with a little input by Sheila Clark
The sudden flood of harsh light struck painfully on eyes long accustomed only to darkness. The ominous grating as the cell door was opened brought the prisoner to his feet, his stubborn defiance still driving him to face his captors proudly - they would not find him crouching here in the dark like a beaten animal. He struggled to move forward, but could not restrain a low moan of agony as the crushed foot gave way beneath him. He was falling... falling... and braced himself to meet the impact of the stone floor.
Strong arms caught him, lowered him gently; the voice he had heard only in his dreams for so many weeks called his name with a soft, familiar urgency.
"Jim! How badly are you hurt?"
"Spock!" It was a sigh of acknowledgement, of recognition. He had known, through all those long hours of pain, that the Vulcan would come.
But he could not see - he must be certain... He raised a hand, touched soft, silken hair; his fingers lingered for a moment, then travelled down over an elegant, pointed ear, finally coming to rest on Spock's cheek.
"Don't try to talk, Jim. McCoy is coming."
"It doesn't matter."
It was always so, he thought wonderingly as a soft drowsiness that was not quite sleep crept over him. No matter how great the pain or fear that threatened him, he only had to feel Spock's touch and all was well. So different, so strange in many ways, yet all the security in the world lay in that one man...
As the strong fingers touched the vulnerable point between neck and shoulder the welcoming darkness took him, and Spock relaxed the mental block he had imposed on Kirk's pain.
Hurried footsteps echoed outside the door, and McCoy entered, to kneel at once by his patient. He worked quickly, gently, for several minutes, then raised his head to look at Spock.
Human eyes gazed deep into dark, alien eyes, each mirroring the shock and horror they felt, acknowledging their shared anguish at the sight of the crushed and bleeding body of their friend.
Time passed. There was darkness, pain. Out of the shadows came familiar voices, gentle, caring, hands, and he relaxed, surrendering himself to the devotion that surrounded him. Despite the pain, Kirk was content.
Then frighteningly, confusingly, everything changed. The loved voices faded and were gone, replaced by those of strangers. The hands that tended him now were efficient, but impersonal. He struggled frantically to pierce the darkness, to find something familiar to hold on to. His anguished appeals to Spock and McCoy remained unanswered. More voices, half recognised, from long ago, tried vainly to calm him. Loneliness and pain enveloped him, blotting out everything else... He was lost, alone, spinning helplessly in the blackness of utter desolation...
"Jim, wake up. You've been dreaming."
Kirk opened heavy eyes to gaze up at the woman who leant over him; her face was indistinct, hazy, and for a moment he wondered at the concern in her voice. Then memory, obedient as ever, returned fully, and he sighed with weary hopelessness.
He was no longer on the Enterprise. The injuries he had sustained in the Klingon prison had been so severe that he had been transferred to the Starfleet hospital on Earth, where he had lain for many months, scarcely alive, not knowing or caring where he was. As life slowly returned his anxious family had gathered around him, and when he had sufficiently improved he had been allowed to go to his aunt's home to convalesce, and to await the final verdict of the doctors. Yesterday, they had finally told him the truth.
His sight had been permanently impaired - it would improve with time, but his vision would always be restricted. He would walk again, but the spinal damage and the crushed foot would never heal completely. He was lucky, they told him; so many other Klingon prisoners had been left as shattered wrecks. He at least could lead an almost normal life. But... he would never command a Starship again.
A wave of desolation swept over him as he gazed into a future grown suddenly bleak and cold. What was there for him now? he wondered miserably. Starfleet was all he knew, all he cared about.
His family had spoken cheerfully of a new career, new interests, but he had turned his head aside without speaking, unable to conjure up an atom of enthusiasm for the suggestions they made.
Better by far if Spock had left him to die in that Klingon prison, he thought wretchedly. What good was he to anyone now? Some remote corner of his mind knew how infantile he was being, but he seemed incapable of pulling himself together. It was too sudden a transition from the active, interesting life he had been leading to that of a semi-invalid. He should make some effort, though, he thought dully; it was selfish to burden others with his misery. He looked up and forced a smile.
"Good morning. Yes, I was dreaming... It's all right now, though."
"That's better, Jim. It's a lovely morning. Nurse Barrett and I will help you out onto the terrace - the sun will do you good."
Kirk submitted without protest to their arrangements, though every movement seemed to jar his bruised spine. When he was alone again he lay back on his couch, trying vainly to look out over the garden that appeared to him only as a confusing blur of colour. It should have been pleasant lying there in the warm sunshine, but his loneliness threatened to overwhelm him again, destroying any pleasure he might have taken in his surroundings.
Strange... he was among people, his own family, who cared for him, who were concerned about his future... Yet he was conscious only of an almost unbearable homesickness for a fragile speck of metal that flew among the stars; of straining his dim sight for a pair of dark, alien eyes that saw deeper than Human eyes ever could; of listening with an almost painful intensity for a soft, sarcastic voice commenting on his self-pity with that unmistakable Georgia drawl.
Of course they would come! he told himself firmly. The Enterprise must take priority, but when time permitted they would come to him, healing his fear and loneliness with their deep though unspoken compassion. And he needed them now as never before, he thought with a shudder; the nights were... insupportable.
With an effort he forced himself to consider the future, wearily trying yet again to come to terms with himself. It was no use; the grey despair surrounded him again, and he felt the all-too-ready tears sting his eyes once more. Despising himself for his weakness, yet unable to control it, he buried his face in his hands, striving desperately not to break down completely.
They had been very good to him, this family he scarcely knew. They deserved a better return for all their care than this childish weeping for a broken toy. The toy was broken; he must learn to accept that, and somehow build his life anew. But... that toy was everything he had ever loved, ever wanted...
His brooding was interrupted by his aunt's soft voice. "Jim, are you awake? You have a visitor."
Kirk looked up, narrowing his eyes in a painful effort to focus on the indistinct figure crossing the terrace. The blue shirt, the erect carriage of the head, the aura of calm and serenity that seemed to flow out towards him; it could only be...
"Spock!" he exclaimed joyfully, holding out eager hands.
The welcome and relief in the hazel eyes struck the Vulcan with almost physical force. Spock could not bring himself to deny that unspoken appeal. He took the outstretched hands in his, and leaning closer so that Kirk could see him clearly, he smiled - that shy, delightful smile only Kirk had ever seen, and only on rare occasions.
"How are you, Jim?" On Spock's lips the banal question took on a new meaning, a new sincerity.
"Better - a little. My sight is improving, I think, but my back is still... very painful. Spock, you... you know, don't you?"
"Yes, Jim. I am... sorry."
"Spock, what do I do now? Where can I go?"
It was a cry of anguish, wrung from the depths of his despair. He knew, as he had always known, that if there was any answer, any hope, it would come from this man. Across the limitless void between the stars, across the almost impassable gulf between their two cultures, they had come together in friendship. Countless times they had risked life, career, honour for each other. Now Kirk waited, knowing that Spock would not fail him, would never fail him. There was an answer - there must be - and Spock would help him find it.
"Jim, I... " Spock hesitated, eyeing Kirk consideringly.
The loss of his command had come as a shock to the Captain, of course, and his injuries were still causing him pain, but the haunted eyes spoke eloquently of a still deeper trouble, something that the Human hesitated to reveal. Sitting down, Spock touched Kirk's arm lightly.
"There is more, is there not?" he asked quietly. "Will you not tell me?"
Kirk looked away in confusion. "Yes, but... it's so ridiculous, Spock, I feel ashamed."
"If it causes you distress, it cannot be ridiculous. Tell me."
Kirk glanced up; his eyes begged for understanding. "It's just... I'm afraid to sleep. I fear the darkness... being alone..."
"You fear the dark? I do not understand."
"That's... how they came to me... there in prison. I was kept - always - in the darkness. I never knew when they would come; they would reach for me from the shadows, and the pain would begin. I wake up sometimes... the nightmares are horrible... and I'm not sure where I am. I think that perhaps I'm... back there... and I lie waiting... waiting for it to start all over again. I know it's stupid and childish. I have tried... so hard... but I cannot master the fear. Asleep or awake, the night is a horror to me. Can you understand that, Spock?"
"Yes, Jim." The quiet voice was very gentle. "I know how much you have suffered. The doctors here mean well, but they do not know the Klingons as we do. They have healed your body, but the mental scars remain. Will you permit me to help you?"
Kirk lay back, closing his eyes as he felt the familiar touch on his face. The cool sanity of Spock's mind flowed into his, seeking out the tormenting memories and softening their impact. Spock would not erase them completely, knowing that Kirk must learn to accept what had happened to him, but the terror would not haunt him so relentlessly.
When the Vulcan withdrew at last, Kirk's eyes had lost some of their shadows. He smiled gratefully at his friend.
"Thank you, Spock. It's going to make quite a difference, losing that fear."
"I am pleased to have helped. Now, Jim, there are matters we must discuss. Have you given any thought to the future?"
"Not really," Kirk said shamefacedly. "I've tried to, but nothing seems to matter any more. I'm only trained for command - what else can I do?"
"I have considered that aspect carefully, and have discussed it with Sarek. He is deeply concerned for you. I hope you will forgive me for not obtaining your permission first, but the opportunity arose when we met unexpectedly, and there was no time to contact you."
"If course I don't mind. I'd trust you - and Sarek - with my life. What did your father say?"
"Obviously you need something which will make full use of your many talents. Sarek suggests - "
"Hi, Jimmy! We've come to cheer you up!"
Spock broke off abruptly as a cheerful voice called across the terrace, moving away to stand stiffly erect by Kirk's side. He would not permit his concern to show before strangers.
Understanding this, Kirk nevertheless knew a sense of disappointment. At this distance Spock was only an indistinct, hazy figure, and the comfort of his presence was somehow lessened.
Masking his feelings, Kirk turned to greet the intruders, his cousin Judith and some of her friends. He performed the necessary introductions, unable to repress a small inward smile at Spock's unbending formality. His tender compassion had vanished as though it had never been.
Spock lingered for the minimum period courtesy demanded, then stepped forward. "Captain, I will return to the ship now."
"Do you have to, Spock?" Kirk could not conceal the pain in his voice.
"I regret I must." The tall figure stooped lower, so that only Kirk could see his face; for an instant the dark eyes smiled, lightening his sombre expression. "With your permission, I will come again."
"Please, Spock," Kirk whispered.
The Vulcan straightened, his hand raised in salute. For the briefest instant his fingers touched Kirk's, transmitting his warmth and concern to his friend. Then he was gone.
Kirk watched until the tall figure passed from sight, then lay back on the cushions, allowing the voices of his visitors to wash over him, unheeding. They meant well, he supposed wearily. It was... kind... of Judith and her friends to sacrifice their time in an attempt to amuse him. It was scarcely their fault if he found himself unable to respond to the cheerful chatter. He suddenly became aware that Judith had asked a question, and started guiltily.
"I'm sorry - what did you say?"
"Karla was asking who was that gorgeous man?"
"You mean Commander Spock? He's my First Officer."
"Tell us about him. He's the most beautiful man I've seen in ages? What's he like?"
"He's a Vulcan, and... well, he's just... Spock," Kirk said lamely, aware of the utter impossibility of adequately describing his First Officer to these kindly, good-natured people. They could never begin to understand the complexities of that gentle and lonely man.
Judith laughed, and gradually the conversation turned to the general interests of the group. Thankfully Kirk allowed his attention to wander, knowing that no response would be expected of him. He was so tired. Because of the dreams his sleep last night had not refreshed him. His head was beginning to throb again, and sickening waves of pain seemed to shoot along his back.
Nurse Barrett, coming to check on him soon after, found him only half conscious, his lips white, perspiration streaking his face. With no-nonsense efficiency she dismissed the visitors. An injection brought swift relief, and the easing of his pain allowed him to fall at last into a deep, relaxing sleep. Spock's intervention had driven the nightmares away. Satisfied that he was comfortable again, the nurse shaded him from the direct rays of the sun, and left him to sleep.
Kirk slept on, the first real rest he had known since before his capture. The afternoon passed, and the sun was just beginning to set when he opened his eyes. It was still pleasantly warm, and he lay relaxed, enjoying the peace of the garden. He could have called out to Nurse Barrett, but was content to remain quietly here a little longer, thinking over his conversation of that morning.
He sighed happily. There was no longer any need to worry, there were no decisions to be made. Tomorrow, Spock would come again - he would know what to do. Kirk did not even feel curious as to what Spock's plan might be. It was so pleasant not to have to think any more. He felt as though a crushing burden had been lifted from his shoulders to be carried now in Spock's capable hands.
As he lay in the warm evening air, his thoughts drifting idly, he suddenly became aware of the sound of voices coming from the open window of the room behind him. It was Judith and her mother - they must have forgotten he was there. He should call out to them, he supposed vaguely, but he felt too lazy to make the effort. At first their voices flowed by unheeded, then he looked up sharply as he heard a familiar name. Judith was speaking.
"Did you see Commander Spock this morning? My friends are all crazy about him."
"Yes, I saw him; in fact, I spoke to him for a few moments as he was leaving. I must say, he seemed a very strange friend for Jim - he was so cold, so withdrawn. When I told him how worried we were about Jim's lack of interest in the future, he seemed totally unconcerned."
"Jim says he's a Vulcan," Judith offered. "I don't think they're supposed to show any feelings."
"Perhaps," her mother said doubtfully, then she continued, "but I think he might have shown a little more interest. Jim seemed so pleased to see him, too."
"Did he say anything else? The Commander, I mean."
"Well, there was one thing... I was telling him about the suggestions we'd made to Jim, and I said, 'It's hard for him, of course, to lose everything he's worked for. He seems so lonely now.' The Commander looked straight at me, but I had the strangest feeling that he didn't really see me. He said, 'You are mistaken, he is not alone. I intend to ensure that he is never alone again.' I felt almost... afraid... He spoke so seriously, like a man taking a vow. Then he left. I wonder if I did right to let him in? Nurse Barrett said Jim seemed quite upset after he'd gone."
"I don't think that had anything to do with it. Jim was probably tired of our chatter, and too polite to say so. Remember, he's still not fully recovered. As far as I'm concerned, the Commander can come as often as he likes. I hope he stays a bit longer next time, though."
"Judith, you're impossible!"
Their laughter faded; they must have left the room.
Kirk lay staring into the gathering twilight, his eyes wide with horrified understanding. Had it not been for those chance words he would not have realised until too late. He would have allowed Spock to...
Shame and guilt swept over him, and he buried his head in his hands. He had been blind indeed, thoughtless and selfish; wrapped up in himself, he had not really considered what Spock's intentions might be. His only concern had been for his own comfort, his own security, heedless of the means the Vulcan might employ to secure them. Now, as though a switch had been thrown in his mind, he saw the truth - Spock would not abandon him, and as he himself could never return to Starfleet, the Vulcan intended to sacrifice his own career for his sake.
How stupid he had been, not to have seen it before! Kirk groaned in humiliation, knowing that if it had not been for that chance discovery he would have accepted Spock's sacrifice without even questioning it. Those few words had brought home to him how utterly beneath contempt he was. At least it was not too late; he could act now to stop it, to prevent Spock from throwing his life away... Or could he?
For the first time he looked at himself honestly, acknowledging the weakness he had allowed to creep over his mind. He had grown to depend on Spock much more than he had realised. The instinct to continue doing so would be strong.
Then there was Spock himself. Kirk remembered how the Vulcan oath of loyalty had driven Spock to mutiny to give Captain Pike a worthwhile future. With deep humility Kirk acknowledged that
Spock's friendship for him went much deeper - how much more, then, would he be prepared to do? Once the Vulcan had made up his mind to a course of action, there was no dissuading him; it would be useless even to try. Kirk knew he was in no condition to seriously oppose his First Officer, and in addition he knew how strong the temptation would be to yield, to let Spock do as he wished. His own curious lack of resolve would defeat him. Spock would resign his commission, somehow arrange a new life for them both - as long as he lived that warm friendship would surround him.
He wanted - so much - to accept that comfort, to allow Spock to do as he intended, but forced himself to face the situation realistically. Spock's lifespan was much longer than his. Even if Kirk accepted his sacrifice, there would be many long empty years for the Vulcan after his death, without even the distraction of a career to fill them. Starfleet would lose one of its most valued officers, Spock would throw his life away - and would do so without one backward glance, without one moment of regret.
It must not be, yet Kirk could think of no way to prevent it, to overcome Spock's powerful will - and his own hunger for the comfort he wanted to desperately.
Wait - perhaps, after all, there was an answer. 'As long as he lived'. Yes, but if he did not live?
If he had died of his injuries, he knew with certainty that Spock would have mourned him, but he would have gone on with his life, unburdened by responsibility for his crippled friend. He would never complain, never regret his decision, but Kirk could not bear the thought that the time must come when he would only be a burden to the Vulcan.
The injuries had not killed him - but he could die now. Yes, that was it. That was the answer he had been seeking. Death would free him from pain, would free Spock, too, from having to sacrifice his life for a useless cripple.
Somewhere, deep-buried, shocked almost into non-existence by physical and mental suffering, the remnants of Kirk's integrity stirred, appalled by such a decision. He, Kirk, to give up, to submit tamely to death, to take by his own hand the life he had clung to so tenaciously? Never!
But the exhausted spirit was too weak, drugged into indifference. Surely, in mercy, he was entitled to some relief? It was not a decision he would have made had he been fully in control but, just then, to his drug-clouded mind it seemed the ideal, indeed the only solution - an end to the pain, the fear, the worry, for himself. And freedom for Spock.
It would have to be tonight, he thought suddenly. Tomorrow Spock would return, and if he experienced again that tender compassion he was afraid that his resolve would fail. There was also the danger that Spock would somehow sense his intention, and prevent it.
Kirk sat bolt upright, ignoring the pain that lanced along his spine, planning, considering carefully the best method. There were drugs in his room - an easy death - but Nurse Barrett held the key, and he could think of no way to persuade her to part with it. Once he returned to his room he would be helpless, for she would hear every move he made. Even if he thought of some other method, the nurse checked his condition frequently through the night, and he might be found too soon.
He looked around anxiously, hoping for inspiration, and the blurred outline of the garden provided his answer. At the end of the lawn was a small lake, not large in extent but very deep. It would... serve his purpose, if he could only reach it.
But would his half-healed foot bear his weight? There was only one way to find out. Kirk rose carefully, clutching at the railing for support. The pain was almost unbearable, but it would soon be over. Determinedly he inched his way to the top of the steps that led down to the lawn. Every movement sent waves of sickening pain flooding through him. At the top of the steps he paused for a moment, brushing sweat from his eyes, then began the laborious descent.
On the second step his foot twisted awkwardly, and he went crashing down the remainder of the flight, to lie stunned on the gravel path. When his head cleared a little he tried to stand, and found he could not. He had either broken or strained the injured foot again.
He must get out of sight - someone would come looking for him soon. He began to crawl towards the grass, his useless leg dragging behind him. Sharp gravel tore at his hands, until the grey stones were ominously stained where he passed.
After an eternity he felt the softness of the lawn beneath his hands, and paused for a moment in exhaustion, burying his sweating face in the blessed coolness. Then, raising his head, he peered into the distance, trying to remember the layout of the garden.
At the far end of the lawn was a clump of shrubbery before the ground sloped away to the edge of the lake. Once among the bushes he would be safe, he thought; he could not be seen from the terrace, and when he was found to be missing any search would start close to the house.
Kirk began to crawl again, moving faster over the smooth surface, but his pain increased, blotting out all thought except stubborn determination to reach his destination. How much further was it? The deepening twilight confused his blurred vision, and he was among the bushes before he realised.
Resting for a moment, he glanced back towards the house. His absence had been discovered; vague shapes moved across the terrace, anxious voices called his name. With a stab of regret he thought that perhaps he should have left a note explaining his intentions, but there had not been time, and the one person who mattered would understand his reasons.
Not far now... but he was weaker than he had thought. As he began to move again a sudden intense pain shot through him and he fainted, to lie still in the gathering dusk.
When his eyes opened again it was dark, but the moon had risen, shining across the water, marking out his path. The pain, still intense, seemed now to be no longer a part of him. He floated free, gazing down in pity at the man who crawled slowly, so very slowly, towards the silver path of moonlight.
The dark water was cool, inviting; in its mirrored surface the stars twinkled. Yes, that was where he belonged, among the stars... He was going home. It would be so very easy, like falling asleep. He need only travel a little further, then the dark water would carry him away, healing his pain forever... and Spock would be free.
Obsessed with that thought, and intent on his goal, he did not hear the footsteps that sped swiftly across the lawn. The water was already touching his fingers when strong hands caught at his shoulders. Kirk frowned in annoyance; someone was holding him back, cheating him of the peace he craved. He was being drawn away from the refuge he had struggled for, being forced back into an agonised body. Obviously, the man did not understand. Kirk wanted to explain, reasonably and rationally, that this was the best way, but his voice would not obey. As he returned to full awareness he listened with some surprise to the harsh sobbing breathing pain-wrung from his straining lungs.
Those hands, strong but gentle; that quiet voice calling his name, deepened to a tone familiar, but seldom heard.
"Spock," he sighed at last, in recognition.
"What do you think you are doing?" came the response in a voice sharpened by anxiety.
Kirk tried to explain, but the words that had seemed so simple, so right, would not come now. Spock had broken the tension of his will, and he could only weep helplessly, in utter confusion.
At once the strong arms held him, easing him into a more comfortable position. The warmth of Spock's mind touched his, holding a block against the agony that consumed him. He huddled closer, until the tearing, shuddering sobs faded into silence and he could think clearly again.
His suicidal mood had passed, Kirk found. In the first shock of drugged comprehension it had seemed the only solution, but now he saw that it was no solution at all. Too many people would be hurt if he threw his life away - this man most of all.
"It's all right, Spock," he said at last, his voice growing stronger as he continued. "I'm thinking straight again."
"But why, Jim?" Spock seemed completely at a loss. "You knew I would come back, that everything would be all right."
"That is why." In response to Spock's enquiring glance Kirk continued, "I finally came to my senses and realised what you were doing. You intend to resign your commission to stay with me."
"Of course." The simple conviction of the reply touched Kirk deeply.
"I can't let you do it, Spock. Your career is only beginning; you will reach the height of your abilities when I'm an old man. I couldn't bear to know you'd wasted so many years on me. Face it, Spock - you've always been a realist; I'm the dreamer. If you give up everything now, what will you have when I'm gone? I'm... useless now, to Starfleet. You have so much still to give. Don't waste the years - at least let me know I haven't ruined your life, too."
The dark, unfathomable eyes held his. "You call me a realist, but I too have... dreams. You have often spoken to me of what you call 'the loneliness of command'; I tell you now, Jim, you do not know what it is to be truly alone.
"All your life you have been deeply loved - your parents, your brother, the family who care for you now. Women, too, have loved you - need I remind you of them? You have always had a home, affection, a sense of belonging, as I have not. My mother cares for me, I know, but in deference to my father's wishes she has never been free to express that love. Sarek - I honour him, but... he has never been a father as you have experienced the relationship. There is much that he values in me, but also much that he merely... tolerates. He has never fully accepted me as I am. All my life I have had to fight to reconcile my Human and my Vulcan blood, and for many years I failed, until I accepted that I would never find a home on Vulcan, and joined Starfleet. So at last I came to the Enterprise."
"And Captain Pike."
"Captain Pike. You have often wondered, I know, why I acted as I did in taking him to Talos IV."
"I assumed... because he was... a friend."
"He... was not. He was a skilled, efficient commander, whom I could respect and obey. But to him I was only the Science Officer, reliable, trustworthy... Vulcan... with no need of friendship or understanding."
"Yet you risked much for him."
"The oath of loyalty still held me. It was one last service I could do him, but once I had taken him to the Talosians my duty was done. "
"Then it is not... duty... that moves you now?"
For a moment the dark eyes held pain. "Did you really think that it was? No, Jim. In you I found the first friend I had ever known. You even had to teach me what friendship was. You looked at me and somehow saw beneath the mask I wore so carefully, saw and understood my loneliness and longing. No-one had ever done that before. Because of you I learned at last to accept my Human heritage, and to rejoice in it, since it enabled me to accept the friendship you offered. You gave me back half my life... and you talk of sacrifice! Between us such a word can have no meaning."
The alien eyes were suddenly all too Human, filled with a sorrow and an apprehension that tore at Kirk's heart. "Without you, what will I become? I am afraid, Jim. I do not want to return to what I was when you found me, a cold, unresponsive machine untouched by feeling. The emotions you taught me to accept have become... very precious. I would not lose them. You talk of long, empty years with nothing to work for. Do not make them even emptier by stifling my heart; it is Human, as yours is. Once, you had the wisdom to look beyond my face and see me as I am; do so again, and understand the isolation to which you would condemn me."
Kirk gazed searchingly into the pleading eyes, reading there the haunting fear Spock's words had so vividly evoked. Even in the meld the Vulcan had never revealed so much of himself before. He had greatly misunderstood Spock. The Vulcan proposed, not a sacrifice, but a mutual interdependence. If he must rely on Spock in his physical weakness Spock, in turn, desperately needed the emotional reassurance Kirk could offer - and he would accept it from no other.
Kirk bowed his head in defeat, a defeat that was in a strange but very real sense a victory, for both had lost and won something here. Now that Spock had openly admitted to pride in his emotions that Vulcan shell would never enclose him so rigidly again. Kirk's acceptance of his physical limitations had enabled him to reject false pride and continue with the companionship he so badly wanted, and both needed.
When he raised his head at last Spock, sensing his mood, was smiling, a shy, hesitant smile that lit his whole face; and Kirk knew, with a delighted lift of the heart, that he would see that expression much more frequently in future.
Yet one thing remained. He had tried twice now to run away from the reality he hated; first to the comfort of total dependence on Spock, then to the deceptive peace of death. Now he knew, as his customary clear-mindedness returned, that he had come to the end of his running. He must learn to accept, without bitterness, his physical limitations before he could offer Spock the companionship the Vulcan had a right to expect. But... could he make Spock understand? Those dark eyes were surveying him questioningly, troubled.
"Don't worry, Spock," he said softly, concerned that the Vulcan might misunderstand the cause of his hesitation. "There's just one thing I have to straighten out."
"Is it our future career that concerns you? Sarek's plan is..."
"No, don't tell me - not yet. I've got to think this through first." Kirk reached out, gripping the Vulcan's thin shoulders, willing him to understand. "Spock... what happened... It almost broke me. Now I've got to fit the pieces together again - and I must do it on my own. When you told me that you had arranged everything, I was content to let you do so. What I didn't understand, until now, was that I was relying on your strength, not my own. You took away my fear; you even took my pain, as you're taking it now, and I allowed myself to depend on you totally. I was wrong. No friend, however close," his fingers tightened, emphasising the words, "can live for another. I must carry my own burdens, or I will no longer deserve your friendship. Our mind links have comforted me so often... but this time I allowed it to become a crutch. What I can't bear is the thought that if I continue so, one day you'll grow to despise me. No," as the Vulcan made an involuntary movement of protest, "you know I speak the truth. Your friendship is too precious for me to permit you to waste it on one who is... unworthy."
"Then what, do you propose?"
"Return to the Enterprise. In - what? - eight months - your tour of duty will be over. Come for me then. I'll use the time of waiting to find myself again, to recover my self-confidence. I'm useless to myself and to you like this - I need time to adjust."
Spock held his eyes gravely for a moment, then nodded in assent. "You are right, I see that now. Very well, Jim, I will do as you ask; but when I return you will be here - promise me."
"I promise." Kirk smiled and relaxed his grip on Spock's shoulders, content now to surrender to the drowsiness that crept over him. Half asleep, he felt himself being lifted into Spock's arms. As the Vulcan began to carry him back to the house he roused himself for one final question.
"You won't change your mind? You will come?"
"I will come. "
Content, Kirk relaxed again. He could depend on that promise - Spock had never lied to him. And after all, he thought sleepily, eight months will soon pass.
The departure lounge was crowded, and many curious glances were cast at the young man who paced with restless urgency in front of the doors. His simple, expensive clothes and the concealing dark glasses would have marked him as one of the wealthy tourists bound for Vulcan on the first stage of a galactic tour, but his tense concentration and the impatience in his limping stride indicated a more meaningful purpose.
The flight was called at last, and he ceased his pacing. As the room emptied he stood unaware of the bodies brushing past him, staring at the closed doors with a hungry intensity that could be read in every line of his body.
A deferential steward urged him to follow the departing passengers, and he started suddenly.
"I think... I will not be travelling after all," he said; his voice was slightly husky. "My... my companion seems to have been... delayed."
The steward shrugged; it was no concern of his. Moments later Kirk was alone. There was a chair in the corner and he sank into it gratefully, shielding his face with his hands. Spock had not come. The one impossible thing had happened after all.
Unbidden, his mind ranged back over the struggles of the last few months - months of pain, anguish and loneliness, during which he had learned to compel his injured body to obey his stubborn will.
Pain had been the easiest enemy to conquer; it was so much a part of him now that he was scarcely aware of it, and its intensity was lessening day by day. His memories had lost their bitter, wounding sharpness, and he had come to accept his limitations, even the loss of his beloved Enterprise. The nightmares no longer troubled him, and he had lost all fear of the darkness since that meld with Spock.
No, loneliness had been the worst of all, the aching longing for Spock and McCoy, the dark hours when it seemed that he had been forgotten after all, that no-one really cared. But, recognising these fantasies for what they were, the depression of a troubled mind, he learned to overcome them, trusting in the Vulcan's promise to come for him.
When he had grown stronger there had been the unexpected visit from Sarek, whose compassionate understanding, so like his son's, had eased the long waiting. Recognising Kirk's hunger for news, Sarek had spoken of Spock, and had outlined the plans that had been made for his new career.
For some time past breaches of security on certain Federation planets had been increasing, both in frequency and in gravity. It seemed certain that the Romulans were engaged in setting up an Intelligence network to infiltrate the Federation, perhaps even Starfleet itself. As a counter measure, undercover agents had been planted in vulnerable organisations, with orders to watch for any sign of the Romulans' presence. These agents were forbidden to break cover for any reason. Their reports were to be given to their controllers who, hiding behind well-established identities, would correlate their information and decide upon necessary action.
It was Sarek's suggestion that Kirk and Spock, working as a team, should supervise operations on the wealthy planets that were included in the tourist circuit. Their cover as former Starfleet officers enjoying a well-earned retirement would, it was hoped, be made even more plausible by Kirk's obvious disabilities which, although they rendered him unfit for Starship duty, did not in any way interfere with his mental faculties.
Kirk had been stimulated and excited. He had feared that Sarek, prompted by Spock, might invent some safe, useless desk job for him, but this proposal offered excitement and challenge, a worthwhile task that still held a spice of danger. He had accepted eagerly, and anticipation had increased his motives to get well. Then at last the long-awaited message had come, asking him to be at the spaceport, where Spock would meet him. From there they would proceed to Vulcan, where they would undergo training before they assumed their new duties. Sarek had explained that the first year would be spent mainly in establishing their credentials, laying the groundwork which would enable them to pass in their cover identities. Kirk had taken leave of his family, and had set out eagerly to join his friend.
But this had been the only ship bound for Vulcan that day, and Spock had not come. For a moment all his old despair threatened to overwhelm him as he saw his plans crumble; then he took himself savagely to task. Was he still so dependent on Spock that this disappointment could crush him? There would be, of course, some reasonable explanation - the Vulcan must have been delayed. There would be a message soon, he was sure. Leaning back in the chair he closed his eyes and waited, confident that he had not been forgotten. Only... he had so longed for this day.
A hand fell on his shoulder, and he reached up to cover the familiar fingers with his own.
"Spock," he murmured contentedly, before he opened his eyes to meet the anxious gaze that surveyed him contentedly.
"Did my late arrival worry you, Jim?" the Vulcan asked.
"No, it was just... I was sure this was the day, and when the Vulcan liner left, and you weren't here... But I knew you'd come."
"I thought you would prefer private transport. Sarek arranged it, but there was a slight delay."
Kirk grinned. "Well, you're here now, that's all that matters. Come on, tell me - how are you? How's the Enterprise? And McCoy...?"
As they walked towards the landing pads, Spock tried to answer Kirk's flood of questions. There was so much to ask, so much to tell, that the Vulcan, had he considered the matter, would have accused himself of chattering.
Kirk's flow of questions and comments ran on without pause as they boarded the fast spacecraft Sarek had arranged for them.
"What do we do first, Spock?"
"You're going to Vulcan for training, and to let me see what sort of job those doctors have done in patching you up," growled a familiar voice from behind him as he passed through the door.
"Bones!" Kirk whirled, happiness flaring in his eyes. "What are you doing here? I didn't expect..." Joy rendered him speechless. He grabbed the surgeon by the shoulders and hugged him ecstatically.
"And where else would I be?" McCoy demanded, returning the hug. "If you think I'm going to let you two racket around the galaxy on your own, getting into god knows what sort of trouble, you can think again. I'm going along to keep an eye on you -- and to pick up the pieces as usual." He grinned and continued, "And anyway, the first year, while you're establishing your cover, will make a nice relaxing change for an overworked doctor. I'm getting too old for racing around in Starships - and it'll be a pleasant change to arrive on a planet in a decent, civilised fashion, instead of by that damned transporter."
"Oh Bones, don't ever change!" Kirk laughed to hide the threatening tears. "To have you with me again... it's more than I ever hoped."
"If you will take your seats, gentlemen," Spock interrupted from the pilot's chair, "I can prepare for take-off. We appear to be holding up traffic."
With a grin of pure delight Kirk slid into the chair beside Spock. He could feel McCoy's presence behind him, and relaxed, secure in the friendship of these two extraordinary men.
"So you haven't told him, Spock."
It was late evening on the day of their arrival at Spock's home on Vulcan. Kirk had retired early, exhausted from the journey and the emotional stress of the reunion with his friends. McCoy had settled him for the night, and for once he had submitted without protest, only too happy that it was, once more, Bones' gentle hands that tended him. Apart from the tiredness there had been no ill effects from the journey, and he had quickly fallen asleep.
McCoy, going in search of Spock, had found him on the high terrace that looked out over the silent desert. He was leaning on the railing, deep in thought. At the doctor's words he looked up, the dark eyes for once open and unshielded, for now he could hide nothing from the doctor. Everything depended on perfect understanding between them.
"No, McCoy, I have not; nor will I." He paused for a moment, then went on, "How can I tell him? How do I go to him and say, 'Jim, we've all been lying to you - there is no future for you.'?"
McCoy opened his mouth to argue, but a savage gesture from Spock silenced him.
"Stripped of the gentle words you would use, that is the essence, is it not?" the Vulcan demanded harshly. "You know the truth even better than I. The pressure on the brain that damaged his sight is already returning. It cannot be relieved again, and it will kill him. If he lives as a complete invalid, avoiding all stress and exertion, he will have five, perhaps six years. If he attempts to live a normal life there will be no obvious symptoms, but he will be dead within a year. Is that what you want me to tell him, McCoy? To ask him to choose?"
"He has the right to know," the doctor answered softly.
"Right? The right to make yet another decision, to tear himself apart again, wondering? I would spare him that, McCoy. You did not see him eight months ago... You must know that I would give anything to save him, to keep him alive; but can you really see Jim consenting to live as a helpless invalid? We both know which he would choose - and we would have to watch him counting the days. Help me; he will be happy, useful, until the end - and that end will come swiftly. I will tell him only when I must, and I... I am prepared to accept it if he blames me then for not telling him. But I will not allow you, or anyone else, to put him through another year of apprehension."
"And they say that Vulcans don't understand mercy," McCoy murmured quietly. "You'd do that - you'd take that burden on yourself, living with the knowledge that Jim is dying? Can you do it? It's going to hurt you - badly."
"I can do anything that is necessary to spare Jim pain," the Vulcan answered softly.
"I believe you. But Spock - I can't. I want to be with you, to help if I can, but I don't have your control. I'd give myself away."
Spock turned away, looking out once more over the vast, empty desert. When he spoke again his voice was remote, but held an undertone of compassion. "I know, and I have considered. With your permission I will place a memory block on your knowledge of Jim's condition. You will believe, as he does, that he is well. When the time comes I will remove the block and you will remember in full."
"I'd be grateful - but it will leave you so alone."
"That is of no consequence. I was alone before Jim came to the Enterprise." Spock paused for a moment, then added very quietly, "I will be even more so when he is gone."
McCoy reached out, took the Vulcan's shoulders, and turned him around. The velvet-dark eyes met his, and the doctor knew a sudden terrible wave of grief and pity. How often had he teased Spock about his emotional control, urging him to let his feelings show! They were showing now, with full and complete honesty for the first time, and those tragic eyes chilled McCoy's heart. Impulsively he pulled the other man closer and hugged him fiercely for a moment, trying to express his compassion and regret.
"God help you, Spock," he murmured, his voice rough with unshed tears. "Come on, impose that block, and let me go before we both make complete fools of ourselves."
He met the Vulcan's eyes calmly as the long fingers reached for his face, knowing that when the block was lifted and he remembered this night he would wonder at the selflessness of this man, who was prepared to shoulder alone an almost intolerable burden in order to spare his friends the pain of knowledge.
It mattered little, he thought, whether Spock was right or wrong. Jim did have the right to know the truth, but as a doctor McCoy had seen only too often how the difficulty of such a choice could strain already tortured nerves. In mercy and compassion Spock had chosen for him. McCoy could not find it in his heart to blame the Vulcan for that. He was giving Jim the last precious gift that lay in his power, a final year of busy, useful life untroubled by any doubt or fear.
As the dark curtain of forgetfulness fell softly over his mind McCoy's last thought was a fierce determination that when the time for remembering came, the Vulcan would not be alone.
Then the memory block slid firmly into place, and Leonard McCoy, late of the USS Enterprise, stood looking out over the night-shadowed desert, talking with animation of Jim's recovery and their plans for the future.
At last he turned to Spock. "Think I'll turn in now, Spock - it's been a long day. Great to have Jim back, isn't it?"
"It is... most satisfactory. Good night, Doctor."
"'Night, Spock. Sleep well."
As the silence and solitude closed around him Spock allowed himself the luxury of a moment's relaxation of his rigid control. With a sigh he lowered his head to rest on his folded arms, staring unseeingly across the starlit dunes. He knew only too well what the next year would cost him in anguish and bitter, hidden sorrow. The thread of hope he had been given was very slender. Research was being conducted continuously, but the probability that the doctors would learn enough to save Jim's life in the short time he had left was very remote; he dared not allow himself to hope.
He also realised that this moment of total isolation would only be the first of many. Protected by the memory block, McCoy's bubbling enthusiasm would lead him to make many plans for the future, plans that only the Vulcan knew would never be fulfilled. Yet balancing the pain, and almost compensating for it, was the quiet certainty that for whatever time was left to him his Human friend's days would be serene, untouched by foreboding. Spock straightened then, accepting the burden as the last gift he could give.
Several floors above, in his room in the guest quarters, Jim Kirk stirred in his sleep and woke. He lay quietly for several minutes, then rose and padded across to the window where he sat gazing out into the night.
The brilliant stars of Vulcan shone overhead, fascinating him as they had always done, and he studied their blazing glory for some time. At last a movement in the darkness below caught his eye, and he leaned out for a better look. He chuckled softly as instinct, more certain than sight, identified the figure.
Spock, stargazing? Even as he opened his mouth to call out the tall figure straightened decisively and left the terrace. Kirk sighed with disappointment - he would have enjoyed a quiet conversation with Spock. He smiled tenderly as he thought of the Vulcan. There was so much he still wanted to say, but McCoy's presence, welcome though it was, had made him careful of Spock's privacy.
Still, it didn't matter. Spock's eyes had looked into his, and there was no need for words between them. And, thought Kirk as he stretched, yawned sleepily, and headed back to bed, there's always tomorrow.
They spent nearly a month on Vulcan. After the first few days, which the Humans spent in becoming acclimatised, and Spock in readapting to the thinner atmosphere and heavier gravity, they began to prepare for the espionage missions which only Sarek and Spock knew would never be fully implemented. The training had to be thorough. It was necessary to maintain the facade for Kick's benefit, lest he suspect that they were deceiving him. But it would not be wasted. Spock knew that he could not bear to return to the Enterprise - or even to Starfleet - without Kirk; and McCoy, before Spock had imposed the memory block, still knowing what was involved, had chosen to continue the mission with him after Kirk's death.
The only thing in which Sarek had been less than honest was in the length of the training. For men with Starfleet experience six months was usually considered necessary, but they did not want to strain Kirk's precarious health by putting him through the usual rigorous course. Sarek had had the difficult task of compiling a training programme which was arduous enough to be convincing, yet which Kirk could endure without overtaxing himself. The Human suspected nothing; he would believe, right up until the end, that his training was to be used... and that was all that mattered.
Even Amanda had not been told the truth. They could not take the risk that her affection for Kirk might lead her to betray her knowledge. She also was allowed to believe that Kirk would have a full and useful life - slightly handicapped by his lameness and imperfect sight, to be sure, but living a normal Human lifespan. The training was interesting; it covered a wide range of subjects - a surprisingly wide range of subjects. Spock already had a reasonable knowledge of some of what was covered, but their course dealt with these in much greater detail.
They had to learn codes - ingenious codes. They had to learn how to write seemingly-innocent letters without referring to any code master, and to decode them as readily. They had to learn to converse in code, carrying on an apparently casual conversation that, in fact, had an underlying meaning. For practice they spoke to each other in code at all times, and it soon became second nature to them.
Kirk and Spock already had a considerable knowledge of computers. The Human was familiar with programming in some detail, while the Vulcan was, of course, an expert. However, McCoy knew extremely little. His friends helped him to understand the basic lessons that gave him a great deal of trouble. After all, he was not machine-minded, as he loudly proclaimed, but it was necessary that he learn. They never knew when the ability to alter a computer's programming without detection might help them, and each had to be self-sufficient in that field. At last their patience and Spock's unexpected ability to explain things simply won through, and he attained the minimum standard required.
In addition, all three of them had to become acquainted with handling communications systems. It might be necessary to tap into restricted communications lines, and they had to be sure that they could safeguard their own.
McCoy got an opportunity to demonstrate his acquired skills when they were detailed to study psychology, to enable them to judge the truthfulness and reliability of their contacts. They had to be aware of the subtle signs that bespoke nervousness, watchfulness, or suspicion. McCoy was an expert in this field; Kirk, as an ex-Captain, had a fair rule-of-thumb knowledge of the subject; but Spock was almost completely ignorant. McCoy expanded the lectures they were given, spending many hours with Spock, until he was sure that the Vulcan was confident with the subject. He found that the close contact, when all pretense and sniping were set aside, deepened his understanding and appreciation of the man he had always secretly considered a friend.
Fortunately they did not need to undergo the rigorous physical training usually given to field agents. Their work would be under cover, and their previous Starfleet training should enable them to deal with most eventualities. For that, Spock was grateful; he knew Kirk could not have survived the normal intense training.
The month passed all too quickly. So much had to be crammed into the time that only Vulcan expertise with sleep-learning methods enabled them to cover the course fully. Then, sooner than any of them had anticipated, it was time to begin. Bidding farewell to Sarek and Amanda they took passage to the pleasure resort planet of Marnon to begin establishing their cover identities.
Marnon was an ideal centre for their operations. It was the hub of the tourist circuit, and as such catered to the varied tastes of its visitors with uninhibited enthusiasm. Eccentric behaviour was the norm there, rather than the exception. All three men had spent shore leaves there in the past, and knew their way round the planet's amenities already.
Kirk was too well known to attempt to conceal his former status in Starfleet. Instead they disarmed suspicion by laying stress on it, his injuries serving to explain his early retirement. He was, he announced to anyone who expressed an interest, taking a long holiday with his friends before looking around for some future occupation. It was a plausible story, and McCoy's age and Spock's half-Human background made their roles equally believable. Within a very short time all three were welcome members of Marnon society.
Money was no object, so they established their base in the penthouse suite of the planet's most exclusive hotel. The proprietors of that establishment would have been astonished, however, had they been privileged to see the security devices that were installed by their guests. As Kirk remarked with satisfaction when the job was completed, not even an insect could enter the rooms without the fact being recorded.
At last, with a secure base from which to operate, and with their cover identities firmly established, they were ready to begin their assigned task, the gathering and collation of reports from Starfleet's agents in the field.
The identities of some of those agents came as a surprise, for the only thing they had in common were their differences. The wife of the Tellarite ambassador; a barman in their hotel; the leading dancer in a galactically-famed troupe; a prostitute who accosted Kirk one night as he returned to the hotel; all these and more contacted one of the three, identified themselves, and passed on the information they had gained. From each came only a fragment of news, but as time passed it became clear that they were building up a complete dossier on Romulan activity.
As the picture slowly became clearer, counter measures were taken. A problem would be identified, findings discussed, and orders given, travelling down the chain of command until...
A businessman arriving from Earth had his pocket picked before he even left the spaceport; an indignant tourist was found to be carrying prohibited drugs; a drunken brawl in a disreputable nightclub ended with an Andorian pilot stabbed by a quarrelsome pimp; a small business in a respectable quarter quietly changed hands. So tight was their security, so complete their cover, that none of these seemingly random incidents were ever connected to the three men who relaxed so comfortably in the penthouse suite of the Jupiter Palace.
Although he knew how much was at stake, how much depended on the success of their operation, Kirk found himself enjoying the side benefits of their masquerade, the opportunity to indulge himself as he had seldom had the chance to do before. Perhaps there was an element of compulsion in that enjoyment, a stubborn determination not to hanker after the life that had gone; but if so he successfully concealed it from all but one pair of very bright, dark eyes, and concentrated on mastering this new challenge.
McCoy, for his part, was quietly content. Protected by the memory block, he only knew that his two closest friends were safe under his eye for once, removed from the direct line of danger. He could safely relax and enjoy their company without the constant threat that some new peril would reach out to snatch one - or both - away. He was a valuable member of the team. His thorough, painstaking mind, trained to diagnosis, had made him ideally suited to the task of sifting through the reports that reached them, seizing on the central fact that allowed the entire picture to fall into place. But he did not feel personally concerned with the results they obtained. Where Kirk and Spock led, he would follow - he had admitted that long ago - and Starship duty or intelligence work made little difference to him as long as they were together.
And Spock. No-one knew, then or ever, just what those long months cost the Vulcan. His duty was not neglected - it never would be - but he also had the terrible burden of isolation, of waiting, watching, for the first signs of Kirk's failing health.
He understood how hard it was for Kirk to let go, to accept this new life he had not asked for, and watched with admiration the Human's resolute, uncomplaining adjustment. Unexpectedly, he encouraged Kirk's involvement in the social side of their duties.
He knew that the Human would not allow himself to be distracted, but it would be a diversion for him. Kirk's extrovert nature charmed even the most suspicious, and he formed many useful contacts. If he occasionally strayed from the strict path of virtue in following some charming informer... well, it was poor compensation for the pain he still suffered.
There was only so much McCoy could do to help, and Kirk was unwilling to distress him by making a fuss. When pain and weariness threatened to overwhelm him, there was one unfailing refuge he could turn to.
McCoy never guessed how often, when they returned from an evening of mingled business and pleasure, Kirk would bid him a cheerful 'Good night', and retire to his room, only to emerge shortly afterwards, white with pain, to tap lightly on Spock's door. The Vulcan would admit him, knowing why he had come. The two would sit quietly talking together, while Kirk felt the tension and depression gradually drain out of him. Then, without help being asked for or offered in words, the gentle hands would reach for his face and he would drift into a refreshing, dreamless sleep.
Those hours of companionship were bitterly sweet for Spock, for he was aware of how swiftly they would end. He was certain that he had done the right thing in sparing Kirk so many months of apprehension, but he was afraid that when the Human learned the truth he might resent the usurpation of his right to make his own decisions. He knew Kirk's stubbornness so well by now. So, aware that each night might be his last opportunity to enjoy his friend's companionship with no resentment between them, he indulged his own hidden longing to express his emotions, and comforted the Human with a tenderness Kirk had long suspected, but only now experienced in full.
As time passed this new form of counter espionage proved to be spectacularly successful, and Starfleet sanctioned the expansion of the network, creating new teams. Without false modesty Kirk knew how much he had contributed to that success, and the last lingering fears that this job might have been created for him out of pity vanished forever. As his confidence returned he took the lead as before, directing the network with all his old authority, and Spock gratefully resumed the position he had always preferred - at Kirk's shoulder, supportive but unobtrusive.
Two years had now passed since Kirk's discharge from hospital, and for Spock the tension had become almost unbearable. The Human's tenacity, his love of life, had enabled him to survive longer than anyone had dared to predict, but there could be little time left to him now. Each morning Spock found himself studying the Human closely, watching with sick apprehension for the shadows that would tell him that Kirk's last agony was beginning. But each morning saw Kirk's eyes still clear, unclouded, laughing. Unwilling to lose one precious moment of the time that was left, Spock seldom left Kirk's side now; and unconsciously the Human grew so accustomed to his presence that it startled him whenever he turned around and found Spock missing.
So the Vulcan was in despair when an emergency arose which demanded that one of the team visit Andor. One of their agents had been on the verge of a vital discovery, but her report was long overdue. Her position was so delicate that she could not break cover by leaving, so it was necessary for one of the coordinators to contact her in person to receive her report.
Spock could not go himself because he was involved in vital discussions with a distinguished Vulcan scientist. When Kirk offered to go, Spock could think of no logical reason to veto the suggestion. He did, however, persuade McCoy to accompany him, so that should anything happen, at least Kirk would not be alone.
Their parting at Marnon's spaceport gave the impression of two friends leaving on a brief pleasure trip, but Spock's heart was heavy as he watched the liner depart. Some deep vein of superstition he had never been able to eradicate completely filled him with a gloomy presentiment that this separation, at such a time, was an ill-omen. He wondered... would he ever see Kirk again?
It had been an interesting trip, and the two Humans had enjoyed it. Although its prime purpose had been the collecting of information it had proved to be a purely routine exercise, occasioned only by the failure of their agent's transmitting equipment. In fact, the journey had been in the nature of a holiday. Their fellow passengers on the small liner were friendly, and the crew somewhat in awe of an ex-Starfleet Captain. Kirk had contrived to spend a fair amount of time on the bridge; there had been only one thing lacking to make the trip completely enjoyable.
But now they were only a few days travel from home, and Kirk found himself thinking more and more frequently of the coming reunion with Spock. Much as he liked Bones and enjoyed his friendship, Spock was... something special; undemanding, peaceful company. No matter how tense Kirk was, he could always relax with Spock. Even the constant niggling, tiring pain in his weak foot and ankle seemed to ease when he was with the Vulcan. How much of that was due to Spock's telepathic ability, Kirk had never been sure. The touch of Spock's mind was as familiar to him now as the touch of his hand, and he knew that the Vulcan frequently reached out to him with his mind, helping and supporting him.
Now, as they sat over a leisurely meal, McCoy watched his erstwhile Captain contentedly. Jim's condition had improved dramatically during the past two years, he thought, since he had learned that he could lead a useful, reasonably active life. It was a pity that nothing more could be done about his ankle, but the hospital's report had been clear enough on that point. The doctors had done everything possible. It didn't prevent him from getting about perfectly well, although McCoy was sure it pained him more than he revealed. His sight, too, had improved tremendously. The damage to the optic nerve would never wholly mend, of course, but Jim's sight was easily equal to that of most Humans now, and certainly good enough to pass Starfleet's vision requirements.
McCoy smiled to himself as he recognised Kirk's controlled restlessness, understanding its cause. He had long overcome the slight jealousy with which he had once regarded Kirk's affection for Spock, realising that the rapport between the two men was something unique. He had not lost anything because of it. Indeed, he had gained, for without Kirk as a catalyst he would never have thought to consider Spock as a friend. Kirk had acted as that catalyst because he had wanted his two closest friends to be friends also. The years had shown that their loyalty to him was unquestionable, equalled only by their loyalty to each other.
Their mood was shattered by the sudden unmistakable sound of the alarm, followed by the Captain's voice.
"Emergency! Make your way to your lifeboat station immediately. This is a precaution only. Make your way to your lifeboat station immediately."
Kirk was on his feet already. "I wonder if we can help," he said.
McCoy shook his head. "If so, they'll send for us. The most useful thing we can do is get to our lifeboat. That way they'll know where to look."
They made their way swiftly to their appointed station, and got into the small craft. A third man was already there, Zinkin, one of the junior officers.
"What's happened?" Kirk asked tensely. Now, more than at any other time, he felt the uselessness of his position. He secured the door as he spoke.
"Meteor strike in the engine room," Zinkin replied. Orders were not to let any of the passengers know what had happened, to plead ignorance, but he knew that these retired Starfleet officers would not panic. "The engineers are trying to seal the leak. It should be all right."
"How could a meteor get through the shields?" McCoy asked blankly as they sat.
Zinkin shrugged. "I don't know, sir. All I know is, it happened."
"It must have been a pretty big one," Kirk mused. "Probably bigger than the screens were set to deflect. You don't often get one that size on established routes."
Any reply Zinkin might have made was lost as the liner exploded. The lifeboat was sent flying, tumbling over and over as it went. Only the statutory seat belts saved the three men from being thrown about violently.
After a minute the tiny craft steadied. "Have we a viewscreen?" Kirk asked.
"Yes, sir." Zinkin flicked it on.
There was nothing to see, save a slowly dimming patch of luminosity that they knew had to be the remains of the liner. Without a source of light to reflect off them, there was no trace of the other lifeboats. There was no way of knowing, by sight, if any of the others had been thrown clear as they had.
"Communications?" Kirk asked.
Zinkin shook his head. "Only a distress signal," he said. "We can send an automatic distress call, but we can't receive anything."
"Brilliant!" McCoy muttered.
Zinkin grinned wryly. "Financial, sir. The Owners must include a radio among the lifeboat equipment by Federation law, but there's no regulation to say how effective it must be. A simple automatic distress beacon is the cheapest thing available, so that's what they provide. After all, a lifeboat radio is very seldom needed, so what's the point of spending money on something that isn't going to be used?"
"And all lifeboats must have a ship's officer assigned to them, so it doesn't matter if they all get separated?" Kirk guessed.
"Yes, sir." Even as he spoke Zinkin had been checking his control board; now he punched several buttons, and then sat back. "There's a solar system quite near, sir. I've set course for it. We should get there within two days."
"Good... I don't suppose you'd know if your communications officer got a signal off at all?" Kirk asked.
"He had the time," Zinkin said, a little doubtfully.
"But you think maybe he didn't bother?"
"No-one thought it was serious," Zinkin admitted. "The bridge crew were staying put, I know, though strictly speaking they should have gone to their lifeboats too. But the Captain wanted to be on hand to get the engineer's reports, so... Well, they all stayed. In fact, the Captain didn't originally want to disturb the passengers, but Marty - the First Officer, sir - insisted that they should be sent to the lifeboats. We could regard it as an extra drill, he said."
Kirk and McCoy looked at each other. "Was the Captain reflecting the Owners' views on emergencies?" Kirk asked.
"Well... I think so, sir. The Owners tend to regard emergencies as a bad reflection on their service. They don't exactly like Captains who over-react to anything." Zinkin looked a little anxious. "Don't tell anyone I said that, please - it could cost me my job."
"At the same time, I'd like to see that your First Officer gets the credit for acting sensibly and saving the lives of... well, all of us who are saved," Kirk commented.
Zinkin made no answer, and Kirk let the subject drop, wondering just how many of the other lifeboats had got safely away, and if any of them were making their way to the solar system that was their own target. He let his mind wander onto the subject of just what had gone wrong, concluding that probably the meteor's passage had weakened a fuel line somewhere, causing it to snap and exploding the fuel. From there he wondered how long it would be before a search was mounted.
Spock, he thought. Spock will be worried. I wish there was some way I could let him know that we're all right.
Time passed slowly. The three men spoke little, each immersed in his own thoughts. The distress signal was not strong enough to be picked up on Marnon. If the communications officer had indeed failed to send out a mayday, no-one would know until the liner failed to arrive on schedule that something had gone wrong. Then a search would have to be mounted, and not until the search vessels were relatively near them would their distress call be picked up.
It was not an encouraging thought.
As they neared the solar system Zinkin operated the long-distance scanner. It was far from accurate, being also the cheapest model available, Kirk guessed, giving poor definition and only a broad outline of conditions. Its half-efficient readings reported the third planet of the system as being the most suitable. Life form readings were vague, but seemed to indicate a lack of any intelligent life. That was both a blessing and a disadvantage, Kirk reflected. Starfleet's Prime Directive didn't enter into it, but intelligent inhabitants might have helped them. As it was, they would have to manage as best they could with a minimum of survival equipment.
Zinkin took the ship down in a gradually decreasing orbit. As the gravitational pull increased the little craft descended faster. "You're going down too fast," Kirk said uneasily.
"She isn't answering the controls properly," Zinkin replied tensely. "She must have been damaged in the explosion."
"Can I help?" Even as he asked, Kirk knew that he couldn't.
"Thanks, sir, but no."
The lifeboat dropped lower, its speed increasing as it went. Zinkin wrestled with the controls. There was water ahead - an ocean - and they were headed straight for it. Zinkin pushed the starboard turn control. The ship began to respond, but momentum still carried it inexorably towards the sea. He pushed the control again, holding it down. The warring forces struggled for supremacy, then, with a horrible sound of tearing metal, the ship was thrown to the ground a bare quarter of a mile from the sea, rolling over and over.
Friction finally overcame momentum, and the wreck slid to an ungainly halt as birds scattered from their feeding ground in a flutter of wings, startled by the sudden movement and noise.
When the echoes died away the birds spiralled down again. One, more daring than the rest, landed on the new boulder that had been flung unceremoniously into their territory, and rose again instantly as the friction-heated hull burned its feet. Its cry of alarm set the others off again, and they circled suspiciously for some time. After they were reassured by the lack of movement they glided down to resume their interrupted meal. From somewhere far off a raucous voice screeched an answering challenge, and then fell silent.
Spock was in a state of suppressed excitement. The days of Kirk's absence had been torment for him. Although it had been, in some ways, a relief not to have to act, to pretend that all was well, he was heartbreakingly aware that these were days lost from the short time that he would still have Kirk's company. That it was borrowed time made the short separation even more poignant. Kirk should have been dead a year now, yet he was still showing all the signs of a miraculous near-complete recovery.
But Spock did not believe in miracles. The prognosis had been brutally honest. The apparent recovery would fail abruptly, and Spock would be alone again. Not as alone as he had once been, for McCoy would be there, but the doctor was getting old, and would, in a comparatively short space of years, be physically unable to continue with their work. That Kirk, too, would have died anyway while Spock was still relatively young was something the Vulcan tried not to think about.
But for the moment Kirk - and McCoy - would soon be home again. Privately Spock determined that in the future - for what future there was - he was not going to be separated from Kirk again. The torment of having to hide his knowledge of his friend's imminent death was pleasure beside the torture of being away from him, always wondering, waiting for a message to tell him that Kirk was dead, had died when the Vulcan was not there...
The communications signal buzzed for attention; automatically, he went to answer it.
The face on the viewscreen was that of a stranger. His features were composed into an artificial expression that Spock could recognise, after all his years of close association with Humans, as the assumed sympathy of a man who was not immediately touched by whatever tragedy he had come to impart.
For a moment Spock's heart seemed to stop beating. It had happened, after all... He drew a deep breath, preparing himself to receive the expected news impassively. No stranger should know how deeply he felt this...
"I represent the spaceline, Mr. Spock. I have the unpleasant duty of informing you that there has been an accident involving the liner on which your friends Mr. Kirk and Dr. McCoy were travelling. We picked up a distress call from the ship, but it was cut off and we have been unable to raise her since. We will, of course, let you know as soon as we have any further word."
For a moment Spock was unable to speak, confused by the swirling, chaotic maelstrom of emotions that surged through his mind. It was not the immediate news that he had feared; yet it was not necessarily a reprieve, for the doctors had been positive that a sudden shock would kill Kirk as effectively as the abrupt deterioration of his condition would. Although, if anyone could save Kirk under those circumstances, McCoy could. The loss of contact was not necessarily serious... The liner might be limping home even now...
"Has a search been launched?" Spock asked. He noted approvingly, though with some surprise, that his voice was satisfactorily controlled, calm and impersonal.
"Yes, Mr. Spock." The tone said, 'Of course.'
"Very well. Thank you for your courtesy."
Spock switched off. For a moment he buried his face in his hands, allowing himself the luxury of relaxing his control, but only for a moment. Decisively he straightened again and reached to punch a number on the communications set.
"Sarchym here." The face of the man from whom they occasionally hired a small spacecraft shimmered into view. "Oh, hello, Mr. Spock."
"I wish to hire a ship immediately, Mr. Sarchym, for an indefinite period. A three-seater, as usual."
"Yes, of course, Mr. Spock." He flicked through the pages in a small book that lay on the desk in front of him. Spock considered this unnecessary; Kirk had always called it pretentious, he remembered with a pang. "Yes, the ship you usually have is available. Will that be satisfactory?"
It had taken them three trips before Sarchym had learned that they really did know what they were talking about with regard to spaceships. He had initially tried to palm them off with ships which, while adequately serviced - it would have been more than his business was worth for the ships not to be spaceworthy - had certainly not filled Spock's requirements. Finally, realising that they knew exactly what they wanted, Sarchym had given them the use of his newest vessel, which he normally reserved for very special occasions. It really was a good one, too. Now Spock was grateful for the obstinate stand they had taken with Sarchym. At the time, however, he had intensely disliked the unpleasantness that had been occasioned by the whole business, although the man had not held any grudge against them. As far as he was concerned, the entire affair had been a battle of wits (and stubbornness) that he had lost fairly. Thereafter, he set himself, as a good businessman, to give satisfaction.
"How soon do you want it?" Sarchym was asking.
"I said 'immediately', Mr. Sarchym. I will be coming straight to your office, and will expect the ship to be ready when I arrive."
Sarchym nodded so hard that Spock half expected his head to fall off - and then chided himself for his misplaced thought. This was no time for humour, even though Kirk had taught him not to take himself quite as seriously as he had once done. It was fairly obvious that Sarchym knew about the missing liner, and guessed why Spock wanted the hired vessel.
Despite his haste Spock, as always, checked the vessel's systems thoroughly. Sarchym hovered attentively, but Spock knew from his attitude that he had no doubts about his client's approval of the ship's readiness. It did not make him any the less thorough. Finally satisfied, he nodded to Sarchym and prepared to take off as soon as the Human left the launch pad. He checked with control, and set off.
He kept the radio open, adjusted to pick up anything on both the distress band and the normal commercial band the space liners used, but both remained silent. He was not surprised. The sensors were set on maximum, too, so that he would be able to detect immediately anything that came within scanning range.
It was three days before the sensors detected something. Ahead of him was a cloud of radiation analogous to that produced by an explosion involving anti-matter, and he was aware of an unusual tightening in his throat. Only one thing could have caused this; the explosion of a spacecraft's engines. Whether any of its personnel had escaped was still uncertain; that was what he must discover.
He scanned for debris, and at first it seemed that there was none, only the microscopic dust of near-complete annihilation. Then he realised that there were some scattered, large objects, and headed for the nearest.
It was a liner's lifeboat. He examined it and found that the door was open. Inside, he could detect bodies, and he knew that the occupants had died from explosive decompression. There was no way he could identify the bodies without personal investigation. Grimly, he set about his unpleasant task. He had to know... Even as he worked at retrieving them he wondered why the official search had not arrived yet. Then he realised that he had been told as soon as there had been word, and had undoubtedly acted far more rapidly than the authorities, who would have an unavoidable amount of unnecessary red tape to cut through. As though red tape mattered when men might be dying!
He had the bodies now. Mentally preparing himself, even though he knew the odds were against finding his friends first time, he studied them carefully. Both were clearly strangers - even though their faces were discoloured by the bursting of the tiny blood vessels veining them, and bloated by decompression, their build was definitely wrong. Stoically, he returned both to the lifeboat that had become their tomb, and set off for the next large piece of debris.
Steadily he worked round them, finding fourteen in all. One was empty; the others all held their quota of either two or three dead, caught with the lifeboat door open and killed. It seemed as if whatever had befallen them had happened quickly, so that the victims had not had time to reach safety. And yet... a liner should carry more than fourteen lifeboats. Even a small liner such as this one had been should carry at least two dozen. Ten lifeboats were unaccounted for. Was it possible that some had got away? Or had they, too, been vaporized with the ship, unlaunched?
Yet where would a lifeboat go? He had passed none headed for Marnon. Besides, the distance was far too great for a lifeboat unequipped with warp drive. The purpose of a lifeboat was to get survivors to a nearby planet, if there was one, or to keep them alive near the wreck until rescue came. There were none near; therefore, any that had escaped had headed for landfall somewhere.
He began to scan for a nearby solar system. Ah! His sensors were picking up a solar system directly ahead of him - within lifeboat range. He laid in a course, knowing he could cover the distance in a matter of hours.
As he began to make his way towards it, he remembered the official search, and reached for the radio. A simple signal would suffice. Rapidly he broadcast a message reporting what he had found, and stating that he was continuing the search for survivors. Then he returned the switches to their former mode.
He scanned the system as he approached, the sensors telling him that the third planet was the only hopeful one, even before his radio picked up a weak - a very weak - distress call. Someone had reached here, then. Resolutely refusing to let himself hope that it might be McCoy - he had never entertained hope of Kirk's survival - he descended towards the signal. At least he could succour survivors... no matter who they were. He dropped lower, approaching the shore of a wide sea. Ahead of him, something glinted in the sunlight; the sensors told him that the signal was coming from it.
He landed and stared, horrified, at the crumpled wreck. The signal was on automatic, and had continued to broadcast even after the crash. No-one could have survived this! To escape such an explosion, and then to die like this...
Then he saw, beside the wreck, an obvious grave. Someone had, against all the odds, survived. Spock climbed wearily out of his ship, wondering where the man - or men - who had dug this grave had gone. Not far, knowing that a rescue party would begin its search at the site of the wreckage.
He approached slowly, his eyes fixed in reluctant fascination on that hideous mound.
"Jim?" he whispered, absurdly; the dead could make no answer. There was no name on the grave. Vulcan logic warred with Human hope, and lost. There might have been other survivors... He did not know it was his friends in that lifeboat...
Blurred footprints led from the grave to the sheltering cliffs, and he followed them blindly to a shallow cave. Stooping, he peered inside, to see a huddled figure curled up asleep. The face was turned from him, but the shape was unmistakable. It was McCoy. Spock's hands flew to his face to stifle the whimper of pain he could not completely suppress. It was as he had feared, but the grief was no less bitter for the expectation.
Stumbling, he retreated back to the grave; he must have a few moments in which to indulge his grief, unseen, before - somehow - attempting to comfort McCoy.
In that moment the strain of two years finally caught up with him, and Spock fell to his knees to crouch in dumb agony by the grave of the only man who had ever reached out to him in open, unashamed affection. Yet, even now, Vulcan training held. Though his eyes were blurred and aching the tears would not fall. And yet, of what use were tears? To weep for all the years that were left to him would not heal the agony he now knew.
With a moan of despair Spock pressed his hands against the grave, fighting the insane urge to claw away the concealing sand, to gaze for the last time on the face of his friend.
The Vulcan shivered. Insanity! It must be! Reluctantly, he turned to meet the so-familiar eyes, almost welcoming this creation of his overstrained mind. The illusion was perfect - Jim, as he had so often seen him, his lips curved in the smile he kept only for the Vulcan. Spock gazed hungrily, knowing that the hallucination must soon dissolve, but unwilling to lose a moment of the haunting presence.
Soft laughter echoed, and warm hands reached to touch his face. "Spock, I'm really here - I'm no ghost."
The Human had seen that still, crouching figure, and had understood what must be going through the Vulcan's mind. The desolation of that huddled form sent a wave of compassion through him and brought him to his knees facing Spock. Almost blindly Spock reached out and clutched at Kirk's shoulders, feeling the Human's body beneath his hands, warm, solid, indisputably real and alive. Joy compelled a response where grief could not, and demanded an expression. Spock's eyes flamed with delight, and he smiled wonderingly. "Jim! I was so afraid..."
A flicker of movement caught his attention - McCoy was awake, was coming... The doctor must not see... His face settled once more into its habitual studied calm. "I am relieved to find you unharmed, Captain," he ended formally.
For a moment longer their eyes held.
"I understand, Spock," Kirk whispered as he dropped his hands.
McCoy bustled up, calling from a distance. "I told you he'd beat the official rescue to us, Jim! Spock, I've never been so glad to see those pointed ears."
"As far as I know, I am over a day ahead of the search teams," Spock said, keeping his voice steady with an effort.
"That doesn't surprise me," McCoy said dryly.
"Who... Who was that?" Spock asked, indicating the grave.
"One of the officers from the ship," Kirk said sadly. "It wasn't his fault we crashed - the lifeboat was damaged when we were flung clear of the liner. Didn't you find anyone else?"
"Not alive," Spock replied. "None of them had been able to close their lifeboats in time."
Kirk and McCoy looked at one another. "Maybe they did have time, but just didn't bother," Kirk said. "No-one thought it was serious. The Captain didn't even think it was necessary to order us to the lifeboats, only the First Officer insisted. And being experienced spacemen, of course we made sure that the door was firmly closed behind us... "
Spock looked closely at him. He seemed unaffected by the ordeal just past, apart from his sorrow at the death of their companion. "I suggest we return to Marnon at once," he said. "We can do no further good here, and we have work to do."
They climbed into their ship and took their accustomed seats. The ship rose easily, and swung away across the ocean. Behind them, the disturbed seabirds slowly returned to their interrupted feeding beside the lonely grave.
There was nothing to distinguish the three men from any of the other wealthy patrons of Marnon's most luxurious hotel - nothing, except perhaps that the two Humans seemed unusually at ease with their Vulcan companion. Certainly there was nothing to indicate that the three formed the most efficient team of coordinators in Starfleet's formidable counter-intelligence network.
The fair-haired Human rose to his feet and grinned down at his companions. "I think I'll call it a day," he said. "Spock and I are leaving tomorrow for the mountains, and I know he wants to make an early start. If I don't get some sleep he'll have to drag me out of bed. Coming, Bones?"
"In a minute, Jim. I think I'll just finish this drink first."
"Good night, then, and have a good leave. See you in the morning, Spock "
"Good night, Jim. Sleep well."
The two men remaining at the table watched the stocky figure disappear in the direction of the lift, then McCoy set his glass down abruptly and turned to Spock. All trace of his lazy good humour had vanished, and the keen blue eyes were intent. "All right, Spock, let's have it. What's wrong?"
"Not here, Doctor. I suggest we go to my room."
As the two men made their way through the busy lounge McCoy was again puzzling over Spock's strange behaviour. He had never pretended to understand the Vulcan at the best of times, but this was something new even for Spock.
It had been growing more noticeable for some time, the watchfulness with which the Vulcan surrounded Kirk; the accident had only emphasised it. Certainly Spock must have been worried, but... his reaction to finding Kirk alive and well had thoroughly shaken and confused the doctor. It was as though Spock was amazed, as well as delighted, to recover Kirk safe and unharmed. His brooding vigilance had intensified since then, although Kirk himself gave no indication of being aware of it, but McCoy wanted an explanation.
It was for this reason that he had lingered, seizing the chance to get Spock on his own.
Now in the Vulcan's room McCoy sat and waited patiently, knowing that Spock would not be hurried. He noted without comment the Vulcan's unusual air of tension as he prowled restlessly up and down. At last Spock halted and swung around to face the Human. "McCoy, you ran medical checks on Jim after you were rescued - what did you find?" he asked abruptly.
"Find?" McCoy was puzzled. "Nothing of any significance. He's run down, a little underweight for once - that's why I'm recommending this leave - but otherwise he's in pretty good shape."
"It is as I thought." Spock resumed his pacing, but his tread was deliberate now, as though he was considering a course of action. He halted again, facing McCoy, his hands extended. "Two years ago I placed a block on your memory; I must now remove it," he said quietly.
"A memory block! Now why...?" McCoy bit back the question even as it formed, knowing that the Vulcan would never have touched his mind without his consent. "Go ahead."
The long fingers seemed to reach into his skull, parting the veil that had been drawn in his mind all those months ago. At last Spock straightened.
"I ask you again - what is Jim's medical condition?"
"I've told you already," McCoy said with weary patience, "he's just fine... Uh-oh!"
"Precisely, Doctor. Jim Kirk should have died four months ago. Yet not only is he still alive, but after undergoing all the dangers of this past year, including your recent accident, he seems perfectly healthy. Why?"
"I don't know," McCoy said grimly, "but I intend to find out. I'm sure of my own readings - I checked him out pretty thoroughly. Look, take him on leave as you planned. I'll go to Earth, to the hospital where he was treated, and see if I can come up with anything. And Spock - don't tell him anything until I get back. No point in worrying him unnecessarily."
"Very well, Doctor."
Jim Kirk waved cheerfully to Spock, turned, and dived into the clear water of the mountain lake. As he swam he took advantage of his solitude to allow a frown to cross his face. He could feel Spock watching him with the same intense concentration he had displayed for some time now.
But why should he? No danger threatened them; he was well... But - was Spock? he wondered suddenly. He had only just begun to notice it, but the Vulcan looked ill. The skin was drawn tight across his cheekbones, and the once-brilliant eyes were dull, sunken in shadows like green bruises, as though he had not slept.
Kirk's instinctive fear - pon farr - had been quickly dismissed, for McCoy had told him that owing to Spock's half-Human blood the dreaded Time of Mating would not affect him again for quite some time. So what could it be? he asked himself worriedly, shivering with fear at the thought that Spock might be seriously ill. He had said there was nothing wrong, but...
The last two years had been happy ones for Kirk. He still missed his Enterprise, still longed for the life he had known, but there had been... compensations. He was doing useful work, and doing it well. More than this, he still had Spock at his side, dependable and faithful as ever. Bones, too, for the doctor had quietly and stubbornly insisted on remaining with them. Yes, he had been very lucky... but now he was haunted by his concern for Spock.
If only Bones was here to settle his fears! The doctor had taken off on some jaunt of his own, but Kirk promised himself that as soon as he returned - he was due any day now - he would bully Spock into submitting to a full medical.
Assuming a cheerful expression, Kirk left the water and flung himself down beside Spock, allowing the warm rays of the sun to dry him. The two men spoke easily, comparing notes on the progress of their organisation, evaluating the information Kirk had gained on his last trip, and fitting it into the overall picture. While they talked Kirk studied Spock without appearing to do so, and was secretly shocked by the deterioration in his appearance since this leave had begun. He looked even more tired and ill than before.
He was just wondering how to raise the subject again when a shout in the distance caught his attention. Narrowing his eyes against the glare of the sun, Kirk turned to see McCoy waving from the top of the path that led down to the lake. He was about to comment to Spock when, with a flurry of movement, the Vulcan leapt to his feet and hurried up the slope to meet McCoy.
Following at a more leisurely pace, Kirk was aware of an electric tension between the two men. He could not hear what McCoy was saying, but from the expression on both their faces it was clear that his news was both urgent and shocking.
As he reached them Spock turned white, lifted an unsteady hand to his forehead, and in complete silence pitched forward into McCoy's arms. Kirk gave an incoherent cry and ran the few remaining paces. Dropping to his knees, he almost snatched Spock from McCoy's arms and peered anxiously into the still face.
"What's wrong with him?" he demanded. "Is he all right?"
"If you'd get out of my way for a moment I might have the chance to find out," McCoy muttered. His voice was unusually strained. The scanner sounded for a moment, then the doctor raised his head.
"Only shock," he said soothingly. "Help me get him inside."
"But what happened?" Kirk demanded again.
"Later, Jim. I'll explain it all, but let me see to Spock first. If you knew what the poor devil's been living with these past two years..."
Kirk cast a startled glance at McCoy; the doctor's voice held a note of gentleness he seldom used when speaking of the Vulcan. Without any further delay Kirk stood, lifting Spock carefully, and carried him into the cabin to lay him on the bed. McCoy bent over him again, and a hypo hissed.
"That's better! He'll sleep now - and God knows, he needs it. Come on, Jim - I want to talk to you."
"You're sure he'll be all right?" Kirk asked with a hesitant glance towards the bed.
"He'll be just fine," McCoy assured him. He led the way out of the bedroom, and motioned Kirk to sit down.
"There's no way to soften this," he said abruptly. "You'd better read these. They're summaries of the personal notes of your surgeon. I obtained them directly from him."
With a puzzled frown Kirk opened the folder McCoy handed him and began to read...
SUBJECT: Captain James T. Kirk, Commanding Officer, USS Enterprise.
CASE HISTORY: Suffered head injury and severe back and leg injuries as a result of imprisonment by the Klingons.
TREATMENT: Initially operated on by ship's Medical Officer. Transferred to Starbase Hospital, Earth. Rest and therapy until patient strong enough for final operation.
COMMENTS: Home care advised while strength is regained.
Back injury progressing satisfactorily; right ankle will continue to give some trouble until corrective treatment is completed, and will probably remain weak. However, this should not prevent patient from returning to active service. The head injury has been successfully treated, and while vision is still impaired it will improve as the bruising of the optic nerve heals. Should attain acceptable level for a Starship Captain.
PROGNOSIS: Complete recovery bar slight weakness of right ankle after final operation.
Kirk laid the sheet down and looked at McCoy in bewilderment. "That's not what they told me," he said confusedly.
"It's not what they told us, either," McCoy answered grimly. "Read the next sheet, Jim."
SUBJECT: Commander Richard J. Caspian, USS Exeter.
CASE HISTORY: Suffered severe head injuries, minor back and leg injuries as a result of a treacherous attack by the natives of KaLinga during First Contact talks.
TREATMENT: Operated on by ship's Medical Officer before transfer to Starbase Hospital, Earth. Discharge on medical grounds pending.
COMMENTS: Back and leg injuries responded to treatment. The head injury shows only temporary improvement. Vision is permanently impaired, due to pressure on the brain, which has been temporarily relieved, but which will eventually return. Further surgery would kill patient.
PROGNOSIS: Apparent recovery will continue for approximately twenty months. There will then be rapid collapse, and death will follow shortly thereafter.
There was a long, tense silence. At last Kirk raised his head. "McCoy, explain," he said simply.
"Too many specialists," McCoy said wearily. "The same surgeon handled both cases, yours and Caspian's. Then you were passed on for therapy and after-care, and somehow - God knows how - the two reports were confused. Your name and case history, Caspian's comments and prognosis.
"We were told that you only had... twenty months or so to live. Spock kept that knowledge from you - he wanted you... to die... in peace. With my consent he placed a block on my memory so that I would not betray my knowledge."
The doctor's voice hardened, grew tense with an anger Kirk had never heard before from McCoy. "They're still checking, but as far as we can tell it was a careless, stupid error by the computer operator who entered the files... and they were never checked. But Spock's had two years of hell, waiting, knowing that one day..."
"Dear God!" Kirk swallowed painfully. "He did that... for me..." He could not go on.
After a moment McCoy leaned forward and touched Kirk's shoulder gently. "You realise what this means?" he said. "I triple-checked the reports, just to be certain. A simple operation to correct the ankle injury, and you can return to Starship duty."
"Does it? Yes, I suppose it does." Kirk seemed dazed. "But what made you suspect?"
"Spock couldn't understand how you survived the shipwreck. We were told that any sudden shock or strain could kill you. So he removed the block, and I went back to Earth to see what I could find out."
"So Spock's known, these last few weeks, that there was a chance?"
"We hoped so, but it seemed impossible. Now we know that there was never any danger after all. The relief was just too much for him; even Vulcans have a breaking point, and he's reached his."
"No wonder." Kirk leaned forward, his head buried in his hands. "Just give me a minute, Bones," he said shakily. "I haven't quite taken it in yet."
It had grown dark by the time Kirk roused himself and looked around. He shivered; it had grown cold, for the fire had long since died down, leaving only cold ashes. McCoy had retired some hours ago, weary from the long, hurried journey he had undertaken, but wrapped in his thoughts, Kirk had scarcely noticed his departure. Kirk stretched, yawned, and eyed the couch with dislike. Spock was still asleep, McCoy occupied the other bedroom - it seemed that this must be his bed for the night. First, though, there was something he had to do.
Spock lay asleep in a patch of moonlight, the soft light revealing an unguarded gentleness in his face. Kirk looked at him, conscious of the utter impossibility of ever repaying his debt to this man. The news McCoy had brought had smoothed the lines of worry from the Vulcan's face, and only now did Kirk, seeing the contrast, realise how deeply the past months must have hurt Spock.
He understood the Vulcan's reasons for concealing the truth as he had believed it to be, for Spock knew him as surely as he knew himself. The thought of death did not, in itself, terrify him, for he had long ago accepted it as part of the life he had chosen. But he would have dreaded the long days of waiting, the uncertainty of never knowing if each day would be his last. Spock had understood, and had shielded him from that as he had shielded him so often in the past; but he had paid the price.
Filled with a sudden overwhelming tenderness, Kirk reached out and touched the sleeping face lightly. Instantly Spock's open eyes focused and gazed into his, filled with an incredulous joy as he remembered McCoy's news.
"Don't... look like that," Kirk whispered shakily. "I'm not worth it."
"You are to me," Spock replied simply.
There was a long silence. Kirk moved to sit on the bed, unwilling to leave - for the first time in so long there were no secrets between them.
"What will you do now, Jim?" Spock asked at last. Now that the danger was over he willingly returned the initiative to Kirk.
The Human laughed softly, happily. "That's the best of all. Captain Treron has been promoted away from the Enterprise. Starfleet Command is so anxious to make amends - it was partly their fault, after all - that they agreed like a shot when McCoy told them he thought I'd want to re-assume command of my ship."
Spock's hand caught Kirk's. "I am... happy for you, Jim," he said.
There was a note of wistfulness in his voice, and Kirk laughed again.
"Not just me," he said softly. "Did you really think I'd leave you, even for the Enterprise? McCoy's coming too, of course," he added.
A faint sigh and an increased pressure on his hand expressed the Vulcan's joy more eloquently than words.
"Rest now, Spock," Kirk said gently, settling the Vulcan back on the pillows, watching until the weary, dark eyes filmed again in sleep. He thought with distaste of the couch in the next room; it would be cold, and besides, Spock's fingers were still tightly curled around his. He felt a curious reluctance to break the contact.
With some difficulty he managed to kick off his boots, swung his legs up onto the bed, being careful not to disturb the sleeping Vulcan, and lay down. He was very tired, yet totally at peace.
There was still so much he wanted to say, he thought as he studied the tranquil face beside him, but now there would be time enough. With a contented sigh Kirk turned his face into the pillow.
"This time, Spock," he murmured drowsily, "I really do have... all my tomorrows."