I leaned over an Ops Center console and scanned the comm traffic for the Enterprise, in orbit over my head. I might be temporarily grounded again, but I was still her captain until Starfleet said I wasn't. The latest entry caught my complete attention.
Starfleet Command Stardate 8742.9 to Spock, Commander. Proceed all speed to Vulcan, Shikahr, Vulcan Planetary Council, packet attached, diplomatic service detached from active duty. Immediate implementation. Duration open.
My indrawn breath hissed through my clenched teeth. I knew what this meant. Just as during the week since V'ger had been destroyed I'd been cooperating with Starfleet's PR department to calm a shaken population, so too now was Spock being sent on a similar foray to Vulcan. The Federation was always very sensitive about what the Vulcans thought.
Vulcan. Where the acolytes of Gol still meditated in the desert for arcane purposes I couldn't understand, would never understand. Had Spock really turned his back on the allure of the Kolinahr, probably the only task he had ever set himself that he had not achieved? On Vulcan Sarek and Amanda would reasonably expect Spock to spend time with them, and they would undoubtedly make the case that Spock should stay on his home planet. The Vulcan Science Academy had already announced a special research project to determine what had happened when Will Decker and Ilia had somehow merged with a living machine and. . .disappeared. Where had they gone? Spock would be fascinated with the possibilities, I was sure.
I stepped away from the data display and straightened. I had spoken more truly than Bones had realized when I'd told him on the ship that I needed the being who had once been my best friend, the friend who had left me. Three hard years had convinced me of that.
And, God help me, I loved Spock. I'd known I loved him those last days of the mission, but back then I had thought it was an unusually intense, platonic love. It seemed to me that our moments in sickbay just days before had finally fulfilled a circuit that had been sparking between us for years as it attempted completion -- but that connection had been foiled by our separation. Then, when our hands joined. . . . Losing myself in his eyes just confirmed what my heart had already told me: I loved him the way that Lori had wanted me to love her.
I had to talk to him. I knew nothing of the way he felt for me except for that extraordinary, timeless communion we'd shared, and then the ease with which we had interacted in the scant hours before Nogura had commanded me off the ship. If Spock was ordered away to Vulcan, we had to find some truths between us before he left.
A window provided a view of a little park nestled among the cluster of buildings that was Starfleet Command. Early autumn had colored the leaves of most of the trees, but I ignored the scene. As I reached for my communicator, it beeped before I touched it.
"Spock here, Admiral. There is some information I must convey to you, sir."
"You've been ordered to Vulcan. I know."
A hesitation. "There is. . .more. Time is short. My shuttle leaves in less than an hour. Is there a place where we can talk?"
The controlled chaos of the Ops Center surrounded me: my domain and where Nogura wanted me to stay. We would see who won that struggle. There was a briefing room down two floors where I'd held many a conference, where Harry Morrow and I regularly disagreed about fundamental policy, but I rebelled at talking to Spock in such sterile surroundings.
"My apartment. We can talk there. In fifteen minutes?"
"I will obtain the coordinates and beam down at that time," he said. "Spock out."
I closed the grid thoughtfully. Of course Spock didn't know where I lived. He'd shared no part of my life during the years on Earth. He'd never, to my knowledge, even met Lori. He hadn't attended her funeral three days before.
I'd just let myself in and was opening the curtains that had been blocking the sunlit view of the bay when I heard sounds of materialization. I turned around only to realize that he was out in the hallway, not in the middle of my living room. That was so like the Spock I remembered. An instant later the doorbell chimed.
I crossed the room to open the door and there he was.
I stood and regarded him in silence. Spock still looked like hell: gaunt to the point of emaciation. The one-piece gray uniform that hugged every awkward, bony protrusion of knee and hip and elbow made him appear even thinner. His skin was scoured by the Vulcan suns and yet he was paler than he'd ever been on the Enterprise, so that his hair and eyebrows, that I knew were deep brown with hints of auburn in the sunlight, seemed black, severe, and uncompromising.
But still Spock. How had I ever been so witless as to let him leave?
He spoke just as I was about to. "Admiral. If you have the time to give me, I. . .I have something to say to you."
He was feeling uncertain. Not me. I knew exactly what I wanted. Him, completely. "Let's not talk in the hall, Commander. Come in."
This time I didn't have to order him to sit, he went straight to the plush mauve couch that my wife had picked out and sat down on the very edge of the cushion. I followed him and sat on the white chair facing him: comfortable, but directly opposed to the way I was feeling. I clasped my hands between my knees, searching for a way to talk about what we'd never admitted to each other before. But he spoke first.
"You are aware of the orders I have received?" he asked abruptly.
"To go explain things to the Vulcan council. Yes."
"Simply put but basically correct. I do not know how long such a posting will last, which is one reason why I believed it imperative to make contact with you before I left. I have. . .a request."
"What is it?"
He swallowed. He'd always had emotions, and sometimes he betrayed them with such physical signs. I had always noticed things about him when we served together: his bobbing Adam's apple and the set of his shoulders and the way he walked. I'd always known when he was pleased or in pain or distracted.
"I request to be assigned to the Enterprise under your command as soon as my duties on Vulcan are complete or when the ship leaves drydock again, whichever comes first. I am willing to serve in any capacity, although science officer seems a logical position."
"Because you don't want to stay in what's essentially a diplomatic position?"
"I would not disagree with that statement," he said stiltedly; I could see he was weighing each word. He seemed unwilling to say any more than what was essential.
"Well." I pinched the bridge of my nose. "I can push your posting through channels, of course, only I'm not sure I would be joining you. I might not be regaining command."
His gaze riveted on me. "Surely Admiral Nogura would not deny you the Enterprise. Public opinion -- "
" -- doesn't mean a damn to him. He wants to keep me in Operations. He might manage to do it, too."
That seemed to stun him. "I see," he said slowly.
A surge of nostalgia washed over me when he steepled his fingers before him in thought. So many times I had seen him in just such a pose, sometimes during perilous danger as he struggled to fulfill one of my commands, sometimes over a chess board, sometimes when Bones was teasing him and he was trying to appear nonchalant.
"In that case," he said with purpose, "I will amend my request. I wish to be posted wherever you are serving."
That was the answer to the question I had not asked. What propelled him back to the ship? I did.
"Spock. . . ." The truth was there, and so I said it. "I want to serve with you, too. But. . .why do you want to stay with me?"
"It is because of V'ger," he said, and his voice suddenly went very deep and harsh, the way he had sounded when he had first rejoined us. "And Lieutenant Ilia."
He stopped as if there were nothing more to say, as if it were obvious what he meant. "I don't understand," I said.
He stood up and walked over to my picture window with his hands tightly folded behind his back. I stood, too, but I didn't follow him. He had sought space for whatever he was about to say, and so I let him have it.
"When I came back to the Enterprise, I encountered Commander Decker and Lieutenant Ilia. I immediately perceived the connection between them." His tone turned bitter. "Their mutual attraction was obvious even to me, a person who despised my own emotions so much that I attempted to kill that part of myself."
"But you didn't do that."
He still addressed the yellow afternoon light fading over San Francisco. "When I joined the Enterprise, if I could have found a way to do so, over and above the control imposed by my days at Gol, I would have. I learned again a lesson you had already taught me: emotions can burn. They scald."
He had to be talking about seeing me on the bridge for the first time. So cold he had seemed, so remote. Not hot but cold. I remembered my own pain.
"I observed Decker and Ilia's connection, but I dismissed it as being of no consequence to me personally, nor to the mission. I was in error.
"When I left the ship in my ill-considered attempt to gain closer knowledge of V'ger, an exchange of sorts occurred. For the brief time during which I was engaged in the meld, I experienced not only V'ger, but Ilia as well."
"I know, I remember your debriefing report. Because she had already been absorbed?"
"Perhaps because she was the most recent addition to its consciousness or because it believed it could communicate best through the filtering thoughts of another humanoid. The pertinent element is that I perceived Ilia's love for Decker through her own mind. Directly."
Slowly he turned to look at me. "This emotion I could not ignore, nor could I consider it of little consequence. It was all-important to her."
I remembered the final scene of Decker's life, the scouring light and the battering noise, the gathering energy. What had happened to him had been terrifying to witness, but the ravening fire had also been fascinating; I had not been able to take my eyes from the process of immolation and merging until Spock had pulled me away from it.
"And Will felt the same way," I said. "He loved her so much that he chose joining with Ilia and V'ger over life. He made the ultimate sacrifice for the Federation, and I'm going to make sure he'll be honored for that for generations, but I do think it was love that really drove him."
"It is a powerful force, this love."
"Yes," I said simply. Then, softly, "Why are we talking about love, Commander?"
Abruptly he erased the distance between us. I might have been afraid of his sudden intensity and movement, but I have never truly been afraid of him.
"Jim." His hand closed around my bare forearm, just above the wrist, and brought it up between our bodies. A complex mix of feelings swept through me, making my heart pound and testing my ability to not touch him back as I looked down at the contact of his hot fingers on me.
"I recognized what I perceived in Ilia." His earnest words brought my head up with a snap. His eyes blazed with sincerity. "A helpless longing, a yearning for connection. A need for the other who completed her that had been denied for so long. I recognized it because I had experienced it myself while at Gol. I had thought such feelings were a natural result of my struggle to cast off my emotions, that I felt empty temporarily only until the logic of pure thought could fill me again with the attainment of Kolinahr. But I was wrong. It was my need for you, never excised. You. I realized this even as I awakened in sickbay."
"You reached for me."
"And you reached back, as you always have. I made a mistake going to Gol, Jim. The pain inside me, it was caused because I had denied you your rightful place in my thoughts, my memories, and my future. You. I missed you, my companion. Nothing I could do at Gol could ever fill or replace the space that you and I had created together during our years of service on the ship. There is more to me now than there was before I met you, and to deny that part of myself is unproductive and self-deceiving.
"And that," he released my wrist and took a step back away from me, "is why I ask that I be permitted to serve with you wherever you are posted in Starfleet. It is logical for us to continue our friendship, an association that has been of benefit to us both."
For a moment I hovered between hearing what I had thought he was going to say -- it is logical for us to be lovers -- and what he had actually said. It was a shock, like being punched in the face.
"Logical?" I managed to get out.
"Inasmuch as it is possible to apply logical thinking to this situation, yes."
"As in continuing our friendship."
He was very steadfast and nodded quickly. "That is my desire, yes."
His desire. I remembered how Spock had so seldom been able to say "I want." He still couldn't. Or maybe he didn't even know what he was really wanting. . . .
"So you think that we can serve together, maybe go back to being the command team that we were, go off on another mission and do what we did before."
"I have just told you. Our friendship is important to me."
"It's not going to work, Spock."
I still could read him, because I saw a flash of concern cross his features, almost panic. "Jim -- "
"That might be enough for you, but it's not enough for me."
His mouth opened to speak but I forestalled him. "No, don't say anything. You've had your chance to talk, now it's my turn." I stalked across the room, not so much to think -- because I knew exactly what I wanted to say -- but to gather energy. I turned around and hurled my words at him like an accusation.
"I don't need to be friends with you. I've got plenty of friends in 'fleet command. I'm still friends with Bones. I've got friends all over the goddamned Federation. I didn't spend the last three years wishing you'd come back so we could start playing our chess games again!" I surprised myself with my vehemence; that last part came out in a shout.
But I didn't stop myself or attempt to calm myself down. This was how I felt, and if Spock of Vulcan couldn't take me, human emotional reactions and all, then I needed to find out right then. I advanced a few steps closer to him and jabbed a finger in the air. "And that's not what you need, either. You're backtracking. Damn friendship. Friends don't hold hands the way we did, and friends don't hear each other's thoughts across hundreds of light years. You forget, Spock, you heard me; it's in your report and I read it."
"I -- "
But I interrupted him again with a swipe of my hand. "Friends don't say 'Pull strings so that I can serve with you.' Do you know what that sounds like? It's ridiculous. Friends don't feel that way about each other. We have another term for that in Standard, one you seem to be afraid of using unless it's referring to somebody else. You're afraid to take what you've said to its logical conclusion. You claim to recognize what you found in Ilia, what she shared with Decker and what I feel for you. It's -- "
He said it quietly, one small whisper in my whirlwind of accelerating passion, but it silenced me. I stood there and stared at him, at my friend who was so pale and worn and who I needed so much.
"I harbor great emotion towards you, Jim. Put in human terms, I love you. You force me to say it."
"I am not as naïve as you suppose me. I am well aware of the nature of my feeling for you. It is the kind of feeling that any normal Vulcan would hide if they could, for it is an obsession, an onslaught." He turned his back on me. "I had hoped to be spared telling you." His voice dripped acid. "But you have always forced me into corners."
I advanced behind him and talked to the back of his head, though I wanted to touch him. "Why? You're saying what I want to hear."
"You were not listening. I am not a normal Vulcan."
"It doesn't matter that you're half-human, you proved that at your pon -- "
He whirled around and grabbed my shoulders in a grip so tight his fingers hurt my bones. "You do not understand, and that is unlike you. Listen to me. Nine days ago, I was almost Kolinahru."
I broke his hold on me and insisted, "It doesn't matter."
All the intensity fled from his body, like water running down a drain. "It does," he said flatly. "It means that I cannot love you in an acceptable fashion."
Abruptly he stalked back to the couch, there to sit as precisely as if he were still in full control instead of radiating emotion. By the way he held his head and how his hands tensely cradled his knees, I knew better. After a moment I followed and sat next to him. I ran my fingers through my hair in frustration.
"We seem to be talking at cross purposes. I've been practically screaming at you. What a way to make a declaration. You say you love me but you can't love me. There's a disconnect here that we've got to fix. I promise not to. . ." I hovered on the verge of saying I wouldn't force him into any more corners, but I knew myself too well. Instead I said, ". . .I promise to listen to everything you have to say. Tell me. Make me understand. And then we'll figure out a way to fix things."
For the space of several human heartbeats he was quiet, but eventually he spoke.
"It is not that I do not harbor strong emotion for you, Jim," he started. "I know it is what humans would call the sort of love that leads to intimate interaction. I do not understand why I did not recognize it before I left for Gol, but I put no name to the instability I experienced at the end of the five year mission. I was intent on other things, I believe, but if I had stopped to pay attention to my. . .my feelings, instead of pursuing an unlikely ideal, if I had not left," his head came up and he stared at the landscape picture of the Earth's Moon that I had hung on the wall, "the odds are high that today we would be a bonded pair. Through three years of discipline and the rites of Gol, still your thoughts called to me. Do you know how unusual that is?"
He looked at me. His face was rigid in its enforced calm, but his eyes were ravaged by unhappiness. I hated to see him like that.
Without thinking I placed my hand over one of his that cupped his knee. His skin was so harsh and dry. "We're unique. We were meant to be together."
He moved under my touch but not to pull away, more a way to maximize our contact. "And when you say that, you mean the complete range of intimate association, including the sharing of bodies in a sexual manner."
I blinked. "Yes, of course I mean that. I want to make love to you, Spock. When I say I feel love for you, that comes with it."
"And under better circumstances than these I would interact that way with you. In the Vulcan manner with the body and with the mind."
Was that longing I heard? I thought so.
"But I cannot. Because I came so close to being Kolinahru."
"But you seem to be expressing yourself so much more than you were when you first rejoined the ship, I thought that -- "
"Do you truly understand," he interrupted me and returned to a contemplation of where our hands were touching, "what the attainment of Kolinahr means?"
"The complete suppression of emotion," I answered slowly. "Which I thought you had abandoned."
"To achieve supreme logical thought, the prospective Kolinahru works to divorce the body from the mind. Emotions are primarily the products of biological urges; if the essence of one's existence is separate from the physical, then the temptation to regress into emotional behavior is far less. Jim, so short a time ago, I was but one step away from the achievement I strove for three years to attain. I was almost there."
"You're. . .divorced from your body?"
He nodded. "I will no longer experience the pon farr cycle. I will no longer experience sexual desire." He drew in a steady breath that I imagined being ragged. "If I had but known how the days would turn. . . . Desire is not something I can share with you."
Slowly I pulled my hand away from over his. It was all clear to me now. "That's why you didn't want to use the word 'love.' Why you insisted on calling it friendship."
"And yet I was not strong enough to simply stay away from you. I am sorry, Jim. My need to be with you is great, and I could not overcome it. If I could give physical intimacy to you, please know that I would."
I sat next to him, the being I loved, and I thought furiously. "But once you left Gol you were able to express emotion again, even though you'd been suppressing it, overcoming it all through your time there. At least, once you came back from V'ger you did. Why can't you reconnect with your body now?"
"It is not so simple. There are certain pathways that have been blocked, connections shattered. It is one of the very last attainments of the initiate, one of the most difficult to achieve. That is why I was able to stand before T'Sai and seek the Kolinahru status. I was ready."
I didn't want to accept it. I wouldn't accept it. "That makes no sense," I accused. "Like you said, you shouldn't have been able to hear my thoughts over the light years, either. But you did. If you violated what was expected of a Kolinahru then, why shouldn't -- "
"Jim," he interrupted me, but not in the old way we'd had of finishing each other's thoughts. "I know my own body."
His words held the utter finality of conviction. How often had I relied upon my science officer for evaluation of unfamiliar phenomena and based my own decisions on his advice?
"And now you're here with your feet in two different worlds," I said bitterly, and then I had to stand and walk away from him. I turned and regarded him with clenched fists, feeling hollowed out, as if what I was inside had been abruptly vaporized. "You're really a hybrid now. Your heart and your mind in this world, but your body's in some crazy place where only thought matters, where love and feeling and arousal don't exist."
He looked down to the floor. "I knew you would feel this way. You are a very sensual man, Jim. The years we have spent apart have not changed that memory I have of you. I did not wish to offer you my love if I could not do so in the manner you could accept."
Once again, Spock the self-effacing, the self-deprecating. "And what about what you can accept?" I could see him reach for some semblance of calm and resolution. He didn't succeed, because I could hear his misery.
"I have no choice. I am as I am, the product of decisions I have made and actions I have taken. I cannot go back."
"You're prepared to live a sexless life? Without passion, without. . ." I groped for the right term, ". . .connection?"
He rose and came over to me. "I would still be your friend, Jim, if you will have me. Even though I would be one of many."
I squeezed my eyes shut against the sight of him. The past three years had been like a disorienting dream that I'd kept hoping I'd awaken from: everything off-kilter, no one reacting the way they should, and my own sense of self challenged as I tried to find a way to function in the political environment of headquarters and yet maintain my self-respect. Now, to be inflicted with this impossibility so soon after Lori's death, after Decker's wrenching sacrifice, as I had to ignore my pathetic performance on the bridge before Spock had arrived and tell myself I truly was fit for permanent command of my ship. . . . Spock's rejection settled into my chest where all the other pains throbbed.
I opened my eyes to see him standing so very near, looking at me with worry and with his slim, gray-uniform-clad body close enough to. . . . Suddenly his proximity struck me like an aphrodisiac poured boiling directly into my veins. The hair on the back of my neck rose. My cock tingled and my fingers flexed with craving. I wanted to shove him against the wall and slam our bodies together. I wanted to tangle my fingers in his hair, ravage his mouth, throw him down on Lori's couch and spend my lust and my anger and all my sweet affection in his wiry body as I roared my need of him.
And after, I wanted to learn to live with him as we pursued our far-flung adventures with our white mistress and be with him every day, to have access to his steady support and his fascinating insights and to how he had always allowed me knowledge of his unique, unwavering self. . . .
I took a few moments to grope for control and try to suppress those bitter-sweet imaginings. "Do you really think we can. . .do this? They say old lovers can't be friends."
"But we were never -- "
I think it was my look that stopped him. "We were," I said intensely. "We were, and don't you deny it. In everything but the physical."
He had the grace to avert his gaze. He knew it was true. We both remembered how it had been between us. If only. . . .if only on the day we'd said good-bye in the transporter room when he'd left for Vulcan, I'd had the wits to recognize my own feelings for what they were. How could I blame him for not being emotionally perceptive when I had been just as blind?
"Let us be friends." He was distressed. "Since we cannot -- "
"Are you absolutely sure? Suppose we try and -- "
"You would suggest I go to your bed and offer you. . .what? A body that cannot be roused, a mate who can never respond?"
The vision flared like fire in my imagination, Spock naked and me over him, our bodies skin to skin, me taking. . . . Yes!
Spock as calm as he ever was, offering himself on a perverse altar of my desire. No. The sacrificial flames flickered and died. He doesn't want me. Can't want me. It would be obscene to pursue this.
And yet still I said, desperately, "It's going to be torture to retreat from this and still be together in other ways. Not just for me, for you, too. This emotion that's between us. . ." My hands moving through the unresisting air tried to encompass love and lust and wanting and bare need and fondness and ease of conversation and that striking affinity that had always marked how one human captain and his half-Vulcan first officer interacted, ". . .it's not something that's easily controlled or easily ignored. Love, this kind of love, moves towards fulfillment. It's why you couldn't stay away today. Don't you see?"
"You would have me come to you without the physical desire that is the hallmark of such a relationship for humans? You deserve so much better than that in your choice of intimate partner, Jim. I would not impose myself on you in such a way. You have known what it is to have a true spouse. I urge you to seek another."
"And just give us up. Just forget everything we might have been to one another. Is that what you want?"
"No," Spock breathed, visibly affected at the image I painted. "Not forget. I could not forget you, any part of you, ever, in any context. But. . . ."
Spock straightened. "It would be most difficult for me to go to you and offer you so little when I wish for so much more to be between us. The pain of being your friend. . .I require that. The pain of being closer without being able to give you everything, that I could not endure. Do not ask it of me."
I wouldn't. I couldn't do that to him. And what he asked for, the simple, uncomplicated gift of friendship, what we had shared before, wasn't that something I could do? Endure at least that pain in exchange for his nearness?
That the love we had between us should be reduced to mirrored, aching tenderness. . . .
"I want you," I said roughly. "Any way I can get you. But. . .not sexually if you can't. . .if you really can't."
I saw his relief, and I realized that he really had been concerned that I would reject him completely.
"I thank you," he said softly. "I will exert effort not to disappoint you as your friend."
"See that you do, First Officer."
"Then you will arrange for us to be posted to positions where we have access to one another?"
What a curious way of putting it. Even through my distress I had to smile at how he used a term that anyone else would interpret as having a sexual meaning. And yet, he spoke the truth. It seemed we did want access to one another.
"I'll do my best."
"Then I know you will accomplish it," he said, and he stepped away from me. "It is eighteen hundred forty-three hours and I must leave for my transport to Vulcan. I hope to resume our. . .relationship in a short time, but I cannot predict how long this posting will keep me from Earth. Therefore, please know that I am sure you should return to the Enterprise as her captain."
I rubbed my hand across my jaw, felt the faint stubble that impeded my own touch, and was only a little amazed that he had sensed the misgivings I had shared with no one. "I'm glad one of us is sure. Nogura might block me."
"That would be misguided."
"If you say so."
His comm beeped and informed him that he had ten minutes to board the ship that would take him away again. He told them to lock in his coordinates, but before he could give the command I stopped him.
I hated the neediness that made me speak, but I wasn't going to pretend. "Come back to me. Don't let Vulcan take you again."
Then he was right in front of me, moving as he had before, and I was confronted by his energy, his vitality, and a vision of how vigorous a lover he would be. Would have been.
"I will not commit that error a second time," he said, and his expression was open with intense sincerity. "Do not mistake the nature of my regard for you. It is as I have said. If only I had known. . . ."
"Things would have been different." A bonded pair, he had said. My thoughts swelled in my throat.
"Yes," he managed to choke out. "Jim. . . ."
And then, as if he could not stop himself, two fingers came up and, after a noticeable hesitation, they contacted the side of my face. So warm. . . . I wanted to close my eyes to better experience the slow stroking as more of his heat settled on my skin, but I couldn't. Sadness, even misery poured off him in waves, mixed with immense guilt. It was as if we were sharing thoughts, or at least feelings, but I knew he shouldn't meld for months, the healers had said, until he had recovered from his encounter with the vast entity that had brought us back together. . .but not together enough.
I leaned into him, and he simply stood there, barely touching me, each of us inhaling shallowly and not wanting our contact to end. I thought of turning my head and kissing those fingers, but I stopped myself. This was so wrong. Everything about it was wrong.
I watched as the transporter took him. I spent a while after that contemplating the darkness that had fallen over the city and wondering about which was the mistake: bringing our bodies together or keeping them apart?
Over the next two months I devoted myself to my own hybrid existence, with half my time spent in Operations and half on the road doing what I could to encourage Earth's population back into a sense of security. When Starfleet paraded me as the savior of the planet and the man who had defeated V'ger, I didn't like it but I saw the sense of it. People want to feel that there are solutions to problems and that they are protected from the unknown and the unknowable.
I did what I could to provide perspective. I changed speeches and appearances and early morning breakfasts and formal dinners into lessons. I talked about the utter courage in what Will Decker did, and I tried to highlight Starfleet's mission to explore and make contact with other civilizations as well as defend against aggression. I pointed out that V'ger had been neutralized -- not defeated at all, but rather deflected -- not by force of arms but through communication, the ultimate communication of one being to another.
Some people listened and understood, but too many didn't. Those were the ones who just wanted to see a hero, get close to me, and ridiculously ask for my autograph. I've never understood that. What good is my signature to a person who doesn't know me at all? But of course I do understand; it's contacting a part of something bigger than yourself. The problem was I didn't feel very big. Some members of the audience saw only my success, but I felt my own failures too keenly. I'd foolishly married Lori without love or even real commitment and then inevitably been unable to sustain the marriage. I hadn't given Decker enough credit or power when he had known the ship and I hadn't. I'd lost the love of my life because of ignorance of my own heart and bad timing. This was a hero?
The question of whether I would request consideration as the Enterprise's permanent captain -- or try to ram it down Nogura's throat -- was put on the back burner. Post-mission maintenance had revealed cracks and twisting of both her nacelles, probably caused by proximity to that last cataclysm of V'ger's before it disappeared. Something like that would take four or five months to fix, and while they were at it the techs were modifying the new engines as well. It would be quite a while before my ship took flight again.
Nobody else was appointed in my stead, and I kept my ear close enough to the unofficial lines of communication to know that nobody else was being contemplated: I was still officially captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, resplendent in drydock, and I decided to at least temporarily not rock the boat. I imagined that Nogura was expecting me to make a play for her; keeping my silence while balancing my titular captaincy with planet-side duties was likely to make him wonder what I was up to. Good. I would do what I could to keep him wondering and improve my position until he would have no choice but to give her to me permanently. I didn't know in any detail how I would manage that, but I had learned patience in the previous three years.
Besides, Spock wanted to serve with me on our ship. I was going to make sure that happened for him.
Spock wrote to me every two weeks, and I had to smile at his stilted phrasing and his careful choice not to say anything that was in the least interesting about his stay on his home planet. He had said he'd come back, and I trusted that he would, but apparently he didn't want to run the chance of having me doubt him. I wrote back to him each time, and my guess is I seemed just as awkward to him as he seemed to me. The two of us were obviously not cut out to be letter writers. No, we communicated best when we were together. My masculine pride bowed before that undisputed truth: everything was better then.
When V'ger had turned my life upside down, Lori and I had been apart for six months, officially divorced for four. I hadn't slept with anyone in that time, but when my hopes were shattered by Spock, my body roared into life again, as if he'd tantalized me with what I really wanted and now I couldn't shut the mechanism down. I'd like to think I didn't take advantage of my notoriety when I was out doing my duty for Starfleet P.R., but there were so many women with unmistakable invitations in their glances, women who understood it would be for just one night. A few times, the look I gave back to them said yes.
I used them, they used me, and nobody got hurt. After all, I told myself, sex is a part of life. Just not Spock's life.
Men, too. The first time I realized a man in one of my audiences was giving me the eye, a sort of fierce, exultant howl rose up, unbidden, from the center of me. I didn't want to examine too closely what drove me to invite that undeniably masculine person to my bed that night. Yes, I'd always been mainly attracted to women, but I'd done my share of experimenting when in my twenties. Now, at nearly forty, I'd almost forgotten. . . .
I did it twice, with two different men, each of them respected, intelligent individuals, but I didn't give a damn about that. Once I did the taking, then the next encounter I was taken, and by the time the second man walked out my door my howl had been reduced to a whimper.
I ached. To have that with Spock: the sexual giving and taking that we could have extended into all the other areas of our lives. To not ever have him walk out my door.
I pulled myself back together and made sure no other man came close to me again.
A few more encounters and even women's appeal dulled. Hell, I've never pretended to be a saint, but even self-love was more fulfilling than what I'd shared with those strangers. I wanted Spock.
God, I wanted Spock.
But I couldn't have him, and that was that. I worked hard to make myself believe it.
After that I had sex with my right hand when I couldn't deny the need anymore, as any good Starfleet admiral should. What did I fantasize about to bring myself to arousal and completion? Not my best friend, not that moment I'd turned around on the bridge and seen him, and not the way he'd touched me in my apartment with his paired fingers. . . . The symbolism hadn't escaped me. What we might have had.
I cursed the monks at Gol a lot. Surak came in for his fair share of abuse, too. It didn't change anything.
Even Rear Admiral James Tiberius Kirk, conqueror of V'ger, cannot hold center stage forever, and as the days grew shorter in the northern hemisphere I pointed out the law of diminishing returns to Starfleet P.R., refused all further publicity engagements, and in the crisp early December air went back to full-time duty in Ops.
The frontiers were relatively quiet, and I soon realized I could turn that to my advantage. Strategically absenting myself from Ops completely would prove that my assistant was more than capable of filling my shoes permanently. Sworikov would do a better job of handling Morrow and his constant opposition than I ever had, anyway. The admiral, who stood in the chain of command between me and Nogura, had a distinctive style: to butt heads, to question everything, to doubt competence. His ambition was for the CinC's office when Nogura retired; I would be happy to let him have it if I could find my way back to the center seat of my ship.
I comp-mailed Nogura's office that I was taking a two week leave and before the old man could object had already blacked out my comm to all but Priority One messages, said good-bye to my staff, and signed myself off post. All part of the plan.
I emerged into the evening darkness feeling free and also at a loss. I considered looking up Bones -- Christmas in Georgia with him and his family both appealed and repelled -- but decided against it.
I found my way instead to an exclusive resort in the northern Rocky Mountains, an enclave for the rich and famous. Probably my name had something to do with getting me first class accommodations where the beautiful people went to play, but I didn't trade on it deliberately. I just wanted someplace where I wouldn't be fawned over and no one would extend a publicity photo and a pen my way.
The first day I arrived mid-afternoon, took a short hike around the property that nestled on the side of a mountain, ordered room service for dinner, and slept for a dreamless ten hours. The next day I rented some cross-country skiing equipment and took myself off on a long, lonely trail that spent most of its time above the tree line. There was a magnificent view of the small town below in the valley, with a dot that must have been a fir tree in the center square, festooned with whatever it is they put on Christmas trees. The sounds of a choir of school children singing traditional carols even came to my ears, courtesy of the peculiar acoustic properties of the swelling valleys and mountains.
That night I made my way down to the lodge's gathering room off the lobby, where people were crowded around the open fireplace that was roaring away in the center of the room. The scene seemed like an ad for holiday conviviality, nothing genuine there, but I was bored with my own company. So I joined them in the upholstered circle of benches that surrounded the firepit and quietly listened to their talk with a glass of mulled wine cradled in my hands.
I stared into the fire as a melancholy mood passed over me. I was close enough to the heat to feel it against the soles of my shoes, propped up on the rail that circled the flames. The image of the last fire I'd seen was etched on my retinas: Decker and Ilia facing each other, Decker being burned alive in the force of. . .what? I had to think that part of that conflagration was the fierce attraction between the two of them, finally fulfilled in some way nobody understood. I think I'd seen what Spock had said he'd recognized, the need. There had also been joy in those flames, and I urgently hoped that wherever Decker was now, he was happy. If there was even a trace of the being called Will Decker left. That was one of the big questions, wasn't it? The ones being investigated by the VSA that Spock had carefully not mentioned, that I had feared would attract him more than serving again with me.
I looked around at the mostly-counterfeit frivolity that surrounded me, the too-loud laughter, and the freely-flowing drinks and drugs. Ah, Spock, what would you think of this? I could just imagine his eyebrow flying and the things we'd say to each other. But he wasn't here, nobody connected to me was, and that was my own damn fault. I knew how to make myself part of this crowd, how to make myself agreeable to both men and women. It was an element of the command persona that I was increasingly certain I needed to exert again, if only to assure myself that I could.
And so I noticed that the fire was burning fake logs and was ultimately just as inauthentic as the people there, and then I turned to the woman next to me and started a conversation.
As the night wore on, none of them seemed to care who I was, which was a relief. This resort was so high-end that the patrons probably had their own publicity problems and knew enough not to impose them on others. I vaguely recognized a few faces and earned some laughs when I obviously didn't recognize others. How the hell should I know who the latest singing sensation was?
"So, Admiral, will you be staying on when the big celebrations start?" one of the well-groomed middle-aged men jovially asked me. He clapped a hand on my knee and the drink he was holding sloshed dangerously close to overflowing.
I shrugged. "Maybe."
"Timberlands has it all covered. Hanukkah last week, the Solstice on the twenty-first, then Christmas -- "
" -- New Year's," put in the woman next to him, whose off-the-shelf perfection made me think she'd had one plastic surgery too many. "That's the best party. I'm Angela, by the way. Angie."
We shook hands cordially before the man, who told me he was Roger, continued, "They even hold religious services here, any religion you can think of."
I thought of all the different religious beliefs in the Federation and offered them a small, disbelieving smile that they didn't interpret.
"The Solstice is the best of the religious ceremonies," Angie was saying. "I was here last year for that. They start a big bonfire outside and have a lot of the trappings you'd normally associate with Christmas but really are a lot older. You should try to stay for it if you can. And then the Christmas service is impressive as well, and the music's sublime, as good as a church choir."
"I'm. . .not sure I'm a believer," I said diplomatically. It had been quite a while since I had attended any kind of religious service or believed that I should. I remembered Apollo and Sargon and the obelisk on Miramanne's planet, and though I knew that belief in a Supreme Being seemed to be an instinct of sentient life forms -- Kuppenheimer's famous "instinct towards God" -- still I had to ask myself who or what was guiding the countless billions in our universe. I already knew for a fact that the search for omnipotence had taken humans and our sentient cousins down some strangely mistaken paths. V'ger with all its vast knowledge probably came closer to the old-fashioned definitions of God than anything else I knew of, but there was no divinity in it.
"Oh, you don't have to be a believer to attend and enjoy any of these ceremonies."
I looked at Angie askance, at her obvious sincerity. "Religion as spectacle? As entertainment?" That abruptly offended me, and she was able to tell.
"Oh, no," she said, flustered. "I didn't mean -- " But then someone started playing a guitar close to us, and any more conversation on the subject was diverted.
It didn't matter, as I would be gone before the time for any kind of worship at the Timberlands. Though I had two weeks, my enthusiasm for cross-country skiing and my tolerance for this sort of company wouldn't last long.
By the time the clock struck midnight, a different woman with whom I'd been having a half-hearted conversation made it obvious she wouldn't mind it if I joined her in her bed. Anna-Marie was pretty and young and vacuous, somebody-important's daughter. She went with me out to the wide porch that spanned the resort's main building. A front was coming in and clouds were sweeping in from the west; we'd have snow in an hour or two, I told her. She hung onto my elbow and pushed herself up close. It was the perfect opportunity for a kiss or to press against her breasts, but though I felt the familiar urge, I didn't.
I skied across a scattering of fresh powder the next day and pushed myself hard, from first light to when it began to fade around sixteen-hundred hours. It wasn't a good idea to be out in the twilight and descending cold, but I'd gone further than I'd realized that day. I stopped to catch my breath when I was still a good two hundred meters above the lodge and twenty minutes away by the twisted trail. I leaned on my ski poles and watched the sun touch a ridge of the western mountain, and then I settled my skis more firmly in the snow, determined to watch the sun completely set.
The star under which I'd been born, the planet where I'd been raised, these mountains, this valley, this instant in time: beauty. I inhaled all of it deeply and tasted the fresh-scented air that filled my lungs, and then the wind whispering through the pines captured my attention. It was a different sound than played through lowland trees, such as the cottonwoods under which I'd grown up, with their heavy rustling and the crackling as you walked on their leaves when they'd fallen. Pine needles produced a shushing sigh as they bent before the breeze, a secret sound that hinted at profound mysteries just past a human's ability to perceive them. The trees around me were speaking, like the mountain range that dared me to see over it, the valley's rushing stream that called to me to follow its path, or the inexplicable dots of light that illuminated my journeys through the nighttime sky.
As primitive humans on Earth struggled to understand our place in the universe, thousands of years before, these had been the natural wonders that had, perhaps, called them to imagine the gods. Questions like a growing blade of grass had no answer for those people, and the rush of darkness across the face of the mountains on the longest night of the year must have seemed like doom narrowly averted. Would the sun rise again the next morning?
In just the few minutes since I'd stopped, I could feel the cooler temperature already against my face, and the valley below me was covered in deepening shadow. I watched as the lights of the town attempted to gain ascendancy over the dark.
Movement down the slope and much closer to the lodge caught my attention, and I twisted to peer into a substantial clearing that made a natural amphitheater. Some workers were adding wood to a stack that already was tall as a man. That had to be the bonfire Angie had mentioned for the Solstice. It would make an impressive display when kindled. Did the resort, I cynically wondered, hire some local people to dance around it in mimicry of primitive ceremony, in false worship? Or did alcohol take care of the dancing? I could imagine the heat the wood -- real this time -- would generate. Not as much as V'ger had.
I'd had a flame inside me all during the Enterprise's five year mission, and I'd thought it was still there when I'd taken over command from Will. Maybe. Maybe not. What did Nogura, the shrewd judge of men, think? He wanted me in Operations. Spock, who used to know me better than any person in the universe, he thought it was still there. All those five years, Spock and I had danced around our inner fires, spiraling closer and closer to each other until it had seemed our flames had almost merged. Now, he was cold. I could never warm him again.
I zipped up my jacket against a rising wind. More snow was on the way, and I was not going to allow myself to become buried in melancholy thoughts.
As I found my way past nine o'clock that evening to the convivial group clustered around the fire, I was already bored and wondering if I really wanted one more day of skiing. I was out of my element.
Angie and Roger greeted me like I was an old friend, and Anna-Marie sent me a dazzling smile from across the room, promising what I didn't want. I put my feet up again to settle down for the evening, had two generously spiked eggnogs and was carelessly contemplating a third when something -- perhaps a stray whiff of frigid air coming in from outside -- lifted my gaze from the toes of my shoes. Standing by the front door, near the deserted reception desk, was Spock. Even with his slender silhouette obscured by heavy-duty outerwear, I recognized him.
For those first few seconds before he saw me, I felt as if I had stepped into a turbolift on the topmost floor of Starfleet headquarters and that it had plummeted straight down to the ground. Free-fall: my stomach, my head, my wildly pulsing emotions. I swallowed heavily. As much as I want to see you, I'm not prepared to see you, not and live up to my foolish, impossible promises. All the yearning I had thought I had successfully overcome instead overwhelmed me, and I plunged towards sure destruction.
Could old lovers be good friends? Not a chance.
Damn. Damn it.
Damn, it was wonderful to see him. My hands around my empty glass clenched and then unclenched, and I began to smile.
Then he turned and surveyed the crowded room. Over his shoulder and through the double-glazed windows, I could see snowflakes swirling. As he efficiently pushed back the hood of his jacket, a few of the flakes were melting on his bangs. The tip of his nose was a deep olive, and his cheeks were raw-looking from trudging through the cold. My friend, newly arrived from Vulcan, had come to find me in the middle of a snowstorm and must have hiked up the mountain from the village in weather even I would have preferred to avoid.
In the next moment our gazes linked, and I saw his reaction to the welcome I couldn't help but give him. That ghost of a smile, that in the lonely times with Lori I had sometimes thought I had only imagined in memory, showed in his eyes and in the relaxed set of his mouth.
Ah, Spock. It is good to see you I conveyed to him in that way of communicating without words that we’d used all through our mission together.
A questioning eyebrow rose. Am I welcome to join you?
Anna-Marie had abandoned me for more receptive, younger prey five minutes before, and so the seat next to me was vacant. I plunked my feet back down on the floor, ruthlessly swept the afghan she'd curled up in to the side, and emphatically thumped the cushion. Come on over here.
Spock detoured to one of the communal racks, reluctantly stripping off his gloves and unbuttoning his jacket. I was glad that I was settled near to the fire, for he was unmistakably cold. He picked his way between laughing noisy people, over sprawled-out legs, and finally sat down next to me, forced by the crowd to be close enough for me to put my arm around him. I didn't, wisely deciding not even to rest my arm along the back of the seat and thus test the boundaries of my control. But I might have. I could have trailed the tips of my fingers along his shoulder, if I'd wanted to.
My decision didn't seem to matter too much. My body, that had been lazy and even a little drowsy just two minutes before, was now energized and wide awake.
"I see that your computer skills haven't diminished," I observed by way of greeting.
He didn't misunderstand. "You did not leave word of where you were staying," he said severely. "I had no other choice but to locate you by other means."
"Just got back?"
"You work fast."
"I am on leave. I wanted to see you," he said simply.
"Good. It's good to see you, too. I presume you didn't manage to get a room here?"
"You are correct. I am lodged in the town in a less ostentatious hostelry."
I snorted. There was nothing like Spock's plain-speaking.
"I don't think you got those clothes on Vulcan."
He surveyed the cream colored Aran-patterned sweater he was wearing over corduroy navy pants. He'd always had trouble with sleeves that weren't long enough for his long arms, and his bony wrists were exposed now.
"That is correct. However, I had thought these garments would be warm enough for the environment." He sounded faintly accusatory, as if the clothes had let him down.
"Got your silk undies on?" I teased. He had often worn specially insulated underwear when we visited planets with less than ideal climates for a desert-bred Vulcan.
"Tell me how your trip went. How are your parents?"
"We had a gratifying visit, I am pleased to report, and I even stayed in the clan house with them for several days. My parents concurred with my decision to leave Gol, and. . . ."
As he talked about Sarek and Amanda, I twisted a little to face him better, filling myself up with the sight of him as he spoke. I remembered how fundamentally satisfying our days together on the ship had been, especially those last two years when we had seemed to settle into each other. I wanted to at least have that again, and I would try my damndest to rekindle that part of our relationship during the time we might be able to share.
He'd come to me. That had to count for something. I warmed at the knowledge.
"And you? I would have thought to find you with your relatives or friends from San Francisco during this holiday season."
I shrugged easily. "I wanted to get away from it all."
He looked around at the hubbub that surrounded us. "Away from it all," he repeated skeptically.
I laughed out loud and knew a few heads turned our way. "In a manner of speaking. There's good cross-country skiing in the meadows over the mountain. Maybe we could try it together tomorrow. Or. . .am I assuming here?"
"You are not," he quickly reassured. "I am busy only with those engagements I can share with you. I would be pleased to join you. However, at the moment. . . ." He caught the attention of a server and nodded the youngster towards us.
"Jim, would you like to have a drink? Another drink?" That part hadn't changed; Spock was as considerate as he'd always been, as considerate as a lover, as I wanted to be with him.
"We've got a six year Hennessey," the waiter explained, "or if you want something older, there's a twenty year Rémy Martin."
I smiled at my companion. "It's a special occasion. I'll have the Martin."
"I would prefer something warm for myself," Spock said.
The waiter took a good look at the pointed ears and I saw him realize for the first time Spock wasn't human. I didn't think very many off-worlders found their way to Timberlands.
"Uh, mulled wine?"
"I would prefer hot chocolate."
"Okay, one cognac and one hot chocolate, coming up."
While we waited to be served, I told him about the ski trails around the area, where I'd been already and where I hoped the two of us could set out the next day. Half an hour before, I had desultorily considered abandoning my plans altogether, but with Spock as a companion, I found I was interested again. There wasn't much in the way of outdoor activities that he hadn't mastered from his many years of planetfalls, and he shared my enthusiasm for physical pursuits in all different kinds of environments. As long as he had the right clothing and equipment, Spock could traverse snowy terrain as well as I could.
When the drinks appeared on the server's tray in front of us, Spock took both of them in hand. He ceremoniously handed me the wide-bowled crystal.
"A toast. To our friendship."
I kissed our glasses together and steadily echoed, "To our friendship."
I meant exactly what I said and no more -- a declaration of intent -- but helplessly I watched him drink and how he licked off the whipped cream that settled on his upper lip with the tip of his tongue.
"Jim," he said without reproach when he, of course, noticed how intensely I was staring at him.
I looked away and leaned my elbows heavily on my thighs, with the untasted brandy glass dangling between my fingers. "Sorry," I said, but I wasn't. "This is going to take some getting used to."
"Did I make a mistake coming here?" His voice was so low that he could have been asking himself the question.
I didn't answer him right away, but when had I ever turned away from a challenge or from Spock? "No," I said after a few beats of my heart. "If we're going to make this work, we've got to start somewhere. I was getting lonely. You've come at a good time."
"I will endeavor to make sure you are never lonely."
"Spock. . . ." I protested, still not looking at him. "Don't. Friends in human society can't make those kinds of pledges to each other. You know that."
"A deficiency," he declared with intensity. "I would change that."
I gave a sad half-laugh and leaned against the backrest, then put up one foot on the rail around the fire, and then crossed the other one over it. There, that would give me distance and safety.
"You are a trial, Commander Spock," I tried to say lightly, and finally allowed myself to glance towards his still form. The look he was aiming at me. . .the only word to describe it was "hungry." No space near him was safe, and there was no distance far enough from him that would erase my attraction to him.
This was an impossible situation. . .that we had to make possible. "And you are tempting beyond belief," I continued. "Didn't we set some limits? Am I the only one who is going to abide by them?"
He was silent for long enough that I knew he was really contemplating my gentle accusation. "You are correct. I. . .this is a challenging task we have set ourselves. I have been behaving in an inconsistent fashion."
"Not really. We've been behaving. . .how we always have before."
"I ask forgiveness."
"Me, too," I said roughly. "Let's talk about something else. Of cabbages and kings."
He instantly pursued the reference to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. "I do not consume living invertebrates such as oysters."
"Not a practice I would expect you to approve," I agreed. "My fondness for the energizing properties of oysters notwithstanding, I haven't had one in months."
As the next unexpected, wonderful hours passed, as the wind gathered velocity so that we could hear it whipping through the high branches of the trees outside, we talked about all sorts of things: the algorithms that might someday be able to accurately predict cold fronts, and the differences between high-country Earth tundra and the mountainous terrain on Vulcan, and how Spock should be updated in new systems and controls before he was assigned to any starship, and the book that I had picked up to read in the communal hot tub earlier that evening, a best seller that he had finished on his most recent trip from Vulcan. It was the kind of far-ranging conversation that we both enjoyed immensely but had seldom been able to indulge in during our active service together.
At one point Spock picked up the afghan that Anna-Marie had coyly snuggled into and unself-consciously wrapped it around himself. I laughed at him again, maybe a little raggedly, but I hoped he didn't notice. I was determined to live up to my side of the strange bargain we had made, that enticed us and distanced us at the same time.
Sometimes he held his hands to the fire for warmth; I turned away from the light that caressed his long fingers.
If we hadn't had that shattering conversation in my apartment, when we'd denied ourselves the expression of how we really felt about each other, I would have said nothing had changed. We really had slipped back into the way we had treated each other before. Oh, maybe he was a little different. Quieter, without the raw edge of neediness that had especially characterized our last months on the ship that had sent him back to Vulcan. I spent a little while puzzling over how he could have gone through the Kolinahru training, have come so close to excising all feelings, and yet still be the man I could respond to like this. Could want. I couldn't detect anything different about him that would indicate that he was unable to experience physical desire. Shouldn't I? Or was I fooling myself? Or had I fooled myself before?
Inevitably, I had to introduce him to a few of those around us, and I shared him for almost an hour with Angie and Roger. Angie talked again about how much she enjoyed the resort during the holiday season and her plans to attend every one of the ceremonies or parties that would be hosted at Timberlands, and though Spock listened to her with his usual grave courtesy, I could see some other reaction in his eyes. Skepticism or amusement or even fond understanding, I wasn't sure what.
Eventually, they left us to ourselves. I got up to find the rest room, and when I got back he had moved from the bench around the fire to a small table with seating just for two. I snorted in amusement at this most obvious ploy but admitted I didn't want any more interruptions either. He had retained the afghan, now decorously draped over his shoulders. I slid into the seat opposite him, saw that he had also ordered me a second cognac and a bowl of assorted snacks, and was driven to ask what I had never even wondered before. "Do you believe in a god?" I asked without preamble. Spock and I, we'd never had to stand on ceremony, at least not after our first few months together. "I have no idea what a Vulcan's ideas are on the question of a Supreme Being. You don't have to answer if -- "
He seemed enchanted with my question and lifted his head in interest, in that way he had. "You have changed very little. I believe such a question is one of those that humans are advised against introducing in conversation."
I smiled. "You mean only fools talk about sex, politics, and religion?" I wanted to talk about all three with him. Well, two out of three, anyway. Politics was such a necessity in my career choice that I'd had enough of it.
"Not fools. Shall we say. . .courageous conversationalists? Although I do not know the origin of this advice. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin?"
"It sounds like him," I agreed. "So, you gonna answer me?"
He cocked his head to the side as if considering, a motion I found endearing. It was strange, being aware of that, reacting to him the same way I might have reacted to an attractive woman who tossed her long hair over her shoulder. Though Spock was anything but one of the women I'd taken over the years to my bed. Still, my body followed where my heart had gone. . . .
"Of course. Vulcan philosophy since Surak has de-emphasized reliance on a belief in a god. Before his teachings gained precedence, there were a number of organized cults that interpreted the mental net of consciousness, of which all Vulcans are aware, in an anthropomorphic way."
I popped a peanut into my mouth. "So much for Vulcans in general past and present. I'm more interested in the Vulcan sitting across from me."
"I am. . .unwilling to take a stand on this subject. While my father's people reject religious practice as an illogical reliance on the fanciful, I am well aware that this galaxy, this universe holds secrets that we have yet to plumb. And you?"
I considered. "About the same, I guess. I was raised Presbyterian, you know, and --"
"No, I did not know."
"I never told you that? I'm surprised."
"There is much that we have yet to learn of each other, Jim," he told me, a promise that he would not remain in ignorance for long.
It was hard to look away from him, harder still to hold his gaze. I thought that we needed new rules, because relying on the old casual ones, where we'd taken our togetherness for granted, was going to create challenges I didn't know I could meet. "I. . .guess. Anyway, I was raised Presbyterian Christian, but not seriously. I mean, we didn't attend services often. When I went away to the Academy, I never even considered pursuing religion."
"Now. . .I don't know. I tend to think there is no such thing as a Supreme Being, but then there's this enduring belief in one that we've found wherever we go."
He nodded thoughtfully. "The instinct towards God."
"Right. Because of. . .what? Sentient beings' fear of death? I think so. But. . .maybe not."
"The Vulcan katra complicates that analysis. We are sure of its existence after death. I have myself communicated with katras of my ancestors lodged in the Hall of Ancient Thought."
"But there isn't a one-to-one correspondence between a Vulcan katra and the concept of a human soul. There isn't a real consciousness there. And the personality, if you want to call it that, is missing, too, am I right?"
"Basically correct. The katra is not a recreation of the being in non-corporeal form. Self-awareness appears to be lacking. The will to act upon the environment is missing."
"It doesn't sound appealing."
"I would not expect you to believe anything differently," he wryly observed. "As I said, you have not changed."
But I had. My heart told me how much I'd changed.
The night wore on, and midnight came too soon for us to separate. I wanted no part of my bed without him in it; much better to stay up together, sitting where I could see him. I thought of serving on active duty with him and knew this compulsion for his company would have to change, but for now I told myself I was still adjusting; we had been separated for a long time, and this was our true reunion without misunderstanding or duress.
The clock showed one a.m., and the crowd began to seriously thin. Spock didn't seem to notice and launched into a discussion of what he called the VSA's V'ger project. I guess he felt comfortable enough to talk about it with me now, and we soon became engrossed in speculation about where exactly V'ger had disappeared to. An alternate universe? A different form of reality? The other side of our own galaxy? There was an exhilarating, direct pleasure in talking with him at such length without the intervention of either a chess board or duty between us, and I was loath to give him up though I also felt the minutes ticking away. But two a.m. chimed and there weren't many people left. The bar closed down and as our server wandered among the empty tables picking up glasses, finally Spock unwrapped himself from the afghan.
I didn't want to let him walk down the mountain by himself in the dark and the cold, even though the storm outside had subsided to mere snow flurries. It would have seemed too much like abandoning him, if only to the elements, and I wanted to make it clear that I had no intention of doing that no matter how hard it became to keep my emotions in check. He didn't object to my suggestion that I go halfway with him, so I thought he understood my motivations. After retrieving my jacket and a hat from my room, I met him standing patiently just within the lobby, where he was all buttoned up, with gloves on and his hood up and his shoulders already hunched against the cold.
We stepped out onto the porch and he shivered. There were patches of wind-blown sky with stars to the north, but to the south and west the clouds were still heavy. The lights from the village reflected against them and then back to the snow pack, giving a surreal glow to the landscape, like Cottman IV, maybe, or Alpha Neuriga V. The air that assaulted my face was bitterly cold, so I briskly zipped up my jacket and jammed my hands into my pockets.
"Damn it," I swore. "We've going to freeze. I wish I could tell you to just bunk in with me tonight. I don't suppose I could order you to do that, could I?"
"Not and maintain your integrity," Spock said mildly, and he started off down the steps to the trail that would lead to town. "You could simply go back to your room now. It is not as if I am in any danger."
"No, since we're out here I want to show you something."
We sidetracked away from the main trail and made our way side by side under the pine trees in that silence that is special in a snowbound world where sound is muffled, in a deep-night world where there are no other people around, in the world where he and I would always walk together. I lifted my sight to the half moon and the tree limbs heavy with new-fallen snow. What would be perfect would be to take his hand. What would be perfect would be to kiss his frosty lips and know his hot breath against my face. . .and feel his desire for me quicken.
He felt the tempting silence that cocooned us, too, I knew it. I wanted to say something: Are you still sure? How could we have the kind of evening we've shared and not finish it most profoundly together? I don't know if I can keep this distance.
Our coordinated walk became disjointed and out of rhythm, and I tripped over a hidden root. He steadied me with a hand that caught me lightning-quick before I fell.
"Thanks," I said quietly. He released me, but now I was hyper-conscious of him, of each step that he took. Even as cold as I was, I felt my cock stirring, and need raced through but didn't warm me. I inhaled sharply. Of course he noticed. Spock noticed everything, but especially about me. His hands burrowed into his pockets as if he were seeking something lost, and his head bowed lower as we went further down the mountain.
The next twenty meters: they felt like a kilometer. Again an intense feeling of something so wrong, so out-of-joint swept over me, as it had when we'd said good-bye in my apartment. It was so familiar, like powerful déjà vu, and I wondered if we were destined to always succumb to this cycle of discovery and loss, good-bye and despair, of something fundamentally missing for the rest of our lives.
Just then the outline of the Solstice pile of wood, prepared for sacrificial burning, loomed up as a darker blot of solidity. What I had wanted to share with him. I stopped, feeling only confused and unhappy in every part of me.
"Spock. . . ."
I didn't know what I was going to say. But what I saw froze me before I could speak.
Spock was. . .burning. His whole body was translucently pale and yet golden, as if a candle had been lit from within him. His eyes were sparks, his face unearthily transformed. He slowly, deliberately turned towards me, and then his hands came out of his pockets and hung at his sides.
"In what you call sector beta twenty-two."
The glow that had changed night into day went out like a match being snuffed, but the creature standing before me still wasn't Spock. It might have worn his face and his clothes, but it didn't stand as my friend stood and it sure as hell didn't sound like him, either.
I took a quick step back and then two steps forward. I knew this voice, the peculiar reverberation and timbre. Just nine weeks before, a member of my crew had spoken to me in the same flat, expressionless tones. Ilia. Despair washed over me, followed by desperation.
I grabbed his shoulders -- maybe I foolishly thought I could shake him back to himself -- but one swipe of his powerful arm had me impacting face first against the stacked wood. I caught myself as quickly as I could and whirled around to confront him.
"Coordinates oh nine three by eight two two by oh four four."
I pushed myself upright and roared. I could have been heard on the other side of the mountain. "What have you done with Spock?"
"V'ger requires Spock."
Oh, God. Not like V'ger had required Ilia. No!
"You can't have him!"
"We need him."
We? It was eerily horrible to watch Spock forming these words that were coming from the entity we had thought we'd escaped.
"Spock isn't yours to take. He's a sentient being with a life of his own!"
"It is necessary for V'ger to fulfill ourselves through Spock."
"Will? Lieutenant Ilia? Are you there?" I searched Spock's face, but there was no shape-shifting, so sign of anyone else, just the familiar, loved-but-forbidden features.
His lips moved again. "You will meet us at the coordinates. V'ger has need. You will take Spock to us there."
"What need? Will? Let's find another way. Where are you? Will?"
"The entity named Will Decker projects positive feelings towards the entity named Jim Kirk, but there is still the need. V'ger knows that it needs."
Not the "unit" Jim Kirk. Whatever else the merging had done for V'ger, it had given it a new perspective on biological units. I drew close enough to Spock to touch him. He was looking through me, without any spark of animation. My friend.
My hands clenched into fists. "What do you need?"
"Spock will help."
"There are many ways to fulfill needs." Love expressed through friendship. "Find another way, without taking Spock!" My rising tone was a calculated risk. . .and an indication of my fear.
"You will assist as instructed. If you do not, V'ger will seek solutions elsewhere. There are many other planets and entities. V'ger might explore them in our need. Or after it is fulfilled as well."
A threat. There were billions of beings on the inhabited planets of sector beta twenty-two. I couldn't make that choice.
"We give Spock back to you until we meet. He is yours."
And as abruptly as that, Spock was back. He stumbled straight forward against me, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and I held him up with shaking arms around his shoulders.
"Spock?" I murmured, and I pulled his face up next to mine. "Are you okay?"
I felt him nodding slowly. "Y. . .yes."
"Did you. . .hear all that?"
"I heard." His teeth were chattering as he slowly moved away from me. "It seems. . .V'ger is not finished with us."