Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise was dead.
It was the source of a curious, rather bitter pride that so far he himself was the only one to recognise that fact. McCoy, had he known, would have argued - dead men do not reason clearly, function efficiently; but surely only the dead could exist in such a limbo of utter indifference? The problem might have intrigued him once, Kirk supposed vaguely, but somehow nothing seemed to penetrate the shell of isolation he had drawn round himself since... since Helotia.
As it always did, the thought of that name produced the now-familiar contraction of the mind, in which grief and guilt blended to the tearing pain he must somehow learn to live with now. He glanced round; the bridge was calm, working normally - he could safely leave. Slowly then, he stood up.
"You have the con, Mr. Sulu," he said steadily, and walked to the elevator without hearing the helmsman's acknowledgement.
The sanctuary of his quarters had never seemed so welcome, the familiar territory such a safe haven; but even here the reminders lingered, solid, tangible. No longer fighting the pain he leaned back in his chair and glanced around, permitting himself to remember. Helotia. A simple diplomatic mission that had proved to be a trap. The Klingon commander had been waiting when he beamed down. The hopelessness of capture - he would not, could not, order the surrender of the Enterprise. The calm preparation for death. Then, Spock. Always, Spock. The frantic haste to escape. The Vulcan caught in the disruptor beam as he relayed his Captain's co-ordinates to the ship, caught just before he could reach safety. The last thing Kirk had seen was the tall figure slowly folding to the floor, the dark eyes closing as the scene faded.
Return to the Enterprise - and the hideous, the impossible order from Starfleet; leave orbit at once, do not attempt a rescue. He had argued, begged, pleaded - in vain. Finally, the triumphant, mocking message from Helotia; Spock was alive, in Klingon hands - he would not long remain so.
It had not been total abandonment; Starfleet's plans were laid, and could not be disrupted for one man. The Federation ships had returned in force, sweeping the planet free of Klingon influence. Too late.
"The Vulcan is dead," he had been told, flatly. There was no vengeance for Kirk; the commander, Kelath, had been recalled before the attack, and was not among the prisoners. There was not even a grave to visit, to make his final farewell; the body had been flung into one of the communal burial pits, and of what worth was one dead Vulcan, that anyone should trouble to record which? Kirk had accepted his loss with an outward calmness that surprised his crew; only McCoy knew of the guilt that tormented him. It had come at last, Spock's life given for his. If only he had defied the Admiral, gone back... Spock would have done as much for him. So the circle of grief and guilt grew tighter, choking him.
But a Starship Captain cannot afford the luxury of grief; to hide his pain he had begun to build that shell of indifference, retreating layer by layer into a safe, secure refuge where nothing could intrude to hurt him again. His concern for his crew did not diminish, but it was an abstract idea now, no longer touching him deeply as it once had done. McCoy watched anxiously, knowing that the shell was too complete, too brittle - it would shatter one day, and Kirk's desolation would be terrible to witness. It was not even as though Kirk withdrew completely into himself. He still mingled with his officers, joined in their conversation, even smiled occasionally; but the hazel eyes were dull and lifeless. Withdrawal would have been easier to handle, McCoy thought, but this deliberate... separation... allowed no contact at all.
However great one man's agony, the work of Starfleet had to go on; a new First Officer was assigned to the Enterprise, Commander Sheron, an Andorian. McCoy had dreaded his arrival, wondering how Kirk would react to seeing another in Spock's place; he did not react at all. He greeted Sheron with his sweet, remote smile, and thereafter treated him with the same distant courtesy that now marked all his relationships; all, save that with McCoy, and that too was altered. It was as though Kirk, blaming himself for Spock's death, was deliberately punishing himself by refusing to accept the comfort his friends tried to offer; it could not last, and McCoy waited, knowing that he must be there when that brittle shell broke at last, and Kirk was forced to face reality. Now Kirk sat alone in his quarters, waiting patiently for his control to return. It would - it always did - but it was sometimes hard to push away those comforting, painful memories; it would be... so pleasant... to allow them full rein, to wander unchecked through the years he had shared with the Vulcan, years of companionship, utter trust, sometimes pain and fear - but always, always, complete understanding. Yet if he did so - if he gave way to that temptation - he would no longer be able to function as Captain of the Enterprise, for he would be compelled to recognise that Spock's life had been given for something that no longer mattered to him - his career. And it must matter, for if it did not Spock would have died uselessly, and that he could not have borne.
At last, as he had known it would, the raging pain subsided to the accustomed ache that was all that was left to him of feeling. He pulled his regained control carefully around himself again, wrapping himself deep in the protective mantle of routine. The door buzzer sounded, and he sighed.
"Come!" The single word came calmly.
For just an instant the sight of the blue shirt in the doorway lifted his heart; would it always do so? he wondered.
"Yes, Mr. Sheron?" he asked.
"A message from Starfleet, Captain - Priority Code."
The Andorian held out a sealed tape. Kirk rose and opened his safe, wondering idly what problem Starfleet had found for him now - something urgent, evidently, since they had employed a code to which only the Captain held the key. Taking the decoder from the safe, he bent to decipher the tape.
Sheron took advantage of his concentration to study his Captain interestedly; he still did not know what to make of Kirk. He had accepted assignment to the Enterprise eagerly, for the reputation of the ship, and of her Captain, made it an attractive posting for an ambitious officer.
Initially, however, he had been disturbed by Kirk's attitude. The man was always pleasant, always correct... but remote, formal, treating his First Officer with courtesy, but maintaining between them a distance the Andorian did not know how to cross. At first Sheron had wondered with dismay whether the Captain simply disliked working so closely with an alien, but observation quickly disproved that theory, for Kirk was exactly the same with his Human officers. Besides, surely he had heard that his predecessor, Spock, was also an alien - a Vulcan, wasn't he? Concluding that Kirk's reserve was natural to him, Sheron had given up trying to understand the man and had settled for respecting the Captain; but he was troubled. His position was made much more difficult by Kirk's indifference, and although he could appreciate Kirk's reputation it was impossible to understand the affection which the crew seemed to feel for this remote, unemotional man.
While Kirk busied himself with the decoder Sheron glanced around with interest; he had never before been in Kirk's quarters, and he looked now for some clue to the private life of the man who had come to interest him. A jarring note struck him at once - while most of the furnishings and decorations in the room were Terran, certain items here and there were clearly of Vulcan origin. On a small side table stood a chess board, a game half completed, awaiting the next move. He knew that Humans seldom played the complicated three-dimensional form of the game; an expert himself, he could tell that the opponents were well-matched, and he wondered who the Captain's opponent could be. Turning away with a regretful sigh, for his fingers itched to pick up a rook and make the next move, his eyes lighted upon an even more unusual object. On a shelf by the Captain's desk stood a Vulcan harp. A swift glance confirmed that the Captain was still busy, and Sheron edged forward for a better look. He had been right - the instrument was a priceless work of art, of the type usually jealously guarded by an accomplished musician; he would not have expected to find such a treasure in a Human's quarters. Attracted by its beauty, Sheron stretched out a tentative hand.
"Don't touch that!" Kirk's voice cracked like a whip. Startled, the Andorian turned to meet hazel eyes blazing with anger. Even as his amazement showed on his face, the Captain's eyes dropped.
"I'm sorry," he said in his usual remote tone. "I did not mean to speak so sharply... The harp is very delicate."
"I apologise, Captain," Sheron returned stiffly. "I meant no offence."
"Forget it." Kirk made an abrupt gesture of dismissal, was again the efficient, unemotional Captain. "We have work to do, Mr. Sheron. The tape orders us to Organia; I am instructed to place the Enterprise at the disposal of the Council. Please take the con - I'll be here for a while, then in sickbay if I'm wanted."
"Very well, Captain." More puzzled than ever, Sheron departed. This was the first sign of emotion he had ever seen from Kirk - and that he should display such anger over a triviality was strange indeed. As the elevator carried him to the bridge, Sheron made a mental note to discover what he could about the curious behaviour of his enigmatic Captain. Behind him Kirk stared miserably at the closed door. He had not intended to offend the Andorian, he thought guiltily; but the sight of a stranger's hand reaching for the harp - Spock's harp - had aroused in him a fury of possessive anger, an irrational resentment that Sheron was here, taking the Vulcan's place.
When he had been notified of Sheron's appointment to the Enterprise Kirk had gone at once to Spock's quarters; no stranger would pry into his friend's life - he would pack his belongings himself, however much it hurt. There were tears in Kirk's eyes by the time his self-imposed task was completed, and he surveyed the pitifully small pile he had collected. Spare uniforms were the only clothing - Kirk reflected that, save when landing party duty demanded it, he had never seen Spock out of uniform. A few books - the titles had surprised and delighted him - he had always known that beneath the Vulcan shell the Human Spock still dreamed in secret. The chess board, over which they had lingered for so many hours. The harp - pain stabbed deep as he recalled evenings of enchantment. He reached out, touched the strings lightly, and recoiled at the discordant murmur; it was a beautiful instrument, of great value, but worthless to him, for the man who had awakened its music would never do so again.
Kirk glanced round, and shivered; he had lowered the thermostat to normal ship's temperature, and only now did he realise how automatically he had adjusted to the warmth Spock found comfortable. Cradling the harp carefully, Kirk carried it to his quarters, returning for the chess set, and the small case of books and clothes. The room's emptiness screamed at him; now he really knew that Spock was gone, and he left the room without a backward glance, for he carried with him all that would remain of his friend - those few possessions, and the memories that would always haunt him.
In his own quarters he stowed away the case, stood the harp by his desk, found a place for the chess board, carefully setting the pieces as they had been at the interruption of their last, unfinished game. It would probably be wiser to pack them away, he thought, but they were part of the life he had shared with the Vulcan, and to do so would seem as though he tried to deny his sorrow.
Now, vaguely disturbed into guilt at his treatment of Sheron, Kirk reached out, drew his fingers lightly down the curved neck of the harp, producing, as the gesture always did, a faint echo of Spock's presence. The Vulcan's strict sense of justice, which he had almost unconsciously acquired, told him how unfair he was being to his First Officer, but he somehow could not find the energy to get to know the man. Not yet, he silently begged that haunting presence; Give me just a little longer, Spock.
The voyage to Organia was uneventful. With the Enterprise secure in orbit Kirk called Sheron to the transporter room and prepared to beam down. The Andorian obeyed eagerly - he had heard much of the powerful thought-creatures who inhabited this planet and maintained an uneasy peace between the Federation and the Klingons, and was looking forward to his first encounter with them. Their first appearance was something of an anti-climax, however, as Kirk greeted three apparently undistinguished humanoids.
"Trefayne, Ayelborne, Claymare, may I present Mr. Sheron, First Officer of the Enterprise?" Kirk began.
"Captain Kirk, you are again welcome, as are you, Commander," replied the being Kirk had named Claymare. "But Captain, what of Mr. Spock? Surely he... "
"Spock is dead," Kirk replied harshly. "He was a prisoner of the Klingons."
"We grieve with you," Trefayne said softly. "A fine man - and a magnificent mind."
"Indeed. How may I serve you, gentlemen?"
It was obvious to Sheron that Kirk had deliberately turned the conversation, even at the risk of seeming discourteous. Did Kirk's strange attitude have something to do with his former First Officer? But he would have to postpone consideration of that theory - Ayelborne was speaking now.
"Have you ever heard of a Klingon commander named Kelath, Captain Kirk?"
"Kelath?" Kirk started violently, his eyes darkening. "He was in charge on Helotia when... What of him?"
"We have received reports from the planet Swire; it seems that Kelath has taken over there - the planet, though undeveloped, is rich in rare minerals - and is using the native population as slave labour. This must be stopped."
"Surely that's a breach of the peace treaty?" Kirk enquired.
"The matter is not so simple, Captain. According to the Klingon government, Kelath is a renegade, acting on his own initiative; they have disowned him. While we do not necessarily accept their denials, we do not at this time wish to provoke an open conflict with the Klingons. However, as they have denied all knowledge of Kelath's actions, they will not interfere if the Enterprise, acting with our authority, moves against him to free Swire."
"You mean you want the Enterprise to attack Kelath?" Kirk sounded more animated than Sheron had ever heard him.
"Not quite, Captain; Kelath controls three ships - formidable odds even for the Enterprise. No, we have devised an energy screen, which we will instal on your ship; it will nullify the Klingon disrupters, but will permit your phasers to operate. Kelath will be unable to defend Swire, and you will be able to capture his base. You will return the Klingon prisoners here. I suggest you advise the Federation to have relief ships standing by - the reports we have received indicate that the condition of the native labourers is grave, and medical teams will be urgently needed. For their protection, the energy screen can be transferred to the surface, where it will prevent any Klingon ship from entering orbit."
"What of Kelath?"
"We will deal with him, Captain - Mr. Spock's death will not go unpunished. When may we begin to instal the energy screen?"
"At once, if you wish. I'll call Mr. Scott now." Kirk pulled out his communicator.
Assuming a casual air, Sheron strolled into engineering. The man he sought was very much in evidence, loudly expressing his opinion of the Organian device he had been studying ever since it had been installed. As Sheron approached, Scotty looked up with a broad grin.
"Whit kin ah be daein' for you, laddie?" he asked.
"Are you busy, Scotty? I'd like a word with you if you can spare the time."
Scotty cast a critical glance around his department. "Aye, I could give ye a few minutes - there's yon infernal Organian machine, but my boys will call me if anything happens. Come into the office."
He led the Andorian into the small room that served him as office, workshop, and, the crew suspected, very often sleeping quarters as well. "Have a seat." Snatching up a pile of blueprints, Scotty indicated the cleared chair and perched on a corner of the cluttered desk. "Now then - what's the trouble?"
"No trouble, exactly, it's just... I need some advice, Scotty, and I don't know who else to ask. It's about the Captain... " He paused, unsure how to phrase his question.
"Is Jim giving you a hard time?" Scotty asked sympathetically.
"No, it's not as simple as that... What's wrong with him, Scotty? Or is it me? Ever since I came aboard he's been... strange, so distant... it's almost as if I didn't exist. I can't talk to him, get close to him... I can't go on working so closely with a man who'll barely acknowledge my presence. What have I done to offend him?"
"Nothing, laddie." Scotty sighed. "He's just the same with all of us now - you must have seen that."
"I have," Sheron admitted, "and that's the thing that really puzzles me. I could understand it if he just didn't like aliens, but he managed to work with Commander Spock... "
"That's your answer, you know, Sheron - Spock."
"I don't understand."
"Look, it's this way." Scotty settled himself comfortably. "Being a Starship Captain - it's a lonely life; the responsibility, the decisions, always knowing that somebody's life might depend on every move you make. There's no one to confide in, no-one to understand; then he met Spock. He was lonely too, in his own way - a half-breed Vulcan, isolated among Humans. They seemed to hit it off right from the start - they were closer than brothers, understanding each other in a way no-one else could share. Then Spock was killed rescuing Jim from the Klingons, so Jim has got it into his head that it was his fault. He hasn't accepted his loss yet, or come to terms with his feelings of guilt. Don't think he doesn't appreciate you as First Officer, it's just that to him, you've taken Spock's place. Oh, he knows it's not your fault, but every time he sees you he remembers."
"I understand now," Sheron said quietly. "Such a friendship is very rare - it cannot be easily broken. Now that I know the reason for his attitude, I can work with him until he learns to adjust."
"I'm sure he'll come round in the end - just remember that he was badly hurt. No criticism of you, Sheron, but Spock was... something special, even I could see that. Look, why don't you consult his records? And you could try asking round, discreetly; you can often get a good picture of a man from those who served under him."
"I might try that, Scotty - thanks."
"My pleasure - and don't worry; Jim only needs some time."
Commander Sheron halted the tape running through his desk viewer, and sat back to consider what he had learned. Following Scotty's suggestion he had mentioned Spock to some of the junior crew members, and had been somewhat startled at their enthusiastic response. Sulu and Chekov had painted an astonishingly vivid image of an efficient commander, a perfectionist who was endlessly patient in training his staff, remorseless with those who wasted his time. He had tested his juniors to the limit, but was unsparing of himself in helping them. From all sections of the ship had come the same attitude; even the hard-bitten security men, notoriously cynical about their superiors, had quite openly idolised the Vulcan. Shaking his head in bewilderment, Sheron had retired to his quarters, and pulled Spock's record tapes from the computer. The service details he vaguely knew already, but he scanned them anyway, refreshing his memory. Half Human, half Vulcan, Spock had served most of his time on the Enterprise, first under the command of Captain Pike, later under Captain Kirk. There was one unusual entry - Spock had turned down an offer of his own command, giving as his reason that he preferred to continue with his scientific duties. Sheron wondered about that - non-Human Captains were still a minority in Starfleet, and he would have expected a Vulcan to be ambitious.
The identification details showed on the screen now, and he studied them carefully. The impassive face was wholly Vulcan, betraying no evidence of his Human heritage; under delicate, winged eyebrows dark fathomless eyes challenged him, giving no clue to his predecessor's inner nature. Yet there must have been something about him to produce so much affection in his fellow-officers - normal Vulcan reserve might have brought him respect, but surely not the devoted friendship of men like Kirk, McCoy and Scott.
Perhaps the clues he sought lay in the details of his service? Sheron reached out to re-start the tape when the intercom summoned him.
"Commander Sheron to the bridge," came Uhura's voice. "We are about to enter orbit around Swire."
"Acknowledged." Sheron snapped off the intercom and headed for the elevator."
That's the last of the Klingons transported up, Mr. Sheron," the Security Chief reported. "The medical teams are hard-pressed - I've got every available man helping out. The relief ships are urgently needed."
"They're already on their way, Chief. Do you have Kelath safely in custody?"
"Yes, sir. He was the first one we beamed up. He's safely in the brig, and I've got two of my men on guard. I picked men who joined us after Helotia - the old hands were ready to take him apart."
"So I understand. Have you seen the Captain?"
"He's outside with Dr. McCoy, trying to organise things. I must get back - some of these poor devils are in a bad way."
"Right, Chief, carry on."
Sheron moved off in search of the Captain, mentally reviewing the events of the last few hours. Protected by the Organian energy screen the Enterprise had assumed orbit around Swire, and had been instantly challenged by the Klingon renegades. The response to Kirk's call for surrender was an attempted attack, but as had been promised none of the Klingon weapons functioned. Landing parties from the Enterprise had quickly taken over the base, and with Kelath in Federation hands the ships had no option but to surrender.
The problems really began when Kirk had to consider the plight of the labourers; the base was indeed a slave camp of the worst kind. The condition of the slaves was appalling - they had bean half-starved, flogged, mercilessly overworked. What little Kirk could do, he did; medical teams were already at work, assisted by every man and woman who could be spared from the Enterprise. The most urgent cases were moved to a hut which had been set aside as a temporary hospital; for the others, food, water and warm blankets at least eased the worst of their misery. Most of the slaves had been chained to prevent any escape and Sheron, catching sight of a yellow-shirted figure across the compound, hurried to join him, steeling himself to ignore the pleading hands that were stretched out to him as he passed.
"Captain, the relief ships will be here in a few hours," he reported as he reached Kirk. "Dr. McCoy says that we should be able to save most of the slaves, though some are in a bad way - still, it's not as bad as he thought at first."
The dull hazel eyes turned to him listlessly. "I'm... glad of that."
"Mr. Chekov reports that there are a few Federation men among the slaves - it seems that the Klingons decided to put Starfleet prisoners to work. Kelath is - "
A hiss of pain from the Captain interrupted him. "Don't mention him! I don't want to see him, hear about him, think about him! Just arrange for him to be sent to Organia as soon as the relief ships got here."
"But, Captain, you should question him... "
"How much do you think I can take, Mr. Sheron? He's cost me... too much already. If I see him, I'll... " Kirk turned away quickly, trying to recover his composure. Sheron stood uncomfortably, unsure how to react; after a moment Kirk turned to face him. "Come on, let's go and do what we can to help Bones."
He began to move away, but something hindered him. Glancing down he saw that one of the slaves who had been chained to the compound wall near where he stood had crawled forward to the fullest extent of his chain; his outstretched fingers closed frantically around Kirk's ankle.
With a faint sigh Kirk knelt, gently loosening the clutching fingers. "It's all right," he said quietly. "You will be free soon."
"Jim... Help me... " It was the merest thread of sound, but Kirk shuddered convulsively. He could not see the slave's face, for in his weakness the man could not even raise his head; long dark hair trailed in the dust, the hand that gripped so tightly was slim, long-fingered, hauntingly familiar; across the man's back the welts of a merciless flogging showed green.
It was then that Commander Sheron received the shock of his life; his Captain, the reserved, dignified James Kirk, kneeling in the filth and mud of the compound, gave a sudden muffled cry and gathered the stranger into his arms. His face shone with a mixture of anguish and delight, and he seemed totally unaware of the tears that poured down his face.
"Get McCoy!" The words were hurled over his shoulder at the astonished Andorian; Sheron fled.
In response to the Doctor's irritable enquiry, Sheron could only repeat the Captain's summons; what exactly had happened, or why, he was at a loss to explain. Grumbling under his breath McCoy nevertheless followed the Andorian back to where Kirk still knelt, his head bowed over the motionless figure in his arms.
"Jim, you can't pull me away at a moment's notice," McCoy was already protesting as he approached. "We'll get round to everyone in time - I just don't have the facilities... " His voice faded as the Captain raised his head. McCoy gasped in astonishment at Kirk's once-immaculate shirt, rumpled now and stained with blood and dust; then at his eyes, vividly alive for the first time in months, glowing with hope, with joy, and a terrible apprehension.
"Bones... help him," Kirk pleaded.
"Yes, Jim, I'll see to it." McCoy's voice was calm, soothing - had the shock of the slave camp, the reaction to Kelath's capture, broken Kirk's shell at last?
"No, Bones, you don't understand... look."
At though he touched something infinitely precious Kirk brushed back the slave's filthy, matted hair with exquisite gentleness, revealing under the dirt and blood the delicate curve of a pointed ear, a white, set face cradled against his shoulder.
McCoy stood motionless; to the confused Sheron it seemed as though he too had been struck by the same madness that had affected Kirk, for when he moved at last it was to join Kirk on his knees beside the silent figure.
"Jim... oh, Jim... It is... it really is... Spock," he stammered.
Kirk nodded, unable to speak for the delighted grin that spread across his face at this confirmation of his instinctive recognition.
"But how...? Of course, the Starfleet prisoners. Kelath told you he was dead, but he'd sent him here, to torture him." McCoy leaned forward, professional concern replacing his delight as he realised the state of the Vulcan's injuries. "Jim, we must get him back to the ship."
Kirk nodded again, and gathered the Vulcan closer, but as he tried to rise to his feet he was hindered by the chain that secured the prisoner. He glanced in appeal at McCoy, but the Doctor was unarmed, and Kirk would not release his hold. Sheron, stirred into action at last, drew his phaser and severed the chain; Kirk's expressive eyes thanked him silently. Then, moving very carefully, he rose to his feet; even so, the movement must have hurt Spock, for he gave a quickly-suppressed gasp of pain, and Kirk's face tightened in anguish. Sheron stepped forward to help his Captain, but a swift gesture from McCoy halted him - this was Kirk's task. The Captain glanced once more at the Andorian, briefly, before returning his intent gaze to the man he held.
"You're in charge here, Mr. Sheron, until the relief ships arrive; see to everything for me, will you? I'll be in sickbay if you want me."
McCoy had already alerted Kyle in the transporter room; Kirk had barely finished speaking when the familiar shimmer pulled the three men away.
It was several hours before Sheron was able to return to the Enterprise. The relief ships had arrived at last, and proper arrangements wore made for the care of the freed slaves. The Klingon prisoners had been turned over to one of the fastest ships for transfer to Organia; that was one responsibility Sheron was glad to be rid of - with so many security men busy on the surface he had been afraid that Kelath might risk everything in a bid to escape. The Enterprise herself had been ordered to the nearest Starfleet hospital with the most seriously injured slaves and the freed Federation prisoners.
Heading directly for the bridge, Sheron handed over command to Scott and relayed his orders. He thought longingly of his quarters, and sleep, but supposed he ought first to report to the Captain. An inquiry produced the information that Kirk was still in sickbay.
The isolation ward was dimly lit, apart from a soft light over the bed; as he stood hesitantly at the door Sheron knew he must be invisible to the two men who waited so patiently.
Kirk sat by the bed, both hands clasping one of Spock's, his eyes fixed steadily on the pale face on the pillow; across the bed McCoy studied the diagnostic scanners intently. After a moment the Doctor gave a long sigh of pure relief; Kirk raised his head, and the two men exchanged grins of delight.
"He's going to make it, Jim." McCoy's voice was faintly husky. "He's been starved, flogged... yet that pig-headed Vulcan stubbornness wouldn't let him give up. He's going to be pretty weak for a while, but there's no lasting damage."
Kirk's sigh of relief echoed McCoy's; slowly, with unutterable weariness, his head dropped to rest on his outstretched arm, his whole body trembling with the relief of tension. McCoy touched his shoulder compassionately, his free hand reaching out and, with the same delicate care Kirk had shown, he brushed back Spock's night-black hair, still untrimmed, but clean now, and shining. The three figures might have been carved from stone, frozen in position, united in a circle that was complete, perfect at last. The aura of joy and relief and love flowing from them formed a barrier Sheron know he had no right to pass - he was not wanted or needed here. With a feeling of utter loneliness the Andorian left silently, and headed for his quarters.
The following morning Sheron returned to duty to find that the incredible Enterprise grapevine had been hard at work; everyone on board had heard of Commander Spock's return to the ship, and wherever he went excited groups of crewmembers were discussing the implications of that fact. Gradually, those implications began to dawn on Sheron himself.
He had come to realise, if not to understand, the bond his Captain shared with the Vulcan, but until now it had not threatened his own position. A Kirk lost in his memories, haunted by his friend's death, yet still the efficient Captain - that man he could work with; a Kirk unexpectedly reunited with that friend could prove a dangerous adversary. Sheron was certain what Kirk would want, would move Heaven and Earth to achieve - Spock's reinstatement as First Officer of the Enterprise.
A smouldering resentment began to build in the Andorian as he began to appreciate the threat to his position. This assignment had won him envy and respect throughout Starfleet - he could imagine the subtle mockery if he were to be transferred so quickly; and worse - the damage to his prospects, for whatever reason was given for his transfer there would always be those ready to believe that he had failed, had not measured up to the standard Kirk required. In all honesty he had to admit that he was probably not Spock's equal, but he was confident of his own abilities; for a moment he found himself wishing that the Vulcan had died in that Klingon slave camp, but he suppressed the thought with shame, knowing how much the man had suffered.
Somehow Sheron endured that long, miserable day, hiding his worry, managing to respond with feigned enthusiasm to the jubilation of the rest of the crew. No word came from Kirk, who still remained in sickbay, closeted with McCoy and Spock. Planning the next move? Sheron wondered miserably.
Considering this, trying to foresee Kirk's line of attack, Sheron was finishing a solitary meal when he saw McCoy sitting at another table with Nurse Chapel. That meant Kirk and Spock would be alone in the isolation ward. In normal circumstances the Andorian would have turned in revulsion from the thought of deliberately eavesdropping on his Captain, but fear for his own future occupied him to the exclusion of all else. He knew how highly Kirk was regarded by Starfleet Command; he had only to request it, and Sheron knew he would be transferred from the Enterprise. He could think of no defence, but hoped that he could learn from their conversation what they intended to do.
As he had hoped, the isolation ward was still dimly lit, as it had been on the previous evening; once again he could listen unseen to the conversation of its occupants.
Kirk and Spock were talking idly of events in the past as he arrived; after a moment silence fell, and Sheron took the opportunity to study his... rival... properly for the first time. Spock's shining hair had been trimmed and combed into the smooth style he remembered from the record tape; he was very pale, and the deep lines on his face showed how much he had endured during the months of his captivity. The velvet-dark eyes were fixed on Kirk's as the two men exchanged a long, affectionate, reminiscent look. The Andorian cringed in shame as he saw Spock's face at that moment, for gone was the cool serenity, the impassive calm the image on the tape had worn; his Human half was showing clearly now, a man unutterably weary, in pain, but relaxing gratefully in his friend's company.
Sheron instinctively knew that he must never betray knowledge of what he had seen - only to Jim Kirk would the Vulcan willingly have revealed that part of himself. He felt a sudden overwhelming pity for the man - Spock had not asked for what had happened to him, meant no harm - but he fought it down savagely; whether he intended it or not, the Vulcan was a threat to his career, a threat that must - somehow - be overcome. Suddenly he became aware that Kirk was speaking.
"How do I go about it, Spock?"
"About what, Jim?"
"Getting you back, of course. You belong here, on the Enterprise - you're my First Officer, you always will be - you promised me that. If I contact Starfleet... "
"No, Jim." Spock's voice, soft but inflexible, cut through Sheron's anger.
"What do you mean - 'No'?" came defensively from Kirk.
"You will not contact Starfleet. You know that I wish to remain with you... but not like this. We cannot consider only our own wishes - there is also Commander Sheron. You told me yourself, he is a brilliant First Officer; to be removed from his post without justification, to be transferred merely because his presence is inconvenient - think what that would do to his pride, and to his career. I will not permit you so to hurt a man who has done us no harm; and what is more, I will not permit you to disgrace yourself - and me - by such an unworthy action."
"But I can't lose you again," Kirk whispered.
"Listen to me, Jim; all those months you believed me dead, and you began to accept it. We have been granted a respite - we may not serve together, but our friendship will not end, we will meet sometimes... "
"But I'll be alone again - and so will you," Kirk said miserably. "Yes, when I thought you dead I had to learn to live with it ... but knowing you're alive... Spock, you know how much your support has meant to me - don't ask me to give it up."
"I must," Spock countered with gentle firmness. "Don't you see - if we do this, if we wrong Commander Sheron so, we will cease to be the men we are. We have never used our friendship selfishly - if we do so now we will destroy it, more surely than death or separation could, for we will grow to despise what we see in each other. No, I must go... and you must never indicate to Commander Sheron, by word or look, that you would have it otherwise."
There was a long silence, then Kirk bowed his head in defeat. "You're right, of course," he said dully. "We could never live with ourselves if we harmed Sheron - and I see now that we would, whatever excuse I gave to be rid of him. So now I've got to accept that I found you only to lose you again."
"Not altogether, Jim; we will keep in touch, meet from time to time... perhaps even serve together again... one day." His voice was urgent with the need to comfort, to convince the Human.
"Perhaps." Kirk's reply was very faint, growing stronger as he continued. "So we'll do our duty, as we've always done it - what we want always comes last, doesn't it, Spock? But we still have a few days; once you've... gone, I'll try to accept Sheron - but until then, we can go on as before, can't we?"
"We can." The Vulcan's hand touched Kirk's shoulder lightly for a moment. "I don't think he would grudge us this. "Outside the door Sheron backed away quietly, his mind a turmoil of confusion. This was not the reaction he had anticipated; he had thought Kirk and Spock would be united in determination to remove him from his post. Certainly, that had been Kirk's original intention, but Sheron had seen for himself how quickly he had accepted the injustice of such an action.
To protect his pride, his career, and because they could not in honour do otherwise, they were prepared to face the parting of their ways yet again. Sheron felt... he was not quite sure how he felt; he only knew he had to be alone, to think. Turning, he collided heavily with a familiar figure - McCoy. The Doctor's face was stern, his blue eyes unreadable. Sheron wondered how long he had been there, how much he had heard. McCoy had been a stable, enduring part of that complex unity he had sensed the previous evening; he too would be affected by its disruption.
With an abrupt nod of dismissal McCoy brushed past him into the ward; Sheron saw Kirk and Spock turn at his step, welcome in their eyes, before he fled to the sanctuary of his quarters.
Despite his revised opinion of Kirk, Sheron could see no way out of the dilemma, and he slept at last to dream again of the conversation he had overheard. On the bridge next morning he was too occupied to think about it, but he was forcibly reminded when Kirk made a brief visit of inspection to the bridge. He spoke to Sheron with more animation than he had ever shown before and the Andorian knew that he was already trying to put into practice his resolve to accept the situation. After his departure Sheron overheard Sulu and Chekov discussing the Captain's improvement; they attributed it to Spock's recovery, and were pleased, but Sheron had seen the sorrow Kirk could not quite conceal, and his pity and admiration for the man steadily increased. When he was able to turn command over to Sulu, Sheron went back to his quarters, hoping to decide how best to handle the awkward situation that would undoubtedly arise when the crew realised that Spock would not remain with the Enterprise.
A tape lay on his desk, a personal message from his family, and he scanned it eagerly in an attempt to calm his mind. Andorians possessed a strong sense of family unity, and the warm messages in the tape did much to restore him. As he removed the tape from the viewer his eyes fell on another, Spock's record tape which he had removed a few minutes previously. Impelled by curiosity he replaced it in the viewer and switched on, watching intently as the details of Spock's service on the Enterprise unfolded before him.
Stark, official language, of course; but the truth came through with stunning clarity, the awareness of Kirk and Spock as a perfectly balanced team. Over and over again he saw it - the risks taken, the challenges accepted, the dangers faced, each for the other. So many times sanity, life itself, willingly offered, yet by some miracle the final sacrifice was avoided - until Helotia.
The tape ended there, with the huskiness in Kirk's voice as he recorded the capture of his First Officer, and Kelath's vindictive message, 'The Vulcan is dead'.
Automatically the tape switched off, and Sheron found himself trying again to think of some way to help. It was up to him, he realised; Kirk would take no action, he could remain on the Enterprise and somehow, eventually, Kirk would accept him. Yet if he remained the Captain would retire once more into that brittle shell of loneliness that had surrounded him for so long; Spock would continue his career elsewhere, but among strangers his warm humanity would be suffocated by the customary rigid Vulcan formality, for Sheron know that only to Kirk, and perhaps to McCoy, had Spock ever revealed his Human heart. And if he allowed that sacrifice, Sheron himself would do them the wrong they had refused to do him. Yet, was there another way?
His eyes were irresistibly drawn to the tape from his family; an idea formed, began to grow... and Sheron smiled in understanding. The shifts had changed, he noticed with some surprise - he had not realised how much time had passed. At the door of the isolation ward he hesitated, then entered quietly. Across the room Nurse Chapel turned enquiringly; the patient in the bed was one of the freed prisoners - there was no sign of Spock. Muttering an apology Sheron backed out hastily, only to come face to face, for the second time, with Dr. McCoy.
"Can I help you, Mr. Sheron?" Clearly, McCoy was not in the most co-operative of moods.
"I was looking for the Captain - I thought he'd be with Mr. Spock," Sheron replied evenly.
"Now why... ?" McCoy bit off the question, studying the Andorian closely. Whatever he saw apparently satisfied him, for after a moment he continued in a warmer tone, "Mr. Spock is much improved, and I needed the isolation ward for a more urgent case. As sickbay is already full, he is sharing the Captain's quarters temporarily. You'll find them both there."
"Thank you, Doctor."
As he halted outside Kirk's quarters Sheron wondered how they would receive him; in their eyes he was a barrier to their wish to serve together - surely they must resent him?
The Captain's voice answered the buzzer. Sheron entered and paused just inside the door. Commander Spock was lying propped up in a sickbay bed in the living area; Kirk perched beside him, the chessboard standing between them. Two pairs of eyes turned to him, Spock's veiled, unreadable, Kirk's expressing only mild curiosity.
"Forgive the intrusion, Captain, Commander; may I speak to you for a few moments?"
"Sit down, Sheron. What can I do for you?" Kirk's face and voice betrayed nothing of the tension he must have been feeling; had it not been for that overheard conversation, Sheron would never have suspected his distress.
"It is a... personal matter, Captain," he said when he again had Kirk's attention. "I wish to request a transfer from the Enterprise to a temporary posting on my home planet." He kept his gaze firmly on the floor, resolutely ignoring the suddenly stiffening figures of both men. "There has been a crisis in the affairs of my family, and my presence has been urgently requested."
"You... wish to leave the Enterprise?" Kirk's voice was dazed.
"Not wish, no; I have gained much valuable experience here. But on my planet family ties are very close. It would only be for a few months, Captain, and I regret giving you so little warning... I have already completed my application - it requires only your signature."
"I... see." Kirk was, in fact, thoroughly confused; he had resigned himself to the inevitability of losing Spock, was determinedly making the most of these last few days in his friend's company... then suddenly here was this Andorian calmly informing him that after all there was a chance for Spock to remain!
"But... why?" He was interrupted by a faint sigh of pure weariness from Spock; turning at once he lifted the chessboard away, and settled the unresisting Vulcan comfortably on the pillows. "Rest, Spock," he urged softly. "McCoy'll have my head if you overtire yourself... Wait for me outside, Sheron, we'll settle this in the briefing room."
As the Andorian turned away Kirk thought he saw a fleeting expression of concern in his eyes, and he was puzzled; but there was time enough for explanations - Spock came first. He reached out to dim the light, and his hand was caught in Spock's.
"Jim, did you hear?" The Vulcan's voice was very low, but the weary eyes were alight with hope. "He wants to go... and that means... Oh, Jim, I can stay!"
"Yes, my friend, I heard." Kirk's fingers tightened reassuringly. "Leave it to me... and sleep now; I'll come back later."
He lingered for a moment, watching as Spock's breathing settled into the tranquil rhythm of sleep; it seemed to Kirk in the dim light that the Vulcan was almost smiling as he lay. Outside in the corridor Sheron awaited him; in silence the two men headed for the briefing room. When the door had closed behind them Kirk turned to consider the Andorian through narrowed eyes.
"All right, Mr. Sheron," he said at last. "Let's have the truth - why the transfer request? Why now?"
"As I told you, Captain... "
"Come on, Sheron, I wasn't born yesterday. You're up to something - I'll stake a year's pay you haven't been called home - and I can easily check."
"That will not be necessary. As it happens, I did receive a message from home, but it contained no summons. I phrased my request as I did because it seemed the most acceptable way. May I speak frankly?"
"Please do." Kirk indicated a chair.
"Thank you. Captain, my service on the Enterprise has been most rewarding; in normal circumstances I would have chosen to remain - but we both know that the circumstances are not normal."
"I am trying to, but I do not wish to give offence. I am aware of the close friendship that exists between you and Commander Spock; it is natural that you should wish him to return, but I stand in the way. I am also aware that that friendship makes you a formidable team; Starfleet - indeed, the Federation as a whole - would be the poorer for its loss.
"Yet I believe that I have given satisfaction as First Officer; it is logical to suppose that Starfleet will leave me here, and transfer Commander Spock. You will not request that I be moved, for you know it would reflect badly on my reputation; however, if I request a home posting on compassionate grounds, and you support it, there will be no problem - Commander Spock can return."
"But what of you? What of your career?"
"Captain, there will be other Starship postings for me. I am confident that I have earned a good report from you - I foresee no problem there."
"Sheron, I know I haven't been fair to you while you've been here - why are you doing this?"
"To be honest, because I wish to earn your friendship. Until now, Humans have always been something of a mystery to me. I have learned from you that men of different races can indeed meet as equals, that the wish to understand can transcend all barriers of race and tradition. For that lesson, I thank you."
"Then all that talk of a family crisis... "
"Was only an excuse. It will serve for Starfleet - but I wanted you to know that my request was made willingly."
"Sheron, I don't know what to say. Just 'thank you', I guess. You see a great deal, don't you?"
"Captain - I wasn't born yesterday either." The Andorian smiled briefly for a moment. "My race understands friendship - you are both fortunate men."
"I am, I know." Kirk rose, held out his hand. "I hope, Sheron, that you will think of me as a friend. I owe you a great deal."
"I would be honoured, Captain." The Andorian clasped the extended hand for a moment. "Now... if you will sign the transfer... "
Kirk signed his name, and looked up. "If I can ever repay you... " he said haltingly.
"I understand, Captain; I am happy to have been of service."
Kirk smiled, then turned his head sharply towards the door, an expression of concern in his eyes.
"Is something wrong?" Sheron asked.
"No... it's only... Spock's awake... and he's troubled..."
"Go to him, Captain - your news will reassure him."
"Yes." It was a sigh of thankfulness; with a last smile of farewell, Kirk was gone. Sheron stared at the closed door of the briefing room. Now that he had made his offer, he half expected a feeling of regret that he had acted hastily; it did not come. Kirk's eyes, alight with joy and life, were reward enough. He might never experience at first hand the depth of friendship Kirk and Spock shared, but he was part of their world now, their happiness enfolded him too. Had he remained on the Enterprise he would have won, at best, eventual acceptance from Kirk and his crew - now he would always be welcome among them. He had lost, by his own decision, the most rewarding assignment he could have hoped for, but with Kirk's influence behind him there would be other opportunities; he had found instead a true understanding of the value of a friend.
It was, all things considered, a fair exchange.