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Ann Zewen



The colors were blindingly brilliant, swirling together, apart and together again in ever-changing patterns while flickering flashes of pure white energy slashed through the multi-hued fluidity like streaks of lightning in a summer thunderstorm.

A huge, heavily shielded vessel moved steadily toward that kaleidoscopic screen, its crew watching the amazing pyrotechnic display warily, but without real fear. They had lost contact some time earlier with the ship that had preceded them on their protracted journey, and only now realized that ship and its crew had probably been destroyed while attempting to cross the barrier ahead. Despite that knowledge, they continued on their way, undaunted, prepared to meet their destiny head-on.

They moved forward, propelled by their commander's determination to find whatever was on the other side of that barrier. At a command from their leader, crewmen engaged a newly developed protective system that extended outward to enclose the ship in a sharp-edged envelope of energy.

They continued steadily onward, and the envelope sliced its way through the pulsating 'wall', deflecting its power around the ship and allowing them to pass through unharmed, if somewhat shaken, to the relative peace on the other side. Once safely through the barrier, they drew to a full halt, giving the crew a chance to recover from the disorientation of having been bombarded by the explosive barrage of colorful radiance.

Once recovered from the physical and emotional shock of the passage, the commander ordered his ship forward again, crossing the darkness of space until they approached a single bright star orbited by a flourishing green planet. He ordered his helmsman to reduce speed as they drew ever closer to the enticing world.

Suddenly, their previously silent communications system came noisily to life, crackling with static, then broken voices giving way to a clear but indecipherable message that was followed by a long silence. Finally there was another transmission, this time, in just one voice . The words were somewhat halting, as though the speaker was using a language long-forgotten, but still the message was understandable, as the crew incredulously heard their lost brothers eagerly welcome them to their new home.

Instead of the joy its senders expected, however, the message was greeted with great sorrow. The commander finally ordered the contact broken without any response at all.

"They are not of our kind," his primary advisor reported, his voice hissing and clicking in his anger. "They are changed."

"Yes," the commander agreed sorrowfully. "They have altered themselves. They are no longer among us and can no longer be trusted." He paused, then added wearily, "end them."

His chief gunner reacted instantly, carefully aiming the ship's powerful weapons on the unsuspecting planet below. He reached out with one long, snake-like appendage to flip the precise toggle that would send a powerful bolt of pure energy onto the surface of that incredibly beautiful and peaceful world. While some of his other 'tentacles' were busily operating a dozen or more instruments, the tip of one circled around the proper switch. His powerful, complex mind sent the appropriate signal along the sophisticated network of nerves to the correct appendage, ordering the movement that would fire the weapons.

"Wait!" At the last possible minute, the commander stopped his gunner before he could carry out the previous directive. He hesitated, seeming to reconsider his earlier decision, and then hissed reluctantly, "End them...but preserve their knowledge. We must consume it so that we will know all they have learned since they ceased being of us."

Without comment, the gunner readjusted his controls, then fired on the planet--a powerful bolt of energy speeding from the ship to strike the lush sphere with a stunning force that felled all animal life. The once vital bodies of the world's inhabitants were now nothing more than empty shells, but with the accumulated knowledge of their lives still locked within the cells of the now-lifeless bodies. The commander hand-picked a team to accompany him to the surface of the dead world.

When they returned to the ship, the commander ordered a new course, and calmly proceeded through the galaxy he now knew was called the Milky Way by one of its dominant species. He was searching for those puny creatures that had just one pair of eyes and four limbs, only two of which they could manipulate with anything remotely resembling the dexterity of his own people. He would settle for any other beings with knowledge he might put to use. This was a galaxy teeming with life, many species existing in a form similar to that adopted by their now-dead brothers. But there were other forms, too. And there were many kinds of knowledge, many talents to be absorbed from the various species before the invaders carried out their mission of conquest followed by colonization.

As he contemplated the glories awaiting him in this galaxy he had chosen as his people's new home, Tejan's hundred appendages began to vibrate, sending out a humming that was soon joined by his crew. They might not understand the reason for it, but it was enough for them to know that Tejan was pleased. And so they shared in it.


The Federation Starship Thalis was on patrol in Quadrant 24 when Science Officer Shriv detected something on his sensors which convinced him the readings were in error. A quick analysis of the instrumentation revealed no apparent malfunction, however. He knew better than to bother his captain with a simple lapse in the function of his instruments. Rather than report the problem, Shriv instead crawled beneath his station to double-check the circuits, hoping to find something that would account for the mysterious error. Because Shriv was constantly upgrading, improving or otherwise working on one or another of his sensitive instruments, Captain Cheras didn't question his behavior now. If Shriv himself had believed the unbelievable readings, or Cheras had questioned his science officer's unquestionably normal behavior, the Thalis might have survived the attack. It was unlikely, but barely possible. As it was, however, it was already too late for the Thalis and its crew by the time the starship made visual contact with the impossibly big, improbably fast vessel first detected by Shriv's instruments just moments earlier.

Cheras turned to the science station to request Shriv's analysis of the situation as soon as he saw the huge ship on the main viewscreen. The captain had just opened his mouth to form the question when a powerful bolt of energy emerged from the alien vessel. It traversed the one hundred twenty-six kilometers separating the two ships in time too quick to measure, instantly surrounding the Thalis with a life-draining force. Cheras never asked his question, and Shriv never saw either the alien vessel or the energy bolt that caused their destruction. Only the horrified communications officer managed to act at all, pressing a single button milliseconds before the energy bolt arrived.


Tejan sent a half-dozen of his crewmen over to the tiny vessel to gather what knowledge they could from the vanquished creatures who had been unable to put up even the most rudimentary of fights. When his crew returned to their own ship and shared with their commander what they had learned, Tejan hummed his joy. Now he knew the codes and frequencies used by the alliance known as 'the Federation' to communicate their most sensitive secrets.

Tejan ordered a new course for his ship, directing it toward a relatively unexplored sector of this galaxy. He hadn't yet determined why this 'Federation' was so interested in that sector, but he would learn that soon enough. For now, it was sufficient to know there was something there these puny creatures wanted.


The giant ship proceeded on its new course for a period of time amazingly brief as measured by Tejan's people, who were then distracted momentarily by another strange vessel. Although Tejan was eager to reach his goal, he took the time to divert his ship the short distance required to encounter this new species.

The reptilian creatures on board that vessel detected the approach of Tejan's ship in plenty of time to escape the impending attack--if the captain had acted quickly. It was against the nature of his kind to act quickly, however. Besides, at first, the captain believed it was a familiar opponent approaching. That enemy was strong, but conquerable in a one-on-one battle. The captain ordered his crew to battle stations, then waited with the patience typical of his species for the appearance of his adversary. When it came, he reacted, but too slowly.

"They are not Orion!" was all he had time to hiss before the new enemy surrounded his vessel with a powerful, paralyzing tractor beam.

Tejan ordered the transport of one of the creatures to his own ship. The green-scaled captain regained awareness long enough to catch only a brief glimpse of his huge captors before Tejan ordered his end. The commander then tasted his captive's memories. There was no vibratory hum this time, however, as Tejan quickly ordered the removal of his captive's remains. "There is little of use to us here," he told his crew. "End them. We will find more useful beings elsewhere in this galaxy."

"What of the others of his kind?" asked Tobar, who had also tasted the creature's knowledge. "Their planet is not far from our plotted course."

Tejan flicked an appendage in annoyance. "They are not worth our attention at this time. We will dispose of them later." He flicked another appendage. "End them."

The gunner took aim and fired. An energy bolt engulfed the other ship, draining the life from the crew just as had been done with the previous target. Tejan's ship then proceeded on its way. The lifeless shell that had once been a starship was left behind, operational but with no intelligence to direct it, drifting aimlessly in space.


Tejan studied the data obtained by his ship's instruments from the planet below them. He puzzled over the information, unable to determine what the beings called Humans found so interesting here. The planet's inhabitants superficially resembled those Humans. What was it about them that set them apart and made them so important?

"Bring one of them to me," he ordered his men, and minutes later, his command had been obeyed.

The creature who stood before Tejan shook in his terror and confusion. The earless one's fright grew as one of his captors approached and he sensed what the many-limbed being intended. Tejan recoiled in pain at the psychic shriek emitted by his captive, but the 'sound' was quickly cut off. In seconds, all life had drained from the creature, and Tejan settled down to consume its knowledge. When he had finished, he turned again to his troops.

"It is the young ones we need."

"As you wish."

"Wait," Tejan stopped the soldiers before they could leave. "They must be taken alive; we must wait until their abilities reach their maximum potential before we absorb their knowledge."

Without comment, Tejan's men moved quickly to obey.


A dozen younglings played happily together, watched indulgently by the old one in whose charge they were. Lessons were over for the day, and the young ones were working off all of the energy that had been held in check during the long hours of his tutelage. The 'grandfather-teacher' smiled fondly as he saw young mr'Antor patiently explaining the rules of the latest game for the third time to little nh'Estia. As the eldest of the group, mr'Antor seemed to have endless patience with and love for his little sister. While the other younglings spurned the company of mere children, mr'Antor forced them to accept his sister's presence. The death of their father two fullmoons ago made her unusually dependant on her elder brother, and it was to mr'Antor's credit that he not only accepted the responsibility, he welcomed it.

The old one was very pleased as he watched the silent exchange between the youngling and his even younger sibling. mr'Antor exhibited early signs of possessing both a powerful intellect and a compassionate wisdom. Once the boy reached first maturity, surely very soon now, he would take his place among the greatest of their people's telepaths. The discoveries he could accomplish during that first, strongest surge of psychic power were likely to be significant ones. Perhaps he would be among those who succeeded in perfecting the transmission of their thoughts across the vast reaches of space to improve communications with the tribes whose messages traveled on waves of what they called sound to be received in something known as ears.

The earless Rycherians had painstakingly developed first a device capable of receiving those mysterious messages, and then a means of answering them. It hadn't been an easy accomplishment, inventing machines whose nature they couldn't even understand, but finally they had succeeded, and the apparatus they had developed had converted the rapid and steady stream of meaningless electronic impulses into visible symbols. It had then taken them even more time to translate those symbols into a form they could understand. They had accomplished what had originally seemed to be impossible, and then proceeded to reach outward from their own world and make contact with those beings from other planets.

Someday, perhaps, they might even travel through that space, as those other people did. However, the old one who once claimed the proud name of mr'Uller, but was now known simply by the honorary title of mr'Ynto didn't really believe that would happen in his lifetime. Rycherians would never willingly choose to place themselves in the hands of creatures who communicated with easily misunderstood 'words' rather than clearly formed, precise thoughts. It would be many more generations before Rycher was ready to launch its own space fleet, and the people would wait until that time to leave their homeworld and explore other regions of space. mr'Uller had existed for many generations already, so many that he was the only one left who even remembered his private name. Soon he would proceed into the other realm. But before he could make that final transition, he had to pass on his vast accumulation of knowledge to this new generation. It was his responsibility to assist them in the transformation from youngling through the brilliant, but often chaotic season of first maturity and to the fullness of adulthood. It was a duty he enjoyed above all he had experienced in his past, one reserved only for the oldest and wisest of the elders.

The time of his passing was rapidly approaching, and he knew he wouldn't remain in this realm long enough to witness the launching of a Rycherian fleet. It was enough for him, however, to know his people were 'talking' with these creatures who wanted the Rycherians to join something called the United Federation of Planets. All of Rycher knew about both the invitation and the ruling elders' reluctance to accept it. The images projected by the alien visitors' minds were far too chaotic to be easily comprehended. Even the ones called 'Vulcan' hid far too much of themselves, and the Elders were wary. mr'Uller wasn't sure what his advice would have been had the Elders requested it. He hadn't been consulted, however, so he didn't think about the matter too much. He would leave such decisions to those who were younger and less entrenched in their ways. The younglings were sufficient responsibility for him.

Suddenly, a flickering of light caught mr'Uller's attention, and he turned to see a trio of huge, repulsive creatures appear on his planet's surface. Their almost shapeless bodies were contained in a hairless, leathery, putty-colored skin, and mr'Uller noted the two pair of colorless eyes extended on short stalks that moved independently of each other, as they carefully examined the surrounding countryside. Their minds were powerful, transmitting images of gigantic ships that had been used to propel them across the vast darkness of space, ships even greater than those of the creatures with ears whose messages mr'Uller's people had intercepted. He sensed something else, too, a malevolence he had never encountered in all of his long life. It inspired a mindless terror within him that froze him in place, preventing him from any action. Then, catching sight of him, one of the giants glided swiftly in his direction, extending one long, slender appendage to snake around his neck, cutting off the oxygen and drawing a curtain of blackness over his mind. His last conscious awareness was of the mindscream of the younglings as they disappeared in the same flickering light that had brought the giant beings.

When mr'Uller regained consciousness, he looked around him quickly, fearfully, but the gigantic, many-limbed creatures were gone. So were the younglings. In terror and sorrow, remembering that terrible light, he sent out a psychic shriek. Instantly, he was surrounded by a large number of adults. He realized they had arrived too quickly and in too great of numbers to be responding to his own call. His charges weren't merely hiding then. As he had feared, they had been harmed or taken by the invaders and had cried out to their parents in their terror.

Together, the adults searched the surrounding area, transmitting silent cries to the missing younglings. But no answers returned. Finally, in desperation, they gathered to consider their options.

The creatures took them, mr'Uller insisted, describing the huge vessels he had seen in his brief contact with the minds of the invaders. They are evil. We must regain our younglings. Soon they will reach first maturity, and we must not allow the talents they attain to be either wasted or perverted.

And how do we accomplish that? scoffed nh'Errice, who had little respect for either mr'Ynto's age or his wisdom. They are no longer on Rycher, and we do not yet have the means to leave this world. How do we recover our lost younglings?

We must ask the Federation for help, mr'Oqin stated calmly, calling an end to the debate with the authority of his rank clear. No. He raised his mental shields to block out the barrage of objections his statement brought. I understand the reluctance many of you feel, but we must do this. We cannot save the younglings by ourselves, so we must seek their assistance. He paused while the others gradually came to accept his pronouncement--and the wisdom that had prompted it.

And if they are unable to retrieve the younglings? nh'Errice demanded.

Then we will find someone who can.


Captain James T. Kirk half-sat in his command chair, white-knuckled hands fiercely gripping the armrests and bearing most of his weight as he remained semi-suspended in the motion of standing. He was frozen in place, staring wide-eyed in horror at the nightmarish scene displayed on the main viewscreen of the Enterprise bridge, oblivious to the chaos that surrounded him.

"Jim! God damn it, Jim! Do something!" Doctor Leonard McCoy stood in his usual place slightly behind and to the left of the command chair. The physician's voice was harsh with the anger and pain that he was making no effort to suppress. He clutched at the back of Kirk's command chair with his right hand and stared just as horrified at the same scene that had his captain mesmerized.

The huge ship on the viewer fired another burst of power, and the resulting explosion jolted McCoy and the others on the bridge out of the daze that seemingly held them all in its grip.

"Jim!" the doctor shouted yet again. McCoy moved another step forward to place both hands on the chair arm and lean forward. He pushed his face belligerently into Kirk's line of vision, forcing the captain to acknowledge his presence--whether he wanted to or not.

When his latest attempt to attract Kirk's attention still got no response, McCoy grabbed the captain by his shoulders and shook him, hard, forcing the hazel eyes to shift in his direction. Then he almost wished they hadn't. There was a hard, wintry expression in those eyes the physician couldn't remember ever seeing before, not in all the years he had known this man. It was a look that hinted at emotions as cold and dark as the changeable eyes from which all color had drained, leaving an empty blackness that sent icy shivers down McCoy's spine.

"Jim," McCoy spoke softly, almost pleadingly now, the very softness of his tone and the absence of his Southern drawl lending an added urgency to his words, but still there was no reaction. "Damn it, Jim." His voice came out in a harsh whisper. "Spock's back there. We can't just leave him there. Do something!"

For just a moment the ice seemed to melt from the frozen irises as they lightened back to their usual green-flecked golden hue, and McCoy saw his own pain reflected and intensified in his friend's eyes. The sensitive lips trembled for a millisecond, and McCoy thought for a moment that he had managed to get through to him. Then those lips stiffened, and the eyes hardened again, leaving the physician uncertain whether he had actually seen the aching emotion there at all. Then he heard the words spoken softly, barely above a whisper, pain in every heart-rending syllable.

"I can't, Bones," Kirk rasped. Then he paused for so long that McCoy began to suspect he wasn't going to say anything more. Then-- "I'm sorry, but...God help me, I can't."

Kirk finally pushed himself up from the command chair to exit the bridge. He moved toward the turbolift silently, stiffly, unable to watch that monstrous scene on the main viewing screen any longer. He needed to escape from the images being transmitted by the probe left behind when he had told Sulu to take the Enterprise out of the star system. Now they hovered in space, just outside the GX Andromedae system, safe for the moment from the aliens' formidable weapons, but still close enough to receive the probe's transmissions. Close enough, too, to return and engage the attackers in battle...if Kirk would only give the word.

But James T. Kirk said nothing. He merely paused at the turbolift, his back to the bridge, while the alien vessel shown on the viewscreen fired a final barrage of phaser-like power. The assault converged on the defenseless moon that orbited the third planet of the system, scoring a direct hit on the small scientific outpost with such intensity that the entire satellite erupted in a fiery explosion.

McCoy heard a sudden short scream from somewhere behind him. It was just as quickly cut off as he threw one arm up to protect his eyes from the blinding light that filled the viewscreen and flooded the entire bridge. Moments later, when the illumination had faded a bit, he lowered his arm warily to stare in horror through eyes squinting against the still painful brightness. The main viewing screen was filled with a swirling mass of debris that was all that remained of the Andromedae Three moon, the domed scientific outpost, the colony of scientists--and Spock. The doctor turned his head slowly to frown at the man who remained facing the empty turbolift, his stiff back to the bridge.

"Mister Sulu." The voice sounded incredibly old, interminably weary. "Get us the hell out of here."


"I said, go, Sulu. Warp nine. Now."

Although the voice remained low, restrained, Sulu didn't hesitate again. The starship shifted into warp drive.

As soon as he felt the transition to warp power, Kirk stepped into the turbolift without ever having turned around to face either his crew or the horror on the viewscreen. He hadn't seen the explosion, and he didn't see the expressions on his crew's faces. He hadn't seen them, but he didn't need to do so in order to visualize exactly what both had looked like. And the images in his mind were more terrible, more damning than anything he could have witnessed with his eyes.

The doors closed, and Kirk sagged against the side of the turbolift, catching his breath on something that was closer to a sob than he cared to admit. Then he stiffened again, tugging his tunic into place and squaring his shoulders, blinking his eyes to hold back the unwanted tears. The lift stopped, and the doors slid open to reveal two crewmen standing outside. His eyes straight ahead, ignoring the men, Kirk exited the lift and made his way down the infinite corridor to his quarters, retreating hastily to the sanctuary within. When he emerged again an hour later, it was to return directly to the bridge.

For the next three days, the captain didn't utter a word outside the line of duty. He either sat in the center seat, staring at the main viewing screen, with a cold, set expression on his face, or he shut himself up alone in his own cabin. No one dared attempt to breach that wall of silence. Even McCoy left him alone.


Three days later, a haggard, white-faced Jim Kirk emerged from Admiral Komack's office at Starfleet Headquarters, resplendent in full-dress uniform, body held stiffly, his face set in a frozen expression that allowed no questions. The cluster of officers and friends who had sat in the outer room throughout most of the day, waiting impatiently for the outcome of that very private meeting, stared at him, willing him to tell them the admiral's decision. They waited in vain.

Kirk's gaze swept silently, swiftly across each of their faces, refusing to quite settle on any of them, passing even more quickly over the unforgiving expression on McCoy's visage.

Without acknowledgement, he turned away from them and walked over to the admiral's aide's desk where, one by one, he removed the impressive array of medals and insignia from his formal uniform until only the rows of braid around the neck of his tunic and down the front of the uniform remained to mark him as a Starfleet officer. He hesitated a moment longer as though undecided what to do next, then abruptly grabbed the heavy satin fabric with one hand and yanked, tearing some of the threads loose and tossing a strip of the gold onto the startled aide's desk.

Someone gasped at the unnaturally loud sound of the uniform fabric tearing, and they all came to their feet in silent protest, but no one dared say a word. Not bothering with the remaining braid that hung loosely from the front of his tunic, Kirk turned back toward the center of the room in defiance and found the others gaping at him in shock and horror. Once again, however, he couldn't seem to meet their appalled gazes. Instead, he stiffened his spine and then stalked toward the doorway, head held unnaturally high, eyes staring straight ahead. He strode swiftly, purposefully toward the doors, apparently intent on leaving without acknowledging them in any way at all. He hesitated briefly as though having second thoughts when the doors slid open with a soft whoosh.

His back to the room, posture stiff and forbidding, former Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk, most recently commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise, spoke to his loyal crew for the last time. "There will be no court-martial," he said, then walked out of their lives forever.

The crew was still staring in disbelief at the empty portal a few minutes later when the doors to the inner office opened again. As one being, they turned their heads to glare at the man who stood there. He ignored their expressions. "Commander Scott," he said instead, and gestured toward his office.

Scott looked at each of his friends briefly in confusion, then rose to his feet, straightened his own, unique full-dress uniform and followed the admiral inside. When he emerged a few moments later, his face was flushed with emotion, his body stiff with anger.

"Let's go," he told the others tersely.

"What happened?" Chekov demanded.

"We are ordered t' take the Enterprise back on patrol," the engineer said, his tones clipped, most of his accent missing.

"You're in command?" Sulu surmised.

"That's right, and you're t' serve as m' first officer," he answered the helmsman's question and then turned to Chekov. "Pavel, you're acting science officer." He glanced again at the others, his anger rising once more. "He ordered us to go right back out there and finish the mission without our two top officers, an' they're not even replacin' them. Said it would be too disruptive to assign new commanding officers for th' few months left in this mission. We just have t' take over their duties, while still coverin' our own." He sighed, then caught the look on McCoy's face and forced his own emotions back into control. "Come on, Doctor. Let's go home."

"Home!" McCoy snorted. "It'll never be that again."

"Aye," Scott replied mournfully, his mind on his beloved engines and the duties that would keep him from them. "It willna be th' same."

Single file, the Enterprise officers exited the office and made their way silently to the transporter station to beam back up to their ship. When Montgomery Scott emerged on the bridge a short while later, he was clad in command gold. That was all it took. By the time Uhura had taken over the communications station, her relief had already passed the word. By the time Sulu steered the ship sedately out of orbit, the news had circulated among the third of the crew on duty. By the time Chekov had entered the course ordered by Scott and they had shifted into warp drive, all four hundred thirty crewmen aboard knew. When Scott ordered Uhura to open the shipwide communications system so he could make his announcement, it was nothing more than a formality.

James T. Kirk was no longer in command.

In Sickbay, Leonard McCoy sat alone in his office staring at an empty glass and a full bottle. He lifted the bottle and started to pour some of the intoxicant into the glass, then set it back down on the desk top. "I'll be damned if I'll let you drive me to drink," he muttered to the empty room. Then he abruptly shoved his chair back away from the desk, stood and crossed the room. He replaced the bottle and glass in their storage places, and walked out into the main area of Sickbay.

"Nurse!" the doctor bellowed. Immediately, Christine Chapel emerged from a side room. McCoy ignored the slight redness that rimmed her eyes and merely ordered in a brisk tone, "it's time we did a complete inventory of all medications on board. Let's get busy."

Chapel held back the sigh that threatened to escape. "Yes, Doctor," she replied in a shaky voice and moved to carry out his orders, at first grudgingly, and then more enthusiastically as she realized he was right. Work was the best thing for both of them right then.


The table in the far corner was an oasis of calm in the sea of chaos known simply as Pedro's. Two of the beings sitting there were deep in conversation, their voices rising and falling as they argued the merits and demerits of various forms of intoxicants available for consumption on this very alien planet. Meanwhile, the remaining two sat quietly, equally ignoring the spirited discussion at their own table and similar arguments elsewhere in the tavern.

The silent man's hooded silver gaze swept constantly back and forth across the room. He eyed each of Pedro's customers carefully but unobtrusively, ever watchful for the disturbances that were commonplace in all such dens of thieves, wherever they might be found in the galaxy. The man sprawled lazily in his chair in a deceptively casual pose, arms folded across his chest as he tipped the chair back on two legs. While his demeanor was quiet and reserved, his attire was just the opposite. The full-sleeved electric-blue satin shirt warred for attention with the equally loud, tight crimson pants and unbuttoned lime green vest. The pants hugged slim hips and powerful thighs, while the half-opened shirt displayed a muscled chest covered with a thick mat of silver-tipped black hair. The hair on his head was also tipped with silver and lay shaggily on his broad forehead and around his ears as though he were well overdue for a cut, while a bushy mustache adorned his upper lip. A jewel-encrusted knife handle protruded ostentatiously from the snug waistband of his pants, but whether it was attached to a real blade or was merely ornamental was something the curious would have to find out for themselves--at their own risk.

The small, fine-boned woman at his side was just as quiet, but in a more self-contained manner, seemingly unaware of the noise around her. Whatever thoughts occupied her mind were her own secret, no evidence of them on her serene face. Only the eyes gave her away, silent amusement dancing within their sparkling green depths--amusement and, beneath that, the threat of a darker, more violent emotion. Her clothing was similar in style to the man's, but without his raucous color combination. Her pants were black, shirt a silvery gray and vest a rich, deep forest green. Strapped to her right thigh was an intricately designed leather scabbard holding a small, but deadly and quite expensive knife. Like the woman's clothes, the knife's handle was less ostentatious than that on the man's blade, but a careful examination would reveal both the rarity and value of the perfect tiny jewels encrusted there.

The raucous noise of the crowded bar dimmed to a murmur for a brief moment when the door opened, then resumed quickly as the mostly humanoid patrons failed to recognize the new arrival and returned their attention to whatever had held it moments earlier.

Two wary pairs of eyes, one pale gray with glints of silver, one brilliant emerald, remained on the man who stood silently in the doorway, watching, waiting, as he surveyed the dimly lit room and finally settled his own gaze on them. The new arrival's eyes widened almost imperceptibly as he hesitated in the portal for just a moment before moving forward into the room, headed deliberately for their table. The description the Gorn had given him turned out to be more accurate than he had believed possible or even dared to hope. The quartet had been easy to spot in this bar that catered to the various humanoid species who had 'business' on the home planet of the Gorn. But he hadn't expected his own, involuntary reaction to the man's eyes. Their gazes had met briefly, met and locked. The silver in the man's eyes had seemed to catch the light and reflect it back at him in a manner that evoked painful memories. Then the seated man shifted his gaze slightly, away from the light, and the unnatural glow disappeared. The eyes were still a silvery gray, but no longer seemed to shine. The man in the doorway shoved the better-forgotten recollections into the back of his mind where they belonged, and stepped forward.

The conversation of the remaining two beings seated at the table died abruptly when the newcomer stopped in front of them, and all four waited for him to speak. They didn't have to wait long.

"I'm looking for Raile."

No one spoke for a minute, and then-- "I'm Raile," the flamboyantly dressed, silver-eyed one acknowledged in a low, gravelly voice. He lowered the front legs of his chair to the floor and then placed his mug on the table. He casually wiped his mouth with the back of his other hand, all the time carefully scrutinizing the stranger while giving no indication as to what he thought of the man.

"My name's Kirk. I hear you're looking for experienced spacers to help crew a private ship."

"I might be," The man called Raile drawled, apparently giving both the question and the questioner equally serious consideration. "What kind of experience?"

"Twenty years with Starfleet."

He had the attention of all of them now, but only Raile responded, still in that slow, deep voice that was almost a growl. "Doing what?"

The new man shrugged. "A little bit of everything. Navigation, helm, engineering in a pinch."

"James T. Kirk."

The hazel eyes shifted to the woman who had spoken. "That's right," he acknowledged, an edge of defiance in his voice.

"Well," said the grinning, comfortably brown-clad, red-bearded man who sat on the other side of the table, a half-empty mug of the local brew in his right hand. "The famous Captain James T. Kirk." He laughed, but without real humor. "Or should I say ex-captain."

For just a moment, something burned deep within the cold hazel eyes, then the mask slipped back into place. "Just Kirk is good enough." He said, then deliberately turned his back on the little man and faced Raile again. "About that job..."

"I don't know." The group's leader drew the words out, as though deliberating over the proposal. His gaze caught Kirk's, and suddenly his eyes glinted silver again. "If they kicked you out of Starfleet--"

"They didn't kick; I left." He spoke evenly, every trace of emotion carefully eliminated from both his voice and his face, the resultant non-emotion an expression in itself.

"Just one step ahead of their boot, way I hear it. Word around here is, you're either a coward...or a traitor...or maybe you're just incompetent." The voice was flat, expressionless, but the statement held the feel of a question just the same.

"Does it matter?" Sensing he was being tested, Kirk still refused to allow the other man to provoke him into reacting.

Raile shrugged and pushed him a little harder. "It might. I don't have room for cowardice...or incompetence on my ship." He ignored the third possibility.

"I'm no coward." The voice was dangerously soft, but still level, even, as he continued to resist Raile's prodding. "And you'll learn soon enough how competent I am." He, too, refrained from discussing the matter of his loyalty --or lack thereof.

"How do you feel about the Gorn?"

Kirk blinked. That question had come out of nowhere. The minute he heard it, he realized he should have expected it, given their present location, but somehow he hadn't. He shrugged. "They're all right," he finally answered noncommittally. "Why do you ask?"

"Because if you join us, you'll be working for them...sort of." When Kirk didn't comment, Raile continued, "They're having Orion trouble. Their fleet isn't big enough to handle it, and Starfleet's got its hands full on the other side of the Federation with the Klingons and Romulans. They hired, or rather invited, us to help out."


"Not exactly, more like privateers. They don't pay us directly, just give us the freedom to make our own way...with certain restrictions, of course. We're free to go anywhere in this sector we want, and salvage anything of value we find. In return, we engage the pirates every chance we get, and then keep anything we can take from them. There are a couple of other ships like ours. The Gorn figure the Orions will give up and go elsewhere if we make it difficult enough for them to turn a profit. I'm not so sure, but it's profitable work for us, and we don't have to worry about dodging patrol vessels of every imaginable kind while we're at it. All we have to do is leave the Gorn ships alone, and everything's fine. Makes it a little safer than our old way of operating."

"Is safety that important to you?"

Raile's wicked grin was answer enough, but he explained anyway. "Let's just say it's a relief not to have to look over my shoulder all the time. The Orions are enough to handle without having to worry about Starfleet, too." He watched Kirk carefully for a reaction, but again got none. "So, do you have any objections to working for the Gorn?"

"Should I?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

"I don't have any problems."

There was a long silence while Raile continued to study him. The entire conversation had been a kind of elaborate verbal dance, with each of them saying as little as possible while trying to get as much information as he could from the other. Raile couldn't fault Kirk for the attitude since it was exactly what he was doing himself, but it made him a little wary. Still, he needed a helmsman badly, and he wasn't likely to find a better one on that planet. Despite a nagging sense that all was not quite as it seemed, Raile instinctively felt he could trust this man. Confident in his own ability to judge others, he dismissed his misgivings and leaned forward to hold out his hand. "Welcome aboard. Where's your gear?"

Kirk took the outstretched hand, outwardly relaxing although his eyes had failed to soften. "In a locker at the spaceport."

Raile nodded agreeably. "Good. You can pick it up when we leave in a couple of hours. For now, meet the rest of the crew. Donovan." He pointed to the red-bearded man with the twinkling, Irish-blue eyes. Kirk nodded when the young man grinned, reminded briefly of Kevin Riley's irrepressible good spirits. He immediately corrected the reaction. Despite his small stature and outward show of good humor and friendliness, there was an air of hidden danger about this little man that would have been completely foreign to the clowning Riley, a danger Kirk sensed was held in common by all of the spacers sitting at that table.

"Nydor." Raile continued his introduction, and the big alien's mouth split in what obviously was meant as a smile of welcome, although any Human less familiar with other intelligent species would have had difficulty in recognizing it as such. Most people would register only the sharp, pointed teeth and equate the gesture with a predator's snarl rather than a sentient being's greeting. Kirk, however, looked beyond the mouth to the eyes, and merely nodded again. Andorian blood, he thought, noting the blue tinge to the skin. Something else...he wasn't sure what, but this alien was bigger, apparently stronger than the Andorians Kirk had encountered during his years with Starfleet. There were other differences, too. The antennae were little more than barely noticeable bumps on this creature's head, and there was a deceptively mild expression on Nydor's face, despite his harsh features. Kirk wasn't sure what it was about this alien that disturbed him so much. Maybe it was just an aura he projected, or perhaps it had something to do with the semi-military nature of his attire. He wore a gun-metal gray mesh-metal 'vest' worn over black, leather-like shirt and pants. The black of the shirt was relieved by colorful, elaborate embroidery in a band along the edges of the front opening, which were held together loosely by matching black, leather lacings. A wide, studded belt was fastened with an oversized pewter buckle. Despite Raile's denial of the description, Nydor's entire ensemble reminded Kirk of the garb of a mercenary, the kind of dangerous warrior you wanted fighting on your own side. Whatever the source of Kirk's disquiet, something told the former Starfleet officer that the other three beings at that table, as dangerous as they might appear, were mere pussycats compared to the big alien. Kirk decided it would be best not to cross him.

"And Talya, our navigator." Raile indicated the woman last. Kirk noted her smooth, bronze skin, delicate features, dark hair pulled back into but attempting to escape from a knot low on her neck and finally her startlingly green eyes topped by severely arched brows. He tried to guess both her age and her heritage, but didn't have a clue as to either, although he doubted she was as young as she appeared. She had an air of quiet assurance that denied her youthful looks and was, in turn, contradicted by the fiery heat of danger he could see burning deep within her eyes. As for her features, they were basically humanoid, vaguely resembling those of some of the more exotic races of his native Earth. But Kirk knew instinctively that the woman was not Human, at least not entirely, and maybe not at all. As she turned sideways in her chair, he noticed the knife strapped to her thigh and wondered at it. He narrowed his eyes in concentration. There was something vaguely familiar about the elegant little weapon. He allowed the idle speculation to fade. The woman eyed him coldly and made no motion to shake the hand he had automatically held out to her, instead merely looking first at it and then at his face. Feeling awkward, he pulled the offending hand back.

"You can take the helm," Raile refrained from commenting about the silent clash between Kirk and Talya, but there was obvious amusement dancing in his eyes. "Nydor's been steering us, but his true talents lie in other directions." He didn't say what, and Kirk refrained from asking; he'd find out soon enough. "We leave in two hours. If you need anything, you'd better get it now."

"Everything I need is at the spaceport." It wasn't exactly the truth, but as close to it as he could allow himself.

"Good. Then have a drink." Raile gestured at an empty chair, then motioned for a waitress. Kirk finally sat down.


Two hours later, the five of them were waiting their turn at the Gorn spaceport transporter. Kirk stood a little apart from the others, a duffel bag at his feet held all that was left of his worldly possessions. Someone approached from his right. Kirk tensed and turned warily, half expecting to see his Gorn informant and not sure how to act if he did, but the man was Human and a stranger. Kirk suppressed a sigh of relief, but remained alert, ready for whatever might happen.

"Hear you signed on with Raile?" the new arrival asked conversationally. Kirk didn't deign to reply.

The weaselly looking man shrugged indifferently. "Your life. Throw it away if you want, but I wouldn't have expected to see the famous Jim Kirk joining up with a bunch of pirates. Call them privateers...same tune, different words," the man added in swift reaction to the cold look the original description drew. He shrugged again. "Okay, okay. None of my business. Didn't intend to meddle in your affairs. Just wanted to be sure you knew what you were getting into."

Kirk's eyes grew even colder. "I always know what I'm getting into," he told the man. Without further conversation, he picked up his bag and moved to join the others at a gesture from Raile.

"Who's your friend?"

Kirk shrugged. "Never saw him before."

"What'd he want?"

"To warn me about you."

Raile laughed. "He scare you off?"

"I thought we settled the question of my courage."

"So we did." Raile easily dismissed the issue. "It's our turn next. Ready to go?"

"I'm ready."

Raile grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. "Let's get going then. I get itchy feet after I've been planetside a few days." Kirk grinned back in understanding. He had a feeling that beneath the flamboyant exterior and behind the outlaw facade was a kindred spirit.

Hefting his bag onto his shoulder, Kirk followed the others onto the platform, and they were quickly transported aboard their ship. Kirk found himself on a compact, but obviously well-equipped vessel. The crew had transported into a small compartment located adjacent to the engine room. The former starship captain's eyes widened as he noted the elaborate matter-antimatter chamber and the highly sophisticated control panels that were visible through the huge Gordonite window that served as one wall. He recognized some of the components as virtually the same ones found in Scotty's domain back on the Enterprise. Others looked as though they might have been supplied by the Gorn, and still more bore a remarkable resemblance to items he had glimpsed once aboard a Romulan D7 battlecruiser. That still left a number of components that were utterly alien to him, however. It was a complex and perplexing array of technical wizardry. Scotty would have felt like a kid in a toy store. But Kirk just turned to Raile with one eyebrow lifted inquiringly in unconscious imitation of his absent friend as the others exited the room, headed for other parts of the ship. The privateer captain grinned again, obviously understanding Kirk's bewilderment.

"We take what we can get, whenever, wherever and however we can get it. This ship originally belonged to a wealthy but somewhat paranoid Terran merchant who feared attack by Klingons, Romulans or maybe even Orions...or other pirates." The grin widened. "So he equipped the Zephyr with a warp drive system second only to those in Starfleet and weapons not usually found in private vessels--or exactly legal for them. There's even an incredibly efficient two-being shuttle attached to the bottom of the ship and accessible through a special hatch. Of course, what was state-of-the-art when the original owner commissioned this vessel more than ten standard years ago is hopelessly outdated now, but we've managed more or less to keep pace over the years, thanks primarily to Nydor's talents and our, suppliers. Even our Gorn hosts help out occasionally."

Kirk didn't question who else might be included among those 'suppliers,' but there was one query he couldn't refrain from making. "The original owner's fears came true? He was attacked?" Even though he'd felt compelled to ask, Kirk wasn't sure he wanted the answer to his inquiry, especially as to who might have done the attacking, but Raile laughed easily and showed no reticence about answering.

"Not really," Raile replied, then elaborated. "He was well prepared for any kind of physical attack, but he failed to make provision for a financial one. Some bad investments did him in less than a year after he took possession of the Zephyr. Talya's father immediately took advantage of the situation and picked the ship up for the proverbial song--not that he wouldn't have just as readily taken it by force if necessary. When the old man died a few years back, shortly after they began their arrangement with the Gorn, Talya inherited both his ship and his crew--Nydor, Donovan, and Dr'Vellian, the helmsman you're replacing."

"How'd you get in on the act?" Kirk let pass for the moment any curiosity he had about how Talya's father had died.

Raile shrugged and laughed. "Just lucky, I guess. Talya said she was too young to command, although I suspect she just didn't want to be bothered with the details of the job. She has little patience with such matters and would rather just handle navigation and leave the rest to me, especially dealing with customers and planetary officials. She's too likely to lose her temper and ruin a good deal.

"And Donovan's almost as hot-headed as Talya," he continued, "while Nydor... well, Nydor's just Nydor." He shrugged again. "As for your predecessor, Dr'Vellian was both too inexperienced and too stupid. He could steer a ship with the best of them, and was the best marksman I ever saw; he could pick off the smallest of targets with a single short burst of phaser fire. But otherwise, he was just plain dumb. Look at how he died."

Kirk started to ask how Dr'Vellian had died, but Raile continued his monologue before he could get the words out, so he had to let that one pass, too. But he promised himself he would find some answers, and soon.

"Anyway," Raile said, "I had just lost my ship and crew in an ion storm...barely escaped with my own life. Since I had had a similar arrangement with the Gorn, they put me in touch with Talya. We made a deal."

"What kind of deal?" Kirk wisely refrained from asking how Raile had managed to survive when his ship and entire crew hadn't. That wasn't any of his concern; any arrangements on the Zephyr were.

Raile hesitated, eyeing him carefully, apparently sizing up his new crewman. Then, somewhat to Kirk's surprise, he answered candidly. "She and I share sixty percent of all profits. The rest is divided among the rest of the crew, you included."

"So I'm cutting into their share?" Kirk wasn't sure he liked that idea. It didn't bode well for future relations with his fellow crewmen. They might prefer to have a bigger cut themselves rather than have to include an unknown new crewman.

"Yes, but don't let it worry you." Raile understood his concern and quickly reassured him. "We needed another man. They knew that as well as I did. They won't give you any trouble--not about that anyway." He paused a long minute, obviously weighing his next words. While Kirk waited for him to resume speaking, they felt the ship's engines start. The low throb of impulse power felt good. "About Talya..."

"Don't worry," Kirk interrupted before Raile could say more. "If she's yours, there won't be any trouble. I'm not in the market for anything like that at the moment."

Raile laughed easily, genuinely amused at the suggestion, then shook his head. "That's not exactly what I meant...and not exactly in keeping with your reputation either, but that's neither here nor there. No, Kirk, Talya's nothing to me except a business partner, a valuable member of this crew, and a friend, a very special friend, kind of like a kid sister, although even I find it difficult to fathom what's going on in that beautiful little head much of the time. No, I did want to warn you to steer clear, but not because of any proprietary interest of my own. I'd just hate to see you get injured. I can't afford to lose another helmsman so soon, and it'd take too much of my time to find another one."

Kirk's eyes widened in surprise as he wondered exactly who he did have to worry about. "Nydor?" He frowned in doubt, but despite Donovan's air of danger, Kirk couldn't quite believe the little Irishman would ever be a serious threat to him.

Raile threw back his shaggy head and roared. Finally, he brought his amusement somewhat under control and managed to force out a response. "Definitely not. Not him, not me, not Donovan...not anybody. Talya's just not interested in men. No, that's wrong. Make that anyone, male, female, whatever. She doesn't let anybody get too close. She likes plenty of elbow room. And, believe me, she's more than capable of backing it up. That woman's stronger than she looks, and I know you saw her knife. It's small but deadly, with a razor-sharp blade, not primarily an ornamental weapon like mine, although quite pretty in its own way.

"Don't get me wrong," Raile hastened to reassure Kirk when he saw the uncertain expression on his new helmsman's face. "She's not mean-tempered, not exactly, just..." He paused as though to think of an accurate description, then grinned again, "...a little quick on the draw, somewhat spoiled, and a bit too much her father's daughter. Most of the time, she's pretty easy to get along with, but I don't advise crossing her. And the easiest way to do that is to touch her. She doesn't like being touched, by anyone at any time. Most men in this quadrant already know that. Those who don't learn quickly. I'd rather you didn't learn the hard way. I don't have the time to nurse you back to health."

Kirk met the silver eyes squarely. His curiosity was aroused by the other man's less than adequate attempt at explanation. No touching. That sounded familiar. Could the mysterious Talya be telepathic? A touch telepath? She didn't look Vulcan, but then, they weren't the only touch telepaths in the galaxy. He dismissed the thought for the moment, not wanting to think about Vulcans right then. As for any curiosity he might have about the woman, he had no intentions of following up on it. He had neither the inclination nor the time himself. "No problem," he said aloud. "Like I said before, I'm not interested."

"You will be," Raile warned. "They all are, sooner or later. There's something about Talya, besides the obvious fact that she's a very beautiful woman. I don't think anyone except perhaps a Gorn would ever be completely immune. Still, the smart ones just don't do anything about it."

"I'm smart."

"Then why'd you leave Starfleet?"

The shutters closed over Kirk's face again. "That's personal."

Raile held up one hand in mock surrender. "Okay, okay. I get the message. Talya doesn't like to be touched, and you don't like to be questioned. No problem."

Before Kirk could ask what Raile didn't like, a chime beckoned from a speaker on the bulkhead. Raile answered it.

"We have permission to leave this planet in ten minutes," Talya reported, a hint of mockery in her voice. "Should Nydor take us out, or is the new helmsman ready to begin work?"

Raile grinned ruefully at Kirk and released the intercom button, speaking confidentially. "Sometimes I wonder which one of us commands this vessel. Oh, well, at least she had the grace to phrase it as a question this time. I suppose I should be grateful for that. Sometimes she's not so courteous." He pressed the button again. "We're on our way."


Kirk sat at the helm, running his hands over the controls to familiarize himself with them in the remaining few minutes before they received final clearance to leave the dock. Nydor leaned over his right shoulder, explaining anything he found unfamiliar--which was remarkably little. Kirk decided that the same firm that designed the Enterprise console must have built this one, too. As far as he could tell, the main differences were the more compact arrangement here and the fact that the helm was on the right, with navigation to left instead of the opposite arrangement found on Starfleet vessels. He wondered about the man who had commissioned the Zephyr--and about the man who took it off his hands.

The clearance came through, and Kirk carefully began to manipulate the controls, easing the little ship from its berth. He was impressed at how easily it responded to his touch...impressed and pleased. It had been a long time since he had steered anything other than a shuttle. He was relieved he hadn't lost his touch...and a little surprised to find out how much he was enjoying this particular duty. It was kind of nice to be busy actually doing something when the ship left port, instead of just sitting in the center chair, depending on everyone else to be his hands, eyes, and ears. He knew how much he usually enjoyed sitting in that chair, but after the helplessness of that final mission... He firmly closed the door on that memory. He didn't have time for it now. Later.

The Zephyr slid smoothly, silently away from the port and through space, past the outer planets in the Tau Lacertae system. As they cleared the final one, Raile gave the order, Talya plotted in the course, and Kirk pressed the button that shifted them into warp drive, once again pleased with the little vessel's instantaneous response. They were on their way. To exactly what, he wasn't sure, but at the moment it didn't matter. The fact of finally doing something after the days of inactivity was a welcome relief. And he actually found something appealing about the adventurous life of a privateer, unofficially aiding the Gorn in their undeclared 'war' with the Orions while taking possession of anything they could recover from the pirates or salvage from derelict ships.

Besides, Kirk was back where he belonged. He might be in a different chair, but at least he was on the bridge of a ship, warping through space. It felt good--as good as anything could these days, without his ship, his crew and friends...without Spock.


The pain was intense, almost unbearable--a hundred mental voices shrieking in agony. The Vulcan collapsed to his knees and remained there, head bowed, until the excruciating pain finally faded. When he looked up again, he was no longer at the scientific outpost, no longer in the company of others of his species. He was on a vessel of some kind, surrounded by huge, hundred-tentacled creatures who appeared to be scrutinizing him like some kind of rare and fascinating specimen. One of them opened its "mouth" and began to talk...


"Raile, the scanners reveal an approaching object," Talya reported. There was a note of barely suppressed excitement in her voice as her hands moved across the board, adjusting the various controls to obtain the more specific information she knew Raile would require.

"Approximately twenty, no twenty-two thousand meters away...a vessel of some sort." She swung around to face her partner, grinning in anticipation. It was the first genuine smile Kirk had seen on her face in the days since he had joined this strange crew. "No life signs."

Kirk glanced again at the woman who sat at the station to his left. Unlike the Enterprise and other Starfleet vessels, where there was a different person responsible for each duty, this ship's crew had to double up on jobs. He himself was responsible for weaponry as well as the helm. Talya navigated the ship and operated its sensors, keeping the others apprised of anything "out there" they needed to know about. Nydor remained an enigma to Kirk, devoting nearly all of his time to engineering, while his other responsibilities continued to be a mystery. Donovan was in charge of life support and communications.

Nydor and Donovan also served as relief officers for Kirk and Talya, taking over the helm and navigation posts for a few hours each day to give them a little precious rest time.

Raile's job was much as Kirk's had once been, watching over everything, making decisions when needed, in general commanding his vessel. He was also prepared to fill in wherever necessary in any kind of 'emergency' situation. Kirk found himself hoping such an emergency wouldn't ever arise--at least not as long as he was serving on the Zephyr.

The former starship captain was more than a little surprised at his own lack of envy for Raile. Just a few weeks earlier, he would never have believed he could be satisfied with anything less than command. But now he found it actually a relief to be just one of the crew, taking orders rather than giving them. For once, he was contented not to bear the responsibility for four hundred and thirty lives--or was it one life?

Kirk pushed the thought to the back of his mind, refusing to consider the issue any longer. He had neither the time nor the energy for looking back and fretting over the past right now. He returned his full attention to Talya's report and Raile's response to it.

He was disconcerted by the woman's obvious pleasure at the lack of evidence of any life aboard the drifting vessel, both disconcerted and a little repelled. It didn't really seem to matter to her that the disabled ship's crew had been Gorn. He had overcome his initial revulsion for the reptilian creatures long ago. Even when he had found them repulsive four years earlier, he had been unable to kill one, despite what to many people would have been more than enough provocation. He certainly couldn't find pleasure in the demise of these creatures who had done nothing to incur his wrath or fear. Of course, there was always a chance the ship ahead was an Orion pirate vessel. That would put a different connotation to the entire situation. Still, he felt it was a bit premature to be celebrating the death of the unknown ship's crew.

"Ease her down a bit, Kirk, and bring her to a full halt at ten thousand meters. Let's see what we have." Raile's voice was calm, completely in control, with no evidence of the excitement that had been in Talya's. Kirk couldn't help but wonder if the ship's commander was truly as cool as his voice indicated...or if it were nothing more than a facade.

Talya swiveled in her chair to face the command seat again, an eager expression on her face. "Cloak?"

"No, I don't think so...not yet. But be ready in case you detect any signs of life on a closer look."

Kirk's hands moved over the Zephyr controls as he divided his attention between what he was doing and the conversation between Raile and Talya, who were talking almost as if they were alone on the bridge, or as though the information they were exchanging were commonplace, already well known to their crew. Kirk realized it probably was--except for him.

But for him, it seemed there were always surprises, like this one. Cloak? he thought. As in Romulan? His concern about the unknown derelict took back seat to his growing curiosity about his own new ship and its crew, and he eagerly turned his attention to the conversation between Raile and Talya, intent on learning as much as he as short a period of time as was humanly possible.

"There are still no indications of life, Raile," Talya reported after a few moments, her attention once again on her sensors, "although the life-support systems appear to be operational." She turned back to face Raile, a broad grin spread across her face. "It's perfect."

"Gorn?" Raile asked. "Or Orion?" He didn't even consider whether it might be something else again, and it really didn't sound as though he cared much either. Apparently, one ship was as good as another when it came to salvage operations. Their contract prevented them from attacking Gorn vessels, but any derelict was fair game for salvage.

"Gorn," Talya answered after more scanning. She didn't seem to care either; probably none of them did. Kirk decided he would have to adopt the same callous attitude toward any of their...targets. He didn't even know what to call the ships they would be salvaging--or attacking. He suspected it would be something as mundane as...supplier.

"Raile?" Talya was frowning now, in concentration.

"What is it?" He picked up on her mood instantly.

"I don't know." She continued to frown. "Something strange. I can't..." She paused, studying her sensors intently. Then she looked at Raile again. "This doesn't make sense," she protested, hitting the edge of her board with one hand. "I don't understand these readings."

"All right, Talya," Raile said patiently, trying to calm his volatile navigator. "What doesn't make sense?"

"There's nothing wrong with that ship," she answered, exasperation clear in her voice although she managed to keep her tone low. "Nothing wrong at all... except that everyone on board is dead."

"Plague?" Raile suggested, and Kirk shivered at the word, as though an icy wind had blown across his back.

"No." Talya was calmer now. "Nothing like that either." Her eyes flashed as her confusion gave way to anger once more. "Damn it, Raile! There's just no reason for them to be dead!"

"Nonsense," Raile countered, dismissing Talya's concerns. "There had to be something wrong, either with the ship or the people. You just can't detect it from here." The Zephyr captain came to his feet. "All right, let's see if there's anything left on board worth bothering with." He started for the bridge doors. "Donovan, Nydor, get your gear and come with me. We're going aboard. Full life-support," he added as an afterthought, "at least until we know what we're going to find over there. No need to take any more chances than we have to. Kirk..." He turned to the new helmsman. "You stay on the bridge. And be ready to warp out of here on a moment's notice just in case we have to hurry back. Talya, you come, too. We need you to operate the transporter."

Transporter? Kirk hadn't seen any such device in his three days aboard the Zephyr, despite his careful, almost inch-by-inch examination of the entire vessel and its equipment. They had used the Gorn spaceport's transporter to transfer from planet to ship, and he hadn't even considered the possibility that this little craft had one of its own. Raile and his crew were full of surprises. What else had he missed?

The last to exit the bridge, Donovan turned to the newest crewman before leaving. "It's portable," he explained in answer to Kirk's unasked question. "Takes a lot of energy, and we can only go over one at a time, but useful when the shuttle's not practical." He grinned in response to Kirk's blank look. "The shuttle's fine when there's someone at the other end to open the locks and allow us to enter," he explained, but it's kind of hard to get somebody to answer the door when there's no one home."

Kirk suppressed an unintentional smile in response to the other Human's colorful colloquial speech. It reminded him a just a bit of Bones. His smile died.


The next few hours were exceptionally long ones for Kirk, who was held captive on the bridge by the crew's need to have someone constantly monitoring the ship's controls and hold the vessel in place until the salvage operation was completed. He idly supposed it was a compliment, in a way, that they trusted him enough to leave him in sole charge, but, as usual, Jim Kirk would rather be where the real action was, not sitting impatiently on the Zephyr's bridge, waiting for the others to return to the ship.

Even Talya was kept constantly busy throughout the operation. First, she had to handle the portable transporter to beam the salvage team onto the other ship. Then the airlock that attached the shuttle to the bottom of the Zephyr became her responsibility when Nydor returned to get the little vessel and ferry various items from the Gorn ship back onto the Zephyr.

Kirk sensed that she, too, would rather have been on that other ship with the men, but she never overtly challenged Raile's decisions on anything, although Kirk had caught an occasional rebellious look in her eyes when their commander had given her an order obviously not quite to her liking. Kid sister, Raile had characterized the alien woman, and there certainly was something of the sibling nature to their strange relationship. Kirk hadn't yet seen her infamous temper in action, but there was plenty of evidence of its existence, seething just below the surface of her carefully cultivated calm demeanor.

Bored with waiting, Kirk began to speculate about that derelict ship. Obviously, it was a private freighter, and he knew it was a Gorn vessel. He wondered at Talya's strange report about no damage, and shivered again. What had happened? Had they been attacked? By whom? Not Orions, surely. If that had been the case, there would have been plenty of damage, and there wouldn't have been anything of value left to keep Raile and the others busy this long.

They certainly were busy. He had been monitoring their communications with Talya to help pass the time, and he was impressed with the amount of equipment and cargo Raile was managing to transfer back to his own ship. There were engineering parts Nydor would find useful in effecting any needed repairs in the future, valuable mineral ore that could be sold for a tidy profit, and medical supplies that might come in handy some unspecified day, although Kirk was unsure how Gorn medicines would react with the Zephyr crew's mostly Human physiology. Apparently there were foodstuffs of some kind, as well, although Kirk didn't recognize the names he had heard Raile list for Talya. For himself, he couldn't imagine finding Gorn food palatable, but it seemed whatever they had found was a favorite with the crew, judging by the teasing repartee Raile and Talya had exchanged over the comm system temporarily linking the two vessels.

Finally, there was a message sent directly to him.

"We're beaming back aboard in three minutes, Kirk. Be ready to warp out of here immediately, on my signal."

"Why the rush?"

"Don't ask questions. Just do it."

Kirk recognized that tone of voice; he had used it enough himself. Whatever Raile was up to, he'd find out soon enough. With no further questions, he checked the controls, plotted a course directly away from the derelict, and fed it into his board. All it would take now was to press a single button, and they'd instantly be far away from their present location.

"Okay, Kirk. NOW!" Raile's voice came through loud and clear, but whether from the derelict or the cargo hold of their own ship was unclear. Remembering that one-man portable transporter, Kirk hoped the entire crew was already back aboard the Zephyr.

Ignoring any misgivings he might have about the others' whereabouts, Kirk pressed the warp-drive control button simultaneously with the final word of Raile's transmission, and the ship seemed to jump across space, as though eager to get away as quickly as it could. Kirk programmed the rear vista onto the viewscreen and was remarkably unsurprised when the derelict exploded behind them, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust-like debris which would quickly dissipate over a period of hours. He swiveled around in his chair as the turbolift doors slid open to discharge a laughing Raile and a more sedate but still somehow excited Talya.

"Good haul," Raile told Kirk as he took his place in the center seat. "Donovan and Nydor are packing it away now. We'll have a little celebration later. You do like brandy, don't you?"

Kirk nodded in response. "I like it fine," he said, remembering many a bottle shared with his chief medical officer. Bones. He shook off the melancholia that threatened to overwhelm him, and forced a congenial grin onto his face. He hoped it looked more natural than it felt.

Apparently so, Raile didn't seem to notice anything unusual. "Good, good." he said. "We found a whole case of the stuff over there; we'll break it out later this evening. We can leave Talya in charge up here, and you can join us." He grinned teasingly at the beautiful navigator. "She's not much of a drinker."

Kirk's gaze slid to the woman who was once again sitting by his side. "I merely do not see the purpose in such an activity," she recited a little primly, and Kirk felt himself stiffen involuntarily at the uncustomary formality of her comment. Then she met his gaze and winked at him, as though to let him in on some kind of private joke. Only he didn't find it very funny at the moment. "But feel free to indulge yourselves," she continued, all arrogance and condescension now. "I can handle things for a while."

Kirk found himself unable to find an appropriate response to her teasing. Although he knew that she had meant the conversation to be lighthearted and friendly, Talya's words evoked still more painful memories he wasn't yet ready to examine. For a moment there, she had sounded almost exactly-- He turned quickly away from her to return his full attention to the helm and his responsibilities there. When next he looked her way, Talya was busy at her own board again. He watched her for what seemed like a long time, noticing the way her long, slender hands worked the controls, admiring the view of her deceptively delicate profile. She was certainly a beautiful woman, but there was something else, something more, something...familiar and yet not. It nagged at him, distracting him from his own duties. If only he could figure out exactly what it was. But where had she picked up that particular turn of phrase?


Talya found the bridge refreshingly silent once the men had gone to their 'little celebration.' She allowed herself a tiny secret smile at the term now that the smile couldn't be seen by the others. Knowing Raile, Donovan and Nydor as well as she did, she was certain that little was hardly an accurate description of the drunken revelry most likely being enjoyed at that very moment. She didn't yet know, however, how the new man would handle himself during such off-duty activities. She sensed he was capable of playing every bit as intensely as he worked, and yet there was nothing playful about him. Of course, it was understandable...under the present circumstances.

She frowned a little in puzzlement over that new crewman. Jim Kirk. From the beginning, she'd had reservations about allowing him to join the crew. She was convinced that the former captain of one of Starfleet's most renowned vessels wasn't likely to fit in with the Zephyr force, but as Raile had explained when she'd finally managed to get him alone and broached the subject, they couldn't afford to be too choosy right now. They needed another man, and they needed him now. And Kirk was definitely qualified to do the job--more than qualified. They weren't likely to find anyone else half as good.

As usual, Talya had bowed to Raile's judgment, although not without an argument...of the heated variety, very heated.

"How dare you?" she had demanded at the first opportunity. She had begun pacing back and forth in Raile's cabin the moment they entered. "You have overstepped your authority this time, Raile. James T. Kirk as our helmsman! It's ludicrous. Next thing I know, you'll be hiring an admiral to replace me." Talya flung herself into a chair next to the desk and glared up at the man who was still standing just inside the doorway, leaning lazily against the bulkhead.

Raile crossed the room and poured himself a drink, offering one to Talya. She peered at the bottle in his hand, then shook her head. He shrugged, replaced the bottle and downed his own drink. He leaned against the desk and looked down at her. She squirmed in the chair, realizing her position gave him a strategic advantage in the argument. It was too late to do anything about it now, though.

"All right, let's hear your objections." His voice was calm, patient, as lazy as his stance, and as false--it only made her angrier.

"My objec--" she sputtered. "Must I spell them out? Do I have to subject myself to this humiliation?"

He merely nodded.

"If you insist." She tried sarcasm, but he still didn't budge. "In the first place, he's too damned well known. Just as soon as the Orions learn he has joined us, they'll be picking fights for no other reason than his presence on board."

"So? I thought you wanted to fight Orions?"

"I do! But--" Unable to think of an appropriate response, Talya quickly moved on to voice her next objection. "He's been in command of a starship for years. What convinces you he would submit to your authority? He'll never follow your orders."

"He'll only not follow them once." If Talya had been thinking straight right then rather than being ruled by her own anger, she'd have realized there was neither pride nor boasting in Raile's drawled remark, and she'd have known it was nothing more than the basic truth. "I don't anticipate any problems."

"How do we know he's not a spy?" She played her trump card last and leaned back in the chair, a smug smile on her face. It died abruptly when Raile threw back his head and roared with laughter.

"Spy!" The silver eyes were glittering with his unconcealed amusement at that charge. "For who?"

"The Federation. It could all be a set-up." She stuck stubbornly to her position although Raile continued to chuckle.

"Talya, Talya. I don't know what's bugging you, kid, but you can dismiss that notion right now. The Federation has absolutely no reason to plant a spy with us. We're on their side, remember? It's not like the old days when your old man was on the run from every planetary official in the galaxy. We're privateers now, not pirates any longer."

She lowered her head, eyes staring at the hands clasped tightly together in her lap. "I don't trust him, Raile," she whispered. "I don't know why, but I just don't trust him. Something..."

The laughter disappeared from Raile's eyes, and his lazy voice took on a hard edge. "Give me one good reason--just one--and I promise you I'll have him off this ship at the next port."

But Talya just shook her head slowly. "I don't have a reason," she admitted. "Just a feeling..."

"Well, let me know when you come up with a reason, something more than 'a feeling.'" Raile pushed himself away from the desk and started for the doorway, gesturing for Talya to precede him. She hesitated only a second before complying. "Until then, we need a helmsman, and he's the best qualified we've been able to find, so he stays. And Talya..." She paused and turned back to face him. "Don't forget who's in command of this ship."

Her eyes widened at the last, and she opened her mouth to resume the argument, then thought better of it. She bit back the words of anger and flounced down the corridor. Raile chuckled softly behind her.

The argument had ended like most of them, with Raile winning. Talya shook her head now at the memory. Would she ever learn? She never hesitated to challenge Raile in private, occasionally even allowing her usually tightly reined temper its full range as she had in the argument over Kirk. After all, her father hadn't raised her to be a meek and mild, submissive female. Hers was a proud heritage, on both sides, and she never forgot it, despite never having had any real contact with either her father's or her mother's people. Of course, she had made no more effort to contact any of her relatives than they had her. She suspected neither side of her family would find her acceptable and had always lived by the premise that if she rejected them first, they would never have a chance to reject her.

But the very volatile nature that caused Talya to challenge the man she had personally chosen to command her ship inevitably led to her own defeat. While she ranted and raged at him, Raile just stood there calmly and outmatched her logic, much as her mother had done with her father. At least she had the good sense to keep their arguments private. Talya always followed Raile's orders without debate in front of the rest of the crew. A ship couldn't have two commanders, and it had been her own decision to take him on after her father's death. It was a decision she never seriously regretted, although she did find him infuriating at times and had even been tempted to resort to her sleek stiletto on at least one memorable occasion. Luckily, she hadn't done him too much damage before she came to her senses.

Talya stared in horror at the blood that covered both Raile's left arm and the blade of her knife. She dropped the knife to the floor and rushed into the bath off the main portion of his cabin, returning with two towels, one wet, the other dry. Quickly washing off the blood with the wet cloth, she wrapped the dry one around his arm. "Hold that," she ordered, then hurried to retrieve a medical kit from her quarters when he complied.

He was still standing there when she returned. She wished he would yell at her, chew her out...something...anything. But Raile remained silent, watching her out of hooded eyes as she bound up his wound.

"There," she said finally. "That should do it." Raile nodded, and Talya realized she was dismissed. She opened her mouth to protest, then closed it again when she caught the look in his eyes. She bent to pick up her knife, wiped it on the already blood-stained towels and replaced it in its scabbard. Tossing the towels down a disposal chute, she glanced at Raile one last time, then sighed and left without further conversation.

Talya sighed again the memory of that incident. Although Raile had quietly submitted to her ministrations, she had no doubts about his submission being a meek one. It had been more like an nobleman accepting services due him. She reached for her knife now, taking it out and turning it over and over in her hands, admiring it, feeling its weight and shape, smiling as though at an old friend. The incident had resulted in a greater respect between the two of them. Raile had been very careful ever since not to provoke her too far. And she worked a little harder to keep that temper under control.

Sighing heavily, Talya replaced the knife in its scabbard and shoved the memories of both the incident of the knife and the argument over Kirk firmly into the back of her mind where she told herself they belonged. She turned her attention back to her sensors, scanning the region of space where they were cruising, searching for something, anything that might be a profitable target for the Zephyr and its crew. An Orion ship would be preferable; she could certainly use some real battle action right now, but she'd settle for another derelict to salvage if nothing else came along. At the moment, she'd settle for almost anything, as long as it provided a little diversion. She was thinking far too much about the new helmsman, and she didn't like the direction her thoughts were taking.

Talya deliberately dismissed all thoughts of James T. Kirk from her mind. Profit, that was what she should be thinking about, and it was the only thing she should be concerned about--for now.


Kirk arrived late for the 'little celebration.' The Zephyr crew was already gathered in Raile's quarters, seated at the table in one corner. Before joining them, Kirk took brief note of the austere furnishings, augmented by a display of various exotic weapons from throughout the galaxy. Kirk recognized a Klingon kh'uled, a Terran claymore, an Andorian flabbjellah and even a Vulcan lirpa. He turned away from the last, uncomfortable with the memories it evoked.

"Here, Kirk, try this." Donovan waved a bottle of green liquid in his direction, and Kirk moved to the table and the one empty chair there. He sat and reached for the glass the Irishman had just filled. Kirk took a careful sip of the smoky liquid and almost choked. Raile laughed and pounded him on the back.

"Takes a bit of getting used to," he commiserated. "I prefer the Saurian version myself, but this Gorn bilgewater is about all we're likely to get our hands on here--unless we can find an Orion ship."

"Yeah," Donovan agreed. "Besides you don't drink this stuff for the taste. It has the highest alcohol content of any consumable beverage known to man--or Gorn."

"If you can call this 'consumable,'" Kirk offered skeptically as he held his glass up to examine the suspicious drink.

Raile laughed again. "You'll get used to it." He turned to eye Nydor reflectively. The blue man had downed three glasses of the vile liquid during the course of the brief conversation and hadn't said a word. "Of course, you're unlikely to learn to like it. Nydor's the only non-Gorn I know of who does. You'll just learn to tolerate it--for the effects."

"Maybe," Kirk considered and then conceded, still doubtful. He eyed the deck of cards Donovan was ruffling idly. "Are we going to play? Or are you just practicing?"

It was all the invitation Donovan needed. "Seven-card stud," he announced and began to deal the cards.

After an hour, Kirk looked ruefully at the tall stack of poker chips in front of Nydor and the tiny one in front of himself. He realized he was feeling the effects of the intoxicant more than he liked, and they weren't particularly pleasant ones. Instead of feeling increasingly sociable, he was just getting more and more depressed. He finished the drink in his hand and set the glass on the table. When Donovan moved to refill the glass, however, Kirk stopped him.

"No, thanks. I think I've had enough tonight." He stood up. "Deal me out. I think I'll get some sleep." Before the others had a chance to object, he had already left Raile's cabin and started down the corridor. He started for his own quarters, then decided he didn't want to be alone with his thoughts right then. Already, the more potent effects of the Gorn intoxicant were easing off a little, leaving behind a lingering depression that wasn't likely to be conducive to a good night's sleep. He'd be better off finding something constructive to do with his time. Maybe Talya could use some help--or least company. He headed for the bridge.

Talya swiveled to face the bridge doors the second she heard them open, and raised one arched eyebrow in surprise when she saw Kirk standing there. For some reason, he found her expression disconcerting and felt like a small boy caught misbehaving by his mother.

"I didn't feel much like celebrating," he explained, sliding into the helm position. "Thought maybe you could use some help up here."

The second eyebrow joined the first. "I don't think you'll be of much use like that," she scoffed.

He colored. "I'm not drunk," he protested.

"No?" Her disapproval was obvious.

"No." Kirk stubbornly reached for one of the controls on his board and accidentally hit the wrong switch, causing the ship to shift a little in its gravitational field. The unexpected movement brought a brief wave of nausea to his stomach, but he brought it under control quickly. Just as quickly, he had the ship, too, back in control. Only then did he dare to raise his head to meet Talya's gaze. He felt more than ever like that small boy.

"You're certain you're not drunk?"

"Not now." It was true, too; he was completely sober--now--thanks to the shock of his mistake.

Talya chuckled softly at his embarrassment. "Maybe you'd better go sleep it off anyway. I can handle things better without your help tonight. You have my permission to return to your quarters."

Insulted by the arrogance of the statement, he wanted to argue with her, but thought better of it.

"Maybe you're right," he admitted sheepishly.

"I know I'm right," she answered, then waved him away in dismissal. "Go on, Kirk. Get out of here."

Shaking his head at his own stupidity, Kirk complied silently. The last thing he heard before the doors slid shut behind him was the sound of Talya's laughter. It made him want to go right back in there and shove her pretty little teeth right down her throat. Then he laughed himself when he realized that urge was the clearest indication of all that she was absolutely right in her assessment of his condition. He might not be falling-down drunk, but he had consumed sufficient alcohol for his judgment to be impaired, which meant he had no business anywhere near the ship's controls. He headed for his quarters.

"I'll just sleep it off," he muttered as he walked. "At least I'm not as drunk as the others will be by the time they quit. I won't be hung over tomorrow, and she'll need help by then. She can't work alone all night and then continue all day tomorrow while the rest of us nurse hangovers."

As he continued through the corridor, Kirk's earlier depression began to seep back into his mind once more, and he was briefly tempted to join the others again and seek oblivion in more cards and the Gorn liquor, even if he did end up with a whopper of a hangover the next day. He dismissed the idea, though, knowing it really wouldn't help.

Once inside his cabin, Kirk collapsed on the bunk and lay there staring at the ceiling, trying to keep his mind a blank so that the unwanted memories wouldn't make him even more despondent. The effects of the Gorn drink were almost gone now, their absence and Talya's condescending rebuke leaving behind an even deeper depression than before. He shut his eyes and tried to sleep, but the visions that formed behind his closed eyes forced him to open them again.

Sedola. He shivered. The word alone was enough to make him feel cold all the way down to his bones. Bones. He still remembered the pleading look on McCoy's face when the doctor had begged him to do something to save Spock, to return to the GX Andromedae system and engage the enemy ship in battle. But he had been able to do nothing, and it had been too much to bear, and so he had started to leave the bridge, but then he had found he couldn't leave. He was trapped, frozen in place...

Unable to escape the horror, held motionless by his own inability to act, Kirk remained facing the turbolift door as he heard the gasps and screams behind him and caught the reflective flash of the explosion on the main viewing screen. He just stood there, unable to leave and unable to turn around and face the horror that his inability to act had caused.

And yet, in the midst of all the horror, guilt and sorrow, somewhere, a small part of Kirk's brain remained functional. He realized that in seconds the aliens would turn their attention to the Enterprise and begin pursuit. The Federation starship was out of range for now, but they weren't likely to remain so for long. Kirk hadn't been able to help Spock, but he could save his ship and the rest of his crew. "Go, Sulu!" he ordered, and fled the bridge blindly.

He only regained awareness after he reached his quarters, realizing he had left no one in charge on the bridge, and that he couldn't bring himself to face the others right then. He reached for the intercom button.

"Kirk to Engineering." He hardly recognized as his own the voice that was hoarse with suppressed emotion.

"Engineering. Scott here. Cap'n, what's--"

"Not now, Scotty. I..." He hesitated, then blurted the order before he had time to seriously reconsider it. "You're in charge until further notice." Kirk paused again for a moment, then added. "We're already on a course back to Earth. Take us there, best speed."


Kirk broke the connection before the engineer could say anything more. Mercifully, Scott took the hint and didn't push the matter any further. Kirk had been tempted to remain in hiding all the way back to Earth, unwilling to face the questions and demands for answers he knew he would see in his crew's eyes even if they didn't speak them aloud. But the ghosts that haunted his cabin and his own sense of duty brought him out again within the hour. Luckily, no one challenged his actions openly, and he managed to avoid meeting anyone's gaze directly, so he never saw the unspoken questions.

On the Zephyr, Kirk opened his eyes again. He hadn't realized he had closed them; not really wanting to sleep. The memories crowded in on him then, tearing at him, leaving him feeling cold and alone as he had never been alone in his life.

The dreaded meeting with Komack had been almost a relief, but the real difficulty came when he left that inner office and found the most trusted members of his crew waiting for him, staring with eyes that seemed to stab at his heart. He had shifted his own gaze away from them, but not before reading the various emotions in their eyes. McCoy's were filled with anger, Uhura's with a compassionate sorrow, and Christine Chapel's held something very close to hatred. The others showed only confusion and a dying hope.

"There'll be no court-martial," he'd told them and left. It was the last he saw of them, maybe the last he would ever see.

Again, Kirk remembered the expressions he had seen only briefly in their eyes. Even with his own wide open, he kept seeing them...staring...accusing. He hadn't realized how damning his behavior throughout the entire mess would appear to the others until later, until he saw their eyes. Then he saw one other pair of eyes, dark brown, filled with only love and understanding.

"Spock!" the cry was torn from his throat. In desperation, he turned over onto his stomach and covered his head with both arms. He lay there a long time, dry-eyed, face buried in the pillow, before he finally drifted off to sleep again--dreamlessly this time.


Kirk was already at the helm the following morning when Raile arrived on the bridge. The commander was bleary-eyed and pasty-faced. His skin-tone clashed horribly with his usual flamboyant color scheme--burnt orange, neon yellow and hot pink today. Kirk wondered idly if Raile might be color blind. The commander groaned, and Kirk felt tempted to echo the sound. He hadn't drunk enough of the Gorn intoxicant to cause a hangover, but the aftereffects of his own, restless night were almost as painful.

"Was there a hangover remedy in those medical supplies?" Raile asked Talya, his voice a barely intelligible harsh whisper as though anything louder was an occurrence devoutly to be avoided.

"No, but I can mix one up for you," she offered deadpan.

He grimaced. "Thanks," he growled. "I'd appreciate it."

Talya slid from her seat and left the bridge, surprising Kirk with another wink as she passed him. Kirk's puzzled gaze followed her, watching the way her hips swayed in her typical, form-fitting black pants. She hadn't cracked a smile during the entire exchange, and yet he could feel her amusement the entire time, as obvious as if she had been grinning from ear to ear--even before that wink. Something about that raised eyebrow...

"You were smart to go to bed when you did," Raile interrupted the unfinished thought. "Too much brandy is hell the morning after, and Talya's 'remedies' are almost worse than the symptoms they're designed to cure. Sometimes I think she actually enjoys making me suffer. Donovan tells me the old man could be a bit sadistic at times; maybe Talya's his daughter in more ways than one."

"Then why bother?"

Raile shrugged, then winced. "As noxious as they are, they do work. Like I said, mornings after are hell."

"I know. I've indulged enough myself at times," Kirk admitted with a sympathetic grin. "Just wasn't in the mood last night though."

Raile shrugged again, knowing better to question his new helmsman about his 'mood'. "You're free to join us or not as you please, Kirk. Talya usually doesn't. Apparently, she's unable to feel the effects of alcohol herself, and she really doesn't understand the attraction intoxicants of any kind have for the rest of us, although she does join us on rare occasions. Personally, I think she likes watching us make fools of ourselves...more of that sadism, I guess. As for the rest of us, like all Irishmen, Donovan's in line whenever a bottle's opened, and I'm usually not far behind," he admitted with a self-deprecating grin.


Raile shrugged again. "Nydor's hard to figure sometimes. He drinks like a fish, even more than Donovan, but it rarely seems to affect him. And usually when it does, it happens all of a sudden, without warning. Frankly, I don't really think it's the alcohol that affects him, but rather something in certain mixtures that reacts to his physiology--or maybe it's something else again, something cyclical in his make-up--who knows?"

"Exactly what is his physiology?" Kirk couldn't resist the opportunity to satisfy at least a little of his natural curiosity. There was something intriguing about the big blue man.

Raile laughed heartily. "To be honest, I don't know myself. There's Andorian blood there, but I'm not quite sure what else--and I'm not sure I really want to know. We may be better off not knowing," he added cryptically, then sobered briefly. "We're a strange crew, Kirk," he admitted. "You, Donovan and I are pretty much alike, all basically Human, although he was born and raised on Centaurus, and if the people of my planet have any ties to your Earth it's so far back in our prehistory that no one remembers anything about it--not even in legend."

"The Preservers?"

"I don't know. Perhaps." He grinned. "Then again, maybe my planet is the homeworld and we colonized Earth."

"Maybe. I don't think that's likely, but I wouldn't rule it out. All scientific evidence points to the likelihood that Human life is indigenous to Earth, but I learned a long time ago not to take anything for granted. What about Talya?" The question was casual...too casual.

"I don't know," Raile again seemed unsure about his facts. "From what Donovan's told me and the holos I've seen, she doesn't bear a lot of physical resemblance to her father, except for the coloring, although she apparently gets her somewhat warped sense of humor, hair-trigger temper and thirst for adventure from him. He was a big man, dark like Talya, but big boned, a little coarser featured. And his temper was legendary. Talya controls hers most of the time, but they say her father rarely made any effort to master his. If you crossed him, no matter how trivial the matter, he would just as soon hit you as look at you--and just as soon shoot you as hit you. Apparently, Talya was the only exception. No one ever saw him so much as raise a hand to her--whatever the provocation...and, man, can that woman be provoking when she wants to be.

"Anyway," he continued, "Donovan says the old man never talked about where either he or his late wife came from. He spent a lot of time entertaining both his daughter and his crew with what were probably highly exaggerated tales of his many reputed exploits both on the fringe of and clearly outside the law. But, somehow, he never really talked much about himself personally at all, seemed somehow to feel as though it was beneath him to explain too much to simple crewmen. In fact, besides the certainty that he was a true pirate for years before making an agreement with the Gorn to help them fight off the Orions, all we know about him for sure is that he wasn't Human, not truly, although he looked it. Talya herself doesn't talk about him, or about her mother either. I do know she was said to be even more alien than the old man and that she died years ago, when Talya was just a small child, two or three years old, but I don't really know anything more about her at all. No one who knew her is still around, except for Talya herself, and she won't discuss either one of her parents."

Kirk digested that information, then deliberately changed the subject. "About that Gorn ship..."

"What about it?" Raile asked warily.

"Why did you destroy it?" Kirk was careful to keep any hint of judgment out of his voice.

Still, Raile hesitated to answer him. He eyed Kirk carefully, then he shrugged. "You might as well know. Our contract allows us to take anything we find on such derelicts, but we're understandably prohibited from interfering with the Gorn themselves in any way."

"So?" Kirk prompted when Raile seemed reluctant to continue. His explanation hadn't really explained anything so far. The Zephyr crew hadn't harmed any of the Gorn ship's crew. They had all been dead long before the sleek privateer arrived in the vicinity.

"So...there was something missing from that ship," Raile continued his explanation, "and we would have had a hard time accounting for its absence if it were ever discovered."

"What was missing?" Kirk asked, speculating over the possibilities, "Dilithium, weaponry, military documents..."

"Their captain."

"What?" That was the last thing Kirk had expected to hear.

"The Gorn captain." Raile paused. "I was acquainted with him. He wasn't there."

"Where was he?"

Raile shrugged again. "No idea. And Talya was right, Jim. There really was nothing wrong with that ship, and no sign as to how the crew died. It was like the life had just been drained out of them. Although we had nothing to do with whatever happened, I'd rather not have to explain any of this mess to the Gorn. They like mysteries even less than I do. It was easier just to salvage anything that's not traceable and then destroy the rest."

"I see." He sounded doubtful.

"Yeah, well..."

The conversation ended abruptly when the bridge doors slid open, and Talya stepped through, carrying a tumbler with a noxious looking concoction that made Kirk cringe involuntarily. He was glad he didn't need a hangover remedy himself. To Raile's credit, though, the commander took the glass and downed it quickly while Talya slid a bit too innocently into her chair at Kirk's side, running a quick check over her instruments. She kept her eyes so carefully averted that Kirk became instantly suspicious. He'd be willing to bet that the active ingredients in that 'remedy' weren't really unpleasant at all, and that Talya added the other just for the fun of it.

Dismissing the idea as unimportant, Kirk turned his attention back to his own helm board, puzzling over Raile's comments. Obviously, their conversation was over for now. He hadn't learned much about his fellow crewmen, not nearly as much as he'd hoped. There was a mystery attached to each of them, and he wasn't sure he cared for the idea. For one thing, exactly who wasTalya's father? Or rather, what? Kirk didn't like mysteries much himself. Of course, he couldn't really object to their secrets when he had more than enough of his own. But he didn't know how much he could count on any of them in a crunch, and that bothered him, more than a little. He was used to a crew he could trust implicitly, all the way to hell and back if it were necessary.

Again, his gaze slid to Talya, and he amended the thought, although he wasn't quite sure why. Despite her mysterious background, her youth, temper, quirky sense of humor and obvious enjoyment for the life she led, somehow, he just knew he could depend on her. His instincts about people had always been good, and he was convinced he was right this time, too. There was something inherently trustworthy about the alien woman, something vaguely familiar somehow...if he could just figure out what it was. But the peculiar combination of her dual heritage made it virtually impossible to ascertain what she had inherited from whom--and what the original combinations had looked like. It was a puzzle he was determined to solve. A hair-trigger temper, usually under control, and that knife...


Commander Spock was dragged unceremoniously from a deep sleep by a dozen, snake-like limbs encircling his own arms and legs and forcing him to stand. He faced his captors stoically, as he had each time since that first confrontation a few weeks earlier. He had relived his sudden capture over and over again in his mind, and still he had trouble understanding it. One minute, he had been discussing some data with the scientists at the Sedola Outpost on the moon orbiting the third planet of the star, GX Andromedae. The next...

The thing that impressed Spock the most about Sedola was the incredible silence. Established in the harsh environment of the GX Andromedae Three moon, the scientific facilities were all constructed beneath a gigantic transparent aluminum dome. Inside that dome, both scientists and equipment were protected from the elements, but the super-strong structure also kept out any atmospheric sound. As for the scientists, they went about their appointed duties, seldom exchanging any verbal communication at all. But every time Spock lowered his shields even a little bit, he was bombarded by an astonishing array of telepathic 'noise' that forced him back behind his own mental barriers at the first opportunity. Powerful telepaths, even by Vulcan standards, the Sedolans had chosen to separate themselves from their homeworld in the 40 Eridani system and establish their own mobile scientific community, traveling the galaxy to study unusual or otherwise significant scientific phenomena wherever they might be found. Completely devoted to their scientific research, the Sedolans had developed a means of communication that was just one step short of complete group consciousness. Their minds were open to each other at all times, allowing any one of them to tap into any of the others' memories to retrieve information he or she might need. It was an efficient means of sharing the astonishing amount of scientific data amassed by the Sedolans, but the effect was quite disconcerting to someone trained since childhood in the techniques of blocking random telepathic transmissions.

Spock stood to one side, observing, as the scientists completed their latest experiment, when suddenly, the Sedolans simultaneously exhibited signs of distress. Although Spock's shields prevented him from detecting whatever had disturbed them, he picked up some of their sense of urgency. Before he could lower his shields, or the others could act in any manner, the entire outpost seemed to shimmer around him as though he were being caught up in a transporter beam.

His next awareness was of being enclosed in a huge vessel of some kind. Before he could focus on his surroundings, the piercing agony of a hundred shrieking mental voices shot through his mind, bringing him to his knees. When the pain faded, he shook his head slowly and looked up to find himself surrounded by immense creatures.

Although he had never before seen them in reality, it took him only a split second to recognize the huge, hundred-tentacled creatures. He remembered well the baffling vision he had seen three years earlier when Jim had asked him to attempt telepathic contact with Kelinda. Obviously, he had been right in his supposition at that time. These creatures were Kelvans in their natural form; he knew it as surely as if they had come right out and admitted to it. The being before him held him prisoner with a device similar to that used earlier by Rojan and his followers to paralyze the Enterprise crew.

His captor opened what had to be his mouth and made a sound that emerged as nothing more than mere garble to Spock. The Vulcan rose to his feet and shook his head again, to indicate his lack of understanding. Obviously, the creature was attempting to tell him what it wanted, but the Vulcan wasn't equipped with a translator and couldn't understand the Kelvan language. The alien spoke in a harsh, guttural language, punctuated by clicks and hisses, that was indecipherable to Spock. It waved several of its tentacles in gestures apparently meant to illustrate its speech, its four eye-stalks moving about in a similar motion. None of it made any sense to the Vulcan.

In an effort to understand, Spock reached out with his mind, much as he had with Kelinda. Once again, he wasn't completely successful, still able to detect only fleeting glimpses of visual images. While incomplete, however, these glimpses were a little clearer than those he had received when he had tried to touch Kelinda's mind years earlier.

The Vulcan recoiled from those images instinctively and had to exert extraordinary control to avoid showing the gesturing Kelvan how strongly it had affected him. As his mind had touched the alien's, Spock had seen himself, not as he was now, but rather as he had been more than two years earlier. He had also seen Kelinda and Rojan, Jim and Doctor McCoy and several others from the Enterprise crew. He wondered how these Kelvans might have such complete visual images of people they had never met.

What Spock saw next, both explained that mystery and added to his growing distress over it. These huge leathery beings had settled down to enjoy a meal, eating some form of meat, gnawing on long, rounded bones, their strong, pointed teeth ripping the raw flesh away in long, sinewy strips. It was a vision that the vegetarian, Spock found repugnant in itself. His recognition of what kind of meat the invaders were eating--and subsequent hypothesis as to why--was the final factor that caused him to abandon for several days all attempts to communicate with these particular Kelvans.

He could only be thankful that the Kelvans the Enterprise crew had met three years earlier had forsaken most of their natural customs along with their original forms. He was glad Jim Kirk and the others had been spared this knowledge about the invaders from the Andromeda Galaxy--especially Jim, who, predictably, had found his self-assigned task of charming the beautiful Kelinda all too comfortable. What would he have comfortable would he have been, had he known the truth about her people?

Then Spock wondered if his friends had any awareness of the fate of Rojan and his people. He hoped not. Although he firmly believed in the doctrine of IDIC, he had never expected to encounter an intelligent species capable of devouring another merely to expand its knowledge through the ingestion of memory RNA. This...incomprehensible practice strongly tested his Vulcan ideals as far as the Kelvans were concerned.

He hoped he never would face such a challenge again.

Spock finally managed to control his revulsion at the images, primarily by raising his shields to block out the images once more. When he failed to respond to his captors' continued efforts to communicate with him, they moved him to a small room and left him there alone. He remained in solitude for several days. His only contact with another living being were the daily visits from a guard who provided him with food. Finally, he was taken back to the original room and led to face the Kelvan he knew instinctively was the leader.

Another of the creatures attempted once more to speak to him, but again, Spock was unable to understand what was said. They wanted something from him, but what?

"I am unable to understand you," he said when the creature finally stopped talking. "I cannot comprehend your language."

The creatures' eye-stalks twisted and turned, and then the one who had spoken before turned to the leader and spoke again in the strange language that Spock couldn't understand.

He does not understand us. Why did we travel so far to find one who cannot even understand us?

Tejan flicked a tentacle. He is of a species that can communicate with the young ones. We have need of him.

But if he cannot understand us--

Enough! Tejan interrupted. He communicated with our brothers who are no more, while others of his kind communicate with the young ones. That is why I have sought him out. If he could speak with them, he will learn to communicate with us and can serve as a bridge between us and the small ones.

It was our brothers who learned his language, another Kelvan interjected.

Tejan twisted his eye-stalks to look first at his crewman and then at Spock. He appeared to consider for a moment, then he opened his mouth once more. This time he spoke Federation English. The language was stilted and formal, heavily accented with the inevitable hisses and clicks, but at least Spock could understand. He wondered idly where they had learned English and why they hadn't used it before. Then he dismissed the thought as he remembered those earlier images again and realized he didn't really want to know how they learned the language.

"We have chosen you to serve," the Kelvan said. "You will care for the younglings until we have need of them."

"Younglings?" Spock repeated, an eyebrow elevated in surprise. He started to ask for an explanation, but the Kelvans were through talking for now. One of the creatures surrounded him with tentacles clasped around each of his limbs, and led him quickly through the corridors of the ship. The huge passageways twisted and turned as they moved from one section of the ship to another. Spock realized that the vessel was constructed as a cluster of independent pods, each of which could be separated from the rest in case of emergency. Before he could hypothesize anything more about the ship's design, Spock was shoved through a final portal into a last pod that seemed to be constructed somewhat less sturdily than the rest of the ship. It had probably been designed as some kind of cargo hold, as it consisted of a single, huge compartment. But it wasn't the design that held Spock's attention now. It was the "cargo."

As soon as the Kelvans closed the doorway behind him, Spock was surrounded by a dozen small humanoid creatures all bombarding him with their unintelligible thoughts and unendurable emotions. He realized that these were the younglings mentioned by the Kelvans, and understood why the Kelvans needed his assistance. The pre-pubescent creatures were obviously in need of someone to control them, keeping them calm and under control. But why were they here, and why had he been chosen to care for them?

Spock was no closer to an answer than he had been at that first confrontation. He knew now who his fellow captives were, and he had easily established communications with them, but he still didn't understand why any of them were on the Kelvan ship. He faced the Kelvans and waited, wondering if perhaps they might volunteer some information this time. The leader, who Spock had come to know was named Tejan, opened its mouth to speak. Suddenly, the Vulcan found himself wishing illogically that it would remain silent.


"There's a ship ahead, Raile," Talya reported one morning after several boring days of inaction. "It's two and a half parsecs away and approaching fast."

"Any indication of what kind?" Raile demanded.

"No, not yet. It's still too far away. I'll scan as soon as they're close enough." Her tone was clipped and precise, and her demeanor completely professional as her gaze slid back and forth across her board, carefully checking all the instruments there as she waited for the proper moment to begin scanning.

Kirk watched her and pondered her swift changes in mood, perplexed by them. One moment Talya was teasing Raile or one of the other crewmen as though she truly were the kid sister he had described her as. The next she was all seriousness, her attention fully concentrated on her duties, as now. Then suddenly, with no warning at all, her eyes would flash emerald fire, and Kirk would get a brief glimpse of that temper Raile had warned him about. He hadn't seen it in action yet, but he had seen enough to have a pretty good idea what it would be like, and he vowed never to provoke it unnecessarily.

"Orions," Talya declared now, drawing Kirk's attention back to the present.

"You're sure?" Raile asked.

"Yes, it's just a small ship, though," she amended, her voice matter-of-fact, although her eyes betrayed her excitement in expectation of the confrontation to come. "They shouldn't give us much trouble."

Raile pressed a button on his command chair. "Donovan, Nydor, report to the bridge--now! Orions ahead."

"On our way, boss," came Donovan's cheerful reply.

Kirk sat up a little straighter in his chair, feeling his heartbeat and respiration quicken in anticipation of the battle. He didn't doubt that was what it would be. There could be no other interpretation of the exchange between Raile and Talya.

"Ready, Kirk?"

"Ready," he answered, and the moment he spoke the words Kirk knew they were the truth. He was looking forward to the skirmish with a desire for blood that disturbed him more than a little, but he could almost hear McCoy explaining it. You need something to fight back against, Jim, something tangible. The Orions were certainly tangible enough, but was the explanation sufficient? He wasn't sure, and a part of him knew he'd have to come to terms with what he was about to do and his enthusiasm for it--but later. For now, he simply enjoyed it.

There was a tension on the bridge that seemed to hold them all captive as they waited, cloaked, for the Orion ship to fall into their trap. Kirk's hands darted across his board, hovering alternately over the helm controls and those of the weapon system that were side by side. His fingers twitched slightly, and he realized he was unsure whether it was in dread or anticipation. Again, he pushed the thought back into the recesses of his mind, unwilling to examine it too closely.

"Now!" Raile shouted, and they emerged from their cloak, Kirk firing the phaser banks at the instant the power came available. That first shot caught a glancing blow off the Orion ship not far from its engine, and the ship lurched awkwardly in the vacuum of space.

"Careful," Raile spoke the warning softly. "Don't hit those engines. We don't want to lose the cargo."

Kirk cautiously aimed the phasers for a second barrage at the enemy vessel, directing them away from both the powerful engines and the valuable cargo hold. He concentrated on what he needed to miss, refusing to allow himself to think about exactly what it was that he was firing at. He pressed the button, and the phasers stretched outward from their own ship to the Orion one, their lethal power virtually bouncing off the hull this time now that the pirates had had a chance to raise their shields. It wasn't a harmless bouncing, however. Though up, the shields were weak, and some of the firepower managed to break through, causing the Orion vessel to shudder in reaction to the impact.

Kirk fired the phasers again, deliberately aiming for the Orions' own weapons this time, intent on taking them out and thus increasing the Zephyr's advantage. But he found the shields were strongest there and shifted his target to a weaker point. Before he could press the phaser button this time, however, the pirates returned fire. The Zephyr's shields held, but barely, and the vessel lurched in response to the counterattack. Kirk held onto his board with both hands to keep from being thrown to the floor, then he freed one hand and pushed the button yet again.

The shot went wide this time, the Orions' counterattack having thrown the Zephyr just enough off its previous course to negate Kirk's earlier, carefully calculated aim. He made the necessary adjustments and prepared to fire again, but once more the Orions fired first.

Suddenly, Talya's navigation board exploded in a brilliant shower of sparks. She gasped at the pain and jerked her hand backward, away from the crackling board. Her movement wasn't quite quick enough, though, and the sparks ignited the sleeve of her silken shirt. Painful flames quickly licked along her right hand and arm, consuming the fabric and searing the skin beneath.

"Kirk! See to her!" Raile shouted, and Kirk obeyed instantly, instinctively. He moved quickly to the injured woman's side, yanking his bright green tunic over his head. He wrapped it hurriedly around Talya's arm to extinguish the flickering flames before they did any permanent damage to her flesh. Then he grabbed the emergency medical kit from its storage place between the two consoles and reached for her arm. He peripherally noticed that Raile had slid into the helm position when he had gone to Talya's aid, taking over the weapons controls to continue the battle while Kirk concentrated on helping the wounded woman.

Kirk didn't see the Orions' next shot coming. He didn't hear it either, but he felt it the second it slammed into the Zephyr. Excruciating pain sliced through his entire body at the same instant he took Talya's right arm, intending to examine her injuries. He doubled over in involuntary reaction, and she jerked instantaneously away from him. The pain immediately receded a little, only to return as suddenly and nauseatingly when he reached again to help her.

"No!" she ordered, eyes wide and pupils dilated with some strong emotion he couldn't quite decipher. Pain? Anger? Fear? "Don't touch me!"

"I have to, in order to help you, and I'm going to help you whether you like it or not!" he retorted, teeth gritted against both the pain he couldn't quite seem to focus on and an unreasoning anger that made no sense at all. He glanced down at his own body, searching quickly, cursorily for some sign of injury severe enough to account for the agony that held him in its grip, but he couldn't find any such indication. That just made him madder, but he decided any injuries he had sustained must be internal, perhaps some kind of electrical shock from the still sparking controls. Then he realized that wasn't it at all. His earlier speculation had been correct. She was a touch telepath, and both the pain and anger he was experiencing were in reality hers. He dismissed them both, along with his own impatience, and turned his attention to spraying first the antiseptic/antibiotic, then a plastiskin over Talya's burned hand and arm.

Talya's injuries were angry-looking, the damaged skin changing color. But it was not red, more of a deep bronze color, not quite brown with a hint of something else there, something he should recognize but didn't. Distracted by the pain, it took all his concentration to take care of her wounds; he had none left over to solve the riddle of what color her injured skin was.

Just as Kirk finished spraying the plastiskin onto Talya's injured hand and released her, regaining just a little control over his own pain and anger, another unexpected bolt from the Orion ship struck the Zephyr, grabbing hold of the smaller vessel like some gigantic hand and then shaking it like a baby's rattle. Suddenly, another explosion rocked the bridge.

Caught in the motion of turning away from Talya, Kirk was thrown heavily back against her chair and barely managed to keep himself from falling. Struggling to regain his balance on the pitching bridge, he turned to face his own station just in time to see the helm controls explode in an even greater shower of sparks than Talya's board had a moment earlier. The explosion hit Raile with a blast of fire that instantly consumed his colorful garb and charred the skin of his face and upper torso. Raile screamed in agony, then collapsed against the still crackling board, smoldering bits of blackened fabric clinging to the burned flesh beneath. At that moment, the ship seemed to tilt, the artificial gravity flickering a bit to the acute discomfort of the disoriented crew inside. The others watched, stunned, as Raile's body slid awkwardly out of the chair and onto the deck in front of the helm. Still holding onto the back of Talya's chair in an effort to maintain his balance in the shifting universe, Kirk stared at Raile in horror for just a moment, then let go of the navigation seat and stumbled back to his own station to unceremoniously shove Raile's body out of the way.

Kirk settled back in his chair and returned his attention to the board to examine the helm controls warily, wondering if he dared touch them. Realizing they were all doomed if he couldn't regain some mastery over the out-of-control ship, he swallowed his own fear and reached for the instruments. He released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding in a sigh of relief when the controls didn't explode in his own face, then focused all of his concentration on the job at hand. His fingers instinctively glided over the board almost with a will of their own, as though in a dream, and the Zephyr responded, sluggishly, but definitely.

As he felt the gravity system finally stabilizing, Kirk shouted over his shoulder. "Get those shields up, Nydor!"

"They are not responding," the huge alien answered.

"Get them up!" Kirk repeated. "I don't give a damn how you do it, just do it. We're sitting ducks like this--dead ducks."

Kirk didn't have to wait to see if Nydor would obey his order; he was too busy himself at that point, monitoring his helm controls while at the same time trying frantically to anticipate the Orions' next move.

"Damn!" he muttered under his breath. "How the hell did the green bastards react so quickly?"

Out of the corner of his left eye, Kirk saw Talya working just as fiercely with her own damaged navigation board, her face an intense mask of non-expression as she desperately fought to get the vital controls back on line. Pausing to glare at the station, she slammed her uninjured hand against the board impotently, winced and then dropped to her knees to examine the dangling connections, all the time muttering something about "dirty Orion pigs" just beneath her breath.

"Leave that thing alone," Kirk ordered her. "You'll just get hurt again; it's too badly damaged."

"No more so than yours is," she retorted angrily, not even sparing him a glance as she abruptly reached beneath the console with both hands, injured or not, to forcibly shove a set of computerized circuits back into place. "If I can get the damned cloak to operate..."

Damn! Why didn't I think of that? The answer came to him in a microsecond, and Kirk dismissed it just as quickly. He didn't have any more time than that to contemplate his failure to remember the possibilities of something he wasn't used to having available.

Talya finally forced the circuits into their proper configuration and tried her controls again.

Kirk felt a slight, barely perceptible shimmering, then realized the cloak was engaged. He reached again for his own controls, shifting the course of the ship just enough, he hoped, to fool the Orions. He knew he couldn't change the Zephyr's heading a full one hundred eighty degrees, or even ninety; the Orions might guess at either of those more predictable directions. Instead, he haphazardly picked a new course at random somewhere in between those other, more logical coordinates, hoping that he could force the limping ship out of the Orions' range before the pirates guessed their new direction.

The Zephyr turned with agonizing slowness, metal seeming to shriek in protest as engines and ship were forced into maneuvers for which they had never been designed. But the ship moved away from the Orions--admittedly with an equally sluggish speed, but at least it was moving.

On the viewscreen, Kirk and his comrades watched as the confused Orions hesitated for a moment, then appeared to pick a new direction of their own at random in an attempt to relocate their wily adversaries. Luckily for the Zephyr, they chose the wrong direction. Not willing to take a chance that they might guess again and guess right that time, Kirk kept the protesting ship moving, taking it as far away as possible from the Orions--as quickly as he could.

He heard a movement to one side and turned his head to see Talya kneeling on the floor at Raile's side, face set, swearing softly but emphatically beneath her breath. She held in her uninjured, but trembling left hand the same medical kit that he had used to treat her earlier. Only then did he realize that his own almost debilitating pain had disappeared sometime during the battle, just as abruptly as it had first appeared. The sudden appearance and disappearance confirmed his earlier suspicions, but he still didn't have the time to think about it. Instead, he turned his attention back to his controls and continued his efforts to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Orion pirates.

A few moments later, Kirk realized that the movements to his right had stopped. As a wave of aching depression swept over him, he knew instantly, instinctively what that lack of urgency meant. He had known all along, from the moment he had first shoved Raile's body aside, but he hadn't allowed himself to think about it until now. "He's dead, isn't he?" he questioned unnecessarily.

"Yes." Talya's voice was carefully neutral, but so soft Kirk barely heard. He turned to look at her, only then seeing the silent tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Damn!" He hesitated a moment, then--"Donovan, get him off the bridge; Nydor, you see how much power you can get us out of those engines--and how soon. We need to find a planet with a proper repair yard and soon. I don't like hanging around here with anything less than our full capabilities. We're too vulnerable."

"We must disengage the cloak first," the big, blue alien said as he and Donovan moved without hesitation to obey Kirk's order. "It is draining what power we have.

"Yes," Kirk agreed and turned to Talya. "Check your sensors. Make sure the Orions aren't still around somewhere."

The woman responded instantly. She surreptitiously wiped the uncharacteristic tears from her cheeks with her uninjured hand as she left Donovan to deal with Raile's still form. She returned to her station and checked the readings on the instruments. Her brief emotional response was hidden again now, her expression even more stoic than usual. But Kirk could sense, almost physically feel, the waves of anger and pain sweeping out from her.

"They're no longer within sensor range," she informed Kirk a moment later in a voice still carefully controlled. Although he still perceived the teeming emotion just beneath that thin veneer of control, he allowed her the dignity of her pretense.

"All right, disengage cloak then," he ordered, and she obeyed without hesitation. Only then did he fully realize that he had been issuing orders ever since Raile fell. He hadn't even thought about it, just did it, as instinctively as breathing.

Kirk turned to Talya. "Do you want to take over?" he asked, not bothering to explain what he meant.

"No!" she snapped, then deliberately, visibly reined in her temper. "I don't command well," she explained, obviously understanding--and rejecting--his offer, even without the explanation. "You do."

Their eyes met and held as the uncomfortable silence stretched between them. Finally--"It's my fault he's dead," he offered in apology. "If I hadn't abandoned my post--"

"You were helping me." She would have none of his sympathy.

"Yes, but it was my responsibility to remain at my position, do my job, not abandon it to take care of someone's non-critical injuries."

She sighed, clearly impatient with his attitude. "They wouldn't have been non-critical if you hadn't put that fire out when you did, and you couldn't have known how serious they were until you checked. Besides, you were just following orders. Raile told you to help me."

"Yeah, so I leave my post to take care of you and put Raile at risk, deadly risk." He turned away from her, busying himself at his board as the guilt began to build inside him.

There was a brief moment of silence, broken by Talya's deliberately even voice. "As a helmsman, Kirk, you make an excellent commander," she told him cryptically.

His head jerked back to face her again, shocked surprise written clearly across his haggard features. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he demanded angrily.

"Whatever the hell you want it to!" Her own temper flared briefly, then she stopped and turned away, breathing deeply to regain control before facing him again. "You did as you were ordered," she told him, calm now. Her eyes held his steadily, and there was a maturity in both her words and her manner that he had never fully realized before. All signs of her earlier anger carefully under control. "Your commander directed you to help me, and you did so. If there's anyone to blame, it's Raile himself. He gave the order. If you had been in command, you might have acted differently, but you weren't, so we'll never know what you would have done under the same circumstances. And," she added, "you can't take responsibility for the command decision you didn't make."

He opened his mouth to argue with her further, then closed it again. What was the point? She was right. He had followed orders, and that was the appropriate action for him at the time. He hadn't been in command, so the responsibility for that decision wasn't his. He felt the guilt drain out of his body, then tensed again. He hadn't been in command, but now she wanted him to take over. Did he want to? Did he have any choice?

"And who'll steer the ship?" he asked her.

"Whoever you order to do so."

Kirk stared at Talya a long moment, still resistant, wanting, in a perverse way needing to continue the argument, but she just stood there, glaring at him, refusing to budge from her position, or her opinion. He shrugged his broad shoulders, surrendering to the inevitable. She was right, and he knew it, no matter how strong the urge to deny it. He would continue to handle the helm for now, until Nydor could leave the engines. Then he'd turn the controls back over to the alien until they could reach a port and find a suitable--or even not so suitable, if necessary--replacement helmsman. Pirating--privateering, he corrected the thought--was dangerous business; you lost a lot of crewmen in it. He wondered if there was any real difference between pirates and privateers. He understood the legal significance of the two terms, but to him that was little more than a technicality. Was there any true difference, morally and ethically, between those who killed and plundered outside the law and those who operated nominally within it, but did the same deeds? Somehow, Kirk didn't think so. He laughed suddenly, without humor, drawing Talya's attention. One eyebrow lifted in query.

"It just occurred to me," he explained. "The entire time we were fighting, I was thinking of the Orions as pirates, and we're just as much pirates as they are. After all, we attacked them."

Talya glared at him a second and then turned back to her board, something in her posture making him uneasy. When she didn't say anything for several minutes, he began to breathe more easily. Suddenly, she shifted in his direction, and he knew he hadn't escaped her wrath after all.

"We are privateers, not pirates," she insisted, teeth clenched and eyes spitting green fire at him as though he had touched some hitherto hidden nerve. "Our actions were well defined within the terms of our agreement with the Gorn. We only attack those who have no rights to their cargo. We don't harm the innocent like those green bastards do."

"Robin Hood," Kirk muttered.

"Who's that?" Talya asked, obviously puzzled by what appeared to her an irrelevant reference. Kirk was perplexed, too. He hadn't thought he spoke loudly enough for her to hear.

He shrugged. "An old Earth legend," he explained. "A thief who took from the rich and gave to the poor."

"We don't give to anyone but ourselves," she scoffed, not even seeing the contradictions in her attitude.

"Not quite an accurate analogy then." He attempted a grin, briefly amused at the peculiar ethics of Talya and her crew, but it turned into more of a grimace. "Never mind. Just plot a course for the nearest planet with a repair yard. We need to get this ship back in condition before we try to take on anyone else."

"You will remain with us?" Talya asked, unsure suddenly. "You'll take command, won't you?"

He faced her again, trying to read her unfathomable expression. There was fear and concern for her ship and crew there briefly before she managed to draw her mask back into place--fear and concern, and something else he couldn't quite decipher. He sighed.

"Yes, Talya. I'll stay, and I'll take command, too, if that's what you want. But all of you have to agree on that--Donovan and Nydor, as well as you--or I won't do it."

"It is my ship."

"Maybe," he acknowledged, "but I won't command a crew that doesn't want me. Either they agree, or you'll have to find someone else to act as your captain--or do it yourself."

"No, I can't do that." She shook her head, once again adamant about that. She turned back to her board again, dismissing the matter for the present. "We'll discuss it with them when we reach port. There's an outpost at 679 Andromedae; we should be able to get the necessary repairs done there. You'll command until then." It wasn't a question.

Kirk sighed again. Who commands the commander? he asked himself idly, then dismissed the whimsical thought. What did it matter anyway?

"All right. I'll command until we reach port. But then we discuss it." He wouldn't give an inch on that one.

"Then we discuss it," she agreed readily, but he could tell that her mind was already made up, and she had no doubt she would be able to convince him. And deep inside, he knew would, too.


Talya paced in her quarters, eight steps in one direction, six in the next, another eight and six more, and she was right back where she had started, still seething. She examined the burns on her injured hand, wishing they would heal quickly, wishing she knew how...

She dismissed that thought. Talya had long ago given up any hopes she might have once had of learning that particular skill, just as she'd given up all hope of really learning any of her mother's mental disciplines. It was all she could manage to master her own temper--most of the time--and block out all but the most intense emotions emitted by those around her--again, most of the time. Her mother had only barely begun her lessons when she died.

"Meditation is the first step, my child. You must learn to be calm, in control of your emotions."

"You never get angry," the child accused.

The corners of the woman's mouth relaxed into the nearest thing to a smile she ever offered. "You have much to learn, my daughter. Anger, like all emotion, is not something to be avoided, but merely something to be controlled. You will always feel emotions, but you must learn how to control them, how to channel them into productive areas. Most importantly, you must prevent them from controlling you."

"But how, Mother. How do I control my emotions?"

"You will learn in time. The first step is to calm your mind, to empty it of anything that distracts you from your purpose..."

The lessons had ended abruptly, far too soon, when there had no longer been anyone available to teach her, and she hadn't been able to learn the disciplines on her own. So, when the urge...the need to use those skills she couldn't quite master became too great, she paced. Talya paced a lot. She had taken those same twenty-eight steps so many times, it was a wonder she hadn't worn a trench in the deck--metaphorically speaking of course. Her father had often teased her about her habit of pacing and her only marginally successful efforts to control her temper. He would laugh and tell her it was a waste of energy, that it would do her more good to just let loose and scream, or throw something, or hit somebody. He never quite understood how badly she wanted to be more like her mother--serene, logical...

"I still don't understand," the child protested. "You're never angry. Never."

The woman allowed a small sigh to escape, and the child's eyes widened in surprise as she sensed a brief, swiftly controlled impatience. Staring hard at her mother, the girl whispered, "Are you mad at me now?"

"No. I am not angry. Perhaps a little irritated, but not truly angry. The important thing is that whatever I feel, I am able to control it, just as you will learn to do. Someday you will be as calm. You will learn to control your passions with logic."

Talya whirled around and stared defiantly at the chest against the far wall, then moved stiffly across the room to open the top drawer and withdraw a little box, opening it and watching as the holographic image popped up. She gazed at the couple depicted there, at the man's broad laughing face and the woman's solemn one. She had only a child's memories of the woman and often felt she had never truly known the man although she had inherited his temper, followed him around the galaxy, mimicked his humor and mannerisms and adopted both his profession and his philosophy as her own. She hadn't really had much choice. She couldn't successfully emulate her mother; that left only her father. It never occurred to her that she could be something entirely different from either of them, something unique to herself.

Replacing the box, she went to her bed and settled there, gathering a pillow up into her arms and hugging it tightly as though she were attempting to hold something inside, something she couldn't bear to face. Rocking back and forth on the bed, she tried desperately to calm her chaotic thoughts and control the residual pain from her injury. Of the other pains, the deep ache she had lived with for most of her life and the sorrow of that particular day's loss, she refused to think at all.

Why had Raile ordered Kirk to come to her aid anyway? And why had the Human responded to the order so quickly? She tried to blame it all on the two men, deliberately allowing the anger to build within. "Why the hell couldn't he stay at his own station where he belonged?" she demanded of the empty room. If Kirk had done so, then Raile would probably be alive now. She cringed away from the logical progression her thoughts took next, her rage dissipating in the face of a new and even less welcome emotion she refused to acknowledge. Her mind wouldn't let go of the new idea, however. If Raile were alive, then Kirk...

"No!" She threw the pillow against the opposite wall as she shouted the one word at the otherwise silent room, refusing even to contemplate that possibility. It was no more acceptable an alternative than for Raile to have died. Despite the fact that she had known Raile for several years now and looked up to him almost as much as she had her father, she would not trade Kirk's life for his.

Talya was finding it harder and harder to keep this new man, this Kirk, at arm's length. She'd never had any trouble in that particular area in the past. Whenever anyone, especially a man, started getting too close to her, she simply froze them out, or unleashed her temper on them, if it became absolutely necessary. It had always worked before, but neither tactic had been successful in Kirk's case.

To give the devil his due, she couldn't really place the blame on him. Somehow, she hadn't been able to bring herself to use either strategy with him. In the weeks since he had joined their crew, Kirk often engaged her in conversation. It was always innocent enough, discussions about the ship or encounters they'd had with the Orions, but every time his eyes met hers, she felt something tugging at her, pulling her toward him as surely as if he were physically dragging her his way. And she allowed it to happen, did nothing to prevent it, welcomed it like some barely visible light at the end of a very long, dark, empty tunnel.

Part of the appeal was sexual; she recognized that easily enough, although surprisingly he did absolutely nothing about the obvious attraction. But there was something else, something completely different from the emotions she usually sensed in men, something she couldn't quite understand and found impossible to dismiss. And today...

She knew he had felt her pain when he had come to her aid, and her anger as well. It had been obvious from the very first moment he had touched her. At first he hadn't seemed to realize exactly what it was he was feeling, but there had been no way she could protect him from her anguish once he touched her injured arm, her shields had been too vulnerable, weakened by the distraction of the pain.

What had most impressed her, however, was that through it all, he had been fiercely controlling his distress, intent on doing his 'duty' even though he clearly thought he had been injured, too. It was something she instinctively understood, and exactly what she would have done herself if he hadn't insisted on helping her before she could master her own pain. And then he had apparently realized what was going on, knew that his pain was really just an echo of hers. She wasn't sure she liked the idea of him knowing that, but it was too late to worry about it now. He knew, and she'd have to figure out some means of dealing with it.

She also understood his guilt over Raile's death. She shared that, too, knowing it was her injury that had set the sequence of events in motion that had led to the Zephyr commander's death. At the same time, she knew she had been right when she told Kirk he had acted properly in following Raile's orders. If anyone were to blame, it was Raile himself.

Talya sat up suddenly in the bed, staring wildly around the room. Then she stood and resumed pacing, picking up the abandoned pillow and hugging it tightly again. She moved jerkily, all of her usual grace absent as she fought to contain the unaccustomed emotions. Rage, she was used to, and loneliness as well; even pain wasn't an unknown quantity. But guilt, and this unknown and unwanted attraction to a man...she was neither used to such feelings nor able to accept them.

This soul-searching was getting her absolutely nowhere, and she tried to shrug it off, but she couldn't quite succeed. The emotions were too strong; pain, guilt, anger, loneliness...and somewhere a tiny light of hope hovering just outside her reach. She kept encountering that light, every time her shields slipped while she was in Kirk's presence. Each time, the urge she felt to reach for it had grown more intense. Maybe if she could find it, she could nurture it until it was strong enough to dispel the shadows that lived inside her, that had been there as long as she could remember and refused to go away, no matter how much she teased and laughed and fought to be exactly like her father. She shivered.

Stopping in front of the chest again, Talya looked into the mirror, studying the smooth face that looked back at her. The green eyes looked clear and untroubled, if lacking their usual steady purpose. The face was calm, serene. There was no sign of the violent emotions churning just beneath the surface. Good. She didn't have time for such emotions, not hers and not anyone else's either. She wasn't about to allow the others to see the evidence of her feelings or even to know that they existed. She examined her expression again. It looked natural--almost.

Relieved at what she had--and hadn't--seen in the mirror, Talya crossed the room again and stepped through the parting doors, headed back to the bridge. She had work to do...and had neither the time nor inclination for continued contemplation, self-recrimination or grief. Raile was dead. There was nothing she could do about that.

"Goodbye, Raile," she whispered. It was all the eulogy she would allow him, and all the mourning she would allow herself.


"Jim...God damn it, Jim!" Leonard McCoy's angry face filled Kirk's field of vision, and then suddenly disappeared and was replaced by a blinding light accompanied by a loud explosion.

"No!" Kirk sat bolt upright in the bed, shaking in reaction to the nightmare. Although his back had been to the Enterprise's main viewing screen when the real explosion occurred, he had heard it and seen the reflected flash on the turbolift doors. Then he had watched it later on the ship's taped record of the catastrophe, sitting alone in his quarters, his gaze fastened on the small office viewscreen, unable to stop watching the disaster unfold before him. And even now, he continued to relive the tragedy, again and again, night after night in his nightmares. He wiped a trembling hand down his face and shook his head to clear the horror from his mind. Then he jumped at a sudden buzzing sound. He cleared his throat and reached for the intercom button. "Kirk here."

"There's a ship on our sensors, just slightly off our present course." Talya's melodic voice managed somehow to combine clipped, professional tones with a hint of laughter and excitement.

Shit! Kirk thought in exhausted exasperation. He released the intercom button to take a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. Then he forced his attention to the matter at hand. It was just what he didn't need, another confrontation. But it looked like he was going to get it, whether he wanted it or not.

Kirk pressed the intercom button again. "I'm on my way." He pushed himself up from the bed in resignation. "No rest for the weary...or is it wicked?" he muttered to himself as he opened a drawer, drew out a clean shirt and pulled it over his head, tugging it down into place. He never noticed how closely his 'civilian' shirts resembled Starfleet uniforms. Invariably some shade of green or gold, they were even cut to a similar pattern. Except for the missing gold braid and the slight difference in color, they could almost be mistaken for the real thing. He checked himself in the mirror, then, seeing nothing amiss, exited his quarters and headed directly for the Zephyrbridge.


Personal Log, Stardate 7024.6
Commander Montgomery Scott

The Enterprise is on routine patrol on the edges of the Tau Lacertae system in Quadrant 25. There are reports of Orion ships in the area, harassing the Gorn and other peaceful or neutral ships in the area. The Gorn are handling matters their own way, but we're supposed to be available in case we are needed. Needed for what, th' admiral didna say. M' orders are simply to patrol the system and its adjacent sectors and be prepared to lend assistance wherever needed. It makes th' Enterprise sound like some kind of glorified baby-sitter. However, orders are orders, and we must obey them, at least until this mission is up. We have less than six months remaining. What could possibly happen in that time?

Scott switched off the log tape and looked up to face his first officer. Sulu was staring at him in surprise. What, indeed? his look seemed to ask, and Scott grinned at him a little sheepishly. Things always happened to the Enterprise, and they had no reason to suspect it would be any different now, just because Kirk and Spock were gone. He turned to the science station.

"Ensign Chekov, do your sensors reveal any unusual phenomenon in our vicinity?" Scott asked, as much for something to do as out of any expectation of obtaining useful information.

"No, sair," Chekov's report was predictably negative after he completed a careful check of the instruments.

Scott turned to communications next. "Lieutenant Uhura?"

"No, sir," she echoed Chekov's response. "There's nothing out of the ordinary on any frequencies. Everything's quiet, peaceful."

"Aye," Scott replied softly. "Too quiet. Why are we here?"


"Report," Kirk ordered tersely as he entered the Zephyr bridge and made his way to the command chair. He moved briskly, confidently, with no outward signs of his inner turmoil.

"A Catullan freighter," Talya reported, glancing at him briefly and then swiftly shifting her gaze away as she sensed his emotional upheaval, and dealt with it in the only way she knew how--by simply ignoring it. She continued her report, "They're carrying a cargo of unrefined ore and electronic equipment, with perhaps a few other 'luxuries' included."

"Life signs?"

"Minimal. They won't last long."

He ignored that one, too. "Life-support?"

"Operational, but barely. I wouldn't recommend going in there without protective gear." Talya had the uncomfortable feeling neither of them were saying what they were really thinking.

"All right." Kirk turned to the Centaurian. "Donovan, you and Nydor prepare to beam over at once and see if you can provide any assistance. Maybe we can save some...of" His voice faltered at the end of the sentence as Kirk found himself the target of three pairs of eyes, staring at him as though he were a particularly unpleasant species of insect, one they weren't sure they wanted around any longer. Kirk glanced at his crew, one person at a time, in confusion. "What's wrong?"

"They won't last long," Talya patiently repeated her earlier remark, her voice carefully devoid of any expression as she elaborated on the situation as precisely as though she were explaining it to a very young child--or a simpleton. "If we wait," she told him in conclusion, "there won't be anyone around to question our rights to the cargo."

"But if they're alive..." Kirk started to protest their callous attitude, then stopped abruptly as his crew continued to watch him warily. He was losing them; he could feel it. He was a privateer now, a mercenary allowed to keep whatever booty he and his crew found while carrying out the wishes of their 'sponsors.' He had to remember those facts every minute. If he didn't act like what he was supposed to be...he let that thought go, too, and looked at the main viewscreen, watching the severely damaged ship, weighing the chances of its crew's survival if the Zephyr were to mount a rescue mission.

"Your best evaluation, Talya," he said finally. "Could we save them--if we made the attempt?"

"Unlikely," came the succinct reply. Talya's mood matched Kirk's. She was all business, coolly professional, calm and capable, with neither anger nor humor evident in voice or appearance. "The crew's life signs are barely functional now, and our sensors indicate there's a serious problem with coolant leakage. Even if we were able to get the Catullans out of there in one piece, it's probable that the poison already in their systems would kill them in a very short time..." She paused, making sure she had his full attention. "...painfully, perhaps even more so as a result of our ineffective efforts to save them," she added, eyes meeting his steadily, unwilling to allow him to know she sensed his uncertainty--and shared it.

At the news, Kirk unconsciously sighed. He still didn't like this situation, didn't like anything about it, but...if the freighter's crew was going to die anyway, if anything they attempted to do would probably only make things worse...

Once again, he refused to allow himself to finish the unwelcomed thought progression. Instead, he sighed once more. "Keep monitoring them, Talya, and inform me when..." There was the barest hint of hesitation in his voice. He carefully, deliberately banished it before continuing. " is time to salvage the cargo. Nydor, Donovan, be ready to beam over as soon as possible. I'd like to complete this operation and get on our way as quickly as we can. A helpless vessel like that one is likely to attract attention, and we can't afford the wrong kind since we're not in much better shape ourselves. We still need to make those repairs before we take any chances with a confrontation of any kind."

"Aye, sir," Donovan said with a grin, accepting Kirk's apparent change of heart without question. Nydor merely grunted. Talya nodded her own response, both unable and unwilling to say anything at all out loud right then as she desperately fought to keep out the aching feeling that threatened to choke her. She couldn't quite identify the emotion; anger, sorrow, disgust, guilt. Despair? Whatever it was, she knew exactly where it was coming from, and it took all of her concentration to keep from being swamped by its effects.

Unaware of the impact of his emotions on the navigator, Kirk watched the viewscreen and brooded. He knew this was the hard part, the waiting, and he willed it to all be over. He'd made tough decisions before and dealt with the results. He knew he could deal with this, too. But get the damned mess over! He shoved the thought and the emotions that prompted it away. He didn't have time for either.

The bridge remained silent as the ensuing minutes ticked by. Kirk continued to stare at the main viewing screen, trying to keep his mind blank as he waited with the others for the words that would mean it was time for action again. But as he waited, he fidgeted, fingers of his right hand drumming on the arm of the command chair, while his left hand clenched into a fist, relaxed, clenched again, over and over. Get it over with, he whispered in his mind. Let's just get the whole damned thing over with right now!

At her own station, Talya concentrated fiercely on the sensor readings, exerting the strongest control she could in a not-quite-successful effort to keep out the emotions that were sweeping over her in waves. She hadn't had this much difficulty blocking such feelings since she was a very young child. Her own fingers twitched with the struggle to resist the urge to drum them on the arm of her own chair, just as Kirk was doing in his. She bit her lip hard enough to draw blood, then sucked on it to remove the single droplet before anyone else noticed.

Finally, the sensors showed that all of the life signs on the Catullan freighter had ceased to function. In desperate relief, Talya turned to face Kirk. "All life signs have ceased," she reported in an inflectionless voice that revealed none of the inner torment she had been fighting.

He hesitated.

"Jim?" It was the first time she had used his given name, and she didn't even realize she had done so. Her only awareness was of the confusing array of emotions that were once again flowing toward her in waves. She found the strength of those feelings frightening. It had taken quite a lot of painful effort, but she had gradually learned to block out most of the emotions that had constantly bombarded her when she was a child, emotions that for years had kept her tied in knots of tension, powerless to control her own very volatile temper in the face of so much agitation. She had been unable to bear being around other people until she had finally managed to build on her mother's incomplete teachings and acquire a small degree of the older woman's ability to shield herself from the constant mental assault of untrained minds. At least Talya could succeed in keeping out those emotions as long as the person who was actually experiencing them didn't touch her...or they weren't too strong.

But Kirk...without even trying, was pushing at those carefully, painfully erected barriers it had taken her a lifetime to erect. Although she didn't think it was intentional, or that he even realized what he was doing, it was getting harder and harder for her to keep him out. Those last minutes had been sheer torture, and at that very moment, Talya sensed pain and guilt and sorrow...and a bewildering feeling of betrayal. And somehow she knew it wasn't all because of that ghost ship drifting aimlessly out there in space.

There were other ghosts haunting Jim Kirk, ghosts whose names and faces she didn't know yet. For now, she was aware only of their importance to him. She feared she would come to know them all too well in time, though, just as she was coming to know, and share, his emotions. She watched him surreptitiously for a minute, then quickly turned back to her navigation board when he turned his own curious gaze on her. He was getting too close, way too close, and she didn't know how to keep him out.

Donovan and Nydor turned to face their new commander, waiting with obvious impatience for him to give the order that would take them across the emptiness of space to the freighter that was now nothing more than another derelict, its engines inoperative and its crew dead. They were hoping for a valuable cargo, something that would be easily sellable, raising much needed cash to pay for the necessary repairs to the ship, and then provide them with the opportunity to enjoy a little rest and relaxation while they waited for those repairs to be completed.

While the two men watched Kirk eagerly, Talya kept her eyes deliberately ahead, shifting them alternately between her navigation board, the viewscreen and the smaller screen that displayed the readouts of the Zephyr's sensors.

"All right," Kirk spoke finally. "Prepare to beam over, gentlemen. Talya, handle the transporter. I'll keep an eye on things here." It seemed best to allow them to follow their previous procedure. Besides, that kept him away from that space-going mausoleum over there.

Talya stood and headed for the doors to obey Kirk's orders, avoiding his eyes as he passed her en route to take her place at her console where she had linked together the most essential helm, navigation, sensor and weapons controls to make it possible for him to monitor the entire ship singlehandedly--at least for the short time he would be required to do so.

If they were lucky, Kirk thought idly, he'd be able to just keep the ship on automatic pilot, maintaining a safe distance from the derelict ship while his crew salvaged its cargo.

On the other hand, if they weren't so lucky, he might need to make use of any or all of those controls. He'd be prepared for that possibility, but he found himself praying silently that it wouldn't come to pass. His old thirst for adventure now lay dormant, and he was certain it was likely to remain that way for a long time to come. Besides, he wasn't sure the makeshift repairs he and Nydor had made would hold sufficiently for him to do anything more than just keep the Zephyr from crashing into the other ship.

They were lucky. It was a long, boring watch for Kirk, who sat alone on the bridge, monitoring the conversation among his crew while Nydor and Donovan ferried this latest cargo from the Catullan freighter to the Zephyr cargo holds. They were having a fine time. Obviously undisturbed by the ethics of their decision, the crewmen laughed and joked about each new find, showing no more hesitation to remove the personal effects from the bodies of the dead Catullans than they did to raid the cargo decks.

"Hey! Will you look at this," Kirk heard Donovan call cheerily to his shipmate. "Do you believe that?"

Nydor grunted in response, and then there was a brief silence. "It is authentic," the blue man finally commented.

"Yeah, authentic, and very valuable. Wonder where a Catullan got his hands on such a priceless artifact."

"All right, you two," Talya's voice broke into the conversation as she scolded them with a severity Kirk didn't believe for a minute. "Cut the chatter and get a move on it. Those life-support units you're wearing won't last forever. Get the cargo and get out of there. We'll speculate as to its origins later."

"Aye, aye, boss lady," Donovan teased, and Kirk could visualize him giving her a mock salute. "We are yours to command."

Back on the Zephyr bridge, Kirk smiled a little in spite of himself. His smile died, though, as the two men continued their lighthearted banter with Talya. There was something macabre about their humor, and Kirk felt himself retreating within himself as he listened.

Once the men had returned to the Zephyr and were helping Talya store their latest cargo in the hold, Kirk took careful aim at the stripped freighter and sent a burst of phaser fire into its engines, exploding the vessel into millions of tiny fragments. Somehow, it seemed the most humane action, and there was no longer anything left for the 'vultures' to pick away at. Then he was waiting again. While the others were busy storing the salvaged goods, he had nothing to do but monitor the sensors and other instruments...and allow his anger to build as he continued to brood over this latest operation.

When his laughing crew finally arrived on the bridge almost a half hour later, Kirk eyed them coldly. "Take the helm," he ordered Nydor tersely. "Talya, ETA at 679 Andromedae?"

"Nineteen hundred hours," she answered just as brusquely, all hint of laughter gone from her voice.

"I'll be in my quarters," he told her tersely as he stood. "You're in charge." With no further comment, he left the bridge.


Once he was behind the closed doors of his cabin, Kirk took a deep breath and let it out with slow deliberation. He poured himself a stiff drink, drank about half of it, stared at the half-empty glass a minute, then set it aside and stretched out on the bed. He raised one arm to rest across his forehead, hiding his eyes from the harsh light of the cabin during this simulated daytime period. Closing off his mind to this latest salvage operation and to even more painful memories of the recent past, he shut his eyes and willed himself to sleep.

Kirk paced his quarters, impatiently waiting for word of success from his first officer. He felt trapped there, but he dared not go to the bridge where his nervousness would be all too obvious to his crew.

The captain whirled around in surprise at the sound of his door buzzer. After glaring at it a few seconds, he barked, "Yes! What is it?"

There was a brief silence, then a familiar voice spoke. "It's me, Jim. Have you got a minute?"

Kirk relaxed a few seconds, then he tensed again, knowing how easily McCoy would see through any effort he made to hide his anxiety. Unable to think of an adequate reason to refuse admittance to his chief medical officer, however, Kirk sighed and sat down behind his desk. He pulled the computer terminal into a comfortable reading position and quickly scattered the neatly stacked tapes across the surface of the desk. Dropping one tape selected at random into the slot, he called out, "come," as casually as he could and began to scan the words on the screen. He pretended an absorption in the data displayed on the monitor that was entirely false. He didn't have the slightest idea what he was looking at.

"Well, it certainly took you long enough," McCoy complained good-naturedly as he stepped through the door into his captain's 'office'. "Just what are you hiding in here--a woman?"

Kirk looked up from the screen and scowled at his friend in annoyance. Good, he thought. If he thinks you're just mad about the interruption, maybe he won't notice the other. "Sorry," he said aloud, "I'm knee-deep in this paperwork, Bones. Didn't mean to snap your head off."

"Apology accepted." The doctor pulled a spare chair up to the opposite side of the captain's desk and settled down as though he were planning a long chat, much to Kirk's chagrin.

"Is this going to take long?" The captain fairly snarled, making no effort to hide his annoyance.

McCoy looked stunned at the sarcasm in Kirk's voice. "Sorry." He stood again. "I didn't mean to intrude...Captain."

Kirk watched his friend leave, and then he sighed heavily. He was going to owe McCoy one hell of an apology--and maybe even a bottle of Saurian brandy--when this was all over.

Back on the Zephyr, Kirk opened his eyes again and stared unseeingly at the cabin ceiling. All over. He had been nervous and worried that day, but confident that everything really would be 'all over' soon. He just hadn't expected it to end like it did; Spock dead, Scotty in command of the Enterprise and Kirk himself in this God-forsaken sector of space working with a bunch of pirates. He didn't care if they did call themselves privateers. To a man who had devoted his life to service in Starfleet, there was little difference. What they did might be legal in the technical sense, but ethically it sure looked like piracy to him.

He rose from the bed and began pacing the room, just as he had done that day on the Enterprise weeks earlier. He felt completely anchorless and rudderless, as though he were aimlessly drifting on an open sea. He laughed bitterly when he thought about the metaphor, suddenly realizing how apt it was. He really was without both his anchor--McCoy--and his rudder.

"Spock," he whispered softly, then stopped dead still in his pacing, a chill shivering up his spine and a cold knot settling in his stomach as he 'heard' a deep voice whisper its response. I am here, Jim.

Kirk turned his head one way and then the other, as though searching for something that he knew wasn't there. He finally looked at the silent intercom and shook his head. No, that wasn't it. The 'voice' belonged to no one on that ship. It belonged to no one at all anymore. Kirk swallowed convulsively and rubbed a trembling hand on the back of his neck, trying to ease some of the tension that had seemed to have taken up permanent residence there. His eyes darted around the room once more, and he shook his head. "Now I'm hearing things," he muttered. He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist. Sixteen hundred hours. Three more to go before they reached their destination. He looked at the bed and knew he wouldn't sleep anymore, didn't even dare try. Finally, in desperation, he exited the cabin. There was only one place for him right then. The bridge.


The Enterprise bridge was quiet. Too quiet, Scott thought. If things get any quieter, we're all goin' ta be asleep. Chekov's head was already nodding at the science station, but before Scott could reprimand him, the ensign jerked fully awake again and looked up guiltily. Uhura caught Chekov's gaze and gave him an encouraging wink. His face red, the Russian leaned back over the science station, carefully checking all of the instruments to ensure there wasn't any unusual phenomenon that required his attention.

Scott turned back to face the main viewing screen and smothered an uncontrollable yawn of his own. Sulu, at least, appeared alert at the helm. Of course, he was one of the few officers on the ship who had more than enough to keep him both busy and alert. Despite his temporary promotion to first officer, Sulu continued with his old duties as helmsman.

The turbolift doors slid open, and McCoy stepped out, moving quickly to Scott's side. The commander turned to face the doctor with a quizzical expression.

"Something's got to give, Scotty," McCoy said after a brief hesitation. "Morale's so low, half the crew would have to cheer up to be depressed. And everybody's wound up so tight, I'm afraid something's going to snap, and it just may be me!"

Scott sighed. "What do you suggest?"

The doctor shrugged, his own sadness evidenced by both his expression and his slumped posture. "I don't know, Scotty. I tried to get them to exercise more, hoped a little extra physical activity would relieve some of the tension."

"It didna help?"

McCoy shook his head. "No. In fact, all it accomplished was to keep my own department busy patching up a bunch of stupid minor injuries--sprained ankles, broken arms, dislocated shoulders...stuff that'd never have happened if they'd been payin' attention to what they were doin'."

The two men fell silent. Both knew what was bothering their crew, and neither had a cure for that particular ailment. In the sudden quiet, Chekov looked surreptitiously down at the pink line of freshly healed skin on his wrist that peeked out from the end of the tunic sleeve. It had been a nasty cut, but not lethal.

Chekov looked up from his arm to meet Sulu's guilty gaze. Luckily, the injury had been just a flesh wound. Bone, muscles, tendons and nerves were all undamaged. But that didn't make Sulu feel much better. Like McCoy had said, it had been sheer carelessness that caused the accident, and it could just as easily have been much more serious. The lieutenant felt even more guilty because of his new duties as first officer, which gave him added responsibility for the ship's entire crew. Like McCoy, Sulu had been searching for some means to improve the flagging morale. His eyes widened now as he had a sudden idea.

"May I make a suggestion, Scotty?" Sulu turned from Chekov to face the man in the command chair.

"Aye, Mister Sulu. I'd welcome any ideas ye might have."

"Shore leave."

"Shore leave?" Scott frowned.

"Yes, sir. Shore leave. Get everybody off the ship for at least a little while. The change of scenery--and routine--might do us all some good." Sulu paused a minute to allow Scott and McCoy to consider his suggestion.

"It might at that," McCoy agreed. "But how are we going to find the time to give everyone shore leave? And where would we take it if we could arrange the time?"

Sulu had an answer for that one, too. "We're not far from Starbase Seventeen. We could divert there for, oh, a couple of days anyway, and I could set up a schedule for rotating shifts. I know we can't take an extended leave at this time, but couldn't we arrange, oh, say twenty-four, or at least twelve hours apiece for everyone?"

McCoy nodded. "It's not ideal, but it still might help."

Scott glanced from McCoy to Sulu and back again, then he, too, nodded. "All right," he said. "I wouldna mind a wee bit of a break, meself. Lieutenant Arex..."

"Aye, sir!" the navigator replied crisply.

"Lay in a course for Starbase Seventeen."

"It's already plotted, sir."

Scott and McCoy exchanged the first real grins they had enjoyed in longer than they could remember.

"Mister Sulu, warp two."

"Aye, sir."


Chekov, Uhura and Sulu were among the last of the crew to beam down to Starbase Seventeen for their twelve-hour leave. They strode down the base streets, determined to enjoy themselves. After walking about a block, Uhura stopped to admire some trinkets in a storefront display window while the two men continued on down the street a short distance. It was there that she heard the rumors for the first time. At first, Uhura ignored the two women in Starfleet red a few feet away. She didn't know them, and only caught snatches of their conversation. "Coward," said one. "More like stupid," her companion replied. Uhura continued to study the items on display, but her attention was finally distracted by the nearby conversation.

"I don't know," the first woman, a brunette, was speaking again. "If he's so stupid, how's he managed to have so many successes thus far?"

The blonde shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe the Vulcan was responsible. It's curious, isn't it, that disaster struck as soon as he was off-ship."

"Tragic, too," the brunette replied, "...since he was the one who died."

"Along with all those other Vulcans. No wonder..."

The two women walked away, and Uhura couldn't hear any more of their conversation. She remained in front of the store window, staring in with eyes that no longer focused on the items displayed there. She was too busy blinking back the tears that threatened.

"Haven't you made up your mind yet?" Sulu teased as he returned to her side. "Hey, what's wrong?" He placed a hand on her shoulder, turning her to face him.

"Nothing." She forced a bright smile and blinked away the slight moisture that clung to her lashes. "I don't really see a thing I want. Let's go get something to eat."

"And drink," Chekov added with a grin.

Sulu peered at Uhura's face a moment, then grinned, too. "Okay, let's go."


Sulu heard the rumors next, just as they were finishing their meal in one of the starbase's better restaurants.

"Glory boys, that's what we called them in my day," a gray-haired man was saying at the next table. He was dressed in civvies, but carried himself like a military man. "The kind of captain who always wanted all the credit for himself, but wasn't above using anybody and everybody else to gain another feather in his cap, one more medal or even a promotion." He shook his head. "It's a shame, though, that the Vulcan had to die. I hear he was loyal to the end, although I'll never understand why."

"Who knows?" his companion commented. "I never understood Vulcans much myself."

Sulu glanced across the table at Chekov, who was deep in a friendly argument with Uhura over which of the base nightclubs had the best entertainment. Obviously, neither of them had overheard the conversation at the next table.

Sulu forced a smile. "Will you two make up your minds? I don't care where we go, but we don't have a lot of time. Half our leave's up already, and I intend to make the most of what time we have left."

"Maybe you'd rather I didn't tag along?" Uhura asked with a twinkle in her eyes.

Sulu grinned back. "Maybe I'd rather he didn't tag along." He nodded at Chekov and then attempted a leer in Uhura's direction. Chekov's eyes widened in a "who-me?" expression, and Uhura burst out laughing. She stood up. "Come on, Romeo. Let's go find out if your dancing's improved."

"What's the matter with my dancing?" Sulu frowned.

"Not a thing," she replied demurely. "If you like having your toes stepped on."


"Now that's what I call entertainment," Chekov remarked as the three friends left a small nightclub a couple of hours later. "I just can't figure out how she--"

"Never mind," Uhura took him by the arm. "You're too young to know." She looked across the street. "Let's get a drink before we return to the ship. We still have another hour to go."

"Sure. Why not?" Sulu agreed, taking his place on her other side.

"Da," Chekov concurred. "I could use a wvodka."

"You can always use a 'wvodka'," Sulu responded in a deliberate mangling of the Russian's accent.

Laughing, they crossed the street and entered the tavern.

"Well, if it isn't more of the valiant crew of the Enterprise." The comment came from a man at the bar. He was slumped over a row of shot glasses, all empty but the one in his hand. He emptied that one, too, and held it out to the bartender. "Another, Jake," he ordered, then leaned forward even further as though to offer a confidence. "You'd better be careful, or this place'll get a bad name."

"Cut it out, Roy," Jake replied. "Their credits are as good as anybody else's, and I don't want any trouble, so keep your mouth shut."

"Trouble." Roy laughed, ignoring the warning. "Trouble follows that bunch around like a hungry dog." He leaned forward again to add in a stage whisper, "Of course, they got rid of the worst of the trouble. Fair-haired glory boys are never anything but."

Sulu winced to hear the term again. On this man's lips, it sounded downright obscene. He glanced at his companions. "Let's get out of here."

"I'm with you," Uhura answered through tight lips, but Chekov took a step toward the bar. "Pavel, don't," Uhura pleaded, but he ignored her and marched up to stand behind the man called Roy.

"Would you care to repeat that remark so we all can hear it?" the Russian suggested in a voice that was soft, almost pleasant.

"What's the matter?" Roy sneered. "Can't you hear?"

"I hear wvery well," Chekov stood his ground. "But I would like to hear an explanation of that remark."

The pasty-faced man laughed. "It just figures," he said. "Grand-standing glory boys like James T. Kirk always turn out to be cowards or traitors...or total incompetents."

Sulu grabbed Chekov from behind, restraining him before he could swing the punch he had started at the ugly, grinning face. Uhura stepped up at the ensign's side.

"Captain Kirk is neither a coward nor a traitor," she defended the absent man pleasantly. "And he certainly isn't stupid."

Roy laughed again, a shrill cackling that grated on all their nerves. "Right," he agreed sarcastically, glancing about him as though searching for someone. "Then where is he?"

Chekov struggled to break free of Sulu's hold, but the helmsman held him tight. Uhura turned away from the taunting man and placed a gentle hand on Chekov's shoulder. "Come on, Pavel. Let's get out of here. It smells bad."

"I heard," the man's screeching voice followed them to the door. "...that he couldn't find his way from one star to the next without the help of that Vulcan pet of his. Looks like Starfleet finally woke up and realized it, too. Too bad the pointy-eared bastard had to die, though, before the 'fleet bigwigs did anything about it."

"Why you..." This time Chekov did break loose. He rushed back across the room and grabbed Roy by the front of his dirty shirt, dragging him up off his stool. Then he drew back his right arm, ready to strike. Before he could swing, however, a big, beefy hand closed around his forearm and stopped him.

"That's not wise, friend," a soft voice warned. Chekov turned his head and met the yellow gaze of a man who had to be at least seven feet tall. He was dressed in a Starbase security uniform. "I suggest that you all leave...before there's serious trouble."

"But he--"

"I heard him."


"Come on, Pavel," Uhura had him by the arm. "Let's"

"Yes, Pav, let's get out of here," Sulu urged.

Chekov looked from Sulu to Uhura to the security officer to his tormentor. Finally, he shrugged off the restraining hands and headed for the door. Back at the bar, Roy began to cackle again, and Chekov froze. Then the Enterprise officers continued on their way without a backward look when they heard the soft voice. "You shut up," the guard ordered Roy, "before I hit you."


Montgomery Scott had spent his twelve hours of leave time on the Enterprise. Now that he was spending most of his time on the bridge, he couldn't think of a better place to relax than in the company of his beloved 'bairns.' His twelve hours were up now, however, and it was time to return to the burden of command. Scott sighed heavily and climbed out from under a console. He handed the wrench to a fresh-faced ensign and turned to his former assistant chief engineer. Scott smiled at him ruefully, then headed for the turbolift without a word.

When the lift doors opened again, Scott stepped out onto a bridge that seemed no less tense than it had prior to their visit to Starbase Seventeen. Uhura and Sulu were silently monitoring their stations, while Chekov stared at the science station viewscreen with a mournful expression on his face. Scott took his place in the center seat and carefully surveyed his bridge crew.

"Can anyone tell me what's goin' on?" he asked after a moment.

No one spoke.

"Mister Sulu?"

"Nothing, sir, just a...minor incident."

"Incident? A fight?"

"No, sir."

"It should have been," Chekov muttered. "I should--"

"Mister Chekov!" Scott interrupted him. "Did ye have somethin' to add to Mister Sulu's report?"

"No, sair," Chekov replied. "It's just..."

"Just what, Ensign?" Scott frowned.

"He said Captain Kirk was a coward! Or a traitor!"

"He wasn't the only one," Uhura spoke softly.

Scott turned to face her. "What do you mean?"

"It's all over the base, Mister Scott," Sulu said. "The topic of the day. Was Captain James T. Kirk a coward or a traitor?"

"Or just plain stupid?" Uhura finished for him.

"I see..."

"It hurt, Scotty," Uhura continued. "It really hurt, to hear them talking like that, calling him those things when he's not either."

"Is he?" Sulu dared to ask the question many of them were just thinking.

"No!" Uhura exploded at him. "No. I won't believe that. I can't."

"All right, that's enough," Scott ended the debate. "I'll hear no more of this talk on my bridge."

The last two words echoed in all their minds, and Uhura swung back to face her station, biting her lower lip to control her reaction. A moment later, she swung back again. "Captain Scott?" There was no emotion in her voice now, not anger, not sorrow, and not friendship. Her voice was cold, professional. "Admiral Komack, sir."

Scott took a couple of deep breaths, then turned to face the main viewing screen, tugging his tunic into place. "Put him on screen, Lieutenant."

"Captain Scott," the admiral began as soon as his image had formed on the viewer. "I have a new assignment for you in Quadrant 24. We have received a distress message from the Thalis..."


The crew of the Zephyr sat around the table in the outer room of the suite Kirk had rented for the duration of their stay on a backwater planet. The remains of an elaborate, but rather plain meal was spread out before them. The suite was ridiculously expensive for something so spartan, but it was the height of luxury available, and at least it provided them with a private place to meet and discuss business while they waited for repairs to be completed on the ship. Later, it would provide Kirk with still more privacy, a place of his own to sleep--and think--while Nydor and Donovan shared accommodations on a separate floor, and Talya slept in yet another small room down the hall from the suite. They were stuck on that planet until the Zephyr was spaceworthy again, with little to do other than make an occasional visit to the yard to check on the vessel. Nydor and Donovan didn't seem to mind the idle time. They were obviously itching right then to check out the planet's reputedly exotic night life.

Kirk mused thoughtfully about his growing understanding of his strange crew. Nydor rarely showed any real variation in either expression or behavior, but right now there was an unaccustomed gleam in his indigo eyes that Kirk interpreted as eagerness to experience to the fullest whatever diversions the planet had to offer. The Zephyr's new captain grinned indulgently. For diversion, read women, he thought, remembering a brief conversation he had overheard between his craft's two male crewmen. Somewhat surprisingly, he had learned it was the usually quiet, impassive Nydor who was the ringleader on their planetside excursions, while the typically more loquacious Donovan followed along.

As for himself, Kirk was surprised to discover that he had absolutely no interest in joining the other men on their foray into the town. I must be getting old, he told himself wryly, then realized that his three companions were staring at him as though they were waiting for him to say something, or maybe react to something. Someone must have asked a question, he surmised. But, having no idea what it might have been, he decided to ignore it, then caught Talya's twinkling eyes and correctly deduced she was fully aware of his wandering mind. With an effort, he controlled the urge to blush beneath her knowing gaze. He avoided her eyes and instead turned his attention to the others at the table.

"Go ahead," he told the men of his crew, grinning encouragingly in a futile attempt to convince them he really had heard whatever it was that someone had said to him. "I think I'll just stay here in the hotel and rest for a while. I'm bushed, and besides, there's plenty of time for some real R&R before we can leave."

"If you're sure?" Donovan seemed uncertain, and Kirk surmised that Raile had made it a practice to accompany them on such jaunts. He decided that it didn't matter if his predecessor had gone along with them, he still wasn't interested.

"I'm sure. Go ahead." They finally took him at his word and departed, leaving him and Talya alone in the suite's parlor. There was an awkward silence for a few moments after they had gone. Finally...

"I believe I'll return to my own room now," Talya said, abruptly breaking the lengthening silence as she rose to her feet, preparing to leave. There was no evidence of her earlier amusement showing now. If anything, she seemed a bit nervous, something Kirk had never noticed about her before. He had seen her quiet and serene, excited and elated, completely furious and on rare occasions even gently teasing, but nervous? Never. However, that was the only word he could come up with to describe the way Talya was acting at that particular moment.

As she started for the door, Kirk realized he didn't want her to leave--at least not quite yet.

"No," he stopped her with a word, then floundered for a moment, searching for a reasonable excuse to keep her there just a little while longer. He wasn't sure exactly why, he just knew that he didn't want to be alone...not yet...too many ghosts. "Just a minute, I--" Sudden inspiration hit him. "I'd like to check your hand, and make sure it's okay."

"It's fine," she protested, backing away from his slowly and hiding her arm behind her body.

"Let me see," he closed the distance between them and held his own hand out, patiently waiting for her to place hers in it. Instead of complying, however, she just stared at his hand. His eyes followed her gaze, and he allowed his arm to drop back to his side. "Sorry. I forgot." He smiled tentatively. "Can I at least look at it? I won't touch. I really do only want to be sure you're okay."

"I am," she answered softly. When he continued to watch her without making any further effort to touch her this time, she held her arm out and allowed him to make a visual examination of the injury. The skin was puckered slightly and just a little darker than normal, but it didn't look too bad. His first aid apparently had done the trick.

"It looks okay to me." He smiled at her, then found himself unable to look away as their gazes met, and locked. He felt desire stir within him, and something else; pain, sorrow...loneliness. Almost against his will, he reached out to her again.

Talya's eyes went wide, and she stepped back from him. "I...have to go," she blurted, and bolted from the room.

He stared at the blank doors for a moment after she had left. "Damn," he muttered finally. "You really blew that one, James T." He shook his head. That was one involvement he needed to avoid anyway, no matter how strong the attraction. Talya's telepathy made her dangerous to him. If only there weren't so damned many secrets, he thought.

"Damn!" he repeated aloud, then grabbed a jacket and exited the room. The best cure he knew of for one woman was another. Maybe Nydor and Donovan had the right idea after all.


The Zephyr crew sat together in yet another dingy tavern that bore a distinct resemblance to Pedro's, where Kirk had first joined forces with them. Kirk and the others watched the various beings that entered the room, hoping to spot someone who would make a good addition to their crew. With Raile gone and Kirk in command, they were once again in need of an experienced helmsman. They hoped to find one by the time the ship was ready to go out again in a few days' time.

Donovan and Nydor did most of the talking. They discussed the various individuals, male and female, who walked through the tavern's doors, sometimes speculating on their potential contributions to the crew. Occasionally, in the case of certain females, they commented on other possibilities. Talya ignored their comments, apparently unaffected by them.

Kirk and Talya merely sat there, silently watching the doorway and sizing up the other patrons in the tavern--and carefully pretending to ignore each other. He noticed her glancing at him from beneath lowered eyelashes from time to time, looking quickly away again as soon as she caught him watching her. When they first arrived at the tavern, she had deliberately waited for him to take his own seat and then chose hers across the table from him, beyond his reach, as far away from him as she could get and still be sitting at the same table. It was as though she were afraid he would try to touch her. He frowned at the absurdity of the thought. Surely she didn't think he would force his attentions on her--especially not here. If she didn't want him, he'd leave her alone. There were plenty of other women more than willing to help him keep away his ghosts--as he had found out easily enough the previous night. He arched his back to stretch the well-used muscles, then stopped abruptly when he caught Talya watching him.

A red-haired barmaid delivered their drinks and offered him a bold smile. He started to grin back, then caught Talya's knowing gaze on him again and mentally squirmed. He didn't know why he felt so embarrassed, but there was something in those eyes...

He turned to Donovan. "See anyone you know?" he asked.

"No one we'd want." the Irishman answered. "Hell, Kirk, I don't think we're going to find anyone...not here anyway." He paused a minute, then suggested, "Why don't we split up and check out some of the other places? Nydor and I'll head north, and you and Talya take the places to the south. If either of us finds anyone, we can contact the other."

Kirk hesitated for a moment, trying to catch Talya's eye, to determine whether she might object to going with him. But she carefully avoided his look, and he finally was forced to make the decision himself.

"All right," he finally agreed to the suggestion. "Sounds like as good a plan as any. If we don't find someone soon, we'll have to leave without that extra crewman, and I don't like that idea at all. It's dangerous to be so shorthanded, but we can't hang around here forever. Once the Zephyr's repaired, we need to be on our way."

"My feelings exactly," Donovan agreed. He stood up. "C'mon, Nydor. Let's see what we can find." The big, blue alien grunted and followed his smaller friend from the tavern.

Talya remained seated at the table, showing no intention of leaving the tavern. Kirk sighed. Obviously she was going to be difficult. "Are you coming?" he asked. She turned that emerald stare on him and shrugged as though none of it were of any consequence. She stood and headed nonchalantly for the door. Swearing under his breath, Kirk tossed some credits on the table and followed as quickly as he could. As he crossed the room, he saw the stormy look on the barmaid's face and responded with his most charming grin. She glared back, not buying it at all. He shrugged mentally, realizing he didn't have time to placate her. Just as well. He exited the building and looked down the street for Talya. She was already half way down the block by the time he caught up.

"Hey!" He instinctively grabbed her by the arm in an attempt to get her attention, and immediately felt his arm yanked almost out of its socket when she jerked away from him.

"" She pronounced each syllable clearly, evenly, a warning evident in her level tone. Then she turned away from him and continued down the street. She fought desperately against the intense emotions that threatened to overwhelm her at any minute. She had felt his desire the night before, and had known an echoing spark within herself. Terrified of it, she had fled. Both the need and the fear had returned full force the moment she had seen him today, along with an acute embarrassment and confusion.

Those emotions had been quickly followed by others equally as intense and disturbing: jealousy, outrage and unexpected pain when she caught the intimate look exchanged by Kirk and the red-haired barmaid. It didn't take a telepath to know what had passed between them, but her growing attunement to his emotions made her even more aware of it. Then she had been just plain angry, at them...and especially at herself, for being aware of what had happened between them, for caring about it, and most of all for still wanting him. She knew she had no right to be angry, but that didn't help matters. If anything, it just made them worse.

"What the hell's the matter with you?" he demanded when he caught up with her again, rubbing his shoulder.

Talya turned to glance at her companion a moment, noted the way Kirk was rubbing his sore shoulder and felt a brief pang of guilt and sympathy. She shrugged off the unwanted guilt, and shifted her gaze back ahead, deliberately allowing her anger to build again, submerging the more frightening emotions in it.

"There's not a damned thing wrong with me, Kirk," she told him through tightly clenched teeth, again striding swiftly down the street, eyes straight ahead in hope that he wouldn't realize her confusion. "I just don't like being touched. I thought you understood that."

"I do. I'm sorry. I just forgot for a minute. It won't happen again. I promise." Kirk was having to hurry to keep up with her, and breathing a little heavily from the exertion. Even so, he was smiling at her coaxingly, and Talya could sense the sincerity in his apology. She sensed it, but didn't know what to do about it. "Hey! Slow down, will you?" he demanded suddenly when she failed to respond to his concession.

Talya merely glared at him and continued at the same pace.

"Shit!" he muttered under his breath, then shut up when she looked at him again. He hadn't thought she could hear that. The woman was an enigma, and a damned annoying one at that. He decided two could play her game, and continued down the street staring straight ahead, ignoring her as best he could. He didn't do a very good job of it.

They rounded a corner, turning down onto a narrow, dark street, barely more than an alley, and came face to face with a gang of spaceport thugs. There were three of them, all bigger than Kirk. He tensed, wondering if they could get out of this without getting hurt. He glanced at Talya. She didn't like being touched. It looked like she would have a hard time enforcing that particular edict here. The three men spread out, as though to surround Kirk and Talya. Kirk eyed them warily, ready to act if necessary, but still hopeful they would be able to get out of this situation without being forced into a fight he wasn't sure they could win.

"Well, well, well," one of the thugs, the biggest one, commented with a low laugh. He stepped forward with a huge knife outstretched, rubbing its long, sharp blade in a caressing manner along Talya's stiffened jaw. "What have we here?"

Kirk clenched his fists, wanting instinctively to come to her aid, but knowing that to do so at that moment would be foolhardy to the extreme. If he tried to "rescue" her now, he'd probably just get himself killed and leave her even more at their mercy than she was already.

Talya stood perfectly still while the knife slid dangerously along her jawbone, eyes following the man's movements. Kirk marveled at her cool demeanor, no sign of fear on her face at all, just a calm alertness. What the hell was she up to?

Then, at the exact second the man removed the blade from her face with God-only-knew what intentions, Talya grabbed the hand holding the knife with lightning-quick reflexes and jerked it with muscle-screaming force around behind his back as she produced a knife of her own with her free hand and pressed it to her attacker's throat.

"Drop it!" she ordered through tightly clenched teeth. "Drop the knife, or I'll break your arm--and slit your throat, too, if I have a mind to," she added with a wicked grin, allowing all of the confused anger she had felt toward Kirk and herself to focus on this creature who had threatened her. It felt good.

Despite his obvious pain, and the threat of that little knife, the thug just laughed and twisted violently in an attempt to break her hold, then yelled in excruciating agony as she made her promise good, snapping both radius and ulna and dislocating his elbow all in one efficient motion, while at the same time indulging her temper a bit by pricking the skin at his throat just enough to draw a little blood.

Kirk took immediate advantage of the distraction she caused and brought his right foot down hard on the left one of the man nearest him, then elbowed him in the stomach and brought a left hook into his jaw. He heard the crunching sound of something giving way at the same moment he felt a flash of pain in his left hand. He hoped it was the thug's jaw that gave way, but couldn't be sure. At least two of the three muggers were now lying helplessly on the ground. That left just one to deal with. Besides, he wasn't sure his hand was up to another punch.

Kirk turned reluctantly toward him, ready to do battle again, but hoping once more that it wouldn't be necessary. The surge of adrenalin that had carried him thus far was draining now, and this man, like the others, was considerably larger than he was, and much fresher.

Much to Kirk's mingled relief and surprise, however, the third man merely looked quickly from him to Talya measuringly as though trying to decide which one to take on. Then he seemed to think better of the whole thing and took off hurriedly in the opposite direction.

Kirk watched him a moment, then looked down again at the two men on the sidewalk, then gestured to Talya. "Come on," he urged, not yet willing to relax his guard in case the third man returned with reinforcements. "Let's get out of here before someone else shows up."

Talya turned her head to meet his look, nodded once and then shoved her lethal, jewel-handled knife back into its scabbard. She moved quickly with him back to the better lit street behind them. They hurried down the sidewalk toward their hotel, intent on getting away as quickly and noiselessly as possible. They didn't speak until they had arrived at the hotel and gone up the elevator to his suite.

"Are you all right?" Kirk demanded of Talya once they were safely behind the closed door.

"I'm quite all right." He could see it was true. Talya was grinning broadly, eyes sparkling for the first time since she had left him the previous night. "You?"

"I'm fine. At least I think I am, unless I broke my hand when I hit that son-of-a..." He allowed the sentence to trail off as he inspected his hand gingerly, flexing the fingers carefully to make sure they all still worked, a little embarrassed. He grimaced with the pain he was unable to hide, the half-hearted grin he had forced in his attempt to reassure her now fading from his face.

"Let me see." She stopped grinning, concerned now, and sat next to him on the sofa. She hesitated a moment. Then, fearful that he might have really injured himself in the fight, she carefully took his hand in hers to examine the bruised skin and feel the bones beneath.

The instant she took his hand, he felt his heartbeat quicken and a wave of warmth flood his body. Shit! he thought. Not now. Talya looked up at him, a puzzled expression on her face, and he found himself fighting the urge to blush, then did so when he realized the excitement he felt wasn't exactly arousal--at least not at first. It was Talya's residual exhilaration from the fight. But even that was arousing, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to control his reaction to her touch.

Sharing his discomfort, Talya dropped his hand and walked across the room, filling two glasses with an icy beverage from the room's synthesizer. She took a deep drink from one glass and then carried the other back across the room to hand it to him, carefully avoiding any contact between their fingers. All trace of amusement and excitement had disappeared the moment their eyes had met.

He accepted the glass and took a deep swallow himself, his eyes watching her warily over the rim of the goblet.


"I must leave."

"No, don't leave, not yet..."

"I have to," she protested, eyes darting frantically around the hotel room in confusion. "I can't stay here."

"Why not?" he asked with a gentle smile, his voice dropping to a softer, reassuring tone. "You're safe here."

"Am I?" she asked him, as an unreadable expression passed fleetingly across her face.

"Always." He smiled, a little tentatively.

Talya eyed him a moment, still hesitating, then she flung the door open. "No, I'm sorry. I have to go." The door slammed shut behind her.



"Where to tonight, Nydor?" Donovan asked as he watched the alien fasten the huge, metal buckle on his leather belt. Straightening the colorfully embroidered, wrap-around crimson tunic he wore over tight black pants, Nydor carefully examined the garment's wide lapel. He removed an imaginary bit of lint from the soft fabric and then turned to his friend.

Donovan grinned at the sight. It never ceased to amaze him how much the peacock Nydor became whenever they turned their attention to the pleasures of a planet instead of the mundane work on the ship. Clothes meant nothing to the Centaurian, who wore the same combination of soft brown shirt and pants whether he was on or off duty. But once off-ship, Nydor's utilitarian gray work jumpsuits gave way to garb almost as fancy as that Raile had affected. His personality made the same shift; the quiet, businesslike engineer becoming a flamboyant seeker of pleasure the moment he started breathing unrecycled air.

"The yard first," Nydor said now, eager to get business out of the way. "We'll check on the ship, then head over to Ophelia's. If this is our last night here, I plan to enjoy every minute of it."

"Good idea. Let's get going then. The first floorshow at Ophelia's starts in forty-five minutes, and I don't want to miss seeing Ginger perform with that glommer."

Nydor's face split in his peculiar grimace/grin. "Nor do I."

Moments later, they exited the hotel to find Kirk approaching. He greeted them with a wide grin as he noticed Nydor's apparel. "Don't guess I need to ask where you two are heading."

"Actually we're on our way to check on the Zephyr," Donovan deadpanned, then grinned in friendly invitation. "But later we're going to Ophelia's. Wanna join us?"

Kirk hesitated. Theirs wasn't the kind of companionship he wanted that night, and a second evening with the redhead was out of the question now, and he really wasn't interested in a repeat performance anyway. On the other hand, it seemed too much trouble right then to go looking for another companion. He might as well join his crew--at least for a little while. He had nothing better to do.

"Okay," he finally agreed. "At least as far as checking on the ship. We'll see about Ophelia's later."

They headed for the transporter station to beam up to the orbiting shipyard where a team of mechanics were putting the finishing touches on the Zephyr's repairs.

Taking their places on the transporter platform, they watched the world around them dissolve and then reappear in a completely different form. The Zephyr crewmen found themselves in the middle of the enclosed repair yard. They immediately made their way to their own ship via the crisscrossed sections of metal catwalk that surrounded the half-dozen ships which were in various stages of repair.

They exchanged curious glances when they realized there were no workmen in sight. The previous day, there had been an entire team hard at work attempting to meet the deadline Kirk had set for their departure. Now, there was no one around.

At that moment, a pair of long, skinny legs encased in a utilitarian dark green fabric appeared through the open hatch on the bottom of the Zephyr where the shuttle normally was attached. The shuttle itself was a dozen meters away from the pirate ship, waiting to be reattached once all repairs to the main vessel were finished.

The man lowered himself until he was suspended midway through the hatch. Then he let go and dropped the remaining couple of meters to the catwalk beneath him. Once he had his balance, he quickly stepped aside to allow a second pair of shorter, more shapely legs to follow.

"Hey, Joe, how's it going?" Donovan called out cheerfully to the project's chief mechanic, his neck craning first one way and then the other as he tried to peer around the tall man to get a better look at the rest of the body attached to those remarkable legs.

"Just finishing up now," the tall, lanky Human called back just as cheerfully as he strode in their direction. He was accompanied by a shorter figure whose form-fitting jumpsuit made no secret of her sex. "Meet Glyn Trask," Joe introduced his companion when they were close enough to talk in normal tones. She pulled off the cap she was wearing to reveal a head full of blond curls. "Glyn, this leprechaun is named Donovan, and that big blue bastard is Nydor. They're two of the Zephyr crewmen. And that's Kirk, their commander." Joe turned to Kirk. "Glyn's interested in that opening you have. Still looking for someone?"

"That's right." Kirk eyed Joe's companion appraisingly. "What experience do you have?"

"I steered the Tradewind for three years."

"Why'd you leave?"

"Trouble with the captain. I won't work again with anyone like that Tellarite bastard, no matter how hungry I get." There was a clear warning in the statement as her blue eyes met Kirk's steadily.

"I don't blame you," Kirk's response was both reassurance and a pledge. "I've heard about Drav."

Trask didn't comment, instead asking the only question that really mattered at the moment, "Can I have the job?"

Kirk turned to Joe. "Is she any good?" At the tall man's emphatic nod, Kirk faced Trask again and held out his hand to her, a friendly smile spreading across his face. "You're hired. Welcome aboard."

The newest crewman accepted the gesture and clasped Kirk's hand firmly. "If you don't have any other pressing plans, would you mind familiarizing me with the ship? Joe gave me a quick tour, but there were some features I'm not accustomed to." She was still holding his hand, smiling back at him with a private message.

Kirk's smile broadened into a real grin. He sensed a kindred spirit. "Sure, c'mon."

"What about Ginger?" Nydor asked.

Kirk waved them away. "Go ahead and enjoy yourselves." He smiled at Trask again. "I'll catch her another time."


It was 0500 hours the next morning when Talya arrived at the repair yard ready to board the Zephyr and make a final systems check before their scheduled departure an hour later. She was the first of the crew to arrive, but had barely begun the inspection when the bridge doors slid open and four beings stepped through.

Talya's eyes widened as she saw the woman accompanying Kirk, Nydor and Donovan. She had given up hope of finding a new helmsman on this planet, and she certainly didn't expect what she saw now.

Trask strode briskly forward, hand outstretched to the woman who sat at the navigation controls. "I'm Glynis Trask."

"Talya. Welcome aboard." Her expression was guarded, her voice noncommittal as she hesitated a moment then carefully accepted the offered hand. The contact was brief, Talya ending the handclasp as quickly as she reasonably could. She turned a challenging gaze on Kirk. He ignored the look. Donovan and Nydor moved to their own stations without speaking to Talya or even meeting her questioning eyes. She knew they, at least, would be aware of her resentment at the hiring of a new crewman without her having been consulted. She'd talk to Kirk about it later.

"We did need a helmsman," the little Irishman said with a somewhat defensive grin when Talya finally managed to get his attention. Talya shook her head, realizing she wasn't likely to get any better explanation than that from any of the men. She sighed and went back to her systems checks.

Kirk moved to the back of the bridge to confer with Nydor concerning the ship's overhauled engines.

"Are you familiar with this system?" Talya grudgingly asked Trask as the blonde took her place at the helm.

"Kirk gave me a tour of the ship last night." Trask's voice was open, friendly. "I think I understand everything reasonably well, although there are a few modifications I'm going to have to be careful to keep in mind until I'm more accustomed to them."

"I understand what you mean," Talya said, liking Trask's honesty despite her initial, instinctive resistance to the other woman's presence on the ship. She had sensed nothing more than a cooperative friendliness when their hands had met, and had no real reason to question Trask's motives in joining the Zephyr's crew. No reason, but... She ignored her misgivings. "Don't worry about it." She smiled in reassurance. "I'm sure you'll catch on quickly. Have you found your quarters yet?"

"Yes, Kirk showed me." She grinned. "They're a little small, but I'm sure they'll be adequate. I can't think of anything I really need that's not provided."

"Good." Talya's emotions were see-sawing. Right now, she felt as though her smile were pasted on.

Kirk approached the helm. "Everything under control, Glyn?" he leaned over Trask's shoulder to ask in a warm voice.

She smiled up at him, just as warmly. "Yes, Jim. Looks like everything's ship-shape here."

He nodded. "We only have another forty minutes before we're booked for departure. I want to be sure everything's ready before we leave. We'll all get better acquainted once we're under way."

"I'll look forward to it." Trask gave him an intimate look, and Kirk fought to control the sudden heat he could feel in his cheeks. Shore leave was one thing, but on board... He turned quickly away from the new helmsman and immediately felt as though he had jumped directly from the dilithium chamber into the antimatter when he met the emerald fire of Talya's knowing eyes. After glaring at him for a deliberate few seconds, she took a deep breath and turned obstinately away from him to face Trask.

"I'm glad they found you," Talya told the blonde, smiling at her with a sincerity in the welcome that had been feigned earlier. "It's going to be a real pleasure to have another woman on board."

Kirk almost choked at the cheerful comment, and Trask's eyes widened in surprise. She wasn't used to receiving that kind of reaction from the members of her own sex. Then she watched Talya's eyes shift to meet Kirk's gaze, and she virtually reeled in reaction to the electrical current that seemed to leap between them. Uh-oh, she thought. Now what have I gotten myself into?


The Zephyr moved through empty space--not empty really, for there were always chunks of matter and gaseous clouds in the vacuum of space, even when nothing else was there. But they hadn't seen another ship, live or dead, for two weeks, and the three that had preceded those had been almost as fruitless. They had sighted, then avoided two Orion traders that outgunned them so badly that an attack would have been certain suicide. Then they had found two derelict ships in as many days only to discover one had already been picked clean while the other had barely enough cargo to make this trip worthwhile. Unless they found something of significant value soon, they'd end up losing credits on the entire venture.

The crew was getting restless, and eager for new prey. Donovan was busy at his assigned task of monitoring the various comm channels, searching for some information that might be useful in their search of the galactic shipping lanes for appropriate quarry.

"Report, Mister Donovan," Kirk ordered tersely.

Donovan hesitated for just the fraction of a second necessary to tell Kirk he didn't like the strict military formality of the order, then he shrugged in resignation and answered anyway. "Everything's quiet now, but there was a lot of subspace chatter on the Starfleet channels earlier, something about someone named Rojan, and an entire planet being wiped out."

"Tell me," Kirk ordered softly, images of an exploding moon clouding his vision.

"All right," Donovan agreed readily. "The best I can understand from these garbled 'fleet messages--our decoders aren't quite up to date--a Federation ship answered a distress call from the planet where this Rojan and his people--Kelvans, I believe they said--had colonized. Where they had colonized from, I didn't catch. Anyway, when the Enterprise--" He paused a moment, remembering that had once been Kirk's ship, then he continued, "--arrived, the entire planet was a disaster."

"Destroyed?" The question was barely above a whisper, those visions becoming increasingly vivid. Talya turned to him in concern, sensing his disquiet although she couldn't detect the reason for it.

"No, not the planet, not even the buildings or natural structures. Apparently, the physical damage was minimal, but every living being on the planet was dead. The bodies of the animals were simply left lying around on the surface. But the really weird part was..."


Captain's Log, Stardate 7039.3
Commander Montgomery Scott, commanding

The Enterprise has been ordered to the far reaches of Quadrant 24 to answer a distress call from the U.S.S. Thalis, an Andorian ship on patrol in the vicinity of a planet once visited by the Enterprise. Attempts to contact the Thalis have been unsuccessful, as have all efforts to reach the people who colonized that planet three years ago. I never expected to see those people again, although I have to admit I feel a certain respect for them, especially Tomar. Although they came from another galaxy with the intention of conquering our own, Rojan and the other Kelvans ended up as Human as we are. When we left them on that planet three years ago, this proud race was determined to create their own society on the world they had colonized; to do it on their own, with minimal assistance from Starfleet and the Federation. What could have happened to them...or to the Thalis, for that matter?

Scott switched off the recorder and turned to meet the sky-blue gaze of Leonard McCoy, who stood slightly behind and immediately to the left of his command chair, just as he had so many times with Jim Kirk. "This is goin' to be a long trip, Doctor," Scott sighed. "A long, mostly very boring trip."

"That's about all we get now," the chief medical officer grumbled. "First Admiral Komack has us patrolling the edges of the Gorn system, now he has us going a couple of hundred light-years--"

Scott sighed as McCoy continued to rant. He didn't like command, never had. He'd much rather be below decks with his beloved engines, but the admiral hadn't given him any choice in the matter. With Spock dead and Kirk gone, he was next in line and would have to serve until the mission ended. Starfleet simply wasn't going to assign a new captain to the ship for just six months. There was time enough to do that when the Enterprise returned to Earth for a refit before its next mission, although it would have made more sense to him if they had just gone ahead with the refit while they were there. Why had Komack insisted on sending them back out for these last few months with three of the ship's top officers having to cover the responsibilities of the two who were missing? And why to such a God-forsaken quadrant?

"Mister Scott?" Uhura provided a welcome distraction from his unpleasant thoughts.

"Aye, lass?"

"There are more reports coming in of missing ships. Two Gorn and a Catullan freighter."


She shrugged. "I don't think so. The Gorn thought they were making headway in chasing them off with the help of some private ships, but this latest rash of attacks doesn't seem to make sense. Whoever's raiding those vessels is leaving too much behind to be salvaged by the privateers. The Orions wouldn't do that."

"Then who is it?" Chekov demanded.

"No one seems to know," she replied.

"Well, whoever it is, we dinna want them to catch us off guard. Lieutenant, continue to monitor all frequencies at the maximum range," he ordered Uhura, then turned to the science station. "And, Ensign Chekov, you do th' same with all sensors. If somethin' unknown shows up, we'd better be ready for it--whatever it might be."

"And how are we supposed to be ready for 'somethin' unknown'?" McCoy scoffed.

"You can start by preparing Sickbay for the possibility of battle." Scott snapped, glaring at the doctor, at the end of his patience with all the bickering.

"Aye, aye, sir...Captain," McCoy sneered as he half bowed toward the command chair and then proceeded to the turbolift.

Uhura gasped at the cruel mockery of the doctor's words and actions. It was so unlike McCoy, who though quick to anger, was unfailingly compassionate. She turned her sympathetic gaze to the man in command, who had risen to his feet at that final parting shot. Lips pressed firmly together, he forced himself to relax, then met Uhura's look and shook his head slowly.

"Never mind, lass," Scott admonished the communications officer gently, a consoling smile on his lips that somehow didn't quite meet his eyes. "He didna mean it."

Uhura blinked her eyes rapidly. "I know, Scotty," she whispered. "I know."


"We are approaching the Kelvans' planet now, Meester Scott," Chekov reported from the science console. "Scanners reveal no signs of anything unusual. No radiation or other contamination detectible from this distance."

"Life signs?"

"None so far."

"None? Not even the animals?"

"Nothing, sair."

Scott digested the information. "Take us in closer, Sulu," he ordered a minute later. "Standard orbit."

"Aye, sir."

"Uhura?" Scott swiveled to face the communications station. "Any response to your efforts to contact them?"

"Nothing, sir." She was looking at her board as she ran long, competent fingers across the controls once more, straining in an attempt to listen through the static for any signal at all. After a few more moments, Uhura lifted her dark eyes to meet the Scotsman's inquiring look. She shook her head slowly. "Sorry, Scotty, but I can't get anything at all. There's nothing but static on all channels."

"That's all right, lass," Scott consoled her. "You did your best. There's probably not anybody left here to respond, if the scanner readings are accurate."

"They are accurate," the navigator-cum-science officer insisted. "As a precaution, I recommend complete protective gear for the entire landing party. Just because our instruments can't detect any contaminations..." His voice trailed off as he caught Sulu's skeptical look. "I just think we should be cautious..." Chekov finished finally. "...wvery cautious."

Scott grunted as the bridge crew watched a planet appear on the main viewscreen. They all remembered the planet as Earth-like, lush, green, and almost a paradise. It still looked the same from out here, but what happened to the people?

"Sulu, you have the conn," Scott ordered, switching the command controls to the helm position so that his first officer could both command and steer the ship. "Pavel, Leonard, come with me."

Twenty minutes later, the landing party consisting of Scott, Chekov, McCoy and three security officers materialized on the surface of the planet. They looked around them in dawning horror.

McCoy knelt beside the carcass of a dog-like animal, scanning it in an attempt to learn how it had died, then repeated the examination on another creature a few meters away.

"Neutron radiation," he reported through tight lips a few minutes later when he finally stood to face Scott. "Everything here appears to have died from God damned neutron radiation bombardment. Somebody must have fired on them from orbit, a blast strong enough to kill every animal life-form without damaging the buildings or surrounding countryside."

"Yes, sair," Chekov agreed as he continued to study the readings on his tricorder. "The buildings are all wvirtually undamaged, but I am still unable to locate any life signs. As far as I can determine, every animal on this planet is now dead. They have all been destroyed, all of them...people, animals." He looked around in confusion. "And yet the buildings are still here, along with the trees and all other natural or man-made structures. Just the people and other animal life were destroyed. Who would do this...and why?" he demanded.

"People?" McCoy mused, his eyes widening in sudden realization as he turned to face Scott. "Where the hell are--" McCoy started in on one of his tirades, then stopped in mid-sentence, staring hard at something several meters ahead of him. Suddenly, he started running, hurrying to the pile of stark white objects that lay scattered on the ground. When he reached them, he stopped and stared again, dropping to his knees as though in a daze, lifting one to examine it closely, both visually and with his tricorder.

"What?" Scott approached, slightly breathless from his effort to keep with up McCoy. He stopped at the doctor's side, impatient to see what it was that McCoy found so intriguing. Then he, too, dropped to his knees, slowly picking up one of the objects, seemingly in a daze. "My God!" he whispered harshly. "It's a pile of bones." Scott turned to look at McCoy, desperate hope in his eyes. "Human?"

"You're damned right they're Human," McCoy rasped, then looked up at his commander and friend with icy blue eyes. "As least as Human as the Kelvans were when we left them here."

"Ye canna mean--"

"You know damned well what I mean, Scotty. This..." The doctor picked up a clean, white, fleshless femur and tossed it at an even bigger pile of bones a short distance away. The bone created a brief clatter on its landing as it dislodged others from the pile, "and that are all that's left of Rojan and Kelinda and all the other people we left here." He stood up and glared around him, hands clenched into tight fists at his sides. "God damn it! Who's responsible for this?"


Kirk sat alone in his quarters, nursing a stiff drink as he held his own private wake for a brave people who had traveled from a far galaxy on a mission of conquest, gave it up in favor of establishing a new home in this one and were now dead. "To you, Rojan," he lifted his glass and whispered to the empty room. "And to you, too, Kelinda." He downed the drink, then jumped when the door buzzer sounded. He stared at it a moment, not really wanting to be disturbed. But years of habit were hard to break. On the Enterprise, the captain had always been on call. It was no different on the Zephyr. "Come," he called softly.

The doors slid open at his command, and Talya stood on the threshold. She was biting her lower lip, uncertain whether to proceed now that she was there.

Kirk sat up on the side of the bed and set the glass aside. "What do you want?" he asked bluntly.

The question jolted her out of her ambivalence. "We're not finding anything of value in this sector. I think it's time we moved on to an area a little less...traveled."

Kirk hesitated a moment before responding to the carefully phrased, but still obvious challenge. He wasn't sure exactly what she was challenging--his judgment, the authority she herself had placed in his hands, or was it something else entirely, something more...personal.

"I disagree," he said finally. "If we go too far afield, there won't be anything to find."

"But what we're finding here isn't worth our trouble," she protested, voice rising just a little.

"Maybe not," he conceded, trying to keep the tone of his own voice as reasonable, as logical as possible. "But I still think it would be unwise to venture too far from the regular shipping lanes at this time."

"Damn it, Kirk!" Unlike Kirk, Talya had already quit trying to be reasonable. She faced him with hands balled into fists pressed against her hips. "The Orion bastards don't stick to regular shipping lanes." Her voice dripped with scorn. "And it's from them that we get our biggest, most valuable yields!"

"That's also how we lost Raile," he reminded her brutally, his own control slipping in the face of her temper. "I'm not ready to risk anyone else. Are you?"

Talya's face turned a sickly shade of green at the accusation. "That's unfair!" she rasped. "You know I didn't want anything to happen to him. I don't want anyone else hurt or killed either. It's just..." Her eyes glittering with unshed tears, she dropped her hands from her waist and turned away, trying to hide her emotion.

"What's this all about, Talya?" he demanded, a hard edge to his dangerously soft voice. She turned back around to face him again, but warily this time rather than with anger. "Have you changed your mind about wanting me to command? If you have, tell me and take over yourself. If not, then butt out." As he talked, he rose to his feet and moved slowly toward her. By the time he finished, he was standing just a few steps away from her, feet slightly apart, his own hands at his waist in a pose that mirrored hers of a moment earlier. His head jutted forward, and there was aggression in every line of his body. Talya had to fight the urge to retreat physically under the onslaught of his personality.

"No," she whispered, trying to explain. Her gaze was on the floor as she tried to avoid the anger she knew was in his eyes. "No, that's not what I meant. You're in command. I won't challenge that--or question your orders in front of the others. Only one person can be in charge..." She looked back up at him, her voice growing stronger as her conviction returned. "...and I sure as hell don't want to be that person. It's just...I have to have my say. I always did with Raile." She stopped and stared at him, eyes wide at the suddenly cold look in his eyes.

"I'm not Raile." His voice was soft, too soft.

"I know that!" she shouted at him, her temper taking control again. "Damn it, Kirk. We all knew the risks when we started this. Sometimes, you just have to take chances, or you'll never get anywhere. You take chances and...sometimes people die." She added the last softly, agony in the words. "That's the price we pay."

Her words were like a knife in his gut, and he turned away to whisper painfully, "Yes. Sometimes people die."

Talya knew she wasn't supposed to hear that, but she did. She felt his pain, too, but couldn't quite focus on its cause.

"Like the Kelvans?" she hazarded a guess.

"The Kelvans, yes, and...others." He walked back to the bedside and picked up the glass, took a careful sip, then just stood there, staring at the glass without turning back to face her.

"Are you okay?" she asked, all anger gone now, replaced by a profound sadness, an emptiness that disturbed her more than she would admit--even to herself.

"I'm fine." His voice was level, carefully so. "Just...mourning the deaths of old friends."

"The Kelvans? Or those others?"


"Tell me about them."

He looked at her quizzically. "Which?"

She smiled gently. "Both."

Kirk shook his head slowly, at first unwilling to speak of any of them. Then, he seemed to change his mind. He began speaking softly, discussing first the ones whose memories brought him the least pain. "I only knew the Kelvans a brief time, but it was enough to mourn their passing. They were an amazing people."

"Who were they?"

He shook his head again. "Sorry. I can't discuss that."

"You're not in Starfleet any longer."

"No, but I still can't talk about it. I took an oath once, and nothing that's happened since, not even leaving the 'fleet, ends my moral obligation to live up to my word."

"I see."

They were both silent for a moment. Then Talya finally broke the silence to speak idly, as though not really expecting an answer. "What could have killed them?"

"I don't know. I wish to God I did."

"Why? You couldn't do anything about it."

"Maybe not. But at least I'd know. I don't like mysteries like this. There are too damned many of them these days."

She didn't ask him what mysteries he was talking about. There was something more immediately important that needed discussion first. So, instead, she merely commented, "It was your ship that found them."

"Yes, but she's not mine anymore." He couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. He couldn't help but wonder, either, why the Enterprise was so far afield. She was supposed to be patrolling on the edges of the Tau Lacertae system in this quadrant, available...

"Kirk..." Talya hesitated briefly, uncertain whether she should continue. He had made it clear from the beginning that this matter was strictly off them all. But her curiosity was too strong, so she risked asking the question, knowing he was as likely to react with anger as he was to answer her. "What happened?"

"None of your damned business." His voice was still low, but there was ice in his words now.

"Something's bothering you," she persisted, recklessly risking the anger she could feel building just beneath his surface control. "Something more than the Kelvans."

"Don't start trying to read my mind, Talya," he warned her tiredly as he unconsciously lifted his right had to knead the bunched muscles at the back of his neck. "You might not like what you find." She blanched at the suggestion, and he dropped the hand to give a short, mirthless laugh. "Don't be so insulted. I know you're a telepath."


"My...first officer was a Vulcan. It wasn't hard to guess...all that business about not being touched. And when I did touch you, when you were injured..." He stopped, not needing to complete the thought, hoping she would drop the matter now.

She didn't. "Please, I just want to help."

"Lady, there's nothing you can do to help. Not you, not anybody else. Just try leaving me alone."

"I didn't think you wanted to be alone." Talya's voice was barely audible, but Kirk heard and his iron control suddenly snapped. He stalked across the room, crowding her against the bulkhead, not touching but so close she could feel the waves of anger like a physical force.

"When you're ready to offer more than empty platitudes, Talya," he challenged her through clenched teeth, "...come back. Otherwise, just stay the hell away."

Talya paled again, then reached blindly behind her for the button that would release the door. When it slid open, she darted out of the room and hurried back to her own quarters.

When the door closed behind her, Kirk returned to the bed and sank onto it. He slumped forward, forehead in his hands, elbows on his knees. That hadn't been very nice. Bones would have chewed his ass for the way he had treated her. But Bones wasn't there. It didn't matter. He needed to get her out of there the fastest way he could, and it worked. He sat back up and reached for another drink.

"To you, Spock," he whispered, swallowing the fiery liquid in a single gulp.


The tall, lean figure knelt absolutely motionless in one corner of the cavernous room, desperately trying to control his own, uncharacteristically jumbled thoughts and keep out the other, even more disturbing ones that continuously bombarded him from all sides. Usually, he managed to deal with them, but sometimes he just had to get away, completely away; find a secret hiding place somewhere deep within his own mind. Erecting the strongest shields he could, he would attempt to find some semblance of peace in this universe turned upside down.

He searched within his mind for some distracting memory that would hold off the excruciating pain of a dozen untrained intellects. He had been unable to teach most of the younglings adequate control techniques even after months of captivity together, in spite of everything else he had managed to teach them. He dismissed such thoughts, knowing they wouldn't be any help to him now, and tried to turn his own mind inward.

First, the Vulcan attempted to find some comfort in the precise mathematical equations that in the past had always served him as both an intellectual challenge and an emotional solace. This time, however, he found their very precision and orderliness outside his grasp, beyond his ability to concentrate.

So, instead, he turned to more personal, more...pleasant memories. He allowed the vision of a stark desert landscape to form within his mind. He had always found a certain spartan beauty in the clean, spare, desolate wilderness of his home world. Then he dismissed that as well. For once, he found the Vulcan panorama too lonely, too sterile, too...something. He needed something entirely different right now. So, instead, he focused on moist green grass, tall leafy trees and a babbling brook in which colorful fish jumped and danced, their wet scales glistening in the sunlight.

Startled by the vision, he opened his eyes. That one wasn't even his own memory. It was one he had found within his friend's consciousness during one of their infrequent, but often intense he had found, then unconsciously stored away for future reference, when he might find a reason, a need to savor it.

His face became even more stoic as he thought of that friend. He thought of him often, and was troubled by the occasional pangs of pain he sensed across the light-years of space. Although he had been surprised to detect the touch of his friend's mind over such a tremendous distance, he found it easy to understand the reasons behind the emotions he was picking up, at least part of them. But the only clear message he ever received was his own name. Beyond that, all he felt was pain and loneliness...and guilt.

Spock's attention was diverted by a movement across the room. One of the younglings had darted up to a small opening in the wall. Much too small to permit the Kelvans to pass through it, the opening led to a small passageway that connected the cargo pod with the adjacent section of the ship. It was nothing more than a life-support connector. The boy was carefully examining the opening, running his hands around its edges. He glanced back over his shoulder toward Spock. Curious as to the youngling's intentions, Spock immediately resumed his meditation position and shielded his thoughts from the child. Certain that he was unobserved, the boy suddenly crawled up into the opening.

mr'Illia, Spock called out as he rose to his feet and strode quickly across the cargo pod toward the connector. The boy turned to look over his shoulder again and seemed to hesitate a moment, undecided whether to proceed. Before Spock could cross the room, however, the boy made up his mind and turned back to continue on his way.

mr'Illia, Spock called a second time, but the boy kept going. Spock reached the bulkhead and carefully examined the small opening. Could he fit through? The answer came as soon as his mind framed the question. No. The opening was too small. Unable to follow his young charge, Spock waited anxiously for eleven point three six minutes until the Rycherian climbed back through the hole, grinning in his excitement.

Guess what I saw, Mr'ynto? mr'Illia demanded. Without giving the Vulcan a chance to answer, he plunged on. A window! Spock could feel the wonder in his mind. You can see the stars!

After that, all of the younglings wanted to "see the stars." Please, Mr'ynto? begged mr'Auller. Please, echoed nh'Uscheena. Spock found himself unable to stop them, to deprive them of this one real diversion. He didn't even try. Instead, he drew mr'Antor aside.

You are the eldest. It is your responsibility to assist me in caring for your sister and your companions, the Vulcan charged mr'Antor. I will allow you and the others to go through the opening and see the window, but you must promise me that you will obey my restrictions without question.

Yes, Mr'ynto, the boy agreed quickly. And what are those restrictions?

No more than three of you may go at a time, Spock directed, then added sternly, ...and you, mr'Illia or nh'Uscheena, as the three eldest, must always accompany one or two of the younger ones.

Yes, Mr'ynto, mr'Antor accepted the responsibility without question.

Further, Spock continued, you must be careful to avoid the huge ones at all times. Do not allow them to observe any of you.

They'll stop us, won't they? the boy asked.

At least, Spock responded drily.

We will be careful. I promise.

Very well, you may proceed.

mr'Antor turned to mr'Illia and nh'Uscheena. You must show us the way, he told the other boy, so that we may also take the others.

mr'Illia nodded his head solemnly, then grinned suddenly and quickly darted through the opening again, mr'Antor and nh'Uscheena close on his heels. They were gone a little longer this time, and when they returned, all three exhibited the same excitement mr'Illia had shown after his first trip to the other side.

As mr'Antor prepared to take two more of the younglings through the opening, Spock sighed and settled back on his knees, hands steepled in front of his face. He resumed his efforts at meditation, deliberately attempting to conjure up the images that had formed in his mind earlier. As the vision of grass, trees and brook reformed, so did the emotions whose source he did not question. Then, once again, he 'heard' his name called out, accompanied as usual by the sheer agony of aloneness. Ignoring the children who surrounded him, he focused all of his attention on that cry for help and answered it the only way he knew how. I am here, Jim.


The bridge was silent when Kirk came on duty. He had been in a foul mood ever since receiving word of the Kelvans' fate, and the others reacted accordingly. He stopped by the synthesizer to pick up a cup of coffee and then settled into the command chair, watching his crew handle the routine tasks of their various stations.

"Kirk," Talya's quiet voice broke the silence. "There's something on the sensors."

"Dead or alive?" Kirk asked, distressed by the first possibility, but dreading the chances of the second even more.

"Dead, apparently," Talya sounded disappointed. "So far, I'm not picking up any life signs, but..." She turned to him with sudden excitement in her eyes. "...the cargo hold is full. And it looks like they're carrying dilithium. We're rich."

Donovan gave a loud cheer at the news. Kirk couldn't help grinning a little himself, although he had found it a little difficult to celebrate anything after the previous week's news about the Kelvans. A derelict ship, any derelict, seemed to take on a new, ominous meaning in light of those reports. He shook off the uncomfortable feeling that came with any thought of the Kelvans and tried to join in his crew's jubilation, thankful that this was a derelict and not a live ship with a live crew. At least he didn't have to justify any loss of life with his conscience this time. Maybe his own crew would be a little happier after salvaging the cargo.

Besides, if the haul were great enough, he could justify heading for a port to unload the cargo and take a little break from the monotony of the past few weeks. He was more than ready for a break.

"Prepare to beam over, gentlemen," he ordered. "Let's see what she's got on board."

"Aye-aye, sir!" Donovan saluted smartly as he stood quickly to his feet and headed for the doors. Nydor followed, the big alien's customary grunt his only response.

Talya allowed the men to go ahead of her and then turned to give Kirk an encouraging grin before she followed them to take care of her usual job of operating that portable transporter, while Kirk and Trask remained on the Zephyr.


The Zephyr slid easily into its berth at the orbital dock of 679 Andromedae. They had no need of the repair yard this time since they were merely there to off-load and dispose of their cargo. Donovan was overseeing the unloading operation, while Nydor had volunteered to find a buyer for the cargo. Kirk had almost laughed out loud in relief when he had learned that was the blue alien's "other talents." Nydor had an uncanny ability to judge the exact value of a cargo and get at least that much, if not more, out of even the most hardened merchant.

Talya and Trask remained on the ship a while longer, shutting down all systems and securing the Zephyr against possible intruders. Meanwhile, Kirk beamed down to the planet to arrange for their accommodations at the same hotel they had visited on the last stay. Once again, he rented the suite for himself and a large double room for his two male crewmen. After a brief hesitation, he reserved separate rooms for the women, leaving messages for all four to meet in his rooms later for a brief meeting before being released to whatever shore leave activities each preferred.

For himself, the first thing on the agenda was a hot shower with real water, one luxury for which the Zephyr wasn't equipped. He turned from the registration desk and started toward the elevators, then stopped when he saw the big reptilian creature approaching him. The Gorn looked completely out of place in this hotel, despite the presence of various other non-human species. He was too big, for one thing, and he was already attracting attention. Kirk took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, continuing across the room in a path that took him right past the Gorn, hoping that the creature would have better sense than to try to contact him there.

He released the held breath the minute the elevator doors closed behind him. The Gorn hadn't betrayed him by so much as a look. He shook his head. His own behavior had been more likely to give him away, if the Gorn's very presence hadn't already distracted all attention away from the smaller Human.

The elevator came to a stop, and Kirk hurried down the corridor to his suite. Inside he found a message blinking on the comm unit. A location, and a time. Nothing more. It was all he needed. He headed for the shower.


Kirk strode purposefully through the dingy streets, remembering his previous walk on this planet with Talya. Alone, it was even more imperative to discourage potential muggers by an air of self-confidence. His meeting with the Gorn had been unsatisfactory. He had given Kirk a few more details about the Kelvan incident, but had nothing to report concerning the other matter.

It didn't really matter. Kirk hadn't even expected to see him here. He was on this planet for only two purposes--to sell his cargo and enjoy a little shore leave. Nydor had taken care of the first item on the agenda, and now it was time for him to take care of the other himself. The weeks since their last stop here had been long ones, but Trask had seemed to understand when he told her the Zephyr was too small a ship for an on-board liaison. In fact, he had been a little chagrinned at her ready, and cheerful agreement. But they weren't on ship now, and there was nothing to prevent them from enjoying an encore of their previous encounter. He smiled a little in anticipation.


Kirk tapped softly at the door to the hotel room next to his. The door slid open, and he stepped inside, smiling still. Then he stopped at the look on the woman's face. There was no anger there, but no welcome in the blue eyes either.

"I think you'd better leave," she told him quietly.


"Because this isn't where you want to be."

He gave her his most charming grin and stepped closer. "I'm exactly where I want to be." His hands closed around her waist, and he bent his head to nuzzle at her neck. After a moment, he lifted his head again and looked at her questioningly. He wasn't used to such a lack of response.

"No, you aren't." She picked the conversation up where he had left off, and he turned away from her angrily.

"And just where the hell do I want to be?"

The blonde shook her head slowly, a half-smile on her lips. "I don't think I need to tell you that."

"Damn!" Kirk spun on his heel and left without further comment, hurrying back to his own room. Once inside, he flung himself down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. "Damn!" he repeated.

He lay there for only a brief moment before suddenly rising again. He stormed out of the room. He was on shore leave, and by God he was going to enjoy it. "There's more than one woman on this God-forsaken planet," he muttered to himself as he punched the lift button impatiently. "And one's just as good as another for what I need right now, no matter what that blonde bitch said!" The doors slid open and he stepped inside, carefully wiping the angry scowl off his face and attempting a smile at the lift's other occupants. He didn't quite succeed.

In less than an hour, after downing three quick drinks, he was back. He wasn't enjoying it, and he knew he wasn't likely to. As much as he hated to admit it, Trask had been right. There was only one place he wanted to be right then, only one person he wanted to be with. Second best didn't really have any appeal. He left the elevator and strode briskly down the corridor toward his suite. He stopped when a door opened about half-way there and a woman stepped into the hallway. She looked up, startled at the stormy expression on his face. "Kirk? Is something wrong."

"No, Talya. There's not a damned thing wrong!" He entered his suite and turned to slam the door shut only to stop dead still when he found her standing on the threshold. "What do you want?" he demanded.

"To make sure you're okay."

"I'm fine." He spoke through clenched teeth. "A little drunk, maybe, but not nearly drunk enough. Why don't you just go back to your own safe room and leave me alone?" He turned away from her, but instead of leaving, she followed him into the room and closed the door behind her. He swung back to face her. "I thought I asked you to leave."

"When I'm sure you're okay."

"I told you before. I don't want any of your platitudes."

"Talk to me, Kirk. Something's eating you up inside. Get it out. Talk about it."

For a moment, he allowed the pain to show, then he shoved it back deep inside. "Reading my mind again?" he asked conversationally.

She smiled sadly and shook her head. "No. I can't." Her smile widened at his disbelieving look. "Really, I can't. You were right. I am telepathic, a touch telepath, like your friend." His face went cold at the reference. She continued as though he hadn't reacted. "But you're broadcasting emotions all over the place. I'd have to be psi blind--or have much stronger shields than I do--not to pick them up." She paused, then repeated, "Talk to me."

He looked at her a minute, then surrendered and sat on the sofa, leaning forward with his arms on his thighs. He looked up to find her still standing. He'd probably regret this in the morning, and it was probably just the alcohol anyway, impairing his judgment and lowering his defenses. None of it mattered. Right then, he really did want to talk.

"Sit down," he ordered. "I'll get a crick in my neck this way." She settled in a chair just far enough away from him to prevent physical contact, and waited. After another brief silence, he spoke. "There's not much I can tell you. My best friend died. It was my fault, and I was forced out of Starfleet." It sounded even worse than it really was, told so baldly, but Talya took it unflinchingly.

"I don't think it was that simple."

"No, but that's the gist of it. Anything more is classified, and even if they did invite me to leave, I'm still honor-bound not to discuss it." He looked at her challengingly. "I do still have a sense of honor, you know."

She nodded her head. "Yes, I know. A very strong one. That's part of why it bothers you so much."

"Part of it."

"And the rest?"

He hesitated so long she didn't think he was going to answer, but finally he spoke. "He was my best friend, and I just let him die." He blinked rapidly at the bare admission.

"Tell me about him," Talya prodded gently.

"Spock? Where do you want me to begin?" When she didn't answer, he continued on his own. "Well, to start with, like I told you before, he's Vulcan...or rather half-Vulcan. The mixed heritage causes a lot of problems for him. I don't think he ever feels at home anywhere except on the Enterprise. I'd like to think I'm a large part of the reason for that."

She smiled gently. "I'm sure you were." He didn't notice that he was talking present-tense, while she spoke of the past.

"Yeah, well, you should have seen him when I first took command. He was all stiff and proper, never cracked a smile or unbent enough to even call anyone by a first name." He grinned at the memory. "He didn't count on James T. Kirk, though, nor on Leonard McCoy. Between us, we've managed to make him...a little more Human. I think his mother appreciates it, even if his father doesn't exactly approve."

"You loved him very much."

He looked at her again, startled, then admitted, "Yes, I love much as I did my own brother. He saved my life on more than one occasion, and risked his own to do it."

"I'm sure you did the same for him."

Abruptly, he stood and walked to the window, staring out at the night sky. "But not this time," he whispered. "This time, I failed him..."

She followed him, stopping just a step behind him, hesitating. Then she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, concentrating fiercely to keep from being swamped by the pain she could sense even before she touched him. "I think not."

He spun around and faced her angrily. "What the hell do you know about it? I said I failed him, and that's the ugly truth. I didn't want to. I didn't even have a choice really, but it doesn't change the fact that I did. And I'll have to live with that guilt for the rest of my life." The anger seemed to drain out of him, and when he continued, his voice sounded merely tired. "I'm the one person he trusted implicitly, and ultimately I failed him. Do you have any idea what it means to a Vulcan to give that kind of trust?"

"Yes, I do." She spoke barely above a whisper. "It's hard to trust people when you're telepathic and they aren't. They're used to hiding things, even from themselves, but you can see through the subterfuge to whatever's hidden inside. Non-telepaths tend to simply take others at face value. They may get fooled on occasion, but they can always convince themselves that this person is worth another chance. It's harder for us. We can't just take someone on faith; we have to find a basic goodness inside first."

"Goodness." He laughed bitterly. "I'm not good."

"I think you are, basically." She laughed teasingly at the skeptical look he gave her. "Not perfect by any means, but basically good. Your friend knew that, or he wouldn't have given you his trust."

"And I betrayed it. Why the hell would anybody trust me? I don't trust myself."

"I trust you."

"What do you know?"

"What your friend knew."

He gave her a small smile. "I keep forgetting. You're telepathic."

She smiled. "Yes, and more than that." She hesitated before continuing, "Like your friend, I'm mother."

"Half--" He stepped closer, hesitated only a second, then lifted one hand to gently smooth the hair back off an ear. Talya steeled herself against his touch and stood there as calmly as she could, trembling slightly, as he gently traced the fragile outline of the elegant ear, from the dainty pierced lobe all the way up to the delicate point at the top. "I had no idea," he whispered. "Tell me about your mother."

An image swam briefly before her eyes; angular features with a somber expression, upswept eyebrows, elegantly pointed ears, dark hair and eyes...she shook her head to dispel the image, then pulled away from Kirk and returned to her chair. "I don't remember her very well, not as well as I'd like anyway. I was only six when she died. But we were already...close. She was beginning to teach me the mind disciplines, only I didn't get very far before I lost her. After that," she paused, "there just wasn't anyone to teach me."

"What do you mean?"

"You told me your friend didn't like being touched. Well, imagine if he had never learned how to shield properly, how to keep out others' thoughts and feelings. There was no one to teach me, no one..."

"Couldn't you have returned to Vulcan. Surely there--"

"No!" Her voice was just a few decibels below a shout. "No, never," she continued in a slightly less intense, but no more relenting tone. "I can never go to Vulcan. No matter what."

"Why not?"

"We cannot return," the woman stated calmly.

"You must," the tall man insisted. "It's your only chance."

"If we return, they will take her. I will not take that risk."

"Talya?" Kirk's voice brought her back to the present. "Why can't you go to Vulcan?" he repeated his earlier question.

"I can't. That's enough. If I could have, perhaps things would have been easier, but I didn't have that option, so I had to try to cope on my own. It was terrifying. I was just a little girl, and I missed my mother so badly, but I missed my father, too."

"I don't understand."

"Not only couldn't I keep others' feelings out, I couldn't keep my own in. I was broadcasting even worse than you did earlier, and anybody that touched me felt it. All my pain and anger and sorrow. My father couldn't handle it, so he just stayed away. I understand it now, have for years, but as I child I just remember how much more it hurt, every time he turned his back on me. So I just kept on trying to be more and more like him, teasing, joking, learning how to fight, to navigate and steer the ship, everything necessary to be a valuable member of the crew, hoping if I could be like him, then he might accept me, love me...hold me..."

"It must have been a very isolated childhood."

"It was," she admitted in a small voice, "but eventually I learned enough control so that I could function around other people, although I still find the thought of being touched terrifying."

"I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"I touched you."

"Yes," she acknowledged.

"You let me," he accused.

"Yes." There was more than acknowledgment in the whispered word this time.

He studied her a long minute, then slowly, giving her plenty of time to withdraw, he reached out and laid a gentle hand against her cheek. She caught her breath at the contact, then let it out slowly, turning her head to rest her cheek more completely in his palm.

Kirk felt his own heartbeat quicken as though attempting to match tempo with hers. He wanted her, badly, and knew she wanted him, too. It terrified him, the intensity of their need for each other, and something else, too. He withdrew his hand and stepped backward.

"Talya, I...can't share my mind with you. My thoughts--"

"Aren't your own." She nodded understandingly. "I know that." She smiled. "It's all right. I told you. I don't read minds. I...can feel...what you feel, especially when we touch. But I don't know what you're thinking. I never learned how to do that."

He stepped back closer again. "You're sure?" When she nodded, he took another step and gathered her carefully in his arms, bending his head to close his mouth over hers.

When the kiss ended, he lifted his head but continued to watch her silently. He released her hair from its confining pins and threaded his fingers through the dark curls that rioted around her shoulders. Then he began to trace her delicate features; the ears first, delighting in the feel of those delicate points at the top, then the line of her jaw...her cheekbones...those severely arched eyebrows. He could see the Vulcan in her now, tempered by something else, but definitely there.

Talya stood there silently, shivering slightly at his touch, but making no effort to stop him. She waited, patiently allowing him to control the situation, to lead her wherever he chose. Then, just when he thought he could stand the wait no longer, she seemed to reach a sudden decision of her own. She turned without speaking and walked from that room into the next one, stopping at the side of the wide bed to await him with a calm patience.

She was neither calm nor patient inside. All the nerves of her body screamed out at her to leave, to get out of there while she still could, to run while there was still time. But she ignored the warning of her own body and remained motionless, unable to move.

Kirk followed her, closing the door quietly behind him, and it was too late. She steadied her breathing as she realized it had been too late for her from the minute she had met him. This moment between them had been inevitable from the beginning, and there was no point in fighting it any longer. The potential consequences were frightening, but she couldn't think about them any longer. Not now. Not here.

Still silent, eyes locked in blazing intensity, they began to undress, slowly. When the last garment had been set aside, he approached her, reaching out to caress her softly bronzed skin and found himself surprised at its heat until he remembered again her Vulcan blood.

He was not surprised at either the firmness of her lean muscles or her quiet acceptance of his touch. Despite her frequent outbursts of humor or anger, he usually felt she was in complete control of her emotions, calm and collected, allowing only those feelings she wished exposed to be seen by others. She appeared just that serene now. Only a trip-hammer pulse throbbing in her temple and an occasional quiver betrayed her body's response to his. Otherwise, she remained passive, neither resisting nor actively encouraging him. And yet she stood there, eyes wide, brazenly naked, her very stillness mute testimony to her willing participation.

For Talya was willing, if untutored, unsure quite what to do, how to act. All she could do now was to wait for his lead and react to whatever he did. So she waited, still trembling slightly as she felt his fingers gently stroke her feverish flesh.

He drew her close, skin touching skin, her warmth melting something cold and frozen inside him as his lips closed over hers.

Talya accepted his kiss as she had his touch, mouth opening to allow his tongue entry, while she still remained passive, receiving but not yet returning his passion. Then a spark of light seemed to grow and intensify behind her eyelids. It flickered briefly, then steadied, glowing faintly but persistently, dispelling the bleak shadows within her mind.

Kirk lowered her to the bed as he deepened the kiss, willing her to respond. Hesitantly, her arms slid around him, cradling him to her as his own passion took over and he covered her body with his, joining them in a single swift movement that drew a gasp of surprise from her and then a matching one from him when he felt his entire being flooded with an incredible warmth. He sensed a presence inside that somehow managed both to excite and calm him at the same time, giving him a feeling of completeness that brought swiftly suppressed tears to his eyes.

He slowed his body, moving gently, caressingly, drawing the act out longer than he would have believed possible until finally he lost control and crashed over the edge, regaining awareness what seemed like eons later to find himself held in soothing arms.

He lifted his head to meet her knowing gaze and found tears on her cheeks. Gently, he brushed them away with his fingertips. He kissed her once more before slowly withdrawing, unwilling to acknowledge the understanding he read in the glistening eyes. Just as slowly, he dressed and left the room, not yet ready to face the truth between them.

When he was gone, Talya lay there a brief while longer, silently contemplating what had just passed between them. That there had been physical pleasure went without saying. She didn't even find that surprising, despite her lack of experience, but the other...she searched within her mind and found the tiny light still flickering there. She found that both gratifying and frightening in its intensity.

She sat up in the bed and reached for her own clothing. She'd think about what had happened later, examine it from every angle and find the solution to the dilemma he presented her. For now, she just had to get out of that bed, that room, that suite. She dressed hurriedly, then walked through the doorway, paused to give his back an unfathomable look, and left the suite, the door closing behind her with a soft click.

He turned finally at the sound of the door's lock clicking into place, and stared at it in confusion, incomprehensible images swirling in his head--a Vulcan woman fading into nothingness, a big, swarthy, laughing man who kept turning his back, tiny arms reaching out, reaching out, always reaching but never finding, and a dark, aching loneliness so intense it blotted out the sunlight and took his breath away. Then a warmth, a shining light, an unexpectedly comforting presence and an explosion of pleasure that swept over him in wave after wave so intense he had feared he would shatter into a million tiny pieces.

The confusion faded suddenly with the realization that the images had come from Talya's mind. She had been wrong. They had shared more than emotions. Their minds had touched as well. He had seen her parents in hers. What had she seen in his? Kirk sat on the sofa, searching his mind in an attempt to figure out what thoughts he might have revealed to her, and whether he dared risk a second encounter... whether he could bear not to risk it.

And then he remembered that incredible explosion of pleasure and realized exactly what it meant. His eyes widened with the recognition. "Dear God!" he whispered, and buried his face in his hands.


Kirk paced his suite the following night. He had started for Talya's room at least half a dozen times during the day, only to stop himself before pressing the buzzer next to the door. The uncertainty was a new experience for him. Although he felt an overwhelming urge to go to her, something kept holding him back. Somehow, he knew that if he pushed her too soon, he would frighten her away.

The trouble was, a part of him wanted to do just that. The sex had been good, damned good, and he felt an unaccustomed tenderness toward the half-Vulcan woman that made him want to protect her against the loneliness she had admitted had been a part of her for her entire life. There was also his own loneliness, his own need of her, and that warmth he felt inside when he made love to her.

Kirk crossed the hotel room to stand next to the window, staring moodily out at the dingy city. "Face it, Jim," he muttered to himself after a few moments of silent contemplation of that view. "You want the sex, but not the rest of it." He lifted his right hand and placed it on the wall next to the window, leaning forward to rest his forehead against the hand wearily. The trouble was, he did want it, but he wasn't sure he could handle it. Could he let her into his mind and still keep his secrets from her?

He jumped at the sudden sound of the buzzer and pivoted around, staring at the door. "Come," he ordered finally, watching as the old-fashioned doorknob turned and the portal opened to reveal Talya standing there. His heart began to beat a little faster at the very sight of her. He couldn't remember the last time he had wanted a woman so badly. They stared across the room at each other silently a moment, then Talya stepped all the way into the suite, closing the door softly behind her.

"Jim..." she began hesitantly, her eyes huge and green with a confused array of emotions that he could feel all the way across the chamber. When she fell silent, he took one step toward her, and then another, almost as though in a dream. Suddenly, she was moving, too, and he caught her in his arms, crushing her small body close to him as he bent his head to kiss her.

Kirk ended the kiss and lifted his head to smile down at her. His smile faded, though, when he saw the look on Talya's face. She just stood there, unmoving, eyes tightly shut. A single tear tracked down her cheek, and then another... and another...

"Talya," he whispered. "Don't." Gently, he lifted a hand and brushed the tears away with his fingertips. As he comforted her, a surge of tenderness welled up inside of him...tenderness followed by an intense longing beyond his control. He bent to kiss her again.

In what seemed like almost no time at all, they were lying in that big bed once more, touching, caressing...loving each other. He felt that presence inside again, not so undefined this time. It held the cool comfort of spring water, the warmth of summer sunshine, the ripple of a child's laughter, the logic of a computer, the ferocity of a wild animal and a stubborn emotionalism that reminded him briefly, sorrowfully of a certain 'old country doctor.' It was Talya.

The presence was still there later, when they lay spent and relaxed, contented in each other's arms, and it was there even later when she turned away from him to curl up on her own side of the bed and drift off to sleep. It was fainter then, when they were no longer in physical contact; just a tiny glimmer of light, a fragile silken thread that bound them together and yet threatened to snap at the slightest strain.

The presence was gone when he awoke the next morning. So was Talya. But his need was still there.


"You understand, Jim, that this mission must remain a total secret, no matter what," Komack began the briefing after they had exchanged some meaningless pleasantries. "As far as the rest of your crew is concerned, you're going to the Sedola Outpost so that Spock can exchange information with the Vulcan scientists there concerning a research project they are conducting on the fusion activity of GX Andromedae and the impending burn out of that star. That's all."

"And what if the Vulcans do agree to help with the negotiations?" Kirk's gaze held the admiral's steadily, and there was an obvious challenge in his hazel eyes. "Exactly what do I do then? How am I supposed to explain their presence on the Enterprise?"

"You will then send me a communication on an open Starfleet channel." Ignoring the sarcasm in Kirk's question, Komack answered him blandly, as though quoting from an official document of some sort. "...requesting permission to deviate from your assigned mission in order to provide transportation for a delegation of Vulcan scientists from the Sedola Scientific Outpost to NGC 752 #1 so that they may compare data from their study of the flare star GX Andromedae with the opposite extreme of the Rycherian people's sun."

Kirk automatically glanced toward Spock as though looking for confirmation of the accuracy of Komack's facts and appropriateness of his plan. The Vulcan didn't disappoint him.

"Very logical," Spock said, nodding once in agreement. "NGC 752 #1 is a G7 bright giant approximately forty point one three times brighter than Sol, while GX Andromedae is an M1V main sequence star with a luminosity of point zero zero six one. There are many points of reference that could be compared between such opposite extremes of light."

"Of course," Kirk agreed casually.

It was the cold that woke Kirk finally in the middle of their last night on the planet. He didn't really remember the dream; it disappeared from his consciousness the moment he woke. He just knew a wintry emptiness deep inside that he couldn't seem to define. It wasn't that the hotel room was unusually cold; in fact, it was just right for two people to cuddle together beneath the light covers. No, this wasn't an exterior coldness. It was more like the bleak emotional chill of feeling completely alone...abandoned. But he wasn't any more alone than he had been all those weeks earlier when he had first left Earth, Starfleet and his remaining friends behind--or than he had been during the long, empty days before that when he had realized that Spock was dead, and he was to blame.

Yet it seemed lonelier this dark night, without the warm presence inside that he had come to know during the past few days. He could hardly believe he had once been concerned about the possibility of her reading his secret thoughts. Despite his own earlier misgivings, when Talya had shown up at his room the night after they had first made love, he hadn't questioned her decision. Instead, he merely welcomed her into his arms. Their loving that night had been even more intense, the mental contact more complete, its absence the following morning more desolate.

For some reason he didn't really understand, Kirk no longer feared that contact. Although they hadn't discussed his concerns since that one brief acknowledgment, he was convinced now that Talya would make no effort to truly read his thoughts. Furthermore, he believed she could be trusted to keep secret anything she did inadvertently learn while linked to his mind. Now, his only concern about that union was a fear of losing it, and a longing whenever they were separated to renew both the physical and mental contact. He sat up at the sudden, full realization of its absence and searched impatiently for the warm body that should have been in the bed next to him. Instead, he found only cold sheets that matched the emptiness inside him.

"Talya?" he called into the near dark of the hotel room, panicking a little in his fear that she had left him again, but he was instantly reassured by the soft answer that came from next to the window, where he saw a slight movement in the shadows.

"I'm here, Jim," came the soft response after the most minute of hesitations. Something about her words nagged teasingly at the back of Kirk's mind. He frowned over a vague memory that wouldn't quite come into focus, then dismissed the errant thought, just as he had his now-fading sense of melancholy. Instead, he left the bed and walked over to stand behind her, sliding his arms around her in a loose embrace.

"Why aren't you in bed?" he asked gently, turning her in his arms and drawing her close in an attempt to warm their naked bodies from the slight chill of the room. He lifted his right hand to caress her dark head. He threaded his fingers through the loose strands of silky curls and pulled her head back from its resting place against his chest, searching through the dim light in an attempt to make out her alien features. They were serious; no trace of either her sense of humor or unruly temper there this night, only a bittersweet emotion that matched his own strange mood.

"I needed to think...away from you," she answered in a soft voice, then immediately contradicted herself by pressing closer to him, as though she, too, were cold.

"And what is it you're thinking about, all this way away from me?" he chided gently as he rubbed his hands across her back and shoulders, attempting to warm her. His own chill was quickly dissipating, replaced by the heat generated by her body. She shivered, and he wondered idly how anyone with such a high body temperature could feel cold.

"" She interrupted the train of his wandering thoughts with the answer to his question and then paused a few seconds before continuing uncertainly, making a half-hearted effort to pull away from him. "Jim, I don't know if I can continue this."

"Why not?" He tightened his arms, pulling her even closer to him, unwilling to let her go.

Talya hesitated for so long, he didn't think she was going to answer him. Then, she did. "I just can't. I...I'm afraid," she admitted finally.

"Of what?"

She stopped pretending and easily broke his hold on her, pivoting away from him to stare out into the darkness again.


"You don't understand," she protested, suddenly incoherent in her confusion. "This is dangerous. We're...getting too close. Our minds are getting too close, and I'm afraid...I don't believe I can control it anymore. I've tried to do so. I really have, but I can't...seem...I just don't...know how, and I...don't know what might happen...I can't...don't...There's a...a link forming between us, and it's getting too strong for me to control. We could get...lost, either of us, or maybe even both. I--"

"Hey!" he interrupted, placing his hands on her bare shoulders and trying to turn her back around to face him. "Wait a minute," Kirk demanded as Talya merely stood there, stiffly motionless, trembling slightly at his touch. At first, she made a token resistance, but then she gave in to his insistence. As he turned her and gathered her closer to him, her arms seemed to take on a will of their own and crept around his torso, clinging with a desperation that was frightening in its intensity. He felt the heat of her bare skin press against his and again became aware of the corresponding warmth inside him, the presence that was becoming both increasingly familiar...and surprisingly welcome. He cupped her face in his hands, thumbs beneath her chin, and lifted her bowed head in an attempt to examine her features. "Take it easy," he whispered. "It'll be okay. Don't panic."

Kirk held her head between both his hands, thumbs stroking gently along her ears, caressing the points. Talya shivered in response to his touch and lowered her head, staring downward.

"Don't," she pleaded softly, but she made no effort to escape his touch. "I'm still not used to that. I told you before." Her voice had dropped to an agonizing whisper that cut through him like a knife. "I don't know how to handle it when you touch me like that. My shields aren't strong enough. I feel...overwhelmed. I can't get control, and unless I do, I'm afraid something terrible is going to either, or maybe even both of us."

He tightened his arms around her protectively. "It'll be all right," he told her. "We'll make it all right."

"But if I can't shield--"

"You can--a little anyway--and so can I." That statement drew a raised eyebrow, painfully familiar although the shape was different. "Spock taught--never mind. I'll explain all of that to you later. The only important thing right now is that maybe together we can learn to make our limited abilities to shield be enough...if we practice and work at it. Besides, I don't want to shield everything, at least not all of the time." He smiled at her tenderly. "I'm getting to like that warm presence inside. That's you."

"Yes,"she admitted. She hesitated for a few seconds. "Jim, I really haven't read your mind. Whenever I'm there, I'm just barely on the surface. I can feel your emotions, and your response to me." Again there was that touch of shyness. "But I don't know what you're thinking, and I haven't picked up any of your memories, except for a few vague resonances, nothing that really makes sense. And I won't try to make sense of it, not unless it's something you choose to share with me."

"It's okay," he reassured her again. "I understand."

"No, you don't," she protested. "But I want you to. I'm not even sure I could delve down deep enough into your mind to enable me to read your actual thoughts," she confessed. "And I'd certainly never try to do so, at least not without your permission. That's an invasion of your privacy. But...what if I can't not read you."

"What do you mean?" His eyes narrowed as he attempted to make sense of her somewhat disjointed explanation.

"I don't know." She frowned a little in concentration. "I'm not really sure myself. It's just that, when we make love...something pulls me into you. I try to hold back, to keep our minds separate, but I can't manage it. Somehow you always pull me inside, and I can't resist it. Once I'm there, I feel so warm, so safe, so comforted, that I...just don't want to leave. I'm afraid of that need. What if someday it becomes so strong I don't leave? What if I can't? What will happen then?"

Kirk hugged Talya to him and rested his cheek against the top of her head, carefully considering her confession and its implications. He believed she was worrying over nothing, but he knew full well that if it concerned her, then it had better concern him.

"It's all right," he reassured her again finally. "It's probably as much my fault as it is yours anyway. I need you as much as you need me, so I reach out to you without intending to, without even realizing it most of the time." He was beginning to feel another longing again, for more than touching. It was fueled by the closeness of their naked bodies, that desire warring with his other, more familiar needs for control of both body and mind.

"T'Alya," he whispered.

Talya pulled back and looked up into his face, her green eyes mirroring the pain she felt inside. "No one's called me that since my mother died. How did you know..."

Kirk tightened his arms around Talya and bent his head to give her a deep, passionate kiss that went on and on, rekindling his desire and igniting hers. Then somehow they again found themselves beneath the sheets, and once more he felt the warm presence inside.

T'Alya? He tried to reach out to her, half expecting to fail, and was a little surprised when he succeeded.

I'm here, Jim.

Kirk held his breath, as for a brief few seconds, he remembered another 'voice' saying virtually the very same words, but he didn't 'hear' that voice now. He knew there was no one else in his mind but Talya. Hers was the only presence he could feel there. For just that moment, it was the only one he needed--or wanted.

And again, he ceased to be aware of anything at all.


Spock moved quietly through the cavernous cargo pod of the huge Kelvan ship. The younglings were finally all asleep. The constant mental chatter that assaulted the Vulcan throughout their waking hours was silenced for the moment, their sleeping minds emitting only a low, melodic hum. He found that restful, calming. This had become Spock's favorite time of day, a time when he could think most clearly, contemplate their situation and rationally consider what he should do about it.

The Vulcan paused for a moment to study a tangled trio of young Rycherians. They were curled up together in one of the oversized Kelvan "chairs" that served as the pod's only furnishings. Spock looked across the room. Several of the chairs were similarly occupied, the younglings gathered in twos and threes on the huge round objects. The small bodies inevitably slid down into the shallow "bowls" in the center of the chairs, drawing both warmth and comfort from their closeness.

Spock made his way across the room to another of the bowl-shaped chairs, this one set a little apart from those occupied by the younglings. It would serve as his own bed later, when the need for sleep became too strong to be denied. But that was hours away yet. He would delay as long as possible subjecting his spine to the unnatural curve required to fit his adult body in one of the chairs that was the only alternative to the cold, metal floor. In the meantime, he would enjoy the peace and silence.

The Vulcan lowered himself to his knees, settling into the traditional meditation position. He emptied his mind, composing his thoughts...

"...many points of reference that could be compared between such opposite extremes of light."

"Of course."

Spock jolted out of the light meditation trance that was all he would allow himself, trying to determine what had caused that particular memory that popped into his mind. He remembered the details of the meeting with Admiral Komack distinctly, but he hadn't allowed himself to think about the occasion other than as it pertained to his care of the younglings. The rest of it he didn't care to consider, especially the tragedy it had led to...and how his friends on the Enterprise would have reacted to his disappearance.

Why had he thought of it now? He cocked his head to one side, then straightened it again as fleeting, errant thoughts flitted across his mind, thoughts that made no sense. Then his hands clenched into fists as an aching sadness swept through his mind.


"I am here, Jim," the Vulcan whispered, then rose from his knees and settled into the chair. He curled up into a tight ball and forced all thought, all emotion from his mind.

He slept.


"And, Jim," Komack leaned forward on his desk to regain Kirk's attention, "if you find them, remember to be very careful to ensure that" The admiral pounded his right fist into his left palm to underscore each word. "Under no circumstances are you to attack those ships or take any other aggressive action, no aggression at all, Jim, no matter the provocation--or the consequence."

"Jim! Wake up, Jim!" Talya was leaning over Kirk in his bunk on the Zephyr, shaking him firmly, pulling him out of the nightmare abruptly. "Wake up!" she repeated, shaking him again, and finally he opened his eyes, but they were blank, unseeing.

"Spock?" he whispered in agony and immediately heard a soft whisper float across the back of his mind as though in response. It was gone, though, before he could grasp it.

"Jim!" Talya shook him once more, even harder, and this time he focused his gaze on her face.


"That's right, Jim. It's me."

"What happened?" His voice sounded distant, confused. He shook his head, as though in an attempt to clear his thoughts.

"You had a nightmare."

"Night--" He remembered.

"Can you tell--" she started, but he shook his head again, slowly this time, and drew her back down into his arms.

"No, I can't," he whispered. "I wish I could, but I can't. It's one of those things I can't share with you. Just let me hold you."

Feeling his pain, sharing it, she laid her head on his shoulder and wrapped her arm around him, drawing the agony into herself and easing his anguish a bit. Again, he slept.

"I, of course," Admiral Komack explained patiently to the two officers who sat across the desk from him, "will grant you permission to transport the Vulcans after all due consideration of the request. Once you arrive at Rycher Three, you will remain on the Enterprise while Spock and the Sedola Vulcans transport down to the planet to take over the negotiations there. You will not, I repeat, not allow any of your crew to have contact with the Rycherians. While the Vulcans handle that part of the mission, you will take the Enterprise and begin the search for the kidnappers."

"Fine, but just why am I supposed to be looking for them, if I'm not allowed to tell my crew the truth? What do I tell them?" Kirk didn't normally like letting anyone in command dictate his actions, but there was nothing normal about this mission. He didn't like all of this subterfuge either. He was never comfortable keeping too much from his crew, especially his senior officers, and except for Spock, he was being forced to keep all of his people completely in the dark. That made him very nervous.

"You will tell your crew only that the criminals on those ships you're looking for stole something that is of great value to the Rycherians and you have been ordered by Starfleet Command to assist them in retrieving it. That will not be a lie. After all, what could be more valuable to them than their young?" The admiral leaned forward in his chair, his unblinking eyes meeting Kirk's squarely, their very intensity a clear indication of both the seriousness of this mission and its urgency.

"Jim, I simply cannot stress strongly enough the need for complete secrecy in this matter," Komack insisted. "If either the Romulans or the Klingons should ever get wind of the Rycherians' incredible psychic powers or the fact that these mysterious kidnappers have a dozen of their children in captivity, then you know as well as I do that they won't stop until they get their hands on them, or, failing that, until they manage to capture and enslave more Rycherians, even if it means all-out galactic war to do it."

The admiral leaned back in his chair again, surrendering briefly to his own weariness. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to ease the tension headache that threatened. Then he opened his eyes and continued the briefing. "We simply cannot allow such a war to take place, but we can't let them get their hands on the Rycherians either, especially at the pre-adolescent stage," he emphasized. "Their powers are too great at that time, and yet are still untrained. To unleash them on the galaxy would be worse even than war. We must keep all knowledge of those powers confidential until we have succeeded in establishing a relationship that will prevent outside interference from any race that might exploit them for their own unscrupulous purposes."

"If their powers are so great," Spock interjected at that point with his usual precise sense of logic, "then how could the Klingons or Romulans take them as prisoners? Could they not use those powers to resist them?"

Komack sighed, clearly exasperated, then answered, expanding on his earlier comment. "Their powers are greatest at what the Rycherians call the season of first maturity. These kids--younglings, they call them, nearest the translator can manage--aren't quite at that point yet and instead are at their most vulnerable right now. But once they reach first maturity and understand the full nature and strength of their talents..." He shrugged. "They are not an evil people, not evil at all, but they are very young and untrained in how to handle their forthcoming powers. Without the aid of their elders in making the transition, who knows what perverted purpose their talents might be used for? I believe you both have already had some experience with individuals whose basic goodness has been corrupted by powers even less intense than these. If these so-called younglings realize how strong their power is before they are helped to channel them into productive pursuits..." He allowed the thought to trail off, not needing to spell it out any more explicitly.

Talya held Kirk comfortingly in her arms, sensing his pain as he slept fitfully, once more disturbed by the nightmares. She didn't wake him this time, though. Instead, she just lay there, holding him close while fighting the urge to 'eavesdrop' on his dream. Bits and pieces kept slipping through her inadequate shields, not enough to make sense of it, but plenty to make her realize the pain this nightmare brought him. The brief images of a Human in a Starfleet admiral's uniform and the Vulcan named Spock were quite sufficient to make her realize that the nightmare was no mere dream. These were memories, painful memories. She wanted to ease his pain. The urge to wipe it away was almost more than she could resist. Only the fact that she didn't really know how to do that stopped her from trying...and the conviction that she wouldn't succeed without first understanding the source of the agony. Besides, she would not, could not invade his mind without his permission, no matter how strong the temptation. So she concentrated on strengthening her shields to the best of her ability in an attempt to block out those thoughts that were filtering through. With great effort, she succeeded--barely.

Talya was pleased that her ability to shield her mind against Kirk's thoughts and emotions was improving. They had both been practicing as often as their duties and sense of discretion would allow in the week since the Zephyr had departed 679 Andromedae. She had convinced herself that much of her previous difficulty stemmed from her fear to allow anyone close enough so that she could train herself in the technique. But while she had learned to keep most of Kirk's thoughts out, it still took a concerted effort, especially when they were in physical contact. Moreover, she couldn't quite block the pain, no matter how hard she tried. It flowed through the fragile link that seemed to connect them at all times now. She lay there for hours, wide awake, sharing his distress, fighting to keep it from overwhelming her, and waiting for the dream-memories to end and Kirk to awaken.

"Where their children are concerned," Komack continued his briefing after the Enterprise men had time to digest his previous comment, "the Rycherians will stop at nothing, absolutely nothing. They don't know who has them, or where they might be now, but they do know what the kidnappers looked like and what kind of ships they had--like nothing we've ever seen anywhere in the galaxy. They also know those ships were headed in the direction of Gorn space when they left Rycher Three. But, wherever that ship went, the Rycherians have asked us to find it and return their younglings home to their families. If we can't do this--and do it expeditiously--then they will end the already foundering negotiations for Federation membership and find someone who they think can do it." He paused. "Like the Romulans."

Kirk was startled by that last sentence. "How do they know about the Romulans?" he asked.

Komack shook his head. "Who knows? The same way they knew about us, I suppose," he answered. "They've been monitoring subspace communications for some time, preparing for the day when they decide to venture into space themselves. They're in no hurry for that day. Remember, these people measure time in terms more like centuries than years. But they intend to be ready for it when it comes. The first step toward that day was to establish communications with those of us who have already established space travel. For some reason, some fortunate reason, they chose us for their first contact. A Starfleet survey team was dispatched to Rycher immediately, and then a second, specialized team followed when the first one learned the Rycherians are telepaths. Neither team has had much success, however. Even the Vulcans on the second team were unable to communicate adequately with the Rycherians. They're too private for these people who value openness and don't trust anyone who hides their thoughts behind mental shields. As of a few days ago, they were on the verge of breaking off the negotiations and returning to their previous, isolationist posture.

"When the children disappeared so suddenly, and without a trace, their elders were forced to reconsider the situation and decided to seek our assistance. Since they're not ready yet to begin space travel themselves and since our representatives were already in place on their planet, it only made sense to ask us for help. It could be a fortuitous situation for us, if we can turn this horror into an alliance with the Rycherians.

"But..." Komack's eyes pierced into Kirk's as though the admiral were willing the younger man to understand. "...the greatest danger is that the Romulans are second on their list. Don't ask me the reason for that, because I don't have the answer to that question. Besides, the only thing we really need to know right now is that the deadline they've given us appears to be an absolute one. If we don't find and return their children unharmed within six months, the Rycherians will contact the Romulans." Again, the admiral paused, allowing the others to absorb what he was telling them.

"So far," Komack went on when he was certain he had given both Kirk and his first officer ample time to fully understand all of the implications of that particular threat, "we have been unable to convince the planetary elders of the foolishness of that course of action, so our only logical choice at this time is to find those missing kids within the time their people have specified, while continuing our diplomatic efforts to convince the adults of the wisdom of forming an alliance with the Federation, and the folly of doing so with the Romulans--whatever the outcome of that search. We believe the Sedolan Vulcans can help with those negotiations."

"Explain," Kirk demanded. He had heard of the Sedolans, but never understood why this sect had left their mother planet and isolated themselves from others of their kind.

Komack looked to Spock for assistance on that one. It wasn't long in coming.

"Unlike most of my people," the Vulcan explained patiently, as though he were conducting a school lecture on the subject, "the Sedolans do not shield their thoughts. They believe in a form of group consciousness and share all thoughts with each other. That practice alone makes them unwelcome on Vulcan, and on many other planets throughout the galaxy as well. Most Humans, for example, distrust them because of a fear of having their minds invaded, although the Sedolans do not force themselves into others minds. They are just highly receptive to any emotions or telepathic emanations from other beings, and they are completely free and open with their own thoughts. As a result of that openness and the deliberately cultivated collective nature of their intelligence, they are believed to have developed their telepathic abilities to a level much higher than that of most Vulcans."

"We believe that combination could make the Sedolans ideal to conduct the negotiations with the Rycherians," Komack regained control over the discussion. "If they can convince them that our motives are good, then we have a chance to sign that alliance. Otherwise..." He didn't bother to repeat his warning about the Romulans. It wasn't necessary.

"I...see," Kirk responded slowly, assimilating the information, and he did understand. He understood very well indeed. Only the comprehension didn't bring either any comfort or any reassurance. He just felt cold inside, cold and empty, and more worried than he had been in a very long time. If the Romulans ever got their hands on these telepaths...he allowed the thought to fade, unwilling even to think of all the possible implications of such an occurrence. He shook his head, slowly, as though in an attempt to dispel his own dark thoughts.

"Be very careful to ensure that nothing--absolutely nothing--happens to them." The admiral pounded his right fist into his left palm to underscore each word, then rested his arms on the desk, leaning forward again. "Under no circumstances are you to attack the kidnappers' ships or take any other aggressive action; no aggression at all, Jim, no matter the provocation--or the consequence. If the younglings are killed, or even harmed, their elders will know and will contact the Romulans."

"Wait a minute," Kirk interrupted Komack. "Exactly how will they know if anything happens to the children?"

The admiral shook his head. "I don't understand that myself...something about a parental bond." He shrugged and looked at Spock--as though for confirmation, or perhaps further explanation.

The Vulcan nodded. "Such a bond is common in telepathic races." He wouldn't be any more specific than that.

Kirk wouldn't let them get away with half-answers. He didn't like having anything kept from him, especially on such a potentially dangerous mission. "How does it work?" he demanded.

Komack shrugged. "I'm not exactly sure how the bond works, but apparently it's not really strong enough for actual communication between them, or even for directional tracing over more than a relatively short distance. However, it does, exist. There's no question about that. Even now, the adult Rycherians are aware of their offspring's continued existence, and they apparently would know instantly if it ceased. Normally, they would also know if any of them were in pain or frightened, but we don't know if that aspect of the link is applicable over such a great distance. It might be, or it might not. Right now, the Rycherians say they are still aware of their younglings' continuance. They are not aware of any pain, but whether that's because there isn't any or just because of the distance between them, no one knows. For your purpose, Jim, it doesn't really matter. They will know if the children die, so you just can't take any chances of that happening. We have to prevent that and the possibility of them contacting the Romulans at any costs."

Kirk frowned, only half-listening to Komack's lengthy explanation as he tried to figure out how to rescue the young Rycherians without taking aggressive action. His head snapped to attention at that last comment, however. He didn't like it, didn't like it at all.

"Any cost?" he asked.

"Any cost," Komack repeated.


The next morning, Talya slipped silently through the Zephyr corridors to return to her own quarters. She had left Kirk's bed before he awoke, as she did early every morning. Only Trask, with an understanding fueled by their growing friendship, suspected the changed relationship between Kirk and Talya, and even she hadn't commented on it.

Once the doors of her quarters were closed behind her, Talya quickly crossed the room to examine her face in the mirror that hung above the chest. She didn't like what she saw there. Her features were pinched, her color off, more so than she could honestly blame on the nearly sleepless night. Her stomach churned slightly, and she swallowed carefully to control the sudden nausea. Turning abruptly away from the mirror, she moved toward the bath, intending to shower and change before reporting for her shift on the bridge. Halfway into the adjoining cubicle, she quickened her pace, making it just in time to empty her now heaving stomach into the basin. Afterward, she carefully made her way to the bed and lay down a few minutes until the discomfort eased. Then she returned to the bath for her delayed shower. Once bathed and dressed, she didn't bother to check her reflection in the mirror again. She didn't need to do so to know there were dark smudges beneath her eyes, giving her face a bruised look. She just hoped no one else would notice...especially Kirk. She wasn't quite ready to tell him, not yet. Maybe his own restless night would make him a little less observant than usual.

So far, Talya had managed to avoid alarming Kirk. The mornings were always the worst, but by leaving him each day before he awakened, she had managed to prevent him from realizing how unwell she felt. The strain of the effort was beginning to show in her face, however, and she knew she couldn't keep it from him much longer. She wasn't sure why she wanted to maintain the secrecy, except that for some reason she feared he might send her away from him if he suspected, and she couldn't bear that.

"You have to leave," the brawny man insisted. "You don't have any choice. If you don't--"

"We will not discuss it now." The woman nodded toward the child who was staring up at them.

The big man heaved a great sigh of resignation. "All right. Tonight then. After she's asleep."

"Tonight," the woman agreed.

Dressed now, Talya left her cabin and started for the bridge. Midway down the corridor, she saw Trask leaving her own quarters. Talya slowed her own steps, hoping the other woman would proceed on her way and not attempt to engage her in conversation. When Talya had voiced her pleasure at having another woman on the ship, she hadn't really expected to develop a real friendship with her. But friends they had become, despite the unspoken conflict over Kirk that lay between them. They had never discussed it, but Talya knew Trask was aware of her relationship with him. And Glyn had made it clear long ago that whatever brief intimacy she had shared with Kirk had ended the minute she had realized the situation, before the two women had made the first tentative overtures toward a real friendship. Secure in her own relationship with Kirk and unthreatened by Trask's flamboyant beauty, Talya came increasingly to rely on her rapport with the other woman. It was a relationship as new to her as the one she shared with Kirk.

At that moment, however, Talya didn't want a private conversation with her friend anymore than she did with her lover. Both were too likely to discover the secret she wished to keep private for a while longer. Talya dawdled, but it didn't work. Trask merely waited for her. With a mental sigh, Talya offered the other woman a half-hearted smile, but Trask just frowned in response and stepped in front of her to block her path.

"How far along are you?" the blonde demanded without preamble when Talya lifted her right eyebrow in query.

"What?" Talya was startled by the blunt question, which came as a complete surprise.

"How far along?" Trask repeated determinedly, nodding knowingly at Talya's still-narrow waist. "When's it due?"

"I...I don't know...exactly," Talya answered finally after another long silence. She was still too surprised to deny the other woman's conclusions. She lifted one hand to rest over her flat stomach protectively. "I..." She thought a minute, calculating carefully. "No more than three weeks, but I'm not sure about a due date." She laughed softly. "That's a little difficult to figure. Too many different gestation periods involved."

Trask chuckled in response. "I never thought of that." She sobered. "Talya, it's not going well, is it?"

Talya shook her head, but in puzzlement, not negation. "I...don't really know. I don't have any experience with this sort of thing. But I've heard...isn't morning sickness normal?"

"A little, sometimes, with Humans. But it's easily treated now." Trask hesitated a moment, as though she were wondering whether to continue, whether she should interfere...then decided someone should. "You have to tell him, so he'll get you to a doctor."

"It's not that bad," Talya protested.

"It's bad enough," Trask countered, not believing Talya's denials for a minute. "Besides, with the weird parentage involved, you shouldn't take any chances. You might need special care, for yourself as well as the baby. Maybe you should go to Vulcan. I hear the healers there..."

Talya paled suddenly, and Trask's face faded from her view, replaced by the image of another woman, this one tall, lean, angular, with slanted brows and elegantly pointed ears.

"I cannot return to Vulcan," she said calmly, as though there were no question about it. She sat placidly on the side of the bed, looking up at him with a quiet acceptance.

"But you have to," the big man insisted as he paced back and forth across the room. "Damn it, T'Rima. If you don't--"

"If I do," she interrupted serenely, logically, "they will take T'Alya from us. I cannot allow that to happen."


"No." Her face relaxed into the nearest thing to a smile she ever exhibited. "It does not matter, my husband. The healers could not help me anyway. You forget that I was trained as an associate healer myself. I have been monitoring us both." She paused briefly, then continued, her Vulcan mask carefully in place, hiding any emotion she might be feeling. "It is already too late to take action."

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" The man's swarthy face was haggard, the anger of a few moments earlier replaced by fear and sorrow as he dropped to his knees on the floor at her side, taking her slender fingers in his big, unexpectedly gentle hands.

"It would not have made any difference." T'Rima paused again, as though weighing her next words. Then, seeming to reach a difficult decision, she continued. "This one is not like T'Alya. The healers could not have saved him in any case, not even with the treatments."

"They could save you!"

She shook her head slowly, fatalistically. "No, my husband. I do not believe that is so."


T'Rima stopped his words with a hand placed gently over his mouth. "No," she told him, fingers of one hand gently stroking his lips and the dark hair of his beard and moustache, while the other slid around behind his head to urge it toward her, cradling him against her breasts. "We will not discuss this matter any further. Our time has been good, husband, and what time I have left, we will spend together. When I am gone, you will take T'Alya and keep her away from the masters. If you do not, they will attempt to purge all that is you from her. That cannot be allowed."

He took the hand that covered his mouth between both of his own hands, placing a kiss in the palm. Then he gave her a half-hearted, crooked grin that was contradicted by the moisture in his reddened eyes. "I'm not sure that wouldn't be a good thing."

"I am," she stated emphatically. "Despite the beliefs of my House, I believe in the teachings of Surak. His IDIC philosophy teaches us that all beings should strive to be the best they can be, but always to remain true to their own natures. Those of my House tend to ignore that part of Surak's precepts, but I cannot. To deny the part of her heritage that comes from you would be for T'Alya to deny herself. I will not allow that."

"Even if it costs your own life?" he asked sorrowfully.

"Even then," she answered softly.

"And if I forbid it?"

"It is not your choice," she responded with a terrifying calm. "It is mine, and I have made it."


"No. No more ar--" She broke off in mid-word, doubling over with the pain, and the big man lifted her with strong arms to stretch her out on the bed, sitting by her side to watch over her. Neither of them noticed the little girl hidden behind the huge chest across the room. She, too, was doubled over, silent tears streaming down her cheeks as she fought to control the pain that swept over her in waves emanating from the bed. When the pain finally eased, the child shakily rose to her feet and fled the cabin.


She heard her name spoken as though from far away. Shaking her head to banish the almost forgotten memories, she managed to focus her eyes on Trask's face. "What?"

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes..." Talya answered, hesitantly at first, then she added more strongly. "Yes, I will be."

"You will tell him? Soon?" There was no mistaking the concern on Trask's face. She forced a determination into her voice as he threatened. "If you don't, Talya, I promise you, I will."

Talya smiled, touched by this evidence of Trask's compassion. "Very soon, Glyn. I promise. Before it's too late..."

"Too late?" Trask picked up on the slip immediately. "Too late for what?" she demanded.

Talya's eyes darted away from Trask and then instantly back again, as she quickly sought an acceptable response to her friend's challenge. "Too late for telling him myself and keeping him from getting angry at me for failing to let him in on the secret."

"Yeah, sure." Trask's voice was dry with sarcasm. "Do you really expect me to believe that? Talya..."

"Please, Glyn. I'm all right. Really I am." She smiled conspiratorially. "Just...let me handle this myself, in my own way."

Trask hesitated a moment longer, then shrugged. "Have it your way." She turned to continue on her way to the bridge.

"Glyn?" The soft question stopped Trask in mid-stride. She turned back to give Talya a questioning look.

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"For caring."

Trask shrugged again and grinned. "What are friends for?"

"It's nice," Talya answered, suddenly shy, "to have a friend. I never had one like you before."

Trask laughed, then sobered a bit, although she continued to smile. "It's about time, don't you think?"

Talya grinned her old grin. "Yes, I believe you're right, Glyn. It's about time for a lot of things."

"Um-hmm. And right now..." The blonde turned to start down the corridor. "'s about time for us to report for duty."


Glyn Trask carefully eyed the woman seated to her left, watching Talya through slitted eyes as the dark-haired navigator shivered for the third time in less than fifteen minutes. Despite their earlier conversation, or maybe because of it, Trask still didn't like the way Talya looked. With proper pre-natal care, women usually thrived during pregnancy. However, the complications of inter-species mating sometimes required sophisticated medical care--care virtually unattainable in this quadrant of the galaxy. Without the proper medical intervention, Talya's pregnancy was likely to be difficult--at best.

Trask sighed. A little pampering by a concerned friend couldn't hurt. "How about some coffee?" she suggested, eyes narrowed in concern over Talya's obvious chill, "or some tea?"

Talya turned to face the blonde, and Trask caught her breath when she saw the deep circles of fatigue that ringed the emerald eyes. Talya looked even more strained than she had earlier that day. The dark-haired woman forced a weak smile. "Some herbal tea would be nice, Glyn. Thanks. For some reason, I just can't seem to get warm today."

"Never mind. Maybe this will help." Trask switched the helm to automatic before she left her post for a brief minute to get the hot drinks from the bridge synthesizer. "Hey, kid, did I ever tell you about the time Drav tried to order a sandwich at Pedro's?" Trask asked while she waited for the mugs to fill.

"No-o-o." Talya's smile was more genuine now as she prepared to listen to one of Trask's outrageous stories, mentally bracing herself for the inevitable punch line at the end.

"Well, Pedro himself was behind the bar that night, and he couldn't stand the dumb Tellarite bastard, so he recommended the BLT." Trask was laughing herself now as she made her way back toward Talya, a mug of fragrant liquid in each hand. "Drav didn't catch on at first, but then he almost went over that bar after Pedro when he realized what was in it."

Talya chuckled softly, and Trask chortled with glee at the memory of her much-despised former commander. Keeping the strong coffee for herself, the blonde handed the milder herb tea to the other woman just as the bridge doors slid open to admit Kirk and Donovan.

Talya gasped in sudden agony as the mug slid through her fingers and hit the deck, the hot liquid splashing upward to soak the bottom of her pants leg and scald the skin of her ankle. Instantly, Kirk felt the burning pain through the link that seemed to be forever open these days, faint, but open. He instinctively threw up his shields to block it out, at the same time crossing the bridge in two long strides to crouch by Talya's chair and check her foot and leg for injury, while Trask discreetly moved back out of the way.

"Are you all right?" he asked in a low, but anxious voice. "The pain--"

Talya hesitated briefly, carefully mastering the stinging before trusting herself to speak. "I'm okay," she told him finally, speaking softly, so only he could hear. "I have it under control now. I'm sorry you had to feel that, but it hit before I could block it out."

"Don't worry about me." Kirk dismissed his own discomfort offhandedly as he rose to his feet to hover over her, eyes mirroring his anxiety. "It's you I'm concerned about. You're sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine." She smiled up at him reassuringly, then swiveled her chair toward the communications station and spoke in a normal tone with no sign of her earlier suffering in her voice, "Donovan, can you relieve me for a few minutes?" She forced another smile. "I seem to need a change of clothing." She even managed a small laugh, but it held none of the amusement she had shown while listening to Trask's story a minute earlier.

Donovan grinned in relief. "Sure thing," he told her. "Take all the time you need. You're not hurt, are you?"

"Not at all. Just clumsy today for some reason." Talya smiled at him again, but couldn't seem to keep her hands from shaking. She knew that she had to get out of there--fast!

Talya relinquished her station to Donovan, exerting all her control to keep her knees from shaking as badly as her hands. She hurried from the bridge through the ship's corridors, back to her quarters. Once inside, she peeled off the soaked pants and her boots, then washed off the tea and applied a mild antiseptic cream to her still tingling skin. As she finished the application, she realized the bottoms of her feet and even her toes were tingling, too. That didn't make sense. None of the hot tea had touched her there. She started shaking again.

She flexed her trembling fingers, staring at them in confusion as she mentally replayed the scene on the bridge. Still flexing her fingers, she turned her hands over and back again, minutely examining them, trying to figure out some reason for having dropped the mug.

Clumsy, she had told Donovan. But Talya was never clumsy. She had simply not felt the mug in her hand. She had reached to take it from Trask; she remembered that. She could still see her fingers closing around it as she looked up at the other woman to thank her for the drink. The next thing she knew, the hot liquid was hitting her ankle. Why had Glyn let go before she had a good grip on the mug? Again she visualized her fingers closing around the mug. She frowned in concentration. It had certainly looked as though she had the mug in her hand, but she couldn't remember the feel of it. Her hands...her eyes widened in remembrance. Her fingers had felt then just as her toes did now--tingling, almost numb, as though she had no control over them. A vision flashed before her. Her mother, standing in the middle of a room, staring at her hands.

"Mother?" When her mother didn't answer her, T'Alya touched her arm tentatively. She was surprised at how cool it felt, and then suddenly terrified as her own body shuddered with a wave of brief, sharp pain. "Mother?" she called again, eyes wide with fear.

T'Rima's head turned, and she focused her gaze on her daughter. She knelt by the child's side. "Do not be afraid, daughter. Your father will care for you."

"But you..." T'Alya's eyes filled with tears.

"I will be with you always." The dark eyes closed as T'Rima fought desperately to control yet another wave of agony. They opened again, but remained clouded by the remnants of the pain. "You must practice what I have taught you, child. It is very important. You have a gift, perhaps as great as my own, perhaps even greater. You must develop it."

"How can I?" the child whispered plaintively. "How can I do it alone?"

"You must try. And, whatever you do, do not go to Vulcan. Promise me you will never go to Vulcan."

It didn't make any sense to her, but T'Alya promised anyway, simply because her mother asked it of her. "I won't."

Talya was still staring at her fingers with unseeing eyes when Kirk burst into her cabin. "Will you tell me what happened?" he demanded.

She shook her head, not in denial but confusion. "I thought I had the mug in my hand, but..." She shrugged.

Kirk walked over to her and drew her gently into his arms. "What's wrong?" She just shook her head again. "T'Alya." He used the special name no one else even knew, knowing how much it always pleased her to hear him say it. It seemed to have no impact on her mysterious mood this time, however. She abruptly pulled away from him and started across the room. She changed her mind and stopped, standing absolutely still, tension in every line of her body. Kirk hesitated for just a moment, then he moved to stand behind her, slipping his arms around her waist, warming himself to her body heat and reassuring her with his closeness. She leaned back into his embrace, resting her head against his shoulder. Her arms closed over his, and she held on tight, almost too tightly. Sometimes she forgot her own Vulcan strength. He knew there'd be bruises on his forearms by the next day. He didn't care about the bruises, but...

"What is it?" Kirk whispered again after a moment, becoming increasingly concerned when Talya continued to cling to him while remaining silent. For the first time since they had become lovers, he felt her mind shielded completely against him and realized he didn't like it at all. Something must be really wrong.

Instead of answering immediately, Talya took his right hand and moved it from her waist to the flat abdomen beneath, resting both of her hands above it and pressing it to her. After a moment more of continued silence, she finally spoke, "Your child grows here."

Kirk froze, shock and painful memories warring with a tentative sense of pride. For the moment, pain won. "It's not possible," he said flatly, then released her and turned her around to face him, shaking his head slowly. "You can't be."

She gave a short, uncharacteristic laugh and raised her chin to meet his eyes with her own. "It's very possible. I am."


"Come on, Jim. You know quite well how."

"No, you don't understand." He rubbed his hand across his face and around the back of his neck, kneading the muscles he could already feel bunching there, warning of the approach of one of his headaches. "It's basic genetics. I'm Human; you're Vulcan, and whatever the hell your father was. It's just not possible. It took a lot of engineering by the best Vulcan geneticists to make Spock viable. How the hell could we just..." He stared at her again, shaking his head in continued disbelief. "It's just not possible," he said for the third time.

"It is possible," Talya retorted, becoming angry now. "I don't care about genetics or your precious Spock or even how it happened, but I'm pregnant. With your child. Whether you like it or not," she finished in a soft voice filled with the pain of rejection.

Kirk sighed and drew her stiff body back into his arms, cradling her gently. "It's not that I don't like it," he told her as he felt the pride and happiness well up in him again only to be quenched by remembered pain, a fear he didn't quite understand and even a bit of impatience. A child. Twice before a woman had told him she was carrying his baby. One had died with its mother while still in her womb. The other lived back on Earth, thriving, he hoped. But David was forever denied to him by Carol's refusal to allow Kirk to be a part-time father, and by his own inability to give up the stars he loved so much...not even for his own son. And now Talya... He controlled the urge to sigh. There wasn't time or a place in their lives for a child now, if there ever would be. His situation was difficult enough without this added complication. Unconsciously, he shook his head. No, he thought. Not a child. Not now!

Talya twisted out of his arms and backed away a step before turning to face him. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides, her eyes blazing with a sudden, uncontrollable anger.

"You bastard!" she spat at him. "You filthy Terran pig! What do you think I am? A meek, submissive plaything for your amusement? A toy to be enjoyed and then discarded when you no longer have need of me?"

"No, Talya. You know it's not like that." Kirk protested as he tried again to take her into his arms, but once more she twisted away violently and backed across the room.

"No!" she hissed. "Do not touch me!"

"Talya..." Kirk reached a hand out to her pleadingly as he slowly, carefully approached her. "T'Alya..."

"Stay away!" she ordered, taking another step away from him only to come up short against the bulkhead. He moved even closer and took her shoulders between his hands.

"No!" Talya shouted, easily breaking his hold and striding quickly across the cabin. She spun back around to face him, then shouted "No!" again when he started toward her, his intention of trying to diffuse her anger clearly written on his face. He attempted a gentle smile, but she glared back at him. Suddenly, she reached for her scabbard, drawing out the knife and hurling it in Kirk's direction. He stepped aside reflexively, turning to stare stunned at the wooden picture frame where the blade had landed, millimeters from where his head had been seconds before.

Kirk's eyes first widened in puzzlement, then narrowed in a much darker emotion. He stalked across the room and grabbed Talya by her upper arms, fingers digging into her flesh. "Don't you ever do that again." His voice was low, icy, his golden eyes almost black with his anger.

Talya's own eyes widened with the shock of what she had almost done. They narrowed as her own fury took control when he tightened his hands and shook her. She glared at him. "Take your filthy hands off me." She spoke through clenched teeth, but he just glared back, making no move to release her. Suddenly, her hands came up between his arms, forcing him to release her and violently thrusting him away.

Surprised both by the maneuver and its suddenness, Kirk stumbled back and fell hard on his ass. He stared up at her, shocked by the unexpected display of her Vulcan strength. He was even more surprised by the look on her face as she moved to stand over him. "If you don't want this child, fine," she rasped. "But just keep the hell away from me!" She spun on her heel and strode across the room, pivoting back to stare at him and point at the doorway with extended arm. "Get out!" she ordered.

"Talya..." Slowly, Kirk rose to his feet and took a tentative step in her direction.

"I said, get out!" she shouted.

"No." His voice was soft, once more pleading. "Please...listen to me."

"Leave." She, too, spoke more softly now, a weary sadness creeping into her tone. She blinked her eyes rapidly a few times, then turned away and stared unseeingly at the blank wall.

Suppressing a sigh, Kirk strengthened his mental shields and turned her into his arms. "Who said I didn't want it?"

Talya pouted and refused to look at him, but she didn't resist this time. "You didn't have to say it," she mumbled against his chest.

He gave her a full, thousand-watt, patented James T. Kirk smile. "I told you to be careful reading my mind." He lifted her head gently with thumbs beneath her chin, scrutinizing her face lovingly. "You misunderstood. It's not that I don't want it,'re sure?" he asked after a momentary pause. "Absolutely sure?" Talya nodded, and he drew her close again, staring across the top of her head with eyes mirroring his confused emotions. Still, he kept his shields intact, allowing to filter through only those feelings he wanted her to share. He finally hugged her so tightly she grunted a little in reaction. Then he laughed. He picked her up, swinging her around the room. Talya didn't understand his sudden shift in mood, but it was contagious, so she laughed, too, and slid her arms around his neck, hanging on for dear life to this crazy man she loved.

"Jim!" she cried, surprised and just a little alarmed at this unexpected reaction. "Stop it this minute. Put me down before you drop me."

"Not on your life, lady," he answered, but then complied, allowing her body to slide slowly down his until her toes touched the floor again, but no further. Hugging her again, he allowed her to feel his mounting desire, both in his mind and between their bodies. Her eyes widened as they met his, and she caught her breath, feeling her own need rise in answer to his.

Now? she asked through the link.

"Can you think of a better way to celebrate?" he retorted playfully, then, without waiting for an answer or giving her a chance to think too much about his erratic behavior, he bent his head toward hers.

"No," she whispered aloud just before his mouth claimed hers and he lifted her in his arms again to carry her to the waiting bed. He laid her there, and they quickly undressed. He lowered himself to her side, caressing her cheek with one hand and then trailing that hand down her body to rest just above where the child grew within her. He bent to kiss her again. I love you, she heard in her mind, and then nothing else as the ecstasy took control of their bodies and minds...


"What is it, Donovan?" Kirk demanded when he noticed the alert expression on the Centaurian's face as he listened to something on the subspace channels. Donovan held up one hand to indicate he needed another few moments to listen, then, when those minutes had passed, set aside the earpiece and turned to his commander.

"We'd better avoid the area beyond 700 Lacertae, Kirk. Three Gorn freighters have been lost there in the past few weeks, with no signs left they ever existed."

"Nothing?" Kirk frowned.

"Not a damned thing except for a little scattered debris that may or may not have come from a ship; it could have just as easily been part of an exploded asteroid."

"That doesn't make sense," protested Talya, who was once again manning the navigation station.

"She's right," Trask agreed. "The tiniest bits of debris carry evidence that indicate whether it came from living organisms or lifeless matter. It may be difficult to tell what form of life, but it's always possible to detect even the most minute traces of DNA, although the amount might be so small that we cannot decipher its code. Surely--"

Donovan was shaking his head. "I know all of that as well as you do, but according to reports I intercepted between the Gorn and Starfleet, there were no signs of life of any kind."

"Starfleet?" Trask interrupted.

"Yeah, that's right. The Gorn ships investigating the incidents reported to Federation authorities that there wasn't enough left of whatever was there initially to tell whether any of it was ever living or not."

"I still find that hard to believe," Talya scoffed.

"Me, too," Trask added.

"I don't really care what you two believe," Donovan countered. "I know what I heard."

Kirk stared at the viewscreen, ignoring as much as he could of the conversation that continued among his crew, puzzling over the transmissions Donovan had intercepted. Once again, he ignored the implications of the fact the Centaurian had managed to tap into secret Starfleet channels and decipher their classified information without benefit of any descrambling codes--at least not any legally obtained. He thought briefly that he would pass the information on to Komack when he returned to Earth--if he returned. For right then, however, he couldn't risk blowing his cover by questioning the matter, and, besides, he didn't have the time to worry about it. At that moment, he was more concerned with the content of those transmissions. Nothing left but debris so small you couldn't tell if it had ever been living beings, he mused. What could possibly cause destruction so terrible?

He only knew one thing in that quadrant of space that even approached that kind of devastation, but even then, there had been enough of that colony of Vulcans left to show that they had once existed. Still, could it possibly be the same...

"Talya." Kirk interrupted the conversation still in progress. "Plot a course for 700 Lacertae."

The crew turned to stare at him, but he ignored their misgivings. "You heard me, Talya. Plot the course," Kirk repeated, carefully shielding both his thoughts and his emotions from her. Also shielding, Talya turned back to her board, completing the necessary calculations.

"Warp four, Glyn," Kirk ordered once Talya had finished the task he had assigned her. Then he stood to leave the bridge. "You're in charge," he tossed the final order to Trask over his shoulder as he reached the doors, then paused a moment when another thought occurred to him.

There had been nothing left of those ships but a little debris. Another of Donovan's intercepted reports had revealed that. There had been nothing left of the Kelvans either, except some bones, brittle bones that can easily be crushed to mere dust...

He realized his shields had slipped only when he felt Talya's question form in his mind. He fiercely erected new barriers to protect his thoughts from any possibility of detection, giving Talya a look that told her as plainly as words that he didn't want to discuss it...not yet.

The doors opened, and he stepped through, leaning against the bulkhead on the other side as soon as they had closed again behind him. He felt a little sick at his stomach. Life in space had lost most of its fun and adventure on this mission. He pushed away from the bulkhead and started walking through the corridors, thinking as he proceeded, remembering. He had fought the memories for weeks, and he continued to fight them even now, but he couldn't keep them out any longer. With Donovan's report came the knowledge that it was time for him to act at last. But first, he had to face the painful memories, face them and put them behind him. Once behind the closed doors of his cabin, he allowed them to play out. For the first time since it had all happened, he simply remembered.

The Enterprise was orbiting the sole satellite of the third planet of the star designated by Federation scientists as GX Andromedae. Spock had beamed down to the Sedola Outpost on the moon's surface, where he was trying to convince the Vulcans there to aid him in negotiations with the Rycherians. With their enhanced telepathic abilities, the same abilities that had proved a mixed blessing to these particular Vulcans and caused them to seek refuge on this forbidding satellite away from other sentient beings, the Sedolan Vulcans just might be able to communicate with the Rycherians on a level that was far beyond that of Humans or even others of their own species. If anyone could convince the Rycherians of the Federation's sincerity in this matter and of the dangers of a Romulan alliance, the Sedolan scientists would.

The Vulcans had initially proved reluctant to get involved in the Rycherian mission. Spock had been on that moon for most of the day, ostensibly exchanging data with the scientists, while back on the Enterprise, Kirk was in his quarters, impatiently waiting for word of success from his first officer. He was pacing when the intercom sounded. "Bridge to Captain Kirk."

He pressed the button. "Kirk here. What is it, Uhura?" At least he managed to sound a little less curt with her than he had been with McCoy when the doctor had visited him earlier. He wasn't sure he could handle too many apologies at one time.

"Mister Spock, sir. He wishes to speak with you." Her voice was matter-of-fact, as though she didn't notice anything unusual in his voice.

"Thank you, Lieutenant. I'll take it here." He moved to his desk and activated the voice-only mode on the comm unit.


"Yes, Spock. Any progress?"

"Yes, sir. The Sedolans have agreed to accompany us."

Kirk sighed in relief. "Are you ready to beam up, then?"

"Not quite. They have asked for my assistance in completing an experiment before we leave."

"How long will it take?"

"Their best estimate is approximately three point five one hours."

Kirk grinned in spite of his annoyance at the delay. "All right, Spock. Let me know when you're ready. We need to be on our way as quickly as possible."

"Affirmative, Captain. Spock out."

Kirk thumbed off the comm unit and leaned back in his chair, stretching to ease some of the kinks out of his back. A few more hours, and they'd be on their way. It wouldn't be a minute too soon.

Suddenly, the red-alert klaxons sounded. He switched the comm unit back on. "Kirk to bridge. What's happening, Sulu?"

"A ship just arrived in this system, sir," replied the helmsman, who was temporarily in charge of the bridge.

"Klingons? Romulans?" Kirk fired off the questions.

"No, sir. I don't know what it is--except big."

"On my way."

He recognized the ship instantly from Komack's report. The Enterprise crew watched the huge vessel for almost two hours. All their efforts to contact the ship were unsuccessful. Kirk sat impotently, doing nothing, to the confusion of his crew, who kept expecting him to do something, anything.

What bothered Kirk was that he didn't know was what that ship was doing in the GX Andromedae system, beyond the obvious but doubtful reason of investigating the impending burn-out of the star, just as the Vulcans on the moon of the third planet were doing. Perhaps it was all just some kind of poorly timed coincidence. Yeah, right, Jim, and Klingons just want to make friends. In a pig's eye! as Bones would say.

More likely, he surmised, the unknown aliens had intercepted communications between the Enterprise, Starfleet Command and the Rycherians and then tracked the Federation starship to this isolated planet. Even though the aliens might not be able to decipher those messages in their entirety, the mere fact that there was contact between the Rycherians and the Federation might concern them, considering that they were holding a dozen younglings captive. It was fully possible they had made the connection between Starfleet's communiques with the Rycherians and its contact with the Enterprise.

And then the real nightmare had begun when, for no apparent reason at all, the mysterious aliens began firing on the moon, using a weaponry system that consisted of some form of phaser power far beyond anything in Federation knowledge.

At the first sign of aggression, Kirk ordered Sulu to take the Enterprise out of the planetary system.

"Now!" he demanded. "I need maneuvering room."

Sulu responded instantly, taking the starship where she could prepare for battle if necessary. A small probe was left behind to keep them informed of the aliens' actions and the status of the Sedola colony.

But there hadn't been a battle. Instead, they had just watched helplessly as the ship destroyed the moon and all the Vulcans on it, including one half-Vulcan Starfleet officer. Then Jim Kirk quietly ordered them to return to Earth.

"No!" Kirk opened his eyes and sat up in the bed. He hadn't seen the end, not in real time. He'd already left the bridge, unable to just remain sitting there watching helplessly a minute longer.

But he had seen it all later, on the ship's record tapes, and it had been as real to him, as immediate as though he was watching it as it happened. After firing conventional phasers for a few minutes, almost as though they were playing with the Vulcans and their moon, the aliens had ceased the barrage briefly, and then the central ship sent out a single burst of unbelievable power--a total disruptor beam that had instantly annihilated the entire satellite and all the people on it.

He had seen that final explosion many more times in his mind's eye as he relived the entire experience, over and over again, trying to find something... anything he could have done to save Spock without risking the Rycherians. He hadn't found an answer yet, but he would continue looking, just as he would continue searching for those alien kidnappers. He didn't know who or what they were, but he would find them. Somehow he would find them. That was his mission, the secret one Komack had laid out for him in his office while his crew waited in the outer room, expecting a court-martial at the very least.

But, no, a court-martial would have brought it all out in the open; all the secrets Nogura was so desperately trying to protect. Better to let them all think he had been allowed to resign rather than face formal action. To anyone unaware of the Rycherian situation and his orders, which was practically the entire universe, it appeared to be the coward's way out, especially considering his erratic behavior just prior to the alien attack, and the fact that the ships had left immediately afterwards, without bothering the Enterprise at all. He had to admit it looked suspicious even to him. He couldn't blame anyone for the common belief that he had played either the coward's role or the traitor's. He not only didn't blame them; he simply didn't care.

Komack wanted him to find the aliens and rescue the Rycherian children. He'd do just that, if it was humanly possible--or maybe even if it wasn't. But once those younglings were safe, he had his own mission to complete. Spock might be dead, but his death wasn't going to go unpunished, not if Jim Kirk had anything to say about it.


Starfleet Commander Spock finally gave up his effort at meditation. A tiny hand was pulling at his sleeve. He surrendered to the inevitable and gave her his undivided attention.

mr'Ynto. The name formed in his mind the instant he lowered his carefully erected barriers. That was all; just the name they had given him, but he knew what she wanted.

Sighing in resignation, Spock shifted from the meditation position on his knees into a sitting posture, allowing the littlest Rycherian to crawl into his lap. Shielding himself from the unbearable intensity of her sorrow, he cradled the child in his arms and rocked her. More than any of them, little nh'Estia missed and longed for her own people. In their absence, she had formed an especially strong attachment to the Vulcan they all referred to simply as grandfather.

Initially, Spock had been appalled when he realized the meaning behind the name the younglings had given him. He was somewhat mollified when he came to understand that in the Rycherian culture it was the older males who taught and cared for the younglings in the time just before they reached first maturity. In their language, mr'Ynto was a sort of combination of grandfather and teacher, not quite one nor the other, but something somewhere in between. And, like all young everywhere, to the Rycherians, anyone more than a few years older than themselves was old.

His own name and title had no meaning to them and sounded strange even in the mindspeak that was their only means of communication, so he had given up and allowed them to call him whatever they wished. What did it signify anyway? There was no one who mattered to hear, so he could not be embarrassed by it. Besides, if it gave the younglings, and especially little nh'Estia, comfort to call him by a familiar name, it made life somewhat easier for all of them--if life on this vessel could be termed easy under any circumstances. There had been nothing easy about this experience from the moment it had begun.

Spock had been at the Sedola Outpost trying to convince the Vulcans there to help with the Rycherian matter when the powerfully telepathic scientists had simultaneously exhibited signs of distress. Although Spock's lesser powers were unable to detect whatever had disturbed them, he picked up some of their sense of urgency. Before any of them could act, however, the entire outpost had seemed to shimmer around him, and then he had found himself aboard this vessel.

In the weeks since his capture, Spock had been kept busy caring for the Rycherian younglings. He refused to consider the purpose to which the Kelvans planned to put them, telling himself they were merely hostages being held for ransom of some kind, or perhaps intended for sale into slavery. Either possibility was preferable to the one he feared most, the one he had to keep from the younglings themselves, who were already lonely and frightened enough without the added burden of this terrifying knowledge.

Eventually, the Kelvans had satisfied his unwilling curiosity. They again took him to a relatively small room and renewed their efforts at communication. This time, they spoke in Federation Standard from the beginning.

"You are Commander Spock?" one of the Kelvans asked in an accent as harsh and guttural as his/her own language. Spock was unable to detect the sex of the creature, or even whether the Kelvans had such a thing as gender in their natural form.

"Yes." Spock acknowledged the truth of the statement/question, but added no additional information.

"You will teach the younglings," a second Kelvan ordered.

"Teach them what?" the Vulcan asked.

"All that you know," the first Kelvan answered.

"How to use the powers of their minds," the second added.

Spock glanced from one to the other, not liking the direction this conversation was taking at all.

"Why?" he asked, not really wanting an answer, but trying to stall and find some means of circumventing their orders.

"That does not concern you," the first Kelvan spoke again. "Teach them all they need to know, and you will have fulfilled the purpose for which you were sought."

Spock lifted one eyebrow in surprise at the admission that he had been deliberately sought out. Although he now knew the purpose for his capture, he still couldn't figure out how the Kelvans knew about him, or why they had chosen him for the task. He attempted to question the Kelvans further, but the Kelvans refused to answer any of his queries, insisting only that he assist the younglings in developing their telepathic talents to the greatest possible extent.

Finally, in exasperation, he told them at least part of the truth. "I cannot teach them what you want them to know. With Rycherians this knowledge comes from within, but only when they reach the appropriate age, what they call first maturity, the equivalent of puberty in Human children."

"At what age do they reach this first maturity?"

"I am not sure," Spock answered. "With Humans, it is usually the early teen years; with Rycherians it might vary. I do not have sufficient knowledge of Rycherian biology to answer your question with complete accuracy."

"And what age are they now?"

"The two eldest are both approximately twelve years of age, standard; the youngest is about four."

The Kelvans' eyes wobbled on their long stalks as they exchanged some unspoken communication on a 'wavelength' Spock couldn't receive.

"Very well. You will see that they amass as much other knowledge as possible in the time before they reach the fulfillment of their telepathic proficiency. As they do so, we will gain both forms of knowledge at the same time. We will not all be able to benefit at the same time, but those who must wait will have the consolation of obtaining even greater knowledge than those who receive their gifts first."

Spock felt a cold sense of dread invade his body as he realized how the Kelvans would gain that knowledge. He knew then, that his earlier hypothesis had been right. At that moment, he knew he must find some means of escaping the ship and taking the younglings with him--before the eldest of them reached first maturity and, as the Kelvans had said, the fulfillment of their telepathic proficiency.


nh'Estia stirred in his lap, and Spock realized she had fallen asleep while he was lost in thought. Gently, he set her aside and turned to the two older Rycherian younglings who were approaching him, obviously eager for their afternoon lessons.

mr'Ynto, what shall we study this afternoon? mr'Antor, the oldest of the male Rycherians, phrased the question in as precise of Federation English as the Vulcan might have used himself.

Spock considered the options, and finally settled on mathematics. It was a field in which he had always excelled, and the Rycherians seemed to have a natural aptitude in the same area, making these lessons a pleasure for all of them.


After two point seven three hours, Spock sensed that the younglings were getting restless. Like Humans at a similar stage of development, they could concentrate on logical matters for only a limited period of time. Then they needed a break, time to play, and to exercise both their bodies and their creative urges. He looked at the circle of faces that surrounded him. A short time earlier, they had been alert and eager. Now, their eyelids were drooping, their gazes darting around the room. mr'Illia tried and failed to suppress a yawn. Spock gave up.

"The lesson is completed for today," he told them. "You may now play."

The younglings clamored to their feet and scurried across the room. Spock watched them a few minutes, then shielded himself against their mental jabbering and turned his attention to a logical contemplation of all possible means of escape.

The problem was that he couldn't think of a single viable plan.


A vague sense of discomfort nagged at the very edge of Kirk's consciousness; a chilling emptiness that told his sleeping mind that all was not as it should be. Suddenly, the discomfort crystallized into a sharp, stabbing pain that seared through his entire body, bringing him instantly awake, alert--and fully aware of the shaking form that was curled into a small, tight ball, her back pressed firmly against him in an apparently unsuccessful effort to find comfort--or warmth...or perhaps both--from whatever it was that distressed her so intensely.

He opened his mind to hers and searched for a reason, any reason for her anguish and realized his own pain had disappeared under her fierce efforts to shield from him. He flinched as her barriers slipped once more, and he again felt the pain slice through him.

Realizing that his own suffering could be only a faint echo of the agony she was feeling, he tightened his arms around her and reached out once again in an effort to make contact.

Talya. When she failed to respond, he switched to vocal communication. "T'Alya. What is it?"

The shields snapped tightly into place again, and for a moment she refused to respond. Then he felt her lower the barriers just a bit, enough to allow them to make mental contact while still protecting him from at least the worst of her pain.

I don't know. The telepathic message came through faintly, as though in a mental whisper. Then a shudder passed through her body, and she managed to speak aloud, but in little more than a ragged whisper. "I don't know what it is, but, oh, Jim! It hurts so badly."

A feeling of dread, cold and nauseating, settled deep in his stomach, a feeling inspired by long buried memories and the certain knowledge that Talya didn't ever complain--about anything. "Tell me," he whispered finally. "Where does it hurt?"

She hesitated for just a moment, then placed his shaking hand on the still flat area below her waist. "There," she answered in a tiny voice filled with her own fear. "It hurts there. It--" She broke off in surprise as the tension suddenly left her body and her shields slid down.

"It's stopped. It just stopped." There was a feeling of wonder behind the spoken words.

"Are you sure?"

She lowered the shields still more. See?

He held his breath for a minute, then let it out in a sigh of relief and turned her in his arms so he could look deeply into the emerald eyes, a stern expression on his face.

"Don't you ever scare me like that again," he ordered, no hint of warmth, laughter or gentleness in his voice this time.

"Jim?" The ferocity of the demand frightened her a bit.

"I mean it," he warned her in his most captainly tone. "Don't scare me like that. I don't know if I could stand to lose you now. I've lost too much already." His voice broke on the final word, and he buried his face in her hair, tightening his arms around her again.

Talya lay still in his arms a moment, then reached her own around his neck, lifting her head to rub her cheek comfortingly against his, not quite understanding his anguish, but knowing it was as real, and as overwhelming, as her own physical pain had been.

"Don't worry. Nothing is going to happen to either of us," she reassured him, carefully hiding an almost forgotten memory of her own from him...and from herself as well.

You're sure? he asked through the link, wanting desperately to believe her, but still a little doubtful.

I promise, she answered the same way.

Kirk hesitated a moment, debating over whether to believe her. He studied her face and searched the layers of her mind that were opened to him, seeking the truth. Finally, he sighed again and cupped the back of her head in his right hand, pressing her closer to him.

"I'm going to hold you to that," he threatened. "I don't think I can stand to lose anything else."

"Jim?" She caressed his cheek, her eyes searching his for an explanation.

"Don't," he pleaded, eyes begging her for understanding. "Please, don't ask me what I can't tell you."

Still her eyes bored into his, and finally she took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh of her own. "You still work for them, don't you?"


"Starfleet. You still work for them. Somehow...I don't understand how or why, but you didn't really resign, did you?"

"How do you know that?" Kirk's eyes widened as realization hit him. "You saw it," he demanded, "didn't you? In my mind?"

Talya nodded slowly. "Yes," she admitted reluctantly. "I didn't intend to. I never do. It's getting harder not to know your thoughts, though, especially when we're together like this, relaxed, not concentrating on our shields. Things seem to slip through without my trying."

"How much do you know?" he asked quietly.

She shook her head. "Not very much. Just...there's some kind of undercover mission. You're looking for someone." She paused and shivered. "Someone, or something, evil. And you're planning...I don't think that's exactly part of the mission."

With a distinct effort, he closed his mind to hers, his face reflecting the shuttered thoughts. "Don't look any further, Talya, please. It's better if you don't know too much."

"Jim? Who?"

He resisted her probing a moment longer, then gave up and said simply, "The people who killed Spock."

"And when you find them?"

He shook his head. "I can't talk about that."

"Please," she begged, with more understanding than he liked--or was willing to acknowledge. "Don't do something you can't live with."

He laughed, humorlessly. "Don't worry. I won't."

"Jim?" She was still worried.

"Shhhh." He placed two fingers over her lips, holding back the additional questions he knew were coming. "No more, T'Alya. I can't talk about it." He smiled gently. "Let's get some sleep."

Talya wasn't satisfied, but she knew when to quit--at least for the time being-- so she leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes, prepared to rest.

He hugged her to him protectively, possessively, and allowed himself to be convinced that she had acquiesced. Deliberately ignoring the vague sense of disquiet that refused to go completely away, no matter how he tried to dismiss it, he gradually slipped back into a light, troubled sleep.

Once again, as he slept fitfully, Talya heard him whisper the strange name: "Miramanee..."

This time, she didn't resist the temptation to search for the memories behind the pain. It didn't take much effort. All she had to do was open her mind, and the images came flooding in. There were thoughts about the present missions--both the official one and the other, more personal goal--and memories, both recent and far in the past. She saw faces floating across his mind, men, women and children, people he had loved, and others for whom he had merely been responsible. There was someone named Gary and another man who seemed an older version of Jim himself. She saw the women and knew their names; Edith, Miramanee, Carol. They were followed by the children: a tow-headed tyke named David, a nameless entity without form who seemed more a promise than a reality, a horribly disfigured adolescent clinging to a broken tricycle. As they moved across the surface of his mind, Talya knew instantly which of them were dead, and which simply lost to him. Whatever the cause of the loss, it didn't seem to matter. Each was accompanied by pain.

Finally, she saw Spock, McCoy and the rest of Kirk's crew, and she knew that in his own mind, they, too, were lost to him...all of them. When Talya finally slept, there were tears on her cheeks...and no secrets hidden from her.


On the Zephyr bridge the next morning, Kirk could almost believe the entire incident had been nothing more than another of his increasingly frequent bad dreams, in which he had relived painful memories. The way Talya had seemed to transform into Miramanee as he had drifted off to sleep just added to the unreality of the night. As he watched her now, busy at her navigation board, he almost convinced himself it had been a dream--almost, but not quite. Talya had insisted she was well, but...The remembered pain had been too vivid, too real, as had the equally painful conversation. He opened the link, a part of him marveling at his ability to do so. The skill was still new enough to be a constant source of amazement.


Yes, Jim. Her response was instantaneous, and astonishingly matter-of-fact, her 'tone' light, relaxed, no pain apparent now. He didn't know what it cost her to maintain the facade.

Are you all right?

I'm fine. To all outward appearances, Talya's concentration was focused solely on the tasks of her job. Kirk grinned to himself when he realized it really was. Her comment had been offhanded, as though she really wasn't paying much attention at all to his uneasiness about her health. In a way, her very casual attitude reassured him a bit, but, still, he couldn't quite let go of the nagging concern.

Giving in to that concern now, Kirk prodded a little more in an effort to coax a reaction from her that was both more conscious and more truthful. You're sure? he demanded, pushing her still harder. The reaction he did get wasn't at all what he had expected.

Yes, worrywart.

He could feel the warm amusement rippling within her as she used the term she must have plucked from his own mind. She even managed to give the word the same inflection Bones would have used. He stiffened; he hadn't realized she could read him that well. She kept saying...

Bones. He dismissed his concern about Talya's telepathy and thought instead about his old friend. He longed to have the doctor at his side right then. McCoy could tell him if anything were wrong with Talya--tell him and then do something about it if there were.

"There's nothing wrong with me, Jim," Talya insisted as she turned to face him, deliberately ignoring the others as they in turn attempted not to eavesdrop too openly on this publicly 'private' conversation. "I'm a little tired, and I seem to get chilled more easily than usual." She readily admitted to the relatively minor symptoms she knew she couldn't hide from him and refused to think about the others. "I'm pregnant. Pregnant women have occasional moments of discomfort. That's all."

"That was more than the discomfort of a normal pregnancy last night," he countered, still skeptical. Neither of them had noticed the curious looks on their crewmates' faces.

"No one said this is a normal pregnancy," Talya replied so demurely Kirk should have been prepared for the impertinence in the question that followed...should have been, but wasn't. "Besides," she inquired a little smugly, "how would you know? Have you ever been pregnant?"

Kirk almost strangled in reaction, trying desperately to control the sudden laughter that threatened to erupt. The others certainly knew by then that he and Talya were lovers, but, as far as he knew, none of them were cognizant of the depth of their relationship. Besides, such uncontrolled laughter wasn't dignified, and a ship's captain--even when that ship was a privateer--should maintain his dignity. The others had no such constraints and laughed openly at Talya's blatant teasing. Kirk felt the heat rise in his face and desperately searched for some means of retaliation, while still fighting to suppress that urge to chuckle. His lips twitched with the effort.

"Kirk, I'm picking up a distress signal."

Donovan's announcement interrupted Kirk's thoughts before he could think of an appropriate reply to Talya's last, mocking remark. Just as well, he thought. Coward, she accused.

"Put it on speakers," he said aloud.

"...under attack...pirates...civilians on board...children...cannot return home... need assist..."

"This is the U.S.S. Yorktown," a Human voice broke in. Kirk frowned as he listened to the transmission from the Starfleet heavy cruiser. "We read you and will respond."

"How far away is the Yorktown now?" Kirk demanded of Donovan.

"Just over four hours at maximum warp."

"Damn! Lystra will never make it in time." Kirk muttered as he stared at the peaceful starfield depicted on the main viewscreen a moment, chewing on his bottom lip. Finally, he turned to Donovan again. "How far is that ship from our position?"

"Less than two hours."

Kirk was silent for another moment, then--"Plot a course, Talya," he ordered. "Glyn, best speed."

"Aye, sir!" the women chorused even as they moved to carry out his orders, all teasing forgotten in the urgency of the moment.


The Zephyr sped through space in response to the message Donovan had intercepted between the Gorn and the Yorktown. A sister ship of the Enterprise, the Yorktown was the nearest heavy cruiser to the Gorn vessel, and was commanded by Captain Lystra Davis, an old classmate and at one time a very special friend of Kirk's. The only problem was, it would take several hours for the Federation ship to arrive, and that would be far too late. The Zephyr could be there in less than half the time.

Damned Orions! Kirk thought as he considered the situation. The filthy pirates had gone too far this time. There were civilians aboard that ship, and children among them. They may be Gorn children, but whatever their species, they were still children. Filthy bastards, he continued the thought. They're every bit as bad as the Klingons.

"I'm picking them up on sensors now," Talya interrupted his train of thought with her report. "We'll be there in approximately twenty-seven minutes at our present speed."

Kirk punched a button on the arm of his chair. "Nydor?"

"Here," the voice came over the speakers.

"I'll need as much power as you can give me, all phasers operable, and be ready to go back to warp speed on my mark. We're outgunned, so we're going to have to out-think them."

"You'll have it." Nydor cut the transmission. He seldom wasted time on conversational pleasantries.

Kirk looked up at the two women who sat at their stations in front of him. He hesitated another minute, still worried about Talya. He didn't like her pallor or the circles around her eyes that never seemed to go away, and he was still bothered by that mysterious pain that had struck her so intensely during the previous night. Come to think of it, her heart rate had been accelerated as well. Maybe it was just her own fear about the pain, but her pulse had been far too rapid...even for a Vulcan.

He turned to look at the viewscreen, and dismissed his worries about Talya for the moment; first things first. He had a battle to fight, and it would take his full attention to do it right. He'd talk to Talya again later and decide what to do about her.

"Glyn, are you ready for this?" he asked the other woman. He had quickly realized she was an excellent helmsman, but he had no idea how she would react in a battle situation.

"You're damned right I am," the blonde replied decisively, turning her head to flash him a wide grin over her shoulder, eyes twinkling in anticipation of the battle ahead. "I have a score of my own to settle with those Orion bastards."

Kirk decided to let the comment pass for now. Later, when he had more time, he'd ask Trask about that score. For now, his only concern was that she could handle the helm and weapons controls. The burden of the battle would be on her shoulders, and he didn't really know yet how she would manage under pressure. He'd find out soon enough.

"Twenty thousand kilometers ahead," Talya interrupted his comtemplation with a report on the location of the ship under attack.

"All right, slow her down now, Glyn." Although the adrenalin was racing through his bloodstream, Kirk's voice was quiet, calm, professional. "We don't want to overshoot our target. As soon as we drop out of warp speed, be ready to fire phasers on my order."

"Aye, sir!" Trask efficiently flipped a few levers and then pushed a couple of buttons, preparing to carry out his order. At a nod, she activated one final helm control. "Warp six," she reported. "Warp Sublight."

The streaming stars coalesced into a normal starscape with the Gorn liner and the Orion ship dead ahead.

"Lock on target!" Kirk ordered.

"Phasers on target."


Trask pressed another button, and the phaser energy erupted from the Zephyr, speeding directly at the pirate ship. They saw the Orion vessel shudder a bit from the impact of the direct hit, but the ship's shields held. The Gorn liner was still the one in trouble.

"Fire!" Kirk ordered again, and Trask obeyed the order instantaneously, her finger pressing the phaser button so quickly it was almost as though she had anticipated him.

Again the Orion ship shuddered under the impact, but once again its shields held. There was a difference this time, however. The Zephyr attack had drawn the other ship's attention. The Orions were slowly turning to face the privateer, allowing the heavily damaged Gorn ship to limp slowly away in the opposite direction.

"Plot a course away from them, Talya," Kirk ordered, "and feed it to the helm so Glyn can get us out of here as soon as she fires the next time. And be ready to cloak. We need to confuse them."

Talya instantly moved to comply with his order and reached with her right hand for the button she would use to feed the coordinates into the helm controls while her left forefinger rested lightly above the control that would kick in the cloaking device.

"Now!" Kirk shouted--and disaster hit.

Trask fired the Zephyr's phasers one more time and then immediately sent the ship into warp speed at the same instant it shimmered into invisibility. But instead of speeding away from the Orion ship, the Zephyr was heading directly for the pirates.

"What the hell!" Kirk yelled, then jumped from the command chair to lean over Talya's shoulder, desperately punching the button beneath her frozen right hand. With a screeching sound that sent chills up and down all of their spines, the Zephyr responded to the change in course and veered off to the starboard, narrowly missing the Orion vessel whose crew would never know how close they had come to oblivion.

His heart pounding with the aftereffects of the surge of adrenalin that had come in reaction to the near collision, Kirk turned to face Talya as soon as he knew the immediate danger was over.

"Why didn't you push that button?" he demanded, his voice dangerously low, dripping ice with every syllable.

"I--" Her face gray with fear and fatigue, heart pounding at a greatly accelerated rate, Talya nevertheless faced him steadily for a long moment, fighting to maintain her composure. Then her horrified gaze dropped from his face to her trembling hands. "I thought I had," she whispered desperately, clenching those hands into tight fists in a futile effort to hide their shaking. It didn't matter anyway. Kirk didn't even notice.

"You thought--" He bit back the words that fought for expression and pressed his lips tightly together, covering his eyes with one hand. He took a couple of deep breaths to control his anger, carefully hiding the depth of it from the crew and shielding it from Talya. Finally, he spoke, all trace of emotion banished from his voice. "Dismissed," he told her in a voice as inflectionless as any Spock had ever used.

Talya's head snapped around to face him, her face even paler than before. "How dare--" she began, eyes flashing and teeth clenched in her sudden rage, but her voice broke on the second word, and her eyes quickly filled with tears that refused to fall.

"You heard me," Kirk said, steeling himself against reacting to her obvious distress. "Get off this bridge--now. We're not out of this mess yet, and I can't afford to have you screwing up again." He turned to Donovan. "Take over for her."

No one moved.

"Do it!" Kirk roared, no longer making an effort to mask his anger. "Both of you, move! Now!"

They moved.

"Kirk." Trask spoke calmly, but insistently, as the bridge doors slid closed behind Talya.

"What?" he snapped, then had the grace to color as he added, "Sorry, Glyn, what is it?"

"They've located the Gorn ship and resumed pursuit." Her voice was tight, severely controlled.

Kirk sighed. What next? "Okay, let's go after them again. Glyn, you handle all maneuvering, nothing like we tried last time. Just do your best to keep them guessing as to where we might pop up next. And keep one hand on those phasers. We're going to have to fire immediately, every time we decloak, or we'll be in real trouble.

"Donovan." He turned to the navigation station next. "You concentrate on cloaking and decloaking on my orders. If we can keep them busy for just a little while longer, the Yorktown will arrive, and then we can get the hell out of here."

"You got it."

The invisible privateer edged closer to the bigger, faster Orion vessel, which was once again apparently preparing to use the helpless Gorn craft for nothing more than target practice.

"All right, gentlemen, it's time to remind them we're here." Kirk nodded in Trask's direction. "Ready, Glyn?"



Again the Zephyr shimmered into visibility. But this time, the Orions apparently sighted them more quickly and turned their own ship in preparation for battle.

"Fire!" Kirk shouted the order and once again saw the phaser power streak away from the ship before the sound of his voice died out. Trask was good, damned good.

"Go, Glyn!" The Zephyr darted quickly away from the Orion weapons, barely escaping a direct hit. As it was, the little vessel caught a glancing blow on the port side that sent a shudder through it. Kirk and his crew hung desperately onto their chairs.

"Cloak!" Kirk shouted tersely as the last tremors of the hit faded. "Move us, Glyn! Now!"

Trask took the ship in a direction almost one hundred eighty degrees away from their last course. This time, the Orions were fooled completely, their weapons cleanly missing the smaller ship.

"Good," Kirk praised softly. "Very good, both of you. Now..." He smiled slyly. "Let's do it again."

And they did. For almost two hours, the Zephyr kept the Orions busy trying to anticipate where and when the smaller ship would appear next, phasers firing every time they materialized. They weren't able to do any real damage to the heavily shielded pirate ship, but the privateer crew did manage to accomplish their objective of keeping the Orions both busy and distracted, thus protecting the disabled Gorn vessel from further attack.

"I'm picking up another ship on sensors," Donovan reported finally, just when Kirk was beginning to wonder how much longer they could keep up this game of cat-and-mouse.

"The Yorktown?" he asked.

"I believe so. It's definitely Federation, a heavy cruiser. I believe...yes, it's NCC-1704."

"The Yorktown." It wasn't a question this time. "All right, Donovan, you can plot us a course away from here now. We'll let Lystra and her crew take over. Glyn, warp two."

As soon as they had carried out his orders and left the other ships behind, Kirk stood. "Glyn, you have the conn."

"Kirk?" Trask's voice stopped him midway to the bridge doors. "Don't be too hard on her."

"That's none of your business." His voice was hard, cold.

Ignoring his tone, Trask stood and faced him. "I mean it, Jim. Go easy. It wasn't her fault."

"We could have all been killed." He didn't like having to justify or even explain himself to his crew. He never had and rarely did so. He wondered why he was bothering to do so now.

"Talya knows that, and you know damned well she wouldn't do anything that would endanger any of us..." Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. "...especially the child."

His eyes narrowed. "That, too, is none of your business."

The blonde shrugged, but feeling an almost maternal protectiveness toward the other woman, she refused to back down. "Talya's my friend. Whatever she's told either of us, she's not well, and you know that as well as I do. She needs your help and support, not your anger...and certainly not your condemnation." Trask held his eyes for a long minute. Kirk glared back, equally stubborn. Finally, realizing he wasn't going to back down to her, Trask shrugged and turned back to her station. She had made her point. Now it was up to him. She would just have to hope he did the right thing. After a moment, the bridge doors opened, then shut again. Trask's shoulders slumped as she allowed the tension to drain from her body.


The cabin doors slid open and Kirk stepped inside, immediately feeling as though he had walked into an inferno. It was like an oven in there. He knew Talya, like all Vulcans, preferred temperatures higher than Humans generally found comfortable, but this was ridiculous. He readjusted the thermostat for something midway between the current level and what he normally would have chosen for himself. Then he crossed the room to the figure he saw huddled miserably on the bed. He sighed, his anger melting in the presence of her obvious distress.

"Talya?" he called softly as he crouched down by her side, reaching a hand out to touch her shoulder.

She flinched at the contact, her involuntary reaction sending a pain that was almost physical through him.

"T'Alya, talk to me," he begged. "I'm sorry I yelled at you, but I was so scared. For all of us," he added in a whisper, "but most of all for you...and the baby." He added the last almost as an afterthought, then continued quickly. "Tell me what happened."

Slowly she straightened out her body and turned over to face him, not bothering to hide either her tears or her pain, physical or emotional. Kirk resisted for the moment the instinct to gather her in his arms. It wasn't time yet, not quite. First, they had to talk this out, reach an understanding. Only then could he comfort her.

"I don't know," she whispered. "I really don't know. My hand was in place to push the button, then when you gave the order I pressed it, or at least I thought I did. I certainly tried, only..."

"Only what?" he prompted gently when Talya failed to continue the explanation on her own.

"I couldn't feel it. I simply couldn't feel the button, and I didn't know how hard to push." She lowered her eyes in shame. "I guess I misjudged and didn't push hard enough."

"What do you mean you couldn't feel it? I don't understand." She really was scaring him this time.

"I don't either," she confessed, still unwilling to meet his gaze. "I've always been healthy, never sick a day in my life until now. I've never experienced anything like this until just recently. My hands--and my feet, too--keep giving me trouble. They tingle sometimes, and sometimes they're just numb, almost like they're not there at all, especially my fingers and toes."

"What could cause that?"

She shook her head slowly. "I really don't know."

That cold dread was back in his stomach. He didn't understand the reason for his fear, or even whether it was his own emotion or just an echo of Talya's. All he knew for certain was that it was real. "Could it have anything to do with the baby?"

"I don't know. Maybe." She appeared to be considering the idea, very carefully, and then she grinned at him, a real smile this time. "I've never been pregnant before either. I really don't know what to expect."

"Haven't you at least been around a pregnant woman before?" Surely she had some experience in this area, even second-hand experience would be better than none at all.

"No, not really. At least not since I was a child." She ignored her memories of the one time she had been around a pregnant woman, hid them behind the strongest shield she could create.

Kirk frowned. "I'd feel a hell of a lot better about things if we could get you to a doctor."

"And just where are we supposed to find a doctor out here who knows anything about Vulcan-Human hybrid pregnancies?" she snapped at him, her mood changing with lightning swiftness.

"On Vulcan," he snapped back just as quickly, then laid his hand over hers when she flinched and paled. "T'Alya?"

"Not Vulcan," she whispered. "I can't...not Vulcan."

"Why not?" he demanded, then smiled, a little sadly when she refused to answer his question. "It doesn't matter. We can't go to Vulcan anyway, but I don't understand why you don't want..." His voice trailed off as he watched her slowly shake her head.

"Don't worry, Jim," she attempted to reassure him. "I'm not sick, not really. It's just a little tingling in my fingers and toes, and that's not anything to get upset about."

"No other symptoms?" He was studying her carefully, still not liking the pallor of her skin or the circles around her eyes that hinted at distress far greater than she had so far admitted.

"Nothing serious." She hesitated a moment longer, then conceded, "I'm tired, Jim, but I know that's normal during pregnancy--any pregnancy, hybrid or not. And there's the abdominal pain, but it's mostly insignificant and not centered in my uterus but rather the gastro-intestinal tract. Probably just a little indigestion. I hear that's normal, too." She didn't bother to mention the recurring nausea.

"Have you ever been bothered by indigestion?" He was still skeptical and determined to get to the bottom of the situation.

"No-o-o-o. But as I told you before, I've never been pregnant, so my normally healthy condition doesn't exactly apply now." She brushed away the last of the tears that lingered on her cheeks and eyelashes. "Glyn says Human women tend to get all weepy when they're pregnant. Maybe Vulcan women, or at least half-Vulcan women do, as well. I really don't remember." The last was said so softly he didn't understand it, but he didn't press it. Talya said she was all right, so he'd take her at her word--at least for now.

He intended to watch her carefully, and the minute her symptoms got worse--in any manner at all--he was going to get help. Somehow, somewhere, he would get her the medical care she should have, even if he had to move heaven and earth to do it.

But if she wasn't in any real danger, he had to complete his mission first. That still took precedence so long as it didn't threaten Talya's life or that of the child. He silently damned Komack, the aliens who had killed Spock, and finally himself for adhering to his sense of duty when he'd rather give in to his own, more personal and private responsibilities just this once. Still, Talya said she was all right...

He stroked her cheek softly, and she lifted her left hand to cover his right one, squeezing it in reassurance.

"You're sure nothing's really wrong?"

"I'm sure."

He read nothing but complete openness and honesty on her face and in the portions of her mind she opened up to him. He had become so used to the barriers they both used even in the most intimate moments to keep certain matters private, that he didn't even notice the new one he encountered briefly while exploring her mind.

I love you. He smiled at her as he formed the words in his mind and lowered his shields to allow them to flow to her.

And I you, she answered with a smile of her own.

He leaned forward and brushed his lips caressingly across her forehead, fluttering eyelashes and cheeks before closing his mouth over hers in a deep kiss. Her arms reached around his shoulders to draw him closer, and he rose from his crouch to sit on the edge of the bed, then stretched out at her side, turning on his back and drawing her into his embrace. Finally, he broke the kiss and cradled her against him, tightening his arms as he felt her snuggle even closer, head pillowed on his shoulder. He was still holding her like that when she drifted into an uneasy sleep. He never slept at all.


The Vulcan knelt in the meditation position, deep within the trance that brought him the only peace he knew. The youth sat cross-legged a short distance away, watching him unwaveringly, but without movement or thought. He had learned that the elder didn't like being disturbed while he was in this position. He didn't understand why; he just knew that it was so. Therefore, he waited, patiently, quietly, until the eyes opened and the big hands were lowered onto his knees. Then, and only then, did he form the question in his mind.

mr'Ynto, what is the meaning of mindfood?

Spock faced mr'Antor steadily, no sign on his face of the coldness that was invading his body.

Where did you hear that? he asked calmly, conversationally, his teacher's mask firmly in place.

I am not sure. The boy was genuinely puzzled. nh'Uscheena and I went through the life-support connector to the next pod. Some of the huge ones were there. We hid and watched them a while, and then I just knew the word. But I do not understand it. I know food is what we eat, and mind is that with which we think and speak. But what is mindfood?

I am not sure, Spock answered cautiously, unconsciously repeating the same words the Rycherian youth had used in answer to his own question a moment earlier. The Vulcan carefully shielded his thoughts as he searched for an explanation that would satisfy mr'Antor's curiosity without frightening him--or the other children. I have not heard that particular combination of words before. Perhaps you misunderstood, and for some reason, connected two unrelated words, coming up with something that is neither one nor the other, and has no real meaning of its own.

Spock deliberately squelched any qualms of conscience he had about offering a hypothesis that was not a complete truth. It is not entirely a lie either, he consoled himself. So long as he phrased it as a theorem and not a fact, he was not truly lying. In a pig's eye! The thought formed unbidden in his mind. He squelched that, too. A Human expression; entirely illogical, he explained in answer to the question on mr'Antor's face. The boy shrugged, then continued the conversation.

Perhaps, but I do not think so, mr'Antor commented on Spock's theory. It did not sound like my thoughts. It was more like--

His sentence and the thought alike were in turn interrupted when two of the younglings rushed 'noisily' up to Spock and mr'Antor, the mental chattering intruding on their conversation. The older boy glared at them for a few seconds, attempting to adopt the stern attitude of an adult. Then, with an apologetic glance at his mentor, he darted across the room to join the others, reverting to child himself.

The Vulcan breathed a mental sigh of relief. He didn't want mr'Antor thinking too much about what he had 'heard.' The fact that he had heard anything at all was disturbing enough. This oldest of the Rycherians was maturing rapidly. Approaching puberty, mr'Antor was beginning to shift back and forth between a newly acquired maturity and the same childish innocence and joy the other younglings exhibited during their games.

What disturbed Spock was the fact that with the new maturity came the further development of mr'Antor's psychic abilities. This was the day the Vulcan had feared since he realized why the Kelvans had kidnapped the children--feared, but hoped would not come for some time yet. He now knew the hope had been in vain. mr'Antor's receipt of a message from their captors was more than adequate evidence to convince Spock of the child's rapidly developing telepathy. Once the creatures from the Andromeda Galaxy realized that fact, the Rycherian would be doomed. He would become in reality the mindfood he had heard one of them mention. Spock knew he had to speed up his efforts to get the younglings off that ship before the Kelvans realized what had happened. He was determined to accomplish it in time so that mr'Antor could live to cross over the threshold into full adulthood and take his place among his people.

Time was running out, and Spock was no closer to finding a reasonable means of escape. The Vulcan sighed. He feared escape would not be a viable option, and the only alternative he could see was to eliminate the Kelvans. To do that, however, he would have to destroy the ship. That would kill Spock and the Rycherians as well.

Spock shifted easily from his knees into a cross-legged position, hands resting lightly on his knees. He watched the younglings at their play while he continued to consider the problem facing him. As he observed them, he was struck by the innocence of their youth. They played happily, as though they didn't have any worries, while just a short distance away, the Kelvans awaited the appropriate time to kill and then consume them, absorbing both their knowledge and their powerful mental abilities. With that knowledge, the invaders would be one more step closer to conquering the galaxy.

No! Spock thought to himself, then carefully raised his shields again when two of the older Rycherians turned to look his way in puzzlement. Again under control, he nodded serenely in their direction, reassuring them that everything was all right, although he alone realized just how wrong things were. I cannot allow that to happen, he continued his thoughts. If we must all die, so be it, but I will not allow them to be used in that manner.

But how could he prevent it? How could he destroy the ship? The Vulcan's gaze swept around the cavernous cargo pod that served as their home. He searched in vain for some means of obliterating the Kelvans and their ship. Connected to the adjoining pods by passageways sealed from the other side, the cargo pod contained no independent propulsion system, nor other controls of any kind. It was plainly and simply designed to store commodities and other possessions. It could be jettisoned from the rest of the ship in an emergency, but even that action had to be accomplished from another section of the vessel.

Spock puzzled over the problem a while longer. He had noticed an unattended computer console in the adjoining pod the last time the Kelvans dragged him there for questioning. From there, it was possible he could tap into both the ship's propulsion system and the controls for this pod. A delayed command would set off an irreversible matter/antimatter explosion that could destroy the entire ship...and anything else close enough to get in its way. With the right calibration, it was possible he could even succeed in escaping uninjured with the young Rycherians.

What might happen to them then, separated from the ship, but with no controls and severely limited life-support? He refused to consider the question too carefully. Most likely, they would die within a short period of time. However, that death would be preferable to the one the Kelvans had planned for them--and there was always the chance they might be rescued. Perhaps he could time their escape to maximize the odds of such a rescue. Spock shook his head slowly. He had allowed his thinking processes to be contaminated by the Humans with whom he served on the Enterprise. Never had he based his decisions on anything as uncertain as chance. The odds against such a rescue were so great they weren't worth the minimal amount of time and effort it would take to compute them. He could better expend both on finding a means of destroying the galactic invaders. The sacrifice of his own life and that of his young charges would be worthwhile if they could eliminate the threat of the Kelvans.

How could he get to the terminal? That was the first problem. A sudden movement distracted the Vulcan. One of the younglings climbed into the life-support connector that provided the cargo pod with a breathable atmosphere. The first time Spock had caught one of the Rycherians crawling through the small opening, he had 'called out' to the boy, trying to stop him, but the youngling had barely looked back.

mr'Illia, Spock had called a second time, but the boy kept going. Spock waited anxiously for eleven point three six minutes until the Rycherian climbed back through the hole, grinning in his excitement.

Guess what I saw, mr'Ynto? mr'Illia demanded. Without giving the Vulcan a chance to answer, he plunged on. A window! Spock could feel the wonder in his mind. You can see the stars!

After that, all of the younglings wanted to leave the pod and see the stars, and Spock had been unable to stop them. It was all the Vulcan could manage to convince them to seek the adventure in groups of just two or three at the time...and to carefully avoid their captors at all times. So far, the Kelvans hadn't realized the small Rycherians were able to pass through the connector. Apparently, it simply didn't occur to the huge creatures that anyone could fit through such a tiny opening.

Spock rose to his feet in a single, smooth motion, and approached the connector. He knelt next to the opening and examined it carefully, mentally measuring its diameter. Then he shook his head. He had been right the first time. There was no way he could make it.

mr'Ynto? mr'Antor approached Spock. Do you wish to see what is on the other side?

Yes, Spock admitted, then added with wry logic, I am, however, too large to go through.

I could go, mr'Ynto, the youngling suggested, eager to be of assistance. I could be your eyes.

Spock lifted one eyebrows as he considered the suggestion. Yes, he said finally, inclining his head. Yes, you could.


"Damned bastards. Why? Why?" Leonard McCoy muttered to himself as he stared through the powerful microscope at the composition of the cells he was studying. He had devoted hours of painstaking research to the project, but had learned nothing more about the Kelvans, or how they had died. He and the other medical and scientific personnel had tested fragments of the bones, and samples of flesh and other material they had recovered from the planet, but they had learned little. In spite of all the tests the sophisticated equipment aboard the Enterprise could administer, neutron radiation was still their only explanation. It had killed every living animal there, leaving the Kelvans' one-time paradise empty.

Once all the animal life was dead, something had moved in on the planet and consumed every bit of flesh from the Kelvans' bodies, leaving only their bones. Why? McCoy asked himself again. Why would anyone, or anything, eat the Kelvans and leave the animals? It doesn't make sense. None of it does. Abandoning the microscope for a moment, he wearily pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, willing away both the fatigue and the impending headache.

"Doctor?" Christine Chapel called to McCoy as she entered the room. The chief medical officer jerked his hand away from his face and resumed studying the slide in the microscope, attempting to hide his fatigue from his head nurse. He didn't bother to turn around to look at the tray with steaming mugs of coffee and plate of sandwiches she carried across the lab, not even when the scent of both teased his nostrils, setting his empty stomach to growling. He didn't dare. He willed both her and his hunger to leave him in peace to continue his search for the answers that continued to elude him.

Chapel sighed. "Come on, Leonard, you need to take a break. At least stop long enough to eat something."

"There's no time," McCoy insisted, still refusing to turn her way. "I have to find the answer."

"Doctor," Chapel stressed the word, and McCoy finally turned around to face her. She bit back the involuntary cry that sprang to her lips when she saw the lines of fatigue and strain on his face. She knew the doctor had been working excessively long hours on this project, but she hadn't realized quite how long until now.

Chapel set the tray down and moved over to stand behind McCoy, placing her strong hands on his shoulders and kneading them in an effort to bring him some relief from the tension that held him within its grip.

"There's all the time in the world," she said softly. "They're dead. We can't help them now."

He twisted away from her and stood up abruptly, moving away from the comfort he neither wanted nor could bear.

"I know that, Nurse." McCoy took refuge in formality--and sarcasm. "I'm not completely around the bend, not yet anyway. But I have to find the answers. I have to know why they're dead. There is an answer, and it's important. I know it is."

As he crossed the lab, he stumbled in his fatigue and then slumped against a table. Chapel ignored the hurt she felt at his rejection of her attempt to comfort him, knowing his pain came only partly from his healer's concern over the Kelvans, just as her own did. She approached him again, took his hands in her own and refused to allow him to pull away.

"I know what you mean," she told him, still speaking gently. "I understand your concern, and I share it. But none of us will do anyone any good if we push ourselves so hard we collapse from exhaustion and malnutrition." She led him over to the table where the food and coffee waited. "Now sit," she ordered, "and eat."

McCoy glared at her a minute, then sighed and complied, wolfing down one of the sandwiches and gulping the coffee so fast that Chapel was momentarily thankful he had resisted her as long as he had. At least the once scalding beverage had cooled enough that it wouldn't burn him. She sat next to him and picked up one of the sandwiches herself, taking a small bite and chewing it deliberately.

The doctor eyed her warily over the top of his coffee cup. He swallowed the mouthful of lukewarm liquid. "All right, Chris, spit it out."

"I beg your pardon." One eyebrow rose in astonishment.

"Whatever it is on your mind," he said, offering a halfhearted grin as he realized the momentary confusion he had caused her. She's been following Spock around too lo-- The thought died, and with it, his smile as he remembered no one was following Spock around anymore. With that thought came others, equally as unpleasant. He pushed the thought out of his mind at the same time he shoved the plate away from him and stood, returning to his microscope without giving Chapel time to respond.

"Leonard? What is it?" She was more confused than ever.

"Nothing." He wouldn't, couldn't share this pain; not with Chapel, not with anyone.

"Don't shut me out. Please."

Hearing the agony in Chapel's voice, McCoy finally turned away from the microscope and faced his head nurse. Seeing the tears that filled her eyes, he sighed, and took a step toward her, hesitated, then took another. He reached out half-reluctantly to draw her stiff body into his arms. "Don't Chris, please don't. Oh, darlin', don't do this. I don't think I can stand it." And then they were clinging together, both crying, crying for the Kelvans and for their lost friends as well.

After a few minutes, they separated. McCoy attempted to wipe the tears from his cheeks with his fingers, while Chapel crossed the room to pull a handful of tissues from a dispenser. She returned to his side and handed a few of them to him, while she used the others to dry her own tears and blow her nose. He followed suit and then faced her sheepishly.

"What brought that on?"

"Too much stress," she answered clinically. "We've been pushing ourselves too hard, so the first stimulus forced us to open the overflow valves and release some of the pressure...hence, tears."

McCoy laughed openly this time. "You sound like a damned textbook," he accused. "You've had your nose in them for too long."

She gave him a watery grin in return. "I have to keep my nose in those books, Leonard, if I want to get certified and have a shot at earning that residency on Vulcan. There's a time limit on it, and I won't have enough time on Earth to do everything I have to do to get the certification. You know that. If I don't do as much of my studying as I can now, while I'm still on the Enterprise, they'll give the position to someone else, and I'll lose the opportunity."

He snorted. "Why the hell you want to do a residency on Vulcan of all places, I'll never understand. To live and work surrounded by those emotionless, green-blooded--"

"Leonard." She stopped him with the single word, and he had the grace to look a bit ashamed as she continued, "The Vulcan Academy of Medicine is the best facility for xenomedicine in the entire galaxy, and T'Tara one of the best physicians of any kind. I'd have to be completely crazy not to want to work with her there. It's the opportunity of a lifetime. Besides..." She blinked rapidly as more tears threatened.

"It's okay, Chris," he hastened to reassure her, hoping to stave off another bout of tears--for both of them. "I understand, and you know I'll do anything I can to help you."

Chapel smiled at McCoy with genuine fondness. "You're doing a lot already, by sponsoring me and monitoring my studies. By the time this mission is over, I'll only have at most, a year of study left before I can pass my orals and earn my full certification." Her smile broadened. "Then I can be off to Vulcan. I couldn't have done it without you."

"I know." His grin was smug, not the least modest. "Now, let's get back to work." He turned back to his lab table.

"Leonard, please, get some rest."

"There's no time." His obsession was back in full-force as he bent over the microscope once again. "I have to find the answer."

Chapel gave up and, shrugging, took her own seat at the matching microscope across the lab table from her superior officer, mentor and friend. If you can't beat him...


Do you understand what we are going to do? Spock asked mr'Antor after he had carefully explained his plan.

Yes, mr'Ynto. mr'Antor answered solemnly, then fidgeted a bit, barely controlling his excitement at his mentor's latest proposal. To join minds with mr'Ynto... I understand. I am ready.

Spock hesitated for just a moment, then reached for the psi points on mr'Antor's face.

My mind to your mind... Spock intoned the familiar words as he slowly eased into the boy's consciousness. They had been communicating telepathically for months, but this was different. He felt mr'Antor withdraw a little, reflexively, a little nervous and frightened by this new kind of mental contact. No, child. It is all right. Spock attempted to reassure the boy. Just relax. It will not hurt. In complete trust, mr'Antor opened his mind, and Spock almost cried aloud at what he saw there.

There were swirling images, all jumbled together. A group of younglings playing together, then huge creatures, the Kelvans, surrounding them, herding them together like animals.

The younglings screamed, psychically, and heard the answering cry of their old mr'Ynto. Before the aged Rycherian could arrive with help to rescue the young ones of his planet, however, the Kelvan transporter was removing them to the huge ship.

The younglings huddled together in the big room where their captors had taken them, crying, incoherent in their fear, wanting only to go home to the safety and security of their parents.

The Kelvans couldn't even seem to understand their efforts to communicate, or maybe they didn't want to. As the eldest, mr'Antor had tried, reaching out, begging for their help and mercy, trying to tell them that the younglings only wanted to go home.

Instead of an answer or the gentle words of comfort he would have received from an adult of his own species, the boy felt a jolt of pain sear through his brain, knocking him backwards and onto the floor. The other younglings gathered around him, patting at him in their own efforts at comfort, while tears streamed down their cheeks and they desperately attempted to control their terror. Finally, after regaining a little control over both his mind and his breathing, mr'Antor raised up on one elbow to face the aliens. They stared at each other across the distance of the room for a minute, and then the Kelvans left.

Once they were left alone, the other younglings began yammering for his attention.

Are you all right? Did they harm you? Why are we here? What do they want with us? When are we going home? The last came from little nh'Estia, and mr'Antor gathered his young sister into his arms as he tried to answer the others' questions. He kept reassuring them he was unharmed, while desperately trying to control his own terror.

Hours later, when all of the little ones lay sleeping, curled up together in groups of two, three or four on those huge, rounded chairs, mr'Antor was still awake, staring into the darkness, wishing vainly for someone, anyone to come and comfort him.

I am here. Unconsciously, Spock used the same words to comfort mr'Antor that he used so often in his attempts to reach across the light-years of space to another who was in need of him. I am here, mr'Antor. You are not alone any longer.

No. There was wonder in the thought, for this wasn't mere communication. The child could feel the presence of that stronger mind within his own. It brought solace and reassurance greater than any he had ever known. No, mr'Ynto. I am not alone, not any longer, never again.

Breaking his physical contact with the youth, but carefully maintaining the fragile link, Spock directed mr'Antor toward the connector. Now, he told the youngling. You must go through the opening and walk down the corridor. Do nothing else, just walk and observe everything you see. Concentrate on it and project the image back to me. Then when I tell you, return here immediately. Spock paused a moment, then added sternly. You must not hesitate to obey me. It could be dangerous.

Yes, mr'Ynto, the boy acknowledged, and he began.

mr'Antor slid easily through the opening of the life-support connector, and began the long walk down the huge corridor. Spock was familiar with the vessel's passageways, but not from that perspective. It seemed strange to be "seeing" it from a lower vantage point than he did when he was the one walking through the corridors. For several minutes, the Vulcan allowed mr'Antor to explore as he wished, glancing into compartments as he passed, noting the contents. Finally, the boy arrived at the room where Spock had earlier observed the computer.

Go in and look at it, but do not touch anything, Spock directed, and mr'Antor complied without hesitation. The youngling peered at the device, leisurely observing every switch, lever and button. Spock could see it with him. After a few moments, he projected another order. It is time to return. mr'Antor turned and walked away from the terminal, exiting the room and hurrying back through the corridor to the pod connector. He crawled through and stood up to face Spock, his young face reflecting his excitement.

Did you see?

Yes, mr'Antor. I saw. You did well. It is enough for today. The Vulcan gently severed the link. We will return tomorrow and work some more.


The Zephyr crew warily eyed the severely damaged ship that was displayed on the main viewscreen. Hanging there, suspended in space and tilted at an odd angle, the Orion vessel had obviously been on the receiving end of something much more powerful than it was. The hull had been breached in three distinct places, leaking all of the ship's atmosphere out into the vacuum of space. The sudden depressurization would have killed its entire crew virtually instantly. It made Kirk feel a little sick. His crew felt the same way. The Orions may be their enemies, but no one deserved to die that way.

"Any chance anything might have survived that?" Kirk finally asked Talya, who was slowly sweeping the other ship with her sensors. She continued scanning a moment, then shook her head slowly. Briefly, Kirk thought that Talya seemed to do everything slowly now. He pushed the thought aside, turning his attention to more immediate concerns. "Well, in that case, is there anything over there that's worth salvaging?"

"Not much," Talya answered, verbally this time, her eyes still on the sensor readouts at her board. She checked, rechecked, and then studied the readouts one more time, just to be certain she hadn't misread something before continuing, "It looks like the explosions destroyed almost everything of value. I'd say it isn't worth the effort."

Kirk hesitated a moment, then spoke. "All right. I'm not particularly anxious to have anything to do with that ship anyway. I have a bad feeling about it." He paused again. "Any energy trails?"

Talya ran a check on her sensors again, shifting her attention to the area surrounding the ship rather than the vessel itself. She turned to face Kirk, one of her increasingly rare smiles on her face. "Yes, you're right. There is a trail."

"Its course?"

She looked back at her instruments and reported the information he had requested. She turned to face him again, eyes wide. "It appears to be headed for 700 Lacertae."

Kirk nodded once, as though he had expected that information. He shifted in his chair as if settling in a more comfortable position for a long journey. "That's fortunate then..." He paused, tugging his tunic into place. "...since we're going in the same direction. Perhaps we'll cross paths somewhere along the way. Glyn," he turned to the other woman, "aim phasers."


"The least we can do is give them a proper send-off. No one deserves having to drift through space like that for all eternity. Aim those phasers," he repeated, then added softly, "...please."

Trask nodded, understanding and agreeing with the sentiment. "Phasers on target," she reported solemnly after lining up the ship in her weapons viewscreen with a very special care.

"On my"

Trask pressed the button, and the phaser fire erupted instantly from the Zephyr and headed directly for the derelict vessel. In just seconds, a huge explosion filled the main viewing screen, illuminating the bridge and forcing the crew to look away from its brilliance. When they looked back, it was all over. Small bits of debris were all that remained as evidence of the Orion ship.

They all sat silently for a moment, staring at that screen as though paying homage to the Orion dead, then Kirk shifted in his chair. "Let's get out of here. Glyn, warp four."

"Warp four." She pressed still another button, and the Zephyr shifted into warp speed, on a heading that would take her to 700 Lacertae and a rendezvous with whatever had destroyed the Orion ship--and maybe a lot of other vessels, people, and even planets.

Part of Kirk dreaded the coming confrontation, but another part of him looked forward to it eagerly. Perhaps it would bring to an end this entire miserable mission...this quest he was on. He looked at Talya, and wondered if he really wanted it to end. Could he go back? Did he want to if he could? And, most importantly, could he take her with him? He didn't know the answers to those questions, not yet anyway. He could only hope that he would find them before he reached his goal. He'd have to make some hard decisions then, and he needed those answers.

He stood abruptly. "Donovan, take over navigation. Glyn, you're in charge. Talya, come with me." He headed for the doors, not looking back to see if everyone was following his orders. He didn't need to. This crew followed him as automatically as his old one had. He shoved the thought away, unwilling to examine it too closely at the moment. He had other, more important matters to consider. By the time the doors were sliding open, Talya was at his side. He smiled at her reassuringly, taking her arm in a gentle clasp and opening the link to allow his reassurance to flow silently to her as they stepped through the doors.

"Don't look so scared," he said aloud, smiling down at her. "I just want to talk to you."

"About what?"

"Not yet. When we're in your cabin."

She nodded, and they continued to walk through the corridor without additional conversation.


When the doors to her quarters had closed behind them, Kirk motioned Talya to sit in one of the lounge chairs. He took the other, then stood back up again almost immediately and began to pace around the room.


He stopped pacing and smiled at her sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm just not sure where to begin."

She smiled back. "That's a real switch. You always know what you're doing." She couldn't resist teasing him a little.

He flushed a little, remembering having said virtually the same thing to that man back at the Gorn spaceport. He hadn't realized at the time how smug it sounded. "I wish I did," he admitted now ruefully. "It would make life a hell of a lot less dangerous."

"And a hell of a lot less interesting, too, I'll bet." Talya was grinning openly now as she leaned back in the chair, sighing softly as she relaxed against its contoured back.

"Maybe." He grinned in response, then allowed the smile to fade slowly, hesitating as he searched for the proper words to ask the question that was nagging at him. "What happens when this is all over?" he finally blurted out.

"What do you mean?" Talya's smile had died, too, as she watched him closely, sensing his fear, his sorrow and confusion. It frightened, saddened and confused her, too.

He pulled the second chair over close to hers and sat, taking one hand in both of his and examining it closely, tracing one faintly green line with his right forefinger. "It looks like I may finally be approaching the end of this mission." His head was still bent downward, allowing his eyes to avoid hers. She was relieved. She didn't want him to realize just how much she knew about this mission. "When it's all over, I'll have to decide whether to go back or not. If I do, will you go with me?" He looked up at her then, his expression a mixture of hope and dread.

Talya reached out with her free hand to tenderly brush the stray lock of hair back from his forehead, understanding the confusion in his mind. "I don't know, Jim. I really don't know. I'm not even sure I could. Let's just wait and see what happens."

He stood and drew her up into his arms, holding her close against him. She felt the confusion fade to be replaced by a more positive emotion. "I don't want to go back without you," he whispered. "I don't think I could bear to leave you behind. I'm getting tired of leaving everybody that matters to me behind. If you won't go with me, then I wo--"

"Shhh-h-h-h." She lifted her hand to cover his mouth and stop the words she feared he might regret some day. "We'll work it out, somehow. If we're meant to be together, then we will be...somewhere."

"If!" He clasped her shoulders between his hands and held her away from him, glaring down into her eyes. "How can you even suggest--" He broke off and then continued in a softer tone, "Talya...what is it?"

Her eyelids had drifted downward, and she was swaying between his hands. Suddenly frightened, he lifted her in his arms and carried her into the sleeping area, laying her gently on the bed.

"T'Alya, tell me, what's wrong?"

Her eyes opened again, and she seemed to focus on his as though from a long distance away.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm just so tired." Her eyes closed again, and stayed that way this time.

Kirk stared at her a moment, then pulled up a chair and sat at her side. He stayed there throughout the long, lonely night, watching, waiting, worrying, hoping, even praying. Something's not right, he told himself over and over again. Something's just not right.

As the bedside chronometer counted off the minutes, he determined he was going to find some way to get her to a proper doctor--and soon. He wasn't sure exactly what was wrong, but he knew something was, and he resolved to do whatever was necessary to ensure that both Talya and the unborn child she carried would be all right.


Talya moaned softly in her sleep, and Kirk watched her carefully. He touched her hand, opening his mind in an effort to determine whether she was in pain. Suddenly, he was swamped by a barrage of images so overwhelming it took him a moment to sort them out.

There were three people in the cabin, a pale Vulcan woman lying on the bed, breathing shallowly, while the big, dark man sat at her side, watching over her with both fear and concern obvious on his face. Seated in the far corner was a little girl with huge green eyes, dark curls and delicately pointed ears.

All three remained where they were for hours, frozen in position, while the woman's breathing grew steadily slower and shallower, until finally it stopped. It took the man a few minutes to realize she was gone. She had already separated herself from his mind, hours earlier, while she was still able to dissolve the link that bound them. The only way he was able to tell she had died was by the cessation of her breathing and the absence of her projected pain. He reached out and placed one hand over the gentle swelling of her abdomen. Then he laid his head on her breast, letting the tears flow as he slowly stroked her rounded stomach, whispering over and over again, "Why? Why, T'Rima? Why?"

Suddenly, he lifted his head and looked around the room. Although T'Rima was dead, the room was still filled with pain. Slowly, he rose to his feet and turned away from the bed to find a tiny figure curled up on the floor next to the chest, eyes wide with fear and pain.

"T'Alya..." He started for her, his dead wife's final plea echoing through his mind. Kneeling next to the tiny form of his young daughter, he reached to gather her in his arms, and then reeled back, stunned by the force of the emotions she was broadcasting. He tried again to touch her, and flinched, unable to make contact. Defeated, he crossed the room to find a heavy quilt and return to the child's side, carefully wrapping the cover around her shivering frame without actually touching her. Then, from a safe distance, he watched her until she drifted into a troubled sleep.

With her emotions dampened by slumber, he was now able to lift the child and carry her to her own tiny cabin next to the captain's. There, he settled her into bed before returning to his wife's side to remove her now-lifeless body and prepare it for "burial at sea."

By the time little T'Alya awoke, her mother was gone. So, too, in effect, was her father. They never spoke of that day again.

Kirk released Talya's hand and stared at her sleeping face, biting his lower lip. He didn't need her to tell him what he had just witnessed. He had recognized her parents from previous contact with her mind. He rose from his knees and began to pace the room, trying to decide what he should do. He had to do something; he knew that now. Talya's mother had died from lack of proper medical care. Her daughter wouldn't do the same, not if he could do anything to prevent it. But what could he do?


"Wake up, sleepy head."

Talya opened her eyes to find Kirk once again sitting on the edge of the bed by her side. There was a table pulled up next to him, and a tray of food was sitting on top of it.

"What time is it?" she asked, brushing her tangled curls away from her face with a hand that trembled.

Kirk frowned, watching that hand. He was disturbed both by her trembling and by her question. Her time sense had been as unerring as Spock's...until now. "Eleven hundred hours," he answered finally.

"That late?" Talya sat up in the bed. "I've been asleep for..." She stopped and tried to think what time it had been when they had returned to her quarters, but she couldn't remember. She looked at Kirk in confusion, only then realizing how badly her sense of time had failed her.

"Almost seventeen hours," Kirk supplied the answer for her, trying to act as though it were a perfectly normal conversation. "Long enough. You need to eat something now."

She eyed the tray warily as he pulled it closer and lifted the cover off a plate, revealing soft scrambled eggs, toast and a fruit salad. He picked up the fork and started to feed her.

"Jim!" she protested. "I can do that."

He sat the fork down, looking a little disappointed. "You're sure? I was looking forward to helping you."

"I'm sure." She smiled in reassurance and took the fork from his hand. "I feel much better this morning."

"All right. In that case, I'm going to take a shower before I return to the bridge." He pointed at her suddenly, eyes narrowed sternly. "You," he said, moving his hand a bit to indicate the food, "eat that."

"Aye, aye, sir." She gave him a mock salute with the same hand that clutched the fork. He smiled in answer as he disappeared into the sonic shower.

The smile disappeared from his face as the shower door slid closed behind him. Talya said she felt better, but she didn't look it. He was just as determined this morning to do something about her as he had been the previous day. Somehow, he had to convince her of the need to consult a doctor. He shoved the thought into the back of his mind, satisfied now that he had reached a decision, and proceeded with his shower.

The sonic spray refreshed Kirk's mind and invigorated muscles that had stiffened during the long hours he had sat unmoving, keeping watch over Talya's sleeping form. When he finished a few minutes later and returned to the living quarters, he found Talya sitting on the side of the bed, staring distrustfully at the food. He couldn't see that any was missing from the plate.

"I thought you said you could manage on your own."

Talya turned at Kirk's voice, guilt mingling with some less-obvious emotions on her pale, pinched face. "I..." She didn't seem to know what to say to him.


She shrugged. "I guess I'm just not hungry."

He sat next to her on the bed again and reached for the plate and fork. Lifting a forkful of the eggs, he held it out to her. "You have to eat. You know you do."

"I don't want to," she sulked.


"I said, 'No!'" She slapped his hand away and smiled smugly when the eggs fell off the fork and into his lap.

Kirk glared at her with a long-suffering expression. "Act like a child if you must, but you're going to eat--if I have to sit here all day and the eggs pile up knee-deep on the floor."

Talya glared back a minute, then giggled in spite of herself at the absurdity of the image. He grinned in response, a gentle, lopsided grin. "Please..." he coaxed.

She opened her mouth and accepted the eggs, chewing them slowly and deliberately for what seemed to him like three times as long as it should have taken her to eat them.


She swallowed, and he offered her a bite of fruit this time. Again, she chewed slowly, carefully, as though dreading swallowing. She finally did, though, just when he had opened his mouth to chide her again. She caught his hand in hers when he reached for the toast.

"No, Jim. No more." But there was no hint of her earlier defiance now, just a weary pleading.

He frowned. "Two bites doesn't constitute a meal, especially after seventeen hours of sleep."

"Maybe not, but it's all I can manage right now." She managed a small smile. "I'll try some more later. I promise."

"All right." He gave in and carried the tray across the room to drop it in the recycler, then turned back to find her getting out of the bed. "Where are you going?"

She lifted her eyebrow in the only response she'd give and walked across to the combination shower/toilet. When she emerged a few minutes later, looking pale and shaken, he was still there. She started in reaction when she saw him.

"I thought you'd gone."

"You thought wrong." He studied her intently for a moment before speaking again. "What's wrong now?"

"Nothing." She tried to shield the vision of the bright streaks of green from him, but she didn't quite succeed. He paled this time, then crossed the room to her, taking her hands in his and turning them over and back again, inspecting them carefully as though searching for some injury, unable to focus his mind on exactly where that green had been.

"What happened?"

"I said, nothing."

"The blood?" he demanded. "Where did it come from?"

"What blood?" she evaded his question.

"Don't avoid the issue. I saw it, in your mind. And you know damned well what I'm talking about"

She swayed a little. "Please, Jim. Let me sit down." He led her to the bed and helped her to stretch out, then sat at her side.

"Where?" he demanded when she was settled again.

She sighed, then gave up and answered, but vaguely. "From inside, somewhere."

"The baby?"

She grabbed his hands and held on tightly, trying to reassure him despite her own fears. "No, oh, no, not that. I'm not sure what caused it. Maybe I picked up some kind of flu or something. Besides, there wasn't much of it anyway."

"But blood?"

"Jim--" She broke off and squeezed her eyes tightly together, a wave of pain sweeping out from her to engulf him. He bent double at the waist under its onslaught, fighting to control his own reaction. When the agony finally faded to a mild ache, he looked at her again and saw tears on her face. If the echo was that severe...

"That does it." He stood and headed for the door.

"Jim!" she called, suddenly frightened. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to get you help."


"The only place I can." He knew of only one doctor with the necessary expertise who was near enough to help Talya. Komack had promised they would be on patrol on the edges of the Tau Lacertae system, close enough to rendezvous and provide the necessary transportation for him and the missing Rycherians once he completed his mission. Although Scott hadn't been informed of the real reason for his patrol assignment, Kirk knew, and Komack did, too, that he wouldn't hesitate to answer a call for help from his former commanding officer. This wasn't the kind of call the admiral had had in mind, but, for once, Kirk found himself relieved over one of Komack's orders. Even the subsequent change in assignments, which had taken the Enterprise to the far reaches of Quadrant 24 had turned out to be fortuitous. En route back to their patrol area after investigating the missing Thalis and death of the Kelvans, the Enterprise was, for the moment at least, even closer to his own position than it would have been otherwise. Close enough.

"Not Vulcan?" There was no mistaking the fear on Talya's face.

He sighed heavily. "No, T'Alya. Not Vulcan."


Uhura narrowed her eyes in confusion as she listened again to the transmission she had automatically taped when it had activated her board a minute earlier. It had been brief and made no sense whatever--except...

"Scotty?" she called to the man who sat uncomfortably in the center chair. He swiveled around to face her.

"Aye, lass?" Military discipline was somewhat informal aboard the Enterprise these days.

"There's a message. It's for us, but I don't understand it. Only I think it may be..." She couldn't manage to finish the sentence.

"May be what?"

"I'm not sure. It may just be my imagination, but..." Again, she allowed the thought to trail off.

"Well, put it on speakers then an' let me hear it."

"Yes, sir." She pressed a button, and a mechanical voice, like that of a computer, came over the audio system.

"Enterprise," it said. "King to king's level one." There was a brief pause, then a series of numbers, another pause, and then a second series of numbers. The transmission stopped, and there was nothing more.

Montgomery Scott sat unmoving in his chair for a moment. "Is that all?" he asked finally, voice unnaturally quiet, even his Scottish lilt amazingly subdued.

"Yes, sir."

"Thank ye, lass." He punched a button on the arm of the command chair; he never could think of it as his chair. "Scott to Sickbay."

"Sickbay. McCoy here."

"Meet me in me quarters, Doctor. Now." He released the button without waiting for confirmation and stood. "Uhura, transfer that message to my cabin. Sulu, you have the conn." He stepped across the bridge and exited into the turbolift.

Moments later, he was striding down the corridor to the quarters he had occupied ever since being named chief engineer of the Enterprise. It just hadn't seemed right to move into the captain's quarters, and besides it was just for six months. It wasn't worth the trouble of clearing out the things Kirk had left behind and moving his own in.

Scott rounded a curve in the corridor and found McCoy waiting outside his door for him.

"This had better be good." The physician wore the frown that was beginning to seem like part of his uniform these days. "I was busy in the lab."

"It's good, Doctor. It's good." He palmed the door open and stepped into the privacy of his cabin. McCoy followed him through the doorway and across the room to the computer terminal on his desk. Scott sat and punched a few keys. "Listen to this."

"King to king's level one."

McCoy's eyes widened. "Jim?" He spoke in a whisper, as though afraid to say the name out loud.

"Who else? That's the cap'n's code."

"What's the rest of it? Those numbers?"

"It appears to be galactic coordinates. And if I dinna miss me guess, the second is a stardate." Scott grinned, the first genuine smile McCoy had seen on his face in months. "He wants us to meet him, Leonard."

"Can you be sure?" McCoy was still afraid to believe it.

"What else could it be? Maybe..." He hesitated, uncertain, then rushed on, hoping that voicing it would make it true. "Maybe he wants to come home."

McCoy's face fell. "They'll never let him."

"Maybe not, but...what if he has a reasonable explanation? Something none of us knew..."

"What the hell kind of explanation can he give for letting those people..." McCoy's voice trailed off, anger giving way to sorrow. "...for letting Spock die?"

"Maybe there isna one, but I still canna believe that. If it had been anybody else, it would still be hard to imagine he'd done what they said, but they might be able to convince me. But Mister We all know how close they were. There's just no way I'll ever believe he deliberately let him die. Besides, we'll never know the truth if we dinna answer this."

"Answer it how? Where'd it come from?"

Scott shrugged. "Uhura couldn't trace it. There's only one way to answer it."

"We have to go there?'


McCoy stood up. "Then what are we waitin' for?"

Scott grinned and stood up, too, clapping his friend on the shoulder. "Not a thing." He leaned over his comm unit. "Scott to bridge."

"Bridge. Uhura here."

"Tell Chekov to plot a new course..."


Kirk eased Talya through the hatchway into the shuttle attached to the Zephyr at the bottom of the cargo hold. Then he lowered himself into the pilot's seat and closed the little craft's hatch, signaling Nydor to do the same with the exit from the main ship.

"Kirk to Zephyr. Cut us loose, Glyn."

"Yes, sir." Her disapproval was clearly evident even as she flipped the necessary switches to release the shuttle. Kirk had refused to tell the others what they were doing and why, and Trask wasn't at all happy about it. Even Talya wouldn't explain where they were headed. She'd only said Kirk was taking her to a doctor. Trask wanted to know what doctor and where. She had become rather fond of the other woman in the weeks she had served aboard the Zephyr, and she couldn't help but worry about her. She knew as well as Talya that Human and Vulcan physicians were nonexistent in this sector, except for those serving aboard Starfleet vessels. And a Gorn would be worse than no doctor at all. Trask couldn't believe that Kirk could go to the 'fleet for assistance, after what had happened--or that he would get it if he dared to make such a request. After all, a Federation starship wasn't exactly a charity hospital. But she couldn't come up with another explanation, especially when he ordered the cloaking device engaged.

She sighed. It didn't do any good to fume about it; she knew that for certain. Kirk was going to do what he was going to do, and there wasn't a damned thing she could do about it.

"Whatever happens, Glyn, keep that cloak in operation until I signal you to bring me back on the Zephyr." Kirk's voice came through the speakers.


On the shuttle, Kirk turned to Talya. "Are you ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

"Okay, let's go then."

He flipped the toggle that separated the shuttle from the Zephyr, and the smaller vessel immediately dropped away from its mother ship, seeming to any observers to appear out of the nothingness of space.

The crew on the bridge of the nearby starship stared in shocked surprise when the shuttle suddenly appeared before their eyes. No one said anything for a moment, then Uhura's board beeped. She listened, then turned around to face the man in the command chair who was waiting with an expectant expression on his face. "Scotty..." she whispered.

"Put it on speakers, lass," he responded in tones almost as soft.

"King to king's level one," the familiar voice said, and the Enterprise crewmen let out a collective sigh, grinning suddenly.

"Queen to queen's level three," Scott responded. After a brief pause, he added, "'Tis good to hear yer voice, sir." He turned to Uhura. "Put him on vis--"

"No, Scotty," Kirk interrupted. "I'd rather you didn't. Would you bring us aboard instead?"

"Us?" McCoy interjected.

"Hello, Bones." The voice was gentle and almost unbearably sad. "Yes, us. No transporter this time, Scotty, please. I'd rather you'd use the tractors."

"Anything you want, Captain." It sounded good. "We'll meet you in the shuttle bay."

"Thank you, Scotty. See you there." Kirk cut the connection.

McCoy leaned over Scott's chair. "Are you out of your mind?" he demanded. "There's only one way that shuttle could just appear out of nowhere like that."

"A cloaking device," Chekov supplied.

McCoy glared the younger man into silence, then turned back to Scott. "And where would he get a cloaking device?"

Scott narrowed his eyes. "Ye dinna mean to imply the cap'n would be workin' for the Romulans?"

"Do you have another explanation?" McCoy asked.

"No," Scott said. "But I canna believe that of Jim Kirk."

McCoy sighed and ran his hand along the back of his neck. "Neither can I. Sorry, Scotty. I must be more tired than I thought. There has to be another explanation."

"Aye. So let's get down there and find out what it is."

Scott and McCoy hurried through the corridors of the ship, and arrived at the shuttle bay just as the repressurization was completed. They stepped through the doors, and the Scot's mouth split in a wide grin when he saw the man step out of the sleek shuttle. Montgomery Scott's hazel eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the woman who followed his former captain, moving carefully with Kirk's assistance. McCoy just scowled.

"Permission to come aboard," Kirk said with a hopeful grin.

"Permission granted," Scott answered formally, then relaxed. "Welcome home, sir."

"Thank you for coming, Scotty," Kirk continued to speak to his former chief engineer. He had noted the stormy expression on McCoy's face and decided it would be wiser to give him a minute to cool down.

"Did ye doubt we'd be here?" Scott tried to appear insulted, but the grin wouldn't go away.

Kirk shook his head slowly, smiling a little. "Doubt you, Scotty? Never. You've never let me down."

"Yeah, well, I'm glad you two are enjoying old home week. That's all well and good, but are you ready to come to your senses and return home with us now?" McCoy wasn't taking time for social pleasantries. He sounded like a father scolding his wayward son, but he couldn't help it; he felt that way.

Kirk turned his head to look at the doctor and sighed. This was going to be harder than he had expected.

"What makes you think I'm not going back, Bones?" he asked softly.

"Then why in hell did you call us here? You knew that's what we'd expect or we'd never have come. Are you going to just twist the knife in our guts a little more? Haven't you done enough of that yet?"

"Yes, I knew that was what you'd think. I'm sorry, but I had to get you here, and I was willing to do whatever it took." He paused to let the thought sink in. "I need your help."

"Had to get us here. Had to get us here. Don't you ever get tired of manipulating people, dragging them halfway across the galaxy to do your bidding, deciding who gets to live and who gets to die without even bothering to tell anybody why?" McCoy had moved steadily closer to his old friend while he scolded Kirk until he now was only inches away from the younger man, his blue eyes blazing holes into the other man's face. Kirk didn't flinch, though. He faced him squarely.

"Yeah, Bones. I get tired of a lot of things, most of all of doing things I don't want to do but know I have to." Kirk still spoke quietly, holding onto his own temper with an effort. "And I'm sorry I had to drag you into this, but--"

"You're sorry. You're sorry," McCoy sneered, making no effort at all to control either the rage or the scorn he was feeling. "That really does a hell of a lot of good doesn't it? I'll bet you're sorry about Spock, too. But that doesn't bring him back to life, does it? Or any of those other poor green-blooded Vul--"

"Scotty, I need your help." Unable to listen any longer, Kirk turned to Scott, while McCoy's tirade sputtered into a fuming silence. The doctor glared at him a few seconds longer, then just looked down at his boots, mentally counting to ten in a belated attempt to regain control over his temper.

"Aye, Captain." To Scotty, Kirk would always be the captain. "What do ye need me to do?"

Kirk didn't answer right away, instead turning to include the other man in his plea. "Yours, too, Bones." He paused a minute, then continued in an even softer voice, barely above a whisper, his pain-filled eyes silently begging for understanding. "Yours most of all."

McCoy's head snapped up, then he followed Kirk's gaze to the woman who had remained standing next to the shuttle when Kirk had approached the other men. Ignoring Kirk, the doctor narrowed his eyes in confusion as he realized she was leaning against the shuttle. He noticed her pallor and obvious weakness. He also noted the pointed ears, and assumed the worst. Despite his suspicions, however, he couldn't ignore his healer's instincts. He immediately pulled a mediscanner out and moved to her side, the instrument whirring in his hand.

"What the--" He frowned, then checked another reading. He looked back at Kirk, a grim expression on his face. "This your work?"

Kirk colored. "Yes," he admitted.

"You stupid fool," McCoy hissed at him. "Why didn't you get her to a doctor?"

Talya shrank away from his anger, and Kirk walked back to her, sliding a comforting arm around her. It's all right, he reassured her silently before answering McCoy.

"That's why we're here now," Kirk explained to him, finding it increasingly difficult to avoid responding with an anger to match the doctor's. "I want you to take care of her...of both of them."

"Both?" Scott was confused now, but neither Kirk nor McCoy took the time to explain it to him. They just glared at each other for a moment, then McCoy took a deep breath and let it back out in a long sigh. "You know damned well I will. You knew that when you sent that message," he rasped, then stepped forward to slide a slender arm around Talya and lead her gently away from Kirk. "What's your name, darlin'?" he asked kindly.

She looked frantically at Kirk and clung to his hand. "It's all right," he told her yet again. "You can trust Bones. He yells a lot, but he's the best damned doctor I know." And the best friend I have left.

As her eyes filled with tears, he dropped her hand and moved closer to take her face between both his hands. "I'll be with you again soon," he promised. "Just do what Bones tells you. He'll take care of you, of both of you." He kissed her once. I love you. Then he stepped back.

"I have to leave," he told them. "Now."

"Now wait just a min--" McCoy was saying at the same time Kirk reboarded the shuttle and began to power up its engines.

The doctor followed Scott from the bay, still supporting Talya. They watched as the bay was again depressurized, and Kirk took the shuttle back out into open space. Just before the doors closed again, they saw the tiny vessel shimmer into nothingness. Scott remembered McCoy's earlier suspicions and eyed Talya carefully. "Do ye really think he's working with the Rom--" he began, but McCoy interrupted.

"No," the doctor answered tersely.

"But she..."

"She's no Romulan," McCoy said and jerked an antigrav gurney from its storage place.

"Is the lass goin' to be all right?" Scott asked, still puzzling over her possible identity.

"I don't know. I just don't know. I have to get her to Sickbay first and do a complete examination. Then maybe I can tell you something." McCoy gently lowered Talya onto the gurney, patting her cheek reassuringly. Then he guided it toward the doorway.

"But what's wrong with her?" Scott called after him. "And if she's not Romulan, then what is she?"

"She's Vulcan," McCoy tossed over his shoulder before leaving. "And pregnant."


Spock sensed a presence nearby and slowly withdrew from the light meditative trance he had been in for the past twenty three point six one minutes. When he opened his eyes, he found mr'Antor sitting cross-legged in front of him. The youth was trying to contain his impatience, but not having much success. Spock suppressed a smile.

Yes, mr'Antor?

May we try it again? the youngling asked eagerly. The link, he added in unnecessary explanation.

Spock rose to his feet. Yes, we will try again. The sooner we are able to reach an adequate proficiency in the technique, the sooner we will be able to accomplish our mission.

And escape from here? mr'Antor couldn't hide the hope he felt.

Spock hesitated, then decided to be honest with the youth. I do not know if we will be able to escape. You understand, do you not, that our primary objective is to destroy this ship and eliminate the threat the Kelvans represent both to the people of your world and to this entire galaxy?

Yes, mr'Ynto, mr'Antor agreed, nodding his head enthusiastically. I understand.

Spock locked gazes with the boy, holding his attention steadily, deliberately projecting the seriousness and importance of the task ahead. And do you understand that we must accomplish that objective no matter what the cost may be to ourselves?

Cost? the youngling asked, puzzled now. What cost?

Spock sighed. This was even more difficult than he had expected. Our lives, mr'Antor. It could cost us our lives.

The boy's eyes widened. Our lives, mr'Ynto? He glanced over toward his little sister. All of us...even nh'Estia?

Even nh'Estia, Spock agreed solemnly, then added, It is best that you not discuss this with the others yet. We do not want to alarm the younger ones, but it is something for which you must be prepared. Together, we can destroy this ship. It is possible, perhaps, that we may be able to separate this pod from the rest of the ship before the explosion. If so, we have a chance at survival, depending on random factors which I am unable to analyze. However, separated from the ship, this pod will only have sufficient oxygen to keep us alive for four point one three hours. Unless another ship happens upon our location within that time and successfully effects a rescue, we will die...all of us.

mr'Antor sat very still for a long moment, absorbing that which Spock was telling him. And there is nothing we may do that will increase our chances at survival? Could we not wait until we know that another vessel is in our vicinity?

No, child, Spock shook his head sadly. That would be most unwise. The danger is becoming too acute. We must act now, while we can, before the Kelvans realize that we pose a threat to them.

mr'Antor looked down at the floor, silently contemplating the danger that lay ahead of him. Then he looked back up at Spock. Let us proceed, he said, as stoically as Spock might have spoken.

Very well, the Vulcan responded, rising from his knees to his feet in a single, fluid motion. Today, we will learn to operate the computer.


mr'Antor reached the doorway to the compartment where the computer was stored. So far, this latest adventure had been without incident. He was becoming more adept at allowing the Vulcan to guide him through the corridors, while a small part of his own mind kept watch for any of their huge captors. None had appeared, however, and now he had reached his goal. Still moving stealthily, he slipped through the doorway, then reached up above his head to press the button that closed the doors.

Now, he 'heard' mr'Ynto's voice in his head, Go to the computer.

The boy crossed the room and climbed up in the chair in front of the terminal. He found he had to stand on the seat in order to reach the controls. Very good, Spock said. Now, you must press the top right button. mr'Antor pressed the button, and the terminal came to life.

Next, Spock directed, press the second button below that one, and then the one marked with a symbol that resembles two overlapping circles...

The lesson continued for nearly two hours, until Spock was convinced that together, he and mr'Antor could accomplish his mission. Carefully, he led the boy through the steps one at a time so that they could learn how to operate the system without alerting the Kelvans as to their efforts. Now, he was ready. He knew how to separate the cargo pod from the rest of the ship, and he knew how to direct the computer to dissolve the containment shield that separated the matter and antimatter. Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow, we will enter the codes into the computer.

Spock knew that he was just avoiding the inevitable, but he wanted to give the younglings one last night of life, a few more hours to play and eat and even sleep before they were forced to face death.

Besides, who knew what might happen in that one more day. Perhaps another ship would arrive and they would have a chance at survival. Spock sighed. It was illogical, and entirely unlikely to occur.

Still, he would give them that time.

It is time to return now, mr'Antor, Spock directed the youngling.

Are we not going to enter the codes now? the boy asked in a mingling of hope and disappointment.

No, child, not today. Return to the cargo pod now.

Yes, mr'Ynto, mr'Antor answered without further protest. He climbed down from the chair and crossed to the door, opening his mind to sense whether any of the Kelvans might be nearby. When he detected nothing, he pressed the button and slipped quickly, silently through the portal when the panels slid aside. In moments, he was crawling back through the connector. Spock awaited him on the other side, with a few of the older Rycherians at his side.

You did well, the Vulcan commended the youngling. You are ready to complete the task tomorrow.

Tomorrow? Now that he knew when the time would come, mr'Antor felt a cold knot of fear in his stomach.

Yes, tomorrow. We can delay no longer.

Yes, mr'Ynto.


Chaos erupted the second McCoy entered Sickbay with his new patient in tow. The nurse on duty stared at him in shock, then scurried around to prepare an examination bed before the rage evidenced by the scowl on the chief medical officer's face exploded in her direction.

"Where's Chapel?" he yelled, then resumed his low-voiced conversation with the woman on the gurney, who seemed desperate to convince him of something.

"Off duty, sir," the little redhead answered in a small voice.

"Get!" he interrupted himself to demand.

Ignoring the nurse's presence now that he had issued the one order he wanted her to obey, McCoy gently lifted Talya in his arms and placed her on the bed. It didn't matter how angry he was with Kirk, this young woman wasn't to blame, and she needed his help. That much was obvious.

As he began a more complete examination than he had been able to do with just a portable mediscanner, he realized that she had fallen asleep. Just as well, he thought. He heard the sickbay doors whoosh open behind him. "What do you know about CFI Syndrome?" he demanded without turning around. He didn't need to; he knew without looking who had entered.

"CFI?" Chapel was taken aback, both by the question and the woman her boss was fussing over. Despite the surprise, she moved forward and began helping him, easing Talya into a more comfortable position and noting the vital signs that began to pop up on the diagnostic screen with alarming rapidity.

"Yeah, CFI. I know damned well you know what it is. There's not much concerning Vulcans you don't know. Fill me in on the details."

Realizing that McCoy wasn't being intentionally cruel, Chapel began a textbook explanation of the condition. "Cupric-Ferrous Incompatibility Syndrome is a condition that occurs when a woman with copper-based blood conceives a child by a man whose blood is iron-based...or vice versa. Unable to accept both copper and iron, the fetal blood cells begin to break down, creating a toxic reaction that quickly spreads from the fetus to the mother."


"Early symptoms are severe anemia, causing pallor and fatigue, paresthesia, chill and tachycardia, followed by abdominal pain and gastro-intestinal petechia, leading to hemorrhaging. Without proper treatment, the anemia will eventually advance to the growth of sores in the mouth and a corresponding inability to take anything orally, plus difficulty in talking, then increased pain, more hemorrhaging and an excessively elevated heart rate. At the end stage, the patient ultimately exhibits cyanosis--or whatever corresponds to it in a Vulcan--and finally suffers respiratory and cardiac failure."

"Death." It wasn't a question.

"Yes." Chapel was watching the woman closely. Understanding the reason for McCoy's questions, she wondered who this woman was, and whose child she carried. While McCoy's healer's instincts would be in full play no matter who the patient might be, there was an extra measure of more personal concern here.


Chapel searched her memory for the exact nature of the prescribed therapy. "Cupric-Ferrous Cyclic Transferase. Developed at the Vulcan Academy of Science, it involves a series of enzymatic injections every three to four weeks beginning with confirmation of the pregnancy. The injections reverse the polarity of the copper and iron in the blood and open up the receptors of the cells, forcing them to accept both copper and iron and thus eliminating the toxic reaction."

"Success rate of treatment?"

She hesitated over the answer, looking at the woman again and trying to gauge the stage of her pregnancy. Then she looked at McCoy, who had finally raised his eyes to look at her. He wasn't going to like this one.

"It depends on how soon treatment is begun. If the pregnancy is confirmed in a timely manner and treatment is begun immediately, the prognosis is excellent; something like ninety-three point something something percent of all patients--mother and child--survive." She stopped.

"But?" he prompted, hearing the unspoken word at the end of her sentence.

"But the longer treatment is delayed, the lower the survival rate--for both."

McCoy sighed. "She's only a few weeks into the first trimester," he supplied the answer to Chapel's unspoken question. "That should be a good sign, but her symptoms are more advanced than they should be. That's bad."

Chapel nodded silently, and he sighed again.

"Can we synthesize this enzyme?"

"I think so. Let me check the medical tapes and see if the instructions are there. If not, I'll contact the Vulcan Academy of Medicine. T'Tara will be able to give me the information we need." She started toward the computer terminal, but turned back when McCoy called her name. He was watching his patient with a strange expression on his face.

"Chris...don't give them the name of our patient," he said finally.

Chapel's eyes widened in surprise and curiosity, then she smiled. "I don't know the name of our patient."

He grinned back. "It's Talya, but you didn't hear it from me."

"Who is she?"

"You're better off not knowing that."

"So, probably, are you, but I can help her better if I know more about her."

"Actually, you know just about as much about her as I do. She's Vulcan..." He glanced up at the diagnostic board again. "No...oh, shit, Chris, she's not pure Vulcan either. I don't even know what that reading is, but it's sure as hell bound to complicate things even more."

She nodded in agreement. "Leonard?"

He faced her warily, knowing what question was coming next.

"What do you know? No, make that who do you know about?"

He hesitated a moment, then--"Jim."

"Captain Kirk?" She hadn't expected that. She didn't know what she had expected, but not that. "He's the father?" McCoy nodded. "Oh." She began checking the information in the computer, mind spinning in reaction to the latest information. Kirk's woman. That figured. She couldn't think of anyone else who would command the kind of loyalty from McCoy and Scott that would have prompted them to take the Enterprise so far off course to provide medical treatment for a civilian whose identity had to be kept secret. McCoy, of course, would move heaven and earth to help any patient, but Scott would deviate from 'fleet orders only under the most extreme circumstances--or for someone who commanded his loyalty beyond that of 'fleet Command.

Chapel wasn't sure how she felt about the situation now. She hadn't yet been able to forgive Kirk for Spock's death and his subsequent desertion of them all without any explanation. Although her brain kept telling her there had to be a reasonable interpretation of the apparently damning facts, all her heart knew was that Spock was dead and no one seemed willing to explain why. She knew even McCoy didn't know exactly what had happened or why. And she also knew he was still furious about it.

Chapel glanced back over her shoulder at the woman who lay sleeping in the bed, and sighed. It didn't matter. None of it really mattered. That woman, that, half-Vulcan woman wasn't to blame for what had happened to Spock and the other Vulcans at the Sedola Outpost. Whatever Kirk had or hadn't done, neither this woman nor her unborn child were at fault. And, like McCoy, Chapel was a healer. Whatever she felt about her former captain, she would do whatever she could to save this woman, and their child.

"Chris?" McCoy's voice, gentle now, broke into her thoughts, his hand settling gently on her shoulder. "It's not their fault." Obviously, he had come to the same conclusion.

Chapel lifted her left hand to place it over his. "I know, Leonard. I know. I'd already decided that." She paused. "Did you see him?"

"Yes." He pulled his hand out from under hers and turned away again.

"What did he say?"

"Nothing." They both knew she wasn't talking about Talya or the baby.

"What's he doing?"

McCoy shrugged. "He didn't discuss it with us, but from the looks of things, I'd say it's either just within, or just outside of the law. All I know is she asked me not to mention her name, or his, to anyone--especially on Vulcan."

"I can understand not mentioning him to the Vulcans, but why her?"

"I don't know. She wouldn't say anything more. Maybe you can get her to talk to you when she wakes up."

"Maybe." She sounded skeptical.

"Yeah, right," he agreed. "Not if she senses how you feel about him. All right, just do the best you can."

"I will. And, Leonard, I don't really blame him, it's just..."

"I know, I know," he responded wearily. "I feel the same way, Chris. Just find that information. We need to start her treatments right away if we're to have any chance at all of saving either one of them."

"I know. I'll find it, Leonard. One way or another, I'll find it."


The Zephyr bridge had been virtually silent ever since Kirk returned from his mysterious trip alone. His crew still didn't understand why he insisted on heading for the vicinity of 700 Lacertae, but they knew without being told not to question him any more about it. Watching him covertly, Trask concluded that he was, if anything, more worried about Talya than she was, and that frightened her more than ever...that and the fact that he was deliberately taking them to meet a faceless enemy with destructive power greater than any she had ever imagined. He seemed completely obsessed by the reports of demolished ships, and she couldn't believe an obsession like that was healthy--for him or any of them.

"How long until we get there, Glyn?" Kirk's voice was amazingly soft, calm, as though he had no emotions at all, but Trask knew better. The emotions were there, but ever since he had taken Talya wherever he had taken her, he had placed his feelings on hold. Unable to deal with any more emotional upheavals, he now concentrated all of his energies on the nameless enemy he was pursuing.

"Glyn?" Kirk's voice dragged Trask back from her musings, and she hurried to answer his earlier question.

"Approximately three and a half days at our present speed," she answered, concentrating on her instruments in an effort to hide her embarrassment at being caught with her attention wandering.

Kirk called the engine room. "Nydor?"


"Can you give me any more speed?"

There was a brief pause, then the blue man answered, "Not safely, not for any length of time."

"All right." They all heard the weary frustration in his voice. "Just keep us moving at the best speed you can. I want to get this over with, and the sooner the better." Kirk ended the intraship communication, and that final sentence told them more than anything his state of mind. He stood up. "Glyn, you have the conn," he said, unconsciously using the military terminology.

Trask responded in kind, "Aye, sir."

Kirk left the bridge and returned to his empty quarters, lying down on the bed that felt too big, attempting to get some rest. After less than half an hour, he gave it up and returned to the bridge. He remained there for most of the following three days before finally returning to his cabin for a few hours of long-overdue sleep as they approached their destination.


"How is she?"

Chapel looked up from her patient at the sound of McCoy's voice and shook her head slowly, discreetly, just out of Talya's line of sight. McCoy suppressed a sigh and stepped forward to lean over her.

"Good mornin', darlin'." He turned on the charm and his best bedside manner, smiling gently at her. "How do you feel today?"

Talya didn't bother answering the question they both knew was only a matter of form anyway. Instead, she met his look solemnly and said, "You're Bones." It wasn't a question. McCoy sobered in reaction.

"I'm Doctor Leonard McCoy, but that's what Jim always called me. My other friends call me Leonard." He smiled at her, then couldn't resist asking, "He spoke of me?"

"Sometimes, not too often." Talya immediately felt a wave of disappointment she couldn't shield against at the same time she saw the dejection on his face. Trying not to experience his melancholia with him, she quickly reassured him, "Jim didn't like to talk about any of you, any of what happened, very often. But he thought about you all the time."

"Thought about, us? How..." Suddenly remembering her Vulcan heritage, and what that meant, he didn't need to complete the question.

"He missed you very badly, all of you, but you especially," Talya continued as though McCoy hadn't interrupted her. "He said...just before we left...he said you're the best friend he has."

"I'm the best friend he has left," McCoy corrected bitterly as though he, too, had heard the words Kirk had planted in her mind.

"Yes," she whispered, nodding her head at the same time. "Yes, that's right. That's what he told me."

McCoy's eyes narrowed. "You know about Spock?"


He leaned forward eagerly. "Did he tell you..."

"Doctor." There was a warning in Chapel's voice as she interrupted McCoy, and he turned angrily to face her. Then, looking sheepish, he returned his gaze to Talya's face and gave her a tentative grin.

"I'm sorry, darlin'. I don't mean to push you so hard," McCoy apologized to his patient. "It's just..."

Again Talya sensed his dejection and reached out with one slender hand to take the bony one that was clenched into a fist at his side. She steeled herself against the pain and sorrow that swept through her the moment they touched. "It's all right," she told him as she gently forced the fingers to open so they could clasp hands in mutual comfort. It was a gesture she would never have dared make just a few weeks earlier. "I understand."

"Thank you." He squeezed her hand once, then set it back at her side on the sickbay bed, moving to the head of the bed to check her vital signs via the monitors on the wall.


He looked down at her face.

"It wasn't his fault."

"Then why--"

"He couldn't do anything," she replied patiently. "He'd have given his own life in a minute, without even having to think about it, if he could have saved Spock, and you know that as well as I do. But his hands were tied. He simply didn't have any choice."

"Why?" the doctor rasped as he pulled a chair close to the bed and sat, his eyes held by the intensity of hers.

Talya hesitated a moment, knowing Kirk had been forbidden to discuss his mission with anyone and probably would have kept it even from her if he could have done so. In fact, he probably still didn't understand the depth of her knowledge, and she knew he wouldn't want her to pass it anyone.

Watching the pain on McCoy's face, however, and feeling that pain sweep out towards her in wave after wave of agony, she knew as well that Kirk wouldn't want his friend to suffer any more than he had to...any more than he already had. Besides, she hadn't taken an oath to Starfleet, and she didn't really give a damn about the one Kirk had taken. That oath didn't have anything to do with her loving him, not that oath or even the sense of duty that drove him, although both were intricate parts of his character. No, it was his caring for people like this man before her...and the one who had died...that mattered to her. She could choose her own actions based on that caring, without having to answer to any traditional Starfleet code of honor.

"He couldn't attack that ship," she told McCoy finally. "...not for any reason. There were children on board, innocent children whose deaths would have set off a galactic crisis that might have meant the destruction of the Federation and everything any of you believed in."

McCoy stared at her in horror; it didn't even occur to him to doubt her. "So that's..." He came to his feet suddenly, a new anger building inside him. "Why the hell didn't he tell me?"

"He couldn't." Talya held his gaze steadily, refusing to flinch against the emotions sweeping her way. "He was forbidden to tell anyone."

"He told you."

"No, he didn't tell me."

"Then how..." The doctor's eyes widened with sudden understanding. " his mind."

She nodded solemnly, tears filling her eyes. "Yes, I saw. I saw it all, lived it with him in his memories and his nightmares; all of the pain and the guilt and the incredible loneliness. It never goes away, not completely. Even when we're together, really together, a part of him is always apart, hurting, wanting to tell you, just to be with you and share your loss, knowing that you alone could understand." The tears began to slide down her cheeks. "But he couldn't tell you. He wasn't allowed, and, besides, there was his mission, and he knew you'd try to stop him if you knew about it." She stopped and paled. She hadn't meant to mention that.

"Mission," McCoy pounced on the word. "What mission?" His eyes narrowed shrewdly when she hesitated to answer. "What mission, Talya?"

"I shouldn't have said anything," she protested. "Please, forget I did. That he really wouldn't want me to tell you."

"What mission?" McCoy demanded again, taking her shoulders between his hands. His voice became stern while his hands remained always gentle, ever mindful of her fragile health.

But still she wouldn't answer. It didn't matter...she didn't need to. He knew now without being told.

"He's gone after them, hasn't he?" the doctor demanded, pressing her for an answer he knew she didn't want to give him. "He's after the bastards who killed Spock, isn't he?"

"No!" Talya protested. "It's not revenge he's after." Even while denying it, a part of her knew it was at least partially true. She ignored that knowledge and concentrated on the aspect of the mission that was pure and right. "He's gone after the younglings."

"Younglings," McCoy mused. "Who are these younglings?"

"I'm not sure exactly, something called Rycherian." He knew the rest of it. She decided he might as well know that, too.

"What's Rycherian?"

"They're telepaths," Talya explained, "powerful telepaths, incredibly powerful, much more so than Spock or me...or even full Vulcans. Their potential power, whether used for good or ill, is enormous. And if Jim doesn't succeed in finding the younglings and returning them home to Rycher, their people are going to go to the Romulans for help."

"Romulans?" McCoy knew he was beginning to sound like an echo, but he couldn't help it. She just kept piling surprise after surprise on him, and it was taking him time to assimilate all of it. He felt as though his head were spinning in reaction to all the shocks.

"Yes, Romulans." Talya managed to sit up in the bed as she tried desperately to impress on McCoy the importance of the information she was relating. "And they can't be allowed to form an alliance with the Rycherians. They can't even be allowed to learn about them, or their powers...not until the Federation authorities are able to convince these people that the Romulans would only exploit them for their own purposes."

"I...see..." He didn't yet, not completely, but he was beginning to. He stood again and paced around the cubicle a minute, then stopped and faced her. "Komack? He knows about this, doesn't he?"

She nodded.

"It was all a set-up then, the whole thing?"

"No." She started to shake her head, then stopped as the motion set the room to reeling. "I don't think so." She continued after a moment, "not all of it. They didn't expect the attack on Sedola, and don't even know why it occurred. Once it did...Starfleet used send Jim where he could move...freely in his search...for the younglings...and the people who kidnapped them." She paused every few words, fighting to draw more oxygen into her lungs.

"I never did like that man," McCoy declared, pacing again. "He's too damned good at manipulating people for his own purposes, and they rarely realize what he's doing. Even Jim..."

He stopped and looked at Talya again, noticing her increasing pallor and shortness of breath. He carefully eased her back against the pillows, straightened the covers, and then patted her hand gently.

"You rest now. We can talk more later." He turned to leave, then stopped again when he heard her call to him.

"Yes, honey, what is it?"

"You're not still mad, are you? At Jim?"

He smiled. "No, honey, I'm not still mad at least not too much, and I'm not mad at you at all."

"I'm glad," she whispered, her eyes drifting downward as sleep began to claim her once again. "He's going to need you."

McCoy walked through the doorway and found Chapel standing in the corridor, her back pressed against the bulkhead, blue eyes wide in shock.

"You heard?"

She nodded, unable to speak.

"I think we both misjudged him."

She nodded again.

"God damn it!" A little of his anger returned, and he welcomed it. It was easier to bear than the pain...or the guilt. "He could have told me. He knew that. Whatever his orders, he knew he could trust me."

Chapel just nodded once more, and he gathered her close in his arms. They stood there for a long time, just holding each other, beyond tears now. McCoy finally stepped back, a curious expression on his face.

"What is it, Leonard?" Chapel asked when she managed to find her voice again.

"I wonder what she meant."

Chapel just stared at him, confused.

"She said, 'he's going to need you,'" the doctor explained when he realized her confusion. "What the hell did she mean by that?" Chapel's eyes widened at the comment, but McCoy simply turned on his heel and hurried back into the sickbay cubicle.

Chapel started to follow him, then hung back a moment, fighting to regain her composure. The pain was overwhelming. She had fought off her sorrow for so long, burying it beneath the anger she had nurtured toward her former captain. Now that Talya had taken that anger away, only the pain was left, and she wasn't sure she could bear it.

"Spock," she whispered.


A shrill whistle awoke him far too soon, and Kirk blinked scratchy and blurred eyes in a futile attempt to clear them as he stumbled from the bed to the comm unit. "Kirk here."

"We're picking up something ahead," Donovan informed him, "at the far edge of our sensor range."

"Can you tell what it is?"

"A ship of some kind," the temporary navigator answered. "Whoever they are, they're too far away for us to be able to tell what kind, but I can tell you this, Kirk, it's big, damned big."

"All right, I'm on my way. Kirk ou--" he stopped himself. "No, wait, if we can pick them up, they'll be able to detect us, soon if not already. We'd better cloak, and change course slightly, see if we can flank them. We need to surprise them if we're going to have any chance at all."

"Any chance at what?" Trask asked the question they all wanted explained, while at the same time fearing that explanation.

"Blowing them out of the heavens." The casual matter-of-factness of the reply was chilling. "Kirk out." This time he did break the connection.

"That's what I was afraid of," Donovan muttered, then moved to carry out the suicidal orders.


The insistent buzzer brought McCoy instantly and rudely awake. "Wha--" He coughed, then stumbled from the bed across the room to the intercom. Pressing the button, he answered the summons. "McCoy here. What is it?"

"You'd better get down here, Doctor." Chapel ignored the impatience in his voice. "She's not responding to the treatment."

"On my way." He was already halfway out of his pajamas before he broke the connection. In another two minutes, he was dressed and out the door, hurrying down the corridor to the turbolift.

"Damned screwed-up alien physiology," McCoy mumbled to himself as he half-walked, half-ran, then skidded to a halt and shifted from one foot to the other while waiting for the 'lift to arrive. "Neither one thing nor the other, and I don't even know what the other is. She's worse than Spock--at least I know what he is. But her readings are so skewed, I can't decipher them all, and every time I try to question her, she just clams up like an Aldebaran shellmouth. And now this baby...the poor thing doesn't have a snowball's chance on Vulcan unless I can get his mother to talk to me."

The turbolift doors finally slid open, and McCoy stepped inside, still muttering. "I ought to kick--Sickbay--Jim Kirk from here to Rigel Seven and all the way back again. Damned fool stunt, getting her pregnant like that. He's old enough to know better." The lift stopped again, and McCoy sprinted out and down yet another corridor, panting a little as he continued his monologue without pause. "Hell, she should know better too, come to think of it...didn't she know she'd need the God damned treatments? Didn't her mother? Her mother...damn! Doesn't she know anything?"

He ended the tirade as he entered Sickbay and approached Talya's bedside, where Chapel was carefully monitoring the patient's vital signs. Her heart rate was up alarmingly, her respiration more labored than ever, and her blood count was down. McCoy took a few deep breaths to bring his own heart rate and respiration back to normal levels before attempting to speak.

"Damn!" McCoy swore yet again. He had realized the seriousness of Talya's condition the minute he saw those readings. "She's bleeding somewhere. We've got to stop that and build her blood back up. How the hell do I do that when I don't even know what kind of blood to give her?"

Chapel just shook her head sympathetically. "It's mostly Vulcan--"

"Yeah, I know," he interrupted, "but there's something else there that's likely to reject pure Vulcan blood if we give her that, and I don't know what any kind of transfusion would do to the baby. Damn!

"It's no use," McCoy sighed. "The only place we're going to get an answer is from her."

Chapel nodded in agreement. "I think I'm getting close to the answer, but I can't pin it down. It's not Human, but something very close. There's a factor I know we've run into before, but I can't remember where. It's not exactly the same, and apparently the computer can't recognize it either." She shrugged. "It's almost as though there's been some kind of mutation, as though the fusion of her dual genetic heritage has so changed it that our instruments can't separate its component parts and identify the parental stock." She looked up at McCoy with a half smile. "I'm not sure I'd even recognize the Vulcan if we didn't already know about it."

McCoy moved closer to the bed and took Talya's hand in his. "Wake up, honey," he coaxed her gently, but insistently. "Come on, wake up for me now, darlin'. We need to talk."

Talya slowly opened her eyes and looked up at the doctor in confusion as though from very far away. "Leonard?" She blinked to clear her fuzzy vision. "Oh, it hurts."

"I know it does, honey, and we're going to try to do something about that, but first you have to talk to us."

She swallowed painfully. "Hurts to talk," she protested.

"I know. I'll make it as brief as I can, but you have to tell me about your father. It's important."

"My father?" He could instantly sense the defensiveness in her as she tried to shut him out again. "Why do you want to know about him?"

"Stop stallin', honey. Just tell me what he was...where he was from. I need to know so I can take care of you and the baby."

Still she hesitated.

"Come on, Talya. Tell me. I don't give a damn about who he was or what he did or whatever it is that keeps upsetting you every time I bring it up. I just need to know what kind of crazy biological mixture you are so I can pump some blood back into you. If I don't, you'll die--both of you." He hated being so brutal, but he had to get through to her. "Talk to me,"

"No!" Talya cried out hoarsely, struggling to sit up in the bed and then falling back against the pillows when the doctor caught her by her upper arms and pressed her backwards. McCoy's heart turned over in his chest when he realized how easy it had been to force her back into a supine position. All of her Vulcan strength was gone, completely depleted by her illness. "No," she continued after a moment, eyes wide with terror. "You have to help him. You can't let him die, too! Please help him!"

"All right, all right, honey." He'd promise almost anything at that moment, if he could just get her to talk, to give him the information he needed. "I'll help him. But I can't do that unless you help me. How can I know what he is if I don't know what you are?"

"But you know what he is," she protested in confusion. "...Human."

"Yeah, yeah, I know that, Human and Vulcan, but what else?"

Talya just blinked at him, more confused than ever.

"C'mon, Talya. Tell me. What was your father?"

"My father?" She seemed disoriented, as though confused, but still determined to protect some long-hidden secret. "Elasian," she whispered finally, exhausted, unable to fight him a minute longer. What did it matter anymore anyway?

"What?" He wasn't sure he had heard right.

"Elasian," she repeated. "He came from Elas."

"Damn." McCoy paused a minute, stunned by the information, then gave her a bemused smile. "Darlin', you've got to have the craziest, mixed up genetic heritage of anybody I've ever seen...and that baby of yours..." He shook his head. "Jim sure as hell knows how to pick 'em." He shook his head again and looked at Chapel. "Elasian and Vulcan. Have you ever heard such a thing?" He turned back to Talya and grinned suddenly.

"I'll bet you've got some kind of temper, haven't you? And I sure as hell wouldn't want to stir it up." He laughed, his first genuine laugh in a long time. "You'd probably stick that pretty little knife of yours in my ribs...and then stand there calmly and tell me how logical it was to stab me."

Talya smiled back, faintly. "I remember..." Her eyes misted.

"What, honey? What do you remember?"

"My, Father fought," Talya rallied a bit as she remembered the previously forgotten incident. She actually managed to give McCoy a slight grin at the memory. "He ranted and raved, stalking around the room like some great caged beast yelling at Mother and me and the furniture and anything else that happened to be handy. Mother just stood there calmly, quoting reams of statistics at him. I don't remember exactly what it was all about, but the more calm she was, the more she quoted, and the madder he became."

Talya paused to catch her breath, and McCoy handed her a glass of water, hurting with her as he watched her swallow painfully before continuing. "Finally, he got so mad he took a swing at her, backhanded." She chuckled softly, the sound shattering into a painful cough. When she had caught her breath again, she went on, "It frightened me terribly. I thought he would hit her." She smiled. "But Mother just lifted her hand almost leisurely and caught his wrist. I've never seen him look so surprised, his eyes wide and mouth open. Mother squeezed, and Father just stood there, turning purple with rage and pain. 'That course of action is not advisable, my husband,' she told him. 'I suggest that you not repeat it.' Then she dropped his hand, picked me up and took me out of the room to calm me down, understanding how upset I was over the whole scene.

"I never saw him raise a hand to her again," she added softly, a little sadly, "not until the day she died, and he never yelled at either of us, although he lost his temper quite frequently with the crew. I always wondered..." she finished, her voice no more than a whisper now, "...if he really loved us, or was just afraid to cross us."

McCoy took her hand again and squeezed it, becoming alarmed all over again when he felt the fragile bones with little more than skin covering them. "I'm sure he loved you, darlin'. How could he help it?"

He set her hand back on the bed and patted it. "Now you just lie here and get some rest while Nurse Chapel and I see what we can do to help you and that baby of yours."

Talya's bruised-looking eyelids drifted slowly back down over her eyes, then lifted again, briefly, as though she had suddenly remembered something important. "Help him," she begged the doctor. "Don't let him die, too."

"I won't," McCoy reassured her absent-mindedly. "I'll do everything I can to help both of you."

Her eyes closed again and stayed that way this time. McCoy slumped, no longer fighting the hopelessness now that she couldn't see him.


"Yes, Christine."

"We'll have to contact Vulcan."

"I know. See if you can get through to that healer you're planning on working with. What was her name?"


"That's it." As Chapel headed for the comm unit, he called out to her again. "And, Chris, hurry!"


On the Zephyr, Jim Kirk suddenly sat up wide awake in his bed. He hadn't slept nearly as long as he had intended after Glyn had talked him into getting a little more rest before they reached their destination and engaged the mysterious ship in battle. They were cloaked, and therefore, undetectable for now. Although he was impatient to get it over with, Kirk had allowed himself to be convinced that he would be fresher, more alert, and more prepared for the coming engagement if he rested for the remaining time prior to their arrival. Hoping the waiting time would pass more quickly if he slept, he had given in. He agreed to two hours of rest, no more, and ordered Trask to waken him at the end of that time. Reluctantly, she had acquiesced. Checking his chronometer now, he knew that less than twenty minutes had passed. His comm unit was silent, so Trask hadn't wakened him. What had?

And then he least part of it. He had heard, no, felt--he corrected the thought--something...someone.

Forcibly dismissing the strange impression, Kirk rose from the bed and put on clean clothes, hurrying through the ship to reclaim his position on the bridge. Trask glared at him on his arrival, but then quickly turned back to her board when he just glared back.

"Report, Donovan."

"Nothing to report. They're still just sitting there, apparently unaware that we're anywhere near. Wait a minute..." Donovan bent over his board, checking the sensors, then continued, "there's a new energy source evident, somewhere inside the ship."

"All right, people." Kirk sat ramrod straight in the command chair, all traces of fatigue gone now as he mentally prepared himself for what lay ahead. "Get ready. It looks like this just may be it."


Spock's eyes opened. He stared through the dim light to see if anything were wrong with his charges, but the younglings were all sleeping peacefully, apparently unaware of the extent of the danger they faced the following day. Spock lowered his shields a little, reaching out to make sure their sleeping minds were as serene as they seemed, and suddenly he became aware of another presence, not on the ship, but nearby.

Spock lowered his barriers still more and quickly rose to his feet as he recognized the mind he had touched.

mr'Antor, he called. Wake up! All of you.

What is it, mr'Ynto? the boy responded, his mind's voice joined by the other younglings.

Quiet, Spock ordered. We must leave now.

But why?

Spock controlled his sense of urgency and met mr'Antor's clear eyes patiently. Help is nearby, he explained. It is our only chance for survival.

mr'Antor nodded silently. I am ready.

mr'Antor moved swiftly, but silently through the huge ship's labyrinthine corridors, making his way quickly to the compartment where the all-important computer console was waiting. As he turned into the final passageway, the youth caught a fleeting glimpse of a shadow ahead and ducked into the nearest compartment, flattening himself against the bulkhead to the right of the doorway so he wouldn't be seen through the open portal. Two of the huge Kelvans glided past, unaware of him. As soon as they had passed, mr'Antor started to leave, but he was stopped with a word.

Wait, mr'Ynto ordered, and the youngling complied without question, just as he had been instructed. After a few moments, when he sensed the Kelvans were far enough away to no longer pose a threat to the boy, Spock directed mr'Antor to continue. The youngling dashed the final distance to the correct compartment, darted inside and, as before, closed the doors to give himself some privacy. He climbed into the chair and took his position before the computer, once again surrendering his will to that of the Vulcan.

In moments, the task was completed. The correct sequence of codes had been entered into the computer to set into motion the series of events that would destroy the ship and its crew while, Spock hoped, giving their captives an opportunity to escape.

mr'Antor hurried back to the cargo pod, and crawled through the connector to find Spock and the other younglings awaiting him anxiously. He gave them a wide grin, and then it started.

First, the doors and life-support connectors sealed off, heavy metal plates sliding into place to protect whatever might be inside from the effects of the cold vacuum of space. As the plates snapped into place, the lights and artificial gravity shut off abruptly. Spock and the younglings grabbed for a hold on anything within reach. Then Spock heard a series of sliding noises, each followed by a thump as the various connectors that held the pod in place were released. Finally, there was a violent jerk, and the pod was thrust away from the ship.

The sudden jolt yanked some of the younglings free of their precarious holds, turning them end over end in free floating somersaults until one by one they came to rest against a bulkhead or one of the huge chairs. Spock stared helplessly through the darkness in horror, concerned that they might be injured or, at the very least, frightened by the experience. As each youth righted himself or herself, however, the Vulcan's concerns dissipated at the sound of the delighted laughter he heard in their minds. One boy even deliberately pushed away from his second handhold to repeat the experience, but a quick, stern No from Spock prevented the others from following his example.

With no windows, viewscreens or light, Spock couldn't see a thing and had no way of measuring the speed or distance the pod had traveled. He could sense the movement, however, and he carefully monitored the passage of time, awaiting the moment when the matter and antimatter would be mingled, causing the anticipated explosion.

Just before that moment arrived, the Vulcan lifted his head as though listening for something. He had become aware of something else, that presence again, closer now, and coming still closer. Too close, or just near enough? He wasn't certain, but, knowing there was nothing he could do about it, he found himself illogically hoping for the latter. He reached out with his mind.


The Zephyr hovered in space, still cloaked, her crew watching the huge alien vessel in wary anticipation. As one small section of the ship separated suddenly from the rest of the vessel, something tickled at the back of Kirk's mind. Talya? He reached tentatively for the bond, but all he could find was a faint shadow of the link they had shared for the months they had been together on the ship. Distance separated them now and weakened that link, stretching it almost to the breaking point--distance and, he feared, her ever-weakening condition.

Kirk felt that tickling again, and then heard the now familiar phrase form in his mind once more. I am here, Jim, the voice said, clearly, distinctly, in 'tones' he knew as well as any in the universe.

"Spock?" he whispered the name, still disbelieving, but beginning to feel, not hope, but...possibility.

As the pod moved steadily away from the ship, Kirk suddenly lurched to his feet. "Scan that pod," he ordered Donovan tersely, then turned to Trask. "Prepare for warp speed, on my order."

"Life signs," Donovan reported. "One Vulcan and twelve Hu--no, not Human, something similar, but not quite."

"Damn!" Kirk muttered. "We have to get them out of there, fast. The portable transporter won't work quickly enough."

"There's the tractor beam," Donovan suggested.

"Trac--" Kirk laughed suddenly. He should have known. He slammed his hand down on the intercom button to open communications with the engine room. "Nydor, do we have enough power to operate the tractor beam and go into warp speed at the same time?"

"What are we towing?" the blue man asked practically, no sign of surprise in his voice. "What is its mass?"

"I don't know. Donovan, report."

The Centaurian read the data from his scanners. When he finished, there was a brief pause. Still, it was too long to suit Kirk. "Nydor!" he shouted into the speaker.

"We can do it," the engineer reported, "barely, but I'll need a moment after we uncloak to bring the power back up.

"All right, get ready." Kirk turned to Trask again. "Do it," he ordered, and she dropped the cloak immediately.

On the Kelvan vessel, the huge aliens were already in a state of confusion over the separation of their cargo pod. Stumbling over each other in their hurry to regain the valuable cargo, they were startled further when the tiny ship appeared on their viewscreen.

"On target!" their commander ordered, and three separate sets of tentacles reached out for the appropriate controls, tangling together in the process. By the time they had straightened themselves out, it was too late. The Zephyr tractor beam had already snatched the cargo pod and was warping away from the Kelvan ship.

"Rear screens," Kirk ordered, and the image on the viewer shifted just in time for his crew to witness the gigantic explosion that reduced the Kelvans and their gigantic ship to mere rubble. Grinning to himself, he hit the intercom button. "Bring them over," he ordered, then turned back to face the viewer again, waiting impatiently to see just who would be brought over. He didn't dare allow himself to hope...

Nydor brought out the portable transporter and set the controls to retrieve the Vulcan life form.

Trapped inside that dark cocoon of the Kelvan cargo pod, Spock couldn't see, hear or feel the explosion, but he felt the demise of the creatures on board the ship. He "heard" their cries of anguish as their vessel disintegrated around them, and the icy vacuum of space rushed in on them. He closed his eyes, allowing the pain to wash over him; the pain and the guilt. He knew it had been necessary to eliminate both the Kelvans and their ship, but that didn't make him feel any better about it. Any loss of life was to be mourned--even this.

The Vulcan opened his eyes abruptly when he felt a sudden tingling. The younglings were certain to be frightened, and there was no time to explain now. mr'Antor, he managed just before the beam took hold of him. Do not be afraid.

"Where's Kirk?" Spock demanded as soon as he materialized.

"The bridge," Nydor answered without looking up from the transporter controls, which he was busily resetting for the next beam-up.

"Which way?"

Nydor looked up then, and pointed in the right direction before turning back to the transporter and resumed his task of beaming over the remaining life-forms from the pod. As they reformed in the Zephyr engine room, he found himself surrounded by a group of children. He started to speak, then realized they didn't have any ears, so he just shrugged and returned his attention to his duties, noting that the Vulcan remained with the children just long enough to exchange a look with the eldest. Then Spock was gone, and the older youngsters gathered the smaller ones together in a far corner of the cargo hold, mercifully out of his way. As long as they stayed there, he wouldn't worry about them.

Spock moved through the Zephyr corridors, at first following Nydor's direction and then trusting his own instinct as he sensed Kirk's proximity. Finally, he reached a set of doors that slid open at his approach, and he stepped onto the privateer's bridge.

Kirk swiveled around in his chair, a wide grin of welcome splitting his face.

One eyebrow lifted. "Permission to come aboard, sir?"

"Permission granted." Kirk couldn't seem to stop grinning as he came to his feet.


"Any change?" McCoy asked Chapel, nodding unnecessarily at Talya's bed.

"Yes, and it's not good."

He sighed. "This isn't working either, is it?"

She shook her head slowly. "T'Tara warned me it might not. She said the Radiation Activated Transferase was our best hope, but even that was unlikely to help this late--not even considering the complications the Elasian factors in her blood add to the equation. A transfusion might help, but we don't have that option since we don't have the right kind of blood." She gave a short, mirthless laugh, drawing a stern look from her superior officer. "The right kind of blood probably doesn't even exist," she explained, "outside of her body."

He nodded in agreement. "There's not a damned thing we can do to help any way." It wasn't a question, so she didn't bother responding at first, then--

"All we can do is make it as easy on her as possible," Chapel offered tentatively.

"Easy?" he exclaimed, then glanced quickly at Talya and dropped his voice to a more normal level. "You think this is going to be easy?" He couldn't quite hide his anger, but to be truthful, he wasn't trying very hard.

"Of course, not," Chapel replied calmly. "You know that's not what I meant."

He lifted his hand to run bony fingers through his thick, tousled hair, mussing it even more. He gave a heavy sigh. "I know, Chris. I'm sorry. It's just..." He didn't bother finishing the thought. He knew he didn't really have to.

"It's all right, Leonard. I understand."

"That doesn't excuse me biting your head off."

She smiled fondly. "No, but I'm used to it by now." He winced, and she chuckled softly, then sobered. "Go talk to her," she urged. "I think maybe that would help her more than anything."

He gave her suggestion a moment's thought, then nodded and strode across the room to sit on the edge of Talya's bed.

"Mornin', honey."

Her eyes opened slowly, and he felt a pang of almost physical pain at their dull green color.

"Leonard," she croaked, and he winced again, physically this time, as he felt a momentary twinge of actual pain that could only have come from her. Her shields were weakening; one of the last symptoms of the illness. He steeled himself and took her green-veined hand, noting the grayish pallor of her skin and even paler shade of her lips. In a Human, they would have been blue by now.

"Would you like some water?"

She moved her head slightly to indicate 'no'. "Hurts..." she managed to say " swallow."

"I know. I know. Can I do anything for you?" He felt so helpless.

She moved her head again, and then stopped and focused her eyes on his face. "Talk," she whispered.

"You want me to talk?"

She nodded.

"About what?"

She shrugged, but faintly. "Anything," she managed.

"Well, let's see." He paused to think a minute. "Do you know how I met Jim?"

She nodded again.

" about--"


He sighed, searching his mind for an alternative topic. "All right. What else?" He grinned. "How about my daughter?"

"Joanna," she whispered.

"Yes, Joanna, the light of my life."

Talya managed a faint smile, then shivered.


She nodded once, then shivered again. He lifted her gently and shifted her to one side on the bed, moving the pillows against the wall and settling back against them. Then he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest, her dark head resting on his shoulder.



"Okay, now where was I? Oh, yes, Joanna. Let me think." He chuckled softly in remembrance. "I think my favorite memory is of her fifth birthday. She was running around the backyard, pigtails flying, so full of life and energy, just the way a child should be. She was completely secure in our love, not a care in the world. That was before the divorce..."

The doctor talked on for hours, pausing periodically only long enough to endure the waves of pain Talya obviously could no longer control. He had treated many critically ill patients through the years, had watched as countless of them died. He had suffered along with each and every one of them, but he had never before physically experienced the agony of a dying person. While praying he never would again, he knew he would jealously protect this memory for the rest of his life. He knew it would make him an even better doctor for having a more complete understanding of what the dying felt.

"And then there was the time I visited Joanna one Christmas when she was...oh, I'm not sure, I guess about sixteen. Do you know about Christmas?" he asked, then, "Talya?" when she didn't answer.

"Yes," she whispered, and he knew it was all she could manage.

McCoy could feel Talya's breathing become more and more shallow and labored. Her heartbeat was racing with the ineffective effort to carry much-needed oxygen to her brain. He tried to resume his latest anecdote, but couldn't remember what he had intended to tell her. He searched his memories for another humorous tale, started to talk, then stopped when his voice broke. He gave up then and didn't try to talk anymore, instead just sitting there, holding her while the tears ran unchecked down his cheeks and into her dark curls. He felt the life gradually ebb from her body.

Just when he thought it couldn't go on much longer, she stirred briefly, struggling to speak one last time.

"Sh-h-h, darlin'. Don't strain yourself. It's all right."

"Please...," she begged, gasping for breath between the words. ""

"Sure, honey. Anything. Whatever you want."

"Don't...let..." She paused, trying to drag enough oxygen into her lungs to continue. "Don't let...him...die, too."

"Oh, darlin'," McCoy protested. "I can't promise the impossible. I'd do anything in the universe for you, but I can't help your baby. He's too little. He can't make it without you."

"No." She struggled against his confining arms, then gave up and collapsed back against him again. "Not baby...Jim...don't let...Jim...die, too."

"Jim? You know I'll help him anyway I can, if he'll just come back. But as long as he stays away, I can't--"

"Please," she interrupted in desperation. "You have to...I can''t know how...Promise!"

He hesitated a few seconds longer. "Okay, honey. It's all right. I promise. I won't let him die."

Talya relaxed back against McCoy then. "Thank you," she whispered, and stopped breathing.


Spock remained standing, just inside the bridge doors, as Kirk took one step in his direction, a genuine smile of welcome, relief, joy and love spread across his face. At that look, Spock knew all of the months of fear and worry about the younglings had been unnecessary. He should have known this man would find him. Whatever the cost, Jim Kirk would always find him.

The smile faded to a stern scowl that didn't quite reach the twinkling hazel eyes. "I think I'm due an explanation, Mister," Kirk ordered, then broke into the grin again, unable to maintain the fake anger.

"Of course, Cap--" Spock's explanation ended abruptly when he saw a look of sheer horror and intense pain suddenly sweep across Kirk's face.

"Tal--" he whispered, the sound seemingly torn from his throat. He took another step forward, then fell back again, hands reaching in vain for the chair behind him, something to grab a hold of as he stumbled and collapsed. Spock moved quickly, but not quickly enough. Kirk's body hit the deck heavily, his head slamming back against the base of his chair with a loud thud.

"Jim!" Spock knelt at his side, while Trask crouched opposite him, an emergency medikit in her hand, already pulling a small mediscanner out and running it over Kirk's body. He was breathing, but out cold.

"Concussion?" Spock asked.

"No..." Trask looked up at him in confusion. "I checked for that first. As hard as he hit, I expected it, but it doesn't register." She shook the scanner and took her readings again. "If this thing is working properly, then there's nothing wrong with him at all."

"He is unconscious." Spock enunciated the words deliberately, as though he were speaking to a simpleton.

"I know that." Trask glared at him, controlling her temper with an effort. "What I'm telling you is that there's no reason for it, none at all. He should be awake and on his feet at this very moment."

Spock met her angry gaze coolly, calmly, burying his concern beneath his usual Vulcan mask. "Are you a doctor?" he asked.

She was still glaring. "No, but I know how to use a mediscanner. You have to learn a few basics out here. There are no doctors available--at least not any who know how to treat Human patients."

"Who is second in command here?"

His quick change of subject caught her off guard for a brief moment, then Trask shrugged in answer. "No one. We don't have a line of command--at least not an official one."

The Vulcan looked from Trask to Donovan and back again as though he were trying to decide who to leave in charge. And something simply seemed to snap. "Then you decide it between you," he ordered abruptly and slid his arms gently beneath his friend's shoulders and knees, lifting him as easily as a child and striding for the bridge doors.

"Where are you going?" Trask demanded.

"His quarters." Without another word, Spock exited the bridge and made his way through the Zephyr corridors until he found the cabin Kirk had occupied. He entered and laid his burden on the narrow bed, one eyebrow elevating in surprise at the unusual furnishings of this cabin. It didn't look at all like Jim Kirk. Only the few articles of discarded clothing lying around marked it as his.

Deciding the cabin must have been furnished by Kirk's predecessor, Spock dismissed the matter as insignificant. He had more important considerations at the moment. The Vulcan sat at Kirk's side and closed his eyes, carefully emptying his mind of all turmoil, preparing for the ordeal ahead. When he was calm, he opened his eyes again and reached out to his friend's face, hesitated one last moment, then placed the fingers of his right hand along the psi points on the left side of the other man's face. He took a deep breath and reached...

...and screamed in pain. Instantly breaking the tenuous connection, Spock half rose to his feet and stumbled backwards a couple of steps, finally landing in a sitting position on the cabin floor. He blinked and shook his head, then pressed both hands to either temple, breathing deeply and evenly until he mastered the incredible agony he had encountered. He stared at Kirk a minute, then rose to his feet and approached the bed.

Once more, he positioned his fingers on the other man's face. He hesitated even longer this time, as though fearful to go any further. Surveying those well-loved features, realizing, but only half understanding what his friend must have sacrificed to find and rescue him from the Kelvans. Spock steeled himself and tried again.

Again he was forced to break the contact, unable to penetrate the incredible wall of pain he encountered. To even try again was to invite complete insanity. So, instead, he drew a soft blanket up to cover Kirk's body and exited the cabin, returning to the bridge.

"Is he all right?" It was Donovan, at the navigation station, who voiced the question in the minds of all three of the Zephyr crewmen when Spock stepped onto the bridge. Nydor had joined the others, taking over the helm and allowing Trask to take the center seat. She half rose as though preparing to turn command over to the Vulcan, but Spock gestured to her to remain and instead turned to the vacant communications station.

He checked the controls and realized they had been transferred to navigation where Donovan was covering both responsibilities. Spock eyed him solemnly. Ignoring Donovan's own question, he demanded of the Centaurian, "Do you know any Starfleet frequencies?"

The Human shrugged. "Sure..."

"Open one now, and then transfer it back to this board."

Donovan frowned at him a moment, then complied, deciding it was wiser not to cross the Vulcan. Once the channel was open, Spock's fingers moved across the board, punching in a well-known code...



Montgomery Scott turned quickly from the fuel consumption report he was signing to see the look of complete shock and sheer ecstasy on Lieutenant Uhura's face.

"Aye, lass?"

"I'm picking up a transmission. It's..." She paused a moment, as though unable to believe her own ears. "It's...Mister Spock!" The final two words were whispered.

"Mister Spock?" At her nod, "On speakers."

"Enterprise, this is Commander Spock. My coordinates are..."

The bridge crew exchanged bemused glances as they listened to the strange transmission.

"I am aboard the independent trader Zephyr. Cruising speed, warp six. Advise me of coordinates of earliest possible intercept point."

Again the looks exchanged were perplexed. "Montgomery Scott here, Commander. Er...what intercept point?"

They could almost hear the sigh over the subspace transmission. "The point where you can most quickly intercept with the Zephyr, Mister Scott."

"We're heading in th' opposite direction, Mister Spock. I canna authorize that drastic a change in our current mission without proper approval from Starfleet Command. I'll have to contact Headquar--"

"There is no time," Spock interrupted, an impatience in his voice they had never heard before. "You must change course now, Mister Scott. It is imperative." He hesitated, then continued in a voice harsh and heavy with pain and fear, a voice that created a feeling of cold dread in everyone who heard it. "The captain's life depends on it."

"The cap--Captain Kirk?"

"Is there another?"

"No, sir, not...not for us." Scott looked at Uhura, and caught the pleading expression in the dark eyes that were suddenly filled with tears of joy, hope and...fear. He sighed. "All right. Message acknowledged, Mister Spock. Ensign Chekov will supply you with the coordinates as soon as he has completed the necessary calculations."

"I am ready now, sair," Chekov said quietly, then recited the appropriate coordinates.

"Thank you," Spock said when Chekov had finished, and he broke the transmission without further communication.

"Mister Sulu, you have the conn." Scott bolted from the bridge.

On the Zephyr, Spock directed Donovan to feed the coordinates provided by Chekov into their navigation system and calculate the most direct course to that point. Then he stood and exited the bridge without any additional comment or explanation at all, moving quickly through the already familiar corridors to return to his place by his captain's side. He was to remain there for the thirty-six hours it took to reach the rendezvous.


"Doctor McCoy! Leonard!" Montgomery Scott burst into Sickbay and then drew to a sudden halt when he found McCoy sobbing in Christine Chapel's arms. Scott's gaze quickly found the sheet-covered body on the intensive care bed. "Ach, no! The poor wee lassie..."

McCoy pulled away from Chapel and wiped his tears with trembling fingers. "What is it, Scotty?" he asked softly.

Scott hesitated, unsure how to proceed. He had good news--the best; but he had other news that might just be the final straw for his old friend. McCoy sensed his uncertainty and moved closer to him, clasping his shoulders between his hands. "Tell me, Scotty. What's wrong now?"

"Wrong? I..." He paused again, still uncertain, then finally blurted, "We just received a really strange subspace message. It was from Mister Spock! He's alive, Leonard! He's alive!"

Chapel gasped, her hand closing over her open mouth as she stared wide-eyed at them, heart pounding with the sudden rush of joy the news brought. Alive! But why was Scotty looking so sad.

"What else?" McCoy had come to the same conclusion. He released his friend and took one step back from him as though trying to put as much distance between himself and whatever it was that was coming.

"It's the captain..."


"Aye." Scott's face became even more mournful.

"He's dead." It wasn't a question, and McCoy didn't even know why he was so sure of that fact, except for that look...

"No!" Scott corrected him quickly. "He least..." There was another long pause. "...not yet."

McCoy grabbed the Scot again and shook him. "What the hell do you mean, Scotty? Is he alive or isn't he?"

Scott ignored the doctor's anger and simply answered his question. "He's alive, for now, but Mister Spock said...he said he willna be for long if we canna rendezvous with them."

"Rendezvous? Where? With whom?" McCoy rubbed his hand on the back of his neck. This was getting more confusing all the time.

"They're on something called the Zephyr, a trader of some kind. We're on our way to meet them now."

"Zephyr? A trader? I don't understand. What's the matter with Jim? What happened to him?"

"I don't know, Leonard. You know as much as I do, but we'll rendezvous in thirty-six hours. We'll get some answers then."

"Answers...yes." McCoy looked again at Talya's bed, his shoulders slumping. "Damn," he whispered. "I promised..."

"Promised what?" Now it was Scott's turn to be confused.

"I promised him I'd take care of them, and I failed him. Scotty, I failed him...again." The blue eyes were filling with tears. Chapel moved to his side, placing a reassuring hand on his arm. He looked at her and then squeezed her hand with his other one, forcing a half-smile. "And now I have another promise to keep...somehow."


Spock remained seated at Kirk's side, watching the even rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, Spock counted his respiration, monitoring him to be sure that his vital signs remained normal. There wasn't anything else he could do to help him.

The door chimed suddenly, and he looked up in surprise, hesitating a moment as though debating whether to answer it. It chimed again, and he decided they were unlikely to just go away. He sighed. "Come."

The door slid open, and Trask stepped inside. "How is he?" she asked after standing silently a moment.

"Are you not needed on the bridge?" As soon as he asked the question, Spock turned away from her and resumed watching Kirk.

"Not at the moment," she denied. "How is he?" she repeated the previous question to his back.

"He has not changed." Still he didn't turn around.

"Why are we taking him to the Enterprise?"

"Because he needs medical care unavailable elsewhere."

"What makes you think they'll give it to him?"

Finally Spock turned around and faced her. "Why would they not?"

"Because he was kicked out...excuse me, resigned from Starfleet...almost six months ago, after that thing with the Vul--" Her hand flew up to her face, covering her mouth, her blue eyes widening suddenly. "'re Commander Spock! But you're dead!"

"Obviously not." He turned back to Kirk again.

"But you're supposed to be. That's why he was forced to leave; because you and the other Vulcans were killed, and he did nothing to stop it." She stopped and just stared at him a minute. "If you're still alive, what about the others. Was it all just a sham?"

"I assure you there was no sham--at least not as far as I am concerned. The other Vulcans are quite dead."

"Then where have you been?"

"On that ship we just destroyed--again, obviously."

"But why?"

Spock looked at her again, a long slow look. "I do not believe I am at liberty to tell you anything more, Ms...Trask, is it?"

"My friends call me Glyn." She offered him a tentative smile.

"Ms. Trask..." The Vulcan stressed the name, ignoring the friendly overture. "...although I may have been believed dead, I am very much alive, and, if I am not mistaken, still in the service of Starfleet. You, however, are..." his gaze swept her from head to toe, "...a pirate?"

"Privateer," she corrected him with a slightly wider smile.

"Perhaps." He didn't sound convinced, or maybe he just didn't see the distinction. "Whatever you call yourself, I am certain you do not have the appropriate security clearance for additional information on this affair. I suggest you discontinue interrogating me, as I have no intentions of answering more questions."

"All right," she agreed sullenly, then did ask another question. "What about the children?"

"The children?" He had almost forgotten the younglings.

"Yes, the children you brought on board with you. What are we supposed to do with them?"

"Feed them and give them some place to sleep." Spock's answer was eminently sensible. "Do not be concerned. They will not be on your ship long."

She sighed. "That's the other thing. It's not our ship."

"I do not care whose ship it is. We will rendezvous with the Enterprise tomorrow, and the captain, the younglings and I will all leave the Zephyr. After that, you may do as you wish, all of you."


"I have answered enough questions, Ms. Trask. I do not intend to answer any more. I suggest you leave now."

Trask stared at his back a moment longer, then turned and left the cabin, returning quickly to the bridge.

"Well?" Donovan asked as she flounced into the command chair.

"His name is Commander Spock. We heard that right. He's the same Spock who was Kirk's first officer, and believed killed with the other Vulcans on the Sedola Outpost. Obviously," she gave the word a sarcastic twist, "he wasn't. Other than that, he won't tell me anything, except that he and Kirk and those children will be leaving us once we rendezvous with the Enterprise. Then we're free to do whatever we want."

"What about the ship?"

She shrugged. "He doesn't care what we do."

"Talya won't like that."

Trask shrugged again. "Maybe she won't care--if she's with Kirk."

"What makes you think she'll be with him?"

Trask merely shook her head. "I don't know exactly. I just know she will be...if she's anywhere."

Donovan opened his mouth to demand an explanation of that last remark, then closed it again. They hadn't discussed it, but they all knew how ill Talya was when Kirk took her off the Zephyr. The Centaurian turned back to his console. Trask was right...on both points. If Talya was anywhere, she would be with Kirk. Either way, she wasn't likely to care much what happened to her ship.


The Zephyr was less than an hour away from the rendezvous, and Spock was down in the cargo hold 'conversing' with mr'Antor. The hold was the only place on the Zephyr big enough to for all twelve children to remain together. It wasn't particularly comfortable, but Trask had seen to it that the children were fed and given blankets to spread on the floor so that they were able to sleep. mr'Antor had kept the younger ones calm, although he was somewhat concerned himself--until mr'Ynto had arrived. Spock sat cross-legged on the floor, facing the eldest of the Rycherian children, while little nh'Estia climbed into his lap. Reflexively, his arms closed around her.

We will be leaving this ship very soon, Spock explained. You must prepare the others for being transported to a starship--to the starship on which I serve, among my...friends.

And will we stay there?

I do not know how long you will be on the Enterprise, but either it or another Starfleet vessel will be returning you to your home, to your parents as soon as arrangements can be made.

We're really going home? mr'Antor's eyes were big and suddenly filling with tears. Spock reminded himself that the youngling was still, after all, a child, even if he was beginning to enter adolescence.

Yes, mr'Antor, you are going home. And you must be in charge of the children until you arrive.

You aren't going with us?

I cannot.


Because I have a greater duty to fulfill, he explained patiently, and because you no longer need me.

mr'Antor studied the Vulcan's features carefully a moment, then calmly reached out and took nh'Estia from his lap, gathering her into his own. Then I suppose I should begin to exercise my own responsibilities. His young 'voice' was grave.

Spock nodded at him, just as gravely, then rose to his feet in one smooth motion and headed for the bridge.


Spock sat in the Zephyr command chair as the sleek privateer dropped out of warp to find the Enterprise already in position.

"Enterprise to Zephyr. Come in, Mister Spock."

"Spock here, Lieutenant."

"Are you ready to beam over?"

"Not yet. I must talk with Mister Scott and Doctor McCoy first." The viewscreen shimmered, and the Enterprise bridge formed on it, Scott sitting in the center seat with McCoy on his left.

"Aye, Mister Spock. What do ye need us to do before ye beam over?"

"There will be fourteen of us to transport over, Mister Scott."

"Fourt--" Scott began.

"The children," McCoy interrupted.

"Children," Scott turned to him in confusion. "What children?"

"The Rycherian children," McCoy supplied, turning to Spock, whose right eyebrow was lifted in surprise. "You have them?"

"Yes, I have them. I have been with them ever since Sedola. What do you know about the Rycherians?"

"Never mind. I'll explain later. "McCoy shrugged and changed the subject. "What about Jim?"

"He is still unconscious."

"You'll need an antigrav gurney then. I'll have one in the transporter room, and we'll take him to Sickbay immediately. Do you need anything for the children?"

"Only someone to direct them to a large room where they can remain together. They'll need food to eat and sleeping pallets. The oldest one will take care of the others. He will be able to do whatever is needed."

"Shouldna an adult be wi' the bairns? To answer any questions?"

"I will be the only adult capable of doing that, Mister Scott. Perhaps a yeoman could remain with them to contact me if I am needed. I am leaving the bridge now to get the captain. We will be ready to beam over from the Zephyr cargo hold in ten minutes. Spock out."

Scott looked at McCoy in confusion. "Why canna anyone but Mister Spock talk with them?"

"They don't talk, Scotty. They're telepaths."

"Oh." He thought about that a second. "Mister Sulu, you have the conn. I'll be in th' transporter room or Sickbay."

"Aye, sir."

Scott and McCoy exited the bridge together.


Leonard McCoy shook his head in dejection. "There's not a damned thing I can do, Spock. I can't even figure out what's wrong with him." The doctor looked up from his patient to eye the Vulcan speculatively. "Maybe if you tried a mind--"

"I have already attempted that, Doctor," Spock interjected, "to no avail."

"I don't understand. You mean the meld didn't help?"

Spock sighed. "I mean I was unable to complete the meld. His...pain was too intense. I was unable to get past it."

"Oh. Any idea why?"


"This has never happened before?"

"Never. Not with Jim."

"With somebody else?"

"Yes." His voice discouraged additional questioning, but McCoy refused to take the hint.

"Well, what happened then?"

"That, Doctor, is of no concern to you."

"It could be..." McCoy refused to give up. "...if it might help Jim."

"It would not."

"Just who's the doctor here?" McCoy's temper, already stretched to the breaking point, was simmering, but still he managed to keep it under restraint as he continued to probe at Spock, searching for something, anything he could use to help Kirk. He had a promise to keep, and he didn't intend to allow himself to fail this time. "Why don't you just tell me what happened, and then I'll decide whether it applies in this case?"

"It does not." Spock could be every bit as stubborn as McCoy.

"Stop being so damned pig-headed and tell me what you know!" At the end of his limited patience now, McCoy was on his feet, shouting directly into Spock's face. Observing them while continuously monitoring Kirk's vital signs, Chapel couldn't understand how the Vulcan managed to refrain from flinching away from the physician.

"Only a Vulcan would suffer from the condition to which I referred, Doctor." Spock remained outwardly calm, but with a distinct effort. "It cannot apply in this case."

"You never know," McCoy countered. "I erased cannot, never and always from my medical vocabulary years ago. Tell me."

Finally, both mentally and physically exhausted, and as desperate as McCoy to do something, anything that might be helpful in saving his friend's life, Spock gave in.

"It happened many years ago, on Vulcan, when I was just an adolescent...

Young Spock lay flat on his stomach just across the crest of the towering dune, staring through the computerized binoculars at the le-matya that lay sleeping in the narrow strip of shade offered by a single tree growing in the middle of the desert. Spock was spell-bound by the majesty and beauty of the magnificent beast as it periodically rose and repositioned itself to remain in the shade, which constantly shifted from the gradual movement of 40 Eridani across the Vulcan sky. Observing the sleek le-matya was the best part of the trip so far, and Spock doubted that anything more eventful was likely to occur in this desert excursion.

"And what have you learned, Spock?"

The youth turned as Sendrik stretched out at his side.

"That the le-matya is an inherently lazy creature--unless he is hungry or something has invaded his territory," was the quick answer.

"Good, good. You learn quickly and interpret data most efficiently. Your father will be pleased."

Spock basked in the praise of his older relative, although he doubted his father would be as satisfied with his performance as Sendrik implied. It seemed Sarek never was satisfied, no matter how hard he tried.

Sendrik had been chosen to accompany the youth on this educational trek into the desert. Although not steeped in history and tradition like the much more dangerous kahs-wan of a seven-year-old, desert treks were rapidly becoming popular with the other youths of Spock's age--and with their parents. It was an excellent means of expanding a student's knowledge and understanding of the desert life--and how to survive its dangers.

"And what el--" Sendrik's sentence ended in mid-word, and Spock turned to his kinsman to ask what was wrong only to draw back in fear when he saw Sendrik's dark head pillowed on his own arms, eyes closed almost as though he were asleep... or unconscious.

The youth reached out to the older man, touching his shoulder tentatively. "Sendrik?" He spoke softly, then--Sendrik? When his attempt to contact him telepathically also failed, Spock took his kinsman by the shoulders and shook him...once...twice. Still no response.

Sendrik was still breathing, still alive. Frightened now, Spock mentally reviewed the lessons he had been given in the mind disciplines. He had experienced melds several times, but they had always been initiated by an older, more experienced tutor. He had never initiated one on his own. Even if he had, Spock's earliest lesson had been in the ethics of the disciplines. No Vulcan was ever allowed to enter another's mind until he fully understood the implications of the action and had accepted the premise that one must first have permission to do so. Otherwise, it was an act of violation greater even than a physical assault.

However, as the youth watched Sendrik debating with himself over what to do, he realized the older man's breathing was becoming more shallow, his heartbeat slowing down. Spock knew he had to do something, even if it were contrary to the ethics he had been taught. What good were ethics if Sendrik died?

Carefully, Spock stretched toward Sendrik again and placed his fingers on each of the appropriate psi points. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he emptied his own mind and attempted to reach out to his kinsman's.

He encountered only an unbreachable wall of excruciating pain.

"What happened?" McCoy asked when he realized Spock had no apparent intention of continuing his narrative.

The Vulcan remained silent a minute longer, eyes closed, breathing deeply as though fighting to master some unseen agony. He opened his eyes, and the doctor saw in the ebony depths the shadows of a long-buried pain accompanied by a fear more intense than he would have believed the Vulcan was capable of experiencing.

"What happened?" McCoy repeated his question, but in a whisper this time, dreading the answer he already knew but didn't want to face.

"He died."

"Died? Of what?"

Spock hesitated only a few seconds before answering. "His bondmate, T'Fera, had been killed in an aircar explosion back at ShiKahr. There wasn't time for her to close the bond before her death, and so when she died, it was severed violently."

"Yes, and so?"

"It killed him."

"Now wait just a damned minute, Spock." McCoy's face was white, all of the color drained out. Don't let him die, too. The words echoed through the doctor's mind, along with his own naive promise, I won't, honey. I'll help him. Shoving the memories away, and feeling a little sick to his stomach, McCoy grabbed Spock by his upper arms and forced the Vulcan to face him. "Are you tellin' me," he demanded, "that when one member of a bonded couple dies, the other does, too?"

"Sometimes." Spock made no effort to break the doctor's hold. He was too busy trying to shield himself from the confusing barrage of emotions McCoy was transmitting; pain, fear, guilt, horror. None of it made any sense, and the Vulcan almost sagged in relief when his shields finally snapped in place. "The bondmate will die if the bond is not closed off first...or there is not a trained healer or close relative available to pull the survivor back from the abyss he, or she, is being pulled toward. I was unable to help Sendrik because I was too young, too inexperienced. I was unable to breach that wall of pain, and so he died. If I had been able to go for help, perhaps he might have lived, but to do so would have left him at the mercy of the le-matya once it awoke from its nap and began its nightly hunt for food. Had I left Sendrik alone, there would have been little of him left for us to find when I returned. And so I remained, and so he died. They found us there two days later. After T'Fera's death, they began to search for us, but the desert is large, and it took them too much time to find us. They were an hour too late arriving. He was already dead."

Spock paused, regaining control over his own remembered pain. "I do not understand, Doctor, your sudden interest in this subject. As I told you, it cannot apply in this case."

McCoy finally released the Vulcan and stumbled across the room to fall heavily in a chair. He looked up, his face haunted.

"You have to help him, Spock."

"I cannot."

"You must! It's our only chance. There's nothing I can do to help him, and, God help me, I promised. Please, Spock, please. Help him. If you don't, he's going to die."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean..." McCoy's voice was tired, heavy with fatigue and sorrow. His blue eyes caught and held the Vulcan's dark gaze. "The same thing's wrong with Jim that happened to your cousin, Sendrik."


"Her name was Talya, Spock. T'Alya. She died in this room thirty-seven hours my arms. She was Jim's...wife, I suppose. And she carried his child. All she was concerned about, through all of that pain, was that I promise to help Jim. 'Don't let him die, too,' she kept begging me. At first I thought she meant the baby. But it was Jim she was so worried about. I didn't understand it then, but now I do."

"Why did she not close the bond?" Reeling from the shock of McCoy's explanation, Spock desperately searched for logic and reason where there was none.

"I don't suppose she knew how. She was only half-Vulcan, Spock. And raised by her father; he was Elasian. She had a lot of trouble with the mental disciplines--especially at the end. Her shields kept slipping." McCoy shuddered as he remembered the pain that had flowed through those faulty shields. "Hell, Spock, I didn't even know they were bonded. Frankly, I doubt if it was even intentional, but it happened. It must have. Nothing else makes any sense."

Spock's gaze was on Kirk. "Elasian?" He was grasping on the one thing that might give him a reprieve from what he now knew was inevitable. "Do you think her tears..."

McCoy shrugged. "It's hard to say. It probably intensified things, but the biochemical analysis Christine did showed a much reduced potency. It's a pretty volatile combination, though, any way you look at it...Vulcan and Elasian..."

"I" For the first time in his life, Spock found himself incapable of framing a coherent sentence. There was so much he didn't know, didn't understand. "How did he meet her? Why was he on that ship?" Those weren't the questions he wanted to ask, but they were the only ones he could manage to get out.

McCoy sighed and shrugged. "That's a long story, Spock, and I'll tell you later, if he doesn't. For now, just know that we all thought you were dead, and he was responsible. Apparently, he was looking for the people we thought had killed you, the ones who really just kidnapped you--and the children. Who were they anyway?"


"Oh, God!" Visions of fleshless bones flashed in the doctor's mind, visions he thought he had conquered, but that came back to haunt him now.

The monitors on Kirk's bed began to beep softly, and McCoy moved closer to check them, adjusting a dial slightly. "Spock, you have to do it. You have to try--now. His respiration is getting shallower, and his heart rate slower. He'll die, and soon, if you don't help him right now."

"I know." Spock paused. "Give me a minute. I must meditate briefly. My own thoughts are too disordered at the moment. I would be unable to concentrate. And...I believe it would be best if I were alone with the captain when I attempt this."

"Is that wise? What if he pulls you in with him? Shouldn't someone be here to pull you back if necessary?"

"He will do so, Doctor. That is why I must be alone. I must go into his mind, past that wall of pain, find him and retrieve the essence of Jim Kirk. To anyone, any non-telepath, watching, it will appear as though I am lost in there, and the temptation will be too great to physically separate us. That could kill us both."

Ignoring the implication that he couldn't resist that temptation, even if forewarned, McCoy quickly cut to the hart of the matter. "And if you don't find your way back on your own?" he demanded

"Then we will both die." Spock's gaze, his entire attention was focused on Kirk.

"Can you find your way back? Without help?"

"I do not know."

McCoy studied him silently. "Is this how it's usually done?"


"Spock, talk to me. What do you need?"

Spock turned to face McCoy. "Nothing you can provide, Doctor." He returned his attention to Kirk. "Usually, there are two healers or close relatives in to enter the meld, and a second to serve as an anchor, a point of reference to which the other can return."

"And it must be a telepath?"

"Yes, nothing else has ever been successful." Still he watched his captain.

"If it's never been done with a non-telepath, then how can it be done with no one at all."

"I do not know if it can be." His voice was calm, accepting.

"Now wait just a damned minute." McCoy grabbed Spock's arm and forced the Vulcan around until they were face to face. "Are you tellin' me," he demanded, "that you're both goin' to die?"

"That is a distinct possibility." With an effort, Spock managed to resist the urge to pull away from McCoy. "The odds are--"

"I don't give a damn what the odds are." McCoy released Spock's arm suddenly and tapped on the Vulcan's chest with one finger. Spock flinched. Even McCoy wasn't usually so careless of his Vulcan distaste for physical contact. "You're not goin' to do it. It's too damned risky. I can't just sit back and let you both die. We'll just have to keep him alive, somehow, until we can find someone else to help you."

"There is no time, Doctor. He will die within a few hours if I do not do this now. It has almost been too long now."

"But--surely there's another alternative?" McCoy ran one hand through his thick hair. "Isn't there anyone who can serve as your anchor? Anyone with sufficient telepathic ability--no matter how latent?"

Spock lifted one eyebrow. "Perhaps..." He hesitated a moment longer, considering, then turned and started for the doorway.

"Now where the hell are you goin'?"

"To obtain that assistance."


When Spock returned, he was followed by a young child. McCoy's right eyebrow lifted at the sight of the earless youth. "He's one of the Rycherians," he said it flatly, as a statement, not a question.

Spock nodded once in acknowledgment, then turned to the child, eyes meeting his intently as he explained exactly what he wanted mr'Antor to do. Do you understand?

Yes, mr'Ynto.

Do not, Spock warned sternly, under any circumstances, attempt to reach me. You must remain outside the meld. If you join us, we could all die.

The boy nodded solemnly, then followed Spock again as he crossed the room and sat on the edge of Kirk's bed. mr'Antor stood behind and slightly to the side of Spock. Now, the Vulcan directed him, and the boy reached out to place his hands on the sides of Spock's head. The child projected, not thoughts, but something more primitive than that. As the link formed, Spock carefully shielded it from his own thoughts, then tested it, moving away from the source a little and found he could still feel the thread that bound him to the boy.

Ready now, the Vulcan leaned forward and placed his own right hand along the psi points of Kirk's face, then breathing slowly, deeply, he prepared to enter the meld.

Firmly anchored by his link with mr'Antor, while still keeping the child safely shielded from the intensity of the meld he was about to enter, Spock reached out with his mind once more and encountered that wall of pain. He instinctively withdrew, and then steeled himself to reach out again, this time forcing himself forward, directly into its blinding agony.

The pain seemed to go on forever--first hot, then cold, then sharp and finally a dull ache that spiraled outward with him at its center, trapped, unable to move either forward or backward. He remained there a long time, the pain washing through him in waves so intense he ceased to feel them and instead became a part of them. Then, just when it seemed as though he would lose his own identity in a swirling vortex of pain, he broke through.

The sudden cessation of pain was so abrupt that Spock could feel only relief for the first few moments. The delicious absence of the previous agony created a sense of euphoria that was both exhilarating and irresistibly intoxicating.

But then, just when he was about to surrender himself to that euphoria, the Vulcan became aware of another sensation--cold. He shivered in the sudden chill and mentally opened his eyes to find himself lost in a nightmarish vision that could only have been created within Kirk's mind. Spock was standing on top of a small, sandy hillock, with the desert stretching out as far as he could see in any direction. Unlike the desert of his own homeworld, however, this one was not scorching with heat, but instead almost freezing cold as biting winds swirled around him, buffeting him and cutting through him all the way down to the bone...all the way down to the soul.

It was the most intense loneliness Spock had ever experienced...the soul-chilling loneliness of lost hopes, lost dreams, and lost love. The pain wasn't physical this time; it was worse. It robbed him of his purpose, his ideals, his very will to live. Again, the Vulcan was tempted to surrender to a will that was at that moment much stronger than his own, but again he was stopped at the very last possible second--this time by a flickering light he seemed to 'see' shining somewhere off in the distance, beckoning him onward like a beacon in the night.

Extending toward that light, he was surprised to find it abruptly larger, many times larger and closer. He moved forward, seeming to float through the air, until he finally caught up with the beacon to find it was a soft glow surrounding the essence of Jim Kirk.

As Spock watched, mesmerized, the light began to fade, little by little, until it was no more than the flicker of a match in a huge, bleak cavern. Another flicker or two, and the faint illumination would disappear completely--and Kirk would go, too.

No! he 'cried' out, unwilling to allow Kirk to leave. No! You must remain.

The light fluttered, and Kirk seemed to look up at him, his eyes blinking in surprise to find the Vulcan there.

Spock? The Vulcan didn't so much 'hear' his name as feel the thought form in his friend's mind.

Yes, Jim, I am here. He projected his own thoughts in the same manner.

The vision of Kirk shook his head slowly from side to side, denying the evidence before him. No...not Spock...dead.

It is I, Jim. I am here. Spock again projected the message. Come. Return.

But Kirk was shaking his head again. go.

As he began to retreat again, Spock reached out once more, making one last attempt to pull him back. Show me, he demanded. Show me Talya.

The vision of Kirk faded suddenly, faded, then shifted and became that of a young woman, her dark hair cascading onto her shoulders in a riot of curls, eyes huge and emerald green, hand reaching out as though beckoning to them to join her.

Now, Spock projected calmly. Now, Jim...let her go.


Yes, you must.

No. He slowly began to fade, drifting away toward an infinite chasm ahead.

Jim! Spock reached again, using every bit of mental strength he had to capture Kirk's essence within his own. Kirk fought, struggling against him with a desperation born of loneliness and pain. Spock fought back, stubbornly trying to absorb and contain the essence of his friend before he escaped...forever. Spock was tiring, the battle of wills draining what strength he had left after the months of captivity. Kirk struggled again, and almost broke free, but Spock projected the last remnants of his own mental power and took control. He joined their personalities into one, accepting the pain and loneliness as a part of himself and then slowly, painstakingly began to recede from the void into which his friend had been heading. Using the directional link he had formed with mr'Antor, he moved back farther and farther away from the infinite blackness, forcibly dragging Kirk with him.

Spock moved slowly, sluggishly, his own strength of purpose exhausted by the battle of wills. He found himself again on the edge of that wall of pain. Once more, he had to pass through it, and this time he had to pull Kirk with him. With a unexpected surge of strength, Kirk again attempted to break free, and almost succeeded. Spock tightened his hold, however, and refused to allow his friend to leave.

No. I can't...face...

You must...come...together.

Spock plunged them both into the swirling maelstrom of agony, and once more experienced that sense of merging with the pain. Slowly, they began to sink into the icy heat, the slicing pain that seemed to be ripping them apart, stripping the very skin from their bodies and exposing the tissue and organs beneath.

Outside of the meld, McCoy watched in horror as his two friends struggled silently--with the pain, and with each other. Kirk's face was white, twisted with agony, while Spock's was more stoic than ever, the only evidence of his suffering the tears that slid silently down his cheeks.

The doctor instinctively reached out to help them, then withdrew. This was what Spock had feared...this obsessive need to help them that could instead kill them. He turned his head a little to study mr'Antor. The child still stood behind Spock, his hands clasped on either side of the Vulcan's head. He was serene, safely outside the pain--but was he enough? For the first time in years, McCoy began to pray. He didn't know if it would do any good, but he did know it couldn't do them any harm, and right then, it was all he could do.

As McCoy watched, helpless, Spock and Kirk sank deeper and deeper into the well of pain, the Vulcan losing his sense of self as he drew more and more of the Human's agony into himself. Suddenly, Kirk seemed to regain a little of his own strength. The pain was still intense, but Spock had taken enough of it away so Kirk was able to provide his friend with some relief, some return of awareness.

And what Kirk was aware of was--Spock himself. When the bond with Talya had severed, Kirk had been unable to resist the urge to follow her, to regain that part of himself that had been torn violently from him. He was driven to rejoin that part, even if to do so meant his own death. But it was no longer just a question of his death. Somehow, through all the pain, he realized that if he died now, Spock would join him.

Deep within his own mind, Kirk faced the vision of the man who had called him t'hy'la, the man closer to him than his own brother had been. Spock?

Lost in the pain, Spock was unable to respond even on the most elemental of levels. Kirk looked beyond him and saw a shining thread joining the Vulcan to a small light glimmering dimly in the distance. Drawing on every ounce of strength within him, Kirk mentally grabbed Spock and raced toward that light.

They broke through the wall suddenly and opened their eyes, facing each other in the sickbay cubicle.

"Spock?" It was the first word Kirk had spoken aloud since he had collapsed on the Zephyr bridge. "Spock?" he repeated.

Sensing he was no longer needed, mr'Antor withdrew, and then slowly, painfully, Spock's vision cleared. His eyes met Kirk's briefly, apparently without recognition, and then he stood, without speaking, and walked stiffly from the room.

Bewildered, Kirk glanced around the room until his gaze met McCoy's. "Bones?"

McCoy grinned in relief. "You're going to be all right now, Jim."


"He will be, too. That had to be pretty traumatic for him, but he'll be okay. Just give him some time."

A shadow passed over Kirk's face. "Talya?"

McCoy's grin disappeared. "I'm sorry, Jim. I did everything I could, but it was too late. I couldn't save her. I tried. God help me, I tried."

"I know, Bones. I know." Kirk's voice was tired, infinitely weary. And next, he asked the questions McCoy had most feared. "Was it bad? Did she suffer very much? Could you at least ease her pain?"

McCoy hesitated, but for such a brief period of time that Kirk didn't even notice, and then the doctor reached behind his back and crossed his fingers in the age-old childish gesture.

"No, Jim," he told the lie deliberately. "She didn't suffer. We were able to help her that much."

"Good," Kirk whispered, releasing some of his tension in a long sigh. "Thank you, Bones. I knew I could count on you." He closed his eyes and slept.

McCoy watched him for a few minutes until he was sure the sleep was a natural, healing one. Then he ordered Chapel to remain with the patient and withdrew himself into his office, closing the door behind him and walking falteringly across the room to drop heavily in his chair. He sat there a minute, not moving, not thinking, not doing anything, and then he lowered his head onto his crossed arms on the top of the desk.


McCoy finally found Kirk on the observation deck, staring out the huge window at the warpfield stars. Stepping around the younger man so he wouldn't have to look at the distorted view that he found slightly nauseating, the doctor faced his captain and friend.

"Jim..." the doctor began, then he stopped, unsure exactly what to say now that he was here. Kirk turned his head a little to meet the doctor's gaze and smiled slightly.

"Morning, Bones. Did you want me for something?" The very casualness of Kirk's comment startled McCoy for just a moment.

The doctor eyed this difficult patient carefully, trying to determine the best way to approach him. After a few moments of silent deliberation, he decided to take the offensive, to try and catch Kirk off guard. Maybe he could shake the captain out of this lethargy that held him in its grip ever since he emerged from that strange meld with Spock.

"Yeah, I sure as hell do." McCoy leaned forward, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "I thought I told you to stay put until I gave you permission to leave Sickbay. Christine said you just got up and walked out on her when she wasn't looking." The doctor paused in his tirade to admit in more gently tones, "I was a little worried about you."

Kirk didn't show any reaction to the admission, saying only, "Sorry. I guess I'd forgotten how much the mother hen you can be when one of your chicks isn't behaving according to your orders. I'd gotten used to fending for myself." His voice was almost normal, almost but...McCoy couldn't quite figure out what the difference was. The tone was the same, the patterns of speech, even the teasing note, but somehow Kirk's heart just didn't seem in the effort anymore. The doctor decided he wasn't really surprised. He sighed, all of the anger suddenly drained out of him.

"I didn't really come here to chew you out for leavin' Sickbay," he finally conceded. "I apologize. I misjudged you, Jim."

Kirk smiled that unfamiliar half-smile again. "That's okay, Bones. I don't blame you. Hell, I'd have misjudged me, too, if I hadn't known what was going on. Even knowing, there were times I wasn't sure about myself." He clasped McCoy's shoulder with one hand and squeezed. "Don't worry about it. It's over now. We can get back to normal."

"Can you?"

Releasing the doctor's shoulder, he grinned, but it still didn't reach his eyes. Kirk shifted his gaze away from McCoy, as though he were unable to maintain the casual pose while facing his friend. "Sure, why not? What's changed?"

"Damn it, Jim!" The doctor wasn't buying it. "Stop standing there making small talk, pretending nothing happened, that everything's all sweetness and light now that your mission has been successfully concluded. It might work with those damned fleet bureaucrats when we get back to Earth, but you're not foolin' me for a minute." McCoy hesitated, then took a calculated risk. "I knew Talya, remember? I watched her die."

It worked...finally. This time, McCoy got the reaction he was looking for, only it was much stronger than he expected. Kirk closed his eyes tightly as his shoulders slumped and his face twisted in agony. "Don't," he begged in a low voice. "Please, Bones, don't."

McCoy caught him by both shoulders, stopping him from turning away. "I know it hurts." He spoke softly, gently. "But you have to face it, or you'll never get past it. You can't pretend that she was just another one of your women. She was a hell of a lot more than that, and we both know it. We almost lost you, and we would have if it hadn't been for Spock, so don't stand there and try to tell me nothin's changed."

Kirk did twist away from him then. McCoy watched him for a moment, a lump in his throat as he stared at the broad back, able only to imagine the agony his friend must be feeling.

When Kirk spoke again, it took McCoy a moment to catch up with the slight shift in the conversational direction. "I didn't plan any of this," Kirk said. "It went out of control way back at the beginning, on that blasted moon, and everything I've done since then just seemed to make matters worse. It was a simple assignment; take Spock to GX Andromedae and have him convince the Sedolans to help us with the Rycherian matter. That was supposed to be the easy part of the mission. Nobody should have been hurt...not Spock, and not all of those other Vulcans. I wasn't prepared for any of the complications that came up, not the attack by the Kelvans, not Raile and his crew...and certainly not Talya." His voice broke a little on the last word, and he paused a moment, swallowing convulsively in an effort to regain control. "When I joined the Zephyr crew, I didn't intend to even become friends with her...with any of them, but just happened. Neither of us intended it."

"I can believe that. Hey, you were damned lucky to find somebody like her in the midst of all that mess, which, incidentally, wasn't all your fault. You can lay a lot of the blame at Komack's door...not to mention the Kelvans. As for Talya, don't tell me she didn't make things better for you, because I know she did." McCoy was grinning, then he sobered and forced a stern expression on his face. "I understand most of what happened now, and why. But what I don't understand is why you didn't do anything to prevent the pregnancy. Didn't you know how dangerous that would be?"

"Dangerous? How the hell was I supposed to know it was dangerous? I didn't even know it was possible?"

"And why wouldn't it be?"

"C'mon, Bones. Everybody knows Vulcan-Human hybrid births aren't possible without a little outside help. We're just not compatible genetically. You told me yourself that Spock would never have been possible if it hadn't been for the doctors and researchers--."

"Damn!" McCoy swore softly then moved to a nearby bench and sat heavily. Leaning forward with his arms resting on his thighs, he bowed his head and shook it slowly from side to side. "My grandpappy always said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing--and that's doubly true when it comes to medicine." The doctor looked up at Kirk, pinning him in place with an accusatory gaze. "Why the hell can't you ask when you don't fully understand something?"

Kirk glared at him. "Why the hell would I have asked?" he demanded, practically shouting as he focused some of his simmering anger on his friend. "I never had a reason to need to know before."

"Maybe so!" McCoy shouted back. "But if you had, I would have told you that the problem with damned hybrid births isn't in the conceivin', it's in the carryin'." He took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh, continuing in a softer voice. "There's not that much difference genetically, Jim. Conception's easy, as long as you don't have that damned Vulcan pon farr cycle to deal with, which wasn't a factor here. No, we're not that different. But the blood's not compatible, so regular treatments are needed to allow the copper and iron to commingle until after the baby's born and stabilizes, and the mother's able to revert totally to her own blood without any interference from the baby's."

Kirk strode across the deck and abruptly pulled McCoy to his feet. The younger man's face was twisted in both pain and anger as he glared at the doctor from accusing eyes that had darkened to a gunmetal gray with the intensity of his emotions. "Then why the hell couldn't you help her?" he demanded. "Couldn't you do the treatments?"

"We tried, Jim." McCoy's reply was calm as he refrained from flinching away from that rage, knowing that anger was an important step toward recovery from the debilitating grief Kirk was suffering. "God knows, we tried. It just didn't work, not the standard form or the new, radiation-enhanced version. It was just too late, too damned late."

"If I had brought her to you sooner..."

"It might have helped," the doctor conceded, then added quickly to ward off the spate of guilt he could see building in his friend, "then again, it might not have. In fact, it probably wouldn't have. There was the added complication of her father's genetic heritage mixed in with yours and her mother's. Hell, according to the Vulcans, she's the only known Vulcan-Elasian hybrid, and there's never been a Vulcan-Elasian-Human combination on record. No won--"

"Elasian." Kirk breathed the word, briefly distracted by this new bit of information as McCoy had hoped he would be. He could hardly believe they had been together so long and had become so close without him finding out even that much about Talya's background. It didn't really matter now, but... "So that's what he was." Kirk's smile widened into the first true grin McCoy had seen on him since GX Andromedae. "Elasian." Kirk laughed. "Elasian and Vulcan. What a combination! It sure explains that temper."

"It could explain some other things, too," McCoy suggested tentatively, watching Kirk warily for his reaction.

"The tears?" Kirk asked, surprised denial on his face. Then he appeared to give it real consideration. "Perhaps, a little. It wasn't like before, but..." He grinned again. "Things sure got intense fast. Maybe..."

"Was it very bad? Her temper, I mean." McCoy found himself smiling too, in both amusement and relief.

"No." Kirk responded instantly, grinning in fond remembrance. "Not really, at least," he added a little sheepishly, "not very often. Mostly, she kept it under control." He was laughing again, almost his old self as he reminisced about their encounter with the three muggers. "But she almost yanked my arm out of the socket once when she was just mildly annoyed. And she did break that thug's arm. I think she would have cheerfully gutted both him and his friends if I hadn't dragged her out of that alley." He sobered again as he remembered what had followed that incident, then shook off the mood and grinned again, a little sheepishly this time as he recalled another occasion.

"She came that close once..." He held out his right hand, thumb and forefinger measuring a minuscule distance. " throwing a knife into my thick skull." He shook his head, briefly remembering another tiny figure with a temper, if anything, more violent than Talya's had been. "I knew there was something familiar about that technique." Once more, he sobered.

"Bones, she...she was so incredible, absolutely incredible. I've never experienced anything like that before in my life, and I don't suppose I ever will again. Hell, I don't think I want to."

"You will," McCoy patted his friend's arm affectionately, attempting to reassure him. "It'll be different, but there'll be someone else someday. For a man like you, there always is."

Kirk stared at the doctor as though he were speaking a foreign language. "No, you don't understand. I'm not saying there won't be other women. I'm not deluded enough about myself to deny that you're probably right about that, but it won't, it can't, be like it was with Talya. I...we didn't plan on bonding, not either of us. Shit. We didn't even understand that's what was happening until it already had. And even then we didn't talk about it, but, Bones, you don't know what it's like, to be that much a part of someone, sharing all your feelings and...just yourself, I guess. I can't explain it, but I know what it was like."

"I'm sure it was wonderful." McCoy had been in love. He had even been married, but he had never experienced the kind of bond Kirk was talking about. He wasn't sure he truly understood it, and he found the intensity of it just a bit overwhelming.

"Yeah, wonderful. And terrible, too, in a way. I could never really be sure if my thoughts were my own, and I knew for certain that I couldn't hide my emotions. But if that was all it was, it would be worth it, to be that close to someone again...never to be alone, always to feel her there, inside me, keeping away the chill and the loneliness. God, Bones, it was lonely at first." He paused again, then continued in a raspy voice, "almost anything would be worth having that again...anything that is but losing it. Never to have that kind of closeness is rather sad, but that's what life is for most Humans. We fall in love and share our lives, but still we go along in our own little self-contained units, touching but never joining with anyone else. It's different for Vulcans. When they bond, they literally become a part of the other person. They're still two bodies, but it's almost like there's only one mind. That's not exactly right," he admitted ruefully. "There were still thoughts and memories we could shield from each other, but that's as close as I can come to explaining it."

"One soul?" McCoy suggested softly.

"Maybe that's more accurate," Kirk conceded, "if anyone's ever figured out exactly what a soul is. Anyway, as I was saying, never to have that kind of love is sad, but to have it and then lose it is worse. I feel as though somebody went inside of me with a knife and cut whole parts out of me. And the problem is that the knife wasn't even a sharp, clean one. There are still jagged edges deep inside that hurt every time I touch them, or even move the wrong way. I'm scared to death they're going to go on hurting for the rest of my life."

"They probably will, a little," McCoy admitted, "although I'm sure it'll get better in time."

"Maybe," he conceded, but shook his head slowly, as though doubtful. "But I know that I can't ever go through this again. You said you would've lost me if it hadn't been for Spock. Well, I don't think even he could save me the next time around, and I'm not sure he'd even be around to do it if he could." McCoy didn't like the note of self-pity in his voice. That wasn't like Kirk and showed just how far he still was from recovery.

"Now just what is that supposed to mean?" the doctor demanded.

"Where is he now?" Kirk asked, glancing quickly around the observation deck that was empty except for the two of them. "Do you see him around here anywhere? I haven't seen him since I woke up in Sickbay three days ago. Every time I try to contact him, I encounter a damned privacy message on his comm unit."

"You could override it."

"I could, but I won't." Jim Kirk had never been a fatalist, but he seemed to have stopped challenging the universe, to have given up. "If he doesn't want to talk to me..."

"Maybe he can't right now, Jim. This has been hard on him, too, you know. All those months being held by the Kelvans--and we're going to have to talk about them later, too--and dealin' with the children all on his own, never knowing if he'd be able to get them away safely. Then that meld..." He shook his head. "I think it just simply burned him out. He felt everything you did, Jim. Every bit of it, and he's not used to dealin' with emotions. So he's shut himself off. From you, and from all the rest of us. He'll come around. Just give him some time. By the time we get back to Earth, he'll be the same old Spock. I guarantee it."

"Are you sure?"

For the second time in three days, McCoy put his right hand behind his back and crossed his fingers. "Sure, I'm sure. Don't worry."


In his quarters, Spock knelt before the firepot, trying to calm his chaotic thoughts through his usual meditative techniques, but he wasn't having any success. Every time he attempted to empty his mind, the visions of pain and horror slipped in and took over, and he relived his friend's agony again and again.

T'Alya. The name formed in his mind, followed by the vision of her face with its severely arched eyebrows, high cheekbones and elegantly pointed ears. He saw her emerald eyes, the riotous curls, her entire fine-boned body. Although he had never met her, nor even seen her, Spock knew exactly how beautiful she had been, exactly how she had laughed and teased and lost her temper...and made love. He knew it all, all of her loneliness, and all of the joy she had found with Kirk, having experienced it through Kirk's mind during the meld. Somehow he had to come to terms with it before he could face his friend again.

The meld had been necessary. Kirk would have died without it. had gone much deeper than any they had ever experienced together before, and the Vulcan felt guilty for having invaded his friend's privacy so completely. He had seen too much, things that were never meant to be shared with anyone other than a bondmate, and somehow he had to find a way to keep his forbidden knowledge hidden from Kirk. He couldn't let him know how much he had seen...and felt. No one had a right to see and feel what he had.

Spock understood now why only bonded adults were allowed to assist in such life-saving melds, and why his parents had been so horrified when they learned of his abortive attempt to meld with Sendrik and so relieved when they discovered he had been unsuccessful in the effort. For an unbonded Vulcan, especially an adolescent as he had been, to attempt such a thing was to risk both his life and his sanity. No one, knowing in advance of the pain that accompanied a severed bond, would be able to face that possibility. Yet, for a Vulcan male not to bond was to invite certain death at the time of pon farr.

There was only one other option available--kolinahr--and if too many Vulcans chose that path, it would lead to eventual extinction of the species. So the adults bonded their offspring in childhood, and saw to it that the process was completed before they learned of the dangers and agony of a severed bond. The Masters of Gol were very selective in who was allowed to enter their tutelage, and even more strict in determining who was allowed to take the final step.

For the first time in longer than he would have believed possible, Spock thought of T'Pring. He wondered if she were aware of the dangers of severed bonding. If she were, it would explain a lot that he had found mystifying and personally painful three years earlier. Because of his Vulcan-Human heritage, no one knew for certain what his life-span would be. If it were closer to that of a Human, then his Vulcan mate would be expected to outlive him by many years. That could very well condemn her either to an early death or at the very least to many decades of loneliness even greater than that he had known in his childhood when he had felt such an outcast...loneliness like Kirk would know now that he had known...and lost...T'Alya.

With that realization, Spock immediately determined that he would not choose another Vulcan as his mate when the time came. It wouldn't be fair to her under the circumstances.

But to choose a Human mate would place Spock himself at the same risk. If his life span was closer to that of his Vulcan father, he would long outlive a Human mate, and he, himself would have to face the possibility of living through that agony he had experienced in Kirk's mind. Only this time, it would be his own pain. Could he bear it?

He shifted uncomfortably on his knees, searching desperately for a more acceptable answer to his dilemma. He had plenty of time yet before he would have to face pon farr again--at least he thought he did. Because of his mixed heritage, he couldn't be sure. But he had to have a solution well before that time, a solution that would condemn neither him nor his future wife to such agony.

Spock unconsciously lifted his hands to massage his temples, attempting to ease the all-too-familiar pain. In his entire life, he had never been prone to headaches, but this dull throbbing had been almost constant since the meld. He was unable to control the pain or to regain the stamina that had been drained first by his ordeal with the Kelvans and then further by the deep meld with Kirk. He was exhausted, his shields dangerously weakened and his mind easily distracted.

Like now. He had to forcibly return his attention to the matter at hand. Somehow, he had to regain control over his emotions, to recover mastery of the mind disciplines that seemed just beyond his grasp now.

Again and again, the Vulcan kept coming back to the only possibility he could see. Gol. He wasn't sure he could succeed at mastering the Kolinahr disciplines, wasn't even certain he wanted to subject himself to the attempt. He doubted if his family would approve. The masters of Gol embraced the logic of Surak at the expense of the IDIC philosophy followed by Spock's own House of Surak. Further, they supported the rival House of Sindal in the battle for dominance over Vulcan's political destiny.

The masters might not even allow him to make that attempt. They scorned his very existence, objecting to his Human heritage, condemning it as a tainting of the Vulcan blood. Perhaps, he reasoned now, it would make a difference if I could succeed at the kolinahr. Perhaps then, they would accept both me and the principles of IDIC. He knew the possibility was unlikely, but if there were any chance at all, he owed it to his family and all of Vulcan to make the attempt. Besides, it was still the only logical course he could find. It would be difficult to eliminate his emotions and separate himself from his friends and colleagues, his life aboard the Enterprise. It would be especially difficult to leave Kirk and McCoy, even for a time. But unless another possibility occurred to him in the few weeks remaining before they reached Earth, it was the path he would have to take. A part of him even longed for that path, for the peace and serenity he had felt on his one visit to the home of the masters and had ever afterward equated with the desert land of Gol.

In the meantime, he had to stay away from the Humans on board as much as possible, especially Kirk. That meld had weakened Spock's shields and made him vulnerable to being 'read' by the Human, and he couldn't risk that. If either the captain or McCoy had any idea what the Vulcan planned, they would try to stop him. That couldn't be allowed. He knew he could resist their efforts, but he didn't want to face the emotional upheaval of a confrontation.

Finally, Spock rose from his knees, a little stiff. He had been there much longer than normal, for all the good it did him. As he pulled off the heavily embroidered meditation robe and replaced it with his science-blue Starfleet uniform, the Vulcan admitted to himself that the period of contemplation had done him good, after all, even if he hadn't been able to attain a true state of meditation. It had given him an answer. That answer may not be a desirable one, but at least one that was acceptable.

Dressed now, he lifted his head and carefully wiped all expression from his face. He exited his quarters and moved briskly through the corridors toward the turbolift, headed for the bridge. Montgomery Scott had been in enforced command of the Enterprise long enough. It was time the ship's first officer took over that responsibility, at least until the captain was ready to do so himself. Spock would resume his own duties, and handle as many of Kirk's as it were Vulcanly possible to do, keeping himself as busy as he could. That way, the time it took to return to Earth would seem to pass a little more quickly. He knew it was a lie the moment he thought it. Kirk might believe it, or McCoy, or even Spock's own mother. But as a Vulcan, he knew his time sense was such that each moment would pass with agonizing slowness for him, no matter how busy he kept.

It didn't matter. The important thing was to keep Kirk--and McCoy as well--at bay, ignorant of his plans, until they reached Earth and he could arrange transport to Vulcan.

Or find another answer.


The Enterprise was on its way back to Earth. In less than two weeks, the starship's highly touted five-year mission would be over. That mission had begun with such hope and excitement, and then nearly blew up in their faces almost six months earlier. But now...Starfleet Command was hailing Jim Kirk as a hero. Word of the rescue of Spock and the Rycherian children had been sent to Nogura himself, and the commanding admiral had responded with effusive congratulations and orders for them to rendezvous with the U.S.S. Yorktown en route back to Earth. The Enterprise's sister ship would ferry the younglings home where their parents had just signed the all-important alliance with the Federation in gratitude for the safe return of their young.

It was an unusually subdued Jim Kirk who greeted Captain Lystra Davis at the rendezvous.

"This time I get to rescue you," Davis teased him from the bridge of her own ship as they conversed via an open subspace channel. Kirk responded with only a half-hearted smile, and she sighed. Then she tried again. "Can I interest you in dinner, Jim?" she asked. The expression on her face made it clear exactly what she had on the menu for dessert.

"Sorry, Lystra, not this time." Kirk ignored the blatant if unspoken invitation. "I have a meeting with Heihachiro in just nine days, and if I delay any more now, Scotty'll be mad at me for putting too much strain on his 'bairns'." He smiled to show her he was teasing, too, but it was the smile of an old friend, not a former lover, and they both knew it was just an excuse.

"All right," she gave up graciously, then added, "...this time. Are the children ready to beam over?"

"Almost." Kirk abandoned the game, and shifted his mood from that of friend to starship captain, suddenly all business. "Spock's explaining to them now about where they're going, how and with whom. He'll contact you from the transporter room just as soon as they're ready."

"Jim?" Davis, too, was serious now. "Are you okay?"

Kirk smiled back, but a little sadly this time. "I'll be all right. I'm just a bit tired."

"If you're sure..." At his nod, she smiled again. "I want you to know how pleased I was to hear your name had been cleared. I never believed the things they were saying about you." Once more the smile gave way to a more serious expression. "I know you too well."

"Thanks, Lystra." It was all he could manage.

"Damn Heihachiro and his stupid secret missions!"

"My sentiments exactly." Kirk's smile was a little more natural now. "I have to go now. I have to clear up some paperwork. See you soon?"

"You can count on it," she promised. "And next time, Jim, I won't take no for an answer."

"You won't have to...I promise. Kirk out." The captain gestured a little desperately to Uhura to break the connection. As soon as she had, he allowed the smile to fade. "Sulu, you have the conn." He exited the bridge and headed directly for his own quarters.


Spock accompanied the children from the rec room where they had been housed to the transporter room where they would leave the Enterprise. As the others mounted the platform, Spock held mr'Antor back and knelt in front of him, patiently explaining about the other starship that was going to take them the rest of the way back to Rycher Three.

Cannot you come with us?

No, I have other responsibilities now. Captain Davis and her crew will return you to your parents.

We will miss you, mr'Ynto.

Spock swallowed and strengthened the shields around his emotions. You must watch over the others, mr'Antor, until they are home again and once more with their parents.

I will. The child's head was bowed as he fought to contain the tears that threatened.

Spock sighed, then reached out to place a gentle hand on mr'Antor's head. I am proud of you, mr'Antor, the Vulcan offered finally. Your behavior was exemplary, and the elders should be pleased to welcome you among them when you reach the age of understanding, which will be very soon now.

The child's eyes glowed in response to Spock's praise, the tears of farewell banished by the happier emotion. Suddenly, he threw his arms around the Vulcan's neck and hugged him briefly before joining the other children on the transporter platform.

Spock stepped to he console and programmed the coordinates in himself. Just before the children disappeared in a shower of sparkles, he lifted his right hand. "Live long and prosper," he said aloud--projecting the same message telepathically. His last view of the Rycherians was of mr'Antor's grin and nh'Estia's tears.


Jim Kirk sat in the middle of the floor of his quarters, an open crate on one side of him and a stack of old-fashioned printed books on the other. One by one, he was examining the leather-bound volumes as he lovingly placed them in the crate. They were old friends who had helped him while away many an hour during the previous five years. He simply left them behind when he had departed the Enterprise for his meeting with Admiral Komack six months earlier. He had expected to return to the ship then, and no one had bothered to clear out his cabin when he didn't. So now he had the dubious pleasure of packing away his own things.

He picked up another book and flipped briefly through the pages, noting a favorite passage here and there, hands caressing the fragile paper and elegant binding. But his mind wasn't on the book.

In just a few days, they would be home. Home. He wasn't sure what it was any more. For five years, this ship had been home, and then it had been violently wrenched from him. He had found a new home with Talya, and that had been even more violently severed from him. So now, he was headed back to Earth. Would that be his new home?

He had received word from Nogura that with the end of the five-year mission, the Enterprise was scheduled for a complete refit, a process that could take as long as two or three years. Many of the ship's crew were being reassigned to other duties, some temporary pending completion of the refit, and some permanent assignments to other ships. The admiral had hinted that he had something very special planned for the returning hero in the meantime. Somehow, Kirk doubted he meant another starship, and he was certain they wouldn't let him just sit around waiting while they readied his silver lady for him to return to her.

Whatever their decision, Kirk was looking forward to a nice long rest, some time to recuperate, visit some favorite places and renew old ties with the few people on Earth who still held a special place in his life. He was going to have to spend some time with Peter. He owed Sam that much, and wanted to do it anyway, for the boy's own sake.

And then there was David. He hoped Carol would give in this time and allow him to see his son. Maybe she'd even finally tell David who he was. He was tired of pretending to be just a friend of Carol's. Somehow the boy sensed the tension between them and seemed to resent him for it, and even more for any attempts he made to advise or correct him. But if David knew Kirk was his father, maybe then...

He allowed the thought to drift away from him, knowing instinctively that Carol wouldn't tell David the truth now any more than she had any of the other times he had attempted to visit his son. Sometimes she allowed him to do so, making it more than obvious that she was doing him a tremendous favor--against her own better judgment. More often than not, however, she refused. When she did allow a visit, she always insisted that he keep the true nature of their relationship a secret. He couldn't really blame her. If he were around to be a full-time father, things might be different, but as long as he was an active field duty, he couldn't press the issue. That would be one advantage to a ground assignment. It would give him the opportunity finally to get to know his son--really get to know him...if Carol would let him.

Kirk stretched his back in an effort to ease the kinks that had come with sitting on the floor too long. He was rambling, and he knew it. Here he was trying to reconcile himself to something that hadn't even happened yet. He'd be better off ignoring the possibilities instead of just sitting there, worrying about the bombshell Nogura was going to drop on him--whatever it might be. Just because the admiral had promised him something special, it didn't necessarily mean he intended the promotion rumor suggested...a promotion that inevitably would result in a ground assignment.

It didn't much matter what the admiral wanted anyway. Kirk was so exhausted that he sometimes wasn't sure whether he really cared anymore what happened next. Part of him knew he'd never be happy anywhere but on a starship--and the Enterprise at that. Even Talya had--he stopped that thought before it could progress further. It was better not to think of her, and most of the time he managed it. He was even beginning to laugh again, a little, as long as he could keep from thinking too much.

McCoy was watching him like a hawk, but the doctor had finally taken the hint and stopped trying to get him to talk about what had happened over the past few months. It still hurt too much to examine it too closely, and Kirk had found the only way he could deal with it at that time was to simply pretend that none of it had ever really happened.

It would be much easier for him to avoid the unhappy thoughts that plagued him if Spock cooperated, but every time he tried to get the Vulcan to join him for a meal or a game of chess or a workout or even just a quiet talk, Spock made some transparently false excuse about having something that required his immediate attention. The only time Kirk ever saw his 'best friend' anymore seemed to be on the bridge, and he rarely encountered him there. Spock had taken on more and more of the captain's duties while Kirk was recuperating, and it had seemed easiest to allow him to continue with some of them even after McCoy certified him fit for duty again.

One of those responsibilities the first officer had usurped was the scheduling of duty rosters, and Spock had managed to assign himself to gamma watch, the graveyard shift in Earth terminology. So the only time he was forced to spend time with Kirk was when the captain relieved him of command first thing each morning, and the Vulcan made sure that the process took as little time as possible. For the first time since Kirk had known him, Spock was unfailingly prompt in ending a shift.

McCoy had told Kirk to give Spock time. Well, the captain decided, his first officer had had more than enough time by now. Dropping the final book into the crate, Kirk slapped his hands together to knock off some nonexistent dust and then pushed himself to his feet. It was beta watch now, so neither of them were on duty. It was time they had a talk.

The buzzer interrupted yet another attempt at meditation, and it was with barely contained impatience that Spock called for his unwelcome visitor to enter. He clenched his teeth and strengthened his shields when he saw Kirk step through the doorway.

"Did you need something, Captain?" No sign of his inner agitation showed through the Vulcan mask.

"No, I don't need anything, Spock, just to talk." Kirk offered him a tentative smile. "We haven't had a chat in quite a while."

"A chat, Captain?" The Vulcan was standing stiffly erect, hiding behind his military posture and formal speech.

"Yes, damn it, a chat. I haven't had an opportunity to thank--"

"It is not necessary to thank logic, Captain." Spock didn't even notice that he was repeating a long-forgotten phrase--forgotten by him, at least. Kirk remembered it very well.

"Yeah, and you only helped me because it would be illogical to allow Starfleet to lose such an exemplary officer." A teasing grin trembled at the corners of Kirk's mouth.

"Of course," Spock replied, unaware of either the teasing or the gentle sarcasm. "It would be most illogical."

The Human's smile died a swift death as soon as he realized Spock was serious and not participating in his humor. "Spock?" He was begging now. "Please, Spock, talk to me."

"About what, Captain? Is there a problem with the ship?"

"Prob--ship--" Kirk sputtered, eyes glaring at the man who had been closer to him than a brother just a few short months ago, the man he had rescued from certain death and who, in turn, had risked his own life and sanity to save him. Had it truly been nothing more than duty and honor? And perhaps a repayment for his own help? "Shit!" he muttered, then added. "No, Spock, there's nothing wrong with the ship. I'll talk to you later."

The captain spun on his heel and exited the first officer's cabin without saying another word. Spock's shoulders slumped the second the doors had closed behind him. "I shall endeavor to prevent that..." he whispered at the blank doors, "T'hy'la."


"I tell you, Bones, he simply refuses to talk to me--at all." Kirk was pacing the doctor's office, working up his anger. "And I'm getting sick and tired of it. Yeah, yeah." He held up one hand to ward off the advice he knew McCoy was getting ready to offer. "I know you told me to give him time. But I've done that. It's been weeks, weeks. In two more days we'll be back on Earth, and he still won't talk to me. I'm beginning to wonder if he ever will."

McCoy took a deep breath. He wanted to offer some reassurance, but he couldn't think of anything that was likely to help right now. Finally, he pushed himself away from his desk and stood up. "C'mon, Jim. Let's go to the rec room. I hear Uhura's giving a farewell concert. Maybe that'll make you feel a little better."

Kirk shrugged off the comforting hand McCoy had placed on his shoulder. "I don't want to feel better, damn it!" he shouted, then rushed out of the room and disappeared down the corridor.

"Damn," McCoy muttered. Maybe he should talk to Spock.

There was no answer when he pressed the buzzer on the Vulcan's cabin door, and his efforts to locate him elsewhere on the ship were equally futile. He spent hours searching unsuccessfully. Either Spock had found a very good hiding place, or he just wasn't answering his door. Either way, McCoy was thwarted. He could only enter a crewman's quarters in a medical emergency, and this didn't quite qualify, although he was becoming concerned about the continued mental health of both the ship's top officers.

McCoy returned to his own quarters and pulled out a bottle of Saurian brandy, started to pour a glass and then stopped. There was no real morning or night on a starship, but out of a psychological necessity to establish some kind of normalcy to their inner time sense, most of the crew referred to the beginning of alpha watch as morning, beta began in the evening, and gamma was in the dead of night. By such reckoning, it was very early morning now, not a good time for a drink. He started to replace the bottle, then stopped again. The hell with it, morning, noon or night, it was time for a drink--and he had a feeling he wasn't the only person on board in need of one. Removing a second glass from the cabinet, he exited his cabin and headed down the corridor to the captain's quarters.


"It has been a pleasure to serve with each and every one of you, and I wish you all the best of good luck in the future--wherever it takes you." Kirk switched off the intercom and sat silently, trying to control his emotions. He hadn't been sure he could get through that speech, but the crew expected it, so he had felt obligated to make it. And he had managed to get through it without bawling, which was an accomplishment of sorts.


He looked up to see three of his top officers gathered in front of him. It was Sulu who had spoken. "Captain," he began again. "We'd like to say..." The helmsman glanced at Chekov and Scott for help, and they nodded in encouragement. "I guess we just want to say 'thank you,' sir, for everything you've done for us. It's been a pleasure for us, too, to serve with you." Kirk was blinking rapidly now. Sulu was, too, but the captain couldn't see that for the film that was blurring his vision. "And we'd also like to...apologize, for ever having doubted you." To his left, Chekov was nodding vigorously.

Kirk swallowed. "Thank you, Hikaru, for telling me that. And you, too, Pavel." He couldn't manage more, and they left quickly. Montgomery Scott remained standing there, head bent. "Scotty?"

"Aye, sir?"

"I owe you special thanks--for everything." He didn't have to spell it out. They both knew what he meant.

"Aye." Scott nodded once and then left.

Kirk glanced around the bridge. There were only three people left he hadn't told goodbye. Spock had gone down to the research labs, promising to make a brief appearance at the welcome home party at Starfleet Headquarters later, and McCoy was going to accompany him ashore to claim their temporary quarters and get ready for that same party. That only left one.

She was standing in front of him now, dark eyes brimming over with tears. "Uhura..." he began.

She shook her head, and wordlessly reached up to pull his head down to hers, kissing him gently. He reached for her waist, wanting to hold on to her for just a minute, needing someone, but she pulled away before he could and left hurriedly.

He was alone now. Completely alone. He had no idea how much time went by before the crew of technicians arrived, and he finally was forced to leave the bridge. Only when he prepared to beam down did he learn the others had gone more than three hours earlier.


Admiral James T. Kirk stood alone in his brand new apartment. It was a beautiful place, elegantly furnished, with a view second only to that from the observation deck of a starship. He was staring out the window at that view now--but not at the view of the blue waters of the bay. His eyes were on the starscape above. He knew those stars as intimate friends, having lived among them for most of his adult life. But they were part of his past now. He felt a brief moment of panic at the thought, then resolutely turned his thoughts away from the past and toward the future.

He had accepted Nogura's offer. What difference did it make anyway? When Spock left for Vulcan without a word of explanation or even goodbye, something had snapped. Somehow, Kirk hadn't been able to face the idea of a new ship and crew, so when Nogura recalled him from his badly needed leave early to offer him the promotion to admiral and the prestigious position of Chief of Starfleet Operations, he had been flattered, and honored, too, but still a little hesitant.

Hesitant, that is, until Leonard McCoy stormed into the commanding admiral's office, chewing out both of them as only Bones was capable of doing. Something had snapped then, too. He was sick and tired of being told what was "good" for him. Nogura was offering him an honor too good to be turned down, an honor that carried with it the unacknowledged, but very real extra attraction of providing him with the possible opportunity to get to know his son--if Carol would just agree. All McCoy could do was tell him he belonged in space, commanding a starship.

Didn't Bones realize he didn't really belong out there anymore? He had made too many compromises--with regulations, with his reputation, with his own very personal sense of honor. There came a point where you simply couldn't go back to being what you once were and instead had to move forward--to what, he wasn't sure, but he knew the movement definitely had to be forward. You can't go home again, he had told Talya.

Talya. Slowly, he allowed the vision of her face to form before his eyes, superimposed on that starfield outside his window. When it had fully formed, he yielded to his memories of her, letting them replay in his mind, one by one. He remembered her as he had first seen her, serene and just a little wary as she sat at that table in Pedro's. He remembered her pain, and how he had unknowingly experienced it with her during the battle with the Orions. He remembered her standing in that alley, just behind the thug, her elegant little knife at his throat as she gleefully threatened to slice it open and then break his arm--and then proceeded to do so. He remembered her beautiful face twisted with pain--and with ecstasy. He remembered her body shivering from the chill or shaking with her passion. But most of all, he remembered the warmth of their blending minds, the telepathic communication, and the comforting presence deep inside that he had come to know was the essence of Talya, the presence he would never know again.

Once he had leisurely relived those vivid memories, the good ones and the bad, once he had lovingly studied each minute detail of that cherished face wavering before his eyes, he allowed the vision to fade, just as slowly as it had formed.

You have to face it, or you'll never get past it. The words popped into his head, spoken in McCoy's distinctive drawl. Face it. He had faced all he could for the moment.

Let her go, Kirk heard a deeper voice whisper gently in the back of his mind. He knew that voice, too, and the words were familiar as well. He couldn't remember where he had heard them, however. They were like an echo, teasing him, urging him what? The echo sounded again, and suddenly he found himself sinking into a hazy, red vortex of pain, the vision of Talya's face swimming before his eyes once more. He placed his hands flat against the window, leaning forward to rest his head wearily against the cool glass.

Face it, McCoy's voice demanded again in his mind. "No," Kirk rasped in exhausted response, then--

Let her go...and he did. Where moments before, there had been the raw, gaping wound of the severed bond, now there was just the vision of a slowly closing door. It was an old-fashioned swinging, wooden barrier like the ones in that hotel back on 679 Andromedae...the kind you could slam shut in anger or lock with an equally antiquated key to keep in, or out, anything or anybody you wanted. When there was only a small crack left in the opening, a sudden gust of wind seemed to escape through it, a chilling blast that swept over Kirk. He shivered, then concentrated, and the door slammed shut.

Turning from the window, he straightened the tunic of his new, formal admiral's uniform and crossed the room to check the message on his comm unit once more. It was almost time to leave, and he found himself actually looking forward to this little gathering Nogura had arranged to introduce him to some of the top officers on the commanding admiral's staff, and reacquaint him with others. Harry Morrow was an old friend. Cartwright was just a name he knew by reputation. Both were destined to go far. And there was another name on the list, one he had never heard before--Ciani.

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