“Want the good news or the bad news, Jim?”
Kirk was sitting on the bed in his quarters. He had snatched two hours’ sleep, at McCoy’s insistence. The CMO had come to report as arranged (albeit after 135 minutes and not the agreed 120) and Kirk, who had learned to catnap effectively after years in space and after more crises than uninterrupted nights’ sleep, was wide awake and listening.
McCoy regarded him steadily.
“There’s nothing I can do for Spock. Not now, not ever. There may be help elsewhere; I don’t know. But it’s not a physiological problem – the cause was physiological but the result is not – at least, not within the realms of any sort of physiology I know. And I’m just not qualified to do anything here. Frankly, I’m worried I’d do more damage if I do anything than nothing at all.”
“Does he know?” Kirk asked, both hearing McCoy and asking the question somehow more difficult than the words themselves should have warranted, like picking up a dumbbell and finding that it weighs much more than you thought.
He would go and see Spock. Somehow, in the middle of finding a way forward, of working out the answer to the communications conundrum and the multicoloured prison around his ship, he would have to find time to visit the isolation chamber for the sake of the occupant who would prefer isolation and so manifestly did not want to see him. He sighed and punched up a coffee.
“Is that all the bad news?”
“’Fraid not. The second strain is not what I thought it was. It’s more complex than what hit Spock and Stonn. It’s related, in an odd way I can’t quite yet work out – the human strain is somehow developed out of the Vulcan strain. I thought I might be half way to a vaccination by now, and we’ll get there – it’s only a matter of time – but it might take more time than you have.”
Kirk sorted through this, and realised what McCoy was saying.
“Yup. That’s the good news. We have a vaccination for the A strain.”
It wasn’t just good news – it was wonderful news and it was, more importantly, the first good news Kirk had heard since the Enterprise had been assigned to him for the current mission (even that, given the circumstances, had hardly been an unmitigated cause for rejoicing). Not least as a leader of men who understood more than most the significance of morale, Kirk found his way through life by hitching his thinking to the rhythm of events, and he knew that a bend in the road could be a turning point in disguise if you chose to see it as such.
He felt energy coursing through him, much more than two hours’ mindless sleep should have won, took a swallow of scalding liquid and put the coffee down to clap McCoy on the shoulder and give, with the other hand, a characteristic clenched fist of triumph.
“Good work. Tell your team - well done, Bones. I need to let the other ships know, and we need to get out of here to get the vaccination to Vulcan before it’s too late.”
“And how are you going to do any of that?” McCoy asked, curiously.
“I’ve had an idea.”
“I thought you were supposed to be asleep.”
“I was. It’s amazing what the unconscious mind can come up with. I’m going to check an idea with Scotty and then I need to see Spock.”
The doctor regarded him dubiously.
“I know you’re trying to help, Jim. But I’m not sure he’s up to visitors right now. I hate to come even within touching distance of endorsing his peculiarly dysfunctional and antisocial approach to life, but it may be you’d be better off leaving him to himself for a while.”
Kirk drained the coffee and moved towards the door, turning, as he reached it, to smile at McCoy. He felt entirely different from the night before. Sometimes, in a game of chess, you could get to the point of seeing no option beyond tipping over your king in defeat. In Kirk’s experience, a night away from the board meant you could come back and see exactly the same pieces in precisely the same configuration but understand an entirely different set of possibilities, with everything still to play for. That was why he played chess. In fact, it was why he was a starship captain.
“Your problem – and Spock’s – is that you think I’m going to visit the sick. Actually, he is my serving First Officer and I need to confer with him on our strategy going forward.”
Spock was sitting up in bed and reading some text on a screen. He still looked pale and Kirk’s years-deep knowledge of him told the captain that Spock was too weak to leave the biobed or he would have been long gone from enforced inactivity and from McCoy’s tender administrations and caustic teasing. On reflection, Kirk had deliberately brought Scott with him. He knew McCoy was right, and that Spock would permit no personal approach at this point. He also felt in his gut that the sooner he treated Spock as a fully functioning member of the command team, the better for everyone. There was no question of contamination any longer from Spock, and he waived Scotty through to stand at a respectful distance from the bed.
“How are you feeling today, Commander?” he asked pleasantly, intentionally switching into official command role and away from the edgier and more personal tones of the day before. “Scotty and I needed your input on our thinking and we thought it was time the mountain came to Mohammed.”
Scotty said: “It’s good to see you, sir. I hope you’re feeling more comfortable. Say the word, and I’ll bring you something less poisonous to drink than whatever the doctor’s got you on.”
“Potentially a hazardous strategy given my current state of health but the sentiment is appreciated and I cannot diverge from your opinion of the doctor’s approach to patient care,” Spock returned, pushing the screen to one side. Scotty grinned and Kirk held his breath. The exchange between Spock and Scott was indistinguishable from a thousand such during the five year mission. The magic was working. Pretend something was so, and sometimes you could suspend disbelief and carry everyone with you. From the look on Scotty’s face, he was struggling to reconcile Spock’s comment with the First Officer who had returned from Gol but the Chief Engineer was manfully suppressing any evidence of surprise and Kirk silently promised him a pay rise – if they all survived to the next payday.
“Let’s get to business,” he said, firmly. “I’m assuming, First Officer, that you’re up to date on all the latest reports?”
“Of course, Captain,” Spock said, in the tone of one agreeing that the earth goes round the sun, and Kirk moved one millimetre further back to normality.
“It is now imperative that we contact the rest of the task force, the Seleya, Vulcan and HQ to update them on recent developments and particularly with regard both to the development of the vaccination for what McCoy is calling the virus A strain and, in addition, the existence of the B strain.”
“Mr Scott’s analysis of the gaseous matter suggests that this will be impractical from our current position.”
“Correct. Absolutely correct, Mr Spock.”
“That analysis further suggests that leaving our current position is not possible at this point, Captain. This means that the only possible strategy would involve an attempt to change the environment which is inhibiting movement and communication.”
“Also correct,” Kirk said. He resisted the temptation to congratulate Spock on the gains from Gol in terms of his development of syllogistic thinking – he thought they were at least four stages of friendship away from that remark, and in any case, Spock was playing into his hands in following this particular line of thinking.
“Does Mr Scott have any suggestions as to how this might be achieved?”
Scotty bounced up and down on his toes, very slightly, where he stood beyond the foot of Spock’s bed.
“The Captain’s come up with a very canny plan, sir.” That word again, he thought. It was good to know that Scotty thought the Mila were not the only canny ones around here. He hoped it was the only thing they had in common. He didn’t mind being canny but he would have hated to be an obsessive, bloodthirsty murderer. “We’ve been talking it through and I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work.”
“Indeed? Please elucidate.”
Scotty elucidated. “We know we can’t fire at the damn thing. But the anti-grav effect will only deflect what’s chucked at it on a trajectory – communication wave lengths, phaser fire, transporter beams, as well. We’ve analysed it in the labs every which way till night time, and we have a feel for how the beastie behaves out there. It seems to coagulate in space so that it’s semi-solid rather than gaseous, and that suggests we ought to be able to prise our way out. The way through has to be at close quarters, sir – we can’t throw a knife at it but we can walk up to it and slice through the cake.”
“An interesting and inaccurate metaphor, Mr Scott, and I note your mind continues to run on nutritional pathways but your meaning is clear and your reasoning is persuasive.” An alternative metaphor would have involved Kirk blinking at this point. How – how – had this impersonation of his former friend been conjured so authentically? Was it a result of losing Vulcan mind controls? Or was it simply that Spock found it easier to be himself to those who like, McCoy and Scotty, had ignored his changed demeanour and continued to treat him as they always had? Or was it just him – was it that their very closeness had made Spock uncomfortable – that the distance imposed by Spock since Gol, since Airlock Four, should somehow have signalled to him the significance to Spock of their friendship, rather than the opposite? Kirk grew very thoughtful. Spock went on: “I assume that your strategy includes the deployment of a shuttlecraft?”
“Aye, sir. The Captain has asked me to adapt one to carry a high-end functioning cutting implement externally, to the front. My lads are working on it now and I see no reason the Captain’s idea shouldn’t work. Simple enough and no funny tricks about it.”
“As you say, Mr Scott. The most simple and straightforward strategies are frequently the most effective.” Kirk smiled to himself, listening. He could think of one or two straightforward stunts that he and Spock had pulled which had gone spectacularly wrong – in fact, few which had not. What had once seemed a straightforward embrace of the unknown when he and Spock had traded bodies with Sargon and Henoch had nearly killed Spock- would have, but for Sargon’s intervention, which had nevertheless left Kirk kneeling for a brief moment of time by Spock’s body on the bridge, swallowing back corrosive, bitter regret for the simple and straightforward. Difficult to believe then that the temporary surrender of Spock’s body (entire and undamaged) could ever come to seem an easy and uncomplicated undertaking. And he remembered Organia, blowing up the munitions dump in what felt like a simple demonstration of revolt, but which had led to confrontation, capture and the mind-sifter. Would Spock be able to resist the Klingon mind-sifter now? Presumably not.
He revised, though, his estimate of how long it might take him to make a comment along these lines to Spock. Perhaps only three stages of friendship. A thousand years ago, he had been visited by Spock in the Enterprise sickbay, after Gamma Fortuna, and thought Give me a chance, Spock. Just one more. And Spock had. He thought now – Just one more, then. Just – one - more.
Spock was continuing:
“How long do you estimate that it will take to adapt the shuttlecraft, Mr Scott?”
“I told the Captain a couple of hours, but we’ll have it done long before that, sir,” Scotty said, cheerfully, rather over-stepping the mark (in Kirk’s view) in bringing cheer to the sick.
“Don’t mind me,” he said drily. “All right, Scotty. Since Mr Spock clearly approves and since I need to discuss with him his orders while he has the con in my absence, why don’t you go and tell your team I’m now expecting the Columbus to be ready in one hour’s time? It doesn’t sound like that will be a problem.”
Scott said, “Aye, sir”, sounding entirely untroubled and left, and Kirk turned to find Spock, as he had expected, regarding him stonily.
“May I deduce from your last comment to Mr Scott that you are intending to pilot the shuttlecraft in person, Captain?”
“You may, Commander,” he said, easily. “In fact, you clearly already have.” He looked around for a seat, and opted for the biobed next to Spock’s. He thought the conversation might last for a while – indeed, short of the allotted hour available to him until the shuttle was ready, he was quite determined that it would last as long as it needed to. He thought they had it coming.
“We can re-route the bridge comms to sickbay and you can manage from here. McCoy’s happy on the basis that I won’t be gone long and on the basis that you won’t actually be straying far from his tender mercies.”
He knew that none of this was relevant to the stony look. He finished speaking and offered Spock a friendly smile, which Spock clearly failed to notice, despite sitting at a distance of approximately one point two metres and looking directly at his CO.
“Sir, there are four hundred and twenty nine personnel aboard this vessel who are more expendable and less essential to the implementation of this mission that you are. Piloting the shuttlecraft through the gaseous material is hazardous and carries the potential for exposure to dangers unknown at this point. Yet it requires only a qualified helmsman to execute the necessary manoeuvres. There are at least 23 such on board the Enterprise.”
“There’s one other qualification for the job, actually,” he said easily, declining to react to the tone of voice but noticing that Spock’s whole demeanour had changed radically since Scotty had left the room. “Scotty’s quite clear that there’ll be real risk of contamination from the gaseous material – in fact, it’s less a risk and more a near certainty. We don’t really know what the long term consequences of exposure are. And, just at the moment, the only people on board who have already been exposed are you, McCoy and I. Of the three of us, I would say that I’m the only one who’s a qualified pilot with full use of four limbs and allowed out of sickbay by my doctor. So that means logically, Commander, I’m the only person for the job.”
Spock looked at him hard.
“My understanding is that the only strain to which you have been exposed is Strain A. The gaseous substance also now contains Strain B.”
“True. The problem is we don’t have any non-humans on board,” he said, carrying straight on with hardly a beat as he realised the absolute truth of that in the light of Airlock Four and the consequences for the person in front of him. “In retrospect, that was bad planning but when the crew were assigned we were focusing too much – perhaps exclusively - on the threat to Vulcans. And McCoy’s view is that it is possible that earlier exposure to the A strain – which clearly hasn’t hurt me – may provide a temporary protection against the B strain, perhaps long enough to complete the job in the Columbus and return.”
“An entirely hypothetical, improbable and unproven theory,” Spock said. Kirk valued officers who were able to speak their mind and it was gratifying to learn that, evidently, strain A had not weakened the strength of his First Officer’s opinions.
“Possibly,” he said, evenly, “but it’s all we’ve got.”
“In my view, as your First Officer,” the biobed said, “under Regulation 73 paragraph (b), the theory you have cited does not constitute sufficient basis on which to risk the life of a commanding officer where alternatives exist.”
“And I appreciate your view and take it into account, First Officer,” Kirk said, pleasantly, “but I am going, nonetheless.”
There was a pause, which Kirk knew Spock far too well to recognise as anything but a regrouping rather than a retreat. And Spock considered, with very great care, the monitoring equipment at the end of his biobed.
He had had a great deal of time, over the past few hours, to reflect both on his condition and on his conversation with Kirk the day before. Unlike his captain, he had had no sleep, which eluded him entirely despite being confined to bed under medication. The anger which had so disturbed him the previous day had left entirely, leaving in its wake a slight, unaccustomed and wholly unwelcome fragility, an awareness of vulnerability to a whole range of emotions against which he no longer had any defences, any controls. Because he had always relied on Vulcan mental disciplines, he found that he was entirely without the basic human equivalent, which meant that his dialogue with Kirk was completely reversed – it was the human who now operated from behind emotional control systems and Spock who had none. And Kirk, as Spock had always known, for all his open emotionalism, exercised (paradoxically) more emotional self discipline than any other human of Spock’s acquaintance. And for this reason, he had not sought Kirk out, as he might otherwise have done.
His dismay had also been short-lived. Spock knew no way to live other than the purposive exploration of environments and data available to him, and without the mental controls which had been his framework for so long – and doubly so since Gol – he was already, within hours of recovering consciousness and still within the confines of sickbay, learning to function within a more human context. On that basis, his dialogue with Scott had felt oddly natural, if instinctive where once he would have deliberately relaxed controls to allow it (and then, since Gol, resisted the impulse entirely). However, he did not trust his instincts within the more complex emotional framework of his relationship with Kirk. He was keenly aware of his lack of control and lack of self-awareness, both of which he knew he needed for what lay unsaid between him and his CO. At the same time, he had no desire to continue a more hostile dialogue with Kirk. But then he had been caught off guard and without shielding by what he could only regard as a betrayal. A betrayal of Iowa and of the Copernicus.
Not just a betrayal. A very brief mental picture of Kirk, prone as he knew Stonn had been prone, overcome as swiftly and just as irrevocably.
Spock drew a deep breath.
“Sir. The wording of Regulation 73 requires you to take my views into consideration. With respect, you have given me no grounds for believing that you have properly done so. You have provided no details of the basis on which you have dismissed them.”
Kirk frowned, slightly.
“I’m not required to give you details, Spock. I heard you. My assessment and your assessment differ. It’s a judgement call. At the end of the day, that’s what I get paid for. In case you’ve forgotten, you get paid to go with my judgement call. It’s called military rank.”
“That is not the basis on which I agreed to resume service under your command, Captain,” he said, not entirely sure he had just said those words and very sure he was not in any frame of mind to conduct the conversation which would ensue.
Kirk looked at him with wary confusion. “You resumed service under my command because of the Mila threat, Commander. We didn’t even discuss my safety at the time – in fact, I distinctly remember referring to yours.”
“I refer,” he said, with an effort, “to our conversation two point four three years ago in Iowa. And in addition,” he added (remembering that human beings had a phrase in for a penny and beginning to understand, for the first time in his life, what it meant) “certain exchanges which took place between us four months earlier in the Copernicus shuttlecraft.”
The air between the biobeds suddenly acquired a very different pulse than it had previously. Kirk hoped very much that the fact of his suddenly raised awareness of his own breathing simply meant that every cell of his body had suddenly tuned into Spock’s words and not that he had somehow been infected by either virus strain.
Well, he had wanted a proper conversation with Spock. Be careful what you wish for, he thought, grimly, wondering if the hour till the shuttlecraft was ready would be sufficient, after all. Perhaps it had been a mistake to ask Scotty to pull the timetable forward. That was the last time he would allow the Chief Engineer to goad him about time keeping.
He settled back on the biobed.
“Is this a good time, then, Commander, to ask for a full report on your actions at Airlock Four yesterday?”
Spock’s preference for accuracy at all times would have prompted a disagreement with his CO on the question posed, were he not less inclined, at this particular point, to take literal issue with human idiom.
“I proceeded to Airlock Four,” he began and Kirk allowed him those five words before he cut him off, the previous lightness in his voice gone and cold anger revealed:
“You disobeyed my direct order.”
“In fact, sir,” Spock countered, “I suggested to you, verbatim, that the management of the airlock chamber was of paramount importance to the success of the mission and to the preservation of life and that it merited the presence of command personnel. As my actions have led directly to the development of the A strain vaccination, I believe that my suggestion can reasonably be argued to have been proved correct.”
Kirk gave him a look which habitually rendered junior officers speechless.
“I said no one was to be permitted inside the chamber at any time.”
Spock was silent, and then said:
“I have already submitted myself for disciplinary proceedings.”
Kirk waved a dismissive hand, which seemed to suggest both that Spock was not forgiven and that his offer did not come close to meeting the requirements of the situation.
“And you don’t think there’s any connection with what’s going on here – with the Columbus? The phrase “rank hypocrisy” doesn’t mean anything to you, here?”
“Sir, I appreciate that my actions were deserving of official reproof; however, beyond that, there is no immediate parallel.”
He said, very softly:
“That’s dishonest, Spock, and I didn’t think you had it in you.”
No question, Spock was finding it harder to conceal his reactions since Airlock Four. His head lifted sharply towards Kirk and he said in a voice which would have been extremely unfriendly had there been any contrast with his previous words:
“I do not understand your point, Captain. Please elucidate.”
“Happy to,” Kirk said, with deceptive sunniness. “You don’t want me to take the Columbus out because you think it’s too dangerous and because you and I are friends.” The words fell between the biobeds like a challenge. Kirk left them lying there only briefly, and then threw down the other gauntlet. “We are friends but you won’t admit it. You are using Regulation 73 because it’s easier than admitting you have friends even after what has happened to you.”
In for a penny suddenly became absolutely crystal clear.
“What has happened to me, Captain,” Spock said, with deliberation, “is that one half of my personal being has been forcibly removed from me. You do not seem either able or willing to understand that.”
Kirk’s turn to look at his First Officer sharply.
“That’s damn unfair. I tried and you made it manifestly clear you wanted your own space. And now you’re citing Regulations rather than admit you’re worried about my safety.”
“My role as your First Officer includes responsibility for your physical well-being,” Spock said, mildly. It was fascinating that, without Vulcan control, he was in fact far less angry than he had been two years earlier on the Copernicus. Or at least so far. “There is no room in that dialogue for personal or emotional considerations.”
“Is that so?” Kirk said, slowly. “Whatever happened, Spock, to trust without words, then?”
Spock was silent.
“You haven’t said a word to me since Gol, so any trust of mine that you have is by definition of the wordless category. It was you who brought up the Copernicus, Spock. Well, that’s when you asked for it - trust without words - and I have given it to you ever since, in the face (I may add) of the direst provocation. That means you want me to trust you now that our friendship is unchanged and that you are still you.”
“I am not, as it happens, still myself,” Spock said, slowly. “You persist in suggesting that I am.”
“So I’ve got it wrong,” Kirk threw out. “Tell me about it. Talk to me. How the hell am I going to get it right, Spock, when you haven’t really spoken to me, really spoken to me since Iowa? Talk to me now.”
Spock lifted an eyebrow.
“You regard my conduct since Gol as being essentially an unreasonable and deliberate suppression of human behaviours, whereas in fact I have been demonstrating a Vulcan norm – a norm which you decline to accept. You do not respect the teachings of Gol – which were my choice to study – and you were able casually to dismiss eighteen months’ learning with the Masters on the basis that its eradication by the Mila virus merely proffered an opportunity to discover who I really was. Your words inferred that a brief period of solitary reflection could in some way compensate or even compare to the sophistication of where I have been, what I have gained. These things have no value to you. That much is very clear.”
Kirk stared, his mind working overtime. Spock went on, knowing that he was taking advantage,
“Captain, when we were in orbit around Alpha 177, you may or may not have considered my assistance unsympathetic in relation to your division into two opposing entities. However, I do not think you could accuse me of dismissing the occurrence as insignificant. Indeed, it was I who advised you throughout that you stood to lose what most defines you – your command – because of what had taken place. That is no less true of me, now. Yet your words to me yesterday, by contrast, were (if I accurately recall) Isn’t this a chance to figure out who you are?”
If I seem insensitive to what you’re going through, Captain, understand: it’s the way I am.
No. No, Spock had never been insensitive.
Kirk put his head in his hands and there was a silence.
After a while, he sat up again and met his First’s gaze.
“You are absolutely right, Spock. Absolutely right. I had no right to say what I did. I was wrong and it was unforgivable.”
Spock inclined his head.
Kirk went on, more slowly:
“Gol represents a way of life that is very alien to me. I will not say in so many words that I do not recognise that it has value - and there is nothing about you I don’t value - but I should be able to have a different view about a choice and still respect you, Spock.”
“You did not give that impression, sir. Your demeanour has at no stage since my return to the ship suggested that former allegiances have been retained.”
What he meant, Kirk realised, was that McCoy had hurled at him You could at least give me the courtesy of a reply and he – what had he said? Spock had asked if he could spend the mission in the labs, and he had said Permission granted.
“What you ask, Spock, is hard,” he said, softly. And unfair, he added to himself. He remembered I missed you. But he did not need to look at Spock to know what they both understand him to have meant – that he had missed Spock the way he had been.
With an effort, he went on: “And it’s hard in practice, as well as on a personal basis, if you don’t let me in.”
Spock said, very gently:
“Captain, with respect, I have found your views on Vulcan considerably more fastidious than I had anticipated. I have deduced from your demeanour over the past three point six weeks that I have either demonstrated excessive or inadequate Vulcan mannerisms.”
Their eyes met, with perfect understanding – Spock remembering Kirk’s pity in sickbay; Kirk remembering, guiltily, his musings on Saredin.
“What do you want from me, then, Spock – truly, tell me – what is it that you want?”
He waited, with a sense that after all this time, after Airlock Four, after Gol, after Iowa, after the Seleya – even after the five year mission, he was finally going to understand what Spock was seeking and what he had apparently found of value in his CO. And Spock turned to him, and opened his mouth with clear sincerity to utter a single word which hit Kirk with all the simple force of truth.
And Kirk understood.
The gifts that he and Spock had always brought each other were a balance of what they shared and what they didn’t. As strongly as they had held in common the fascination of the unknown and the defence and facilitation of civil society on a galactic scale, at the same time the scientist’s detachment in Spock and the confident emotionalism of Kirk had found a void in the other. Their unique rapport had come from a balance between what they shared and what they did not, so that each could value and trust the qualities in the other which were alien. And this, in turn, had come to give them their own inner balance – between Spock’s divided halves, and between Kirk’s command and his very private persona. Without the bond, each had found themselves slightly less than they had been together.
Kirk said, very carefully, feeling his way:
“Spock, everything of balance I have ever known, I learned from you. My whole life is a balancing act.” He paused, searching for the right words. “It has to be perfect, that balance, or the whole thing comes crashing down, like walking a tightrope. The crew have to believe in me but I have to be human for them, too. I have to be strong but I have to be accessible; I have to support but I have to drive; I have to look inwards but I have to focus outwards. Do you remember telling me that? I know you do.”
Spock lifted an eyebrow and said nothing, but they were briefly both back in orbit around Alpha 177, while Sulu froze on an icy planet and Kirk wavered, helpless between his warring selves.
You haven’t the right to be vulnerable in the eyes of the crew. You can’t afford the luxury of being anything less than perfect. If you do, they lose faith, and you lose command.
“It was you who told me that I needed my negative side, that it was vital to my strength. And it was you who told me that the solution was intelligence – that intelligence conquers fear and that it enables us to achieve harmony and to survive. And it wasn’t just at Alpha 177 I learned that – I have learned it every hour of every day I’ve ever spent with you, watching your organic solution to being you.”
He wondered how long he had left. He had waited for Spock at Gol and known that personal considerations would have to be waived if the Enterprise had to leave orbit before Spock could see him; he would have to go when the Columbus was ready, regardless of his sense that these few moments were all important for both of them.
He went on: “I lost some of that balance when you left the Enterprise. Not because I can’t command without you, but because I command better with you, because we complement each other. But it was infinitely worse when I was grounded. Without command, I did feel divided – uneven. And you know what? Even at the time, I thought I’d have handled that better if you had been there, at Drachos, when the orders came through. As it was, I’ve been myself more, the past few weeks, than for a long time before that. And I know you know that.
“You want balance? You have to do what you taught me at Alpha 177 – learn to accept both of who you are, and learn to take from me, too, as I have always done from you. And if I’m not giving you what you want, you have to tell me. I’ve paid the price for the Seleya and for Gamma Fortuna. I’m not going there again. I’ve given you the trust you asked for. I would have given it to no other living person. I would have allowed no other person to be such a damn pain in the neck since Gol.” He let the lighter tone creep in, paused, and then went on, without looking at the other. “For a very long time now you have just been who you are as far as I’m concerned – neither Vulcan nor human. So you will have to forgive me that the changes which mean so much to you affect you more than me. You could have chocolate-based blood cells as far as I’m concerned (no, Spock, no medical commentary, not just now) it would make no difference.”
He fell silent. And into that silence, the intercom sounded. Kirk glanced across at Spock and crossed to the wall unit.
“Scott, Captain. Your shuttle’s ready, sir, as requested. She won’t handle quite as sweetly, but she’s all yours.”
“Thank you, Scotty, and you and I must have a chat sometime about the art of estimation. I’ll be with you in five minutes.”
Spock watched him turn back and was reminded of the moment in Iowa when Kirk had said he had not regretted the Seleya mission, despite what it had cost him. More than not regretting it, I am glad. Never underestimate James T Kirk. Perhaps it was that quality, however well he thought he knew Kirk, of the not-quite-predictable that was responsible above all others for the fact that, at the end of the day, Spock would always choose to serve under Kirk. No other CO in Starfleet, he reflected, would have allowed his First Officer to talk to him in the way Kirk did, or accept the criticisms and genuinely try to change.
Which meant it might be worth one more try. And Spock said:
“Captain. An alternative to your proposal in relation to the Columbus – “
And found himself facing the unmistakable lifted hand of command. It appeared that Kirk had reached the limit of flexibility and change for the day.
“Thank you, First Officer. And thank you for your earlier comments, which I have taken on board. I don’t have to explain myself to you. But – this is my balance, Spock. I cannot command from the centre seat. Not always. Maybe most of the time. But there comes a point when you have to lead from the front, and I get paid to make the judgment call on when that is. As the only fit, contaminated, qualified shuttlecraft pilot on board, I am calling it now.”
At the door, he hesitated.
“Whatever you think and whatever you say, Commander, and whether or not this is the wrong thing to say to you now - as far as I am concerned, regardless of what you feel, of all the billions of life forms in the galaxy, you come by a significant margin the closest to being Spock, and that’s good enough for me.” He saw the Vulcan’s face change – entirely open, in a way it had never been before, and his instinct took him out of the room, to give Spock space. He turned again, though, half way through the door.
“What is it, Spock, though, about us and shuttlecraft? No need to answer that. I’ll have a game of chess when I’m back.”
As he walked to where the Columbus was waiting for him, he reflected that over the last few years he and Spock had struggled to define and keep hold of their friendship against a backdrop which had included political conflict between the Vulcan and human forces of the galaxy. In this latest episode it had crystallised to two viral strains, one programmed to wipe out humans and one to wipe out Vulcans. He wasn’t sure what that meant – the stakes seemed to be higher, both for them and for their respective worlds. He felt oddly buoyant about it, though. A solution seemed to be within reach, for the first time since he had sat in the San Francisco apartment and seen the name Soltar on his screen. A solution for the galaxy and perhaps even for the two of them, as well.
The isolation chamber had rarely seemed less isolated. A number of viewers were ranged around Spock’s biobed, allowing him clear perspective on all sides of the Enterprise, on the Mila flotilla, on the rainbow gaseous belt around the ship – and on the Columbus, edging through the belt for all the world like a miniature pair of scissors. Scott hovered between Spock and the wall intercom and McCoy stood at a slight distance, leaning against the wall, his arms folded and his eyes moving between his patient and the viewer. The intercom emitted a constant stream of commentary from Chekhov on the bridge.
“Mr Spock, the shuttle is nearly half-way through. She’s maintaining speed and power and is on schedule.”
“Thank you, Mr Chekhov,” Spock said. “Do you have a report on the Mila substance?”
“Yes, sir. It seems to be opening up, as though the captain has broken through a solid belt, sir – the gap behind him is widening.”
Which correlated with Spock’s own view. He watched the Columbus for another three point two minutes as it moved through the remaining belt, and then nodded to Scott, who activated the intercom again.
“Bridge, this is Spock. Please open a channel to the Columbus.”
“Yes sir... I have the captain for you, Mr Spock.”
“Captain, from our readings, you are nearly at the outer perimeter of the substance.”
Kirk’s disembodied voice came through clearly.
“Good to know – that’s what the readings suggest, but the scanner is struggling with the gases and visibility’s not great. What do you think – another couple of minutes?”
“I suspect less, sir, probably one point six minutes, approximately.”
“Approximately?” the disembodied voice queried, sounding (to his First’s ears) inappropriately happy, as though its owner had not fully appreciated either the perilous nature of his position or the regrettable nature of the fact that his First Officer could not guarantee the estimate provided beyond a single decimal point. “Well, I’ll have to work with what I have. Spock, the second you’re within visual of the Mila flotilla, chances are they’ll fire. You have to be ready to return fire. And the second you have communication, have Uhura send that report on the vaccination to the Seleya.”
“Yes , Captain,” Spock said. “Are you able to report on the levels of contamination within the shuttle?”
“Scanners suggest that the gas has entered the craft but I’m not feeling any ill effects. Don’t worry.”
“Symptoms would not necessarily manifest themselves immediately,” Spock said. “As soon as you reach the outer perimeter, we will transport you back to the ship and Dr McCoy has a medical team standing by.”
“Suits me, I might feel like a gooseberry if you and Milani are going to start shooting at each other.”
Spock opened his mouth and closed it again. The intercom continued cheerfully,
“Your approximately was a disguised exercise in precision, as usual, Spock. Looks like I’m through.”
And the viewer nearest to Spock’s biobed showed, for the first time in two days, through a small but widening rainbow fringed hole, the sharp black of space – and the lead Milani vessel, perfectly caught, like an image in a telescope.
In subsequently compiling his official report of what transpired next, Spock was assisted by an eidetic recollection which preserved what had been, at the time, an absolute clarity in his perception of the execution of three simultaneous commands.
Transporter Chief Kyle was ordered to transport Captain Kirk back from the Columbus to the Enterprise; Lieutenant-Commander Chekhov was ordered to stand ready to commencing firing at the Mila vessel and Lieutenant-Commander Uhura was ordered to contact the Seleya in order to ensure immediate onward transmission of information about the A strain vaccination.
Almost simultaneously, he received two reports.
From the bridge:
“Mr Spock – we are under fire. Both Mila battlecruisers are firing, sir!”
And from the transporter room:
“I can’t get a fix on the captain, sir. There’s still too much interference from the Mila cloud.”
Scott let out an oath and disappeared, at Spock’s nod.
“Keep trying, Mr Kyle,” he said. “Chekhov, shields up.”
“Shields are up, sir... We’ve taken a direct hit to starboard, Mr Spock. Shields holding at 65%.”
“Transporter room, report.”
“I’m trying, sir,” Kyle’s voice, sounding tense. “There’s nothing...”
And the intercom interjected. It was Kirk, the channel still open to the Columbus.
“Spock, I ordered you to return fire. Do it now.”
“Captain, you are directly in between us and the Mila ship and it is impossible, given the interference, to guarantee sufficient accuracy -”
“I know, Commander. I gave you an order.”
“Sickbay, this is the transporter room.” It was Scott, on the other intercom, like the fatal dropping of the other shoe. “There’s way too much interference, Mr Spock. If you can buy me maybe five minutes, I can probably get to him.”
“Spock,” said the Columbus. “You don’t have five minutes and I gave you a direct order.”
Spock lifted his face and, for approximately three point two seconds, met McCoy’s eyes. McCoy’s own expression was frozen, and then it suddenly changed and he said, “Now wait just a damn...” but Spock was not listening.
I ordered Mr Kyle to lock on to the Captain’s coordinates and hold within the transporter beam if at all possible. I then ordered Mr Chekhov to commence fire. Within three point seven minutes, one of the two Mila battlecruisers was destroyed and the other surrendered. In the process, the shuttlecraft Columbus was destroyed. No life forms were found to have been retrieved by the transporter beam.
Dr McCoy then informed me that a vaccination has been developed for the B strain of the virus.