Old age, to the unlearned, is winter; to the learned, it is harvest time. -Yiddish proverb
Old age, to the unlearned, is winter; to the learned, it is harvest time.
When the transporter beam released him, James Kirk found himself in a curving corridor, dim and claustrophobic and with an acrid tinge in the air. Luminescent red lettering caught his eye, a stenciled legend visible even under the fitful emergency lighting: Beta Chi Automated Observatory RCD-5022. Just beyond was a ladder tube with its access cover dangling; Kirk ducked inside and began to climb. At the top he emerged into another cramped passageway and followed the murmur of voices to a compartment lined floor to ceiling with computer controls. Though amber lights blinked here and there, most of the telltales were dark, and Kirk's mouth drew into a grim line as he studied the inoperative equipment. After a moment he strode to the center of the room where a number of Enterprise technicians were gathered around a console from beneath which protruded a pair of booted feet.
"Status report," Kirk said by way of greeting.
A muffled reply came from inside the console - "A moment, if you please, Captain" - and several beeps and clicks later, his first officer rolled into view and gracefully regained his feet.
Like a cat, Kirk thought fondly, momentarily distracted. And a beautiful one at that....
"The modification is complete," Spock was telling his assembled team. "Recalibrate the circuits and run the entire sequence again. The additional relays are likely to be unstable; Ms. Ruskin, you will monitor the secondary systems for any unusual fluctuations." He dismissed them with a nod before finally meeting his lover's impatient hazel eyes.
"The situation is not promising, Captain. The damage is even more extensive than I first reported. We have exhausted all conventional approaches and are now attempting a rather unusual one, which will take some time to complete. Unfortunately, I estimate its chance of success as poor at best."
Kirk's expression relaxed ever so slightly. "Improvising, Mr. Spock? And quoting imprecise odds?"
"I do not believe a more precise statement would advance your understanding of the problem," was the deadly serious reply. "This facility is currently non-functional and is likely to remain so."
Shaking his head, Kirk began to pace around the console. "It just doesn't make sense. This sector has been thoroughly explored; it's lightly populated, has few outstanding resources and no ongoing hostilities. Why would anyone sabotage an automated observatory with limited strategic value? Why interfere with the routine collection of scientific data?"
"It no longer appears to be a case of sabotage in the usual sense," Spock said. "'Piracy' might be a more accurate term."
That stopped the human in his tracks. "Explain."
"Most of the sensory equipment has been removed, Captain, together with nearly every major operational computer component. This appears to have been accomplished most carefully, by someone with sophisticated knowledge of both the system itself and of Starfleet security protocol."
"You mean it was stolen? How long ago?"
"Our best estimate is eight to ten weeks, based on the date of the last transmission received by Starbase 10."
"Then...." Kirk glanced around at the Enterprise crew engrossed in their work. "You aren't trying to get the observatory up and running here, are you?"
"Indeed not. We are merely attempting to retrieve whatever data had been recorded but not yet transmitted when the theft occurred."
Kirk frowned. "I don't understand why that should be so difficult. We download data from other systems all the time."
"That is true," Spock replied, "but there is more. When I said that sabotage was not involved, I meant that no serious damage was done to the facility and its remaining sensor equipment. However, it appears the thieves infected the main computer with a virus that has been gradually destroying its programming. While this may have been deliberate, I suspect it was more likely an accidental result of their tampering. There are easier ways to render an entire system inoperable."
"Such as a well-aimed phaser blast," agreed Kirk grimly. "How much time do you have?"
"Any remaining data will be lost if we do not succeed in retrieving it within the next four hours."
"Damn. What are the chances that there is no remaining data - or at least none that's really important?"
"To a scientist," Spock chided, "all data is valuable. However, it is certainly possible that only routine readings are involved." He paused to study Kirk's profile as the captain in turn watched the activity around them. There was a tension in the way he held his head that Spock suspected had little to do with the mysterious dismantling of a deep-space observation post. "It was not necessary for you to beam over in order to request this information," he said finally, in a voice pitched for Kirk's ears alone.
His captain smiled faintly. "No, of course it wasn't. I wanted to have a look for myself, that's all. Maybe I was even feeling...a little closed in."
"In that case, you did not select a very therapeutic environment." Spock watched the smile vanish, saw a muscle jump along the clenched line of Kirk's jaw. "Jim," he ventured, "what happened at Gamma Hydra IV was unsettling to us all. Perhaps you should reconsider Dr. McCoy's offer -"
"I don't need therapy," Kirk snapped, but in another moment the quick anger drained out of him in a rush. He glanced at the Vulcan, then at the corrugated grey metal of the deck. "You know we can't talk about this here."
Spock seemed to consider that, then turned and crossed to a trio of technicians hovering over one of the lighted displays. After a few quiet words he proceeded to an open hatch, stepped through, and disappeared. Feeling foolish, Kirk followed. At the end of a short passageway he found the Vulcan waiting in a narrow compartment filled with gleaming durasteel cabinets and control panels. Kirk shouldered the hatch cover closed and leaned against it.
"Where are we?"
"Sensory Data Transmission. We can speak here undisturbed."
"So I see." Kirk ran a hand through his hair, fighting an impulse to laugh. "Have you always been able to read me like a book, or is it only since...."
The Vulcan's expression was soft in the diffuse light. "Your distress would be apparent to anyone who cared enough to look," he said quietly.
Kirk closed his eyes, turned his face away. Into that darkness the images crowded as they had at every unguarded moment since Enterprise had delivered Commodore Stocker to his post at Starbase 10. It was faces he saw - the wizened countenances of Robert Johnson and his wife, of his own senior officers, of Lt. Galway, feeble and dying before her time. Mercifully, Kirk never pictured himself; but he recalled in exquisite detail sensations of infirmity and utter confusion, which he thought was even worse.
With the metal hatch pressing coldly against his back he waited, wishing Spock would touch him. But they were on duty, after all - secluded for the moment, yet not truly alone - and Kirk respected his friend's intensely private and conscientious nature. Still, the Vulcan seemed more than willing to talk....
"It wasn't just being old," Kirk said before he could change his mind, "though God knows that was bad enough. The worst part was how alone I felt, and how angry at everything and everyone around me. Even...at you."
"Jim, you were not yourself. You did not mean - "
"But I did." Kirk forced his eyes open. "What I said to you was unforgivable, but even hating myself for saying it didn't stop me. I just felt so out of control, like the universe was squeezing the life out of me and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it."
"You are correct, there was not," Spock said firmly. "You were suffering from acute radiation poisoning. The resulting trauma was emotional as well as physical."
"But what I said - it did hurt you."
Though it was not quite a question, Spock chose to answer. "Yes," he admitted, "it did hurt at the time, but I knew you were motivated by unnatural circumstances. I was also convinced that in your heart you still loved me." For the first time he faltered and looked away, his voice dropping nearly to a whisper. "Knowing that, how could I do other than forgive you?"
Kirk held very still, staring until his first officer blurred into the wavering blue reflections in the polished durasteel behind him, a hundred Spocks layered into dream upon dream of unearthly beauty. After a moment he found himself holding his breath, came back into focus with a sigh. He pushed away from the hatch almost before he realized he was moving. Something - tenderness or longing or an irresistible urge to defy propriety - lifted his hand and laid it against the warmth of the Vulcan's cheek.
"Oh, Spock, I did love you. I'll always love you. And even though turning into a decrepit old man overnight was an experience I hope to God I never have to repeat, I think it somehow taught me that I'm truly not afraid of growing old...as long as you and I do it together." Reading denial in the dark eyes, he let a plea surface in his own. "I know, I know. Vulcan life spans and human life spans and all the rest of it. It doesn't matter, not really. All I want is to go on living with you and working with you and making love with you for years and years and years. And when the day comes when I can't do those things any more, it will be all right because we'll know we didn't waste a minute, that we shared our lives as best we could."
Spock's dark look burned into the human's hopeful one. "Then it must be all right," he said fiercely. "Together we shall make it so."
To that moment's rush of joyful desire there was but one possible response, and Kirk made it without thought. He traced the Vulcan's mouth once with his thumb, then slid his hand into his lover's hair, pulled him close, and kissed him with abandon.
Spock surrendered willingly to the tender assault, opening to the tongue probing into his mouth even as his own hands slipped beneath Kirk's tunic. Blindly he gripped the human's waist, tasting his sigh of pleasure at that heated touch and bending with growing fervor into the kiss. They devoured one another in silence until Kirk backed the Vulcan against one of the consoles, pressing their bodies even more closely together and finally wringing from his partner a helpless groan.
The sound startled them both; they jerked apart as Kirk guiltily removed a hand from the small of the Vulcan's back.
"I must be crazy," he managed as they struggled to catch their breath. "We can't do this, not while we're on duty, but...I don't want to stop."
Whatever response he expected, it was not to be gathered into Vulcan arms and cradled by that incredible strength. The embrace was somehow comforting in its very stillness, and gradually the tide of arousal receded into pleasant euphoria. When Kirk felt in control once more he straightened, and Spock let him go.
"You're so good for me," the human said to the promise in those fathomless eyes. "I love the way you make me feel."
Spock's lips twitched with the suggestion of a smile. "Then I trust you will not object if we resume this discussion at a more appropriate time and place."
"Such as aboard ship this evening, after our work here is done?"
"That would be acceptable," Spock replied solemnly, "and to that end I should now rejoin the repair party."
Kirk nodded, but stopped the Vulcan with a touch before he could turn to open the hatch. "Just promise you won't abandon me," he whispered.
Spock allowed his surprise to show. "This mission will be completed one way or another within a few hours, and we have ahead of us three days' travel to our next destination. Barring an unforeseen emergency, we will certainly be free to spend this evening together. Perhaps...the entire night, if you wish."
"I'd like that," Kirk said around a sudden tightness in his throat, "but I wasn't talking about tonight. I meant...please don't leave me, ever. I don't know if I could stand to feel so alone again."
In his mind's eye Spock saw both the long stretch of years already travelled and the fog obscuring those yet to come. Not for the first time since he opened himself to loving James Kirk, he found himself wishing that logic were a less demanding master.
"I cannot promise what is beyond my control," he said as gently as he could, "but I can assure you of this: every hour granted me is yours, and every day, and every season for as long as I have breath to say I love you."
Kirk felt the words sink into his soul like rain into parched ground. A smile lighted his eyes, and in the space of a heartbeat he was once again Starfleet's wunderkind, confident in his ability to triumph over every adversity. At the same time he knew, as he had always known, that he owed his balance and his peace and half of everything he was to the quiet being who chose to bend a remarkable intellect and even more extraordinary spirit to the service of his human captain. Kirk knew how truly fortunate he was. He had the Enterprise. He had Spock by his side and - miracle of miracles - in his arms and in his heart. Impulsively he leaned forward and once more pressed his lips to the Vulcan's.
"That's good enough for me," he said when the kiss ended. "I am beaming back up to the ship now, Commander. I'll be on the bridge awaiting your final report. After that, I'll be in my quarters awaiting...you."
With that he stood aside for Spock to open the hatch. When they had gone, only silence remained among the banks of inoperative equipment. In the absence of any living warmth the compartment lights abruptly went out, leaving a blackness of extinguished reflections in which nothing stirred...save deep within one polished machine, where a handful of electrons chased round and round like mice trapped in a wheel. There was no ear to hear their message, no eye to see the words they might once have formed. Moment by moment dwindled the observatory's last recorded impulses from the dark reaches of space.
Priority One, the weakest of them read. Explosive event detected with evidence of destruction on a planetary scale. Location: sector R-15, system Ceti Alpha, planet six....