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Nicole Comtet

That morning, as Doctor McCoy poured himself a cup of coffee, he reflected complacently that Jim, after all, had been right. All things considered... training cruises offered good points... provided that no unforeseen mishap, no intruder(biped or otherwise) turned up to 'disrupt the smooth running of the ship', in Starfleet parlance.

Having selected a slice of buttered toast and spread it lavishly with genuine Dundee marmalade (a present from Scotty), McCoy munched pensively while sorting the files piled on his desk. For the last few days, he had got into the habit of spending the early mornings at work in his quarters, assuming that people who used to walk breezily into his office at any time would think twice before barging into his private sanctum. Here, at least, he hoped to have some peace and quiet to sort out data, and draw up the reports he was requested to deliver to Spock before the end of the week.

Another ten days, and the voyage would be over. Amazing how fast time had slipped by, now that things had finally settled down to a nice, well ordered routine; and that was just what everyone needed... to take it easy after the commotion of the first hectic days.

When all was said and done, they had been downright lucky to come unscathed out of the hijacking episode, and he had to hand it to Spock; the Vulcan had once again turned up trumps in a situation which was pretty desperate, to say the least. Of course, with his - propensity for understatement, Spock had spoken of 'extreme, adverse conditions'. You bet! Anyhow, they sure had had a narrow escape, but Thank God, the crew was none the worse for the incident, and one and all were in peak condition and high spirits.

Even the incident with the cat had turned out for the best, that animal was a joy, and a wonderful asset for the morale of the crew, and McCoy grudgingly admitted that the Vulcan had, there also, scored a point in giving that cat freedom of the ship. Might be worth while to keep pets on board starships... why not? He could recommend the idea in his medical log. The Doctor chuckled at the thought which reminded him of the revelation he and Sulu had overheard in the rec room just the day before.

An excited yeoman had disclosed, in confidence, to a captivated audience, the secret retreat of the cat. When she was not playing with the crew, or begging titbits in the officers' mesa, where do you think she was, most of the time?... fast asleep in the Captain's quarters, and on the Captain's pillow!

The news had been confirmed by Radcliff, from Security, who had explained that they could trace Tinkerbell, alias Cheri-Belle, wherever she went by a simple glance at their screens.

The crewmembers' hilarity had turned into unbridled mirth when Sulu with that wry humour he displayed sometimes, had made the comment,

"Logical, yeoman. Cats are clever and comfort-loving creatures. Therefore where could she find the warmth and tranquillity she needs, but in the Captain's quarters, which moreover offer the advantage of never being locked!"

And McCoy had clinched the matter by saying, straight-faced, "You have a point there, Commander, but, in my opinion, there is more than that... it is psychological... you see... it all comes down to a question of pointed ears." And, the Doctor reflected with satisfaction, that had set the rec room roaring with laughter.

When McCoy had teased him about his new pet, the unruffled Vulcan had calmly parried with a logical reason of his own. "True, Doctor, cats have an innate sense of comfort, but even more a craving for tranquillity, particularly on board a vessel peopled with loud and emotional Humans." Hence her predilection for Spock's restful quarters.

* * * * * * * *

This reference to Spock brought McCoy back to his work, and after a last cup of coffee, he pushed his tray away, and began to tackle his reports in earnest. For a while, quietness prevailed in the cabin, punctuated by the occasional rustle of papers, the faint hum of the desk computer, and the Doctor's muttered commentaries as he delved into his notes and records. Eventually, he came upon a file which brought a deep frown on his brow.

"Vatanen... " he grunted, as he flipped through the pages of the dossier. "Damn... I'd better see Spock about her. Let us see... psych-tests are still far from satisfactory... liable to sudden change of mood, to bouts of depression and tears... Well! it's obvious that the cause of her. condition is that darned Science Officer, but I can't put that in my report... unless... I'd better ask Spock! That poor girl is his student, he should make a decision about that Schwarz. Okay, I've got to see Spock, and the sooner the better!"

With these words, McCoy slammed the Vatanen file onto his desk and peered at the wall chronometer. It was still early and Spock was probably in his quarters, he decided. He reached for the intercom and punched the Captain's private code.

Ho reply. He tried again and waited... still no reply from Spock. Then McCoy called the officers' mess...

"No," replied someone, "the Captain has not come in yet". Puzzled, the Doctor thought of giving up, then tried the labs where Spock was known to work sometimes, before his watch... no answer either from the labs.

"Damn!" cursed the Doctor, "where the heck is that darned Vulcan? Gone to the Bridge already?"

But the Captain was not on the Bridge.

"Too early, Doctor. Still another forty five minutes until the next watch," he was obligingly informed by a smiling ensign.

"I am well aware of the time, young man!" McCoy cut in crossly. "But I've called all over the ship... can't find him anywhere... He has not abandoned ship, has he?"

There was a pause during which he perceived giggles and discussion in the background, then the ensign reappeared on the screen.

"Did you try the gym, sir?" he asked.

"The gym?... No, I didn't."

"I think you should, Doctor. The Captain is probably there with Mr Sulu. They usually are at this hour."

"Oh? okay, thank you," and McCoy, somewhat mystified, switched off. Spock and Sulu in the gym? Well, since Jim was no longer around, why not? Those two used to meet early in the morning for regular workouts, with, sometimes, appalling consequences like the time when Spock had practically squashed his Captain in a punishing V'Asumi grip which had left Jim sore for a couple of days!

Hard to imagine, though, the lithe figure of the helmsman engaged in a sparring match with the crushing force of the Vulcan... Anyway, Spock was unavailable right now... the Vatanen report would have to wait, but at the earliest opportunity he would corner the elusive Vulcan and thrash out the Vatanen problem with him.

McCoy was taking another file when an idea came to his mind. "Wait a minute! A work-out between Spock and Sulu might be worth watching... Yes, and that report might be a good excuse... "Good God!" The Doctor sat up abruptly as another idea flashed in, "Spock!... in a rough and tumble... and his bones barely healed! Is Spock out of his mind? He might be severely damaged... Frankly, that Vulcan is impossible!" and, in a state of fuming exasperation, Doctor McCoy jumped to his feet and stomped out.

* * * * * * * *

Down on deck 7, the Doctor found the ship's gymnasium bustling with activity, in the thick of a crew training session. On the way in, he gave a glance through the transparent aluminium bay, to the zero-G chamber where a number of trainees were practising free-fall combat and obviously having quite a good time in the process.

At the main hall, McCoy paused in the doorway and watched with interest the crew engaged in close-combat exercises, wrestling, karate, aikido, etc... Some cadets in white jerseys were grappling and rolling gracefully on the mats, under the watchful eyes and to the crisp instructions of a junoesque Security Officer, clad in a tight-fitting gym-suit which revealed her figure to perfection. Naturally McCoy took time to pause and admire the show.

"Care to join us, Doctor?" asked Killicranky, passing by, a towel wrapped about his neck.

"Me? You must be joking, Killy. That's no game for an old country Doctor! I am content just watching the spectacle."

Following his gaze, Killy stage whispered, "Sure! Quite an eyeful, isn't she?" and winked.

"Huh? Er... yeah, as a matter of fact, I rather like that emerald green whatsit the lady is wearing... matches her red hair, doesn't it?"

"Yes, indeed, pretty colour!" Killicranky shot a side-glance, at the Doctor and laughed. "Tut, tut, tut, Doctor, come on... "

"Well, to tell you the truth," confided McCoy in a jolly mood, "I have not come here to ogle the girls but to look for Spock. I was told that he might be here."

"That's right. He and Sulu are down there, and they have been at it hammer and tongs for the last half-hour," and the lieutenant nodded to a far section specially equipped for athletics training.

McCoy's misgivings came back full tilt. "Damn! I hope that I won't find them falling to pieces," he exclaimed.

Killicranky gave him a quizzical look. "No need to worry about them, Doctor, they are all right... at least, ten minutes ago, they were still alive and kicking!" and he went off, still chuckling, to the changing cubicles, while McCoy watched him go, muttering, "That remains to be seen"!"

He turned about and picked his way through the wrestling groups, to the extremity of the gym hall. There, the Doctor was somewhat surprised to find that the elaborate fittings the room was equipped with were practically deserted. And no sign of Spock... nor of Sulu, for that matter.

On the other hand, there seemed to he something interesting happening next door, for about a dozen crewmemhers were clustered in the doorway and looking on with passionate attention.

"What's going on here?" Quite intrigued, McCoy elbowed his way to the front line and gaped in surprise.

On a raised platform fitted with a sound-proof coating, two light-footed figures, in white from head to foot, were engaged in furious, all out combat. As they bounded, lunged and parried with cat-like agility, in a clinking and flashing of steel, their shimmering close-fitting suits and visored helmets gave them a ghost-like appearance.

At first the Doctor just stood and watched, fascinated by the virtuosity and elegance of the performance, until he realized that the duelist, Spock and Sulu, obviously were not using mere foils with buttons off, but long steel blades which looked mighty dangerous to him.

"Hey!... Will somebody tell me what kind of stunt that is? That's not fencing... they'll cut each other to ribbons before long at this rate!"

The onlookers merely smiled, and one of the men, dressed in a fencing suit, kindly explained, "No fear, Doctor. They can't get hurt... See that kind of luminescent aura around them? That is a forcefield."

"Oh, I see," said McCoy, feeling much like a philistine among initiates. "Something like our life-support jackets, I guess?"

"Yes... except that this force-field not only deflects but also monitors the slightest touch, then relays the information to the computer and the scores are displayed on the panel which you see there."

"Clever! An idea of the Captain's, I presume?"

"Right, sir," replied another crewman. "He devised this protective system with Mr Scott, to avoid any possible accident, particularly in this kind of sword-play."

"I should think so!... Well, I must say that I've never seen anything like this," McCoy remarked. A side glance informed him that he was probably the only one in the room to think that, as most of the crew around him were wearing fencing attire and watching, with the rapt attention of experts, the sword-fight enacted by their senior officers.

"What type of duel is this anyway, can anyone tell me?" McCoy asked sotto voce, impressed by the reverence with which they watched the show.

"That is what they call D'Alik'Tal," he was informed confidentially. "Something very special, Doctor; and you will never have a chance to see it practiced outside of Vulcan... except on the Enterprise, of course."

"Vulcan, is it? Can't say that I am surprised. Funny that peace-loving people like the Vulcans have such a fancy for murderous weapons!" McCoy commented dryly. "But why two? I mean, why a sword and a dagger?"

"That is special to D'Alik'Tal, Doctor. In a way it is similar to 16th century duels in Europe, fought with rapier and dagger."

"Oh... and these blades are also Vulcan, I suppose?"

"Only the Captain's weapons are original, from his private collection, you know. But when Mr Sulu asked if he could teach him D'Alik'Tal, the Captain had some duplicates made on Vulcan specially for Mr Sulu, but in a lighter type of alloy."

"No-one but the Captain can handle that long sword he has!" another man put in, "not even Sulu. I tried but I could hardly lift it from the deck!" He chuckled self-consciously.

"And you are all in Sulu's fencing class, I guess?" McCoy glanced around at the earnest faces.

"Aye, sir," they proudly replied. "We are the Enterprise Fencing Club." The Doctor definitely had the impression of being introduced to some kind of secret society.

"Delighted!" he retorted with a grin. "But that... what's its name? D'Alik'Tal? have you done it yet?"

They traded sheepish glances and shook their heads. "Not yet, much too difficult, Doctor. Only a professional, or a master like Sulu, can do that and still... "

"Ah... or a Vulcan?" McCoy remarked, his eyes fixed on the tall figure of Spock who, with consummate skill, was calmly parrying the headlong lunges of his opponent.

"Well, actually not many Vulcans can fight D'Alik'Tal nowadays," one of his informants told him. "From what Sulu said, it is an ancient, pre-Reformation form of duel which has only survived in some Vulcan athletic Academies, and is rarely practised."

"Is that so? Yet another ancient Vulcan tradition! Seems to me that your instructor is an expert too, the way he's going! How long have they been doing it, and who generally wins?" McCoy asked, cocking an eyebrow.

They chuckled. "They have been practising, off and on, for the last two years; as for winning... it depends. For instance, to—day, the scores are about even, so far... "

"Yes, but the Captain is not giving his full potential!" one of the men argued. "Just you watch if he decides to raise the pressure."

"I know! But mark my word, one day Sulu will manage to beat him!"

"Oh, come on, Ted!" and the two young men launched into heated argument which sounded to the Doctor much like the passionate discussions that film fans or sports supporters have about the merits of their respective idols.

Anyway, McCoy could verify that his uneasiness about Spock's physical condition was totally unfounded, and it was obvious that the Vulcan kept his fabulous power in leash - witness the superb ease with which he parried and counter-attacked the relentless thrusts of the impetuous helmsman. As he observed the two officers in full action, the Doctor realized that in spite of their physical disparity, they were equally matched in their feline grace and steely stamina. Yes, he had to admit that this sword fight was a beautiful, stylish demonstration, and a perfect education in self-control and manliness for these youngsters.

Just as the Doctor was watching, however, the duel was abruptly interrupted. Both men had lowered their swords and stood facing one another at parade rest.

"Ah, now... what's up? Is it over?" McCoy inquired.

"No, net yet. The Captain is probably giving a pointer or two to Mr Sulu. Yes, look, Doctor, he's teaching him how to lock that lunge with his dagger, and give a back-hand thrust with the sword. Wow! that's tricky... There, now... Yes, that's it, he has got it!" They clapped.

"Now, what I would like to know is how they can discuss anything with those helmets on. I didn't hear a word they said," complained the Doctor.

"Simple, Doctor, they have a com device in their helmet," he was told kindly.

"Ah, yes, of course... stupid of me. I might have guessed," confessed McCoy, who was feeling decidedly out of touch.

But the fight had been resumed, and Spock led it at such a breathless pace that, within a minute, they had the crew shouting. Even McCoy found himself sharing the excitement. Then, suddenly, in a jarring clash of steel against steel, the dagger was snatched from Sulu's grasp to fly across the room and clatter on the deck.

Instantly Spock drew back, lowered his weapons, and both men stood and panted. Then they traded the sword salute, switched off their force fields, and stepped down from the stand to be greeted by the enthusiastic fencing club.

Having pushed up his visor, Sulu, hot and disheveled, looked at the scores and grinned." I say! that's not too bad!"

"Quite satisfactory, Sulu, your technique is improving steadily." Spock removed his gloves and helmet and delivered them to an attendant with the stateliness of a grand dignitary. "Thank you, yeoman, kindly put these and Mr Sulu's accoutrements away in that locker, will you? Ah, Doctor - I was not aware of your interest in the martial arts."

McCoy shrugged. "I am certainly not interested in throat-cutting games, but I admit that this exhibition of yours has taken my breath away. Sulu, you were terrific! Must be tough to stand up against that Vulcan!"

"Thank you, Doctor." Sulu was delighted. "Yes, it was certainly tough but it was fantastic, specially when you raised the pace, Spock. My word! I was hard put to it to keep up with you."

"You did very well, so well that next time we will try a few variations on that move, if you are willing."

"Of course, Captain, I am ready for anything. Now, what about the return match in the pool? You owe me that one, don't you?"

"Not now, Mr Sulu, I am due on the Bridge for that target drill. But to-morrow... before your shift? Good. Now, excuse me, gentlemen... "

The Captain reached out for the wall com panel and punched the engineering code. "Mr Scott? Yes, good... yes, have you also checked the launch tubes as scheduled?... Yes, have them ready for testing and report to the Bridge in fifteen minutes. Thank you. Spock out."

Leaving Sulu and his class to discuss the bout at length and in all its aspects, the Vulcan went off to the changing rooms, Where he was intercepted by Doctor McCoy„

"Spock, have you a few minutes to spare? I would like a word with you, about my reports, you know. Actually that is what I came here for."

Spock nodded and walked into one of the cubicles. "There is no time now for your reports, Doctor, but come to my quarters after shift, and we shall see about them at our leisure."

The Doctor grunted assent.

In one fluid movement, the Vulcan unzipped his white suit and stripped, then stepped under the sonic shower.

"Just a minute, Spock!"

Hand poised over the command switch, Spock looked round inquiringly. McCoy was still there. Arms folded on his chest, he was leaning against the door frame, and inspecting with clinical scrutiny the lean body of the Vulcan who asked, a trifle impatiently, "Well, what else, Doctor?!

"Just wanted to check, Captain. Remember, I am the Doctor here, and I notice that you drive yourself more than is good for you - and those bones are barely set. Do you feel any strain, any pain at all?"

"None at all, McCoy; on the contrary, these exercises have done much to release the stiffness I felt for having been encased in that cast. And now, will you please let me take a shower?"

"Hmmm, all I can say is that you are lucky not to have anything dislocated. Try not to make things worse, will you? Okay... see you tonight!" and McCoy sauntered along the corridor, followed by the soft hum of the sonic machinery.

* * * * * * * *

Spock strode onto the Bridge, cast a quick, keen-eyed glance round, noted the presence of Mr Scott at the Engineering station, and made the rounds, checking all stations before descending to the command chair.

"All ready below, Captain, target on its rails," announced Scotty.

"Thank you, Mr Scott. Mr Kettenring, you are first, then cadets Ferrier, Dolman and Landroff. Mr O'Brien, prepare to launch target and reduce speed to 1/4 impulse power. Kovack and Gordon, ready on sensors."

"Aye, sir," chorused the crew who, for that watch, consisted of junior officers and trainees, with the notable exception of the Captain and the Chief Engineer.

"Target waiting, Captain," reported O'Brien at the helm.

"Launch, Ensign. Forward view on screen."

A bright point shot from Enterprise's forward photon tube, zipped across the viewscreen, then slowed down in zig-zag, and finally drifted in space a good distance away. Then the bright spot began to expand in all directions, and in a few minutes turned into a Klingon warship, about half the size of the genuine article, but otherwise a perfect duplicate of the Bird of Prey, complete with winking lights and target bullseyes clearly marked.

"Here is your objective, Mr Kettenring," the Captain said. "Prepare to fire on my order."

"Aye, sir." The Ensign carefully checked the readings on his console, then reported, "Torpedo loaded and ready to launch, Captain." A pause.

"Fire!" said Spock gazing at the screen.

A streak of light shot out, aimed at the fake ship... the crew held their breath... then a flash flared briefly, and some lights blinked out on the right wing of the Bird of Prey.

"Good hit, lad!" commented Scotty, bringing a flush on Kettenring's cheeks.

"Hit monitored by sensors and logged," confirmed the Science station.

"Satisfactory, Ensign," Spock stated, "but you have four more tests to run and you must do better than that. Speed to 1/2 impulse and take her around, Mr O'Brien."

"1/2 impulse, Captain."

* * * * * * * *

The drill proceeded steadily and Philip Kettenring emerged from it with a score of four bullseye marks out of five, and the gratification of winning a "much better" from Spock. Even the Vulcan's remark of, "at the next drill, however, I shall expect from you a full score in half the time," did not succeed in damping his spirits.

He stood up and relinquished the weapon console to his junior, Cadet Ferrier, who was next on the drill rota and looking a bit nervous.

Scotty, after working rapidly at his board, announced, "Target put back into operation, Captain."

"Very good, Mr Scott." Then Spock, noting the obvious tension of the young cadet, said kindly, "Now, Mr Ferrier, keep in mind that this is not a computerised simulation. You are dealing with a real target and with genuine torpedoes. So... use your judgement and make sure not to react with undue haste."

"Aye, sir," Ferrier managed to say although his mouth felt as dry as a Vulcan desert.

"Mr O'Brien, reduce speed again. Ferrier, have your torpedo brought to launch and stand by."

The shooting exercise was resumed and proceeded as before, with the difference that the less experienced trainee hit the marks only twice. To his obvious dismay, the other three torpedoes whizzed past the target and soon disappeared from view, lost in the vacuum of space.

"There goes the good money of the tax-payers," Mr Scott wryly commented with a shake of the head. Jean-Pierre Ferrier, transfixed in his chair, flushed scarlet.

"Indeed, Mr Scott," the Captain sighed, "quite regrettable. This is not particularly brilliant, Ferrier, I expected better from you, specially after the good scores you obtained in simulation. What happened? Explain." This was said in a pained tone of voice which made the youth wince in mortification.

"I... I think that I fired too soon, sir," he stammered. "I... I am not sure... I am sorry, sir."

"As I thought, you were too hasty," the Vulcan observed. "Remember that a cool head and a steady hand are the chief qualities required of a gunner, or of a spaceman for that matter. But remember also that a negative result is never final. Let's do another test, cadet, and - "

"Captain! Captain, I am receiving a signal on the distress frequency," Uhura's trainee said suddenly. Spock swiveled his chair and shot a sharp glance at the girl.

"On Federation emergency code? Specify, Miss Garrick."

"Sorry, sir, the signal is very faint, I can hardly hear it."

"Have it enhanced, and try and project a line to its source. Do your best."

"Aye, Captain." She turned back to her board and worked feverishly, listening intently to the elusive sounds in her earphone.

The Captain, now standing at Kovack's shoulder, ordered quietly, "Check the recorders, Mr Kovack, I want the sensor readings of the last drill... yes, the last five shots."

The youth complied and at once the requested information flashed on the sensor screen above. Hands clasped behind his back, Spock studied the diagram, projecting on the star chart the trajectory of the three missiles which had gone astray, all three pointing to the same direction.

The Chief Engineer, standing at his side, looked on and muttered in a voice loaded with concern, "What do you have in mind, Spock? Do you think that our torpedoes... ?"

"That is precisely what we must find out, Mr Scott."

"But it's impossible! This sector is a Starfleet firing zone, it's reserved space. No vessel ever comes this side of the quadrant!"

"No vessel is supposed to come this way... and yet... Cadet Garrick, anything on that signal yet?"

"Not much, Captain. The call is an emergency automatic beacon, repeated over and over, and it is not in Federation but in Universal code, sir. And I think that I have traced the co-ordinates," Joyce answered, rather pleased with herself.

"Good," said Spock briefly, "have them relayed at once to the Science station."

Scotty heaved a sigh. "Well, now, we'll know for sure... "

"Indeed, Mr Scott." The Vulcan hit a switch, and the computer duly provided on another screen the radio hearings of the signal. Then, by touching another control, Spock made a last adjustment, the two charts blended together, and the two superimposed patterns appeared for all to see, practically identical.

The Captain quirked an eyebrow at the bemused engineer. "Well, Mr Scott, it seems conclusive, doesn't it?"

Scotty shook his head, still doubtful. "Aye, Captain, so it seems, but... how can we be sure that our torpedoes... "

The Bridge crew, gripped in a stunned silence, waited and listened while their senior officers swapped figures, equations and highly technical terms back and forth. Finally Mr Scott had to agree with the logic and faultless calculations of the Captain who, then, turned to his crew and gazed at the cadet still sitting at the weapon station.

"It appears, Cadet Ferrier," he said soberly, "that your torpedoes have found their mark."

The boy was horrified. "Sir... do you mean that I have destroyed a ship... by mistake?"

"Hardly, since the drill torpedoes are unarmed. But if they have hit a craft, which is still to he corroborated, they may have caused considerable damage. That is what we must investigate immediately, and eventually set to rights."

The Vulcan came down and resumed his place. "The drill is cancelled," he said. "Mr Scott, have the warp engines ready and our target safely returned to the cargo bay without delay. We must not waste the taxpayers' money more than we can help."

"Right, Captain, they pay enough already!" Scotty retorted and set to work at his board. "What about the torpedoes? Do we change them? Some genuine ones might come in useful... one never knows... "

"Certainly, you do that, Mr Scott. Ensign Kettenring, you attend to the weaponry. Have the phaser banks and photon torpedoes in readiness."

"Do you think that we'll have to give battle, Captain?" the ensign asked in trepidation.

"Most unlikely, but you heard Mr Scott. One must be prepared for any emergency. Navigator, plot a course to the signal co-ordinates and stand by. Helm, open forward scanners to maximum and stand by for departure."

While these orders were crisply given and acknowledged, Engineer Scott was busy recovering the target. On the main screen, the cadets saw the Bird of Prey flutter and move its wings, then, like a deflated balloon, fold up and finally shrink into a bright dot in the dark space.

Then a tractor beam was activated and pulled the target back, to be stored in one of the cargo holds. The operation was all done in a matter of minutes, after which Scotty got to his feet and said, "All set with the Bird, Captain, now I'll see to the torpedoes." On Spock*s nod of assent, he left the Bridge.

The Vulcan cast a keen glance around and said quietly, "Navigation?"

"Course plotted and set, Captain."

"Good. Mr O'Brien, engage warp engines and take us out, warp five."

"Warp five, Captain," replied the ensign.

As the Enterprise gathered herself and leaped ahead, bound for the rescue mission, Spock, after a pause for thought, switched the intra—ship channel open, "All decks, the Captain speaking. We have an emergency. A distress call has been detected in our sector of the quadrant, and we are under way to investigate and eventually render assistance. Stand by for any eventuality. Spock out."

As was to be expected, this announcement caused a great deal of curiosity and conjecture throughout the ship. The off-shift senior officers reported at once for duty and, down in sickbay, McCoy, with his medics and nurses, began to prepare the wards and surgery for any emergency. The good Doctor was heard muttering grumpily under his breath, "I knew that something or other was bound to happen again. I knew that we could not stay out of trouble with that Vulcan in command!" Of course, McCoy's grousing, so true to type, was taken in the same spirit as it was given, and did much to raise the morale of the medical team.

* * * * * * * *

Less than fifteen minutes went by, and the distress beacon signal was picked up again, loud and clear, and dead ahead. The long range sensors revealed among some interstellar dust and ion particles, and not one but two tiny flashing blips, clearly visible and closing fast. This prompted Sulu to comment in jest from the helm, "Looks like Ferrier's torpedoes have made a double hit!"

"Pure conjecture, Mr Sulu," Spock said mildly while gazing musingly at the viewscreen. "Give us visual identification whenever possible."

"Aye, sir." A few tense minutes slipped by, then Sulu said, "Coming now within visual range, Captain."

"Maximum magnification on forward scanners, Mr Sulu."

The helmsman activated controls on his console and the viewscreen displayed, in the midst of static, two definite patterns, two vessels facing each other in what looked much like battle mode. Spock took one keen look at them and ordered at once, "Deflector shields up, ahead warp six, Mr Sulu. Uhura, sound yellow alert!" The alarm sirens blared throughout Enterprise sending the crew scurrying to their stations, and poor, panic-stricken Cherie-Belle scurrying under a bed.

* * * * * * * *

Presently Lieutenant Schwarzenberg confirmed Spock's suspicions. The larger ship, a frigate-class cruiser, ostensibly a harmless intergalactic trader, was identified by the Library Computer as an Orion vessel which seemed to be engaged, under that cover, in a usual Orion occupation, namely thieving and piracy.

"Initial scan," added the Science Officer, "indicates that the small vessel, of design and origin unknown, is manned by a crew of twelve... no, fifteen, and is at the source of the distress call... they have been hit by phaser fire, but their shields are still holding... "

Just as he spoke a sudden burst of light flashed from the Orion's prow and passed aft of the unknown craft.

Mr Scott, back at his station, stared at the screen in disbelief.

"An Orion pirate... firing at a private vessel in Federation space!" he exclaimed. "What damned cheek! We've got to teach him a lesson, Captain!

"We certainly shall, Mr Scott, in due time. Sulu, shift sensor pick-up, please," said the Vulcan.

A new view showed the mysterious vessel from a fresh angle as it dodged the Orion's attacks in clever evasive manoeuvers.

"Any more information on that craft, Lieutenant? Can you identify its markings?" Spock asked patiently while firmly curbing a strong desire to go and take control of the computer console himself. Schwarzenberg was an efficient officer, but so slow in extracting information from the computer data banks!

"No, Captain, it is not recorded in Federation lists, nor in the private listings of interstellar shipping. It is totally alien, and it is equipped with warp drive." Schwarzenberg finally revealed.

The Chief Engineer whistled appreciatively."Warp drive for a craft of that size! Must have cost a fortune! But whoever built that ship certainly knew his job... she is a real beauty! Funny, though, that design, these lines, remind me of something... "

Behind him the lift doors slid open silently and Doctor McCoy made a cautious entrance. He was urged by an irresistible curiosity, and yet uncertain of the reception he would receive on the Bridge at this crucial moment. He raised inquiring eyebrows at Uhura who answered with a shrug of ignorance and a nod at the screen. He replied with another nod and remained standing unobtrusively in the background.

Meanwhile, the Science Officer had more to say. "Captain, there is something odd about that Orion vessel..." He peered intently into the hooded viewer. "They have been hit also... yes, very curious... They seem to have been struck by some solid metallic objects right into their hull, in two different places." He adjusted some controls, and continued, "These objects are still embedded in the forward hull, and have caused great damage apparently, and... " He looked up bemusedly at Spock. "Captain, they look like photon torpedoes... "

A murmur of astonishment ran around the Bridge. "Torpedoes?" Mr Scott interjected. "You mean... our torpedoes?"

"From the readings I have, they definitely look like ours, sir!"

The murmur turned into a ripple of laughter, and the Captain, an eyebrow tilted up, remarked, "It appears that you were right, Mr Sulu. Cadet Ferrier, here, has made a double hit... and on an appropriate target!"

"Well done, lad!" Scotty was delighted and clapped the bewildered youth on the shoulder. "And whatever I said about your marksmanship... I take it right back! We'll make a good gunner out of you yet!"

Sulu interrupted the Bridge jubilation by announcing, "We are now within phaser range, sir."

"Thank you, Mr Sulu, reduce speed to warp two," Spock said. "Mr Kettenring, arm all phasers and stand by. Ms Uhura, open hailing frequencies."

Uhura was just switching all channels when she suddenly tensed and turned round. "Captain, I am picking up a message. The Orion is hailing the unidentified ship... it's barely audible."

"Have it enhanced and put on speakers, Commander." And, against a background of crackling and whistling was heard the unmistakable threat, "Prepare to surrender... or you will be destroyed... stand by to surrender!"

"Good God!" McCoy exclaimed, throwing all caution to the winds, "they will do that if we don't stop them! Spock, do something - what are you waiting for?"

The Vulcan ignored the Doctor's outburst and said calmly," Ship-to-ship frequencies, Ms Uhura."

"Channel open, sir."

"This is the Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Orion vessel, you are trespassing in Federation space. Identify yourself, I repeat, identify yourself and cease fire immediately."

The Orion pirate veered and faced the newcomer, but did not deign to acknowledge the summons.

Spock sighed and ordered, "Mr Kettenring, arm forward phasers. All shields full intensity. All hands to battle stations."

At once Uhura's trainee activated the alarm and a few moments later reported, "All stations report battle status, Captain."

"Phasers armed," said Kettenring, heart beating fast in excitement.

Spock made a last try. "Orion vessel, you are violating Federation space, Identify yourself." Only static sounded on the speakers. With a final gesture, Spock switched off and ordered, "Ahead slow, Mr Sulu. Ensign, lock phasers for a warning shot over their bow... on my order... fire!"

A blinding flash of light zipped across space and almost brushed the pirate which hastily backed in an evasive manoeuver and fired a single blast which crackled against the Enterprise's shields.

"Good, Mr Kettenring," the Captain commented briefly. "Now I want you to repeat this shot at their stern. Mr Sulu, steer a course around them, warp four."

"Aye, sir," came from the two officers. With a sudden roar of her engines, the Enterprise accelerated and turned in a wide arc, then swooped down on the Orion like a falcon on its prey.

"Lock phasers... steady... fire!" The calm voice of the Vulcan triggered another glancing blast of light which grazed the vessel aft so close that their deflectors fizzled like fireworks in the night.

A sigh of elation ran through the Bridge. "That'll teach them!" said Doctor McCoy.

"Sure, Doctor", Scotty chuckled. "That will.make them think twice before playing pirate in our space again! You see, they sit tight now, and with our torpedo right in their bow... their forward phasers are practically powerless."

Spock spoke again. "Orion vessel, this is your last chance... do not persist in violating Federation space or we shall have no alternative but to activate the two photon torpedoes we already fired, and which are now rammed into your outer hull."

Bemused silence on the Bridge... and no response from the pirate except another evasive attempt. Well aware of the astonished faces turned upon him, Spock gazed tranquilly at the two vessels on the screen. Then, having made sure that the channel was wide open, he ordered, "Gunner, prepare to activate the two torpedoes on my order... "

"Sir?" Kettenring looked at his Captain in amazement, having not the remotest idea of what was requested of him. And just as a half-suppressed chuckle sounded from the direction of the Chief Engineer that made him realize what it was all about, Sulu suddenly cried, "Something is going on, Captain... the Orion is pulling away!"

And indeed, they could all see on the screen the pirate veer about, and speed away in the distance, followed by the cheers of triumph of the Enterprise crew.

"Shall we give chase, Captain?" Sulu asked with a feral gleam in his eyes.

"Unnecessary, Mr Sulu, the pirate has learned his lesson. However, I believe that a farewell gesture would be appropriate. Mr Kettenring, arm forward phasers and give the Orion a 'parting shot' right ever his upper deck."

"Phasers armed, sir." The Ensign, delighted with his own performance, and with his Captain's mastery of the situation, was ready and waiting.

"Now, Ensign," Spock said softly, and a last beam of light streaked from the Enterprise to flash over the retreating vessel, and then vanish from view. "Well done, Mr Kettenring," the Vulcan approved. "Now, Mr Sulu, bring us back to that vessel. Commander Uhura, try and raise them, please."

"At once, sir." Uhura and Joyce turned back to their console while Sulu steered the ship towards the unidentified craft that was drifting silently in space.

"Spock, tell me... " McCoy was now standing at his side, and looked amused and perplexed. "What was all that about young Ferrier's torpedoes? I was under the impression that they were harmless, and yet I heard you give the order to blow them up... "

"Aha, Leonard, that has got you wondering, I can see," said Scotty from the other side of the Captain.".

"Surely it does not make sense... or is there something I missed?" the Doctor glanced suspiciously from the grinning Engineer to the Vulcan, whose lean face was a study of bland innocence.

"Not quite, Doctor," the latter said gently. "Mr Kettenring, explain to Doctor McCoy why you did not carry out my order to activate the torpedoes?"

The Ensign took one look at his commanding officer and picked up his clue at once.

"I did not, sir, because your order was unfeasible. An unarmed torpedo cannot be activated."

"You heard the ensign, Doctor. He is quite right. These torpedoes impacted into the Orion vessel could not blow up. But, all things considered, I saw no reason why the Orion should not believe that they could."

A scandalized McCoy spluttered out, "Spock... you Vulcan fraud! Do you mean to say that this show was just a bluff?"

"I believe that is what I said, Doctor." There was decidedly a twinkle in the depth of the dark eyes as Spock gazed at the Doctor.

"Well!" said McCoy shaking his head in wonder. "I never thought that I would see the day when a Vulcan would resort to bluff in a tricky situation!"

"And it worked," Mr Scott pointed out with satisfaction. "It worked so well that these Orions have scampered away without any more ado; reminds you of Jim's corbomite manoeuver, doesn't it?"

The senior officers were abruptly brought back to the present by Uhura, who declared somewhat fretfully, "Captain, we can't get any response on any frequencies... only static!"

"Some malfunction at their end, Commander?"

"Could be... or they just don't want to acknowledge."

"Continue hailing, Uhura, we must know why they sent a distress call."

"Spock," the Doctor said seriously, "maybe they don't reply because they cannot do so. Can't we find out if they are still alive or not? There must be some reasons, dammit I"

"Mr Schwarzenberg," said the Captain. "Anything from those probes?"

"I detect fifteen life-forms, air, but some life readings are weak and fluctuating."

"That's what I thought... they have casualties," McCoy stated. "There must he a way of getting to them, Captain!"

And then the Science Officer further reported, "I have some more data on the crew... the bio-scans indicate that they are all Vulcans." Having dropped his bombshell, Schwarzenberg sat back and awaited developments. His shipmates turned and gaped, and the Captain swiveled his chair, saying sharply, "Repeat, please."

"There are fifteen Vulcans on board that ship, Captain." The man stuck to his guns.

"It can't be, Lieutenant," Spock retorted icily, "Vulcans would acknowledge signals, and no vessel of that type has ever been built on Vulcan." While speaking, Spock strode up to the Science station and took ever; even Vulcan patience was running out by that time. He punched the computer voice control.

"Computer!" he said peremptorily.

"Working," the precise, mechanical voice replied with the eagerness of a faithful dog hearing his master's voice.

"Check xenobiology data-banks and give me exact identification of the sentient beings on board the alien vessel."

"Working," the voice repeated with zeal. A pause... then the computer announced with the self-consciousness of the head of the class, "The group of hominids in said vessel is in totality of Vulcanoid stock, of the species currently named Romulan. Place of origin, the planets Remus and Romulus of the Rihannsu Empire."

Total surprise on the Bridge. Spock switched off, drew himself up to his full height, and said, "Next time, Lieutenant, try and be more accurate, will you?" then he stalked back to the command seat.

Cadet Kovack, who had been standing by fidgety and frustrated, since "Schwarz" had taken over, averted his face and repressed a snigger. What a sweet revenge for all the unpleasant reflections he and his mates had been treated to for their 'lack of accuracy'!

Meantime, Mr Scott was giving vent to his misgivings about the present situation. "Romulans. In a camouflaged vessel! What are they doing this deep in Federation space, I would like to know? The whole business looks very fishy, Spock, very fishy!"

"Whatever the reason for their presence here, we shall find out, Mr Scott, and I doubt that in their present condition they can be much of a threat to the ship. However - Mr Schwarzenberg, I want these Romulans kept under constant monitoring. Have your trainees and yourself scan them at all time. Mr Sulu, hold the shields up as they are."

"Captain!" Uhura announced at last, "I have got something... yes, they are hailing us."

"Put them through, Commander."

She flicked a number of controls, and after a deafening crackle, a male voice was heard... speaking carefully as if the Federation basic tongue was unfamiliar to the speaker.

"Enterprise... we receive you. Enterprise, do you read?"

"This is Enterprise," Uhura said. "Please identify yourself."

"I am second in command of corvette ship Whirlwind. My commanding officer wishes to speak with your Captain."

On Spock's signal, Uhura replied, "You are on audio-contact, Whirlwind."

A pause, then a low-pitched, musical female voice sounded on the Bridge speakers. "So. We meet again, Enterprise. An unexpected surprise, to be sure! I little imagined that the champion of Federation starships would respond to our distress call... And how is my old enemy, the valiant Captain Kirk?"

The voice dripped with such hitter irony that the Bridge officers exchanged a startled glance. Spock stiffened perceptibly and said to Uhura, "On visual, please."

A second later, the viewscreen shimmered, and they found themselves looking at a woman's face of aristocratic beauty, compelling and oddly familiar.

"I'll be damned!" said McCoy in a hushed tone. "The Romulan Commander!"

Chanter II

A deafening silence descended on the Bridge and all held their breath in expectation. The Romulan and the Vulcan looked silently at one another, so much alike in their Vulcanoid handsomeness and emotional restraint, so similar in that look of recognition burning in their eyes.

It seemed that time stood still. Both commanders, seemingly oblivious of their ships, of their crews, stared with fierce intensity at one another, and tried to rediscover the features which had been, for those years past, kept alive like a smouldering fire in the secret of their memories. The brief lapse of naked emotion lasted but a few heartbeats and might even never have happened. All at once, the Romulan woman assumed an air of haughty indifference while, on Spock's face, the shields of emotional control were firmly slammed down.

The Vulcan deliberately switched on his chair communicator and said quietly, "Admiral Kirk is no longer Captain of this vessel, Commander. He is at present pursuing his career at Starfleet Headquarters. I am in command of the Enterprise."

"I see... First Officer Spock has been promoted to Captain, and Kirk to Admiral," she observed with the same bitter overtone in her voice. "No doubt a well-deserved reward for brilliant feats of arms, achieved through theft and subterfuge."

Spock winced inwardly. The shaft went deep, and the ancient wound was still painful. Calling upon his reserves of Vulcan pride and self-control, he replied with as much calm and dignity he could muster.

"Whatever the reasons may be for our promotions, Commander, I suggest that we lay these considerations aside for the time being, as you and I have more pressing business at hand. We came in answer to your distress signal, we found you under attack by an Orion vessel and have relieved you from that pirate. However, I have the duty, as a Starfleet officer, to ask you to explain and eventually justify your intrusion into Federation space, and to specify what degree of assistance, medical, technical or otherwise, you wish us to render."

She looked at him with a long appraising gaze, and suddenly smiled, a smile so unexpected, sad and yet gently ironical, that her face was, as it were, transfigured, like a cloudy sky by a ray of sunshine.

"Naturally, Captain - " (she emphasized the "Captain") - "your innate Vulcan rationalism demands a logical explanation for our illegal presence in Federation reserved space. Oh yes... we heard your... er... ultimatum to the Orions. Our Com. system was still out of order but, at least, we could receive, and we heard every word you said. I admit that I cannot produce any warrant, any legal document to allow my vessel into Federation space. You find us here, Captain, because an unforeseen circumstance, namely an ion storm of exceptional magnitude, left us no choice but to depart from our original course and seek refuge in this sector. And we were engaged in repairing the resulting damage to the best of our abilities, Captain, when the pirate happened upon us, and took advantage of our critical situation. Hence our distress call which you acknowledged with a prompt and opportune efficiency. Here is the explanation which you required. I hope it satisfies your legitimate curiosity. Shall I add my apologies and my gratitude, to make it complete?"

"They are unnecessary, Commander," Spock replied austerely. "All I asked for was the reason for your presence in this quadrant, and your explanation greatly clarifies the situation. How, if you would... "

"Captain!" the Romulan broke in. "Before we proceed... I also wish to clarify the situation, as you put it. You address me as 'Commander'. I no longer hold any rank in the Imperial Fleet, neither do my shipmates. You must be aware of the fate that befell me when you left me at that Federation outpost, to be turned over to the Rihannsu authorities, and you must be aware that consequently, I have been disgraced, stripped of my honours and exiled. I am an outcast banished from her home planet. The Whirlwind is but a small, free-lance vessel, Captain, but it is a proud ship, the flag-ship of the Free Traders Fleet, and I am still a Commander for my crew," she added with a sad smile.

With face still impassive but eyes burning with a somber fire, Spock gazed at her silently. He was again torn by that strange feeling of remorse which had burnt deep within his heart, ever since that deception he and Jim, acting upon Starfleet orders, had worked on that remarkable woman. He filed in his mind her last words and their possible implication, and said, "Believe me, we are well aware of the judgement passed upon you by your Imperial Authorities, judgement which we truly deplore. But, Commander, allow me and my shipmates to address you by that name. No-one deserved it better than you, and now more than ever."

"Spock!" exclaimed McCoy who, like the rest of the crew, had listened and watched in silent surprise. "That is the most- sensible thing you have said for days. Sorry for butting in, Madam, but let me say that for us all, you will always be the Romulan Commander." This was said with the southern gentleman's courtesy that McCoy used to evince towards the ladies, and the Romulan's face lit up again with that sad smile of hers, as she bowed her head in acknowledgement.

Her legitimate resentment and burst of anger were spent now, and she was left with that feeling of emptiness, of aching loneliness, revived at the sight of the one man she could not forget; she was tired and worried, but she held herself proud and self-possessed as she said,'

"You mentioned... some assistance, Captain?"

"Yes, indeed, Commander. Let me know in what way we can help you. I don't propose to take your ship on tow to our nearest Starbase as I believe that... "

"No, indeed, Captain," she cut in hastily, "this arrangement would be quite inconvenient and distasteful, I admit. I only need some medical supplies as five of my crew have been injured by the Orion's attack, and perhaps some parts of equipment to do the necessary repairs to our engines and deflectors. The rest... we can handle."

"Understood, Commander," Spock replied briskly. "My department heads will do their best to assist you and your crew. You have met them, I believe when you were... our guest on board the Enterprise."

"That is a gracious euphemism, Captain," she said, mildly sarcastic, and swept a glance over the Bridge crew. "Yes... I recollect the good Doctor McCoy who took good care of my health, and... your charming communications officer, and of course, your Chief Engineer, so expert at making good use of stolen military secrets."

Scotty had the grace to look embarrassed and cleared his throat. "The hazard of war, Ma'am," he muttered.

"Quite so, Engineer," she agreed. And then Spock stepped in.

"Commander, regretfully, our time is limited, therefore I suggest that without any more delay, your First officer and Engineer beam over and brief Chief Engineer Scott on your requirements."

And then, for the next fifteen hours, the Enterprise got very busy indeed. The Engineering and Computer Departments, in particular, hummed with activity to provide in record time the data, information, and facilities necessary to the refitting of the Whirlwind.

Mr Scott, for all his professed mistrust, found a kindred spirit in his Romulan counterpart who obviously shared his exclusive affection for the Romulan equivalent of 'bairns'. Also, the tasting and swapping of genuine first class Romulan ale and vintage Scotch. Whisky did much to further a galactic version of Entente Cordiale between the two Engineers and their teams. Naturally Doctor McCoy, as the Enterprise's notorious connoisseur of intoxicating galaxy-wide beverages, got his share, and, of course, neither the Captain nor the Romulan Commander got wind of these secret and fruitful transactions.

While the technicians worked actively on the Whirlwind, Doctor McCoy put his intensive care unit at the Romulan surgeon's disposal, and had him and his patients beamed over to sickbay.

As the two physicians worked together in the operating theater, or checked the results of some special treatments, they could not help but realize that they had much in common, not least the same respect for life and care for their fellow men. The Romulan had been somewhat surprise at McCoy's expertise in Vulcanoid physiology but, as the latter pointed out, "When you have had a green-blooded, pointy—eared, half-Vulcan, half-Human specimen as patient for more than twenty years, Doctor, you are bound to know a thing or two about Vulcanoid characteristics."

The Enterprise was therefore bustling with activity and bursting with curiosity towards the Romulans, a race which few of the crew and none of the trainees had met before.

In the rec room the events were discussed at length. The crewmembers who had been on the Bridge were plied with questions, and Ensign Kettenring and Cadet Ferrier were in a fair way to become the heroes of the day. Comments and speculation were flying back and forth, specially on the curious conversation between the Captain and the Romulan Commander and its intriguing implications...

"It's obvious that they met before," stated a crewman.

"Sure! She seems to know the senior officers pretty well. They must have been engaged in some action or other by the Neutral Zone, back at the time of the first mission, you know, when Kirk was Captain of the Enterprise," said another one.

"I heard that the Enterprise was the first Federation ship to contact the Romulans."

"That's right, and it was the Enterprise officers who discovered the secret of the cloaking device," someone pointed out.

"Then that must be when they met. She made some hints about stolen military secrets, didn't she?"

"She did! And she spoke of theft and subterfuge. I am sure that is why she looked daggers at the Captain... no wonder, if that was her ship," Kovack said, wide-eyed with excitement.

"Hey, what's all this about the cloaking device? What's got to do with the Romulans?" asked an ignorant cadet.

"Come on, Jill, don't tell us that you have never heard that story at the Academy... how Kirk and Spock got onto that Romulan ship and pinched their cloaking device right under their noses? It's a classic! Better ask Mr Scott to tell you, one day."

"What is she like?... I mean, the Romulan Commander?" Alison enquired.

"Stunning! In an alien sort of way, you know, pointed ears and all that. She has class!" declared an obviously impressed O'Brien.

"Do you mean that she looks like the Captain?"

"In a way, yes... Vulcans and Romulans came from the same world, didn't they?"

"Well, I wish she would come aboard," Alison said wistfully.

"Maybe she will. I heard there might be a meeting of the senior officers and the Romulans sometime to-day."

"I still would like to know what exactly happened between them, and why she should hate him so," Alison wondered. "You were on the Bridge at that time, Joyce, what do you think?"

Joyce Garrick, who was feeding Cherie-Belle, sitting in her lap, with choice morsels from her tray, looked up and replied, "There certainly seems to be something deep between them, but it's hard to guess what... one thing is certain, though, she does not hate him."

"But, Joyce," Kovack argued, "didn't you see the way she looked at him? She looked positively murderous!"

"Michel Kovack, if you call that look murderous, or daggers, or whatever, then you know nothing about women!" Joyce declared with her eighteen years long experience.

The rec room burst out laughing at that, then some engineers arrived with fresh news from the Whirlwind which diverted attention to the Romulan ship. However, the girls were left wondering what kind of relationship, if any, existed between their Captain and the Romulan woman.

* * * * * * * *

That question was actually haunting the Captain's mind as he calmly went about his duties. Although he had it firmly locked within his privacy blocks, the thought of the Romulan Commander kept recurring in his mind, and generally at the most untimely moments. Fortunately none of his crew suspected that, behind his familiar facade of authority and self-assurance, their Captain was the prey of conflicting emotions.

Only to the perceptive McCoy did Spock seem oddly absent-minded when he came down to sickbay. But, having more pressing things to do, the Doctor refrained from comment.

Having doubled Security patrols and left the con to Sulu, the Vulcan made his way to the transporter room while thoughts were chasing one another in his mind. As a matter of courtesy, he had invited the Romulan Commander to beam over and pay a visit to her crew in sickbay. On the other hand, he knew it to be his duty to try and obtain some information about her 'free-trading fleet', whatever she meant by that. It was of the utmost importance for Starfleet Command to find out what type of activities this free-trading business actually covered.

She was not the type of woman, even in the adverse circumstances into which she had been thrown, to resort to petty trading, and she had too much honour and self-respect to hire her ship and her crew for some dubious mercenary activity. Spock knew her better than to imagine her as a freebooter, a soldier of fortune... and yet who could know what extremities she must have been reduced to in her forced exile? And it did not help to know that he and Jim were greatly responsible for her downfall. Kaiidth! What was, was! To rehash regrets was pointless, illogical, unVulcan! Spock gave himself a mental shake, and strode into the transporter room.

He nodded to the technicians and waited with outward composure for his guest. She sparkled into being in a golden shower, and stood still for a second or two on the transporter pad.

Both had known that this meeting, face to face, would be difficult, painful, but they were determined not to let any uncalled for emotion come to the fore again. What each had felt and seen mirrored on the other's face had told them enough. Now, for a few more seconds, they stood still, appraising each other, taking stock of the changes that age, experience, adversity had brought about to their appearance. The Romulan, in her muted purple and bronze outfit, enhanced by buff-coloured belt and boots, and the Vulcan in all the gold-braided, red and black glory of Starfleet uniform, matched each other in striking looks and proud poise.

Apparently satisfied, the Romulan Commander said, "Permission to come aboard?"

"Permission granted," the Captain replied, moving to the platform, "and welcome aboard, Commander."

She stepped down and looked up at Spock with a brief smile. "I appreciate your invitation to visit my crew people, Captain. My surgeon tells me that they are in capable hands."

"Doctor McCoy is doing but his duty, Commander," Spock calmly replied. "This way, if you please," and he led the way out, well aware that, as soon as they passed the door, rumours would run wild on the ship's grapevine„

As he paced the corridors at her side, Spock could not help but remember the last time he had done so when, years ago, he had been instructed by Kirk to take her into custody. He realized that the same thought had crossed the Romulan's mind when she threw him a quizzical glance and commented on the innovations the ship had apparently undergone since her last visit. He was saved an awkward moment by their timely arrival at the sickbay where McCoy greeted the Commander and showed her into the ward reserved for her crew. Spock remained in the Doctor's office, and could see her through the half-open door, going from bed to bed, patting a pale cheek, taking a hand in her own, and talking quietly to her people and their surgeon who was constantly at their side.

When McCoy came back to his office, Spock inquired about the Romulans' condition,. The Doctor plumped himself down at his desk and ran a weary hand across his dark hair,

"They are doing as well as can be expected, Spock. I have to hand it to their physician, he knows his job, and it did not take him long to adapt himself to our methods and our equipment. But you can tell that these people are kinsfolk of yours, Spock... as tough as they make them! As for beaming them back to their ship, no problem. Just give us enough time to have them ready, okay?"

"Agreed, Doctor. As soon as Mr Scott give us the all clear signal, we shall let you know."

"Good enough. By the way, I thought of taking Tr'Kreil, their surgeon, for a snack in the mess. Any objection?"

"None, Doctor. Mr Scott mentioned that he would bring their First Officer and their Engineer in for a drink, I believe."

"Oh... he said that, did he?" Blue eyes twinkled quizzically.

"He did. Any objection, Doctor?" A suspicious eyebrow flew upwards.

"Of course not, Spock, why should there be?" McCoy replied, laughing up his sleeve at the thought of the scotch and Romulan ale already imbibed by the two engineers.

* * * * * * * *

When, seme time later, the Vulcan ushered his guest into the main observation lounge, she stopped in the doorway at the sight which met her eyes. In the darkened room, facing her, the panoramic viewport glittered with a thousand stars, and there, almost within reach, was her ship, her Whirlwind, like a silver bird hanging in the wind.

For all the years spent among the stars, for all her experience as a seasoned spacewoman, she found herself almost touched to tears by the impact of such breathless beauty. She moved slowly across the room, irresistibly drawn to the view, and hardly noticed the crewmembers already there, by the port, and watching in silent wonder.

They hastily made way at her approach and that of the Captain, who moved to stand silently behind her, hands locked at his back. A few minutes went by as they watched the alien ship and the small Enterprise work—pod hovering by her port side, where three diminutive space-suited figures seemed to dance a slow-motion ballet. The awed cadets were looking on, and could hardly believe their luck at seeing the Romulan Commander everybody was talking about, in the flesh.

Presently, the woman said softly, "This is magnificent; thank you, Spock, for letting me see that."

"My pleasure, Commander," Spock said quietly.

"I can see that the refitting works are well underway. My engineer greatly appreciates the expertise of your Mr Scott, I am told." Then the Romulan Commander turned round and, perceiving the trainees, appraised them with a sweeping glance.

"Your crew, Captain?" she remarked. "They look like mere children to me. Is your Federation so hard up for space personnel that they have to recruit them in the kindergarten?"

At this subtle mockery, Spock allowed himself a slight smile.

"These 'children' are my students, Commander," he explained. "For the last few years, the Enterprise has been assigned to command training, and my crew consists mostly of cadets fresh from the Academy,"

"Really? Interesting... and you are their instructor, I see." She seemed amused by this revelation, then she asked, "May I speak to them?"

"Certainly, if you wish." Spock beckoned the youngsters forward and they snapped to impeccable attention.

The Romulan Commander nodded appreciatively and started asking them a number of questions on their studies, training, and career.

They replied with commendable readiness after casting a nervous glance in the direction of their commanding officer, who stood by gazing calmly into the mid-distance. However, when some of the cadets mentioned the section into which they were training to serve, Spock remarked blandly,

"Incidentally, Commander, you may be interested to know that one of our young gunners here has been instrumental, although involuntarily, in the partial destruction of the Orion forward phasers, even before we arrived upon the scene."

"What do you mean?" The Romulan woman looked surprised.

"Before we picked up your distress signal, we were engaged in a target practice drill, and... Cadet Ferrier, why don't you tell the Commander what happened to your torpedoes?"

The youth, unsure whether he was being gently teased or reproved, blushed crimson, shot a pleading look at his Captain, then, rather selfconsciously, complied. To his surprise and relief, the alien Commander broke into a smile so unexpected, so incongruous on severe Vulcanoid features, that the crew gaped, then grinned in return.

"I understand now why the pirate's phasers ceased firing all of a sudden!" she said with amusement. "This cadet of yours, Captain, has obviously been an innocent but determinant factor in our survival, which your timely arrival and prompt action definitely guaranteed. Fate does play strange and unpredictable tricks, don't you agree?"

"So it would appear. At any rate, and whatever- were the means, we are glad to have been of assistance, Commander," the Vulcan blandly replied. "And now," he went on, moving to the door, "shall we proceed?"

"By all means, Captain," she replied readily, and after a last look at the viewport and a nod to the cadets, still standing to attention, she joined the Captain.

However, before leaving, the latter paused in the doorway and said kindly, "At ease, crewmen. Carry on with your observations."

"Yes, sir... thank you, sir," they chorused cheerfully.

But Spock firmly resumed, "I shall expect from each of you, a detailed report to be ready at our next class."

"Aye, sir," they chorused again, much less cheerfully.

* * * * * * * *

Once in the hall, Spock noticed that his guest was watching him with a speculative, even quizzical expression on her face. To anticipate any comment or question, he said formally, "N ow, Commander, before you return to your ship, I would appreciate a moment of your time. There are still some points to discuss and some questions to elucidate. Shall we go to a more appropriate place where we can talk in private?"

If she was surprised by such a request, it did not register on her face as she replied with composure, "If you so wish, Captain. But do not expect to find all your questions answered. Do not expect me to reveal all the facts. Romulans, as well as Vulcans, can keep truth to themselves."

"Point noted, Commander," Spock calmly replied, preferring to ignore the hint. "Starfleet standard procedure requires the presence of two of my senior officers to our conversation. Should you wish to call members of your staff to join us, we can... "

"Unnecessary, Spock," she cut in haughtily, "my ship is not ruled by such regulations as yours, and I alone conduct discussions."

The Vulcan merely inclined his head in acknowledgement and went to a wall intercom and called the Bridge. "Spock here. Bridge status, Mr Sulu?"

"All quiet, Captain. Nothing particular on sensors," replied the Chief Helmsman.

"Good. Will you ask Doctor McCoy and Mr Scott to report to my quarters immediately?"

"Aye, sir."

"Thank you Mr Sulu. Spock out."

As they proceeded to the senior officers' deck, the Romulan flicked a side glance at the Vulcan striding silently at her side, and remarked unexpectedly, "That was an interesting experience."

Confronted by a questioning eyebrow, she explained, "Back there, on the observation deck; you have evinced a remarkable ability to teach and inspire students. Is this another of your many accomplishments, Spock? I am impressed."

"Indeed?" Spock favored her with a guarded look.

"Certainly. I can tell that these young Humans admire and respect you, and I believe that you feel a special sympathy towards them, or am I mistaken?"

They entered the lift and Spock sent it speeding downward before he replied soberly, "Ho, Commander, you are not."

She nodded and a wistful smile touched her lips. For a brief, endless instant, their eyes met, and unbidden memories came flooding back and hung between them. Then the turbolift slowed to a halt, the doors parted and the spell was broken.

* * * * * * * *

When they walked into the Captain's quarters, the Romulan looked around in silence with an expression of well-bred curiosity mixed with approval on her face. As Spock watched her looking at his sparsely furnished rooms, neat to a fault, with a touch of Vulcan austerity, he had the uncanny impression that it was not the first time.

The way she picked out unerringly such items as his meditation flame, or his parents' portrait hologram, and particularly his antique weapons collection, made him feel that she was somehow looking for what she was expecting to see. But when she looked at the weapons display on the wall, then turned round, eyes alight with recognition and admiration, and said, "So... this is the S'Harien sword!" then, in a sudden flash of insight, he realised that, since she was so well informed, she must have been told by someone... someone who had seen and valued that priceless heirloom, and who could it be but -

He drew a deep breath and found himself saying, as in a dream, the very words he had spoken, years ago, to another Romulan Commander, "It is, Commander. If you would like to examine it... " + A few seconds went by as they exchanged a look of cognition, each perceiving what the other had realized. Then the woman shook her head with a smile.

"Thank you, Spock, but that is a privilege which I do not deserve. I am not such a connoisseur as - " She hesitated.

"As Ael?" Spock prompted softly. She nodded assent.

"So, she is safe... she has found you." It was not a question, more an ascertainment. She nodded again and was about to speak when the door buzzer sounded, and she turned away, assuming indifference.

"Come," the Captain said quietly, and the Doctor and Chief Engineer walked in, expectation and uncertainty written on their faces.

Spock, with unaffected Vulcan courtesy, invited them to take a seat, and once everyone had settled and he had sat down at his desk, came to the point with his customary air of controlled authority.

"Commander, you have given us your reasons for your presence in Federation space, and we have accepted them. Moreover, our sensor readings and the damage incurred by your vessel and ascertained by Mr Scott, corroborate your statement."

+ "My Enemy, my Ally" by Diane Duane.

She inclined her head in silent assent, hut McCoy interjected, "If you look for evidence, Spock, what about the Orion pirate? Isn't that a conclusive proof?"

This unexpected support from the Doctor earned him raised eyebrows all around, and a dry retort from the Captain.

"It is, Doctor. However, I fear that Starfleet Command will not be satisfied with this evidence, particularly in view of the superior weaponry and sophisticated computer electronics which the Whirlwind is equipped with, as Mr Scott can testify. This advanced technology hardly conforms with the traditional pattern of a civilian intergalactic trading vessel which you claim your ship to be, Commander. Your opinion, Mr Scott?"

Scotty, thus invited, cleared his throat and took the floor. "Ahem. All I have to say, Captain, is that I have seldom seen, in a ship of that category, such a remarkable compound of craftsmanship, efficacy and aesthetics, packed in such a limited space. You have a beautiful ship, Commander, but, whatever you may say to the contrary, she has obviously been built for war, not for trade."

Then the Chief Engineer leaned back in his chair, and the three men watched the Romulan woman, cool and composed, take time to marshal her thoughts and prepare her reply.

"Gentlemen," she finally said, "it would indeed be presumptuous of me to deny the conclusions of an expert like Engineer Scott. Of course, the Whirlwind is a warship built and equipped for battle. But, considering the state of insecurity prevailing in the galaxy and the hazardous encounters our vessels are bound to face, it is hardly surprising that our Free-trading Fleet be escorted by warships, isn't it?" She swept an ironical glance from the unreadable Vulcan face to the expressive faces of the Humans, apparently disconcerted by her frank admission, and she continued. "In other circumstances, gentlemen, that is all you would obtain from me. My own affairs do not concern your Federation, and, although I feel nothing hut gratitude for your assistance, I am under no obligation to give Starfleet any more information."

"Quite, Commander", Spock blandly remarked, "but, under the present circumstances...?"

The Romulan smiled appreciatively. "I don't mind admitting, Captain, that things are different now. Some time ago, some facts came to my notice which made me considerably change the opinion I had of the Federation in general, and the Enterprise Command Officers in particular."

She shot a meaningful glance at Spock, who returned the same with superb Vulcan composure, a by—play which was not lost on the other two men.

"Some time ago," she repeated, "I happened to hear that the dangerous enemies you had been in the past had turned into our comrades in arms in certain perilous circumstances."

The three Enterprise officers traded a sharp glance and Doctor McCoy, with ill-concealed curiosity, put in, "Sorry, Commander, but could you be more specific? What circumstances are you particularly referring to?"

The Romulan replied with a touch of amusement, "I think, Doctor McCoy, that you should call upon your memory to find the answers."

And, in a few words, she mentioned some of the dramatic instances when Enterprise and Romulan officers had joined forces, loyally fought side by side, and brought to a successful conclusion highly critical situations.

"And so," she concluded, "this is how I learned that Federation officers could, after all, he trusted."

The said officers who had listened to the recital with considerable interest, realized that the Romulan had obviously heard about these events at first hand, and the Doctor, in a typical straightforward mode drawled, "Aha!... now I understand why you did not shoot at first sight when you saw the Enterprise pop out of nowhere! Not that I would have blamed you, if you had...! But how is it that you are so well informed, Commander? I mean... now that you live in exile, away from the Empire?"

"Doctor," Spock firmly interposed, "I don't think that the Commander needs to answer that personal question."

She gave them a long and speculative look, then replied, "Gentlemen, for the reasons already mentioned, I have decided to trust your honour and integrity. I also think that it is right that you should know, since you were the first concerned, after all. But, let it be clear that what you will hear is told in strict confidence. I hope that you understand?'/

"We do, Commander... of course." The three men murmured assent and she resumed.

"I am indeed an outcast, banished from the Empire, but loyalty still prevails among members of my House and my Command Staff. Some go to great length and risks to keep me informed of current events on Rihannsu. Commander S'Talon is one of them." +

That name provoked quite a stir. "S'Talon!" exclaimed the Doctor. "One of your staff? I might have known! That was quite a man, wasn't he, Spock?"

"Indeed," the Captain soberly agreed. "Commander S'Talon is a remarkable personality. It is quite regrettable that we might face each other again as enemies."

"The very words of S'Talon, Captain," she smiled wistfully. "He spoke highly of Captain Kirk and his Command team. He was one of my best officers, when I was in command." After a pause, she resumed. "However, someone else has given me to understand who you really are... a person o£ my kin, very dear to me. When you jointly launched that expedition to the Leveari V Research Station, and freed the captive Vulcans who were used in genetic manipulation, she had ample opportunities to observe and appraise the Enterprise senior personnel, and she gave me glowing reports."

"I suppose you know the person I am talking about?"

Her audience caught on instantly and the two Humans grinned delightedly. The Doctor declared, "If you mean the other Romulan Commander, in other words, your aunt, we certainly do! She is a person we are not likely to forget."

"Aye... for sure!" Mr Scott chuckled. "I have seldom met a more determined and ruthless lady! When I think of the outrageous things she made us do with our ship... "

"True, Mr Scott," said Spock, mildly amused, "but the Commander did it for a good cause, her plan was perfectly reasoned, and it worked." And, as he gazed across at his guest, Spock thought once again how much alike the two Romulan women were, not so much physically as spiritually; same aura of pride and power, same indomitable spirit, and even the same tragic destiny since Ael and her crew, outlawed by the Imperial powers after the Leveari episode, had also gone into exile.

+ The Web of the Romulans - M.S. Murdoch

The Romulan Commander, however, seeing the genuine interest, even the sympathy which her hosts manifested for her mother's sister and herself, told them readily what could he safely disclosed of their adventures. And the officers listened with great attention and some emotion to the tale of the unfortunate Romulan outcasts who, banned from home, had wandered for endless years through space and countless dangers, to finally discover a safe haven in an uncharted sector, at the far end of the galaxy.

There, in a binary star system, a small planet, unspoiled and uninhabited, seemed to be waiting for them, and they had established their new home on that virgin world. By and by, more exiles and refugees from the Empire had found their way to the colony, and now, after numerous difficulties and hardship, the New Rihannsu was in a fair way to prosperity. Naturally, one of the first measures of the colonists had been the constitution of a fleet to travel and trade in the neighbouring worlds, and also to protect their planet from eventual air attacks.

Their vessels travelled far and wide, and that is why one fateful day, a day blessed by the Elements, the Whirlwind came within range of a lone ship winding its way across space, a ship which turned out to be BloodWing, manned by Ael and her faithful crew.

"Now", the Commander said in conclusion, "my mother's sister and her people are safe with us, on our planet which neither the Empire nor the Federation can claim, and hopefully cannot soon discover. Of course, its coordinates are kept secret for fear of the spies that the Empire keeps throughout the Galaxy, including your Federation. We have left enough enemies on Rihannsu who seek to destroy us at all cost. I dare say that Ael has apprised you of the Empire's current situation, when she asked for your cooperation in the destruction of Leveari Station!"

"She has, indeed, Commander," Spock replied, "and I may say that what you have both told us corroborates the information obtained by Starfleet Intelligence. Our agents report the Romulans to be having internal problems, and rumours of sedition and mass purges have come to the knowledge of the Federation Council."

"I see that your spies are still as zealous as they were when I was in command of the Fleet," she remarked with that ironical smile of hers. "Their reports are, on the whole, accurate. We naturally also have our informers, and I can tell you gentlemen, that a strong opposition is rising against the corrupt and oppressive dictatorship which now rules my world. The number of rebels and dissidents is steadily increasing, and one day we will join forces and reestablish the Rihannsu Empire in its integrity and original glory."

The three officers could not help but be impressed by the woman's proud determination and obvious devotion to the noble traditions of her people. After a short pause, the Doctor cleared his throat and said, "Well, Commander, I wish you full success. There is no doubt that your world needs people like Ael, S'Talon and yourself to set things right, or so it seems to me." .

"When the time comes, Doctor McCoy, we shall be ready," she proudly replied.

"I dare say," Scotty remarked, "and with warships like yours the engagement promises to he worth watching. I reckon that you have more vessels like her in your fleet, Commander?"

She leaned back in her chair and favoured him with an almost mischievous look. "I regret, Mr Scott, but I must decline answering that question."

The Chief Engineer chuckled in response and the Humans and the Romulan grinned good-humouredly in surprising companionship, while the Vulcan, an eyebrow tilted up, watched them thoughtfully over his steepled hands.

"Commander," he said presently, "your statement was most informative and we appreciate your frankness. Naturally I shall have to report our encounter to Headquarters."

Before the Romulan woman could say anything, McCoy burst out indignantly, "Spock, damn you! You can't do that! You can't trust these bureaucrats... if the Empire hears so much as a word about it, what do you think will happen to all these Romulan refugees? And what about the Vulcan code of honour? We have given our word, remember?"

The Captain stiffened and fixed the Doctor with a glacial stare. "Doctor, please!" he said curtly. "I am well aware of the refugees' precarious situation, but don't forget our duty as Starfleet officers. We are under standing orders to investigate and report any incident which comes to our notice. What is more, our encounter with the Orion pirate and the Whirlwind is duly recorded in the Captain's log, and you should realize, Doctor, if you took time to consider, that this event can hardly be hushed up since it has taken place in sight of 235 witnesses."

An ill-tempered grunt came from McCoy, and Spock, with a glance at the watchful Romulan, continued calmly. "There is another point which you may have overlooked, Doctor. For your information, Commander, there are such things as classified, coded reports, meant only for the eyes of the High Security officers at Starfleet Command. That is where I intend to dispatch our reports."

At these words Mr Scott brightened visibly. "Ah, now... there they would be safe, Leonard. No risk of leakage or spying in that quarter."

"And, if this can help alleviate your qualms of conscience, McCoy," Spock resumed imperturbably, "let me specify that we only need to report the facts known to the crew, and those already suspected by Intelligence. Naturally we won't mention the Commander's colony planet, nor the strength of her fleet, not the whereabouts of Commander Ael t'Rllaollieu... since we actually know nothing about them."

A reluctant grin split Doctor McCoy's face. "You tricky Vulcan! Now you are talking! Okay, now I am supposed to take back what I said and apologise and all that... but be careful, mind you. With Romulan spies roaming around, you never know, Spock."

"I will, Doctor, you can be sure of that. Commander, does this arrangement meet with your approval?"

"Absolutely, Captain, and I appreciate your consideration. And," she added, obviously amused by the officers' lively argument, "it was interesting to see Doctor McCoy live up to his reputation."

"My reputation?" repeated McCoy, taken aback.

"Indeed, Doctor. Didn't I say, a moment ago, that I have learned much about you?"

"Oh Lord!" muttered the Doctor, rolling his eyes upward, while Mr Scott did his best to stifle a chuckle.

Spock, having delicately cleared his throat and again gathered everyone's attention, proceeded steadily.

"This question being settled, there is one point which I have to raise, however. One officer in Starfleet Headquarters should be told all the circumstances, Commander, and that is Admiral Kirk."

Totally unaware of the sudden flicker of irritation flashing across the Romulan's face, Scotty heartily agreed. "Aye, Captain, that's just what I was about to say. The Admiral should know. Of course, he was there, he made the decisions, after all... "

The whistle of the desk's intercom cut him short. Spock switched it on and Sulu's face appeared on the small viewscreen.

"Sorry to disturb you, Captain, but the Whirlwind's engineer is ready for the final check on his warp engines and he asks if Scotty could beam over... "

"One moment, Mr Sulu... Mr Scott?" The Chief Engineer was already at the door and nodding assent. "Mr Sulu, tell the engineer that Mr Scott is on his way," Spock reported. "Anything else?"

"Yes, sir. He also wished the Commander to know that they will be ready to leave within an hour."

Spock glanced inquiringly at the Romulan and replied, "Acknowledged, Mr Sulu. Tell them that the Commander will beam back presently. Spock out."

Doctor McCoy got to his feet and stretched. "Well, that is that. I had better go back to sickbay and make a last check on my patients. I'll let you know when they'll be ready for transportation, Spock. Oh, and one thing you should know, Commander," he said from the doorway, "Jim Kirk struck up quite a friendship with Ael and S'Talon, when they went through hell together. That sort of thing brings people closer, you know, but I am sure that you gathered as much from what they both told you.

"Kirk would certainly appreciate hearing about them... and he can keep a secret. Okay, see you at the transporter," and he sauntered away. The doors swept shut.

* * * * * * * *

Silence reigned in Spock's quarters while he sat quietly and watched the Romulan Commander who was obviously deep in thoughts and contradictory emotions. She met his enquiring gaze and, with a sigh, made her decision.

"Very well," she said briefly, "I yield to your reasons, Captain; you have my permission to report the whole of my statement to your Admiral Kirk. The Doctor is right, and I believe that Ael would like Kirk to be told."

"Thank you, Commander, I am sure she would. But... I don't understand - why should you object to Admiral Kirk when you willingly revealed that much to Doctor McCoy, Mr Scott and myself? It is not logical."

"Don't you understand, Spock?"She stood up abruptly and began pacing the room in obvious agitation. "Don't you realize that, for all the favourable tales I have heard about Kirk, I still cannot forget the contemptible trickery which he resorted to in order to steal military secrets from my ship. Believe me, Captain, when I stood in front of the Senate and faced this humiliation, the contempt of my peers, I had but one feeling in my heart - hatred, a total, overwhelming hatred for the man who chose subterfuge and disguise rather than a clean battle."

She turned away, quivering with barely suppressed anger, and stared blindly up at the Vulcan weapons displayed on the bulkhead.

Spock rose silently and, standing behind the Romulan, quietly remarked, "Commander, hatred is considered by the Vulcans to be a pointless and irrational emotion. However, I can well understand your resentment towards Federation officers. But let me point out that Admiral Kirk had no choice in the matter, and neither had I. We both acted under sealed orders, we were both involved in the plot to capture your cloaking device, therefore, logically, you should have conceived the same aversion for me as for my Captain."

A bitter laugh escaped her lips. "Do I have to explain, Captain? I am a Romulan, remember! Vulcan logic does not get apply here. True, 'logically', I should hate you. for your deception, for your lies - which you called 'white lies', I recall. I believed I did when I dreamed of revenge, of reprisal... alas! I know now that I was only fooling myself!" she added under her breath.

After a moment of tense silence, behind her the deep voice murmured, "And yet, you had every reason to do so... "

"Don't I know, it!" she exclaimed almost angrily.

Another pause, then she heard the Vulcan speak ever so softly "In any case, you could never hate me as much as I hated myself." His voice was loaded with such bitterness, such barely controlled emotion that the Commander spun around and faced him in wide-eyed wonderment.

"Did you, Spock? You, the emotionless Vulcan? Did you really?"

He nodded mutely, then, feeling that he owed it to her and against his innate reserve, he forced himself to explain. "Ever since the... incident, I have despised myself for having stooped to these deceitful methods to achieve our mission. Still, our orders, the oath I have sworn and the loyalty I owed to my Captain, compelled me to carry out my duty, unpleasant though it turned out to be."

"Unpleasant? Did I hear you right, Captain?"

"You did, Commander. I have to admit that I never found obedience to duty so... painful."

A wistful smile crept over her aristocratic features as she gazed at the man who had so irresistibly bewitched her right from their first meeting. She was again struck by his cool Vulcan elegance underlined by that latent, magnetic power which she felt drift like an aura over her.

Her eyes softened as they searched the Captain's clean-cut features, to finally rest on the dark eyes which burned with leashed emotion. Was it self-reproach, or something deeper? She was not sure, she dared not hope... she had to know.

"Tell me truly, Spock," she said at last. "There is one question that I have to ask. What you did, what you said, that day, in my quarters... Was it just false pretence and play-acting, or did you feel what I felt, did you care? I want the truth, Spock."

The Vulcan gave her a long, penetrating look, then suddenly the glimmer of a smile lit his face, and, not without some reluctance, he admitted, "It was not pretence, Commander... and may I point out that you still underestimate yourself."

She smiled at the hint and its implications. "Thank you, Spock, for your candor, for giving me another precious memory to keep secret in my heart. Do you remember our secret? I see that you do... but you have apparently forgotten that I have a first name!"

"No, indeed, I have not", Spock replied softly, giving her, for the first time, the very private name which, contrary to Romulan traditions, she had whispered in his ear when they were alone in her quarters.

This admission of the Vulcan's, proving that he had indeed remembered her, that her wildest daydreams were true, left the Commander dazed from pure joy and relief. She drew a steadying breath, and as she locked gazes with Spock, felt at once a surge of emotion wash over her, the same unexpected and wonderful emotion which they had shared long ago, on their brief and tragic encounter. Once more she found herself fully attuned to the Vulcan and yet this blissful sensation was marred by an overwhelming feeling of regret and nonfulfilment.

Abruptly she averted her face and, breaking the spell, said with a hint of despair in her voice, "What is the good, Spock? What is the use of dreaming over what might have been? The past is the past, it cannot be changed. It is too late. We belong to the same race, you and I, but, alas, to opposed worlds. The breach between such long-standing enemies is too deep... this is hopeless."

Spock fixed her face with dark, brooding eyes. "Indeed, regrets are pointless and sterile, but so is discouragement. Obviously we cannot undo the actions of past years, but the situation has changed, hasn't it? What you told us a moment ago, and what I observed have led me to assume, that we are no longer enemies, or am I mistaken, Commander?" His raised eyebrow emphasized his point, then he continued. "Who knows what the future holds in store for your people and mine, and perhaps for you and me? Who knows what might happen if, or when, our paths cross again?"

At Spock's argument, the Romulan let a smile light up her face.

"Who knows, indeed, Spock? Your Vulcan logic is a great asset, I can see. I am grateful... Unexpectedly, you offer me something to hope for, something more to share between the two of us, and - "

The shrill whistle of the ship's intercom intruded loudly in their tete a tete. The Vulcan, with a word of apology, went to his desk and switched on the receiver.

"Spock? McCoy here. Sorry to interrupt. I am in Transporter room B. The Romulans are all set to beam back to their ship, just waiting for the Commander... "

"Thank you, Doctor, we shall be there shortly. Spock out."

The Captain straightened up slowly, turned to his guest and they exchanged a long, sad glance.

"So... this is where we must part, Spock," she said bravely.

He nodded. "Yes, we must go our own way and follow our destiny. But I feel confident that somehow we shall meet again. Before we go, let me say one last word, however. If you and your friends stand against the power of the Rihannsu Imperial forces, you will lead a hazardous life and may find yourselves in need of support. I expect that, officially, the Federation will choose to remain neutral, but, should you have need of assistance, or asylum, I suggest that you contact the nearest Federation outpost or any of our patrol scouts. I shall give adequate instructions and the mere mention of my name or that of Admiral Kirk will serve as safe conduct.

"If you would prefer not to get involved with our Starfleet representatives, the alternative possibility is my home planet and any of the Vulcan space stations. The name of Sarek, my father, and mine will open all doors to you, and to your mother's sister, whose actions have won admiration and gratitude from my people. +

"Do not forget, Commander, that you both have, within the Federation, a number of friends whom you can trust, and resort to if necessary."

+ My Enemy, My Ally by Diane Duane

"I won't forget, Spock. That is something I have found out during these last two days, and I won't forget that I stand in your debt for your timely assistance."

"Thanks are superfluous, Commander. We have a moral obligation to respond to distress signals and offer help should it be required."

"Possibly, Captain, nevertheless allow me to reiterate my gratitude to you and your crew."

Spock inclined his head in acknowledgement, then, impulsively, asked under his breath, "Do I have your forgiveness?"

"You have, Spock," she replied readily, looking at him with eyes bright with love and unshed tears.

Holding himself severely in check in spite of another irrational surge of emotion, Spock deliberately raised up his hand in the gesture of Vulcan greeting, and she, utterly spellbound, slowly did likewise.

Moments went by as they stood, hands touching palm to palm, fingertips to fingertips, and stared into each others' eyes for a last communion of thoughts. A telepathic flow ran between them, and the Commander, breathless and dazzled, was given a glimpse of Spock's inner depths and feelings.

/Peace and long life.../ was murmured in her mind, and she responded,

/Farewell, Spock. May the Elements protect you.../

Then, simultaneously, they broke contact, and the Captain at his most formal said in a neutral voice, "Shall we go, Commander?"

She took her cue immediately. "By all means, Captain, just lead the way!" she replied coolly, her beautiful head held high and proud as befitted a Romulan peer.

But just as they were going to the door, something turned up which greatly eased the painful atmosphere of parting.

Suddenly, a sharp tinkling sounded and the door hissed open, giving way to a small feline who, whiskers a-quiver and tail erect and stiff like a stick, trotted in with total self-confidence - but, at the sight of the intruding woman, skidded to a halt and crouched low, bristling, with flattened ears and twitching tail, while the door snapped shut behind her.

The Commander stood looking down at the cat with undisguised amusement. There was laughter in her voice as she asked Spock, "Your pet, Captain? I did not know that Starfleet officers carried tame animals on their starships. What is it? It reminds me of the Tkuls that we used to raise on my estate, although it is much smaller... "

Spock remained unperturbed. "This is a Terran cat," he blandly informed her. "A well-behaved animal, and the mascot of the crew."

"Really? Pretty little beast... and which is quite at home in your quarters, apparently," the Romulan remarked as, after a distrustful glance in her direction, Cherie-Belle crawled swiftly to Spock's sleeping area, jumped onto his bunk and took possession of the place with the proprietary air of an habitue.

* * * * * * * *

A few minutes later, they were pacing down the corridor to the lift, and the Commander, with a side-glance at the Vulcan, clinched the Incident with a final comment.

"Quite a revelation, Spock. Thanks to that cat I have discovered yet another unexpected facet of your fascinating personality!"

"Indeed, Commander?" was all that Spock found to say, although the sudden climb of his eyebrows right up to his bangs spoke volumes.

Moments later, the Command staff was in full force on the Bridge and watching, on the forward screen, the Romulan vessel poised for departure. Presently Uhura announced, "Captain, the Whirlwind is hailing us."

"On screen, Commander," Spock quietly ordered.

The image of the alien ship faded out and gave way to the now familiar face, cool and self-assured, of the Romulan Commander.

"Captain," she said, "all things eventually come to an end. We must go now. Please convey our gratitude to your officers and crew for their efficient assistance. We won't forget." For one more second she looked at Spock, her eyes brimming with longing and regret, then she deliberately raised her hand and took a final leave;

"Farewell, Enterprise."

As Spock responded with the traditional Vulcan salute and valediction, the screen shimmered, then all that was left to be seen was the starry field through which the Whirlwind sped away and warped out of sight.

A short pause followed while the Bridge remained silent and expectant, then the Captain ordered in a remote voice, "Take us out on the assigned course, Mr Sulu. Warp factor three."

"Aye, sir, warp factor three."

And the Enterprise gathered speed and after tracing a large loop across space, went on her way.

* * * * * * * *

Chapter III

"Doctor, can you spare me a minute of your time?"

"Sure, my dear! come and sit down," McCoy gallantly answered Commander Uhura, who had just walked into his office. "What can I do for you? What about a drink first? coffee? tea?"

"Why, thank you, Doctor, but if I may, I'd rather have something a bit stronger right now," said Uhura, sitting in the big armchair facing the Doctor's desk.

"Good girl! Just what the Doctor orders," McCoy chuckled as he took a bottle of Saurian Brandy with two glasses out of his "Dangerous Drugs* closet. "Here is my very special prescription, the brand I used to keep for Jim when he graced me with his impromptu visits. Of course now, with that Vulcan of ours, that would he sheer waste! Here you are... "

As he handed her a glass, the Doctor noticed that Uhura's lovely face looked preoccupied, and at once dropped his flippancy and turned fully professional. "Something the matter, Uhura? Tell me, what is it? Your last physical was first rate as usual, so... I don't see... "

"No, Doctor, I am just fine, thank you... it is not me." She paused, hesitated, and took a sip from her drink. "You see, it is Spock. I am worried about him. You know that it's not my way to pry into what does not concern me, but you have surely noticed that something is amiss, haven't you?"

"Spock? No, I can't say I have, hut then I haven't seen much of him lately... except that when I passed him yesterday, he did not look particularly gracious. I am sure there is nothing to worry about, Uhura. Our Captain must be in one of his Vulcan moods."

"No, Doctor," Uhura persisted, "I believe it is more than that, and T am not alone in that opinion. Sulu and Farrel also have noticed that Spock is not quite his usual self. I mean, he is curiously taciturn on the Bridge - hardly a word beside the service, as though he has turned inward to brood over some hidden pain. In short, Doctor, I have the impression that Spock is eating his heart out."

McCoy was no longer listening. A horrible thought had suddenly crossed his mind. Spock not his usual self? Good God! It can't be! The Doctor worked out a quick, mental reckoning (seven plus seven, plus seven) and heaved a sigh of relief. No, it isn't, it's okay. Thank God! then he realized that Uhura was looking at him somewhat reproachfully .

"Doctor, I am under the impression that you haven't heard a word of what I said!"

"Oh? Er... sorry, Uhura. Yes, I have, and I wonder, my dear, if you are not imagining things."

Uhura shook her head emphatically. "I am sure I am not, and what Is more, I am pretty sure I know the cause. You see... it all began three days ago, after the Whirlwind episode." And she gave McCoy a meaningful glance.

"The Whirlwind?" McCoy looked confused. "What about it?"

"Doctor," Uhura explained patiently, "when Spock assumes that chilling Vulcan mask, it usually means that he is deeply hurt and does not want us to know. And I recalled that he was in that kind of black mood right after the incident with the Commander's cloaking device. So I put two and two together. And that is one among many examples... "

As she spoke, McCoy's expressive face went from perplexity to disbelief, then to amazement when he finally realized all the implications of Uhura's disclosure. "Good God, Uhura! do you mean that Spock... and the Romulan Commander?" She nodded. "Well, I'll be damned!" breathed the Doctor, resorting to his favourite curse. "And how did you find out?"

"As I just told you, Doctor. There are tell-tale signs which cannot be mistaken and which, when put together, make sense."

"Such as?" McCoy wanted to know.

"Such as, for instance, the attitude of the Captain and the Commander, very formal, very correct, pretending indifference, and then, the extraordinary way they would look at each other, as if nothing else mattered in the world. But what gave them away really was the last gaze they exchanged on the Bridge, for the final leave-taking, a gaze restrained and yet so intense, such grief in their eyes... It was pathetic, Doctor!" Even then Uhura looked strangely moved as she recalled the scene and gazed at McCoy, her dark eyes brimming with tears.

He returned her gaze thoughtfully, pondering over this unforeseen situation, then said somewhat ruefully, "You are very perceptive, my dear. How that you mention it, it's true that Spock did seem unusually preoccupied but, one way and another, I didn't pay much attention. Yes, come to think of it, this explains a few things I noticed here and there, like at that conference in Spock's quarters. Now I understand why she buried the hatchet so readily... it makes sense... if she is in love with Spock... But, what I can't get over is Spock! Are you sure about him? It is hard to tell w-with our poker-faced Vulcan."

"I am pretty sure, Doctor, and, remember... he is half-human."

"Sure, so he is, my dear. We tend to forget, don't we? Well, I suppose you should know, feminine intuition and all that." McCoy grinned and leaned hack in his chair, drained his glass and set it hack on his desk. "You know what, Uhura? What heats me is not so much the fact that Spock should get hooked at last... and about time! But that he should fall for a Romulan, of all people!"

"Why not?" Uhura objected. "She may a Romulan, hut she looks to me like a remarkable woman."

"Certainly! That's not what I meant. What really gets me is the sheer cussedness of the thing. When I think of all the women that darned Vulcan could have just with a rise of his eyebrow, not to mention our Christine, poor girl, and there he must go and plump for the impossible match, for a Romulan officer, the very woman he and Jim have landed into a hell of trouble for the sake of Starfleet, and whom he will probably never see again... Isn't that damned 'illogical'?"

"Of course, Doctor, but who said that love is logical? We all know that it does not depend on our will, and I am afraid that is what Spock must realize just now. It is so sad, so unfair, for them both. Rut the point is... what can we do?"

"Do? there is nothing that we can do, Uhura. Spock, as a Vulcan, is very reticent; let him cope with his private problems by himself, he always did, you know."

"Well, the way he goes about it does not seem to be very effective! Scotty, who lives next door, was telling roe that Spock hardly sleeps at all. He keeps pacing his rooms all night. Even his music is of little avail. Last night, for instance, as I walked past his door, I heard him tune his harp, and naturally I stopped and listened. Well, instead of playing properly, he just swept the strings aimlessly for a while, then the next thing I heard was an awful, discordant twang and a thump on the deck where he had obviously thrown his harp down."

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. "Did he, now? Well, well, so much for our unemotional Vulcan."

"Exactly, Leonard, and that is what worries me. We have to do something. We cannot leave Spock brooding all by himself like that. Couldn't you talk to him? As his physician... on the pretext of a check up or something?"

"Yeah!" McCoy snorted, "and I would be sent packing for prying - you know how touchy he can be when in that mood. No, I know only one man who could reach him, and that's Jim Kirk. They are such close friends that Spock would accept anything from Jim. Damn! I wish he were here instead of driving a desk at Headquarters."

"So do we, Doctor, so do we," sighed Uhura. "But you are Spock's friend as well... and don't waste your breath denying that!" She cut McCoy's protest short with a knowing smile. "Because we know that, for all your continual arguments and wrangling, the two of you have always been good friends, and that's why I have come to you."

The Doctor, at first taken aback by Uhura's shrewd observation, acknowledged, with a reluctant grin, "Okay, Uhura my dear, you win! and I'll even admit that I have become rather fond of that green-blooded guy, if only to make you happy! But what about you? If Spock has some friends aboard, I should say that you come among the first, don't you? And I remember the time when you were a bright young lieutenant who seemed to be fascinated by our First Officer. How about that, my dear?"

Commander Uhura burst out laughing. "For shame, Leonard! That's not fair. Well, yes, of course, like all junior grades, I was at first quite taken with our smart senior officers, and specially with the attractive and enigmatic Vulcan who officiated next to my station. Those upswept ears and brows really got me! Naturally I realized soon enough that he was a hopeless case! But, eventually, when I got to know him better, I came to value his courtesy, his gentleness, and also his wry sense of humour much more than any flirtation I might have imagined... and, well, now I like to think that he regards me as a friend... and, for that reason, I feel that I cannot leave Spock in his loneliness and misery."

"Good girl!" McCoy approved with a warm smile. "Okay than, if we must do something about him, what do you propose we do?" He leaned forward and settled his elbows on the desk. "One thing we can't do, at any rate, is go and tell him point blank how much we sympathize... he would certainly not appreciate that."

"No, of course not. But I think we could find a roundabout way to let him understand somehow that we care. Perhaps we could use some indirect means to take his mind off his worries... For instance, give him some extra activities or some challenging problems to rouse his interest and keep his mind busy?"

"But don't you think that Spock has plenty on his hands as it is? What with the drills, the piles of reports for Starfleet, his classes, not to mention his routine watches on the Bridge! Isn't that enough to keep a man busy?"

"Sure, honey, but not a Vulcan!" Uhura scoffed gently. "What is that for a brain like Spock's? You know how easily he can deal with multiple subjects at the same time. No, I am thinking... you know... of a number of pleasant things which might tease his curiosity, or provoke his thoughts... see what I mean?"

"Well... " McCoy replied, looking doubtful, "What you want us to do Is to cheer him up, I guess, though it takes some doing to cheer up a Vulcan! But, yes... I see your point. I'll figure out some pretext or another to pay him a house call... and I can always bring some reports to discuss, that might be a good approach."

"Good! you are a dear!" Uhura exclaimed, "and I shall see him about the farewell party. We must do something very special since it will fall in with Scotty's birthday. So now, I shall pass the word on to the others?"

"Hey! wait a minute!" McCoy cut in uneasily. "You don't mean that the crew are in the know about Spock, do you?"

"No, of course, Doctor, only the old hands, Scotty, Sulu, Farrel and a few more who have known Spock for years and would do anything for him. As far as I know, the crew is out of this."

"Well, they had better be - imagine the blow to Spock's reputation! "McCoy remarked, half in earnest, half in jest. "The glorious image of our unapproachable Vulcan would be blasted to hell!"

"I don't think you need worry, Leonard. Spock's reputation is unimpeachable, no matter what. But, come to think of it, I wonder if that would not make him even more interesting in their eyes. You know how people like nothing better than a romance about their great men, specially an impossible romance. It kind of stimulates hero-worship, you know. And I would not be surprised if some of the crew had got wind of something after all, judging by the few hints and comments that I have overheard here and there. Well, we shall see," she decided as she got to her feet. "I must go now, my time is up. Thank you for lending us a hand... see you!" Then, after bestowing her sweetest smile the Doctor, she was off.

* * * * * * * *

And so, without further ado, the Enterprise officers, with the peak efficiency and devotion to duty they were known to evince in all their undertakings, and with the active complicity of most of the crew, set out to rid their Captain of his bout of gloom and doom, as Mr Scott put it.

The very next day, an hour before the first watch, Spock was to be found on deck 7, suited, helmeted, and sword in hand, standing opposite the lithe figure of his Chief Helmsman, who was similarly attired. The Vulcan had finally yielded to the cheerful insistence of the Asian officer, who had argued that only six days were left for him to assimilate the subtle parry and thrust techniques of D'Alik'Tal, since no one could tell whether they would have another chance to practice once the cruise was be over.

Spock, naturally unwilling to cause disappointment, had accepted, and the two men were therefore giving full rein to their athletic powers. Curiously enough, the Captain had to admit inwardly that this physical exertion tended to ease somewhat the painful tension which had kept his chest and muscles knotted for the past three days. So he readily agreed to Sulu's suggestion of meeting on deck 7 every morning for a fencing bout until their return to Earth, which prompted the Helmsman to pat himself in the back for the full success of his ruse,

Mr Scott was also, and for the same reason, rather pleased with himself. He had cornered and challenged the Vulcan with a scientific problem which he had fished out of one of his techno-scientific publications, as juicy a brain-twister as one could dream of, and which conjured up many intriguing possibilities and perspectives that Scotty was sure the Captain would be unable to resist the temptation to find the answer. The cunning Scot had laid his trap in his cheerful, artless way, pretending to need the enlightened opinion of the resident scientific expert, and Spock had fallen headlong into the trap.

"... You would do me a real good turn, Captain, if you could just take a peek at this proposition - if you have the time, of course. Personally I think that Professor X has overreached himself here - I wonder what you'll make of it. Sure, in the past he had come up with some pretty wild theories which have proved to be feasible, but it seems to me that here he has come to the wrong conclusion. I don't know, you will. Tell me what you think of it. Of course, no hurry, you keep the journal and puzzle that out at leisure, so long as I get it back before our return. Aye, sir, I hope that you'll crack that nut." And in the meantime, you won't be thinking about your problems, he thought, laughing up his sleeve.

* * * * * * * *

As the hours went by, as the duty shifts succeeded one another, a mildly surprised Vulcan found his intellectual and physical capacities to be more and more in demand on the part of his crew. True, the drills and classes which he personally conducted required his full attention, as of right. But, now, between watches, he was begged to join in a discussion or a sporting contest, even to give his expert advice about a maquette designed and constructed in secrecy by the Engineering trainees as a present for Mr. Scott. Spock was used to being solicited for one reason or another, that was part of his function as Captain; but, when Commander Farrel asked him whether he would favour him with a refresher course on tri—dimensional chess, when Lieutenant Killicranky suggested the Captain give the crew the benefit of his vast experience with a few lectures on different Federation societies, laws and ways of life, or when a group of cadets asked him for some Vulcan music, Spock began to ask himself some questions.

It almost came to the point when he could hardly find the time to meditate in solitude, a mental exercise as natural and necessary to a Vulcan as breathing or sleeping. Not that it mattered much after all, since his attempts at meditation had, of late, turned into mere failure.

He found it very difficult to attain the degree of concentration needed to progress smoothly through the mental exercises and reach a deep and peaceful level of contemplation. When he tried to focus the attuning flame of his Vulcan shrine and clear his mind of trivial thoughts, an unbidden memory would surface and remain, the memory of her beautiful face, in turn sad or smiling, which had haunted his mind ever since their parting and aroused in his breast confused and disturbing feelings - remorse... grief... loneliness and above all, longing... Was it what Humans called love? desire? He could not tell. His analytical mind was at a loss in face of such an inconceivable emotion, so unlike the simple happiness he had experienced, when under external influences, with Leila or Zarabeth, ages ago.

Although Spock stuck to the stubborn delusion that, as a rational Vulcan, he was unable to feel such unsettling emotions, the fact remained that his thoughts kept reverting to the Romulan Commander and to the hopeless love he had read in her eyes when they had parted. And each time a searing pain gripped his chest, as he repeated to himself that, for all the rallying arguments he had given her, they would probably never meet again. All he could do, then, was to hold himself constantly in check and hide his distress from his shipmates, to preserve at least his dignity. All he had to do, then, was to force himself to function efficiently although the stress of suppressed pain was past enduring, at times.

Such were the Captain's reflections when, after a last round about the ship and a check with the night shift, he made his way back to his quarters, late that evening.

He had just turned down the corridor when a soft voice called behind him and made him stop in his tracks.

"Oh... Captain!... please, I - " Spock turned wearily about and raised an eyebrow at the graceful figure, clad in a flowering robe, of his Communication officer, standing on her doorstep,

"Sorry, Captain, but may I have a word with you? In private?" she added as Spock looked like taking a stand in the middle of the corridor

"Yes... if you wish, Commander," and the Vulcan retraced his steps and followed her into her quarters, wondering inwardly what was so important that it could not wait until their next watch.

As the door swished shut behind him, Spock assumed his customary posture of parade rest, hands clasped behind his back. But the wily Bantu girl would have none of that stiff formality. Now that she had caught the Vulcan in her snare, she was going to make the most of it.

"It is about the farewell party, Spock. I would like it to be a surprise for the crew, and specially for Scotty because his birthday will fall on the same day... but won't you sit down? Here, make yourself comfortable. I - " and before he knew what had happened to him, the Captain found himself seated in Uhura's cushioned armchair, with a cup of fragrant jasmine tea in his hand; and, curled up in the chair opposite, there was that lovely woman explaining at length why the traditional party should be turned into a memorable event.

While she talked in a soft, soothing tone, Uhura noticed with amusement how Spock, at first tense and stiff as a poker, relaxed gradually to the point of finally reclining at ease on the cushions. He obviously did not realize his rather compromising situation, drinking with an attractive woman of his staff, alone in her quarters. But then that was what she found so refreshing about Spock, bless him! The Vulcan was so innocent that it would never cross his mind to take advantage of the situation, and, for instance, make a pass at her... unlike some people she had known in her long career. But, of course, Spock would deem such a behaviour ill-mannered and illogical, and right now he had his own grinding sorrows to deal with, poor dear! Would that a moment of peace and quiet in her room could make him forget his problems for a while!

Actually, Spock was indeed enjoying a respite in the comfort and warmth of Uhura's quarters, and an almost physical pleasure in the musical drone of her voice and the hot tea that he was sipping from a precious porcelain cup his host took care to keep refilling.

While listening to Uhura's programme for the party, and her enumeration of cocktails, music, birthday cakes and presents, and much more, he realized with surprise that the dull ache he had felt in the pit of his stomach had eased considerably.

In that haze of well-being which affected all his senses, Spock was irresistibly reminded of his Vulcan home and of his mother, who knew so well how to soothe and comfort her wretched little boy when he returned, burning with resentment and humiliation, from yet another bitter quarrel with his schoolmates. The fragrant beverage that he was sipping tasted just like that Vulcan herbal tea Amanda used to give him to relax his sore muscles after a brutal encounter with the other boys. His poor mother had had to put up with many distressing situations when he was a child!

Some questions from Uhura brought him back to the present with a jolt, and he could not help but feel mildly disgruntled for being caught at day-dreaming. He eventually agreed with her plans, suggested one or two improvements, and even promised to join her and her little choral group for the concert everyone anticipated.

"You see, honey", Uhura explained, "the idea is to let the crew have something very special this time. After what they have been through on this cruise, I think they deserve some special treat, and Scotty's birthday is as good an occasion as any, don't you agree?"

"Indeed, I do, but as you might expect, Uhura, in my report I have already put in a number of recommendations and citations for several of the crew and trainees."

"Great! I am so glad for them!" Uhura beamed. "Still, I am sure they will also appreciate a celebration on board, just between us, like a last family gathering. And it will also help to dispel that feeling of regret which always recurs at the end of a mission. And this year, I don't know why, I have the impression that everyone is more downhearted than usual at the idea of parting in a few days. Of course, a separation is always sad, specially when one has to part from dear ones... "

There was so much sympathy in her voice, so much warmth in her brown eyes that Spock was moved, and knew confusedly that she wished to express discreetly how much she felt for him.

He nodded thoughtfully and said in a barely audible voice, "Partir... c'est mourir un peu."

"I beg your pardon?" she asked in surprise

"An old French maxim," he explained in a low voice, "which says that leaving is not unlike dying."

"Oh... I see... how true." She paused, deep in thoughts, then brightened up and declared with sparkling eyes, "It is true... up to a point, Spock. Parting is not final, like death, there is always a chance to meet again, somewhere in the galaxy. Even the unexpected happens in space, as we have found out, haven't we? And - to quote a rational person of my acquaintance, 'There are always possibilities'."

They exchanged a long, significant gaze, and Uhura saw at last the flicker of a smile touch the Vulcan's lips. Spock nodded once more, then setting his cup down carefully on the side table, prepared to take his leave.

"Another cup, honey?" she proposed, making use of those pet names she liked to give him occasionally when they were off duty and in the right mood. She knew that he did not mind, and was even mildly amused by her little terms of endearment.

Spock rose to his feet. "No, thank you, Uhura. I must go now. This was... very pleasant. I thank you for the tea, for everything." The expression deep in his eyes told her much more than his words.

She got up with feline grace and smiled. "You are welcome, dear. Any time... and take care of yourself."

Uhura let her Captain out after having peered around the door and ascertained that the corridor was deserted at this late hour.

Just as well, she chuckled inwardly. Imagine what the rumour mill would make out of that! "Good night", she whispered.

"Good night," the deep voice replied, and she was alone.

* * * * * * * *

Doctor McCoy's method of tackling the problem was quite different from that of Uhura, as was to be expected. He received reports from his fellow conspirators which indicated that their concerted efforts were beginning to produce some hopeful results.

So, the good Doctor, relying on his long experience, concluded that the Vulcan was now ready for some shock treatment. He decided to reject the devious means favoured by his accomplices and opt for a frontal attack; in other words, to boldly go where he had gone before, sometimes to his own cost, and seek his quarry right in his lair.

And that is why, one afternoon, Doctor McCoy found himself standing outside the Captain's door, and pressing the buzzer to obtain entry.

After a moment, the door slid open and McCoy stepped into the warm room and peered across the semi-darkness at the lighted area by the Vulcan's desk.

"Busy, Spock?" he called tentatively.

"Obviously, Doctor!" came the curt reply.

Damn! thought the Doctor. Peevish, isn't he? Never mind... here we go! and the Doctor, apparently unruffled but a bit apprehensive all the same, walked in and said brightly, "Sorry, Spock, but I have brought some of the reports you asked for - you wanted them as soon as possible, so I thought that... " McCoy stopped in mid-sentence. "Good Lord!" he exclaimed, then burst out laughing at the sight of the incredible confusion which had turned the desk, usually neat and tidy, into a miniature arena.

"Busy, you say?" he cackled. "Sure, I can see that. Busy playing with Tinkerbell."

"I am not playing, Doctor," Spock retorted stiffly. "I am only trying to retrieve a file from under this cat, who seems to be in a particularly playful mood to-day."

The Doctor grinned from ear to ear; he could not help it. He knew that Cherie-Belle was wont to keep Spock company when he was working in his quarters, but the sight of the animal stretched out on her back, plump in the middle of a batch of papers and keeping the Vulcan in check, was too good to be true. Her fore claws had clutched Spock's right wrist in a tight grip, and her hind legs pounded frantically at his forearm with piston-like kicks; meanwhile sharp teeth worried his fingers with a show of ferocity belied by a purr whirring deep in her throat.

"Want some help to get rid of her, Spock?" proposed the hilarious Doctor. taking pity of the Captain;s predicament.

"Thank you, Doctor, but it won't be necessary." And Spock, giving up the attempt to pull his papers from under the cat, touched her brow with the fingertips of his left hand, and for a few seconds, stared into nothingness .

Almost at once, the gnawing and kicking stopped, Cherie-Belle froze, then let go of the Vulcan's hand. She swiftly rolled back onto her paws and shook herself thoroughly from nose-tip to tail. Then, after an affectionate nudge of the head at Spock and a blink at McCoy, the cat jumped lightly down and, with hardly a second of hesitation, scampered, tail upright, to the door which opened at once to the tinkling signal of her collar, and she disappeared from view.

McCoy, mightily amused by the Captain's and the cat's relationship, took the chair across from Spock and laid some tapes and files on the desk. "That's right, Spock, you tell her," he chuckled. "That's the way to treat them."

"Precisely, Doctor", the Captain replied cooly and proceeded to bring back some order to his desk. "Have you done with the medical reports?"

"Yes, here they are," McCoy replied, pushing the tapes forward. "I don't know if you will agree with my conclusions but, on the whole, I consider that these kids have proved to be well fitted for a Fleet career, specially in view of their reactions to the mix-ups we have had from the start."

"Quite. Thank you, Doctor. I shall study your reports presently. Now, if that is all, will you excuse me, I have work to do," Spock said, with a meaningful glance at McCoy.

But the Doctor ignored the hint and, producing a pill box, set it with a flourish in front of the Vulcan. "No, Captain, that is not all," he declared bluntly. "I have more to say which concerns you personally."

"Indeed." The Captain's voice remained neutral but his eyes took on a veiled look which boded ill for McCoy's endeavour.

The latter went on, apparently unconcerned. "Yeah. Here are some tablets, specially concocted for you, and which you will do me the favour of taking regularly, at the rate of three tablets, four times a day."

"Unnecessary, Doctor. I do not require medication. I am In perfect health." Spock*s voice was now as glacial as the vacuum which reigned around the ship.

"In good health, are you? The hell you are! And I know what I am talking about, Spock! You have not eaten for the last five days and hardly had any sleep at all! You go around like a lost soul... How do I know? It's my business to know, and I have my informers on this ship. You will do as you are told, Captain! Take these tablets, a blending of vitamins and antidepressant, that should pep you up. Be sure to have decent meals at regular hours, and all the sleep that your Vulcan physiology requires. And you can hold yourself lucky that I don't haul you to sickbay for a complete physical! Dammit, Spock, I don't want to put you on the sick list for a case of acute depression."

"Nonsense, Doctor! Vulcans do not have depression," the Captain replied tersely when McCoy paused for breath.

"Don't they? Well, call that the broken heart syndrome then, and you won't be far from the mark!"

A faint green flush suffused the strained face of Spock. "Doctor McCoy, your propensity for prying into people's personal concerns is most unpleasant. I have pressing matters to attend to, will you please go." Spock's tone made it clear that an argument was close.

But the Doctor was not prepared to give up yet. He leaned over the desk and glared at the Vulcan. "Okay, Captain! I am prying... I am intruding... I have heard it all before. So now, what are you going to do? Are you going to break my neck?"

Spock blanched at this cruel reminder of his threat to McCoy when, years ago, he had suffered from cyclic biological disorders and refused to be examined. He steeled himself to remain impassive, rose to his feet, and gripped his hands behind his back to stop them from trembling.

"Doctor," he repeated frostily, "will you please go and leave me alone."

A shiver ran up and down McCoy's spine as he looked at Spock's rigid mask and recognized the cold expressionless look of the Vulcan who had boarded the Enterprise before their encounter with V'ger. Kolinahr disciplines had left indelible marks, apparently. But again, the Doctor knew him too well to miss the deep, hidden pain flickering in the depth of his eyes. Half-angry, half-pitying, McCoy wondered if he had not, perhaps, passed the bounds of what was acceptable. He did not want to hurt Spock, but what else could he do to reach the sensitive being entrenched behind those damn Vulcan barriers?

"Spock, listen to me!" he pleaded, trying another tactic. "Can't you get it into your thick Vulcan head that all I want to do is to help you? In case you have forgotten, I am still your physician, so it's my job to take care of your health, for one thing. Besides, I am a man, a human, and as such I have some experience of the emotions you are trying to cope with just now. I know what it is to be sick at heart over a lost love. I know what you feel, I have been through the whole damn thing myself!"

"Your own failure hardly entitles you to give advice on that matter, Doctor, and my private life is not subject to discussion. You are dismissed!"

Patience had never been McCoy's prime virtue, and this unfair hint about his unfortunate match and divorce was more than he could stand. He jumped to his feet, eyes blazing with blue fury.

"You bloody, ungrateful bastard!" he spluttered, "is that all you have got to say? Okay then. We'll leave you alone, if that's what you want! Why should we bother any more? I was right all along... as I said to Uhura, you had better be left alone with your Vulcan pride! Poor girl, she wanted to help... that will be a sad blow for her, and for the others too. But then people like you do not deserve to have friends!" and with that parting shot, McCoy turned on his heels and stalked to the door, wild with Spock, wild with himself. So much for shock tactics!

Just as he marched out of the sliding doors, a strained voice spoke behind him. "McCoy!... wait... please!"

The Doctor stopped short in the doorway and held his breath. W?as there a chance after all? "What for?" he grunted sullenly.


McCoy spun around and eyed with suspicion the Captain, who was still standing stock still behind his desk. "Explain? What is there to explain?"

"You mentioned Uhura... and others. Specify, Doctor."

A pause ensued while the two men exchanged a long, guarded look, then McCoy let the door snap shut behind him and came back, to take a stiff stand in front of the desk.

"Very well, then... here goes. First, Spock, you might be Interested to know that your senior officers are, rightly or wrongly, mindful of your welfare. And they have noticed that, of late - or, to put it bluntly, since our encounter with the Romulan ship - you have been somewhat out of sorts. Now, blame it on Uhura's feminine intuition for having guessed what it is all about. She is as sharp-eyed and astute as she is warm-hearted, and she naturally put two and two together, namely you and the Romulan Commander."

The Doctor winced inwardly at the hurt and disbelief which he read in the dark eyes fixed upon him. "Don't misunderstand me, Spock!" he hastened to say. "You know that Uhura would not want to intrude, that's not her way. All she wants to do is to help a friend. And she is quite right, dammit! because, whether you like it or not, we happen to he your friends and, as Jim used to say, that's what friends are for. Anyway, she talked me into joining in the plot, with Sulu, Scotty... a few others, the idea being to try and take your mind off your emotional problems, and prove that you are not alone. You see, now that Jim in no longer with us, we thought that perhaps we could stand in for him. But it seems now that we were wrong... " McCoy paused and waited, rocking on the soles of his boots, and watching the Vulcan, who had listened in stony silence, and stood facing him as if petrified, except for the muscle twitching in his jaw.

Damn! thought the Doctor. Looks like that has stunned him for good!

After a few moments, however, Spock abruptly shook himself out of his trance, heaved a shuddering breath and sat at his desk to stare down at his clenched hands.

"I see... " he said presently, in a remote Voice.

"Do you, Spock? I wonder!"

The hint of bitterness he detected in the Doctor's voice pulled the Captain out of his thoughts. He looked up and met the fierce blue eyes searching his face with a speculative, almost clinical attention. He returned the gaze levelly and nodded.

"I understand, Doctor," he said quietly.

Actually, during the last few minutes, Spock had gone through a turmoil of confusing emotions which hurt all the more as he kept them deep within himself. However, by bringing all his logical powers into play, he had reached a fairly satisfactory understanding and acceptance of the situation. With lightning speed his mind had swept from feelings of shock and shame for being caught off his guard, in spite of his steely self-control, by his shipmates, to an understanding, even an appreciation of their actions. Now the questions which had preyed on his mind found their answers. Faces flashed across his memory and brought everything into focus; the warm smile of Uhura, the genial look of Mr Scott, Sulu's mischievous grin, the rapt expression on trainees' faces... and last, McCoy's vivid blue eyes full of concern, and his insistence on helping. because they were his friends.

The exceptional irruption of human emotions from which he had had to shield himself was now explained.

He had withdrawn into his inner self like a wounded beast in its lair, but these Humans had sought him out because they had felt his distress, and they cared... the way Jim cared, when he said, 'Let me help.'

He accepted from Jim, he basked in Jim's friendship. How that Jim was gone, should he reject the help and understanding of these Humans who were also his friends? Friendship, that simple feeling which he had finally understood and accepted after his close encounter with V'ger.

He remembered his elation when he had realized what it really meant. .. he had laughed aloud, he had grasped Jim's hand... such shocking and unVulcan behaviour! He had realized that he could share with Jim, he could give and accept. And now... perhaps he could share with them, as with Jim. Logical - and so rewarding. And Spock suddenly understood, and felt at ease in his heart, almost at rest.

Curiously, just as he could now accept and respond to his officers' friendship, he knew that he could accept and understand the strange and disturbing emotion that the Romulan Commander had aroused in his heart.

It was their destiny to live in worlds apart, and yet they had shared an unforgettable experience. Now he felt that he could accept peacefully, logically, these emotions, and keep within his mind her bitter-sweet memory. Yes, he understood, and so he told McCoy, with a serenity he had hot felt for a long time.

And McCoy stared. He could hardly believed what he saw in the Vulcan's eyes. Gone was that implacable, off-limits glare which had confronted him a moment earlier. How the dark eyes shone with a warm glow which came as a revelation to the Doctor.

But... Good grief! That!s just the way he used to look at Jim, that special gaze they used to exchange sometimes... Incredible! I never thought... Overwhelmed by such a discovery, McCoy plumped himself down in the chair and his face broke into a broad grin.

"And about time," he replied. "I feared that we would never make it, the way you were carrying on... with your super—Vulcan temper,." He tried to hide his emotion behind his usual sarcasm, but he was not as insensitive as he made people believe, and he added in a gentle tone, "You had us worried about you, Spock. Seems to me that your peculiar Vulcan—Human mix, usually so capable of coping with any given situation, was not quite equal to the problem, this time... or am I mistaken?"

The Vulcan sighed and considered before admitting, "No, Doctor. You and Uhura have correctly surmised my... predicament. There have been some painful moments."

McCoy nodded with commiseration. "I know, Spock. I know what it feels like... but believe me, and I speak from experience, time is the best healer in such circumstances; time and the company and understanding of such friends as I have found on the Enterprise. Too bad that Jim isn't here though, I know what he means to you. He always knows what to say, what to do, doesn't he?"

Spock nodded somberly but remained silent. McCoy hesitated, then, all at once, decided to ask Spock a question which had been bothering him for a long time.

"Spock?" he said diffidently. "There is something I always wanted to ask you. About the Kolinahr... what prompted you to resign your commission upon our return, and go to Vulcan to seek retreat in the desert? It was so unexpected. I always wondered why you gave up your career... "

The Captain had stiffened perceptibly and now regarded the Doctor with brooding eyes.

"You know what, Spock?" the latter continued thoughtfully, "it occurred to me that Jim's promotion and departure to the Admiralty, was the reason."

Spock watched him in silence as he explained further. "You see, Jim had always said that he would never accept a desk assignment, and... well, you saw what happened. I couldn't believe it, I felt that he had let us down. I was really mad at Jim then, and it took me a hell of a time to, well, to accept his viewpoint. Is that why you left so suddenly, is that the way you felt too?"

Spock sighed. "I must admit that the Admiral's sudden promotion and acceptance of it greatly motivated my decision. Since he was no longer in command of the Enterprise I saw no reason to remain in the Fleet. Also the disturbing emotions which resulted therefrom made me realize that I was in danger of losing my Vulcan identity at the impact of those painful realities, and I hoped to attain peace and oblivion with the Masters of Gol. But this was not to be... "

"That's what I thought." McCoy nodded with satisfaction. "I knew this must be the reason. You know, Spock, I understand your motives all the more because they were mine also. That is why I decided to leave... and eventually to take up research. Little did I imagine that Jim would drag me back for that emergency mission, and now, look. Here we are, both on duty on the Enterprise while Jim has gone back to the top brass circle, after having moved Heaven and Earth to retrieve his ship. Isn't that just ludicrous?"

"Agreed, Doctor. Unfortunately Federation bureaucracy has a certain propensity to squander exceptional material on trivial activities. However, I trust that Jim's function at Starfleet Command be but temporary. His right place is aboard a starship, in the command chair."

"That's exactly what I've kept telling him, but... I could have saved my breath for all the good it did! Oh, well, no use grieving over what we can't help. And I have enough to worry about with you and your problems, Spock."

"I assure you that I am perfectly fit, Doctor," the Vulcan stated with a touch of asperity.

"I beg to differ, Captain!" McCoy retorted in the same tone. "You are not, but you will be if you deign to follow my prescription; good, hearty meals and sound sleep at regular hours, daily work-outs with Sulu or any other willing partner - that's for the physical part. I leave it to your Vulcan disciplines to deal with the mental part. You have been under tremendous pressure for too long, Spock. It is high time to do something about it, and I expect you to heed my recommendations. Is that understood?"

*It seems that I have no other course of action," Spock replied with resignation.

"No, you have not, Captain!" McCoy grinned. "And see that you take these tablets according to prescription." He rapped the desk with the pill-box and gained his feet.

"Doctor... how should I absorb them?" asked the Vulcan with a look of assumed innocence.

"Pulling my leg, are you, Spock? Okay, then. You gulp, you suck or you chew, doesn't make any difference, so long as you get them into your system!" With those final words, the Doctor turned about and strode to the door but, for the second time, he was brought to a halt.


"What now?"

"A moment ago... I made some disparaging remark about an... occurrence. in your private life. A totally irrelevant and unacceptable remark. I... regret, Doctor McCoy."

Taken aback, the Doctor stared at Spock in amazement. Was it possible? A Vulcan? Apologize? Could Spock, who had always peremptorily declared that apologies were pointless and emotional reactions, have changed to the point of adhering now to these illogical human practices? This was an unprecedented event, indeed. Both tickled and touched, McCoy beamed happily.

"So help me, Spock! I never thought that I would see the day when... " Feeling suddenly that now was not quite the time to tease the Vulcan, he bit back the caustic banter which was on his lips, cleared his throat, and started again more formally. "Why, thank you, Captain. That's very decent of you... Your 'regrets' are noted and accepted. But let me point out that I am not entirely blameless. As I recall, some of the names I called you were not specially flattering, I am afraid. So, why don't we call it quits?"

"Quits, Doctor?"

Confronted with the inevitable raised eyebrow, McCoy exclaimed, "Come on, Spock! You know what I mean... quits.. .forgive and forget, Spock."

"Oh, indeed. Quits... very well, Doctor. We are quits, and thank you."

A warm glance of mutual understanding was exchanged, then the door slid open and shut, and McCoy was gone. A moment later, he could be seen striding along the corridor, whistling cheerfully under his breath, and glowing with the satisfaction of having accomplished a mission almost impossible.

* * * * * * * *

By all accounts - and as Commander Uhura had anticipated, having seen to it that it would be so - the farewell cum—birthday party turned out to be a swinging success and consequently a memorable event in Enterprise's long and eventful history.

The place selected for the celebration was of course the main rec room, and the time, the last evening, ship time, before their return to Earth, while the mighty starship was making her stately way back to the solar system.

Apart from the regular skeleton crew manning the Bridge and Engineering, all personnel were assembled in the rec room, turned into a festive reception hall for the occasion, and they were, all and sundry, eagerly waiting for the hero of the day, Chief Engineer Scott, to celebrate his ...th anniversary. Actually, only the happy few who had had a hand in the making of the cake knew, from the number of candles, how many springs Mr Scott had been blessed with in his life.

Uhura had decided, after obtaining the Captain's consent, that all uniforms were to be banned for this exceptional event, and the crew, glad to wear civvies for a change, had accordingly shown up in their most elegant attire. The result was quite striking, particularly since many crewmembers had chosen to dress in their native costumes. So they had great fun admiring and identifying each other, and speculation ran high as to whether Mr Scott and Captain Spock would also appear in their national dress.

Already the arrival of Commander Sulu in a silken black and gold kimono, and that of Doctor McCoy dressed in a tight-fitting linen suit of lavender blue, had caused quite a stir. As for Commander Uhura, she looked^simply gorgeous in fetching African drapery and jewellery which earned her admiring looks and compliments from her shipmates.

She acknowledged them with good-humoured smiles and cast a circular glance at the room to check the refreshment tables and make sure that everyone and everything in readiness for the party.

The Doctor, who caught her eye, said approvingly, "No need to worry, my dear. Everything looks' just perfect. That should give old Scotty the surprise of his life. He doesn't suspect anything, I suppose?"

"I hope not, Doctor. We have had enough trouble in keeping the whole thing secret," she replied.

"It's all right, Uhura," put in Farrell. "I just met him on his way to his quarters, a moment ago. He doesn't suspect anything, he believes it's just the usual farewell party."

"Good... so much more fun when it is a surprise. He should be here any time, now. Spock is to bring him along, to make sure he comes in by the main door, right there*"

"Ho you mean to say that Spock is in the know?" McCoy asked with interest.

"Of course, Leonard," Uhura grinned. "What do you think? We had it all planned together."

Before the Doctor had time to voice his amusement, the Security guard who was on watch outside, burst in and shouted, "Attention, everyone, here they are!"

At once the hall fell silent in tense expectation, as footsteps were heard in the corridor, approaching steadily. Then Mr Scott's voice sounded outside, raised in surprise. "Funny... seems to be very quiet in there. Are you sure it's the right place, Mr Spock?"

"So I was told, Mr Scott," Spock's deep voice replied composedly. "Shall we go in and check?"

"Right, Captain... After you... "

"No, Mr Scott, do me the favour... " Some giggles, quickly repressed, sounded here and there while McCoy muttered under his breath, "Come on, Scotty, what are you waiting for?"

At last the large door opened and a gasp of amazement ran through the assembly at the sight which literally took their breath away,

"Wow!" sighed someone behind the Doctor. He chuckled. "Quite an eyeful, aren't they?".

Indeed the Captain and the Chief Engineer offered a striking contrast of manly elegance. Mr Scott cut a dashing figure in full Scottish dress of red jacket, snow-white lace, and black and white tartan, while Spock stood in regal and alien splendour with Vulcan robes of azure and cobalt blue enhanced at the collar and sleeves with silver and blood-stone encrustations. Actually the surprise was total on both sides, and Scotty looked in amazement at the crowded room and all these faces staring and smiling at him.

"What the... " he began. At once the spell was broken. A riot of cheers burst out and all present intoned with gusto the traditional, "... For he's a jolly good fellow, he's a jolly good fe-e-llow, and so say all of us..."

Astonished and touched by this reception, Scotty stood to attention. Then, as the singing petered out in applause, he cast a sidelong glance at the Captain and saw on the lean face an expression of mild approval.

Realization dawned at last, and he blurted out, "Captain! You knew, didn't you? You knew all the time?"

The Vulcan countered with a quizzical lift of the eyebrow and the dead pan reply, "Of course, Mr Scott, and if memory serves, I believe that the appropriate formula is 'Happy Birthday'?

Scotty's face turned pink with pleasure. "Ooh, Mr Spock!... You never..." was all he found to say.

And there was Uhura, all smiles and sympathy, cooing, "Surprise, surprise, Scotty, Happy Birthday!" and McCoy and Sulu, and all his friends descending upon him with congratulations, kisses and claps an the hack.

At last, amid much rejoicing and joking, the happy Engineer was led to the buffet tables and given his first scotch to help him recover from the shock and sustain those yet to come. Tor Mr Scott was not yet out of his surprises, not by a long chalk. Once he had rallied with a number of tight drams, Scotty took time to admire the wide range of hors d'oeuvres and drinks and the tasteful decoration of flowers and mini-flags blazoned with the lion rampant and the Saint Andrew's Cross of his native country.

This last touch went straight to his heart. "We had them made from Stores, of course," Uhura explained, "and it has not been that easy to find the exact pattern. Fortunately I had some very helpful assistants." Uhura nodded smilingly toward the trainees standing a few steps away. "Cadet Gordon, for one, has proved to be invaluable."

"Ah, for sure!" Mr Scott beamed. "Trust a Scottish lass!... and just look at her... as bonny as a picture, isn't she?" he said, casting a fatherly glance of approval at the girl whose simple white dress, graced by her blue and green tartan scarf, contrasted with the rather flashy attire of her classmates.

"She certainly is," Sulu heartily agreed, "but so are all these girls, I must say. Tell me, Scotty, is it customary for a girl to wear tartan in that fashion? It is very becoming."

"Aye, so it is. That's the way they put it in formal dress. Glad to see this lassie sticks to tradition^."

"Is it also in accord with tradition to wear tartan round one's neck, Mr Scott?" enquired a deep voice behind him.

"Sir?" Surprised, Scotty turned on his heel to face the Vulcan who was quietly standing apart, a glass of fruit cocktail in his hand. The humorous glint he saw in the Captain's eyes made him follow his gaze and look down... and there was Cherie-Belle, purring and winding around the Vulcan's legs, a Cherie-Belle all bedizened and beribbonned with silken tartan bows.

Huge success, of course. A hilarious Sulu scooped up the cat for all to see and admire while McCoy quipped, "Look at that! A Scottish kitten. How about that, Scotty?"

Mr Scott stroked the glossy fur with a cautious hand."Why not, Leonard? We used to have beasties just like her at home, when I was a lad."

"Mr Sulu," Spock put in quietly, "I believe that the cat would rather be put down."

"Sir? Oh, yes, of course, Captain," Sulu grinned in assent and hastily set the reluctant animal on her paws.

Just then, on a signal from Uhura, the lights went out, and in the ensuing darkness, she said softly to the Engineer, "Surprise again, Scotty. Now, please, you must shut your eyes."

He readily complied, his curiosity tickled by the giggles and whisperings around him, then a moment later, the Doctor poked him in the ribs, saying, "Okay now, Scotty - look!" And Mr Scott did so... and remained lost for words, for this indeed was a surprise!

To the tune of 'Happy birthday to you', carolled by all the crew, an amazing pyrotechnic display was hovering towards him across the dark room. Something which looked like a fortified castle complete with snow-covered towers and battlements, set on a dark brown rocky hill, a dream of a castle blazing with candles and scintillating sparklers.

When at last the monstrous confection came to a halt in front of him, the dumbfounded Engineer realised that it was a glorified birthday cake dripping with chocolate and sugar icing, and proudly flying on its tallest tower, the colours of bonnie Scotland.

While two young engineers set the antigrav trolley firmly on the deck, Mr Scott recovered his spirits and his voice. "My... oh my! Edinburgh Castle... my birthday cake! I can't believe it."

"You had better, honey, because you have got to eat it," Uhura said, laughing. "Now, what about blowing these candles out?"

"Do I have to, lassie? It's so beautiful with all these lights."

"Ah, Mr Scott, I'll bet you can't blow them all out at the first go," jested Lieutenant Killicranky.

Mr Scott, cut to the quick, stiffened in outrage. "I'll have you know, my lad, that you are insulting generations of Scotts, pipers from father to son. How, just you watch and see what a true piper can do!" He took a deep breath, held it for a second or two, and his birthday candles were put out, one and all, to the cheers of his shipmates, not the least Killicranky.

Once the masterpiece had been duly praised, notwithstanding the Captain's dry comment that two of the food processors had been sadly impaired through overuse and necessitated a complete overhaul, the crucial moment of cutting up the cake came at last.

But the cake was so big that the carving knives produced, and even the dirk that Mr Scott carried in his sock, turned out to be inadequate. Fortunately the problem was quickly solved by the ever resourceful Commander Sulu who left the room at a run, and dashed back flourishing his long Vulcan sword, which he handed to Scotty with the words, "Here you are, Scotty. That is exactly what you need to storm the castle." Then he turned to the Captain with an apologetic grin, "I hope you don't mind, sir?"

Spock's elegant eyebrows took flight and he replied judiciously, "Well, Mr Sulu, some purists might regard this unconformable use of the D'Alik'Tal sword as unethical, not to say heretical. For my part, I am not adverse to seeing this blade cut through icing and confectionery rather than flesh and bone. Carry on, Mr Scott."

And so the candied Edinburgh Castle was gallantly attacked, captured and breached by Mr Scott with the loud support of his shipmates, while volunteers were called to hand the plates around, a duty which they performed with cheerful efficiency.

But when cadet Gordon presented Spock with his slice of cake, she met with a courteous refusal.

"Oh, Captain," she said, "won't you have some of Mr Scott's cake?"

Although she looked quite disappointed, the Captain was adamant and declined.

McCoy, who was savouring a huge portion a few feet away, intervened at once.

"Come on, Spock!" he said with his mouth full, "you can't miss that, it's so rich! The best cake I've eaten for ages..."

"All the more reason, Doctor, for me to avoid such a lethal food," Spock objected. "You should know by now that sugar is toxic to Vulcan metabolism."

"Oh, I know that, but don't tell me that your human half can't cope with just a piece of that cake. Dammit! it's Scotty's birthday, you could make it an exception, couldn't you?"

"I am sure, Captain," Scotty argued, "that you won't come to harm with a wee piece of my cake. Here, I'll give you a slice from that rock, see? No sugar coating, no marzipan, it's just plain chocolate cake,"

Spock pricked up his ears. "Chocolate, Mr Scott?"

"Aye, sir. You take a look here, see?"

The Vulcan made a close examination of the confection and concluded, "I believe you are right, Mr Scott; in that case, I shall follow McCoy's suggestion and make an exception. May I have a small, very small piece of that chocolate cake?"

"Good for you, Scotty!" the Doctor jeered good-humouredly. "But I should have remembered that the one chink In our Vulcan's armour is his weakness for chocolate. Am I right, Spock?"

The Captain eyed him suspiciously. "How do you know, Doctor?"

"Information received, Captain, a long time ago," McCoy told him, and he observed with much amusement the Vulcan savour his chocolate cake with the beatific expression of the proverbial cat lapping a dish of cream.

As for the ship's cat, she had not been forgotten, and she was delicately nibbling her cream-piled portion of cake with a relish on a par with that of the Captain.

Moments later, the cake having been consumed and declared the best birthday cake ever, the party proceeded on its glorious course with the presentation of the gifts, so numerous and so diverse that Mr Scott had to postpone the unwrapping to a later time. Some presents, however, caught his special attention. He was, for instance, quite impressed and touched by the miniature model of a matter—antimatter unit, beautifully worked by his trainees. He also made a close and appreciative inspection of the stock of intoxicating liquors which his shipmates had thoughtfully collected for just that occasion, but it was a small package, discreetly set apart, which caught his eye, a flat square box labelled with his name in a neat lettering which he immediately identified.

Intrigued, he opened the box and gazed in surprise at the tape set within. He shot a puzzled glance at Spock who was standing aloof, his face a mask of bland indifference. No hope of a cue from that quarter! Of course. Scotty took out the cassette and found the answer underneath, a card neatly printed with the inscription, 'Record of Five Possible Solutions to the Problem raised by Professor X's Theory as submitted by Mr Scott on stardate.... '

A broad grin creased his features. "Great Scott, Captain! You made it! I knew you would come up with something, but five answers to that teaser! That I never expected, sir!"

"Indeed, Mr Scott? I admit that Professor X's works usually appear quite complex, even obscure to someone not familiar with his abstruse choice of words. But the problem was most fascinating and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I hope that you will find this tape of some interest."

"I am sure I shall, Captain, that will occupy much of my leisure time," replied a delighted Chief Engineer.

The excitement over the birthday cake and gifts was decreasing by then and Commander Uhura felt that now was the time for mere restful entertainment, so she had everyone settled down and gathered the group of singing amateurs she had put on rehearsal for the last few days, and together they treated their friends to a selection of folk songs and popular ditties which all took up in chorus.

A number of traditional Scottish ballads, recommended by Alison, were sung specially for Mr Scott who was moved to tears on hearing such familiar tunes as "The Skye Boat Song", or "The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen". And so, taking advantage of the thunderous applause which followed, he pulled Uhura into a bear hug, and kissed her on both cheeks.

"That was a treat, thank you, my dear. That's a birthday I'll never forget!"

She returned the- hug with warmth and said, "You are welcome, Scotty but wait, there is more to come!" Then turning to the tall and silent figure sitting quietly in a corner, she said with a knowing smile, "May I remind you of your promise, Captain? Will you play for me?"

"My pleasure, Commander," Spock courteously replied, and, gathering in his arms the cat, blissfully snuggled and catnapping in his lap, he got to his feet, and looked around - "Cadet Garrick," he called, "would you please attend to your pet?" And poor Cherie-Belle, struggling and kicking and squawking in indignation for being rudely removed from her safe and peaceful haven was passed from hand to hand on to Joyce, who gathered her lovingly in her arms.

When Uhura, however, suggested Spock should send someone to his quarters for his Vulcan harp, a tremor of excitement ran through the junior crewmembers who jumped up and volunteered. The Captain blinked.

"It is a portable instrument, cadets," he explained. "one person is amply sufficient to bring it here."

"Permission to go and get it, sir!" Kovack eagerly requested.

"Permission to go with him, sir!"

"Please, Captain, may we go and get it too?" they chorused.

The Doctor, seeing Spock somewhat at a loss, shook his head and chuckled. "Just like a bunch of kids. Oh, come on, Spock, let them go and have their fun!" The Vulcan caught his eyes and finally gave his consent.

They had not to be told twice. They made a rush for the door, followed by the gruff but fatherly warning of Mr Scott - " ... And see that you handle it with care, mind you! Look at them! Who would think that's a brood of Starfleet officers?"

He needed not to worry for, when the youths came back within a moment, they were carrying Spock's precious instrument with the respectful cautiousness that Scotty and his engineers exerted when handling matter-antimatter cases.

A hush of anticipation fell over the gathered crew while Spock tuned the lyre to the key of Uhura's coloratura voice. This being done, his long hands swiftly ran up and down the strings, bringing out a ripple of crystalline sounds which sent a shiver up the audience's spine. Then he cocked his dark head at Uhura in a silent query.

"What about our old favourites, Captain?" she suggested with a smile.

"By all means, Commander," he replied with a smile of his own.

And time seemed to slip by as a dream while the spellbound crew listened to the combined magic of Uhura's voice intertwined with the subtle harmonies of the Vulcan harp. One could tell that the two musicians were accustomed to perform together, so perfect was their tempo and their melodic attunement.

Many in old hand was remembering with some emotion the good old days when Uhura and Spock had favoured the inmates of the rec room with their musical gifts. As for the newcomers, the perfect blending of the woman's velvet voice with the silvery tone of the lyre was a revelation.

And so, each time a song came to its end, the crew asked for more; and Uhura, who thrived on music, willingly complied, faithfully supported by the Captain whose fingers seemed as tireless as they were skilled.

But the moment came when Uhura, after singing a sweet melody which drew tears in many eyes, gracefully sank into the nearest chair, and declared herself to be out of breath. "Let the Captain play some Vulcan music for a change!"

"Oh, Lord!" Doctor McCoy muttered under his breath, forgetting, in the hubbub of excitement which rose in the hall at Uhura's suggestion, that the Vulcan's hearing was particularly acute. He realised his mistake when a slanted eyebrow was cocked in his direction.

"Any objection, Doctor?" he was asked by a mildly amused Captain.

"Well... er... no offence, Spock, but... I can't help but recall that... er ... painful experience we had, Jim and I, in the Shi'Khar Concert Hall."

Sulu burst out laughing. "What was that, Doctor? A Vulcan concert? Was it so very bad?"

"Pretty awful, if you ask me... for human ears at least! Even Jim couldn't stand it, and he is tone deaf, remember. Sorry, Spock, to sound so disparaging but, frankly, I don't think it's advisable to inflict such dissonant, traumatic noises on an unsuspecting audience."

"But what are you talking about, Doctor?" Scotty protested. "We have had Vulcan music before, haven't we, Captain? Personally I rather liked it, sounds a bit like some of our old Gaelic tunes."

"Believe me, Scotty," said McCoy, "your bagpipes sound like a celestial choir of angels compared to what they played at that concert!"

By that time curiosity was at its peak. "What was it like, Doctor? Can you give us an idea?" asked Farrell.

"Well, it's indescribable. It was some sort of ear-splitting cacophony played with unbelievable instruments which left us half-deaf, and with a splitting headache into the bargain. I've never heard anything like it!"

"Doctor, I am surprised that, with your wide galactic experience, you can be so chauvinistic about something Vulcan," lieutenant Caromandel declared somewhat disdainfully. "If you dislike Vulcan music, so be it, it is your right. But why should you prevent others from listening to it, and forming their own opinion?! Captain, please, give us a chance. We would very much like to hear you play."

"Hear! hear!" chorused several people.

"Okay, okay! As you like'" McCoy retorted. "But don't come afterwards and say that I did not warn you!"

"Just a moment, everyone!" Uhura cut in peremptorily. "With your permission, Captain. Let's make everything clear. Personally, I am rather familiar with Vulcan music. I have heard and studied the traditional themes with you, Spock, and with tapes and C.D.s. Naturally some pieces might sound... well, strange to people accustomed only to Terran music, but I have never heard anything actually discordant. Doctor. Never. So it seems to me that you are trying to lead us up the garden path!"

"Me, Uhura? Never!" McCoy's blue eyes shone with the innocence of a new-born lamb. "I swear it's all gospel truth. Ask Spock!"

All eyes turned to the Vulcan who was sitting, calm and thoughtfully attentive, and softly brushing the strings of his lyre with a leisurely hand. His lean face was remote and inscrutable, but his dark eyes held the hint of a twinkle as he observed, with mocking detachment, the antics of his human crew.

"Captain, what do you say?" asked Uhura. "Can you explain this contradiction? Who is right, McCoy or me?"

Spock laid a hand on the strings to mute their resonance and straightened up. "You are right, Commander, but so, it seems, is Doctor McCoy."

"What?" McCoy exclaimed. "It can't be, you can't have it both ways, Spock!"

"Would you care to explain, Captain?" Uhura looked puzzled.

"Certainly, Commander," replied the Vulcan, setting his harp down by his side. Then he sat back, fingers steepled, and gazed at McCoy.

"Tell me, Doctor, the Concert Hall which you mentioned Is located opposite the Intergalactic Spaceport, am I right?"

"Er... yes, yes, that's right. That big modern building with a green dome, that's the one."

"I see. Now, when did you attend that concert? Was it on your last visit to Vulcan, while I happened to be away from Shi'Khar for a few days?"

"Why, yes... that was the evening when- I took Jim out to dine at that little Italian restaurant, back of the Spaceport - nice little place, you know the one I mean? Well, when we left, we saw a crowd of people go into that theater, and, having nothing better to do, we bought tickets and went in. Jim was curious about Vulcan night life. Some night life it was! No need to say that we skipped away at the first interval! But why do you ask?"

"Because, Doctor, you went to the one concert hall where the Contemporary Music Festival takes place every second year. My home town invites philharmonic orchestras from outer worlds to perform at that festival, and give concerts of sensory or electronic music - you understand, musique concrete and such like, which I believe is not to everyone's liking, and obviously not to yours, Doctor." A glint of amusement sparkled in his eyes.

Some faint giggles, quickly stifled, sounded in the room while McCoy gaped in disbelief at the Captain who blandly met his stare, and waited. The penny finally dropped. The Doctor swallowed hard and uttered,

"You green-blooded... Do you mean to say that the damn racket we heard in that hall was not Vulcan music?"

"Not necessarily, Doctor. I would assume that it might have been Rigellian or Andorian, or possibly Terran Twentieth Century contemporary music. I am surprised that you did not check the programme on the signs posted at the doors."

"Dammit, Spock!" McCoy fairly exploded. "Fat lot of good that would have been when neither Jim nor I speak Vulcan, let alone read it! Rigellian music indeed! Why couldn't you say so?"

"You never asked me... and how could I, since I was on the other side of the planet at the time? Illogical, Doctor."

The crew, who enjoyed nothing better than this long-standing verbal sparring, dissolved into laughter, while McCoy rolled his eyes heavenwards in exasperation.

"Looks like you've been properly had, Doctor," Scotty chuckled happily, and took a hearty slug of scotch.

McCoy's huff could not last long amidst all this merriment, and he broke into a reluctant grin. "Yeah... looks like it," he admitted.

"But, tell me, Doctor," Sulu enquired, "how come you didn't tell the difference between a Vulcan orchestra and an Andorian, or Terran or whatever it was? I mean, it's so obvious! You just had to look at their ears."

"Very funny, Sulu, but not so obvious when you sit up high, in the back, half a mile away from the stage!" the Doctor retorted. "So, it seems that you were right, Uhura. Modern music! I'll be damned! and all the time we took that for some typical Vulcan ear-spitting monstrosity. I can't wait, to see Jim Kirk's face when he hears about it... You know, Spock, I have to hand it to you, you do have the knack of making a man look four kinds of a fool."

"I assure you, Doctor, that it was not my intention. You must blame this human propensity of yours for jumping to conclusions - and the wrong conclusions, generally. However, I would have thought that you had sufficient points of reference to detect the difference. What you heard at my parents' home was classic and traditional Vulcan, like this, for instance... " and, resting the lyre on his knee, Spock broke into a lively tune ringing like silver bells backed up by a humming tempo, much like the beating of a drum.

For a few moments, the strange melody rang loud and clear, then gradually faded away in a soft diminuendo.

"Why! that was lovely, Captain," Lieutenant Caromandel said with rapture. "What was it?"

"A marching song of my ancestral clan, Lieutenant, a traditional theme which Doctor McCoy must have heard when in Shi'Khar. Don't you remember?"

"I am a Doctor, not a musical expert!" came the inevitable reply. "But, come to think of it... yeah... sounds familiar, and you are right, there is a difference, this is audible!"

Meantime some crewmembers were getting impatient. "Captain, please, may we hear another one? Some ballads, perhaps, or love songs. Are there love song on Vulcan?" asked some of the girls.

McCoy and Uhura saw a shadow pass over the Captain's face and exchanged an uneasy glance, the same thought crossing their mind. Damn the girls! How could they be so mindless, when just a few days ago... But worse was to come, as Schwarzenberg said disdainfully and with a total lack of discretion,

"Love songs? You must be joking, Ensigns. How could Vulcans play love songs when they deny all feelings and emotions?"

This tactless remark earned him a barrage of dark looks from his colleagues, and a sharp retort from. Uhura. "That's where you are wrong, Lieutenant. I can tell you that the most beautiful love songs I have ever heard are Vulcan! You tell him, Captain."

Spock met her eyes with a warm gaze and a nod of assent. Then, considering that a practical demonstration would serve the purpose better than any explanation, he launched himself into a brilliant display of traditional Vulcan music, and at once gathered his audience under the spell as he brought to life many pre-Reform themes and time—honored ballads and mating—songs of his home planet. Imperceptibly, however, Spock drifted into an elaborate improvisation, interweaving, in honour of Mr Scott, Vulcan melodies and Gaelic tunes, so similar in their mysterious nostalgia. These last themes took Scotty into seventh Heaven, of course, and his genial face beamed with sheer delight.

As for Uhura, the 'musical expert' of the Enterprise, she listened with critical appreciation, humming gently to the tunes, and feeling somehow that the Vulcan could never reveal the unique duality of his nature better than with his musical skills.

And she vas deeply moved as she recalled what Admiral Kirk had said once of his friend... that he was the ‘best of both worlds'.

How true, she thought, watching Spock, totally absorbed in his musical inspiration, while his fingers ran over the strings and drew out of them an extraordinary rhapsody, so alien and yet so familiar. Curiously, she observed that his face wore that introspective expression he had when locked in a mind trance, and she wondered whether he might not be in mental contact with something... or someone. And, almost at once, she had the answer; Uhura suddenly felt the Captain's warm and familiar aura drift over her and gently enfold her and all present in a communion of musical enchantment.

As they were irresistibly swept into a maelstrom of pure harmonies and quasi-ecstatic sensations, she realised with amazement that her exhilaration was fully shared by her shipmates. In a strange effect of subliminal perception Uhura was aware of all her friends joined in mutual enjoyment, but, above all, she sensed right in their midst the unmistakable, serene intensity of the Vulcan's presence who, like the legendary piper, led them all fascinated onto the peaks of musical perfection.

None of them could say, since they lost all sense of time and space, how long they were gone in that magical world, where the rippling harmonies of the harp conjured up visions of innumerable galaxies solemnly spinning to the music of the spheres. When Spock's improvisation came finally to its glorious conclusion, when the last lilting notes dropped like an echo in the silence, Uhura wistfully felt the Vulcan's gentle withdrawal... and the spell was broken.

Dazed glances were exchanged all round as the crew came slowly back to reality, and to the confused consciousness of having shared an exceptional experience. With awe and wonder, they watched their Captain emerge from his trance-like concentration, and, after a second of hesitation, burst into rapturous applause, which was met with Vulcan composure.

Although he had been around Humans long enough to know that their emotional reactions were generally predictable, Spock was mildly puzzled by all these eyes shining with tears in smiling faces, until he remembered an alarming experience of his childhood when he once had surprised his mother shedding tears of joy. So this was obviously another example of the contradictory emotions which so often befell Humans.

As Uhura flashed a brief and grateful smile, and whispered, "Thank you, Spock, that was wonderful," he merely replied,

"My pleasure, Commander."

But, considering also that a lighter touch would not come amiss in this overflow of emotionalism, he added, a gleam in his eyes, "I only trust that McCoy will have no difficulty, in the future, in recognizing the difference between authentic Vulcan music and extraneous sound assemblage?"

As anticipated, the Doctor reacted right on cue and flashed back, "Well, Spock, after the demonstration you have just given us,, you can bet your fluffy little bed-socks that I will know the difference. And don't tell me that Vulcans do not wear bed—socks because I won't believe you!"

This exchange did not fail to provoke laughter all round, and bring back the merry party spirit. But under the banter ran a deep understanding between the two old sparring partners, and McCoy acknowledged with a good-natured nod that he was well aware of the significance of the amazing gift offered by the Vulcan. He caught Uhura's eye, and Sulu's and Scotty's in turn, and they traded meaningful smiles, not devoid of some self-satisfaction.

Indeed, what better proof could they have that their offer of help and friendship of the few days past had been accepted and returned a hundredfold? Their plan had worked perfectly, Spock was once more his usual serene Vulcan self, and all was for the best in the best possible world.

With one accord, the three confederates looked at Spock, and, at the sight of the Vulcan gazing at them with a quiet twinkle in his dark eyes, and an elegant eyebrow creeping up to his hairline, their smiles turned into self-conscious grins. A wordless sensation of acceptance and friendship arose around them, and they felt at last how good it was to be together.

Meantime, while this brief by-play was being enacted, the junior grades and the cadets were setting up the room for dancing, as they meant to make the most of the party, even right through the night.

It followed that the rec room became significantly noisy, not t#o say rowdy, and when, moments later, a merry Chief Engineer enlisted Cadet Gordon to help him teach energetic crewmembers the elaborate steps of the Eightsome Reel, the sound level reached an uncomfortable pitch for sensitive, Vulcan ears. And it came as no surprise to Uhura and Sulu, when they looked round for the Captain, to find that he was nowhere to be seen.

Spock had indeed quietly withdrawn, content to let his crew enjoy Scotty's party and have a good time, while he would carry on with his duties.

He stopped at his quarters to set his harp back into place, but did not deem it worth while to change into uniform for just a couple of hours. So he was still dressed in his elegant Vulcan garb when he set out for his customary night round.

As he stood a moment later at the turbolift doors,, he was not really surprised to hear a faint meow behind him, and see Cherie-Belle, complete with tartan ribbons, trotting along the corridor to catch up with him. She rubbed against his legs in cat-mode greetings, and he picked her up to get into the lift which he sent on its way with the brief order, "Bridge!"

Looking down at his small and furry companion clawing and nudging at his chest with ecstatic purrs, he experienced an irrational feeling of regret at the thought that this was the last time they would walk the ship together. The following day, the Enterprise would be secured in the dock, and the cat would be gone. Strange and illogical though it certainly was, he knew that he would miss her.

* * * * * * * *


On the Bridge of the Enterprise, the crew watched In silence the huge Spacedock loom gradually larger before them.

In the center seat, Spock quietly supervised the docking manoeuvers and listened with half an ear to the grousing of Doctor McCoy who was standing, arms folded on his chest, by his chair.

"Blasted regulations! Why do we have to be quarantined like some pestiferous outlaws, in that god-forsaken docking bay, and for how long? I'd like to know! It's ridiculous!"

"Please, advise approach control, Commander," the Captain said to Uhura, then to McCoy, patiently, "This is not a quarantine procedure, Doctor, as you are well aware. Just precautions deemed necessary by Starfleet Security to prevent any untimely contact of the crew with reporters and press representatives, before our official debriefing."

"Approach Control," said Uhura. "This is the U.S.S. Enterprise. Ready for docking manoeuver."

"Pah!" snorted McCoy. "'Precautions'. About time to take precautions. They had to take them three weeks ago, instead of letting that Xantar fellow sneak aboard!"

"Let me remind you that our own Security team is not entirely blameless on that matter," Spock murmured.

"Enterprise, welcome home!" called the Controller's voice. "You are clear to dock. Docking bay 19. ... and don't miss the gates!"

"Thank you, Spacedock, we'll do our best," Uhura replied sweetly, while the cadets giggled at the stale joke.

"Mr Sulu, you heard the Controller, don't put us to shame," Spock remarked, a twinkle in his eyes.

"Aye, sir," the best helmsman in the Elect grinned. "As Uhura said, I'll do my best."

The huge doors parted silently and the Enterprise smoothly glided in, and moved across the deep bay on her way to her mooring station. As she slowly passed ship after ship, speculations ran high an the Bridge as to the unexpected Security procedures.

"Looks like whoever wished to hush up the Xantar affair made a botch of it, at Headquarters," declared Mr Scott, as fresh as a daisy, and obviously none the worse for the previous night's festivities.

"What beats me," Sulu wondered as he deftly steered the mighty ship into its docking station, "is that after three weeks being away, we should still be in the news. You would think that those reporters would have found some other scoop to feed their public, wouldn't you?"

"Maybe nothing happened in the galaxy when we were away," Farrell suggested, half in jest.

"Some hope, Farrell!" McCoy snorted. But tell me, Spock, what's that I hear of some brass hat coming aboard for inspection? Isn't that rather unusual? I mean, this being just a training cruise?"

"It is, Doctor, but I expect that Starfleet considers the circumstances to warrant exceptional measures."

"Damn! Officiousness and nuisance, if you ask me," the Doctor grumbled.

"Enterprise," cut in the cheerful controller. "Stand by for final docking procedures."

"Standing by," Spock said. "Activate moorings, Mr Sulu."

"Moorings activated, Captain."

As the delicate mooring manoeuvers were being operated, Spock flipped open his intraship call switch and said, "All hands, Captain speaking. Rank officers and trainees are to report, within 15 minutes, to docking area No. 5 for inspection. All other personnel are to stand by until further instructions. Spock out".

"Great," the Doctor commented. "That'll please them no end, to cool their heels at their stations instead of going home. For me, I'll go and start packing. And if your paper-pushers want to inspect me and my sickbay, let them find the way", and he strode up the steps to the lift.

Meantime the Controller's voice brightly announced, "Docking procedures completed, Enterprise. Nice to see you haven't lost your touch."

"Smart ass!" Sotto voce from the helm.

"Acknowledged, Space Control," Spock replied coolly. Then, "Well done, Mr Sulu. Doctor!" The Doctor halted in his tracks. "Doctor, I said 'rank officers', and that includes the Chief Medical Officer," the Vulcan pointed out. "Therefore I suggest that you proceed to the staging area without further delay. The Admiral is on his way for inspection."

McCoy looked down at him with raised eyebrows and whistled. "An Admiral? Well, well, the Powers that Be must be in a rare stew over this affair. Looks like we haven't seen the end of it!" and the lift doors snapped shut behind him. Ignoring the ripple of repressed laughter, Spock stood up gave a circular glance at the crew.

"Thank you, gentlemen, that is all. When you have closed your stations, please report at once to the docking chamber."

As he strode past the communication station, Commander Uhura stopped him with a murmured, "Captain!"

He turned round. "Yes, Commander?"

"I am sorry, sir," she said under her breath, "but we haven't received any communication from Starfleet about an Admiral coming on board. I wonder... have they notified you directly?"

Spock gazed down at her and the shadow of a smile touched his lips as he replied likewise, "They have not, Uhura; nevertheless you can rest assured that the Admiral's shuttle is on approach, and that he will set foot on the deck of the Enterprise in 14 point 54 minutes. Does that answer your question?"

The bemused Bantu officer regarded him uncertainly. Then, perceiving a subtle expression of contained elation on his face, she suddenly realised what he meant. A delighted smile lit her lovely face. "Oh!" she stammered. "You mean that... I am sorry, Spock, I didn't want to pry... but, it's so wonderful!*

The Vulcan nodded assent, a soft gleam burning deep in his eyes as he calmly replied, "Indeed, but the less talk about it, the better. Now, shall we go, Commander? We must not keep him waiting."

"No, indeed," she heartily agreed, thinking inwardly how convenient these Vulcan mental contacts were, no need of channel transmissions to get news at first hand!

* * * * * * * *

Moments later, the Enterprise personnel were assembled in the docking area and waiting with mixed feelings for the Starfleet Command representative. The officers lined on one side, and the trainees on the other, watched Captain Spock, hands clasped behind his back, pace the deck with measured steps along their ranks, giving them the once over with a critical eye. He looked so much like a college principal appraising his unruly students that Sulu, catching Farrell's eye, gave a sly wink which was duly returned with a grin. In the expectant silence, Doctor McCoy was heard grumbling under his breath to Mr Scott, while in the trainees' rank some helpless giggles provoked by an ill-timed jest from Michel Kovack, were hardly being repressed.

The cadets' regrettable levity was naturally not lost on the Captain, but he chose to ignore this manifestation of nervousness so typical in Humans.

A cold glance and a quelling eyebrow sufficed to restore proper solemnity to the ranks.

As for McCoy's characteristic show of ill-humour towards the Upper Echelons of the Fleet, Spock was well aware that It would not last long, under the circumstances, and he anticipated with some ironic satisfaction the Doctor's reaction when the airlock doors opened.

"Docking procedures completed," announced the technician at last. Spock drew himself up to his full height and ordered, "Prepare for inspection - open the airlock."

Stiff with anticipation, the trainees came smartly to attention, and the Captain turned on his heel to face the doors which parted with a muted thump; and, to the shrill wail of the bosun's pipe, Admiral James T. Kirk, with two Security officers in tow, stepped on hoard.

A gasp of surprise rose from the officers' ranks while the salutes were exchanged as per regulations.

"Permission to come aboard, Captain?"

"Permission granted, Admiral. Welcome aboard."

To the watching crew, the meeting looked punctiliously official and formal, but they failed to notice the special gaze exchanged, which held all the warmth of long-suppressed feelings; they did not know, and how could they, that the linked minds sang with unspoken words.

/Spock, my Vulcan friend, it has been so long. I missed you./

/Only three weeks, Jim... however, I missed you, too. It's good to see you./

For all their outward restraint, the two friends exuded an aura of such warmth and caring that the room fairly sizzled with excitement. The trainees stood awestruck at the unexpected appearance of the legendary Kirk, the hero, the model of their most ambitious dreams. The astonished officers (Commander Uhura excepted, naturally) could hardly contain their elation at seeing that the top brass descending upon them turned out to be their former commanding officer and friend, and were grinning shamelessly, and to hell with regulations! As for McCoy, Spock observed with covert interest that his reaction lived up to his expectations. In a matter of seconds, the good Doctor ran the whole gamut of extreme emotions, going, as if by magic, from grumbling sulkiness to gaping stupefaction, and finally to grinning delight at the sight of his old friend.

In this congenial atmosphere, the announced inspection soon turned into a friendly gathering. Jim Kirk, obviously delighted to be in the familiar surroundings of the Enterprise, shook hands and joked with his former staff, to the surprise of the cadets who had never undergone such an informal review.

Closely followed by Captain Spock, the Admiral strode along their line, and gave them each a friendly glance. He even had a kind word for Vatanen, Gordon and Kovack, who were duly introduced by the Captain, and quietly praised for their commendable conduct in the face of danger.

The keen look and warm smile that the Admiral bestowed upon the three made them blush furiously, and the two girls felt their hearts fluttering under the scrutiny of a pair of hazel eyes, supported by the steady, brown Vulcan gaze. They would have sunk through the floor in confusion had they been aware of the Admiral's mental comment to the Captain.

/My word, Spock! You lucky dog, you did pick quite a selection!/

/Luck had nothing to do with it, Jim. According to regular procedure, these cadets were detailed for training by the Academy Board of Professors./

/I know that, Spock... That's not what I meant! But, of course, you haven't even noticed, my innocent Vulcan. Too bad for these pretty girls to be wasted on the likes of you! That Gordon girl, particularly... isn't she adorable? Wish I were twenty years younger!/

/Jim! That is a most improper remark... and you an Admiral!/ A wave of austere disapproval ran through the mind link, countered at once by Kirk's bubbling laughter which rang like a chime in the Vulcan's mind, and confirmed that his friend was indeed in one of his teasing moods.

/You appear to be in high spirits, Admiral/ he merely remarked with his usual forbearance.

/Why not? I have every reason to be now, haven't I, Spock?/

Needless to say that this brief telepathic conversation was taking place while the two officers were tranquilly proceeding with the inspection.

At last, having been awarded by Admiral Kirk with a special Starfleet commendation and a month's leave, the gratified cadets were entrusted to the care of the Security officers who had been unobtrusively waiting in the background. The two men were to smuggle the crew back to Earth by devious ways and classified means of transportation, so as to by-pass the hordes of press reporters who were awaiting them at the Transporter Center.

And so, the short farewell address from their Captain who assigned them, in a month's time, back to their Academy classes, and his kind nod of dismissal, sent the youngsters running off to prepare for departure.

The officers followed at a more sedate pace, and proceeded to the staff lounge to welcome Jim Kirk aboard and take leave of one another in an informal drinking party.

Doctor McCoy, who had hardly got over his surprise, was loudly voicing his satisfaction. "You know, Jim, it's real nice to have you here with us! I've always said that's where you belong. But how come that nobody was told that you were coming?"

Kirk laughed and cast a side-long glance at Spock, quietly standing at his side. "Actually," he said, "it was a last minute decision, Bones. Jeff Kerenski was supposed to do the inspection, but I claimed a better cognizance of Enterprise matter and personnel, and I... well, I pulled rank. Only Spock knew about it."

"Did he, now... I wondered... and, of course, that blasted Vulcan had to keep it up his sleeve."

"Of course, Bones... to give you a surprise, wasn't it, Spock?"

"Of course, Admiral," the Captain replied, and there was a touch of Vulcan smugness on his face.

* * * * * * * *

Meantime, the trainees, clustered around the port-holes of the Earth-bound shuttle, were giving a last, wistful look at the Enterprise, which was hovering like a captured bird in her mooring dock. Lost in thought and unusually silent, the youths were indulging in a bout of nostalgia.

The excitement over the Admiral's review and their round of farewells, even over the prospect of a month's holiday, seemed to be gone. In a rather subdued mood, they were pensively gazing at the silver-white ship where they had spent the three most momentous weeks of their lives, and which was fast receding behind the lacy structures of the Spacedock.

Then the shuttle banked sharply, heading for the Dock gates, they lost sight of the Enterprise and the spell was broken.

A collective pent-up breath escaped them, and cadet Kovack, probably expressing a common feeling, declared, "Well, that is that! Those three weeks of training over already... and we are going home! I don't know about you, but it seems that time has flown like a dream, and yet, so many things have happened... "

"Huh, huh, I know", agreed Joyce Garrick, absentmindedly fondling the silky fur of her cat. "Hard to believe, when you think about it. We certainly have had some hectic moments, but, on the whole, I've had a wonderful time! What about you, Alison?"

The Scots girl looked round with starry eyes and nodded. "This has been an unforgettable experience, and I don't speak of our kidnapping. Yes... and as soon as I have a chance, I'll apply for a post on the Enterprise."

Laughter and scoffing greeted her candid disclosure. "The Enterprise?... are you dreaming?... What do you expect?... and with Captain Spock, of course?"

"Naturally," she replied primly, "and why not?... I can but try."

"Well, if I had the choice," Ferrier said seriously, "I know I would too."

"You know what?" Kovack proposed enthusiastically, "we should all apply for the Enterprise. Who knows? Some of us might stand a chance? And three cheers for the Enterprise! Three cheers for Spock!"

* * * * * * * *

Late that night, three men were sitting by the fire-place of a comfortable apartment overlooking San Francisco, and indulging in the desultory, after-dinner conversation usual among long-standing friends.

Kirk and McCoy were warming their balloons of genuine Cognac brandy in the cup of their hands, while Spock was enjoying some vintage K'vass imported directly from Vulcan.

It had been a long day, from the dismissal and leave-taking of the crew to the debriefing at Headquarters where Spock had been submitted to a cross-examination re the Xantar hi-jacking case, which had left the four Security investigators thoroughly exhausted. Not to mention the unforeseen skirmish with some astute and enterprising press people who had had the cheek to track the trio down as far as Admiral Morrow's doorstep, where they had definitely been neutralized by an icy "No comment," from Admiral Kirk, a Vulcan Arctic stare from Captain Spock, and a particularly blistering but unprintable curse from Doctor McCoy.

Now, after a gourmet dinner provided by the best caterers in the town, they were relaxing in the peace and quiet of Kirk's quarters, and the Admiral was affectionately watching his two friends in the dancing light of the fire. Was it fatigue, or the mellowing effect of good food and excellent wine (on McCoy at least?) but, strangely enough, the two eternal opponents seemed to have given up their traditional bickering, and Kirk felt his curiosity aroused. He was well aware that the two men, although they would never admit it, had, over their long association, developed a certain fondness for each other, but this perfect harmony, this apparent understanding, were quite intriguing. Feeling that a discreet investigation was in order, the Admiral served another round of drinks, and sitting back in his chair, quietly asked,

"Now, you two... would you mind giving me your impression on that cruise? Off the record, you understand. I'll have your official version in your reports, of course, but I would like to know what you think about it... How was it, in general?"

"Satisfactory," was Spock's concise reply.

"What?" McCoy took fire at once. "Satisfactory, you say, Spock? Jim, this has been one of the most hair-raising trips I've ever had the misfortune to be assigned to. And he calls It satisfactory - by God!"

"You tell me, Bones," Kirk prompted, and settled down for a typical McCoyan recital which promised to be thrilling to judge by the wicked glee sparkling in the Doctor's eyes. A glance at Spock's long-suffering expression revealed the Vulcan's stoic resignation... for the time being at least. Kirk chuckled inwardly, this was more like it; some things never changed, thank God!

"Well, Jim," the Doctor began with gusto, "I was told that this training cruise would be nice and relaxing, remember? That's what you said when you twisted my arm into accepting. A relaxing trip, indeed! With a desperate, half-mad hijacker kidnapping the crew right and left... and our Vulcan, here, playing havoc with Starfleet equipment! You should have seen what he did with that shuttle... more fitting to a fun fair stuntman than a respectable starship commander. No wonder he came out of it falling to pieces which, of course, I had to patch up together."

The worried glance that Kirk directed at Spock was received with a forbearing rise of the Vulcan's eyebrows, so he turned his full attention back to McCoy who was going full tilt by then.

"... and hardly had we done with that problem than the wild beast started prowling the ship as if it belonged it."

"A wild beast?" cut in Kirk, sitting up with a startled look.

"Just a Terran cat, Jim," Spock put in in a quiet aside.

"Yeah. Just a cat!" mimicked McCoy, obviously enjoying himself hugely. "A cat which, for more than 24 hours, 'disrupted the smooth running of the ship', in your own words, Spock. However, to be frank, Jim, I must say that it turned out to be a delightful kitten which fast became the fun and joy of the crew, and the darling of the Captain, eh, Spock?" This provoked another soaring of long-suffering eyebrows,

"... and, all the time," McCoy went on, " we had that pointy eared hobgoblin in the command chair, for ever springing new stunts on the rest of us because... it's good for the trainees, you know, must be kept on their toes! Exhausting, Jim... it was utterly, devastatingly exhausting! And, to put the lid on it, we ran into a battle with some Orion pirates, after which we had to go and rescue that Romulan Valkyrie and her crew. If that is your idea of a milk run, Jim, it is not mine, for a less relaxing trip I have yet to see." Finally out of breath, the good Doctor sat back and took a gulp of cognac which he rolled around his mouth with obvious relish.

"Spock, what is all this?" demanded Jim Kirk, half in jest, half in earnest.

"It is all in my report, Admiral," replied the Vulcan who had perceptibly stiffened at the mention of the Romulans. "When you look into it, you will realise that McCoy's usual tendency for exaggeration has over-stepped the mark this time."

McCoy could not let this detraction go unchallenged. "Exaggeration? I like that!" he protested hotly. "Spock, you can't deny that, but for our providential arrival upon the scene, your Romulan Commander and her people might very likely be being put up for sale in an Orion slave market by now!

"Actually, Jim," he grinned, "it was rather fun, in a way. We turned up like the cavalry over the hill, just in the nick of time."

"I do not deny that our timely intervention indeed eased the Romulan ship's precarious situation, Doctor," Spock stated austerely, "but I fail to see what the cavalry, whichever it is, has to do with it."

"Oh, come on, Spock, you - "

"Bones, just a moment, please." Kirk held up a restraining hand. "There is a point which calls for an explanation. You mentioned 'the Romulan Commander and her people'. Do you mean a female Commander? The Commander of the cloaking device, by any chance?"

"Yes, Jim, that's just it. Talk about coincidence. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw our Romulan Commander on the viewscreen... or rather, his Romulan Commander," McCoy specified with a grin and a nod in Spock's direction.

An awkward pause followed as McCoy suddenly realised the faux-pas which, carried away by his tale, he had unwittingly committed. A glance at the carefully neutral expression of the Vulcan, who was silently staring down at his tightly clasped hands, confirmed his impression.

With an uneasy glance at Kirk who wondered at the sudden tension between the two men, McCoy hastened to add, "Well, you know, Jim, it's a long story, and I am sure that Spock can tell it much better than I, and at a more appropriate time. In any case, our encounter with that Romulan ship has been, to me at least, quite a revelation. I was surprised to find some decent people among them, like their ship's surgeon, for instance. A real nice fellow. Anyway, as they had had casualties, my sickbay was kept pretty busy for a couple of days, as you will find in my report, and I don't mind telling you that I was mighty relieved when they left and we went our way, without mishap to our crew. Well, there you are, Jim. So much for a restful cruise. No need to say that if I have been taken in this once, I won't be any more, thank you."

Kirk chuckled and set his empty glass down on the hearth tiles. "We'll see, Bones, we'll see. Now, Spock, this is not official yet, but what would you say to having an Admiral on board for your next training cruise?"

Spock gave a speculative look at his friend, whose hazel eyes sparkled with anticipation... and he understood at once.

"Depends on the Admiral, Jim," he replied with a cool indifference belied by his own twinkling eyes.

It took a little longer for McCoy to get the picture. "Oh? Oh, do you mean... you, Jim? You will come on the next trip? That's great! That will be like the old days."

"Not exactly, Bones. My position will be that of an observer, no more. Spock is the Captain of the Enterprise, don't forget." Kirk made his point with a meaningful glance.

"Sure, Jim. I am not likely to forget it - I have seen him at work. But with you on board, we'll have the impression that... "

"We, Doctor?" the Vulcan dryly cut in. "You surprise me. From what you said just now, I assumed that you did not wish to serve on the Enterprise any more, So how does this concern you?"

"Damn you, Spock! Try and keep me out of it," the Doctor blurted out, falling head-long into the trap. A dry chuckle from Jim and an ironic tilt of a Vulcan eyebrow met his cri du coeur.

"So... you won't be taken in any more, Bones?" Kirk sweetly asked.

McCoy contrived to look sheepish and defiant all at once. "Oh, Hell, you know I didn't mean it, Jim. Blame it on my hasty tongue. But, I admit that if you two are looking for a C.M.O., and don't mind having an old country Doctor aboard?" he said tentatively.

His two friends looked at each other. "Do you, Spock?"

"What about you, Admiral?"

"Well, I don't know... old country Doctors are sometimes worth having around, don't you agree?"

"Well, possibly. If we can put up with their short-tempered disposition and limited medical skills, I believe that... "

"Dammit!" McCoy flared up, "Are you two finished pulling my leg? Yes or no? Do you want me, or don't you?"

"Doctor," Spock replied with dignity, "I was about to say, when you interrupted me, that... old country Doctors are not only worth having around on a starship, they are indispensable."

"Good! Exactly my view, Mr Spock," Kirk said with a wink at McCoy. "They are indeed essential to the welfare of the crew, as this old country Doctor here has proved to be time and again."

Kirk had not missed the gaze exchanged by his two friends which confirmed his suspicion about the deep understanding they had somehow reached during that eventful training mission. He also knew that, sometime, he would be told about it... when they were ready.

"Bones," he formally resumed, "I take it that we can rely on your cooperation at Spock's next training session, six months from now. That is... if you have nothing better to do... like that research of yours, for instance."

"Even if I had, Jim, I would not miss that trip for anything, and my research is not that important, it can wait. Well, thank you both for taking me in with you. We'll show the Fleet what the old team is still capable of, won't we?"

"Sure, we will. I am looking forward to it," Kirk said, "and do you know, Spock, I have had a look at the roster, and I noticed that your protege... Saavik, isn't it?... is listed in the next batch. Did you know?"

"I did, Jim. However, much depends on the results of her command tests and her eventual promotion."

"I don't think you need to worry. From what I have heard, she is quite exceptional... She'll make it all right, Spock. And now, gentlemen, I propose a toast to our future voyage together on the Enterprise. Come on, Bones, hand over your glass."

"Okay, Jim, but that will be the last one... one for the road," McCoy said, struggling to his feet. "It's getting late, and it's been a long day, much too long for old country Doctors. What do we drink to?"

" raise my glass to the Enterprise, her peerless Captain and C.M.O., and her gallant crew, who have once again done remarkable service in extremely difficult situations," Kirk intoned solemnly.

"To Admiral James T. Kirk, our Commander and friend," Spock quietly replied, glass of K'vass in hand, dark eyes locked with Kirk's hazel ones.

They drank, then Kirk grinned at the Doctor. "And you, Bones, what is your toast?"

"You did not leave me much choice, did you?" McCoy complained. "Well, here goes. To us! To the famous and irreplaceable Enterprise regulars, to Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, Spock and yours truly... why not? and to you, Jim, the Enterprise's legendary Commander. Let them all live long and prosper! (with your leave, Spock!)"

As the three friends stood together on the hearth rug, and drank the toasts in companionable silence, they felt, somewhat confusedly, as they had in the past, how well their opposed personalities completed one another, as though they were meant to be friends, and to share the same destiny, in prosperity as in adversity. Yes, indeed, it was good to he together.



Copyright Nicole Comtet