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D.G. Littleford

 

Spring 2252

The diminutive woman scanned the transport station. Her wavy golden strands were beginning to lose against the invasion of gray, though the effect remained an attractive blend. Her face was a mix of handsome Midwest maturity and a determination that had been born of running a farm, raising two boys almost single-handedly, and being widowed young. Recognition brightened her features and moments later Marjorie Kirk embraced her youngest, dressed in his silver-gray and black Starfleet midshipman's uniform. Pulling his face to hers, she planted a kiss on his cheek.

James T. Kirk stepped back from the outpouring of his mother's affection, trying not to look too uncomfortable. "Mom, this is my…uh…classmate I told you about, Spock."

Kirk was avoiding the word "friend" these days. His current relationship with his half-Vulcan training partner was congenial compared to the rocky beginning that almost got them both court-martialed in Commander Rodgriguez's defense techniques class. Whatever they were was still such an exercise in trial and error, that Kirk thought it best to leave the word out of the equation for now. In fact, he had been so sure that Spock would turn down his invitation to accompany him over their Easter Liberty weekend, that now he had the pointy-eared scientist in Iowa, he didn't quite know what he was going to do with him.

Marjorie turned her attention to her son's companion and smiled warmly into the dispassionate face. "It's good to meet you, Spock. I'm glad you could come."

"Missus Kirk." Spock nodded a courteous greeting. It was easy to see that his classmate had inherited his mother's wavy blond hair and hazel eyes.

"Call me, 'Mom'. Everyone else does."

An upswept eyebrow rose at the presumed familiarity, though she never saw it, turning to lead them to her hovercar.

"I don't think Spock even calls his own mother 'Mom'," Jim Kirk speculated with a roguish grin.

Spock's silent glance confirmed the statement as they threw their bags in the back of the hovercar.

The ride to the farmhouse took them through many miles of farmland. New green stalks of various crops were pushing up through the dark, fertile soil. Kirk filled in his mother about academy news, and informed her that his posting for his summer cruise would be to the U.S.S. Republic. Marjorie chatted about recent local happenings, occasionally turning to point out a landmark to their guest in back. Jim took in the familiar scenes, surprised at how much had changed in the two years since he'd been gone.

A little less than an hour later they turned into a long drive that took them up to a two-story wood-frame farmhouse set among a number of tall, broadleaf trees, bushes, and a scattering of pine. The house stood upon foundations that appeared to be hundreds of years old. Although its character had remained the same, there was evidence that the habitation had been restored and refurbished a number of times. A homey, shaded porch stretched along the front face. Varieties of daffodils, tulips, and other colorful early spring flowers bloomed in several neatly prepared plots out in front.

Jim jumped out of the hovercar and greeted a large canine trotting towards them. The creature was a strawberry blonde, a mixture of retriever with other unknown breeds. His advanced age showed in the white hairs around his snout and face and the arthritic stiffness of his movement. Still, his tail wagged energetically for the return of his favorite Human, who dropped down to rub his head and neck and receive licks of affection. Suddenly, in the midst of the greeting, the dog pulled back and began to growl at the stranger who had exited the hovercar.

"Rigel," Jim admonished, holding the dog by the collar.

"Do you like dogs, Spock?" Marjorie asked.

"I neither like nor dislike them. I have not had much interaction," the Vulcan replied.

"Approach slowly," Jim explained. "Let him smell you first."

The Vulcan evaluated the hostile creature with an inclination of the head and a furrowed brow. Rubbing his fingertips lightly together, he took a step forwards and lowered himself into a squat. As he tentatively extended his hand, Rigel's growl increased, then suddenly culminated in a whine. Spock reached forward now to the dog's brow and lightly touched the crown of his head. Rigel whined once more and pricked his ears, seemingly alert to an unseen stimuli. Slowly, he began wagging his tail. Spock broke contact and sat back on his haunches, evaluating the result. The dog ventured forward again, this time sniffing and nuzzling at the alien hand.

Letting go of the collar, Kirk eyed the Vulcan suspiciously. "What'd you do to my dog?" Jim inquired protectively.

Spock raised a brow at the tone while fending off the huge canine tongue. He stood and retrieved their bags from the hovercar, tossing Kirk's to him. "It is a technique which can sometimes work upon lower forms of life," Spock explained. "To calm their fear response and instinctual hostility."

"Too bad it doesn't work on your classmates," Kirk quipped, referring to the ongoing hostility between Spock and a number of his academy peers.

"It does require at least a modicum of intelligence."

Kirk grinned and followed his mother up to the house. Rigel trotted along contentedly, zigzagging between his old master and a new friend.

As they entered the house, Marjorie directed up the stairway. "Spock can use George's room. He and Aurelan won't be here until Sunday."

Jim led his guest upstairs and pointed out his brother's room, before tossing his bag on his own bed in the room across the hall.

Spock set down his things in the clean, tidy bedroom, adorned with plaques and awards from the scientist's youth. He re-joined Kirk again on the landing. "I was under the impression you had only one brother, the research biologist, Sam," Spock commented.

"I do have only one brother," Jim confirmed. George Samuel Kirk, Junior. I always call him Sam."

"Just to be different," his mother added from the dining area. Marjorie was setting out a meal that she had just re-warmed, figuring the young men would be hungry by the time they got there. The plates were full of greens and beets and carrots and mashed potatoes, the latter an orange mixture of both white and sweet. A green salad was set to the side. Lastly, she put out a pitcher of tangy lemonade.

Jim surveyed the feast. "Where's the meat?"

"You told me Spock's a vegetarian."

"He is, but I'm not," Jim protested.

"Won't hurt you a bit to go without meat for a few days," his mother explained, unaffected as a Vulcan herself by her son's dismay.

"A few days!" her son sputtered.

"We always have two items on the menu around here, Spock, 'take it or leave it'," Marjorie explained.

Spock noted that there were in fact more than two items on the table, not really comprehending the joke.

Jim sat down with a frown. Nevertheless, understanding his mother's meaning perfectly well, he dug in voraciously. They were well into seconds when Jim paused long enough to break the silence. "Spock is applying for two majors," he commented conversationally to his mother. "Astrophysics and Computer Science, isn't it?"

"That is correct," Spock confirmed.

"What's your Q-per these days? Our Quality Point Rating," Jim explained for his mother's benefit. "You've got to be at the top of our class."

Spock shifted uncomfortably. There was an edge of not fully reined irritation as he spoke. "Not…quite."

"What? That's hard to believe."

The midshipman cleared his throat. "I encountered a literature instructor my freshman year who had no appreciation for my perspectives on Terran and Andorian classics."

"Oh," Jim said, a smug amusement creeping into his expression. He had aced his Plebe lit courses.

"Where are your mother's people from, Spock?" Marjorie asked.

The half-Vulcan shot his voluble classmate a look, but then resigned himself to the fact that people were beginning to learn of his mixed heritage. "Your North American Northwest," he revealed.

"It must be nice to be able to visit with them while you're at the Academy," she offered.

"Mmmm," he stalled. "I have not taken the opportunity." He avoided mention of his Great Aunt Roberta, whose neglect would be harder to explain, providing instead, "My uncle did not approve of my mother's marriage. He is still somewhat…"

"A jerk?" Marjorie finished for him.

Spock looked squarely at the candid female. "If I understand the meaning of the word, that would be an accurate description."

"Unfortunately, jerks are not in short supply here on Earth," Marjorie added.

"That has been my observation as well," Spock agreed.

Jim stared dumbfounded from across the table.

*****

Kirk began clearing the dishes, letting Rigel lick off the plates. He glanced up to see their alien guest observing with an ambiguous furrow of the brow. "They're going in the sonic dishwasher," he justified. "They'll be sterilized."

"Of course," Spock allowed, gathering the remaining dishes.

"Oh, no," Kirk corrected, taking the dishes himself. "Guests don't work around here. Play with Rigel," he suggested, nodding towards the eagerly awaiting dog. "We'll be just a minute."

With Kirk already leaving for the kitchen, Spock sat down again with a wary eye upon the pathetically affectionate creature. With the briefest receptive movement of his hand, Rigel threw his front paws onto his knees and was thrusting his snout up into his face. Spock pulled back, just out of range of its wet tongue, though he could still smell the fetid breath. He took the dog's head in his strong hands. Its fangs seemed puny compared to the pet sehlat he once had, though they were no doubt effective. Even so, these were by no means the eyes of a killer. Its fur was softer and fuller than a sehlat's, adapted to this more temperate environment. After a couple of unsuccessful jerks to try to free himself from the Vulcan's strong grip, Rigel whined pitifully. With a sigh of resignation, Spock concluded that the only logical thing to do was to scratch the animal behind the ears.

*****

"'Jerks aren't in short supply here on Earth'?" Jim chastised softly with just the two of them in the kitchen. "Mom, you're not helping me here."

"It's the truth," she said, stacking the dishes in the sonic dishwasher.

"Yeah, but Spock's already got this idea that we're some kind of…inferior species, and you've just agreed with him."

Marjorie stopped and looked up at her son, leaning herself against the counter. "Is that what this is about? You brought him here to convince him it's okay to be half-Human?"

"No—" Jim denied at first, and then conceded under his mother's piercing stare. "Okay, maybe that was a small part of the plan."

"Then you're wasting your time." She raised a hand to his shoulder, heading off his protest. "Jim, you could sell ice to an Eskimo, but you are not going to change that boy's mind about his Human heritage until he's ready. And it's certainly not going to happen in one Easter weekend."

The young man felt deflated. Marjorie Kirk had a sixth sense about people. Her son didn't understand it himself, but he knew his father had trusted in it implicitly, as her observations proved accurate on more than one occasion. Still, he felt frustrated. The current term was almost over. They would soon be heading off for summer training cruises. It was unlikely that he would have any more classes with the science and computer major in the coming years. "Then what do I do?"

"What you're already doing. Just be his friend."

"That's not as easy as it sounds. Our programs are totally different, it was sheer luck we even had this class together. With the vast number of fleet postings, I'll likely never see the guy again."

The mother fixed her son with her keen eye. "Some people are meant to come into our lives for a very short time and others to be lifelong friends. Have faith that the universe knows what it's doing."

Jim exhaled. It was the kind of thing his mother told him when his father and grandfather died. When his horse had to be put down. And on dozens of other occasions that were out of his control. He wanted to believe that there was some cosmic reason behind the way things happened, but wasn't sure that he did.

Marjorie turned back to her stacking. "What are your plans for this evening?"

Kirk looked up. Tried to switch gears. "We don't have any."

"There's a social over at the church tonight."

"Oh, I don't think…"

"Mandy Campbell will be there," his mother tossed off, re-arranging so that more dishes would fit. "She's home from the university this weekend. She's been asking about you."

Kirk's brow rose. His mother was well aware of his feelings for this young woman. "She has?"

"You could do worse."

"I know." His smile faded before it began as thoughts turned to the past. His mother wasn't aware of all that had gone on between them. At least he didn't think she did. He could never be sure. "She's not like you, Mom. She made it clear she wouldn't be waiting around for me while I was out in space."

Marjorie closed the washer, punched in the settings, then looked up.

"Being the wife of a Starfleet officer isn't for every woman. But if you care about each other, and you both want the same things, then you make sacrifices, you compromise. You work it out. Now Mandy has had some time to re-consider. You've both grown up since you've been away to school. Why don't you go and see."

*****

"Good Lord, look what the cat drug in!"

Wade Campbell had written more speeding tickets for the teen-aged Jimmy Kirk than either could count, but the country sheriff nevertheless had an affection for George Kirk's youngest that was evident in his greeting. A boyhood friend of Jim's father, Campbell had tried to keep an eye on, as well as provide guidance for, the Kirk boys after their father and then grandfather had died. A daunting and often unappreciated undertaking. The big man grabbed Jim's outstretched hand, and pulled his young friend to him in a big bear hug. Back at arm's length, Campbell gave him the once-over. "Look at you, Jimmy—still in a Starfleet uniform after almost two years. Miracles do happen."

Kirk enjoyed the reception as other old friends were crossing the recreation hall towards them. In particular, he met eyes with Mandy Campbell, the sheriff's daughter, who was beaming at the sight of him. A good sign.

Remembering his manners, Kirk turned to his companion, who was quietly eyeing the room full of midwesterners, hands clasped behind his back. "Sheriff Campbell, this is my Physical Readiness teammate, Midshipman Third Class Spock."

The policeman visually appraised their dark-haired, pointed-eared visitor as he did all strangers to town, while greeting amiably, "Welcome to the Heartland. I take it you're from Vulcan."

"Correct," Spock responded concisely, uncomfortable with the attention focused upon him.

"I didn't know Vulcans were in the Federation," came a high female voice from the crowd.

Spock's eyes glanced her direction then rolled away, barely suppressing his scorn.

Kirk stiffened with embarrassment.

"Well, of course they are, Nettie," a gentle voice explained patiently. The crowd made way for the Reverend Paul Sheppard, an aging man with white, thinning hair and kindly eyes. He smiled warmly at the newest arrivals to the social. "Vulcans were among the founding members."

"Well, I didn't know that," the older woman answered genuinely.

Giggles sputtered from some of the teens, familiar with their neighbor's penchant for faux pas.

"Why don't you boys come and get something to eat," Sheppard directed, effectively salvaging the situation and, thankfully, breaking up the crowd.

Kirk nodded his greeting and gratitude and led his companion to the refreshment table. He couldn't help looking over and smiling at the girls along the way. There was a crop of pretty new ones coming up, with unmistakable family resemblances. He'd dated most of their older sisters over the years, a few who still remained or were home for the holiday weekend like himself. But Mandy had always been special. His friends all thought he lived dangerously, knowing that the sheriff watched over his only daughter like a dragon over a precious treasure.

"Sorry about Nettie's remark," Jim apologized softly to his alien partner. "She doesn't exactly keep up with events outside of Riverside."

"Obviously. It's no matter. I've encountered Vulcans who were under the impression that Earth was a colony of the Tellarites."

Kirk snorted at the comment while looking over the offerings on the refreshment table. "You should try the apple pie. Nettie may not be the brightest bulb in the county, but she does know how to cook."

"Thank you, but your mother's meal was sufficient."

"Your loss."

Kirk took a piece for himself and began to eat. Looking around, he noticed that the social was a kind of game night. Spock's interest was drawn to a three-dimensional chessboard on a corner table nearby. It was a medieval set with the pieces in the actual forms of kings, queens, knights on horseback, bishops in robes, and so forth. Two young men were playing at the moment. Was that the Martin boy and Mandy's brother, Kenny? If so, they had both sprouted at least a foot since he had seen them last. They were at that mid-adolescent, awkward, gangly stage. But that was definitely Kenny's blazing red hair and freckles.

Wade Campbell ambled over alongside Spock, and Kirk was amused to see that the boys had finished their game, and now the sheriff and Spock were sitting down and preparing the pieces. Now that should be interesting.

"It's been a long time, Jim."

Kirk turned and smiled sheepishly into the face of Reverend Sheppard. "And the building's still standing," the young man quipped.

Sheppard had known the Kirk family forever. He had baptized the Kirk boys so many years ago. He had buried their grandfather, and had officiated at the wedding of Sam and Aurelan.

"You know, Reverend, I never apologized to you for that time that I…uh…well…"

"No need to apologize. It was a tough time you were going through. I understood that."

"Well, I just want you to know that I eventually did come to see the decency of what you were trying to do back then."

"I appreciate that," the reverend responded.

"Leave it to Jimmy Kirk to bring the devil himself to church."

Kirk chuckled as he shook hands with Vince Martin, another old family friend.

"Actually, the popular image of Satan with pointed ears, horns, and a tail was a medieval adaptation of Pan from Greek mythology," the scholarly Sheppard pointed out. "The image of the nature god was adopted for paganism generally."

"Well, it's one hell of a coincidence, isn't it? Uh…sorry, Reverend." Martin tossed off.

"I can assure you, Vince, Spock is no demon," Kirk affirmed good naturedly. "If anything, just the opposite."

"Yes, the Vulcan philosophic system, while far from perfect in my view, has been quite successful in creating an ethical, orderly society," the reverend commented. "Far superior than our own efforts in some respects. Demons in my experience have been all too Human, I'm afraid. And the worst of them can be the ones right in here," he said, pointing towards his own head.

The perceptive gentleman noticed Kirk's gaze drifting to the young woman who was waiting patiently behind them. "Well, it is good to see you again, Jim," the reverend finished up with a meaningful glance at Martin. "And you know you're always welcome, as are your friends."

Kirk smiled and nodded. Sheppard moved on to greet others of his flock.

Martin had gotten the message that it was time to move on. "They say there are no atheists in space, Jimmy T. Don't forget what your knees are for," Vince said as he gave the young man a last friendly slap.

Kirk grinned and shook his head as he watched Vince saunter away to mingle elsewhere.

"I was wondering when I could get you alone."

"Mandy." Jim put down the empty plate and gave her a hug. The artificial illumination lit up her auburn hair, and her big brown eyes were deep enough to fall in. She wasn't as sophisticated as some of the girls he'd met at the academy, but she was of the same stuff he was, a country girl who knew most of his worst secrets and still seemed to like him anyway. "You look great!" he declared.

"So do you," she echoed. "It's true what they say about a man in uniform," she flirted shamelessly, tracing his pointy sideburn. "So how do like the academy? Is it everything you thought it would be?"

"More. I love it. I really do. I've been to flight school and on several EVAs now. I train on board a starship this summer."

"That's great. I'm really happy for you."

He squinted at her. "All right, who are you and what have you done with the real Mandy Campbell?" he joked.

"Ha ha," she said sarcastically. "I guess I didn't realize how much I was going to miss you. All your talk about starships and stuff."

"'Normal people don't live in space', you used to tell me. 'They live on planets'."

She smiled guiltily at hearing her words come back at her.

His hopes rose while experience warned him to be wary. "So… how have you been?"

"I'm good. Taking classes at the university. I'm considering pre-law, actually."

"Pre-law?" he sputtered, suddenly reminded of Areel Shaw, a pre-law co-ed he had been diligently pursuing back at the academy. "That's great. You would make a fine lawyer," he managed. "Seeing anyone?" he ventured a little too casually.

She wrinkled up her nose. "I'm sort of in between at the moment. How 'bout you?" she asked cautiously.

"Uhm, no one special," he said vaguely.

"I still think about that night up at the lake," she said, softening her voice.

Kirk smiled wider remembering as well, then grimaced. "And I still remember your father threatening to kill me if I ever came near you again." He stole a glance over to Campbell at the chess table. He was asking Spock about crime statistics on Vulcan.

Mandy shrugged it off. "He wasn't serious."

"Uh…I was there, Mandy, and as I recall, he was extremely serious."

"Well, I guess he's decided that you weren't so bad after all. He told me that of all the boys I've known, you were the only one honorable enough to stand up to him like a man."

"Your father said that? About me?" he asked incredulously.

"Didn't you know? You were always his favorite. He just didn't like it that I wasn't Daddy's Little Girl anymore." She said it with a feisty grin that told him she wasn't quite the sweet, innocent girl he used to know either. "I was kind of hoping we could talk while you were here...say, up at the lake?" she said gazing up at him with her big brown eyes.

Jim suddenly realized that he'd stopped breathing. "Uhm, I'd like that... I would… but…uh… I do have my friend here from out of…town." He glanced again at the chess table. Spock was launching into a treatise on crime reduction through the elimination of emotion.

"Well, maybe I can get Patty to join us. She's always up for a little adventure."

He weighed the idea but exhaled in frustration because he knew it was no use. He remembered all too well the disaster that occurred the last time he tried to "double" with Spock. He shook his head. "No, it won't work."

"Why not?"

"Because Vulcans don't…uh..." He waved his hand about as though it could help him grasp the right word. "Their customs are different from ours," he finally explained.

Mandy huffed, her temper igniting. "Well…then can't you just lose him for the night?"

Kirk was dismayed at the suggestion. "No. I can't do that. I invited him. I'm the only one he knows around here."

She shook her head. "You always did have to bring home all the strays."

Kirk bristled at the comparison. "Spock isn't a 'stray', Mandy."

She turned back, lowering her voice but increasing the intensity. "I just really wanted to see you. I've been thinking… wondering if maybe there could still be a chance for us…" Her eyes said even more than her words. Suddenly embarrassed by the honesty of her request, she looked down and away. "If you change your mind..."

He grabbed hold of her arm before she could walk away, and pulled her back against him, scanning the room for watchful eyes in this very public place. Everyone seemed busy with their own games and activities. Brushing against her silky auburn hair, he spoke softly not far from her ear. "Mandy... We'll go to the lake tomorrow night. I'll figure something out."

She turned back to him and her smile and beaming eyes were his reward. With a squeeze of his hand, she walked away, re-joining Patty and her other girlfriends at a table across the hall. He stood watching her another moment, both excited and anxious by the prospect of the following night. Then he himself turned to join the kibitzers standing by the chess table.

His heart racing still from his encounter with his old flame, Kirk watched as Campbell's hand moved toward his bishop, paused, then returned to drumming his fingers restively on the surface of the table. "Who's winning?" he asked.

"Sheriff Campbell is in check," the Martin boy informed him.

The big sheriff, whose hair was a little thinner, his waist a little thicker than when he had last seen him, glanced up at Kirk, then squinted determinedly again at the board. "How's your mama?"

"Good. A few more gray hairs than I remember."

"At least half of them belong to you, you know."

"Where is your mother tonight, Jim?" Audrey Campbell was Mandy and Kenny's mother and the genetic source of their red hair and Mandy's soul-full eyes.

"She said she needed to get some things ready for a Four H meeting next week."

"Is George coming into town this weekend?" Wade asked.

"Just Sunday."

"Good. Good."

Kirk exchanged a wink and a smile with Kenny as they both could see that Kenny's father was beaten.

"How do you like Earth, Midshipman Spock?"

Kibitzers turned to look at Nettie. The malaprope-prone woman misunderstood, fearing to have put her foot in her mouth again. "Or is that your first name?" she sputtered.

The alien eyes also fell upon the female. "Spock is sufficient." He cocked his head in a kind of shrug. "Earth is the planet which hosts Starfleet Academy. I have no emotions regarding the location," Spock explained patiently as he waited for his opponent to move.

"You must miss your home, your family?" Audrey ventured.

"Not at all," Spock replied smoothly. "It is only that living on Earth poses unique challenges."

"Do you mean the differences in atmosphere and gravity?" Campbell's precocious, adolescent son inquired.

"He means the challenges of dealing with illogical Humans," Kirk explained with a sly grin, the memory of their own misunderstandings in mind.

Amusement lit up the Vulcan eyes as he glanced at Kirk. "There exist challenges to living among Humans, to be sure. But overall I find in the experience a certain freedom."

Kirk was stunned by the admission. "Freedom—to be Human, Spock?" Kirk asked hopefully.

"Freedom to be Vulcan," Spock stated flatly, then looked back at his inactive opponent. "It is your move, Sheriff."

"I know it's my move. Don't rush me," Campbell growled in reply. "This isn't a timed game."

"Too bad. You two could be here all night," Kirk needled.

"All right." Campbell moved, out of danger for the moment, but it was obvious even to non-players that his remaining pieces were boxed in and the game was all but over. Spock had him checkmated two moves later.

"Let's go again," Campbell ordered with steely, if foolhardy, resolve.

"So how's business these days?" Kirk asked the sheriff in way of conversation while the men reset the pieces.

"Quiet since you left, Jimmy. The crime rate has plummeted by half."

"Very funny," Kirk laughed nervously, knowing that his classmate had a tendency to take things literally. "Don't believe everything Sheriff Campbell tells you, Spock. In spite of his being an officer of the law, he's been known to tell the biggest whoppers this side of Orion."

"I may exaggerate, but I do not lie," Campbell countered.

Spock eyed the two men, and doubted the veracity of both at the moment.

"We do have a stumper these days," Campbell revealed. "Somebody broke into the town's museum. Stole a good number of our artifacts, including the farm antiques your grandfather donated."

"What? Why would anyone want museum pieces?" Kirk asked.

"Pre-Federation antiquities are currently in high demand by unscrupulous collectors, I understand," Spock commented.

"That's right," Campbell confirmed, turning a suspicious eye upon the Vulcan. "How'd you know about that?"

Spock raised an indignant brow. "I scanned an article on the problem several weeks ago. I find it curious that anyone would desire such recent pieces. On Vulcan, only artifacts from the turn of the millennium or before are of anything more than historical value."

Campbell grunted his impatience with the Vulcan's conceit. "Be that as it may, even our humble relics have become a very lucrative commodity. We've been in touch with EAGLE, Earth Agency for Global Law Enforcement, and even Starfleet, to be on the lookout, which has hamstrung these folks a bit. We don't believe the items have been removed from the county as of yet, though we still haven't been able to pin down their cache.

"You don't suspect anyone locally, do you?" Kirk couldn't imagine anyone he knew doing anything like that.

Campbell eyed the young cadet sidelong from beneath his bushy eyebrows. "We're looking at that angle," he said vaguely. Kirk had the feeling he was about to say something more. Instead he turned back to the board. "All right, Spock. It's your play."

Kirk smiled at the lamb anxious to get to the slaughter and stole a look back at Mandy. She was laughing with her friends at the table across the room. Pulling out a chair, he sat himself down. This could be a long night.

*****

They arrived back at the farmhouse just before midnight. Campbell had managed some decent chess challenges, but never could quite pull off a successful end game. To add insult to injured pride, Kirk casually informed his old nemesis that he had in fact beaten Spock, several times now.

As Kirk jumped out and rounded his mother's hovercar, he found Spock stargazing. Following the stare he asked, "Looking for home?"

"No. Vulcan's trinary is more that direction," he said with barely a nod towards the south.

"Of course," Kirk murmured.

"Part of our mid-term in Stellar Cosmology was to calculate the variable output of radiant energy for Alpha Orionis for this week. I was checking my prediction."

"Think you got it right?"

"Of course."

Kirk smiled. "I’m sure the Betelgeusians will be relieved." His own self-confidence at the moment paled in comparison. "Don't you ever relax?"

Spock frowned. "States of relaxation are relative."

"So they are." Kirk walked to the porch and an old striped gray tom cat trotted over to rub against his ankle. "Spock... About tomorrow night… Would you mind if I left you here with my mom for a few hours?" His eyes darted down to the cat. "There's this girl—"

"Sheriff Campbell's daughter?"

Kirk looked back up. "You don't miss much, do you?" He sat down on the steps instead of going in.

Spock stood at the foot of the steps. "You looked her direction seven times throughout the evening. And I believe she looked your direction eight. Of course I am quite capable of entertaining myself for the evening. However…and it is true I do not fully understand Earth's social customs, but nevertheless...aren't you pursuing Miss Shaw back in San Francisco?"

"Well…yes…" Kirk admitted guiltily. "But I knew Mandy first," he defended lamely. "I mean…we have some…unfinished business we need to…uh…talk about."

Spock just stared at him curiously.

Kirk scratched the one-time stray around its face and beneath its chin where he knew he liked it. The tom began to purr contentedly. One obstacle down, but still Kirk was torn. He really wanted to see Mandy again. Yet at the same time he wasn't sure how he felt about the possibility of having her more permanently back in his life. After all, for over two years now, he had assumed that their relationship was over. He had moved on.

He also suspected that Mandy's change of heart wouldn't last. All too soon she would be pestering him to come back down to earth and "live like a normal person." His mom had suggested that if they really cared for each other, they might have to sacrifice, to compromise, in order to work it out. He was well aware what his brother had chosen in order to be with Aurelan.

Jim wondered if perhaps he could serve for X number of years, fulfill his obligation, and then not renew his contract with Starfleet. But then what? He supposed he could run the family farm while teaching history at the local high school. Who knows? Maybe even run for sheriff, he thought deviously. No doubt there would be unimagined challenges and joys in raising a family and helping to preserve the character of their community. Or… would he grow bitter and resentful, having given up the life of his dreams?

"Jim?"

Kirk blinked up at his guest. He picked up the old cat, presenting him to his classmate. "This is Garth, protector of the barn sector and scourge of mice throughout the Kirk homeland."

Spock accepted the cat with a cock of his brow, and sat on the porch step next to his host. He preferred Earth's more independent felines to their overly needy canines. The old tom sniffed voraciously the odd smelling flesh.

"Why ‘Rigel’?" Spock asked suddenly.

"What do you mean?"

"Why did you name your dog ‘Rigel’?"

"Betelgeuse was too long," Kirk quipped. He shrugged. "I just liked the sound of it."

"Vulcan Annals of Antiquity tell of Luft Son of Urek, who led an experimental multi-generational expedition to distant stars. Three hundred years later the ship reappeared on the outskirts of our system, barely able to maintain life support. The descendants of the original explorers told tales of colonies they had established on distant worlds and requested supplies and additional recruits to be sent. Unfortunately, they came at a time when Vulcan was at war. Exploration and colonization were no longer a priority. Some scholars believe the expedition may have made it as far as the Rigel system."

"The supplies were never sent…" Kirk intuited. "Your people don’t know what happened to the colony?"

Spock shook his head thoughtfully. "There are those who believe the story is entirely legend."

"Who knows? Leif Erickson made it to North America… The rate we’re going, starships will be going as far as Rigel before long."

"True."

"I’ve made it as far as Starbase Seven, to visit my father. Other than Earth, have you ever been off-world?"

"I accompanied my father to a conference on Andor."

"What did you think of it?"

The young half-Vulcan remembered silently. "I prefer Earth," he tactfully replied.

Kirk smiled at the candor. The two then spent the next couple of hours comparing notes about where they had been and what they had seen. Kirk omitted his experience on Tarsus IV, an unpleasant memory of which the survivor rarely spoke. The midshipmen shared rumors they had heard, and interesting sounding places they hoped to see, as well as lost colonies and other mysteries of the galaxy they hoped to solve during their careers.

At last, Kirk admitted he was getting tired and they turned in.

*****

Jim Kirk woke with the first rays of the early Spring sun and immediately noticed that Rigel wasn't there on the rug beside him. He put on a pair of the most comfortable jeans and flannel shirt he could find and went across the hall without bothering to put on his shoes or button the shirt. Spock's room was already empty, the bed neatly made. It was then that he noticed the smell of fresh brewed coffee and the hushed tones of his mother's voice drifting up the hallway from the kitchen.

Going down the stairs he heard, "Georgie edged him out on academics, but Jim is by far the more creative. And the more restless of the two. Always had to be up and doing. The summer after my husband died, Jim would just disappear for days at a time. Never even tell his brother where he'd gone. I think the Academy has given him the focus he's needed for all that energy."

"Indeed," Spock's soft voice commented.

Jim grimaced as he wondered what other embarrassing things his mother had been saying about him.

Both Spock and Rigel looked up at his approach. The Vulcan was standing at the stove, making what appeared to be an unusual form of pancakes, while his mother was seated at the kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee. She was dressed in a familiar sweater and jeans. Spock wore a satiny shirt adorned with some sort of swirly figures, Jim assumed to be Vulcan characters. Rigel lay contentedly on the kitchen rug between them.

"We're on leave, Spock. It's all right to sleep in around here," Kirk informed him from the doorway.

Amusement lighted the dark alien eyes as they observed the sleepy Human. "I saw no logic in sleeping in. It is the custom on Vulcan for a guest to prepare the morning meal. I have had to make a few…er…substitutions."

"Don't worry; I've been watching to make sure it's all edible," Marjorie said with a conspiratorial wink.

"Your mother and I have been having a most fascinating conversation," Spock commented as he turned the item on the griddle.

"I'll bet," Jim grumbled. He sniffed suspiciously at the smell of vegetables cooking. "Is that pancake green—?"

"Blackberry tea, Jim?" his mother interjected, ignoring his grumpy mood.

"Just coffee," he countered, sinking groggily into a chair.

The pancakes were indeed green, and neither conspirator would divulge the full list of ingredients. Jim found the bland vegetarian discs more fit for Human consumption after he smothered them with honey or maple syrup, in spite of Spock's objections.

After breakfast, Marjorie announced she was going into town on errands. She asked if Jim and Spock wanted to come along, but Jim proposed showing their visitor around the farm instead. First, however, Jim scrounged up a flannel shirt and a pair of denim jeans for his guest to wear, claiming that Spock's alien "pajamas" would frighten the wildlife.

Rigel trotted happily beside them as Jim and Spock walked out back through a small garden his mother had planted with early spring vegetables. Pausing in the pea patch, Jim picked a number of the ripe pods. He passed some to Spock, while popping his own open and sliding the sweet green spheres into his mouth. They passed by a busy chicken coop and headed towards the barn. Kirk opened wide the barn door. It was dark and relatively empty inside, except for animal feed and sundry equipment and tools. Garth the tomcat scurried outside into the morning sun. Rigel started to give chase, but realizing it was the familiar feline, he trotted back to his humanoid companions.

"It's only used for storage nowadays," Kirk explained.

"Your family kept horses?" Spock surmised, studying the now empty stalls. He recalled the large, graceful creatures from his youth.

Kirk nodded. "Up until a few years back. Mine developed a… degenerative bone disease. I had to put him down," Kirk said with regret. "I used to ride him like a madman. If there was a stream, I had to cross it; if there was a fence, I had to jump it," he finished with a shake of his head in recrimination.

"You have come to an illogical conclusion," Spock said simply.

Kirk turned and leaned against the stall barrier. "I have?" he asked skeptically.

"My understanding of degenerative diseases are that they are genetic in origin. Your athletic activities would not have been the cause."

"Well, it couldn't have helped any," Kirk said, unwilling to let go of the guilt so easily. "I don't suppose you have horses on Vulcan?"

"They are not indigenous. Although I did ride one once…at my maternal grandparents."

Kirk grinned and wondered if there were a couple of horses they could borrow. He'd ask his mom who was still around when she got back.

They wandered out of the barn and up a long dirt road, fields to the right, a few trees on the left. Kirk picked up a suitable stick and threw it for Rigel to retrieve. He winced at the obvious signs of arthritis in his old canine friend's gait.

Spock's attention was upon the horizon. "The majority of agriculture on Vulcan is cultivated in intense, climate-controlled environments in order to maximize production. It is rare to see such vast tracts of open farmland. Your mother operates all of this?" he nodded towards the plowed and planted fields.

"She used to. Of course she had help in those days, my grandfather, my brother and I, and the occasional hired help. Now she leases the fields to Johnson, our neighbor. It'd be a shame to leave all that acreage uncultivated. She’s mentioned that a couple of my cousins are willing to manage it for her, but I don’t know if she’ll take them up on it..." He pointed off to the east, toward a large expanse of young stalks of green. "That's where Johnson makes a corn maze every Fall. He's created some of the best in the state."

"A corn maze?"

"Yeah, you know, a…labyrinth."

"I know what a maze is," Spock replied. "Why would anyone create one in a field of grain?"

"I can see you’ve never gotten lost in a tall field of corn." Spock’s unaffected expression was confirmation enough. "It's an old tradition. Goes back to the days when farmers were dependent on market forces. During a time when prices were depressed, someone discovered that selling tickets to a maze made him more income than just selling the corn. Girls really like them. I stole my first kiss in a corn maze," Jim explained nostalgically.

Spock gazed curiously at the fields without comment.

"I've been meaning to ask you something," Kirk began. "I know it's a bit early, but I've been planning to enter the Antares Two Million Race in our senior year, and was wondering if you'd like to team up?"

"I already have a partner for the Antares Two Million," Spock replied matter-of-factly.

Kirk was both surprised and disappointed. "Really? Who is it?"

"Miss Davis."

"Lystra Davis!" Again, he added to himself. Spock and Lystra Davis had been teaming up as lab partners for almost two years now. "Are you sure there isn't something going on between you two?"

"'Going on?'" Spock repeated. "You mean as in something of a romantic nature?" He was beginning to catch on to how Kirk thought at times. "Hardly," he said dismissively.

Kirk had dated Lystra the previous year and remembered her admission that she found her lab partner "cute". The half-Vulcan always maintained that he experienced no attraction to their female coeds, but also insisted that it was inappropriate to discuss his Vulcan mating customs.

"Here's something," Kirk said, changing the subject. He made several running strides and leapt up into a tree, grabbing onto a huge branch forking away from the trunk of a large oak. He pulled himself up and on top of the branch, only to stand and clamber farther up, making use of the rough hand and footholds in the bark, as well as the irregularly emerging branches. Finally, he reached some weathered wooden planks forming a platform in a high saddle of the tree. Kirk paused and looked down.

Already winded, Rigel had curled himself up in a grassy spot under the tree. Spock was staring upwards at him.

"Come on up, Spock," Kirk called.

The Vulcan evaluated the climb and chose the most logical way up, somewhat more carefully and cautiously than Kirk. By the time Spock had reached the platform, Kirk had already climbed to an even higher level and was looking out through the leaves.

"Watch out for those boards," Kirk called down. "They're not as strong as they used to be."

Spock confirmed the advice as he tested a plank that creaked ominously beneath his weight. Finding a more solid spot across a horizontally meandering branch, Spock noticed letters, words and dates carved onto one of the planks.

With the agility of a monkey, Kirk leapt and slid from one branch to another, to land on a limb nearby. "There's a really great view from up there."

"I can see perfectly well from here," Spock replied.

Kirk smirked, "You're not afraid of heights, are you Spock?"

"I have respect for the law of gravity. What is the purpose of this writing?" he changed the subject.

"Oh. That's where my brother and I carved our names," he said pointing to George S. Kirk Jr and James T. Kirk just below.

"George Samuel Kirk," Spock read the name again farther up the plank.

"My father. And Samuel W. Kirk was my grandfather," Jim explained while pointing them out.

On nearby branches, there were hearts carved with George and Marjorie and George and Aurelan.

"Your ququa-ila," Spock pronounced unfamiliar words. At Kirk's puzzlement, he defined for him, "Your family tree."

Kirk smiled. "I guess you could call it that." He stretched out comfortably on one of the limbs, a spot he obviously knew well.

"You never said what happened to your father," Spock gently inquired.

Kirk shook his head, looking off. "We don't know. His mission was classified. We were told only that he died honorably… in the line of duty." He glanced back and met the piercing alien eyes. They seemed to hold a depth of compassion that he found surprising. The intensity made him uncomfortable, however, and he looked away again.

"Is that why you joined Starfleet, to learn what happened to your father?"

Kirk shrugged. "I suppose it has something to do with my father. But I've just always known I wanted a career in Starfleet. I couldn't tell you when I first got the idea. I've just always known… How 'bout you?"

"I always thought I would attend the Vulcan Science Academy."

"What made you change your mind?"

Spock didn't answer immediately. "It became clear to me that Starfleet was a more logical choice."

"Yes… Sam applied to study science at the academy, but decided that civilian life would allow him more time with a family."

"Logical, if that is one's goal."

It occurred to Jim that this was one of the few times that Spock was actually conversing with him. Not rattling off information, or giving the Vulcan party line, or making droll observations, but just talking, even providing a smidgeon of personal information. He ventured a question that had been on his mind.

"Spock, what did you mean last night when you said that Earth gave you the 'freedom to be Vulcan'?"

Whatever openness had been between them momentarily, ended. The dark eyes became evasive, and defensive barriers rose again. "I only meant it as a compliment of Earth's tolerance for other cultures, of course."

"Right. Of course," Kirk agreed, cognizant the answer was a half-truth at best. Time to change subjects again. "So, Spock…er… do you like to camp?"

"In what sense?"

Kirk pulled off a leaf from an overhanging branch. "Roughing it. Going out in the wilderness with a minimum of supplies. Like what we do in survival training, only more fun."

"I often spent time in the canyons and mountains near our home. But I did not do it for 'fun'."

Assuming the fledgling scientist had gone to the canyons to study the local flora and fauna, Kirk sighed. He twirled the oak leaf in his hands, thinking idly, Red oak leaves are pointed, like the arrowheads of the "red man"; white oak leaves are rounded, like the old-time bullets of the "white." It was a memory trick his grandfather had taught him for recognizing the differences in oaks. White oaks were good for ship building. Red oaks were good for…uh… He had forgotten what Pop said they were good for. Well…treehouses, anyway. Maybe this invitation had been a big mistake, he considered. Well, there was still Mandy and the lake tonight... And then it hit him. The lake.

"Come on, Spock." Kirk tossed away the leaf and was up and scrambling back down the tree as though he wore anti-gravity boots. Spock and Rigel had a tough time keeping up as Kirk trotted back behind the house to an old shed.

Inside, Kirk threw back a tarp, unveiling the faded red Z12 hovercar.

"Is this the one you built yourself?" Spock inquired.

"Re-built actually, from a scavenged frame and used parts. Had some help from my brother and Dave Dickson, a guy I used to know across town. But I did most of the work myself." He lifted the hood.

"It requires maintenance," Spock opined.

Kirk murmured a grudging acknowledgment. "The power cells appear to be adequate," Kirk countered.

"Barely," Spock added.

Kirk jumped in the driver's seat and fired it up. The engine sputtered and vibrated oddly, but ran reasonably well for the time it had been sitting unused. "It should get us to the lake and back," Kirk concluded.

They lashed a two to three-man canoe onto the vehicle and tossed the oars in the back. Jim grabbed fruit, nuts, a canteen, and a bag of beef jerky he came across in the cupboards, which had probably been there since before he'd left home.

Rigel wagged his tail hopefully, but his master concluded that his faithful companion just wasn't up to it anymore. "Not this time, old friend," he said with a pat to the canine's head.

Halfway down the drive, Kirk stopped and suddenly turned to his passenger, "You do know how to swim?"

"I thought the purpose of a canoe was that one did not need to swim?" Spock returned calmly.

Kirk grimaced. "And if the thing capsizes?"

"Yes, I can swim," Spock stated.

Kirk accelerated the rest of the way out and onto the main highway.

Miles of fields fell by as the Z12 sped along. "The lake is actually farther by road. As kids we used to cut across country to get there," he said pointing north. "You can check the radio, if you want," Kirk offered. Glancing up at the sky he spied the pale sliver of the moon. "On a good day we can pick up the Lunar broadcasts."

Spock activated the radio receiver. A fast-paced bluegrass ballad described a modern day drifter's love-hate relationship with the road. He scanned several more channels and their varied offerings, stopping briefly on a tune he recognized as something his mother used to hum. The lyrics revealed some sort of sentimental love song, he realized. He moved on to a station of modern experimental styles, and then just turned it off.

Kirk was annoyed that Spock had rejected one of his own favorites, an exhilarating instrumental, "Freed by Speed". "Can't find any music that you like?" Kirk asked.

"I wasn't aware that anything I encountered actually constituted music."

Kirk winced at the slam. "Well, I've got some Mozart and Beethoven on Program Ten," he offered. "Unless they're beneath your tastes as well."

The Vulcan arched a brow. "Sometimes silence is preferable."

A few turns and they entered a dirt road that wound up a more hilly terrain dotted by trees. Spock turned towards the driver. "I believe we just passed a 'No Trespassing' sign. This is a Wetlands Conservation area."

Kirk shrugged it off. "That's just posted so that they have something to charge people with if they abuse the area. Don't worry. My friends and I used to come here all the time. It's almost never patrolled," he added.

Spock cocked an eyebrow at his companion, but turned back to the scenery.

They emerged from the trees and came to a stop near the small earthen and stone dam holding back the reservoir. It was a beautiful crystal clear lake surrounded by a ring of green. The glassy surface mirrored the far shore, blue sky, and scattered cumulus clouds.

The two quickly unlashed the canoe and positioned it on the grassy bank while securing snacks, canteen, and paddles inside. They waded the craft into the chilly water, got inside and pushed off from the shallows. After a few false starts, Spock in the bow picked up on the alternating rhythm while Kirk aft, used his paddle occasionally to steer.

It was a perfect day, warm for springtime, but with a light breeze across the water. Fish broke the surface from their underworld, creating concentric rings on the dark water. An egret skirted the lake, and geese flew gracefully overhead. Once they saw what Kirk identified as an eagle. If the two bipeds spoke at all, it was in hushed tones, as though it were sacrilege to desecrate the stillness with their voices.

Kirk made for a small island to the far side of the lake, going ashore on the bank of a sunny cove. Spock jumped out of the bow and pulled the craft safely up on the damp sand, as Kirk leapt out as well.

"My brother and I call this Tom Sawyer's Island."

"Another one of your neighbors?" Spock asked sincerely.

Kirk chuckled and then squinted at the Vulcan as he realized he was serious. "Tom Sawyer's a fictional character. I thought you told me you've read Earth classics?"

"I have."

"Mark Twain? The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Huckleberry Finn?"

"I am familiar with your nineteenth century author Mark Twain. I read a kind of time travel story, his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I found it an imaginative social commentary," Spock commented neutrally.

Kirk nodded. "Yeah, that one's good, but you missed his best ones. Sam and I used to bring our friends out here and play Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Sam always got to be Tom Sawyer," he recalled with a tinge of irritation.

On second thought, Spock recalled that he had indeed heard the titles before, overhearing an argument between his mother and father many years before. His mother had wanted him to read these novels, but his father had objected. He considered them too frivolous. They had compromised on Connecticut Yankee.

Kirk glanced around at the all too familiar cove, a flood of memories washing over him. "This was a boy's paradise. We used to play Run Sheep Run, Capture the Flag, Klingons and Indians, Pirates of the Lake. All kinds of nonsense…"

"Pirates?"

Kirk looked back again. "Pirates. Didn't you ever play games? Pretend you were somebody you weren't when you were a kid?"

"As a very small child," the Vulcan admitted, emphasizing the 'very'. "And I certainly would not emulate criminals."

"It was all in fun, Spock." Kirk exhaled. "Anyway, we used to camp out here during the summertime… look up at the stars… tell stories around the campfire..." He approached a ring of good-sized rocks, still blackened with ash and soot. "This is where we used to build the fire," he explained, squatting beside it, growing lost in the memories. "One night, Sam got out his pocketknife and sterilized the blade in the flame. We all became blood brothers." He grinned down at his hand nostalgically. "I still have the scar."

"I beg your pardon. You made an incision in your hand?" Spock asked with incredulity.

"It's an old…Native American tradition, I think. By mixing blood with someone you're not actually related to, you cement a kind of bond between you.

Spock cocked his head at the idea. "And you never had the scar dermally repaired?"

Kirk feigned revulsion at the suggestion. "Tell our mothers what we'd done? That would have been bad mojo," Kirk explained as though his classmate should have known better.

Spock added a raised eyebrow to his already puzzled expression.

"Mojo, magic, anything supernatural or miraculous," Kirk explained. "Haven't you ever had an experience that you couldn't fully explain?"

"That which seems supernatural is simply not fully understood," the young scientist stated.

Kirk pursed his lips at Spock's skepticism. He obviously was going to have a hard time getting through to the alien. He looked up to see Spock staring at a tree.

"'Jim plus Mandy'," Spock read inside the heart carved into the trunk. "Sheriff Campbell's daughter?"

Kirk reddened. "Yes…"

"Is she your betrothed?" Spock asked sincerely.

Kirk smiled at Spock's use of such an archaic word. He shook his head. "We never got that far. More like engaged to be engaged," he described. Kirk walked over to the too-obvious tree, remembering when he had carved the heart. "I think I've wanted to marry Mandy Campbell since I was five years old, but… it hasn't worked out."

"Some say the one constant in the universe is change," Spock commented philosophically.

"Yeah, well, that's… one of the things we want to talk about tonight."

"I see."

"I don't know about you, but I'm going swimming." Kirk unbuttoned his shirt, and pulled off his boots and pants, very much wanting to change the subject. He thought twice about skinny-dipping and left on his shorts. The desert-born Vulcan watched curiously as his host climbed up on a large rock protruding into the lagoon, ran the length of it and dived into the cold, clear waters.

The first shock was bracing. Kirk swam for as long as he could under water, finally surfacing for air some ways into the lake. He caught his breath, floating and treading water. He quickly moved out of a current of icy water from the stream feeding the reservoir from late snow run-off to the warmer temperature liquid.

Looking back towards the cove, there was no sign of Spock. Kirk waited and watched to see if his partner had followed him into the water. He floated a bit longer, wondering where his guest went, then slightly peeved, decided he'd better go see. Long strokes took him swiftly back to the island.

Frowning at the sand, Kirk saw where it appeared Spock had gone into the trees. "Spock!" he called out, but there was no answer. Zig-zagging where there was the least amount of bushes and brambles, Kirk came out on the north shore of the small isle, to a familiar muddy inlet. Spock was squatting beside the muddy pool.

Kirk quietly squatted beside the Vulcan, who was studying the brackish water intently. The pool was dotted with small black roundish creatures with fishy tails. Some, though not all, had sprouted tiny black legs.

"Pre-terrestrial amphibians, I believe," Spock commented.

"Tadpoles," Kirk used the colloquial term.

"Amphibians are extinct on Vulcan, although I've seen what is believed to be their fossils baked into the canyon walls."

"There are hundreds of frogs around here. I always had one in my pocket when I was a kid."

"Why would you put a frog in your pocket?" Spock asked, glancing his way.

"I don't know. I just did," Kirk snapped irritably, standing again. "Are you going to come for a swim?" Kirk asked pointedly.

Spock's attention returned to the tadpoles. "Water is a scarce commodity on Vulcan. I find it illogical to utilize it in such a trivial way."

"Fine. Whatever." Crashing back through the woods, Kirk decided he'd failed. If this place didn't get to Spock, then nothing would. He stopped to answer the call of nature, then returned to the sunny beach, climbed back up on the rock, and stretched himself out, luxuriating in the early warmth.

Kirk loved this place. It was where his Dad first taught him to swim, and Granddad to fish. Where he once beat Sam in a race swimming to the island. It was where he used to bring dates, and where one night Sheriff Campbell had caught him with his daughter...

It wasn't the threat that had made him stay away.

I'm going to make this real easy for you, Jimmy. Come near my daughter again, and I'll kill you, the angry father had said then turned away.

It's not what you think, Sheriff Campbell... I love Mandy.

You don't know the meaning of the word. You're going to be just like your father. You'll get her pregnant and then go off into space and leave her here to raise your children alone.

Out of wounded pride, Jim had lashed out with his fist. Campbell hadn't responded, just took Mandy and went home.

Truth was, Jim had far too few precious memories of his Starfleet father. He was proud of his dad, of course, and wanted to be like him in many ways. But there was a void in his life he wouldn't wish on anyone, particularly his own offspring. His dilemma about Mandy mirrored his feelings about this place. Part of him wished he could stay forever. But another part couldn't wait to get back to the Academy with all of the challenges of his new life there.

His thoughts eventually drifted back to Campbell's comments from the night before about the theft of local artifacts. He wondered who could possibly be involved, and where the items might be cached. This place had been his paradise, but it also had been a place of secrets. He wondered… He was still wondering when he lost consciousness.

*****

Eyelids fluttered open as the breeze and his wet shorts gave him a chill. It was hard to tell from the sun how long he'd slept. He sat up and looked around. The lake was as peaceful as ever. Spock was sitting on a mid-size boulder across the cove. He was fully dressed but his head was bowed and his eyes closed.

"Spock?" Kirk called, but received no reply. "Spock!" he repeated more forcefully. Following his second failure to get a response, he slid off the rock into the knee deep water and sloshed up the shore to his friend. Grabbing him by the shoulders, he shook him as he spoke again, "Spock!" This time the eyes did flutter open.

"Spock, are you all right?"

The Vulcan looked up at the Human as though he was not in control of his faculties. "Of course. I was meditating."

"Oh." Kirk let go and stepped backward, suddenly feeling kind of foolish. He looked about awkwardly. "Look, I'm sorry, Spock. I hoped you'd have a good time out here. But…I just don't know… what you would find fun."

Spock furrowed his brow. "Jim, I'm not certain I fully comprehend the meaning of the word; however, I believe that we Vulcans don't have 'fun'."

"You don't," Kirk responded dubiously. "What about when you're playing chess? Particularly when you're winning at chess?" he challenged.

Spock exhaled patiently. "I play chess because it is mentally stimulating."

"I see," Kirk responded doubtfully.

"Nevertheless, I have, in fact, found this weekend to be a fascinating experience," Spock continued.

"You have—?"

"Yes. Your mother is an extraordinary individual, and I find it remarkable that you grew up and survived to maturity in this wild, unfettered, environment, somehow achieving the degree of education and discipline that you have."

Kirk furrowed his brow. He believed he'd just been paid a compliment somewhere in there. "Thank you. I think." He sensed it was time again for another change of subject. "Want some lunch?"

Silence prevailed as the two ate the hastily put together fruit and granola and tossed the canteen back and forth. Kirk was chewing on the stick of beef jerky when Spock asked, "Are there caves in this region?"

The Iowan swallowed. "One cave... Why do you ask?"

"I have been thinking about Sheriff Campbell's mystery."

Kirk started, since it had been on his mind as well. Kirk scooted forward on the boulder. "You're thinking that if they haven't been able to detect the stolen items, it could be that they are cached underground."

"Precisely. However…" Spock shook his head at an inconsistency. "Surely Campbell and his deputies know about this cave and would have checked it."

"Yes, they would have checked out the part of the cave they know about…"

"Jim—?"

Kirk seemed to be wrestling with a thought. "Spock, the cave is more extensive than Campbell may realize. If the thieves discovered how to get to the lower passages, they could be using them as their hideout."

"In which case it is possible that sensor equipment would not have detected the stolen items."

"Let's go."

Kirk gathered his clothes and things, and the two paddled quickly back across the lake. Spock began to bring the canoe from the shore to the Z12, but Kirk waved him off.

"Leave it. We'll retrieve it after we check out the cave."

Spock frowned. "Would it not be more logical to inform the sheriff of these other passages?"

"We don't know for sure that's where the things are being cached. We could be sending them on a snipe hunt."

"I do not understand how seeking for this 'snipe' would help them find the stolen items; nevertheless, we should leave this to the authorities to investigate."

"We will. When we know for sure," Kirk maintained stubbornly. He climbed into the driver's seat and powered up, then glanced up at Spock, still dubious of the plan. "Are you getting in or staying here with the canoe?" Kirk prodded.

Spock exhaled and got in.

They sped along up the canyon in silence.

Kirk's conscience jabbed at him. He owed an explanation for his obstinacy. "The cave was legendary when I was a kid," he began, keeping his eyes on the road. "It was said in times past that outlaws had used it as a hideout, buried treasures had been cached there and never found… Runaway slaves and hermits had lived there over the years. Old timers said the cave system used to be much more extensive, but generations ago, people blocked off passages for safety reasons. A child had fallen off a cliff or something. The summer after my father died, Dave Dickson and I decided if there was a way to get back into these other passages, we were going to find out how. We explored every inch of the known cave and eventually found an access down into a lower level."

Kirk quietly focused on some especially tight curves as he gathered his thoughts. "We never told anyone about it. It became…a refuge. A place to get away." He turned his eyes briefly from the road to glance at his silent companion. "Call it an…illogical Human emotion, Spock, but I'm not ready yet to tell Campbell about the lower level, unless I have to."

Spock replied evenly, "This is your hometown. There is a certain logic to doing things your way. For now."

Kirk nodded at the implied assent.

They wound farther and farther up into the hills. At a saddle between two summits, Kirk turned off onto a narrow dirt road. After almost a mile farther, he slowed to a crawl and paused to point out the recently trampled brush just off the roadway.

"Someone has been here recently," Spock spoke aloud what they both were thinking.

Kirk just pursed his lips, backed up the Z12 and found a different location to conceal the hovercar. Before leaving the vehicle, Kirk opened a rear compartment and drew out a well-worn backpack containing flashlights, rope, and other odd items. He checked each of the flashlights for power charge and handed one of them to Spock. He tossed him a jacket as well, and put one on himself. "It gets rather chilly inside."

It was a short walk around the hillside to the cave entrance on the south-facing slope. The entrance was a dark, seven foot high arch at the base of a cliff. A small stream of water trickled out and down the hillside. Someone had once put a gate of metal bars across the entrance, but it showed its age with rust. The barrier had long ago been bashed in to provide an opening for young, bold adventurers to squeeze through.

The young explorers slipped through the bars and walked down the damp tunnel, which seemed to terminate in an indistinct, black infinity. Their feet sloshed through the shallow stream that didn't quite cover their boots.

They waited until the tunnel entrance was no more than a pinprick behind them before turning on their flashlights. Spock focused his light upon the wet rock around them. "Biogenic…calcareous," Spock identified, feeling the smooth, damp walls.

"I thought it was limestone," Kirk questioned.

"That’s what I said," Spock agreed.

They came to a widening and a passage heading off to the right. Kirk pointed his beam down it until it was swallowed by the darkness.

"It goes about five hundred yards and then narrows down until it’s impassable. It had a drainage chimney once, but that’s been very effectively blocked."

Spock started down the branching corridor.

"Not now, Spock. We'll look on our way out." Kirk felt an uneasy urgency to check out his theory and get out of there as soon as they could.

They continued on straight, the tunnel gaining a slight rise. The stream disappeared. A few hundred feet more and the tunnel widened considerably into a large size cavern with a rounded ceiling. Debris riddled the floor making it more difficult to negotiate. Netting had been added in places above to help keep the ceiling intact.

"The netting was unnecessary. This is a fairly stable dome," Spock commented. He played his light about the parameters of the cavern, veering towards the far wall.

Kirk frowned, impatient to get to the tunnel yet ahead. "C'mon, Spock. This isn’t a spelunking expedition."

Spock picked his way back, meeting Kirk where two different passages led out of the dome area. "That is a ‘speleological’ expedition," Spock corrected.

"That, too."

Kirk led them up the tunnel on the left. They had to duck occasionally or squeeze to make it through the irregular passageway where it narrowed, but it soon opened up again to reveal a long, gallery-like cavern. They walked its length, illuminating the relicts of past wonders and the colors of white, red, and brown. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, in some cases meeting with stalagmites below to form a complete column. Small fingers hung off the edge of an ancient flowstone like fringe on a shawl. Sadly some of the formations had been damaged by thoughtless visitors, or in one area where a branching passage had been blasted shut.

Spock stopped to examine a row of long stalactites, which hung together so closely they had grown together to form, as it were, a translucent curtain. Spock moved past, his attention already caught by another wonder of the gallery, but Kirk stopped him, nodding to the floor beneath where there was evidence of an ancient streambed. He led his companion around the hanging curtain where an alcove in the cave wall proved to be a much deeper recess than it appeared from out front. Kirk indicated a particular crevice. The Vulcan extended his hand to it, lifting an eyebrow in surprise.

"Air current."

Kirk smiled in the oblique light and picked up what appeared to be long, gray, crusty rocks on the floor. Spock frowned at his partner. "Masonry?"

"We pried and scraped it out of the crevice."

Kirk pointed to where Spock should grab hold waist high on the stone. Kirk’s fingers dug into the same gap a little higher, and what turned out to be a somewhat narrow rock slid outwards, much like a door on its hinges. A cool draft blew over them from the dark hole behind. Spock directed his light down a steep tubular channel in the limestone. Grooves had been cut into the bottom for steps and traction down the slick rock.

Kirk took off his pack and pulled out a small black apparatus. He swung the pack back on and clipped his flashlight to his pants. Pressing the initiator on the apparatus, he ignited a small flame and held it before him. I always check on the oxygen down there."

"Primitive but effective," Spock commented on the method.

"Watch your step," Kirk advised as he led the way down the close passageway.

Spock followed, descending into air that was musty and stale, with a metallic odor of water even stronger than in the tunnels above. They came out on a ledge at the top of what was once a waterfall in times before there was an uplift of the hills, and a lowering of the water table. Now there was only but a trickle from the seepage out of the limestone walls.

Remains of what once must have been a metal ladder hung precariously to the edge of the ledge. A rope ladder had more recently been bolted into the rock at the top of the waterfall, extending into the darkness below. Kirk extinguished the lighter and slipped it into his pocket, freeing up both hands. He tested the security of the ropes before entrusting his full weight to them, and then disappeared over the ledge.

Spock scanned as far as his light would reach while waiting for Kirk to make his descent. They were near the top of a dome still in creation, with passages extending both to the right and to the left. The unmistakable sounds of water dripping and trickling reached his sharp hearing.

"Okay, I’ve reached the bottom," Kirk called up. "Come on down."

Spock clipped his flashlight to his pants as well and descended the ladder, gingerly finding his footing on each rung. The teenage Kirk and his friend had bolted guides all down the cliff-face, which intermittently anchored the rope, as well as held the ladder away from the wall to enable secure footing. At the bottom of the twenty foot cliff, he jumped down off of the last rung onto a squishy mud bank.

Turning, Spock surveyed the lower part of the cavern. Whereas the tunnels above were essentially "dead," dry except for rainfall and spring runoff, this before them was a "living cave" where the movement of ground waters was actively in production of their eon-long artistry. To the right, a stream meandered through considerable piles of debris and rubble having broken off from the ceiling.

"This passage has not yet produced a stable dome ceiling. It is not as structurally sound as those above," Spock opined.

Kirk was about to agree but asked instead, "How do you know so much about caves?"

"Historically, my ancestors inhabited caves as well as artificial underground systems in order to escape both the heat of our world and the radiation fallout from devastating wars of past eras. Basic courses of study on Vulcan includes underground architecture as well as the evaluation of their structural integrity."

"Oh," was all Kirk replied. Spock was right, of course, that there were areas of the cave that were not safe.

Their beams followed the stream flowing through the middle of the passage in front of them towards what appeared to be an underground lake to their left.

"I was always going to get a hold of an aquabreather and do some exploring down there," Kirk commented, indicating the flooded cavern.

The underground lake itself was evidence of some impediment of the water flow, potentially due to more cave instability. "We won't be down here long," he promised, mitigating the risk. After another moment of silent contemplation of the dark waters, he turned again upstream.

"Up here there is quite a labyrinth of interconnecting passages. Dave and I never did reach the end of them. But I’m guessing that the thieves wouldn’t want to carry the artifacts any farther than they had to. If there is anything here, I’m guessing it will be close by."

"A logical deduction," Spock agreed with the evaluation.

They spread out and began exploring the floor of the waterfall and dome cavern with their lights. Spock suddenly squatted to examine small oval black items on the ground. "There must be inhabitants of this cave," he stated. "There appear to be some sort of droppings."

"There aren't any…" Kirk began, as he returned to join his light with his companion's. "Seeds. They're seeds," he stated.

"Are you sure about that?" the scientist challenged.

"I'm sure. I won the spitting contest."

Spock cocked a brow at the pronouncement, but stood again. "This is where you came. When you disappeared," he stated his deduction.

Kirk frowned at the intrusion into his privacy and just walked away. He could feel Spock following tentatively after. Kirk suddenly turned. "Yes. This is where I came," he finally acknowledged, remembering. "I was angry. At my father for dying. At my mother…" He shook his head not remembering why. "At my brother for not being as angry as I was. At Reverend Sheppard. At God. I came down here to sort things out, to try to make sense of it all."

"And did you?"

Kirk paused and smiled at the sincerity of the question, the hope-laden inquiry. He hated to disappoint him. "No," he stated succinctly. "But… I felt like… my dad was with me down here. Like he was trying to tell me it was all right."

"The darkness of the underground can play tricks on the senses. Unseen gasses can cause hallucination…"

"No, Spock…" he knew what he knew, but neither was he going to argue about it. "Anyway… living off the land was harder than I imagined it would be. I was getting pretty hungry…and my batteries were getting low, so I went home."

Spock quietly contemplated the story, then in an unvoiced agreement, the two turned their attentions again to examination of the cavern. It widened where the stream made a bend around substantial breakdown rubble. They scanned the fallen boulders and Spock turned and continued on. Kirk remained, however, still studying the jagged outlines of debris.

"Something's different," the Iowan muttered, sensing more than seeing that the outline didn't quite jive with his memory. He picked his way over the breakdown to a hollow behind where a wide flat stone lay a bit too artificially. Spock joined him and together they lifted the stone to see a green tarp draped over an irregular pile. Kirk grabbed a corner of the tarp and pulled it back. Modern style crates were stacked neatly in the hollow under the tarp.

Kirk shrugged off his pack and glanced at Spock. They each pulled a cover off of one of the crates, revealing household or industrial antiques. Some Kirk recognized. Some he did not. All were vintage Pre-Federation and prime museum pieces.

"You were right," Spock complimented.

Kirk did not revel in the knowledge. He reached in and carefully lifted out an old-fashioned bridle and bit that he knew had been among his grandfather’s collection. "Yes…well, I guess we'd better go tell Campbell."

Spock's head swiveled. He stared downstream, towards the dark waterfall, reminding Kirk of Rigel when he'd picked up a sound that was outside of his own range of hearing.

"We are not alone," Spock said in barely a whisper. "There is someone in the cavern above us."

Kirk's skin prickled. A moment later, he heard it too. "The rock," he whispered. They had left it open. They set the covers back on and threw the tarp back over the crates. Kirk motioned for Spock to move on upstream.

"Can we get to the surface this way?" Spock asked.

Kirk shook his head. "Not that we found as of yet."

They went to where the passage forked, crouching behind protruding flowstone in the main stream. Both doused their lights.

They could hear the echo of voices up on the ledge as the individuals came down the tube. Too garbled to make out what they were saying.

"They're coming down the ladder," Kirk whispered. Both flattened themselves against the damp rock as much as they could. Lights strobed up the tunnel in their direction.

"I'm telling ya, someone's been here," a deep voice insisted.

"What about it, kid?" asked another.

"I d-don't know," a higher tenor answered tentatively. "We could have just forgot to put it back."

Kirk recognized the third voice. His heart sank in his chest, his suspicions proving true.

"You forgot," the second spoke gruffly. "When you came down here without us. You haven't been double crossing us, have you, kid?"

"N-no, Joe! I swear!"

"Check the crates!"

A few minutes later they could hear the tarp being thrown back. A lid dislodged. "It looks like it's all here."

"It had better be."

"What the hell's this?"

"Whose is it?" said the other.

Kirk realized he'd left his pack by the crates.

A beam of light came in their direction again.

"Where are you going?"

"Shut up," the one named 'Joe' said gruffly.

Footsteps were following the beam of light, coming nearer. Kirk stopped breathing and willed his heart to slow down. He wondered whether his half-Vulcan companion were as terrified as he was. He felt a tug on his arm. Yes, retreating up the passages would be a logical thing to do, except that one of the thieves knew these caves as well as he did.

Kirk got an idea. Without examining it too closely for the many flaws he was certain it had, he spoke softly to Spock, "Follow my lead." Then he turned on his flashlight and stepped out from behind the outcropping, shining his light in the man's face who was approaching them in front. No, he didn't recognize this one.

"Max!" Joe called out behind him, then turned back. "Get that damn light out of my eyes!" he ordered.

The other two came running.

Kirk noted that the one called 'Joe' held one hand inside of a jacket pocket that had a suspicious looking bulge. He put on the most irritatingly devilish grin he could muster under the circumstances. He moved his light as ordered, though it came to shine upon the one he knew. "Dave. Long time no see."

The young man paled, though returning a tentative smile. "Jim! I should have known it was you. He's an old friend of mine," Dave said to the others. "The one I told you about that helped me find this place," he explained quickly to Joe, the apparent leader.

"I thought you said he was away in Starfleet," Joe questioned brusquely.

"Just a cadet," Kirk quickly provided. "We're on holiday liberty. You make a lot of useful contacts in Starfleet, if you know what I mean."

"And who's the Vulcan?" Max asked, now shining his light in the alien's face.

Kirk glanced for the first time at his quiet companion. Spock seemed to be following everything carefully, but was otherwise calm. "He's someone who I thought might be able to help you with your little problem."

The eyebrow rose. Kirk turned back to the thieves.

"And what makes you think that we have a problem?" Joe inquired.

"Oh…we heard things."

"How'd you know I was involved, Jim?"

Kirk studied his old friend. "I didn't. Just had a hunch."

"Like old times, huh?"

Kirk returned a crooked smile. "Not quite like old times," he corrected.

"Yeah. Nothing as big as this, huh?"

"Shut up, kid," Joe demanded. He squinted and focused his beam again on Spock. "I find it hard to believe that a Vulcan would help us with this," Joe questioned.

"He's only half-Vulcan," Kirk provided on the fly, hoping Spock would forgive this indiscretion.

Joe scrunched up his ugly face giving Spock the once over, in light of the revelation. "So you have off-world contacts who can handle our merchandise?"

Everyone's attention now turned to the subdued Vulcan.

"No. I have no acquaintances who engage in illegal activities," he said simply.

Kirk's eyes widened as he panicked. "Spock—!"

"I do not understand where you got the idea that I would go along with this," Spock continued sincerely.

"What is this?" Joe demanded, and then snorted as he realized the attempted sham. The hand pulled out a laser gun. "All right. Up against the wall. Both of you."

Max pulled a laser gun as well, which he held on them, while Joe pushed the intruders against the rock and patted them down. Dickson looked on helplessly.

Kirk did not think that this Joe guy was going to let them just walk out of there at this point. He figured they were about to see whether Rodriguez's hand-to-hand techniques really worked. The question was whether Spock would back him up this time.

"Dammit, Spock! You've really put our neck's in a vise," he said out loud, trying to clue in his class sparring partner to his Plan B. However, the Vulcan continued looking down.

"When Rodriguez hears about this, he's going to pinch someone's neck off!" Kirk tried again.

"Shut up!" Joe ordered as he took away their flashlights. He handed one of them to Max and pocketed the other. Then he re-aimed his own laser gun. "Nobody's going to hear about anything."

But this time Spock's head came up, and he looked curiously at his classmate. In the reflected light, Kirk believed…no, he hoped that he saw the Vulcan expression change to comprehension.

"As I understand it, nobody around here knows about these lower caves except for you two," Joe said, indicating the two Iowans.

"You three," Spock corrected, pedantically, including himself.

"I said, shut up! All right, Max, get back." Joe twisted the setting of his laser pistol to what Kirk realized was enough power to vaporize them both.

"What are you doing?!" Dickson asked with alarm. "No one was supposed to get hurt."

"Yeah, and nobody was supposed to know about this tunnel, kid."

"But I told you, Jim is my friend. He won't say anything. Will you, Jim?" Dickson tried desperately.

"Shut up, you stupid, na´ve, kid! Welcome to the real world. Things change."

"Things change a lot, don't they, Dave. My old friend." Kirk turned around and moved menacingly towards Dickson. "Those were my grandfather’s things. You stole my grandfather’s things!"

"Hold it!" Joe barked at Kirk, pushing him back.

Max had to compensate. Now his attention was divided.

It was just enough of a distraction for Spock to get behind Max and render him unconscious with a Vulcan neck pinch. The thief grunted as he crumpled to the floor. Joe had to turn to redirect the light to his right to see what just occurred. "What the hell?"

Now it was Kirk's turn to deflect Joe's laser arm and knock the weapon away. Quickly he added a fist into the man's face. With the laser gun lost in the darkness, Kirk pushed Dickson back hard against the opposite rock wall, and he and Spock made a dash up the tunnel.

Running blindly in the dark without a light, they followed the wall with their hands, Kirk pulling his companion this way and that up and down side passages in an attempt to lose their pursuers, whose garbled voices echoed in the tunnels behind them.

"Down here!" Kirk whispered fervently, and dived into a low, wet opening only big enough to crawl through. Numerous yards along, they felt their way out into a larger passage.

Kirk paused to catch his breath and then pulled Spock more slowly down the passage to the left. "This will take us back to the main tunnel. We’ll double back to the rope ladder," he whispered his intent.

"A logical strategy," Spock murmured agreement.

They followed the damp wall while listening acutely to the distant thumping of footsteps in the intersecting passages. Kirk guesstimated they were nearly back to the dome room when they both froze. Light danced in the passage ahead of them, and a beam landed directly on Kirk and Spock, causing them to blink in the brightness. The light lingered only momentarily then moved off, leaving them once more in darkness.

"See anything?" a far-off voice called.

"No. They haven’t tried to come back this way yet," Dave Dickson lied to his companions. The silhouette of the young man moved back out of the passageway though his light danced invitingly upon the debris clogged stream bed they would have to cross. Relief swept over Kirk as he realized his old friend was giving them a chance to escape. The two proceeded out into the main passage. Kirk ventured a quick glance at Dave, who was pretending rather badly not to see them. Kirk and Spock hurried on in the indirect light, picking their way quickly around and over the rocks.

Voices, then angry shouts from behind told them their luck was running out. They increased their pace, stumbling and scrambling towards the dark cliff. Kirk literally ran into remains of the metal ladder. Luckily the rope ladder was right on the other side.

"Go!" Kirk directed Spock up.

The Vulcan had climbed only a few rungs when the bounding lights were already drawing closer. Suddenly a laser beam struck dangerously close, slicing a shard off of the limestone wall.

"Come on. It's too late!" Kirk called, yanking on a Vulcan extremity.

Spock leaped back to the cavern floor and Kirk pulled his partner towards the metallic odor of the underground lake. Their way was partially lit by the searching beams of light as their feet kicked up the deepening waters. As they heard another whir of the laser firing, they dived beneath the cold lake, knowing the murderous rays would be deflected.

They swam under water for as long as they could, fearing the laser's blast should they surface. Kirk rose first, raising his mouth and nose, gulping air as quietly as possible. Light strobed over the surface. A beam discovered his protruding head as he went below again. No laser rays followed. He wondered about Spock. More than one swimmer had drowned becoming disoriented in dark waters.

Kirk made his way behind an undulating column he'd spied from the surface. He heard the whine of the laser gun again and dove, somehow realizing that this time he was not the target. A vise-like hand gripped his arm and pulled him farther and farther down the flooded cavern. There was a strange tingling in his bicep where the hand held on to him. He heard a rumble and felt the turbulence of the water, though his instinctive panic was oddly offset by a feeling of calm. Finally breaking the surface again, it was as dark above as it was beneath, and taking in air was now more difficult with the dust. He coughed a number of times, then wondered momentarily if he were dead. The unnaturally loud sound of his own breathing, however, suggested he wasn't. Suddenly a light switched on and he was at last released from the hold on his upper arm.

"Are you all right?" Spock asked, surprisingly close. They were both standing now, the water reaching up to their chests.

"I think so. Where'd you get the light?"

"I liberated it from the man I disabled."

"So how come you waited to use it until now?" Kirk asked, still smarting from collisions in the dark.

"I did not wish to give away our position."

The hairs rose on the back of Kirk's neck as he realized why caution was no longer a factor. Spock's light played over a new wall of boulders that now stood where the rest of the cavern had been. The laser gun had destabilized the ceiling of the cavern between themselves and their foes, causing a cave in. Kirk shivered, and not just from the cold, as he realized how close that avalanche of rock had come to being his cairn. It was still possibly the seal upon their tomb.

"Geez Louise, Spock!" Kirk now exploded. "Why the hell didn't you back me up back there? You almost got us killed!"

The light just barely illuminated Spock's face, giving him a sinister appearance as he turned towards him. His voice was even, but as intense as his own. "I could not back you up. I, in fact, have no off world contacts for their stolen merchandise. Neither would I have assisted you in a criminal endeavor."

Kirk exhaled, dumbfounded by this accusation. "I wasn't really trying to help them, Spock. I was trying to gain their trust so that we could get out of there in one piece!"

The Vulcan's suspicion did not abate. "Forgive my doubt, but Mister Dickson, as well as Sheriff Campbell, both suggested that you have been engaged in illegal activity in the past."

Kirk shook his head. "Think what you like, but I was just trying to get us out of there."

"Mmmm," Spock murmured non-committally. "In any case, I still could not have lied."

"Why not?"

"Vulcans are incapable of lying."

Kirk looked at the dark silhouette of his companion. This was unbelievably surreal. Here they were trapped in a flooded underground cave that was likely going to be their crypt, and he was being guilt-tripped about trying to deceive a couple of criminals. "It's not lying," he stated defensively. "It's…pretending."

"Pretending?" The Vulcan considered, his tone growing less confrontational. "Like pretending to be pirates?"

"Yes. Exactly."

"Mmmm…" Spock processed the logic of the idea. "I shall try to remember that if we are ever in a similar situation."

"Trust me, Spock. You and I will never be in another situation like this. Not even remotely close. Assuming we even get out of here."

Spock shrugged off the hostility in the pronouncement and directed the beam of the flashlight up the passageway still open to them. "You said you always wanted to explore downstream. It appears that you will get your wish."

Kirk followed the beam of light as it was swallowed by the distant darkness. "You think there's a chance there's a way out?"

"Logically, there is some type of egress to the outside. The air is breathable. And even now I can sense subtle changes in the atmospheric pressure."

Kirk's hope clung to the Vulcan's logic. "We call it ‘cave breathing’."

"Picturesque though not entirely accurate," Spock opined. "Of course, what opening there is could be too small for ourselves to transverse."

Kirk grimaced. "We'll never know standing around here."

The two made their way cautiously down the length of the lake. A hundred yards farther on there was evidence of rock slides in an unknown past, reminding them of their ongoing peril. They kept stubbing their toes and shins on large rocks and boulders strewn about the obscured and uneven floor. As they progressed, the speleothem took on a marvelous diversity. Stalactites and stalagmites were joined by feathery crystalline aragonite, delicate tubular straw formations, and even the rarely found crisscrossing boxwork. On the far side of the lake, the waters funneled into a narrower tunnel on a gentle slope downward causing the waters to slowly rise, leaving them no choice but to swim.

They took turns holding the flashlight. Swimming was slow going, paddling with one arm while holding their only light out of the water. The tunnel seemed endless. At times there was barely a head clearance between water and the top of the tunnel, whereupon they had to watch for low hanging dripstone in the irregular tunnel ceiling.

Kirk did his best to stave off panic as he noticed the light beginning to dim. He couldn't remember the last time he'd charged up the power cell. It wasn't like he had been planning for this excursion.

Farther on, the ceiling rose again, providing more head room. Or the water level began falling. Kirk wasn’t sure which. He wasn’t sure just how clearly he was perceiving his environment at the moment.

The temperature of the cave and water was also taking its toll. Kirk could feel himself beginning to shiver. He wondered what affect it was having upon the desert-born Vulcan. He suddenly realized it had been a while since the scientist had paused in his running commentary on the natural wonders of the cave.

Kirk aimed the beam towards the pale face. "Are you all right?"

Distress was clearly evident upon his companion's features, but his jaw was clenched. Kirk turned away, knowing there was no need for either of them to express the obvious. Instead he chuckled. "You know, in all my reflections about death down here, it had never occurred to me that I might actually die in this cave."

"Death is always a possibility," Spock stated with a slight lurch in his voice. "Though not a certainty. We haven't yet reached…" The Vulcan stopped and turned towards the dark passageway ahead.

Kirk directed what was left of the light. "What do you hear?"

"Momentarily…it sounded like… birds."

They threw their remaining strength into this final stretch, until in the waning light, their hope was stymied by the sight of a looming wall, a natural dam for the underground stream. They cautiously drew closer and examined its smooth, impenetrable face in the dimming light.

"Do you feel that? The current?" Spock inquired.

"Yes. There’s an opening below the surface."

"It’s likely a siphon. When the waters rise high enough, it creates pressure for an uphill flow. We could use your aquabreather."

The two floated in the dim light contemplating whether either had strength reserves for this type of dive. Who knew how far they would need to swim below water before they could find another air pocket, if there were one at all. Nor was there a guarantee this passage would bring them any closer to the surface. Nevertheless, it was not in Kirk’s nature to give up, to simply wait in the cold waters for hypothermia to…

Kirk frowned. "Wait a minute. Something’s not logical."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You heard birds."

Spock realized, of course. Not even a Vulcan would hear the soundwaves from birdsong through a flooded channel. "I must have been mistaken," he admitted despondently.

"Or… maybe not. Maybe…"

"There is another passage?"

Kirk directed the amber beam back along the tunnel walls. It was hard to believe they could have missed a side opening. But inspection of the smooth limestone revealed nothing to indicate the source of the previous noise. Desperately, Kirk paddled upstream again, searching, palpating each ripple in the stone, scrutinizing each shadow or crevice. The answer finally arrived, as a literal epiphany from above. A drop of water splashed on his head. It was such a common occurrence in the damp cave, that Kirk had grown accustomed to ignore it. But this time something made him look up. There in the roof of the cavern was a dark drainage hole where water was dripping from above. It wasn’t large, but perhaps just big enough.

"Spock!" Kirk called, his heart beating faster.

Spock swam over from where he had been examining the other wall of the passage. That this opening would lead them to their freedom was not immediately evident, but even so, the sweet drafts of fresh air revived their spirits.

They decided that Spock should go first as the thinner of the two. He clipped the light to the front of his jacket, then leaped out of the water as far as he could and grasped the lip of the chimney to pull himself up and in. Kirk did what he could to give upward momentum from below. Then with Spock's soggy boots disappearing into the chimney, Kirk was alone. Without even the dim flashlight, the darkness in the flooded tunnel grew viscerally oppressive. It reminded him of the utter darkness of space.

Kirk kept up a verbal connection with Spock, asking if he could see anything yet and kept receiving Spock's familiar "negative". He listened attentively to the shuffling and scooting noises, Spock's labored breaths. This vertical climb seemed to take an interminably long time. The experienced spelunker worried that at any moment he would hear that the conduit had narrowed impossibly small. Then suddenly there was the sound of falling rocks—Kirk ducked backwards out of the way, at the same time fearing he might lose the location of the precious opening in the dark. There were splashes in the water and then nothing. Kirk hated feeling so blind.

"Spock!" Kirk called out, but there was no reply. "Spock!" Kirk called again, growing increasingly anxious. "Spock!"

"Jim! Are you all right?" The deep voice resonated, sounding far away.

"I’m fine. Where are you?"

"I've reached a ledge at a joint of the chimney. There is…"

Spock was saying something more, but Kirk couldn’t make it out.

"Can you hear me?" Spock repeated. "I suggest you come on up."

Kirk tentatively pushed himself away from the wet wall, estimating the location of the opening. He hadn’t drifted that far. Spock was shining what light remained from the flashlight at an angle back down, allowing him to identify the opening. It also gave at least some shadowed illumination to the topography of the irregular tube. Kirk collected himself in the water and leaped upwards. His hands could not get a grip, however, and he slipped back down into the chilly water. His heart beat fast with self-recrimination mixed with fear of being stuck down here in the cold and the darkness. Girding up his determination, he leaped again and was more successful this time in his hands finding purchase on the lip of the fissure. The young athlete pulled himself up into the conduit, blessing Starfleet Academy’s rigorous physical training program.

Folding up his legs, he found footing for his booted feet and then pressed his back up against the opposite vertical wall of the passage and began the slow process of chimneying, progress measured in inches at a time. His hands felt about for hand holds to help pull himself upward, and right off, he smacked his skull against out-jutting stone, of harder mineral than that the waters had worn away in their age-long attrition.

Spock kept calling down instructions about how to attack such a vertical ascent, the alternating of body and limb pressure against the opposing walls. He chattered about his memories and impressions of useful crevices in the tube configuration, with occasional interjections of past experiences with vertical climbs on Vulcan, in spite of their differences. Kirk focused on his ascent and the comforting voice to keep his mind off of sharp jutting shards, which caught on his clothes and tore at the flesh on his back. The distant amber glow finally went out completely, and Kirk was left again in overwhelming darkness, dependent upon only his sense of touch. He was thankful he was not given to claustrophobia.

Shimmying up this natural chimney brought to mind climbs up door jams he and his brother used to make as small boys. No challenge seemed too great back then, stair bannisters, cellar storm doors, or later, second story windows, and barn rooftops. The memories helped Kirk to endure the tediousness of the task.

Then reaching up, his hand touched something soft and he recoiled, banging his head again. There was something alive in here!

"Jim, take my hands, and I'll pull you up."

Kirk exhaled, relieved, and chuckled at himself. He reached up again and grasped Spock's strong hands, then felt himself being steadied, guided, and finally pulled up to the top of the conduit.

Kirk suddenly realized he could see again. It was what appeared to be the most beautiful star he had ever seen. It wasn't a star, of course, but the pinprick of light from the end of the tunnel. The light told him that not only were they close to the surface, but that the passage was no longer vertical from here, but sloped at a seventy-five degree angle. Still steep, but far more easily scaled.

Spock rose up from his stomach and pulled Kirk up onto a smooth boulder forming a small ledge at the top of the shaft. They both sat on the ledge letting their muscles rest in the now less-crushing darkness, both seeming transfixed by the point of light in the distance.

As soon as he felt ready, Kirk led the way up the last passage. It was still no larger than a crawlspace, and hands had to feel their way carefully for the location of walls and jutting rocks in the ceiling. Water trickled annoyingly beneath them. They nevertheless scrambled rapidly towards the light. The pinprick kept growing larger until at last they stood within feet of the prized portal. They learned they were unable to just crawl through, however. Thick bushes had grown up in the moisture around this cave opening. Kirk squeezed through the stiff branches, which scratched and clawed at his wet clothes and already raw flesh.

Spock forced his own way through the yielding shrubbery to discover Kirk lying against the gentle slope. The exhausted Human squinted up at the wet, bedraggled Vulcan and saw for the first time that his clothes and face were caked and smeared with mud. Numerous green lines dissected his face and hands where the flesh had been violated by rock and branch. The borrowed clothing hung limp, and was torn and shredded in places. Kirk imagined that his own appearance must be comparable. And then he began to laugh. Slow and steadily for nearly a minute.

"I fail to see what is so amusing," Spock opined petulantly.

Kirk caught his breath. "Those are my brother’s clothes you’re wearing. He’s going to kill me." And then he began to laugh irrationally once again.

Spock rolled his eyes at Kirk’s odd sense of humor, and began scanning the unfamiliar horizon. "Do you know where we are?"

Kirk got himself up and blinked in the bright sunlight at the rocky hillsides. "Not exactly. But I suppose if we go back to the southwest, I’ll figure it out."

The two headed cross country, down and around the undulating hills. Coming up on the shoulder of a rise, Kirk paused to get his bearings and the lay of the land.

"There’s Eagle’s Ridge over there, and Haunted Hollow… Damn! I’ll bet that underground stream comes out at Simpson’s Springs over to the west. We used to bushwack it in up that gully you can see to the south. And the main cave entrance should be…"

Kirk and Spock both hit the dirt at the same time. The thieves had brought their hovercar as close as was possible to the cave entrance. Two of them were carrying one of the cases out of the caverns. It appeared that at least one of the cases of stolen items was already sitting on the ground.

"C'mon, we've got to get out of here."

The two midshipman scurried down the hillside and passed below the cliff-face, keeping low and behind the brush as much as possible. Just as they neared the location of Kirk’s hidden Z12, loose shale and dirt gave way beneath the Vulcan and slid with him down the hill. Spock grabbed hold of a juniper, aborting his tumble down the steep slope, but the small avalanche of rocks and detritus, threatened to call attention to their escape.

Kirk found the most secure nearby tree and footing and offered a hand back up. Grabbing hold, the Vulcan and Human scrambled back up the precarious hillside and ran to the copse of bushes and trees secluding their hovercar.

It did not appear to have been discovered. Crossing his fingers, Kirk started up the Z12. The familiar whine gratefully met his ears. He wound them back through the trees the way they had come in and swung back out onto the narrow dirt road just as Joe and Max came trotting around the bend. They would have a small lead on their pursurers, but just barely.

Kirk sped the hovercar down the winding road as Spock attempted to radio a call for help. Frowning, he turned to the preoccupied driver. "Your emergency transmitter does not appear to be functioning."

The driver glanced over briefly. "I know."

"These vehicles are required to have functioning transmitters in case of emergency."

"All my credits were going into prep for the academy," Kirk shrugged defensively. "I didn't think I'd need it."

Spock exhaled, then turned to watch behind them.

"Are they following?" Kirk asked.

"Logically, the dust cloud that is traveling down the canyon road suggests that they are."

Kirk increased their speed in spite of the twisting course. Spock looked at the driver, then at the console, and at the blurred, passing scenery and calculated that the vehicle's velocity readout was reasonably accurate. "I believe we are exceeding the legal speed limit," Spock informed him.

"No kidding. Where the hell is Campbell when you really need him?"

"Am I to understand that you are breaking the law with the intention of getting the attention of local enforcement?"

"Well, that's Plan A. Plan B is just to lose these guys the old fashioned way."

Kirk noticed his passenger gripping the console as the inertial forces caused them to scoot sideways on a particularly tight bend. "Don't worry, Spock. I know just how fast I can take these curves."

"You have done this before?"

"Not with someone trying to kill me, I haven't."

"But you have exceeded the speed limit on these roads, previously?"

Kirk's patience wore out. "Yes, Spock, I've exceeded the legal speed limit before! I have been known to go where it's posted 'No Tresspassing', and Dave and I used to steal watermelons. Are you thoroughly shocked?"

Kirk glanced at his silent passenger. He was staring back at him oddly.

"You stole produce? Was your family hungry?" the alien inquired sincerely.

"No, Spock. Not in the sense you mean. I just…wanted a watermelon. I wanted a watermelon and Sullivan had a whole field of them, so we took one… now and then."

Reaching the flatlands, Kirk opened her up and they broke the speed limit even more. He passed by the road to the Kirk farm and stayed on the highway that would eventually take them into town.

Spock checked behind them again. As the thieves reached the straight-away, they put on the speed as well, and he was disconcerted to see them making up lost ground. "They seem to be gaining on us. At this rate, they will overtake us in ten point two minutes."

The young driver slammed the console with the heel of his hand. "It's the damn powercell! This Z12 used to be the fastest thing in the county."

As the line of sight became momentarily obscured by a bend in the highway and thick foliage, they veered off the road up a tree-lined drive and behind a ramshackled, abandoned farm house. Kirk killed the engine. They waited for the others to pass by.

Kirk grew agitated and suddenly banged on the console again. "This is farm country, Spock. Everybody raids gardens. It's expected. I've even seen my sainted mother snitch an apple on occasion." He looked over at the self-righteous Vulcan. "Are you going to tell me that you've never in your entire life done anything that you weren't supposed to?"

Spock met his gaze and then looked uncomfortably away. "No, of course, I cannot say that. They're coming," he added.

Kirk heard it as well. They quietly waited for the hunters to pass and get a ways down the road.

"Really? Like what?" Kirk continued.

"I beg your pardon?"

"What did you do?"

When Spock didn't answer immediately, Kirk prodded. "C'mon, Spock, you've been privy to my 'misguided past'. Let's hear yours. What terrible thing did you do? Walk off with someone's writing stylus?" he said sarcastically.

"I already told you. I used to go into the mountains, even after my father forbade me."

"What?" Spock's reply was unexpected. Kirk didn't know which made less sense, his father forbidding him to go study the flora and fauna, or why Spock would go anyway. "I don't get it." Unsure which to ask first, he just asked, "Why…?"

Spock looked away as he replied. "Because of the Human part of my heritage, there is a belief among some of my elders, my peers, that perhaps I cannot live the Vulcan way of life. There was much scrutiny of my actions, my motivations. Life at times…became difficult."

Kirk opened his mouth but didn't quite know what to say. Some of the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. His mother was right. There was no way anything he did would make Spock want to be Human.

Spock's head swiveled to listen. He turned back to Kirk. "They're slowing down."

Kirk strained. "I don't hear anything."

"They're coming back!" Spock insisted.

With a curse, Kirk powered up and sped away again going out across the fallow, weed-grown fields behind the farmhouse. Incredibly, a dust cloud that was their pursuers followed.

"Dave must be with them. He knows these roads as well as I do. And my old tricks…" the Iowan grumbled.

Across the fields, they skidded back up on the blacktop, with their hunters in hot pursuit. Back on the straight-away again, both vehicles accelerated to speeds over a hundred miles per hour. Energy beams glanced off the back of the Z12. The midshipmen instinctively ducked, though as yet the gunmen were too far behind for their shots to be effective. A wide-eyed Spock watched their six while Kirk tried to keep the speeding hovercar on the road. Up ahead there was an intersection. It would take them back towards town. They slowed a bit, though not much.

"Uh… hang on," Kirk informed his passenger just before initiating a ninety-degree turn to the left at high velocity. The inertial forces and Kirk's practiced handling of steering thrusters caused the hovercar to roll as it went into the turn, but soon righted itself as they accelerated and sped onward.

Behind them, the second vehicle spun out into the immature field of wheat and came to almost a complete stop before being able to continue the chase.

"Fascinating," the Vulcan breathed, catching his breath. His expression was one of pure admiration.

"Sorry 'bout that. It's the best way I could figure out how to overcome the laws of physics in making a turn at those speeds."

"There is slowing down," the scientist drolly pointed out.

"Well, anybody could do it that way," Kirk laughed and caught the hint of amusement in the Vulcan eyes.

Spock checked behind them. "It bought us some time, but they, of course, are continuing their pursuit," Spock reported.

Kirk did slow down as they swung right into a narrow dirt road between fields of early corn. "A short cut into town."

Kirk opened up the throttle again as the green corn became a blur in their peripheral vision. The Z12 hugged the road as they rose and fell away along with the undulating ground.

A buzzer began its harsh warning, accompanied by a red flashing light.

"What the—?"

"Your road obstacle sensor alarm is flashing," Spock commented.

"I know what it is, Spock. What's in the road up ahead?" He hoped it was Campbell or one of his deputies.

The passenger referred to the sensor read-out. "There is forcefield fencing five hundred yards ahead."

"What? There isn't supposed to be a fence around here!! Who the hell put in a fence??"

While his question would go unanswered, the fact was that while Kirk had been gone, someone had converted some acreage to pastureland and had strung agricultural grade forcefield fencing right across their escape route. And it was coming at them rather fast. Things had changed indeed.

Kirk made a neat little bootlegger turn that swung the Z12 a hundred and eighty degrees around and brought them to a skidding stop not more than a few feet before the forcefield. Curious horses and cows looked up from their grazing on the other side of the fence to see what all the commotion was about.

The driver could now see for himself the cloud of dust that was trailing after them and coming on fast. Desperately, the midshipmen considered their options. There were narrow access roads running in between the corn and the fencing, extending into the distance on either side.

"These roads seem to be the likely possibilities," Spock evaluated.

"I've already been unpleasantly surprised once today. I'm not anxious to give more unfamiliar terrain the opportunity."

"The only other alternative would damage a portion of the field of corn," Spock stated.

"Don't you know that's against the law?" the farm boy murmured. He looked back at the narrow, undulating road through the cornfield over which they had just come and the advancing hovercar's cloud of dust. One particular depression in the road gave him a wild idea. "Perhaps those aren't the only alternatives."

"What do you mean?"

Combining navigational math, experience, and pure instinct, the driver calculated just where the meeting would have to take place and how long they had to get there. Adjusting the settings on the hovercar, he turned to his companion.

"Hey, Spock. Ever played chicken?"

"Chicken?"

Kirk grinned roguishly at his mystified partner, but there was no time now to explain. He accelerated to best speed and headed dead on towards their adversaries. Spock was indeed clinging to the console and looking gravely concerned. Through a combination of skill and dumb luck, the Z12 reached the road before it dipped as the other vehicle went down the gradient. But the Z12 didn't go down. It went up. It flew. Sailing in its own mid-air overpass, the midshipmen and refurbished hovercar passed safely above the car going the other way.

Their touch down was accompanied by the sound of labored impellers being asked to absorb the shock of the landing, which went far beyond their usual duties of creating the cushion of air on which the vehicle rode.

The Z12 lurched and bucked and Kirk had a difficult time keeping it under control as it continued to race forward.

"The landing may have damaged an impeller!" Spock reported above the roar from the struggling technology.

"No kidding, Spock! Why don't you tell me something I don't know!" Kirk exclaimed edgily. Or better yet, actually do something to help us get out of this mess!"

Pursing his lips, the passenger worked with the configuration of the engines to re-balance the output. Kirk began to find it a little easier to steer and keep the vehicle on the road.

"That was a very interesting alternative, by the way," Spock mentioned as they sped back up the dirt road.

Kirk smiled. "I bet you're sorry now I won't be your partner in the Antares Two Million," he jibed.

Spock cocked an eyebrow without reply.

In no time they reached the highway and swung once again onto the route into town. Behind them, the criminals had turned their hovercar around and were back on the trail.

"Damn," Kirk cursed, slamming the heel of his hand into the console again.

"I have never known that to be an effective method for getting more energy out of a failing powercell," Spock commented drolly. "You know they will overtake us before we can reach town."

"Yeah, I know," a more subdued Kirk responded. "If only we had a laser gun."

Spock's eyes darted and flicked down. He picked up the dead flashlight and began breaking down its components. He then took off the paneling of the console in front of him and began examining the wiring.

"What are you doing?" Kirk inquired.

"Attempting to make a laser gun," Spock calmly replied.

Kirk smiled. "I knew there was some reason I liked you."

Spock's eyebrows shot up, but he continued his work. Laser beams flashed nearby. Their pursuers were not quite in range, but they soon would be. The deft Vulcan hands cannibalized the flashlight and non-essential elements from the speeder. He finally paused in his work and exhaled.

"It is crude and I am uncertain as to its strength. Some degree of stun at best. We will likely only get one use as it will probably short out the circuitry.'

"Then aim for the driver. I'll pull over to the left so you can get a good shot."

The hovercar veered and reduced speed a fraction. Spock raised the cobbled contraption but hesitated. A laser singed their right fender.

"Spock? Shoot!" Kirk prodded desperately.

"I have never fired on a living being before," the half-Vulcan explained.

Another beam barely missed their heads, exploding their windshield.

"Neither have I. Shoot!"

Spock re-gripped the laser. "This could be considered an unauthorized possession and use of a lethal weapon, which is a court-martial offense."

Kirk fishtailed the hovercar, veering away from another deadly beam. Accelerating again, he barked, "If you don't shoot, Spock, we won't live long enough for them to court-martial us!"

The logic finally seemed to take. The Vulcan took a deep breath and squeezed. The red beam made contact with Joe, the opposing driver, stunning him instantly. Dave Dickson tried to re-gain control, but the craft was going too fast. It veered and flipped into the air, landing and skidding on its left side.

Sparks flew from Kirk's Z12 as well, as the make-shift laser fried out not only the auxiliary circuitry, but also the main power conduits it was drawing from. Kirk spun the hovercar handily to a controlled stop. In all the excitement, no one had heard the approaching police siren, until now.

Campbell pulled his patrol unit to a halt and jumped out, gazing limp-jawed at the smoking hovercar and the two mud splattered males. "What in the name of Aunt Fannie's girdle…?!" he began.

"Where the hell have you been?!" Kirk stood up in the smoking Z12 and sat on the back of his dust-covered driver's seat. "I hope you have your laser gun. Those are the guys who raided the museum," he said pointing at the other vehicle. "And they are armed."

Campbell looked from Kirk and Spock to the flipped over hovercar beyond. He grabbed his laser pistol and called in for backup and an ambulance, then trotted over to the criminals who were trying to pull themselves from the wreckage.

Kirk shook his head. "Geez Louise! I go away for a couple of years and the whole county goes to the devil." Glancing at his own devilish-looking companion, he amended, "So to speak."

His companion was watching the crash site with an expression both pensive and grim.

"Good shot," Kirk complimented, slapping his friend's shoulder. "You can ride shotgun with me anytime."

Spock's expression became one of puzzlement as he looked up towards his classmate. "Just who or what is 'Aunt Fannie's girdle'?"

Kirk started to chuckle and just shrugged. Some things were better left unexplained. "Maybe we should go give Campbell a hand."

Spock nodded and the midshipmen jumped out of the still-smoldering Z12.

*****

Campbell had the Kirks and his deputies over to the house that evening to celebrate the close of the biggest case that Riverside had ever seen, and ever hoped to see. The freshly showered midshipmen were back in their uniforms and once again the center of attention as Wade Campbell recounted to his family and deputies for the umpteenth time the story of how he came upon the two smoking vehicles.

Sam and Aurelan came into town early, so the party turned into a bit of a Kirk reunion as well, and Campbell obliged with recounting the day's events one more time. Spock seemed to know something about the older brother's current research project, as he seemed to know something about almost everything, so the two scientists hit it off immediately. They talked shop until the others became satiated with their exchange of esoteric scientific minutiae.

Marjorie turned to converse with Audrey and Aurelan, while Wade began telling tall tales of earlier adventures of the Kirk boys to anyone who would listen. His favorite seemed to be the time that some fellows from a rival county had dared the Kirk boys to a bull riding contest on a particularly notorious animal. To give themselves a fighting chance, Sam and Jim had snuck over a head of time and slipped some tranquilizer into its feed. Sam had over-calculated the dose, however, and when the gate opened up with Jim on board, the bull had trotted into the corral and lay right down asleep.

As the sheriff launched into a more serious story, Jim Kirk and Mandy Campbell slipped outside on the porch.

"You still hate to be reminded about that haunted house, don't you?" his perceptive friend commented.

The sheriff had begaun to tell about the night the Kirk boys and their friends had taken a Ouija board to a local haunted house. Their friend Petey had died under circumstances never satisfactorily explained.

Jim tried to keep the mood light. "Almost as much as hearing how your father came to our 'rescue' today."

"Everyone knows that you two were the true heroes, including my dad."

"Do you know that he gave me a ticket for not having my emergency transmitter in working order?!"

Mandy laughed at the news. "That's just his way of telling you he still cares."

"Yeah, well, sometimes I wish he didn't care quite so much."

Jim looked out into the light Spring rain that had recently begun to fall. "I still can't believe that Dave was involved in that."

"He told Dad that he was just going to sell one or two things to make a few credits, but they had other ideas. Dave got in over his head. Dad says that with his cooperation and your testimony on his behalf that he'll probably serve most of his time in community service. Good thing you came home this weekend or they might have gotten away with it all."

"Yeah," Jim responded reflectively. He also knew that if he had told someone years ago about the lower passages of the cave, it wouldn't have escaped local law enforcement's scans. "If you ride with horse thieves, then you'll hang with horse thieves," he murmured.

"What?"

"Oh… just your dad's way of telling me to be careful who I picked for friends."

"Lucky that friend of yours knew how to make a laser gun. How did he do that anyway?"

"He's Vulcan. He knows everything," Jim said facetiously. "Almost."

She wrinkled her freckled nose. "I guess I was kind of a jerk last night, huh?" she said sheepishly, remembering her unkind words at the social.

"Yeah, you were," Jim said candidly, though gently. "But it isn't an incurable condition. We all can be kind of a jerk now and then," he said smiling. He could forgive a pretty girl like Mandy of most anything.

She looked back out at the rain. "I guess the lake is out tonight."

"The lake is definitely out," he agreed. "My Z12 isn't going anywhere, except maybe out to pasture."

"You should let Kenny take a look at it."

He squinted over at her. "Kenny, your freckle-faced brother the Squirt, Kenny?" he asked dubiously.

"He's becoming quite the tech monkey, Jim," she assured him. "And he's had a crush on that Z12 ever since you first drove it up our driveway. I'll bet he could have it running again for you by the time you're back out this way."

He smiled though his eyes grew evasive. "Aaaah, Kenny can have her, if he can get her going again. I kind of like the idea of that old Z12 giving your dad a few more headaches. Sort of like leaving a little part of me behind to annoy him in absentia," he said deviously.

He chuckled at the thought, but noticed that Mandy had only smiled a little and looked away. He had a feeling he knew what was bothering her. "Mandy, I've been thinking…" he began, knowing the time had come to say what he needed to say.

"I'm never going to see you again, am I?" she anticipated. She turned her glistening brown eyes up to his again with a sadness that nearly broke his heart.

"I wouldn't say never. But…" He paused, trying to think of the best way to put it. "I'm not even remotely ready to settle down. And I think it would be unfair of me to let you think I was."

"Starfleet and starships are always going to come first to you, aren't they?" she said without recrimination.

He loved Mandy. He would probably always love her. Not enough to give up a Starfleet career for her. But perhaps just enough to let her go. "Planets are for normal people like you," he said with a little smile, caressing her face with his hand. "And you deserve to have someone with their feet on the ground here with you. I don't know when…or if that would ever be me."

She sniffed and wiped a tear that threatened to roll down her cheek. Took hold of his hand. "It's just hard to let go of the past."

"Yeah…" he whispered, feeling the same way. "You know you'll always be special to me, Mandy. If you or your family ever need—anything."

She looked away and he was afraid she was going to cry. The rain seemed to be coming down harder and louder now. But when Mandy looked back at him, her big brown eyes were dry. Instead, a small coy smile played upon her lips. "Maybe a good-bye kiss…?" she suggested flirtatiously.

The request took him by surprise, but pleasantly so. In fact, he thought it was the best idea he had heard all weekend. He pulled her to him and found that a few things at least never changed.

*****

"I do not understand the logic of hiding multi-colored chicken eggs and pretending they come from a rabbit. Rabbits are mammals," Spock stated while looking out through the branches and leaves from the treehouse towards the Kirk backyard. Marjorie's Sunday School class was hunting the eggs Jim and Spock had hidden for more times than they wanted to count.

"You noticed that, did you?" Kirk replied, relaxing on the large comfortable branch that his backside knew so well.

"Is it intended as a metaphor for the supernatural nature of the holiday?" Spock inquired.

"That's as good an explanation as any I've heard," Kirk replied, "I think it's sort of a fusion of ancient symbols for Spring. Nowadays hunting for Easter eggs is just a fun tradition for the kids."

"Vulcan’s seasonal changes are not nearly as dramatic as here in your northern latitudes," Spock mused. "I never understood the impact of Spring upon the Human psyche until now. The concepts of re-birth, redemption, and hope are as natural to your species as the tilt of your planet."

Kirk pondered the observation from this cosmological perspective. "I never looked at it that way before. My grandfather used to say that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. We don't have to like what the universe brings to us, I guess, but we can have faith that it's ultimately for our good."

The two contemplated life and the universe a moment in silence, until Spock leaned forward and withdrew something from the pocket of his borrowed jeans. It was a familiar item that caught and reflected a bright ray of sunlight as it was unfolded.

"What are you doing with my brother's pocket knife?" Kirk asked. It used to be his father's, handed down to his eldest son and namesake.

"I believe I… 'snitched' it from your brother's room," Spock replied with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye, as he utilized the colloquialism he had recently learned.

Holding the sharp tip up to his opposite palm, he poked a shallow hole in his skin, without the slightest flinch in his calm features. Green blood oozed from the violation of his epidermis. Spock turned the pocketknife, extending the handle towards Kirk. "Vulcan blood has inherent antibiotic properties."

Kirk sat up somewhat stunned as he accepted the pocketknife. However, his devilish, crooked grin soon began to grow across his handsome face. He held the blade over his flattened palm a moment, studying the scar where the previous cut had been made, and then thrust the sharp tip alongside. He didn't wholly succeed in suppressing his own reaction to the stinging jolt to his nerve endings. He flexed his fingers and watched the bright red blood pool outside of his own skin. Looking up, he met the sincere, dark eyes of the Vulcan-Human hybrid.

The red-green mixture felt sticky against unbroken skin as the two young men clasped right hands in an ancient ritual of brotherhood. Spock's hand was unusually warm, and there was that tingling again. What was it Rodriguez had told him about Vulcan hands? There was something else, also. Another sensation. Like the clasp of his soul as well. The feeling was fleeting once they released hands. Jim wondered if he had felt it at all.

Spock handed his friend a flesh-colored pressure bandage. Looking at his palm, Kirk saw that where their blood had mixed had become a dark hue, but on either side remained the original stains of red and green. He smiled. The colors of Christmas, came an idle thought, as he applied the small bandage. With all of their other scrapes and bruises, no one was likely to notice one more.

"There's where you two are hiding," George Junior called out from below. He was already pulling himself up the trunk into the branches of the old tree.

The Kirk boys looked remarkably alike, although George Samuel Kirk, Junior had taken to wearing a mustache of late so as not to appear quite so boyish among his more established and mature colleagues. James Tiberius Kirk favored his mother. Except for his smile. Everyone who remembered the senior George said that Jim had his mother's eyes but his daddy's smile.

"What are you two deputy dawgs doing up here?" the elder brother drawled.

"We're tired of hiding Easter eggs, Sam," Jim whined, reverting a bit to the dynamics of the younger brother.

"That was a wicked thing you two did, hiding the eggs so well. Those poor children are never going to find them all."

"It's good for their characters," Jim stated unsympathetically.

"Yeah, and in a few weeks mom's going to have a bunch of lost and rotten eggs stinking up the place."

"We'll find them all before we go," Jim reassured as he handed his brother his closed pocketknife.

"What were you doing with that?" George asked.

"Nothing," Jim deflected.

Now comfortably perched with them in the saddle of the tree, George reached over and punched his brother soundly in the arm.

"Owww! What was that for?"

"For not telling me you found the lower caverns."

Jim just grinned and shrugged.

George looked over to the Vulcan. "Watch out for this guy, Spock. He can be a very bad influence."

Spock glanced at the younger Kirk and back to George. "Logically, there is an equal probability that I will succeed in influencing him."

"That's true," Jim acknowledged. "I'll have you know I have been driving the speed limit this weekend."

Spock raised a dubious eyebrow.

"Okay, most of the time, when we weren’t being chased by murderous thugs, I have been driving the speed limit."

Spock nodded his confirmation of the revised statement.

The brother whistled. "Will wonders never cease?"

This time it was Jim who reached over and punched his brother soundly in the arm.

"Owww! You can't do that."

"That's for all those years we went out to the island and you never once let me be Tom Sawyer."

"What?" George looked over again to the Vulcan to confirm that he had heard right. Looking back at Jim he replied, "My dear, knuckle-headed brother. You are already Tom Sawyer."

Jim momentarily considered the statement. "I am not," he denied indignantly.

"You are too. You're just like him."

"I am not!"

"What do you think, Huckleberry Finn?" George nodded to their objective guest.

Spock could neither confirm nor deny the statement, having never read the Mark Twain classic; however, he had already decided that the novel would be next upon his reading list.

Verbal wrangling led the brothers into treetop wrestling. Spock watched with concern until he realized that these two were quite experienced at this activity and seemed to know just what to do so as to keep from tumbling off the branches to the ground. The younger Kirk's superior training and conditioning soon made him the victor, as he got his older brother into a headlock.

"Married life seems to have slowed you down, old man."

"Old?" Sam protested indignantly, struggling in vain. He finally stopped struggling, catching his breath. "I'm still better looking than you. You gonna let up now?"

"Hell, no. This is payback for all those years you had the advantage over me."

The relationship between the Kirk brothers was certainly nothing like Spock had ever encountered before. It was the most curious expression of Human affection he'd ever witnessed. He certainly couldn't imagine his own mother and her siblings ever behaving in this way.

Spock eventually returned his attention to the Easter egg hunt continuing on beyond the trees in the backyard. Though Kirk and his family were a fascinating study, he was becoming restless to get back to the more familiar environs of the academy and their last stretch towards finals. In particular, he was looking forward to his summer cruise, being able to utilize his new found skills and training in exploration of the frontier. He had already been informed that he would be posted to the U.S.S. Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike.

Curious, but there was indeed something about an Earth Spring that caused one to cogitate the existence of wonders or miracles. While he didn't consider himself a man of faith, Spock had to concede that up until now he had been presented with interesting opportunities and acceptable, though difficult, alternatives. Perhaps it was true, if not immediately logical, that the universe did indeed hold the promise of infinite—and occasionally benevolent—possibilities.


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This story can be found in printed form in ORION ARCHIVES 2229-2265  THE BEGINNINGS2
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