For all that the Vulcan Science Academy had come to signify to Kirk, he had never actually had reason to visit the daunting building, to walk beyond the austere facade, known to him from countless holo-displays and news items. The VSA had registered first in his life in the early months of the five year mission, once he and Spock had ceased regarding each other from a wary distance and had dropped overt distrust – somewhere around late Stage Two, when Kirk had been sufficiently curious about his Vulcan First Officer to want to know more about what had taken him to Starfleet Academy – and to have the courage to ask. The answer had been readily forthcoming but not overly full in detail , that had come later. And Kirk had come to understand the faultline behind Spock’s own daunting facade – the early rejection behind the brilliance, the inner conflict which underlay the integrity.
Kirk, being Kirk, had from that point started to develop an opinion of the VSA which was less than flattering and which he chose not to share openly with Spock, on the basis of a strong, if not entirely understood, feeling that his anger was irrelevant and unhelpful. However, it was the strength of his reaction which showed Kirk how far he had moved from Stage One, and opened the door to Stage Three.
He had allowed something of his own facade to drop when the VSA had originally offered Spock the Seleya. He remembered the scene in Spock’s old quarters on the Enterprise, three years ago now – Spock’s voice, level as always but betraying a wealth of history if you happened to have made a study of it and knew how to listen “It is, in fact, the first time they have contacted me directly since I joined Starfleet” and he himself had been sufficiently angry – and frightened – to say “They are remembering your value because they want something.” But it hadn’t helped, and Spock had gone, anyway, and that was when everything had changed, and changed forever. Hadn’t it?
From the time of the signing of the Accords onwards, he had done his best to think of the VSA as being on his side and tried to smother the feeling of unseemly joy when Spock had turned down a prestigious role there. And now he came as ally, potentially as saviour, but with Saredin, not Spock at his side – not a situation he had ever envisaged. Life was a funny thing.
He had had a long talk with McCoy before beaming down. McCoy’s contribution to the mission was vital – it was his unparalleled experience of Vulcan biology as a Starfleet medic that made him uniquely qualified for the mission and had not only persuaded HQ to release him from his current assignment to join the Enterprise but also, Kirk suspected, given his own long term friendship and partnership with his CMO, helped to swing the decision to agree to his own command of the mission. In an emergency response, all things being equal, Fleet protocol always favoured established teams, it was one of their strengths – the understanding of the significance of the human element; the fact that effective and proven teamwork and rapport could get you further than specific technical skill and experience. And, of course, he and McCoy had both.
What McCoy needed to understand was the importance of the diplomatic element. The Georgian was very far from being a fool and, despite his own love of self-caricature, Kirk knew he could trust him to bite his tongue 95% of the time. 5%, however, particularly now, was not an acceptable margin of error.
“Don’t worry, Jim, I won’t say anything about pointy ears and computers, if that’s what’s biting you,” McCoy drawled. “Besides, there’s no way you’re leaving me behind from a trip to the VSA. I hear that place is more fun than the theme park on Fabian 6.”
“Right,” Kirk said, drily, “and that’s supposed to fill me with confidence, is it?”
“Seventeen sets of Accords signed in triplicate are not going to persuade me that denying fundamental parts of your psychological make-up is a sensible way to live,” came the inevitable growl. “Besides, you and I know what they’re responsible for on a personal level – Spock wouldn’t be half so screwed up if he’d come from a place which knew how to bring kids up properly and which practiced what they preached and which respected people from other races – diversity, my foot – OK, Jim, keep your hair on. None of this means I approve of your friend Milani, either. I’ll keep my views to myself, don’t worry. Just keep me away from Saredin.”
“He’s not so bad, you know,” Kirk said, uncomfortably, “once you get to know him.”
“Like I once told you, Captain,” McCoy said, affably, “the man’s an idiot. I only spent time on Spock because I thought there was hope there. I know when not to bother. Plus, Saredin’s the only person I’ve ever met who manages to think in terms of calculus and still stoop to manipulation, which I always thought was a good old human disease. You planning on going to Gol, Jim?”
He was silent, for a minute. He had repeated to McCoy Saredin’s extraordinary suggestion and been entirely unsurprised by the doctor’s angry reaction.
“No,” he said, slowly. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re seeing sense,” McCoy grunted. “If that’s all, Captain, I’ll get ready to beam down.”
He walked now into the main chamber flanked by Saredin and McCoy and lifted his hand in the ta’al as he reached the semi circle of Vulcans standing around the glass table. Behind them, tall windows gave vistas onto harsh desert. It occurred to him that Vulcan culture was based in great part in silence, a tranquillity born of a culture which imposed logic and restraint but was also surrounded by sand and rock. How different from the noise of Earth’s water and its riotous hubbub of flora and fauna; what an adjustment it must have meant for Spock, as a young adult, studying at the Academy. Although, in fact, the last time he had seen Spock it had also been in silence, the muffled quiet of snow.
Sevonal, current First Commissioner of the VSA, standing slightly apart, half a head taller than his colleagues. A quiet, dignified nod to the off-world party, an answering ta’al. The Commissioner stepped forward to take a seat at the centre of the table and waited there, absolutely still. One by one, the other Vulcans followed suit with a salute before they seated themselves.
Unfamiliar, sober faces, dark eyes, features which had so long said Spock to Kirk, who had now been separated from Spock for so long that he could see a Vulcan without even necessarily thinking of his erstwhile First Officer, let alone mistaking the back of a head or the sweep of an ear for his friend, or instinctively wanting to tease, to provoke the severity, to challenge the mask.
Just for once, Kirk thought to himself, they were right to be serious. God knows there was little enough to joke about.
Some familiar faces, among the unknown. He smiled as he saw T’Mala – smiled in simple pleasure and in the knowledge that it would not be returned or understood but rejecting the need to pretend not to acknowledge previous shared understanding. He was entirely correct – the overt display of recognition was not returned, and T’Mala stepped forward to sit down, at which point Kirk’s eyes went automatically to the next face, which was immediately familiar to Kirk – not a face he had ever thought or, frankly, hoped to see again, so jarring and unexpected in this setting that his eyes and brain slid straight past, looking away while the face’s owner sat down next to T’Mala, and went immediately on to the next and last person present.
Sarek, of course.
And, with Sarek’s courteous acknowledgement, it seemed it was time for Saredin, McCoy and him to sit down themselves, facing the Council, and the meeting began.
He let the technical details wash over to him, to an extent. He heard McCoy, at his side, engaging with profound and respectful focus with T’Mala and two of the research scientists present, thought “Thank you” but knew, in fact, that McCoy was making no special effort – that much of his expostulation about the VSA had been for effect only. McCoy would be the first to say that he was a doctor, not a political lobbyist. He was here, heart and soul, to find an answer – any answer – the answer - to the unknown threat posted half a galaxy away, and was far too engrossed in discourse with minds which might be alien to him in every respect but this (the pursuit of scientific knowledge in the cause of the endless fight against disease and death) to engage in the otherwise tempting distractions of politically incorrect Vulcan-baiting.
“Commissioner, Dr McCoy’s advice presents the possibility of an unexplored theory which, combined with the knowledge we already have of Soltar’s research, could profitably be tested in laboratory conditions before being brought back to this conference. May we have your permission to withdraw for a short period of time?”
Sevonal nodded. T’Mala, the two scientists and McCoy left the room and Sarek said:
“Time is very short, Admiral. When are you intending to depart from Vulcan?”
“ ‘Captain’,” he corrected. “I’ve taken a temporary demotion in rank. Our schedule allows us twenty four hours, Ambassador. We are aware of the urgency but we believed that there would be a real value in sharing ideas here first, and that seems to have been justified.”
“Are you proposing to share your plans with us?”
Kirk traded a quick glance with Saredin and said: “In broad terms, we are planning to head out to Mila as quickly as we can. There is unlikely to be any element of surprise, but any threat to Vulcan can more effectively be met as far away from here as possible. In the meantime, Starfleet is scrambling a larger task force which will follow.”
“Captain Kirk, Vulcan acknowledges and appreciates the efforts made by Starfleet and by you in this regard. We are also desirous that our own institute should not fail to play its part in this important endeavour. We stand ready to send some of our number with you, in order that the danger is shared wherever it is met and in order to ensure that our knowledge and expertise goes with you. Commander T’Mala is one possibility. My aide, Sub-Commissioner Stonn, is another.”
Well, that wasn’t going to happen.
Kirk said, very carefully indeed, mindful of Saredin at his side and his original suggestion to Saredin that he enlist a First Officer from Vulcan (his mind briefly considered the ludicrous possibility of substituting Stonn for Spock and instantly shied helplessly away from an ask too far)
“Commissioner, your suggestion honours us and is consistent with my own preferences. At the same time, it is evident that the danger to your own people will be greater than that to non Vulcans, and the choice will have to be made very carefully, and on the basis of the relevant expertise of the individuals concerned.”
“That is readily understood,” Sevonal said. “Perhaps you would care to take some refreshments while we await the return of Commander T’Mala. Stonn will accompany you and you may wish to refresh yourselves.”
With little choice, Kirk nodded and stood, with Saredin, to leave the room, wondering if everyone else was aware of his previous encounter with Sevonal’s aide. Obviously, Sarek would be. Were these things even discussed in Vulcan society? He couldn’t quite imagine what Vulcan gossip looked like. But then, there was quite a lot about the current situation which he couldn’t quite imagine; it still seemed to be happening.
He accepted a cup of what tasted like the Vulcan equivalent of tea and which brought back with a rush countless evenings spent in Spock’s quarters - he’d forgotten the taste, which was subtle but distinctive. And turned to talk to Sarek, thinking that it would protect him from talking to Stonn, storing away for private enjoyment sometime with McCoy the fact that there were certain circumstances in which shooting the breeze with Spock’s father was the preferable alternative to other things on offer.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Sarek said:
“I am gratified that Starfleet has chosen you to lead this mission, Captain. It was a logical choice and one with which I, had I been consulted, would have concurred.” Kirk said nothing but smiled slightly, unexpectedly warmed by a lot more than the tea, despite the inherent unlikelihood of Nogura checking in with Sarek before ratifying his appointment. Sarek went on,
“I seek a favour, Captain.” Kirk raised his eyebrow, inviting what Sarek’s son would have called specification and wondering if this favour was likely to relate to the said son. But it didn’t.
“I appreciate that time is short and your mission is more than pressing. However, my wife would appreciate the privilege of a few words with you before you leave. She is spending the morning at the Academy and will be available for a brief conversation when the conference is over.”
Surprised but pleasantly so, Kirk nodded, quickly.
“It would be an honour.” And looked over Sarek’s shoulder to see Stonn approaching them.
“The Commissioner has asked if you would return to the conference chamber,” the Sub-Commissioner said, in a voice last heard on a sun-baked day Kirk had done his unsuccessful best ever since to forget. And he followed the two Vulcans back to the table, wondering all over again about T’Pring’s choice, about whether it had made her happy and about why he, Kirk, was capable of even thinking about this when he was supposed to be busy saving Stonn’s planet.
All thought was wiped from his mind by what T’Mala had to report.
“Dr McCoy’s theories appear to have been borne out by work currently being tested in the level two medical research laboratories,” she said. Kirk remembered Spock saying she had a bond-mate stationed on Vulcan. He hoped she was happy. He knew Vulcans were never happy but he thought T’Mala deserved it, even so. It was good to see her here, with the recognition of a place around the inner table in national crisis – well, it would have been under any circumstances but these. The next thing she said, in her normal, level, expressionless tone, took his breath away.
“We have surmised since learning of his connection with the Mila that Soltar’s research will have enabled the Mila, using the very sophisticated research facilities which we know they possess, to develop a form of biological warfare with the purpose of inflicting maximum damage on the Vulcan people. What we currently know about Soltar’s work is in large part conjecture, though it may be corroborated by evidence of studies he carried out in the Xenomedical Unit and by certain recent political dynamics lending apparent motivation to engagement in hypothetical areas of research. With that caveat in mind, we suspect that the Mila have been working to produce a device which will artificially stimulate the spread of unknown epidemic or epidemics on Vulcan. Logically, such epidemics would be either fatal or permanently disabling, in order to be deemed deserving of the necessary expenditure of resources and effort.
“Dr McCoy has been able to confirm, with his particular experience of the contrasts between Vulcan and Human biology, that Soltar’s research indicates an attempt to develop a virus from which human beings would be immune but would carry with the potential to infect others.”
A tableful of Vulcans and one human looked back, assimilating this knowledge.
It’s not that humans will be immune that matters, Kirk thought. It’s why. Why would you deliberately develop a virus to which other races are immune but would carry? Only possible answer – because it isn’t actually in your interests to wipe out the galaxy – and, more importantly, that dead people are ineffective at spreading contagion, at least outside their immediate vicinity, because they don’t move. They want to use humans to carry this disease to Vulcans. And that means they are planning to do this remotely – that it’s sufficiently aggressive that it’s not going to be about mounting an invasion and planting virus-bearing devices in the VSA – they are going to sit back and spread plague waves across the galaxy.
“There is a remote but theoretical possibility that the Mila may use, or may have already used, certain aspects of Soltar’s work to develop a methodology of spreading contagion through nebulous matter which can be released through space whilst retaining protection for the virus for short periods of time – perhaps sufficient to bridge the distance between two solar systems.”
Another pause, while Kirk instinctively sought McCoy’s eyes and flinched at the sober nod. Did that mean that a silent plague could already be creeping to Vulcan from the Mila system – silent because so far all that had happened was the infection of races who would suffer no symptoms but bring the disease ever closer to its target? He thought he saw in his friend’s face that he was right.
Surely, that was as bad as it got – T’Mala could sit down. But she was continuing:
“We do not know the precise symptoms of this putative virus and cannot know without further information or, indeed, infection. However, it may be logical to conclude that possibilities include the manifestation of disabling or destructive effects on aspects of biology particularly unique to Vulcans.”
Kirk stared blankly, as T’Mala finally - thank God – sat down. He was unspeakably grateful that there appeared to be no more catastrophically bad news to report. On the other hand, there was quite sufficient already.
What were aspects of biology unique to Vulcans? Touch telepathy, he thought, bleakly. Copper based blood. Blood and thought. Oh God.
He said to Saredin:
“I have to speak to the Ambassador’s wife, quickly. Then I’ll beam up. We need to talk, you and I.”
“Are you aware that the Commissioner is expecting you to take either Commander T’Mala or Sub-Commissioner Stonn with you, Captain?”
“He may be,” Kirk said, bluntly. “But I can’t possibly take either of them, and frankly we need to discuss the continued assignment of the Seleya to this task force, Captain. Neither you, nor any of your crew should be anywhere near the Mila. It’s not safe for you and it could jeopardise the entire mission.”
“You will be aware, Captain, that the politics of the situation will require Vulcan participation in the effort which is deployed to protect this planet.”
Kirk considered and dismissed an extremely impolite epithet in relation to the politics of the situation. He came nearer to Saredin.
“Look, Saredin. I have far too much respect for you not to believe that you can do better than that. We may be talking about the lives of your entire crew. Of your own life. It’s not worth the risk.”
Saredin said, steadily
“Captain, you are on record as the most habitual risk-taker in Starfleet. Risk alone is rarely a sufficient reason to avoid particular initiatives. In this instance, the risk is unquantifiable, to a large extent. Further, there is a separate risk which attaches to the eventuality of the Enterprise approaching the Mila alone.”
“I’ll agree that we can continue to review the question of precisely when the Seleya should turn back,” he conceded. “But there are two conditions, Saredin. And I am imposing these as mission commander. When the risk presents as sufficiently strong (we can discuss an appropriate threshold, but not in any way that doesn’t leave me room to exercise reasonable discretion) you will take the Seleya back – is that understood?”
Saredin nodded slowly. “Agreed. And your other condition?”
“I am not taking any Vulcans on my ship. Not T’Mala, not Stonn and certainly not Spock. I want to know that, if necessary, I can go deep into Mila space and know we are not vulnerable to whatever virus they may have developed.”
“There may be a political necessity to be balanced in this instance, Captain,” Saredin warned. “Vulcan will want to see at least a minimum participation in the task force. If the Seleya withdraws, the presence either of a single or a very small number of Vulcans on board the Enterprise would be a smaller risk in terms of the number of lives concerned and it might present you with a necessary resource in terms of future developments.”
The logic was inescapable, but it didn’t make the prospect any more attractive. He thought of T’Mala on the original Seleya mission, her kindness to Leo Santini, Spock’s reference to her bondmate – and said, abruptly,
“I’ll take Stonn.”
“I will inform the Commissioner.” There was a slight pause, during which Kirk looked up and found Saredin waiting for him expectantly. He said
“Amanda is waiting for me.”
“Have you decided not to contact Gol?”
Which meant, of course, that Saredin thought he should. He remembered Saredin’s promise to Spock; if he, Kirk, did not go to Gol, that promise was broken. Which wasn’t really Kirk’s problem, was it?
At the back of his mind, in the last half hour of the conference, he had been aware, despite his decision not to go to Gol, of two entirely different trains of thought about Spock.
The first was an enormous, overwhelming relief that the Vulcan was at Gol. He knew this relief to be flawed, knew that Gol might provide absolutely no protection in the long run (or even sooner than that), knew also that there was no room here for personal considerations and that the fate of countless millions of Vulcans was of infinitely greater significance than that of one student disciple at Gol with an unusual penchant for chess and guava juice.
The second was a very different feeling – and, moreover, directly contradicted the first. He felt a definite unease, which grew as the conversation went on, as T’Mala provided details of research findings and as the faces around the table nodded, as further suggestions were offered and as the dialogue spiralled into medical technicalities where Kirk was content to let McCoy lead while he followed as best he could. And as Stonn joined in the debate. Among other things, the reason Stonn was included in the conference turned out to be that he had worked previously with Soltar and was able to offer insights into some of his research which were clearly going to be of value – another argument for taking him on the Enterprise. (Kirk was prepared to admit, but only in the privacy of his own thoughts, that the fact that Stonn had been instrumental in the ending of Spock’s marriage and in the endangerment of his own life was possibly not the most robust of reasons for allowing him to risk joining the Enterprise as she travelled towards possible space-borne death.)
Kirk’s gathering unease was born of an awareness of the missing face round the table. True, Spock had chosen of his own volition to go to Gol. But he had also asked to be notified in the event of the escalation of danger – surely nothing could so closely match as did the current situation the scenario which must have been in Spock’s thoughts when he extracted that promise from Saredin? Kirk had spent the first year of the three he had spent without Spock learning the hard way to grant Spock his independence – not to patronise him and not to regard him as being, in some way, at his – Kirk’s – own disposal. What was he doing now, if not that? Did he actually have the right to protect Spock, or was he somehow disenfranchising him? Here he sat - round a table in Spock’s own home planet, with Spock’s father and Spock’s former First Officer, discussing a threat which all of them knew was aimed generically at Vulcan and specifically at Spock, and none of them once mentioned his name. Somehow, the very fact that T’Pring’s bondmate was able to contribute his views and Spock was not was the single most surreal aspect of the debate which shook Kirk’s faith in the decision which had earlier seemed so obvious.
Saredin was waiting for an answer and he fell back on the easy one.
“There’s just no time to go to Gol, Captain. I have to see Amanda now. I will call you from the Enterprise.”
She looked just the same as she had when he had last seen her, when she and Sarek had left the ship after the ill-fated journey to Babel and the admission of Coridan to the Federation. It made him wonder, fancifully, if living among Vulcans, with their elongated life spans, slowed the ageing process, as though in sympathy.
She did, however, look strained.
“Captain Kirk, it is good of you to spare me some of your time – I know you are very busy.”
He bowed slightly and smiled warmly.
“It is a pleasure. I hope you are well?”
“I’m fine, fine.” She hesitated, and then went on, “You don’t have time for formalities, I know. And I also know you’ll understand I wanted to speak to you about Spock.”
Well, yes, that had rather been his assumption. However, just now, everyone wanted to speak to him about Spock. It had been something of a theme for the three years they had been apart.
“Have you heard from him?”
She laughed, not a very happy sound.
“No. Gol is not the sort of place you write home from, Captain.”
He stared at her, trying to understand what she might feel about having a son at Gol, what she might want from him, now – but she was right, they had no time for this. Ignoring protocol, he reached out, touched her elbow and drew her to one side, sat them both down.
“Look – you once asked me to call you Amanda.” She nodded, eyes on his. “Amanda, then. Tell me what you want, why you wanted to speak to me, what I can do to help.”
She said, simply
“I want you to take Spock out of Gol.”
Well, he had asked her to tell him; he couldn’t fault her for lack of directness. It even came as something of a relief. Of course, it would make it harder to say no, to turn away from that appeal, an odd sadness behind the eyes – wouldn’t it?
“To quote your son,” he said, carefully, trying for a light note, “perhaps you could elucidate.”
“I am proud of my son. Whatever he does, whatever road he goes down and whatever he turns into, I will always be proud of him,” she said, still looking at him directly. “But I have never thought that Gol would give him what he’s looking for. I know why he went, but in a way that made it worse. I always thought he might go to prove something to his father, although Sarek has never been an adherent of Gol. It seemed to me, before he went, that he was finally finding some form of understanding of himself... I have wanted that for him, so much, Captain, you have no idea. It has always been so hard, being neither one thing nor the other. You know that,” she broke away, shaking her head at herself, “why am I telling you, of all people? Captain, my son is a unique person and Gol will take that away from him. From us.”
Since he couldn’t disagree with her about any of this, he didn’t. He rubbed his forehead. On the one hand, it was a ridiculous self-indulgence to take time out from this most critical of missions to chat to the mother of his former First Officer about his friend’s philosophical and emotional needs, and most definitely not what had been in Wesley’s mind or Nogura’s when he had been given the mission. On the other hand, he still had a nagging feeling that Spock was central to the mission, that leaving him at Gol might be wrong.
He asked: “And why are you telling me this?”
She looked up, clearer-eyed, smiled.
“Oh, that’s simple, Captain. Because you’re here. Because you agree with me. Because you are the one person whom Spock will follow out of Gol. And because I believe you know as well as I do that he should be on that ship with you, finding a solution to this terrible situation. Captain – this danger results directly from my son’s extraordinary achievement, and instead of facing the reprisals for that achievement, he is being allowed instead, through ignorance and through his own wrong choices, to stay buried in the desert, while the Masters school out of his mind everything I have ever tried to share with him. And everything he ever shared with you, as well.”
He said, because he had to say it,
“It will be very dangerous, Amanda. For all of us, but most of all for Spock.”
And saw her eyes flash.
“Are you suggesting my son is a coward, Captain?”
“Your son is the bravest person I know.”
“Then is it our right to make that decision on his behalf? I would rather, Captain, that he returned to where he ought to be – to the person he ought to be – regardless of consequences.”
No question where Spock got his courage from. Funny, that he had always thought it was from Sarek – who was presumably ignorant of the nature of the conversation his wife had sought with Kirk. Or was he?
It made no difference at this point. Kirk knew when he was beaten.
He materialised on the transporter platform of the Enterprise and the first thing he saw was Scotty, deep in conversation with Stonn. He had forgotten the reluctant concession he had made to Saredin – it seemed that Vulcans could move fast when they wanted to. Stonn looked up and met his eyes, and there it was, the memory of that far-off day – he hadn’t forgotten at all, of course.
It seemed that he was committed to asking Spock to leave Gol to serve as his First Officer back on the Enterprise alongside T’Pring’s bondmate.
Well, it didn’t seem as if he had much choice.
“Sub-Commissioner, welcome aboard. Scotty, I am taking the Copernicus down to the planet. I’ll be back within the hour. Please sort out quarters for our guest, and please liaise with the Seleya to leave orbit on my return.”
And he left abruptly for the shuttle bay, wondering, as he did so, why going to Gol felt the right thing to do but filled him with complete dread.