Gently, reverently, Spock picked up the small wooden box, allowing his fingertips to drift across its intricately carved surface in a motion that could not be mistaken for anything other than a caress. He turned to his bondmate-to-be, who was sitting on the bed, watching him intently. "This will not take long," Spock said.
He was answered with a single, grave nod.
Holding the box close to his body, Spock left the bedroom and walked through the darkened sitting room and out onto the balcony beyond.
The chill of the late evening air was sharp against his skin. Below him, the Zeman-Jacobs Chasm yawned, its bottom lost in the swirling blanket of white mist cast up by the Opal River. On the far side of the chasm a sparse scattering of lights glimmered in the darkness, revealing the presence of other cliff dwellings similar to his own. Above the cliff the blue stars of the Dragon’s Eye Cluster blazed brightly, illuminating the glowing ribbons of the T’Netha Nebula. The only sound was the crash and roar of the racing Opal.
Spock sat down on the balcony’s wide ledge and placed the box beside him. He closed his eyes. He had faced other difficult tasks in his lifetime—he would survive this. And when it was done, he would go to the one who waited for him. He would lie down beside him, and take him in his arms, and by dawn they would be one. He longed for the bond—and feared it as well. But his decision had been made, and there was only this one, final thing to do before his new life could begin.
He opened his eyes and looked at the box. The ornate object was as beautiful as it was functional. It had been custom-made by a Nalorian security master; it was keyed to Spock’s DNA and would open for his touch alone.
Drawing a deep breath, he pressed one fingertip against a small depression near the center of the box, another against a tiny protuberance on the box’s lower left-hand edge. The lid of the box split in two and its edges drew back, leaving its contents open to Spock’s gaze.
How many times had he performed this ritual? He did not know. He had long since stopped counting. It had been more than fifteen years since he’d found his treasure on a nameless, rain-drenched frontier world in a sector where secrets were currency and outcasts of every description wandered freely, unbound by Federation law or the blood pacts of the Klingon Clans or the Edicts of the Romulan Emperor or rules of any making save their own....
Cloaked against the ever-present deluge, Spock had come to the trader’s kiosk seeking dilithium crystals; he almost walked right past what he assumed to be an unadorned white dinner plate. But some instinct drew his eyes back to the milky circle, and he saw that the ‘plate’ was, in fact, slightly convex and therefore not at all useful as dinnerware. Curious, he reached out to touch the strange object, but the trader —who had previously been oblivious to his Vulcan customer’s presence—snapped at Spock’s hand with his long, tooth-filled snout, narrowly missing four hastily withdrawn fingers.
"Naut...tauch!" the trader said, in a thick, hissing voice that was obviously not meant for humanoid speech. "Buy...feerssst...theen...tauch."
Deciding to look elsewhere for his much-needed dilithium, Spock started to turn away. That was when he saw it: the barest outline glimmering in the center of the pale disk. Intrigued, he leaned closer and found himself looking at the face of a ghost.
No longer caring what damage the trader’s dangerous jaws might inflict, Spock ran paired fingers across the disk’s smooth surface, whispering a single, emotion-laden syllable: "Jim."
For ten years, three months, seven days, five hours, eight minutes, and forty-four seconds, Kirk had been lost and presumed dead. In all the galaxy, Spock was the only one who did not share that presumption. He’d been searching for Kirk ever since his disappearance, and now he could not take his eyes from the image in the disk.
"What is this artifact?" he asked, wondering if his voice could be heard over his hammering heart.
"Waant...toooo....buy?" the trader asked.
"Where did you get it? Where did it come from?" Spock demanded, barely restraining himself from seizing the trader by the neck and shaking the answers out of him.
"Yooo...weel...buy," the trader said, rattling his many teeth in noisy satisfaction as if the matter were firmly settled.
Having learned that Federation credits were worthless in such circumstances, Spock produced a single bar of high-grade latinum and placed it on the counter. The trader looked at it and rendered his version of a laugh. Spock quickly produced a second bar and a third.
"Paaay...mmmore!" the trader demanded.
Spock had only six bars of latinum, and he knew the dilithium was going to cost at least three. But one by one he handed over the remaining bars, and when they were not enough, he added a small vial of precious Rithian oil and a holographic recorder and a ring that he’d hoped to trade for a set of updated star maps. The trader shook his massive head. Desperate, Spock handed over the Andorian thleck leaves that he’d planned to eat for dinner, his waterproof cloak, and his boots, which were relatively new.
Jaws parted in a horrifying parody of a smile, the trader nodded in satisfaction at the offered pile of goods and placed the milky-white disk with its shimmering image of James T. Kirk into Spock’s shaking hands.
The instant Spock touched the disk its clouded face cleared, becoming almost translucent. But Kirk’s image remained, its outline sharpening, its hues intensifying; except for some slight distortion near the edges of the disk, it was a perfect likeness, far more vibrant and compelling than any holograph Spock had ever seen. When the image’s lips curled upward in a beguiling grin, Spock almost fell to his knees. Only Vulcan control kept him on his feet.
It did not matter that he was wet and cold and hungry, or that he would be stranded on the reptilian trader’s dreary world for weeks on end, laboring and bartering his way to a pair of functional dilithium crystals. Spock felt rejuvenated, filled with new hope. With any luck, the disk might prove to be a recording device containing important clues to Kirk’s location, or, even better, a directional beacon that would guide him straight to the captain.
Barefoot and soaked to the skin, Spock slipped the precious disk beneath his tunic and hurried back to the spaceport, certain that if he worked diligently enough he would unlock the secrets of the strange object and discover Jim’s whereabouts. Because Jim was still alive. Of that, he had no doubt.
Two days later, bitterly disappointed, Spock reluctantly admitted defeat. His research had revealed that the disk was nothing more than a projector of sorts, whose unique crystalline structure focused and amplified the thoughts of the one who possessed it. It was activated by touch, or, in the case of a telepath, by mere proximity. Kirk’s image had come not from some alternate dimension or distant region of space, but from Spock’s own mind.
Giving in to years of pent-up rage, Spock held the offending alien artifact high in the air, intending to smash it on the ground. But when he saw Kirk’s image glimmering in the disk he could not destroy it. Eyes fixed on that bewitching face, Spock lowered his arms, and sat down in the cushioned pilot’s seat of his small spacecraft. For four days he remained there, holding the disk, remembering. His memories of Kirk were eidetic, as detailed and distinct as the reality that had formed them; in his hands the disk produced dynamic images of startling clarity—images that, with some additional effort on Spock’s part, could even be made to speak.
Weeks later, when he finally procured his dilithium crystals and left the rain-soaked world behind him, the disk went with him, safely cradled on a cushion of Andorian silk in its newly crafted Nalorian security box. For the next fifteen years, it remained Spock’s constant—and only—companion.
Reaching into the box, Spock carefully lifted the disk from its bed of silk and held it up before his face. There, looking back at him, was a perfect reflection of James T. Kirk, just as he had appeared the last time Spock had seen him.
"Jim," Spock whispered.
The image smiled as if it had heard him.
"It has been twenty-five-point-two-seven years," Spock said. "If you were here now...." As he spoke the image altered, the hair graying, the creases around the eyes and mouth deepening.
"Yes," Spock said. "This is how you would be if I could see you now.... "
Kirk’s image watched him, waiting patiently.
"Jim," Spock said, "I do not know what you may be able to feel through this...connection...that exists between us. You are not a telepath, but I learned long ago not to underestimate the power of your human intuition. If you can hear me, if you can sense my thoughts, then I ask that you hear me out, that you try to understand and to accept what I must tell you now."
Spock remained silent for a moment, gathering himself. "I love you," he said, staring into the aged hazel eyes that gazed back at him with all the fire of youth. "I will always love you. Nothing can change that. Long after I am dead and buried, my love for you will remain an inalterable fact, a part of what has been, a part of what will be, a constant of the universe. Of this you must have no doubt.
"When they came to me, when they told me that you were dead, I was shocked to the core. Because, you see, I did not feel your death. In my mind, the link between us was as strong as ever.
"I told them that there was some mistake—that you were most definitely alive. I insisted they resume the search for you. When they dismissed my concerns as those of a grieving man unable to accept his friend’s death, I became still more insistent, not caring how illogical—how emotional—my arguments might seem.
"If we had been bondmates...."
Spock bowed his head and closed his eyes. "Jim," he said, "our reasons for not formalizing our relationship, for not developing our spontaneous link into a true bond, were logical: our mutual concern that the bond might interfere with our obligations to Starfleet, your concerns that your death might cut my life short. I accepted these reasons, but I knew, Jim. Through it all I knew that you wished to preserve your independence, that you wanted—you needed—to be free. And I...I needed you to be happy. Or at least, as happy as one so restless can ever be.
"But now I am haunted by the knowledge that if we had bonded, I could have found you: nothing could have kept me from you. "
Opening his eyes, Spock looked at Kirk, watched as his features grew a little younger, watched him smile the same farewell he had smiled on the day he left for his fateful trip on the Enterprise B.
"Somehow," Spock said. "I sensed that you would not be returning to me. I should have spoken, given voice to my fear. But I had no logical basis for my concerns and it seemed selfish to want to keep you always at my side. Perhaps, if we had been bonded, you would have stayed with me...perhaps I should have asked you to be my bondmate then, in that final moment before you left. If I had, Jim, what would you have said?"
Spock swallowed hard and looked away, at the mist-filled canyon below him. "I did not attend your memorial service. McCoy was furious with me. I told him that it was illogical to hold a memorial service for one who still lives. He thought I was mentally unbalanced, ‘unhinged’ as he put it. I did not care what he thought. I did not care what anyone thought. I resigned from Starfleet, liquidated all of my assets, set aside all concerns save one: finding you was all that mattered to me.
"Only you, Jim. For so long, it has been only you. I do not pretend to fully understand this...obsession. It began, I suppose, long before you disappeared," Spock said, as his eyes were drawn back to the disk and an image of a youthful Kirk, appearing as he had on the day he took command of the Enterprise.
"On my world wisdom is believed to come only with age. You were so young...I had grave doubts about your ability to command. I did not expect to react to you as I did. Never before had I felt such a sudden, intense affinity for another. And you felt it too, Jim. I could see it in the way you looked at me. I was shocked and frightened...and fascinated. And as you well know, over the years that affinity grew, until, at last, we were connected, even without the bond.
"It is that connection that I followed—or tried to follow—as I roamed from world to world searching for you. There were many rumors concerning the region of space in which you disappeared. I developed my own theories, tested them one by one, discarded them as they failed. Desperate for additional data, I collected and catalogued fantasies and half-truths about some phantom, alternate dimension, a paradisiacal ‘nexus’ in which an eternal life of utter contentment could be attained. I wandered wherever these tales took me, sifting through each story, no matter how incredible, with meticulous care. I spoke with sages and fools and madmen. I was driven half mad myself. And all I have to show for my efforts is this...thing...in my hands," Spock said, staring at the disk, watching as Kirk grew a little older, a little more careworn, looking very much as he had near the end of their first five-year mission.
"This is...difficult, Jim," Spock said. "I was so very weary when I came here, to Serenity. It is a quiet, contemplative world, a place devoted to scholarly pursuits, where I can resume my scientific research and teach others what I have learned. It is a place of great natural beauty, of rugged cliffs and shining lakes and thundering waterfalls. If you were here, you would enjoy it immensely for a week or two, and then you would be gone...seeking new worlds, new horizons."
Spock shook his head. "Forgive me Jim. I did not mean to sound bitter. The truth is that I loved your questing nature, your joy of exploration, your refusal to be satisfied with an imperfect universe. But now I am growing old and time is short. I have been so alone. You, more than any other, must know what it is to hold your dreams in your hands and never see them realized. My memories are no longer enough: I need to touch and be touched.
"You were the one who taught me to acknowledge such needs, to honor them. That first night we spent together...." Spock’s voice trailed off as he watched a new image forming in the disk: a dimly lit room—the captain’s cabin, and on his bunk, two figures, one fair, the other dark, their naked bodies tangled in an embrace.
"I was transformed in your arms...became a new being, achingly aware of the possibilities of the physical—possibilities that I had denied myself until your touch melted away my cold logic and stubborn fear.
"For twenty-five years I have searched," Spock said, as the image shifted again, to a picture of Kirk standing on the Enterprise’s observation deck, his body silhouetted against the star-strewn vista of deep space. "Weary, broken I came to Serenity hoping to find some respite—however brief—from my despair. I did not expect to remain here...I did not expect to fall in love."
Kirk walked out of the shadows, drawing closer and closer until his face nearly filled the disk. Spock wanted to look away; instead he stared bravely into the captain’s intense, questioning gaze.
"His name is S’Neth," Spock said. "In some ways, he is very like you, Jim. His eyes are more like yours than any I have ever seen, their hue an ever-changing mixture of honey, amber, and gold. His hair is only a little darker than yours was when you were young. He is shorter than I and broader, and though his age differs from mine by only a few years, he appears much younger, due to his pure Vulcan physiology. I will admit that I was initially drawn to his beauty, but it is his spirit I have come to love.
"Like you, he is a student of history. He pursues this interest with fierce intensity; I take great delight in listening to him describe each aspect of his research. He is extremely intelligent and patient and gentle. And he understands me, Jim. He knows what it is to live as an outcast. The son of interstellar archaeological researchers, he spent much of his youth in space, journeying from one world to the next. He was exposed to many cultures and his training was not as strict as that of most young Vulcans. But because of their impressive standing in the scientific community, his parents were able to arrange a respectable bonding for him with a young man of good lineage.
"For years, S’Neth lived with his bondmate on Vulcan, enduring the criticism of others. Many—his mate among them—found him too undisciplined, too emotional. Five years ago, by agreement of both parties, his first bonding was dissolved and he came here, to Serenity, seeking the peace that had eluded him on Vulcan.
"We met four months ago when I attended a talk he was giving on the First Cycle of the Romulan Trade War. For the two hours of his presentation, I could not take my eyes from him. Afterward, I introduced myself, and we walked together beside the Opal River. We have rarely been apart since that first meeting.
"S’Neth does not have your fire, Jim," Spock said, caressing the disk’s surface, tracing the outlines of Kirk’s eyes and lips. "But his quiet love is what I need now. Please, t’hy’la, please understand. The truth...." Spock’s voice faltered, and his hand fell away from the image in the disk.
Kirk’s image frowned slightly, its hazel eyes reflecting Spock’s distress.
"The truth, Jim, is that I have been lying to myself. I know that you are not in pain, that you are not injured or imprisoned or in despair. All these years some part of me has known that wherever you are, for the first time in your life, you are truly happy. For a very long time I could not accept this—could not acknowledge that something or someone else had given you that which I most desired to give you...that which I could not give you. Perhaps you are in the fabled Nexus. I do not know. But I do know that you are, at last, content.
"If it were otherwise, if you were suffering in any way, I would never abandon my search for you: I would devote every second of life that remains to me to finding you and freeing you from whatever prison held you. But here, in this quiet place, I have come to see that my long search has been more selfish than selfless. It was not you who needed me, but I who so desperately needed you. But now...."
Spock watched as the image in the disk transformed itself once again, aging until Kirk appeared just as he had in their last days together.
"I told you earlier that S’Neth understands me," Spock said, eyes fixed on Kirk’s face. "And he does understand; he accepts that you will always be a part of me. His is not a jealous nature. But though he has not asked it of me, I have promised him that after tonight...after tonight, you will live only in my memories, not in this... addiction that I hold in my hands. This is my gift to S’Neth, offered freely, because I love him and I wish him to be secure in our bond. And because I have finally come to realize, t’hy’la, that the best tribute I can give you is to live my life as you taught me to live it, to put fear aside and look not to the past, but to the future, as you always did."
Holding the disk in trembling hands, Spock stood, facing the chasm. "In a moment," he said, "I will go to S’Neth to begin my new life with him. But first, there is an image I would see one final time.
"We were on the bridge, I standing at the science station, you sitting in the command chair. It was less than a week after the incident in which Mister Stiles had questioned my loyalty to the Federation—and to you. I was still turned toward you, having just finished my report on the latest sensor readings, when a very young, very beautiful female yeoman—newly assigned to the Enterprise—brought you an antimatter requisition form to sign."
In the disk, the image of Kirk looked up at the yeoman, who smiled at him in a way that made it clear that her interest in her handsome new captain was more than professional.
"Yeoman Felson, isn’t it?" Kirk asked.
"Yes, sir," she said, handing him the compslate.
"Having any difficulty adjusting to life aboard ship?" Kirk asked as he signed the slate.
"I get a little homesick sometimes," the yeoman said.
"That’s a perfectly natural reaction," Kirk said, handing the slate back to her and returning her smile.
At the science station, Spock turned away, burying his face in his hooded viewer.
"Just remember," Kirk said, as he rose from his chair, "out here in space—or anywhere else for that matter—it’s important to keep an open mind."
Kirk walked across his bridge, stopping just inches from Spock, who turned, slowly, to face his captain.
"In my experience, Yeoman," Kirk said, his eyes locked with Spock’s, "we sometimes find our real home in the most unexpected of places." The captain’s lips curved upward in a warm smile, and he held Spock’s gaze for a long, long time....
"Jim," Spock whispered, staring at the dazzling vision in the disk. "You and I and everyone else on that bridge knew that your words were nothing less than an open declaration of your love for me. And it was in that instant that I understood—truly understood—the depth of my feeling for you. That night we made love for the first time. But wondrous as that experience was, it is this vision, this brilliant, life-altering vision that I will see in my mind each time I think of you."
Spock held the disk aloft, surrounding it with stars and infusing its heart with the light of the Dragon’s Eye cluster. Even that radiance could not dim the radiance of Kirk’s face, which Spock saw, now, through a shimmering haze of tears.
"Thank you, Jim," he said. "For freeing my spirit, for teaching me to love. May you live long and prosper, James Kirk. May the peace you feel now be truly eternal. Know that I am, and ever shall be, your friend."
Spock released his grip on the fragile, glowing disk, and watched it plunge into the darkness and the mist. He waited until he heard the sound of crystal shattering on rock and the barely perceptible whispers of broken shards being swept away in the Opal’s cleansing waters. Then he turned and went back into the house, to the one who waited for him there.