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Kirk ran. And ran. And ran. His lungs felt about to explode, but he kept on running.

He was going to die. He knew it. In a few minutes, in a few hours, nothing would change that. But he still ran, and ran, and ran, for that’s who James Kirk was. Even when there were no alternatives, even when there was no hope. Somehow, he would make it happen; somehow, he would find a way. And he would fight until he exhaled his last breath.

Because he knew he didn’t count only on himself. Up there, orbiting this cursed planet, his Silver Lady awaited his return. He owed it to her. To the 430 crewmen he had sworn to protect. To his two best friends. To Spock.

Even if he couldn’t do anything to save himself down here, Spock would find a way up there, on the bridge. And if he didn’t, Kirk knew that Spock would keep trying until the end. That was one of the few things he had taught his dearest friend in all the years they had been serving together, and he knew that that very private lesson was as deeply ingrained in Spock’s mind now, in his very genes, as it was in Kirk’s own.

The sun was beginning to set. Soon enough, the darkness would give him no choice but to slow down and seek refuge, and hope for his trackers to give him more time. Knowing they wouldn’t.

His time was running out.

Once again, he was struck by the beauty of the planet. He could honestly say it was one of the most beautiful, if not the single most beautiful planet he had ever set foot on.

Just as its inhabitants were the most malevolent beings he’d ever met. They were the embodiment of the Universe’s worst nightmare. Morally corrupt, calculating... and telepathically all-powerful. That was why he stood no chance.

 

Three days ago, the Enterprise had entered the orbit of Cirfe, the third planet of a Class M star in the outskirts of the quadrant. An impenetrable bubble of ionized gas, similar to a planetary nebula, had kept the system isolated from the rest of the galaxy, but for the last few months, a rare distortion in the massive density of the bubble had allowed Cirfe’s highly advanced sensors to pick up the bypassing transmissions of the Federation, and after studying them they’d decided that they wanted to reach out and become members of the Federation. The Enterprise had been assigned for this First Contact mission, and Kirk and Spock, the legendary Friendship that represented the highest ideals the Federation stood for, were designated the two head delegates.

Cirfe was populated by humanoids very similar to Humans. Their skin, eyes and hair were paler, and they were stronger and taller than the average Human. Aside from some minor differences, particular to every humanoid species, the Cirfens claimed to be the most powerful telepaths the Federation had encountered so far; far above Vulcans. That’s why they respectfully requested that Spock was left out of the landing party. Apparently, they were extremely sensitive to any type of telepathy different from theirs, and they feared their superior abilities would crush Spock, as they had inadvertently crushed the telepathic development, no matter how rudimentary, of the animals on their homeworld.

Agreeing to their request, McCoy had taken Spock’s place, and when the landing party beamed down to Cifer, the planet’s capital, they were blown away by the beauty of it: huge skyscrapers that shone in the sun, plants everywhere, clean air. Lights, colors, happy people full of curiosity and eager to meet Others and venture out of their perfect paradise that, to all intents and purposes, was a prison they couldn’t escape from, until now. Kirk sympathized with their situation, and very impressed by the welcome they received by Prefect Miru and his entourage, he accepted his offer to sleep at his mansion, as his guests of honor.

Kirk contacted the ship to inform them of the Prefect’s invitation, and their first day on Cirfe ended on that positive note.

It was the next day that Kirk began to suspect that something wasn’t quite right in that perfect paradise full of welcoming, outgoing people. Unexpectedly, Ensign Taggart fell ill after breakfast, and when McCoy’s treatment failed to help him, he had no choice but to have them both beamed up to the ship a few hours later. The remaining members of the landing party were invited to visit the city, stroll along the streets, visit the museums, talk to the people and get a feel of the planet, so their report to the Federation was as accurate as possible.

Kirk got the fleeting impression that the Prefect was maybe a little impatient, but he immediately shrugged it off, attributing it to an understandable keenness to get their membership approved and be free to finally travel outside their "bubble system," and get in touch with the majesty of the Universe and the life that filled it.

And so, Kirk and the remaining members of the original landing party walked the city to their hearts’ content, enjoying its museums and wonderful vistas.

In the midst of so much beauty, Kirk missed Spock. Very much. He could just picture him, eyes-wide open, studying Cirfe’s art, history and mythology. He contacted him via communicator a couple times, and Spock became so captivated by his succint descriptions that he resolved to collect all the information he could, and pass it on to his friend when he was back on board.

He also contacted McCoy to check on Ensign Taggart’s condition, and he didn’t like it when the doctor admitted that he couldn’t detect what was wrong with him. He suffered from a headache so severe that it had him almost comatose, and he didn’t respond to any analgesic medication. He said that he felt like needles sticking into his brain, and a sense of fear so primal that it made him physically sick. But he couldn’t explain why.

Nothing in Taggart’s profile indicated that he was prone to panic attacks, quite the contrary. He wasn’t in Security for nothing. It was truly puzzling.

Kirk visited two more museums and enjoyed the green scenery for a few more hours. When it began to get dark he returned to the Prefect’s mansion. Again, the landing party was treated with the utmost deference and after a delicious dinner, they retired to their elegantly decorated rooms to sleep.

Kirk contacted the ship one last time to bid Spock goodnight, promising to make up to him for all the things he was missing by letting him win the next five chess games, and to check on Taggart’s progress. McCoy still had no answers for him, but he had found something. Taggart had been born with latent telepathic abilities, negligible actually, to the point he had forgotten about them. They simply enabled him to tell when someone was or wasn’t trustworthy without any empirical evidence. He couldn’t ‘hear’ other people’s thoughts or send them, he just got their ‘vibes,’ enough to get a better first impression than most. His condition wasn’t worsening, but he wasn’t improving either. McCoy kept him in a comatose state because he felt too sick when awake, which suggested to the doctor that maybe he was picking up the telepathic emanations of the Cirfens on a very basic level.

It was a sound explanation that fitted the warning the Cirfens had given them, but still, with a yellow alert buzzing in the back of his neck, Kirk went to sleep.

The next morning dawned as sunny and bright as the previous two. He contacted the ship and Spock confirmed that Ensign Taggart’s condition hadn’t changed. Over breakfast, Kirk announced to Prefect Miru that they’d gathered all the information they needed, and the landing party would return to the Enterprise within the day. They had been deeply touched by the warm welcome they had been given, and thoroughly impressed by the highly advanced society they had encountered. He had nothing but good things to say, and he had no doubts that they would be admitted as the newest Federation member as soon as Starfleet Headquarters received his report.

Prefect Miru seemed about to burst with joy, and encouraged them to spend their final hours on Cirfe visiting any place they wanted to go. Ensigns Lopez and MacPherson, and Lieutenant Hager headed for the Art Gallery and National Archives Museum respectively, and with his First Officer in mind, Kirk decided to visit the Computer Center, that also housed the Planetary Defenses and the National Library. Despite the fact that they were in the same building, everybody had free access everywhere inside.

Kirk became fascinated by the workings of the computers. It was explained to him that they responded telepathically to telepathically-asked questions, although they had been recently programmed to respond verbally also, out of consideration for their – hopefully - future guests from other non-telepathic worlds. He tried to remember all the explanations he was given, knowing how interested Spock would be in them. The Cirfens had essentially developed a new kind of technology based entirely on telepathy.

When the young Cirfen that acted as guide finished his explanations, he invited Kirk to ask the Central computer anything he wished to know about their civilization and customs, and with a toothy grin he left the Captain to his own devices.

The computer had a rich, melodious male voice, and answered to all the questions Kirk asked, from Cirfe’s flora to the current season’s fashion style and the next’s.

Kirk laughed out loud at the computer’s exhaustive replies, and unthinkingly asked the poorly phrased question that would set in motion the most unlikely turn of events.

"Is there anything you can’t tell me about this planet of yours?"

"I cannot tell the Federation visitors the Council’s plans to take over the United Federation of Planets."

Kirk’s blood ran cold in his veins and his laughing expression froze on his face in a rictus of shock.

"Elaborate," he asked in a hoarse but firm voice, sobering instantly.

And then, the computer proceeded to explain in minute detail how the Cirfe system had been trapped, from the very moment of its formation five billion years ago, inside an impenetrable ionized gas bubble that acted as a barrier that no ships or transmissions could penetrate. The Cirfen civilization had evolved in a cage it couldn’t break out of, and because of their inability to venture out, they had grown inwards, developing such unimaginable telepathic powers that the planet itself formed a collective intelligence in permanent connection, like ants or bees in a hive.

From those explanations, Kirk inferred that the Cirfens had grown obssessively aware of their uniqueness and helplessness within their "bubble system", and now that for the first time in five billion years a distortion in the bubble had allowed them to see what lay on the other side, they were desperate to come out and spread throughout the galaxy.

Their conquest plans were plain ridiculous and had no chance to succeed, but Starfleet Command had to know they had been tricked, that this apparently welcoming and benevolent civilization was actually plotting to infiltrate the Federation Council.

He reached for the communicator on his belt.

"Kindly put your hand away, Captain," Prefect Miru walked calmly inside the chamber, pointing a finger at him.

When Kirk didn’t obey, the communicator was ripped from his fingers by an invisible hand and hit the nearest wall.

Not only telepathic, but telekinetic as well.

Kirk faced his opponent with a sarcastic grin.

"Very nice of you to inform me of your real plans."

"An unfortunate glitch in the programming of the Central computer’s voice that never should happen. But it doesn’t matter now. Our plan cannot be stopped." Two young guards stood behind Kirk and one of them took his phaser.

"Are you certain of that?" Kirk asked somewhat teasingly.

"Positive, Captain," the Prefect nodded once. "You see, the entire planet is enclosed in a telepathic shield right from this very moment. No electronic transmissions will get past it, in either direction. Go on, try contacting your ship." He levitated the communicator back to Kirk’s hand, who immediately opened it.

"Kirk to Enterprise. Kirk to Enterprise, come in!" he snapped. "Spock, do you hear me? Spock!" When only silence answered his call, he slapped the communicator shut angrily and squared his shoulders. "That’s why you didn’t want my First Officer down here. He’d have perceived your double-cross plot straight away."

The Prefect smiled slyly.

"We also counted on him to keep his telepathic shields up after our warning, for his own protection. For all practical purposes, he’s as telepathically null now as you are."

"What happened to Ensigns Lopez and MacPherson and Lieutenant Hager?" Kirk demanded to know.

"They’re safe back on the Enterprise," the Prefect replied. "I informed your Vulcan First Officer that an extensive malfunction was blocking all communications. Before the transmission got cut off I told him that we hadn’t been able to contact you, but we knew where you had gone. We assured him that we’d take good care of you until the transmissions got back online, in 24 or 48 hours at most. So you see Captain, there’s no one you can call for help," the sly smile was back, only this time there was a sadistic edge to it that made every hair on Kirk’s body stand on end. "You’ll stay here until we allow you to return to your ship."

"Will you actually let me return to the Enterprise?" Kirk asked sardonically. "How very thoughtful."

"We cannot guarantee a healthy return, as you can imagine. At best, you’ll be suffering from some significant memory loss," the smile on the Prefect’s lips never wavered. "We have to think of a plausible ‘accident’ for you, but our objective remains the same. We’ll be out of this system in 1,23 days."

"Why?" Kirk asked, struggling to understand. "Why the hurry to apply for Federation membership then? Why the hurry to get out of here?"

"I thought the mighty sensors of your ship would have detected the reason already, Captain," Prefect Miru frowned in annoyance. "The distortion in the nebula that allowed us to finally see and hear beyond our system a few months ago, and allowed the Enterprise to come inside, will close off in exactly 1,24 days. It won’t clear again in approximately 2,12 billion years."

"Then let us help you!" Kirk exclaimed vehemently. "We’ll call all nearby ships, and along with your fleet we’ll evacuate the planet in that time! There are hundreds of uninhabited planets in the galaxy, perfect for colonization!" Kirk winced inwardly at the familiar ring of his last words. It seemed they were destined to come across megalomaniac civilizations every now and then.

The Prefect’s laughter echoed in the chamber.

"Why would we limit ourselves to that, Captain, when everything can be ours?"

A definite silence followed. Kirk’s shoulders sagged and he shook his head.

"One of my home planet’s greatest scientists said once: ‘Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.’ It looks like that quote is applicable to your civilization as well," he snorted ironically. "Don’t you see that whatever your master plan is, it can’t succeed? How do you expect to prevail over an alliance of hundreds of planets?"

"As we speak, I’m in telepathic communication with my wife," the Prefect said. "I’m also in touch with my children and these two young men," he nodded to the two security guards, "and all the members of the Council. Our minds form a telepathic net that covers three billion people. Three billion minds working as one, acting as one, thinking as one. Can your Federation improve on that, Captain?" he took several steps forward, until he was right in front of Kirk. "It’s not a matter of whether it can be done, it’s a matter of how long it will take us."

Something cold, dispassionate and downright evil flashed behind the perfect blue eyes, and Kirk had the absolute certainty that there was something else the Prefect wasn’t telling him. Something that justified his total belief in their possibilities of success, and it chilled him to the bone.

Any further attempts to reason would be useless, and Kirk didn’t waste his breath. This wasn’t the insane plot of a poor madman to conquer the galaxy, or the surviving members of a destroyed vessel looking for a galaxy to occupy, with the power to neutralize them all by pressing a button. Not even the classic warfare based on two enemy fleets facing each other in space. This was the analytical implementation of a plan, plotted for months, that left no room for improvisation or any margin of error. And Kirk believed in their chances of succeeding.

Unless they stopped them somehow.

"I’m sure you’ll excuse me if I do my best to stop you," he breathed oh-so-slowly, his cool hazel eyes fixed on his counterpart’s.

Prefect Miru let out an amused, lopsided grin.

"You can try while we leave you here for a few minutes. There are some things we have to prepare before dealing with your... imminent accident."

Kirk jutted his chin upward, looking at him with utter loathing.

With a short, little chuckle, the Prefect and the security guards left the room, locking him inside.

Kirk lost no time and quickly searched every nook and cranny of the chamber. There were no trapdoors or ventilation ducts he could use. He was a prisoner.

So far, the only weak link in the Cirfens’ plan had been the programming of the Central computer’s voice. Maybe he could look for another glitch before the Prefect returned.

"Computer," he addressed the huge blinking screen on the wall, "I want you to give me a single, unequivocal, specific answer to this logical problem: a man is sentenced to death. He will be executed the following morning, unless he can tell one undisputable truth. The man says, ‘I will be executed tomorrow.’

Immediately, the computer was caught up in the loop of the unsolvable paradox, unable to come out of it.

"If the man is executed, then he has told the truth, therefore he cannot be executed. If he is not executed, then he has not told the truth, therefore he has to be executed."

Kirk smiled to himself.

"Computer, I want an answer now."

"If the man is executed, then he has told the truth, therefore he cannot be executed. If he is not executed, then he has not told the truth, therefore he has to be executed."

"Computer, I want an answer NOW!"

Smoke and sparks burst out from behind the wall panel, and the lights inside the chamber started to flicker.

"Ifthemanisexecutedthenhehastoldthetruththereforehecannotbeexecutedifheisnotexecutedthenhehasnottoldthetruththereforehehastobeexecutedifthemanisexecutedthenhehastoldthetruththereforehecannotbeexecutedifheisnotexecutedthenhehasnottoldthetruththereforehehastobeexecuted..."

"Computer, give me an answer!!"

The lights in the chamber went off with a final explosion that filled the room with thick smoke, and Kirk was left in the dark. All at once, a thin, vertical light filtered through the just barely open doors, and he dashed for them. He slipped the fingers of one hand through the opening and pushed for all he was worth. Finally, the door gave in and opened just enough for his body to squeeze in.

Quietly, looking left and right every time he arrived at a corridor intersection, he made it to the exit. The moment he did, the deafening sound of an alarm blasted out, apparently all over the city, or so it felt to him. He jumped in shock and flattened against a wall, squinting at the suddenly glaringly illuminated streets.

He set off running without thinking, quickly noticing that the streets were deserted. There had to be a reason for it, but right now the most important thing was finding a place to hide, a safe place where he could figure out a way to call the Enterprise.

He stopped in his tracks for a second to look around. If his memory served, the Kilmara Woods were two or three kilometers to the west. Making up his mind, he broke into a run again. Five minutes later, the first trees appeared before his eyes.

He kept on running for about twenty minutes and then stopped to catch his breath. An idea was slowly beginning to form and he had to think it over.

Out of the blue, something covered the sunlight, and Kirk looked up. Thick dark clouds started to gather in the sky. A couple minutes later, the first drops began to fall.

There goes my idea,’ he thought. He’d been considering lighting a fire and stoking it up carefully until it got so big that the Enterprise’s sensors detected it. It was insane, he knew it, because putting aside the destruction he would cause, he could very well end up trapped in the fire and die before he got rescued. But he didn’t have many alternatives.

The rain became so heavy some time later that he had to find shelter under a tree.

He walked endlessly, looking for something he could use. The vegetation became more dense and he studied it for a while. The tall, leafy trees resembled beeches, oaks and chestnuts. There were also man-sized bushes and little blue flowers scattered here and there.

About an hour later he found himself shivering, and he realized that a cold breeze had started to blow. The rain had stopped a few minutes earlier and the cool wind began to dry his soaked clothes, leaving him chilled. His teeth began to chatter and he cursed the untimely twist of fate that had turned the elements against him in the summer season. He had been told it never rained in the summer season.

His feet came to an abrupt stop at that last thought. He whipped his head around, searching frantically.

As if answering his silent question, the wind began to blow so hard that it threw him against the trunk of a tree.

And then, the deluge started again.

Sputtering and shaking his head, trying to see something under the curtain of rain, Kirk cried out to the heavens.

"You bastards!"

Unknowingly, he had walked into a trap. It turned out the Cirfens had complete control over the planet’s climate, and God knew over what else. Evidently, they had known his exact location since he left the Computer Center, that’s why the streets were deserted and no one had bothered to try and capture him. And now, they had unleashed the fury of the elements to stop him from contacting the Enterprise by any other means and very likely to kill him, or at the very least, to get him to hurt himself. A fortuitous accident in the outdoors would be the perfect explanation.

He was overcome by a feeling of hopelessness unknown to him until then. He was the rat in the maze, the mouse in the cat and mouse game. It didn’t matter what he did, it didn’t matter where he went; they would do with him as they pleased.

But he wouldn’t go down easily. He wouldn’t sit and wait for those two-faced maniacs to do away with him. He had the utmost faith in his crew, in Spock’s intuition and capacity to save him. He had to hold on, not only for his ship and his friends, but for all the planets in the quadrant. He had to survive to inform Starfleet. Billions and billions of beings...

And so, he ran, and ran. And ran. Venturing ever deeper into the woods and thinking desperately of a way to call the Enterprise.

He remembered the occasion when he and Spock created a sonic disruption with their communicators and caused a rockslide on Capella IV. The problem now was that there weren’t any rocky formations, and the few rocks he had seen, weren’t bigger than a four year-old child. Another unviable idea.

As the sun settled, it became more and more difficult to see where he was going. The merciless rain wouldn’t abate and the temperature had dropped several degrees. He was freezing, dripping with water, and his feet felt cold and clammy as he dragged them along in the water-logged soil.

All of a sudden, a weak squeak coming from the ground brought him to a halt, and he looked down to see what it was. In the faint light he made out the form of a tiny animal. The poor thing looked so lost and helpless that Kirk bent down and picked it up in his trembling hands.

It was the weirdest little creature. It looked like the mix of a mouse and a baby monkey. It reminded him of an earth lemur, only its ears were almost the size of its head, and the frightened round dark eyes were huge. It was so small that it fit in the palm of his hand. It couldn’t weigh more than 60 or 70 grams.

"I’m s-sorry I st-tepped on your t-tail, little fella," he stuttered from the cold, caressing its head with the pad of his forefinger. "I didn’t see you. Are you hurt?" He petted the long tail apologetically. It seemed unharmed.

The animal let out another squeak, his big eyes fixed intensely on Kirk’s, as if trying to tell him something. Kirk returned the intense look, until it dawned on him that the little creature was probably trying to contact him telepathically. The big eyes looked absolutely terrified.

It dawned on him then that Cirfe didn’t have any menageries. Moreover, the Cirfens didn’t have any pets, and he hadn’t seen any birds soaring in the sky, or even insects in the three days he had been there. There seemed to be no animal life whatsoever, which was strange, considering the forests and oceans that covered more than half the planet’s surface.

Now, looking at this petrified little animal begging for his life in his hand, obviously mistaking him for a Cirfen, Kirk surmised in sheer horror what those facts indicated.

Evolution on this planet leaned naturally towards telepathy, and when the Cirfens became the dominant species, their telepathic powers became so formidable that they didn’t only crush the telepathic development of the inferior species, they exterminated them all. Only the telepathically null, or those so small that their telepathic capacities went unnoticed by the Cirfens managed to survive, in very small numbers.

But the little critter’s fear of him was an indication of something far worse than that. This animal knew what a Cirfen looked like, so that meant the Cirfens had continued with the annihilation of all animal life on their planet, deliberately and mercilessly.

A wave of infinite compassion made Kirk’s chest ache, and he cuddled the creature in his stiff hands, trying to comfort it and keep it warm.

"It’s all right, lit-tle one. I’m not gonna hurt you," he whispered to it, bringing it closer to his lips. He stroked the drenched brown fur tenderly, and nuzzled the wet snout with his nose. "You’re a s-survivor, like me."

Letting out a squeal of happy understanding, the small creature held on to Kirk’s fingers and snuggled into his hands as he resumed his aimless wandering.

"The Enterprise will find us somehow, you’ll see," he reassured himself. "Spock’s never f-failed me. Never. Never."

The unrelenting wind started blowing hard again and the sun disappeared in the horizon.

 

 

"Mr. Spock," Chekov looked up from the visor at the Science station. "I think you should see this," he turned around to look at the Vulcan in the command chair.

"What is it, Ensign?" Spock asked, raising an eyebrow at the puzzled look in the young Russian’s eyes.

"I was logging all the data we gathered about this system, and I made a double–check to verify there weren’t any errors," Chekov frowned in alarm now. "According to our long-range scanners, the distortion in the nebula will close off in 23.4 hours."

Spock’s second eyebrow joined the first, and he rose to his feet.

Chekov moved aside, making room for the First Officer.

"You are correct, Ensign," Spock confirmed the young man’s readings, pressing a few buttons. "Furthermore, once the nebula closes off, it will not open again in 2,12 billion years," he straightened up and stared at the screen showing the planet below.

"What does that mean, Mr. Spock?" Uhura asked, turning from her station to look at him.

"It means that in exactly 23.4 hours this system will be isolated from the rest of the galaxy again. No ships or transmissions will be able to travel in either direction."

"Are you saying that if we stay here another day, we’ll be trapped in this system forever?" she summarized with a hint of apprehension in her voice.

"Precisely," Spock nodded, without taking his eyes off the screen.

"Do you think the Cirfens know about this, sir?" Chekov asked the Vulcan.

"It would be logical to assume that they do, since they have had months to study the evolution of the nebula," Spock reasoned, walking back to the command chair and standing beside it. Gently, he put his hand on one arm.

"That would explain why they applied so urgently for Federation membership," Uhura said.

"It is most strange," Spock said after a small pause. "The moment the distortion opened a breach in their solar system, the Cirfens must have studied it and determined for how long the breach would remain open. In those circumstances, the logical steps should have been to evacuate the planet first and ask for Federation membership second. Why did they choose to not confide their plight to the Federation and ask for help? Why did they wait until it was almost too late to contact us?"

The silence stretched for a full minute while everybody considered the First Officer’s words.

"I don’t like it, Mr. Spock," Sulu voiced his opinion out loud, turning around in his chair.

"Neither do I, Lieutenant," Spock agreed. "They must have known that we would conduct our own research on their system, and we would establish the reality of their situation sooner or later. Why bother with the secrecy, then?"

"Their fleet’s still stationed in the orbit of the fifth planet. No change," Chekov answered what he guessed the Vulcan’s next question would be.

Spock nodded to himself pensively.

"Lieutenant Uhura," he said, tilting his head in the communication’s direction, "what can you tell us about the nature of the malfunction in the communications system?"

"It does appear to be an electronic malfunction, as they said," Uhura replied. "But there’s something... odd about the interferences it’s causing," she added, taking out her earpiece.

Spock walked over to her.

"Explain."

"Well," Uhura looked up at him, "an interference happens when two or more radio emissions work in the same frequency range. The wavelength fluctuates randomly for that very reason. But in this case, the wavelength is constant."

Spock’s expression, or lack of it, froze.

"Could it still be normal?" he asked finally.

"Yes," Uhura nodded, "but it would mean there is something else at work. A different emission source that eliminates the ‘noise’ and keeps the wavelength constant."

Spock did nothing for a few moments. Then, he turned around and returned to the command chair, hands behind his back, deep in thought.

"Contact Starfleet and inform them of what is happening," he said at last.

"Yes, sir," Uhura acknowledged, quickly getting to it.

Chekov walked up to the command chair and the withdrawn Vulcan who was sitting in it.

"Mr. Spock, what about the Captain? If the Cirfens don’t fix the malfunction in the next 23 hours, we’ll never..."

"I am aware of that fact, Ensign," Spock cut him off, not unkindly. "But we cannot communicate with him in the actual circumstances. Indeed, we have no way to locate his position and beam him up to the ship. There is nothing we can do, for the present."

Acknowledging the truth in the Vulcan’s words, Chekov nodded and returned to the Science station, downcast.

Alone with his thoughts, Spock allowed himself a brief moment of introspection. He would deny it in front of doctor McCoy, and maybe even in front of Kirk himself, but he could feel that something was not right. In hindsight, the Cirfens’ actions didn’t seem quite clean. They made their existence known to the Federation days before their window to the rest of the Universe closed again, they withheld their precarious situation from them pointlessly, and now, a very inconvenient – or not – malfunction blocked the communications.

He had no evidence to support his suspicion, but there seemed to be a logical development in that sequence of events. He just wish he knew what it was.

But something else disturbed his impeccable thought processes. A profound conviction that Kirk was in danger, and he was powerless to help him. With every passing second, that sensation became more acute. He had never experienced anything so strong as the feeling of foreboding rising inside him.

‘T’hy’la,’ he called out mentally, biting his lower lip in a scandalous display of emotion, for a Vulcan.

 

 

It was a dark night. The temperature was several degrees below zero. The chilly wind kept blowing steadily, but still, Kirk walked. And walked. He refused to stop walking, because he knew that if he did, he was a dead man. He couldn’t feel his extremities, and his nose and ears had to be on the verge of falling off by now.

"We’ll m-m-make it, Sammy. We w-will m-make it," he murmured to the shivering little animal he was holding in his right hand. The name had come easily to him, because the creature’s big round eyes reminded him of the "deer caught in headlights" expression on his brother’s face when he was a six-month old baby, and his father had taken a 3D picture of him in their mother’s arms. He had teased Sam mercilessly about it when they were older. The memory still made him smile. Even now.

The poor animal trembled like a leaf, clinging to Kirk’s thumb with its tiny hands, incredibly similar to a human’s. It let out a tiny whimper, too weak for Kirk to hear.

Kirk’s mind began to wander, seeking refuge in fond memories that brought some emotional warmth to his chilled body and kept him going, despite knowing that...

 ‘No. No! Spock will find me. He’ll find a way to override the Cirfens’ telepathic shield. I bet he’s bending over his visor right now, studying that shield and trying to come up with a way to locate me. I must survive for him, for my ship, for all...’

The thought of his resourceful, fiercely loyal, dearest friend sparked a memory of their latest chess game, and concentrating on it to keep his mind sharp, and not succumb to the earliest symptoms of hypothermia he was beginning to recognize, he replayed their game in his mind, their best moves, and the smile in the soft dark eyes when Spock checkmated him.

Spock of Vulcan, the strongest bond he had ever formed with another sentient being in his life. Not his brother in blood, but his brother in everything else. Heart, mind and soul. They had been pulled towards each other like twin stars from the moment they first met. Together, they had found a special kind of harmony that rocked them in all-encompassing arms.

He entrusted himself to that bond now, for it was his only hope. Years of shared hardships, of laying down their lives for each other, had forged a friendship that had shaped Kirk more than any other relationship he’d ever had. Shared glances, shared silences full of meaning, soulful conversations deep into the night... He wasn’t James Kirk any longer, and Spock wasn’t Spock any longer. They were KirkandSpock, SpockandKirk. And not only to their loyal crew; even Starfleet Command acknowledged it.

That Unity would be his salvation, such was his faith in it.

Suddenly tripping on a root, he stumbled and fell to his knees with a moan. Stubbornly, he rose to his feet again, his chattering teeth setting the pace.

His condition was worsening and he knew it. Fatigue, clumsiness, lack of coordination, increasing lethargy, shallow breathing... It was all there already. He stopped for a moment and leaned back against a trunk, trying to breathe deeply, unsuccessfully. He tried to check his own pulse, but his mind was so foggy that he couldn’t count his pulsations. One thing was clear though, his heart was beating slower than normal.

He had to keep going, he had to fight this state of confusion. He had to focus on the Enterprise, on his friends up there... on... Spock. His beloved friend Spock.

He was cold, so cold! He was chilled to the bone. Numbness enveloped him.

Spock. Focus on Spock.

Unconsciously, he huddled against a tree. His legs gave out under him and he slid down to the ground, hugging himself in a vain attempt to preserve what remained of his body heat.

 ‘Stay awake. Awake! If you pass out, you’re lost.’

But he was so damn cold! He tried to think of bonfires, of the fireplace back home, when he’d been a child and he was always warm. He hadn’t felt that warm again, within and without, until he met Spock. One look into those gentle brown eyes, and warmth spread all over him like the softest blanket.

"Spock..." he uttered through cracked lips. "I’m so sorry... I... I wanted... I..."

Sammy squealed in alarm, seeing that his protector was losing the battle. Miraculously, Kirk’s half-closed eyes opened again, but he was too weak to reassure the frightened animal he was holding to his chest. He could only nod.

Spock was the only image in his mind that still made sense, and he clung to him for dear life. So much a part of him that he was certain that if Spock cut himself, he would bleed. And vice versa. They didn’t have to touch for Spock to know. To feel.

 ‘Spock... Oh, Spock. Hear me, please. I’m dying... Don’t let me die here.'

Spock called him T’hy’la. A sacred Vulcan word that described a relationship that couldn’t be measured in Human parameters. Theirs was a spiritual connection that spanned their cultures, their customs, their upbringing, everything that was supposed to keep them apart and only brought them closer than flesh and blood.

Shutting himself off from the unforgiving reality that surrounded him, Kirk channelled his rapidly vanishing lifeforce through the intangible connection that bound him and Spock together, begging him to hear his call for help, his last chance at life.

 ‘T’hy’la... I need you. Please, help me. I’m going to die if you don’t hear me. Please, T’hy’la. Please!’

 

 

Spock handed the just signed compslate to the yeoman and turned his head in Uhura’s direction.

"Lieutenant, call Mr. Scott to the br-"

A deep shudder surging up from his very marrow stopped him in the middle of his sentence.

Cold, it was freezing cold in the bridge all of a sudden. How could it be?

Concentrating on that strange sensation, he was seized by a brutal tremor that left him shaken.

What was that? Where was this raw, animal fear coming from? It felt like... death.

Something was calling out to him. Not telepathically, not even empathically. Something that appealed to the Human part of him, and the Vulcan too, because in his Vulcanness resided his greatest strength.

His heartbeat accelerated at an alarming rate. The feeling of foreboding increased to the point that it almost suffocated him.

Reaching out with the most sensitive part of him, he tried to identify the source of those emanations that closed in on him, apparently coming from everywhere at once.

 ‘JIM!’his mind cried out in abject horror. Kirk was freezing to death on the surface of the planet. He didn’t know how he knew it, he just did. He even got a mental image of his Captain and T’hy’la, huddled against a tree in the middle of the night, slowly dying.

 ‘Spock... help me... hear me, please...’

"Belay that order!" he shouted, making everybody jump in their seats as he bolted out of the command chair. "Call Mr. Scott to the transporter room! I will need him to help me locate the Captain."

"Locate the Captain, sir?" Uhura asked him, her lovely eyes almost popping out of their sockets.

"Call Doctor McCoy to the transporter room also. Mr. Sulu, you have the con," Spock couldn’t afford to give any explanations to the startled crew because every second was of the utmost importance. Kirk’s lifeforce was slipping away.

 ‘Hold on, T’hy’la!’ he cried out through the spontaneous link that had sprung between them out of nowhere. ‘You must hold on just a few minutes more. I will get you out of there! Jim. Jim, do you hear me?’

The turbolift’s doors closed behind him, isolating him in its confines. Forcing himself to stay in control, he almost cursed out loud when the trip to the transporter room seemed to take forever. At long last, the doors opened, and casting Vulcan propriety to the wind, he sprinted through the corridors, zigzagging around flabbergasted crewmembers who’d never witnessed such an event, and very likely never would again.

Scott had just arrived when Spock burst through the doors, and he almost bumped into him.

"Mr. Spock!" Scott exclaimed. "What in blazes is goin’ on?"

"Come with me, Mr. Scott," Spock said, unflappable, walking up to the transporter console. "I will need your assistance."

Scott joined him while the Vulcan began to scan the surface of the planet. As expected, the interference was rendering their tracking system inoperative. He would have to locate Kirk through other means.

Right then, McCoy entered the transporter room, medikit in hand.

"What’s the emergency?" he asked, immediately turning to the Vulcan.

"The Captain is in critical condition on the planet below," Spock explained without preamble.

"What?! Who told you that?" McCoy’s eyes flashed in shock.

"That question is irrelevant at the moment, Doctor," Spock replied. "His time is running short. I want you to have everything ready to treat him for hypothermia and quite possibly frostbite when we beam him aboard."

"But it’s summer in the northern hemisphere!" Scott refuted the Vulcan’s affirmation.

"We do not know if he still is in the northern hemisphere," Spock pointed out, facing the two men. "Gentlemen, time is of the essence, and I cannot waste it justifying my motives," his eyes darkened even more with the certainty in his heart and soul. "The Captain is freezing to death as we speak. I will need Mr. Scott to operate the controls while I am scanning the surface of the planet with the scope’s console."

Not needing to know anymore, Scotty nodded and walked around the Vulcan. He checked the transporter controls and set them on standby.

"Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Spock," he said.

Spock nodded back and turned to McCoy.

"Doctor, I want you to inject me with the most powerful stimulant you have."

"Why?" McCoy asked, becoming instantly suspicious.

"I am going to lower my mental shields to search for the Captain," Spock declared nonchalantly.

"Are you out of your Vulcan mind?!" McCoy exploded in sheer outrage. "I’m keeping Taggart sedated and his telepathic abilities are almost nonexistent, and you want to subject yourself to..."

"It is the only way if we want to recover the Captain. I am prepared to take the risk."

"Well, I’m not," McCoy refused. "I won’t..."

Spock stretched out his arm, holding the doctor’s gaze unwaveringly.

McCoy pursed his lips into a thin line in angry frustration, and gave in.

"You stubborn, insane, pointy-eared headache..." he grumbled while he injected the drug into Spock’s bloodstream.

Calmly, Spock went to the scope’s console.

"After my mental barriers are down, I will proceed to scan the entire surface of the planet. I will narrow it down gradually to the Captain’s position."

"How?" Scotty asked, in disbelieving wonderment.

"Telepathically, of course," Spock replied.

"But that would mean that you..." McCoy met the Vulcan’s steady gaze, and ended up shaking his head. "Never mind. Fine. I don’t want to know."

Spock arched a very expressive eyebrow at him. After a brief pause he closed his eyes, joined the fingertips of his hands, and a few seconds later he became completely detached from his surroundings. He steeled himself for the unspeakable assault his mind was going to sustain, and at the same time brushing it aside as immaterial. As far as his T’hy’la’s well-being was concerned, his instinct for self-preservation was a mere hindrance.

His shields dropped almost gratefully.

An indescribable agony, the likes of which he would never come close to experiencing in his life again, hit him in an all-powerful onslaught, and he reached for his head, doubling over and letting out a choked moan.

His mind faded in and out, but the stimulant served its purpose and prevented him from blacking out. It didn’t seem possible that he’d survive the telepathic power of a planetary consciousness used as a deflector shield, but just when he was teetering on the brink of annihilation, he managed to shift his mental impulses to a slightly different wavelength, as he did during meditation. The inconceivable pain receded to the outer perimeter of his awareness. He still felt surrounded by pins and needles pricking him, but now he could muster a basic level of equilibrium.

Gingerly, pale as a ghost, he straightened up and took several deep breaths. Gathering his Vulcan formality around him like a protective cloak, he turned to the others.

"Let us start, Mr. Scott," he rasped out, unable to help a twitch of pain that contorted his face for an instant.

McCoy and Scott shared a fast, worried look, but Scott quickly got down to work.

Spock bent over the visor and began to scan the planet. He focused inwards, on his own feelings and sensations, trying to connect with Kirk, asking him to guide him to his exact location.

He couldn’t tell if he was truly receiving something or fooling himself into believing he was receiving something. Seconds passed, and then a full minute. And then another.

 ‘T’hy’la, you must help me! Answer me! My heart and my mind are open to you, Jim. Touch them, like you have always done. Touch me with your vibrant lifeforce and I will find you. You know that I will!’

 

 

Kirk floated in a place beyond time and space. Whatever it was, it was a lovely place to be. Warm, peaceful and soothing. He’d stay there forever, if it wasn’t for some obstinate part of him that kept repeating the same string of words over and over, like the chorus of a song that you can’t get out of your head.

 ‘Spock, hear me. Hear me, T’hy’la. Help me, please...’

Where was the one who was supposed to answer? The one who had never failed him, and he knew in his heart of hearts that never would?

 ‘Spock. Oh, Spock... don’t let it be too late for me, please! It can’t be too late.’

‘Jim... T’hy’la... Where are you? You must hear me. You *must* answer me, Jim.’ 

Something in Kirk stirred weakly, wondering if he had actually heard those words or they were a product of his dying mind.

 ‘Spock, is that you, my friend?’he asked back, his faltering heart skipping a hopeful beat.

 ‘Yes. YES! It *is* I, T’hy’la!’

How sweet, he had never heard Spock sound so unashamedly happy. If his mind wasn’t so fuzzy, he would swear he was seeing the image of a widely smiling Spock shining right in front of him.

 ‘Where are you, Jim? You have to tell me where you are so I can locate you.’

‘I’m... Cold... I’m so cold, Spock. Can’t hold on... Can’t...’

‘Yes, you can! And you will! We are ready to beam you back to the Enterprise. Just tell me where you are.’

‘Enterprise? Home? Spock?’

‘Yes, Jim. I will take you home. But you must tell me where you are.’

‘Out. Wind. Rain. So cold...’

'Are you in the northern hemisphere, T’hy’la?’ 

The way Spock pronounced that Vulcan word made Kirk tremble inside. To have that man holding him in such esteem...

 ‘Hemis... phere?’he asked back, his mind too far gone to understand the word.

 ‘Where on the planet are you, Jim? The capital? Cifer? Any of the secondary cities?’

‘Forest... Trees... Stop the rain, please...’

‘What forest, Jim? What forest?’

‘Cold...’

‘Please, Jim, you must remember! Just tell me the name of the forest, and I will take you home.’

‘Home? Home with Spock?’

‘Yes, my T’hy’la. Home with me! Tell me the name of the forest, I beg you!’ 

Was that a mental sob he heard?

Just the notion that he had made Spock so desperate that he was weeping inside was enough to bring the name of the forest back to Kirk’s vanishing mind.

 ‘Kilmara. Kilmara Woods, beautiful guardian angel.’

 

 

"He is in the Kilmara Woods," Spock snapped at Scott. The shock of being addressed like that left him so shaken that his hands actually trembled on the visor. Such trust, such absolute faith in him... It humbled him with its pristine purity.

"Got it," Scott said four seconds later. "But I still need the exact coordinates, Mr. Spock. I need a body to lock on."

Spock accessed a three-dimensional image of the Kilmara Woods from the databanks. His eyes swept around clearings, grassy areas and woody regions. For some reason, he was immediately drawn to the woodier section. He quickly magnified the image and studied it with everything he was, with everything he had. Mind, heart, and soul.

Just like that, his eyes fastened on a tall, leafy chestnut tree. Its shape and size immediately reminded him of a very similar chestnut tree he had seen once before, on Earth. Specifically in Iowa, right in front of the Kirk family house. The tree from which Jim had looked up at the stars at night, and dreamed of travelling among them when he was a child. A shudder ran up and down his spine, and he knew.

"Coordinates: 40º 25’ 13" North and 3º 42’ 21" West," he uttered unhesitatingly.

"All right..." Scott said, entering the numbers. "I read a lifeform down there, but it’s impossible to tell whether it’s the Captain or a Cirfen. We’re too similar morphologically and physiologically."

"It is the Captain," Spock’s voice left no room for doubt. "Beam him up at once."

"There’s one thing we haven’t discussed, Mr. Spock," Scott said, turning to the Vulcan with a kind, compassionate look in his eyes. "The electronic malfunction affecting the communications will distort the transporter signal. We’ll beam aboard an amorphous mass of flesh," he shook his head with a pained voice.

"It is not an electronic malfunction, Mr. Scott," Spock corrected him quietly. "The Cirfens have generated a telepathic shield that envelopes the entire planet. It is affecting our communications, but the regular pattern of our transporter beam carrying the Captain’s signature will pass through it effortlessly."

"Are you sure?" Scott asked, not wanting to question the Vulcan’s judgement openly.

Spock just stared at him unblinkingly.

"All right," that was all the Scotsman needed to ‘hear,’ and he turned again to the console. "Lockin’ on..." he trailed off, crossing his fingers mentally.

"Doctor, do you have everything ready to receive him?" Spock turned to the oddly silent physician.

McCoy showed him the hypo containing a warming fluid.

"The stretcher’s on its way," he nodded to him.

"Energize," Spock ordered then in a slightly raspy voice, giving away for the first time the anxiety he had been able to keep under control until then.

Scott obeyed, and a few seconds later Kirk’s image began to materialize on the transporter pad. He was in a sitting position, all curled up, arms wrapped around his torso in an attempt to save whatever body heat remained. When the process was completed and the tree supporting him wasn’t there anymore, he collapsed onto his right side.

Spock and McCoy hurried beside him. The Vulcan kneeled by his fallen Captain and pulled up the clammy, frozen form into his arms with heart-stopping tenderness. McCoy injected the warming fluid directly in Kirk’s neck. The Vulcan never flinched as he cradled the unresponsive Human against him, offering his own body heat for his T’hy’la’s chilled flesh to take.

"Doctor, his hands," his voice shook in alarm, reaching out and holding the reddened, raw fingers for McCoy to see.

McCoy quickly moved his small mediscanner around it.

"Severe damage of the tissue," he diagnosed. "We have to take him to sickbay right away."

Spock couldn’t take his eyes away from the stiff, purple hand. Those squared, strong hands he so admired, so different from his own. Instinctively, he started fondling it, caressing the vulnerable fingerpads, wishing he had the ability to heal them.

Suddenly, the rigid body stirred, but it seemed more like an automatic reflex than a conscious movement.

"Jim, take it easy," McCoy whispered to him comfortingly. "You’re home now and we’ll take care of you. You’re going to be fine."

The cracked lips moved, but no sound came out of them.

"It is all right, Jim," Spock pressed up his body against Kirk’s a little bit more.

The doors opened and two orderlies entered, pushing the medical stretcher.

"Help me," McCoy asked Spock, beginning to slide his arm under Kirk’s knees.

Spock nodded, and when he was releasing Kirk’s hand, a distressed moan escaped the Human’s throat.

"Jim?" Spock turned his head into Kirk’s.

In a knee-jerk reaction, Kirk’s frozen hand shot out and grabbed the front of Spock’s shirt.

"Jim, don’t!" McCoy tried to calm him down. "You’re going to cause more damage to your hand if you do that. Please, let it go," he urged.

Incredibly, Kirk’s fist tightened even more, pulling at Spock’s shirt insistently.

"What is it, Captain? Is there something you want to tell me?" the Vulcan leaned his forehead on Kirk’s lolling head, steadying it.

Kirk nodded heavily, and his hand moved tiredly up Spock’s chest, up his shoulder, down his arm, with agonizing slowness, until it settled on his hand. He tugged at it weakly, and Spock moved it, letting Kirk guide it wherever he wanted to put it. Soon it became evident that Kirk was aiming for his own face, and understanding instantly what he intended, Spock placed it resolutely on the meld points.

"Spock..." McCoy’s unease was unmistakable.

"Have no fear, Doctor," Spock reassured him. "It will be better this way, for both of us."

Something in the way the Vulcan said those words conveyed a commitment, a devotion greater than McCoy would ever be able to comprehend.

He observed the long, elegant fingers pressing delicately on Kirk’s face and then heard the soft, ritual words.

"My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts."

The mindmeld lasted around 30 seconds, and McCoy studied it in complete fascination. He couldn’t see what was taking place below the surface, but their outward appearance was a portrait of perfect communion. They were drinking from their closeness, feeding on it. Even though the concept – and personal experience – of fusing his mind with another unsettled the hell out of him despite Spock’s gentleness and respect for their privacy, it was plain to see that Kirk thrived on it. He found something with Spock, in the two of them together like this, that fulfilled him more than anything he could ever accomplish on his own.

It was the most beautiful thing he had ever witnessed, and he almost envied them.

A little while later, he felt a difference. Something in the air around them. Then, Spock’s hand eased the light pressure on Kirk’s face. Their eyelids twitched. They were resurfacing simultaneously.

When their eyes began to open, they winced. McCoy was pretty certain that it was an involuntary reaction to their separation. It caused them physical pain to part from one another.

Spock’s eyes opened all the way and he looked around, finding his bearings again. He moved his hand away from Kirk’s face with so much reluctance that it was a statement in itself. He rubbed his fingertips together as if they tingled, and looked at McCoy.

"We are in grave danger. Please, attend to the Captain now. There is much to do."

Just then, Chekov’s voice spoke through the intercom.

"Bridge to Mr. Spock. Bridge to Mr. Spock, come in, please."

Spock tried to stand up, but Kirk whimpered in anguish, pressing up to him.

"It is all right, Jim," Spock soothed him, focusing all his attention on his Commanding Officer, as if only the two of them existed in the universe. "I will take care of everything, but you must go to sickbay with Doctor McCoy."

Kirk seemed to accept this, and let go of Spock with as much reluctance as the Vulcan had showed.

The orderlies moved the stretcher at the feet of the stairs, and McCoy hugged Kirk to him. Unexpectedly, an animal squeak coming from Kirk’s left hand startled everybody, Spock included.

"What the hell is that?!" McCoy asked, pointing at something Kirk was holding.

Spock bent down and half-opened Kirk’s hand.

"It looks like a variety of Microcebus, of the Lemuridae family," Spock quoted from memory.

"A what?!" McCoy’s eyes opened wide.

"A pygmy mouse lemur. On Earth they are native to Madagascar. This one exhibits some unique, distinctive features. Bigger eyes and ears, and a thinner tail than the mouse lemur from Earth."

With some apprehension, McCoy tried to remove the little lemur from Kirk’s hand. The animal let out a frightened squeal and its tiny fingers clutched Kirk’s stiff ones desperately. In his semiconscious state, Kirk responded by closing his hand around the animal protectively. That action – from both of them - spoke volumes.

"All right, we’ll figure out a way to deal with this later," McCoy said, giving up. "Now, you be *very* careful when you move him," he instructed the two orderlies.

With a final, intense look at his Captain, Spock walked back to the transporter console, and activated the intercom.

"Spock here. What is it, Mr. Chekov?" he prompted.

"Sir, the Cirfen fleet just left the orbit of the fifth planet. They’re heading this way," the young Russian reported.

Spock’s eyebrow raised ironically. Of course!

"Mr. Sulu," he ordered, "prepare to leave orbit. Take us out of this solar system at maximum speed. Warp factor eight."

"Aye, sir," Sulu replied.

"Warp eight!" Scott exclaimed, rushing to the Vulcan’s side.

"At least, until we get out of here," Spock said adamantly. "The Captain managed to escape despite their wily, sadistic efforts to the contrary, and now they know that we know. We cannot afford to be captured, or destroyed." Scott nodded in acquiescence. "Lieutenant Uhura," he addressed the intercom again.

"Yes, Mr. Spock," came Uhura’s warm, feminine voice.

"Send a priority one message to Starfleet command. This is a General Order 24 emergency. All Federation vessels within the quadrant are to be diverted here to quarantine this sector. No Cirfen ship must be allowed to cross the boundaries of their solar system under any circumstance. I repeat: under any circumstance."

"Yes, sir," Uhura acknowledged.

Spock turned to Scott with a nod, and they followed the Captain’s stretcher out of the transporter room.

"Doctor..." the Vulcan asked once they were in the corridor. His eyes settled on the huddled body on the stretcher, under two heavy blankets.

"We got him back just in time," McCoy nodded at him emphatically. "He’ll be all right, fingers and toes included," he smiled softly. "Now go take care of his ship, and give their just deserts to those treacherous bastards."

"That will not be necessary, Doctor," Spock replied calmly. "The nebula will close off in 21.5 hours. After that, they will have all eternity to think about their moral values and where they have taken them." There was an unambiguous indifference in his words, that revealed his lack of regret at the fate that was about to befall the Cirfens. They had brought it upon themselves. They had proved to be a threat to all, and as such they would be treated.

With a look of utter reverence and respect at his superior officer, knowing better than anyone what he had gone through, Spock turned around and headed for the turbolift. Scott nodded at McCoy in complete agreement, and strode after the Vulcan. There was indeed a lot to do.

 

 

Kirk was lying on his bed in sickbay, staring at the ceiling and tapping his bandaged hands on his own chest, unconsciously marking the passage of time. And it was passing veeeery slowly. It had been three days since he had been brought back on board, and his mind was as sharp and alert as always. His extremities would still take a few days to heal, but aside that, he was fine. Too recovered to lie around in bed counting the time, in his opinion.

Perched on his pillow and playing with his hair, Sammy seemed to be having the time of his life. The tiny lemur had turned out to be a "he", so Kirk had named him right. He refused to leave his savior’s side, and he was the only thing that kept the Captain from climbing the walls.

With a sigh, Kirk reached up behind him into the little bowl on the ‘headboard’ of his biobed, and managed to grasp half a walnut clumsily. He gave it to Sammy without looking, who took it with a happy squeal of delight. He sat beside his left ear and proceeded to eat it unhurriedly, making it last.

"Well, at least you’re having a good time there," Kirk muttered to himself.

"You should follow his example, and enjoy your free time," McCoy commented, walking in.

"I’d enjoy it if I had something to do besides eating walnuts all day," Kirk grumbled.

"Happiness lies in the simplest things," McCoy quoted philosophically, checking Kirk’s vitals in the monitor.

"You try lying in bed for three days in a row with nothing to do but stare at the ceiling, and then tell me about the simplest things in life," Kirk retorted.

"Don’t worry, your favorite Vulcan should visit you any time now. He’ll keep you company," McCoy said, scratching affectionately the top of Sammy’s head with his pinky’s fingernail. Sammy squeaked appreciatively and returned to his walnut.

"Spock’s coming?" Kirk’s head raised from the pillow, and his face lit up.

"Yeah," McCoy nodded distractedly, mesmerized by the lemur’s thoroughness eating his walnut.

As if confirming their words, the sickbay doors opened. Kirk and McCoy looked in their direction, in time to see Spock entering the patient ward, carrying a compslate under his left arm.

Kirk sat up, greeting the Vulcan with a devastating smile that illuminated the room.

"Good morning, Captain," Spock greeted him back. His eyes didn’t bother to hide the sparkle that only Kirk put in them. "It is good to see you ‘up and about.’

Kirk laughed out loud.

"Neither so far. But I’m working on it," he looked at McCoy significantly.

"Ha!" was the explicit reply, to Kirk’s chagrin.

Spock walked up to the foot of the bed.

"I estimated that you would welcome a report on the steps we are taking to ensure the permanent surveillance of the nebula."

"Did Starfleet approve of the automated buoys, as you suggested?" Kirk asked.

"Affirmative," Spock confirmed. "They will arrive in 2.3 days. In the meantime, I am coordinating the surveillance patrols. There has been no activity that we can detect."

"They’re trapped again in their solar system," Kirk summarized.

"So it would seem," Spock agreed.

Kirk shook his head in wonder.

"I still can’t figure out what their plan was. If you’ll pardon the word, it wasn’t logical," he met the Vulcan’s eyes.

"Indeed," Spock nodded.

"Why did they wait until their time was almost up to contact the Federation?"

"Maybe they wanted to play the compassion card. They counted on us to help them evacuate the planet," McCoy proposed.

"But their Fleet alone could have taken care of that. It makes no sense!" Kirk frowned in confusion.

"It is obvious that the fact that the Captain found out the truth accidentally forced them to think of a contingency plan," Spock pointed out.

"They did count on us to discover about the nebula closing off. My finding out the truth didn’t have anything to do with that. Their contingency plan was making me forget about the rest and return me to the Enterprise," Kirk remarked. "If that had happened and my memory loss was a result of an unfortunate accident, the Federation would still have approved of their membership, and the nebula would still have closed off less than two days later." He rubbed his forehead with his bandaged hand in puzzlement.

"You’re right," McCoy concurred after a brief silence. "It makes no sense. Did they intend to leave their solar system en masse in the last few hours, then?"

"I am afraid that at this point, we can only speculate," Spock observed.

"You know," Kirk said, lost in thought, "when I was talking to the Prefect, I believed him when he said that it wasn’t a matter of whether they could do it, but how long it’d take them. They had something else planned they never told me, that’s for sure. If you had looked into his eyes knowing they were all telepathically connected to each other, knowing they formed a planetary consciousness..." Kirk shuddered inside, imagining the possibilities.

"Perhaps they intended to do something else to you besides tampering with your memory," Spock conjectured. "Perhaps they intended to use you in some other manner, and the Enterprise, when you were apparently safe back aboard and in Federation territory."

"Like a sort of Trojan horse? Could be," McCoy nodded. "And when we rescued you - when there was virtually no chance of you being rescued - they ran out of contingency plans, and sent their Fleet after the Enterprise to prevent us from escaping."

There was another short silence, as they considered all the alternatives that came to mind.

"I think their infinite arrogance, their blind belief in their abilities as a planetary power was their undoing in the end. They thought they had everything under control, but they overlooked one tiny little fact," there was a veritable hint of irony in Kirk’s voice.

"And what fact was that, Captain?" Spock asked.

Kirk smiled up at him.

"The fact that you never truly have everything under control."

McCoy nodded to himself, acknowledging the truth in Kirk’s words.

"One thing’s for certain, gentlemen," Kirk said, straightening up energetically. "We’ll never know. Regrettably, this isn’t an Agatha Christie novel, where Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple ties up all the loose ends in the final pages. In the real world, we hardly ever get all the answers." He made a pause. "The important thing is that the nebula will stay closed for over two billion years, and under strict surveillance. The good guys won. The end." He turned his head and saw Sammy licking his fingers avidly after finishing his walnut. He reached out and poked his tummy with his bandaged thumb. Sammy squealed happily and jumped into his palm. "This is the only good thing on that cursed planet, and we took it with us, didn’t we?" he tickled the little lemur’s belly playfully, that let out all sorts of funny noises that sounded like hiccups.

McCoy smiled, watching Kirk and his tiny pet. Sammy truly was the only good thing that nightmare had brought about. The sole survivor of a civilization that demonstrated that more often than it would be desirable, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

"Captain, I also brought a report of everything that took place on the planet for your perusal," Spock said, handing the compslate to Kirk. "It only needs to be signed."

Kirk looked at his First Officer, putting Sammy on his lap.

"Let me guess. Starfleet’s been pestering you for a detailed account of what happened down there," Kirk stated more than asked, taking the compslate awkwardly from Spock’s hands.

Spock’s dryly arched eyebrow was answer enough.

"And how did you put down a detailed account of everything the Captain went through...?" McCoy began to ask. "Oh, right. Your mindmeld," he answered his own question visibly ill at ease. "Sorry, it’s just that the notion of two minds fusing into one still spooks me a little."

"A little?" Kirk smirked, setting down to read.

"No offense, Spock," McCoy addressed the Vulcan. "But I’m so used to being singular inside my head, that suddenly becoming plural is... disturbing, to put it mildly."

"None taken, Doctor. As a non-telepath species, I find your reticence completely understandable," Spock replied casually.

"It’s all right by me, Spock," Kirk said when he finished reading the report of his ordeal on the planet. "Don’t make Starfleet wait any longer," he held out the compslate back to the Vulcan with a wink and a nod.

"I’m afraid it’ll have to wait a few more days, until you can handle a pen," McCoy reminded him.

"That will not be necessary, Doctor," Spock said, signing the report himself.

"Wait a minute, you can’t do that! That’s an official report not a duty roster!" McCoy grabbed the compslate from the Vulcan’s hands and looked at it. "Holy Moly!" he exclaimed. "He’s nailed your signature! I couldn’t tell who signed this!"

"That’s what happens when you keep your patients in sickbay for too long," Kirk smiled at him slyly. "They have to find something to occupy their time."

McCoy’s head snapped up and looked from Kirk to Spock and back, speechless.

"Remember the Babel mission, when you kept me in bed for four days and Spock for three for ‘not cooperating’?" Kirk wriggled his eyebrows.

"And you started forging each other’s signatures to kill time? Boy, you sure have little imagination," McCoy shook his head sympathetically.

"Quite the contrary, Bones. Forging each other’s signatures proved to be very useful every now and then," Kirk held up his hands in front of him, as a perfect example of one of those times. "You have no idea how much time we’ve saved, signing the piles of reports that accumulated on our desks after a particularly dangerous mission, especially when one of us got hurt." He shrugged. "Headquarters wants it fast, we give it to them fast. And everybody happy."

"Wonderful, the Captain and the First Officer of the ship just admitted they’ve been violating Starfleet regulations for years," McCoy’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. "If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna drown myself in Saurian brandy to forget I ever heard your confession."

And with that, he turned around and returned to his office.

Kirk and Spock stared at each other. Spock’s eyebrows touched his bangs at McCoy’s offended attitude, and Kirk chuckled, recognizing the good doctor’s show for the exaggeration it was.

"Sit down, Spock," he invited the Vulcan affectionately.

Spock obeyed, putting the compslate and pen on the biobed next to Kirk’s. He took a stool and sat beside his Captain.

"You’ve been very subtle in our report, passing over the fact of how I made known to you that I needed immediate rescuing," Kirk commented, smiling fondly.

Spock looked down with a slightly arched eyebrow, in a shy gesture that went straight to Kirk’s heart.

"I owe you my life, my dearest Vulcan. Again," Kirk’s voice shook with emotion.

Spock’s eyes met Kirk’s, and truly, there was nothing else to be said.

"May I ask how did the idea of contacting me telepathically occur to you?" Spock asked softly.

A blush covered Kirk’s cheeks endearingly, and he bit his lower lip.

"Well, I was immersed in a telepathic society, so I guess the idea was very much in my conscious mind," Kirk interpreted. "And when I knew I couldn’t contact the ship through any orthodox means, I did the only logical thing from a purely irrational, emotional, Human perspective. Reaching out to the person closest to me in the hope that somehow, he would ‘feel’ that something was wrong."

"But you knew it was impossible for me to hear you. You are not a telepath, and my shields were up to protect myself from the telepathic emanations of the Cirfens," Spock looked at him in amazement.

"Yes, I knew," Kirk nodded. "But I remembered how it is in our mindmelds, how it feels to be one with you, to be so much a part of each other that I can’t tell where you end and I begin. I trusted that indefinable connection between us to save me."

"It did, and more," Spock gazed at his Captain in awe. "Your... leap of faith brought about a miracle." Spock’s eyes conveyed disbelief, astonishment and also... concern?

"It *is* a miracle that the power of the combined consciousness of the Cirfens didn’t crush you. I feared for you, because I knew what you’d have to go through if you ever got to hear me," Kirk winced at the mere thought, and reached out one bandaged hand to the Vulcan. "Will you forgive me for subjecting you to that, T’hy’la?" His pained eyes caressed Spock in deep remorse.

Spock’s eyes fell closed, overwhelmed.

"No, Jim. That is not the miracle I was referring to," his features softened, dismissing as inconsequential the mortal danger that Kirk’s rescue had posed to him. His eyes opened and settled on the one being who had accepted all of him and embraced all that he was, even when it was uncomfortable or even painful; the one being who had taught him how to live with himself and his inner conflict. "I was referring to what the fact that your mind successfully touched mine truly means."

"It means that our minds are as attuned to each other as we are," Kirk assumed with as much insight as his Humanity allowed him.

"Not quite," Spock shook his head imperceptibly.

"What does it mean, then?" Kirk asked, hazel eyes alight with keen curiosity.

"Close your eyes," Spock invited gently, "and focus on me. Keep your mind open and receptive, like you do every time I initiated a meld between us."

Kirk’s curiosity raised to the nth power, and he quickly complied.

Spock studied him for a few seconds, and then reached out with his mind.

On Kirk’s lap, Sammy snapped up his head and let out an interrogative sound, looking at the Vulcan.

"Spock!" Kirk’s eyes flew open in delight. "It is you... in here!" he pointed at his own temple, smiling excitedly. "I can feel you in my mind, and you’re not even touching me!"

"Yes, Jim," Spock nodded bashfully. "Our minds are linked... permanently."

"B-But how can it be?!" Kirk asked joyfully. "Did the link sprout spontaneously?"

"Basically," Spock affirmed. "Your mind was in such desperate need to find mine that, through a means I am at a loss to understand, it sought me out and merged with me."

"But I’m not a telepath! I *can’t* do that!" Kirk claimed.

"Precisely," Spock agreed. "This crisis evidenced that there is something more profound between us than we are able to fathom. Something that defies not only logic, but our very natures as well."

"How?" Kirk asked, almost in a whisper. For some reason, he felt this conversation was too important, too intimate to be had out loud.

"Jim," Spock said earnestly, struggling to hold Kirk’s gaze, "this spontaneous link is the prelude to a full bond." Unease finally won the battle, and he looked away.

For an instant, Kirk didn’t get what his friend was talking about. Until the truth made its way like a shaft of sunlight through the clouds.

"You’re saying that... our minds are forming a marriage bond?!"

Spock’s eyes skittered around the room and he nodded weakly. Dread didn’t begin to describe what was transpiring inside him at that very moment. It was true that he hadn’t started this, but he couldn’t stop it either.

"Our minds are seeking one another as we speak," he uttered the words like an ominous prophecy. "Whether we want it or not, the process is irreversible."

The silence that ensued was more than the Vulcan’s steel nerves could bear, and he closed his eyes in a futile attempt to dissociate himself from the reality that surrounded him. T’hy’la, I beg thee...

He heard the rush of careful movement, and a heartbeat later, something warm and soft like velvet brushed his lips. His eyes burst open in shock.

Before him, Kirk was moving back and squaring his shoulders formally.

"I trust I made myself clear," he declared, taking a deep breath and clearing his throat.

Spock reached up and felt his lips with his fingertips. The brief, delicate touch still lingered in them, and it spread through every cell of his body and every corner of his vulnerable soul.

"Does this... mean you would... welcome a bond with me?" he asked in a small voice.

"I would welcome it in heart and soul, my precious First Officer," Kirk straightened his back proudly.

"But you are not..." Spock couldn’t bring himself to say the words.

"In love with you?"

Spock nodded in quiet resignation.

Kirk’s hands took a clumsy hold of the Vulcan’s upper arms and forced him to meet his eyes.

"Look into my eyes and say that again!" he ordered.

Spock scrutinized the face he knew better than his own. The hazel eyes were big, open, shining with unshed tears of passion and emotion, challenging him to deny what was in them.

"Jim..." there was breathless incredulity in his voice.

"I will never apologize for loving you the way I do, but it seems that my infamous, indomitable spirit found a way to bring us together, despite my firm resolution. And for dragging you into this irrevocable situation, I’m sorry with all my heart." Kirk dropped his eyes guiltily.

Now it was Spock’s turn to fall silent and take in what Kirk was saying. When he did, he experienced a life-altering revelation that didn’t only give meaning to his life, it gave a purpose to his existence that it had lacked before. It changed his perspective of the Universe and his lonely place in it. It changed his expectations for the future, and the present.

Was this it, then? That elusive word whose significance had escaped him forever, and he’d thought he’d only caught a glimpse of, once or twice in his lifetime?

No. He was sorely mistaken. He had known the significance of that word for years now, but in such a quiet way that he never recognized it for what it was. Only now, when it was sweeping him in a tornado of sensation, he understood that the emotion was the same, only magnified beyond his limited comprehension of it.

Happiness. Shameless, flagrant, outrageous, real; singing in his veins and filling them with an intoxicating feeling of euphoria that made him light-headed.

This man had shown him the meaning of that word, and through it – through him - he had found himself and his place in life.

The ultimate irony. To find out that your Destiny has been walking beside you for almost five years, and you failed to realize it.

He had to swallow, hard, to get rid of the burning lump in his throat. It hurt.

"You are in error, Captain," he said hoarsely. "I do not resent this turn of events."

Kirk’s head turned to him sharply. Hopeful. Expectant.

"As a matter of fact, it is rather the opposite." His dark eyes glowed with the promise of the new life that lay before him now. "The privilege of calling you bondmate is a possibility I never dared to contemplate."

Kirk’s breath caught in his chest, almost choking him. He examined the features that were dearer to him than his own flesh and blood, seeing the change in them as it happened; the blossoming of everything that was Spock, everything he had prayed for Spock to be one day, when he accepted himself as the exceptional being he was.

And he had been the one... the lucky one... fortunate beyond measure, honored beyond reason...

He ground his teeth to hold back the wild tide of emotion rising in his breast, until it was replaced by the most exhilarating feeling of joy. Uncontrollable, unstoppable. His face flushed with anticipation and excitement.

He leaned closer to the Vulcan.

"And... are you contemplating that possibility now?" he breathed playfully, eagerly.

Spock’s eyes roamed Kirk’s face, yielding to the irresistible pull that drew him to that dynamic, vital personality. He was coming alive, overflowing with a myriad emotions and sensations that for the first time, didn’t feel like a betrayal of his heritage.

And he knew, right then and there, that he was free, that he was whole, and he was still himself. Nothing had changed, and yet, nothing would ever be the same.

"I am contemplating... beauty unlike anything I ever encountered," he breathed back, bending forward slowly, inevitably, inexorably.

"And what are you going to do about it?" Kirk asked seductively, smiling at him in sheer rapture.

"I am going to join our lips," Spock would have never envisioned himself capable of having such a sultry conversation with anyone, let alone his Commanding Officer. But now... now everything seemed possible.

"Are you?" Kirk asked rhetorically, leaning infinitesimally closer.

Spock nodded a little.

"Unless you are not interested," he sobered somewhat.

"Oh, I’m very much interested," Kirk’s smile could melt a sun, in the Vulcan’s supremely biased opinion. "I’m so interested that my lips ache to feel yours on them."

They were so close now that their nostrils filled with the other’s scent. They wanted to prolong the moment forever. The two of them poised there, breathless, heartbeats loud and fast in their ears, feeling their auras caress one another, tingling from the inside out.

Their lips fell open as naturally as their eyes fell closed.

"I love you, Mr. Spock," Kirk sighed his one absolute Truth.

"I love thee, James Kirk," Spock’s own absolute Truth followed his katra, surging up and wrapping itself around Kirk’s soul, until there was no separating line between them.

 ‘T’hy’la!’their minds cried out exultantly

Their lips followed the path of their merging thoughts and when they joined, the Oneness that was KirkandSpock fulfilled itself for good.

On Kirk’s lap, Sammy’s sounds, that had been mainly squeals and squeaks until then, turned into a long, ecstatic purr.

 

 

THE END.

Chapter End Notes:

I deliberately chose to leave the story inconclusive regarding the Cirfens' apparently careless and sloppy plan because I'm currently reading a book about psychopaths titled "Without Conscience", written by Robert C Hare, PhD.  As I was reading the book, I thought that a society of psychopaths was the most terrifying situation to face, so even though the "P" word is never spoken, that's exactly what the Cirfens are, and that's the reason why their plan failed.  Despite the fact that many psychopaths have very high IQs, they're always caught because of their arrogance.  Their plans are casual and blatant because they think they'll get away with everything.  They lack the ability to think about their plans carefully; everything that matters is the fulfillment of their personal ambitions and desires, here and now. 

Aside that, if you want to take a look at Sammy, these are some photos of Earth's pygmy mouse lemur.  Too cute for words!  :)

http://images.wildmadagascar.org/pictures/julie_maher/mouselemurbyjm0020.jpg

http://j.imagehost.org/0223/lemur-raton.jpg

http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01839/QI_1839464b.jpg

http://www.arkive.org/media/B4/B486698F-03AE-4609-9B5F-7BD3E9BC8ED6/Presentation.Large/photo.jpg

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