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Story Notes:

Thank you to Amanda Warrington for providing the initial OCR scan and edit of this story; to Gayle F for graciously allowing her original illustrations to be included; to Mary Monroe for providing the final eagle-eyed edits; to Carolyn Spencer for sending me the library copy of the zine in record time and at her own expense; to Amalthia for creating the epub version; to way2busymom, Virginia Sky, and kassidy for their help with the Kindle formatting; and to Syn herself for trusting me with her words, as well as for her hard work and persistence in helping me to proofread and edit the text. —Killa

* * *

Captain James T. Kirk ticked off the last item on his agenda for the staff meeting. Spock, McCoy and Scotty were gathered around the displays at the briefing room table. Gavin Lapsley, the security chief, had made his report and been excused early on.

"The computer says there's been a statistically significant increase in injuries this month, Bones. What's the matter--are we getting careless?" That had been known to happen to a highly trained crew when nothing, nothing exciting, happened for months on end. It had been a long, dull day in a long, dull month.

"Could be. There hasn't been anything serious. Just bumps and bruises."

"For example?" Kirk stifled a yawn. Even Spock didn't seem interested in the computer's comments. But boredom was no excuse. If there was something wrong on his ship, the captain had to know about it.

McCoy dropped a data cube into the tabletop and indicated a chart that appeared holographically in the center of the table.

"Kirk, James T., contusions and lacerations, lower back pain. Cause: workout. Scott, Montgomery, second degree burn. Cause: releasing a malfunctioning coupling manually. Chapel, Christine, contusion, never mind where. Cause: slipped in the shower. It's all like that."

Unable to see a pattern, Kirk gestured for the doctor to go on.

"Patmos, Crissy, pulled a tendon in her knee tumbling. Darryl Dubois broke a finger, don't ask me how, building a musical instrument. Martin Reishoff got a fat lip walking into a door--you'd think someone would come up with a new excuse, wouldn't you?"

"They need shore leave," was Kirk's comment. "What else?"

"Uhura bumped her head down on Arete."

Kirk grinned. He'd seen that. She almost scared him to death tumbling down the steep side of a newly uncovered pyramid the archaeologists were going crazy over. When McCoy had certified her okay, Kirk had been as aggravated as a parent whose child has not broken his neck.

"I don't see anything for her to trip over," he had announced, steadying her limp form against his shoulders.

"You wouldn't," McCoy had replied cryptically as he sprayed a wake-up into her arm. "But every male below command rank has noticed a certain abstraction in the ladies when Dray T'serek is around." McCoy had nodded at the crewman tractoring debris off the crown of the pyramid.

Kirk had noticed and dismissed the boy's good looks when he reported aboard. According to his chief's report he did his job well. And he couldn't be over twenty. Uhura's taste didn't usually run to pretty babies. Her warm weight was a reminder of all the wealth she could bring to an appreciative audience. But mooning over a mere teenager--she had come to, realized that the shoulder supporting her was clad in command gold, and beat a dignified retreat which Kirk had watched with appreciation.

"Uhura's usually too conscientious to let her private life interfere with duty."

"Just like you," McCoy had agreed too blandly, and Kirk had steered clear of a discussion he couldn't win. But it wasn't likely that had anything to do with shipboard ills.

"I think it's just a matter of new crew, Jim. It takes people a while to settle in."

"Okay, Bones, you're the doctor. But if it keeps up, let me know. Anything else, gentlemen?"

The stir around the table indicated the others were as ready to quit for the day as he was, Scotty to his gadgets, McCoy to fuss in the lab and Spock to pursue some really interesting problem.

"Dismissed, then. I'm heading for the gym. Anybody want to take me on?"

The you-must-be-kidding look was general. Kirk's favorite form of exercise was a free-for-all in heavy gravity and he played hard. He had to, just as he had to match wits with Spock over the chessboard, and take on the computer at war games. The day he quit playing to win and rested on his laurels might be the day it was all for real again and four hundred lives hung on his reflexes.

"Come on, Bones. You're always saying we need exercise."

"I give those prescriptions; I don't have to take them."

"And I like my bones the way they are," Scott protested.

"Spock?" Kirk looked expectantly at the Vulcan.

"My research on the musical notation of the Amhaar golden age--" Kirk's woebegone look was barefaced manipulation, but the Vulcan relented. "--however, if you can find no other partner..."

"Your enthusiasm overwhelms me, Mr. Spock. I accept."

* * *

When Spock and Kirk padded barefoot into the gym a crowd around the variable-G mats drew their interest. Per Kirk's standing order, rank carried no special privileges in the gym and they shouldered through the onlookers with no more than a casual exchange of greetings. The gravity indicator was set high, almost two G's, and three security men were circling a chestnut-haired youngster that Kirk recognized only because he'd been recently reminded of him. It was Dray T'serek, and, Kirk thought the boy must fancy himself at those odds. A moment later he saw why as the trio moved in. T'serek sent one man tumbling twelve feet into the crowd, popped a second over his shoulder, and was just barely brought down by the third. As the two bodies tangled on the mat Kirk picked up a slight movement of protest from Spock, then relaxation as the third attacker was thrown off. Kirk felt a slight stir in the crowd before they rushed forward to congratulate the winner.

"What was his record on his other ships?"

"Excellent, Captain. He served four months on the Thermopolae, was promoted on transfer to the McCellend, and promoted again when he transferred here."

Kirk's initial liking for the overmatched boy suffered a setback and he looked skeptical. He knew all about promotional transfers and the shady habit of pawning off your bad apples on someone else with a glowing recommendation. His mind veered back to the just-completed match and the reaction of the onlookers.

"Was he fouled?"

"I believe an attempt was made," Spock answered precisely.

"Think I can take him?" Kirk asked in the same tone.

Spock sighed and raised an eyebrow. "I think you are going to try." His tone was resigned.

Kirk grinned. "You don't think I can, do you?"

"Are you proposing a wager, Captain?"

Kirk's jaw dropped and then snapped shut. Would Spock really bet against him?

"You're not trying to hustle me, are you, Mr. Spock?"

"Not at all, Captain. You were the one who desired exercise."

"Well, stick around. You might have to pick up the pieces."

T'serek had nodded to his well-wishers and was accepting their compliments with a little frown, as if he didn't approve of them. He held the eye. Skin like a girl's, sheathed muscle and bone that would have done credit to classical statuary. He had a stinging vitality even in repose, and as he turned to face Kirk, the captain mentally gave him the only word for it--beauty. T'serek had that perilous perfection that cannot be denied. His hair was dark chestnut, his clear skin fair, his eyes gray with a red-brown ring in the iris. Although his features were strongly marked--heavy brows, straight nose, sensual mouth--they lacked expression, or suppressed it. Kirk suspected he took a serious view of life.

"That was good work, T'serek. You want to push your luck?" Kirk's most engaging smile took the sting out of the challenge.

The boy looked doubtful. "I'd be taking advantage, Captain. I'm a Guthrie, heavy-worlder."

"We'll split the difference at a G and a half."

The boy still hesitated, so Kirk pushed a little harder. "If you don't break anything McCoy can't fix, neither will I." He stepped back onto the mats, bracing himself under the onslaught of half again his own weight and saw that Spock had moved to the controls of the grav-comp. T'serek nodded and stepped forward.

Kirk was conscious of the faces closing in around the square and of the pleasant thrum of his own blood, the adrenalized clarity of his vision. It had to be good for you.

T'serek closed at once without preliminaries and Kirk felt a sudden strain on his shoulder and then the whap! of the mat against his back. He shook his head and blinked up at his opponent. God, the boy was fast. Ruefully he held a hand up, and when the boy reached down, Kirk locked his elbow, kicked to the thigh and sent T'serek cartwheeling over his head. He heard the impact with satisfaction as he came to his feet, but T'serek bounced up like a rubber ball.

"Rule number one," said Kirk, "don't count your man out too soon."

This bout was proving a greater attraction than the first. Only the lean science officer seemed indifferent to the outcome as he watched with folded arms and a slightly tilted head.

"It's not fair," someone said in the press. "The Old Man's carrying half a G extra and Dray's fighting light."

"Ain't no such thing as a fair fight, son," came the drawled reply.

The final throw came almost too fast to see and the bystanders felt the impact in the soles of their feet. Kirk lay limp, unconscious, and a panting T'serek stood warily back, his expression apologetic as he looked at the first officer.

Spock thumbed the gravity controls back to normal, dipped in a bucket for a sponge, and stepped onto the mat and squeezed the water into Kirk's face.

Kirk sputtered, shook his head, and rolled up on one elbow. He wiped his eyes and looked at T'serek who stood at a safe distance with one hand pressed to his side. Kirk ran his hand down his jaw, gently.

"What'd he hit me with?"

"The deck, Captain," was Spock's composed reply.

"So I see. You all right, T'serek?" Kirk seemed in no hurry to get up.

"Maybe some loose ribs, sir."

Kirk nodded. "I thought I felt something give. You want to try Spock?"

T'serek looked surprised, then flattered. A flush rose over his cheekbones. He shook his head reluctantly. "Not today, sir."

"Okay. We'll try it together sometime. Help me up."

Ignoring Spock, Kirk reached up toward T'serek. The boy's guarded glance at the hard floor beyond Kirk was perfectly readable, but he set his jaw and reached down. There was a moment of electrical suspense, then Kirk came lightly up, balancing on one foot.

"Good. I think I sprained my ankle. We'd better get your ribs checked, too. Spock?" And with a hand on each shoulder, Kirk hopped happily away from the best workout he'd had in weeks.

* * *

McCoy wasn't surprised to see them. "What now?" he asked as they maneuvered through the door.

"T'serek's ribs and my ankle. I had a good workout."

"Better you than me," said McCoy. The tricorder went from Kirk's ankle to T'serek's side. "You've a sprain," he told Kirk, "and you look like you've been making love to a grizzly. Who won?"

"Nobody wins a workout, Bones," Kirk protested.

"That means the other guy did."

Kirk laughed. "He certainly did. We're going to mop up the floor with Spock next week."

"What do you say to that, Spock?" asked McCoy as he fiddled with his equipment.

"I believe the colloquial expression, Doctor, is 'them and how many more?'"

McCoy finished his ministrations and handed out two small pills apiece to Kirk and T'serek. "Take those at bedtime. You'll be alright, Jim, it does some people good to get knocked around." He turned to the silent boy. "But you'd better drop in tomorrow morning and let me check you out again."

"I'll be all right."

McCoy cocked his head. "That wasn't a request, T'serek. I want to see those ribs before you go back to work and I'm taking you off the duty roster until I do."

"Yes, sir. May I go now?" McCoy nodded and watched the self-possessed boy as he turned and left the room.

"What was that all about? I didn't really hurt him did I?"

McCoy shook his head. "Not you, Jim. You didn't do anything but aggravate it. Those ribs have been cracked for a week."

"He hadn't reported it?"

"Mmmm--"

"Why not?"

McCoy didn't answer directly. "I've been working while you played games in the gym, and I think I came up with something. You remember we were there when Uhura had her accident?"

"Yes."

"Unless I'm mistaken, T'serek has been the proximate cause of most of our bruises and contusions. Uhura's about as normal as human beings come. Her perfectly normal reaction to Dray T'serek caused her to trip over her own feet. When Carolyn Palmer signed on, every male on board went around dragging one wing and running in circles. This is the opposite effect. It wasn't Carolyn's fault--she wasn't even particularly highly sexed. She just looked like a love goddess. And there's a little more to it with T'serek. Haven't you noticed anything unusual about him?"

"He's a heavyworlder, quick, strong--" Comprehension was dawning. "And beautiful. I noticed it."

"He's a Guthrie, Jim. I'd be surprised if you didn't."

Kirk looked to Spock for enlightenment.

"Guthries, Captain, have a society founded on a warrior elite. Male bonding is their norm. I surmise T'serek springs from the ruling class--perhaps a younger son of the hereditary aristocracy. He is quite young. He would bring his values with him."

"Well, he wouldn't find any lack of willing partners here."

"I don't think he's willing, Jim," said McCoy. "If Spock's been reading the same stuff I have, Guthries aren't into casual sex at all. He's the age to form his bond, and he's giving out all the signals--in a mixed society. So we've got women on tranquilizers and men 'walking into doors' all over the ship. But he doesn't know he's responsible. If someone makes a pass at him, he's as insulted as--as Spock would be."

"Great. Well, it's not his fault he has sex appeal. He'll have to cope with it. But to go on working out with cracked ribs is nonsense. I thought there was something funny about that first bout. We'll have to keep an eye on him."

* * *

But there were, as always, things to distract attention from problems that didn't show up on telltales or printouts. Kirk rarely found T'serek in the gym after that, and he dropped the idea of seeking him out for the prospective match against Spock. Not that he held his new insight against the boy. Some of his crew had much stranger notions and compulsions--look at Spock--but unless and until it interfered with their duty hours, sex remained a personal problem. If T'serek wanted to defend his virtue, he could take his lumps. Kirk had had his own share of pressing offers before rank put up its barriers. Sexual opportunists were everywhere. Eventually T'serek would learn to turn them down with more tact.

Or perhaps not.

Two weeks after the incident in the gym, Kirk followed up a security report and found T'serek in his quarters, which had been reduced to a shambles, bleeding copiously from a cut on his head while two limp bodies were being removed in an awkward silence.

Kirk cursed mentally. You couldn't fault the boy, but if he'd damaged either of them seriously, it would have to go on his record, and then the Enterprise would have a scandal on her hands. He was beginning to have more sympathy with those promotional transfers.

"Take them to sickbay," Kirk ordered the security team. "I'll handle this."

T'serek had come to attention in the middle of the room, but his normally fair skin now had a greenish cast, and his uniform blouse was sodden with blood. Blood was beginning to drip from the fingers of his left hand.

"Sit down before you fall down," Kirk said abruptly. "Take that shirt off."

The boy hesitated, then skinned out of the ruined shirt and sat down. Kirk took it out of his hand and ripped the clean sleeve off, then turned T'serek's head to mop urgently at the flood until he could see the ugly gash that caused it. It had been a blow from behind, probably painful, but not dangerous. Headwounds always bled a lot. He padded the wound with the cloth, took the boy's head between his hands and pushed hard. T'serek blinked twice but didn't complain. Kirk maintained the pressure.

Neither of them spoke, and the room was quiet except for T'serek's ragged breathing, now coming under control. The room's thermostat was set lower than the ship's norm. In the cool air, standing so close, Kirk could feel the vital warmth of the boy's body. T'serek sat straight in the chair, trusting himself to Kirk's hands.

Roughed up, compromised, still he retained his reserve, a dignity that touched Kirk, even as it amused him. When the bleeding stopped, he stepped back.

"Now, what happened."

T'serek's grey eyes were stormy, his jaw stubborn. His nostrils took on an aristocratic flare as he said, "I decline to answer, sir."

"Not on my ship you don't. I want to know why you're always ass deep in trouble, and if you don't tell me, I'll get Spock down here to find out telepathically."

That was pure bluff, but T'serek didn't know it. The faint hint of drama went out of his pose to be replaced by a rather desperate silence. Something caught Kirk's eye as he let the threat ride.

He stooped and picked a pair of manacles out of the clutter. They were fleet issue, but he had never authorized their use on the Enterprise. Once the gleaming bands were secure around a man's wrists and the six-inch bar joining them locked his hands behind his back, he would be virtually helpless.

"Are these yours?"

"No, sir."

So that was what they had been up to. Knock him out, manacle him... Kirk's gut tightened at the possibilities.

"This isn't the first time they've jumped you, is it?"

The boy wouldn't meet his eyes, but shamed spots of color showed on his cheekbones as he answered.

"No, sir."

So. The manacles clinked softly as Kirk dropped them in disgust. One thing more he had to know.

"Did you ask for it?"

"No!" The gray eyes lifted, angry, steel hard. T'serek looked ready to come out of the chair and prove it. Good. Adrenaline loosens the tongue.

"The same thing has happened before, hasn't it--on your other ships?"

"Yes," the boy said defiantly, his accent stronger with emotion. "Since I came among your kind. Eyes stare at me. Hands touch me. Men, women." Every line of the boy's body was hard and clear with anger. A flush ran up the strong column of his neck. The scent of combat stirred the air.

"Do you have something against sex?" Kirk asked sarcastically.

T'serek's smoldering eyes and parted lips denied it, but he said, "Yes. With animals." His gesture indicated the vanished assailants. "Need, need. Hating the body because it does not serve their need willingly. That is evil even among their own kind. And I am a Guthrie!"

Indignantly he smeared the blood on his chest with the heel of his hand, stressing the affront. Kirk could almost feel the sensation in his own palm--the sticky, slippery slide over firmness... With an effort that brought the sweat prickling out between his shoulder blades, he wrenched his attention back to T'serek's words.

"Then you consider everyone on the Enterprise an animal."

Kirk's level tone was a contrast to the boy's impassioned declaration, and it deflated T'serek again. He rubbed the back of his wrist across his forehead and gave Kirk a badgered look. Kirk moved back, tacitly giving him permission to get out of the chair and move around.

T'serek paced the cubicle like a caged tiger, trying for words to explain himself. The scene took on a transient quality of déjà vu for Kirk as he watched the controlled stalk of the ultimate, innocent predator. The boy's very incoherence testified to it. Only the young find it so important to be understood. Later the barriers of evasion, reservation and withdrawal are welcomed against too intimate a knowledge. Later he would learn to focus that radiant sexuality, but he was innocent now. T'serek was not to blame for the sun-fired warmth of his hair or the clean line of cheek and jaw, the grace and strength of every stride.

Kirk let him walk it out, and finally the boy stopped pacing and faced him.

"Not--not animals. But not Guthries. If I loved, I would not speak, only stand ready to serve. And I would love what is worthy of love or not love at all. I must mate with my equal."

So young, thought Kirk. And oh, so vulnerable. He recognized his own impulse only as he spoke and heard his voice pitched low in intimate challenge.

"You don't find your equal here?"

He wanted the words, the tone, back the minute they were out, but they shot off at the speed of light across a great gulf that separated him from T'serek. All he could do was wait, seeing the color drain out of the boy's face, feeling the heat of his own blood pulsing in the small of his back. Across the room the boy's bare chest lifted in a deep breath and his eyes searched Kirk's as he yielded the truth that was in him.

"Not one," he said quietly. "Two. Two most worthy of love." The boy's intense voice was low, vibrating the air in the room, shaking the breath in Kirk's lungs. He paused fractionally, then said, "Before I let my body shame them, I would burn it in the fire." For a long moment he held Kirk's eyes, then a little tremor shook him and he half turned away, head bent, awaiting judgment.

You asked for the truth, Captain. What do you have to match that? Nothing. Nothing he could say or do.

He started a comforting gesture but stopped it. Better not touch. His hands still held the silken head in memory.

"I'll take your word...for what happened here. See McCoy." He hesitated, then "See McCoy," he said again and left T'serek standing silent in the wreckage.

* * *

He entered it in the records as a fistfight and let it go at that. Lapsley put the fear into Nicholson, the ringleader of Dray's attackers, and while things eased up on Dray, Kirk was left to handle a new set of personal problems along with the series of border clashes, planetary contacts, and mechanical malfunctions that always increased with proximity to the Neutral Zone.

Kirk welcomed the increasing workload. The four Ixmahx planets were drawing the attention of private bounty hunters, Romulan freelancers (so they claimed in spite of the military cut of their cruisers) and God-knows-what on the prowl for a cache of probably nonexistent superweapons supposedly left behind by the Ixmahx forerunners who had terraformed (lxmahxformed?) several worlds in this sector some thirty thousand years earlier. The Ixmahx world on which a culture still survived was priest-ridden and anti-technology, and had very reluctantly accepted the protection of the Federation three years ago, then cut off diplomatic relations, much to the chagrin of the negotiators involved. Nonetheless it was still his job to protect Ixmahx against Romulan entrepreneurs.

Dray T'serek

From the field it was easy to see that the Prime Directive was again in danger of being bent. The Romulans weren't hesitant about rearranging things to suit themselves, and there were three cruiser-class starships in the sector. Aware of how such a suggestion would be received, Kirk didn't waste time urging Starfleet to do the obvious and send a mission down to the inhabited Ixmahx world, he simply set up three different versions of a rescue mission in his head and waited for orders to come through.

He worked himself almost to the dropping point, but the easy power of T'serek's controlled movement haunted him, even in his dreams. The textures of his hair, his moist skin, that clear, honest glance obtruded themselves on Kirk's attention at the most inopportune moments. He kicked himself for the unguarded lapse that had brought it about and felt a surge of pride for the boy's courage. He took a course of hard exercise and cold showers, but nothing helped. T'serek moved through the jungles of his mind like the proverbial tiger--threat, challenge, promise--and forbidden.

He went through a solitary stage in which he avoided even Spock. There was no reason, really. Spock wasn't going to read his mind and go into Victorian shock, but Spock's very reserve made him more aware of T'serek's coltish dignity.

When he became uncomfortably aware of being under McCoy's scrutiny Kirk launched a program of conviviality. In better times he had enjoyed the ship's social functions, and he followed up rumors of a luau in the lab, hoping for diversion.

It was the kind of party he liked best, everybody shoptalking excitedly over some discovery by a mousy little technician and paying no special attention to him until a strong feminine hand came over his shoulder with an undecorated drink. He turned and surrendered the exotic mixture someone had dipped him out of the punchbowl.

A tall woman with dark brown hair and intense blue eyes was smiling at him, laugh lines creasing around her eyes.

"Nadia! I didn't know you went in for drunken brawling."

"That depends on who else is brawling. Sunderson's my sub and she's done a fine piece of work." She set his fancy drink aside on a lab bench. "Still, I'd stay away from the warp eleven punch if I were you."

He raised his glass, saluting their last meeting. "Here's to hangovers--and home remedies," he said, but his color was a little high. He had once awakened in Nadia's bed, and his surprise hadn't been very flattering to her. She was older than he, a strong, reserved woman with big bones and banked fires. Not only had she failed to be insulted or put him down for inferior performance (see what comes of fruit juice and fancy liquor) but she had been genuinely concerned about his pounding head. On occasion it was nice to be mothered.

He drank the toast and smiled at her over the glass, remembering the headache cure, and she began to blush, too.

"Well, it worked," she said a little defensively.

He watched the blush spread. Funny how a competent lab chief could deal with death and destruction every day, and then produce a blush like that.

"Do you practice preventive medicine, too?"

"No, I mean, I--" She didn't know what to say. She had been so careful not to expect-- His back was to the room, but she must be showing everything, tears in her eyes like a silly schoolgirl. She pulled herself together, resenting his slightly malicious grin. With all the dignity she could muster, she said, "First you should go. Later I will come."

"Bull," said the captain and took her arm.

* * *

The comfort of a woman's body, the silk and satin of it, the wealth of swelling curves. Nadia turned and arched under his hands, sighing, kissing his throat, his shoulder, her breath warm in the dark. Urgency gathering, sweet confrontation of bodies, struggle, submission, buttery yielding, willing, needful acceptance of his plundering manhood. Could another man give him that? Could he give that to a man? He faltered and shook with a nervous chill. Had it already unmanned him?

"Nadia--"

"Hush," she whispered, pulling him close. "Hush." Wise hands turned them onto their sides, still joined, stroked, comforted. "Rest."

Cradled against her, he could hear his blood pulse like surf in his ears, waves of a distant sea. He felt lost in a vast dark, moonless, starless. Her breathing rocked him, her heart jarred under his lips. Deep inside her a mothwing fluttered against him and sudden sweet pain surged through him, down his spine from his scalp, up the backs of his thighs from his heels, bursting the dam, exploding in violent spasms, spending his strength, his self, into a deep dark gulf beyond self or knowledge of self.

They drifted together, intimate and casual as survivors of the same shipwreck. When she stirred the cool air flowed between them and she shivered back against him, pulling him close.

"That was the sweetest time of all," she said before she slept.

* * *

But T'serek would not be so easily banished. Exorcised one way, he drew attention in another. It was a rough sector. His name kept showing up in the reports. On Gamma Hydrae IV he coolly faced a charge of the Yeti-like dominant species, firing into their faces while his chief bullied and dragged a dozen wounded men to the safety of the shuttle.

"He planted himself like a wall," was Lapsley's report. "He was still firing when they were four feet away; there was nothing I could do to help him. If they'd gotten through--well, we'd be making our reports in hell. I think he deserves recognition."

Kirk had weighed the alternatives. Privately he shied from singling Dray out for special notice--that would only intensify the boy's personal dilemma.

"Gavin, could you handle it if I asked you to wait?"

"Yes, sir. But why?"

"T'serek's young yet. He'll have plenty of chances to collect hardware. I don't want to create a gloryhound. I'm not saying he is one, but there are times when a live coward is worth six heroes. I want to be sure he knows that. Do you think I'm being too hard on him?"

Lapsley considered. He was a pretty fair field psychiatrist himself.

"No, I don't think there's any danger, but it won't hurt him to wait."

"Good. I appreciate it." But he didn't appreciate his own duplicity. It left a bad taste in his mouth and the feeling of unfinished business.

The second time T'serek's name came up for a commendation it was McCoy who filed the report. When Kirk failed to take action, he followed up by buzzing Kirk's door with two glasses in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other.

"Ah, a semi-professional visit, I take it?" Kirk let the doctor in and settled across the desk from him while he poured. He had been fighting shy of McCoy as well as Spock and had known that it wouldn't go without comment from that sector. Well, maybe it was time to turn the rocks over and see what scuttled out.

McCoy began by explaining that the lab specimen from Hagen's world wasn't dangerous, that the lab crew had made a pet of it.

"But what would you do if a flying snake started divebombing sickbay, Jim? T'serek wasn't even there on duty. I simply left him standing in the lab, and the next thing we knew the snake was loose and heading for the door spraying green mist. When he hit the emergency seal and locked himself in with it he was taking quite a chance. And it would have created a panic in sickbay. Someone could have been seriously hurt."

"I agree he deserves a commendation. I'll log it."

"You seem pretty cool. I thought you liked him." McCoy leaned back, the picture of a perfect listener. Kirk recognized the posture. All right, Bones, you be the devil's advocate.

"It's not my job to like promising young officers. It's my job to make sure they live up to the promise when the time comes."

"And it's my job to be aware of personality clashes on this ship. T'serek seems to have more than his share. I just didn't know you'd joined the opposition. Is he making progress too fast to suit you?"

"If you mean faster than I did, Doctor, say so!"

Two tempers were ruffled at this point; both of them recognized it at the same time. Kirk reached back to rub his neck and McCoy looked thoughtfully at the wall.

"Well, you can't ignore him, can you?" Kirk conceded ruefully. "Am I really harder on people I like?"

"Merciless. It's no crime to have sex appeal."

"On duty it is."

"I think this came up before, Jim. You're a little touchy on the subject, aren't you?"

Kirk cast a fulminating glance at McCoy, then puffed his cheeks and vented some of his steam in a soundless whistle. McCoy was only doing his job.

"Maybe I am. But I'm not jealous of T'serek. And I know he isn't doing it deliberately. It's just there, Bones. You can't help but feel it. Hell, you're the one who pointed it out to me. When he comes into a room, everybody's temperature goes up."

"Including yours," said McCoy as a statement. "Surprise you?"

Kirk studied his drink. "My psychfile says I could go that way, doesn't it?"

"Most of us could if T'serek were available."

Kirk dismissed this red herring. "If so, and I'll take that evasion as an affirmative, Doctor, why not until now? I've had chances."

"With someone like Dray? Not a sexual cripple, a loser, a climber or a clinger? Have you had a chance with a real winner--as the dominant partner?"

Kirk's eyes narrowed. "If that's your opinion, it's not very flattering."

McCoy held up an open palm. "It's not my opinion that matters, Jim. What do you think?"

Kirk felt the color in his face, conceded it with a jerk of his chin as he finished his drink.

"All right. I'm a self-centered bastard and I like to be on top. Rumor says it knocks a little of the stardust off if you aren't."

"That went out with chattel ownership of wives. It takes two. If there were nothing in the game for half the players, the human race would have died out long ago."

"Women are different," said Kirk.

"So's everybody. Do you think you really command with your balls? What's that make Nadia Palevi--a little something to up your game total?"

"Christ, no!" A little kneejerk there, Captain? Is that why he's pushing so hard? Do you keep score? His face sobered, frown lines deepening between his brows as he remembered Nadia's sweet sharing. Had he used her? No more than she used him. Less than love, more than acquaintance. He owed no debts there. "No, I don't believe that. Half the women on the crew turn me on, probably more of the men than I've ever admitted, but hell, Bones, I get less than half the crotch jockeys on this ship and you know it. No time. No energy--and if I had it, that wouldn't give me the right to make the crew my private hunting preserve. I'm responsible for them."

He was looking into some interior dimension now, and missed the subtle signs that showed McCoy was already satisfied.

"Dray wouldn't take advantage, and I wouldn't favor him, but that's not how other people would see it, and it wouldn't be good for the ship. And we're not here to play. The job has to come first with me. Anybody looking for total commitment comes right up against that in the end. What's left over isn't much to share."

He brought himself back from the middle distance and focused on McCoy who silently poured him another inch of brandy.

"That's the best answer I've got, Bones. Nadia wasn't looking for something permanent--T'serek is. By the looks of him he's got a career of his own ahead of him. It wouldn't be good for him. I've had a yen before. I'll live through it."

"Have you talked to him?"

Kirk skirted that memory of the boy standing alone in the wrecked room. "About what? He must know the facts of life by now. There's nothing else to say. He hasn't put a foot wrong. Two commendations in his first six weeks aboard. Competence is what I strive for on this ship. Am I supposed to tell him not to be so good he makes other people jealous? You can't turn it off, Bones, not and have anything left worth having."

"Are we talking about Dray T'serek or James Kirk?"

"Either, both, anybody with something extra. Use it or lose it. I won't talk to him, but I'll do something better. When the Fleet gets around to ordering us in, I'll send him on the Ixmahx mission with Spock."

McCoy frowned and swirled the brandy around in his glass.

"I don't doubt Dray would be pleased, but would Spock?"

"Mr. Spock has distinguished himself among my staff by leaving me uninformed as to his likes and dislikes with regard to my orders."

"That's nothing but Vulcan repression, Jim. I wouldn't be surprised if T'serek scares him spitless."

"Spock? Why?"

"Spock's not asexual, Jim, even if he has got an odd sense of timing. And T'serek exudes sexuality. The combination gives me a bad feeling."

"You can't have it both ways, Bones. T'serek deserves his chance, and if anyone can observe military decorum, it's Spock."

McCoy finished his drink, shelved his doubts.

"Oh, I didn't think Dray would get out of hand. I think I'll fold and deal myself a new set of worries tomorrow. G'nite, Jim."

* * *

Kirk showered and hit his bunk, wishing he found it that easy. He'd bounced the idea of sending T'serek with Spock right off the top of his head. It was the kind of recognition Dray would value most. And Spock might be only a spectator, but he was an astute observer and Kirk doubted there were many human problems the Vulcan couldn't sympathize with behind his mask. Kirk kicked the sheets back.

And what's the worst that could happen, he asked himself. What if Dray fell head over heels in love with Spock? There was no law against it, no reason it had to interfere with duty hours; the boy had meant what he'd said. Perhaps total commitment would put an end to his unconscious draw and effectively answer the Nicholsons--and admit it, the Kirks--of this world. Spock could defend himself.

And if he doesn't want to? prompted a small inner voice. Well, Spock had a right to love, too. The camaraderie of duty hours would be altered a little, but that was a reasonable price to pay for Spock's life. The pon farr question had never really been settled. If Spock and Dray bonded--it would be all to the good, wouldn't it? Meet both their needs?

And yours? asked the voice.

I have my ship, he answered it, and anyway this is a decompression dream. Nothing's happened yet.

And ignoring the habitual vague ache of loneliness and the more recent desire to purge it in the physical perfection of Dray T'serek, James Kirk slept.

* * *

When the expected message came from Starfleet, it wasn't Admiral Nogura's face, but Meade Morrow's that filled the monitor. The pan-anthropologist's gray hair was pushed awry off her broad forehead, and she looked older than at their last meeting. She was one of the few non-military advisors who could command the narrow beam and high energy drain it took to boost a message through hyperspace.

"Jim, it's good to see you. How's the Enterprise?"

"Fit and ready for action, Meade. Can you say the same for the Admiralty?"

"Some days I wonder. I thought I had some of these desk pushers persuaded to let you take a hand in this Ixmahx affair, Jim, but Nogura will be getting through to you shortly with orders to divert back to V'ei'drei for some diplomatic juggling there. In the meantime, and if I have gotten in ahead of him, my authorization to have you look at Ixmahx hasn't been cancelled to my knowledge. I wouldn't make it an order, but I'd like to know why the Romulans are so interested in that world."

"We haven't received anything else from Starfleet, Captain," said Uhura.

"What can we do for you, Meade?"

"I'm not exactly sure. Artificial cultures give me the willies, Jim, and it's pretty clear the Ixmahx worlds were set up as some kind of operations base. They've resisted change for an awfully long time. Now possibly the race than engineered that is dead and gone--but they might not be. All the talk about superweapons makes one wonder. If you could send a shuttle down and talk to the VIPs in person--or Spock, if Nogura needs you at V'ei'drei--you might give us a clearer picture."

Kirk nodded. Meade was not given to unwarranted paranoia. He'd backed her hunches before and found them sound. Her request fit in with his plans for Spock and Dray, anyway.

"What are my men likely to run into down there?"

"I'll zipsqueal you all we've got--about thirty seconds realtime."

"All right, Meade. We've been having a little communications difficulty and there's a possibility we might lose your signal in a moment. It will take us about an hour before we can repair things here. By that time we can have it set up. Go ahead."

Meade's face faded a bit as the highspeed message came through, and then Uhura cut the communication and reached under her console with an inquiring look at Kirk. He nodded and she pulled something loose.

"I do seem to be having some trouble, Captain. I can't 'hear' a thing until I repair this."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. Mr. Spock, how would you like a little vacation on Ixmahx?"

"That would be agreeable, Captain."

"Good. Take a look at Meade's message and meet me in the shuttlebay in forty-five minutes. I want you to have mobility on the planet. I'll have your crew ready."

It was the shakiest of the three missions he had planned in his head--T'serek and two other security guards, Nadia Palevi and two of the gadget pushers from her labs, and Spock to get them in, do some investigating, and get them out again. It always made him itchy to leave men behind, but in this case it was the best option available.

When he walked into the deck area, he realized he hadn't been face to face with Nadia since the night of the party, or seen T'serek since the attack in the boy's cabin. If either of them were flattered or elated at being singled out for the mission it didn't show. Nadia gave him a friendly, respectful nod, but she was absorbed in some equipment her two crewmembers were loading into the shuttle, and T'serek and the two security guards were helping with the stowage. Their reserve reassured Kirk.

He had not been able to betray T'serek's confidence to his first officer. The whole idea made him squirm. It also raised the uncomfortable question of just how much Spock might have deduced for himself. The thought that Spock might believe Kirk was using their friendship to advance his private interests with either T'serek or Nadia covered him with a scalding wave of embarrassment. The respect and steady support of Spock himself, inside the Vulcan mask, was precious. He only realized how much at the thought of losing it.

Don't panic, he admonished himself. You don't have to feel guilty for something you haven't done. He ran an exacting eye over Spock checking out personnel and equipment, but couldn't find any increase of correctness in Spock's normal composure.

At precisely the correct moment, the Vulcan stepped back and gave the captain his attention, effectively focusing every eye in the room on Kirk.

God, he does that well. It would be twice the job without him.

"I'm sending you on a dangerous mission," he began. "Politically dangerous, maybe physically dangerous. You will be out of contact with the Enterprise, entirely dependent upon yourselves to gather the information Starfleet needs, possibly to deal with the Ixmahx and the Romulans. Remember that your primary goal is to gather information, not start a war.

"Some of you are scientists. Don't endanger the mission with unnecessary curiosity. Some of you are security. It's your job to keep the scientists safe--but not so safe they can't do their jobs.

"Mr. Spock, I have every confidence in you and your team." End standard pep talk. He paused, relaxed slightly, and gave them the provocative smile. "Good hunting."

He'd struck the right note. He could read it in Spock's grave Vulcan salute, in T'serek's glowing eye. What is the current? How is the net cast that personality creates? Why can James Kirk get that response and not another man just as smart, just as well meaning? Use it or lose it. What if the Federation ran out of just causes? Would he be able to stop?

He saw them into the shuttle and then headed for the airlock so they could depressurize the bay.

McCoy was on the other side, loitering in the corridor. Funny how he always turned up when he was needed. Probably worried about scrambling all the captain's eggs in one basket.

"Who shot your dog?" growled McCoy.

Kirk gave him the remains of the grin. "Bad case of what did I do to deserve this...firing them up with the old do or die. Don't even know how I do it."

"Neither did the centipede. Besides you're taking too much credit. Spock and Nadia are as curious as cats. And at T'serek's age, what mere C.O. could have kept you off the glory road?"

He's right. Worry doesn't help. Back to work.

McCoy caught that mental resolution out of thin air. In some ways, Jim was the most predictable person he'd ever met. Capable of literally laying down his life for his friends, he was also capable of sending his best friend, a current and a potential lover into danger if it was his duty to do so. And capable of living with it, so long as there was work to do.

"Scotty wants you to baptize his new gadget--something that looks like two tricycles dueling to the death."

"Then I'd better go see it. Thanks, Bones." And he was in gear again, the warmth lingering as he left McCoy behind.

McCoy mentally consigned Dray T'serek's heroic sensuality to perdition. He himself would sacrifice a lot of romantic exclusivity to maintain James Kirk in that balance of strength, sensitivity and drive that powered his command. Use it or lose it was a tactician's oversimplification, but this particular tactician believed it. If he ever seriously questioned his right to risk men's lives, it would be McCoy's painful duty to bar him from everything that made his life worthwhile.

What is this? the doctor demanded of himself, a wake? Go bully your staff--it's safer.

* * *

The sophistication of the transporter and the habit of living in a mobile environment meant that travel for its own sake was a rarity for the Enterprise crew. T'serek took the controls with Spock beside him in the copilot's seat. Beth Sunderson, her face as pink and pleased as a child's, took the seat nearest to Dray, and Clement, scowling at her, took the one farthest away. That left Nadia with the two security men, neither of whom she knew personally. They stood a little in awe of her status as a lab chief. She found out that the younger one was named Tom Craven and the older one was Hillis--she wasn't sure if that was a first or last name. Hillis was from a heavy world, like Dray.

"But we settled it less than 200 years ago--haven't had much time for mutation. Guthrie was settled in the First Dispersal. They lost touch with Earth for almost eight hundred years before we found them again. Guthries are tough!"

"Muscles are to march on," Craven interrupted. "Brains are the foundation of modern weaponry--my T.I. told me so."

"If you believe that you'll believe anything."

"Don't fight, children," Nadia said.

Hillis turned soulful brown eyes on her. "Don't worry, ma'am, if he hits me with his brains I won't feel a thing."

They seemed prepared to carry on the good-humored feud all the way to the planet, but Clement bored into the conversation.

"Dr. Palevi--were you briefed on this assignment?"

"Just what you heard, Clement. Why?"

"Well, it all seems pretty vague to me. I can understand the security--" his cool glance dismissed the two men on either side of Nadia as if they didn't exist, "but you and Beth and I--we're not detectives--we don't know if an artifact exists or the natives have some kind of cultural hang-up. Beth and I were working on the Ettorian schema for vectoring Mortai spirochetes, which could be very important--"

Nadia stopped listening before Clement stopped talking. She, at least, was aware that this assignment was a treat--the captain's understanding of a treat being the opportunity to risk one's neck on a hostile planet. And she knew why Clement wasn't finding it so delightful. Before the advent of Dray T'serek, Clement had been claiming Sundersun's attention in and out of the lab. Sunderson, like the other women aboard, had been smitten. Between her silent adoration of Dray and Clement's jealous sulking, Nadia expected to have her hands full.

Not that she was blind to T'serek's charms. In addition to the brooding good looks, he was charged with vitality, he didn't put himself forward, and he did his job. But he moved her not at all. Somehow he lacked the peculiar mixture of strength and need that struck responsive chords in her. On the contrary, as she mollified Clement and kept up her conversation with Craven and Hillis, Nadia was more aware of Mr. Spock. There was nothing out of the ordinary in his quiet absorption in his computer--but it was too ordinary. T'serek was sitting as straight as a ramrod in the pilot's chair, every move shining--metaphorically--with spit and polish, and Spock wasn't noticing. She watched them for half an hour, and they sat within six inches of each other without one social exchange. That might have been characteristic of Spock four years ago, but not now.

Nadia had been very aware of Spock when she first signed aboard. She came on staff right after the change in command and she heard all the scuttlebutt about the Vulcan's loyalty to Pike and his iceberg personality. She had observed him with the detachment of her training and discovered two things. The first was that Spock shared her joy in the solution of scientific problems--that possession and employment of talent which is the most enduring happiness. Her second discovery was based on nothing dramatic--two men talking shop over a chess game or sharing coffee after a long shift, but it had eased her awareness of the Vulcan. Pressed, she would have said that Spock worked well with his new captain. Now, for no reason, she was aware of him again.

She was so deep in thought that it startled her when T'serek reported the Enterprise moving out of orbit, preparing for her warp-speed jump to V'ei'drei. She followed the dwindling image of the starship on the monitor until it disappeared and T'serek replaced it with a view of the planet.

With no satellite, no rings, and less surface water than Earth, Ixmahx offered little as a tourist attraction. It did have considerable volcanism and they passed over one cloud-covered area on the dark side that glowed neon orange from underneath.

"Where are we going, Mr. Spock? Do they have a planetary capitol?"

Spock turned from his computer. "The culture resembles a military theocracy, and there is a center of administrative and religious activity on the smaller continent, Dr. Palevi. However, I am not sure where we will land. The Planetary Speaker will be contacting us with instructions and coordinates."

Well, she wasn't included in the no socializing rule evidently. She thought about the package the Federation provided newly joined members. Of all the gifts, it was not the wealth of trade, or the computer technology that most justified the old charge of imperialism, but the coordinate grid, an invisible, intangible net that brought the newcomer into line with the shared Federation culture. Based on the clumsy latitude and longitude of old Earth, the concept that every square foot of surface on or in the crust of a planet was known, named and numbered changed the way people thought about their world. It stressed the similarity and multiplicity of inhabited planets. Instead of "the" world a planet became "a" world. That profound change in thinking generally put an end to geographic exploration as the unknown territory became charted and coded. Quite incidentally, the process of establishing the grid delineated the fault lines caused by tectonic action, measured the magma in volcanic vents and probed the water tables, dictating expansion and development thereafter.

We're like people who come to dinner and start rearranging the furniture, Nadia thought. We arrive with information that dictates their future. Don't build there--an earthquake's coming. Nice islands, but they're going to sink. Pretty mountain but it's planning to blow up. She could accept the necessity of it and appreciate its efficiency without really liking it any more than she liked being so thoroughly known herself. She was more than the total of age, I.Q., blood chemistry, and the unshed eggs in her belly. In the same way the planet below them was more than the sum of its coordinates. On occasion the Federation netted a fish and ignored the sea. We don't know this world, she thought in unaccustomed revulsion toward mensuration and progress. We don't know it at all.

It was a welcome distraction when T'serek announced a message from the planet coming in. The world view dissolved into an alien face.

"Welcome to Ixmahx, Gentlebeings. I am Planetary Speaker Goren." A display at T'serek's right, out of sight of the vid pickup verified the identity of voice and face, listed the highest civilian security clearance, gave current technological information on the planet.

"I appreciate your willingness to assist us and I would like to invite you to surroundings more comfortable than our formal residence in Tlaplat. Please join me at my own vacation home. These are the coordinates." He read the string of numbers from a memorandum handed him by an aide. They were humanoid, but not human. The Ixmahx wore bony ridges where their eyebrows should have been and carried their large heads high on an extra vertebra. The Speaker wore a simple garment draped around his shoulders, but the aide, dressed in a uniform jacket, sported fluttering ribbons and jeweled epaulets. It gave him an overdressed and slightly foppish appearance, like a child in adult's clothing. Nadia thought the Speaker looked tired, but she knew better than to place any confidence in her ability to interpret alien expression.

"You honor us, Speaker. I am First Officer Spock. We shall arrive in approximately--" he paused to convert standard time into planetary units, "7 Xtlal."

T'serek set the coordinates and waited for Spock's nod to activate the course change. The security men went through the motions of checking out already inspected weapons. Sunderson turned to Nadia and said that she wished they'd worn dress uniforms.

"I never visited a VIP before."

"You look fine in fatigues," Nadia answered, "and you'll be a lot more comfortable." Nadia had chosen the streamlined white uniform they habitually wore in the lab for more than comfort. The fatigues were thermally adjustable, offered a high degree of protection against acid, abrasives or shock, not to mention just plain dirt. The cushioned boot was much better for hiking than the dress black. Sunderson's fair skin and pale hair showed to advantage over the fabric, but if she wanted to drown herself in ethnic offerings, she'd probably be given the chance later. First there was work to do and Nadia didn't want them to have their minds on their hemlines.

They came down in the twilight zone, in a wilderness of rock fissured with deep canyons. The Speaker's vacation home was modest in size, but not in value. It was constructed of an organic crystal, a single convoluted gem glowing softly in the dusk. T'serek set them down on a lavender sward where three beribboned Ixmahx waited. As the airlock cycled, moist night air cooled the temperature-constant atmosphere of the shuttle. It smelled natural, the breath of a planet.

As security chief, T'serek was first out the lock, and he waved his men to flank it on either side while Spock and the others exited. His parade rest stance could have been interpreted as an honor guard except for that electric vitality that made him noticeable even when he was motionless.

They followed their Ixmahx guides over a gray and lavender garden where red volcanic rock burst through the symmetry randomly, reminding them of the surrounding wasteland. It could have been natural or an imitation of nature intended as art. The crystal home had no door, only a small tunnel, like the mouth to a cave, and the pale turf from the garden carpeted the floor inside without interruption. The interior walls were frosted, glowing with light, and their smooth texture reminded Nadia of sand castles she had built as a child, or candles whose wax was designed to weep. It was almost impossible not to reach out and touch the surface. Their escort, shoulder ribbons fluttering, led them around a molded flow of crystal and into a larger chamber where the Planetary Speaker stood waiting for them--between two Romulan guards.

T'serek reacted while Nadia was still realizing they had been trapped. He threw himself to the side in a flickering shoulder roll and came up with his arm around a Romulan throat, his phaser pressed to the man's ribs. The other security guards and Spock had also drawn, forming a rough triangle around the scientists, but no one fired. The Romulan weapons were aimed at Goren, not the Enterprise personnel.

A seated Romulan broke the silence, if not the tension in the room, by reaching for a glass of wine. He tasted it, leaning back against a chair that grew out of the floor with its table, extrusions of the same crystal as the walls, taking his time, considering his catch.

Finally he settled on Spock. "Tell your pretty boy to release my guard."

Spock appeared unmoved by the insult, but T'serek's face flushed and he spoke in protest. "Sir, we don't know that the Speaker is here under duress. He may be helping them."

Spock raised an eyebrow at the Romulan. At his nod one of the guards stripped the soft garment from the Speaker's torso. A series of burns disfigured his chest. The Speaker did not react to the guard but looked past him at Spock. Under the brow ridges his eyes were deeply set, dark and piercingly intelligent.

"I'm perfectly willing to demonstrate the Speaker's integrity for you," said the Romulan.

"That will not be necessary," Spock said. "The landing party will disarm." He let his weapon drop.

T'serek gave the Romulan guard a shove away from him and threw his weapon to the side. When the freed guard turned and backhanded him--a blow that would have broken most human necks--he took it stolidly and answered, unarmed as he was, with an openhanded blow of his own that rocked the Romulan back on his heels.

The Romulan commander barked an order that made the guard fall back. To Spock, he said "If he strikes me, l will kill one member of your party for each blow." With deliberate, stalking grace, he approached T'serek and deliberately drew back a hand to strike. Immobilized by the threat, the Guthrie kept his hands at his sides, but the fire in his eye did not change to fear. The Romulan smiled and turned the slap into a caress, stroking Dray's bright hair, his round human ear and the side of his throat.

"A beautiful pet and not so fragile as humans usually are. What possibilities.... I would not have suspected you of such good taste, Spock. It might explain your affront to one of my house--" He kept on stroking, his body close to Dray's, edging behind him, standing even closer, while Dray's hands doubled into fists and shamed color burned deeper in his face. "--explain, not excuse--" He locked eyes with Spock as his hand moved to T'serek's groin. "One blow, one life. When does the Enterprise return?"

There was no question of answering. With no knowledge of the Romulan's plans or needs, any answer, true or false, might seal their own death warrants. T'serek did not move or protest under the obscene caress, but Sunderson hid her face with a sob against Clement's ready shoulder, and Nadia and T'serek's men looked anywhere but at what was happening. Spock alone, knowing worse might come, silently ordering the boy to endure it, did not look away. Perhaps it was that or T'serek's frozen stillness under his hands that told the Romulan he would not get his answer that way.

"No? A shame. I prefer to combine business with pleasure. I need to know your ship's itinerary and I will know it. If I have to kill your people one by one before you."

A life and death game, then, for unknown stakes. Factors political, moral and expedient aligned themselves in Spock's mind. He could not, in fact, risk human lives for nothing. Nor ignore a threat to his ship. Here, in a crossfire, under threat of instant death to his companions and the Ixmahx leader, none of them could act. But given a delay, the redirection of threat, division of the Romulan force and some favorable opportunity might occur.

"When they were dead you would still have to deal with me." It was said with all the cold detachment of Vulcan discipline, but the inspiration came from one human addicted to bluff and the changing of no-win situations. He did not delude himself that there would be no price to pay.

"And I do have to deal with you. It's a shame in a way. I could respect your achievements." He released T'serek and spoke to his guards.

The Romulans moved in and removed the Enterprise communicators, along with a surprising number of concealed weapons from the security men. Nadia took their mauling without complaint, but Sunderson's face crumpled as she fought tears, and Clement got himself a split lip for cursing the Romulan who touched her.

"Remove them." The commander crossed again to his chair, nursing his wine, staring at Spock as the guards shoved their prisoners down another crystal tunnel. The Vulcan had the rare ability to stand without fidgeting. He did it now, all his interest in delay, in gaining any information he could. Training and experience proved that the exchange of information between captor and captive was often two-way. In his present situation he himself could hope to gain nothing but information. He reminded himself that facts were always valuable.

The Romulan poured himself more wine. "My name is S'Tyge, Spock. My clan name is Hreth Malok. Do you know the significance of that name?"

He did know. It was the clan of the Romulan commander from whom they had stolen the cloaking device.

"I see that you do. Revenge is an obligation. The commander was my cousin, and until you shamed her, I took great pride in her accomplishments. Take off your clothes."

When Spock made no move to obey, S'Tyge only smiled. "Whatever you hoped to accomplish by splitting my force or yours can be negated very simply by having my guards bring your people back here. And then they will see what I am going to do to you. Take off your clothes."

Slowly Spock obeyed, removing one garment after another until he stood naked in the center of the crystal room. S'Tyge sipped his wine and watched.

"Good. I do not delude myself that simple pain will persuade you to speak. But pain does speak, even to Vulcans, and it speaks very loudly to humans. As do other actions. What I am going to do to you I can do again and again, to you and your friends. Bend over the table and let my men bind you."

The crystal furniture was cool to the touch and unyielding as diamond. They bound him with thin flexible metallic cable, drawing his arms and legs widely apart. He could not see what was happening behind him. The cable, doubled into sinuous loops, made very adequate whips. They beat him--deep bruising blows with Romulan strength behind them, blows that crushed him against the cool crystal of the table and taxed his powers of concentration. As they were intended to do. The beating stopped before he became unconscious. He heard the guards step back and the whisper of footsteps on the living carpet.

"I have not seriously damaged you, Spock. These wounds--" S'Tyge's touch was gentle as it traced the pattern of bloody welts, "--will heal. You still have time to tell me." The caressing hand moved lower, stroked each striped buttock in turn. "When will your ship return?" The hand slipped to his inner thigh, poised over ganglia of sensory nerves, fingers tensed over the tender skin.

There was no point in answering, even if he had known why it was important, even if it was not important at all. A rational being knew the value of a barbarian's word. It should not have seemed so difficult to remain silent.

The hand gripped with silent, deadly strength, finding the nerves, deliberately grinding them against bone, sending waves of shocking, nauseating anguish through Spock's abused body until he finally could not control his response and he tried to pull away.

"Better," S'Tyge said, releasing the pressure. "I want to know that you are paying attention."

He moved forward, and his hand was not so gentle on the welts now. His fingers locked in Spock's hair and he lifted his head from the table. "My cousin offered you honorable alliance, Spock--and you returned treachery. Romulans have many vices, Vulcan. We take what we want. But we do not excuse personal betrayal on the basis of military duty."

There was no answer. He had never taken pride in it. It was not the issue now.

"I am going to show you vice, Vulcan, that doesn't dress itself as duty." With his free hand he snapped a capsule under Spock's nose. A puff of bitter yellow smoke drifted against Spock's face, choking him so that he coughed and inhaled. The effect was instantaneous. Every mark on his body seemed redrawn in fire. S'Tyge broke a second capsule and inhaled deeply. His hand went to his crotch while he still held Spock's head up off the table. "Romulan vice--" his voice was a little less steady as he opened his pants, "this one--heightens sensation--without hastening--" He gasped and drew his penis from the cloth. The organ stiffened and swelled as S'Tyge stroked it, the head and great vein dark with blood. Under the influence of the drug, Spock's throat and nasal passages were coated with the strong scent of the Romulan's arousal.

"I wonder if Vulcans are like humans, Spock. They always beg me not to do it."

He did not beg. The eternity of suspense while S'Tyge stood behind him was seconds gained for the others, was a chance for fortune to favor them again. At his command Dray T'serek had endured S'Tyge's touch. He could at least command his own silence. But that was all he could command. His witless, illogical body would not be ruled. When S'Tyge's fingers clamped on his buttocks it started to fight, muscles straining against the unbreakable cable that bound him. Even knowing that his agitation increased the Romulan's stimulation, he struggled as the blunt head of the cock speared into the tight-clenched orifice, burning hot, steel hard. Pain split him as that implacable rod was thrust into him, but worse than the pain was the overload of drug-induced sensation. He could feel the obscene pressure in his gut, the pulse of alien blood inside him. He could anticipate the friction of movement against silk-thin and delicate tissues. Stiff pubic hair brushed against him and he felt the round weight of the Romulan's balls as he settled to the hilt in Spock's blood and pain.

"You shouldn't have shamed her, Spock--" Even S'Tyge's breath against his excoriated back was agony. And then the withdrawal began, worse than the entry, sawing, filing, filling his mind with the image of a white-hot sword drawn smoking from the wound. And with the pain S'Tyge's words, raping his mind, soiling it with their foulness which he could not escape....

* * *

An icy drench brought him back to agonized awareness. Water ran over and under him, dripped green from the table and stained the turf of the floor. It was his blood, but the action of the drug was over and the pain was less, so that he could relegate it once again to its proper function, warning that he was damaged and needed to heal. S'Tyge had gone, and the two guards watched him dress, as indifferent as they had been while S'Tyge raped him. When he could stand, fighting cramps and a weakness in his legs, they prodded him into motion. The web of fire tightened across his back, the memory of the sword went with him like a brand, but he had told them nothing; he had given the others time to act; he had not begged.

* * *

The Speaker and the Enterprise prisoners had been moved through the house into what was evidently Goren's bedchamber. The archway through which they entered was the only entrance to the room--a second having been blasted and blocked with rubble. The blind entrance to a bathing area had also been defaced with a blaster to eliminate privacy. The Romulan who took the position of guard was both alert and intelligent. When the Speaker staggered and clutched at T'serek for support the Romulan made no attempt to go to him. Dray caught the old man and supported him while Nadia turned back the covering on his bed. As they lowered him down he said, "A drink of water--" and when Dray turned away to get it, the dark eyes under the bony brows turned to Nadia. "Bend down," he whispered.

Her hands tightened on the covering, then she began to tuck it up around him, bending closer and blocking the guard's view.

"I have a weapon. I will wait two hours to see if they return your officer. If not, you must help me escape."

Nadia's hands stilled on the cover. Leave Spock?

"Move away so I can see him," commanded the guard.

Obediently, Nadia moved away. Comply with your captors, they were taught. Take the first opportunity to escape. She wished Kirk were there, full of decisive energy, but in that case the Romulans would have him now. She rejected the image. She didn't want to think about Spock in Romulan hands. She didn't want to be in charge. She slid to the turf next to Sunderson and leaned back against the hard wall. Goren's eyes didn't follow her. He drank the water T'serek brought and waved him away without speaking again.

She tried to think what Kirk would do, what Spock would want. But he had already shown them that by challenging the Romulan commander. They were there for a reason. The guard at the door was frowning at T'serek where he paced the room restlessly. Trying not to draw his attention, Nadia slipped her arm around Sunderson's waist. She leaned her head on the girl's shoulder as if she were tired and whispered, "We're going to escape as soon as Spock comes back. Pass it on." She settled into a comfortable position and held the girl still for a long count of a thousand, then started, as if she'd been falling asleep and sat up. She got up slowly and crossed the room, took T'serek's arm to hold him still and told him directly, almost soundlessly. "Goren has a weapon. He'll use it when Spock comes back."

"Do not speak to each other," commanded the guard.

"I have to use the facilities," Nadia said clearly. "I was telling him to stand with his back to the door." She saw Sunderson lean over and whisper in Clement's ear. "If you have any objections why don't you come in and discuss them? You might as well come, too, Beth." That covered the passing of the message to Tom Craven and gave the guard an argument he could win.

"One at a time," he said. "No more speaking, or I shoot that one."

Dray looked stubborn and planted himself in the doorway. While the guard glared back at him, Craven nudged Hillis and signed something unobtrusively with his right hand. It was the first time Nadia had realized the security men had other means of communication than speech. In the next hour she saw several exchanges and wondered what they were saying. She started to sweat when the second of Goren's hours began. It was clearly her duty to rescue the speaker and carry out the mission in spite of casualties. The Vulcan was neither a fool nor foolhardy. If he had courted torture--and a private session with the Romulans could not be anything else--he must have had a reason, and very likely it was this, to give them a chance to escape. If he did not return, or came back unconscious or too crippled to move, it would be her military responsibility to carry on, complete their task, and if she lived, report to James Kirk-- Oh, no. That was unthinkable.

When the guards did bring Spock and push him into the room, her relief was profound until she saw him go slowly to his knees. T'serek and Hillis were at his side in an instant to offer help, but when he spoke they stopped in their tracks.

"Don't--touch--me."

It was not his face, almost as white as salt, or the slow, dark blood staining his blue science tunic that stopped them. It was something in his voice that squeezed the heart and stung the eyes with tears.

Without help he struggled back to his feet and stood there swaying, looking as if he would fall again if anyone breathed. He stood squarely between Goren and the guard at the door, and Nadia knew he must be moved if any of them were to escape. She was afraid to risk even a whisper, and from the lightless stare that ignored them all she was afraid they might have damaged his mind. T'serek's face was almost as pale as Spock's, and Nadia never knew if it was realization that the Vulcan blocked Goren's view of the guard, or only personal concern that prompted him to say, "You need rest, sir--"

Spock followed his gesture and took one halting step toward the wall. Goren brought his hand from under the bedcover and played a ruby ray over the guard. It left him standing, but his chest was motionless and he didn't move again as Goren rolled out of the bed, fumbled under it, and pushed it aside. It moved easily, swinging wide to reveal a slide tube underneath. The sleek crystal sides of the tube curved away into shadow.

It was Goren who spoke to Spock. "We must escape now, First Officer."

For a terrible moment Nadia thought Spock wasn't going to answer, but the bleak stare changed with a great effort to comprehension and he drew a deep breath.

"I--have--no desire--to remain," he answered. "Let the security team go first."

With no further command, T'serek stepped away into the dark, followed by Hillis and Craven. Clement sat on the edge and tried to start slowly, but he disappeared as rapidly as the guards had, and Sunderson, with a fearful glance at the door didn't hesitate to follow him. It was Nadia's turn then, and the drop was steeper, farther and faster than she was ready for, but the tube sloped up at the end and by the time she arrived, T'serek and his men were fielding bodies and setting them aside as if they'd made a career of it. The Ixmahx leader followed Nadia and Spock followed him.

"Let me lead," Goren said. "This is a maze, in case we are followed."

"They can find us anyway with sensors." That was Clement.

"They will not use such devices, nor will we use power to escape," said Goren in the dark. "This way."

They stumbled after him in the dark, jostling each other, brushing against the walls, but it was not long until Nadia was aware of a current of fresher air moving against her face, and then she felt a change in the footing. The floor shifted, upsetting her balance.

"We are on a raft, Gentlebeings. If all are present I will cast off the rope."

"Craven? Hillis?" T'serek's men confirmed their presence. Nadia called for Clement and Sunderson and the Speaker said, "First Officer?"

"I am here," the Vulcan answered.

There was a small splash as something fell into the unseen water beneath them, then a dull thud as the wood of the raft struck something. For a moment it seemed that they had not moved, and then someone shifted places, and the raft dipped to the movement. Goren lifted a glowing globe from its hiding place in a chest and they could see that they were floating out on dark water, past the walls of a cave or canyon. There was only dark above them.

"For a short time we can have light and speak freely. There are also provisions here and I do not recall that anything but samsi was poisonous to the diplomats of the Federation, so I think you can eat and drink safely. There is water and wine and some few medical supplies. Those I do not know that I can share with your First Officer." The Ixmahx was looking with concern at Spock. The Vulcan had resumed his stony stare at nothing, and T'serek moved forward into the light. He spoke respectfully and reasonably, as if he was addressing an unstable child, but his voice was firm.

"Your uniform is soaked with blood, sir. You'd better let me wash it out and see if we can't stop the bleeding."

Balefires showed in the Vulcan's eyes for a moment at even that light coercion, but T'serek stood his ground and his gray eyes held nothing but compassion. Spock had no intention, ever, of revealing the full extent of his injuries, but he realized that a refusal to let them tend him now would not further that purpose. Also the chill of the cave was pulling down his body temperature, increasing the urge to curl into a fetal ball and go deep in the healing trance. Which he must not do. He knew humans. They would try to "make him comfortable" and discover what must not be known.

He let T'serek ease his blue science tunic and black undershirt over his head and accepted the wine the Ixmahx leader offered. Nadia interfered when T'serek would have sponged the bleeding cuts with river water.

"No. You don't know what's in that. Speaker, the wine is less likely to cause infection." T'serek made no move to take the bottle the Speaker offered, and Nadia moved in. "This will hurt, Mr. Spock, but it won't take long." She poured the wine over his wrists first, and then over his back. The Vulcan stiffened, and T'serek, wringing the water from the black undershirt twisted it into shreds.

"If you want to do something useful," she said levelly, "give me your undershirts. He's going to need warmth. Put them together somehow so we don't have to move him more than necessary."

T'serek saw what she meant, and put the other two shirts on over his own, waiting until she had accepted a bandage from Goren and wrapped Spock from underarm to waist. When she was ready, he took off the layered shirts, still warm from his body, and eased Spock into them, with his own uniform tunic on top. He wrung Spock's tunic out--gently--and eased into it.

"I'll dry this out."

"Fine. Now, Beth? Come here. Lie down as close to Mr. Spock as you can, with your back to him--spoon fashion." Without question, Sunderson detached herself from Clement's protective clasp and moved to obey. "Now you, Mr. Spock. Cuddle up to Beth. We're going to keep you warm for a while."

"That is not necessary."

"It is necessary, Mr. Spock. I can see your breath on the air, and the temperature gradient between your body and the environment is greater than ours. Rest and warmth are your only weapons against shock. If you want to command this mission, you must rest now." As gently as she could, Nadia pushed him into the appropriate position, ignoring the iron rigidity of every muscle. "Beth and I have nothing better to do right now. The men will protect us. Dray, the Speaker also needs help." She unzipped the front seam of her coverall to give Spock more benefit of her warmth and reached across his waist to Beth's. She wasn't about to let it show in her voice, but her eyes were smarting and her throat salty with tears. Spock was a decent person. Whatever they had beaten him with had left furrows where the flesh was ripped away. His entire back was one green-black bruise, and she suspected broken ribs. It was entirely obvious that the wounds continued below his waist. If it had been Kirk she would have stripped him, dignity or no. She could feel welts and the warmth of more blood where her thighs touched Spock's, but he had endured enough for one day. Damn and double damn all pirates and Romulans everywhere.

Dray moved to assist the Speaker without protest. He dressed the burns competently enough, in control of himself now that it was not Spock.

"They tortured you, sir?"

"Only enough to impress me with their lack of respect for my person. They had no use for me dead. It enabled me to convince them to cut off communications with their ship and send it out of danger. That is why their commander needed to know when the Enterprise would return. Much as they want the Wielda, they did not want to die. I did not draw you into their trap out of treachery. With the two ships safe, I hoped you could free me."

"You freed us, sir," Hillis pointed out. "You had the weapon and the bolt hole?"

"Without aid I dared not use them. This river flows into the Throat of Fire--ah--" he tensed and the Guthrie finished more gently. "The Romulans will not, I think, call their ship unless yours returns. If your First Officer told them--"

"He told them nothing," said T'serek.

The Speaker inspected the boy closely. "I appreciate your loyalty, but perhaps--when he awakens we should ask him."

"We don't need to ask him," Hillis said quietly, without looking up from the river.

The Speaker looked from the alert posture of the guards to where the two women lay with Spock. Different worlds, different customs. On his world, women were to bear children.

"I intended no offense. I, also, must request this information. The time remaining is the time before your ship returns."

"Why is the return of the Enterprise so important?" Clement asked, ignoring the improper, typically primitive concept that the duration of a journey depended merely on distance.

"Your ship," said the Speaker, "has the capability of destroying this planet."

Nadia felt a chill run down her spine that was not the damp breath of the river, and simultaneously felt a new tension in Spock's body. The Vulcan had not roused to defend or support the men's assertion of his silence, but Goren held his interest now. The Speaker nodded and matter-of-factly pulled a blanket around his shoulders.

"Now comes a history lesson, lest you tell yourselves this old one is wandering in his mind. You will have heard that our world is not like most. It was altered, some thirty thousand of your years ago, made suitable for life. The Ixmahx are that life. And we have maintained a coherent history of all that time. We understand few worlds can claim as much."

Nadia tried to feel the depth of that much time--time for grasslands to grow forests, time for mountains to shift in their slow sleep, for coastlines to redefine a continent.

"For several millennia after settlement there was a program of rapid expansion--population and the construction of cities. It was enforced by the Speakers of the past, who were worshipped as gods and had godlike powers. According to your standards, it was a reign of absolute despotism and terror. The source of the Speakers' powers was an artifact of the seeding civilization. It was called the Wielda Harfax, the Crown of Light, and for nine thousand years, every ruler assumed the Crown at his coronation and wore it until his death. But the people it oppressed rebelled, and a faction stole the Wielda between the death of one speaker and its assumption by another. By the time of its recovery, four Speakers had ruled without it. The Speaker who next assumed it was aged. For that reason, or perhaps because he had grown old with a free mind, it killed him. And his son would not wear it. The Wielda was preserved as a holy, but fearful relic. A containment was made for it, from which it called, always, to the Speaker, promising wealth, length of life, and power. Two others have assumed it, in times of great need, and although they were well-meaning men, always its power turned to evil. Finally it was put away for all time. That was in the year 15,864.

"From that day until this Ixmahx has known slow progress, no war, little poverty--and little ambition. We have seen your accounts of other worlds, with their explosive growth; we do not envy them. It was a difficult decision to enlist your aid."

Spock lifted his head, stirring between Nadia and Sunderson. "It must have been a great need that prompted such an action, Speaker."

"Yes, First Officer. The Crown has again been stolen. You understand, it was history, almost legend to us. At first we did not know. When we began to suspect what had happened we tried to move against it ourselves and failed. The Romulans came to us and pressed us with offers of their aid, as did the Federation. We chose you. They are a people who desire without moderation."

"What damage has the artifact actually done?" persisted Spock.

"In the beginning, it tried to influence my thoughts. It was vile. When it could not do that, and I reported it to my councilors, there began to be waves of senseless murders--then assassinations not so senseless. The government of a city and finally a province was disrupted. Refugees fled in a state of shock, speaking of things that should not exist. When we forced our way in we found the people in hiding, afraid of us, of each other, their minds permanently damaged. There was no attempt to retake the city, but there were new waves of terror. People fear being alone, fear the dark. We are close to seeing our civilization fail because of fear."

"You believe all this to have been done by one man in possession of a single artifact?"

"No--we know of cases where innocent citizens have committed atrocities--I believe that one man has been possessed by the Wielda. But the Wielda is an intelligence in itself, First Officer, one which perhaps cannot die but requires a host. It was denied that host for millennia. I believe it is taking revenge. And yes, I do believe it is the single agent which has induced a state of terror in my people. I do not think you would like the Wielda, Mr. Spock. You would not care to be ruled by it."

"And the Romulans want it for a weapon?"

"Yes. They tried to deal with it directly, and lost half their men. The Crown manipulates energy. It can monitor and interfere with any energy transmission. That is why I forbade the use of the transmitter. The Wielda must not have access to a starship. Before I would loose it on the galaxy, I would see this planet and all my people destroyed. I regret the necessity, Gentlebeings. I have left tapes explaining this in locations on several planets. They were directed to your leaders in Starfleet and their release was automatically scheduled for any time in which I did not personally send an "intercept" message every two days. I have now been a prisoner of the Romulans for three days. If we cannot destroy the Wielda, we will die with the rest of this world."

It was the last shock in a series of them. Clement stood up, his face dark with anger. "You--filthy-- We came to help you, and you--" his voice was shaking with anger at the injustice, the danger, his hands balled into fist. At a glance from T'serek, Hillis took him affably by the scruff of the neck and stepped on his instep. Clement shut his mouth suddenly, and sat down again, but he did not apologize for his outbreak. Through Spock's body Nadia could feel the tremor as Sunderson tried not to follow Clement's example. Her soft voice sounded very small in the dark.

"The Captain wouldn't do that, would he, Mr. Spock?" appealing to the Vulcan as an expert.

It was a long moment before Spock answered, and Nadia wondered if he were debating the wisdom of telling them the truth.

"The Captain is unlikely to act precipitously in such a matter...but should circumstances require such an action, he is, in fact, capable of it." In the silence that followed his statement, Spock shifted, making himself a little more comfortable before he spoke again. "We have approximately two days to prevent such a necessity. I suggest we take advantage of the opportunity to rest while we can." In an entirely matter-of-fact way he closed his eyes and prepared to sleep.

Nadia choked back a hysterical giggle. Yes, Mr. Spock. Welcome back, sir. There's nothing like one hell of a scientific puzzle and a threat to put James Kirk on the spot to facilitate first aid. She pressed her forehead against his shoulder--gently--and went to sleep.

* * *

She woke to the sound of male voices and found she was now curled against Sunderson's back. Spock had extricated himself and resumed his own uniform. The raft was nudging the steep canyon wall, and Hillis and Tom Craven were fending it off with two poles. Diffused light from above showed that they were now in an open canyon, but an overhang hid them from the sky. Goren was pointing at a jumble of rock that had split off from the wall, and T'serek was belly down at the edge of the raft with his arm thrust into the water. Neither the Speaker nor Spock looked in top form, but they were improved over the night before. Nadia wondered how much of their thirty hours had passed.

"It widens out below," T'serek said. "It doesn't feel blocked. The current is quite strong." In the daylight the water was an impenetrable molasses brown. "I'll go down and see if we can get through." Sunderson heard their voices and sat up. She wasn't a pretty girl, but she had good skin and Nadia envied her the ability to wake looking younger than she was.

"What's happening?" she asked. Clement had been sitting pointedly separate from the cluster at the raft's edge and he took the first opportunity to move to Sunderson's side. A night's sleep hadn't done anything to give him a competitive edge against T'serek. The security men were all marked with dust, but actively pursuing a solution to their situation. Clement looked tousled, seedy and slack in comparison. Granted that it was not his work, but he could have done something about his appearance. Nadia had already downgraded him in her mind, however brilliant he might be in a lab. Now she moved away in disgust, dipping her hands in the water and scrubbing them over her face, combing her hair with her fingers.

"They're trying to get into another cave," Clement said, but Sunderson's eyes were on T'serek stripping his shirt off, tying a coil of rope about his waist. Muscles rippled down his back as he lifted a fair-sized boulder in both hands.

"I'll get as deep as I can, and if there's air, I'll pull three times and send the rope back. I might not be able to swim back against the current."

"And if you do not pull?" asked the Speaker.

T'serek's still face warmed a little with his smile. "Then you'd better." Spock accepted the pole Hillis was using, and the two heavy-worlders walked to the upstream end of the raft. Hillis knotted the end of the rope around his waist, and T'serek stepped off the end without further ado, while Hillis guided the rope between the raft and canyon wall.

"Tom, swing this end out, in case I have to pull him back." Craven shifted position and put more muscle into the pole he held braced against the rock wall. The gap widened, but all they could see was the rope angling down into the brown water. Then the rope vibrated, once, twice, three times. Hillis drew it back, and T'serek came with it, popping out of the water like a porpoise and pulling himself up on to the raft. He shook the water out of his eyes and pushed his hair back.

"It's not far at all. There was a shelf on the left, about two feet under the water."

"This is the place," the Speaker said. "By entering here we avoid much of the maze. And the Wielda is within. I can feel it draw me."

"The sooner we're inside the sooner we can forget about the Romulans," Craven said. "I don't mean to belittle your artifact, sir, but I get the feeling we're being watched, or followed. The sooner we get under cover the better I'll like it."

The Speaker made a s-s-sst of consternation between his teeth. "It begins. That is the Wielda. No matter. We must enter."

They ate first, since they could not take the perishable rations with them. Spock countered the Speaker's impatience with a Vulcan refusal to be hurried. Two of their number had the voracious metabolisms of heavy-G planets and he had to restore his own resources. T'serek sat where he was, the water beading on his skin, his feet still in the river, eating as ordered. Spock, moving stiffly but on his feet, was studying the striated patterns of the canyon wall. Only Craven and the Ixmahx seemed tense. Nadia had a sudden sense of déjà vu, nostalgia for the picnics of her youth, and she realized that it was generated by Dray T'serek, kicking his feet in the water, totally relaxed, with water dripping down his neck. She realized for the first time how young he was. Imminent destruction might be hanging over them, but for the moment, he was enjoying himself. He had been able to take action, and Spock seemed well again.

The dunking and disorientation were unpleasant, but once inside the new cave they had lights, and it was degrees warmer than in the outside air. Hillis brought up the rear this time, after shoving the raft downstream. At first it was no more unpleasant than any other walk in the dark, but there should be neither wind nor sound underground, and there were both--stray drafts of bad air, and long pipe-organ protests that they both heard and felt. They were walking in and beside the river in the beginning, but after a while they began to climb. Goren did not always seem sure of the way, and the cold-light torches cast strange shadows on the dark walls. Sunderson stumbled once, and flinched away from the wall with a bleeding palm. The rough rock was as abrasive as emery. It was hard to guess how much time had passed when T'serek asked for a halt. Nadia doubted that his animal energy had been depleted by the stroll, but she was more than glad to sit down, and glad he was keeping a close eye on Spock.

They put the light in the center of their group and it lit their faces from underneath. Craven sat with his back to the solid stone, and his eyes searched the dark restlessly. The earth under them shuddered and vibrated with sound, and he drew the back of his hand across his forehead. Both he and the Ixmahx were sweating, and while it was warm, it wasn't that warm. Sunderson only had eyes for T'serek, and Clement was sulking with his chin on his knees, but Spock and the other two men had noticed the gesture. Hillis butted a shoulder up against Craven's in rough comfort.

"What is your psi profile, Mr. Craven?" It was Spock, as usual, who cut to the heart of the issue.

The security man looked up. "I'm sorry, sir?"

"Your psi ratings. I cannot recall them in the personnel files."

Craven wiped his face again and scrubbed his hands down the sides of his legs. He hesitated, then licked his lips. "I'm pretty high in precog--when it pertains to fires and explosions. I'm not always right--though--and they always told me not to pay too much attention to it." He glanced up at Dray. "I'm not just scared, sir. It's--hard for me to get too close to explosives."

Dray looked puzzled. "What are you feeling now?"

"That there's going to be a blast, a big one. In a few hours all this is going to be full of fire. We're going toward the source."

"Is this certain?" asked the Speaker.

Craven shook his head a little stiffly. "I'm never sure, sir. Usually I just keep clear--"

"You also seem stressed, Speaker," said Spock.

"Yes. I feel the Wielda. And it would prefer to have me as host rather than the other." Very soberly the Ixmahx looked from face to face. "If it did possess me, it would have access to all I know. I do not intend that to happen."

The ground shook again, and Hillis, with no undue concern, asked, "What makes it do that?"

"I thought you understood," said the Speaker. "The Throat of Fire is a volcano."

Hillis looked nonplussed. "Do they do that when they're extinct?"

Clement looked up then. "Don't they teach you anything? We've been analyzing this world for two weeks. There aren't any extinct volcanoes on it."

The security man shrugged off the aggravating tone. "I just asked. I've never been in any volcano before."

"If you are rested," said Spock, terminating the discussion, "we will go on."

* * *

After that it seemed that the heat was worse, although Nadia told herself it was imagination. The dark began to be oppressive. It was exhausting to march on and on without coming to anything different. They had nothing to steer by but the Speaker's sensations, and although he didn't mention it again, his fear was palpable. Nadia could feel him pushing himself forward, could feel the effort Craven was making to control himself. They stumbled through places where the air was so bad that it made her head reel. Sometimes there was steam in the air, and once they had to edge along a row of fumaroles on a six-inch ledge. The straining of the earth continued, and sometimes the sound of their own feet came back magnified and delayed by echo until they thought someone was following them. In all that time there was only the light of the small hand-held torches, and twice Spock gave the order to extinguish them entirely while they stood in the dark and listened.

They went down, crossing tongues of tumbled rubble and rock that spilled across their path. The rough rock was warm to the touch now, and the air was increasingly humid. Water seeped from the walls and trickled under their feet and they began to hear a continuing rush and roar that drowned other sounds, beating through the tunnels and corridors, seemingly from all directions. Abruptly Goren halted, and played the light forward. Their path ended abruptly in a sheer cliff, but a span of dark stone arched out, beyond the beam of light, and spray wreathed it, glittering in the light. T'serek stepped forward too, turning his torch to left and right. Falling water reflected the light like obsidian and the roar localized itself far below them. They could not see if the narrow bridge descended again on the other side or not. The Guthrie put an experimental foot forward.

"One moment," said Spock. "Speaker, are you sure that the artifact is before us?"

The Ixmahx put the heels of his hands to the bony ridges over his eyes. "I am nearly certain, First Officer. That is the direction I most fear to go."

Spock only debated for a moment. Goren was the only guide they had. "Very well. T'serek, see where the bridge leads. Craven, guard the scientists. When T'serek returns either take everyone to the far side, or wait for me here. If I do not return within twenty minutes, Dr. Palevi will be in command."

"Then something is following us," said Clement, swallowing.

"Supposition is pointless when empirical evidence becomes available, Mr. Clement. I intend to find out."

Dray had already stepped out on the bridge, but he stopped when Spock gave his order. Nadia thought for a moment that he was going to protest or demand to go with Spock, but the Vulcan didn't wait to hear, and after a moment T'serek faced forward and walked on. His body shielded the light, and after a few moments all they could see was a dim glow. Spock took no light, and Craven doused the one he held. The dark settled down like a physical weight on their shoulders.

T'serek returned, after what seemed hours, but was less than ten minutes. He reported that the span was slippery, but solid enough. It was steeper on the far side, and would require care to descend. He sent them across, Hillis first, then the Speaker, Clement and the two women. At his nod Craven stepped up on the bridge after Nadia, careful not to crowd her. T'serek cut his torch then and effectively cut off her protest. For once the dark was an asset, hiding the drop beneath them. They crossed the gap, slower than T'serek had, and dropped down on the other side.

"Look, Nadia--steps," Sunderson was the first to spot them, "and walls, like a little town." Hillis played his torch around, and Nadia saw the similarity for herself, square open boxes with foot-thick walls between them, dropping down below them, like some roofless hillside town. "Uh, could we find a sandbox somewhere?"

Nadia told herself it was pointless to be afraid of the dark where there was no light at all. Beth was right. There hadn't been a bush since breakfast.

"We won't go far," she told Hillis. "You keep the light so we can see you."

"The things they don't tell you in training," Beth said as they stumbled into the shadows. "I don't know whether I'm too scared to go or if I have permanent bladder damage from holding it so long. I was beginning to wish I was an android."

"Next time around," Nadia answered, and then regretted the despair she heard in her own voice.

"Are we going to die?" And when Nadia didn't answer. "I'm sorry I'm not braver, Nadia, but I'm like Clement. I know how to work in a lab. I thought it would be like that and we'd go shopping and buy some souvenirs and come home. I'm not any good at this."

"Oh, Beth. We haven't given up yet. Spock is very good at his job; the security men are the best the captain could send; and at least Clement cares for you."

"I don't want him to." It was low-voiced confession. "I want--wanted Dray to notice me--and he doesn't know I'm alive."

Oh, Mother, thought Nadia, why isn't anything, ever simple.

Nadia took charge of the light while the men went off to relieve themselves, and the party had regathered when the mist over the gulf began to glow. For a moment the light dazzled Nadia's eyes and she saw a four-armed figure full of shadowy menace. She blinked, and it was only Dray and Spock, but before she had mastered the rush of adrenalin through her system the dark exploded into red and white brilliance and rain of rock and gravel. Spock was first on the bridge. The light blinded him, and the barrage of debris spun him sideways, almost over the edge. T'serek dropped his light but got his hands on Spock, fighting to keep his own balance. In a moment they had recovered.

"I am all right, Mr. T'serek. We can go on."

If T'serek had expected a more gracious thanks, his face didn't show it. "I can't see, sir. You'll have to guide me off the bridge." The Vulcan's inner eyelid had saved his sight before when a human would have been blinded. He took T'serek's hand, and the Guthrie followed as confidently as if he'd been sighted.

"The effect will fade," Spock predicted. He left T'serek and lifted Nadia to her feet. Her torch, luckily, was unbroken. Sunderson had struggled up and turned a dazed face toward the source of the explosion.

"The men," said Nadia, her voice thin. "They went down there."

Several of the small rooms were a shambles. There was no sign of the men at all until the torch caught something crimson blooming among the rocks. Sunderson turned away and vomited. T'serek eyes were watering profusely and he tried to rub the blindness away, see what they were seeing.

"Hillis?" he said uncertainly.

"I hear breathing," Spock said. He pointed to a slab of stone tilted up toward the still standing angle of a wall. T'serek turned his head, following the gesture blurrily. Spock took the light from Nadia's hand and went belly down beside the crevice, T'serek following.

"I can't see them," the boy said.

"They may be unconscious... Please take the light again, Doctor, and hold it thus--" He placed her in front of the spill and stood, measuring the size of the slab. "When I lift, Mr. T'serek, you will pull them out." Spock bent to the slab and lifted. There was a complaint of masonry and rattle of falling gravel as T'serek slid swiftly into the opening. They heard the confused sounds of bodies being pushed or shoved across the rubble, and then Nadia dropped the torch to pull on dust-covered limbs.

"Quickly!"

T'serek rolled clear, the Speaker's form clasped in his arms. There was a soft crash of stone. Spock had not lost his grip on the slab, but the supporting angle at the rear had collapsed. He let the stone drop and retrieved the torch.

"Do what you can for them," he said.

Clement was wiping blood out of his eyes, and Nadia helped him sit up.

"It's Nadia, Clement. Let me see what you've done to yourself. Ah, that hurts? I'll be more careful." She wiped an ugly laceration on his forehead gently, and tried to test his pupils by holding her hand over one eye at a time. His pupils seemed slightly uneven, but they both contracted. "What else hurts?"

"Never mind," Clement said impatiently. "Is Beth all right?"

"We weren't hurt. Your hands are raw. Can you move your fingers?"

Clement focused on T'serek helping Sunderson up from where she had ignominiously lost her iron rations. "He's hurting her." Near hysteria raised his voice.

"All right, I'll see to it," Nadia soothed. His hand had clenched into a fist so she supposed he had the use of it. Spock, searching in the rubble, had evidently heard no other sighs of life and as he came back to the Speaker, he held the light parallel to the floor. It caught T'serek's face taking in the full import of the explosion. His face was streaked with tears from the light that had half blinded him, his eyelashes raying out in dark points, and his face was charged with the emotion he usually kept in check. Sunderson burst into racking sobs and threw herself on his chest.

Clement scrabbled through the rubble and snatched her away.

"Leave her alone or I'll kill you," he hissed.

Sunderson pulled herself free. "You leave me alone! I don't belong to you. Just leave me alone." She covered her face with her hands.

Nadia's temper blazed, too, even as she cringed away from the floor they stood on. "Control yourselves." She shook the sobbing girl. "Clement, report!"

T'serek turned away from them as if they didn't exist, and Clement's eyes, squid-like in a mask of blood, followed him angrily as he walked away.

"What happened here?" Nadia demanded.

"The Speaker's weapon started to hum like a phaser on overload--there was nothing we could do about it. Then the ceiling came down, like a trap, and I threw the weapon out--"

Clement was still confused and off-balance from the blow to his head. He didn't realize fully what he was saying or what had happened, but Nadia saw it with sickening clarity. She had forgotten about the Speaker's weapon. Spock had hardly been aware when it was first used, but it was an energy device--just what they had been warned against. She remembered what she had seen in the rubble and wanted to vomit like Sunderson. Hillis and Craven. Had Craven known his death was coming? She wanted to strike Clement, beat the knowledge of what he had done into him, but Spock's voice, quiet and urgent, brought her back to sanity. Clement was a skilled cyberneticist, but he wasn't the metal for a nightmare like this. And it would do no good to tell him so.

"Yes, yes--I'm sorry, Mr. Spock. I didn't hear you."

"Mr. Clement, did you see or hear anything prior to the explosion?"

Clement shook his head, but he looked uncertain. "When we first came down here--I, maybe I hallucinated. I thought I saw an animal."

The Speaker looked up.

"What kind of an animal, Mr. Clement?"

"A wolf," he said reluctantly, "or a man--maybe it was a shadow."

"Did the others see anything?"

"No," Clement said with more certainty. "They thought I had imagined it; that's why they went outside."

At the door, T'serek cursed and slammed his hand into the wall.

"The fault is mine, First Officer." Goren's voice was very weary. "I kept the weapon for myself, in case the Wielda found me."

My fault, thought Nadia. I should have remembered the weapon, not separated the party. Dray's fault for leaving his men to be with Spock, Spock's fault because he's in charge. And none of it matters any more to Hillis and Tom Craven. They won't be making any more jokes or having any more premonitions.

"There is nothing more we can do here," Spock said. "We have five hours remaining."

* * *

Since the dress uniform had no collar, Kirk had often wondered about the origin of the expression "tight collar clothes." On V'ei'drei, after wading through the diplomatic crush and attending two banquets, he suddenly equated it with another old Earth term, "ants in your pants," and understood. While he was perfectly willing to ferry any number of Federation personnel to the farther reaches of the galactic lens, and deposit them on planets and places unknown, he did not like to leave his own men behind. He'd been on the fidget since his arrival, choking on the polite routine while he wondered what was happening on Ixmahx.

It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the importance of diplomacy. He knew that Meade Morrow had probably contributed more to the stability of the Federation than all the battles his decorations represented. But Meade was the one diplomat in a thousand who had everybody's interests at heart. Most of the cookie crumblers assembled on V'ei'drei were either professional negotiators representing special interest groups for cold cash, or window dressing provided to impress the other side. Like himself. Smile, bow, puff out your chest so they can see your medals. It was almost a relief to hear the beep of his communicator. He retired to a potted palm and flipped it open.

"Kirk."

"Priority message from Sector Command, Captain." Uhura's professional voice. "You are ordered to report to the ship immediately and we have a transporter fix on you." The slightest pause. "Mr. Scott is preparing to leave orbit." Which was one way of saying that five minutes didn't matter either way. Kirk didn't like unnecessary urgency.

"Lock on to my coordinates, Lieutenant. I'll tell them when." He abandoned the potted plant long enough to make his excuses to his hosts and the diplomatic charge d'affairs, whisper his regrets into the ear of a lovely lady with influence to sway decisions either for or against the Federation, and was back aboard the ship in three minutes.

"What is it?" asked McCoy, waiting for him in the transporter room.

"Don't know yet. Trouble. Come on."

* * *

Out of consideration for its bulk, the dinosaur of old Earth was once thought to have evolved two brains: one for serious thought in the head, and another in the tail to take short-term responsibility for that appendage. A bureaucracy flung wide across the stars is like a dinosaur--powerful and cumbersome. Even at speeds in excess of light, the galaxy is a large place. When information infiltrates the system--as from a variety of military sources, news services, and influential individuals--it may take a long time to travel from the source to the center of intelligence. And while the head, charged with survival of the whole, is forced to consider many options and makes decisions slowly, the tail makes swifter ones based on lesser orders of complexity and closer physical proximity to the problem. Tails tend to be parochial in their loyalties--tail über alles--which is one reason the dinosaur is no more. Goren's message had stung one of these tails first--sector Command for the quadrant.

The Enterprise was ordered directly back to Ixmahx, warp nine all the way, and forbidden to initiate or receive any energy transmission from the planet. It was instructed to destroy any other ship initiating or receiving such energy transmission, and if necessary to destroy said planet rather than let it initiate an energy transmission. Explanation to follow. Galactic security at stake.

End transmission.

"What kind of an order is that?" Scotty protested.

"You can't just destroy a whole world--" sputtered McCoy.

"Who signed that order, Lieutenant?"

"An admiral named Singh, Captain. Sector Command. But I've never heard of him."

"Well, find out who he is and if he's entitled to issue that kind of an order. And get me a subspace punch through to Nogura that we want more information--about six AU's out from Ixmahx our ETA warp nine. Scotty, it might be the real thing, so get me a Class A weapons check. Sulu, are we on our way?"

"Awaiting your order, sir."

"Go. Then get over to the science station and find out the optimum method for destroying that planet." Kirk's commands crackled around the bridge like static electricity. "Uhura, get me a rehash of Meade's transmission on Ixmahx. What's our ETA?"

"Six hours, sir," said Sulu, caught halfway between consoles. Mr. Spock won't be expecting us for--" he compared clocks in his head, "--eighteen or twenty hours. Even if we can't contact him, he has the shuttle--"

"I'll worry about Mr. Spock," Kirk cut him off. It was natural for them to think first of their own officers. The mind avoided unpleasantness, and the destruction of a planet was almost too large to encompass anyway. Even a Kodos could not know personally all the lovers, families, friends--and go on killing them. To do that you reduced a world to a target, a coordinate on a grid, and that was what you destroyed--just numbers. It was very neat at the academy. You learned how to do it because they didn't want volunteers for the dirty work. They wanted career officers whose ties were to the service and the traditions of the service. Preferably not married, because married officers might have people on a planet somewhere. And that might warp their judgment.

He took the Ixmahx information to his cabin, and McCoy joined him there with the unknown Admiral's record. Singh was a retirement age desk pusher who had never seen service in the field.

"That's a political promotion if I ever saw one, Jim. They're going to flush him out in a year, and that will give him just enough time-in-rank to retire with an Admiral's pension. There's not one thing in his record that would have given him that job on merit. He's a glorified civil servant. God knows why he's in command there--maybe his boss is on vacation."

"No--" Kirk's analysis of the record matched McCoy's. "His boss is retired. Admiral Dice endorsed the promotion. He retired a couple months ago. He'd kept the sector pretty well in hand, too--with the Organians to help. The Romulan infiltration only began with the rumors of an Ixmahx find four months back. He probably didn't think there'd be any trouble and that it would make a nice soft billet for Singh. But that doesn't get me off the hook. Singh got his information from the Planetary Speaker on Ixmahx."

"Who's supposed to be down there with Spock."

"Who isn't expecting us for another twenty hours. Well, the first thing we have to do is keep our ears open and make sure nobody gets any closer than we do. If Spock got to Goren, he'll know about the communication problem."

"Could they still use the shuttle?"

"If it was safe. I wouldn't want to count on it."

"But without an energy transmission, how will we know--"

"Hell, Bones, how do I know? There must be forty ways to signal an orbiting spacecraft--forest fires, letters in the snow, dye in the ocean. We could see a blink from a good sized mirror without laying a sensor on them, but how are they going to know we're looking?" He rubbed the back of his neck. "And what if Nogura goes along with Singh?"

But having issued its orders, the tail brain slept again, and when the Enterprise dropped out of warp drive six AU's out from Ixmahx, Nogura's response had not yet reached them. It gave Kirk a thin excuse to shape the broad parabolas of a search pattern about Ixmahx and verify that no other ship, probe or drone was trying to contact the planet.

"Safe so far," said Kirk. "Now we sweat."

* * *

In the dark labyrinth surrounding the Throat of Fire they were all sweating, except Spock. And they were blocked. Goren had led them to a dead end where their path ran up to a smooth black wall and stopped. They had all explored it with their hands and found nothing when Spock turned and faced back up their trail.

"What is it?" asked Dray.

Spock considered the weary four seated on the ground. The Speaker sat slumped against the wall, drawn to it like a moth to the flame. The Vulcan also agreed that the artifact should not claim him, but no longer placed any faith in the Ixmahx's ability to resist. Clement and Sunderson he had relegated to the level of responsibilities, if not liabilities, long ago. Nadia had dark circles under her eyes, and she was deliberately making the most of an opportunity to rest, but that gave Spock hope that she still had some core of endurance they had not tapped. Only T'serek of them all had not dipped dangerously into his reserves. He had been very quiet since the two security men had been lost, but it was not the quiet of resignation.

"Since the Speaker still perceives the artifact before us I surmise it is the Romulans behind."

T'serek studied the trail with more interest. "Good."

"Perhaps it is," said Spock. "They could have followed us, but that seems unlikely. They may have devised a no- or low-energy means of tracing the Speaker in the time at their disposal since they captured him. They may have a means of entry. We will observe them."

And after all their efforts, it was that simple. Hidden in the dark, armed with rocks, they watched S'Tyge and his men approach the wall and produce a crystal rod from a sheath like the scabbard of a sword. It emerged singing one low, resonant note not unlike the pipe-organ groanings of the earth. The wall answered and parted and the Romulan waved his men through, controlling the door with the rod.

It must have seemed that T'serek's hands materialized from the dark itself when they fastened on S'Tyge's wrist. The Romulan pulled back, calling to his men for help. Light spilling from the far side of the wall could not have improved their vision. They saw their leader extending his hand for help and seized it. T'serek kept his bulldog grip on the hand that held the rod, pulling it out and away from the door.

"No!" screamed S'Tyge, and the released door snapped back on the arm his men held. They heard it break, but the action of the door did not cease. The Romulan released his grip on the rod. "It's crushing me! Open it!" He wrenched his good hand free from the astonished T'serek, and tried to push the door back. "Gods! Open it!"

"The Gods did not assist me, S'Tyge."

That voice whipped the Romulan's head around even while his body spasmed in pain. Spock held the rod well clear of the door. A great shout came through the door, a confused clamor of Romulan voices and then screams to drown S'Tyge's gasps. The Romulan jerked, as if some new agony claimed him, but Spock paid no heed.

"Take his weapons," and T'serek's quick hands claimed a sword from S'Tyge's side, a throwing knife between his shoulder blades, another from his boot. He ran his hands up the Romulan's thighs and up the side closest to the door while the inexorable pressure of the door crushing his arm went on and on. The Romulan's lips were squared back from his teeth in agony, and blood bubbled from his mouth as he tried to bite back screams.

"Where is the drug, S'Tyge?"

The Romulan forced his head from side to side, gesturing "no".

"Try his pockets," Spock commanded. "A small capsule."

T'serek found the capsules and gave them to Spock, took the rod in exchange, keeping it well away from the door. His knuckles were white on the artifact and his jaw was set hard, but he never took his eyes from the Romulan.

Spock held out the capsule, considering it. Remembering how the yellow smoke had doubled the pain, bringing him back from the relief of unconsciousness over and over, how it had increased every sensation of S'Tyge defiling his body. Blood trickled from S'Tyge's mouth now as he tried not to scream; with a snap of his fingers Spock could illuminate the pain of crushed nerves and splintered bone into a whole new dimension of agony, double, quadruple the overload and deny release. He reached out...

"No," S'Tyge said, "don't--" And Spock's fingers closed over the nerves in his neck.

"Free him," the Vulcan said, and sat suddenly down, as sick and weak as he had come from S'Tyge's hands. Close. So close to destroying himself forever.

T'serek armed Clement and Nadia with the Romulan's weapons, reserving the sword for himself. Cautiously, he brought the rod nearer to the door and loosened it enough to pull the unconscious Romulan free. What he saw beyond was enough to make him forget one wounded enemy.

"Mr. Spock."

Wearily Spock lifted his head and saw S'Tyge sprawled forgotten on the ground, pumping blood from a severed wrist. He forced himself to his feet once more and directed Nadia to help S'Tyge. Beyond, in the room they had entered, the Romulan guards lay--a charnel heap of worried, slashed lifeless flesh. Without looking at them, the Speaker pushed his way into the room, past the bodies and began to walk slowly forward.

T'serek looked back to where Nadia was putting a tourniquet on S'Tyge's arm.

"Do you want him?" he said to Spock. It was a tacit offer to silence the Romulan permanently. The boy was already spattered with the Romulan's blood. His gray eyes were full of light under the dark lashes and heavy brows. His own mishandling, the death of his men, the continuing danger of a live Romulan had not prompted it. Feeling suddenly naked to be seen so clearly, Spock knew it was his own temptation T'serek had seen--and was offering to spare him. He was at a loss for a moment, but of course there was only one answer possible, and it was that he gave, answering the unspoken question.

"That will not be necessary," he said.

Without comment, T'serek slung the Romulan over his shoulder and they followed the Speaker.

Spock

As they passed door after door without incident, Nadia should have been feeling better. The weight of the mountain had been oppressive. From the long dark of the caverns they had come into light, and when a final door opened onto a lift of some sort, they rose swiftly up. Nadia's mood should have lifted with it, but her stomach knotted with apprehension, and sweat stood out above her lip. An anonymous death in the depths might be preferable to a confrontation with what they sought. The Speaker was the only one who stepped forward when they came to a stop and the doors opened on a laboratory. Spock reached out and stopped him, while T'serek slowly lowered the Romulan to the ground. S'Tyge was conscious again, looking drawn and smaller with pain. With an effort he lifted his wounded arm and thrust it into his jerkin. The tendons stood out on his good hand as he did so, and his jaw muscles worked, but he made no sound.

The room they faced was circular. Its walls were smokily transparent, and they looked out at the slag and cooled lava of a volcano's crater. The inner walls rose up, broken by dark holes--gaping tunnel entrances like the one they had taken from the river. A wrong turning, supposing they had ever survived to see the surface, would have brought them out there, barred from this installation by the crater floor.

T'serek shifted his grip on S'Tyge's sword and took a sudden step out of the lift and to the right. There was no answering sound from the laboratory, and they could hear him move away, quietly at first, then more surely. Even so, his sudden reappearance startled a yelp of fright into Nadia's throat. Her nerves were on edge as if someone were playing sonics over her.

"Block the lift," S'Tyge said hoarsely.

Spock nodded and T'serek took Clement's knife and wedged it firmly into the crack between the floor of the lift and the laboratory where it would catch the doors and presumably prevent them from closing. The Vulcan led them out of the lift and they began a tentative exploration of the consoles and equipment, unsure of their freedom to move, their safety from attack. The Speaker found a chair and sank into it, but the Romulan stayed stubbornly upon his feet, following Spock's slow perusal of the equipment, watching T'serek stalk about the perimeter, looking for other entrances or exits. Quiet Beth Sanderson was the first to see something familiar, and then Clement pointed to another machine which evidently made sense to him.

What's the matter with me, Nadia thought. I'm as bad as Craven. Her hand was shaking before her and her face was wet with sweat. She forced herself to move about, but it was a blind cover for thinly controlled panic. Now, when she finally had a chance to do something, she was going to pieces and Sunderson, even Clement, was at least making an effort to help Spock make sense of all this insanity.

"It's the artifact," S'Tyge said to her. "You're sensitive to it." He nodded very slightly at the Speaker. "Look at him. He knows."

"Knows what?"

"It let us come here. It has a purpose for everything it does."

"How do you know so much about it," she challenged.

"I talked to the people who found it originally."

"Tortured them, you mean."

The Romulan's face darkened. He was very aware of his own pain and what it had brought him to with Spock. He could feel the steady scrutiny T'serek spared him from his other efforts. But he would not deny it.

"The Wielda did worse than that to one of them," he retorted. "It possessed him. The first thing he did was try to kill his friends. By dismembering them. Like my men. Like my hand."

Nadia knew he was using her revulsion, her shrinking from his very evident pain, to keep her attention. She backed away and her voice was shaking.

"I don't want to discuss it." She looked around and saw Spock and Clement poking behind a console that adjoined the shaft the lift rode in. She crossed the room, and S'Tyge turned his back looking out the windows.

"It's a core tap, it's got to be, if this is the original Ixmahx construct. What else inside atmosphere could keep it powered so long?" Clement sounded impatient and excited. "And this black metal--the dome is probably a different phase of the same thing--absorbs energy directly. That's why they felt safe to put it in an active volcano."

"Yes," Spock agreed. "The ultimate refinement upon a moat. It should be possible to fill the crater with magma at will."

"You wouldn't even lose any power. If this stuff still works."

"We must hope it does. Yes, Dr. Palevi?"

She didn't really have anything to say, except that S'Tyge knew more about the Wielda than they did.

Spock had been avoiding that, of course. He told her what he wanted and stood up. The Romulan did not turn when he approached, and Spock did not immediately confront him. They stood looking out over the crater while the sun set. Through the clear glass they could see two birds circling in a thermal over the cliffs. Dark against the smoke and rust of the sun, they rose without effort, masters of the upper air.

"They are predators," S'Tyge said.

"Then they must be mates." Spock spoke without thinking, his mind on the rocky wasteland that surrounded the volcano. On Vulcan there were vaster reaches, with less life. Only one imperative overruled the drive for individual survival at the top of the food chain.

"Not where there is enough prey for everyone."

"Here," Spock answered, "there is not."

"No." S'Tyge shifted and took a steadying breath. "When I understood the danger I sent my ship away. "But they are ambitious men. They may believe I'm trying to take the artifact for myself. When your ship returns, they will come to do battle for it. Then, eventually, it will make no difference which side has it. It will rule them."

"It must be destroyed."

"And I had the bait to do it before you interfered!"

"You are unlikely to convince me that you acted from altruism, S'Tyge."

The Romulan laughed shortly, a harsh cough that made him wince as it jarred his arm. "No. But my chances of survival with a disappointed Empire appeared to be better than as the host of the artifact. My family, also thanks to you, has become accustomed to being out of favor. I had the Speaker and enough antimatter to hold a planet to ransom."

"Did your men know what you were carrying?"

"I do not explain my actions to the rabble, Spock."

"And what would have been the role of my men in your program?"

The Romulan smiled. "I regret that they would have been expendable. Oh, your fancy boy appealed to me, but I had no use for the rest." His eyes narrowed, waiting for Spock's reaction, but the Vulcan only looked at him.

"You will not provoke me again, S'Tyge."

"Not even if I tell him what I did to you?" S'Tyge was too intent on Spock as he pressed the threat home. He failed to hear T'serek's approach, but he felt the tip of the sword under the angle of his jaw.

"If you again sully the name of my superior officer by speaking it without permission, I will cut your throat." T'serek's low voice was pitched for their ears alone, but every word was as clear and hard as ice and the sword lifted S'Tyge's chin inexorably until he jerked his head away.

"Mr. T'serek feels strongly on the subject," Spock said blandly. "Now if you have no useful information to give me and you are unable to assist us, I suggest you join the Speaker."

The Romulan turned on his heel and left Spock and T'serek facing each other. T'serek dropped the sword, and the menace melted away, but the flush of anger changed to embarrassment as Spock continued to look at him. Under stress, his accent surfaced and his sentence construction echoed the formality of his own language.

"Your pardon, sir, I--I did not mean to intrude, I--" Tongue-tied and awkward for the first time, he looked down, his lashes lying against his cheek like a child's. Some subliminal insight told Spock his own silence was inspiring this unusual behavior.

"Thank you, Mr. T'serek. What is our security status?"

That enabled the boy to make his report and take his leave, but it did nothing to relieve the tension of time which Spock was finally acknowledging as the crater shadow lengthened from wall to wall, and dusk rose about them like a tide. He had no way of knowing whether Goren's ultimatum had reached anyone with the power to do something about it--if that were the case, then the Enterprise might now be in orbit, aware of the dangers involved in communication and transportation. If not, it would soon be there, unwarned. He moved toward Clement and Nadia, who now had the circuitry of the core probe spread all over the floor. Sunderson, whom Nadia was supervising between comments to Clement, was completing a second simple device he had asked for.

"It's ready, Mr. Spock. As long as the frequency keeps sending nothing will happen. When it stops, these two circuits lock. But even here the signal is so weak--I don't understand what it's supposed to do."

"That will become clear," said Spock, who had no intention of telling her the import of his dead man's switch. The weak signal of his transponder, implanted long ago, would continue until he died or--now--was forcibly removed from the vicinity. By adding it to the more complex cycle he had requested the other two scientists to impose on the core probe, it would provide a form of failsafe by dropping the force field protecting the dome.

"What are you doing?" asked S'Tyge, bored with his pain, his inability to control Spock, and particularly with the nearness of an ignominious death.

"I am constructing a trap around my bait. Are you ready, Mr. Clement?"

"Yes, sir." Clement sounded sure of himself again. Physics dictates the form of devices which manipulate energy. Given the tools of his trade, he showed to better advantage.

"I hope the shields hold," Nadia said, but it was not the potential of the volcano she feared, and she closed the circuit with a steady hand. The result was almost instantaneous. If the earth had groaned before, it bellowed now and the floor shook under them.

"Earthquakes?" asked the Romulan.

"Seismic disturbance is to be expected during an eruption. I have removed a series of dams which were containing magma, and, near the surface, juvenile waters, near the volcano. The steam plume should be visible very soon in the upper atmosphere, and of course the magma glows in the dark. The sound comes in part from the corridors in the crater wall being filled."

"You'll get a vent right up the lift," protested the Romulan. "We'll all be parboiled."

"I anticipate that the system was created to remain functional under such circumstances. There is another possibility, however."

Nadia shivered and clenched her teeth. The Speaker looked up for the first time since their arrival. Even Clement looked up with his hands empty.

"When the maze fills with molten rock, it will either destroy the artifact--or drive it upward. I believe it will come here, in an attempt to stop the lava flow."

"And rip us apart as easily as it did my men."

"They did not expect it," said Spock. "We do. It has only one entrance. We will kill it if we can. If we cannot, I will drop the force field surrounding this installation."

S'Tyge understood him well enough. They all did now, and their glances turned outward toward the dark, to the enemy they could understand. The cavern mouths in the crater walls were steaming now, and the lower ones, scarcely above the crater floor, were lipped first with rose silver brightening the steam, and finally with dull orange. It hesitated, the color fluctuating, then spilled slowly forward, one, two--half a dozen rivers of sluggish, glowing, stone that cried out as the mountain had. The lights failed suddenly, and every head snapped back to the black column where the lift stood empty. That light still shone, showing them the empty walls and floor.

"It takes its power from the core tap," Clement said. "Just like this." He swallowed, and the sound was audible in the sudden hush. "What do we use for weapons?"

"Our teeth," snarled S'Tyge, easing his maimed arm free. "It absorbs energy like a sponge. You are sure the failure of the force field will kill it?" His gaze challenged Spock again.

The Vulcan shrugged. "It required the force field to begin with. It is half man, whatever the other half is. Most things can be killed."

T'serek said nothing, only reached out and took the knife Clement had forgotten, and offered the sword to Spock. He tapped Nadia's shoulder and took the knife she had carried, tossed it toward S'Tyge, who caught it left-handed.

"Here's a longer tooth, Romulan."

* * *

The more the Enterprise prowled over Ixmahx, the less Kirk liked being half blind. Without initiating a probe of some sort, he was limited to radio reception and simple digital images of the planet. He could see no signs of civil disorder, alien weapons, or even the more common Romulan variety. They picked up enough ion trace to be reasonably sure Romulans had been here, but they were laying off now. Kirk made the motions of preparing for an attack, but all he wanted was a delay. When Nogura's message finally came in, he told Uhura he would take it in his cabin, another delaying technique. The truth was that he felt freer arguing with his superiors in private, and if it came to an argument, he wanted room to maneuver. Unconsciously he squared his shoulders as he flicked the desk screen on.

* * *

In spite of Spock's confidence in the integrity of Ixmahx design, they were almost parboiled. As the crater around them filled with slow waves of lava, casting up blocks of cooler, unmelted stone as big as the shuttlecraft, moving them about like ice-floes, the lift began to leak steam, sulfur-tinged jets that stung in their eyes and nostrils and lungs. Spock had barricaded Nadia, Sunderson and the Speaker behind ripped- up consoles, but Nadia suspected that was more to keep them out of the way than for protection. It would be no protection against whatever had dismembered the Romulans, no protection against the mountains of fire building up around the base of the dome. The men had rigged an apparently flimsy net of wire and cable in front of the door of the lift, after wedging more metal into the doors. In the changing light of the inferno around them they were intent--T'serek, Spock and the Romulan. Nadia was searching the shadows for Clement when the floor of the lift buckled up. The light bounced wildly for a moment, shaking shadows of the wire net all around the room, then a second blow split the metal, and steam under pressure spurted into the room. The net turned incandescent for a split second, burning through the fog, and in that instant Nadia caught sight of a beast's head and yellow eye. Then terror swamped her and she could only cower and wait for extinction.

T'serek also saw the eye and felt the wave of terror the beast projected, but there was no animal head for him, only a warrior's helmet turned backward, Guthrie emblem of a renegade. He attacked low with the knife, willing only one thing, to kill it before it could injure Spock. A lash of energy knocked him aside. S'Tyge drew back his left hand and threw his knife. It turned white hot and exploded in the air and a great claw of fire flamed out at him. From nowhere, the Vulcan dropped over the beast's back and tightened a cable of wire about its throat. That, too, turned red-hot, in an instant, but did not break the Vulcan's grip, and S'Tyge launched himself right at it. T'serek felt for his knife in the rubble, couldn't find it, seized the first thing that he could lift and thrust upward at its gut, saw the claw coming too late and turned to avoid being disemboweled. It backhanded the Romulan loose and reached for Spock, claws trying to blind the Vulcan, tear him free. T'serek went again for the exposed gut and drove his weapon deep. It roared then, once, like the deep agony of the earth and smashed down at him. Spock's cable, from a grip that never faltered, held deep in the neck. T'serek grabbed at one of the arms. S'Tyge went for the other, using his good hand and his stump. For a moment it faltered, and they tripped it, rolling too close to the steam, flopping away, while Spock's grip never faltered, scissoring the cable deep and deeper into the vulnerable flesh of the host until the body spasmed and spouted blood. And went limp.

They lay beside it for a moment, in the stilling flow of its blood and S'Tyge's. Spock's hands were charred black, and he didn't even try to release his grip on the cable. T'serek had to search for his knife in the choking, firelit fog and gingerly cut the head free. They could see it clearly for what it was, now, the body of an Ixmahx, with a silvery-metal helmet attached to the head. The arms and legs were also sheathed in metal. The body was burned black. The crater outside threw up a fountain of fire that rained down and turned to fireworks on the shield of the dome. S'Tyge spoke from the dark.

"Is it killed?" The fog shifted a little, and in the crater's glow they could see that he was bleeding again, slashed from neck to navel, a wound there would be no healing.

"Yes," said T'serek.

"It will be when the force field comes down," Spock grated, still bent over his charred hands.

"You can drop it now for all of me." Hand and stump were pressed to his gaping wound.

"At--twenty-one hundred hours."

"Now you have told me, Spock. And the information--is no longer of use. How much longer?"

The Vulcan shook his head. He was past computations of any sort.

"It's not long, sir. Twelve minutes." T'serek's voice was directed half way between the two.

"You think your ship will come?" He choked as the steam swept over them and the cough was half a sob. "I don't think so--and dying is tedious. But I owe you twelve minutes. I have never regretted but one thing I did for duty. There's a device--antimatter--the heel of my boot."

T'serek crawled over the Ixmahx and found the device imbedded in the heel, brought it back to Spock. Turned it over for him to see. Except for the one red ring painted on the side it had no moving parts.

"There is a six-second delay. Make sure of that devil's weapon. The force field will drop when your ship comes?"

"Yes, or before, if I die."

S'Tyge looked down at the steady flow of his lifeblood pumping out past the all the pressure he could apply with hand and stump. "I won't--wish you--a long life. Will your pretty boy--push the button?"

T'serek looked away from the Romulan's death wound to Spock, kneeling over the agony of his ruined hands. Once again he answered, "Yes," for Spock and this time there was no contradiction.

There were no thanks from the Romulan. He squinted through the ochre fog toward T'serek. "I would have had you if I'd lived." It was the last thing he said.

Dray tried to get up and found that he couldn't. Careful to put no pressure on the antimatter device, he crawled to Spock. The Vulcan still knelt motionless, his blackened hands before him. The boy fitted his body to Spock's and slowly eased him to a more comfortable position, supporting the rigid back against his shoulder and chest, coaxing the pain-wracked Vulcan to relax.

"I have the device," he said. "We don't have to wait."

Fire spattered against the dome again, flaring white-hot and sliding down the energized surface in a trail of sparks. Spock shook his head minutely, a negative, and Dray sighed. His own wounds pained him, but he didn't urge it again, even feeling the long tremors that shook the Vulcan, even when the dark head fell back against his shoulder and he knew Spock was unconscious. He watched the fireworks fountain over them and didn't press the button and toss the device toward the Wielda until the dome failed and the great heat struck in.

* * *

Kirk had come from his cabin subdued, but as he immediately ordered the ship in closer to Ixmahx the bridge crew gave him credit for winning another one. He didn't feel victorious. Nogura had granted an extension, but that was all. The interdiction against energy transmissions held good. Kirk had argued that Spock, a highly competent and conscientious officer, was expecting his return, was in company with the high executive of the planet, and might signal for pickup. The admiral had mulled that over and conceded that if Spock observed the ban on transmissions he could be considered to have correctly assessed the situation, possibly to have corrected it. That was the only condition under which Kirk would be allowed to use the transporter, and at that Nogura had tied him up with time limits, bracketing the time Spock might reasonably have expected them to return. Kirk took the ship down until the atmosphere was tickling her, and they still hadn't turned anything up, although he had half the waking crew examining visuals of the surface for a signal.

As they crossed the twilight zone for the fourteenth time, Uhura pointed out the increasing display of the volcano. It was unusual to hit the beginning of an eruption by chance, but not impossible. There was no indication that Spock was involved. But the pulsing glow of the thing did draw the eye, and it was spectacular, an irregular ring of fire around a lava dome that had not yet succumbed to the pyroclastic flow. The regular flare and fade of the mass was strangely compelling...

"Bring her around, Mr. Sulu. Unlock the sensors; I want a reading on that crater. Uhura, look at this."

The communications officer had been monitoring surface sounds in a random pattern with the best "ears" the ship had. She looked back at the fiery display again. Her forefinger worked experimentally, and her lips parted.

"It's an S.O.S., sir. Morse code!"

"There's a force field in the center, sir," confirmed Sulu.

"Is there, now." Kirk's grin brightened the bridge by degrees. "Well, who do you suppose knows Morse code on Ixmahx? Transporter--" He gave the technician on duty the particulars and told Sulu he had the con. It would be touchy, with the heat and magnetic anomalies, but Scotty's lads could do it. Even if he had known of the antimatter, it could not have been a factor. Heat alone can destroy. They kept their sensors on the force field and went through it like butter the instant it failed. The fiery fountain that arched over T'serek's head never touched him.

The technician didn't look up as Kirk entered the transporter room, but he identified the headlong stride and a flash of command gold out of the corner of his eye.

"I've got six--no, it's five of them, sir. One just blinked out on me."

A light or a life? Kirk deliberately lowered his voice to its most soothing register. "It's all right. Brown, just bring them in easy." Premonition made him hit the comm button. "McCoy to transporter; we might have casualties here."

"On our way, Jim" came back to him as Brown's hands moved steadily forward on the levers that materialize the electromagnetic patterns now held stasis. Five living beings...the question being, which five? The dazzle began to solidify above the transporter pads and for a moment the shape was absolutely alien. Kirk wondered if Singh had been right and he was beaming some ancient alien menace aboard. Then he saw what it was, bodies so entangled the machinery had brought in more than one to each receiving station. Nadia and Sunderson stared at him, their eyes rimmed with white. The Speaker had turned his head away on his long neck, eyes shut. A curiously immobile Dray bent over an unconscious Spock whose hands--

"My God," whispered the tech, "what happened to them?"

McCoy was coming. Kirk didn't want to look down again at Spock's hands. He stepped forward and reached toward Nadia, to reassure her. "It's the captain--" he had started to say when she launched herself right at his face with a squall like a cat. He was off balance and he didn't want to hurt her, which almost cost him an eye. They went down in an undignified heap and he had to roll away and come back before he could get a good grip on her from behind. She fought with the absolutely heedless strength of total desperation, trying to kill him with her bare hands.

"Hit her!" he yelled at the startled technician. Brown's half-hearted blow was entirely inadequate. It didn't even slow her down, and she was twisting and snapping at his hands with her teeth when the door hissed open for McCoy and his medical team. The doctor was not so hesitant. He made an adjustment on his hypo and sprayed something directly into her throat before she could turn and snap at him. Sunderson crumpled into a faint on the transporter pad, and Nadia went limp in Kirk's hands, her weight almost dragging her free of his grip. Two corpsmen relieved him.

"Help Spock," he told McCoy and then turned to the Ixmahx, not sure if another explosion was coming. "Speaker?"

The Ixmahx lifted his head warily and was just going to speak when the comm unit came to life with Uhura's voice.

"Captain, there has been an antimatter explosion on the planet, and a Romulan vessel is approaching."

"Shields up and stall them! No, belay that. No contact. If they try to contact us, fire on them."

"Without warning, sir?"

"That's what I said, Lieutenant."

"Aye, aye, sir."

The Ixmahx gathered himself together with visible effort, but there was the ring of authority in his voice when he spoke. "No, Captain. There is no longer the necessity. The Wielda no longer calls me."

"Are you all right, sir? Would you like my medical officer to look you over?" As he made the offer, Kirk realized there had been no sounds of the activity there should have been if they were taking Spock to sickbay. He looked around.

T'serek's only reaction to Kirk's struggle with Nadia had been to gather Spock's still form closer. The boy's expressionless gray eyes were wide but unseeing. He's in shock, thought Kirk to himself, but McCoy was also motionless and there was a spreading chill in the room as the others took in Spock's stillness, T'serek's grieving silence. He felt the blood drain out of his face. Why wasn't Bones doing something...

McCoy felt that unasked question all around him, but he had no attention to spare. His eyes were fixed on the display of his tricorder, and he was cursing it silently--come on, damn you--as the display flickered and faded, then flickered again. Was it his imagination? No. Heartbeat, respiration imperceptible to the naked eye. His own heart began to beat again.

"It's all right, Jim. It's the healing trance. He's alive."

T'serek's distant gaze had slowly focused on McCoy. Unsure, afraid to hope, he looked for another face in the confusion, found it, white as his own, read the confirmation there and bent his head suddenly to hide his face against Spock's hair.

Eyes stinging, Kirk knelt beside them, started to touch the boy, drew back his hand and placed it instead on Spock's shoulder. "Dray--"

"Captain to the bridge. Captain Kirk, to the bridge please," came Uhura's voice again, more insistent this time. Med techs had lifted Sunderson and Nadia, were helping the Speaker down off the platform.

"He's in shock, Jim," came McCoy's careful voice. "He probably doesn't know what he's doing. He won't be able to understand you."

"I believe I can assist you with the Romulan problem, Captain," the Speaker said.

Kirk ignored them all. "It's the captain, Dray. Spock is all right. He'll get better in sickbay." T'serek's shoulders, spattered with the blood of three races, were trembling, but he didn't respond. "I'm going to take him to sickbay now," Kirk's voice was gentle. "I'll take good care of him. You have to let him go, now."

Only Kirk was close enough to hear the indrawn breath with which T'serek steeled himself before he let his grip relax, but he knew it for what it was--a soul in agony. He stood back and let McCoy's medics lift Spock to the gurney, help T'serek stand up. Nothing he could do. Tardily he remembered Uhura's call, and the Speaker, standing now at the console. Think about it later, he told himself.

As they left the room, he looked back at the shambles they had made of the transporter room. Where T'serek and Spock had lain there were smears of rust red and kelp green on the floor.

"Get something and clean that up," he told Brown as they left.

* * *

There was no real contest with the Romulans. They didn't try to contact either the Enterprise or the planet, although they went down for a look at the crater left by the antimatter explosion. It seemed to cool their interest, and they headed out toward deep space again. Goren's account of events on the planet in a report to the Admiralty effectively lifted the planetary quarantine. The duty day was over, and the Enterprise was heading out into the interstellar gulf under new orders before Kirk made it back to sickbay.

He knew McCoy would have called him if any of the returned crew were awake, but sickbay drew him anyway. How many vigils had he spent there in the dim light of the readouts, listening to the muted sounds of the ship underway? How many mistakes had he expiated in the sweat and pain of injuries? That was the easy way. This time others had paid. Three dead. Two injured. Two in shock. His fault because he'd sent the wrong team for it. Goren's observations had not been couched in terms of criticism--after all, they had saved his world--but enough had come through to show Kirk that he had saddled Spock with the wrong personnel. It was a miracle the Vulcan had been able to bring it off, and Kirk cringed away from the thought of his burned hands.

McCoy was still hovering, and he looked out of his brightly lit office into the dimness.

"Is that you, Jim?"

Kirk accepted the implied invitation reluctantly. McCoy had warned him about sending Spock and Dray together, and while he didn't mind kicking himself, he wasn't in the mood for outside recriminations just yet. But McCoy didn't begin to rate him; if anything, he seemed uneasy at Kirk's presence stirring the clutter on his desk, adjusting the light lower. Sudden apprehension sharpened Kirk's voice.

"What's the matter? You said they'd be all right?"

McCoy reflected that he had not said that. He hadn't said anything. That was what the captain wanted to hear. "It's not that, Jim. Everything's under control. Sit down, why don't you. I can't talk with you looming over me."

Kirk settled uneasily into a chair. What now?

"I wanted to talk to you about Spock." But instead of going on, McCoy stuck there, fiddling with a data cube he sifted out of the clutter. He cleared his throat. "Ordinarily I wouldn't let this go beyond the medical report, and maybe I'm sticking both feet in my mouth, but he might have to talk to someone about it, and chances are that would be you--"

"Talk about what? What's wrong?"

McCoy's hands stilled on the desk and he met Kirk's eyes with a troubled gaze. "Spock's been sexually abused."

"What?" It was almost a whisper.

"I said he's been sexually abused. Raped."

A chill chased itself down Kirk's spine while the readouts in the darkened room outside blinked garnet and aquamarine, and topaz. It had been his decision to send T'serek and Spock, half hoping they would solve his problem for him...

"You're quite sure it wasn't...voluntary?"

McCoy frowned. "His thighs, buttocks and abdomen are bruised and abraded. His wrists and ankles are raw. He's been bleeding internally." A little acid tinged his voice. "And we're talking about Spock. In my mind that adds up to rape."

"All right. You're right. I--just don't know what to say. God damn it, I sent him down there! Were the others...?"

"No. T'serek had the same cuts and burns Spock did, in a lesser degree. The two women are in traumatic shock. Nothing else."

Kirk took a long breath and tried to deal with it. Rape. With Spock as victim. Spock, who had once preferred to die rather than admit the primitive necessity of the pon farr; Spock, whom it shamed to acknowledge friendship. Oh, no. Spock would not want to discuss rape. James Kirk didn't want to discuss it. He had felt the illogical shame that comes from being the victim in torture, arising from the defenseless body's ready acquiescence to fear, but that is an adversary relationship. It does not reduce one to the level of object, because no one consents to torture. Even his own first thought had been--

McCoy watched the progression of Kirk's thoughts with sweating empathy, saw them come around to the one that troubled him most.

"Goren said he was with Spock for all but about an hour and a half at the first, and the last few minutes before we beamed them up. He said Spock had been questioned."

"It wasn't recent, Jim."

Kirk ran a hand over his face. "Then the others didn't know about it. I guess that's something. Not much. What can I do?"

What could any of them do? McCoy commanded the most up to date equipment and techniques of modern medicine. He could heal Spock's nearly destroyed hands, but he couldn't work miracles. He could not alter the past.

"Just--be here when he comes out of it. Debrief the others yourself, just in case. Let him know you're willing to listen."

* * *

Nadia and Sunderson came off the sick list first. Nadia had heard of her attack on him and was embarrassed by it. He had to hear her assume responsibility for the ineptness of people he had picked for her. When McCoy said T'serek could talk, he had to face the boy's muted grief and stern self-control while he blamed himself for multiple failures--failure to anticipate the trap, failure to confiscate the energy weapon, failure to stay with his men, to have secured Clement with the women. Kirk's own reports of their actions commended T'serek, Palevi and Spock and left his own part open to any punitive action the Fleet might see fit to take. No real risk. Once again the Enterprise had pulled the chestnuts from the fire, and at a distance of light years, no one was going to find the price of Clement, Craven and Hillis too high to pay.

In the three long days before Spock showed signs of coming out of his healing trance, McCoy watched James Kirk shoulder the full weight of that responsibility and add it to the burden he would never put down while he lived--the long list of bad decisions, errors, and human failures for which there are no medals.

When the call did come, McCoy had timed it at the end of a duty day. Kirk was tired and it took a conscious effort not to drag his feet to the turbolift, which, for a change, seemed to be operating at top efficiency. He knew he had to be there when Spock woke up and his own reluctance disgusted him. He had been the one contemplating the further shores of sensation, why should he now be afraid that one imposed experience would change Spock past recognition? In passing, he noticed that T'serek had been released. He looked from the empty bed to McCoy.

"I let him go," McCoy answered the unasked question. "He's as bad a patient as you are. I don't want him standing duty yet, though."

"Okay. Spock's coming out of it?"

"Any time."

McCoy's nurses and lab techs were changing shifts. The two men waited for the commotion to die down.

"How are his hands?" Kirk asked.

"Healing. The Vulcan nervous system is more complex than the human, and nerves give us the most trouble. Aside from that, the obvious wounds are taken care of. We're getting some anomalies in his readings, but that could be due to the depth of the stress. He kept going too long."

McCoy's casual tone didn't fool Kirk. They were both stalling, not wanting to face the moment when the Vulcan's eyes would open.

"Get on with it," Kirk said. He tried to school his face to the expression of concern and welcome that should be all it showed.

McCoy brought Spock out of his trance with the usual drastic measures--three stinging slaps that enabled the Vulcan to focus once again on the larger world without. Spock opened his eyes as if he'd been awake all along, just waiting for this cue. He took in his familiar surroundings without even a raised eyebrow. For a moment Kirk thought he wasn't truly conscious yet, but then the lights on the overhead display moved as he brought them, with conscious control, to the readings McCoy considered normal.

"Well," said McCoy with an aggravating growl. "Not surprised? Pleased to be alive? Curious as to how we got you out?"

It took a long moment before Spock came back with "You may safely assume that I am curious."

"Just curious?" prodded McCoy. "Not grateful?"

Again the pause. "It would have been highly reprehensible not to rescue survivors once their location was known, Doctor; therefore I assume my rescue was due in large part to my own resourcefulness."

A good try, thought Kirk, but it lacked the usual zing. And Spock hadn't asked about his hands where they lay boxed in the regrowth units strapped to the bed. He tried for the tone of breaking up the traditional battles.

"Gentlemen, if you two don't mind, I have work to do, and it requires Mr. Spock's participation."

McCoy shrugged, started to try again to get a rise out of Spock, and then thought better of it. The door closed smoothly behind him.

"There were survivors, Captain?"

"You and T'serek and the two women. The Speaker."

Spock lay contemplating that without expression. Kirk wondered what he was thinking.

"Fifty percent fatality among those I took with me."

Kirk wouldn't make little of it, but he said, "I gave you the wrong people. You brought half of them back. What went wrong?"

Spock gave him a bare recital of facts, with one significant omission. Kirk had known him to lie before--social lies, lies in the interest of duty, lies to save face--and he would probably have done exactly the same thing, considering the lack of witnesses, the demise of the Romulans, and yet the deliberate deceit closed him off from Spock. He couldn't offer comfort if--officially--the Vulcan wasn't hurting. The dry recital of fact ran down with Spock's using the core tap to flood the volcano with magma, draining power off in a regular cycle that would serve as a beacon only to someone familiar with the old Earth code. Only when Spock mentioned S'Tyge's antimatter device did Kirk realize how close they had come to beaming it aboard.

"That would have been my last mistake," he said.

"Indeed, Captain. I have frequently observed how random factors favor you."

Spock s eyes were not even on Kirk as he said it, he was still tired, probably in pain, but for a frozen moment Kirk thought it was deliberate, some kind of slam or oblique reference to what had happened on Ixmahx.

"Not always," he said. "I guess that about covers it. Am I tiring you out?"

"No, Captain, but I am, in fact, fatigued."

Kirk stood up to go, feeling rebuffed, but the lightless look in Spock's face made him try one more time.

"I'm sorry it turned out so rough, Spock. I've had a taste or two of Romulan hospitality. It should be some satisfaction to know that the men who captured you are all dead. I, for one, won't miss them." He watched for a reaction, the feral glint he'd seen there when he was threatened.

"One should not rejoice in the death of any sentient being," was all Spock said.

* * *

They held services for the missing crewmen, McCoy released all of the survivors but Spock back to duty, but for some reason Kirk couldn't feel the pick-yourself-up-and-carry-on energy that should follow a successful mission, no matter how costly. Spock, withdrawn into frequent meditation to hasten the healing of his hands, was largely confined to his cabin. When Kirk did encounter him, he seemed to prefer solitude. Dray's duties kept him at a distance, burning with a softer if no less alluring fire, and Kirk saw him oftenest when they were both prowling the corridor in front of Spock's quarters. Nadia was busy in her lab. But the sense of unfinished business was so strong that the security call in the middle of the night was half-expected.

McCoy met him at the turbo lift, and they ran down the hall to the cabin a rather pale guard was securing. McCoy went in first, and stopped so suddenly that Kirk bumped into him.

"Good God!" A female crewmember lay tumbled in her sheets, broken, smeared crimson, obviously dead.

"Report!" Kirk snapped at the guard.

"I thought I heard something down this way, sir--a soft sound, like breathing or panting. Then I saw that--" he pointed to the carelessly smeared trail of blood that led a dozen feet down the corridor, smearing the wall, speckling the floor. "I opened the door and hit the alarm."

"Did you touch her?"

"No, sir, I mean, I was sure she was dead--and I wouldn't have known what to do anyway--" He was right, the amount of blood precluded ordinary first aid.

"All right, how about these other people?" The cabin stood in a corridor of similar accommodations.

"I asked if they were okay and told them to stay put."

Kirk alerted security throughout the ship without resorting to the battle stations siren, then had the guard turn out the inhabitants of nearby cabins. There were a few red faces, all male, as they came out into the corridor in hastily donned uniforms and leisure clothes. Kirk wondered why women never seemed embarrassed in such situations. Too pragmatic, probably. They all sobered when he told them what had happened. No, no one had heard anything, no one had seen anything.

He supposed the excellent soundproofing and a mind-your-own-business ethic in crew quarters could explain how a woman could have been approached, attacked and murdered within feet of her neighbors, but he didn't understand why none of the crewmen could remember seeing any other in the corridors--not even each other. An oriental woman in a kimono enlightened him on that topic. A simple spy eye showed red or green at either end of the corridor, indicating whether it was empty or not for the convenience of those who wished to be discreet about their sleeping arrangements. In other circumstances he would have admired their ingenuity, now it made further investigation pointless. He didn't bother to proscribe gossip; it was pointless to give orders he couldn't enforce. Instead he recommended that they all find someone to double up with for the rest of the night. He posted two guards in the corridor, and left them to sort out room assignments among themselves. When security had combed the ship for an hour without finding anything, Kirk stopped riding them and went to McCoy's office to wait for his report. The doctor's face was grim when he finally came in. He opened his hoard of brandy and poured two hefty doses, tossed his back like vodka.

"She bled to death, Jim--not that we could have stopped it. Someone or something almost tore her apart. It was a sexual assault."

"Any clue--?"

"No. Nothing. No tissue, blood, hairs under her nails. There was no sign she put up a struggle at all."

"You said it was a sexual assault?"

"Yes."

"Can't you type the sperm--find out who did it?"

"There wasn't any. I'm not even sure it was a who, Jim. There was no sign of any wound caused by a weapon--just blunt claw marks, not unlike what Spock and T'serek brought back from Ixmahx. I suppose a karate expert could drive his fingers that deep in human flesh, but no ordinary person could. Are you positive they didn't bring anything back with them?"

Kirk shrugged. They had both been in the transporter room. The Speaker and three of his own crew had verified the death of the host of the Ixmahx artifact, and even if that hadn't killed it, nothing could survive an antimatter explosion. The entire volcano had been destroyed. The Romulans had not tried to contact the surface, and they certainly hadn't contacted the Enterprise. Eliminate the impossible and what remained was a member of his crew.

"How could anyone that screwed up ever get starship duty?"

"They couldn't," McCoy said certainly. "The psychosis would have to be situational--somehow related to events occurring aboard ship or during a leave. Even so I run a routine check on everyone who's been off the ship any length of time."

"How about the people who were down on Ixmahx?" He didn't say, How about Spock? Didn't have to. Could not believe that he had said as much as he had. "Did you test them?"

McCoy swirled the dregs of his drink around. "Not yet. Did you talk to--"

"Not yet," Kirk echoed. "He wants to bury it. I don't want to single anyone out. Test them all and let me know." But he knew already, without any test at all, that Spock had returned from Ixmahx wounded in more than body.

* * *

By the time Kirk reported to the bridge the next day everyone on board knew that a crewwoman named Mele Anderson had been murdered, knew that security had not found the killer. By 0900 they knew that a computer check had verified the location of all crewmembers during the approximate time of the murder. Kirk once again stopped energy transmissions, and that got a garbled version of the Ixmahx mission circulating through the ship, so that by the end of the working day, speculation had solidified into suspicion that there was an alien shape-changer aboard. By the time the computer cycled the lights down to approximate evening, Kirk was noticing that people tended to clump into twos and threes in the corridors.

He was half hoping that McCoy wouldn't have found any aberrations in Spock's psychological profile, but they were glaringly apparent when McCoy threw two charts on a screen for comparison.

"There's no doubt it's significant, Jim. How he keeps functioning I don't know. When I had him in here he seemed more stressed, if anything. 'Meditation' might just be an excuse to keep out of my way."

"What about the shape-changer idea?" McCoy would have heard about that, too.

"Not unless it's good enough to give human blood and urine--or in Spock's case, let me probe around in its innards. I'm sorry, but the people we brought back are just that." McCoy picked up the data cube from his desk, dropped it in Kirk's palm. "That's my report on his injuries. I was going to lose it anyway."

Kirk headed back to his cabin, kicking himself for what he knew he had to do. He could smell the fear in the deserted corridors and he knew the price in morale alone the unsolved crime was causing. Knew too, from long experience, that trouble is never stopped without effort. There was no way around a confrontation with Spock. What had happened to him had also happened to Mele Anderson--but she was beyond questioning, and Spock could, possibly, tell them what had happened to him, help prevent its happening again to someone else. He tossed the cube on his desk, paged Spock, and moved restlessly around, cramped for space, wishing for a window to stare cut of. When the buzzer sounded, he forced himself to stillness.

"Captain?" The tall Vulcan stood in the doorway.

He stands so straight, Kirk thought. He kept going through hell with his guts bleeding, and now that he has a chance to heal, I have to rip him open again. God, I hate this job.

"Sit down, Mr. Spock. We missed you on the bridge today. I hope you're feeling better?"

"Thank you, Captain. I am much improved."

Like hell you are. You're pale as a ghost and holding yourself together with sheer will power. McCoy shouldn't have let you leave sickbay. The data cube lay on his desk looking innocuous. It might have been a sound and light recording, or Ovid's Metamorphosis, or a report on V'ei'drei's production of quadrotriticale. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. Spouting clichés like a cadet, looking anywhere but at the arrow straight Vulcan before him. Think he won't notice that?

"Can I assist you, Captain?"

Or, in more delicate words, cut the crap and at least have the decency to look at him when you shove the knife in. "Yes, you can. Mele Anderson was raped and killed last night. We haven't got a clue as to who or what did it. But McCoy reports a similar, recent attack in which the victim survived." Kirk pointed to the data cube. "That's the medical record. We don't have to look at it, but we do have to talk about it--for the safety of this vessel."

Spock didn't move, didn't speak.

"I'm sorry, Spock. You know it won't go any further."

"Unless it becomes necessary--for the safety of this vessel." The black inferno of Vulcan passion gaped suddenly between them, a moat forbidding trespass. The slur stung because it was true. The safety of the ship came first. Kirk felt the flare of his own anger, almost a physical sensation in his body.

"That's correct, Mr. Spock. I am prepared to do anything necessary to secure this ship."

"As I am." Spock's eyes were blazing now, hard and glittering. His half healed hands clenched into fists at his side. "As I have. From that fact you may infer that the matter does not concern the ship's safety. It is, in fact, impossible that it do so." Spock turned on his heel.

"I haven't dismissed you!" He heard the command snap in his voice, felt the anger out of control, knew it for what it was--counter irritant for pain--and still couldn't stop it. He was flushed and shaking with rage. "I'll be the judge of what affects this ship, and if you don't obey my order to report, you can explain why to a general court!"

That threat stopped the Vulcan as effectively as a phaser on stun. He stood facing the door, frozen in midstride. There was a silence in the room as brittle as glass.

God, Spock, I didn't mean it--I'd never--but Kirk didn't withdraw the words, and it was Spock who yielded. His hands, still scarred and healing, clasped each other behind his back. Slowly he turned around, and his fire cooled to ice. Controlled, formal, untouchable.

"My attacker's name was S'Tyge. He was the Romulan officer in charge of obtaining the Ixmahx artifact. He knew the nature of the device and wanted to destroy it prior to the return of the Enterprise. He was also of the Hreth Malock clan, a cousin to the commander of the ship from which we stole the cloaking device. My presence in the landing party enabled him to accomplish two purposes at once--interrogation and revenge. He died in the struggle with the Wielda and his body was utterly destroyed in the antimatter explosion. Therefore it is impossible that his attack on me is related in any way at all to the death of a crewmember here. That is the end of my report."

Kirk leaned wearily on the desk. So that was it--and Spock was right, there was no connection.

He had destroyed something priceless for no gain at all.

"I'm sorry, Spock--" he swept the data cube into the oubliette, flicked the switch that would reduce it to nuclear particles-- "It's forgotten."

"No," said the Vulcan precisely. "It is not." Then he did leave.

* * *

Kirk relayed the information to McCoy and ignored his recommendation to try sleeping for a change. Instead he sought refuge in a solitary, maudlin drunk. He told himself that he didn't deserve this load of guilt, that it wasn't his fault there were Romulans on Ixmahx, that T'serek had returned with a confirmed case of hero worship for Spock or that Nadia's comforting stability seemed shaken to the core. But the facts remained. He had sent them to Ixmahx. Long ago he had pressured Spock into charming and betraying the Romulan commander. He had engineered the sordid scene with Spock--blackmailing his best friend. But what was he supposed to do? Play favorites? Spock had never before asked special consideration--why should Kirk feel so guilty for failing to grant it now?

He drank until his head pounded, his stomach heaved, and he was ingloriously sick in the commode but he couldn't retch up the bitter bile of betrayal. And the worst of it was that he knew how to get them back. The manipulator always knows. He surveyed his face in the mirror--gray, sweating. All he had to do was risk his neck doing something gloriously heroic. Spock would be there to rescue him, Dray to admire, and Nadia to comfort the wounded warrior. He could have all three if he wanted, because right or wrong, James Kirk always managed to get what he wanted. But what would they get? he asked his drunken image in the mirror. Well, he could take his impotence and drinking to Nadia's bed, his jaded drives and desire to dominate to Dray's, and if Spock didn't like it--he brushed the lank strands of hair out of his eyes--well, he could just send Spock off on a mission somewhere to face death or a fate worse than. He stared into his mirrored eyes and dared them to deny it. Wasn't he a wonder?

* * *

If his hangover hadn't sobered him, the second death would have. It had occurred in early hours of the morning, and it was a male this time, a security guard who had taken an ill-advised tour through the shuttlebay. Once again, McCoy's team took the body away in a bag. Kirk closed every security door in the ship and they went over it with tricorders. Nothing. He needed Spock's assistance to revamp duty assignments, but sweated through it by himself, trying to make sure that no crewman stood solitary duty. In the cases where it couldn't be helped, due to the nature of the job or the size of the space in which it was performed, he saw that there was a guard nearby. In totally arbitrary fashion, he ordered everyone in the crew to share sleeping quarters with at least one other person that night. No one seemed unwilling to comply, and as he prowled the halls, keeping the security men on their toes and taking a fair chance that one of them would shoot him by mistake, he heard several slumber parties in progress. He was overtired, running on adrenalin, but he couldn't seem to turn it off. He had the conviction there was some one small detail he had overlooked, and he'd missed Spock's usual efficient presence with a constant ache which was not eased by finding that Dray had wangled himself a duty station near Spock's quarters. The Guthrie was pale and serious, and Kirk didn't envy anything that challenged his right to guard the first officer's meditations. McCoy was sleeping peacefully on a diagnostic table, but he was in full view of three medics, so Kirk left him alone. Scotty, after a full day's work scouring the blueprints for any kind of unexamined hiding place, was now monitoring a continuous interior scan of the ship by computers. It seemed impossible that anything could happen in the face of that much security, but his heart jarred in his side when his communicator beeped.

"Scott, here, Captain. Would Mr. Spock have been included in your order to tuck up tight, sir?"

Kirk hadn't thought about it, certainly didn't expect the Vulcan to share his quarters, but he should have it least been in them. "Why, Scotty?"

"Well, he's not in his quarters, sir, and I'm getting his readings--or I was--near the shuttlebay. I thought after last night it might not be the safest place to take a stroll."

"No, it isn't."

"Should I page him, sir?"

"No, Scotty. I'll head down there. I'm armed and I'll be careful. He's probably looking for a quiet place to meditate. Kirk out." He cursed himself for catering to the Vulcan's reserve to the extent of becoming an errand boy, but he couldn't simply order him back to his quarters. What was he doing down there? Courting disaster? Offering himself as bait? Even fully lit, the shuttlebay was dim in comparison to the rest of the ship. The height of the ceiling, the experience of so much space in comparison to the eight-foot ceilings throughout the living quarters gave it a cathedral quiet. Until they could replace the lost shuttle, there was only one remaining. The door was open, and the automatic lighting from the interior spilled out on the empty deck.

"Spock?" There was no answer from inside, and he unholstered his phaser and eased inside. The Vulcan sat at the control panel, his back to Kirk. He did not turn around. "Spock? I've been looking for you. Were you meditating?"

"After a fashion." His voice was only a whisper, and he still didn't turn. Stepping closer, Kirk could see the tension in the lean figure, could see sweat stains under Spock's arms, running down the midline of his back, beading on the back of his neck. Spock sweating?

"What's the matter? Are you sick? Do you want McCoy?"

"He cannot help me."

"But--" Kirk reached for the co-pilot's chair, and Spock's arm shot out like a steel rod, barring him from it.

"HE CANNOT HELP ME!" Spock's hand closed on the back of the chair and its impact plastic crumbled under his grip. He turned and his eyes were flame.

Every reflex screamed at Kirk to run. He had seen that look before, on the sands of Vulcan, directed at him with the same demonic intent, but the hand that crushed the chair was still healing from danger he'd sent the Vulcan into, and Spock was fighting for control.

"Forgive me, Captain. Please do not come--too close."

"But you need help," Kirk said uncertainly.

"There is no help. It has only--come sooner--than I expected."

Kirk wondered how long the Vulcan had been in such a state of arousal, hiding the fever and agonizing tension under that Vulcan control, trying to heal himself, and cope with this on top of his own problems--the Romulan, T'serek. Had the boy's obvious infatuation brought this on?

"Did T'serek cause this?"

"No!"

There was such repudiation in the negative that Kirk automatically said, "I didn't mean to insult you--"

"I--was not insulted, Captain. T'serek's desire is not responsible. I think it is...good to be desired. It was not him."

"S'Tyge?" Kirk was talking in whispers, too, because at least Spock was talking, and Kirk could not endure the loneliness in the figure less than a yard away.

"No."

"Then who, Spock?" Compassionate concern weighted Kirk's voice, urging, "Can't someone help you?"

His own body ached in sympathy for the effort it took the Vulcan to raise his head. The face was stone. The burning eyes met his and did not fall away.

Kirk felt the kick of his heart, felt dizzied, wordless.

Spock's voice was shaking, yet he went on, as if forced. "I saw--how you were drawn to him--I desired--" The hoarse whisper was almost suspended, "The fault is mine."

Grief almost choked Kirk, misunderstandings, fear, his own incredible blindness. Memory showed him T'serek, saying 'Before I let my body shame me, I would burn it in the fire' and Spock was burning now.

"He's beautiful," Kirk acknowledged. His body had responded to T'serek, but his whole being surged now toward Spock, body only a part of it, but Spock's body was in dire need. "But do you really think, if you wanted me, that anyone else could mean more?" His own voice shook, and he was afraid that Spock hadn't heard, wouldn't believe. He reached out and the Vulcan flinched back, escaped from the chair, retreated as far as he could in the closed space. He stood pressed against the wall in near panic.

"Captain, you misunderstand. It was--my--madness--which made me think-- Our needs are not the same. I have no right. I cannot control--"

Madness. Burning. Danger. Kirk felt it, the threat, the peril, like standing on the edge of a solar volcano.

"You don't have to." Compassion, commitment deepened Kirk's voice. "Not with me. Take what you need." He reached for the tense shoulders with unsteady hands, and Spock flattened further against the wall. "Anything, Spock. If it's life, you've given me life a dozen times over. Take what you need."

Spock's head rocked back against the wall. "I can't!" Tears forced their way between his closed lids. Kirk felt his own eyes sting.

"Hush." He gathered the racked body close, in an encompassing hug, accepting the tears, the snubbed pressure of Spock's straining sex close to his own. It didn't matter. It was part of Spock. Spock hurt. How could anyone see and not want to ease that need, relieve that burning body? Still no yielding. Had no one ever gentled him? "Don't you want me?" he whispered. A shudder, faint negative of the sleek, damp head, pathetic effort to withdraw. Kirk hugged harder, slid his hands under Spock's sweat-soaked shirt. Shot in the dark. Someone had to take it. "I think that means yes, Spock. You'll have to stop me if I'm wrong."

No softness anywhere. Fever. Skin like satin over marble. Spasmodic trembling. Kirk unfastened the waistband of Spock's pants, slid his hands down and back, rubbing, kneading, urging the tense hips forward, slowly rubbing his own pelvis against Spock's.

Pon Farr

Spock's swollen organ sprang free and he gasped. At the sound a leaf of sensation uncurled up the midline of Kirk's belly. His own cock twitched protestingly against his shorts. Wait your turn, he told it. He took Spock's head in his hands and pulled his mouth down. Dry lips. Slick porcelain texture of teeth, tongue avoiding his. No response, but his own body was singing and he used that for his guide. He slid to his knees before Spock, eased his pants down, exploring with his eyes. Spock's cock was an arrow of desire, green as a willow-leaf, pointed right at him.

"Beautiful," he breathed. He rubbed his cheek up Spock's thigh, abrading with the rough texture of day-old beard, turned his head to stroke across Spock's belly with his chin, the cock nudging him under his jaw. Rough stroke down the other thigh. He imagined Spock doing that to him. Jesus.

He was intolerant of clothing suddenly. He skinned his shirt off and tossed it, tugged impatiently, awkwardly until he got Spock's boots off, jerked his pants down, braced the uncooperative body against the wall with his shoulder and undressed him like a child. Spock's hands were flat against the wall, his body tense, his cock straining, straining...

Kirk's shoulder burned and throbbed where it had touched Spock. His palms glowed. He wanted to turn himself inside out and match skin for skin so that there would be no part of the Vulcan he didn't enclose, contain, caress. He climbed Spock's body with kisses and pressed close as he slid Spock's shirt up, drawing the fabric from between their perfectly matched flesh. Heat flashed from Spock's body to his as he trapped Spock's raised arms momentarily in the shirt to nose an armpit, kiss the hollow of the throat, pierce the elegant ear with his tongue and was gone again as Spock dropped the shirt.

Spock shivered under the multiple attacks, and as Kirk bent to kiss the green-gold nipples, nipping their raised nubs, Spock's hands settled on his shoulders, began to grip. Kirk connected the nipples with a stroke of his tongue, then drew another from Spock's collarbone to his navel, a cross of cold. The hands pressed him down.

On his knees he took the straining cock into his mouth, tested the smooth texture of the head, the hot salt flavor of it, the spring-steel tension. He could hear Spock pant, feel the tremors in his thighs, his prick. God, how could he hold back? Kirk ovaled his lips and took the whole length of the cock in his mouth, his throat. Spock moaned.

Kirk withdrew, slowly, slowly, letting Spock feel his teeth, stretching the cock, lips open, room's air cold, his own breath hot, tongue boring the tip. Every gift from every lover he'd had, every caress he had planned to offer Dray T'serek, he gave now to Spock.

"Let it happen," he said, his willing lips an inch away from Spock's pulsing organ. "I want you. I love you. Let it happen."

Spock hung on the razor's edge of indecision.

Kirk reached for his wrists, forced his hands up, and guided the fingers to his temples. He bent again and quickly took the whole slick shaft into his mouth. Spock's fingers firmed, points of fire on Kirk's face, fire in his brain. Let it happen, Kirk thought as he sucked. He slid his hands down the backs of Spock's thighs then up to cup his ass, urge his hips forward. Let it happen. When they exploded--white fountain of fire, nova in space--he wasn't even sure which one of them had come.

* * *

Kirk came back to individual awareness feeling warm and relaxed as a cat. His head was in Spock's lap and the Vulcan was watching him with eyes from which all the fevered glitter had faded.

"You look like a Madonna, Spock."

The Vulcan's lips curved in an effortless smile and Kirk's heart turned over. I taught him that.

"I feel like one. Long labor, perfect fruit."

Kirk would have been content to drift against Spock's warmth forever, but that was lotus-eating. "What now?" he asked.

"I do not know, Captain. On Vulcan there is no cessation of the fever. Perhaps your relief while we were linked has given me a respite. I cannot say how long it will last. Eventually the pon farr demands consummation--or death."

"You mean you really don't know what to expect?"

"On Vulcan it is not spoken of, until there is need. I surmise some mental stimulus of the female turns the aggressive drive to procreation. You see why I must go. Before I only feared. Now I know I would seek you out. I do not wish for you--what S'Tyge did to me."

Full realization of the significance of the shuttlecraft swept over Kirk and he sat up in protest. "It wouldn't be like that. I won't let you go. We'll find a way. I've managed a few secret meetings aboard this ship before."

The Vulcan smiled fondly. "I know--but you must see that this is different."

"It certainly is." Kirk settled back against Spock's thigh, rubbing his head against it, "Nice."

He turned his head and said, "How would it be if I kissed your belly button?" Smiled when Spock's stomach muscles tightened involuntarily. Dropped his eyes to where Spock's cock arched from its thicket of curls.

"Jim, I cannot think when you--"

"I'll just look. I won't do a thing," said Kirk wickedly.

"It is what I will do!" said the goaded Vulcan on a note of desperation. The pain in his voice brought Kirk to his knees to offer a penitent kiss.

"I'm sorry."

"Perhaps we could discuss this--more rationally--if I dressed."

Acquiescing, Kirk looked away while Spock resumed his pants and boots. His euphoria was fading. Spock was right. It wouldn't be easy, with some maniac stalking the ship, with T'serek burning in their minds like the proverbial tiger, but whatever it cost, they were already committed.

Spock had found his shirt, was offering Kirk the command gold he had so casually tossed aside. "There is one other thing the captain should be aware of." His formal tone put a distance between them in the close quarters. "Since my return from Ixmahx I have been suffering blackouts. I cannot recall my actions during the times the two murders occurred."

The sudden anger that stung Kirk to his feet, and a cold draft under his ribs told him two things--first that it was possible, second that he was inescapably part of all Spock was and did.

"Don't even think that! Whatever stress you're under, you are not a murderer!" He gripped Spock's arms with bruising strength, compelling agreement.

"You never think of failure, do you?"

Kirk dropped his hands and bent to retrieve the phaser he had let fall on the floor. He pulled his shirt over his head and tugged it into place, squaring his shoulders, assuming the mannerisms of command with its outward symbol before he answered.

"That's not what I get paid for."

And he felt whole again, with Spock at his shoulder, competent to cope with anything from the Admiralty to Armageddon. Tomorrow Spock would be on the bridge, applying his formidable intelligence to the problem of the two deaths. Perseverance would combine with luck, and they would catch the killer. Then, as he had promised, there would be time. Anticipation tingled through him like a transfusion of new blood. He was ready to salt a wavicle's tail or turn a black hole inside out, and he hadn't yet thought to hide the spring in his step or the lilt in his voice when they rounded the corner near Spock's cabin and found T'serek at his vigil.

The boy had heard them coming, that was evident, or they would have found themselves staring down the phaser he had drawn and not had time to replace. He stood at ease, apparently just another soldier at a boring duty station, but Kirk knew better. He could feel the boy's shock and embarrassment as if they were his own. T'serek had not known Spock's cabin was empty; he had been prepared to guard it with his life. In sudden hindsight, Kirk saw implications of Spock's withdrawal from his company in the past days that had not occurred to him before. T'serek could hardly be blamed for hoping. And here they came, strolling, glowing, through the corridors, the only two people on the ship without the sense to stay under cover. It was a piece of cruelty neither of them would have committed deliberately. Once again there was nothing he could say or do.

"See McCoy and get yourself off the sicklist," he said to Spock. "I'll see you on the bridge."

In his own cabin he threw the sticky evidence of his own release into the ''fresher, stepped into the shower and considered the miracle of desire. He had been out on his feet, tied in knots with tension, wallowing in self-pity and frustration. Now he was charged with life. Spock wanted him. As a lover. Well, his psychfile said he could go that way. No danger to a younger man's career, no possibility of favoritism; Spock's commitment to the Fleet was as deep as his own. He closed his eyes and ducked his head under the spray, turned and let it beat down on the back of his neck. Spock wanted him and he wanted Spock. Beautiful. Every sensation, from the water rushing over him, the blast of warm air, the smooth coolness of sheets, was as fresh and delightful as if his body was newly created. Created new for Spock.

* * *

But he had needed sleep. When battle stations sounded, he had to fight his way to consciousness and his clothes fought him as he stumbled into them. The airtight barriers had slammed into place all over the ship--per his orders, as a way of trapping the killer--and he had to fight his way past three of them to reach the turbolift. As a result, he was last on the scene except for McCoy. Two security men--Lapsley and Nicholson--were bending over two bodies on the floor, and Scotty was operating a strange piece of equipment that he wore strapped to his chest. He was pointing a pickup of metal at the two bodies and reading a display at the top of the gadget.

Lapsley called to him. "Captain? The woman's dead. Her name was Vonnie Tyler. But Mason's still breathing."

"Keep him breathing till McCoy gets here. What's keeping Spock? What's that Scotty?"

"A heat imager, sir. Pretty primitive, though. I can't get a thing when everybody's crowded in like this. Since regular sensors weren't giving us anything, one of my lads whipped this up. It'll show you where a man crossed an empty room six hours ago--but I can't get a picture right now."

"Try up and down the hall." Kirk peered at the screen but couldn't make sense of the smoky swirling there. McCoy came through the door and went directly to the man Lapsley was working over.

For the first time, Kirk let himself take in the nature of the injuries. It was obvious that the killer didn't care what sex its victims were.

"Can he talk, Bones?"

McCoy didn't stop working. "It might kill him."

"I've got to know what's doing it, Bones. I'm sorry. Bring him around. Nicholson, put that blanket over him."

McCoy didn't argue. They had had to face that before. One life could not come before the ship's safety. He sprayed a stimulant over Mason's heart. "It won't last long," he warned.

Kirk bent close. "Mason, this is the captain. What attacked you?"

"Get back," the man answered, making an effort as his eyes opened, but not tracking very well. He seemed to be reliving the attack. "Get back, Vonnie--run!" His eyes widened in horror. "Oh, God it's...Aaaaaahhhhh!" He screamed and tried to twist away, fighting Kirk's restraining hands.

"Mason!" Kirk's command voice penetrated the terror for a minute and Mason recognized him, clinging like a child.

"Captain--" It was a sigh of relief, but his voice was fading.

"Tell me what you saw, Mason."

"Not--not human--" And he went limp, his dead weight dragging Kirk's hands down.

"Is he--?"

McCoy felt for the throat pulse. "No. Passed out."

Kirk sat back on his heels, relieved and sweating. "Maybe Spock can make sense out of it."

As if to refute him, the comm unit opened up with another blast of the siren, quickly cut off.

"Security to the captain. Sir, there's been another attack--in officer's country--" he gave the coordinates "One of our men is down, and Mr. Spock is missing."

"God damn it!" Kirk's ready anger flared, cross-circuiting panic. Why couldn't the Vulcan stay put. "Get these doors open, they're not helping. Scotty, bring your gadget."

McCoy stayed with Mason, but the others trotted at his heels like a pack of hounds, Scotty grunting under the weight of his imager, Lapsley and Nicholson pushing the pace with drawn weapons in their hands, the weight of laser rifles slung across their backs not slowing them at all. The threat to Spock centered Kirk's will to one blazing focus. Whatever was terrorizing them must be stopped.

This time it was T'serek who had been attacked, knocked out with a blow to the side of his head. He was bleeding from nose and ear, with a blue bruise already shining down the side of his face.

"What happened?" Kirk snapped.

T'serek shook his head and winced. "I saw nothing--just the blow, and when I could see again, the door was open."

"Scotty, what's that thing show here?"

"It's a bit clearer than before, sir. There're two trails leading away. I couldn't say which was fresher."

Kirk turned back to T'serek. "Did anyone pass after Spock and I were here?"

"No, sir."

"We came up this way with Scotty--and that's the same way I went back. Anything going the other way has to be Spock or the killer."

The engineer frowned over the shadowy display, and behind Kirk's back Nicholson said something to T'serek that made the boy spit back in Guthrie. Kirk turned in time to T'serek point his weapon right at the older man's midsection. Lapsley also saw and locked both hands on Dray's wrist, pulling him off target.

"As you were!" Kirk's sizzling command broke them up even as he cursed the luck that had made T'serek's former attacker one of the party. "You can address your comments to me, Nicholson, speak up!" But the man had frozen to attention with an expression of impenetrable stupidity, and Kirk did not have time to worm it out of him. T'serek's dark-rimmed eyes were furious but he didn't volunteer anything.

"Lapsley?"

The security chief hesitated, raked a menacing stare over Nicholson, then answered unwillingly, "He said, 'Unless Spock is the killer,' sir."

A vacuum opened under Kirk's belt buckle and into it drained all his new heat and life. Why else would the killer have spared T'serek? Spock himself had admitted that he didn't know what he had been doing during the times of the murders. The victims hadn't struggled. The sight of their first officer wouldn't surprise them. He remembered Mason saying, 'Not human--' Spock was not human. He remembered the stress, sweat and fever, the same fever that had driven Spock to murder before, with less cause. Had Spock really gone to the shuttle to meditate--or had it been animal instinct to hide, gather up the frayed threads of sanity? The killer had inhuman strength. He did not want this mental summary, could not turn it off. McCoy had said there was no sperm in the abused bodies, and although he had climaxed, Spock had been eased--'perhaps the fact of your relief while we were linked'--not satisfied. The drive is linked to aggression.

Oh, no.

T'serek was staring at him, demanding that he deny it.

"Give me your rifle," he said to Nicholson. "And get out of my sight." He accepted it blindly, didn't wait to see the man leave. "Scotty, which way?"

As usual the engineer had missed the human exchange. He pointed on, past Spock's cabin. With Nicholson's weapon heavy in his hand, Kirk led the way, slower now, accommodating Scotty and his machine. He could not think, would not feel, must simply go forward, close the distance between them, do what he must. The trail Scott was following on his screen passed through the double doors of hydroponics and vanished in the warm, moist air.

"I've lost it. There's not enough variation in there between body temperature and the air. It picked a fair place to hide."

"Let it hide," said Kirk, "as long as it stays there." He was functioning, issuing orders just as if a sudden wall hadn't cut him off from all involvement in the outcome. He pulled the net of security men in tight, around the perimeter of the three-deck high room, above, below, at every exit. McCoy caught up with them. Mason had died. Too bad. He turned to his steady, reliable engineer.

"Give me forty minutes, Mr. Scott. If I'm not back by then, cut off life support in there and leave it that way until everything inside is dead. You won't be hurting anything that matters."

"What's the matter with you?" McCoy asked, and Kirk remembered that he had once cared what McCoy thought. Funny how long ago that felt.

"I have to do this myself, Bones." No need to say why. He gestured for a guard to open the door and saw that the lights had been cut off inside. A sudden, bestial image rose up in his mind--Spock, waiting in the dark, all fury and lust, stained fingers dripping red, loins smeared with human blood.

In the fraction of a second he hesitated, Dray T'serek slipped through the door before him.

That galvanized him into action, and he went through the door in a shoulder roll, moving away from T'serek in the dark. That might keep them from killing each other by mistake. At least his brain was functioning again. He had thought there was no light, but the strange stars of warp speed showed their spikes and fringes of color through the ports. It was light enough for the lovers who used to tryst here, light enough to begin his stalk in the seminal fragrance of flowers and ferns. He moved silently, waiting for a stealthy step behind him, an indrawn breath, the whisper of a petal falling.

What he did hear was a clink of metal striking metal, the familiar snap of an instrument panel being fastened in place. He shrank back under a curtain of vines as light rayed down from the ceiling on Spock studying the readouts of the environmental console. He lay the rifle aside and reached for the phaser at his belt, checked to make sure it was set on stun when a blow from behind sent him rolling out of cover, and the laser rifle was whisked out of sight.

"Down!" he yelled at Spock as the eye-searing beam lanced out. Spock dropped and the laser raised a row of blisters and sparks as it crossed the console. Kirk aimed his phaser at the plants, unable still to see what they concealed and the laser lanced out again. He rolled and felt the heat of it following him, heard Spock crash into the greenery and didn't dare fire again, added himself to the melee. It was incredibly quick and strong. It sent the Vulcan staggering away into the dark, put a knee in Kirk's stomach and backhanded him away, out into the light. Kirk tried to keep moving, but he was only half conscious; dazzling shadows confounded his vision.

"No!" that was Spock's voice, and there were feet running past Kirk, and the bright light of the laser again, shocking sight into his eyes. T'serek had come from the other side of the room. He had not had time to reach the killer as its weapon centered or Kirk, only time to thrust himself between them. Spock's hands, closing about the killer's neck, had found their mark too late, and Dray was falling as Kirk heard its spine snap.

Spock came to Dray, took one look at the wound, and went weakly to his knees. The Guthrie's eyes were open, watching him, and they read the truth in the dark gaze Spock was too honest to turn away.

"Now, it is dead."

"Yes," Spock answered.

Dray indicated Kirk with a glance. "And he--safe?"

Kirk couldn't answer. Dray's low voice, hoarsened a little with his effort to hide the pain, pierced him, stabbed him past all healing.

"Yes," said Spock. He swallowed, tried to speak, say something but one senseless monosyllable.

"Be glad." said Dray "What you loved was--worthy of love. Serving him--I served--you."

Kirk had never heard such love in a human voice, such satisfaction. And Spock the guarded, Spock the silent, acknowledged debt past all repayment.

"I have my joy at your hands." He stroked the boy's crisp hair back, hesitated, and bent to kiss his forehead, his closing eyes.

Kirk turned away. He had no right to watch, no right to Spock's regard, Dray's blithe absolution. Pain seared his chest, closed his throat. Oh, God, just let me die instead. But it was Dray who died, quiet and content, in Spock's arms, where he could never be in life. Kirk felt the emptiness. There was a long moment of silence before Spock rose. A horror of being touched slid Kirk away from the Vulcan, away from the youth and beauty and valor lying at their feet.

"He came after you first. I--" How could he make Spock understand?

"You came," said Spock.

The guards were coming in; he couldn't speak before them. McCoy was fussing at them, demanding he see what Spock had killed. It was Clement, armed in the metal cap and armored gloves of the Wielda.

"That is the artifact," verified Spock, "two parts of it. Clement must have assumed it after the host was killed. The room was dark and full of steam."

"He still had to get here," said Kirk. "And there had to be some reason for--the perversion."

"He rode our transmitter beam, just like they warned," said Scotty grimly. "I should have reported it before, but you'll ken we thought the beastie was dead. When Brown left the transporter room to look for something to clean up with, there was a power surge. I've known it this week long, but I never thought it was important."

They looked down at the artifact. It looked innocuous enough, except for the burn line where metal met flesh and the way Clement's skin sank in toward the bone.

"Shall I try to take them off him?" asked McCoy.

"No, let's just make sure of it this time. Scotty, antimatter was a good idea. Beam the body and the artifact out into space with enough antimatter to make it permanent this time. Don't beam anything back in. And don't leave anyone alone with it!"

"No, sir." Scott directed his men to handle the body carefully.

Kirk looked around, at Dray's body. Without being bidden, Spock gathered it up and led the way to sickbay. McCoy covered the still figure and demanded a brief look at Spock's hands.

"You'll do," he said grudgingly. "But you still look like somebody's starved parakeet. You're supposed to rest when I put you on the sick list. What you need is sleep."

Need. Kirk could feel it, an appeal the Vulcan couldn't make in words. He tried to sound casual as he said, "Why don't you turn in. I'll finish up here."

"Certainly, Captain. I shall be in my cabin."

McCoy watched him go with a doubtful eye. "That's what he said the last time."

"He'll be all right."

"So will you. I'm downgrading both of you for three days, Jim. You're dead on your feet and you don't know it. Get some rest and try to spend some time with Spock. T'serek's death may mean more to him than he wants to show."

* * *

Kirk turned away, thinking, more to me. How could he go to Spock with that lie between them? How could he not go? A chill of fear shook him. Spock wanted his mind, past all the intimacy of the body, and he hated what was in his mind, could not bear Spock to see the ugliness of him, could not bear to have Spock know he did not deserve Dray's pure gift, to have him learn that his chosen was not 'worthy of love.' But it was Spock's life, Spock's choice.

The door opened under his hand.

* * *

The light in the austere cabin was low, but that was the only concession to passion and necessity. The bed was still folded into the wall; Spock's few possessions were in their accustomed places--no music, no incense, no liquor. Only Spock was different, waiting for him in a long brown robe, one hand on the chair at his desk. The tension in the motionless figure shouted aloud that he had not been sure Kirk would come, was not sure now what his presence meant.

Kirk couldn't speak. Words were hollow. Lies in the throat of a liar. He couldn't meet that questioning gaze. It was for Spock to choose. He began to undress, awkward under Spock's gaze, littering the floor with his clothing. When he stood naked, he found the will to look up, the words...

"Whatever you want. If you still want me."

"Hush," the Vulcan's hand touched his lips. Lightly he touched a bruise on Kirk's cheekbone, dark eyes watching the progress of his long fingers. His hand slipped down to the bulk of Kirk's shoulder, feeling the tension there. The touch lingered a moment, as if the Vulcan hated to break it. Still studying Kirk's face, Spock loosed the tie of his robe, tossed it aside. Then he looked down, comparing their two bodies in the gloom.

His body is younger than his face, Kirk thought, watching Spock's dancer's grace, watching the long muscles shift under fine-textured skin, as young as Dray's.

Spock's hand went back to Kirk's shoulder, stroking, soothing as if Kirk were a wild beast, liable to startle and flee, as if Spock didn't trust his touch to be gentle enough. He moved to the side, exploring with his eyes, and Kirk stood docile for inspection. Spock would know soon enough.

The light, tentative touches sent shivers prickling away from Spock's fingers on his shoulder, his neck, his arm--nervous chills, not desire. He did not deserve desire.

In silence Spock's hands covered the jolt and flutter of his heart--chest and back. Warmth spread through him from those hands, not to be denied. Kirk closed his eyes and listened to his heart settle into a steady rhythm again, sending his blood tingling through its conduits, warmed by Spock's touch. He could feel the Vulcan's faint trembling, guess the effort it was costing him to go slow, to make it a seduction instead of a rape. He wanted to say, I'm not what you think, Spock, I haven't earned this.

But Spock's arms came round him from the back, slipping under his arms, planing over his body softly, and desire betrayed him. He could feel the hot whiskery brush of Spock's body against his back, feel Spock's penis, half hard, nudging his buttocks. He flinched and shivered away only to be soothed back by the slow, hypnotic caress of Spock's hands stroking his sides, his flanks, slowly approaching his genitals. A slow, sensuous grind of Spock's pelvis against his ass sent little electric thrills through him that jolted his prick higher with each heartbeat. He wanted to break away, face Spock with the brutal truth, but Spock's lean fingers traced lazy circles on his belly, his thighs--tantalizing, building such sweet need. Spock's breath was hot on his shoulder; Spock's cheek brushed his, urging him to look down and watch Spock's hands on his body. Spock's hands. He ached for that hot touch until he couldn't stand passive any more.

He shifted abruptly and thrust his cock into Spock's hand. The Vulcan's breath caught, and his grasp firmed around the shaft; his other hand cupped the pulsing sac beneath. The pleasure in that touch flooded Kirk with desire, gratitude, the need to share. He arched his back a little, holding Spock's hands against his eager sex, shifted again and daringly clasped Spock's cock between the cheeks of his ass. He could feel it throb and push against him, creating a thrill of fear there to match the waves of sweet sensation under Spock's hands. He knew he had no right to let it go on, but Spock's weight grew suddenly heavy on his back; his own thighs were shaking; they went to their knees in one motion and Kirk bent forward. Now he will find out. Now he will know.

The Vulcan's hands slid back, over his flanks. Cold air parted them. Kirk didn't move. Spock's hands eased between his thighs, parted them, massaged his buttocks, thumbs teasing the cleft, opening him firmly to view. Exposed, Kirk shrank from the alien gaze, to no avail. The hot hands anchored him. He tensed.

But no.

The hands freed him, turned him. He lay on his shoulders, knees spread wide to accommodate Spock's body, hips resting on Spock's strong hot thighs. Past his own swaying cock he could see Spock's. He raised on an elbow, reached to grasp it. Spock rose to his touch. So satin soft, so hot, so alive, the green-brown shaft brightening at the head to a new, wild, nameless color, the green of acorns before they fall. Spock's balls, wrinkled and furred like the green husk that hides the hazelnut. Alien. Beautiful.

Kirk lay back, lifted his hips an inch higher. Spock's eyes went from his prick to his face, then back. He lifted Kirk, and leaned forward, his cock snugged tight against the clenched muscle. Deliberately, slowly, he set himself against that locked door.

Relax, Kirk commanded his overstrung body, relax and it won't hurt. But he couldn't yield. Eyes locked on Spock's face, body tight, he waited for the Vulcan to reach for his mind. Then he would know. Muscle failing, flesh stretched to the tearing point, he braced himself for worse pain, for Spock turning away. They were both trembling. Spock paused.

"Don't stop now."

The Vulcan set himself to obey as if the pain were in his own flesh. Forward, an inch, two... Pierced, Kirk set his teeth against protest, clutched the soft carpet as Spock withdrew, sword pulled from wound, rhythm beginning, sharkskin texture against his raw, tender anus. His whole body shook with the effort not to pull away. Pain was subduing his erection. He could feel Spock's doubt and he flinched as the Vulcan freed one hand and reached toward his face.

Spock faltered, and then with a violent jerk and sob withdrew. Kirk's nerves protested the abrupt movement, then gratefully reported the stretched muscle closing in. Spock was bent over, clutching his groin.

Kirk's own erection was gone. He reached out and Spock pulled away from his touch, said something in a hopeless whisper, half sob.

"Spock."

With a visible effort, and something in it that hinted it was the last effort possible, Spock found the control to turn again.

"It was--too much to ask." Under Kirk's shocked eyes, the vitality that had always been so unquestionable was failing. The hand that reached to caress him was weak, the gesture a farewell. Horrified, Kirk caught Spock's hand, aborting the gesture. A wash of fear drenched him.

"Wait--it's not--" Shame was a physical barrier in his throat, but fear forced him to speak. "I thought you were the killer. I was afraid. That's why Dray was ahead of me."

Spock looked at him without reaction. He's going into shock, Kirk thought. He doesn't understand. They said the truth would set you free. He had always wanted truth, respected that above all else. 'The truth' he had demanded of Dray. He had forced Spock's truth from him. Let Spock die because he couldn't face the truth about himself? He rolled up to his knees and pulled the Vulcan's hand forcibly to his temple, shoved the ugly image to the front of his mind.

"Look at it, Spock. See what I'm really like." His voice was ugly. It sounded as if he wanted to hurt Spock with his ugliness.

Lightly, lightly, the fingers touched their precise contact points and Kirk held the image spotlighted while all his self shrank away from it. He experienced a doubled vision as Spock also contemplated the ugliness--the berserk animal lust, the murderous fury, the specific threat. Kirk cringed into a corner of his mind waiting for the hurt, the anger, the withdrawal. Dray's death, Spock's death, all--his fault.

The contact strengthened; the tentative touch firmed.

"Fear is not unforgivable. That is what I feared."

"And lies?" Kirk threw the memory at Spock--himself turning away, not speaking the truth he owed. His mind magnified it, hall of mirrors, a hundred Kirks turning away from truth, accepting the sacrifice they did not deserve, betraying the trust. It was uglier far than his image of the bestial Spock driven past knowledge of what he did. He turned away, breaking the contact, said aloud, "I didn't want you to know."

Spock sighed. "I can forgive anything, bear anything except your pain." He spoke as if he sounded something deep inside himself, words falling like stones into the depths until a faint, final echo confirmed the truth. "You are my weakness. I cannot bear to see you hurt."

Kirk gave a bleak, humorless bark of laughter. "Then close your eyes." And softer, half command, half appeal, "Close your eyes."

He pushed the Vulcan back, straightened the tense figure out. There was no comfort on the bare floor but the warmth of their two bodies. It would have to be enough. Spock yielded blindly to his touch, shudders of tension shaking him, stretching every muscle in high relief. The wasting and fever in the lean figure frightened Kirk. He leaned forward and kissed Spock's face, his lover's face. However imperfectly, with whatever codicils, conditions and reservations, he did love Spock. As much as he could love.

Kirk's thighs were shaking, his testicles drawn achingly tight against his body as he straddled Spock. When he looked down, sweat dropped from his face to Spock's belly. His own penis hung slack, detumescent over Spock's arching shaft. Kirk touched himself with one hand, trying to ease the ache, rouse some feeling, touched Spock with the other. A drop of fluid seeped from the tip of the leaf-green organ, and the Vulcan groaned and thrust up in Kirk's hand, the soft skin sliding over the horn-hard engorgement within.

Kirk parted himself and guided the green spear to snug, sure entrance. Take what you need, he'd told Spock, and Spock couldn't. He forced his unwilling body down, down, until the tip of the cock seemed knocking against his heart, triggering the gag reflex at the back of his throat.

He tightened around Spock's cock, made a slow, erotic circle of his hips, lifted almost off the throbbing shaft and impaled himself again. Spock raised his knees to support Kirk and braced himself, tremors easing, lean body gathering power. Kirk moved again, taking the pain, glad of it. Damn the body, body so bent on survival it betrayed him before their loving was one night old. He didn't want pleasure. He ground his ass against Spock's pelvis in an agony of remorse for what he could not give.

Spock's lips were parted, slightly swollen, his nostrils flared, brows frowning and eyes narrowed to slits. Kirk thought he saw his reflection there before Spock's head sagged back and his spine arched up, up, driving his cock deep into Kirk's body.

Reason left them, and strength beyond reason flooded through them as they fought for the ultimate possession of mate and life. Spock rolled them over, heedless of anything but the need to thrust, again and again into the satin depths that clutched him. Frantically he lifted and turned Kirk's body, ramming himself deeper and deeper inside. Kirk was split, sundered and tumbled through space. Spock's fire filled him so that his own fingers became claws, nails ripping down Spock's back, teeth drawing blood.

And it wasn't enough. The desperate, driving invasion of his body faltered and began again, but weaker. The electric, paralyzing pain of Spock's steel inside him, Spock's fire filling him was not enough. They clung on the edge of release and could not achieve it.

Kirk was sobbing, cursing, his respiratory system on overload, his heart trying to batter itself out of his body, his strength welling out like blood.

Come, damn you.

Spock thrust again, and it hurt less, they were losing the sensation, dying for lack of it. The Vulcan flinched from the thought, tried to push him away. Kirk fought back, refusing to die like this, bloodied puppet in an insane universe that made Spock want what could not satisfy him, refused to let Spock die. He drove himself down on Spock, leaned forward, clasped Spock's sides with his knees, locked ankles behind him. He pulled Spock close.

Now, Spock, it has to be now. He bit down through Spock's lower lip and blood filled his mouth. A whisper, a silken touch deeper in his mind than his body, a sweet, sensuous surge, approached, drew back, then foamed through him, transmuting pain to pleasure to joy.

His blood scalded him, running hot as the Vulcan's through his veins. Shock waves of fiery pleasure battered his mind and body. Fire became his element. His breath turned the air glassy with heat; his hair curled away in a corona of flame from his scalp, beneath his arms, between his legs. He could not hold tight enough, drive hard enough, take enough, give enough, pierce or be pierced enough. Barriers shimmered and fled. He saw himself as Spock saw him. No mirror had ever given him that bright, doomed beauty, shown him that young god cast down and sweating out the terms of his humanity. Far away he heard his own unimportant denial, but his body became imperishable crystal, filled with light. Canon of proportion, he stood spread eagled across the starlanes, shedding light.

* * *

Eons, ages later he was mortal again. The frail wrapper of his body stung and ached. Beside him Spock lay sleeping, free at last of fever, pain and fear. I freed him, thought Kirk. He had never felt greater satisfaction in his life. He stroked the damp bangs smooth, laid his hand against Spock's side to verify the slow, regular beat of the alien heart. Lower, nestling in dense pubic hair, Spock's cock lay eased, soft in sleep. Ghosts of pleasure fled through Kirk's body, reminding him. Who would have guessed it would be like that?

Aflame

The Vulcan stirred, opened his eyes and reached up to pull him close. Don't leave me. The words echoed in Kirk's mind without the need for speech. All the possible futures took their different tracks before him--vastness of space, treason of time, his own imperfect humanity.

Never, he defied them, and sealed it with a kiss.

Spock winced at the pain of his swollen lip. The grip of his hands on Kirk's shoulders eased as they focused on the blood, the bruises.

"You need healing," he said, "and I hardly trust myself to touch you."

"I trust you." Kirk held up his own stained hand, matching his square fingers to Spock's slender ones, intertwining them, strengthening his bond to that dark Vulcan heat. "Perfect match." And there was no fear in him.

"No wonder I love you."

* * *

Eventually, Kirk woke again, lazily floating to the surface of sleep and drifting there, mind and body bathed in languorous warmth. He didn't have to try his body to know it was well again, and the transience of the night's pain made it seem almost unreal. Some of the warmth shifted. That's Spock, he thought, and a pulse of pleasure throbbed deep inside him like an intimate touch, surprising him again with his own response. Something new to explore. Spock moved away but did not get up. Looking at me, Kirk thought.

He rubbed his head carelessly on a pillow which had not been there when he went to sleep, feeling the sheet spread over him. Restlessly he flipped over on his back, flinging his right arm wide, raising his right knee. He kept his breathing deep and slow, his face blank. Classic pose, Mr. Spock. Aren't you going to peek? It amused him that Spock could still be shy of him. Surely after last night's passion, even a Vulcan wouldn't hesitate to slide the sheet down from where it rested slant-wise across his waist--no, not too shy after all. Cool air followed warm as the sheet was eased away. As if Spock's gaze brought its own sensation, he felt the soft elastic arch his cock made against his raised leg.

Deep and even, concentrate on breathing, he warned himself. But something must have shown on his face.

"Jim," Spock's voice sounded very serious, "I know you are not sleeping."

"Yes, I am. Sleeping Beauty."

There was a moment of ambivalence, while he pictured Spock's expression of puzzlement or exasperation, then a tentative kiss was pressed against his lips, growing less tentative as he responded. But he kept his eyes shut.

"Well?" Spock's tone was drier now.

"Nice. Right method, wrong location. I'm still asleep." Play the game, Spock. You're going to love the prize.

"Indeed?" Spock's breath was warm on his cheek, his ear, his neck. A second kiss lightly touched his shoulder, sending an electric thrill down his arm to his fingertips. "I wonder--" the lips slid along Kirk's collarbone "--where the--appropriate place--can be?"

It was all Kirk could do not to gather the Vulcan into a hug for humoring this foolishness, and he could not control the breath coming quicker between his lips, the accelerating beat of his heart, or stirrings farther down.

"Vulcans," said Spock, pausing to circle one nipple with his pointed tongue, "are very thorough people," he moved to the other and sucked the nub, nipping it with his teeth, "known for their persistence." Shocks of delight tingled in the wake of his lips. "If such a place exists," his breath was zigzagging a warm path across Kirk's belly, each change in direction punctuated with moist lips, sharp nips of the teeth or calligraphy of that exquisite tongue, "eventually I will find it."

The tongue hesitated at the hipbone, then slid down Kirk's thigh. The whispering warmth addressed the inside of his raised knee.

"Eventually!"

"The true researcher," said Spock against his thigh, "is never in a hurry."

"The true researcher might get a surprise if he keeps that up." Tremors were running up Kirk's thighs, and he felt the first scalding seminal bubble rising in him.

"This?" Spock's innocent tone would go with the lifted eyebrow, but his tongue left Kirk. Only his breath was warm, so warm, his mouth must be close.

I can't stand it if he moves off. Spock, please...

And the kiss, at last, firm on the glans of his penis, Spock's strong hand on the root, and his lips opening, tongue welcoming...

"Oh, God, Spock--" He had to look then. Had to see the incredible sight of Spock sucking him, eyes dark slits, cheeks hollowing, one hand on Kirk's cock, one kneading his stomach. Their eyes met, and Kirk shuddered, helpless to hold back, helpless to look away as the surge of pleasure crested and he came in Spock's eagerly drinking mouth.

Panting, shaking, eyes wet with tears, he watched Spock reluctantly release him, waking kiss, parting kiss, so damn beautiful. He eased up and offered another kiss, almost shyly, that Kirk claimed with rough pleasure. He pulled the Vulcan down against his chest, running strong hands down his back, urging his hips closer, twining legs, not content until the whole hot length of the Vulcan was pressed against him.

Spock surrendered to the hug and kissed his ear.

"Good morning, Captain."

"Good morning, Mr. Spock. And a very good morning it is, too. Is there anything--and I do mean anything--I can do for you?" He pressed Spock's thigh tight between his own, canted his hips up, forcing acknowledgement that the Vulcan's cock was steel hard between them. He saw the fire flare for a moment, the desire tremble on Spock's lips.

"It is--enough--to please you."

"You have. You do, very much. That wasn't what I asked." He squirmed against Spock, and the Vulcan's hands tightened on his arms to hold him still.

"You cannot wish--" images of pain wheeled in Spock's mind, fought with desire. "I should--"

Kirk silenced him with a kiss and wiggled free to turn on his stomach. There was a silence once again, and then Spock's hands, lifting him, parting him. The sweet, stinging liquor of Spock's mouth bathing him, Spock's tongue teasing, circling, Spock's cock touching him, hesitating, then slowly, slowly forcing in. There was pain, not enough, and Spock's hands squeezed his ass hard as it peaked, and then only exquisite, exquisite joining, a long slow slide of pleasure he wanted inside him forever. Who would have thought so much pleasure possible, Spock impaling him on that acorn-green cock?

* * *

Kirk didn't want to shower and dress, but Spock, regaining some sense of his responsibilities, insisted that they go and eat. When they walked briskly (and artificially) into the empty rec room, it was 1400, an hour into second shift. Kirk sat lazily and let Spock choose for both of them, but when he saw the contents of his tray, he glanced up wickedly through his lashes.

"Trying to build me up?"

"They are highly nutritious," Spock said with dignity as he began on his salad, but a slight flush betrayed him. He knew the significance humans attached to oysters.

Kirk enjoyed his meal, but he felt restless. Part of him wanted to be up and doing. The ship felt small, familiar. He wanted his exotic mate beside him in exotic places and high endeavors. A second part of him resented the slight feeling of invisibility it gave him to be off the duty roster, to have the ship functioning without him. And all of him, shamelessly, wanted to be back in the privacy of Spock's room.

"What do I get for dessert?" he asked suggestively, watching as Spock's color betrayed him again.

The Vulcan had prudently taken a place with his back to the room, but even from that view, the tips of his ears must have been suspiciously green.

"Surely you have some suggestion, Mr. Spock," Kirk goaded, watching the way Spock's eyes narrowed and his lips parted on an indrawn breath, "as the science officer of a starship, you should be able to rise to the occasion." He was teasing, and not teasing, playing with fire and he loved it. Just to see Spock's response started the sensation, spiraling into being in his center, a gathering brightness like a new-formed nebula. "What would you like?"

Spock raised his eyes, accepting the challenge, letting his fire show.

"I prefer to make my suggestions in private, Captain, if you're ready."

But McCoy looked in as they were leaving the table, oblivious of his bad timing.

"There you are, Jim. The chaplain says that the Guthrie custom is burial on the field of battle. He's requested that the ship drop warp speed to eject Dray's body. Scotty wanted your permission."

The gathering fire inside Kirk shrank, an insignificant sparkle in the deeps of space. Dray, who had brought them this joy.

"We owe him that. When do they want to do it?"

"We're ready now. I thought you would want to attend." McCoy looked questioningly at Spock, who had previously avoided participation in religious ceremonies.

"He saved our lives, Doctor. I would be honored to attend."

* * *

It wasn't much of a ceremony, cramped into the airlock adjacent to the shuttlebay. Uhura and Sunderson and Nadia were there. McCoy trailed Spock and Kirk into the room where they spaced themselves around the aluminum coffin. The cover was closed, but it hinged on one side, and the bolts on the other weren't dogged. There were several officers and crewmembers who officiated for various faiths, so Kirk wasn't surprised to see Lapsley enter and take up a place at the head of coffin.

"I'm not sure what faith Dray was, if any, but I am an ordained minister in the Church of the Second Dispersal, and I'm authorized to conduct services for any faith for the term of my enlistment. If there are no objections and no one better qualified, I will conduct a memorial service for Dray T'serek."

There were no objections, and Lapsley took a small red book out of his waistband.

"This is the Guthrie Book of Battle, a manual of arms from their dark ages before they rediscovered space flight, back when they fought with swords and spears. It teaches a young warrior how to care for his body and his weapons, how to do his duty and defend his honor. I found it in Dray's effects, and I think the instructions it gives for those fallen in battle would be appropriate for Dray."

He opened the book to a marked page and cleared his throat.

"Many fall in battle and are slain. Them we honor in our hearts, friend and foe alike. They are our comrades who go before us. When men die in peace, there are many to mourn, but in battle friends may be afar off or hard pressed by their enemies, and it touches the honor of the fallen to release their friends of obligation.

"Therefore the fallen are the friends of all and all the fallen are friends of thine. Give them peace with a good heart as you would your dearest, to spare him pain, and close their eyes, and bare their breasts that all may see their wounds were before them. If you know good of them, speak it and pass on.

"Do this and no more, for duty is to life. Honor lives in the heart, not the flesh that fails. Do this and no more, for earth is easy to the fallen and night covers them."

Lapsley closed the book and moved to lift the lid of the coffin. Dray was lying on a white pad, bare to the waist and someone had bandaged his gaping wound. Above the white ceinture his shoulders and arms were hardly marked, and his face was unchanged, the bold, sensual features composed, the waving silk of his hair a little ruffled by the close edge of the coffin.

Kirk stepped forward and smoothed the boy's hair. Safe to touch now, to give the comfort that was no longer needed.

"Dray saved my life without counting the cost." He stepped back.

Uhura came forward. "Dray was strong. He used his strength for others."

"He was a gentleman," said McCoy. "I am proud to have served with him."

"He saved my men on Gamma Hydrae IV," Lapsley said. "I don't think he ever knew fear."

"He took care of us in the dark and I never thanked him," said Sunderson.

"He did his job," Nadia said. She turned to Spock.

The Vulcan stepped forward and looked down at the pale face. He had given his valediction. His hand went out to touch Dray's forehead.

"He was worthy of love."

* * *

They closed the cover and dogged the bolts home, to save him from decompression, and left him alone in the room. Lapsley secured the airlock door and moved to the controls while they watched. He cut ship's gravity in the little room, and pushed the button that would open the exterior doors. The rush of air toward the black gulf would be enough to stir the coffin and carry it out, floating, its movement as random as anything in space. They waited until the indicators showed the chamber empty and Lapsley sealed the lock again.

"'Night covers them'," Kirk said. "Tell Scotty we can get under way again."

They separated at the lift, Uhura and Sunderson returning to duty stations, Nadia and Lapsley to whatever they did in off duty hours. McCoy went to some unfinished business in sickbay and Kirk and Spock were left standing shoulder to shoulder, a contact neither of them moved to break until the doors opened and they could seek the refuge of Spock's cabin.

Kirk dropped onto the bed and rolled his head from side to side, fighting tension in his neck. Guilt, he told himself, is a cheap substitute for responsibility. All you can do now is--do better the next time. But that resolution could not banish the feeling of undeserved reward.

Dray had been worthy of love. He had wanted life, but he was drifting in the eternal night between the stars. Spock, also worthy of love, had nearly died for lack of it, and yet for James Kirk it was poured out freely, with no price but acceptance. Injustice always angered him and there was no justice in love. He felt tender and fierce at once. Spock should lack nothing he could give.

The Vulcan was still standing in the middle of the room, lost in thought, his face so closed and quiet Kirk had to offer comfort. He rose and pulled the tall figure close, tipping Spock's head down on his shoulder, offering his own closeness wordlessly until he felt tears against his neck.

"For Dray?" he asked.

A negative shake of Spock's head denied it. He pulled a little away.

"For myself, because I had no tears to give him. People have loved me, Jim, and I couldn't even cry for them. I could give life easier than tears."

"You can cry now."

Another shake of the head as Spock wiped the tears away, studied the moisture on the back of his fingers.

"I don't want to cry now." He reached out and touched the moisture to Kirk's cheek. "I want--I want you," and Spock pulled him close, into a kiss that dimmed every other reality, started the nebula swirling in the dark. Some interior censor weighed Dray's still face and Spock's tears. Speak, and then pass on, duty is to the living. Kirk yielded to the kiss, the fevered hunger claiming him. What Spock wanted, whatever Spock wanted, he wanted too.

His lips were stinging as he pulled away for breath and the gravity seemed stronger in the room, pulling him down until he had to cling to Spock like a drunken man. Was it Spock who couldn't ask for love? A breath of laughter shook him at his own dazed state, at the hunter's look Spock bent on him.

"I think you're learning to say what you want, Spock."

The laughter communicated itself to Spock, who kissed him again, bruising his lips, using his strength, the strength of his desire to demand response. He drew back and surveyed Kirk's face with satisfaction.

"Convincingly, I hope?"

"God, yes." Kirk's hands, his weight were urging Spock to the floor, pulling him down, but Spock wouldn't yield, held him up and away, effortlessly.

"Not yet," he said. The hands turned Kirk, faced him to the full-length mirror. "Look at yourself."

Kirk took in his tousled hair, swollen lips, and his eyes, hooded with pleasure. His face looked solemn and heavy and a flush was burning in his face, down his neck.

"Now undress," commanded Spock. "Watch yourself in the mirror."

Half hypnotized by that purr, Kirk stripped off his shirt and let it drop, his eyes going to Spock's in the mirror. Spock's hand flashed out and impacted sharply against his left buttock, hard enough to hurt.

"Watch yourself," he warned.

Kirk dropped his eyes to his waist in the mirror, where he could see Spock, behind him and to one side, copying his gestures. Spock's shirt fell and Kirk's hands went to the fastening of his pants, opened the waistband, slid the closure down. He let the pants fall, a little, and then deliberately hooked his thumbs inside the waistband of his briefs and slid them down a cautious inch and then another.

Risking another blow if the movement didn't please Spock, Kirk turned his right side to the mirror and bent forward, vulnerable, easing the cloth down below his hips, presenting himself, one cheek surely marked with a red print of Spock's hand. Hobbled, awkward, he balanced on one leg and then the other; shifting, showing the cleft in his ass, the fair skin of inner thigh, the dusky rose of balls, he rid himself of his boots and straightened. Still in profile, watching his body and Spock's in the mirror, he let the pants slide to the floor and kicked them aside.

Spock straightened too, eyes on Kirk's cock in the mirror as it arched out of its curly nest. Without warning, Spock hooked Kirk's ankles apart, turning him back to the mirror, allowing no hiding and Kirk needed no command now to fix his eyes on the glass, comparing them.

"Lean forward. Put your left hand on the glass." Spock's deep voice moved him, and he fell forward, taking his weight on one hand, muscles tensing and weaving to the strain. His legs were parted, stretched helplessly open and vulnerable to Spock's hands. Spock, please.

A faint touch, lightly drawn finger, traveled down his spine, drifted to trace the smarting mark on his ass. He half flinched away, half thrust forward and earned another sharp blow below the first, pain that exploded into heat.

"You may move your right hand, nothing more."

Kirk's strained position, the bondage of Spock's voice, were increasing the sensation second by second.

"Yes," was all he could gasp as a blow to the unmarked cheek tested his obedience, once, twice, and then Spock's hand went between his legs, cradling his balls, teasing his crack until he sobbed and grabbed his cock and milked it upward twice, the strong, almost painful strokes he needed.

Spock's fingers probed his ass, and he was sore there, and didn't care, wanted those fingers inside him, finding the pleasure place there, behind his balls.

His cock was crimson in his hand, his fist flying from the golden fleece to the fierce head, pulling more and more sensation forth, almost to the edge of release, when Spock reached forward.

"No," he said. "Stop." His grip immobilized Kirk's wrist, froze him in mid-flight. The surge retreated. "Let go," said Spock.

Kirk released his cock, quivering in unfulfillment, Spock slid to his knees, fingers still slowly thrusting, circling inside Kirk. He released Kirk's wrist, stroked across Kirk's thigh and his own chest, slid his hand down and gripped his own cock.

"Now watch me."

Kirk could not have looked away. His hand was clenched in the Vulcan's hair, his abandoned cock bobbed in the air. Spock's fingers were still stroking and circling inside him, and it was torture to watch as the lean fingers stroked that green cock higher and longer, torture to watch Spock's finger and thumb force a burning drop from its velvety head. Spock lifted the drop on a fingertip and held it up.

"Taste."

Kirk could smell Spock's musk, and it destroyed him with desire. He took the drop on his tongue sucking, nibbling Spock's finger with half closed eyes, pretending it was Spock's cock, eager for Spock's cock in his mouth, in his ass, wanting to destroy Spock with his own cock. The finger was pulled away.

"No," Kirk moaned.

But Spock pulled his fingers free of Kirk's ass, unclenched Kirk's hand from his hair. Kirk shook his head miserably, eyes shut tight, helpless to move till Spock willed it, crucified by desire.

"Now take me," the deep voice commanded. Spock lay on his back, thighs wide, cock straining upward in his hand. Kirk knew he should wait, knew there was a reason not to, a decision he had made, but the Vulcan had filled his mind with fire and he couldn't remember, couldn't wait. He was on his knees, lifting Spock, seeking the tight entrance, forcing the door before he could think--flaming, ruthless, without pity.

He slid in, making his own place in the fiery core of Spock's body, withdrew and thrust again, against Spock's pain, seeking release, desperate for it, and suddenly, too soon, he was out of control, spending himself, all of himself in Spock's depths.

When he could, he pulled free, eased Spock's position, feeling true pity now, and some shame for Spock's unfulfilled condition.

Aflame

"I'm sorry," he panted. "I couldn't wait--didn't mean to do that--" He slid down, kissed Spock's belly and reached toward his cock. "Let me catch my breath."

"I can wait." Spock's voice was shaken, too. "I want to come with you in me."

A chuckle shook Kirk. "Don't let the reputation fool you. I'm only human." He teased the crisp curls with his fingertips, eyes feasting on the jade-veined beauty of Spock's cock. "Let me take care of you. I love the way you taste."

Spock moved his hand away.

"I can wait, Jim. It's important to me."

Kirk shifted higher, searched Spock's face where desire and a great vulnerability showed.

"Why?" he whispered. "I know I hurt you--and I didn't want to remind you--"

"That could never be. I wanted you to know how it was for me when I wanted you so much I could not stop. And when I was in you last night, the images in your mind were so beautiful. I wish to know you in all ways."

Kirk tightened his grip, covered Spock's mouth with his, letting desire fuse them into one wanting creature. Spock's hard cock burned against his knee. Spock's breath mingled with his. The nebula swirled, spinning fire, mind to mind. The tension in that lean body demanded response, and he was hard again, so hard, and Spock's thighs opened as he moved, Spock's hands reached back to part himself and show the way...

With one long rocking stroke, Kirk filled him, sliding forever into the flaming, silken tunnel. He was in Spock, this gift needed, wanted, as much as the first. He felt himself welcomed, loved, with every beat of Spock's heart, Spock's blood. Spock gripped him tightly, as he gripped Spock, slowly, lovingly milking his cock, gently rocking inside him. Deliberately, slowly, he lifted them higher, climbing solemnly to the ultimate, inevitable surrender and celebration that left nothing undiscovered, nothing unshared...

* * *

He woke from his lovesleep refreshed and content, but alone this time. He had perfection in his mind, and his body felt as good as a gift. There was a note propped on the desk: "Jim, please meet me in hydroponics." Handwriting precise, no signature. Spock had freshed his uniform and left it neatly folded on the bed. He yawned and got up, starting for the head when he saw himself in the mirror. The heat lightning of lust weakened his knees and he braced himself on the mirror, as helpless as when Spock had placed him there.

This time it's true, he thought. I can't live without him. I would die any death, happy if it was with him. I want to die now because it can never be better than this. He leaned against the glass, thinking, that's how cool I seemed to him, and he could have kissed his own image for being what Spock loved.

He showered and dressed, checked the time, early evening, and walked through the corridors where the crew was moving freely again. He felt himself again, but with new strength, new power, the knowledge that Spock was waiting.

It was dark again in the garden, and he wondered why Spock had chosen it so soon after Dray's death, but forgot to wonder when he found the Vulcan curled up in the window seat of an observation bubble. He was watching the stars, strange rayed giants Doppler-shifted by the speed of the ship into alien colors and configurations.

Kirk settled back against the curved bulkhead, facing Spock. "You shouldn't let me sleep my life away."

"You looked so happy I couldn't bear to wake you."

"I am happy."

"I know," said Spock. "I would give my life to save that happiness for you."

A little tingle of premonition ran down Kirk's spine.

"I would give my life," Spock repeated, and this time the control in his voice showed, and the pain behind it.

"What's the matter?" Kirk's voice was sharper than he meant it to be, and he sat up, sweat prickling out on his back, on his forehead. "What's wrong?"

The answer took forever coming and came too soon. He could hardly hear over the triphammer of his heart, and he wanted to cover his ears, never hear at all.

"Nothing." Spock's voice was bleak, logical. "Nothing is wrong. The fever is over. Having mated, I live, as Vulcans do, without desire."

No.

That price he could not pay. Kirk knelt up on the seat and pulled the Vulcan into his arms, kissed him, all honey and fire, his love like a shout in his mind.

There was no withdrawal. The warm lips parted willingly under his, and when he gripped Spock tighter, the strong arms returned the pressure, but his mind shouted into silence, his heart beat alone. There was comfort in Spock's kiss, nothing more.

In pain too intense for speech, Kirk released him, letting his hands fall, open, empty.

Spock bowed his head. "Jim, I am willing to do anything I can."

Kirk remembered to breathe, willed himself to think, ignoring his body's protest, his soul's anguish. He had to think for them both, could not leave Spock bowed before him like a prisoner at the bar, could not accept that pitiful offer.

"All right," he said automatically, his mouth dry. "Don't--it's not your fault. Just wait a minute."

You served him, his base body protested. But it hadn't been that way. He had wanted Spock from that first moment in the shuttlecraft. Oh, God, how was he ever going to stop wanting him? Pull yourself together, Captain. You're alive. Spock's alive. You had perfection. More than most have.

Say something. He may not feel desire, Oh, my love, but he feels. He hurts.

"You're sure, Spock."

"In that, too, I am Vulcan. I no longer have--even tears--to give you." He raised his face, and it was lined and dry in the faint light of the stars.

He can't even cry. A merciless hand tightened around Kirk's heart and he sobbed. At least I can I feel. Spock misinterpreted the sound and offered all he could offer.

"If--if the pain is too great--if you desire it, I can make you forget."

But it's you I desire. A great fierce surge of all he felt, love, anguish, anger and pride crested through him, brought him to his feet.

"Would you choose to forget?"

Slowly Spock rose to his full height, stood facing him, back to the stars.

"Before I forget what is worthy of love, I will forget my life."

Worthy of love. Only one way to deserve that.

Spock of Vulcan had loved him, and there would be no whining from the man Spock loved, no spoiling of perfection with anything less. Dray T'serek had gone gaily into the long night; Spock himself would have chosen any death before this living death. Surely the captain of a starship could walk unaided the twenty paces that separated them from the door. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Take what you need, he'd said. And now Spock needed freedom.

He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.

"Then I'll see you on the bridge, Mr. Spock."

Very much the captain of the Enterprise, he turned and began his journey.

 

~ fin ~

 

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