Courts of Honor, by Syn Ferguson

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~ * ~

Killa's acknowledgments, February 2011

This wouldn't have been possible without the assistance, support, and encouragement of a virtual cast of… well, dozens, at least. Working on this project reminded me of how amazing Star Trek fans, and Kirk/Spock fans in particular, can be.

First and foremost, thanks go to Amanda Warrington, for asking me about Courts on just the right day, and in just the right way to get me off my butt and determined to see it happen. She also provided the initial OCR scan of the novel (for which thanks go to Linda H. in England!), and then went above and beyond by surprising me with a fully OCRed file of "The Price" a few days later. Amanda also provided tremendous support, encouragement, and wise suggestions during the whole process, and jumped in again during the final edit phase. She made it a team effort, and I can't thank her enough!

Next, I am so grateful to Suzan Lovett and Gayle F. for trusting me with their gorgeous artwork, and for being so kind and gracious when I pestered them about it. Suzan also dug up her stunning color piece for us, which I'd never seen, and which takes my breath away. Thank you to two of my favorite fannish artists of all time.

Speaking of artists, Sat Nam Kaur, creator of the original cover art, is no longer in fandom, but it is a stunning and memorable piece. Thanks go to Caren P. for getting me a high-res scan of her zine cover, and to Dot Laoang for sending me the gorgeous color postcards of the portraits from it.

Carolyn Spencer provided all three zines in record time from the K/S zine library, without which I could not have done this. She also donated the cost of the postage—which, if you could see the size of the large print version of Courts, you would know is not insubstantial. What an invaluable service she provides to fandom, and has done for years. Thank you, Carolyn!

J.S. Cavalcante provided the high res scan of Suzan's gorgeous color piece, as well as many supportive emails and insights.

Amalthia volunteered unasked to convert the files into epub format. Thank you so much. Another person who gives of herself to fandom in quiet but important ways. Also thank you to way2busymom, Virginia Sky, and kassidy, who helped me work out the Kindle formatting kinks.

Profound thanks go to the team of proofreaders who stepped in when they were most needed: Amanda Warrington, Mary Monroe, Carolyn Spencer, Sandy H, Amalthia, Elaine, Virginia Sky, vvatima, and Isabol. You guys are my heroes.

As if that weren't enough, I also owe tremendous thanks to the cadre of people who listened to me natter about the project, and who served as sounding board, cheering section, information database, and enthusiastic support system. This includes everyone mentioned above, plus Catalenamara, Lyrastar, Gwyneth Rhys, Natasha Solten, feochadn, and the ever-awesome Morgan Dawn, as well as most of the rest of the Seattle crew.

Finally, and most of all, thank you to Syn herself, for trusting me with her words, for being willing and enthusiastic about taking on the sizable workload this entailed, and for her patience, determination, and understanding throughout the process. I know it was a huge act of trust and a labor of love, and I appreciate it more than I can say. Her work stands on its own as it has for twenty-five years, and will for the foreseeable future. Reading it not only makes my pulse race, my eyes tear, and my heart fill with love for these characters, but it makes me proud to be a Star Trek fan.

Additional note

Suzan's illustrations originally appeared in a portfolio of art and poetry in the zine Nome 9 published by Victoria Clark. The poems were written by Flora Poste, and were based on Courts of Honor. They are not included here, but the zine is available from the K/S zine library. Please write to Catalenamara or Carolyn Spencer for more information.

~ * ~

 

Courts of Honor, by Syn Ferguson

"I certainly lavished an amount of time on it which is terrible to recall, and long delayed the Reader bringing curses on my head..."

—J.R.R. Tolkein

~ * ~

Original Acknowledgment, 1985

Courts of Honor has been my major occupation for the better part of three and a half years. I could not have produced it, either financially or psychologically, without the help of many friends of the book. Among them are Judy Miller, who thought I should write a novel and housed me while I began it, Eric Stillwell, who moved me four times and was an inspiration of energy and accomplishment, and both Gayle Feyrer and Suzan Lovett, whose illustrations, though they could not be printed with the book, proved to me that I had conveyed some of my love for the Star Trek characters in its pages.

At different points of crisis, many fan friends offered their support and encouragement, even if only by not writing me letters, including Carol Frisbie, Mary Ritter, Marcella Belton, and Joanna Russ. I owe a big "Thank You" to all of the proofreaders who contributed their time to COH—Pat Lamb, Vicky Clark, Lizette Leveille, and Flora Poste.

Above all, I am indebted to my friend, Mary Ann Drach, who edited, typed, set copy-editing style, recruited the proofreaders, and spelled my characters' names more consistently than I did. She coaxed, spurred, and all but carried me over the finish line. Without her skill, her generosity, and her endurance, Courts of Honor would have appeared much later—and much less polished.

~ * ~

Space: a night so dark that all the days of all the suns that ever shone have never brought one dawn; emptiness so vast that stellar empires rise and fall without ever meeting another empire or seeing the face of a stranger; nothingness so endless that any event is extraordinary, an observer is a miracle, and the concept of coincidence so improbable as to be unworthy of consideration.

Yet life swims in an ocean of coincidence, spans the darkest gulf with light, and seeks its meaning in strange and wonderful others.

Aofane Kemnis
Archivist
Alexandria IV


* * * * *

RIGA

* * * * *

I

For sixteen years the increasingly sophisticated computers of the starship Enterprise had been the province of one man, the half-Vulcan first officer. Their alloy covers bore his finger marks, and their electronic pathways reflected the design of his own mind. They were his creation, his artifact, and nothing short of their destruction could quite erase the imprint of his personality from them. So in effect, he would be leaving something of himself behind.

Now he sat motionless at the desk in his two-room suite, considering what else he should leave. Should, as opposed to must. At his back the sleeping alcove was no more than ordinarily neat, but in the closet was a duffle bag which contained the personal items he would take with him. The bone-deep courtesy he did not even know he possessed forbade leaving anything to inconvenience the next occupant of the suite, and the severe kindness he would never claim precluded leaving any remnant which might evoke memory and cause pain.

Pain had often been in Spock's thoughts over the month past. He had considered the pain of birth, the useful warnings of pain, the lessons to be learned and rewards to be attained through endurance, even the use of pain to subdue the appetites of the flesh. He had also considered the random action of the universe and undeserved pain, senseless suffering that betrays without ennobling. In all his considerations, he could find no logical or emotional justification to inflict hopeless pain on any being. To inflict it with his presence.

It seemed logical instead, if one could mitigate suffering in any way, even by exposing it—exposing his own—to take action and put a stop to pain. His decision made, he reached for the switch on the desk communicator.

The captain of the Enterprise was not so philosophical. Like a weary fighter he dreaded the next confrontation and the next blow. His defenses were down, his control disintegrating, and only through an effort of will could he maintain the necessary semblance of integrity. For a month he had spent his eight hours on the bridge; eaten, whether alone or in company, in a solitary silence; worked out mechanically in the gym; and then retired to his cabin with enough detail work to keep him busy until the ship settled down for the night and it was safe to pace the deserted halls and corridors.

Tomorrow the ship would reach Starbase 27. Tonight, in his stack of make-work, he would find the printout labeled "Transfer Requests" in which space-weary crewmembers indicated their intention of seeking another assignment or an extended playtime.

For Spock's sake and for the crew's, he had managed to keep his chin up and his shoulders back while in public. In private he could hardly face the necessity for reading the list. By the void in his own life and the sheer hell of being alone, he could judge what Spock was experiencing, and he knew that neither of them could endure it indefinitely.

What do you expect him to do, Captain, hang around for the dubious pleasure of watching James Kirk fall apart? It must be doubly embarrassing for a Vulcan to be the object of an infatuation.

Not infatuation. Love. We were lovers.

And friends and brothers and fellow officers and a perfect team and all the other things they had once been—all lost. Spock's transfer would only make it official. Final.

You're so good at grand gestures, Captain. Open it.

He jerked the printout from the stack and flipped it open. Requests in order of rank. And there was Spock's name at the top of the list, a request for indefinite leave.

Denied, denied, denied.

Only there were no grounds for denial. Spock had a right to leave. If the loss of his first officer meant exactly half of what made life worth living to one James T. Kirk, then that was a personal problem, hardly sufficient cause to refuse a reasonable request. What excuse could he give? I love him and I can't live without him? He does half my job and gives me all the credit? I'm tired of being captain all the time?

Well, no. That would hardly do. Maybe it would be easier for them to live apart. It was easier to die than to go on living, too, but that didn't make it an acceptable alternative. Kirk shoved his chair away from the desk in sudden revulsion. He was damned if he'd sign their happiness away without some kind of fight. There must be something to do or say, some way out of this ludicrous impasse, something he hadn't thought of yet. His brain just wasn't functioning. What he needed was a workout to clear the cobwebs away.

He left the leave requests spilling across his desk and headed for the gym.

~ * ~

Shore leave shirts were the latest sartorial fad on the Enterprise, and McCoy's featured panthers, parrots, and Andorian geishas improbably marooned amidst waterfalls and palm trees on the slopes of an erupting volcano. Wrapped and tied over his fatigues, the shirt gave him a dashing and somewhat roguish air. McCoy turned right and left before his mirror, wondering if he should wear the thing out in public. It might get a rise out of Jim or Spock. And something was certainly indicated. Maybe he should turn court jester. His professional expertise hadn't given him much insight.

Since their encounter with the Ixmahx artifact and the series of killings that had culminated in Dray T'serek's death, neither Jim nor Spock had acted much more than half-alive. Jim hadn't smiled and Spock's form was off. McCoy had tried various scenarios of grief, guilt, and grudges but couldn't make any of them fit. The captain and the first officer were functioning, the ship was as efficient as usual, but some vital warmth was missing.

McCoy himself felt isolated by their withdrawal, although he was reasonably certain he had not caused it. He was doctoring his own blues with the new shirt and half an inch of brandy, plus a few lecherous thoughts about the little entrepreneur who had fitted the gaudy thing on him. With his feet up and pleasant thoughts to occupy him, he achieved so much comfort, in fact, that when the desk communicator buzzed at him, he pushed the vision button without a thought for his unaccustomed finery.

Naturally, it was Spock.

"Well, what is it this time?" asked McCoy. He might as well brazen it out.

"I called to ask if you would join me in my quarters for a short while, Doctor."

"What, tonight?" It was past eleven, and Spock never asked anyone to his quarters.

"Yes, Doctor. I anticipate a crowded schedule tomorrow." The Vulcan's face was as wooden as ever, but the request itself was enough to stir McCoy's curiosity. Maybe the thaw was on.

"Let me tuck my patients in, then I'll be there. Say half an hour?"

"That would be convenient, Doctor. Perhaps we might meet in the gym. I missed my exercise period today."

"I'll find you," said McCoy.

The screen went blank. Thoughtfully he took off the polychrome shirt and tossed it toward the bed. Spock had not noticed it at all. "And that," McCoy said to himself, "is very damn interesting."

~ * ~

Kirk had his workout and followed it up with half an hour in the steam room, sweating gently into the heated mist, pulling the steam down into his lungs and then releasing it, willing the moist heat to relax tight muscles and melt his deep interior chill. Maybe, by filling his mind with pure sensation, he could block the memories of Spock.

When it didn't work he tried to summon other fantasies, but they all fell away before remembrance of homecoming and completion as he had experienced them for those three days of Spock's love. It wasn't just the discovery of new responses and appetites in himself; Dray had opened the door to that knowledge for him, and Kirk had been able to face it without this alarming dependency. For Dray's good (or had it been unacknowledged desire for Spock all along?) he had denied that desire and turned to his job and his ship for comfort. But work as he would, will what he would, Kirk could not wrench his mind away from the sea-washed ivory of Spock's skin, his heated alien scent. All the tastes and textures of Spock flooded him like an irresistible tide at the most inopportune moments, and his body raged ceaselessly for a return to Spock's deliberate, demanding hands. Every touch had penetrated to the ultimate core of his identity where no one had ever touched him before. Spock might as well have set a brand of ownership in his flesh.

Work didn't lessen that; exercise didn't wear down the need; women didn't attract him. Just the thought of Spock had his heart pounding again and his groin aching. Don't think about that. He was supposed to be finding a way to keep Spock on the ship. It had been a miserable month, hiding from each other, but at least Spock was visible, close enough to touch or speak to. Once he left the ship.... Kirk felt the aura of nightmare, an impending doom coming close and closer. He couldn't fight. He couldn't run. Abruptly he pushed up off the bench. Maybe a shower would help.

It was sheer coincidence that brought Spock, having finished his workout in the deserted gym, to the showers at the same moment.

For Kirk, the shock of seeing Spock so close on the heels of his mental picture was like an unexpected blow struck from inside his own body, as if all his blood leaped up and tried to cross the barrier of flesh. The sudden surge of feeling brought him painfully half-erect, and he flushed crimson from his sternum to his forehead. He wrenched his gaze away from Spock and punched the shower on, taking refuge in glittering spray.

Without looking he was aware of the Vulcan's fractional hesitation. Go or stay, he thought defiantly, I'm not going to pull you in. He added soap at the touch of another button and bent his head and scrubbed his scalp vigorously, then fumbled with eyes shut to turn the soap off. When the water cleared and he had rinsed his hair and face, he opened his eyes. Looking sideways, under his lashes, he could see Spock at the second spigot down. He had also closed his eyes and bowed his head into a needle spray that was visibly steaming in the milk-warm air of the locker room.

Are you cold, too, Spock?

Kirk felt a rush of pure friendship, uncomplicated for the moment by other issues, and he stepped toward the Vulcan to offer what comfort he could; but Spock, still blind, reached out and dialed the shower down to lukewarm, his arm a barrier between them. The cooler water splashed over Kirk's feet, and he blushed and moved quickly away. He hit the soap button again, and the instinct to comfort gave way to the persistent heat lightning in his loins. Whatever he knew or thought he knew about the Vulcan's lack of response, his body demanded satisfaction, and with every tender impulse blocked by Spock's reserve, he was tired of telling it no. If lust was all that was left, what did it matter anyway? Whatever he did, he was going to lose Spock tomorrow.

"That was a tactical error, Spock. You should have grabbed your towel and scuttled back to your room. Then we could have settled all this on form 47-A. You wouldn't have had to face me while you shove the knife in."

Spock lifted his head from the shower spray and looked at Kirk without expression. Kirk watched him obliquely as he scrubbed each arm in the soapy spray.

"But then maybe you wanted to watch me squirm. Twist the knife a bit, give me a last look at what I can't have." Deliberately he let his eyes follow the water sliding over Spock's body, an intimate, offensive glance that dwelt on the slicked-down hair patterning Spock's chest, the dark line of it leading the rushing water to his groin, the clear stream arching from the tip of his dangling cock. Spock looked away.

"What? Blushes from the well-hung Vulcan? You don't feel anything. Why blush?"

"Jim, you will regret saying these things." Spock had always had self-possession. He maintained it now, even under Kirk's raking glance. Every muscle looked relaxed as it moved smoothly under his skin. He faced Kirk, ignoring his nudity.

"Regret? I've had a month of regret. I hurt so bad I can't breathe right, can't keep my cock down on the bridge, just from looking at you, just from hearing your voice. I wake up in the night hurting. And you go on functioning like the perfect machine. You won't even look at me. Send me a bloody leave request on paper. Is that what I deserve from you?"

"It is not a question of what you deserve—"

"You're damn right it isn't. I saved your life. I let you go. I'll let you go now, but you are by God going to look at me first. Look at me!"

Unwillingly, Spock obeyed. Kirk's body was vibrant with energy, seal-sleek with sliding trails of bubbles marbling his torso, foaming into thick lather on belly and thighs. He slid his hand down his body and grasped his cock. His voice dropped to a honeyed whisper.

"Remember the mirror, Spock? You wanted to watch then." Kirk slid his hand forward, splattering soapsuds to the shower floor. "You wanted to touch me—then." He stepped nearer, his eyes on Spock's face as Spock watched Kirk's right hand. With his left, Kirk reached out and touched Spock's side. A tremor ran over Spock's skin as the human began a slow, soapy circling...

Abruptly Spock took Kirk's wrist and lifted his hand away. Kirk let the motion pull him off balance so that the whole weight of his body sagged against Spock, wet skin against wet skin, his organ trapped between them, rubbing Spock's belly.

"You loved it, Spock, the same way I do now."

With great resolution, Spock shifted Kirk's weight firmly back onto his own feet and released him. "The emotion you are experiencing now is not love."

Kirk caught his breath as if he'd been slapped, and his heavy-lidded eyes narrowed in fury. He dropped into the combat-ready stance Spock had seen him take against a hundred enemies.

The Vulcan did not respond in kind. He stayed open and defenseless. Neither of them heard the door open; both jumped as McCoy called through the steam from the other end of the room.

"Spock—are you in there?"

Spock held the human's angry gaze until Kirk straightened and stepped back. The Vulcan reached out and turned off his shower.

"I will be with you in a moment, Doctor."

Kirk felt the desire and anger wash out of him together, leaving only a ludicrous weakness behind. He turned his back on Spock.

"Go on, Spock. Please. Just get the hell away from me."

McCoy was busily minding his own affairs halfway across the gym when Spock finally came out of the locker room. The Vulcan was dressed and groomed as usual.

"Whenever you're ready, Doctor."

McCoy left off his examination of the parallel bars. "Oh, I'm ready. Exercise is wonderful stuff if you're prescribing it for other people. Myself, I figure it's overrated. Who wants to live ten years longer and spend the whole time exercising?"

"The exercise-to-prolongation figure must be based on your own attempts, Doctor. Or the general inefficiency of human techniques. Vulcan methods are more efficacious. Even bicentenarians exercise on Vulcan."

"What a horrible thought."

"Not to a Vulcan."

McCoy had no ready comeback to that, and his mind wasn't on casual repartee in any case. Unless he was hallucinating, he had walked in on a very ugly, a very emotional exchange between Spock and a male crewmember who sounded very much like the captain. Spock was giving nothing away in his expression, but he introduced no other topic of conversation as they walked through the corridors. Still silent when they reached his room, he palmed the door open and stood back for McCoy to enter.

The human looked around with interest. The warm colors Spock had chosen, the deep wine red and the flicker of the firepot, were almost the only personal touches in the austere rooms. It was hard to believe that anyone had lived there a week, much less over sixteen years. A comfortable chair was placed opposite Spock's seat at the desk, and an unopened bottle the color of old amber was set out with two glasses.

"When did you take up drinking?"

"Never. It was intended as a social gesture."

"Well, it's not too late to reform." McCoy picked up the bottle and examined the label. "If Scotty didn't make this down in engineering, it's even a pretty good brand of hooch. Let's toast social gestures." He opened the bottle and poured a generous splash into each glass. "Here's yours. Think of it as a prescription."

Spock accepted the glass while McCoy settled into his chair, but returned it untouched to the desk. McCoy shrugged. He should know by now that the Vulcan couldn't be pushed. He would open up and tell McCoy what was going on—or he would not. Prodding wouldn't help. Spock circled the desk to his own chair and put his hands on the back of it, compressing the upholstery into valleys and ridges. McCoy watched the telltale gesture and sipped his drink. Come on, Spock.

The Vulcan sat down and folded his hands deliberately before him. "I have applied for an extended leave of absence. I will be leaving the ship when we dock at Starbase 27 tomorrow."

"What?" McCoy's ears worked; his brain just didn't believe the message.

"I am leaving the Enterprise."

"But why?"

"That is what I wish to tell you."

McCoy couldn't have been more thunderstruck if the bulkhead beside him had gaped open into hard vacuum. Spock had been a permanent fixture when McCoy first beamed aboard. Only Scotty had longer time in service aboard the ship; all her other crew were newer; few of them had now been aboard longer than the captain. In scientific circles it was quite common to hear the first officer referred to as "Spock of the Enterprise." McCoy couldn't picture anyone else in Spock's place and he didn't want to. As for the thought of Kirk hell-bent for catastrophe without Spock behind to bail him out—it made him feel queasy. He had known something was wrong. And if the problem was with Jim, as the shower scene seemed to indicate, perhaps Spock felt he had no other choice; but there must be some solution besides leaving the ship. At least he wants to talk for a change, McCoy told himself. Don't get all indignant and slam the door in his face.

"I know you wouldn't have decided that without a lot of thought—"

Spock gave him a brief dark look of gratitude. "More thought than I should have spared from my duties. A month ago I would have wagered only one necessity would drive me from this place, but there are many random factors in the universe."

"I gather you've had professional offers—pure research must be an attraction."

"One I have resisted for many years."

"Well, then, you have your own life—I suppose family responsibilities—" McCoy didn't know what he was talking about.

"No. It is not that."

Guessing games were accomplishing nothing, but it was obvious the Vulcan was having trouble getting it out. He wanted to be coaxed. Try something else. "You don't have to tell me why you're leaving, Spock. I'll miss you, but if it's too private to discuss—"

Spock's head was bent. He was studying his clasped hands. McCoy let his sentence dangle until he thought Spock hadn't heard or understood him, but finally the Vulcan spoke softly.

"The captain—"

"What about him? He's been as sour as a poor relative left out of the will lately." McCoy let a hint of condemnation sound in his voice.

"He has been in pain lately, Doctor."

Now they were getting there. "Oh?" McCoy sounded doubtful.

Spock still looked down at his hands. "His pain has reached the point where he cannot sleep or eat properly; he cannot control his emotions, even his behavior. Soon, if his pain is not relieved, it will endanger his ability to function."

"Sounds like a description of the pon farr," McCoy said off the top of his head.

"Very astute, Doctor. A description of its aftermath."

"Wait a minute—" A sudden gulf had opened under McCoy's belt buckle. Spock looked up, his eyes like obsidian, his shadowed face startlingly alien in its intensity.

"The aftermath of the pon farr when one partner gives everything—and the other—has—nothing—to give."

McCoy lifted his glass and swallowed the brandy neat. "Go slow, Spock. I'm not trying to be obtuse, but are you telling me that you've been through another pon farr, on the ship—and survived it?"

"Yes."

"With—Jim?" McCoy wasn't sure the Vulcan wouldn't backhand him for that, but Spock merely acknowledged it.

"Yes." The Vulcan watched as the human's face showed his memory of the first pon farr. Madness. Murder.

Sweat shone on McCoy's forehead, and the lines deepened in his face as he tried to picture Jim the object of that Vulcan fire. McCoy had known of and understood Kirk's attraction to the handsome Guthrie youngster, Dray T'serek. He had even forced Jim to examine the dangers inherent in the younger man's worshipful attitude. With Jim, the line between achievement and exploitation had to be clearly drawn. How much was enough? How much was too much? Kirk had acknowledged his tendency, his temptation, to dominate. He had rejected Dray as a lover precisely because the boy's hero-worship could damage what appeared to be a promising career. There had been no doubt in Kirk's mind, or McCoy's, that the captain would dominate the relationship. That's how they saw him—dominant.

And yet human passion, like human strength, was weak compared to a Vulcan's elemental drive. Even Jim's high libido didn't really interfere with his work, much less send him into a frenzy to satisfy it. Between a Vulcan—even a half-Vulcan—who would do murder to secure his mate, and a human, there would be no contest.

McCoy's mind unreeled graphic images he thought he had buried: returning to the Enterprise from Vulcan with Jim's limp body beside him; Spock as he had returned from Ixmahx, burned, beaten, raped by his Romulan captor. McCoy remembered green blood and green-black scabs, bruises almost as dark as the dried blood. Inhuman strength, inhuman lust. He remembered what the human, Clement, had done when he was made inhumanly powerful by the alien artifact—the torn flesh and sticky pooling blood, white tendons snapped and curling like strings, the putrid scent of punctured bowels.

Blood was draining from his hands and feet, leaving him cold and clammy. Black specks agitated themselves across his vision like a cloud of insects.

"Put your head down, Doctor."

His drink was lifted from his hand, his chair turned away from the desk, and a strong hand on the back of his neck forced his head down to his knees. That hand could break my neck, he thought. The warm pressure continued as he fought to quell nausea and a coward's desire to slip away into the dark.

Spock was not a killer. He was not to blame for his biology. Jim had not been hurt physically. McCoy had no facts, and without them it was ridiculous to imagine that Jim had been anything but willing. And it was none of his business. They had no obligation to tell him what they did in bed. He breathed deeply, stubbornly fighting shock. He must have been blind. Steamy details he didn't need, but it was his job to know what was going on, his job to help, not to go off in a fine Victorian faint. He'd just have to get used to the idea.

"All right, Spock. I'm okay now. Sorry."

Spock released the pressure on his neck, moved away, and returned with a damp cloth. McCoy accepted and hid his face in its folds until he could meet Spock's eye.

"That," he said emphatically, "was the shock of the century, but it is no reason for you to leave the ship."

"Now you surprise me, Doctor."

"Well, I may be dense and blind to boot, but I'm not a complete fool. I just need a little time to adjust. Look, can I use the head? And can we get some coffee?"

By the time he'd relieved himself and doused his face again, McCoy was able to shove the notion of Jim degraded and brutalized by alien lust back in the mental footlocker he kept for "Thoughts I'd Rather Not Have" and focus on the patient at hand: Spock. When he went back into the cabin, Spock had two steaming cups of coffee on the desk. McCoy reached for the nearest gratefully and eased himself back into his chair.

"Not to be nosy, but how did it get started? I thought pon farr only happened every seven years."

Spock hunched over his coffee like any human with a problem, warming his hands on the cup. "The period is uncertain in my case. I believe I was stimulated by Jim's attraction to Dray. I saw how he was drawn to Dray's beauty—how beautiful they were together, like sehlats at their play. It gave me pleasure to watch them. I had observed how Jim's beauty drew women to him, but I had never seen it for myself. In relation to myself."

The words came slowly but forthrightly. Whatever it cost him, it was obvious Spock had determined to speak the whole truth. McCoy forgot his coffee.

"For the first time in my life, I saw that desire was beautiful, not just an appetite or an emotion to be feared, or a trap for the mind. It was as though I had been surrounded by rainbows—and never seen one."

The sleek head was bent, the long-fingered hands quiet as they cherished the warmth in the cup. Spock was not avoiding McCoy's gaze but looking deep inside himself, searching for the words he needed.

"We went to Ixmahx. Dray sat beside me. He was very proud of his composure—and it was transparent. Every move, every action, was done for love. Without words, he told me that I—too—could be beautiful. When S'tyge smeared his slime over Dray, there was no shame there for it to stick to. But S'tyge made me ashamed. He rammed his fever and his animal lust as deep in my mind as my body—taught me I would bring that and not love to the one I desired."

McCoy swallowed audibly. Spock's knuckles were white where he held the cup.

"I returned to the ship with S'tyge's fever in me, trying to hide it, trying to hide myself. There were deaths. I could smell the violated bodies. I knew that I would go insane, but I did not know how it would begin, whether I would know when it began. I went to the shuttle, to leave the ship. Jim—" The harsh voice faltered into silence.

"Jim found you," McCoy completed, his eyes stinging. "Dray died, Clement was the killer, and—I—gave you both three days' leave."

"Thank you."

McCoy didn't ask whether the Vulcan was thanking him for that pathetic three days' happiness or for finishing the painful confession for him. He felt drained; he ached for his own cool bed and quiet dreams. The desk clock said it was only midnight, but he felt as if the night had gone on forever and would never see a dawn.

"And—after?" McCoy prompted.

Slowly Spock sat back in his chair. He raised the cup, as if to drink, then lowered it again. They were coming to the crux of it, McCoy realized; what had gone before, however much it shocked him, was not, after all, what had prompted Spock's decision.

Spock's voice was clear, but very quiet, drawing McCoy into the intimate hell he had relived night and day for a month.

"After my friend risked his life and altered his sexual orientation to save me, I was cured of my fever."

It took McCoy a moment to realize what he meant, if he was getting the message straight. He was more concerned with the blank look on Spock's face now. Vulcans don't faint, do they? But catatonic withdrawal can't be good for them either.

"Drink your coffee," said McCoy with an edge of warning in his voice. Spock lifted the cup and drank automatically. "That's good," said McCoy. "Now let's keep going. We're almost there. The fever was gone."

"Yes," said Spock. "I no longer experienced desire."

"My God."

"I had no deity to invoke, Doctor. And no possibility of disguising the truth."

"And Jim?"

"He continued to feel the attraction." The Vulcan was speaking by rote, mechanical man, android, failed human.

And that's where he'll go with it, thought McCoy. He couldn't stay Vulcan; he's not quite human. The same old battle, new casualties. The professional insight that the same conflicts recur and recur, only to be worked out at different levels throughout life wouldn't comfort Spock now. McCoy didn't know what to say, but he couldn't leave Spock alone in that silent hell.

"If he loves you, Spock, he's not going to stop because you can't get it up." The unintended crudity sparked a baleful glint in Spock's eyes, bringing him back to the present.

"Not in seven years, Doctor? If that's how long it takes? You are familiar with the captain's needs. My continued presence here only exacerbates his condition."

"Love's not a disease—" McCoy began, but Spock cut him off.

"Previously, even after intense encounters, the captain has been able to regain his mental equilibrium with rapidity upon the removal of the stimulus. It is only logical that my absence will facilitate his recovery."

"He's not sick. Look, Spock, you're giving up way too easy. How can you be sure—"

"That my endocrine system is Vulcan? You'll find the facts described in my medical records." Spock dismissed that aspect of the discussion and returned to the thoughts that had preoccupied him for weeks. "I also know Jim's response to frustration. Now he is hurt by what he sees as my rejection, but already he is becoming irritable and aggressive. If I were present, I would become the object of that aggression—and subsequently of his guilt for it. Soon he would attempt to prove how little he needs me. If he succeeded he would flaunt his conquests, and if he failed... his depression would deepen. I do not care to be the cause of that."

"That's so much hogwash. You don't solve emotional problems by avoiding them, Spock. You must have learned that much about being human. And how about what Jim feels when you leave?"

"The captain may be disoriented for a while, but the problem of acquiring a new science officer should provide him with a distraction."

"You've got it all worked out like an equation, haven't you? But it's not going to be like that. Jim may be hurt, angry—hell, he's got a temper touchy as antimatter—but I've never known him to be unjust to anyone. Don't let one locker room brawl come between you. He needs you, Spock, not to fuck, just for a friend. When you're gone and he needs a friend to fill up that big black hole of loneliness, what's he supposed to do? Advertise? Where does he turn then?"

McCoy knew he shouldn't have lost his own temper, knew he wasn't handling it right when the Vulcan rose and stood looking down at him. Spock's face was unfathomable again, eyes opaque as two chips off the eternal night that surrounded them. McCoy tried again.

"I didn't mean to get mad, Spock, but what I'm saying is true, and you're not hearing a word of it!"

"Incorrect, Doctor. You asked me to whom Jim would turn—when I have gone. That is why I have given you this information. In the future, he will turn to you. It will be easier for him if he is not constrained to protect—my privacy." The Vulcan's voice almost broke there, and McCoy realized that Spock was at his extreme limit of control. Burning pity for the suffering Vulcan fought with his healer's urge to make Spock confront Kirk with this rigamarole—and pity won. It didn't take a doctor to see that Spock couldn't handle more pain now. He had violated the principles of a lifetime, stripped himself of every defense to reveal his flaw, appealing to the friend, not the physician. It would take more resolution than Leonard McCoy possessed to ask him to endure more. All he could do now was leave the Vulcan at least the illusion of privacy. Numbly, McCoy stood up, gave the promise that would provide the most comfort.

"I'll do everything I can for him, Spock."

II

There was a Romulan melon with a white scar at the stem end. To the captain of the luxury yacht spiraling into orbit above Veith, the outermost planet of Ochros looked like one of those melons. What little axial tilt the planet had gave the northern hemisphere a thumbprint of ice and snow above a russet blush of winter-killed vegetation and iron-rich soil. Below the equator the melon showed gray-blue spots of mold that were lakes and interconnected swamps and fens and the one girth-encircling sea. The southern hemisphere also showed the milky whirlpools of two violent storm systems. It wasn't a particularly attractive planet, but the sweet flesh can be cut from the rind. That was what the Empire would do with this world.

"Commander, we have been given coordinates for the estate—"

A Romulan with a stolid countenance read off a string of numbers to the woman who commanded the ship. She punched them into the navigational computer automatically, the elegance of every movement a perfect foil for the man beside her. Tal would not be broken of giving her the rank she was no longer entitled to, and it was comforting to know that Tal's loyalty was to the woman, not to the uniform—but a comfort she questioned. In losing her command and shaming her clan, she might have fallen past any hope of recovery. If the day ever came that even Tal acknowledged it, dropping that lost title, she did not know if she could bear it; and if she had learned anything in life, it was not to allow herself the luxury of depending on any man. She had thought of sending Tal away, had deliberately flaunted her shame, ignored and abused him, made him lady's maid and errand-runner instead of the warrior he was—all to see if his ready obedience would falter. But Tal was steadfast. Every order had been obeyed without question. He had not even commented when she returned from her prison cell laden with favors like a courtesan, wearing the insignia of the Emperor's personal courier. It flashed on her arm now, an ornate silvery cuff that gripped the flesh from wrist to elbow. The soft dense metal was tiren, worth the price of the very fine ship placed at her disposal, and it was set with yellow diamonds as big as topazes. As jewelry it would have ransomed many rich men's sons; as an historical artifact it was priceless. There were only five in existence, tiren-ne-ab, and they had never been dishonored. The seam of soft metal had been sealed on her arm by the Emperor's own thumb. While she wore it and lived, she spoke with his voice and commanded by his power. It was her own fault if the weight of the tiren and the Emperor's pleasure felt more like a shackle than a jewel.

"Take us down, Tal. I must change. Tell Man that I bring him greetings from the court. Don't mention my appointment as courier. I'll use that later."

She took off the plain black coverall she wore by choice and changed into the sequins and gauze of a court lady, testing her body as she did so. She would never be anything but slight. That was an advantage. Many an overconfident male had held back, only to be fatally surprised at the strength her slenderness hid. She bent back like a bow until her palms were on the floor, raised one leg and then both into a handstand. Every movement easy and free. No disorientation. She came upright again. She was fit. She had earned her command the way any starship captain does—by commanding, by being faster, smarter, harder than the competition. And then she had lost it because of her woman's weakness. Well, she would earn it again, on her back if she had to, and let the woman in her pay until others had been brought to judgment. She combed back her hair, fastened it with jewels, applied cosmetics, creating the illusion of a perfect little courtesan. No need to advertise that a single blow of her hand or foot could kill.

Man Hreth Malock commanded a small empire of his own, and his well-trained staff was standing by to guide the yacht Tirento an interior berth and a bank of computers that would analyze its fabric and function for spaceworthiness. The computers would also inventory its fuel capacity and reserves, its weapons systems, and the sophistication of its on-board computers, but that could not be avoided. Their host was not present himself, a slight he would pay for later, but he had sent a single passenger car rocking on antigravs. A respectful technician ushered the two guests into it and showed them the button to push for a preset course to the house.

The trip was meant to impress. It took them through gardens a hundred years old, alternating human and Romulan design—pleasant vistas, open to the sky, and ideal ambushes, dark with overhanging growth. The simulation was subtly intriguing, and it told her much about this branch of her family. The gardens had grown dense and tall since their planting. The use of human slaves would be as deeply rooted, with the regrettable tendency she had once shown to underestimate the weaker aliens.

The car passed out of the gardens and swung around the berms and bunkers and light wells of the house proper. The imposing façade reared up two stories above the ground—gray metal and some highly polished green stone. Here their host appeared, crossing the gravel of the yard with a soldier's stride. He was tall, lean, and white at the temples. It gave him the look of a wolf in a hard winter, which was not what they had been led to expect. This was an opponent in truth, not a soft merchant.

Tal sat stiffly, eyes front, while the owner of the estate bowed and ran his appraising glance over the woman in the car. Ignoring the implied disapproval and resentment on her behalf, the woman returned the glance with interest, then allowed herself to be delicately handed out of the car.

"Welcome, cousin. You honor my house. How may I serve you?" He made a game of it, dark eyes mocking.

"By forgetting formality, cousin. My name within the family is Rho, and I bring you the well-wishes of the Emperor and a gift, if you choose to receive it."

"The Emperor's—gifts—are always welcome," he said, bending that predator's look on her. "Won't you come in? It is seldom we entertain a visitor, and with no lady in my house, I would welcome the opportunity—to abandon formality."

Rho smiled, accepted his hand, and let him guide her inside, seemingly oblivious to his innuendos. It was only to be expected. She had learned how to ignore words.

"No lady? I understood you had a daughter, cousin. Has she married?"

"Call me Man, Rho. My daughter is seldom at home these days, although she maintains a suite of rooms and some riding animals here. She has ideas of pursuing a medical career, something I think more fitting in a slave, and she is in the city now. I will see that she is informed of your arrival. Do you make a long stay? My home is at your disposal."

"I will be in the system for a while, but my plans are flexible. I have heard much about the inner planet and its moons."

"Ah, Dow and Nod. Is it the casinos or the flying you look forward to?"

"Gambling I can do anywhere. A hundred and forty miles of free flight is something I wouldn't care to try on Rom."

"It's not exactly safe on Nod, you know. There are unpredictable drafts. It has its own weather, even storms near the rim, and every year some novice freezes his wings. It is a long way to fall."

"I take it that you're not a novice."

He smiled. "No, but I've had little time for mere recreation the past few years. Perhaps its time I took a vacation. I seldom have the opportunity to instruct such a lovely pupil—and it really would be remiss of me to entrust your safety to a stranger."

"There are no strangers in the clan," she quoted, letting her hand rest in his a moment longer than necessary. "But I'm forgetting the Emperor's gift. May I speak with my pilot?"

"Of course."

He showed her to a suite of rooms nearly as fine as the ones she had enjoyed in the palace, and she didn't doubt that they were, at need, just as much of a prison. Courteously she admired the fountains spilling their music in her courtyard and the handsome carving on the wooden walls until Tal and an unobtrusive servant came in with her luggage and the Emperor's gift. The servant wore estate livery, as the technicians at the hangar had done, but this man was human, and his neck was circled with a flexible silvery band—the control collar of a slave.

"Cousin, my pilot, Tal." Romulan courtesy did not require the introduction of the superior. Presumably it was in the interests of the inferior to recognize where the power lay. Tal's slight inclination of the head rendered that acknowledgment to Man Hreth Malock. He held a draped object nearly four feet long and heavy, by the way he stood. The mine owner took his time looking Tal over and then turned to Rho.

"Is he blood or bond?"

It was an unnecessary question. Tal wore neither clan insignia nor the collar of the bondservant or slave. To remind a clanless man of his lack of status was an insult that always stung; to insinuate that he was a slave approached the challenge direct.

"Tal is a free man and my trusted friend." The commander's voice was coolly indifferent. "I would have entrusted the Emperor's gift to no other."

"Then you are lucky in your servant," Man said, toying with his wine glass while Tal stood immobile, holding his heavy burden clear of the floor. "I would prefer free men myself, but I've never found them to have the wholehearted devotion to duty that a slave has. It's merely a personal whim. May I know how the Emperor has honored me?"

At the commander's nod Tal removed the cloth from a golden cage in which a hawk sat hooded. Its plumage was mottled blue on back and wings, deepening to an iridescent plum in the shadows. Its throat and breast were creamy apricot, the palest color of Rom's sky. Jewels gleamed on the hood and the leather jess fastened to its leg.

Man's eyes lighted with pleasure. The rare galhawk was flown only by royalty or with their permission.

"Beautiful. Take her out."

Tal wore a padded sleeve to handle the bird, but it was on his right arm, which supported the cage. Protocol did not allow him to place the Emperor's gift on the floor. He reached for the cage door with his unshielded arm, but the commander stepped forward with a flash in her eye that stopped him. The hawk's curved claws could pierce unprotected flesh like daggers. Instead she reached for the door herself and thrust her left arm in. Deftly she transferred the bird from its perch and lifted it free. Hreth Malock had stepped forward when he saw what she meant to do, but he stopped the motion as she lifted the bird and turned.

"Will you accept the Emperor's gift from me, cousin?"

Few people had ever dared challenge him. His will was too often their life or death. He knew who this slight woman was, what she had owned and lost. Now he began to see why. She had shown no reaction when he insulted her, yet now, for a servant, she stood with the heavy hawk perched on her slender arm, its claws curling through the rich fabric of her sleeve. Behind her the clanless pilot still held the lightened cage, and his eyes were on Hreth Malock, waiting to see what he would do.

"I accept the Emperor's gift with thanks, cousin." He held out his own arm. Rho raised the hawk a little, enough to unsettle it, so that it balanced with half-spread wings. Then she smiled.

"The perch, Tal. The bird can be fierce to one she doesn't know." Tal returned to the door for the perch, and the commander settled the bird, caressing the gleaming feathers at its throat until it calmed.

"Her name is Claw, cousin, and she has been flown from the Emperor's own hands. If you treat her well she will serve you faithfully. You may go, Tal. You will be staying with the ship." Tal saluted and left with a stride quite as military as any he had taken on her flagship.

When he had gone, Hreth Malock laughed, a short, mocking bark of unwilling mirth. "I underestimated you both, cousin. I admit it. But it was not necessary to go so far to reprove me. Give me your arm."

She let him take the torn fabric of her sleeve and rip it free. Beneath it, of course, she was quite unharmed. The silver and gold of the tiren-ne-ab gleamed in the light. He stopped when he saw it and acknowledged his shock with a rising eyebrow.

"I'm not harmed, cousin. But you did underestimate me. Even the Emperor does not send courtesans and jeweled trinkets so far and so hastily merely to show his favor. The hawk is a token of what our clan may regain. Until my duty is performed, I am the Emperor's courier, nothing more—nothing less."

"I'm beginning to understand why he chose you. I would prefer to give you my undivided attention. Would you be offended if we waited until later in the day to pursue this—perhaps at dinner? There is something I must attend to this afternoon—and you have me at an unfair advantage." He released her arm. "I should show the Emperor's courier my best side."

How adroitly he turns his failings to advantages, Rho thought. An almost-memory lifted a face from the past toward her awareness, but she had no time to follow the thought. "I should prefer that, cousin. As I would prefer to keep this—" she raised her arm, sheathed in the tiren, "in the clan."

"My servants are humans who would not know its significance, but I will send mutes to wait on you, if you wish."

"Unnecessary. We will meet later." It was her prerogative to dismiss him, even in his own home. She saw that fact sink in with pleasure as he gave her a bow and took his leave. This was not the soft merchant she'd expected to find in a Neutral Zone backwater. He was Hreth Malock to the backbone like all the surviving males of her clan, savage, strong, and hungry for power and more power. Well, that was her hunger, too. The strong ate, the weak starved—as the Federation would discover.

~ * ~

Man Hreth Malock let his anger drive him down the corridor and across another fountained courtyard in the crisp air. What a she-wolf that one was. The tiren-ne-ab had shaken him. His own line to the Emperor had foretold her coming, without that significant detail. He had expected a docile, usable penitent, glad to escape the royal displeasure with her life. Now he realized that no one, probably not the Emperor included, could safely consider Rho Hreth Malock tamed. If she'd birthed his cub, there'd be no milky mewing after Federation values. Not that his get was exactly a weakling. He wondered how long it would take to set the two of them at each other's throats and whether it would prove an amusing diversion. He lifted his wrist and gave a command to the estate security chief before entering the room where an uncollared human waited for him.

"O'Neill."

The human had never matched his employer's understanding of what the Irish strain of Terrans should look like. He was broad and dark with thickly curled hair on his head and eyes of a light silky blue behind dense curling lashes and frowning brows. His lips were full and sensual, his jaw wide at the hinges on a short strong neck. His upper body was too heavy and wide for his narrow hips, and he could have used another five inches in the long bones of his thighs. Hreth Malock had discovered that O'Neill didn't like to look up. He deliberately sprawled, sat, or lounged to make the gesture seem natural. Until he stood he looked like a much taller man, and then the disappointment of expectation dwarfed him; but he was a fighter, a rogue with a cutthroat crew of mixed races and a ship he alternately commanded and caressed.

They had worked together, very profitably, for years. Clan connections deeper in the Empire provided a market for exports the Federation frowned upon, and the Hreth Malock estate, ostensibly founded on wealth from its mines, had diversified under Man's guidance—and with the advantage of a servant who could work both sides of the Neutral Zone. There were few human or Romulan vices they had not catered to, but the most profitable of all were drugs and slaves with, lately, a particular brand of slaves that Hreth Malock expected to find most useful in the future—the hostages he was storing up against the Federation's wrath.

The privateer was dropping the needle point of a dagger into the wood surface of a table. The piece of furniture was valuable, and it was a characteristic of the man that he could not be trusted with anything beautiful without marring it. In his hands jewels were scratched, porcelain chipped; and slave girls returning from his bed came with deliberate minor injuries—a bruise, a loosened tooth, one finger broken. It was not cruelty as the Romulan understood it—no desire to dominate or cause pain—but his beautiful ship alone was safe from O'Neill's destructiveness. It was as if he waged an unconscious campaign to find the flaw in any beautiful object.

The pirate looked up, the dagger poised to fall again.

"Did you get them?" Hreth Malock demanded.

"The male. The woman got away."

"Is he unhurt?"

"His dignity suffered a few bruises, and a leg shackle doesn't suit him, but otherwise he's fine. You'll never get a day's work out of him, though."

"That's not my purpose. We've changed contacts within the Empire. S'tyge is dead. His ship returned from Ixmahx without him—or any alien artifacts. There was something, but it was destroyed. A cousin named Lom has taken over S'tyge's holdings, and he's expecting you. He will pay you, provided the merchandise is delivered without damage, so keep your hands off the Vulcan. He is no use to me dead, and I have enough problems right now. Rho Hreth Malock came wearing the Emperor's tiren."

O'Neill's eyes brightened and the dagger was released to stab into the desk again. "I thought you wanted her for propaganda value."

"She must have convinced the Emperor that she was worth more. She does not like to be underestimated. I think the servant she travels with was her second in command. She'll have her own purpose here, and if I judge right, she's not planning to share her kills with anyone."

"What can one woman do?"

"For now she can speak with the Emperor's voice, and she let me know she plans to do so."

"Does that mean he's changed his plans?" The dagger fell point first into the wood again.

"It might, or more likely it means he's loosed two arrows at the same prey. She'll tell me what she wants tonight. In the meantime, put space between the Vulcan and me. Rho mentioned flying in Nod, which will be a ruse to make contact with other clans on Riga. When you return, look for us there. I'll be setting up a 'spontaneous' outburst of Romulan feeling."

"Sundust will do that." O'Neill's tone was dry. The human hated to carry the drug, although he didn't object to the profits from doing so. The yellow seed was a stimulant, of either pain or pleasure, to Romulans or to Vulcans, but to humans it was deadly. Should one of the containers rupture inside the atmosphere of a ship, the human members of the crew were doomed.

"And, O'Neill, don't try to raise the price again. I am paying you to deliver the drug, not price it out of the student market."

"You knew about that, did you?"

"I know everything you do, human. You've been promised your reward. If you plan to collect it, stay bought. I want the drugs available. I want the 'profits' put to work where they will influence public opinion on Riga. You can afford to buy your own whores."

"And to lick your boots in the bargain?"

"That's up to you. What are you willing to do to own a Federation starship?"

"That's the question, now, isn't it?" said O'Neill lightly, his blue eyes firing from within. "They're such pretty ships—and such dirty boots. And I'm so changeable I'm seldom sure of my own mind."

"You're sure enough of it to take your cargo to Romulus and bring the sundust back."

"Oh, yes. And an interesting voyage I've planned."

"Unharmed, O'Neill. Or no payment, no starship." The Romulan turned on his heel and left the human still perched on the edge of the table, dropping his knife monotonously into the splintered ruin he had made of its glossy surface.

~ * ~

Dia Hreth Malock, Man's daughter, was tired when she finished her rounds in the low undefended human hospital at the Firstport learning center. She was also pleasantly aware that she had done very well diagnosing a variety of ailments for the refuse of three races who came to the free wards hoping for help. The human doctor she'd been working with had been forced to give her a wintry word of praise. She didn't get many. She was the daughter of the richest man and the most prominent slave-owner on the planet. The whispers went before her in the wards, where the humans feared being removed from the free city, and in the lectures and demonstrations she attended, where poor Romulans who had found no apprenticeship within a clan wondered why she had not. It was beyond their comprehension that this was the only place she could learn what she wanted to know. She ignored their curiosity as she ignored the contempt of the Romulan girls her own age, or the accusation that she was a lover of Terrans. She didn't love them, didn't hate them. Her nurse and most of her playfellows had been Terry slaves. So far there was no evidence that humanity rubbed off.

Since she stubbornly remained where she was not wanted, she would have been foolish to expect friendships, and she did not expect them. Amidst the casual, excitable, unprotected life of the learning center, she lived her own life in solitude that was preferable to life on the estate. Her father had provided her with a defended complex and securely patrolled grounds from which she flew both power and glide craft, one of her few pleasures. She had drawn the line at exposing human slaves to their fellows' freedom in the city, so her servants were mechanized, and her security force an extension of her father's own. Knowing it would have been, in any case, she let him pay them stipends instead of rewards for spying on her. Some of the guards were sympathetic to her cause, even, perhaps, sexually interested in her, but she never seriously considered a liaison. If she had been able to form a sincere attachment, it would have been a death sentence for her lover when it was discovered. At twenty she was a virgin and likely to remain one until her father arranged a suitable marriage, or she could convince him it was to his advantage to let her pursue her training on Riga.

Deprivation was her lifestyle, but as she left her teens it was becoming harder and harder to control the imbalance of fear and anger her father's dominance created in her. The command to return home immediately—no explanation given—was one more razor edge fraying the fabric of her self-control.

~ * ~

Within his own estate Man Hreth Malock had no need to display his wealth, so there was nothing ostentatious about the small terrace Rho was guided to at dinner time—nothing but the human slave who guided her, and the forcefield that covered the table and chairs set out on a lawn under a bare tree whose upper branches bore frozen icings of snow. From the summery temperature she looked out over a winter world to a view of sawtoothed mountains crowding the last of the sunset out of the sky.

"On a moonless world we must make the most of sunrise and sunset... and the stars. My daughter will be joining us for dinner shortly. Can I offer you a drink?"

Rho accepted it and almost welcomed the truce it implied. By dining in the family, her business could be postponed for an hour while she gathered her forces and gained more insight into what motivated the most powerful Romulan on Veith.

"The mountains are lovely against the light. Is that where your mines are?"

"Some of them. Actually they're spotted all around this hemisphere. There are deposits in the south, but we won't make a major effort there in my time. The climate is as unhealthy for machines as for men. Unfortunately, over the years I've realized that there is no such thing as a fully automated operation. For now it's more efficient to dig deeper in the north."

The sunset light glowed bronze, warming both their faces. Man had changed to gold-faced black and looked at home in the opulent fabric. Rho had bound her hair up, pinning it with blood-green emeralds like the ones set in a heavy pectoral on her breast. Her one-shouldered gown was white now, the flowing sleeve hiding the tiren-ne-ab. She felt his eyes on her, as she had intended, and a familiar stirring answered his interest, surprising her, although she had always been attracted to men of power. The slowly gathering excitement held nothing of tenderness or commitment, but her body would not be denied, and it had been long since she had had any element of choice in her enemies or her lovers.

Dia entered, breaking the moment. Rho correctly identified her as Man's daughter in spite of the pale gray coverall she wore, which was styled like the estate livery. She was almost as tall as her father and still showed the coltishness of rapid growth. In a year or two she might ripen, but she was making nothing of her looks now. Her dark hair was pulled back and silver was already threaded into the strands at her temples.

Man frowned at her. "You might have honored our guest by remembering that I do provide you with a suitable wardrobe."

"I'm sorry, Father," Dia said colorlessly. "You said to come immediately. I can change."

"Never mind. This is your clan-cousin, Rho. She has come directly from court at the Emperor's request, bringing me a galhawk at his order. Rho, my daughter, Dia. Perhaps you can show her that not every lady of standing must dress and act like a man in order to accomplish something the world finds worthy of note."

The antagonism between them crackled like electricity, for all the daughter's dull obedience. Rho understood the feeling. Clan standing and wealth were no guarantee of freedom in the Empire, particularly for women. Power came with or after marriage, except for the very few who had the strength of will to make their own way.

"I would be a poor teacher in that case, cousin. I dressed to honor you. You would find more practical clothing if you searched my luggage."

Dia's dark eyes lifted to look at Rho directly for a moment. All three of them knew that any guest's incoming luggage would be searched somewhere on the way through servants' hands to the guest chamber.

Rho didn't let the silence last long enough to overemphasize her remark. "What is it that you're studying, Dia?"

"Medicine. But I've gone as far as I can here. I will soon need access to a larger hospital." It sounded grudging, as if she both wanted to speak and stay silent. Man handed her a drink and gestured them toward the table.

"Have you decided on a specialty?"

"I—I'm not sure yet. I want to study alien physiology before I decide."

"It's a continually expanding field, at least," Rho responded civilly, wondering what sport of genetics had produced this unlikely bud from the thorns of Clan Malock. "The Empire has welcomed three new allies this year alone. Some of them are methane-breathers. How would you doctor something as alien as that?"

"Someone doctors them. In the Federation there are hospitals with facilities for over a hundred races."

Rho's face darkened slightly. "Yes, I spent some time in one of them."

It was obvious from Dia's face that she knew why Rho had spent time in the Federation. No one in the clan grew to maturity without developing a sensitivity to anything that affected its fortunes. It was Empire-wide scandal that Rho's second in command had brought her three ships home without the cloaking device that would have allowed a successful penetration of Federation space, and that Rho herself had spent five months on a starbase as a prisoner.

Dia schooled her features but couldn't think of anything to say in the silence her gaucherie had brought on. She wondered how it had felt to lose so much freedom and power. The news services had carried reports of rioting in the capital when Rho was brought back as a traitor, and for nearly two years there had been no word whether she lived or died. Not that any Hreth Malock would challenge the Emperor over one woman's life. The men of the clan had been indifferent, the women vicious. Dia had wondered at the time why they should resent any woman's accomplishments, and it had created a fellow-feeling on Dia's part for the doomed woman. Rho hadn't settled for a clan-marriage and a stifling existence. She had gone out in the world and made her own way. It had been an intolerable failure on her part to have lost the cloaking device, of course, but it had been stolen by treacherous Federation spies, and Rho was not a traitor; she had chosen to go back to Romulus with a death sentence on her head. Not that she wasn't very much alive now, in her white silk and green jewels. Dia wondered what she could have done that the Emperor let her live.

Rho broke the silence herself. "I'm sorry I didn't pay much attention to the hospital itself. There were patients of many races, I'm sure, and of course, it was a Starfleet training center as well. They didn't allow me to see much of that."

"Were they—" Dia almost said, kind to you? but that sounded childish. "Did they treat you well?"

"Very well, under the circumstances. I had a certain amount of liberty and there were Vulcans about. I wasn't turned into a sideshow freak. I was allowed to meet with the representatives who arranged my release, even with some of the crew members from the Enterprise. An interest in aliens was a strong characteristic of the ship's doctor. You would probably enjoy meeting him."

"Let's hope she never faces that necessity," Man interrupted. The conversation was not going as he'd planned. "There are fine hospitals on Romulus. If she must study medicine she can do it there. I suppose the Federation believes in being prepared if some new faction comes to power, but in the Empire, lesser breeds can take their place in line. Romulans will always have first priority for medical as well as all other services."

"You didn't seem to feel that way when your chief engineer was hurt in a cave-in," Dia shot back. "In fact you ordered me to treat him while Romulans died."

Man directed a look of amusement at Rho. She is mine, it said, and I'll rein her in when I wish. "That was a special situation. The human was valuable to me. I couldn't very well take him into Firstport, even if there had been time. You did very well."

"Because I knew human physiology. Who in the Empire has the ability to treat aliens—whether as ambassadors or slaves? And if they have value to us, why should we let that value slip away when illness strikes them? If I could study with humans and Vulcans and methane-breathers, I could be the first and foremost in my field. If you forbid me someone else will do it. A man instead of a woman. From another clan and not Hreth Malock."

Man sipped the wine servants had poured with the first course of their meal. Above the forcefield frozen snow glittered along the tree's branches, and the dregs of the sunset were fading to pale green behind the dark teeth of the mountains.

"I wouldn't mind gaining their knowledge. It's human attitudes I don't want you to bring back."

Eating quietly, Rho could see that the girl was speaking from her heart and her father was merely playing with her. A shame. With coaching Dia could learn to handle him better. The way to his consent was not patriotism, but advantage. In another time she would have seconded the girl's appeal, but her job was to bend the father to her own will, not to alienate him by supporting his child against him.

"I wouldn't bring them back! Give me permission to go."

"If I did, who would doctor my humans while you were gone?"

Dia realized he had been baiting her, and green blood surged up into her face. "Who will treat them while I am here? A surgeon is the one person you cannot compel."

"When have I compelled you?" he asked lightly, ignoring the thousand times he had done so. "You don't have to treat my slaves. I can increase their breeding rate to make up the losses."

"And lose the women even faster with multiple births every ten months?"

"Whatever pleases you, my dear. But treat them or not, you belong at my side where I can protect you, not among enemies who might hold you to ransom against me."

"I will emancipate myself and relieve you of the responsibility!"

"Clan are always kin, are they not, cousin?"

Dia frowned at Rho, obviously warning her out of the quarrel.

Rho set her wine glass down deliberately and smiled at Man. "The clan is never forgotten, cousin, much less when it is far away."

The dawning friendliness in Dia's face drained away. "There are times," she said, dividing her anger between them, "when I would very much like to vomit on Clan Hreth Malock." She pushed her chair back and stalked off of the terrace.

"My firebird," Man said. "If she were a son I would fear for my life."

"Then why force her—since you don't fear her?"

"Oh, because she is my heir, my blood." He shrugged, light glinting on his white temples. "She is mine. I choose to keep her."

They finished their meal in silence. Rho drank the potent wine served with each course without protest and without showing much effect. She was quite as alert as Man when he guided her to a less comfortable room but one more suited to business. She raised an eyebrow when she saw that the sealed case with the royal device on its lock had been taken from her room and placed on a table.

"For your convenience, cousin. I'm anxious to know how I can serve the Emperor."

The case opened to Rho's voice, and she took a stack of information wafers from it, weighing them in her hands. "When was your branch of the clan established here, cousin?"

"Two hundred and seven years ago... not by my ancestors' volition. They chose a wilderness on Veith over the racial pollution on Riga. Most of us since have regretted it. Land-holding lacks opportunities. Land-holding on the lesser of two worlds in a galactic desert bounded on one side by ancestral enemies most of all."

"As a militarist I'd think it offered many opportunities—a stable economic base, favorable location for trade, and considerable autonomy."

He shrugged, elaborately innocent. "I've never had a military mind. Since my father's time it has been impossible to trade either way with much advantage. There is nothing extraordinary about Riga or Veith to trade. We're a parochial system, focused on internal problems."

"They don't seem to be bothering you here."

"Humans bother no one on Veith. On Riga and its moons it is otherwise. Once it was thought that human technicians and technology could be dispensed with when the moons were serviceable, but by that time they had insinuated themselves into every major occupation on the planet. When one group has had enough of them, another says it cannot give up their labor. The Vulcans tend to side with them. One can understand, historically, how it came about—that does not eliminate the necessity of dealing with them now. They are consuming Riga's resources, which are ours by right."

"Three hundred billion Federation citizens might disagree with you and, whether you know it or not, you will be affected by their opinion. I have reason to know how efficiently Starfleet carries out its orders."

Hreth Malock frowned at her. "The Federation knows nothing of us. Until your capture, cousin, they had never had physical contact with a Romulan. No human, no Vulcan, has ever returned to tell them."

"None will have to," Rho said, inserting a wafer into the viewing carrel. "Ochros is going to them." A schematic showed on the viewing screen, first defining the Neutral Zone, surrounding Romulan space like the frosting on a cake, then showing the drifting stars in it, finally delineating that drift. "The neutrality of Riga is already in question. It crossed the Federation boundary of the Neutral Zone months ago. Ochros is on the line now. Veith only a few weeks away. In fact, within a month, your whole system will be in Federation space."

"That's absurd."

"Why? Stars drift. What is absurd is that no one, no one at all in the Federation has noticed."

He joined her at the console, scanning the calculations and observations that supported the schematic. After half an hour's effort it was quite clear that not only was galactic drift carrying Ochros over the line, but that the spring solstice would see Veith in Federation territory. Rho watched his hands as he worked with the computer. She was used to quickness in mind and body, she expected it, and as she followed his verification she found nothing to criticize, and yet there was something about his performance that bothered her. A feeling or intuition hovered on the threshold of awareness like an uncertain guest. Deliberately she relaxed, willing herself into a free-floating limbo of unfocused attention. There was something about him—

"There's no error," he said at last, snapping the line of her non-concentration. "And just what does the Emperor plan to do about it?"

"The Emperor has come to believe that sometimes subtle weapons are best. With the correct management, this event may provide a wedge between Terra and Vulcan. Veith is a poor world by comparison to many. The Emperor has authorized me to tell you that a richer world is yours if you accomplish your purpose here."

He settled warily back against the table, and she saw his neck muscles tense and his head come up as if he had scented something new on the wind. She recognized it as his gesture of surprise.

"And what has the Emperor promised you?"

"Fleet command." She knew she could not hide the desire that drove her.

"Good. It should be a reward worth more than anything else."

"To me, cousin, command is worth more than everything else. I succeed or die a traitor." She wondered if he thought the threat had moved her more than the reward.

She wondered if she could beat him hand-to-hand.

"And my lifestyle on Veith would certainly be circumscribed within the Federation. It seems we are committed, cousin. Success or death."

It was their clan motto, and she echoed it back to him as her uncertain guest stepped into view. The subtle signs of tension in Man's upper body were relaxing again, as if he were on familiar territory. He had tightened at that offer of another planet, hiding surprise. She saw the significant thing then. He had been relaxed all the time he spent at the computer verifying her data. That news had been no surprise to him at all.

 

III

Kirk had planned a breakfast meeting with Scotty to go over their requisition and repair schedule for the time they would be docked at Starbase 27. The lists were important, and the two of them spent part of every R&R coaxing, scavenging, or plain pulling rank on quartermasters and base engineering for the endless amount of consumables, equipment, and improvements the Enterprise needed to keep her crew breathing air instead of vacuum.

They had also received a request to return some experimental sensor equipment, and Scotty had not yet finished duplicating it. Kirk was determined to keep the added capability the Sensor Analyzer Liaison for Environmental Evaluation gave his ship. SALEE was still triple-top-secret and not common issue, but in Kirk's opinion the Enterprise would make better use of her in the line than some desk-bound bureaucrat or imposing but inefficacious dreadnought. Kirk had slept poorly, planning his apology to Spock, then wakened late, but he could not put the meeting with Scotty aside.

He forced himself through it and saw Spock for the first time already on the bridge. He'd had no doubt military decorum would be observed, but he still had to brace himself to meet the Vulcan's eyes after he had given the bridge crew his usual "Good morning." Spock's demeanor was unchanged as he returned the greeting, and he initiated conversation by reiterating what Scott had already told Kirk at breakfast—that SALEE's circuitry had been so thoroughly enmeshed with the main computer's that removal posed a problem.

"I agree with Mr. Spock, Captain," said Uhura, who had responsibility for the operation of the unit. "When we installed it, I thought we'd be keeping the prototype. I could disconnect, but it would probably take me my entire leave. I don't know which would be worse—losing that or losing SALEE."

"We'll try not to lose either one, Lieutenant. I wouldn't want the ship damaged by doing anything hastily. I'll talk to Mendez and see why they're so determined to get it back. What's our ETA, Sulu?"

"Thirteen hundred hours, Captain. That will be 0500 on Starbase 27. We're going to have a short day."

And when it's over, Spock will be gone, Kirk thought on a wave of longing. For a moment he was afraid it would show in his face, but he had to speak. He was on the bridge to run this ship, and as long as he breathed he was going to see that it ran according to regulation and at top efficiency. Which dictated a department-head briefing to discuss new duty assignments, transfers, and leave requests.

"That's what they pay us for. Uhura, let Scotty and McCoy know I'm scheduling a briefing in half an hour to discuss transfers and new duty assignments. Put us in Briefing A. I'll meet them there with the paperwork." No one was reacting, so the briefing hadn't come as a surprise and he must be sounding normal. Keep it up. What will they think when they know Spock is leaving? "And, Mr. Spock, if you have the time you might meet me there a few minutes early." A request, not an order, Spock.

"Certainly, Captain, I will be there."

"Thank you. You have the con." He was shaking as he strode up the steps to the turbolift, and the feeling of nightmare was back. Each necessary duty performed slid away into limbo and left him to face the incomprehensible and unbearable fact of Spock's loss. But he had proved how little he could be trusted to respect Spock's presence. For Spock's good and the good of the ship there was no other choice.

In his cabin the paperwork he'd left scattered over his desk had been neatly restacked by his yeoman. With a firm hand, Kirk signed Spock's request and replaced it on the top of the pile. For a moment he turned and studied his face in the mirror. He looked a little pale and puffy-eyed for the dynamic captain of a starship, more than a little ashamed, perhaps, but it was not the face of the wolf or of a man who would put his own transient satisfaction ahead of his friends or his duty.

He reached the briefing room before Spock. Two yeomen in support red were setting up a coffee service for their senior officers. He let them finish and leave. It wasn't long until the door opened and Spock entered.

"You asked to see me, Captain?" The door slid shut behind him, sealing them into a closed space.

"To apologize." Kirk looked up and met Spock's eyes with an effort. "I won't embarrass you by drawing it out, but there's no justification for what I said—and did—last night. I do apologize. I'd rather have my ribs kicked in than let you go with that for a memory. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know that you did not. My own—behavior—has been far from exemplary, Jim, and you have been under great stress on my account. It is impossible that one incident outweigh—what we have shared." The Vulcan's face softened for the first time in a month. Hesitantly, he offered his hand in a human gesture Kirk had never seen him make before. Kirk answered it with his own, the weight of misery and embarrassment lightening unexpectedly. He sighed and gave Spock the ghost of a scapegrace smile.

"Thank you." He held the Vulcan's warm hand for a moment and then released it. "I've signed your leave request with the others and assigned Chekov to cover your station until we can get a replacement. Do you think he can handle it?" Kirk turned away and poured himself a cup of coffee. The slight tremor of his hand set up a pattern of concentric circles across the surface of the liquid. "Coffee?"

"Thank you, Captain." Kirk handed over the cup he had poured for himself, destroying the stress rings with motion. "Chekov is competent in the operation of the computer, but he lacks the necessary experience to repair it or intuit more than can be discovered by routine tests about its interior functioning. If nothing malfunctions he will be adequate and the experience will be good for him. He has a tendency to be too conservative."

Kirk nodded, relieved to find they were after all able to discuss the topic. "Human failing. I wonder if I haven't made too many decisions for him—and I know I'm reluctant to lose him as a navigator. I might make Sulu my first officer if I can't recruit someone better; but I want—I'm used to having—the best at the science station. Will you be on Starbase 27 long enough to do a records search and forward me a recommendation?"

"Yes, Captain."

Kirk sipped his coffee and his face felt warm. "I don't have much pride when it comes to the ship, Spock. I would appreciate your help very much."

"It would please me to assist you. My plans are fluid. My parents may be at Starbase 27—I understand there was a call for my father's services as a diplomatic observer. Apparently a sect of the New Reform has been located."

"I've forgotten what the New Reform was all about." He'd never known, actually, and certainly didn't care. Vulcan reared as many fanatics as any other culture, and they had had the usual tendency to fission off from the main social body as soon as space flight became practicable. But Spock was talking to him, and it seemed desperately important to sketch in some kind of map of what his future would be, to be able to picture him continuing past that last glimmer of a fading transporter beam. Would he teach, travel, return to Vulcan? Kirk drank and sat his telltale cup on the table.

"Some Vulcans, usually considered radical in their approach, questioned the efficacy of logic in some aspects of social responsibility, such as child rearing, care for the insane and the terminally ill. The supporters of the New Reform operated hospices, offered care to individuals of any species. The order has dwindled, like your Knights Templar, as the movement died out on Vulcan. It would be interesting to discover a surviving segment."

"If Sarek and Amanda are there you'd have someone to travel with," Kirk said, hating the inanities of social chatter. After all they had shared, to part over tea and crumpets. "People are going to want to know why you're leaving."

Spock's rising eyebrow said that humans could undoubtedly be counted on for exactly that temerity, but he had, in fact, anticipated such inquiries. "I have frequently been offered research facilities at the Vulcan Science Academy. Their last communication made it a standing offer."

Kirk gestured at the empty seats around the briefing table. "Is that what you want me to tell them?"

"It would not be untrue to say I had received the offer."

"All right. They'll be here in a minute."

Kirk wanted to say something more, to tell Spock that he would be welcomed warmly many places in the Federation, that he need not choose the sterile life of a Vulcan scientist. But there seemed no way to begin, and before he could try McCoy walked into the room and picked the chair opposite Jim's. He bent a blue-eyed glance their way and then sat down. Kirk finished his coffee and disposed of the cup while Scotty, Uhura, Gavin Lapsley from security, and Nadia Palevi from the research lab came in and settled around the table.

"Thank you for being so prompt. I've gone over the requests and your recommendations—" Habit was the ally. It took him through the routine requests, reasons for their refusals or approvals, plus any headhunting tasks the department chiefs had brought him. The complement of the Enterprise varied as they undertook more or less research or more military objectives, as they left crew members behind, lost them, and as talent too good to pass up became available.

That continual recruitment of new, qualified, and promising personnel was a task Kirk had always given his own attention, although many commanders dumped the responsibility on a subordinate's shoulders. It never occurred to him that his own drive to excel and the ship's reputation were enough to attract the best applicants without further effort. Even with that draw, not everyone was suited to deep space exploration or the uncertainties of service on a starship. Not everyone who admired Kirk's exploits could live up to his standards. The flamboyance was obvious. The detail-oriented, nit-picking, no-job-ever-good-enough conscience that drove Kirk, and through him, his crew, came as a surprise to newcomers. The truth was that while talent might get them aboard, only performance, and star-quality performance at that, could keep them there. Kirk had never had to ask anyone to put in a transfer request. When the need became apparent, the luckless crewman was usually glad enough to seek a less demanding assignment.

When he came to the end of the list, Kirk picked up Spock's 47-A and cleared his throat. "We will be losing another, very valuable member of the crew this time. Mr. Spock will be taking an extended leave on Vulcan. The Vulcan Science Academy thinks it needs him more than we do. I know I speak for all of you when I say that his loss will be—deeply—felt; but we wish him success, and that very unVulcan emotion, happiness, in his new venture." He couldn't smile as he said it. The standard speech came out more like a threat than a send-off.

Uhura's startled "Mr. Spock!" and Scotty's "Mon, ye canna'—" were cut off by Spock's rising eyebrow. McCoy's eyes were fixed on Kirk's face, and Nadia looked from Kirk to Spock uncertainly, her own blue eyes full of concern. Gavin Lapsley's gray eyes were unreadable. Kirk leaned back in his chair, unwilling and unable to do more.

Spock centered the three personnel tapes he had brought with him into a neat stack before him on the table. "Naturally your good wishes are gratifying, as is the opportunity to teach." Four years ago, even one year ago, he might have been able to stop there and go back to the business at hand, daring anyone to question his motives, but Spock had seen the exhaustion under Kirk's control. He could feel it in his own body, as he could feel the shock around him. They were all staring at him, trying to understand how any inducement could justify what they plainly saw as desertion. He could not give them the emotional display that would satisfy them, but he valued their good wishes, and he was feeling very vulnerable to the human needs around him. He could at least acknowledge that he was leaving something he valued, respond to Kirk's accolade with proper courtesy... It was just that he was afraid if he spoke one word, he would begin to babble.

"Well if you want to know what I think," said McCoy pugnaciously, ignoring the warning glance Kirk threw at him, "I think that's a bunch of poppycock and you'll be so bored it'll serve you right. You belong on the Enterprise!"

From Spock's point of view the expression on the surprised faces around the table seemed to support McCoy. Again the Vulcan searched for words and couldn't find them. The silence was beginning to be awkward.

Wearily, Kirk took up the burden again. "Spock has given the Enterprise sixteen years of excellent service, Doctor. When we've done the same we may be ready for a break, too. Is there anything else? Then we're dismissed." Kirk gathered his papers, rose, and made for the door with Spock not far behind him.

McCoy watched the getaway with disgust.

"I canna believe it," Scotty said in shock. "The Captain must be out of his mind. We'll never see the like of Spock again."

"Did you know he was planning to leave?" Uhura asked McCoy. She was doe-eyed with surprise and Nadia Palevi looked equally stunned.

"He told me last night," McCoy admitted.

"Did he say—I mean, he doesn't really want to teach, does he?" Uhura took the plunge, "Could it be— Does he have to go back to Vulcan, Doctor?"

McCoy flicked a glance at Gavin and Nadia, who presumably didn't know the more intimate details about Vulcan reproductive compulsions, but neither of them looked particularly ill-informed, and they were both waiting for his answer. No one but a fool could have missed what the last twenty minutes had cost Kirk.

"No, he doesn't have to go back to Vulcan," McCoy said trenchantly. "I think it would be a very bad idea if he did, and if anyone can come up with a cast-iron reason to keep him here, I'm receptive."

There was a small silence while everyone waited for someone else to come up with an inspiration.

"Well," said McCoy, "I couldn't think of anything either, and I've had overnight to do it. I guess the only thing we can do is stand by to pick up the pieces when he leaves."

They all got up and trailed out of the room after him. No one had to ask what particular pieces McCoy meant.

~ * ~

Back on the bridge, Kirk monitored the flow of reports and information that needed his attention or approval. Spock was ostensibly working at his console. Uhura eavesdropped on the increasingly frequent transmissions directed to and from the starbase. Sulu and Chekov seemed relaxed, but Kirk knew they both had the ability to become fully alert in a fraction of a second, and he had never objected to the easy flow of conversation around the bridge when work was dull.

He himself had reached and passed some peak of misery that numbed him. He could work, observe as dispassionately as a Vulcan, and keep everything else locked firmly in the back of his mind. He was perfectly aware of it when Sulu and then Chekov cast a glance at Uhura and then at each other. They knew that something had happened to worry the communications chief, sensitive to such small cues as her silence, the tension in her back, the way she kept her eyes strictly down and on her work. In a moment more they would notice Spock's lack of concentration on his work, and in ten minutes they would have put two and two together and know that something affecting the captain and first officer was afoot. The bridge crew worked on intuition and sensitivity as much as their military training, and it wasn't fair to them or to the ship to ruin that rapport with secrecy. He took a deep breath, but before he could speak Uhura's head snapped up.

"Message from Starbase 27, Captain. We're receiving a Fleet Alert!" Without waiting for a command she put it on the main viewscreen.

"This is Admiral José Mendez. As of 1030 Stardate 6793.18 all military vessels in sectors adjacent to the Romulan Neutral Zone are placed on Fleet Alert until further notification by Starfleet Command. To our present knowledge, there is no immediate danger of attack and no intruder. I repeat, no intruder is to be fired upon until and unless that intruder provokes attack or approaches within three diameters of any inhabited world or construct. Intruding spacecraft will be intercepted and accompanied while the Fleet is notified of their presence. Specific orders for each vessel will be forthcoming. Until they arrive, continue your present course and mission. Civilian shipping should be warned away from the Romulan Neutral Zone." Looking as if he hadn't slept recently, Mendez then read through a stack of general orders for the Fleet. "You've had your orders, Captains, now you should know why you have them. A planetary system with two habitable worlds has crossed the border into Federation space. You will receive more information shortly and updates for as long as the crisis continues. Mendez out."

Kirk did not believe in asking his crew for unnecessary demonstrations of their battle readiness. He kept the horns and klaxons for real emergencies. Instead he opened a shipwide channel. "Attention all personnel, this is the captain speaking. The Enterprise has been placed on Fleet Alert. There is no immediate danger. We have received a brief explanation from Starbase 27, and as more information becomes available you will be kept apprised of the situation." He flicked the button. "Replay them the significant parts of that, Uhura."

"Yes, sir. Another message, Captain, this one for you."

"Put it up," Kirk said.

Once again Mendez looked out from the screen. This was a live transmission, not a recording. "Jim, I know you're due for R&R and dry dock in a few hours, but I'm going to have to cancel you. Is your first officer there?"

Spock looked at Kirk for permission and then moved to stand beside the command chair where the main screen pickup would include him as well as Kirk. "I am here, Admiral."

"Mr. Spock, I'm sorry to inform you that your father has been abducted from Ochros III. He and your mother were in the Neutral Zone at the request of the Federation Council to contact Vulcans inhabiting a planet called Riga. Your mother is safe. She managed to get a message to us. Your father, presumably, is a hostage of the Romulans."

Mendez might have mentioned climate control for all the interest Spock displayed, but no one on the bridge was deceived.

"Thank you for informing me, Admiral. I am sure my parents understood the risks of their undertaking."

Mendez frowned. "I'm not sure any of us really understood them, Mr. Spock, and there have been complications." He ran his hand over his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Jim, Ochros III—Riga—has a mixed population of humans, Vulcans, and Romulans. They are not aware that their system is drifting into Federation space—they contacted us on another matter, or rather the Vulcans did. It was not to have been public knowledge that Sarek was there, but it is and we're caught in the middle again. The Fleet does not have the consent of the Council to tell the Rigans where they are; we do have their permission to enter the Neutral Zone whether the Romulans like it or not. The workings of the civilian mind are beyond me.

"If we don't want a war, we have to have someone in that system and in charge yesterday. You're my number one choice, but Hank Harnum of the Haile Selassie is also in the quadrant, and I don't just need a negotiator, I also need someone to go after Sarek. Amanda reports that Vulcans and humans on Riga believe there is an active slave trade from their world to Romulus. That has to be investigated, too.

"I'm giving you your choice of missions, Jim. You can go after Sarek—if there's any possibility of tracing him—or you can have a bump to rear admiral. Both you and Hank are due for it. Somebody's got to be in command."

Spock shifted and turned to face Kirk as Mendez stopped speaking. If possible he looked more Vulcan than before. "If I may speak, Captain."

"Yes, Mr. Spock."

"With due respect for Captain Harnum's competence and Starfleet's wishes, it is my opinion that you would be most effective in command of such a delicate situation. The Enterprise has more experience than most ships with such matters. While I am concerned for my father, there is no assurance that he still lives, or if living now, that he would still be living if and when we found him. The small chance of recovering one individual from captivity should not outweigh the great gains to be realized from tactful handling of a whole system."

"What special advantage would I have over Harnum at doing that?" Kirk asked.

"Speak up, Mr. Spock, I'm sitting on a time bomb," Mendez urged.

Spock acknowledged the necessity for haste. "Captain Kirk has the particular advantage of being known and respected on Vulcan. If Vulcans are party to this negotiation, the captain's history of freedom from racial bigotry will stand him in good stead."

"Are you implying Harnum's some kind of bigot?" Mendez demanded.

Out of sight of the pickups there were raised eyebrows and a few suppressed smiles. If they had learned anything about Spock, it was that he rarely lost an argument or verbal exchange, even when outranked.

"No, Admiral. I merely state Captain Kirk's unique qualifications for negotiating with non-humans."

"A unique lack of bigotry?" snapped Mendez.

"A unique reputation, sir. With Vulcans and Romulans." From Spock's formal exterior they might have been debating the merits of parliamentary protocol, but it was a significant argument. Kirk had, twice, kicked the Romulans back into their own space.

Mendez conceded. "I don't deny it, but Harnum is also a competent officer. There's not much time to mull it over, Jim."

"I don't need to, Admiral. We'll go after Sarek. We've got a piece of equipment aboard that makes us 'uniquely qualified' to do that."

"I thought you'd want to. My advice would be to go directly to Ochros III and take the ambassador's wife aboard; she can tell you more than I can. You should have the heels of anything local if he's been taken off-planet. When you come back, report to Harnum there."

"Acknowledged."

"I'm sorry about your R&R, Jim; your people have earned it. Tell them we'll facilitate leaves and transfer requests at the first available opportunity."

In the rush of information Kirk had forgotten about leaves and transfers. Of course they would be canceled for the duration of a Fleet Alert. He was suddenly very aware of the Vulcan still standing at his shoulder. "Thank you, sir," he answered with unusual warmth. "They'll appreciate that. We'll do our best."

Mendez acknowledged and signed off. Sulu's hands were poised over his board before Kirk gave his order.

"Ochros III, Lieutenant—as fast as we can get there. Uhura, be ready to contact—who's in charge there?"

Spock was back at his station, pulling information from the condensed intelligence that had accompanied the admiral's verbal transmission. "The planetary administrator is a human, sir, a Mr. Barat."

"Contact the lady Amanda through him. Pull the rest of that, Spock, and send it down to McCoy's office. I'll want him in on this. Pull Harnum's record. Uhura, have somebody set up a suite for Spock's parents—you can take the con. Sulu, once we're in the groove, you go over the intelligence, too, and see if there are any more surprises lurking in the RNZ—inhabited planets outside the Ochros system, constructs, whatever. If you find anything, let me know right away."

Kirk was already moving toward the turbolift as he scattered orders around the bridge, and Spock's hands were flying as he programmed the computer to deliver data to the medical section. The lift doors opened and Kirk turned as Spock rose from his console. Uhura was settling herself in the command chair, Chekov moving between Spock's station and the communications board. The stars on the main screen were sliding down and off, and they suddenly dopplered into streaks of color as Spock walked toward the turbolift. For a moment the Vulcan's face was painted with rose and violet and blue, the tints of stained glass. With a pang Kirk remembered Spock's face as it relaxed in total completion after sex.

The first officer looked up from the bottom step. He saw the captain poised at the entrance of the lift, impatient, expectant, his hazel eyes bright with unguarded concern, desire to help, and a relief he made no attempt to hide. It checked Spock in mid-stride, and he had to hurry to make it through the closing doors.

They were light on their feet a moment as the lift dropped.

"Sickbay," Kirk commanded, letting the automated machinery choose its own route to the nearest unused access. He looked directly at Spock. "I'm going to get him back for you, Spock. And if I can't help being glad that you're not leaving just yet—you'll have to chalk it up to illogical humanity." He didn't say any more, and when Spock offered no reply, he accepted that and faced the door in silence.

Spock made no reply because he had none. He had steeled himself for Kirk's guilt, for the pain of their parting. He'd told himself that Kirk's present misery justified it, but he had not been honest about his own suffering. In Kirk's place he might have made the same choices, but he would not have had the courage to let his relief show. Once again the human's generosity shamed him, and his own reticence seemed selfish in comparison.

By the time McCoy had been briefed on the situation, Spock was in better control of his thoughts, enough to hide the discomfort he felt over McCoy's knowing more than Kirk realized about Spock's decision to leave. At the time it had seemed logical to inform McCoy, but now they would remain in proximity and his revelation of such private information seemed disloyal. Quite apart from his Vulcan upbringing, duplicity was foreign to Spock's nature; it was now his obligation to explain the situation to Kirk. Yet how could he do so without also revealing his motivation, which the human would inevitably reject? With a mental sigh, the Vulcan once again brought his erring mind back to the business at hand.

"Do you know Harnum, Jim?"

"I've heard of him, don't know him personally."

"He's fifty-five—" McCoy tapped the data printed out on the viewer over his desk. "And this didn't seem to be a planned promotion. I wonder why he hasn't moved faster?"

A touch of irony tinged Kirk's reply. "Maybe we ran out of wars, Doctor. That's when we get vacancies."

McCoy frowned at this knee-jerk military response. People said doctors protected their own. "My interest is professional, Jim. You're the galactic hotshot. I've been concerned for some time over your reentry into a more structured situation at the end of this mission."

It was a thought which had occurred to Kirk as well, but he wasn't prepared to pry the lid off his psyche in the middle of a mission. "You can save your concern until I start worrying about it. You might query the Fleet for an update on Sarek's health records for a start."

McCoy decided he was right. "I'll do that and go over my Vulcan physiology, too. Everything I know about Spock just handicaps me when I try to treat someone normal. You want him to stick around and hold my hand?"

Kirk thought McCoy's jab was ill timed, and he looked for the tense withdrawal that usually characterized the Vulcan when he was under stress, but Spock barely raised an eyebrow.

"I have no objection to assisting the doctor, Captain. He can probably use all the help he can get."

Kirk felt a little left out. It seemed, after a month's silence, Spock was willing to take up the old game of insult and counter-insult with McCoy. "Well, enjoy yourselves," he said.

Spock waited until the door had closed behind Jim before addressing McCoy. "It seems that our discussion, Doctor, was—premature."

McCoy felt the mantle of professional calm settle over him. Spock wouldn't show it, of course, but he must be suffering from the pangs of a Vulcan-sized embarrassment in addition to his other woes.

"You couldn't know this was going to happen."

"No, but leaves have been canceled for the duration of the crisis, and I would not have chosen to confide in you if I had expected to remain on the ship. I would not have chosen to conceal our discussion from Jim."

"You're entitled to a confidant of your own, Spock."

"Yet the captain has not chosen to confide in you. To have done so, without his knowledge, is a violation of his privacy—"

"I think he'd understand why you did it. Do you want to tell him?"

"No." The Vulcan's long fingers played with the ejected information cube. "I am not certain that it would be better to do so. I do not know how to make these judgments."

McCoy thought that was the most helplessly human statement he had ever heard Spock make, and he had to swallow a fair-sized lump in his throat before he could answer.

"Give it a day or two. Now he's got something to do, Jim will loosen up and maybe decide to do a little confiding himself. If that happens I'll tell him what I think he ought to know. In the meantime, try to be a little more observant."

"Of what?" The Vulcan looked up.

"James Kirk. You give him a good long look and then tell me it's hurting him worse to have you aboard for a few more days than it did to endorse your 47-A this morning. I'm just a doctor, but it looks to me like the difference between a man on his way to the gallows and one who's just gotten a reprieve. Now go on and get out of here because I don't want to argue."

~ * ~

Kirk did not loosen up as much as McCoy had hoped in the three days it took them to get to Ochros at warp seven. He did seem less tense, a little more gregarious, but certainly not cheerful. McCoy had kept his ear to the ground for rumors about Spock's departure and had heard none. He concluded that the department heads, for reasons of their own, had kept the news to themselves. Two classic examples of "ignore the problem and maybe it'll go away." McCoy decided to take the initiative.

Sickbay seemed too cold, somehow, the gym and hydroponics full of unpleasant memories, Kirk's cabin not neutral enough. McCoy finally reserved a private room and asked a yeoman to set it up with dinner for two, then called Kirk and asked for time to go over some personnel files over dinner.

"My time's pretty tight, Bones. We'll orbit Riga in about nine hours. I may not get any sleep tonight at all." That was a usual ploy when Kirk wanted to avoid medical section paperwork, since McCoy kept telling him to sleep more. "Can't it wait?"

"I think you ought to see these records before we go into action, Jim—" McCoy's standard comeback. Kirk never ignored anything that might endanger crew or ship.

The captain sighed. "Well, I have to eat anyway. But only an hour, Bones."

"That should do it," McCoy lied cheerfully. "I'll meet you in 590-C with a steak and a martini."

When Kirk showed up, McCoy handed over the drink and pointed at the steak. "Twenty minutes for digestion, Jim. Medical prescription. Then the reports."

"Looks good, Bones. I'm worried about Sarek. He's been in their hands how long now? If the Fleet is right about the slave trade—" He pantomimed the unpleasant possibilities as he started on his steak.

McCoy didn't like to think about Romulan means for controlling slaves. "I thought slavery was uneconomic in a technological society."

"I don't think economics was ever more than a temporary precipitator of slavery, Bones—or a rationalization. Look at all the trouble slavekeepers have had down through history—runaways, rebellions, uprisings. There's just something in us that gets a nasty little thrill out of bondage and the thought of absolute power."

"The urge is there, all right, or we wouldn't feel so much horror. Nobody gets upset about ear-wiggling or eye-crossing, but we still have jokes about cannibalism."

Kirk looked up from his steak. "I don't think I've ever been tempted to do anybody in for a barbecue."

"That's what you say when you're eating steak. Wait till you're starving."

"Maybe. Better be armed if I come around to tell you I've changed my mind."

A little hostility toward the manipulative doctor, Jim? McCoy nodded. "Good idea. You survivors can be dangerous." In the interests of digestion, McCoy let the conversation ramble on until the steak was finished and Kirk was halfway through the pièce de résistance, apple pie smothered in ice cream. Wordlessly he poured coffee for both of them and leaned back in his chair. Kirk obstinately continued eating until his pie was finished, then pushed his plate away.

"It must be pretty bad if you had to build me up this much first," he suggested.

McCoy felt an irritated flush burn over his cheekbones. Kirk was right, the stalling had been for his own benefit. Damn all indirection.

"Sorry. I guess I didn't know how to start. Spock told me why he's leaving."

"Oh." The transient comfort of a good meal and a relaxed hour vanished as Kirk's shields snapped up. McCoy had a habit of prying out secrets, but Kirk hadn't expected this to be one of them. Well, Spock had a right to the confessional, too.

"He had decided to leave, Jim. He was afraid I would put you on the spot, and I think he wanted to save you from making the decision to tell me. It wasn't easy for him."

Kirk clamped down on his temper and felt the tension stiffen his neck. No, it wouldn't have been easy for Spock, but it wasn't easy for him, either, and Spock did not have to deal with personal problems and simultaneously command the Enterprise. No matter how much he might want to climb out of McCoy's glass-walled box, the captain of a starship didn't have that option—not if he wanted to continue in command.

"He thought you might want to talk about it," urged McCoy.

"I will. When there's no crisis hanging over us. Right now I just want to complete this mission."

"And then what?"

"If he still wants to leave, I'll get by."

"I hear a reservation there, but let that go for a minute. Maybe you'll get by—" Like Humpty Dumpty. "—But how about Spock? He needs a little glue, too. Can't you ease up some?"

"I'm not blaming him."

"That's not what it sounded like in the gym the other night."

"Eavesdropping is not part of your professional prerogative."

"It was strictly accidental, and I left as soon as I heard your voices. But you sounded like you were out for blood."

"I'm not proud of that, Bones, but it's between Spock and me."

"I wish I could leave it at that, but I can't. Professionally I can't. I don't blame you if you're a little mixed up right now, Jim, but I think you have to understand your own motives before you go into an action situation. You're the crew member I want to discuss."

Kirk's eyes narrowed. "I don't believe this. You certainly didn't think I was unfit for the mission the other day."

"I'm not saying you're unfit now... if we can talk this out."

"All right. Talk. What do you want to know?"

"How do you feel about Spock's leaving?"

"It's his right. I can't stop him."

"That's an interesting way to phrase it. I've seldom heard you acknowledge that you couldn't do something."

"I've signed his 47-A. His paperwork will be processed as soon as this is over."

"And in the meantime what're you doing about it?"

"Doing? I'm keeping my hands to myself." Kirk kept his voice low, but it was singing with anger. The deliberate crudity was thrown at McCoy like a threat.

"Jim, you're being the soul of nobility about keeping your hands to yourself, and at the same time throwing away a promotion to try and rescue Spock's father—all the while mooning at Spock like he was the last candy bar on the shelf. In short, you're laying the granddaddy of all guilt trips on him—a typical manipulator's special."

Color flamed into Kirk's face. He pushed his chair back. "That is uncalled for."

"Is it?" McCoy pushed himself away from the table, too. "What if you get hurt sticking out your neck for Spock's father? What if you buy a crippling wound? Spock's a pretty devoted type, isn't he? Look what he did for Chris Pike. What do you want to bet me he wouldn't stay around and pick up the pieces?"

Kirk stood up. "You are the one who ought to be certified. There is no basis whatsoever for these accusations. If you believe there is, make it official, and we'll put it to the test. But however it comes out, Doctor, we aren't going to be working together afterward. You'll have to excuse me." He turned toward the door.

"Oh, sure," drawled McCoy. "Walk out, kick me out, let Spock leave. Maybe that's the easiest way out—no damage to the Great Starship Captain's reputation, no nasty rumors, no command problems. 'Tis better to have loved and lost." McCoy could put a fine edge of sarcasm in his voice, and it was superb now. Kirk swung around. "Love 'em and leave 'em Kirk—"

Even watching for the backhanded blow Kirk launched at him, McCoy couldn't avoid it totally. Kirk's knuckles split his lip and knocked him backward out of his chair. McCoy rapped his head smartly against the wall and saw stars. He hadn't counted on that, or Kirk's fist twisted in the front of his shirt with choking power as he was hauled back to his feet. Blood dribbled down his chin and onto Kirk's hand, but the captain's face was dead white, his eyes dangerously bright, the pupils contracted.

"Loving Spock was the peak experience of my life! I won't listen to you or anyone else smear it with cheap innuendos!"

The hand that dangled McCoy hoisted him a little higher as the opposite fist drew back. The doctor resigned himself to dental surgery, but he stared stubbornly back into those contracted green-gold eyes.

"Well, why didn't you say so?" he mumbled through the blood in his mouth.

Kirk's arm shook with a thawing tremor, and the grip on McCoy's shirt loosened and released him back against the wall. McCoy let the bulkhead hold him up a moment, then bent shakily down to pick up his overturned chair, dripping blood as he did so. When he straightened up Kirk was staring at him with so much bewildered appeal that his own anger dissolved. "It's all right, Jim. Hand me a napkin."

Automatically Kirk found McCoy's napkin in the wreckage they had made of the table and handed it over. McCoy dabbed gingerly at his mouth and mopped his chin off. "Wipe your hand," he said.

Kirk used the tablecloth, and he was frowning as he looked up. "You did that to me deliberately."

"Right, so don't go on a guilt trip over it. There are times I wish I had a better way of getting through to you than by making you mad. This hurts," he said mildly. "Will you come back to sickbay with me?"

Kirk didn't answer, but he accompanied McCoy and stood around while an orderly, bursting with curiosity, put a neat laser suture in McCoy's split lip. When it was done, McCoy ushered Kirk into his office and indicated the visitor's chair.

Kirk sat, but he was in possession of himself again. His "I'd like an explanation, Bones" was quiet, but it was the captain's tone.

"Yes, sir. The captain of this ship is a complex individual with a wide range of adaptive and survival instincts and a strong drive to compete and excel. He is also highly intelligent and analytical—a manipulator, with strong defenses against being manipulated by anyone else. When he is operating in a defensive mode, it is difficult to communicate with him. Depressants may help break through his screens; shock treatment is sometimes indicated. Supportive therapy facilitates personal reintegration."

Kirk wasn't about to be satisfied with mere jargon. "So?"

"Once aware of his motivations, I've found the captain quite capable of making his own decisions—usually the right ones."

With the first sign of softening, Kirk said, "I'm beginning to wonder."

"Jim, we have to talk about you and Spock. Not just for your sake. This is affecting him, too. His tricorder readings are a nightmare. He's trying to go off and leave you and his whole career. He's not just losing a lover, Jim. He's losing everything. I want to know if that has to happen."

"If he wants it."

"What do you want?"

"I want to love him," Kirk said in a defeated tone.

"And why can't you?"

"He doesn't want it!"

McCoy began to relax. He saw the trailing string leading into the maze, felt its texture between thumb and forefinger. Careful now.

"What Spock told me was that he no longer experienced desire. You do?"

"Yes."

"Is that all you feel for him?"

"You know it's not. He's invaluable as an officer, as a friend. There's nothing I wouldn't give him if he wanted it, but he doesn't want my desire."

Warily McCoy began to gather in the twine, following between the thick-leaved walls. "Just putting desire aside for the moment, how would you feel if Spock were sick or disfigured or disgraced somehow?"

Frown lines appeared between Kirk's brows as he tried to follow McCoy's reasoning. "I'd want to help. I love him, Bones. I'm not putting qualifiers on it."

"And if you couldn't respond—would you still be willing to satisfy him?"

Kirk contemplated a cold future without passion. It could happen. And he would still want Spock's happiness. "I'd give him anything he wanted," he repeated.

McCoy jerked the string taut. "Why can't he do that for you?" he demanded.

Kirk shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I'm not into unwilling partners."

"You said you'd do it for him."

Kirk leaned forward and began to draw triangles on the desk top with the edge of his hand. "You're talking about the kind of sexual relationship a cripple might have to settle for."

"And that's pretty far from what you had?" McCoy made it a question.

Kirk closed his eyes and swallowed. Tears stung under his eyes and salted the back of his throat. Would he ever forget? He felt the pain of breaking—something in him paining and yielding in this moment McCoy had brought him to, and words finally worked for instead of against him.

"It was transcendent. Mind, body, memories. We shared everything. That's why I can't be in the same room without wanting him. I can't turn it off!"

Hands tangled in trailing clues, McCoy found the center of the labyrinth. He put all the conviction he felt into his voice. "I don't believe that, Jim. You can turn it off. Everybody can. That's Spock's problem."

"What do you mean?" Kirk's hand was still, lying open and appealing on the desk, asking to be filled.

"I mean that Spock has the same switch in his head that we all do. Every teenage boy goes through a miserable period when he doesn't know what his body is going to do next—and we learn to turn it off. We don't get a hard-on in church or when some brass hat is chewing us out or when we really have to study for that final exam. We adapt to our cultural norm. Humans are horny all the time and Vulcans go berserk once every seven years. We have a pattern. We follow it."

"But Vulcans—"

"Vulcans," confirmed McCoy. "Not Spock. There are no physiological brakes on Spock's system, Jim. It's that damned Vulcan conditioning."

Kirk shook his head. "But he can't, Bones. He doesn't feel it anymore, not a spark. What does it matter if he can, physically, and can't, mentally? The result is the same. It's hopeless." But his hand had closed into a loose fist again, folding protectively over what he had already accepted.

McCoy began to sort through his tangled skein, put it in order. "Shut up and let me talk. While we were on Sarpeidon in those ice caves, Spock got all involved with a girl named Zarabeth, and he wasn't exactly feeling platonic on Omicron Ceti III with Leila. I've got it all in peeping Leonard's little black tricorder. His body didn't suddenly change, Jim, his mind did. The spores in one case, and belief that he was isolated in time in the other, changed his mind. He could, he did, perform with no pon farr involved."

"Then—is he deliberately lying to me?" The hurt in Kirk's voice was that of a child not understanding undeserved punishment.

"Nope. He's got those memories tucked right out of sight. He believes every word he said, but I believe my instruments. Now do you still want to knock me down?"

Kirk sighed and shook his head. "What I ought to do is bend over and give you a running start. I'm sorry I hit you, Bones. I've got so much feeling backed up, I don't know whether to bawl or bust somebody. It's always the bad stuff that spills over."

"I'll remember you the next time I'm in that state."

"Whenever you want." Hope was already beginning to lighten the fatigue in Kirk's face. "How do I change his mind?"

"Don't push. And don't—hurt—so much. That just about incapacitates him. From what you said—both of you—the pon farr was a peak; don't use that for your standard of real life or it will seem pretty humdrum. Look at it from his point of view. You're the Golden-Wonder-Hell-On-Wheels-Kid-Captain of the Enterprise, and Spock can't live up to the Vulcan honeymoon. He's got all the problems of a frigid bride and an impotent groom. You're going to have to show him he has other values to offer you."

"Without raping or manipulating him in the meantime."

"That's it."

Kirk looked at McCoy from under his long lashes, deprecating smile curving one corner of his mouth higher than the other. "Well—" he said, "—if that's all...."

"And not get yourself hurt," warned McCoy.

Kirk shuddered delicately. "I wouldn't dream of it." Vitality and spirit were filling him with their incoming tide. McCoy could see it in the set of his shoulders, the sparkle in his eye.

Mentally, McCoy looped the last strands around his ball of twine. What would doctors do if patients neglected these trailing clues, these broken twigs, the line of crumbs that led inward to the center of things? He blessed the strong will of human beings to survive and make sense of their lives. If everyone had Jim Kirk's capacity for facing their nasties, his practice could be confined to real medicine, and then if they could just heal themselves like Spock, he could retire. He never hesitated to hurt if hurting were a prerequisite to later healing, but all too often the cured patient escaped too soon, giving him no time to admire his handiwork. Right now, he was admiring a job well done. He could feel Kirk's relaxation and new resolve in every sympathetic synapse of his own body. He yawned suddenly and so totally that his eyes teared.

Kirk grinned and stood up. He'd felt wrung out, too, but hope was like a jolt of pure oxygen to a jaded system. New energy was bubbling up in him, needing an outlet. As McCoy ran a curious finger over the temporary scar on his lip, a look of pure devilment crossed Kirk's face and was instantly smoothed over with bland innocence.

"I really feel bad about that, Bones," he said with silken insincerity. "Are you sure you don't want me to kiss it and make it well?"

McCoy jerked his hand away from his mouth and looked up to meet an exquisitely melting glance complete with fluttering lashes. He felt himself blush and didn't know whether to swear or laugh. "If it was the other end that hurt, I'd let you!"

"Bones!" The tone was a faint, wounded cry, accompanied by an artistic lurch toward the door, which obediently whooshed open.

"Get out of here," McCoy growled, "before I get you a date with a proctoscope."

"Rejected again," Kirk said, and then, honestly, "Thanks, Bones," before the door closed behind him.

McCoy yawned again and allowed himself a rueful grin. Kirk had eased his sore spot, too. Evidently the captain wasn't experiencing much insecurity about his macho image. Another yawn cracked McCoy's jaw. God, he was tired. The last hour and a half had taken more out of him than a week of routine work. He scrunched back in his chair and elevated his feet to the desk. He wanted to be on hand when Spock's mother beamed aboard and the chase began, but there was still time for a catnap. He'd just close his eyes for a moment....

 

IV

Chief Engineer Scott had no explanation for the phenomenon that drew him to the transporter consoles whenever a personage of importance was expected aboard ship unless he was fey like his Celtic ancestors. On this occasion it was no hardship. On her first visit aboard the Enterprise, Amanda had displayed a flattering interest in the complexities of propelling a spaceship at hyperlight speeds. He had spent the three days of their headlong flight toward the Neutral Zone with one hand on his engines and the other reassuring himself that SALEE had not suffered from his tentative investigation of disconnecting her. That accomplished, Scott was looking forward to a few hours of well-earned rest. But he wanted to convey his assurance to Spock's mother that the ship was fit in all departments to further her search for her husband.

The engineer was the first of the senior officers into the transporter room, Kirk and McCoy followed, and Spock entered the room last, having ascertained his mother's position on the planet below. The Vulcan went directly to the transporter console to enter the coordinates and was not at first aware of the strong current of human support gathered in the small room. He could not ignore it long. Scotty stood like a drill sergeant on parade, and subtle cues in the way the captain and the medical officer occupied the remaining space indicated their emotional accord. Spock reflected that his mother would be, even after all the years on Vulcan, more comfortable with that emotional support than he was, more comfortable in this trying situation with emotion than logic. Logically, Spock felt his own emotional involvement with the captain and McCoy should render him unfit as an observer of their behavior, yet he could not help seeing the bruise on Kirk's knuckles and the slight swelling of McCoy's lip. How that fit was beyond him at the moment. He concentrated once again on the tachyon parade that monitored the transmission.

"The lady Amanda is ready to beam up, Captain."

At Kirk's nod, Scotty manipulated the controls, and in a moment golden forms began to condense over the transporter pads. The images solidified into a slender woman of medium height and several large luggage cases. Amanda's hair had been steel gray when they'd seen her last; now it was snow white over the still peachy bloom of a complexion as clear and bright as a girl's. She took in Spock's presence along with the others, but the gracious inclination of her head as Kirk stepped forward to welcome her was perfectly composed.

"I'm sorry to welcome you back under such painful circumstances, ma'am. We'll do everything we can."

"Call me Amanda, Captain. I feel I'm among friends here—so much so that I chose to bring all our luggage with me. I hope it will not be an inconvenience?"

"None at all. Spock will show you to your quarters in a moment. You remember Dr. McCoy?"

"Very gratefully indeed. I know I can count on your skill, Doctor, if there is any need. That is a comfort."

"For once I hope I'm superfluous," said McCoy, bowing over the hand she gave him.

Since Spock was making no effort to push himself forward, Kirk reintroduced Scotty and then Uhura as she came through the door. He was beginning to feel awkward when Amanda solved that problem by turning to her silent son.

"Your clan-cousin Stor sends his greetings, Spock."

Spock's fluid eyebrow slid up. "I was not aware the family was in contact with Stor."

"He is on Riga. He has joined a New Reform group located in a place called Kaimos Encar."

"Then he violated a Federation treaty to do so," Spock responded, "and he is now a criminal."

"Men have become criminals for conscience before, Spock. Surak did."

"Surak built a new order." Spock's tone was stiff, and Kirk and McCoy were looking from Amanda to her son, wondering what was going on.

"Yes," agreed Amanda. "He built a new order on the wreckage of an old one. You were fond of Stor as a child, Spock. He was kind to you. I merely thought you would be glad to know he was well."

"Thank you."

Amanda sighed and turned to Kirk, summoning a smile. "Forgive me, Captain. Stor is a very powerful telepath. He is certain that Sarek has been taken off-planet. The situation has been very difficult, diplomatically. It's inconsiderate of me to begin lecturing the moment you arrive—"

"Not at all. I spoke with the planetary administrator on the way in—your host, I believe—and he seemed to think the evidence was inconclusive." Kirk gestured toward the hall, listening attentively as Amanda spoke.

"Mr. Barat has been overwhelmingly kind to me, Captain. I did not wish to offend him by preferring Stor's advice to his. Kaimos Encar is an embarrassment to almost everyone on Riga. Not part of the Vulcan tradition, not dealing much with anyone, not trusted by the humans, hated, I believe, by the Romulans—and yet the New Reform practitioners are by far the most powerful telepaths on the planet. Spock will tell you that some Vulcans have very powerful minds."

"Some half-Vulcans do, too," said Kirk. "I have authority to enter the Neutral Zone. If you can give me a direction, I'm prepared to begin now."

"Stor felt Sarek's presence moving toward the fourth planet."

Kirk halted the little procession and crossed to a wall communicator to inform the bridge. Scotty silently drifted away, foreseeing new calls upon his engines. Uhura hesitated, then offered Kirk a data cube, smiled at Amanda, and went back toward the turbolift with Scotty.

"I had almost forgotten how quickly things can be accomplished aboard the Enterprise," Amanda said gratefully. "Riga is very beautiful, but I was always walking into invisible walls. It's a proverb there that every question has three answers—no, no, and no." At Kirk's interested glance, she went on. "The three races work together, sometimes they even socialize together, but they do not live together, Captain. The sin of Kaimos Encar is not that of preferring emotion to logic, but of acting on that preference. They take in the children of mixed parentage. Nowhere else do you see them." She sighed. "I know we are hours from Veith, even in the Enterprise. It seems I'm not up to the lecture after all."

Kirk nodded and turned to Spock. "See that your mother is comfortable, Spock, then join me in my quarters. I'll look over Uhura's information."

He left them, and loss of his energy left the hallway a little cooler. Amanda let Spock lead her down the corridor in silence and preceded him into the suite he indicated. The three joined rooms, sparsely furnished, but with a newly installed two-carrel computer terminal, showed that someone had given Vulcan interests and tastes consideration.

"Did you prepare this?" Amanda asked.

"I believe Lt. Uhura was responsible."

"Then please thank her for me." Amanda trailed her hand over the silent console. "Aren't you even going to ask me if your father is well, Spock?"

"I am not unconcerned—"

Impatiently the woman turned. "I know that you're concerned. I thought, here, you had found a place where you could express your concern."

"It was remiss of me not to have asked."

Amanda shook her head. "Oh, Spock, I'm not—reprimanding you. Or, didn't you ask because you were afraid I wouldn't be properly Vulcan? Never mind. It has all been so difficult. That idiot administrator kept telling me humans were psi-null and my link with Sarek was only a 'convention.' Instead of helping me, he kept worrying about what the Vulcans would think or the Romulans. If Stor had been willing to come off-planet, Barat probably wouldn't have let him. I didn't want to have to ask you to help me extend the link—" Amanda clasped her hands forcefully in front of her to still their trembling and took a deep breath. She was hardly psi-null, after forty years of being bonded to Sarek. The emotional field she was projecting would have shaken telepaths for a mile on Vulcan. Spock wondered abruptly whether Sarek's apparent preference for travel over life at home in ShiKahr was predicated upon what was good for Amanda.

He still did not touch her, but he managed to speak with less formality. "There is no need to ask. I will assist you if you desire it."

The deep voice, so like Sarek's, the generosity of that offer, ran a warm relaxation through Amanda's overstrained body. Links with close relatives were both dangerous and distasteful to all Vulcans. The similarity of minds made extrication difficult, and the dropping of barriers was even more difficult than with a stranger, more alien, mind. At least the alien had not shared events of importance, had no hidden thoughts or personal information about the other. Spock had never linked with his mother, although he had twice been forced to link with Sarek. When he was younger, Amanda had understood and respected Spock's need to hide his own pain at never belonging anywhere. As he grew and became, on the surface, a perfect Vulcan, some part of her motherhood suspected he avoided such a link to spare her his disapproval. He had changed, to be able to offer this.

"I have more control than you think, Spock. I wouldn't pry—and I won't ask unless it becomes necessary—but when I could still feel his presence he was shielding, so I think he was in pain. It's been days and days that he could have been in pain—"

"How was he taken?" Spock interrupted.

"We were at the administrator's residence and Sarek wanted to walk into town. Riga is a beautiful world, very much like Earth. It was spring where we were. With so many flowers blooming and two moons overhead, I decided to go with him. We were taken by surprise. People ran at us from both ends of a small bridge. Sarek got free just long enough to throw me over the railing into the canal. Not a very dignified escape, I'm afraid. When I swam to the landing, they had taken him away. He was unconscious, but I felt him wake, in pain, about an hour later. By the time I dripped back to the residence and told the administrator what had happened, and he persuaded the main port to hold up traffic into space and shut down the transporter systems, it was hopeless. Sarek was gone. It took me another day to arrange a visit to Kaimos Encar; meeting Stor was a surprise." She let out a shuddering breath. "I'm very tired. I'd like to sleep now that I know something is really being done."

"Rest, then. We will arrive at Veith late tomorrow morning. I will wake you in time."

Amanda blinked back tears of fatigue, stress, and fear. "Thank you, Spock. I didn't say so, but I am glad to see you, and not just because your father needs your help."

He still could not respond with the statement or the physical contact she desired, so he bowed his head and left.

~ * ~

Had Kirk been aware of Spock's observations in the transporter room, he would have felt even more uncomfortable about inviting the Vulcan to his quarters. As it was, he understood what McCoy had told him and was willing to face the unswept corners of his psyche, but putting the advice into practice was going to be something else. He felt no more in control of his own emotions than he had when the Elaan of Troius had infected him with her tears. The fact that he had struck McCoy, no matter how artfully egged on to do just that, proved he wasn't in control. And he was the one who had had the most experience accepting, modifying, and expressing emotion. His present instability must be very difficult for Spock to witness, and although McCoy hadn't told him so, to Kirk it only made sense to deal with his own problems before he demanded Spock do the same.

It was hard to tell if McCoy was exaggerating for the sake of effect, or if he really thought Kirk would court disaster for the comfort of having Spock prove his loyalty once again. They all took risks. That he was first to take them was a morale factor he balanced quite cold-bloodedly against the necessity of remaining alive and in shape to command. Excessive risk, unnecessary danger dared for mere personal glory, had no part in his duty hours. And the thought of using injury to manipulate Spock nauseated him. He wanted Spock of his own free choice, not Spock unwilling, deceived, or manipulated into an unwelcome decision. But he did want him, and the ache of balked desire could not be assuaged, redirected, or controlled, whatever McCoy thought. Denying it had just put a temporary cap on the volcano, guaranteeing the kind of destructive explosion he'd had in the showers. Easy advice to give, Bones. Give Spock space, don't push—you just didn't say how I was supposed to do it.

The buzz at his door stung like a wasp and Kirk jumped, his mouth suddenly dry. What if Spock was afraid, or disgusted, to be alone with him here? Why had Kirk suggested his own quarters? Habit? Or ambush?

"Come."

If Spock felt any reservations about entering Kirk's quarters, it didn't show as he walked into the room. Kirk was seated at the desk, which he had had expanded so that the two of them could work side by side, watching the same displays. Spock took his usual place. Kirk swung to face the display screen, telling himself they were a decent distance apart—after all, they often swiveled to face each other and pulled a chess board from under the working surface to play. It was a strictly personal impression that the air surrounding Spock shimmered with heat. He could ignore that. He inserted Uhura's data cube and watched the information flow across the screen. Spock still hadn't said anything.

Spock watched the schematics, print displays, diagrams, and pictures with the well-trained part of his scientist's mind that could observe and store data in the midst of Armageddon. His logically structured world was coming apart. Duty to Starfleet dictated that he spare no effort in the attempt to rescue Sarek. Family obligation seconded that. He had volunteered, moreover. Yet his own right of privacy and other duties dictated otherwise. He wondered how the prepared material on the screen matched the reality of the planetary system—if there was any correlation at all. Kirk had not yet spoken to him.

Kirk wasn't seeing much of the Rigan propaganda, once he had diagnosed it as that. The silence was growing more awkward by the moment. One of them had to speak first.

"Spo—"

"Jim—"

The two attempts collided. Kirk reached out and switched the monitor off. "This isn't what I wanted to talk about," he said.

"Nor I."

"Go ahead."

Spock put his left hand flat on the desktop as he faced Kirk, unconsciously bracing himself. "This situation is difficult for my mother. Any separation of bondmates is unwelcome. Not being a Vulcan or a telepath, her link with my father becomes tenuous with distance. She stated that he was also shielding from her, and she believes he was in pain at the time she lost the sense of his direction."

"I thought your cousin helped her."

"Stor. He is related to us in the clan—more distantly than the human term implies. He felt Sarek being taken toward the fourth planet. If we do not find him there and my mother cannot sense his direction—she will again require the assistance of a more powerful telepath."

"Yes?" Kirk was familiar with this skirting of an issue couched in terms of instruction.

"I—I would like your permission to help her."

"My permission?" Kirk asked blankly.

The pedantic tone continued. Spock was looking at Kirk's collar instead of his eyes. "In melds with close relatives there is always some danger. It is possible that such similar minds might link too deeply and need assistance separating. A 'burn' to either party might result. If I were the injured one my capacity to perform my duties as science officer might be impaired."

Kirk had never known that kind of danger to stop Spock before. "And?"

Spock sighed. "And control is difficult," he said quietly. "I would make an attempt to protect my memories, but there is always the possibility they could become known—"

Kirk suddenly understood and a wave of red burned up into his face. Spock was telling him that their most intimate moments might be put on display—and to Amanda of all people. His immediate reaction was to protest, but he remembered Spock's almost pitiful unreadiness for his first pon farr, his decision the second time to take the shuttle and entomb his madness in space rather than ask for help. "'Vulcan understands, but even we do not speak of it among ourselves.'" To expose his personal life could not be what Spock wanted.

"Your father's life comes first, Spock. We—I can sacrifice a little dignity if I have to." Kirk made no attempt to hide his burning face as Spock looked up, pain written clear on his face. "It's my fault that we haven't been able to talk about this. That's what I really wanted to see you for—to tell you I don't regret anything. I'm not ashamed of what we shared. But I don't know what it means for you as a Vulcan." The blush burned a little higher. "I don't know what Vulcan thinks about homosexuality." Kirk sat back.

Unreasonably, Spock wanted to look away from the shamed face and concerned eyes fixed on him, wanted to escape this human's openness and honesty because it demanded the same from him. "You do have the right to know," he conceded, "as you have the right to know that I have already informed Dr. McCoy of our—liaison."

Kirk wanted to get out of his chair and pace, wanted to get his hands on those tense shoulders and that stiff neck and knead them into relaxation, but every urge to comfort, once blocked by Spock's Vulcan reserve, was now doubly barricaded by his own need and McCoy's advice.

"He told me," Kirk said, letting Spock off the hook. "I don't mind. What I do mind is this—walking on eggs with each other."

For a moment Spock's face was as unreadable as a stone. He studied Kirk as if some new specimen had presented itself for his scrutiny, then his head tilted, his eyebrow slid up. "I have just told you that McCoy knows of our mating and that my mother and father may have to know of it—not just an account or a statement, but the entire experience—and you think I have been 'walking on eggs'?" The tone was incredulous.

Kirk grinned, controlling an impulse to hug Spock for his candor, his humor. Relief and relaxation loosened strings he didn't know had been strained to their ultimate tension. This rapport was one of those values McCoy had been touting. "How did McCoy take it?" he asked.

Spock leaned back in his chair, echoing Kirk's relaxation. "He fainted."

Surprise and an unholy delight showed on Kirk's mobile features. "He didn't faint when he talked to me." Kirk flexed his sore hand, which would have been the better for an application of sonics if he hadn't been too stubborn to ask.

"Dr. McCoy's lip looked swollen," stated Spock.

"I belted him. Proving his theory that he has to get me mad to make me talk."

Spock's eyebrow was on the rise again. "Did it work?"

Kirk remembered the unqualified declaration of love for Spock that had come blazing out on a wave of anger. He took a deep breath. "It worked better than he expected. But he'll adjust. I'm more worried about your parents." And you, he left unspoken.

Spock read that concern correctly. "Whatever their reaction, Jim, I am the one likely to be blamed. I knew my condition. You will be regarded as the innocent victim."

Meaning they weren't going to approve. "It'll be the first time I was."

Spock ignored that. "First you must understand that it may be possible for me to shield those memories from my mother, and if I can, I will do so. If Sarek is very distant and the deep link is necessary, I will be unable to shield, but she may be able to control her own thoughts and avoid my memories. But henceforth, each time I am linked with another, there is some danger that emotional information will be exchanged. It is not only Vulcans who prize their privacy. I regret that I cannot protect yours."

Kirk shrugged. "If you can't, you can't. I meant what I said, Spock. I'm not ashamed of loving you. The most likely response from people who know me—I don't mean to be unflattering—will be disbelief or simple unconcern. But you still haven't said how Vulcans see such relationships."

"Same-gender relationships are known, Captain. In younger sons or in daughters with male siblings, it would not be frowned upon, certainly it would not be discussed. Sexual preferences are private and no Vulcan would feel the need to comment on the topic. My position as a hybrid and my father's only son poses other problems, however. The continuation of our line is of some concern to him, for he was relieved to learn that I am not sterile. He will expect me to notify him when my cycle is established so that he can try to arrange another marriage."

Kirk didn't want to think about Vulcan weddings.

"I said that would be my father's wish, Jim."

What do you want? was on the tip of Kirk's tongue, but he couldn't ask directly. "Would he coerce you?"

"Officially?" A small smile twisted Spock's lips. "No. But Sarek has ways of making his wishes felt."

"It wouldn't be much thanks for saving his life to force you into—" Kirk realized he was treading on dangerous ground and reversed course neatly. "But that's none of my business. The first problem is to get him back. You don't need my permission to do anything necessary."

The rest of their discussion dealt with technical details, with the dubious information of the data cube, but Kirk felt a surprising reduction in the intensity of his physical reaction to Spock. It was still there. He had watched an artisan blowing glass—the orange furnace, the shimmering air, the beautiful plastic hazard being formed into bowls, bottles, exotic beasts. One breath through the blowing tube could have scorched his lungs to ash. Kirk had felt an attraction to that bright, killing air, wondered if the glass blower shared it. But death was the end of creation. Working shoulder to shoulder with Spock, Kirk felt the return of some control. He would not trade this companionship for a final fiery kiss. The artisan had worked carefully and confidently toward his shining goal, and the final product both came from the fire and preserved its brightness and its beauty.

~ * ~

It was Uhura and not Spock who signaled at Amanda's door the next morning and accompanied her to breakfast. It was not long before they had dispensed with formality. To Uhura's comment that she must be concerned about her husband, Amanda replied that she was equally concerned about Spock.

"He is the worst letter-writer in the Federation," Amanda said. "I am as likely to hear a news notice that he has received an award or a decoration as I am to hear it from him. It's very frustrating. All Sarek will say is that he would be disappointed if Spock felt he had to make a show of his achievements."

"Well, I can't picture Spock bragging," Uhura agreed. "If I'd known, I could have kept you informed. He'll probably be awarded another medal for the Ixmahx affair. The captain recommended it. At least with Spock on Vulcan, you'll know if he's safe."

"On Vulcan?"

Uhura looked up from her meal. "Didn't he tell you? The captain announced it right before the alert. Spock has accepted a position at the Vulcan Science Academy. I'm sure it's public knowledge. I didn't mean to surprise you."

"It's Spock who surprises me. I can't imagine—Sarek used to think that Spock should teach, but even he has come to see that Spock chose the right career. Why would he change his mind now?"

Uhura avoided speculation and deliberately offered a diversion. "He was injured on Ixmahx, but no one joins with the idea that starship service is safe. I can't picture him worried about the danger."

"That's a Vulcan custom I find quite illogical," Amanda responded. "They are all alike. Sarek can calculate odds like a computer, but he goes right on acting as though they didn't apply to him."

"What Vulcan custom is illogical?" asked McCoy across his breakfast tray. "May I join you?"

"Of course, Doctor. I was saying that Vulcans do not react to danger logically."

"Supports one of my fondest theories," agreed McCoy, "which is that your son is really as sentimental as—as a sehlat."

Amanda smiled. "But you've never seen a sehlat, Doctor. And what has that to do with danger?"

"Spock explained it very well the last time you were aboard, ma'am. He acts like it was his personal duty to keep the captain out of trouble. If ever we lose one of them, we just toss the other in the same general direction. The only logical thing about it is me patching them up afterward."

So much for my diversion, thought Uhura.

"I'm pleased to know that my son has so many friends here—which makes it difficult for me to understand why he would want to leave Starfleet."

"Oh, you heard about that, did you?" stalled McCoy.

"I told her," Uhura admitted.

"Do you know why he made such a decision, Doctor?" Amanda was frowning faintly, her expression concerned.

"What he told me—in confidence—was so much nonsense," McCoy said flatly. "There's no reason he has to leave and nobody here wants him to." He hesitated. "I'm hoping the captain will talk him out of it."

Amanda had often thought Kirk represented all that Vulcans found most distasteful in humans—the flamboyance, the emotionalism, the success. Even T'Pau was fascinated by his achievements. "Captain Kirk can be most persuasive," Amanda granted. With a sudden surge of confidence she realized it wasn't her problem anymore. She had always been so fearful of hurting Spock that she hadn't been able to break down his barriers. These supportive humans had not been inhibited by a deluge of Vulcan conditioning. They were Spock's family now.

"Persuasive?" said McCoy. "If there's a way over, under, around, or through, James Kirk will find it. I keep telling him too much success goes to the head, but he won't listen." He nodded across the room. "And speak of the devil—"

Kirk was a step ahead of Scotty and Spock, coming toward their table. Uhura gathered up her tray and slid her chair back, pausing a moment to exchange a brief, technical dialogue with Scotty before excusing herself. McCoy snared a carafe of coffee and some cups. "Progress?" he asked, pouring out.

"Could be," Kirk said. "We're fine-tuning SALEE." He turned to Amanda. "You're invited to watch—if you forget what you see afterward."

"If it's a matter of security, Captain, I share Sarek's security clearance."

Kirk hadn't thought about that aspect of being bonded. He glanced at Spock.

"My father is cleared for military and civil classifications at the cabinet level," confirmed Spock. "But need-to-know is still the basis for communicating technical information."

The breakfast party adjourned to the bridge as they came into orbit above the fourth planet. Their first discovery was that Veith had one port, if some stabilized earth and a mechanical beacon could be called a port. The planet had no coordinate grid corresponding to Riga's, and apparently no central government. Its one city, located not too far from the port, was consuming power at a level commensurate with spacegoing technology, but standard sensor readings did not reflect a population to match the sprawl of streets and buildings.

"It looks like a stage set," Sulu said.

"Shall I hail them?" Uhura asked.

"No," Kirk decided. "Give SALEE a look around the port. Are you getting any sense of Sarek's presence?" he asked Amanda.

The white-haired woman stood at his left side, watching the screen and the working crew with intelligent interest. She shook her head.

"Nothing, Captain. But I lose contact with distance. Can we go closer?"

Kirk nodded at Sulu. "Keep us synchronous with the city, Sulu, and take us right down to the Anderson limit. Shields up." Colored lights flickered and glowed across the consoles. "Anything now?" Kirk asked Amanda.

A quickly controlled look of disappointment was replaced with the serene mask. "No, Captain. Still nothing."

"SALEE is ready," Uhura said from her station, her back turned as she concentrated on her controls.

"Image," Kirk ordered.

A dark blur filled the screen, jumped once, and steadied into a crystal clear bird's-eye view of the deserted port. Bare landing pads, lighter colored roads or runways, a few buildings half-sunk into the ground. No lights. No sign of life. They fell like a stone and leveled off even with the ground, circled the blank exterior of a building, then approached the wall. The image flickered, and then they were inside an empty room.

"There's no one there," said Amanda.

SALEE proceeded to flick through a series of empty rooms, through the exterior wall again, into the outer dark, past ponderous machines, robot porters, cranes—all the equipment of a primitive port—without one attendant. Spock looked up from his sensors.

"It is entirely automated, Captain. A preponderance of cargo equipment. No smaller vehicles parked anywhere, no sign of transporter capability between the port and the city. Very little industrial activity within the city or its environs, no evidence of industrial pollution. The largest energy consumption is at—" He gave its coordinates. Uhura swung SALEE around and the images blurred for a long transition from port to city, then cleared near a cluster of buildings with the aboveground architecture that subtly announced human influence.

"Inside," said Kirk.

"It's a hospital," McCoy said. "Keep going." He was right, although the medical technology was hardly what he would call current. They saw wards with patients of the three races in wakeful tension or healing sleep. Outside the hospital there were empty rooms and refectories, occupied dormitories. A random path taken through the city showed human-type buildings of several stories, most of them unoccupied.

"I'm not sure what to make of that," Kirk admitted. "Chekov—has anyone on the planet thrown a sensor at us?"

"No, Captain. They act like they don't know we're here."

"Nobody has hailed us, Captain," Uhura verified. "What else do you want to see?"

Kirk shrugged. "Amanda? Spock?"

"I can't feel him," Amanda said. "At least not on the planet. Above—I'm not sure. It's almost as if gravity interfered."

Spock raised an eyebrow as he turned from his instruments. "The artificial gravity of the ship may well interfere. I am always aware of 'down' as the center of Vulcan itself. The phenomenon proved very disturbing for the first years I was away from home."

"You never mentioned that," said his mother.

"As neither my perception nor local gravity could be altered, there was no point. I did adjust in time. I was going to suggest that distance from the planet and a weightless environment might make it easier for you to sense direction."

Kirk waited for Amanda's agreement, then told Sulu to take the ship up in a spiral orbit that would give the sensors a more complete picture of the world, and suggested the gym. McCoy tore himself reluctantly away from the group when Chapel called him from sickbay, so Kirk was left with Amanda and Spock as they approached the gym.

He had ordered it cleared himself, to spare Amanda any distractions, but Kirk had not counted on the effect the giant room, echoing with silence, would have on him. The quiet reminded him of the shuttle deck where he had first learned of Spock's fever. The humidifiers and air filters could never quite remove the tang of effort and sweat from air in this part of the ship. It flowed into his lungs like an aphrodisiac, reminding him of his own body, of Spock's. He forced himself back to the job at hand.

"We're set up for zero-g over the wrestling mats and in the tumbling well. It's just a matter of flicking a switch."

Amanda chose the tumbling well, proving she was competent in handling the weightless environment by guiding herself to a dead stop in the center. Spock stood at Kirk's shoulder watching, so they shared body heat. Amanda let herself float for a moment with her eyes closed, then called out to ask that the lights be dimmed. The thin veils of drapery she wore tunic-fashion over a gray-blue jumpsuit billowed about her, opening out like the petals of a flower. The room was so quiet Kirk could hear the double beat of his heart, and he tried to will himself to calm; but when she called, "I can't do it, Spock," Kirk had to suppress a start.

Kirk schooled every reaction out of his face as the Vulcan glanced at him. He did value his privacy, but it had been violated before. He was more worried for Spock than for himself. It wasn't fair that one man should have to carry such a burden of inhibition and responsibility, or reasonable that confrontation after confrontation should require so much from Spock. He never complained, never turned his back and said, "The hell with it," the way a human would. Made the way he was, he didn't have those hiding places. The last thing he needed was disapproval—or a human voyeur.

"Spock can program the controls if you want another setting," Kirk told Amanda. "I'll leave if you like." And he wanted to, with an urgency he didn't understand.

Amanda shook her head, an ill-advised gesture that moved her whole body and sent her draperies drifting on unseen winds. "Please stay, Captain. These things are unpredictable. If we have to be separated forcibly, we would need someone present. You're in tune with Spock. Even I can feel it. You would be the best person to try and reach him."

A mixed reaction of pleasure—to touch that mind again—and alarm at the thought of touching Spock's link with Amanda, drove Kirk's eyes to the Vulcan's.

"That is correct, Captain," Spock said tonelessly.

Kirk swallowed. "All right. How will I know?"

A muscle moved in Spock's jaw. "The link should not endure for more than a few minutes. If we have not separated in five minutes, enter the well and pull my hands from my mother's face." Without giving further instruction, Spock stepped into the influence of the zero-g field and let himself drift until he was floating with Amanda. Slowly they turned to face each other. Kirk checked the time. In the same slow motion, Spock reached for the points of contact that would give him access to Amanda's mind.

In the empty gym, Kirk watched the floating pair. For a moment he saw Spock as a magician, Amanda his docile assistant. Spock's hair stayed in its smooth cap, but Amanda's lifted in a silver web of gossamer strands about her face. They joined, Amanda suspended peacefully on her back, Spock facing the other way, face down above her. From a magician, Spock became Osiris, bending over Isis in some constellation Kirk had seen pointed out from a planet he had long forgotten. It was not like Kirk to think in fantasy images. He knew why he was now. His mind preferred fantasy to the reality of what Spock could betray about them in the link. In memory Kirk saw himself as Spock had seen him once, naked, aroused, a figure of crystal and light spread-eagled across the starlanes. In a painful rush of feeling, he remembered Spock tactilely—the porcelain slickness of teeth, the springy crush of pubic hair under his palm, skin like satin over muscles hard as marble, the incredible pulse of Spock's cock pumping inside him.

Red faced, Kirk wrenched his eyes away from the floating pair. Chess problems, cube roots, control. Where's McCoy when I need him? What does he know anyway? He's never seen that part of himself in the flesh acting out fantasies of license and rape. Getting a hard-on in church is nothing to the beast; it's aroused when Spock touches his mother, damn it. How would you like to live with that, McCoy? Self-knowledge is so wonderful. How would you like to know that about yourself?

There was nothing sexual in Spock's touch. The Vulcan's closed face was controlled and intent, a little stern. Amanda's upturned profile was as trustful as a child's. It was an intimate act of caring they shared, and it was that he envied. Fear of exposure, even lust, was just a way of avoiding the knowledge that he was desperate for one caring touch from Spock, jealous of any other claim on him. The beast might revel in those sexual images, but James Kirk need not. He was a whole man with will and reason. He could, he would govern himself and his thoughts in a manner appropriate to his position as captain of the Enterprise and Spock's friend.

He checked the clock. Three minutes. What would it take to break the link this time? A word? A touch? But the two figures were slowly parting. With her eyes still closed, Amanda extended an arm toward the junction of bulkhead and deck. Spock opened his eyes and drew his hands away from her face. They were separate again. Spock gathered himself into a fetal ball, rotated, and emerged reoriented to the horizontal and vertical referents of the ship.

"You feel your bondmate," he said to Amanda. "Are you pointing to him?"

"Yes." Amanda's arm became a rigid signpost. "He is far away, in that direction." She opened her eyes.

"You are pointing toward Romulus," Spock said.

"That's the direction," she repeated.

Romulus, Kirk thought, and no telling how long a lead on us they have. He increased the gravity in the well just enough to draw Spock and Amanda to a gentle touchdown on the floor. Then he turned to the nearest communicator.

"Sulu, I want warp eight to Romulus. Uhura, put me on shipwide audio." He gave her the space of a breath to accomplish that and then announced, "This is the captain. We are entering the Romulan Neutral Zone on Starfleet orders to rescue a citizen of the Federation. I know that you would do your best in any case—but I want a little better than that this time. Ambassador Sarek is your first officer's father, and the ambassador's bondmate is aboard the Enterprise with us. Starfleet considered Admiral Harnum and the dreadnaught Haile Selassie for this mission—but they chose us. Let's show them they picked the right ship. The ship will be on alert status from now until we reenter Federation space. Kirk out."

When he turned away from the communicator, Amanda was smiling at him. He saw neither suspicion nor curiosity in her face, only simple relief. Beside her Spock was expressionless.

"I'm sure they did choose the right ship, Captain," Amanda said. "I'm so grateful—to both of you. I could see him." She said it as if an unstable universe had suddenly settled down and behaved itself.

Without forethought, Kirk said, "What's it like? Images? Concepts?"

"No—" Amanda hesitated, apparently giving Spock's expressionless face some consideration, but then she went on. "It's closer than that, Captain. It's like having one heart beating for two bodies. Minds differ, personalities diverge, but the springs of life are shared. That's why bondmates often die together. Who would want to live without his heart?"

Kirk didn't have to look at Spock's face to sense his discomfort, but for once he was impervious to the Vulcan's sensitivities. Who indeed? he thought.

"You won't have to," he promised her. "We'll get him back for you."

 

V

Nonetheless, it was a nerve-wracking two days before Spock registered a blue-white speck at the far edge of a holographic tank at his computer station. Kirk had had waking nightmares of a Romulan military vessel with speed comparable to that of the Enterprise. It was a refinement of the torture to imagine overtaking the Romulan ship so near the home planet of the Empire that the time the rescue would take would be enough to doom the effort as the Federation intruder fell to Romulan firepower.

Spock's "It appears to be a private vessel, Captain, traveling along our same course, at approximately—" he had the answer almost before the computer, "—warp 2.3" came as a tremendous relief.

"What are his sensor capabilities?"

"Inferior to our own, Captain. His vessel is designed for speed and firepower—checking against Romulan registry obtained from the Rigan administrator—" Spock programmed the computer with one hand while steadying the sensors with the other. "No registration. No correspondence with Romulan military design, too much cargo area for a pleasure craft, too little for a freighter—" Spock's fingers stilled on his controls. "SALEE should be within range in 4.57 minutes, Captain."

But Kirk already shared Spock's certainty. This ship was a prime candidate for a pirate or slaver. Uhura was already working SALEE's controls and the bridge crew had come to attention in their chairs. Kirk opened a channel to engineering and then to sickbay to warn Scotty and McCoy that they had found a possibility. He considered notifying Amanda, then decided against it. If this were the wrong ship, or if Sarek were badly hurt, foreknowledge would only increase her anxiety. The slow seconds ticked over, and Uhura put a spangled black view of space on the screen. They were coming up behind the vessel and above it. Kirk had counted on the speed of the Enterprise and taken them up above the plane of the ecliptic, thus avoiding the usual traffic lane between the Ochros system and the Empire homeworld.

In a moment SALEE gave them a view of the ship's dorsal hull. Romulan characters were painted there.

"Can you read it, Spock?"

"Yes, Captain—a letter and a number—'L-5.'"

That didn't help. "Take us inside," Kirk told Uhura.

There was dark and light, mixed with flashes of circuitry, dead black, and confusing images of bisected objects flickering across the screen until Uhura found a corridor. Their first surprise was an obviously human crewmember walking toward the pickup. The second was a soft, crooning tenor that reminded Kirk of a vastly improved Kevin Riley. Uhura took SALEE through the maze of corridors to the bridge and gave Kirk a view of the command crew. Both Romulans and humans were present, their attire an erratic assortment of jewels and dress fabrics and personal armament. Kirk wondered what kind of commander would trust that riffraff with phasers at his back, and then Uhura zeroed in on the sensual face and pale blue eyes of the man lounging in the command chair. The power of personality was obvious, even in that relaxed pose, as was a hint of madness that lifted the hair on the back of Kirk's neck in instant animosity. He had been confident all along that Sarek, as a political hostage, was too valuable to damage, but a little prickle of fear came into being under his ribs as the dark human watched his men and sang softly.

Kirk set his jaw. "Find the ambassador, Lieutenant." He realized he had lowered his voice, as if the captain of the other ship could hear him. SALEE swooped through the corridors again, blacking out momentarily as they penetrated bulkheads to investigate rooms on three levels. Sarek was there, crammed into a large hold with other captives, and the image coming back was suddenly grainy and colorless, although not enough to obscure the tall Vulcan figure at one end of the room.

"What's the matter with the picture?" Kirk asked.

Uhura worked to keep the fuzzy image centered on the screen while Spock consulted the computer. He spoke over his shoulder. "The room is heavily shielded, Captain. I presume against transporter penetration. The shielding is interfering with SALEE's signal twice, once outgoing and again on return. The prisoners cannot simply be beamed out of the Romulan vessel. It is a logical precaution for a slaver to take."

Spock sounded as cool as if none of "the prisoners" had any personal significance to him. "Then someone has to release them from inside," Kirk said. "They can't have the power to shield the whole ship. Let's look at the outside again, Uhura."

Obediently Uhura guided SALEE around the exterior of the ship, and then the troublesome hold. Below the prison area was only a small storage space and then the hull. The corridor flanked one side, a bunkroom or dormitory another. There was a small room full of circuitry and close-cramped computer consoles directly aft of the prison, and a wardroom forward. Two private cabins, occupied, were situated above it. One was empty, and the two male occupants of the other were evidently on very good terms. Uhura took them, without undue haste, back to the poor picture that showed the inside of the prison hold.

"The small room may be an auxiliary power source and control, sir," Sulu said. "If I were a slaver, I'd make sure the slaves couldn't revolt if I had power problems."

"I don't know whether this is imagination or delusions of grandeur," Kirk said testily. "I didn't realize how much thought was being given to slave ownership around here." He opened a channel to Scott. "Scotty, tie into Uhura's console and look at what we've got. Prisoners, Sarek among them, are in a heavily shielded hold. This room is next to it."

Uhura reversed the tour and stopped with the small room on the screen.

"Dilithium power shielding, Captain," Scotty said promptly. "It couldn't be the power source for a whole ship. Lassie, let me see the leads behind yon blue box, if you can." Uhura eased the point of view into the cramped space and rotated it around connections coming from the back of the console. "Captain, that's a wee nasty. Fiddle with yon computers without a bridge override and something goes up in smoke. I wouldna' want to bet it wasn't the cargo in that hold."

"Neither would I," Kirk said in disgust. "But they won't jettison as long as they think they have a chance. Scotty, Spock says we can't transport the prisoners out—how about the rest of the crew? Could we take out everyone but the bridge crew, and transport ourselves in? If it was a small party they wouldn't panic because they'd be expecting reinforcements. We might be able to overpower them and find those controls."

"Aye—so long as our luck holds and they dinna' notice us on their tail. We could have those renegades out of there and in our brig so fast they'll never know what hit them."

"Let me know when you're ready." Kirk hit another button and said, "Mr. Lapsley to the bridge, please. Lapsley to the bridge."

Spock and Scotty were conferring quietly when the security chief stepped out of the turbolift. Kirk couldn't remember when he had seen the lean redhead out of breath or composure. Lapsley never intruded, but he was always ready when Kirk needed him. Kirk had often thought the Enterprise provided dull duty for a security man. On a ship with some other captain, Lapsley might have had a bigger share of the excitement, but the man had never complained or put in for a transfer. He came armed and crossed the bridge to stand at Kirk's left side.

"Reporting as ordered, Captain."

Kirk had been going to ask him for two of his men, but his own train of thought suddenly meshed with the memory of Lapsley's face when he had learned of the loss of Hillis and Craven on Ixmahx. "How'd you like to go hunting, Mr. Lapsley?"

"I'd like that, sir." He looked from Kirk to Spock with a just-the-three-of-us? tilt of his eyebrow.

Kirk smiled. "Scotty will need two security men plus his own staff, and we want enough people in the shuttle bay to handle a shipment of unwilling cargo. Then put them in the brig and meet Spock and me in the main transporter room. Keep the equipment to a minimum. We want to be mobile. We'll distract their—" Kirk jerked his thumb toward the screen, "bridge crew while Scotty disarms their setup to jettison the prisoners."

"Aye, aye, sir." And Lapsley was gone as smoothly as he had entered.

Kirk felt the exhilaration of impending action as he glanced around the bridge. Any one of them would have jumped at the chance to accompany him, even Uhura, and he felt their commitment in the attention they bent on the controls and sensors that were bringing in information about the other ship, keeping them at a distance where they wouldn't be noticed, backing his decisions. He'd heard other captains complain about slackers and wondered why they kept them aboard. It seemed pretty obvious that if the captain didn't cut corners, none of the crew would. Certainly he'd never had that problem on the Enterprise. Areel Shaw's kiss, armed aliens, nor an activated destruct sequences—nothing had ever affected his people's ability to do their jobs.

Spock finished his colloquy with the chief engineer. He looked up and at the captain's nod crossed to the command chair. Uhura had focused SALEE on the pirate's bridge again, and they both watched the casual flow of half-voiced communication among the privateers.

"Look at the arm of the command chair," Kirk said. Complying, Uhura zoomed in on the captain's right hand, lightly tapping out the beat of his song. There, clearly labeled in green, was a square plaque that said "Eject" in Federation script. The moving fingers were only inches from it.

"He will have to be removed from his chair," said Spock, as unemotional as if that button did not have the power to expel his father and forty others from a life-sustaining environment into the vacuum of space.

"I'm getting ideas already," said Kirk. "Let's go."

They waited in the main transporter room until Lapsley met them with the information that Scotty was beginning to siphon off crew from the privateer. Lapsley produced communicators, phasers, and patches of silvery foil backed with adhesive.

"What are those?" Kirk asked as he armed himself.

"Sonic deflectors. They go over your heart—wherever you happen to wear it. Disruptors have gotten around from the Klingons to the Romulans. I wouldn't advise getting hit, even with one of these on." He hiked his shirt up and applied the sticky patch to his chest.

Kirk followed suit and forced himself to look away as Spock affixed his deflector to the soft skin on his side. They took their places on the transporter pads, and Kirk stood with his communicator open, listening to Scotty and Lapsley's security men in the cargo hold. There was a sudden increase in the uproar, and the sound of crisp orders and something soft striking the deck with considerable force. Then Scotty's indignant burr.

"They're under control, Captain. Nine of them. That leaves the four on the bridge. We're ready on your signal."

"Now," said Kirk, and by the time he had replaced his communicator, they were materializing in the corridor of the other ship. He waved Lapsley back against the wall where he could catch anyone emerging from the bridge and gave Spock an encouraging shove down the corridor. The first officer obediently began to run.

"The Vulcan's out!" Kirk yelled into the crook of his arm.

Neither of the first two men out of the bridge was the dark-haired captain, and Lapsley let them go, eyes fixed on the door. Spock slapped the corridor wall as he dodged around a corner, drawing the men's attention for the fraction of a second it took Kirk to mow them down with a stun charge from his phaser. He was swinging back to cover Lapsley when a jackhammer stab of agony shot through his right arm. He convulsed, slamming his elbow back against the wall, and the phaser flew out of his hand. Lapsley dove through the door and fired in one sweeping motion that cleared the bridge. He made sure of that, found the power-off button on the command chair, and pressed it. When the light died, he dialed his phaser up and swept it over metal and plastic until they were fused beyond repair.

By the time Lapsley bobbed back out into the corridor, Spock had disposed, permanently, of the crewman who had somehow evaded capture to surprise them. He was kneeling beside Kirk, who was clutching his right arm with his left hand and shaking like a man with a chill.

"Disruptor burn," Lapsley diagnosed.

"Just my arm," Kirk grunted. "Get Sarek."

When Lapsley hesitated, Spock said calmly, "Proceed to the rear of the ship, Mr. Lapsley. You will find Mr. Scott attempting to break through the shielding of the room where the prisoners are being held. I will take care of the captain."

Lapsley didn't wait for Kirk's protest, he simply went, in a fluid lope that told of a body in perfect training. Had the gravity field been altered or an attack from the side launched at him, his reaction would have been as graceful and automatic as a falling cat's.

"Spock—" It was a protest, intended to be in Kirk's best command tone, but somehow it came out in a gasp as the Vulcan took the strong fabric of Kirk's shirt at the neck and ripped it down the length of his arm. Firmly he unlocked Kirk's gripping fingers and straightened his right arm. Under the unharmed skin, the rigid muscles were cramping visibly, and the veins on the inside of Kirk's arm and on neck, temple, and forehead stood out in stark relief. Denied his grip on the source of the pain, Kirk clamped onto Spock's shoulder to brace himself.

Moving slowly at first, Spock began to massage the pain-locked right arm. His sensitive touch sounded out the neural currents and probed the knotted bands of muscle. Even the fringes of a disruptor field could contract muscles so violently that they ruptured, tore loose their attachments, or broke bone. A full blast could turn a man into a bag of jelly. Spock put that thought aside and concentrated on relaxing the shocked muscle, teasing the circulation back, restoring the neural flow.

After a few minutes Kirk relaxed his death grip on Spock's shoulder and took a deep breath. His heart was still beating too fast, but he was getting his second wind as Spock's warm hands pulled the pain down from unbearable into something that didn't block thought.

"Harder," Kirk said. "It's helping."

Spock's knee was pressed securely against Kirk's hip, his thigh warm against Kirk's. His hands tightened on Kirk's arm, probing harder, his fingers leaving white trails over the reddening skin. Kirk leaned into that strength for one floating moment longer than he really needed to, then pushed himself away.

"I'm okay. Help me up." It was the command tone this time, though softened by gratitude, and Spock stood up and steadied him as he rose, then fell back half a pace as Kirk started down the corridor in the ruins of his shirt.

Scotty was doing something to the door of the hold while security men guarded the corridor. As Kirk came up, there was a hiss and spray of sparks, which Scotty ignored. With a second set of fireworks the door slid halfway open and jammed.

"That'll have to do, Captain. What have you done to yourself this time?"

"Nothing that won't mend."

Lapsley slid through the door as Kirk answered the engineer, and the captain had to bite back a reprimand. Lapsley was only doing his job the way he saw it. What had McCoy said about hogging the glory? Kirk let it ride. He wouldn't have put an unarmed and wounded man through the door first if he'd been in charge of security. As it was he made it through third, after Spock. The first officer was already confronting his father when Kirk shoved and stumbled his way through the close-packed and unwashed bodies trying to scramble to freedom. Kirk left Scotty to deal with that. Sarek was wearing one boot and one green-crusted foot encased in what looked like the more deadly parts of a bear trap. A chain attached to a shackle around his ankle was wrapped neatly about his waist. Kirk's arm was gnawing at him, but the sight of Sarek's foot made him physically ill.

"Ambassador," he said shortly. "What's the problem, Spock?"

"I am trying to persuade my father of the wisdom of letting me carry him—"

"Good evening, Captain. I am perfectly capable of walking the length of the room. I presume you are within transporter range?"

"Yes, but—"

"It would, however, be illogical for him to do so, Captain," interrupted Spock. "There is no point in risking further damage to his foot."

If his arm hadn't hurt so bad, Kirk would have taken considerable pleasure from that exchange, but it did hurt, and that jammed door bothered him.

"Spock's right this time, Ambassador." Kirk turned back to the door. "Lapsley!" In a moment the security guard had threaded his way back to them. "You and Spock make an armchair for the ambassador, and watch out for his injury. Spock, how much elapsed time since we put the bridge crew out?"

"Six point seven nine minutes, Captain."

"Too long. No time to argue, Ambassador. It's the armchair carry or over Spock's shoulder." In spite of a definite resolve not to, Kirk found he was clutching his sore arm again. Spock had the tact not to reinforce his order, and after a moment Sarek settled himself between Spock and Lapsley with a hand on each man's shoulder. Kirk followed them to the door and saw the last group of eight prisoners being transported out. Scotty spoke into his communicator.

The lights flickered and dimmed as Lapsley and Spock lowered Sarek onto his good foot.

"Damn," said Kirk. "Tell them to lock on and get us out of here, Scotty."

The engineer was still talking as airtight doors on each side of them slammed across the corridor, sealing the rest of the ship from the breached hold. A cool breeze moved over Kirk's face toward the door behind him. Or maybe it only seemed cool because of the sudden clammy sweat on his face. The lights went out.

"Hyperventilate," he said. "Move away from the door. Make sure there's a solid wall behind you. Hang on to something." It was hopeless of course. He knew that even as he sucked air into his lungs and got his back to the wall behind him. If the privateer had found some way to jettison the hold independent of the bridge and auxiliary controls, they were all about to be swept out into empty, empty space, decompressed into bloated balloons with their own atmosphere of ruby snow. He couldn't find Spock in the dark. If he moved they'd think he was afraid. The draft was picking up. A piece of clothing or paper flapped past like a bat in the dark. The rags of his shirt were snapping across his aching arm as he kept sucking in all he could of the thinning air. Scotty, I told you to fix it; you're fired. He was cold, empty, his air going, alone as he'd been in Tholian space, born alone, die alone, his head spinning, not enough air, sorry I brought you, Spock, hell of a way to run a rescue....

~ * ~

Warmth and air filled Kirk's straining lungs just as a stronger than human hand closed with bruising force on his wrist, and the impact of a hurtling body slammed him back against the screen that circled the Enterprise transporter. If it hadn't been there, they would have ended up in an undignified tangle on the floor. A surge of elation stronger than the pain in his arm charged Kirk's body with tingling energy.

"Going somewhere, Mr. Spock?" Kirk made no move to rid himself of the warm body pressed against his.

Spock extricated himself and released his grip on Kirk's wrist. He settled his tunic. "Apparently not, Captain."

Kirk left his first officer to reassemble his dignity any way he could. Sarek was balanced on one foot; Lapsley was steadying him. "Good work, Mr. Leslie. Breathing was getting thin over there. Get me the bridge—Sulu?"

"Yes, sir."

"Get ready to warp back to Federation space—fast. Uhura, has SALEE still got an eye on that ship?"

"Yes, sir. I thought we were going to lose you. A section of the hull sloughed off. Lifeslips are coming out all around the ship. Hundreds of them. I don't find anyone left onboard. Do you want me to scan the slips?"

"As many as you can. Notify Ambassador Sarek's wife to meet him in sickbay and tell McCoy we need a stretcher up here. I'm on my way." Kirk swung around, the tattered shirt flapping annoyingly.

"Spock, see that the ambassador is properly taken care of. Lapsley, go find out who we rescued... and from whom. Scotty, keep those engines purring; if we can get out of here without a fight, all the better."

Spock waited until Kirk finished. "Your own injury needs attention, Captain; a disruptor burn—"

"Can wait half an hour. I've got that itch between my shoulder blades again." He was already on his way toward the door and barely paused to let McCoy and two medics through.

Sarek was left standing on the transporter pad as Scott and Lapsley followed Kirk out the door. McCoy made for him with tricorder in hand, focusing on the injured foot.

"Well, you're not going to get far on that," he began.

"I am perfectly capable, however, of going as far as your sickbay," said Sarek, sounding like an Old Vulcan. To prove it, he stepped down from the platform and rested his weight equally on both feet. He gave Spock a warning look, but the first officer stepped slightly back. Spock was preparing to enjoy himself.

McCoy drew a deep breath. "I am aware of Vulcan techniques for blocking pain, Ambassador. Your son has a remarkable control of them. However, I am the physician on this ship and my medical decisions are final. If the captain hadn't ordered a gurney for you, I would have, and that is how you are going to travel to sickbay. Now we could waste my valuable time arguing about it when I have several other more seriously damaged patients to tend to, but I would prefer that you set Spock the good example of following doctor's orders without a fuss!"

Several faint, betraying expressions crossed Sarek's face as McCoy spoke. Spock realized anew how revealing Vulcan faces really were. Of course Sarek had been contaminated over a long period of time by a human woman and his many contacts with aliens, but being fully Vulcan, he did not need to underscore the fact with total impassivity. He must have forgotten—perhaps because the memory was painful—just how far McCoy was prepared to go in dealing with a recalcitrant patient. Since Babel, McCoy had not lacked opportunities to practice his medical tyranny, and he could be a formidable gamesman. This time his position was unassailable and he knew it. All Sarek could hope to do was postpone defeat.

"Is he always this opportunistic?" Sarek asked Spock.

"Inevitably."

"And have you been able to circumvent him?"

"Rarely, and even then only through initial sacrifice or compromise."

Sarek raised an eyebrow at his son's barefaced attempt at manipulation.

"Perhaps we both chose the wrong career for you, Spock. You would have done well in politics. Very well, Doctor." Sarek took his place on the gurney with as much aplomb as if he were bestowing diplomatic honors on his attendants.

"If I am no longer needed, sir, I will return to my duties." Spock couldn't resist that little dig, but he should have known it was never safe to call Sarek's attention to a defeat.

"To remind your impetuous captain of the time?" The ambassador's expression was bland, but a tinge of color showed in Spock's face.

"If necessary," he said, then turning to McCoy, "The captain was caught in the fringes of a disruptor blast."

"How'd that happen?" asked McCoy as he fiddled with his tricorder. "No, don't tell me; just give him a message that he'll be sorry if he doesn't get some ultrasound on it." He herded Sarek and his attendants out of the room ahead of him.

Back on the bridge, Spock saw that Kirk was using SALEE and the ship's phasers to run his own shooting gallery. As each lifeslip proved to be no more than a metallic decoy, Sulu was popping the confusing balloons. But the hologram at Spock's station showed hundreds of the reflecting specks. Finding one man in that mass would be a major task. The lifeslips had been propelled from the pirate vessel with random vectors, and none of them appeared to be under power.

"He knew he couldn't run for it," Kirk said, "so he's trying to out-confuse me. What kind of power could those bubbles withstand? Could he get to Romulus in one of them before his air ran out?"

"Negative, Captain. I estimate he has two days' air."

"We could find him in two days," mused Kirk, unconsciously rubbing his right arm. "If we could afford to stick around. Damn! I hate to leave that kind behind me."

Spock widened the range of all sensors to maximum and checked that they remained on alert status where an audible alarm would register any approach. He had learned to pay attention when Kirk vocalized a hunch. He began an independent scan while Sulu continued to pop balloons. Uhura glanced at the Vulcan, picked up on his tension, and opened more switches on her board. Around the bridge the colored displays flickered, and dials and indicators showed more amber and red as their power consumption increased and they extended the network of sensory fields that surrounded the ship. Spock could picture those webs in his mind, a three-dimensional cat's cradle shaped like a cone, narrowest "behind" them, widest in the direction they were traveling. The configuration was designed for navigation, when danger lay before them, rather than for weaponry and defense, and Spock augmented it without conscious decision.

"Captain—" Spock's deep tones cut through the traffic of other voices and machine vocalizations, "vessels approaching us—" he cut out the alarm he had just set, "—at warp speed, one from behind, two at ten o'clock and two o'clock on our plane—" The computer kicked out a schematic on the main screen.

"ETA?" snapped Kirk.

"Six minutes at warp five, Captain. We will be within phaser range in 3.2 minutes."

Kirk scowled at the uncounted lifeslips still swarming like insects in Spock's hologram.

"Shall I put a torpedo next to that ship, sir?" Sulu asked, half-turned away from his console to hear Kirk's reply.

Kirk hesitated—he could destroy the ship and let the Romulans worry about picking up survivors—but he'd come too close to breathing vacuum himself. "Let it go, Sulu—but mark it someplace expensive to patch up."

The helmsman smiled wolfishly, made an adjustment on his console, then a finer one. Uhura bumped the schematic to one half the screen so they could all see the privateer. A thin ray of ruby light, not very impressive, shot out and played over the hull of the alien craft. Metal glowed in its wake. When the vapor cleared away, Kirk could see what looked like the initial "S" on the hull.

"Very good, Lieutenant," he said dryly. "But you could have used my initial instead of yours."

Sulu grinned and cleared his board for evasive maneuvers. "You're reading it upside down, Captain. Head on it's a Z—the mark of Zorro."

Kirk groaned faintly and Chekov snorted. Spock looked blank for once and Uhura opened her mouth to explain, but Kirk cut her off.

"Later, Lieutenant. I'm not sure he needs to know anyway. We have to have a few secrets. Get us out of here, 'Zorro,' before those Romulans take up a parking orbit on our tail."

"They're hailing us, Captain," Uhura said.

"No time to talk. Go, Sulu."

Kirk watched the starfield on the screen tilt and revolve 180 degrees. The Enterprise stood neatly on her nose and dived out of the plane of the ecliptic and was still diving when she reached warp eight and began to make course corrections for the return trip to Ochros. Within twelve minutes Spock was putting his sensors on automatic again, the probability that those particular Romulans could turn and overtake them too small to be a factor in his considerations.

As the bridge crew relaxed, Kirk caught Spock's eyes fixed pointedly on the arm he was clutching. Guiltily, Kirk let go—and then out of perversity, he settled back in the command chair, crossing his legs at the ankles as if he intended to stay for the rest of the shift. On the heels of that dramatic grab in the transporter room, Spock would be more than usually hesitant to assume the role of nursemaid. Kirk made a three-minute bet with himself.

"Captain, with your permission, I would like to join my father in sickbay." Spock sounded as if he had totally forgotten Kirk's injury. "If you will excuse me—"

Kirk's face showed surprise and then indignation. He looked at Spock involuntarily, only to find himself being regarded with polite detachment, like a not very amusing laboratory specimen. So, Spock wasn't rising to the same bait twice in one day.

"I'll go with you," Kirk said, not quite acknowledging that it was McCoy and not Sarek he wanted to see. "Sulu, take the con. Call me if you spot anything we should avoid."

"You mean, like planets, Captain?" Sulu had his voice under perfect control, but Chekov was looking away to hide a grin.

"I think it's planets," said Kirk straight-faced. "Aren't they those bright things?" He turned to Spock for enlightenment. Uhura swung around in her chair. They were all a little above themselves, but it had been a neat piece of work all around. On very, very rare occasions the first officer had been known to indulge the bridge crew—as an adult will "play" with children. They were all looking at him expectantly.

Deadpan, Spock said, "I have it on authority, Captain, that it is the stars and not the planets which shine." The turbolift swooshed open.

"What authority is that?" Kirk asked suspiciously.

Spock assumed a faint air of shock as he looked down at his ill-dressed captain. "Surely you read the publications of the Terran Astronomy Association, Captain. "I refer to the one that begins, 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star.'"

Kirk snapped his fingers. "Of course! Watch out for the stars, Mr. Sulu. The planets will take care of themselves."

Sulu's "Aye, aye, sir" and Uhura's low laugh followed them into the lift.

 

VI

By her fourth day on Veith the galhawk Claw had settled into her new mews and learned the footfall of her new master. Her hood had not been removed. All her information came through other senses. Hearing told her there were other hawks lodged with her, told her that the walls around her were artificial and not stone. Scent told her more—that it was winter here, that she was served by two breeds of aliens, and that her raw meat was of several types. But it was brought to her by one hand only. If he did not come she went hungry, and she was always hungry, if not for food, then for light and air and a cushion of wind under her wings. She did not know that she was beautiful and that it gave Hreth Malock pleasure to ruffle the apricot feathers of her breast and smooth the indigo iridescence of her back. She struck greedily out of her darkness at the food he brought and cared nothing for his caress.

Man was feeding the galhawk when his security chief brought him the news that O'Neill had never made Romulus.

"The cargo?"

"All taken, sir. The Federation ship is returning to Riga with the Vulcan ambassador aboard." The man had learned to school his face, but he was uncomfortably aware that it was never entirely safe to be the bearer of bad tidings. Hreth Malock's face set in frustrated lines.

"How did they know where to look? How close did they go to Romulus?"

"The transmission did not state, sir. They did claim to have marked the pirate's vessel so that they could recognize it again."

Claw struck hard at the meat she could smell but not see, and Hreth Malock turned to consider her, but with a look of abstraction. His informant plunged on with his unwelcome tale.

"Sir, another Federation ship has taken up orbit around Riga, a dreadnought named Haile Selassie, commanded by a human admiral named Harnum. This information came independently from a contact on Riga. The rescue ship, Enterprise, will join it there."

"Enterprise?" Hreth Malock's fist closed around the bloody tidbit Claw was trying to tease out of his grasp. The hawk drew back with a soft cry, her curved beak open, ready to strike in earnest. Abruptly the Romulan released the meat and stroked her breast again.

"Send someone to find out what became of O'Neill. Ready my yacht and my cousin's. We will leave for Riga in the morning. Tell my daughter and my guest that I've planned a hunt for them, to try the galhawk. And I want you to pick the quarry very carefully."

Still stroking the bird as she choked down the last of her meal, Man Hreth Malock gave his instructions. He was not pleased to lose the Vulcan, or to have O'Neill fail him in the matter of delivering the drugs. For some time he had been planning an alternative to O'Neill; perhaps this was the time to implement it. In the meantime, there were other amusements to be had, and the presence of two Federation starships meant that time was running out. That one of them should be the very ship responsible for Rho's downfall was only added interest.

~ * ~

Four days in space aboard the Tirenwould have been welcome to Tal, but four days of confinement in a hangar while Rho took all the risks was almost more than his patience could stand. It was too much like the two years of uncertainty he had spent on Romulus not knowing whether she was alive, being put to torture or mind-wiped, or if she had already been executed.

Tal had grown up in the slums of the capital. To return there had begun a slow erosion of the confidence and achievement he had built in his years of service in the Imperial Navy. Take away the respect of a man's inferiors, take away an assured income, see that he lacks for clean clothing, hot water, food, and a place, however cramped, to call his own, and you create an animal. Tal had given up everything to follow Rho as far as he could, but he could not penetrate the palace gates or the Emperor's prison. He had been shut outside, into the animal existence from which he had once climbed.

As the months passed, a conviction had grown upon him that a man makes that climb only once in his life. With Rho's eye on him, he had been able to do anything. He had been Tal of the Three Ships and deserved his reputation. Without her, he slid back into a savage depression. He had been afraid, desperately afraid, that when the time came that he could help her—he would have sunk too far back into the slime.

He had pictured a broken woman who might welcome, at last, the devotion he had to give her. Not the commander. She had emerged from her prison wearing the tiren-ne-ab and with the gift of the Imperial yacht. Tal hadn't even known of it. She had tracked him down and kicked him awake from a drunken stupor. He could remember his bleared vision clearing in a noxious room, not sure she was real in her white silk, with her hair combed high and pinned with topaz and diamonds. She had taken in his soiled clothes, untrimmed hair, unshaven face, and grimed fingernails in one comprehensive glance. She had pulled a jewel from her hair and tossed it to the floor.

"You have one hour to report to the Emperor's yacht, Tiren."

It should have been impossible, but he had done it, as he had always been able to do what she told him, simply because she never considered the possibility that he would fail. By the time he reached the ship she had been dressed in practical ship's clothing, her hair unornamented, and was going through the startup routine. She tossed him the copilot's manual without commenting on his haircut, new clothes, or hangover. In twenty minutes she had arrogantly claimed priority over every other atmospheric craft and traffic lane and lifted into deep space.

At first Tal had been elated, and he had waited for her to tell him how the miracle had happened. No such confidence came. Whatever she knew or felt about the sacrifice he had made in leaving the fleet to be near her, it evidently did not entitle him to know what had happened to her in the two years she had been a prisoner.

So he set about assessing the damage himself. It was easy to see that she was softer physically. The second hour they were in space she had sent him to turn the passenger lounge into a place where they could work out. When he had stripped down to tights, she had appraised his fitness with a fight trainer's eye, and when he had tried to go easy on her, she had doubled him up with a foot in his groin. He had smashed her into the mats again and again after that, afraid he would break bones, afraid that she would go for his eyes if he let up on her. Even spending her nights in the medic cabinet, she had been a mass of bruises and sprains before she began regaining her strength. But she did regain it, as they made their sublight way from Romulus. She worked out in heavy-g, sparring with him, and then tumbled with him, refining strength into speed and grace again.

All that time he had watched her, and she had remained distant. Forcing her body to regain its old strength was just a necessary task to her, to be performed automatically. In her mind she was light years away, planning, plotting. And not until Veith had she told him what she planned, or as much of it as he needed to know. He hadn't thought he could ever be angry with her. He had always known what she was—imperious, self-willed, set on impossible achievement and success. She had demanded and received his unquestioning obedience, but before she had rewarded it with her own brand of loyalty. Now he was not sure that he wasn't just one more tool. He had never known her to be quite this ruthless. What he wanted to give, she had taken. She had defended him to Hreth Malock, to be sure, but then dismissed him. That did make him angry. She might spend his life as she chose, but even she had no right to devalue it.

The summons to attend her at the hunt came just in time to avert rebellion.

The mid-morning sky was a pale winter blue streaked with high cloud when they met in the stables. Dia wore a sullen face over a thermal suit of gray, but Rho had a dangerous glitter about her Tal had learned not to challenge. The suit she wore was nothing they had brought in the yacht. It combined fur and curling downy feathers in white and tawny. Tal felt like a mechanic in his jumpsuit from the ship, lumpy over thermal gear, wearing boots he wasn't used to. Only Man was in a mood to match the flamboyant blue suit and short cape he sported. The color showed off the plumage of the hawk. He carried her on one gloved hand and surveyed his ill-assorted party with the sublime indifference of a host to whom the pleasures of his guests are immaterial.

Collared human slaves, barefoot and clothed in the same thin uniforms as the inside servants, ran to bring out mounts. Tal's old hatred of the aristocracy rose and fastened itself on this clan cousin of Rho's. Hreth Malock had his counterparts on Romulus, and Tal could remember standing hopefully by, pierced and frozen with cold, praying for a flung coin from the noble whose mount he had guarded throughout the night.

Their mounts were mirex, man-high at the shoulder, with stilt-like front legs that looked out of proportion to the downsloping spine and small hindquarters—until you measured the power in the muscled thighs against the reach of long front legs. Then you saw what a speed machine might be. Their necks were long and flexible, their heads small. Tal had ridden them before and knew that they neck-reined, ran against the bit, and were stopped by digging a boot toe behind their elbow. These were white beasts with dark gray points, and they wore a winter coat of fur six inches long.

Once mounted, the party moved out of the yard at a quick trot. Tal dropped back behind Dia as Rho rode ahead with Hreth Malock and the hawk. Tal had made it his business to find out who she was, but Dia did not choose to introduce herself and it wasn't his place to make the first gesture, so they rode in silence. Tal caught phrases through the crisp air from the glamorous couple ahead. Hreth Malock was speaking while Rho listened. "Unusual quarry—specially selected—try her courage."

Tal went armed with body weapons, although all he had in sight was a dagger. He couldn't see even that on Rho and it rankled. He tried to read the set of her shoulders and tilt of her head from the back, but all he could see was that she was controlling all spontaneous—and betraying—movement. When he caught a glimpse of her profile, her face was frozen in an expression of polite interest. There was nothing to indicate that she had given Hreth Malock the right to defend her, however, which was something to salvage Tal's pride. He wanted to ask what game was to be put up, but bit back the question. He wouldn't be invited to fire on it anyway. He would keep his eyes open and his hand on his knife.

Tal wasn't kept wondering long. Hreth Malock led them on one cold, exhilarating gallop over the frost-scarred ground and pulled up on a rise overlooking a long valley. The hawk had balanced herself with outflung wings as they ran, and she settled back to rest unwillingly, turning her head to listen for the prey.

"Men with hounds are driving them down the valley," their host said. "They have been told that if both reach this cairn in a stated time they will be freed."

Tal saw the slight stiffness in Rho's spine as the meaning of the words sank in. The quarry was man. There was no time to protest, even if she had intended to. Two figures broke cover at the head of the valley. One of them was running easily while the other labored behind. Some touch of memory tickled Tal's mind as he read the shock in Rho's back. Special quarry, Hreth Malock had said. One fair human and one dark Vulcan running at his side.

The cairn of stones stood at the foot of the rise on which they sat. There was perhaps a quarter of a mile between the woods and the cairn, but the ground between was boggy and would slow the runners. The hounds gave tongue in the wood, their fierce voices clear as bells in the cold air. Then the first of them broke into the open, racing far faster than the human could run. It was the Vulcan who pulled up and looked back. He shouted something to the human and ran back between him and the dogs. Like the human servants at the stable, he was unarmed, lightly clothed, and barefoot. He set himself to meet the charge of the first hound while the human floundered into the mud and worked his way forward toward the stream.

The first hound, spotted liver and white, leaped at the Vulcan's throat and he dodged aside, caught it by the foreleg and snapped it to one side. Even with a broken leg, it scrambled back to the attack and was joined by its mate, a small, quick reddish bitch who leaped for, and got, a shoulder hold. The Vulcan couldn't throttle the animal one-handed, but he crushed her muzzle and blinded her with a chop across her eyes as he kicked the limping dog away. He shook the body loose and turned to run again, bright green blood soaking the fabric of his coverall.

By this time the human had reached the stream and looked back. The ice on the puddles and over the waist-deep mud had cut his feet and legs. He crouched on a tussock of grass, shuddering as he drew in deep breaths, but when he saw the Vulcan stagger after him, he stood up and jumped onto the ice that covered the stream, using his weight to batter a way through, and then leaning, beating the ice with his fists to widen a way across the stream.

The living dog came after them, dragging its leg and crying in pain as it plunged into the cold water. Tal thought for a moment that the animal would be swept under the ice, but it pulled itself laboriously out on the far side. The human and the Vulcan were still struggling through the mud, and the dog had an advantage. With its lighter body weight, it didn't break through the surface ice. The human had dropped behind again, and the dog lunged forward, seized him by the right thigh, and began to drag him back toward the water.

Hreth Malock sat his mount in comfort, like a potentate on his throne, caressing the hawk, teasing her by loosening, ever so little, the strings to her hood. She turned her head, scenting the prey she knew was close at hand. Dia, from beside Tal, watched the life and death struggle with a concentration that had nothing to do with pleasure, and Rho was unreadable. Tal's mirex shifted under him.

The human's hand closed on the Vulcan's ankle, either in appeal, or simply as an anchor against the pull of the dog. Slowly the Vulcan turned back, got up to his hands and knees, and lurched over the human's body toward the dog. It growled a threat it couldn't back up without releasing the human, and the Vulcan probed for the neck nerves with his good hand.

"We alter Vulcans," Hreth Malock remarked, his breath white on the air. "In more ways than one. I have found that they can perform ordinary tasks quite competently with some of the tendons in their hands severed, and it does away with the fear that one may run across a master of the neck pinch. In extremity it is quite common for them to try anyway."

The Vulcan had tried and failed. The dog was still grinding its teeth in the human's thigh and stubbornly pulling him back toward the water. The Vulcan felt around him for a stone or stick and found nothing, then thrust forward, suddenly, forcing two stiffened fingers into and through the dog's eye to its brain. The hound shuddered and died, but did not relax its grip. Green blood from the Vulcan's injured shoulder was pumping out in short jets, while the red from the human flowed from the dead jaws of the dog.

Laboriously the Vulcan prised the teeth from the human's flesh, but when he had done so, the human lay senseless in the mud. For the first time the Vulcan looked up at the party on the bluff. He had not far to go to reach the cairn.

"Both or neither," Hreth Malock called out. "And your time is short."

The Vulcan forced himself up, grasped the human by the loose fabric of his coverall and lifted him until he could get a knee under the limp body. Awkwardly he drew the human's arm over his shoulders, then ducked and stood up with the body dangling over his good shoulder. He managed one step, two, then tripped in an ice-covered pothole and fell flat.

Tal's palms were sweating in sympathy, his body tense for action. The Vulcan had perhaps three lengths of his body to move, and Hreth Malock was untying the jess that bound the hawk to her perch. The Vulcan made one more attempt to heave the human forward, but he hung like a sack in the desperate grip. As the body turned, Tal saw the slowing arch of arterial blood. Either the hound's teeth or the Vulcan's efforts to move him had opened one of the major vessels in his thigh. He had a minute to live, maybe two.

Perhaps the Vulcan read Hreth Malock's intent to loose the hawk in spite of his promise. Perhaps some alien belief dictated his behavior. He had pulled himself clear of the dying human and risen to his knees. Now he sank back, gasping for breath, summoning his reserves, his eyes on the hawk as he realized that she was a predator. He couldn't have dodged the stun beam from Hreth Malock's hand phaser if he'd tried.

Tal had seen murder before, had done it himself, murder and not just killing, but this disgusted and weakened him. He gathered his mount under him, judging the distance to the hawk as her hood came off, wondering if he could take Hreth Malock, wondering if they would have to fight the daughter, too, how they could escape. He looked at Rho for the signal. But there was no signal. The hawk took the air and it was too late.

Claw hit the Vulcan full in the chest, finding one grip there and one in his throat. Unable to defend himself, he fell back across the dying human as the hawk's talons sheared through muscle and vein. The galhawk screamed in her blood fury and struck again and again at this large prey that trembled and jerked beneath her. Her wing was outspread for a moment, brilliant in the sunlight, and when she lowered it, half the Vulcan's face was gone, the eye socket green with blood.

Tal started forward without a signal; he only heard Rho's voice after he had kneed his mount into motion. And all she said, in a bored voice, was, "Cut the hawk loose, Tal."

He dismounted and knelt with his back to the bluff, teased Claw loose and up onto his arm. The tough fabric of his suit and the thermal padding beneath it was almost armor enough. He had to soothe her until he was sure she wouldn't strike at his eye, but he freed his dagger as he did it, and under pretense of cutting the hawk loose, plunged the dagger into the Vulcan's side to the heart. He cleaned the weapon and stood up. His mirex shied from the fierce eye of the bird and her extended wings, so he had to climb the rise on foot.

He walked to Hreth Malock's side and faced him with an expression of mindless obedience that had served him well in the past. "Your hawk, sir."

Hreth Malock took Claw on his arm and drew her hood over the cold gold eyes. "I'm not disappointed in her," he remarked, "but the kill seemed tame. Substitutes are never the same thing."

"Substitutes?" asked Dia. She had not understood the significance of the Vulcan-human pair except that she had saved the human from a fever the previous year and that whoever had "altered" the Vulcan, she was not the one who had done it.

"It seems a familiar Federation starship has seen fit to interfere with clan affairs again, child. It is commanded by a human-Vulcan team." Hreth Malock turned to Rho. "You're familiar with the Enterprise, cousin. The hunt was a gesture, no more. I'm sure you could think of something more interesting to do with them. As for myself—I believe the combination's overrated. The human's weakness will inevitably handicap the Vulcan's superior strength. What do you think?"

In the old days, Tal would have expected an explosion, but in the old days Rho had taken no pleasure in the torture and killing of helpless victims. Now she turned a thoughtful face toward her cousin and studied him a moment while the chill wind ruffled the fur and feathers at her throat.

"I think my enemies are preparing for war while my friends make gestures. I had always understood that a hunt without danger was a hunt without honor—as for the substitution—" She smiled slightly, without mirth. "I would not advise you to judge the reality by the imitation—when you are within stone's throw of them." Her eyes flicked to the pile of stones, which they had all seen as a marker, and not a stockpile of weapons. Tal felt a little chill. He had not seen the danger in those piled stones. Rho bent her head thoughtfully and patted her mount. Seemingly it was to the mirex that she quoted her proverb. "Underestimate your enemy, and you arm him."

If Man Hreth Malock realized from his guest's continued silence that his hunt had not been to her taste, the knowledge was expressed only by an extra ironic touch of courtesy as he handed her down from her mount when they returned to the stables. Rho slid down into his arms without stiffening a muscle in the revulsion she felt. She had learned to give one message with her eyes and another with her body. Let him wonder which was true. And let Tal stand by like a sulky schoolboy holding the hawk. She was not responsible to him. Did he have to be so obviously drawn because another man touched her?

Man held her a moment longer than necessary. "You're quiet, cousin. Not bored, I hope?"

She said the first thing that came into her mind. "I'm cold, that's all. It is summer in the capital." She wanted to get away from all of them and sort things out. Physical privacy wasn't necessary, but it was a luxury after two years of imprisonment. "I think I'll take a long soak in a hot tub."

From the corner of her eye, Rho saw Dia dismount abruptly and drop her mount's reins. She stalked away toward the house without a word. Tal was still standing like a stock, and Claw turned her hood left and right, clutching the arm with her bloody talons.

"Go back to the ship, Tal," Rho said. He turned away like the girl and stalked off.

Man reached out and touched her windcooled cheek. "You are cold," he confirmed. "Come with me. It's faster back to the house this way." He guided her out of the stable yard and around a planting to where a slot led down to a door in the earth. It opened at his word. Once inside, in a dim, utilitarian corridor, the chill outer air gave way to warmth. Access tunnels were nothing new to Rho, used as she was to the labyrinth of the palace.

In silence, she walked beside her cousin. The feathers of her jacket brushed his arm in the narrow space, and he took her cold hand and tucked it inside his elbow, then pressed it against his side. She could feel his warmth with each breath. She had to stretch a little to match his stride, but she did it. She looked straight ahead.

"I did not mean to arouse unpleasant memories," he said. "Nor to underestimate your enemies." He pulled her gently to a halt and turned her to face him. "If I offended you, cousin—I apologize."

All her life she had had to look up to meet the eyes of the tall men around her. Usually she resented it, but there were times when superior strength held appeal and not challenge. She couldn't tell from his voice or his face if he was sincere. He slid her hand lower, over his heart. When she didn't move or speak he lifted her hands to his lips.

"You look at me as Claw does. When I offer meat, she takes the gift without the giver. 'What do you want of me?' she asks with her eye. 'How long will you feed me?'"

"You will feed her as long as she serves you," Rho said.

Man's thin smile admitted it. The lines around his eyes fanned up toward his white temples. "True, but that is not why I feed her myself. She is beautiful, and wild, which I admire. I cannot change what I am. But the admiration is genuine."

The speeding rhythm of Rho's pulse was genuine, too. Arousal she felt and did not have to falsify. She knew this urge of old. It had nothing to do with anything else and could be cured in one way only. The beat of her heart shook the feathers around her. Why shouldn't she? Here was a danger and power as great as that banished ghost from her past. It moved her more than Tal's patient devotion.

"Claw does not hunt because it pleases you," she said.

"What matter?" Man reached for the fastening hidden in the feathers. "So long as we share the prey?"

Rho dropped her hands to his crotch and found him guarded there with a hard cup to protect his genitals. She loosened his clothes and found the fastening of it and pushed it impatiently aside. He moaned and thrust into her hand as she touched him, then crushed their bodies together. With her free hand she stroked his flank, feeling the tight-clenched sinews there and how he trembled.

He let her go to reach for the long fastening of her suit. It balked him, and he ripped it, then lifted her up with one arm, thrust his hand between her thighs, and ripped the fabric again. She felt his fist clenched against her and then the cold kiss of air between her legs. He laid her down on the floor. It was cool and faintly filmed with dust. She was wet already. The sound of tearing clothing had penetrated her before his cock touched her.

She lifted her knees and guided him in, drawing in a breath at the heat and size of him. When he pulled back, dragging through her flesh like a dry rope, she screamed. With nails in his back and heels on his buttocks, she drove him in again. He bored deep again and again, bruising her with his hipbones, sliding them both across the floor until her head struck the wall. The force of his motion slewed them around sideways. She clawed at him, beat him with her heels, arched up and up. She sank her teeth in his shoulder and tasted blood. There, there, there! She would have killed him if he had stopped before she came.

They lay together in a panting ruin until the weakness passed. When Rho could feel anything but the great pulsing waves, she felt him wipe her face. He looked, for the moment, as stunned as she felt.

"Little hawk," he said, and she didn't know whether it was an endearment or an observation. She pushed his hand away from her face and sat up. She didn't want to look at him. With one hand she braced herself against the wall and stood up. She set the jacket aside and used the rags of her coverall to wipe between her legs.

Naked, she watched him get up and fasten the protective cup around himself again. The black harness was stark against his pale skin. There was a grizzled line running through his black body hair down to his groin. When he turned, she could see the green welts she had left on him. She still felt where he had been inside her. It was good that she had marked him, too.

When he fastened his pants she put on the jacket again.

"Wait," he said before she closed it. He looked his fill, then leaned down to kiss her breast. He fastened the jacket for her and sighed as he did so. "The Enterprise is in orbit around Riga," he told her. "We shall hunt the same prey."

 

VII

When the Enterprise had been inserted in parking orbit around Riga, a respectful distance behind the impressive dreadnought Haile Selassie, Kirk went to his quarters to await the admiral's call. When it came, the screen at Kirk's desk showed a crisp picture of a tanned, solid soldier in immaculate whites. Harnum was balding, and what was left of his steel gray hair was trimmed in a quarter-inch tonsure around his head, but he exuded male vigor. Someone in his past had flattened his nose slightly left of center and scarred his left eyebrow out of true. It gave him a pugnacious expression that was matched by the intrusive stare of hooded eyes somewhere between blue and gray. He had "no nonsense" written all over him.

"Congratulations, Captain. Your communications chief said that the Vulcan ambassador had received only minor injuries?"

"That's right, sir. Dr. McCoy released him yesterday after a night in sickbay. None of the captives was harmed."

"Good. I'd like them all debriefed before they're released. You can beam over with the ambassador to make your report. I've had quarters prepared for him here."

That seemed a bit peremptory, but Kirk didn't say so. "I'll bring him, sir, but I'm not sure what plans he has made about accommodations. He and his wife were staying with the Rigan planetary administrator, but they are settled in on the Enterprise now. Their son is my first officer."

Harnum's slight shrug seemed indifferent. "Then perhaps they would rather remain with you, but I still want to speak with him personally—for one thing, I don't know how much he has been told. Say whatever's tactful. We'll be serving tea in the officer's mess at sixteen hundred hours."

"Thank you, sir. We'll be there." As an added courtesy, Kirk let Harnum sign off. That had seemed straightforward. Harnum gave the impression of a busy, competent officer well-used to delegating responsibility. Kirk hauled out his own whites, put them on, and made his way to the rec room he had assigned to the rescued Rigans for their own use.

Sarek was ahead of him, in icy converse with two of the Vulcans. The elation Kirk had anticipated from the released prisoners was nowhere in evidence. The humans had withdrawn to one side of the room in a sullen lump, and their reaction to his entry was to try to cut him off from the Vulcans with a series of complaints.

It took Kirk a moment to sort the message out of the noise, and then he gathered two things—that the humans were not aware of their imminent release or the fact that they were already in orbit around their home world, and that they wanted separate accommodation from the Vulcans.

"You what?" Kirk's incredulous tone silenced the babble, but one of the Rigans stubbornly repeated the request.

"We don't want to share space with the Vulcans."

"Why not?" Kirk asked.

The spokesman for the group mumbled what sounded like "...keep to ourselves."

"I understood that the first time. What I want to know is why?" Kirk wasn't used to repeating his requests and it showed.

The spokesman shrugged. "Because we can't tell Vulcs from Rommies, if you want it plain. We've got to talk and we can't with them here. How do we know who set us up? You can't tell much by looking. They—" he indicated the silent Vulcans standing with Sarek, "—could all be Romulan slavers."

"Including my first officer's father? Never mind, gentlemen; for the duration of your stay you are perfectly free to be as private as you please in the quarters my crew assigned you. In fact, I suggest you go there now."

Kirk's voice carried all the snap of a dismissal, and they didn't like it; but when the spokesman pushed past him with a glower, the rest filed slowly after. There were a few apologetic looks directed at Kirk or Sarek, but only one human pointedly kept his seat. He wore a short mop of dark curls and the fanciest personal jewelry Kirk had seen on a male in years. His complexion was pale coffee and his expression that of an imp from the seamier streets of hell. He raised a delicately pointed brow under Kirk's scrutiny and Kirk could see traces of green cosmetic shadowing his eyes. He looked about seventeen.

"I think someone should stay to spy on the Vulcans," he said pleasantly. "That is, if they're staying."

A corner of Kirk's mouth quirked up, in spite of the fact that he had no use for affected young men or spoiled hell-raisers.

"The Vulcans have the same option you do," he answered. "But we're not drawing any race lines on this ship. What's your name?"

Sarek had crossed the room to Kirk's side. "He is Farrid Barat, Captain, the son of the planetary administrator."

"I thought you'd recognized me," the boy said. "Why didn't you say so on the ship?"

"Because our captors did not seem to know who you were. I saw no reason to inform them."

Kirk frowned. "I spoke with your father four days ago. He didn't mention that you were missing."

Farrid grinned. "I doubt he knew. And like the ambassador, I saw no advantage in informing O'Neill. He might have started sending me back in pieces."

"You knew our captor?" Sarek asked.

"He's a pirate, gambler, vice-runner. Has an eclectic list of clients, many of whom share my own social prominence." Farrid's gesture of buffing his nails was deliberately effete, but Kirk noticed that the elegant hand in question was slightly puffy and bruised about the knuckles.

"How did they get you?"

"I was drunk, in Dow, and less splendid than usual. I woke up aboard his ship." The boy shook his sleeve down to cover the chafed circle around his wrist where some kind of restraint had rubbed the flesh raw. His eyes were clear sea green under a weight of dark lashes.

"If this O'Neill is a known criminal," Kirk asked, "why hasn't someone stopped him?"

Farrid looked up with a play of long lashes. "Captain, it would take me about four hours just to begin telling you how much you don't know about life in the Neutral Zone. I don't mean to be rude. I'm very grateful—" and here there was a down-and-up sweep of the eyelashes, "for being rescued—but this isn't the Federation.

"First of all, I don't think there are any laws on Dow, unless the law of the jungle counts, and there's certainly no law enforcement. That's one of the attractions. So neither O'Neill nor his men are criminals. I could challenge O'Neill, I suppose, but if I did he'd probably tear my head off. I'd do better to hire a reputable assassin. They are listed in any computer skills bank."

Kirk ignored the flattering glances and attempt to provoke him. "That might work in a primitive society, but Riga is contemporary, technological—"

"And unique in its culture and location," concluded Sarek. "I, too, find the situation fascinating, Captain. The capital of Riga appeared as safe as any normal city. I had not anticipated an attack."

"You're a stranger," said Farrid. "Who would avenge you?" His bright, cat-with-the-canary expression announced that he was well aware of the impact he was having.

Sarek exchanged looks with Kirk. This was the first person either had met who seemed willing to give them an unofficial insider's view of the culture. In spite of the fact that Farrid could have no way of knowing his world was no longer in the Neutral Zone.

Kirk weighed the eye make-up and jewelry against the bruised hands. He was aware of the charm being directed at him, and more than proof against it. This slender boy's quicksilver grace had neither the honesty of Dray T'serek's steady regard nor the compelling fire of Spock's Vulcan passion. But Farrid had something. Kirk could not dismiss the boy entirely.

On an impulse he said, "I don't have that four hours right now. You can leave, if you like, or stay aboard until I do have them—as a cultural adviser."

Sarek raised an eyebrow, but Farrid gave them a dazzling smile.

"Now that would surprise Papa. I accept. It will be on your head, Captain, if one of these wicked Vulcans attacks me." He rose, bowed, and made an overly graceful exit that drew disapproving stares from the Vulcans.

Sarek said to Kirk, "He is not what I expected to find on a frontier world."

"No—" The odor of intrigue hung about Farrid like incense. "Where did you first meet him?"

"At the administrator's residence. His father seemed surprised to see him there and somewhat apprehensive about his behavior. Farrid expressed an interest in meeting an 'authentic' Vulcan."

"Did Amanda like him?" Kirk asked the question without thinking how personal it might sound to a Vulcan. Now that Sarek had let down the barrier of his disapproval over Spock's vocation, he was proving a very comfortable companion. Still, there were limits.

Evidently Sarek didn't think Kirk had overstepped them yet. "I am pleased that you value her opinion, Captain. Her comment was that it was too bad the young man had found nothing more interesting to be than oblique."

Kirk acknowledged that with a faint grin. He had never, himself, been able to understand bright youngsters who could find no outlet for their energies but dissipation and taking reckless risks, but they existed on every planet in spite of his preferences. If Farrid was one of them, a chance to do something useful might pull him out of it—or not. That wasn't Kirk's problem. He turned to the other Vulcans in the room.

"Gentlemen, I apologize for the delay. What I came to tell you is that we are orbiting Riga. You will have access to the transporter located on this deck so that you may return to your homes, but it would be a great favor to me if you would each describe the circumstances of your capture for the ship's records before you leave."

A graying Vulcan stepped forward. "That is a reasonable request, Captain, and we are in your debt. But before we make such statements or leave the protection of the ship, it is our consensus that we obtain medical certification as to our 'authenticity' from either your physician or, if he is not qualified to distinguish Romulans from Vulcans, from a Rigan physician who is."

Kirk was at a loss. "I appreciate your offer, sir, but I don't understand the necessity for it. It's unfortunate your fellow captives reacted in the way they did, but humans are more subject to stress than Vulcans. I heard their concerns—that doesn't mean I share them."

"You might come to share them later, Captain," the senior Vulcan answered, with a pointed look at Sarek, "or others might take them up. It is not pleasant to be suspected of complicity with—or against—the Empire."

Kirk felt the back of his neck begin to heat up again. He was getting tired of doubletalk. "Please be blunt, sir. Who is it that you suspect of being a Romulan spy?"

"Suspect is a harsh word, Captain. We are known to each other; all of us have family affiliations on Riga. The ambassador is a stranger, only vouched for by other strangers."

That was blunt enough. Kirk restrained himself with an effort. "You are all aware of the treatment Ambassador Sarek received aboard the Romulan vessel—"

"Why do you call it a Romulan vessel, Captain?" the Vulcan inquired. "Its captain was a human."

"It was bound," Kirk said deliberately, "for Romulus."

"No doubt that is correct," the Vulcan replied, "since you say so—and, indeed, that agrees with my own sense of spatial orientation—but we have no proof it was intended to arrive there. I do not wish to offer offense. If the ambassador has nothing to hide, he will be as willing as we are to undergo the examination."

"The necessity for any examination has not been established to my satisfaction," Kirk said stubbornly. "The ambassador is known to me, personally, and—"

Sarek cut in, his voice diplomatically soothing. "I beg your pardon, Captain, but I believe this offer is made, in all logic, to assist you. No Vulcan would request such a thing lightly. I am perfectly willing, and I would prefer that a Rigan physician be present as well as Dr. McCoy."

Kirk gave up. Diplomacy was Sarek's profession. "Very well. I will ask Dr. McCoy to make the arrangements. But when the evidence is in, I think some apologies will be in order. For now, you'll have to excuse me; I have ship's business to attend to. If you will accompany me, sir?" It was not the most tactful tone Kirk had ever used. He took a deep breath once he reached the corridor and turned to Sarek with an apology of his own.

"There is no need, Captain. Diplomats have thick hides."

Kirk gave him a sheepish grin. "Spock would have told me that Vulcans are impervious to insult."

"I had no idea he was so lacking in tact."

Kirk did a double take, then gave the straight-faced Vulcan his own best look of wide-eyed innocence. "I'll tell him you said so, sir."

Sarek acknowledged the hit with a rising eyebrow. "My son has been remiss in his description of you, Captain. He limited his comments to your professional attributes."

Kirk recognized bait when he saw it, and was subject to any lover's desire to hear repeated compliments. But he was having trouble relating this Sarek to the frozen authoritarian who had not even acknowledged Spock's existence just three years earlier on their journey to Babel. Kirk had always credited Spock's human side or Amanda's upbringing for his first officer's warmth, but just as that upward slip of the eyebrow had been Sarek's gesture before it was Spock's, so had the dry humor and restrained charm—and the powerful mind. Kirk was used to Spock's occasional teasing, and to being read all too accurately by his dark Vulcan eyes. It was unsettling to find the same penetrating glance and intellect bent on him from this new source.

"He was probably sparing my blushes. Which Admiral Harnum won't bother to do if we're late for tea aboard the Haile Selassie. He asked me to make it an invitation, but he's eager to speak with you, sir. I accepted for both of us."

Sarek accepted the change of subject and the new arrangements with equanimity. "I am equally curious to meet him. I doubt that I can provide more information about my kidnapping than I have already given you. Perhaps he can explain why Starfleet felt two ships were necessary for my rescue."

Oh, oh. "Perhaps he can, sir." Keeping his feet well away from his mouth, Kirk indicated the way toward the transporter.

The transfer between ships was not accomplished, however, until Sarek had assumed full Vulcan regalia once again, formal gear Kirk didn't doubt was exactly calculated to indicate Sarek's rank, his mission, and his superiority, as a representative of the Federation Council, to a mere admiral. All traces of friendliness had disappeared when he joined Kirk at the transporter.

Kirk's immediate impression was that the Haile Selassie made the Enterprise look dowdy. Two spit-and-polished ensigns wearing aide's insignia greeted the visitors. Kirk had felt overdressed in his whites aboard his own ship; here he felt almost casual. The overwhelming impression of military readiness which no dreadnought could fail to give, through sheer massiveness, was blunted everywhere aboard the Haile Selassie with touches of luxury. The corridors throughout were sprayed with a film of pale blue acoustical "cushion" that Kirk had considered for the Enterprise until he saw the hole it would put in his operating budget. Apparently no one aboard the dreadnought wore fatigue uniforms, and the crew moved through the corridors with self-conscious briskness—not that loitering couples filled the corridors of the Enterprise, but Kirk's own people didn't change their pace or posture when he came around a corner, and he observed that he did have that effect here. Well, it was no crime to run a taut ship. Sarek was strolling at Kirk's side with superb detachment, but Kirk wondered what comparisons he might be making between the two ships.

The aides ushered them into a room that might as well have been a lounge in a luxury hotel, and a uniformed waiter approached to ask their preference in drinks. They had hardly answered when Harnum entered the room through another door, making apologies for his delay.

Sarek let Harnum say all the right things until he ran down, then, still without comment, accepted a drink as if it were something offensive good manners compelled him to admire. Kirk mentally stood back to let them square off at each other.

Harnum wasn't given much time to retrieve his guest's good opinion before a voice was raised acidly at the door of the lounge.

"—unless you plan to stop me physically, I think you'll find that difficult, young man. Why don't you just let the admiral tell me this is a private conference!" A familiar, untidy figure advanced belligerently into the room. Kirk smiled automatically. He had nothing but respect and affection for the Federation's senior pan-anthropologist. This was the first time he had seen her seriously ruffled.

"Sorry to break in, Admiral," she said, "but I wasn't aware that I was under house arrest!"

Meade Morrow was in her early sixties, and she looked as if her own appearance had never been of primary concern to her. She wore her rough gray hair cut short, and her lined face and brown eyes gave her the look of a sad chimpanzee. Stooped shoulders, ample bosom, and a slight potbelly were not flattered by a plain gray coverall. Nonetheless, she was a force to contend with, and Admiral Harnum pulled out a chair for her with rather strained courtesy.

"Dr. Morrow, you know that isn't true. If I had known you were interested, I would have invited you. Have you met Ambassador Sarek? Captain Kirk?"

Meade took the offered chair as if it might be withdrawn. "Know them both well. Sarek. Jim. The admiral here doesn't believe my security clearance—or he's stalling for some other reason. I was sent after the Haile Selassie with the idea that I might be of some assistance in this crisis, and he won't let me off this ship. I'm being held against my will. What are you going to do about it?"

Kirk repressed a full-fledged grin by main force. Meade looked ready to take on Starfleet and win. Harnum's face was developing a wine-colored tinge, and it was abundantly clear that he wasn't housing her because he wanted to.

"I could tell him how successful I was keeping you aboard the Enterprise at Mrinn and Mutte Aba." Kirk turned the grin into a sympathetic smile for Harnum. "What did she want to do, sir, beam down and take on the natives single-handed?"

"Exactly. And I don't care what her security clearance is; she's a female civilian scientist, and I'm responsible for her."

"A militaristic delusion if I ever heard one," rejoined Meade. "You are responsible to me; I'm a taxpayer. And you're preventing me from doing the job I presume I was sent here to do. As far as I'm concerned your only responsibility is to brief me and provide material support, if that's what they're calling gunboat diplomacy these days. So far you haven't done either."

"I'm about to, Dr. Morrow, if you will allow me to proceed. When I have finished, and as soon as you sign a waiver, you're free to beam down into an unstable pile—politically speaking, of course."

Kirk's smile faded. Meade could be acerbic—she needled everyone—but nothing she had said justified Harnum's response.

The awkward silence he had generated didn't seem to faze Harnum. He left them seated and walked toward a wall that brightened, as he approached it, into a viewscreen. A schematic of the Ochros system appeared, roughly centered between Romulan and Federation space. There was something familiar about the display, and Kirk realized it was the same one the Rigan administrator had provided.

"As Captain Kirk, at least, must be aware," Harnum began, "the Ochros system is invading Federation space. The star and inner planets have already crossed the line, the second habitable planet is about to. The Federation is not comfortable with the idea of hosting Romulan nationals; however, it has no official power to determine the customs, allegiance, or form of government of inhabited planets within its space. Our job is to inform the two planets of their status, provide information about the benefits of membership in the Federation, and protect them from interference while deliberations and a free election are held. If there are Romulan protests, we keep them from escalating into war. If they do not elect to join the Federation—" Harnum paused and the screen dimmed. "—I may be here until retirement trying to straighten out the mess. As I see it, our first order of business is to decide what we tell the Rigans." He moved back to join them at the table.

Sarek raised his eyes from contemplation of his steepled fingers. "When you say, 'we,' Admiral, of whom do you speak?"

Harnum shrugged. "The four of us are dedicated to furthering the Federation's aims, I take it."

"With you in command."

"I am certainly in command of the military aspects of this mission." Harnum's colorless eyes considered Sarek and Meade in turn. Having made his point, he sat back in his chair. "Not that I have any intention of telling either you or Dr. Morrow how to do your jobs—frankly, I wouldn't know how to do them. Captain Kirk and I will take care of the military aspects and assist you in any way we can. I hope you'll get us the information we need to do our jobs with the least loss of life and property."

"That job being to insure a free election—or one favorable to the Federation?" asked Meade.

Harnum was obviously through being put on the spot. "I hope that will amount to the same thing, Doctor, don't you?" Without waiting for an answer, Harnum stood up, drawing the rest of them to their feet. "I'm sure you'll want to compare notes, and my aides have prepared copies of our intelligence for each of you. You can examine them here, or wherever you like. I suggest we meet back here for breakfast tomorrow morning with some plans of action. Ambassador, Doctor."

The aides reentered the room as if they had received a mental command and presented matched dark blue cases of information. Kirk caught the glint of Starfleet insignia and the name of the ship stamped on the cases in gold. He interpreted a glance from Harnum as a command to stay as the other two exited the room. By sheer power of will he withheld judgment.

"Sir?"

The scarred eyebrow twitched and Harnum rubbed the bridge of his nose, then reached out and put his hand on Kirk's shoulder, turning him back toward the screen. "Fleet deployment," he said, and the screen brightened, giving them an above-the-lens point of view on the galactic spiral. In the explored arm, the Klingon Empire glowed blue, and Romulan space red, with a paler rosy ring surrounding the red area, like the skin on an orange. Yellow pinpoints sprang to life, not many of them in comparison to the vastness of the space rendered. "The Organians are keeping the Klingons off our neck today, but who knows what they'll decide to do tomorrow? Thirty percent of our force is devoted to containing them, anticipating outbreaks or various types of treachery, such as subversion of new cultures we are either trying to protect or bring into the Federation. Another thirty percent protects the core worlds. Half of what's left is off exploring the other arm. We're spread too thin. If things go sour here, we can't count on any backup. How many duty hours do you put in every week?"

Kirk shrugged, tactfully removing himself from the hand on his shoulder. "It varies. Sometimes fifty—sometimes seventy. Why?"

"Sometimes a hundred, Captain. I have your record; it's impressive. On most ships it would take two people to do the job you do on the Enterprise, but most ships don't have two men to do it. We can push ourselves, Captain. We can push our crews, and even, God help us, civilians, when we have to, but we can't multiply ships. The military aspects are simple. If we let the Romulans in, the battle line won't be drawn here. It will be much closer to Earth. We can't defend these people. Frankly, I don't see committing the Federation to a war over people who aren't even citizens."

Then why put on the show? Kirk wondered. Why risk the Enterprise and her crew twice before to contain the Romulans within the Neutral Zone?

But Harnum was continuing. "We can't afford to look weak. If any Romulans we can handle crawl out of the woodwork, we stomp them. I have people out now, mining the Zone with sensors."

"Are you in communication with them, sir?"

"Yes, why?"

Kirk explained about Sulu's autograph and Farrid's identification of the pirate. "There's not much doubt that he's been involved in violations of Federation space—which is a crime we could do something about. If what Farrid says is true, Ambassador Sarek's abduction is what Riga would regard as a 'family affair,' best left for family to avenge. The crewmen I took from O'Neill's ship haven't committed any crime at all by Rigan standards."

"What'd you get out of them?"

"They're all honest workingmen—who are conditioned against hypnosis and carrying around implants that will make them too sick to talk if anyone administers a barbiturate or truth drug. They're also liars. But proving it will be pointless."

"Then you'd better let the bastards go. I'll never understand natives, and I guess you can tell civilians aren't my strong suit either. I'll keep a weather eye on space and handle the Fleet while you supervise the planetary situation. Maybe you can cope with Dr. Morrow better than I can."

Kirk thought it would be hard to make a worse job of it, but kept that thought to himself. "She's worked out of the Enterprise before, sir. I can't fault her for wanting to get her information directly from the culture she's supposed to study. Is there any reason she shouldn't set up her headquarters and staff where she wants them? Provided we give her protection?"

"I suppose not. God knows I don't want to be tripping over her here every minute."

"I'll try to keep her out of your way, sir."

"I appreciate it. Civilians are still civilians, even with fancy titles. I never did think they belonged aboard a military vessel. Tomorrow, then."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Kirk retrieved his presentation case and left.

Meade was waiting for him in the transporter room aboard the Enterprise, surrounded by all her gear. Her scowl gave way to a grin when she saw him. "Did I put you on the spot?" she asked.

"Between a rock and a hard place. The least you could have done was be polite to my boss. He thought you were serious."

Meade's smile faded. "I was serious. At least about being unable to work aboard that ship. My quarters were routinely checked by the admiral's security squad, and I couldn't go anywhere without telling someone why. No one can take a crap without getting Harnum's official seal of approval. Am I talking too freely?" She glanced from Kirk's slightly shocked face to the transporter technician.

"No—Mitchell's a little bit deaf on occasion. He probably hasn't heard a word you've said. Have you, Mitchell?"

"I can hear the captain, sir."

"Good." Kirk always had a smile ready for a crewman who was on his toes, and this one made Mitchell's day—until the captain and his guest were gone and he realized he'd been effectively barred from gossiping about what he'd heard.

Meade let herself be steered down the corridor to the rec room, where she accepted a cup of coffee before she began again.

"So much for temper tantrums. I really didn't mean to get you in hot water, Jim—or inconvenience you here."

"You're not an inconvenience. Harnum doesn't know what he's losing. He's effectively—excuse me, we might as well make this official. Do you mind?" Meade looked around the familiar buzzing room, where anyone could overhear a conversation.

"No, I don't mind."

Kirk went to the wall communicator, spoke for a moment, then came back with two red-shirted crewmen who began rearranging furniture around Meade to make up a conference table. By the time they finished, Spock, McCoy, and Scott were at the door, followed shortly thereafter by Uhura and Amanda, who had evidently come from the gym because they brought a healthy odor of exercise with them. Gavin Lapsley, Nadia Palevi, and Sarek followed.

Neither Lapsley nor Nadia Palevi had previously met Sarek and Amanda, but they both exchanged greetings with Meade. Nadia took a seat by McCoy, and Lapsley took it upon himself to see that a carafe of coffee and the appropriate service was placed at each end of the table. The entire gathering didn't take five minutes, and Kirk made introductions as necessary, giving them time for social exchanges. He was aware of Meade's eye on him from time to time. Once she had had the notion of analyzing his command style, but so far as he knew nothing had come of it. He studied the flat gunmetal walls of the rec room as his guests slowly focused their attention on him and wondered how his ship would look in a new coat of paint. The crewmen seated at tables around them went on with their coffee breaks, but their conversations and the fact that their attention was focused away from the larger gathering created a zone of privacy. When casual conversation around the table had died away, Spock turned toward Kirk. The attentive tilt of his head was as effective as a gavel. The meeting had come to order.

In as few words as possible, Kirk gave them Harnum's view of the situation, the lack of backup, and the division of labor the admiral had outlined. He didn't repeat Harnum's comments about working with civilians.

"Since the Enterprise has been given the responsibility for planetary liaison, I'd like to offer Ambassador Sarek and Dr. Morrow any of the ship's facilities they can use. Admiral Harnum has requested another meeting tomorrow morning to discuss the release of information to the citizens of Riga."

"Are we to consider ourselves bound by Admiral Harnum's decisions?" Sarek asked. He was still in his formal robes and formal manner.

"He's my superior officer," said Kirk. "I have no choice in the matter. However, I see no reason to assume that the admiral's decisions will be based on anything other than the best advice available. He's given us all his information—"

"I have reviewed it, Captain," Sarek interrupted. "There is very little more than was originally supplied to me by the Federation Council. How long has Admiral Harnum been in orbit?"

"Three or four days, I suppose. Why?"

"I find it difficult to believe he has added no more recent information, yet I can find none concerning any survey of the planet, monitoring of its telecommunications, or contact with the planetary officials. Surely we could obtain some of that data before we proceed."

At Kirk's nod, Spock rose and went to the wall communicator. Meade doodled on the tabletop with her forefinger, Amanda wore her usual serene expression, and Uhura looked concerned. Spock returned.

"Our own survey will not be complete for two hours, sir. I called the Haile Selassie and verified that no contact with the planetary administrator has been initiated from that vessel, sir."

Meade's eyes flashed. "Not even a courtesy call? In three days of hanging over their heads like a bomb about to go off?"

Kirk was beginning to squirm between the rock and the hard place again. He didn't need Sarek to point out that the planet would have been well aware of a Federation dreadnought in her skies.

The ambassador did it anyway. "It may already be impossible to convey our greetings in a way the Rigans will consider acceptable. I see no reason why our purpose should remain a military secret, and I will so inform the admiral in the morning. In the meantime, I will not divulge it unnecessarily. I will, however, point out to you, Captain, that whatever military protocol may be, I am not a member of Starfleet, nor an employee of the Federation in any capacity. I do not consider myself bound by their decisions, and I will act in accordance with my own principles and the best interests of my planet. In view of this, you may prefer that my wife and I remove ourselves from this discussion and from your ship."

Kirk sneaked a glance at Amanda from under his lashes. She hadn't lost her peaceful look, and while Spock could probably have retained his calm through the declaration of war that Harnum feared, Kirk was confident that his first officer was not deliberately concealing any apprehension. Instead of diving for cover, he smiled at Sarek.

"I appreciate your frankness, sir. It's because I am confident that you will act in accordance with your principles that I would like to extend the hospitality of the ship to you for the duration. Naturally you would be free to come and go or take up an alternate residence on the planet. I would simply be happy to maintain quarters for you here on the ship."

Before Sarek could accept or refuse, Kirk turned to Meade. "I'm making you the same offer, Meade, and if either of you can make use of my personnel, I'll be glad to provide you with staff. Spock and Dr. Palevi can prepare a list of available crew for you to go over."

Kirk leaned back in his chair and distributed an ingenuous smile around the table. "This should present a unique opportunity for poli-social observation, shouldn't it?" Or to catch the Fleet with its pants down and get invited to a war. But he didn't have to elaborate.

"You can let me know what you decide in the morning. I don't want to rush anyone. And while I'd like to entertain you this evening, that will have to wait. I've asked the helm to maneuver us into beaming range of Riga's larger moon. I'm going to study these tapes and sample some Rigan social life. I find it difficult to discuss these people when I haven't met them."

 

VIII

On Veith, Dia Hreth Malock woke in her bed and lay staring at the ceiling. Some sound must have wakened her, the soft pad of a servant's bare foot on the floor or the clink of dishes being carried toward her cousin's suite. It could not have been a natural sound or a change in natural light. The sleeping rooms lay buried below shielding meters of earth.

I can't live like this. The often-reiterated thought was so familiar on waking that Dia lay for a long time without realization of what new oppression brought it to mind. Without specific memory or image, she simply thought that she couldn't endure it. She couldn't go on.

And yet she always did, somehow, talk herself out of bed, tell herself there must be a reason, in her own stubborn health or her work or the limited good she could do, to go on living. Years ago she had given up the long hours of wishing her father dead. No enemy, no disease, no accident ever prevailed against his juggernaut progress through the lives around him. She had exhausted herself trying to understand why every factor favored him and no single turn of fortune favored her. She could only conclude that the indifference of the physical universe was a spawning ground for evil. He was evil. He prospered. Through some ironic twist of events she had been born female and too weak for evil; therefore she suffered.

The self-pitying fog thinned for a moment. Suffering was relative. She remembered, every time she thought she had reached endurance's end, that she was not bearing triplets every ten-month or nursing them up to become the victims of their master's pleasure. After the hunt all the human servants had been very quiet and attentive. The sharp odor of their fear had tainted the entire house. Her father fed on that fear, created it deliberately. And curse her own cowardice as she would, Dia could never quite find the courage to defy him with more than words. He might lay his hand on her.

She wondered how deep Rho's anger and revulsion had gone, whether they would ripen to defiance or take her trembling to Hreth Malock's bed. She wondered what possible role her father had in mind for her in Nod and whether she would be allowed to return to her training when she had acted her part. She wondered why she kept caring and making herself a target for his malice.

Because I can't quit opposing him without becoming like him, his little, obedient shadow. I might as well be dead. She toyed with the notion, half-serious. Nod would provide the means if she really meant it. There was less surveillance on Nod; there were flying accidents. He would guess it had been deliberate, but what could he do? Death was the one place safe from him.

 

IX

Having mastered the fine art of doing six things at once in his Academy days, Kirk saw his people started on their tasks, reviewed Harnum's tapes (agreeing with Sarek that they presented nothing new), and went in search of the planetary administrator's son.

He found Farrid on the bridge at Uhura's elbow, watching a newscast from Riga. The screen was split three ways while a human, Vulcan, and Romulan reported the return of citizens who had been kidnapped by an unknown malefactor. The Vulcan stopped speaking before the human, and the human before the Romulan.

"How do you make sense out of that?" Kirk asked.

Farrid raised his sea-green eyes, now painted to match Uhura's—and registered Kirk's presence with a melting smile.

"Receivers are equipped with three audio channels, plus a fourth for translations. This is the most impartial account aired."

"Is the whole planet partitioned like that?"

"Oh, no. There are some exclusive enclaves, even on Riga, but they are usually walled or posted. It's perfectly safe to beam down to Center City. The merchants there are already wondering why no one has come ashore."

It was not quite a question, and Kirk confirmed his impression that there was an acute mind working behind Farrid's affectations.

"I think you should see what they were broadcasting earlier, Captain." Uhura flicked a button. "I recorded it." The newscast went into reverse, and Kirk saw his own face come up on the screen. He placed the scene on Starbase 19, following the Denevan crisis when he was still torn up over losing Sam and Aurelan.

"Since I assumed command of the Enterprise, I've been primarily an explorer—" he was saying to the human reporter waving a press ID at him. Someone had leaked the information that he had contemplated the destruction of over a million lives rather than let the parasites spread to other inhabited colonies.

"But isn't it true that you are a military man, Captain, and that you could have destroyed every person on that planet?" The reporter had picked her spot well, a narrow ramp with a crowd gathering to impede Kirk's progress. He couldn't escape her without giving the appearance of having something to hide. It had also been obvious that the woman knew the answer and would willingly supply it if he didn't.

"It's no secret that the Enterprise has the capability to annihilate every living being on an undefended planet—or to destroy the planet itself," his recorded image said. "However, no Constitution Class starship has ever exercised that capability. As to whether or not I, personally, am capable of taking a million lives, even to save billions more—thank God I didn't have to find out. I hope I never do. Where are you from—your homeworld, I mean?"

Taken off guard, the reporter answered automatically. "Canaris Epsilon, why?"

Kirk saw the familiar narrowing of his eyes and the slight shift forward to combat stance. I've got to stop telegraphing like that, he thought.

"Your world was two jumps away for the parasites. Given the same choice I had, what would you have done?"

There was no answer. The reporter had been smart enough to stop recording at that point. Uhura flicked the image into nothingness.

"So much for the inviolability of the Neutral Zone," she said.

Kirk shrugged. It was obvious by now that there must have been a continuous traffic across the borders of both Federation and Empire.

"At least they showed the whole segment. So what?"

Farrid answered him. "Rigans are familiar with your career, Captain. You drove the Romulans back into the Neutral Zone, stole their cloaking device, and captured Commander Hreth Malock." His eyes were simmering with excitement. "In some quarters you're quite popular."

"And not so popular in others."

Farrid made a graceful, dismissive gesture. "Less popular, not less noteworthy. You could claim a hero's welcome."

Kirk didn't look impressed. "What kind of reaction was there when the Haile Selassie arrived?"

"Surprise, Captain," Spock answered from his console. "And underlying it, increasing apprehension. Media representatives and officials have tried to contact the ship, but Admiral Harnum has not answered their calls. For the moment Lt. Uhura is stating that you are also unavailable for comment, but you placed no restriction upon the Rigans now aboard, and they have been discussing their rescue freely."

What Spock could convey without actually saying it never ceased to amaze Kirk. Now the Vulcan was pointing out the rock and the hard place again. Farrid was watching the exchange with the pleased look of a harem beauty bent on intrigue. Kirk had encountered personalities before that would stir a troubled pot just to watch it boil over. If that was all the boy amounted to, he had better find it out now. Kirk wished he could talk it over with Spock. He reached for the back of his neck and rubbed the tight muscles there. A half hour's sparring—But he remembered why he couldn't issue the invitation in time to quell a tingle of anticipation.

"There's no reason they shouldn't discuss it," he said. "But the hero's welcome will have to wait. I'm heading down to the gym, Spock. When you're ready I want to beam over to Nod and get a feel for the place. You can show us the high spots, Mr.—"

"Just Farrid, Captain," the boy responded. His smile vanished in comical dismay. "But my reputation will be tarnished forever if I appear in this—" He indicated the skintight and flattering black coverall he had requisitioned from ship's stores. "Perhaps I'd better go ahead and do some shopping. I could meet you at Orson's Cock."

"Where?" Kirk said automatically.

Farrid glanced at Uhura with amusement, then made a show of lowering his long lashes in chagrin. "It does sound indelicate, doesn't it? It's a viewpoint and main transporter junction. I believe lady tourists are told the rock formation was a favorite perch of Orson's rooster."

Male attention around the bridge, if not male eyes, was suddenly focused on Uhura. Kirk turned his chair toward her.

"How about it, Lieutenant?" he asked. "You're a student of rock formations, aren't you?"

Uhura came back with her best look of innocence. "Oh, yes, Captain. As a tourist—and a lady—I always notice any worth mentioning." She surveyed the bridge crew pensively, found nothing noteworthy there, and returned to her work with a commiserating smile.

Not entirely unsinged himself, Kirk still had a grin for Farrid's discomfiture. That would teach him.

"We'll give you two hours to shop. Will it help avoid publicity if we come dressed as civilians?"

"It will help to leave your uniforms behind, Captain. I'm afraid nothing you do will enable you to look like a civilian." The flattery was so obvious it brought heat into Kirk's face as he wondered what Spock was making of all these innuendos. Farrid's teasing glance changed to one of insufferable self-esteem. "The best we can hope is that you'll be unnoticeable in the shadow of my magnificence."

Moving toward the turbolift with the outrageous Rigan, Kirk wished he had not already said he was leaving the bridge. A feeling that dark Vulcan eyes were watching his exit mingled with uneasy and illogical guilt for many past transgressions, when Kirk had sought relief from the pain of one love affair in another. It's not like that, Spock. Never again.

A solitary and somewhat punishing workout made Kirk feel better until he returned to his cabin and surveyed the contents of his closet. Uniforms he had in plenty, two genuine Terran wool plaid work shirts, and a phoenix-embroidered Argelian silk kimono that fell to mid-thigh in wine red opulence, but nothing much in between. He asked the computer for Uhura, and she returned the call dressed in a one-shouldered gown that looked like a king's ransom.

"You're the one I wanted," he said with satisfaction. "What do people wear here?"

Uhura gave his bare chest an arch glance, then considered the problem seriously. "Something plain—so you won't be fussing with your clothes—but rich. Gavin showed me something—have you got your pants on?"

"Last time I checked."

"I'll order up the shirt and drop it by. Oh, people go armed here." She slid up her one sleeve to show the lady's dagger on her forearm, not mentioning a few other surprises tucked here and there. "You'll have room for a phaser on your belt."

What she brought him was a black satin buccaneer's shirt slashed halfway to the navel and a pair of trick boots with obvious knives sheathed on their sides, and less obvious ones that became available when the heels were pulled off. They were more comfortable than they looked, and Uhura watched while he pulled them on and took a few experimental steps. Her gold gown clung like paint, and on the side that didn't expose her shoulder, it was slit to her hip. Except for a second jeweled weapon gartered to her bare thigh, she appeared to be wearing nothing but velvety skin under the dress, and the perfume she'd chosen should have been called Instant Rape.

"Are you trying to start a riot?" he asked as she tugged his shirt straight and fastened the belt at his waist. She shrugged, applying interesting tensions to the front of her dress.

"Isn't that what every lady tourist does?"

"Heaven help the gallant who believes the advertising."

Uhura stepped back and considered him from crown to toes—not missing the tousled hair or the challenging eyes, but lingering longer over the bulk of his shoulders, the fair skin over his hard-muscled chest, and the fit of his uniform pants. It had the familiar effect of making him want to sprout horns and prance in a circle.

"I won't do a thing you wouldn't, sir." She moved quickly out of reach and through the door.

"Brat!" he yelled after her. Uhura was always a tonic. He took one glance in the mirror, combed his hair back in place, and admitted the restorative effects of a little attention. In his deprived state he needed it.

Adding phaser and communicator to his more primitive armament, Kirk stepped out into the corridor just as Nadia Palevi came down the hall. She jumped when she saw him, tripped, and would have ended up on the floor if he hadn't caught her.

She turned a guilty glance upward as she fought for balance. "Damn these shoes," she said with feeling. "I'm all right." But she scrambled out of his grip too pointedly for him to ignore it.

"Nadia—" he said, keeping her hand in his.

"You must have been listening to Uhura, too," she said hurriedly. "I feel like a fool dressed up like this."

Kirk spared a glance for her beaded sapphire tunic and filmy skirt. "You look fine. I've been wanting to ask you something. Let's walk together." He kept a firm grip on her hand, and without pulling childishly free, she had no other choice.

Nadia was a tall woman, and her stilt-heeled shoes made her taller than Kirk. They had been lovers, on occasion, when confusion or weariness drove Kirk to the comfort of her bed, but it had never been more than that—mutual comfort. Kirk suspected that Nadia's desire for sex and male companionship was a slow second after her consuming interest in her profession. Nadia had held together during the disastrous mission on Ixmahx when two men had been lost and Spock had been tortured—only to fail apart spectacularly after the rescue. She had attacked Kirk in the transporter room and had had to be subdued. Subsequent events proved that she had been sensitive to the mental broadcast of an alien symbiote that eventually terrorized the entire ship. Once it was destroyed, Nadia had come back to normal, except for a marked avoidance of Kirk's company. If he had been free at the time, Kirk thought, he might have been more help to her, but Dray's death and Spock's unexpected pon farr had consumed all his emotional resources. This was the opportunity he'd been waiting for to put things right.

He stopped in the empty corridor. "Are you still embarrassed about that incident in the transporter room?" The honest blue eyes gone suddenly evasive gave him his answer. Nadia looked more like an overgrown schoolgirl than an experienced and competent woman four years older than Kirk. "Look at me, Nadia." Kirk turned her face until her troubled eyes met his.

"It is not easy to get over having an alien take over your mind. I've had my personality squashed, split, and altered, and the memories still give me the creeping heebie-jeebies. It's even happened to Spock. On Deneva he tried to land the Enterprise. He could have killed us. Under the influence we all do things we're not proud of. Spock clobbered me, too, and believe me, he did a better job of it than you did. You know I entered a commendation on your record for Ixmahx."

"I didn't deserve it." It was a little girl's voice—a stubborn little girl.

"Yes, you did." Kirk gave her hand a shake. "If you'd stop thinking like a groundhog and use that scientific mind Spock thinks so highly of, you'd see that. I sent you with the wrong people. I underestimated the difficulties. You didn't expect to run into S'tyge. Spock told me what you did for him. He said that without you even Dray might not have made it."

Her lower lip trembled. "At the end I was useless. I was so terrified that beast would touch me that I hid in a corner and had hysterics." She shuddered. "I'm still afraid something like that will come again in the dark...."

The dark, the dreams. He knew that fear. Someone walked into sight, but Kirk hung on to Nadia's hand and let her see past his habitual mask of control, as automatic as Spock's, to the fear and inadequacy it was intended to disguise. He had clung to her once, doubtful of his manhood, waiting her judgment. Now he warmed her cold hand in both of his.

"In my dreams," he said, "I'm the beast."

Startled, she finally looked at him. "That's even worse."

He gave her half a smile and the ghost of a shrug. "You deserved your commendation. I don't give strokes for hangover cures, no matter how much I like them." He tried for a lighter note. "Into each life a little hysteria must fall. It's better than boredom, isn't it?" The grin returned full force as he dared her to deny it.

Nadia gave him the exact glare of feminine outrage and capitulation he'd been seeing since his cradle, "I was not bored!"

"Good." He kissed her hand and released it, then turned to find Spock waiting a discreet distance away. "Come on, Spock. We're going to paint the town red."

"Indeed Captain," rejoined the Vulcan with a quizzical look at his lab chief's pink cheeks. "It appears you have already begun."

By the time Kirk had censored his first three comebacks, it was too late for any of them.

McCoy and Meade were in the turbolift when it arrived, McCoy dressed like Kirk and Spock in a dark Cossack's outfit. Meade wore evening dress with the same indifference she accorded her coverall. Nadia was joining them for dinner and a flying "revue." When they reached the transporter room together, Scotty, in kilts, was just beaming over to compare notes with the chief engineer aboard the Haile Selassie. Sarek and Amanda were waiting, in formal dress, and Uhura and Gavin Lapsley came in together as the others were exchanging compliments. Gavin wore a skin-tight silver suit that flashed with mother-of-pearl iridescence every time he moved, and did quite as much for his physique as Uhura's cloth of gold did for hers. Kirk glanced at Sarek for some intimation of disapproval over all this barbaric splendor, but saw no sign of it. The ambassador had probably seen worse. It wasn't exactly news that the crew of the Enterprise played as hard as they worked.

"Mr. Barat is waiting for you, sir," the transporter tech said. "He told me to remind you that gravity is less than Earth normal."

"Thank you, Elgin." Kirk helped Uhura up the single step of the transporter platform with solicitous courtesy. "We don't want to start that riot too soon," he told her under his breath.

Uhura took her place with Lapsley on one pad; McCoy put his arms around his two ladies' waists, leaving enough places for each of the others to stand alone. Kirk sighed mentally. After releasing that death grip on his wrist, Spock had kept a prudent distance. Kirk rubbed the bruises gently and indulged an unlikely wish for more. He was perfectly willing to be black and blue all over if they were the marks of Spock's hands, Spock's mouth. He ached for even the simple physical proximity of sharing a transporter pad. But there was plenty of room.

"Energize," he said.

They materialized at Farrid's coordinates. Orson's Cock was obviously the showplace of Nod. The transporter pads were set in a circular walkway around the crown of a soaring rock formation that thrust up from the valley floor in phallic mimicry. They stared out into clear blue space where a dragon's breath plume of cloud uncurled at eye level and half a dozen ghostly sundogs scattered rainbow tints through the air.

Uhura recovered first. "I don't care what they call it. This is magnificent!" She moved forward to lean over the railing. Far below, the rose and copper of the valley floor were mottled with grape blue and webbed with pinpoints of light that twinkled up and up past any reasonable horizon and finally disappeared in the shifting twilight where misty lavender blurred into pale green or rose-gray. They simply stood and stared until a gust of wind from below lifted Nadia's filmy skirt and made Uhura shiver.

"This is worth seeing," said McCoy, sounding awed.

"Worth flying," a voice answered from behind him.

If Kirk hadn't recognized the voice, he wouldn't have been able to identify Farrid in his "magnificence." The boy was so completely costumed he looked like a fantasy creature out of the opalescent sky. His head and eyes were covered with a shell-like helmet of copper, gold, and mother-of-pearl. He wore gauntlets, boots, a belt wide enough for body armor, a metallic loincloth, and an elaborate paint job that tricked the eye into seeing the scales and bumps of a reptile's hide.

"I see why you said I couldn't dress like a civilian," Kirk said.

"You did very well, Captain," Farrid answered. "What do you think of Nod?"

Kirk turned again to the changing veils of color and the light-jeweled valley floor. "There's nothing to compare it to. How did you do it?"

"Nod was always hollow. With mirrors to catch the light of Ochros and an asteroid full of water, all it took was engineering to seal the interior, and plants did the rest. Space ships do it all the time."

"Not hundreds of miles through. This is vast."

"It took a long time. It would have been easier to settle Riga first, but our colonists had been in space for generations. They hated gravity more than hard work."

"Well I'm glad of it," said McCoy, "and suitably impressed. Now how do I find this restaurant you told me about?"

Farrid explained the symbols and use of the public transporter system, and the group broke up into its component parts until only Kirk and Spock were left with Farrid. The glowing color and evocative setting were unbalancing Kirk's control, and he was glad the boy was there to provide a buffer. He was too conscious of Spock and, for the present, totally unable to read him. Spock might be seeing this expedition as an imposition on his free time or be fascinated by the chance to explore a new culture. Or he might be aware of and embarrassed by the effect his presence had on Kirk.

Farrid turned from one to the other. "What would you like to see?"

Remember it's a business trip, Kirk told himself. "Everything," he answered.

Farrid did his best, routing them through public transportation tubes and slidewalks under the surface, taking them up to stroll through public parks and residential areas. As with residences on some starbases large enough to have clear airspace in the interiors, homes were often patterned with the living and dining areas above the surface, sleeping and study areas below. Reflective glass protected the privacy of the interiors and gave surface pedestrians the experience of walking among giant soap bubbles that reflected the pastel "sky." The undersea light changed rapidly and randomly, and Spock inquired as to the cause.

"Mirrors outside the moon concentrate light and focus it on floating mirrors inside. They diffuse it in a predetermined pattern as air currents move them around. The plant life has adjusted, so have we. As long as we all get enough light, it really doesn't matter. I find it less arbitrary than the rigid day and night of a planet."

"You're a descendent of those space-going colonists, then," Kirk surmised. "Circadian rhythms don't change much in one generation."

Farrid's mobile mouth thinned to a straight line for one moment. "That's one way to look at it," he said, and then went on with his lecture. Kirk glanced at Spock, wondering if the Vulcan had caught the momentary hint of strain in the boy's voice; but Spock had his attention focused on their surroundings.

Or he gave that appearance. Spock was enjoying the advantages of a reputation for reticence. There were times when he did not have to make conversation to appear well mannered. Considerably less than half Spock's mental processes were given, at the moment, to Farrid's words and the environment.

He was intent, instead, upon the seemingly insoluble problem of his own future. He had submitted his resignation with full knowledge of what it would entail. After some uncertain period of time—and he felt remarkably indifferent to its duration—he would again be subject to the pon farr, and he would die. In decent privacy. Possibly from a neatly arranged lab accident. He knew his leaving would hurt Kirk—but not mortally. The human would recover, find comfort elsewhere as he had before, and continue his life with zest and success. Based upon every extension of logic, that was the best possible solution to the situation. The sooner the parting was made, the sooner Kirk would begin to heal.

Therefore, it was childishly illogical to feel relief when all leaves and transfers were canceled for the duration of the Ochros crisis. And it had been far worse than childish to have thrust himself toward Kirk in that moment when it seemed they would perish together in space. When he realized they were caught in the transporter beam, he had wished fervently that it would malfunction. No scathing condemnation from his father could have exceeded his self-castigation for that unplanned act.

But none of his expectations were being met. McCoy had not withdrawn his friendship. Sarek had not excoriated him for his unbelievable display. And, most puzzling, Kirk had reversed himself neatly and seemed to be offering Spock the old friendship without its sexual overtones. Indeed, he had, in the short space of the last hour, been attentive to Dr. Palevi, Uhura, and now, Farrid. As they approached a gaming establishment, Spock decided that between clearly understood pain and his current muddle of confusion, he preferred pain.

Unable to penetrate Spock's brown study, Kirk had fallen back on bantering with Farrid. He approached a gaming table with some interest, watched until he thought he understood the rules, and began to make small experimental bets with some success. He slid into a chair when one became available, leaving Spock to stand patiently behind him. Games of statistical probability didn't entertain the Vulcan. Once he had calculated the odds, which always favored the house, there was no further challenge. He had explained his disinterest several times. Nonetheless, when a second chair became vacant beside Kirk, the human coaxed his first officer to take it.

"Come on, Spock. You might strike it rich." Kirk was pulling a pile of golden counters toward himself with one hand and accepting a drink from a waiter's hand with the other. He shoved half the chips toward Spock. "Other Vulcans are playing."

Spock scanned the room again. There did appear to be Vulcans gaming. It seemed strange they would be so lacking in mental acuity, but that was no reason to join them and add one more folly to the long list he had already achieved.

"Don't you gamble, Spock?" Farrid asked.

"Spock gambles," Kirk said with a glint in his eye. "He just doesn't gamble for money." He drained his glass.

"Then we should take him to Dow where the real games are."

"What kind of games?" asked Kirk, placing a bet.

"Most forms of combat, a gambling game with dice and flensing knives. You pay in skin if you lose. And contests against animals. Bull-leaping. You must see the Ganycows."

"Cows?" Kirk said doubtfully as the dealer took his chips away and a waiter filled his drink.

"Well, they're bulls, actually. Romulans brought them from somewhere. The object is to do a handstand on the horns. It takes two people at a minimum, most times three work together. 'A trio in, a team out' is a Romulan proverb for bad luck."

Spock gave Farrid a repressive look as Kirk began to take interest. There was a liquid gleam in Kirk's eye and a swaggering relaxation of the powerful shoulders that advertised a certain state of inebriation in which risk assumed a strange attraction for his captain. Spock recognized it now and feared that a transfer to the smaller moon to do battle with dangerous animals might be the next item on Kirk's itinerary if he were not distracted. The Vulcan reached out to take the chips Kirk had pushed toward him.

"Actually, I prefer to gamble on my own skill rather than on the chance fall of cards or dice." Spock wrenched the conversation away from Ganycows with that pompous announcement. "For instance, I would entertain a wager on my skill against the captain's luck for any extended period of time—say one hour." By that time, Kirk might be willing to return to the ship. Spock had seen enough of the resort moon to formulate his own conclusions about it.

"Just how confident are you?" Kirk asked, temporarily distracted, but not forgetting Farrid's descriptions of further adventure.

Spock reflected that the size of the challenge was generally proportionate to Kirk's commitment. He suggested a month's salary.

Kirk blinked. "That's some wager for a non-gambler."

Spock stacked his counters. "If it is too high—"

"Nothing else to spend it on," said Kirk. "Let's say a month of my salary—against an evening of your time and the Ganycows."

Spock estimated his chances at even. If he refused the wager, Kirk would be off to Dow that evening. Internally he sighed. Was this what humans called 'making it interesting'?

"Agreed, Captain."

Farrid stood back to watch as the hour began. Although the Vulcan had never seen the game before, he had analyzed it correctly. There were two ways to play. He had chosen the system designed to minimize risk and still remain in the game. He obviously saw the problem as one of conserving his original investment. Kirk, on the other hand, played no system at all and pulled in sizable winnings in the first half hour.

"Since you are now ahead of me, Captain, it would be to your advantage to emulate my style of play for the rest of the time period," Spock advised him.

"You have no faith in Lady Luck," was all Kirk's reply. Losing heavily in the next quarter hour didn't seem to daunt him. Spock kept on with his cautious placement of bets. Although they sat shoulder to shoulder, Farrid noted that neither of them glanced at the other's stack of chips or changed his method until the hour was up.

When Farrid called "Time!" Kirk sat back with a grin on his face. "I win, Spock. Now about those Ganycows—"

"I suggest we make an accurate count before you make reservations, Captain."

Kirk ruffled his pile of chips with the palm of his hand. "You can see I have more chips."

"But I cannot see their denominations," Spock returned. His own were neatly stacked according to value. He had increased his beginning stakes slightly.

In a tone of injured innocence, Kirk asked, "Aren't you going to take my word for it?"

Heads turned toward them, and conversation began to die down. Uncertainly, Farrid pushed his chair back.

"You have not given me your word," Spock said. "You have made an assumption. I have had previous experience with your assumptions regarding table tennis, darts, chess, checkers, kelik, dogsled racing, and light-hockey. I prefer a count."

The watchers remained motionless, hands conveniently near their weapons. Kirk was peripherally aware of it as he drew out the moment before sliding his chips toward Spock.

"You know, that hurts me, Spock," he said plaintively. "My own first officer thinks I'd cheat. Go ahead and count. I trust you."

"You have reason to do so," Spock said, beginning his count. "Nor do I accuse you of cheating. However, you have a propensity for bluff which I have seldom seen equaled."

"Confidence, Spock. It's called confidence." From the corner of his eye, Kirk took in the subtle relaxation of their auditors; the volume of conversation rose again in the room; people moved freely again. Evidently sudden violence was not unknown in Nod. Whether that was a culture-wide phenomenon or a characteristic of the gambling houses remained to be seen.

"Confidence seems to have carried the day, Captain. You have two more chips than I. You have won by a margin of point six percent."

"And let that be a lesson to you." Kirk stood up and they relinquished their chairs, still arguing as they moved away from the table. Farrid cast a covert glance around the room as he moved in their wake.

"Had you acted upon my suggestion and consolidated your winnings, your margin of success would have been significantly greater. I will concede that risk has its rewards, if you will give logic its due."

Kirk looked back over his shoulder, and again Farrid caught the hint of some special meaning in his eye—determination? challenge?—as he answered.

"Most people would just say—they make a good team."

They continued their aimless tour through the moon's docking facilities, where Kirk hired a taxi and cruised up and down the long lines of visiting ships docked inside pressure. He compared the facilities to Luna's endless pressurized cubic, which he had seen as a cadet. There was still a lure about the vast, empty space and the silent ships cradled there, each with her history, each with space before her. "It's an armada," he said.

"A rather one-sided armada," Farrid said. "Shipping is almost universally Romulan. Registry is still out of Romulus, and the taxes prohibitively high."

"I am surprised humans don't resent that," Spock said.

Again Farrid's lips thinned to a mere line, but he let the remark pass and guided them to a combined bar and joy-house not far from the hangars. The best seats were on the top level, under the bubble roof at the inner surface.

"We'd be somebody else's star if they could see far enough," Kirk said. "Does it ever get that clear?"

"Not that I remember," Farrid said. "It is nearly two hundred miles to the far wall, and the atmosphere is rather humid. Also, it is rare that two opposed areas would simultaneously be in full dark."

Spock interrupted this idle discussion by turning his chair away from the doorway of the bar. In his usual quiet tones, he addressed Farrid. "Mr. Barat, is there any reason why we might have been followed from the casino?"

Farrid's eyes were still hidden by his helmet, but his head came up.

"Don't look," cautioned Kirk, resisting the temptation himself. "Describe them, Spock."

"They are costumed. It is difficult to tell whether they are human or Romulan."

"We didn't win enough to be worth following," Farrid protested. "If we had, the casino would have provided guards."

"It might be coincidence—" The waiter appeared with the steaming wake-up they had ordered. Kirk waited until he left. "We could leave and see what they do."

Light glimmered over the fantasy jewels of Farrid's costume as he made a faint movement of protest.

"What?" asked Kirk.

"They might be friends who recognized me, Captain. I could go closer and find out. If I don't know them, it would only be a trip to the bathroom. Natural enough if I had had too much to drink."

Kirk glanced at Spock and then back at the boy. "Try it, but keep your thumb on this." He handed over what looked like a black die. "It makes a hell of a noise if you let go without disarming it."

Farrid accepted the mechanism while pushing his drink rudely away. "I don't need a wake-up, and I won't drink it." The carafe tipped over and flooded the table. "See what you made me do." His raised voice carried the petulant whine of those who pick quarrels when they drink.

"You're too damn drunk to know what you need," Kirk said grimly as he sopped up the spill with his napkin. "Why don't you soak your head and scrub some of that paint off. I don't want your father on my ass because you pour more than you can handle."

"I can handle my liquor," Farrid said, stumbling to his feet, "when—when I feel well."

"Oh, God," said Kirk in disgust.

"If you are going to be sick, I advise you to find a more private place," Spock contributed. "Do you require assistance?"

"No." Farrid turned unsteadily away from the table. "I can find it myself." He made an erratic progress past other tables whose occupants edged their chairs warily out of his path. Clutching his jeweled belt, he paused in the doorway next to the two men Spock had seen. He fumbled at one of them, apparently seeking directions, and was shoved off. Once he made it out the door, the two men from the Enterprise confined their interest to their own table again.

No alarm sounded, and after a time Farrid returned, passing the loiterers a second time, and dropped into his chair. "I didn't know them," he said. "How do I give this back without setting it off?"

Kirk took the alarm back and dropped it in his pocket. "We'll walk to the nearest transporter. If there's trouble, get back to the ship and bring reinforcements. Don't get underfoot."

Farrid's eyes were dancing behind his mask. "And miss all the excitement? I wasn't expecting an attack when O'Neill grabbed me—and I was drunk. This time—"

"This time you'll do exactly as you're told. The ship can track us, but not you. And no matter how good you are—gutter style or formal combat—you aren't used to us. You'd get in our way. Spock?" The Vulcan's hand settled on Farrid's shoulder. "Give me your word, or Spock will put you out right now. Everyone will think you had too much to drink."

The boy's mouth pouted for a moment, then smoothed back into its cynical smile. "Very well, Captain. I've seen you bluff, but not Mr. Spock. I thought the Vulcan neck pinch was a myth."

"It isn't. Remember you're drunk."

They paid their bill and moved out of the bar into an unpowered corridor, with Farrid protesting that he didn't want to go home, that he could take care of himself, that Kirk was a bully. He put a good deal of feeling into his protests, and their progress was slow. There was plenty of time for someone familiar with the local topography to reach the dimly lit intersection before them.

"I don't want to go yet," Farrid kept saying. "Let's get some girls, why don't we?" He swung around, close enough to say, "The transporter's around the corner," in an undertone, and impeded their progress once more. "Don't you want to get some g—" The attack cut him off.

There were more than two of them, but there is nothing like the surprise of the ambusher ambushed. Kirk was able to get in one double-handed blow at the ribs of his first opponent, and he felt them crack. Farrid used his helmet to advantage by butting another in the stomach. As ordered, he sprinted down the hall without looking back. Peripherally Kirk noted the departure, but he was busy taking the offensive to the two men who still confronted him.

In a fight the mind is slow—disengage it. And the ear's message is last to reach the brain. The eye is quicker, and knowledge of the flesh fastest of all. It was the impact of his forearm on flesh as solid as Spock's that told Kirk he was fighting a Romulan and thus outclassed in muscle and speed. He dropped back, drew a knife from his boot, and swept the air behind him with his left hand, feeling for Spock.

"Romulans," he said.

As always, Spock's reaction was immediate and flawless. He was also facing two assailants, and he had not yet drawn a weapon. His next blow was delivered with new speed and vigor. The man he dropped fell like a puppet with its strings cut. With Kirk's reaching hand brushing his hip, Spock stepped backward. Like dancers, they moved in unison until they had their backs to the corridor wall.

Spock was on Kirk's right side, and the human switched knife hands, holding the weapon on his left where it wouldn't menace Spock. Kirk was nearly as adept with his left hand as his right, and he knew how to take advantage of an opponent used to right-handed adversaries; nonetheless, the switch put him at a slight disadvantage. Without a word being exchanged, he was aware that Spock knew it and that his Vulcan fires had flared as he augmented his strength in reaction to Kirk's danger.

A scalding surge of elation exploded along Kirk's nerves. The urge to throw himself forward and let Spock loose that Vulcan power was almost overwhelming. With adrenalized clarity Kirk admitted how right McCoy had been. Kirk was parrying blows, striking back, grunting with effort, his whole body hard and aching and conscienceless. If he took one step away from the wall, his beast would be out and on the rampage—to kill, to take what it wanted by force or by guile. What he wanted was Spock, and Spock cared; Spock wanted it; he would realize that afterward.

A Romulan, wary of Spock, came too close to Kirk, who grabbed with his right hand and pulled. Off balance, the Romulan stumbled into striking range. Kirk saw the surprise on his face as the knife, held low and left-handed, pricked his side. A Romulan raped Spock, Kirk thought. No one would miss this one. All he had to do was shove the knife in, there, in the side, where the heart leaped in fear. His blade would slide into the Romulan's side the way his cock went up the tight, hot channel of Spock's ass.

With a gasp, Kirk jerked the knife back and struck up with the heel of his right hand, knocking the Romulan out. In revulsion, Kirk let him fall and pressed back against the wall, only to find himself face to face with Spock, poised for the neck pinch. Their attackers were littering the floor. Only the two of them remained, breathing harshly in the sudden silence. With a clatter, Kirk's knife dropped from his hand. He shrank harder against the wall, avoiding Spock's eyes, knowing what he must look like—sweating, livid with shock, his erect cock moving in his pants—guilty as hell.

Spock reached for him with a concerned expression and Kirk flinched.

"Don't touch me," he said rawly.

Spock dropped his hand as if it had been burned. He turned away and began to search the fallen Romulans. Five of them. Kirk wiped his face on his satin sleeve, picked up the knife and wiped it automatically on his knee before he remembered he hadn't—hadn't blooded it. His hands were shaking so much that he had trouble getting the blade back into the sheath on his boot. He wiped his face again and ran his hands through his hair. He thought about snowstorms and ice floes and plunging naked into glacial seas. Gradually he got control of his breathing and slowed his body down, but he felt sick and he reeked of predator's stench. He had killed before, too often, but if he had thrust that knife home into the Romulan's heart, it would have been murder. Five opponents and they hadn't needed the knife. It was a fake of some sort. He could have killed out of his frustrated desire for Spock. Killed because he had the power to do so and the world would have excused it. Now he knew what Spock must have felt with S'tyge in his power.

He forced himself to move and help Spock. Before they had finished the job, Farrid, minus his helmet, came pounding back with two security men, Gavin Lapsley, and Uhura. They held drawn phasers, and the communications chief ran easily at Lapsley's side with a no-nonsense glitter in her eye.

"Here comes the cavalry," Kirk said. His voice sounded funny.

Farrid was visibly disappointed that he had missed the fight, his eyes glowing as he took in the fallen bodies. Lapsley and his men began a more methodical search.

"Do you want to take them aboard, Captain?" Lapsley asked.

The revulsion Kirk felt had nothing to do with policy. He never again wanted to see the Romulan he had almost murdered. He fumbled for a reason to avoid it.

"That might seem a little high-handed. Farrid? You said there wasn't any law enforcement here? So nobody to turn them over to. We can't keep half the population in our brig. Shit. Find a quiet corner and see what you can scare out of them, then let them go. Help Lapsley," he told Farrid. "Uhura, beam up and ask SALEE to make a recording of the interrogation, in case we need it later."

"Aye, sir." Uhura holstered her phaser and looked at him with concern. "Are you all right, Captain?"

Kirk realized Spock hadn't asked. Hadn't needed to. Shit again. He rubbed his head.

"Just a bump," he assured her mendaciously. "Or the beginning of a hangover. I'll see you aboard." He turned toward the transporter and tried not to look like he was retreating, tried not to listen for Spock's following footsteps, tried not to slump with relief when they came slowly after him. He punched the only coordinates that came to mind when Spock joined him.

They materialized back at the viewpoint. Kirk stepped away from Spock and walked to the railing, pressed his throbbing groin into it. The sky was a smoky lavender now. The scattered strings of light below seemed distant and uncaring. A steady breeze blew against his right side, cooling the sweat on his body, lifting the hair off his forehead. He could feel the wetness at his waist where his belt was tight, and the raw rasp of this throat. One by one he acknowledged his body's sensations and let them go—the trembling and twitching in the muscles of his thighs, the feeling of bones turned to jelly. His bruised hands were starting to sting, and he had ten pounds of scrap metal in his belly. Accept it, let it go. Breathe in, breathe out.

A feeling of warmth at his shoulder made him realize time had passed and that Spock was blocking the wind.

"I really was going to kill him," Kirk said. "Murder him."

"But you did not."

Kirk turned and braced his back against the railing. "Do you want to know why I wanted to?" He studied Spock's grave face, found no softening there. Slowly he said, "I thought shoving the knife in would feel like fucking you." He waited for the revulsion, the withdrawal, but Spock didn't move.

"You did not kill him," the Vulcan said. "Wanting is not doing."

Tears stung Kirk's eyes to brightness as he watched Spock's mouth, remembered the surprising heat and softness of his lips. A shudder of desire went through him and he put his hands behind him on the railing, out of temptation.

"McCoy said I take risks—to see you perform. That I get hurt on purpose."

The Vulcan's eyes were darkly watchful.

"I don't want to do that to you, Spock. If you could—just—give me—something I didn't have to force by manipulation—"

Spock looked down. "I cannot give you what you want...."

There was a weary sound of repetition there that made Kirk set his own need aside. How many times had Spock said those words in his mind to give them that desperate finality? Kirk wasn't the only one hurting. McCoy was right about that.

"You give me a lot that I want just by being here. I like your company, Spock. I like fighting with you, working with you—just—seeing the sights. You could give me that."

Spock turned his head away, avoiding Kirk's eyes, ignoring the need in that whispered plea. "Humans—" he cleared his throat, "humans would make better companions for you. Dr. Palevi—Farrid—they are most attractive."

"I'm attracted to you." Kirk kept his hands carefully behind him. "Is it so wrong to take what comfort there is? It's all out in the open, Spock. I love you; I'm in love with you. Knowing—knowing you don't feel all this blood and fire hurts worse than anything but thinking you don't feel at all. Do you have to convince me of that?" He let his eyes caress every familiar feature, the somber eyes, the upswept brow and ear. His voice dropped to its deepest register. One hand reached out and lightly turned Spock's face back toward his own. "If I can think murder and not do it—I can think a kiss—" his hand dropped away, "—and let go. For the pleasure of your company."

A conflicting tide of unVulcan emotion swamped Spock's logic and drained his will. The human was so close. The heat and scent of exertion radiated from him. Pain surrounded him like an aurora, yet there he stood, close enough to touch, with his hands at his sides. It was wrong. Comfort now meant fresh pain later, but with the whole force of Kirk's personality focused on him like a burning glass, Spock wavered. They could have been killed in space, and his last, illogical effort had taken him to this irresistible human's side. They could have died tonight, or worse, Kirk could have destroyed what he was. Logic told Spock that Kirk would never be satisfied with comfort. Love wouldn't allow him to withhold it.

"You would be gambling against long odds, Captain." He let his own slight, rueful smile acknowledge defeat.

For just a moment, weak with relief, Kirk closed his eyes. He let out the breath he didn't know he had been holding.

He opened his eyes and smiled. "I won the last time, didn't I?"

 

X

Kirk awoke, as usual, five minutes before his alarm went off. "I'm up," he told it, as he laced his hands behind his head and blinked at the ceiling. He'd been dreaming about Spock. His body was warm and weightless with the memory. It was five o'clock, hours before Harnum's breakfast meeting. There was no reason to be up and doing, no reason not to enjoy this floating sensation of well being. Only a day's work between him and the pleasure of Spock's company.

He turned lazily on his side, punched his pillow into a more comfortable shape and wished Spock could wake up half-hard after dreaming of him. The warm fullness at his groin increased fractionally. He slid his hand down his belly and cupped the dry head of his cock in his palm. It nudged forward. Wish that was Spock's hand, don't you? he thought, getting a stronger pulse of pleasure in return. Well, so do I. I wish I was waking up with Spock's head on my shoulder and Spock's hand on my cock, and his green cock hot against my ass. Involuntarily, Kirk's uppermost knee slid forward and he rolled more on his belly, spreading his cheeks wide for the phantom lover he was building in his mind. The sheet sliding over the sensitized skin of his buttocks left a tingling tension in his flesh.

I wouldn't say a word, he thought. I'd wait, and he'd squeeze me harder, hotter, longer. His cock would be poking my ass— At the thought of that insistent prodding, gooseflesh rippled over his cheeks and down the back of his thighs. His spine arched, raising his hips, and his cock throbbed hotly in his hand. His free hand found his balls, palm rolling them, fingers probing the heated muscles in his groin. His cock fought back against his moving fist.

The image that filled his mind was a gigantic, leaf green cock, one clear drop oozing from the velvety tip, snubbed hard against protesting muscles. Spock's hand would clamp down—hard—when he shoved it in and in and in—Kirk gasped, butting up with his hips, balancing awkwardly on left shoulder, left side of his face against the sliding pillow as he milked his cock in hard, arrhythmicdisastrous strokes. The sheet rasped the sensitized head like ground glass. His hand squeezed harder, he was merciless.

Hard because it hurts. Spock! And Spock would kiss his shoulder but start slow anyway, and then faster, faster, harder, his hand and his cock until—God! I don't care if you tear me apart. Make me come!

The fantasy disappeared in the white blaze of climax as his cock spasmed and emptied itself, jetting sticky warmth over the sheet. Kirk collapsed panting against the sheet, hand still holding his cock, comforting himself for the loss.

Wasted opportunities, Spock. You should have been here. Kirk let himself float, welcoming the slow, elastic regathering of strength. Finally he flipped off the sheet and rolled out of bed, light on his feet, stretching until his bones cracked. The mirror reflected the tawny stretch, bright eyes—and the glistening smear on belly and thigh. He stirred the matted curls with his fingertips and brushed them against his lower lip, feeling the smooth texture, smelling the salt of himself. Not so different from Spock. Worlds different. Knowing what you want is half the battle. Only half as good to come alone. See that he makes it up to you some day.

After a shower, Kirk managed to dress and elevate his thoughts above the belt line. It was still two hours to Harnum's breakfast meeting, and Kirk made for the rec room, intent on a breakfast that would fuel a logger or coal miner. He didn't want his mind on the buffet during a briefing. McCoy was ahead of him, heavy-eyed, nursing a single cup of coffee. He turned revolted eyes away from the steak, eggs, and melon on Kirk's tray.

"Can't you have the decency to do that in private?" he moaned.

"And how was your evening?" Kirk asked brightly.

"Fine. At the time. It's this morning I'm not enjoying so much. But that flying looks like fun. If my bones weren't so brittle, I'd try it. How come you're so chipper?"

Kirk smiled and got on with his breakfast.

"Hmm. It isn't spring, so it must be love. You making progress?"

"We have a date. We're going to Dow to see the Ganycows." Kirk was watching the door, an expectant look on his face. A tall figure walked in, but it was the security chief. Lapsley nodded and went after his own breakfast, then joined them.

"What did you find out?" Kirk asked.

"They were hired to put a scare into you, no serious damage. They picked you up while you were at the casino. Never knew who hired them. You can enter a contract-to-kill in the employment computer, deposit funds, and be guaranteed anonymity. Anyone we want to do away with?"

"Charming culture," McCoy said. "The advantages of technology never cease to amaze me. Whose toes did you step on?"

"I don't know—here's Spock."

McCoy was watching Kirk instead of the door, so he got the full force of the open, hopeful, welcoming smile the captain directed at his first officer. It gave him a pang. Kirk wasn't just wearing his heart on his sleeve; he was beaming what he felt across the room with the intensity of a laser. It must have been some reconciliation. McCoy glared sourly at Lapsley, daring him to notice or comment, but the security chief was paying admirable attention to his breakfast. McCoy saw Spock pause, then bring his own tray to the table.

"I hear you had an interesting evening," McCoy drawled, knowing he shouldn't tease, but unable to resist.

"Indeed it was, Doctor. I have now had the dubious pleasure of losing a wager and being attacked in an alley. I cannot understand why I was so reluctant to be initiated into the joys of gambling."

McCoy thought the reconciliation must have worked both ways. This was the most relaxed Vulcan he had seen in a month. Why was Spock so dumb he couldn't see that Kirk was good for him?

"Just what I would have predicted. Who set you up?"

Spock took up a muffin. "The captain," he answered.

"Tsk. Jim, I'm surprised at you."

Kirk gestured widely with a forkful of melon. "When he tells it, why do I always come out the villain? Spock proposed the wager. He thought I was drunk and was trying to take advantage of me." A quickly masked grin announced that Kirk was more than ready to be taken advantage of.

"Actually, Doctor, he was, and I did," the Vulcan claimed. "He was about to propose a trip to do battle with wild animals. Under the circumstances, it was my duty to distract him in any way I could."

"Short term gains, long term losses," said Kirk. "Tonight the Ganycows."

"What are these Ganycows?" asked McCoy with mock exasperation. The teasing byplay was a better hangover cure than anything he had in a hypo.

Spock returned the muffin to his plate. "Ganycows, sir, are bulls, slightly smaller than the Brahmas of Earth. The sport of bull-leaping was practiced on Earth, in ancient Crete. It was frequently fatal, but not, unfortunately, for the bull."

"You haven't even seen them yet," Kirk protested. "It can't hurt just to go and look."

"The Medusa's visitors said the same, Captain. It is what looking leads to that concerns me. What will I be required to provide in the way of assistance on this enjoyable excursion?"

Kirk was ready with an answer for that. "Just the pleasure of your company, Mr. Spock. The pleasure of your company."

The radiant smile that accompanied the statement would have melted a statue, thought McCoy. Jim doesn't care who knows how much this means to him, and if Spock freezes up again, I'm going to kick him. But assault was not necessary. The Vulcan looked down at his plate a moment, away from Kirk's face. If he'd been human, McCoy would have said he was embarrassed and trying to compose himself. But it was only momentary. He raised his eyes to Kirk's.

"I will go with you, Captain."

The conversation turned general after that. Lapsley requested twenty minutes of Kirk's time later in the day, then relinquished his place to Scotty when that hard-headed Scotsman came in, none the worse for having drunk the Haile Selassie's chief engineer under the table the night before. By seven, Kirk had reviewed the rescued Rigans' statements, approved their selection of a Rigan physician, and started McCoy on the examinations. Promptly at five minutes until eight he beamed across to the dreadnought with Spock, Sarek, and Meade Morrow.

Admiral Harnum didn't keep them waiting this time, but the lounge they were conducted to contained an intimidating array of crystal and silver. Kirk felt five waiters, one hovering at each person's elbow, were excessive, but he couldn't criticize the taste of the appointments or the smoothness of the service. He noted that no one but Meade did justice to the excellent food offered, but Harnum, without apparent impatience, kept the conversation general until she had finished. When the food had been cleared away and Harnum had been complimented on his table, the bloodletting began.

"Is there any particular order you want to take this in, Admiral?" Meade asked. She brought out her case of information cubes, plus a sheaf of her own notes.

"No, Doctor, why don't you proceed?" Harnum leaned back from the table fractionally, with an air of indulgence.

It didn't faze Meade. "Thank you, I will. First, I would like to say that the information you gave us paints a very pretty picture of the colonization of this system, but very little of it appears to have any basis in fact." She flicked the case with her fingertips. "The physical information may be correct, but the semantics are emotionally loaded in favor of human—Terran human—prejudices. I seriously doubt that a collection of Romulan thieves and outlaws greeted their Vulcan brothers and human friends with a loving cup. Where did you get this—" she glanced around the table and obviously rejected the first word that came to her mind, "—this information?"

Harnum's hard-planed face was setting in lines of dislike again. "I realize that humans are not the elite of Ochros society, Doctor; however, they hold substantial positions of trust on Riga. This is the history of the system as presented by the planetary administrator. I might take it with a grain of salt, but I lack your professional ability to deduce information from one evening spent bar-hopping. What is your version of the settlement?"

"I've run into this kind of thing before," Meade said without animosity, "although no two societies are ever alike. On Eris Basia they have a similar setup. On the surface, a normal, apparently democratic government. Ninety-five percent of the planet lived under it very happily—until the real rulers, the five percent, decided to sell their world to inner cluster interests. The ninety-five percent didn't even squeak. Under their apparently normal forms of government, they had been living with the knowledge of racial inferiority for so long that it didn't even occur to them they had a say in the matter. And it was true. The genetically engineered rulers, in that case, were so different from their parent stock that they no longer required the same environment. They went their way and the Federation was invited in by the new owners to doctor a very sick society. In spite of appearances, Eris Basia was a slave society governed by absentee rulers. We didn't see it immediately, but later it became obvious that patterns of energy consumption should have given us a clue." She leaned back, as if to rest her case.

"Energy consumption?"

"The energy consumption in Nod, Admiral, is high even for a cluster world. How many planets—how many starbases—do you know of with free internal transportation?"

"I concur," Sarek said. "Rigans may rule themselves internally, but it is very likely Riga is ruled from the satellites. Also, it seems clear the hollow moon was settled and perfected prior to colonization of Riga, and the population of Riga is heavy with humans. It is the outcasts and inferiors who are always most subject to natural selection. That is why pioneers and first settlers often come from criminal and lower classes who have no share in the power structure of their original societies. Dealing with the bureaucracy on Riga, in my estimation, can be considered a courtesy, but hardly an effective policy."

Harnum's scarred eyebrow twisted itself into a knot as he frowned at Kirk. "Captain?"

"I'm not qualified to judge, sir, but Meade and Sarek are. What they're saying fits the behavior of the prisoners we rescued." Briefly he outlined that problem.

Harnum shifted in his chair. "Then what is your recommendation? We can't study the situation forever with the possibility of the Romulan fleet just around the corner."

"We must continue to study it, sir," Sarek said repressively. "But not at the expense of the majority of the inhabitants of the system. They must be informed at the earliest possible moment of their status."

Harnum stiffened at the word must. "Why is that, Ambassador?"

"Truth is not a military weapon, Admiral. It is the one essential from which any sentient being can reason and reach valid conclusions. I urge immediate disclosure on both ethical and practical grounds."

"I agree," Meade said firmly.

Harnum's glance dismissed the silent Spock. "You, too, Captain?"

"I see no advantage to be gained by withholding the information, sir. The people can't respond until they understand what's happening."

"The second planet is still in the Neutral Zone," Harnum pointed out. "Here, in Federation space, we can take what measures are necessary. Technically, if we were to offer our protection to Veith, we would be violating the treaty—I know, I know, we've already violated it, we may have to again—but I don't want Veith supplying a Romulan armada, or creating any other problems."

"We're already creating a problem," Meade said, pushing her hair back from her forehead in a gesture of exasperation. "Once the news is out, at least the population will know why they have all this armament in orbit. Wouldn't you be worried if you lived down there?"

"With good reason," Harnum said curtly, "not that the Rigans have anything to fear from us. My staff, however, agrees with your findings regarding the considerable racial antipathy on the planet. Release of the news may well escalate anti-social behavior."

Kirk thought that had the sound of a guarded retreat and wondered why Harnum had been motivated to keep the news to himself in the first place.

"It probably will," said Meade bluntly. "That culture is unstable. But gunboats hanging in their skies won't stabilize them."

"You've made your point, Doctor; don't belabor it. I take it, then, that you are all in agreement?" Once again, Harnum's glance passed over Spock, as if assuming that the first officer must necessarily share his captain's opinions. "Very well, I will inform the planetary administrator." He turned to Meade. "What plans have you made about your accommodations?"

Sarek spoke first. "My wife and I will accept Captain Kirk's invitation to remain aboard the Enterprise, with the understanding that we are free agents."

When Meade said the same, Harnum made no direct comment, but his expression, as far as it varied from impatience, seemed one of relief.

"Well, that's it, then. I suppose we're in for a long spell of negotiations." He rose, effectively ending the meeting.

Spock, primed with information he had not been invited to deliver, had not uttered a word other than to exchange amenities. After asking for the debriefing of Kirk's rescued Rigans, Harnum had given no indication of remembering them at all. Kirk hesitated over the folder of written reports Lapsley and Spock had worked late and risen early to prepare. He was tempted to take them back to the Enterprise and let Harnum find out for himself about contract killing in Nod.

At the last possible moment, Kirk turned to Harnum with the folder. "Our reports, sir. Your people might find this information helpful."

"Thank you, Captain." Harnum waved the folder toward one of the ubiquitous aides. "I'm sure they will." He did not accompany his visitors to the transporter, and the four of them maintained their individual silences until they had left the ship.

~ * ~

Aboard the Enterprise, McCoy had finished his examinations and been unable to strike any conversational sparks from the faintly contemptuous Rigan physician who had beamed up to assist him. When the announcement came over the ship-wide com system that shore leave would be scheduled, sickbay and paperwork began to feel confining. Once declared Vulcan, Sarek had gone his way. Kirk, Spock, and Meade were involved in some kind of discussion; Scotty was never free during the day. It felt, in fact, as if everyone aboard had something to do and someone to do it with at ten o'clock in the morning but Leonard McCoy.

He had been feeling the length of days, lately. It was slightly humiliating to realize how much of his own frustration and acting out he had vented on the Vulcan. With things as they stood, McCoy couldn't work up a good grouch toward Spock, and his nurses had let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he was getting too crotchety for his own good. He might rule sickbay, but off duty he was fair game; and he'd been treated recently to everything from motherly lectures to a not very humorous toss in the pool.

And that wasn't the kind of attention he wanted. He didn't know the source of his restlessness. It just seemed that there should be something more to life than doing his job and being everyone's confidant and wailing wall. He had plenty of leave coming. He pondered the advisability of taking off in the middle of the work day, but it was obvious no one needed him. He registered his intent with the computer, received an automatic clearance. That settled it. Kirk had given them permission to enjoy the resort moon. He would go back there where he could be alone.

Twenty minutes later, he decided the novelty wasn't so much privacy, which he could obtain by locking his door aboard ship, but anonymity. Several crowds of tourists had transported to the viewpoint, had drifted past him to peer over the edge of the railing, and not one of them had given him a second glance. Aboard ship he was always on duty. "Len, my back has been acting up again; what did you say I should do?" "Bones, when you have time—" "Oh, Doctor, I'm so glad to see you. I didn't want to take time off to come down to sickbay, but—" It was nice to be appreciated, but doctors need time off too. Being responsible for the health of the crew was a burden he would have fought to keep, of course, but it was also nice to relax. McCoy rotated his shoulders to take the tension out. Nice just to stroll around and admire the scenery. He admired it some more, and then experimented with the transporter system until he got himself to a restaurant near the flight area. He sat down to watch the flyers.

That lasted for half an hour as group after laughing group moved past the open-air cafe and down to the take-off point. From it, beginners had a clear glide path to a soft landing in bright blue sand on the valley floor. They were clearly marked as novices with black and white striped wings. The more experienced flyers wore skintight thermal suits not much different from his casual coverall, but tinted to harmonize with their lightsteel wings, which were speckled, striped, and spotted like jungle moths. McCoy watched them catch the thermals along the cliffs and rise weightlessly into the air. When they landed and came back into the cafe, flushed and excited, McCoy envied them. He was really tempted. It didn't look too hard. A small holographic display in the center of the table showed two flyers gliding behind an arching waterfall. They didn't look too much older than kids.

He paid his tab and followed a waiter's directions. The rental booths were partitioned at the sides but open to the air. The wings were strung on wires at the back, and a counter in front separated the operators from the crowd. McCoy waited until somebody noticed him.

"I'm new to all this. Does anyone give lessons?" got him an instructor; a pair of black and white wings; and a short lecture on safety, navigation, and common sense. The wings made him very buoyant in the light gravity. It was hard to stay down, and the big step over the beginner's drop was taken almost without effort.

"Just balance yourself and watch where you're going," yelled his instructor from a safe distance as they glided toward the valley. "You don't have to hold yourself up. The wings do that. Float face down, just the way you would in water."

McCoy followed instructions and learned how to turn, how to control his speed either by folding his wings back or with a braking gesture, how to stall and come in for a landing on his feet. Actually, he toppled backward at the last moment and sat down hard, but the impact with the sand couldn't dampen the thrill of the flight.

"That was great. What next?"

The instructor touched down lightly beside him. "Well, we can transport back up, or we can catch a thermal."

"Let's do it the hard way."

The instructor helped McCoy up and checked his wings minutely. The light-steel was a metallic plastic, translucent, immensely strong, and not much thicker than onionskin. Nothing short of a jackhammer would dent or tear the actual wings, but the seams where they were joined to the harness were subject to stress.

"You look fine," the instructor said. "Walk over here so someone doesn't land on us. You have to remember there are people above and behind you. Now, to catch a thermal, just bounce and downstroke. But remember to bounce on your belly and stroke from a prone position. If you get vertical, you'll stall, and it may be a long way down before you land on your ass."

McCoy eyed the valley floor rising up and away into invisibility. Above him, other flyers were bright specks. "I see what you mean. If I do stall, how do I get out of it?"

"Don't worry about it. Only acrobats do that on purpose. Say you're falling straight down, feet first. Maybe your airstream is so strong it rips your wings off. So you keep your arms and your wings down, lean sideways—less air resistance that way—and roll on your belly until you're prone again. Then just stretch your arms back. Stick them straight out and you'll lose one." The instructor grinned. "This is all theory, you know; I wouldn't want to try it myself. But that's the method. If you're a long way from the floor, you're supposed to be able to glide out of a stall."

He made McCoy practice bouncing up and on his belly, then gave him the go-ahead. McCoy followed instructions. He bounced, downstroked, and sailed right through the thermal and out the other side. That time he overbalanced forward and made a three-point landing—knees and nose.

"I'm okay," he said as he struggled to his feet. "What did I do wrong?"

"You have to lean into a thermal. Remember, you'll be moving in a circle."

McCoy glowered at him. "But I can't see the damn thing."

"You have to feel it. I'll go ahead of you. Watch where I turn. But you won't always have another flyer to follow. You have to feel it with your wings. They're strong and sensitive. Just relax and they'll tell you what to do."

On their second attempt they both made it. McCoy found that he could feel minute changes in the angle and pressure of air on his wings. In the full current of the thermal he shot up like a turbolift. If he slid too far to the outside, his outer wing began to drag. The instructor watched him intently and directed him in and out of the thermal, following him up and down, until he was satisfied with his pupil's ability to catch and take advantage of the lift. When he ordered him out and down back at their starting point, McCoy made his best landing yet, braking with his wings and landing on his feet.

The instructor returned his delighted grin. "You'll do. Just don't tire yourself out. Lots of people tighten up in the neck and shoulders. It's tension more than muscle soreness. Subconsciously they're still holding themselves up. You have to get used to holding your arms out, though. So take it easy for the first few days."

"I will," McCoy lied. "Say, didn't you have some maps and things? Maybe I should get some—just to study up."

The instructor smiled sympathetically. "I'll tell you what. The maps are free. I'll give you a map and a book. You go have an hour's lunch and a rest-stop. Then, if you still remember how to harness up by yourself, I'll sell you the gear you need and find you a better pair of wings. These trainers are a little sloppy. Right now you're flight happy."

"Yeah, I guess so. But I've never done anything like that." McCoy relived the freedom he'd felt swooping in and out of the thermal. "It was great. I'll be back in an hour."

~ * ~

Back aboard ship, Kirk was checking on the progress of two maintenance crews under Scotty's direction as they cannibalized space and computer access for Sarek and Meade. Scotty gave his orders and drew Kirk aside.

"Captain, I hope I havena' put my foot in it with the admiral's engineer." The Scot looked worried.

"How so?"

"Well, we had a couple of drinks in the course of the evening—and the stock that man keeps is something to see—but he seemed a wee bit inquisitive about the special equipment we've got aboard."

Kirk raised an eyebrow. "And you did a little bragging, as usual—"

"I didna' go so far as to name names, but I may have given the impression our sensory equipment was a bit above general issue." The engineer's expression was glum. "He's asked to see it. I ought to have my head examined. I never thought he was sober enough to remember!"

Kirk pondered. They had both seen how posh Harnum kept his ship. "Do you get the impression the admiral likes to have the best and newest aboard his ship?"

"That I do, Captain. You can go ahead and kick me; Its easier than doin' it myself. I think they'll be after SALEE."

Kirk rubbed the back of his neck. The sensor equipment had been invaluable in tracking Sarek. It provided a window that no one else had. Kirk had used it rarely, because the device both attracted and repelled him. In a way it reminded him of the Tantalus Field Marlena Moreau had shown him in the alternate universe, where a barbaric Kirk disposed of his enemies without qualm or conscience. The advantage SALEE gave the Enterprise was unfair—and invaluable. He didn't want to lose it.

Scotty had followed the progression of thought from irritation to determination. "He milked me like a greenhorn, sir. I'm sorry."

"It can't be helped now. In the future don't be so sure you can outdrink everyone. What about the tale we told Starbase 27—that we can't extract her?"

"Harnum's man knows his business. We could pull her out."

"Damn. Well, Meade is willing to take Harnum on. If anyone is qualified to use SALEE, she is, and that may keep her out of back alleys. I'll talk to her and see if I can handle the admiral."

"Aye." The engineer's expression was ludicrously contrite.

Kirk had to forgive him. "Don't keep kicking yourself, Scotty. Just get on with the job."

"That I will," the relieved Scot promised.

Kirk had offered Harnum the hospitality of the Enterprise as a matter of course. He'd dimly envisioned a stuffed-shirt dinner. Now another use for the invitation occurred to him. He stopped at a wall communicator and had Uhura patch him through to the dreadnought.

Harnum's voice came clear. "Yes, Captain?"

"Sorry to interrupt you, Admiral, but after we left this morning, it occurred to me that we have some experimental equipment aboard that you might like to see before you speak with the planetary administrator. Dr. Morrow will be using it, and I'd like to demonstrate it for you before we patch it into her board. It's very sensitive, and I don't know how long it will be down once we begin work. She's in a hurry to get started."

Harnum was receptive to anything that hinged on a criticism of the gadfly he hadn't been able to swat. "Thank you, Captain. I can give you half an hour—say an hour from now."

"We'll be ready for you, sir."

Hustling against time, Kirk broke up a meeting between Meade and her new "staff" to pull her out in the hall and explain what had happened.

"I do need that equipment, Jim," Meade said straightforwardly. "It was one reason I chose the Enterprise. I've never forgotten the help it was on Mrinn. How are you and Harnum getting along?"

"Better than the two of you. Why don't you like him?"

Meade snorted. "I'm biased. I don't like people you have to handle with kid gloves. I don't like snobs and phonies. I especially don't like people who can't appreciate my specialty. I smell trouble, Jim. I've worked on the edge all my life. The nice rigid rules people make at home with their nice rigid minds don't always work out on the fringes."

"He has to be competent, Meade, or Mendez wouldn't have put him in charge. A lot of military men are—" Kirk searched for a word that would express the particular kind of blindness Harnum seemed to exercise toward civilian ideas and expectations, "—single-minded."

"You mean one-dimensional. Jim, I've seen your officers tell you you were wrong to your face, produce the facts to prove it, and back you down. That will never happen on Harnum's ship. He has nothing but yes-men around him, and he's so damn security-happy—"

"'Loose lips sink ships.'"

Meade shrugged, exhibiting none of her usual good humor. "I don't like his pattern, Jim, and I know he doesn't understand the dynamics of the situation. I also haven't seen him do a damn thing yet. You've accomplished more in a day and a half than he has in a week. He's effectively put you in charge of planetary intelligence—and that may be the only intelligence there is. When you have all the information and are willing and able to act—and action becomes necessary—what are you going to do with an anal-retentive admiral second-guessing you?"

Sober, and a little shocked at so much bitterness, Kirk studied her face. Meade relented under that surprised look. "Let's hope I'm wrong. I hope so. But I just want to say—if push ever does come to shove—go with your instincts, Jim. They've always been good. I'll back you."

"That," said Kirk, "is how mutinies get started. I want to hang on to SALEE, Meade, but if he gives me a direct order, about that, or anything, I'll have to obey it."

Meade shrugged. "I suppose you will. Thank God I'm not military, and I only answer to my conscience."

Kirk didn't consider the conversation finished, but the press of time was upon him. Reluctantly, he left the pan-anthropologist and went in search of an honor guard for Harnum. McCoy had left the ship; Lapsley had left the ship. Scotty had commandeered Spock. That left Uhura.

She was interestedly assisting with the extension of SALEE's capabilities, and she looked up and smiled at Kirk.

"What do you think about calling Meade's terminal SISTER, Captain?"

"Which means what?"

"Nothing, just SALEE's sister. I like code names that sound honest, and it has to be called something, to keep the records clear. No one would be suspicious about a message from SALEE's sister, would they?"

"I guess not." Kirk was gently herding Uhura toward the turbolift. "How much scuttlebutt have you heard about Admiral Harnum?"

Uhura regarded him warily. "I keep my ears open."

"What do you think the admiral will do when he finds out about SALEE?"

"He's not going to take her?" Uhura sounded like a mother with one child.

"Not if we can convince him she's essential to the Enterprise," said Kirk. "Harnum's not a bad guy—quite attractive for an older man—but so far, he hasn't really taken to anyone here. Could be we weren't his type. There's always the possibility the right person could influence his decision."

Kirk had never actually sacrificed anyone's virtue on the altar of duty, but he had a speculative look in his eye now. None of Uhura's uniforms did anything but flatter her. Today she was in a trim white coverall with a crossover bodice. Not quite as startling as the cloth of gold, but effective. She returned his speculative look.

"If you mean what I think you mean, I'd better stop by my cabin." She lowered her eyelashes to give him a heavy-lidded stare. "I have some perfume there I've been saving for an admiral."

They made the detour, and Kirk sniffed appreciatively as she came out again and they proceeded towards the main transporter.

"What's so special about that? It's not as strong as what you were wearing last night."

Uhura examined her long nails thoughtfully. "Never mind. I bought it on Argelius, and it's guaranteed. If your hands start sweating, you're standing too close."

"Forewarned is forearmed. But seriously, I liked the Jungle Lust."

"So did Lapsley. It isn't older men who go for the femme fatal routine. You watch the next octogenarian you see. The older the man gets, the younger the woman. Right now I smell like sweet sixteen still wet behind the ears. I know what I'm doing."

"I'm sure you do," Kirk murmured as they took their places for Harnum's arrival.

Uhura proved it during the first half of the tour by being quietly attentive to both men, with just that extra touch of deference Harnum's rank deserved. Her bearing was militarily correct, her responses, when called on, accurate and concise. As Kirk deferred to her experience and let her describe SALEE's capabilities, he could see Harnum relaxing. It seemed perfectly natural, when the opportunity came, to excuse himself and let her carry on.

"I'm sorry, sir. A call from the ambassador. It should only take a few minutes."

Harnum, who apparently never wore anything beside dress whites, was magnanimous. "That's fine, Captain. The lieutenant is the expert, after all."

Kirk left them standing in the temporarily empty room where Meade would work later, and Harnum didn't move away from Uhura's side when he had gone. Uhura explained the difficulties involved in twinning the device. "I could show you the schematics, sir."

Harnum touched her elbow. "No, no. I'm more interested in what the gadget can do. There's no defense against it?"

"Some forms of ore, sir, high radiation levels, top security forcefield screening—but for most vessels and civilian installations—no."

Harnum looked around the small room. "How about inboard? You ever catch the captain in his BVDs?"

She had, as a matter of fact, but Uhura looked shocked. "Oh, no, sir. I wouldn't do that. I suppose it could be used in the immediate vicinity—" she knew damn well it could, and the things she had found out about her fellow crew members had convinced her she was inhibited by comparison, "—but that would be a waste of energy. It's designed for ship-to-planet use."

Harnum nodded. "And you operate it yourself?"

"Yes, sir. From my console on the bridge. I try to monitor newscasts, take a random sampling of planetary customs—that sort of thing. It all goes into the computers, and I report anything important to the captain." Every communications officer eavesdropped on sentient conversations and random noise alike. It was part of the job.

"I want you to continue doing that, Lieutenant, but I'd also like you to do something for me." His pale eyes were intent in his tanned face.

"Anything I can, sir."

"We've got a touchy situation down there—and a lot of ground to cover. I do my best to stay in touch, but my staff doesn't have anything like this, and I know how important communications are." He took her arm, ostensibly to guide her around the tangle of equipment on the floor.

"Yes, sir?" The perfume's working, Uhura thought, but I'm not sure I like the result.

"You can home this thing in on a transponder or communicator, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"And I imagine the ambassador is carrying an Enterprise communicator?"

"Yes, sir."

"'Well, suppose you keep an eye on him, off and on, not too obviously, of course, and send me the recordings."

Oh, mother, thought Uhura. What's he up to? Why doesn't the captain get his beautiful buns back here? She frowned uncertainly. "I could do that, sir, but I'm not sure the captain would want me to observe Ambassador Sarek." She put it with all the hesitation she could muster, looking up at Harnum helplessly.

The admiral stood a little closer. "I can understand that," he said. "With the ambassador being his first officer's father. That's why I don't want to put an unfair burden on him. I'm asking you to do this for me, Lieutenant—no, that's not fair—let's make it an order, just in case there's ever a question. I don't want to put you on the spot, either."

Don't you? Sneaky old goat. With great control, Uhura refrained from shaking off his contaminating hand.

Harnum went on. "I'm making it your responsibility to keep me up to date on the talks, or whatever they work out. Anything involving Ambassador Sarek. I'll tell Captain Kirk that I want a daily synopsis of the observations made with this equipment, and you can include the information on the Vulcan. Is that clear?"

About as clear as a photon torpedo, Uhura thought resentfully. How do I get out of this? Aloud, she said, "Yes, sir. Observe Ambassador Sarek and include a recording with the daily report to you."

Harnum slid his hand down her arm. "You're a competent officer, Lieutenant. I know one more chore won't overtax you. I do appreciate it."

"Thank you, sir."

He gave her hand an avuncular squeeze. "And you can appreciate the need for confidentiality, can't you? It will save Kirk from a possible conflict of interest that wouldn't look good on his record. The less said the better. You won't mention it to anyone."

It wasn't a question, but Uhura answered it as one, eyes wide, innocent face turned up to Harnum's.

"Oh, no, sir. I understand now. I won't mention it to another human soul!"

And she didn't. When Kirk reappeared, she turned Harnum back over and took her indignation to the first officer, drawing him away from his computers "for a coffee break" so aggressively that even Scotty stared at her. She didn't care, and she didn't want any coffee. She faced Spock in the corridor and poured the story out indignantly.

"Now how do I get out of spying on your father?" she demanded.

Both Spock's eyebrows were elevated at that. "You cannot disobey the admiral's order, Lieutenant. Yet it seems an indirect means of obtaining information my father would provide for the asking."

"I suppose I'll have to do it, but how can I look anyone in the eye afterward? You'll tell the captain, won't you?"

"Your promise is not binding on me, and it is my duty to keep the captain informed."

"And your father?" Uhura could feel the heat in her face. She knew how Vulcans felt about their privacy. Sarek would see it as a breach of trust. "If I have to do it—I guess I'd rather he knew."

"That will be the captain's decision. Should it become necessary to tell my father, I will explain that you did not undertake the task voluntarily."

Uhura sniffed and dabbed at an angry tear that threatened her make-up. "Thanks. I just feel like a sneak. And you can tell the captain from me that I'm not cut out for Mata Hari. I'm going to dump this perfume down the drain."

Spock tilted his head. "Why would you do that? It has a most agreeable combination of odors." He looked even more puzzled when she laughed.

"Never mind, Mr. Spock. I'll save it all for you."

~ * ~

Congratulating himself for his craftiness, an unsuspecting Kirk had proceeded to his next task, a discussion with Lapsley about their captives. Lapsley's evaluation of the situation agreed with Kirk's. It wouldn't necessarily destroy a captive's mind or endanger his life to break his conditioning—but it would go a long way over the line the Federation drew in its Conventions for the Treatment of Prisoners.

"Not that any of them would be missed," Kirk said, watching the bank of monitors that showed the prisoners in their cells.

"We might have a better use for them," Lapsley suggested.

Kirk looked a little brighter. "Gavin, you didn't feed any of those poor prisoners a transponder, did you?"

"Why no, sir. It would be a violation of the Conventions to do anything intrusive to prisoners who are not a present threat to any citizen of the Federation."

"So—what did you do?"

"I put a dye in their soap and shampoo that fluoresces through a properly polarized filter—the kind you can build into a contact lens. The dye is as penetrating as they come. They won't be able to scrub it off even if they find out they're wearing it."

"And you just happen to have given some of your men R&R...."

Lapsley grinned shamelessly.

"Well, there's planetary liaison and planetary liaison," said Kirk, interpreting his orders liberally. "Don't turn them all loose at the same time and place and don't tell them what you're doing."

"No, sir," agreed Lapsley. "That Zorro knew what he was up to. Went to school with the Scarlet Pimpernel and Hereward the Wake."

"Don't let Sulu hear you say so."

~ * ~

When Spock voluntarily joined him for lunch, Kirk's preoccupation with work evaporated. It looked as though the Vulcan was going to meet him halfway. Lunch first, then dinner, then an entire evening of Spock's company unchaperoned by old friends and native guides.

"I'm glad you're here," he said with a welcoming smile. "How was your morning?"

"Disquieting," Spock said without preamble.

Kirk's frown lines reappeared. "What happened?"

"You arranged for Lt. Uhura to brief Admiral Harnum on SALEE?"

"Yes. I thought it was one of my better ploys."

Spock explained what had transpired.

"Damn him!" Kirk swore softly. "I wish he'd proposed that to my face."

"What could you have done, Captain? A military decision, using military equipment. The admiral has a right to make it."

"And I have a right to tell him where to head in. Do you know what José Mendez would say to the idea of spying on a Federation diplomat?"

Spock looked sober. "Whatever Admiral Mendez would say, Admiral Harnum is in charge here. It is such situations which make military service difficult."

"You're right," Kirk admitted. He relayed Meade's predictions of gloom. "I don't mind if Harnum tells me to stick my neck out, but it goes against the grain to find out your superior has the morals of a back fence gossip." He fumed a minute, stirring his fruit salad to mush. "Backhanded as it is, I can't actually go against him. What does he think he's going to find out, anyway?"

"Perhaps nothing of importance. Perhaps he desires a second line of communication to verify other intelligence. I observed that we were being recorded this morning."

Kirk stabbed a chunk of pineapple. "So did I. Meade says he's security-happy. God knows there are enough eyes around the Enterprise, but I don't put them in private cabins. Uh—make sure your father sees SALEE in action and that he's aware it can be used inboard. He's no fool. With a look at our equipment and Meade bad-mouthing Harnum, Sarek shouldn't need to be told he's a prime target for a snoop." Kirk shoved command worries aside. "Apart from that, how was your morning?"

The Vulcan hesitated for a moment. Kirk's question was not an actual request for more information, but an indication that a social exchange was appropriate. McCoy, inexplicably absent, had frequently scolded the captain for ruining his digestion with worry. Humans needed diversion while they ate.

"I observed that Lt. Uhura was wearing another new perfume."

Kirk smoothed out a betraying grin. "So she was. Like it?"

"I thought it quite pleasant and unassertive."

"Not like her get-up last night. How'd that strike you?"

"If the effect desired was to turn every male head within sighting distance, then her costume was well-chosen."

The grin spread into full exposure. "You must have been watching me. I feel like I'm listing to port whenever Uhura takes the communications station." Kirk dropped his voice a little and smiled wickedly into Spock's eyes. "But I've never taken advantage of any of my officers on the bridge. I just fantasize about it."

Spock swallowed. They were discussing Uhura, of course, but further inquiry into the captain's sexual fantasies hardly seemed an appropriate topic for conversation at the lunch table. He changed the subject.

"Dr. Morrow informed the bridge that we have received invitations to a social gathering in Nod in the early evening."

"How awful. Is there some reason we should go?"

"My parents were also invited. Dr. Morrow seems pleased that a Romulan issued the invitation. She said we should take every opportunity to mingle."

"I want to mingle," Kirk asserted, "but not necessarily with a crowd of strangers, some of whose friends tried to mug me last night. I have our evening all planned."

"Unplan it," said Meade over his shoulder. She plopped her tray down. "At least for an hour, Jim. I want to watch these people mix it up socially. If you go and wear a medal or two, they'll be looking at you and not me."

"I don't like to be looked at. I hate formal gatherings. If you get me fired tomorrow, the one compensation will be that I don't have to stick out my chest at cocktail parties."

"So," the pan-anthropologist said unsympathetically, "I hate fruit salad, but it's part of my job not to smell like a carnivore in a vegetarian society. I'll be dealing with Vulcans this afternoon. You'll be dealing with Romulans tonight."

"It used to be nice," mused Kirk, "when I was the captain of the ship and got to give the orders."

"The captain of the Enterprise I know would leap at the chance to meet the bad guys toe to toe. Listen to the clans represented on the guest list." She enumerated the Vulcans first, then the Romulans. "Even Man Hreth Malock will be there, according to the hostess. Wealthy mine owner from Veith, reputed to have a hand in this human slave trade we keep hearing about."

"I suppose we'll have to go," Kirk conceded, "but only for an hour, Meade. Spock and I have other plans." He turned to confirm them and found Spock's face completely closed—and dangerous. "You don't mind, do you, Spock?"

There was a momentary hesitation before the Vulcan unbent enough to say, "As the captain wishes." He gathered his half-eaten meal. "But at the moment, I must excuse myself."

Meade watched his stiff departure with a frown.

"Does he really hate parties that much?"

Kirk was frowning, too, casting back in his mind for the significance of that last, somehow familiar name: Hreth Malock. After a moment he had it, and the warmth in his eyes died away, leaving them the color of pale wine. Hreth Malock was the clan name of the Romulan commander from whom they'd stolen the cloaking device. And the name of S'tyge, the Romulan who had raped and tortured Spock. A sudden surge of nausea brought out a prickle of sweat over Kirk's upper lip. He swallowed and wiped the perspiration away with his napkin.

"Jim, what's the matter? What did I say?"

He turned from the retreating Vulcan to look at Meade. She was staring at him in concern, and he realized he had gone pale with shock.

"Nothing. It's personal. If you really need me, I'll be there. I'm sorry, I have to go."

He left his tray on the table and gained enough time by sprinting to catch the turbolift in which Spock stood rigidly, waiting for the door to close. When they were sealed in, Kirk reached for the pause button and halted their progress.

"You don't have to attend," he said. "You can meet me later."

Spock was staring fixedly at the door. After a moment he let out a deep breath. "That was a childish display. I must apologize to Dr. Morrow."

"I did it for you." Kirk watched the averted face with compassion. "It was an understandable reaction. I had no idea there were any more of them around. You don't have to socialize with them."

Spock turned to look at his companion. With forced rationality, he said, "There is no logical reason for me not to. S'tyge is dead. What happened cannot be known."

Kirk dredged a McCoyism out of memory and quoted, "'Life isn't logical—it's biological.'"

No light or life brightened Spock's dark stare. "Yes. Biological. Memories of the flesh. Why is it that I remember?"

The bitter whisper cut the air like a razor, cut off Kirk's ready assurance that the pain would pass. Was that how it was for Spock? Was Kirk's desire no more than S'tyge's lust? He refused to believe that; it hurt too much. His hand dropped numbly from the control and the turbolift slid smoothly on its way, faint mechanical whisper underlining their silence. He fumbled for the button to stop it again. He couldn't step out on the bridge with this pain on his face. Couldn't show it to Spock.

It was the Vulcan who broke the silence, unexpectedly reaching out to touch Kirk's face, long fingers furtively grazing the skin.

"I did not mean what you are thinking, Jim. I will attend the party with you." The balefires, so often submerged in contemplation or melancholy, flared darkly for a moment in Spock's eyes. "I do not choose that you shall encounter Hreth Malock without me."

An answering flame flared through Kirk's body. The lingering touch of Spock's fingers on his cheek tingled like a line of fire. Bright warmth blossomed in his groin and infiltrated the marrow of his bones. Again his hand fell from the control. The lift door opened. Spock stepped out. Kirk leaned back against the wall and let the door close between them. He wasn't sure where he was going, except somewhere to cool this conflagration in decent privacy. His knees were weak and his whole body throbbed in the backwash of sensation.

Try my memories, he thought. Because all I can remember is you, Spock. And I'd take on a clanful of Hreth Malocks to make you look like that again....

 

XI

Dia Hreth Malock fastened her flight harness and checked out her wings with only half her mind. The other half simmered with things she should have said to her father and his paramour. As usual, she'd lacked the courage or wit to state her case. Now she wasn't even free to fly by herself. She had to play nursemaid.

Rho was aware of Dia's grim silence and resented it. The necessity that ruled every action Rho had taken for the last two years outweighed one girl's misery. She must regain command of her ships. If the way to that command was through Hreth Malock's bed, so be it. This couldn't be the first time the girl had known him to take a favorite.

Rho jerked her wrist away from Tal, who was fastening her harness. "That's tight enough."

Impatience was wearing Tal's control thin, too. He reached out and took her wrist back.

"You presume!" she snapped at him.

"I serve you," he said. "If you fly, I fly. I do not want my life endangered because you will not check your harness. I did not dismiss you. Save your claws for the one who did."

Tal was right. It was Hreth Malock Rho wanted to savage, but her temper had always been uncertain, and it had been straining on a tight leash for days. She said the first hurtful thing that came into her mind. "I didn't notice you defying him. At least he's a man!"

Tal's head jerked up and his nostrils flared. He dropped her hand and stepped back. "Very well. I will be with the Tiren." He turned on his heel and left.

Rho wanted to tear off her wings and strike him, but before she could complete the thought, he was gone. She was shaking with rage. He had no right to criticize her, no right to comment, even to think about her private affairs. She was his commander, and she could have him flayed. Perilously near tears, she turned and marched to the edge of the drop-off.

"I'm ready," she said to Dia.

Dia sent her a sulky glance. "Where do you want to go?"

"Up and out. I don't care."

Without a word Dia fell forward over the cliff edge and found her balance. Rho followed thirty feet behind her, letting the physical struggle and the thrill of the drop tame the anger she knew was disproportionate. Tal wasn't to blame, and it was all too easy to take advantage of his loyalty. He had swallowed Hreth Malock's snubs for her, and not because he feared the wolf. It would serve her right if he disappeared and left her on her own.

But he wouldn't, or at least he never had before. A real thrill of doubt ran through her, and she almost turned back, but Dia was too far ahead to hear her, and Man wouldn't be pleased if the girl were allowed to wander off alone. A touch of temper returned. Rho had not risen from disfavor to wear the tiren for the privilege of babysitting. But at least she could do it properly. She followed Dia's graceful curve into a thermal and let the powerful air lift her, body and spirit, into the sky.

Tal didn't watch them go. He went into a bar and ordered himself a drink. By the time he had it in his hands, he was mentally kicking himself for allowing a woman's temper to affect him. She was under too much stress, and she had no appetite for Hreth Malock's scheming, whatever she thought about him in bed. Tal couldn't serve her by taking offense over trifles. She might use him, in private, to rid herself of frustration, but to Hreth Malock's face she had defended him. He was still Tal of the Three Ships, not a child to flinch from a few hard words.

He finished the drink and wandered back outside. They would not return for hours, and there was no guarantee they would return here at all. They might land anywhere in Nod and beam back. Dia's silver wings and Rho's red ones were long out of sight. As he turned toward the transporter pads, a siren split the air. It was enough like ship's alert to bring him to a halt. What was it? Accident? Depressurization? He turned back to the human clerk who had rented Rho the wings.

"What's that?"

"Wind warning. Storm building up somewhere and heading our way. Nothing to worry about on the ground, but it can get pretty turbulent up there."

"How far do those sirens reach?" Tal demanded.

"Up to ten miles for Romulans or Vulcans."

"How long until the storm strikes?"

The human queried a computer console. Tal bent over the counter but couldn't see the display.

"Forty minutes, sir. There's plenty of time for everyone to get down. You see; they're coming in now."

He was right. Tal's quick sweep of the sky showed even the specks of far away flyers turning back through the amber air. Rho's red wings would look black, but there was a chance the mirror surface of Dia's would catch the light. He watched intently, with a building impatience, then ordered the clerk, "Fit me up with those wings I brought back."

"Uh—I can't, sir. It's too dangerous. Once the siren blows, the rental console won't work."

"I'll pay later; haul them down!" It was the bark of an officer of the Romulan Fleet, and Tal didn't have to say what he would do if the wings weren't forthcoming. The clerk lifted them down without a word and moved to help Tal harness up. In four minutes he had reached the cliff edge and launched out into the air.

McCoy was effortlessly gliding through the sky. Intellectually he knew that his sky had its limits in another valley floor, and that the pastel haze through which he skimmed was lighted by reflections from the giant floating mirrors that formed their drifting constellations in the center of the hollow moon; but he felt like a bird, and he wasn't going to bother his head with facts.

There were birds in Nod; he passed one and wondered idly what ecological niche the designer had needed birds for. Then it spilled over with music in mid-flight, and he thought he knew. Maybe they ought to have birds on the Enterprise. Even a tribble or two made a nice change from people and their problems. That cloud now, up and to the right, was very tribble-like in its proportions. He veered toward the rose and gray billow, caught his breath when its moisture hit him in the face, and sailed on through into the light again. He felt wonderful. A man needed something natural now and then.

Below him, the valley shrank into blue-gray geometries threaded with the occasional silver gleam of open water. The thermals lifted McCoy effortlessly up and up until the amber haze closed in. The pearly luminescence rested his eyes the way the air rested his body. Moving with the wind, he had no idea how fast he was traveling, or how far.

After one glance behind to see that the commander was keeping up with her, Dia gave herself to flight. An experienced flyer with the best equipment, she was soon aware that the Long Wave was pulsing with power and that a storm was brewing somewhere behind them. All to the good. She wanted nothing but distance between her and her father, and if "cousin" Rho couldn't keep up, let her find her own way home. Dia angled deeper into the moving current of air and let it take her.

Behind her, Rho copied the slight movement, only to be brought up short by a tug at her wrist. For a moment she thought Tal had tightened her harness too much, and then she realized that the tug was more likely to be the result of slack somewhere in harness or wing. That could be an indication of something wrong, but it hadn't been much of a tug. She leaned back and forth across the current for a moment to see if it would repeat itself. It didn't, and she dismissed it. She was falling behind Dia, and she took a few strokes to catch up, find the fastest current of air, and settle into it.

Tal had lost time in the bar, and more time quartering the sky, scanning the returning flyers. By the time the brightly colored flock had gone to roost, with no sight of Rho or Dia, he was having to fight the wind to hold position. Hreth Malock had said that Dia had won long distance races. If that was her inclination, she had probably climbed into the steady current that twisted around the interior of Nod. It flowed in the same direction the wind was pushing him, so he turned and went with it, gaining speed with every stroke of his wings. Behind him the amber light darkened, threaded with veils of cloud.

The goggles McCoy had been outfitted with had a strip of display that he could read by dropping his eyes. They were standard tourist issue. Three lights indicated his point of origin, his destination, and "down." The blue light, fading now, was home. The violet light, still fairly bright, would grow brighter as he approached the floor, blinking the last hundred feet of the descent. The yellow light would brighten and blink as he attained his goal. A time display completed the information.

The helpful clerk had explained the Long Wave, told McCoy it might take between one and three hours to make the trip, depending on whether he stroked or let the air current push him, and assured him that he could leave the wings at the other flight center and beam directly to any destination in Nod. But McCoy didn't think he had been in the air more than twenty minutes before the yellow light began to grow noticeably brighter. He'd been doing pretty well, but not that well. He began to wonder if he'd confused the goal and ground lights, because the violet light was about the same intensity as the yellow one, and he was sure blue was the place he had started. Oh, damn. It would be great if he were flying headfirst for the ground.

Common sense told him he would feel the difference, but for a moment McCoy wished Spock were handy—living computer—to unscramble the instructions and reorient him. Then he squelched the wish. He didn't need either of Starfleet's wonder boys to show him the ropes. He'd learned to fly himself; he'd get home by himself, too, and then rub their noses in it.

The yellow light was brighter now, and the blue one dead. Test the hypothesis by going down. He leaned into a gliding turn as he'd been taught. The idea was to spiral down and not dive.

It was like slamming into rough surf. The seemingly motionless air slapped his face with a smothering buffet, whooshed into the neck of his shirt, and flapped his clothes like wash on a line. In automatic reflex, McCoy tried to turn back, and found out he couldn't fly in reverse when his right arm dropped and his left was almost jerked from its socket. He remembered balance and float before he panicked entirely, but he felt as though he'd been put through a centrifuge. He still had the lights, but they no longer carried any emotional impact. He had lost whatever sense of direction he started out with.

After a moment he set his teeth and told himself to settle down. He wasn't hurt. The wind wasn't fighting him, so he must be moving in the same direction as before. The surge of adrenalin was still prickling through him, but he floated grimly. There was no use fighting that current of air. Eventually he would tire, and before then, he had to get down somehow, wind or no. But for the moment, he might as well try to ride it out and hope it was just a local phenomenon.

When Dia next looked behind her to check Rho's progress, she was feeling a change in the air, a slight unsteadiness that meant the storm front was catching up with them. The effort it took to look back made her check her airspeed indicator. They were traveling far too fast and would have to angle out of the current. Dia fought it until Rho was level with her. "Are you tired?" she shouted.

"No," Rho yelled back. "But there's something wrong with my harness; it's rubbing my wrist."

Strands of Dia's hair had come loose. When she looked back, it blew into her eyes. She couldn't see through it.

"We're moving too fast," she yelled. "We need to pull out of the wave. Better go up. Not so rough up there." Unlike McCoy, Dia was not disoriented. She understood her equipment, understood the winds of Nod. In her mind, the Long Wave twisted around the interior like an invisible serpent with its tail in its mouth. There might be loops and twisting coils along the length, but the general course was predictable. It lay closer to the ground than the interior. First they had to get out of the serpent's path, then they could worry about incidental storm winds. Those might be violent, blasting unexpectedly out of nowhere, but at least the interior was empty. Much of the surface of Nod was still bare, inhospitable rock. The drafts and suctions of storm winds impacting on that could be deadly. They were safer in clear space.

"We have to go up," she bawled across the air to Rho. "Follow me."

Rho understood the benefits of having empty air around them, but her wrist was chafed raw, and the wing on that side felt sluggish. Mentally she shrugged. She'd already had the chance to use good judgment and failed. Why think she'd do any better now?

"Go ahead," she shouted. "I'll be behind you."

~ * ~

McCoy's yellow light began to blink before he'd been in the air half an hour. He watched it sputter fast and faster, and then begin to slow. He'd been blown past his scheduled landing place into unknown territory, if he could ever get down to it. His arms were aching, but every attempt he'd made to angle down had met with increased wind resistance. If he'd known the depth of the wave, he might have been able to endure the buffeting until he got under it; but for all he knew the damn thing went clear to the surface. The wind was turning and twisting now. It wrenched at his body. Ironically, his communicator, safely attached to his belt, would have provided a way out of the predicament, except that he couldn't reach it without taking his wings off in midair. Exasperation talked back to panic long enough for him to realize that he might still lift up out of the turbulence. He tried and found it worked. Lost and tiring, but out of the worst of the wind, he began to circle higher in the calmer air. As he turned back on his track, he saw three specks below him, red, silver, and midnight blue. Maybe he'd get a chance to ask directions.

Tal had Rho and Dia in sight when they began to climb, but he was tired from the effort he had expended to overtake them. Wearily, he pulled up out of the wave. The sky was clear above, but dark lavender-gray to the rear. It brightened as they climbed and began to show discs of light—not the steady shining of a sun, but the changeable illumination from the floating mirrors that rerouted light around the interior of the moon.

Tal's rented equipment, like McCoy's, had only proximity lights, not a true altimeter. He couldn't tell how high they were, because all he could see below was amber haze. He didn't want to believe what the presence of the mirrors suggested: that they had been blown far into the interior, seventy to a hundred miles from the solid shell of the satellite. If that were true, his race was probably in vain. He had sweated and cooled until his face felt grainy with salt, and he hadn't been dressed warmly to begin with. Through his various aches and pains he could feel a creeping lassitude that meant hypothermia. He didn't have strength left for a hundred-mile glide home.

Dia had noticed the changing light, too, and at first it had cheered her up. The mirrors drifted. Their presence, to her, did not mean the flyers were approaching the dead center of the moon where spin and Coriolis force would cancel out, leaving them effectively weightless. If they reached a mirror, there would be a framework trailing it, a hanging platform and scaffolding of lightsteel cables to support the automatic machinery and small fans used for stabilization and course corrections. If they could land, they could rest, attract someone's attention, and arrange to be beamed back to the surface. She wished for the first time that someone was monitoring her tracer, but if no one was, they'd surely think of it when time for her return passed. If her presence was commanded at this social function of her father's, then he'd see to it she was there, even if it meant snatching her out of the air in mid-flight. Dia climbed upward hopefully.

Rho followed Dia's mirrored wings with a steady beat of her own, ignoring the increasing green trickle from her lacerated wrist. Each downbeat sawed the constricting strap into her flesh; each upward extension released the pressure and then brought it back with a tooth-jarring snap as her wings caught the air again. Her ears were pounding with the rush of her pulse, and her vision had narrowed to follow Dia; she didn't hear Tal call her name or see the dark, waiting shape of McCoy.

That was when the wind, only playing before, suddenly closed into a fist of energy and punched a hole in the sky. McCoy was sent tumbling as something enormously big and bright seared past him. He flinched and fell, only to be blasted upward again with explosive force that deafened and disoriented him. One of the floating mirrors had been struck by the wind, its mylar shape distorted, its light deflected as it reeled out of position.

The lightsteel cables were ripped off by the force of that wind, and where they were attached to the mirror, they ripped holes in its fabric. The mirror was compartmented against just such an accident, so only a section of it reacted like a punctured balloon, spewing air back at the storm. But it darted off course, lost buoyancy, and its falling platform and severed cables flailed the air like giant tentacles. Tal from below, and McCoy, grabbing air to one side, saw the moving mass reach out toward the red wings and the silver ones as the sinking balloon fell away below them like a manta ray.

A cable lashed out and crushed two feet of wing for Dia. Another sideswiped Rho, a blow just hard enough to tip her over and spill the air from her wings. She went tumbling, and the weak wing parted from her harness, trailing uselessly above her as she fell. McCoy leaned forward and dove, keeping his wings back, knowing he didn't have the strength or skill to help.

Wind filled his mouth and choked him, but through the goggles he could see the midnight blue wings deliberately stroke the bottommost flyer into the path of the broken red ones. The impact somersaulted both of them, and for a moment, McCoy saw only a tangle of wings and legs. Then the blue wings stroked and caught air again, not flying, but controlling their fall, guiding it toward the falling mirror below them.

McCoy was close enough to the silver-winged flyer now to see it was a girl, falling grimly, her hair blown up above her head, her broken wings streaming behind her. Her hands were busy working, and in a moment he realized what she was doing—trying to take off the useless wings. A rush of helplessness made McCoy's eyes tear behind his goggles. He didn't have a knife; he hadn't paid any attention to Uhura's advice to go armed; and even if he had had one, it would have been as useless as his communicator—because his hands were effectively manacled by the harness.

He glanced below, gritting his teeth against the temptation to unfold his wings and halt his fall. The joined flyers, red and blue, were now above the amorphous shape of the falling mirror, but not in contact with it yet. By the wind-ripples and mounds billowing across its surface, McCoy realized it still held air, might be buoyant enough to break their fall.

He leaned forward toward the girl. If he could grab her somehow and angle a little, maybe he could get her onto the balloon, too. He couldn't believe it was substantial enough to cushion them against the ultimate impact with the surface, but it was better than nothing. He shouted, and the girl looked up and saw him.

"Grab my legs," he yelled. He saw the rising brows and pointed ears. "My legs!" he shouted louder. "I'll try to brake."

He did try it, his gut cramping as he saw how fast they were gaining on the other two, how close to the side of the balloon they would be. Blood was running into his head, and it was hard to see or breathe. As he passed the girl he felt something strike his foot and bounce off. He didn't have time to pull out of his dive, and he couldn't see her now, but he was getting the feel of these aerial acrobatics. He moved his arms forward a fraction and groped behind him with his legs, caught her somehow in a scissors grip. It was the best he could do, probably kill them both, he thought, as he opened his arms and arched his back.

The force of the wind catching his wings dislocated one shoulder with an audible crack and popped every vertebra he had, but it slowed their headlong fall; and by luck, more than McCoy's skill, it curved them in over the edge of the buoyant mirror. Landing was no worse than smacking down onto an air mattress until they bounced and began to slide.

"Hold on!" a voice commanded in the same tone Jim used when it really mattered. Half-sick with pain, McCoy grabbed blindly and clamped his hands on something yielding. A weight was clinging to his legs.

"Climb up over him," the command voice said. The weight on McCoy's legs lunged up his body, driving a wing edge into his lower back, grabbing at his waist, his hurt shoulder. He cried out, but managed to hang on. In a moment the weight was gone, and a steely grip closed on his collar. Were they trying to pull him apart? The grip shifted to his good arm, and another pair of hands helped heave him forward and strangely down.

"I'm all right," a woman's voice said.

"Not for long," answered the command voice. "We're still falling."

That was important. McCoy pushed the fog back and struggled to sit up, but a strong hand pushed him back. "Enterprise," he managed to get out. "Communicator on my belt."

There was a hissing expletive and an indrawn breath. McCoy was face down in the warm surface of the balloon, unable to turn himself over. Hands fumbled under him and found the communicator.

"Enterprise!" said the command voice. "Enterprise! Come in!"

"This is the Enterprise," came Uhura's steady voice.

"Emergency. Your doctor has been injured in a flying accident. Can you get a fix on four, repeat four, moving bodies, and transport immediately to coordinates N36, T34, K10?" The voice repeated the numbers immediately, and McCoy relaxed in relief. He wasn't really the command type. When in pain, pass out....

The transporter didn't do anything to alleviate the sizable area of agony in his shoulder and neck, and being sprawled face downward in a tangle of wing and harness didn't help. McCoy came to on a hard surface and registered the fact that he wasn't falling anymore. His fear-jangled nerves gave thanks, but his stomach rose and fell queasily. The red mist of pain surged in and then moved back as someone turned him over.

"Are we alive?" he managed. He opened his eyes on an exotically beautiful face. Angels were Romulan this cycle of eternity. This one had a thundercloud of wind-tangled hair faintly threaded with silver at the temples.

"Sit still," the angel advised. "You have dislocated your shoulder."

"That can't be all," McCoy said with a little more spirit.

"I think so," the angel said matter-of-factly. "This is going to hurt." Without further warning, she put her boot in his armpit and rotated and pulled his arm through a white fire of anguish into sudden normality.

"God damn it!" McCoy roared. He slumped back in a sudden sweat and looked at her respectfully. "Thank you. You want to help me up?" He let her do most of the work and then stood beside her rather shakily. They were at a transporter nexus. A crowd had gathered around and he glared at them belligerently. "What's the matter, never seen a bad landing before?"

The angel was watching him with a slight frown, as if he were something totally out of her experience. "They—they aren't used to humans," she stammered. It was a clumsy lie, and she flushed a faint celadon as soon as it was out. "I mean, I'm not. I—thank you. I don't know what to say."

McCoy hadn't lost all his wits. "Say you'll have dinner with me, Ms—"

"Dia," she supplied. "You're from the Enterprise?"

"Leonard McCoy, ship's physician."

"I—I'm studying to be a doctor," Dia blurted.

"You'll be a good one. How about dinner?"

Sudden realization rushed in. She could not be seen with him. Rho, who had hustled Tal, wings and all, onto a transporter pad and disappeared, would report the incident. Man would be furious. Dia lost all her color, but she still hesitated. Even Rho had spoken well of this human, and he had saved her life.

"I can't stay now. I'll be missed. I'll—" She hesitated, knowing she could not risk making a monitored call to his ship. "I'll meet you back here at midnight, if I can come." Then she ran for the transporter and vanished.

McCoy felt as if he'd been through a planet crusher. He felt as if he were fourteen waking up on his birthday. On those conflicting emotions, he found his communicator in the wreckage of his wings, verified his location, and called Uhura to get himself beamed home. "Meet me at midnight"? Who said adventure and romance were dead?

 

XII

The day was grinding along for Kirk. He made a conscious effort to take the myriad small problems as what they were—the normal events of a workday, instead of what they seemed to him—frustrating obstacles between the mundane present and that magical time when he would again be alone with Spock. He checked out the report of McCoy's accident and got snarled at for his efforts while Bones submitted to M'Benga's examination. He gathered that the doctor recommended flying in spite of its hazards. There was nothing he could do about the admiral's officious and underhanded attempt to meddle with the normal, ethical functioning of the Enterprise. Spock, Scotty, and Uhura were immersed in their own tasks, so Kirk finally went in search of the planetary administrator's son, who had been dogging everybody's heels all day.

He found Farrid in Meade's new work space, lounging in a chair not designed for it, hoisting a tall drink in one hand. Kirk knew Meade for a teetotaler, but when he saw that she had installed a bar along one wall, he swallowed what would probably have been an incomprehensible comment about yardarms and joined the party.

"What are we drinking to?" he asked as Meade poured him a slug of what turned out to be orange juice.

"Admiral Harnum and the Rigan planetary administrator are making some kind of announcement in a few moments," Meade said blandly. She indicated three small screens where the Vulcan, Romulan, and human programs were running with sound turned down. "Turn it up, 'Rid."

The youth complied, but he dropped back into his chair with a languid gesture. "It won't be anything important," he predicted.

"Why do you say that?" Kirk asked.

"My father's making it," Farrid said dryly. "That means it's a canned speech someone else wrote about what happened yesterday."

Meade cast a meaningful look at Kirk, who said, "Let's see," in as neutral a voice as he could manage.

Harnum, resplendent as usual in dress whites, and Barat, in what looked like judicial robes, appeared on the screen behind a rostrum. A crowd of newsmongers, their omnidirectional pickups floating like miniature satellites a foot above the silvery "epaulettes" that anchored and controlled them, took their cue from someone out of sight and began asking questions. They had evidently already been briefed, and after a moment the image of the two speakers filled the screen. Harnum made his announcement concisely: Ochros, with its planetary systems, was crossing into Federation space and would henceforth be the beneficiary of all opportunities and obligations inherent in that situation. Barat confirmed that the information was accurate. Kirk felt a tinge of irritation as some Enterprise-generated schematics and diagrams took Harnum's place, but he dismissed it as pettiness on his part. Something other than that was bothering him about the newscast, and he finally identified it. The presentation carried a feeling of conscious control and rehearsal rather than the spontaneity and conviction he'd expected. Appropriately, neither speaker speculated on the ramifications of the event. The human newscasters weren't so reticent, however. Their portion of the broadcast immediately switched to man-in-the-street interviews. Responses were fairly non-committal, ranging from "It's not for me to say," to "I don't decide such things; I'll have to ask—" and a mumbled name Kirk couldn't hear. The interviewer approached either a Romulan or a Vulcan, got his question out, then hastily backed out of reach when he got a dark stare and no answer.

Farrid had leaned forward and gripped his glass when the announcement was made, his face intent, the languid pose forgotten, but when he felt Kirk's eyes on him, he leaned back nonchalantly again. He lowered concealing lashes over whatever emotion he thought his sea-green eyes might reveal, but there was a flush of color along his high cheekbones.

His voice was tinged with irony as he said, "We call that a song and dance routine."

So do we, Kirk didn't say. In fact, if they had deliberately set out to convey the idea that the revelation was tentative or false, they could hardly have done better.

"Will people believe them?" he asked.

"Well, it would explain why we've been honored with so many unexpected visitors." Farrid sighed. "If it's true, I suppose they'll have to believe it, won't they?"

His tone was still light, his glass swaying between a casual forefinger and thumb; but Meade was frowning at him, and Kirk felt the way he had as a boy when a brightly colored minnow evaded his effort to grasp it.

Kirk kept his tone as light as the boy's. "This may change your feelings about being a civilian consultant to Starfleet."

Farrid felt the challenge and glanced up. "No, Captain. It may necessitate changing some arrangements, though. If you don't mind, I'd like to beam down now. I'll be back this evening."

"Fine."

Farrid scattered an impartial smile around the room and left, taking his glass with him. There was a little silence while Meade stared after him and Kirk chewed his lip. "Think he'll come back?" he asked.

"No way to tell," Meade said. "But I have a feeling it might be the safest place to have him."

Kirk nodded slowly. There was that simmering air of intrigue about Farrid, as if every sentence and gesture were a double or triple entendre. The boy drew the eye like a master of illusion. But what was the illusion intended to hide?

"Now comes the hard part," Meade said. "We wait until they get up the nerve to ask us for help. Interesting times."

~ * ~

The screens had cleared to an image of Riga from a close planetary orbit. It looked, as did any world with sufficient moisture, like a cloud-streaked marble that would fit in a child's hand. Kirk fought off the distancing image. Riga was a world, one that had just been struck with that most deadly of weapons, information. The shock waves would spread out from each small epicenter of a realizing mind, overtake each other, and build into a tsunami of change that would leave no life on the planet—or above it—unaltered. Undiminished, those shock waves would leave the planet, cross the void—information always travels in the fastest way possible—and impact on other planets and habitats. What happened now on Riga would shake Empire and Federation, travel beyond them, and cause effects undreamed of lightyears away.

Meade was watching him affectionately when he surfaced from his reverie. She must have followed his train of thought empathically, because she said, "Well, who wants a boring job anyway?"

Kirk shrugged. She was right. He'd asked for a large helping of life. Now he had it. At least he knew he was involved with the teeming life of the galaxy, that he could cause change, that he was responsible for his actions. A relay tripped in his brain and completed his thought about Harnum's performance with the planetary administrator and Farrid's distracting illusions. The performer and the illusionist walked off the stage at the end. The audience was no more real to them than their own magic and, magically, it was replaced whole and new again each time the curtain went up.

To hell with the yardarm, he thought. "How about a real toast? To boredom for everyone who likes it. I don't envy the Rigans."

Meade added vodka to his orange juice. "You're feeling it, too? I wonder who else is getting premonitions."

~ * ~

Rho and Dia had beamed back to the unlisted coordinates of the Hreth Malock enclave with a premonition of their own as to what Man would say if he knew what had happened to them. Without a word shared, each knew the other had a reason to conceal their disastrous flight and encounter with the Enterprise physician. It made them unusually biddable when Rho was informed that she was to remain incognito and preferably secluded in her suite and Dia was ordered to prepare for an encounter at the Gan Encre reception later that night.

"I have no skill at this," Dia protested half-heartedly. "Anyone could do it better than I can."

"Anyone is not my daughter. Anyone cannot ask an introduction to the Federation captain at will. I will tell you exactly what to do. I ask very little of you, Dia. But this I command. Complete this one task to my satisfaction, and then you can enjoy your vacation as you please." He had obviously dismissed her protests that an absence from Firstport was the last thing she wanted at this stage in her studies.

That's how it always is, Dia thought. I might just as well not exist. My will, my wishes mean nothing to him. He cannot even be bothered to remember that I don't want to be here. Very well, I'll be a dutiful daughter. Until midnight. Then maybe for once I'll have the courage to be myself.

Rho controlled her impatience at this soft prison Hreth Malock had brought her to. She was remembering the savage satisfaction she had felt when she and Tal landed safely on the falling mirror, her determination to save Dia, her instant grasp of the situation and the only possibility of rescue. That was what she had lived for once, and she savored the sensation of vitality right down to the throb of her lacerated wrist, which she kept carefully concealed from Man Hreth Malock.

~ * ~

Concealment had been on Farrid's mind, too. When he left the Enterprise, he had given the transporter tech the coordinates of the busiest public nexus on Riga. From there he programmed three more jumps, waiting each time until two or three other individuals were programming transfers. When he was finally convinced that anyone attempting to trace him would have thirty-odd possibilities to check out, he transferred one more time to the campus where he was, putatively, a student.

After the abrupt changes to time schedules other than his own, he found it pleasant to stroll through early evening sunlight and exchange greetings with passing students. They all recognized him, often waving or calling him by his nickname. His public persona was so well known that he was almost invisible inside it. From behind this facade he watched how the groups formed and separated again, how the pace of other strollers had been accelerated by the broadcast. He made his own slow progress an unappreciated artistic triumph, but his hands were sweating and his heart pounding anyway. Now the students in the Student Resistance Alliance would have something besides rhetoric to fasten their hopes on, and he knew more, much more, than they did about the Federation humans on the ship above.

It was typical of his public persona that he had been able to infiltrate the supposedly secret group. Since he was twelve, Farrid had made a career out of curiosity. It was a joke among his father's staff that he knew more about running the planet than the administrator did—and equally accepted that he was incapable of doing anything with his knowledge. Farrid always took the course of least resistance, with the single exception of his interest in the art of self-defense. It had been beyond even his ingenuity to disguise the daily practice and endurance training that kind of fitness required. It had taken considerable resolve, at the age of fourteen, to arrange to have himself beaten up badly enough to justify the aberration. The broken bones had healed, but the Romulans who did the job had added an unordered refinement. Alone, with no guide or mentor, Farrid had turned the psychic wound of their callous rape into the finishing gloss of his disguise.

He was public, persistent, and seen as so ineffectual that even the leaders of the SRA didn't know how to react when he finally tracked them down. On the face of it the last thing they wanted was the son of the administrator, who was well known as a Romulan puppet. But they didn't want to arouse interest by harming him, either. Since they couldn't simply send him away and risk what he would say, they tried to deal with Farrid as other secret societies have tried to settle the problem of unwanted volunteers. They admitted him to the lower ranks of the organization and swore him to secrecy. Which was acceptable to Farrid, who never let rank intimidate him anyway. If he could be privy to information at the highest level, he never seemed to care who made the decisions. They had had to admit he was good at finding things out. Gradually, as he had intended, he became a non-voting member of the elite.

His stroll now took him across a rather neglected quadrangle and into a Romulan-style residential area, where berms sheltered all but the highest windows and the roofs of the dwellings. Weeds trailed down the sloping earth and grew in tangled arches clear across some of the slots that led down to the entryways. Farrid turned down one of these and announced himself at the door. After a moment it opened.

The anteroom, cluttered like any student residence with cloaks, trivia, and sports equipment, led into a communal room with a tier of seating built around three walls, and a large viewscreen and two computer carrels occupying the fourth. Two students looked up as he entered: a fair young man and a girl with a suspiciously sardonic cast to her features. She wore her hair defiantly up, to show perfectly normal human ears, but she used more color on her lips and cheeks than was quite fashionable. Farrid had never seen her nails without a coat of polish.

"Where have you been?" the girl exclaimed. "Don't you know your father has had people looking for you all over the city?"

"He knows I'm here," said Farrid. "I took an unplanned excursion—halfway to Romulus and back."

The fair boy stood up. "You were taken? They could have found out everything!"

Farrid sat down uninvited. "Thank you, thank you, for your confidence in my intelligence. Naturally, the first thing I did upon being kidnapped was inform my captors that I was a student resistance worker, sworn to overthrow the Empire." He adjusted a jeweled bracelet that had been somewhat obscured by his sleeve—and that effectively hid the marks of manacles still circling his wrists. "They simply trembled at the thought."

The fair boy stared at him for a moment, then flushed. "I didn't mean to insult you," he said awkwardly. "I'm glad you got away. If you came to see Ari, though, you can't. The Veithans are all being called home. His family sent for him." He looked miserable. "It's hopeless now. What can we do without them?"

Farrid masked a flicker of impatience with a downcast look. "What indeed? Shall we surrender or simply disband?"

"You think everything is a joke," the girl said in disgust. She went back and sat down at her carrel.

"No-o-o-o," Farrid drawled. "Not entirely. So Ari's already bound for Veith? No stopover on Dow to risk his neck with the Ganycows?"

"It's not our place to discuss his plans," the fair student said. "If you have something to say, tell me and I'll pass it on to the committee."

Farrid turned the bracelet on his slender wrist, debating. There was every chance Ari could be reached on Dow, but if he tried it and failed, no one on Riga would know the danger they were in. On the other hand, he had less influence on these two, and the other human members of the committee, than he did with the Romulans from Veith. He could appreciate the irony of having his fellow humans as the first obstacle in his path, but it was true. There were reasons Rigans doubted their own abilities, and the reputation he had established over the years gave these two no particular reason to trust him. And he was loath to give up his pose.

He shrugged. "Perhaps it wasn't important. But they might be interested to hear what O'Neill was planning to bring back from Romulus. He might not make it, of course, in which case—"

"Don't be provoking, 'Rid," the girl said. "Just tell us."

"Enough sundust to take care of the human problem."

"They can't," the blond boy said, as the girl lost color under her cosmetics.

"It was planned before the Federation ships came, before, so far as I know, anyone here knew we were trespassing into Federation space. I would say the families have decided we're not worth keeping."

"Dust is a seed," the other boy said. "It's illegal on Rom—any habitable planet—Do you know what it would do in Nod with all the water it needs and no enemies? Even if they were willing to kill all of us, there are thousands of Romulans and Vulcans here. They wouldn't risk growing it at random over a whole planet!"

"No? Perhaps you're right." Farrid stood up. "In any case, I thought the committee should know. I'll be going now."

"You can't leave," the boy protested. "You have to stay—talk to them yourself. Rom! They won't believe this. I don't believe it."

Farrid made a helpless gesture with his hands as he prepared to make his departure. "And you were so sure they would know what to do. What a pity. I have to be off, though. Nice to see you again—David? Davis." He turned toward the door, in spite of the helpless "Wait!" behind him, then paused, as if with an afterthought.

"If the committee can't come up with a plan, there is one person who might help."

"Your father?" Davis asked doubtfully.

Farrid's bark of laughter was quite spontaneous. "What a novel idea. But I had in mind the captain of the Enterprise."

The girl had joined them. "He's only human," she said. "The SRA has to look out for itself."

The urgency of his need to be gone, find Ari, and do something besides talk betrayed Farrid into a crudity he wouldn't ordinarily have used. "At times I wonder if the SRA is competent to look out for sludge in a sewer."

McCoy could have warned him about the amazing sensitivity of females to the impact of language, had the occasion arisen, but Farrid had never been warned, and he never saw the slap that came out of nowhere and bounced his head smartly off the doorjamb. All his martial exercise was no use against the unexpected blow.

"Oh!" the girl said guiltily as Farrid sank peacefully to the floor. Both students looked down at him in surprise. "I didn't mean to knock him out," the girl said after a moment. She sounded almost sullen. "It isn't my fault."

Davis tugged at his fair forelock. "It's done now. We can't leave him on the floor."

Together they picked up Farrid's limp form and stretched him out on the seating platform. Davis slid a pillow under his head. "He's going to be mad when he wakes up," he said. "I wish you hadn't hit him so hard."

"It was an accident. Anyway, he should tell the committee himself. When will they get here, do you suppose?"

"Not till after the bulls. What if he wakes up and still wants to leave?"

The girl pulled the pins from her upswept hair and freed the russet ribbon that had been interwoven with the coils. "Tie him up," she said with decision. "It will serve him right for trying to scare us to death; and anyway, I don't want to miss the broadcast myself."

 

XIII

Since Meade had commanded his presence as a distraction, Kirk dredged out his dress whites one more time and added the multicolored triangles of his commendations. He was keyed up to a state of controlled energy more appropriate for a yellow alert than a supposedly recreational evening. When he joined the others in the transporter room, he felt the same excitement in the others. Spock appeared composed in his whites, but he had not entirely lost the dark aura of determination that Kirk had felt in the turbolift. It lay about him in a psychic shadow. Meade wore a floor-length jumper over her working coverall with an amount of tasteless jewelry that overwhelmed her. Kirk's eyebrows went up as he recognized the technical nature of the glittering display.

"I thought you didn't approve of surveillance."

"These?" Meade jangled her bracelet. "Tools of my trade. We're not going to have fun, and I sincerely doubt the Romulans invited us because they're so social. They'll be watching us, too."

Sarek and Amanda entered, the ambassador in formal black, his bondmate blooming up and out of a rose-and-cobweb confection that moved with every breath of air. Kirk felt from them, too, the electric charge of anticipation.

"Well—we've been invited into the parlor. Shall we go?"

They beamed to the provided coordinates, a raised platform in the center of a large room filled with people. Conversation missed a beat as the party sparkled into view, and then began again, more animated than before. Kirk had intended that he and Spock would flank Ambassador Sarek, but whether by intention or design, the rest of the party materialized in formation behind him. A Romulan with the self-satisfied look of a fox welcoming a deputation of the henhouse auxiliary stepped forward to greet them.

"I'm your host, Captain, Ombry Gan Encre. Dr. Morrow, Ambassador, I'm in your debt. You grace my house. I had intended a smaller affair, but today's news was so stunning that everyone wanted the opportunity to meet you."

"Everyone" seemed to be almost exclusively Romulan. The few humans Kirk saw were serving drinks, and only two or three of the guests in view appeared to be Vulcan.

"It's not my news, sir. Allow me to introduce my first officer, Mr. Spock, and Ambassador Sarek's bondmate, Amanda."

"This is the second time I've had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gan Encre," Amanda said with her usual graciousness. "Mr. Barat was kind enough to introduce us. Is he here this evening? I'd like to see him again."

"If he is not here now, he shall be. How could I deny the request of so lovely a lady? So distressing for you—and the ambassador—such a fortunate outcome. Again Captain Kirk saved the day."

Gan Encre seemed determined to force the conversation back to Kirk and his achievements as they moved off into the crowd. Guests drifted up to be introduced, and Kirk was aware of Meade turning and gesturing to give her gadgets a full view of the room. Kirk fielded names and introductions, assuring himself mentally that Scott would not fail to make their prearranged "emergency" call in an hour's time. Just as he thought that they should begin to split up, rather than hanging together in military formation, Spock stepped aside and Sarek and Amanda moved out of the group. Kirk moved and smiled and spoke and accepted food and drink as if he had not coated his stomach with universal antidote before accepting the invitation.

Meade excused herself to speak with someone who interested her, but Kirk's host led him doggedly around the room. With peripheral vision—and possibly ESP—Kirk kept track of Spock's progress through the crowd.

"And this is Lady Dia, Captain, Dia Hreth Malock."

This was not the enemy Kirk had been expecting. She was young, in spite of the silver streak at each temple, stiffly proper and, he suspected, as uncomfortable with the introduction as he was. He bowed, scraping the dust barrel his brain had become, trying to think of something to say besides, Is your cousin still alive?

Dia's chin came up under his scrutiny. "Are you looking for a family resemblance, Captain?" It was as gauche as a slap in the face, and she realized it, flushing a pale jade that made him re-estimate her age downward again and moderate his response.

"I don't have to. It's obvious your clan runs to beautiful—and courageous—women." He held her eyes a moment, aware of Gan Encre watching them with a peculiarly malicious expression. The man was no friend to either of them. If the girl had been a little older, a little more in control, Kirk would have found a way to speak with her privately. There had never been a whisper of information about the Romulan commander. Kirk didn't know which would be worse: to know for sure that she had returned to a traitor's death or to continue with his present uncertainty. But the girl was doubly his enemy, and she looked past him to her host's gloating expression.

"Not so courageous, Captain. I doubt even you would abduct me in the presence of my friends. And it is extremely unlikely we shall ever meet again. Good evening." She turned on her heel and left. Gan Encre stepped aside, too, leaving Kirk stranded in the middle of the floor.

Clever, Kirk thought. What next?

Next was a tall Romulan who stepped forward and introduced himself, only to be joined by a second. Kirk acknowledged introductions and let them carry the conversational ball to the topic that was bound to be introduced sooner or later. Spock drifted into view across the room and lifted a brow, but Kirk signaled silently that he didn't need rescue. In a few moments the debate came around to the day's announcement and what the Empire would make of it. Kirk let himself be drawn.

"I wasn't aware that the Empire had a claim to worlds in the Neutral Zone," he said mildly. "In fact, both Empire and Federation have done a tolerable job of honoring the treaty for over a hundred years."

"You're hardly the person to claim that the Federation 'honored' the treaty, Captain," one of the Romulans said. "It surprises me to hear that you've forgotten the destruction of a Romulan fleet less than four years ago... when you commanded it."

Kirk sighed. "One ship hardly constitutes a fleet, sir, although that ship did incalculable damage to Federation outposts on our side of the boundary. And I did not destroy it. I was subsequently given to understand that the ship's commander had been acting without the sanction of the Empire."

"I'm sure he was, Captain," said another Romulan from the growing circle. "Just as you were the victim of an unfortunate navigational error when you violated Romulan territory."

Kirk smiled. "Exactly. Two such unfortunate incidents in a hundred years are still preferable to war."

That was the word they had been waiting to hear, and after a little pause they launched the next topic. Kirk wanted to see how far they would take it, but he was also counting down in his head. Meade's hour was ticking away.

"Since you mentioned it first, Captain, what assurance do we have that war, a deliberately staged war with the Empire, commencing with an attack on Riga, is not the intention of the Federation in making this announcement?"

"If it were the intention of the Federation to make war—which it is not—it would be extremely poor tactics to do so by attacking a neutral planet." Kirk ran his eyes around the circle of intent faces. "On the contrary, gentlemen. Within the Federation, a neutral planet enjoys the same protection a member planet does—from outside attack." He lifted his glass with a challenging glint in his eye. "The benefit—without the cost."

"What if the Empire begins it?" a young voice asked.

"Over Riga?" another asked incredulously. For a moment several voices rose hotly, but they all fell silent as a newcomer spoke from the periphery of the group. He followed the usual tall, lean pattern and was marked at the temples with silver.

"Let the captain speak. What is his answer—if the Empire chooses not to accept these Federation claims?" The speaker's voice was soft—silk over steel—and Kirk was aware of currents again, half-sensed, charging around their circle. The quarrelsome voices stopped in mid-sentence. Spock was suddenly keeping station at Kirk's shoulder, offering wordless support. A human servant, with a tray of drinks, paused at the outskirts of the group, saw the solid wall of Romulan backs, and moved on.

"Come, Captain, don't let modesty deter you," the speaker goaded. "I am genuinely interested in your answer."

I'll bet you are. Kirk measured his inquisitor with one inclusive glance that locked the face in his memory for later recall. He had never been good at ignoring a challenge, and he could see no reason to continue as the only shining star of diplomacy present. Eyes were fixed on him from all around the room, ears turned his direction. He might as well give Meade her money's worth before he left this polite arena for his own night out.

"There's only one answer to war, gentlemen: Stop it."

"And how would you do that?" came the needling reply.

"How?" Kirk let the social mask drop for a second and matched his inquisitor eye for eye. "Why, the same way I did the last time." He held the Romulan's eye a moment longer, then turned to Spock. "Ready, Commander? Good evening, gentlemen. It's been my pleasure."

They turned and walked away, feeling the stares at their backs. After a moment Spock said, "Even among Romulans, it is customary to bid farewell to one's host."

"My host set, me up," Kirk said. "You do it. I'll meet you by the potted palm."

Years before such an order might have given Spock pause, for the growing plants in the Romulan's home bore no resemblance to palms of any species; but he made no comment now, merely went in search of Gan Encre. Kirk propped himself against the container of one of the plants and watched Spock maneuver through the crowd. He stopped once to speak to his father, and as Kirk watched, Amanda moved up beside him.

"You have a very unVulcan face, Captain. What amuses you so about watching my son and my husband together?"

Kirk met her conspiratorial twinkle with one of his own. There was no point in getting hot under the collar over a little social knife work. From the first time he had met Amanda, Kirk had been drawn to her. She possessed a delightful combination of charm and comfort—something his own mother had lacked, or at any rate not lavished on her sons. It wasn't in Kirk to make comparisons, but he was glad that Spock seemed to have reconciled with both his parents.

"Stand here and look," he said, drawing her closer.

With her perspective altered, Amanda saw the similarities he had been watching—the stance, the slightly disdainful visage, the same height, build, and coloring, even the same tilt to the head. She smiled. "For too many years, I feared I would never see them like that. I'm very grateful to you."

Kirk shook his head and stuck to the topic at hand. "It tickles me to see Spock get the Vulcan treatment himself. You should have seen them on the Romulan ship. Sarek wanted to walk with that hobble on his foot, and Spock told him it would be illogical to cause himself further injury. Sarek couldn't very well admit it was pure masculine pride that made him want to get out under his own steam, so he had to give in, but he didn't like it. And Spock would have done exactly the same thing, used exactly the same words—'Captain, I am quite capable—' I'm allowed to holler when it hurts, but not him."

Amanda monitored an indecorous smile and ran her fingers over a cool leaf, feeling the midrib and raised veins. "I think it's been a long time since you 'hollered' when it hurt, Captain. I wonder what you were like as a little boy."

"Rotten," he said with a chuckle. "Always in the soup. Sam kept hauling me out, though. He thought I'd amount to something if the neighbors let me grow up. I didn't have a father around to warm my backside, so Sam took over."

"That's your brother. You lost him, didn't you?"

Kirk's face sobered. "Yes, on Deneva, with Aurelan, his wife. I almost lost my nephew, too. Would have if Spock hadn't played guinea pig."

"There's a great deal Spock hasn't told me," Amanda said. "And it's impossible to pry. Do you know that Vulcans don't have a word for gossip? It's not that I want to know his deep, dark secrets. I just want to know how he grew from that guarded, self-sufficient, lonely little boy into—well, mothers don't have to be modest, do they?"

"Not with Spock for a son. Ask the computer for a printout of his achievements and commendations."

"I'd rather ask you." Amanda's glance was warm with affection and full of curiosity.

"How long have you got?" Kirk countered. "It would take me about a month to tell you all he's done for me and the ship. To be purely selfish and practical, he's the best first officer in the Fleet. He's bright, brave, incurably honest, and loyal to a fault. He's broken me out of jail, held my head while I heaved, and stepped right between me and what looked like certain death. I know I've asked him to do things that go beyond any obligation of duty or friendship, and he has never, ever, let me down. The only fault I can think of is that he's overprotective."

Amanda had been listening with her full attention focused on Kirk as he tried to express what he felt. She had heard so many criticisms of Spock, had so often longed to defend him herself, and always refrained, knowing any lapse toward emotionalism in her would later be used as a weapon against him. She had heard their friendship was famous, but that was from the Vulcan contingent, who used it as a slur against Spock. This second stay aboard the Enterprise was the first time she had heard Spock's co-workers speak of him.

She could never verbalize what she had felt in Spock's mind. That was his. But she could speculate all she wished in the privacy of her own thoughts, and Kirk's musical voice carried all the conviction anyone could require. These were more than polite phrases spoken to please her.

"McCoy says Spock 'pulls you out of the soup' now."

"On numerous occasions."

"Vulcans do not give their regard lightly, Captain. And it can be somewhat overwhelming when they do. But it is given forever." She thought she saw a glint of uncertainty in the hazel eyes and turned away from them, finding Spock and Sarek in the crowd. Sarek looked up.

"Sarek has seen us," she said. "Now, if he is losing the debate, he will break it off with the excuse that he has to take me dancing." Sarek's subsequent gesture was almost a pantomime of Amanda's statement.

"Dancing? Sarek?" Kirk looked slightly stunned.

"Why not, Captain? Dancing is good exercise, and an excellent opportunity for Vulcan ears to overhear what was not intended for them." Amanda noted how Sarek's approach triggered an involuntary straightening to attention on Kirk's part. Sarek paused at conversational distance, Spock at his shoulder and slightly behind him, in the position he usually adopted with Kirk.

"Wife."

"Sarek. Spock." Amanda acknowledged these two men of hers with Vulcan propriety—and human warmth. "I was just explaining to the captain how convenient it is to have a husband who cannot claim sleepiness as an excuse not to go dancing."

"Since I sacrificed my dignity on the dance floor, Captain, it appears I lost it in conversation as well. Will it inconvenience your crew to beam us over in the early hours of the morning?"

"Not at all, Ambassador. Enjoy your—exercise."

Spock moved to Kirk's side as the captain made determined progress toward the transporter in the center of the room, and the ambassador pitched his voice for his wife's ears alone. "I wonder why the usually respectful captain should express his good wishes in just that way?" he asked as the two forms were hidden in transporter dazzle.

Amanda's look was innocent, but her mental screens were blatantly in place. "I have no idea, Sarek. Have you noticed that the captain regards our son—most fondly?"

One Vulcan eyebrow rose, but it was hardly expressive of shock. "I have observed it."

They passed out of the ballroom to a balconied walkway. Gan Encre's residence evidently occupied most of a hillside. They could look straight out into the luminous air, as they had done at the viewpoint. Two coppery cumulus clouds floated in smoke gray depths as limitless as sky, as changeable as sea. Amanda rested her hands on the railing of the balcony.

"Would it hurt you very much to see the direct line die out?"

"The clan never dies, my wife. Spock has already brought great honor to our house." He paused for a moment and then continued. "Even I do not think he owes it his whole happiness."

Amanda touched his hand, but in her mind it was a kiss, a lingering caress to those strong hands that were so gentle with her.

"I'm glad you feel that way. It might make his choices easier if he understood your thinking."

"It is—not possible for me to initiate such a topic with Spock. I have shown approval of his choice."

"I know. Markedly so. And I know how difficult this is for you. I only mention it, Sarek. You will do what is right."

He had not always chosen what would make her—and Spock—happy, and regret for it flowed through their mental link. Amanda's reassurance flowed back with her ever-surprising warmth. This frail human creature had a generosity of spirit that moved him past logic. "You do approve, I take it," he said aloud.

Amanda smiled at the flame-edged cloud formation. Two winged flyers were riding the thermals dangerously near the clouds. Their flight looked free and aspiring to her. She had given up many kinds of freedom in her life to gain that one freedom of choosing her lifemate. It was not a topic she could treat lightly.

"I am an expert on the arguments against human-Vulcan bonding. I accept that there will be prices to pay. If it is James's choice to pay them, as well as Spock's, then I wish nothing more for my son than the happiness I have had."

"You would have wished more children."

If the effort to birth one Vulcan child had ended all hope of another, seeing what he endured would have. Amanda knew Sarek chose not to touch her mind at that moment out of consideration for her privacy, but she missed the intimate touch. It reminded her of the anxious days when she had not been able to feel his presence.

"A child can separate as well as join. Our way is not the only one." She banished the sad feelings and kept the smile, reached out and put her hand on Sarek's like any human wife. It was most indiscreet, but it reassured her that her touch still moved him. "My son has chosen a warrior's life. It wouldn't make me unhappy to see him bonded to the greatest warrior of our time."

It was not that she had illusions about long life and unadulterated joy. Sarek could feel her tension physically, even without the link. She feared what any mother did: that her child would suffer, that she would outlive him. But better than Sarek, or even Spock, she understood the urge that had lifted Kirk like a rising star above his fellows. There was no guarantee of length of days. And yet she, like her son, would choose that brief glory.

He looked down into her eyes. "And Vulcans pride themselves upon acceptance."

"I do accept it, now. But I have learned from you that practicality has its place. Our seed is preserved in the family vaults. Theirs could be the basis for generations to come. That might comfort me when acceptance is not so easy."

Sarek shook his head, openly marveling at her. "You still shock me, Amanda."

"I am only human, after all." It was a warm and often repeated excuse. "Very human. If you do not immediately take me to the dance, I may do worse than shock you—my husband."

 

XIV

Kirk and Spock had returned to the Enterprise just long enough to rid themselves of their conspicuous uniforms. With his, Kirk jettisoned all thoughts of Ochros, Riga, Veith, and their problems. He rejoined Spock, tingling with all the anticipation of a ten-year-old promised a trip to the circus. Some of Gavin Lapsley's research had turned up the fact that it was possible to lease local non-military transportation, and Kirk had a dangerously sporty deep-space and atmospheric craft docked outside the shuttle bay. He had not brought Spock there deliberately to remind him, but Kirk could not enter the cathedral quiet of the vast space without remembering how he had found Spock in the shuttle, how he had seen the perspiration staining Spock's shirt, dewing his skin, how pronounced his hot, metallic odor had been. Once having breathed it, Kirk felt as if a residue must have stained his lungs. He could taste it now, when Spock was cool and indifferent beside him.

Not indifferent, Kirk thought. That lunge across the transporter platform had not been indifference. His agreement to accompany Kirk tonight did not spring from indifference. He took the new craft away from the bulk of the Enterprise and through the moving lights of traffic approaching and departing Nod. Then they were alone and silent, one moving star in a string of them stretching from Nod to Dow. He didn't have to speak. He was happy just breathing the same air as Spock, surreptitiously sensing the warmth radiating from his body.

They docked in a pressurized hangar on Dow, locked the ship, and transported to the bullring. Dow had none of the beauty and finish of Nod. They transported into a rough-hewn chamber of bare rock from which there was only one exit, a cramped tunnel with the laser marks still showing. Down it came a warm breath of summer, a hint of clean stone heated by the sun.

"It smells like Vulcan," Spock said.

They walked to the end of the tunnel and moved out into what appeared to be the sudden space and light of a summer evening. The tunnel mouth gave onto a tier of a stone amphitheater. Below them, on the broad ledges closest to the ring, were groups of tables, seats, even small pavilions. Above them, around the highest tier of the ring, broken arches were raised against a clear evening sky flushed with violet light. Overhead, stars twinkled. It looked and felt real, even to the warm breeze that lifted the hair on Kirk's forehead. The stone, the light, the scents on the air all fostered the feeling that this structure stood alone in a thousand miles of wilderness, had stood there a thousand years awaiting the confrontation to come.

After a suitable pause for them to orient themselves, a waiter approached. Spock observed that he, like most other menials they had encountered, was human, and he turned to Kirk to make a comment. But the anticipation in the hazel eyes made him shelve it. The last month had held few occasions to bring that look of simple pleasure to the captain's face. Ship's business would keep. As they moved toward a table, a spotted bull cantered into the ring and out again. A murmur of appreciation swelled through the crowd. The waiter brought them drinks, and then seated a party of Romulans at the next table. Although they were wearing less spectacular garb than Farrid's, there was something similar about the group. Tentatively Spock catalogued them as students. The spotted bull was replaced by another, a gray one. The young Romulans began to applaud the bull and shout his name.

"Onion! Onion!"

Kirk leaned toward Spock. "I wonder why they call him that," he said, puzzled that such a magnificent animal didn't merit a more dignified name. He had forgotten that Romulan hearing was as keen as Vulcan. One of the boys heard him and turned to look. Kirk's humanity and his Vulcan companion caused an interested tilt of the brow, but the boy spoke pleasantly.

"Watch him and you'll see why."

The gray bull obligingly turned its back to them, circling, sizing up the crowd with an intelligent eye. Then it expressed its opinion of them by lifting its tail and letting fall a single ball of ordure. The crowd only applauded harder, and the boys stamped their feet against the floor.

Onion lifted his head with a fine display of his lyre-shaped horns and a flick of his ears. Then he turned and looked comically over his shoulder. Oh, my, he seemed to say. How rude of me! He stamped one forefoot and flicked around to contemplate the dropping, his hump shaking.

Weighs a ton and moves like a rollerskate, Kirk thought.

Something, Onion seemed to say, really must be done. He stamped his foot again, then delicately dug a hole, planted his "onion," and covered it up. When he had trampled the earth quite flat, he trotted in a circle, plainly taking the applause as his due. Finally he paused, his eyes on the door through which he had come.

He knows, Kirk thought. Clowning first to get the audience on his side, and then ready to take out the opposition.

Spock sipped his drink, for appearance's sake, and sat wondering just what folly he had agreed to. He certainly knew why he had agreed. The friendly glance Kirk turned on the students, the intent way he watched the bull in the ring below were eloquent of human happiness. Kirk's changeable eyes were almost green, the sun-struck lock of hair had fallen over his forehead, and his mobile features shifted with every thought and emotion. Although he was now watching the bull, all that life and vigor had been called into being by "the pleasure of your company." A deep inadequacy filled Spock with foreboding. It was not logical that any sane being, hurt as he had hurt Kirk, would court the same pain again. He wanted to say that he didn't deserve the credit, that Kirk should not hope, that he had not, and never would, alter his decision that the best thing for both of them would be his departure. But if this hour of happiness was all he could give, how could he spoil it? Spock was balanced on the horns of a dilemma far sharper than the real horns Onion lowered toward his adversaries.

Kirk was obviously enjoying himself as he spoke with the students. "This is the first time we've been here. What are the rules?" At the students' suggestion, he stood up to help push their tables together. Spock sighed mentally. Since this bull-leaping appeared to be the national sport, admission of such ignorance was tantamount to identifying them as out-of-system aliens. Next Kirk would be giving their real names.

Kirk sat down again and pulled the table straight. "My name's Jim and this is Spock."

The Vulcan acknowledged introductions to four Romulans—Ari, Zon, Pier, and Ero—and sat back to watch Kirk charm his way into a new circle. The students interrupted each other enthusiastically to give him a commentary on the merits of the maneuvers three men were performing in the ring with the bull.

"They're hired dancers, professionals," Pier said. He seemed the youngest. "Onion recognizes them. It all depends on his mood what we'll see. He might give them an easy triple or decide to kill one of them. There will be three professional teams, each with a different bull. Then when the bulls are a little tired, three amateur teams. Most are three people, a trio. Zon, Ari, and I are a trio. Ero just comes to bet on us."

Kirk began to pick up the fine points of the performance below. Onion had let himself be worked by the trio right up to the ultimate moment when the catchers moved back and the center man poised himself for the handstand on the horns—then he sat down, totally spoiling the drama of the moment. The audience howled, and Kirk laughed till his eyes watered, with a shamefaced glance in Spock's direction as he wiped the moisture away.

But the drama wasn't over after all. The disgusted leaper walked around the bull, cursing him, and ventured a kick to the seated rear end.

"He won't take that," Ari said. He was the quietest of the four students. He was drinking the least and watching the bull intently.

"Isn't it over?" Kirk asked.

"No. They can't leave the ring until they have tried the horns. If they succeed in getting a handstand, the doors open automatically. If they fail, they have to try twice more. That leaper shouldn't have made Onion angry. It was just a little joke. He would have let him leap the next time. Watch now."

The whole crowd was leaning forward, intent, as the gray bull stood up and shook the dust of the arena off his hindquarters. He looked back along each side, making sure he was clean, like a competent athlete checking his equipment. In the growing hush Spock could hear "five to two he gores him" and "even money that trio's a team before they leave the ring."

Onion took a step or two and looked around as if wondering what action would be appropriate punishment. He didn't even gather himself, but lashed out sideways with both hind feet so fast Kirk almost missed the move. A vast intake of breath around the arena seemed to support the leaper as he flew horizontally through the air. He landed like a heap of rags, and it was probable that he was dead before Onion's horn took him neatly in the groin, but the gout of green blood was just as impressive. It brought Kirk and the students to their feet, along with half the other spectators.

"They didn't even try!" Zon exclaimed, pointing at the catchers. "They should have tried to distract him."

Ari shook his head. "He brought them bad luck. One must respect the bull. But they still have to go against the horns—just the two of them."

Even with the taunting jeers of the crowd to urge them on, the two living Romulans in the ring didn't seem eager. Kirk realized it was all up to the bull. If he was satisfied with one kill, the two men would escape with their lives. If not, with their nerve shaken and the most skilled member of their team gone, they had no chance.

Evidently they decided there was no profit in waiting. One of them made a clumsy lunge at Onion's head while the other ran in on the horns. There was no doubt that the bull saw him coming, but he kept his head down and his horns parallel with the arena floor until the man grasped them, then he shook his great head sideways and threw him off.

Kirk looked at the students.

"It counts as long as they touch the horns," Ari said.

The second man took his chance then, but never really tried for a handstand. He swung on one horn while his partner went for the other. For a moment they both hung in mid-air as Onion lifted his head disdainfully, not impressed by their weight. The audience was not fooled by this display, and they hooted their disgust as the door in the arena opened and the men fell prudently back to let Onion exit first.

Pier agreed with the consensus. "Not much of a showing. How did you like it?"

Kirk looked from the corpse being dragged out of the arena to the Vulcan, and Spock framed his answer carefully. "The animal had wit and power. But I do not understand why men risk their lives for other men's profit." He glanced around at the prompt settling of accounts among the diners and drinkers there to watch the show.

Kirk thought he did understand it, but he let the Romulans answer.

"They stood to profit if they performed well," Ari said.

"There are less dangerous modes of employment."

"They didn't do it for the money," Pier protested. "It would have been wonderful if they'd done a triple. You'll see. Nothing is too good for a team or a trio who can bring it off. People send them gifts. Everyone recognizes them."

"Then the motive is glory," Spock said.

"No," said Zon. "People did it first without the audience, for the contest, for the honor alone. There's no audience when you're learning. It's hard. No one cares if you fail or lose your courage. No one applauds. But your blood sings, when you do it right, and the bull is your friend."

Zon was speaking to Ari as much as to the strangers. There was an expression of yearning on his face, not admiration or friendship only. Across the table Spock saw Kirk's chest rise and fall under the open satin shirt he wore. His eyes were very bright.

Evidently the first bout of the evening was the least important, because the intermission following it was filled with the bustle of new arrivals coming in to fill the reserved tables nearest the ring and crowding together on the bare steps above the wider tiers. Waiters circulated among them all, pouring wine freely, bringing covered dishes of food to the tables. A boisterous party was ushered toward the table next to their own, and Pier turned his head away with a muffled groan.

"Wouldn't you know it?"

"Know what?" Kirk asked. It looked like another party of students.

"Gan Encre's crowd. They hate Ari, and Zon's going to kill one of them someday." Zon had been drinking pretty freely, among friends, but he was far from drunk. Out of the corner of his eye, Kirk saw Ari reach for the pitcher of wine sitting before Zon. Zon grabbed his wrist.

"Don't be so greedy," Ari said casually. "My cup is dry. We can get more." Zon relaxed again with a muttered apology.

The loud group at the next table was getting the story of Onion's kill from the table on their far side.

"Well, what can you expect?" the group spokesman voiced. "If the leaper shows bad judgment—or if he's gutless—the catchers pay for it."

Zon's face went leaf green over his cheekbones, and Ari, who sat with his back solidly turned to the loudmouth, set his jaw. Pier and Ero exchanged worried looks. The table was suddenly alive with tension. Kirk put a restraining hand on Zon's shoulder.

"Tell me about the amateur matches," he said.

Pier launched a scrambled explanation, and under the warning stare from Ari and the firm hand on his shoulder, Zon slumped back in his chair. Ari and Ero deliberately joined in the conversation, explaining why the amateur matches and not the professional ones were the high point of the evening.

"It's a sport, not something you do for money," Ero said. "The betting—well, there's always that. Ganycows are bred on Veith, not Riga. They're expensive. One way a trio gets money to practice is by winning bets. And it helps pay for trips to Dow, where you can see better. Some bet around the ring, others place their wagers as soon as the professional teams are announced. That's what we did. If we win enough, we might—" He faltered under a warning glance from Ari, and looked at Zon's cup, which a waiter was just refilling. "We might make enough to come back some time and bid on a bull." He trailed off uncomfortably.

Kirk suddenly thought he understood why Ari had been drinking so little, but he still didn't understand the currents of tension between the two student groups. He singled out Pier as the most talkative member of the group.

"Show me the men's room, why don't you?"

"It's right over there—"

"Show me," Kirk said again. Pier didn't really want to leave the table, but for some reason he found himself tagging along behind the black-clad human. The retreat wasn't long on privacy, thought Kirk, sending a golden stream toward the hole in the floor, but none of the other crowd was there.

"What's the problem between Zon and the loudmouth?" he asked as he fastened his pants.

Pier glanced at him uncomfortably and then away.

"It's obvious there's something wrong," Kirk said.

"Zon drinks," the boy said miserably. "Last season we were in the ring and he had some kind of attack. Ari was just ready to leap, but he saw Zon stagger, and he signaled us out. Zon didn't see him. He went in alone and got gored. We played the bull away, and Ari leaped on the bloody horn. He came down wrong on the bull's back and cracked some ribs. I was the only one not hurt, but people didn't know how bad Ari was. They thought the accident was his fault, and then, when he had to lie up, healing, they thought he'd lost his nerve." The boy looked up, wanting to defend both his friends. "Zon wanted to tell people what had happened, but Ari wouldn't let him. He said it looked like making excuses, and the people telling the stories didn't care about the truth anyway. I think he wanted to protect Zon."

"Hmm," said Kirk, running his hands through a "clean" light on the wall. "Why is Zon still drinking?"

"He needs it. It was doing without that made him have the fit. He never takes too much before we go in the ring."

Dependent personality, Kirk diagnosed, as they returned to the table in the middle of the second professional match, a big red bull against another trio. Not that it was his problem. This was his night out with Spock, whom he'd been ignoring. The Vulcan looked up with no appearance of resentment or boredom. The faint lift of a brow asked whether or not Kirk had obtained the information he wanted. A nod just as faint said that he had.

The exchange flooded Kirk with unexpected emotion so that he had to look away from those dark, knowing eyes to keep his tide of feeling to himself. They didn't even need to talk. Just having Spock in the same room elevated Kirk's awareness of himself and his surroundings over the threshold of existence into a new dimension of pleasure that made everything else feel like sleepwalking. He hadn't touched Spock—couldn't, by the terms of their agreement—and he was still so happy he could sing, just being with him. It was ridiculous.

Spock wondered if Kirk seriously believed that an averted face and downcast lashes could hide a surge of feeling as audible as a shout. The pleasure in his face had been clear as a computer printout all night. The expectation, gratitude, and finally relief when they were safely away from the ship. Then the fascination with the drama of the bulls, the immediate interest in the students, the wariness when the other party came in. Emotion was so easy for him. Involvement in other people's lives, even strangers' lives, was as automatic for Kirk as breathing. When he saw a need he responded, and others bent as naturally to his leadership as reeds sway in the wind. And yet it wasn't the excitement of the new sport, or the pleasure of new acquaintance that had caused that rush of happiness. With no logic at all, Kirk was happy because a somber, flawed half-breed, with nothing to offer in return, had condescended to accompany him.

Spock cleared his throat and said the first thing that came to mind. "How do amateurs obtain their opportunity to participate?"

"That's my job," Ero said. "I keep our winnings, and when we have enough, I bid on a bull. They're auctioned off during the intermission. I can't bid too high, because then we wouldn't have anything left to bet."

The Vulcan considered the variables in the economic equation: bulls, competitors, the mood of the crowd, the necessity of a hedge against failure. "You hold a responsible position," he said.

Ero grinned. "I knew somebody would appreciate me eventually. That sounds better than 'Ero, get the tickets; why can't we afford wine; did you pack my tights—' Ow!" Ari had lobbed a nut across the table and bounced it off Ero's skull.

Pier brightened at this attempt to lighten the mood, but Zon was staring moodily into his cup. He didn't look up even when the leaper in the ring performed a perfect handstand on the horns and the audience cheered. Under the sound of the applause, a voice from the next table said, "Well, they don't have a coward in charge."

Zon's hand tightened on his wine cup, and Ari leaned forward and put a hand on his arm. "His mouth is the only weapon he has, and he won't hurt me with a little bad breath. Let it go, Zon. Ignore him." Ari gave his brooding friend a warning, comforting pat and turned the conversation back to the trio they had just witnessed. He managed to keep the conversation general through the third match.

Evidently serious eating took place between the professional and amateur events, because more dishes were added to those on their table. With the universal antidote taking up space in his stomach and on a different time schedule, Kirk urged the students to eat his share. While he and Spock sampled a few dishes, the boys made the bulk of the meal disappear in record time. Kirk began to appreciate that the evening on Dow was an expensive event in the lives of students, if they were economizing on such essentials as food.

"We shouldn't even be here," Ari acknowledged. "We're using up our transportation fund, and we'll probably wind up taking a garbage bin home, but it's almost the end of the season. This is the center. The best arena, the best bulls, the best performers. It's taken us five years to get ready for Dow. Whatever else happens, we had to see it once more."

Kirk realized that "whatever else" probably had to do with the presence of two Federation starships, but he didn't want to talk about current events. "You're not going to bid tonight?"

"No." Ari pointed at the table's demolished state with a grin. "You can't eat and leap. We couldn't afford it anyway, and they put the good bulls out to stud soon. We'll practice at home and try next season."

Zon looked up from his wine. "And you're not sure you can trust me. Don't forget to tell him that."

Kirk, at least, recognized pain behind the defiance and the alcohol behind the belligerence.

Ari leaned forward. "I trust you. It was an accident, Zon. Neither of us is really ready. It will be better next season."

"Or the season after," lilted a voice from beyond Ari as the bidding began on the first bull. "Or next year, or neveryear."

Zon shoved his plate away. "They're asking for it, Ari. It's not me!"

Kirk leaned back and unobtrusively freed his hands. Spock's eyes flicked over the area behind him and conveyed the message that it was clear.

"Sit down!" Ari commanded. "I leap for this trio, and I speak for it." He stood up, turning to face the group behind him. "I didn't hear you, Embry. Did you address a comment to me?"

The ringleader at the other table looked up in surprise. "Good evening, Ari. It's always a pleasure to see you." The drawled greeting made the stock phrase sound like a deliberate slur. Kirk's eyes moved from Ari to the other Romulan and back, assessing provocation and control. Embry continued, "Are you here to bid?"

"Not tonight," Ari said shortly. "You?"

Embry shrugged. "If I like the bull. It's a shame you're not leaping, though; I haven't seen your trio in a while."

"You'll see us when the bull—and the bid—are right. Good luck." Ari would have turned away, but Embry smiled suddenly.

"I am fortunate to have access to a long purse, but the bid is important, and I don't have Ero to advise me. What do you think of tonight's bulls?"

Kirk could tell by the stiffness of Ari's back that he didn't want to accept the conversational gambit, but he answered civilly.

"If we had the price, I would bid either Rednose or Onion, but you are the best judge of your own style." He bowed and turned back to his own party, ignoring the sudden whispers behind him.

"They're going to bid!" Pier's dark eyes were alive with excitement and despair. "He always said he'd get to Dow before us. Damn him and his father's fortune!"

Ari was also swallowing disappointment. "Never mind. It isn't who leaps first, but who leaps best. We didn't come to bid. Let's just enjoy the trip. I hope he does well."

"I hope he breaks his arrogant neck," Ero said candidly. "What bull will he pick?"

Evidently Embry's favor settled on Onion, because he stood up when the big silver bull entered the arena and determinedly outbid every other contender. In the last moments of bidding a spotlight shone on the three trios competing, flashing across the adjacent tables. The auctioneer held the last bid until it was clear no one was going to top it, and then awarded Onion's next match to "Embry Gan Encre, his trio," to the applause of the crowd that now filled the amphitheater to the top row of seats. An assistant scrambled up the steps with a metal seal giving the bull's name and the date. Embry held it up in one hand and stilled the applause with the other.

"Thank you," he announced in carrying tones that were subtly amplified around the ring, "but tonight I bid for a friend. Onion goes to Ari nepZenner, a most deserving amateur, and his trio!" He gestured toward the stunned students, and the spotlight jerked over into their faces as Embry tossed Onion's seal onto their table. For a moment no one could do anything but blink.

Spock saw everything in one clear gestalt: the challenge, all the handicap of tension in the trio, the heavy meal they had eaten, and Zon's drinking. He remembered Kirk's first sight of the gray bull and the light in his eyes when Zon had said, "Your blood sings." He remembered Kirk's shamed admission, "McCoy says I take risks to see you perform." Bull-leaping was a bloody, brutal sport, an unjustified risk—and it appealed to something deep in him, just as it did to Ari and Kirk. Why should Kirk have to take risks to see Spock "perform," if he did want to see it? And the shining eyes testified that he did.

Under the crashing applause of the crowd, he quoted Zon, "'—for the contest.'" It was said for Kirk alone, as intimate as a kiss. Light leaped up in the human's face and he leaned forward to cover the seal with his hand before Ari could reach for it.

"Give us the token. You aren't prepared tonight."

Ari looked at him in disbelief, dismay and determination in his face. "You can't do it—"

Kirk's eyes narrowed, and the mild, dangerous smile was curving his lips. "I am the captain of the Enterprise," he said deliberately. "My first officer was among the top one hundred gymnasts in the Federation during his Academy days. It's what we came for."

The applause was dying down, and Ari hesitated, common sense and curiosity warring inside him. People at nearby tables were turning to see what was causing the delay.

Kirk kept his hand on the seal. "Wouldn't you like to see," Kirk's whisper was a challenge, "our best—against yours?" And he nodded at Onion in the ring.

For one moment Ari actually believed that the bull might be the one in danger. He stood up abruptly, squinting in the light, and reached for the seal. He held it up in sudden silence.

"And we present Onion to a team from the Federation: Jim and Spock!"

A shock wave rippled around the ring, followed by a spatter of applause that embarrassed itself and died away. On Riga, Farrid stopped fighting his bonds and told his captors to shut up. On Nod, Rho turned in disbelief to the screen that had been murmuring and shifting images unnoticed in the background. Ari sat down and the spotlight winked out, leaving them half-blind in the gloom. Onion trotted out of the ring, and Ari came to full realization of what he had done.

"I've killed you," he said, his face pale. Zon dropped his head in his hands and groaned.

"Not yet," Kirk said cheerfully. "How do we get down there, and what do we have to do?"

"We'll go with you," Ari said in sudden decision. "Ero, pay the bill and get our gear. Hustle."

Spock fell in at Kirk's side as the boys led the way down and around and down again to a catacomb maze under the seats. Ari was giving rapid-fire instructions that Kirk and Spock followed intently. Ero came pounding up behind them with a bag full of gear. The light was poor as they walked a narrow lane piled with bales of fodder and bedding, and the animal reek was overpowering. Ari led the way into a small room where Onion was standing behind the bars of a generous cage, big as a breathing mountain. He turned a dark eye in their direction.

"You'll have to warm up before you go in," Ari was saying. "You'll wear tights—" He looked from Kirk's shoulders, which bulked wider than any of the students', down to his lean waist and trim hips. "I think mine will fit you. Pier is taller. Spock can wear his. I'm sorry there's no better place to change."

Ero was kneeling on the ground, unpacking rapidly. He held up two pairs of off-white tights. Kirk untied his belt and let his satin shirt slither off, bent to unfasten his boots. Across the crowded room he saw Spock pull his shirt off over his head, and the sight of him bending, muscles moving in his back, sent a jolt of stinging heat through Kirk's groin. He felt his cock come half-erect on a scalding pulse of lust.

He wrenched his mind back to what Ari was saying and didn't dare look at Spock again as they both took off their pants and pulled the tights on. Make your blood sing? Spock made his fizz like champagne. But he wished they both had more protection for the family jewels.

Ero sprayed their hands with something that would keep them dry and tacky, looked at their bare feet, and rummaged for another spray that numbed Kirk's soles to the sawdust prickle of the floor. Kirk began a series of stretches and bends as he listened to Ari's steady stream of information. He saw the worry on the boy's face fade a little as he watched.

It had been an eternity since he had worked out with Spock—an eternity since he had touched him—but Kirk kept his mind firmly on business when he turned and held out his hands to his first officer. He had always been the catcher in their routines, not because Spock didn't have the strength to catch him—he did—but because Kirk's center of gravity was influenced by the weight and muscle development of his upper body. Nor did he have the Vulcan's strength or spring. And there had always been something about catching Spock that satisfied Kirk. It was a way of saying, "I'm here for you. Trust me," even back in the days before friendship was openly acknowledged. Their warm-up routine was made up as much of combat moves as gymnastic ones, but Ari and his friends retreated to the wall and began to relax when they saw the speed at which they worked. Onion watched from his pen.

The sound of the audience, a ceaseless mutter like the sea, swelled suddenly to a tumult of sound that vibrated the floor and the walls around them.

"The first trio has gone in," Ari said. "It won't be long now. When you get into the ring, pay no attention to the crowd. They can't kill you and the bull can. Respect Onion. He has slain more men than I can remember, and it has always been when they thought themselves safe. He thinks it's funny. Tire him, if you can, but not until you're too tired to make your leap. You must try the horns three times in order to get out of the ring. Not just a pass at them, but both hands on the horns. Spock will leap?"

Kirk nodded, and Spock looked at his hands, apparently healed of the horrible burns he had received on Ixmahx. They were a fraction off full strength, perhaps, but serviceable.

"Spock," Ari turned to the Vulcan. "Don't try to do your catcher's job as well as your own. It is his function to be where you need him—to distract the bull, to steady you. If you had trained together, you wouldn't even need to look. You'd feel it in your body when he's there." Kirk's eyes challenged Spock's over their mentor's head. Ari went on. "If you miss a dismount, roll out of it and keep rolling. Onion will come after you." The boy turned back to Kirk, his face earnest. "You can hang on a horn to distract him. You can even blind him with your body; but the two places you could hurt a bull with your bare hands are his eyes and his balls, and you can't touch him there, not even to save Spock's life or your own. If you tried, they would drop the forcefield, and the crowd would tear you apart. Watch out for his feet. He can kick sideways as high as your head. Don't ever let him trap you against the wall. I saw him lean on a man till he burst like a grape."

The walls shook again with the crowd's roar of approval. This time it went on and on.

"They've made their leap," Pier said. "It's time."

Onion evidently thought so, too. He lifted his head, his horns rising up and up until they brushed the ceiling. Kirk had seen the scars around the walls of the room, but hadn't thought about what caused them. Some were three inches deep. Now he saw that the whole ceiling of the room was marred by an abstract crisscross of curving lines, with shards and splinters hanging down here and there.

"Don't try anything fancy," Ari said, wiping his hands on his pants. "Just get your hands on the horns for a count of three and let go again."

Onion snorted in his pen, turning to face the arena gate behind him. He looked back, horn angled out through the bars at a wicked tilt. Just try it, his dark eye seemed to say.

Kirk glanced at Spock's serious face, as absorbed and unexcited as if he faced some computer problem on the bridge. Faker, he thought. Spock caught his eye as the announcer's voice rolled around the ring. Kirk grinned irrepressibly. "Just think of those—" Kirk jerked a thumb at Onion's protruding deadly horns, "as parallel bars, Spock. That was always one of your better routines."

"Parallel bars," Spock said deadpan, "do not play murderous 'jokes,' have—" he glanced at Onion's swinging, leathery scrotum, "balls as large as most cows' udders, or smell like a barnyard. I think I understand why you are attracted to this animal, Captain. You have much in common."

So Kirk walked into the arena not sure whether he'd been insulted, complimented, or both—but he was laughing.

The ring was larger than it had seemed from above, and its walls higher. That comes from the days when they didn't have a forcefield, Kirk thought, sprinting with Spock after the retreating rear of the bull. It's to protect the spectators. Surface thoughts idled across his mind like the bright erratic flight of dragonflies. His feet pounded across the earth, and he could feel the silence of the watchers like a touch on his skin. He had forgotten Ari and Zon, forgotten how they came to be in the ring. The silver mountain in front of them was reason enough—that bull with the intelligent eye and the talent for killing.

Spock sprinted ahead and circled Onion's far side. The moving figure drew the bull's attention, and he swung toward Spock. The little hitch of his rump and the double kick aimed at Kirk could have been a mere slip of the foot—but his hooves whistled past Kirk's ribs with killing force.

Kirk reacted just in time to save his ribcage. You would, would you? The tufted tail almost whipped into his hand, and he gave it a solid jerk. Onion skidded to a stop and switched ends. He drew his front feet together and lowered his head at Kirk, a picture of affronted dignity.

You want to clown? Allow me to introduce myself. Kirk bowed to the bull. He let the bow flow into a one-handed cartwheel that took him within six inches of the horns. Since he could, he reached out and tapped one horn, then spun away as Onion charged. The united gasp and roar of the audience shook the ground under his feet as he frankly ran for his life. The wall was coming up fast. Kirk had no desire to be pinned like a butterfly or squashed like a grape, but cutting away to one side at the last moment would only give him a fifty-fifty chance of escape. He ran straight for the wall and leaped as high as he could, landing feet first and using his own momentum to turn the wall into a springboard. He tucked into a tight ball in the air and came down squarely into Spock's steadying hands.

"I thought I was supposed to catch you," he gasped.

Onion wasn't giving them time for conversation. He had heard the elusive human land behind him; he turned so fast that his horn scraped the wall, and came straight at them again.

As if by prearrangement, Kirk and Spock each grabbed a horn, and their two bodies arched up, only inches apart in full extension. Two, three, Kirk counted, and pushed off as he arched over and down, not quite clearing the hump and shoulder. He felt the velvety hide graze his back, and the steamy heat of working muscles under the skin. He took Ari's advice and rolled as he hit the arena floor. Adrenalin and the wall of sound from the approving crowd lifted him back to his feet in time to see Onion hook toward Spock. Kirk launched himself at the near horn and tried to drag the bull's head straight. It was like manhandling a small asteroid. He saw a flash of sea-pale skin, didn't know if Spock had been gored, and kicked Onion full on the muzzle.

Onion snorted and bucked, slinging Kirk around like a bundle of wash. Then he straightened out and ran, blind or not. Kirk couldn't see Spock. He hung on desperately as the far wall of the arena approached with dizzying speed. Would the stupid animal run right into it? Not so stupid, on second thought. Kirk was more likely to be dispatched by such an impact than Onion was. The ground flashing by underneath Onion's sharp little hooves didn't look inviting as Kirk's legs slipped off the bull's head. He was still clinging like a monkey in a hurricane, and the impetus of the bull's gallop jerked him back like a flag in a high wind. He got one heel over Onion's neck, dug in, and pulled himself up astride the soft folds of skin on Onion's neck. The hump behind him slid him almost down onto the horns, so Kirk grabbed them and locked his legs around Onion's throat as Spock, uninjured, caught up with them.

Onion skidded to a stop short of the wall, his head lowered, obviously puzzled by something that had never happened before. Spock looked from the bull's horns to Kirk's precarious situation.

"Come on up," Kirk panted. It was a joke, one of those smart-ass remarks he'd never been able to resist; but before it was out of his mouth, he felt Spock gather himself. There wasn't room for two of them, and Kirk was already leaning forward between the horns. He felt the downward dip as Spock's weight came onto the horns, felt the heat and shadow of Spock's body passing over him, unlocked his legs, and rolled down Onion's face in some kind of a somersault.

The bull switched ends again and his feet rang off the wall. Kirk felt something sting his back like an insect but didn't stay to see what had happened. He joined Spock in the relatively safer open space away from the wall.

The crowd was going wild. Cushions and napkins were falling onto the forcefield. The applause was one continuous roar. Kirk panted and watched the bull. It was obvious that Onion knew the applause wasn't for him. He kicked the wall again in a display of pure temper and hooked the arena floor with his horns, digging up impressive trenches with each stroke. Red was showing around his eye and in the moving socket of his nostril. A pocket of foam stood at the corner of his lip.

"I think—his—feelings—are hurt," Kirk managed to get out between gulps for air.

"I am not concerned about his feelings," Spock answered. "The exit is at the far end of the arena."

"I noticed. So has he." Kirk didn't turn to look for the door; he was watching Onion with half his attention, and the other half was watching the rise and fall of Spock's chest under its dark pattern of hair, his ribs lifting, the diagonal line of muscle high on his side, cleanly delineated against his chest wall. The skin at the side of his waist looked very soft and smooth.

Onion had noticed the dark opening of the doorway, even with his nearsighted eyes, and he was flanking them, his display a dare to try and make a run for it. Nothing had gone right. He had been made a fool of before the crowd he considered his supporters, by two unknowns who didn't even smell right. He was, literally, taking steps to remedy the situation. Once he was between his adversaries and the exit, he turned and trotted purposefully down the ring and took up a position twenty feet in front of the door.

You want to leave? he seemed to ask. You want to play with bulls? Very well, then, come and play. I'll show you the way out.

"Over the horns or not at all," Kirk summarized. "And the shooting gallery isn't about to interfere." Another roar of applause had gone up, but this time, it was clear, they were applauding Onion's maneuver.

"Then that," said Spock without looking at him, "is how we shall leave."

Together they began to walk down the ring, and Onion came forward a step, his head lowered, the perfect bull for leaping.

It was like being drawn into a current in space, Kirk thought. An invisible attraction turned their walk into a jog, into a gymnast's power run. No more warm-up. No more games. This was the moment of total commitment.

Kirk felt Spock gather and spring as if he had done it with the muscles of his own body. He himself ran past Onion's side close enough to touch it, turning in time to see Spock in a fully extended handstand, Onion's head moving up with perfect timing, adding force to Spock's release.

Spock arched over in the air, arms extended, his body luminous as a swan's in the spotlight. He touched down perfectly, all his energy contained, centered, balanced on Onion's level rump. Kirk had seen the flashing, fully extended backward dismount often enough to know what was coming, and he also felt Onion gather himself and spin in the instant the Vulcan's feet left his back.

In slowest motion, Kirk saw Spock soar up, tuck, and open out into a swan dive aimed for a touchdown, hands first, on Kirk's shoulders. He was perfectly positioned. And Onion's heavy head was swinging, swinging, the ivory tip of his horn as high as a man's heart, honed on death. Far away there was again a sound like the sea as Spock hung in the light, committed, condemned by gravity to come down in the precise place Onion's horn would be if Kirk moved.

Monoliths do not move. The massy atoms of collapsed stars, a million times denser than gold and lead, are impervious to the petty velocity of mere animals. Kirk sucked in his gut and willed his flesh to that density, his bones unbending and unbreakable. Spock's hands slapped his shoulders and Onion's horn hit a rib and sliced across his chest in the same instant. Spock was gone in a split second, and Onion tossed his head and looked over his shoulder, waiting for Kirk to fall, waiting for his applause.

Kirk half-expected it himself. He looked down, anticipating a bright spill of arterial blood, only surprised that he felt no pain. But there was nothing. A thin trickle down his side where the horn had pierced, bounced off a rib, and popped out again to leave a bright, welted scrape across his solar plexus.

"Missed," Kirk said to the bull, a little giddy with relief. He could see Onion's long lashes, silvery as his hide, as the eyelid slid down over the dark, wet eye. Onion was nonplussed. He sincerely did not know what to do. For some reason, Kirk was brimming with love for the power and guile of the animal, for Spock, because he had taken that extra leap, for the screaming crowd and the imitation stars over their heads. Onion's surprised look seemed to ask, "What now?"

"Take a bow," Kirk said absurdly. He reached out, took Onion's horn in his hand like a lever, and turned the animal to face the tidal wave of applause. Dimly, he was aware of Spock stepping close to the animal's head on the other side, taking the other horn. Kirk's right hand was on the hard, dry horn as Onion raised his head. Kirk lifted his left arm high, feeling the perfect unity of the moment. Perfect. And Spock was there.

~ * ~

Ten minutes later, reeking of Onion and exertion, roughly bandaged and crammed back anyhow into his own clothes—almost black and blue from the uncontrolled rejoicing of Ari, Pier, Zon, and Ero—Kirk's knees were shaking so hard he could barely follow the others through a maze of hallways to a transporter platform. Spock had quite sensibly declined a celebratory return to their table. It would have been an anticlimax.

They said their good-byes again, and the boys' exhilarated faces faded into nothing, along with the uproar of the audience breaking glasses, plates, their voices, and the furniture in an excess of emotion. The sudden quiet of the hangar, as they materialized, was eerie by contrast.

Kirk became aware of how close he was standing to Spock. Damned if he'd move first. He inhaled happily. Now, they both smelled like a barnyard.

"Some night out," he said, the image of Spock's body curving through the light still shining in his mind.

Spock saw instead the upturned, determined face and the swinging horn. He felt mere human muscle turned to immovable stone under his hands, felt the beast and the crowd and himself all compelled to make that final gesture of victory. Some night out.

"I concur," he said. One could hardly deny it.

 

XV

Reaction to the broadcast of the bull-leaping was varied. On the Enterprise, a communications technician ignored the other inputs to his console and held his breath. Almost without volition his hands adjusted instruments that would give him the best reception of the signal. He was already copying all incoming information, but at the first appearance of Kirk and Spock in the ring, he checked, somewhat frantically, to be sure he was recording. He thought of notifying Uhura, then set his teeth as the officer at the science console, picking up on his absorption, checked his instruments.

"They're deep in the interior, sixty miles of solid rock, and there's some kind of forcefield over that ring. We could never get them out. What do we do?"

"Nothing," said the communications tech. "Watch. Get it in data."

They did watch, entranced, and sat back, at the end, sweating in their chairs. They turned identical exultant grins on each other.

"Damn him! You know what he'd do to one of us who tried that?"

"Yeah, and we'd get killed and cause an interstellar incident. He brought it off. Can you believe the Great Iron Face went along with it? We've got to copy this. You know what that would bring on Earth?"

Jubilation altered to an awareness of potential profit. The communications tech turned to his board and tapped in a command. After a moment a series of data cubes began to extrude themselves from the console.

~ * ~

On Riga, Farrid sat back, his hands clasped in his lap, ignoring the fact that they were still bound.

"Now will you listen to me?" he demanded of the dozen or so students crammed informally into the room.

~ * ~

And on Nod, Rho paced the harem-soft rooms Hreth Malock had assigned to her, restless as the hawk that Man kept hooded and hungry, waiting his pleasure. The windowless rooms were like her rooms in the palace, a delicate prison, and the luxury around her gave her no pleasure. She, like Farrid, had clasped a bracelet over the mark on her wrist. She turned it now, relishing the pain because it brought back the memory of flying, falling, acting without premeditation or consideration for any will but her own primal drive for survival. To have felt so alive then, and now be bound in these small rooms.

Like the technician on the Enterprise, she saw the two unchanged faces with shock. It is always a surprise to see your enemy being kind to a child or a pet. Rho told herself that was all Kirk's obvious pleasure and relaxation in the presence of those students was. She followed the presentation of the token and Kirk's claiming of it with narrowed eyes, but her heart thumped in her side when the lights came up and the silver bull trotted into the ring. Intent, unaware of her body movements, she watched until it was over, Spock shining in the air, Kirk looking down in surprise, both of them poised beside the bull to acknowledge the ovation. Mouth dry, palms sweating, she pulled a copy and played it again.

Obediently, over and over, Spock made his perfect leap, Kirk defied the deadly horn, and they took their bow, the massive bull as docile as a pet. When it was engraved on her memory as clearly as on the electromagnetic composition of the data cube, she switched the viewer off and began to pace again.

She would not let her heart compare the Vulcan's perfect arch and descent with Hreth Malock's cruel use of the hawk. Spock was an enemy, giving to his human commander the loyalty and trust she had once coveted. She would even the score with him one day—striking what he held dear if she could not wound him directly. And she would utterly destroy the confident human, so sure of his luck, so besotted with glory that he would risk the bull ring for sport.

That was what she found most offensive. To anyone who could read them at all, it was abundantly clear that now, in the midst of what could be the end of the hundred year truce, with the fate of Federation and Empire in the balance, Kirk was so supremely confident, so overconfident, that he could risk his life playing! That was an insult aimed at every Romulan in the system—to beat them at their own game, for fun! She found herself with a soft cushion in her hands, twisting it out of shape. Furiously, she threw it across the room. She could see the arrogant, elated face as he turned the bull by the horn and raised his arm to the applause. Was he that sure of his destiny? Were victory and glory always to be poured out in plenty for Kirk of Earth? And none for Rho of Romulus?

With icy control she went back to the viewer and played the scene again. There must be some flaw, and she would find it. Everyone had a fault. It was there, like the worm in the rose, at the heart of everyone, everyone. Because he had arrogance, even courage, did not mean Kirk was perfect. She watched the final sequence again, and again, and a third time. Finally she froze the image at the moment the silver bull turned to the gate to block their exit. They had made their leaps. They had performed immeasurably better than anyone could have expected. They could have decoyed the bull somehow and left the ring. Why didn't they?

Coldly, she weighed the moment in her mind. They already had the audience on its collective feet, cheering them. Romulans were paying them tribute they rarely accorded their own kind. To face the bull again, when they had already won—what gain was there in that? What gain worth the risk of both their lives and all they had already accomplished? What had the bull offered them?

And it was clear at last. Conviction cleared her stale, heated mind like the cold wind of Veith. It was honor the animal had appealed to, telling them, as clearly as if he had been able to speak, "Don't win by a trick, or by an accident. Here is your chance to do the thing honestly."

Her hands shook as she withdrew the cube and put it with her own, few, personal possessions. Kirk's life, the Emperor's favor, the Federation's defeat, and revenge on Spock—all locked in the random electrons of a recording device.

The challenge the human could not resist was one to his honor. Her hand closed, white-knuckled, around the cube for one last moment. He could not deny his own honor. And she held his life in her hand.

~ * ~

Among those who had not seen the bullring broadcast was Admiral Harnum. He had been apprised, however, that an influential local had invited what he was beginning to think of as The Enterprise Contingent to a social evening. No invitation had been extended to him. In fact, following the announcement which Kirk and his allies had so strongly urged on him, no one had responded to the Haile Selassie in any way. Although Harnum would never have verbalized the memories or feelings it recalled, this was a familiar pattern in his life. He was an adequate officer. He did his duty, saw that his men did theirs. He made every effort to keep up the social amenities of his position in addition to executing his military responsibilities. But he was not brilliant. He was not at ease with boy wonders, bitchy civilian experts, or damned arrogant aliens who walked and talked like they owned the universe. When they spoke and laughed among themselves, he felt that they were laughing at him, members of a club he could never join.

He was an admiral now. He had reached the ultimate peak of his career, and it was a goal he had worked for, aimed for, struggled for since his graduation from the Academy; and he had his promotion by default from a man who had not been captain five years yet, a man who could toss away in a moment, as a quixotic gesture, all that Harnum had striven for his entire life.

Hold in the bitterness as he would, Harnum knew it tinctured his voice when he spoke to Kirk, tensed his muscles, tainted his pleasure. Kirk was young, brilliant, favored, always at the center of things, taking his prominence lightly, enjoying himself, part of the club. Worst, worst of all, was his courtesy, his ready deference, as if he were unaware that Harnum's rank was only the product of his own gallantry. It could not be genuine, because no human being could be that indifferent to rank. Therefore it had to be a subtle form of mockery, which Kirk thought Harnum too dense to perceive. Obedience, courtesy, respect—the recognition that Harnum had wanted—were thus altered, becoming reminders that he had failed to succeed on his own merit.

Very well, let Kirk pose and gesture with the civilians and the natives, give him free rein, but keep track of him, notice every error in military deportment. Oh, be fair, warn him. He'll think the warnings don't apply to him, think he's too good for mere military discipline—Harnum reined his thoughts in, repressed them. I didn't think that. I can always say, honestly, that I bore him no malice; I was merely his commanding officer. Because that's what he was. He was the commander of this mission. It was both within his power, and appropriate, for him to let Kirk handle civilian liaison, and to keep the military side of it in his own hands. He'd have to make it official, of course, put it in the record. When you were watching your own actions—and they shone as examples of military propriety—you had nothing to fear from adequate records. Kirk's attitude toward dress, for instance. He was wearing civilian clothing on Nod last night, according to one of Harnum's aides. Nothing really wrong with that, but who knows?

Satisfied, Harnum tapped into his personal log a new computer file: Kirk, James T., Conduct Of.

~ * ~

The planetary administrator was a silent man in his personal life. He made those appearances his position necessitated, approved the work his assistants performed, and initiated little himself. For years the rift between father and son had widened without any actual confrontation. Each was aware of the other's opinion: Farrid despised his father's compliance with Romulan rule; the elder Barat tolerated his son's affectations. They kept a token peace by leaving each other alone. And yet the administrator's eyes followed his son on those occasions when Farrid chose to grace some function with his presence, and Farrid sought in others the strength he had never found in his father.

They met now, casually, in the room Barat kept for his own use. He sat behind a littered desk. There were dark indentations under the man's eyes, and lines of weariness in his face, but his eyes lit with recognition as Farrid entered the room.

"Farrid!" Pleasure was undeniable beneath the fatigue.

Farrid gave him the same tone back, laced with mockery. "Father!" He gestured with both hands. "United again!"

The welcome in the administrator's face faded into guarded neutrality. "I am glad you are well," he said. "Were you—Are you all right?"

Farrid dropped gracefully into a chair, boneless as a cat. "If you mean was I—" He raised a delicate eyebrow and simulated a blush. "—er, no. I wasn't."

The dark flush this raised in his father's face was quite genuine. The administrator had never commented on Farrid's apparent lifestyle, but it was a blatant violation of the norm. Farrid watched the reaction with his cynical sea-green eyes. He was well aware that his own slender grace, skin tones, and unusual eyes were a heritage from his mother. What he did not know was that every movement he made recalled to Barat his dead wife and the mistake he had made in displaying too openly his fondness for her. She had paid with her life when he had last displeased his masters.

The flush faded and Barat said tonelessly, "I was naturally concerned for your welfare."

Farrid steepled his fingers and watched his thumbs revolve about each other. "Naturally," he said. And then, having closed that avenue of conversation, he turned down another. "Did you see the bull-leaping?"

Barat shrugged. "I've been occupied. Were there any good matches?"

"One was outstanding," Farrid replied. "The captain of the Enterprise and his first officer brought Onion to a standstill. They got a standing ovation."

"That must have been remarkable." Barat's tone was one of a courteous adult humoring a child.

Farrid contained an angry response. His father was as dense as the committee had been. Did no one see the value of Kirk's example? Would he have to shove it down their throats single-handedly?

"I thought it exceptional," he said. "Rumor has it that the same two fought five Romulan bravos in Nod—and won."

"That seems unlikely," said Barat, expressing courteous reservations. "However skilled they may be, however formidable their ships, even Federation humans can be no physical match for Romulans. They will learn that."

"Until they do—having twice flogged the Romulans back behind their fences—it might be well if some Rigan humans learned from them what humans can do when they try."

Barat frowned. "That's irresponsible talk, Farrid. You know that Romulan-human relations have been steadily improving—"

Farrid cut him off. "I wasn't aware of it. Accommodations on slave ships leave much to be desired."

Expressionlessly, Barat stared at the angry face surfacing through the mask. Farrah, his wife, had also wanted to fight the Romulans. He looked away, down at the pile of papers on his desk. "There seems to be some doubt that Romulans were responsible for your abduction and that of the Vulcan ambassador, but I suppose it is a natural conclusion for you to reach. I don't see what purpose can be served by further discussion, however, and I have a great deal to do here...."

"Of course." Farrid stood up. "You must excuse me for having bored you with my personal concerns. A tiresome habit. I'll try not to indulge it in the future." He stalked from the room like an offended courtesan.

Barat watched him go and felt the walls of his prison close in. His desk was littered with requests, invitations, and appeals from those who would use, at whatever price in personal dignity and integrity, his supposed influence with the unseen powers that really ruled Riga. The one person for whom he would have used influence if he had possessed any was hardly likely to ask.

~ * ~

McCoy was another who had little interest in local telecasts. Showered and groomed to the point of self-consciousness, he was counting the minutes until midnight, and it was with a sense of clandestine conspiracy that he beamed off the ship and back to Nod. Not that he expected her to come. She was young, beautiful, and an enemy. What had been a passing impulse would probably be regretted or even forgotten. He fully expected to be stood up, which was probably why the sight of Dia's uncertain face watching him materialize was so welcome. She was dressed in something white and gauzy, her hair piled up on her head, and she looked as if she expected him to shout at her instead of smile.

"I'm not late, am I?" he asked.

"No. I—I had another function and I came here afterward. I wasn't sure you'd remember, or want to come."

McCoy took her hand, found it cold in his, and said without preamble, "Look here, something's upset you, and it wasn't the tumble we took this afternoon. Are you going to get in trouble for meeting me here?"

The voice was gruff, but the warmth of his hand and his blue eyes penetrated flesh and defenses alike. Dia could feel relaxation sweeping through her like a tide, and her heart lifted. She summoned an answering smile. "Only if I get caught. It is you who are likely to get in trouble. In our fleet, officers cannot—"

"Take pretty girls out to dinner?" McCoy tucked her hand in his arm. "I'd resign in a minute. Tell me where you learned to reduce a dislocation like that. And what the going rates are. I'm sure I owe you more than a meal."

It was folly. Dia knew that, and she had meant to tell him why she could not stay. He stood patiently waiting for her to accompany him, and he wanted this time with her, was willing to help her. The afternoon's surge of courage, which had waned so fast in her father's presence, came back. She let her hand rest on his arm. Still he waited for her. A Romulan would have compelled her with his fixed will, with his superior strength. Abruptly she put reason behind her and tried the heady wine of doing what she wanted.

"I will take my pay in instruction." It felt daring to say right out like that what she wanted, but McCoy did not seem offended. She moved beside him toward the transporter. "You don't mind?"

McCoy looked down at the wide-eyed, delicate face. Mind? He couldn't remember not minding so much since Argelius. If all students came this beautiful and this eager to learn, teachers would pay universities instead of the other way around.

 

XVI

See everything, say nothing, and act first were the precepts taught Gavin Lapsley during his training. To them he had added a personal preference for remaining in the background and an independence that caused him to make few demands on his superiors. Even after three years on the Enterprise, he seldom made an appearance on the bridge, and he said so little about his job that most of the crew didn't know what it was. With a spotless record and a personable manner, he should have made rapid progress toward his ultimate (and unexpressed) goal of becoming chief of security for a starbase; but due to a quirk in the military machinery, his virtues had acted to camouflage themselves until he had been offered a position with his present ship, two years into her five-year mission.

Lapsley still remembered his interview with Kirk and the fleeting shock of realizing what the young captain had accomplished in the same time Lapsley felt his own career going nowhere. He should have felt resentment; instead he was drawn, like others before him, to Kirk's charismatic personality.

He hadn't known what to think of his interview, because Kirk began it by holding up his service record and saying they both knew what was in the files. They had gone on to discuss combat styles and weapons. Lapsley had been stiff at first, aware of sweaty palms and dry mouth, but it was his subject. Eventually he lost some of his reserve and spoke more freely. Without analyzing it, he succumbed to one of Kirk's most attractive tactics: listening with his whole personality. At the end of the hour, Lapsley hadn't been sure just what he had said or what impression he had made, but he was absolutely sure he wanted the job. And then Kirk had invited him down to the gym for a workout.

Junior officers did not turn down the social invitations of their superiors, but Lapsley had accepted with a sinking sensation. He knew Kirk must be good at his job; he also knew that no one excels at everything. It had been Lapsley's experience that VIPs always overrated their abilities in the martial arts and did not like to be shown otherwise. He was nicely balanced on the horns of a dilemma: If he displayed the superiority he should to qualify for the job, he would alienate the man who could give it to him.

If Kirk noticed his reluctance, he didn't comment on it, and they had warmed up and tried a few easy falls. Lapsley had liked the way Kirk rebounded when he went down; he was as quick as a cat and a natural athlete. Perhaps it wouldn't be hard to fake losing after all. And then Kirk had given him an assessing grin and said, "Two falls out of three. If you can put me down, you can have the job."

It hadn't been easy. Kirk hadn't said anything about rules. Lapsley's natural reluctance to damage a superior officer cost him some lumps before he finally decided to let Kirk worry about preserving his eyesight and his progeny and went all out to take him. He found out along the way that it was possible to put Kirk down but almost impossible to keep him there. To get his two falls, he had had to knock his future commander out twice.

They had helped each other into the sauna in a state of considerable disrepair, and emerged deep in a serious discussion of the state of training of the Enterprise security force. Kirk had been convinced he was losing too many men. The discussion had continued through a shower, uniform change, and dinner. When they parted, Lapsley knew that he not only had the best job he had ever been offered, but that he had, at last, a superior who would consider his ideas, test them, and if they proved out, use them. As for the credit, Lapsley was intelligent enough to recognize a man who had won more laurels than he needed. For the first time, it occurred to the lean redhead that his lack of progress might have been due to indifferent or inept superiors who felt threatened by exemplary performance.

Nothing had subsequently changed that insight. Lapsley might choose to keep in the background personally; professionally, thanks to Kirk, he was now known for the consistently excellent performance of his men, and when the Enterprise was reassigned, he would have his choice of continuing with her or moving ahead on his chosen career track.

He was not fanatically loyal. He backed Kirk's military decisions because it was his duty and because he found them sound; he was not burdened with a sense of obligation to his youthful superior, because Kirk had made it clear that he had earned both job and promotion by his own efforts. But Lapsley was grateful for the opportunity Kirk had put in his way, and he had never found an adequate way to repay him. With the mission over and only the Ochros crisis between him and reassignment, Lapsley was more alert than ever for an opportunity to return the favor.

Like Scotty, Lapsley had made contact with his counterpart on the Haile Selassie. Unlike Scotty, he had not been impressed with what he found. Koch was a solid, stolid old-timer who made it his business to see that Harnum was apprised of new weapons research and development. His cabin was cluttered with prototypes, and his conversation focused on weaponry. Not once in a two-hour conversation did he mention a man in his command. Either he did not know their strengths as individuals, or didn't consider them worth mentioning. They might have been so many interchangeable robots inside the armored suits they wore on every planetfall. Koch saw security in terms of firepower. Intelligence, plainly, Koch expected to come gift-wrapped from the science section.

Lapsley went back to the Enterprise in a thoughtful mood. Ideas swam into and out of focus again, surface cognitions based on Koch and his futuristic armory overlay deeper, less verbalized notions. Lapsley was aware of Sarek's standing in the Federation, of the near veneration professionals in her field felt for Meade—and of their easy dismissal as mere accessories by Harnum. Because it was his job to know what went on aboard the Enterprise, Lapsley was sensitized to changes that had occurred around the Ixmahx mission. Premonition took the form of nervous energy with him, and when he found himself pacing his cabin, the interweaving of observation, speculation, and fact solidified into a determination to take more steps than he usually thought necessary. The first thing he did was put out a call for volunteers; the second was to sit down and call up a computer program he had begun after Ixmahx. It was one he and Kirk had worked on together.

With wide-roving interests of his own, one of the most difficult things the young midshipman James Kirk had had to accommodate to was the linearity of military thinking. An engineer was an engineer forever. Command was a special talent. Four years at the Academy and six years' service as a junior officer only convinced Kirk that straight-line thinking was not appropriate to three-dimensional space. When the Ixmahx mission had resulted in fifty percent casualties, one of his first conclusions had been that his own linear thinking had cost three good men their lives. He had programmed an analysis of personnel training, experience, aptitudes, and expectations, run that against Ixmahx and similar missions, and searched for the key that would enable him to prevent a recurrence.

Kirk had programmed the computer to notify him of any research related to his own. There was no point in duplicating efforts. In this case, the computer had promptly notified him that Cmdr. Spock and Lt. Cmdr. Lapsley were making similar investigations.

Kirk had reviewed their work and verified his own findings: In spite of encouragement to cross-train, ample relief from duty for service-related study, and his own example of snooping into anything that might one day be useful, there were two little pockets of purists aboard the Enterprise—and one or three surprises.

Engineering and physical science specialists stubbornly resisted cross-training and outside interests. And they had the lowest empathy ratings in the ship. Since science was Spock's bailiwick, Kirk had checked to see what the Vulcan was doing about the problem. As usual, he found his first officer two steps ahead of him. Commencing with his release from medical surveillance, Spock had initiated a rigorous program aimed at correcting the flaw. It was the first project he had thrown himself into after their parting. He had raised standards for physical performance and set up a schedule of "educational leaves" for all science personnel. Kirk had smiled when he saw the requirement that such leaves be devoted to the pursuit of a previously untried endeavor involving gross motor functions, preferably in an unfamiliar environment with alien life forms, but it was a bitter smile. Spock had certainly practiced what he was preaching, although he would no doubt have been horrified to know what his requirement brought to Kirk's mind; but Kirk doubted it had increased the captain's efficiency. Nonetheless, the requirement itself would set them thinking. And following the bizarre series of murders and the miasma of terror the ship had experienced after Ixmahx, they should be motivated. When he saw that Spock had assigned administrative responsibility for implementing the project to Nadia Palevi, Kirk had relaxed about the science section. Nadia was exceptional in many ways, among them an unusually high empathy rating. Spock had subtly used her Ixmahx weakness so as to emphasize that it could also be a strength.

Engineering was another matter, and Kirk had known Scotty wasn't the man to go to. He had talked Spock's program over with McCoy.

"Scotty is pretty dedicated to his engines, but no more than you are to medicine, Bones. What makes engineers so thick-headed?"

"I don't know," McCoy said glumly. "You'd think Security would be worst, but at least cops deal with people. Engineers are oriented toward material objects, physical manipulations, pragmatism. They aren't stupid; it's just that how is more important to them than why. Spock has the moxie to pull a new stunt like his training program with scientists—and make them understand why. After all, it was one of his men that the artifact seduced. But Scotty's 'lads' haven't stepped sideways. They'll obey orders, but I'll bet the attitude is that it's just more rigmarole to get through so they can get on with their real work."

Kirk scratched his head. "That's about how I had it figured, but there has to be a way around it. What if half the crew were dead, us empathic types had bought it, and the engineers ran into a new culture while they were limping home?"

"Don't think about it."

"My job is to think about it. Who else doesn't have empathy—not aboard the ship, but in the general population?"

McCoy fastened on pathologies he'd studied. What would Jim ask next? "Autistic children, various types of asocial personalities, uh—" He stalled.

"How do you cure them?"

"I don't know. Give them a tribble."

"Why a tribble?"

"They're warm and fuzzy and affectionate. People learn to give affection when they get it. You know about the attention factor in productivity studies? People who do boring or routine jobs improve their performance when an 'expert' studies their working conditions. It's just an attention factor. A puppy would be as good as a tribble or an expert, I guess."

Kirk had a distant look in his eye. "You mean putting their attention on something alive, or getting attention from something alive, makes them more empathic?"

"In layman's terms that's close enough. But engineering's no place for a zoo."

"Then what these people need is a new experience, involving an exchange of attention with other living beings, right?"

"Right."

Kirk was beginning to see the reasoning behind Lapsley's program. "Look at what Gavin Lapsley and Uhura have their people up to—triage practice with your nurses, team tumbling, roller skating—I almost became a pedestrian casualty—chase games. It was Lapsley who pulled out the correlation between job performance and involvement in ship sports and activities. Clement was a loner, did his job, tagged Sunderson around, and then blew up when I put him in the kind of situation we came out here to handle. You find me my top and bottom ten percent in the empathy sweepstakes, and I'll match 'em up if I have to put them all on skates. Inboard. Spock's requirement makes sense to me. Nothing teaches you to solve problems like solving them."

"Easy for you to say," McCoy grunted. "You're good at it. Not solving them also washes out the failures—sometimes permanently. Then how are you going to feel?"

"The same way I always feel, Bones, responsible. And my first responsibility to every crewman is to make sure they do their jobs in a way that doesn't endanger the mission, their fellow crewmen, or themselves. I owe Lapsley and Uhura some recognition. They've been ahead of me all the time."

Rewarding his communications and security chiefs had been one of the few pleasant tasks in a month of general misery for Kirk. When Gavin Lapsley appeared with a new application of the cross-training idea, the captain was prepared to be receptive. If the security chief noticed a self-applied bandage pulling Kirk's uniform blouse out of shape, or the slowness with which he moved, he didn't comment. Nor did he make the mistake of couching his suggestion in terms of criticism for the Haile Selassie's security man.

"It's just that I see a way to do two jobs at once, sir. We need to get a feel for both planets, and I've got men who will volunteer, and who have no pressing duties aboard ship. I'd like to put a substantial number of them on Riga and Veith for the duration. They would be there as observers, but it would also be a change, and I know they were looking forward to some R&R."

That was a factor Kirk hadn't forgotten. The cancellation of a long leave or postponement of a transfer was not the reprieve to others that it had proved for him. Short of an actual physical attack on the ship, he was overstaffed with security, having picked up several groups from temporary assignments over the last four months.

"I could spare two dozen for Veith, less for Riga." Kirk had not forgotten Ixmahx, however. And Veith, still inside the Neutral Zone, seemed a very silent planet. He didn't care to send his men without proper leadership. He couldn't spare Lapsley; he couldn't go himself; it was too soon to ask Nadia Palevi to undertake another possibly hazardous mission into the unknown. A dampening conviction that that left only one candidate filled his mind.

Lapsley was waiting, without pressure, for an answer. It was a good idea, one Kirk should have thought of for himself. He couldn't help the sinking sensation it gave him to think of being parted from Spock, but he couldn't let it warp his judgment, either.

"It's a good idea, Gavin. Give me a list of your suggestions for Veith. I don't want a repeat of Ixmahx. Make sure they're stable. I want to talk this over with Spock." That was only half-truth. He wanted to talk to Spock whatever the excuse. "I'll get back to you. Mmm. Let's not tie up one of our own shuttles unless we have to. With all the ships in that docking facility, something must be for rent. Follow up on that for me."

With no particular reason for summoning Spock away from whatever he was doing, and needing to stretch his legs, Kirk tracked his first officer down on foot. The exercise would loosen him up anyway. For some reason, Kirk had not taken his admittedly ugly puncture down to sickbay. He'd had a broken rib before and was sure this painful protest of strained muscles was not that serious. He'd cleaned the hole and patched it himself, fantasizing that it was Spock's warm hands healing him, and then spent a strange night of elated floating interspersed with pain. He knew it was foolish, but he didn't want to share that memory with anyone. Spock turning, perfect in the air, touching down, trusting Kirk to be there.... Sickbay would mean questions and explanations. To hell with them.

But he still didn't like sending Spock alone, and the sight of McCoy hiking down the corridor toward him inspired the solution. He would send both of them. McCoy deserved a change, after all. And he'd yell loud and long should rescue be needed. Yes, McCoy would be a good choice. And if empathy ratings were important, he had the pick of the crop.

"Morning!" Kirk was always at his most affable with something to hide. His cheery greeting snapped McCoy out of a reverie.

"Oh, Jim. Good morning. You look chipper."

"I am," Kirk lied. "Listen, how would you like a little vacation?"

McCoy knew that tone, but he'd just been finding his regular duty day confining. He agreed, guardedly, that he wouldn't mind a little free time.

"Good, I'm sending you to Veith." Kirk rolled ahead like a merry steamroller. "We need some input on how they're taking this. Lapsley tells me there's been a pick-up in system traffic—all headed out to Veith. The Enterprise can't monitor both planets at once. We not only need to know what they're up to out there, we need someone to act as a representative of the Federation—show them what kind of people we are." Kirk was picking up enthusiasm with his sales pitch, and he talked fast to prevent an interruption which, by the expression on McCoy's face, was going to be a protest.

Unknowingly, McCoy echoed Kirk's thought that he should have known the good news came before bad news. It was his own fault. He had no business carrying on a clandestine flirtation at his age. But he was disappointed. So disappointed he didn't even notice the bulge of the bandage under Kirk's shirt or the shadows at his temples and under his cheekbones, a kind of sharpening of the features always brought on by pain. While Kirk went on about the mission, McCoy was thinking about his meeting with Dia. He would have to tell her he couldn't come again.

"Hum? Oh, sure, Jim. I was listening. Spock's going too? What's he think about it?"

"I'm just on my way to tell him. Come on along. I think he's with Meade."

Spock was, with Sarek an interested bystander, as Meade tried out SISTER's controls. The images from the planet reminded Kirk of the bind Harnum had put him in. Well, at least Sarek knew how the gadget worked.

"Have you tried it out inboard, yet, Meade?"

The pan-anthropologist looked up and smiled. "Not yet, but it does create possibilities, doesn't it? Harnum would go wild with this. We'd all have to sleep in lead pajamas. Jim, I know you military types don't like to bring a lot of civilians aboard, but Farrid is a help to me, and he knows some other students. Apparently the news has disrupted a number of things. Can I hire a few? Use them for guinea pigs and interpreters?"

"Go through Lapsley and you can. We might want to put transponders on them. How are the Rigans taking it?" Kirk was watching an unidentified street scene.

"Not quite the way I expected. No mass jubilation. No baseline data, but from what Farrid and Sarek say, the speed of interactions is slightly increased from the norm. I haven't come across anyone discussing elections."

"That is my jurisdiction, Doctor," Sarek said. "If the admiral can be persuaded to see that. There has been some discussion of it in Nod. You notice that the population distribution is unequal?"

"Yes," said Meade. "More Romulans in the moons. Mostly humans and Vulcans on Riga. I understand Veith is not heavily populated anywhere. I have observed one significant factor. Look there."

Kirk couldn't see anything on the screen but people moving across a square.

"There are no singletons," Spock said suddenly. "Even the Vulcans are walking in pairs."

Kirk looked again and it was true. With a couple of hundred people in sight, not one of them was walking alone. "What's that mean?"

"Mean?" Meade looked up. "How would I know? It's significant because I've never noticed it before. In any crowd I would expect a variety of patterns from large groups through pairs and singletons. You'd notice a mob right away, wouldn't you? Well, I noticed this. But your crowd might be a lynch mob or a sporting event. I don't know about this yet. Maybe they're all in love."

It couldn't have been a deliberate dig, but Kirk felt betraying heat in his face anyway. "Well, we do need information," he said. "And not on Riga alone. I'm going to send a contingent to Veith. I'll need you, Spock, and McCoy."

As always, Spock was composed. If he felt any of the dismay Kirk did at the parting, it was well concealed. "Very well, Captain. When shall we depart?"

Kirk was suddenly tired of hiding how much his side hurt and wished he had gone to sickbay after all. "Not immediately," he said. "I have Lapsley checking out the possibility of renting a vessel for transport. And I wanted to give Meade and your father a chance to brief you on what, if anything, you should be looking for. It will take a while."

There was no sign that Spock wanted to spend that time with Kirk. He merely nodded. Sarek looked thoughtful, but when Kirk glanced at him questioningly, he didn't speak for a moment. Then Kirk had the impression that he was covering up one train of thought with another.

"I do suggest that you might 'win friends' by allowing some of the returning Veithans to share your transport if that is possible, Captain. It appears that most, if not all, interplanetary shipping is private. I have observed many Romulans in Nod who appear to be in search of transportation."

Kirk shrugged and again left the decision up to his security chief. McCoy made a motion toward departure. "I have some things to attend to, Jim, if you don't mind."

Meade was also closing down her board and Sarek seemed poised to depart. It was obvious no one wanted to spend time with the captain, Kirk thought. He gave them a general nod of dismissal, but turned to Sarek, picking up on mention of Harnum's name.

"Is the admiral giving you trouble, sir?" Kirk's expression was all innocent curiosity, but Sarek returned a sardonic glance.

"Why, no, Captain. I am a busy man myself. I can understand the necessity of scheduling appointments three days in advance."

Ouch. Kirk felt his face heat up again. Harnum was too busy to make time for the Vulcan ambassador to the Federation and a Federation ambassador-at-large? Or was he making a point? Kirk didn't often feel defensive, but he began to apologize.

"There is no necessity for intervention, Captain," Sarek interrupted him. "These matters are part of diplomacy, after all—however unfortunate it is to encounter them on one's own side of the negotiating table. Such behavior is no novelty to me." In humans, he left unsaid. "However, you are usually capable of a direct answer to a simple question. Should it meet with the approval of your admiral, and of the delegates involved, would you be willing to host interplanetary talks aboard the Enterprise?"

Turning his ship into a hotel was low on Kirk's list of preferences, but he'd done it before with success. "Certainly, sir. Do you expect talks to be established?"

"There is a certain amount of difficulty in determining the actual administrative structure of the two worlds, but some of the influential residents of Nod seem to favor such talks. One can never be sure that shared rhetoric means shared intent, of course."

"No, sir. Just let me know in time to knock some bulkheads out."

The party broke up then, but Sarek paused once more. "Can you give me an idea of the duration of the mission to Veith, Captain? I would like to tell Amanda how long she can expect Spock to be away."

If Kirk had not been tired, and in pain of several sorts, he would have noticed the really startling fact of a Vulcan asking for information on the basis of an emotional need. But he was tired. "Not long," he answered, feeling it would be an eternity. "A week or two." Everyone was leaving the room, and he felt ridiculously abandoned and left behind. He wasn't noticing much outside his own emotional state. He didn't see the arrested expression on Sarek's face or the automatic control that replaced it.

During the rest of a very dragging shift, Kirk continued to feel cut off from the activity he had initiated. Around him the ship tightened up and a new energy was felt, an unexpressed "now we're getting down to business." The only matter of interest for Kirk to handle was an officiously worded, printed notice of what was already obvious—the Enterprise was to consider herself officially in charge of planetary liaison during the duration of the Ochros crisis. He logged it without comment. Quite apart from being with Spock, he wished he were going on the Veith mission. Meade, McCoy, Lapsley, Sarek—everyone else had interesting things to do. Riding around Riga like a yo-yo on a string was boring. He would have bet a month's salary that the action would turn out to be on the second planet after all, and he would be wasting his time watching the wrong mousehole. Poker-faced, he was under the impression that his depression and bad mood were not being communicated to the bridge crew. Any one of them could have told him differently. If there were any circumstances under which James Kirk could not be considered the ideal commander, they would include a duty shift in which there was nothing of importance for him to do.

And he was not entirely correct about the lack of events on Riga and her two moons.

 

XVII

The presence of an old enemy was not something Man Hreth Malock wanted to advertise to the flamboyant captain of the Enterprise, but Rho's arrival wearing the Emperor's tiren—and in such a flattering relationship to himself—needed to be known. With Admiral Harnum, Hreth Malock shared a resentment of the Club. In his case it was resentment against the old Romulan families, securely entrenched in Nod and unobtrusively ruling the riches of Riga. Following the party and the bull-leaping, the moon was full of speculation about Kirk. Rho could answer that.

She did, dressed like a courtesan and strung up to a height of tension that made her seem dangerous even in casual encounters. For those who had not researched his career, she recited the facts of Kirk's repeated and unusual success. Gradually she convinced her auditors that a direct military confrontation was not the way to handle him... or the Federation.

"Why fight them, when we can discredit them more easily? They count on the human and Vulcan population to exercise their 'franchise' and vote for Federation citizenship. We control those votes."

"On Veith you may," a quick little Rigan told her. "Such total control of the population doesn't work in technological societies. If we have to destroy half the population, we destroy ourselves as well... if only by becoming vulnerable to interests of other Romulans." He flashed a look at Hreth Malock, who was lounging at Rho's side with a drink in his hand.

Rho shook her sleeve back deliberately. "I speak for the Empire, friend, not for my clan alone. My life and my future lie in the Emperor's hand."

It was confrontation after confrontation. Like bending steel with her bare hands, she forced them, one after another, to see it her way, while Man stood back and watched. He had not had her again, for all their proximity. On the trip from Veith she had been courteous but not accessible. Once established in Nod, she had at first seemed to prefer Dia's company, then had abruptly withdrawn into herself following the broadcast of the bull-leaping, on which she seemed to place a great deal of importance. She had been almost feverish in her urgency to convey the idea of discrediting Kirk in a Court of Honor, and if there was no error in how she read him, Man thought the idea might work. Not only work, but further his own plans.

So, while waiting for the return of O'Neill, Hreth Malock added his persuasions to those of his cousin and anticipated the predictable moment when victory would soften her. The odd moment not otherwise occupied he devoted to baiting either the hawk or his daughter. As for the claims of the Rigans that a technological society could not be run with slaves, he dismissed it. The amount of technology his comfort required could be produced that way. The destruction of Rigan society, even if it proved inconvenient for the Emperor, would be merely the clearing away of decadence. Let the survivors survive.

~ * ~

Farrid was also concerned with survival. A night's sleep had done nothing to alter his passionate conviction that what Riga needed, what the human population of Riga needed, had appeared as if by magic in her skies. Once again he had resigned himself to the fact that he had effectively excluded himself from leadership by adopting the persona of a dilettante. His role was to work from the shadows, and work from them he would, in part by making sure that information about Kirk was disseminated to the population at large. Heretofore he had been content to manipulate leaders like Ari and the other Romulans who were involved in the SRA. It would be a new challenge to see what could be done with a whole planet. For just one moment he felt the sinking sensation that accompanies major decisions. There was no one he could confide in, no one to help him or verify the logic of his attack—and quite apart from risking his own neck, he was risking incalculable numbers of others. The paralysis that bound his father assailed him for a moment as he paused by a transporter nexus. What if he did unify Riga into a resistance movement—and they lost? For once, with no one to see, his exotic face showed the misery of indecision. After a moment, though, he depressed the combination of the Enterprise transporter. Kirk routinely dealt with millions of lives. The problem was simply one of added complexity.

~ * ~

And Dia, too, was concerned with survival, the survival of the only hope and dream she had been able to fashion for herself. McCoy had seemed genuinely pleased to share his knowledge with her. Their conversation had included revelation after revelation about human and alien physiology and pathology. The human's memory seemed encyclopedic. He mentioned as mere commonplace things that would have been closely guarded secrets in the Romulan Empire—if they had been known at all. Then, after answering question after question, he had apologized for boring her with shop talk. There was no way she could express her abysmal ignorance and overwhelming gratitude for thus being treated as an equal by a master. His warmth, openness, and gentle teasing were totally new in her experience. She was desperate to know more about him. She debated a whole day whether or not it would be worth the risk to ask her suddenly busy cousin. One thing she had to know: What were the risks to McCoy from his own people if he were discovered with her? It was that nagging doubt that spurred her on to find the first possible opportunity to speak to Rho.

Rho was perfectly aware that her host's decorum was only stage dressing. He had behaved moderately in public, conveying a deference to her opinions she was sure he didn't feel, and in private he hadn't pressed her. But there was a growing tension between them, man to woman, that would only be relieved in one way. After the day she had just spent, her first reaction was: let it be resolved. Why allow unsatisfied appetite to cloud her thinking? Back in his luxurious warren, she sighed and stretched, shrugging her shoulders.

"Rom, I hate that much talk!"

Man stepped behind her to rub her neck, smoothing the tension away with his thumbs. "You did well. They were impressed with you, although not to the point of forgetting me."

She relaxed and let her head roll with his easy pressure. "You haven't many friends here, cousin."

"None, in fact. They are very curious about what I'm doing with a small parcel of Rigan property, particularly the man who sold it to me at an exorbitant price. They are afraid, now, that I had more motive than to shine in Rigan society."

"Mmmmm." The massage had proceeded down, between her shoulder blades. "That feels good. And of course you did have a motive."

"Of course. I'll share it with you one day. Are you saving this dress for anything special?"

She was almost purring. "No, why?"

For answer, he deliberately popped the first of the small pearls that fastened it. The button ticked against a piece of furniture and fell silently to the carpet. "You shouldn't allow yourself to become tense; you'll be fatigued that much sooner." Another button popped, and the fabric over her breast slipped a fraction of an inch. "It's your duty," pop of another button, nipping kiss on her neck, "to the Emperor," another button, another bite, "to stay relaxed," he freed her breasts to the air and his hands, "and ready for action."

She could have, at that point, turned, smiled, and walked away from him. She was tempted to do just that, because his practiced lovemaking half-attracted and half-repelled her; but he scratched gently down her sides, by chance happening on the raking caress that never failed to heat her, and she capitulated instead, if turning with a growl and clawing back at him could be called capitulation.

His eyes glinted at her obvious arousal, then narrowed in answering passion. He kept just enough awareness to retrieve the contents of one shirt pocket, as their two bodies flowed into a stylized combat as dangerous as it was exciting. She would not have a gentle caress. She used her nails and teeth and strength against him until he was so inflamed he returned the attack. She was cat-quick and lithe as an eel. He finally had to pin her arms under her with one hand and cut off her air with the other to get in her. She hissed at him with a distorted face, but then went rigid, clasping him inside as if against her will, and a moment later was trying to force herself up his cock to take the last inch. When he freed her hands, she dug her nails into his hips and forced him in again and again, arching up to meet him, wringing and wrenching at his cock.

Panting and driving in for his own pleasure, he fumbled for the capsule he had taken out of his shirt. Just as she stiffened and howled, he snapped it under her nose. The exploding cloud of yellow dust caught both of them, and he inhaled it willingly as the first spasm tore through his cock like liquid plasma.

For Rho, the yellow dust enveloped her body in a web of crackling energy, ecstatic and painful beyond her ability to endure, but her shocked mind was not allowed to retreat, every sensation must be experienced over and over by nerves stripped raw. In slowest motion she saw him inhale and draw back so that he could look down at their joining, and in the drug fantasy she imagined he could see right through her to his own jerking and jetting inside her. It went on forever, until she should have starved for lack of oxygen, burned to ash in the fire. Her eyes were wide open, but blind. All she saw was the emerald fire of total sensation. And then afterimage. And then dark.

He lay panting beside her when she could lift her head, she saw with some satisfaction the blood-green weals and scratches she'd marked him with. His cock was shriveled and small and stained with her blood. When she touched it, he moaned. She squeezed until he opened his eyes in protest.

"Don't ever drug me again," she said. "I will kill you if you do." She dropped his cock and wiped her hand on his thigh. Shaking with weakness she stumbled to her feet and pulled her dress more or less into place. She looked down to where he was watching her. "I mean it," she said. When he didn't respond she turned and walked out of the room. It felt like three gravities instead of a third of one.

Dia had heard them come in. Her mind, full of McCoy and his knowledge, full of the clean, cool, safe life he seemed to lead, had no preparation for the vision of Rho, her hair awry, clothes falling off her, bruised and bloodied. It was like having everything she hated in her life thrown in her face at once. She flooded with compassion and hurried into the hall.

"Cousin! What happened? Are you all right?"

Rho supposed she did look as if she had been beaten. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. She was furious with Man—for the drug—she felt turned inside out and upside down; she could hardly walk. And every bone and muscle in her had melted into butter and syrup. She felt fucked through the floor and wonderful. For the moment it escaped her that Dia was Man's daughter in a difficult situation.

"I'm—fine." She felt drunk, on the verge of hysteria. Was that the drug?

Dia had reached to steady her cousin, alarmed and wondering what she had done to set off Man's vicious temper, wondering what would become of her mission now, and her life. As her hand touched Rho's bare shoulder, the commander stifled a giggle and her dress slipped down on her breast. Dia flinched back as if she'd been burned. Rho reeked of sex and the unmistakable bitter-melon scent of sundust.

An emerald flood burned up into the younger woman's face. She had been prepared to offer sympathy, had thought of trusting this drugged puppet with the secret of McCoy. Reaction burned through her body like acid. "You—" Disgust clogged her throat.

Rho tried to sort out the quickly shifting drug-emotions from her own fixed purpose. It was difficult. Hadn't this self-indulgent child known from her cradle what men were, what her father was? Couldn't she guess how Rho had saved her life time and again in a man's world? From her privileged ignorance was she daring to judge the only woman to captain not one, but three imperial ships?

"Stand aside," Rho said icily. "I am an imperial courier." The arm that wore the tiren was clutching her torn dress over her bust.

"You may be a whore for the Empire," Dia spat. "But you are still a whore!"

In a matching blaze of anger Rho dropped her dress and backhanded the younger woman out of her way. Dia went down silently, like the puppet she had thought Rho. Man chose that moment to step into the hall, no more coordinated about his clothing than Rho was, and less concerned. Rom, Rho thought, do they live like this all the time? Sick of herself and them both, she left them to each other and went to her room. Reaction bent her over the sink and emptied her stomach. She didn't know whether it was the drug or her own behavior that nauseated her. In the back of her mind was the clean silvery arc of Spock's body turning in the light. Against that she saw the half-clothed Hreth Malock lounging in the door while his naked doxy struck his daughter down. She retched until she was empty and tears streaked down her face. She didn't know whom to hate most.

~ * ~

McCoy couldn't contact Dia, and he was afraid Lapsley would have the mission organized before she contacted him; but she did call, while he was out of the lab, and left a simple voice message with the coordinates of a meeting place. He beamed directly to it, wondering how long he had kept her waiting and still trying to formulate a way of telling her about his departure. In six hours he hadn't come up with anything that didn't make him sound like an idiot. He carried some medical texts he'd gotten the computer to translate into Romulan, but when he saw the bruise on her face, they went out of his mind.

"Who hit you?" he asked immediately.

She urged him off the transporter and down a path into a lavender-green jungle. "It doesn't matter," she said wearily. "It's only a bruise. I came to explain. I can't keep meeting you."

McCoy forgot that he had come to explain the same thing to her. "It matters to me, he said testily. "I was brought up not to like the idea of knocking ladies around."

She tried to smile. "I think I would like your world very much, but I would be a monster there, wouldn't I? Here too weak, there too strong." She blinked back tears. "This doesn't happen often. I could have avoided it. But there is danger, too much, for you here. I don't want you to be hurt." Her eyes fell, as if she'd said too much.

McCoy pulled her to a stop and stroked the bruise tenderly. "Damn," he said softly. "And I couldn't come anyway. They're sending me to Veith. I'll probably be gone tomorrow."

"Oh." The girl's slender fingers closed around the stem of a leaf, and it broke off in her hand. "That's—that's best."

McCoy put her arm through his and coaxed her into motion again. Above them the changing sky brightened from lilac to peach. An idea brightened with it, but McCoy didn't want to raise false hopes. So he didn't mention Sarek's suggestion to deadhead civilians to Veith. Instead he gave her the books and told her about the Orion who had the reaction to spinach and some of the more hair-raising encounters the ship had had with alien microbes. After a while she forgot the bruise and his departure. She smiled. Her eyes shone. And McCoy could not help the lilting knowledge that it was all for him. He made her promise to contact him once more, in the morning, and threatened her with the names of unknown and highly unlikely diseases if she didn't do it.

"I tell you of danger and you joke about it," she said with a sigh. "Don't you believe me?"

"I believe you," McCoy said, serious for a moment. "The only safe place is in the grave. Danger isn't the end of things. Not when you're young—and beautiful." He placed a kiss in her palm, wondering if the caress was alien to her, watching as her fingers closed over it instinctively. "You promise to call me?"

"Yes, if I ca—"

"No ifs. Promise. So I'll know you're all right."

"I promise."

Back aboard ship McCoy couldn't find Lapsley or Sarek, but he found Meade directing some kind of student/crew mayhem in the pool area. McCoy recognized Farrid, his curls only tighter for being wet. The others were all Romulan, and inexperience in the water was balancing their advantage of superior strength against the human crew. The object of the game seemed to be moving an orange and blue ball from one end of the pool to another—drowning as many of the opposition as possible in the process. It looked like fun.

Meade saw him on the edge of the pool. "Come on in," she yelled.

McCoy changed and slid into the water, swam toward Meade and yelled, "What side are you on?" only to be dunked as she answered, "The other one!" After that it was twenty minutes of amphibious warfare for which he never did figure out the rules. Meade finally pulled him out of the fray and over the barrier between the main pool and a bubbling whirlpool with a sonic shield. Silence descended as they sank into the swirling current of the therapeutic bath. Meade lay back with a sigh, letting the water pulse against her neck and shoulders.

"That feels wonderful," she said.

"Good for you, too," contributed McCoy, positioning his sacroiliac in front of a heated jet. "You're a strong swimmer."

"I did my thesis on an amphibious world where we lived in the water for days at a time. Also it's good for arthritis. I try to swim every day. Brittle my bones may be, but I like them better than those plastic things your colleagues tout."

"I won't argue with you," McCoy said pacifically. "Are those the kids you hired? What do you get out of them?"

"Besides exercise?" Meade kicked her toes. "I don't usually admit to being Machiavellian—but just between us chickens we don't know enough about these planets. I'm doing a language analysis—that's to keep them busy—and watching them."

"They seem like nice kids." With all the spray and shouting they looked like they were having the time of their lives. That's what he wanted to prescribe for Dia, to get rid of her flower-raised-in-a-cellar look.

"They're very uncertain kids, I'd say. It's been interesting watching them react to us and then to Farrid and then to other chance-met humans."

"What'd they do?" McCoy was sneaking up on his own topic of interest, but he had always been fascinated by the way Meade worked.

"They treat me like the authority figure I am, walk in a wide circle around Farrid, and don't notice strange humans at all. But the humans notice them. Crew members are professionally helpful, Farrid bustles, and Rigan humans, from what I've seen, never turn their back on a Romulan. They aren't aware of it, though. It's like a dance they don't know they're doing."

"What does that tell us?" McCoy eased lower in the water, enjoying the blast of bubbles along his spine. His feet grazed Meade's and she tickled his toes.

"That we don't know much yet."

"You knew that in the beginning."

"So I've had six hours. Are you worried about your vacation?"

"Not exactly. Actually I wanted to find out if Lapsley had okayed deadheading some civilians."

"He did. The captain knew some students. I think there was room for about a dozen. Why, do you know somebody—?"

McCoy was out of the water and half out of the sonic shield before he answered, "—get one of those seats!"

Meade watched his retreat philosophically and glanced down at her middle-aged form. You couldn't really call it civilization, she thought, until women aged as well as men. "Why do I have the feeling," she asked herself, "that the person he knows is female?"

McCoy found Kirk before Lapsley and explained his sudden necessity for one of the spare seats. Kirk's intuition echoed Meade's. "Well, I don't know—is she pretty?"

"Ugly as sin," McCoy lied. "I'd be embarrassed to introduce her to my friends. You just save your charm for Spock. Any progress?"

Kirk shrugged, thinking of Spock's perfect leap and the bandage on his side. That was private. "He's stopped avoiding me, but he wasn't heartbroken over the Veithan assignment, either." Kirk heard the note of self-pity in his voice and hoped McCoy wouldn't comment.

McCoy didn't, being full of his own plans, and having no sympathy for those who didn't request medical treatment when they needed it. Chapel had shown him the bull-leaping tape at their first official coffee break.

"Well, he'll probably be safer on Veith with me than playing rodeo with you," he said cheerily, unaware he had just exploded his captain's illusions of privacy.

Kirk let him go and then tracked down his inside source of ship's gossip—only to find her blatantly implicated. The computer located Uhura in one of the small viewing rooms abaft of the larger recreation area, and when Kirk stuck his head through the door he got a brief glimpse of himself on Onion's horns before somebody had the sense to kill the image and bring up the lights.

"I'd like to speak to Lt. Uhura," he said icily, "if I'm not interrupting the show." He withdrew and listened to the sounds of bodies shifting in a guilty silence while Uhura picked her way through the crush. There must have been thirty people craned into a room designed for eight.

The communications chief came warily out into the hall, read the light in her captain's eye correctly, and wished herself in the bowels of engineering. It had not been a good day for the captain from the beginning, and as the proverb said: "What's bad for the captain is worse for the ratings."

"How long have my first officer and I been entertaining the crew, Lieutenant?"

"The crew? Oh. Uh. Well, that's hard to say, sir—" She knew she was dithering, but under the circumstances it was her only option.

"Lieutenant!"

Dithering obviously wasn't going to pass muster. Uhura took a brace, eyes front, and answered truthfully. "Since it happened, sir."

Kirk silently tallied about eighteen hours. "That means everyone aboard has seen that recording!"

Some of us several times, Uhura had the sense not to say. "It's a very—inspiring performance, sir."

"Inspiring," Kirk said with narrowed eyes. "Which little entrepreneur is turning them out?"

Uhura knew several, but she didn't think Kirk would actually force her to give names. Anyway, it would only upset him to know. And as for telling him how many starbase communications chiefs would be receiving a high speed blip tagged, "Communications Chief: Your Eyes Only"—that would be pure folly.

Watching her rigorously innocent expression, and perfectly aware of the wheels going round behind it, a new suspicion struck Kirk.

"You haven't been duplicating it yourself, have you?"

"Oh, no, sir," Uhura said. It wasn't duplicating merely to include coded messages in routine reports... although it would enhance her reputation in certain quarters and virtually guarantee a few fancy dinners in the natural course of things. "I wouldn't do that, sir."

"That's good, because if I find out who's behind this little scheme, they're going to find themselves in charge of vacuuming static on the outside of the ship for the rest of the mission."

Uhura made a mental note to warn DeSoto and Wizniewski, but it looked like the storm was moving on.

"Don't you think you're overreacting, sir? It's really a compliment. And why assume the tape is being reproduced on the ship?"

"Are you telling me it's not?" Kirk's voice rose comically as he had a sudden vision of himself and Spock starring on video screens all over Riga. Maybe he should suicide and save Spock the trouble of killing him.

"Well, sir," Uhura's tone was sweetly reasonable, "bull-leaping is practically the national sport. All the matches are recorded."

Kirk deflated. He might as well abandon thoughts of honorable self-immolation. If Sarek had seen the tape, Spock wouldn't have to kill him.

"Has the ambassador—?" He couldn't put it into words.

"It's distinctly possible, sir."

"Oh, shit."

"Was there anything else, sir?" Uhura asked brightly, feeling ahead on points.

Kirk's eyes darkened and his scowl smoothed out into a lazy smile. He stepped a little closer and put a firm hand on her upper arm. She could feel his body heat.

"Yes, Lieutenant. There is something you could do for me." It was his most honeyed tone, and it never failed to generate an electric tingle down her spine, although she knew from experience that he was as sincere as a fox astray in the henhouse. He turned her so that they were walking slowly together. "And I know I can count on you—"

Oh, no, she thought. Here it comes.

"—to make absolutely sure Mr. Spock never sees this recording, never hears of its existence, and never even suspects it was made in the first place."

"But, sir," Uhura squeaked, "I can't—"

"Can't doesn't belong in the vocabulary of a Starfleet officer, Lieutenant. I'm sure you understand how Mr. Spock would feel about such an invasion of privacy." Kirk reversed course and steered her back toward the viewing room.

"Yes, sir, but—"

"No buts. I'm counting on you."

Uhura sighed, accepting her fate. She might be able to hush it up, but it would mean calling in a lot of favors.

"All right," she said at the door. "But there's one thing I don't know how I can explain."

Kirk was momentarily caught off guard. "What's that?"

Uhura waited until the door was ready to slide shut in his face. "Why, how you talked him into it in the first place—sir."

Kirk was left facing a closed door. He swore at it under his breath and continued on his way. Maybe it was provident that he'd decided to send Spock to Veith after all.

 

* * * * * * *

VEITH

* * * * * * *

Chaos is the easiest, most predictable, most probable state. Order is improbable and hard to create; yet order has value. It enables new forms to be created from old. It makes life possible, and civilized societies. Still, entropy is inevitable. Not only is there no free lunch; in all probability, the cost of lunch is greater than its value, since entropy follows order and noise overwhelms information.

Without the eye of intelligence, which perceives meaning, all order would be as transient and unmarked as a single footprint lost in a wasteland. As intelligence first asks, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" the first act of intelligence must be to preserve "something"—order, intelligence, life—against the energy gradient that leads to chaos.

Nor is this a delaying action only, for the forces of life are as inevitable as the forces of decay. Something is; something exists. Order, intelligence, and life permeate the physical universe equally with the stars. Love shines as brightly in the void.

Aofane Kemnis, A Meditation
(upon the works of Jeremy
Campbell and Nicholas
Georgescue-Roegen)

 

XVIII

The departure time for the Veith volunteers was announced with their morning wakeup, and McCoy developed a fine set of nerves before Dia contacted him in the first quarter of the watch. Anxiously, he scanned her image on the communicator for further evidence of mistreatment, but she wore her hair back again and the bruise had faded. He didn't really trust an open communication system, and it was quite evident that she didn't, so once again he ducked out in the middle of a work day to meet her. The coordinates she gave brought him to the door of a small bar, and she met him there, shivering, although the temperature in Nod was never cold. He ordered the local equivalent of champagne and waited until she drank hers. As usual, once she was in his company, she began to relax. All McCoy's protective instincts were stirred by that transition from tense fear to trust. He told her a little about his "vacation" to Veith, then casually mentioned that there were seats available.

"No charge. We pay for the seats whether we use them or not. You're welcome to come with us if you like."

Her eyes widened at the idea. "I couldn't," she said automatically.

"Why not?" asked McCoy. "You live there, don't you?"

"Yes, but—"

"You'd just be going home."

She wanted to tell him that she had no home, that even her penthouse in Firstport was just another cage. All the strain of being taken out of school, forced to attend Rho, and being cooped up in Nod rose into her throat and choked her. She wanted—how she wanted—to escape. But there was no place to go. Only with this mild, confident human did she feel safe. He seemed perfectly content with her as she was, fears, indecision, and all. She stared blindly down into her glass and knew she sounded like a ten-year-old on the verge of tears.

"Will you hate me because I'm a coward and afraid to come?"

"It was just an idea," McCoy said gently. "Selfish, I guess. I don't want to leave you here." He lifted his wine and washed down the taste of disappointment.

"I wish I could," she said reluctantly. "I hate this—waiting. It's not just that—that my father would bring me back. It wouldn't be safe for you."

New hope rose like the bubbles in the golden wine, lifting McCoy's mood. "Don't worry about me. I'll have a Vulcan bodyguard. Look, you don't have to decide now. We're not leaving until the end of this watch. Here's the name of the ship and the berth and the launch time. Computer wrote it out for me. There will be a seat for you right up until lift-off. I need somebody to show me Veith, and I can't think of a guide I'd rather have. Think of it as a galactic good-neighbor policy."

The words translated, but Dia had no idea what they meant. Her own knowledge of Veith was so much at variance from McCoy's expectations that she couldn't bridge the gap. Slowly she accepted the slip of paper, unable to look away from the warm gaze he bent on her. Strange blue eyes. So kind. She couldn't assimilate it, wasn't sure what he meant by it, and now could never ask Rho. He hadn't known who she was when he risked his life to save her in the air, but then at least he had understood the danger. Now he didn't. Surely she owed it to him to protect him from his own ignorance.

He closed her hand over the paper. "Keep it. Just in case."

She saw him beam back to his ship and then wandered aimlessly through a section of shops full of luxury items and services. Human attendants smiled and bowed and waited on her pleasure as she fingered the fine fabrics, stroked the hard surface of jewels. None of them brought her pleasure. In that one thing, she thought, she was like her cousin. A jeweled cage still seemed a cage for her. Rho wanted power and would do anything to get it. Dia's temple throbbed with memory of the blow. Rho was like the galhawk. She struck out for freedom even when she was doomed never to achieve it. Dia could only cower and submit like a rabbit. Images of prey and predator filled her mind. They were the maxims of Romulan folklore. You had to choose in this world, and there were only two choices—until a weak alien presented himself and a whole new world of values.

She drifted on, undecided, hating to go back to the stifling rooms where she felt her father could read her very thoughts. Her uncharted course brought her to a small cafe where each table was fitted with a viewing screen in the center. She slid into a seat and ordered a drink. Some rehash of sports events was showing. Bull leaping. The aliens again. She saw the human captain's face. And the Vulcan beside him was the Vulcan who had tricked Rho. She wondered if he had made love to her. She watched with only half her attention although she had heard the match was spectacular. At the end, under the flashing dismount, she saw the bull turn, saw in miniature how the human assessed Onion's intent and his partner's position—and remained motionless in the path of the horn. Reaching out, she found the control that froze the action and played that part again. The Vulcan blurred in the air, the human looked from Onion's deadly horn to the light-hazed form committed to its deadly trajectory. Clear and small she could see the determination on the face. He chose not to move. She let the action flow on. Death seemed inevitable, but no one died. The horn must have glanced off a rib. It was a chance no one could count on, one the human could not have anticipated—but it had happened.

Shaking with a sudden nervous chill, she tapped the control that darkened the screen. Damp in her palm was the scrap of paper McCoy had given her. Dying frightened her; but surely death was better than what she lived through every day. Decided, she paid for the drink and left.

McCoy wore his shore leave shirt for the lift-off party, although he had heeded Spock's nagging enough to pack thermal gear and a parka for wear on Veith. The security teams were more than elated enough to pass for tourists, and they produced local and imported liquids in confusing variety as they foregathered in a temporary lounge thoughtfully provided by the charterer. McCoy fought an urge to pace up and down near the transporter nexus. It was up to her whether or not she decided to hitch a ride on the Dancing Calf. It was up to her whether or not she decided to take him up on it.

He didn't know how much it meant to him until he saw her, not on the transporter pad, but hesitating at the door to the room, dressed in a silvery gray jumpsuit, her dark hair pulled back into a complex braid at the back of her head. She had no luggage and no wrap. For the moment before she saw him, she was all fluid angles and wide eyes, like a doe peering suspiciously at a metaled road from the leafy verge of a wood.

"Over here!" he yelled above the social roar, grinning and waving. He could see the slowly exhaled breath and the relaxation of her tense shoulders, but her smile was only a pitiful imitation of what he wanted to see. Up close he could see a mist of perspiration highlighting her petal-fine skin.

"Want a drink? I think I made some of this myself."

She shook her head and smoothed her palms down her thighs. He still had to shout over the laughter and conversation in the room, and he felt like an idiot cawing out commonplaces when he wanted to put a protective arm around her and reassure her that no one could "git" her as long as he was there.

"Can't be much longer now. Spock's probably playing chess with the computer to decide who gets to navigate."

Dia nodded, her eyes flicking from the transporter pad to the door and back again. McCoy doubted that she had heard him. She tensed as four or five more Romulans walked into the room. They were young, some of the students who had been involved in Kirk's rodeo. McCoy recognized elements of the costume Farrid carried to such extremes. Dia turned away from them and McCoy moved closer to conceal her.

"Recognize them?" he asked, finally succeeding in pitching his voice under the noise in the room.

"One of them belongs to a lesser family on Veith, neighbors to my father's estate. He would recognize me, but I doubt it would occur to him to question my presence. What are they doing here?"

"Oh, we're deadheading—offering free transportation—to a number of people. Spock must have picked them up. Students, aren't they?"

"Yes. They school on Riga to be near the bull-leaping. Three of them are a trio, the fourth is their manager. I don't know the other one. Perhaps he met them on Dow. Everyone is talking about—Spock's—dismount. They'll probably fawn on him all the way to Veith."

"He'll love that," McCoy lied with a grin. "Spock is modest to the point of invisibility. He, I understand, is not supposed to know the event was recorded and he's become a celebrity."

"Then I won't mention it," she said politely. "I can't see the door. Has anyone else come in?"

McCoy turned, wondering if Kirk had come to see Spock off, but it was only Lapsley giving his men some final instruction under the guise of a farewell drink. The security chief exchanged glances with the Vulcan across the crowd, and Spock withdrew into the command module.

"It must be time to go," McCoy said. "Hang on to me."

She took him literally and put a cold and trembling hand into his. He gave it a comforting squeeze and tucked it against his side as people began to move toward the door and follow Spock's directions to enter the passenger bay. The way Dia moved—as if she were made out of glass and might shatter at a sound—made McCoy himself jumpy. Two lounges and a series of private seating alcoves that converted to bunks gave them plenty of choice, and it was obvious that the Dancing Calf had begun life luxuriously outfitted. It was decorated in green, blue, and gold, but time and travel had worn off the newness and replaced it with a patina of hard use. For an overnight jaunt to Veith it would be comfortable enough, but McCoy was glad he wouldn't have to spend a month in it. He didn't like to be a snob, but civilian vessels never seemed quite as clean as the Enterprise, and he had a prejudice in favor of gravity and running water.

He guided Dia firmly into the smaller lounge. She would be just as safe there as in a private alcove, and if McCoy knew security, the most enthusiastic partying would be done behind closed doors. He wasn't a prude, but he had no idea of what Dia's customs were, and he didn't want her to misinterpret his offer to help.

She detached herself from his arm just long enough to fasten her takeoff harness, then reached for his hand again. She was so tense he didn't think she even knew she was doing it. Since he couldn't leave her to get a drink, he waved at a bouncy little blond security man who was playing steward.

"Charlie! We'll take two over here."

"Coming up, Doc. How come you got the tour guide?" Charlie beamed at Dia as he presented the drink. "Consider it emeralds," he said, and was on his way, spreading cheer, before she could refuse.

Dia closed her free hand over the drink as McCoy locked a table in place before her; but she was shaking so hard she was afraid to lift it, although the opening in the glass was designed for freefall. She sat quietly, her hands sweating, heart thudding against her side, waiting for the inevitable attack. Outside the chartered ship, flexible cables hauled the vessel out of the berth and through an airlock into the depressurized slot for her mechanically accelerated ejection from Nod. Dia's mind ticked off the series of thumps and bumps, the changed quality of the sound when they reached vacuum, the unsteadiness when one group of come-alongs abandoned them and another had not yet latched on.

She could hear the Vulcan through the unclosed door to the command module, exchanging comments with the launch crew. At each step of the way she expected to hear her father's voice over the speakers. She was dimly aware of the humans around her, heedless and cheerful as so many small birds, chirping and fluttering, unaware that they might be only instants from death.

She had never before feared that her father would kill her, but now she feared it. Very probably her flight had brought death down on these innocent merrymakers, the reserved Vulcan, and McCoy, sitting concerned by her side. McCoy, who had been so kind to her. If she had any kind of courage at all, she would have faced her inevitable fate alone, but she didn't have it. What she had thought was the courage to strike for freedom was really only the urge to run, cower, crouch down under the hawk's attack.

"Drink that right now," McCoy said in a tone that penetrated the fog of fear. "Both hands."

Obediently she let go of him and reached for the drink. The liquor burned all the way down and blossomed into a fireball under her diaphragm. "What—?"

"Another one," McCoy commanded in a no-nonsense tone.

The second swallow wasn't so bad, and the third one, smaller, was almost good. The beads of blue-white liquid climbed the side of the glass as the ship began to accelerate. Dia felt a confusing "down" at odds with the orientation of the cabin. The slingshot effect would take them clear of the exterior surface to a distance where it was safe to use rockets. That's where her father would take the ship. He or O'Neill.

"You know," suggested McCoy, "all those bad things you're imagining can't happen simultaneously."

She looked at him. "I'm—I didn't mean to—" She wasn't ready to admit how close to tears she had been. "I'm foolish," and the tears started anyway. "I'm not used to people being kind to me."

"I think that's about the saddest thing I ever heard."

She looked to see if he was mocking her, but his face was full of compassion, the strange blue eyes worried. To have her cowardice comforted and not jeered at made it worse. She blinked and sipped her drink. Talk of something else, fool.

"Things must be very different there—in the Federation, I mean. Is everyone happy there?"

"No. But maybe they have less cause than you do to be unhappy. Fathers and daughters don't always have an easy time of it."

Something in his voice suggested that was more than a general comment. Dia put one hand under the table and curled her nails into her palm, using pain to fight panic as the Vulcan let them float dead in space. Accelerate! ACCELERATE! she wanted to scream, but she forced herself to continue the conversation.

"Do you have a daughter?"

McCoy took the display of interest as a sign that his prescription was working. He nodded. "Her name's Joanna. She lived with her mother for a while after we separated, but I guess they didn't get along too well. She went away to school. She's a nurse. Sometimes she sends me messages over the holidays. Sometimes she forgets. I was crazy over her when she was little. I used to wonder if my wife was jealous because Joanna and I had more in common than Joan and I ever did."

"What does your daughter look like?" It was genuine interest this time.

"Blue eyes, brown hair lighter than mine. She had a way of looking serious, even stern, with all of her face but her eyes. They danced. I haven't seen her for years."

"And when her mother displeased you—you simply let her go?"

"Uh—" McCoy grinned self-consciously. "That's not how it worked. She let me go."

Dia could not imagine a woman who would willingly part with McCoy's rare combination of strength and kindness. "Was she wealthy then? Or of higher station than you?"

"Nope. Oh, she had a good job. It paid as well as mine. We were just part of the great general average. Nothing special. Just ordinary people."

"You're not ordinary," Dia said, her voice full of indignation on his behalf.

It was like being defended by a six-week-old kitten, and it tickled McCoy, even while he warmed to the implied praise.

"Well, maybe not ordinary, but I'm used to being outclassed. It's nice to get a compliment for a change."

Dia swirled her drink slowly as the ship finally trembled and got underway. "I get compliments," she said sadly. "From people who fear my father, or those who wish to please him. Sometimes people like me—before they know who I am."

"I like whoever you are," McCoy said, "the Girl from the Greenwood, the Damsel in Distress, the Princess in the Tower." He hoisted his glass to her wondering eyes. "Down with dragons, whoever they are!"

She didn't know the stories, or what a dragon was. She thought his drink was loosening his tongue, and maybe it was, but her woman's instinct recognized a real compliment when she received it. The horrible paralyzing fear retreated. Escape might be impossible, but she would have memory: the memory of falling and McCoy's kiss in her palm, his blue eyes saluting her over a drink. She was ordinary. He was the strange one, taking risks for people he didn't even know. She lifted her glass and her chin and echoed him. "Down with dragons!"

~ * ~

Strapped into the pilot's chair before the curved control panel with its displays and colored lights, Spock waited until the Dancing Calf was well clear of the moon's surface and other traffic, then nudged her into a high, arching trajectory for Veith. The system's conventions placed faster traffic above the orbital plane, and very little aside from private yachts and one-man racers was faster than the Calf. Not that Spock thought much of the primitive sensor and computer equipment before him. He was so used to the sophisticated hardware on the Enterprise that he felt half-blind. If another vessel, say the pirate ship the L-5, were to bear down on him, he wouldn't even be able to identify it until it was almost within visual range. Once he had run a final check, set the automatic alarms and laid in the course, there was really nothing for a pilot to do; but the Vulcan was finding it preferable to sit facing the uninformative control panel rather than join the too-hearty celebration going on in both lounges and, very likely, beyond them in the private compartments aft.

A blast of noise smote his ears and his hands curled into fists. He knew he was behaving foolishly, but he couldn't relax. He would almost have wished for a run-in with the L-5, except for the fact that this commercial vessel maintained no armament. And of course no rational being wished to harm others.

The sound of a body slithering through the access tunnel alerted him to another's presence even before Ari's quiet voice interrupted his thoughts.

"If you have time, sir, our friend Nemo would like to meet you and thank you for the ride home. He's also a hopeless aficionado, but he can't leap since he hurt his wrist last year."

"That is regrettable," said Spock with less than his usual courtesy. "I would be pleased to meet your friend later. I am occupied now."

"Later then," Ari said, without apparent offense, and slithered away again.

My behavior is reprehensible, Spock told himself. The security crew was behaving appropriately, the mission was necessary, and Ari was simply expressing a desire for a social exchange entirely in line with their previous encounter. There was no reason to act like a sehlat in rut. The fact was that nothing had met with his approval since Jim informed him of the mission. Spock checked the controls once again and deliberately relaxed in his harness to confront his unacceptable frame of mind.

It was his decision, and it still stood, to effect a separation from the captain as soon as possible. It was for Jim's own good. To that end he had submitted his resignation and maintained his distance for the difficult month prior to their approach to Starbase 27. But since that time, his behavior had been as unedifying as that of a drunk on a slack wire. Daily—no, hourly—he had anticipated exposure of some sort—humiliation for the captain, offense to Sarek. He could not believe the impropriety, the unthought-out and undisciplined actions of which he had been guilty—that clutch for Kirk's arm, letting himself be tempted into the bullring.

He should have welcomed an opportunity to leave the ship and regain his clarity of purpose, but he had been hard-pressed to obey the command with military propriety. He did not wish to be made responsible for McCoy or the security teams or casual acquaintances. He had not wished to leave.

Logically he knew that Veith was likely to be more dangerous than a fully equipped starship, and yet he felt irrationally as if he had left Kirk in danger, avoiding responsibility rather than accepting it. Hunches were the problem of psionically deaf and dumb humans; Vulcans did not have them. But every exacerbated nerve in his body was protesting this minor parting. Except for the fact that he was never sick, he would have suspected some organic malfunction. Briefly he considered asking McCoy to check him over, but rejected the thought. He did not want to be mauled. And he did not want to think about the brief, professional leave-taking just behind him. He would not think of it. With an effort, he wrenched his thoughts back to his mission.

~ * ~

The party amidships eventually took on the proportions McCoy had feared; but Dia didn't seem to be offended by the noise, and the security crew retained enough control to keep from assaulting their medical officer and his guest as the zero-g games got rougher. There didn't seem to be a queasy stomach among them as they propelled themselves about the ship in alcoholic trajectories. It gave McCoy himself a funny feeling to see heads and arms projecting downward from what his eyes identified as "ceiling." He knew the conventional orientation of the cabin was an illusion to suit just such conservative tastes as his, but the only time the loss of up and down really didn't bother him was during surgery, when the lack of gravity made assistance more accurate and flexible.

He got Dia to talk about her training and received the impression that xeno-medicine wasn't a high priority within the Empire.

"It should be, though," argued one of the students McCoy hadn't met. "If all this is true about our being in the Federation, we'll have to deal with aliens as equals. After all, we'll be surrounded by them." He had evidently been "dealing" with them by accepting drinks. He held one squeeze-bulb in his hand and had two more hooked to his waist.

"That's not exactly the height of enlightened self-interest, Zon," said the one who had been introduced as Nemo. "Everyone knows Nod would never have been powered and Riga never settled without humans." Dia gave him a warning look, but Nemo ploughed on. "I'm not just saying it to be polite. It's true."

"Sure," said Zon alcoholically. "Some wild human who can't count his fingers helped set up the most sophisticated technology in the system. If you'll believe that, you'll believe anything." He bowed with exaggerated courtesy to McCoy—an upsetting gesture in the weightless cabin—and had to grab the table to curb a tendency to drift toward the opposite wall. "I'm not saying you couldn't do it—but even so, how long have you been in space? A lifespan or two? Romulans have records of space flight for over a thousand years."

"With warp power not as long as the humans have had it," Nemo came back. "And little progress of any kind by comparison with theirs. Look how fast they developed by not trying to conquer every race they met. Think where we would be if—"

"You're drinking," Dia said suddenly. "I suggest you save your political discussions until you are sober." Her voice was uninflected, almost flat, but the suggestion was so obviously a command, and so out of character, that McCoy stared at her. Both of the students flushed, exchanging guilty glances.

"Your pardon, Lady," Nemo said in an offended tone. Zon began to say something and then thought better of it. McCoy wondered whether there was some taboo he didn't know about and whether he had inadvertently done something to offend the unsmiling girl who sat so tensely beside him.

"What we should be discussing," Dia said, "is how to make our guests comfortable on Veith. I can hardly invite them home with me."

This comment plunged both boys into deeper confusion, if anything, while confounding McCoy even more. Another student, one McCoy recognized from the captain's escapade, had evidently heard Dia. He floated over and anchored himself with a toe.

"I've been giving that some thought myself," he admitted. "I'm Ari, sir. We were introduced this morning. So much property is privately owned on Veith that there isn't much of anywhere in the northern hemisphere for—for tourists to go, except Firstport, of course, and the university. I heard some of your people talk about camping and hunting, though, and there are some unclaimed islands in the southern hemisphere that might suit them. I'm afraid Veith isn't as interesting as Riga or Nod."

"If they want to chase fish, let 'em," said McCoy. "I'd be more interested in a busman's holiday myself. I was hoping Dia would give me a look at your hospitals."

Again there was an exchanged look, this time between Dia and Ari, but the boy responded courteously. "She could do that," Ari said. "And there are always accommodations near the university that aren't occupied. Not very luxurious, I'm afraid."

McCoy was guiltily aware of his actual reason for going to Veith, and he hastened to assure them that luxury was not necessary. He wondered if he sounded as stupid and insincere as he thought he did. No one questioned him, however, and they all seemed to share a feeling of relief that the problem of accommodations had been so easily settled.

"I don't have any classes right away," said Nemo. "I could look after—I mean, I'd be willing to act as a guide for one of the groups that wants to go to the south if they wanted me." He looked from Dia to Ari, as if seeking approval.

"That would be a good idea," Dia said slowly, and then with gathering enthusiasm, "In fact—McCoy, do you think all the people would like to have guides? A—a local person who could tell them the customs—and about the plants and animals?"

"They'd probably be delighted," said McCoy, aware of undercurrents and an eagerness, almost a desperate eagerness, showing on the students' faces. "But we don't want to put anyone out—couldn't we hire someone?"

"Oh, no!" "You don't have to pay us!" "It would be fun!" came back at him in a chorus.

Spock chose that moment to glide elegantly into the lounge and McCoy beckoned him over, explaining the suggestion. The Vulcan had no objections, and the momentum of the party was redirected into a discussion of ways and means. With the students as a nexus, the conversation eventually moved to the larger lounge and took Spock with it. It amused McCoy to see the Vulcan responding to the friendly overtures of the students with all his usual reserve—and making no impression at all.

"They must be used to Vulcans," McCoy said.

"Why?" Dia asked.

"Well, he's about as encouraging as a robot and they're still mobbing him."

Dia tilted her head to one side. "He would have to be quite rude to offend them after what he did in the bullring. None of those students except Ari is of consequential standing. That Spock speaks to them at all is their good fortune. And I think he does like them."

"Like them? Ye gods, don't let him hear you say that. Spock thinks he's impenetrably Vulcan, emotionless."

"I had heard that of Vulcans, but the ones I know are not emotionless. Why should he wish to be thought so?"

"That's a long story, and not nearly as interesting as present company. Look, I don't want to have to watch every word I say to you. If there are things you don't want to discuss—will you let me know? Don't just assume I can read your mind?"

"Yes, of course. Why do you ask?"

"Because I got the impression there was something you weren't saying back there. And because you and Ari seemed to take it for granted that the group would go along with you. I'm just curious about life in the tower."

Again, she understood him without understanding his metaphor. "There are things I should not speak of. I am, myself, unimportant, but I have told you that my father is powerful. All powerful men have secrets. If I don't tell them to you, McCoy, it is for your safety or because I am ignorant—not because I don't trust you. Please believe me."

"I believe you—and I'm not going to do anything to hurt you."

"I know." She snapped her drink into the edge of the table and settled against his side as confidingly as a kitten. "You wouldn't hurt anyone."

He put his arm around her and was not rebuffed. She closed her eyes and relaxed. Her lashes were like fans of silk against her cheek. What kind of culture, he wondered, made it such a recommendation that he was harmless?

 

XIX

It was morning on Veith when Spock brought the chartered vessel down into the atmosphere, and early morning by McCoy's inner clock. The raw sweet air of the planet flooded the stale interior of the craft and set them all shivering as they retrieved their parkas and luggage from the storage racks. McCoy's arm was numb from supporting Dia's weight while she slept, but when she yawned and sat up he felt ridiculously bereft.

"We're here," he said. "Haven't you got a coat?"

She shook herself and smiled at him. "I'm used to it. What kind of weather is it?"

It was a glittering, gusty morning with light shaken from standing puddles on the barren landing field and catching in the occasional single raindrop that slanted past, while moisture rose from the suddenly heated pavement in an opalescent local fog. McCoy had beamed down into every kind of wilderness and was familiar with other frontier worlds lacking transporter grids, but Veith was the first settled world he'd seen where a spaceport showed no sign of life at all. No other ships were near them; no vehicle left the bank of unornamented one-story buildings he could see at some distance across the field. There were no signs of life at all.

Ari more or less took charge of the group of milling people. "I guess we walk," he said. Spock secured the ship, and the group straggled out in line following the students, who had headed toward the structures.

"Do we have to go through customs?" McCoy asked.

"An investigation?" Dia shook her head. "Hardly anyone comes here. The families use their own landing facilities. There should be some kind of vehicle here, though, so we won't make you walk into town."

McCoy was wondering about that. He could see the town, or a few tall towers of it, and it was farther than he wanted to hike. There was a teasing note in Dia's voice, and she looked disgustingly fresh after a night spent sitting up.

"Don't think I can do it, huh?"

She grinned at him, eyes and teeth gleaming. "I think you can do whatever you want, McCoy. I'm glad we don't have to walk, too."

Simple animal good spirits lifted McCoy's mood as they marched through puddles and across scorched pavement. Somewhere, improbably, a bird sang, up out of sight like a lark. The wind was fresh, and it whipped his trousers around his legs and worked shining filaments of Dia's hair loose at her temples. His blood moved smoothly through his veins with the exercise, and he was conscious, as he had been off and on since that first wild flight, of how good it felt to be alive.

The buildings were deserted and unused, but Dia found an open wagon with two metal benches down each side of the interior. The students piled luggage into the center aisle and helped the humans over the side.

Seated at the front, Dia said, "Family business. Wake up and take us to town." The robot obediently woke and moved slowly forward. The security crew had come through their liquid night none the worse for wear and were in high good spirits, passing around iron rations and hangover cures for the less hardy. A drifting veil of rain drenched them momentarily without curbing their joie de vivre. The sun came out again.

"April weather," growled McCoy.

Raindrops glittered in Dia's dark hair. "We call it Heiroth, the beginning of growth."

"Spring," he said.

The city of Firstport consisted of well-laid-out-streets and an equal number of canals, without much greenery. There was no traffic to speak of, and the few pedestrians they saw stared at the passing group until Ari or Dia looked back at them. Then they moved on without another glance, as if the wagon had suddenly become invisible. Ari directed them through the bare streets into a section with more plantings and even some trees, which he said was the university proper. They halted outside a low structure half-hidden by a raised berm.

"Food first," he said, "then we'll get you settled."

The occupants of the hall had an unusual reaction to the mass entry of two dozen Federation tourists: They ignored it.

As Ari led the group through a cafeteria line with human servers, McCoy asked Dia if it were common to get in a large group of strangers.

"Not at all. It has probably never happened before. Why?"

"Maybe Romulans have better manners than we do, but an isolated group of humans should be dying of curiosity." His eye ticked off the high proportion of humans in the room—all apparently absorbed in their own affairs.

Dia's eyes darkened a moment. "We have a proverb about that. Firstport people are very status-conscious, McCoy. They can see you are with me. When they know who you are, they will be glad to greet you. Unless you're too tired, I'd like to find you a place to stay and then go right to the hospital. It would be—" She hesitated. "That would be more our custom."

"When in Rome," agreed McCoy. He was further mystified when Dia simply led the way into several unoccupied buildings until she found the most agreeable arrangement of rooms for them.

"Bedrooms, baths, kitchens, common rooms—this little one could be an office, I suppose. It's small, but I warned you Veith wasn't luxurious, didn't I? Will it do? I could have furniture sent over while we're out, and then you could make yourselves comfortable tonight. To construct a new building might take several days."

"It's fine—" McCoy had never, to his knowledge, visited a city where the construction of a new building on already occupied land could be accomplished in a few days. He looked to Spock for guidance. The Vulcan had been unusually silent since their arrival, but he approved the dwelling. "How do we pay for this?" McCoy asked. "And in what exchange? We probably have gemstones, metals, pharmaceuticals—"

"You don't have to pay."

"Sure I do," McCoy said. "And everyone will be wanting to buy some local currency. Half the fun of a vacation is spending money."

A pale green flush spread across Dia's face. "I'm afraid I never thought of that. I've never—Ari or Zon might know." She turned away quickly, obviously embarrassed, and explained to Zon, then stood mutely by while he offered to handle the whole transaction.

McCoy was touched. Poor little princess, he thought. Never carries cash, and ran away without an overcoat.

They left their luggage heaped in the empty rooms and followed Dia back to the street, Ari and Zon with them. The bright morning had dimmed, and Dia shivered. McCoy took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders as they remounted their unorthodox transport. "How do you call a cab around here?"

Half-buried in the warmth of the oversize coat, Dia shook her head. "I did not realize how many things Firstport lacks until you came here, McCoy. There aren't any. And you can't buy an aircar because they're manufactured on the estates. I can't loan you mine, either. But I'll be your pilot. There was a plan once to put some underground transportation in the city, but nothing came of it. People who don't own vehicles walk."

McCoy let it go as they rolled deeper into the green environs of the campus. The wagon took them to a pleasant, sprawling four-story structure which was the first building McCoy had seen that had a look of natural growth—as if a wing had been added as needed, and not as if the whole structure had been lowered by a shuttle.

"There is a—a business person—who manages the records for the hospital," Dia said as they entered through a warm air barrier, "but the medical director is a human named Eldridge. There is a morning meeting after the first ward class, and he should be there now."

McCoy caught Ari and Zon exchanging smothered grins as they brought up the rear. There was something in Dia's determination to make this introduction that was amusing them.

"Well, maybe it's not a good time to interrupt him," McCoy began.

Dia smiled brilliantly. "But you'll also want to meet the rest of his staff, and this is the best time. They'll all be here. And they'll want to meet you."

Just as Spock noted the novelty of a ship's instrument panel picked out in amber, blue, and rose, with bright emerald green saved for emergencies or alarms, McCoy noticed the incongruity of a hospital decorated in tones of honey and wine. The convention of hospital green was older than space travel and firmly ingrained in humans. Although most of the medical personnel they passed were human, they seemed to have followed Romulan taste in decor. Again McCoy saw their eyes fasten on Dia and avoid the strangers. Curious.

Dia entered the meeting room with no sign of shyness. A solidly built human with dark skin and tightly curled gray hair looked up at the interruption, began to frown, then dropped all expression as Dia advanced confidently into the room. McCoy, on her heels, felt like an idiot. This wasn't his notion of how to get a professional introduction. At his side, Spock was doing his famous imitation of a Vulcan pillar of salt.

"This," Dia said firmly, "is the medical director of our hospital, Dr. Eldridge." Without pause, she named the other people in the room, those gathered around a table, and others seated in two rows of less comfortable chairs around the walls. There must have been thirty of them, and McCoy hadn't a hope of remembering their names. Dia spoke quite clearly, but when she had enunciated the last name she fell silent. Spock stood like a dummy. McCoy felt a flush mounting into his face. It was the first time a difference in their customs had embarrassed him. He stepped forward into the silence, offering his hand.

"I'm Leonard McCoy, Doctor, medical officer of the Enterprise. Just taking a holiday, didn't mean to interrupt your meeting."

Eldridge slowly accepted the offered hand, frowning past McCoy to Dia. She stood where she was, with Ari and Zon flanking her and Spock to one side. "I'm honored, Doctor, if somewhat surprised."

"This is Mr. Spock, first officer," said McCoy, sure he was babbling, but still trying to make up for Dia's inexplicable behavior, "and two of our friends from Nod, Ari and Zon."

Eldridge nodded, but didn't offer his hand to anyone else. He darted a look at the two students from under his brows. "Yes, I know them. Mr. Spock, it is a pleasure. I was just finishing here. Havnor can take the rest of the meeting. Let me offer you some refreshment."

"No—we wouldn't think of interrupting you," McCoy dithered on. "It would be a pleasure—at your convenience—any time—"

"Then, if you don't mind, this won't take long. My study is right through there—"

McCoy was never so grateful to escape. In the private room Dia relaxed her imperious manner, and Ari and Zon broke into wide grins, exhibiting all the signs of youngsters who have run a wide bluff and carried if off.

"What was that all about?" McCoy demanded. "I feel like a fool barging in on somebody's staff meeting like that."

"It was the right way to do it," Ari assured him. "Everyone knows he's treated Dia like a worm. Serves him right."

"What serves him right?"

Spock answered when the three students didn't. "Romulan protocol, Doctor, provides for the introduction of those with inferior status. We have just been accorded recognition as the superiors of the highest ranking human present."

"Eldridge thinks he owns the city," said Zon.

"But—"

"I had to do it, McCoy." Dia was serious now. "Your status had to be established immediately. People would not know how to address you, otherwise. It will make your stay here much easier for all of you. In an hour's time everyone in the city will know how you should be treated. It was necessary."

"She's right," Eldridge said from the door. "It's nice to know the krella has claws, though. Are you coming back to work, Lady Dia—or are you here just to disrupt my management of this hospital?"

"I am on holiday," Dia said without expression.

"Ummm. Sit down, gentlemen. Be comfortable. This is a unique opportunity for me. We're not exactly in the mainstream of progress here. What's that starship of yours going to do for us besides start a war? You do spread knowledge to the poor and backward, don't you?"

"When the planetary government approves it. What do you need?" McCoy couldn't quite figure out how to take Eldridge... or his relationship with Dia.

"Everything," Eldridge said promptly. "Technology and hardware and supplies. Veith produces 26 natural organic poisons, and we've only been able to find antidotes for three of them. There's been no advance made in my lifetime in the treatment of degenerative disease, and we have a vector for fever here that nothing short of a phaser will stop."

Nothing seemed likely to stop Eldridge, thought Spock, fighting back an unworthy irritation. McCoy had settled and accepted a steaming cup from Ari without questioning the contents. It had evidently slipped his mind that the purpose of their mission was to gather information, not give it. Dia sat erect in her chair, looking from one medical man to the other with shining eyes.

Ari said quietly, "They'll be at it for hours, if I know doctors, sir. Would you like to see the computers? I imagine computer compatibility would be essential in any serious exchange of information."

Spock stopped feeling excluded. The conversation at the table hardly checked long enough to acknowledge their departure. Ari and Zon led Spock beneath the building to a brightly lit complex, of which they were obviously proud. As Dia had predicted, the humans and Romulans in the room now seemed perfectly aware of who the Vulcan stranger was. There was no more evasiveness in their manner. Spock examined their hardware and found it rather primitive, but in familiarizing himself with the work the computer did, he identified two programs of Federation origin, which had been copyrighted less than ten years earlier. He noted the fact without comment and answered truthfully all the eager questions directed at him until he, too, was conducting a lecture.

The twilight was closing in when Dia brought them back to the building she had selected. From other suites up and down the halls, evening sounds came from the security people and their Veithan "guides." She opened their door and waved McCoy in, watching for his reaction.

A minor miracle had been wrought in the course of the day. There was furniture, and a fireplace had been built by the simple expedient of knocking a hole in an exterior wall and bricking in a firebox. A real wood fire threw its flickering light into the room.

"Do you like it? Many human dwellings on Riga have them."

"I like it very much," McCoy said. "But didn't the owner of the building have something to say?"

"Oh, that's all right," Dia assured him. "There should be prepared food in the kitchen, and supplies—all fit for humans, but there are some things meant for Vulcan tastes—I know you must be tired and I'll go now, but I—I want to thank both of you for what you did today." She took a deep breath, and her eyes were the brightest McCoy had seen them. "I've never seen anything like it."

"Anything as boring," corrected McCoy, who had only talked shop all day.

"Oh, no. Everyone listened to you. They knew you were right, and they believed you—both of you. They saw it was true you would just give what you knew because it would help people. No matter what else happens, for one day they did believe that somebody—cares—about everybody." She swallowed. "Thank you. Good night!" And she was gone before McCoy could protest over her going off alone in the dark.

"I feel like Alice," he told Spock. "Or maybe the Cheshire cat. Don't be surprised if I just fade away."

"That would surprise me a great deal, Doctor. I am going to contact the Enterprise and report on our day's activities. Is there anything you particularly wish to say?"

McCoy yawned. "Can't think of anything. I'll see what's in the kitchen."

Spock found his belongings in the smaller of the two bedrooms, placed the suitcase-sized long-range communicator on the bed and called the ship. A minor communications technician answered, and Spock realized what he should have known without thinking about it. By ship's time it was the middle of the night watch, and it was highly unlikely the regular bridge crew would be on duty. His desire to speak evaporated, and he made a brief report and arranged a new reporting time calculated to coincide with the change of bridge crew at morning watch. He reasoned it was only logical to do so without admitting even to himself that Kirk's punctuality and the relative slowness at the beginning of a shift were factors in his decision. During the hiatus at the beginning of the day, the captain was always most receptive to social exchanges and conversation. At that time it would be possible to give him the most current and complete information on Veith. The inconvenience of rising in the middle of the night to do so was negligible to Spock if it insured superior performance of his duties.

He closed the communications apparatus and placed it in a closet where it would be less conspicuous. The intermittent rain was tapping against the windows again, and from the other room he could hear the pop and hiss of logs burning. They were very Terran sounds—Jim's favorite sounds, next to the snap of a sail filling and the slap of waves on a ship's hull. McCoy's contented hum from the kitchen testified to the "home" feeling they gave him. For one undisciplined moment Spock imagined how it would be to know that Jim was puttering in the kitchen, waiting to join him for a quiet meal in the flickering firelight with the rest of the universe and its problems banished into the windy, rain-filled dark outside. The thought ran like brandy through his veins.

"Spock, are you going to take all night?"

Reality quenched the fires. It was McCoy's voice, not Jim's, and it was Spock, and not the rest of the universe, who must be banished from the glowing presence of one charismatic human. There was no other way.

"I am ready, Doctor." And he joined McCoy for their meal.

~ * ~

The showers tapered off during the night, leaving the sky clear for a few hours above the sleeping city. In the early morning a crystalline haze obscured the stars and then the sunrise. By the time McCoy rolled out of bed, a close gray sky covered the shadowless streets. Spock silently assumed their morning chores in the kitchen, and McCoy reflected on temperamental differences. It was probably just as well that Spock himself was solitary by nature, because his silences were deafening. It was a relief to answer a knock on the door and find Dia waiting, dressed in white, with lush white fur framing her bright face. He ushered her in and offered coffee, which Spock, and not he, had had the foresight to bring with them.

"I can't develop a taste for it. Tea perhaps. I came to find out if you had made plans for the day. I brought my aircar." She turned to include the silent Vulcan in her invitation. "If you would also care to see the countryside, Ari would be pleased to send for his own flyer. They are small."

"Another time, perhaps. I have made arrangements to tour the physics laboratory of the university."

"Well, I'd love to go," McCoy said. "Let me get my coat."

He followed Dia out to the street and got into the passenger seat of her car. It was a little silvery bullet with a clear dome over the two seats and the exaggerated wings of a glider, folded back now for maneuverability on the ground. It rocked gently on repulsion units as they got in.

"I'd diagnose an addiction to flight," said McCoy, figuring out the fastening of the seat harness.

Dia breathed deeply. "I love it. It's the only time I'm ever alone—flying or gliding. I'm sorry I can't take you to the mountains, but this isn't very good weather. I think it's going to snow."

Ungainly on the ground, the little craft rose smoothly on its repulsors, extended wings, and rose on the weak thermal over a canal, then on a stronger one. From his experience in Nod, McCoy could guess the skill it must take to pilot the little craft. Dia coaxed it up and nodded toward a pillar of steam rising from agricultural land three miles away. "That's what we count on for lift, but first I have to get us there."

McCoy watched her intent face with pleasure. Her skin was poreless, like a very young child's, and her thick lashes curved up in a perfect arc that balanced her level serious mouth. The untimely silver springing from either temple curved behind her delicately pointed ears and gleamed like tinsel in the dark tide of her hair. She was perfectly unconscious of the fact that she was beautiful, perfectly absorbed in her task. With the certainty of long practice she leaned the glider into the invisible edge of the thermal, and they began to spiral up into the soft gray haze. There was no sound at all except their breathing and the whisper of fabric as they shifted in their seats. He could hear her dark hair brushing the fur of her collar.

The gray began to brighten and the strong lift failed. Dia turned the glider's nose down and to the side, and they slid away from the thermal and out into blinding sunshine above a billowing blanket of cloud. McCoy squinted against the light.

"Like it?" she asked.

"Dazzling," he said, and he wasn't thinking of the cloudscape. For long minutes they soared and banked in the diamond-bright, milk white canyons—always finding another inch of lift, another long crevasse of clear air between swan-soft cloudy cliffs. Finally they settled belly down, disturbing the milky sea of mist. It mounted up over the wings, lapped the clear bubble, and closed over them, mother-of-pearl, blue-white, dove gray, until it was nothing, finally, but damp solid gray, breaking up into beads of moisture that streaked around them, rattled briefly on the dome as hail; and then they were sinking out of it into the dim underworld again, with white snow drifting around them as they fell.

"I'll try not to put you in a canal," Dia said.

"Worth it," McCoy claimed. "I've never felt like I belonged in the air before."

They swept over the university buildings, the trees beginning to show white margins on every leaf and twig. Then they swooped up and over a hill with branches bending away from the repulsors, not thick enough to lift against, and then down into a hollow and into the snow.

"I didn't think it would snow so soon," Dia said. "I planned a picnic, with that bubbling wine you liked."

"Champagne?" said McCoy with a fine disregard for geography. "We'll chill it in a drift. On with the picnic."

They scrambled through the damp snow, built a reluctant bonfire, and huddled in the lee of tumbled rocks to get out of the wind. The snow caught in Dia's hair and melted on her eyelashes. The wine foamed over when they opened it, dripping into the snow, and McCoy called it a libation to the gods. They toasted flight and finally smashed their glasses in the fire. A whole day flew somewhere, and it was twilight again when Dia pulled to a sedate stop before McCoy's building.

"Do you mind that I keep thanking you?" she asked soberly. The air had warmed and the snow was melting under McCoy's feet. A fine mist was soaking his hair and the shoulders of his parka as he leaned on the glider saying good-bye.

"I don't mind. What for this time?"

"For the first entirely happy day in my whole life."

"Doesn't take much to make you happy."

"It seems like a lot if you've never had it before."

He didn't know what to say to that. There had been many happy days for Leonard McCoy. "I'm glad I helped celebrate number one. You'll have more days, Dia. So many you'll stop counting."

She searched his eyes for a moment, as if to examine more closely someone who could even imagine such bounty. "I'll never forget this one."

Guiltily aware that he'd played hooky all day, McCoy ran up the steps and into the apartment. Spock, no doubt applying himself strictly to business, was gone.

McCoy made up the fire, investigated the larder, and was making domestic noises in the kitchen when the Vulcan entered. "There you are," McCoy said heartily. "I wondered what was keeping you. Busy day?"

"I managed to occupy my time. And you?"

"Dia showed me around the countryside. There's a lot of it. I don't know what I'm supposed to watch for, Spock. Farmland all looks the same to me."

"Then perhaps you should concentrate on the medical facility, Doctor."

For a fraction of a second McCoy thought Spock was delivering a deliberate reprimand, then he focused in on the drawn expression on his face. Drops of water were running off Spock's hair and his parka. He hadn't had the advantage of a waterproof conveyance, and Veith was decidedly too cold for a Vulcan. McCoy chalked the flat tone and blunt phrasing up to weariness.

"You look half-frozen. Why don't you grab a hot shower while I fix something to eat."

McCoy expected a protest, but the Vulcan moved obediently toward his room, leaving the physician to wonder if he really were sick. Plomeek soup was out, but what would perk up a slightly under-the-weather Vulcan? McCoy applied his medical tricorder to the assortment of spices Dia had provided. So far nothing had been poisonous, but it didn't hurt to be careful. Curry was a possibility—or something close to it, so long as you didn't mind if it was purple. Spock probably wouldn't even notice. By the fizz in his own blood and the sudden interest he felt in mundanities like the weather, McCoy knew what Spock must be experiencing in the way of deprivation. Well, maybe absence would show the stubborn Vulcan where his heart lay.

~ * ~

With Spock gone, the sheer number of things to be agreed upon and things to be done before a meeting such as Sarek envisioned fell squarely upon Kirk's shoulders. On the one side, Harnum was busily inventing new and more complicated bureaucratic horrors—rerouting communications with Starfleet through the dreadnought, requesting assistance in testing experimental environmental armor for surface troops, wanting so many reports that Kirk, in disgust, detailed his yeoman to program them into the computer. On the other, Sarek calmly dictated necessities which must be accomplished before any representatives came aboard the Enterprise. Meade naturally felt her work deserved attention—and it did. Scotty had caught redecorating fever, it having occurred to him after several visits aboard the dreadnought that "his" lady could use some refurbishing. Gavin Lapsley had his hands full with one group on Veith and one distributed around Riga and her moons, not to mention a mixed batch of students coming, going, and sleeping aboard to help Meade. The only person who made no demands on Kirk was Amanda.

Anticipating a successful conclusion to Sarek's efforts, Kirk set Scotty to the chore of wiping out a section of Deck Five previously devoted to storage. He found out everyone was an amateur architect and shipwright when he programmed for a suitable configuration of rooms to house the representatives and their talks. Half the ship was involved. He left them to it.

He missed Spock's report about the Veithan landfall, but caught the second one, unaware that his first officer had risen in the middle of the night to deliver it. He was on the bridge—he usually got there early—and was constrained to hear and respond to a purely formal report. Wanting to say too much, he was unable to say anything personal at all. It was an unsatisfactory exchange.

Toward the end of the day, Sarek called from Riga to say that the interested parties had agreed upon the Enterprise and coordinates midway between the two planets as the location for talks, with a meeting time three days in the future. Kirk found Amanda at the construction site and told her personally. Meade wandered in as he began.

"Talks!" she snorted.

"Talks are good," Amanda claimed. "Argave-Mehanie relations have been in the greetings-preparatory-to-conversation-before-topics-of-interest stage for 22 years."

"We haven't got that long here," said Meade. "I wish sociology was like medicine—when the doctor knows what the patient needs, he gives it to him, and no backtalk."

"That sounds like McCoy," Kirk said, missing the irritability his friend used to disguise his humanist values.

"How are they doing on Veith?" Meade asked. "Started a war yet?"

"Not yet. Spock had nothing significant to report. They arrived and are settled in. Guides are being arranged for the 'tourists.'"

Amanda's serene face showed nothing but a pleasant interest in the conversation. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of a crewman from engineering waiting for her attention. She excused herself, looked at something he had to show her, and drifted back. Meade was speculating darkly on the value of interspecies hot air.

"At least it is the custom for humans to base much of their behavior on faith," Amanda said. "How much more difficult for a Vulcan it is to deal entirely with behaviors that cannot be predicted."

"Why do they bother?" asked Meade. "They're well able to defend themselves. The Federation needs Vulcan more than Vulcan needs the Federation."

The trend of the conversation deflected Kirk's attention from the fact that Amanda did not seem overwhelmingly interested in Spock's doings or date of return. Instead her face smoothed out into the expression of innocence Kirk associated with Uhura's best efforts to make him a straight man, or his own attempts to sell a totally fraudulent interest in Lunar real estate.

"It's only logical," Amanda said reasonably.

Meade was willing to bite. "Why?"

"Because the one great unsolved problem for Vulcans is why aliens have failed to observe the superiority of the Vulcan approach to life and adopt it themselves. 'Why can't the alien be more like us?' I've long suspected it is curiosity and not noblesse oblige that keeps Vulcan involved with a universe full of illogic."

Why can't the alien? wondered Kirk. Why can't he catch this fever in the blood? He infected me. It's not fair. Couldn't he at least try? Instead of sitting cool and uninvolved on Veith, giving me weather reports. Is it because I can't be "logical" like he is?

"Are you all right, Captain?"

Kirk realized Amanda was addressing him and that he had been staring into space, ignoring the two women. A sudden sweat broke out over his whole body and he felt an irritating flush start at his neck and burn up into his face.

"Sorry. I'm fine, but I just thought of some ship's business I've been neglecting. Please excuse me." He followed his lie out of the room, wondering where to go and what kind of reaction this was. He was soaked with perspiration and shaking as if he had just missed sudden death. He took a deep, steadying breath and proceeded down the corridor, into the lift, and to his cabin. If anyone saw him they would think he'd been in the gym—not that they'd look. Kirk had learned years before that braid on the sleeve tends to increase height and conceal personality. He heard his door close behind him with all the relief of a Neanderthal safe in his cave. His shirt was soaked with spreading stains under both arms and on chest and back. The waistband of his pants was sodden. His heart was pounding, and muscles in his thighs twitched and trembled as he punched a hot water shower and stood in the spray.

Was he sick? Or was love the madness the Greeks thought, come to destroy him?

The seizure passed under the shower's massage. Half an hour later, Kirk felt as well as ever. In the five days before the Enterprise made her stately way to the agreed-upon position and began taking aboard delegates, there was no repetition. Kirk dismissed the strange reaction as one of those private aberrations people keep to themselves.

The crew relaxed once they were away from the Haile Selassie's surveillance. Uhura was relieved from spying on Sarek for a while. Kirk noticed she was spending considerable time in the gym, often with Gavin Lapsley, playing rough games. Probably using Gavin as a substitute for the admiral. The security chief seemed willing to be thrown as many times as she had the steam to try it.

Meade had dismissed her student helpers when the representatives came aboard. "Too difficult to keep the groups separate. Natural antipathy," she had told him, and she had turned her language study to focus on the three races participating in the conference. But she looked permanently grim, as if she had a hunch there would be bad news to deliver.

Without Spock and McCoy, Kirk's main wailing walls were gone. There was no one aboard he wanted to burden with his personal problems, and it wasn't just support he needed. He missed the sometimes brutal bouncing around he got from people who were not impressed with his rank. The students, particularly Farrid, had practically fawned on him, and the representatives were either obsequious or formally polite. He found himself drawn to the diplomat's lounge. Kirk wasn't sure whose hand had balanced the combination of cool blues and tans and reddish browns or designed the furniture that almost insisted upon relaxation, but it seemed significant that Sarek felt very at home in the room. For some reason—perhaps only the resemblance to Spock—Kirk was most able to unwind in the Vulcan ambassador's presence. He tried to keep out of Sarek's way, or at least to have a valid excuse to interrupt him, but in spite of a certain watchful quality, the Vulcan always welcomed him. Kirk told himself it was a pale substitute for the real thing, but he would take all the comfort he could get. He needed to unwind. His irritability reflex was up. He was reacting to the representatives and delegates like a cat in the presence of a dog pack.

They were continually making demands. Could they see the bridge and the sickbay? How did people occupy their off time in space? How did the food synthesizer work? Was he sure it was safe for them to eat? Could they call their families? A family member was sick, could they get a ride home? He drew the line at that. He was damned if he would tie up a ship's shuttle for an indeterminate amount of time. That representative had to accept a hop from a passing yacht. But the demands went on. Could the representatives have the pool to themselves for two hours a day? Could he partition hydroponics into sections representing Rigan and Veithan ecologies? Would it be all right if the representatives had costumes fashioned from archives?

Kirk answered yes, no, yes, almost by his whim of the moment. "They don't act right," he complained pettishly to Meade. "The students could run this circus better. At least they took it seriously. In less than two weeks the second planet will be in Federation space, and these people can't agree on orders of precedence?"

Meade's expression hadn't lightened once during his recital. "The seat of your pants and the seat of mine agree, Jim. I keep having a feeling this isn't real." Again she asked for Spock's input.

Kirk wasn't chancing another reaction to thinking about the Vulcan. Nor could he discuss the aching deprivation Spock's impersonal morning exchanges were causing. "Nothing," he said shortly. "'Scuse me, Meade. Ship's business."

An irritated and slightly offended pan-anthropologist watched him go. You can cry on my shoulder, but I can't cry on yours, huh? That's not how it works where I come from. Meade indulged in a fantasy of Kirk and herself as scrubby pre-teens in Huck Finn standoff: Knock that chip off my shoulder, I dare you. Yeah? Yeah. Well, you take off that braid and I will.

It surprised her that she was genuinely angry at Kirk. By an effort of will she dismissed the images of confrontation and plumbed for the source of the irritation. She was worried all the way down to her bone marrow. The representatives weren't the only ones who weren't acting right. She relied on Kirk. She had always credited him with being the glue, the catalyst in the chemistry of the Enterprise. Here he was, molting like a sick bird while Armageddon hesitated over the horizon. She felt wounded in her amour propre. Was it Spock, after all, who had been holding ship and captain together? She had been so sure Kirk would create the same ambiance of confident power wherever he went. With one unnoticed glimmer of precog, she wondered how the Vulcan was doing on Veith and why he had so little to report.

~ * ~

Spock was occupied on Veith, but he felt an unnatural sense of impatience and frustration with the course of events there. Even though he was aware there had been no specific plan to govern their observations, the formless and unguided peregrinations of various hunting and climbing parties who never met anyone but their student guides did not meet with his approval. Nor did McCoy's activities satisfy his need to understand what danger this planet could represent to the Enterprise and the Federation. A naturally hospitable person, supplied with an apparently endless draft for groceries and potables, McCoy was holding continuous open house. He complained that he never had a moment free when he was not actually attending to necessary biological functions, and it was nearly true. Except that the Vulcan observed he always found time to be private with Dia.

They were both busy. If McCoy had created a renaissance in Veithan medical circles, Spock himself was generating several kinds of revolution in the arts of physics and cybernetics. They were both natural teachers. It was flattering to have opinions deferred to and reminiscences solicited. It took McCoy's auditors a while to understand the brand of humor that had the great man representing himself as the butt of every joke, though. At first his jokes fell flat and his extravagant exaggerations left the group silent. Then, suddenly, they caught on. The discovery that a man could laugh at himself and not be a fool was evidently new. There was an excitement in the air that approached hysteria at times and left Spock feeling outside and alone.

The students were endlessly curious about the Enterprise and its captain, for the bull-leapers were part of the crowd. Giving Spock his due for that amazing dismount, they were even more obsessed with Kirk's performance, his dominance of Onion. They repeatedly marveled that he had never done anything similar, although Spock assured them soberly it was true. His understated response sent them back to McCoy. They wanted to know everything about the Federation, particularly about the aliens they had encountered. Was it true there were races so ugly the sight of them would drive you insane? Were there really cat people? Blue people? Orange ones? There was very little talk, as the days went by, of the fact that Veith was approaching the Federation line, no discussion of the talks taking place on the Enterprise.

When Spock pointed this out to McCoy, the doctor had no answer. "I'm no expert on Romulan psychology. Maybe it's bad manners. Communication involves giving information as well as getting it, Spock. We aren't doing so bad."

Spock answered that they weren't doing so well. He had nothing of significance to report to the captain, and while the students were likable, and the staff of the university both friendly and receptive, they were no closer to penetrating the power structure of the society. "At least I am not."

McCoy flushed, half-angry, half-defensive. "From what I've seen, females don't hold a very high position in Romulan society. I don't control Dia's comings and goings, and she's stronger than I am. What do you suggest I do to gain her confidence that I'm not already doing, Spock. Hypnotize her?"

Spock knew the angry words came from a sore conscience as much as anything else, but making allowances—and he felt he had been making them forever—had not produced any information he could give Kirk. He felt that he was being ineffectual as an officer. His eyes narrowed. The next words came dipped in acid.

"We have known one woman who held power in their system, and even a slave understands the power structure he is subject to. I suggest you remember the purpose of our 'vacation,' Doctor. Or must I phrase it as an order?"

McCoy's temper flared. "I was commissioned as a physician, Mr. Spock, not a spy. If you want to grill a girl who is so much a victim of her system that she's afraid for her life, you'll have to do it without my help!" He was white and shaking, furious and frightened at once, as though the Vulcan had triggered some survival mechanism.

Both men recognized their inappropriate intensity at the same time. The volcanic fire died out of Spock's eyes; McCoy thrust his clenched fists into his pockets. "I regret—" "I'm sorry—" Their apologies collided in midair.

"I'm sorry, Spock," McCoy said quietly. "I guess we're both on the prod. I'm having dinner with Dia tonight. I'll—try—to explain the necessity to her. I'm not just malingering when I say I have the feeling it could be disastrous—to her, maybe to us—to force her."

"I should not have implied that you were neglecting your duty, Doctor." Spock was exerting so much control that the words came out with difficulty. "There is no excuse for such a statement. I hope you will enjoy your meal." It was absolutely the most he could say. He turned and left the room abruptly, driven, like a wounded animal, to the security of his own lair.

He's wondering if this is the beginning of it, McCoy thought with sudden, piercing pity. Loss of control, command, life—A living hell of his own, and this whole damn crisis, and me flaunting how I feel. I'm sorry, Spock. I'm so damned sorry. And I still can't help it.

~ * ~

Everywhere people gather there are places to eat and drink. McCoy tried to lift his sagging spirits to do justice to the one Dia had selected. His effort or her beauty did the trick, but once he had focused on her, there seemed something a bit artificial about her own enjoyment. Am I boring her? he wondered with a pang.

"I like you by candlelight," he said with a nod to the flickering taper between them.

"I wish I liked myself better. I thought—a celebration—would make it easier to say good-bye."

"Good-bye?"

Dark eyes, full of misery, met his. "You know I have to go. My father—I should have gone when we first arrived, but I couldn't think where. And it was so wonderful to watch you—to be with you."

"Is he really that bad?" McCoy felt like a traitor, trying to serve two masters. "You've told me so little. We really don't know this world at all."

"He's a devil. He's done things—made me do things you would die to prevent. You wouldn't like me if you knew the truth."

It was a little girl's confession, and McCoy tightened his hand over hers. "I'd like you whatever you did, Dia—"

"Don't—" She tensed and drew back, smiled tremulously. "I don't want to say good-bye in tears. I had to let you know that I would be cared for. I will be well, I promise. I want you to promise that you won't try to find me. That would only increase my danger. Please?"

The bright intoxication of the last few days dissolved in a passing glitter of spindrift and colored fragments. It had always been impossible. He was too much a realist not to acknowledge the differences in age and race.

Dia smiled again, trying to be brave. "I interfered with your work and you interfered with my escape—but they were happy days, weren't they?"

He remembered her saying, "This is the first entirely happy day of my life."

"Very happy, my dear. Happier days than I ever expected to have again."

She nodded, and if a tear spilled, it was by accident, and they both ignored it. McCoy paid for the dinner, wrapped her in her furs, and walked out into the street beside her. It was raining again. He thought of a hundred things to say and censored them all. They had had a perfect, precious friendship, quite unspoiled by promises neither of them could keep. That was the way to part—if you happened to be a robot instead of a living, hungry man. He turned her towards him in the light from an upstairs window.

"I shouldn't do this at all, you know," he said as she raised her face for his kiss. Her lips were closed and cold and salty with tears. "We'll both regret it." He kissed her cheek, her eye, the tip of her cold and pointed ear, and returned to her mouth again. It warmed and opened under his. Her strong grip surprised him, and the shock of desire as it spread from his body to hers surprised her. She caught her breath for a moment and kissed him back, pressing close.

Her ears were keener. She heard their assailants a moment before the building assaulted McCoy's head and a photon torpedo smashed into his ribcage.

"Don't hurt him!" she screamed.

The mere impact of the blows, long before the pain caught up, smashed McCoy to the far fringes of consciousness. He was aware of pavement under his mouth and a frenzied thrashing above him. Boot heels scraped and thudded close to his face. With doubled vision he saw Dia's white form caught up and unceremoniously dragged away. He made it to his knees as two men pushed her into a dark car with short stubby wings, but fell over as they turned back toward him. He curled around his vulnerable midsection. He saw Dia's face and her fists beating against the clear bubble of the car.

Christ, he thought. I can't even stand up.

~ * ~

Spock had not been long left in peace to dwell on the implications of his temperamental outburst toward McCoy. The students were becoming conditioned to considering the Enterprise officers' dwelling a communal meeting place. There was merit in McCoy's friendly socializing. In penance, Spock took up the doctor's role in his absence.

It was after midnight when they finally thought of going home, having indulged in an interesting, if not novel, discussion of the good. Spock picked up the debris of their passage, mentally ticking off the points of his report and killing time until he could call the Enterprise. He tried not to speculate on the length of McCoy's dinner engagement and whether he would come home that night at all. At two McCoy had still not returned, so Spock brought the communicator into the common room and placed it on the table near his chair. He found a certain physical comfort in the flicker of the open fire and its mellow warmth.

His call was promptly received by Uhura. "The captain will take your report in his cabin, Mr. Spock. I'll put you through."

A tension gathered around Spock's heart and compressed his lungs. In the second before Kirk spoke the Vulcan could hear his breathing and the whisper of fabric on flesh. Towel around the captain's neck? Velour shirt slipping over the tousled head and tanned torso?

Kirk tugged his shirt into place, aware that he had been stalling all morning just to have another pointless report dictated in Spock's professionally proper and emotionless mode. His own neediness left no room for resentment. He listened without comment to the standard items.

Do you miss me at all, Spock? Don't you ever feel like somebody kicked your ribs in and shot your dog? Or are you glad you're half a system away so you have breathing room? What am I supposed to read into this bland recital of trivia? That you prefer routine? I don't believe it. That you're not having fun? When did you ever, unless I was there?

His moody counterpoint broke off when Spock mentioned that McCoy had gone out for dinner nine hours earlier and not yet returned. "That's not like him," Kirk worried. "No matter how pretty the girlfriend, he should keep you posted. Do you think he might have met the father with the phaser?"

"Dia has expressed a fear of her father—and, I believe, a fear for McCoy's safety—" Spock reported conscientiously. "However, I did not feel it appropriate for me to interfere."

"Nooo—" Kirk rubbed the back of his neck. "We still don't have proof positive, but everyone here seems to believe Veith is involved somehow with slave trade within the Empire. That's not the safest place for Bones. If he's concerned about the girl he won't back off."

"I could look for him, Captain." Spock did not mention the lateness of the hour or the rain beating harder against the window. He did not desire to call Kirk's attention to the difference in their "days."

"Maybe you should." Kirk had never realized they weren't on the same schedule. "And let him know Meade is interested in the frequency of multiple births. He could ask about the obstetric facilities at that hospital. Something to do with her language studies. If it checks out we're going to have to push harder and get some proof. The representatives here aren't going to speak up." Kirk made a disgusted sound.

"Is there no progress toward a referendum?"

"Nothing visible to the naked eye. The ambassador is working twenty hours a day, though. He inquired about your health."

"My health?" Spock sounded puzzled, almost unbelieving.

"That's right."

"I am fine, Captain. Is that all?"

Not by a long shot, Kirk wanted to say, looking down at his lap. His cock knew they weren't on the bridge. What would you say if I told you how hearing you stirs me, Spock? What if I said I miss you every aching minute, and I think I'm going to go crazy if I can't see you and touch you and breathe the same air you do? You want that on your conscience?

"I guess so. Talk to you tomorrow. Kirk out." Kirk waited until the connection went dead, then he stood up with a sigh, adjusted his anatomy with the casualness of a man who knows himself unobserved, and prepared to tackle another day. Maybe when Bones got back he could prescribe an antidote for love. Until then, there was nothing to do but keep soldiering.

For a moment more, Spock sat where he was, dark figure in a dark room with the fire dying. He was picturing the bright corridors of the Enterprise and the centered energy of the man who commanded her. By comparison his own fatigue seemed boundless. But he had told Kirk he would look for McCoy. He banked the embers of the fire and drew a screen in front of it. He put on his parka with a sigh and started downstairs. It was a very large city to search on foot.

~ * ~

Mention of Meade's research reminded Kirk that he hadn't seen much of her since their aborted conversation a few days earlier. He told the bridge where he was going and tracked her down in her office. "How's it going, Meade?"

I've been wondering myself, was her first thought as she took in the drawn look on Kirk's face. "Well, I'm getting some results on my language study. Spock would find it interesting. I want to hear from McCoy. It seems that Romulans have the standard terms for multiple births—twins, triplets, and so on. We're using a small sample, of course—recorded speech of all the students and representatives for about three days each. From the humans on Riga or either moon we heard the same terms. Humans from Veith have individual words for multiple births of either sex and all possible combinations of sexes up to twelve."

At Kirk's blank look, she added, "People only make up words they need to describe their reality."

"Humans on Veith have multiple births," Kirk deduced. "Something special about the biosphere? Some mutagen?"

"I doubt it. Here's something else. Humans from Veith use significantly fewer possessive pronouns than humans from Riga—unless they are speaking of Romulans and their possessions. Third person."

Kirk got it this time. Humans on Veith didn't own much. "More," he said, wishing he had had this information to give Spock.

"Well, in the shared language of Riga and Veith, many technological terms have human roots with Romulan inflections. More? Romulan students could express over a hundred distinctions in military rank and familial relationship, but only nine classes of laborers. They knew a knife, sword, and so on, but not a boning knife, a soup ladle. Humans from Veith can distinguish the Romulan relationships, but they don't use them in referring to humans. They have breeding relationships instead—uncle, aunt, cousin. But the words for their immediate family are best translated as dam, sire, and littermate."

Kirk felt nauseated. "You're telling me there is widespread human slavery on Veith. That it's being hidden from our crew there, and the 'representatives' here are deliberately lying."

Meade gave him a level glance. "That's what people have been telling us all along."

Kirk put his hands to his temples as the sudden torque of a tension headache tightened around his scalp. "But we still don't have proof—"

Meade's eyes flashed. "This is proof, to anyone with a scientific mind. I knew Harnum didn't want to be convinced, but I didn't think you were—" She stopped on the verge of a serious breach of protocol.

Kirk grabbed his temper at the same moment, on the edge of an explosion. He knew and trusted Meade. On her side of it, she'd seen him bring off what must seem very unmilitary maneuvers—when he didn't have a dreadnought parked on his nacelles. No civilian ever understood or sympathized with the needs of the service, just expected the Fleet to come in blasting and set things right. The bottled up anger was blasting, all right. His head was splitting. Valuable civilian expert, old friend; don't alienate everybody, Jimmy, you won't have any friends left.

"I know how important your work is, Meade. I think you're probably right. But I'm not an independent here—you aren't. Be sure Harnum can't pick nits with your analysis and inform him of your findings. I never took this camp meeting too seriously, and Sarek is no fool. There's too much at stake here to go off half-cocked. I'll ask McCoy to verify your interpretation. Let's make sure we have them in stasis before we make any announcements."

"All right. I didn't mean to get out of line. But the time is getting very short."

"I know."

~ * ~

McCoy had protected his gut during the beating and trusted his hard Georgia head to take care of itself. When the slither of icy rivulets around his ribs brought him back to consciousness, he still saw two of everything. A momentary surge of rage brought on a bout of vomiting to the accompaniment of an acute pain in his head. No problem with the diagnosis. He had a concussion. He eased away from the mess and lay still, trying to summon the strength to call for help. Rain beat down on his face. He was soaked, and he couldn't breathe without agonizing protest from his side. Broken ribs, collapsed lung—he swung between awareness and oblivion, not much caring which it was. He finally eased over the edge without having tried to shout. Nobody would have heard anyway. Hypothermia wasn't a bad way to go.

Spock wouldn't have agreed, enduring the icy slap of rain on the crown of his head. His ears had long since gone numb when something penetrated his own misery. He stretched all his senses, seeking for some clue, and it was the reek of sickness that guided him to McCoy's sprawled body.

He assimilated the situation as a gestalt. McCoy's attackers had obviously moved on, and the ideal solution would have been to beam him directly to a medical facility; but since Veith lacked the luxuries with which Riga and its moons were so well supplied, he had the choice of carrying McCoy's body himself or trying to contact someone at the university hospital and waiting in the rain until they responded. It was consideration for McCoy as much as himself that made him reject the latter idea. The human's skin was nearly as cold as the pavement on which he was lying.

Spock checked delicately for broken bones, obstructed airway, or shifting areas in the skull. He found none, and the slight link created by the physical contact brought him a tale of strained and torn muscles but no more serious injury. He lifted McCoy and draped him over a shoulder. At a ground-eating walk he turned back toward their quarters.

With a very small part of himself he was aware of satisfaction and a spurt of renewed interest in his assignment. At least something had happened to justify the unease he had been feeling and spur him out of his lethargy. His reactions had not been irrational after all, he told himself, merely the result of cues too small to be consciously recognized. It was some justification to know, with certainty, that there was danger on Veith after all. He had quite forgotten that it was danger to Kirk he had originally feared.

McCoy came to a second time without any sense of disorientation. He was in his own bed in their quarters on Veith, and Spock was in the room with him, holding a tricorder—McCoy's own medical unit. "Well, I hope it gives you some satisfaction to be right," he wheezed. "I didn't like her associates."

"What happened?" Spock split his attention between the readouts and the sweating man on the bed.

"A couple of gestapo types backed us into an alley, beat the shit out of me, and took Dia." McCoy swallowed. "I don't think they hurt her. I didn't make much showing as a protector."

"If they were Romulans, Doctor, no human would have fared better." Spock put the tricorder aside.

"You really think so?" McCoy struggled to sit up. He had been kicking himself, thinking that if Jim had been there, or Lapsley with one of his muscle-and-reflex boys, the outcome would have been different.

"I know so," Spock lied. "Don't try to sit up. I am concerned about the girl, even though you state she was not hurt."

Misery and Spock's gentle hand on his shoulder flattened McCoy back against his pillow. Poor Dia. His feelings were a hopeless jumble of father-teacher-lover, and with all the good will in the world, he had only made her situation worse. Fighting a damned icy sadist for a father, what chance would she ever have for happiness? And now he had her back. McCoy groaned. "I've got to look for her."

"In the morning, Doctor. For the present you need rest, and I require time to bring my body temperature back to normal. We cannot knock on doors and ask indiscreet questions at four o'clock in the morning."

That had a disgusting ring of logic in it. McCoy yielded, a little ashamed that he really wanted to. He knew damn well he'd be in worse shape tomorrow and unable to look. Dia's wounded eyes haunted him, but he really wasn't here on vacation. Spock, who had been right all along about the power structure, who had probably saved his life, needed him too. Conscience was nagging him to get on with the job. It told him truthfully that there could be many Dias, and many worse off than she was, locked into the filthy Romulan hierarchy. They would all be better served if he did his job.

If he could ever figure out what it was. And if his head ever quit aching.

"Right again. Give me two of those little blue pills, will you, Spock?"

"I am sorry, Doctor, but as you seem to be suffering a mild concussion—"

"To hell with the concussion. Give me the pills, and if I stop breathing during what's left of this miserable night, resuscitate me. I hurt."

Reassured by this normal reaction to being coerced, Spock let McCoy have the pills.

"Thanks. And thanks for finding me. I hope I feel more grateful in the morning."

 

XX

For Kirk, ship's business went on as usual. Scotty thought there was something wrong with the hydraulic backup governor to one of the turbolifts and needed permission to shut it down because it was the nearest one to the new conference rooms. Lapsley had slow progress to report from his men on Riga. It was easiest to penetrate the criminal substructure of a society, and that's what his men were doing, but the result was intelligence about Empire and Federation trade. To Kirk's disgust, but no particular surprise, he discovered that the border he had so zealously been guarding had been penetrated regularly. That confirmed Spock's identification of pirated Federation programs on a Veithan computer. He wondered how useful it would be to know that traffic was stepping up both ways, presumably as political stress forced people to make lifestyle choices.

Lapsley encapsulated it. "One word has it that they can take the long way round and approach Federation space from Orion protectorates like 'nuHways and g'drutH. The other says there's a lot of space between—and nobody misses fugitives."

There were always people who turned a profit from civil disorder. There would probably be more of that. Kirk was more worried that Romulus-bound refugees would trigger the spy-eyes Harnum had scattered throughout the Zone and be misinterpreted as an invasion.

"Can't your men establish more respectable identities? Get information on the people who make the decisions?"

"They're not Romulan," Lapsley said. "As much as they can, I have them concentrating on large gatherings. It's easier to step up a class or two there. The society is more closed than it looks, sir. It would be totally out of line for humans to approach Romulans. There are some Vulcans willing to be friendly, though. Friendly—but guarded. I know it seems slow."

"Everything does right now," Kirk admitted. "Sheer terror is easier to deal with than suspense. I keep having the feeling that the other shoe is about to drop, but I can't see anything specific."

When word of McCoy's beating reached him, Kirk felt more irritation than sympathy, although he said the appropriate things. When he took his accumulated frustrations to Sarek, the ambassador wanted to talk about internal security, which was probably the only thing on the ship that wasn't giving Kirk trouble.

"You think these people are a danger to the ship?" Kirk asked incredulously. "You were instrumental in bringing them aboard, sir. They haven't even worked up one good personal brawl—certainly they're not up to Babel standards. I have already given them free run of the ship—within the limits of safety. What excuse could I offer for rescinding it now?"

"I was not making that strong a recommendation, Captain. I place every confidence in the crew of the Enterprise. Perhaps my own—malaise—prompted me to phrase my concern too emphatically. Like you, I have noticed not only the lack of progress on the part of the representatives—but a lack of personality which I have never before encountered among persons of similar rank and responsibility."

Kirk recognized this Vulcan version of diplomatic honey and wondered why Sarek was wasting it on him. He surprised them both by blurting out his reaction. "That's the most conciliatory thing you've ever said to me, Ambassador." Only because he was watching closely did Kirk see the slight tinge of color that rose over Sarek's cheekbones. Now why would he be embarrassed?

"If I had known that you found it offensive, I wouldn't have," came the dry rebuttal. "Captain, you seem tired, but even so I would not expect you to react to a concern as though it were a criticism. To be blunt, since you seem to prefer that, it has occurred to me that the representatives may be deliberately delaying or deferring their decision for some reason known collectively to themselves and not to us. Sabotage of half the Federation force would surely affect the deliberations of the two populations involved."

"That's always a consideration, sir, when bringing civilians aboard. Everything organic—clothing, cosmetics, religious relics, what have you, is scanned and analyzed. Sensors detect and define all metals. Ultrasound penetrates body tissues. And a couple of bright engineers have nothing to do but put unrelated pieces together in a fiendish program to detect unassembled weaponry. We don't advertise it because it's routine. But when I let you bring a ceremonial dagger aboard or Amanda keep that interesting necklace she wears... it was by choice." Kirk didn't wait for that to register. "I have allowed similar exceptions for the representatives—and in about thirty seconds I can tell you where every 'exception' is right now."

"That won't be necessary, Captain. I take your point."

Kirk relaxed. He usually liked to downplay such necessities, and it felt out of character, in a way, to be justifying ship's practices—but he wanted to stay on good terms with Sarek. He only restrained himself in the last moment from reaching out to touch the ambassador's arm in a gesture half-reassuring, half-apologetic. He changed the motion into a Gallic two-handed shrug.

"And you may still be right. If I were going to sabotage a starship, I'd want good intelligence and nothing else. A reasonably knowledgeable layman could pick up enough equipment lying around in the science labs to do us all in—or reprogram the food synthesizer. Endless possibilities. Reassuring, isn't it?"

"I am reassured that you have considered them, Captain. Your—resilience—in times of stress is exceptional for a human."

That seemed to be a genuine compliment, if somewhat strangely phrased, and it buoyed Kirk up until the afternoon, when the admiral informed him of the reason for the delay. In whites, as always, with even his bald crown gleaming, Harnum pontificated on Rigan concerns. He informed Kirk that his contacts on the planet believed the Rigan representatives felt constrained from making a decision until their High Court had time to investigate Sarek's kidnapping.

Kirk clung to his fraying patience with both hands. "Sir, the ambassador is very busy here. Couldn't they simply ask for any information they need?"

"Protocol is important to some people, Captain." Harnum was staring at Kirk's velour shirt as if it were a personal affront. "There are formalities to observe. It would seem quite strange to me if the ambassador were to refuse to give his evidence. I think we should all attend. The Court is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. Surely you can persuade him."

"I'll try, sir. But I don't understand why his abduction should figure in a decision of this magnitude. I thought Rigan officials had already determined," Kirk let a tinge of sarcasm into his voice, "that no political motive was involved."

Harnum rubbed the bridge of his nose with his index finger. "I can't say I understand their thinking, Captain, but I do know this is the first thing the Rigans have asked of me, personally. I think it behooves us, in the name of diplomacy, to respond. The ambassador should understand that, even if he sees our role here—ah—somewhat differently than you and I."

"I'll do my best, sir," Kirk said without any marked enthusiasm. "When do they want us?"

Harnum gave the details. "And, Captain, please regard the event as a formal occasion. It will be important to put in a good appearance."

"Yes, sir."

Kirk passed the summons on to Sarek without the wardrobe request.

The ambassador raised an eyebrow. "Admiral Harnum stated that the Rigan representatives could make no decision prior to this investigation?"

"That's what he said, sir. Haven't they mentioned it to you?"

"They have not mentioned it at all, Captain. I find it difficult to believe it is a concern with them."

Kirk tried for a winning smile. "The admiral seemed to feel it would be a breach of—diplomacy—if we failed to appear."

By the sardonic glint in Sarek's eye, it seemed he held no high opinion of the admiral's diplomatic insight. "You must go, Captain?"

"If that's what the admiral orders." It sounded rather spiritless, but that was the fact. "Please let me know your decision, sir."

"I will relay it to the admiral directly; perhaps the matter is still open for discussion." The Vulcan broke the connection abruptly, leaving Kirk feeling snubbed. He had done the best he could. What did people expect? It didn't occur to him that a meek acceptance of orders he disagreed with was not the usual modus operandi for the captain of the Enterprise.

Sarek was not the only one with an incredulous reaction to Harnum's summons. Meade had the information by the time Kirk took a coffee break, and she homed in on him like a heat-seeking missile.

"What's all this I hear about a High Court?" She hardly waited to hear Kirk's explanation. "If Harnum persists in thinking Sarek is a civil servant, he's in for a rude surprise. Sarek has no obligation to the military. He's made that quite clear from the beginning. Why he's taking what Harnum dishes out is beyond me. It's becoming embarrassing. Politically embarrassing." One square hand mussed her gray hair. "Sarek came out here to do a job for the Federation Council. Now, he may feel some gratitude toward you for his rescue, but I seriously doubt that extends to Harnum; and believe me, Sarek is more than capable of putting a mere admiral in his place. If he has to do it publicly—the Fleet could end up with mud everywhere."

Kirk realized that his own personal liking for Sarek might be misleading him into the expectation that the ambassador would be as tolerant of military propriety as his son. Meade must have seen Sarek in action many times. "Go on," he told her.

"Harnum persists in seeing this as an occasion for war, Jim. In a military sense, he's correct; you're here to prevent a war—or win it. But that's not the whole picture. There are sixteen crucial negotiations going on in other parts of the Federation right now. The Rigans aren't the only high-technology culture undecided about Federation membership—"

"They're the only ones the Romulan Empire is concerned with."

"Don't you believe it," Meade snapped back. "Whatever happens to the Rigans, their industrial base is slight; they have no fleet of their own. But if every other negotiation were to fall through—at once, because of what we do here—not only the Romulans but the Klingons would be very interested. It would be better to lose this system, Jim, close as it will be for a long while to the Neutral Zone, than to lose all those others because we handled this one poorly. I know the Romulans are enemies now—but what about tomorrow? Think what they could be as allies. I'm not always sure Starfleet understands what's under its nose. And I'm positive Harnum doesn't."

"You're taking a personal bias too far, Meade. Harnum may not be the man any of us would choose for a friend, but a soldier doesn't have the option of taking the long view. We are here to prevent a war." He felt a simpleton when he said it, but a dogged sense of loyalty to the service forced him to defend Harnum from an outsider.

"Yes, but which one? I don't see the Romulan navy bearing down on us. I do have all the evidence I need about what's going on here. How will the Argave Tribunal react when they find out that Starfleet, with two ships handy, hosted talks, bowed to Romulan protocol, and ignored the fact that the rights of sentient races are being violated? We have to expose it, Jim. Until we do there can't be a free election. That's our job. If we don't do it, other cultures won't blame the Romulans."

"Would you rather we went in like stormtroopers?"

Meade sighed gustily and regarded him with less than her usual fondness. "You know I don't want that. But if I expected anyone to figure a way out of this stalemate, it was you."

Again, Kirk felt the reproach and resented it. Half his support staff was tied up doing intelligence. Little praise and frequent criticism were no novelty in the military, but he usually had more bounce when it came to defending himself. He tried to dredge up the old confident grin.

"The fight's not over until you give up, Meade."

"I haven't," was the rejoinder. "How about you?" There wasn't a trace of humor in it.

Kirk's jaw set as he stood up. She was a civilian, a woman, and had once been a friend. He couldn't make the reply that would have satisfied him, but he didn't have to listen to more. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Doctor Morrow. Excuse me." He didn't see the stricken look on her face as he left or the slump in her shoulders.

His feet took him on an undirected tour while his mind worried problems like a mouthful of gristle. No one thought much of him today, and he felt stale, stymied. What more could he—should he—be doing? What wasn't he doing that made such a marked change in how people reacted to him? Ordinarily, keeping Meade, Sarek, and Harnum on their respective perches would have been routine. Now he felt like the lion tamer being savaged by his beasts. He had never felt less like being on the bridge. He hesitated over his options. He could knock off early, go to the gym, sulk in his cabin. Nothing appealed. His peregrinations were taking him past Spock's cabin. It was never locked. He wondered....

The door opened quietly to his touch and slid closed after him. The outer room was empty, painfully neat. The few ornaments and the firepot were gone. Spock had been prepared to leave the ship at Starbase 27. Except for the Ochros crisis, he would have been long gone, and the cabin would have been reassigned. In the days since, he had not bothered to unpack because, in spite of all McCoy's dictums and all Kirk could do, he had not altered his decision to leave.

A surge of feeling rose and fell back into Kirk's gut, twisting and heaving like a nest of vipers. He bent forward with cramp. For him, the ghost of a tall Vulcan still waited, not sure if the verdict was life or death. In memory he stood naked again, not knowing whether Spock would, could accept him when he knew his inner unworthiness. Erotic images of their two bodies sweatily entwined—there on the floor, on the bed, before the mirror—crowded the room and his senses.

He took one step and then another, fighting pain and hallucination, then sank to his knees beside Spock's narrow bed, gasping for air, breathing the faint, elusive scent of the Vulcan as if it were life-giving oxygen. Head whirling, he narrowed his vision to the fabric he was gripping, focused on the pattern of woven threads, forced thought and speculation out of his mind and just breathed.

With long, shuddering inhalations he fought for control and found some measure of it. Sweat stood on his forehead as he relaxed his grip on the bedcover and half-turned so he was leaning shoulder and cheek against it. His eyes were wet, his heart galloping in his side. The tight scar where Onion had gored him throbbed with each heartbeat.

Gradually he got his breathing under control. He turned and rubbed the sweat off his face on Spock's sheet where he had pulled the coverlet aside. He rested with his cheek against the cool cloth as the paralysis gradually eased. It was an empty room, no more. There was nothing to fear, nothing to cause this—attack—but the pain of remembering.

Then why was his system still protesting that sudden cramp and disorientation? Kirk forced himself off his knees and sprawled face down on Spock's bed. Jesus, if that happened in public—He thrust the thought away. The temptation was overwhelming just to lie here, cool and quiet and alone. He could slip off his clothes and slide between Spock's sheets and rest at last.

But the work day wasn't over. Meade's "How about you?" added its challenge to a lifetime of discipline. Don't think about it, just do it. With a last brush of his lips against the sheets that had cradled Spock, a last breath of that faint, elusive fragrance, he sat up. His hands and his knees were shaking, but he could stand. He steeled himself to close Spock's door behind him. Once in the corridor his spine stiffened in resolution.

He was the captain of this ship. It was not his habit to be mastered by public opinion or private pain. He had been doing, and would continue to do his job to the best of his ability, as the captain of this ship, neither the free agent Meade seemed to expect nor the spineless robot Harnum preferred. To that end, and with the High Court appearance in mind, he would begin by a review of everything they had learned about Ochros, its planets, and their moons. With the support of his friends—or without them.

 

XXI

At the Hreth Malock estate on Veith, Tal sat sullenly in a window seat in Rho's quarters with the chill rain beating against the window and his nerves. Rho was pacing up and down the polished floor in open frustration and impotence, in a mood to take the skin of anyone who protested at her savage temper. Her second in command knew that cruel streak in her. Waiting brought it out. She liked to act, and the subservient role to which Man had relegated her had her nerves on edge. For one thing, she knew Spock was in the city, and Man had refused to let her go there.

"He is in my hand!" she had protested.

"The Federation is in your hand on Riga," Man had returned. He had made the mistake of thinking he could cozen her out of her rage with a caress and almost gotten a broken wrist for it, much to Tal's satisfaction. Man had only shrugged and left her.

"I could take an aircar," she muttered. Tal said nothing. He had no desire to see Rho pitted against the Vulcan, for whom he had his own plans, but he knew how she reacted to opposition. "Have you lost your tongue or are your brains asleep?" she demanded waspishly.

"Neither. But if my tongue says what my brains think, you'll only disagree with me. Give me a command and I'll obey it."

She sighed, breathing her anger out. "I'm not made for this, Tal, all this scheming and sneaking. Oh, I know he's right! A blow at the Federation is worth more than one at Spock, but I hate this hiding and waiting! So I take it out on you. And what is he up to here that's worth leaving Nod? It can't be just to make the girl miserable."

Tal shrugged. "The humans from the Enterprise could be here to make trouble."

"Of course they are," she snapped. "But they're contained, ignorant. Even Dia wouldn't tell McCoy her father is the prime slave owner in the system. Not if she cares for his regard." Rho twisted the tiren nervously on her arm. "McCoy's no menace. I worry more why the Emperor hasn't replied."

"It takes time," he soothed her.

"I know it takes time, idiot! Oh, I can't stand this. If you stay here I'll only abuse you. Go down to the hangars and see if you can pick up information there."

Relieved to be dismissed, Tal left the room. There was nothing about the situation he liked, neither the rain nor the disdain with which Hreth Malock's men treated him, nor the fact that Rho was warming her cousin's bed. But that was not his affair. The only thing she wanted from him was obedience. That, and a watchful eye, were all he could give her.

He could have commandeered either a mount or an aircar to take him to the hangar, but the rain was just miserable enough to match his mood. He slouched through the warren of corridors and courtyards, shortcutting through the thick growth of the winter-stripped gardens. Looping vines and thickets of brush provided almost as much concealment as the full-leaved maze would in the summer to come, and almost as much confusion. Tal found he had overshot the hangar. Instead of approaching it directly, he had veered to one side and up the hill into which it was partially sunk. He considered the dripping brambles below him and remembered a little-used door up near the ceiling. From above, it opened incongruously out of a grassy bank. He opened it and went in. He was on a catwalk in ill-lit gloom. He paused to let his eyes adjust.

Below him an estate guard was directing a crew of humans as they moved cargo from a battle-scarred vessel into the Raptor. With no particular thought of concealment, Tal stood on his perch and watched.

Rho hadn't mentioned other visitors to the estate, or any other vessel. This could be the real reason Man had made the sudden trip home—and not his erring daughter. The human slaves were handling the containers with great care under the guard's eye. Another Romulan wearing Hreth Malock estate livery approached. "How long is that going to take? I'm supposed to get in that other ship."

"They're almost finished. Rom, I wouldn't have risked such cargo in that scow."

"She looked better when she left here."

"Interfering Terries." The guard spat without taking his eye off the careful transfer of cargo.

"Well, it was a Terrie who brought the dust in, damaged or not. You'd best keep your opinions to yourself around him. And I have orders to repair his ship. I just need to know whether to wait or start something else first."

"They're almost finished. I'll see it's stowed properly."

"Helping yourself to a snort. Maybe we'd both better see to it."

The first guard grunted. "He knows how much there is to a grain, and none of it's going to drift your way, friend. Watch that!" A human had stumbled and the guard had instinctively reached for a prod to correct him, but he stopped and reached for another piece of equipment instead. Tal squinted, trying to identify what he held in his hand. Then he had it. A breathing mask. Dust—sundust! The thought of that much of it concentrated in one place brought the sweat prickling out on his chest. Beyond wealth, it was a weapon. Very careful not to make a noise, Tal eased back toward the door and out of it.

His first impulse was to return immediately to Rho, but he stopped, wiped sweat and rain off his face, and turned back. Her rooms would be monitored; they would know when he had set out and where he was going. He reversed direction and came at the hangar directly. Walking in through the open bay, he made for the Tiren. He was stopped almost immediately by a human slave.

"Pardon, Honorable, but there has been a fuel leak. Hangar master says none may enter until it is certain no radiation danger remains." Behind the slave a suited group of workers were painstakingly flushing the floor with a foamy wash and sucking it up again into shielded containers.

"I have to get something from my ship," Tal said. "Did you get any of that slop on her?"

"No, Honorable. Only a small spot on the floor. Master says an hour more to clean. Can another bring the item for you?"

"No," said Tal baldly. "Anyone who lays a hand on the Tiren is likely to lose it. I'll come back. And if I find she's been contaminated, I'll have your hangar master's hide!"

Satisfied that he had been disagreeable enough to leave an impression, Tal turned back toward the house. Several hundredweight of sundust for delivery to Riga was going to prove very interesting.

~ * ~

Waiting did not suit the pirate O'Neill any more than it did Rho. Since the starship had stolen his slave cargo, he had spent entirely too much time waiting. First to see if he could manage his ship single-handed, then in bluffing his way into possession of sundust he couldn't pay for. Hreth Malock's cousin had been quite unwilling to trade his valuable commodity for mere promises. Well, he wasn't unwilling any more, and his heir had made a satisfactory, if unsociable, first mate on the journey back. Then he had had to wait again, at Hreth Malock's bidding, stalling the estate staff while he kept possession of the heir, who was really no more use to anyone, and they stalled him over repair of the L-5. And when Hreth Malock finally did appear, he had his imperial whore in tow and seemed more concerned with dalliance and his womenfolk than with forwarding his plans on Riga. Finally granted an interview, O'Neill waited for it in a small courtyard, his hands tucked into his armpits, staring at the rain from under a roof of bare vines. Rain dappled the water around the dry spout of a fountain in the center of the yard.

When he came, Hreth Malock wasted no time on amenities. "They're transferring the dust now. As soon as they finish, they'll begin work on your ship. You'll follow us to Nod."

"I need money."

"You always do," said the Romulan.

"I lost my crew."

"You're lucky you didn't lose your ship as well. You lost me the Vulcan ambassador and the son of the Rigan planetary administrator. He would have made a valuable hostage. What did you do? Blaze a trail for the starship to follow?"

O'Neill shrugged, his blue eyes beginning a dangerous flicker. "It could have been a lucky guess—could be equipment we don't know about. Did you expect me to fight her? I didn't even know she was there until half my crew was gone."

The battle of wills that always put them at odds locked blue eyes with black ones for a moment. The human said nothing about his escape, his near miraculous piloting of a maimed ship, or the means he had used to obtain the narcotic.

"There remains the problem of young Lom."

O'Neill's silence seemed to indicate that Lom was a Hreth Malock problem. "I'm finished with him," he said after a moment. "You can have him now if you want."

"How generous. I imagine he's ruined for any use I might have made of him, but on the other hand, I don't expect he'll be much of a problem."

The ultimate fate of the boy was beside the point to O'Neill. "Money," he said.

Hreth Malock considered a number of things—the value of a tie to the Empire, his difficult daughter, the problem of competence in hirelings. O'Neill might still be useful for a short time, but the days of running drugs from within the Empire were finished for a while. That didn't matter. He had enough to inflame both moons and half of Riga. Time would tell if he were really in a position to dispense with freelancers.

"In Nod. My men will refit your ship to get her there. Beyond that you won't need her. I said you'd have a starship and I meant it."

O'Neill smiled without mirth and lounged against the trunk of the vine. "You're just going to give me a writ of possession?"

"You brought your own writ. What do you think a liter of sundust would do to the crew of the Enterprise?"

O'Neill straightened, eyes brightening to neon intensity. "How?"

Hreth Malock let him wait while the rain splatted through the vines and hissed into the fountain. "It's half done. At present the Enterprise is hosting talks between the leaders of Riga and Veith."

"What leaders?" O'Neill said sarcastically.

"Very carefully selected ones. Some human, of course, even a Vulcan or two who know what's good for them. I thought they made a very impressive group—for a scratch team. Some of them even believe their roles."

The notion of the Enterprise captain catering to Hreth Malock's impostors warmed O'Neill's heart. "How does the dust get aboard?"

"Oh, one of the representatives was recalled to Veith on urgent personal business shortly after the conference began. He'll be returning tonight."

"That's good—if he doesn't mind a dose of dust."

"Don't be silly. He's carrying a few spices put up by his wife; that's his only participation. The captain obligingly let several of the representatives tour his bridge. A detonating device to disperse the material is already in place. His crew is unlikely to be less hospitable than Captain Kirk—and he will be absent from the ship for a while—if not permanently. While he's gone the 'spice' will be placed on the bridge. I can control the device at long range."

Slowly O'Neill nodded. He wasn't satisfied to go without pay, but the starship was a powerful lure. And Nod was a better place to confront Hreth Malock than his own home ground. O'Neill had never felt comfortable here. "All right," he said. "I'll follow you. What do I do in Nod?"

"Make yourself useful between there and the stronghold. Recruit a crew. It takes more than a dozen men to run a ship that size. It would be to your advantage if you could get her operating specifications. How you do it is up to you. I'll give you funds enough to begin with."

"And what will that dreadnought be doing while I take over the Enterprise?"

Hreth Malock smiled grimly. "At the best of times she would hesitate to fire on a sister ship. She certainly won't with a whole diplomatic corps aboard."

"So you get rid of the Rigans and the Enterprise at the same time."

And you, Hreth Malock thought. "Precisely. An elegant solution, wouldn't you say?"

From that interview, admirably handled, Hreth Malock went to dispose of his daughter. He'd let her cool her heels for five hours in an unheated and empty storeroom. That, added to a sleepless night and uncertainty as to her future should have put her in a more respectful frame of mind. And since she was his stated reason for returning to Veith, he might as well make a production of it. It would have been effective to threaten her with Lom, who appeared to be in a psychotic state at present—but there was the off chance his well-connected cousin would know this offshoot of the family. It would considerably damage his persona as exiled nobility anxious to reinstate himself and his clan with the Emperor if he advertised that he was decimating clan members from within. Lom would have to remain a weapon sheathed for the present.

Dia had had the night flight and long morning to consider her position, but it was so hopeless that numbness had set in by the time she was summoned to her father's presence. Over and over she saw McCoy falling while the rain glittered through the shaft of light from the overhead window. Guilt made poor company and, briefly, she tried to place the blame somewhere else. He had known her father was powerful; the other students had known what the inevitable outcome would be; Eldridge should have told him what they were all hiding so well.

But she was too honest to believe it. The others all had their own motives, not shared with her, for silence. She was the one who had known the danger from the first, and lied, lied, lied in not making McCoy understand it. She knew how fragile humans were. The thought that he might be dead, might have suffered long hours of agony before he died, pierced her like a wound. "We'll both regret this," he had said when he kissed her, but he hadn't begun to understand how much.

Dumb as an animal led to slaughter, she followed the guard who came to bring her to her father's justice. She was still wearing the fur jacket and white jumpsuit she had worn to dinner in the city. It was designed for cold weather exposure, but even in the occupied parts of the building it failed to warm her. She was chilled through, and yet she had felt so warm and light in the snow. It was hard to understand.

She was brought to one of her father's private rooms where he and Rho stood before a buffet spread with food. The galhawk sat hooded and blind on her perch, turning her jeweled head from side to side as she scented meat. Hreth Malock took his time teasing the bird, and then when she stirred on the perch, raising both wings and one claw, he fed her a tidbit. He didn't offer Dia anything. Rho had a closed and watchful expression on her face. She was dressed in deep wine red, the courtesan's color.

"I would like an explanation of your behavior," Man said at last.

It was a familiar opening. Dia had been through it all before. Soon, guilty or innocent, she would be reduced to stammering, furious tears. It doesn't matter, she thought if I answer or not.

"What?"

Dia was surprised that she had spoken aloud, but since she evidently had, she repeated it. "It doesn't matter. You're never going to let me alone. I might as well be dead. So it doesn't matter. You'll do what you want whatever I say."

Rho's eyes, dark as obsidian, flicked from daughter to father. Dia stood drooping in her soiled white clothing, and Hreth Malock had checked momentarily at her obviously true statement as the hawk might check if a vole turned in its claw and attacked it. But the end was inevitable.

"Since your attitude renders you unfit for civilized company—you obviously prefer humans—I am going to give you unlimited access to them. At the south mine."

If he expected a protest he didn't get it. Fear and hope alike had retreated from Dia as she pictured, hour after hour, McCoy left bleeding on the rainy street. Her father had closed every door through which the things she prized could enter her life, but he had, at last, also closed the doors through which he could hurt her. There was only the body left, and she was prepared to lose that, too, rather than live out an endless sentence of loneliness and pain.

"It doesn't really matter," she said. "If McCoy is dead, I helped you kill him."

The apathy in her tone touched Rho more than despair would have. Hreth Malock was in a poor mood to cross, but she was in a worse one, having heard Tal's story of the exchange in the hangar. Still it would be better if he continued to underestimate her. Let him count what she said now as mere feminine pique.

"Don't give yourself too much credit, my dear. It's hardly in our interest to have Federation attention brought to bear on Veith. The guards had orders not to damage the renowned doctor. And I," she directed a venomous glance at Man, "would be excessively displeased to learn they had done otherwise."

"Certainly not," Man riposted, "your Vulcan friend came to his rescue." His attention had shifted from the bit of raw meat with which he was tempting Claw, and he wasn't quite quick enough to avoid her strike. He wrenched his hand away and cuffed her off her perch. She squealed and beat powerfully with her wings, but could not right herself. Whirling on her chain, she struck the vertical member of her stand and it tottered. Man watched while hawk, chain, and perch toppled to the floor.

"What an appreciative way to treat the Emperor's gift," Rho said pleasantly.

Hreth Malock bent and jerked the stand upright, swearing, which did nothing to settle the bird. When he lifted her, careful of her claws and beak this time, she hissed and struck at him again. "She's not hurt," he said shortly. There was no response from Rho or Dia. The upset had distracted him from Dia; the whole interview had been uncontrolled. "Take her away," he ordered. For a moment the guard hesitated, obviously unsure which "her" his master meant, then he settled on Dia and hustled her out of the room.

Rho helped herself to a honeyed concoction from the table, enjoyed it languorously while the silence between them simmered and the hawk, on her perch, lofted her wings and settled her feathers. Finishing, Rho wiped her fingers delicately on a scented napkin.

"Well," she said brightly. "Now that you've shown me how well you handle your dependents, do you think we could return to Nod and the business at hand? I don't wish to press you, cousin, if you have other important personal business—" Ostentatiously she shook her red sleeve back from the tiren and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.

Goaded, he almost struck her, but the glint in her eye told him she was forewarned. Her gesture had been a deliberate mimicry of the hawk's preening. He chuckled instead.

"You correct me, Cousin. I should not have abused the Emperor's gift. I am seldom needlessly cruel—to any exquisite thing. Your wish is my command. We'll leave within the hour, if you can collect that wandering pilot of yours."

"I can usually find him when I want him." Man was standing closer. Rho inhaled the male musk of him, that stirring scent of anger that provoked something direct and primitive in her. When I feel him most my enemy, I desire him, she thought. Where is the logic in that? He took her hand. Did he think she was helpless with feeling—there might be an advantage in that—did she let him make her angry only to force feeling down to this level she'd thought iced over forever?

"Then," said Hreth Malock, "all that remains for you to decide is whether you want him this hour—or me."

~ * ~

Feeling herself forgotten, this time perhaps forever, Dia turned and went with the guards. She knew the south mine. It was nothing but four dormitories, a food hall, and a medical unit the size of a closet. For companions she would have programmed guards and tubercular serfs. Without privacy, without even a task to do, she would stay there until her father had need of her—unlikely—or she simply went mad and died. She entered the aircar at the guard's order and sat where arrows of rain shattered themselves against the plasteel bubble. As they lifted off, she thought, This is the last time I will fly, but she had no freedom to savor the sensation. Her last true flight had been with McCoy.

~ * ~

In Firstport, Spock had relayed Kirk's official get-well message and not the exasperation in his voice when he heard of McCoy's mishap, but the doctor intuited his captain's reaction. When inquiries about Dia yielded no information but the conviction that no one else was surprised or concerned that she would be hurt, McCoy had to admit he had no resources to find her. Ari and Zon were adamant that he should not even try. Added to his own nagging conscience and depression was the fact that Spock had developed what McCoy privately diagnosed as the common cold—a hitch in the getalong of his immune system. In despair, McCoy gave up on romance and concentrated on trying to make sense out of this culture.

As soon as he could hobble, McCoy called on Eldridge, who answered questions promptly—but with a watchful air. In the evening he and Spock spread, metaphorically, all the pieces of the puzzle out on the table.

Spock had tried without success to trace lines of bureaucratic power—through the university, through ownership of real estate, through distribution of domestic power—and come up with a big blank.

"You mean people won't tell you? Or they're lying?"

Spock shrugged. "Their responses are limited and unsatisfactory. They seem both ignorant and unconcerned, as if the city were—provided—for them to live in, not their concern. And indeed it is laid out like the product of one mind, adequate—more than adequate—living space, efficient distribution of power—but many things are missing."

"Like what?" asked McCoy around a juicy cut of tenderloin. He missed any kind of transportation, now that he didn't have Dia as a chauffeur. Otherwise he was convinced the Romulans were baddies and up to no good—but he'd known that before he left the Enterprise.

"There are no street signs, no other evidence of civic pride. There are no police or fire-prevention workers. There are no records of ownership; many buildings are uninhabited. If I were given to speculation, I would liken this city to a diorama in a museum. It has the appearance of reality down to the last detail, but not the substance."

"They'd have to be real wonder-workers to create it just for us."

"I was not suggesting that it is an illusion, Doctor. It is real. But I am apparently unable to discover the reason for its creation."

"Then forget the city. My brain feels like mush, too, Spock. Maybe those goons knocked something loose. Add it up again. No coordinate grid—but Riga has one. Different birth patterns for humans and Romulans. City set up for no good reason like a kid's toy spaceport—and the spaceport was pretty funny, too. But if these people are slaves—and Eldridge doesn't act like one, nor do those kids—why aren't they falling on our necks to be rescued? Why aren't they setting up a voting system?"

"Their representatives are working on the problem," Spock stated, deadpan.

"Right," said McCoy. "This is no good, Spock. I can't even figure out my responsibility to one person, let alone a whole planet."

"You are thinking of Dia."

McCoy shrugged. "I'm trying not to. Never mind telling me about Romulan muscle and being outnumbered. I keep feeling she's in trouble. Maybe counting on me to come after her—"

Spock was silent a moment, afraid to say the wrong thing. "She came from a noble family. She would understand that duty takes precedence over personal feelings."

McCoy looked at the dark figure backlighted by the glow from the fireplace. Was Spock telling him or asking him? Duty. A Moloch that devoured youth and love. He remembered Dia's bright face and wind-tangled hair, her joy over a stolen afternoon— "Now I know what its like to be free without flying. You just fly inside." Was duty more important than that? He understood what was expected of him, but why should she? She had no allegiance to the Federation or to Hippocrates either. Why should she, alone and afraid, be expected to understand the chains that custom and long acquaintance form? She'd never enjoyed the benefits. His own face, illuminated by the fire, must have told Spock what he was thinking, for the Vulcan answered his unspoken question.

"She would understand."

"Yeah. Sure. Doesn't matter anyway, with a planet full of people to take into account. I think I'll turn in early." And McCoy took his dark thoughts with him.

Spock watched him go, regretting the turn the conversation had taken. They were no nearer understanding Veith—or themselves—and as usual his attempt to comfort had gone astray. Jim would have been able to get out of his chair, walk around the table, and massage the tension from McCoy's shoulders, offer the simple comfort of touch, and bypass logic. How seldom had he been able to do that—or ask for it. Duty and logic, the twin pillars of his existence. Little comfort to himself or others. Both of them forbade his ever asking again for the touch of the one hand that held comfort for him.

McCoy closed the bedroom door. Spock screened the fire. The heat of it warmed his face, and as a spark flew up, he remembered his vault from the powerful hindquarters of the Ganycow. In the instant his feet left its hide he had known it was turning. He could have tucked in, speeded his trajectory, and not risked the horns. But the leap was perfect. It satisfied something in him duty and logic had never assuaged. He knew as surely as sunrise or gravity that Kirk's broad shoulders and steadying hands would be there to catch him, and that knowledge he would take with him to the grave. Poor Dia. Logic told him his words to McCoy were truth; his heart said, Lies, lies, lies.

 

XXII

Veith, spinning its way forward in an eccentric orbit, owed its oncoming spring more to closing the distance between it and Ochros than to any pronounced axial tilt. Its northern hemisphere, with a larger ice cap defining what tilt there was, had harsher winters and more temperate summers than the southern half of the planet, but the seasons coincided rather than being opposed. Firstport and the Hreth Malock estate had unbudded trees and snow mixed with rain. Nights were often cold enough to freeze water. At the south mine the season was far enough advanced that the ground was thawed and only a freak storm brought snow, but the rain was endless. Dia sat in the medical cubicle at one end of the food hall and watched it fall. Every surface she could see glistened with water. Water gushed from the mouth of the mine, eroded the bare slopes, and ran down the hillside in rusty rivulets. There was something manic in the drum of raindrops on the ground.

The leaden sky scarcely cleared the low-pitched roofs of the four dormitories, the guard shack, and the hall to which Dia was confined. She might as well have had no window as the one she faced. She couldn't see beyond the watery outline of the buildings and the mine mouth. She had stopped speculating on McCoy's fate and on her own. The rain washed thought out of her mind. When they brought her food, she ate. When the lights went out, she lay down on the examining table and slept under a blanket someone had placed there.

Above the settlement was five thousand feet of pregnant cloud, part of a weather system that blanketed thousands of square miles of shallow sea and archipelagic wilderness. Behind the great emptying sponge of cloud was a cold front, pushing and overtaking it. For days before Dia's arrival, that cloud system had rained steadily upon the mine as it passed slowly overhead. The earth absorbed all it could, and still the rain poured, raising creeks and rivers above their beds, turning ponds into lakes, lakes into minor seas, and raising the levels of the seas themselves. Through every fault in the earth, through every bed of loose soil or formation of porous rock, water filtered down, raising the water table. When the clean springs began to spew muddied water, when the swollen rivers began to gnaw themselves new beds, there was no one to notice in all the empty land.

Except in the south mine of Man Hreth Malock. There water filled the lower levels as the water table rose. That was not uncommon. Workers were pulled back.

But even in the upper levels, damp glittered on the walls and trickles ran down the scored rock. The mine foremen were chosen for their ability to extract the last useful effort from recalcitrant slaves, not for their knowledge of hydrology or geology. And they lacked imagination, having lived, most of them, on a land-locked world. They thought of water as a necessity for survival and measured it by its scarcity, as a Vulcan might. They thought it weak.

The first anticipatory tremor simply jarred the soup pots from which the kitchen crew was preparing to serve dinner. One of the cooks noticed the circular rings of force inside his kettle and thought something from above had dropped into the liquid. He looked up, expecting a spider's web or a convocation of ants driven in by the wet. The second tremor set the whole stove dancing, and the man backed away from it like any animal suspicious of the unknown.

Dia felt the second tremor distinctly. Although there had been no wind with the rain, she thought at first that some chance gust had shaken the food hall. Peering out into the falling dark, she saw a gush of ocher water slosh over the lip of the mine entrance. Then, in an amazing display of plasticity, a portion of the muddied path they called a street sank four feet into the side of the mountain. Her eyes reported; her brain made no judgment at all. The depression widened a little, stretching like skin, then pulled away from the hillside at the upper end; and the building across from Dia bowed slowly into the spreading crater even as her own floor dropped out from under her feet.

Flight-trained reflexes spun her around, and Romulan muscle propelled her up through a door that was no longer on the perpendicular. "Get out!" she yelled at the kitchen crew, but even as she spoke the door was batted open and two muddied guards crashed inside. Past them she could see the ground moving. One of the cooks screamed as a kettle of boiling liquid rolled off its rest. The building began to slide and break up as the lights went out. "Lady!" someone yelled. Dia couldn't tell whether he was cursing or calling her. She fought to keep her feet on a tilting floor and tried to avoid the assault of tables and benches that had suddenly become mobile. A blinding phaser flash seared her vision as a guard fired in the dark.

He could have killed me! she thought as she went down, and her last coherent fragment was outrage at the whole violent, senseless, unfair universe. Only after an eternity of spastic effort and savage darkness was she fully conscious and, mercifully, still again.

Rain was hitting her face. She turned her head and couldn't escape it. She blinked and nerved herself to sit up in the sudden and deafening silence. It was hard to concentrate on what was actually happening. She had a fantasy that she was alone now and would have to walk north through the wilderness, hunting as she went, over a quarter of the circumference of the planet, to find McCoy.

Stupid. If she was alive, someone else must be. She forced herself up, toward the rain. The guard's phaser had made a hole in the side of the building, which now lay twisted on an angle toward the sky. The mine was gone. Outside the wreckage there was enough light left to show where the opening had been. It was closed now like a tight mean mouth. A great semicircular portion of the mountain had parted company with its parent and slid downward. She could see streams and rivulets pouring over the sheer edge in miniature waterfalls. The dormitories and mine equipment lay shattered and half-buried in mud.

"Is anyone here?" she called. Her voice came out in a whisper. She cleared her throat and tried again. There was a groan beneath her, and she scrambled back down, found the twisted bodies of humans and a living Romulan among them. She tried to lift him and he cursed her, but when she shouted at him, he didn't answer. She shook him and realized life had fled in the interval between his curse and next breath. She felt along his body and detached a light and the phaser. He wore a wrist communicator, and she took that and put it on her arm.

Out in the rain again, she waded and slid to the nearest dormitory. Only one pyramid-shaped corner was properly above ground. She beat on what had been floor or wall and pressed her ear against it. At first she heard nothing but rain, then the wall against her cheek vibrated in a rhythm counter to her own. She slid downslope, looking for an entrance. Water sluiced icily over the mud. It ran between her knees like a creek; after a moment she was slimed to the waist. Footing shelved from under her feet. She was afraid the building would sink and trap her beneath it.

On the downhill side her hands met security mesh. She realized the security fields were off and not just the light, otherwise she would have been paralyzed. There was movement behind the mesh.

"Stand back!" she shouted. She pointed the phaser at the highest corner of the mesh and pushed the activating button. The wall dissolved in the bright magenta beam. The survivors shrank back at the sight of her.

"Come out of there," she yelled at them, but they just stared. "Get out or you'll die. The whole hill's falling!"

One of them made a half-hearted gesture upwards, and then they came in a rush, snarling and clawing at each other to escape. She had had no idea they would charge her like that, and no time to reset the phaser or avoid them. Of its own volition her hand raised the weapon and she fired again, outlining three forms in brilliant light. The others stopped in their tracks.

Anger crisped her clear to the soles of her feet and rebounded like a surge of electricity. She had killed. The damn terrified human mob had turned on her and made her kill. Fury contorted her face into a duplicate of her father's snarl. "Line UP! Eyes FRONT!"

They wavered and shrank into their accustomed formation. Dia knew there must be more of them inside, too hurt to climb out. With her deadly anger like a shield around her, she went among the slaves, phaser in hand, and began to sort them out according to her needs: fit to work, walking wounded, worse.

One whole shift of workers and their guards had been inside the mine. She cut off thought of their fate and cleared the dormitory of wounded, then drove her work crew to check the others. Some she sent into the wreckage of the food hall to salvage what they could. They returned through the downpour with a few blankets, pieces of furniture, and some packaged rations—not enough to feed a dozen, when there must be between one and two hundred survivors. Only four guards had survived, and they worked like eight, following her orders. They were all drenched with rain and muck, freezing with cold. Dia initiated a move off the slide onto the closest solid ground. It was a scene of carnage, and those who died they left behind in the mud.

After three hours of bone-crushing effort, she wiped her face and found warm tears mingling with the icy rain. They felt good on her aching hands, and she cried more just to enjoy the transient heat. Her teeth were chattering. The temperature had dropped, and the persistent rain now stung like thrown gravel. It was beginning to be mixed with sleet. She looked around her. They had done all they could, and it wasn't even a beginning. Rain beat into open wounds and onto exposed splinters of bone. Blood steamed on the colder mud. She had worked until she was faint, she had killed—and they were still going to die.

"Lady—Lady—" One of the guards was shaking her. "We've found a communicator. If it will work."

She stared at him stupidly for a moment. She already wore a wrist communicator. They had used them to coordinate movement of the wounded. But he was holding out a self-contained estate communicator, powerful enough to reach around Veith. She snatched it from him and huddled into the scant shelter his taller body gave her.

"Stand there!" she commanded, and she began to summon help.

~ * ~

McCoy had worked a full day, out of remorse and stubbornness, but when he finally lowered his bruises into bed and floated off on a cloud of painkillers, he hadn't planned to wake up before morning. The room communicator jerked him awake and out of his heavenly ease. The first returning twinge made him curse and hope that Spock would answer it. No luck. The Vulcan must be meditating or in a light healing trance. McCoy threw the covers back and got up stiffly. He'd never get back to sleep now!

He found the communicator and growled "McCoy!" at it.

For a moment there was only a rushing sound, and then another that might have been a sob.

"Dia?" McCoy came out of the doldrums. "Are you all right?"

"Yes. I am. But there's been an accident—" Her voice trembled. "I have almost 200 wounded, there are no supplies, and no one will help me!" The rage came through clearly, and her voice strengthened. "We are outside in a freezing rain with no shelter. McCoy, if no one comes, we will all die." It was a statement of fact, not an appeal.

McCoy ran a hand over his face, clearing away the cobwebs of sleep. "Wait a minute. We'll get you some help, but I want Spock to hear this. Don't break the contact, I've got to go get him." McCoy moved to the wall, thumped on it. "Spock! Get in here. I've got Dia on the communicator." He pulled his pants on as the Vulcan stirred. As soon as the door opened, he told Dia to go ahead. He continued dressing as she explained.

"My father sent me here to punish me. The estate won't accept my calls. I don't think he's there. The guards would at least tell him about the mine and it would be in his interest to do something. But if he's left the planet they don't dare do anything without orders. I tried the other families—but I knew they wouldn't help. It's been three, maybe four hours since the slide. The whole side of the hill just melted into syrup. Everyone in the mine must have died at once, and the dormitories caved in. The people we got out are just lying on the ground. There's not a whole stick of wood or a dry cloth."

McCoy's mind was racing. Spock had frozen with his hands just jerking the tie of his robe tight. "What about the hospital? Surely they're equipped for emergencies?"

There was a silence filled by the rush of the rain. After a moment Dia spoke again, obviously forcing herself. "I am at my family's south mine. We are 400 miles inside the property line."

McCoy glanced at Spock for elucidation. The Vulcan was frowning, but he made no comment. "I don't understand," McCoy said. "Aren't there any ships?"

The silence was longer this time, broken at last by a sigh. "McCoy, the only free humans on Veith are in Firstport. A human who crosses into family property becomes property. There are no exceptions. Even if you succeeded in leaving, your trespass would be known."

"You mean you think you can—" McCoy was so filled with shock and outrage that he could not finish the sentence.

"I don't," Dia interrupted. "I hate it. I'm just telling you the law. That's why no one will help us. The injured are almost all humans, if that makes any difference."

"It doesn't," McCoy snapped. "What have you done for them so far?"

"We've moved them out of the path of the slide. There isn't anything else we can do."

"Well, stack them on top of each other if you have to, but keep them as warm as you can. See if you can get some fires going—phaser a rock if there isn't any wood. And give me your location. Someone on this planet must have guts enough to go after them."

"They can't be taken away," Dia said, and her voice trembled again. "There's a bounty on runaway slaves. The orderlies and nurses in Firstport would kill them for the reward."

McCoy was too angry to swear. "We'll see about that. You hang on." He cut her off and called Eldridge, praying the medical director wasn't involved with an emergency of his own.

"Uh?" came the sleepy response.

"Wake up," said McCoy curtly. "This is Leonard McCoy. Dia has just notified me that there has been a cave-in at her family's south mine. There are people trapped and 200 wounded with no shelter, no medical equipment or supplies. What kind of rescue team can you put together?"

"None," the reply came back.

"Let me put it this way. What could you put together if someone else took it in for you?"

It was evidently a night for silences. After a long moment, Eldridge said, "I'm sorry you found out in just this way. Two hundred people. If it's any comfort, Doctor, they probably have very little self-awareness—and no expectation of rescue. Many of them have had surgery on the frontal lobe so that there is no great amount of personality left."

McCoy swallowed down nausea. "An animal in a trap wants out. What would you want in their circumstances?"

"What I want is to survive and not lose one free human in a hopeless attempt to change what can't be changed. In the first place, any aircar or ship that violates family airspace is likely to be blasted out of existence."

"Who's going to know, on a night like this?"

Eldridge stopped trying to sound reasonable. "Since this conversation is probably being monitored by more than one of the families right now, as all your conversations have been since you arrived, I imagine any number of people will. If Man Hreth Malock doesn't care enough to save them, no one else will." Across the room from McCoy, Spock stiffened and drew back into the shadow. "I am sorry about Dia, sorry that our reality does not match your expectations, and I am totally unable to do anything about it." Eldridge broke the connection.

"I can't believe this," McCoy said to Spock. "Does he really think I'm just going to go back to sleep?"

"If we are indeed helpless, that would be the logical course of action."

McCoy looked at the Vulcan in disbelief. Spock was running his hand over the decorative molding that ran around the walls of the room. McCoy realized what he was doing and began to search his own side of the room.

"Logic is for computers and computerized Vulcans. You go take a nap. I'm going to call on that smug bastard in person." McCoy found a raised nodule on the molding over his bed and another at the angle of the two walls. He held up two fingers to Spock, who held up three in return.

"As your superior officer, Doctor, I would not recommend any hostile action. If you insist upon such an interview, it will be necessary for me to be present. I do not trust your emotional state."

"I'll just bet you don't. You better get your pants on. I don't care if you come or go, but you'd better not keep me waiting."

Spock didn't. He dressed in record time, hesitated by the communicator he had brought with him from the Enterprise. He should notify the ship.

"Come on," McCoy called from the living room.

With lives in the balance there was no time to waste. Spock followed McCoy down to the street, shrugging into the parka the human held out to him. As they left the building, a Veithan, improbably lounging against the wall in the driving rain, straightened up and intercepted them. In his hand he held a small card with the words "Come with me" printed on it. When he saw that they had read it, he turned it face up to the rain. The letters blurred and disappeared.

"The damn streets can't be bugged," protested McCoy.

With a smile the messenger opened his mouth, showing a black cavern—no tongue. The shock, and the implications of it, drove the color from McCoy's face. Spock took his elbow.

"I'm not going to pass out, Spock!" McCoy jerked his arm free. "What do we do now?"

"Go with him," said the Vulcan.

Their guide wasn't waiting in any case. He turned and trotted away, ducking his head against the rain. They had to jog to keep up with him. A confusing number of corners and alleys later, they were ushered into a basement that looked like an afterthought to the solid building above it. Other parkas and felt capes hung dripping over a grid in the floor. The messenger gestured for them to leave theirs, pointed toward a door and urged them into a room full of people.

Eldridge, hastily attired in what looked like a pair of pants and a nightshirt, turned around and stared belligerently at McCoy. "I figured you'd cause more harm ignorant than informed, but I can tell you that your opinion of me, my hospital, and how free men survive on Veith is worthless here, and you can keep it to yourself."

McCoy opened his mouth and closed it again. He recognized medical students, traveling companions, Ari, Zon. They were grinning at him.

"You're the underground," he said weakly.

"It goes with oppression," said Eldridge grimly. "These children think they can argue with Armageddon, and I simply don't care anymore. We'll probably all die like rats in a trap one of these days—maybe tonight, thanks to your interference. I want to know what you're really doing on Veith."

"We are trying to insure that the inhabitants of this planet have the opportunity to become Federation citizens if they choose," Spock said smoothly.

"Trying to stir up slaves," Eldridge said with a snort. "That's not the way to go about it. They can't be stirred up."

"They're afraid, not stupid," came a voice of protest from the student group. "Most of them aren't altered, they're simply uneducated. You can't make them understand all this in a day."

Ari stepped forward. "They don't know you, McCoy. They've never heard of the Federation. It would sound like a fairy tale to them. Much as I want what you offer, there can't be a free election on Veith. My family, all the families, would kill their slaves rather than free them—they're property, they represent wealth."

"That's hogwash," said McCoy. "What are these people doing walking around free, then?"

"We're a breeding experiment," Eldridge said with some satisfaction. "If Rigans lived so well without having to feed slaves, the family fathers thought they might solve two problems with one effort. They culled out the untrainables, put them all in one basket about 70 years ago, and are waiting to see what technological marvels we produce. Something on the order of Dow and Nod would be appreciated." Eldridge smiled without mirth. "That part of the experiment has been a failure so far, but it provides ammunition for arguments that human technology could not have been behind bioforming Nod. However, I understand that it is a successful means of reinjecting vigor into breeding strains that grow too passive. Hard on the donors, though."

Eldridge was flinging facts at McCoy like personal insults, evidently enjoying the results. McCoy looked to the first officer for some support, but Spock was wearing an unsurprised expression. He evidently read the protest on McCoy's face.

"You cannot expect me to be surprised, Doctor, when a hypothesis supported by findings as various as the air pollution index, rate of reproduction of the three species, and results of language studies proves true. More to the point at the moment is the fact that Mr. Bry Zemeth believes there may be one way to help Ms. Hreth Malock."

That brought Dia's plight back to all of them.

"Well, I'll be glad to hear it." McCoy edged one buttock onto a slightly unsteady table. "Go ahead, son."

The Romulan youngster at the communications center turned in his chair, obviously a little flustered at all the attention. "It looks like everybody's been listening to the aliens. There's been a lot of conversation back and forth about Dia's calls to the other families. I've recorded most of it. But, I thought—" Spock's silent encouragement and McCoy's intent aspect gave him the bravery to go on. "Well, we don't have to just receive, you know. We could broadcast. I think we could broadcast here for about two hours before they found us, and then station number two could pick up. Instead of trying to hide—and I don't see how they could—the aliens could just go ahead, publicly, and do whatever they're going to do. This isn't a fast signal, but there's no way to stop it. Eventually Riga and the starships would hear it all—and," here he looked a little guilty, "they'd get the proof they came for."

Eldridge spoke first. "You mean, do the whole thing publicly, admit we exist, give the aliens supplies, uh, steal aircars—?"

"I know it's pretty much a lost cause," the student said. "But if they're going to get killed anyway, we should get all the propaganda value out of it that we can. I mean—"

"You are quite correct, Mr. Bry Zemeth," said Spock. "A small force with no military capabilities," Spock was aware of stretching the truth here," stands no chance of fighting conventionally. It is quite evident that the families are powerfully motivated to keep the social order on Veith secret from the Federation. Nothing would so certainly expose it as the public destruction of a medical rescue mission. In fact, the certainty of public exposure might be the only conditions under which such a mission could hope to succeed."

Eldridge glared at both of them, but he couldn't hide the gleam of excitement in his eyes. "It's just insane enough to work—if we could be sure our signal would reach Riga—"

"Mine will," said Spock. "I have a Fleet issue communicator in my lodgings. However, our first concern should be to obtain transport sufficient to move the wounded. Ms. Hreth Malock was able to divert a robot ground car at the port simply by saying 'family business' to it."

"That won't work for us," one of the humans put in. "Ari or Zon—"

"We're both grounded," said Ari. "And it has to be a family member's voice."

"So I surmised," said Spock. "However, Ms. Hreth Malock will speak for us."

Spock soon had half the room gathered around him, discussing logistics, and McCoy sat down with Eldridge and began outlining the supplies he would need, only to run up against the differences in the state of the art between a fully equipped starship and a backward planet. Every time he would mention something essential, Eldridge would say, "I've never heard of it; can you use—" and McCoy would resign himself to working with scalpels and forceps. The young bodies pressed close around them. Student voices apportioning tasks counterpointed the major discussion.

In half an hour they had their needs fairly well outlined, and the group around Spock and Bry Zemeth was breaking up. Eldridge was to return to the hospital and begin work there, Spock and McCoy would go directly to the spaceport, one student group would go to their apartment for the Fleet communicator, and Bry Zemeth would remain to man the communications station.

"But first we need to tell Dia we're getting her some help," said McCoy firmly.

Bry Zemeth initiated a call, and McCoy began to explain what had happened.

"I don't care about that," Dia interrupted him. "I'll say anything you want. The—the temperature's dropping. It's snowing a little now, mixed in with the rain. Some of the worst injured have died. I've obeyed and obeyed all my life, and now I know I never had any life. I'm going to have my life, McCoy, even if it's only six hours in a freezing hell, and you can tell my father that for me. Please try to come—and take care of yourself. I know you're busy getting ready, so—so I won't talk anymore." Abruptly she cut the connection, and everyone in the room knew she had done it so they wouldn't hear her cry.

They drove to the port in a ground vehicle that was at least intended for passengers; it had rows of seats down each side and windows to look out of and a roof. It wasn't lighted inside, and the city was dark at night. The low-voiced conversations around McCoy couldn't distract him from the memory of Dia's shaking voice. She was so damn young. The students in the underground hardly looked old enough to shave. Among the unlined foreheads and faces still full with puppy fat, McCoy felt that he and Eldridge were old and tough, gnarled survivors.

Spock was sitting near the driver and McCoy was alone in the dark. With the rain dashing unseen against the window, he tried to remember back far enough to find a time when he hadn't known how fragile life was, when it was still a discovery to learn that your life can be leached away by other people's demands and expectations, by your own inattention. He supposed it must have been some such discovery that led him into medicine, but he couldn't remember it. Dia's voice had been so full of painful knowledge. He couldn't imagine her ever forgetting the discovery that six hours of life, your own life, striking back at the injustices of existence, was—paradoxically—worth dying for.

He felt very profound and very relaxed, although he knew that he would have to be focused and energetic once they arrived. He could do it. Bry Zemeth, the student, had turned to his console almost gladly—predicting two hours of life for himself.

McCoy curled into a more comfortable position, his temple against the window. It wasn't actually sleep, he supposed, this drifting, dreamless state, but it was rest for body and mind. He felt at one with the young lives around him, although they were tense and charged with energy and he felt so relaxed and warm. He could hardly feel the perimeters of his body; warmth seemed to flow in and out of him in great sweeping waves, rocking him as safely as a mother's arms.

He gave himself to the motion. Everyone fears dying, and he knew more of it than most; but there was nothing painful or fearful in this yielding of personality, this merging with the whole. He wished he could share the image of death as a dark mother, rocking the soul in her arms, and he wondered if it was a premonition of his own death. Death: faced and evaded so many times, still patiently waiting. Everybody dies, he told himself comfortably. The trick is to make it count for something.

~ * ~

On the Enterprise, an unrested Kirk rose early and tended to last minute affairs before departing with Sarek for Riga. It was hard to force his weary mind away from the ship to concentrate on what he was privately calling Harnum's circus. He piloted a shuttle, and he had left time in the schedule to stop briefly at the quarters Sarek and Amanda had reserved in Nod. That would give them an opportunity to freshen up. Although he had left time for Spock's morning call, no call came. He kept Sarek waiting fifteen minutes, then couldn't, in conscience, delay longer. It was only a desire to hear Spock's voice that held him back, he supposed. The Vulcan never had anything important to report.

 

XXIII

Once they had transferred to the actual port, Spock oversaw the details of crewing and loading the six ships they could obtain. One was a large freight vessel he planned to pilot himself. His first action was to dispatch the fastest two ships to pick up the security crews and their native guides. A crowd began to gather as the security people came back, and work went faster under the guidance of the organized and disciplined crew members.

Ari had requested first use of the powerful communications unit. "There are people on Riga who can help, sir—if only with the weight of public opinion. Please let me call them so that they will be informed."

Spock assented, his mind occupied with the loading going on under his direction. He managed the communicator settings for the Romulan boy with half his attention and asked to be told when he was finished.

Ari's hand hesitated over the call button. "You mean you aren't even going to stay and hear what I say?"

"Why should I do that?" Spock asked.

"You know why," Ari answered bluntly. "I'm a Romulan. My family owns Vulcan as well as human slaves."

"I am aware of that," Spock said calmly. "I also surmise that you are a member and a leader of the underground support system on Riga."

"How did you know?"

"There were a number of clues. Once the existence of the underground was established, it was evident that support for it could not come from this planet alone. And the behavior of the planetary administrator's son on Riga indicated interests at odds with his father's political behavior. If the majority of the traffic between the two planets was students and bull-leaping aficionados, then that is the logical place to seek members of the underground. And I—am familiar with the characteristics of natural leaders." Spock nodded at the communicator. "Time is pressing."

He left Ari speaking softly into the Enterprise communicator and went to check McCoy's progress in obtaining medical supplies from the city. Vehicles were arriving through the damp and waning night, and with each one came new spectators. An increasing number of them were assisting with the unloading. Perhaps Veithan humans were not as spiritless as everyone seemed to believe. Spock watched for a moment, glad of the chance to gather his thoughts before reporting to Kirk. The young Veithan's casual revelation of Dia's parentage in the underground communications center had seriously upset his equilibrium.

McCoy had shown no reaction, but Spock realized that McCoy had never known the circumstances of Spock's capture and torture on Ixmahx. He had never known the family name of Spock's rapist. The surge of hatred and fear that name inspired shamed Spock deeply. For one moment, while others were volunteering their lives for strangers, he had almost exulted that any member of the Hreth Malock family should suffer, should lose what they valued, even the lives of blameless slaves. That he should risk his life in an effort to benefit any member of the clan was a cosmic joke.

And as usual, the joke was on him. Personal prejudice was no excuse for ignoring a plea for help. Dia had harmed no one; indeed, she was also a victim of her breeding. Quite apart from his Vulcan obligation to value all life, his sworn oath was to serve the Federation, and his specific mission on Veith was to explore and expose the power structure of the planet. Now he had his chance. He would be ignoring his duty if he failed to do so.

Once he had said to Kirk, "I have observed how random chance favors you." If he were human instead of Vulcan it would be very easy to fall into the trap of self-pity when he realized how seldom it favored him.

He had paused outside the spill of light from the hangar, apart from the activity and close to that silent crowd of watchers. As he stood there, a hand-locked couple approached him. They were young, the boy Romulan or Vulcan, the girl human.

"Sir?"

Spock set his own pain aside and turned toward them.

"We would like to go with you. My—wife—is trained in nursing. And I am willing to assist in any way I can."

By their hesitation, Spock surmised the liaison was either uncommon or illegal. By the way they held each other's hands, he judged it to be a strong union. They were very young.

"Help is needed," he said, "but the danger is great, and the chance of success slight. If I understand correctly, Veithan law—"

"I am aware of the law, sir." The girl spoke clearly. "It is evil. That law also states that my child," she moved her hand to her waist, "is a criminal, condemned to death from his conception. I wish to go with my husband."

To accept them was to condemn them, too. To deny them condemned others. "The third ship," Spock said. They walked toward it hand in hand. He watched them go and resolutely shook off his self-pitying thoughts. An honorable death was not what he feared. It would, actually, pose an elegant solution to a number of problems. If they were willing to risk not just life, but each other and their unborn child, was it so great an inequity that one Vulcan be asked to surrender his pride?

Spock went back to Ari and made his regular call to the Enterprise, a little late, but with an overplus of news to report. It was not Kirk's ready answer he received, however, but Uhura's pleasant tones.

"The captain's not aboard, Mr. Spock. He and the ambassador and Admiral Harnum have been invited to testify at the High Court on Riga—about your father's abduction. They're en route right now. I can try to patch you through."

Desire and doubt warred within the Vulcan. It was almost a relief not to have to speak with Kirk. Farewells would serve no purpose.

"Not necessary, Uhura. However, it is vital he receive the information as soon as possible." Briefly he summarized the situation for Uhura. He did not place undue emphasis on the danger, and he thought Uhura understood why. She gave him no personal message but, after the slightest hesitation, confined herself to military usage. "Understood, Mr. Spock. I'll see that they don't surprise him."

As often as possible, Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery Scott "took the con" from the engine room. That is, when left to baby-sit, he delegated authority to a junior officer in need of the experience and got back to work. This had only rhetorical force, though. Uhura, temporarily in command, promptly recalled her superior, summoned Gavin Lapsley—and on reflection Meade Morrow—to the bridge, and took a calming breath before hailing the shuttle. She had been perversely enjoying a day of small catastrophes and annoyances—perfume she never wanted to smell again spilled in her lingerie drawer; VIP tours of the bridge, which always meant someone playing with her communications unit as the least likely item to blow something up; and the rather dismaying fact that Kirk had left the ship without any formal leave-taking of his bridge crew. Now she deliberately calmed herself, reined in speculation, and proceeded by the book. Her first hail brought no response from the shuttle, and without being asked, Chekov moved to the temporarily unmanned science station to establish the shuttle's position with sensors.

"She's clear, Lieutenant," he said.

The communications chief was already trying another frequency. Like most small craft, the shuttle had a fail-safe communications system. Even if Kirk were engaged on one frequency, the communications board would notify him of incoming messages. All he had to do to acknowledge was flip a toggle switch. The turbolift whooshed open and decanted the chief engineer. He took the center seat and looked at Uhura for a report.

"I am hailing the shuttle per Mr. Spock's orders, sir. There is no response."

From the science station, Chekov said, "Dese readings look strange, sir. Something may be blocking our signals. Der vas a notice about some kind of drill from the Haile Selassie—"

Uhura was already calling it up.

Scott gave the readout on the main screen only a cursory glance. "Hail me that dreadnought, Lassie."

Uhura had prudently established relations with her opposite number; she punched in his private "see me" code now. And got back a prerecorded message which replaced the notice of the drill on the main screen. She turned up the audio so Scott could hear it.

"—communicado for the duration of this drill. Please excuse the delay. All messages will be recorded in the order of their receipt and returned at the conclusion of the exercise."

Gavin Lapsley and Meade debouched from the turbolift together, took in the message and the faces on the bridge.

"Try again," Scott said grimly. "Put a little English on it this time. Priority Two."

Uhura added the recognition blip—and got the same recording, this time with a tag that "due to the complexity of the operation, the ship's computers are working to capacity. Your priority message will be brought to the immediate attention of Admiral Harnum as soon as possible."

"Shall I record, sir?"

"I want to do this one myself," Scott said. "I canna' believe there's nae a single snoop aboard yon vessel." He invested the generic term with disgust. He gathered his thoughts. "This is Lt. Cmdr. Montgomery Scott, presently in command of the starship Enterprise. While I wouldna' want tae overload such a busy piece of equipment as your communications computer, we hae a wee bit of information the admiral ought to know before he sticks his neck in a noose, and we would like to inform our captain of the same. Drills are lovely things, but I will personally press charges against the crewman or woman who monitors this message and does not immediately give me a Priority Two clearance as requested. Montgomery Scott out."

There was a little silence. Meade broke into it. "What did Spock find?"

At a nod from Scott, Uhura played Spock's concise summary back. The quiet, familiar voice dominated the small room.

"The vacationing crew of the Enterprise have been recalled. It will be the decision of each one individually whether or not to cross the border into the Hreth Malock property. They have been apprised of the danger. Free humans, Romulans, and Vulcans from Firstport have volunteered their efforts. From brief initial discussion, the population of this planet appears to be at least ten times greater than the Veithan representatives have reported, and the majority of that population is slaves. It is impossible that this fact can be unknown to the Romulan population of Riga or the Rigan planetary administrator—or the High Court on Riga. Therefore the entire system—or its power structure—has been engaged in carefully planned deceit in all their relations with the Federation."

"And Admiral Harnum is not taking messages?" Meade was incredulous.

"Let me go after them in the other shuttle," Lapsley said.

"They've got three hours on you." Scotty was subvocalizing Glasgow curses while his mind did overtime. "An' you'll need to alert the men you have there. Lass, who knows that we know what's goin' on here?"

"No one who can't unscramble a sub-space transmission. From what Spock said, they—the rebels or underground, whoever—are transmitting in clear, but they can't punch through sub-space. Oh, wait—one of the students used the Enterprise communicator to contact sympathizers on Riga. It's just local space the Haile Selassie has blanketed—where the shuttle is."

"So the baddies may not know. An' it might be more dangerous for our people if they did. Damn that bloody, interfering—" The engineer caught himself, looked around the bridge. "Assuming we wait this drill out, where will the shuttle be?" Chekov bent to his console to find out. "If they get clear, we can warn them. If they're behind Riga, we might route a message through Lapsley's men, or failing that, the planetary administrator."

"He's part of it," Meade said immediately. "Probably set Sarek up in the first place."

"I agree," Lapsley said. "Whatever the Rigans have planned, they're still fighting with words. If we let them know we've penetrated the smokescreen, they won't be—and the captain and the ambassador are exposed."

"Duration of the drill is five hours, sir," Chekov reported. "If the shuttle maintains present speed and heading—she'll be clear for nine minutes—uh, two hours and fifty-four minutes from now."

"According to the captain's schedule, he and the ambassador will stop in Nod at the ambassador's quarters. We have the coordinates. Don't you have men there, Gavin?"

Lapsley nodded, his lean freckled face intent on interior calculations. "We have a nine-minute window while they're in the shuttle, sir. And more than two hours to reach them in Nod." Lapsley had gravitated to a position behind Uhura and was reading over her shoulder. "The drawback is that the ambassador has no Enterprise equipment there. We would have to call in clear. However, in two hours I should be able to contact one of my men. He could reach them with a warning in person."

"Maybe the dreadnought will get tired of playing war games," Sulu said hopefully.

Scott leaned back in the hot seat and wished he were in engineering. It was this kind of juggling with lives he hated. Meade put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder but, with rare wisdom, said nothing to interrupt his train of thought. For a moment of silence they all watched the schematic on the main screen—a tiny blue shuttle dwarfed by the overhanging planet.

Finally Scott nodded, maybe agreeing with himself. "The double-tongued liars are still trying to discredit us, convince us to go home and let them bring their filthy slavin' habits into Federation space. That's safer for the captain than maybe lettin' them know we're onto them—an' not him. So I guess we sweat it out."

It wouldn't be the first time. Lapsley was the first to move, cat-quick and cat-quiet, toward his task. Meade followed him heavily to the turbolift. There were no expressions of concern for Admiral Harnum.

~ * ~

Kirk, piloting the shuttle with a tenth of his attention, was glad that Sarek initiated no small talk. That was one of the restful things about Vulcans: you didn't have to entertain them. The communications blackout didn't bother him. He had expected it, and failing Spock's report, there was no ship's business that interested him anyway. What a dry spell.

Not that he was feeling any better. Conscience had forced him to have M'Benga check him out, only to be told he was under stress but otherwise okay. He hadn't been able to give M'Benga the whole story, with the logical result that he didn't think much of the doctor's diagnosis, even though the machines were supposed to be infallible. He wished Bones were back to talk him out of his nerves, and oh, God, he wished Spock were back, wished they were on the kind of terms that would allow him to ask for one of those back rubs that started at the scalp and turned each separate muscle and bone in his body to the consistency of warm taffy. Lost in thought, he was unaware of the attention focused on him by his Vulcan companion.

Sarek was marveling at the attunement that Kirk's human physiology had attained to Spock's. Amanda had not achieved that kind of matching for years and had spent more years learning to control it, so that she could function during the rare periods when they had to be separated. Sarek admired the courage with which the human was concealing the effects. Y'rosh was not easy to endure. Sarek did not admire the attempt his son and his bondmate were making to conceal their bonding. Perhaps that was Spock's way of returning a lifetime of rebuffs, or perhaps he was simply unsure of his father's reaction. Or it might be that Kirk had reasons of military decorum for keeping the information private.

It was an irritating decision in any case. Without formal announcement, neither Amanda nor Sarek could take official notice of the bonding. All the advice Sarek was equipped to give upon the subject of y'rosh must remain unspoken, all the legal aspects were in abeyance, even the medical supervision which Sarek considered important could not be invoked. And of course nothing could be proposed about offspring or inheritance. It was a totally illogical, unstructured, un-thought-out approach to handling serious responsibilities with enormous political impact. Yet tradition ruled. Willing as Sarek might be to welcome James to the family and offer what comfort he could for this first separation from a bondmate, he could not speak until they did.

Since his companion did not seem to require a social interchange, Sarek settled himself more comfortably in his seat and composed himself for meditation. He would have need of his wits later, and the variety of medical problems that had plagued him in recent years made it imperative not to grow tense. His method of meditation was the simplest. He relaxed the body and reduced his question or worry to a succinct thesis in his head—then ceased to think about it for a preset period. Frequently the solution to the problem would be clear upon his return to normal functioning. The current situation proved difficult. He could relax—any Vulcan child of five could induce a light trance at will—but the complex problem of Romulan interaction with human and Vulcan cultures would not reduce itself to a single statement, and Kirk's face, showing the shape of bone at cheek and brow as y'rosh took its toll, kept superimposing itself over Sarek's deliberately summoned images of the influential Rigans he had net.

A human would have given up in exasperation. A lesser Vulcan would have imposed control on his thoughts and banished the human's face, but Sarek did neither. Drifting at the edge of willed thought, he wondered why his mind had presented him with these confused visions.

Question: In what way could Kirk's condition affect the decision of the policy makers involved?

Y'rosh. The condition y'rosh, caused by separation from a bondmate or an incomplete bonding. Course of the condition: 1) depression and fatigue 2) irritability, reaction to being touched by other than the bondmate, marked decrease in appetite 3) restlessness, anxiety, heightened physiological and psychological sensitivity, inability to sleep. In this stage, behavior changes become apparent to outsiders. The victim begins to lose rational control and reacts from his emotional set, rather than from stimuli in the environment. Unless physical contact with the bondmate is reestablished, or the bond completed, stage 4) mania, sets in. Stage four y'rosh was similar to the pon farr in that rational thought ceased, and all other needs were subordinated to the drive to be reunited with the bondmate. The pon farr, sexual in nature, guaranteed species survival. The y'rosh preserved the bond. As species survival takes precedence over that of the pair, pair survival takes precedence over that of the individual. One might envy other species who had less demanding methods of continuance.

The image of the chess board presented itself. Sarek looked up to towering figures of Kirk and Spock where the ruler and consort should be. The squares of the board were occluded by low cloud and fast-flying mist. When he turned, Sarek could sense the opposing pieces but not see their faces. He tried to see his own feet, to see what role he played—footman, rider, counselor—but that was hidden from him too.

He let himself come back to the fullest awareness. A waking interpretation was not difficult to make. He lacked information, and without that the subtlest brain cannot draw conclusions. He would have preferred more, but knowledge of one's own ignorance is still knowledge.

~ * ~

Aboard the Haile Selassie, Lt. Rolf Souvenakhot was the "snoop" Scotty had hoped for—and Uhura's opposite number. By means of a little program of his own devising, all incoming messages were dumped into a private file from which he could peruse them later—without anyone being aware of that fact. He had served on some ships where that kind of back-up was an open secret, but under Harnum, Souvenakhot had learned that private enterprise was not appreciated. He only kept it up out of boredom. Scotty's missive raised his brows. For a moment he actually considered passing it on in spite of the fact that the admiral had left specific orders that no political rigamarole was to disturb either his concentration prior to his High Court appearance or his carefully planned drill. But admirals, no matter how newly promoted, are still admirals. So Souvenakhot executed another preplanned maneuver. He erased his file, its contents, and the fact that it had ever existed at all, thus performing that most important of all military duties. He covered his own ass.

~ * ~

On Veith, the crowd at the spaceport had grown, and the ships were nearly loaded. Spock went to report that fact to McCoy and found the doctor speaking once again to Dia. The girl's voice was raw but steady as she gave McCoy a running report on the number of wounded, the seriousness of their injuries, the steps she had taken to care for them. Spock caught the doctor's eye.

"Hold on a minute, Dia. What is it, Spock?"

Spock's mind might have been on their current endeavors, but his tongue betrayed other concerns. Totally without premeditation, he said, "Uhura reports that Captain Kirk and my father have left the Enterprise to join Admiral Harnum in an appearance before the Rigan High Court. I have no wish to distress Ms. Hreth Malock, but she may have information pertaining to their safety."

Dia had evidently heard him. "I don't know much about it, Mr. Spock. I think it was Rho's idea first, but my—father—is capable of anything."

Spock reached for the communicator with a hand that was close to shaking. "Ms. Hreth Malock, who is your father's associate?"

"Rho? She—she's my cousin." They could hear her swallow, hear the renewed fear in her voice. "You both know her. Commander Hreth Malock. Does that mean you're not going to help us?"

Spock was totally unable to reply. McCoy was surprised, but not sure why the Vulcan should be so overwhelmed. He was glad to know the lady was alive, himself.

"No, no of course it doesn't," the doctor said.

"I really don't know anything about her," Dia went on. "Except that the Emperor sent her here with a gift for my father. I swear I would tell you if I knew."

The color had drained away from Spock's face. "I am already too late," he said. He turned and walked away.

"Here," McCoy said to the nearest person. "You, what's your name? Zon? You keep talking to Dia. Tell her it's all right. I'll be right back." McCoy ran after Spock. "What's the matter? Where are you going?" he yelled as Spock stalked through the moving lines of workers toward the fastest of the ships they had obtained. "Wait, damn it, Spock. What's wrong?" McCoy sprinted, caught Spock's arm and pulled him around.

The Vulcan's face was dead white, his nostrils pinched, his eyes black and glittering. McCoy shook him. "Spock, tell me!"

"The Romulans knew about Ochros. The Emperor sent the commander to protect his interests. The Romulans have not been simply concealing the fact of human slavery on Veith; every move they have made has been the product of strategy—and the captain is to appear at a High Court."

McCoy didn't understand. "So? You warned him."

"I did not know of the commander's presence. The High Court evolved from the bullring. Trial by combat. One may still be called upon—"

A thin ring of white was showing around Spock's eyes as he envisioned Kirk confronted by the Romulan counterpart of his own will. He had touched her mind and known, by her power to love, how strongly she could hate. How little she would forgive betrayal. McCoy couldn't follow the Vulcan's thoughts, but he was watching in total fascination. He had never seen this reaction before.

"I must have a ship," Spock said. "I will wait until the supplies are unloaded."

"What?" Anyone less likely to shirk in the face of danger than Spock was hard to imagine. "We need that ship! I need you! What are people going to think if you leave now?"

The rain was picking up in intensity. It beat into Spock's face and he blinked, looking down at a distant McCoy. Somewhere, a long way off, he regretted the necessity of leaving McCoy now. The human was hurt and angry. But there was no time to explain. He pulled away and began giving orders to clear the ship of excess weight. He had so little time.

"God damn you!" McCoy yelled after him. Furious, he turned around and bumped into one of the solid Romulan boys who had involved him in this. He turned his face away from the grave scrutiny. Rain had gotten into his eyes.

Ari held the human still. "He is right to go, McCoy. The war you fear could break out here. He does not wish to leave us. Don't add your anger to his burden."

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about!"

The boy's easy strength held McCoy helpless when he tried to twist away. "If you never meet again, do you wish to be parted on a curse?"

McCoy wanted to say that he had been cussing the obstinate Vulcan for years, that he wasn't worth getting mad at, that nobody needed him anyway, but the strong hands on his shoulders reminded him of all the times Spock had tried to breach his defenses and offer comfort—and all the times McCoy had refused it. It reminded him of the strength that had rescued him in the alley and, strangely, of the image he had had of death as a dark mother, cradling her children.

"All right," he told Ari. The boy released him, and McCoy brushed bossily in front of Spock and began harassing the bewildered workers. "Go get a message through. I'll keep them at it." He could only see Spock out of the corner of his eye. The Vulcan hesitated, touched him lightly on the shoulder, and sprinted back toward the hangar. He returned with the portable communicator and lifted into the clouds ten minutes later.

McCoy tried to compensate for the loss with increased activity. It wasn't long before the remaining ships were full and loaded. At the last minute Eldridge shoved through the watchers from what had become their command post.

"I wish I were coming with you," he said.

"You'll have plenty to do here," McCoy said. "We'll keep in contact as long as we can. You keep broadcasting."

"We will."

We. McCoy felt the solidarity as he joined the others, familiar faces, strangers, crewmen and women, students he'd thought children. Age, sex, race—none of it mattered. They were his family now, individual members of the body of moral force on Veith. Good company.

 

XXIV

Dia had been in the rain seven hours when the first ship found the site of the slide and settled down well clear of it. She went stumbling and lurching over to it. McCoy was not aboard, but there were humans she knew must be Enterprise crewmembers by the authority of their bearing. The fastest ship had carried everything that could be assembled into temporary shelter. They began erecting tents near where they had landed, breaking out a dozen catalytic heaters. Dia directed them to the close-huddled bodies in a voice that was unsteady with cold and relief. Someone took off his parka and wrapped it around her and didn't wait for thanks. Stretchers were unfolded as the tents went up. People began carrying in the worst wounded. Other ships landed, and McCoy grabbed her and said, "Thank God you're all right," and started giving orders in the same breath.

A human woman came up to her and said, "A stimulant for you, Honorable Lady," and Dia automatically extended her arm. In the rush of returning warmth and strength, she wondered why a Veithan human was there, and then she realized that McCoy had brought far more than the twenty-odd Enterprise crew members who had made the trip from Nod. He had brought over a hundred people.

Buoyed up by the stimulant and the blessed heat and the simple fact that help had finally come, Dia pulled herself together, joined Zon and McCoy in a hastily assembled surgery, and began to do the work she was trained to do. By midday they had exhausted themselves and their supplies. She hadn't even noticed that it was light. She held out her hands to an assistant and washed the blood off in water that had lately been part of the downpour. Working near the heaters, she hadn't realized, either, that the temperature was still dropping. McCoy came and stood beside her as she looked out of the shelter. Every muddy rut, every tree and twig and blade of grass was coated in frozen rain. The wounded and their rescuers still without shelter were huddled around heaters, staring at the tents with numb desire. The ice coated their hair and clothing.

"We have to take them somewhere," McCoy said. "They can't stand much more of this." Dia started to speak, then hesitated. "What?" said McCoy.

"We could take them to the estate. There is room there. Supplies. Slaves to tend them. I think our guards would be less likely to kill them than frightened humans in Firstport."

McCoy's first reaction—incredulity that she would even consider it—must have showed on his face, because Dia looked miserably away. Then he realized she must know the situation better than he did. These slaves were in jeopardy either way, but the fragile freedom of Firstport might not endure the test. The thought that his own kind might attack and kill helpless invalids for the bounty on an escaped slave sickened McCoy, but he knew it was possible.

"All right," McCoy said. "But let's move fast. And I want to talk to Eldridge, too." I want to know if there's a war, he thought. I want to know if the Enterprise is getting the message and what happened to Jim and if any of us are going to get out of here alive.

Dia called the Hreth Malock estate first. She got no answer, but she made sure they understood that she would be aboard the first ship to land.

"That's all I can do," she said to McCoy. They either shoot us or they don't." Her stimulants had worn off. Even the diffused light was painfully bright in the crystal world. She went to help with the loading.

McCoy reached Eldridge, who sounded on the verge of exhaustion as he reported that the inhabitants of Firstport were for the most part armed and prepared to fire on anyone who tried to enter the city.

"There are rumors an army of escaped slaves is coming, the families are launching a joint attack, that even our temporary 'freedom' has been revoked—altruism is taking a licking before the enemy's even in sight. I can't guarantee you it's safe to come back."

"That's all right," said McCoy. "We're taking the wounded to the Hreth Malock estate. I don't know if I'll be able to contact anyone from there. Would you let the Enterprise know that we made it this far, that we have about 200 survivors and about half that many volunteers—including all the ship's personnel. I would like to commend them all for their courage and efficiency."

It sounded pretty final even to McCoy. He sighed as he signed off, but he was too tired to summon up a good case of the jitters. He'd prepared for extinction so often it was becoming an anticlimax. He ought to make a joke about it. He supervised the rest of the loading, then found squatting room between stretchers for the journey. Dia was beside him, and neither of them made it awake. Ari, who was piloting the ship, sent Zon back to call them as they approached their goal. Dia pressed her hands against her face, then got up and went forward.

"Set us down right before the main entrance," she told Ari. "I want to put the wounded in the large hall, and that will be the shortest way to carry them." She keyed on the communications panel.

"This is Dia Hreth Malock. I am in a class two freight transport approaching from the southwest. I have wounded slaves and unarmed volunteer medical personnel aboard. I'm setting down outside the main entrance, and I want thirty men available to carry stretchers. Prepare the main reception hall for casualties, and see that there is food and drink ready for 300 people."

When there was no response, she closed the communicator down and looked at Ari. He was as calm, as intent as when he faced a bull in the arena.

"Put us down gently," she told him.

McCoy was on his knees checking a patient as they began to settle toward the ground. Dia knelt beside him.

"What'd they say?" he asked, securing a highly unsanitary bandage made from the sleeve of someone's jacket.

"They aren't answering. If they let us land, they probably won't kill us. I'd better go out first."

McCoy reached out and traced the silver strand of hair that sprang from her temple. "I'm glad you called me," he said.

She pressed her face against his hand without answer, and after a moment there was a faint jar as the craft touched down. They waited three minutes in perfect silence, then McCoy stood up, took Dia's elbow, and helped her thread her way through the bodies. He opened the door for her. She walked out alone, waited a moment, then beckoned to McCoy. When he joined her there wasn't a sign of movement along the facade of the house. The sky was clearing here, but puddles around the graveled yard showed that they had had a wet night too.

"I'm going into the house," Dia said. "Start bringing them out."

McCoy couldn't do her task, so he began his. The volunteers, led by Ari, began to lift the wounded men down to the pavement. They stopped as Dia returned in the grasp of one guard and accompanied by another. The two uniformed men looked over the bloodied, bandaged bodies of the slaves and the unarmed volunteers who were almost as gory as their stained and filthy clothing. Then the guard who was not holding Dia stepped forward and roughly searched Ari, who stood perfectly still for it. McCoy let them go over him, but would have protested when they rolled a wounded man off his stretcher and searched it, except for Dia's warning stare. The guard searched six other wounded at random and left them moaning on the ground, but finally he gestured toward the house.

McCoy oversaw the transfer of wounded by treating the estate guards as if they didn't exist, not giving them eye contact, not acknowledging their presence unless they were about to run him down. He had no time to catalog the glories of Romulan architecture and decor; he got an impression of many-colored marbles and rather cold formality, then he was helping organize a vast, ill-heated room.

Humans—he supposed they were slaves—came timidly into the room with hot drinks. Their formal speech and manners were an odd contrast to the makeshift ward taking shape around them. McCoy ignored them but exulted when they wheeler in two carts loaded with some real medical tools.

"These are far better than anything at Firstport," he told Dia. "Why doesn't Eldridge have these?"

"They're my father's," Dia said. "The families don't underwrite human medical research. All the estates are better equipped than the university—but Eldridge knows more medicine."

Slaves brought supplies of bedding, linens, and wash water. The other ships were allowed to land. McCoy worked steadily, first organizing, then screening off a makeshift surgery. Hours passed before they reached a point where he could stop. The wounded were still on stretchers or pallets on the floor, but they were finally clean, fed, and treated. McCoy had worked so far past his threshold of fatigue that he had entered the limbo where he thought he could go on forever. He remembered Firstport and that the Enterprise would be waiting for his report. He had seen communications equipment in a small room off to one side He hunted it up and was trying to make sense out of the Romulan labels when some one barked at him.

"It's all right," he started to say and stopped. He was facing a phaser. It was ridiculous. He had been there for hours, and they knew exactly who and how dangerous he was. If they didn't want him to use the communicator, he wasn't going to make an issue of it. Dia was probably within call, but from the look on the guard's face, a call for help would effectively cancel the need for it. The Romulan came closer, cuffed him around before he could think what to do. The cold bite of a shackle seized one wrist and then the other. The phaser's snout was under his ear.

McCoy was marched through the room and out a door on the opposite side. No one noticed. This is a hell of a way to go, he thought in disgust. It's like being mugged in the men's room. Without a word being exchanged, the guard took him further and further into enemy territory. The lighting wasn't any too adequate for human eyes where they went, and the smells changed from antiseptic to the sewer breath of misery. They went down a long curving ramp, and McCoy was having thoughts of dungeons and oubliettes when the guard stopped, opened the door to a cramped closet, and thrust McCoy inside. An anechoic quality and the loudness of his own heartbeat told McCoy the room was soundproofed.

The despair of bodies trapped and locked in pressed against McCoy in a smothering wave until beads of sweat stood out on his face and he fought for air. There was no place to run, and he wondered how it would be to have been born into this crushing oppression, to have lived all his life in it, and know the only escape was death. Death would be welcome. He told himself that he was Leonard McCoy, a surgeon and chief medical officer of the Enterprise. If a bunch of brute savages had the power to kill him, at least he wouldn't give them the satisfaction of dispatching a frightened animal.

He sat down on the bunk. The cell wasn't really so small. He could sit, stand, and lie down. He slowed his breathing and heartbeat by sheer willpower. He had been a prisoner before. Neither Jim nor Spock would take that door for granted. First for some mobility. With considerable effort, by doubling up and rolling practically up on his shoulders, he got his ass and then his legs through the compass of his bound arms. With his hands in front of him, he got up and tried the door. It was solidly locked. He ran his fingers around the seam, feeling for any yielding, any crack. There was none. He turned to the bunk. It was one slab of tough but yielding material that cantilevered out of the wall. It was impervious to kicks and cursing. There was nothing underneath it but a drain in the floor. Firmly embedded. No water source. There was nothing he could set fire to, rip loose and use as a weapon, or even vent his temper on.

"Hey out there! Anybody listening? I forgot to tell you I carry typhus and double beriberi. Anybody planning a breakout?"

There was no answer, so he sat down. He hadn't accomplished anything, but he felt better, and his heart was kicking along at the normal rate. He remembered the story of the miner trapped for a night and how his hair had turned white. He didn't believe it for a minute—body chemistry didn't work that way—but it wasn't going to happen to him in any case. If he couldn't escape, he'd sleep.

He eased back on the bunk and closed his eyes. They popped open again. He closed them. Cracked one open and watched the door awhile. Sighed, got up and defiantly peed into the drain. Lay down again and firmly closed both eyes. Sleep, dammit! Eventually he did.

~ * ~

Aboard the Enterprise, the bridge crew had sweated out the two hours and fifty-four minutes remaining in the drill. At intervals the Priority Two message had been repeated. Through direct observation and computer extrapolation, they had defined the area in which communications were being fogged. They were clear to Veith, to Spock in his hijacked shuttle, and as far as the Haile Selassie. They could not reach the shuttle containing Kirk and Sarek, nor Riga and its moons. The drill did not end precisely on the minute, and Chekov at Spock's station cursed it softly, watching his nine-minute window shrink to seven minutes, to five.

"Sheet!" he said suddenly. "Shuttle deviating from course, sir!"

Scotty leaned forward. "Where's he taking her?"

"Toward the planet, sir. I thought dey vere going to Nod."

"So did I," Scott said grimly. They all watched the shuttle angle away from the course they had computed.

"Communications are clear, sir," Uhura reported, just as Chekov said, "Lost her!"

Too late. They looked at each other. Uhura glanced back at her board. "Lapsley is calling his men in Nod, sir. Shall I notify him?"

"Ach! Let him get the word out. Damn that—" Scotty stopped wasting time. A short exchange with Amanda cleared the error. Two apartments were being maintained for Sarek. One, in Nod, he was supporting himself. The other, the apartment in the planetary administrator's residence, was being provided by Riga as a diplomatic courtesy. Either Kirk had failed to specify which quarters Sarek had intended, or there had been an in-flight change of plans. In either case, the Enterprise could now broadcast a message in clear about the events on Veith—and hope it would reach the captain, or they could limit themselves to the sub-space communicators with which Lapsley's men were provided.

Riddled with misgivings, Scotty stayed with his previous decision. He ordered Lapsley to relay the message through his men. They had two hours yet. He logged his decision, contacted the dreadnought once again, spoke briefly with Spock, who was hopelessly out of the race in his shuttle. Then it was waiting time again.

~ * ~

Sarek spent two hours mouthing polite nothings to the planetary administrator. Kirk took, or tried to take, a short nap. Neither of them was disturbed by any messengers. Security around the Residence was tight. Warned by his infallible inner clock, Kirk rolled to his feet and dressed once again in whites. He was beginning to hate the uniform, and he wondered whose bright idea it was to keep redesigning things. Every time they checked into a starbase, people were wearing something different. Painting their ships blue. Might as well paint themselves. He liked the old uniform. Soldiers didn't need to be pretty.

But the mirror told him he was anyway. His reluctance to attend the High Court had nothing to do with physical fatigue. The quiet stint at the shuttle controls in Sarek's restful presence had restored him in some way. The silky white fabric accentuated the tan he'd picked up working out in gym and pool. The erect carriage the Academy taught made him look fit and ready.

Ready.... Memory caught him again—specific, erotic—Spock making him strip before the mirror, leaning him against the cold glass— No! He wrenched himself back from the brink, braced against pain. He could not, would not allow another attack. Cold sweat stood on his forehead as he confronted the image of a soldier, only a soldier, in the mirror. Pretty or not, those citations over his heart were there to remind everyone who saw them that he was a soldier first. His life wasn't his own. He shut everything else out.

~ * ~

In Nod, Rho also faced a mirror—two mirrors if you counted the admiration reflected on Man Hreth Malock's face. He stood holding her cloak, a voluminous black garment with a hood. Older women wore them, poor women. Rho herself was in gold, the color of the golden gems in the tiren. Silk fragile as a petal wrapped her slenderness. Loose sleeves slit from shoulder to elbow showed her arms. The tiren was hidden, but one good tug would free it. She felt fighting fit, and she didn't need the "something extra" Man had provided—a false fingernail tipped with poison. She was very aware of it on her hand, although the antidote he had given her was supposed to protect her for twelve hours in the event that she scratched herself. She hadn't wanted to wear it. She knew she could take the human. To regain her former position she could probably have taken the Vulcan. Why had she let herself be armed with a coward's weapon?

In a fit of pique, she turned from her reflection. "I won't need this," she said, and removed the nail. She would kill Kirk, but she would do it fairly She waited for opposition, ready to blaze up.

Man only bowed and held out the cloak. The little victory heightened Rho's excitement. She felt alive, alive at last. No more hiding. She accepted the temporary disguise of the cloak with impatience. It was not long now.

~ * ~

And in his shuttle, Spock programmed the twelfth creative solution he had conceived and let the computer check it out. The result was once again negative. There was no way in which he could reach Riga before the High Court convened. He had no faith in the excellent security chief or his excellent men. It was his responsibility, his, to ensure the safety of the captain. A tinge of

green obscured the edges of his vision and he banished it. For the hundredth time his hand moved toward the communicator. He had sub-space transmission. He could second-guess Scott and blast the entire system with reports of Romulan perfidy but that would not make James Kirk safe. It might only advance the time of his death. With extreme care and control, the Vulcan boosted the gain on his receivers. The High Court proceedings were to be broadcast. Perhaps he could follow the transmission.

The transporter coordinates Kirk and Sarek had been given brought them to a pad on the open-air promenade circling the vast structure of the High Court. They stood alone on the truncated tip of a gigantic cone. On one side the gray stone facing of the structure sloped down to a green Rigan landscape far below. Kirk could see the checkerboard of agricultural lands through shifting mist. The fair weather had given way to overcast and the heavy air preceding rain. The center of the pile was open, like the caldera of a volcano. The artificial mountain was ugly to Kirk's eye and certainly alien in the fertile valley in which it stood.

"The bulk of the interior is filled with administrative offices," Sarek said.

Kirk hadn't been thinking of anything so mundane—or so vital. "It reminds me of the pyramids in Egypt," he said, thinking of tombs. Except in Egypt the sky would have been clear Earth blue. He looked up at the sullen sky. An omen? Then he took himself in hand. Beside him Sarek looked as composed as Spock always did. "It must be nice not to get stage fright—or to be able to hide it so well."

The sudden engaging glint in the human's eye told Sarek he was being "teased," an emotional maneuver Amanda often used to relieve tension. A gust of moist air sent the hem of his robe flapping out over the edge of the drop-off. He reeled it in again with no loss of dignity. "It is not the stage we have to fear but the other actors. You know the derivation of the Court?"

Kirk had seen the resemblance to the bullring. He felt it in a kind of steadying that came before effort. The miasma of lethargy was lifting as he put personal concerns out of his mind and focused on the problem.

"I was informed. Eliminating the messenger is one way to avoid bad news. If it comes to a challenge—"

"If it comes to a challenge, I am middle-aged with a defective heart."

"And I'm human," Kirk said dryly. "No match for some Romulan gladiator without Spock to back me up."

They looked at each other for a moment, two men who found comfort in bare facts. Kirk grinned, thinking that the Romulan who took either of them at face value might get a surprise. The warmth of his smile lingered even as his face sobered.

"I won't volunteer if you don't. But, with all due respect to my superior, who seems to have been delayed, I may not have a choice. You don't have to testify."

Sarek had no intention of discussing his actual reasons for choosing to accompany his son's bondmate. No Vulcan would question his right. "I am aware of the risk. But I also have an obligation to support the Federation. I have very little confidence in a disinterested search for truth on the part of Romulans with ties to the Empire and strong motivation to retain control of their planets. Nor can I see an advantage to be realized from further exposure to publicity. The admiral has nothing to offer that will impress our hosts, and you can hardly add luster to your previous accomplishments."

Kirk felt his face warm. He didn't think Sarek was referring to his military accomplishments.

The Vulcan went on. "And yet, our hosts are once again putting us in the public eye."

"Then why cooperate?"

Sarek shrugged, a gesture he had copied from his wife. "Chance often favors those prepared to take advantage of it. Perhaps the opposition will make an error."

You can't win if you don't play? Kirk had been heard to say that himself on occasion. "Here's hoping they trip over their greedy little shoelaces." A blast of raw wind buffeted them again, tossing Kirk's hair on his forehead, winding Sarek's robe around his legs. Kirk was cold and he realized the Vulcan must be miserable. Damn Harnum for keeping them waiting so he could make an entrance. "Let's move around before we freeze to one spot."

Sarek walked shoulder to shoulder with the human, feeling how the blocked energy began to flow through the tuned fighter's body with new freedom and ease. The warm energy field enveloped his own and extended past him. Telepathically deaf and blind as they were, even humans experienced something from that smooth generation of power and confidence, or they would not have perceived and succumbed to what they called charisma. It was a quality rarely and randomly distributed among individuals of every race Sarek had encountered, but he had seldom been so sympathetic to it. It was a factor of power not necessarily allied with means and ends compatible with the continuation of civilized life. Either Sarek's own field was similar enough to his son's that a positive resonance had been created—against which he would have to guard, lest his judgment of Kirk be impaired—or some other sense was reassuring his conservative Vulcan core that Kirk would not misuse his gift. Briefly Sarek wondered why he had found the quality so lacking among the Rigans he had met, and he remembered the chess board with its missing pieces.

They paced back and forth across the open walkway. Steep stairs led down to the floor of the Court. The lowest tiers of seats were already filled, and people were moving into the more distant seats from portals around the side of the amphitheater. It was like the bullring. Finally brightness gathered at the transporter pad, and Harnum and two aides took form. The aides looked disapproving until Kirk saluted.

"Ambassador, Captain. Forgive my delay. Intelligence from Riga has it that the thrust of this investigation may have been deflected from establishment of the ambassador's kidnappers into one more question of the propriety of Federation penetration into the Neutral Zone." Harnum frowned at Kirk, more in sorrow than in anger, his expression said. "This brief will outline my research." The aides stepped forward and offered more portfolios stamped in gold.

Kirk felt again as if he were dealing with an eight-year-old. Far from requiring intelligence to spot the most likely trend of the questioning to come, it took a serious lack of it not to. And what possible purpose could fifty pages of "research" serve, when they had only minutes before their appearance? In a detached way, he noted that one of the aide androids was human enough to have goosebumps on the side of his neck.

"There was very little time to generate a new game plan," Harnum said seriously.

Sarek waved his brief away. "In all probability, Admiral, no strategy would be superior to the truth."

The aides, without altering facial expressions or posture, registered affront. Kirk wondered how Harnum trained them to do that. Operant conditioning?

"My strategy deviates in no way from the truth, Ambassador. Some matters, in the nature of things, must be excluded from general conversation, or even from official testimony, as I am sure the captain understands."

What are these tags for? Kirk thought. Warnings? Reminders we belong to the same club? Appeals for an ally?

"I am sure the captain understands the inadvisability of discussing private matters where one is subject to surveillance," Sarek said. He might have meant the Romulans, but as Kirk watched Harnum's lips thin to a straight line, it was obvious the admiral wasn't going to take it that way. And this was no time to wrangle over the invasion of Sarek's privacy. There were more serious issues here.

Kirk accepted the useless brief the aide was still holding out to him. "Thank you, sir. When did you receive the information?" By Harnum's relaxation, Kirk must have achieved the correctly respectful junior-to-senior tone.

"Late last night. My staff and I have had very little sleep between this and the drill."

Kirk kept his face impassive, but a red flash of pure rage swept through him. It was unlikely Harnum had actually discovered anything new, but if he had, he had deliberately been keeping the information to himself. How the hell were they supposed to present a united front if they didn't even communicate? He could not disguise the bitter taste of betrayal. "I hope the drill was a success?"

"Yes, it was. That's why I was late. I left orders that the results be forwarded as soon as the communications block was lifted. It was in all ways a successful trial."

I hope that's not what the Romulans say after this one, Kirk told himself. The party formed up and began the long descent into the court. They were noticed almost immediately—four white uniforms and the tall Vulcan in his black robes. The milling crowd craned to get a better look at them, and an official of the Court, wearing a green tabard over a darker green uniform, moved up the stairway to greet them. As they descended, the raw spring mist was cut off by a warm-air barrier and replaced with the hot dry air both Vulcans and Romulans preferred. The gray clouds roiled incongruously above them as the scent and sound of alien bodies and alien conversation closed around on all sides. Kirk remembered the crowd roar of the bullring.

They took the stairs at a stately pace. Kirk had seen men do the same going to their executions, conforming to the drama of the moment in spite of themselves. The will of the spectators closed in on them like a physical touch. It was so theatrical it seemed unreal, and Kirk had to shake off a dreamlike detachment. This was real, and it had been deliberately staged as a spectacle. There were many entrances and other transporter positions inside the building. Their slow, visible descent into the arena was being matched on the opposite side of the amphitheater by a party of Romulans. They were adjusting their pace so that both groups would arrive on the arena floor at the same time.

They finally made it, and the Court official gestured them to wait as a double door at floor level opened and three green-robed judges walked out into the arena and seated themselves at a table. The sound from the crowd swelled and then subsided. Two more tables were ready, but so distant from the judges and from each other that Kirk realized they were not intended to communicate directly. At their guide's gesture, they crossed the floor and took their own seats. Viewing cubes swung up out of the table before each seat, and images of the crowd, the judges, and each table of participants swept across the screen. Kirk realized they would see the broadcast just as it was going out across Riga, and probably to Nod, Dow, and Veith.

Nine armed officials entered, crossed the floor, and took up positions flanking the judges and the two tables. Finally the judge in the center lifted his hand and checked the last whisper in the audience.

"The High Court recognizes the representatives of the United Federation of Planets and the planetary government of Riga. Let the hearing begin."

The broadcast began with the preliminary exchange of courtesies, a disturbance in the electromagnetic continuum not unlike any other broadcast originating on Riga. It encircled the planet, both naturally and with erratic artificial assistance. It left the planet behind with more assistance, and it had an audience greater than the audience in the hall, greater than the audience of the planet with its moons, greater than the system and its visiting leviathans from the Federation. Accurately recorded for all time, the High Court of Riga would eventually have an audience measured in quadrants of space, measured in thousands of suns and their planets, in the numberless inhabitants of those planets.

Kirk was not surprised to recognize the face of his erstwhile host, Ombry Gan Encre, on the screen. He had been silent, shuffling papers on the table before him while others made meaningless speeches. He held the sheaf in his hand as a prop when he rose and began reciting the history of Romulan-Federation contacts, stressing the fact that while the two powerful enemies had dealt with each other for a hundred years via sub-space communication, on Riga three of the races involved had lived in harmony, with allegiance to neither Federation nor Empire.

"Nonetheless, when empires clash, clans tremble. Now we are told that our insignificant system, a threat to neither side in their conflict—indeed a refutation of the very need for conflict—has trespassed from the Neutral Zone where we have been allowed to exist in freedom, into Federation space, where we must make hasty choices of allegiance.

"But this is not forced upon us. No, even though two ships capable of destroying our worlds and our sun hang in our skies today. We must not think that we are forced. We, who never felt the need for choices and elections previously, must now make choices and conduct elections of our own free will—but swiftly.

"Who tells us this? It is the Federation, in the person of their military." He gestured across the expanse of floor, and the screen showed the impassive faces of Kirk, Harnum, and the two aides, then cut back to Gan Encre. "Oh, we are assured by these military gentlemen that we may choose not to submit ourselves to the rule of the Federation, but I ask you to consider for a moment not their might, but their motives and their methods.

"When you have done so, you may well ask yourselves what the outcome would be should we choose not to join them—should we prefer the same freedom we have enjoyed since our forefathers first colonized this system." He paused dramatically.

"But before we hear their testimony, let us hear the words of our own people." Gan Encre gestured again and the hesitant figure of a human appeared at one of the entrances of the Court.

"We have heard a number of excuses for the penetration into a supposedly neutral area by Federation forces. Naturally these violations of treaty all had reasonable causes. The most recent, by the Federation starship Enterprise, was due to the kidnapping of a prominent Federation citizen, Sarek of Vulcan. A most dramatic rescue was accomplished, and during this rescue, a number of Rigan citizens were also freed from their captors."

The human had crossed the vast expanse of floor to stand equidistant from the judges and the two tables of representatives.

"Among those rescued was Parton Bemar, a tailor to residents of the Rigan capital. I would like you to hear Mr. Bemar's account of his capture."

In a slightly overwhelmed voice, the man related how he had been seized while walking home from delivering an order to one of his clients. He didn't make a very impressive witness, and Kirk couldn't remember seeing him among the rescued Rigans. He was followed by two others, whom Kirk did remember. Each of them made the long walk to the center of the floor, recounted a similar tale of being stunned or seized, and returned through the doors again.

"What's his point?" Harnum grumbled. "We all know they were kidnapped."

Kirk shook his head. The only thing Gan Encre had done to discredit the Federation so far was select unimpressive witnesses.

The next person was a Vulcan. Scanning the audience, Kirk thought they shifted a little. Were they more disposed to hear the testimony of a Vulcan? He remembered that the humans they had rescued did not trust Vulcans, even in the hold of a prison ship, not to be Romulan spies. A little of the same paranoia claimed Kirk. He leaned toward Sarek. "Is he Vulcan?"

Sarek nodded. "I recognize him. He was one of the prisoners."

Gan Encre interrupted them. "I would like to call upon the Vulcan ambassador to verify that this man was one of the kidnap victims imprisoned with him."

"The ambassador will rise and respond," intoned one of the judges.

Sarek complied. "I recognize Sundar. He was imprisoned with me on the pirate vessel."

Gan Encre was facing them across the floor; they saw him in close-up on their screens. Kirk wondered how he knew where the pickups were; he was playing to them like an actor.

"Thank you, Ambassador. Can you also verify that Sundar is indeed a Vulcan and not a Romulan?"

"Medical personnel from the Enterprise and from Riga have done so to my satisfaction," Sarek answered.

"Thank you, sir. You may be seated." Gan Encre's patronizing assumption of authority was negated by Sarek's slight hesitation and bow toward the judges before he sat. On the monitor Kirk picked up a narrowing of Gan Encre's eyes. Then the screen showed the Vulcan waiting patiently in the center of the arena floor. Kirk realized that he was an exceptionally tall man. He did not look dwarfed, as the humans had, or unduly impressed by his surroundings. Kirk wondered if Gan Encre had deliberately chosen the shortest and least prepossessing of the humans to make their statements.

"Please describe your capture," Gan Encre asked.

"I am employed as a transporter technician," Sundar answered promptly. "I had been called out by an individual who claimed there had been an accident which might be damaging to the transporter equipment at a major nexus under my supervision. I beamed to the nearest unharmed location and walked toward the site of the 'accident.' Two humans accosted me. At first I thought they must be under the influence of a drug, for I could not believe they would threaten me otherwise. However, they were armed and serious. They stunned me, shackled me, and dragged me onto the supposedly malfunctioning transporter. We beamed to new coordinates."

"You never lost consciousness?"

"No."

The crowd was silent now. The Vulcan's answers were something they were disposed to accept.

"Did you recognize the new location?"

"Not the specific location, but I knew generally where I was. We had beamed to one of the moons."

"How did you know this?"

"By the gravity differential."

Gan Encre played the devil's advocate. "Couldn't you have been beamed into an artificial gravity field which was similar to that of Nod or Dow?"

"That is possible," agreed Sundar. "However, we materialized in a pressurized hangar large enough to handle several deep-space vessels. The cost of maintaining such an installation on Riga would be prohibitive and serve no purpose. Prior to the arrival of the Federation ships, there were no vessels in the system large enough to contain such a space. Therefore I assume I was on one of the moons."

Kirk's glance at Sarek said, That was a plant! And the Vulcan silently agreed. They turned back to their screens. Harnum had noted the exchange—and noted that it excluded him, the ranking officer of the group.

"A logical conclusion," Gan Encre granted. "From that location where were you taken?"

"Into a ship."

"Did you see the name of the vessel?"

"I did. It bore the characters L-5."

"And in what style of lettering was the name written?"

"Romulan."

"But your captors were human?"

"Yes."

Gan Encre spread his hands in a practiced orator's gesture. See, he seemed to say, how confusing all this is? But let us pursue it.

"Sundar, did you see any Romulans aboard the ship?"

"No, I did not."

Gan Encre shook his head and sighed. "Thank you, Sundar. You may go."

Harnum leaned toward Kirk. "Have you got those Romulans?"

"Your orders were to release them, Admiral. We conducted a standard interrogation. We can verify that they were Romulan, sir—and that the ship was making for Romulus."

Gan Encre wasn't ready to concede the floor yet. "I call Sarek of Vulcan to testify."

Sarek rose and went forward.

"Is he going to verify that sack of shit?" Harnum's voice was a furious whisper.

Kirk stiffened in his chair. If Harnum had cared enough to inform himself about the keenness of Vulcan hearing, he would have known that his remark was perfectly audible to Sarek. Kirk hoped his response would be. His voice was icily correct as he said, "He will tell the truth."

The full blaze of Harnum's wrath was turned on Kirk then, the more incandescent because they were both restricted to undertones. "That sounded like a smart-ass remark to me, Captain. You just remember who's in command here, and what our objective is. You and your Vulcan friends can be as high and mighty as you want on your own time, but we're here to protect the Federation. If it takes a direct order to show you your duty, you've got one. You keep your mouth shut about anything that makes Starfleet or the Federation look bad. Is that clear?"

Harnum's aides were staring rigidly forward, ignoring the outburst.

"Perfectly clear, sir!" Kirk was more than ready for a little plain speaking. "Your decision to come here placed us in an untenable position, and now you want me to defend it with my hands tied behind me." He was past keeping the anger out of his voice. Physical proximity to the man disgusted him.

Apparently no one had ever given Harnum as good as he got. His neck flushed a mottled red above his collar. Still in a whisper, he said, "You're insubordinate, Captain! And you're dismissed!"

Kirk settled back in his chair with a deliberate attempt to aggravate. "You don't have the authority to dismiss anyone right now, Admiral. Were here at the pleasure of the Romulans, and we leave if and when they tell us. Those phasers aren't just for show."

The apoplectic flush rose to Harnum's cheeks, but he squinted at the guards stationed behind the table of judges.

"There are more behind us," Kirk said. "Or wasn't that in your brief?"

"They wouldn't dare harm an unarmed representative of the Federation."

Kirk closed his eyes, fighting for control of his sudden flaring anger at the necessity of catering to such suicidal stupidity. He tempered his tone. "They would have no compunction whatsoever. They're Romulans. They have everything to lose and nothing to gain by letting us live. Well be lucky to get out of here at all, and we aren't helping Sarek's chances by second-guessing him."

Deliberately Kirk shifted his chair an additional four inches away from Harnum and turned his attention to Sarek, trying for a little of the Vulcan's control before he disgraced them all. He estimated the distance to the armed guards, the long way Sarek had moved out across the floor. It was hopeless, and Harnum still didn't believe he had put all their necks in a noose.

Even so, he was amazed at himself. He was insubordinate. He was seething with an itch to lay hands on Harnum and physically return some of the psychological abuse the man had inflicted on all of them. And he shouldn't be. He had been hazed at the Academy for the express purpose of giving him control under duress. He'd been harassed by experts of all races, frequently saddled with bird-brained politicians and boneheaded bureaucrats, had served under officers he disliked, and even under a few who disliked him, and he had always been able to shrug off injustice, cover their lack of ability with his own competence, and grin when they took the credit—for the good of the service.

Harnum might be a bigot and an ass and an idiot—but he was an admiral. The service was founded on a tradition of loyalty and discipline stretching back to the salt seas of Earth. Kirk had honored that tradition all his life, confident that his right to enforce discipline was based on his submission to it. Proximity to Harnum might make his skin crawl, but he could not, would not, let that force him to break the oaths on which his life was founded. With which determination he turned to make at least a pro forma apology.

But Sarek had taken his position. Gan Encre's voice was all unctuous charm. "We must consider ourselves fortunate to have the ambassador with us, and I know I speak for all of us in expressing relief that his rescue by the Enterprise was so prompt. With all of space to search, it was nearly miraculous that he was located within such a short time. And luckily he took no harm in the hands of the criminals."

Kirk thought of the metal-fanged hobble on Sarek's bloody foot and wanted to apply it to the glib Romulan. Gan Encre was rolling on, and Harnum wouldn't give Kirk eye contact.

"The ambassador's reputation for veracity and fair dealing preceded him to Riga. In a situation which lends itself to confusion, perhaps he can provide some of the information we need to determine an elusive truth."

Sarek's expression and posture conveyed only polite patience and self-possession. He would be as likely to value a compliment from a rattlesnake as from Gan Encre.

"We are all aware of the ambassador's reputation," one of the judges said. "Ask your question."

"It is precisely the question of responsibility—both for the kidnapping and harassment of Rigan citizens and guests—and for the military violation of neutral territory—that we are trying to answer, sir. Ambassador, were your captors, like Sundar's, human?"

"They were masked," Sarek said.

Gan Encre nodded, graciously conceding the point. "In that case you might not have seen any racial characteristics—but your other senses were functioning, were they not? What impression did they give you?"

"I received the impression that they were human," Sarek replied.

It was damning, but Kirk perversely wanted to cheer. Harnum did not have the right to command every man's honor. A little buzz of conversation stirred the spectators, and Kirk's eyes were drawn up the sides of the amphitheater again. The last seats were filled. The audience had become a solid wall of faces.

"During the time you spent on the ship, Ambassador, did you have contact with the crew?"

"With some of them." Sarek's voice was flat and uninflected.

"Damn him," Harnum said in a whisper. "He's going to do it again!" He struck his fist softly against the table. Kirk saw the aides exchange glances the admiral apparently addressed himself. One of them glanced backward at the guards and caught Kirk's eye in passing. Kirk held his eye for a moment, then slid his chair a fraction back from the table. After a moment he heard the aide do the same. Well, one of them's smart enough to smell shit when he's sitting in it, he thought uncharitably.

"I saw no Romulans," Sarek was answering promptly. "But upon the evident of my senses, I believe there were Romulans present."

"What evidence?" Gan Encre asked.

"I smelled them."

A little rush of shocked laughter circled the amphitheater and was hushed. "But you didn't actually see any?" Gan Encre persisted. And did you meet the captain of the ship?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"So you have no way of knowing whether this crew of humans was led by a Romulan?"

"No," Sarek admitted.

Gan Encre shrugged. "I'm at a loss, Ambassador. It was reported that you were kidnapped by Romulans and rescued by humans. Upon what evidence was it ascertained that Romulans were responsible for your capture?"

"The ship was intercepted inside the Neutral Zone, on a direct course for Romulus."

Gan Encre frowned. "Were you told this by your captors?"

"My captors had very little to say to me," Sarek said dryly.

"Then your rescuers told you that your captors were Romulans, bound for Romulus—is that correct?"

The inference was obvious. Harnum's fist drummed softly against the table again.

"That is correct."

"And did you verify this information for yourself—say from the ship's navigational computer?"

"There was no need," Sarek answered.

Gan Encre hesitated, but both the judges and the audience were leaning forward. "Why do you say there was no need, Ambassador?"

Neither the expanse of empty space about him, the racing clouds high above, nor the size of the audience diminished Sarek's stature. "Because the information was given to me by a man whose integrity is beyond question."

Sudden balm cooled the residual heat of Kirk's anger. Surely the respect of one man like Sarek outweighed the malice of a thousand Harnums. He remembered another occasion, another logical, loyal Vulcan saying, "On a planet with positive gravity...."

"I assume you refer to the captain of the Enterprise. Your regard is entirely understandable, Ambassador." Gan Encre rifled through the sheaf of papers he held. "He saved your life, didn't he? And of course your son is his first officer."

The casual tone made it a comment, not a question, and Sarek didn't answer. But the audience already knew the answer. Kirk could tell, by the way they sat back in their chairs, withdrawing, that they were discounting what Sarek said.

Gan Encre summed up. "Then, let's see, neither you nor your fellow prisoners ever saw anyone but humans aboard this 'pirate' vessel; you never saw the captain of it; and it is only on the evidence of the Federation officers who rescued you that we are given to understand your captors were bound for Romulus. Is that correct?"

"That is correct." Kirk heard the emphasis that made Sarek's answer a reaffirmation instead of a concession, but he doubted the Romulans did. Gan Encre dismissed him, and Sarek made the long walk back across the floor. Kirk rose and pulled out the Vulcan's chair. Harnum deliberately busied himself with his aides.

Kirk tried to put the gratitude he felt into his voice. "Thank you, sir." And then, because it had to be said, "It looks like they're going to make mincemeat out of us."

Sarek's eyebrow shot up. "I am beginning to see where my son gained his command of idiom, Captain. But I cannot understand why you feel even the Romulans would go that far."

"Divide and conquer?" Kirk suggested. He flicked a glance at the three-fifths of the party studiously ignoring Sarek's return. Sarek lifted a dismissive eyebrow and sat down. Kirk joined him, beginning to be glad he hadn't offered an insincere apology to Harnum. Gan Encre had taken his place at his own table. The judges turned toward the Federation table.

"Who speaks for the Federation?"

Harnum rose to his impressive height in the full splendor of dress uniform and massed decorations. With a word to one of his aides, he walked around the table and faced the distant judges. "Your honor, gentlemen, as we are unfamiliar with your customs, we ask the Court to instruct us if we vary from correct procedure—"

Kirk groaned mentally. Sure, start off by promising to play by the opposition's rules—in which case there won't be any.

"I would like to answer the arguments of Mr. Gan Encre," Harnum was saying. "At the discretion of the Court, transcripts of the computer log of the Enterprise can be obtained to prove that the pirate vessel was indeed intercepted on a course for Romulus, deep in the Neutral Zone."

The judges conferred for a moment, then the spokesman addressed Harnum. "It is the custom of the High Court to admit only evidence which may be produced during the hearing. Do you have such a transcript with you?"

"No, sir, I do not. The Enterprise is now in a neutral position between Riga and Veith during the deliberations of the planetary representatives."

"I'm sorry, Admiral," the spokesman said. "Your other alternative would be to repeat the information under oath—"

Harnum moved forward as if volunteering to do so, but the judge continued.

"If Mr. Gan Encre does not accept your word, you and he can settle the disagreement by challenge."

Harnum withdrew slightly. "Our customs differ, sir. That might demonstrate which of us was the superior fighter; it would hardly establish the facts."

"I see that we do differ, Admiral," the judge replied. "Was there anything else you wished to say?"

There was, of course, an interminable amount of it with very little content and much rhetoric, some of it even an insincere encomium Kirk could have done without. He saw, on the screen, Gan Encre's head come up at the mention of his name, and a little thrill of anticipation fluttered through his belly. He was aware of Sarek's eye on him, and of leaning a little forward in his chair. Now they were coming to him.

The judge recognized Gan Encre.

"Thank you. If I may interrupt— Admiral, there is one thing I do not understand. All the instrumentation of Riga and Veith was unable to discover who had taken the ambassador—or where. How was it that Captain Kirk knew in what direction to search? Did he simply presume that the crime had been perpetrated by Romulans and penetrate the Neutral Zone on an assumption?"

Harnum had never been comfortable with the thought that other races possessed senses or powers humans did not. What he did know of Vulcan abilities repelled him. He was not prepared to discuss whatever arcane rites mother and son had practiced to locate Sarek. He did what he always did when placed on the spot—dodged.

"Captain Kirk can answer you."

"Then will Captain Kirk come forward?"

Neat, thought Kirk. And inevitable in the long run. Now it was up to him. He crossed the wide space of empty floor with his quick soldier's stride. By the intent way the judges regarded him, the way the crowd stirred and settled again, he knew he was to be the pièce de résistance. Well, maybe he could stick in their collective craw.

"Captain Kirk, you are a military man, responsible to your superiors, and beyond those superiors to the policies of the Federation, isn't that true?"

"That's correct."

"It is your obligation, is it not, to serve those superiors and those policies before your own personal preferences?"

"It is."

"I make this point because it is not my intention to question the personal integrity of the captain. We all have great respect for his daring and courage, and it is impossible to imagine that he would willingly be party to an ignoble deception."

This is the build-up, thought Kirk. He knows he can't ignore that stunt in the bullring.

"But it is vital," Gan Encre stressed the word, "vital, to realize that personal integrity, in a soldier, must sometimes be subordinated to the integrity of the group."

Let me introduce you to the admiral, Kirk thought. You'd get along fine.

"Go on," one of the judges said. Kirk could hear as if he were standing within six feet of the speaker, but with his unaided eyes he couldn't make out which one had spoken. He couldn't read Gan Encre's expression at all.

"Thank you, sir. Captain, before we discuss your rescue of the ambassador, I would like to ask about previous penetrations into the Romulan Neutral Zone."

Kirk heard the words with something like relief. At least things were out in the open now. A familiar mix of relaxation and readiness tingled through his body. Gan Encre was asking him to describe his previous encounters. Kirk complied; this was all old news.

"On Stardate 2815 Federation outposts along the perimeter of the Neutral Zone reported that they were under attack. As the nearest available ship, the Enterprise responded to their distress call. By the time we reached the area, six of the seven outposts had been destroyed with a considerable loss of life. Over 1800 civilians inhabited those settlements. The Enterprise engaged a Romulan vessel. In pursuit of it, on my orders, we crossed into the Neutral Zone."

"And what occurred there, Captain?" Gan Encre's tone was professionally neutral.

"Following a final engagement with the Romulan ship, I called on her commander to surrender."

"And did he?"

Kirk could feel the attention of the crowd focused on him, an infusion of energy that had nowhere to go. Vivid in his mind was the face of the unnamed Romulan as he struggled to remain on his feet—wounded, his crew dead, his ship dying.

"No. He would not surrender. He destroyed her himself."

Gan Encre waited for the sigh that circled the amphitheater. "I see. Then you withdrew from the Neutral Zone?"

"Yes."

"And the second time, Captain—when the Federation scored a military coup by seizing the Romulan cloaking device. At the time it was reported that your ship had penetrated the Neutral Zone as a result of navigational error. Later it appeared that there was no error, that you had given the order deliberately. In the light of subsequent events it is difficult to know what to believe."

And difficult to know what to say. Kirk knew what Harnum expected, and his sealed orders at the time had been quite explicit. In the event of failure, he was to assume responsibility for violating the treaty. There had been no withdrawal of those orders.

"I gave the order to cross into the Neutral Zone."

"Captain, that is hardly responsive. I am asking whether you were required to give that order by your superiors."

Well, he hadn't been required to do it. He could have refused the whole assignment. "I was not required to do so." Jim Kirk, human sacrifice.

"Then how remarkably fortuitous it was that the outcome was so favorable for the Federation and your career. Let us move on—"

Now that you've discredited me as a witness, Kirk thought grimly. It wasn't so much that he minded being thrown to the wolves—that was part of the job—but couldn't Harnum see how effectively he had disarmed Kirk and handed the Romulans a club?

"How was it, Captain, that you made the decision to search for Ambassador Sarek in the Neutral Zone—or was this merely another 'lucky' result of your desire to see forbidden territory?"

The slur had an opposite effect to the one intended. Kirk grinned, knowing the pickups were focused on him. "Humans say luck is a lady, Mr. Gan Encre. In this case she certainly was. The ambassador's bondmate was aboard the Enterprise. It was through her link with the ambassador that we knew where to look."

"I understood the ambassador's bondmate was human, Captain. I didn't know humans had such capabilities."

"They usually don't. However, Amanda has a very strong link with Sarek, and with the assistance of my first officer she was able to extend it. As you pointed out, he is her son." Kirk's face conveyed nothing but courtesy and a desire to help. It was an expression he had perfected while relieving other cadets of their pocket money. In a reversal from his previous fear that even thinking about Spock endangered him, it pleased Kirk to mention him now, to let Romulans everywhere know Spock was alive and functioning and foiling their plans.

Gan Encre didn't respond for a moment. Evidently he had not anticipated that answer. He phrased the next question more carefully. "Was it entirely on the basis of this—link—that you accosted the pirate ship?"

You are fishing, friend. "No, sir. The sensors of the Enterprise reported Vulcan life-forms aboard the vessel."

"But you had no positive confirmation that the ambassador was aboard?"

"I considered the link to be positive confirmation," said Kirk truthfully.

Gan Encre was not going to be balked. "I expressed myself poorly, Captain. Did you have additional confirmation that the ambassador was aboard that vessel?"

A barefaced denial was on the tip of Kirk's tongue. It was the militarily prudent thing to say; it was what Harnum expected; and Kirk was willing, if they did plan to challenge him, to take the consequences of saying it. He had been willing to weasel through the loophole Gan Encre's previous question had given him about his orders to cross into the Neutral Zone—but something in him grudged the lie. Somewhere in this system, among the smiling crowds taking their pleasure in Nod, in the ranks of the bull-leapers, in the ordinary, frightened people who were watching now, there were allies. There were people who wanted to believe in the ideals of the Federation. How could he represent those ideals with a lie?

"Will you answer my question, Captain?"

"I cannot answer it."

"Cannot or will not, Captain Kirk? Certainly you must know the capabilities of your own vessel!"

"I do know them. I will not, and I cannot, without the authorization of my superiors, describe the limits of those capabilities to a civilian audience." Kirk's voice was dry. "As a military man, Mr. Gan Encre, I would be suspicious of the motives of anyone who attempted to force me to do so."

There was a dry rustle from the audience, as if laughter were hastily stifled.

Gan Encre sighed. "Then we are back to the honor of a military man, are we not?" He sounded almost downcast. "I anticipated this, gentlemen, and with that as a part of our considerations, I do not see how we can arrive at a conclusion. It is possible that the Federation is correct. Some Romulan or Romulan hireling abducted the ambassador for purposes unknown, and was indeed taking him to Romulus. It is also possible—" Here Gan Encre's voice changed dramatically in timbre, and the audience responded with attentive silence. "—that such charges are lies and fantasies perpetrated by a military power which has reasons of its own for deluding the public!

"I do not accuse the ambassador of duplicity in such a plot but, by his own admission, he saw only humans among his abductors. I do not accuse his bondmate; I am quite aware of the link—possibly it could be specific and strong enough to locate one man in the depths of space. But I do question a military man with a military motive. And I question the propriety of admitting any of his evidence before this gathering, when his superior officer, with the right to command his life and death, is seated by his side!"

Gan Encre had all a demagogue's talent for stirring a crowd. They murmured and moved as if a high wind had passed over them. Harnum had not shown to advantage; Gan Encre had cast doubts about Kirk's honesty if not his courage. They were undecided, and they wanted a decision, a clearcut resolution.

One of the Romulans from his table approached Gan Encre, who broke off his impassioned oratory with every appearance of irritation. Kirk could see but not hear a swift exchange, and read the quick negative in Gan Encre's posture. The audience quieted down, hoping to hear something. The Romulan spoke again, and Gan Encre appeared to yield. When the second man left and took his seat once more, Gan Encre's voice had dropped back into normal register.

"If a member of your party has something to say," the judge directed, "let him say it."

"My associate was reminding me of my own words, sir. It is not Captain Kirk's personal integrity I doubt. If he were free of military obligation, I would be satisfied with his unsupported word, and we could settle this once and for all. Would the Court—I know this is unusual, but truth is our object here—would the Court ask Admiral Harnum to release Captain Kirk from considerations of military protocol long enough for him to answer my question? I will rephrase so that there is no infringement upon military secrets."

It sounded so reasonable, Kirk thought. And it was so damning. Harnum was only an enemy and an alien. He did not need to be discredited. It was the familiar face, the hero of the bullring those unknown allies might be disposed to trust. The fast-moving clouds beyond the force field reminded him suddenly and poignantly of Earth. Gray, tattered, and wet, that was just how they rolled across unbroken miles of corn from horizon to horizon. A boy on foot would be dwarfed by that corn, lost in an orderly jungle, hidden, safe. Miles of tall corn, bowing and whispering before a coming storm. That was where the young James Kirk had hidden from responsibility, unwanted tasks, an elder brother's relentless expectations. It seemed unlikely he would see those fields or skies again.

Sarek, watching, had to quell the urge to lean across Kirk's empty chair and forbid the indiscretion Harnum was about to commit. Such a protest would be of no help, and would certainly be observed and misinterpreted.

Farrid, pose forgotten amidst the students he had gathered to see his hero's victory, felt a moment's chill. Kirk's face and posture were the same as he waited for his superior's answer, but he looked—absent—for a moment, as if his thoughts were lightyears from the present.

Aboard the Enterprise, groups gathered around the monitors waited in silence or with quiet epithets, in possession of information their captain did not share. Uhura's dark eyes were full of pain and her hands, finally, lay quiet in her lap. She had not gotten the message through. Lapsley was still working, talking with his men on Nod and Riga, but there was no way they could reach the Federation party now.

On the small screen in his shuttle, Spock saw the image of Admiral Harnum rise, his white uniform the mirror of Kirk's. How alike. How different.

"Within the limits of military secrecy, sir, I have no objection to the captain's speaking for himself." The practiced voice projection, the sincere modulation spoke volumes to Spock. He had heard that voice throughout his whole career. "You're very welcome here, Mr. Spock." "We're glad to have you." "An honor to have you join us, sir." Always the courtesy, the formality, and the falseness.

Gan Encre's voice carried all the same patterns the long distance across space. "Within those limits, Captain—no infringement upon technological secrets—will you answer truthfully, on the basis of your personal honor?"

Refuse, Spock thought. It's a trap. Refuse. Gan Encre's search for truth and Harnum's assurance of freedom were equal mockeries. Can't you see that? he appealed to Kirk's image.

And on Riga, under the fast-moving clouds that reminded him of Earth, Kirk saw quite clearly, but he was damned if he did, damned if he didn't. It had always been his way to confront rather than avoid. The audience was waiting for his answer.

"I will," he said firmly.

There was a stir in the audience behind the judges' table, a circle of widening attention withdrawn from the arena floor and directed into the crowd. With no view screen, Kirk thought for a moment that a fight had broken out, or someone had fainted, but then the pickup caught and brought to him a clear, decisive voice he had never expected to hear again.

"And I cry challenge! That man has no honor!"

 

XXV

Spock had long since pushed the little commercial shuttle past its safe top speed. It simply wasn't equipped for the race it was running. When the High Court convened it was still not halfway to Riga, and Spock had implemented a modification to its drive that would have turned Scott's hair white, one that was slowly devouring the ship's propulsion system from the inside. But Spock's goal had changed with the information that his message had never reached Kirk. He was now only trying to reach the Enterprise.

He had methodically inventoried the equipment in the vessel, since he could not vent his frustration in pacing or cursing as a human would. At Harnum's first word, he had turned blind eyes away from the screen. At Rho's challenge, he had stood and stooped to the inadequate life-support suit which his review had found to be totally worthless. It had never been used or restocked. There was an unconnected compressed air tank attached to it—with an inappropriate coupling. On a starship such negligence was inconceivable. Even if one crew member had made such an error, another would have discovered and corrected it.

But he was not on a starship. It had been his own wish, stubbornly held since his recovery from pon farr, that for the captain's benefit they must be separated. He had, in principle, welcomed the assignment to accompany McCoy. Now he had achieved what he wanted: a permanent separation. McCoy had been left behind to almost certain death, and Kirk was condemned to meet a Romulan challenge alone.

Spock had realized the inevitability of his own death since his bonding to T'Pring was broken. He had accepted it, he thought, until the horror was on him of thinking himself a murderer. Then, when Kirk had proved him innocent and saved him from the fever, he had weighed his own survival against the cost to Kirk, and resigned himself to death again. It had never occurred to him that Kirk might die first—because his first officer, the much praised "best in the Fleet" could not cross a distance less significant than a crack in a Terran sidewalk, a distance no more than three times greater than the powerful transporter could assimilate in a second.

In uncontrolled fury he jammed the two incompatible couplings together. The nozzle from the air tank bent and cracked, the female fitting on the suit proper jammed permanently in the secured position. Secured. Three times the range of the transporter.

Fingers flying, he opened a channel directly to Scott, tersely explained his requirements as he stepped into the suit.

"It's too late, man," Scott protested. "She's walking across the floor—"

"Mr. Scott, this is a direct order. I am wearing a transponder and an environmental suit. I have disconnected the air supply, and I estimate eight minutes to brain damage, which is considerably less time than the captain has. Obey your orders. Suit sealed now!" And Spock pressed the last fastening closed. He ignored a stream of Gaelic he was not supposed to understand. He waited.

Scott departed the bridge without formal leave-taking, and Uhura grimly raised her counterpart on the Haile Selassie. When his face came onto the screen she made no attempt to hide her contempt.

"This transmission is being recorded. It is a Priority Two transmission, mister. Get me your main transporter room and stand by!"

He looked shocked and started to answer her, but something in the lady's eyes discouraged him. "Acknowledged, Enterprise, you are patched through to the main transporter. We are also recording."

~ * ~

One minute; two; two minutes and twenty seconds; two minutes, forty seconds. Spock stood in the shuttle and waited. He was relaxed. He made no particular effort to conserve oxygen. One hand was clamped around the air hose, in the event that the terminal coupling had not been crushed to a secure seal. Three minutes. It would take Scott some time to program the computer, some time to alert the Haile Selassie. From what he could see on the screen, the commander was overriding objections to her challenge. Admiral Harnum and Sarek had both risen to their feet; the crowd was standing and craning. Gan Encre had retreated to his table, having achieved his goal. Only one being in that maelstrom of activity and contention seemed to be still: James Kirk, where he stood alone, waiting for Rho Hreth Malock to come to him.

Four minutes. Five. Spock felt the first tingle of the transporter. He closed his eyes, but he could still feel that stillness in the waiting figure. He felt it himself, a centering, a gathering, a certainty—not of outcome—but of confrontation. Recognition. This is what we came for.

Six minutes. He opened his eyes on a well of stars, endless, dizzying depths in every direction. Seven minutes. The Enterprise, from its position halfway between Riga and Veith, had reached out with its powerful transporter, locked on, and beamed him from the furthest limit of its range on one side to the furthest limit on the other. He was dead in space between the Enterprise and the Haile Selassie. Now, if Scott had been accurate, and if the dreadnought was accepting messages, if the Haile Selassie's transporter and transporter technicians were as good as the ones Scott maintained so jealously, it was only a simple matter of repeating the operation from the dead of space to a transporter pad on Riga. Seven minutes and thirty seconds.

Aboard the Haile Selassie, a young and very frightened first lieutenant was still protesting his total inability to handle the preposterous transfer when he initiated it under the controlled tutelage of Engineer Scott. Following the galactic coordinates, the only ones available in this benighted system, honing them finer and finer, he finally identified a pinpoint in space two meters long.

"I—I think I have him, sir. I'm not sure he's breathing. Can't I bring him aboard? It would only take a moment longer."

His orders were to beam him directly to the High Court. "If you want to keep breathing yourself, you'll do it. And set him down gentle!"

The lieutenant had handled raw eggs and hatching baby chicks in training. He had also seen the results of a scrambled transmission. He took a deep breath and did as ordered, preserving a generous volume of empty space along with his living burden. The result, as the entire transmission materialized in Riga's atmosphere, was a thunderclap that staggered Spock and more than did justice to all Scotty's remarks about infernal deities.

Spock discarded the helmet and left it littering the promenade above the amphitheater. He forced his way through the warm-air shield and down into the protesting crowd just as the Court officials yielded to the tiren and Rho walked out on the floor.

~ * ~

"That man has no honor!" It was the Romulan commander's voice, and its chilling associations settled in Kirk's bones like a sudden frost. He had known, belatedly, that she was his equal, that he had traded on her honor with lies, made a joke of her defeat. He could imagine the vengeance the Empire took on failure, and yet she had chosen to go back, under charges of treason, to defend her honor. Even after leaving her on Starbase 27 and going on with his mission, Kirk had followed the case every chance he got; and when he had heard her choice, it had haunted him, waking and dreaming, for months. There had been a period of withdrawal between Spock and himself, and for the first time he felt he had tarnished the image Spock held of him.

And then, when time had blunted the memory, Spock had returned from Ixmahx, tortured and shamed by this woman's cousin. Kirk had known where the responsibility belonged. It was his. Spock had followed him, obeyed his orders, and paid the price with his own body.

The wrangle on the edge of the arena sorted itself out. The guards let Rho approach the judges.

"Who cries challenge?" they asked her.

"I, Rho Hreth Malock, in my own name and body, and in my person as bearer of the Emperor's tiren." She lifted her arm and let the cloak slide down to the floor at her feet, a pool of darkness out of which she rose like a slim flame. Light flashed from the golden jewels in the silvery cuff that clasped her arm from wrist to elbow.

The whole audience saw that gesture, and Kirk felt their indrawn breath through his feet, like the preliminary tremor of an earthquake. Their attention drained away from him like the ebbing ocean that pulls away from shore and the shallows to meet and join the tidal wave rising from the deep. Kirk wondered how it had been for Spock in S'tyge's power.

"The High Court recognizes Rho Hreth Malock. State your challenge."

She turned, stepping free of her fallen disguise. "I will state it to him I challenge," she said.

Kirk stood his ground and watched her come. Duty and obedience had brought him here as they had once sent him to her ship.

She crossed the floor to where he stood, and he had an eternity to recognize the subtle clues of command in her stride, the signals of supple strength beneath the golden gown, the strong female attraction of her, so different from the lavish beauty he had always preferred in women. She came close enough so that he felt the breeze she had stirred as she walked. He could smell her perfume on it.

She stood facing him, silent for a long moment. His awareness of the tense hush about them, of Harnum, of Sarek, faded before the dark fire of her eye, and her face, frozen in disdain. She let him see the changes two long years had made in her, and she smiled grimly when he felt his face first pale, and then burn. He swallowed, wondering why the leashed power in her stirred no flare of answering anger in him. He felt flat-footed and slow.

"You have no honor to pledge," she told him. "Deny it."

He said nothing. Cold sweat gathered on his forehead. He should—he must defend at least the appearance of honor, whether he retained it or not. She was the enemy. She had laid this ambush.

"You deliberately penetrated the Neutral Zone, not due to navigational error, not due to stress, but under orders to spy and steal for the Federation. Deny it."

The invisible pickups would be transmitting her charge not only through the hall, but around the planet, out to the ship, across the system to Veith. His crew would see this. McCoy. Spock.

"Deny it," she urged him. It was almost a lover's throaty purr. When he still did not speak, she lifted her head a little, shifted her hand. Was she wearing a knife? Would she fight with her hands and feet?

"Detected in this spy mission, on my vessel you pretended first insanity and then death to avoid your just desserts. Again you came aboard, surgically altered—" she put all the scorn of innuendo into the term, "disguised as one of my crew—out of uniform, a spy, a thief—while your tame Vulcan fed me more lies. Disguised, by guile, you stole what you had come for. Deny it."

A cold trickle of sweat slid down from Kirk's temple to his jaw. He knew what he had to do. It was so simple, so clear. He had to speak up, call her truth a lie, fight. He was a soldier. Why couldn't he speak?

Rho's voice rose and her face twisted. "If you have even the virtue of courage, deny it!" And she slapped him full in the face.

"Spy! Liar! Thief!" Each word was punctuated by a white hot, open-handed blow that rocked Kirk's head. "Coward!" She dropped her hand. "Deny it and fight me!"

The blows had full Romulan strength behind them, but the pain flaming in Kirk's face was nothing to the pain he saw in hers. He straightened and locked his unsteady knees; but confronting her pain, he could lift neither hand nor voice to defend himself. His eyes never left hers as the audience broke the silence with a long mourning sigh. Her eyes were black as space and bright with tears. Spock's eyes had been like that after Ixmahx.

"Coward," she whispered again. She turned toward the judges as if she found victory a weary business after all. "He has no honor," she said clearly, "and no right to speak."

Kirk could not make out the judges' faces or any individual's in the many-faced crowd. He could only see clearly those massed clouds overhead dragging their rain-heavy bellies across the sky. He heard voices, though, whispering among themselves, and then one voice addressing him.

"Do you accept the challenge of Rho Hreth Malock, Captain? Do you deny her charges?"

He thought he must have made that clear, with the marks of her hand searing each word into his flesh like a brand. Spy, liar, thief he had been. A coward he would be if he denied her truth.

"No," he said. "I do not deny them."

The judge and the crowd were silent. Kirk heard only the woman's breathing, saw the tight gold fabric strain and relax with each deep breath. On the back of her arm, above the silvery cuff, exposed by the torn fabric, he saw a ragged scar. The seam of tissue was white. It could have been an old wound, a battle scar, but Kirk didn't think so. It had never been tended; it looked as wounds do that heal without care. It would have been awkward to reach, there on the back of her arm, if she had been alone. Her skin, he realized, was the same sea-amber tone as Spock's.

"You are dismissed," the voice of the judge said.

Well, that was clear. Kirk turned and began the long walk toward the table where Harnum and Sarek sat. His body kept its erect soldier's posture without orders from him, and when two guards moved forward to block his approach to the Federation table, it understood that he was dismissed entirely and must leave the arena floor. It turned and carried him toward the tiered seats of the amphitheater. Both seats and stairs were solidly filled with bodies, and they did not shift as he marched toward them.

Distantly, he realized that they might not. That in ancient times, an implacable wall of flesh had denied any escape from the challenge. He could not read these Romulan faces, but he knew that any crowd, even a crowd of women and children, could tear a man to bits.

The knowledge escaped his legs. They took him forward to the first row of seated figures with clockwork steadiness. He was surprised when the bodies parted, not surprised when someone spat.

He climbed steadily upward, ignoring the comments that escalated into jeers, the increasing hail of small objects around him. It was as if the crowd had come unprepared for this, and hands that might have found stones to throw found only the lightweight detritus of picnic lunches. Half-eaten food struck him and rebounded. Half-consumed drinks drenched him in hot or cold; sticky balls of spittle slimed his uniform, his hair. A stab of pain in his calf told him that someone in the crowd was armed. Someone kicked his ankle.

The crowd voice rose as the weight of bodies pressing in hindered those who tried to move out of Kirk's path—and out of the path of missiles and filth aimed at him but also falling on others. Kirk could no longer see the cool rolling clouds above, but he knew they were there, beyond this airless crush of aliens. The pain in his leg became a warm weakness. He knew if he stopped, or fell, they would drag him down.

Someone ahead pulled back and threw something dark and round at him; this one person had come prepared. A fragile container struck him full across the chest, rupturing to splash him with the foul color and odor of excrement. His stomach heaved and he was caught between nausea and the need to breathe. His legs shook. He thought of the cool air, faintly regretful now, because it seemed he was not going to reach it.

Something lifted his attacker and threw the surprised man bodily into the crowd. A strong hand clamped on Kirk's shoulder and pulled upward. Beyond surprise, Kirk found he could make one more effort, and his legs began to climb again. The crowd fell back, fell quiet, as he passed through the warm-air barrier into the cool, damp winds of Riga. His mind put a name to the strength that held him jealously close, guided him into the dazzle of a transporter beam. It was Spock. Spock had saved him.

 

XXVI

On the Enterprise, Chekov's face was flaming, Sulu's was pale, Uhura's eyes gleamed liquidly. Scotty hit the button that would, without fanfare of klaxons and voice, put the ship on yellow alert. In the security center, Gavin Lapsley had three views displayed before him—the human, Romulan, and Vulcan broadcasts from the High Court—with a fourth screen blank. The Enterprise was too far out to use SALEE, and Kirk had not considered it necessary to oversee the delegates with SISTER.

Lapsley's hands flew as he spoke quietly into his throat mike. He gave orders for operatives in the High Court crowd to close in on Kirk and Spock, for others to protect the admiral and the ambassador. On Riga he sent a formal delegation of his own to demand access to Sarek's quarters in the planetary administrator's Residence, and in Nod, he ordered other crewmen posted outside to penetrate Sarek's unlocked apartment there. But he was late, late, late, and with every controlled, logical, thought-out action he was cursing his own lack of planning and the folly of the ship's location. He had information at last—and no authority to act on it. He saw Spock reach the transporter and thrust Kirk ahead of him onto the pad. Safe. He recalled his men and sent them back into the crowd, concentrated on the progress Harnum and Sarek were making.

Sarek was first, stalking with icy dignity off the floor. Harnum and his aides were strung out behind him, not sure they wanted to follow, by the looks of it, not knowing what else to do. With relief, Lapsley saw that Sarek was moving toward the near side of the arena where Enterprise security was concentrated next to the closest exit. The black figure and three white ones disappeared into the crowd, but Lapsley could see they were getting some kind of protection.

A buzz at his door, which had automatically locked, interrupted his train of thought. "Come," he called. Meade entered, went to the blank console and turned it on. She had the direction of SISTER; Lapsley's display was only a monitor.

"Look at those people," she said.

The display showed the delegates, who were going on with their false and now totally pointless discussions. Lapsley frowned.

"Did they see it?"

"Yes. They have a monitor. It cut off when the yellow alert flashed, and they just went back to work! There's something wrong with them, Gavin. Drugged, hypnotized, something."

"Record it," said the security chief. "I'm going to try to persuade Scotty to move us. They can't do any harm as long as they're contained. We've got to get the captain out of there."

But when Lapsley entered the bridge, Scotty was deep in his own security measures and unwilling to move the ship on anything less than a direct order from Kirk.

"I canna'," he said bluntly. "We're here on the admiral's order, for one thing. For another, the rebels on Veith havena' been broadcastin' on sub-space, except to us. Nothin' more has come in for three hours now. Riga doesna' know, an' I want tae keep it that way."

Scotty's voice rose in despair as he went on. "And dinna' ye ken? Those—delegates—hae been all over the ship. Zombies they may be, but zombies can be programmed. We dinna' know if she's clean."

Lapsley turned and paced, unable to contain his energy. "Have they reported?" he asked, although he was aware that would have been the first thing Scotty mentioned if Kirk or Spock had contacted the ship.

Scotty and Uhura exchanged glances. The board was suspiciously silent. The engineer shook his head. "Ye'll be among the first to know. The captain's—"

Another glance was traded around the three of them. They might guess, dimly, why he had failed to respond to the challenge. Loyalty demanded that they accept his decision. But nothing—no wound that left him walking, no political or career consideration—nothing had ever stopped Kirk from keeping the ship informed, had ever broken the thread of communication and command. Now it lay slack, and they had no way of knowing when or if it would tighten again.

"He'll call," Uhura said. "He may need some time, but he'll call."

~ * ~

On Riga, Farrid's apartments, filled with members of the Student Resistance Alliance, were hushed and still. Like Chekov, Farrid could not stop the shamed tide of color that crimsoned his face when Kirk accepted blow after blow and would not fight. He had been so sure that Kirk would accept a challenge and win that he had made no preparation for failure.

"Never mind, Farrid." It was a girl's soft voice, someone he didn't know well. "It doesn't mean he's a coward because he can't fight a Romulan face to face. In his ship—in the bullring—he's a brave man. A brave human. But he's never faced this before. They dominate us. No one could do better. We simply can't confront them on a personal level. We can't live with them. We must be by ourselves to be free. The best a Romulan can grant us is that, even the friendly ones."

"Because that's what we think!" Farrid flared, his face drawn, his eyes narrowed under the dark curls.

The girl drew back and made a gesture toward the screen. "He's their best, you said so. A human who grew up free. And he couldn't do it. We know you meant well." She gathered her things. Others followed suit and began to leave. The downcast glances and murmured leave-takings were subdued. Wordless himself, Farrid watched them go until he closed the door on the last one. He was alone with the littered rooms and trays of uneaten foods. Absolutely alone. He had been quite effective in promoting Captain James Kirk as the inevitable leader of the human equality movement. By researching his background, dinning his achievements into every ear and media outlet, Farrid had succeeded in creating an intense interest in Kirk and an expectation that he would be able to do what no human felt equal to—face down the Romulans, beat them at their own game, win!

"I was right!" Farrid claimed to the empty room. Kirk had faced Romulans, faced and fought the bravos Farrid had hired himself to test the human's courage. When so much depended on him, why had he failed now? The flush of humiliation on Farrid's face was replaced by the heat of anger, and the glitter in his eye spilled over in pure, frustrated rage. Kirk wasn't a coward; he did have what the humans in the Ochros system so desperately needed. If he had fought—even if he had lost—that message would have been clear. There was no natural dominance of one species over another.

"You could have done it," he accused the multicolored image on the screen, although all it showed was the crowd leaving. "You bastard. You bastard. You could have done it!" So much anger demanded physical release. The boy bent and lifted up a tray of picked-over food, salting it with tears. When he realized he was crying, he threw it with his whole strength into the picture screen.

~ * ~

Rho had pushed into the crowd after Sarek, ignoring Man's will fixed on her like a telepathic beacon. If she'd been jumpy before the confrontation in the High Court, she was manic now. Her plan had been almost entirely successful, certainly the Federation's popular appeal had been dimmed, but she had expected Kirk to fight. And she had not expected Spock to materialize from Veith in time to rescue him. She pushed forward, using the tiren like a weapon, grimly intent on following Sarek to his destination and his son.

She did not want to think of Kirk's climb up those stairs, how the crowd had created a gauntlet of shame for him. She did not want to think of how his light eyes had met hers, of the infinitesimal lifting of his chin and bracing of his shoulders as he had accepted her blows, of how his eyes had never left hers as he gave her the truth. She hadn't expected that, didn't want that. She wanted to fight someone, and when a clumsy human stumbled into her in the crowd, she broke his neck with a backhanded blow and never thought twice. But the incident delayed her. By the time she struggled to the transporter after Sarek, others had used it; the coordinates were gone. She didn't care. She hit the repeat button and stepped up. She had to go somewhere, and she didn't care where.

A nondescript Romulan wasn't quite quick enough to get on the pad with her, and by the time he reacted and pushed toward the console someone had set new coordinates. He turned back immediately and found Man Hreth Malock on the arena floor, exchanging courtesies with Gan Encre. After a moment Hreth Malock spotted him and made excuses. They moved out of earshot.

"I lost her," the Romulan reported. "She beamed somewhere. The coordinates were wiped."

Hreth Malock considered, overhead lights striking the silver streaks at his temples. "She'll come back. She's like the hawk cheated of prey. She needs to fly and strike at something. But stay closer next time; use more men. Either she'll be contacted by a stranger, or she'll contact someone. He'll be an Imperial courier, and it is vital that he not escape us. Vital to you, if you take my meaning."

"I do, sir. I won't miss him."

~ * ~

For Kirk, the crowd's noise was cut off, finally, by the transporter beam. The full-body tingle picked him up, augmented by the hard curve of an arm around his waist, and deposited him in a quiet place. The support of the arm left him for a moment and he began to shake. But after a few words in a familiar voice, the arm came back and helped him into a tiled room with a water shower. Of course. That made sense. He was dirty.

Spock had beamed directly to Sarek's quarters in Nod. He had known the coordinates there and been unable to think of another place to go. He was unsurprised to find Lapsley's men already inside, although that was a serious breach of privacy. These were unusual times. He banished them from the inner rooms, asked them to notify the ship of the captain's safety and ascertain the status of Sarek and Admiral Harnum. Then he turned to his own responsibility.

Kirk waited where he had been left, the prints of the commander's hand standing out in dark red weals on both cheeks. The crowd's filth was dripping from his once white uniform onto the luxurious carpet. Spock went back and steered the docile body into the bathroom and directly into the shower. It wet them both. Kirk blinked as the first drops struck his face but made no other move.

Spock adjusted the temperature of the spray to the human's preference and began the job of disrobing him. Kirk swayed, then steadied himself enough for Spock to work. The Vulcan peeled the jacket open and slid it off Kirk's shoulders, down his arms, opened the fastening on his pants and slid them down the long legs, taking the undershorts with them, kneeling to tug off boots and pants together. Still kneeling, Spock moved to inspect the one bleeding wound on Kirk's calf. It wasn't deep. There were bruises that might prove more serious. Spock moved up the gleaming body, inspecting, and came upon the pink scar over the ribs. His hand paused over the new skin, and under his fingertips he could feel how smooth, how tender it still was. Obviously Kirk had not taken it to McCoy or M'Benga for healing.

Spock's hands moved on, finding bruises and nothing worse on the outside. He stood and got himself out of the environmental suit at last. He hadn't thought to move out of the shower, and the spray wet his uniform as he discarded the suit. He could smell the reek of his own fear on it, so he stripped that off, too, and threw all the soiled clothing in the corner of the stall.

When he punched a soapy spray, Kirk bent his head and let himself be guided under the flow. As Spock lathered his hair, the human began to shake, a faint fine tremor that Spock could feel under his hands as he worked down the solid body. He scrubbed as thoroughly and impersonally as a nurse, then dialed clear water. He was kneeling again, rinsing the wound on Kirk's leg, when the human's hands came up to rest on his shoulders. Spock looked up. Kirk's eyes were closed. "Jim—"

"Make it hotter," Kirk said.

Obediently, Spock rose and dialed the temperature up. Kirk turned to the wall, head and hands braced against it while the water sprayed down on his shoulders. He was still shaking. The water that felt comfortably warm to Spock was turning the skin on Kirk's shoulders and back pink.

"Jim, you will burn yourself."

Kirk whirled around, visibly flinching as the steaming spray struck the front of his body. Spock stepped automatically between him and the water, coming very close. His thigh grazed Kirk's. The human's ragged breath gusted against Spock's jaw and neck. Memory beat against Spock's consciousness. Had he looked like that to Jim, backed against the shuttle wall, eyes averted, body burning? The overload of emotion was painful at this close range. It scorched Spock's body as the water had scalded Kirk. The Vulcan did not step away. When had Kirk retreated? Spock wanted to do something, say something that could not be misinterpreted....

And was distracted by the sound of many voices raised in anger. "You are not safe here," he told the captain. "Wait for me." He cut off the too-hot spray and found an absorbent robe he could wear. Scent told him it was his father's. He left the bathroom with one glance back at Kirk, who was still braced against the wall, head turned aside and eyes closed. Then he forced himself to his duty.

Sarek, Admiral Harnum, and two aides stood in the outer chamber. It appeared that they were being detained by the Enterprise crewmen Spock had stationed there.

"I knew he'd be here," Harnum said in accusation as Spock stepped into the room.

"You get your pretty boy captain out here, mister; he's got some explaining to do!" Harnum's white uniform was soiled and his heavily flushed face advertised a highly emotional state. "And call your goddamned watchdogs off!"

Spock chose to obey the second order first. "Report, Mr. Propst."

The security man gave Spock a beleaguered look. "Sir, Mr. Lapsley told us to secure the ambassador. It appeared he was under attack. He beamed here, the admiral was with him, and we followed. We weren't purposely following you. I'm trying to convince the admiral that it isn't safe to stay here. There's rioting outside. That crowd was pretty hot."

"Very good, Mr. Propst." Spock turned to Harnum. "Sir, Mr. Propst is right. Neither Riga nor her moons are safe right now. It would be best for you to beam back to the Haile Selassie. The ship is current on the Veithan situation, information you need to know; and it was the Rigans, after all, who set the precedent for political abduction."

Spock allowed nothing but military propriety to sound in his voice, although he felt at a considerable disadvantage so inappropriately clothed; but he was planted squarely in front of Kirk's door, and he planned to stay there until his captain had the time he needed to recover. Mind racing for a means of accomplishing this without giving offense, he wished for McCoy's special prerogatives—but McCoy was on Veith, in danger of his life, if he still lived. As Spock tried to assemble his thoughts, help came from an unexpected quarter.

"Better for you and for me, Admiral," said Sarek. "I require time to meditate, and I must remind you all, gentlemen, that these are my accommodations and none of you are here at my invitation."

It was not the broadest snub Spock had ever heard his father deliver, but it came close. His own face heated, but Harnum whirled around like a fly-stung bullock. He glared at Sarek and then back at Spock, obviously suspecting a setup.

"The captain is injured," Spock said icily to his father. "If you wish to take the responsibility for moving an injured man before he has had medical attention, of course we will respect your right to privacy."

The security men had re-holstered their weapons, and Harnum's aides, without actually touching him or speaking, were quietly urging him toward the transporter.

"Is he conscious?" Harnum demanded of Spock.

"I don't know, sir," Spock answered truthfully. It was always possible that the captain had succumbed to shock and fainted.

"When he is, you tell him to report to me—and I don't care if it's on a stretcher!"

"I will take full responsibility for delivering your message, sir."

Harnum snorted and brushed past his entourage to the transporter. "Get me out of here, Frye."

"Yes, sir!" Both aides sprang into action. In a moment they were gone.

With uncertain glances from Spock to Sarek, the security men stood their ground. One cleared his throat and spoke. "Sir, it really isn't safe for anyone to stay here. If the captain is hurt—"

"The captain is fine," Kirk said heavily from the door. He was wearing the second robe that had been hanging near the shower. It was Amanda's, styled like Sarek's, colored a lighter blue. His hair wasn't combed, and the reddish purple bruises were spreading. Dark circles under both eyes promised to look worse the next day, and his mouth was puffy on one side. He took in the security men, Spock, and Sarek. He was the first to notice the ambassador's disarray.

"Ambassador, are you injured?"

Sarek shook his torn robe into more seemly order. "In nothing but my professional pride, Captain. I let you walk into ambush."

Kirk waved aside that assumption of responsibility and leaned casually against the frame of the door. "How did you get here?"

For some reason this dogged pursuit of the necessary information compressed Spock's breathing apparatus. It was like watching a downed fighter balance on one knee, taking the full count to gather his strength.

"I sent a message ahead," Spock said from his constricted throat, "warning you. You did not receive it?" It seemed he needed time himself. He was very aware of Sarek watching him, watching Kirk. It was obvious to Spock that the captain had adopted his uncharacteristically casual posture in order to take advantage of the support of the doorjamb. The effort he was making, just to hold his head up, had Spock's hands clenched into fists.

"I didn't get it," Kirk said. "What message?"

"We have proof of the duplicity of the Veithan representatives—and—" Spock hesitated, saw the puzzlement in the hazel eyes, plunged on. "I knew of the commander's presence on Riga."

Kirk blinked once at the mention of the commander but asked, "What's happening on Veith?"

Spock told him, compressing volumes into the briefest adequate report he could make. He was remaining in place only by sheer effort of will. He felt an enormous pressure to close the intervening space between them and make sure Kirk did not fall.

"Have we heard any more from McCoy?"

"I have had no time to ask," Spock said. "I left there only six hours ago. I did not have access to a protected transmission."

Kirk was juggling times in his head. Riga was approximately eighteen hours from Veith. "You must have come in something faster than the shuttle. We'll use that to get back to the ship."

A tinge of color rose in Spock's face as he felt himself the focus, once again, of all eyes. The security men weren't actually smiling, but they obviously knew of Spock's unorthodox transportation. If Kirk had been tracking better, he would have guessed that there were likely to be very few ships in the Ochros system that could outstrip a Starfleet shuttle at sub-light speeds. Sarek's brow was on the rise. He was certainly aware of that fact.

"That won't be possible, sir. I made the last portion of the trip by transporter."

"Then we can beam up," Kirk said, trying hard, but still fuzzy.

"Where did you leave your ship, Spock?" Sarek asked.

Kirk glanced from father to son, aware, finally, that he was missing something. He had felt a crushing sense of relief when Spock reached through the mob for him; and the support of that strong grip, the heated strength of his body had been too welcome to relinquish for any reason at all. Overwhelmed with sensation, Kirk had stood in a kind of stupor while Spock stripped him and washed the filth and the fright away. Like an addict, who will do anything to continue the experience of his drug, he had kept quiet and absorbed the life-giving presence. Only the surprising heaviness of his bones and the slow leak of blood from his injured leg, hidden for the moment by the robe he had filched, prevented Kirk from crossing the room now, just to stand closer to Spock. But he had hardly looked at him, and now that Sarek focused his attention on Spock's face, Kirk saw that it was totally wooden. His heart sank. Had he really lost everything?

Reluctantly, Spock said, "I left my ship halfway between Veith and the Enterprise."

The security men exchanged delighted glances while Kirk thought it out. The Enterprise was midway between planets. The distance between Enterprise and Haile Selassie might be no more than the total reach of their transporters. Kirk pictured Spock waiting, invisible in the great dark. A giddy tickle under his diaphragm lifted his chest. It felt like the first full breath he had drawn in a month.

Spock watched that deep inhalation, the straightening of the spine, the glint of light in eyes that finally sought his. He suddenly did not care that Sarek was again observing him at a disadvantage. He could feel new energy strengthening Kirk's body as if it ran through his own. The side of Kirk's mouth that wasn't swollen curved up slightly.

"You must have been in a hurry." Kirk turned away before Spock had to answer. "Propst, help the ambassador pack anything he wants to take with him." He turned to Sarek. "I'm sorry to hijack you, sir, but they're right. We're not safe here. I have to answer to Amanda." He didn't wait for a response. "Fisk, you and Thurber arrange some transportation and send someone to get our shuttle from Riga. Spock, we can't go dressed like this. I need a communicator the Haile Selassie can't tap into."

Kirk spoke briefly and guardedly to the ship, accepted clothing that Spock offered, changed into it in the bedroom. He did not reenter the shower stall where their discarded uniforms lay. With Sarek and Spock he beamed to one of Nod's vast hangars, stood by while Spock completed arrangements for the rental of a small ship. If he felt the curious stare of the Vulcan rental clerk, he gave no sign. Inside, he took the ship through the ejection slot and out into the traffic that surrounded the moon. He concentrated on piloting until they were out of the congestion, then set course for the Enterprise. Even after the automatic systems took over, he seemed focused on the controls and displays, not disposed to talk.

Spock leaned back in the copilot's seat and watched the drawn and concealing face. Logically, he should have feared for Kirk's stability after the cruel humiliation of the High Court, but it was not disintegration he was watching. He remembered with surprise that he had feared for Kirk's sanity over so simple a problem as a sexual attraction. But it seemed that command, and the habits of command, were a means to health as well as a demand upon it. This wound went deep, as others had in the past. And, as in the past, Kirk had absorbed the punishment and remained on his feet. His withdrawal now had nothing to do with shock; in its abstraction from the present, it was like a healing trance.

Spock knew that McCoy saw Kirk's tendency to ignore his own pain as a neurotic, if essential, part of the command personality. He himself was not so sure. There was pain. It was necessary to go forward. One proceeded. Vulcan discipline or a high natural level of enkephalins encouraged by regular and strenuous exercise—they were still the products of will. His own body, pulled taut by that small eternity in space and the rush through the mob, was relaxing now with Kirk's—a willed relaxation at first, gradually yielding to the relieved ease of true rest—detached, apart, floating.... With chagrin, Spock brought his attention back to the present. Almost an hour had passed since his last glance at the chronometer. Kirk had turned in his chair to watch him.

Spock cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Captain. My attention wandered."

"That was some stunt," Kirk said, obviously not referring to his inattention.

"I—it seemed essential to reach Riga as soon as possible."

"Mmmmm—" agreed Kirk. "You aren't going to be very popular with the admiral if you don't deliver his message pretty soon."

A cautious glance at the captain's face confirmed Spock's initial impression that Kirk was in no hurry to receive such a message. "A desire for popularity is not a characteristic of Vulcans, Captain."

Kirk leaned back in his chair, stretching a little. "You know what I should do—what Harnum would do if those were his men on Veith?"

Spock did know. "They were volunteers for a covert mission, Captain. And they volunteered again to cross into Hreth Malock lands. They knew the risk. They will not expect rescue."

Kirk's lips thinned to a straight line for a moment. "I didn't expect it either, but the cavalry looked good all the same."

Spock understood the reference to himself as a troop of mounted men to be flattering.

Kirk went on. "Thirty individuals represent a sizable proportion of my crew, Mr. Spock, particularly with their concentration of skills in the security area. I think it would be remiss of me to consider them expendable." Kirk propped his feet up on the control panel and slid down on his spine. "And speaking of security, it would probably be best not to clutter space up with too much talk. Why don't you just turn that gadget—" he gestured toward the communications unit, "off." He yawned mightily. "Get some rest." He yawned again and settled down as peacefully as a child to get some serious sleeping done.

Spock had to admit his own day had been a long one. Ordinarily he preferred to trust his own ability rather than untested navigational equipment, but a suggestion from a superior officer was not to be ignored. One would be foolish to neglect the demands of one's body for rest when all one had to do was lie back—loose, limp, comforted—in proper proximity to the welcome radiation of a small personal sun. Such foolish images on the edge of sleep—he turned to a more comfortable position—still, a tight orbit was essential....

Sarek had not lied about his own need for meditation. When the proper state had been reached and the body regulated once again, he returned to present awareness. The ship was peacefully quiet, and looking forward he saw that Kirk and Spock had turned toward each other in sleep, relaxed arms flung out into the small separating space between their two chairs, hands within an inch of touching. Even such an unwitting violation of their privacy made him look away, but in the secure fortress of his own mind he felt that things were now as they should be. He could sense the unseen energy fields that had frayed and grown thin, like solar coronas stretching through space, knitting themselves whole. He had listened to Spock's account of the events on Veith with dismay, but he had confidence in his son's intelligence and in Kirk's will. They would see what y'rosh had caused, heal each other, and not risk separation again.

 

XXVII

While James Kirk slept in proximity to the unique pheromones that had the power to heal the battlefield his mind and body had become, and McCoy slept in a cell on Veith, the whole clockwork of cause and effect circled, spiraled, clicked, ticked, and ground on, each person a cog meshing with other cogs, small wheels turning larger ones.

Spock's solution to his transportation problem put him on Riga thirteen hours before the first broadcast from the Veithan revolutionaries—Ari's sub-space message had reached only a select few; Uhura's signal to the dreadnought had been, in fact, a laser blip no one in the Ochros system could decode. Leaving Nod less than an hour after his arrival on Riga, Spock was now traveling back to meet news of the revolution. The broadcast reached and passed the Enterprise when he was three hours into space, and a little less than three hours after that, news of the revolution passed the shuttle and continued on. When Spock finally woke, rested and refreshed from his healing sleep, the Veithan message was still four hours from Riga.

There was no fanfare over their return. Kirk brought the shuttle into the hangar bay, touched down, and turned the power off. Behind them doors closed off the star-filled depths. Faintly, conducted through the metal bones of both ships, the sounds of normal docking procedures infiltrated their silence.

Kirk turned toward Sarek. "Sir, I'm going to pick up my men on Veith. I'd like you to sit in on a staff briefing. We're going to have to assess the damage." Kirk's voice was quiet, his enunciation a little marred by the puffiness of his lips. His eyes had blackened, and the bruising matched them, with plum-colored embellishments, down both sides of his face.

Sarek realized he was allowing no time for cosmetic reduction of the stigmata. "I am at your service, Captain. But perhaps you should see your excellent Dr. M'Benga first."

What could be seen of the hazel eyes glinted in humorless acknowledgment. "Looks as bad as it feels? I'm sorry, but it's my face; I'll have to wear it."

A display on the control panel blinked. It was red, the color Romulans used to represent safety. PRESSURE EQUALIZED, it said in glowing letters. ATMOSPHERE COMPATIBLE. Kirk reached over Spock and punched the OPEN PORT button. "Fifteen minutes, on the bridge," he told Spock. He didn't wait for either of them. He was first through the door, snapped a salute at the rigidly attentive crewman waiting to welcome him aboard, and walked across the open expanse of deck with his usual impetuous stride. Father and son watched him go.

"It is unusual," Sarek said, "to observe a human so indifferent to the opinion of his social group."

"He is not indifferent," said Spock.

~ * ~

One of the things Gavin Lapsley had taught his men was to keep their eyes open. Another was to pace themselves. Long before McCoy resorted to the use of stimulants, the ranking security man, Perdue by name, had ticked off his team members into squads, and sent A Squad for two hours' sleep. Using the self-hypnosis which was part of their training, any one of them could drop into deep sleep at will. Every twelve minutes, they rose to the lighter levels of REM activity for three minutes. Neither the uncushioned marble floor, the passing of house slaves, nor the sounds and smells of McCoy's surgery interfered with their rest. When A Squad reported back, Perdue put himself under with B Squad and was awake and refreshed when C Squad took their turn.

By the time Perdue was up again, the activity had settled down. Dia was moving from pallet to pallet like an arthritic crone, and McCoy was not in sight. Perdue sent the rest of B Squad to help where they could while he roamed idly around the fringes of the hall. House slaves were kneeling beside many of the wounded miners, and not all of them were nursing. Some simply watched or quietly held the hand of a suffering or sedated man. Perdue saw tears on the down-turned faces. He realized that the miners had come from this estate. They might be fathers, husbands, sons of the women who tended them. A girl with a tumble of red-brown curls knelt beside a dark-jawed sleeping man whose hip and leg were swathed in bandages. She had a bowl and cloth, and when she turned back the blanket to bathe him, Perdue had to swallow and look away. He had already discovered the miners were all gelded, but the sight of the scar and the unnatural emptiness still turned his stomach.

As he walked, the sensation of being spied upon drew Perdue's attention to a Romulan in the estate coverall who seemed to be pacing him across the hall. Without being too obvious, Perdue tested and confirmed this hypothesis. The guard was tracking him. One by one he spotted similar configurations around the room. There were more guards around than there had been before he went to sleep. By the way the house slaves circled around and deferred to his opposite number, Perdue surmised he was some sort of officer or authority.

Something else was going on in the hall, too. The fact that security had its own secret language of gesture, whistle, and code made Perdue sensitive to the use of such communication around him. As they tended the wounded, the female slaves were exchanging signs. Puzzled, Perdue watched an incoming slave start a wave of information that crossed the entire hall from side to side without raising a Romulan eyebrow. In that ten minutes, McCoy had not surfaced, and nine more guards had been added to the already inflated count around the hall.

Perdue coughed in a prearranged rhythm and ambled toward Dia through a narrow aisle between the wounded. He took a bucket from a surprised slave and knelt opposite the Romulan girl responsible for bringing them here.

"Don't look up," he told her. "Guards have been filtering into the room a little too fast to suit me, and McCoy is missing." He held up the bucket for the wad of waste she had used to clean seepage from a wound.

Dia had reached the stage of fatigue where sound took an appreciable time to penetrate from ear to brain, and brain took even longer to make sense of sound. The stress of kneeling and bending to reach the wounded on the floor had become a kind of torture. She felt that she would never be able to stand straight again and had been seriously considering just lying down between two wounded men and leaving it to fate whether she ever woke again. It took her a minute or two to comprehend what Perdue was saying. Then the danger to McCoy sank in.

"Tell Ari I need some stimulants over here," she said to the slave. When the woman had gone, she looked directly at Perdue. "What is your name? Pretend you are helping me."

Perdue held the bucket again. He told her his name. They moved on to the next patient. Ari came across the room, his face drawn with fatigue.

"Perdue thinks the guards are going to make a move against us," Dia said in a low voice. "I need a wake-up. You, too. Then see the others get one. And the humans."

"No," said Perdue. "We carry our own."

Neither Dia nor Ari commented, but Ari administered the drug to Dia and himself. "Maybe we could say we needed something from the ships—get some of them outside that way. Make a run for it."

"We aren't leaving without McCoy," Perdue said. "How many guards are there?"

"Hundreds," Dia answered. "It would be hopeless to fight them. We need a distraction or a delay until we can find McCoy—then—" Her voice trailed away. Even the icy tingle of the stimulant through her veins couldn't create hope. At least they could die together.

"We'll worry about step two later," Perdue said firmly. "We need arms. We need to know where they took McCoy."

Dia pushed her silver-streaked hair back. She didn't know what made them go on trying when they were so tired. From the slaves working nearby she summoned an older woman. "Pretend to work," she told the woman. "Nona, they took the human doctor away. Do you know where he is?"

"Below, mistress. They haven't hurt him."

"Good. Why are so many coming into the room?"

"I don't know, mistress. There are many in the halls, too."

"Have they spoken with my father?"

The woman rubbed the knuckles of her right hand across her left palm. "No, mistress. Master left orders that he was not to be interrupted. One man listens for incoming messages."

"Good. Nona, I want you to go and tell the kitchens to send up carts of food, anything that is ready. While they are loading it, take Ari the back way into the armory. Hide what weapons you can among the food and bring it back to me. Put the carts beside that door. Ari, you go with her. But when you come back, walk around the room and go into the communications station."

Ari looked uneasy, but he nodded.

After they left, Perdue asked, "Can you trust the woman?"

"I have to," Dia said. "She was my nurse. Go and tell that tall guard, the one against the wall, that I command his presence." She pointed out the Romulan Perdue had identified as his opposite number. He delivered the message with some pleasure and followed the guard back across the crowded floor.

"Lady!" the guard barked.

Dia ignored all that was not respectful in his voice. "I have ordered food for us and the wounded who are capable of eating it. I want you to clear space for it against the wall. Put some of your men to work on it. The slaves have enough to do, and you're not needed to hold up the wall. Then I want you to check with the perimeter guards. When that's done—and not before—keep your eye on Ari nepZenner. He's been a little too helpful. If he tries to get to the communicator, stop him, but don't hurt him. I want to ask him some questions."

The guard's expression had altered from veiled contempt to near refusal to uncertainty. He looked away, scanning the room for Ari.

"If I may have your attention!" Dia's voice was deadly. The guard snapped his eyes back to her face. "I am unarmed. Give me your weapon and get yourself another. And believe I mean what I say. When I want a man for questioning, I want him whole and conscious. If he is not brought to me that way, my concern will not extend to the man who damages him." She reached out and helped herself to his phaser. "You do understand me, don't you?"

"Yes, Lady!"

"Then you are dismissed." Dia tucked the weapon in her belt and knelt back to her work.

Perdue relaxed and deliberately squelched a sudden onset of the shakes. "You run a mean bluff."

Her eyes were dark, and the anger had not entirely left her face as she looked at him. "I don't think I was bluffing," she said. Then she went back to work. After a moment, she went on in her natural voice. "He has reason to believe me. Ari's father was very interested in mining rights in the archipelago at one time. The fear you humans think abnormal is a daily affair for Romulans. We are all, always, plotting how to take advantage of an enemy's weakness. He will obey me until he knows for sure. When he seizes Ari, be ready to take the arms."

The charade appeared to work. The Romulans seized Ari as he moved toward the communications room. Slaves handing out food froze in position, masking the humans as they helped themselves to something considerably more nourishing than food.

Ari struggled ineffectively in the grip of two guards. "I wasn't doing anything," he protested. "Get your gladiators off of me!"

"You came on this mission to assess Hreth Malock strength in the south!" Dia accused.

"I'm not interested in your blasted mine! How many times do I have to tell you?"

The guard Dia had intimidated bent his head to listen to an inferior's whispered report. He straightened, his face furious. "He wasn't interested in the mine," he said, with sudden conviction, "because his people are massing now for a strike here!"

Ari and Dia were both slack-jawed with surprise. Their whole ploy had been a fabrication. "They're what?" Dia managed to say.

"Tell me another reason nepZenner would be raising troop carriers." The guard drew a phaser. "He was going to signal them for the attack." The working end of the phaser lifted and the guards holding Ari stepped back.

"No!" Dia said. "He may still know something. Hold him for me. Wait." She stepped close to Ari and put her hand on his arm. He was looking dazed and betrayed.

"Ari, how many can they send against us?"

"Dia, I don't know—I—"

"How many!"

Ari struggled for some kind of control. "Four hundred—not many more. The troop carriers only hold 70 or 80. We have five of them."

"He lies!" the guard said impatiently. "There are four large ships, five smaller ones. Twenty minutes from here!"

"What's the problem?" Perdue asked from the edge of the circle.

Dia, with her plan gone awry, had almost forgotten him. "Ari's family is attacking us. They're only minutes away. I can't—No one can help us now."

"Don't you have defenses?"

"I don't know the plans."

"Somebody must."

The Romulan turned his phaser from Ari to Perdue. "We don't need your help, slave."

"Fuck you," Perdue said tightly. "If you knew how to handle this, you'd be doing it. How much do we have to defend, and how much is automatic?"

The guard's eyes narrowed and he raised the phaser. Fear and impatience ignited in a flame of anger crisping Dia's every over-stimulated nerve. She had no time for this eternal male jostling and competing. She pulled her own phaser, pointed it at the floor, and fired.

"I command here. Give me one argument, one slow response, and you won't have to worry about nepZenner!" They had all jerked back from the magenta beam and the vaporized crater at their feet. They stared at her. The wings of her hair lifted out and away from her temples, and the silver strands shone through the sable tresses. She stood with her feet apart, weapon level and ready. "Release Ari. He had nothing to do with this. Arm him and any of the outworlders who don't have weapons. Ari, you and Zon get those ships out front into the hangars. We may need them. You!" She jerked the phaser at the guard who was still confronting Perdue. "Show this human the defense plans and pull everyone you can reach inside the perimeter. You have ten minutes to do it. Move!"

The Hreth Malock guards had heard that tone a thousand times before in her father's voice, had seen the consequences of disobedience. Caught between the threat of nepZenner attack and her phaser, they wavered and yielded. Zon and Ari sprinted for the door. After a moment the guard gestured for Perdue, and the human followed him off. Dia turned toward a roomful of startled faces. Slaves and wounded alike were gaping at her.

She shoved her hair back angrily. What did they expect, that having gone this far she would step back and let nepZenner ruin her work? Sixteen minutes to go, the clock in her head told her. What was most important? Securing the water supply? Protecting the breeders and children? The communicator? She couldn't do it all herself. A face in the crowd caught her attention.

"Nona! Clear the outer rooms and corridors. See that the children are down deep where it's safe. Sedate the breeders. When that's done bring me anyone who is able and willing to fight."

"Slaves, mistress?"

"Slaves, women, fancyboys—I want anyone who can hold a phaser and has guts enough to fire it!"

With Nona launched, Dia holstered her phaser, pressed shaking hands together for a moment, then pushed through the moving crowd to the communications room. Shoving a sullen guard out of the way, she began to activate in-house cameras and tie them into an idiot editing program with the computer keyed to respond to body movement or phaser fire. Delicately, she searched out the frequency of the SRA broadcast and co-opted it with her more powerful signal. She tied in the editing program and watched it jerk back and forth between images of slaves clearing the corridors, outworlders working with guards, slaves, and wounded to prepare for attack. Good. No one had to know that she had negotiated all this cooperation with a phaser.

She keyed a mike for audio voice-over.

"This is Dia Hreth Malock, broadcasting from the Hreth Malock estate. Troop carriers are approaching from nepZenner holdings. I am aware that my signal will not reach Riga for almost a day. By that time it will be too late for anyone there to help me. The remainder of this broadcast will be automatic. Here with me are crew members from the Federation ship Enterprise, including ship's medical officer, Dr. Leonard McCoy. The outworlders have helped me rescue and bring here the 200 wounded miners from Hreth Malock south mine. They are here under my personal guarantee of safe conduct back to their ship. If I cannot keep that promise, it will not be because I did not try. Also here are humans—free humans—from Firstport, whom I have also guaranteed safe return to their homes.

"Perhaps there is something else I should say." The camera in the console picked up the movement as she shook her hair back and sighed, fed that image into the sequence being broadcast. For a moment Dia stared into her own eyes in the monitor. "But there's no time." Her thumb lifted, and the images went on without her commentary. She got up, gave the seat back to the guard. "Touch that board, other than to keep my signal boosting, and I'll see your hands taken off at the wrist."

She went back into the main hall, met Perdue and a retinue of humans and Romulans now armed alike. The human was already deploying men, with the grudging cooperation of his opposite number.

"It seems your father took the first team with him; that's why King Kong here—sorry, that's why Tam isn't on top of things. He says they won't try long-range weapons on us because the automatic defense system would knock them out of the air. They'll set down behind the hill and come over the top on foot."

"Then they'll take casualties," Dia said. "It's mined."

"Good. But the ones that get through—I say we bait them in through the kitchens, get them sealed off, and catch them in a cross fire. There's no stun setting on these weapons, is there?"

"No," Dia said bluntly. "It's not a Romulan custom. Leave a token force here to calm the slaves. We can't guard the whole estate—and we can't conduct a pitched battle in this room. If they come from the front, I'll have to surrender."

"You could go with us," Perdue said. "No better chance, but a quicker end."

Dia shook her head. She gestured around the room. "They need me. They're here because of me." She looked at Ari for support. "You can't run away from your ancestry. I wish—" Her voice caught. "I wish we could have told McCoy good-bye."

"Never say good-bye to anybody," Perdue counseled. "You'd better stay here with her, kid. So long." And he ran to set up his ambush.

Ari came and took the phaser out of Dia's hand. "You won't need this for a few minutes. Sit down, Dia. You've done all anyone could." He ignored her protest and pushed her gently down, went and brought two drinks from the food carts they had used to bring in the weapons. Dia wiped her eyes, combed her hair back with her fingers, and refastened it in a knot at the back of her head.

"Your father," she asked, will he come with them?" She took the drink Ari held out.

"No. He's on Riga. Rom, but I'm tired." He eased down beside her.

"Would he stop it—if he knew you were here?"

Ari shrugged. "Probably not. He never liked my attitude."

Unwillingly Dia smiled. Two hereditary enemies, and there would be no one to leave the grudges to. "I didn't know you were involved in the student movement," she said.

"You weren't supposed to know there was one," Ari said. "And I didn't know that you were—" He hesitated, looking at her, seeing how small she was, how dirty and tired, then glancing around the room at the phaser crater she had blasted in the floor. "—well, like this." As he gestured there was a muffled whump in the distance.

Dia shook her head at the organized ward and the first sounds of combat. "I wasn't. I was just unhappy and afraid until I met McCoy. He's—he acts as though it's possible to live without all this misery. Before I met him, I was just weak and crazy. Now—" Her eyes narrowed and she looked down, concealing her thought.

"Now there's something to fight for," Ari said.

They both looked out over the ward, assessing the wounded, where they lay either beyond worry or sweating with it. "They aren't like us," Dia said slowly. "Not like you or me or McCoy. Nobody will ever know what they could have been. My father did that. If they had any fight in them, they would rise up and pull our houses down around our heads. Look how they outnumber us, Ari. With half our troops gone and your estate deserted, it would be easy."

Ari set his cup aside. He stared at her. "Gods," he said. "Would you go that far?"

She met his eyes and this time she didn't look frail at all. The silver at her temples and the dark glint in her eye marked her with her father's likeness. "McCoy would," she said, "because he's noble. I would go that far just to take them away from my father. If I had the means—I would set them free."

Ari was sweating, and not from the sounds of combat coming ever closer. "Dia, if the slaves rose—if they were counted—Veith could join the Federation. It would have to be now, while your father and mine are looking the other way. They wouldn't have to fight—just be counted and claim representation." He swept his cup aside without noticing and reached for her. "The body count from our two estates outnumbers the free population of the planet. If the others denied it, they'd lose to our numbers. If they admitted they had the slaves and tried to make them vote, they'd be discredited! All the lies would be exposed!" He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "We have to do it right now!"

She let him pull her to her feet. "We're under attack," she protested. "These men can't fight. Some of them can't speak. They don't even understand it, Ari—they're hurt, cut, docile—"

"The women aren't," he yelled. "You would have let them fight. Let them vote!"

A louder wha-HUMPH shook the walls and floor. One of the wounded men woke with a fearful cry, which the woman at his side quickly hushed. From all over the room slaves were watching the two Romulans. When Dia met their eyes, the women looked away or bent to tend their men. As soon as she looked elsewhere, their eyes came back to her. Starving eyes, eyes full of terrible fear and hunger, eyes afraid to hope.

Dia turned toward the communications room. "There's a guard—" and Ari was running, skirting the walls, trying not to trip over anyone. She ran after him, but by the time she skidded around the corner, he was already dragging the unconscious guard from the chair. She turned back and called for her nurse.

"Nona! All of you! Now is your chance if you want to be free. You must speak." She had more experience of crowds now; she wasn't surprised when they hesitated. She reached out and pulled her nurse close. "Nona, nepZenner's men are attacking; we're all going to die anyway. Do you want to die a slave?" She didn't wait for an answer, but pulled the woman after her into the communications center. Ari was working the board. He had shunted her program to one side of the screen. She could see flickering scenes of battle, couldn't identify where all of them were. The right side of the screen was blank, showing the bare wall.

"Over there." Ari pointed, and Dia stepped into the camera's cone of vision.

"I don't know what to say," she gasped, and saw herself in the monitor. Nona pulled a little away, as if trying to escape. Dia tightened her grip on the human's arm. "This is Dia Hreth Malock and one of the human slaves of Clan Hreth Malock. Her name is Nona. She wants to be free. Tell them. Say it!"

The woman looked directly into the camera. "I want to be free. I don't want to see my sons gelded and my daughters bred every year. Let us go. Let us go free."

With a soft rustle of cloth a young girl and an old woman pushed forward. They had their arms around each other, lending support. They looked frightened. "I'm Marda," the young girl said. "My mother is mute, but she wants, we want, to go free."

A stout, busy-looking woman came next. "I've paid back my keep and rearing a hundredfold, and I'm too old for breeding. Let me go."

Dia drew back, her heart pounding, her hands and feet light. Illumination flickered for a moment, and there was a stir of voices from the improvised hospital outside. "Is that all?" she asked Ari. "I think your father's men are coming. Have we done enough?"

"Sit here. Tell them how many slaves you have, say you free them. I'm going to see what's happening."

There was no time to protest. Dia was shoved into the seat the guard had vacated, and she saw the fighting fade and her own face come up on that half of the monitor.

"There are many thousands of slaves on Veith. Clan Hreth Malock maintains a population of fifty thousand within clan boundaries. Perhaps four hundred of that number are Romulans and free. The others are human or Vulcan slaves. As the head of Clan Hreth Malock on Veith, I declare these slaves free, and until they can speak for themselves, I will speak for them. No one has ever asked what they want. If I say the wrong things, at first, I'm sorry. I can only go by what I would want in their place—"

Ari reeled back into the room, his face white, clutching his right arm with his left hand. It took Dia a moment to realize that his right arm now ended in a perfectly cauterized stump.

"Ari!"

The women around him drew back; Dia jumped up to catch him as he sagged. "P-put me in the chair," he gasped. "I have to do this. They're coming."

With a sob, Dia helped him into the chair. He began to speak as soon as he was in camera range.

"I am Ari nepZenner. The fighting's coming closer. I can't tell who's winning. As the head of Clan Zenner on Veith, I free the slaves of Clan Zenner and declare them voting citizens of Veith—" A giant fist slammed into the wall, and concussion jarred Ari out of the chair, shoved Dia to her knees. There was a rain of dust falling from the ceiling and the floor was unsteady. Ari pushed himself back into the chair and kept on. "—citizens of Veith in the number of thirteen thousand lives. I further declare that the number of slaves held by the ruling families of Veith exceeds the number of Romulans born on the planet by more than a hundred thousand lives."

There were screams and the sound of running feet. A haze of magenta brilliance flashed past the door and heat washed into the room. Nona stepped into the huddle of cowering women. "Stand up," she said. "You are free women now!"

Dia drew her phaser and pointed it at the door as Ari continued speaking. "...and the will of these citizens is to live in freedom under the United Federation of Planets, and that, unless denied by individual voice vote, Dia Hreth Malock, Ari nepZenner, Physician Eldridge, and Dr. Leonard McCoy, if he lives, are the true representatives of the majority population of Veith!"

Unnatural light flashed again, throwing the shadow of a body that vaporized as it fell. There was a sudden silence none of them felt bold enough to break. Then a grimy figure scarcely recognizable as Perdue stuck his head in through the door. A look of relief crossed his face when he saw Dia. She slowly lowered her phaser and her knees began to shake.

"I told you not to bother with good-bye," Perdue said. "Believe it or not, we've won." He caught sight of Ari, slumping sideways in the chair. "Hey, are you hurt?" He moved forward to prop Ari up, and Dia's knees suddenly gave way. She didn't faint, but she wound up sitting on the floor. "What happened in here?" Perdue asked.

Dia wanted to tell him. It was very important that everyone know. But the room was acting very strangely. It was trying to break up into small bright pieces and fly away somewhere. And she felt so tired. She was starved for sleep. She lifted one hand and gestured at the free women who were coming across the suddenly vast floor to help her and Ari. Her tongue felt thick.

"What happened?" Perdue was demanding.

With a monumental effort, Dia got it out. "The revolution," she said.

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

ENTERPRISE

* * * * * * * * * * *

And how shall you judge a man's honor
  that endures when he is no more?

Not by strength,
  for all strength fails at last,

nor by glory,
  which is fading.

But as you, yourself, want mercy,
  render it to others.

And in the courts of honor,
  let love be the judge.


Guthrie Book of Battle

 

XXVIII

Historians, after the fact, would find rationales for the improbable revolution on Veith. First, there was the cultural paranoia that drew the clan leaders away from their holdings to attend events at their system's center of power. Then there was the authoritarian reflex that had made them order home their younger sons, the sons hungry for a diminishing inheritance or disaffected and preferring new ways. The heirs, those promising, conservative sons with an investment in the status quo, attended their fathers on Riga and Nod, leaving behind them a power vacuum. Even so—even allowing for the small armies of retainers siphoned away from the powerful estates—there remained on Veith enough security guards, ambitious servants, and private military forces to have crushed the activities of mere slaves, even when, in places, those slaves took arms. If those guards, servants, and military forces had not been distracted by the opportunity to pay clan debts and even old scores. If they had not been tempted by the possibility of profit, or if the slaves had fought with weapons instead of information. And if, especially, the Enterprise had not appeared unexpectedly in their skies with a clear twelve-hour advantage over the fastest ship that could leave Riga when word of the events on Estate Hreth Malock finally arrived there.

On Veith, the opportunity Sarek had hoped for—an error of the enemy—had occurred.

When Kirk returned to the Enterprise, Chief Engineer Scott relinquished command with a sigh of relief, but there was fire in his eye when he saw the marred face his captain brought briefly to the bridge. The second shift was on duty. Walters and LeBeau were manning the forward stations with Missy Steward doubling communications and the science station. Kirk stayed just long enough to relieve Scotty officially and order the ship toward Veith at top impulse power.

"Mr. LeBeau, you have the con. The admiral may call—" Kirk held up his hand to forestall the report of several such calls as Missy looked over her shoulder from the science station. "Mr. Spock will take all messages for the present."

"Turn and turn about," agreed Scotty with an approving growl. "But for his dandy little drill scrambling communications over half the system, we'd have had you out of that cesspool."

A muscle in Kirk's cheek jumped at that reminder, but he took no other notice of the supportive statement. "Twenty minutes, Scotty. Turn the others out."

From the bridge, Kirk went to his cabin. His yeoman had laid out a clean uniform and a tray with a bottle of whiskey and a glass. Kirk ignored the liquor, stripped, stepped in and out of the sonic shower, and got himself dressed and was combing his hair by touch when he realized he was avoiding the mirror. He turned and confronted it.

It was hard to believe a woman's hand could do that much damage. Kirk wasted little sympathy on his reflection's lumps and bruises. They stung and smarted and ached. So what? It was the eyes of the mirror captain he plumbed. What did they say? What would they answer when the accusations came: coward, traitor, incompetent. Would they falter and fall away? Avoid the glances that avoided his out of contempt or pity? Should they? Was the spark gone that drew other eyes to his, looking for leadership?

His own question was reflected back at him. No answer came ready to his lips, but his eyes did not fall. They regarded him with the cold awareness of a predator in hiding.

Look away, said those eyes. There is nothing to see. You imagine the danger.

Kirk broke his own gaze with an effort. That was a very cold and calculating stare. Even he felt uncomfortable turning his back on it.

~ * ~

Spock, too, had gone to his cabin. He entered and stopped, aware at once that someone had intruded in his absence. The chair was turned a fraction from the desk. The cover of the bed was wrinkled. The barely perceptible scent of another hovered over the bed. Spock put his hand on the pillow that was indented with the imprint of Kirk's head. His mind drew up a phantom picture from the time of the pon farr: Kirk asleep and dreaming on this bed, tousled head buried in the pillow, one knee drawn up, body a naked symphony of light and shadow as the flicker of the firepot leaped and fell.

Curious, feeling a little detached, Spock lifted the pillow and inhaled again, nostrils flaring. Coming so recently from Kirk's presence, he seemed to have been sensitized to his odor. There were three distinct scents here: the sour sweat of illness or pain, the elusive salt of tears, and a faint, full, sweetly dry fragrance that was familiar and pleasing—the scent of Kirk's hair.

Spock breathed in again, not picturing Kirk now or wondering what had brought him to the cabin, but trying to track an elusive response in his own body. He felt a little light, slightly hollow, as if he had grown an inch taller or the gravity in the room had been decreased. He breathed again, deeply, felt the slight tingle in his veins that signaled—hyperventilation.

With a frown, Spock put the pillow down. This was aberrant behavior. There was work to be done.

~ * ~

Kirk met the section heads as they entered the briefing room. He made no effort to lighten the mood or defuse their tension with small talk. He said nothing at all until they had all settled around the table. Amanda had come with Sarek. Spock took his usual place beside Kirk. Uhura, Nadia Palevi, and Meade Morrow sat together and seemed to share a uniform, brooding anger directed at no one present.

Kirk began without formalities. "Is there anyone here who has not seen the High Court proceedings?"

No one answered.

Kirk looked at Uhura. "What's happening on Riga?"

"There were some random and uncoordinated outbreaks of violence immediately after the broadcast. The three news channels gave commentaries. The Romulans are gloating; the humans are claiming that the Enterprise is holding the Rigan representatives hostage. A student group is insinuating that you were drugged. The planetary administrator and the Vulcans are staying out of it. There has been no comment from the admiral."

"Gavin?" Kirk recognized his security chief.

"I've been getting sub-space updates from my men, sir. The two moons are celebrating, with humans and Vulcans staying out of sight or very quiet. There's been more violence on Riga than the news services are reporting. We lost two men when a campus building was blown up."

The lines in Kirk's face deepened for a moment. "Who were they?"

"Mike Hessel and Norman Lewis, sir. Rich and Diamond were in contact with them at the time. They followed up, but we won't be able to recover the bodies. There was a fire."

They weren't the first men to forfeit their lives in the line of duty, nor the first Kirk had lost due to his own decisions. He hadn't known Lewis personally, but Mike Hessel had gotten himself in trouble trying to clean up some graffiti a drunken friend had sprayed on the hangar floor. Kirk remembered Hessel's dogged determination not to implicate his friend even if it meant going on report himself. What had Mike Hessel died for? Because James Kirk couldn't—couldn't— He still didn't know a name for what he had done in the High Court.

"Tell the others not to expose themselves unnecessarily. Meade, how are you evaluating the reaction?" Kirk had not forgotten how opposed the pan-anthropologist had been to his presence at the Court, but there was no element of I-told-you-so on her face now.

"All the evidence isn't in, Jim. But a backlash of feeling against the Federation on the part of Rigan humans and Vulcans is only to be expected. From what we observed prior to the High Court, expectation was running high that you would be able to turn the tables on the Romulans—or Sarek would. Vulcan newscasters speculated that—excuse me, Sarek—that the ambassador would not be unintelligent enough to walk into an ambush without reason."

Spock looked at his father, wondering what excuse he could possibly offer, and how much Kirk, relying on his judgment, had been influenced by his willingness to accept Harnum's arrangements.

Sarek saw the glance, interpreted it correctly and somewhat bitterly. He had walked knowingly into ambush for purely personal reasons, which Spock's decision not to announce his bonding made it impossible for him to explain.

"We can expect to hear a lot of accusations," Meade said. She shrugged. "Sticks and stones—"

"Can lose us the entire system," Kirk said heavily. "However, there is not much we can do about Riga until we pick up our men on Veith. If we still have any men on Veith."

"I stayed on the Veith-side communications," Nadia Palevi said. "No more sub-space has come through. Either they don't have the capability, or—"

"They do not have it," Spock said instantly, before Kirk could stiffen with renewed apprehension. "I took the ship's communicator with me and left it behind in the Veithan ship. The students have no way to send a sub-space communication. We will be overtaking their transmission as we approach the planet."

"How did it look when you left?"

Spock hesitated, not sure how to convey the scene at the spaceport or its emotional overtones. It would hardly be appropriate for him to admit that he thought he was leaving them to die. "Counting the students and other Veithan volunteers, there was an unarmed force of around one hundred. The five ships would have been marginally adequate to reach the survivors of the cave-in, render aid, and remove them to a place of shelter. Whether shelter has been offered, I do not know."

Meade had never been noted for her tact, and it showed, even though she tried to phrase her next question sympathetically. "What about you, Jim? How effective we can be depends pretty much on your standing with Harnum. What's the admiral up to?"

Kirk would have liked to evade the question. Either he would retain command of the Enterprise for the duration, or he would not. There was no point in planning for failure. But he owed his people a clear view of the possibilities.

"We haven't been in communication. I expect to be ordered back to Riga; it is possible I'll have to face charges over the High Court incident. There are not, however, three officers of equal rank in the area who could sit on a court martial or hearing board. In the meantime I'm more concerned about the likelihood of attack from outside the system and the capabilities of the Romulans inside the system."

"The admiral's early warning system appears to work," Lapsley said. "We've monitored the alarm frequency, and it is being triggered by ships bound for the Empire. Within the system, we've seen nothing so far that poses a real threat to a starship."

"Then it's the civilian population at risk," Kirk agreed. "What about them?'

There was a little silence around the table. Meade broke it. "The Romulans use a full arsenal of offensive weapons, but their pattern—clan wars motivated by ambition for power and profit—has been stable for a long time. My guess is that the clans have concentrated on antipersonnel weapons, on personal combat by military cadre, and de-emphasized tactics which destroy property."

Lapsley nodded. "That's consistent with what we've been able to turn up with SALEE and SISTER, sir, though we might be missing something. We do know that the two moons are armed and that Riga is vulnerable."

"That would explain the relative freedom Rigans enjoy," Sarek said. "It is compatible with their psychology. A human administrator for the planet poses no threat to the real power structure, diverts sycophants, and provides, in extreme cases, a target for local hostilities."

"What have the different factions got in the line of weapons? Nuclear?"

"No, sir. No sign of it. It's phasers from space, personal weapons otherwise." Lapsley, like any Terran, had an abhorrence of the weapons that had rendered portions of his world uninhabitable centuries before.

"Dinna' forget those solar mirrors," Scott said grimly. They could be redirected."

"Wouldn't that endanger life-support and internal power systems?" Kirk asked.

"Not in an hour or two. And they've mirrors and collectors glittering and gawking all over, busy as baubles on a Christmas tree."

Lapsley consulted a small notebook crammed with his personal notes. "Weyr reported on their back-up systems—here it is. Diversion—or destruction—of three major mirrors would be required to take out the transporter system. It would not affect basic life-support for several days. And most cubic is equipped with individual safety systems. They could contain pressure with all the mirrors out of action."

"That may be useful," Kirk said. "Gavin, how do you feel about leaving your men there now? Is it too dangerous?"

"It's more dangerous than it was, but we need them. I'd like more men on the planet. They're spread too thin there. And I'd like to set up a command post somewhere inconspicuous in Nod. We aren't communicating in clear, but the sheer number of communications from Riga and Nod to the Enterprise could tip someone off to what we're doing. Communications inside the system would be masked by the volume of normal calls. Once we're back in orbit."

"I'll think it over," Kirk promised. "Anything else?"

"The delegates," Meade said. "You have to see this to believe it. Amanda and I have kept an eye on them. Let me call up SISTER's picture." She tapped instructions into the tabletop viewer. The people around the table focused on the delegates. A speaker was rising to a point of order. Discussion centered on precedence and the various cultural patterns of debate.

"Do they know?" Kirk asked.

"They saw the High Court broadcast," Meade said. "Lapsley got a few of them out on the excuse that something was wrong with the food processor. M'Benga put them through medical. Some of them have undergone psychosurgery. Others are extremely open to hypnotic suggestion. They probably aren't deliberate decoys. They may be slaves."

Kirk's swollen lip quirked in a small, painful smile. "Then we had our evidence all along, didn't we? I didn't need to lose two men on Riga." His smile faded and his voice was very soft as he said, "I'm getting tired of surprises. I want some new thinking about the Ochros crisis. I want some projections based on various degrees of military intervention from the Empire, and on no intervention by the Empire. I want to see some scenarios that postulate Spock in command, Scotty in command, or the Enterprise out of the system entirely. I want to know what would happen if the Romulan clans turn on the humans and Vulcans, what happens if the Vulcans side with either side, what if the Romulans turn on each other. And I want those—" he gestured at the speakers carrying on with their pointless roles, "zombies—contained until we can offload them. Are there any questions?"

There were none, except for an unexpressed curiosity as to how all this was going to be accomplished in the desired time. Already absorbed in planning their individual tasks, the section heads rose and left, followed by the civilians.

Spock waited until the room had cleared. "Were you planning to work from the bridge or your cabin, Captain?" He sounded a little diffident.

"I have better access to the computer in my cabin," Kirk answered. "Why?"

"As I, also, will be using the computer, it might—it might be more efficient if we worked together."

Kirk's thoughts returned from possible futures, all of them grim, all of them the responsibility of one soiled starship captain. He centered on Spock, whose presence had acted like a new power pack, one which he was already taking for granted as he turned himself into a machine for solving problems. Spock was looking embarrassed. A little of the chill thawed somewhere inside Kirk. For a moment the predator lost interest and sank back into the grass. It had actually not occurred to him that they would work apart.

"I never thanked you for rescuing me," he said.

Spock looked more embarrassed.

"You know you'll be tarred with the same brush, don't you? Harnum—"

Spock reached out and touched Kirk's arm lightly, stopping him. "I am the one she had cause to hate. There is more here—" as if against his will, Spock's hand moved up to touch Kirk's face, "than Federation and Empire. The admiral does not know the truth."

Kirk couldn't have moved away from that touch to save his life. He couldn't lean into it and save what little remained of his honor. "I was ready to fight," he said thickly, "but she—" His throat closed entirely. He could feel a pulse beating in his cheek under Spock's fingers. He would never be able to explain.

Spock's fingers slid up toward the temple, his warm hand flattened against a palm-shaped bruise. Kirk's eyes held his, awaiting judgment, knowing and dreading the cost of his action to all the countless lives who had trusted him. Through that one light touch, Spock could feel all the agony, all the control, all the knowledge that created Kirk's private hell. He had shown Kirk hell, the Vulcan hell of lust and madness. Kirk had joined him in it.

"I would have done the same," Spock said. In your place, if I had had the courage, I would have done the same."

Kirk had to look away to hide the stinging liquid in his eyes, had to bite his lip to keep it from spilling over. Spock's fingers trailed across his cheek, comforting, saying wordlessly that he would share the guilt, the shame, the pain. Gratitude and relief flooded Kirk's whole being. He was not alone. He caught his breath and held it until he could control his voice. Then he looked back at Spock, tried for something lighter than total, abysmal gratitude.

"In that case," he swallowed and tasted the salt of unshed tears, "we'd better work together."

~ * ~

The staff of the Enterprise had thought, as they settled to their tasks, that everything that could go wrong already had, but the incoming messages from Veith quickly disabused them of that comfortable notion. The compelling story of the cave-in, the rescue, the landing at the Hreth Malock estate came in bits and pieces, in the voices of the participants. Throughout the ship, crew members who were off duty gradually congregated around viewscreens and audio speakers. They knew their own were involved and they knew they were a ship under judgment. Four hours from orbit, Dia's broadcast began, and the last reluctant sleeper was urged out of bed to watch. By the time they actually orbited Veith, four estates were broadcasting a series of voice-votes as slave after slave claimed freedom and the protection of the Federation, following the pattern Dia and her nurse had set.

Spock and Kirk, working in the captain's cabin, followed the broadcast intermittently as they completed a program that the computer regarded as an unusually complex war game, and which Kirk saw as his only hope for repairing the damage his testimony had done. They worked, intent and comfortable in the small space, until the ship slid into orbit. At Kirk's invitation, Sarek, Lapsley, and Meade met them on the bridge.

Uhura had SALEE bringing in a picture of the Hreth Malock estate. She had pinpointed the improvised hospital ward. A crew of women was carting away debris from a small explosion. Most of the wounded were sleeping. SALEE verified that the line of slaves still appearing before the estate camera was there freely and not under coercion.

Kirk eased into his chair and watched, unconsciously running his thumb over his cut lip. "Ambassador, does this constitute a legal vote?"

"Legality is always open to interpretation, Captain. In my opinion, it constitutes, ethically, a true statement of the preference of a majority of the population. It cannot be considered an informed statement, but it does not take a great deal of information to prefer freedom to slavery."

Kirk grimaced. Sarek was back in his professional mode. "Well, it's always nice to have an expert opinion. You want to go on record, Meade?"

"I wish your people hadn't been down there when it started," she said frankly. "But you'd raise a lot more than legal questions if you left now."

Kirk wondered fleetingly whether she would have phrased it like that a week ago. "I'm not planning to leave," he said. "But I'd like to think the vote will stand. They won't be in Federation space for 72 hours. Gavin, who's in charge down there?"

"Perdue. He's there. I saw him just a minute ago."

"Get him, Uhura."

SALEE homed in on Perdue's transponder just as his wrist communicator buzzed. The relief on his face was apparent when he realized it was the ship calling. At Kirk's request for tactical information, he summarized the facts, his assessment of them, and his currently unproductive search for McCoy in about six sentences. "Orders, sir?"

"I want you back aboard as soon as it's safe for you to leave. We'll direct you to McCoy. I want to talk to Ms. Hreth Malock, but there's no point in advertising our presence to the estate guards. Why don't you get her alone?"

Uhura had already found McCoy. "We could beam him out, sir," she suggested softly.

Kirk watched a filthy and unshaven McCoy sleeping peacefully in durance vile and shook his head. "It would scare him to death. The girl will be able to get him out now. Perdue? We'll give you an hour while we take a look at some of the other estates. Let us know if you need help."

"Aye, aye, sir." Perdue's renewed enthusiasm lightened the gloom on faces around the bridge for a moment.

Kirk leaned back. "Give me a guided tour, Mr. Sulu."

~ * ~

While Perdue woke Ari and Dia, and Kirk took his tour of the other estates McCoy slept on. When a recently freed slave opened his cell, the sound barely penetrated his fatigue. From forty fathoms down he drifted up toward a disturbance on the surface—unconcerned, in no hurry to evolve once more into a land creature. He liked the dark rocking of the sea, its silence, its loneliness. But someone was calling him.

"Honorable, honorable, you must awaken."

Funny form of address. He was a Leonard, not an Honorable. He tried to brush the disturbance away, and the pain from his shackled wrists finally penetrated. Someone was shaking his shoulder, trying to awaken him. He was a prisoner. Two bloodshot blue eyes popped open to confront a human in Hreth Malock coverall and badge.

"Please, honorable, the mistress says you must come to the great hall."

This time there was no shoving or bullying, but the man hustled McCoy to his feet and propelled him down corridors and up lifts with no less alacrity than the guards had put him away. McCoy doubted anything they could do to him would hurt worse than just walking on his own two feet with every muscle in his body protesting any movement more strenuous than blinking. He was so immersed in his ongoing miseries that he didn't question what "mistress" was summoning him until the servant propelled him into the auditorium the, had turned into an emergency ward. Dia was standing with a group of the same kind of guards who had thrown McCoy in the cooler, but this time they were nodding respectfully while she talked.

"McCoy!" She left the guards when she saw him. Her hair was drawn back in a knot at the nape of her neck, and the S-curve of the silver strands looked for a moment like an exotic ornament. McCoy rubbed his manacled hands awkwardly over his face. "Take the restraints off," Dia told someone. "I'm sorry not to have gotten you out of there before, but first there was the attack, and then Ari was wounded—"

"I thought we were all locked up," said McCoy. He saw that there were Enterprise crew members walking around the room and that they carried the same kind of weapons the Romulan guards did.

"We might have been, if nepZenner hadn't attacked us. We beat them off. They won't be back soon. Their slaves are rioting."

One of the guards released McCoy's wrists, and Dia took them in her strong hands, verifying that the scrapes and chafing were not serious. McCoy was suddenly aware of how dirty he was. He felt as if he hadn't bathed, shaved, or combed his hair in a week.

"I'm all right," he said. "What are we going to do now?"

He meant about the wounded, and Dia looked out over the improvised ward with its sleeping or sedated forms stretched out on mismatched pallets and mattresses on the floor—not slaves now, but free men. She looked back at McCoy's wrists in her hands, and then up to meet his eyes.

"We've already done it, with your help. We've freed them. They are voting to join the Federation. Your ship is here. I have spoken with your captain. We have made the revolution. Thank you."

It was too much, too fast. McCoy couldn't assimilate it. Mention of the ship and a revolution brought home to him the fact that he was an officer of Starfleet, and he had no business meddling in planetary affairs.

"I'm a doctor," he protested, "not an anarchist. I can't interfere—" He stopped as she began to laugh, shocked, not sure she wasn't hysterical. He had never seen her laugh before. She brushed away tears of mirth, trying to get breath to speak.

"You turn a whole planet upside down and then tell me you can't interfere?" Her laughter pealed out again, and one of the guards grinned in sympathy. Perdue chuckled at the dumbfounded expression on McCoy's face, and suddenly the emotion moved outward and a shout of laughter went up all around the room. The guard who had removed McCoy's manacles slapped him painfully on the shoulder. Some of the wounded were waking up, frightened at the unaccustomed sound, and then beginning to smile hesitantly, and finally, daringly, to laugh out loud. Caught up in a kind of hysteria, guards laughed until they could only gasp weakly, until their legs gave out and they staggered toward the walls for support or sat rocking and hugging themselves on the floor.

Dia wiped her eyes as the chorus died down. "You look so f-f-funny!" she gasped. "But it's too late now, you—you're the father of the revolution!" She doubled over again, clutching her diaphragm, and leaned forward, trusting him to catch and steady her even while he glared over her head at the helpless Perdue. Facts began to percolate through the fog of confusion. There had been a fight here. There were new casualties. Everyone was powdered with dust and debris. There was a gaping hole in the wall to the communications room and a crater in the floor of the ward. Ari was propped against a wall, pale with shock, and his right arm ended in a bandaged stump.

Perdue helped Ari up and herded Dia and McCoy past the damaged but still functioning communications room. Tears of mirth had streaked his dusty face, but he was sober again as he explained to McCoy. "The estates are voting, sir. The captain didn't say much, and I don't know where the admiral is, but this is what we came to Ochros for. Only we shouldn't have been here. You can see we'll be ammunition for the Romulans if they challenge the vote. As long as we're here, they can say we're coercing the population."

"Twenty-six of us?" McCoy asked.

"Only seventeen now," Perdue said soberly. "There aren't enough of us to stop another attack." He turned to Dia. "You understand, don't you? I hate to leave you holding the fort."

"Wait a minute," McCoy said.

Dia put her fingers to his lips. "He's right. I can explain it to you. We're a Federation world now. You can come back. You can help us."

"If your trained house apes don't turn around and murder you!"

"That's a danger all the estates are taking," Ari said. "We'll have to take it here, too."

Ari was cradling his right arm in his left; McCoy's eyes were drawn instinctively to the injury. "That's hurting you," he said.

Ari nodded, his face pale. "The hand still hurts—even though it's gone. It will heal. More important is to heal our world. We have to do that by ourselves. Dia?"

Dia nodded as if she understood some question or appeal that McCoy missed. Ari and Perdue walked out of the room.

"I don't want to leave you," McCoy said stubbornly. "You're not safe."

"No one is going to be very safe here for a long time. I don't want you to go." Her eyes filled and spilled over. McCoy tried to brush the tears away, and then, when they wouldn't stop, he gathered her into the curve of his arms and let her sob against his shoulder. She clutched him desperately. Her crying shook both of them. He rubbed his cheek against the crown of her head and cursed the universe. Because she was right. There was a world at stake. Personal happiness didn't mean much beside that. He repeated the caress over and over, feeling the silk of her hair against his lips, the firm, curving warmth of her against his body.

"I'm so dirty," she said finally.

McCoy dredged up a chuckle. "You smell like disinfectant, and I reek. On Argelius, they take baths that last all day."

"That would be wonderful," Dia sighed. "I don't think revolutionaries are supposed to approve of luxury. I would love to be decadent with you, but we don't have long. I need to tell you how it happened."

McCoy hugged her, let her go, heard her out. He supposed he was too old for tears.

 

XXIX

If there was one thing Admiral Hank Harnum knew about flair—and that was his word for the unexplained brilliance of others—it was that flair was erratic. You couldn't count on it in a crisis. He had heard Kirk credited with more varieties of flair than any one human had a right to, and from his own experience with the Enterprise, he could verify that the whole ship reeked of it. Which meant, to any rational mind, that the ship was basically unstable. And an unstable ship in a touchy situation was safest close to hand.

That was one reason why the Enterprise should be keeping station with the dreadnought. The other, of course, was to present the natives below with a united front. And that was Kirk's most serious failure. Not once had he supported his commanding officer against that gaggle of civilians on his ship. He had charged into Rigan society, flaunted his flair all over the system, and then, when push came to shove, he had let his own team down. He had failed to stand up for the values of the Fleet. Whether that was folly, cowardice, or treason, Harnum didn't know; but as Kirk's superior, it was plainly his duty to find out.

He waited for Kirk's call or arrival to be announced. When one hour, two hours had passed, he made inquiry and found that Kirk remained out of contact. He had then bombarded space and finally the Enterprise with demands for a response. None had come. The Enterprise had left the station he'd assigned it and taken itself to Veith as if his orders meant nothing. As if Kirk thought he were in command and the man his superior in age, experience, and rank were some kind of subordinate.

At a level below verbalization, Harnum felt cheated. His promotion had come unexpectedly in the field. His relationships with his officers and crew had precluded any but formal expressions of congratulation. When he arrived in orbit around Riga, the planet had already been buzzing with Sarek's abduction and Kirk's presence. He had not been invited to social functions. He would never be guilty of treating a possibly hostile planet as a site for R&R. The only recognition his achievement had received was the transparent condescension of the man who had turned the promotion down.

Flair. Harnum felt smothered in it. But there were some things flair could not justify, and disobedience of a direct order from a superior officer was one of them. Harnum's anger cooled and hardened with every hour that passed. Long before Kirk recalled his men from Veith, Harnum was ready to give that order.

~ * ~

McCoy and Dia spent the last moments before their parting unromantically touring the ward and tallying up the supplies and educational materials the ship could provide. Reluctantly, McCoy's thoughts turned toward the political situation as he knew it. If ever anyone with good intentions had made things worse, it was Leonard McCoy. Dia had been teasing and complimenting him when she called him the father of the revolution; but his name, the name of a not particularly significant medical officer in Starfleet's hierarchy, was now prominently linked with a doubtful uprising that probably was not going to help an already tense and complicated political situation. McCoy was glad to be alive, but he was as worried as ever. He was not looking forward to his coming interview with his captain. Why was it that when Jim made a spectacle of himself, he always came off as a hero? McCoy had taken the father's role so often that it was uncomfortable for both of them when Kirk had to assert his superior rank.

Prepare yourself to get your ears pinned back, McCoy told himself. You deserve it. Chances are you haven't helped Dia, haven't done a thing for Veith, have ruined the talks, and may wind up facing a court martial composed of your best friends in the near future. Officers of the Fleet do not meddle in alien civilian politics.

McCoy squeezed Dia's hand, smiled at her, and yielded himself to the transporter with a sinking sensation even worse than usual. When the transporter room of the Enterprise solidified around him, the first thing he saw was Kirk's battered face.

"Looks like I'm not the only one who got beaten up," he said automatically. Spock was station-keeping at Kirk's shoulder, and a disapproving eyebrow rose at McCoy's statement. McCoy knew he was in serious trouble, but his mouth kept right on playing the clown. "What's the matter, Spock? Sorry to see me?"

"There's no time for that, Bones," Kirk said quietly. "If you're prepared to make a report, I'd like to record it now."

McCoy reined in conflicting emotions. At least he was still "Bones." "I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Sorry I put you on the spot this way, Jim."

Something flickered in Kirk's eyes. McCoy got the impression of a curtain drawn momentarily away from the edge of a window. He wanted to ask what had happened at the High Court, but a glance at Spock showed him that the Great Stone Face was back, communicative as an Easter Island monolith. That meant it was bad. McCoy felt even worse.

Kirk led the way to a small briefing room, just big enough for the yeoman with the recorder and three other chairs around a table. McCoy forced himself to walk in and seat himself, but he started to sweat. The room reminded him a little too much of his cell on Veith.

"We can leave the door open if you like," Kirk suggested.

McCoy was surprised that he had been that obvious, not surprised that Kirk knew he'd been locked up. "No, I'm fine," he said.

Kirk closed the door, sat, verified that the yeoman was recording, and stated his name and the date and the purpose of the debriefing. It was all done according to ritual, quietly, professionally. McCoy was given a momentary insight into how he handled the more painful aspects of his own profession, how one retreated into ritual and form. Only he was the patient now.

McCoy summarized his experience, answered Kirk's questions as truthfully and completely as he could, not sparing himself when he described his involvement with Dia, the role he had played in transporting her to Veith, his neglect of duty. Neither Kirk nor Spock commented, but McCoy sensed a sharpening of interest in what he had to say about the events that took place on the Hreth Malock estate.

"What was Ms. Hreth Malock's reason for choosing that destination?"

McCoy explained about the bounty on escaped slaves.

"Were the Enterprise crewmen armed at that point?"

McCoy said that to his knowledge they were not. They had all thought it would be safer to go unarmed.

"And when was the crew armed?"

"It was when some other family—Ari's, I think—attacked the estate."

"Did you, personally, observe this attack or identify the attackers?"

McCoy had to admit he had not. "I was in a lock-up," he said. "I didn't see any of it."

"Previously, Dr. McCoy—and I remind you that you speak under oath—did Ms. Hreth Malock or any of the students or your acquaintances on Veith speak to you regarding the Student Resistance Alliance or the possibility of a revolution?" Kirk sounded like a computer.

He's just doing his job, McCoy thought. "No, I didn't know there was a resistance until the night of the cave-in. They weren't admitting they had slaves. All their offers to help just served to quarantine us—keep us ignorant of the true situation. I don't think Dia ever thought of a revolution until she was attacked. We were just trying to save lives."

"Please confine your answers to the specific question, Doctor. You will have the opportunity to add to your statement later. Did Ms. Hreth Malock ask you to participate in the revolutionary government?"

"No," said McCoy firmly.

"Did you volunteer to participate or serve in the revolutionary government once you understood that it existed?"

"No, I did not."

"But your name is listed as one of the four leaders of the movement, Doctor. How did that happen?"

McCoy felt his face getting hot. "It was intended as a compliment, I guess. A kind of honor." McCoy trailed off. Damn it, Jim knew perfectly well how it had happened.

"Very well, Doctor. Is there anything you would like to add?"

McCoy pulled himself together. "Yes, there is. I'm a doctor, not a politician. Whatever I did—right or wrong—down there, I'd like to make it clear that medical technology on Veith is practically archaic—not due to lack of intelligence or incentive—but due to the oppressive social system. The medical care of humans, other than as breeding stock, is not a high priority of Romulans. Those people are aware of the Federation's superior technology, and they are appealing to us for help that has no military applications. Whatever happens to me, I'd like to think that the Federation would respond to that appeal. That's all." He slumped back in his chair, half-defiant, half-depressed.

Kirk nodded, and the yeoman folded up the recorder and left the room. There was a little silence while the captain studied the bulkhead behind McCoy's chair.

"Well," McCoy demanded gruffly. "How bad is it?"

Kirk came back from his reverie with a somewhat limited and one-sided smile. "You didn't do anything wrong, Bones. Anyone disposed to examine the evidence impartially would see that—particularly when the security people back you up. What you did took a lot of guts, and the people down there should be grateful to you all their lives. I never knew a less likely revolutionary."

McCoy picked up on the implication. "But somebody's not going to examine the evidence impartially?" Something about Kirk's manner was increasing his worries. The captain didn't seem to be able to look at him, although he'd been interrogating him with gimlet-eyed efficiency only moments before. McCoy looked at Spock. Without a betraying expression on his face, the Vulcan seemed to be braced for a blow.

Finally Kirk did look up. "Right now Admiral Harnum isn't disposed to be impartial about anything even remotely connected with me or the Enterprise. I got us all kicked out of the Romulan High Court. I was dismissed for cowardice." There was only a heartbeat's pause. "I'll do what I can for you, Bones. I'm not sure how much that is." Kirk stood up before McCoy could think of anything to say. "I have to see Lapsley's men. Excuse me."

Somewhat belatedly McCoy stood up himself. "Jim?" he said to Kirk's back, but the door closed automatically. "I don't get it," McCoy said to Spock. "What happened?"

"The captain was confronted by the Romulan commander, as I anticipated. She challenged him to deny that he had violated Romulan space, that he had undertaken a spy mission, feigned madness and death aboard her ship, returned to it surgically altered, and stolen the cloaking device from her." Spock's tone was heavy with irony. "Admiral Harnum had released the captain from considerations of military obligation in his testimony." The tone become more elemental. "As she phrased her question, none of us could have denied it."

"She hit him?"

Spock's face sharpened. McCoy was glad that he was neither the commander nor the admiral. He hadn't seen that expression since the sands of Vulcan.

"With her own hand. Before two worlds. The blow one gives a coward." Spock's voice had dropped almost to a whisper. He seemed surprised by his own intensity. He reverted to his normal tone. "The computer library has the tape, Doctor. I suggest you view it immediately." The Vulcan also left the room.

McCoy had forgotten that he was in a small enclosed space. He reached for the terminal controls and the display cube recessed in the center of the tabletop. He called up the High Court recording and watched it through, flinching in unconscious sympathy as Kirk took each blow, sweating as Kirk turned away from the Federation table and began his climb. He shut the picture off as the crowd closed in and the missiles began to fly. He didn't have to watch that.

"Damn," he said softly. "God damn and blast that two-faced, braid-bound, bigoted bureaucrat. Damn him to hell." His heart was with Kirk, but he couldn't bring himself to hate the gold-clad woman who had seemed as isolated, on the arena floor, as the white-clad human leaving it.

~ * ~

Kirk went from one briefing room to another, heard Perdue's weary recital of events, which confirmed McCoy's. The seventeen survivors seemed puzzled by their reception and the mood aboard ship. Or maybe I'm just reading that in, thought Kirk. He said the appropriate things with the appropriate amount of gusto and did not explain his appearance. They would find out soon enough. With his men aboard and debriefed, Kirk's next problem was returning the admiral's imperative, and neglected, call. He headed for his cabin, determined to take the next licking in private, only to find that Spock was there before him, standing outside his door without even a transparent excuse.

Something levitated in Kirk's chest. "Waiting for someone?" he asked.

"For you, sir," the Vulcan said properly. "I thought I might be of assistance in your report to Admiral Harnum. After all, it was I who neglected to give you his first message."

The generosity of that offer warmed Kirk to the core. "Come on in. What's my best approach—lick his boots or spit in his eye?" Kirk's tone left no doubt about which course he would prefer.

"I am sure you can devise some other tactic, Captain. It cannot have escaped your notice that the presence of the Enterprise is all that stands between the revolution, and the vote for inclusion, and a swift return to the customary state of affairs on Veith."

"It hasn't, nor has the fact that once over the line—in," Kirk checked the computer, "71 hours—Veith is guaranteed Fleet protection. It's how to get that 71 hours. If I'm any judge of character, Harnum likes to flay his subordinates in person." Kirk was keying in the sub-space call himself, taking his tension out on the switches and dials. As he said, "I'll entertain any suggestion short of mutiny," he reached for a minor muscle spasm in the back of his neck—and froze, right hand on the computer terminal, left in midair. Two other hands had reached for the source of irritation, their strong, warm grip locating the exact point of pain and beginning to knead it out. Kirk swallowed, afraid to move or acknowledge the intense pleasure that rippled clear through his body.

"Mutiny also seems extreme—" Spock's tone was abstracted, the tone a man takes when he is thinking out loud. His thumbs pressed down on each side of a vertebra, alternating pressure.

Golden currents coiled down Kirk's spine, up to his scalp, forward to his heart. Did Spock realize what he was doing?

"We can hardly depart in the midst of a voice vote for Federation inclusion," the Vulcan said.

Kirk yielded completely to the assured touch that could have broken his neck without effort. He let his head roll from side to side. His whole body was ringing like a lightly tapped bell, but he didn't dare change the pace or direction of the conversation. "That won't take three days."

"It could take one day," Spock urged. "Beyond that—is another day's worry."

Kirk's neck felt like warm putty. The kneading hands slowed, squeezed, and stopped. Kirk completed the communications sequence with hands that felt warm and tingling with life. "Every little bit helps," he said non-specifically.

Spock stepped back as the screen above Kirk's desk brightened to reveal a Haile Selassie communications officer. Kirk requested the admiral.

"One moment, sir." A second face replaced the first. By the braid, this was Harnum's first officer. Kirk remembered Harnum's irritating obliviousness to Spock's presence at their first briefing. This man would be a team player.

"I'm Cmdr. Lovage, Captain. I'm handling the admiral's calls."

"The admiral requested that I contact him personally, Commander."

"Yes, sir." Cmdr. Lovage consulted an out-of-view chronometer. "That was twenty hours ago, I believe. The admiral is occupied at this time. However, he left orders for you, sir." Lovage stirred a pile of papers out of range of the camera as if to imply that orders for the Enterprise were a minor concern, only one of many. "Yes. Your orders are to return your ship to a station-keeping orbit around Riga with all possible speed."

Kirk smiled sweetly, but the illusion of innocence was marred by the state of his face. "When did the admiral issue those orders, Commander?"

Lovage raised both eyebrows. "I don't see—"

"The situation on Veith has changed drastically in the last twenty hours, Commander. The planetary population is presently conducting their vote on the issue of joining the Federation. Much as the admiral may want to nail my hide to the wall, he would hardly want me to move my ship at present. I suggest that you inform him of the nature of my report."

There was a brief flicker of human interest in Lovage's eyes, but his face remained impassive. "I regret that I am unable to do so, Captain. I also have my orders. Yours stand. The admiral anticipated that you might question his orders, but he requires that the Enterprise be returned to proper military formation with all possible speed. I would like your acknowledgment that you have received and will obey this order, Captain."

Spock's presence at Kirk's shoulder provided comfort, but no relief from reality. Cmdr. Lovage wore the expression of a minor clerk completing a necessary form. To him, Kirk realized, this contest between senior officers was the reality. Political outcomes and people's lives were secondary.

"Are you indifferent to the success of this mission, Commander?"

"No, sir, I am not."

"Does the fact that we have been deliberately lied to, that we were deliberately entrapped in the Rigan High Court, that there are thousands of human slaves on Veith, risking everything to vote for inclusion in the Federation, and Federation protection of their rights as sentient beings—does all this leave you indifferent, Commander?"

"Sir, I am not indifferent to the facts as you state them, I am simply not qualified and not placed to be responsible for their interpretation. My responsibility is to carry out the orders of my superiors."

"And when you do that, Commander, does that free you of any responsibility for the outcome of those orders?" Kirk's voice was silky with promise and threat.

Lovage tried to stare him down but was defeated. He looked at the pile of orders on his desk and then back at Kirk. "I will accept your report, Captain. I will convey it to the admiral at the first possible opportunity. But I must have your answer. Do you understand your orders? Will you comply?"

Kirk's eyes narrowed. "I understand my orders, Commander. In conscience, knowing Admiral Harnum is ignorant of the situation here, I cannot leave orbit until the Veithans have completed their voice vote. Upon receipt of acknowledgment that he understands the import of his orders, I will return to Riga at all possible speed. Kirk out." He broke the connection abruptly.

Spock offered no comment, and after a moment, Kirk turned around in his chair. "That might buy us a day." And me a court martial, he didn't add. "See that they get the complete report."

Spock, ordinarily the most discreet of first officers, chose to assemble information for that report most indiscreetly, in person, from a variety of sources. In the process, information was exchanged. One result was an immediate call from McCoy to Dia and Ari on Veith. Information was exchanged again, and in half an hour the speed with which the voice vote was being delivered had slowed appreciably. Kirk noted the fact without comment and initiated a two-hour update to the dreadnought on the progress of the vote. Then he turned his attention to the delegates, who were still, improbably, carrying on their routine.

Kirk assembled Sarek, McCoy, and Meade for the confrontation. McCoy was still trying to adjust to the changes he sensed in Kirk as he followed the captain into the major meeting room. He knew, from Meade, that the delegates had seen the broadcast from Riga. He had also seen M'Benga's report on the individuals he had examined. The degree and sophistication of the control of men's minds was as frightening as anything McCoy had experienced on the planet below. To any casual examination, these people—Vulcans and humans—were normal. In fact they were soulless robots, animated corpses. They made his skin crawl. And among them, going on with the charade, were knowing Romulans.

The member who was speaking as they entered the room was Romulan. He looked up, identified the intruder—and continued speaking. McCoy's face burned at the affront, but Kirk's remained impassive. He simply reached out to the panel beside the door and doused the lights. The speaker's voice stopped as closed, total dark choked the room. McCoy started to sweat. There was a movement in the air and a sense of absence. A long moment passed.

"That's better." Kirk's voice came from across the room. He had crossed it as silently as a wolf in its home timber. "Now we're all in the dark. I am in your system and your culture, but you are on my ship. Presuming we all want to leave alive, we will now discuss the true situation on Veith. Shed a little light on the subject, McCoy."

McCoy pressed the switch with relief. Kirk had replaced the speaker at the rostrum. McCoy couldn't see a weapon, hadn't heard violence. He wondered how he had done it. The other delegates sat frozen. The Romulans among them had pushed their chairs back from the table in a betraying gesture.

"Item," said Kirk. "The Federation does not recognize slave owners as 'representatives' in any sense. Those who own slaves here are present under false pretenses. That disqualifies Romulans from Veith. Those with knowledge of slave ownership on Veith are here in bad faith—that disqualifies Romulans from Riga. The only free humans from Veith are those from Firstport. That disqualifies humans from Veith. Vulcans from Veith are disqualified on the same grounds as Veithan humans and Rigan Romulans. Which leaves Rigan humans and Vulcans. Under the circumstances, I do not feel compelled to welcome them aboard my ship." Kirk paused, eyes bright in his bruised face. "Therefore, this conference is discontinued, and transportation for its members to the nearest planetary body will commence immediately. That is all."

Meade made a slight movement of protest, but Sarek forestalled it with a half-step forward. "Captain?"

"Yes, Ambassador?"

"With your permission, I have some responsibility for the personal safety of the delegates—whatever their reasons for participation, they were assured of immunity from harm. In order to insure that they are not being forced into hazardous situations, I would like to interview each member personally. I am aware this will take some time, but I feel it incumbent upon me as a representative of the Federation."

Incumbent upon fiddlesticks, McCoy thought. Sarek's gambit could take a week if necessary.

Kirk made no acknowledgment of the delaying tactic. "Very well, Ambassador, so long as you realize that we are under the pressure of time. However, this portion of the ship will be sealed off and under security attention so long as one representative remains aboard."

"Thank you, Captain." Sarek stepped back. McCoy saw Meade's nose twitch, as if she were fighting a sneeze. Having played their part as witnesses, they followed Kirk from the room. Meade grabbed McCoy's elbow and steered him away as Kirk and Sarek strode down the corridor. She waited until even the Vulcan was out of earshot.

"You know what they need down there, Leonard? Mobility. Doesn't the Enterprise stock portable transporters?"

Transporters were seldom a positive part of McCoy's considerations. "I didn't know there were portable transporters," he said.

"Of course there are. Everyone doesn't have a starship handy. They're standard equipment for scientific expeditions. That way you can cover a dozen locations around a planet with only one staff. Believe me, it's better than shank's mare. That's what those people need—a way to get from one estate to another before anybody who has to mount an attack with shuttles, air transport, or foot soldiers. The Enterprise must carry a hell of an inventory of scientific equipment. Where is it?"

McCoy could see the advantages of linking the estates. Transporters went up in his estimation. With Meade prodding him, he got Nadia Palevi to verify that the Enterprise did, indeed, carry six portable transporters somewhere in her belly. Nadia was doing her regular work with one eye on the clock face someone had superimposed over the broadcast of the voice vote from Veith. The clock gave readouts of real time and hours to crossover.

"Spock would have to release them," Nadia said slowly. "But it wouldn't hurt to uncrate them and make sure they're functional." Meade beamed and bustled away.

"She's in a good mood," McCoy said sourly.

"What we do here is important," Nadia said soberly. "We can right a great wrong. That is luck. You are lucky, my friend. I did not think I would see you again—or Spock—or the captain."

"We may none of us be here long." McCoy hurt. It felt good to be back where he could grumble when he wanted to. Nadia reached out and gripped his hand. Her serious face lightened for a moment; her blue eyes were warm with understanding.

"Well, no one wants to live forever." She squeezed his hand and let go. "The ship feels right again."

That was Kirk's assessment of things, too, although as the voice vote came to a close he noticed an unusual slowness in the crew's response time. Things began to go wrong—small things, large things, anything that would delay departure.

With the vote of five estates and Firstport tallied—and the remaining estates sullenly silent—a majority of the free population of Veith had requested admission to the Federation and the protection of Starfleet. Many of the individuals, like Eldridge, had made the plea specific: Without the protection of the Enterprise, they felt that their old masters would return and resume control. Reluctantly, Kirk had made his position clear. With the conclusion of the vote he would have to return to Riga. He had gained four shifts and 32 hours. There had been no response to his updated reports or his request for revised orders. Before he gave the command to leave orbit, Kirk checked on Sarek's progress.

There were difficulties. Sarek recommended delay. He could not be sure that proper accommodation for all the Veithan humans had been arranged. Kirk inquired, with a straight face, how long Sarek thought that might take.

"I have been working without sleep for 54 hours now, Captain. I am not in the best of health. I would like to take time for rest before making a final decision that might mean life or death to many individuals."

"How long?" Kirk repeated.

"Perhaps six hours more," Sarek replied. "After a suitable period of repose."

With every appearance of reluctance, Kirk granted him twelve hours. He felt too keyed up to sleep, himself, but he knew he needed rest. He informed the Haile Selassie of the further delay and relinquished the con. He went in search of McCoy, hoping the physician could be persuaded to administer something strong enough to knock him out. For once, McCoy was willing to listen to reason. He came hurrying into sickbay from some undisclosed task, heard Kirk's request, looked him over, and doled out some of the red wonders.

"Just like that?" Kirk asked.

"Sweet dreams," said McCoy. "You wanted to sleep. I think you need it. Go on. I'm busy."

Puzzled, Kirk started to ask at what, but McCoy handed him a disposable cup and told him to drink up. Kirk tossed the pills down. McCoy gave him a manic smile.

"There. Now you're officially off duty and on the medical roster for eight hours. Don't talk back to your doctor. Go to bed."

Progress was made slowly through the next shift, and when Kirk took the con again, Sarek had finished his work. Seventeen hours lay between Veith and Federation space. The bridge crew sat attentively at their stations. Once more, Kirk prepared to give the order to leave orbit.

"Engineer Scott, sir," Uhura said. Kirk caught an exchanged look between Chekov and Sulu.

"Yes, Scotty?"

"It's that sorry I am, Captain," Scott's voice came apologetically through the sound system. "I thought I'd be finished before you needed them."

"Needed what?" Kirk asked. Spock was performing busily at the science station. Why was he getting that victim-of-a-practical-joke feeling? Kirk wondered.

"The impulse tubes," said Scotty. "They were past due to be flushed—we would hae done it at Starbase 27—"

"You flushed the tubes? Without orders? We're on yellow alert!" Momentarily Kirk forgot how important delay was. Scotty had never been guilty of such bad timing before.

"Och, well, I thought I had time," the engineer replied with amazing heedlessness. "The problem's in the monitors—wee, complicated gadgets. Three of my five aren't functioning properly. We're checking the tubes by hand, sir."

"How long till they're operable?"

"Ye could have warp speed any time, sir, but I canna' give ye impulse power in under ten hours."

"Ten hours!" Even doing the work by hand, checking the tubes shouldn't take more than two hours.

"Ten hours," Scott said firmly. "We've already found one bad power ring. It'll have to be replaced, tested—and there's no tellin' but we might find more of them."

Kirk wondered how many varieties of mayhem Scotty was visiting on his previously space-worthy vessel. And didn't they usually stock a good dozen monitors? Better not to ask.

"That's not the way I expect my engineering department to be run, Scotty," Kirk said severely. "I'll give you nine hours to get me impulse power."

Scotty sighed, apparently at the reprimand. "Aye, sir, you'll have it in nine hours."

Down in engineering, the Scotsman turned to face a grinning ring of technicians. "Stillwell, take those monitors and make sure they don't work; there might be one we can salvage with a few efforts. Riley? What are you doing?"

"Sir?" The irrepressible Irishman was heading toward a locker full of radiation gear. "I was going to suit up and replace that power ring."

"Before you've reviewed the procedures?" Scotty sounded horrified.

"Sir?" Riley had supervised the flush-and-monitor routine a dozen times. He could recite the procedures in his sleep. He could replace a power ring in fifteen minutes.

"When the captain says he wants impulse power in nine hours," Scotty emphasized the time, "that's what he means—and he wants it done by the book. Close your mouth, Mr. Riley, and get that book!"

Understanding finally dawned. Riley began a slow-motion search for a book of procedures in plain sight, and with the speed and grace of underwater ballet, the engineering section made their contribution to preparedness.

~ * ~

No one was a more interested observer of the tempo of shipboard routine than Meade. As the hours passed, she made it her business to know everybody else's. She used SISTER without compunction to sit in on Sarek's interviews of the representatives, on Scotty's affairs, on Nadia, McCoy, and Spock as they deliberated on the placement of the transporter units. When it came to gaining Scotty's cooperation to acquire them, she invited herself to the meeting.

"Five units!" Scotty might have been talking about his children. "We only have six. D'ye ken what those things cost, Mr. Spock? More than you earn in ten years. The captain'll have to sign for them."

"I prefer to authorize the transaction myself, Mr. Scott." Spock typed the authorization into the computer at Scotty's desk. "Should there be any repercussions, I assure you I am fiscally responsible and well able to reimburse Starfleet."

Scotty was not entirely reassured. "That's not a Federation planet down there yet, Mr. Spock. There're the small matters of crossing the line and getting ratification by the Council. You might be providin' all this—" Spock's requisition included far more than transporters, "—to a clan of Romulan slavers!"

"Come on, Scotty," McCoy coaxed. "They're helpless down there. They don't have a military force. This way they'll have a chance."

"He's right," Meade said. "They'll be sitting ducks without transportation. How would you like to be stranded under fire with nothing but ground transport?"

"Och, quit tryin' to push my buttons, Doctor. I'd as soon answer to the Fleet as my conscience." He pulled a printout, held it for Spock to sign, and scribbled his own signature. He beckoned to a slow-motion crew woman. "Holpner, if you can't move faster than that, go find a geriatrics ward! Get yourself some muscle. We're setting up five portable transporters down below—double time!"

Holpner grinned at her boss and returned to the normal engineering pace—something just under warp speed.

"I have some experience with those things," Meade said. "I'll come with you."

McCoy went back to sickbay and chewed his cuticle until Scotty's nine hours ran out. A couple of the security personnel drifted in and out, looking for sympathy for some bug they had picked up on the islands. McCoy and tricorder diagnosed nothing more serious than 24-hour flu that acted as its own preventive. With half his mind on the clock and the countdown, he didn't welcome a third version of the same problem.

"Some people take every opportunity to pamper themselves," he protested. "Why come to me? Haven't you got a girlfriend to hold your hand? You'd think we had an epidemic."

The security man smiled a little sheepishly. "I didn't think it was serious, sir—but you know how strange planets are; I thought I should check with you."

A sudden idea struck McCoy. "Sit back down, son. Where do you think you're going?"

The security man looked confused. "You said it wasn't serious."

"You said that. Who's the doctor here? I said we might have an epidemic on our hands. You stay right there!"

Kirk reacted to McCoy's news with very little enthusiasm. "Bones," he warned, "don't get carried away. Can't you tell if it's serious?"

"It doesn't look serious, Jim, but it appears to be highly contagious." This was true and McCoy said it with a great deal of sincerity. "Half the ship down with it at one time could be as serious as one or two people critical—more serious in terms of ship's efficiency. It wouldn't take me long to track down Eldridge and find out."

Kirk was touched by these displays of loyalty, but common sense made him protest. Why send more careers down the tube?

"Bones, I can't—"

McCoy flushed in exasperation. "Can't take the advice of your medical officer? That's a first. All right, if I have to make it official, I will. I have logged a medical alert for this ship until I know what kind of infection we've brought aboard. It will take me considerably longer to find that out from scratch, on my own, than to ask Eldridge, but I'll begin at once."

Kirk sighed. "You don't have to go that far. Just make it quick."

McCoy lit up with a broad grin. "Why, ah certainly will, Captain," he drawled in broadest—and slowest—Macon. "Jus' as quick as a li'l ol' wink."

That brought them down to five and a half hours, and Sarek was waiting in the wings with an unlikely demand to be put in contact with his home planet, when Scotty broke the news that Meade Morrow was missing.

"Missing?" Kirk had abandoned the bridge to grab a quick shower and change of uniform. He was still damp when the message came through. He thumbed on the video and got nothing. "Scotty, where are you?"

"On Veith, sir. The Hreth Malock estate." Scotty sounded uncertain. "I'm here with Mr. Spock."

"The responsibility is mine, Captain," came the Vulcan's firm voice. "I authorized Engineer Scott to set up a series of five portable transporters on several Veithan estates. Dr. Morrow has been assisting us. She was here until a few moments ago, when she appeared to be in contact with someone on the ship. She had a communicator, which she has left behind her. She wears no transponder, and she is now out of contact."

Kirk's first thought was for Meade's safety. "Damn it, Spock! Why didn't you keep an eye on her?"

"I was remiss, Captain."

"Well, we have to find her. I'm coming down." And I want to talk to you, Kirk thought, somewhere out of range and off the record. Five transporters?

A portable transporter, powered by a dilithium crystal as big as a man's fist, wasted no space. Kirk beamed down into a container not much larger than a coffin. Spock was waiting for him, with Scotty and a Romulan girl at a tactful distance down the hall.

"Is Meade really missing, Spock? Or is this like McCoy's epidemic?"

Spock raised an eyebrow. "Did he discover or create it?"

"I'm not sure I want to know. It is not going to do Starfleet much good to lose all the senior officers on board the Enterprise, Spock. As for Meade—damn it, she's a civilian!" Kirk's exasperation vented itself in one word.

"She is a highly intelligent and ethical being," Spock countered. "In addition, she is experienced in confronting alien cultures, and she has studied this one for a month."

"I know, but—"

"But you would like to assume full responsibility." For everything, Spock left unsaid.

Kirk shook his head. "I'm not that arrogant, Spock. I'd just like to consolidate the blame. What's being done to find her?"

"Ms. Hreth Malock is in charge."

Kirk walked down the hall and recognized the ingenue he had confronted at the party in Nod. She watched him come with a guarded expression, but she had changed. She seemed quietly sure of herself now. She was studying his face—not the bruises, but his features, which were shrinking back now to their normal proportions.

"I am very grateful, Captain, for what you have done."

He couldn't picture her as the leader of a revolution, but he had learned not to underestimate the women of her family. He recognized the boy standing with her. "It's what you did that counts," Kirk said. "Were you in the middle of all this, Ari?"

"I helped," Ari said. "It was more exciting than the bullring. We aren't out of the gate yet, are we?"

"Not until you're across the line. Four hours and something now." Kirk looked back at Dia. "You haven't tucked Meade away in some oubliette, have you?"

Dia smiled at him, not the warm smile she reserved for McCoy. "If I had known it would keep you here, I would have—if only to escape her questions. But I did not take her, nor did any of my people. She transported to Firstport—and on from there. I have sent sl—, sent people to each of the estates. If she uses the transporter again, we will find her."

Kirk shook his head. "She won't, if I know Meade. She'll show up ten minutes on the safe side of the deadline, and tickled with herself. If she doesn't—then we have a problem. As long as I'm here, why don't we talk about the future?"

Dia found them a place to sit down, but Ari retained his position, standing behind her chair, and Spock copied him. Kirk had adjusted to alien customs before, and he felt charged with energy and information. The tightrope he had been walking felt as broad as a highway. With Meade's disappearance, Kirk's last uncertainty had vanished. Veith was going to cross into Federation space unchallenged—from then on, it would be a lawyer's problem, not his. Even Harnum couldn't ignore an attack on a friendly planet in Federation space.

"There are some things you should be prepared for—" he began.

The surface of Spock's mind registered Kirk's catalogue of tactical possibilities. Legal problems, procedural problems, the situation on Riga, the possibility of attack, of refugees, the consequences of disrupting economic systems that worked, however heinous their means. There was a Vulcan toy, a pyramid that unfolded to a star, a star that expanded to become a sphere. Its mathematical principles were only interesting to a very young mind, but the toy itself had an almost hypnotic quality—predictable and pleasing. The quality of Kirk's thought had a similar effect on Spock—the surprises that were not surprises because one expected the unexpected from this man. Personal compassion was the simplest form, thought Spock, ability to act was the expanding star, and the sphere was a world-view uncommon in a warrior. Worried about Meade, his career in jeopardy, and his mission uncertain, Kirk chose to spend what could have been unproductive time turning his administrative talents loose on the problems confronting Veith—and he chose to do it with and for the cousin of Rho Hreth Malock. Passion, power, vision. A storm of symbols whirled through Spock's mind: the pyramid, star, sphere; heart, fist, eye. He blinked and saw one vulnerable human "talking with his hands" at an improvised conference table. He saw Ari, wounded so that he would never leap another bull, standing behind Dia's chair almost unnoticed. Some thought or insight was forming, out beyond the fringes of Spock's consciousness, but as he realized it the notion fled. He experienced a momentary sensation of loss. I am becoming imaginative, he scolded himself mentally. No valuable idea was ever lost. It would come again.

Dia was looking battered in the flow of ideas. She held up her hand. "Stop. I'm not a—a governor. I have no experience beyond this household and I did not manage it. I don't know how to plan the growth of a whole world. Someone else will do it—some government—somebody."

Kirk smiled a little grimly. "Who is there? Who will the people follow? Government isn't just a question of knowledge, or the galaxy would be run by scientists and librarians. If you don't take time to think things through, you'll be hip deep in problems with nothing to guide you. Then your solutions will become bigger problems."

Dia looked stubborn. "I don't have any time now to eat or sleep."

"Make time." Kirk's tone was dictatorial.

"Did you come here to fight with me?" Dia demanded. "Because I don't have time for that either!" She was starting to flush, gathering herself to rise from the table.

"Ms. Hreth Malock—"

Dia looked up at Spock.

"There is a Vulcan proverb to the effect that the only being who has time to think is one who takes time. Nonetheless, no one being can hope to know all there is to know about any topic, particularly one as complex as government."

"Captain Kirk evidently thinks he does!"

"The captain is an able commander," said Spock. "But he remains free to take time or make it by following certain historical precedents in the matter of command. Military organizations are founded on the concept of subordinating many talents and abilities to one will. Captain Kirk does not know as much about engineering as Cmdr. Scott, as much about physics as Dr. Palevi, or as much about behavior as the inquisitive Dr. Morrow."

"Then what do you need him for?" Dia asked sullenly.

"He," said Spock, "knows how to act, which, I take it, is your talent as well. You would do well to follow his example. There are models of government, there are computer programs capable of predicting patterns of growth. You need not study everything yourself."

Dia was used to Spock in the role of teacher. She settled back in her chair. Ari had not moved an inch, and to leave the table she would have had to slide her chair into his legs. She eyed Kirk with increasing dislike. "Are you going to give us these programs? Will they work on our computers?"

"They'll work," Kirk said. "That's what technicians are for. One of the first things you need is a good skills assessment. I'll send some personnel programs, too. You're going to be busy for a while."

"I'm going to be a doctor," Dia said firmly. "This is strictly temporary."

Kirk grinned at Ari over Dia's head. "Whatever you say." He turned as a messenger came into the room. When the man reported that no one could locate Meade, he slid his chair back. "That means she doesn't want to be found, I imagine. Well go back to the ship and see what we can send you, Ms. Hreth Malock."

Dia and Ari stood by while the ship's transporter picked up the two officers. Dia heaved a sigh of relief as they sparkled out of existence. "I don't know what people see in him," she said in disgust. "He's arrogant, overbearing—"

"He gets things done," Ari said. "He's right. You should have seen him in the bullring." His voice was charged with warmth and admiration.

"I have better things to do than watch people try to kill themselves," Dia said shrewishly. "If you admire his ideas so much, you won't mind if I try them out. I'm going to take a bath and sleep until we're four hours on the other side of the line. If he comes back, don't wake me. Handle it yourself!"

~ * ~

If she slept, Dia was the only one who did. Aboard the Enterprise and around Veith the clocks ran down as the invisible barrier was reached and passed. As predicted, Meade Morrow, after a satisfying day of field work, reappeared aboard the Enterprise to face a transporter technician wearing command gold.

The pan-anthropologist checked a precipitous descent from the transporter platform. Kirk said nothing for a moment, and then addressed the com unit. "She's aboard. Take us out." Deliberately, he reached out and turned the unit off.

"Uh, hi," Meade said.

"The correct phrase, Doctor, is 'Permission to come aboard, sir.'"

Meade flushed. "If you're going to go military on me—"

Kirk came around the console. Meade had seen that cat-like glide before, usually when he was going into combat. She bristled. She wasn't going to take any righteous crap from someone she knew very well saw things the same way she did.

"Do you know how many charges I could come up with? Not to mention inciting my officers to misappropriate Fleet property in the first place. Do you know what Admiral Harnum would—will—say about this little jaunt of yours?"

"I didn't think I was dealing with Harnum," Meade snapped. "You needed time and I gave it to you. So what are you going to do about it?"

"This," Kirk said, gathering her into a rib-crushing hug. He swung her around twice, set her on her feet, and kissed her with absolutely no respect for her age or standing.

Meade blinked and sniffed. "I guess that means you're grateful."

Kirk grinned. "I guess it does. You know we saved the wrong world, don't you? Riga is developed—that means it can pay taxes—even rich, great tourist attractions in those moons, power center of the system—but by God those poor bastards down there have guts and they have been living in hell. It feels good to do something just because it's right!"

Meade felt pretty good herself. The ship felt good. James Kirk was himself again, and all was right with the world. Or at least Armageddon had retreated behind the horizon. Kirk took her hand and pulled her out in the corridor.

"How does a steak and a good night's sleep sound?" he asked.

"Great. Where are we going?"

"Officer's mess." Kirk batted at a swarm of sparkling lights that were drifting through the air. "It may get rowdy out here."

Meade tried to imagine Argelian illusions loose in the corridors of the dreadnought. "Don't those things cause trouble?" Not to mention a few plumes of euphoric smoke.

"What things?" asked Kirk. "I don't see a thing. Don't worry, we all turn into pumpkins at midnight. I've never had a crew member fail to report for duty because of a hangover. C'mon, Meade. We're celebrating."

Leashed to a powerhouse, Meade didn't have much choice. Kirk paused at the door to a minor dining room and pushed her in first. Scotty lifted a glass in toast and began "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow," and a bevy of familiar voices joined him, including Amanda's, from where she stood beside Sarek, and Kirk's off-key bellow at her side. Meade teared up as the song ended in applause, but in a moment she wiped her eyes and laughed. A drink was thrust into her hand, a chair pulled out for her. There was a babble of welcome and congratulation.

"Oh, hell," said Meade. "Here's to us. Let's all get drunk!" And she did, on nothing but euphoria and orange juice.

 

XXX

Celebrations on Riga were short-lived. After the High Court, Rho had exhausted herself before returning to Hreth Malock's quarters in Nod. He was waiting for her there, and he made love to her as if it were something she expected of him. She wondered if he knew he stroked the tiren as much as he stroked her. She wondered if all men used love-making as a kind of bondage. He always pinned her with his weight, trapped her wrists above her head or at her sides. He waited for her, but then watched her reaction as if he were measuring the subjugation of an enemy. He had urged her over on her belly, lifting her buttocks to his lips, licking at the inside of her thighs; but she had turned, refusing what he evidently wanted, and he had stopped caressing her then, simply rammed himself into her until he shuddered and froze. For the first time there was no echo in her flesh. It retreated and left her isolated from him, not caring that he knew.

"You're tired," he said. "But you succeeded. The Federation has lost now, and I'll see that the vote is held before they recover."

"I thought you would go back to Veith."

"Not now." He wiped his chest and his crotch with the sheet and dropped it back across her legs. "Riga is the prize. What resistance could a planet full of slaves put up? It's not in them genetically. A hundred years of selective breeding gives you seven generations to cull the fighters out. Most of them can't read; they have no access to transportation... I'm not worried about Veith."

She wasn't either. She supposed his confidence was justified. Everything so far had worked to plan. She lay back on the pale green sheet and looked at the ceiling with its relief carving of over-arching branches and leaves. She supposed she had beaten Kirk and Spock at last.

"You're tired," Hreth Malock repeated. "Rest and wait for me." Still full of energy, he left to go on giving orders and pulling strings. What an appetite he had for power. Rho's thoughts darted from one inconsequential thought to another. She wondered why she hadn't felt it when he fucked her and why her victory left her cold and listless instead of triumphant. She had been hot enough before the Court. She could still see Kirk's face as her challenge rang out across the room, see the angry flash of his eye as it sought her out, his shock as he recognized her.

It had never occurred to her that he would not fight. Perhaps that was why she felt restless and cheated now. She turned on her pillow, scissoring her legs wide on the bed, feeling the fitness she had brought to perfection, expecting the fight. She had been ready to crush his soft human throat with her hands. Her arching brows drew together. By the time he took the dais he must have known there would be a challenge. They had baited the Vulcan just to let him know, and she had been sure that Kirk was as ready for a fight as she.

She tossed the sheet back and rolled out of the bed, needing some physical release. Just thinking of the fight she had expected was keying her up again. The soft cave of the room confined her. She punched on the viewscreen to the news channel. Hreth Malock was right. Now the Rigans were discussing the possibility of a vote. She had no respect for them. They had waited for her to fight their battle for them, for Hreth Malock to tell them how to think. She reached for a bottle of wine and poured herself a glass. It was a green-gold vintage, and it caught the light the way Kirk's eyes had, meeting hers.

She shoved the glass away, and it toppled and spilled wine across the table. Why hadn't he fought?

Furious with herself for wasting the time to wonder, she strode into the shower and stood under the spray and buffeting air. She needed a workout, not a nap. Did Man think she had taken naps when she commanded three ships in battle? She would not waste time wondering why a vanquished enemy had suddenly turned coward. She would find Tal, take her temper out on him. He wouldn't mind. And he wouldn't pull his punches with her.

Was that what Kirk had done? Pulled his punches because she was a woman?

No. He hadn't done it in battle, he wouldn't do it here. Then why hadn't he answered her?

But he did, she thought. He hadn't denied her charges because they were true. No matter that she had stalked him with her truth, lain in ambush with it, used it as a weapon to strike an unexpected killing blow—it was a truth he had owed her, and he had acknowledged it. Out of honor. Just as two years ago she had acknowledged the Emperor's claim to her obedience, expecting it to cost her life. Because she owed it to honor.

They were enemies. Kirk had destroyed her career, and now she had, in all probability, destroyed his, branding him a coward before his friends as she had been branded a traitor before hers. In her mind's eye she saw him face the jeering, hostile crowd and the long climb up those stairs. She was his enemy and must remain his enemy, but among them all, she was the only one who understood why he had done it. And she of all people should know that a beating did not mean one was beaten forever.

She braided her hair into a club and dressed in a ship's coverall with the sleeve rolled up to show the tiren. Like Man, she still had work to do.

People recognized her. Romulans showed her their faces, unconscious of what they were betraying. No Romulan ever turned his back on an enemy. Vulcans saw her and looked away, attending strictly to their own affairs in an attempt to divorce themselves from the humans who cringed and backed into the nearest shelter or open doorway to get out of her way. Rho's first savage impulse was to rejoice. That faded. After half an hour of swaggering down the walkways, she was bored with herself and disgusted with everyone else. When she found Tal celebrating her victory in a bar, it only put her in a worse temper.

"Can't you stay sober?" she barked. "Come with me."

Tal came, but he was scowling. "Do you really need something, or do you do that just to jerk my leash?" he said. "They've been wondering who I was. Now they know."

Rho had had no particular destination in mind. She needed to walk, to fly, to fight—anything to rid herself of excess energy. "I want to talk where we can't be overheard. Stop stalking along behind me and pretend we're simple companions."

"That's a little difficult when you're flaunting the tiren in everyone's face."

Rho covered the jeweled cuff by rolling down her sleeve, and Tal steered her onto a transporter pad. When they materialized they were alone at a vantage point on one of Nod's peaks. A breeze fluttered against them, bringing the sweet scent of some blooming plant. Rho looked out at the changing haze. It was as blue as the bloom on grapes now. She tried to let the quiet in.

"You don't have to stay with him," Tal said. "You've done your job. The humans are discredited."

Rho turned to face him. "You're doing what Man did. Yes, they are discredited—the humans here are cowed and the Vulcans cautious—but they are not finished. How did Spock get here from Veith? How did he know to come? While he and Kirk live, with so much as a simple stone left for a weapon, they will not be finished. We do not even know where the Enterprise is. I was wearing the tiren openly for a reason. Man watches my every move. I can't seek anyone out without betraying them. The Emperor doesn't trust him more than I do—the Emperor trusts no one. Wearing the tiren is the only signal I can give for someone to contact me. I must send word that this is not the easy victory Man thinks it."

"Are you going to tell him about the drug?"

"He probably knows. The Emperor may tolerate vice, but not treachery. I'll have to find out what Man intends to do with it. In the meantime you can be on the watch for the ship that brought it to him. And I believe there were humans—Enterprise crewmen—in that crowd at the High Court. They're Kirk's, I think, not the admiral's. There will be more of them here and in Dow. If you find one—"

"I'll finish him," Tal said grimly.

"So he can be replaced with one you will not recognize? Use your head, Tal. They're no danger until they do something or learn something. Find out who they contact, what their pattern is. There is money aboard the ship. Use it."

"Yes, Commander." There was military obedience in Tal's voice, nothing more.

Rho focused on him, stilling the restless wheels in her mind. He had asked her to leave Man, and she had ignored him. While she tried to predict the unpredictable—all the factors in this unstable system and the larger systems beyond it—he insisted on seeing only her danger and unhappiness.

"You use your obedience to punish me. Did you know that, Tal? You call me Commander when you think I am being unreasonable or unfair."

Tal hated it when she confronted him like this. She sounded as if she were playing a game, just one game among many. He'd rather she gave her orders and let him follow them without probing his motives. The things he wanted to say to her she would not hear when she was mighty; when she was fallen, he could not comfort her. He could not envision a circumstance in which she would admit him to her life.

"You are my commander," he said, looking at her where she stood with her back to the veiled and changing sky. "I do obey you."

"And I use you," she said. "I can't change, I can only admit it. I need you, Tal."

A hawk in a storm needs a resting place, too, Tal thought, some sturdy branch on a sheltering tree. The hawk may even be grateful, but it will fly again. A tree can never become a hawk.

"I'll watch for the privateer and the Enterprise humans," he said. "Is there anything else?"

"No. It's pretty here, but I must let myself be seen."

~ * ~

Farrid had dealt with the aftermath of despair and the rubbish the partygoers had left behind them. It would not help to rail at Kirk. It would not help to live with the swill he'd set out for his guests. He cleaned the video screen and left the news channel on as he made trip after trip from the common room to the kitchen. The initial reaction was bad, and he mentally added a factor of five to the incidents of violence reported. One had been on the campus, although he had not heard the explosion. It occurred to him that it might not be safe for him to leave his apartment. When a bell sounded, he jumped and punched a view of the entry before letting in two SRA members. They tumbled through the door, panting hard, and urged him to lock it behind them.

"We were afraid to call you, but we had to let you know. You were right! The Romulans don't know it yet, but the High Court was just some kind of ploy. The humans are taking over Veith! Troops from the Enterprise are involved in some kind of trouble with Hreth Malock."

They gave him a garbled and biased version of Ari's sub-space message. It sounded impossible to Farrid. Kirk's humiliation and danger had been real.

"The crewmen on Veith aren't troops," he said. "They're just taking some kind of holiday. The doctor was going, and he's no soldier. Meade was offering students free transportation to Veith. It wasn't a military expedition."

"It is now," his informants insisted. "We recorded the call. Ari said to get the word out, but we don't have sub-space to talk to him. We can't tell him what happened here. Why don't you come back and listen? We're supposed to get people organized, but nobody expected anything like this. We don't know what to do."

Farrid hesitated. His meddling to date had only made things worse. His conviction that Kirk was going to intervene, become a folk hero and chase the Romulans home, had vanished. Against a little plotting and scheming was the whole might of the Romulan clans that had been old before Nod was settled. They had power, weapons, greater strength, quicker reflexes, sharper senses. They controlled, absolutely, public transportation and communication. What could one person do against that? Much less these flushed, earnest children, who seemed decades younger than himself.

"Come on, 'Rid. It's getting worse out there all the time. Ero's brother is asking shelter for his parents. We have to hide them somewhere. People know Ero's with Ari and the men from the Enterprise."

With no little irony, Farrid realized that his own association with the Enterprise and the freedom with which he had welcomed one and all to his campus dwelling rendered his own refuge unsafe.

"I suppose I'll go with you," he said.

~ * ~

Ari had been able to direct his sub-space message to one particular recipient, but the weaker, slower broadcast was open to anyone. The pirate O'Neill was among the first to pick it up. He had been overseeing repairs on his ship, impatiently pacing and puttering, getting in the way of the men he had hired to do the job. Structural repairs were necessary where the shielded cargo hold was joined to the L-5. His attempt to jettison had stressed the whole ship. Beyond that, a power systems check was necessary. O'Neill wanted a ship that worked.

He had followed the High Court proceedings with interest because they had bearing on the Enterprise. With Kirk's dismissal and humiliation, hope had begun to tantalize him again. He imagined the silver starship at his command, her sleek beauty, her powers of destruction. Sitting at the controls, daydreaming, he hardly noticed what his restless fingers were doing until a static-choked voice mentioned the ship he was thinking of. Then he took notice.

"Belay that!" he ordered the repairman. For ten minutes he followed the wavering signal up and down the band—blue eyes intent, sensual mouth curved down in concentration, heavy brows frowning as the voice faded and drifted. He listened until he was sure of the message. Enterprise crewmen had trespassed on Hreth Malock property; Man's daughter was taking them to the estate itself.

Still listening, he tried to contact his employer, only to be fobbed off by an unfamiliar Romulan in estate livery who told him Hreth Malock was out of contact. Opposition always brought a smile of pleasure to the privateer's compelling face.

"You tell him he'll be out of contact with his holdings if you don't find him for me. You think he won't care that there are Enterprise crewmen in his little nest?"

That message was patched through to Man and Rho in an aircar where they were flying over one of the waste spaces of Riga. Man had been more and more attentive—or oppressive—toward Rho, but she thought she had foiled him. Her message had been sent, and it was giving her perverse pleasure to encourage his watchfulness now that it was too late. But this was a development neither of them had expected, thinking the Enterprise busy hosting her fraudulent delegates. Rho watched Man accept the news without a change of expression, without over-controlling the responsive aircar. O'Neill signed off with the pleased tone of one who enjoys delivering bad news.

She said what they both must be thinking. "The Enterprise was already halfway to Veith when this began. There is no way to overtake her."

"We aren't going to try," her host responded. He increased their speed without changing direction.

"Why? I warned you not to underestimate them. Everything you own is there." She jerked at her flight harness as if she could unstrap and get out. "They'll have proof your negotiations were a sham. Kirk will go after his men."

"You are always remarkably accurate at predicting his reactions. However, in this event, he will probably find troops from three other estates fighting over their bodies." His tone was acid.

"And your daughter's!" Rho reminded him. "The one who couldn't get into trouble at the south mine."

"She meddled once too often," Man said. He banked the aircar steeply, lost altitude. "And not everything I own is on Veith."

Rho could see only the tilted horizon and a vast tundra of silvery grass combed into ridges by the wind. A splayed hand of higher country reached out into the grass; a river snaked away from the hand like a lightning bolt. Man dropped even closer to the ground and leveled off. He was busy with the controls for a moment, then he leaned back and concentrated on his piloting as an anonymous voice said, "You are clear, sir."

They were approaching the dark cleft of a canyon now, from near ground level, taking the course of the river. Steep cliffs reached up toward the sky, and just as they cut into the gloom, Rho caught sight of a saucer-shaped depression to the left. A reflecting surface winked at her, a lake mirroring the sky, and there was a jumble of regular blocks, some kind of village or installation. It was not her cousin's destination, apparently. He was flirting with destruction, taking the canyon's bends and angles at speeds best reserved for clear air. The walls streaked past. Rho glimpsed horizontal bands of ocher and reddish gray, sensed vertical columns of rock. The river churned and hurled itself against the cliffs, red-brown, almost orange where it foamed into sucking whirlpools or shot up in shock waves and waterspouts. Man flew low enough to wet the aircar's belly in the spray.

Adrenalized, concerned not to show it, Rho deliberately leaned back in her seat and relaxed. She could see no flaw in the part she had played. Her message to the Emperor would only be verified if the Federation moved on Veith. Man's apparent indifference was something new and interesting that might be turned to her advantage—if she lived, she thought as they took another corner with so little room to spare that her body instinctively and uselessly braced itself for impact.

They arrived almost before she realized they were climbing. Man slanted the car's nose up, cut power, and their remaining impetus took them into a cave mouth and a power-net. They were shaken and jounced for a moment before the nose dipped, the ship leveled, and they were lowered to the ground. It was dark around the ship, but Rho could make out guards in Hreth Malock livery, some computer banks, the metallic gleam of security doors in the back of the cave. Her palms grew damp before her brain had time to identify a prison. Doors like that had closed behind her for two years.

"Come, cousin, let me show you my Rigan real estate."

It was a maze of defenses, storage, prison cells, laboratories, surgeries, as modern as anything in Federation or Empire. He told her it had been thirty years in the building, had drained the resources of his holdings on Veith. It was here, for the most part, that psychosurgery on the delegates had been performed; here, rather than on either moon, that he held prisoners of value.

"What prisoners?" asked Rho. No slave and few hostages could be worth this expenditure.

"The Vulcan ambassador, for one. Here there would have been no rescue. Here we do not exist. No Rigan knows of this, no security forcefield will show on any ship's sensors. We have them, but they in turn are shielded by solid rock. There is no entry or exit but that one cave, and the canyon itself is defended against any powered vessel."

"Your aircar could be traced," Rho said.

"It could, but I also own, through eccentricity, the village called Kaimos Encar. It would be supposed that I had gone there to tax my tenants. There is nothing else within a thousand miles of us."

 

XXXI

The Enterprise's first experience of the changes wrought by the revolution on Veith was encountered long before the ship reached Riga. Space is ordinarily a desert, a waste not only waterless, but airless and lightless as well. To meet a ship head on, even in the relatively crowded areas around the suns of inhabited planets, is unusual. The starship recorded and avoided the approach of several small vessels. Uhura, with SALEE at her fingertips, gave them a look at the refugee crafts' interiors. The vessels were loaded to capacity with humans and their belongings.

"They must have decided to 'git while the gittin's good,'" McCoy said. "But where are they going?"

"To Veith," Sulu said. "Those vessels aren't equipped for interstellar travel."

"Well, I hope they've got friends there," McCoy said. "It's no place for a bunch of newcomers. Veith is going to have its hands full just taking care of itself."

"Just how many are out there?" Kirk asked. Spock was already programming the sensors for a system-wide sweep. After a moment he looked up, waiting for the computer to carry out his program.

It was so familiar, Kirk thought. And he felt, in his body, an ease or comfort he hadn't known the whole time Spock was on Veith. But he also felt a distance he couldn't explain from the bridge and its crew and its competently carried-out business. It was more than a masked apprehension about his upcoming interview with Harnum, less than worry. He felt as if the command chair had been moved two inches one way or the other and his perspective had been altered subtly.

"There are 81 vessels en route to Veith. There are nine leaving the system for Romulus."

"The news is out, then."

They ducked and swerved their way into orbit, Sulu not being inclined to trust civilian pilots' ability at the helm. Uhura had been giving them all a sampling of the newsmongers' version of the revolution. It was evident that the admiral had not passed on the Enterprise's version of the action. What emerged was a confusion of SRA and Romulan propaganda. Kirk finally tired of it and told Uhura to try SALEE on the planet, but they were approaching her more or less from the dark side. They wouldn't be synchronous with Riga, the city, until they achieved their orbit. Vistas of moon-silvered wilderness were all Uhura could bring up on the screen. Reluctantly, Kirk left the bridge to freshen up for his meeting with Harnum.

He never made it to his cabin. Uhura's voice was summoning him back to the bridge. She turned as he came in, her eyes wide, her color bad. Everyone else was staring at SALEE's display on the forward screen.

At first Kirk couldn't even see the bodies. A ragged line of black scarecrows was propped against a fence. He wanted to see tree stumps or strange sculptures of wire-wrapped clothing. But it was a row of corpses, their arms outstretched where they had been pinned to the structure behind them, hands overlapping with spikes driven through the palms, not straight on, but angled up so that the victims could not pull free, even with Vulcan strength, when the fires had been lit around their feet. Some of them were—had been Vulcan—the rest were human. There was a placard at the end of the row with flowing Romulan script. The paper was very white, moving in a morning wind.

"What does it say?" Kirk whispered.

Spock had to clear his throat before he answered. "It says, 'Federation Supporters,' Captain."

"My God." Kirk came out of his freeze. "Sensors, make sure—" but Spock had already turned to them. Chekov was verifying coordinates without being told.

"One living, sir."

"Coordinates to the transporter," Kirk snapped. "Get McCoy down there. Take the con, Sulu. Uhura, get a record." Spock was already crossing the bridge.

McCoy made the transporter room ahead of them, but not by much. "What's the matter?" he demanded as Kirk unloaded two phaser rifles from a locker in the wall.

"We're going after a political prisoner. It's not pretty." Kirk tossed a rifle to Spock and it smacked into the Vulcan's hands. "Sulu?"

"Yes, Captain," the Oriental's voice came over the intercom.

"Keep security out of this unless we are actually attacked—belay that—unless we're attacked and it looks like we can't hold our own. Understood?"

"Aye, aye, sir."

Kirk bounded up to the transporter pad, and the full-body tingle took them. They materialized facing away from the bodies, so it was the odor of burned meat that McCoy caught first. Kirk and Spock were scanning a vacant lot for enemies, but there was no one in sight, although ramps led from ground level down into the dark doorways of several buildings. McCoy let them do their job and turned to do his.

The bodies were blackened to the waist and above, but the smoke-grimed faces still bore a horrifying resemblance to life. There were both men and women nailed to the fence like a mad naturalist's specimens. McCoy's tricorder was shaking in his hands as he moved down the row. Jim had said "prisoner," which meant that he expected to find someone alive. McCoy almost hoped they didn't. He cringed from the thought that any being should have to live with a memory like this. He passed a woman whose fair hair had burned to ash up one side of her head, a man who had bled from the eyes in the extremity of his pain, and another who had bitten through his lips until his dead face showed a macabre crescent smile. McCoy's stomach turned over and he moved faster. It was a woman, third from the end of the line of twenty, who finally registered on his tricorder. McCoy made sure she was the only one, then came back to her. She was Vulcan. Her long hair had been braided and wound around her head, but the braid had slipped. Fire had run up her hair to her face.

"This one," he said. "A Vulcan. Can you get her down?"

Spock moved forward. "If you will cover us, Captain, I can remove the spikes."

Kirk forced himself to look away and do his job, because he couldn't do what Spock was going to do, even if he'd had the strength. It was McCoy who watched in horrified fascination as Spock reached out and lifted a dead man's hand up and off the spike, pulling meat and bone free. When he released the corpse it slid down on a diagonal, suspended from its other hand.

"Hold her up," the Vulcan said as he seized the bloodied metal.

McCoy grasped the woman around the waist and lifted her up. The spike came out of the fence with a shriek that bounced off the blank walls around them. The woman sagged into McCoy's arms, heavy and quite limp. He was aware of her blackened knees pressing his and the reek of smoke in her hair. Spock moved to the other hand. Here the woman's hand was on top, and the only way to get a grip on the spike was to remove the hand behind hers first. Spock grasped the elbow and wrist of the adjacent corpse and pulled down. McCoy heard the wrist dislocate, heard the faint pop of bones being disjointed, and the soft, tearing sound as tissue and skin ripped. A mangled flipper fell away, not a hand. Spock lifted the woman from McCoy's arms, balanced her dead weight with one arm to get her higher, then pulled the spike free.

"Ready, Captain."

Kirk flipped open the communicator. "Now!" he said, and in a moment they were back on the ship, facing a transporter technician who turned dead white when he saw what they had brought with them.

Uhura must have told the sickbay what to expect. Chapel and M'Benga were ready with a burn bath, and Spock lowered the woman into it and stepped back with his arms dripping. McCoy hustled him out of the way, and for a moment the Vulcan just stood there. His shirt, like McCoy's, was black with the charred remnants of the woman's skin and clothes.

"Stand still," Kirk said, pulling Spock out of McCoy's way. He turned and rummaged through a drawer of instruments until he found a pair of scissors. Spock stood like a statue as Kirk tugged his blue shirt away from his pants and began a ragged cut from hem to neckline. He peeled Spock out of the shirt and tossed the ruined rag away. He could feel, even without contact, the energy drain it had been to touch and hold the injured woman. Spock's nerves had been overloaded. "I want you to sit down until you feel better, and then get something hot and sweet to drink. I'll be back."

Kirk stopped just long enough to get a complete recording of SALEE's visual before beaming to the Haile Selassie unannounced, out of uniform, out of patience. His rendering of military courtesy startled the dreadnought's transporter technician into hitting a security alert button, and being confronted with phasers did nothing to improve Kirk's temper. Or to stop him. He had ceased worrying about personal consequences and political appearances. He was marginally aware of his own energy field, crackling and charged with power, as he bounced junior officers out of his way. Something between the elation of a gambler on a roll and the righteous indignation of a saint fueled him as he let temper have its way. He relinquished control with pleasure. Whatever the result, he was going to enjoy the next twenty minutes. He interrupted a staff meeting, dismissed Harnum's subordinates, and confronted his superior officer.

"What, if anything, have you been doing to protect the Federation's interests and values in this system, Admiral?" Surprise and fury rendered Harnum incoherent. Kirk didn't wait for him to recover. "That's about what I thought, since you're allowing civilians to be tortured and killed," he slapped SALEE's recording down on the table, "under your nose."

Harnum stood up, tipping his chair over in the process. "You're out of order, Captain!"

"I'm going to be more out of order, sir. I'm going to suggest that before you command my respect, you try earning it. I would like to believe that those people down there have more to appeal to than a dress uniform and an inflated ego."

"I'll have you in irons!"

"Now that will be a significant move toward political unity, won't it?"

"It will put an officer in charge of your ship who knows how to obey an order!"

"It will put a Vulcan in charge of my ship," Kirk said sweetly, "a Vulcan accustomed to the use of logic and pledged to defend the rights of sentient beings. Or do you plan to ignore the chain of command and demonstrate your superiority to the claims of mere aliens on military propriety? I would like to see you order Spock to abandon a planet voting for inclusion in the Federation."

"You'll face charges—"

"I'm prepared to face them. But those charges aren't going to include sitting on my hands and ignoring the job I was sent here to do."

"My job—" Harnum began, driven to the defensive.

"Was to insure a free election of this system's inhabitants," Kirk interrupted. "Half of them have had it. What are you going to do about the remainder?"

"I am going, by God, to protect them from outside interference, which is exactly what you have been trying to provide since you got here, Captain. A free election, in case you hadn't heard, is one the people run themselves."

Kirk shook his head. "Those people down there are about as free as steers in a slaughterhouse. They're so free they're cramming twenty people into weekend runabouts and trying to make Veith before they run out of air. They're so free their neighbors are crucifying them for thinking about voting for inclusion. Not one human on that planet had the guts to tell us we were being set up. Your definition of freedom makes me sick."

"Customs differ."

"Not that much, apparently. Ignoring injustice doesn't make it go away. You have the evidence, Admiral, including your little eavesdropping routine on Ambassador Sarek. If you choose to ignore it, I can only assume you are indifferent to the outcome of this mission and proceed on my own."

That brought Harnum around the table that separated them. "You'll proceed nowhere, mister! You'll stay on your ship and keep your officers off that planet and out of local politics, or I'll go through every rating aboard her until I find someone who will. You get back aboard, pronto! And stay aboard and off my ship! You put her where I tell you, when I tell you, or I'll lay a photon torpedo off your bows!"

"You'd better have your shields up when you do!"

The discussion went downhill from there.

~ * ~

On board the Enterprise, the burning, vertiginous disorder of Spock's nervous system, once he had relinquished the woman's tormented body, demanded stillness, even of the mind. He was only dimly aware of being cared for, although his breathing became easier as Kirk's hands moved, inches from his body, and centered at his belt buckle, not far from his heart. Kirk's admonition seemed to pause in his outer ear, echoing, until his brain was ready to accept new sensory input. He came back to full awareness seated in McCoy's office, out of uniform, sipping a cup of sugar-laced coffee.

For a moment three sensations fought for dominance: the shock to his physical system, a stinging male pungency on the air, and a sense of loss. He took a deep breath and then another, summoning up his reserves. Kirk had gone, in no appeasing mood, to confront the admiral. His first officer belonged on the bridge.

With care, he put the cup down. Sugar was rightly regarded as a drug on Vulcan. The quickly available energy had supplied his own lack. For years the captain had observed and respected Spock's eating habits. Even in a crisis, he would be unlikely to mistake Vulcan needs for human ones. How had he known that this time was the exception?

A commotion in sickbay drew his attention back to ship's affairs. He rose and went out, only to find Sarek waving away the assistance of an exasperated McCoy. The ambassador's face was bruised, his ear bleeding. Spock's eyebrow rose.

Sarek ignored his human well-wishers and answered the inquiry on his son's face. "I desired to ascertain what diplomatic channels might still be open to me in Nod."

"You found out, didn't you?" McCoy growled, dabbing at the trickle of blood. "What happened?"

Again Sarek addressed himself to Spock. "I beamed to the nexus nearest my quarters, was recognized, and attacked by humans. The action could not have been preplanned. I conjecture that public sentiment has polarized against the captain and myself."

Spock had a question of his own. "How did you accomplish your return, sir?"

"I didn't," Sarek said shortly. "Your transporter brought me and three of my assailants aboard without our volition."

"You were just lucky the damn things were working," said McCoy, missing the undercurrents. "Will you hold still?"

Spock ignored the snub. "Are you certain, sir, that the event was not precipitated by simple racial bias—victimized humans seeing an opportunity to strike at an oppressor?"

Sarek removed himself from McCoy's probing touch long enough to depress this obvious example of wishful thinking. "I assure you, Spock, the attack was personal."

Spock nodded. He hadn't really doubted it. The High Court would have been followed attentively by all three races. It was not unnatural that Kirk and Sarek would be seen as having betrayed human interests on Riga. Those powerless to strike at their real oppressors could always be counted on to find scapegoats.

"Please remain on the ship until Captain Kirk can be informed of the situation, sir. I trust you are not seriously injured."

"Of course not. Where is the captain?"

"I believe he is presently aboard the Haile Selassie. I must return to my duties. Please allow Dr. McCoy to complete his examination. You will find me on the bridge, Doctor." And Spock moved briskly out of the room, forestalling any attempt on McCoy's part to inquire too closely into his own well-being.

Sulu was very glad to be relieved of command, although a little apprehensive when he saw Spock coming through the turbolift door. The ordered surveillance of the first officer's father had become general knowledge on the bridge. But Spock demanded no awkward explanations. He merely commended them for their quick action. He was more concerned with an internal debate. He could call Kirk aboard the dreadnought and warn him against any unplanned detours to Riga. Remembering the crowd closing in on Kirk at the High Court, he very much desired to make that call. But considering Kirk's mood and the sensitivity of his relationship with Harnum, any interruption would be unwelcome. For a moment, Spock was tempted to turn SALEE's abilities on the dreadnought, but the thought was unworthy, and besides, he could hardly do it in the presence of Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, and Missy Steward, who was filling in at his own station.

Spock felt confined by the command chair as if he had absorbed some of Kirk's anger and energy by osmosis. Well, there was no point in sitting and fidgeting. When Kirk alternately tapped his chair arm with restless fingers or chewed his cuticle, Spock had observed the exchanged glances among the bridge crew. He had no desire to be an object of such comment. With calm dignity he rose to mask his impatience by making a conscientious tour of the bridge stations.

~ * ~

Although Man Hreth Malock's determination not to return to Veith had weathered the increasingly bad news emanating from that planet, the thought of losing anything that was his—particularly to the Federation, particularly at the hands of the daughter he had dismissed from his favor—grated on his nerves like sandpaper on a raw wound. Rho and the hawk, Claw, were suffering from the side effects. The commiserations of his associates, which he read as the thinly veiled insults they were, did not improve Man's temper, nor did the news that O'Neill had taken his newly repaired ship out for a trial run that relieved some fleeing refugees of their lives and their goods.

Goading Man almost beyond endurance, the final pinprick came right on the heels of the Enterprise. His nondescript watcher brought the news that one of Rho's apparently casual contacts—a jewel merchant in Nod—had made an ill-advised effort to return to Romulus. His ship had been stopped, but he had panicked and chosen another form of departure—permanent—before he could be questioned. Man could hardly ask Rho what message she had dispatched to the Emperor. Nor could he be sure, with his own courier on the way, whether the non-arrival of Rho's message might not provide the Emperor with more insight than its arrival. The underlings who had botched the job regretted it before they, too, departed permanently.

With no other target available, Man focused on the interfering ship and authorized the transmission of a single strong radio signal, one of many directed at the returning starship.

~ * ~

Spock's restlessness saved Missy's life. Midway between the science station and the communications console, a harmless canister of compressed oxygen from a field pack lay enclosed in a plastic bag full of yellow powder. When a minuscule detonator went pop and broke the seal on the canister, Missy bent over to see what had happened. The sound was similar to the snapping of an electric arc. The plastic bag blew up like a balloon, full of agitated powder, and exploded with a louder and more muffled sound, sending a puff of sulfurous smoke out from under the console and directly toward her face.

Vulcan reflexes and Vulcan strength jerked her away before she could inhale. Spock backed away from the expanding cloud. He remembered S'tyge's capsule of pain. "Abandon the bridge!" he ordered, hitting the red alert button on the arm of the command chair as he jerked Missy past it.

Boredom interspersed with panic was the life style of space-goers everywhere. The crew reacted as if they'd rehearsed the maneuver and tumbled into the turbolift on Spock's heels. Spock was already giving orders to seal off the bridge and activate stations in the auxiliary setup when Chekov demanded, "Vat vas that?" as the lift doors closed.

"A gift from Romulus, Mr. Chekov. A sample should be preserved for Dr. McCoy before commencing decontamination. Sulu, other such offerings may be secreted around the ship. Uhura, please notify the captain aboard the Haile Selassie."

~ * ~

The return of the Enterprise also stung Farrid into action. He had been learning the impossibility of old organizations dealing with new problems. The Student Resistance Alliance had begun as a gentlemen's club of idealistic Veithan Romulans. It had seen itself in the role of recruiter, educator, catalyst of change. Until the initial arrival of the Enterprise, no one, human or Romulan, had really expected to accomplish anything else. The humans involved were further handicapped by thinking in terms of generations; whether impatient or resigned, they were secure in the knowledge that their leaders had life spans three times as long as their own.

Now, in a month, their world had been overturned, their leaders removed, and a situation they had never foreseen had arrived, demanding action. Farrid had dealt with so much hope, so much disappointment, so much sheer terror and helpless rage during that time that he felt hollow, apathetic to the need for anything but sleep. In the three days since word had come from Veith, he had moved, with a changing coalition of other students, in and out of one hiding place after another. Each new refuge, which was supposed to provide quiet and security, so that "we can think," was swiftly filled with frightened people who had heard it was safe from a friend or relative.

When Farrid pointed out that it was impossible to house or feed or protect large numbers of people in secret, he was downshouted by a fearful majority who insisted that secrecy was their only salvation, or inundated by demands from groups formed two hours earlier in a bedroom or a hall and intent on seizing power from the vacuum and reaping profit from chaos. From despising all bureaucracy, Farrid went to desperate envy of his father's closed doors and staff of clerks. The frightened people around him raised a clamor that simply cut off thought. Finally, with word of the starship's arrival, he left everyone else to argue and found a communications booth that still worked.

Uhura recognized him and put him through to Meade, who promptly invited him aboard ship.

"I shouldn't be seen," he said, trying for his old air of irony and innuendo. "There's a rumor that the transporters have been reprogrammed. A number of people have set out on journeys that they failed to complete."

That was no problem for the Enterprise; Meade browbeat the transporter technician into making the transfer and hustled Farrid into her office. The sudden quiet and order hit his nervous system like a new assault. His knees shook and he sat down suddenly.

"Gods," he said. "I can smell myself."

"Worse could happen," Meade said. "Here, drink this and tell me what's going on down there."

Farrid gulped and choked, then set the brandy aside. "I haven't eaten," he said. "If I drink that I'll be drunk. They've begun to kill people. We don't know what to do. I thought if I came here, I could use the sub-space communicator and talk to Ari."

From her tour on Veith, Meade had an idea of how much time Ari would have to spare for thinking about Rigan problems, but she didn't say so. She was familiar with the effects of civil disorder. One initial reaction was the stubborn conviction that someone, somewhere, must still be in charge. A patent lie, in most cases. Riga was coming apart like an unstable isotope, and with his eyes bruised by lack of sleep and his face drawn by worry, Farrid looked as if he might do the same. She was just about to order him some food when the klaxons sounded.

Farrid jerked out of his seat and turned toward the door as it slid home with a whuf of imprisoned air. "What's that?"

"Red alert," Meade said gruffly, having heard it too often before. "It's probably some of Harnum's nonsense." But her heart was doing flip-flops. There was also the Romulan navy in the offing. "Damn it, my console's locked up."

Farrid was trying the door, which didn't budge. "You mean we can't get out of here?"

Meade was fighting with the recalcitrant computer. "We're probably safer here than anywhere else—there!" Her screen had cleared to show a familiar face. "Gavin, what's going on?"

"You have a Romulan national with you, Doctor. Are you in need of assistance?"

Meade looked at Farrid, who was staring at the screen with a bewildered expression. "I need information," she said firmly. "Why the bells and sirens?"

"The ship has been contaminated. A guard will be arriving at your door shortly. He will take care of you." Before Meade could protest, Lapsley blanked the screen.

"Contaminated," said the pan-anthropologist, suspicious eyes on her guest.

"Do you think I did it?" Farrid demanded indignantly.

"Well, if you did, I for one will help Jim Kirk cycle you through a one-way airlock."

Farrid sat down, put his head in his hands, and groaned. "And I came here for help."

~ * ~

The ship was buzzing like a hive of disturbed bees by the time Kirk beamed back aboard. Spock was waiting for him with an estimate of decontamination time for the bridge; McCoy with news that the burn victim hadn't made it, and that Sarek had been attacked; and the transporter technician joined in with the news that there was a Rigan aboard, sponsored by Dr. Morrow.

Kirk heard them all out, a certain dangerous glitter in his eye testifying to unresolved problems of his own. Assured that the auxiliary bridge was functioning and the ambassador unhurt, he ordered a staff meeting in half an hour, civilians included, and shut the ship down tight. He turned to Gavin Lapsley, who had joined the throng. "Now I want to talk to that Rigan."

On Kirk's order, the security man outside Meade's office stood aside and released the lock. He looked a little embarrassed. "She wouldn't come out, sir, or let me in. She said she wouldn't have any problems."

Kirk stepped across the threshold and saw that Meade had known what she was talking about. Farrid had slid down in his chair, his head lolling to one side, and his mouth slightly open.

"The Rigan menace," Meade said with malicious satisfaction. "Down for the count."

"What's he doing here?"

"Came to make a phone call. The Rigan branch of the resistance isn't doing well. We took all the chiefs back home to Veith."

Kirk had known there was more to the boy than his flamboyant display of personality. It was only logical that he be involved with some idealistic effort. But he had still come aboard just prior to the attack on the bridge. "Wake him up," Kirk said. While Meade did that, he dismissed the guard and accepted a specimen bottle a lab technician brought up. Yellow dust, fine as smoke, clung to the glass. On impulse, Kirk shook it up and thrust it into the face of the awakening boy. Farrid jerked away, slamming into the back of his chair and coming fully awake. When he realized the bottle was closed, he glared up at Kirk.

"I see you know what it is," Kirk said. "What I want to know is how it got here."

Fear, fatigue, and frustration had done their work on Farrid's temper and his tongue. This was the hero he had expected to save Riga. "I didn't bring it here," he said clearly. "I leave the betrayal of my friends to the kind of coward who has a stomach for treason."

The slur was so sudden, and so direct, that Kirk's face flamed. Meade took an instinctive step backward.

"No?" said Kirk. "I thought ambush was your specialty."

It was Farrid's turn to flush. "I hired Romulan bravos to test your courage," he admitted. "I didn't bring sundust aboard your ship."

"And let me walk into the High Court."

"Because I thought you would fight, not run!"

The guard backing Kirk up had his phaser drawn, and Meade, watching, saw Kirk tense to deliver a backhand blow that would knock the boy off his chair—but the blow failed to materialize. The heat didn't entirely leave Kirk's face, but he ignored the accusation.

"What is sundust?"

Farrid had been braced for a blow, too, and the lack of it shook his certainty. "It's a Romulan pleasure drug, fatal to humans. It's the seed of a plant. No human in his right mind would release it in a sealed space he occupied."

"We've had a few aboard who weren't in their right minds," Kirk retorted, "which you could have told us three weeks ago. My bridge is full of this stuff." His hand closed dangerously around the bottle and his eyes were hot and bright. "Now I don't give a damn about your opinion of me, but what you know about Riga could make a life or death difference to thousands of people. You're my prisoner. I want your parole. You give me accurate and complete information, starting right now, in exchange for whatever help I decide to give you, or you are strictly on your own, right back where you started."

Meade felt sorry for the ardent youngster. By the flash of his eye and the set of his chin, he would have preferred the second choice. But that was impossible, and Farrid acknowledged it after a moment.

"I give you my parole," he said stiffly.

Kirk dropped his threatening pose like an actor discarding a prop. "Staff meeting, Meade. Bring him along. I have to talk to Sarek." He was off down the hall without a backward look.

Farrid stood up, his face white. "I hate him!"

Meade exhaled slowly. She had seen a few close-run things in her day. Her baleful glance stopped any further confidences. "I haven't decided whether you are stupider or luckier—but every time you open your mouth I'm closer to making up my mind. There's a shower in my suite. If you're coming with me, the least you can do is wash your face and comb your hair!"

~ * ~

Although Farrid was in no mood to appreciate it, Kirk's staff meeting was a model of efficiency. The events of the morning were brought into focus and perspective. McCoy ran through the tape Uhura had recorded of Spock freeing the Vulcan woman and reported her death. Faces round the table were grim; Farrid was pale with shock.

"It is apparently not an isolated incident," Kirk said. "Farrid will tell us why the Romulans are so confident they can get away with it."

"Who will stop them?" Farrid asked bitterly. "On Veith, where there was no threat, the mighty Federation acted. Here they can kill, torture, or enslave as they will. You do nothing!"

"Now wait just a minute—" began McCoy.

"Belay that!" said Kirk crisply. "Neither of you is in a position to judge the other. Go on, Farrid."

Meade nudged the boy with her elbow. "Tell them what's happening down there."

Farrid raised his hand to gesture, then dropped it in defeat. "They're killing us. There will be no election. Those who have the means are already trying to find ships and leave. People need food, places to hide—" He looked around the table and then back at the last image frozen on the viewscreen. "You assume that Romulans did that. But you don't know. It might have been their own families, from fear. People are abandoning their children, did you know that? The brave couples who brought half-breeds into the world are beating them and throwing them out in the streets. They're afraid to say who their parents are."

Sarek and Spock looked on with the others as Farrid searched their faces. "I don't know how to make you understand. You're giving a choice to people who don't have the ability to choose. It's been bred out of us. You should have studied the language, like Dr. Morrow. The Romulans don't have a word for surrender. They don't have a word for neutrality. They use our words—and laugh." Two spots of color burned up over Farrid's cheekbones, and his sea green eyes looked dark in his drawn face. "Do you know what they think of your hundred-year peace? Of your Neutral Zone? They call it r'ral tajig, the free range. And your hundred-year peace is hur basik, the ripening. That's how they managed their herds, you know. On a free range the stock must provide for itself, and if it grows too depleted, they declare no hunting until the herd can ripen again. That's all we are to them."

"Men are not animals," Sarek said.

Farrid gave him a sick smile. "You aren't, they—" a wave at Kirk and Spock, "aren't. That's why I thought—" He broke off and shook his head. "It wouldn't work anyway. Our troublemakers have been culled out for generations. Even though it's true that Nod and Dow were made with human technology, no one believes it now. I don't know what you did to make those slaves revolt, but it can't happen here."

McCoy, having seen Veith first hand, looked ready to explode at this defeatist talk from a pampered bantling, but Kirk cut him off. "Gavin?"

"The local government administers basic services—power, transportation—on Riga. But off-planet transport is controlled from Nod. They're in a closed bottle down there."

"Except the ones who are hightailing it for Veith, instead of solving their own problems." McCoy glowered at Farrid.

Meade sighed. "Leonard—they're being allowed to leave. The general population can't escape. They haven't the means. The relatively few humans who are permitted to go take nothing from the Romulans. They're just sorting themselves and delivering their wealth to Nod. The ships are owned by Romulans!"

Lapsley verified that with his usual tact, addressing McCoy. "They're two entirely different situations, sir. Veith is small, poor, feudal. Riga is more like a comfortable concentration camp. And the power holders here haven't been distracted by a crisis halfway across their system. They nearly succeeded in deceiving us—twice—and they've been able to penetrate our defenses to the point of sabotaging our bridge."

McCoy could see that no one shared his point of view. He subsided into a sulky silence that showed he didn't share theirs. On Veith, people practically deprived of identity had fought back.

"And 'Rid is right about studying the language, Jim." Meade ruffled her short hair. "The most significant datum is the fact that the resistance movement evolved around Veithan leaders—outsiders of superior physical endowment. Whatever their genetic situation is, Rigan humans are conditioned to accept Romulan leadership."

Kirk nodded. "What about the chances for a vote?"

The consensus was prompt—and negative. No mechanism for voting had ever been set up on Riga; the concept was alien, the population too great for the simple voice vote, and all the computers were "owned" by the government. Nor was the political situation promising.

"You and I have both been discredited, Captain," Sarek said in summary. "I see no advantage in treating with a puppet administrator. There is a statistical possibility that Admiral Harnum might contact the true leaders in Nod." Sarek encountered a brief, wintry glance from Kirk and let that suggestion die away.

Meade snorted. "As a diplomat, Harnum would make a good dancing bear. He can't decide left from right without looking for that class ring he wears."

McCoy added his own comment, and Kirk said nothing to contradict his two hotheads. Words had not come easily to him since the day of the High Court, particularly words with or about Harnum. He had tried to lessen the feeling of betrayal by telling himself that every service had incompetents promoted past their level of effectiveness, but that was no comfort, and now it was no excuse. He could endure being misjudged, even by those he was sworn to defend. No one who counted believed either the Court's judgment or Harnum's scathing comments. But when lives hung in the balance, he had obligations that transcended mere obedience. He waited until they ran down, there were no more volunteers, and a glum silence settled over the table. By chance, Chekov, Sulu, Uhura, and Scotty had taken seats on his side of the table. Nadia and Gavin were on the ends, and Spock was seated across from Kirk between Sarek and Farrid. Kirk missed the usual presence at his shoulder. Like Kirk, Spock had had little to say about the morning's events.

"I showed Admiral Harnum that recording," Kirk began quietly. "Edited, his comments boil down to the fact that the inhabitants of Riga are not Federation citizens, nor are they refugees, until they arrive at and are assimilated on a Federation planet. There is a strong precedent against uninvited Starfleet interference in alien affairs. Admiral Harnum expressed concern that Enterprise involvement could be construed as military coercion, thus invalidating the election held on Veith. You're all familiar with the argument." Kirk's voice was carefully uninflected. "It is important to the admiral that no such criticism be voiced about the decision made by Riga. Until such time as Federation citizens are endangered, my orders are to keep myself and my officers aboard this ship."

Sarek had retreated into himself, dealing with the ugliness, the blind emotional reaction of a people afraid. He looked from face to face, wondering if they understood what a cusp of history they were poised upon, how important their personal lives had become to many nations of people. He doubted it. People seldom knew the importance of their chance actions, could never assess the entire result of the most random choice. If the theory of alternate universes was true, then they sprang from just such decisions as now faced all of them. In some universe they would hesitate, two worlds would be lost, and the chains of tradition would weigh heavier on the future. In some universe they would rebel, and the tradition of faithfulness would be weakened. How simple to choose between good and evil. How difficult to choose between two good things.

Kirk sensed the conclusion of some train of thought. "Ambassador?"

"Since Admiral Harnum's concern is for Federation citizens, and Federation citizens only, we must provide him with such a concern. I am a Federation citizen and a free agent. I shall return to Riga."

"No, Sarek!" It was Amanda, paler than she had been in reaction to the horrors on the viewscreen. "Your death would help no one!"

"Danger does not relieve one of obligation, Amanda. If we have the ability to stop this, we must attempt to do so."

"I'll go with you," said Meade. "I never did like the military owning me." She pushed back her chair as if ready to get up and leave immediately.

Spock had said nothing throughout the entire briefing, and his silence suddenly became noticeable. Kirk felt a sinking sensation at the look of decision on the stern face, fought back a sudden urge to get up and close the distance between them now, before it was too late. He had seen that look before, and he didn't want to hear what Spock had to say.

Spock so seldom put himself forward that it came as a shock to see how easily he could do it, when he chose. He rose from Sarek's side, drawing their eyes with his height and his quietness. Protest formed and died on Kirk's face as Spock drew breath to speak. Some rights even love does not give.

"I am not known on Riga to a significant degree. I am a Federation citizen. I have the administrative ability needed by the resistance. I appear Romulan. I come from the outside. And I have already been granted my discharge from service aboard the Enterprise. The captain will verify this."

Kirk could not, like Amanda, voice his protest, but he felt the actual sensation of his blood cooling in his body, as if some subtle poison had been introduced into a vein.

"With the captain's permission," Spock continued, "I will accept my discharge here."

The captain's permission, thought Kirk, already given. The captain's reprieve, canceled. They were all looking at him, sure of his answer.

"Mr. Spock is correct, as usual," he said, surprised how normal his voice sounded. "If he chooses to go to Riga, as a private citizen, Starfleet has no authority to prevent it. I assume his assistance will be acceptable?"

Farrid realized the question was addressed to him. Like the others, he had been looking from Kirk to Spock, sensing undercurrents. "Yes," he said. "Yes!"

The remainder of the meeting was brief. Facing the strictures Harnum had placed on them and the obstacles on Riga, there was no way to foster a genuine referendum. Once policy consolidated around providing assistance to the refugees, ideas surfaced and reacted synergistically. Kirk sent his staff about their tasks but remained behind for a moment, charging McCoy to come up with some means of tracking Spock besides the transponder he now wore routinely.

"In a population of Romulans and Vulcans—and hybrids, according to Farrid—Jim, I don't know how to do that."

"Find out," said Kirk. "Use Scotty, ask Spock. I don't want him leaving this ship until we have a way to trace him. When you figure it out, I'll be on the bridge." He went on his way, leaving McCoy to his task, Spock to confer with Sarek, Meade, and Farrid. For two hours he harassed the crew Scotty had assigned to go over the bridge with a fine-tooth comb, then McCoy called back.

"You aren't going to like what we've come up with," the doctor said, sounding as if he didn't like it himself. You want to come down here?"

Kirk left the auxiliary bridge, perfectly aware that his bridge crew was glad to get rid of him. He was filled with nervous energy and an all-over misery like a gigantic toothache. "What have you got?" he demanded, pacing into sickbay.

"How are you?" countered McCoy.

Kirk brushed that aside with a brief "I'm fine. Quit stalling."

McCoy hadn't been stalling. The signs of stress were all too apparent in Kirk's tension and shortness of temper. Knowing what he did of their relationship, he knew what it was costing Kirk to let Spock go off on yet another dangerous mission. But he was obviously not going to discuss it. McCoy turned to his computer terminal.

"There weren't many choices, Jim. Any transponder-type appliance could be detected with sensors, and Spock's physiology wouldn't stand out on Riga the way it usually does on a humanoid planet. We needed something so distinctive it couldn't possibly be duplicated by any other person down there—" McCoy looked up miserably. "There are biological agents, but we couldn't track them at a distance. We can give him a dose of radiation poisoning."

An angry flush burned up into Kirk's face. "Is that your idea of a joke?"

McCoy shook his head. "I'm sorry, Jim. It's logical. We can detect it at a distance. It won't debilitate him—not at first. If we—when we get him back aboard we can cure it."

"And if we don't it won't matter," Kirk finished. The heat of anger drained away and a chill shook him. "Have you told him?"

"A little while ago. It will take a couple of hours to set things up." McCoy cleared his throat. They were both thinking of what they'd seen that morning, of the danger Spock was courting. "I'm so damn sorry, Jim. It's so unfair."

"Fair doesn't enter into it, Bones. Spock—has a right to choose what he spends his life on. I couldn't—steal—his freedom and call that love. Let me know when you—" Kirk's voice suspended itself and he swallowed.

"I will." And McCoy watched Kirk turn and walk away with his own eyes burning. Spock's consent to the plan and Kirk's acquiescence meant that he would have to go through with it. He completed his arrangements and waited for Spock with the feeling that reality had slipped a cog and he would wake up back in his cell on Veith, out of one nightmare into another. No matter how much confidence he placed in Kirk's determination to track Spock and pull him back in time, McCoy couldn't help imagining all the things that could go wrong. Sure, look on the bright side: Spock would probably be killed long before the radiation hurt him—but what if he survived, the rescue got fouled up? Then Leonard McCoy, physician, would become Leonard McCoy, murderer, having taken the life of a healthy, productive fellow being—not merely killed, but killed by slow, agonizing torture a man he called his friend. His thoughts provided a dirge to accompany his preparations.

"I am ready, Doctor," Spock said behind him.

McCoy jumped. "Don't sneak up on me like that!" He turned around. "I could have given myself a dose that would make cordrazine poisoning look like a bad cold!"

"Is that what my symptoms will be?" Spock moved forward, took his place on the diagnostic table.

McCoy couldn't keep up the insulating anger. "No," he said. "It won't be that violent. You'll feel tired at first, thirsty and nauseated. It will just gradually get worse, like a low-grade infection, until either your kidneys fail or a major organ begins to hemorrhage. Fever, pain, and convulsions one way—shock and coma the other." McCoy was very busy fussing with his equipment.

"And I should be able to function as long as necessary?"

"For about three weeks." If they don't kill you, if my guess about your hybrid metabolism is right. "You really wouldn't forgive me if you got too sick to do your job, would you?"

Spock raised an eyebrow. "You have just said I shall be able to do it, Doctor, and any emotion I may succumb to will be unknown to you. As a volunteer, I have absolved you in advance if any of your morbid imaginings come true. There is no reason for you to distress yourself unnecessarily."

"Sure," said McCoy. "Keep still. Here goes nothing."

McCoy reported to Kirk when the treatment was finished and said that he wanted to keep Spock in sickbay long enough to be sure he hadn't overdosed him. Kirk took the call on the bridge, which had been decontaminated but not declared fit. Due to the size of the tiny seeds, Scotty had a crew tearing down countless components, couplings, and any piece of equipment that could conceivably have been fouled by even a grain of sundust. Under ordinary circumstances, Kirk would have been under way to sickbay within seconds of the report. Today he loitered miserably about, dreading the moment he must say good-bye. With Uhura in tow, he repossessed SISTER, interrupting a grilling session where Meade, Sarek, and Gavin Lapsley were firing questions at a slightly dazed Farrid. The boy looked up and away when Kirk entered the room. Kirk's jaw tightened, but otherwise he ignored the Rigan's presence. Sarek's dark eyes flicked from one to the other without comment. After a moment the silence became awkward.

Kirk took up that challenge as he'd taken up others in the past. "When you're through with Farrid, I'd like to speak to him." As it was very obvious that Farrid did not wish to speak to him, the two civilian faces betrayed that faint embarrassment polite people express when someone else is being gauche. The red-haired security chief gathered up some cryptic notes and doodles.

"I'm finished for the moment, sir."

Rather grudgingly Meade yielded up her protégé, and Sarek rose with his usual aplomb and announced an intention of conferring with his son. Uhura busied herself at SISTER's terminal with an I'm-not-here attitude, but Kirk was too restless to stay confined in one room. "Come on," he said to the Rigan.

With no other choice, Farrid followed wearily in Kirk's wake down a confusing maze of busy or silent corridors. Kirk led him through a greenhouse area to a port looking out over Riga. Nod showed round and full, Ochros was trapped halfway round the planetary bulge, and one of the poles glowed platinum-silver from the dark belly of the planet. Kirk looked past them to the stars, their distant, unvarying splendor. Farrid shifted from one foot to the other. He was tired and they still had endless important plans to work out. Why had Kirk chosen to break up a productive meeting?

With his back still turned, Kirk said, "I had two heroes when I was a cadet. One of them you wouldn't have heard of. His name was Lincoln, and he was the leader of a country that was destroying itself with slavery. He was a gentle man. He hated violence, but he hated injustice more than that. He wore himself out for four bloody years, not just to free slaves or secure the life style he believed in, but to cut cancer out of his nation and keep it whole." Kirk paused, looking down into the gulf of night. "He died with his work half-done—assassinated."

Kirk turned and leaned back against the viewport, his face hidden in the dark. "My other hero was Garth of Izar. You've heard of him. The most brilliant military mind of the century. He seemed invincible. At the end, he was like Alexander; even the rumor of his name was enough to win battles. People welcomed him like a king and eventually he began to believe his own propaganda. People like you."

"I—"

Kirk ignored the interruption. "The last time I saw him he was in an institution for the incurably insane."

"What's that got to do with us?"

"My father was a hero, too," Kirk went on. "Not one of mine—he was away from home too much—and he died young. It was my brother Sam who raised me. He taught me not to get caught lying, and to stay out of the limelight, if I could. Fame makes you a target, like Lincoln, or it plays games with your ego until you wind up like Garth. And what's wrong with that is that there's just too much work to be done. The best a man can do, for as long as he can do it, isn't going to make too much of a dent in the general contrariness of things. And you can't do your job if you're playing to the grandstand."

Farrid maintained a stubborn silence.

"Now you've got Spock," Kirk said. "Your stranger from the stars with superior powers, the messiah, the god from the machine." He sighed.

Defensively, Farrid said, "He volunteered—"

"He didn't volunteer to be a hero," Kirk said with sudden iron in his voice. "He didn't volunteer to do your job for you or be set up on a pedestal or die to make you free. If all you want him for is a figurehead, you might as well blow his brains out right now and find yourself transport to the far rim of the galaxy where no member of this crew can ever track you down."

Farrid stepped back before the cold menace in Kirk's tone, and Kirk stepped forward, still silhouetted against the stars, looming large. Kirk's voice had dropped to a whispered threat. "Because if you abuse the gift he is giving you, I'm going to show you the dark side of power in a way no Romulan could."

Farrid had trained, relentlessly, since his fourteenth birthday, to prepare for the moment he would have to fight for his life. He felt the moment arrive and stood rooted and dumb, frozen, afraid to move forward or back, with all his training, all his strength draining away. The dark, menacing aura loomed and receded.

"Don't wait for a hero," Kirk advised, his voice light again. "Spock could quote you a Vulcan proverb on the topic: Summon not demons, nor call up the spirits of the night; those summoned often come, and guests follow upon invitation." He stepped back. "It's a valuable thought. Remember it." And with a movement so quick and light Farrid couldn't react until it was finished, Kirk stepped past him and disappeared into the gloom.

For a long moment the boy stood there, purely and simply afraid to move, sure that Kirk was standing behind him undetected. Only when the tension became unbearable did he whirl around and find himself alone.

~ * ~

Spock had left sickbay by the time Kirk got there, unconsciously rubbing the back of his neck at the onset of a tension headache. McCoy was morosely and defiantly nose-deep in a brandy decanter. Kirk refused a drink but accepted McCoy's alternative—two painkillers.

"How is he?" he asked, tossing the pills back without benefit of water.

"Fine—for a man with radiation poisoning." McCoy shuddered and drained his glass. "Burns all the way down and doesn't warm me up at all. It must be time to quit." He set the glass aside. "I can't do anything for Spock. Why don't you stop playing iron man and let me check you out? I'll bet your blood pressure is elevated twenty points over what it should be."

"No contest," Kirk said. "This is stupid, playing hide and seek from each other around the ship. I hurt so bad I'm not sure I can say good-bye to him."

McCoy thought of his last unromantic moments with Dia. "I know the feeling. I suppose I should tell you that all this pessimism is unfounded—" he tried for a smile and got the wry half, "but you're not supposed to lie to your superior officers."

Kirk moved a chair, with unnecessary violence, into position so he could straddle it and face McCoy. "Speaking of superior officers, you don't suppose the admiral could be the victim of a rare brain disease?"

"Stupidity isn't rare," McCoy said.

Kirk smiled mirthlessly. "He acts like I'm the enemy, not the Romulans."

"You probably are. It's pretty standard behavior for the old bulls to try and keep the bachelors away from the herd. Psychologically, everything Harnum has done has been an attempt at castration."

"Thanks. I think it's working."

"Jim, he isn't fit to command."

"As a professional opinion, that's worthless," Kirk snapped. "You've hardly met the man."

"Why are you defending him?" McCoy asked.

Kirk shook his head. "I'm not. I think—he's incompetent to deal with the situation here—I can ignore a great deal—" he seemed to be searching for words, "but I don't think those people down there will let me ignore everything." He shook his head again. After a moment of silence, he said, "He threatened to fire on the Enterprise."

"And you told him—?" McCoy prompted.

Kirk shrugged. "Let's hope he doesn't have guts enough to do it. I'm no good at waiting, but I think—I think I have to stall him as long as I can. If I don't, someone else will be in the hot seat when the crunch comes."

"Well, you know what they say the secret of good PR is."

Kirk looked skeptical. "What?"

"Never take your hand off his cock."

Kirk looked from McCoy to the brandy. "Maybe I will have some of that."

~ * ~

Brandy with McCoy, dinner with Gavin Lapsley to discuss deployment of the enlisted men on Riga and Nod. By 2100 hours, Kirk was wondering if Spock had decided to leave with no farewell at all. He had haunted the whole ship like a ghost without catching sight of the tall Vulcan. And yet he still couldn't go to his cabin, possibly intrude on his family. Spock wasn't even an officer anymore. Kirk told himself he should simply go to his own cabin and wait, but he was too restless to be confined. Eventually he drifted to the torn-apart bridge—off lim