Joyboy, by Syn Ferguson


The student's choice of career will
be the logical result of those
educational experiences chosen for
him by his teachers.


—Vulcan Educational Manual


Cadet Mercer, in a trim uniform of charcoal blue, had introduced himself at the port, collected their luggage, and escorted them to the door of their suite. Now he stood back for them to enter.

"Your quarters, Ambassador. I hope you'll find them satisfactory."

Spock stared past his father's shoulder at a room that appeared to have been designed as an undersea grotto. Humid air slapped his face and settled into his lungs.

"Quite satisfactory," said Sarek, regarding the waterfall.

"You're lucky," Mercer continued. "Your bedrooms have pools too. Master bedroom on the right. Both rooms access the corridor. Kitchen, library and entertainment center to the interior. All conference activities are listed in the computer. This printed invitation," he held out a card to Spock, "shows the activities scheduled for dependents. I've given you your Delegate and Dependent badges, please carry them with you for identification when you leave your suite. Delegate commons are in the main conference pavilion, Dependent mess is just down the hall. Mealtimes are posted; the snack bar is open from ten to twenty-one hundred hours. Room service available any time. Is there anything I can do for you before I leave?"

"You have been most helpful," said Sarek. The cadet saluted and closed the door with ear-bruising firmness as he left. Sarek addressed his son without turning to face him.

"I need not remind you that Argave-Mahanie negotiations are in a difficult stage, Spock, nor that the human organizers of the conference will be ready to find Vulcan custom unreasonable. It will be to our advantage to make no unnecessary requests, and to mingle with the other guests as much as possible."

"'Dependents," Spock read aloud from his invitation, "'will have access to recreational areas and activities within the boundaries of the civilian sector and access to conference social activities when in the company of a Delegate. Minor Dependents, when unescorted by a Delegate, are restricted to private suites, common rooms, and playgrounds.' I surmise that computer access will be limited as well."

"If so, please do not regard that fact as a challenge. All educational activities cannot be made pleasant. You have your own computer."

Which I dare not open for fear it, too, will develop lung rot, Spock thought. Aloud he said, "Understood."

Sarek paused at his door and his voice took on a modicum of personal intonation. "There will be some kind of environmental control, Spock. See if you can reduce this--atmosphere--to something breathable."

It was not the first time that Spock had encountered the age-prejudice that grouped Vulcan minors under the age of thirty with Terran children under the age of eighteen, but previously he had been in the company of his mother and not thrown entirely upon his own resources. However much he might suspect that Sarek found it a relief to be free of his son's company for the major portion of each day, the negotiations were delicate and did demand his entire attention. It would have been an extremely undisciplined and irresponsible act to disrupt his work because of mere personal discomfort and terminal boredom.

From the limited information to which the base computer gave him access, Spock learned that the port of Labelon was of no strategic or cultural importance. Like other such installations, it seemed to have been constructed merely because Starfleet engineers were there. The architects who had designed the embassy and grounds were of an otter-like race and had done their best to create a tolerable habitation in a desert. That was a pity, because both port and embassy were perched on a rust-red mesa in a wilderness of canyons very like the tropical lowlands of Vulcan. Spock would have enjoyed climbing and exploring those dramatic mazes, but as a minor, he was not allowed to leave the grounds or use the all-terrain vehicles available to delegates. Hang-gliding from the mesa's rim was not specifically prohibited; presumably it fell under "leaving the grounds." Spock was likewise forbidden unsupervised access to the natives because the two Labelon forms--nymph and adult--had archetypical overtones for Terrans. The nymphs resembled a six-foot gray-white cocoon on legs or, to the imaginative, a walking, bandaged corpse while the adults took the form of a bush or small tree glittering with golden fire, the flames being due to the hypergolic secretions that were their waste products. Labelon sense and speaking organs were located in their "branches" and they fed by means of a sucking and secreting mouth that constantly grazed the upper surface of the soil for minerals and microscopic organisms. The Labelon could move rapidly at need. Their creaks, clicks and hisses could be approximated by the Vulcan or human voice box, and Spock thought it a beautiful speech, like the lonely sounds of wind and fire in the wilderness. To alleviate boredom, when he had finished each day's assigned study and tasks, he undertook a casual absorption of the language.

Spock conscientiously put in three appearances each day at the dependent's mess. He found the term apt. The cadets, who were assigned many inconsequential tasks as part of their training, did run a roster of monitors in the mess hall, but the monitors tolerated a variety of interactions that could never have taken place on Vulcan. The noise level, amount of activity, and style of consumption were inimical to digestion even without the greasy, pervasive odor of charred meat. After his first attempt to eat in that atmosphere, Spock merely went through the motions. He did not, himself, see anyone with whom to "mingle," and the human children left him alone as effectively as if he had been invisible. Two Edryi children with their pale, floating hair, and a single Andorian were similarly ostracized. This behavior toward non-humans was uniform in spite of the fact that the age, size, and identity of the dependents changed daily as transients stopped at Labelon for ship repair or a break in the monotony of space travel.

During his second week of observations, there was an influx of what Spock first took to be the younger members of some religious order--a dozen human adolescents dressed alike in shapeless gray coveralls. There were not enough tables to accommodate the newcomers. Courtesy outweighed curiosity, and Spock stood up as two of them approached with their trays.

"I have finished my meal. This table is available."

"Thank you." The human who answered pulled out a chair for his companion and guided him into it. His voice was soft, pitched low under the ear-jarring noise of the hall. It caused Spock to look at him more closely: sandy hair, oval face with very fresh, fine-grained skin, large, clear eyes that fell before Spock's gaze.

"You are welcome."

In his room, Spock queried the computer for the names of incoming vessels. Only one had orbitted within the last twenty-four hours. It was the Farragut, a Constitution-class cruiser, its last port listed as Tarsus IV. The name meant nothing to Spock. He went on with his language study.

By the next morning, however, everyone on Labelon, with the possible exception of the natives, had heard some version of the tragedy on Tarsus. Base Commandant Stationer gave brief details on the morning news broadcast.

"Kodos is thought to have been killed in the fall of the Administrator's Residence," the commandant concluded. "Survivors are being transported to their homes by Starfleet. For information on individuals, please contact Lieutenant Fairchild in my office."

"Negotiations here are finished," Sarek said, turning away from the screen they had both been watching. "Whoever chose Labelon as a layover for that ship has had more effect on Argave-Mahanie negotiations than ninety diplomats assembled from thirty-four planets. If humans were less confident of their ability to solve problems instantaneously, their failures would be less glaring." Sarek made a gesture of irritation that Spock would not have been allowed. "I anticipate a week of closing courtesies. We will return to Vulcan at the first opportunity after that."

"Yes, Sarek." It was unfortunate that he would not be able to attempt communication with a Labelon native, but Spock did not mention what was, after all, a pointless desire to his father.

The next time Tarsus survivors entered the mess hall in their gray coveralls, Spock saw that it was the complete lack of fashion or adornment that had made him think of religious attire--that and the abstracted look of the tallest of the survivors. The garments appeared to be protective gear Fleet personnel adopted for dirty work--sticktight fastenings down the front, many pouches, loops and pockets for holding tools and supplies.

A noticeable silence spread through the room when the newcomers paused at the threshold, and one of them made a gesture of withdrawal, but the youth who had thanked Spock took the tallest boy's hand and led him toward the food dispensers. The other two followed. Across the room someone scooted a chair noisily. Then came a series of coughs. Spock saw that he was not the only one who had been staring and turned his attention back to his plate. Such overt interest could only be considered rude. Peripherally he was aware when the humans obtained their selections. A titter of hastily suppressed laughter broke the silence as they chose a table and sat down.

A crash of trays being thrust into the disposal chute startled Spock, and the dependents began to rise, jostling each other, depositing their trays as raucously as possible or leaving their half-eaten food on the tables. Soon the hall was nearly empty.

"I don't need this," said one of the survivors in a raw whisper.

"Ignore them," said a second. "They're assholes."

"You're frightening Richard," said the youth with the soft voice. Spock stirred the salad on his plate and watched without seeming to. Soft-voice's companion was the only one who had not spoken, and he had some special status within the group, for Soft-voice cut and arranged his food and twice urged him to eat, although none of the others needed or offered assistance. Soft-voice was the smallest of the group and appeared to be the youngest, but he shared with the others some quality Spock could not immediately identify. Spock was reminded of the Arabian horses a clan cousin had imported from Earth-compact strength on graceful, slender limbs, a dark and dreaming eye. Beauty was part of it, he realized. Each of the survivors was of a high standard of personal attractiveness.

"Maybe Richard was right," one of them said.

"He was right for Richard," Soft-voice said. "People will forget."

"I won't."

"It takes time. Can we talk about something else now?"

"Let's talk about eating in our rooms."

Since Sarek's attention to the negotiations was no longer so critical, Spock told him of the occurrence in the mess.

"It was a childish display of disapproval."

"Does some blame attach to the survivors? I understood the selection was made by the planetary administrator."

"That is true. So far as I know there is no blame attached to the survivors for their good fortune. It would be highly improper for you--or me--to judge them." Sarek looked as if the fact displeased him.

Soft-voice and Silence appeared in the mess alone the next morning. The same unwelcoming silence greeted them, but there was no mass withdrawal, although several children removed to tables farther away. This was done rather clumsily, resulting in the survivors' table or chairs being repeatedly bumped or jarred. Twice Soft-voice reached for the glass of milk on Silence's tray to prevent its being spilled. The third time he spilled his own milk in the process.

"Never mind," Soft-voice said, reaching out to take his companion's wrist. "It's just milk." But at that instant a red-haired boy of about ten spilled his whole tray of crockery, food and drink on the table and the survivors' joined hands. Silence twisted free, crying out in alarm, and ran from the room. Soft-voice sprang after him, and the red-haired boy tipped their table over.

Spock stood up, walked pointedly past the redhead and followed the survivors from the hall. Soft-voice had captured Silence outside. He whirled at Spock's approach and dropped into a combat stance.

The menacing gesture startled Spock. His explanation came out as an offer of assistance.

The tension went out of Soft-voice's posture. "He's not hurt--just scared--but it takes him a while to settle down. Is there any place quiet? I hate to drag him through the halls like this."

"There is a diorama of the Labelon settlement at Brathbelon Amblick not far from here. The room is dim and seldom visited. Is your companion ill?"

"Just scared," repeated Soft-voice. "Which way?"

Spock led the way and the two youths followed. Once inside, Soft-voice sighed in relief. "This ought to be fine. Richard can't handle much stress. I never know whether he's going to panic or go to sleep on me." Silence slid down the wall to a knee-hugging posture on the floor. "I'm Jim Kirk. This is Richard Ulloa. You're a Vulcan, aren't you?"

"My father is the Vulcan ambassador, here for the Argave-Mahanie negotiations. My name is Spock."

"Are you a diplomat?"

"A student," Spock said. "Such experiences are a part of my education. Vulcans consider it an advantage to travel and experience other cultures."

"That's the theory on Earth, too." The human's voice was not soft at all for a moment, but it lost its dark tone and returned to normal. "I'm a student too. After I take Richard home I have a scholarship to Starfleet Academy--if I pass my tests." Spock had no reason to doubt the Human's word, but all of the cadets he had seen had appeared to be at least four years older. Jim was watching his face.

"I am young," Jim said. "But I'll be fifteen in a few days. I become an emancipated minor then, and legally I can take the entrance exams. My father was military. If I pass, I have the right to attend."

This was uttered with so much determination that Spock could think of nothing to say in response, but "I hope you do well." He noticed that the room seemed very quiet when no one was speaking. "What field of study do you intend to pursue?"

Jim was easing his now-sleeping charge gently down to the floor as if he saw nothing unusual in such behavior. "Command. I want to captain a heavy cruiser like the Farragut."

Spock had a rough idea of the odds against such an achievement. There were only 12 Constitution-class cruisers in the entire Federation. Jim looked at him as if expecting some comment.

"You are fortunate to have such a well-defined goal," Spock said.

Jim smiled suddenly, and the expression changed his whole face. "Somebody has to command then," he said, as if he had penetrated the barriers to Spock's thought. "This is an interesting diorama, isn't it?" He glanced at it for the first time. "What's the significance of the fires?"

Spock explained the life cycle of the Labelon in considerable detail. He was able to focus his attention on the display with only side-glances at Richard sleeping on the floor. No one entered the room to demand an explanation for his behavior, and Jim exhibited every sign of interest in the lecture, asking pertinent questions from time to time and nodding in comprehension. It took nearly half an hour for Spock to convey all he had learned, and at the end he was able to articulate his desire to meet a native with no sense that the remark was uncomfortably personal.

"Why don't you just go and meet one?" Jim asked.

"Minors cannot leave the embassy grounds without special permission, and the age of majority on Vulcan is thirty standard years. My father prefers that I do not make requests for special attention."

"Someone else might request a tour, then you could go."

Spock shrugged. "I have discerned no curiosity about this world or culture in any human." He suddenly realized that such a statement might be construed as unflattering to Jim or his species. "It is only an inconvenience. My own field of study is physics."

"Is it?" Jim's face brightened with interest. "The physics test is the one I'm most worried about. I studied with the Farragut's engineer and a little with the science officer, but all I learned was how much I didn't know."

"Some Vulcans say that is all there is to learn."

"When I run out of answers I'll write that on my test."

Spock hesitated between two conflicting urges. It seemed extremely unusual for busy ship's officers to concern themselves with a passenger. On the other hand, any teacher would be pleased to have a student as attentive as Jim. Again Jim's eyes were fixed on him, as if to read his thoughts.

"That wasn't a hint, Spock. I have a tutorial on the computer, and I'm sure you're years ahead of me. You'd be bored."

Spock had experienced boredom on Labelon, but the feeling had lifted in the last hour. "I would be pleased to assist you," he said.

Jim's free time was scheduled around Richard's appointments at the medical facility for some treatment Jim did not explain to Spock. The human seemed to regard himself as being on 24-hour duty and was often chained to the room he shared with Ulloa by the other's need for sleep, so Spock went there for their study sessions.

Jim seemed content with accommodations not much larger than crew quarters aboard ship--a small living area separated from the bedroom merely by a screen. Spock did not mention that his own quarters were far more commodious, not to mention damper. Since Jim handled his frequent attendance on Ulloa without embarrassment or strain, Spock gradually adjusted to the presence of the silent, unfocused youth staring from a chair or sleeping on one of the neatly made beds.

Jim attacked the study of physics with a concentration and energy Spock had not expected in a human. He was far behind a Vulcan student of similar age and had a very different pattern of conceptualization, but what he had mastered was correct, and he excelled in understanding applications. It was not long before they ran into problems on math terminology, but Jim made a call to someone in the commandant's office and within twenty minutes a blue-clad cadet was at the door with an information cube. Spock recognized Mercer, the cadet who had shown Sarek to his suite.

There was a glitter of dislike in Mercer's eyes as he dropped the cube into Jim's outstretched hand. He said, in a tone meant to be inaudible to anyone else, "That's the last errand I run for you, Joyboy. You know where you can stuff it."

Spock did not recognize the term, but he had been hearing "half-breed" spoken in just such pejorative fashion all his life. Mercer turned on his heel and left Jim standing at the door. The back of Jim's neck and his ears turned brick red. Spock knew all the injustice of such unexpected attacks, all the frustration of not being able to respond.

Still facing the door, Jim said, "Well, you were probably wondering why we were so popular."

His refusal to turn around reminded Spock how young Jim was. Only experience would provide any kind of buffer in such moments. He wondered why no one on Vulcan had ever intervened to make them easier for him.

"I am not Cadet Mercer, Jim. I do not know the significance of the term he used. I will not seek to discover its meaning."

There was a moment's doubtful silence. Jim turned around, red-faced, his back to the door.

"I couldn't promise to do that if everyone was treating you like an infectious disease."

Contagion, Spock thought. That is what Vulcans fear from me. And yet all he admired was Vulcan. He said, "A Vulcan is the master of his own mind."

"You'd go on teaching me--knowing I'd done something I was too gutless to admit?" The aura of pain reached into the room, as obvious to Spock's telepathic sense as a bruise would have been to his vision. Who was he to judge, who kept half his heritage a secret?

"All beings have the right to privacy, Jim. I do not believe you lack courage."

Jim closed his eyes, face and aura a mix of warring emotion. Spock knew he should be repelled by such a blatant display, but he felt compelled to witness it, as if this moment would be as important as the one in which he had offered Sarek his dagger and his service as a son.

Jim opened his eyes. "A joyboy is someone who provides sexual favors for money. Or other benefit. That's how Richard and I stayed alive on Tarsus."

If Sarek had slapped instead of accepting him, Spock could not have been less prepared. His mind shied away. Jim was watching him.

"Richard--?"

"They offered us personality reintegration. Richard jumped at the chance. He doesn't remember any of it, but he's being punished right along with the rest of us." The strength to meet Spock's eyes seemed to desert Jim. He looked down at the floor. "I should have told you--but you were the only one who treated me like a human being. I'm sorry."

An unaccustomed sensation of heat warmed Spock's ears. Jim was the only one who treated him like a Vulcan.

"I guess it would be better if--" Jim began.

"It would be better if we continued the physics lesson," Spock said.

Guarded hope showed on Jim's face as he took a step toward the table.

"I didn't think Vulcans were all that broad-minded."

Vulcans were not, and Spock couldn't quite believe he belonged in any other category. "Vulcans are not given to emotional display," he countered.

"That's restful. Does it bother you to be around humans?" The color had not quite faded from Jim's face, but he took his place again in much better control of himself.

"I find human emotion--an intriguing field of study." That was as close as Spock could get to disclosure for the moment. He could feel, sitting so close, how rapidly Jim's adrenalized system was righting itself. What method would a human use to defuse the remaining tension? Spock raised one eyebrow and adopted Sarek's tone. "On Vulcan, that is considered a perversion."

"You can use me for a lab specimen, then," Jim slid the information cube into place, "--in exchange for physics lessons." He looked up shyly. "I'm glad I told you. Friends shouldn't lie to each other."

Reviewing the day in the privacy of his own thoughts later, Spock had to admit that he was not so much the master of his own mind as he had thought. He had never been offered friendship by any being, and he had carried the burden of an ostracism he thought no other could equal. Now he was being offered friendship--was enjoying the benefits of friendship--with a person whose trials certainly exceeded his own. He could not decide whether it was the relationship or the person Sarek would find more unacceptable. Even worse was the fact that Spock had not returned Jim's honesty. He knew his fears that a human would condemn him for humanity were illogical, but he could not quite summon the courage to reveal his duplicity. All he could do was refuse to speculate about Jim's activities on Tarsus, rise early, and push his own studies ahead so that he could spend as much time as possible preparing Jim for his examination.

Jim made considerable progress under Spock's tuition, but hit a mental roadblock when exposed to the apparent contradictions of McLaren's Corollaries to the Theory of Gravitation. "It can't be both, Spock," he protested. "It either works or it doesn't."

"You would accept an alternation in time," Spock pointed out. "Why not an alternation at the same time?"

"Because it isn't logical." Jim had picked up Spock's favorite word. "Two different things--two opposite things--can't be happening at the same time. I don't care what the maths say."

"Why do you persist in thinking of them as opposites?"

"Off and on aren't opposites?"

"Not in gravitational theory."

"Uhhh--" Jim shoved back from the table. "Let's give it a rest. My brain just quit. I need to move around. What do you do for exercise?"

Solitary Vulcan disciplines met with no approval on Jim's part; immersion in frigid waters was regarded with abhorrence by Spock. Discussion of his wishes was a new pleasure, and he was not above taking advantage of Jim's flattering tendency to defer to him. After a string of proposals which Spock rejected, Jim suggested ice-skating.

"There's a rink somewhere. Richard could handle that--" He was punching inquiries into the computer. He found what he wanted and turned the screen toward Spock to show a scene of skaters gliding over the ice. "What do you think?"

The exercise was undertaken fully dressed and did not appear to be a thinly disguised form of combat. The motion was graceful and the speed not excessive. Spock agreed, attributing the gleam in Jim's eye to the prospect of escaping from his studies.

Jim found his way to the arena and made arrangement for skates, then knelt to put Richard's on for him. Even though there were not many skaters and the concessionaire took no apparent interest in his customers, Spock felt an increase of self-consciousness. Just as he doubted that he could have survived Jim's ordeal on Tarsus, Spock was certain that he was incapable of rendering such intimate service to anyone. Yet Richard's odd gestures and unfocused gaze were appropriate to his condition. Spock did his best to conceal a discomfort that he knew was unworthy in itself and would certainly have wounded Jim.

"Come on--" Jim was coaxing Richard down the step to the ice. "Hang on to the edge." Richard complied. Spock stepped off with the gliding motion he had admired in others.

And was abruptly sitting on the cold, wet surface. Jim promptly crossed his blades and sat down too. Richard clung to the railing and stared at them.

"Not as easy as it looks," Jim said, looking surprised. "Try, try again." He got awkwardly to his feet and stretched out his hand. Spock balanced more carefully once he was up. "Maybe we'd all better hang on," Jim said, taking the rail. "Come on, Richard, move your feet." On wobbling ankles they made a cautious circuit of the arena with Jim slipping and sliding in front. The motion was not too difficult. Jim picked it up quickly, after a stumble or two, so that he wasn't holding on to the railing the second time around. Spock became more confident and let go.

"That's it," said Jim. "Watch how they're stopping. Drag your toe." That also worked and Spock felt more comfortable knowing he could slow or stop his progress. "Great!" Jim's cheeks were pink with exercise, his eyes bright. "Let's try it together." He positioned himself in the middle, extending a hand to Richard on one side and Spock on the other.

Spock's reflexes were naturally good, his barriers firm; Jim's hand was warm and confident in his. Soon they were gliding over the ice with an exhilarating motion. Spock relaxed more fully as he found each small misjudgment on his part being absorbed or corrected by Jim's guiding hand. Sudden suspicion interrupted the flow. Spock stopped and Jim compensated by swinging Richard around in a tight circle so that none of them fell.

"You have done this before," Spock accused.

"Never said I hadn't. Richard's tired. Let's let him sit this one out."

"You led me to believe you were as much a novice as I."

"Good manners," Jim said modestly, but his eyes were alive with mischief. "Come on, Spock. You're having fun and you know it. Let's try it by ourselves."

Spock could not deny that the exercise was pleasantly stimulating. Jim settled Richard and returned to offer both hands to Spock. The position was only awkward for a moment until they began to move in smooth synchronization, forward, backward, apart, together--until Jim was breathless and laughing.

They coasted to a stop against the railing, and turned to confront an empty seat. Richard was gone. The laughter drained out of Jim's face in an instant. He pulled off his skates and ran up the steps, leaving Spock standing alone on the ice.

When Spock caught up with him, wearing shoes, and carrying Jim's in his hand, the human was panting from a sprint down the less-occupied arm of the corridor. "Not that way," he said. "He must have gone toward the pavilion."

A low stile, clearly marked No Minors Beyond This Point, barred their way, but Jim vaulted over it without even pausing. A little grimly, Spock followed. He could hear music ahead and he searched his memories for any description Sarek had given of the day's ceremonies. Jim skidded to a stop at an open doorway flanked by decorative plants. He stood on tiptoe to look in, then plunged into the room.

It was not, as Spock had feared, one of the conference chambers, but a room decorated for social dancing. Tables and chairs surrounded a smooth floor; music was pouring from a wall of rippling lights; and drinks were being served from a bar. The majority of those present were young, both male and female, and many of then wore cadet uniforms. Richard's baggy coverall was glaringly out of place on the dance floor, and he was turning in confused circles in his bare feet. Spock saw Jim pushing his way through the crowd that had gathered to watch, and recognized Mercer, who stood at the controls of the wall of light and sound. At his touch the music changed to the primitive double beat of a stressed human heart; an intemperate color the hue of molten iron flooded the room.

"Why don't you dance, Joyboy!" One of the cadets moved onto the dance floor parodying sexual gestures. Others had noticed Jim's attempts to get through the crowd and his similarity in dress to Richard. They converged on him and propelled him back toward Spock. When he caught his balance, Jim swore. "Don't let them block the door," he yelled at Spock. "If they do, call Security fast." He did not say how these things should be accomplished. He cleared a table with a sweep of his arm and shoved it between the open door and the dance floor. "God damn them." He vaulted up onto the table and whistled, an ear-piercing note that penetrated the music. Heads turned, including Richard's. From their viewpoint Jim was a polarized orange shadow against a frame of light. He turned a tight back flip and began to dance.

The self-consciously seductive gestures of the cadets teasing Richard on the dance floor smoothed into a dance of passion and power as Jim raised his hands over his head and moved his hips in invitation. Spock saw what the baggy coverall had been intended to disguise--a taut body in perfect proportion, broad at the shoulder, lean at the hip, before any hint of adult coarseness could spoil it. But the dance was coarse. Jim's hands went to the tops of his thighs, straining the cloth tight over his genitals as his hips rotated. An ugly growl went up from the watchers, but Richard had seen. He was taller than Jim, not concerned about those who got in his way. He pushed through and sprang up to the table as if he had rehearsed the motion many times.

It will tip over, Spock thought. The table will topple and they will fall.

But the two bodies merged in heated motion, pelvises grinding, and a wave of heat engulfed Spock. He imagined Jim naked in the orange light and his own body pressing close.

"--door!" Jim shouted and jerked Richard after him off the table. Then they all ran and didn't stop until they were safe in Jim's room.

Richard had been fully aroused by the dance and he was larger and stronger than Jim. Jim managed to wrestle him into the sleeping area but they were not hidden as Richard clutched Jim's hips and pulled Jim against his desperately thrusting pelvis. Richard froze, groaned and fell back on the bed. There was a wet stain at the crotch of his coverall. He clutched himself and began to cry.

Spock, battling for control of his own traitorous body, wanted to look away, but the only other object was Jim with his flushed face and rigid mouth. Jim, who turned to the basin and pressed himself against it and plunged both fists up to his forearms into the rush of cold water.

It seemed a long time before Jim turned the water down, wet a cloth and wrung it out. Without looking at Spock he went to sit on the edge of the bed.

"It's all right," he said to Richard. "I'm here. Let's--wash--your face and hands." Richard endured having his face washed, having his hands pulled away from his crotch, but he seized Jim's hand in a desperate, flesh-whitening grip. "Go to sleep," Jim soothed. "I'll be here."

Spock's legs felt weak, his thigh muscles jumping as if he had run all night through the desert, instead of a few yards down a corridor. He felt that the ache in his own groin must be as visible and offensive to Jim as Richard's crude appetite. He sank into his usual place at the table and tried to control his breathing, just his breathing.

When Richard was asleep, Jim released himself and came back into the living area. "I'm sorry you had to see that."

Spock cleared his throat, looking away from the bedroom. "It is true that I had not previously observed erotic dancing. However, it was a successful stratagem to remove Richard from the room. You--" were beautiful. He could not say that. "Neither your motive nor your performance offended me."

"It would have if you were human."

His humanity, then, was to blame for that curling fire, these afterimages, this dull ache in so many nerve endings. He was afraid, but he wanted to tell Jim that he did not regret this knowledge of desire. He looked up and Jim's face was pale with exhaustion, drawn with pain. Spock's new knowledge was old knowledge for Jim. It was not discovery Jim needed to share.

"I do not wish to press you, Jim, but if you wish to speak of these things, I can offer to listen without--" liar, liar, pants on fire "--I can control my emotional reactions."

Jim's hand moved aimlessly over the surface of the table. He had not looked up. It is better that he does not know, Spock told himself. After all, who would suspect a Vulcan of harboring human desire?

"The psychiatrists said it would be good for me to talk about it, but I'm not sure other people should have to listen." Jim looked at Spock then. "There is such a things as innocence, Spock. After you lose it, you find out it's not just a joke or another word for inexperience. Maybe--maybe the world needs people who can't conceive of evil for balance."

The pain in the expressive eyes precluded taking such an extravagant statement lightly. Spock thrust his own concerns aside. "Not if it means that you must bear such memories alone." He reached forward and touched the back of Jim's hand with his fingertips. On Vulcan it would have been a caress.

At his touch, tears spilled, round drop after drop spattering down to the tabletop. Spock had known of the phenomenon, but the Vulcan eye conserved moisture. Tears never fell.

"Mom didn't want us to go to space--" Jim fought to control the tears and steady his voice. "I begged her day and night. Dad had promised Sam and I could deadhead somewhere when we graduated, but after he died, Mom was afraid she'd lose us too. Then my cousin shipped to Tarsus IV with her husband before they knew she was pregnant. She wouldn't leave him and come back. My aunt couldn't go. She asked Mom. Sam and I said we'd give up the idea of deadheading somewhere on a military vessel if she'd go and take us along."

Spock sat motionless, Jim's hand cool under his. Only Vulcan discipline enabled him to focus on words, words alone, blocking out the mounting pressure of image, emotion and sensation. All beings have the right to privacy. If he invaded Jim's mind, he would be worse than those who abused his body.

"Pat was so happy about her baby, so glad to see Mom. Sam and I were in heaven. Nobody had time to worry about us. Tarsus was safe, a model colony. Nobody knew how bad things were until the rationing started, and then it was too late. The police came and took all the food we had in the house, even some tomato plants Pat started from seed.

"We ate in the commons. Eight hundred calories, then six. Mom was afraid Pat would lose the baby. Sam and I spent all day every day looking for food. We ate eggshells and coffee grounds and paper.

"Then I met Richard. He was fat. His teeth weren't getting loose from scurvy. He told me there was work in the palace 'for youngsters who didn't need much to eat.' He said Sam was too old, but if I knew the right people my family would go on getting my ration.

"Sam told him to shove it, but I said I'd go."

Spock willed his body motionless, his breathing quiet, his shields steady.

"I knew what the job was," Jim said. "You had to make them think you liked it. Richard showed me how." His voice had dropped to a whisper, but the quality of his silence was unfinished.

"That is not why you blame yourself," Spock said. "Is it what happened to your family?"

Jim focused on Spock again. The tears stopped and his face firmed from hurt child to knowing adult. "No." He removed his hand from Spock's. "Do you want something to drink?"

Spock lowered his hand to his lap, cradling right hand in left so his trembling would not show. Jim went to the food locker in the wall and poured two drinks, glanced through the screen to verify that Richard was still sleeping, slid a glass across the table to Spock.

"I don't know what happened to them. I suppose there's a chance they got off in a freighter and haven't been able to get a message through. We heard some people did."

He shook his head. "I don't blame myself for wanting to live and help my family. Or even because it turned out I had an aptitude for what I had to do." He jerked his head toward the bedroom. "I don't blame Richard because his body remembers what his mind doesn't. Maybe I didn't find out the best way, but being desirable is a survival trait." Jim's eyes narrowed. Spock did not know if his shields could have protected him from such focused anger. "If peddling ass is the only way to survive, you can bet I'm going to peddle it better and faster than the next guy. Sorry, but I wasn't just cooperating to make rape tolerable. I like sex."

Jim's voice had changed with his face. It was deeper, more assertive. Spock felt Jim could see through is controlled expression to the confusion in his mind. Had he also seen Spock's desire?

"I liked it too well. I liked them fighting over me. Richard and I performed for them--not just dancing--and it made me hotter, because I knew that was how we could get to Kodos and kill him. But it was a long time before he called for both of us at once."

Jim spoke of killing Kodos as if that were an activity any fourteen-year-old child might undertake. Richard was taller and older, but Spock did not doubt Jim had been the leader.

"He wanted to be loved," Jim said, speaking of Kodos. "He wanted instant obedience and approval, especially after the massacre." Beads of sweat were forming on Jim's forehead. "He was always testing people. No commander has the right to do that. You earn loyalty by doing your job, not by rewards and punishments.

"Richard and I swore we'd be ready, swore we'd die if that's what it took to get him. Finally he called us."

Kodos' body had not been identified, Spock remembered. Many of the palace guards had been mutilated past recognition. "We served his meal and started our routine--and Kodos told Richard to do something he--couldn't--" Jim's voice was shaking, becoming inaudible, but he was aware of it and cleared his throat. "That meant Richard had to be punished. Kodos called the guards, but he made me do it. I never got a chance to kill him."

Jim's soft voice was leaden with unwanted knowledge. "With fucking and sucking you have something to fake, something to gain; it can't go on forever. When it's just pain, they know what you're hiding. They can make it go on until you do show it. What they take away--you can't ever get back."

Jim had never once spoken of his own pain. Spock's mouth was dry when he tried to speak.

"You--punished--Richard, who had been kind to you."

"Who loved me. He couldn't get it up because we'd spent half the day making love." Jim stood, walked to the basin, and vomited.

Spock had been away from his quarters far too long. Sarek would have returned, would expect him to make an accounting of his time. It was unthinkable that he do that truthfully. How easily integrity was discarded. But his duty here was inescapable. He had urged this catharsis with no understanding of what it would entail and done the very thing one who renders aid should avoid. He had made the situation worse. He had no experience to match with Jim's. There was no counsel he could give. And Jim's was the only example he had to go by.

Spock waited for the spasms to pass, then urged Jim to lie down on the bed across from Richard's. He rinsed out the cool cloth and folded it across the haunted eyes. The long lashes, still pointed with tears, trembled against Jim's cheek. He reached for Spock's hand.

"Rest," Spock said. "I will remain until you fall asleep."

Sarek was not in their apartments when Spock went there, but he returned to them shortly thereafter. Cadet Mercer had been busy. His version of the dance hall incident would have outraged any parent. Sarek now appeared to be in full possession of all the information about the Tarsus IV survivors. The only thing he did not understand was Spock's inexcusable lack of judgement in associating with one of them. Sarek had never resorted to physical punishment of his son; he hadn't needed to. He could dissect nerve from nerve with his tongue. In this case experience did not act as a buffer.

"My own judgement was obviously at fault in bringing you with me," Sarek continued, "And an opportunity has been wasted which could have been offered to someone prepared to take advantage of it. You will confine yourself to your room, Spock, and devote your attention to your studies. You will not communicate with or seek out the company of this person again. And do not attempt to defend your behavior."

"As you wish," Spock answered, the only answer possible to a Vulcan son, but his tone was all too human. "However, I undertook to tutor Jim Kirk in physics. I request permission to arrange a suitable alternate."

An obligation must be honored, and Sarek gave reluctant permission. Father and son parted in considerable coolness.

A human might have taken advantage of Sarek's concession to call his friend and explain what had happened. Spock did not do that, although he knew his sudden withdrawal must be misinterpreted. He was exhausted from the series of intense encounters. It was almost a relief to be alone with an opportunity to sort out his thoughts.

The sorting process occupied more time than his studies did. Spock could number the hours he had spent in Jim's company, recall almost every word they had exchanged. Being honest with himself, he could admit that his sexual arousal was a logical result of his human inheritance. Jim accepted such emotions as normal, and Spock knew that adolescent humans were subject to intense sexual feelings. At least lack of fulfillment would not drive him mad. But quite apart from the desire, Jim's absence created a void. It was as if Spock had been suffering from a nutritional deficiency all his life and only now discovered how to correct it.

Spock's third day of unproductive meditation was drawing to a close when there was a clandestine knock at his door. It was Jim--with a squashed package, a scraped cheek, and his hair awry.

"Mercer told me you'd been grounded," he said. "I brought you some of my birthday cake." The too-knowing look was gone from his face; he was again the fourteen-year-old of the skating rink. He slid past Spock into the room. "I think I lost them, but I'd just as soon be certain."

"What happened?"

"I went downstairs faster than usual." Jim rubbed his hip ruefully.

"Someone must stop this," Spock said. "You cannot run the risk of being insulted and beaten each time you leave your room."

"I'm okay. A hot tub and a painkiller will fix me up. Thanks for sending the tutor."

"You are welcome," said Spock automatically.

Jim offered the package. "I'm afraid the cake's ruined. Sugar isn't good for you anyway."

"You must stay here until it is safe for you to go," Spock said. "You may soak in this tub. I will procure an analgesic."

Jim looked at the water longingly, then at the door that led into the suite. "Are you sure? I've already gotten you in enough trouble."

"You are not at fault," Spock said. "I cannot ask you here again, or meet you elsewhere, but my father would not require that you run the risk of another encounter with Mercer, nor will he enter this room uninvited. You are welcome to stay."

"Then the last one in's a spoilsport. This is great." Jim stepped to the side of the pool, kicked off his shoes and unfastened his coverall. Spock realized too late that communal bathing was common among Terran cultures. If he now failed to join the happily splashing human he would be guilty of social snobbery of the most insular and provincial sort. And of cowardice and self-deceit, because he did desire to share that pool with Jim. He put the parcel on the table and self-consciously undressed and slid down into the water. Jim splashed for a few minutes more and then swam across the pool to join him.

"This is my idea of luxury. I love to swim, but Mercer'd probably drown me if I used the base pool." Jim didn't sound unhappy. Spock forgot his vulnerable state long enough to reach out and touch the graze on Jim's cheek.

"Doesn't it make you--feel--badly?"

"To have Mercer think I'm shit? I can't help what he thinks, Spock. It doesn't make me happy, but I'll live. Anyway, if it hadn't been for Mercer I wouldn't have met you. You look so standoffish. I guess everyone is a little scared of Vulcans--afraid they'll read our minds and think less of us than they already do."

Spock was glad he had kept his shields intact. Jim stirred the water with his hands and the currents fluttered against Spock's belly.

"I am only half Vulcan," Spock said, not looking at Jim. He hoped Jim was not looking at him. The only thing more obvious than his tentative arousal would have been an attempt to hide it.

"I'm glad," Jim whispered. "I was afraid I'd imagined it."

Jim was blushing again, as he had when Mercer had accused him. "I don't know what Vulcans say to each other. On earth, people say that they are healthy and have no conflicting commitments."

"I do not know what Vulcans say either," Spock confessed. "No one has ever asked me."

It was odd and awkward and very, very wet. It startled Spock to be touched there. Jim was so eager to give pleasure--so grateful to receive it--that he cried when Spock returned his tender touches. The flood of emotion broached shields as if they never existed and was so pure that Spock never wondered if this convulsive clutching was the skill of a professional. Afterward Jim said, "I keep having to thank you," and Spock said, "Your lips taste sweet."

Jim floated on the water, drifting and turning as Spock positioned him, smiling, his breath coming a little quicker as Spock touched his genitals.

"I am not being fair to you," Spock said, removing his hand. "It cannot be easy for you to be with Richard so much."

"It'll be harder now." Reluctantly Jim stood up. "But I have other things to keep me busy. You think I'm pretty pushy, wanting to command a starship, but I know what it takes." He waded to the edge of the pool. "You have to put duty first. Kodos wanted approval all the time. Mercer puts his hate first. The way to command is to do the right thing every single time and pay whatever the price is." He turned and waited for Spock. "Even if it's going to bed alone."

"We will not see each other again," Spock said. Jim pulled him into a kiss and then another and then he dressed and left.

Spock couldn't deny that he had finally earned his punishment. Body and conscience provided it. He endured the slow drag of the silent days as stoically as he could, wondering if the negotiations had been reopened, and the restriction, forgotten by Sarek, would go on for months. Every day, very foolishly, he checked the computer roster to see if Jim's name was still listed among the civilians attached to the base. He was surprised when Sarek finally summoned him.

"I hope that you have been putting your time to good use."

"I have tried to, Father."

"And that you will not adopt that tone to me again."

"I apologize."

"Do you think you can exhibit better judgement in the future?"

Spock was uncomfortably torn between the belief that in this case his judgement was superior, and the knowledge that he had deceived Sarek and would continue to deceive him.

"No, sir."

"No?"

"I exercised the best judgement of which I was capable. You told me that the Tarsus survivors were not to blame for Kodos' choices. Jim Kirk did not conceal from me the disreputable facts you repeated. He told me nothing to win my approval, but in my estimation his actions were those of a responsible, ethical person. I weighed those facts against the probable damage to my reputation and continued his acquaintance. Had the negotiations not been cancelled, I would have placed more importance on the consequences to you. If my evaluation was incorrect, I do not perceive my error. Logically, I would not wish to repeat it. I accept the need for restriction until you can tell me what I should have done."

"Why do I doubt that this supremely logical chain of reasoning took place prior to my disapproval?"

Several possible responses sprang to Spock's mind, none of them prudent. Sarek regarded him for a long moment.

"Never mind. I told you to think. I am aware that I did not allow you to explain your reasoning previously. You cannot learn to evaluate your own behavior when you are separated from the consequences of it."

Spock had never heard that theory before. Sarek, indeed all adult Vulcans, had always been quick to evaluate his behavior for him and supply the consequences.

"Commandant Stationer has sent you and the other dependents an invitation to tour some native gardens. James Kirk has offered, according to the commandant, to remain on the base if his presence means that you cannot attend. Under the circumstances, I could hardly refuse my permission. I can only hope you will find no logical reason for making a spectacle of yourself this time."

Spock firmly controlled his reaction to Sarek being outmaneuvered by a Human adolescent. He made the properly submissive reply, "If you prefer that I not attend, I will refuse in my own name."

Sarek was surprised. Spock had never accused him of injustice, but that thought had been loudly unspoken upon many occasions. Now, when it would seem he had been unjust, Spock was deferring to his wishes with Vulcan propriety at last.

"Attend, attend. You may go where you wish."

Some thirty dependents gathered at the appointed place. Jim was there waiting, holding Richard's hand. A sullen Cadet Mercer was taking roll. Children pushed into the front seats of the all-terrain vehicle. Jim pulled Richard to the last seat in back, flashed a smile at Spock as he settled across the aisle, and tried to look attentive while Mercer made a speech.

"Before we leave, I want to make one thing clear. We will be in Labelon territory once we leave the embassy grounds. I doubt we'll meet a native, but if we do, we'll mind our business and he'll meet his. I carry authorization" he lifted a short wand that Spock had taken for a swagger stick, "for our party to tour the gardens. This authorization was issued directly to Commandant Stationer and through him to me. It means that you are subject to martial law while on this tour. Who knows what martial law is?" Without consulting his checklist Mercer called the name of a towhead who was whispering to his seatmate. "What is martial law, Mr. Carter?"

"Uh--we have to do what you say?"

"That's right," said Mercer, standing straight in his dark blue uniform. "My orders will have the force of law until we return to the embassy. Is there anyone who does not understand and agree to those terms?"

Spock glanced at Jim, but the Human shook his head in an almost imperceptible negative. "Standard procedure," he said in an undertone.

"Good," said Mercer. "I won't be giving many orders. I'm here to answer questions. My name is Cadet Mercer. The facilities are at the back of the bus, and you won't find any in the gardens. I suggest you use them on the outbound trip."

At his signal the ATV jolted out of its garage and down the steep track around the mesa. The abrupt motion evoked giggles and screams from the human children. Richard pulled back from his window seat apprehensively.

"It's okay," Jim soothed, before turning to ask Spock "How do you like my birthday present?"

Spock looked from the rust-red cliffs on one side to the vast, pale sky on the other. "How did you do it?"

"Commandant Stationer processed my emancipation papers, and then he brought out the birthday cake and said a lot of stuff and said he stood in loco parentis and asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told him this." Jim was beaming. He cast a comical glance forward. "Of course, I could have done without Mercer."

"Jim--" Spock was at a loss for words. Jim had no credit. He was wearing the same reusable garment Spock had first seen him in. His accommodation was utilitarian at best, and the majority of his time was devoted to the care of someone who would not remember him if they were parted tomorrow. He had virtually no possessions, not even his own computer or study cubes. There were so many things he could have asked for.

"I got what I wanted," Jim said. "The trip is a bonus. Are you off restriction now?"

"Yes. I have seldom seen such an expression on my father's face."

The frequent trips of the children to and from the rear of the ATV could not mar Spock's enjoyment of Jim's presence across the aisle, nor his view of the dazzling salt flats and pans of varied color on the basin floor. A few of the boldest passers-by put a hand on the back of his seat, but he noted that the children still avoided Kirk and Richard most pointedly, and after a while a guarded whisper, "holding hands," told him why. Jim had heard, too. He lifted Richard's hand with a look across the aisle that told Spock whose hand he would rather be holding.

They spoke intermittently in low voices until the ATV began the climb up another rough track. This time Spock's seat was adjacent to the cliff, rather than the drop-off. He could see the striations of color in the stones, name the minerals and explain the pattern of compression and upheaval that had formed the land. Jim listened attentively, but his eyes were as often on Spock's face as on the scenery.

When they arrived at the summit and climbed out, Cadet Mercer offered each child a canteen respirator, explaining that there was no lack of oxygen or atmospheric pressure, but that the dry air could cause nosebleeds in susceptible humans. By some mishap he came up two respirators short. After he had equipped himself, there was only one left, which Spock refused and Jim fastened on Richard. They set off down the steep path looking like a party fleeing the plague.

If the Labelon gardens were a disappointment to the human children, they were a delight to Spock. There were no plants. The Labelon gardened in stone, and their patience had coaxed forth ores, deposits, and formations such as he had never seen. Half sculpted and half natural, highlighted by the gleam and trickle of precious water, there were colored columns and veins of crystal and folded alabasters, formations fit for cathedrals, formations Spock could have held in his hand.

"There is nothing else like this," he said, awed. "I wish that Sarek could see it. I cannot believe your people have known it existed and not desired to come here."

They had descended from the top of the mesa almost to the bottom of the canyon. There were in deep shade now, and the scent of water was on the air. Ahead there was a moving web of light on the walls. Jim had followed Spock down the path, leading Richard and admiring the glories pointed out to him. The path terminated in a series of stepping-stones where a narrow stream spurted out of the wall. The water wasn't deep, and the children were making the most of the opportunity to splash in it when a Labelon nymph caught up with the party. Spock was pointing out a cup of copper sulfate crystals to Jim when Richard let out a hoarse cry of panic.

He pulled free and bolted into the water, kicking up spray and unbalancing children; the voiceless nymph fled back up the canyon. Jim leaped after his charge, and Spock followed Jim. Ahead, where the light came from, there was a crystalline crash and shatter like endless mirrors breaking and the webs of light fled around the walls.

The final display in the Labelon garden was still falling when Spock arrived. Richard was up to his waist in a black-floored reflecting pool, and around him transparent walls of faceted crystal were breaking into individual shards and crashing down into the water and against the stone rim of the pool. For a moment everyone was too shocked to react, then a child began to cry. From the pool Richard echoed the sound in a series of high, gasping wails.

Jim waded out into the water, got his hands on Richard's shoulders and shook him. He said something Spock couldn't hear over the splashing water and Mercer's sharp commands to come out. Richard's cries escalated into a terrified, heartbroken ululation that raised the hairs at the back of Spock's neck. Jim stepped back and deliberately slapped him.

"Get the hell out of there!" Mercer commanded.

Richard had stopped wailing and was gasping for breath. His respirator had fallen off. Jim fished it out of the water. When he turned to the circle of shocked and condemning faces, he looked frightened. He tugged Richard toward the edge of the pool but couldn't muscle him over the rim. Before Spock could move forward, Mercer went down on one knee, grabbed Richard's arms and pulled while Jim pushed from behind. Mercer stepped away from the two dripping forms and wiped his hands on his trousers. A sulphurous wind enveloped them, heated and full of sparks. Spock flinched and the humans stepped back as an adult Labelon emerged from the canyon with the nymph behind it.

The red-gold blaze abated slightly, shrinking in around the multiple, organ-tipped limbs. The Labelon did appear very much like a burning tree. Behind it the nymph bent at the waist, its top half swaying and peering. From what Spock had read, parentage was a biological fact of little importance to the Labelon, but the adults prized the nymphs, sharing the care and nurturing of the immature forms. From the fire came a furnace voice.

Cadet Mercer was offering his wand of authority, his voice and body under strict control. Jim and Richard, equally wet, stood dripping on the verge of the pool. Richard was behind Jim and clinging to him for protection. He wrapped his arms tight around Jim's waist and hid his face against Jim's shoulder. Spock's heart was beating with such rapidity that he did not immediately realize that he could understand the Labelon and Cadet Mercer could not.

Spock cleared his throat. "The Labelon is aware of your authority, Cadet Mercer. What he desires is to know who destroyed--" Spock hesitated and translated as literally as he could, "The Bridge of Light. The crystalline structure over the pool."

"Tell him that Commandant Stationer will make reparation and deal with the perpetrator."

Spock was not sure his own sibilants, exhalations and clicks--so much less in volume--would be comprehensible to the Labelon, but he tried.

Again the hot breath answered, soft and massive, whirling past them like a vapor of bronze.

"He says--" Spock knew the pronoun was wrong, that his whole translation might be wrong. "He says that the destruction of beauty cannot be repaired, and," Spock did not look toward Jim and Richard, "that the person who has done this thing must be punished."

"He will be," Mercer said with a venomous glance at Jim. "I'll see to it personally."

"That was not the essence of the Labelon's meaning." Spock faced Mercer, but his words were meant for Jim. "He means that the perpetrator must be punished now. Before the rest of us are allowed to leave."

"I can't just hand over some civilian in my charge," Mercer protested, "not even some zombie no one would miss. Tell him he must release us and apply to Commandant Stationer."

Spock tried. The Labelon bent its branches toward the mouth of the canyon. A second adult stood between the narrow walls, blazing insubstantially against the light from the desert beyond.

"I want to go home," one of the children wailed. They had gathered into two tight groups on either side of the pool, equidistant from the flaming aliens.

"What are they going to do to him?" Mercer asked.

The Labelon's answer was not responsive. Spock shrugged. "He merely says that the guilty one must remain if the rest wish to leave."

Mercer wet his lips and looked at Richard. "Ask them not to do anything until they've talked to the Commandant," he told Spock.

"No." Jim hadn't said anything. Now he began to extricate himself from Richard's desperate grip. "Richard is a Personality Reintegrated Individual undergoing social orientation in my custody. His legal status is exactly the same as any other minor child. I'm responsible for him. I'll stay. Spock, take him to the infirmary."

Spock's chest was too constricted to form the Labelon words. He hesitated between Jim's white face and the more audible misery from the two groups of children. The Labelon blazed continuously between the dark walls of stone, and the pool reflected fire in the water.

"For God's sake tell him," Mercer urged.

Spock took a deep breath. One did not always choose responsibility. Sometimes it was thrust on one. Only Jim had an obligation to Richard. Only Spock had the ability to communicate with the alien. Children must be protected. He spoke, at length, and the Labelon answered in a long, heated gust.

Spock turned to Jim. "I told him that you accepted responsibility. I also told him that among your own people you would be considered a nymph and not subject to the same sanctions as an adult."

"That's a lie," said Mercer maliciously.

Spock ignored him. "The Labelon agrees that nymphs should not be punished as adults, regardless of the seriousness of their crimes. He asks what is the most severe punishment nymphs among your species ordinarily receive."

Jim swallowed. "Tell him--a beating with a strap or stick."

"He's going to let us leave," breathed Mercer. Anticipation leapt in his face. His hand tightened around the wand of authority Spock had earlier mistaken for a swagger stick. "This is going to be one pleasure you don't get paid to provide, Joyboy, and you aren't going to like it at all. Strip down."

Jim's face had frozen into what might have been an expression of indifference, but Spock knew it was not indifference. When it's just pain, Jim had said, they know what you're hiding. They make it go on until you do show it. And it was Mercer, who hated Jim, who would make him show his pain. Jim had also said, You have to do what's right, whatever it costs.

"I will administer the punishment," Spock said.

"Like hell you will," Mercer said. "I'm in command here."

"No. You accept no responsibility for Jim's welfare or for Richard's. Your desire is to avoid blame and justify your malice. Your thoughts and your behavior disgrace the uniform you wear."

Jim had already reached for the fastener of his overall. He turned slightly, presenting his back to Spock instead of Mercer while he continued to obey Mercer's command. It was an awkward garment to get out of. He shrugged out of one sleeve and then the other and gathered the slack at his waist.

"Me! He's the one who--"

"Kroykah! Thou art not fit to touch his garment!" Spock was not aware that he had spoken in Vulcan, that Vulcan balefires burned in his eyes. His uncontrolled telepathic projection caused the Labelon to bend away from him like trees in the wind. Sarek, miles away, lifted his head as if a battle call had sounded. Mercer released the wand and backed away.

Spock turned to Jim. His sudden anger had left him shaken, and Jim looked very young. Spock knew that humans had no defense against pain, knew also that he could not spare Jim at the expense of the terrified children. The wand shook in his hand.

"Do it." The curt command came from Jim, not Mercer, and broke Spock out of his stasis.

He had to stand close and to the side for the blows to fall full across Jim's back. Spock could see the flesh start under the impact of each blow, watch the muscles leap and tense in rebellion. The human's pain washed out in an aura as bright as the Labelon's flames. It enveloped Spock. His whole spirit cringed from the knowledge of what he was inflicting on the other, and none of it was hidden from him--not Jim's pain, not the humiliation of having his body on display once more, not having his uncontrollable response known by every watcher no matter how still or silent he stood. Spock didn't realize he was striking harder, but he sensed relief when the pain became so intense it drowned all other knowledge.

A voice like the desert's brought him back to himself. His arm ached, and Jim had fallen to one knee. His back was red and marked with dark red welts. Spock's whole body burned. The desert spoke again.

Spock turned to Mercer, not interested to note his white face or the fact that he was trembling. "Take the children out," Spock said. "Wait for us."

Mercer looked at the wand of authority where Spock had dropped it; then he turned without a word and obeyed the command. The Labelon at the canyon's entrance moved aside to let the children pass.

Spock took the canteen from Richard's belt and poured a thin trickle of water across Jim's shoulders, guiding it down the fevered back, a gloss of coolness. The pain was still sharp. The muscles under his hand jumped and twitched in convulsive protest. He gave Jim the canteen and when he had drunk from it, helped him get his arms back into the coverall.

"You must wash your face," Spock told Jim.

Jim held out his hands for water and splashed his face, seemed surprised to see blood. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and held it under his nose. "I did get a nosebleed after all," he said. "It'll quit in a minute." He looked from Richard, who stood vacantly waiting, to the wreckage around the now deserted pool, and then at the Labelon.

"Spock--tell him it was an accident, that I'm sorry I didn't get to see it. It must have been beautiful." The flames wreathed out from the unconsumed center. A hot breath wound around them, stirring the hair on Jim's forehead, drying his face. Spock looked down at the edge of the pool.

"What is it?"

"New crystals." Spock pointed to where crystals as fine as sugar were forming along the lip of the pool, each one faceted like a jewel.

"They grow from the pool?"

"If the mineral content of the water and the humidity of the air are in correct proportion. A bridge does not always form. The process takes a nymph's lifetime--twenty of our years. He invites us to return. He says that you have earned the privilege of seeing it whole."

"We earned it. How's your calendar?"

"I will be here on your thirty-fifth birthday."

Jim smiled and put his handkerchief away. Normal color was returning to his face. "We'll both be grown up then. Richard and I take the Rimdweller to Vetris colony tonight. I'll ship from there to the Academy at Luna."

"Where you will break all the rules and achieve your heart's desire."

"Is it so hard for a Vulcan to break rules?"

"I never had anyone to break them with before."

Jim took Richard's arm and turned him around. "We're keeping Mercer waiting. If he slaps me on the back, you kill him. I'm too tired."

Spock followed slowly, reluctant to leave. Jim had not answered. Was this no more to him than an adolescent interlude? He had had many lovers; in twenty years he would have many more.

Jim stopped at the far edge of the pool. "Twenty years is a long time," he said. "But you know where I'll be. Maybe we'll bump into each other."

The End


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