock's reaching him in time to do anything constructive were almost nil. Yet it would have been a comfort to find him, to not be alone in this place at this moment. But sleeping? There was something wrong about that. He tried to remember what it was Spock had said he'd be doing, but his mind was growing foggy, like those last wandering moments before sleep came, and the memory eluded him. All gone bad, he thought. It occurred to him that all of Spock's landing party had been wiped out now, with Cooper buried somewhere here in the rubble. Jaeger was still alive, technically, but that was just a matter of time. Then it would all be over, four kids dead, because of a handful of malium crystals.

His mind wandered down another path, and he puzzled over why it was that he was not afraid, or even tempted to be. I ought to fight, he thought, but found no ambition for it. Die here? Well, they'd have to bury me anyway! This just saves them the trouble. He felt a flicker of regret that Peter was trapped too, but at least he was unconscious and would never know what had happened. Then again, Kirk mused, maybe he would know. Wake up on the other side of wherever and be perfectly aware of how he died.

"Some kid, eh, Jimmy?" Sam's voice asked inside his head.

Jim Kirk had matched his brother's grin and nodded. They were part of an audience of five hundred, seated between Aurelan and Marjorie, watching Peter accept the Iowa School System prize for achievement in life sciences. Only seven years old, but the boy was a whiz. The glow on his face was visible all the way to the back of the auditorium. Sam and Aurelan had delayed their trip to Deneva so Peter could accept his award; tomorrow they'd be on a shuttle for the first leg of the long trip to the colony planet.

"Some kid," Jim had echoed.

Sam and Aurelan's obvious pride had made him reflective, nostalgic for something he would never have--at least not anytime soon. Wife and kids? he thought, and shook his head absently.

Could've had that with Carol, he mused.

"You had your world, and I had mine. I wanted him in mine."

David. David Alexander Marcus. Kirk's name was on the birth certificate, but she would not give that name to her son. He was hers, all those years, tall, blond, blue-eyed, slender but strong, quick-tempered, stubborn, loyal. Carol was back on Earth now, once more refusing Kirk's calls, and David was lost to both of them. Eventually, Kirk was sure, time would wear her down, and she would respond to the messages, begin to stop turning him away. The memory of what they had had would heal the damage.

Except that now there would be no "eventually."

He wondered if it would upset her, hearing that he had died here, in the middle of his diplomatic baby-sitting mission. He liked thinking that it would, that secretly she had stopped hating him long ago and was only perpetuating an image, the way Spock did. Hate him? No. She could never find it in her heart to hate him. Nor could Jessica, his first love, left unceremoniously behind in Iowa. He'd never deceived either of them, never promised anything he couldn't deliver--never promised to stick around. There had been others (and he was willing to bet that both Spock and McCoy had kept count) who had thought they could hold onto Jim Kirk, convince him that his life was not in the stars but there at home and hearth, but they had been few for whom the word "marry" had crossed his mind. Jessie had family now, his mother had told him, and Carol had her work. Had he hurt them, really, even though no promises had been broken?

He'd felt guilty at the time, both times, but had kept walking anyway. Did what I had to do, he thought. Wasn't any other way. Couldn't stay there, go to regular college like Sam (but Sam was gone now too, so regular college hadn't done him any good in the long run, certainly), live in Iowa or any other solid place where you could go outdoors after dark and stare up at the stars. Couldn't be on the outside looking in...or on the inside looking out.

"Captain Kirk," a voice said somewhere near his face.

Interruptions? he thought. They never let you rest. Not even when you're dying.

"Snap out of it, Captain," the voice insisted. "This is rather a poor place to take a nap."

He opened one eye and looked. It was Koloth, kneeling beside him, moving his hands around the block of stone, looking for the best grip. Kirk stared at him as if he were a hallucination. The corner of his mind that had found this whole situation funny was apoplectic now. "Koloth?" he asked curiously. "What are you doing?"

"That ought to be fairly obvious." Koloth braced himself, shifted, and with the enormous strength that existed even in the smallest of Klingons, rolled the block of ceiling stone up off of Kirk's body. Kirk's wandering imaginings aside, the block of marble was no three or four tons; possibly a couple of hundred kilos, but still heavy enough, and sweat broke out along Koloth's jawline as he held it aside.

Kirk slid away, whistling through his teeth as pain soared through his chest and shoulder, and pressed himself against a wall of debris so that Koloth could let the stone back down. The room that had once been large enough for a Dianasian to carry on life's daily activities in had been reduced to a space not much wider than the span of Kirk's arms, and Kirk and Koloth filled a good portion of it.

"Follow your own orders, Captain," Koloth said. "Get yourself out of here."

"Peter. Where's Peter?"

"He's out."

How long did I lie there? Kirk wondered, finding no answers in Koloth's expression. Tossing it off for the moment, he moved into the tunnel behind Koloth and followed the Klingon out, crawling on his hands and knees, his teeth clenched against the pain. When he reached the far end, Scott was there to take hold and ease him out into the open air.

The engineer's face was etched with worry, but he said nothing as he helped Kirk straighten up and pick his way slowly away from the tunnel opening and around the hill to the road. Gehaan and Beck were there, standing watch over McCutcheon, who was sitting with her back against a tree at the road's edge, and Peter, who had been placed carefully on a blanket Gehaan had found in the back of Cooper's abandoned aircar. Kirk took another step and tried to release himself from Scott's grasp, but Scott shook his head firmly and held on.

Just as well, Kirk thought; though the ground had been shaking for so long that it seemed natural, he believed that if Scott had turned him loose, his next step would have taken him flat onto his face in the dirt.

"How is he?" he asked, indicating Peter.

McCutcheon looked up at him and grimaced. "I think he has a concussion, Captain. If we could get him up to the ship..."

"What do you mean, 'if'?"

"The resonator," Koloth said.

Scott went on, with a leaden look at the Klingon, "It's creating its own electromagnetic field, Captain. Like the sensor web, but worse. The transporter room can't lock onto us. They've been trying since you went into the tunnel." He glanced down. "It's playing havoc with everything." Kirk hiked a brow, catching Scott's meaning. The engineer nodded gravely. "The thing is reacting with the planet's electromagnetic field. That's why the tremors don't stop."

"What does that mean?" Kirk asked Koloth.

The Klingon glanced from Kirk to Gehaan, who had braced his feet shoulder-width apart and was riding the convulsing ground like a surfboard. "What it means, Captain, is that unless the resonator is deprogrammed, or destroyed, it will go on increasing power. That's what it was created to do. That's why each time your ship passed through the beam, the effect was worse than the time before. When Ensign Cooper took it out of stasis without deprogramming it, it continued building power. My best guess is that we have about another hour."

"Until what?" Kirk snapped.

"Until it detonates." Koloth folded his arms into the cuffs of his sleeves.

"High concentration phaser strike. Will that destroy it?"

"Probably," Koloth replied. "But it has a failsafe mechanism."

"Which means?"

Koloth shrugged slightly. "Your phasers will destroy the resonator. But it's going to leave quite a pit. Three or four kilometers across, I imagine." He paused, gazing off down the road, and went on speaking with his back to the rest of the group. "I imagine it may also trigger a series of ground shocks...."

"So if we try to destroy the thing, it'll blow up. And if we do nothing, it'll still blow up," Scott said.

"Yes," Koloth agreed.

"Ground shocks," Gehaan frowned. "How...severe?"

The Klingon pivoted to face Gehaan. "I'm not a geologist, Councilor. I don't know."

"Why did you bring this device to Dianas?" the Dianasian asked, disturbed.

"He's a Klingon," Scott replied.

Though he was no geologist either, Kirk had little trouble following Koloth's line of thought. "Scotty," he said quietly, and the engineer settled him slowly to a seat on the ground beside Peter. He rested gingerly against the arm on his uninjured side, wishing he could take a deep breath and consciously not doing so. Peter was stirring restlessly, but still far from consciousness. Seven of us, Kirk thought. Three injured. He pointed toward Cooper's aircar with his chin and asked Scott, "Doesn't work?"

Scott shook his head. "All it'll do is cough."


"We could get one down here, but the guidance system...."

"Mister Scott," Kirk said sharply, "you're not telling me what I want to hear."

"Aye," Scott murmured.

Three of us hurt, Kirk thought again. Unable to walk. No way to ride out of here, or transport out; no way to get anybody in to help us. No aircars, no shuttles. Horse and buggy? He grinned half to himself, but the expression was so far from humor that it made him wince. "Is the ship safe?"

"More or less."

"Can they pinpoint that thing with the main phaser banks?"

Scott was silent for a long moment. "Close enough. The computer can target the center of the disturbance." He studied Kirk's expression. "They'll get the thing. No need t' worry about that, sir. There won't be enough left of it to fill a teaspoon."

"It isn't much bigger than that now," Koloth said wryly.

Peter shifted abruptly, spastically, hissing air out between his teeth. His eyelids fluttered and he whimpered softly but still failed to regain consciousness. Kirk reached toward him but stopped midway, aware of how bad Peter looked in the daylight. An ache that had nothing to do with his own injuries welled up inside him.

Years of experience and a handful of first-aid lectures from McCoy had taught him enough: massive concussion? Keep his airway open, make sure he keeps breathing. And don't move him. Distracted, Kirk sucked in a breath. Pain soared through him, making his vision flash. He forced himself to sit very still until the pain had lapsed, then took a long, slow look around. "We have an hour?" he said to Koloth.

"Approximately," the Klingon replied.

Kirk reached slowly around and unclipped his communicator. After a minute of playing with the frequency adjustment, all he could get through the tiny speaker was static. Can't even reach the ship, he thought. So what difference does it make how long we wait? He was peripherally aware of Koloth reaching inside his robe and glanced up when the Klingon extended something toward him: his own communicator, nearly twice the size of Kirk's but half the weight and obviously more sophisticated. "Take it," Koloth said, with no attempt at explanation or apology. "It's already set on the Enterprise's frequency."

Frowning, Kirk accepted the communicator, gave it a quick, appraising once-over, then thumbed the transmit button and said into the mike, "Enterprise."

Uhura's voice came back. "Captain? What's going on, sir?"

"A mess, Commander. Can you locate us at all?"

After a few seconds' pause, the communications chief replied, "Just your general area, sir. The sensors are going crazy. Is it that beam again? What's happened?"

"No time for that, Uhura. Have the computer scan the area and find the epicenter of the disturbance. Pinpoint it as closely as you can."

"We have it, sir. Closing it to a one-meter radius around the epicenter."

"Good. Who's at the helm?"

"Hennessy here, Captain."

Kirk held back a groan, not at Hennessy's presence, but at the absence of his old bridge crew. What I wouldn't do to have Sulu there right now, he thought. Or Chekov, who could target a flea from five hundred kilometers out. Chekov? he wondered. He'd be on board somewhere.... "Mister Hennessy," he said into the mike. "Lock main phasers on the coordinates the computer is giving you. On my order, I want you to hit that spot with everything you've got."

"Captain?" Hennessy said oddly. "I'm not sure we can...where are you, sir?"

"Don't worry about it. You have your orders."

"Yes, sir. Phasers are locked on target, awaiting your order."

"Stand by, Mister Hennessy." Kirk broke the connection and looked around at the battered, dusty little group. They were all watching him, holding back varying degrees of fear, waiting for him to make a decision. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said softly, "we have a problem." He turned to Koloth. "If we let that thing continue to build power until it detonates on its own, how much of the planet will it take with it?"

"At maximum power? Most of it, I imagine."

Gehaan let out a squeak of dismay. He had intended a more vehement response, but his body would not cooperate. "Ambassador," he began shrilly. "Ambassador...!" He began to quiver like a tuning fork gone mad. "I cannot...."

"I didn't intend for this to happen," Koloth told him.

"This is..." Gehaan sputtered. "To bring such a weapon to Dianas...when you said you came in peace...."

"I did come in peace."

The Dianasian sat down heavily on a rock, breath wheezing in and out of him and his mouth working silently. "Weapons," he muttered. "Terrible weapons. The book says to welcome visitors, to learn from them, and they bring us discord. And hatred. And death." He made a high-pitched noise deep in his throat. His attention was largely on himself for a long moment, then abruptly his head snapped up, and he glared at Koloth again. "It is not my time!" he shrieked.

"Your time?" Koloth inquired.

"My time of death. This cannot happen. It is not my time."

"What d'ye want?" Scott asked sharply. "A telegram?"

Kirk began, "Gentlemen...."

Gehaan's head jerked around. "We must get out of this place!" he squealed at Kirk.

"Then go," Kirk replied quietly. "Get out of here as fast as your legs will take you."

Koloth said, frowning, "He can't possibly...."

"Let him try."

Gehaan held his head between the palms of his hands and lowered it, his eyes now on the dusty ground, and began making keening noises. He seemed to have no intention of trying to run anywhere, but rather of waiting for the situation to right itself.

"Scotty," Kirk said soberly, "if you want to try...."

"And leave ye behind?" Scott replied. He glanced in McCutcheon's direction, but did not add that he would not consider leaving her behind either. All the color had drained from her face, and she too was watching the ground. "Besides," Scott added softly, "I'm not much of a runner."

Kirk nodded. "Mister Beck, you're free to go, too."

Beck had been considering his options while the rest of them were talking. "Not alone, sir."

"Thank you, Mister Beck." Kirk drew out Koloth's communicator again and was about to touch the transmit button when the device warbled, signaling an incoming call. Kirk thumbed the control and said into the mike, "Kirk here."

"What is it you're trying to blast?" came the reply from an unexpected source.

Kirk and Scott exchanged startled looks. They had recognized the voice at the same instant. "Sulu?" Kirk asked the communicator. "Where are you?"

"Entering orbit," Captain Hikaru Sulu of the U.S.S. Cooper replied. "What's your target?"

It took Kirk a few seconds to shake off his surprise. "A Klingon device," he said, and paused, expecting Sulu to ask for a further explanation, but all Sulu did was snort. "It's overloading. Buried under a pile of rubble--we can't get to it to disarm it. We have less than an hour before it goes."

"Nothing like a deadline," Sulu observed cheerfully. There was a brief pause at his end, then he continued, "There are...seven of you down there? Five Humans, a Dianasian, and a Klingon? Prisoner?"

"No," Kirk said wryly.

"We've got you about fifty meters from the resonator. That right?"

"Near enough. Sulu...."

"Triple the power," Sulu said to someone at his end, apparently not noticing that Kirk had more to say. "We only get one chance. No, I've got it. Hold the target...that's it. Great!" He spoke into the mike again. "Stay put, Captain. We'll do your gunning for you."

"Sulu, wait a minute," Kirk began urgently.

"Be right with you," Sulu replied, then said to the person beside him, "Boost the gain. Yes, that'll do it. Steady...."

Kirk blurted into the mike, "Sulu, no...!"

He and Scott were both tempted to hit the dirt, despite the little good that would have done them, but there was no time for them to move. They remained frozen in place, horrified, as Sulu did his work from somewhere up in orbit, waiting out the terrible few seconds for the resonator to detonate. Scott's lips moved silently, mouthing an ancient Gaelic prayer. The air hummed with energy, and an instant later the mound of soil, rock and carved marble that had been some Dianasian's home seemed to dissolved into a mass of blinding white light...and was gone.

"Did it!" Sulu's voice, hearty with success, came out of the communicator.

"Mary, Mother o' God," Scott whispered.

"Sulu..." Kirk said weakly.

"Everybody all right down there?"

"You transported it?"

"Hmmm," Sulu replied, as if that were a foregone conclusion. "Of course. Deep space, maximum dispersion. Close call, though. The Klingons must make those babies with a hair trigger. A hundredth of a second too late, and the whole thing blows." He chuckled softly to himself. "The groundshakes ought to clear up in a couple of hours. Sensors are clear now. We can transport you up, if you want."

Scott sank down onto the ground and wiped the ring of sweat off his forehead with the cuff of his jacket sleeve. Koloth was shaking his head, the look in his eyes testimony to the fact that he had been as frightened as the Humans. Gehaan, who seemed to have noticed none of what had taken place in the last few moments, continued his wailing with his head cupped between his hands. After another minute, when his legs had recovered enough to allow him to move, Scott went to sit beside McCutcheon and asked her quietly, "Are ye all right, lass?"

She lifted her head to look at him. Her chin was vibrating, and all she could manage to say was, "Ohhhh...."

"It's all right now," he assured her. "You're safe."

Beck, whose own legs were threatening to give out, knelt down near McCutcheon and Scott and nodded in Gehaan's direction. "I guess he was right," he observed. "It wasn't his time."

Gehaan's head bobbed up. "Weapons!" he shrieked.

Sulu's voice came over the communicator again. "The Enterprise is clear now, Captain. Reporting all systems normal. A few minor malfunctions in Duotronic circuits, but the transporter is operational again. They sound a little relieved."

"Relieved?" Kirk muttered. "Mister Sulu...about that device..."


"We..." Kirk stopped himself in midstream and sighed. "Never mind. Later."

"We can beam you directly to the Enterprise, if you like."

"Yes, Mister Sulu," Kirk said. "Send us home."

Chapter 8

Sulu leaned against the edge of an empty diagnostic bed and folded his arms across his chest, watching McCoy wind a pressure bandage around Kirk's chest to brace his broken ribs in place. "Sorry I scared you, Jim. I thought you'd know--you can't hit those things with phasers. For a little box, they make a hell of a big boom."

"That's what we were expecting," Kirk grimaced. "A big boom. With us in the middle of it."


Kirk shook it off. "You're here a little early."

"Ambassador D'Novio wanted to see the Cooper's new transwarp drive in action. Who am I to turn him down?"

McCoy finished his chore and stepped away, gathering up his materials as Kirk reached for his robe. "Don't let that shot fool you," he told the captain sternly. "You might feel fine...but you're not fine. You need rest, a lot of it. Give the re-gen a chance to take hold." He held out no great hope of having his instructions obeyed, but as always, he felt obligated to at least voice them. Kirk slid off the diagnostic bed and stood up, one hand out to support himself if need be, wavering only a little. Listen? McCoy thought. Of course he's not going to listen. Rather than argue, he turned his back on Kirk and Sulu and headed for the intensive care section of the sickbay to attend to Peter Kirk.

"We got a transmission from the Citizen's High Council just after we left Earth," Sulu told Kirk quietly. "I intercepted it before it got to the ambassadors. The Council thought it might be a good idea if we got here a little early." He studied Kirk's expression for a moment. "Problems?"

"Nothing we couldn't have solved."

Sulu nodded. They were on an equal footing now, he and Kirk, he reminded himself; still, this man had been his commander for too many years.

Kirk's hazel eyes were distant, and Sulu felt a sudden pang of worry, wondering if the weariness that had descended on Kirk lay ahead for him as well. Kirk was the finest commander in the galaxy, and Sulu expected never to reach that pinnacle, though he intended to try his damnedest. But there were so many other considerations to go along with the success. Everything that had gone wrong for Kirk lately was etched all over his face.

"Captain Kirk...Jim," Sulu said tentatively, "if I can help...if I can just listen..."

Kirk smiled a little, acknowledging the offer and refusing it at the same time.

Sulu was unsurprised; all those years, the only person Kirk had ever turned to was Spock. "Where is Spock?" he asked.

Kirk said distractedly, "In his quarters."

That didn't answer much, but Sulu didn't press it. However, it did leave the question of what to do about the guest Spock had requested. She was waiting aboard the Cooper, under wraps until Sulu sent for her. Guess we let it wait...let her wait, Sulu thought. "Guess I'd better go mind my own store," he said lightly, straightening away from the bed. "Give me a call if you need anything."

Kirk nodded. "Thanks, Hikaru."

"Sure. Anytime."

The Cooper's captain smiled again and strode out of Sickbay. When he was gone, Kirk sank back against the bed and closed his eyes for a moment. Sulu was so full of his new status: proud, happy, satisfied, the way Kirk had been all those years ago. Was I like that? Kirk wondered. The young man who had taken over command of the Enterprise from Chris Pike seemed like another person, not really connected with the present. Enjoy it while it lasts, Hikaru, he thought.

Gathering himself up, he walked slowly toward Peter's bed, where McCoy was engrossed in the readings on the diagnostic panel overhead. The doctor turned when he heard Kirk's footsteps and gave him a tired, half-hearted smile. Kirk's eyes went to the panel. "How is he?" he asked somberly.

"He'll be all right. He's still a little wobbly, but the medication's taking effect. Give him a few days. He'll be fine."

Kirk nodded absently. He rested a hand on the end of the bed to support himself, not aware of what he was doing until McCoy observed the gesture and raised an eyebrow at him. Rather than let McCoy resume spouting prescriptions for rest and relaxation, he turned his eyes away from the doctor and concentrated instead on Peter, who finally seemed to be sleeping normally after several hours of semi-conscious squirming and twitching. Now that the young man was calm, it was easier to see in him the child they had brought aboard the Enterprise twenty years ago.

"Who stayed with him, Bones?" Kirk asked abruptly.


"When we brought him up here from Deneva. When...Sam and Aurelan died."

McCoy thought for a moment. "Chris Chapel," he replied, referring to his former head nurse, now a doctor in her own right serving in another arm of the galaxy. "Most of the time." Most? He corrected himself silently: you mean all. Chapel, who had no children of her own, had felt deeply for seven-year-old Peter, had sat with him, held him, comforted him, soothed him through his nightmares. How Peter had been with her, McCoy was unsure, but suspected Chapel's warmth and compassion had not been wasted. When McCoy had entered the room, the boy sniffled back his tears and was quietly stoic, though he kept a constant eye on Chapel as if to assure himself that she would not leave him. And when Peter's uncle approached? The first time, it had given McCoy chills. The child, who had watched his father die and had been fifteen feet away when his mother died (unconscious, but who could say how much he hadn't heard, didn't know?), called his uncle "sir". Tears were swiftly scrubbed away with the heel of his hand, his back straightened (even in bed), his jaw stiffened. McCoy had whirled to look at the captain, who seemed unaware of the transformation and accepted Peter's assurances that he was "fine, sir". No wonder he turned into what he is, McCoy thought wryly.

"A stranger," Kirk observed. "A stranger stayed with him." He rubbed at the back of his neck.

"Do you love him, Jim?" McCoy asked.

Kirk's eyes returned to the doctor. "What do you mean? Of course I love him. He's Sam's son."

"Forget that he's Sam's son. Do you love him?"

"I don't know." Startled by the question and by his own inability to answer, Kirk moved away from the bed, through the doorway and into McCoy's office. McCoy trailed him silently and stood nearby, arms folded, waiting. "I used to," Kirk said eventually. "When he was small." He smiled vaguely, but there was no amusement behind it. "The last time we were all together--we had a picnic. Played some touch football." He could almost feel the boy's slender, jersey-shirted form propelling into his arms, accepting his embrace and returning it in spades. Peter had looked up at him with unquestioning, slavish devotion and an abundance of love that had made Kirk's heart ache. He had worshipped his uncle, totally, utterly, and without doubt. The stories Sam had relayed, combined with Kirk's charming, undemanding presence, had drawn the boy in and held him. What happened? Kirk wondered. What happened to that? To him?

McCoy said, frowning, "I don't think he loves you much anymore, either."

"I had a ship to run. I couldn't sit with him."

"Not that. Not just that."

"What, then?" Kirk asked sharply. "What do I owe him, Bones?"

"Did you ever ask him?"

"I...no. I couldn't. I didn't have time to...."

McCoy took a step back, reached for the door controls, and closed the door to Sickbay. Kirk flinched at that, saw the lecture coming and nearly walked away from it. McCoy flashed him a look that was as threatening as anything he had ever produced in his life. "You walked away," he said to Kirk. "You picked the life you wanted: no home, no family. You wanted to captain a starship, and you got it. It means making a choice, Jim, and you made it."

Kirk opened his mouth to speak, but McCoy waved him into silence and continued, "I made the same choice, but not for the same reason. I wanted to get away from that place, those people. It hurt Joanna--I knew that. But I chose this." He paused, watching Kirk's face. "The thing is, Jim, time doesn't stop back there. Those people don't stop living. You can't leave and expect them not to notice."

"I know that," Kirk snapped. "I've never not known it."

"No?" McCoy replied.

"I didn't abandon anyone. Nobody was left alone. They all knew what my life was. Carol...."

"I'm not talking about Carol."

"What then?" Kirk's voice rose. "You think I should have stayed with him? Given up my career to go back to Iowa and take care of him? He knew what my life was, too. He knew what I was."

"Of course, he did. He called you 'sir'."


"When you brought him up here from Deneva. You weren't his Uncle Jim any more--not here. Not on board the Enterprise. Here you were The Captain. He knew that, as young as he was. He was hurting, and he needed you. but he couldn't turn to you, not to The Captain." McCoy fell silent. He remembered Kirk's own stoicism back then, during the days it took to travel from Deneva to the starbase where Peter was left to be shuttled home to Earth and the care of his grandmother Marjorie. The captain had lost Sam, his only brother, his hero, but rather than turn to his friends or to his grieving nephew for comfort, he had retreated into his shell of duty. Peter's calling him "sir" had been entirely right. "Don't expect him to be what he was," McCoy said.

"I don't--" Kirk began.

"Or what you expect him to be," McCoy added.

"What do I expect him to be?"

The doctor sat on the corner of his desk and studied his friend for a moment. They were both bordering on blowing up again; without Spock's modulating influence, McCoy could see this degenerating into another shouting match. Again! he thought, and forged ahead. "Sam," he replied.

"What?" Kirk asked, his voice unexpectedly thin.

"Your brother. The brother you lost."

Kirk was about to protest again, but the earnest, non-argumentative look on McCoy's face silenced him. He turned his back on the doctor for a moment and rested his hands on the back of the desk chair. The chronometer on his wrist caught his eye and startled him. It's not even noon? he thought. It seemed like days ago that he had struggled out of bed and prepared to meet Gehaan in the capital city.

McCoy said gently, "Sam's dead, Jim."

"I know," Kirk replied, his back still to the doctor.

"Don't expect the boy to pick up living where Sam left off. He's his own person. God know he needs a little work...."

Kirk turned slowly. "He's not a bad kid, Bones."

"Just insufferable."

"It's been hard for him. Too hard."

McCoy gave him an "oh, really?" expression and replied evenly, "That's what he's been trying to tell you. Did you listen?" Kirk shook his head, but not really as a denial. "There's time," McCoy went on. "We're here for another couple of days. Then it's another, what, a week? till we reach Starbase Eighteen. He'll be back on his feet before then. I think the two of you should talk. Alone. Work things out between yourselves. He'll need somebody else on his side at the court-martial."

The word made Kirk flinch. He had considered, for an instant, forgetting the entire thing. But what would that make us both look like? he thought. Drop all the charges because he's my nephew? He let out a careful sigh, wary of his injuries, and asked McCoy, "Somebody 'else'?"

"McCutcheon. She's going to stick with him."

"Even after he...?"

McCoy shrugged eloquently. "Far be it from me to claim I understand women. Any woman." He shook his head slightly. "She needs somebody on her side, too. She killed Cooper in self-defense, but if they get one of those hysterical prosecutors on the case, she could be in for a hard time. From what she says, she did a pretty thorough job on him with a chunk off a marble statue."

The corner of Kirk's mouth twisted. He straightened up, moving slightly toward the door.

"And where do you think you're going?" McCoy demanded.

"Spock's quarters."

"Not a chance in hell, Captain. I told you: he doesn't want to be disturbed. That includes you."

"I've got to...."

"You don't 'have to' anything. Except rest. There's nothing you can do for Spock."

"It shouldn't take this long, Bones."

McCoy's eyes widened a little. "The Vulcan healing trance? It can take days. You know that as well as I do. Accept it, Captain. I don't know how much success he's having, but Spock asked to be left alone, so I'm leaving him alone. And so are you. He said he'd send for me as soon as he was finished." McCoy took Kirk by the shoulders and steered him in the other direction, into a small room tucked between McCoy's office and the labs. It had originally been intended for storage, but the doctor had had it rigged with a bunk and a chair, and used it for quick naps when he couldn't spare the time to return to his quarters. "Nobody'll bother you in here," McCoy pointed out. He left Kirk in the little room, returned to his office for a moment and came back toting a spray hypo.

"What's that for?" Kirk frowned.


"I don't need it," Kirk said firmly.

"Sure you don't. You'll lie here and stare at the ceiling and stew. This stuff'll put you out like a light. Then you can sleep." McCoy stopped a few paces from the bed. "Listen--we're in stable orbit. The Klingon whatchamacallit is gone. There's nothing more to worry about for at least a couple of days. You're going to bed if I have to call Security down here and have them tie you down." Kirk opened his mouth; McCoy gave him another threatening look.

"You'll wake me if Spock sends for you?"

"Hmmm," McCoy said, though he had no intention of doing any such thing.

"I really ought to be on the bridge."

"Scotty and Uhura are on the bridge. They don't need you. You need to sleep. Tell me you don't need to sleep."

"Bones, I'll be all right."

McCoy snorted. "You've got three broken ribs, you damn fool."

"I've had broken bones before."

"Tell me about it." McCoy wagged his head in mock disbelief. "Twenty years, and I'm still patching you up."

"Some things don't change."

"Hmmm. Tell me you're not tired, Captain Kirk."

"I'm...." Kirk stopped abruptly, and smiled. "You just reminded me of my grandfather."

The doctor hiked a brow. "Thanks."

"No. No, I mean something he said once." Kirk sat on the edge of the bed and eased his robe off. His shoulder grated uncomfortably, but he ignored it. "You know how Chekov used to claim that the Russians invented everything from sliced bread on up?" McCoy nodded. "My grandfather Samuel used to say the same things, but in his version it was all Kirks who did the inventing. Stubborn old curmudgeon. Never lost a fight with anybody." He paused. "There was one day, when I was in high school. He was ninety-four. We had a little pond out at the end of our property, and I was out there by myself, fishing. Pop came out and sat down on a tree stump and said to me, 'Jimmy, I'm tired.' First time I'd ever heard him say that. He was never tired. Never slept. Stayed up half the night talking to himself and got up at the crack of dawn. But that one day, he sat down and said he was tired. Took me a while to figure out what he meant. It wasn't his body that was tired. It was this." Kirk tapped his temple with a forefinger.

"Wore himself out talking to himself?" McCoy asked.

"Got tired of trying to figure things out. He took care of everything after my father left--ran the farm single-handed. Any time we had a decision to make, we went to Pop. He wouldn't let my mother do a thing. Drove her crazy."

"Lot of stubborn curmudgeons in your family. Stick out your arm."

"I tried it, Bones," Kirk said.

McCoy sighed. "Tried what?"

"That building started caving in on me, and I just lay there. I'm not sure how much time went by. I just let it go by."


"A Klingon pulled me out of there. Not just a Klingon," he amended. "That Klingon."

"Captain Tribble?"

"Hmmm. He saved my life."

"Then remind me to thank him. On the other hand...."

"You're not listening to me, Bones," Kirk pressed. "I was ready to give up down there."

"Why? Because you lay in a pile of rocks for a couple of minutes?"

"I didn't fight."

McCoy sighed again, heavily, and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "So what? You want me to put you down for a psychiatric evaluation? You're overplaying this, Jim. You're tired, that's all. You took a beating, and you need to rest. Nobody's going to take your ship away from you because you didn't come shooting out of there kicking and screaming. Okay, a Klingon--that Klingon--got you out. You're out. What difference does it make?" He reached out, caught Kirk by the arm and administered the hypo. "Just lie down, and let this stuff work. You can figure this all out later."


"Later. If you want to talk more, I'll talk. I guess that's what I'm here for." He recalled stepping off the transporter platform, hauled back from a long, satisfying holiday out in the middle of East Holy Noplace, called back into Starfleet service through what Admiral Nogura had termed a "reserve activation clause". Hadn't been that at all, though. "I need you, Bones," Kirk had said; if it was possible to be plaintive and authoritative at the same time, then he had been so. "Damn it, I need you." Nice to be needed, I suppose, McCoy thought. But he'd never been able to finish his vacation. As far as he knew, his camping equipment was still at the main lodge where he'd left it. Kirk's eyelids flickered. McCoy gripped him by the elbow and laid him down on the bed. "Give it up, Captain. Sleep."

"I should be on the bridge," Kirk murmured. "Shouldn't waste time down here."

A moment later, he was asleep. McCoy flipped the light synthetic blanket up over him, dimmed the overhead lamp and left the room, shaking his head in mild exasperation as the door closed behind him. Should've known what I was getting myself into thirty-three years ago, he thought. Glad somebody can sleep....


Gehaan dropped into his chair like a puppet whose strings had been cut. His face was nearly purple, his breath whooshing in and out, giving him the look of being in the middle of a major seizure. "I should make you both leave. All this trouble! I should send you away from here."

"Councilor," Koloth said soothingly. "Everything is all right now."

"Everything is not all right now."

"No harm was done. The only place the tremors were felt was in the valley, and there have been tremors there since before there were people to feel them. Really, Councilor, there is no reason to banish us from your planet."

The Dianasian peered down the length of his nose. "You have brought us trouble."

"In what way?"

"Disturbing our oneness."

"Ah, Councilor," Koloth breathed, feeling a spell of eloquence coming on. "Don't you think it's necessary for your oneness to be disturbed once in a while? So that when the disturbance is over, you are all the stronger for it. Everything in life needs to be tested."

"You test my patience," Gehaan muttered.

"Your book tells you to learn. Haven't you learned from all this?"

"Yes," Gehaan said. "I have learned that I do not like strangers."

Koloth leaned back in his chair and laughed long and heartily, until he had to dab tears from the corners of his eyes. The High Councilor, whose color had faded to a mild bluish-violet, was scowling at him from across the desk. Unperturbed, Koloth let his laughter subside and stroked absently at the tribble on his belt. "I'm sorry, Councilor," he said after a moment. "But our trouble goes back a long way. Kirk's people and mine-- when we come together, problems create themselves. I told you about the Organians?"

Gehaan nodded.

"They claim that eventually the Humans and the Klingons will live in peace and friendship. Work together to our mutual benefit. And we did that only a few years ago, but it lasted less than a few months before we were at each other's throats again. The day we can call each other friends still seems to be a long way off. We are two natural substances which do not mix."

"You do not even try," Gehaan pointed out sourly.

"Oh, but some of us do. Kirk and I share a friend named Kumara who spent the better part of his life studying the Humans. Since Kumara's...passing, I have studied them with more fervor. I find that they are not quite as reprehensible as most of my people claim. They do have certain...irritating characteristics, but on the whole they aren't a bad lot. I can believe that one day we will live in peace. And there are others who feel as I do... as Kumara did."

Gehaan mulled for a while, playing his fingers over the surface of his desk. "You saved James Kirk's life."

"In a sense. I claim no great glory for it. If I hadn't pulled him out of there, one of his people would have." Koloth did not bother to mention that none of Kirk's people would have been strong enough to remove the enormous rock that had held Kirk pinned to the ground; that item of information would not serve to further his point.

"But why would you do such a thing?"

Koloth got up from his chair, strolled to the window, and gazed placidly out across the broad lawn. Smiling vaguely, he replied, "There was no other choice."

"But if one of his people would have...."

"It was something I needed to do, Councilor."

"But to put your life at danger--why would you do that for him? I fail to understand."

"Even after all I've told you."

"Even so. He is your enemy."

"Only ideologically," Koloth said.

"I do not understand. Either he is, or he is not."

"It's not that simple." Koloth let the heavy curtains fall back into place and moved away from the window, pacing the few steps across the width of Gehaan's office. His footsteps were hushed on the thick carpet. Inwardly he marveled at the quiet; in the Klingon Empire, such luxury belonged only to a select few, and on this planet it was ever-present. The place was steeped in luxury, beauty, placidity, as far from the atmosphere of Koloth's home as he was ever likely to see. Decadence, his superiors liked to call it, but Koloth knew that was simply to degrade Dianas in their own eyes. They would never know the pleasant, cushioned life Gehaan's people were born into; therefore, they would not acknowledge it as being worthwhile.

Too bad for them, Koloth thought. Shrugging off the reverie, he went on, "It's Captain Kirk's Federation and my Empire who are enemies, Councilor. Not the captain and I."

Gehaan pushed back in his chair and worried at his chin with the knuckle of his forefinger. "But the attitude you have toward each other--this does not seem like friendship."

"Oh, but we aren't friends, either."

"I was led to believe that you must be either one or the other."

Koloth grinned. "Not necessarily."

The Dianasian sighed and rocked gently in his chair. "It seems I will never understand. We have allowed your people and those from the Federation to come here, to learn from you, but the more I learn, the more I am confused."

"All of life is like that, Councilor."

"So he is not your friend, and not your enemy. And yet you risked your life, which is all that you truly have, in order to preserve his."

"That I did," Koloth agreed.

"Why?" Gehaan asked again.

"Because he is the most worthy opponent I have ever had. In fact, it is my deepest regret to never having faced him in combat."

Gehaan gazed at him critically, still floundering in his little ocean of bafflement. "I am lost, Ambassador Koloth."

"There is one other reason," Koloth said after a moment. Gehaan inclined his head, inviting the Klingon to continue. Koloth's smile widened a bit and he paced off a few more steps simply to enjoy the feel of his boot soles against the soft nap. "There's a philosophy that seems to spring up quite often around the galaxy. I've never been sure why it comes to be, but I've come across it a dozen times. The first time was on a planet called Ebendane."

Gehaan said nothing, just sat in silence, unwilling to bring more confusion down upon himself.

"It's found in one of the cultures on Kirk's home planet, too--the Chinese. To express it very simply, if you save the life of another, then his life belongs to you."

"In what sense?"

"In every sense."

"And Captain Kirk is aware of this?"

Koloth chuckled softly. "I doubt it. He's not Chinese, or Ebendani. So it's not binding on him. All the same, I look forward to reminding him that the philosophy exists."

"So that you may...annoy him?"

"Exactly. You see, Councilor, you do understand."

"I do not believe so."

Koloth stopped pacing and rested his palms on the surface of Gehaan's desk. "You know more than you think you know, Councilor."

"I have brought confusion upon myself," Gehaan said plaintively.

"Was everything simple before?" Koloth asked.

Gehaan thought it over. "Yes. I believe so. There was learning, and teaching, but only among ourselves. We had only our oneness."

"And you lost your Gift."

The High Councilor stiffened. "There is much to replace it. We are happy."

"I accept that. Captain Kirk may not."

"He will have to," Gehaan sniffed. "We are not offering him an option."


Sulu paused as he stepped out of the turbolift, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light of the Cooper's grand observation deck. His passenger seemed not to have heard the 'lift arrive; she was standing at the far end of the room, leaning against a railing, gazing pensively out at the stars and at the glittering form of the Enterprise floating gracefully in orbit some thousand kilometers away.

"Gillian?" he said, just loudly enough to catch her attention.

She turned and smiled, a little wistfully, he thought. "I was just thinking."

"About what?"

"'So near and yet so far.' Pretty trite."

He crossed the room and leaned against the rail beside her, half his attention on her and the other half on the distant form of the Enterprise. "Sorry to keep you waiting. But Spock said to notify him first when you got here, and nobody seems to know where he is--or wants to bother him. I guess we wait." He shook his head absently. "Just as well we got here early. They've had quite a time the last few days, from what Uhura tells me."

"He'll be all right, won't he?" Taylor asked.

"Captain Kirk? Oh, sure. He's always all right. It's one of the constants of the universe." Sulu smiled encouragingly, and Taylor nodded but still seemed to be unconvinced. "Hey, don't worry."

"I'm not."

And if I believe that, Sulu thought, I can also believe she left everything behind back in the twentieth century to come with us three hundred years into the future because she was upset about her whales. He watched Gillian Taylor in silence for a moment, thinking back over their trip back in time in a captured Klingon Bird-of-Prey: two frenzied days in search of a pair of humpback whales. They'd found the whales, and had brought them to the Enterprise's present in time to save the Earth (Sounds pretty grand, Sulu thought, just a quick trip into the past to save the world), along with an unexpected guest in the person of the whales' caretaker, Doctor Gillian Taylor. She had fed Kirk a long story about wanting to come along because she had nothing significant to hold her in 1986, that she was the only cetacean biologist available to them and that the whales would be endangered in the future without a specialist to watch over them. All a fairy tale. The seven members of the Enterprise's crew who had been aboard the Bird of Prey Kr'anya had known that, without benefit of much thought. She'd come with them for the same reason they were aboard the Bird of Prey in the first place: because of Jim Kirk.

"It's not an easy job, is it?" Taylor asked suddenly.

"Compared to what?" Sulu replied.

Taylor laughed softly. "Compared to anything. It's like running a whole small town, out in the middle of nowhere."

"I don't think the Dianasians would take kindly to you calling their planet 'nowhere'."

"You know what I mean, Hikaru."

"Yes," Sulu said quietly. "I know what you mean."

"It's his whole life, isn't it?"

Sulu took his eyes away from Taylor and looked again across the void of space at the Enterprise. He had never known Jim Kirk as anything but the captain of the Enterprise (had thought of him in that role even during the years when Kirk had been desk-bound in San Francisco), found it hard to imagine him as anything else, or as wanting anything else. Years of watching Kirk in the command chair, listening to the firm tone of his voice, feeling the wave of confidence that possessed the bridge even in times of danger simply because that one man was in charge, listening to the stories, the rumors, the jokes, the occasional criticism, had shaped him into someone capable of commanding a ship of his own and of moving out of Kirk's shadow. Much of Kirk stayed with him, though; always would, Sulu suspected. He had caught himself on more than one occasion thinking, What would Captain Kirk do? How would he react? And there was that one last consideration, filling Sulu's wandering reflections at odd times when he was alone: Jim Kirk has Spock. And I have no one now. I've returned to the Cooper, only to find Casey gone, reassigned to the Alliance. And Janet dead, one of the first casualties of the Kelvan War. No, no one.

"Yes," he said to Taylor. "Mine, too."

"I don't envy you that, Hikaru," she replied somberly. "It's one of those jobs that you have to be a little bit crazy to want."

His eyes twinkled. "Amen."

"So is it true? Are you married to your ship?"

Married? Sulu thought. His right hand drifted into the pocket of his uniform jacket, brushing the little package he'd kept safely tucked inside since they'd left Earth days before. Where the hell is Pavel? he wondered. Why doesn't anybody know where anybody else is? Hell of a way to run a starship. "Not this one," he told Taylor. "Not yet. Maybe just engaged. It takes a while."

Taylor shook her head lightly. "Everything takes a while," she observed, and grinned lopsidedly at Sulu. Hurry up and wait, she thought. Came all the way out here to sit and wait. "Come on, Captain," she said cheerfully. "I'll buy you a beer. While we wait."


Leonard McCoy fell out of his chair.

He had been dozing at his desk, his head propped on one fist, and when he opened his eyes he was lying sprawled on the floor, the throbbing in his right elbow testimony to the fact that he had not landed gently. Puzzled, he pulled himself to his knees and then to his feet, grimaced at the ache in his elbow, scratched at his head and padded out of his office, through the adjacent lab and into the sickbay proper. No one there had called him; Peter Kirk was still sleeping soundly, and the nurse on duty was quietly filing reports at her desk. She glanced up when McCoy entered the room, questioning his appearance with her eyes. McCoy shook his head.

Then the voice called him again.


Spock's voice. There was no doubt of the urgency of it, which left no time to wonder about why he was hearing Spock's voice inside his head. McCoy pivoted on one heel, ran out into the corridor and headed for the turbolift. The car took several seconds to arrive, with McCoy bouncing impatiently on the balls of his feet the whole time. When the lift finally delivered him on E Deck, he erupted into the corridor, running again. He was well past Chekov's cabin, passing his own and only a few meters from Spock's when he noticed that Chekov had fallen into step behind him. He pulled himself to a halt outside Spock's door, and Chekov stopped at his elbow.

"What's wrong?" Chekov demanded.

McCoy thumped at the door controls. "I don't know. He...I don't know. Damn him, it's locked. Why is it locked?"

Chekov reached past the doctor and keyed in the security override code, then his own personal code. Obediently, the door slid open, and red light flooded into the corridor. McCoy hustled inside, Chekov still at his heels, each of them stumbling slightly as they moved into the heavier gravity of the first officer's cabin. The sitting room was empty. With a rising sense of foreboding, McCoy went on into Spock's sleeping quarters.

"Gretchen," Chekov said thinly.

Neither one of them was asleep. There was something about the limpness of both of them that was far beyond natural sleep: Jaeger on her back on the bunk, Spock in a quasi-sitting position, crumpled against the bulkhead at the head of the bunk. His hand had fallen away from her face and lay abandoned against his left thigh. Shuddering, McCoy moved closer to the bunk, activated the feinberger he had snatched up on his way out of Sickbay, and passed it in front of Spock. He grimaced again; if the readings had been any lower, they would have failed to register. Jaeger's readings were the same.

"Are they dead?" Chekov whispered.

"No. I don't know. Close." McCoy's voice betrayed only part of his alarm; he had never seen readings this low, even when Spock was in the middle of the healing trance. He was tempted to say that life was not possible with vital signs almost immeasurable--with Vulcans, who knew? But with Humans.... He glanced at Chekov, who had gathered Jaeger up and was holding her close. She was slumped against him like some boneless, amoeboid thing. "God damn it, Spock," McCoy muttered. A Vulcan healing trance, Spock had said it would be, and there was only one way to bring a Vulcan out of that.

With Chekov watching him queerly, McCoy drew back his right hand, swung, and delivered Spock a blow to the face that left the bones in McCoy's hand singing.

Chekov said, wide-eyed, "What are you..."

"Waking him up," McCoy snapped, drew back, and smashed Spock across the face again, and again. And again. "Spock..." he said between his teeth. He was about to deliver yet another blow when Spock's eyes snapped open like window shades. The Vulcan's right hand flew up and caught McCoy's by the wrist.

"I do not need a broken jaw, Doctor," Spock said hoarsely.

McCoy trembled with relief. "Thank God."

"Your deity has little or nothing to do with it, Doctor." Spock drew in a long breath and attempted to straighten away from the bulkhead, finding, not to his surprise, that he did not have the strength to do so. His vision was clouded, his concentration ragged. In the corner of his mind that could focus on irrelevancies without distracting him, he suspected that his present state corresponded rather closely to that condition the Humans called a hangover. Why they would deliberately court such a state, he had no idea. "She slipped away from me," he said to Chekov.

Chekov cradled Jaeger's head against his shoulder. He seemed beyond grief, beyond anger. "You tried," he murmured.

"You must call her back."

"Spock," McCoy said, in a voice that was close to a sigh.

Spock brushed aside McCoy's hands, still scanning him with the feinberger. "Mister Chekov," he went on, his throat growing increasingly raw and dry, "no one else can get her back."

Chekov stared at him blankly. "What?"

Spock shook himself slightly and straightened his consciousness much as he would have straightened his uniform. Ignoring McCoy's pointedly dismayed expression, he reached out, rested one hand on Chekov and the other on Jaeger, cleared his mind and allowed Chekov's consciousness to flow toward Jaeger's.

Chekov flinched, startled, though more by the black void that Spock had plunged him into than by having his own mind invaded. She is down there, Spock's mind said. Call her back. He felt Chekov scrambling, disoriented, clinging to the sense of order in Spock's mind. Gently, firmly, Spock pushed him away, toward the void. There, he insisted. Call her back, before it is too late.

There is nothing there, Chekov's mind replied.

Deep, Spock insisted. Very deep. You are the only one who can bring her back. She will only come for you.

Gretchen? Chekov thought.

She will die, Chekov. Her consciousness is unraveling. She broke loose from me and she is lost in there. Bring her back, or she will die. Call to her! Insist! This is not a room in which the lights have been turned out. This is death. Do not surrender her to it.

This is death?

Yes. Do it now. Now!

Gretchen! Chekov's mind called out. If he had used his voice, he would have been heard all the way down the corridor in spite of the soundproofing in the cabin walls. Gretchen?!

Deeper. Go after her.

I can't go... Chekov began. Not down there.

You want to let her go?

No. No.

Then go get her.

He could feel her drooped against him, very still, not even stirred by breathing (was she breathing?), her hair and the crumpled exercise clothes ripe with half-dried perspiration yet infinitely familiar. "I wanted to serve with Captain Kirk," he remembered her saying. "Do you thing I should let him win?" He thought of the losses of his life: his father who despised everything he stood for, Irini who had left him to go in search of Eden, Captain Terrell. The life he had left behind to stay with the Enterprise. Thinking that he would never have home, family, roots. No one to share anything with except an easy camaraderie. Sleeping in an empty cabin where the silence sometimes seemed to close in on him, threatening him like the creature hiding under the bed he had feared as a small child.

"I wanted to serve with Captain Kirk."

He had acted like a fool, like a schoolboy, drawn to this woman for a reason he had never uncovered, drawn to her even when she did her best to drive him away. She had run, and he had chased, and finally, unexpectedly, she had stopped running and turned around and he had slammed right into her. All right, he thought, unaware that he was thinking in the tense-ridden Russian of his ancestors. I will chase one more time. He turned away from Spock, there in the darkness, and searched for her. If he had given the slightest flicker of thought to what he was doing, he would have been terrified.

Lingering beside the bed (he had tried perching on it, but there were already three people occupying a space meant for only one), McCoy made passes with the feinberger and began scowling to himself. Now all three of them were somewhere else, vital signs in the range that belonged to someone going under for the third time. He kept silent, not wanting to disturb whatever the hell it was that was going on in front of him, not sure why he was here at all. Why bother? he thought. Bring her back so she can die again in a couple of days? Heroic measures! What's the use? McCoy himself had used respirators, heart pumps, a whole array of gadgetry to preserve lives for a few hours, a few days longer, lives that in all good conscience should have been let go. Playing God, he thought. Although it was Spock's playing God that had plunged Jaeger into this...what? a coma?...in the first place. Should have left well enough alone, McCoy thought. Give her hope where there isn't any hope. What good is it? and Chekov--what good does it do him?

McCoy stepped away from the bunk and began pacing, his hands and arms moving without purpose, his face working animatedly though he still made no sound.

What a waste, he thought. What a God damn waste. That's all this is--Starfleet. Wasting kids.

He stopped pacing, let his head sink a little, gazing through the doorway at the flame in the belly of Spock's pagan idol, symbol of what Vulcan had been thousands of years ago. He wanted nothing more than to sit down in the middle of the floor and go to sleep. His head had begun to ache powerfully, as if he had spent the last several hours standing on it. The chemical smell from the fire in Kirk's quarters had seeped into the air in here, prickling McCoy's nose and throat and making his eyes itch. Only automatic pilot kept him upright and thinking.

Maybe Jim's right. What's the point of all of this?

He half-turned, blinking at the rhythmic thumping in his head. No one on the bunk had moved. He felt tempted to giggle, just to relieve the tension, at the odd tableau in front of him.

Let her go, Spock. This isn't logical.

Spock's eyes opened slowly and he gazed evenly, placidly at McCoy, as if he had been listening in on the doctor's mental wanderings the whole time. "No, Doctor," he said. "It isn't."

"Then what is it?" McCoy replied softly.


McCoy frowned. "What?"

"The giving of oneself. More specifically, the giving of a portion of one's life energy in order to preserve the life of another. The 'gift' the Dianasians have lost."

"Not the Vulcan healing trance?"


Chekov stirred now too, and though his eyes remained closed, he held Jaeger a little tighter, a little closer. She nestled against him now and seemed to be sleeping normally, her breathing noticeable when McCoy looked closer.

"What did it accomplish, Spock?" McCoy asked. "Bringing her back."

Spock's expressive brow slid up. "I should think that would be apparent."

"It just prolongs..."

"She is not going to die," Spock said.

This time McCoy's brows went up. "The hell she's not."

Summoning what little strength he could, Spock got up from the bunk, took McCoy by the arm and steered him into the sitting room. It took a large percentage of Spock's concentration for him to remain standing, but he would not surrender himself to sinking into a chair. Not for the moment. "I suggest that you not discuss Lieutenant Jaeger as if she were a piece of furniture, Doctor," he told McCoy quietly. "She can hear you."

"She knows she's dying, Spock."

"No, she does not. Because she is not dying any longer."

"Wherever you've been, Spock," McCoy groaned, "it's altered your perception of reality."

"Doctor," Spock said pointedly.

"All right. Explain."

"The chain has been broken."

"What chain?"

"The foreign molecule." Spock gave McCoy the Dianasian name for the cyanoalisitate-trace element combination, which did little but make McCoy blink distractedly. "If you will use the scanner for its intended purpose, I believe you will discover that there is no longer any trace of the molecule in Lieutenant Jaeger's body." He waited; McCoy stared down at the feinberger as if he expected it to provide a more satisfactory answer.

After a moment, McCoy nodded in curt acquiescence and strode back into the sleeping room. When he returned, his disgruntled look had been replaced by one of astonishment.

"Well?" Spock inquired.

"It's malfunctioning," McCoy said. "Has to be. There was no way..."

"There was no way you were aware of. That does not mean a way did not exist," Spock pointed out.

"What did you do?"

Spock stood there, arms folded, and regarded the doctor for a long moment. He had no doubt that McCoy was not looking for the answer he was about to give, and that it would provoke McCoy unreasonably. "I believe you are aware," he began, "that under normal circumstances, most Human beings only employ some twenty-four point seven percent of their available mental capacity. Vulcans, being much more highly trained in the mental disciplines, are able to call upon a much higher percentage. I merely showed Lieutenant Jaeger how to use some of the mental capacity she had been ignoring."

"Which means?" McCoy asked wearily.

"I showed her how to break down the foreign molecule using the power of her mind."

McCoy gaped at the Vulcan. "Oh, really."

"Yes," Spock said. "Really."

He's going to drive me out of business, McCoy thought. He squinted at the feinberger, knowing that there was nothing wrong with the little instrument and that he would obtain the same results using the diagnostic bed in Sickbay--hundreds of years' worth of technology at heaven knew how much expense crammed into a set of scanners that could pinpoint a single cancer cell the moment it came into being. McCoy made great, constant noise about mistrusting the thing, but inwardly, silently, he knew it worked, knew it was accurate, knew it made no Human errors. At the moment, neither did the little feinberger, as much as he wanted to believe otherwise. The power of her mind? he thought. Well...anything's possible. His eyes on Spock, he sank down into a chair. "Spock," he said eventually, holding his face perfectly calm, "there's a Human woman in your bed. You realize how that looks."

The Vulcan's expression changed minutely, nearly becoming a tiny smile before he stopped it and substituted the customary raised eyebrow. Seconds filled with a profound silence went by, and then Spock spoke once more, fully aware of the reaction his words would spring from McCoy. "Yes, Doctor," he said mildly. "However...this is not the first time."

McCoy's mouth dropped. "What...?"

The trap had been laid, walked into, and tripped. Spock sat down on the chair opposite McCoy's and asked, "How is Jim?"

"He'll be all right. He's asleep."

"I felt...there was some trouble?"

"Trouble?" McCoy echoed. "Yes, there was trouble. One of our security people is dead, and Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Kirk, and Lieutenant McCutcheon have been injured." He examined Spock's expression. To a stranger, it would have seemed that there was nothing to examine, but McCoy had studied that face for so long that every nuance was plain even in the dim, reddish light.

"The captain is all right. He found his own answers. Some of them, anyway. Now he just needs some rest. He's got a couple of broken ribs, but hell, he's broken every bone in his body at least twice before." Spock didn't question the exaggeration. "I think you need some rest, too," McCoy suggested.

"Yes," Spock murmured. "Undisturbed, if possible. Will you see to it?"

"I suppose so."

"Thank you, Doctor."

It took another moment and a heavy spurt of concentration, but McCoy shook off his fog and his growing headache and fixed Spock with a leaden stare. "Good God Almighty, Spock," he said sharply. "What did you do? There was nothing..."

"'Nothing' is a scientific impossibility," Spock pointed out dutifully.

"Don't split hairs. You know what I mean. That woman was dying. In anybody's book, no matter whether you look at it right side up, upside down, inside out or backwards, that woman was dying. Now she's not dying. The power of her mind?" McCoy wagged his head. "Unless I'm imagining all this, having hallucinations from lack of sleep, then I suppose it's enough that you did whatever you did."

"Yes. The fact itself should be sufficient."

"If that's all there is." McCoy shook his head again like a terrier shaking off water. "Go on, rest. I'll have Jaeger moved into Sickbay so I can run some more tests. You sleep. You worked a miracle. That entitles you to some sleep, I guess."

"No miracle. Just the application of..."

McCoy cut him off. "I don't want to hear it. You can call it something else, but some of us call this kind of thing a miracle. Doesn't matter. Thank you. You did what I couldn't do." He pulled himself up out of the chair, took a step toward the door, stopped, reached out to touch Spock's shoulder in a gesture of gratitude and comfort, hesitated, looked for a reaction in Spock's eyes, found it, completed the gesture. "Sleep," he said.

"Undisturbed," Spock reminded him.

The doctor glanced into the sleeping room, where Chekov still held Jaeger cradled in his arms and was murmuring something at the top of her head. Not the first time? he thought, his astonishment renewed. Spock's bond-mate, T'Liba, was a Vulcan. When he turned again, the smallest trace of a smile was disappearing from Spock's lips. He's kidding, McCoy told himself. He's got to be kidding. Whoever said Vulcans don't make jokes doesn't know what they're talking about. But if this is a joke, it's a monster. Then a memory came back to him: an experience he and Spock had shared, long ago. Somehow, McCoy was profoundly disappointed. "Zarabeth," he said with a frown. "You meant Zarabeth."

"Yes," Spock replied. "I meant Zarabeth."

And the nuances in his face changed. Damn this infernal red light, McCoy thought. Why can't he have normal light in here? So you can see what's going on. He took another step toward the door. "Give me a few minutes to get an orderly down here with a stretcher," he said over his shoulder. "Once we get Jaeger our of your bed, you can have it to yourself."

"Thank you."

Zarabeth, McCoy thought. He meant Zarabeth. He looked over his shoulder at the first officer. Zarabeth!

And somebody else.

"Someday," he said with an edge, "you're going to explain."

"Possibly," Spock replied.

Chapter 9


Kirk squirmed in his sleep. Gillian Taylor watched him wiggle around, absently rubbing her chin with a forefinger. His face was twitching animatedly, responding to something that had penetrated down to his subconscious, but whether or not he had heard her speak, she had no idea. He looks good, she thought, in spite of the multicolored bruises that peppered his upper body and his face. The last time she'd seen him, he'd been twenty pounds heavier, more flushed...and a lot more fully dressed. The thin sheet tangled around his waist left her a considerably better view than she'd ever had before, and she appreciated every moment of it.

"How long has he been sleeping?" she asked over her shoulder.

"Let's see...almost fourteen hours." Lesley Chapman, the nurse who'd brought Taylor to the little room behind McCoy's office, moved closer to Taylor and gave her a warm, if curious, smile. "Must be some sort of record," she chuckled. "Doctor McCoy must have given him enough tranquilizers to knock out a bear."

Taylor gnawed at her lower lip. "Maybe I shouldn't wake him."

"Oh, go ahead," Chapman encouraged. "He's close to waking up anyway. If he keeps thrashing like that, he's going to make himself pretty sore." She made a sweeping gesture with her hand to spur Taylor on, smiled again, and went on out to McCoy's office, tapping the door panel with the heel of her hand on the way through so that the door whooshed shut behind her.

"Jim," Taylor said again, then, more firmly, "Captain Kirk."

He went on squirming. "Not now," he muttered.

Taylor grinned foolishly but held back a laugh. "Captain Kirk, wake up."

Finally he opened his eyes, squinting fiercely at the intrusion of the light, although it was fairly dim and it backlit Taylor so that her face was in shadow. Kirk shot a look around, momentarily confused, aware that this was not his bed nor his cabin and trying to identify his surroundings and his visitor as quickly as possible. He was relatively certain of being on the Enterprise, but the room was unfamiliar, and as for the woman at the foot of the bed...blonde curls, high cheekbones, crimson and white outfit. Carol? he thought. No, that was impossible. What is Carol doing here, now? Someone might have notified her of his accident--she might have come to see if he was all right. Not angry at him any longer, willing to let the relationship continue in spite of all that had happened, in spite of losing David. Slowly, wincing at the heavy soreness in his chest, he pushed himself into a sitting position. That changed the angle of the light a little, and as his eyes accustomed themselves to the overhead fixture, he was finally able to identify his guest. Not Carol. "Gillian?" he frowned. "What are you doing here?"

"Well," she said, with an edge of dismay that was not entirely faked. "Thanks for the warm welcome."

He blinked hard several times. There was a cramp in the small of his back, and he twisted, trying to relieve it. "I'm sorry. But...what are you doing here?"

"I was invited to a wedding. What's the matter?"

"Cramp in my back."

She tossed the leather bag she'd been carrying onto the chair next to the bed and moved closer to him. "Where? Show me." He indicated the spot, and she made a fist and firmly but gently pressed her knuckles into the cramp, massaging it into relaxing. Kirk winced again but let her continue, and after a minute of the pressure the cramp began to ease. "What happened to you?" Taylor asked, though more to make conversation than any other reason; both McCoy and Lesley Chapman had briefed her on the events of the last few days already.

Kirk smiled slightly. "Somebody dropped a building on me."

"I see."

He paused, reviewing what she'd said about being there. "You were invited to a wedding?"

"Mmmm-hmm. Chekov invited me."

His expression flickered, changed, turned dour. "There's not...going to be a wedding." His mind went on tossing things over, wondering how she'd arranged to come all the way from Earth--not as if she'd been asked to drop by if she were in the neighborhood! When had Chekov invited her? As far as he knew, none of his crew had seen Taylor since the last time they had all been together, back in the Federation Council chambers the day of the trial. Could have kept in touch by CommPic, he supposed, though the idea of that nudged a jealous nerve. But she seemed not to know anything was wrong... Could Chekov still intend to go through with the ceremony? he wondered. He'd heard of deathbed weddings now and then...but that was the next best thing to necrophilia. Kirk began to feel chilled. "I don't think they're going to..."

"What do you mean, there's not going to be a wedding?" she retorted, hands on hips. "That's not what they just told me."

"Just told you when?"

"Oh, a little while ago. I don't know--an hour, maybe. I met the bride-to-be." Taylor made a face, amused, playful. "I don't know...somehow she's not what I pictured for Chekov. She seems like kind of a handful. Does she ever sit down?"

A handful? Kirk thought. "What are you talking about?"

Taylor opened her mouth to reply, stopped, held a mouthful of air like a fish. "What are you talking about?"

"Jaeger. She's dying."

"Dying?" Taylor said shrilly. "Oh, come on. That's not much of a joke. If she is, we should all look that good when we're dying."

He was growing more agitated by the moment. Ignoring the collection of aches and stabs from his injuries, he scrambled out of the bed (not noticing Taylor's flicker of a grin at his rumpled shorts) and scooped up the uniform McCoy had left draped over the back of the bedside chair. A minute later, he was completely dressed.

"Why is it everybody always knows what's going on, but I never do?" he complained, rubbing his hair into a semblance of order with his palms. "Where's McCoy?" Not waiting for an answer, he strode to the door, barely giving it enough time to open, trotted on through McCoy's office and into the lab and said to Lesley Chapman, "Where's McCoy?"

Shrugging, Chapman replied, "In the gym, I think, sir. At least that's where he said he was going."

Taylor hustled along after Kirk, nearly running to keep up with him. He stopped at the entrance to the turbolift, slapped the controls, and stood shifting his weight from one foot to the other while he waited for the 'lift to arrive. When he stepped into the car, turning to face front, he noticed Taylor's presence and held the door for her, snapping, "Gymnasium," once she was safely inside.

"Captain...Jim," Taylor said puzzledly, "what is it?"

"Jaeger," he replied.

"What about her?" Taylor frowned. "You weren't serious about her dying--were you?"

"Of course, I was serious."

"But she looked fine to me. More than fine."

"She isn't. She wasn't. She..." The lift doors opened, and with an exasperated shake of his head, Kirk trotted out into the corridor, aiming for the gym. Completely lost, Taylor hurried along behind and followed him into the cavernous main gymnasium at the far end of the corridor. Inside, not far from the doors, at the periphery of the oval track that rimmed the room, McCoy was alternately watching a pocket chronometer and Jaeger, who was absorbed in running along the track. Spock stood there, arms behind his back, watching interestedly. Kirk stopped abruptly, causing Taylor to bring herself up short to avoid colliding with him, and gaped across the room. McCoy went on studying the chrono and said mildly, "You ought to be in bed."

"Bones," Kirk said, "what the hell is going on?"

"Laps," McCoy replied.

Kirk's face reddened. "Laps?"

"Hmmm. This is four. Damn good time, too. You wouldn't happen to know the current record for fifteen-hundred meters, would you?"

"Bones," Kirk sputtered.

McCoy looked up from the chrono. Bad habit, he thought, trying to irk him like that. Smiling slightly, he inclined his head in Spock's direction. "Ask him."


"I worked a miracle," the Vulcan replied. "So Doctor McCoy informs me."

"A miracle?"

"All the cyanoalisitate is out of her system," McCoy told the captain. "The polyoxyl-whatsis, too. I don't know what Spock did, but he did it. She's fine." Jaeger was approaching them, and as she passed, McCoy made a downward spiraling motion with his hand. Jaeger nodded in acknowledgment and let her pace slow a little as she continued around the track. The last half lap she did at a rapid walk with Kirk, McCoy, Spock and Taylor all watching her intently.

"How'd I do?" she asked McCoy when she was finished.

He nodded in satisfaction and showed her the reading on the chrono. "Cut three-tenths of a second off your old time."

"Hello, Captain," she said to Kirk. "How are you?"

Kirk looked from her to McCoy and back again. Smiling broadly, Jaeger pushed wet strands of hair out of her face; she'd worn a sweatband but half her hair had escaped it during the run. The captain seemed to be considering a response, but for the moment, she let him go on gaping. Her feet were doing a gentle jitterbug, but beyond that and the sweat, she showed no sign of having exercised at all. Kirk frowned and leaned over to examine McCoy's chronometer. "You just ran fifteen-hundred meters in..." he blurted.

"Uh-huh," she replied gaily.

Taylor touched Kirk's arm to get his attention. "This is the woman who was supposed to be..."

"Not any more, apparently," he muttered.

McCoy confirmed, "Not any more."

Kirk sucked in a deep breath and looked Jaeger over once more. She was nearly giddy, eyes bright, grinning from ear to ear, feet still tap-dancing against the carpet that rimmed the track. Kirk was forced to smile too, ultimately, and shook his head in wonder. "You're all right?" he asked Spock.

"Yes, Captain. I am well."

"Then it seems you knew what you were doing."

"It was a considered risk." Before Kirk could reply, Spock went on, "The Dianasians have requested a conference. Their Citizen's High Council, the two ambassadors, you and me, Captain Sulu and First Officer Xon. And Ambassador Koloth." He paused. "They wish us to make peace with the Klingons."

Kirk nearly gagged. "With Koloth?"

"As a representative of the Klingon Empire."

"I see. Does the Empire have any idea that Koloth is representing them?"

"I have no idea. But I would tend to doubt it."

"So would I."

"You will attend the conference, then?"

Kirk thought it over for a moment, then shrugged. "I suppose so. At least I won't have to do all the talking." His expression changed and he shook his head again. "Make peace, eh? The Organians should enjoy this." He chuckled wryly to himself. "Well, it's dress uniforms, I imagine. Do I have time to change?"

"One point two seven hours."

"Good." Kirk glanced at Taylor. "I have a guest to entertain."

"Yes," Spock said.

The captain hadn't missed the look that flashed between Spock and Taylor. Attend a wedding, indeed, Kirk thought. Something beyond Jaeger caught his eye: One of the secondary doors had opened, and Chekov had come strolling into the gym, his hands in his pockets. "Lieutenant," Kirk said, "I think you've had enough running for one day."

She turned to look, frowning a little. "Yes, sir. I think I have."

"But I expect you on the handball court as soon as my ribs are healed. I intend to whip you--eventually."

She grinned widely, considered the thought that had popped into her head and decided to speak it. "You have a long way to go, sir."

"Still. I will beat you one of these days."

With the others watching, Jaeger crossed the gym to join Chekov, who took her by the hand and walked with her out the door he had come in. The four left behind were silent for a while, then Taylor asked with a note of mischief, "Doctor? How long till the captain's ribs are healed?"

"Oh, another three or four days," McCoy told her. "He regenerates pretty fast." He glanced at Kirk and added, "He's had a lot of practice."

"That long?" Taylor said. "Three days?"

"Or four."

"Hmmm," said Taylor.

"No handball."

Taylor shook her head firmly, ignoring the look she and McCoy were getting from Kirk. "No handball. Actually, I'm not much of a handball player myself. I thought we might just have some dinner later on, and catch up on what's been happening the last few months. That would be all right, wouldn't it?"

"He should get some more sleep," McCoy mused.

"I don't want to get any more sleep," Kirk retorted.

McCoy pointed out, poker-faced, "It'll take you longer to heal."

"I'll take my chances."

"Well..." McCoy pocketed his chronometer and lifted his shoulders in a gesture of unavoidable resignation. "Take care of him, Doctor Taylor."

"I'll try, Doctor McCoy," Taylor smiled. "Even though he isn't very good at following orders."

McCoy snorted and went out the main doors. Spock watched him go, then turned to Kirk and announced, "If you will excuse me, Captain, I have..."

"Go." Kirk waved him away.

"I will meet you in the transporter room, then."

Kirk nodded. "In one point two seven hours. Or whatever fraction it is now. We'll go sit down with the Klingon Empire and make peace. Or something."

When Spock had gone, leaving them alone in the gym, Taylor straightened her shoulders, tossed back a lock of hair, and said brightly, "So, Captain Kirk. We have a little over an hour. Are you going to show me your ship, or did you want to run a few laps?"


"I really ought to go take a shower, Pavel. I'm a mess."

Chekov stopped outside the door to the officer's lounge, his hands again in his pockets, and turned to face her. "You're all right now?" he asked, unexplainably sober.

"I'm fine. I feel wonderful. I could go out and conquer the universe. But I need a bath."

He drew his right hand out of his pocket, his fingers curved around something. "These are for you."

Puzzled, Jaeger held out her hand. Chekov opened his fingers and filled her palm with half a dozen fat, slightly overripe strawberries. Her eyes widened and she let out a squeak of delight. "Strawberries? Where did you get them? We don't have any..."

"Hikaru brought them."

"Oh," she whispered.

Chekov wandered on into the lounge, sat down on the sofa nearest the viewport and stretched out his legs. Jaeger trailed along behind him, nibbling at the strawberries. "You know, I've been thinking," he began.

"You're going back to Moscow?"

"No. No, I'll stay here. But I was thinking. It might be good if we saw other people for a while."

"Other...? What other people?"

"I've been looking around. There's a woman down in Engineering. Brinkman." He remained poker-faced, but had to keep his eyes on the viewport to do so. "Blonde hair. And a terrific body. Very friendly. She's had her eye on me."



Jaeger scowled at him. "So what's wrong with my body?"

"Well, Lieutenant, you are awfully short."

"The hell with you, Pavel Chekov. So are you."

"Do you love me?"

"No," Jaeger said.

"You lie, Lieutenant. I should put you on report for lying to a senior officer."

"I hate you when you pull rank." She ate the last of the berries and frowned absently at the goo left in her palm. After a moment, she reached out and wiped it off on the sleeve of Chekov's uniform tunic. "Go ahead, run off with Brinkman if you want. I don't want to marry you anyway. You won't even play handball with me."

"Of course not," Chekov replied. "You'd destroy me."

"You don't like challenges."

"I love challenges. Why else would I have anything to do with you?"

"There is nothing wrong with my body," Jaeger told him.

Chekov smiled. "I know."

"So, Brinkman is blonde. And maybe she's taller. But she doesn't play handball."

"What has that got to do with anything?"

"It teaches you control. Maybe I'm short. But this body does whatever I want it to do, when I want to do it. Deny that."

"No. I'll admit that."

"I can show you."

He grinned. "Now, there's an idea."

"Not here."

"Why not here?" He put the glass down. "Everybody's down on the planet."

"Everybody is not down on the planet."

The corners of his mouth quirked up, and he reached out and pulled her toward him. "I don't care," he said.


James Tiberius Kirk, son of George and Marjorie Kirk, native of Riverside, Iowa, citizen of Earth, and Captain of the Federation starship Enterprise, sat at one side of a carved wooden table that would have provided reasonable protection against the explosion of a photon grenade, his hands clasped, fingers interlaced, and frowned at life. Several meters away, the two Federation ambassadors (Jakel, tall, angular, topped with a bush of unruly graying hair, and D'Novio, stumpily short and mustachioed) stood chatting with the members of the Citizens' High Council of Dianas. Hikaru Sulu and his Vulcan first officer, Commander Xon, who had served aboard the Enterprise following the V'Ger mission until the Serenidad Tragedy, sat at the far end of the table from Kirk, discussing something between themselves. Spock sat at Kirk's left, silent, listening to the myriad of conversations simultaneously. And at Kirk's right was the Klingon Empire's erstwhile representative.

"Here," Koloth said pleasantly. "Have some coffee."

Kirk looked at him blankly. Koloth had filled a brownish earthenware mug with the steaming, dark beverage that was the Dianasians' version of coffee and was sliding it in Kirk's direction. "No, thank you," Kirk said sourly.

"You think I've poisoned it?" Koloth inquired.

Kirk hauled in a deep breath--as deep as he could manage within the confines of the pressure bandage-- hazarded a glance in Spock's direction, and replied, "I'm not thirsty."

"I thought perhaps..."


Koloth shook his head slightly. "You Humans are fond of saying you've gotten rid of all your old prejudices. It seems all you've really done is move them outward."

"What's your point, Koloth?" Kirk snapped.

"My point?" He thought it over for a moment. "What is it you think I'm guilty of, Captain?"

Kirk sputtered softly. "What I think..."

"Your nephew asked why he wasn't allowed to talk to me--just talk--and you told him it was because I'm a Klingon."

"Treason," Kirk said.

"But why?" Koloth said pointedly. "What am I guilty of, Kirk? I did nothing."

"I was told my nephew gave you computer tapes in exchange for the resonator."

"True enough."

"Federation computer tapes."

Koloth shrugged, easily and eloquently. "That's true, I suppose. They were produced by Federation equipment. But I wasn't aware that the Federation guards its literature quite so zealously." He reached down into the pockets of his robe and brought out the computer disc Peter had given him in the woods several nights ago, enjoying Kirk's growing disgruntlement--thought not as much as he had anticipated. Puzzling at himself, he slid the disc across the table and let Kirk read the label.

"Bleak House?" Kirk said sharply.

"I enjoy Dickens. Some of his works are a bit hard to come by in the Empire, though. And the literature here on Dianas is somewhat...well, let's say not in my taste. Your nephew was kind enough to offer to trade me several tapes from the Enterprise's library in exchange for the use of the resonator." Koloth returned the tape to his pocket, well aware that Kirk suspected the label of being false. "If I may point out once again, it was not my fault that your nephew set fire to your cabin. Or that Ensign Cooper removed the resonator from stasis without deprogramming it. I loaned the two young men my...toy...simply because they asked for my help in distracting you."

"Distracting me?"

"That was Ensign Cooper's word. As he explained it to me originally, he meant no harm. Just a diversion. To relieve the boredom."

Kirk coughed explosively. Most of what was going through his mind was visible in his eyes. "Boredom?!"

"Yes. Just a little joke."

"It was quite a joke."

"Not originally. Actually, not until Ensign Cooper took matters into his own hands. All the resonator did was make a little noise. I thought it was rather amusing. I understand the nursery rhyme--what's your phrase? Had you going for a while." Koloth folded his hands across his midriff and considered Kirk in silence for a moment. "You have no sense of humor, Kirk."


"Not when the joke is on you."

"They...you...disrupted my ship. You don't 'play' with a starship."

"Oh, come now, Kirk. Don't be so eternally stiff. I can see now why they thought you needed to be distracted--aside from the question of the crystals, of course. You take things much too seriously."

Kirk had no answer.

Koloth slid the mug toward him again. Curlicues of steam wafted from its fragrant contents.

"That is not coffee," Spock pointed out in a low tone. "It comes from a native plant. It does contain a chemical compound somewhat similar to caffeine. However, it is also approximately seventeen percent ethyl alcohol."

"Ah, Mister Spock," Koloth replied, "that only makes it interesting."

Still frowning, Kirk took the mug and drank from it, purposely not testing to see if the beverage was hot enough to burn his mouth. It was indeed hot enough, and with some effort he maintained his expression long enough to drain half the cup. The drink left an odd, not quite bitter aftertaste that made him think of liquefied cedar chips.

"Give it a minute," Koloth smiled. "It kicks."

It did indeed.

"They want us to make peace, Captain," Koloth went on. "Shall we make a show of it?"

"I'm not the ambassador," Kirk replied.

"Neither am I, Captain. But at the moment, I'm the closest there is available." He nodded toward Jakel and D'Novio. "They seem to accept me as a legitimate representative of the Empire. They're willing to talk."

"They want to make the Dianasians happy."

"Of course, they do. They don't want to lose their precious agreement. But the point of it all is to talk, isn't it, Captain? No matter who does the talking. No matter whether I've been sanctioned by the Empire to represent it or not." Koloth considered the Enterprise's captain for a moment, then Spock, who was listening carefully although he seemed disinclined to offer anything more to the conversation for the time being. "The Organians claim that eventually there'll be peace between your people and mine. I hold out no hope of that happening in my lifetime. Who knows--perhaps peace between us will only mean we're fighting someone else. I think your people are much like mine, Kirk. We have to fight with someone, somewhere. As I said: you've just moved your boundaries outward. And so have we." He smiled somewhat wistfully. "They intend us to talk. Will you talk?"

"What difference does it make to you, Koloth?" Kirk asked.

"Call it a personal accomplishment. Say that it means I've studied my subject properly, and can draw the correct conclusions. Will you talk?"

Kirk drained his cup. "I'll listen."

"Perhaps that's good enough," Koloth replied.


"They didn't have anything like this back home, did they?" Kirk asked, extending a glass of Saurian brandy to Taylor. It was her second, and the warm flush on her face spoke volumes about her reaction to the drink. She shook her head, sipping at the brandy as Kirk raised his own glass. "So, Doctor," he went on, "why did you come here?"

"To go to a wedding."

Kirk wagged his head. "You only found out about the wedding this morning."

"So get me on a technicality, will you."

The captain was beginning to feel a little flushed himself. "You came halfway across the galaxy to go to a wedding. I didn't know you were that fond of Chekov."

"Of course I am. We all shared quite an adventure, Captain. I may not have spent much time with Chekov, but we have ties that bind now." She lowered the glass a little and considered him in the light of the candle Lesley Chapman had brought her from ship's stores. "Chekov, Sulu, Scotty, Doctor McCoy. Uhura. Mister Spock. Me. And you." Her smile slipped away, replaced by something a bit more solemn. "I told you I'd find you, didn't I?"

"You did," Kirk confirmed. "I wasn't sure when."

"I missed you." Her voice went low, and soft. "I missed you very much."

"Why, Doctor. I thought we were...pals."

Taylor gazed into her brandy. "I don't know--I think we've gone beyond 'pals'. Without even being together." Her eyes twinkled. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that."

"How long are you staying?" he asked quietly.

"Oh...let's see. I have about a month's leave time coming, but I used up a few days of it just getting here. Figure another week getting back, maybe a little longer if I have to hitch a ride from somebody who's not going straight back to Earth." She beamed at Kirk. "Three or four days, I suppose. That long enough?"

He hesitated, saw the joke in her eyes, and played along with it. "I think that should do it."

"Oh, good. I was a little worried anyway. You've read Mark Twain, haven't you?"

"Yes," Kirk said, not sure of her point.

"He said fish and visitors should both be thrown out after three days. I wouldn't want to wear out my welcome. No use spoiling things by hanging around too long."

"No. No, that wouldn't do."

"No, not at all."

Kirk put his glass down, got up from the chair, took Taylor's glass away from her and set it beside his, and grasped her arm to urge her up out of her chair. Once up, she moved into his arms and he kissed her lingeringly. She smelled faintly of some flowery cologne...the way Edith had. When that thought intruded on him, he opened his eyes for a moment. Let it go, damn it, he thought.

Taylor cocked her head. "Is something wrong?"

"No. I just...I was thinking of something. It's nothing. I'm sorry."

"Something? Or someone?"

Let it go, he thought again. Not fair to her to go on thinking about a ghost. Not now. "I'm sorry," he said again.

"An important someone?"

"It was a long time ago," he muttered, avoiding her eyes. She reached out, caught his chin in her hand, and turned his face toward her. "I had someones a long time ago, too. A very long time ago. Like three hundred years."

Kirk laughed softly. "This was three hundred years ago, too."

"My God, Captain, you do get around."

It was only two weeks, he thought. Three hundred years ago--or twenty years ago, depending which way you wanted to look at it. He kissed Taylor again to make her close her eyes; her unwavering (if unaccusing) scrutiny had begun to make him feel extremely guilty. Edith...Something inside him turned over. Taylor's hand strayed up to the back of his neck and rested there. Not fair to her, he thought again. He held Taylor closer. The warmth of her reached him through the heavy fabric of both their uniforms. he began to suspect exactly why it was she had come halfway across the galaxy to find him--and why Spock had sent for her. Words came back to him, and he smiled ruefully to himself. You never do listen to yourself, do you? he thought. He'd been sitting in a local bar somewhere, some long-forgotten shore leave, nursing drinks with Scott and McCoy. "I find," he had said, a little soddenly, feeling enormously profound, "that the best way to convince somebody to stop living in the past is to convince him that he has a perfectly acceptable future."

Spock had remembered that, and he hadn't even been there. You know me better than I know myself, my friend, Kirk smiled.

Chapter 10

"You'll get married in uniform over my dead body," Uhura said hotly.

Jaeger turned away from the mirror, her hairbrush stopped in mid-stroke, and frowned at the older woman's intensity. She'd spent hundreds of hours on duty on the bridge, during most of which Nyota Uhura had also been at her post, but they knew little about each other personally and Jaeger was at a loss to explain Uhura's sudden vehemence. Why should she care what I wear? Jaeger thought fleetingly. "Well, ma'am," she said quietly, "I don't really have much of anything else."

"I figured that," Uhura replied. "That's why I brought this." She stepped around Taylor, picked up the squarish parcel she'd brought to Jaeger's cabin, and painstakingly freed the wrapping from what was underneath. Both Taylor and Jaeger gasped aloud when Uhura held the dress up.

"Oh, my," Taylor breathed. "It's gorgeous."

Uhura shook the dress gently by its shoulders, letting the fabric float into its natural contours. It was a fabulous creation, billowing, shimmering under the cabin lights, reflecting hints of a thousand colors. She'd come across it during her first full day on Dianas, on one of her habitual shopping trips, had admired it first for herself, then (remembering ruefully that there was little possibility of her needing a gown like this anytime soon) imagining it on the woman who had waltzed with Pavel Chekov wearing a regulation Starfleet dress uniform. She'd haggled pleasantly with the shop owner, hinting that the original price was a horrible offense to her oneness, and in the end had handed over more credits than she'd ever paid for anything for herself. Worth every bit, she'd thought then, and thought it again now. Jaeger was entranced, like a child at the doors to fairyland. No, little lady, Uhura thought affectionately, no uniforms today. "Take that thing off," she told Jaeger. "When you walk down that aisle, I want you to knock Pavel off his feet. He's marrying a woman, not a Starfleet officer."

Obediently, Jaeger shrugged out of her jacket, surrendering it to Taylor, who laid it over the back of the nearest chair. Lord help us, Uhura thought, she thinks everything coming from a superior officer is an order! Jaeger hesitated briefly, then unfastened and dropped the black uniform pants and hoisted the white turtleneck over her head, reddening as she passed them to Taylor. What she had on underneath the uniform was lavender, lacy, and definitely non-standard issue.

Taylor laughed softly. "Is that regulation?"

"Hardly," Uhura smiled. "But you'd be surprised how few of us follow regulations as far down as our underwear."

With helping hands from Uhura and Taylor, Jaeger slid into the gown and held her hair out of the way so that Uhura could fasten the dress up the back. When it was all in place, Uhura tugged her back a few paces so she could see herself in the mirror. Both Taylor and Uhura beamed in satisfaction.

"Shoes!" Taylor blurted.

Jaeger looked down at her feet. They were bare; her uniform boots lay on the floor near the bed. "I don't have..."

"Quartermaster," Uhura said to Taylor. "H Deck, straight ahead when you get off the turbolift." She scooped up one of Jaeger's boots and handed it to Taylor. "Tell them you need a pair of white shoes the same size as this boot, and you need them now. Don't let anybody give you any lip--tell them I sent you, and anybody who argues with you goes straight on report." Taylor nodded and flew out the door. Alone now with Jaeger, Uhura held the younger woman at arm's length and looked her over approvingly. "Better," she said with a warm smile. "Now you look like you ought to look. Don't tell me you never played dress-up when you were a little girl. Every girl wants to look like this somewhere along the line."

"It's beautiful, Commander," Jaeger murmured.

Uhura shook her head firmly. "Penda or Nyota. Please. No uniforms, and no titles today."

Jaeger's eyes went down. "All right."

"You look lovely. Believe that." Still smiling, Uhura took up the hairbrush, moved to stand behind Jaeger, and began brushing out her dark curls. "Remember something, will you?"

"Ma'am? I mean, Nyota?"

"Love him for what he is...and love him in spite of what he is."

Jaeger thought that over, watching her reflection and Uhura's in the mirror. "I will. I'll try."

The door signal chimed, and Uhura called out, "Come." The door slid open, revealing Spock out in the corridor. Uhura beckoned him in, and he moved far enough into the cabin to let the door close, but no farther. A slightly raised eyebrow was his only reaction to Jaeger's appearance. Uhura matched the expression. "Well, Mister Spock?" she said. "What do you think? Does this meet with your approval?"

Spock replied mildly, "I hardly think my approval or disapproval matters under the circumstances."

Uhura sighed. "You never let up, do you?"

Jaeger's eyes met Spock's, and she gave the Vulcan a warm if somewhat sheepish smile. He paused briefly, then reached into the pocket of his uniform jacket. "I understand that gifts are appropriate on occasions such as this," he began. "Accordingly, I have brought you a gift, with my best wishes." He seemed unwilling to cross the room, so Jaeger went to him, moving haltingly, unsettled by the swishing of the dress around her legs. He extended his hand and placed a small, delicately wrapped package in her palm. "I hope it pleases you," he concluded. Puzzled, Jaeger teased the wrapping off the tiny parcel, gasping as loudly as she had at the dress when she saw what was inside. "It is the last one," Spock said.

She held it up for Uhura to see. Dangling at the end of a fine silver chain was the lone malium crystal Spock had kept in his cabin. "It's beautiful, Mister Spock," she said softly.

"Then you are pleased?"

"Yes. Yes, it's wonderful."

When a minute had ticked by without words or movements from either Spock or Jaeger, Uhura lifted the necklace gently from the younger woman's hand and fastened the chain around her neck. Jaeger seemed not to notice Uhura was there.

"It has a rather noticeable flaw," Spock pointed out. "I believe it would be of little monetary value."

Uhura stared at him. "Spock, for heaven's sake."

"That's all right, Mister Spock," Jaeger said, turning toward the mirror. "I wouldn't have thought of selling it."

Uhura's gaze was still on Spock, leaden and critical. He cocked his head slightly, as if he had no inkling of why she should be upset, then told her, "I informed the Lieutenant of the flaw simply to indicate that she should wear the stone rather than lock it away. I believe that if everyone aboard is aware that the stone is of little value, no one would bother repeating the incident which occurred in Captain Kirk's cabin."

"You mean no one would try to steal it," Uhura translated.

"I believe that is what I said."

"Still, Mister Spock, you do know how to spoil a moment."

Spock matched her expression. "You have my apologies."

Jaeger turned again to face the first officer, her hand drifting against the crystal. "Thank you, Mister Spock," she whispered; due to the growing lump in her throat, she could not have spoken any louder if she had wanted to. I used to think he was cold, she thought.

"First impressions change, Lieutenant Jaeger," Spock replied.

She started, thinking: how did he know..?" Her hand moved again, drifting up near her temple. A warm spot had blossomed inside her head...no, inside her mind, she corrected. It had been there since she'd awakened in Spock's cabin, huddled in Chekov's arms, but had faded considerably, to the point where she had forgotten it existed. Now it seemed larger, insisting upon notice. It's him,she realized. He's still in there.

"I owe you so much," she stammered.

Spock shook his head. "Words are unnecessary." She opened her mouth to speak again, but he gestured her into silence. "I did what needed to be done. There was really no choice. It was logical." He paused. "But I accept your thanks."

"You risked your life for me."

"What I have received from you in return I believe is more than sufficient to repay me for my efforts. You owe me nothing."

"All..." She stopped, her hands now hanging uselessly at her sides. The lump in her throat seemed to be about the size of a shuttlecraft. "I just..."

"Speak," Spock told her.

She gathered herself. "No...I can't."

"Spit it out," Uhura said.

"No," Jaeger sighed. "It's rude."

"What is?"

"They told us at the Academy it was rude to touch a Vulcan, unless it was an emergency."

Spock said evenly, "Generally speaking, that is true."

"Then I can't."

Spock glanced at Uhura, who had sensed what Jaeger wanted and had folded her arms across her chest, waiting for a more suitable response from the first officer. "However," Spock began, watching Uhura for a moment, then shifting his eyes back to Jaeger, "during the time that I have served aboard this vessel, I have been...grasped by Humans more times that I am able to recall." Jaeger frowned, searching his face for a clue to what he was driving at. He glanced once more at Uhura, firmly warning her against broadcasting what he was about to say...at least for the time being. "It is indeed considered a breach of conduct to touch an adult Vulcan under social circumstances, Lieutenant," he went on. "However, as the other members of this crew are quite fond of reminding me, I am also half-Human."

Exasperated, Uhura told Jaeger, "He means go ahead. And hurry, before he changes his mind."

Still unsure, Jaeger crossed the few steps between herself and Spock and embraced him, astonished when he returned the gesture. The embrace lasted only a few seconds, then Spock took a step back, broke the contact between them, and said quietly, "Live long and prosper, Lieutenant." That said, he turned swiftly and was gone. Jaeger stood where she was, her eyes on the door as it closed behind him. A moment later, when out of her sight he was walking down the corridor toward his quarters, the last remnants of the mind-link mushroomed into something so huge that it made her blink, then abruptly disappeared.

"Now, why in the world would he tell you 'good-bye'?" Uhura mused.

Jaeger spun around to face her. "What?"

"The Vulcans usually say 'live long and prosper' as a good-bye. Is one of you going somewhere?"

"No," Jaeger said.

Uhura took up the hairbrush again and, shaking her head, resumed tidying Jaeger's curls. "I never will understand that man."

"He took his leave of me," Jaeger told her. "I guess there's a difference."

"Took his leave?"

Jaeger steadied herself. For a moment there had been an astounding emptiness inside her mind, but it had vanished as quickly as the remains of the link. Still, it reminded her of the ache she had discovered when Admiral Mills had brought the news of her father's death. "Nothing," she told Uhura.

The door hummed open and Taylor burst in, breathless, toting a simple pair of white shoes with low heels. "Shoes," she announced triumphantly. She stopped midway into the cabin, frowned at the expressions of the other two women, and asked puzzledly, "Did I miss something?"

"Just Spock," Uhura replied.


Jim Kirk leaned on the lectern and considered the hundred-odd expectant faces of the crew members assembled in the Enterprise's chapel. The place was full of flowers and the air was heavily perfumed; another few flowers and the scent would have been positively cloying. Uhura's helpers had done a good job with the lighting, he reflected: it was carefully subdued, focused on the altar and a few square meters around it, with the rest of the room quite dim. Organ music (which Kirk also normally found cloying) was piped over the intercom, accompanied by the restless stirring noises of a hundred people who had spent a few minutes too long sitting on wooden benches. Okay, so here goes, Kirk thought.

"Since the days of the first wooden sailing vessels," he began, noting from their expressions that half his crew knew this speech as well as he did, "ship's masters have had one happy duty: to unite two people in matrimony."

Chekov beamed at him. Kirk returned the smile. Jaeger's eyes were demurely lowered; she seemed preoccupied. Nervous, Kirk decided.

"This is the tenth ceremony I've performed, and I can say in all honesty that none of the others has filled me with as much pleasure as this one."

A cough rose out of his audience. Fine, Kirk thought, I'm boring them already. Inhaling deeply, he plunged ahead. "Some years ago, Starfleet Command, in its infinite wisdom, decided that starships' efficiency would be greatly improved if each vessel were crewed by members of one race. Therefore, most of the Enterprise's crew is Human." He tossed a glance at Spock, who was watching him soberly, and thought: some more Human than others. "Even so...we are all of different cultures, different religions, different philosophies. Some of us were born and raised on Earth; some of us have never seen Earth. In a sense, the only thing that connects us is a common ancestry." Chekov was beginning to frown. Kirk smiled at him again. "Yet we have a common goal, a common purpose. We have all left behind homes, families, friends, to serve together, to face the unknown together, to learn together, to support one another. For some of us, this"--he gestured with both hands--"this has become home, and what we find together becomes stronger than what we left behind."

He paused. McCoy was giving him a "would you get on with it?" look. "Commander Chekov and Lieutenant Jaeger--Pavel and Gretchen--have come here today to be married, in the sight of their friends. I believe they've written their own vows." He nodded a go-ahead to Chekov. Arm's length away, McCoy had a broad look of relief on his face, and he silently mouthed the words "thank you" to Kirk.

Chekov cleared his throat, a bit more loudly than he intended, and finally Jaeger raised her eyes from the floor. He took both her hands in his own and whispered, "Ready?" She nodded. From beyond Jaeger's right shoulder, where he stood with McCoy and Uhura, Sulu winked at his old cabinmate. Chekov grinned fleetingly.

"I, Pavel Andreievich, take you, Gretchen Louisa, to be my wife," he began slowly, thanking every Supreme Being in the universe that although Scott had patched the ceremony throughout the ship, he, Chekov, could not hear the projection of his own voice. "In good times and in bad, in prosperity and adversity, in health and in sickness, as long as we both shall live." So far, so good, he thought, sucked in a wobbly breath, and struggled on. "We are partners and shall remain so; we are friends and shall remain so; we are lovers and shall remain so. I find my strength in you, share my sorrow and my joy with you. I find in you that part of me that was incomplete, and I join with you now so that we may be forever separate, but forever one. I pledge to you my eternal faith and abiding love; I promise to remain true to you, and to you only, and will share with you all that I am and all that I hope to be, through all the days of my life." Jaeger smiled at him, and he shuddered. Bozhe moi, he thought, how did I remember all that? Did I really get it all right?

"Yes," Jaeger whispered.

Relief flooded through him, and he never stopped to wonder how it was she knew what he was thinking. He listened with the flicker of a smile on his face while Jaeger repeated the same vows he had just spoken. When she was finished, Sulu stepped forward and pressed into Chekov's hand the tiny item he had brought with him halfway across the galaxy: Chekov's grandmother's ring, secured from his mother's home in Old Moscow. It caught the light as Chekov held it in his palm, the old gold richly burnished, the trio of diamonds glittering under the overhead fixtures. Chekov flipped it, held it between his fingers, and slid it onto Jaeger's left hand. "Ha dommoi, ha serdtsemoi, zhillanniy," he told her quietly, assuming she wouldn't have the foggiest idea what he was saying, but hoping she might get the general idea behind the Russian words just from the look on his face and the sound of his voice. Then she surprised him.

Eyes twinkling, she stretched up to kiss him and said into his ear, "Bllagodarya vas, dorogoi serdtse. Lublu vas."

Kirk, who definitely had no idea what either one of them had said, cleared his throat softly to catch their attention. They both turned to him, obviously pleased with the sentiments they had exchanged. "I take it no one here has any objection to Pavel and Gretchen being joined in matrimony?" he said to the air over Jaeger's head. No one responded, although there was quite a bit of murmuring in the crowd. "Well, then," Kirk concluded, "by the authority vested in me by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Mister Chekov, feel free to kiss her again." Something Chekov had told him a while back flashed into his mind. "And may you pursue her in good health for many years to come."

Half an hour later, the group had adjourned to the officers' lounge where they stood in little clusters, the conversation level rising to the point where near-shouting was necessary. Most of the crew members who had attended the wedding (and some who had not) had armed themselves with at least one drink and made short work of the heaping tables of hors d'oeuvres prepared by both the Enterprise's galley crew and the delighted Dianasian banquet cooks. Kirk stood near the viewport nursing a Saurian brandy, watching Taylor drift around acquainting herself with a handful of crew members while Chekov and Jaeger chatted happily with Uhura and Scott.

"Pretty speech," McCoy said.

Kirk turned. The doctor was sipping a glass of bourbon and nibbling at a chunk of wedding cake. "Thank you."

"I hate pretty speeches," McCoy smiled. "Should have warned me beforehand. I could've had Maintenance down there with some shovels."

Kirk snorted and took another sip of his own drink. "Speaking of Maintenance, you might ask them when they're going to finish cleaning up my cabin. It's been days, and the place still smells like an industrial accident."

"They're working on it," McCoy said around a mouthful of cake.

"They could work a little faster."

"You're the captain," McCoy replied dryly. "You tell them."

"I tried."

Grinning idly, McCoy polished off the last bite of his cake, licked crumbs from his fingers, washed them down with more bourbon, and took Kirk by the jacket sleeve. "Come on. I want to offer a toast to the newlyweds." With Kirk trailing along, he set off for the table where Jaeger and Chekov were standing. Taylor had begun to drift in that direction also; Sulu and Spock were already there, with glasses in hand, although Spock's was still full. McCoy cleared his throat, but the sound was inaudible to anyone more than an arm's length away. "To the bride and groom," he said loudly, and almost too gaily. "May I not have reason to see either one of you in a professional capacity for the next hundred years."

Spock's expressive brow went up a couple of centimeters. Jaeger giggled softly; the others just seemed puzzled.

"I can see why you don't like pretty speeches," the captain observed. "You have no talent for them."

Chekov shrugged and slid an arm around Jaeger's waist. "It's all right sir," he smiled. "We know what he means."

"Go ahead," McCoy said to Kirk. "Your turn. But keep it short this time."

Kirk paused long enough to let the newlyweds pick up glasses, and glanced around to make sure his original bridge crew were all present and paying attention. The room was filled with scents: flowers that had been brought over from the chapel, the food, the myriad of drinks. The noise level seemed to drop a bit, though Kirk suspected that was only in his imagination. He considered the remains of his brandy for a long moment and silently composed half a dozen toasts, rejecting them all one by one. No one around the table seemed to mind waiting, even McCoy, who was contenting himself with his bourbon and half a dozen delicately shaped cookies trimmed in pink and green icing. At the other side of the room, beyond the little groups of people milling in the sunken semicircle, the blue-green orb of Dianas was framed in the viewport.

I leave you to your oneness, Councilor, Kirk thought.

Someone touched his arm, and he turned to look: it was Taylor, who also had discovered the pink and green cookies and was washing them down with a drink that smelled like cinnamon. Smiling, she rested her free hand in the crook of his elbow. "Lovely ceremony, Captain," she told him softly. "Well worth the trip."

Chekov had pulled Jaeger closer, and her head was resting lightly against his shoulder, the billowing skirt of her dress engulfing his legs so that they seemed to rise out of a single white fabric base. Chekov murmured something into her ear, and she grinned foolishly, nodded, and popped a cookie into his mouth.

Kirk was tempted to wait a while longer, just to preserve the moment. Sliding an arm around Taylor, he lifted his glass and held it out to be tapped by the others, and said quietly, "To life...to family. To the Enterprise."

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