Hazel blue eyes scanned the vast sea of Humans and humanoids sitting in the bleachers overlooking the parade grounds. Captain Erich Von Steuben, Commandant of Starfleet Academy, was out in front on the field, flanked by several instructors, administrators and upperclassmen. In his guttural tone, which amplified the innate authority of his voice, the tall Aryan warned the new entering freshmen that of the fourteen hundred officer candidates of their class, only fifty percent would make it through to the end of the four years and graduate. A fourth of them would wash out by the end of the first year. Not me, the seventeen-year-old James Tiberius Kirk vowed mentally.
It had been an exciting morning, getting processed in and finally walking the passageways of this revered institution as his father had done before him, and as he had been dreaming of doing for many years. Those passageways, however, were nearly empty. Only a select handful of upperclassmen who had been chosen to shepherd the newest cadets through basic training were on campus during the summer months. Most midshipmen were off on training cruises or receiving hands-on instruction elsewhere until the Fall term resumed activities.
The commandant finished his welcoming address and, in turn, introduced Midshipman First Class Robert Wesley, brigade leader of the four thousand midshipmen at Starfleet Academy. The tall, handsome young man also welcomed the freshman class and then explained how the academy brigade consisted of six battalions, made up of six companies each. The freshmen were instructed that as their name, battalion and company was called out, they were to go to the appropriate place on the parade field where their company leaders would line them up in formation.
As names were called out in alphabetical order, Kirk continued surveying the Class of 2254. The vast majority were Humans, not surprising since this was the San Francisco campus. Terrans, Centaurians, and Earth colonists were all assigned here. Quite a few good-looking women among them, he made note. One pretty brunette in particular caught his eye just as her name was called and she rose like a dream from the bleachers.
"Davis, Lystra--Epsilon Battalion, Company Two," the strong voice rang out over the amplification system. Kirk watched the graceful way her lithe figure moved as she made her way down the bleacher steps and out onto the field. Let that be my company, he silently pled.
The list of names droned on and Kirk's attention wandered. In addition to Humans, there were blue-pigmented Andorians and the furry, porcine Tellarites scattered amongst the crowd. All wore the silver tunics denoting midshipmen with their silver starbursts over the right breast, black pants and boots. No one wore the distinctive pointed Starfleet side burns. Not yet, they didn't. Traditionally, Midshipmen Fourth Class weren't permitted to wear them. The scuttlebutt was that upperclassmen would shave the head of any plebe who dared to grow them.
Kirk's gaze passed over and then returned to a dark-haired fellow with a pasty yellow-green complexion, bushy, upswept eyebrows, and pointed ears sitting several rows over and up behind. Good Lord, it's a Vulcan!
The Midwesterner had never seen a Vulcan his own age before. He'd spied a few adults in transport centers during his several off-world excursions and had always been a tad intrigued by these fellow citizens of the Federation, with their stony, imposing demeanor. His father, George Kirk, had once remarked that Vulcans reminded him of ancient mystics who possessed some secret of the universe they weren't sharing with anybody. Kirk understood that there were very few Vulcans in Starfleet. He wasn't sure just why.
The devilish-looking classmate suddenly looked in his direction, as though sensing he was being stared at. Kirk put on a half-grin and nodded in greeting. The Vulcan just cocked an eyebrow and turned back to the front.
"Kirk, James Tiberius," they called out his name. "Epsilon Battalion, Company Two."
Yes! he cheered silently, rising and trotting down the bleachers.
Kirk joined his growing company on the green grass. He spied only briefly the pretty co-ed, Lystra Davis. A cacophony of voices assaulted his senses, as upperclassmen were barking out orders all over the field. As he reached his company, the voices assaulted him more personally and none-too-gentle hands pushed him into a line, one of four separate squads within the company, when he didn't move fast enough.
"Do you call that standing at attention, dunselhead? Stand up straight, eyes forward. Mouth shut! Suck in that gut! I didn't ask for your insights, flea-ridden hedgehog!"
He stood perfectly still, barely breathing, and concluded that he must have gotten it right, as the verbal abuse had moved on to the next new member of the company.
His ears perked up at the name of Mitchell, Garrison K., also assigned to his company. Kirk remembered a fellow Starfleet brat by that name he knew as a kid. He made a mental note to look him up later.
They waited impatiently beneath Earth's hot June sun as the winnowing continued. An occasional ocean breeze gave only a brief respite.
"Who's the fellow who looks like a hungry dingo?" the newest member of Epsilon Company Two asked in a clipped Australian accent.
"Our drill instructor," Kirk replied. An upperclassman with sandy-blond hair and a Cheshire cat grin eyed each freshman as they were sorted into Kirk's squad.
"Only a Deuce? We don't rate a Firstie?" the Aussie griped.
"Maybe they don't think we're going anywhere," Kirk quipped.
"Speak for yourself, mate. Darian Ross from the Land Down Under is going places."
"What part of 'shut yer holes' don't you understand?" a red-faced Firstie yelled coarsely as he walked the ranks. Silence prevailed after that. The end of the alphabet was pronounced in an eerie stillness and the last of the sorted freshmen took their places in formation. Upperclassmen now stepped forward to address their squads individually.
"Welcome to Hell," the Deuce announced to his squad in a thick Irish brogue as he strolled the line, making careful inspection. "The name is Seamus Finnegan and for the next nine weeks, you Cherries belong to me. It'll be my job to be turning you all into cadets. We will be on a first name basis. I will call you 'Plebe' and you will call me 'Sir'. You will do so at all times at attention. Whenever you are addressed by any upperclassman, or any other superior officer, or any member of the faculty, you will stand at attention and you will call him or her 'Sir'. If you do not give the proper deference to your superiors, there will be very unpleasant consequences."
The Aussie snorted his derision.
Finnegan swung round and zeroed in on the perpetrator, missing by one. He squinted appraisingly at a serious, broad-shouldered young man, searching for something amiss. "Did you think something I said was funny, Plebe?"
"No, sir," Kirk responded.
"What was that? I couldn't hear you," Finnegan feigned.
"No, sir. It wasn't me...sir," Kirk repeated more loudly.
Finnegan eyed the plebes on either side, wondering if he did get the wrong wiseguy, but wasn't too concerned as by now something about this ultra-serious cadet had tickled his perverse fancy.
"What's your name, Plebe?"
"Kirk, James T., sir."
"And where are you from, Jimmy Boy?" the Irishman asked with a disarming lilt in his voice.
"Straight off the farm, eh, Jimmy Boy?" Finnegan said with a wicked grin. "I'll bet you have fine dreams of goin' places, an' bein' a leader of men, now haven't ye?"
Kirk stole a glance at Finnegan, his brow wrinkling at the personal question.
"Face front, Plebe, when you're at attention! Now answer the question." The Deuce had lost all trace of friendliness.
Kirk faced forward. "Yes, sir," he said through gritted teeth.
"That's 'aye-aye, sir'. You're in Star-fleet, Plebe, not the bloody infantry."
Kirk winced. He knew that was what you were supposed to say.
The Irishman shook his head and strolled up and down the line again. "You know...you stupid underclassmen...you all come to the academy with such grand dreams when the truth is, none of ye can find your head with both hands. Well, I'm here to help you find it," he said with a return of the sing-songy, insincere kindness. "Now drop and give me ten. All of ye. Now!"
As the whole line went down and was doing the push ups, Finnegan explained. "In Starfleet we work as a team. There is no 'I' in team. What one of ye does effects ye all. So you can thank your smart aleck teammate for this invigorating activity."
As the squad members began getting back to their feet, Finnegan stopped in front of Kirk and addressed him again. "Now how did you like that, Jimmy Boy?" he asked, deliberately patronizing. "Was that also a part of your dreams?"
Kirk stared ahead with grim determination, not about to give the squad leader any satisfaction. "I liked it fine, sir," mentally spelling 'sir' as 'c-u-r', a rebellion his father used to joke about.
Another wicked grin grew on Finnegan's face. "Is that so, Jimmy Boy? Since ye're likin' it so much, drop and give me ten more."
Kirk gritted his teeth, did the ten extra push ups, and stood again, trying to hold down his rising ire.
Finnegan examined the set jaw somewhat up close and personal. "Aye, Jimmy Boy. This is goin' to be fun," he commented, then turned and continued on down the row, a lively spring in his step.
Kirk looked after Finnegan, exhaling with a mixture of disbelief and apprehension.
Plebe Summer was a grueling nine weeks of physical conditioning and training in Starfleet and Starfleet Academy protocols. The relentless schedule and pace was broken up only by all too brief periods for eating and rest. Their day began at 0500 hours with roll call and physical training, followed by inspection at 0600, breakfast at 0700, and academic classes from 0800 until noon. Lunch and a contemplative/meditative period occurred from noon until 1300, and then activities commenced again of training and physical instruction until dinner at 1800. Unless other drills or workshops were scheduled, plebes could utilize the evening hours in study until lights out in freshman dormitories at 2100.
Kirk's happy-go-lucky squad leader went the extra mile in helping his plebes anticipate life in Starfleet. In addition to his proscribed duties of Plebe Detail, Finnegan and his upperclass buddies made sure their plebes came to "expect the unexpected" and "never take anything at face value". In particular, Finnegan favored the serious, hard-working James T. Kirk, honoring him with the majority of his practical jokes. It wasn't unusual for Kirk to find a bucket of water propped on top of his door, or awake to find that a portable forcefield had been set up to trap him in his bunk. Another time, the long-suffering freshman returned from the weight room only to find that his boots had been nailed to the bottom of his locker.
Plebe Summer turned into Fall and classes began. Core courses, physical training and athletics kept Kirk occupied, not to mention dodging Finnegan's pranks. Though Kirk was now released from the Deuce's direct supervision, the Irishman still occasionally pulled something on his favorite freshman, as he said, "Just so that you won't be forgettin' about me, Jimmy Boy." As though he ever would. One dark, December morning, Kirk rose, turned off his alarm, dressed, and groggily headed for the gym for his early morning personal fitness workout only to find the dressing room strangely dark and deserted. It was only then that he realized that somehow Finnegan had re-set all of his chronometers ahead so that it was actually only 0300.
It wasn't until early January before Kirk gave himself a moment to breathe. Wrestling season was over and he decided he would need his late afternoon period during the winter quarter for study, having such subjects as Navigation and Theoretical Math. He and Darian Ross had hooked up on their way back to the Epsilon Battalion dorms and were passing through the common room together. Kirk slowed to observe a small group of Company Two and Company Three kibitzers gathered around a towering tri-dimensional chessboard. As he veered towards the game, Ross followed.
A Tellarite Firstie faced off against the Vulcan plebe he'd seen his first day of Plebe Summer up in the bleachers. Kirk's keen eyes quickly assessed the chess game. The Tellarite was in trouble. A few muted maneuvers and the Vulcan moved in for the kill. He lifted his queen from the lower level and set it down softly a couple of squares from the white king.
"Checkmate," the Vulcan intoned simply.
The Tellarite grunted gruffly. Groans and other indications of disappointment were expressed by the kibitzers. The Firstie seemed to have been the favorite. The loser nodded his head in resignation then sat back in his chair, tugging at his furry cheek, still looking for a miraculous save. As the Vulcan rose from the table, Kirk swung round the perimeter.
"Where're you going?" Ross asked.
"To congratulate the winner. Come on." Kirk was already on an intercept course. "Not a bad strategy," he addressed the victor.
"Obviously," the Vulcan returned, barely glancing at his fellow plebe without slowing his pace.
"You left yourself vulnerable near the end," Kirk tossed off a little louder. "If I'd been your opponent, I would have gone for a back-rank mate."
The Vulcan paused and partly turned at so technical a remark. "Then you would have failed," he said flatly. "I anticipated back-rank threats."
"That sounds like a challenge," Kirk said with a slight smile, crossing towards him.
"It was not." The young Vulcan stared blankly at the Human now before him.
"Jim Kirk," he said, extending his hand.
The Vulcan glanced at the hand but did not take it. He clasped his hands behind him instead, continuing a dull gaze.
Chagrined, Kirk turned his proffered hand into a gesture toward his companion, "This is Darian Ross."
The chess victor nodded politely to neither in particular. "I am Spock."
"Where'd you learn to play chess, Spock?" Kirk asked.
The dark eyes remained unimpressed. "Vulcan, of course."
"Really? I didn't know they played chess on Vulcan."
His eyes flickered away. "Earth has many...curious exports," he said evasively, sounding somewhat bored with the conversation.
"I see. Tell me, then, have you..."
"If you will excuse me," Spock interrupted the new inquiry. "I am scheduled for computer lab in six point three minutes."
"Of course," Kirk said with a frown, wondering if he really kept time that accurately in his head. He watched the Vulcan leave, somewhat deflated.
"Good gutzer, Kirk! Did you ever crash and burn," Ross razzed in his distinct Australian accent. "Looks like First Contact won't be one of your strengths."
The Iowan bristled at the jibe.
"Red" Tyler, one of the kibitzers from Company Three and a fellow plebe, approached, having been eavesdropping. "Forget it, Kirk," Tyler consoled. "Vulcans don't have emotions like other humanoids. They may come from a hot planet, but they're frosty as a pre-terraformed morning on the plains of Tharsis." He chuckled at his own joke. Tyler's hair was as rust-colored as the soil of his Martian home. He was from the Valles Marineris region of massive, labyrinthine canyonlands. His ancestors were leaders in a brief but intense guerrilla war that convinced United Earth that Mars colonists were serious about obtaining independence.
"Hmm. That's what I've heard," Kirk said, shaking it off.
"If you're thinking of taking him on, think again. He's got a brain like a computer. He plots his moves and then yours ten steps ahead. He's beaten all comers since October. Wesley played him to a draw last quarter, but that's the closest anybody's come."
"Then he's not unbeatable," Kirk stated.
The Martian squinted, his emerald eyes in doubt. "It's your funeral," he said, walking away.
"So are you going to challenge him? The Vulcan, I mean," Ross asked.
Kirk shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."
Studies took precedence in Kirk's life for the next few weeks, though the idea of playing the Epsilon chess champ continued to percolate in Kirk's mind. On occasion, coming in from classes after 1700, Kirk would find the chess table occupied. Not uncommonly, it was the cool-eyed Vulcan creaming some hapless Human.
As he made inquiries, however, Kirk realized that not much was known about the only Vulcan in their class. He seemed to be a loner, almost criminally smart, already working on pre-requisites for a Science major, pulling two minors in Astrophysics and Computer Science, and with a talent for rubbing his classmates the wrong way. Taciturn outside of class, inside he was rarely quiet. He had a tendency to keep up with the journals and posted field reports better than his instructors and was not shy about contradicting old information, or of voicing contrary theories. When challenged, he could quote date, volume, page, and paragraph. If other students were intimidated, some instructors considered transfer or early retirement.
Information finally came from an unexpected source. Kirk had put dating on hold through Basic and his first quarter at the academy. He was serious about a Starfleet career. It was what he wanted more than anything, so much so that not even the females could distract him as he got his academic legs beneath him. But he never forgot about Lystra Davis and struck up conversations as often as was feasible. The pretty and intelligent Midshipman Fourth Class possessed an ambition and interest in the command track to match his own. She was athletic and loved outdoor activities as much as he did. Her short, curly, dark hair was silky to the touch and her striking face was graced with a smile that made him go weak inside. Come the new year and new quarter, he couldn't resist her charms any longer and asked her out for a Saturday afternoon liberty.
"Sure I know Spock," Davis replied, turning their small sailboat out of the wind. "We're lab buddies."
"You are?" Kirk lowered the sail, secured the sheet on the crossbar, and then dropped their anchor. "What do you know about him?" he asked with open curiosity.
"I know I'm going to ace Astrophysics because of him," she said with a wink. "And..." she added coyly, "I think he's kind of cute."
"Cute?" Kirk repeated in disbelief and with a tinge of jealousy. He retrieved a couple of bottles of exotic fruit coolers and brought them aft. "He looks like the devil himself!"
"I know--" she purred. "Sexy in a kind of forbidden way," she said receiving the bottle he handed her. There isn't hardly a female in the science division who doesn't find him intriguing."
Kirk frowned as he twisted off the cap. "I don't believe this! He's about as personable as a duotronic circuit--"
Davis decided she'd played with him long enough. "Don't worry, Jim. He's not interested."
"Yeah, and how do you know that?" he inquired warily.
"I asked him."
"You asked him," he re-stated incredulously, sipping the juice.
"Before we met."
"My friend Deveroux tried to give him a preview and he just looked at her like she was a paramecium in mitosis."
"A preview?" Kirk sputtered with astonishment.
Davis laughed. She found Kirk's Midwestern sensibilities endearing. "Why all the curiosity anyway?"
"No reason," he replied, gazing out at the rocky beach ringing their small cove. "Just that nobody seems to know anything about him, not even his roommates."
"He doesn't talk about himself. I asked him if he had a girlfriend back home and he said, 'My personal life is not an appropriate topic for discussion, Miss Davis.'" This she delivered in her best imitation of the deep, serious, Vulcan voice, tossing in an upraised eyebrow.
The impression re-drew Kirk's attention and he laughed. "The arrogance doesn't bother you?" He sipped the juice again, pursing his lips. It was a bit sweeter than he cared for.
She shrugged her shoulders. "If it did, I wouldn't be here with you," she said playfully.
Kirk pretended to laugh at her dig.
"I guess he can get on the nerves of the less secure," Davis observed.
"Or the less opportunistic," Kirk teased.
She studied Kirk's pondering face, as she sipped her own drink. He had some reason for the inquiry. "Seriously, why all the recon? Did he beat you at chess?" she needled.
"No," he said simply. "I haven't played him."
"Not yet--" she prognosticated. Kirk had mentioned being in the chess club back home.
"Maybe I will, maybe I won't," Kirk said evasively.
"Let me know when you challenge him. I'd love to be there," she said leaning over to kiss his lips. "For luck."
"I don't know, Miss Davis. I don't think that would be appropriate," Kirk mimicked, gathering her into his arms.
"Miss Davis--" she mocked, as she attacked his ticklish spots.
Kirk retaliated, in a most inappropriate way indeed.
Kirk attempted no more overtures with the Vulcan, but watched his play from the ring of observers, trying to figure out the chess master's modus operandi. What quickly became apparent was the fact that Spock's opening repertoire was quite limited. The openings he used, he knew well. But if faced with an oddball beginning, his play became a bit erratic.
More importantly, Kirk discovered that if Spock did think like a computer, it was a computer that was programmed for swindles and traps rather than straightforward play. That may be sufficient to dispatch the majority of tyros he faced, but it had the disadvantage of ignoring an overall strategy during a game.
Armed with these observations, a bold plan began forming in the freshman's mind.
One quiet afternoon, he watched Spock quickly finish off his opponent, a third year from Company Three. Kirk swallowed the last of his granola snack and wiped his mouth while approaching the table. Spock was just rising.
"Is this by appointment, or first come first served?" Kirk asked quickly.
"I beg your pardon?"
"To get a game with you."
"Forgive me, but at the moment--"
"You have computer lab in six point three minutes."
"Eleven point five, actually," Spock returned drolly.
"How about tomorrow then?"
Spock considered, then nodded. "Very well. Tomorrow."
Kirk thought about informing Lystra, but decided he didn't want the potential for distraction, or the humiliation in case he crashed and burned.
Kirk made an effort to get back early to the common room the next afternoon but, nevertheless, found Spock already at the chess table. Seeing the confident champion calmly setting out the pieces for their game gave Kirk pause, as did seeing who occupied the best seat in the house, Lystra Davis. A few of the regular kibitzers looked disappointed when they saw him, a mere plebe, approaching the challenger's chair.
What was I thinking? Kirk suddenly got cold feet. This is crazy. And if it doesn't work, I'll look like an idiot.
The Vulcan glanced up and regarded him coolly, then returned to his work setting out the pieces. Davis followed the Vulcan's gaze and smiled. Too late to disappear. Kirk took a deep breath and slipped into his seat, kitty-corner across the chessboard. He nodded in greeting.
"White or black?" Spock asked without preliminary.
Kirk squinted at the offer, but instead grabbed a white and a black pawn, mixed them up beneath the table, and raised them again, enclosed in each of his fists. "Pick a hand."
Spock stared condescendingly at the Human. "This is not a game of random chance," he lectured. "Tri-dimensional chess is based upon mathematical principle."
Something about Spock's definition renewed Kirk's confidence in his plan. "Fine. I'll take white," he said shaking his head and replacing the pawns on their appropriate squares.
Having the first move, Kirk started off using an old twenty-second century opening, the Los Angeles Attack. Only he played it in reverse; that is, developing his pieces from black's point of view. As expected, Spock appeared taken aback. Instead of reeling off his canned repertoire in seconds, his moves came more hesitantly and cautiously. The die-hard kibitzers, expecting an easy rout, watched in earnest. Even Davis was surprised. She flashed Kirk a warm, admiring smile. He was suddenly glad she was there.
By the time they reached the mid-game, Spock had equalized. Tactics began to develop as the two armies of men came in closer contact on the mid-level neutral and smaller attack boards. Kirk pressed for what looked like an advantage, but soon lost a pawn. A silly trap, he thought, and he knew better. He could sense the crowd downgrading his chances.
Kirk decided to change gears to try to throw the Vulcan off guard. Ignoring more apparent opportunities, which he assumed were shams, Kirk resorted to a style used by a twentieth-century 2-D world champion, Tigran Petrosian. When faced with quiescent positions, the Georgian champ would sometimes play seemingly illogical moves, such as his "do-nothing-special" routine, lulling his opponents into overextending themselves.
Kirk killed time with moves which neither advanced nor retreated. Kibitzers began looking at their chronometers. Davis caught Kirk's eye, questioningly. He only smiled vaguely in return.
Spock seemed frustrated at his lack of progress and sought to press forward more aggressively. In a few more moves, Kirk gave up an exchange, allowing Spock to trade one of his bishops for Kirk's king-side rook, while the Iowan kept his two-bishop advantage and gained some strong, central squares. Kirk seemed oblivious as Spock launched a queen-side sally, choosing instead to strategically place his men on his opponent's levels. Just as Spock had captured Kirk's remaining rook, the challenger moved his bishop on the center board, making an unobstructed attack on the opposing king. He quietly announced, "Checkmate".
Spock's lips parted but there was no sound. The unbelievable was true. His king was caught in a Boden's mate. The Vulcan's brow furrowed. His eyes scanned the boards. The threat had somehow eluded him.
The kibitzers were also dumbfounded at first. Their surprised chatter attracted others who came over to learn of the upset. Davis' eyes beamed from across the table even as her head wagged in incredulity. Hands slapped Kirk's shoulders in congratulation.
Looking back at his beaten adversary, Kirk found the former champ still studying the board.
The Vulcan met the victor's eyes. "May I ask you how..." he began.
Kirk rose suddenly, cutting off the question. "A little Earth history, Spock. To the ancient Persians, chess was a game of war." The new champion smiled cockily as he now lectured the loser. "Maybe you should spend a little less time with mathematics and a little more with tactics."
The Vulcan regarded him coolly, but never tried to finish his question.
Kirk lost sight of Davis in the crowd and soon left the common room himself. There was a touch of a swagger to his step, and the brief twinge of guilt for the cheap shot he had indulged was soon drowned under a torrent of self-satisfaction.
The afternoon was a hedonistic basking in the glow of his inflated ego. The euphoric freshman paid only half-attention to his evening studies. As the news of the chess upset spread, it gave Kirk an early taste of celebrity. In the mess hall at supper, total strangers, even upperclassmen, would shoot him smiles or a "Not bad, Plebe".
The next morning was Saturday. Kirk had just gotten back to his quarters after playing a round of low gravity handball with Darian Ross when the chime summoned him to the door. It was Lystra. "Hey, I lost you after the match last night," Kirk greeted cheerfully. "Come to pay homage to the new Academy chess champ?"
She smiled tolerantly and entered with a quick affectionate kiss to the lips. "Let's just say I didn't want to stand in line."
"There are no lines here. And no roommates for a change." He drew her close, closed the door, and they engaged in a much more methodical and stimulating kiss.
She finally drew back with a self-satisfied grin. "Congratulations, Champ. You played quite the game. Surprised a lot of people. Including Spock."
Kirk chuckled at the memory. "He never saw it coming, did he? Grandpa always used to say, 'If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bull--'"
"I get the picture," she said, heading off his farmyard vulgarity with a slender finger to his lips. "You don't kiss your mother with that mouth, do you?" she teased.
"I don't give my mother kisses like this," he said, heading for her lips again.
She held him playfully at bay. "Another kiss like that, and we'll be staying in this afternoon."
"And that would be bad...because?"
"Because tonight is special," she reminded.
"Oh...right. So you want to run out and celebrate?" he suggested, grabbing a jacket. "Some upperclassmen invited me to stop by the Wormhole."
She looked at him somewhat oddly. "But we have reservations at the Windjammer."
Kirk froze. His eyes darted away.
"We do have reservations at the Windjammer...?" She asked it meaningfully, implicit with hell-to-pay for a negative response.
"Uh..." he stammered.
"You didn't forget my birthday, did you?" There was hell already in her question.
He looked back, a supplicant for mercy. "I'm sorry. I've had other things on my mind this week."
"Uh-huh. You always do," she said softly.
He exhaled and slipped in front of the computer terminal. Lystra fumed quietly while Kirk contacted the Windjammer's reservation desk. Saturday afternoon and early evening was the only time first years had town liberty and allowed to go into San Francisco. It might be several more weeks before both would be free from duty rotations again. The popular, romantic restaurant on the water was fully booked, however. He tried to cajole onto their waiting list. But there was even a waiting list to get on their waiting list.
"I told you, you had to make reservations early." She spoke tightly, in a deep, controlled octave.
"I'll make it up to you, I promise. Look...we can still go to the Wormhole..."
Her expression conveyed it was not a sell. "Oh sure, have the spotlight on you all night."
He didn't understand her reasoning. "Why can't it be a double celebration?"
"Because it won't be. It was a good game, Jim, but that doesn't mean it's all I want to talk about all night long. Besides, I know how it always goes at the Wormhole. Everybody gets a few drinks in them and the comments turn personal and ugly."
"Don't worry. I won't let them talk about you that way--" he said teasing, purposely misunderstanding her.
"I mean about Spock," she specified, all too seriously. "The vanquished enemy roasted at the stake. Think I'll pass."
"Aaaa...it's just venting a little plasma," he defended his schoolmates. "And from what I've seen, the guy could stand to be taken down a peg or two."
"Yeah, and fortunately the Wormhole has double front doors so that your head will fit through."
Kirk raised his brow. "Very funny. But from what I've heard from you yourself, he's not much of a team player. Maybe he doesn't belong in Starfleet," he finished with a shrug.
She bristled at the remark. "And if you're so provincial, maybe you don't belong in Starfleet either."
Kirk's eyes darkened as his frown shot in her direction. He knew she was just trying to make a point, but the words still stung.
"Look, all I meant..."
"I know what you meant," he said quickly. "Let's just drop it." He crossed the room, trying to douse his short fuse without total success. After an awkward silence he asked, "So...you want to just stay in?"
She exhaled. "You're still not off the hook for forgetting my birthday, Mister," she gently reminded. Her expression conveyed she was standing her ground, though open to conciliation.
"Okay, so...what do I need to do to get back in your good graces?" he inquired half-heartedly.
She crossed to him and laid a small strong hand on his broad shoulder. "You're the budding tactical genius. You'll figure it out."
Kirk and Davis spent their liberty afternoon browsing the historical district and ended up at Golden Gate Park. Over the next few weeks, Kirk made a particular effort to make Lystra much more the focus of his attention. He secured reservations for their next mutual town liberty at the Windjammer and took her for a romantic walk on the beach, but the easy playfulness seemed to have gone out of their relationship. It began to be just a little too much work. It wasn't long afterwards that the two began drifting apart.
The chess match soon became old news and approaching exams took center focus. Unbeknownst to Kirk, however, instructors were beginning to talk about him over coffee breaks and his name was surfacing at faculty meetings. Many were still chuckling over his unusual application of the maxim "keep sacrificing until you win" to defeat the Vulcan at chess. Others noticed his astute observations in class, or as a fierce competitor on the wrestling team. Some who knew him as George Kirk's son, wondered about the aftereffects of his having survived Tarsus IV. All were beginning to see possibilities in the still-green freshman.
Kirk never returned to the common room chess table, however. He told himself and others he was just too busy. On occasion, by chance, he would encounter Spock in the patio or halls. Other than a polite nod in passing, neither seemed inclined to speak. Inexplicably, Kirk's inner voice nagged at him that he and the Vulcan still had unfinished business. Just what that business might entail, however, he was not yet ready to explore.
There was a saying at Starfleet Academy in those days, "All roads lead to Rodriguez." Each major had its own requirements and electives, but all Starfleet midshipmen had the same required core of academic, spacemanship, and leadership courses. And all students in all divisions were required to take a series of classes for Physical Readiness--a euphemism for physical conditioning, athletics, and hand-to-hand defense techniques. No matter what their specialization might be, all middies sooner or later, would face Rodriguez.
Commander Raphael Mohonri Rodriguez was not tall for a Human, but stocky with muscles of steel. The short Hispanic/Quechuan from Bolivia was an eighteen-year veteran, most of them in deep space. That he had requested this posting was unfathomable to the young and the eager whom he taught. He was something of an expert in the martial arts, which he had studied on planets throughout the Federation, and on some that weren't. One of the heroes who held the line in the Battle of Donatu V, he was respected by faculty and generally held in awe by students. Part of his mythos was his standing invitation to try an attack move that he could not counter. Few were so foolish to venture, but the fact that none had yet been successful, provided ongoing fuel for the Rodriguez legend. So did his unique teaching style.
He had an eye for what students needed to learn if they were to survive their Starfleet service and saw to it that they learned it whether they liked it or not. Some of what he taught was actually in the field of martial arts.
Perhaps it was just a coincidence, perhaps it was fate, but in the Fall of 2251, both Kirk and Spock landed in Rodriguez' PR250 Personal Defense at the same time.
Jim Kirk had survived his Plebe year and was now a Midshipman Third Class, a "Thirdie" in Academy parlance. He had just returned from a month-long training cruise on a solar system patrol ship, following three weeks of sub-light pilot training. He had been looking forward to taking the defense course in his sophomore year, a requirement of the core. He had studied some martial arts back home and thrived on the competition. Add to the mix an instructor who was an old shipmate of his father's and confidence was very high.
Midshipman Third Class Spock, on the other hand, was not anticipating the defense course with any sort of positive expectation. He believed the methods he had observed to be primitive, unnecessarily violent, and a constant reminder of his father's disapproval of Starfleet's use of force. There was perhaps an illogic in seeking a reprieve from this requirement, but Spock was nothing if not one to explore all of the alternatives, and Rodriguez was, after all, the division head.
At the end of the first session, Spock approached the instructor, still punching registration confirmations into a computerized padd.
"Commander," the sophomore began. "Is it necessary that I take this course? I am trained in methods far superior to the ones you will teach in class."
Rodriguez looked up from the roster at the candid young Vulcan, a good head taller than himself. If he took the declaration for an insult, he showed no sign of it. "Which school? Susmanah?"
"Kali-k'hy," Spock corrected.
Rodriguez raised his brow and nodded, and seemed to consider the midshipman's request. He looked back to his work, however, and when he replied, it was in Spock's native Vulcan. He repeated an adage, which said roughly, "It is better to learn something you will never use than be in need and have no knowledge."
Spock raised an eyebrow at the usage of his native language. Even so, Vulcans were as arrogant as the French about attempts of outsiders to employ their tongue. "Your pronunciation lacks accuracy," he commented drolly.
Kirk, Ross, and other loitering class members overheard the exchange and sniggered at the remark, until a stern look from Rodriguez motivated them to move on. The instructor returned his attention to the cheeky Vulcan. "That's 'Your pronunciation lacks accuracy, sir,' Midshipman," the commander corrected. He didn't wait for the repetition. "I think you understood my meaning. Would you like it in English?"
"That will not be necessary...sir," the chastened student replied. Rebuffed, Spock resigned himself to the course.
Harald Beornson, or "Beorn" as everybody called him, was tall, blond, well-built, and intent on getting free. They were practicing defenses against holds from behind, but Spock was not making it easy for his large and aggressive opponent. The more the big ethnic Swede struggled against the Vulcan arm around his neck, the tighter the vise remained. Beorn's family was sixth generation technicians and geologists for the frozen, semi-automated mines of the system Barnard Prime or Xartheb, as they called Barnard Six. They were pioneers of one of the most inhospitable of locales. "Impossible" was not in their vocabulary. Beorn turned hostile. He began to utilize elbows and kicks. Spock finally released of his own volition, weary of these primitive techniques, but Beorn was just getting started. Spock ducked a lunge and came up from behind to grasp the man's trapezius muscles where they joined his neck. Beorn froze. His face contorted in pain and his powerfully built body dropped limply to the mat.
Students who had seen Beorn go down now stared at Spock with shock and some with fear. A quiet, "Wow," slipped from Jim Kirk's lips.
Their instructor, however, was not impressed. Jogging across the distance he surveyed the situation and the individual responsible, then squatted down beside the unconscious man on the floor, giving him a quick check.
"He has not been injured..." Spock began to explain.
Standing again, Rodriguez cut him off. "I'm familiar with totsu-k'hy, Mister Spock. I spent ten very long months on Vulcan studying the techniques of Kali-k'hy." To the class he directed, "Take Mister Beornson to the sofa in my office," then signaled Spock to follow him.
No one moved at first, so Kirk stepped forward, kneeling and reaching under the unconscious man's shoulders, directing Ross to grab his legs. Others began to assist then in lifting and carrying the large Human.
Rodriguez paused a number of paces from the group, his jaw working beneath his smooth tan cheek. He remained facing forward, his hands clasped behind him. "Did I instruct you to practice nerve pinches today, Mister Spock?"
"I didn't think so." Rodriguez looked up at the confident young Vulcan. "Use it again in class, and you'll fail the course. Understood?"
Spock blinked. His lips parted.
"Understood?" Rodriguez repeated.
Spock appeared to want to protest, but collected himself and replied, "Affirmative."
"I can't be waiting for students to recover from nerve pinches every day," Rodriguez grumbled, as he checked his chronometer. The instructor turned and walked back to supervise the transportation of Beornson, already being carried out to the offices.
Spock privately acknowledged the commander's logic and then also sought to assist with Beorn.
Ross intercepted and pushed him back roughly. "Warp off, Vulcan," the Aussie spat in a harsh whisper. "We don't need your help."
Beorn had come to in less than an hour. An analgesic had cured his splitting headache, but not his resentment over the incident. Prior to the following class session, his dressing aisle was in quite a buzz.
Ross elbowed the Xartheb and gave him a wink as Spock arrived at his locker, across and down a pace from their own. "Beats me how he dropped you, Beorn. Vulcans must have some sort of magic fingers."
"There is nothing numinous about it," Spock explained. "It is simply an understanding of anatomy."
"You'd just better keep your 'anatomy' away from mine--" Beorn warned, stepping menacingly towards the Vulcan. Ross held the big man back.
From the other end of the row, Kirk had been casually eavesdropping, but now watched until the irate colonist stepped back and returned to pulling on his sweats.
Ross caught the Iowan's eye and tried to draw him into the game. "What do you think, History Minor?" Ross called down to him. "Why do you suppose Vulcans look like the spawn of Satan?"
Spock cast a wary eye sidelong, but continued to dress for class.
Pulling on his own sweats, Kirk decided not to play. Good natured ribbing was one thing, but he couldn't tell where this was heading. "I don't know. A coincidence, I suppose," he answered honestly.
"Maybe our ancestors knew something we don't," Red Tyler offered.
"You think maybe some Vulcans dropped in on Earth way back when?" Ross extrapolated. "Scared the beejezus out of the locals?"
"Maybe," Tyler reflected.
Ross now coyly turned behind him. "What do you think of our theory, Spock?"
Spock answered while pulling on his shirt. "I think it improbable. Vulcans a millennium ago had very little interest in primitive societies."
Kirk chuckled in spite of himself. It was a clever comeback, accurate yet subtly insulting.
Ross bristled at being outdone. But he wasn't finished yet. "Why don't you tell us your theory, then?"
Spock closed his locker and turned to Ross. "I have none," he said almost pleasantly. "However, it is an intriguing question. When you go to this hell of yours, perhaps you can find out."
Kirk chuckled again and this time so did Tyler.
Spock held the Australian's stare, momentarily, turned and inadvertently collided with Thulan, the Andorian.
The blue-pigmented humanoid hissed something sharply in his dialect. Spock mumbled a concise apology and hurried away from the dressing area. Ross and Beorn were relieved to be able to laugh about the collision.
"Green Bloods," the exotic Andorian spat in English. "They think they own the galaxy."
"Well, they're very much mistaken about that," Ross observed lightly. "Since it belongs to us Humans."
Beorn laughed heartily while Kirk just grinned and shook his head.
The volatile Andorian, however, glowered toward Ross. "What do you mean by that, Pink Skin?"
"Never mind the Aussie," Kirk played peacemaker. "He's got dingoes running around in the upper forty." His hand drew circles in the air near his temple. "It's a condition they get from living on the bottom of the planet," Kirk kidded.
"Yeah, and what's your excuse, Top-Sider?" Ross tossed back.
The North American just smiled.
"And that's 'kangaroos loose in the top paddock', Yankee Farm Boy," Ross corrected.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever."
The Andorian's antennae swivelled again, tuning out what he now considered background noise.
"Joining us tonight at the Wormhole for a few cold ones, Farm Boy?" Ross asked. "We can kick around your ideas for beating The Rodriguez Challenge."
"I can't stay long," Kirk said. "I've got a report due in Pre-Fed History next week."
"Yeah, I hear that Professor Gill's a real slave driver."
"He's a great teacher, actually, but he doesn't tolerate tardiness."
"How 'bout you, Andy?" Ross called Thulan by their nickname for him. "We'll introduce you to Earth's finest in firewater," he offered, throwing his arm over the Andorian's shoulder as they headed from the dressing area for the gym.
Thulan eyed Ross suspiciously, but didn't resist the unfamiliar gesture.
Rodriguez commenced with the usual warm-ups. Once they were limbered up, the instructor gathered everyone and demonstrated a modified Andorian take down. As his graduate aide grabbed him by the shoulders, Rodriguez counter-grabbed, swept out a leg, to throw his aide off-balance, then put him easily on the mat. He explained it could be followed up with blows to the neck and so forth, as necessary.
"Let's see...Mister Kirk," the instructor called up the sophomore.
Kirk came forward confidently. The take down did not seem difficult.
Rodriguez scanned the class. His eyes paused on the Vulcan and he smiled enigmatically. "Mister Spock, come be our victim." The Vulcan stepped forward and took his position on the mat facing the Human.
Kirk's conscience nagged at him. Since the beginning of class, he had never once spoken to the Vulcan whom he had beaten at chess, and now was certainly no time for small talk. He evaluated his opponent physically. Spock was a bit taller, but thin. He had tossed bigger before. Kirk went for the throw, but without knowing quite how, ended up on his backside.
Rodriguez was chuckling as he pulled the surprised student to his feet. "Looked easy, didn't it? I knew you'd get knocked on your butt."
"I appreciate your faith in my abilities," Kirk replied sarcastically.
"It isn't about ability or lack thereof," he said, clapping a hand on the student's shoulder. "It is knowing your opponent and yourself." Rodriguez then spoke to the class as a whole. "This move can serve you well with many humanoid races. But it will not work against Vulcans or...Klingons. Each of these races has too much skeletal mass and three times a Human's strength, as Mister Kirk just discovered for himself."
Kirk bristled at knowing he had been set up. "You could have just told us," Kirk griped, his ego still bruised.
"But this way, you'll remember," the instructor explained softly to his rankled pupil.
The instructor turned again to the Vulcan. "Thank you, Mister Spock, for your assistance. However, our purpose here is to actually practice these techniques," he spoke pointedly. "I'd appreciate it if, in the future, you would allow your partners to use these methods on you during the learning phases. Eh?" The instruction was accompanied by an incisive look that his students had learned was as good as an order.
The Vulcan nodded his bland acknowledgment. "Commander," Spock solicited, suddenly curious. "Is this technique effective for a Vulcan to use against a Klingon?"
Rodriguez smiled appreciatively, "That is a very good question, Mister Spock. And perhaps someday you will answer it for us."
The young Vulcan raised a bushy eyebrow.
The morning of the next class session, Rodriguez was not in the gym at the appointed time. The aide gave the class instructions to hang out until called. Two by two, students were summoned. None returned. Some of the waiting class members worked out, others went over recent techniques. Kirk located a basketball and got up a game with Darian Ross, the pretty Angeline Mosconi, and Thulan. Slowly, the gym cleared of bodies. When Angeline was tapped to go, Kirk looked around for a replacement. Spock was sitting against the wall, his focus upon a portable reader in his hand. Kirk's little voice nagged him again.
"Hey, Spock, head's up!" Kirk called as he tossed the ball toward his classmate. The Vulcan's reflexes were good. He looked up and caught the orange orb flying towards him.
"Wanna play?" Kirk asked. "Two on two."
It looked to be a simple, if primitive, game. Put the inflated sphere through the hoop while your opponents try to prevent your success. The Humans were breathing hard and sweating profusely as they did with exertion. Kirk and Ross had stripped off their T-shirts. Odor was always offensive this period. He noticed Ross and Thulan exchange conspiratorial glances.
Spock was finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the emotions of others, as he had been taught, especially when having to interact with such emotional beings. The antipathy of others had long become commonplace to the half-Human, having grown up among elitist Vulcans. Still, he wasn't one to purposely seek it out. As for Kirk...his invitation was intriguing to him, though one he concluded was not worth exploring. The Vulcan just shook his head and returned the ball.
Red Tyler stepped in to fill the void and the game continued. Soon Thulan was also taken. The remaining three took turns shooting hoops until Tyler and Ross were finally called.
Kirk shot a few baskets by himself, but found it boring alone. Realizing there was no one else left in the gym but himself and Spock, Kirk reluctantly went over and squat himself down beside the Vulcan, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "What's so interesting?"
With a tinge of impatience, Spock let Kirk see the reader, which consisted of a long string of mathematical characters.
Kirk squinted. "The equation that describes a warp field?" he asked, recognizing at least a part of the row of figures.
"That is only a very small portion of the equation," Spock replied condescendingly. "Perhaps you should spend less time with tactics and more with mathematics."
Kirk absorbed the remonstrance, a turn about of his own remark from the year before. The Vulcan had a good memory. "Okay...so I deserved that. Are we going to play twenty questions, or are you going to tell me what the rest of it means?"
Spock sighed. "The entire equation describes a cold start intermix formula of matter and antimatter."
Kirk frowned. "Geez, isn't that kind of dangerous?"
"Of course. However, the mathematics say it should work due to a theoretical relationship between space-time and antimatter, though it's never been tested. It would involve a cold implosion of a matter-antimatter reactor. If something went wrong..."
"You would have a rather large explosion," Kirk deadpanned for him. He rested the basketball on the floor between his knees. His eyes were glued to the equation now, trying to divine further significance. Math was not his best subject, but exposure had produced at least some contamination. The next section couldn't possibly mean what he thought it did. "What's this here?" he said pointing again. "Something about space-time. But it looks...backwards."
Spock was impressed at the perception of the command major. "That is where it gets fascinating." Human eyes met Vulcan. "The equation also suggests that in the process, time's arrow...runs backwards."
"Backwards...Time travel," Kirk stated with some excitement. "I've heard of the theoretical possibility." He picked up the ball again. "But it's such a fantastic notion, the thought of actually stepping into history, experiencing what you've read about first hand..." He unconsciously spun the basketball backwards with his hands.
"Many have concluded that it is a logical impossibility, however, in spite of the equations," Spock tempered. "It is a highly speculative and controversial subject."
"As well as a dangerous activity, if true, I would imagine. The slightest change in the established timeline could have a ripple effect of untold consequences, not to mention the old 'accidentally killing one's grandfather paradox'." Kirk nodded towards the reader. "What class is it for?"
"Not in the Core." Kirk spun the ball again, his thoughts gyrating with the spherical object, wondering if he could fit such an intriguing subject into his electives. "I suppose you need some pretty heavy duty science and math pre-reqs to get in a class like that."
"Not necessarily. There are many students in class who one might suspect from their comments haven't had any science at all."
Kirk's mouth opened and his brow furrowed. He couldn't be certain, but he thought the Vulcan was being sarcastic.
The aide's call interrupted whatever further comments he might have made.
Rodriguez leaned back in his chair as his last two students came in. Kirk had lost the basketball and replaced his T-shirt for the meeting. Spock was already coming to attention.
"At ease, gentlemen." The commander eyed the two with a grin, as he worried a stylus between his brown, peaked fingers. "I'm afraid I have a problem. For this next section I'm putting everyone into teams, assigning partners of comparable skill for some intensive work on your strengths and weaknesses. You two, however, are anomalies. I haven't got anybody quite at either of your levels, so I'm tossing the two of you together with the hope that something positive will come of it. Report at 1100 tomorrow. Dismissed."
Spock turned to leave, but Kirk still blocked his way.
"Uh, Commander?" Kirk addressed the instructor.
"Mister Kirk," Rodriguez responded, coming forward in his chair, straightening the items on his desk.
"Our strengths and weaknesses, sir. May we have a preliminary report?"
Rodriguez smiled to himself at some private joke as he stood and began putting on his jacket. "Your strength and your weakness, Mister Kirk, is that you don't believe you have any weaknesses, a trait you share with many in the admiralty, if it doesn't get you killed first. Perhaps your new teammate will help you better define that reality."
Kirk winced at the characterization, unsure if there was a compliment there or not.
Rodriguez turned his attention to the second member of the team.
"Mister Spock, on the other hand, has no problem with reality. However..." Rodriguez' expression grew pensive, even kindly. From his sources as well as his own experience with Vulcan society, the commander had some idea what it cost this one to join Starfleet. Especially coming from a House as prominent as the House of Surak itself. Nevertheless, there was one reality, in particular, this brilliant young scientist needed to face if he was ever to become an effective officer. The teacher explained in his soft Latino voice, "You have a problem with your six."
"I-I beg your pardon?" The usually confident voice betrayed its owner's confusion.
"That's an old fashioned way of saying you're a little too self-sufficient. No one's got your back, Mister Spock. And space is a very dangerous place to go it alone."
The dark alien eyes met the Human's, not fully appreciating the statement, before they returned to the front.
Rodriguez glanced sidelong at the son of his old friend George Kirk then back at Spock, but said only, "Dismissed."
The two midshipmen frowned at the unorthodox evaluations as they filed out.
"What do you suppose he meant by that?" Kirk asked his new partner as they stepped out together into the bracing Fall air.
"Unknown," the Vulcan replied thoughtfully. "But then I often find my Human professors to be incomprehensible."
The team-up went fairly well in the beginning. The Vulcan may not have been as gifted athletically as Kirk, but his superhuman strength was a revelation. Spock permitted Kirk to practice the new techniques, as ordered, but even when "going easy," he still could be a formidable challenge. Kirk, nevertheless, used the frequently painful episodes as motivation to become a more cunning and shrewd opponent. His occasional genuine reversal was all the more highly regarded.
"You should stop by The Wormhole some Friday night when you've got liberty," Kirk invited at the end of a particularly satisfying workout. "A group of us from Epsilon stops off there regularly on the weekends. Even Andy...uh, Thulan drops by sometimes."
"Vulcans don't drink alcohol, Mister Kirk," Spock informed him.
"Jim. My friends call me Jim. And there are other things to drink," Kirk countered. "The point is just to get together and shoot the bull."
"Shoot the bull?" Spock questioned somewhat wide-eyed. "With a laser gun?"
"It's just an expression," Kirk explained patiently. "It's a chance to socialize."
"Hmm. Thank you for the invitation; however, I generally work at the computer lab on the weekends."
Kirk had never forgotten the incident with Beorn, and it wasn't long before he began prodding Spock to teach him the Vulcan neck pinch.
"I am under orders not to use totsu-k'hy," Spock reminded him.
"Rodriguez meant in class, Spock. You can show me the tots--uh, the neck pinch on the weekend," the Iowan offered.
Spock sniffed at his partner's reasoning. "I am uncertain whether I can even teach it to a Human, Mister Kirk. We study for years with Vulcan Masters."
"Jim," Kirk reminded. "And I'm a fast learner," Kirk persisted.
Spock gave him a doubtful look that he would come to know so well, but finally agreed to try.
Saturday morning, Kirk trotted down the stairwell to the Epsilon common room where he and Spock had agreed to meet. The Vulcan was standing over the 3-D chess tower, studying the conclusion of whatever game had been played the night before. He turned at the sound of the familiar footsteps.
Kirk grinned and nodded a greeting, "Ready?"
Spock dismissed the question with the flicker of an eyebrow and turned towards the exit. Kirk glanced over the arrangement of the chess pieces and then followed.
"I'm starving," Kirk announced. "Have you had breakfast?"
They stopped off at the mess hall on the way to the gym. Kirk ordered a breakfast sandwich of eggs and ham plus orange juice. He turned to Spock.
"You want something? My treat," he offered.
As Spock looked over the menu the hostess smiled warmly, making occasional suggestions. Kirk turned on the charm out of habit, and joked around. The young civilian responded genially, but her eyes seemed to prefer the alien's visage. Spock glanced her way finally and requested an apple.
"That's all you want?" Kirk asked skeptically.
"It's all that's required," Spock explained.
They took their orders outside and Kirk hopped up on a table in the patio, propping his foot up on the bench. He took a huge bite of his meal and pondered as he chewed. The patio was quiet without the usual student traffic of a weekday, and this was a favorite spot. The view overlooked the bay and across the Golden Gate Bridge to the city of San Francisco in the distance. They'd be able to see it more clearly once the morning fog burned off. The cool breeze brought the smell of the acrid salt ocean. Several seagulls landed nearby, hopeful of a hand out from the midshipmen. They weren't disappointed as Kirk tossed them sizeable breadcrumbs.
Spock turned his back to the damp wind. The low-pressure system played havoc with his autonomic bio-regulators, fine-tuned for a desert environment. He sensed another headache coming on, without the time to meditate it away. The odor of ham and eggs from Kirk's sandwich made his stomach queasy. He still hadn't gotten used to eating with omnivorous Humans. His mother had adopted a vegetarian diet long before he was born, so the eating of flesh still struck him as disgustingly barbaric.
"So what did you think of the girl from the galley?" Kirk asked after a swallow.
Spock considered with a shrug, "Sufficiently competent for her duties, I suppose."
Kirk was amused by the response. "Didn't you notice how she was...uh, behaving? I think she likes you."
"Likes me?" Spock didn't understand the significance.
Spock translated mentally. "You mean, she wishes to mate with me," he said and then took another bite of his apple.
Kirk choked on the egg and ham. Recovering his composure, he clarified, "Well...at least to explore the possibility..."
Spock nodded, filing the phrases away for future reference.
"So...she's not your type?"
"My type?" Spock repeated without understanding.
"Are you attracted back? Would you like getting to know her better?"
"My customs and yours are very different in that regard," Spock stated, evading the question. "There can be no logical conclusion to such an activity, therefore, it would be illogical to 'get to know her better'. To expend one's energies in a fruitless endeavor is a waste of..."
"That depends on how you define 'fruitless'," Kirk defended. "Love is rarely logical."
"Love is also a Human emotion of which I am incapable," Spock said, finishing off his apple.
"Incapable...physiologically? Or...by choice?"
It was an honest question and it made Spock uncomfortable. "After some years, choice becomes habit, which becomes one's nature, does it not?"
He was paraphrasing a Vulcan philosopher, unfamiliar to Kirk. "I don't know. Does it?" Kirk tossed back. He had a feeling that Spock was fudging a bit. The young Human shook his head at the concept. "I see no advantage in it myself."
"I see no advantage in giving vent to the whim of every emotion," the Vulcan countered. "Your history is replete with violence and strife all stemming from the explosive expression of Human emotion."
"It's also replete with art, music, and acts of compassion and self-sacrifice, also expressions of Human emotion," Kirk argued.
"A society can have those positive aspects without the negative," Spock insisted.
"Can it?" Kirk questioned.
"Of course," Spock retorted. "Have you not heard of Velak, Tamish, T'Bir, Solis, Sunak...?"
"Okay, okay, I believe you," Kirk headed off the ever-growing list of only vaguely familiar names. Besides, he'd finished his sandwich. "Come on," he waved, jumping off from the table and tossing his waste in a nearby recycling unit.
Spock followed, amazed by the cavalier way Kirk could dismiss such an important discussion.
The gym was being utilized for a number of sundry recreational activities. Kirk and Spock found an empty corner and laid out mats, in anticipation of success. Spock patiently showed Kirk the location of the nerve plexus at the juncture of the trapezius and neck muscles, instructing him on the configuration of the grip to effect unconsciousness. The Human was strong to be sure, but his repetitive grasps continued to have no effect. Not even a twinge.
Kirk wasn't sure what to make of his dispassionate tutor. For someone who denied having any emotions, Spock seemed to be experiencing a great deal of amusement from Kirk's failure. Or was it his imagination? It's true that it was more an impression that the Vulcan seemed to "smile" without actually smiling.
In any case, as the morning wore on, Kirk, for the time being, had to admit defeat.
Monday after class, Spock returned from the sonic shower and donned his trousers and undershirt, but looked in vain for his tunic. Standing back, he studied the locker and dressing area as he considered the possibilities.
"What's the matter there, mate?" Ross asked, noticing the Vulcan's perplexity.
"I seem to be missing an article of my uniform."
"Misplaced it, 'ave you?"
"You might check out in the patio," Tyler suggested. "That's where I find my clothes, on occasion. We've got a prankster around here," he said with a nod toward Kirk's locker. The Iowan hadn't come back from the shower as of yet, but Spock understood who Tyler meant. He filed away the data and went outside to see.
The two Humans snickered as they watched him go.
There was a light drizzle coming down from the dreary gray sky as Kirk exited the gym. He let out a long sigh as he joined Spock staring at the silver tunic pulled over the statue of Zefram Cochrane of Alpha Centauri, revered throughout the known galaxy as the discoverer of warp drive, a more efficient faster-than-light technology than what any of the local space-faring races had possessed to date.
Spock eyed his partner suspiciously, as droplets of rain ran heedlessly down his unflinching face.
The Iowan shrugged with a sympathetic half grin, suppressing unpleasant memories. "It happens to everybody sooner or later. Kind of a...tradition." Kirk shrugged again and headed for the mess hall for lunch.
Passing students grinned empathetically as Spock pulled his damp shirt off over Cochrane's head.
A few days later, Spock was again searching for a missing item of clothing. The locker door slammed a little more forcefully than he had intended.
"Lost your underdaks this time, have you?" Ross offered sympathetically.
"Some people can be so immature," Tyler added, shaking his head.
Spock headed outside. Cochrane was without any additional adornment this time, but waving in the salty westward breeze beneath the proud blue ensign of the United Federation of Planets flew the Vulcan's shorts.
"Mister Kirk," Spock confronted his teammate after retrieving his underwear. "Did you by chance see anyone around my locker earlier?"
Kirk sighed. He had given up trying to get his partner to call him by his first name. "See? No, I didn't see anyone," he replied sincerely.
The Vulcan studied the Human. Without direct evidence, he could not accuse his partner outright, but evaluated the response as he walked back to his locker.
Spock had heard of Finnegan's reign of terror over his plebes the year before. He himself had been fortunate in that the supervising upperclassmen of Epsilon Company Three were a fairly rational lot, as Humans go. His squad leader, Midshipman Second Class Hubbard, in particular, was a serious minded young man who had no other agenda than to see that his plebes were prepared and conditioned for Academy life. The training had been intense, but compared to the kind of schooling and discipline he had undergone on Vulcan, Spock had found these procedures to be relatively easy. Since the meticulous Vulcan was always able to perform the required tasks and physical skills, the impressed upperclassmen soon turned their attention to the more struggling members of the company.
Finnegan, however, was a type of Human that Spock simply could not fathom, and supposed he never would. In his estimation, Finnegan was not corrupt per se, but frivolous and self-indulgent in his exercise of power. In one of his few encounters with the light-hearted Deuce, Spock had been stopped by the Irishman in the stairwell of the Epsilon dorms and ordered to recite the day's menu. One of the more inane Starfleet traditions, in Spock's opinion, was that plebes were required to memorize the daily menu from the galley, which any upperclassman could order them to recite at any time or receive demerits. Finnegan stood transfixed as the Vulcan rattled off not only that day's complete menu, but the menu for the entire week, in great detail and rapidity, all the while calculating when to end so as to leave himself just enough time to arrive punctually in class...though not Finnegan. The stymied upperclassman thereafter left him alone.
Spock, however, had never been under the direct daily control of Finnegan, as had Kirk. He was uncertain what could be the consequences of that experience on another Human. It was possible the irrepressible Irishman had been teaching as well as harassing.
After the next class session, it was Kirk who returned from the sonic shower, to discover that all of his own clothes were missing, except for several socks, which created an all-too-obvious a trail to the women's dressing room.
With a towel firmly tied around his waist, the annoyed sophomore knocked at the door to the adjacent structure. Miss Deveroux answered, whom he knew to be a friend of Lystra Davis from Third Company.
"Excuse me, but did you happen to see my uniform in there?"
"Your uniform?" she replied innocently, looking him up and down. "No, I don't think so, mon ami, but you are welcome to come in and look around."
Even from the doorway he could see his pants hanging on a locker door in plain sight. "Uh...those appear to be my trousers."
"You wouldn't like to get them for me, would you?"
"Come on in. It is okay..." she said opening the door invitingly, a warm smile playing on her lips.
Kirk smelled a set up, but he entered anyway. It seemed the only way to get his clothes back. He retrieved his pants and then saw his underwear. Items were draped here and there, taking him deeper and deeper into the women's lockers. Women smiled as he passed by, checking him out. Someone gave him a wolf whistle. All the females were already conveniently dressed, he noticed.
Kirk may have been confident one on one with the fairer sex, but wearing nothing but a towel, out-numbered, and deep in enemy territory was a little intimidating. Since breaking up with Lystra Davis, he had gone a little wild to fill the void. These female middies looked him over as though they were sizing him up against his growing reputation. He avoided their stares, particularly those of the hottest of the co-eds. A towel could be unforgiving in a situation like this. He directed his vision toward a porcine Tellarite female and focused his evil thoughts on Ross and Tyler, his most likely suspects.
As he retrieved the last item, his silvery tunic, the French coquette snatched his towel away from behind. With fast reflexes, he strategically covered himself with the clothes in his hands. As he began walking carefully backwards towards the exit, he tried to cover his embarrassment with a joke. "Hope you enjoyed the scenery, ladies. Come by my quarters later for the complete tour."
"Would that be the long or the short tour, James?" Mosconi purred.
"Ha ha, very good. Very funny, Angeline," he commented sarcastically.
Almost to the door, he turned and found himself face to face with a female PR instructor with a couple of very large...lieutenant stripes. He did his best to go to attention while still keeping himself covered.
"Just what are you doing in the women's dressing area, Mister Kirk?" she asked in a tone that brooked no nonsense.
"Uh...retrieving my clothes, ma'am...I mean, sir."
She looked at him and at the women who were also standing at attention. "And how did this gentleman's clothing get to be in here?" No one answered, so the instructor got specific, "Mister Deveroux?"
"I don't know, sir."
"I don't know, sir," she echoed.
The lieutenant glared at the women, "We do have regulations against sexual harassment, ladies." She glanced back at the very uncomfortable young man before her. "You'd better get those clothes on, Mister Kirk. You're getting goose bumps."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." He hastily beat a path back to his own territory, already planning retribution upon the suspected perpetrators when he almost literally ran into his teammate.
The Vulcan eyed him curiously. "I do not understand why it is that you Humans somehow find entertainment in causing the discomfiture of others. A most curious cultural phenomenon."
Kirk held himself with as much dignity as he could, still strategically clutching his clothing.
Spock eyed him one more time with a clearly satisfied expression and then strolled towards the exit.
Kirk walked the rest of the way to his locker and threw his clothes inside, gritting his teeth. He felt like he was experiencing a flashback to Plebe Summer and Finnegan. There had been a couple of times when he'd lost his temper and tried to flatten his tormentor, but the Deuce and his buddies had never given him an even chance to go one on one. Or rather, Finnegan would never fight fairly even after claiming that he would. The memory still gnawed in his stomach as he dressed, and his temper reached a similar degree of critical mass.
A far too jovial Darian Ross and Red Tyler passed by at precisely the wrong moment. Kirk grabbed the Aussie by his tunic and pushed him up against the metal lockers. His index finger loomed menacingly. "You won't know when, or how, but I assure you, it's coming."
"Hey, it wasn't us, Kirk," Tyler pled through ill-suppressed mirth.
Kirk released Ross, but continued his scowl for the benefit of both pranksters. "I'm holding you both responsible."
Ross only chuckled at his classmate's warning. "Don't get your knickers in a knot, Farm Boy. You know you loved having to go in with the sheilas. Tell you the truth, I didn't think the Vulcan had it in him."
Tyler sniggered in agreement.
Kirk picked up his gear and closed his locker door, serious as ever. "You heard what I said," he reiterated and walked out of the gym.
"Do you think he's a little cheesed off?" Ross asked rhetorically.
Tyler could only snort and chortle loudly in reply. Catching his breath he tried, "I think we'd better lay off for a while, huh?"
Then Ross and Tyler both began laughing uncontrollably.
Kirk parried the random series of punches and kicks in a graceful, almost zen-like rhythm. Left, right, down, center. Suddenly the Vulcan feinted right and came instead to his left. The block came late and the green fist glanced off his ear, throwing him off balance. Kirk danced backwards, signaling for a break.
"Primitive methods," Spock opined, hands on hips, as he waited.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Kirk responded, while catching his breath. "And no self-respecting Vulcan would ever be caught dead using them outside of class. You've said it three times already...just today."
"Twice actually," Spock corrected.
Looking past his partner, Kirk spotted Ross and Tyler, also going through the day's blocking drills. "I wasn't the one playing the tricks, by the way," he said, his focus unmoved.
Spock's expression changed from bored detachment to discomfort over his incorrect conclusion regarding the identity of his prankster. "Why did you not tell me this before?"
Kirk shrugged as he observed the other team. "Pride...misplaced loyalty. It was Darian and Red."
Spock followed Kirk's gaze and back again. "Mister Tyler told me it was you."
Kirk snorted and shook his head in admiration of the audacity.
Rodriguez blew his whistle for partners to switch roles.
Kirk turned back to Spock and went on the offensive. His punches and kicks came practically in slow motion, however, and Spock easily parried them away. They had been doing these drills for some time, and Kirk's concentration was elsewhere now. "We could join forces, you know," Kirk stated between moves. "Come up with something really good for those two."
"Retaliation?" Spock queried, ducking a swing.
"Why not? Isn't that what you thought you were doing to me?"
"Miss Davis suggested that logically you would not desist unless I escalated the situation."
"Miss...Lystra said that?" Kirk cried in astonishment, holding his swing. "About me? Geez Louise." Shaking his head, he vowed he was swearing off women...for at least a few days. He threw himself into the routine again much more energetically.
"At any rate, the pranks seem to have stopped," Spock pointed out, blocking more rhythmically now.
"Suit yourself," Kirk said.
Spock blocked the kick with a push to the side. Kirk spun and came back with another, which made contact with Spock's solar plexus. They stopped while the Vulcan caught his breath.
"But if you ask me, Spock. You haven't had the last encounter with Darian Ross."
Days grew shorter as Fall approached Winter and chilling foggy mornings became the norm for midshipmen by the San Francisco Bay.
"So, are you going home over Christmas?" Kirk asked his partner as they walked out of the gym together. They had just completed their demonstrations for Rodriguez's final and were one relief closer to the anticipated Winter break.
"Home?" Spock looked somewhat disconcerted by the question. "Uh...no." He had received an invitation from his mother's sister to the north, but for reasons that were difficult to explain even to himself, he had for the most part been avoiding his Human relatives during his sojourn at the Academy. For the first time in his life he was being viewed as "really Vulcan" by his academy peers. In spite of the fact that his Aunt Roberta had always been kind to him in the past, he was not anxious to interact with anyone who would remind him of his mixed blood. Of course, Kirk knew nothing of this.
"No, I guess you wouldn't have enough leave time to make the round trip to Vulcan," Kirk continued. "I was wondering if you'd like to come to the farm with me in Iowa?"
"I would not wish to intrude."
"It's no intrusion. It'll just be Mom, my brother and his wife. I already asked and they said 'the more the merrier.' My family's always been that way. The door is always open. Listen, my brother Sam's a research biologist so you'd have something in common. And--my mom's a fantastic cook. Goes all out for Christmas. How is that for pure logic?"
Spock glanced sidelong at Kirk and wondered if he truly thought his enticements passed for logic. "Curious how you Humans aggrandize and ritualize the basic taking of sustenance."
"Totally curious, isn't it. And since you will be living among Humans, I think it is incumbent upon you to study this bizarre behavior first hand. What do you say?"
Spock had already been exposed to Human holiday feasting through his mother's extended family. Nevertheless, Kirk stimulated his curiosity, as did this Iowa farm that had spawned him. Kirk was different from the other midshipmen he had encountered. And he could not yet admit it, but there was something gratifying about this individual seeking his company outside of class.
"Would we be there the entire time?"
Kirk shrugged. "I'm flexible."
Hearing that his partner was actually considering his offer, Kirk added what he thought would be the clincher. "I hear they've been fattening a nice turkey just for the occasion..."
Dark eyes widened. Spock thought perhaps the family might kill the bird right in front of everyone as part of the ritual. "If you will forgive me, I...have studies to attend to over the Winter break." He suddenly veered off from his companion.
Kirk was bewildered by the sudden change. "You've got to be kidding--" he called after. "You need to study like I need a wooden leg."
The Vulcan paused and turned back. "Why would you need a wooden leg?"
Exasperated, Kirk explained, "That's the point, Spock. I don't. Not anymore than you need to study. Come on, you've got to get away once in awhile. You're going to short circuit your brain if you keep this up."
Spock shook his head with incredulity. "You are mistaken. The brain cannot short circuit from use. If you will excuse me." He said it firmly, icily, turned and walked away before he could be entreated further.
Kirk looked after in frustration and confusion.
Rodriguez brightened finding one of his favorite pupils waiting and pondering outside of his office when he arrived. Jim Kirk reminded him a lot of his father. Not just in his looks, the son had George Kirk's decency and a natural gift for leadership. But there was a depth and drive in the son that he suspected might even surpass the father. Rodriguez had dropped in on a couple of the young Kirk's wrestling matches. He'd seen the young man twice now somehow pull reversals and go on to win after he was sure that Kirk was beaten. There was a down side, however. All that heart came with a passionate nature that threatened to overwhelm the young man on occasion. The instructor hoped that in pairing Kirk up with Spock, that perhaps the cool Vulcan nature might rub off on him somewhat, just as he hoped that Kirk's people skills might in turn be instructive to the more isolated Vulcan.
The midshipman straightened to attention at the commander's appearance in the hall.
"As you were," Rodriguez said, allowing the midshipman to approach him now as student.
"Sir, have you got a minute?" the young Kirk inquired hopefully.
The instructor smiled. "I've got a few minutes before my first appointment. Pasa no mas." The computerized handle recognized the commander's palm print, released the lock, and permitted them inside. "I was just going to chupar some mate. Join me?"
Kirk didn't know what it was, but he agreed to it anyway.
Rodriguez put down his satchel and took off his jacket. He programmed his wall unit for hot water, eyed his young visitor, and chose two round receptacles, one smooth and one furry, then began preparing them with the yerba, a green herb. "An Uruguayan got me hooked on this stuff when I was on the Lexington."
The young man pricked up his ears. The captain of the Lexington was one of his heroes. "You served with Captain Garth?"
"Lord God King Garth we used to call him--below decks," Rodriguez added significantly. "'There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord of the Lexington,'" he paraphrased Moby Dick, while waxing nostalgic. "A more prideful man you'll never meet, but what he could do with Ol' Lex was a thing of beauty. Our chief engineer used to cry himself to sleep every night."
"Were you at Axanar?"
Rodriguez considered before answering. "Well...I wasn't on the Lexington anymore, if that's your question."
Kirk smiled as he recognized the Covert Op way of saying he couldn't talk about it and turned his attention to various wall hangings on the far wall.
The Bolivian poured hot water and packed the yerba as he mused. "Once we got them by the short hairs, peace talks started looking real attractive. Time will tell."
Rodriguez's office was decorated with weapons from various cultures, Terran as well as extraterrestrial. His collection included what he recognized to be a Spanish sword, a Klingon batlh'etlh, and a ceremonial Andorian flabbjellah. Near them also hung an object that reminded him of bolas and also a meter-long rope-like object, flattened in the center, woven of some kind of animal hair.
Featured prominently on an adjoining wall was a photo of the commander's family, a handsome copper-tanned woman and four children. The scuttlebutt was that Rodriguez had risen to command a Special Ops unit during more turbulent times, but after many years of deep space duty, and seeing one too many deaths, he had requested this posting so that he could spend more time with his family.
Flanking it was the commander's other "families", units of red shirt security teams, and SpecOps specialists in stealth suits with whom Rodriguez had served over the years. The young Kirk felt a twinge as he spotted the all-too-familiar face of his own father in one.
Kirk turned back to the weapons display. "I don't recognize these two."
Rodriguez walked over and handed the sophomore a furry round cup filled with hot water and green herbs. From the vessel protruded a silver straw-like apparatus with a filter at the bottom to strain out the vegetable matter. "Watch out, it's hot," the commander warned and then gestured to the bola-like object. "That is a Vulcan ahn-woon and this one," he said pointing to the braided rope, "is my onda. I made it from llama hair when I was twelve."
"A sling for rocks." The Bolivian mimed the swinging and releasing of projectiles.
Kirk's expression brightened, "Is that what you used to kill the Nausicaan?" His father had once told him and his brother the story. "At fifty yards--"
Rodriguez winced at the reminder. "My third try. I was out of practice."
"You don't believe in laser guns?" Kirk inquired.
"We were on shore leave when they attacked." His face twitched at bad memories. After a pause, he continued, "My mother always said I would put someone's eye out with that thing. And my mother is always right."
Kirk eyed the older man and mirrored his sneaking grin. They both laughed then at the universality of mothers.
Rodriguez broke eye contact and walked back to his desk. He sat back casually in his chair, turning towards his visitor. "What can I do you for, Jim?"
The young Kirk tried to sip the tea, but found the water still too hot. "I was just wondering if you were going to teach nerve pinches in the next quarter?"
"No. Why? Have you been trying to get Spock to show you how?" he asked with an amused grin.
"I couldn't make it work. I was wondering if you had a class..."
"We had to conclude that adapting Vulcan defensive techniques to Starfleet training would be impossible."
The instructor shrugged. "Their physiology."
"You mean their strength--"
"Strength is part of the equation. Their bone mass adaptation, their ability to control autonomic functions, and a unique nervous system. Their nerve pathways are capable of sending and receiving pulses of energy in greater volume than ours."
"What we teach here is pretty basic, down and dirty, for the general cross section of academy students. It's more likely you'll engage in long-range firefights than duking it out mano a mano. Only those who specialize have the luxury to finesse more advanced techniques. But even they won't get Vulcan martial arts."
Kirk translated. "Then you're saying that it would be impossible for me to learn the neck pinch?"
Rodriguez pondered as his smile grew into that of a Cheshire cat. "I wouldn't say impossible..."
"What?..." Kirk guessed. "You can do it?"
"I did it...once. After months of studying with the Vulcan Masters. And..." he shrugged again, "I have never been able to do it since. Humans have many dormant and unrealized abilities." He packed down the yerba in the receptacle and sipped the hot liquid. "How is it going with you and Spock?"
Kirk shrugged. "He's good. Now I know how it feels to be at the bottom of the food chain."
"Don't worry; they're vegetarians," Rodriguez quipped.
Kirk's eyes widened, and he slapped himself mentally for his Christmas dinner faux pas.
"Imagine how I felt studying with guys over a century old, knowing any one of them could take me down without breaking a sweat." The commander caught himself. "Not a good expression, I guess, since they don't sweat, but you know what I mean."
Few Humans desired assignments of any duration on Vulcan, and Vulcan's government was equally selective about those who were posted to their well-ordered society. The Bolivian's lung adaptation to the thin atmosphere of the high Andean Altiplano was an advantage for an assignment in the sparse oxygen of Vulcan. Also his spiritual side. Rodriguez practiced a hybrid of Christianity and his native traditions. He was a devoted family man, drank no alcohol, and only rarely ate meat. Rodriguez and Vulcan had been a match made in...well, Starfleet Headquarters.
The teacher smiled over at his student, but saw that Kirk was still brooding. "Don't underestimate yourself, Jim. You're fighting smarter. Your moves are cleaner. Trust me, the challenge has been good for you. Vulcans may have their strengths, but then so do we."
Kirk pondered as he sipped the tea. He made a face. It was nasty.
"How are you and Spock getting along on a personal level? Some find Vulcans a little hard to take."
"Well...we're not going steady, if that's what you mean," Kirk described facetiously. He added sugar and more water to the mate, as he saw Rodriguez do, hoping it would make the stuff palatable. "I just can't figure him at all."
"And you're not going to," Rodriguez validated. "You have to let go of your expectations for other cultures and other species. I know I'll never truly understand my colleagues from Vulcan or Andor or Tellar. Hell, I can't even figure out the Norteamericanos half the time."
Kirk's head shot up, wondering just what he meant by that.
"But I can still appreciate their talents and gifts," Rodriguez continued, "and know that ultimately we all have the same goal--to provide a safe environment in which our peoples can live and grow. Actually, Vulcans are far more straightforward in their motivations than we are. Although this one does have that Human side which makes things interesting." Rodriguez recalled with amusement the incidents from early in the quarter.
Kirk frowned. "Human side? You mean he's...?"
Rodriguez only now realized Kirk didn't know. Oh well, the cat was out of the bag. "Half Human. His mother's from Earth."
"Really? I didn't know they...and we...could, uh..."
"Obviously, we can. Listen, Jim, I shouldn't have let that slip. Personnel records are..."
"I know--classified," Kirk exaggerated. "Do you have to kill me now?"
"Just keep it to yourself. If he wants it buzzed around, he'll mention it himself."
Kirk sipped some more tea and made another face. The sugar didn't really help much. "You really like this stuff?"
"It's an acquired taste," Rodriguez grinned.
Kirk held up the vessel he held in his hand and compared it visually with the smooth object his instructor held. "What is this furry thing I'm drinking out of? Some kind of skin covered gourd?"
"Es un huevo del toro," Rodriguez explained, the twinkle lighting up his dark eyes.
"It's what?" Kirk frowned. The Spanish words for 'egg' and 'bull' had long been adopted into standard English, but they made no sense in the context.
"A bull's testicle," Rodriguez replied, his smile growing wide. "Those Uruguayans...What can I say?"
Kirk paled and suddenly lost his appetite. He set down the drink as there was a knock at the door.
"My first appointment," Rodriguez explained, hoping their conversation had helped.
"Of course," Kirk said, heading for the door. The tall, muscular Firstie hesitated at the threshold, seeing the previous visitor on the other side.
Rodriguez bid him enter with a wave, while saying to Kirk, "Come back later, Jim. I'll tell you some stories about your father you may not have heard before."
Kirk smiled. He'd be back, but gave a condition. "Only if I don't have to drink anymore of that stuff," he said, pointing to the mate.
"No problemo. I'll have something worse for you," Rodriguez informed him with a chuckle.
Kirk believed it as he passed by the upperclassman just coming in.
Christmas came and went, and the Terran New Year brought a new quarter to Academy midshipmen. Students from Rodriguez's Physical Readiness 250 were automatically enrolled for his follow-up course PR251.
"In 250 we learned a few basic techniques for individual hand to hand," Rodriguez reviewed with his returning students. "In this course, we'll go to the next level. We'll look at strategies for fighting against multiple assailants, weapons, and other potential threats. You'll remain in the same practice pairs as you were in last quarter. Last quarter you were opponents, adversaries. This quarter you will become the best of friends, bosom buddies. By the end of this term, you will be like an old married couple. You will know what the other will do before he or she does it. You will be finishing each other's sentences..."
Kirk glanced over toward his Vulcan...his half-Vulcan teammate, who glanced tentatively in his direction at the same time. The dark, upswept brows and devilish ears appeared as alien to Kirk as ever. Funny, he doesn't look Human, Kirk thought ironically, highly skeptical of the Rodriguez prognostication.
"As before, a third of this course will be your PRTs, your Physical Readiness Testing," Rodriguez continued. "So this morning you'll be enjoying the scenery of our spectacular California coastline. Vacation's over, people, so let's get moving," he said clapping his hands.
The news was met with the usual amount of scattered groans, even as the students headed for the exits.
"You don't have to like it..." the instructor began.
"...You just have to do it," his students grudgingly finished for him.
'Enjoying the spectacular California coastline' referred to the cross-country trail that wound around the academy campus into the hills and ended up looping back along a cliff overlooking the shoreline. It was a chilly overcast day, but the view of the ocean was always invigorating. These weren't competitions, but Kirk invariably jogged with the front-runners. He had gone nearly four kilometers already, his breath coming deep and rhythmically, when pain stabbed agonizingly throughout his right calf. He pulled up unwillingly, letting his fellow leaders leave him behind. He limped a few steps while the rest of his classmates passed around him. Then he just doubled over, catching his breath and experiencing the extent of the pain. Straightening, he was surprised to see that another had dropped back as well. Spock was stopped, half-turned, and now was walking back towards him. Kirk began limping again, uncomfortable with his display of physical weakness.
"Are you in need of assistance?" the Vulcan asked.
"No--" Kirk grumbled. "I just got a charlie horse I need to walk out."
"A charlie horse?" his companion repeated.
"A cramp in my calf."
"Oh. I see." Spock said no more, but began to walk in step.
Distant barking from somewhere down below the cliff could be heard in the silence.
"You should go on ahead," Kirk urged. "You're going to screw up your time."
"They always throw out our worst scores. Logically, I can make it up later. What is that sound?" Spock inquired.
"Sea lions," Kirk mumbled. "You can almost always hear them along this stretch."
"Indeed." Spock gazed down the rugged cliff to where sea met shore, but was unable to visually locate the source of the sound.
Hobbling along, Kirk ventured, "So I suppose you spent your leave in the computer lab?"
Spock returned his attention to his companion. "I did not. Actually, I took your advice and did some exploring of this region."
Kirk didn't remember that as his advice, exactly, but whatever.
"There is a most fascinating grove of trees just north of here, so tall and dense that they block out the sunlight. It is called John Muir Woods."
"Redwoods. You don't have trees on Vulcan?"
"We have trees, but our climate precludes anything so dense or so straight and tall."
"Inland there are some old growth Sequoias that are so wide around that you could fly a hovercraft through them. In fact, there used to be one hollowed out so that so you could do just that. It may still be there."
Kirk eyed Spock sidelong. Who'd have thought? The guy gets excited about trees. "I like Point Reyes myself. The explorer Sir Francis Drake went ashore there on his sixteenth century circumnavigation of the globe. He said in his log that the white cliffs reminded him of Dover."
"Drake was hardly an explorer," Spock countered. "More...a pirate who had burned his bridges behind him, as you Humans say."
Kirk bristled at the contradiction. "Necessity is sometimes the mother of discovery. Anyway, it's all a matter of perspective, isn't it? England was at war. Drake was simply following the orders of the British Crown when he attacked enemy ships."
An uncomfortable silence prevailed for a bit. Kirk attempted to increase his pace.
"And you?" Spock began somewhat awkwardly, easily keeping up. "Did you have a satisfactory holiday?"
Kirk eyed his partner warily. "Yes, I did," he said matter-of-factly. "I also learned something interesting. I heard that Vulcans are vegetarians."
"That is correct."
"And you were going to inform me of this, when?"
Spock shook his head. "I saw no need to inform you."
"You saw no need..." Kirk repeated impatiently.
Spock exhaled. "I realize that you Humans have a proclivity for exchanging personal information, but we Vulcans find that such an activity is unnecessary for individuals working in tandem toward mutual goals."
The Human stopped and spread his arms wide as he turned to face his partner. "Mister Spock. How many other Vulcans have you worked with during your time here at the academy?"
"None," he replied with puzzlement at the question.
"That's what I thought," Kirk commented drolly. His leg cramp sufficiently stretched out so that it was no more than a dull ache, he turned and jogged away.
Pondering Kirk's meaning, Spock gazed out to where the sky met the horizon. In the solitude, he permitted a sigh of frustration. Oblivious to the beauty of the region, Spock listened to the barking of the sea lions on the wind, wondering why in all the times he had run along this stretch, he had never heard them before.
"Are you really going to do it?" Ross asked his Martian-born partner.
"Yeah, I am." Tyler was the picture of confidence as he pulled on his braidless tunic.
"Do what?" Kirk asked, just getting back from the sonic shower.
"The Red Hair is going to challenge Rodriguez," Thulan informed him.
"When?" Kirk asked, interested.
"Tomorrow at the beginning of class," Tyler said. "My brother's a security officer on the Potemkin, and over Christmas, he taught me a move that he says never fails. What are you rollin' your eyes at, Vulcan?"
Spock was already pulling on his boots. "There is no such thing as an aggressive move that cannot be countered, which you would know if you had been listening in class."
"Yeah, well, not all of us have the advantage of those huge pointy ears, like you do," Tyler jibed.
Ross and Beorn both snickered at the remark. Thulan's antennae swivelled.
"A pity. Perhaps they would improve your educational experience," Spock retorted, as he gathered his things.
"So, why don't you challenge Rodriguez, Mister I've-Been-Trained-in-Methods-Far-Superior?" Ross threw back at the Vulcan.
"Yes-s, Spock. Arrogance should provide evidence," the Andorian added.
Everyone in the locker row paused in their activities while eyes focused on the Vulcan, including Kirk's. From down the row, the Iowan remembered Rodriguez's admission of vulnerability to Vulcans.
Spock considered his response to the challenge while closing his locker. He turned to face his waiting audience. "Vulcan martial arts are for the purpose of self defense and subduing aggressors," he explained patiently. "It would be illogical to attempt to use them for attack. If you will excuse me." Picking up his gear, he made his way through the midst of his glaring classmates.
Tyler shook his head. "Just once I'd like to wipe that smug look off his face."
Kirk's voice came from down the row. "All I can say is you're a brave man, Red."
"What do you mean?" the Martian youth asked sincerely, wondering what Kirk knew that he hadn't considered.
"You'd think somebody as butt ugly as you, would stay away from the personal remarks," Kirk tossed off as a zinger.
Beorn chuckled loudly at Tyler's expense.
"Shut up, Kirk." Tyler shot his crumpled towel at Kirk's head.
Ross chuckled with the rest, but then turned back to the heckler. "How 'bout you, Farm Boy? You thought you'd 'ave a go at Rodriguez yourself once."
Kirk nodded grudging acknowledgment of his previous boast. Practicing with Spock had shaved a few millimeters off his ego. "Yeah, well...I'm thinking now that the challenge is probably a red herring. No offense, Red, but your brother knows Rodriguez's rep. He may be setting you up. The point is that we defend, not attack."
Tyler's confidence was suddenly punctured by doubt.
Ross appeared disappointed. "I think that Green Blood's contaminated you, mate."
Kirk swivelled to the Aussie. The remark bothered him, but he wasn't sure just why.
Tired midshipmen emerged from the cavernous gym into the patio after class. The sun was shining though the breeze was chilly, a promise of spring that was still too far away. The unit on multiple assailants was progressing fairly well. In spite of their differences, Human and Vulcan seemed to mesh smoothly while squaring off against their other classmates.
On this particular day, Kirk had a lunch appointment with a fascinating blonde co-ed from Beta Battalion who was in a Federation and Starfleet Law program. Kirk spied Areel across the patio, rendezvousing as planned and accompanied by a friend. Kirk froze. Beorn was supposed to balance out the group, but had to cancel and Kirk had forgotten to get an alternate. He spun. The first candidate he saw behind him was his teammate. Without thinking, he blurted, "Spock, do me a favor, would you?"
"A favor?" the Vulcan echoed, startled by the sudden request.
"I'm having lunch with Areel Shaw. Go with me and entertain her friend for me, would you?"
Spock swallowed. "Entertain?"
"Just talk to her. She's a science major. I'm sure you can find something in common. I'll owe you big."
Spock wasn't sure what Kirk was getting him into, but his dynamic teammate was already leading him towards the women.
Human females had become something of a problem for Spock. They were far more distracting than their Vulcan counterparts. They were warm, open, more aggressive, and they had an annoying habit of intruding into his personal space. Contributing to the problem was Spock's own ambivalence about the attention. While generally repulsed by Earth's vastly different male-female social customs, there was a part of him that was flattered and intrigued, nonetheless. He'd never been the focus of such interest on Vulcan.
Of course, he was far too rigid in his personal ethics to actually explore the alien customs. He had never considered nor even asked how it was that his own parents had gotten together. The contemplation of such a subject, at this point in his life, was simply too uncomfortable. And he would never compromise his bond with T'Pring. It was true that over the years subtle insults from rivals had planted some doubt in his mind that he would even experience the pon farr mating drives; nevertheless, the breaking of his betrothal would be looked upon with a fair amount of scandal. Following his unorthodox entrance into Starfleet, that was a prospect he was not prepared to deal with or subject his family to.
Kirk's friends found Spock a welcome addition. Areel's companion, L'orina Allai, was an exotic brunette from Alpha Centauri. Spock had seen her before in Theoretical Physics, although they had never spoken previously. The foursome picked up lunch from the galley and found four empty chairs at a back table.
Areel was excited about the latest development in interstellar law. "Professor O'Connor is certain the Federation will vote to strengthen the non-interference regulation."
"That's what I heard as well," L'orina added. "There's talk of re-shuffling regulations, of making it Starfleet's first, to signify its importance."
"A logical and wise decision," Spock opined.
"Hmm. I'm not so sure," Kirk disagreed.
"Specify." Spock invited an explanation.
"Don't get me wrong. I agree that some...prudence is needed. But a blanket hands-off rule implies that the Federation has nothing to offer. Nothing worth contributing to other societies."
"Not necessarily," Spock countered. "It is a recognition that we have neither the precognition nor omniscience to properly advise or intervene in a given closed society."
"If you're saying we haven't the wisdom to play God, okay. But it isn't playing God to help somebody out. Especially if they ask for it. By some interpretations, trade could come under the definition of 'interference.' We might as well scrap the fleet and stay home."
"I hardly think that was ever the intention..." Spock began.
"Don't exaggerate, Jim," Areel chastised.
"I'm not exaggerating, I'm just pointing out..."
"Guidelines have needed to be more precise," Spock continued. "Far too many liberties have been taken."
"Liberties--like curing the plague on Gamma Taurus Five?" Kirk shook his head, and took a drink of his Guarana.
The others followed suit and dug into their soups and sandwiches as they re-gathered their thoughts.
"How do you know so much about interstellar law, Mister Spock?" Areel inquired.
"It is an interest of my father's. I was exposed to numerous discussions," Spock responded. He did not mention the extent of his father's interest, or his years of service in the Vulcan diplomatic corp. Now that his family obligations were fulfilled, it was being whispered in diplomatic circles that Sarek, child of Skon, was to be Vulcan's next ambassador to the Federation Council.
"Perhaps you should consider the field of law," Areel suggested genuinely.
"I prefer the concrete laws of science to the vagaries of humanoid law, Miss Shaw," the Vulcan spoke with a twinkle in the dark, perceptive eyes.
"Call me Areel."
She was smiling a little too warmly for Kirk's comfort. He remembered Lystra Davis' confession and didn't care for what he was observing now.
With the women engaging in a brief exchange of their own, Kirk kicked his companion under the table and communicated with his eyes and a nod that he was "entertaining" the wrong woman.
Spock may not have approved of Kirk's method, but nevertheless, made the correction. As they ate their lunch, he made a point to ask L'orina about her current class load. They talked about theoretical astrophysics, particularly the probabilities of stable wormholes and temporal anomalies.
Spock grew uneasy as L'orina's hand occasionally brushed the back of his as he cupped his drink. She also tended to touch his arm as she spoke. Brief bursts of emotion and thoughts came unbidden to his mind from hers. He sensed her nervousness, her delight at the taste of her chicken sandwich, impressions he quickly suppressed, and sought to block out any further. The experience forced him to realize just how much he had relaxed his mental disciplines since living in this non-telepathic society.
He studied her face as she described the new theories in stellar formation. It was slightly tilted toward him, but gave no clue that she understood the significance of touching among Vulcans. He had observed that many Humans were naturally tactile and finally dismissed the behavior as nothing more. A few minutes later, however, L'orina asked if he'd care to see a report she was currently working on--back in her quarters.
He considered, telling himself that it was logical for her report to be in her quarters. Surely, it was the sole purpose for the invitation. Though perhaps not. He found that Human females were notoriously unpredictable. He attempted to calculate a probability ratio, but concluded there were too many unknown variables. He stole a glance at Kirk and Shaw chatting easily alongside. It was obvious to him that Kirk was perfectly adapted to this environment. He was both intelligent and well liked by his peers. Spock suddenly felt a momentary twinge of...envy, which he immediately quashed. Moments later, he stood and made his apologies, mentioning some duties at the computer lab that urgently needed attending.
Until that moment, Kirk had been oblivious, with eyes and ears only for Areel. He was trying to get another date with her for the weekend. She was a shameless flirt and a delightful tease, although as of yet he hadn't been able to talk her into anything beyond a few tantalizing kisses. She was leading him on a merry chase, and he was enjoying every minute of it.
They were abruptly brought back to Earth as Spock rose and left. He, like Areel, was confused by the sudden departure. As he and Areel looked to L'orina, they discovered that she was the most confused of all.
That evening, Kirk stood outside of Spock's quarters and listened curiously to the musical notes emanating from inside. The tonal quality was vaguely familiar though he couldn't place where he'd heard it before. At first he thought it was a recording, until a pause and a repeated pattern revealed its immediacy. He rang the chime and heard the music stop. Then came the deep... "Come."
Kirk had never been in the Vulcan's quarters before and immediately noticed the warmth. The layout was the same as for all of the sophomore quarters. A three bunk module was set against the back wall. The stringed instrument had been laid aside on the neatly made top bunk. Three computer terminals and three units for clothing and personal effects were placed about the compact room. One spartan console was dressed with a single glowing votive candle. Kirk knew there was a regulation against open fires in the academy compound and wondered if Spock had a religious exemption. Spock himself stood beside the computer terminal holding several tapes. The screen displayed an article from a recent journal on the effect of gamma radiation on sensor capabilities.
Kirk adopted a light tone. "I just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop by. You weren't at the computer lab tonight."
"No. I was able to work here with my roommates occupied elsewhere."
It wasn't often a lower classman could get his quarters to himself, and it occurred to Kirk that Spock may have been seeking some rare moments of privacy. Too bad, he thought callously. "I didn't know you played," he said, nodding towards the instrument on the bed.
"Yes. On occasion."
"That's right. Your people don't give out personal information, even under torture," Kirk exaggerated as he paced the small quarters.
Spock furrowed his brow at the attempt at humor but waited patiently for Kirk to state his true purpose in coming.
"What did you think of L'orina?" Kirk asked neutrally, while picking up and sniffing the aromatic candle.
"She seemed like an intelligent individual," Spock allowed.
"It's a shame you had to leave so soon," Kirk commented sincerely.
"Yes...It was unfortunate."
Kirk turned and asked suddenly, "Is it uncomfortable watching others eat meat?" He grasped for a reason for the sudden departure.
Spock looked away uncomfortably. "It wasn't that. I..." He let the thought die and tried again. "Our social customs are quite different."
Kirk squinted and exhaled frustration. "You didn't have to marry the girl, Spock. I just asked you to talk to her."
"I know," the Vulcan acknowledged softly.
Kirk shook his head. "It's just that the way you left...was kind of rude."
Spock turned to his classmate, setting down the tapes that were in his hands. There was an edge to his tone. "Perhaps my behavior can be construed as rude, but may I say that since arriving here on Earth, I have been inundated by behavior which I find illogical, irresponsible, and often...inexplicable, but which I have continually tried to overlook."
Kirk suppressed the urge to tell him he could go back where he came from. "All right. I get your point. It's tough to go live on a different planet...get used to different customs. It's just--" The young Human took a deep breath. "Every time...someone...tries to include you, tries to be a friend, you push them away." He held out his hands almost plaintively.
The young Vulcan's brow furrowed even more. "You don't understand. You Humans expect a level of emotional investment in your friendships that we do not."
"'You Humans'," Kirk had heard this phrase once too often in recent weeks. It grated and he let it distract him from the point Spock was trying to make. "How can you say that? You're Human, too."
Spock blinked at his partner with surprise and questioning at the same time. "How did you...?"
Kirk immediately knew it had been a mistake to reveal what he knew and tried to cover his own discomfiture. "Why the big secret, anyway? It's not like we're some kind of...inferior species."
Spock looked away. He knew of no tactful way to respond to the statement. His opinion was based upon the facts as he saw them. He would not lie. So he said nothing.
But silence was also a response that Kirk understood. It took a moment for the truth to fully register. Once it did, it hurt, but he masked the hurt with anger. "Actually, Spock, I think I'm beginning to understand a little too well," Kirk said bitterly. He turned then and walked out.
Spock watched helplessly as the door closed. He turned back to the computer terminal, but its data held no interest for him. He walked slowly back to the bed, and caressed the lyra, but didn't pick it up. Suddenly turning to the desk, he pulled out the chair and sat before the illuminating candle. He clasped his hands in meditative fashion, but the soothing oblivion never came. For some time, he just stared unseeing at the floor.
Later that night, Kirk tossed and turned, wondering why this friction with the Vulcan, the half-Vulcan, bugged him so much. It's not like the two of them had anything in common anyway. Spock didn't socialize. He didn't...date. He disagreed with practically everything he said. And he was one of the most arrogant bastards he'd ever met. Inferior species, he snorted. No great loss, he told himself, turning over, again. Eventually he fell into a fitful slumber.
Rodriguez had been sensing the dissonance and knew it was getting worse. Just as he could sense during a reconnoiter when something was wrong, or knew when his children were trying to pull something, his intuition warned him that all was not well among his class members. It happened every year about this time. The early spring doldrums, cabin fever. A combination of the long stretch between liberties, the stress of class load, and the dawning reality of looming finals, plus the emotional toll of relationship breakdowns. The usual grunts and yells echoed off of the gym walls, but not the tension-releasing laughter.
He was disappointed to find it was even there between his best pupils. Kirk was curiously subdued and unfocused. Spock was in a particularly drawn in Vulcan mode. They were reviewing multiple assailant attacks and team takedowns with Ross and Tyler. Everyone was sloppy and careless. Rodriguez ground his molars and resisted the urge to yell. He glanced at his chronometer. Five more minutes and then he'd mercifully call it a day.
Unfortunate incidents do not generally happen from an isolated event, but take a number of precursors finding a conjunction. There was a miscommunication as to who was to do what. Losing balance while completing his move, Spock inadvertently clipped Kirk a good one on the chin, dazing him momentarily. Any other day the Iowan would have shook it off and let it go, as he usually did. But this wasn't any other day. As his temper flared, Kirk swung around and punched Spock in the face.
The Vulcan staggered, although more from surprise than injury. He looked at Kirk with puzzlement. "Your move was illogical. I am on your side in this exercise."
Ross blinked uncomprehendingly at what had just occurred, as he gave Tyler a hand up from the practice toss.
Kirk gestured for Spock to bring it on. "Forget about the exercise. Let's see what you've got, superior species." The adrenaline was flowing, and he wasn't thinking too rationally. "Take your best shot," he added with a provocative push. With his partner only blinking in reply, Kirk revised his taunt. "Oh, I forgot...half-superior."
Spock's forehead furrowed, his eyebrows angled at even steeper inclines than usual. The usually cool, dark eyes ignited.
Tyler started forward, but Ross's arm blocked his intervention.
Kirk approached with another push, but green-tinged arms repelled the assault, sending the sophomore sprawling backwards on the mat. Kirk went into a roll and came back up on the attack. He tackled the Vulcan low this time, and they both went down, sliding off the mats and across the gymnasium floor.
Their classmates were upon them then, and Ross and Tyler joined in pulling the brawlers off of one another. Rodriguez's voice was thundering to break it up even as he dashed across the gym.
As the combatants were getting to their feet, the commander barked for a report from Ross and Tyler.
"I'm not sure what happened, sir," Ross deflected.
Tyler followed suit. "Me neither, sir."
The commander took mental note, then growled, "Class dismissed." Pinning his eyes on Kirk and Spock, he pronounced the inevitable, "Not you two."
Rodriguez paced in front of the pair as they stood at attention. They were still catching their breaths, and waiting for the other students to disperse, while awaiting their fates. The others were all gone, and Rodriguez still paced. And they still waited. When Rodriguez finally spoke, he was still pacing. He was furious, but the anger was tightly controlled. "I don't know what this is about, and I don't want to know. But as of this moment, it is over." The commander punctuated his order with his tanned finger.
"It was my fault, sir. I took the first swing," Kirk stated softly, still ramrod straight.
Spock's head swivelled. "Mister Kirk is incorrect. I, in fact, struck him first."
"That was an accident, I was the one who..."
Rodriguez halted his pacing and ended their competition for blame. "I said I didn't want to know all this!" With silence restored, he continued. "It has been my experience that in an altercation of this kind there is usually plenty of responsibility to go around." The commander glanced meaningfully at both Human and Vulcan.
"Request permission to change partners, sir," Kirk asked.
"Request denied," the commander summarily replied. "The two of you are a team. That was not wishful thinking on my part. It was an order. You succeed together or you fail...together. Work it out, get over it, or forget it, gentlemen. As of Monday, if I see behavior like this again, I will have you both court-martialed."
The commander paused and took a deep breath. His hands went behind his back. He shook his head at the disappointing excuses for officers in front of him. "How in hell do you think you're going to interact with unknown life forms of the galaxy if you can't get along with the diverse races already in the Federation? I suggest you both ponder the question while doing fifty laps."
The dressing area had cleared by the time Kirk and Spock had finished their laps. Neither spoke and, except for occasional guarded glances, avoided interaction. Kirk opted for an old-fashioned water shower. He spent an extra long time, letting the hot water beat down on the top of his head and stream over his naked body, wishing the water could wash away his roiling thoughts and emotions. He had screwed up today. He had let his temper jeopardize his career before it had barely begun, and that scared the hell out of him. What if it's true...? came the accusations he didn't want to face. What if I'm just not any good at interacting with alien species? What if...Lystra's words haunted him still. What if I don't belong in Starfleet?
Spock dressed and headed toward the exit. Rounding the corner to the entryway, he paused as Ross, Tyler, Beornson and Thulan blocked his path to the door. They spread themselves into an arc in front of him as he slowed his pace. Spock attempted to go around, but Ross stepped in his way and pushed him back roughly.
"Where do you think you're going?" Ross asked belligerently.
"I am attempting to leave the building," Spock replied evenly.
"Not just yet, Vulcan," Beornson informed him.
Deeming it illogical to postpone the inevitable, Spock inquired, "What do you want?"
"We just thought we'd try a little scientific experiment," Ross informed him.
"You like science. Don't you, Green Blood?" the Andorian added.
"What kind of experiment?" Spock asked blandly.
"Rodriguez is always telling us you Vulcans have three times our strength. We just thought we'd see if it were true."
Kirk heard the echo of voices as he pulled on his trousers. It attracted his attention. He couldn't make out the words, but something about it struck him as wrong. He ventured over to the entryway and came upon the scene of Spock being confronted by the three Humans and the Andorian.
"What's going on here...Darian...Andy?" he asked as neutrally as he could.
"You're just in time, Farm Boy. We're just finishing what you started today," the Aussie told him.
His conscience nudging him, Kirk glanced at Spock. The Vulcan stood deceptively calm, though he caught a trace of alarm in the dark eyes. Kirk could sense his partner re-analyzing his defense as he added him to the equation. He felt both flattered and chastised by the realization. Kirk knew the Vulcan could do some damage even against these odds, but still...four against one. He didn't like the 'bushwacking' mentality.
"I don't remember inviting you," Kirk said back to the small mob.
Ross heard the disapproval. "Then I guess you'd better just go about your business."
"This is my business," Kirk said softly.
Ross smiled charmingly. "No worries. He won't get hurt if he's really the ripper he thinks he is."
The aggressors chuckled and sneered.
"I assure you, Kirk, it is not necessary for you to be involved in this," Spock agreed.
"Shut up, Spock. I've got your back."
The Vulcan raised his brow at the declaration.
"Listen to the smart Vulcan, Farm Boy, and warp off," Ross said low and dangerously.
"No, it's you who'll warp off."
"Why, 'cause you say so?" the Aussie challenged.
"That's right, 'cause I say so."
"And just who the hell are you? A braidless middie like the rest of us."
"And I'm the braidless middie telling you to stand down." Kirk stepped forward, body taut, eyes intense and locked on the Australian. Ross returned the glare for numerous tense seconds.
"What are we doing here at Starfleet Academy?" Kirk suddenly asked his classmates. "When we graduate--assuming we do--part of our mission will be to seek out new life and new civilizations. Since my first day on campus I have been looking for a class on First Contact. Have you noticed? They don't offer one. Don't you find that odd?"
"The Command Major includes a required course in diplomacy," Spock informed him.
Kirk half-turned and grinned. "Yes, it does. And it has a very important pre-requisite right here and now. Look around you. We're making first contact with diverse races and cultures every day--Human, Andorian, Vulcan, Tellarite, emerging colony worlds, and even diverse traditions from other parts of our own home planets." Kirk realized that this was what Rodriguez had been trying to tell him in his office. "This is First Contact 101, and if we can't get it right here and now with one another, we're wasting our time in Starfleet."
Kirk gauged the reaction of his classmates. Beorn and Tyler were looking off, somewhat abashed. Thulan seemed to be re-appraising Kirk. The brooding Ross was impossible to read.
The cocky Aussie grin suddenly returned with a shake of his head. "You give a good speech, Farm Boy. If you're not careful you could end up teaching at this place."
Kirk snorted and rolled his eyes ironically. "I think those dingoes are loose again, Ross."
Ross met the now-doubtful gazes of his companions. "Come on, mates. Save it for class." He turned and opened the door out of the gym, letting in the sunlight. "And that's 'kangaroos', Top Sider," he corrected. Beorn, Tyler, and Thulan glanced over their shoulders as they followed their leader outside.
Kirk exhaled a huge sigh of relief. He turned and met Spock's questioning eyes. Breaking the uncomfortable stare, he headed back to his locker.
Spock pondered a moment and then followed. He reached the dressing area as the Midshipman Third Class was pulling his braidless silver-gray tunic over his head. "I am curious. Why did you do it?"
Kirk sat on the bench, retrieved his socks and boots, and began tugging them on. When he was finished, he stood up and eyed the alien squarely. "We're a team. We succeed or fail together. And I don't like to fail." The grim determination was unsettling even for a Vulcan. Kirk slammed the locker closed and headed towards the exit.
"Perhaps there are compensations."
Kirk paused and turned back around. "What?"
The Vulcan stepped towards him. "Perhaps...we are superior in different ways."
Kirk inclined his head and slowly grinned at Spock's lame attempt at an apology. He really wasn't very good at this social interaction stuff. And then he saw it. How utterly Human Spock really was. He shook his head and wondered how he could have missed it before. Maybe there was some hope for him after all. And maybe...for himself.
There was, of course, still something needing to be cleared up between them. "Look, I'm sorry about taking that swing at you," Kirk acknowledged.
"There is no need to apologize. I, too, bear responsibility. Apparently there is something...about my manner which tends to be provocative for emotional beings."
Kirk rubbed an itch beside his nose, suppressing another wide grin. "Perhaps," is all he would say. He turned to go.
Kirk turned back again, curiously. This was the first time he could recall that Spock had ever used his first name.
"There is one more thing I would like to know."
"What is it?" Kirk asked.
"The chess game. Where did you learn such unorthodox strategy?"
Kirk's thoughts went back to the year before. It wasn't smart to divulge one's secrets. He rested against the nearby locker, crossing his arms, and propping his left foot against the metal. "You showed it to me."
"I...showed...you?" Spock sputtered, uncomprehending.
"Alexander the Great," Kirk stated. "'Your enemy will always betray his vulnerability, where he most fears attack.'"
"Indeed," Spock said, impressed, but also a tad dubious. "But perhaps it needs to be repeated in order to establish its validity."
Kirk squinted. "That sounds like a challenge, Spock."
Kirk eyed his partner warily. He was tired of crashing and burning, but the half-Vulcan did seem to be trying to meet him halfway. "Over lunch, then. I'm starving. You buy."
The upswept eyebrows flickered at the announcement since mess privileges came automatically with their room and board, but their owner nodded acceptance. This was obviously an example of Human humor. "Agreed."
Vulcan and Human walked together towards the exit.
"There is one question you can answer for me," Kirk stated.
"Yes, of course--"
"Do you really think you could have taken on those four dunselheads by yourself?"
"I am a Vulcan," Spock replied confidently. "However..." he hedged, more candidly. "...your company was welcome."
Kirk smiled at the admission.
"By the way..." Spock continued. "Just what did you have in mind when you spoke previously of 'retaliation' for the practical jokes? You proposed joining forces to devise something...'really good', as I recall."
Kirk laughed as they went out into the sunlit day, the air so crisp and clear one could see to Alcatraz and beyond to San Francisco across the bay. The pungent odor of the salt sea and the call of a seagull were as alien as any distant world to these citizens of the farm belt and an arid desert, respectively, but had become signs of home now for both.
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