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CAPTAIN'S LOG: Stardate 3742.1. In coordination with the Caitian ship HEART OF TAENOR, we are proceeding to Jheungseih, leading world of the tonKitzhe Hegemony, in response to their request for membership in the Federation. As the seven worlds of the Hegemony contain races of both felinoid and humanoid extraction, the decision was made to utilize both the ENTERPRISE and HEART OF TAENOR to demonstrate the Federation's commitment to all of its member races.



The only other ship to ever explore this region of space was the survey ship BRADLEY, and its mission was cut short by the aborted Tholian conflict. Our mission will include exploratory functions as well, thus utilizing the two starships to their maximum potential. In addition to the worlds in the Hegemony, there are at least a dozen solar systems with planets capable of supporting life within a 30 light year radius. There are also many more stars without planetary systems, or with worlds falling in the Class G and T categories, possible sources of mineral wealth. In effect, this area forms a minor star cluster, unusual in that it is so close to the Galactic Barrier. Its unusual location is made even more striking by the nature of the space through which we must travel to reach our destination, for it is almost entirely void of stars.



ETA calculated to be another 5.6 days...





Panic shot through Kirk as he started from sleep. body automatically taking a defensive stance, gaze seeking the attacker even as he reached for the light control.



As the lights cast a dim glow over the obviously empty room, a choked cry next to him brought him back to reality. In that instant, fear ran out of him like a wave, cresting at some far, faintly-felt shore, and came racing back again with tidal force.



Spock was curled up tightly beside him, shivering violently, low moans escaping tightly-clenched lips, eyes squeezed shut.



Kirk, caught in the tight link of fear and confusion that was pulsing along their bond, then abruptly the emotions damped down. He froze for an instant, then reached out to touch his lover.



Spock didn't respond to the gentle touch, but the fear again drained away, and when it returned after a pause it was only a fleeting muddy echo of that earlier, sharply-defined wave of fear. A final shiver of emotion passed along the link. Then it was abruptly cut off.



Kirk's head was pounding, but he ignored the pain. He was terribly frightened by the pallor on Spock's face and the confusion evident in the now-open eyes.



“What the hell was that?” Kirk demanded.



Spock pulled himself to a sitting position, wrapping the blankets tightly around him. He met Kirk's confused gaze.



“Unknown, Jim,” he said, his voice rough, uneven, as he searched out words. “Something...some presence... some need... fading...”



“You're not making any sense,” Kirk said gently, more alarmed than he dared admit that his awareness of their bond was nearly imperceptible.



“A moment, please...” Spock closed his eyes, steepling his fingers.



Slowly Kirk felt the beginnings of warmth, the familiar feel of the basic level of the bond between them. His fear that something had attacked their link began to transform into a question--what had happened, and why?



Spock was looking at him again. The trance had been remarkably short.



“You cut me off,” Kirk said, his voice quiet.



“It was necessary. It was still there.”



“What was? Show me.” He started to reach out, and was badly startled when Spock flinched away. “Spock?”



Instant regret came into Spock's eyes. “I can't explain what just happened, Jim. But it is not something I wish to share with you now. I must meditate upon it and discover its meaning. I will share it with you once I have done so.”



“Do you have any idea what caused that--”



“Violent reaction?” Spock smiled briefly. “Something--some powerful telepathic invasion touched my mind and was gone. I felt--helpless--before it. I couldn't understand. It only lasted a small fraction of a second. It was my reaction to it that brought you awake.”



“Not just that,” Kirk said thoughtfully. The hint of something alien--brief, shadowy tendrils of incomprehensible thought patterns--lodged at the back of his mind. When he tried to focus inward, his mind flinched. He looked at Spock, deeply disturbed.



Spock laid a hand gently on his shoulder. “Do not think of it. That could pose a danger. It was unavoidable that some contact seeped through. It was somewhat similar to what I experienced with V'ger--but not entirely comparable. It--”



The shrill sound of the intercom pierced the air in the room.



Kirk's nerves were already strung tight. He hit the button forcefully. “Kirk here.”



“Garrovick, Captain. Sir, HEART OF TAENOR has assumed an erratic course--correction, they've just dropped into sublight.”



“Track and follow,” Kirk ordered. “Where are we?”



There was a pause, during which the shudder of a sudden jump back into normal space stirred through the ship, the yellow alert signals flashing simultaneously.



“Still in the K-71 sector, sir. Deep space. The nearest system is 19 light years away--that would be TZM19.”



“Any planets in that system?”



“None.”



“On my way,” Kirk said.



“Captain?”



Kirk's hand stopped an inch from the intercom button. “Yes?”



“One other thing--Lt. M'Ress collapsed at the same time as HEART OF TAENOR went off course. Sickbay reports several other instances.”



“Who?” demanded Kirk, feeling a bad sense of premonition.



“No list of names yet, sir--except for all of the Vulcans. No report on Spock.”



Kirk glanced at his First Officer, whose face had returned to its usual calm appearance. “He reported a disturbance as well, but it appears to have passed. On my way.” This time he successfully cut the communication.



“Interesting,” Spock observed neutrally.



“What the hell are we getting into now?” Kirk grabbed for his shirt. “You all right?” he asked, needing the reassurance of words.



Spock raised an eyebrow. “I am.”



“I'd like you to go to Sickbay.”



“It is likely that Dr. Chapel is already well occupied,” Spock commented, his voice gentling fractionally as he added, “It is not necessary.”



Kirk completed his hurried dressing by tugging on his boots. He gave Spock another hard glance. Spock pulled on his shirt and met Kirk's gaze levelly.



“Meet me on the Bridge, then,” Kirk said, at the door by the time he finished his sentence.







Lt. Masumori looked up from the science station as Kirk entered. “Sir, sensors reported unusual energy activity along the Galactic Barrier at about the same time HEART OF TAENOR began evidencing difficulty. “



“Track that down. Any contact with TAENOR?” He paused at the comm station.



Ensign Stevens turned to meet his gaze. “Still trying, sir, but they do not acknowledge.”



Kirk took his position in the command chair. “Any sensor readings to indicate the reason for·their difficulty?”



“No, sir. The mass/energy flow indicators all appear stable. No signs of impediments in the transmit tubes. No indication of loss of interior power.”



“Life readings?”



“Undiminished.”



“Our own casualties?”



“Science section reports that the Vulcans on duty suddenly all collapsed; Lt. M'Ress, as well. Later reports also mentioned Ensigns Manderley and Avioto.”



Kirk hit the comm button. Behind him the bridge door slid open and Spock stepped in as Kirk began speaking. “Security. An unknown force has struck the ship. I want an accounting of every crewmember. Check the cabins, report anyone found unconscious. Kirk out.” His eyes met Spock's.



//Are you all right?//



He received the answer on a calm, warm level. He relaxed a bit as Spock relieved Lt. Masumori.



“Casualty report coming in now.”



“Yes, Chapel.”



“Add Ensign Gentelvic to the list. They're all recovering now. They were only dazed and disoriented for the most part. None of them has a coherent explanation for what happened.”



“Keep me posted.” He hit the switch. “Spock?”



Spock stopped the flow of information on the playback circuit and turned to Kirk with an expression of interest on his face. “There was indeed a strong energy surge along the Galactic Barrier at 23.49 hours,” he stated. “It lasted for a total of 9.5 seconds and maintained an unvarying level of power for the duration. The area of the Barrier affected extended for some 35 light years in all directions.”



“Source?”



“Unknown. The level of intensity was equal in every part of the Barrier so affected.”



“Purpose?”



“Unknown.”



“Effect?”



“There have been no physical effects on any of our equipment. Spectrum comparison of the nearby system indicates no alteration in any form.”



“A...natural occurrence of some sort?”



“It is true that there is much about the Barrier which remains unknown. However, I consider this highly unlikely.”



Kirk stared at the view revealed by the screen. The distant dim flicker was like a tenuous sheet behind the few visible stars. “Any sign of any alien ships?”



“None.”



Kirk's unease was rising. He remembered Gary... Miranda...the Kelvans. Though the location of each incident had been parsecs apart, the galactic barrier always meant trouble. The crawl of distant energy the screen revealed was like a warning of disaster. The Kelvans...something alien... he was abruptly reminded of the time Spock had melded with one of those beings; the distress and disorientation that meld had cost him. He glanced at his First Officer, the beginnings of an idea forming. Spock looked back, eyes showing that he understood.



Stevens' voice broke in., “Sir, communication coming in from the TAENOR.”



“On the screen, Ensign.”



The face of Aure'ev, Captain of HEART OF TAENOR, appeared. His ears drooped, golden eyes betraying a lingering sense of shock.



“Captain Kirk,” he acknowledged.



“Do you have any information on the recent occurrences on your ship?”



“We are still... notetaking, Captain.” The voice revealed even more weariness than the face. “When it hit--whatever it was--a full 90% of my crew was incapacitated. Recovery is still not complete. But data indicates that of the 10% who were relatively unaffected, virtually all of them were singletons, and thus without a sibling bond.”



“Fascinating.” Spock rose and moved to Kirk's side.



“Spock--those other people affected. What was their--”



“Telepathic quotient? Checking.” A moment later he had his answer. “All more than 25% above normal Human or Viranian capability.”



“Status, Cpt. Aure'ev?” Kirk asked.



“Reapproaching normal. Bridge crew is now drawn from those unaffected.”



Kirk stared again at the viewscreen and silently cursed the fact that the Hegemony was so near that damned barrier. “Spock, any signs of activity?”



“None.”



“Can you get any readings out past the Barrier?”



“Negative. The Barrier creates too much interference with our equipment.”



“Then we shall proceed on course to the Hegemony. Captain?”



“I concur,” Aure'ev said. “I request a meeting by synchronous real-time 0600 to correlate findings.”



“Agreed. Kirk out.”



The viewscreen flickered back to the exterior view. The sight of so much empty space was unnerving... empty, but not totally dark, for in the distance the energy flicker continued, whirling and eddying slowly, sometimes at the extreme limit of the range of vision. The few stars visible were a sparse reminder and counterpoint to the empty void beyond, the incredible, as yet uncrossable, distances between the Milky Way and Andromeda.



Kirk looked up at Spock, his eyes betraying concern. “Has the Barrier ever shown any effect on telepathic species before?”



“Negative, Captain. except where those abilities were combined with high psychic ratings as well. I must point out that there has been little research done in this area.”



“Noted.” The word was calmer than he felt. “I'll be in Sickbay.” He directed his attention to Stevens. “Contact department heads and alert them to the 0600 meeting. Masumori, I want you there, too. Spock?”



Spock joined Kirk in the turbolift. As it sped down and across the ship towards Sickbay, Kirk met his eyes.



“I don't like it,” he said. “Everything about this area is wrong.”



Spock lifted a brow. “I concur.”



Kirk grinned. “No comment on the illogic of intuition? No facts, figures and statistics—or even theories? Just ‘I concur’?”



“I have found your intuition highly logical on many occasions.” Spock’s lips curved up in a slight smile.



The turbolift opened on an orderly scene. Four Vulcans were in the outer office, talking quietly among themselves in their own language. At the sight of their superior officers they rose respectfully, faces carefully neutral.



“Dr. Chapel informed me you all suffered some ill effects earlier. Can any of you shed any light on just what happened?”



Kirk sensed Spock's amusement as the other Vulcans rapidly sorted past the idiomatic expression to the actual meaning. Soquel, senior science officer on the third shift, was first to speak. His wife, T'Mek, stood close by.



Kirk sensed, as always, the overwhelming closeness of the bonded pairs, attuned as he was to that psychic connection. Though it was Soquel who spoke, he saw by the tiny changes of expression on T'Mek's face that she concurred entirely with every word; that they had, indeed, been her experiences as well.



“This evening we felt an overwhelming telepathic presence. Data was imparted then withdrawn so abruptly as to cause a brief, intense mental shock. For that period of time--” he glanced at the other Vulcan couple, “--the sense of disparate identity disappeared. The boundaries of individual personality vanished, and I experienced a--oneness, for lack of a better term--with the beings in my immediate vicinity. We have discussed this since and they concur. Perhaps Spock has told you of the sekleriae?”



Kirk glanced at Spock, and almost instantly began to understand portions of the concept. At the same time, the door slid open and several more people entered the room--the final pair of Vulcans, as well as Lt. M'Ress, Ensigns Manderley and Avioto, and the willowy, elongated form of the Viranian, Gentelvic. Dr. Chapel brought up the rear.



“The sekleriae,” Spock said for the benefit of the-non-Vulcans in the room, “is a mass mindmeld, usually performed at ceremonial clan gatherings and utilized as a means of sharing common experience, ancestral wisdom and knowledge, and reaffirming the unity of the family.”



“It was similar to the sekleriae,” Soquel acknowledged, “but without control. There was no direction, no purpose. It was an opening without a filling. Nothing was given but chaos.”



Kirk felt chilled by these concepts. He looked at Dr. Chapel, who was standing close to Lt. Manderley. “Physical consequences?”



“All readings show normal. The only variations that appear can be easily accounted for by a sudden shock.”



Kirk turned his attention to M'Ress. “Your experiences?”



She frowned, the tip of her tail twitching in agitation. “I am a singleton--I have no brothers or sisters, Captain. I have never shared the sibling bond. But my mind has been touched by Healers, and I am told that I can reach out. I was taught how to control this; it is not an ability I practice. But this... it was something reaching in--something very alien. I felt a type of presence...not just one, but many.”



“Were you aware of any of the thoughts of those around you?”



“No, I was not.”



Kirk exchanged glances with Spock, and turned to the two Humans affected. “Lt. Manderley--what was your experience?”



“I was in the chem lab, helping Frank--Ensign Morgan--with the rytallin2 sequence when it hit. It's hard to explain, sir--it was like I was suddenly a part of him and Karen--excuse me, Lt. Silver.” She drew in a deep breath. “Sir. There were five of us in the lab. For a moment it seemed like I was in all those places at once. I could--could feel their positions--get little pieces of their thoughts--there wasn't much of anything intelligible. It was like white noise.”



Avioto and Gentelvic backed her up with their own impressions.



Kirk looked over the people involved. “Besides Lt. M'Ress, did any of you sense any alien intelligence in this?”



“No, sir,” Manderley said, with Avioto and Gentelvic agreeing.



“There did seem to be an agency behind the effects--more than just a blind force,” Soquel said thoughtfully.



“I concur,” Spock said. “I, too, sensed such an agency.”



“The concepts I sensed were radically opposed to any I have encountered prior to the present time,” Soquel continued. “Physics--mass conversion--interdimensional displacement--”



Kirk liked it even less. Particularly Soquel's last phrase. Ugly, alarming thoughts intruded. He remembered a man called Lazarus, and their fears of invasion. “Was there anything to indicate that the ENTERPRISE, the HEART OF TAENOR, or the Federation itself is under scrutiny? Any sense of an imminent attack?”



“No, sir,” Lt. M'Ress said. “It was more like a question--as if we were some new species just discovered--like turning over a log and finding some insects beneath--stopping to look, but not really being involved.”



That, too, was an unsettling thought. Kirk added it to the rest as he dismissed the group and headed with Spock back into the turbolift.



When it came, it was without warning, like a white-hot explosion in his mind. The sensation of having dual bodies was overpowering--there were too many arms, too many legs; sickening flashes of double vision. The angles were wrong--he saw his own face and Spock's simultaneously--his mouth open in shock--Spock, pale and strangled-looking. Balance was gone; he lurched dizzily and dropped to his knees. Dimly he felt the turbo coming to a halt. The door slid open; he closed his eyes against the double input of visual images, leaving only Spock's view of the open door to assault his mind.



Then the sensation tripled, quadrupled, as two crewmen stepped toward the open door and paused, confusion tumbling in their minds--



He was seeing from four sets of eyes at once--jagged slashes of view--jumbled layers of thoughts--Captain? Mr. Spock? Captain?-- Somewhere, like a thready pulse, a hint of rationality held on. He reached out to it, recognizing it as partially separate. He closed his eyes again, pressing them tight, and leaned against the turbo wall. Spock' s eyes were now shut, as well. Now there were only two distracting viewpoints maintaining that jarring cacophany of images, each slightly out of synch, like a recording played, and replayed an instant later on two machines. Stray tendrils invaded his mind--My god it's the Captain--have to report this--call Sickbay--



An instant later there was a quick exchange of conversation between the crewpeople--the sounds grated on the air--



Nausea filled him--he was dangerously close to passing out--the thread of himself was unraveling, winding away from him--



Faces peering at him in concern--one withdrew, moving down the hall to the comlink--



Then, like unwinding gauze, layer and layer of perception fell away. The minds were shielded from him until he and Spock alone remained, and there was a growing barrier between them as well. A rapidly solidifying barrier.



Spock was behind that barrier. The psychic assault hadn't stopped.



Abruptly, for him, it was over. His vision cleared. He blinked, trying to focus, then viewed with alarm the sight that met his eyes.



Spock was pressed up against the wall, eyes glazed, face blanked out with shock. He was as pale as Kirk had ever seen him.



Kirk shook off his paralysis and reached out. instinctively stopping his hand just before it touched Spock.



He was instantly disgusted with himself. Was he afraid? Of Spock? Of the pain, the terror further exposure to his bondmate's mind might bring? But if he reached out...would that hurt Spock even more?



An instant later, Spock slid to the floor, knees buckling as if a force field had been turned off somewhere, releasing him.



Kirk was there to prevent him from toppling face forward. Terror filled the Captain at the continued sensation of separation. He forced himself to move slowly as he carefully laid Spock down upon the floor.



“A medical team's on its way, sir.”



He looked up, startled.



Ensign Rahda was there; he suddenly remembered she and another had been watching the whole time. Ensign Nguyen came into view then, and Kirk shuddered, remembering the distorted perceptions. I was there--in you--and yet there was nothing individualized about it.



Turning his attention back to Spock, he cradled the dark head in his lap. Spock's chest rose and fell slowly. Kirk grasped a wrist and felt the rapid pulse beneath. A moment later, Spock opened his eyes.



“Easy, now,” Kirk soothed, struck by the look of confusion and fear that filled the brown depths.



“Jim,” Spock gasped. Just that one word, then Spock tensed his muscles as if he were about to attempt to sit up.



“Easy,” Kirk repeated, trying to speak past his fear. “Sickbay's coming.”



Spock's response was immediate...and distressed. “I do not want--too many people--” Spock once again attempted to raise himself, only to be restrained by Kirk.



At the touch, Spock seemed to ease. He focused fully into Kirk's gaze and said clearly, “It's over now, Jim. Please. Let me up.”



Kirk released his grip uncertainly. Spock took a deep breath, then sat up gracefully. He didn't try to get to his feet immediately, but raised an eyebrow at the two crewmembers who were staring at them with concern.



“The others will have experienced this as well,” Spock said in a voice which approached his usual calm tones. “It would be best to check on the status of the TAENOR.”



“Of course.” Kirk needed this reminder, this return to reality. He found that his hands were shaking; he forced them into fists by his sides. “Will you be all right?”



“Perfectly.” Their eyes met. Slowly the link reasserted itself, the sense of calm, cool, rational thought returned. “The occurrence is over. There are no ill effects.”



Kirk nodded once as he got to his feet. He left the turbo and went directly to the commlink. By the time he finished his call to the bridge, Spock was by his side, Dr. Selini in tow, running scans.



He shook his head at Spock's unspoken question. “The bridge crew on the TAENOR weathered this one out. Did you sense anything different this time?”



“Aside from the differences in perception caused by being awake and near other people, no. It appeared to be of the same duration, the same intensity.”



Kirk remembered the nauseating sense of chaos that had seized him but deliberately forced it away. “I won't change the plans for the meeting then. Doctor?”



Selini shook her head. “Readings normal.”



Kirk got on the comm again. “Sickbay.”



“Yes, Captain.” Christine Chapel's voice broke in almost before he'd finished the word. “Those who were still here reported the same effects. Again, no physical changes.”



Kirk rubbed his forehead. “All right. Keep me posted.” He nodded to Selini. “Thanks, doctor. That will be all.”



He and Spock started down the corridor, heading to his quarters. After the door closed behind them, sealing away the light and noise from outside, Kirk turned to Spock.



“I have a gut feeling we should get out of here.”



“The mission is one of great importance,” Spock reminded him.·



“They always are.” He pressed a hand to his temples; Spock gently pulled it away and ran his fingers lightly over the area.



The ache subsided and he gave him a tired smile. “What say we get some rest? That meeting will be on us soon enough.”







“It is fortunate that we staffed the bridge crew with singletons. The rest of my crew was virtually immobilized,” Cpt. Aure'ev said, continuing his report. The people sitting around the conference table in one of the ENTERPRISE's briefing room consisted of equal numbers of personnel from both ships. “Even some of the singletons reported ill effects. And nearly 5% of our crew are still in Sickbay.”



Dr. Chapel and Lt. Masumori ran through concise reports of their findings. Then Kirk spoke.



“Captain, the one Caitian member of our crew, Lt. M'Ress, reports experiences different from the other affected people in that she is not exposed to the thoughts of anyone else during these incidents, but rather is aware of some powerful alien intellect--a group consciousness, apparently. What exactly does your crew experience?”



“Healer Ra'aulae can best explain.” Aure'ev nodded to the greyfurred Commander seated at his left.



“Captain, the bond between siblings--brothers and sisters born at the same time--is the strongest force in our society. It is a constant, lifelong, low-level telepathic contact, similar in some respects to the Vulcan bond. But it is unique in that it is exclusive. There are very few in our society capable of reaching out to any mind not so related, and almost all of those are singletons--sole births, such as your Lt. M'Ress. What our crew experienced was a type of static which wiped out the exclusivity of the link and let in other minds. From what I have heard, it was similar to what those telepathic members of your own crew experienced.”



Kirk nodded. “Recommendations?”



McCoy, who had come back on duty as soon as all the thirdshift medical activity alerted him, was the first to speak up. “With members of both crews affected to this degree, there's only one choice. Let's get out of here.”



“Captain?” Kirk turned his attention to Aure'ev.



“That is also my recommendation. Cancellation of the mission; an immediate report to Starfleet Command. The Hegemony is located too close to the Barrier to risk going any closer.”



“Mr. Spock?”



“Whatever is initiating this contact, Captain, should be responded to in some manner. To disregard it entirely is to risk several possibilities. This force may have no idea of the consequences of its actions. To contact the intelligence responsible may lead to mutual benefit.”



“There is, of course, another alternative,” Kirk went on. “Invasion. What sort of beings would exist beyond the Barrier of the galaxy? We've had experience with other beings capable of travelling the gulf between here and other galaxies.” He let his gaze sweep the room until his eyes rested on Cpt. Aure'ev. “My recommendation, Captain, is a transfer of personnel. All affected members of the Enterprise crew to be transferred to your ship. From there, you return to Federation space, while the Enterprise continues its original mission. This may in some way relate to the Hegemony's desire for contact. If it is unrelated, we'll be in the position to investigate.” Kirk found Spock's eyes on him. The realization suddenly dawned... he'd used the word 'we' so casually...but this was one mission Spock wouldn't be able to come along with him.



//It is necessary, Jim,// he heard through the link.



“Agreed.” Aure'ev was answering his last question. The Caitian Captain looked slightly relieved.



“Good,” Kirk went on decisively. “Dr. McCoy, pull the records for any crewmembers with high telepathic ratings.” The memory of Gary and Elizabeth Dehner intruded. “Include all those with high psi readings. I want anyone who might possibly be affected by this off the ship.” He took another glance at Spock. Understanding was there. That, and regret that, for once the Vulcan would be the last to know the results of what was certain to be an important mission.



Not the last, Kirk thought, as long as I'm here. He rose to his feet. “We'll begin immediately. Spock?”



Together, they left the briefing room. Kirk spoke, “Bridge,” once, then turned to look at his First Officer.



“It's necessary.”



“Of course,” Spock replied levelly. Kirk felt Spock's support for his decision flow through the bond. “As it stands, I could pose a danger to your command.”



“Never.” Kirk didn't have words for the pain he suddenly felt. He briefly pressed his lover's hand. Hot, strong fingers momentarily returned the pressure. Then the turbo slowed and they turned to face the entrance.



Once on the bridge, they got busy with respective tasks; Kirk sending the first of his messages; Spock checking the latest readings and monitoring the progress of the personnel notification/transfer. He also dispatched a yeoman to pack a few necessary things.



While mentally composing his next message, Kirk glanced up at the viewscreen. The Barrier was there, its shuddery flicker an annoyance to his already-tense nerves. He was about to order that the focus be redirected to the TAENOR when the quality of the light changed.



Like some slow explosion, the light surged, a liquid boiling outward along the Barrier, brightening immediately to blinding intensity. The automatic damping devices took over, but his eyes retained the brilliance. Blinking against the dimness, he saw the figures at the navigation station silhouetted against the screen. Chekov was half-turned toward the weapons console; Sulu spun partially around in his chair, eyes shielded by both hands. The light flickered--a sudden, intense strobe flash. The last thing he saw clearly was Spock, face frozen in shock, mouth open though no sound emerged, hand pressed to temples, not eyes--



And as the shift of light slowed and coalesced into millions of intense, pulsating particles, it seized him too--



He was one vast pain of hurt eyes--confusion fear hurt--his thoughts scrambled for rationality--he was--



--Uhura's fingers on her console, pressing a comm button, her voice a barely heard echo--



--Captain--Captain--Captain--



--someone was saying but he couldn't quite hear or see who and--



--Sulu turned, hands cold with sweat, asking questions questions and--



--Chekov questions--



--orders sir? are you all right right captain spock are you all right? can you hear me hear me hear me--



Echoing dizzily, reverberating in his mind--



--there were arms around him--hot, safe, enfolding arms--tighter, tighter until his breath seemed to stop and a vise at his temples brought more pain--no, familiar hands touched him, reaching--



No more, he screamed, no more, and would have pulled away from the touch and then...



It was gone.



He collapsed, back pressed against the smooth cool side of the comm chair, and one of Spock's arms was around him; the other, retreating from his temples. A last surge of terror sliced through him, was seized back and taken away, and he felt his heart straining in the sudden dead silence.



Back in his own mind. Alone. Totally.



His heart thundered; sweat poured from his skin. Lightheaded with shock he staggered to his feet, stunned by the amputation.



One of his hands grasped at air, but Spock backed away from him, terrible pain in his eyes.



The bond was gone.



He sucked in air, mind blank, not wanting to explore the loss, to acknowledge the nothingness where the bond had been.



Spock's face was now closed, fully controlled, but the anguish was still readable in his eyes.



Kirk realized the eyes of everyone on the bridge were upon them. He straightened, caught his breath, and turned his attention deliberately to the viewscreen. The band of light was distant and the slow surging of colors muted and dull.



“Status?” he managed, taking his place in his chair.



Spock had already moved back to the science console, but his long fingers trembled visibly, and his face was white. The lights flickered inside the bridge, flickered again, then caught and steadied.



“Power drain, Captain,” he reported. “Minor, but constant.”



“Source?”



Spock focused his attention fully on his console, then read out a series of coordinates. “Whatever it is, it is some unknown distance beyond the energy barrier.”



“All right,” Kirk said. He curled his hands over the arms of his chair, pressed hard. “Sulu, plot a reverse course. We're getting out of here. Uhura, contact Cpt. Aure'ev.”



A moment later Uhura turned to him, face concerned. “Sir, the HEART OF TAENOR is not responding.”



“Sensors record a drop in the life readings emanating from the TAENOR,” Spock reported, voice dispassionate, hands now under control.



Kirk stared at him for a moment, implications stirring through him which could lead to the one thing he would not be able to face.



“How significant?” he asked.



“2.7% drop, Captain.”



“Visual.”



Sulu worked on the controls, obviously grateful for have something constructive to do. The image shifted on the screen; the TAENOR, behind them in real space, appeared on the monitor, bathed in flecks of the distant light from the Barrier. There was nothing in its appearance to indicate anything was wrong.



“Communication coming in, Captain,” Uhura reported.



“Put it on the screen.”


Cpt. Aure'ev's golden fur was bristled; his great green eyes were narrowed to slits. “Captain. I've just received a status report from our Healer. Thirteen of our crew have died. Cardiovascular shock.”



Kirk's own heartbeat, since slowed to normal, now leapt upward again. He glanced away involuntarily and found Spock's eyes directly on his. Immediately, his First Officer turned his attention back to the screen.



“I'm very sorry,” Kirk said. “I suggest a change of plan. Immediate retreat out of the sphere of influence of this force.”



“Agreed. Plotting course now.” Kirk watched as Aure'ev gestured to one of his officers. “We'll send navigation coordinates upon completion. Out.”



“Captain.”



He turned to Uhura, hearing the distress in her voice.



“Dr. McCoy reports Lt. M'Ress has fallen into a coma.”



“And the others?” He didn't let time for feelings get in the way of the words.



“Soquel and T'Mek don't respond.” She paused a moment, listening to a further report. “He's had Security check on the rest. They were all in their quarters and appear to be all right. He says he'll get back to me about Soquel and T'Mek.”



An instant later she followed that message with another--the new navigation coordinates from the TAENOR.



“Coordinate those with ours, Mr. Sulu,” Kirk ordered. “Spock.”



Spock turned away from the science station, almost as promptly as always. His face betrayed nothing; his eyes were too well-guarded.



“Report to Sickbay.” The words came out sounding harsh in his ears. He fought against a wave of dizziness. There seemed to be a chasm between him and Spock swallowing up the sound of his voice.



Spock seemed about to disagree; Kirk gave him a hard glare indicating that he meant business. “We'll speak later,” he said as Spock finally rose. The words echoed in the emptiness in Kirk's mind as he watched Spock walk across the bridge and heard the turbolift doors close behind him.



“Course coordinated and ready to implement,” Sulu reported.



“Contact the TAENOR,” Kirk ordered, and followed up with a short conference with Aure'ev. The two ships slowed, began to turn.



“Warp 6.”



The order was executed, but the ship responded sluggishly. For a long moment the great starship strained and the pattern of warped space danced crazily.



The engineering tech shouted in alarm. “Something's caught us!”



Chekov was at the sensors. A shrill engine screech went through the room as the deck suddenly bucked and heaved, throwing those not secured away from their stations. Lights flickered down for a moment as the momentum slowed. Finally the power holding them snapped and they were plummeted into space normal.



“What the hell just happened?” Kirk demanded as the lights came on again and a babble of voices broke out over the communications board.



In the hours to come he was to find a partial answer to that question. Both ENTERPRISE and TAENOR were within a type of tractor field, but one which operated only when the ships were travelling at warp speed. They could proceed under impulse power, and were doing so, but it was a pathetic, crippled rate, like crawling before an avalanche. The power drain continued, still only on a superficial level. Engineering and sciences were intense hives of concentration. Some personnel were beamed over to the TAENOR to fill key positions should another telepathic attack occur. There was, however, no reoccurrence. All affected personnel on board the ENTERPRISE were ordered off duty. Soquel and T'Mek had finally agreed to allow a monitor hookup in their quarters, though they were still avoiding contact with others as much as possible. Spock, Kirk knew, had gone to his quarters.



Finally, several hours later, at the ragged edge of exhaustion, Kirk turned his attention to what had happened earlier.



Spock's decision had been logical. The bond was something that had no influence on his conscious mind under ordinary circumstances. The intense rapport was there whenever Kirk needed it, and when he did not. it slid back into the recesses of his mind, an unfelt presence that sustained him. Now it was gone, and he could feel a deep shaking threatening to begin. Teetering between anger and despair, he moved, not to his cabin, but to the one next to it.



The door to Spock's quarters slid open. Kirk stepped in, pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the dimmer red light, his body to adjust to the close high heat. It was Spock, he realized, who usually adjusted to him; it was Kirk's cabin where they spent most of their time together. Not here. The decorations were different, sparser than they had been during the first five year mission, but alien all the same, and though he knew the meaning for all the objects, had shared this with Spock until it seemed he too had used and been affected by all these things, now, suddenly, there was separation again. Alienness. Objects from a world he was suddenly severed from.



Spock was there, sitting in a meditative pose on the floor before the firepot. Before, he could always sense the calm shield of Spock's mind as it withdrew into the areas of trance. Now there was nothing... no clues to tell him whether to go or to stay...whether his wait would be a long or short one. Spock's eyes remained closed; the dim red light flickered on the quiet features. Spock was like some living statue, enclosed within itself, not accessable to him at all.



He sat and waited.



He had been staring blankly at the lyrette in its protective holder on the wall when one word caused him to turn.



“Captain.”



The tone was completely formal. He turned and met Spock's eyes. They were carefully controlled... shuttered... quiet. Yet not calm. Whatever peace he'd sought in meditation had not filtered back to conscious levels.



“Jim.” This word was every bit as formal as the first.



Kirk shifted, stood. Spock rose easily from the position of meditation and moved over toward him, but there was no trace of intimacy, of welcome in his posture. Neither was there rejection. Just Vulcan calm, Vulcan reticence, Vulcan withdrawal. Kirk suddenly wondered how he would break through.



The words weren't immediately there. It had been so long since he had had to explain his thoughts in words alone to Spock. He'd forgotten how to proceed. Forgotten how to read the cues he'd relied upon for so long. The easy means of communication was gone; the instantaneous transmittal of thoughts and feelings was not there. A sudden, aching pain filled him, throbbing like an insistent wound, centering in his mind where the bond had been.



“We have to talk,” he said.



“Agreed.”



But still the words weren't there. He clenched and then unclenched his fists and forced himself to relax. He sought for the commanding, confident pose, relying on old habits because the new ones had suddenly fallen apart. How odd, to have to communicate with Spock as he would with everyone else--with friends, colleagues, superiors, subordinates... or ex-lovers. The means of communication he used with everyone else did not belong here, but suddenly it was all he had. The feeling out... the definition of boundaries...the interpretation of voice and expression...the setting of intangibles into the hard confines of words... He was once again confined to finding the rights sounds, trying to catch at the edges of meaning and not let too much of the heart slip away.



“We can find a way of dealing with this.”



Spock shook his head. Only his eyes were touched with expression; his face was as carefully controlled as it had been when they first met. Kirk suddenly remembered that day: first, formality and protocol; then, leaving his unsettling First Officer behind for the comfortable company of Gary and Bones.



Sudden anger filled him. “We haven't tried.” You haven't tried, was what he wanted to say, unfair though he knew it to be.



“After what has happened,” Spock stated calmly. “It should be quite evident. It is not possible to 'deal with' this. It is not possible to even try.”



Without consciously willing it, Kirk pushed at the barrier which cut him off from the bond. It rebounded. A pounding tore at the inside of his skull; an itching, maddening feeling, as if he were reaching out with an amputated hand.



“It frightens me,” Kirk said. “I'll admit it. What happened in the turbolift... on the bridge...” He paused, gathering his words. The worst of it was that Spock was right. Kirk couldn't deal with it. He knew that on gut instinct. It terrified him to even think of facing that force again. “I want to help you. I don't want you to have to go through that alone...”



“Jim--it does me no good to know you are affected by this. I am aware of your strength, your support. And, if it occurs again--and I think that highly likely--you will be a part of my mind.”



“Finish it,” Kirk said. “I'll be a part of your mind. And so will everyone else.”



Spock acknowledged his bitter words by lowering his gaze briefly.



“I'll be part of your mind,” Kirk went on. “But you won't be part of mine.”



“Yes. You realize that.” Spock's gaze held his with haunted intensity. “Rationally, you cannot want to share this, because there is nothing to be shared. There is no sense of individuality in this, Jim. This is not the bond. This is chaos.”



The pain was deepening. The helplessness. Kirk repeated, “I want to help you.”



Spock stepped closer. He reached out, laid his hand on Kirk's. “I want your help. I ask you this: do not ask me to reinstate the bond. When these--attacks--occur--perhaps I will be better able to resist them if I do not have to worry about the cost to you.”



“Can you shield your mind against it under those conditions?”



The answer was quite obvious in Spock's eyes, but he chose to soften it. “Unknown.”



“The probabilities,” Kirk bit off angrily. //Quote the odds, mister, you're always so good at that!// he thought savagely. “Will you survive? Sane?” //And if you do, can we go on like we have before?//



“The odds are not good. There are too many variables for me to make a more precise estimate.”



Precision. Order out of chaos. Spock was continuing in the face of his silence. “We have discussed such possibilities before. If our link ever became a danger to you...” His words trailed off. He clasped his hands behind his back, but Kirk saw the way the fingers tightened into fists before they disappeared from his field of vision.



“Yes. I know. We discussed it.” The weariness caught up with him; he swayed on his feet. Spock was instantly there and he was eased with an economy of motion down upon the hard narrow bed Spock had once slept in alone.



Warm fingers softly caressed his temples, then tension-knotted shoulders. He felt one finger wipe away the beads of sweat on his upper lip, then Spock moved away. He was back a moment later, and the room temperature was already heading down to ship normal. Weariness crashed over him, a great wave drawing him under. A thin blanket was settled over him; a warm body pressed close to his side. He let sleep take him under. He'd find the answers when he woke.



But nothing had changed. The drain on their power was small but still constant. Their engines were able to generate barely enough energy to counteract the influence. The Science and Engineering departments were still deep in research, and the TAENOR had the same lack of answers. No further telepathic assault had come, and though he kept all the others off duty, he didn't refuse Spock when the First Officer asked to help with the research.



It was some five hours later when it happened again.



The change was instantaneous. Kirk was suddenly intensely aware of everyone else on the bridge. Colors were sharper; sound louder. Each person was a separate pool of warmth, an envelope of electricity surrounding them, exaggerating their motions and expressions to the edge of irritation. It was like a maddening itch; one that couldn't be localized. People were beginning to squirm in their seats, turning to stare at each other, puzzled or frustrated by turns.



Even their expressions set fire to Kirk's shortened fuse. He felt ready to explode and swung about; looking for a cause.



The sight of Spock's blanched face brought him back to reality. This reaction was artifically induced. Remember that--fight it.



He was on his feet, moving toward Spock and mouthing his name when the other flinched. At Kirk's words, all eyes on the bridge turned toward Spock.



The First Officer slid jerkily off his seat, shrinking away in tiny broken motions. Uhura moved a half step toward him. Kirk took several strides that brought him close enough to reach out.



Spock abruptly brought up his hands, pressing them tightly against his temples. Breath escaped him in ragged gasps. Kirk's hand halted in mid-air; he backed off slowly and motioned to Uhura to do the same.



A frantic blip began at the science board. Spock stared at the sound but made no move to investigate.



Kirk's attention veered between Spock and the board. Spock wasn't following his gaze. With a shuddering breath he managed a step away from his station. then another, moving slowly toward the turbolift. Those in his path moved quickly out of his way. Chekov slipped into the vacated seat.



“We're being scanned, sir,” he reported.



Uhura cut in. “Sickbay reports that Soquel and T'Mek have slipped into a coma.”



Kirk whirled to Spock, who was now sagging against the wall next to the turbolift. Spock's gaze was unfocused, his breath coming in quick gasps.



Kirk nodded at the security guard. “Janseen, take him to Sickbay.” The guard obediently edged forward.



Spock shrank away. “No one--near me,” he rasped.



Janssen stopped in his tracks. Kirk motioned toward the turbo. “Program it. Uhura, notify McCoy.”



Kirk prevented himself from going to Spock by a sheer act of will. Slowly, every movement stiff and uncoordinated, Spock managed to get into the turbolift. The door slid shut, cutting off Kirk's view of the tense face, the thin body sagging against the wall.



He forced down concern rapidly spiking into terror, and brought his mind back to the situation at hand. “Chekov, report.”



His senses still seemed too heightened--too raw-edged and jangled.



Chekov shook his head. “This is not an ordinary scan. It is very powerful, sir.”



“Source?”



“The Barrier, sir. The area we pinpointed earlier. Or something beyond it.” He bent over the controls. “I can't get through. But whatever is causing this has immense power.”



His own tension and the jumpiness of everyone else on the bridge was an unnecessary backup to Chekov's words.



“Sir, it appears not only to be scanning us, but analyzing us down to the subatomic level,” Chekov continued.



He frowned at the screen, turning as a message came through on Uhura's board.



“Captain, McCoy reports that he's redirected the turbolift to take Spock to Deck 5--he wants to keep everyone affected as isolated as possible. Semtel and T'Chrei have barricaded themselves in their quarters. And Lt. Manderley has been located below levels in the storage section, and becomes hysterical whenever anyone approaches her.”



“Have them get a medic down there and tell everyone else to stay away.” He had to keep from shouting. Shown clearly on the viewscreen, stars shone calmly, stable points in the blackness. From this distance, at the crawl of impulse power, the nearest planetary system was years away. “Get department heads together. I want answers to this, and soon.”







In the turbolift, Spock was barely aware of anything. An intense cacophany of thoughts assaulted him. Being alone in the confined space gave him distance enough to fight against it, but the white noise continued. It was like sound through a cloth barrier, distorted but still there. And the motion of the turbolift cutting its way through the ship carried him through erratic concentrations of thought patterns. As each new group of people approached or receded, the assault in his head changed in focus and intensity.



Blinding pain, like a sword thrust through his brain, tore at him, and nausea cramped his stomach. He had sunk to the floor, clutching at the wall for support, when he became dimly aware that the lift had changed direction again.



That knowledge was lost in a growing haze as he felt his control and rationality crumbling. He was drowning in a hurricane of other people's thoughts, each unconnected fragment crashing down to crush him. He dug nails into palms and bit through his lip, but that pain was a distant flicker, a dying candle flame in an infinite darkness.



He concentrated fiercely, gathered what remained of his awareness and focused on one simple thought: his name. His separateness. His self.



Some endless time later he became aware that the turbolift had halted and the door opened. Slowly, cautiously, he let his awareness expand.



With the turbolift stopped, still crouched motionless on the floor, the pain in his head receded slightly, the nausea eased. He drew in a deep breath. One mind was very near, steadying, concerned. There were a few others close by, but most were in the dormant patterns of sleep.



The mind close to him continued to radiate peace, calm, and a warm friendliness. He was at last able to open his eyes and look across the corridor at the concerned face of McCoy.



The corridor was clear. Spock sensed no one else nearby. He stood for a long moment, trying to focus on the doctor's face. His vision was blurred, his head swam with dizziness. He had to hold on tightly to the wall to steady himself.



“Spock...”



He heard his name being called. Once. Twice. Several times. It was as if he were asleep, caught in some nightmare, trying to wake up. Not succeeding.



“Spock...”



He managed to focus on McCoy. He said nothing, but the doctor seemed to sense a difference in him, for he continued,



“We're here alone, Spock. I've opened the door to your quarters. There's no one there. I've cleared the corridor.”



Spock threw an apprehensive glance down the hall, before glancing back at McCoy. “No one,” he managed in a dry voice.



“No one will come near you, Spock. I'll see to that. I'm going to move away now. I'm going to the end of the corridor. Go on into your quarters.”



Spock managed a nod. He levered himself awkwardly to his feet, and as McCoy backed away, took several hesitant steps forward, using his hand to steady himself against the wall. It was difficult placing his feet in the proper steps; he felt uncoordinated, clumsy, as if he'd been just treated by one of McCoy's drugs.



It took several moments of effort to reach his quarters. He stumbled against the doorframe and leaned there heavily for a moment.



He glanced back down the hallway, too tired to move. The corridor seemed lengthened somehow; McCoy standing at some impossible distance away. And yet he could see him clearly. And that was all he could see clearly.



Summoning a final effort, he staggered into his quarters, barely hearing the door slide shut behind him. He managed to make it to his bed where he collapsed in a graceless heap, mind swimming under the dying impact of the images swirling at the edges of his consciousness.







Tension knotted in Kirk's belly. He'd heard the same words in a dozen voices. No answers. No answers. He rubbed at his head, fighting a violent headache.



Over two hours ago the scan had stopped. So had the sensory heightening effect. His first thought had been of Spock. Contacting McCoy had updated him on what had been done, with the further information that the life-energy readings for Soquel, T'Mek and M'Ress, the hardest-hit of the ENTERPRISE's victims, had stabilized and were improving.



The news took away some of the worry. Not a lot. They'd gone over everything half a dozen times since then; suggested solutions were becoming practical failures. The tractor beam was still in effect; every attempt at escaping its influence had failed. Reviewing his past experience with unknown alien forces proved nothing but that new ingenuity was needed here, and right now Kirk was fresh out of inspiration.



Contact with HEART OF TAENOR had been re-established. The Humans on board the Caitian ship reported that most of the crew had recovered to a minimum functioning level. No one over there had any answers, either.



McCoy caught him as he exited the turbolift, intending to head down to Engineering yet one more time.



“You need some sleep,” the doctor stated.



“I had some sleep,” he retorted.



McCoy snorted. “When was that?” Kirk fumbled for a plausible answer and tried the ghost of a charming smile. “Jim, go to bed, or I'll make it an order.”



“I need to check in on Engineering...”



“You know as well as I do they're doing their jobs down there.”



Kirk thought about that. Everyone was working around the clock. But being there, being present made him feel as if they were closer to a solution.



“You know perfectly well that if something comes up you'll be contacted,” McCoy went on reasonably.



His head still was throbbing with a low-level ache. Maybe a little rest would help. “How's Spock?” he asked.



“Resting. I check in on him a couple of hours ago. They're all recovering their strength--for now.” McCoy's eyes darkened with troubled thoughts. “Jim...how are you?”



“Me?” Kirk looked surprised. “I'm doing just fine. A headache, that's all.”



“Like I said,” McCoy went on. “Go get some rest. A couple of hours at least.”



Kirk gave him a crooked smile. “All right. A couple of hours.”







Spock's name was on Kirk's lips as he walked into his quarters, but the word died half-spoken.



The room was empty.



The pain had been with him before, but he'd buried it quickly, getting rid of it by denying its existence. Without thought, he tried to reach out through the bond, and gasped and staggered under the mental impact. It was like running full speed into an unsensed force field, like falling down an invisible chasm, as if he were lost and wheeling in space, forever beyond the claim of gravity.



He held himself upright by determination alone. One year, his mind chanted inanely. One year of that link, that bond, was all it had taken to become a permanent part of him, as necessary to him and as natural as his limbs or sight. But now there was only blankness and aching emptiness because it didn't exist anymore...



“Spock.” he whispered again, and pulled himself together.



His ears were ringing; his head pounding. He swallowed the nausea and looked around the empty room. What had McCoy said, hours ago? 'I sent him to his quarters...'



His. Not ours.



He stepped back into the hall and into the dim silence of the other room.



Even without the bond Spock's presence was a palpable thing. Kirk moved forward as his eyes adjusted, then halted.



Spock was kneeling in a meditative pose, hands folded, head bowed. The dimness pooled darkness under eyes and cheekbones and left him an unmoving statue. Spock’s face, when it slowly turned up to meet his eyes, was full of pain.



Kirk had been prepared for that. But he had not expected the sudden. intense desire that filled Spock's eyes as their gazes met--the softening of the ravaged face making more bitter the pain that had deepened the lines.



Spock was up and facing him before he took another step. The heat radiating from his body surrounded Kirk with a vital, crackling aura. Then the desperation touched him too, and their mouths met in a demanding kiss. Spock pressed long-fingered hands against Kirk's back, stroking hard, hands knowing where to curve and where to flatten to define the limits of Kirk's body, Kirk's muscle and bone.



Spock's hands tore his shirt away, Spock's lips moved to trace lines of fire along Kirk's throat and dipped down further to suck at hardened nipples. Kirk gasped, pleasure arcing through his body as his own hands explored the slender lines of Spock's body. Clothing was discarded, kicked aside until there was nothing between them. Warmth of skin upon skin increased as the length of their bodies pressed together; erect, iron-hard organs met, trapped ecstatically between their bodies.



Then Spock moved, sinking gracefully to his knees, hands trailing down Kirk's back until his mouth was a scant inch from the straining cock, his breath teasing it, hands moving to caress inner thighs. Spock's lips surrounded him and he surged forward, calling out his bondmate's name, saying, “Yes!” saying “Love you! Always!”



The fire was burning through Kirk...his own fire, for he could feel none of Spock's... so strange, to be alone again like this. It was a sharp stab through him, but the sweetness in his groin overlaid it; above all, there was the need to be close, closer... the need to share, if not everything, then everything he could. He gasped as Spock pulled away, his hips following longingly, but Spock's hands were upon him again, a caress and a command as he turned him, and it was Kirk who knelt this time.



//Not so fast, Spock...make it last...//



But Kirk's mind couldn't follow the thought or the fear. It was as if that mouth and those hands were touching him for the first time; he couldn't admit the fear that it might be the last. A rage of heat was demanding completion in him. When Spock pulled him to his feet and pushed him to the bed, when Spock's hands found the cleft that led into his body he cried, “Yes!” and when Spock's organ replaced those warm hands yet lingered for one nerve-straining moment, he cried, “Now!” And finally when Spock entered him in a hard thrust he cried out with the exquisite sensations, breath coming in harsh rasps as Spock thrust again and again, that warm hand finding his straining cock, pumping and stroking in perfect rhythm. The sensations built, surging higher and higher until that was all there was of the universe with no admittance of any other thing. There was just the feel of Spock in him, the hand closed around him, body grazing his, breath upon his skin. Spock gasped and arched one last time as he came, causing Kirk to cry out an instant later as his own orgasm racked him.



They collapsed together, arms seeking each other in the languor of aftermath. Kirk felt himself slipping under, exhaustion claiming him. He was barely aware as fingers gently caressed his shoulder, then pressed...







“Mr. Lee,” Lt. Rahda said, looking up from the sensor board to the questioning gaze of the third shift senior officer. “HEART OF TAENOR is releasing a shuttle.”



Lee frowned and turned to Communications. “Any incoming messages?”



“None, sir.”



“Contact them. Find out what's going on--”



“Sir, our own shuttle bay doors are opening.”



“What? Override! Check that craft.”



Rahda's fingers were capable, but she frowned at the results. “It's overriden at the source, sir. All crafts appear still berthed.”



“Scanners.”



The view revealed a shuttle as it emerged from the bay and executed a graceful turn.



“Contact that ship.”



“Sir, the TAENOR reports that the shuttle is unauthorized,” the Communications ensign broke in. “They don't have any information as to who is piloting it. No response from our own shuttle.”



“What do the sensors say?”



“Vulcan readings, sir.”



“Contact Sickbay. Locate the Vulcans. Find out just who is missing.”



“The projected course of the two shuttles has been calculated,” Rahda broke in.



“Heading?”



“The Barrier. The center of the disturbance.”



Lee whirled to Communications. “Contact the Captain.”



After a moment came the report. “Sir, no response.”



“Get security. Have them meet me at his cabin--we'll start there. Rahda, you have the con.”







Kirk first became aware of a dull aching throb at the base of his neck and then a nasty taste in his mouth which he associated with McCoy's stim-shots.



He forced his eyes open to find a blue pair of eyes watching him closely. He sat upright, keeping hold of the blanket now covering him. “Spock?”



McCoy took a breath. His expression altered to one of discomfort and concern. “He took a shuttle. He's gone.”



The words were like a body blow. “Gone? Where?”



“Toward the Barrier.”



Kirk hit the intercom. “Are tractors functional.”



“No, sir,” Lee reported from the Bridge.



“Status of the shuttle.”



“Approaching the Barrier, ETA 3 minutes. Same heading as the Caitian shuttle took.”



Kirk turned to McCoy. “What Caitian shuttle?”



“One of their shuttles left without authorization just before Spock did,” came the explanation.



He turned back to the intercom. “Status of the Caitian shuttle?”



“It's already passed through the barrier. No sensor contact.”



“I'll be right there.” He cut the communication and turned to McCoy. “The Barrier,” he said, voice drained of emotion.



Then, suddenly he was in action, throwing on his uniform, heading out the door. McCoy followed, barely making it through the turbolift door before it snapped shut and the lift headed toward the bridge.







The wall of seething energy was very close now. Securely strapped in the pilot's seat of the KEPLER, Spock held on tightly. The flickering intensity of the light from the Barrier flashed through the tiny cabin. He reached out, knowing he had the time, and darkened the screen completely. No need to watch; the instruments told him more of the Barrier's nature than his eyes ever could. 3.5 seconds. 3.3...



The KEPLER hit the Barrier at an oblique angle. Turbulence seized it, tossed it like a wooden chip carried on some wildly heaving sea and shook it with abandon. It released the ship finally, out in the darkness of intergalactic space. The shuttle's instrumentation reported that the egress point lay thousands of kilometers from where he had entered. But Spock, collapsed inside the security strapping, did not register the information...







When Kirk stepped out, Lee turned toward him apologetically. “He passed through thirty seconds ago.”



Kirk somehow made it to the command chair, somehow sat down though his entire body had gone very cold. He stared at the distant flicker and the attenuated colors spread out against an infinite blackness... a vastness so incomprehensible that a shuttle was nothing, was only another fleck of dust.



“Captain!” The officer manning the sensors turned a startled face toward him. “The tractor field has been removed.”



“We have warp capability?” Kirk's response was automatic, divorced from his inner feelings, words crisp and commanding.



“Indications are we have full capability.”



Kirk stared at the screen. “So we're free to go.” The words didn't express half the bitterness he felt. From somewhere distant he felt McCoy's hand settle on his shoulder. “Free to go, “ he repeated. He remembered Spock's desperate touch, his fevered gaze.



I won't let that be goodbye, Spock. “I don't know what's out there, but I'm going to find out. We're not leaving. Not yet.”



The color patterns shifted, altered, in the same random patterns as before. His fist clenched as he turned to communications and began issuing orders.







Spock forced himself back from unconsciousness, clamping down strict control on the nausea and the minor pains of new bruises. He turned toward the instrument panel even as he opened his eyes, rapidly absorbing the information revealed, and then reactivating the viewscreen.



A vast darkness was revealed. Intruding on the outer limits of vision were soft smudges--the spirals of incredibly distant galaxies painted in soft cloudy whites against soot black. They were a thin overlay on the color of nothing, of infinity. He pressed buttons, took in the view from all sides. A white swath--Andromeda, far brighter than all the rest. Memory summoned images of Sylvia and Korob, of the Kelvans. Especially the Kelvans. He remembered the brief mind-link he had had with one of the members of that race, and the twisting, incomprehensible thoughts briefly revealed before he had retreated in shock, his mind overloaded from a viewpoint far too alien to understand.



V'ger had been like that, too. He hadn't been able to completely deal with either. He had explored what memories he retained from both experiences, sought to catalogue and comprehend what he found, but there was much he had never understood, and even more he had never remembered. The information was either sealed securely away from access to his conscious mind, or forgotten completely.



Whatever this new force was, it was like that. Alien. Beyond understanding. And he was heading straight for it.



The viewscreen completed the circuit. Sensors added more data. There were a few stars exiled beyond the edges of the galaxy. Five of them were within the span of one parsec. They completed the last flung arm of the galaxy as they edged out toward nothing. Three were in the final stages approaching nova. One, still hot, burned alone in space.



The last was dying, a faint flicker of light and heat. Around it circled three barren planets, hunks of rock moving blindly around the sun which, millennia before, might have given them enough warmth for life.



The tug in his head was strong. He set course toward the second world, and let the ship move on automatic. Then he sat back and, moved by an illogical impulse, set the scanner to show the galaxy behind him.



The viewscreen revealed the extent of the Barrier which seemed to approach infinity from his present position. No beginning. No end. He knew that that wasn't true, but he was too close to see its limitations. It moved, a ghostlike thing convulsing with sudden brighter flickers. Minor storms swirled in hot whites and yellows against the cooler reds and thin purples of the energy field. Faintly through it he saw bright smudges that must be star clusters and a larger dominant white glow which must be the heart of the galaxy hundreds of thousands of parsecs away. Of nearer stars he saw nothing.



He thought of Jim as he had left him, wrapped in the blankets and placed comfortably on the bed, the feel of his skin like silk beneath his fingers. The soft texture of Kirk's hair as his hand lingered in a final caress had tempted him almost beyond bearing to hold that figure close again and let his mind ease back into his t'hy'la's mind, safe and needed, where he belonged.



Instead he had left, walked out that door, departed the ship, and followed the thread that had touched him in the last mass-meld and never quite let go.



He was not under the alien's control. At least not to his own perceptions. Honesty forced him to admit he might be in error. The summons he followed was persistent and utterly alien; since he could not understand it, since his perceptions were too limited to operate in the same plane, perhaps this entity or entities were even now in his mind, directing his actions and yet leaving him entirely unaware of their presence.



It was an unsettling thought.



At least here he was alone. The Barrier had cut off the sense of the minds on the ships behind him. Though he had recovered from the last psychic attack, the recovery had not been complete. The presence of every mind around him had remained, a low-level dissonance, like a dim light or a barely audible sound, constant and impossible to ignore.



Here he was complete in himself to a much greater degree. There was only the alien mind--or minds--and somewhere up ahead in a shuttle invisible to his eyes but visible to his sensors, the woman from the Caitian ship who had answered the same summons.



Her mind was closed to him now; he was aware of her on some more basic level, an animal instinct warning of another's presence. Yet it was distant, contained. The patterns of her thoughts were far more familiar, however, than that of whatever drew them. Without ever having seen her face or heard her name he felt an odd sense of kinship for the speck of life thousands of kilometers away



He switched the viewscreen to reveal what lay ahead and watched the infinite shades of darkness as the KEPLER rode on through hard vacuum, heading toward a dead planet circling a dying star.







CAPTAIN'S LOG: Stardate 3742.9. The transference of all personnel who rate high levels of telepathic or psi ability to the HEART OF TAENOR is now underway. In addition, crew rotation on the TAENOR is in progress, and backup relief personnel from ENTERPRISE are being transported over. In case of another attack, that ship will not be incapacitated.



Mr. Scott and his engineers are running checks on the warp drive and bringing power back up to full capacity. We are running a full systems check, and battle-ready procedures are in effect. Crossing the Galactic Barrier will put enormous stress on the ship. We must be fully prepared for whatever lies beyond. We will be ready to proceed in two hours.



I believe the events we have experienced may well be the prelude to invasion. Certainly there are forces involved beyond our current understanding....



Kirk and McCoy watched in silence as a medtech escorted Soquel and T'Mek from Sickbay. Both Vulcans were pale and subdued, though they managed all the correct military formality in his presence.



That they were drawing strength from each other was obvious to Kirk. Standing there, in their company, he felt a cripple, one whose disability everyone was politely ignoring. Pain surged in his mind, but if he moved fast enough, hard enough, it wouldn't drag him down.



The door closed, and he was alone with McCoy.



“You're going to go after him,” McCoy stated.



He turned and was instantly angry at the expression in the Doctor's blue eyes. He didn't want sympathy and understanding. Nor did he want Bones' probing, sarcastic accusations. Most particularly he didn't want the two of them together, didn't want to drink the bittersweet brew McCoy always offered when he was playing his psychologist's role.



“Any objections?” he flared.



“No. If you remember that it's more than just him.” He glanced pointedly at the door where the two Vulcans had exited. “Is Spock the only reason you're risking the ship, Jim?”



“What do you think, doctor?” His words were edged with ice.



“I think that whatever is out there may be beyond any of us.”



“Are you advocating just giving up?” Kirk asked sharply, ready to probe as well with whatever painful weapon was at hand.



“Of course not--”



“Because if you are, I don't know why the hell you ever signed back on.”



“For one thing, because you asked me to--Captain.” Blue eyes blazed in anger. “And the reason why I'm asking these questions, sir, is to find out something important--something that could affect the safety of this ship. Can you sense Spock through your link?”



“He cut me off.” The words slipped out in a rush of pain.



McCoy's eyes lost their anger, but he found he didn't want the sympathy that was growing there instead. “And you know damn well I'm doing this for more than Spock. Whatever this thing is, it poses a threat to far more than my personal relationships.” He bit the words off, feeling their nasty taste on his tongue. “I don't like having to argue these things with you. And even if I were just doing this for Spock--what would you do? Wouldn't you go after him? After any crewmember?”



McCoy sighed. “I can't answer that.”



“Then don't put yourself in command if you aren't prepared for the hard decisions.”



“Jim... I'm not asking any of these things to hurt you. And you know me well enough to know that. But I need to know--can you function as Captain of the ENTERPRISE. Because if you can't, I think you'd just better put someone else in command and follow Soquel and the rest over to the TAENOR.”



“I can function,” Kirk said shortly.



“If something happens to Spock--what happens to you?”



Kirk felt as if stone had just abraded an open wound. “He cut me off. All the way.”



“Oh. Jim...” McCoy couldn't think of anything else to say.



Kirk saw that, and continued. “You're right--whatever is out there may be beyond us. But we can't turn back. If whatever is out there wants in...I suspect the invasion has just begun.”







Kirk settled down in a soft orange chair in the Officer's Lounge and stared out the viewport. Bones had suggested he spent the next hour trying for a little rest. He knew that the doctor knew just how seriously he'd take that request.



Leaning back, he watched the stars. From this viewpoint, he was looking back at the heart of the galaxy. It was a diffuse, milky glow, incredibly distant. Spock liked to come here, to watch the stars and meditate. He pressed his eyes hard shut against the pain.



He felt himself drifting. ..perhaps he was tired after all... a little catnap, he was good at that...had to be, a captain's skill... slowly his surface thoughts vanished, his perceptions sinking down, inward...



...stranded. Abandoned. Kirk stood motionless in a barren landscape. The sky was black, the hard pure black of vacuum. No atmosphere was present to hold any light. No stars were there to give their distant glow. Distant tiny pale smudges were visible in the black sky; distant galaxies wheeling in space.



In all the worlds he had ever been on, there had been none where the night sky did not hold stars. He shivered beneath the alien power of this empty sky.



He hugged his arms around himself to keep out the chill. It was impossible to be where he was, as he was, but his mind accepted it with the logic of dreams. He was suitless, yet surviving in vacuum. Or maybe he was a ghost already, existing in some limbo, some annex to hell.



Light seeped over the horizon. It was a puny distant thing, the last weak sparks of a star nearly burned out. Black slabs of rock stood out in relief, casting enormous, endless shadows behind them. These shadows went shivering over the rocky ground until they met and swallowed each other up in an infinite blackness.



He was standing on bare cold rock, looking down. There was a grave. Like before. With his name. Like before.



The granite slab showed dull matte-grey in the flickering light. Simple letters were etched in bold strokes: James T. Kirk.



He couldn't look away. Felt paralyzed, seized by an alien force. Helpless.



Another presence was near; he was intimately aware of that proximity. Through the silence of total vacuum, he still heard his heart beating. He felt naked beneath the starless sky. There was no motion... just someone standing very close...



A whisper floated toward him. “I knew you'd find me.”



Such love in that voice. He turned in welcome.



He didn't cry out. Anguish froze his heart. Numb and disbelieving, he dropped to his knees beside the still form lying by the open grave. The dim light highlighted the slanting eyebrows, the curve of. the ears. Spock was dressed in the old uniform, the one he had worn when they had first served together. Kirk's hand grazed over his face, feeling the flesh cold and still as marble. He reached out again, ready to embrace, to warm the lifeless body, to deny.



Spock opened his eyes.



Glowing. Silver-bright.



Kirk waited, disbelieving, searching for their warm brown tone.



Spock smiled. He stood, a fluid, boneless motion, towering over Kirk. Kirk himself got up, stumbling to his feet like a jerky puppet.



He loved Spock's smiles. That restrained smile that barely touched his lips yet lit his eyes. Those knowing smiles, when they were alone and Spock wanted to make love. Smiles of joy, pleasure, delight.



Not this smile. Feral. Cunning.



“I could make you a god, Jim.”



The words echoed, reechoed. Wasn't it Gary standing in front of him? And Elizabeth Dehner at his side, or maybe on her knees behind him? Weren't those Gary's hands reaching out to him, offering?



The hands of friends. Spock's hands now reaching out to him, offering. Dehner was saying in her dying voice “Almost a god..” and Gary was lying beneath him, eyes turning to silver as Kirk hesitated for one second too many. Phaser light burned and the rocks rained down.



And Spock was reaching out to initiate the meld.



He backed away. Hurt flared in Spock's brown eyes.



This is Spock. He hesitated--and the silver flowed back into Spock's eyes.



There was a phaser miraculously in his hand. He aimed point blank. Spock's smile broadened.



“T'hy'la. I love you. Be with me.”



But it was Gary who he was about to kill. An older guilt, a lesser loss. Spock had told him to kill Gary. He'd have the same advice now for himself.



--I can't do it--



“Join me.”



Kirk's finger pressed the trigger. A powerful force jerked his hand to the side. The phaser beam hit rocks which glowed dully. Spock was still standing before him, still smiling.



He threw the phaser aside. Spock took one more step toward him.



“Join me.” The words, soft, whispered, persistent.



“Not like this!”



He pushed out with all his strength. Spock fell back and away from him, falling into the open grave. And the rocks came raining down...







He awoke with his head pounding so badly his vision blurred. His heart leaped in sympathy, jolting blood through his arteries. He gasped for air, trying to escape the nightmare image of the silver in Spock's eyes, of his own hands dealing death to his lover.



Slowly calming, he dialed coffee from the drink dispenser. In his mind, in the part he felt belonged to Spock, he was aware of a peculiar ache.



You didn't completely sever it, Spock. The realization came to him: the bond was still there--imperfect, ragged and thready.



But somehow still there.



He wished he could feel more satisfaction.







Spock was approaching the outer limits of the system of planets surrounding the dying star when it happened again.



The surge of power flared through him, probing, searching, feeling--greedily fastening upon him, an all pervasive grasp on his soul--then it was gone.



He shuddered, his hands locked tightly on the arms of his seat. ...Control... Awareness of himself as a separate identity returned to him like a tidal wave. With it came the feeling of utter nakedness and vulnerability. He'd been stripped--laid bare to the attack--then deserted.



This time, there had been no other minds to intrude upon his except for the speck of intelligence in the ship ahead. This time, the intellect of the thing--things--had reached out without any real interference. And he had gleaned no more information than he had before.



He tried to focus on what had happened to him, but his perceptions crawled away from the memories. All that remained was the sense of a boundless and utterly alien intelligence.



A sudden high-pitched warning alarm rang through the cabin. Instantly he thumbed the controls, studying the input from the scanners as his hands obeyed the messages transmitted to him.



In the few seconds during his blackout the shuttlecraft had hurtled much closer toward his goal, and was now careening into a collision-bent trajectory toward the northern pole.



He fought with the controls, bringing the ship up. He maneuvered it into a shallow, transpolar orbit and began studying readouts. Gravity was 3/4 earth normal; radiation level negligable for the most part, with high concentration in a few isolated areas.



No atmosphere. No mineral wealth. Ancient, burned out. There were some indications that, millennia ago, it had been mined for its mineral content, but the scratchings of whatever race had plundered it were incredibly ancient, nearly blurred beyond trace by subsequent crater impacts.



Sensors finally picked up what he was looking for. Close to the equator were signs of artificial construction. But this was new. There was a power source, too closely shielded to determine what type. A large, oblong structure contained an atmosphere poisonous to carbon-based life forms. The sensors displayed a contradictory set of peculiar readings.



He adjusted his instruments, carefully compensating for all known factors. The probability was good that the readings indicated life of some sort, but its biological basis was something his instruments could not detect.



Something else showed on the sensors. Remembering the other shuttle, he redirected his instruments, tracking it.



Its path skittered raggedly downward. Unconsciously he tensed, keeping his eye on his instruments. The craft pulled out of its dive and moved into a gliding downward sweep, heading toward the alien readings. He set his own craft to follow.



The closer he approached to the surface of the planet, the more intense the darkness became. What little light the distant star cast was sent glancing off huge mountain ranges and over massive plains, its greyish-white light picking out stark features. Mountains were lumped together, squat and black, broken here and there by more precipitate chasms. Plains fell into serpentine canyons that twisted and writhed, carving themselves across hundreds of kilometers.



The other craft moved lower, skittering over the broken surface like an insect over water, swerving unevenly several times, as if the pilot were inexperienced or disabled.



Sensors revealed both ships were on approach toward the artificial construction. The other craft slowed. He followed suit, tailing it over the uneven ground. The dim light had barely illuminated the outline of the buildings ahead when the small craft ahead trembled.



For a moment it sped on, barely above the blasted ground. Then it faltered, moving in jerky spurts. Finally, as if drained of energy, it settled down on a rocky outcrop.



He brought in his own craft, settling it carefully on the nearest-to-level land he could find. But barely had he keyed the power down and set the energy block when it struck again.



Fear--a need--not his--hands clenched convulsively, releasing razor-sharp claws--knees pressed up against his/her chest--her body bent double--hands clasped to her stomach--movement--stirring within--he puzzled--find out--source--for future--



He struggled, reaching down into himself for his sense of identity, grasping at his barriers to pull them tight, to construct the ragged web and fill in the gaps and chinks, to keep the other out and himself in.



He found himself slumped against the control panel. For a moment he drew in air, stilling the beat of his heart. That moment was all he allowed himself before he rose.



Shaky and sluggish, as if drugged or underwater, he managed to put on an environmental suit and gather needed equipment. Leaving the shuttle, he double-checked the security system and oriented himself. Several hundred feet of rough ground separated him from the other shuttle.



Light from his helmet-beam lanced out, cutting a narrowly defined path over the rock terrain. The ground was ink; black rough rock that bulged and dropped and slanted beneath his feet. Sure footing and the traction the suit provided enabled him to make steady progress. He walked over most of the intervening land, climbing over some boulders and up the steep incline to the higher level where the other shuttle waited, a square slab of blackness haloed by the star’s distant light.



It was easy to enter the other shuttle. No security measures had been taken. The airlock cycled automatically, decontamination field finishing its work quickly. The door slid open.



He moved immediately to the forward seats. Curled up on the pilot's seat was a grey-furred Caitian woman, her knees drawn up, her hands resting protectively on her belly.



A memory stirred--something moving inside...something which belonged...



He looked at her thoughtfully. Her pregnancy added another complication to this already convoluted maze.



She seemed unaware of him. Her head, the short, iron-dark mane clipped close, was resting on her knees. Small gasps and sobs escaped her.



He was still not comfortable in the presence of strong emotion. He busied himself by removing his environmental suit.



The customs of solace other races used were still foreign to him. But he couldn't stand still and do nothing. Hesitation was useless and illogical. He stepped forward.



Her ears suddenly pricked upright, She shrank further back, tension expanding her claws.



“Respected Sister,” he said quietly in the Caitian manner, remembering experiences on her homeworld as a child on a diplomatic journey with his parents.



A low growl of fear sounded in her throat. Her head shifted, and her fur shuddered and rippled in response.



“Respected Sister,” he said again, putting. authority into his voice.



Wounded gold eyes looked up. “I am no one's sister!” she hissed.



The words were flung at him with a mental wave of hurt/desolation that without strong shields penetrated through to his soul. Her loneliness matched all too well the remembered pattern of his own life before his bonding with Jim; the quality of being different from others, the need to make a solitary state into a virtue.



He shivered, unprepared, not desiring this intimacy. Formality was a refuge. “I beg forgiveness.”



Her ears were flattened against her skull. Her breathing was hard and ragged, gold eyes filled with suspicion and distrust.



Then something changed. Some unseen mental wall became opaque again, and Spock realized with surprise that they had been in some sort of low-level telepathic contact.



The woman stirred, then slowly straightened until she was able to face him. “It's stopped,” she said dully.



He nodded.



She sat up slowly as if she hurt all over, and assumed a formal military posture. Her uniform tunic swelled gently over the rounded pressure of four small breasts.



“Commander,” she said, bowing her head.



“Spock,” he replied. “And you, Lieutenant--?”



“Rea, of the Morara Kindred.”



A silence ensued. She was able to keep it comfortably, out of respect for a superior officer. He had no such refuge. They were meeting as strangers, yet on some level they had already shared their minds.



He moved toward the instrument panel and studied the readings.



Nothing new was revealed on the screen. The alien installation, less than a kilometer away, still existed, containing its poisonous atmosphere, its ragged power usage, its apparent lack of life.



He repeated this information to her, falling back on facts-as-conversation, not knowing what else to say or how to approach the question of what they were doing there.



“We're going to go there,” she stated flatly.



He turned in courtesy to look at her. “Yes.”



“Why?”



“I do not know.” He heard and despised the hesitation in his own voice. He admitted to himself that he was afraid. Control was automatically at hand; he overcame it.



“I don't know either,” she said, her voice thick with exhaustion. “I thought I did while I was aboard the ship. Something called me. I came. And now it's gone.”



“For the moment.”



“For the moment, yes,” she agreed. She got up and stretched, a sinuous, graceful gesture, and yawned widely, exposing sharp teeth. “I wish I could sleep,” she said. “For a little while. Being free of them...it's made me so tired. I didn't know how hard I was fighting. “



“The minds around you?”



“What else?” she snapped, glaring.



He ignored her temper. “We are not the focus of their attention now, Lieutenant. I believe it would be possible to rest at this time. You may do so,” he stated in icy formality. He was tired himself, but refused to give in to it.



“My apologies, sir,” she replied, equally formally, and without another word she curled up in one of the large, soft, Cait-designed chairs and instantly fell asleep.



He busied himself by running more intricate analyses of the installation, attempting to fine-tune the instrumentation to detect the alien life he knew must be inside. Finally he admitted it to be a hopeless task. The structure obstructed all attempts at analysis. The readings he received were contradictory and elusive. He suspected that in their own frame of reference they were logical.



Briefly he thought of his mind-link with the Kelvan guard, of the illogical and contradictory input he had received from minds so alien as to be incomprehensible. Yet the Kelvans had been able to interact with them. They had been able to come to a mutual understanding.



Perhaps the same thing could be accomplished here.



He shut down the instrumentation. It was inadequate for the job at hand. Perhaps the complex sensors on ENTERPRISE might be able to unravel the mysteries here, but the standard shuttle equipment was simply not capable of the same detailed work.



He became aware that Lt. Rea was awake and was staring at him. Turning, he met her gaze.



Gold eyes focused on his out of her triangular face. “Do you know why you're here?” she asked abruptly.



He found part of an explanation. “I present a danger to one who is of importance to me.”



Fury blazed in her eyes. “We all endanger each other!” she spat. “Even the unborn!”



Taken aback by her anger, he glanced at the visible signs of her pregnancy--the rounded belly, the four swelling breasts, normally near-flat in a Caitian female.



She acknowledged his gaze. “Four kits. I thought I was fortunate. I had no litter-mates. I grew up as a singleton. All I had was a voice to talk with others. It would be different for my children. Until this happened.”



“How close are you to term?” he asked.



“The last trimester.”



“Their minds should be in contact now.”



“Perhaps.” There was venom in her voice. “Or perhaps because of that thing out there they live in me insane.”



The idea came to him immediately and was instantly washed over by his emotions. Touching the minds of others was something he never grew accustomed to. Yet, when the necessity presented itself, he had always been willing. On Vulcan, at Clan Gatherines, he had entered into family links with young children before. This should be similar. He had certainly sought out minds more alien than hers before, and survived.



She was watching him, puzzled, as he made his decision.



“I could establish a light link--ascertain their status.”



Her eyes clouded. “I had heard those of your race can link with whomever they choose.” Barely disguised envy touched her voice.



“That is true. But it merely creates a different pattern of living--not necessarily a superior one. You are truly psi-null, then?”



“Yes. Blind.”



“No, not blind. In many races, such abilities are extremely rare.”



“That does nothing for me. I live with my people, not separate from them!” She suddenly seemed aware of her discourtesy toward a superior office, and perhaps remembered that the ENTERPRISE was predominately a Human ship, for she lowered her head. “My apologies, sir.”



“None are necessary. Will you let me try the link?”



“You shame me. Please, take my words from your mind.”



“They are forgotten. Shall I try?”



She rose and stepped toward him, stopping a foot away. He was taller by a head. She tilted her face to look up, her gold eyes troubled. “Such a link... I know so little of your people. Could it present a danger in itself?”



“I would not offer it if it did.”



“Ohhh!” Her fur bristled in agitation. “I am shamed again. I did not mean insult. But I am afraid of this. I have spent my life alone. Would this link us together?”



He understood her fear. Reluctance spoke strongly in him. The raw pain still radiated from the recent self-inflicted wound of the now-dormant bond between him and Jim. To enter any other mind now brought fear of intensifying that pain. But his mind spoke to him also of the illogic of these emotions. “There is little danger of that,” he answered her question. “I cannot say there is none. But I consider it highly unlikely. I have entered in several such links before.”



“Then... between you and my children?”



“Highly unlikely,” he repeated.



She still looked troubled. “I have heard that Vulcans do not do these links casually...”



“No, they do not.” Perhaps an exaggeration on his part, he thought, but true in the whole.



“I do not ask this of you, Respected Brother.”



“I give it freely.”



Her gold eyes held his. “Then forgive my fear which allows me to accept what I should not.”



He inclined his head. “Please sit.”



He settled himself comfortably beside her on the floor and took a moment to clear his mind, to find the calm so necessary to what he had to do. Then he rested one hand lightly on the slight swell of her belly.



Threads of her thoughts came to him, muted and diffuse since the actual contact points had not been engaged. He sensed anxiety, protectiveness and concern for her children. The essence of her personality came through on a low level; it was one of honesty and integrity, worthy of trust.



He let his mind probe gently, searching for the tiny minds he knew must be there, and recoiled almost immediately. Alarmed, she grasped his shoulders, fear making her sink her claws into his flesh. He didn't move away from the minor pain.



“They are shielded,” he said flatly. “What their condition is behind the shield--I cannot say.”



She shuddered and pulled her hands away, mindless of the droplets of green clinging to them.



“Why are we here? What do they want with my children?” Panic edged her voice.



He kept his calm. “I do not know.” He glanced at the viewscreen. From this angle, no sight of the alien installation was available. “I suggest we go and find out.”







Kirk watched the incessant flicker on the viewscreen, intensely aware of the sounds of activity around him.



“All systems 100%,” Engineering reported.



“Analysis indicates course 3.05 would take us through the least amount of turbulence.”



“Course plotted.”



“Red Alert,” he ordered, and made the general announcement to the crew. “Execute course.”



The energy field brightened, as if in anticipation of their entrance into its embrace. Kirk hoped fervently there would be no Gary Mitchells developing on his ship when they reached the other side. And that one had not already developed on the far side. Personnel had double-checked the psi records; there should be no one left on board in danger of that dark transformation, and yet...



No time left for thought. The ship speared ahead, straight into the field.



Energy licked at the shields, surging and tearing, and the ship bucked and shuddered under the impact. Communications babble mingled with the shriek of the Red Alert siren; they all held on as the ship leaped ahead, shields damping down the flow of energy until finally...



They were through.



“Damage reports minimal, sir.”



Kirk felt Bridge tension ease at those words. Collective sighs of relief mingled with people focusing on their boards, turning to the business at hand.



“Readings?” Kirk asked.



Chekov relayed a comprehensive report on the meager suns and worlds beyond the Barrier. When he reported that there were faint traces of artificial energy coming from an otherwise barren world a short distance away Kirk felt a surge of emotion--hope? fear?



“That's where they are,” he said. “Lay in a course.”



He fixed his gaze on the viewscreen as his orders were carried out. He couldn't see it yet, but he could feel it in his bones.



Somewhere out there a dead planet revolved around a dying star. Just like in his dream. He tried very hard not to speculate on what he might find there.







The structure was massive, rounded, vaguely oblong, like an immense watermelon covering acres of land. A seamless expanse of brown material met their gaze. The skin of the--building? ship?--seemed impervious, and their investigations went on for a quarter of an hour and half a mile in one direction with not even half of one side covered.



Then they found it.



The lack of available light nearly misled them at first, but Spock's tricorder picked it up plainly. It was an irregularity in the smooth material of the building, a pocked shape three feet across, four high. They paused and studied it, Spock taking further readings.



He turned toward Rea. The light from her helmet cast harsh shadows across her face. Her pupils nearly swallowed the gold of her eyes.



“It is a force barrier, and yet also a type of transporter beam,” he explain, puzzled.



“Can we enter? Where would it take us?”



“Unknown,” he said, “Readings are inconclusive.” He did not add that the readings beyond those two facts were incomprehensible. “I think, however, that we must try.” He examined his mind for any trace of alien coercion or presence, and found none. He was totally himself, contained and separate. At this moment, he suddenly thought of his bond with Jim, and the love was a painful ache, an eruption of illogical wishes... I wish this had not happened. I wish that we were together now, and I was sharing the comfort and energy of your mind. I hope that, wherever this leads me, I will not go insane, and that if I do, or if I die, that part of the bond which we still share, that I could only negate and not eradicate, will not take my pain or my death to you.



Illogical to wish, but he had learned much of illogic over the past few years with his special Human, with all the other people and circumstances he had experienced. He had learned, finally, that illogic... better named emotion... was part of his life, a part which made him complete.



He looked at Rea, knowing that she too was afraid; that she too was a separate being with an entire life of learning and feeling behind her and only the unknown ahead. He admired her control, for so few of her emotions were showing on her face.



“There is only room for one,” he said. “I will go.”



“I will follow.”



“Return to the shuttle.” He put his authority into his voice.



“Commander. It summoned us both. Moreover, my four children are in the gravest danger. I have more at stake here than you.”



He nodded, accepting. “I will go first. I consider it unwise to follow.”



She growled in exasperation. “Why talk about wisdom? We don't know anything at all about these aliens. Why not just act?”



He nodded again, turned and stepped through.



At first it was like hitting some tough membrane, resilient, resisting, impeding. Then--



--he was through and it was--



--not just himself but thousands of others, all wearing his face... sheeted reflections on broken fragments of mirrors floating in a vast and limitless starless space--



--and each fragment was frozen in eternity, each a separate moment of time, the experience going on forever, he was--



five and playing with his sehlat he was



ill from an insect bite in the desert in



pon farr in



kahswan in



Jim's arms at



the science lab in



his mother's womb and



a billion other fragments of his life were instantaneously dissected and analyzed and absorbed and suddenly there were



two and he was



in her mind and she in his and she was



watching from a high tree, four years old, and seeing the siblings from the family next door playing in the tall grasses, chasing each other's tails and tumbling and chewing and all knowing what the others would do and having fun with it and all of them mentally together in a way that she could sense, blind as she was; together in a way she never could be; and she knew herself to be crippled and so she hid in the tree and wouldn't come down when her mother called and



she was at the Academy on Alpha Centauri where there were only Humans around, for a year now she had been there and was about to leave, and her Human roommate Susan, a woman with hair the gold of the flean plant gave her a small treasure, a woven design of a sunset, thick wool, which she knew Susan had received from her own grandmother, and how important her ties with her family were, and knew it was a gift of great value and she wept and she was



with Leorad, crouched down while he took her, his body bent over her back, crying out in a wild spasm of passion but no tenderness, and her wondering about the Humans she had seen and how they paired together, mate to mate, and though this was good, perhaps that would be better, and knowing she could never know it, wanting something she was not capable of even as she felt the seed erupt in her ready to take root and



They were standing on some hard cold surface in a thick grey fog, separate again, Spock and Rea, standing so close together face to face that if it weren't for the environmental suits they would have been touching all over.



The fog made them effectively blind, diffusing its light source into one thick undifferentiated grey. Spock tried to peer through it, tried to listen, but there was nothing to hear. He was still trembling under the impact of what had happened, feeling as if his mind had experienced a breakdown into countless numbers of particles, just as his body did in a transporter bean, and the reassembling had left a residual shock.



Rea was making tiny noises, half-sob, half-growl. Needing something to hold on to, not able to see even her face through the fog, he reached out, fumbled, and found her arm.



She howled at the contact, then grabbed back and held on. Their suits prevented actual touch, but the sense of something solid to grasp was reassuring to both of them. Trying to move even closer, they went into an awkward embrace, the environmental suits making close contact impossible. Still the fog clouded their eyes. Resting their heads against each other, still they could not see.



Spock made a concentrated effort to order his thoughts. “Lieutenant,” he said, lifting his head; military decorum and Vulcan courtesy were always the best choices even under the most unusual circumstances.



“Commander...” There was a catch in her voice which leveled out through her next words. “I think I'm blind.”



“I believe that is an external factor. The atmospheric conditions inside this structure diffuse light in such a way that it is impossible to differentiate individual objects. I see nothing, either.”



“What happened?” she asked after a pause. “I feel like it took me apart and put me back together.”



“That is essentially what happened.” He kept his own reaction away from the clinical tone of his voice.



“What is it?”



“Unknown.”



“Can you use your tricorder?”



He felt for it. It was still at his belt. He fumbled onehandedly with it and turned on the display. He still could see nothing. “I could try to rig it to audio.”



“How long would that take?”



“Unknown. Since I cannot see to work with it, I might easily damage it.”



She was silent. In the silence, the alien environment crowded in. The quiet was complete. No sound of equipment or life intruded. The foggy light was consistent, even, sourceless; not bright enough to hurt the eyes, but enough to make the eyes ache in a vain effort to see anything.



“I almost feel as if we were alone here,” she said.



“We should move on,” he said.



Clasping hands tightly--he was grateful for the barrier of the suit which prevented the actual contact of their flesh and thus the surface touch of her thoughts--they began to walk. And walk.



He was reasonably sure they kept to one direction. Their steps made no sound. At first, their steps were hesitant, instinctively wary of potential chasms and obstructions. When nothing like that was encountered, they grew bolder.



Spock's timesense told him when an hour passed. Then another.



At last he called a halt. He had estimated the size of the installation when they had first approached it. It was large--but not this large. They should have reached the end an hour before.



“I don't understand why there's nothing in here,” she said, voicing his own thoughts. “No machines. No beings. Nothing.”



“I suspect that when we stepped through that beam we were brought, not into the interior of the structure, but someplace else. Recall that the entryway shared both the characteristics of a force barrier and a transporter.”



Her hand clutched tighter on his. “Where did it take us?”



“Unknown,” he replied. “I do not believe we will discover anything by further movement.”



“Are you saying we should just wait.”



“I will try to mentally contact whoever is here.”



Her grip tightened convulsively. “How can your mind--any mind--make any type of contact with that? You'll go mad.”



It was the expression of his worst fears, but he had already faced it. Another scene came to mind--the flashing of incredible light, the sights of whole planets, systems encapsulated into some other-dimensional place; the face of the Ilia-construct before him.



And he had reached out. Touched the mind of V'ger. And survived. Sane.



Perhaps it was false pride that made him think he could do it again. Touch the face of the unknown, not once but many times.



The Terrans had legends for it... warnings of dire punishments for those who sought into forbidden places, dared attain knowledge not meant for them.



But this entity...entities...had brought them there. To do nothing was to die. There was no way to retrace their steps. Better to die taking some action, then to do nothing at all.



“I must take that chance,” he told her.



“Don't leave me here alone!” Desperation came through in her voice, perhaps louder because he could not see her face. “Take me with you.”



He considered it. Fatigue was making its presence known. He had slept little recently; his energy had been badly drained by fighting the intruder, and the minds of the others around him.



Negating the link with Jim, sparing him that danger, had taken even more toll on his strength. To enter into a profound mental link with this woman might require more than he had to give. And while there had been little danger in the surface link he had tried to enter into before this link by its very nature: must be much deeper. And that made the possibility of the loss of separate identities much greater.



He wished intensely that Jim were here with him. And he was equally glad he was not.



He nodded, though he knew she could not see him. “Have you ever been mindtouched before?” he asked.



“No.”



Her voice betrayed fear and determination.



He took a moment to prepare, to clear his mind. “I will attempt to keep the touch light,” he said, reaching blindly for the familiar points on her face, now impeded by the protective layer of their suits when before he had been grateful for that barrier between them. It made his task that much harder now. “Relax if you can,” he said. “Be calm.”



He thinned his mental shields, focusing on her, and then reached out with the lightest touch.



Like a wave swelling up, like wind forcing dry leaves high up into the sky, something surged into her--from the mind...minds...within her--within both of them--so profoundly alien he could not conceptualize its existence.



The alien thoughts overwhelmed his attempt at contact, and he found himself riding with it, following its direction and intensifying its focus. Helpless, blind to whatever force possessed him, aware of alien intelligence but not individual thought, he perceived instantly that to struggle was to have sanity ripped apart; to acquiesce was to satisfy a neutral need for knowledge.



He recognized that need, that curiosity, because it was the reflection, no matter how distorted and alien, of his own soul.



He fell with it into chaos.



He was watching from a great distance, a neutral observer of his own life.



He saw himself falling with Rea through endless time and space, each fragmentary moment of their lives drawn out forever, studied, analyzed and absorbed by...Something. Something other, and alien.



But he was with It and It was in him, and in her, and he was a part of her and equally a part of the four small lives within her, all cocooned by the warmth of her womb, protected he saw now by the shield which lay over their developing thoughts, by the already strong bond of siblings which kept them from struggling with each other inside the mother's womb, and later, throughout their lives, would hold them together when all other attachments and relationships failed or vanished.



“Your children are safe,” he said to the darkness. It was important, but he could not remember why.



“I know,” the answer came back, and she was clinging to him, clinging tightly in her terror, the shock of the unknown thing invading their minds.



He responded to her fear, needing to comfort and control, to hold to their sanity, to keep this one sane being close to him in the midst of madness.



The shockwave struck again. What they had experienced--the totality of their lives--played back a billion times faster than reality. Too fast, much too fast--and then it was over, and like the effects of the transporter beam, the annihilation was past and they had survived.



There was a voice. Somehow Vulcan. Somehow Human. Somehow Caitian. He could understand them all.



YOU ARE SO SMALL? It held great wonder.



It was comforting to receive a question. For some reason he thought of the Guardian, waiting for a question. And he understood then; out of formless chaos, a question implies reason. Purpose. Direction.



YES. He directed the answer with all the force he could. Why have you brought us here?



WE WISH...TO KNOW. The answer was fragmentary, halted, groping for a common level of understanding.



He thought of the forced and endless examination of their lives that they had been subjected to. Do you know now?



Nothing intelligible came back.



Instead came an astounding feel of vulnerability, of exposure, of imminant and critical danger.



He controlled the primal terror that filled him, desperately clinging to his intellect.



WE KNOW, the voice suddenly boomed.



Images filled his mind. Theories of impossible physics, which he somehow for a brief moment understood. He had been right, he realized; they were no longer in the same dimension as the one they had known before. The portal had taken them some place else... to this unfinished, unformed universe where nothing of their own reality applied. The universe itself was the intellect, and whether it was one being with many subfunctions, or many beings, he could not tell.



Somewhere close by he felt the bewildered presence of Rea, sensed she was holding onto her sanity through the strength of will alone; that, and the fierce need to protect her children. For the moment, unencumbered by the alien presence, their minds flowed together as naturally as water seeking the proper level.



The alien touch descended again, paralyzing them, exploring the phenomenum of their mental link but giving nothing of itself in return. Cool and distant, it explored thoroughly, and Spock/Rea drew closer together, making themselves small, trying to find some place of safety to hide in their minds.



Sensation began, like a whirlpool, fragmenting them, throwing them apart. They clung together desperately, fighting, only the instinct for self-preservation operating. From somewhere Spock found the image of a shield, and he drew it around them, a tiny invisible thing, which they clung to fiercely.



Why do you wish us harm? he shouted at the chaos.



Quietness descended. The storm could resume any moment, but Spock used the respite to regain strength, to force his mind upward to the highest level of rationality and tranquility that he could, attaining, finally, the level that only adepts of Kolinahr could aspire to.



WE DO NOT COMPREHEND HARM, the voice suddenly said. WE DID NOT MEAN TO DO THIS THING TO ANY OF YOU. WE ONLY WISHED TO KNOW.



Communication seemed easier. There was less hesitation in the expression of the alien's thoughts. He focused his own.



Why did you choose us?



THE...WOMAN (Comprehension: gender) WAS INTERESTING. SHE CARRIED BEINGS INSIDE HER. UNIFIED BEINGS, BARELY FORMED. WE WISHED TO UNDERSTAND...A BINDING WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE.



Was there ever a time when you were young--without knowledge?



WE ARE... ALWAYS. ETERNAL.



Yet you can change. You are understanding us now. This gives you more knowledge than you possessed before.



The concept that Spock sent out created some subtle change in the alien mind. Spock sensed it considering, comparing.



Then the voice returned. WE FOUND A PATHWAY TO YOUR WORLD. IT WAS NEW. WE LIKED THAT CONCEPT. WE FOLLOWED. THEN WE FOUND YOUR MINDS. SO MANY! SO SEPARATE! NOT EASY TO UNDERSTAND THIS.



Why did you choose me?



WE SEARCHED OUT MANY BEINGS. SOME HEARD US--AFRAID, NOT UNDERSTANDING. MANY WERE DEAF. BUT ONLY ONE (you) KNEW HOW TO REACH BACK TO MANY AT ONCE. WE WISHED TO UNDERSTAND HOW YOU KNOW THIS THING.



Do you understand now?



Vision flooded through him, of every telepathic contact he had ever made, so many, so different from the Vulcan way. He thought suddenly of Miranda.



There others who have contacted more minds than I, who are more skilled with this contact.



BUT THESE OTHERS ARE NOT HERE. WE FOUND NO OTHERS WHO HAVE MELDED WITH KNOWLEDGE.



Spock gasped as the crushing weight of V'ger's knowledge flashed through his brain; far faster than the hope of comprehension; felt it taken, examined, and absorbed.



WE SEE. WE KNOW. Satisfaction.



Desperate, his mind dangerously close to being ripped apart by the hurricane of images, he reached out, scrabbling for the image of the shield which had protected him before. Hands clawing, he grasped the shield--and found instead, clenched within his hands, the image of Jim.



He pressed Jim close; he surrounded himself with Jim's love--vital, immediate, alive, present--



Suddenly there was calm again.



THE MACHINE-BEING HAS DEPARTED. THIS WAS NOT THE CORRECT PLACE FOR IT.



Drawing calm now from Jim's love, as secure in its protection as he was in the heights of logic, he felt the windstorm of memory depart. What will you do now?



IT IS INTERESTING HERE. DISTURBING. WE SHALL LEAVE. WE SEE IN YOUR MIND THE CONSEQUENCES WHEN DIMENSIONS INTERSECT. THERE ARE MANY POSSIBILITIES.



There is much danger, as well. The image of Lazarus, trapped between dimensions, was taken form his mind and examined thoroughly.



PERHAPS.



Spock sensed an accord form in the mind/minds of the alien presence. An accord, and an image: Ilia/Decker/V'ger. The comprehension of interdimensional transcendance.



OUR POSSIBILITIES LIE ELSEWHERE. WE HAD NOT KNOWN. OUR SPACE IS COMPLETE. YOUR SPACE IS COMPLETE. OTHERS EXIST, AND ARE COMPLETE. YOUR ASSISTANCE HAS AIDED US.



Then, suddenly, the presence was gone. There was darkness. And, in the void, one other presence. He reached out mentally to Rea...







“We're through!”



The shout of the security ensign brought Kirk running to where they had been attempting to phaser an entrance into the alien structure.



Nothing but darkness showed inside. Ensign Tolliver was saying, “Funniest thing I ever saw. All of a sudden, it just fell in. We hadn't stepped up the power or anything.”



Kirk called for readings.



“Nothing,” Science Lieutenant Chan said. “Hard vacuum. No sign of the methane atmosphere we detected earlier. Power usage stopped a moment before the entrance was made.”



“Life readings?”



“Two.” She examined the tricorder in the harsh light of her headbeam. “Vulcan and Caitian.”



Kirk stared into the dark interior. “Let's go.”



The party of six--himself, the science lieutenant, McCoy and three security guards--ducked through the narrow opening and moved inside. Headlights swept the seamless floor in front of them, revealing nothing.



“It's all of a piece, sir,” Chan said. “Walls, floor, ceiling--the same material.”



“No other life readings?”



“None, sir.”



A few moments and several hundred yards later, their beams picked up two figures. Kirk broke into a run, the team close on his heels. Kirk dropped down to his knees, reaching out, not able to touch through the safety of the environmental suits protecting them all.



Obscured inside their suits, Spock and the Caitian woman were locked into a tight embrace, eyes closed. McCoy studied his tricorder readings.



“Unharmed, Captain. I think they're in a meld, but these readings don't correspond with any I've taken in the past.”



Kirk looked at them, swallowing down a feeling of dread. “Let's get them back to the ship.”



McCoy spoke into his communicator, then locked gazes with Kirk. “We shouldn't separate them.”



Kirk nodded, finding no words. The harsh light of their headbeams etched out what little of Spock's angular features were revealed through the faceplate, threw shadows around his tightly-closed eyes. His expression was near to pain. He saw where Spock's hands tightly clasped the Caitian woman, saw her face locked in that same harsh grimace, and he thought of survivors, holding onto the end of a fraying rope.



“Let's get them out of here.”







In the noise and clutter of Sickbay Kirk watched as their suits were removed. Spock and the woman seemed aware on some level; certainly they clung to each other tightly, and the process of getting them out of their support suits and into Sickbay garb was a difficult one. They showed no reaction whatsoever to any outside sight or sound or touch.



“We need a Vulcan for this,” McCoy said, frowning at the readings.



“We don't have one. We sent them all over to the HEART OF TAENOR,” Kirk snapped. then turned away from McCoy's glare. He strode to the intercom. “DiFalco. Lay in course back the way we came. Let me know ETA to the Barrier.”







He was on the Bridge when they made the return journey. It was a rough ride. but it seemed less turbulent than when they first went through. Kirk rode it out with the rest of them, watching the seething energy mass. concentrating on his job, keeping rein on his own inner turbulence, on the gut fear in him, and the unworthy jealousy.



I should have been with you, Spock, he thought, thinking of Spock and Lt. Rea, twined on the Sickbay bed together, Spock holding on to her as if she were his only connection with life. We've faced it all before. Why without me this time?



Answers to his questions hovered in his mind, but anger forced them away. When the call from Sickbay came, he almost ran the entire distance.



When he arrived, Spock and Lt. Rea were both conscious and in separate beds. Hypersensitive, Kirk imagined something still connecting them, a joining, an invisible bond, and with a jolt he admitted his fear.



Spock had said it before, the warning he'd extended before dangerous melds: the loss of separate identity. Not only that. The bonding of compatible minds.



He stared hard at Lt. Rea, remembering when he would have found her exotic alien beauty a lure, the old words of charm and seduction reeling like a tape in his mind. And he remembered what he had said to Miranda, those harsh words about jealousy. He thought--so now it's time for me to experience what she felt.



If there had been anything in his mind to reach for, any trace of the belief that had followed his nightmare, the conviction he’d felt on the observation deck that Spock was still there with him... And then, for one bright instant just before they broke through the wall of the alien ship, he'd suddenly felt himself holding Spock in a strong embrace... But that impression had vanished and now all perception of their bond was gone, and he didn't understand why.



McCoy was hovering nearby, and Kirk directed his gaze to him. “How are they?”



“I am quite well, Jim.”



He turned to Spock, hearing the hesitant note in the deep voice, and faced the emotion in Spock's eyes. Was it concern? Or wariness?



Stiffly, not quite knowing why he couldn't relax, he approached the bed, moving in on the right side so Spock would have to look away from Lt. Rea to meet his gaze.



Spock's hand moved slightly on the coverlet as if he wanted to reach out to Kirk, but he was always mindful of propriety and dignity; they never touched in public. The long fingers curled in on themselves as their gaze locked. Kirk knew his eyes held a stormy brew of concern and anger, love and pain.



“What happened out there?” He'd intended to be gentle, but his words sounded harsh to his ears.



“It is difficult to explain.” Spock sat up and steepled his fingers, his gaze distant as he searched for words to reconstruct the experience. “It was similar to my experience with V'ger, Captain, but on a different scale. This entity was completely alien to our perspective, and what communication resulted was limited.”



“You contacted it mentally.”



Spock nodded. “Our thought patterns were very alien. Before my mental contact with it, I don't believe it ever precisely understood our existence as separate life forms. It studied us in great detail mentally, but it could not fully integrate the data. It was as if we were to receive complete records of another culture, but had an incomplete translation, one missing key components. Mutual points of reference were minimal.”



“Yet there was some communication,” Kirk pressed.



“Some,” Spock agreed. “Enough for me to understand a little of its nature. Enough for it to understand some of ours.”



“Is it gone now?”



“Yes. Completely.”



“Can you explain it at all?”



Spock frowned down at his hands. “Perhaps the word should be 'they' more than 'it', though that term isn't entirely operative. They were not individual minds as we know them... more of a hive-mind, all unified by the same thoughts and purpose. That structure we entered was the outward manifestation of their encroachment into this universe--a 'bubble', so to speak, from another dimension. Wherever they are from, their Universe does not operate on any of the principles we understand. The closest I can explain it is that they are one with their universe--more than that, that their dimension of existence is an isolated pocket in the space/time fabric, and that the entire dimension is sentient. It would be fascinating to discover what principles operate--the question of entropy, for example--”



“Will they be back?” Kirk interupted.



“I don't think so. Their intrusion into this universe was more accidental that intentional...an analogy would be...being in a room without doors or windows, then suddenly finding a small hole to look through. They found that 'hole' and looked through--but I do not believe they have any interest in further exploration of our universe. They did evince curiosity regarding the existence of more transcendent planes. They were quite interested in my encounter with V'ger.”



Kirk considered. “If they were to find V'ger's dimension--would they join with V'ger? Would they return here?”



“Doubtful. I believe their interests would lead them into other realms, imperceptible to our frame of reality.”



“Can we be sure of that?” Kirk pressed.



Spock was silent. Kirk watched as he traded a look with Lt. Rea. “No, we cannot be. But I would say the chances of their returning are very small.”



“Lieutenant,” Kirk turned his attention to Rea. “Do you know why you went out to that planet?”



“I'm not sure.” She sounded very tired. She glanced at Spock as if looking for an answer. Her glance held total trust, and a kind of intimacy Kirk could not name and yet which stabbed at him with a clear kind of pain. “It called me, I suppose. It's not clear anymore. I wanted to protect my children.”



Kirk glanced at her belly despite himself, and took his eyes away. “You went out there to protect them?”



She frowned at his words. “It wanted to understand my children--I felt this in the meld...I really don't understand. Perhaps Spock does.”



McCoy interposed, “Jim, they both need rest. You could do with some yourself.”



Kirk frowned, avoiding Spock's concerned eyes. “All right,” he said and headed to the door without further argument.



Kirk didn't return to his quarters. He found himself on the Observation Deck instead, watching the stars as they headed toward a rendezvous point with the HEART OF TAENOR. He found himself thinking of Gary Mitchell.



Images from his nightmare returned: Spock, eyes gleaming silver, showing him his grave. Reality was a little more subtle, a little more elusive. All he had were a few glances traded between Spock and a strange woman. All he had lost--the security of the bond--replaced by emptiness, a terrible, unfamiliar emptiness...combined with a toxic mix of hurt and bewilderment and anger.



What the hell's the matter with you, Kirk? He's back. Alive. Well. Sane. The ship's out of danger. The danger itself is past. We can go back to normal...



Normal. Yeah, what's that? He thought of how easy, how right the last year had been. He'd never felt so fulfilled. He'd never even thought of anyone else; he'd caught himself looking a few times--beautiful women, shapely female bodies were always eye-catchers--but it wasn't what he wanted anymore.



He settled back into his seat and thought of Gary. He'd known what Gary was capable of; that he could be a manipulative, charming bastard, callous and indifferent to other people. But he had charm in plenty, and Kirk wasn't sure now just why he'd cultivated that friendship. Could be he saw some of himself in the other man. Could be that it was safer to watch someone else use charm to manipulate others; made it easier to disguise that same ability in himself.



But Gary could be hurt. He'd known that, too. They'd gone back a long way.



They'd been on a camping trip once, out by the banks of a redirected, artificial river in some ag project in the American Midwest. It was surprisingly easy to remember just how the firelight had looked, easy to remember the pattern of light and shadow it cast on their faces, remember the sound of their voices as they talked.



Kirk didn't know why he'd brought it up, and to Gary, of all people, but his own words came back clearly. “Haven't you ever really want to be close to someone?”



“Sure. Who hasn't?”



“I mean close in every way...close enough to share everything.”



“You're an incurable romantic, Jim.”



“Well, maybe I am,” he said, annoyed at being defensive. “I never thought of myself that way, though.”



“Think about it, Jim. How many people could you trust that much to? And for how long? It's always popular in entertainments, but I haven't seen much of it in real life.”



Kirk thought about his parents and all the difficulties they had had; he thought of his brother's disasterous first marriage. “You're probably right.”



But something inside him had still wanted it...an intimacy that he rationally knew was impossible. All the corny romantic phrases. Soul-mate. A love to last forever. Total trust. The funny thing was, he'd had them all, up until a short while ago.



Spock, he thought with pain. What do we do now? What's happened to you that you aren't saying?



He didn't leave the Observation Deck until the Bridge informed him of their approach to the HEART OF TAENOR. Various duties occupied him for the next several hours. He checked in with Sickbay twice, heard that Spock was sleeping the first time and studying tapes the next. He didn't ask about Lt. Rea, and McCoy didn't volunteer any information.



He went off shift and headed straight to his quarters. He didn't think he'd sleep, but fell off right away.







“The sleep signal is on in his quarters,” McCoy reported to Spock.



“I know,” Spock replied, aware that their dormant bond had begun to re-establish itself.



There wasn't much to it yet; he had not consciously tried to reinstate the bond. Jim hadn't been there long enough; they hadn't been alone. He had assumed they would need privacy; that he would need to see Jim, to speak to him in order to re-establish the bond... but his unconscious mind, recognizing that the danger was gone, had already made tentative moves toward repairing what he had so damaged.



He had been aware earlier, on a low level, of Jim's whereabouts. Nothing else had come through, and even while he found himself craving contact, part of him shied away from it too. His soul still ached, as if a chill wind had ripped through it, and the experience had now settled upon him like sunburn--a minor pain, unless touched. To go out, to seek contact--it was like inviting a wound to be deepened.



And yet, not to have that contact again, not to be with Jim again--that was death.



He needed rest.



A little time. Perhaps something else.



He glanced up as Lt. Rea entered the room, dressed in a fresh uniform. Her gold eyes appraised him silently, and he felt passing between them a kind of poignant sorrow. Their sudden intimacy had lasted for a brief time; now it was time for parting.



He went to stand beside her, still not speaking.



“I am glad to have met you,” she said. “My Brother.”



It was no longer the polite form of Caitian speech she used. She had chosen to use the intimate form. He had become family.



He held out his hand in the Vulcan salute, and she matched the gesture.



“Live long and prosper, my Sister,” he said, giving the last word the inflection it required.



“I shall let you know when my children are born,” she said. “I am glad to be able to share with another at last.”



“This link we share is residual...it will not last,” he said cautiously. Her presence in his mind was already waning; their rapport had already begun to fade.



“Then I rejoice, for I have known it once.” She inclined her head. “And I will call you Brother for all my days.”



“Sister,” he acknowledged.



She left then, ears pricked back to listen as she paused by the door. Then she went out.



He stood there for a moment, the background bustle of Sickbay a low buzz behind him. Need washed over him, a need to see Jim again. He glanced around and saw the room was temporarily empty.



That decided him. He was going to see Jim now.







Kirk stared at the viewer, trying to concentrate on ship's business. For awhile he counterfeited it, managing enough concentration to run past the latest fuel consumption reports and a few of the more recent Starfleet updates.



The door slid open suddenly.



He started and turned to find himself looking at Spock.



How long has it been since I was surprised when you entered this door? A year ago? Never? Before we were bonded, you never entered my cabin without signalling... and after the bonding I always knew where you were.



Their gazes held, uncomfortably long, without any words to break the stillness. Kirk considered what to say and discarded several false starts. Spock moved further into the cabin, for all the world as if he intended to follow his usual routine, as if nothing had ever happened.



“I wasn't sure if you'd come,” Kirk said.



“I belong here,” Spock said quietly. Kirk saw the question in his eyes, the need for...forgiveness? acceptance? forgetfulness?



“I wish you'd remembered that earlier.” There was even more bitterness in his words than he'd expected. The harsh sound of his voice hit Spock; Kirk saw the hurt in the brown eyes and was perversely glad.



“Jim--”



“You did it to me again,” Kirk bit off the words. “You cut me off and ran away. How many times does this make it?”



“You are right.” He paused a moment. “We must talk.”



He took a seat by Kirk. Too close. Kirk could feel the heat from his body, too clear a reminder of what was so dear to him.



Lover. But there was a chasm between them; one, he had thought, after V'ger, had been filled in forever.



“I'm getting sick of it, Mister,” he said, and what he remembered was the harsh pain at hearing the news after the end of the first five year mission that Spock had gone back to Vulcan without a word of explanation. “It's becoming too much of a goddamn pattern.”



“Jim--you know my reasons.”



“Yes. Your reasons. I'm having a hard time figuring out which one would apply here.”



Spock closed his eyes briefly. His hands made a convulsive move forward, stopped, clenched into fists instead. He opened his eyes again, looking at him levelly. “We discussed all this before. That if I--if our bonding ever presented a danger to the ship--or to you--”



“We discussed that, yes. But I don't remember ever talking about this particular subject.”



Spock looked away. “It did seem inherent in the subject--”



Kirk cut him off. “That if danger threatened, you'd leave without a word of explanation? I don't recall that conversation. And it isn't always danger, is it? What about before we were bonded? Going to Talos 4--when you knew I would have understood. Going to Vulcan--when just a few words would have saved us both a lot of misery and wasted time. Going out to V'ger--nearly getting killed--all because you needed your answers--you didn’t go out there for the sake of the mission--”



“That brought us together.” Spock's words had taken on a vehemence Kirk seldom heard, but his eyes still betrayed hurt, the look of someone unjustly accused. “You are my answer.”



Kirk took a long breath, mind still roiling with anger and pain and love and pure tenderness for this man before him. “I thought you trusted me, after V'ger. I thought if we were bonded you would never leave me again.”



“I...didn't think--”



“No, you didn't, did you?” Kirk cut him off again. “Well, I've been thinking a lot. About what your lack of trust in me implies.”



“I have trusted you with everything,” Spock said in a hoarse whisper.



“Everything? What the hell do you think I'm talking about? Just how far does your trust extend? Obviously not far enough to let me participate in a decision that will affect my entire life. Obviously not enough to even talk it over before you walk away.” Spock's gaze held his, his face naked with emotion. He took a deep breath and went on. “I'm tired of your leaving me, Spock. I want to know why you did it again. Or do you still not know I'm not going to do it to you first?”



“You always--must make the decision,” Spock said, stumbling a bit, a sudden fire in his eyes. “What would you have had me do? I could not stay here. Would you have let me go?” He stopped, drawing in a shuddering breath.



“I wanted to share this with you--”



“Share what?” Spock's words blazed with anger. “Share insanity? Is that what you're asking of me--to allow something to hurt you that I could prevent? To ask you to make this decision? Don't you remember what the probe was like?”



“Yes--” The word came unwillingly from Kirk, overshadowed by the shock he felt. They had never argued, during this past year--he'd never heard Spock defend himself in emotional terms--more than defend himself. “What happened to you?” he asked.



Spock stared at him. “On the planet?”



“Yes, on the planet.”



“I have told you that.”



“You didn't tell me anything!” he flared.



Spock looked at him in confusion.



“What really happened down there?” Kirk's thoughts blazed through as clearly as if he had spoken them aloud: between you and that woman.



“Lt. Rea and I--” Spock broke off and they stared at each other, the awareness building between them that Kirk's last words had been on the mental level only.



“The link--it's still there,” Jim said slowly.



“Are you sorry?” Spock demanded. “We were speaking of trust.”



“No. I'm not sorry,” Kirk said defiantly. “I'm glad. Now let's work from there.”



“I had not expected you to be jealous.”



“I hadn't, either,” Kirk admitted, shocked. This couldn't be the reason for his anger... could it? “I think was looking for one more way to say you'd hurt me.”



A faint sigh escaped Spock, and this time he did reach out, touching the tips of Kirk's fingers lightly with his own. They both felt it, the struggle for the subtle attunement, like a pendulum swinging wildly in two directions, but slowly finding a balancing point. And Kirk wanted it-- grasped for it--seized it in both hands.



“I first offered Lt. Rea a mind touch to ascertain the status of her children--how they had been affected by the alien,” Spock said.



“You don't need to explain.” Now it was sorrow he felt over his willingness to cause Spock pain. But he wouldn’t apologize.



Spock raised a brow. “I think I must. When I became convinced the only way to make contact with the alien was to attempt a mind probe, Lt. Rea became fearful of being 'left alone' as she put it. She wanted to face the alien with companionship--not to have me die or go insane, while she waited helplessly. And being without telepathic abilities, there was no way for her to attempt such a contact herself.”



Kirk was listening intently. His hand moved forward to completely cover Spock's.



“It was impossible for me to even attempt to contact the alien's mind. Once I entered the meld with Lt. Rea, it--possessed us, I think is the best term. It knew us, far more intimately than any other ever could. It is just as well that we remained aware of only a small fraction of what occurred. Our minds--moved together as a form of protection. Perhaps you have surmised--we did maintain the link even after the initial contact was removed and we were returned to the ship.”



“Are you still linked?” He had to ask the question.



“Only on a subliminal level. Since the link was artificially induced, it will fade completely with time, and--” he gave Kirk a smile, “your presence in my life, in my mind. The essence of our bond will be restored completely.”



“Does she--want you?” Again, honesty; the words were beneath his mind, coming out like lava bubbling up from under the earth.



“As a brother, yes. But not as a lover. It is not the way of Caitians to remain with sexual mates after their time has passed. Rather, they return to their own families. Lt. Rea has no family--but her instincts are those of her people. Though she has felt alien to her people all of her life, yet she could choose no other way.”



Kirk was silent a moment, absorbing the peace of the cabin, the warmth of Spock's hand, but the ghost of his earlier anger was still there. “We've yet to discuss the real problem.”



“I know.”



“All I could think of was--you promised the bond would last 'ever and always'. And then you cut it off.” His words flat and nearly devoid of pain, drifted in the silence between them.



“I could not think clearly, Jim. I had to be alone, to be away from other minds.”



“Will you tell me--next time? Before you walk away to do whatever you think needs to be accomplished without me?”



Spock shifted his hand, rotating it beneath Jim's, grasped his bondmate's hand hard. “Despite our bond, there are levels we have never touched. Perhaps I did not want to know how deeply I had hurt you before. When I left for Vulcan. When I went out to V’ger.”



That wasn’t an answer, Kirk thought. “Maybe I didn't want to tell you,” Kirk admitted.



“When I was inside the alien structure I wished for you to be with me,” Spock said. “I thought of you, to give me strength. But I am glad you were not with me, for it meant that you were safe.”



“Safe--what does that mean? Maybe if we were posted planetside--” he quirked his mouth in disgust “--we could talk about safety. But that’s not who we are. Take me along next time.”



“I cannot say what circumstances will occur in the future.” Spock swallowed and folded his hands together.



So you won't make that promise to me, will you? Kirk kept those words to himself. He held Spock’s gaze. Spock did not look away. Spock’s face revealed every bit of his stubbornness and strength of will; his ability to rely, when necessary, on an interior compass that would allow no deviation from his planned course. The determination that wouldn’t permit persuasion or argument from any other. Not even a bondmate.



Would I really want you to be any different than who you are?



He looked at the man before him; the man he had fallen in love with. The man he loved. The man who loved him, in part because Kirk had always accepted him, just as he was.



He knew he’d never again ask Spock for that promise.



He leaned forward and hungrily kissed Spock's lips. When he drew back he was rewarded by the glow in Spock's eyes. The warmth of his bondmate's hand radiated peace.



“We still have much to learn about each other, I guess,” he said.



“May there never be a part of me which is a stranger to thee,” Spock whispered, tangling his fingers with Kirk's.



Kirk squeezed back hard, then got up, pulling Spock to his feet as well. “I need you more than I have ever needed anyone,” he said, gathering Spock to him in a fierce embrace. His mind played back those words from a summer's night by a campfire with Gary Mitchell.



Haven't you ever really want to be close to someone... close in every way...close enough to share everything?



He inhaled Spock’s scent, felt the pressure of his lips, the strength of the body now carrying him to his bed.



He’d always struggled against paradise. That didn’t stop him from seeking perfection. They stripped the clothes from each other’s bodies and fell on the bed together. Lust and love and pure need fused. Their bodies and minds moved against each other, striving for a instant of purity.



Close enough to share everything?



Gary's cynical voice had said, How many people could you trust that much to?



Only one, he thought. Only one...
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