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Published in Still Out of Bounds, Old Friend (1982)

OVERTURE

As proud and unbending as ever, Khan Noonian Singh stood in the transporter room of the Enterprise. Not defeated—challenged. His smile was rueful as he faced the young captain who stood just as proud and just as unbending. Inferior? It did not seem so. Kirk had obviously won—for now. Khan’s grudging respect for this man was still tinged with jealousy over his victory.

“You may live to regret this, Kirk.”

The Captain’s smile was almost boyish, entirely too self-satisfied for Khan’s taste. “Perhaps, Khan, but I doubt it. Did you really expect me to forgive and forget?” The smile vanished and the hazel eyes were steel. “No one takes my ship.” The smile returned, sunnier than before. “It’s just a little quirk of mine that I can’t seem to shake.”

Khan nodded, “Yes, I understand. And now you want your revenge.”

Kirk looked startled. “No, you’re wrong.” Seeing the skepticism in the other man’s face, Kirk shrugged. It was pointless to explain to Kahn that he was offering him the lesser of two evils. The other choice was to send Khan and his people to a rehabilitation center; an idea Kirk found just as abhorrent as Khan surely would. It would totally destroy that spark that made them unique, and Kirk preferred not to have that on his conscience.

The Captain turned to the woman on the platform. “Have you changed your mind, Lieutenant?”

She glanced nervously at Khan, but shook her head. “No, sir. My place is with him.”

Khan had stiffened at Kirk’s question, but relaxed, savoring at least this triumph.

“You should come with us, Kirk.” He laughed suddenly, joyfully. “The thought of a brave new world to conquer must excite even a pampered, ‘civilized’ man such as yourself.” He paused, eyes holding Kirk’s with a hypnotic gaze. “You have proven yourself almost worthy.”

Kirk looked away reluctantly. The man had magnetism, there was no denying it—and Kirk understood more than most the heady power and dangers that came with such a gift. “Almost?” he echoed with sarcasm. “But I won, Khan.”

“So it seems,” Khan purred. “My enemies on Earth thought the same so many years ago. Now they are dust and I yet live.” He hesitated, wanting to gift this complacent weakling with something to consider. “Can you imagine how many sleepless nights they spent after they discovered my strange disappearance? How many will you have, noble Captain, wondering if my prison will hold me?”

“Oh, well,” Kirk replied, “I suppose I can always take a sleeping pill.” He nodded to Kyle who set the transporter controls. “Your people are already safe on Ceti Alpha V along with some extra supplies, tools and everything we salvaged from the Botany Bay. I’m certain you will do well.”

“Favors to an enemy, Kirk?”

“Believe it or not, Khan, I do wish you good fortune.”

In the instant before the transporter shimmer caught them, Khan snarled, “And I wish you to perdition, Kirk!”

 

TO SERVE IN HEAVEN

Joachim waited.

He had been told Khan would come soon, and until then he could not be content as the others seemed to be in rejoicing over their rebirth in this new land. Until he saw Khan, spoke to him, his life would not truly begin again. All he was and all he wanted began and ended with Khan.

Of the strangers who brought them here, Joachim knew little. If they were truly from the future—or the present, rather—it was wonderous indeed. Their journey to the stars had succeeded beyond their wildest hopes. It would have been a better thing, perhaps, if they had been able to take the fantastic starship as Khan had wished. The technology he had glimpsed had been exciting, almost magical. The ease with which they had moved the supplies from the ship to the planet with showers of light was fascinating. He was hungry to learn more of their advanced knowledge. But there were other answers he must have first.

The story he had been told by the others who had been with Khan during their time on the starship was confusing. He couldn’t quite believe Jo’keen’s version of what occurred. Jo’keen was boastful and a bully, and none too bright to Joachim’s way of thinking. The truth of the events could be quite different. The short time he was on the ship, before the sleeping gas knocked him unconscious and he woke up in the holding cell, had not been sufficient for him to assimilate the situation. He had seen Khan only once, very briefly, before he had been ordered to remain in the room where they had materialized from the Botany Bay—the transporter room, it was called. His instructions had been to guard it, but he had suspected from the first that it was more a question of being guarded himself. It was illogical to assume the enemy would attempt to use the facility while they were in deep space, unless the power of the machine was far greater than he imagined. He had considered the mechanism since then and had quickly come to the conclusion that it’s components were not as great a mystery as he had first thought. A showy piece of equipment, but it was a simple matter dissembler that had been conjectured as possible as early as the 1950’s. It was extremely sophisticated, and he admired it, but it had proven his suspicion that Khan had left him there merely to keep him out of the way.

The unfairness of it burned inside him. He should have been beside Khan, not hidden away like a child. Did Khan think so little of him?

Combined with this worry was the remaining confusion over what had really happened. Khan defeated? By a ‘norm’-man? A nothing? It was inconceivable. Still, Joachim made quick excuses for any possible mistakes on Khan’s part. He had been rudely awakened from an ancient sleep, thrust into an incredibly new technology, probably misled by his supposed rescuers. Being foiled in such a situation was not a true defeat. The odds had been enormously weighted against him. And yet, Joachim thought proudly, even in this ‘defeat’ Khan had managed to win them a new world. And that had always been their goal.

Joachim settled himself on a small boulder and perused the landscape, pleased at the future he saw for them here. Having been warned by the guards who brought them here of the harshness and danger of the planet, he had been expecting far worse and·had been pleasantly surprised to find it no more formidable than the grasslands of Kenya.

There was abundant wildlife of intriguing variation, much of it dangerous, though easily outwitted, guaranteeing a sufficient supply of fresh meat. The soil was barren and acrid in places, but it should be possible to restore a proper chemical balance to grow the seeds brought with them in the cargo holds. The snow covered mountains in the distance promised a plentiful supply of water. All in all, it was a world of challenge and anticipation.

Joachim’s breath caught sharply in his chest as the shimmer of sunlight began to sparkle, and he heard the distinctive whine of the transportation device. The light resolved into two solid forms.

“Khan!” Joachim called out joyously before remembering himself and dropping respectfully to one knee. “My lord.”

Khan reached down to tug him to his feet and stared deeply into the worshipping eyes. “Joachim, my young friend . . . my better self. It is good to have you with me once again. It has been a very long night, but at last we reach the morning.”

Joachim bit his tongue to refrain from demanding why he had not been allowed by his side sooner. But it was improper to question the master. However, he was being pulled into a hearty embrace, and nothing else seemed to matter.

A thin voice broke into his. happiness. “The planet is rather lovely, Khan.”

Khan turned away from Joachim to face her, then surveyed the surroundings with a proprietary eye. His arm went around her waist possessively as he appraised his new domain. “Yes, it seems a fit world to build a new empire. Perhaps we can be grateful to Kirk after all.”

Feeling uneasy and puzzled, Joachim fixed his attention upon the woman. Who was she? Why was she here? Surely she was not the betrayer the others had mentioned. Khan’s attitude toward her did not encourage the hope that she had been brought here for execution.

“The Captain has always tried to be fair,” she said sweetly, and Joachim wanted to strike her down for her mincing manner and the way her hand curled around Khan’s arm. “I am grateful to him for letting me come with you.”

“Grateful!” Joachim spat out in disgust. “How can you be grateful to an enemy? For him to be merciful is the greatest insult he can offer.”

Khan’s face hardened, and he nodded thoughtfully. “You are wise to remember that, little brother. We shall not waste our thanks on Kirk for granting us no more than our rights. We would have taken them eventually. He merely simplified matters.” The proud, haughty look intensified. “If Kirk had been a stronger man, he would have killed me for daring to take his ship. A weakling, inferior in all ways—”

“I don’t think so,” the woman broke in. “I never liked him much as a man, but he was hardly a weakling, Khan.”

Joachim wanted to tear her heart out for her impudence. “It is obvious you would say that,” he snapped, “since you betrayed Khan for him.”

To Joachim’s discomfort, the dark eyes turned on him instead of the woman, and he flinched at the merciless fire in their depths, narrowing on him as dangerously as a storm cloud on the verge of spitting lightning. But he was reprieved by a sudden softening. The familiar charming smile warmed him as thoroughly as he had been chilled a moment before. Khan reached out and patted his cheek affectionately.

“Ah, Joachim, you are too much of my blood. You speak out with your heart when it is better to be silent. With age I hope you will master the fault better than l. We will not speak of this now.”

Feeling chastised and resentful, Joachim bowed his head.

“Marla, this hot-headed young man is Joachim. You must overlook his rash words. He is too much like me, I am afraid. But he is the pride of my heart and most treasured, in spite of his numerous faults.”

“He is your brother?” Marla asked timidly, unnerved by the resentment she had seen in the boy’s eyes.

Khan laughed. “Not by blood. Nor is he my son as you really assumed. He contains some of my genes, but not enough to warrant that title of kinship. Still, in ways he is closer to me than a child of my body would be.”

“Genetically engineered?” She looked at Joachim curiously, unable to totally conceal the ingrained shock in her voice, the lingering prejudice of her time against such manipulation.

Khan did not miss the inflection and his expression was cooler as he replied, “As I am, Marla, my dear. Joachim was one of the first I, myself, helped to plan. He possesses the best of all possible genes, carefully chosen, and selected for superiority. With excellent results, don’t you agree?”

She murmured agreement, but Joachim was not fooled. In just these first few moments, they both knew the lines were drawn for the battle for Khan’s attention. She had the edge for the moment, however. For whatever obscure reason, Khan was taken with her, if intrigued by nothing more than her pliancy and her willingness to go into exile with him.

“My lord,” Joachim said desperately, hardly pleased at the way in which Khan was discussing him with this inferior female. “I must speak with you.”

“Later, Joachim. Where are the others?”

“Unloading the cargo carriers and setting up a temporary camp by the spring. A hunting party went out an hour ago for fresh game.”

“Excellent. The sooner we begin, the sooner we can mold this world as we wish.”

Khan started toward the cargo carriers, his arm still clutched tightly by the nervous woman.

Joachim followed a few steps behind, feeling bitter and wary.

*   *   *

It was not until late the next evening that Joachim found the right time to speak to Khan alone. It had been a busy and constructive day, and both were pleasantly tired from their efforts to bring order and discipline to the encampment. This was not too difficult a task, however, with a group of people already accustomed to following orders without question and trained for survival in almost any conditions. The progress on the settlement was encouraging.

Now, Khan wanted to wash away the sweat and dust of the day in the cool water of the spring pool. The perimeter of the encampment was well guarded against encroachment by unwelcome beasts, but Khan was still cautious as he entered the water. Joachim waited on the bank watchfully, awaiting his own turn and trying to plan his words carefully. Khan finished and splashed out to wait for Joachim to take his turn. They dried off, shivering slightly in the cool evening air.

Hesitantly, Joachim tried to voice his uncertainties. “My lord, I am troubled.”

Khan halted and looked at the boy. “What is it, little brother?” Joachim didn’t answer, and Khan gripped his shoulder, swinging him gently around to face him. “You do not approve of my taking a woman like Marla for wife.”

For a second Joachim would not reply, wary of the reaction his reply would be sure to bring.

Khan nodded slowly. “I know it is difficult for you to understand, but I admire her courage. That in itself is superior. She did not know what she would face in joining with me; hardship and death seemed most reasonable from what we knew. But still she chose to join with me, to defy the weak and easy world to which she had been born.”

“But she betrayed you!”

Khan’s jaw tightened, but he held his temper. “She had loyalties to Kirk that were prior claims. I cannot fault her for that. How could I trust her now, if she had not held to those first? If I was not pleased with her actions, at least I can understand them. She trusted me to understand her reasons. Her faith was complete. How was she to know I would not kill her for what you see as her treachery?” His eyes narrowed and he gripped the shoulder even tighter. “Is that what you truly think I should do—kill her?”

Joachim found he could no longer meet the hard gaze. His voice was choked. “If I said yes, you would just believe that I am jealous.”

Khan released him and stepped back. “Is that not the case?”

Joachim remained silent, unable to answer.

Khan laughed and tilted the boy’s stubborn chin up to face him. “Ah, Joachim, my golden pride, there is no place for that here. We have a new world to build and no time for such foolishness.”

Joachim jerked away, stung by the patronizing tone. “It is more than that! You tell me I am special to you. . . your right hand. . . part of your soul, and yet. . .”

“Yes?” Khan demanded, “Continue.”

“You kept me closeted away from you when I should have been by your side. You thought I would be useless, in your way. . . Others could fight for you—Otto, Jo’keen, Eva—but not me! Why? Am I so fragile? So worthless to you?”

Khan relaxed, smiling. “So this is what is truly troubling you, little brother? I should have realized. Be at ease. It was not because I did not find you as worthy or able as the others. Just. . . less expendable. I am selfish. You were too precious to me to risk in the game I was playing. My chance for success was not high from the beginning. I knew that, but I chose to gamble against the odds. It seems to be in my nature. But I did not choose to gamble with your life if it could be avoided.”

“You thought I was too young,” Joachim interjected hotly. “That is the real reason.”

Khan pushed the unruly gold hair from the fair brow soothingly. “That was part of it, yes. You are still very young, little brother.”

“I am sixteen. At seventeen you ruled all of India. At twenty you controlled Iran, the Persian Gulf, and half of Northern Africa. At twenty-five a quarter of the Earth was in your hand. Yet you say I am too young to fight for you?”

“It was not that type of battle. I made mistakes this time, and perhaps my attitude with you was one of them. You shall always be beside me from this point, I swear that. Is that assurance enough, my friend?”

Joachim’s eyes glowed. “Yes, my lord.”

Khan looked thoughtful. “If you had been with me, you might have reminded me not to underestimate my opponent; a fatal mistake in any battle—especially a battle of wits. One day I should like to have a rematch with this Kirk.”

“You would win, Khan,” Joachim said faithfully. “I know it. Without interference from that woman—”

The sharp eyes turned on him again. “I will hear no more of this. It is finished.”

“Yes, my lord.”

They were both silent for a time, thinking separate thoughts; Joachim embarrassed by the slip of his tongue, Khan plotting imaginary victories against the man he was beginning to think of as his nemesis.

Finally, Khan slapped Joachim on the back genially. “We are wasting time, little brother. There is still much work to be done. Come join me in planning our new city!”

Joachim flashed a smile in return, his spirits buoyed by Khan’s sudden good mood. Even with the irritating presence of the woman, Joachim felt that life could be very good on this world. He watched the powerful, cat-like stride of the man beside him and felt a responding glow inside.

Life would be very good, indeed.

*   *   *

Joachim wiped the sweat from his eyes and carefully leaned his scythe against the boulder. He scrambled to the top of the pile and stared out over the newly harvested field with deep satisfaction. A good crop, bountiful and healthy. At least three times what they needed to feed them all. But Khan was cautious, insisting on preparation for any possible calamity. Coming from a country where millions died of starvation, he was almost fanatical when it came to a reserve food supply.

The sun-heated slab was almost uncomfortably hot to the touch, but the boy lay down anyway, bare skin pressing against the rock. The warmth was welcome to the pleasantly aching muscles of his back. In truth, he was no longer a boy, although still only sixteen.

In the six months since their arrival, he had gained weight and muscle from the hard labor, and added nearly two inches to his already tall frame.

He was tired now, for he had been working steadily since daybreak, and the sun was low in the sky. But he was pleased; he had finished this field almost single-handed, and knew that Khan would praise him for the effort. They had returned to the ancient methods of harvest; cutting with the scythe, binding the sheaves by hand, and thrashing the grain manually. It took longer, but less grain was lost. Constructing machinery would have to wait until the growing season was complete. Next season would be different, easier. In spite of the sweat and labor—or perhaps because of it—Joachim felt great satisfaction in their efforts; the very primitiveness of the work. He, like Khan, had been raised as a prince, and to grapple with nature for food was new to him and exciting.

“Joachim!”

Hearing his name, he sat up, recognizing the voice with a rush of delight. “I am here, Khan.” He leaned over the edge of the cliff.

The older man looked up, using his hand as a shield against the glinting sunset. “So, you are king of the mountain, my young friend? Do you plan to relieve me of my throne so quickly?”

Joachim laughed. “Does a cub replace a lion? Come, watch the sunset with me, my lord.”

With agility equal to the boy’s, Khan scaled the jumble of boulders. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the stubbled field, nodding his approval. “Excellent, excellent.” Then he surveyed Joachim, who had risen to stand beside him. “Hardly a cub any longer, I think. You do the work of two men. I did not expect to finish here until tomorrow.”

Joachim flushed with pleasure and ducked his head. “I am glad you are pleased, my lord.”

“You never fail me, little bro—” Khan broke off with a grin. “I should not call you that any longer. You are taller than I now.”

“I do not mind the name,” the young man answered, strangely embarrassed. “I . . . like it.”

“Good. Sit. There is something I wish to discuss with you.”

They both sat down and Joachim waited for Khan to speak. It was several minutes before he did. He seemed to be choosing his words very carefully.

“All is going well with us now. This is a good place, a strong and fertile world. For all its roughness those first few months, it has tamed quickly for us. Most of the dangers are known to us and controllable. We have food enough to keep us for some time.” He smiled with that particular mixture of pride and arrogance that was Khan’s alone. “We have begun a new civilization. Now is the time to sew new seeds, to increase our numbers. Marla is already with child.”

Joachim turned to him, startled, although he knew he had no reason to be. It was the next imperative. Growth, children, renewal. He looked away hastily, hating the jealousy that welled up inside him. Marla would give Khan an heir, and he would truly then be no more than ‘little brother’; not protege, not son, and never again the most beloved. If that place had not already been usurped by the woman, the child would do it.

Trying to conceal his agitation, Joachim choked out, “I am happy for you, my lord. I am sure the child will be a credit to its father and honor him as I do.”

“I thank you. And now it is time for you to mate. I have chosen Seeja for you. She is a few years older than you, but her line is strong—Nordic and German, like yours. She will bear children easily.”

Joachim’s eyes, widened in shock. “You wish me to . . .? Khan, I cannot . . . I do not . . .” he trailed off, unable to meet the questioning eyes.

Khan observed him for a long time. “Joachim, you have never lain with a woman?” he demanded tersely.

Joachim shook his head, unable to look up.

Khan rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I had assumed . . . No matter, some start much later than others. This should not worry you. Seeja is, I am sure, experienced enough to help you.”

Desperately, Joachim turned to him, grasping the strong arm anxiously. “No! Khan, please, I do not want to do this!”

The black eyes froze on him. “Now you are telling me what you will and will not do? Who is leader here? I know what is best for you. You will follow my orders, is that understood?”

Joachim bowed his head in defeat. “Yes, my lord.”

Khan softened. “It will be fine, little brother. This surprises me, but all men, no matter how great, come to their first time with weak knees and pounding heart. If I had realized sooner . . .” He shook his head, puzzled, then turned the boy gently to face him. “What I wish you to know with all of your heart is that it is as important to me to see your child as it is to see my own.”

Joachim looked up, surprised by the deep emotion in the man’s voice. Khan reached out and took a strand of the blond hair between his fingers, relishing the silken feel of it.

“Your child shall have hair like yours. Gold, streaked with sunlight and silver.”

Joachim leaned against the touch. “Khan . . .”

Abruptly the man stepped back, as if impatient with his lapse. “It is time we return to the settlement. It will be dark soon. Marla will be waiting.”

Joachim followed him, stomach knotted with disappointment. For a brief second, it had almost seemed as if Khan wanted . . . but that was a mere dream. His dream. One that must surely fade as he grew older. It must . . . or he must learn to live with this eternal aching.

*   *   *

There was no love with Seeja. She was beautiful, intelligent, and very willing, but their conjugation meant little to Joachim—nothing except pleasing Khan. He tried for more, tried to make his time inside her body mean more than an act of breeding, but he continued to feel empty afterwards—physically drained and emotionally incomplete. He did not deny it was very pleasurable and superior to masturbation; except that after masturbation one was not required to make conversation. Still, this was Khan’s command, and he could not question it.

Joachim was not the only one required to mate. A distinct and careful group was paired off and instructed to reproduce. It was not with total coldness or lack of feeling, but with scientific decision and careful planning. There were no objections or resentment. It was logical, efficient, and it did not interfere with emotional ties. Khan was cautious to keep that quite separate. Sixteen of the women were gravid by the end of the month, and Khan was glowing with approval and delight. It was the first step in his plan for a new world.

The colony’s first loss came almost five months to the day after the Enterprise left them on Ceti Alpha Five. There had been some accidents and injuries from animals in the early days, but this was the first indication that there was something more mysterious to combat. Kareen screamed out in the night, writhing and fighting on the bed she shared with Jo’Keen, but there were no apparent injuries to her. She quieted quickly and seemed well, although in the following days she was listless and apathetic. She carried out orders easily enough, but did not speak unless questioned, nor move from a stationary position unless told to do so. Two weeks later she began screaming again and did not stop. She clutched her head and screamed until death touched her. In a few days the pattern was repeated with Jo’keen. Both incidents were chilling and inexplicable. Khan ordered their shelter burned and the area avoided. The incident was not to be repeated for over a year.

As much as possible, Marla avoided Joachim, feeling his animosity toward her like a knife at her back. His eyes would pierce her like icy daggers, and she was terrified of fighting him or confronting his irrational anger, at least at first. As the months went by and her position with Khan remained stable—as stable as could ever be expected with a man like Khan—she became more secure in her place, more assured of her worth among these super humans. For all their strength and brilliance, they needed her advanced training. She was from another century, and that gave her tremendous advantages at times. She was only lightly trained in the sciences, but she found her knowledge to be beyond theirs, nonetheless. It was comforting to know that she could be certain of basic facts learned in secondary school that they knew only by supposition. It eventually gave her a worth she would never have had with these people otherwise. Even Khan would pause to listen to her suggestions and comments. Once she carried Khan’s child her confidence was complete. Joachim was no longer a threat to her.

She met him at the spring one day, and, for the first time, she did not scurry to avoid speaking to him or meeting the burning eyes.

“Joachim, if you are not busy, could you help me with these buckets?”

He stopped, looking confused at her suddenly direct approach. Hesitantly, he returned to the spring and picked up both of the water pails. “The work is too heavy for you?” he asked with obvious disapproval.

“No.” She caught his arm and pulled him back around. “It’s nothing I haven’t been doing for months, and you know it.”

He set the buckets down and faced her. “Then why did you call me?”

“I really just wanted to talk to you.”

“Why?” His jaw set angrily. “We have little to say to one another.”

For a moment she was put off by his coldness, but pushed on, determined to have this out now. “You’re wrong. We have a great deal to say. Why do you hate me?”

“I do not think of you at all. You are nothing to me.”

She smiled ruefully. “I wish that was true. It would be a lot easier for both of us. I know you don’t think I’m . . . worthy of Khan. You’ve made that very apparent. Maybe you’re right. I certainly don’t equal any of you, physically or mentally. I realize that. And that’s not my fault. Surely you see that, too.”

He didn’t answer.

She sighed and massaged the back of her neck tiredly. “I probably shouldn’t care what you think, but Khan cares. Your attitude doesn’t make it easy for any of us. I’m sorry I don’t live up to your standards, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Khan. Why does it matter to you? He loves me.” She detected a reaction in the blue eyes. “That’s it, isn’t it? You can’t understand why he loves me. I think . . .” she paused, “ . . .yes, I believe you are jealous. But, my god, surely you know he loves you, too. It doesn’t have to be a contest, you know.”·

He still refused to answer her.

“I know what you really want,” she said with irritation. “You want to be rid of me. You want him all to yourself! Well, why don’t you drown me right now in the pool? That would solve your problem, wouldn’t it?” The expression in his eyes made her regret her hasty words. She took a step back, preparing to flee.

Joachim tightened his hands into fists, shaking with the urge to follow through with her suggestion. But he took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. “Your death would be a good thing, but you will not find it at my hands.”

Bolder now, she jabbed at him with words. “You’re afraid . . . afraid of Khan. He would kill you. I am more important to him, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

She yelped in surprise and pain as he suddenly twisted her arm back.

“Do not push me, woman. To kill you would be an easy thing. Too easy.” Abruptly, he released her and turned on his heel, walking back toward the settlement.

To his amazement, she came after him, forcing him to stop and face her. “You’re a fool,” she hissed, “a fool. None of this is necessary. We can both love him.”

For a long time he stared at her, searching her features for that illusive magnet that drew Khan. As always, he was blind to it, feeling frustrated by his inability to see her as Khan did, to discover even a hint of the magic she wove for him. His mouth twisted bitterly. “So you want to share him?”

She was taken aback. “That’s an odd way of putting it. I simply mean there’s no reason he can’t love us both—in very different ways, of course.”

“Of course.” His voice was harsh, biting. “Now I will tell you the truth of it. You know you will never have all of him until I give him up. You want me to acknowledge that your place with him is first. I will never do that. Never. There is a part of him that you will never know, never touch. And when he puts you aside, I will have that. Only I.”

Her face was pale against her red hair. “I hate you,” she whispered. “You’ve left me nothing else to do.”

“Good. Let it warm you when Khan turns to me.” He stalked off quickly before she could say more. Suddenly he was exhilarated. She was afraid of losing Khan; it was clear in her face, in the quiver of her voice. Was he tiring of her? Joachim remembered the caress on his hair and excitement built inside him with a surge. Would Khan seek him out?

Preoccupied with his thoughts, Joachim did not feel the first tremor beneath his feet. But then, with a muffled roar as if from buried gods, the ground shook violently. He stumbled, trying to hold his balance, but all around him was fluid and moving, nothing solid, no anchor or stability to cling to. The earth groaned and shivered, as if throwing off a great slumber, awakening angry and vengeful. He could hear screams from the settlement and the clatter and crash of rocks breaking loose from the hillsides. Cracks began to spring forth in the tortured ground, spreading and growing like evil hands clawing at life.

Far in the distance Joachim saw two mountain tops break off and explode with a thundering sound. Great chunks of rock and earth were tossed into the air as lightly as wind-blown leaves. More stones rolled from the hillsides, bouncing and flinging wildly. One struck his side, felling him and knocking all the breath from his body. Smaller rocks pelted him stingingly, and he cried out as a jagged piece of slate ripped across his forearm. He forced himself to stand in spite of the unpredictable lurches and shudders of the ground.

Hearing a scream from nearby, Joachim made his way back to the pool, leaping the widening fissures, struggling to remain upright. The water was churning and splashing in the once serene pool, as if some mammoth sea creature fought beneath the surface. Close by, a sink hole was forming, sucking earth and rocks and trees into some unknown depths with an ever-widening circle.

Joachim saw Marla clutching frantically at an uprooted tree as she was also drawn into the widening maw. She screamed again as the ground beneath the tree began to slip, pushing closer to the edge.

His first instinct was to watch her be swallowed up, to savor the freedom her death might give Khan. But something even stronger within him forced action. Risking his own safety on the slipping ground, he reached out to clutch her wrist and pull her out. For a second he thought he was too late, that they would both be drawn down, but a stronger hand caught his arm and lifted them both to safer ground.

The monstrous upheaval stopped as suddenly as it had begun, although tremors and slight shifting still quivered beneath their feet. Marla had crumpled; moaning, to the ground, clutching her stomach.

Joachim turned to the men who had saved them. He motioned to Marco. “Take her back to the settlement. I must find Khan. Where is he?”

“There is no settlement,” Kev said shakily. “A landslide . . . Many were caught and crushed . . . Sara, Mikel, Jonathan . . . we are not sure of who else. Khan is digging with the others to look for survivors.”

Marco had lifted Marla in his arms. He was calmer than Kev, but still white with shock. “Khan believes you are dead, Joachim. Someone thought you were in the meeting house. He sent us to find Marla while he digs with his hands in the rubble.” Without waiting to hear more, Joachim ran back toward the settlement, ignoring his bruised side and the pain of every jolting step. Kev had been right, there was little left of the buildings. They were crumpled as if a giant hand had flattened them. Some were totally buried in a jumble of rocks and boulders from the landslide, others were splintered and broken like matchsticks.

He located Khan quickly, digging frantically in the crushed beams of the meeting house, blood coursing down the side of his face from a deep gash tinder the black hair.

“Khan!”

The older man turned and saw him, color draining. from his face even more. “Joachim, you are alive.” He took the blond’s face between his hands, studying him for a precious second, then pulled him into a rough embrace that caused Joachim to gasp in pain at the pressure on his injured ribs.

“Marla . . . my wife,” Khan asked quickly, releasing his hold. “Is she . . .?”

“She lives,” Joachim replied quietly. “Marco is bringing her.” Then he touched the other man’s arm very gently. “I think she will lose the child, Khan.”

The dark eyes clouded, but Khan only nodded. “We will lose much today.”

Joachim looked at the destroyed settlement and the people still digging hopelessly through the remains. “How many are lost?”

Khan closed his eyes, his handsome face strained and grim. “Nineteen that we know of. Perhaps more.” He opened his eyes and shook his head as if impatient with his momentary weakness. “Help with the digging here. I must arrange for supplies to be moved to the cargo carriers. They will be the strongest shelters now.”

“It is not over?” Joachim asked in shock. “There will be more?”

“Hear the sound beneath your feet, the rumbling and growling? She is not content yet. And the wind is rising. No, my friend, it is far from finished.”

Joachim watched silently as Khan moved away, then went to help the others search for their dead.

*   *   *

The faces in the dimly lit shelter were grim. Most were bruised and Joachim’s breath came sharp and painful in his chest. The wind beat against the metal wall incessantly, as if trying to reach the wounded life inside.

Khan paced the narrow space with the nervousness of a caged animal. He was limping slightly, but hardly seemed to notice it. His eyes glittered dangerously in the dim light.

“You say it was the sixth planet that caused this?” he demanded.

“I believe so, my lord,” Rand replied quietly. He had been a great astronomer on Earth, a brilliant scientist, and one of the designers of the Botany Bay. He was older than Khan, and his words were always heeded. “Ceti Alpha VI is no longer there. To create a cataclysm such as this there had to be a major change in the gravitational belt. I was unfortunately correct. Only it is even worse than we feared.”

“But what happened? How could this happen?” Khan’s voice rose at his helplessness. “What could cause such a thing?”

Rand shrugged. “It is impossible to know. Perhaps the core of the sixth planet was unstable and it simply . . . blew up. More likely it was an impact from an enormous meteor or a rain of them. Obviously it could not withstand the strain and broke apart. But what I fear may be even more damaging is the probability that some part of the destroyed planet struck this one. Not only is the orbit of this planet altered, but perhaps the rotational speed and the tilt of the axis as well.”

“All from this? How can you tell?”

“The quake was only the first sign. The tremors will continue for some time, until the planet adjusts to the new gravitational forces. But the change in the weather is an even greater concern. And the radiation.”

Khan jerked around. “Radiation? From the volcanos?”

Rand nodded. “There are signs of it on our instruments . . . the few left unbroken. It is not lethal, but it could have long-range effects. Sterility, abnormalities, weakness—”

“No!” Khan raged. “This cannot be true.” He stopped, his head lowered, thinking intently. At last he looked up, his face resolute. “We must prepare. We will approach this as if it were a siege. It is a siege. We will fight this world that has turned on us. We will learn to live without asking it for anything. You, Marco, Han—see to the generators. Lisha, Tran, Peti—you will make two of the cargo carriers into dormitories, kitchen and living quarters—this one and the one closest. The other will be for supplies and water. We still have a laser drill, so I want a well deep enough to avoid pollutants from the atmosphere. If Rand is correct, clean water may soon be scarce.”

Khan continued giving orders and making plans, and his people scurried to obey, feeling more heartened by the action. Joachim started to leave with the others, but Khan stopped him.

“No, you remain here.”

Joachim turned in surprise. “Why, my lord?”

“Your ribs are broken. I know that now. You should never have worked like that. You could easily puncture a lung if the damage is severe enough.”

“I am fine,” Joachim protested. “It is nothing—”

“It is enough to kill you!” Khan snapped. “I need you alive now more than ever. I need your help in designing a hydroponic greenhouse . . . and an alternate energy source. We cannot depend on solar energy. If the wind increases even more, the erosion will turn this planet into a wasteland. We must be prepared for that.”

Joachim bowed his head, finally realizing how serious their plight really was. Khan was expecting the worst now. They all had to if they were to survive.

Khan gripped his shoulder. “Have one of the others see to your ribs. I must supervise the storing of the grain. I will return shortly. See that Marla is comfortable.”

Joachim moved almost in a daze to the little alcove where Marla lay. He looked down at her, a claw of fear touching him coldly. This world of such promise was dying. He could see the truth in Rand’s eyes, in Khan’s. They would fight it, but how could they hope to win? Had it been just a day ago that he had stood by the spring arguing bitterly with this woman? He could still feel the sun warm his shoulders, the cool kiss of the breeze off the pond. He would never feel it again, and he suddenly felt pity for all of them, even the woman he hated.

Marla’s eyes opened, exhausted and filled with pain. “Where is Khan?”

He shook his head. “He will return. Would you like some water?”

“No.” She studied him carefully. “You saved my life. Why?”

Joachim avoided her eyes. “I told you that I would not have you die at my hands.”

“But you didn’t have to save me. You almost died in trying. I don’t understand.”

Angrily his eyes snapped over to meet hers. “For him. Always for him. You should know that much, at least.”

She didn’t flinch from his gaze. “No,” she said slowly. “This time, I don’t think it was for him. It was all for yourself. You never could have faced him again if you hadn’t tried.”

When Joachim didn’t answer, she turned her head and closed her eyes. He went back to the main room. Lisha tended his fractured ribs, wrapping them tightly.

Khan returned shortly after. His eyes were red and wind-stung, and he looked more tired than ever.

Joachim brought him some water for his dust choked throat. While he drank, Joachim pushed back the black hair to study the gash on the crown of Khan’s head. It was wide but not deep. Joachim cleaned it carefully while Khan sat in silence.

When Khan finally spoke, his voice was quiet, thoughtful. “Did Kirk know this would happen?” he mused. “With all his mighty and powerful machines, did he predict my downfall? Is this the punishment he set for me?”

Joachim had no answer for him. There was no way to know the truth.

Khan took a deep breath and vowed softly, loud enough for only Joachim to hear.

“We will survive, little brother. He will not defeat us.”

 

THE BEST OF TIMES

Kirk wasn’t surprised to discover that Marlena Moreau wasn’t very different in this universe. She was calculating, ambitious . . . and incredibly good in bed. He was relatively certain she had risen through the ranks here in a similar manner as she had in the mirror universe, although perhaps not quite so transparently. Once he made it apparent to her that any sexual favors she bestowed on him would not advance her on this ship, she asked for a transfer which he willingly granted. Her absence was a strange relief, although it gave him more time than he wanted to think about an even more confusing problem.

Every time he looked at Spock it took him back to the disturbing incident on the I.S.S. Enterprise—something he was trying very hard to forget.

He watched Spock now as the Vulcan checked over a faulty circuit on Chekov’s console. Kirk searched the lean body with his eyes, seeking the differences; not wanting to see the similarities. No beard, a gentler light in the eyes, stature less tense, the hard planes of the face a shade more relaxed. And why not? This Spock was living in a civilized universe—or so they liked to believe. He didn’t have to be on guard for assassins at every turn, or casually order the annihilation of an entire world. Kirk watched as Spock reached up to adjust a dial and couldn’t help recalling how those beautifully tapered hands felt when they . . .

He stood abruptly, impatient with himself for falling back into the same old daydream—and on the bridge! He had to find a way to halt this tendency before it led into dangerous territory. “You have the con, Mr. Spock,” he said, moving toward the turbolift.

The Vulcan glanced up in surprise. “Are you feeling unwell, Captain?”

“l . . . uh, have a slight headache. Nothing serious. I think I’ll drop by Sickbay and see if Bones can give me something for it.”

Spock looked more concerned than was warranted by a simple headache, but he simply nodded his acknowledgement. Kirk stepped into the turbolift and signaled the proper deck, attempting to push those enticing and troubling images from his mind.

McCoy greeted him cheerfully as he walked into the office. “What can I do for you, Jim?”

“What do you have for a headache, Bones?”

“The usual.” The Doctor took a closer look at the Captain. Kirk’s eyes held a haunted expression. McCoy suddenly had doubts about the reality of that headache. Jim looked more like a man with a problem and a desperate need to talk.

“I’m glad you stopped by,” McCoy remarked lightly. “I haven’t seen much of you lately. Speaking of which, I hear she put in for a transfer.”

Kirk threw him a rueful look. McCoy grinned. “Well, how about a drink instead of a pill? A better prescription any day.”

Kirk hesitated. “I . . . Okay, what the hell. I could use one. It’s almost the end of the watch anyway.”

They moved into McCoy’s private office and he unlocked the liquor cabinet to mix them both one of his special concoctions. Kirk dropped into a chair and took a sip gratefully.

“Bones,” he began, “have you given any thought to how things were in the other universe?”

McCoy regarded him thoughtfully. He had sensed that something was weighing on Kirk’s mind, but he had hoped it wasn’t this. There were a few things he himself would prefer to forget. “Are you still dwelling on that, Jim? What is it that’s bothering you, that our counterparts were so savage?”

“Maybe,” Kirk answered vaguely.

McCoy sighed. “Yeah, it bothered me, too, at first. It wasn’t a very pretty picture. I still have nightmares about that torture chamber of a Sickbay. Still, we can’t let ourselves feel responsible for their actions. You have to remember the environment they were in. The culture was barbarous, and naturally they had to be too. It was the only way they knew to survive. Just because they looked like us doesn’t mean they were us. Different environment, different psychological make up, so very different people.”

“Different . . .” Kirk echoed slowly. His face brightened a little. “Of course they are! It’s not the same at all.”

“Well, everyone but Spock,” McCoy commented wryly. “He was pretty much the same, even making allowances for everything. I guess a Vulcan is a Vulcan in any universe.”

Kirk sat up, startled. Everyone but Spock . . . He put his glass down on the desk with a thump and stood hastily. “Bones, I’ve got a lot of paperwork to do. I’ll talk to you later.”

Before McCoy could reply, Kirk was out the door. He shook his head. “I wonder what set him on fire?” He took another drink, worried by the answer that occurred to him.

Kirk went directly to his quarters and sat down behind the desk. He felt shaky; uneasy. McCoy’s words kept ringing insistently in his head. . . Spock hadn’t changed . . . Spock wasn’t different . . . But he was! He must be. This Spock would never even consider— Yet Marlena was nearly the same, wasn’t she? In all the ways that counted, in her basic personality. And didn’t he know, deep down, that he could be as ruthless given the proper conditions? No! He could never do the things the other Kirk had done. But the very fact that he was uncertain told him something.

Which brought him right back to Spock. Could this Spock ever feel as the other had? Kirk lay his head on his arms and gave in to the memory. He couldn’t seem to erase it from his mind; perhaps if he stopped fighting it and seriously examined what had happened, he might be able to at least put it in perspective.

It had happened so quickly that he sometimes wondered if it really had happened at all. Scotty had said they had less than a half hour before the field density between the universes prevented their return. Kirk had been on his way to the transporter room to switch the power over from the warp engines. The way his luck had been running that day he hadn’t been too surprised when the alternate Spock stopped him in the corridor.

//”I would like to speak with you privately, Captain.” The bearded face was as unreadable as it had ever been.

“Uh . . . I’m kind of busy at the moment—”

“It should not take long. In my cabin?” Spock insisted.

Kirk hesitated but couldn’t find a graceful way to get out of it without creating even more suspicion in this ice-cold Vulcan. “Very well, Mr. Spock. If you think it is too important to wait.”

“I assure you, it is vital.”

Kirk followed him the short distance to Spock’s quarters. The Vulcan guards were shut out as the door closed behind them. Kirk suddenly found himself trapped in Spock’s arms. For a long second he was totally paralyzed; frozen with sheer astonishment. He had been prepared for anything but this.

“Is this important enough for you, Captain?” Spock said huskily. His strong hand slid up Kirk’s shoulder to his throat, lightly tracing the line of the Human’s jaw, tilting the chin up. A slight smile played on the Vulcan’s stern mouth, and the flinty jet eyes softened to a velvet brown. “If I did not know you better, I might think you have been avoiding me.”

Kirk swallowed nervously, completely at a loss. Now what the hell do I do? What does this mean?

“Have you told her? Or is that the problem?” Spock’s breath brushed warm and sensuous in Kirk’s ear. His hand continued to stray, combing teasingly through the sandy hair.

Told her? Who? What? Kirk’s thoughts jumbled in confusion as panic shot through him—afraid to pull away, afraid not to. Had he thought of this Vulcan as ice and steel? There was certainly steel in the grip that held him, but it was melting into molten white-hot caresses. As little as he wanted to, Kirk was forced to face a blunt, undeniable conclusion. His other . . . self must be bisexual. Perhaps it shouldn’t have shocked him as much as it did—it was hardly an unusual occurrence in any universe—but he had never consciously considered such an alternative for himself. It frightened him; shook his own self-image to the core. The fact that this Spock, not his Spock, but Spock just the same, upset him even more.

Suddenly he was as terrified as he’d ever been in his life. Terrified not of Spock, or even of this distorted insane situation, but of his own growing response to these powerful arms and the almost overwhelming aura of sensuality surrounding the Vulcan. He felt threatened, not only physically, but emotionally.

Confused and totally unprepared for the sensations tingling through him, Kirk told himself he would have to go along with this for the moment if he didn’t want to, risk giving their secret away. A part of him knew he was rationalizing for the sake of his sanity, however, for he was finding it increasingly difficult to fight the shocking pleasure of this embrace.

Concerned by Kirk’s continued silence, Spock pulled back slightly. “Is that it? You haven’t spoken to Lieutenant Moreau?”

Kirk found his voice. “Uh . . . yes, of course I have,” he answered waveringly, beginning to understand. It was all very clear now. Why Marlena had been so positive it was over between herself and the Captain. Why she felt so humiliated. Not to lose to another woman—that was almost inevitable in such a relationship—but to a man? It was hardly surprising that she wanted a transfer. And it was also quite plain why she had teased him with the idea of killing Spock with the Tantalus Field. She had known very well that he wouldn’t do it—and why. In fact, a lot of puzzle pieces were falling neatly into place; like why Spock had warned him of the orders from Starfleet Command. Even the scene in the corridor near the agony booth must have been for the benefit of the guards and passing crewmen. There was nothing left but to accept the obvious facts. It appeared that some warped quirk of fate had brought him here at the beginning of a love affair between the Captain and his First Officer.

Spock caressed the bare arms, tracing the bunched muscles. “Good,” he murmured. “I am tiring of this masquerade. As discreet as we have been, I am certain most of the ship suspect our relationship. Lieutenant Moreau is aware, isn’t she?”

“I’m sure she is,” Kirk replied, trying not to shiver under the feel of those long fingers over his skin. “We didn’t discuss it, but she asked for a transfer.”

Spock nodded. “Understandable. You granted her request, of course?”

“No . . . not yet. In fact, I implied she should remain.”

The Vulcan eyebrow rose. “You think you will find it necessary to dispose of her in a more permanent fashion?”

“No,” Kirk said quickly. “No, of course not. I . . .I just want her to stay for a while.”

Spock regarded Kirk solemnly for a long moment, and for the first time, a flicker of uncertainty came into his eyes. “You want her to remain? I am not sure I understand. You have changed your mind about us?”

Now what do I do? Damn you, Kirk, wherever you are! Why do you have to have such a complicated life? He avoided the Vulcan’s piercing eyes. “I just think it would be better if we keep things the way they are right now. Until this Halkan situation is over, anyway.” And I hope to hell it’s over soon! I can’t take much more of this

“Why?” The Vulcan demanded tersely.

Kirk thought quickly. “For one thing, do you think Starfleet Command would have given you those orders if they had known about us? They would have passed by you and gone directly to Scott or Sulu—in which case we would both certainly be dead right now. They wouldn’t have waited, and they certainly wouldn’t have warned us.”

Spock agreed reluctantly. “Quite logical. It will make my ability to protect you more difficult once our relationship is known. That is an aspect that must be considered. However, I cannot say I am pleased at the aspect of continuing to meet you on pretexts.”

The warmer than Human hand slipped under Kirk’s vest, causing him to catch his breath as it slid over his back. Kirk told himself his quickened breathing was only nervousness, but he knew he was lying.

“Then again,” Spock continued in a softer voice, “it has been stimulating. There is a Terran saying that stolen kisses are always sweeter.” He started to follow through with the thought but stopped.

“I have been waiting for you to tell me what you are planning with the Balkans. You usually have logical reasons for your actions, but you do have an unfortunate tendency to gamble. If this is, as it appears, another one of your gambles, I would prefer to know what to expect. Unless . . .” He pulled Kirk closer against him. “ . . . you still don’t trust me? Even now?”

Kirk’s mouth felt dry, and he was sure Spock must feel the thundering of his heart. “It’s not that. It’s just . . . if I fail, I don’t want you involved. It’s too risky.”

The Vulcan’s hands moved up to Kirk’s face, lifting it to look in his eyes. His voice was a hoarse whisper. “Your fate is mine, my Captain. And I do not wish it otherwise.”

The burning mouth came down on Kirk’s, igniting a fire that flashed through him helplessly. Its intensity was frightening and unexpected. He had never known a man’s mouth could be like this, filled with power and a hungry need that was echoed so perfectly by his own needs. The truth stared at him with luminous clarity. He wanted Spock. He had never really desired a man before, the limit of his experience being little more than a casual acknowledgment of an attractive body or a flickering erotic fantasy. The actual act had never been considered. But there was no way he could deny the quick tightening in his groin as Spock’s tongue slipped along his lips, parting them, seeking entrance and finding it. Almost against his volition, he responded, arms encircling the wide back, tongue tentatively reaching out in answer. The delicious sensations rose up in a high, hot flame.

He wanted to push the Vulcan away—No, he didn’t want to do that at all. He wanted, needed more of it. But he was also afraid. And this bearded savage wasn’t his Spock. His Spock would never want this. He would never feel this devouring, aching hunger . . . would he?

More importantly, right now there simply wasn’t time to think about this. He had to get to the transporter room to switch the power over. Scotty was waiting and time was short. If he didn’t succeed, they would be stranded here, out of their universe, far out of their depth. None of them could survive long in this universe. They didn’t have the training or the instinct for it, nor the ruthlessness required merely to stay alive. And he wanted to go home. He wanted his universe, his Spock—the gentle, calm Vulcan, not this barbarous, tigerish Spock, no matter how the exquisite mouth and possessive hands made his blood pump hot through his veins. He knew he must stop now, before he drowned in the passion.

With a determined effort, he pulled his mouth from the Vulcan’s. “I . . . I have to get . . . to the bridge.”

“Now?” Spock replied in surprise.

“Yes . . .” He started to turn away, but Spock held him fast.

“There is something wrong.” The Vulcan studied him intently. “Since you returned from the planet, there has been something . . . different. What game are you playing, Kirk?”

“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” Kirk said hastily, dropping his eyes. At this point the Vulcan was still puzzled, aware of an inexplicable difference but unable to pinpoint the reason for it. But this Spock was easily as bright as the other; it would not take long for him to discover the truth. And somehow Kirk felt vaguely uneasy tricking him like this. He respected this Vulcan nearly as much as his own. He deserved better than this subterfuge. Yet there were the others to think about. He didn’t dare risk their only chance of returning because of a momentary empathy for a mirror image of Spock.

Kirk pulled his arm free from the Vulcan’s grasp and faced him, fighting the impulse to explain. “Perhaps, depending on how things work out, I might be able to make you understand . . . “ I might not have a choice, if we don’t make it out of here, he added silently to himself.  . . . and would it be so bad? I could never have this incredible, fantastic, sweet feeling with my Spock . . .  The insidious thought shocked him into action. He could hardly believe he had really felt a fleeting desire to remain in this ugly universe.

“Spock, please,” he said softly, “I know I haven’t been acting . . . quite myself, but you will understand everything very soon.” He straightened. “I have to go.”

“Very well, Captain,” Spock said coolly, stepping back. But the discerning dark eyes followed him to the door . . .

And then followed me to the transporter room . . .  Kirk continued the sequence of events in his mind. He had sensed the difference between his Captain and me, although it had to be slight. It took him some time to notice the dissimilarity . . . perhaps because we weren’t that different.

That idea bothered Kirk, but it was time he faced the possibility. And there were other facts he had to accept as well. Kirk had discovered something about himself that wasn’t easy to admit. The desire he had felt for the mirror Spock was, in reality, a desire for the Spock of this universe—an emotion that may have been building for some time. Now that it had been brought to the surface, he didn’t know how to dismiss it. It hung on, eating at him, giving him no rest. Yet, he knew there was nothing he could do about it. This was a different universe and a very different Spock. Or was he? McCoy’s words drifted back with a siren’s insistence: “Everyone but Spock. He was pretty much the same . . . “ But McCoy didn’t realize. How could he? And he couldn’t be right . . . or if he was . . .? That thought frightened Kirk, too.

Once again, he recalled what Spock had said when they returned; how it had been easier for them, as civilized men, to act like savages than for their counterparts, as savages, to act civilized. Kirk had often wondered, however, exactly what had occurred to bring that fact to light. Surely the mirror Kirk had been smart enough to play along and feel his way as he had been able to do in the other universe, for a while at least.

Spock had been reticent as to how he had discovered the switch, and for some reason Kirk had felt uneasy about pressing him for a more elaborate answer. There was a growing suspicion in the back of his mind that he was loath to examine too closely. Now, he suddenly felt he had to know.

He checked the chronometer and saw that Spock’s watch was over. He pushed the intercom switch before he changed his mind. “Uhura, could you locate Mr. Spock for me, please?”

The answer came after a brief pause. “Spock here.”

“Mr. Spock, would you please report to my quarters?”

Another pause. “Certainly, Captain.”

Several moments later his door buzzer announced the Vulcan’s arrival. Nervously Kirk released the lock to let him in. Spock came forward to stand in front of the desk, hands clasped behind his back in his customary stance—perhaps a shade more rigid than normal.

“You wished to speak to me, Captain?”

“Uh . . . yes. Sit down, Spock.” Now that he had him here, Kirk was uncertain of how to begin. This was a delicate subject.

Spock obeyed and looked at the Captain expectantly and a little warily. The Captain had seemed tense since the incident with the alternate universe. Obviously, it had been a very disturbing occurrence. Extremely unsettling. But Spock was positive there was more to it than that. He had tried to avoid this confrontation, knowing in advance the questions Kirk was going to ask, and even after all these weeks, he was still totally unprepared to answer them.

“Spock . . . “ Kirk finally began with hesitation, “ . . . you never told me just how you . . . found out about the displacement.”

“With the alternate universe? I explained—”

“No,” Kirk cut in impatiently. “You skillfully glossed over the whole thing. You never said exactly what happened, and that’s not like you, Spock. I want to know.” His gaze dropped. “I . . . need to know.”

Spock was startled by the intensity in Kirk’s voice, but still he wavered. “Captain, I hardly think it is pertinent now. The incident is closed.”

“It’s important to me. I know you didn’t find out about the switch right away, did you? In fact, he was almost as good an actor as I was, wasn’t he? What, exactly, put you wise to him? How did you discover the shift?”

It was Spock’s turn to avert his eyes. “I was . . . suspicious from the first. All his actions could not be explained by a transporter malfunction. While that process is occasionally neurotically unsettling, it still could not account for—” He cleared his throat. “The alternate had Dr. McCoy, Mr. Scott and Lieutenant Uhura confined to Sickbay, implying they were suffering ill effects from the faulty transporter. Evidently, he did not trust them to maintain the front. He acquired the same facts from the computer that you did, but, illogically, he chose not to believe them. Subconsciously he thought it must all be some type of elaborate trick for me to take command of the Enterprise. It was an obsession with him. Actually, it was only two point four hours before I discovered the deception. You must realize that this was not an aspect that would occur to me immediately. The entire situation was bizarre. I was forced to eliminate all other possibilities before coming to the conclusion—”

“How?” Kirk insisted, realizing instinctively that Spock was talking far too much and carefully saying too little.

“Jim . . . “ Spock trailed off, trying to find the correct words. “He did not . . . behave as you would. His actions were totally, startlingly atypical. I knew it could not be you. You would never—” He broke off again, studying the floor.

“All right, Spock,” Kirk snapped, “I order you to tell me precisely what happened.”

Spock still faltered with the answer. “I. . . it is difficult to state it delicately. He . . . came to my quarters, and . . . “ To Kirk’s amazement, Spock was actually blushing, a flush of green tinged the lowered face.

“Yes?” Kirk prompted.

Spock cleared his throat. “This will be hard for you to understand, Jim. He—”

“Made a pass at you?” Kirk put in.

The Vulcan lifted his head, confused. “What?”

“A sexual advance,” Kirk elucidated.

Spock’s eyes widened in surprise at Kirk’s guess, then looked away hastily. “Yes.” He spoke in a whisper, hoarse and a little choked. “How did you—?”

“How did I know? Because the same thing happened to me in the other universe.”

For one of the few times in his acquaintance with Spock, he saw total astonishment on the Vulcan’s face. Apparently, this possibility, however obvious, had not occurred to Spock. “You are saying that I . . . that the other . . .?”

Kirk nodded. “It seems they were at the beginning of a relationship . . . a sexual relationship.” It sounded so ludicrous, speaking it aloud. The quick paling of Spock’s face made Kirk regret bringing the subject up at all. It had been selfish of him to do so. After all, if he was having trouble accepting the implications, how much rougher would it be for Spock?

“How did you handle it?” Kirk couldn’t help but ask.

Spock searched the floor for an answer. “l put the imposter in the brig immediately. And . . . you?”

Kirk smiled humorlessly. “Well, I could hardly do the same, considering the circumstances. I had to kind of . . . go along with it.”

Spock’s eyes darted up in alarm. “He didn’t—?”

“No. I talked my way out of it.” But if I’d had more time . . .  Kirk added to himself. How would you feel, Spock, if you knew I was more than willing? The truth haunted him.· He searched Spock’s face, but found it unreadable. They were at a standstill once more. He still hadn’t said what he really wanted or discovered the answer to his unasked question. But what exactly was that question? Even he was not sure. Certainly not ‘What about you and me giving it a try, Spock?’ This stern, puritanical Vulcan would— Would what? Just how would he react? Horror? Embarrassment? Disgust? Or could he possibly be experiencing the same torrid fantasies I have? Ridiculous! He’s a Vulcan.

Then the devilish voice in his mind whispered insistently, So was the other.

Kirk did not like the idea that these forbidden feelings were his alone, unshared. But the other, even more remote, possibility—that Spock had also had these wickedly tempting images—was even more frightening in a way. That would mean they, were both insane, for surely they could not throw away all their upbringing, conditioning and patterns of life. He wasn’t certain he was ready to give them up, and he was almost positive Spock wouldn’t. Yet there was a tension in the Vulcan that Kirk sensed went much deeper than mere embarrassment or shock. As well as he thought he knew Spock, however, he had no idea of what was going on behind that granite mask.

What Kirk was certain of, without any doubts, was that he loved Spock. This was not a new thought, he had known it for a long time—he simply had never considered the love in this light before.

Kirk took a deep breath. “Bones was just talking about how different our counterparts were.” He looked at Spock steadily. “I’m not so sure.”

Spock met his eyes briefly before glancing away again. “It was a ‘mirror’ universe. Naturally, the attitudes would be completely dissimilar,” Spock stated flatly.

Kirk stood and moved to lean on the front of his desk close by the Vulcan. “We both know it was not a true ‘mirror’ universe. Was my counterpart left-handed, for instance? No, the universe may have been dissimilar,” he said quietly, “but I don’t think the people were, at least no more than could be expected for adapting to that type of environment. None of us can really know what we would become if forced to for survival. There was love in that universe, Spock. I saw it. Even if it had to be masked and concealed, it existed. Marlena loved the Captain in her way, and . . . “ He waited until he captured the Vulcan’s gaze. “ . . . that Spock loved him, too.”

Spock actually winced at the sound of his name. He made a motion to rise, but Kirk caught his shoulder. “Listen to me, Spock. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. And I’ve tried—believe me, I’ve tried. The truth is . . . the more I think about it, the more I see the similarities. ‘We feel compelled to conceal love in this universe, also. For very different reasons, perhaps, but . . . I don’t know about the . . . other me, but the other Spock was so like you, in so many ways.”

Spock’s shoulder stiffened and Kirk pulled his hand back hastily, afraid he had said, too much. The Vulcan rose and moved toward the door. He paused and turned back to Kirk.

“Captain . . . Jim, I’m . . . sorry. I cannot—”

Feeling as if he had been dashed with cold water, Kirk clutched at the edge of the desk, cursing himself. “No, Spock. I’m the one who’s sorry. I should never have brought this up. Stupid of me.”

Spock remained standing, staring at Kirk as if mesmerized.

Managing to control his sudden trembling, Kirk looked up and said sharply, “You are dismissed, Mr. Spock.”

Almost in a daze, the Vulcan turned slowly and left. Once in the corridor, he leaned weakly against the bulkhead, his thoughts scattered in a hundred separate directions. With determination he calmed himself and gathered the threads into coherent order. What did Jim mean? Surely not what it seemed—what is totally impossible. I was only hearing what I wished to hear . . . No! What am I thinking? I am Vulcan. I can control this. I will control irrational impulses. I did before, with the other, and I will now. Jim doesn’t realize what he is saying. He is upset . . . disoriented by what happened. Understandable. At the very least it had to be an unsettling experience. Perhaps he is even ill . . .

At that thought, Spock paused, wondering if he should call McCoy. He quickly decided against it, knowing there was nothing the Doctor could do in this instance. No more than he can assist me in dealing with my strange reactions. I am as much affected as Jim . . . and without as much reason.

Spock straightened at the inquisitive glance of a passing crewman. He stared him down haughtily until the curious crewman darted away, unnerved by the cold stare. Spock started to move toward the turbolift, but paused again, uncertainly. I shouldn’t leave him like this. He’s hur—troubled. I’m running away to protect my own feelings, when I should be considering his. He fought the tugging urge to return to Kirk’s quarters and lost. Procrastinating, he stood by Kirk’s door, breathing deeply, almost raggedly. Making a decision, he reached up to press the door signal, but the doors opened automatically. Kirk had not bothered to reset the lock. Spock did so absently, and looked around. Kirk wasn’t in the outer room. Spock took another deep breath to fortify himself and went to the bedchamber. He halted at the dividing screen, and Kirk jerked upright in the bed at the sound of his approach.

“You came back,” Kirk said softly.

“Are you . . . all right, Captain?” Spock asked hesitantly, uncomfortably aware that Kirk had removed his shirt and boots. The gleam of light from the outer room through the screen seemed to glisten off the muscles of Kirk’s broad chest. The Vulcan’s feet felt rooted to the floor, unable to either retreat or advance.

“I’m not sure, Spock. What about you?”

“I . . .” He could not tear his gaze from the wide, entrancing hazel eyes. “I am not . . . certain . . . either.”

“I guess this whole thing has shaken you up as much as it has me,” Kirk commented quietly, but his voice quavered slightly.

“Jim—” Spock began.

“Why did you come back, Spock?” Kirk interrupted curtly. “Right now isn’t a very good time to speak to me logically.” His eyes searched the Vulcan’s face hopefully, but could read nothing in the expression. He slumped, suddenly appearing very young and vulnerable. He ran his hands through his hair, then buried his face in them, as if attempting to hide from the discerning dark eyes. “If you don’t have something completely illogical to say, you might as well leave.”

Spock clutched the metal of the dividing screen until he felt it bend under the pressure of his grip. His hard-won reserve cracked helplessly as he studied the hunched shoulders and lowered head of his friend.

“I love you,” he whispered.

Kirk’s head shot up with a jolt. For a very long moment he was silent, totally unprepared for that simple statement, no matter how timidly it was offered. Then a wry grin escaped. “Well, I did ask you for something totally illogical.”

“It is for me,” Spock replied, carefully inspecting the dent he had made in the decorative screen. It will be difficult to explain this to the maintenance crew . . . he thought dizzily.

“Do you mean it?” Kirk’s voice was hoarse.

“I would hardly have said it if I had not.” Spock shut his eyes, cursing himself for revealing too much. Be silent, fool! Your illicit desires are not proper to share.

There was a soft rustle, and Spock could feel Kirk’s cooler heat standing close beside him.. A hand touched his shoulder. “You know how much wanted to hear that, don’t you?” Kirk said, his heart hammering wildly against his ribs. “And you must know I love you. The question is, what do we do about it?”

Spock bit his lip to control his answer. “I do not see the necessity of doing anything. Their choices need not be ours.”

“But is it a choice, Spock? I can’t ignore the way I’m feeling about you. God knows, I’ve tried. It’s gotten to the point where I can hardly think of anything else.” He laughed humorlessly. “I honestly can’t remember being this infatuated with anyone. It’s a little unsettling. I’m not really sure where we go from here.” He dropped his hand and turned away. “I know this must be very hard for you to understand. You can control your emotions, I can’t. At least, not this time.”

“Jim—”

Kirk broke him off again, perhaps because he was afraid of what the Vulcan intended to say. “Weren’t you . . .tempted to respond to the . . . other me? I can’t deny that I was with the other Spock. I didn’t expect it, but it’s true and you might as well know it. There’s no possible way I can forget that, or pretend I don’t want it again . . . from you.”

The last few words were almost whispered. If Spock had not been Vulcan, he would not have heard them. His breath caught painfully in his chest. “What would you have me say?” Spock asked, fighting to regain his composure.

Kirk looked at him a moment, then sighed. “Nothing.” He moved back to the bed and sat down tiredly. “It’s my problem, not yours.”

Spock watched him in confusion. What is he asking of me? What does he expect? Kirk looked so alone, so desolate, sitting there struggling with his feelings, that Spock ached to comfort him, to give him an answer they could both accept. His depression and uncertainty weighed so heavily in the atmosphere of the room that Spock felt he could almost touch or taste it. Spock swiftly went through a struggle of his own—combating his own urge to be totally honest, with himself as much as with Kirk.

“Jim,” he said, swallowing, “I told you how I feel.”

Kirk nodded, but didn’t look up. “Yes, but your meaning is a little different. I’m sorry. I know how hard it was for you to say that, and it means everything to me that you could. I . . .I just wish I could return it in the same way. But what I feel right now isn’t exactly platonic or brotherly. I need—” He broke off, taking a deep, shaking breath.

The confusion in Spock’s mind rose to a torrent of conflicting thoughts and emotions. As quickly as he repressed one, another cropped up insistently. Worry, fear, desire, joy, relief and uncertainty waged a fierce battle within him. The only emotion he didn’t bother to suppress was the deep, certain love he felt for this man. He knew from long experience it was far too strong for him to dismiss with any disciplines he now possessed. Unable to escape from this sudden, inexplicable barrage of emotions, Spock took a step forward, surrendering. “It can . . . mean . . . whatever you wish it to mean. I love you.”

Kirk glanced up, a gleam of hope in his eyes which he hastily dampened. “You don’t understand. You can’t—”

As Kirk’s voice choked on the last word, Spock’s last vestige of control snapped. He sat down beside his friend. The conflict had not been resolved—part of him still wanted to pull away, to reconstruct his scattered defenses. He knew, deep inside, that he was not truly ready for this—nor was Jim. He doubted if they ever would be, but they certainly were not now. Jim was having too much trouble with his own self-image, and as for him, he was still attempting to deal with the fact that his emotions might not be quite as shameful as he had always believed them to be. It was a process that had begun several years ago, when Kirk had become captain and started wearing away his barriers like water dropping on a stone. That it had come this far, to this unbelievable conclusion, made him want to retreat back into his shell to reevaluate.

But there was no time now. Kirk was hurt, confused, and Spock could not, no matter his own irresolution, leave Kirk like this. Rejection was simply not something Kirk could easily accept. In this one area the seasoned, rock-steady captain was terribly vulnerable. Spock couldn’t lie to him and let him think he didn’t need him just as much . . .or more.

“Jim,” he said softly, taking the Human’s hand timidly. “I think this is a mistake for both of us, right now. But I do care for you so very much. Whatever you need, I need. I am not so very different after all.”

Kirk stared at him, eyes widening. “Maybe you’re not at that,” he whispered, voice unsteady. “God, what do we do now?” Spock saw the lashes flicker with uncertainty and a light flush color the cheeks. “I’m not even sure of what I was asking . . .” He shook his head, smiling ruefully. “No, I’m sure. I just can’t believe it.” On impulse he reached out, touching his fingers to the Vulcan’s face. It was like a sharp bolt of electricity grounded between them.

Suddenly, they were holding each other tightly, wonderingly. Then Kirk sought the Vulcan’s mouth for the first time. Spock gave up everything in that second—all thoughts of Vulcan, of control, of logic. All was surrendered in that long, hungry kiss. Easing down on the bed together, still clinging, they lost themselves in the warmth and delighted abandon.

Beneath it all, however, Spock could sense Kirk’s feeling of triumph, of conquest. A split second of doubt slashed at Spock, wondering if Kirk’s exultation would evolve into bitter regret when this was over.

Kirk ran his hand under the Vulcan’s shirt, across his ribs, causing Spock to gasp and forget all else. The touch was light, singing fire. He moved his hands helplessly over Kirk’s back, feeling the muscles ripple beneath the contact. Spock moaned deep in his throat as Kirk’s tongue parted his lips, invading his mouth greedily. The deliciousness of the sensations made him dizzy, and there was no way he could deny the feverish beauty of this moment. Nor did he wish to deny it. Not just yet. For this short time, he would let it be a reality for both of them.

With a fumbling urgency, they left the remainder of their clothes in a tangled heap on the floor. Where Spock paused in shy uncertainty, Kirk proceeded boldly. Taking his time, he tantalized the Vulcan with light, teasing caresses that moved over his face with trembling fingers, down the throat, pausing at the green tinged nipples. They stiffened at his touch, at the gentle/hard hunger of Kirk’s mouth. Continuing down over the flat chest, halting at the navel, he spread Spock’s thighs, running his fingertips up the inside to the waiting genitals. Grasping, holding, stroking . . .until Spock’s breath caught in a gasp of supreme ecstasy as Kirk’s cool mouth took the place of his hands. The Vulcan’s fingers tangled in the sandy hair, pressing him closer.

Eagerly, his early timidness burned out by raging need, Spock pulled Kirk around to reciprocate the caresses. Kirk cried out in delight as Spock took him in his mouth; a mouth so hot and loving that it seemed to sear the pleasure through every nerve.

They rose swiftly together to the peak and over it to a swirling, shattering explosion that left them limp and drained down the other’s throat.

When Kirk’s racing heart had slowed to a soft, mellow beat, he turned around in the bed until they could lay in the warm circle of each other’s arms. They kissed deeply, each tasting his own flavor.

It was some time before the quiet euphoria began to dissipate. Spock noticed that Kirk’s satisfied smile had faded, replaced by a thoughtful frown. He moved his bead from the relaxed position on the comforting shoulder.

“Jim . . .?” Spock began hesitantly.

Kirk took a deep breath and pulled back further. ‘I’m sorry, Spock. I pushed you into this. I know—”

“No,” Spock said fiercely. “I wanted it, too—for a very long time. I was just too cowardly to admit it. Too afraid of your reaction . . . too afraid of letting go.” He paused, searching the human’s face, seeing the sudden indecision reflected there. “Jim, do you regret?”

Kirk closed his eyes and smiled. “Regret? Oh, no. It was terrific, beautiful. And I love you.” He opened his eyes, looking at Spock straight on, as his hazel eyes clouded to a smoky grey. “It’s just that . . . I don’t think I was prepared for it. I wanted it, but I never truly believed you would—or could—respond. It was all wishful thinking, total fantasy. And now . . . now it’s real and we have to deal with the consequences.”

Spock nodded, but remained silent. It was as he had anticipated.

Kirk dropped his gaze uneasily. “There’s a lot to consider. This . . . changes things. I don’t know exactly how yet, but—”

“I will resign my commission,” Spock broke in quickly, certain of what Kirk was thinking.

“No!” Kirk said sharply. “I won’t lose you or my ship. But I do have to think about how this will affect my command.” He took Spock’s hand in his and rubbed his cheek against it. “How much harder will it be for me to take the chance of losing you for whatever the reason? It’s always been hard; too hard sometimes. But now—?”

“You have been forced to make difficult decisions before, Jim. And concerning people you have loved. Gary Mitchell . . . Edith . . .”

Kirk bit his lip. “Yes, I have. But it never gets easier. There have been times when I have come so close.” He paused, remembering how nearly he had come to letting an entire universe be altered to save the life of one woman. And if that had been Spock, what then? What would he find himself doing, sacrificing, in the future to save him? No! he told himself stubbornly. I’ll give up my ship before I’ll let it affect my command. But the conflict persisted. He didn’t want to give up the Enterprise. She was his life, everything he had ever hoped or worked or dreamed for since he was old enough to know what he wanted. Commanding her had given him more sheer joy than anything else in his entire life. Did he really love Spock enough to lose her? Transversely, did he love the ship enough to live without Spock? Somehow, he couldn’t imagine one without the other. They blended and fused in his emotions—both vital to his happiness.

He dropped his head back wearily on the pillow and covered his eyes with his arm. “We’ll figure something out, Spock. I’ll find a way to deal with it. It’ll just take me some time to . . . for me to work out . . . how to handle . . .”

“Yes,” Spock agreed softly, “Time.”

He waited until Kirk had drifted into an uneasy sleep, then stood and put on his scattered clothing. He went to the outer room and sat down, resting his elbows on his knees, hands steepled together under his chin. He was quite calm and quite certain of what he had to do. The ingrained reluctance for his intended action, however, made it difficult to proceed. It was theft, pure and simple. To take memories from another’s mind was a violation, a form of rape distasteful to contemplate.

No matter. It must be done. It was imperative he stop considering his own desires and wishes and take action in Jim best interests. He could not permit Jim to continue with this conflict that could have no satisfactory resolution. It would tear him apart.

It is my fault—mine and the Other’s. None of this would have come to Jim’s mind had it not been for . . .us. It has become a dangerous obsession with him—one he is not prepared to handle. Therefore, it is my responsibility to correct it.

There was a simpler way, he knew. He could leave, return to Vulcan. Out of sight, out of mind, wasn’t that a Human adage? Wasn’t it appropriate? There would be no need to commit this crime, this ruthless theft. Or would there? Would Jim come after him? Would he accept it? Spock knew the stubbornness of this particular Human. But he knew the pride as well. No, Jim would not come after him.

And was that the reason he dare not take that course—afraid of discovering he was dispensable? Spock clenched his hands tightly to still the shaking.

No, it is not only that. I am selfish. I do not wish to leave. This is my home as well as Jim’s. I cannot leave it any more than I can walk away from Jim. I don’t think I shall ever be strong enough to leave either of them.

So why didn’t he proceed with the other plan?

Looking deep within himself, he saw the answer to that, also. His reluctance had nothing to do with the morality or ethics of the procedure. He simply did not want Jim to forget—not those tender, precious feelings, not the exquisite lovemaking. Selfishly he wished to keep them, even though it would require Jim to make an impossibly painful choice. He wanted to keep Jim—tie him with a commitment made in the heat of a white night of passion. No. I will not do that to him. I love him too deeply to let him suffer over a decision that should never have had to be made. Here, my selfishness will end.

Once Spock faced this, it was easier. He loved Jim too much to try and hold him now. His star was still rising, and Spock was content to remain his shadow rather than risk dimming the glow. Perhaps one day . . . Spock banished the thought from his mind before, it could take shape. The future was too vague to think about now. He had to take charge of the present.

Decision made, he went back to the bed and sat down. Kirk’s sleep was still troubled, and Spock caught the sound of his name in the mumbled words as the Human tossed restlessly. Spock lightly touched the forehead, inducing a quieter sleep.

For a very long time Spock simply watched his Captain, pushing the sweat dampened hair back from the beautiful face. He caressed the perfect cheek, the skin as delicate and lovely as a woman’s, but the line of the jaw was masculine and stubborn. The long eyelashes flickered at his touch, but he did not waken as Spock lightly traced the sensuous mouth with the tip of his forefinger. He recalled how silky and cool those lips felt on his, how they heated his very blood. With a sigh, Spock leaned over and pressed his mouth to Jim’s. Then he straightened and positioned his hand for the deep meld.

“Forget . . .”

But Spock would not forget.

 

TO RULE IN HELL

Joachim could hear her screams even above the relentless sweep of the wind. He covered his ears and crouched against the side of the shelter, praying she would stop. He couldn’t bear much more. How much worse it must be inside for Khan, holding her writhing body down on the bed?

She was the twentieth of their people to die this way. Others had been lost to the original quake and the ones that followed, to the ever more violent electrical storms, or to the desperate predators who were now too starved to be cautious. Only thirty-five of their number were still alive, and soon there would be only thirty-four.

Joachim could taste the bitter grit of sand despite the protective layers of clothing he wore. The storms were more frequent now, coming almost every day and lasting longer each time. The winds stripped across the now-barren planet, turning the air corrosive and nearly unbreathable at times, even with filters. During the storms it was dangerous to be out for more than a short time. But today he could not remain inside listening to her suffer as the creature grew and flourished within her, seeing her agony reflected in Khan’s eyes. Better to fight the rush of the wind and the sting of the sand.

Four years. Six months of paradise and three and a half years of ever-increasing hell. How long could they continue? Even with Khan’s genius and his own ingenuity, natural laws could be surmounted only so long. So far, the water supply was stable, but that could change at any time. The air seemed more foul by the day. They were slowly being swallowed by the sand, buried alive, and smothered by the planet’s death throes. The quakes seemed to be over now; there had been none for months, which was small comfort, considering everything else. Those life forms which survived struggled to cling to existence in an increasingly hostile. environment. Perhaps it was better to be swallowed up quickly than to die by inches.

Joachim felt the hopelessness of it engulf him. No matter how hard they struggled, they could never win. But they could never surrender. His fists clenched in fury. He did not fear death as much as dying with a whimper, without fighting for every last second. He vowed never to let himself become like the others.

He became even angrier and more frustrated as he thought about it. They were increasingly apathetic, little more than walking robots. They responded to orders but initiated few ideas or actions of their own. Such behavior was once the first symptoms of attack by the eels, but now, ironically, it was more the rule than the exception, especially with the older ones. It was the beginning of the end for any civilization, and for one as limited as theirs, it was a tragedy. But it was hard to offer hope or future when logic so clearly illustrated there was none.

Khan had noted the apathy also and had taken steps to correct the situation by creating new diversions. From photographic memory, he drew the designs and schematics for the Enterprise and other ships he had had time to study during his brief incarceration in the ship’s Sickbay. He had managed to scan an amazing amount of material in a very brief period and stored it in the recesses of his mind until he had the leisure to study it and begin to transcribe it.

But, in spite of his impatient encouragement, only a few of his people could rouse their spirits enough to take advantage of this new wealth of knowledge. Most could see little purpose in the effort, stranded as they were on a dying planet. As strong of a leader as Khan was, he could not force enthusiasm or order a will to live in those who had surrendered their souls to fate.

Only Joachim and few of the younger ones poured over the work with true eagerness, hungry for new science and hoping to discover some miraculous, magical solution to their problems. Joachim soon saw the answers did not lie there but continued to search and study out of his own insatiable curiosity—and for the fact it pleased Khan.

Khan, himself, never seemed to lose his determination, refusing to be vanquished even against these impossible  odds. He kept them alive through the sheer force of his will. Joachim’s worship of the man never wavered and even grew stronger as the trying years went by. He was content to merely stand beside him, warmed by his presence, hungering for more as he became older and understood his desires.

His jealous hatred of Marla had never totally faded, but he had learned to adjust to the situation, even coming to grant her a grudging respect. Inferior both mentally and physically, she struggled as hard as any when the world had begun to fall apart. Khan was not always kind to her; often impatient and brutal when the frustration chewed at his nerves, and he was forced to lash out to relieve the unbearable tension. She remained stoic and accepting.

Joachim had marveled at this at first, surprised by her resilience and stubbornness—but he also understood her reasons. There was much he was also willing to bear for the sake of being warmed by that sensuous smile or caressed by those hands of steel and velvet.

In the short lull of the wind, Joachim suddenly noticed that the screams had cut off abruptly. Feeling sick and shaken, he stumbled back into the shelter, afraid of what he would find.

The comparative silence of the shelter after the roar of the wind was startling in itself. His eyes adjusted slowly to the gloomy interior, lit by the fading lighting tubes.

There was no movement or sound from the blank faces that surrounded the deathbed of Khan’s wife. Her face was almost translucent in its whiteness; her reddish-brown hair was tangled and matted from her convulsions of agony. The neck was twisted at an odd angle. Unnatural.

Joachim realized instantly what had happened. Khan had snapped her neck cleanly, releasing her from her torment. He was still kneeling at her side, his hand absently stroking the dead cheek. His face was flushed.

They all stood frozen, waiting for Khan to react. At last, Joachim forced himself to move, reaching out in a gesture of comfort.

Khan ignored him, lifting his hand from Marla’s face, staring at it as if mesmerized. “With this hand I forced her to kneel before me . . . almost crushed her in its grip . . .asked her to open her heart to me. And now—” He squeezed it into a trembling fist. “Now I use it to end her life.”

Frightened for him, Joachim dropped to his knees beside him. “My lord, do not punish yourself. You had no choice. To let her suffer longer would have been pointless and cruel—”

With one blow Khan knocked the younger man away. By the time Joachim regained his breath, he saw what Khan intended to do. “Stop him, you fools!” he screamed, galvanizing the stunned onlookers to action as Khan reached out and crushed a lighting tube with his bare hand, letting the liquid phosphorus inside cover his skin. It took four of them to pull him down and wipe the burning material clear, bringing chunks of seared flesh with it.

“Let me free, you useless animals!” Khan roared, finally shrugging them off. “You are nothing to me! Nothing!”

Joachim flinched at the words and at the mad glow in the black eyes, but he stood before Khan stubbornly, forcing the man to see him. “Stop it, Khan! Be silent! She is dead, but so are many others. Grieve for them also. But we must continue! Isn’t that what you have tried to teach us? Isn’t it?!”

Something in the words seemed to break through the curtain of near-insanity. The dark gaze flickered and the madness faded. The impotent rage remained but found a new direction.

“Kirk!” Khan hissed, face lifted, eyes seeing far beyond the rusty, sand-corroded metal of the shelter, seeking and finding a focus for his fury. “If not for you, she would still live. We would not be dying by inches on this purgatory of a planet. You have stripped me, robbed me of my birthright. But you have not beaten me yet, Kirk. ‘All is not lost’,” he quoted viciously, “I still have ‘the unconquerable will and study of revenge, immortal hate—’, I cling to these, oh my eternal foe. My hate must scorch you where you stand. It is surely hot enough to curse you even across the void between us.”

Joachim felt his skin prickle eerily as he watched and heard the almost mystical tones in Khan’s voice. It seemed to vibrate and carry far beyond this dim, squalid room. “If there is justice, you will suffer as I have suffered. May your soul burn in a hell more bleak than this . . . and may you lose something more precious than I have lost!”

 

THE WORST OF TIMES

“Five years,” McCoy said for the hundredth time in the last two weeks. “It’s hard to believe we’ve been out there that long.”

He handed Kirk the drink he had just fixed and sat down in a chair beside him, propping his feet up on a footstool he’d acquired on Wrigley’s some years back. For once Kirk didn’t give him the usual teasing reply: that the Doctor had only been with the ship for four and a half years and that the first six months had been the absolute best. In fact, Kirk wasn’t saying much of anything tonight. McCoy shrugged off his taciturn mood as natural. Tomorrow Kirk would be officially turning the Enterprise back into the hands of Starfleet. They had achieved Earth orbit a few hours earlier, and there was nothing left to do but a last minute spit and polish on the battle weary vessel before she was delivered to the maintenance crew for overhaul. It had to be an emotional experience for Jim, bringing his ship home, safe and whole, after five years of deep space and uncountable dangers. The Enterprise’s ‘lucky’ status, begun by April and Pike, was still maintained. And the longer a ship was in commission the greater the odds against her. The Enterprise was the oldest of her class now and had been through far more than any of her rank. Her Captain was the youngest and could boast the same credentials.

McCoy was pretty sure he understood Kirk’s contemplative state of mind. The only thing more certain than the triumph of this moment had to be the sense of loss. Many, or most, of the crew would be moving on to other things now—easily attaining promotions and new offers after a hitch on such a prestigious ship. The Enterprise herself would be in drydock for months for this overhaul; perhaps even longer if the rumors were correct.

“Well, Jim,” McCoy said cheerfully, “there have been times when I’ve wondered if we’d ever make it, but all in all it’s been a nice trip. I’ve enjoyed the scenery.”

Kirk didn’t seem to hear him; he continued to study the amber glow in the glass. McCoy tapped his finger on the table to catch his attention. Kirk jerked slightly and looked up.

“Oh . . . yes, Bones. You’re right.”

McCoy regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. There was something wrong, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He decided to dig around a bit to see if he could get to the root of it. “You haven’t told me if you’ve made up your mind,” he hinted. “Are you going to take another command or wait around until the Enterprise is refitted?”

Kirk glanced over at him, then set the glass on the table without tasting the drink. “It would be a long wait. They’re going ahead with the new design.”

McCoy sat up with interest. “So, the Council came through with it, did they? Scotty will be in seventh heaven. If half the rumors I’ve heard are true, she’ll be quite a ship when they’re finished.”

“She always was.”

McCoy looked at him sharply. “You’ll be taking her out again, won’t you?”

Kirk picked up his glass again and took a quick drink before replying. “It’ll be years before she’ll be ready for space again. Two, maybe even three.” He took a deep breath. “No, I won’t be her captain. I have other plans.”

“Such as?”

Kirk avoided the Doctor’s probing eyes. “Congratulate me, Bones. I’ve been promoted. This time next week I’ll be Admiral Kirk.”

“Congratulations,” McCoy retorted cynically. “And what do you do for your next trick?”

The Captain’s chin jutted out stubbornly at the sarcastic tone. “Are you surprised?”

“That they offered it to you? Hell no, it was inevitable. That you accepted—” He shook his head. “I don’t believe it. You must be joking about this, Jim. You realize what it would mean. You’d never get a ship again, at least not for deep space. These days Admirals are so wrapped in cotton-wool that when they die they’re just embalmed as they sit at their desks and nobody notices.”

“I’m serious, Bones,” Kirk said with a tinge of bitterness. “I’ve accepted. I’d be a fool to refuse a promotion like this.”

McCoy turned to him, finally beginning to believe it. “And you’ll be a damn fool if you do! Jim, I can’t see you pushing papers and attending formal luncheons with stuffed-shirt Council members who wouldn’t know a Klingon if one came up and bit him on the ass. Have you lost what little sense you had? This is crazy!”

“There’s more to it than that!” Kirk snapped. “There’s a lot of things in administration that should be changed, improved. I can help make those changes—”

McCoy interrupted him impatiently, “Do you honestly think you can do more good sitting behind some desk than out there circumventing the rules and snapping red tape like you’ve always done?”

“Maybe,” Kirk answered; sullenly, beginning to squirm under the pressure of McCoy’s probing inquisition.

McCoy stood up and looked down at him. “Jim, what’s got into you? I would never have believed you would give up the Enterprise—more than that, give up space. You know that’s effectively what you’ll be doing, don’t you?”

The glass shook a little in Kirk’s hand as he set it down again. He still refused to meet the Doctor’s eyes. “I’m tired, Bones. Physically, mentally. Five years, it’s enough. I’m tired of the responsibility. Can’t you see that?”

“No,” McCoy said ruthlessly. “I’m your doctor; I know you inside and out, and I know you thrive on it. You’re at your very best when things are critical. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. Sure, you need a rest, a break from it. I’d be even more worried if you didn’t. But if anything will kill you, it’ll be that job down there. Some people are destined to find new stars, others to study them . . .and still others to give them catalogue numbers. We both know which category you fall into. This is a mistake Jim, and you know it.”

“It’s my life!” Kirk responded angrily. “I guess I should know when I’ve had enough.”

“My god, Jim, you’re only thirty-seven years old! Most men are older than that when they get their first command! And you’re ready to quit now, when you’re just beginning? Why? It doesn’t make sense. Twenty years from now I’d understand it better—though I’d have sworn you wouldn’t be willing to give it up even then. But now . . .?” He stared at his friend, completely baffled. “There has to be a reason beyond what you’re giving me.”

Kirk didn’t answer. McCoy studied him intently, worried at the new lines around the eyes and the stiff set of his jaw. There was so much tension in the figure, he was wound tight as a mainspring. The Doctor was mystified by this totally unexpected action from Kirk.

“What about Spock?” he asked suddenly. ‘“You don’t expect him to be some kind of half-assed clerk for you or something, do you?”

Kirk’s head jerked up at the sound of the name. “What’s Spock got to do with this?”

McCoy’s eyes widened. “I . . .I just figured you would stay together . . .” I hoped we all would . . . “Don’t tell me he’s decided to take a command of his own after all these years of saying—”

“No,” Kirk cut in.·He stood and went to pour another large portion of brandy into his now-empty glass. He drank it in one quick gulp and poured still another. “He’s . . . made other plans.”

“Oh.” McCoy let that sink in for a moment, not missing Kirk’s sudden thirst. Somehow, he’d gotten into the habit of thinking of Spock in tandem with Jim. It was difficult to imagine them going their separate ways. “Well, as Alice would say, ‘it gets curiouser and curiouser.’ Mind telling me what other little news flashes you haven’t seen fit to tell me?”

Kirk dropped his head. “I’m sorry, Bones. I didn’t make my decision until last night, and this is the first chance I’ve had to tell you. And . . .I didn’t know about Spock until—”

“Last night,” McCoy finished, nodding. He was beginning to understand all too well. “I see. So what’s he going to do? Or is that a secret?”

“No, it’s no secret . . . now. He’s returning to Vulcan, resigning his commission.”

McCoy took a deep breath, another drink, and sat down heavily in a chair. “I don’t suppose I should be surprised, but I am. He’s leaving tomorrow?”

“Yes. As soon as he’s cleared at headquarters.” Kirk· was still standing, staring fixedly at the wall, clutching his glass as if he needed something to hang on to.

“So that’s it,” the Doctor said softly, mostly to himself. He looked over at Kirk, sympathizing, but not totally understanding the problem. “Jim, I know this must have shocked you—maybe even hurt you—but it’s no reason to give up.”

“Give up?!” Kirk snapped his head around. “I’m not giving up anything! Why do you act like taking a promotion—a well-deserved one, I might add!—is the same thing as slitting my wrists?”

“For you, it is!” McCoy barked back.

“Aren’t you a little confused, Doctor?” Kirk said sharply.

“You bet your sweet ass I am. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in that thick head of yours—not to mention Spock’s. Don’t try to tell me his leaving had nothing to do with your decision. You’re a liar if you say it.”

Kirk swallowed. “Well, I can’t pretend it had no . . .influence on my . . .” He trailed off and took another drink, more like a gulp, of the brandy.

McCoy watched him silently, considering the best way to, approach this delicate situation. “Listen, Jim, it’s not as if Vulcan was at—the ends of the universe. It’s not like you won’t ever see him again—”

“But I won’t!” Kirk burst out, then bit his tongue, turning away.

“What do you mean? Why not?”

Kirk sighed and faced McCoy reluctantly. “He’s going to Gol, to study with the Masters, to achieve the Kolinahr.”

Completely at a loss, McCoy leaned forward. “What the devil is that?”

“He explained it to me as a state of total logic. All emotion—even all memories of emotion—are washed away permanently. Complete control over the mind and body and consciousness . . . maybe even subconscious, I don’t know. The way I understand it, it is something even few Vulcans have obtained.”

“And Spock wants that?”

“Yes.”

“But what does it mean? I’m not sure I under—”

“It means,” Kirk broke in bitterly, “that he’ll never leave Vulcan again. That we’ll never see him again—or even be permitted to see him. That he’ll never even think of m- of Humans or emotions . . .”

McCoy was stunned. He had noticed that Spock had been withdrawn and quiet in the last month or so, unusually so even for him. But he had never dreamed the Vulcan was contemplating this major a change in his life—and Jim’s. There was no denying they were tied together in some strange, intangible sense. Even Spock must have known this would hurt Jim. But did he realize how much?

“Does Spock know you’re accepting the Admiralty?” he asked sharply. Kirk nodded. “I told him. He . . . wished me well.”

McCoy drained his glass in a single swallow, trying to swallow his disappointment in Spock along with it. Damn him! He knows and he’s still going to let Jim go through with it—ruin his life. He might have the right to ruin his own, but not Jim’s. A land command will destroy Jim, and all three of us know it. It’ll tum him into an entirely different person. It’s a different type of pressure down there—one he hated dealing with even from light-years distance. Bureaucrats, diplomats, swindles, bribes, finances, prejudices, innuendos, broken promises—nothing to slug your way or talk your way out of . . . not if you’re an honest man, and Jim is that. How long before he compromises? Buckles under it? And when he does, it will kill him, just as surely as any phaser, but a lot slower. What will be left walking around won’t be the Jim Kirk I know.

McCoy got up and went to stand in front of Kirk. “You’re doing a stupid thing, Jim, and I’m going to fight you on it. I’m going to do my best to stop it any way I can. I doubt it it’ll do any good, but I’m going to try everything in my power to keep you from making the biggest mistake of your life.”

“Let it go!” Kirk said angrily. “It’s my life, dammit!” Then he softened and put his hand on McCoy’s shoulder. “Listen, Bones, I know you’re just doing what you think best for me, and I appreciate it, but it’s not going to change my mind. Save it for your next captain, okay?”

“There’s not going to be another captain,” McCoy replied, deciding right then. “I’m getting out, too. I’ve never had that great a love for Starfleet anyway. It’s too mechanized and getting more so every day. Phasers make me nervous, the warp drive gives me headaches, and every time I look at the transporter I get the willies. I’m getting out while I’m still more or less in one piece. And I’m never coming back. If I never see another bulkhead, it’ll be fine with me.” His anger and frustration rose to a peak. Practically nose to nose with the Captain, he poked a finger firmly into. Kirk’s chest. “But I’ll tell you one damn thing before I go, I’m going to let them know all the way to the top how I feel about this ‘promotion’ and just exactly what I know it will do to you. I’m going to stir up a stink about it, whether they pay attention or not.”

“Bones—”

“Shut up, I’m not finished. You think I don’t know the real reason you and Spock are running like scalded cats, but I do. I’ve known for a long time, and you’ll be damn lucky if I don’t spill that, too!”

“Real reason?” Kirk echoed, confused.

“Okay, okay. So I won’t say anything. Of course I wouldn’t, not about that. Wouldn’t be any point. But as for the rest of it—”

“What are you talking about?” Kirk demanded, suddenly shaky. “Tell me what you mean.”

“Come off it, Jim,” McCoy said impatiently. “I’m not blind. I’ve watched you two for years. I know how you and Spock feel about each other. I even hoped, after what happened in the mirror universe, you two would get it settled and stop hiding from the truth, but I guess you didn’t. You slipped right back into the same old routine, and it’s just kept festering inside you both—and this is the result.”

Kirk stared at him blankly, skin prickling on the back of his neck. “Mirror universe? Bones, what—?”

McCoy misinterpreted Kirk’s startled expression. “You didn’t think I knew about that, did you? But I was there, remember? And more than that, I was in a forced meld with the other Spock. A meld can work both ways, you know, and he wasn’t trying to hide anything. Why should he? I saw exactly what was going on between those two and I also saw how you had gone along with it. When we got back, I knew you were shook up about it, and I could tell Spock was too, probably for the same reason. You’d been in love with each other for quite some time, but neither of you had the guts to do anything about it. It took your alternates to show you what you really wanted. I can’t say I approved of the idea at first, but—” He broke off as he noticed that all the color had drained from Kirk’s face. “Hey, it doesn’t matter to me, Jim. I may be a bit old fashioned, but I’m no prude. I was sorta hoping it would work. You both needed somebody to love—you still do. I didn’t want to get involved in a personal problem between you, but now that you are both running away instead of facing it . . .” He paused, studying Kirk with concern. “Jim, are you all right?”

Kirk swayed slightly, and the glass slipped from his hand to shatter on the floor. He reached for the corner of the desk for support. “I . . . “ His hand moved to his forehead, face white as paper.

Worried, McCoy hastily took his arm and led him to a chair. Kirk sat down and buried his face in his hands. My god! he thought disjointedly, it’s . . . it’s true! Bones is right . . . it happened . . . I remember. But how could I forget? Impossible . . . to forget something like that. How? Why? And . . . what happened later with Spock . . .  Kirk’s head shot up at the only possible answer. No! He wouldn’t have done that to me . . . taken it from me . . . Not this!

“Jim, what’s wrong?”

Kirk turned bleak eyes to the Doctor. “I’m . . . okay now, Bones.” He waved him away. “I just . . . remembered something. Something I should never have forgotten.”

“Is there anything I can do?” McCoy asked gently, wondering if he had pushed the issue too far.

Kirk shook his head and stood. “This is something I have to deal with myself—and right now.” He walked toward the door, but McCoy called after him.

“Jim, I didn’t mean to stir up any trouble. Let’s talk about it—”

“Please, Bones. No more talk . . . not now. I have to think. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

McCoy let him go, quietly cursing whatever it was he had said that was tearing Jim up inside.

Kirk walked blindly to Spock’s quarters, his anger growing as the blocked incident returned to his conscious mind in greater detail; still dim, hazy with passing time, but certain and real no longer vague and ungraspable. Like the dreams I’ve had. The memory was there all along, waiting for something to snap it back into place. Those dreams that I·was so ashamed of because I thought Spock would be shamed by them if he knew . . . and all the time . . .

By the time he reached Spock’s cabin, he felt enraged, cheated. He slammed his fist against the door signal, not once, but three times. After a moment, the door slid open and Kirk strode in, hurt and furious. He came to an abrupt halt as his eyes swept the bare walls and the bags on the bed. “Finished packing, I see,” Kirk said through clenched teeth.

Spock glanced up, noting the Captain’s unyielding stance. He calmly continued his work, removing his lytherette from the last wall, placing it in its case, and snapping the latch firmly. “Nearly. You wished to speak to me?”

“I just have one question to ask,” Kirk said tightly. “Why?”

Spock sighed and set the case on the floor. “I explained quite fully my desire to return home—”

“No!” Kirk snapped. “I know why you’re really leaving. You’re running away before I find out what you did. Well, it’s too late, Spock. I know. I remember.”

Spock’s eyes shot to Kirk’s face before he hastily turned away. “I do not comprehend your meaning,” he said coolly.

Kirk took three quick steps—and grabbed Spock’s arms, spinning him around to face him. “The hell you don’t! You know exactly what I’m talking about! You took something from me that you had no right . . . no right . . .” His voice broke. Spock looked down at the sparkle of moisture in Kirk’s eyes and felt his heart contract painfully. He pulled free of the Human’s grip, but didn’t answer.

“You knew I would remember sooner or later,” Kirk continued, his voice still choked. “The technique isn’t meant to erase memories, right? Just to give the emotional wound time to heal, isn’t that what you told me the other time? When I began remembering Rayna, I accepted your reasons for doing what you did—I was even a little grateful for it because I felt so damn guilty about what happened to her. It made it easier to realize that time had passed and life went on.” He held Spock’s eyes steadily. “But this . . .this was different. There were no wounds this time, Spock. Nothing to justify taking those particular memories. Why did you do it? That’s my question for you. Why?!”

The Vulcan gave up all pretense of ignorance. He straightened and clasped his hands behind his back to hide their treacherous trembling. “You were confused at the time. What we had done was a . . . mistake. The conflicts in your character and in my heritage were too strong. You would have regretted—”

“Then they would have been my regrets!” Kirk shouted, clenching his fists. “It was my decision to make. You had no right to make it for me. If you couldn’t have accepted it for yourself, I would have understood, but it was for me to deal with in my own way, whichever choice you had made. Can’t you see that? How dare you take that from me?”

“I regret if I made an error in judgement,” Spock said coldly, turning away. Kirk’s self-righteous anger sparked an answering chord in him. “I merely saw no logical point in your agonizing over a decision that could have had only one possible solution.”

“Of course,” Kirk said sarcastically. “You were only thinking of me, as usual. Don’t lie to yourself, Spock. You did it because it made it easier for you.”

Spock swung around sharply at that, face darkened. “Easier? No, it didn’t make it easier.”

Kirk was shocked by the pain and anger in Spock’s voice. He took a step closer, his own fury lessening. “Then, why did you do it? l wouldn’t have wanted to forget, Spock, even if it had never gone any further. A memory that beautiful should be cherished . . .” His eyes searched Spock’s face. “especially when that one memory is all you can ever have.”

Spock let his breath out slowly and slumped. “I-l’m . . . sorry. Perhaps I was wrong. It is not the only mistake I have made.” He straightened with determination. “In any case, it is done. I cannot change it.”

“Maybe you can,” Kirk said softly, reaching out to touch his arm. “Don’t go to Vulcan, Spock. Stay . . . with me. There’s no reason you have to go now. It’s all out in the open, no more hiding. We can even keep the Enterprise. That’s one beast in myself I think I’ve settled. It doesn’t have to be a choice between you or her anymore. It never was, really. That was just camouflage for my own uncertainties.” His hand slid up the arm to touch Spock’s lowered face, turning it to look at him. “Stay, Spock, please.”

The hazel eyes were so bright that Spock was forced to turn away before they melted him. “Once, not so very long ago, I thought it would be impossible to ever walk away from you. I didn’t think I would ever be strong enough. But I am. l must be. It is more imperative than ever that I return to Vulcan.” He moved to a safe distance across the room before he turned to face the Human again. “Can’t you understand, Jim? I’ve gone too far. I’ve lost . . .” He swallowed and closed his eyes tightly, blocking out the sight of Kirk’s confused, wounded expression. “I must relearn the things I have lost—my control . . . my stability. Too long, I’ve been far too long with this ship, with Humans . . . with you. It’s worn away at me, broken me down, changed me.”

“Making you feel more Human than Vulcan, is that it?” Kirk asked slowly. “Is that so very bad, Spock?”

Spock opened his eyes to look at him, almost in surprise at the question. “I have to be what I am, Jim. What I must be Vulcan.”

“And Human,” Kirk insisted. “Why are you afraid of that?”

“Because I don’t want to be Human!” The words exploded before he could choke them back. “It . . . hurts . . . too . . . much . . .” He fell silent, regaining control of his composure, certain he had just made his entire premise quite apparent.

Kirk watched him, torn between sympathy and irritation; dismayed by the fact he could lose Spock forever, no matter what he said, but too stubborn to admit it. “Sure it hurts, dammit. But the good outweighs the bad, and it’s bound to be better than what you are going back to. Logic isn’t an end unto itself, Spock. You can’t really hope to turn yourself into some machine, cold, unfeeling—”

“Stop it! You have no conception of what I need or want—!” Spock caught himself and tried to steady his voice. “I am doing what I have to do for my own sanity. I’m not like you, Jim. I’m Vulcan. I’ve let myself forget that for too long. It is time to return to my origins before I lose them completely.”

“You think you’re disciplined in doing this, in walking away. Can’t you see it’s just the opposite. You’re running. You’re scared. You have the answers all twisted.”

Spock shook his head, refusing to argue further.

“So, you’re determined to be Vulcan,” Kirk said bitterly, “no matter what it does to either of us.”

Spock waited a long while before answering, gathering every scrap of control he still possessed, praying to get through these next few minutes without falling apart. If Jim would only stop looking at me that way . . . Can’t he see that he’s making it so much harder? Is that what he wants? I have to get away . . . go where I can blot out this pain and longing and—

“Jim,” he said slowly, “I hope you will accept what I have to do, even if you find it impossible to understand. I would greatly dislike parting on a . . . discordant note.”

Parting . . .! Kirk almost gasped as the reality of it hit him for the first time. He had not truly believed it until now. I’ll never see him again . . .  The ache inside grew so intense that he felt physically sick. He couldn’t recall feeling quite this way before—such utter despair. “You’re a fool, Spock,” he whispered hoarsely, “if you think this will make you happy.”

Jim! Do not do this to me . . .  Spock didn’t know how much longer he could bear the bruised expression in the huge hazel eyes. He fought back the urge to gather him into his arms and stop the hurting. No! That was my original mistake. He answered stiffly, “I do not seek happiness, only . . . peace.”

“You won’t find it this way,” Kirk said tiredly, knowing he was defeated.

Spock felt the trembling in his hands increase and knew he had to do something immediately. Trying unsuccessfully to act casual, he moved to the closet and took out his meager supply of civilian clothes. “I must complete my packing.”

“Oh.” Kirk stared at him blankly. “Oh . . . yes . . . I—” He felt lost; needing to say so much more but having no idea how to go about it in the face of Spock’s sudden indifference. “Maybe . . . it would be better if we talked more in the morning—”

“No!” Spock said quickly, looking up from the disordered heap of make-work he had tossed on the bed. Realizing he had spoken more emphatically than necessary; he calmed his tone. “I will be leaving very early. I have an appointment at Starfleet Headquarters at 0700 for debriefing and formal resignation. I am certain you will be occupied elsewhere in preparation for turning over the Enterprise.” Nervously, he went back to folding a tunic, feeling his hands shake with awkwardness. “It would be best that way,” he added softly.

Kirk took in his breath sharply, salty tears pricking his eyes. “I suppose you’re right.” He swiped the tears away angrily. His throat was tight it was nearly impossible to speak the words. My god, my dear god . . . how can I say goodbye to him? Please give me the strength to do it with some measure of dignity. At least let me do him that much honor. Being emotional about this will just remind him of what he’s trying to escape. For once I have to hold on . . . “Okay, Spock, I . . .”

The Vulcan straightened again and faced Kirk, the soft brown eyes doing more to rip Kirk’s resolve than anything else. They stared at each other, imprinting the memory in tender detail.

“Good luck, Spock,” Kirk choked out at last.

“Live long and prosper, Ji— Captain.”

Kirk moved blindly to the door, but as it whooshed open, he spun around, unable to let go just yet. “Spock—!” The Vulcan refused to look up, and Kirk . . . let go.

He took a step backward, and the door slid shut in front of his face. He leaned his forehead against the cool metal and released the sob that had been building in his aching chest.

Then he squared his shoulders, stuck out his chin, tugged down his shirt, and walked away.

 

INVICTUS

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
-- Invictus (W.E. Henley)

Khan was lying face down on his pallet, head buried in his arms. Joachim hesitated in the doorway, wary of risking Khan’s anger, but unable to keep his distance any longer.

It had been over three weeks since the woman’s death, and Khan was becoming more withdrawn and unapproachable by the day. After the outburst of rage the night of Marla’s death, the others had given him a wide berth, careful to avoid the consequences of disturbing his mourning. Joachim had tried to speak to him and had received a bruised jaw and a wrenched shoulder for his audacity. To try again was tempting a worse fate, but he could not stand by and watch this happen. He had to reach Khan some way, no matter the cost.

Stepping close, he knelt beside the pallet. “My lord.”

There was no response from the figure on the bed.

Joachim tried again, this time reaching out to gently touch his shoulder. “Please, listen to me. Khan!”

There was another moment of silence before the older man turned on his side to face the younger. The dark eyes held no fury now, only a bottomless well of sadness and undiminished grief. Joachim noted the wider streaks of silver in the once glossy black hair. But for the first time in many weeks, Khan really looked at Joachim rather than through him.

“Your shoulder,” Khan said softly, as if just remembering. “Is it well?”

“Yes, my lord. It is unimportant.”

Khan nodded, understanding Joachim’s meaning; he had been granted forgiveness without ever needing to ask.

“You have been most patient with me, little brother. In my heart I am grateful.”

“I am with you, Khan,” Joachim said faithfully. “For everything. Always.”

Khan rolled to his back and stared at the metal roof, his expression sober and thoughtful. “To deal with death is often difficult, but to deal with this living death we face now is more than any man should have to bear. When there is no hope, there is no life. Perhaps it is time to accept that.”

“No! You will not give up.”

Khan took a deep breath and closed his eyes tiredly. “My young friend, I have discovered the spirit is finite. It has an ending. The essence of hope eludes me now. Perhaps it perished with my wife.”

Joachim gripped Khan’s arm in despair. “Please do not speak this way. There is hope, my lord. The hydroponics dome you designed is complete. The wind generators are operating. We can survive.”

“To what purpose?” Khan replied with a touch of irritation. “To live a few more empty years in limbo?”

“For the sheer sake of survival,” Joachim insisted. “You are superior.” His eyes narrowed as he put down his last ace. “Will you permit Kirk to prove that a lie?”

Khan’s head jerked up, eyes flashing. “Never!” Then he caught the hint of a smile on the younger man’s mouth and chuckled in return. “Ah, little brother, you know me so very well. I chose my right hand wisely.” He nodded. “You are right, I cannot let Kirk win. I will not surrender to the fate he thrust upon me. ‘My head is bloody but unbowed’.”

Joachim was pleased and relieved to see the inflexible pride and arrogance flow back into Khan. Almost timidly he touched the burned hand. “It is nearly healed.”

“It is ugly now,” Khan mused, looking at the scarred tissues. “A foolish action.” He frowned, his vanity returning to him abruptly. “I shall have to keep it covered now.”

“Not to me, my lord,” Joachim said softly.

Khan smiled and gripped the young man’s hand with his undamaged one. “No, not to you. But a ruler should display no flaws.”

The warmth of Khan’s hand thrilled Joachim, and he felt his blood begin to rush hotly through his veins. Shyly, heart thumping at his daring, he stroked the metal band on Khan’s strong wrist and traced the silver cord up his arm to the bare, broad chest. He laid the palm of his hand fiat against the hard muscles.

“My lord,” he began tentatively, “I . . .wish . . .”

He could feel the dark eyes sharpening on him curiously. “What do you wish?”

Joachim’s gaze dropped and he felt his face flush. I am a fool. This is the wrong time. “It is nothing,” he said hastily.

But Khan would not let it be. “Tell me what you wish,” he demanded.

“I wish to . . . stay with you.”

There was a brief silence before Khan replied. “Do I mistake your meaning, Joachim? You wish to share my bed?” Strangely enough, the voice did not seem startled and he did not pull away from Joachim’s touch.

“It is what I have wanted for . . . a very long time,” Joachim admitted in a rough whisper.

“I have wondered . . .” Khan trailed off thoughtfully. “Why haven’t you spoken before, little brother?”

Joachim found that he still could not lift his eyes to Khan’s. “I could not presume it was something you would want from me. I was and am willing to give you anything. It is wrong to ask anything in return.” The blond lashes flickered up. “And you had . . . others.” He lowered his head, wincing at the thought of who had shared this bed with Khan. Jealousy would not die with her.

A strong but gentle hand lifted his chin, forcing him to meet the piercing eyes, now soft and knowing. “You are very beautiful, my Joachim. Are you certain you wish to offer this? I am not always a gentle man, as you know too well. My passions can be as violent as my hatred. It was not easy for my wife—for you it could be more difficult.”

In spite of his caution, there was a silkiness in Khan’s tone and a glow in his eyes that made it apparent he was intrigued by the idea.

Encouraged, Joachim slid his open hand down the ridged stomach to the waist of the tattered pants, but no farther. This time he matched Khan’s gaze evenly. “I want to serve you in every way. I ask no more than that.”

Khan moved suddenly, tangling his fingers in the blond hair as he pulled the younger man’s mouth down to his.

Joachim remained as passive as he could, although the taste of Khan’s mouth and the heat of their bare chests pressed hard together ripped a tide of passion through him. He longed to duel as an equal in this battle of sudden lust and release his own young strength. Yet it was not the time. He was willing to drink from the fountain of experience first. He knew his place and had no desire to usurp Khan’s right of dominance. And it was the overwhelming power of the man that aroused him most. He had belonged to Khan from the moment of his first breath, and it felt as if he had waited that long for this to happen.

Khan pulled back after a time and looked at Joachim, lips curving into a seductive smile. His long fingers traced a sensuous path down Joachim’s cheek to his throat and down the fiat breastbone. The dark eyes drank in every inch of the form which had been offered to him. The Prince judging his passion. “Your skin is soft and clear. The lines of your body are clean and strong. You are no longer a boy. You shall be Jonathan to my David. I am honored by your offer.”

“You will accept?” Joachim asked humbly, although he no longer doubted Khan’s response. His heart was pounding, his penis throbbing with excitement. Khan could not reject him now.

Khan’s answer was another kiss, hungry and powerful. Joachim was pulled down on the bed by arms of steel, gladly drowned by the taste and scent and virility of the man. The caresses were more demanding than tender, but they intoxicated him in a way sweeter lovemaking would not have. This was Khan and Khan was a conqueror. To be taken by him was more a triumph than defeat.

Their ragged clothes dropped from them quickly, and Joachim thrilled at the hard, naked flesh against his. Eagerly he roamed the muscled contours, stopping at the groin.

The power of the large body surged and focused in this part Joachim caressed and fondled; he could feel the beautiful force and fury of Khan’s passion centered and thrusting in his grip. As he bent to service the singing flesh with his mouth, Khan rumbled and purred with tiger-like delight.

Aroused beyond bearing, Khan pulled the younger man up beside him and turned him quickly onto his stomach. With hands and mouth, he moved down the smooth back, stroking, washing the skin with his tongue, until he reached the rounded buttocks. His caress slowed there, becoming more slyly seductive, eager for Joachim to be compliant rather than forced. Khan spat on his hand and slid the slick liquid enticingly between the acquiescent legs. His finger sought the opening and discovered a rhythm and pressure that caused Joachim to gasp and push back for more. Khan’s lips nibbled at the younger man’s neck and ears, biting his shoulders with a low growl of passion and burying his face in the fall of gold hair. He let his weight rest over the strong, young back, reveling in the joyous surrender he was being granted.

The first thrust caused Joachim to stiffen with the sharp pain, but Khan’s blood was too heated to allow more patience. He plunged forward, steadying his sexual prey with an iron grip.

Joachim did not cry out. He bit his lip and bore the necessary agony stoically, part of him even enjoying the pain just for the sake of being possessed by this man he worshipped. As Khan increased his pace, his breath a thunder in Joachim’s ear, it became easier. Soon Joachim felt his own hardening, found his own heat in the coital rhythm and the invading pressure, large and pulsing and hungry for fulfillment. Khan drove harder into his body, and Joachim found himself moaning and arching back for each thrust, desire arcing higher than he had ever known it; the organ somehow piercing through his bowels to his very heart.

With one final thrust, Khan froze in the ecstasy of his ejaculation. Joachim felt the liquid pulse of his own seed as it spurted out onto the pallet.

They lay for a long while, slowly finding the path back from nirvana, heartbeats calming reluctantly. Khan finally moved his weight from the young man’s back, but Joachim remained face down and unmoving. Khan lovingly stroked the blond tangles back, trying to see his face.

“Little brother, are you well? Forgive me for causing you pain.”

Joachim lifted his head, smile gentle, eyes bright. He touched Khan’s cheek with a kind of awe. “If pain must precede such glories, I shall always welcome it.”

Satisfied, Khan pulled him into an embrace, with Joachim’s head cradled on his shoulder. “Sleep now, little brother. My Jonathan.”

Joachim slept content, thinking even the loss of a world was worth this.

But the thought came to him in his dreams that Khan was more like Saul than David.

And Saul was a mad king.

 

 

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as a pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
-- Invictus (W.E. Henley)

 

A FAR BETTER THING

Kirk grinned, took a deep satisfied breath, and looked around the crisp new bridge with a bright surge of exhilaration. It was a far more healthy, sound feeling than he had experienced when he had first viewed the redesigned ship or the possessive turmoil in his mind when he had taken her out of drydock. That had been a desperate, hungry defiance, evolved from three long years of feeling ineffectual—and goaded by the memory of the day he had left her.

That day, three long years ago, had been so dark that only now could he look back on it with any degree of perspective. He had left her by shuttlecraft—a masochistic wish to see her one last time—and he had found it slightly ironic to return the same way. He recalled how she looked then, scarred and scorched from phaser burns that had leaked through the screens. A little tattered, a little old and tired. But still a brave lady; still arching over the shuttlecraft with an immense courage and sheer power that had never ceased to awe him. She had been weary and battle-ragged, but still alive. She was a survivor. Few of her sisters could make the same claim. Now he remembered how she appeared just two days ago, contrasting it to that other black day. Her beauty had been so incredible, so exquisite, it had actually been painful. Shining, pure and new, reborn, she lay like a delicate ivory dove in the confining spiderweb of drydock.

. . . And I freed her . . . he thought dreamily. We’re both free now. He smiled to himself, correcting the idea.  We’re all free.

The thought of the Vulcan brought him to an excited, bubbling halt. He swung his chair around to look at Spock—distracted for a second by how easily and gracefully this new one moved; far better than his old chair. He glanced down at it, smiling again. My god, how she’s improved! He ran his hand over the soft leather approvingly. At last I’ve finally got a chair that doesn’t give me a crick in my neck. And to think I really hated the thought of her being changed even a little. To me she was perfect as she was. Almost as if I hated to see her grow up . . .

He turned his attention to the Vulcan again, switching his thoughts dizzily from one love to another. And I have them both! he exulted. Closing his eyes, he breathed a silent prayer of appeasement to any jealous gods for his incredible, inexplicable good fortune. He opened his eyes and observed Spock, until the Vulcan felt his gaze and looked up. Kirk smiled warmly, then turned his chair back to the front, discovering the first and only change he regretted. He couldn’t covertly watch Spock anymore as he had in the past when the science station had been forty-five degrees to his right. It had been very convenient, but it was seldom that the position of science officer and first officer was held by the same man. The designers wouldn’t have understood the necessity. It’s really no less convenient this way, he admitted to himself, . . . except to me. I can’t watch him the way I want. It would be a bit obvious if I turned my chair completely around to stare at him all the time. He recalled the hours he had spent, years past, surveying the Vulcan at work, admiring the black shining hair, the deep eyes, the graceful hands at the sensors. I’ll have to think of an excuse to have it changed back. After all, she’s my ship again.

The very thought gave him a tiny surge of adrenaline. And thinking of Spock was beginning to give him something else. Kirk carefully avoided glancing at his lap. The uniform would hide it anyway, thank god.

He smiled again, happiness like wine bubbles in his blood. We have so much to make up for. Years lost. Or were they? Didn’t we both learn something? I couldn’t have mistaken his meaning a few hours ago when he told Scotty his task on Vulcan was complete. My god, he looked straight at me when he said it! It could only mean . . .

He paused, considering it carefully. Could I be wrong? Did I read him correctly? He went to Vulcan to master his emotions, so what if. . . ? He dismissed the idea easily. No. If that was the case, he would never have stayed with the ship . . . with me. And in Sickbay . . .

He let that particular memory wash over him, warming him with a lazy tingle of expectation. His hand still ached slightly from the crushing grip, his arms still felt shot with the electricity of the moment. Beautiful. Worth waiting for. Maybe even worth losing the ship for. He wasn’t quite sure if they had been in mental contact or if they had simply been so in tune at that second that it only seemed so. The nod they exchanged had been an acknowledgement of mistakes they had both made, and, even more, a silent pact for the future. There was no doubt in Kirk’s mind—he had seen it too surely in Spock’s dark eyes; the affection and simple, pure love brimming and overflowing like a boundless spring, promising everything. And the light had not died or diminished in the past few hours. It was in such contrast to the cold, desolate gleam that had inhabited those eyes when he had first appeared. Kirk rejoiced, bathed in the warmth and life of their new glow. In spite of all that had happened, he was grateful to Vger for giving him that—and for giving him the Enterprise back. He ached at the destruction of the space station and even of the Klingons. It had all been so needless. Somehow he felt slightly guilty that he had gained so very much from Vger. Perhaps Will and Ilia had gained too, but there was no way of ever knowing—or of changing it.

He squirmed uneasily in his chair as he thought about it. Certainly, he had not wished for any of this to happen consciously. But he had been quick and ruthless about taking advantage of the situation, as Bones had so sharply pointed out. And Bones had been right. He had used it, taking the opportunity to bulldoze his way back to command.

But I was right, too! he told himself smugly. Decker would never have been able to handle the situation correctly. He was far too cautious. He wouldn’t have found the guts to enter the cloud.

Kirk’s other voice—the mercilessly honest one, deep inside—whispered insistently, . . . and if it hadn’t been for Will, all your gung-ho, bold courage would have been useless. He gave it what it wanted, not you. You couldn’t out-talk, out-think or trick Vger in the end. At the bottom line, you didn’t save Earth, he did.

Okay, his ego compromised, I accept that. But he couldn’t have done it without me either. I’m the one who got us close enough to Vger so we could understand.

His id remained thankfully silent for the moment, and he let the problem slide away, knowing the subject would pop up again, and he would be forced to deal with it sooner or later. Right now he was far too happy to worry about it.

A call interrupted his musings. “Sickbay to Kirk.”

He reached automatically for the switch on his chair arm, then realized sheepishly that it was on his wrist-band. I’ve still got a hell of a lot to adjust to. “Kirk here. What is it, Bones?”

The more-cynical-than-ever voice came back, “Are you two rooted up there or something? The last shift was relieved an hour ago. I’m not positive Spock’s up to par yet, and I know damn sure that you haven’t slept for thirty-six hours. Do you think you can manage to pull your vitally important carcasses off that bridge long enough to get some rest?”

Kirk grinned and turned around to meet Spock’s lifted eyebrow. He didn’t feel tired, he felt as if he could buzz on for hours. Still running on adrenaline, he told himself sternly. But he couldn’t resist the gleam of mischief he tossed at Spock. He cleared his throat. “You are absolutely right, Bones. But . . . uh, I want a meeting of department heads first.”

“What?!” McCoy yelled in outrage, causing the navigator to spin around in surprise that anyone would speak to Admiral Kirk in such a manner. She was new. Kirk winked at her and she blushed, turning hastily back to her station.

“I want engineering, navigation, communications, weapons, helm and medicine to report to my quarters in twenty minutes. That’s an order. Understood?”

McCoy sputtered for a moment, mumbling something under his breath, then answered, “Yes, Mr. Captain, sir. I’ll never forgive Nogura for getting me back here!”

Kirk chuckled. He swung around and pointed his thumb at the turbolift, still grinning. “Out of here, Spock. Twenty minutes.”

Spock stood, eyes dancing cheerfully with Kirk’s. He nodded and moved to the turbolift. Kirk turned to the communications station, and the operator looked at him blankly. Kirk sighed. Uhura would have had the message off before he had it half completed. “Contact the department heads, Mr. Kaslov. Have them report to my quarters in twenty—no, make that a half hour.”

“Yes, sir. Right away.”

Kirk watched him patiently. He would learn. The Captain stood and took another sweeping look around the bridge. “Ship’s status?” he inquired of the helmsman.

“All systems functioning normally at warp two, sir.”

“Very good, Lieutenant . . . ah, Clark, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.” The helmsman smiled, thinking he was going to like this man, legend or not.

“Slow her to sublight, Mr. Clark. We aren’t going anywhere in particular; no sense in getting there fast. We can save any experiments for tomorrow. Scotty would never forgive us if we goofed something up without him in engineering to nurse her through it.”

“Aye, sir. Sublight . . . point five.” Clark glanced over at the navigator who smiled back. The Captain’s lighthearted mood spread through the bridge like sunshine.

“You have the con, Mr. Clark.”

The helmsman looked up at him, eyes widening. Me? he thought, startled. Sure, I’m ranking officer on the bridge now, but . . . me, controlling this? Just like that? He replied, “Yes, sir,” with as much assurance as he could muster.

Kirk surveyed him with amusement, knowing exactly what was going through his mind—the same misgivings that had flashed through the minds of Chekov and Sulu on similar occasions. Responsibility couldn’t be taught, it had to be learned from experience. It was one of Kirk’s secrets of success. He was a shrewd judge of character and knew from instinct who would be able to live up to the responsibility in the long run. His successes far outnumbered his failures.

He bounded energetically to the turbolift, then paused and caught the helmsman’s gaze. Clark was amazed at the actual twinkle in the Captain’s eye. I’ll be in my quarters if something drastic occurs. I have total faith that it won’t. She’s your baby, Mr. Clark.”

“Y-yes, sir!”

The turbolift doors shut, and the entire bridge crew exchanged an awed, speechless look. They suddenly felt exuberant, keyed up . . . and yet, strangely relaxed and able to handle anything. They had all been slightly tense and on edge at the idea of serving under the renowned “Admiral Kirk”. They all remembered the mythical quote attributed to him when supposedly asked just how good he expected his crew to be: “Excellent is good enough.” Suddenly they all felt excellent.

Kirk entered his quarters and looked around with satisfaction. It was naturally somewhat bare, but he was relieved by this in a way. Decker hadn’t been here long enough to leave an impression. There would be no ghosts of the brief captain’s personality to nag him with guilt. Either·Decker had sent a yeoman to clean out these quarters, or he hadn’t gotten around to really moving in.

In any case, Kirk made quick plans for it. Compared to his old quarters, these were sumptuous. At last he had an office completely separate from his bedchamber. It was about time. There had been occasions when the close proximity had proved a bit embarrassing. He admired the wall-sized view screen; a luxury he considered totally unnecessary, but had privately lusted after. He flicked a switch experimentally and the slowly moving stars appeared, drifting past the ship with a hypnotizing swirl like burning snowflakes.

The door signal drew his attention from the magnetic sight. “Come,” he answered, turning. The door slid open and McCoy entered, hands behind his back, face grim.

“Department meeting, huh?” he said gruffly. “Your timing is just marvelous, as usual.”

“Now, Bones . . .”

The Doctor brought his hand around and handed Kirk a large bottle of brandy. “My prescription for this particular type of briefing.”

Kirk grinned as he accepted the bottle. “My supplier. You’ll make a souse out of me, yet, Bones. This is all you ever give me.”

“It’s all you ever want. But I’ll keep your complaint in mind. Next time you get a necktie.”

“So I didn’t fool you about the meeting, huh?”

“When have you ever been able to fool your doctor? Christine will be along in a minute. She’s messin’ with her hair or something. She’s made a damn good doctor, but I wish to hell she’d make up her mind about her hair style. Blonde, brunette . . .”

Kirk laughed. “I’m glad to hear you’re getting along. It’s important for a chief surgeon to have a good relationship with his staff doctors.” He sat the brandy on the table and turned to face McCoy hopefully. “You are staying, aren’t you, Bones?”

McCoy regarded him wryly. “Almost three years with hardly a word from you, you literally pressgang me back, and now you expect me to cheerfully entomb myself for five more years on this tin-plated Flying Dutchman?”

“Inaccurate comparison, Doctor,” Spock remarked as he entered. Kirk, as usual, had forgotten to reset the lock. “The Flying Dutchman, if I recall correctly, never returned home. The Enterprise did.”

“Is that so?” McCoy retorted. “As far as I’m concerned, this ship has had her share of luck already. I’m not sure if I’m crazy enough to try it again.”

Spock looked at him soberly, but the Doctor noted the glint of humor in the dark eyes. “Hmmmm, I must disagree. In the years I observed you closely, you often displayed many of the clinical characteristics of insanity. In any case, danger is relative. On Earth there is always the possibility of being run over by a land-car.”

McCoy’s mouth twitched, but he managed to maintain a straight face. “So, you want me to believe my life would be safer warping around in this buffed-up rust bucket with all the sweet little super-aliens and Klingons and Romulans and Gorns and god knows what else is out there?”

“I did not say that. But I do think you should cease teasing Jim and tell him you have no intention of leaving the Enterprise.”

Kirk’s euphoric feeling grew as he searched the Doctor’s face, knowing the answer, but needing to hear it out loud before he could accept the absolute perfection of these last few hours.

McCoy dropped his eyes in sudden discomfort. “Well, you don’t really think I’d let you two go off without me, do you? I’ve put you both back together so many times I could do it with my eyes closed. Seems a pity to let all that experience go to waste.”

Kirk felt his joy explode in a roaring laugh. He wiped the tears away and gathered McCoy into a bearhug. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down, Bones.” He stood back at arm’s length with a smile that glowed. “I’m sorry I hijacked you. But it wouldn’t have been the same without you—and I did need you. You always know how to put me back on course, and at least I had the brains to see that I needed that . . . even if I didn’t listen to you before.” He tightened his grip on the arms. “I know we separated on kind of bad terms, but—”

“It’s long forgotten, Jim,” McCoy broke in. He grinned and began rummaging in the cabinet where the glasses were kept. As a man with a true nose for such things, he found it on the second try. “To tell you the truth, I was getting bored silly down there.” He poured a drink for himself and Kirk, then glanced at Spock who nodded with an amused glint in his eye. McCoy smiled appreciatively and poured him one, too. “And, do you know, it’s a funny thing,” he lifted his glass, “brandy just doesn’t taste the same when you’re not in space. Maybe I just need a stiff drink more often.”

They all took a drink, an informal toast to the future. Then the door signal politely interrupted them.

“Thirty minutes on the dot,” McCoy said dryly. “They don’t forget their training, do they?”

Kirk almost choked on his drink. He pushed out his chest with a grin. “They’d better not. It may have been three years, but I’m still as much of a tyrant as I was then.”

McCoy lifted both eyebrows sarcastically at Spock, whose eyes sparkled back in agreement. “Then I had better sit down. I’ll need all the rest I can get.”

Kirk chuckled and hit the door release. Scott, Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, and Chapel entered, all of them but Scott standing at various stages of attention—not quite certain of what to expect.

Kirk regarded them with amusement. “You can all relax. You’re off duty and this is a very informal meeting. I called you here to thank you. You were all very close to me in the past. I couldn’t properly acknowledge it during the previous emergency, but I want you to know I felt your support and appreciated it more than I can say. I also want you to know how pleased I am you are still with the ship.” It was one of the famous Kirk “speeches”, and he warmed to it as he continued. “The Enterprise has the reputation as the finest ship in the Fleet—and having the finest crew. That reputation was well deserved, and it won’t be changed now. It has been said I expect too much of my crew, too much of a ship. But you’ve always given me all I’ve asked and more. It takes more than superior machinery to make a ship. You start out with the best and get better.” Kirk surveyed the group. “If I had had the time to hand-pick this crew, there would have been no changes. You are the best.”

There was a long moment of silence, then Uhura stepped forward decisively. “You know how we feel about you, Captain. We were all so pleased when we heard you were taking command—” she broke off, remembering Decker. “I mean . . .”

Sulu put in tactfully, “Captain Decker was good, sir, but it’s not like having a captain you know you can count on.”

Chekov nodded firmly, feeling his old hero-worship return. The Russian had practically grown up under Kirk’s tutelage, and as far as he was concerned, the man was still the most brilliant commander he had ever known; he didn’t think that would ever change.

Scotty grunted, tired of the sentimentalism. He motioned to the bottle on the table. “Are ye passin’ that oot, or savin’ it fer Christmas?”

Kirk smiled broadly, trying to subdue the growing tightness in his throat. “I think a toast to the new Enterprise is in order.”

None of them stayed very long after the toast and a little reminiscing. In spite of their very real fondness for Kirk, the line he had drawn between himself and the crew was still in existence and still necessary.

After they left, McCoy picked up the nearly empty bottle. He reached to refill Kirk’s glass, then moved to Spock’s, but the Vulcan shook his head. “Ah, come on, Spock. You might as well finish it off.”

Spock hesitated, then held out his glass. “It does possess a distinctive flavor.”

McCoy beamed at Kirk. “I told you we’d corrupt him eventually.”

“Corrupt?” Spock repeated, undisturbed by the Doctor’s teasing. “You are quite aware that this beverage will not initiate intoxication in my system.”

“Pity,” McCoy muttered dryly. “I’ve always thought you’d be quite a sight drunk.”

Spock’s eyebrow rose. “Fortunately, you will never have the opportunity to test your theory.”

McCoy’s eyes softened. “Even sober, it’s good to have you back, Spock.”

Their gazes met, momentarily honest, confessing their mutual affection. Their relationship had always been a strange, semi-antagonistic rivalry, liberally laced with deep fondness. They would never agree on a multitude of subjects—except their love of Jim—but the respect they had for each other went beyond even that.

McCoy looked over at Kirk, who was sitting in quiet contemplation. “You look like you’re ready to fall asleep, Jim.”

Kirk blinked. “No. Not really. I guess I am a little tired.”

“Well, I’m beat. I’ll see you in the morning.” He stood. “By the way, congratulations on your demotion, Captain.”

Kirk smiled. “That sounds a whole lot more enthusiastic than the last time you congratulated me. I like it a lot better myself.”

“So do I. Good night, Jim… Spock.”

“‘night, Bones.”

“Good night . . . Bones.”

McCoy paused at that. He didn’t turn, but smiled to himself before continuing on through the door.

For the first time since they had parted three years before, Kirk and Spock were alone. Really alone.

Kirk took a slow sip of his brandy, wondering how to begin. He wished there was an easy way to skip over· the first inevitably awkward minutes. Spock moved to sit in the chair beside Kirk’s. They both remained silent.

Following an impulse, Kirk dimmed most of the lights, leaving the star-strewn screen to illuminate the room with its glorious brilliance. They watched the drifting stars silently, content and yet expectant.

Surprisingly, it was Spock who finally broke the silence. “Did you miss them?” he asked softly.

“The stars? Oh, yes. There were times when I could hardly bear to look at them. They weren’t the same from Earth, though. Too many lights there; lights that never go out. It dims the stars.” He glanced over at Spock, his vision adjusting to the faint light. “I guess they were brighter on Vulcan?”

“Too bright. It made the disciplines much more . . . difficult.”

Kirk bit his lip, wondering whether he should bring the subject up. He wanted to know what Spock had been through, thinking how worn and thin Spock looked. “It must have been hard,” Kirk said at last. Does he even want to talk about it?

“It was . . . trying at times,” Spock answered hesitantly. “Not only physically. Such strict emotional suppression is extremely painful at first. One must first fully understand what is being suppressed. Once it is understood, it is not easy to forget or put aside. I did not succeed, obviously.”

“I suppose I should say I’m sorry, but I’m not.” Kirk sat up. “I’m sorry if I am what broke your concentration. I know you caught some of my thoughts . . . I’m not sure how, or even why I know, but . . . I didn’t intend to stop you. Not if you really wanted that.”

Spock kept his eyes on the stars. “It startled me to feel your thoughts again… over all that space. I was disturbed by the touch. I thought I had purged you from my mind, but my feelings were too strong. They always were.”

“Are you sorry you didn’t achieve the Kolinahr?”

Spock shook his head slowly. “No, I don’t regret it now. At first the failure, after so many failures in my life, was almost too much to bear. Now I see it differently. Even my father had not been pleased I was attempting the Discipline. I had not expected dissent from him, but he knew far better than I what a dead-end it was. He is a practical man. Logic without motive or direction is useless.”

Spock was silent for a moment before he turned to look at Kirk. “I hoped Vger had the answer to my problem, the solution I had been unable to find within myself. It was ironic to discover it sought the one thing I was attempting to escape.” His expression grew thoughtful. “You were quite correct, Jim, when you told me I would not find peace on Vulcan. I never had before; it was illogical of me to believe that could change.”

“But other things have changed,” Kirk put in hopefully. “With us. Perhaps in our ability to accept how we feel. You weren’t the only one who had trouble with that. I tried, in my own way, to forget you, too. I even convinced myself I had for a while.” He reached out suddenly to take Spock’s hand. To his immense relief, the Vulcan didn’t pull away as Kirk still half-expected him to do. In fact, Spock interlaced their fingers tightly.

“When I first saw you on the bridge,” Kirk confessed, “I thought I must be hallucinating—seeing the one thing in the galaxy I wanted to see. All the old feelings rushed back, full force. You see, I needed you so much right then. Things . . . hadn’t been going very well. In fact, I had just made a nearly fatal mistake with the ship. I was shaken up, wondering if Bones and Decker were right—that I wasn’t the man I was three years ago.”

“And?” Spock prompted, tightening his grip on Kirk’s hand.

“And I’m not. I’m a little older, hopefully a little wiser. Maybe I have lost some of the edge I once had, discovered a few more of my limitations. But I’ve also learned a great deal about myself.”

“You should never have left,” Spock said softly.

“Maybe not. But I couldn’t have stayed either. Not then. It was too much of a, reminder of what I’d lost. I suppose it was foolish to give it all up because I lost part of it.” His eyes held Spock’s. “But you were the most important part. The rest seemed to lose all meaning.”

“Yet you returned,” Spock pointed out gently.

“Yes.” Kirk’s eyes moved back to the stars. “It was almost a compulsion or, as Bones put it, an obsession. There’s too much of me in this ship to give her up totally. I’m afraid that’s one fault I won’t outgrow for a long time. I need her . . . almost as much as I need you.” He shook his head ruefully. “Maybe that’s the most important thing I’ve learned these last couple of days. You seem to bring out the best in me, Spock. Once I knew you were back, I could relax, stop competing with Decker—and Bones was right about that, too. Once I knew you were with the ship again—even considering how you were acting—I could do my job, be the captain of the Enterprise, no more or less. It was enough to know you were there.”

Spock’s voice was low, almost a rough whisper. “I know that I . . . hurt you when I first returned. I regret that I caused you pain. But you expected more from me than I was able to give.”

Kirk nodded. “Yes, when you behaved so coldly on the bridge and later in the briefing room, it hurt. My feelings were right on the surface, easily bruised. But I think I understood how difficult it was for you.”

Spock spoke slowly, trying to explain. “I was trying to cling to the disciplines I had mastered. I did not want you to touch me in any way. But you did… they all did… Uhura, Chekov, McCoy, the ship. When I saw the ship—” He trailed off, unable to express it.

“I know,” Kirk told him with a touch of pride. “Impressive, isn’t she?”

Spock shut his eyes, remembering. “The . . . intensity of emotion I experienced was . . . frightening. Unexpected. For those feelings to return so strongly was a failure to me. It proved the truth of what I had been told. My Human blood was too strong; it called to me. I fought it, fought the feelings you stirred in me.” He opened his eyes and regarded Kirk sadly. “Do you have any conception of what you did to me on the bridge?”

“When I welcomed you aboard? I think so. I wanted to shake you, make you react.”

“You succeeded. It was from that point that I realized l was lost. I could not admit it, however. Would not permit myself to give up after all the struggle. My melding with Vger was a last resort. My only chance to retrieve control.”

“And Vger had no answers for you either,” Ki k remarked.

“On the contrary. It had the answer I least wanted . . . the very fact I ran from.”

“Feelings?” Kirk loosened his hand from Spock’s and lightly traced the calloused palm. “In Sickbay—”

“In Sickbay we both acknowledged our emotions.”

Kirk smiled. “And Bones tried to stop me before I went too far . . . admitted too much. We were both getting too personal at a time when there were more pressing matters to consider.”

Spock echoed the Captain’s smile. “Indeed. The Doctor is very observant. Obviously, he understood the situation.”

“He’s understood for a long time,” Kirk said carefully, watching for the reaction. “In fact, I think he knew the truth before we did.”

Spock straightened. “He knew?”

“In the mirror universe during the meld with the other Spock. He guessed the rest.”

Surprisingly, Spock didn’t appear as upset as Kirk had thought he would be. After considering it a moment, he merely asked, “What is his attitude toward the relationship?”

“He thought we were both fools for running away from it.”

Spock smiled gently. “The Doctor is very astute.” He touched Kirk’s face softly. “This time I have no desire to flee.” He studied Kirk for a long moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was a rough velvet. “You have changed little, Jim. You are still beautiful.”

Kirk felt his color rise but ignored it. He slipped from his chair to one knee beside Spock, touching the dark hair. “But you have changed, Spock. You look so . . . tired… older.”

“I am both,” Spock answered dryly.

“But I can still see the Spock I knew, more so all the time.” Kirk smiled. “Vulcan, heal thyself. You need rest and more food. You’re very thin.”

“We both need rest,” Spock replied.

Suddenly Kirk was uncomfortable. He stood. “You’re right. I suppose we should call it a night.”

He turned to flip off the viewscreen and felt arms encircle him from behind. “Not just yet, please.”

For a second Kirk leaned back into the embrace, heart pounding. He had wondered who would make the first move. Hadn’t really expected it to be Spock. Reluctantly he pulled away, suddenly uncertain.

“Jim?”

Kirk faced him, seeing the question there. He dropped his own eyes uneasily. “I just remembered I haven’t recorded you as first officer yet.” He moved to the communications switch and Spock followed, as if reluctant to relinquish the closeness.

“I believe that can wait, Jim. I am content with my position.” He paused. “Why are you procrastinating?”

“On what?” Kirk hedged.

“On kissing me.”

“Oh.” Kirk’s hand dropped from the switch. “Is that what I’m doing?”

“Obviously. I have never known you to be shy.”

Kirk swallowed nervously, then met Spock’s gaze with sudden steadiness. “Listen, Spock, I love you. I’ve loved you for a very long time. But there’s no way I’m going to push you into anything. The last time it was you who regretted what happened, not I. You once said we are different, and you were right. I have to make myself remember those differences.” He choked back the lump in his throat and turned away. “You took something very precious from me once, and I—I find it difficult to trust you now. That’s the hell of it. I love you beyond reason, but I . . . Something in me is afraid to trust you about this.”

Spock took a step forward. “I was wrong. I admit I was wrong. It was I who was frightened by what happened between us. I made a criminal mistake. But I did believe I was doing it for you at the time. Blocking those memories from you was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I wanted so much for you to remember how it felt, what that time meant to me. The last years we served together became a kind of agony for me, can’t you see that? Because I knew all the time. I wanted all the time. And I couldn’t have you, couldn’t touch you. He touched Kirk’s shoulder, turning him around. “Trust me now, Jim. Believe me, I am far too selfish to go through that again.” He laid an infinitely gentle finger on Kirk’s lips, stilling the reply. “My intention for remaining on the Enterprise was certainly not to give either of us more pain.”

Kirk couldn’t speak. He could feel tears burning behind his eyelids like acid. What more do you want? he asked himself angrily. A contract like you had with Lori? Or one without an escape clause? He’s already gone farther than you ever thought he would. More than half way. Why are you holding back? Still, he felt strangely timid. He moved around the room, idly inspecting it, suddenly evasive with his own answer. “This cabin is . . . terrific, isn’t it?” His voice sounded hollow even to himself.

“Very comfortable,” Spock replied, watching him.

“I—” Kirk swung around, giving up the pretense. “Hell, Spock. I don’t know what’s the matter. Maybe I just don’t know how to begin. I used to be good at seduction, but this is something different. I won’t let it be merely that.”

For a second Spock looked a bit nonplussed. Deliberation was his strong point, not action. Then, like a glimmer of quicksilver, a sparkle of mischief danced in his eyes. “Do you have any objection to being seduced?”

“I . . .” The words died unsaid as Spock walked to him and put his hands on each side of Kirk’s face, lifting it to look into the hazel eyes.

“Perhaps you are too tired,” Spock continued, voice as soothing as honey. “To speak in understatement, this has been a trying day.”

“No,” Kirk said a little shakily, held by the warm hands and the warmer eyes. “We have to settle this now. I don’t think I can sleep without knowing—”

Spock kissed him, settling it. Kirk slipped his arms around him, leaning against the tall body. They held tightly, clinging to this kiss as an end to three years of drought. The love rose between them like woodsmoke, waiting for the blaze to take them.

Finally, Kirk pulled back. “I… I guess that settles it.”

“It was meant to,” Spock replied, smiling, eyes still twinkling. “Have you had the opportunity to see your bedchamber?”

Kirk cleared his throat, regaining his breath and equilibrium. “Uh . . . yes. It has a double bed.”

“Quite practical,” Spock approved, the sparkle growing. “Admirable foresight.”

Kirk choked back a laugh, slightly baffled by the Vulcan’s sudden openness. He led the way to the bedroom. Once there, he turned back to face him. “Spock, may I ask you a question?”

“Certainly. Anything.” Spock moved close and toyed with the opening of Kirk’s uniform.

“Why…? I mean, you seem different. Changed. I never expected you to be so . . .” He trailed off, both embarrassed and aroused by the Vulcan’s hands as he slid them hotly against the Human’s skin.

“Sexual?” Spock supplied, nipping Kirk’s neck. “I have not changed, Jim. Vulcans are extremely sensual creatures, more so than Humans. Have you never suspected that? That is why we have had to repress so much, otherwise it tends to overwhelm us. Why would we go to such extremes of control if it was not necessary? We have much to control . . . Unfortunately, we also tend to overcompensate. Thus, our famed coldness.” A smile curved his mouth. “With a Vulcan, a touch—” His light fingers traced the strong line of Kirk’s jaw and down his throat. “—is enough to arouse. A caress—” His hands removed the top of the suit over the shoulders and sought the muscled chest with lazy sensuality. “—can enflame the mind as well as the body.” He smiled again, eyes glinting hungrily at Kirk’s gasp of pleasure.

In a few efficient movements, he stripped Kirk of the rest of his clothes. The naked Human seemed almost mesmerized by the magnetic dark eyes and knowing hands.

Kirk came out of his temporary daze and pulled Spock’s mouth down to his in delight. Tasting, demanding, devouring the sweet heat of the Vulcan mouth. Tongues touched, teased, promised. Kirk pushed Spock feverishly back on the bed.

After a swirling furnace of caresses, Spock stood and stared down at the waiting Human. He began to remove his own clothing, eyes sweeping, drinking in the sight of Jim’s so-perfect flesh.

“There are touches,” Spock whispered deeply, continuing his oratory as if it had not been interrupted, “that can drive one to heights of exquisite insanity. Vulcans, that is. Humans, I am not sure . . . but it will be worth the experiment. I have known these touches, but I never dared use them. They are for pon farr . . . to increase the receptivity of the bondmate.”

“And what am I?” Kirk choked out.

“Everything,” Spock responded immediately. “On Vulcan, one does not ·ordinarily choose one’s bondmate. They are chosen for you. And you shall be more than bondmate to me. Friend, brother, lover . . . T’hy’la. My father broke tradition and chose my mother. Could I do worse than follow his example? I choose you.”

Kirk froze. He was awed by Spock’s words. Awed, excited, delighted, scared . . . and totally certain. “And I choose you, Spock.”

Spock was naked now, his erection powerfully evident. It seemed like forever to Kirk before Spock sat on the bed, both hands moving to the Human’s face, caressing it so lightly that it was more a breath than a touch.

“Those . . . touches you mentioned . . . “ Kirk whispered.

“You desire them?” Spock asked, voice also hushed and deep; so deep that Kirk shivered, excited by the mere sound of it.

“Yes.”

Spock smiled a secretly feral smile, knowing what they would do to a remarkably tactile man like Kirk. He began running his fingertips with butterfly lightness over the broad forehead, the eyes, the tickling long eyelashes, the short nose, the lips, the cheeks, the jawbone, curving with the ears and combing through the curling hair. Kirk’s mouth opened slightly, taking in a sharp breath.

The feathery, weightless touch moved down the throat to the rapidly rising/falling chest, tarrying at the dark, hard nipples, feeling the rapid thud of the heartbeat through his fingertips. Proceeding down the hard stomach, he enjoyed the tightening of the muscles from reaction.

Kirk trembled slightly at the extreme eroticism of the exploration. It was as if a power exuded from the Vulcan’s fingertips, an electric tingle luring the nerve ends to the very surface of the skin. He took in short gulps of air, head thrown back.

Spock admired the Human’s thick erection as it quivered with need for the touch he refused to give it yet. He turned Kirk over with quick, deft hands and began again at the scalp, working his path down as Kirk writhed beneath him. Kirk pressed against the mattress rhythmically, seeking some relief from the unbearably erotic sensations; his body demanding release.

“Please… Spock…”

Spock approached the buttocks, parting the legs, running his fingers up the inside of the thighs, causing Kirk to arch upward in response. He pulled Kirk on up to his knees, legs still spread, and began caressing the testicles, brushing, grazing, tantalizing until he heard Kirk’s helpless moan. He positioned himself between the widely parted thighs.

Kirk’s head was down, buried in the pillow; uncertain whether to laugh or cry at this torrent of staggering sensations. He knew he was shaking all over and it was useless to attempt control. His mind was seething as hotly as his body, unable to think, hardly able to breath except in short, sharp pants.

Spock stroked his own iron-hard erection between Kirk’s legs, rubbing the exposed testicles and the quivering hardness of the other. The Human moaned again, and this time Spock heard it for what it was—a man so filled with pleasure it was nearly painful. Spock smiled with satisfaction, having achieved the desired result. His own raging desire burst in on him then, held in check far too long. He parted Kirk’s ass even more and sought out the center. Kirk stiffened and cried out at the first thrust. Spock hesitated, hand reaching automatically to Kirk’s head to initiate the meld . . . but stopped.

No. It must work this way first, or we shall always doubt. If we are ever to take each other as men . . . not as Human and Vulcan . . . simply as men, we must know now. No more hiding, no more protecting . . .  He remained unmoving except for the involuntary tightening of his hands on Kirk’s hips.

Kirk lifted his head. “Spock? Please.”

“Jim, it will hurt you. I will stop. I cannot—”

There was a muffled chuckle. “For god’s sake, Spock, don’t stop now! I’m going crazy. Do it, please. I’m not that delicate, honestly. And I want it. . . please!”

With a bright surge of relief, Spock began to move, carefully, cautiously. Kirk bit down on his lip but kept pushing back, hungry for it. Spock moved deeper, harder. His hand reached under to hold and fondle the Human. The passion blazed higher, flowed, splintered, exploded hotter and hotter, wilder, fiercer. They both. lost control, lost thought, lost everything but the clinging hot beauty of the other. The climax drew them inward to their very core, then spiraled outward in an incredible burst that reminded Kirk, even in his ecstasy, of the rebirth of Vger.

Maybe it’s the same thing, Kirk thought dizzily as he fell back exhausted on the bed, with Spock a sweet weight on his body. They call it the little death, but it’s more like life . . . rebirth. He turned over and cradled Spock in his arms. Certainly an affirmation of life, of joy, of . . . Jove. If anyone dares imply what we have together is uncreative, sterile, I’ll have an answer. Such joy and peace and belonging is creation enough.

It was several minutes before either could speak. Spock ran his hand over Kirk’s smooth chest. “You are perspiring,” he commented.

Kirk laughed, wildly amused that this should be the Vulcan’s first comment after such an incredible orgasm. “It’s a habit of mine during sex. And I suppose you aren’t?”

“Of course not,” Spock replied matter-of-factly. “Sexual function is natural, and to waste liquid in such a manner would be illogical on Vulcan. The act itself should be cooling.”

Kirk was still chuckling. “Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to it with me. It happens to be my favorite method of working up a sweat.” He kissed Spock lovingly. “Maybe someday I can get you worked up enough to sweat a little.”

“Indeed? And do you have other plans for me?”

“Lots. One goal in particular. I’m going to find a way to get you drunk.”

Spock raised his eyebrow at that. “Really? I will not ask how you plan to accomplish this, merely why? To what purpose?”

Kirk grinned and pulled him closer, nuzzling his neck. “Just like Bones, I’m curious to see how you’d act. You really should be ‘quite a sight’.”

A bit alarmed, Spock asked, “Are you serious, Jim?”

“Sure. You’ve seen me drunk. Turnabout is only fair. Besides, I think you’d be cute.”

“Cute?” Spock repeated in dismay. The very idea made him shudder. But he decided it would be wiser to drop the subject before Kirk became stubborn about it. They both fell silent, content in the comforting nearness of the other.

Spock finally asked softly, knowing the answer but needing it verbalized, “Are you happy, Jim?”

Kirk kissed his throat, his cheek, his mouth. “Happy? That’s not enough to say. I have everything. I have the Enterprise, my crew. Bones is back—and more than anything else—you. It might take a while for all of this to sink in, but I really hope I never take it for granted. Still,” he added thoughtfully, “If I lost everything else and still had you, I would be happy. Knowing that is fullness enough for one lifetime.”

Kirk kissed Spock again, transmitting his joy. “And you? Are you happy?”

“Yes,” Spock said simply. “I finally am.”

*   *   *

Kirk paced restlessly in front of the young man’s desk. “My appointment was for 0900.”

Nogura’s secretary was immovable. “I’m sorry, Admiral,” he replied implacably. “If you would just make yourself comfortable, I’m certain it won’t be much longer.”

Kirk clenched his jaw in frustration but forced himself to smile politely and nod agreement. He had been waiting forty-five minutes already, easily recognizing this as one of Nogura’s tricks to wear down his nerves. The last time he had been in this office, he had managed to bully his way in anyway, too fired-up to play the old asshole’s games. That probably meant double punishment on this occasion for ignoring the prerequisite flappers a month ago.

He sat down on the couch, repressing a sigh. Today he could afford to wait, and it wouldn’t be wise to start this meeting on a bad note. He’d be as agreeable as hell until he made sure Spock’s reinstatement was approved. Not that they would dare to refuse, but the red tape could take weeks, even months, if Starfleet—or Nogura, rather—wanted to be difficult. All Kirk wanted was to get back to his ship and get out of the solar system again.

The young secretary/aide/flapper looked up from the intercom and addressed Kirk with a professional smile. “Admiral Nogura will see you now, sir.”

“Thank you,” Kirk answered, flashing a smile just as insincere. He pulled open the heavy, antique door and stepped into the office.

Nogura was behind his massive desk, his black eyes sharp and hard, with only a hint of an Asiatic slant. His face was dark mahogany, totally smooth, as if denying age entirely—or as if no emotion had even had the chance to crease the skin with either grief or joy. His age was indeterminate, although he had held this position in Starfleet for as long as Kirk could recall. His hair was still very black; but his movements were slow, almost languid, just as his mind was not. His heritage was an unknown mix of African/Indian/Oriental, and there had been rumors that his ancestors had fought on the wrong side of the Eugenics Wars—an accusation that was totally unproven and unprovable. But to the very marrow of Kirk’s bones, he believed it.

In the course of his career in Starfleet, Kirk had alternately felt in awe of this man, frightened by him, contemptuous of him, respected him, loved him, and hated him more than anyone in the universe. Now, finally, after all these years and innumerable battles fought in front of this desk, he had achieved a state of near indifference.

Kirk met the inscrutable eyes squarely, without qualms. Nogura returned the gaze with the same expression he had worn forever.

“Mr. Kirk.” Nogura said. It was neither a greeting nor an acknowledgement. Kirk had more of an impression of a computer rifling its banks for a missing file, waiting for the data to be pulled into working store. Nogura had called him Mister rather than his rank for as long as Kirk could recall. Kirk had first considered it a leveling device to keep him in his place, but later came to recognize it as nothing more than a convenience. Nogura’s methods of control were far more subtle.

“Good morning, sir,” Kirk said easily.

“It is so good of you to pay me a visit before you give yourself new orders and disappear on us again. I would have missed you terribly—not to mention that lovely multi-billion credit vessel.”

Kirk felt a slight chill. He hadn’t counted on this being a problem. He should have, but he hadn’t. “I was not aware my actions were out of line, sir. The Enterprise was scheduled for a shake-down cruise. It seemed more efficient to continue rather than let the crew wind down again.”

“Ah, yes. The surge of adrenaline one must feel after saving the galaxy. I suppose it is addictive.”

Kirk felt himself flushing and bit his lip surreptitiously to hold back a sharp reply. It was better to let the bastard have his say and get it over with.

Nogura didn’t wait for an answer. “I never got the opportunity to congratulate you on your success.”

 . . . “my boy” . . .  Kirk could hear the words even in the silence. Whether spoken or not, they still hung in the air between them, and were just as infuriating. Like other words never said, and never needing to be spoken. Silent blackmail, unmentioned IOUs.  “They say you’re too young to be a lieutenant/commander/captain, but I will see it is arranged. The rules don’t apply to you—as long as I make the rules. As long as you know who makes them.” . . .

“Of course,” Nogura continued, voice lightly ironic, “if you had not succeeded, I would not have been here to chastise you for your failure.”

I wouldn’t bet on it, Kirk thought angrily. You’d be in hell waiting for me.

Nogura’s face was more impossible to read than a Vulcan’s (especially one Vulcan’s) but his voice was incredibly expressive. He used it like a goad, or more properly, a whip, cutting the desired response from his hapless victim. Kirk had thought he was immune from much exposure, but he squirmed inwardly now, wondering what the point was this time. What did the old bastard want?

Nogura swiveled his chair around to stare out the transparent wall at the back of his office. The view overlooked the spaceport and the bay. The sun was low in the sky, unusually hot and red, almost angry as it slid down the washed out blue. “Taking into account this marvelous success, your little excursion with the Enterprise was duly noted . . . and permitted. Your reward, shall we say, for a job well done.” He turned back around suddenly, confronting Kirk with a voice of ice. “You realize, however, that I was forced to explain this hijacking to the Council. It was difficult, but I persuaded them that you took the correct action.”

“Thank you,” Kirk said dryly. “But it wasn’t necessary. I can speak for myself.” Nogura lifted his hands in dismay, voice dripping honey now. “Of course, you can dear boy. You are exceedingly eloquent. I am often moved by your oratorical talent. But you were not present to explain, were you? I was forced to stand in your place. I was certainly glad to do so, but it was tricky to give an excuse for the absence of a ship with the champagne barely dry on its hull. You robbed them of the chance of having holos taken standing by the bow or waving bon voyage from the dock. All that drearily tiresome public relations that you hate and they thrive on. Politics, James.”

Kirk held on to his temper. He hated it when Nogura used his first name, hated the sensation of the screws being turned. “I think you’re exaggerating. I suppose I should have checked with the base before taking her out again, but I hardly think it was as important as you make it.”

“And I think you are starting to believe your PR, my boy. Always a dangerous step.”

At last he’d said it. Kirk remained silent, afraid of what he’d say if he let anything out.

Nogura picked up the black worry beads that always rested on his desk. He ran them through his fingers, making a clicking sound, as if ticking off Kirk’s sins. “In any case, let us forget the entire incident. You’re right, it is unimportant. Trivial. You’re back now, and all is well. Correct?”

Panic shot through Kirk, a premonition of something to come. He choked it back, unwilling to face it yet. “Yes. The ship is in perfect condition. The warp drive has smoothed out beautifully. She’s ready for active duty. I’m ready to take her out as soon as we get the first assignment.”

The clicking of the beads stopped. So did Kirk’s heart.

The face hadn’t altered, the expression as bland and unchanged as ever. But the electricity in the room snapped with tension. “Sit down, James.”

Kirk hesitated.

“Sit down, James.” Nogura repeated, voice of steel. Kirk sat down, forcing himself to maintain control.

The beads clicked again, slowly, thoughtfully. “Surely you know your job is here. You gave up your star roving days long ago. That would be a distinct step back, James. Ridiculous.”

“I want my ship. That’s where I belong; that’s where I want to be.”

“Want, James?  Starfleet is about service to the Federation, not personal momentary whims. It will pass.”

“No.” Kirk stood, tired of the politeness, tired of being careful. “The Enterprise is my ship. You know that better than anyone.”

“Indeed, I do. I gave her to you.”

It was the first time he’d actually said that. It had been between them all these years. Since the beginning and even before. Nogura’s fair haired boy. It was a joke no longer. It was true, and always had been. No matter that he had earned everything. No matter that he had made it pay a greater dividend than anyone had dared to expect. That he’d fought Gorns and Klingons and doomsday machines, amoebas and invaders without number. Stole the cloaking device, repaired the very fabric of time. No matter. He had to be given the chance first. That first break, and the second, and the third. The push from the top that made all the difference. You could be brilliant in a cave, too, but no one would ever know it.

My god, Kirk thought numbly, I came here to hurry up the paperwork for Spock, and now . . . I’m going to lose my ship again. Why didn’t I see it? Why did I ever think he would let me go this easily?

“It’s time to grow up, James,” Nogura said softly. “Put away the toys. There are better things in your future. No more Enterprise, no more playing captain.”

“Damn you,” Kirk shouted. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

The voice was as calm and serene as the face now. “The man who made you, James. It’s time to call in the debt.”

“There’s no debt,” Kirk snarled. “If there ever was, I’ve paid it back. I am the best captain the fleet has ever had!”

Nogura clucked sadly. “Yes, that’s what your biography says, doesn’t it? I warned you about believing your PR. But I have some later information that might challenge that. It really saddened me to hear it, truly. But we all lose our edge sometime. I imagine I will have to be replaced in a few years. You mustn’t feel badly.”

Kirk froze in the process of rising, not even sure what he planned to do. Leave? Beat the shit out of Nogura? Jump out the window? “What information?”

Nogura flicked on the viewscreen beside his desk. “Captain Decker’s log. It was forwarded to Headquarters—to me, after his . . . unfortunate disappearance. Missing in action? A beautifully loose definition. His log, however, was most interesting and precise.” Nogura looked over at Kirk. “He truly did not like you, did he? Understandable, of course. I never heard you exactly rave about Pike, either. Jealousy is such an amusing condition.”

“Okay, what does it say?” Kirk’s heart thudded.

“He indicates that you were totally inept at command, that you had no idea of the working of the ship, and he even hinted that your ego was totally out of control. Megalomania, I believe, is the term he used. He says that you risked the ship and crew by forcing warp drive before the engines were properly balanced. Is that true?”

“Yes,” Kirk snarled. “It was necessary, dammit. Vger was—”

“Interesting,” Nogura cut in blandly. “And it also states that you ordered an action that would have destroyed the ship if he had not countermanded it. Surely, that could not be true?”

Kirk started to speak but stopped. There was no excuse there. None. It was true and could never be escaped or forgotten.

“I see.” Nogura turned off the screen and picked up the beads again. “So, what it seems we have here is a man who has lost his edge. No one can deny that you were the best at your height, of course. But times change, men change. Thomas Woolfe was so apt in his choice of words. Don’t you agree?”

“No,” Kirk said hollowly. “I made mistakes, but I corrected them. I know what I’m doing now. And none of this changes the fact that I kept Vger from destroying Earth. If I hadn’t—”

“Did you?” Nogura cut in coldly. “According to your log, Captain Decker was the actual force that pacified the computer. All the rest is window dressing. Fantastic, bold action. Most admirable—and perfect to add to your legend. In fact, there is another decoration being propositioned in Council. A new one, created just for you. Extremely flattering, no?”

“Why?” Kirk demanded. “Why are you doing this?”

“I am doing nothing, James, except looking out for your welfare, as always. I don’t like to think I’ve wasted my time following your career all these years. You’re needed here, James. Not out playing good pirate to the Klingons’ bad pirate.”

“I’m not needed here! My god, do you know what crap I’ve done for the last three years?”

“Of course, I know. I also know it is important work. Boring to you, I’m sure, but important. Vital. It is the mortar this civilization is built upon. And mortar is made from filthy mud and straw. But do not despair. There are higher things in your future. A seat on the Council, for one.”

For a second, Kirk was truly shocked. Groomed, indeed. Heir apparent. What shit! “I don’t want your job!” Kirk said furiously. “And I sure as hell don’t want to sit on Council, either. I don’t know where you got that idea, but you’re dead wrong.”

“When it is offered to you, you will take it!” Nogura said confidently. “Your sense of duty would not permit you to refuse. I know you very well, James.”

Kirk stood, rage shaking him. “No. You don’t know me, you fucking bastard. But I know you. l know you’re powerful. I know you can sway the Council with two mealy-mouthed words, but I also know you don’t run it all. You have opposition. Lots of it. Power makes enemies, too. If I go public with this, you can’t take my ship away. I’ve got a little power of my own. I’ve done something tangible. Not behind closed doors, in deals, conspiracies. If I say I want the Enterprise, I’ll get her, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop me. You know that as well as I.”

The wooden beads clicked endlessly, unperturbed by the outburst. “Oh, yes, I know. You will win. You always win, James. I wasn’t a fool when I chose you. You have tremendous popular support. You have all the right attributes; brave, strong, intelligent, beautiful. A hero, and the people love heroes. Even homosexual heroes.”

Kirk’s breath caught in his chest, but he didn’t flinch. “That’s a new one,” he said calmly. “Where did you pick that up, Nogura?”

“Hardly new, James. You and Spock have been an item for years. The rumor was probably started by some spurned yeoman you refused to bed, but it blossomed beautifully. And you must admit; you gave it plenty of fertilizer. Never married? Most captains marry, James. Ego probably. If they have enough to want to be a captain, then they definitely think they should reproduce themselves. Oh, I mustn’t forget you have, haven’t you. David, isn’t it? Still, that was not a public reproduction. Ms. Marcus has been most circumspect.”

“So I’m known queer,” Jim said defiantly, surprised by the news, but unwilling to show it. All these years, and I’ve only had the pleasure for a month. Just my luck.

“Oh, as I said, it’s not important. People love you anyway. Alexander and Hephaestion, you know. Quite romantic. Popular in some crowds.” His voice hardened. “But it does bring up another point. There was another entry in Captain Decker’s log. You left the ship to go after Spock, against regulations, against even common sense. The ship was in danger, and you left it to go after a man who was possibly suicidal.”

“I would have gone after anyone,” Kirk said defensively.

“Would you?” The voice was reasonable now, more dangerous than ever. “Consider it, James. Consider it carefully. Did you worry about Lieutenant Ilia? How many times have you considered crewmen expendable—as any captain must?”

“If my ship is at stake, so is Spock! I’ve proven that before.”

“But are you willing to prove it again?”

For a moment Kirk paused. It was the wrong time to ask that. God, I’ve just got him back. Give me a month, two months. Give me time! How can I say it now, while it’s still so new? While I can still feel the bruise on my ass he gave me last night and love every twinge it gives me? Now that he’s ‘free’ of those fucking chains he wore, now that he’s so alive, so happy, so content for the first time in his whole fucked up life. And now that I’m free of my chains, can forget old pain, forget being too strong to cry. Do you have to make me sign his death warrant now? All I want is a little time when I don’t have to even think about it. Don’t we deserve that much?

“You haven’t answered, James. Or maybe you have.”

Kirk closed his eyes, feeling sick. Leave me alone. Stop it. God, I hate you.

But Nogura went on mercilessly. “You can beat me in this, James. You can win. But perhaps you’ll be losing in the end. Losing more than you can bear to lose. Losing your very sanity. You know you’re not the captain you once were. It’s evident in every breath you take. You’ve even lost that jaunty walk you once had. That’s a pity; I rather liked it.”

Kirk looked up, startled.

The beads clicked faster, almost nervously. “Giving up your ship isn’t the form of castration that you subconsciously feel it is. You’ll still be a man, still be a leader. I don’t want you being what you have been the last two years, either. The girl told me you became impotent.”

“Lori?” Kirk’s voice was a harsh whisper. “Lori told you that?”

“I have . . . followed her career as well. Brilliant girl. I was upset to hear of her death. Pity.”

“I Just bet!” Kirk raged. “Who did you have her assigned to after me?”

The beads broke suddenly, explosively, rolling across the desk with a loud rattle like thunder. One struck Kirk’s cheek.

“Don’t ever speak to me like that again,” Nogura said slowly. “Never.”

The face, never changing, never moving; the eyes always cold, always calculating. Now they were burning hot. And the face was . . .

Kirk stared, confused, shocked. Did it really show some emotion? Had he finally hit a nerve in the nerveless?

Nogura sat back, lacing his fingers together. “You do not have to have the ship to have Spock,” he continued, falling back into the familiar tone and form, as if it had never slipped. “You must separate your masculine image from the ship. It is unhealthy.”

“Damn you,” Kirk whispered hoarsely. “Damn you, damn you.”

“Certainly,” Nogura agreed. “But until then, you must grant me more years and more wisdom than you possess. I want you alive, Kirk. Alive. Odds are not in your favor if you go out for five more years, or even one. Sooner or later, you will lose. Don’t make it your first and last defeat. Lose to me, now. At least someday you will be able to battle again.”

“I hate you,” Kirk said; it was the first time he had said it aloud.

“Of course. But you have heard me.”

“Yes,” Kirk admitted. “May god damn you forever, I’ve heard every word you’ve said.”

“Then I believe that is sufficient. You may go.”

Kirk looked up, trying to still his shaking. “I still want my ship,” he snarled.

Nogura turned his chair back to the window. “See if you tell me that tomorrow.”

Kirk left, knowing with a hollow, aching certainty that Nogura was right. The night would give him the darkest answer of all.

 

MADNESS MADDENED

Joachim woke to, a snapping, scratching sound, muffled by the plexiglass container. He turned his head and watched the creatures burrow back under the sand, still fighting-or mating. With the Ceti eels, the difference was negligible.

Joachim hated them, hated Khan’s morbid fascination with them. They had learned how to control the creatures, how they lived, how to protect themselves from attack. The knowledge had come too late for many of their number, but at least no more would be lost. After Marla’s death, Khan had studied them tirelessly, to the exclusion of everything else. Eventually, as the planet burned itself out, there was no other life left to study. The eels, however, were a marvel of creation. They required virtually no oxygen or water to survive. They lived on like vicious automatons without food or nourishment of any type. The adult of the species did not seem to eat at all. They fought and mated and lashed out at anything within range. The slug-like young remained hidden, embryonic, beneath the scales of the adult until a food supply was found. That was the point in the life cycle when the parasite devoured the host, storing up the energy for the metamorphosis into adulthood. Not long after the young abandoned the parent, the adult would die, thus keeping the number of the creatures at a sustainable minimum.

Joachim closed his eyes, tired of the sight of ‘Khan’s Pets’. He wished he could sleep again—sometimes wished he would never wake up. The thought frightened him for a second; he had never let himself fall into that trap before. If only the days did not seem so empty, so pointless. They had survival down to a fine, though useless, art. None of them could bring themselves to care very much one way or the other. Mindless instinct kept them moving, repairing worn generators, tending the scraggly plants in the hydroponics dome that became sicker and more blighted by the year. They would survive a few more years, perhaps even a decade. The water might last that long.

He felt the body beside him stir, and he rolled into the unconscious embrace gratefully. His spirits raised a degree. As long as Khan was alive, he would not give up. The powerful arms still held the ability to burn new hope into his heart.

With a sigh, Joachim reached out to stroke the silver mane of hair from Khan’s neck. He studied the face worriedly, noting the lines, the creases of sadness and defeat etched by erosion of the spirit.

Where is my prince? Joachim wondered with unbearable sadness. Where is the lion? Khan looked old now, old and worn.

The eyes opened suddenly, still black and burning. The fire rekindled. The face changed, coming alive.

“Joachim,” Khan said musingly, “I had a dream.”

“Yes?” He kissed Khan lovingly. “Was it of Earth?”

“No.” The black eyes closed in concentration. “I saw you. There were showers of fire all around and the screams of my people.” The white teeth bared in anger. “And I saw Kirk. He was dressed in crimson, like a king.”

Joachim put a cautioning hand on Khan’s arm. “Don’t—”

Khan opened his eyes and smiled. He pulled the younger man to him fiercely, taking his mouth in a rough kiss. Joachim gave himself to the embrace gladly, accustomed to the near-brutality of Khan’s lovemaking. There was tenderness even in the bruises. A warrior’s love.

Afterward, Joachim lay limp and drained, pleasure and pain still echoing like fading notes along his nerves. Khan stood and began dressing quickly, with a purposefulness that made Joachim suddenly wary.

“Khan?”

The man turned back to look at him. “Come, Joachim. We have much work to do.”

With an effort, Joachim sat up and reached for his own clothing. “Work, Khan? I do not understand.”

“You will see, little brother.” The strange light in Khan’s eyes worried Joachim even more.

A short time later, Khan had gathered the survivors of the Botany Bay around him. For once, they seemed interested, catching a hint of the fire in Khan’s mood.

“We must prepare,” Khan said slowly, raking his gaze across each face. “We must find a means of protecting ourselves.”

“From what?” Joachim asked calmly. He remained in the back, leaning against one of the bunks. A strange uneasiness made him keep his distance.

Khan’s face set in grim lines, but his eyes were too bright, almost exulting. “From Kirk.”

“Kirk?” Joachim paled, suddenly feeling weak. He took a step forward, wanting to stop this before it went further, before it swallowed Khan.

Khan held up his hand, halting the blond. “Yes, Kirk! He will come. I was foolish not to see it. Eventually he will have to see his handiwork. How can he rest until he knows he has killed me? Or, like a warden, return to check on his prisoner in hell? He will return, and we must be ready for him!”

“Khan, listen to me.” Joachim’s tone was quiet, reasonable. “Kirk has forgotten us long ago. He will never return here.”

Khan’s eyes blazed. “He will never forget me!”

Taking a deep breath, Joachim tried again, almost begging, “Please, my lord. This is pointless. You are fighting a wisp of memory, a ghost. Let all these years swallow your hate. It will destroy you, not him.”

The cold eyes chilled him. “You are ready to rule here, Joachim? You are prepared to overthrow my power?” The icy words whipped him.

Joachim stepped back quickly. “No, my lord. I always follow you. I just want—”

“Then follow me now and be silent!” He waited a moment until Joachim bowed his head in acquiescence, then turned back to the others, satisfied. “When Kirk returns, he must not find us. We will find him first.”

“But they have sensors,” Rand pointed out logically.

Khan smiled. “We shall build a shield to prevent their sensors from finding us. That is something they would not expect from ‘barbarians’ such as ourselves.” He shut his eyes and concentrated. “I . . . remember . . . the diagrams . . . yes . . .” He opened his eyes, triumphant. “It will be difficult. We may have to cannibalize some of the life support systems, but we can construct a small device, enough to conceal the shelter and the area around. More wind generators will furnish the power.”

Joachim remained silent. He stared at Khan, feeling lost and empty. He is mad, he thought dully. He is totally mad. I have lost him to madness.

Khan was glowing with purpose and excitement, the insanity growing like a cancer, beginning to burn him away with hate, but granting him the illusion of new power.

“I shall have my revenge on you, my old enemy!” His cry was bold and almost happy. It was hard to see past that blaze of life to the aging madman that lay behind it all.

In the back of the room, very quietly, Joachim began to laugh. Part of his mind recognized it as the very edge of hysteria, but suddenly it didn’t seem to matter. Nothing mattered. He would help Khan build his windmills and help him tilt at them. Help him plot his great revenge against a man who had probably forgotten their very existence.

Joachim laughed harder. After all, what possible difference could insanity make in hell?

 

 

‘Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn,
at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their
various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if will, like so many
ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their
match. What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll
do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I am demoniac,
I am madness maddened!
-- MOBY DICK (Herman Melville) Chapter 37

 

 

                                       AGE OF FOOLISHNESS

The sunset glimmered across the sea, melting in warm ribbons over the soft swell of waves. It was serenely beautiful but Kirk was only mildly appreciative. When he had first moved into this apartment, nearly seven years ago, he had felt certain he would never tire of this view of the Bay. But, more often lately, the peaceful vista only made him restless and uneasy. He felt oddly trapped, confined by the circling arms of the shore. The sea had always held a special meaning for him, a promise of freedom and excitement. All of that had managed to fade to little more than an illusion as time passed. As he watched the sea now, it rested calm and placid within its boundaries, lapping almost tiredly against the seawall.

Kirk turned away impatiently, fleeing from the lovely but constricting view. He suddenly longed for a storm, something angry and violent to bring back the mystery.

He stopped himself before he poured out another brandy. If he continued at this pace, he would be smashed long before Spock got here. The Vulcan was always patient with his moodiness, but there was no reason to subject him to drunkenness as well—especially on his first night home.

Kirk knew from experience that as soon as Spock walked in the door, he would be all right. He simply wasn’t very good at waiting, in spite of all the practice he’d had in the last few years. This last separation had been the longest one they had had—three months that seemed more like three years. Kirk had kept busy with his duties and had even gone off-planet himself a couple of times, but it hadn’t assuaged the emptiness he felt. Each time Spock’s absences seemed longer and the time they had together shorter.

Not that Kirk felt he had anything to complain about. They were both doing what they chose to do, and the time they did have was more precious and satisfying than ever before. After all, he could hardly expect Spock to give up his teaching post at the Academy that he enjoyed so much—even if the field work with his cadets often took him away for months. Spock had discovered that teaching came as natural to him as it had to Amanda. He was good at it and he loved it.

Kirk’s reasons for remaining in his position as an Admiral were less clear cut even to him. At the time of his decision, it had seemed the only possible course and, as much as he hated to face it now, the easiest. Nogura’s brutal logic had cut him too sharply to deny. And as long as he had Spock, he truly felt he could handle anything. Even pushing paper seemed bearable. Of course, it hadn’t been that bad. In fact, he had imposed a few conditions on Nogura before he agreed to return to his position at Headquarters. He had demanded more freedom of action, occasional assignments offplanet, and time and equipment for experimenting on his own projects. A computer console was only a step above being tied to a desk, but it was an improvement. Nogura, always a master manipulator, knew when it was wise to bend and was consummate in the art of making a defeat more palatable to the defeated. Kirk could travel when he wished, making inspections, touring installations, aiding in diplomatic missions. Beyond that, he was the one most often sent to iron out difficulties where an on the spot decision was necessary. After his success with Vger, Kirk’s power with Starfleet and the Council was such that his decisions were seldom questioned.

On the whole, Kirk decided his life was more comfortable than it had ever been, and he kept telling himself that, over and over. Inside, he was never quite convinced. Nor had he been able to convince McCoy, or to a lesser extent, Spock. McCoy had been totally dumbfounded at Kirk’s sudden switch. He didn’t remain quiet long, however. The only thing that managed to quiet his howls of outrage and open disbelief of Kirk’s vague reasons was the fact the Enterprise was not put back on active duty. The ship was made a showcase, a model for Starfleet public relations. She was used to ferry diplomats, used for training missions, and most of all to impress Council on the need for updating other vessels. Eventually she would go on with the work she was built for, but not until she had been squeezed for every drop of publicity value possible. The expense was too high to risk her in deep space too soon.

With this fact in the back of his mind, McCoy huffed and puffed and bitched steadily through the years, but didn’t worry as much as he might have. He knew Kirk had a special attachment for this particular ship but could never have stood the thought of commanding her except as a working vessel, not as a Sunday captain. He still firmly believed Kirk should have taken another ship, but his complaints on that score were bearable.

Spock had said nothing about Kirk’s decision. He’d accepted it, adapted to it. But the dark eyes had read Kirk far better than he knew.

Kirk knew his life now was good, but also knew it was not good enough. Nogura’s manipulation of him still rankled, and he had admitted to himself years before that he should have fought him. Now it was too late. He’d missed his chance and now he had to live with it. Kirk had never been a man who took the course of least resistance, but now he found himself sliding along the easiest path. When he thought about it, it made him furious with himself. He tried not to think about it too often.

He couldn’t quite pinpoint when it happened, but somewhere along the way he seemed to have lost his youth. No, he corrected himself, not youth . . . the spirit of youth. The urge to be moving and shaking the universe, the craving for excitement had dampened to embers. It twinged in him now and again, making him itchy and restless, but so far he’d managed to shrug it off.

If nothing else, he told himself wryly, I’ve finally got all the time l wanted to walk on that damned beach. But he found that he rarely wanted to.

When Spock was with him the problem usually vanished. It was the other times, when he was alone, that he felt the unsettled spirit within him struggle for air. It was ridiculous. After all, hadn’t he had enough excitement for one lifetime? As his peers in rank liked to remind him, he had started too early: a captain at thirty-two, an admiral at thirty-seven. It was unheard of. And where could he go from up? All of them had been in their late forties before they had even begun to command a starship of the caliber of the Enterprise. He wasn’t oblivious to the touch of rancor in their voices when they slapped him on the back and told him it was high time he settled down. “Give someone else a crack at the glory!”

Kirk recalled Daystrom’s problem of being a ‘boy wonder’. He understood it very well. But he refused to fall into the same pattern; the trap that had driven Daystrom mad. He wouldn’t try to recapture past glories and make others suffer in the process. He’d come too close to that when he took command from Will Decker. The mistakes he had made still caused him to cringe.

Nogura hadn’t been wrong. It was better that he had gotten out when he lost his edge. Missing his old life was only natural, he had expected to. But he hadn’t expected the emptiness to last this long.

Kirk shook his head, dismissing the thought. He was a happy man. He had Spock, and Spock would be home soon. It was only when the Vulcan blithely took off without him that the discontent set in.

Kirk chuckled at the irony of it. Who would have believed that the day would come when Spock kept such close touch with the stars while his captain sat at home by the fire?

Irritated by his morbid mood, Kirk changed his mind and poured himself the brandy anyway. He knew he was being absurd—and yes, a little jealous. If he was honest with himself, he knew he resented the time Spock spent on his job, and yet he would not want him to give it up. He was far too pleased to see how satisfied and serene his friend had become. Either his time on Gol or Vger, or a combination of both, had helped Spock to settle the warring factions in his soul once and for all. The new serenity and stability glowed from Spock, washing those around him with a gentle wave of peace and calm. In Kirk’s heart, he felt Spock had achieved the Kolinahr in a way the Vulcan masters never could. Not by purging his emotions, but by integrating them with all the positive things in his nature, tempered by intelligence and logic and wisdom. Spock was one of the few truly wise people Kirk had ever known. At times he felt like a child in his presence.

Kirk grinned at the thought. There were a lot of other times when he felt very, very adult. Beautiful passionate nights . . .

Before Kirk’s amorous thoughts could go further, he heard the sweet sigh of the apartment door opening. He straightened quickly and set the glass on the table, face brightening in anticipation.

Spock entered from the alcove, looking tall and broad in his deep red uniform, dignified and graceful as a panther. He stopped when he saw Kirk and smiled, his eyes warm and loving. “Jim.”

Kirk moved forward quickly, wrapping his arms around the narrow waist and hugging him happily. “Spock. What the hell took you so long?”

Spock pulled back a little. “But I am early.”

Kirk laughed. “It never seems that way.”

Spock smiled again and pulled the Human close to him, kissing him lightly. “You’ve never been known for your patience. How have you been?”

“Lonely.”

Spock held him tighter. “You need not have been. You could have come with me.”

Kirk cut him off before he could say more, shaking his head and rubbing his cheek against the soft material of the maroon jacket. “It’s not my style. We’ve talked about this before. I can’t follow you around like a puppy. Anyway, you’re back now, so let’s forget it.”

For a long time they simply stood there, content just to hold each other and feel the solid reality of the other’s presence. Finally, Kirk pushed back enough to unfasten the flap of the Vulcan’s jacket. “You might as well get comfortable.”

Spock pulled off the jacket obligingly, draping it neatly over a chair. “Seeing me in a captain’s uniform still offends you, I see.”

Kirk scowled but saw the teasing light in the Vulcan’s eyes and relaxed. “Not as long as I still outrank you, mister.”

Spock smiled. “The only time I care to be equal is when our uniforms are off.”

Kirk chuckled appreciatively. “Do you want a drink?”

“Yes. A brandy, please.”

The Human presented an expression of mock alarm. “That will make three drinks in six months, Spock. My god, I’m turning you into an alcoholic!”

Spock settled comfortably into a chair by the fireplace. “As Dr. McCoy is so fond of saying, ‘I have mellowed’.”

“Ummm.” Kirk poured a healthy dose into a glass and added a dash more to his own before joining Spock in front of the fire. “You get any more mellow and Sarek is liable to disown you again.”

“Mother would not let him,” Spock replied complacently. When Kirk handed him the glass, he caught the Human’s hand and held it a moment, suddenly serious. “I am happy, Jim.”

A lump tightened in Kirk’s throat at the beautiful openness of Spock’s feelings. He had worked so many years for this, and it was a gift he would never take for granted. “I know,” he whispered, freeing his hand to stroke tenderly down the lean cheek.

“I wish that you were,” Spock added, still serious.

Kirk shook his head ruefully and dropped into the chair beside Spock’s. “You and Bones never give up, do you? I am happy, damn it. In fact, I was just thinking that when you came in. I’m too old to do handsprings to prove it.”

Spock didn’t reply for a moment. He took a cautious sip of the liquor first, then commented with a deadpan expression, “Yes, at your advanced age you have to be extremely careful. The bones are brittle.”

In spite of himself, Kirk laughed. “Okay, I walked into that one.”

“You could strain your back,” Spock continued, nodding slowly. “Yes, I can see you are wise to consider handsprings out of the question.”

“Okay, okay. You’ve made your point. And you, of all people, should know there isn’t a damn thing wrong with my back!”

“Or any other portion of your anatomy,” Spock added lightly, gaze slipping over the Human appreciatively.

Kirk lifted his glass in a teasing salute. “For a mellowed-out Vulcan, you look pretty great yourself.”

They smiled into each other’s eyes, and Kirk felt the sweet warmth in his chest expand, spreading through his body in tantalizing waves, a combination of the brandy and the caressing name in Spock’s eyes. The heat seemed to shift to his thighs, and he felt his cock swelling deliciously ln reaction. He wasn’t really hot yet, just pleasantly titillated with, anticipation.

“Hey,” he said softly, “I love you.”

The Vulcan didn’t need to answer. It was all there to read so plainly in his face The touch of those warm brown eyes was almost enough to make him come in his pants.

The sun had set now, and Kirk hadn’t bothered to switch on more lights. The fire flickered in the darkness, casting muted light and shadows in an erotic rhythm.

“Have you had dinner?” Kirk asked softly, not wanting to break the quiet mood.

“It can wait,” Spock answered, just as softly.

Before either of them could move toward the other, the door chime announced a visitor. Cursing under his breath, Kirk went to answer it.

McCoy breezed into the apartment like an unwelcome relative, totally oblivious to the fact he wasn’t wanted—or, more accurately, unconcerned as to whether he was or not. He nodded cheerfully to Jim and addressed the Vulcan, “I figured I’d find you here, Spock. I heard you were back. How did your cadets do on the survival test?”

“News travels fast,” Kirk mumbled, but went to pour a third drink which McCoy accepted as his due.

“They acquitted themselves quite well, actually. All of them seem prepared for the next step in their education.”

“Yeah, I sat in on your debriefing earlier today.”

Spock’s eyebrow rose in surprise. “Indeed? I was unaware of your presence.”

“Oh, I sat in the back, just kinda lookin’ things over. Lord, those kids are awful young these days. I’d forgotten just how young they could be.”

“The class I have now are particularly gifted students,” Spock explained. “They are advanced beyond their normal age groups.”

McCoy looked skeptical. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

Kirk bristled. “Wait a minute. I started out like that.”

McCoy rolled his eyes. “That’s Just what I mean.”

Kirk glared at him. McCoy ignored it and continued, “You know, Spock, I thought I might just join you on this trip.”

“That is surprising news.”

“Waal,” McCoy drawled, “things are gettin’ a little boring around here. Time to take a short vacation from my retirement.”

Kirk’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “I thought you were glad to have your feet on solid earth again? No more transporters, etc., etc. ad nauseum.”

“I changed my mind,” McCoy replied cheerfully. “Besides, nothin’ much can happen on a little three week training cruise. Just be a nice stretch of my legs.”

“You will be most welcome, Doctor,” Spock said quickly, before Kirk could speak. “Commander Sulu has also volunteered to take the helm for this mission. It is most gratifying.”

“You know, I’m kinda lookin’ forward to going out again. I never thought I’d say it, but I really miss it sometimes.” He shot a meaningful glance at Kirk, who looked sour but didn’t speak.

The Vulcan was also watching Kirk, waiting for a reaction. Feeling both pairs of eyes upon him, Kirk maintained a perfect poker face, too stubborn to let them read what he was thinking. He raised his glass in a salute. “Well, here’s to a pleasant journey for all of you.”

Kirk drained his glass in one burning gulp.

McCoy winked at Spock and did the same.

 

*   *   *

McCoy didn’t need any coaxing to stay for dinner, but he left shortly after. Kirk wasn’t sorry to see him go for many reasons—not the least of which was the uneasy sensation that there was a conspiracy afoot. Something felt out of kilter when Bones and Spock got on so well together.

They had practically ignored him during dinner, discussing the cadets, the training mission, and the pros and cons of on-duty education at such a young age. McCoy held that it was too much pressure too early, long before the individual could develop the maturity to handle it, and that it was a mixed blessing even if they succeeded—or perhaps more damaging if they excelled for they were then pushed on to even greater responsibility. Spock maintained that each case was special and to delay the potential of an individual, merely because they had not attained the age common for such accomplishments, was illogical.

Kirk managed to change the subject as quickly as possible in anticipation of McCoy using him as an example of goals achieved too early. It wasn’t a topic he cared to discuss at the moment—not that either Spock or McCoy seemed interested in his opinion at the time.

Once the Doctor had left, they settled down in their customary places in front of the fire and talked of inconsequential matters until the fire began to die down. Kirk knelt on the hearth to stir the coals until the flames danced high again.

Instead of moving back to his chair, he remained on the rug, sliding back until he could brace his back against the footstool where Spock rested his long legs. He leaned his head back against the Vulcan’s knee and felt the Vulcan’s fingers stroke through his hair. The firelight flickered over their faces in quiet oranges and golds, the gentle crackle and hiss of the flames added a comfortable background score.

Kirk tucked his hand under the lean thigh and rubbed his cheek contentedly against Spock’s pant leg. He felt relaxed and sleepy. The touch on his hair and on the back of his neck was pleasantly erotic, but the arousal was unhurried, gradual.

The tips of Spock’s fingers started to stroke Kirk’s throat, to trace his ears, and began to massage the tenseness from his shoulders.

Kirk slid his hand farther under Spock’s thigh, between the long legs moving up slowly until it rested on the growing bulge beneath the black material. He teased it lightly, his own cock swelling in response as he became more excited, but still feeling too lazy to suggest moving to the bedroom. Spock seemed content to spend the night just playing with Kirk’s hair.

“I must admit that I am extremely pleased with the caliber of cadets in this class,” Spock commented conversationally.

Kirk glanced up at him, annoyed that Spock should be thinking of something else when they were on the verge of making love.

Spock continued without noticing, “Mr. Scott’s nephew is in the engineering section. He has obviously inherited mechanical aptitude.”

“That’s nice,” Kirk answered flatly.

“Lieutenant Saavik be an adept commander someday. I feel she has—”

“Do we have to talk about this?” Kirk cut in impatiently. “Between you and McCoy, I’m beginning to think you adopted these kids.”

Spock fell silent.

Kirk shook his head. “I’m sorry, Spock. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It hasn’t been a good day—until you got home, at least.”

“It doesn’t matter, Jim. I suppose I have been boring you with details. However, this doesn’t make it a very auspicious moment for me to make a request of you.”

“What is it?” Kirk straightened up.

“My cadets are taking the Kobayashi Maru in two days. I wondered if you would agree to grade their performance.”

“I thought Connoly usually took that job?”

“He will be on Starbase V for a conference for the next few weeks. I can, of course, have someone else assigned, if you really don’t wish to—”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll do it. My calendar is clear for the next couple of weeks. I wasn’t sure if you would be going back out for a while and I wanted to be free . . .” He trailed off.

Spock put his hand on Kirk’s shoulder. “The training cruise will not last long. Perhaps we can both take a vacation when I return?”

“Yes,” Kirk said absently, “that sounds good.”

Spock stood and reached his hand down to Kirk. “Come. Let us go to bed, Jim.”

They made love with a gentle passion but it somehow lacked the intensity of their usual reunion. Spock had the impression that Kirk’s mind was elsewhere. He didn’t attempt to draw him back, knowing the trouble in Kirk’s heart and also knowing the cure was nothing he could give him tonight.

They lay for a while after, still touching, and Spock could feel the tension in the Human’s body, unrelieved by the sexual release. Finally, Kirk rolled away and stood. He pulled on a robe and moved around the room aimlessly, picking up objects and putting them down. Then he jerked back the drapes and looked out.

The moonlight flowed through the window, illuminating Kirk’s face. His expression was restless and dissatisfied. Spock propped his head on his arm to watch him, waiting patiently for Kirk to settle down and return to the bed.

“I wish it would storm,” Kirk said suddenly. “It never storms here, just drizzles. I miss the feel of it, the power of the lightning and thunder. Shakes things up a bit. I’m so tired of all this blandness.”

Spock smiled knowingly. “I doubt that it is merely the climate that is disturbing you, Jim. Perhaps it is a storm within yourself which needs releasing.”

Kirk looked at him sharply, but bit back a reply. He shrugged. “Maybe you’re right. I’m beginning to think I need something” He came back to the bed and sat down on the edge. “Spock,” he began seriously, “in all this time, you’ve never once came right out and told me I was a fool for giving up the Enterprise. But I know you thought it was a mistake, didn’t you?”

The dark eyes twinkled with quiet amusement. “Commenting on the fact would not make it less of a mistake nor change what has been. I will save my opinion for when it will serve a purpose.”

Annoyed, Kirk looked away. “If you thought I was wrong from the beginning, why didn’t you try to talk me out of it? McCoy certainly had his say.”

“And how effective were his protests?” Spock countered.

Kirk sighed. “Okay, so I’m a stubborn ass. But I might have listened to you. Instead, you just kept saying that it was my decision.”

“It was, Jim. I could not choose your way. Each person must meet his destiny by his own path. If led there, it means nothing.”

Kirk thought briefly of Nogura, but dismissed it uncomfortably. Instead, he grinned and said, “Somebody should tell Bones that. He’s been trying to run my life since five minutes after I met him.”

“Perhaps it is due to that quality you exude at times.”

“What quality is that?”

“A Iittle boy lost.”

Kirk chuckled. “Thanks. That builds up my confidence wonderfully. Besides, that wouldn’t effect Bones. He just likes to meddle.” He leaned back on the bed against Spock, folding his hands behind his head. “In any case, it’s a little late to be worrying about any of this. There’s no going back; I have to go forward.” He sighed again. “Really I’m not all that dissatisfied. I always seem to get a little morose around my birthday. The sands of time and all that.”

“Illogical,” Spock chided gently. “You are still very young.”

“In Vulcan years, maybe,” Kirk mumbled. “I don’t know, Spock. I just don’t feel young. Not for a long time now.”

Spock took Kirk’s face in his hands. “Will it help to know that you are as beautiful as ever?”

Kirk smiled, warming to the touch and the mood. “Exaggeration.”

“Never.” He smiled back. “Or only when necessary.”

Their lips brushed, then Kirk pulled back to meet the Vulcan’s soft eyes. “God, I’ve missed you.”

“And I you.”

The hazel eyes sparkled. “What would you calculate the odds on your making me forget my age and my occupation for a while?”

Spock ran his fingers down Kirk’s chest and across his ribs, causing the Human to shiver with delight. “Judging from my success in the past, I should say they are excellent.”

Kirk laughed softly and let himself be enfolded in the Vulcan’s arms

 

OUT OF THE PIT

“Where may I find James Kirk?”

There was no answer from either of the kneeling men. Khan shook his head sadly. “I admire your bravery, gentlemen, but as the minutes go by you will find it is all very academic. To disobey or refuse to answer my questions creates tension in your bodies. The creatures do not like this tension. It subtly alters the brain waves and makes them uncomfortable. In turn, they will make you very uncomfortable. Now, where is James Kirk?”

The Captain shuddered, fighting the growing pain that flowered in his brain. “We don’t know where he is. Why should we?”

“Then he truly did not order you to find us here?”

“No. I’ve never heard any of this before.”

Khan exchanged glances with Joachim. He could read reproach in the younger man’s eyes, but the loyalty was stronger. Khan made a quick gesture with his hand. “No matter. If he does not seek me, I shall seek him. Where is he?”

“I told you, we don’t know!” Terrell groaned at the increasing pressure.

“Not good enough,” Khan snapped. “You can find out with your computers. That is a mark of your brave civilization, this ability to keep track of people. It should not be difficult to find him. We will go to your ship. Call them and have us . . . what was it? Ah, yes. Have us ‘beamed’ aboard.”

“No, I won’t.” But he bit his lip as the agony in his mind sharpened. Chekov whimpered beside him.

“You will, Captain,” Khan said patiently. “You will. We have waited for a very long time. We can wait a little longer.

Terrell gasped at the clawing agony, struggled to maintain control. Chekov had fallen forward, screaming. The minutes passed and there was nothing left but the pain, growing, growing . . .

“I . . . please . . . stop . . . stop!” Terrell screamed out at last, clutching his head and writhing frantically, as if trying to escape its hold. “I’ll call the ship!”

“Excellent,” Khan said, smiling. “I was certain you would see it my way.”

Immediately the pain eased and both men were able to relax. Khan motioned to one of his people. “Give him the communications device. And remember, Captain, any resistance or tricks on your part will bring back that pain and far worse.”

He turned to the others. “Have your weapons ready. There should be only two or three crewmen in the transporter chamber, and they should be unarmed. Once we are all on board, we will take the ship from there.” His voice dropped to a private whisper. “Then I shall find James Kirk.

 

SEASON OF LIGHT

Kirk felt the bleak touch of loneliness close in around him. He could have asked Bones to stay, but the Doctor saw too much and asked too many questions. It was his birthday, dammit, and if he wanted to mope, he would mope in peace and quiet!

McCoy knew as well as he that it wasn’t just his birthday that contributed to his melancholy. Nor was it only the fact of Spock leaving again. It was something more basic and less admirable.

They were taking his ship.

It was only for three weeks, and it certainly wasn’t the first time the Enterprise had been out without him, but it hit closer to home this time. They were all going. Bones, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty . . . He couldn’t stop the childish feeling of abandonment.

Kirk shook his head, feeling ridiculous for the possessiveness that refused to fade even after all these years. She was no longer his ship. Why was it so hard for him to accept that? Perhaps because, in the true sense of the word, she had belonged to no one else since he had left her. She had been used for experimental designs and undergone one overhaul after another trying to achieve perfection—and once reaching it, she was more of a showcase than a working vessel. Kirk thought it was a criminal waste of the ship’s potential—but he had never been able to bring himself to urge Starfleet to assign her a permanent captain. It would be too much like watching the marriage of a lover he had never released from his heart. Even if he believed he was not good enough for her he wasn’t prepared to totally give her up either.

Kirk tried to relax, hoping this restlessness would pass as it usually did. It had been an interesting day. Grading the Kobayashi Maru and seeing the disappointment and chagrin in young Saavik’s eyes at her defeat had taken him back to his own youth, his own fury at his helplessness—and his stubborn determination to win, rules be damned. It seemed so very long ago. Had he really been that brash young man? Sometimes he felt like a different person altogether.

Hiding . . .  McCoy’s words drifted back to him, mocking and bitingly truthful. He knew he was hiding, had been for years. But didn’t he have the same right to uncertainty and insecurity as anyone else? He had always recognized his flaws—vanity, temper, impulsiveness—but maturity had magnified his awareness of them. Where he had once used them as tools to succeed, now he curbed them. What could be termed charming idiosyncrasies in a bold young man, were not always as attractive in a middle-aged Admiral.

Kirk was so trapped in his morbid train of thoughts that he was oblivious to the light hiss of the door lock releasing.

“Jim?”

Kirk spun around, startled. “Spock!” His spirits rose immediately. “I didn’t think I would see you tonight. I thought you were going directly to the ship.”

“I have just come from there. Lieutenant Saavik seems to have everything under control. My presence was unnecessary. In any case, I wanted to see you again before I left.”

“I’m glad. But it’s only going to be three weeks this time. That won’t be so bad.”

“I find it difficult to leave you, nonetheless.”

Kirk’s eyes sparkled. “You’ve never said that before,” he remarked softly.

“I was under the impression you knew it.”

Kirk smiled. “I did, but it’s still nice to hear. My ego is as tender as anyone’s.”

“No one is perfect,” Spock quipped lightly, smiling as he recalled Saavik’s reaction to the same statement earlier. “I am pleased you liked your present.”

“The book? Yes, I started reading it, but I’m afraid my mind was elsewhere. McCoy stopped by for a while.” He grimaced. “My usual birthday lecture.” He picked up the pouch from the table and took out the spectacles. “This was his present.” He handed them to Spock who inspected them curiously before giving them back. Kirk perched them on his nose and peered at Spock owlishly. “Cute, huh?”

Spock held back a smile. “Actually, I find them rather endearing. Perhaps it is the Doctor’s none-too-subtle method of warning you not to take yourself so seriously.”

Kirk shrugged and slipped them back into the pouch. “They work, anyway. At least I can make do until I find time to have cornea replacements.”

“I shall be most perturbed if the operation alters the color of your eyes,” Spock commented thoughtfully.

Kirk didn’t answer, thinking to himself, When your body starts falling apart, you take what you can get and are grateful. He grabbed up the bottle containing the electric blue liquid. “I liked this present a hell of a lot better.”

“Romulan ale,” Spock said immediately, eyebrow lifting. “Contraband. How shocking—and typical—of the good Doctor.”

Kirk laughed. A mischievous light glimmered in his eye as an idea formed. “Do you know what I would really like for my birthday?”

Alerted by Kirk’s expression, the Vulcan was wary. “Is that a rhetorical question? Obviously, I cannot know until you tell me.”

Kirk looked at the ale and then back at Spock. “Do you remember what I told you once? That one of my greatest ambitions was to see you drunk on your ass just once?”

“I recall the conversation,” Spock replied dolefully. “I hoped you had forgotten.”

“No such luck,” Kirk said gleefully. “And I hold here in my mind something that just might do the trick. Anything that inebriates a Romulan should do the same for a Vulcan, wouldn’t you say!”

“An excellent reason for it to remain illegal,” Spock commented dryly.

“I suggest we get some glasses and break the law, Mr. Spock.”

In mock alarm Spock said hastily, “Jim, the desire to see me incapacitated with alcohol is somewhat juvenile.”

“Yes it is, isn’t it?” Kirk’s eyes danced merrily. “Well, McCoy has been telling me to stop acting so old.”

Spock stared at him. “Are you serious about this?”

Kirk smiled broadly. “Never more so. Cheers, Spock!”

Spock sighed, resigned to the inevitable. “If this will truly make you happy, I shall indulge you.”

Kirk beamed with delight and poured them both generous portions. He waited until Spock had taken the first experimental sip before leading him over to the chairs by the fire.

Spock settled back in the chair and contemplated Kirk for a long moment. “I do have one condition before I embark upon this ridiculous endeavor.”

“Condition? What condition?

Spock took another drink, a longer one this time, seeming to savor the taste. Kirk noted absently that it didn’t appear to be Spock’s first experience with the liquor and reminded himself to ask about that later. The Vulcan’s next words brought him back to attention.

“I want you to agree to come with me.”

Kirk straightened. “On the training mission? But why? You don’t need me.”

“I always need you,” Spock replied softly. “But I have a more specific reason for this request. I think you need to come.”

Kirk’s Jaw clenched. “What do you mean by that? I hope you aren’t still thinking of the things I said the other night. I was in a low mood, that’s all. I’m okay now. I certainly don’t need—”

“It will be advantageous to all concerned,” Spock cut in smoothly.

Kirk stood and began pacing. “I’d just be in the way. An admiral on a working ship is about as welcome as a pinhole in a pressure suit.”

“On the contrary, I believe your presence on board will spur my cadets to even greater efficiency. They all admire you tremendously.”

Kirk snorted. “So I’m a legend to those kids . . . and a rusty one at that. So what? You’re their teacher; you’re the one who counts.” He paused. “And that little Vulcan girl, Saavik; after today I doubt if she would be all that overjoyed to see me. She was on the verge of spitting fire this morning. A real little hellcat, isn’t she?”

“She is an excellent cadet and will make an extraordinary commander once she is able to come to grips with her emotions. Her heritage is even more difficult than mine has been.”

“That’s right, she’s half Romulan, Isn’t she?”

Spock nodded.

“Pretty girl,” Kirk mused, then shook his head. “Anyway, you don’t need me there looking over your shoulder.”

“That was not what I had in mind,” Spock said flatly.

Kirk turned to look at him and laughed. “I guess not. You’re about the only one I know who can keep me in my place.”

“But I do believe your presence will be beneficial,” Spock continued firmly.

Kirk looked doubtful. “I don’t know, Spock.”

“You have nothing pressing to keep you here at Headquarters,” Spock pointed out.

Kirk looked at him sharply, stung by the remark, however unintentional it had been. “No, that’s true. Nothing important at the moment.”

Spock played his final ace boldly. “It has been a long time since you were last on the Enterprise. She is as beautiful as ever. Can you honestly say you have not missed her?”

Kirk felt himself flushing, conscious that his face must reveal everything. “That’s not fair, Spock. It’s not like you to use something like that.”

“All’s fair,” Spock said lightly. He reached his hand toward the Human. “I know you want to come, Jim. Do not let your stubbornness keep you from being happy. I want you with me. Please, Jim.”

Kirk took a deep breath, trying to think clearly. This could be a big mistake. It could make it worse when he had to return. Those three weeks could make it unbearable to come back to earth—in more ways than one. But he wanted to go so bad he could taste it. And Spock had never been this insistent before.

“Okay,” Kirk said suddenly. “I’ll come. Hell, why not?” He added, “I’ll try to stay in the background and out of your way. It’s just going to be a pleasure cruise for me.”

Spock hid his smile. James Kirk had never remained in the background of anything in his entire life. Spock couldn’t imagine him starting now. Getting Kirk back on the Enterprise where he belonged was the first step. He felt sure he could trust Jim to act on his instincts from there.

Kirk grinned, his sour mood vanished as if it had never been. “Drink up, Spock. I’m going to make sure you live up to your end of the bargain. You promised. me one riproaring drunk.”

Spock lifted his eyebrow doubtfully. “I promised to make the attempt. I cannot guarantee the results, however.”

“I have faith in the powers of Romulan ale, Mr. Spock.” He raised his glass in a cheerful salute.

They drank steadily for a time, each lost in his own thoughts. The contents of the bottle dipped lower. Kirk felt a tiny ripple of elation rush through him at the thought of being on the Enterprise again. He tried to hold it in check, to analyze it, but the sheer delight of the idea overcame him. Just to be out in space with her again, that would be enough. He wouldn’t be the captain, but Spock would be, and that was almost as good. Almost.

Spock surveyed Jim covertly, noting the tiny smile that played on the Human’s lips, the smoky beauty of the hazel eyes as they dreamed the so-obvious dreams. At least they were obvious to Spock. The Vulcan was pleased. It was sometimes difficult to trick Kirk into doing what he wanted to do all along.

The tension flowed out of Kirk as smoothly as the liquor flowed into his system.

Even Spock was beginning to sink down a little lower in his chair.

Kirk’s thoughts slipped back to one of the happier times of his life aboard the Enterprise. They hadn’t talked much about those years; he had found himself avoiding those memories out of self-defense. But now that he was returning—even if it was for just a brief visit—it seemed easier and less like a bitter man dredging up memories of brightness.

“Hey, do you remember the shore leave planet?” He smiled, reminiscing. “Beautiful, beautiful place.” He glanced over at the Vulcan. “Or am I just remembering it through rose-colored antique bifocals?”

“No, it was beautiful,” Spock agreed. “It could not help but be so as it was merely the reflection of perfection you wished to see.”

“I wish you had taken leave there.”

Spock smiled and shook his head. “I could not take the risk. I had already seen that my control was little better than yours under those conditions. That was enough of a shock in itself. If I had dared to stay, I might have seen the one thing I wanted most of all.”

“Me in the nude?” Kirk suggested wickedly.

“No. Surak giving his Lesson in Perspective.”

Kirk threw a pillow at him. Spock ducked and Kirk laughed. “Every time I start feeling complacent, you knock me for a loop.”

“I had just begun to appreciate you fully clothed,” Spock said defensively, eyes twinkling with humor. “You cannot expect miracles.”

“So much for love at first sight,” Kirk grumbled. “My illusions are shattered.”

“It probably was at first sight,” Spock objected, “but it took me a long time to recognize it—and even longer to accept it.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Kirk admitted reluctantly. “I can’t say it was love at first sight with me either. You had to grow on me.”

“I am extremely flattered,” Spock retorted wryly.

“That’s not what I mean,” Kirk chuckled. “I had just never wanted a man before—at least not consciously or enough to want to do something about it.”

“Of c(hic)ourse.”

“Spock! You hiccupped!”

“Nonsense. I merely had a tickle in my throat. This beverage has a dehydrating effect on the tissues. You were saying?”

“Oh, I forget.”

“About the shore leave planet. Would you like to return there?”

“Yes, yes I would. It’s been a long time.”

Spock considered the idea seriously. “It could be difficult without a starship at our disposal. It isn’t exactly on the normal commercial lines. However, if we go to Starbase 26 and rent a long-range shuttle with extra fuel capacity—”

“Never mind,” Kirk interjected. “It’s too complicated. I suppose there are a lot of places I’ll never see twice,” he added wistfully.

“Did you have a specific reason you wished to go there again?”

Kirk shrugged and laughed. “I don’t know. Come to think of it, my fantasies aren’t all that exciting anymore. I have just about everything I want right now.”

“Everything,” Spock repeated absently. He took another long drink. Then, abruptly he kicked off his boots and tucked his long legs up under him in the chair, curling up like a contented tomcat.

Kirk stared at him for a moment, startled at the uncharacteristic action, then grinned and followed his example.

“Do you know where I would like to return?” Spock said dreamily.

Pleased by the Vulcan’s expansive and relaxed mood, Kirk eagerly refilled the sinking contents of his glass. “Where?”

“The Cloud-city.”

“Are you serious? That place gave me the creeps. Besides, I never liked heights very much.”

Spock almost chuckled at the irony of that. Space had nothing to do with heights in a practical sense, but the idea of a starship captain suffering from aversion of them had its amusing aspects.

A little irritated by the smile curving his friend’s mouth, Kirk continued quickly, “You must’ve really liked that skinny blonde.”

“Roxanne?” Spock thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. “While it is true that I enjoyed a brief flirtation with her, the interest was purely transitory.”

“You were flirting?”

“I suppose that is the correct term for it,” Spock mused. “But I cannot be held totally responsible for my lapse in behavior. When I left the rest chamber you were lying on your back asleep, looking like a fallen angel. I desperately needed to get out of that room, get my mind off you—”

“You were horny,” Kirk accused with delight. “I made you horny.”

Spock looked at him reprovingly. “Perhaps sexually stimulated would be a better choice of words.” He smiled at a private joke. “Beauty is always disturbing.”

“Well it was your own fault. If you hadn’t made me forget, we wouldn’t have wasted all those years.”

Spock’s face fell. He looked away.

Realizing that he’d struck a sore spot, Kirk reached out quickly. “I’m sorry, Spock. I didn’t mean that. You were right; neither of us was ready for it then.” He squeezed the Vulcan’s arm gently. “Okay,” he continued, determined to lighten the mood again, “so if you don’t want to go back to see bony Roxanne, why do you want to go back?”

Again, Spock looked thoughtful. “It seemed to me that the air pressure even at that altitude was sufficient to bear the weight of 86.4 kilos. at a moderate rate of descent with the proper aerodynamic device having a wingspread of eighteen meters . . . “

Kirk stared at him in amazement as Spock droned on about air speeds and velocity and gravitational pull. “You’re talking about air gliding?”

“Yes,” Spock answered blithely. “I have always wanted to fly.”

Kirk shook his head in disbelief. “You want to hang-glide from—” He started to chuckle at the vision of Spock sailing down through the clouds.

“It was just a thought,” Spock added wistfully.

“Sometimes you still surprise me, Mr. Spock.”

“That is gratifying.”

Kirk refilled their glasses, still chuckling. “You know,” he said, “for a minute there, I almost thought you were going to tell me . . . “ He trailed off, blushing.

Spock’s interest pricked. “What, Jim?”

“Nothing. Well . . . something about women. Roxanne or someone else maybe. You know . . .” Spock’s expression was blank. Kirk sighed “Well, men have a habit of . . . when they are getting drunk . . . of recounting certain . . . uh . . . experiences. Women probably do the same thing, I guess—”

“Really? What experiences?”

“What . . .?” Kirk almost choked on his drink. He wished he had never brought it up to begin with. “You know, Spock. With . . . uh . . . women. Sex.”

“This is customary?”

Kirk blinked. “Well I don’t know if it’s exactly . . . Anyway, it often turns out that way when you’re drinking. Other guys, I mean,” he added hastily. “Not me.” He hesitated then grinned sheepishly. “Okay, maybe when I was younger.”

Spock digested all this slowly as he finished his fifth glass of Romulan ale. He nodded agreeably. “Very well. We can do that.”

“Do what?” Kirk said with some alarm.

“Discuss women you have . . . dallied with.”

Kirk almost dropped his drink in his lap. “Wait a minute. I didn’t mean . . . uh… oh shit.”

Spock was forced to bite his lip to keep from laughing aloud. This was more fun than he had expected. He hadn’t seen Kirk so horrified since he’d ripped the seat out of his uniform pants on a landing party. Savoring the moment, Spock said blandly, “I’m afraid my own experiences have been somewhat limited.”

Kirk looked a bit offended. “I did not expect you to, Spock. And I have no intention of sitting here and bragging about—” It was then he noticed the twinkle in the Vulcan’s eye. He laughed. “You bastard. You can do that to me every time.”

“You brought the subject up,” Spock pointed out reasonably. “Besides, I would be interested. I always wondered what was so special about that dancer on Argelius II.”

“What dancer?”

“You mentioned her in the transporter room when you were trying to talk me into accompanying you to that nightclub where the women were so . . . You never finished the explanation.”

Kirk grinned. “No, I didn’t, did I? Well, if you really want to know, the rumor has it that the lady in question had the ability to . . . “ His grin broadened. “To fuck you and lick your balls at the same time.”

If he thought to shock the Vulcan he was disappointed. Spock nodded. “Yes, I’ve seen the technique.”

Kirk was speechless.

“On tape, of course,” Spock added as an afterthought, enabling Kirk to regain the ability to breathe. “It is an ancient ritual to encourage fertility in the males. The women are exceptionally limber, you know.”

“Yes . . . I mean, no, I don’t know . . . from personal experience, at least.” He watched, a little stunned, as Spock drained his glass in two gulps.

“Come here,” Spock ordered abruptly.

Kirk obeyed him, amused and titillated by the forceful tone. He sat down on the footstool in front of Spock, but the Vulcan reached out and pulled him roughly into his arms, holding him almost too tightly to breathe. Spock kissed him savagely and thoroughly before releasing his captive enough to sit up a little.

Kirk took a shaky gulp of air and grinned. He glanced at his wrist chronometer and quipped, “It’s too early for Pon Farr; must be a full moon or—” The rest was cut off with a startled yelp as the Vulcan literally ripped the shirt from Kirk’s body.

This time Kirk remained silent and wide-eyed; it was Spock who grinned. He stood up, throwing Kirk’s weight off easily. Taking Kirk’s wrist in a firm grip, he jerked him to his feet and pulled him toward the bedroom.

Kirk found himself following meekly, both chagrined and excited. He had seen Spock aroused, many times, but never so quickly or forcefully. If nothing else, alcohol certainly caused his moods to be totally unpredictable.

Once in the bedroom, Spock proceeded to undress with business-like efficiency. Kirk felt clumsy in comparison he struggled to shed his pants and boots. The ale was having its effect on him as well.

Spock jerked Kirk impatiently down on the bed and began to mouth his way down the human’s torso, biting and teasing him unmercifully. Kirk squirmed with delight, feeling his cock lift upward in an electric jerk as Spock’s breath caressed it. But the Vulcan was feeling too cruel to offer relief that easily. He avoided the hard shaft, slipping down between the spread legs instead. He laid his hand on the inside of Kirk’s thigh, long fingers barely moving across the skin, burning Vulcan hot through to the quivering muscles beneath. His eyes burned too, his gaze licking over Kirk’s prone body like a flame.

Lightheaded from the ale and dizzy with excitement, Kirk twisted under the touch, waiting impatiently for Spock to stop teasing and give him what he wanted. But the Vulcan moved back up to face the Human. Spock’s mouth opened on his, demanding compliance and only a degree short of violent. Another thrill of excitement shot through the Human, throbbing sharply in his groin.

Their years together had been filled with gentle loving and eager passion, but the raw lust had begun to fade with time and familiarity. Now the animal raunchiness rushed back between them with the shivery sense of mystery and the hint of danger and unpredictability that came with it.

Spock captured Kirk’s wrists and pinned them above his head with a low sexual growl deep in his throat. His gaze raked down the naked body with a satisfied possessiveness.

“You are beautiful,” he whispered hoarsely. His free hand stroked across the Human’s chest, pausing to tug at the nipples until Kirk groaned with mixed pain and ecstasy. His tongue lapped across the stiffened nubs, wetly easing the sharp tingles. The wandering hand now cupped Kirk’s balls, squeezing them just to the brink of discomfort. Spock’s leg hooked over Kirk’s, spreading them. “Bend your knees,” he ordered tersely.

Kirk obeyed, heart pounding wildly, ready and eager for anything the Vulcan had in mind. His desire to be submissive was rare and all the more exciting when it happened. And never had Spock pushed the fantasy this far. He was trembling from the erotic force of it.

Spock’s hand continued lower and his finger thrust inside Kirk’s ass. Kirk gasped, momentarily jerking back from the intrusion. The Vulcan’s finger withdrew, and Kirk was slapped sharply, stingingly across the upper thigh. “Be still,” Spock ordered roughly. Then he kissed the reddened area and licked it soothingly. Kirk’s cock was near to bursting, and Spock took pity enough to suck on the head for a brief moment, stopping before Kirk could find his rhythm enough for release.

His finger sought Kirk again, and this time the Human lay still as it entered and began to move slowly within him, finding the place of maximum pleasure. Kirk’s head tossed fitfully on the pillow. He was ready to beg for release. It was too good. He couldn’t stand it. His nerves were rebelling against the onslaught of sensation, screaming for relief.

“Touch yourself,” Spock instructed, his voice husky with passion.

Moaning, Kirk slid his hand down his body and gripped his cock. His wrist felt bruised and numb from the pressure of the Vulcan’s fingers. He began to pump himself slowly as Spock watched. His hips thrust with the urging of the finger that still moved inside him, directing his ascent. The pace quickened until he reached the unbearable brilliance of the top and squeezed himself over, fist clenching spasmodically. His seed flowed out in quick, heavy spurts, adorning his chest and stomach. His arm fell limply to one side.

Spock began to lick across the damp skin, cleaning the exhausted body with lazy swipes of his tongue. Too aroused to finish the task, he sat up, hand moving to his own cock.

“Turn over."

Kirk had thought himself totally drained, but he felt a definite twinge deep in his balls at the sound of the Vulcan’s gruff order. He did as he was bid, turning to his stomach. Spock pulled him up to a kneeling position and edged himself inside. Kirk was totally relaxed, willingly opening himself, poised upon the threshold of new arousal. Spock thrust with more force, clinging to the tender buttocks until his fingers left marks upon the flesh.

Kirk felt the pleasure begin to build again, coaxed to life by the repeated movements of the hungry phallus. Spock took him ruthlessly, almost selfishly, and this excited Kirk into eager response. This was not like Spock at all, therefore there was a wicked attraction in the act—almost as if he was being fucked by a stranger. Perhaps Spock felt the same, for he had released more of his strength than he was accustomed to doing in this act, always cautious before of Kirk’s more fragile body. The wild abandon of the moment translated itself to Kirk who thrust back to meet each thrust, crying out in delight at the surging power of it.

Spock came at last, falling over Kirk’s body with a roar of release. Kirk came a second later. They crumpled onto the bed together, shaken by the intensity of their orgasms.

Kirk turned in the Vulcan’s arms to hold him, and Spock kissed his mouth with extreme gentleness, a striking contrast to the abandonment of the moment before. It was a long time before either could find the strength to speak.

Kirk’s blood was still singing, and his heart pounding from the incredible burst of passion. As his body finally became calmer, he took a deep, satisfying breath and grinned into the tired face of his companion.

“That was . . . interesting.”

Spock stirred beside him and stroked Kirk’s stomach with quiet contentment. “Not ‘fascinating’, Jim?”

Kirk chuckled. “If I didn’t know better, I would think you were in heat again. If that little Saavik kid had seen you, she would have been shocked out of her crisp new uniform britches. Come to think of it, it might do her a world of good.”

There was a strange sound from the Vulcan which was quickly smothered. Kirk sat up. “Spock, you giggled!”

“Don’t be absurd,” Spock retorted, then abruptly giggled again.

“You’re drunk,” Kirk declared delightedly. He focused on the Vulcan with some difficulty. “I’ll be damned, a drunk Vulcan!”

“My state of inebriation,” Spock said carefully, “has little to do with the planet of my origin. It is a direct result of my being irredeemably in love with a capricious Human of whom I have an unfortunate tendency to . . .” He paused to search out the proper expression. “ . . .spoil rotten.”

“If you can say all that, you’re still sober. Have another drink.”

“You are c-c(hic)orrect. I need another drink.”

“Hold your breath,” Kirk advised. “For your hiccups,” he added after seeing Spock’s blank expression. “Works every time.”

“I do not have the hiccups,” Spock said with dignity. “When I did have the hiccups, my mother always suggested a drink. I must go get a drink.”

“I think she meant water.”

“She never specified,” Spock explained reasonably. “I believe we left the bottle in there.” He pointed toward the bathroom.

Kirk adjusted his aim. “No. Thataway, Spock.”

“Right.”

“Check.”

With great dignity and some caution, Spock stood and walked toward the living room. He missed plowing into the door frame by a quarter of an inch.

Kirk rolled back over onto his stomach and clutched the pillow with immense satisfaction. Spock was drunk. It had taken a hell of a long time, but he had finally accomplished the impossible. It was a heady feeling. Kirk also realized that he would be feeling even more on his ass tomorrow but considered it well worthwhile. It wouldn’t be the first time he had carried a few Spock-inflicted bruises where it didn’t show, but this would be by far the most memorable.

Spock returned from the living area clutching the bottle with the serious caution he would have exhibited carrying a container of anti-matter. His walk was self-consciously erect, but he still managed to trip over a footstool.

Spock settled on the edge of the bed and took a long swig straight from the bottle before handing it to Kirk. “Almost gone,” he intoned sadly.

Irrepressible laughter bubbled up in Kirk. When he’d thought about Spock being drunk, he’d pictured him perhaps loosening up a bit, losing some of his stiffness. But the Vulcan was relaxed to the point of limpness. In fact, he had nearly missed the bed when he had sat down. Yet somehow, in the midst of it all, Spock miraculously retained his dignity. That was the most hilarious aspect of it all. Only Spock could be a dignified drunk.

Kirk, on the other hand, felt far from dignified. He rather doubted if he could stand up at the moment. He alternated between fits of hilarity and a queasy sensation in the pit of his stomach.

At that moment, Spock began to sing, and Kirk felt that his life had to be complete. It sounded terrible. Spock usually had a nice voice, but this wasn’t it. Even Caruso couldn’t have done justice to the tortured notes Spock was pouring forth. It sounded rather like several cats tied in a bag and beaten with a stick.

Kirk suffered through what must have been the first chorus before he clapped his hand over Spock’s mouth.

“What the hell is that?”

“It is a pre-Reform Vulcan love song.”

“‘Course. I should have known.”

“There are forty-seven more verses,” Spock offered generously.

“Uh huh. What’s it about?”

“It is very sad. The girl, T’Pez, is pledged to a man of low caste by her evil father who wishes to keep her dowry. She is in love with a famous warrior named Sandu, but he is of royal blood and cannot look upon her until she can prove her worth by slaying a Le’Matya and drinking from the Well of Souls. In order to reach the Well of Souls she must—”

“I think I get the general drift,” Kirk broke in hastily.

“There is also another version, somewhat vulgar, in which the girl must mate with the Le’Matya.”

“Hmm. Let’s save it for another time,” Kirk said weakly, “I don’t feel so good at the moment.”

Spock regarded him solemnly. “I think you must have drunk too much,” he said disapprovingly. He took the bottle from Kirk, hiccupped, and slid gently off the bed onto the floor.

Kirk leaned his head over the edge and looked down at him blearily. “You okay, Spock?”

“lndub-b... indubita... indubitabl. Perfectly.”

The door chime interrupted both Kirk’s fit of giggles and Spock’s solemn study of the shallow contents of his bottle.

“Who the hell?” Kirk growled.

“Ignore it,” Spock suggested, taking a tiny sip and checking the remains. “Two point three milliliters . . . or three point two.”

The chime sounded again, insistently.

“Shit.” Kirk groaned and rolled over to hit the intercom switch “Yeah? Who the hell is it? Don’t you know it’s the middle of the night?”

“It is not,” McCoy’s voice snapped back with equal irritation. “It’s only a little after ten. What’s the big deal? You sick or something?”

Kirk snapped off the intercom and turned, wide-eyed, to Spock. “Damn, it’s Bones. What do we do now?”

Spock shrugged magnanimously. “Let the old fucker in.”

Kirk’s jaw dropped. He gulped, sobering with amazing rapidity. “Spock, you— Oh my god.”

The doorbell rang again with a demanding persistence. Still staring at Spock, shocked to the core, Kirk pressed the switch. “Uh… Bones, could you maybe… uh… come back in the morning?”

“No,” McCoy retorted sharply. “I’ll be on the Enterprise tomorrow, remember? Now what the sam hill is going on in there that you don’t want to let me in? It can’t be a woman; Spock would break your neck.”

Spock nodded sorrowfully.  “He is correct. I would.”  He patted Kirk’s hand tenderly.  “But it would be quick and painless.”

Kirk clapped his hand over Spock’s mouth.  “Shhhh! Uhh, nothing, Bones. Not a thing. I, uh, just don’t feel much like company tonight.”

“Since when am I company? I didn’t come to jaw with you anyhow. I came to look for something I lost. I think I must’ve left it here. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

“Okay,” Kirk said doubtfully. “Just give me a second.” He broke the connection and stood, trying to get his bearings and clear his head. “He won’t go away. And if he thinks I don’t want him in, he’ll stand there until hell freezes over.”

Kirk slipped on a short robe and looked around thoughtfully. His mind was still a bit fuzzy but it was clearing rapidly for the crisis at hand. His gaze fell upon the oak chest at the foot of the bed, measuring its size against Spock, but he disregarded the idea immediately. As a last resort, he turned to the closet. A bit obvious, perhaps, but he was desperate.

Kirk opened the door and beckoned to the Vulcan. “Spock, come here quick.”

“Where?” Spock asked absently. “Why?”

“Never mind. Just step in here for a little while until I can get rid of Bones.” Spock peered inside the door suspiciously. He shook his head in a firm negative.

“Vulcans,” he stated, pronouncing each word with extreme pride, “do not conceal themselves in clothes closets.”

“They do if they know what’s good for them,” Kirk snapped. He sighed. “Listen, Spock, you’re just not yourself right now. If McCoy sees you like this . . . well, he’ll never let you live it down. Understand? It’ll give him ammunition for the next ten years—like it’s my fault that you’re drunk, and you’ll never forgive me if—”

McCoy leaned on the doorbell again, cutting off the rest.

Kirk clutched his head which had begun to pound. He groaned in frustration. “Dammit! I don’t have time to explain. Just get in the fuckin’ closet! That’s an order!”

Spock leaned back lazily and grinned. “Shove it, Jimmy.”

“Oh, Jesus . . .” Kirk threw up his arms in surrender. “Okay, okay. But please be quiet. That’s all I ask? All right?”

“Check.”

Kirk groaned again, but gave up and moved through the door to the living room, shutting it carefully after him. He released the lock on the entrance and tried to strike a nonchalant pose.

McCoy eyed him suspiciously. “Want to tell me what’s going on?”

Kirk’s face was angelic in the extreme. “Going on? I was asleep. Can’t you give a man time to wake up?”

McCoy snorted. “Bullshit. You’re drunk. You also smell like you were held captive in a Wrigley’s whorehouse. Is Spock here?”

“He told me he was going to the Enterprise,” Kirk evaded.

McCoy looked skeptical but didn’t press the point. “I was looking for my ring. You seen it around?”

“Your ring?” Kirk asked blankly.

“Yes, my ring. I can’t go out in space without it. It’s my lucky charm.”

“I thought you never took it off?”

“I don’t.” McCoy tossed a few pillows to the side and checked the crevices of the chair he had been sitting in. “But I had a little rash on my hand, and I pulled it off to scratch. I must’ve left it here somewhere.” He moved toward the bedroom.

“Wait!” Kirk called out in alarm. “I don’t think it would be in there. 

“I went to the john, didn’t I?” McCoy grumbled. “Just let me check there and I’ll be out of your way.”

Kirk opened his mouth to protest, but McCoy was already inside. Kirk dropped down into a chair, accepting the inevitable and wondering what Spock would do to him once he was sober.

“I thought you said Spock wasn’t here?” McCoy demanded, returning. “And he found my ring, too!”

Kirk sighed. “I didn’t exactly say he wasn’t—”

“If Jim required privacy, I do not believe the request was unreasonable, Doctor.” The voice froze Kirk. He turned slowly. Spock was entering from the bedroom, totally dressed and immaculate as ever, every hair of his bangs in place.

“Okay,” McCoy admitted, “maybe I should have called first. But I didn’t know you would be here. And he could have just said so, for pete’s sake, instead of acting so mysterious. Anyway, I got my ring and that’s what I came for. Good night, Jim. I’ll see you tomorrow, Spock.”

Kirk didn’t reply; he was still staring at the Vulcan in total amazement. The door shut behind McCoy. Kirk stood and advanced to stand in front of Spock threateningly.

“It was a put on,” Kirk accused furiously. “You weren’t drunk at all!”

“Now,, Jim . . . “ Spock began placatingly.

“Don’t ‘Jim’ me! You were acting! All of it. ‘Shove it, Jimmy’? What nerve! I ought to—” Kirk sputtered to a halt, unable to think of a suitable punishment.

Spock studied his toes. “Did you ever consider the possibility that Vulcans may have the ability to regain sobriety in a short amount of time, considering our superior control over—”

“I don’t care if Vulcans can make their grandmothers do the hula! That Vulcan crap has reached its limits. Can you honestly stand there and tell me you didn’t put all of that on for my benefit?”

Spock was silent for a moment. He looked up finally, meeting Kirk’s eyes shyly. “You said it would make you happy.”

Kirk’s irritation evaporated. “Make me happy?” he whispered hoarsely, heart very full. “Yes, it made me happy, you tricky bastard. God, I love you so damn much.”

Spock sighed with relief—then passed out cold on the carpet.

 

THE CHASE

The operation proceeded even smoother than Khan had hoped. The crew of the Reliant offered little resistance. As an older vessel, the Reliant had been used primarily for research or regular, more mundane assignments. Few of the crew had ever participated in a battle of any kind and were totally unprepared for an attack of this type. With a grim pleasure, Khan had the survivors beamed down to Ceti Alpha V.

Terrell and Chekov had no choice but to instruct Khan’s people in the operation of the ship. They learned very quickly—especially Joachim who had studied from Khan’s knowledge of the Enterprise.

Khan took his next step carefully. Chekov was forced to call Starfleet Headquarters to inquire of the whereabouts of Admiral Kirk. As it was known at Headquarters that Chekov had served under Kirk for years, there was little hesitation in giving Khan the answer he wanted. Kirk was in space again and on the Enterprise. For once fate had smoothly paved the way for his revenge.

Joachim watched Khan worriedly, torn between elation and despair. They were free, no longer helpless. By some miracle they had been granted a new chance. But in spite of it all, Khan was still mad, still hopelessly caught in his need for revenge. To tell Khan that the Reliant’s appearance had been pure chance, that Kirk had never planned to return and kill them, would be useless. Khan knew this. His madness had neatly turned the crime around. Now Kirk was to be cursed for not returning. Joachim knew that Khan was somehow insulted by this fact, unwilling to accept that he could possibly be unimportant enough to be forgotten.

Joachim sensed that this insane hunt for Kirk could mean their downfall. He was quite agreeable to the idea of killing Kirk if the opportunity arose, for he blamed Kirk for what Khan had become. But it was not worth the risk of losing what they had gained.

However, Joachim also realized that Khan was beyond reason, and that there was no way of stopping him short of overthrowing his rule. This was a step Joachim could not bring himself to take. He did not wish to lead, had never wished it. He wanted to follow Khan as he had always done. But the madness mattered now as it had not on Ceti Alpha V. It was beginning to frighten him.

During their second day on the Reliant, Khan’s interest in the device known as “Genesis” sharpened. He recognized it as a perfect bait to lure Kirk into his trap. Terrell could tell him little about the device itself, only that they had been assigned to locate a lifeless planet for experimentation. This fact aroused Joachim’s attention, for it indicated that Genesis was a weapon of some kind and could be useful to them if they captured it. Since Khan was determined to battle Kirk and the Enterprise, they would need all the edge possible.

They set course for Regula I.

With Chekov’s call to the lab, the trap was ready to spring. They monitored the communications, and when Dr. Marcus contacted the Enterprise, Sara jammed the signal at the proper moment. Kirk knew just enough to bring him charging to the rescue.

This fact did not please Joachim. It was asking for trouble they did not need. It had all worked so smoothly, their escape from the planet, the capture of the ship. How pointless it would be to lose it all. If approached correctly, Khan would surely see that.

At last Joachim tried to reason with Khan, choosing his words with caution, making it plain that his purpose was still to serve. Khan’s answer sent a chill through him, confirming his worst fears.

“He tasks me! He tasks me. And I shall have him. I’ll chase him round the moons of Nebia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I’ll give him up.”

Khan sat back in the command chair, pleased at the perfect turn of events that fell so neatly into his plot. He would not be forced to track Kirk across the galaxy as he had feared. The lamb would come to him for the slaughter.

Joachim hesitated, feeling helpless. He could sense the building excitement in the others, feeding off Khan’s madness, swayed as always by the force of Khan’s personality. They would follow Khan now, no matter what he did. It was in their nature, and they too were smelling the blood of battle, the white heat of glory and revenge.

Khan looked at him. “You have more to say?”

“No, sir.” Joachim turned away, knowing his words would have no effect now.

He could almost smell the madness on him, like the scent of bitter wine.

 

*   *   *

 

My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a
madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on
such a field! But he drilled deep down, and blasted all my
reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that
I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has
tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.
--MOBY DICK (Herman Melville) Chapter 38

 

*   *   *

Joachim had known Khan to be cruel at times, experiencing that cruelty himself more than once, but what he had witnessed on Regula I had surpassed anything that had gone before. Joachim was not squeamish, nor was he above using force to obtain the information they needed—information he now knew to be far more important than they had anticipated—but there was an internal governor on the pain he would willingly inflict on another. Khan, once known as the most compassionate of the ‘tyrants’, had lost sight of his own limits.

Khan left Terrell and Chekov on Regula I on the chance that Kirk might evade him and reach the laboratory. They were both carefully programmed, and at this point, totally beyond any independent thoughts of their own. Khan had tapped the data banks and retrieved all the information he could on the project, although he made certain that Terrell would report the opposite to Kirk if they should meet. It was always better for the enemy to be misinformed as to the extent of your knowledge.

Being unable to locate the Genesis device itself had driven Khan into a white-hot rage. He knew its power now and its tremendous possibilities. He was determined to have it, no matter the cost.

In this, Joachim was almost in agreement. He also recognized the value of possessing Genesis. If it had been only for that, he would not have been averse to the battle. He had been raised as a warrior and had a warrior’s blood in his veins. The idea of the challenge exhilarated him. But neither was he a fool nor hungry for blood for blood’s sake. The real reason for their attack was Khan’s obsession for Kirk, and that fact disturbed him. A wise man did not fight a war for revenge alone. Hate was too blinding and dangerous.

Khan turned the controls over to Joachim while he studied the information they had obtained on Genesis. He had two hours before they would intercept the Enterprise—two hours before his path would cross Kirk’s once again.

*   *   *

 

“Starbuck, of late I’ve felt strangely moved to thee; ever
since that hour we both saw—thou know’st what, in one another’s
eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face
to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank.
Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed.
‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled.”
--MOBY DICK (Herman Melville) Chapter 134

 

Interlude 

Kirk was too happy to tolerate a hangover. Even McCoy’s Cheshire cat grin when he met him at the shuttle did nothing to diminish Kirk’s elation. The Doctor’s total lack of surprise at his presence did, however, go a long way toward proving his conspiracy theory. McCoy had no doubt been up to his sternum in the plot to get him back on the ship.

Kirk did his best to present an air of nonchalance, but realized that he must be exuding excited contentment from every pore. He knew that his love affair with the Enterprise was as real and permanent as the one he had with Spock.

Kirk had not seen Spock since early that morning, but he was pleased to find that the Vulcan seemed none the worse for wear after their night of debauchery; the racial stamina Spock bragged about so often obviously had its merits. Kirk, unfortunately, found himself wearing thin after a couple of hours and cut the inspection short. His headache had returned, and he swallowed his pride enough to beg an aspirin from McCoy.

Once the ship was safely out of dry dock and running smoothly, Kirk retired to his quarters for a much needed nap. When he awoke, he was amused to discovered that Vulcan stamina had taken a sharp decline. Spock’s yeoman informed Admiral Kirk that the Captain was in his cabin and had left instructions not to be disturbed unless there was a problem.

Meditation, my ass, Kirk thought to himself with a grin. He’s trying to sleep it off, too. Naturally the ship was running like clockwork, or Spock would never have left the con to Saavik (under Sulu’s supervision, of course).

Kirk toyed with the idea of going to Spock’s quarters, but decided they both needed a decent night’s sleep. He rolled over in the bed and followed through with the thought.

The next morning, he wandered around the ship trying to look stern and formidable, but feeling extremely chipper. He intended to have fun on this cruise. When it was over it would be time to make some serious decisions on the direction of the rest of his life. For now, he would relax.

The call from Carol Marcus was a total surprise and changed the tenor of the day. She was a specter from his past that he would prefer to forget. Hearing her name shattered his composure. After listening to her strange and disjointed communication, he was even more confused. Remembering what they had once been to each other made it difficult to keep the situation on a professional level. Why had she called him? What was this about him giving orders concerning the Genesis effect? Carol had a very logical and precise mind and he couldn’t see her making mistakes about such a thing. It was probably some mix up from headquarters, but it was still very strange, and totally unlike Carol to be so flustered unless she was truly worried.

He was almost reluctant to talk to Spock about it. For some reason that part of his life had never came up between them. There had been no reason to tell him of it.

He had preferred to forget the fact that he had a son growing up somewhere. It was easier than to let it bother him when there was nothing he could do about it. His relationship with Carol had been a good one, satisfying to both of them, but it had been unbinding. Except for the child, there was no tie between them. He wondered if he should bring any of this up to Spock, but decided against it. There was no reason, and it obviously had no bearing on the problem at hand.

*   *   *

“If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.”

Kirk’s eyes twinkled. “I would not presume to debate you.”

“You are wise,” Spock responded easily, then became more serious as he continued. “In any case, were I to invoke logic, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

“Or the one,” Kirk added softly.

Spock stood and moved to stand in front of Kirk. “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours.”

Kirk was silent for a moment. “Is it as my friend that you finally tell me what everyone else has told me all along? That I’ve been an idiot for years?”

“It is my friendship that you have had the longest and that you trust the most. All the other things we are to each other have never been as important as that.” He smiled. “And I did not say you were an idiot, nor do I think so. You felt your choice was necessary at the time and perhaps it was. It is not for me to judge that.”

“Then why do you say it now?”

“I told you I would save my opinion for when it would do some good. This seems an auspicious time. And I do not wish to command; my views on that have never changed. My nature is to follow your lead. Yours is to lead.”

Kirk took a deep breath, feeling both proud and a little overwhelmed. She was his again, as simple as that. “Is this another birthday present, Spock? ‘The best of times’?”

Spock looked bemused. “Or ‘the worst of times’. So often they are the same thing.” His eyes met Kirk’s. “In any case, I cannot give you the Enterprise. She has always been yours.”

Kirk’s throat was too tight to speak. He touched Spock’s arm, then turned toward the door. “I’d better get to the bridge.”

Spock nodded. “I shall follow presently.”

 

*   *   *

 

Kirk walked a little ways from the others, needing the privacy to clear his mind. Two hours, Spock had said. It had been less than an hour since Khan had taken the Genesis device. What could a man like Khan do with such a thing in the time he had had it? What would he do with it if they couldn’t stop him?

Kirk threw away the piece of fruit, his appetite fading abruptly.

There were so many things to think about, he wasn’t quite sure where to start. The one thing he didn’t want to dwell on was his mistakes. If there was one thing he had learned from that fateful trip against Vger, it was that once you made a mistake you had to be willing to let it go. You couldn’t cling to it like a crutch and pile up other mistakes on top of it in the hopes of burying it. You couldn’t let it paralyze you either. You had to continue and chance making even more.

It was Khan he had to stop now, so it was Khan’s mistakes he must concentrate on. He had not made many, but they were enough to tell Kirk that Khan had not changed. The enormous ego and overconfidence were apparent in his necessity of confronting Kirk face to face, and in allowing Kirk the time to discover a means of retaliation. That Khan was now quite mad, however, was made evident by his actions on Regula I. They were not the acts of a sane man, or even of the Khan Kirk had known· before.

A voice from behind him interrupted Kirk’s reverie. “Better not get so close to the edge.”

Kirk turned to look at the grown man who was his son. “Afraid you’ll be too tempted?”

David flushed. “I suppose I shouldn’t have jumped you back there, but I had to do something. I wanted to stay behind with the others, but—” He gestured back to his mother and shrugged. “Anyway, I’m still not so sure that Starfleet isn’t behind all of this.”

Kirk moved over to sit on a small boulder. He looked up at the boy, measuring him. “There’s nothing wrong with being a little hot-headed,” he said, thinking, God knows you come by it honestly. “But you should get your facts straight first.”

David’s jaw clenched. “Well, one fact that’s pretty straight is that you’re the cause of all this. It’s pretty obvious that this Khan character is really after you and the Genesis effect is just a side issue. What did you do to him to make him hate you this much?”

Kirk shook his head. “That doesn’t matter now.”

“It doesn’t matter? My friends were murdered, and you say it doesn’t matter?”

Kirk closed his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

The young man threw up his hands. “Well that helps a whole lot! I’m sure you’re sorry about losing Genesis, too, aren’t you? And getting us stuck down here. Yes, sir, you can sure depend on Starfleet when the chips are down!”

“Shut up, David.” Carol Marcus came towards them. “You don’t know anything about it.”

David turned on her. “What is it that I don’t know? That he’s supposed to be my father? No thanks. I’d rather think you were raped by a Klingon mercenary!”

Carol’s face went white. “Oh, David.”

The boy’s face changed, the fury fading. He put his arm around her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Mother. I didn’t intend to hurt you.”

“You knew that he was your father?”

“It wasn’t hard to guess, was it? You’ve talked about him enough and the timing was right.” He glared at Kirk. “But I don’t have to accept it. What difference does it make anyway? I could have just as easily come from a sperm bank.”

Carol pulled away. “None of this was Jim’s idea, David. I asked him to stay away. I was selfish, I wanted you to be all mine.”

“I don’t believe it,” David said stubbornly. “He didn’t even—”

Carol started to speak, but Kirk broke in. “It’s all right, Carol. David is right. I didn’t try. I could’ve . . .” he trailed off. “It’s too late now,” he concluded without apology. Whatever excuses he made would sound false—and would be.

If David had expected more, he didn’t show it. He stared at Kirk for a long moment, then turned and walked back to the others.

Carol sat down beside Kirk on the boulder. “I’m sorry, Jim. He’s just a little confused right now.”

“He’s bitter,” Kirk stated calmly, “and he has every right to be.” He looked at her. “Could it have been different? Would it have worked any other way? I remember that I thought so at the time. I wanted us to stay together, to make it work. Not just for David, but for us. I was ready to quit the service.”

She smiled sadly. “I remember, too, Jim. Your reason for wanting to quit had nothing to do with my becoming pregnant. You were a young lieutenant who’d lost his nerve. Captain Garovick had meant a lot to you, and you were blaming yourself for his death. You had nightmares. All those nights I held you while you shivered and cried out in your sleep.”

Kirk remained silent.

She touched his hand. “I knew then that you were using me as an excuse. Maybe you didn’t even realize it, but did. You had to go back out where you belonged or the day would have come when you would start hating yourself. . ..and maybe hating me. I wouldn’t have given up my career, I couldn’t expect you to give up yours.” She slipped her hand in his. “And it did work for both of us, didn’t I? I have been happy, and I think you have.”

Kirk thought of the strange and sometimes beautiful pattern of his life. Thought of McCoy and the ship, of Miramanee and Edith, of Harry Mudd and Bela Oxmyx, of Lazarus and Trelane, of Gem and the white rabbit. Of Blalok and the blinding brilliance of Vger. He thought of Spock. “Yes, I’ve been happy. It’s been a special life.” He paused. “But has David been happy?”

She smiled again. “Yes, I think so. Like I said, he’s a lot like you, Jim. Sometimes I think he lives a charmed life.”

Kirk took another deep breath, filling his lungs with the scent of the rapidly growing flora. “Then I guess we made the right decision.”

“Did you ever really doubt it?”

“No. But I’ve wondered if he would think so. He’s made his opinion pretty apparent.”

“He doesn’t know what he feels right now. These aren’t exactly normal conditions. It’s a lot to deal with. Give him time.”

Carol stood and offered her hand again. “Come back over with the others. I think that young woman had something she wanted to ask you.”

 

THE SWORD FALLS

 

“There she is!”

Joachim’s attention was jolted back to the viewscreen by Khan’s exclamation.

He spotted the ship and took note of her position and heading as Khan stepped down from the command chair.

“Ah, not so wounded as we were led to believe,” Khan hissed. “So much the better.”

Joachim projected their course through the computer and realized they were heading for the nebula. Soon it was evident to all of them what Kirk’s plan was. Nevertheless, Joachim picked up the impulse speed and set course to tail them on the off chance they could outrun the Enterprise and intercept her before she reached cover.

He glanced at Khan and commented, “If they go in there, we’ll lose them.”

Khan’s jaw clenched. “Explain it to them.”

Joachim motioned to the weapons console to fire, although he had faint hope of making a hit at this range.

As the Enterprise closed on the nebula, Joachim reduced power. “Why are we slowing?” Khan demanded.

Joachim was a little surprised at the question; it should have been obvious. “We can’t follow them into the nebula, sir. Our shields would be useless.” He shook his head helplessly at the blindness of hatred.

Khan sat back in the command chair, accepting the answer with reluctance.

Kirk’s voice over the intercom jerked them both upright in their seats in amazement. “This is Admiral Kirk. We tried it once your way, Khan. Are you game for a rematch?”

Joachim’s startled eyes met Khan’s. How had he escaped?

Kirk’s taunting continued, “Khan, I’m laughing at the ‘superior intellect’.”

Joachim’s heart sank, knowing Khan would never bear this insult—yet surely he would not be foolish enough to accept this obvious goading.

Khan’s hands gripped the chair arms as he fought with his rage. “Full impulse power,” he ordered, his voice low with suppressed fury.

Joachim flung himself out of his chair. “No, sir! You have Genesis! You can have whatever y—”

Khan grabbed him like a puppet, jerking him up to face him. “Full power!” He saw the refusal in Joachim’s eyes, and tossed him away brutally, throwing him against the navigation console. “Damn you!” He moved to increase the speed himself. 

Joachim pulled himself shakily to his feet. Khan glared at him, eyes glazed triumphantly, insanely. He said nothing as Joachim slid numbly back into his seat.

A few moments later the ship shuddered as it entered the cloud. The lights flickered and went out. Still in a daze, Joachim hit the switch for emergency power. He couldn’t think very well and tried to fight back the taste of bitterness. He had sworn an oath to Khan and that was all he would permit himself to think. He would serve him even if it meant serving up their destruction.

“Tactical?” Khan asked moving around to the side.

“Inoperative,” Joachim replied without expression.

“Raise the shields.”

Joachim glanced over the unlevel readings, watching the needles jump erratically. He allowed a touch of emotion to reach his voice. “As I feared, sir, not functional. I’m reducing speed.” He caught Khan’s eye as he started to speak, almost daring him to fight him on this point. Khan gave way. Even in his madness he was not yet suicidal.

Joachim studied the screen, feeling a strange calmness descend upon him. He would fight this doomed battle if he must. And if he must die, he would die as he had lived—to serve Khan.

 

Their hands met; their eyes fastened;
Starbuck’s tears the glue.
--MOBY DICK (Herman Melville) Chapter 37

 

*   *   *

Time slowed like a faltering hand too weary to write more on the page of his life. It was ending now. Soon the light would flicker, and he would know a darkness more complete than mere sleep.

It was not over yet. He clutched at a few more breaths of new air as the weight was flung from him. The pain clawed deep with each gasp, tearing him like angry talons, punishing him for letting Khan’s tide sweep them all this far.

“Joachim!”

He heard his name but was afraid to answer, afraid the shade of death would find him sooner. There was one more thing he had to say before it was all finished. One more offer to make on the altar of love.

He felt the arms gather him, the touch more gentle than he had often known it to be; felt the fear and grief through the trembling of the hands that held him.

He opened his eyes and looked into the face of his life. Khan’s eyes were wild, his hair was tangled with madness, with the inner knots of fury and grief that had tied him for years. But there was time enough to see beyond that in this moment before extinction. To see the eagle, the prince, the warrior who clung to his sword even after he was cut down, refusing to be vanquished. He saw all this and regretted nothing. He was proud to have touched this man, to have been touched by him. All that came after had been in the hands of fate.

Do not blame yourself, he told Kahn, although the words would not reach his lips. The victory is in the battle itself. If you chose it unwisely, it is more my crime than yours. I could have stopped your madness if I had dared to love you less. You are still my King, my lord. Of all greatness I have seen or known . . .

“ . . . yours is superior . . .

The hand stopped writing for the page was finished.

 

Season Of Darkness

 

McCoy stood frozen, the grief welling up inside him with such force he felt he must cry out at the agony of it. But anything he felt seemed pale in the light of what lay before him.

Kirk sat slumped against the glass, shoulder pressed to the barrier as if it were he, not it, that held up the still form on the other side.

McCoy had no idea how long they had all stood there; he was barely conscious of Scotty’s choked sobs and the shaking hand that clutched at his arm.

“Holy Mother of God,” Scotty said brokenly, “he’s really gone.”

McCoy closed his eyes, wishing none of this was real. Wishing for one stricken second that he had never been Spock’s friend or Jim’s, so he would not have to face this now. How could anything be worth this much pain? Could Jim ever believe it was worth it?

His eyes snapped open as Scott shook his arm again. “McCoy, what are we goin’ ta do? We canna leave him here like that. He’ll make hisself sick wi’ grievin’.”

“How—” McCoy’s mouth felt dry; he swallowed and tried again, “How long before you can get Spock out?”

Scotty shook his head. “It’ll take at least seventeen hours afore the vents ken bleed out enough radiation so a man can go in without a suit.”

“Seventeen hours . . . my god—” McCoy’s voice caught. “I’m afraid for him, Scotty.”

“Aye.” Scotty rubbed his burning eyes, thinking, I’m too old for this. Too old. What’s to happen now? He was good with Peter when he died; let him go peaceful and proud. But there’s no hope for him now. No comfort for this. “We have ta do something, Doctor,” he said finally. “Speak to him. He might listen ta you.”

McCoy forced himself to move forward, but then stopped and gestured to the crewmen standing back, also frozen by the sight of the two men: one in numbed pain, one beyond it.

“For god’s sake, Scotty, get them out of here!”

Scotty turned around immediately, remembering. “All of you, out. Get ta work on those melted terminals.”

As the last of the trainees left, McCoy moved toward Kirk. “Jim?”

Kirk looked up as if he were just waking. It seemed to take a moment for him to recognize McCoy. “Bones. Bones, he’s dead. Spock’s dead.” The voice was flat, but the eyes held more despair than McCoy had ever seen.

“J-Jim . . . come on. Let’s go up to Sickbay. Let me help you—”

“No!” Kirk straightened, bracing his back flat against the glass. “Leave me alone. I’ll be all right. Just leave . . . us alone.”

McCoy fought the treacherous quavering in his voice. “You can’t do any good here, Jim. It’s over now. Spock wouldn’t want—”

“God damn you!” Kirk screamed, “How would you know what he wanted? Leave us alone! I can’t—” His head dropped, and he began shivering as if very, very cold.

McCoy moved back to where Scotty was standing. “Scotty, get a blanket and some brandy. He’s going into shock.”

“But—” Scott looked shocked. “He canna stay there.

“Yes he can,” McCoy whispered, then louder, “Yes, he can. For as long as he needs to.”

Shaking his head in disapproval, Scotty went to do as he was bid. McCoy went back to Kirk. Feeling almost as if he was intruding, the Doctor knelt next to the shaking form.

“Jim.”

Kirk looked up at him again. There was no anger in his eyes now, only a wounded, pleading expression. “Bones . . . please. Don’t give me a shot. Let me stay. Please let me stay with him.” His hand reached out, palm up in supplication. The humbleness of the gesture twisted McCoy’s heart. He took the hand in his.

“Of course you can stay. For as long as you want.”

“You won’t . . . give me a hypo?” Kirk was wary, knowing he was helpless against McCoy’s arsenal, ready to beg for just a few more minutes before he had to let go forever. “Please, Bones. Promise me.”

McCoy turned his face away, unable to bear it. “I promise;” he said, voice hoarse and unsteady.

Scotty returned with a blanket and some dark gold liquid. He handed them to the Doctor and backed off, still suspicious of· the wisdom of letting Kirk hold wake. It seemed to him a custom that courted grief rather than assuaged it.

McCoy wrapped the blanket around Kirk’s shoulders and made him take a sip of brandy. The tremors in the body eased.

As time passed and as they sat together on the cold floor, McCoy watched as Kirk gradually pulled himself together. The silence between them continued, for there were no words possible in this tragedy, no true comfort to be offered or accepted. It was beyond either of them to think past their grief.

At last Kirk turned to look at Spock’s body. He touched the glass where the dark head rested. “I wish I could cry for him, Bones. I should be able to, shouldn’t I?”

McCoy, although his own face was wet, understood. “It takes people differently, Jim. I’ve never seen you really cry. It might be easier if you could, but it’s not a natural release for you.”

Kirk’s fingers curled on the glass. He hardly seemed to hear McCoy. “The tears reach my eyes, but something chokes them off inside me. It’s like the pain won’t let go of me enough to let them out.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Ah, Bones, it hurts so bad . . .”

“I know.” McCoy touched his arm. “Jim, will you let me give you something to make you sleep for a while? I promise you can stay here. I’ll stay with you.”

“Is the ship all right?” He asked suddenly.

“She’s fine,” McCoy reassured. “Scotty is taking care of her.”

Kirk nodded and closed his eyes wearily. “All right, give me a shot. It can’t make any difference anyway.”

Before Jim could change his mind, McCoy pressed a hypo against his arm. It took effect quickly. McCoy pulled Kirk against him to pillow the sleeping man’s head and made himself a little more comfortable by tucking the blanket around them both.

Scotty was doing a good job of keeping the section clear. Except for the monotonous hum of the engines, the room was eerily quiet. The ship was a strangely alive mechanical beast that had shaped all their lives in one way or another. Now, in his sadness, McCoy felt that even in the midst of her own wounds, the ship grieved with them.

He wondered what Spock would have said about such a fantasy. He looked over at the Vulcan and held Jim a little tighter.

“I’ll miss you, Spock,” he said softly.

The form in his arms shuddered and he felt a splash of wetness on his hand near his friend’s cheek.

Jim Kirk was crying in his sleep.

 

*   *   *

 

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
-- HAMLET (William Shakespeare)

 

There was an incredible stillness in this womb of darkness. A stillness he had never known before. But there was also a serenity in nonexistence that he had not expected. It went beyond the absence of sound or motion or even life. He was calm in the silence, the stillness; passive while somehow sensing that other forces were not.

Life and Death. Death and Life. Circle or spiral? Alpha or Omega? Beginning . . . ending . . . beginning. Infinity.

The blackness that cradled him was not an absence of light. The light was all around him, within him. It was both light and dark—and yet neither.

He was patient. He was not lost, nor did he feel the need to be found. He savored the quiet, blessed solitude. It was good to reach the kernel of your being and find it sound and clean. It was a private journey.

Change was the essence of reality. Soon the stillness would shatter. Already he could feel subliminal tingles in the fabric of the darkness. When the time came, he knew he would reach out for it, welcome the first pain of regrowth—fight to claim it if need be. But for now he was content. Patient, as was his nature.

He waited.

 

ANOTHER PARADISE

 

The view of the Bay from his window hadn’t changed, even if everything else in his life had.

The door chime rang twice before it captured his attention.

Kirk didn’t want to see anyone, but if it was McCoy at the door he would simply use his new passkey and come in anyway. And there was no point in worrying him again after what had happened the week before. Kirk released the door lock vowing, for McCoy’s sake, he would make this visit a little more pleasant.

But it wasn’t McCoy.

David Marcus stood in the entrance looking nervous and a little embarrassed. “May I talk to you?”

Kirk stared at him a minute, wanting to say no. He wasn’t ready to deal with this; he was still trying to learn how to deal with his loss. He didn’t feel like a father to this kid—at this point he had trouble feeling much of anything but sad and empty. He was much better now than he had been, but it had been a difficult struggle. Still, McCoy was right. Shutting himself off wouldn’t help.

“Come in, David. Sit down. Would you like a drink?” When David shook his head, Kirk went to the bar anyway. “Well, I would.” He waited until the boy sat down, but didn’t join him. He took a gulp of the brandy, holding it in his mouth until it burned his tongue. “I thought you would be back on Regula by now.”

“No. They’ve closed up the research lab pending an investigation on security at the station.” He shrugged. “Actually, I think that now that the Council knows Genesis works, it scares the shit out .of them. It’s a political hot potato. The poorer systems will want to use it right away, but just look how long it took the Reliant to find even one totally lifeless world—and even that one didn’t turn out . . . “ He trailed off. “Anyway, a lot of people don’t want to be that patient.”

“I see what you mean. I suppose Starfleet is also afraid of the Klingons getting their hands on it. It’s the perfect weapon. Destroys your enemies while making their world over any way you want.it.” Kirk tapped his fingertips on his glass impatiently. “Well what brings you to San Francisco?”

David looked at the floor. “I heard you were in the hospital.”

Kirk froze, wondering how much else he knew. “Yes, but just for a day. Nothing serious.”

The young man glanced up, catching Kirk’s eyes before he could turn away.

“Wasn’t it?” he demanded.

Kirk set his glass on the mantle. “I thought Bones was a stickler on patient privacy. Did he tell you?”

“Not in so many words, but it wasn’t hard to .guess. You tried to kill yourself, didn’t you?”

“That’s what they tell me; I really don’t remember it all that well.” He regarded David steadily. “If this gets out, I won’t have a career anymore. You realize that, don’t you?”

“Why did you do it?”

Kirk shook his head and laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “God, boy, I don’t know. I can’t give you a one line answer for something like that. I’m not even sure what was going on in my head at the time.”

“He meant that much to you?” The voice was very quiet.

Kirk didn’t reply for a moment. Why was he letting the kid ask these questions? When it got right down to it, he was a stranger. Yet David was his son. Perhaps he deserved some honesty. If he couldn’t give him anything else, he could offer that.

Kirk had been silent too long. David asked again, making it plainer. “Did you do it because of Spock?”

Kirk took a deep breath. “Why do you need to know?”

David hesitated. “Because . . . I want to understand you.”

Kirk felt a genuine warmth from the young man, an openness that cried for an answer in kind. “Good enough. Did I try to commit suicide because I lost Spock? It would be simple to say yes, but I don’t think it was only that. It was a lot of other things, too. Probably a combination of years of pain that I kept putting off feeling because I didn’t have the time to let it go, or I had responsibilities that made it vital for me to hang together for one more day or month or year. I honestly don’t know. I just remember thinking that I didn’t have to hold it back anymore, I could let all the feelings out now that there is nothing or no one left to depend on me.” Kirk paced, finding it surprisingly easy to talk about it. Perhaps because David was listening, not analyzing.

“Some of this comes from McCoy, because I was in a kind of emotional fog at the time, and I’m not sure I really know exactly what was running through my mind. He suspected something right away. Said I’d pulled out of the depression too fast, and he sensed that I hadn’t so much come to terms with Spock’s death as made a decision about something else. A decision that calmed me totally. I remember how he kept probing me, trying to draw me out, asking me how I felt. I just kept answering that I was fine. I wasn’t lying either. I felt terrific, like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my back. Probably because I’d subconsciously made my decision to stop hurting once and for all as soon as I had the Enterprise back home safely. I suppose I thought I’d found my final answer on how to deal with death.”

“And now?” David asked.

Kirk picked up his drink. “Now I’m hurting again, and I’m glad. At least I’m alive, and I’m damned glad McCoy found me in time.” He smiled sadly. “Spock would have never forgiven me.”

“Are you all right?”

Kirk took a drink and shrugged. “Bones thinks I am. Says it was temporary—probably a reaction from bottling up too much for too long. Now it’s all come out, and I’ve punished myself for all the mistakes I made in my life. I can start fresh. I think he’s right. I feel sane enough.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Lonely and a little scared but sane.”

Kirk looked at David again. “Anyway, thanks for the concern. I’m not quite sure why I deserved it from you, but it’s appreciated.”

David studied the floor again. “I didn’t like the idea of losing a father I’d just found.”

Kirk sat down in the chair beside David’s. “There’s something else, isn’t there? You came here for another reason.”

“Yes.” He hesitated. “I’m not even sure if I should tell you.”

“Tell me what?” Kirk prompted.

David moved uneasily in his seat. “Mother thinks I’m wrong, and I could be. I have no facts to back up my theory, but I know the Genesis effect as well as anyone. I helped build it, design it—”

Kirk sat up straight. “The Genesis effect?” His heart quickened. “What about it?”

“The basic components of the effect are too complicated to go into right now, but you already know rough theory of how it works. The spark that starts the chain reaction is the natural radiation found in any material, living or not. That’s why it was so important to find a totally lifeless planet because the initial exposure of the effect will dissolve and reform matter to match the matrix instructions. After the metamorphic period, the effect stabilizes and begins to follow a more natural pattern of evolution. That’s why it was safe for us to be in the Genesis cave on Regula. The pattern had already been established and stabilized.

“So what’s the problem?”

David looked uncomfortable. “I don’t think the planet formed by the nebula can possibly be stable. In fact, I think it’s quite probable that it will burn itself out in a relatively short time. Perhaps a matter of weeks, if my calculations are at all in line.”

“Why?” Kirk demanded.

“I told you, the effect utilizes natural radiation. It was never intended to . . .” He paused uncertainly. “Listen, what happens when a starship explodes?”

Kirk’s eyes widened. “The Reliant! The anti-matter—”

“Exactly. Genesis has never been tested under radiation levels even remotely resembling anything like that. Eventually we would have made more tests just as a precaution, but there wasn’t time. Genesis was still in the first stages of testing.”

“So what does this mean?”

“All I can do is speculate. Mother doesn’t agree with me—but she’s always been a little blind where Genesis is concerned. She wants to believe that it worked like a charm and all we have to do is convince the Council to renew funding for more experiments.” He met Kirk’s eyes seriously. “I was surprised that it worked at all with radiation of that magnitude—and it worries me that it did. The entire process has accelerated, and I think it’s going to keep fueling the effect until it burns itself out. The planet cannot be stable because the effect itself cannot stabilize under such conditions.”

“Why are you telling me all of this?” Kirk asked, feeling a strange excitement building inside him. If Genesis means life from death . . .  The thought echoed back to him; it had been consoling in a vague way when he had first thought it, but now it returned as a breathtaking possibility.

“Because of Spock.” David said flatly. “His body was introduced into the effect after the matrix was formed. The planet was in the second phase of the effect—the growth stage. His body was also permeated with radiation, and under those conditions it could start a regenerative process—”

“Regeneration!” Kirk jumped from his chair, electrified at the thought. “What he told McCoy to remember . . . that’s what he meant! Maybe he realized the possibility existed or . . . “

“What do you mean? How could he know? And what did he tell Doctor McCoy?”

Kirk stared at him, hardly seeing the boy at all. “Flint—he told McCoy to remember Flint. McCoy thought—we both thought Spock was still trying to apologize for something he’d done. Making me forget something . . . that he still felt guilty about all those lost years. Nothing else made sense. But that wasn’t it at all!”

Confused, David opened his mouth to speak, but Kirk went on, too excited to remain still. He began to pace.

“It was Flint he told McCoy to remember, not Rayna or what he’d done to make me forget her . . . or what he made me forget later. Flint regenerated. My god, that’s what he was trying to tell us, and McCoy didn’t understand—neither of us understood!”

David shook his head skeptically. “I don’t really know what you’re talking about, but I don’t see how Spock could have known what would happen, or even that his casket would be sent to the planet.”

“It doesn’t matter how he knew. Maybe it was foresight, or . . . It really doesn’t matter.” Kirk dismissed the subject easily, too overwhelmed to bother with logic. “What you’re saying is that Spock could be alive . . . that his body could regenerate the damaged cells.”

David stood hastily. “Wait a minute. I didn’t really say that. This is all wild speculation on my part, and my mother wouldn’t agree with any of it.”

“But you must think the possibility exists or you wouldn’t have come here,” Kirk insisted.

David turned away. “There’s also the possibility that I’m wrong. I don’t want you hurt again. Even if his cells do regenerate, it doesn’t have to mean he will be alive again, you must realize that, too. All the theories in the universe don’t cover exactly what life or death is or what they mean. This is all pretty crazy. I shouldn’t have come here at all.”

Kirk stood and turned the boy to face him. “You must think there’s a chance or you wouldn’t have come here.”

David’s eyes held Kirk’s without flinching. “What I think is that if I’m right about any of it, something better be done pretty doon, because that planet isn’t going to be there much longer. It’s too unstable. It can crumble apart as easily as it formed, and for almost the same reasons.

“How long do we have?” Kirk asked.

David shook his head. “I can’t tell for sure. My calculations are just as speculative as the rest of it. Maybe a week . . . two at the most. Unless I’m wrong about all of it.”

Kirk gripped the boy’s shoulder. “Thank you, David. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I can handle that, too.” He smiled. “I never told you that I was proud to be your father. I am, you know. You’re one hell of a lot better than I deserve. Once this is over, whatever the result, maybe we can make it all feel a little more real.”

David nodded, feeling strangely shy. “I shouldn’t ask this. It’s really none of my business. But were you and Spock . . . ?”

“Lovers?” Kirk supplied when David faltered. “Yes. Does that bother you?.”

David flushed. “I don’t know. But I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s just a little surprising.”

Kirk smiled. “I was a little surprised myself.”

Embarrassed, David changed the subject. “How are you going to get back to the planet? Starfleet has it posted under General Order 7 until the Council makes a decision on the Genesis effect. They even have a destroyer guarding it to keep ships out of the area.”

 

A determined glint flashed in Kirk’s eyes. “I’ll get there,” he said simply.

 

*   *   *

 

Nogura’s secretary didn’t have a chance to stall him. Kirk went directly to the massive oak doors and opened them while the young man at the desk sputtered objections.

Nogura looked up, not displaying any surprise at Kirk’s entrance. “You could have knocked,” he pointed out mildly.

Kirk ignored the remark and advanced to stand in front of the old man’s desk. “I want my ship back,” he stated, determination etched in every line of his body.

“Indeed? We have been through this before, James. Perhaps if you will be seated, we can talk about—”

“No, I’m not staying long enough for that. I want the Enterprise back, Nogura, and I want her refitted and ready to leave dry dock within three days.”

For once Nogura didn’t reach for his worry beads. “She doesn’t even have a crew.”

“Get one,” Kirk said simply.

“The ship sustained serious damage, it will take longer than three days—”

“The worst of the damage was repaired on the trip back. We can worry about having her painted and prettied up later.

 Nogura studied him unblinkingly. “Why three days?”

"Because that’s when I’m leaving—on the Enterprise or on another ship if I have to.”

“Chasing ghosts, James?”

Kirk smiled. “Perhaps. I also want clearance to return to the Genesis planet.”

Nogura sat back in his chair. His perpetually neutral expression suddenly altered. He frowned. “I was afraid of this. I have heard rumors that you were not taking the Vulcan’s death well. I am very sorry about Spock. He was a very brave man, a brilliant man. His presence will be sorely missed.”

Kirk didn’t answer.

“James,” Nogura said slowly, “I realize his loss is also a great personal tragedy for you, but you cannot let this pull you down. You are an extremely valuable person.”

Kirk’s eyes sparkled dangerously. “Yes, I have a very high opinion of myself, also. Enough that I’m willing to bet I’m too valuable to lose. Either I get the Enterprise back within three days plus the clearance I need, or . . . you get my resignation right now. Take your choice.”

“What purpose can be served by returning there?”

“Beyond the scientific knowledge that might be gained, I have a personal reason as you well know. Exactly what that purpose is irrelevant to this discussion.”

Nogura paused. “Let us say for the moment that I permit you to take the ship on this . . . private quest. As personal privilege in return for your excellent performance in the past. Would you be willing to take your place here at Headquarters when it is finished?”

“No deals. Whatever the outcome, I keep the Enterprise. In the past you’ve cleverly managed to let me talk myself into doing exactly what you wanted. You’ve manipulated me, and I’ve let you, because deep down I was a little afraid of myself, of what I was capable of doing. These last two weeks have shown me a lot about myself. Enough to know I’m right about this and to trust my own judgement.”

“And if you resign, what will that gain you?” Nogura demanded.

Kirk shrugged. “I won’t be losing anything worth having anyway.” His gaze held Nogura’s steadily. “But you will, and you know it.”

The old man steepled his hands together thoughtfully. “You are very confident, James. And, oddly enough, I cannot believe that you are deranged, in spite of evidence to the contrary.” He studied Kirk for a long moment. “Very well,” he said finally, “the ship is yours. As you astutely surmised, I would prefer to avoid losing you. However,” he added dryly, “I have not abandoned the hope that you will someday sit on the Council.”

“Ask me again in twenty years.” Kirk grinned. “I might take you up on it then.” He turned to leave but only reached the doors.

“James.”

Kirk turned around, wondering what the tag line would be this time.

“I hope you find your ghost.” And Nogura smiled.

 

*   *   *

 

Kirk stepped out of the shuttle feeling like he had taken a journey to Oz. The landscape was primeval, misty, and warm. Giant ferns whispered in the light breeze, and he could hear the cry of an animal in the distance.

He felt for the phaser on his belt, hoping that he wouldn’t need it for protection; he was the intruder here. He activated the tricorder, but its readings were almost as vague as the ship’s sensors had been. The Genesis effect still clouded the atmosphere, preventing accurate readings. The radiation level was high but tolerable. He didn’t plan to be here for more than twenty-four hours, in any case. It was the deadline he had given himself, and he intended to stick to it. If he couldn’t find Spock by then it wouldn’t make any difference. David was more certain than ever that the planet’s life span was coming to an end.

David had protested Kirk going to the planet, but when the sensors proved unreliable there seemed to be little choice. David had concluded that the risk would be minimal at this stage—as long as Kirk kept the trip brief. Kirk had insisted on going unaccompanied, unwilling to expose anyone else to the danger. And, when he found Spock, one way or another, he wanted to be alone.

By computing the trajectory of the torpedo casing that had held Spock’s body, they had been able to narrow down the vicinity of the landing site to a twenty-five mile radius. Kirk had hoped that he would be able to pick up more definite readings on the surface by using the tricorder, but soon learned that it was just as erratic as the rest of the sensor equipment.

Kirk took a deep breath and pulled the strap of the specimen case over his shoulder. He began walking around the shuttle in an ever-increasing circle, ready to cover the entire twenty-five square miles foot by foot if necessary. He paused occasionally to break off a twig or leaf, using the knife from his kit to pry off a small section of bark from one of the huge trees. Officially, this was his reason for coming here; to collect samples of flora for study of the effect. It was certainly better than going on record as searching for the ghost of Captain Spock.

He was trying very hard not to think, to be willing to accept whatever answer he found. But his heart thudded quicker with every step, and his mouth felt very dry. He tried to squelch the hope that burned inside him. In the days it had taken to ready the Enterprise and reach the Genesis planet, realism had struck Kirk, and he knew that logically that the odds were overwhelmingly against him. But, as long there was a chance, he had to try.

Most importantly, he knew he was strong enough to accept it if he found that Spock was truly dead. He would go on from there and follow his ‘first, best destiny’ as Spock had wished.

It was less than two hours after he had begun the search when he spotted the shiny, black surface of the casing that held the Vulcan. In spite of his brave resolves, his knees felt weak as he approached it.

He wished he knew some magic words or some incantation that would still the dread that rose in his chest to smother him. Whatever happens, I can bear it. I must bear it.

Kirk was still a few meters away when he noticed something that sent a chill like ice up his spine. His breath caught with a gulp. The seals on the casing had been broken off, and the upper half was resting unevenly on the lower. He moved closer, and with one quick motion, shoved the cover off.

It was empty.

He stared at it for what seemed like an eternity, feeling a superstitious awe sweeping over him. He touched the lid gently, patted the cushioned lining, unable to truly believe his eyes. He wasn’t even certain what he was feeling. It was too early for joy, too late for doubt. Fear was present, nibbling at his subconscious. The actual fact was too much for him to comprehend, impossible to accept just yet. With a nasty quirk, his mind slipped over unsavory legends of vampires and zombies. The plot of a story flitted through his mind, “The Monkey’s Paw.” Sometimes you got what you wished for too late. Too late for anyone’s good.

He shook off the ridiculous barrage of fantasy with a laugh. Whatever happened was explainable, one way or another. The Genesis effect was no myth; it was fact.

Kirk took a steadying breath and tried to think clearly. Spock wasn’t here, that was one fact that couldn’t be denied. He took a closer look at the seals and saw that they had not been easily broken, but chipped away methodically, one tiny bit at a time.

But what startled him the most was that it had been done from the outside.

He stepped back from the casing, looking around at the surrounding jungle. Spock hadn’t done this. He let that sink in for a moment, accepting the other implications as well. He was not alone on this planet, and Spock could still be dead. He wondered if it was possible that a Klingon or even a Romulan ship had slipped past the patrol vessel. It was possible, and also probable that they would want to investigate a scientific curiosity such as this planet.

Kirk searched the ground for footprints, but he could see none. That told him little. It could have been days since they had been here, and the vegetation grew so quickly it could easily cover any sign.

He shut his eyes, trying to think where to begin searching. “Jim.”

Kirk froze. The sound of the voice sent a crushing ache through his body, shaking him to the core. He couldn’t believe it. Wouldn’t let himself. If his mind was creating that sound, he didn’t want to open his eyes to find out.

“Jim, I’m here.”

Terrified to look, Kirk opened his eyes anyway. Spock stood a few feet away.

Kirk didn’t speak, didn’t move, just looked at him.

Spock’s Vulcan robe was torn and stained, his hair far too long and his face bearded. But he was truly the most beautiful sight Kirk had ever seen.

The Vulcan took a step toward him. “They let me go,” he said quickly. “We saw the shuttle come down. By the time we got there, you were gone. They let me follow you, but—”

Kirk collapsed suddenly, falling to his knees, his eyes still frozen on Spock. “You’re. . . alive . . .” he whispered. He began to cry, tears streaming down his pale face, his body shaking as the sobs wracked him.

Spock was beside him in a second, down on his knees in the damp moss, holding the shaking form. “Jim . . . Jim . . . lt’s all right. I’m here.”

Kirk’s sobs began to merge into laughter as he clung to the very real body. “I can’t . . . believe this . . . “ he choked out, verging on hysteria. “I must be crazy. I can’t believe . . . I’m dreaming this.”

Spock shook him a little and made Kirk look into his face. “Stop it, Jim. You must listen to me. I’m alive, but we’re both in danger—”

Kirk’s smile was radiant. He pulled Spock’s head down until their lips met and kissed him fervently. “My god, you’re real. You’re alive!”

Spock realized that Kirk wasn’t going to listen to him until he was able to accept his presence as a reality. It was all too incredible to absorb in a few short minutes, but Spock wasn’t sure how much more time they would have.

Kirk held on to him, touching the Vulcan’s face wonderingly, stroking the too-long bangs back from his eyes. “I thought I’d never see you again. I felt so empty, Spock. Are you sure you’re all right?” He laughed again, clutching Spock’s hand. “What a stupid question! Of course you’re all right! You’re alive!” He took a shuddering breath to steady himself. “Do you remember any of it? What happened—?”

Spock kissed him. “No, Jim. Very little. Now, we must—”

“But you gave the Genesis message to Bones. You must’ve known what the Genesis effect would do?

Spock looked puzzled. “I . . . It’s all very vague to me now. I don’t recall—”

“But you told McCoy to remember,” Kirk broke in excitedly. “Before you went into the chamber. You had to know what would happen.”

The Vulcan shook his head. “McCoy must be mistaken. How could I even know I would be able to save the ship? I remember going into the chamber, but there wasn’t time to—” He shrugged it off. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“No, it doesn’t matter,” Kirk said, touching Spock’s cheek reverently. “We can figure it all out later. Let’s go home.”

“Home, Kirk? I think you shall never see home again.”

At the sound of that voice, Kirk’s heart nearly stopped. He couldn’t breathe for a moment. “It can’t be,” he whispered.

Spock stood and pulled Kirk to his feet. “I’m sorry, Jim. I tried to tell you, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. They would have already stolen the phasers from the shuttle.”

Kirk turned to face Khan Noonian Singh and the pair of phasers that were trained mercilessly on him and Spock. Kirk vaguely recognized the young blond man who stood beside Khan as the one who had been on the bridge of the Reliant.

“Joachim, take his weapons. If he moves, I shall shoot Mr. Spock. Is that clear, Admiral?”

Joachim took the phaser from Kirk’s belt and knelt quickly to pick up the fallen equipment. He emptied the small tool kit, removing the knife and tucking it in his own belt.

“I must thank you, Kirk,” Khan purred, “for the much needed clothing.” He gestured to the coveralls he and the other wore from the shuttle’s emergency supply. “And, of course, for the accoutrements.” His grip tightened on the phaser. “We would have been here to meet you sooner, but you had the foresight to lock the vessel’s hatch, and finding a means to open it delayed us.” He smiled. “Also, I felt you deserved a . . . private reunion.”

Kirk didn’t speak, had lost the ability at this final shock. How could Khan be alive? He had watched the Reliant disintegrate.

“You are very quiet, Admiral. As I recall, you were a man of many words, very eloquent.” His jaw tightened. “Very sly, too. No tricks this time, Kirk. No rematch. The game is finished, and I win at last.”

Kirk found his voice and his composure. “All right, Khan, you win. I would like to know how. Why are you here? How can you be here?”

Khan circled around them, savoring his triumph. “You told me that you laughed at my superior intellect. Well, laugh at this if you can. You thought you had beaten me—but I am not the fool you think me. I knew there was a chance you would win the battle; a true leader must be prepared to lose battles. But I had the Genesis device, Kirk. Did you think that I would have it in my hands and not fathom its operation? True, there was much of it that was beyond my knowledge, but the basics of it were child’s play. Molecular engineering. We were pioneers of such work two hundred years before you were born, Kirk!” Khan’s voice rose as his speech became more impassioned.

He calmed himself with an effort and smiled again. “Had you forgotten that I and my followers were genetically engineered, Admiral? Oh, you thought our efforts primitive indeed, didn’t you? But the basics, sir, are the same. I knew my own genetic code quite well.” He glanced at Joachim, who still held the phaser on Spock, his expression unreadable. “I knew Joachim’s as I helped in the genetic design for his creation. I knew others as well, but my time was unfortunately limited.”

“He entered the information into the device,” Spock said to Kirk. “By doing so they became a part of the matrix as much as the other data. They were formed in the same way as the other life here.”

“Exactly. Thank you, Mr. Spock.” Khan held up his hand. “But you left out one important factor. I also included a cell sample from each of us as part of the pattern. Without that we would have been reborn as infants—which would not have served my purposes at all. This way we have returned exactly as we were when the cell was taken, down to the scars on my hand.” He lowered his hand and looked at it for a second.

“Do you know how I damaged it, Admiral? It was after my wife died. You do remember my wife, I take it?”

“I remember,” Kirk said. “I’m sorry she died, Khan. I didn’t want that.”

Khan’s eyes flashed fire. “You lie! You wanted us all to die!”

Kirk shook his head, but knew anything he said would simply infuriate Khan more.

Joachim stepped closer to Khan. “My lord, we should leave. If we conserve on life support, the vessel should have enough fuel to reach the nearest star system. Their sensing devices are not working properly, or he would not have had such trouble locating Spock. The chances are good that the ship will not pick up our departure.”

“In time, Joachim, in time. I think the Admiral still has more questions. We would not want him to die of curiosity, would we?”

Kirk glanced at Spock, wondering if there was a chance to catch either of them off guard. It would be simple with Khan; he was so caught up in the melodrama of the moment that all his attention was focused on Kirk. It gave Spock plenty of openings. Except for the other one. Joachim’s hand was steady and his eyes were clear. He would not be easily tricked.

“Okay, Khan,” Kirk said, “obviously your plan worked and you’re alive. But that doesn’t explain a lot of other things. Your memory, your thoughts—how could they have been reproduced? That isn’t logical.”

“An interesting point, Admiral. But one best left for scholars and saints to puzzle.” Khan shrugged. “Perhaps our mental force . . . our souls, if you will, did not have time to travel where such entities go after death. The dead have been known to linger if something exists to hold them to this life.” The white teeth flashed cruelly. “I, Kirk, had my hate to chain me here. My need for revenge.” He stared at Kirk, eyes burning with madness. “The answers are beyond either of us. All that remains are the realities. I know who I am and who I once was. And I surely know you, Kirk.”

“So now you’re going to take your revenge? All right, maybe I can’t blame you in some ways. But leave Spock out of it. He had nothing to do with any of this.”

“On the contrary, my friend. He is part of your punishment. He is your right hand as Joachim is mine. You will watch him die—again. I let him out of his coffin for just this purpose. I knew you would return for him.”

Kirk noticed Joachim’s eyes flash to Khan’s face, the look of dismay that flickered quickly. It occurred to Kirk that Joachim recognized Khan’s madness and was sickened by it.

“I do not plan to stop with Spock, however,” Khan continued. “I shall destroy your ship as well. Somehow I shall—”

“No!” Joachim was facing Khan now, eyes pleading. “Please, Khan. Let us just leave here. We have another chance. I cannot let you throw it away with your mad scheme of revenge. There must be an end to it!”

“You will do as I say!” Khan snapped. “When this is over—”

“It will never be over! Never! Dear god, can’t you see that?” Joachim looked down at the phaser in his shaking hand. “No more. I cannot follow your madness any further.” He tossed the weapon with all his strength into the underbrush.

Kirk and Spock edged farther apart in preparation, but Khan’s phaser leveled on Kirk. “Don’t move, either of you. I will kill him, Spock!”

“You’ll kill me anyway,” Kirk pointed out. “We might as well go down fighting. You won’t get both of us.” They had moved far enough apart so that Khan could only keep one of them covered. He kept it trained on Kirk. Spock hesitated even as Kirk’s eyes ordered him to move against Khan.

Khan’s smile was wicked. He sensed Spock’s indecision. “Spock will never risk your death, Kirk.”

“So it’s a stand-off.”

Khan whipped around quickly, changing his aim to the Vulcan. “Is it still a stand-off, Kirk?”

Kirk didn’t answer.

“Beg for him, Kirk,” Khan hissed. “Beg for his life on your knees. Beg as I would have begged a thousand times for release from that hell you sent me to.”

“Don’t,” Joachim said suddenly. “Stop! Kill them if you must, but don’t do this. It is pointless.”

“Be silent! On your knees, Kirk!”

Joachim’s voice was shaking. “Why must you do this? All my life I have followed you, learned from you, loved you, worshipped you . Now I learn nothing but madness, and what I loved has been burned away by hate. I beg you to stop now. I cannot bear more of this!”

“I said, be silent!” Khan snarled. “I will deal with you later, you weak dog! You traitor!”

“Traitor . . . “ Joachim’s voice was hardly more than a whisper. “You say that to me?  To me?” He straightened, his hand moving to the belt of the coveralls, to the knife he had taken from Kirk. “I have reached . . . the end,” he said brokenly. “I shall play Brutus to your Caesar.”

Khan’s back was to Joachim. He did not see the flash of the blade before it was buried in his back. Khan cried out, more in surprise than pain.

Kirk saw Khan’s body jerk, his eyes widen in amazement as he realized in that instant that he would die. He stood still for a second, then the phaser slipped from his hand. Kirk snatched it up instinctively.

There was no need. Khan pitched over to the ground, and Joachim stood beside him, dazed. Joachim knelt and pulled the knife from Khan’s back, throwing it away from him with a cry more wounded than Khan’s. He gathered the dead body in his arms. “Forgive me, my lord. I have taken the revenge you truly wanted.” He pressed his face to Khan’s. “But what is left for me now, my lord?”

Kirk looked at Spock, who moved to stand close by. For some moments they watched in silence as Joachim held Khan, rocking the body with the agony of one who has lost everything.

“I am sorry,” Kirk said at last. “I never wanted any of this to happen.”

Spock touched the young man’s arm, feeling his pain and understanding it well. “Come. It is over now. Come back with us.”

“Back?” Joachim repeated blankly.

“Yes,” Kirk put in. “We must go. This planet won’t last much longer.” He glanced at Spock. “David thinks the entire effect will reach a critical stage very soon. Once we get outside the parameters of the effect, we’ll be safe—as long as we leave right away. Before the reversal begins.”

Spock nodded and looked at the unheeding Joachim. Kirk spoke to him again. “We must leave now. Come with us. It will be alright. It is finished for him.”

Joachim did not move. “No, I will not leave him. It is finished for me as well.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Kirk insisted, but part of him knew Joachim was right.

“I have lived with him in hell,” Joachim said simply. “I will follow him there now. As I have always followed him.”

Kirk opened his mouth to speak, but found he had nothing to say. Spock took Kirk’s arm.

“Jim.”

Kirk nodded and they moved away toward the shuttle. Neither of them looked back. They had been walking only a few minutes when they heard a low whine behind them.

Kirk looked at Spock. “He found the phaser.”

“Yes.”

 

For a Khan of the plank, and a king of the sea,
and a great lord of Leviathans was Ahab.
-- MOBY DICK (Herman Melville) Chapter 30

 

*   *   *

The shuttle was on course back to the Enterprise.

Kirk knew he was shaking from reaction, but didn’t try to stop it. He was almost afraid to look at Spock out of sheer awe that he really existed, yet he was afraid to look away for fear he would vanish.

Spock sensed Kirk’s uncertainty and sought a way to make him comfortable. He had to admit it was difficult to imagine how one would treat a reborn lover. Even Sarek might have found himself a bit tongue-tied.

“Jim,” he said gently, “I am quite real. No ghost, I assure you.”

Kirk dropped his gaze sheepishly. “Yes . . . I’m sorry if I was staring. It’s just . . . It’s hard to think about this rationally. My emotions are running away with me again, I’m afraid.”

“Let them. I feel somewhat . . . uncontrolled myself.”

Kirk swallowed the lump in his throat. “It better wait until later. We’ll reach the ship in a few minutes. I think I need that much time to adjust to a resurrection.”

“It has the air of unreality for myself, of course,” Spock commented. “I cannot actually remember dying—or being reborn. The mystery of life still remains a mystery.”

Kirk felt a tickle of almost hysterical laughter bubble in his throat, but pushed it back with determination. He’d save the hysteria for later when they were alone in his cabin. “Well, do me a favor and don’t go back and check. You look pretty good for a dead man. McCoy will probably say you sold your soul to the devil.”

Spock smiled. He glanced over at Kirk, conscious of the rattled edge Kirk was treading and wanting to tease the nervousness away. “All things considered, I feel quite . . . rejuvenated. You look well yourself. I see you took my death in good stride.”

“All things considered,” Kirk echoed, “I suppose I held up.” Then he turned to Spock, eyes wide and serious. “Please don’t do that to me again. I might not make it the next time.”

“I will try to avoid it.” His hand reached out to clasp Kirk’s tightly. “Like lightning, miracles seldom strike the same place twice.

Kirk’s smile returned, happiness grown beyond all boundaries. “We’ve beat the odds before, Spock. We’ll do it again if we have to.”

 

The Enterprise waited serenely before them, along with all the many possibilities in their lives.

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