He took Eli French’s hand, shook it firmly and accepted the proffered coffee.
“Good to see you, Captain. And I think congratulations are in order.”
French’s eyebrows rose.
“Little matter of a second class medal of honour? Can’t hide your light under a bushel, you know, Eli.”
Somewhat to his surprise, a shadow passed over the other’s face.
“Load of damn nonsense, as you very well know, Jim,” he said, gruffly. “But thank you. And thank you, also, for coming alone.”
“You asked me to, so I did,” he said lightly. “But, Eli, this is not a classified mission and I’m unaware of any orders requiring me to act alone. Spock will need to be briefed.”
“Yes, of course, I know that,” French said, quickly. “It’s just that I wanted to raise something with you first. You’ll understand when you see your brother - it’s not about not trusting Spock, of course.”
Well, no. It was never about not trusting Spock. Was it?
“Spock stated he received a message for us to come here. That’s all the proof I require.”
He said, ignoring the days-old echo from Starbase Eleven,
“What’s Sam got to do with this, anyway?”
“He’s the one who contacted HQ. He was trying to get hold of you, but apparently you were out near the Talos system – that true, Jim?” French asked, curiously. Kirk lifted a peremptory hand.
“Another day. So he got you instead. What did he want? Is this about Sam, or about Deneva?”
“Oh, Deneva. But a bit more than Deneva. HQ must have sent you the briefing on the epidemic.”
They had. Pages and pages of graphic descriptions of crippled nervous systems, muscles ceasing up, death by oxygen deprivation, with no response to known medication. A planet half a sector from Deneva had lost four percent of its population in six weeks. And there had been reports of victims on Cregennan, which was closer to Deneva. Much, much closer.
“They did. McCoy’s been reading up on it. But I don’t really understand why you brought us in on it, or even why Sam asked for us. McCoy’s the best CMO in the business, but we’re not set up for this sort of thing. Why isn’t there a medical research ship assigned to this? You can’t expect us to fight this on our own.”
French shook his head.
“Don’t worry. The lab teams on Starbase Three are giving it all they’ve got and George – I mean, your brother - is running a whole operation on Deneva. Trouble is, they’ve been tracking the epidemic, they’ve had six months’ notice and they haven’t really got anywhere. George says there is no obvious connection between the various symptoms, that there’s no known example of similar patterns of viruses which have causes these particular combinations.”
Kirk looked thoughtful.
“That’s bad,” he said quietly. “The inhabitants of those two planets – Cregennan and – what was it? – Trennon 5 – they’re humanoid, right?”
“Cregrennan yes, Trennon 5, no. The virus seems to adapt to different species very easily.”
“What do they have in common?”
“The different species,” he said, patiently. “They’ve both been vulnerable to this virus, what physical attributes do they have in common?”
“Don’t know, Jim, haven’t thought about it from that angle, ask your brother.”
“I will,” he said, a good deal more mystified than at the start of the briefing, “but I still have no idea why the Enterprise is here. I repeat, we are not a medical ship.”
“Like I said, Jim, that part of it’s covered. George and I needed your advice on something else.”
Kirk stared at him.
“There have been reports,” French said, slowly, “there have been reports of some resistance to the disease.”
“Resistance? Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? What do you mean, resistance?”
French studied his fingers for a minute, and then said,
“Apparently, there is an active cult which is developing rapidly in the sector.”
Kirk groaned to himself. He wasn’t sure he was up to dealing with another cult, another combination of galactic virus and beings who ceded control of their lives to self-appointed messiahs – his least favourite scenario, where he knew he most lacked empathy. He was too much himself, too much at home in his own leadership persona not to feel both an instinctive impatience with those who abdicated from decisions over their own future and at the same time a profound inner discomfort with any evidence of abuse of power and trust.
The face of Miri came to mind. And he remembered also the havoc caused by that other recent epidemic, the water-altering virus they had encountered off Psi 2000, Riley’s mania, Sulu amok, and those words from Spock he knew he had yet to take sufficient time sufficiently to process “Jim, when I feel friendship for you I am ashamed.” He put it alongside “I’ve been completely logical about the whole affair” in the file for his self-imposed assignment, grown somewhat more pressing of late, of trying to understand his First Officer, and turned back to the matter at hand.
“What’s the cult? And what’s the connection with the virus?”
“We don’t know a lot about it, but it started independently from the virus, it’s over a decade old. Starfleet’s been tracking it and till now we’ve no information that it’s a matter for particular concern. The problem is that it’s founded on the idea that the mind is the key to everything.”
“Wouldn’t necessarily dispute that, Eli,” he said mildly, thinking of Spock again.
“Maybe not. But the cult is very strong in this sector and they’ve been told that they will be immune to the virus if they simply adopt the right frame of mind when the time comes.”
“Well, that I would dispute,” he said, less mildly. “Who’s been telling them? Can’t you pull their leaders in for a conversation?”
“Good idea, Jim,” French said, leaning back with a smile. “Exactly what I was hoping you would propose. George has the information and he’ll give you the details.”
“All right,” Kirk said, still slightly puzzled. “Happy to help, of course, but is there a reason my ship was sent half way across the sector to interview these people? And why Spock couldn’t beam down with me?”
“They are Vulcan,” French said, and the unexpected statement, together with its very simplicity, took Kirk aback so much that for a fleeting instant he thought French had said that Spock was Vulcan, wondered what was wrong with the other man – and then snapped back.
“Vulcan? A Vulcan cult? Are you sure?” And knew, even as he asked the question, not only that it was rhetorical, redundant, but also that it made sense. The mind is key to everything, French had said, and his own thoughts had instantly gone to Spock.
“George wanted to talk it through with you. We figured you’d want to brief Spock but that it might be helpful for you to be aware first, that’s all.”
He looked thoughtfully at French – it was no use, there was something strange going on, but he would have to drag it out of his brother. He said
“I’ll go and see Sam,” but made no effort to get up, and after a minute, French glanced up with an enquiring look on his face.
“Look, Eli,” Kirk said, a little uncomfortably. “I was damned sorry to hear about Manoriss. I realise you may not want to talk about it, but if you do – well, I want you to know that I’m happy to listen.”
French’s face shuttered and he said, coolly,
“History, Captain. Nothing to discuss.”
Kirk shrugged and got to his feet to go, but as he opened his mouth, the other man’s expression changed and he said, slightly unevenly,
“No, don’t go - look, Jim, I appreciate it. It’s been a difficult time. I know you mean well, you and Spock. It’s just…” His voice tailed off and he swung round abruptly to the viewer and said to the stars, “I’ve not actually talked about it properly to anyone.”
With an inner sigh and a silent apology to his brother, Kirk laid a hand on his shoulder. “Perhaps you should, in that case. If not to a friend, then to whom? Come on, Eli,” he said, gently, steering the other man to a chair. “Let’s have it.”
French sat, rather heavily, and Kirk went over to the replicator. He entered a programme, retrieved a glass of golden liquid and pushed it over to Eli.
“Not the real thing, but better than coffee. Tell me.”
The other man brooded over the drink a while, hands cradling the glass, and then said,
“Yes,” prompted Kirk, encouraging.
“They gave it to me after that spat off Rigel 7. I don’t know if you heard about it.”
Something stirred in Kirk’s mind, official reports, hostages, a ship at bay. He ignored it, said again,
“A bunch of real psychos. It was a gaol break. The maximum security facility on Rigel 3, the sector’s most wanted. They overcame the guards, took a bunch of civilians hostage, somehow managed to threaten their way onto a fully armed ship which was in orbit pending orders. God knows what sort of security system the Rigellians think they run – start to finish, the whole saga was a joke. Although, to be fair, these guys were the business – evil, sick, geniuses, the lot of them.” He fell silent again and Kirk, Sam and dinner on his mind, thought he could risk a prompt.
“I remember now. Wasn’t there a civil war? Rigel 4 and Rigel 7?”
“That’s right. Most of it was just resolved, some pretty effective mediation and a compensation process which will last till kingdom come. But the real hard cases, the racists, the sociopaths – they put them in the facility on Rigel 3. You can’t do anything with people like that. They were all from Rigel 4, and whatever you heard, Jim, they were the instigators. Oh, sure, Rigel 7 weren’t saints. But without that bunch of fascists on Rigel 4, it would never have happened. They didn’t really want a different set of mining rights, they didn’t want resettlement – they just wanted to blow up as much of Rigel 7 as they possibly could. No question of rehabilitation. They’re just scum, people like that. Starfleet should have executed the lot of them. Would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.”
“So what happened?” Kirk asked, eyes on French’s face. Eli was clearly a long way away. Somewhere off Rigel 7, Kirk suspected.
“They plotted a direct course to Rigel 7 and started powering up every photon torpedo on board.”
“And where did you come into it?”
“I was just the one who drew the short straw. We were the nearest ship. Simple orders, really – stop the ship, save the hostages, save Rigel 7.”
There was a slight pause. Kirk thought back, quickly.
“They blew themselves up. The ship – it went up with all hands, is that right?”
“That’s right,” French said, very quietly.
Kirk regarded him, not unkindly.
“Eli, old friend. You and I have seen worse. It doesn’t make it your fault, yours – or Manoriss’s.” There was something else, he realised. What Frenh had said was just the background. He said, “What aren’t you telling me, Eli?”
The other turned to him. In almost matter of fact tones, he said, “You’re right, Jim. That’s the hell of it. You’re absolutely right. It wasn’t my fault and it would have happened anyway. I thought I could save them – sixty men and women and a dozen kids – but I never had the chance. They blew themselves to bits as soon as I had them covered, as soon as I called for their surrender.”
Kirk waited. And then it came, like a cork from a bottle.
“The thing is, it turns out that that is what they do on Rigel 4. It’s a sort of secret native code, guarded from Starfleet. These people are brought up to believe that surrender is the ultimate disgrace. Like I said, bunch of sociopaths. They are trained – they are brainwashed, actually, talk about cults – to hit the switch as soon as they are surrounded. There are no records of surrender of Rigel 4 forces – ever. Ever, ever. So they were always going to die. As soon as we took the Endeavour over there, with a hundred times their weaponry and ten times their speed, it was always going to happen. ”
“Eli,” he said softly. “Eli. What difference would it have made if you have known?”
French brought his hand up, scrubbed his face and let out a huge sigh.
“Difference? Probably none. None in the outcome because I had no choice – I had to protect Rigel 7, of course I did. My orders made it clear and in any case there was no choice. It would have been a hell of a nasty one to think through, though. Not sure what I would have tried. The thing is – the thing is… “
“Yes?” prompted Kirk. He was beginning to wonder whether McCoy was right about his psychoanalytical abilities. He thought he was doing rather well with French. If he told McCoy, it might get him off Kirk’s back about a cosy one-to-one with Spock. He was also beginning to wonder about his meal with Sam, and whether it would turn into a late night coffee, how long it would be before he managed to get back to the ship. And whether, in fact, he should have that one-to-one with Spock. Why are you so afraid of talking to him? McCoy was right. And then he wondered what the hell he was doing there, persuading French to spill his guts out, when he wasn’t prepared to reach out to Spock – Spock, of all people.
“The thing is,” French was saying, “just one of those things, Jim, you know how it is, the way the dice rolls sometimes.”
“Sure,” Kirk said, mind largely on Spock and partly on dice. What on earth was Eli talking about? And then his mind snapped back to the present with French’s next words.
“My family are stationed on Rigel 7 just now. My father has a contract with the Senate and my mother is there with my two sisters for twelve months. You know, my younger sister is married to Ray Marsh and she’s six months pregnant.”
Kirk stared at him.
“My God,” he said, softly. “Eli… are they safe?”
“Now? Oh yes,” a short laugh which didn’t sound amused. “And they were always going to be. Because there was no question of me not going hell for leather after the hostage ship whatever happened. There was no question of any difficult decision, no conflict of interest.”
“Well, no,” Kirk agreed, mystified. Perhaps he was losing it. Perhaps he had been in space too long and had lost an edge. Perhaps once he would have been more shocked by French’s story. French was clearly harrowed, but Kirk had learned nothing so far which would explain the new lines on his friend’s face – some dead hostages (highly regrettable but entirely unavoidable), some dead terrorists (entirely unavoidable and entirely unregrettable) and a rescued planet. And where, in all this, was Manoriss’ court martial?
“There would have been, had I known about the Rigel 7 code of no surrender,” French said.
“But you didn’t, I take it.”
“No. But I should have.”
“What do you mean, should have?” he asked, curiously. His eyes were trained on French, like a hound scenting his quarry.
French turned and looked at him full in the face.
“Man knew. He knew and he didn’t tell me.”
Kirk literally blinked.
French leaned back in his chair. He seemed oddly relaxed, now he had arrived at the point of the story.
“It all came out afterwards. The Council of Rigel 4 went over the reports and logs like ants scurrying over a nest. There was no record of any consideration of the balance between the threat to Rigel 7 and the likely fate of the hostages given the code of no surrender, because of course there was no such consideration given. So the Council pointed out that with a Rigellian First Officer I must have known, and I said Man could not possibly have known because he never told me.”
Kirk was mesmerised. Mesmerised and more than that. Deep inside, he began to be aware of an entirely different feeling.
“What did they say?” he asked, almost in a whisper.
“They laughed in my face,” French said. “They said Man’s knowledge of the code was on a par with human children’s knowledge of basic trigonometry.”
“And – why?” Kirk asked, finding the question almost impossible to ask but even more impossible not to ask. The sense of a hunter seeking quarry had gone. Now, he felt as though he were caught in a current, heading for a waterfall. He was being carried blind and didn’t know where or when the fall would take him, but he knew what sort of place it would be now. “Why didn’t he tell you?”
French said: “Because it would have made no difference. Because I would have had to count up the numbers and let the Rigel hostages die anyway. Because if I had known I could have been accused of putting my family first. Because, in fact, even more people might have died. Because whatever happened, everyone was going to die but it would have been a hell of a lot harder for everyone and especially for me.”
“I guess that’s true,” Kirk said, feeling his way. He knew that the moment was coming, that the waterfall was in front of him now, that there was nothing he could do. And he knew exactly where it was taking him. “So why the court martial?”
“Because he lied to me,” French said, and Kirk physically flinched from a combination of Eli’s tone and his own memories. “Because you have to know, don’t you, you have to know with one hundred percent of yourself, one hundred percent of the time, that your First is telling the truth? Because he has to be a part of you. Because there has to be no question, no doubt, no shadow. Because there has to be absolute trust. Because there will come a day when you’re in that place and your back is against that wall and your ship is on the line and you have to know, absolutely know, without blinking, who he is and where he is and what he is and why. Because you actually have to trust him more than you trust yourself.” He levered himself up, heavily.
“Like you and Spock,” he said, trying for a lighter note, a friendly smile. “That’s what you need, what we all need.”
He heard his own voice, as though coming from a long way away, as though the water were still buffeting his senses, as though he were coming up for air.
“But still – a court martial? Could you not have dealt with it some other way?”
“Not my idea, as it happens,” French said, briefly. “The Council made a hell of a noise to Starfleet and it was out of my hands. I had to testify, of course. But I had no choice, there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t have lied to protect him, because the evidence was there in the logs. Even if I had wanted to.”
Kirk heard the faintest whisper of something in those last words – of memories, of friendship, of a bar on Venga Five – “What’s the single thing which is going to make a difference, when you’re up against it?... . I can even tell you what he’s doing now and why he’ll be five minutes late.”
“Do you regret it? Regret the Council finding out?” He didn’t know what made him ask, knew it was the worst thing to say. And he saw a ripple of pain run over the other’s face, before it stilled again, as though into stone.
“That it happened? More than anything, more than you can know. The court martial? No. You can’t work with someone after something like that. Once trust is broken, it’s over. You can’t ever get it back.” There was a pause, in which Kirk forbade himself to hear Eli’s words, and then French went on.
“It seemed like the worst thing, at the time, you know. The Council, the decision HQ took to court-martial him. But in the end I was so damn grateful that they took it out of my hands. If they hadn’t, I’d like to think that I would have had the guts to do it myself, and the thing is, Jim, I’ll never know - but I don’t think I would. I think I would have let things go on, run a ship on fractured trust – like keeping an animal with a broken back when you ought to have the courage to put it out of its misery but you just can’t make yourself do it.”
There was no universe in which Spock would have explained to Kirk that it was Kirk himself who taught him the lessons he put into practice at Starbase Eleven, but it was nevertheless, at least to some extent, the case.
An engineer passed him a report to sign as he sat in Kirk’s command seat, directing Kirk’s ship while Kirk was down on the planet with Eli French and his brother. It was an update on some warp coil components which had been installed at the start of the five year mission, the same week that Kirk had joined the Enterprise and started a process of fundamentally undermining certain of Spock’s most firmly held views on human dynamics.
What had from the first intrigued Spock about his captain and impressed itself upon him as a particular strength was Kirk’s emotional resilience. Not all of Spock’s years with Pike had prepared him for a journey at Kirk’s side which would see his captain survive on a daily basis the most stringent of physical and psychological tests and odds whose probability the Vulcan had begun to calculate by way of expressing his own commentary on a courageous obstinacy more remarkable than anything he had yet seen since leaving Vulcan. He had realised early on in their partnership that Kirk’s most formidable weapon was humour, his ability to turn away at the most acute moments from too much humanity.
Hence, the man who had been at first so concerned about the fate of the child Miri on the duplicate Earth and had then manipulated her to save her friends and the ship’s command team had been capable of saying lightly to Yeoman Rand as they left orbit I never get involved with older women.
Even after Exo 3, after Roger Korby, after Mind your own business, Mr Spock, I’m sick of your half-breed interference, do you hear? Kirk had found his feet rather more swiftly than his First Officer, had Spock been prepared to admit it. Uncertain of how to express a reaction which had caught him unprepared, he had reached for his own brand of humour as the only way to introduce the topic, had said to his captain You must admit it is an unsophisticated expression. And Kirk had heard none of the undertones which Spock himself would have struggled to have understood, and said drily I’ll remember that, the next time I find myself in a similar situation and had taken the ship out of orbit and never returned to the subject.
He had wondered, afterwards, if Kirk had understood what he had meant, when he had stood on the bridge and said I was rather dismayed… Vulcans, it had to be noted, do not feel dismay, and he had thought Kirk might have understand his reaction, context notwithstanding, to the sound of those words of all words, addressed to him by Kirk of all men – or by any person resembling Kirk. When this understanding had not been forthcoming, Spock had concluded that Kirk was vested with an emotional pragmatism that was likely to prove an especial strength. Kirk could get himself through days like the one they had spent on Exo 3 and say your half-breed interference and crack jokes afterwards because the ends justifies the means.
A month previously, Spock had come across Kirk and McCoy speaking in low voices in the senior rec room and Vulcan hearing had briefly overcome Vulcan respect before he had realised the two were discussing Kirk’s latest affair. Spock had taken his meal to another table at that point, the nature and extent of Kirk’s engagement with the opposite sex being the aspect of his captain which Spock least understood and where he felt least comfortable about proffering advice. Vulcan regard for privacy had not, however, prevented him overhearing Kirk’s I made it quite clear when we would be leaving orbit.
Which was fascinating, if you were disposed to be fascinated by the psyche of your commanding officer, was what lay beneath these otherwise unremarkable eleven words. Kirk had clearly spent the previous night on the planet making the close acquaintance of a female person not comprising part of the crew of the Enterprise. Kirk had informed this being that his company would only be available to her for a limited amount of time and had then apparently been confronted with a display of regret on the part of the female being which had surprised him. This suggested that Kirk expected his dealings with others to be governed by logic. However, it was the experience of Spock, who might reasonably have been thought more likely to have held this view, that there was a vanishingly small likelihood that the information that her liaison with Kirk could only last twenty one point seven hours would ensure any degree of logical behaviour from the female in question.
Now, it occurred to Spock to consider the parallels in his own behaviour. He had said to Kirk Don’t let him stop me. It’s your career and Captain Pike’s life. And then, at the end of the day, when he had taken Pike down to the planet, Kirk had referred to Spock’s regrettable tendency to flagrant emotionalism and Spock had said I see no reason to insult me.
And could have followed it up, at any point during the past weeks when he had sensed Kirk’s distance from him, with I made it quite clear that I was acting in what I had considered to be your best interests.
Not for the first time, nor for the last, Spock wondered about Kirk’s occasional propensity to take on Vulcan attributes and his own lapses into less logical conduct. In fact, recent weeks had produced two irreconcilable moments, each unprecedented in the history of Spock’s learning of the lexicon of human emotionalism. One was half-breed interference. The other had been the encounter with the Fesarius, Spock’s own venture into territory half humorous, half a genuine quest for information – Has it occurred to you that there’s a certain inefficiency in constantly questioning me on things you’ve already made up your mind about? And then that response which he had taken away at the time like a gift, It gives me emotional security.
Spock took them out, now, like so many playing cards, and laid them side by side. He knew what they all meant individually, like a game where a set means something entirely different from the value of the individual cards.
I’m sick of your half-breed interference. I will say the one thing which will touch you on the rawest part of your divided self, because my private knowledge of your inner hurt will give me the advantage of sending you a silent warning which will ensure the safety of the ship and the success of the mission and because of that my actions merit no apology.
It gives me emotional security. You are part of me.
Anything else you don’t know, Spock? You lied to me because you had no choice and although it was in my own best interests in the name of friendship I cannot let it go and I am allowing it to damage us.
He knew what all three meant individually. He could not begin to compute what they meant together.
There was, perhaps, only one person whom Spock might profitably have consulted on the conundrum. But he was decades and sectors away. There would have to be another answer.
“There is just no point in trying to apologise to Aurelan.”
Sam’s first words, opening the door to his home, spoken in level friendly tones which belied both the lateness of the hour and the fact that he had not seen his brother for well over a year. Kirk met his eyes and put an arm out, briefly, holding his brother lightly and then moving past him into the living area of his house.
“Are you going to tell me where you’ve been?”
“Is she asleep?” he asked.
Sam burst out laughing, and some of the odd tension of the moment bled.
“Haven’t seen you for – what – sixteen months and here we are, not even close to a coherent conversation. OK, I won’t ask where you’ve been. Yes, she’s asleep, so’s Peter. I would offer you a drink, but it looks as though you’ve had several.”
“No,” he said vaguely, sitting down rather heavily in an armchair, “no, just been walking.”
His brother looked at him sharply, and then drew up a chair alongside him.
“Coffee?” he said, gently. “Going to tell me about it, little brother?”
Kirk blinked and straightened himself.
“No – no, thanks all the same. I think we had better postpone the reunion and my apologies to your wife. I do, however, need to know about the epidemic, about this Vulcan cult.”
Sam’s expression changed, and he leaned back in his chair.
“What did French tell you?”
“Just that. You going to give me the lowdown? What is this cult and who are the leaders? How does it work?”
Sam let a breath out and shrugged.
“Works the way all cults do, far as I can see. There’s a guy in charge who spins a line and likes the power and the limelight and there’s a bunch of followers who like the idea that he’s in charge. All the philosophies are the same when it comes to it – a different way to know yourself or to know those around you. Give me a cult which hasn’t fitted into that description.”
“And?” prompted Kirk. He was beginning to be aware that it was late, very late and that he was tired. He had beamed down from the Endeavour and purposely set coordinates at a distance from Sam and Aurelan’s home, thought the walk would clear his head, but found that he couldn’t quite walk fast enough to outpace Eli’s words (a ship on fractured trust – an animal with a broken back) and the faster he walked, the clearer the echo sounded in his head. He had kept going, because walking was easier than thinking, and then he had found himself at Sam’s door and seen that it was pitch dark all around him except, on the furthest reaches of the horizon, the earlier glimmers of the pre-dawn.
And with all this, a frustration both with French and now with Sam that he was only being told the obvious. Twelve hours after beaming over to the Endeavour, the conversation with French, the midnight walk and Sam leaning back in his chair, and all he knew was that research on the epidemic had drawn a blank and that somewhere out there was a cult run by Vulcans.
Why was he here, he and his ship, on this planet with his family, and Eli French, in orbit, mourning the loss of the person of whom he had said we may as well be married?
“And,” Sam said, looking straight ahead, “the line in this case is that strength comes from facing and sharing pain.”
Kirk thought this through briefly and shrugged.
“And that’s why you wanted me here?”
“No,” his brother said, and he turned sidewise with a movement that told Kirk that this was the moment of truth, this was the reason he was here, this was the point at which he would understand. “Not because of what they preach. Because of who they are. The leader of the cult is called Sybok and he is your First Officer’s brother.”